The Earth Only Endures: On Reconnecting with Nature and Our Place in It Jules Pretty Earthscan, UK, 2007, £18.99
‘EVIDENCE-BASED DESIGN’ is the current mantra of healthcare professionals. It is used by those involved in commissioning or designing new hospital buildings, and in short means that if you can prove to the bean-counters that more natural light, access to fresh air and views of gardens contribute to shorter bed-
occupation times – because people feel better about themselves and heal more quickly – then you may get the money to create a decent building set in attractive grounds rather than another deep-plan tower block surrounded by car-parking.
Jules Pretty doesn’t employ the term, thankfully, and while his arguments run along similar lines, his understanding of why and how we need to relate to natural settings and rhythms is both richer and more persuasively argued. The opening assertion in this book is that contact with the natural world offers emotional benefits which are no longer forthcoming in a modern consumer society. As an eminent academic biologist and field researcher, Pretty has travelled far enough and widely enough over the years to understand how these issues arise in every kind of topographical and cultural context. This knowledge underpins his case that a closeness to the natural world – however one qualifies this term – invariably means that people live more sustainable lifestyles in the long term, even when abetted by the use of modern technologies. These patterns of life and economy are obviously much less damaging to the planet than the profligate and increasingly destructive lifestyles led by those in the developed world, detached from Nature and its connections to the primary relations of habitat, food production and domestic economy.
This is a familiar story, but few other books manage to gather together so much compelling evidence in one place to support this idea. What is more, Pretty comes across as a reflective, even self-doubting traveller at times, which means that one is more inclined to trust his arguments than if they were made by an armchair environmentalist full of fixed ideas and unwilling to listen to counter-arguments. His account of a visit to discover the thriving ecology of Chernobyl – post catastrophe – is a case in point. Few realise just how successfully ecological diversity re-
established itself in so short a time after the toxic hell of the explosion of the nuclear reactor there, which put all of Europe (and beyond) in fear of irrevocable planetary damage. Nature quickly got back to where it had been before, possibly with even greater richness and variety. This is not to be blasé about the damage wrought by humans, but to make the point that Nature has its own formidable resources, too – hence the book’s optimistic title.
Many of the chapters return to the philosophical issue of human exceptionalism: an underlying motif of Pretty’s book. Are we still part of Nature, or has evolution given humanity a unique place in the life of the planet, with the power to destroy now more developed than the power to create a new rapprochement with the natural world? While it may be true that the difference between humans and chimpanzees is genetically small, that difference gives the human world a veto of life and death over everything else on Earth. The author’s urgent entreaty to “renew our attachment to nature” is clearly right, but the forces at work against this attachment are formidable, particularly since global capitalism now seems to have a manifest destiny of its own, immune to human control. What time-scale is required to re-
connect us to Nature, and through what kind of social or political programmes and agencies is this best achieved?
The Earth Only Endures gains strength from being a collection of discrete and closely argued essays, rather than a single thesis drawn out to fill the pages. Different chapters deal with aspects of our relationship with animals; with the current interest in re-wilding large parts of formerly exhausted landscapes; with the story-telling traditions associated with a life more connected to the natural world; and with the many lessons to be learned from extant hunter-gatherer cultures across the world. Pretty believes that a few killer-predators (other than car drivers) let loose in the suburbs of the developed world would concentrate people’s minds wonderfully on their place in the order of things. And why not?
Ken Worpole is writing a book about the modern hospice movement. www.worpole.net