The Great Thinning and How it Impacts the Imagination

February 27, 2019

There were lots of many things, then. Suburban gardens were thronged with thrushes. Hares galumphed across every pasture. Mayflies hatched on springtime rivers in dazzling swarms. And larks filled the air and poppies filled the fields, and if the butterflies filled the summer days, the moths filled the summer nights, and sometimes the moths were in such numbers that they would pack a car’s headlight beams like snowflakes in a blizzard, there would be a veritable snowstorm of moths, and at the end of your journey you would have to wash your windscreen, you would have to sponge away the astounding richness of life.

So writes Michael McCarthy in his fabulous book ‘The Moth Snowstorm: nature and joy’.  Michael is a writer and journalist, who has been Environment Correspondent for The Times and, for fifteen years, the Environment Editor of the Independent. He still writes for the online Independent while also writing books. I loved ‘The Moth Snowstorm’. Its portrait of a world rich with diversity, and the subsequent erosion of that, moved me deeply. It was therefore a delight to be able to talk to Michael about the book, and the first thing I wanted to know was in what way living in the kind of diversity-rich world he portrays in the book impacts on the human imagination? (sorry, no podcast this week, the recording of our conversation wasn’t good enough quality):

Well, firstly, what we were surrounded by 70 years ago, or 60 years ago, was natural abundance, and that had always been the condition.  Wildlife had not been thinned out and so we might not have thought it was abundant then because it was simply the way things were, but certainly it has become very much more impoverished since those years. I would phrase the question the other way round.  It’s not so much what the abundance that we had then did for our imagination, as what the lack of abundance we have now may be doing for our imagination.

Our imaginations are rooted in the natural world.  They formed in the natural world.  They took their metaphors and similes from the natural world.  It’s from the natural world that we thought that something might be strong as an oak tree or as fragile as a reed.

I don’t think that human creations on the whole supply us with figures of speech.  It is the natural world which does.  When the evidence of the natural world sinks from us, it’s going in two ways.  One is biodiversity is disappearing at a rapid rate of knots, and the other is that the population of the world is becoming more and more urban.

The UN released new figures about a month ago.  It’s now 56% of the population of the Earth lives in towns and cities and by 2050 it will be 68%.  So in 32 years’ time – somebody born today will only be in their early to mid-adulthood –  two thirds of the world will live in towns and cities.  Two thirds of the world probably won’t see wild flowers.  They may see some wild birds.  They probably won’t see large wild mammals.

There’ll be a whole range of things they won’t have access to, like smells, like clean water, various sights, especially if a great majority of the two thirds of the world are living in the megacities of 40 million people, especially in sub-Saharan African, which are going to come along.  The problem is that our imagination itself takes its root in the natural world, and increasingly the natural world is being distanced from us, and that can only impoverish our own imaginations.

I spoke a while ago to a Lise Van Susteren, who uses the term ‘Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder’ to say that actually when we live in a time where we see climate change happening, and the great thinning happening, that we experience many similar symptoms to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Living with that sense of loss, living with that sense of grief, impacts people in ways that they might not be necessarily aware of.  I wondered what your thoughts were on that?

Yeah.  I think it impacts some people.  That’s the point.  It impacts some people, but some people don’t care.  I mean you’ve got to remember that when we write about nature – and I’m in a group of a certain number of people who write about nature – you’re assuming, by your very act of writing, that people care about it, and a lot of people do, and they care passionately about it, but even more people don’t care about it.  You’ve got to recognise that.

An enormous number of people live fairly circumscribed lives and seem to be fairly content with that.  One of the things that I said in ‘The Moth Snowstorm’ was I thought it was open to all of us to conceive of a passionate love of nature because there was a bond with the natural world deep in us that had been there for 50,000 generations.  But I didn’t say that everybody did love nature.  It was possible for everybody to love nature.  That said, the people who do feel the loss do feel it greatly, and they don’t always know what they’re feeling.  Do you know Mark Cocker’s book ‘Our Place’?

Yes, I’m about a third of the way in.

I’ve just come downstairs to get hold of the copy because there’s a very good quote from him which I ended the review with.  I’m just finding it.  The disappearance of the natural world from around us troubles people in a way they can’t always put their hands on, put their fingers on.  They don’t quite know what it is they’re feeling.  It’s a sort of inchoate ache.  It’s a sort of upset that they can’t really define.

Cocker said, “for some people, agricultural intensification has triggered an emotionally charged, even visceral response, at the root of which is a baffling confrontation with local extinction and loss of meaning.  The event is powerful enough to alter an individual’s personality and entire view of life.  It amounts to a persistent low level heartache.  A background melancholia for which there is little remedy short of emigration.”

It’s fair to say that I was one of the first people who started writing about the disappearance of abundance, and I started doing this in about the year 2000.  When it started to dawn on me that insects were all going, which is what became ‘Moth Snowstorm’, and it was often the case that if you wrote about it, and you pointed something out – that for example house sparrows had disappeared from the centre of London, which is one of the things that I did, or that the phenomenon of insects in the headlight beams had disappeared – people were sometimes very grateful for that being pointed out to them because they said, “I thought it was only me.  I wasn’t sure I was imagining it.”

But they’d just had this feeling that things weren’t right.  All through while this was happening – this began in the sixties and seventies, and through the seventies and eighties and nineties it began to gather pace – the people who are old enough to remember when there was abundance had this feeling that things weren’t quite right, but it couldn’t be specifically proved.

The Government’s Farmland Bird Index tells us that farmland birds have gone down by 56% since 1980.   Between 1970 and 2016.  So even by the Government’s own admission basically half of our farmland avian wildlife we have lost just since the Beatles broke up.  Well we know that now, but this is based on surveys and censuses which the British Trust for Ornithology and the RSPB put in place in the 1960s.

The first one was called the Common Bird Census, and it was followed by the one we have now, which is called the Breeding Bird Survey.  They were just technically slightly different.  But the point is you need quite a long run of data to get any results.  So we didn’t start getting results until the mid-nineties and it was only in the mid-nineties that we started to understand statistically that these declines were happening.  In the eighties, we might go into the countryside and not see as much as we once had, but the actual statistical evidence wasn’t there to back up our inchoate feelings.  Also you have the problem, which I’m sure you’re aware of, of the Shifting Baseline Syndrome.

Everybody takes what they observe around them to be the norm.  If you go in the countryside and you hear a skylark you’re thrilled because you hear a skylark.  But your parents did it and they heard ten sky larks.  And your grandparents did and they heard a hundred.  But you don’t know that.  So it’s quite difficult actually to perceive the shift.  The ache is for the people who knew about it, but for the people who didn’t know about it, think they have less chance, the people who’ve come along since, for their imaginations to be fertile.  That’s what I would say.

That ache, or that background heartache that you talk about, do you see a link between that and the rise of dystopian visions of the future?  When I was a child in the seventies, all the magazines we had were about the future and how it was going to be amazing, and it was this, that and the other.  We seem to have more and more dystopian visions of the future.  Do you see a link between those two things?

I’m perhaps the wrong person to ask because I’ve been writing about climate change since 1989.  I’ve been making a living from writing about dystopian visions of the future for 25 years, and more. One of the reasons we concentrated on the environment in The Independent was they did a readership survey which was very influential.

It was young mothers who were a key demographic for us, and what were young mothers most concerned about?  This must have been about 2004.  Everyone thought the response would be was Iraq, and it wasn’t, it was climate change, which took everybody by surprise.  Some sections of the population, especially young parents who wonder about what sort of world their children will live to grow up in, are very worried about the future.  But many people don’t care.  You’ve got to get your head around the fact that an awful lot people don’t care very much.

I don’t know if you ever read ‘Scoop’ by Evelyn Waugh, and the Fleet Street journalist Corker in that, and his definition of news?  “News is what a man who’s not much interested in anything wants to read about”.  An awful lot of people aren’t much interested in anything.  And it isn’t necessary that they should be.  An awful lot of people lead fairly circumscribed lives.

If we’re in that section of the population which leads less circumscribed lives, and if you’re in a section of the population which is more aware of things, it’s very good to be so, but you shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that that’s what most people care about.  This is the lesson that politicians learn profoundly.  Politicians know that people care about three things.

They care about the pound in their pocket, they care about the health of their families, and they care about the education of their children, and everything else is frippery.  And of course Abraham Maslow, as you will know, put it into his schematic effect in his hierarchy of values.  That’s a pretty good illustration of the way human minds work.

You talk about how “human imagination formed, took flight and where it found its metaphor and simile”.  Is there any insight from that about how we might start rebuilding?  If it’s possible that we can reverse?

Well education is one way, isn’t it, clearly.  I think MacFarlane and his ‘Lost Words’ is a great idea.  The fact that in 2007 the Oxford Junior Dictionary took the 50 words out, like acorn and everything else, was outrageous and they haven’t put them back even though there was a great protest at the Second Edition.

What MacFarlane’s doing is these are lost words and he’s trying to restore them.  That’s great.  I wrote a piece in the Guardian last year backing up Mary Colwell, who you may have heard of, she’s an environmentalist who said there should be a GCSE in Natural History.  I wrote a piece supporting that.  What I would do is in some way introduce into the curriculum, even if it’s not a public examination, the natural world and knowledge of it on a formal basis into our education system,

Which slightly pre-empts the next question I was going to ask you.  You might want to add to that or you might have something else.  The thing I’ve asked everybody that I’ve interviewed so far has been if you had been elected Prime Minister and you’d run on a platform of ‘Make Britain Imaginative Again’ so you had felt there was a real need to boost the collective imaginative capacity in terms of education, and public debate, and policy making and so on and so on, what might you do in your first 100 days in office?  You partly answered that but would you like to embellish that?

Well, no, that’s what I would do.  I would introduce natural history into the curriculum so that it wasn’t an option.  I accept that it won’t be as important as Maths and English.  I do accept that, and I think that the Labour government doing away with the requirement of learning a foreign language GCSE was a terrible mistake, as I think they realise it is.  But this is not a mistake.

This is something that’s not happened.  I would introduce natural history, probably in the junior curriculum, as an essential, as obligatory.  And I would introduce – because I’ve been into it, and it takes quite a lot to do – I would introduce a formal qualification at GCSE in Natural History which would have to be optional.  It’s difficult to do in terms of the educational establishment and the bureaucracy because you have to get Ofqual to approve a qualification and then who’s going to teach it?  And then where will it be taught?

Will it only be taught as a luxury, etc., etc.  But the thing that I would do is bring the teaching about the natural world into our schools.  It would be compulsory, certainly, at primary level.  That’s what I would do.

Fantastic.  You write in the book about ‘coping strategies’, and I wondered what you think – for the people who are aware of what’s going on, to whatever degree – what you think are the coping strategies that we create for ourselves in order to live during the time of the great thinning?  How does it manifest in the world around us, do you think?

One of the reasons why the book I wrote had some attention paid to it – in America but not least – is that I sort of turn the thing on its head.  The subtitle of the Moth Snow Storm is not ‘Nature and Disaster’, the subtitle is ‘Nature and Joy’.

Even though the book paints a picture of its context, which is the world going to hell in a handbasket, but what it seeks to do is celebrate the joy that can be found, still, in this world, and it tries to mobilise that joy as a defence.  It has a formal argument which says that there have been two formal defences of the natural world being degradated.

One is sustainable development and I say in there it hasn’t worked, and the other is the role of ecosystem services and I say various reasons in the book for why that is flawed.  What I put forward is could we mobilise the joy that we find in nature as the basis of its defence?  The love we have for the natural world is not just for simplistic love – and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that – but it’s not just a simplistic love.  It is an informed love about how important the natural world is to our psyches.

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I suppose if you’re saying in terms of looking at how bad the future can get, that’s entirely right.  But until the last ragged robin fades and the last stoat is killed and the last blackbird ceases to sing, there will still be joy to be found in the natural world.  One of the things we’ve got to realise is that people in the last four or five years have started to talk about nature writing, and it’s actually been going on, really, for years.  But you’ve got to remember that in the mid noughties, no-one was writing about nature.  Very few people.

I was the Environment Editor of The Independent and I was one of the very few people who was writing about the natural world.  And you’ve got to remember that people in the noughties, environmentalists, were obsessed with climate change to the exclusion of everything else.  If you take Friends of the Earth in the mid noughties, well…  I’ve got to say under Tony Juniper Friends of the Earth did a wonderful job; their 3% campaign, and Tony is somebody who understands about the natural world.

But the guy who took over from Tony, whose name I’ve forgotten now, he was only interested in climate change.  So when the new Tory government decided in 2011 they would privatise the forests, it would sell of the forest estate, Friends of the Earth didn’t say a word.  There was nothing from them.  Somebody like Naomi Klein I don’t think is very interested in the natural world, at all.  The environment movement became completely taken up with climate change, partly because you’ve got to remember the politics of this.

At first climate change was not liked.  The concern to climate change was seen by developmentalists as middle class birdwatchers not wanting to lose their pleasure grounds, and it was only in about 2005, some time like that, that the developmental movement started to realise that the people who would do worst and suffer most out of climate change were actually the poor of the developing world.

You can see the change in Gordon Brown.  Gordon Brown in 1999 didn’t give a tinker’s cuss about climate change.  When Tony Blair was trying to put it on the G7 agenda in 2005, I was told by people he used to look out the window during the meeting, but gradually it dawned on him that it was the poor of the Earth who were going to be hardest hit by it.  By the time he had the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009 which nearly collapsed, Gordon Brown was one of the few people who tried to put that right.

The only point I’m making is that this concern for the natural world that we’re talking about now is quite new.  It’s only 10 years old, whereas concern for climate change is 25 years old.  I don’t know how that affects how you look at things.  But that is the way it has panned out.

And if we just set out to try and tackle climate change without that natural world aspect to it, we get lured down which false avenues?

Tackling climate change is very difficult politically because it involves asking people to have less of things.  Now no politician ever got elected by standing on a platform and saying his policy was that people should have less.  People only get elected by saying their policy is people should have more.  So the politics of climate change is the really difficult bit of it.

The science is not difficult.  The science is straightforward, and the science is all there, but the thing that may be impossible is the politics because you’ve got to come back to the fact that most people don’t care about anything but themselves.  It might sound outrageous to say that, and if you’re a good liberal you might think, “Oh, this is dreadful” but it is the case, and it’s what politicians know.

People are guided by their own selfish instincts.  And it is the human condition, which is the obstacle in solving climate change, because you’ve got to ask people on a very large scale to have less of everything.  What are we going to do?  Are we going to ask everybody to stop eating meat?  I mean, that may come.  That may come.  Or eating a lot less meat.  But at the moment if you look at the meat argument, what it is, it’s a recommendation.  It’s a very powerful recommendation saying if we could all eat less meat we would go an awful long way to help solving the problem of climate change, which is undoubtedly true.  But once you get into the politics of it, how are you going to enforce that?

It’s going to be a very radical world before you close down all of the butchers.  I take issue with somebody like Naomi Klein who may say that not to understand what we have to do to solve climate change is a failure of the imagination.  I’m afraid I take a darker view of the human personality.  I think it is simply the sort of selfish beings that we naturally are which stops us taking action.

I wholly applaud what you’re doing, and I think that if we can electrify the imagination in some way I’m sure that would help the political problem of climate change.  It would help more people, more voters, to see that we need to do difficult things to solve it and therefore would vote in people who would do those difficult things.  But they will be in a minority.  Human selfishness is what is going to stop climate change being solved.

Is your sense that rather than having a political narrative that we have to tackle climate change with a narrative of less, that a narrative that talks – a bit like Daniel Raven Ellison is doing with his London as a National Park City stuff – that actually a narrative that talks about ‘more’ in terms of more nature, more vibrancy, more diversity, more wildlife, has a better chance?

Absolutely yes, because there’s a great art to framing narrative.   I’m being very basic and brutal here about some of the political reality, but if it was me, even if I realised that people did have to have less, I wouldn’t go out on a platform to try and sell them less.  You’re quite right.  You would sell the less as a more, as a different more.  Of course you would.  I mean, that’s entirely right.

Teaser photo credit: Bugboy52.40 via Wikimedia.

Rob Hopkins

Rob Hopkins is a cofounder of Transition Town Totnes and Transition Network, and the author of The Transition Handbook, The Transition Companion, The Power of Just Doing Stuff, 21 Stories of Transition and most recently, From What Is to What If: unleashing the power of imagination to create the future we want. He presents the podcast series ‘From What If to What Next‘ which invites listeners to send in their “what if” questions and then explores how to make them a reality.  In 2012, he was voted one of the Independent’s top 100 environmentalists and was on Nesta and the Observer’s list of Britain’s 50 New Radicals. Hopkins has also appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Four Thought and A Good Read, in the French film phenomenon Demain and its sequel Apres Demain, and has spoken at TEDGlobal and three TEDx events. An Ashoka Fellow, Hopkins also holds a doctorate degree from the University of Plymouth and has received two honorary doctorates from the University of the West of England and the University of Namur. He is a keen gardener, a founder of New Lion Brewery in Totnes, and a director of Totnes Community Development Society, the group behind Atmos Totnes, an ambitious, community-led development project. He blogs at transtionnetwork.org and robhopkins.net and tweets at @robintransition.

Tags: Communication, sixth great extinction, the natural world