A traditional reedcutter at work on the Norfolk Broads. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The frisson of autumn on the Norfolk Broads

A reminder is that we share a habitat and a common experience with other creatures.

Mid-autumn, just before our boat goes into dry dock for the winter, has a special frisson on the Norfolk Broads. The reeds begin to bleach and reflect the sunsets, so that for a while the water appears to glow brighter as the dusk closes in. The last migrants leaving for Africa cross with the first arriving from the tundra, the swallow flying under the goose. This week the local kingfishers have reappeared, darting between moored-up cruisers and skin-diving between their hulls. We’ve seen otters close to for the first time, one rolling right in front of the boat with a huge bream in its paws.

But the rain and cold that have permeated 2012 are still casting shadows on all species that depend on the sun. Flying insects, the birds that eat them, the raptors that prey on the insectivorous birds have gone into guerrilla mode; hiding out in remote, sheltered redoubts, working unsociable hours, keeping= silent to conserve energy. It’s happening below the radar of most of us and just how much damage has been done won’t be known until the year’s records are analysed. It’s unlikely to be good news.

Does it matter either way? Short of outright extinction, is the fraying and fragmentation of species of any real consequence to us? The government seemed to think so when it set out its
 green agenda and acknowledged that biodiversity was essential to the earth’s survival and what it liked to call “quality of life” (ours, that is). Now, this commitment has gone the way of all its other green pledges. In the past few months the government has junked the advice of two of its own scientific advisory committees. The biologically absurd and culturally objectionable badger cull has been given the go-ahead (albeit delayed until next year). Incontestable evidence that neo-nicotinoid insecticides are one of the causes of the collapse of bee populations has not made a dent in Defra’s support for them.

Now Defra has asked the Law Commission to rationalise wildlife protection laws in the UK. Not a bad idea, perhaps, given the piecemeal way they’ve accumulated over the past hundred years. An updating would provide an opportunity to bring legislation into line with new ecological threats, and with our new understanding of the crucial importance of wild species to the earth as a whole. But this is not what the Law Commission has in mind at all. The first duty of wildlife law, it has put on record, is to “provide the framework within which wildlife can be controlled, so that it does not interfere with the conduct of human activity” – a principle that is equivalent to saying that the prime object of child protection laws is to ensure the wretched infants don’t get in the way of their parents’ career opportunities. The commission concedes that the law should protect individual animals from harm, but only if that harm is “above a permitted level”.

It’s not clear if these barbarous, commodifying guidelines were dumped on the commission by Defra. They certainly sit snugly with the government’s social and economic project. But they may equally show the UK legal establishment returning to its default position on wildlife. The status of a wild organism in common law is as potential property. While it is free and alive, it belongs to everybody, or, more correctly, to nobody. But by being “rendered into possession” – the legal euphemism for killing or capturing – it is turned into goods, the property of the owner of the land on which it’s taken. The notion of wildlife as part of the family silver – private inheritance more than common heritage – melds seamlessly into the idea of it as disposable nuisance, and many early protection laws carried an exception clause concerning “interference with legitimate human activity”. But this is the first occasion when the exception has been made the guiding principle.

As a principle for legislation it’s not only irrelevant but actively hostile to the conservation of our archipelago’s biodiversity, as well as offensive to anyone who regards living organisms as more than entries on a cost-benefit ledger. The problem is that we don’t have an agreed alternative scale for the “value of species”. That clunking, portmanteau term “biodiversity” doesn’t help. Like “natural capital” it’s an intruder from corporate-speak, defining species as commodities, whose numbers can be simply and demonstrably totted up. By this crude index a perilously rare species barricaded in a nature reserve counts equally with an ocean-wide phytoplankton fuelling an entire ecosystem. They’re both just ticks in a box, a place where the trader meets the twitcher.

Nor is our current attitude towards nature’s “usefulness” (the implicit opposite of the Law Commission’s “interference with the conduct of human activity”) remotely appropriate. By
useful, we mean useful to us – and visibly so. We may have grudgingly admitted pollinating insects into the realms of the utilitarian but not the predators that attack the parasites of the pollinators. We allow agricultural fungicides to leach into the groundwater and collaterally damage a “useless” (and probably unlovely) tree-root fungal symbiote and wonder why hedgerow oaks are withering . . .

The interdependence of species is far too complex for us to make crass and anthropomorphic judgements about what is and what isn’t “useful”.

In September a huge fin whale beached on the East Anglian coast at Shingle Street. It was thin and in distress and eventually died, despite Herculean efforts to get it back into the water. For a few days it became a kind of shrine, while the authorities worked out what to do with it. People flocked to the beach to see the sinuous carcass with its prodigious maw. They came out of a sense of wonder, or morbid curiosity, or simple melancholy. A great leviathan had lost its way and become embarrassingly dead meat. In the end utilitarianism triumphed.
The whale was carted off on a lowloader to a processing plant, where its blubber was rendered down for biofuel.

Were those of us who thought it would have been more fitting to bury the body on the shore guilty of sentimentality as well as serious impracticality? This is not a “conservation of biodiversity” issue: the loss of one fin whale is neither here nor there. But the fate of its remains nags us with another challenge: how we conserve the meaning of wildlife – which may underpin our so far feeble attempts to save it physically.

I’d like to argue that we should respect wild organisms for their own sake, because they’re here. But I’m aware that this is a philosophical conceit and that “their own sake” is really code for “my own sake” – or at least my aesthetic and moral satisfaction. The philosopher Edward L McCord’s book The Value of Species tries to find a compromise. He argues that “individual species are of such intellectual moment – so interesting in their own right – that they rise above other values and merit enduring human embrace.” This raises utilitarianism to an intellectual level but for me still fails to do justice to the sheer breadth of the experience of living in a world alongside other species.

Gliding west at last light on the Broads, the answer often seems self-evident. In October the pinkfeet geese return from Iceland. The great scrolls of birds unwind across the sky so high up that they make yet another plane of colour, their bellies lit pink by the sun long after it has sunk out of sight. But they’re not remote in any other sense. The ebb and flow of their chatter, the calligraphy, the waving scribbles of birds (“taking a line for a fly”, to misquote Paul Klee) speaks plainly about the company of one’s kind on great journeys.

The Broads are full of such moments. The spring duets of cranes, segued trumpetings that can carry half a mile and which are couched in a minor third, an interval found in every musical culture on earth. Swallowtail butterflies folding their wings to fly through raised sails. A strange aquatic plant called hornwort, which on very hot days, in a few unpolluted pools, fizzes with so much transpired oxygen that the stems “jiffle” against each other and sing like Aeolian harps.

The Broads – medieval open-cast peat mines that were inundated during a climate shift in the 13th century – have just had a “biodiversity audit” and the results are jaw-dropping for anyone who regards them as no more than a watery holiday camp: more than 11,000 species, including a quarter of the entire country’s tally of conservation priorities.

But the statistics say nothing about the kind of relationships that are possible with this cornucopia of life forms. A few hours before the geese fly in to roost we round the corner in Somerton Dyke, where the whirligigs begin. Everyone looks out for these engaging beetles, just a few millimetres long, as they drift about in flotillas close to the reeds. They shine in the sun, like beads of mercury, and every few seconds the entire gang bursts into a frenzy of high speed, near-miss swirling, a waterborne roller derby. It’s comic and touching and so far unexplained – except that, like the flights of geese, it feels intuitively comprehensible, a kind of dance about the companionships of crowds.

Whirligigs are ancient animals, whose family emerged more than 200 million years ago in the Triassic period. They have no known predators, because of an extraordinary skin coating, which is a highly scented, toxic and antibacterial wetting agent. Their hind legs work like paddle- steamer wheels and give whirligigs the highest acceleration of any aquatic animals. They do not “interfere” with any human activity, nor are in any way practically useful to us (though I suspect that pharmacologists and nano-engineers will be looking at their bactericidal moisturiser before too long). And though they have undoubted “intellectual moment” it’s not at all clear why they touch one so. You round a corner and there they are, at the usual address, and if they’re not you begin to worryand miss them.

This is nothing to do with anthropomorphism or manufactured empathy. It comes, for me, from something I can only describe as a sense of neighbourliness; the emotion the poet John Clare felt so powerfully for his fellow commoners, of all species. Neighbourliness is not friendship. It doesn’t demand reciprocity. It’s based on sharing a habitat, on the common experience of place and season and the hardships of weather. It might provide a bridge across that great conceptual divide between us and other species.

Richard Mabey’s most recent book is “The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn” (Profile, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten

Show Hide image

The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood