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’ (http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a36228/ballad-of-the-sad-climatologists-0815/) 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.” (http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a36228/ballad-of-the-sad-climatologists-0815/)

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.

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2 thoughts on “In the Face of Climate Change: can Natural Beauty Help?

  1. I very much agree with you about the relevance of Jefferies’ vision and his hope for a future. I think one of the key messages in ‘The Story of My Heart’ is that in reconnecting and developing a greater consciousness of nature, we readjust our sense of values and purpose so that we come to give much greater priority to nature. Only in this sort of re-balance can we hope to move towards a more stable future for the planet and its nature, of which we are, of course, a dependent part. Critical to this view though, is a degree of focus on the ‘now’ rather than on some mythical future ‘eternity’. As Jefferies says, ‘Now is eternity, now I am in the midst of immortality;’ (TSOMH p 28) It seems to me that by the time he wrote ‘The Story of My Heart’ Jefferies, like us, had seen a vision of the future in which nature was undervalued, dismissed and ultimately destroyed. And in reaction to this he railed against the industrialisation, materialism and false dogmas which conspired to achieve this. He identified the modern ethos of materialism, perhaps even of a market led society and condemned it as “an illusion almost equal to the superstition of a directing intelligence, which every fact and every consideration disproves.” (TSOMH p64)…..But it is perhaps in ‘The Pageant of Summer’ that he is clearer on what he means: “Every blade of grass, each leaf, each separate floret and petal, is an inspiration speaking of hope. Consider the grasses and the oaks, the swallows, the sweet blue butterfly – they are one and all a sign and token showing before our eyes earth made into life. So that my hope becomes as broad as the horizon afar, reiterated by every leaf, sung on every bough, reflected in the gleam of every flower. There is so much for us yet to come, so much to be gathered, and enjoyed. Not for you or me, now, but for our race, who will ultimately use this magical secret for their happiness. Earth hold secrets enough to give them the life of the fabled Immortals. My heart is fixed firm and stable in the belief that ultimately the sunshine and the summer, the flowers and the azure sky, shall become, as it were, interwoven into man’s existence…Let us not look at ourselves but onwards, and take strength from the leaf and the signs of the field. He is indeed despicable who cannot look onwards to the ideal life of man. Not to do so is to deny our birthright of mind”. Jefferies “magical secret” is surely the reawakened consciousness of of connection and appreciation of nature, without which our future will indeed be very gloomy.

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  2. ‘ve always felt that environmentalism is vital mostly because of self-preservation for our species and our quality of life – but part of that is about natural beauty. Our quality of life would surely suffer if we don’t have a forest to walk through or clean rivers to kayak on.
    I still have hope that we can turn this climate change thing around though. The Millennium Development goals recently showed that we can achieve pretty incredible things as a species.

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