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8 May 2024updated 12 May 2024 7:27pm

In search of the green and pleasant land

The English revere the natural world – so why do we allow its destruction?

By Caroline Lucas

As a nation that prides itself on its love of nature, why is it that England has become one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world? For all our supposed love of nature, specifically of the English countryside, the governments we have elected for generations, Conservative and Labour, have been allowed to preside over its destruction. 

This has happened to an extent that is almost unprecedented in any other comparable country. In a recent study led by the University of Derby examining biodiversity, well-being and nature-connectedness in 14 countries, the UK came bottom in all three. This is not just a matter of size or population density, although these play a part. It’s a political choice: one that reflects the gross inequalities in our society and the way power is concentrated in the hands of the wealthy, who use their influence to bypass our creaking democratic structures. 

Half of England’s ancient woodland has gone in the last century, due to conifer plantations, overgrazing and the spread of invasive species. We’ve also “lost” – or, let’s be honest, destroyed – 80 per cent of our heathland, 85 per cent of our salt marshes and 97 per cent of our wild-flower meadows. With them, we’ve driven to extinction hundreds of plant and animal species. Development for housing, transport, mineral extraction and other industries has eaten up enormous chunks of the countryside, while industrial agriculture and increases in traffic have diminished much of what remains. As a result, there are 40 million fewer wild birds than there were 50 years ago.

In my lifetime alone, the total biodiversity in England has been slashed by half, a disaster so extreme it’s hard to contemplate. Imagine if we’d lost half our population, or half of England was swallowed by the sea, or half the country’s financial wealth was wasted. Yet we have sacrificed half our natural inheritance, without, it seems, a second thought.

Why has England allowed its natural world to be so badly harmed? And how have we allowed so many people to be cut off from what remains?

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A good starting place is land ownership. England has one of the most grotesquely unequal land ownership structures in the West, and one of the most opaque. Painstaking research by land campaigner Guy Shrubsole has uncovered the shocking calculation that half of England is owned by less than 1 per cent of its population. That equates to around 25,000 landowners, typically corporations and members of the aristocracy. The actual figure is probably worse: the Land Registry, the public body responsible for keeping a database of land and property in England and Wales, covers only around 88 per cent of land. What about the missing 12 per cent? That is information that apparently even MPs can’t obtain.

This staggering concentration of large tracts of land in the hands of just a few landowners is deeply problematic. Not only because it stops the vast majority from having a fair stake in the country, but because of the huge power that goes with it.

Large landowners have a major influence over our food and environmental policies. For example, we have overwhelming evidence about the catastrophic impact of pesticides on our wildlife, yet landowners have effectively blocked more ambitious controls. The result is that poisonous emissions we would not tolerate from the waste pipe of a factory are accepted as unavoidable when they come from the spray nozzles of a tractor.

At the heart of these neo-feudal power dynamics lies the disproportionate political influence of landowners. Large landowners sprout up so frequently on government committees, in the cabinet or on the boards of major companies, that it feels as natural as the cycle of the seasons. And the whole system is held together by a lingering sense of deference towards those born to land, wealth and titles.

There are undoubtedly some with a genuine desire to act as good stewards and custodians of their land. But to the extent that abuses of power happen, they are really failures of government: if we as a society give landowners excessive power and status, we can hardly be surprised when they are misused. So if we’re serious about creating a greener and more pleasant land, then we have to get serious about breaking the link between land and political power. 

The creation of a comprehensive land register, open to all, would enable us to know who owns what (with “who” meaning individuals or firms, not shadowy shell companies in Jersey or the British Virgin Islands). Reform of the House of Lords would mean landed interests aren’t given a privileged position in the legislature. Changing the rules on party funding would push back against the influence of the powerful and wealthy on our democracy. Finally, a land value tax could play an important role in tackling the vast windfall profits that come from the development of land. The fact that such a simple and fair measure has not been introduced is itself a clear example of the landowners’ ability to block reform.

Measures such as these could also dramatically increase the chances of securing more ambitious policies on widening access to land. Restrictions on public access is another peculiarly English phenomenon, despite England’s rich history of land reform movements – barely even spoken of today.

Take the Charter of the Forest of 1217. Most of us are taught about the Magna Carta, which guaranteed our political liberties, but very few of us know about the charter, which came just two years later and enshrined our rights to the environment and its resources. Yet for hundreds of years, it had to be read out in every church in England four times a year – and it contained some of the most radical commitments on access rights to the commons ever to have been agreed. 

How quickly it has disappeared from our collective national consciousness. But even in the 754 years it was in place – it was only formally repealed in 1971 – the charter was subject to relentless attack from those in power. Henry VIII, for example, confiscated 10 million acres and handed them out to his favourites, the descendants of whom still possess hundreds of thousands of acres today. 

In the 18th and 19th centuries, we had the Enclosure Acts – another landgrab by parliamentarians on huge tracts of commons that had been governed collectively for centuries.

The legacy of those attacks can still be felt in the lack of connection to nature that so many have to this day. People want to be able to go to the countryside, but many feel unwelcome or worry that they will be challenged for being in the wrong place. There is no right to roam over a staggering 92 per cent of England, and 97 per cent of its rivers are off limits. We’ve come to accept that as normal, but when you look at comparable European countries, or even at Scotland where, since 2003, a comprehensive right to roam has been enshrined in legislation, the extent to which we have been dispossessed becomes clear.

Today one in five people in England struggle to access quality green space of any kind – not just private gardens, but also parks and open countryside. That number is even worse for people on low incomes or from ethnic minority communities, reflecting the wider inequalities that bedevil England. So perhaps it’s no surprise that people in England have become so disconnected from the natural world. Prisoners now spend more time in the open air than most of our young people.

This shift has disastrous consequences not only for our mental and physical health, but for the state of the natural world itself. This lack of connection to nature has also limited our ability to care for it. And, as the American writer Richard Louv has argued, the more distanced we become from nature, the less likely we are to value it – which accelerates not only the loss of nature itself, but also our alienation from it: “We cannot protect something we do not love, we cannot love what we do not know, and we cannot know what we do not see. Or hear. Or sense.”

A legal and comprehensive “right to roam responsibly” could start to change all of this. But as well as access to nature, we need to foster an understanding that is being lost. A recent UK study found that half of children couldn’t identify even the most common plants such as brambles, bluebells or stinging nettles. If we are to stand a hope of addressing the crisis in nature, we will need a generation of scientists armed with the knowledge to do so. This is why I joined writer Mary Colwell in campaigning for a new GCSE in natural history, which was agreed in 2022 and will fill a void in our national curriculum. While biology focuses on how life works, natural history is the study of life itself – plants, animals, fungi and all that makes up our natural world. Young people will gain the skills of the naturalist, learning how to observe, record, monitor, name and understand. As the leading environmental economist Partha Dasgupta wrote in his Treasury-commissioned report of 2021: “If we care about our common future, and the common future of our descendants, we should all in part be naturalists.”

Photo by Peter Flude/Guardian/eyevine

The more we reflect on the importance of the natural world to our physical and mental well-being, the more we see how society fails to give us equal chances to engage with it. The air we breathe is polluted, bringing thousands of people to an early death and afflicting the health of millions. The water we drink is increasingly contaminated with microplastics and complex chemicals, as well as sewage, and we have little idea of the long-term consequences.

Governments allow this to happen because no one has a right to clean air and clean water, or a right to live in a world in which nature is protected. As a result, firms that stand to make profits from damaging the environment are too often allowed to get away with it – even supposedly regulated businesses such as water companies, which deliberately plan to dump raw sewage in rivers and seas because it is cheaper to pay the fines if they get caught than it is to invest in upgrading Victorian infrastructure and in proper treatment facilities.

Yet this has happened, and continues to happen, in a country where millions join the National Trust, the county Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB, the Woodland Trust and dozens more conservation organisations, where millions more tune in to programmes such as Springwatch, and where David Attenborough has more moral authority than every MP in government rolled together.

The English do, quite clearly, have a deep and abiding love of nature. And yet somehow this does not save it from despoliation. How are we to explain this glaring contradiction?

I think a major part of the problem with the English concept of nature is that we tend to view it as a world separate from our own lives: it is a beautiful, bucolic realm that we view on TV or admire through train windows, or post on social media. Or it’s a venue for recreation, a temporary respite from the real world, not an essential, indivisible part of us.

This is not a phenomenon unique to our era. Here is one of the foremost English poets of the 18th century, William Cowper:

The Poplars are fell’d, farewell to the shade
And the whispering sound of the cool colonnade,
The winds play no longer and sing in the leaves,
Nor Ouse on his bosom their image receives.

Twelve years have elapsed since I last took a view
Of my favourite field and the bank where they grew,
And now in the grass behold they are laid,
And the tree is my seat that once lent me a shade.

In “The Poplar Field” (1784), Cowper’s regret at the loss of the trees rings through. Yet there is also a perverse satisfaction, because it allows him to muse on the mutability of life and the passage of time: “My fugitive years are all hasting away,/And I must e’er long lie as lowly as they,/With a turf on my breast and a stone at my head/E’er another such grove shall arise in its stead.”

For Cowper, nature exists to serve human needs and purposes – just like the poplars that have been cut down. Nature is picturesque, best viewed from a distance and with a sense of melancholy. This resigned nostalgia – a theme that runs throughout English literature – is an indulgence we cannot afford at a time of global ecological catastrophe.

Cowper was writing about the River Ouse that runs from Northamptonshire to the sea at King’s Lynn. Like almost every river in England, it is now polluted by algae blooms, as a result of everything from agricultural run-offs to raw sewage. In almost every case of pollution, no action is being taken because it is either apparently “technically infeasible”, “disproportionately expensive” or “unreasonably burdensome” – reducing the profitability of the farms responsible for the spread of pesticides and fertilisers, or the privatised water companies that regularly release raw sewage into the river.

Meanwhile, along the banks of the Ouse, and across England, the poplars Cowper described are in retreat, their habitats destroyed for drainage, new housing or extracting gravel. As a result, there are only around 7,000 black poplars left, making it England’s most endangered native tree.

Yet if the history of literature shows us how nature has been turned into something distant and separate from humanity, it also offers hints of an alternative relationship. John Clare – born, like Cowper, in the 18th century – was an agricultural labourer with an intimate knowledge of the realities of rural life. He is officially credited with over a hundred first county records of birds and plants gleaned from his work. The father of modern nature writing, Richard Mabey, describes Clare’s ability to “trace out the mutual dependence of things not just ‘out in the world’, but, as it were, in the very structure and syntax of his writings”.

Clare’s poem “Wood Pictures in Winter” is an evocation of a landscape where every element is interlinked:

The woodland swamps with mosses varified
And bullrush forests bowing by the side
Of shagroot sallows that snug shelter make
For the coy morehen in her bushy lake
Into whose tide a little runnel weaves
Such charms for silence through the choaking leaves
And whimpling melodies that but intrude
As lullabys to ancient solitude.

He builds up a sense of interdependence between humanity and nature, with, as Mabey notes, a “string of conjunctions”, capturing the sense that the woodland swamp is “not a static landscape, but a living ecosystem, connected by the movement and mutual usefulness of all its components”. For Clare, there is no separation of an animal or plant from its living context: they are one.

Imagine how transformative it would be if we were to bring that appreciation of our interdependence with nature into our way of approaching politics and society. A good place to start would be to recognise the fundamental rights of nature itself. There is a growing movement – in the UK and worldwide – to do just that with a new legal framework for nature’s rights. Last year, following a groundbreaking motion from Green Party councillors, Lewes District Council became the first council in the country to recognise the “right of rivers” – in this case the Ouse in East Sussex – to flow free from pollution.

We need to see such developments on a national level, because a commitment to the well-being of England’s nature is just as much a commitment to the well-being of its people. The damage done to our environment cannot be divorced from the damage done to the people who are part of it. When our air is polluted, our lungs are damaged too, with thousands dying early deaths. When our water is contaminated with chemicals and microplastics and sewage, so are our bodies. When our environment has no rights or protections, neither do we.

Most politicians do not even offer them. Instead they continue to promise voters they will restore economic growth as if that, in itself, were the ultimate prize. They define our prosperity not by our health and well-being, or that of the environment around us, but by an unending quest for GDP growth.

In the name of growth, we allow fossil fuel companies to keep pumping oil and gas. We allow our water companies to dump sewage. We allow developers to destroy irreplaceable habitats, if they replace it with a “better” habitat elsewhere – a so-called biodiversity net gain that far too often is simply a confidence trick. We disguise and forgive all manner of ills – lost species and habitats, polluted air, land and seas, all in a haze of trade-offs and cost-benefit analyses.

As a society, we urgently need to find new ways to dismantle the corrosive mentality that sets growth as the pre-eminent goal, which has become so deeply entrenched in UK policy- and decision-making. Because only if we can change our mindset and see how inextricably our own well-being is linked to and dependent on our natural environment, and only if we can recognise the inalienable rights that nature possesses, and fight to uphold them, will we be able to rise to the existential threats of our time – the climate and nature emergencies.

This radical re-envisaging of our relationship with nature requires us to tell a different story of another England. Because a country without a coherent story about who and what it is can never thrive and prosper.

The inequitable power structures and landed interests of England’s past will not protect and secure England’s future. Nor will our broken political system be able to fix our broken planet. But, in a society characterised by so many ideological tensions and divisions, one thing that does have the power to unite people across regions and generations is the story of our connection to this green and pleasant land – that common love of nature which has been part of our culture and our literary tradition for centuries.

Now, more than ever, we need to bring it back. Not in the manner of William Cowper – sitting on our logs, lamenting the past glories of the English countryside. But as John Clare would have had us do, understanding that the natural world is an intrinsic and inextricable part of who we are. And if we can find and tell the stories that speak to that truth, then we can imagine and strive towards new and better futures.

A longer version of this essay was delivered as the 2024 Lancaster Environment Lecture on 25 April at Lancaster University, in partnership with Lancaster Litfest (litfest.org)

[See also: Net zero’s dirty secret]

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This article appears in the 08 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Doom Scroll