In the Face of Climate Change: can Natural Beauty Help?

Rebecca Welshman

dewy harebell

I’ve been reading and thinking more of late about the very real problems which we face as a species. The degradation of our planet as a result of human-induced climate change is no longer simply an issue but a reality. It is something that I think about most days – it is an ever present shadow behind the beauty of the natural world, which more and more of us are becoming conscious of. We notice altered weather patterns, the greasy films over watercourses which once ran clear, loss of habitats, the falling populations of birds, animals, amphibians, flowers, plants. The list is too long.

Among climate scientists ‘gloom has set in’ ( as research repeatedly proves that the situation is worse than we thought. For activists, political groups, and individuals who wish to make a difference it is dispiriting to know that the climate initiatives are deliberately being sabotaged by political and corporate powers that seek to forge ahead with reliance on fossil fuels.As Glaciologist Jason Box has expressed:

“let’s get real, fossil fuels are the dominant industry on earth, and you can’t expect meaningful political change with them in control. There’s a growing consensus that there must be a shock to the system.”

We are already experiencing some of the environmental and social problems associated with climate change. Yet the ways in which the majority of us live do not encourage us to embrace climate change as a reality – we live in denial. Jeffrey Kiehl, senior scientist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research, gained a degree in psychology so to research the psychology of climate change denial. He concluded that:

“consumption and growth have become so central to our sense of personal identity and the fear of economic loss creates such numbing anxiety, [that] we literally cannot imagine making the necessary changes. Worse, accepting the facts threatens us with a loss of faith in the fundamental order of the universe.” (

I was lying awake thinking about these things last night as our young baby slept beside, and I could envisage no ways in which these powers could be dissuaded from their agenda. There was one thought I had which perhaps offered some hope – that future generations, our children today, will be educated in climate science and climate crisis and will be better equipped to bring about change. One day fossil fuels will be a thing of the past – antiquated as they already seem in the face of other advanced renewable technologies. One day – though maybe only once renewable sources finally attract the sustained attention of the financial markets.

Many of our blog posts have shown the ways in which Jefferies appreciated and engaged with the world around him – in the country and the city, and in varied moods and times of day. He encouraged minds and hearts to open together, even when political and social systems seemed to be working to close them. He perceived then, in the 1880s that once connected with the world around us we need to act to make it a better place, in order for future generations to enjoy it:

“How pleasant it would be each day to think, To-day I have done something that will tend to render future generations more happy.” (The Story of My Heart)

His futuristic novel After London (1885), which depicts an England submerged by floods, and a regressive social and political system that is reminiscent of the Middle Ages, seems increasingly prophetic. The protagonist, Felix, embarks on a lonely sea voyage to begin a new social system. He discovers, amongst the poisonous swamps which cover submerged London, a large pile of gold coins, worthless and corroded by the toxic emanations of the lost city. Felix hopes to develop a more spiritual caring race, not driven by what Jefferies termed ‘the detestable creed that time is money’.

In the face of climate change we have very little time. We need natural beauty to keep us grounded, balanced, and healed. I can easily picture a future when beautiful natural images can only be found in books or on old hard drives – or exist as cuttings taken from old newspapers and magazines. They might be pinned to stone walls, which have been cobbled together from ruined upland dwellings, at a time when weaker modern homes have long since gone or been washed away. In the face of such scenarios I ask: can natural beauty help us now?

For Jefferies, nature’s timeless and ageless beauty expressed a better, more complete version of ourselves – a shared heart of mankind to connect with as a reality – “Does this reverie of flowers and waterfall and song form an ideal, a human ideal in the mind?”. As the rain falls down on this August Sunday I keep this ideal in mind.


Simon Coleman



Jefferies’ seemingly endless capacity to observe the workings of both nature and human society naturally drew him into an examination of the relationships between them. In these passages from his posthumously-published work, ‘The Old House at Coate’, he contrasts the practically limitless abundance of nature’s produce with mankind’s dispiriting doctrine of economy. Society seems to lack the spirit of giving, placing it at odds with nature’s beautiful extravagance and ‘waste’.

“Without number, the buttercups crowd the mead: not one here and there, or sufficient only to tint the sward. There is not just enough for some purpose: there they are without number, in all the extravagance of uselessness and beauty. The apple-bloom—it is falling fast now as the days advance— who can count the myriad blossoms of the orchard? There are leaves upon the hedges which bound that single meadow on three sides (the fourth being enclosed by a brook) enough to occupy the whole summer to count; and before it was half done they would be falling. But that half would be enough for shadow—for use.

Half the rain that falls would be enough. Half the acorns on the oaks in autumn, more than enough. Wheat itself is often thrown into the sty. Famines and droughts occur, but whenever any comes it is in abundance—sow a grain of wheat, and the stalk, one stalk alone, of those that rise from it will yield forty times.

There is no enough in nature. It is one vast prodigality. It is a feast. There is no economy: it is all one immense extravagance. It is all giving, giving, giving: no saving, no penury; a golden shower of good things is for ever descending. I love beyond all things to contemplate this indescribable lavishness—I would it could be introduced into our human life. I know, none better, having gone through the personal experience myself, that it is at the present moment impossible to practise it: that each individual is compelled, in order to exist, to labour, to save, and to economize. I know, of course, as all do who have ever read a book, that attempts to distribute possessions, to live in community of goods, have each failed miserably. If I rightly judge, the human race would require a century of training before even an approximation to such a thing were possible. All this, and much more to the same effect, I fully admit. But still the feeling remains and will not be denied. I dislike the word economy: I detest the word thrift; I hate the thought of saving. Maybe some scheme in the future may be devised whereby such efforts may be turned to a general end. This alone I am certain of: there is no economy, thrift, or saving, in nature; it is one splendid waste. It is that waste which makes it so beautiful, and so irresistible! Now nature was not made by man, and is a better exemplar than he can furnish: each thread in this carpet goes to form the pattern; but go out into my golden mead and gather ten thousand blades of grass, and it will not destroy it.

Perhaps there never were so many houses upon the face of the earth as at the present day: so luxuriously appointed, so comfortable, so handsomely furnished. Yet, with all this wealth and magnificence, these appointments and engineering: with all these many courses at dinner and array of wines, it has ever seemed to me a mean and penurious age. It is formal and in order; there is no heart in it. Food should be broadcast, open, free: wine should be in flagons, not in tiny glasses; in a word, there should be genial waste. Let the crumbs fall: there are birds enough to pick them up. …

Thrift, economy, accumulation of wealth, are inventions; they are not nature. As there are more than enough buttercups in this single meadow for the pleasure of all the children in the hamlet, so too it is a fact, a very stubborn fact, that there is more than enough food in the world for all its human children. …

Thrift and economy and accumulation, therefore, represent a state of things contrary to the exemplar of nature, and in individual life they destroy its beauty. There is no pleasure without waste: the banquet is a formality; the wine tasteless, unless the viands and the liquor are in prodigal quantities. Give me the lavish extravagance of the golden mead!”