"When one tugs at a single thing in nature, you find it attached to the rest of the world." - John Muir
Irreversible species decline, catastrophic climate change, fresh water shortages and global food insecurity – it can be easy to despair when every day brings another slap in the face of a headline.
With each new report, hope can disintegrate as surely as the ozone layer. But it doesn’t have to be like this – if we take the time to pause and reflect on the causes of despair, some say there is a chance we can save ourselves.
That was the resounding message from the poets, writers, campaigners and conservationists who contributed to Nature Writing Day, part of yet another staggering line up for Bristol’s 2015 Festival of Ideas.
The selection of speakers, and the variety of perspectives was indicative of the changing dimensions of the green movement – where science, poetry, art, activism and politics all have a vital role to play.
This interdisciplinary shift is especially important at a time when over half the world’s population live in cities, several steps away from a patch of wilderness amongst the urban sprawl, meaning that nature, like climate change is so far removed from our present reality that it can be ignored. The disconnect between our lives and the soil beneath our feet (or not if we continue at our current rates of wreckage) is only going to increase if, as the UN predicts, 75% of the world’s population are going to be living in cities by 2050.
So how do we reconnect, and why is it important to do so? According to the poet, conservationist and critic (an answer there in itself), Ruth Padel, our physical and moral place on Earth depends entirely on our ability to empathise with our fellow species.
Padel shies away from identifying herself by her familial lineage, and rightly so, she is a writer who should be admired for her self-styled talents. But the fact she happens to be connected to Charles Darwin can’t go unreferenced. His great, great grand-daughter no less, Padel reflected on Darwin’s ideas to make a metaphorical and a literal point, describing poetry as “fiercely precise; to put two words together is about two life forms having a relationship to each other”.
The careful reconstruction of natural wonder in words stimulates the imagination and so has the power to make us react with our hearts as well as our heads. It’s through this level of engagement that poetry can have just as much an impact if not more than science or politics when it comes to making people realise the profound value of nature in the most radical way.
Scottish poet and writer John Burnside invited a round of applause when he said: “I wish poetry could make ‘nothing’ happen. Poetry itself is the anti-green-washing of the world. The whole world should be declared a national park. You only become fully human when you look after the world in which we live.”
As the writer and poet Jean Sprackland put it: “Poetry is really about looking. It comes from a position of long term observation and paying attention to the world.”
Sprackland’s is a vital point, urging us to consider nature not as a fragile, trembling thing that should evoke anxiety and fear, but as a strong, resilient life force that commands respect.
It’s a similar theme that runs through the work of campaigner and British environmentalist Tony Juniper, whose latest book, What Nature Does for Britain, has been sent to Cabinet ministers in a bid to encourage them to take a more thoughtful approach by aligning the environmental and the economic agenda.
In a tour de force of a talk, Juniper highlighted how the environmental agenda has been littered by economic policies which have led us on the destructive course that has culminated in the crisis point we are living with today. Or as Naomi Klein puts it, it’s the curse of the ideology of deregulated capitalism, any challenge to which is avoided because of the threat it poses to the grand delusion of comfortable status quo.
As Juniper warned in his 2013 book, What Has Nature Ever Done For Us: "No matter how clever our financial systems, impressive our rates of economic growth or sophisticated our technology, there is no place to move to should we degrade our biosphere to the point where it can no longer meet our needs and sustain our economies."
Stating the case in environmental, spiritual, ecological or scientific terms has failed to have the desired effect, says Juniper, who has spent over 30 years campaigning for sustainability and conservation. The answer now lies in making explicit the value of nature, for our economy and our collective wellbeing.
Protecting nature is not the distraction to politics that it has been treated as, says Juniper, it is the best hope we have – to reduce the £100bn annual spend on mental health, to preserve the ecosystem that will provide the fruit and veg that the government tells us we should eat, to help the £14bn tourism industry thrive and much more besides.
Happily ever after?
But are we capable of a shift in our collective mind set? Yes, if enough of us engage with the facts, the aesthetics, the economics, the politics and the science with a level of humanity that is unequivocally intrinsic to the very essence of our existence.
Voices like Juniper's need to be populate not only the polite platform of events like the Festival of Ideas, but a bigger, louder and more agitated stand. We have to campaign, and in order to find the will to do that, we have to be scared and angry enough to agitate for a different future because the time for tip toeing our way around the political arena in a bid to get a look in is over.
With poetry that stirs our hearts, science that jolts our neurons, and societal changes that alter our lifestyles, we may be able to turn ourselves around. Or in Kleins' words: "Our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.”
The Nature and Well-being Act, if passed, has the potential to enshrine the changes in law. Bristol itself has an opportunity to lead the charge, as European Green Capital 2015. More than 700 organisations have signed up to help create “a low carbon city with a high quality of life for all.”
Speaking at the February 2015 gathering of Bristol Green Capital, Bristol Mayor George Ferguson was eager to adopt a tone of hope: “Are we up for the change that’s necessary? It cannot come from the top, it has to come from everyone, from groups and communities. Bristol has to lead by example. We need to work back from where we want to be in 50 years then work out what the steps are to get us there.”