Silent warning

I don’t always, or even often, agree with George Monbiot. He is a radical polemicist, an idealist and provocateur. But he is also, sometimes, right. He nails the incompetence and feebleness of our current government (and by extension the government of every major country) in his latest piece, Dead Line. It ends: “No government, even the most progressive, is yet prepared to contemplate the transformation we need: a global programme that places the survival of humanity and the rest of life on Earth above all other issues. We need not just new policy, but a new ethics. We need to close the gap between knowing and doing.”

When it comes to prophetic writings, few have had more and more lasting influence than Rachel Carson. Next year marks the 60th anniversary of her seminal study of the impacts of man’s industrialisation and use of pesticides and herbicides to rid unwanted “pests” on farms and across the landscape – the book was called Silent Spring.

Carson’s book sent shivers through whole communities and even government departments. She made the world see what was happening, with increasingly fast extinctions throughout the food chain, from the bugs that pesticides were meant to kill to the chain of creatures that depended on them, right up to the apex predators, the peregrine falcons and other raptors. In the wake of publication, the pesticide DDT was banned around the world.

As a child, I knew a countryside that buzzed with insects (many of which terrified me), a constant chatter of birds in the New Forest where I grew up, rabbits everywhere, larks above and hares on the downs, and big beautiful birds soaring over us, swooping on their unsuspecting prey. Then, so many years when rabbits were dying of the horrible myxomatosis or just utterly absent, and no buzzards and peregrines to thrill the spirit of a country child.

I vividly remember visiting friends with a house on the side of a quiet valley in Cornwall in the mid-1970s and seeing a pair of buzzards. It was such a shock, delightful but so surprising. That was the start of the recovery of these and other magnificent birds. The insects came back too, although never in the same numbers.

Peregrines are back, on the Purbeck coast and the lofty cliff of Salisbury Cathedral, and we see buzzards and kites everywhere. Eventually the rabbits came back, although not so many (when did you last see half a dozen rabbits nibbling their supper along the verge of the A303 as you drove back at night?)

So nature can recover – if we help it and allow it. If we stop grubbing out hedges and not only look after what we have, but plant more. If we allow “unimproved” meadows, verges and field margins to thrive. If we don’t feel the need to pull up every weed in our own gardens or along municipal or country roads. We all need to remind ourselves what George Washington Carver famously said: “A weed is a flower growing in the wrong place.”

[Carver was born into slavery and grew up to become America’s most important black scientist of the early 20th century. He was an agriculturalist and inventor who promoted alternative crops to cotton as well as methods to prevent soil depletion.]

If Monbiot is the idealistic voice of radical environmentalism, James Rebanks is the soul of traditional farming and care for the countryside. Rebanks is too realistic, too wise and too experienced to preach and promote dramatic and unachievable change. His method is to tell his story and the story of his family and other farming families, of the hard lives of people who live in stunningly beautiful landscapes which are only suitable for livestock attuned (hefted) to the stony fields, wind-swept fells and ever-changing weather, of the knowledge and skills that have been lost in the headlong race to meet the demands of giant global food companies, supermarkets and a mindset that demands cheap food in quantities that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors.

Rebanks described his own moving epiphany in The Shepherd’s Life. In his latest and even better book, English Pastoral, he tells the story of his family farm, of what was lost and what can be slowly recovered, learning how allowing becks and brooks to follow their own inclination, not man-made ditches, can help to reduce flash flooding in the valley below, how planting the right trees can help the water flow and provide habitats for so many creatures, how wildlife and flowers that belong in the landscape can come back, boost the natural food chains, and, in their turn, help to restore us.

But Rebanks also recognises that people have to be fed. In Monbiot’s idealised vegan world, with no horrible industrial livestock sheds and intensive crop farming,  no sheep farmers on the fells or the Welsh hills, and no cattle in the fields (yes, there are still many cows in English fields), there wouldn’t be a miraculous reversal of climate change. There would be a lot of environmentally damaging grains planted, huge forest clearances – and a lot of hungry people in cities.

James Rebanks recognises that regenerative farming, farming for wildlife, farming for the future if you will, has to coexist with more intensive farming.

We need governments – here and in France and Poland and Spain and Brazil and India and Australia and Russia and China and the United States – to start to take the serious decisions that will slow the progress of climate change and the rates of extinctions in the natural world. It is the only hope for those of us who won’t be alive to see that our grandchildren and their children will have a healthy world to live in.