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A radical British politics rooted in nature is spreading – and the establishment doesn’t like it | John Harris

A radical British politics rooted in nature is spreading – and the establishment doesn’t like it | John Harris
A radical British politics rooted in nature is spreading – and the establishment doesn’t like it | John Harris

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Something very interesting is happening in the UK, to do with nature, the expanses of land we think of as the countryside, and where all those things sit in our collective consciousness. The change has probably been quietly afoot for 20 or 30 years. Now, it suddenly seems to be blurring over from the cultural sphere into our politics, with one obvious consequence – the belated entry into the national conversation of issues that have long been pushed to the margins, from land access and ownership to the shocking condition of our rivers.

The prevailing British attitude to nature has long been in an equally messed-up state. From the 1600s onwards, endless enclosure acts pushed people off the land and seeded the idea of the countryside as somewhere largely out of bounds. Britain’s rapid industrialisation only accelerated the process. And despite occasional cultural and political tilts in the opposite direction – the bucolic visions of the 18th- and 19th-century Romantics, the mass trespass movement of the 1930s – most of us now show the signs of that long story of loss and estrangement.

Our understanding of the changing of the seasons seems all about the superficialities of heat and light, rather than the much deeper cycles of flora and fauna; to distinguish between different bird calls or spot particular wild flowers would require a level of folk knowledge that now seems almost magical. In 2018, the average UK adult was reckoned to spend 90% of their time inside. Two years before, the Guardian reported that three-quarters of British children spent less than 60 minutes of each day playing outdoors, which left them less acquainted with fresh air than the average prison inmate. In that context, we might be locked into much the same dysfunctional relationship with the natural world as our immediate ancestors.

But maybe that is changing. In the midst of the UK’s Covid lockdowns, the popularity of outdoor walking suddenly surged. At about the same time, ancient and exclusionary cliches about green spaces were being undermined by such inspirational organisations as Muslim Hikers and Black Girls Hike (last week, the latter’s Mancunian founder, Rhiane Fatinikun, received an MBE for “services to nature and diversity”). Not long after, Right to Roam campaigners were given their biggest publicity boost in years when the wealthy landowner Alexander Darwall took legal action to end the long-established right to wild camping on Dartmoor, commencing a battle that looks set to reach the supreme court. In their very different ways, these stories centre on the same key ideas: a rejection of any idea of natural places and spaces being off limits, and the joyous democracy of gathering together to experience something more nourishing than concrete and tarmac.

‘Ancient and exclusionary cliches about green spaces are being undermined by such inspirational organisations as Muslim Hikers.’ Members of Muslim Hikers take a rest near Malham Cove, North Yorkshire. Photograph: Muslim Hikers

They also involve a mounting interest in the kind of enchanting, magical aspects of life that we will only find if we connect with nature – and the traces of much older ways of living that pepper our landscape. My favourite example of this latter tendency is Weird Walk, a project set up by three friends who began by “walking an ancient trackway across southern England wearing incorrect footwear”, which has since spawned a book, a regularly published fanzine and an occasional podcast. Their interests include stone circles, enduring local rituals and “lost places”, and how walking heightens instinctive understanding of the mess the planet is in. “If we are to combat the climate change that is disrupting our seasons,” say the Weird Walkers, “perhaps we must also heed the call to embrace viscerally the natural world and its rhythms.”

There is a strand of our revived interest in nature that connects with recent British history, and the upsurge of protests against road-building that happened in the 1990s. These struggles – against such feats of tarmac-based official vandalism as the Newbury bypass and the M3 extension on Twyford Down, near Winchester – fused radical and creative action with a sense of history and mysticism: for their participants and many observers, they represented an inspirational rejection of a money-driven absolutism (one infamous legislative document from that time was titled Roads for Prosperity) that a lot of people thought was too powerful to fight. More than 30 years later, some of that energy is still coursing around: in the past decade or so, I have seen it in the campaigns against a dual carriageway cutting through the Stonehenge world heritage site, the madness of fracking and the nature-destroying effects of HS2.

Moreover, the kind of activism that mixes a deep affinity with the landscape with a hardened political edge is more visible than ever. The two things have an obvious symbiotic relationship: the worse environmental destruction gets, the more precious nature seems and the louder people get. Recently, that has been the essential story of how the treatment of rivers by private water companies has become such a hot political issue. Thanks to that outrage and the endless effects of our heating climate, the notion of giving nature a set of legal rights is edging into political debate: in Lewes in East Sussex last year, for example, the district council passed a motion that opened the way for the River Ouse being granted rights – to flow, be free from pollution and sustain native biodiversity – based on the Universal Declaration of River Rights created via international cooperation in 2017.

Unsurprisingly, the political establishment does not like this stuff at all: earlier this year, the UK delegate to the UN environment assembly insisted that the rejection of rights for nature “is a fundamental principle for the UK and one from which we cannot deviate”. To many people, that will have sounded like someone stubbornly playing their part in a very familiar story, whereby today’s outlandish and unthinkable idea very often becomes tomorrow’s inevitability.

A new kind of politics is brewing here. It is both radical and deeply rooted in our history, and already giving rise to set texts. Next week brings the publication of Wild Service, co-edited by Nick Hayes, who wrote The Book of Trespass, the 2020 travelogue that shone glaring light on the absurdities of land ownership. This new book brings together writers and activists who are all working towards “a new culture that returns nature to the centre of society”. Its title reflects the idea not only of serving the planet by protecting it, but the idea that in doing so, we honour something genuinely sacred. The new breed of protesters, walkers, campers, foragers and wild swimmers are at the heart of it all. “We need people to be intertwined with the land like brambles in the bushes,” says one of the contributors. Nature, in other words, is something we are all part of, and we can only safeguard it from disaster by being joyously and defiantly tangled up in it.

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