Last summer we made our first trip to Cumbria, driving from East to West across the country, very roughly following the route of the Coast to Coast Path. We stayed for a week in Ravenseat in a cottage that was actually on the path and then we moved on West, picking up on the A5086 at Cockermouth, through Frizington, Cleaton Moor, Egremont, Calder Bridge, Gosforth and finally Ravenglass, within sight of Seascale nuclear reprocessing plant. Although we’d never been to the area before, somehow the names of these villages seemed familiar and after a while I remembered why. They were, or rather had been, mining villages. Both coal and iron were mined there – the perfect combination for driving the industrial revolution. But not any more. It was quite depressing, in truth; there was a terrible air of dereliction hanging over the villages. They looked sad, run down and depressed. There were many posters demanding brexit, St George flags – big ones – mounted on aluminium flagpoles at no little expense. Even a large sign outside Seascale announcing that we were on the “Energy Coast” seemed more ironic than triumphant.
If ever there was a living example of the coming crisis it was here, and I haven’t been able to shake it out of my mind since the summer. The results of the general election have only brought it back more strongly because this is where the paradoxes that caused the collapse of our present economics are obvious to anyone who comes. Just as William Cobbett witnessed in his (1822 – 1826) Rural Rides –
The stack-yards down this valley are beautiful to behold. They contain from five to fifteen banging wheat-ricks, besides barley-ricks and hay-ricks, and also besides the contents of the barns, many of which exceed a hundred, some two hundred, and I saw one at Pewsey another at Fittleton, each of which exceeded two hundred and fifty feet in length. At a farm which, in the old maps; is called Chissenbury Priory, I think I counted twenty-seven ricks of one sort and another, and sixteen or eighteen of them wheat-ricks. I could not conveniently get to the yard without longer delay than I wished to make; but I could not be much out in my counting. A very fine sight this was, and it could not meet the eye without making one look round (and in vain) to see the people who were to eat all this food ; and without making one reflect on the horrible, the unnatural, the base and infamous state in which we must be, when projects are on foot, and are openly avowed, for transporting those who raise this food, because they want to eat enough of it to keep them alive; and when no project is on foot for transporting the idlers who live in luxury upon this same food; when no project is on foot for transporting pensioners, parsons, or dead-weight people!
The ‘pensioners’ that Cobbett mentions, by the way, are not senior citizens but recipients of government generosity for indefinable contributions to their continuance in power.
I was reading today that there is a proposal for a new deep mine in Whitehaven producing 2.5 million tonnes of coking coal a year and offering 500 new jobs. The proposal was supported by Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians in the face of strong criticism from environmental groups.
So there’s the paradox. How can we deny these post industrial areas of high poverty the jobs that could put them back on their feet? “The coal is in the ground, why not take it out and sell it?” they say. Are you weeping and gnashing your teeth yet? Are there no other less destructive occupations than releasing carbon into the atmosphere that could be encouraged? The challenge before us is to change a whole culture, and it’s no use coming up with endless strategies because – as any business consultant will tell you for a large fee – culture eats strategy for breakfast! The culture in question has centuries of entrenchment under its belt – so much so that it’s become commonsensical to regard the earth’s resources as if they were created entirely for the enrichment of humans, and without any value intrinsic to itself. To suggest that we might have to treat the earth as a partner smacks of tree hugging madness.
For years the evidence has piled up, and no-one took much notice, but now it’s the experience we’re getting. The rainwater that floods into valley towns and flood plains, ruining land and houses is not a theory. The forest fires aren’t theories and the extreme weather isn’t a theory either. It’s not an academic exercise to encounter the diminishment of the soil and the declining yields that can only be propped up by more and more of the very chemicals that are causing the problem. Massive increases in stress and diet related diseases aren’t theoretical and asthma resulting from atmospheric pollution isn’t a figment of some doom-monger’s imagination, neither is the mass extinction of insects, and it breaks my heart to see mainstream politicians waving through policies that will make things worse for the sake of a few votes in a run-down area. They should hang their heads in shame.
Meanwhile the very same interests who have conceived, promoted and benefited from the violation and destruction of the earth have taken complete control by driving their juggernaut through the ranks of the opposition because the opposition had no plans for anything except managing the destruction a little more ‘fairly’. There was no teaching, no vision, no genuine conversation with these depressed areas, just the odd hospital and road thrown their way in the hope it would be enough to stave off change. Our politics has shown itself to be no longer fit for purpose. Workington men and women, and millions of other disillusioned people voted from despair because no-one ever listened, nothing ever happened and no-one was offering a coherent picture of a way forward, the only show in town was a regression to the imaginary glory days. I can’t get that line of mining towns out of my head. I took a school trip down Big Pit once, and I got chatting to a retired mine electrician at the pithead. “you must miss it” – I said. “Miss it?” he snorted – “I hated every bloody minute of it!”
Driving across Yorkshire to Cumbria we passed some of the prettiest and some of the most derelict areas in the UK. It’s collapsing, the whole political and economic structure is falling apart and the earth on which we depend utterly is screaming its distress at us. The threads of a new culture are there. They lack all sorts of detail, but I think we now understand that our relationship with the earth has to be understood as a spiritual “I -Thou” relationship and not the “I- it” relationship of modernism. I think we understand that people really matter, and that strong human community is as essential to us as air and water. I think we understand too that our politicians need to stop speaking and start listening more. I’m not the only person who gets exasperated by being told what I believe by a person who’s never spoken to me. And I think that we understand that the fruits of the earth and of our labours must be more equitably shared. It would be a crime of the highest order to export the crisis to the poorest people on earth in order to preserve our wasteful way of life. And finally we have to change ‘the way we do things round here’ – the way we grow and harvest, the way we eat and the way we enjoy our leisure. The people of Whitehaven deserve better – just not that kind of better.
So I’ll finish with some words from Roger Gottlieb from an essay entitled “Spiritual deep ecology and the Left: an attempt at reconciliation” – I found it in the first edition of “This Sacred Earth” and I’m quoting it because I think we need to talk.
“A fruitful exchange between deep ecology and the left, however, requires that adherents of both perspectives suspend some entrenched prejudices. Leftists need to open themselves to the possibility that a spiritually oriented perspective might actually have something to teach them: in this case, something about the ultimate source of value in our lives and about limitations in our conventional sense of self. Deep ecologists, on the other hand, would do well to suspend their ahistorical arrogance about their own wisdom, their pretensions to being above or beyond political struggles and their too facile dismissal of left movements as unremitting agents of the exploitation of nature.
Although committed to ending unjust systems and ending oppression, leftist or progressive political movements have often reproduced, rather than opposed, the conventional ego. Classic liberalism emphasised personal rights, enshrined individual economic activity at the heart of its system, and believed the central purpose of society was to protect and further ownership and consumption. Surely this will not help us face the environmental crisis.
Sadly, more “radical” political movements of the West – despite their emphasis on community, class or racial experience, and their attempt to generate an ethic of collective solidarity and struggle – have also too often presupposed an individualistic consumerist ego. The practical politics of the left have frequently aimed to provide more things, money, and prestige. They have too often represented the interests of one segment of the oppressed while claiming to represent all, and they have repeatedly failed to challenge the individualist premise that a higher standard of living will make for greater happiness. It has been a rare progressive party that called for less, not more, consumption – at least until the Green Parties of Europe came into being; and there has been little assertion that human fulfillment may be directly opposed to high -consumption lifestyles.”