This is the fifth of a 6-part series. You can find Michael Dowd’s audio recording of his reading of the entire series here.
IN 1798, WILLIAM WORDSWORTH and Samuel Taylor Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads. A bomb thrown into the heart of the literary establishment, Ballads, though slow-selling at first, was to begin a revolution in English poetry.
It was to begin another revolution as well, for it was in the Ballads that William Wordsworth’s deep green vision was first on display. Though it has since been packaged as daffodil-themed literary nostalgia, at the time what Wordsworth had to say was seen as very much more edgy and even dangerous, exemplified by this verse from The Tables Turned:
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
What became known as the Romantic worldview is often airily dismissed today by the kind of people who imagine they are rational, objective grown-ups with no time for wand’ring oe’r the hills writing airy verse about shepherds. But the Romantics were not seen this way in their day: they were seen, as they intended to be seen, as political radicals. In The Tables Turned, as in his later writings as a young man, Wordsworth was laying down an explicit challenge to the Enlightenment legacy of which he, as a keen supporter of the French Revolution, was himself a product.
The young Wordsworth talked, unashamedly, of ‘Nature’ as a living entity. He saw “our meddling intellect” as part of the dilemma of being human; the thing which distanced us from nature and allowed us to objectify it; or, as he put it in the same poem, to “murder to dissect”. He blasted both human science and human art as being too distanced from the real world of mud, grass and sky to be able to see that world as it really was. Wordsworth lived during the first age of unchecked industrialisation. The year of his death, 1850, was also the year in which Britain’s urban population exceeded its rural population for the first time. He could see what was coming, and his solution was a re-engagement of the human senses with the non-human world
What does this have to do with today’s environmentalism? Many greens would probably hurriedly insist that the answer is ‘nothing at all’. Today’s environmental debate is technocratic, pseudo-scientific, data-centred; entirely focused on ‘realistic’ ‘solutions’ to a problem which is never very well defined. Politicians, businesspeople and professional sustainability junkies get on with the sombre business of greening modern life, and the undertone is clear: we are serious people now, and environmentalism is a serious business. Ecosystem collapse threatens our economic competitiveness. There is no time for romance. We are not interested in Nature – which is in any case a fiction invented by dead white guys. The only impulse from a vernal wood which we can realistically afford to think about is one which provides zero-carbon electricity for our ever-growing economies.
The technocratic takeover of modern environmentalism is virtually complete now, and those who do not buy into it are left with nowhere to turn but the fringes: well-meaning hippy eco-settlements or the self-defeating identity politics of protest.
Managerial environmentalism is intended to be a matter of the head and not the heart. The dictatorship of reason which has permeated every aspect of modern society, from education to the arts, has environmentalism firmly in its grip as well. As such, however, it has bypassed another of the main drivers of the original green movement – the need to reconnect emotionally, intuitively and sensually with the real world beyond the cities and the motorway junctions.
It is tempting at this point to set up ’emotion’ in opposition to ‘reason’, and to demand more of the former and less of the latter in the green debate. Certainly modern greens could do with being more open and honest about what really moves most of them in the first place. Most green campaigners are passionate about nature for reasons they are unable to put into words, but that inability does not invalidate the feelings that motivate their work. The fact that something cannot be easily defined on a page or in a data set does not mean it is not real. It is more likely to mean it is complex, nuanced and not easy to simplify, which also means it is likely to be deep, old and meaningful.
But beyond this, the temptation to set up emotion in opposition to reason, or subjective as opposed to objective experience, is to play the game of the enemy. The kind of person who dismisses any felt, human reaction to the natural world as romantic often likes to think of themselves as a rational respecter of measurable science rather than a waffler dealing in unquantifiable superstition. But what neuroscience has been revealing over the last fifteen years is that the old Cartesian Enlightenment myth of a disembodied ‘rational’ mind, which works best when unclouded by ’emotion’, was never a reality.
On the contrary, in fact: our minds are embodied, and our rational and emotional reactions are two sides of the same coin. They are even products of the same areas of the brain, and one cannot function without the other. What this is likely to mean is that if we get a strong emotional reaction to, say, walking in an ancient forest – or seeing it destroyed for lumber – there is likely to be a good reason for it. We may not be able to lay it out on a spreadsheet, but it is as valid as anything that we can, and maybe more so.
Or to put it another way: being a ‘romantic’ is nothing to be ashamed of. Quite the opposite: it is the expression of a genuine, felt attachment to non-human nature, something which is as old as our species and something without which we would become little better than machines. This reality can’t be peer-reviewed by the kind of people who think if it can’t be measured it isn’t real – but that doesn’t make it any less of a necessity for a good human life.