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9 January 2017updated 04 Aug 2021 2:02pm

Want to save the world? Start by fighting for the simple things

Whether it's boring, homogenous, shiny fruit or dying bumblebees, do as Ronald Reagan said: “Just Say No.”

By John Burnside

This year, amongst the sea of plants overwintering in my porch, a single, deep-red pelargonium insisted on producing flowers all through December, one stem at a time, the half-dozen cherry-coloured blooms emerging for a week or so before ceding to a new, equally luxuriant chorus of red.

In summer, my taste tends towards the excessive – to cottage gardens and long herbaceous beds and rhododendron walks, to great chains of heavily scented laburnum and wisteria, elaborate rose gardens and wide fields of lavender swimming with bees. As the year turns, however, there is something poignant about the single flower: the last of the roses, or one pale Japanese anemone, huddled against a larchlap fence through the first snow. Or today – maybe because I was feeling particularly susceptible, after the disasters of 2016 – the apparent symbolism of that one pelargonium, blooming stubbornly through the dead of winter. It seems to speak of continuity, of the persistence of colour and light and life. It also whispers of hope.

Now, I was born and raised in these British islands, so I am fairly committed to that odd mix of cheery resignation and casual bitterness that seems to colour our national character. I am also suspicious of all things abstract. However, what I have learned over the past several years is that hope, when it is active – by which I mean creative, even compelling – is not only valid, it is necessary.

In The Art of War, the 5th-century Chinese philosopher and general Sun Tzu says: “The opportunity to secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity to defeat the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.” He is alerting us to how, while native caution drives us to defend ourselves, it is active hope – which brings with it extreme attention to nuance – that allows us to see the point at which to strike.

Thus, if we listen carefully to the great general, whose philosophy is rooted in the natural order, we can see that although the events of 2016 may have left many of us on the brink of hopelessness, they have also exposed significant weaknesses in the enemy – and if we are attentive enough, we may soon find an opportunity to use those weaknesses against him.

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To do that, however, we have to contract fully to the natural order and conduct the necessary battles of that order. There is no point fighting on the street with the police, whose business it is to protect the enemy at any cost, and we cannot, at present, fight the enemy in government, because only those who obtain certain blessings are even allowed to run for high office.

We can fight in the courts but, more often than not, any victories there will be appealed by the “developers” and their cronies. No – for the moment at least, our main strategy should be to adopt a different way of life for ourselves. To gain satisfaction from Planet Earth and the life that persists here; to settle for “the simple things”, the everyday, the overlooked, the low-tech and the fundamental.

The pelargonium in winter flower; a meadow in summer. The art of preparing food well, which depends, as so much else does, on an informed approach to home economics. As Ronald Reagan said: “Just Say No.” No to shiny, homogeneous fruit. No to bulking agents. No to farmed meat, unless it comes from a source we can verify for ourselves. No to Roundup. No to sick bees. No to subsidies for fatcat landowners and corporations. The list goes on.

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We can’t refuse all of these things at once, all by ourselves. But we can start somewhere and start building. Together, we may strike at the bottom-line mentality of the One Per Cent; and if we start thinking for ourselves, that number should begin to seem significant. One per cent versus 99? I’m sure Sun Tzu would have taken those odds.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article appears in the 04 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain