Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s stunning photographic exhibition Earth from the Air visited my city of Norwich a few weeks ago. The aerial photographs, which depict an astounding array of natural and human-sculpted landscapes, offered a perspective on our planet unknown to previous generations. Just as the first “blue planet” satellite image of the Earth in the 1960s altered our visual orientation with respect to our world, so Arthus-Bertrand’s unique photographic narrative offers us another new place from which to view the planet.
Yet each of these examples is a platform of perspective denied previous generations, available to pre-moderns only in their imagination. The irony is that it is human ingenuity and technology that have enabled such non-natural ways of looking at our natural world.
Jules Pretty’s latest book, The Earth Only Endures , offers us another unconventional perspective from which to examine our habitation of the Earth and the ways we value and relate to it — at least unconventional to our commodity-saturated generation.
It is a perspective that pre-moderns would have largely taken for granted. Rather than a defence of nature on grounds of economics (the material benefits it offers us) or ethics (the respect we offer it), Pretty offers us an eloquent and more poetic justification of why nature matters, extolling, as he does, the emotional benefits with which landscapes, animals and places enrich our lives. These benefits we have too often neglected as our societies have developed, “progressed” and transited into the modern era.
Pretty is a distinguished academic biologist who has contributed much to our thinking about agricultural sustainability and the relationship between food, land, technology and society. In this book, his point of departure is rather different. In 16 essays that mix historical, anecdotal and analytical styles, he develops his thesis that “green places are good places”, that our sense of meaning, identity and wellbeing are inseparable from the Earth and its living creatures. Our survival depends on recapturing these ruptured relationships.
For such an impressionistic and poetic account of our human predicament, Pretty’s world-view seems surprisingly secular and materialist. In seeking a return to a more cyclical notion of time and in denouncing that old Enlightenment chimera of progress (a myth that by surviving the 20th century has shown itself to be remarkably resilient), Pretty’s views accord with many traditional cultures and with many religious traditions.
Many of us can surely identify with those moments of peace and tranquillity that he describes when our sense of time is suspended and replaced by a deep sense of belonging in a singular, interrelated universe. These are transcending experiences of nature that many of us can describe only in supernatural or mystical terms.
It is this lack of the transcendent — what we might call the spiritual — that naggingly seems absent in Pretty’s defence of our relationship with nature.
Maybe he is a “bright” — that awkward-sounding noun coined by Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell in 2003 to describe a naturalistic Dawkinsian world-view that excludes the supernatural and mystical. Maybe what we see is all that truly exists, and hence all that truly matters.
But if this is so, then all the emotions that Pretty allows nature to release in us amount to so only much inoculation against the brutal reality of a self-contained universe and a self-referential humanity.
There is much in The Earth Only Endures to applaud and to assimilate into the way we moderns live, think, relax and meditate. We should appreciate the healing role of green spaces, the therapy of wild places, and the value of endowed landscapes and the stories we tell about them. We should learn from cultures better attuned to their local environments and which value relationships over consumption. We need more history and more geography; we need to be situated people.
And Pretty, correctly, is not one of those determinists who sees our fate as scripted, either through our genes, in political ideology or by computer model predictions of the future. He is optimistic that by reconnecting with nature, consuming less and becoming more native to places, the future can indeed be brighter.
This is an optimism that I share. It’s just that I believe
we are more likely to secure these transitions through difficult times and across resistant territory if we have a sense of the transcendent as well as of the immanent.
Mike Hulme is professor of environmental sciences, University
of East Anglia.
The Earth Only Endures: On Reconnecting with Nature and our Place in it
Author - Jules Pretty
Publisher - Earthscan
Pages - 4
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 97818440743