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Nature: Dark satanic mills

John Burnside's nature column.

I am not sure why I do it but, in recent months, I have taken to rereading what I consider the classic texts of ecocriticism, books such as Charles Reich’s The Greening of America, from 1970, an eloquent attack on “the forces of market exploitation and technology [that] cut down democracy, independence and the pursuit of happiness, and fostered instead a new managerial order, a hierarchy of power and privilege that replaced communal values with anti-social ‘success’ and with inhuman values”; or Rudolf Bahro’s Avoiding Social and Ecological Disaster: the Politics of World Transformation, published in 1994, in which he points out that “we have humanly defined ourselves, right down into the deepest levels of the psyche, with the materials and tools of domination of nature”.

Go back further and here is John Muir, whose cry “Would not the world suffer by the banishment of a single weed?” is a proto deep ecologist’s echo of John Donne’s “No Man is an Island” sermon, extended to consider not just all humans but all of life as equally valuable; go back further still and Leonardo da Vinci offers a vision of Gaia: “So then we may say that the earth has a spirit of growth; that its flesh is the soil, its bones are the successive strata of the rocks which form the mountains, its muscles are the tufa stone, its blood the springs of its waters. The lake of blood that lies about the heart is the ocean; its breathing is by the increase and decrease of the blood and its pulses, and even so in the earth is the flow and ebb of the sea.”

What emerges from this reading is both an encouraging sense that some human beings have always been capable of a rich vision of “our place in nature” and a dispiriting realisation that, against this vision, what Bahro calls “the industrial system” has tended to prevail. What he means by that term should be clearly understood: “The industrial system is in no way identical with the use of particular tools and machines for making work lighter and shorter. For example the mills of the Middle Ages are classed in England under ‘industry’, and even today the English still sometimes call their factories ‘mills’. A mill serving a couple of villages has a completely different social effect to a modern food industry, which can compel the whole agricultural economy to dance to whatever tune it chooses. The little dam for the mill wheel still let the brook be a brook.

Since ancient times there has been industry in Asia and Europe. But there was no industrial system, no society shaped by industrialism [which is] above all a power complex which affects everything. This power complex is the soul of the whole, with capital as the spider in the web.”

Now, I am not sure why I go back to Bahro and Reich, (or Paul Shepard or Alan Watts or Thomas Merton) but I think it may be in order to gain some hope in the face of that industrial system and the collaboration of a green movement whose “drive for reform and the sharing of power led them to convert their original capital into the small change of daily electoral politics”.

I confess to being quite mystified by that conversion: if we do not understand that mere reform and a slap of greenwash will only help the megamachine to continue its business as usual, then we have only to read these writers to see that respect for all life and social justice cannot be achieved except by drastic change – in short, the dismantling of that industrial system and its inhuman values. “When the forms of an old culture are dying,” Bahro says, “the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.” Or, in the words of Ian Suttie, “Necessity is not the mother of invention; play is.”

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.