We need to talk about Kevin


The other day I saw the start of one of the Kevin McCloud lifestyle programs “Grand Designs” (a British series which follows people building unusual/interesting houses). I was struck by his opening scene. The camera ran a close-up on his face as he walked along. He said “What do you do in Britain if you want to build a house in the wilderness?” As he spoke the camera panned back to show that he was walking across a paddock, one of hundreds of acres of such paddocks as far as you could see, of pasture for sheep (which were, lambs at foot, dotted across the grass)! It would have been impossible to find a scene less “wildernessy”.

So pause for a moment, as I did, to absorb this incongruity. He isn’t a stupid man, Mr McCloud, so what on earth did he mean? Well, what he meant was that “wilderness” is anything that isn’t in a city. It’s like the ancient Greek sense of “Barbarians” meaning anyone who wasn’t Greek living in a Greek City State (a concept shared with most other cultures, everywhere from England, to China, to Aboriginal Australia, but I digress.

Let’s look at another, related, misused word, “pristine”. Once it meant what “wilderness” once meant – an environment unmodified by humans. Then it was turned on its head, by advertising agencies who decided it had a nice sound, to use, essentially, for a landscape with grass. As in a pristine golf course, a pristine housing development, a pristine farm (see the overlap with McCloud). But then it developed to pristine beaches (with added sand, breakwaters, carefully manicured by sand graders), pristine tropical islands (totally turned into tourist resorts) pristine snow resorts (trees and boulders removed from runs, ski lodges added, artificial snow created by machines), and so on. In this most recent sense it means something like “picturesque” “chocolate boxy” “place that photographs well” or, most simply “special offer, wouldn’t you love to have a holiday here?” Or, in a general sense, places that aren’t the city. Which brings us back neatly to Mr McCloud and his sheep paddock.

In the old days in Britain “wilderness” meant basically “places where we haven’t cut the trees down yet”. They were, consequently, dangerous, and might hide wolves, bears, brigands, ghosts, evil spirits and so on. A farm definitely wasn’t wilderness, but what lay beyond its fence line was.

The Romantics adopted this kind of definition, but turned it into a positive (following the original lead, in a different sense, of Rousseau). Wilderness was where we could get back in touch with nature, get away from the artificiality, indeed evils, of the city, where we were never meant to be, and get back to our roots. Now, instead of being feared, wild places of mountain or swamp or forest were celebrated in art and literature. People went hiking in them, climbed mountains, communed where the wild things were.

And then began creating “wilderness” on their estates – artificial waterfalls, clumps of trees, piles of rocks, fake ruins of temples, and so on. You could visit “wilderness” without the bother of travelling. And paintings, by Constable for example, treated as a single landscape the trees and rivers as well as the farm cottages or watermills or labourers in a field. At the same time the population was on the move as those same labourers tossed it in for more lucrative and perhaps easier work in factories and moved their families into town. The countryside was where they had escaped from, the primitive life, and they had no interest in it. If you needed a holiday from town then you travelled to a seaside resort which was a different kind of town, with a “pristine” beach, but with all the comforts of home. All views, and behaviour, which were exported to Australia with the first convicts and settlers.

So we come, gradually, to McCloud’s definition. Both symbolically, and actually, civilised life is in the city, and all that lies beyond is untamed, and rather threatening and uncomfortable, wilderness. Which people never really see, never want to see. Holidays still involve travel to artificial resorts (either in Australia, say the Gold Coast, or more often these days, in places like Thailand or Bali), the more “pristine” the better. They don’t involve contact with actual wilderness.

Does it matter? Of course it does. If wilderness is an undifferentiated “other” world out there beyond the outer suburbs, and a golf course or resort are “pristine”, then efforts at conservation will make no sense to you. Conversely nonsense like “farmers are the only true conservationists” or “miners restore the environment after mining” or “logging is good for forests” or “you got to choose between frogs and people” will seem to make perfect sense.

If you have no idea that what are trendily called “ecosystem services” these days – clean air, water, pest control, soil conservation – can only be provided by intact functioning ecosystems (wilderness), then you will see no problem in losing them. When populist politicians from Left or Right, or unionists, or big business, call for the felling of forests, the trawling of oceans, the complete use of river water for irrigation, the construction of huge open cut mines, the opening up of the North, shooting or grazing in forests, removal of marine reserves, the culling of bats or crocodiles, the public, in blissful ignorance, will applaud and vote accordingly.

Until the public understands that farmland is an environment little less degraded than cities and suburbs, and that actual functioning wilderness is consequently only in tiny, rapidly disappearing, areas, which are being woodchipped, mined, cleared, developed as I write these words, then there is no hope of trying to develop a public, and therefore political, conservation ethos.

Perhaps I could start with Kevin McCloud. Get him to make a program.