AMANDA EDWARDS/GETTY IMAGES
2 SEPTEMBER 2015
“Never be afraid of stridency”: Richard Dawkins’ interview with Christopher Hitchens
Is America heading for theocracy? How worrying is the rise of the Tea Party? Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins discuss God and US politics.
The 2011 Christmas issue of the New Statesman was guest edited by Richard Dawkins. This is his interview with Christopher Hitchens from that issue. It was to be Hitchens’ final interview; he died as it was published. A sensation at the time, it is now available to read online for the first time.
RICHARD DAWKINS (LEFT) AND CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS IN CONVERSATION
Richard Dawkins Do you have any memories of life at the New Statesman?
Christopher Hitchens Not that I want to impart. It seems like a different world and a different magazine and it happened to a different person. I’d love them to interview me one day about it, for an edition about the role of the Statesman, but I’d really rather you and I focus on the pulse of the issue, which is obviously our common cause.
RD I’ve been reading some of your recent collections of essays – I’m astounded by your sheer erudition. You seem to have read absolutely everything. I can’t think of anybody since Aldous Huxley who’s so well read.
CH It may strike some people as being broad but it’s possibly at the cost of being a bit shallow. I became a journalist because one didn’t have to specialise. I remember once going to an evening with Umberto Eco talking to Susan Sontag and the definition of the word “polymath” came up. Eco said it was his ambition to be a polymath; Sontag challenged him and said the definition of a polymath is someone who’s interested in everything and nothing else. I was encouraged in my training to read widely – to flit and sip, as Bertie [Wooster] puts it – and I think I’ve got good memory retention. I retain what’s interesting to me, but I don’t have a lot of strategic depth. A lot of reviewers have said, to the point of embarrassing me, that I’m in the class of Edmund Wilson or even George Orwell. It really does remind me that I’m not. But it’s something to at least have had the comparison made – it’s better than I expected when I started.
RD As an Orwell scholar, you must have a particular view of North Korea, Stalin, the Soviet Union, and you must get irritated – perhaps even more than I do – by the constant refrain we hear: “Stalin was an atheist.”
CH We don’t know for sure that he was. Hitler definitely wasn’t. There is a possibility that Himmler was. It’s very unlikely but it wouldn’t make any difference, either way. There’s no mandate in atheism for any particular kind of politics, anyway.
RD The people who did Hitler’s dirty work were almost all religious.
CH I’m afraid the SS’s relationship with the Catholic Church is something the Church still has to deal with and does not deny.
RD Can you talk a bit about that – the relationship of Nazism with the Catholic Church?
CH The way I put it is this: if you’re writing about the history of the 1930s and the rise of totalitarianism, you can take out the word “fascist”, if you want, for Italy, Portugal, Spain, Czechoslovakia and Austria and replace it with “extremeright Catholic party”. Almost all of those regimes were in place with the help of the Vatican and with understandings from the Holy See. It’s not denied. These understandings quite often persisted after the Second World War was over and extended to comparable regimes in Argentina and elsewhere.
RD But there were individual priests who did good things.
CH Not very many. You would know their names if there were more of them. When it comes to National Socialism, there’s no question there’s a mutation, a big one – the Nazis wanted their own form of worship. Just as they thought they were a separate race, they wanted their own religion. They dug out the Norse gods, all kinds of extraordinary myths and legends from the old sagas. They wanted to control the churches. They were willing to make a deal with them. The first deal Hitler made with the Catholic Church was the Konkordat. The Church agreed to dissolve its political party and he got control over German education, which was a pretty good deal. Celebrations of his birthday were actually by order from the pulpit. When Hitler survived an assassination attempt, prayers were said, and so forth. But there’s no doubt about it, [the Nazis] wanted control – and they were willing to clash with the churches to get it. There’s another example. You swore on Almighty God that you would never break your oath to the Führer. This is not even secular, let alone atheist.
RD There was also grace before meals, personally thanking Adolf Hitler.
CH I believe there was. Certainly, you can hear the oath being taken – there are recordings of it – but this, Richard, is a red herring. It’s not even secular. They’re changing the subject.
RD But it comes up over and over again.
CH You mentioned North Korea. It is, in every sense, a theocratic state. It’s almost supernatural, in that the births of the [ruling] Kim family are considered to be mysterious and accompanied by happenings. It’s a necrocracy or mausolocracy, but there’s no possible way you could say it’s a secular state, let alone an atheist one. Attempts to found new religions should attract our scorn just as much as the alliances with the old ones do. All they’re saying is that you can’t claim Hitler was distinctively or specifically Christian: “Maybe if he had gone on much longer, he would have de-Christianised a bit more.” This is all a complete fog of nonsense. It’s bad history and it’s bad propaganda.
RD And bad logic, because there’s no connection between atheism and doing horrible things, whereas there easily can be a connection in the case of religion, as we see with modern Islam.
CH To the extent that they are new religions – Stalin worship and Kim Il-sungism – we, like all atheists, regard them with horror.
RD You debated with Tony Blair. I’m not sure I watched that. I love listening to you [but] I can’t bear listening to . . . Well, I mustn’t say that. I think he did come over as rather nice on that evening.
CH He was charming, that evening. And during the day, as well.
RD What was your impression of him?
CH You can only have one aim per debate. I had two in debating with Tony Blair. The first one was to get him to admit that it was not done – the stuff we complain of – in only the name of religion. That’s a cop-out. The authority is in the text. Second, I wanted to get him to admit, if possible, that giving money to a charity or organising a charity does not vindicate a cause. I got him to the first one and I admired his honesty. He was asked by the interlocutor at about half-time: “Which of Christopher’s points strikes you as the best?” He said: “I have to admit, he’s made his case, he’s right. This stuff, there is authority for it in the canonical texts, in Islam, Judaism.” At that point, I’m ready to fold – I’ve done what I want for the evening. We did debate whether Catholic charities and so on were a good thing and I said: “They are but they don’t prove any point and some of them are only making up for damage done.” For example, the Church had better spend a lot of money doing repair work on its Aids policy in Africa, [to make up for preaching] that condoms don’t prevent disease or, in some cases, that they spread it. It is iniquitous. It has led to a lot of people dying, horribly. Also, I’ve never looked at some of the ground operations of these charities – apart from Mother Teresa – but they do involve a lot of proselytising, a lot of propaganda. They’re not just giving out free stuff. They’re doing work to recruit.
RD And Mother Teresa was one of the worst offenders?
CH She preached that poverty was a gift from God. And she believed that women should not be given control over the reproductive cycle. Mother Teresa spent her whole life making sure that the one cure for poverty we know is sound was not implemented. So Tony Blair knows this but he doesn’t have an answer. If I say, “Your Church preaches against the one cure for poverty,” he doesn’t deny it, but he doesn’t affirm it either. But remember, I did start with a text and I asked him to comment on it first, but he never did. Cardinal Newman said he would rather the whole world and everyone in it be painfully destroyed and condemned for ever to eternal torture than one sinner go unrebuked for the stealing of a sixpence. It’s right there in the centre of the Apologia. The man whose canonisation Tony had been campaigning for. You put these discrepancies in front of him and he’s like all the others. He keeps two sets of books. And this is also, even in an honest person, shady.
RD It’s like two minds, really. One notices this with some scientists.
CH I think we all do it a bit.
RD Do we?
CH We’re all great self-persuaders.
RD But do we hold such extreme contradictions in our heads?
CH We like to think our colleagues would point them out, in our group, anyway. No one’s pointed out to me in reviewing my God book God Is Not Great that there’s a flat discrepancy between the affirmation he makes on page X and the affirmation he makes on page Y.
RD But they do accuse you of being a contrarian, which you’ve called yourself . . .
CH Well, no, I haven’t. I’ve disowned it. I was asked to address the idea of it and I began by saying it’s got grave shortcomings as an idea, but I am a bit saddled with it.
RD I’ve always been very suspicious of the leftright dimension in politics.
CH Yes; it’s broken down with me.
RD It’s astonishing how much traction the left-right continuum [has] . . . If you know what someone thinks about the death penalty or abortion, then you generally know what they think about everything else. But you clearly break that rule.
CH I have one consistency, which is [being] against the totalitarian – on the left and on the right. The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy – the one that’s absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes. And the origins of that are theocratic, obviously. The beginning of that is the idea that there is a supreme leader, or infallible pope, or a chief rabbi, or whatever, who can ventriloquise the divine and tell us what to do. That has secular forms with gurus and dictators, of course, but it’s essentially the same. There have been some thinkers – Orwell is pre-eminent – who understood that, unfortunately, there is innate in humans a strong tendency to worship, to become abject. So we’re not just fighting the dictators. We’re criticising our fellow humans for trying to short-cut, to make their lives simpler, by surrendering and saying, “[If] you offer me bliss, of course I’m going to give up some of my mental freedom for that.” We say it’s a false bargain: you’ll get nothing. You’re a fool.
RD That part of you that was, or is, of the radical left is always against the totalitarian dictators.
CH Yes. I was a member of the Trotskyist group – for us, the socialist movement could only be revived if it was purged of Stalinism . . . It’s very much a point for our view that Stalinism was a theocracy.
RD One of my main beefs with religion is the way they label children as a “Catholic child” or a “Muslim child”. I’ve become a bit of a bore about it.
CH You must never be afraid of that charge, any more than stridency.
RD I will remember that.
CH If I was strident, it doesn’t matter – I was a jobbing hack, I bang my drum. You have a discipline in which you are very distinguished. You’ve educated a lot of people; nobody denies that, not even your worst enemies. You see your discipline being attacked and defamed and attempts made to drive it out.
Stridency is the least you should muster . . . It’s the shame of your colleagues that they don’t form ranks and say, “Listen, we’re going to defend our colleagues from these appalling and obfuscating elements.” If you go on about something, the worst thing the English will say about you, as we both know – as we can say of them, by the way – is that they’re boring.
RD Indeed. Only this morning, I was sent a copy of [advice from] a British government website, called something like “The Responsibilities of Parents”. One of these responsibilities was “determine the child’s religion”. Literally, determine. It means establish, cause . . . I couldn’t ask for a clearer illustration, because, sometimes, when I make my complaint about this, I’m told nobody actually does label children Catholic children or Muslim children.
CH Well, the government does. It’s borrowed, as far as I can see, in part from British imperial policy, in turn borrowed from Ottoman and previous empires – you classify your new subjects according to their faith. You can be an Ottoman citizen but you’re a Jewish one or an Armenian Christian one. And some of these faiths tell their children that the children of other faiths are going to hell. I think we can’t ban that, nor can we call it “hate speech”, which I’m dubious about anyway, but there should be a wrinkle of disapproval.
RD I would call it mental child abuse.
CH I can’t find a way, as a libertarian, of saying that people can’t raise their children, as they say, according to their rights. But the child has rights and society does, too. We don’t allow female – and I don’t think we should countenance male – genital mutilation.
Now, it would be very hard to say that you can’t tell your child that they are lucky and they have joined the one true faith. I don’t see how you stop it. I only think the rest of society should look at it with a bit of disapproval, which it doesn’t. If you’re a Mormon and you run for office and say, “Do you believe in the golden plates that were dug up by Joseph Smith?” – which [Mitt] Romney hasn’t been asked yet – sorry, you’re going to get mocked. You’re going to get laughed at.
RD There is a tendency among liberals to feel that religion should be off the table.
CH Or even that there’s anti-religious racism, which I think is a terrible limitation.
RD Romney has questions to answer.
CH Certainly, he does. The question of Mormon racism did come up, to be fair, and the Church did very belatedly make amends for saying what, in effect, it had been saying: that black people’s souls weren’t human, quite. They timed it suspiciously for the passage of legislation. Well, OK, then they grant the right of society to amend [the legislation]. To that extent, they’re opportunists.
RD But what about the daftness of Mormonism? The fact that Joseph Smith was clearly a charlatan –
CH I know, it’s extraordinary.
RD I think there is a convention in America that you don’t tackle somebody about their religion.
CH Yes, and in a way it’s attributed to pluralism. And so, to that extent, one wants to respect it, but I think it can be exploited. By many people, including splinter-group Mormons who still do things like plural marriage and, very repulsively, compulsory dowries – they basically give away their daughters, often to blood relatives. And also kinship marriages that are too close. This actually won’t quite do. When it is important, they tend to take refuge in: “You’re attacking my fundamental right.” I don’t think they really should be allowed that.
RD Do you think America is in danger of becoming a theocracy?
CH No, I don’t. The people who we mean when we talk about that – maybe the extreme Protestant evangelicals, who do want a God-run America and believe it was founded on essentially fundamentalist Protestant principles – I think they may be the most overrated threat in the country.
RD Oh, good.
CH They’ve been defeated everywhere. Why is this? In the 1920s, they had a string of victories. They banned the sale, manufacture and distribution and consumption of alcohol. They made it the constitution. They more or less managed to ban immigration from countries that had non-Protestant, non-white majorities. From these victories, they have never recovered. They’ll never recover from [the failure of] Prohibition. It was their biggest defeat. They’ll never recover from the Scopes trial. Every time they’ve tried [to introduce the teaching of creationism], the local school board or the parents or the courts have thrown it out and it’s usually because of the work of people like you, who have shown that it’s nonsense. They try to make a free speech question out of it but they will fail with that, also. People don’t want to come from the town or the state or the county that gets laughed at.
CH In all my tours around the South, it’s amazing how many people – Christians as well – want to disprove the idea that they’re all in thrall to people like [the fundamentalist preacher Jerry] Falwell. They don’t want to be a laughing stock.
CH And if they passed an ordinance saying there will be prayer in school every morning from now on, one of two things would happen: it would be overthrown in no time by all the courts, with barrels of laughter heaped over it, or people would say: “Very well, we’re starting with Hindu prayer on Monday.” They would regret it so bitterly that there are days when I wish they would have their own way for a short time.
RD Oh, that’s very cheering.
CH I’m a bit more worried about the extreme, reactionary nature of the papacy now. But that again doesn’t seem to command very big allegiance among the American congregation. They are disobedient on contraception, flagrantly; on divorce; on gay marriage, to an extraordinary degree that I wouldn’t have predicted; and they’re only holding firm on abortion, which, in my opinion, is actually a very strong moral question and shouldn’t be decided lightly. I feel very squeamish about it. I believe that the unborn child is a real concept, in other words. We needn’t go there, but I’m not a complete abortion-on-demand fanatic. I think it requires a bit of reflection. But anyway, even on that, the Catholic Communion is very agonised. And also, [when] you go and debate with them, very few of them could tell you very much about what the catechism really is. It’s increasingly cultural Catholicism.
RD That is true, of course.
CH So, really, the only threat from religious force in America is the same as it is, I’m afraid, in many other countries – from outside. And it’s jihadism, some of it home-grown, but some of that is so weak and so self-discrediting.
RD It’s more of a problem in Britain.
CH And many other European countries, where its alleged root causes are being allowed slightly too friendly an interrogation, I think. Make that much too friendly.
RD Some of our friends are so worried about Islam that they’re prepared to lend support to Christianity as a kind of bulwark against it.
CH I know many Muslims who, in leaving the faith, have opted to go . . . to Christianity or via it to non-belief. Some of them say it’s the personality of Jesus of Nazareth. The mild and meek one, as compared to the rather farouche, physical, martial, rather greedy . . .
CH . . . Muhammad. I can see that that might have an effect.
RD Do you ever worry that if we win and, so to speak, destroy Christianity, that vacuum would be filled by Islam?
CH No, in a funny way, I don’t worry that we’ll win. All that we can do is make absolutely sure that people know there’s a much more wonderful and interesting and beautiful alternative. No, I don’t think that Europe would fill up with Muslims as it emptied of Christians. Christianity has defeated itself in that it has become a cultural thing. There really aren’t believing Christians in the way there were generations ago.
RD Certainly in Europe that’s true – but in America?
CH There are revivals, of course, and among Jews as well. But I think there’s a very longrunning tendency in the developed world and in large areas elsewhere for people to see the virtue of secularism, the separation of church and state, because they’ve tried the alternatives . . . Every time something like a jihad or a sharia movement has taken over any country – admittedly they’ve only been able to do it in very primitive cases – it’s a smouldering wreck with no productivity.
RD Total failure. If you look at religiosity across countries of the world and, indeed, across the states of the US, you find that religiosity tends to correlate with poverty and with various other indices of social deprivation.
CH Yes. That’s also what it feeds on. But I don’t want to condescend about that. I know a lot of very educated, very prosperous, very thoughtful people who believe.
RD Do you think [Thomas] Jefferson and [James] Madison were deists, as is often said?
CH I think they fluctuated, one by one. Jefferson is the one I’m more happy to pronounce on. The furthest he would go in public was to incline to a theistic enlightened view but, in his private correspondence, he goes much further. He says he wishes we could return to the wisdom of more than 2,000 years ago. That’s in his discussion of his own Jefferson Bible, where he cuts out everything supernatural relating to Jesus. But also, very importantly, he says to his nephew Peter Carr in a private letter [on the subject of belief]: “Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and the love of others which it will procure you.” Now, that can only be written by someone who’s had that experience.
RD It’s very good, isn’t it?
CH In my judgement, it’s an internal reading, but I think it’s a close one. There was certainly no priest at his bedside. But he did violate a rule of C S Lewis’s and here I’m on Lewis’s side. Lewis says it is a cop-out to say Jesus was a great moralist. He said it’s the one thing we must not say; it is a wicked thing to say. If he wasn’t the Son of God, he was a very evil impostor and his teachings were vain and fraudulent. You may not take the easy route here and say: “He may not have been the Son of God and he may not have been the Redeemer, but he was a wonderful moralist.” Lewis is more honest than Jefferson in this point. I admire Lewis for saying that. Rick Perry said it the other day.
RD Jesus could just have been mistaken.
CH He could. It’s not unknown for people to have the illusion that they’re God or the Son. It’s a common delusion but, again, I don’t think we need to condescend. Rick Perry once said: “Not only do I believe that Jesus is my personal saviour but I believe that those who don’t are going to eternal punishment.” He was challenged at least on the last bit and he said, “I don’t have the right to alter the doctrine. I can’t say it’s fine for me and not for others.”
RD So we ought to be on the side of these fundamentalists?
CH Not “on the side”, but I think we should say that there’s something about their honesty that we wish we could find.
RD Which we don’t get in bishops . . .
CH Our soft-centred bishops at Oxford and other people, yes.
RD I’m often asked why it is that this republic [of America], founded in secularism, is so much more religious than those western European countries that have an official state religion, like Scandinavia and Britain.
CH [Alexis] de Tocqueville has it exactly right. If you want a church in America, you have to build it by the sweat of your own brow and many have. That’s why they’re attached to them.
CH [Look at] the Greek Orthodox community in Brooklyn. What’s the first thing it will do? It will build itself a little shrine. The Jews – not all of them – remarkably abandoned their religion very soon after arriving from the shtetl.
RD Are you saying that most Jews have abandoned their religion?
CH Increasingly in America. When you came to escape religious persecution and you didn’t want to replicate it, that’s a strong memory. The Jews very quickly secularised when they came. American Jews must be the most secular force on the planet now, as a collective. If they are a collective –which they’re not, really.
RD While not being religious, they often still observe the Sabbath and that kind of thing.
CH There’s got to be something cultural. I go to Passover every year. Sometimes, even I have a seder, because I want my child to know that she does come very distantly from another tradition. It would explain if she met her greatgrandfather why he spoke Yiddish. It’s cultural, but the Passover seder is also the Socratic forum. It’s dialectical. It’s accompanied by wine. It’s got the bones of quite a good discussion in it. And then there is manifest destiny. People feel America is just so lucky. It’s between two oceans, filled with minerals, wealth, beauty. It does seem providential to many people.
RD Promised land, city on a hill.
CH All that and the desire for another Eden. Some secular utopians came here with the same idea. Thomas Paine and others all thought of America as a great new start for the species.
RD But that was all secular.
CH A lot of it was, but you can’t get away from the liturgy: it’s too powerful. You will end up saying things like “promised land” and it can be mobilised for sinister purposes. But in a lot of cases, it’s a mild belief. It’s just: “We should share our good luck.”
RD I’ve heard another theory that, America being a country of immigrants, people coming from Europe, where they left their extended family and left their support system, were alone and they needed something.
CH Surely that was contained in what I just . . .
RD Maybe it was.
CH The reason why most of my friends are non-believers is not particularly that they were engaged in the arguments you and I have been having, but they were made indifferent by compulsory religion at school.
RD They got bored by it.
CH They’d had enough of it. They took from it occasionally whatever they needed – if you needed to get married, you knew where to go. Some of them, of course, are religious and some of them like the music but, generally speaking, the British people are benignly indifferent to religion.
RD And the fact that there is an established church increases that effect. Churches should not be tax-free the way that they are. Not automatically, anyway.
CH No, certainly not. If the Church has demanded that equal time be given to creationist or pseudo-creationist speculations . . . any Church that teaches that in its school and is in receipt of federal money from the faith-based initiative must, by law, also teach Darwinism and alternative teachings, in order that the debate is being taught. I don’t think they want this.
CH Tell them if they want equal time, we’ll jolly well have it. That’s why they’ve always been against comparative religion.
RD Comparative religion would be one of the best weapons, I suspect.
CH It’s got so insipid in parts of America now that a lot of children are brought up – as their parents aren’t doing it and leave it to the schools and the schools are afraid of it – with no knowledge of any religion of any kind. I would like children to know what religion is about because [otherwise] some guru or cult or revivalists will sweep them up.
RD They’re vulnerable. I also would like them to know the Bible for literary reasons.
CH Precisely. We both, I was pleased to see, have written pieces about the King James Bible. The AV [Authorised Version], as it was called in my boyhood. A huge amount of English literature would be opaque if people didn’t know it.
RD Absolutely, yes. Have you read some of the modern translations? “Futile, said the preacher. Utterly futile.”
CH He doesn’t!
RD He does, honestly. “Futile, futile said the priest. It’s all futile.”
CH That’s Lamentations.
RD No, it’s Ecclesiastes. “Vanity, vanity.”
CH “Vanity, vanity.” Good God. That’s the least religious book in the Bible. That’s the one that Orwell wanted at his funeral.
RD I bet he did. I sometimes think the poetry comes from the intriguing obscurity of mistranslation. “When the sound of the grinding is low, the grasshopper is heard in the land . . . The grasshopper shall be a burden.” What the hell?
CH The Book of Job is the other great non-religious one, I always feel. “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” Try to do without that. No, I’m glad we’re on the same page there. People tell me that the recitation of the Quran can have the same effect if you understand the original language. I wish I did. Some of the Catholic liturgy is attractive.
RD I don’t know enough Latin to judge that.
CH Sometimes one has just enough to be irritated.
RD Yes [laughs]. Can you say anything about Christmas?
CH Yes. There was going to be a winter solstice holiday for sure. The dominant religion was going to take it over and that would have happened without Dickens and without others.
RD The Christmas tree comes from Prince Albert; the shepherds and the wise men are all made up.
CH Cyrenius wasn’t governor of Syria, all of that. Increasingly, it’s secularised itself. This “Happy Holidays” – I don’t particularly like that, either.
RD Horrible, isn’t it? “Happy holiday season.”
CH I prefer our stuff about the cosmos.
The day after this interview, I was honoured to present an award to Christopher Hitchens in the presence of a large audience in Texas that gave him a standing ovation, first as he entered the hall and again at the end of his deeply moving speech. My own presentation speech ended with a tribute, in which I said that every day he demonstrates the falsehood of the lie that there are no atheists in foxholes: “Hitch is in a foxhole, and he is dealing with it with a courage, an honesty and a dignity that any of us would be, and should be, proud to muster.”
ERIC AND DAVID HOSKING/CORBIS
2 SEPTEMBER 2015
Robert Macfarlane: why we need nature writing
A new “culture of nature” is changing the way we live – and could change our politics, too.
Mark Cocker’s interrogation of “the new nature writing”, which we published in June, provoked heated debate. Here is Robert Macfarlane’s reply.
In 1972, Gregory Bateson published Steps to an Ecology of Mind, a collection of his essays from the previous three decades. Bateson was a dazzlingly versatile thinker, whose work shaped the fields of anthropology, linguistics and cybernetics, as well as the movement we now call environmentalism. Near the end of the book, Bateson deplored the delusion of human separation from nature. “We are not,” he warned, “outside the ecology for which we plan.” His remedy for this separatism was the development of an “ecology of mind”. The steps towards such a mind were to be taken by means of literature, art, music, play, wonder and attention to nature – what he called “ecological aesthetics”.
Bateson, who died in 1980, would have been excited by what has happened in the culture of our islands over the past 15 years. An ecology of mind has emerged that is extraordinary in its energies and its diversity. In nurseries and universities, apiaries and allotments, transition towns and theatres, woodlands and festivals, charities and campaigns – and in photography, film, music, the visual and plastic arts and throughout literature – a remarkable turn has occurred towards Bateson’s ecological aesthetics. A 21st-century culture of nature has sprung up, born of anxiety and anger but passionate and progressive in its temperament, involving millions of people and spilling across forms, media and behaviours.
This culture is not new in its concerns but it is distinctive in its contemporary intensity. Its politics is not easily placed on the conventional spectrum, so we would do better to speak of its values. Those values include placing community over commodity, modesty over mastery, connection over consumption, the deep over the shallow, and a version of what the American environmentalist Aldo Leopold called “the land ethic”: the double acknowledgement that, first, human beings are animals and, second, we are animals among other animals, sharing our habitat with members of the biota that also have meetable needs and rights.
The outcomes of this culture have ranged from the uncountable enrichments of individual lives to clear examples of political and social change with regard to conservation and our relationships with “landscape”, in the fullest sense of the word.
Co-operation is crucial. Poets are collaborating with educationalists, printmakers with permaculturists, dramaturges with climate scientists, film-makers with folk singers, sculptors with physicians – all in a gumbo that would surely have met with Bateson’s approval, as would the underlying belief that, in Lucy Neal’s phrase,artists can be “agents of change”.
Here are just a few examples drawn from my acquaintance. In terms of charities, I think of young organisations such as Action for Conservation, which seeks to inspire teenagers to become “the next generation of nature conservationists”, orOnca, which has the mission “to inspire creativity and positive action in the face of environmental change” by means of the arts. In terms of publications, I think of the journal Archipelago, or the magazine EarthLines, run, until recently, out of a croft in the Outer Hebrides and standing for “a land ethic”. In education, I think of the huge rise of forest schools; in theatre, of agile, agitating political companies includingMetis Arts and the surge in British climate-change drama. In terms of campaigns, I think of Rewilding Britain, arising from George Monbiot’s book Feral (2013) and seeking to replenish British biodiversity and “connect people with the wonder of nature”; the recent Hen Harrier Day, which brought together Chris Packham and Jeremy Deller to combat the extinction in England of these beautiful hawks as a result of the grouse-shooting industry; or the emerging New Commons campaign, with which I am involved, aiming for the creation of areas of common land around our biggest cities.
In all of these cases, the natural good, cultural activity and human well-being are mingled rather than separable categories. As Ali Smith has observed, “The place where the natural world meets the arts is a fruitful, fertile place for both.” We might think of that place as an “ecotone” – the biological term for a transition zone between biomes, where two communities meet and integrate. That integration is excitingly visible on the Caught by the River website, where scientists and river restorationists share terrain with experimental musicians and urban birders.
As a writer and an academic, I also think of books. W H Auden once said that, among scientists, he felt like “a shabby curate . . . [in] a roomful of dukes”. When I am with serious conservationists – the people at the delivery end of saving the planet – I often feel like that shabby curate. I also ask them what switched on their passion for protecting nature and the answer is almost always the same: an encounter with a wild creature and an encounter with a book.
Literature has the ability to change us for good, in both senses of the phrase. Powerful writing can revise our ethical relations with the natural world, shaping our place consciousness and our place conscience. Roger Deakin’s Waterlog (1999) prompted the revival of lido culture in Britain and the founding of the “wild swimming” movement. Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure (2005) is recommended by mental health professionals. Chris Packham fell in love with wild cats and golden eagles because he read Lea MacNally’s Highland Deer Forest (1970), as a child growing up in suburban Southampton.
“Nature writing” has become a cant phrase, branded and bandied out of any useful existence, and I would be glad to see its deletion from the current discourse. Yet it is clear that in Britain we are living through a golden age of literature that explores relations between selfhood, landscape and ethics and addresses what Mabey has described as the “growing fault line in the way we perceive and talk about nature”. I don’t know what to call this writing, nor am I persuaded that it needs a name. It is not a genre or a school. An ecology, perhaps? In the Guardian in 2003, I describedwhat I saw as the green shoots of a revival of such writing. Twelve years on, those shoots have flourished into a forest, richly diverse in its understory as well as its canopy.
I would love to name a hundred writers here but lists soon get boring. Let me indicate something of the range of what is being undertaken, however, by acclaiming non-fiction that reaches from George Monbiot to Kathleen Jamie, by way of Dave Goulson, Philip Hoare, Sara Maitland, Tim Dee and John Burnside, and includes Helen Macdonald’s soaring H Is for Hawk, as well as such giants as Mabey and Tim Robinson. In the past nine months alone, we have had Michael McCarthy’s moving memoir The Moth Snowstorm, Rob Cowen’s bold and beautiful Common Ground and James Rebanks’s The Shepherd’s Life, bringing in an important voice from the world of farming.
In the coming months, we will have a defence of landscape “beauty” from Fiona Reynolds, a towering figure in British conservation, Nina Lyon’s pursuit of the Green Man and Mabey’s botanical magnum opus, The Cabaret of Plants. The first-person voice is strong in many of these books – but it was also strong in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), a founding text of modern environmentalism. Indeed, it was so strong that the printer who typeset the first edition ran out of capital Is.
Recent British poetry is deeply involved with landscape and nature, from Katrina Porteous on the Northumberland coast to Alice Oswald in Devon, by way of Debjani Chatterjee and Sean Borodale, to the experimental work of Richard Skelton, Autumn Richardson and Colin Simms’s lifelong project of natural-historical verse (see his recent Hen Harrier Poems). Fiction spans the rural violence of Cynan Jones and Ben Myers, through Kirsty Gunn, Laura Beatty, Melissa Harrison and Sarah Hall, all the way to China Miéville’s thrillingly weird prose. Alongside this new work has come the rediscovery of remarkable writing from the 19th and 20th centuries. Edward Thomas, J A Baker, Nan Shepherd and others have found fresh generations of readers, often thanks to the efforts of small publishers such as the superb Little Toller Books.
The best of the recent writing is ethically alert, theoretically literate and wary of the seductions and corruptions of the pastoral. It is sensitive to the dark histories of landscapes and to the structures of ownership and capital that organise – though do not wholly produce – our relations with the natural world. One might as reasonably expect to meet the geographer Doreen Massey or the philosopher Gilles Deleuze in its pages as Gilbert White or the bar-tailed godwit. Nor does this literature advocate a Luddite environmentalism: it tends to be anti-technocracy but not anti-technology.
Some of this writing is kick-up-the-arse furious, some is elegiac, some is about disease and dispossession, some is about dignity and the deepening of knowledge. Across its range, moral engagement and hope are consistently in evidence. Every contemporary writer about nature of my acquaintance is not “only” a writer but is also involved in political agitation, campaigns and volunteer work on behalf of the living world. This is far from the caricature of the 18th-century picturesque, in which moneyed artists sketch the Wye while peasants expire at their ankles and gouty aristos gaze dreamily through their Claude glasses.
Not everything in the forest is lovely and not all of this writing is to the taste of every reader. More voices need to be heard from ethnic-minority writers and from a wider range of identities and backgrounds. There could also be a lot more jokes. But there is no one true way of writing about nature and place. The tradition of such literature has always been, as I argued in 2003, “passionate, pluriform and essential”. Our contemporary version mixes ire, irony and the irenic; green ecologies with dark ecologies.
It is the hopefulness, commitment and diversity of the current field that made Mark Cocker’s recent attack on it seem so disappointingly crabbed. In June, Cocker wrote an article for this magazine suggesting that the so-called new nature writers – including me and Helen Macdonald – were politically passive and insufficiently invested in the natural world. The standfirst asked: “How much do [these] authors truly care about our wild places?” Cocker went on to caricature much of the recent work as “pastoral narratives” that fail to engage with the “troubling realities” of modern Britain.
Nature books, he wrote, must navigate “between joy and anxiety” (as if they didn’t already, obsessively) and must have “real soil” at their roots. Does Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk – which never self-identifies as nature writing anyway – not have real soil at its roots in the form of her father’s sudden death and her grief? Implicit throughout Cocker’s article were the ideas that only those with “naturalist” knowledge should be writing about nature and that nature is a category confined to the non-human, as separable from “landscape” as “culture” is separable from “literature”.
It was a regrettable piece of policing. Its manners were especially unfortunate, because at its heart Cocker – a fine writer and ornithologist – was asking valuable questions about how cultural activity connects to political change. He was right to sound the alarm for the living world but his suggestion that any literary engagement with nature must be noisily game-changing was wrong. Such an instrumentalising view subdues literature to a single end and presupposes a simplistic model of consequence: that Cultural Action A leads to Political Outcome B.
The great American activist and writer Rebecca Solnit, a hero of mine, explains the limits of this view. “A lot of activists expect that for every action there is an equal and opposite and punctual reaction,” she writes in Hope in the Dark (2005), in a passage to which I find myself often returning:
[They] regard the lack of one as failure . . . But history is shaped by the groundswells and common dreams that single acts and moments only represent. It’s a landscape more complicated than commensurate cause and effect. Politics is a surface in which transformation comes about as much because of pervasive changes in the depths of the collective imagination as because of visible acts, though both are necessary . . . Writers need to understand that action is seldom direct. You write your books. You scatter your seeds. Rats might eat them or they might just rot . . .
Some seeds lie dormant for decades because they only germinate after fire.
Numerous literary examples prove Solnit’s “indirect action” thesis. My favourite is that of John Muir, the Scottish-born father of American conservation. In 1869, Muir washed up in the Sierra Nevada range of California, where he took a job as a shepherd. His first summer in the mountains inspired him to write ecstatic essays about the landscape of the Sierra and the intrinsic value of nature. Years later, some of those essays were by chance read by Theodore Roosevelt, who was wonderstruck by them. He travelled to meet Muir in 1903 and the two men walked and talked for three days. Roosevelt went on to place the Yosemite Valley under federal protection and to sign into existence during his presidency five national parks, 55 national bird sanctuaries and 150 national forests.
Muir’s writing lives on in today’s Britain in the form of the John Muir Trust, which campaigns to protect and enhance our wild places, and the John Muir Award, which has introduced 250,000 people in Britain to Muir’s philosophy of conservation (with over a quarter of those from disadvantaged areas or with disabilities). Literature usually works not in straight lines but in cat’s cradles of cause and effect. Vital connections sometimes manifest themselves only in retrospect – or even remain unseen.
Here are some other, more direct examples. J A Baker’s book The Peregrine (1967) motivated a student of mine to join the protests at the Kingsnorth power station. Charles Rangeley-Wilson’s subtle book Silt Road (2013) was read by a council officer in High Wycombe and has energised plans to de-culvert the River Wye in the town: what a joyous, unforeseeable outcome!
My writing has led me into close collaborations with dozens of local protest groups, conservation charities and nature-minded initiatives, not to mention its shaping of my work as a teacher. The idea of endorsing a naive pastoralism is anathema to me. In the same week as Cocker’s New Statesman piece was published, I was writing the script for an angry, hour-long documentary about oil, climate change and environmental damage in the Alaskan Arctic. I am currently working on a very short book about British nuclear bombs with the artist Stanley Donwood and a very long book about mining, death and underworlds.
A fortnight after Cocker’s piece was published, the Guardian reviewed my most recent book, Landmarks, which is about community resistance, pollution and species loss, as well as language and landscape. The final lines of the article read: “Landmarks is a book that ought to be read by policymakers, educators, armchair environmentalists and active conservationists the world over. If we are to defend the land from further degradation, we have to begin by knowing what it is we are talking about.”
Literature can lead to activism and can feed into policymaking. But as Jonathan Bate has written, it need not explicitly “pronounce an ecological message” to perform ecological work. Take Julian Hoffman’s finely focused essays in The Small Heart of Things (2012), or the sparsely contemplative poetry of Thomas A Clark. For both writers, concentration is an ethical act. With his tiny, delicate poems, Clark has said that he hopes to do nothing less vital than “celebrate the life around them”. In so doing, they ask readers to approach the living world not as a standing reserve but as a precious gift. In Tim Dee’s striking phrase, “We need bird poems as much as [we need] the RSPB.”
George Monbiot, another of my heroes, has written stirringly about why we “fight for the living world”:
The reality is that we care because we love. Nature appealed to our hearts, when we were children, long before it appealed to our heads, let alone our pockets . . . Acknowledging our love for the living world does something that a library full of papers on sustainable development and ecosystem services cannot: it engages the imagination as well as the intellect. It inspires belief; and this is essential to the lasting success of any movement.
Yes, yes and yes again. And literature is exceptionally good at acknowledging love, inspiring belief and engaging “the imagination as well as the intellect”. That is why we should welcome the full range of “ecological aesthetics”. To see ourselves as within the ecology for which we plan, we require fury, burn, scorch and scour in our contemporary nature culture – but also wonder, joy, beauty, grace, play and concentration.
We must bring about the “major reawakening by our political classes to the idea that civilisation is rooted in a genuine and benign transaction with non-human life”, as Cocker puts it. But this won’t be magically managed by a single silver bullet – rather by what the climate scientist Richard Somerville brilliantly calls “silver buckshot, the large number of worthwhile efforts that all need to take place”. So down with disdain and division, up with celebration and connection – and onwards in a hundred hopeful steps towards an ecology of mind.
Robert Macfarlane is a fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. His award-winning books include “Mountains of the Mind” (Granta) and “The Old Ways” (Penguin). He is an honorary patron of the Cambridge Literary Festival, where he appears on 29 November, interviewing Simon Armitage and Alexandra Harris
This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses
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