Maintaining Our Sense of Perspective


One of the most significant advances in Western culture took place when a handful of Renaissance artists defined the rules for creating the illusion of linear perspective in their work. When painters learned how to mimic reality by following rules, they unknowingly initiated cultural and intellectual innovation on a vast scale. Perspective gave people vision. Our modern day visionaries have lost this gift.

On a thin strip of coarse grass and stunted heather, between two flat and lonely expanses of salt and fresh water on Mainland Orkney off the Scottish coast, sit two ancient stone circles. One is called The Stones of Stenness and the other, The Ring of Brodgar. To walk from one to the other takes a matter of minutes, yet historians believe the Stones of Stenness, possibly the oldest stone circle in Britain, predate the Ring of Brodgar by about 2,500 years. To put that in perspective, generations of Orcadians lived on that treeless, windswept landscape in much the same, rudimentary way for well over two millennia. They sat around fires to keep warm and used stones to build shelters from the wind and nothing changed.

The English home into which I was born only a few decades ago may not have been stone but it was similarly heated by an open fire, burning raw, shining lumps of coal. Yet it’s impossible to do justice to the scale of change I’ve lived through in a mere handful of decades. Change which voices everywhere, political and cultural, seem intent on condemning in pursuit of their vision. I think we need to put those visions in perspective.

“There is no planet B” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon famously declared in 2013. In 2018 Sir David Attenborough told another UN audience, “We are facing a man-made disaster on a global scale. Our greatest threat in thousands of years.” One year on and a sixteen year old Greta Thunberg scolded yet another UN summit, declaring, “I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you. You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. Yet I am one of the lucky ones. People are suffering.” The vision they share is confidently catastrophic, even apocalyptic. But when I look, I see an entirely different world. I simply don’t share their perspective and suspect I’m far from alone.

I grew up in a small Midlands town in England in the sixties and representing my school at sport meant in those days, I climbed on a coach most Wednesdays and Saturdays during the winter and spring, to compete at another school somewhere within a couple of hours drive. I stared out of coach windows through all weathers, week after week, as the suburbs and cityscapes of Birmingham, Derby, Coventry, Leicester, Nottingham and Stoke-on-Trent slid past. Those wintery panoramas were inexorably slate grey, lifeless and bleak, characterised by mounds of black mining and industrial waste that provided the ubiquitous backdrop to rows of red brick housing and the long, windowless walls of factories. You were never far away from pithead winding gear or the pale grey cooling towers of power stations, immense concrete nozzles pumping creamy vapour into the sky, like cloud factories. My first primary school was in the centre of town and I can still picture the lurid, mustard coloured smog that occasionally settled overnight on everything, reducing visibility to yards.

Yet there were green fields at the bottom of our garden and I was an enthusiastic angler. The kind who tied all his own trout flies. On innumerable occasions I journeyed across the lengthy, soot-stained bridge across the river Trent, that linked the two halves of my home town and stared in despair at the state of the black liquid moving beneath. The Trent was entirely lifeless for most of its considerable length. The local rowing club rarely ventured out. There were no anglers sitting patiently on the near three hundred miles of its banks. It was so densely polluted you couldn’t see an inch beneath its surface anywhere and a grotesque, coffee-coloured foam frequently floated by in rafts, dozens of yards long and several feet high.

I did some of my fishing on the lower reaches of one of its tributaries that rose in the Peak District and miraculously flowed untainted, until its broad, brightly bubbling waters hit the slick sewer that was the Trent. I often walked right to the confluence of these two rivers and it was unforgettable to see that crystal clear, Peak District water run hard up against the black, opaque Trent, where it was immediately swallowed up and poisoned within a few hundred metres.

If you were to take the same coach journeys I took in my youth today, and stare out of the window; smooth, green hills have replaced the slag heaps and black waste everywhere. People sit on the banks of the Trent under that same, smoke-stained bridge and catch fish in their thousands. There are so many Signal crayfish now, a creature highly responsive to changes in water quality and pollution, people are trapping them because they’ve become a threat to the native, white-clawed species. I recently saw an underwater film of Salmon spawning in that very same tributary I used to fish. Again, Salmon are about as sensitive to water quality as fish get.

All of this in less than a handful of decades: not quite Attenborough’s “thousands of years.” Take a look at any rural British railway line abandoned in the sixties under the Beeching cuts, which has remained untouched except by walkers’ boots, and you will see the same astonishingly rapid natural repair taking place. Nature it seems, waits for no man – or petrified teenager.

Yet our climate visionaries see the utter eradication of life, everywhere they look. We literally see the physical world we all inhabit, differently.

In case you’re ready to leap to conclusions in the way social media companies want you to, and think what’s coming is climate change denial, you’ll be disappointed. From my perspective, the climate does indeed appear to have changed. Even after two summer months of grey skies and rain in Britain, it still feels to me as though we Brits are more likely to experience hotter summer temperatures and longer periods of rain than in my past. I’m willing to trust the science that tells us global temperatures are rising. What I’m not willing to do – is abandon my sense of perspective.

Humanity has graced this planet for around 200,000 years: the dinosaurs clung on for 165 million. When I reflect on those kinds of timescales and on the speed with which I have seen the physical landscape I know change, merely in my own, miniscule lifetime, then catastrophic, apocalyptic visionaries seem at best astoundingly arrogant, and at worse demonstrably foolish.

Terrifying children and voters with this extreme alarmism, is a failure not just of perspective but of basic adulthood. It provokes the weakest and most fearful into foolish responses that both infuriate and harm those of us able to maintain our perspective. Planet A clearly doesn’t dance to any visionaries’ tune; television or real royalty included.

Shabby malcontents chanting on Westminster Bridge, or gluing themselves to the M25 need to be treated like the inconsequentially shrill, naive fanatics they really are. Frightened teenagers need adult support not supplication. Instead of terrifying frightened voters and school children, political leaders and any professional whose role means they are caught up in climate change, need to think and act not like the guardians of the planet visionaries so arrogantly assume we are, but as its most recent guests.

From that more humble perspective, you are far more likely to speedily identify and enact real steps that will enrich, not disfigure, the natural infrastructure that all life, not just human life, relies on.                                                                                           

Joe Nutt is the author of several books about the poetry of Donne, Milton and Shakespeare and a collection of essays, The Point of Poetry. His latest book, Teaching English for the Real World was published by John Catt in May 2020.