On the BBC’s Radio 4 ‘Start the week’ recently (2017), we heard from 3 key thinkers on environmentalism.
Wendell Berry: Farmer, Poet, Novelist, Essayist. Paul Bridgenorth: writer and environmentalist and Kate Raworth: Economist.
Wendell Berry discussed his relationship to the land and the fundamental importance of life-sustaining topsoil. He spoke of love for the hill he gazes upon from his farmhouse. He prefers localised, non-intensive farming methods and argues that intensive industrial agriculture is damaging not only ecology but even our culture. His vision is about the land under our feet and our need to connect locally within community. Paul Bridgnorth argues that what is required is similarly a return to the connection with nature while accepting that owning and running a small plot is not practical for all. He emphasised individual action against systemic degradation and destruction, as does Berry. Both, however, seem to accept that we are locked into current systems. Kate Raworth outlined her ‘doughnut economics’ based on the planetary boundaries concept and a realisation that mainstream economics takes no account of nature except as an externality. She provides literally a new picture of the economy to shift consciousness towards this new paradigm of understanding our relationship to nature.
The relevance for health is of course based on our understanding of the wider determinants of health and the emerging domain of ‘Planetary Health’. The starting point is of course that we cannot survive without clean water, air and food that is sourced sustainably. Climate Stability, Biodiversity and Global Ecosystems are the foundations for wellbeing and health – not wealth, land ownership and fame.
Although each of them discussed a more positive vision for the future, there was nothing in the discussion that gave one pause for hope. The individual action advocated by Berry and Bridegnorth are of course vital. But neither provided any evidence, or suggested, that the big players – agribusiness, the fossil fuel, or the extractive industries are listening. There was nothing in the discussion that positioned their philosophies as centre stage, indeed they still sound very marginal. Raworth’s doughnut economics is an acknowledgement of its marginality, hence the need for a new economic paradigm. Look in vain during the current electioneering for mainstream radical thinking about how the UK economy should be re- orientated. Instead, we are treated to new versions of neoliberalism from the Tory party, like promising a cure to a cancer patient by the simple expedient of adopting mindfulness.
A critique of the crony capitalist form of neoliberalism, the context in which these visions operate in the US and the UK, is that it has its blind spot that Raworth points out. On the natural environment, it is silent rooted as it is in a vacuous theory oversimplifying human behaviour and need. It says nothing about the wider determinants of health or indeed that it values planetary boundaries. However, it has power and influence. But it is the power and influence of small minds who have large wallets. These moronic men of wealth buy idiot men of power. Their wealth provides an outward patina of competence and wisdom, as if an Armani suit bestowed vision.
As interesting and grounded in the Earth as the discussion was, the conclusion is that we are running headlong into a Nietzschian abyss. The ‘last men’ run the world, staring into an abyss but the abyss stares back. We look, but see ourselves reflected. We see into our own dark lifeless eyes leading down into vacuity. These eyes look good to us because we have seen no other. Against this is the Blessed Unrest of activists and visionaries as well as scientists working to create a ‘safe operating space for humanity’
However, for too many us we no longer look to the bright stars. Instead, we develop an endless stream of shiny bright things to dazzle us in our mediocrity. We mistake digitalisation for vision, financialisation for creativity and automation for transcendence. We travel faster, communicate faster, produce faster but we are in the slow lane leading into shit creek cul de sac. Art is a path to transcendence but our art is X factored commodified comfort. God is indeed dead but instead of striving for beauty and all that we could be, we fill the void with banality. We are content with ‘is’ and are blind to what ‘could be’. We consider that ‘what is’ should be the same as what ‘oughtto be’. We are thus prey to demagogues and the mad because we have no thoughts of our own. Our thoughts have been bought, stripped of meaning and sold back to us wrapped in a superficial glittering package which is signifying nothing. They who sell, wander off into the abyss themselves, laughing as they go.
The world is black because we have given up the light.