Jefferies, Socialism, and Climate Change

Rebecca Welshman

july wheat

“Ending climate change requires the end of capitalism” wrote Phil McDuff in the Guardian, who then went on to mention [1] sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg who has given a new urgent voice to the climate crisis. For decades climate change scientists, environmentalists, and thousands of others have been saying similar things, but have been ignored and sidelined, or dismissed as paranoid hippies or scaremongers. Thunberg’s speeches are, to many of us, like raindrops falling on parched land. It’s almost too late, but there is still a chance that something can be done. Thunberg has been picked up by the media and been given a platform. For this to happen, something must have shifted. Perhaps this is the beginning of a new phase of climate change politics. We are not used to hearing the words ‘the system must change’ or reading that capitalism could (and should) come to an end.

Thunberg began as a lone voice, and many more joined her. Jefferies was a lone voice too. He foresaw the need for the death of capitalism, and this hope was embodied in an iconic image in his novel ‘After London’ (1885).  When Felix’s quest brings him to the ruined, poisoned city of London he stumbles upon skeletons and blackened heaps of useless money.

“These skeletons were the miserable relics of men who had ventured in search of ancient treasures, into the deadly marshes over the site of the mightiest city of former days. The deserted and utterly extinct city of London was under his feet.” (After London or Wild England)

The detestable creed that ‘time is money’, the endless spinning of economic wheels that was only going to result in the exploitation of natural resources and eventually the demise of society itself, was a theme of his work in the 1870s and 1880s. A more meaningful existence, something other than oiling the greedy wheels of capitalism, was surely the right of everyone born into the world.

How did Jefferies manage to get these ideas into print in late-Victorian England? He donned the uniform of ‘Nature Writer’ and ‘Nature Journalist’, which gave him an acceptable (and at the time, innovative) role in the media. His printed natural history works always contained elements of mystical longing and awakening. Even as early as 1875 in the Pall Mall Gazette, in his article ‘The Commonest Thing in the World’ he walks the Wiltshire Downs, picks up a flint, and imagines what wonders the stone has been witness to. But as his career developed he no longer held back his views or his radical hopes for change. Some of his greatest works are pieces of prose that seemingly describe a rural scene ‘Walks in the Wheatfields’ for instance, but are laced with a sharp critique of social and economic systems. ‘St. Guido,’ is another example – a golden-haired boy wandering the fields, musing on what he finds, talking to the wheat, the brook, and the birds. The ethic of the piece cannot be missed, and is well demonstrated here in the speech given to Guido by the Wheat:

“the flowers go, and the swallows go, the old, old oaks go, and that oak will go, under the shade of which you are lying, Guido; and if your people do not gather the flowers now, and watch the swallows, and listen to the blackbirds whistling, as you are listening now while I talk, then Guido, my love, they will never pick any flowers, nor hear any birds’ songs. They think they will, they think that when they have toiled, and worked a long time, almost all their lives, then they will come to the flowers, and the birds, and be joyful in the sunshine. But no, it will not be so, for then they will be old themselves, and their ears dull, and their eyes dim, so that the birds will sound a great distance off, and the flowers will not seem bright.

“Of course, we know that the greatest part of your people cannot help themselves, and must labour on like the reapers till their ears are full of the dust of age. That only makes us more sorrowful, and anxious that things should be different. I do not suppose we should think about them had we not been in man’s hand so long that now we have got to feel with man. Every year makes it more pitiful because then there are more flowers gone, and added to the vast numbers of those gone before, and never gathered or looked at, though they could have given so much pleasure. And all the work and labour, and thinking, and reading and learning that your people do ends in nothing – not even one flower. We cannot understand why it should be so. There are thousands of wheat-ears in this field, more than you would know how to write down with your pencil, though you have learned your tables, sir. Yet all of us thinking, and talking, cannot understand why it is when we consider how clever your people are, and how they bring ploughs, and steam-engines, and put up wires along the roads to tell you things when you are miles away, and sometimes we are sown where we can hear the hum, hum, all day of the children learning in the school. The butterflies flutter over us, and the sun shines, and the doves are very, very happy at their nest, but the children go on hum, hum inside this house, and learn, learn. So we suppose you must be very clever, and yet you cannot manage this. All your work is wasted, and you labour in vain – you dare not leave it a minute.

“If you left it a minute it would all be gone; it does not mount up and make a store, so that all of you could sit by it and be happy. Directly you leave off you are hungry, and thirsty, and miserable like the beggars that tramp along the dusty road here. All the thousand years of labour since this field was first ploughed have not stored up anything for you. It would not matter about the work so much if you were only happy; the bees work every year, but they are happy; the doves build a nest every year, but they are very, very happy. We think it must be because you do not come out to us and be with us, and think more as we do. It is not because your people have not got plenty to eat and drink – you have as much as the bees. Why just look at us! Look at the wheat that grows all over the world; all the figures that were ever written in pencil could not tell how much, it is such an immense quantity. Yet your people starve and die of hunger every now and then, and we have seen the wretched beggars tramping along the road. We have known of times when there was a great pile of us, almost a hill piled up, it was not in this country, it was in another warmer country, and yet no one dared to touch it – they died at the bottom of the hill of wheat. The earth is full of skeletons of people who have died of hunger. They are dying now this minute in your big cities, with nothing but stones all round them, stone walls and stone streets; not jolly stones like those you threw in the water, dear – hard, unkind stones that make them cold and let them die, while we are growing here, millions of us, in the sunshine with the butterflies floating over us. This makes us unhappy; I was very unhappy this morning till you came running over and played with us.

“It is not because there is not enough: it is because your people are so short-sighted, so jealous and selfish, and so curiously infatuated with things that are not so good as your old toys which you have flung away and forgotten. And you teach the children hum, hum, all day to care about such silly things, and to work for them and to look to them as the object of their lives. It is because you do not share us among you without price or difference; because you do not share the great earth among you fairly, without spite and jealousy and avarice; because you will not agree; you silly, foolish people to let all the flowers wither for a thousand years while you keep each other at a distance, instead of agreeing and sharing them! Is there something in you – as there is poison in the nightshade, you know it, dear, your papa told you not to touch it – is there a sort of poison in your people that works them up into a hatred of one another? Why, then, do you not agree and have all things, all the great earth can give you, just as we have the sunshine and the rain? How happy your people could be if they would only agree!”

The Independent Labour Party published a special edition of this essay in 1908, with an introduction by the M.P. J. Ramsay MacDonald – the first Labour Party politician to become a UK Prime Minister.

In 1883 Jefferies’ socially challenging autobiography The Story of My Heart only narrowly went into print, and never succeeded as a book during his lifetime, but after his death became the most reprinted of all his books. This extended essay, written from the heart, is an attack against capitalism through the lens of nature itself and through the vision of a beautifully sensitive and open mind. He wished to make the world a better place for future generations; hence the often-quoted “How pleasant it would be each day to think, to-day I have done something that will tend to make future generations more happy.”

Jefferies knew his friends would be in the future. A sad little note to this effect can be found in his notebooks – as if he knew that he was, at that time, already speaking to us.

Jefferies may have spoken for the lone wanderer, but he spoke for wider humanity too. After his death at age 38, from Tuberculosis, his heroic effort to reach people, to try to make a change for the better, was recognised in Justice, the weekly newspaper of the Social Democratic Federation. In an article titled ‘The Irony of Individualism’, published on 1st October 1887, the magazine laments the lack of opportunities afforded by society to men (and only men) of the time:

“In Spain, as in other countries,” write Richard Ford in his famous Handbook, “the fate of the man of letters is hard. When living, his countrymen refuse him bread; when dead, they vouchsafe him a stone.” Richard Jefferies, the most charming writer on rural matters of our own or perhaps of any generation, died of overwork and poverty. His public was too small to secure him a livelihood, or to allow him to make provision for his children. He dies, and happily the Government grants £100 a year to his wife. But how many men of genius who might delight mankind by their works are even now being crushed out by overwork without ever having had an outlet for their faculties?  … Our anarchical competitive society stunts the individual, wears him out with overwork and uncertainty, and deprives humanity of the educated intelligence of her noblest sons.”

From Jefferies’ perspective it must have been an incredibly lonely and difficult vocation – a radical thinker writing against a tide of late nineteenth century inequality, stale dogma, and poverty. Let’s not forget, then, that the actions and words of a single person can and do make a difference. We all need hope, but as Greta Thunberg said recently, “once we start to act, hope is everywhere”.


One thought on “Jefferies, Socialism, and Climate Change

  1. More links here: I wrote a blog post about John Ruskin and climate change. It was a bit of a tenuous link but I like making these kinds of free-associations!


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