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What can we learn from farmers about our attitudes to the environment?

Farm.3Last week the UN World Meteorological Organization warned that the last decade has seen unprecedented climate change. We have had many warnings about climate change and the damage we are doing to our planet and from our collective lack of action it would look as if we just don’t care. I doubt that this is true.  We do care, yet governments, institutions, world organisations and we as individuals have singularly failed to react to the grave danger our planet faces.

Chantal Lyons recently wrote a piece for this blog explaining why climate change is a far more pressing issue than George Osborne’s focus on deficit reduction. Why are our priorities skewed? The problem does not really appear to be a scientific one – the scientific community largely agree that we are causing irreparable damage to our planet. There are those who have a vested interest in denying climate change (those whose continued financial gain depends on us not reducing our high carbon footprint) but these people are in the minority. So, if there is agreement that ‘something’ needs to be done, why is it that we have done so little? Philosophy and religion can provide us with myriad reasons to help the planet, many religions express a respect for nature and environmental philosophy has long been engaged with providing normative reasons as to why we should care for our planet, yet we persist in its destruction.

However, perhaps the problem has a simpler explanation, perhaps we as 21st century humans (especially those of us who enjoy relatively comfortable lifestyles in the West) have become disconnected from the natural world. Most of us do not have daily encounters with nature – the day begins with a car or train journey and is then spent in an office before the commute home, our shopping is done in huge neon-lighted temples to 21st century consumerism, and our leisure time is spent indoors: the cinema, the gym, our homes, restaurants or bars.

These are not all necessarily bad things but increasingly we have little or no time to spend outdoors, even when walking through parks our mp3 players insulate us against bird song. Perhaps we should look more to our own environment and think about how we became distanced from it. A disconnection from nature could explain our reluctance to really engage with the problems we face. Of course, taking a walk in the park or in the woods will not slow climate change but it could influence our willingness to identify the problem and to act on it – be it recycling more, using less, working harder to stabilize the British bee population, or putting pressure on our elected representatives to make our planet the top political priority. In order to do that we need to remember why our natural world is so important to us, we need to find a way of connecting to it.

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As part of my own research into human attitudes to nature I spent some time with farmers in Derbyshire. They, of course, suffer no such disconnection from the natural world living and working, as they do, in nature. However, they felt that their experience was not one shared by the general public. People, they felt, no longer knew where their food came from or how it was produced, and certainly knew nothing of the cycles of nature – a knowledge upon which their farming success depends.

Some of the farmers I spoke to encouraged the public to come and see their farms and to spend time with them, either through running holiday accommodation or through having educational open days. A number of those I interviewed had been involved with state-sponsored environmental schemes (Higher Level Stewardship and Entry Level Stewardship). Many of the environmentally friendly measures undertaken by these farmers were motivated by what they felt was common-sense farming. The farmers I interviewed had a very respectful attitude to nature and tended to emphasise their role as managers of the land, they did not see themselves as harnessing or controlling nature but as working with it.

There was also a sense of frustration on the part of farmers that they were expected to care for the countryside as part of their job, as if the responsibility for environmental impact was theirs alone.  There was a feeling that taking care of the countryside was a burden which should not be borne solely by farmers.  Despite this, farmers expressed the view that they had a caretaker role; they used the land, but it should be for everyone to enjoy and should also remain for others to use after they are no longer here.  I am not suggesting that farming as an industry does not cause pollution, it does, but the individuals I spoke to all identified the same key issue that could explain our reluctance to tackle the biggest crisis that faces us, future generations, the natural world and our planet: our disconnection from nature.

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Ros Hague

Published inEnvironment

9 Comments

  1. Colonel FOG Colonel FOG

    You are spot on!

    I suggest a “cultural exchange” wherein city-dwellers are required to offer their luxurious and environmentally destructive lifestyles to farmers for two weeks every year as the take their turn to shovel manure, gather eggs, and wonder if the crops have enough water this year. NO CHARGE! It’s called “Trading Places”. Make it mandatory.

  2. Colonel FOG Colonel FOG

    Later on, the high mucky mucks might start to wonder why they are paying so much to go to a gym to exercise, when they could be doing the same thing AND contributing to society.

  3. All good points in your post, thank you, it’s good to read it. The feelings of farmers in Derbyshire echo what farmers here in the Lake District say – that their role is, beyond making their own business work, caring for the land so that future generations can live and work there. I have been involved in a year-long documentary project of hill farming in Cumbria and have found one of the issues to be that the voices of hill farmers are often not heard amidst the clamour of city-dwellers and the urban-living ministers who draft policies. Farmers have a huge amount of knowledge, and a lot of sensitivity, and it has been a privilege to learn from them. You can check out a few pictures and some of the interviews etc at landkeepers.co.uk. Glad I have now found your blog!

  4. Really interesting post, thnx. The key point for me is that it is not fair to lay blame solely at the doors of one sector eg. farmers for environment and wildlife problems. Today I (unusually, admittedly) shopped in a supermarket, the same sector that demands cheaper prices and forces farmers to intensify. So, responsibility is shared. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t act to turn the tide, of course.

  5. Like any group there are some farmers who are like the ones described above (good on them) and also the ones who see the land as a commodity. Whether this is through ignorance or the awful pressure to produce food cheaply, it goes on. I think dairy farmers have a hard time as the price is so low and every last drop has to be wrung out of the land – this might mean reseeding old biodiverse meadows with monocrop high yielding rye grass which benefits nothing except £ margin. That’s the price of cheap milk. And the big grain farms where hedges and other landscape features have been ripped up make big cash but are like deserts. Environmental campaigner Simon Fairlie makes the interesting point that he produced more food per acre on his small mixed farm which also has loads of wildlife than one of these mega single crop farms. But as is usual, agriculture as an industry is also susceptible to the laws of big business which is applauded and recognized by those in power. The video of his talk can be seen online.

  6. You are very right about city people being disconnected from nature. This is most visibly seen in vegetarians. I have never met a vegetarian that is an outdoor person interested in spending time out in the nature. Instead, most of them live in big cities and miles away from “the real world”.

  7. I have been a vegetarian for over twenty years; have lived in, or close to, the countryside, for most of my life (over fifty years); and have even worked on a mixed dairy/arable farm.

    Sweeping generalizations, such as Save The Earth’s, are pure puttocks. Many veggies, like myself, don’t eat meat exactly because we do know where burgers come from, thank you — and therefore wouldn’t want to eat them. We also appreciate what a better place the world would be if the level of meat-eating was drastically reduced: the industrialization of meat production being of little benefit to your average farmer (if there is such a thing), the environment, and certainly not the animals being slaughtered.

  8. I’m not that much of a internet reader to be honest but
    your sites really nice, keep it up! I’ll go ahead and
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  9. Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems as though you relied on the video to make your point.
    You clearly know what youre talking about, why throw away your intelligence on just posting videos to your site when you could be giving us something informative to
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