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Artillery Row

Can we balance re-enchantment and reality?

We should not throw out the civilisational baby with the consumerist bathwater

A curious trend on certain ostentatiously “trad” corners of the internet has seen people sharing videos of rather humdrum office-bound routines and announcing their disdain for such bourgeois normality. “This is literally the saddest thing I’ve seen in a very long time,” one poster declared — in a tweet that was shared almost 10,000 times — above a TikTok video of one such dull “day in the life”. I don’t understand why these videos are being filmed in the first place, never mind the hyperbolic reactions, yet the desire to counter-signal middle-class routines is interesting.

Maligning the modern comforts that make life tolerable is nothing new; it was once the hobby horse of certain environmentalists who drew the ire of Norman Borlaug. A Nobel Peace Prize winning agronomist who led agricultural revolutions around the world, Borlaug’s innovations are credited with saving over a billion people from starvation. He enjoyed wildlife and wilderness, but poured scorn on an “elitist” green lobby who “had never experienced the physical sensation of hunger” yet would deny the tools of intensive agriculture to the developing world.  

I worry when my fellow travellers take to sneering at everything that is modern

I am a lifelong environmentalist, but one who has studied and worked alongside practical farmers and land managers throughout my career. I like to think my idealism has been tempered by the practical. I believe in the need to re-enchant our world and reconnect with the spiritual, but I worry when my fellow travellers take to sneering at everything that is modern. My inner monologue on occasion becomes an inner Borlaug.

Those who are disturbed by the understated 21st century existence of middle class man are often equally aggrieved by modern agriculture, in the name of either ecology or politics or both. This tendency sees a single solution to both wage slavery and environmental degradation: flight from modernity and return to the land. The incomparable Paul Kingsnorth wrote an exceptional St George’s Day essay that made precisely this move, joining the fight against The Machine that enslaves middle class man with the centuries long fight for radical land reform.

In seeking the land before modern time, the English expression of return-ism leaps over the traditionalist conservatism that lauded the landed aristocrat as the ally of the workers against the mercantile middle class, over the 18th and 19th century romanticising of the countryside against the industrial, and lands in the turmoil of post-reformation enclosures. There it finds its ideal nemesis: the large landowner. 

Here is a villain so dastardly that he can unite romantic return-ists and progressives against him; two days before Kingsnorth’s powerful polemic connecting his own 1990s eco-radicalism to Civil War era Diggers, John Harris was making an identical argument in the Guardian, tracing the environmental politics of our present moment to 17th century enclosures. Both celebrated a past struggle, dragging it into the present and presenting “the power of landed elites and the dreck of modern consumerism” as symbiotic.

Not that landowners are always destructive towards the environment. In recent weeks both Patrick Galbraith and Richard Negus have written in praise of the conservation efforts on the historic estates of Arundel and Holkham. Still, the modern form of this struggle fixates on access to the land, what Harris calls “a rejection of any idea of natural places and spaces being off limits,” and this romantic concept runs in a direction my pragmatic head cannot follow. 

For a joyful few years, part of my employment involved running practical conservation projects on a college estate. My students and I restored a brown trout stream, released grey partridges, managed an ark-site for crucian carp and experimented with woodland regeneration methods using borrowed pigs. At the same time, gamekeeping students wanted to run shoot days, ag-mech students wanted to plough every inch of ground, army prep students wanted somewhere to camp and outdoor recreation students wanted to canoe, orienteer and, on one memorable occasion, play pushball. Nothing flattens newly-emerged woodland flora quite like an out-of-control giant bouncy ball. 

Access is complicated. I always fancied the college estate was a microcosm of the English countryside. Overrun with different groups wanting to use it for different, competing things. Calls for access today are linked to radical eco-politics, a desire for shared wilderness, but that is not the result in my experience. People go into the countryside to do stuff, often disruptive and noisy stuff, which is anathema to plants and animals that abhor disturbance. 

Conservation is not why a great lattice of access rights and restrictions settled across the countryside, no doubt they are a result of tyrannical landowners vying with ancient rights of way across the centuries. Yet a system that allows access to a great web of footpaths across otherwise private land is a neat way of managing conflicting interests of nature, landowner and public. I agree the balance of power should shift in favour of more access — it is in everyone’s interest to allow engagement with the natural world to flourish — but we don’t need to undermine our unique rural inheritance in the process.

What we have inherited from the fortunate, to quote Eliot, is something unique and much loved. Recent polling ranked the countryside as the fifth most significant attribute of Englishness, above football and queuing. Last year a similar poll found 93 per cent of people believe the countryside should be regarded as part of our national heritage and that only the NHS inspires more British pride than does our shared landscape. People love our fields and hedgerows and little copses which are a direct descendant of that much loathed enclosure. I’ve argued in these pages before that conservationists should leverage that affection, not denigrate it.

None of this is to suggest all is well in UK agriculture, so leave it be. Quite the opposite. This is a time for enormous change in land use that is downstream of enormous changes in lifestyle for the rest of us. Reconnection with the land, with the spiritual, with some idea of the common good that transcends the consumptive, is absolutely necessary. But I wonder if we can do all that in the context of our unique British countryside — a landscape that is formed by the work of human hands, which at its best aspires to the heights of stewardship. There is an Edenic paradigm that sits in creative tension with wild spirituality, in which the peak of humanity’s relationship with the land is that of the harmonious garden. In my simple mind’s eye it is a wildlife garden, with a corner allowed to lie fallow and a hill given over to fruit and vegetables and everywhere there is an eye for both beauty and nature. The well-managed heritage estate is as close to that ideal as I have seen in the wild.

Many of today’s large landowners fall well short of this ideal. There is a scandal of mistreatment of tenant farmers that is outside the scope of this discussion, but highlights the work that needs to be done to curb the excesses of land concentration. Yet where the relationship has not distorted, there is beauty in centuries old patterns of land ownership, of families tied in bonds of affection to the hills and valleys they own. For one thing, we will need their brute size if we are to achieve landscape scale rewilding, another enthusiasm of the radical environmentalist but one less common to the return-ist. 

The return-ist is more likely to want to break up the landholdings so more people can farm. It is notable that the antecedents claimed by the modern access movements didn’t want access to unspoilt wilderness, they wanted somewhere to grow food. Let’s not miss that Digger bard George Winstanley wished “that the poor may labour the waste land, and such the breasts of their mother Earth, that they starve not.” Which brings us back to Borlaug.

Through the struggles and upheavals of the past millennia, we Brits have blundered our way to an inheritance of peace and prosperity. The agricultural revolution led to increased productivity, population and health and laid the foundations for industry and national pre-eminence. No doubt, much post-war decision making has undone a lot of what we ought to be bequeathing to our offspring. Yet I am unconvinced that we need to jettison every post-1600 innovation in our search for a solution. 

Kingsnorth invokes Blake’s dark satanic mills, which were doubtless hellscapes yet evolved over decades into the engine of our prosperity and national vigour. Agricultural and industrial revolution are part of the British story. So are exploration, sea faring and trade. GK Chesterton’s Short History of the English People paints a picture of a people both sheltered by sheer cliffs and called by the ocean, at once both staid and turbulent, each temper rising and falling in opposition to the other. This creative tension created a civilisation worth fighting for, and raised us to unprecedented standards of living. 

I fear that some take the call to smash the Machine as a call to smash all machines. That the desire to live in the Shire obscures the glory of a Gondor that aspires to the greatness of Numenor. The Machine as mammon, as Kingsnorth named it in his St George’s Day essay, is the culture of rapacious greed and consumerism that keeps us in chains. Perhaps that is what the critics see when they share those videos of a middle-class man going about his business — a materialist divorced from any life-giving spirituality. But that is to assume an awful lot, and I remain unconvinced that we need to mock his entire existence to call him to conversion. 

Perhaps we can maintain the parts of our inheritance that bequeathed us peace and progress and prosperity, while re-enchanting our lives. I wonder if we can smash the limbs off the Machine that hold us hostage, while maintaining our tradition of innovation and exploration. In the countryside we will need that tradition. We need wildness and biodiversity, we need energy and infrastructure and food, we need places to live and work. Like Borlaug, I fear the degrowth agenda comes from a place of enormous privilege that doesn’t need to consider such workaday questions as how we will feed and fuel our society. 

I don’t deny the Machine’s voracious appetite for oceans, forests and souls. But I do want to see the Machine kept distinct in our minds from technology and progress. Not progress for its own sake that turns into an -ism, but the progress that recognises with Chesterton that there are no bad things, only bad uses of things. I would imagine the answers lie in embracing the culture of “countervailing power” that Sohrab Ahmari is seeking to reestablish in the US. Our history of industry and agricultural development and enclosure can be offset with our history of radicalism, guild socialism, distributism and labourism in a double movement of which Polanyi would approve.

In the countryside and in the life of middle aged, middle class men, it must be possible to maintain prosperity as we seek the re-enchantment and the return of meaning. This, I believe, is a collective effort in building our civilisation, using the tools of modernity to raise standards of living and safeguard the environment while turning the culture back to the divine. To that end the landowners and the capitalists will need to be curbed and counterbalanced and incentivised but not, I believe, destroyed. To paraphrase Borlaug, you can’t rebuild a reenchanted world on empty stomachs.

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