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Ruskin, the countryside and fruitfulness

‘Ruskin’s View’, in Cumbria: an area that he drew lots of inspiration from ‘Ruskin’s View’, in Cumbria: an area that he drew lots of inspiration from Steve Parkinson 2013

BelindaThere has been a debate raging for some time in nature conservation circles. Should nature be measured and monetised, as per the Natural Capital approach, in order to be protected; or does the very act of doing this undermine its value? By analysing and quantifying nature, do we lose sight of the intrinsic worth and emotional response it engenders in us?

As a former Civil Servant I am familiar with the Treasury Green Book which sets out how cost-benefit analysis should inform policy decisions. I had bought into this approach as a way of reconciling conflicting demands to deliver the ‘optimum’ outcome.  But at a CPRE-hosted seminar last week, organised by Neil Sinden, Lynne Roberts and The Guild of St George, I was reminded why I work to protect the countryside: it has nothing to do with cost-benefit analysis but is driven by the love I feel for beautiful landscapes.

The seminar was about John Ruskin and the relevance of his writing for the countryside and the environmental movement today. Dr Sara Atwood gave a fascinating talk about Ruskin and his relationship with nature, and the importance of the language and words we use when referring to nature. Ruskin rejected the scientific breaking down of nature, which he saw as resulting in its objectification and separation from humans – in the emptying of its mystery. He argued that, having been objectified, nature would now be viewed and valued according to its use and profit. He founded the Guild to try to counter this – to allow human-scale work in connection with nature, to allow the cultivation of a piece of land ‘beautiful, peaceful and fruitful’.

We talked about whether his writing has relevance today. Of course, we agreed that it does, but the direct relevance of his ideas to issues we are facing today surprised me – things that seem new and novel such as craftivism (see ShareAction’s campaign with the Craftivist Collective to make M&S pay the living wage through embroidered hankies), Community Supported Agriculture and the anti-capitalist movement can trace some roots back to Ruskin’s thinking.

And what of Ruskin’s relevance to CPRE? Ruskin’s ideas about preventing urban sprawl influenced the formation of the Town and Country Planning system, including Green Belts, which CPRE now works hard to maintain and strengthen. But there are other ways in which his ideas are contained within our work (even if it is unknowingly). For example, Ruskin’s influence can be seen in our work on infrastructure and the need for it to be well designed. CPRE successfully lobbied for design panels to inform the design of new roads and the HS2 railway.  This echoes Ruskin’s desire that ‘when we build, let us think that we build forever.’

In addition, CPRE will shortly be publishing a paper New Model Farming: resilience through diversity presenting some novel ideas for changes in agricultural policy to deliver a more ‘fruitful’ countryside for everyone. The paper is timely, given the referendum result means a new English agricultural policy needs to be developed, and it suggests how issues such as our lack of connection with the production of our food can be addressed.

I hope CPRE will continue to develop evidence-based arguments to persuade Government of the need to protect and enhance the countryside, but that we will also seek to tap into our emotional appreciation of the English countryside so that we can win over hearts as well as minds. I plan to think more carefully about the language I use in my work – and perhaps start a crusade for the word ‘fruitful’ to be used more in connection with the countryside!

Find out more about John Ruskin's work

By analysing and quantifying nature, do we lose sight of the intrinsic worth and emotional response it engenders in us?

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