When I was a teenager, and in the winter months when England’s cricketers were touring in countries in other time zones, one of the great tensions of the dawning of a new day was to find out just how badly (after all, it was normally quite bad) the night had gone. England all out for 132. Australia 188-1. That sort of thing.
Those days are back again, and it’s just as exciting. Only this time it’s with the economy. This morning: the pound down 5%; tomorrow: interest rates up 0.75%; last Friday: a tax reduction of 5% for anyone on a salary over £150,000, a category, I am ashamed to say, into which writers of books on shearwaters and cows cannot be shoehorned, even with an exquisite imagination.
Although I am actually a member of a political party , I am not particularly political. I simply want some skin in the game next time they elect a new leader, so that I get a proper choice come the general election. I was once offered, hard though it may be to believe it, a place at a prestigious university to read PPE. I turned it down so that I could go on wearing my ‘we’re not here’ gear, and continue carrying my gun into all sorts of diverting places whilst being paid by a bemused tax payer. Looking back at it now, Etonians like me who took that PPE course of action turned out to have a depressingly good chance of finding themselves in the cabinet sooner rather than later, and, let’s be gentle here, disappointing us.
For forty years, I have regarded myself, if not as a red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalist, then someone who broadly supports the idea of growth driven by free enterprise. As readers of this blog will be aware, I have found myself rowing quietly back from this position on growth since I have been writing about nature, purely because I believe that the consequences of the unfettered search for eternal growth will kill our planetary ecosystems, and us, as surely as Prince Harry is regretting the rude bits he put about the Queen in his book.
Three things have accelerated this process for me this year. First, a reading of Tim Jackson’s Prosperity without Growth (my advice is not to follow suit: his undoubted intelligence is not matched by his eloquence); the second was my walk through 1,000 miles of my homeland, and the people and things that I saw, matched only by the hundreds of things that I could only actually have seen if I had done it all fifty years before. But it was the third that was brutal.
Last Thursday, about half a mile west of Port Quin on the north Cornwall coast, I saw out of the corner of my eye a couple of hundred feet below me, the cruciform shape of a dead gannet, brilliant white against the aquamarine of the sea, and moving slowly only to the dictates of the tides and currents below him. I’d seen loads of other dead gannets, seven later that weekend just on tiny Portreath Beach, all victims of the ghastly wave of avian flu that is ravaging not just our seabirds, but increasingly our game birds, wildfowl and even raptors. But it was this one, this tiny moment of tragedy, that did it.
It was when I took out my binoculars, and stared at it in more detail ,that something snapped in me, something that has snapped in thousands of conservationists and naturalists before me. I can’t say why it should have been precisely the moment that I caught the pale, cloudy faint gleam of that bird’s blue eye, but it was. And that something was that, so long as our species goes on putting our exclusive needs ahead of the nature around us, rather than seeing ourselves as a grateful part of it, we will travel down the same road until we have killed off everything that isn’t a pet, a game bird, or livestock. As it is, 96% of the mammalian biomass on earth consists of us, our pets and our stock, which leaves just the 4% for every last elephant, okapi, squirrel, weasel and capybara out there. The ship has almost entirely sailed.
Almost, but not quite. When organisations as cautious and conservative as the RSPB and CPRE are reacting with little short of rage at Truss’ plans for Enterprise Investment Zones (which, whatever its supporters say, will pave the way for a wholesale clear out of decades of hard won conservation initiatives, including my poor benighted curlews), you know that something big is happening.
And it is. Those million or so campaigners, volunteers, academics, field workers, gardeners and farmers who get out every day and fight to protect what we have left of our natural heritage, are starting to have had enough. For now, it is a quiet ‘enough’, but they have had it, all the same. Social media may be a curse, but it is a curse with some small benefits in terms of organisation. Slowly, now that we have a government who appear to have relegated concern for the environment four or five decades back in time, the great engine of moderation is being cranked up through the gears. The next few weeks should see a radical raising of the temperature.
Goodness knows where it will all go, but my strongest feeling is that no one can be neutral any more. If you want it, you are going to have to fight for it, every inch of the way. Pick a hill and be prepared, metaphorically at least, to die on it. And if not die, then be a little uncomfortable for a while except, maybe, if it is pouring with rain. We are, after all, British.
So please, when you take the dog out for its evening constitutional, look deep into the hedge you are below, or the little urban garden you are passing, and decide whether or not you, too, don’t want to change gear on this, and just become a tiny bit more vocal, less reasonable.
Think of one of those old sand egg timers.