A Country Girl’s Reflections on Environmentalism

BY ROCHELLE BLAKEMAN

“Toil mastered everything, relentless toil

And the pressure of pinching poverty…

Everything by nature’s law

Tends to the worse, slips ever backward, backward.”

Virgil, the Georgics

As a farmer’s daughter, I was blessed with a bucolic childhood. With only 1% of the UK population being farmers, it is a lucky stroke to have lived my younger years with a closeness to the earth which most of my generation would consider an echo of a distant past.  

It is exactly my rural upbringing, however, which has instilled in me the knowledge that the countryside is no breezy utopia. I experienced early the harshness and cruelty of nature in tandem with its preciousness and beauty. I have seen promising crops ruined by a sudden change in the weather. I learnt quickly that cute creatures retain wild instinct and can be liable to sudden death. Most poignantly, I have seen how the physical, mental and financial toll of farming can leave people utterly crushed. Sadly, farming’s high suicide rate is no shock.

There is very little in literature and popular culture which truly captures the stress and strain of real country life. It is either portrayed as a simple life of hunky-dory or, increasingly, as a land of backward bigots who ‘destroy’ the planet.

So let’s restore some desperately needed perspective to the picture. For it is the lack of insight into man’s messy, necessary and brutal relationship with nature which leaves me deeply troubled by the tone and intention of ‘green’ movements today.

Environmentalism has gone from presenting itself as the ‘good’ cause to attract kindly, conscious citizens to becoming an inescapable arm of public policy as politicians scarper to keep up a good image – perhaps terrified of the consequences if global warming predictions turn out to be right, and they had been seen to have done nothing. With increasingly ‘intersectional’ thought, campaigners want us to absolve ourselves of oppressive ways and live at one with nature, treating all creatures as our ‘equals’, after centuries of exploiting precious resources. This strikes me as resting on two false and contradictory assumptions – that man has always ‘suppressed’ nature to the earth’s detriment for infinite and guaranteed gain; and, at the same time, that we can control nature absolutely so as not to experience the consequences of our specie’s success.

It does not take an eminent historian to realise that modernity is an exceptional form of existence. For most of history, life on earth has been built on daily fights for survival. Whilst farming was a great step in our evolutionary history, allowing civilisations to spring forth, for centuries the vast majority of people’s lives were still at the mercy of the elements, war and diseases. It would be easy to assume that humans have lived in relative comfort against nature for a long time – that we have always somehow ‘dominated’ it. But you only have to go back 200 years before the industrial revolution to learn that this is simply not the case.

The impervious narrative – that human actions equal bad, oppressive; nature equals good, victim – is having serious consequences for the way in which a majority urban population perceive the realities of farming. It means that the ‘wilderness’ is increasingly fetishized as the natural and thus ‘good’ state in which life on Earth should be, and we humans should not ‘touch’ it or use any of its resources, because that is inherently ‘exploitative’.

One of H&M’s latest social media adverts featuring vegan friendly, Peta-approved fashion takes this attitude mainstream. It shows models posing among geese and sheep in the British countryside, with the words “I choose to co-exist”. So, co-existence has come to mean I do not buy coats stuffed with goose down or lined with sheep fleece because that would be mean to the animals: but in my one-off gig out of London, I expect them to continue to exist in these perfectly kempt fields and not die out in obscurity as I do so.  This is not concern for animal welfare, but fetishization of them as “pure” and untouchable to a religious degree. It is not co-existence, but indicative of lives so far removed from working with animals and nature that those who actually do – genuinely co-exist – are considered defunct. Ironically, they are being willed out of existence.

Farmers understand that working with the land and livestock is a constant give and take, a push and pull. It takes years of cultivation, quite literally, to master the craft. Nature is not always the fragile nymph that the green lobby would have you believe: it is tough. Virgil says it “tends to the worse”: he means it doesn’t give a damn about us. It is Dionysian, it is ‘wild’. It sounds so obvious, but it is so forgotten in today’s culture.

A current menace across the British countryside is ragwort. A deadly poisonous yellow plant, country children are taught to recognise it and pull it out of the ground at the roots before it flowers, and burn it. It can cause serious liver damage. Councils, however, are not so wise to its dangers. As a result, British hedgerows run amok with it. Why? Because ‘green’ advice states that ragwort should be left in place because of its benefits to flies, bees and various moths. I am not saying that I don’t care about insect life. But what is so concerning here is the underlying, almost self-hating belief – that we are ahead in the race, our actions are oppressive, so we should leave this pure, innocent wild flower alone. Leave it alone the councils have, and this wild flower does what wild things do – breed, multiply and thrive at the expense of equine and cattle keepers everywhere.

Re-wilding is a baby of the U.K. government. Consciously or not, they have bought into the belief that ‘wild’ is a fundamental good. With humanity still expanding, ‘making space’ for nature may seem like a decent thing to do and an ideal way to score points for carbon offsetting. But should we be so certain of our securities? British land is enviably rich and fertile. Isn’t it shamefully wasteful – ungrateful even – to discard such a precious resource, just because its produce isn’t generated to ‘hip’ sentiments? Why should we be so certain that we can always secure our food supply via foreign production, when anything can happen, from pandemics to war? Can we trust foreign production standards over ours? It is also brazen hypocrisy to strive for net-zero yet to advertise fashionable soya and coconut milk, shipped from lands far away, as indisputably ‘green’.

The tragedy here is that conceiving of the countryside as an ecological wasteland is simply wrong, and dangerously so. Re-wilding is often not only unnecessary, but counter-productive. Increasingly, campaigns to re-wild are grounded not in biology and evidence, but romantic fantasy.

Environmentalists increasingly suggest in commentary and national debates that if everyone adopted a vegan diet, it doesn’t matter that most of such produce would come from abroad, because the carbon damage could be ‘off-set’ by planting trees where cows should be, or by replacing sheep in Wales with wild boars. No more methane-emitting cows and sheep and environment-damaging yokels in Wales for me, thank you very much, is what this attitude essentially says. Not only should this strike the attentive as dubious “handwashing” to say the least: never-mind deforestation in Brazil, as long as there’s no farming in my backyard, thanks – but much soil in England and Wales is unsuitable for forestation: in moorlands and peat bogs, planting trees can actually release more carbon into the atmosphere as it becomes ‘unlocked’ from the soil. The whimsical idea that we can just ‘plant trees where all the cows and sheep were’ is given far more legitimacy than it deserves.

In truth, the British countryside is perhaps one of the world’s greatest success stories of a mutually beneficial balance between man and nature. As a child, I was obsessed with trying to discover as many species of birds, mammals, reptiles, insects and fish as I could. Indeed, I eventually found many. This would not have been possible in a city save via a keyboard. If I had not grown up in the countryside, I too might have fallen for the belief that farming is the enemy of the environment, that wildlife is irreversibly declining because uneducated farmers don’t care. Even so, I was not always immune to the ‘re-wilding’ narrative that appeals to developing minds. My love for wildlife meant I joined the RSPB juniors, and was always excited to receive their monthly Wildlife Explorers magazine. Looking back, it is easy to see that their anthropomorphised cartoons and colouring activities, with people (usually farmers) as the baddies and all other creatures as the goodies, were such brazen attempts to condition young minds with only one perspective of human activity and conservation. For a while, I too was convinced that all life on earth was doomed, and that our very existence was to blame. Thankfully, it didn’t take long for me to realise that the RSPB’s depiction of farmers and the countryside did not add up at all to my own experience. For teenage membership, the messaging increased tenfold. By this time, I was wise to their bias, and gladly cancelled my subscription.

I tell this story because, contrary to simplistic belief, farmers and countryside workers are fiercely protective of the land. For all their acknowledgement of the harshness of nature, they ultimately care for it deeply. Hunters are often the first victims of the accusation that because they sometimes kill animals, they must HATE them and are nothing but bloodthirsty, toxically-masculine brutes. This is despite the fact that they are the first people to have an inherent interest in ensuring that their quarry does not go extinct for the future of their sport. They are the first to notice how subtle changes in environment can affect various species; anglers have for years been highlighting the damage that increased raw sewage in rivers is causing to aquatic life; shooters notice that campaigns to stop the control of gulls and crows hurts the population of rare birds of prey, because their nests are feasted on by these pests. This is why country workers are so frustrated by ill-conceived environmental plans. It is because they do care about the environment that they can be so riled by counter-productive ideas – not because they don’t. Conservation is inherently a part of their work. The problem is that, again, in popular culture, the blood and guts of working the land is air-brushed away. Conservation is first and foremost seen as a way to ‘help’ nature to get a foothold against human oppression. With this mindset, people who work to produce what is most fundamental to sustaining our lives – food – are seen as users and abusers. The cyclical pattern of birth, death and birth again which makes farming and life itself possible is entirely forgotten.

Despite the romanticising of the ‘wild’ being so prominent, I get the sense that most people realise that humans still require some taking from the environment to survive. People – even eco chuggers – still want to drive, travel, buy clothes, drink, go out, have sex and buy new phones. We cannot just detonate all activity whilst waiting for magic green solutions. The problem is that environmentalists predominantly demonise country dwellers, with urban life being seen as the default state of living that can carry on as normal (so long as it’s by ‘green’ energy, of course). Urban developments are being rapidly expanded: house-building is at its highest rate in the UK since the 1980s, the HS2 train is underway and Boris has given permission to ‘build, build, build’. These are not necessarily bad things in and of themselves. Everybody needs a home and access to quality services. It is telling, however, that soon farmers will need to undergo time consuming and costly tests to prove that their fields ‘need’ muck and fertilizer, whilst land developers are having a bumper decade concreting over green meadows, with relaxed restrictions on housing numbers and density. Perhaps the RSPB and other environmental campaigners have done a better job than I thought at painting farmers as the cartoon villain. Perhaps it really is believed in the popular imagination that housing estates make for a better balance between humans and nature than lush, green, sensibly farmed fields.

For as long as humans have a will to live, we will always enact some kind of impact on the environment: if we don’t want to go back to living in caves, then that’s exactly the way it should be. I am not in denial of scientific evidence which suggests that excessive greenhouse gas emissions can upset global temperatures. What I do question, however, is why counting carbon emissions has become such an obsession, why such desperation to measure them with such precision? It is dealing with things that are, quite literally, ‘up in the air’ – wouldn’t it be much simpler to focus on what we can control more easily: like preserving peat bogs? Or making UK farming as efficient as possible rather than relying on the whims of others? Or picking up litter from beaches? I am not saying that we should dismiss all innovation for sustainable energy sources – but the rush, the desperation, the ‘emergency’ to find new sources is, once again, a counter-productive panic. The conversion to electric vehicles looks set to involve the deep-sea mining of cobalt for batteries to meet demand, and there is still no certainty on how battery waste will be dealt with when their use is up. Nonetheless, lower emissions equal applause: wherever on earth the piles of batteries end up doesn’t seem to matter, because a greater good has been precisely calculated. ‘Green’ campaigners like Greta Thunberg truly believe they are fighting evil and doing good, but they should examine their own backyards. You cannot hop from one damage to another and bask in the glow of your halo, just because you believe you are on the right side of history.

The crux as to why a predominantly urban society seems to care so much about carbon emissions but care so little about the land itself is, I propose, about control. Country dwellers have a connection with the earth which many town dwellers might never experience. As such, there are tangible, actionable solutions available to the farmer, gamekeeper and all-round country man and woman to face the climate with, an instinctive understanding of what to do when nature goes awry which simply has not been nurtured in many urbanites. Perhaps, however, people can sense this gap in their knowledge and experience, that they are missing a connection to something bigger than themselves. The one thing people believe they can do to be part of this is to obsess over carbon emissions and to pressurise others to ‘do something’ about it. But this obsession means that those who have a practical knowledge and life-long connection with the land are dismissed, derided, scapegoated. I don’t mean to sound patronising to ‘townie’ friends. But I do hope that they will stop to consider that, when it comes to the environment, the earth, farm animals and nature, they might not know everything.

I also do not intend to mock or belittle people who find solace in the countryside as an escape from their everyday lives, who, through no fault of their own, have not experienced its dark side. Life is harsh for everyone. Nor am I suggesting that it is only farmers who are suffering from the eco-panicked plans: fuel prices are skyrocketing, electric vehicles are intensely unreliable and the narcissistic road blocking antics of Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain have caused untold misery for commuters trying to earn a living – or trying to get to hospital. But this need that increasing numbers of people feel to ‘get back to nature’ or to ‘do something’ about the environment, is all the more reason to start listening to the real voices of the countryside. Not the white-washed, rose-tinted spin of Countryfile, but the real perspectives which show that the British countryside is a real, working place. The real story is far from peaceful and sanguine. For too long, environmentalists have exploited this gap in people’s experience. They have let their imaginations rule their understanding of what the ‘wild’ is, of what ‘nature’ is and of how it needs to be protected, fetishized as the ‘pure’ and ‘true’ state of the earth which farmers only ruin.

There is ample opportunity now for farmers, gamekeepers and all manner of country workers to start to take countryside education into their own hands. Most people are wise to the fact that there are many sides to a story. Offer them the farmer’s side. Environmental narratives might be about saviourism, purity and oppression. But countryside workers’ stories are tangible, practical and based on generations of experience. Where environmentalists want to badger politicians and higher powers for solutions to protect the Earth, country people already care, and between them, they already have solutions to improve the soil, to harness abundance and to keep the British countryside alive. Where environmentalists teach children how to make placards and to be fearful, we could teach children how to muck out, how to handle animals, how to sow seeds – practical, real ways in which they can truly feel connected to the land. It is not perfect and speaking out is a difficult, uphill battle with mainstream education and media seldom listening. But it is better than saying nowt.

Rochelle Blakeman studied Classical Studies at King’s College London and recently finished a masters in International Public and Political Communication at the University of Sheffield.

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