Getting back to nature
'We want our future back: a future where humans are nature, and where nature is resplendent.'
by Brendan Montague
We do not have to exercise our imaginations to understand what we do not want: it surrounds us.
The last thing we want is a global political class which is manifestly incapable of protecting us from a virus, where the emergence of that threat had been predicted and planned for.
We do not want to live in a society that is driven by the economics of profit before people, a virulent capitalism that demands growth on an infinite planet.
We now know that industrial capital's constant expansion into the natural world is the root cause of the coronavirus crisis: the logging industry has torn up the habitats of bats, stressing their immune systems and leaving them - and then us - vulnerable to coronaviruses.
We fundamentally do not want to live, as we now do in the UK, under a government that was too incompetent and to ideologically wedded to austerity to keep basic stocks of personal protective equipment - plastic aprons - ready for a potential pandemic.
Yet at the same time, we do not want to live under the regime of Wuhan. We do not want a one party, Communist Party, state. We do not want police attacking protesters with batons and water cannon.
We do not want oppressive regimes equipped with ever more sophisticated modes of surveillance, controlled directly by the state or by compliant big tech companies. We do not want to be confined to our homes through force. Or to be detained against your will in a Covid recovery facility.
We do not want climate breakdown. And we don’t much want those things that are driving climate breakdown. We don’t feel entitled to international flights, commuting in SUVs between cities, beef twice a day, turning up the air conditioning so that we can have an open fire in temperate rooms.
The overwhelming majority of us could never afford such things. Almost half of the UK population did not fly last year, before the lockdown, and this cohort lives in one of the very largest economies on the planet. Most of us have never set foot in an airport.
We do want basic medicines, nutritional foods, shelter. If we had not squandered so much of our natural resources, chief among them fossil fuels, we could have invented technologies and products that would have met these needs in perpetuity.
What does tax the imagination today is our vision of what we do want. And yet this basic desire has been with us since the beginning of human civilisation. It is common to cultures around the world and even as neoliberalism completes its global capture, it remains within and between us.
In the simplest terms we want nature. We ache and yearn for nature. We want to rid ourselves of the tyranny of economics and establish a society that values those many things that cannot be measured and priced: companionship, clean air, open vistas.
But to say such things out loud now seems like an avoidance of reality, a stupid dream or reactionary utopia. We were derided then as tree huggers and today we are either hopeless romantics or useful idiots for a technocratic, Promethian totalitarianism.
Yet the natural sciences support what we have always said. Spending time in nature benefits our mental and physical well being. The intricate web of tree branches against a grey sky, the sight of a river wending its way through the valley to the sea. These signs give us pleasure, as though they resonate with a prescribed pattern.
We are highly empathic and social beings. We are not the most empathic of living beings, as whales and elephants may be among those who share our planet who care more than we do. But nonetheless the knowledge that animals are in distress, and in distress because of our actions, is a constant cause of distress to each of us.
But we find ourselves born into a society where we are alienated from nature, and from each other. We are traumatised, to a lesser or greater extent. Traumatised through abuse and neglect, by school, by those traumatised around us. By misogyny, racism and homophobia. By poverty and war.
Capitalism, at it’s simplest, is an economic system where people who have money invest that ‘capital’ and expect a healthy return on that investment. The ROI is the only thing that counts. The money follows the return. If it is not profit seeking, it is not - by definition - capital.
One example, is capital flows to those companies who can produce meat most cheaply. You sell meat cheaply by burning the Amazon, clearing new land, reducing any kind of welfare for the cow, pumping them full of hormones and using cheap antibiotics to keep them alive long enough to get to the abattoir. With chicken, you use bleach to kill salmonella because it is cheaper than keeping them healthy.
We cannot in all conscience be a vegans on animal welfare grounds without also being anticapitalists. There is no form of capitalism that cannot reduce animal welfare in order to increase the return on investment. No amount of regulation can stop the cruelty. And today, the capitalist owns the regulatory system, not the consumer.
There is a growing desire for a new society, a new way of being with nature. We want to focus on our immediate needs, our connection with others, and by leaving behind a trail of creativity and love rather than wealth and destruction.
This new society needs a new economics. A new system of production where we are able to assess the needs of every individual and to meet them. We want to create safe and nurturing neighbourhoods where people have the time and those few resources necessary to create, to play and to exercise their individuality.
I don’t personally mind what you call this society. But people do tend to call it socialism. And it is right that this is precisely the kind of society Karl Marx had envisaged, the imagined standpoint that he used to look back at and critique our earliest capitalist cities in Manchester and London.
Socialism is the claim that everyone is equal. There are good socialisms and bad socialisms. There is good faith socialism which is an attempt to create a world where we are in fact equal. This cuts against the logic of capitalism, where the person with the greatest wealth has the most power.
But there is also bad faith socialism. There is a socialism that cares about equality among humans but will deliver this at the cost of nature. It seeks the short term benefit of those who support a particular union or party, ignoring the long term cost of mass production, pollution, even colonialism.
You get to pick your socialisms. You can pick many other isms. You can pick none. But - somewhat ironically - you never get to pick your capitalism. Capitalism is always about profit, and never about people.
And it is in any case entirely unnecessary for people to take up the banner of socialism for them to come together and unite for what is a common, and a natural want.
We know a return to the past is both impossible and undesirable. We want our future back: a future where humans are nature, and where nature is resplendent.
We know who we are. And together we can do this. But the time to act is now.
Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist. This article originally appeared on The Ecologist Website. Reproduced with permission.