Urban prejudices, rural myths

Why we should all stop romanticising the countryside.

The countryside has become a theme park where Cool Britannia can work out its urban anxieties.

TV images of irresponsible farmers secretly burying poisoned animal carcasses near rivers serve as potent symbols of anti-social behavior. Callous hunters are now presented as the personification of moral depravity. Time and again the British public is informed that ‘these people kill animals for pleasure!’. A special issue of The Sunday Times Magazine in 1998, titled ‘Who is killing the countryside?’, pointed to the ‘killing fields’ of Cambridgeshire, where intrusive farming methods ‘are slowly stripping the landscapes of natural features and wildlife habitat’. (1)

Indeed the entire countryside now bears the stigma of evil. According to conventional wisdom, farmers have become parasites on the poor tax-paying public. Moreover, farmers are said to be using irresponsible methods which threaten to damage the food chain, with unknown consequences. A recent report by the National Consumer Council warned that intensive farming methods could lead to ‘life-threatening illnesses’, and noted that the ‘risk to consumers is incalculable’.

The farmyard is increasingly depicted as a kind of rural concentration camp, where animals kept against their will are systematically subjected to the most barbaric practices. Farmers are not only indifferent to the fate of the animals, it seems they are also unconcerned about the devastating impact that their polluted food could have on the consumer. It appears that BSE is only the tip of the iceberg, as a variety of new infectious diseases creep out of the countryside to make our lives a misery. The clear message is that British food cannot be trusted-and nor can the farming communities that produce it.

Contemporary media images of the countryside stand in sharp contrast to the past representation of rural Britain as a site of pastoral harmony. Idyllic pictures like those produced by Constable in the nineteenth century helped nourish the nostalgia of generations of urban Britons. Not so long ago, the moral order of peaceful ‘merrie England’ was favourably contrasted with the decadent chaos of urban Britain.

Urban myths about the countryside persist to this day. Indeed, if anything the worship of nature is probably more intense today than at any time this century. So it is something of a paradox to find that, precisely at a time when conserving the environment has become such a national cause, the countryside has acquired such a negative image. Or maybe there is a connection between the ascendancy of environmental consciousness and the depreciation of rural culture?

There can be little doubt that rural myths continue to excite the imagination of the British public. But it is a vision that is strikingly different from that evoked by Constable and his contemporaries. Today’s environmental consciousness demands ‘real nature’. Not, you understand, the real natural world where there is conflict and tension as well as harmony. Instead what is demanded today is a nature that is ‘untouched’ and ‘unspoilt’.

Environmental consciousness is now driven by the belief that nature must be saved or at least protected from human beings. So today’s ideal countryside is one where there are fields and trees and hills, but no people. From this standpoint, rural people and their culture represent a negation of everything that is wholesome and pure about nature. That is why the application of ‘unnatural’ agricultural technology, especially biotechnology, is increasingly perceived as an act of sacrilege.

The debate about the countryside is often wrongly perceived as a simple clash between urban and rural values. However, there are more fundamental questions at stake, about the very meaning of right and wrong. When the relationship between people and nature is discussed today, it is always humanity that bears the mark of moral inferiority. The growing obsession with the environment expresses an indictment of the human condition.

Romantics have always been critical of humanity’s attempt to fashion the world in its own image. But whereas in the past the romantic world view contained a relatively benign view of people, today it is deeply suspicious of human motives. Faith in human nature now often gives way to the conviction that it threatens the integrity of ‘real’ nature.

This shift in emphasis is clearly illustrated by the changing approach of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). Back in the nineteenth century, the RSPCA was set up to improve people’s lives through the prevention of cruelty to animals. At the time it was widely believed that such cruelty diminished humanity. Cruelty to animals was rightly condemned because it degraded the human soul.

In today’s uncertain times, however, the philosophy of the RSPCA reflects a very different agenda. Recent RSPCA statements seem to promote a view of the world where animals are at least morally equivalent to human beings. Indeed the RSPCA’s Declaration of Animal Rights appears to place a greater emphasis on the fate of animals than on people.

Through eroding the line that separates the human species from animals, the RSPCA has redefined its traditional objective. Its goal is now not so much to improve the lives of people, as to prevent human predators from subjecting animals to their cruelty. The human species no longer has a special role to play in a viewpoint that regards a man and a gerbil as equivalents.

The RSPCA’s abandonment of a human-centered conception of the world clearly expresses the temper of our times. Human action is invariably seen as problematic, and it therefore follows that the only moral course of action is to restrain people from inflicting more damage on nature. That is why discussions about farming are no longer restricted to economic or agronomic matters.

Farming practices are increasingly evaluated from the standpoint of morality - although this morality is often expressed in the language of environmental consciousness. In this moral universe, good is on the side of the organic farmer. And those who interfere with nature stand condemned for their evil ways.

The preoccupation with the danger of interfering with nature assumes a pathological character when it comes to genetically modified food. Even relatively intelligent observers believe that this technology represents a major danger to people and nature. Fact-based arguments which point to the benign uses of genetically modified food are invariably countered with the observation that ‘nobody knows’ what the ultimate result of using this technology might be. In a world where an outbreak of food poisoning tends to be routinely interpreted as a prelude to a massive epidemic, anxieties about biotechnology are inevitable.

Anxieties, obsessions and panics cannot be countered by logic or other intellectual instruments. We fear the food we eat and the water we drink because we find it more difficult to trust each other. Fourteenth-century myths about malevolent people who, under the cover of darkness, poisoned village wells are today recycled in an inflated form. Today, it is not just the odd miscreant but the producers of our food who represent a threat to our lives.

The fact that people have access to cheaper and more nourishing food than ever before is neither here nor there. A society that is scared of its own creation has no simple answer to the question ‘how do you know what the consequences of that genetically-modified tomato will be for the children of your children?’.

A loss of confidence in a human-centered moral order has led to a situation where, for many people, virtue is most likely to be found in the non-human. In a world where the person is increasingly characterised as a polluter, those who wish to appear virtuous often do so through a sad and dreary celebration of the environment. Many teachers, who find it difficult to inspire their students with a human-focused vision of what is right and what is wrong, opt for moral tales about protecting endangered species from people. Such pessimism about the human condition has led to a situation in the UK where vegetarianism is increasingly endowed with moral virtues, while meat-eating is represented as the bad habit of morally inferior people.

In this climate, it is not surprising to find that more than 50 percent of Britons are cutting their consumption of meat, while the market for vegetarian food is one of the fastest growing sectors of the food industry. Sales of vegetarian burgers have increased 139 percent in the past five years. A simplistic morality, which claims that a virtuous life can be defined by what you don’t eat, is likely to attract more adherents in the period ahead.

The characteristic feature of the culture of Cool Britannia is its misanthropy. Mutilated bodies inspire its artists. Sculptors steal body parts and television producers celebrate ‘Vile Bodies’. The theme of incest and abuse animate its writers and film makers. Unable to accept the ambiguities of human passion, Cool Britannia has become deeply suspicious of human nature itself.  And the more that it seeks to deny the creative side of the human spirit the more it will be drawn to the fantasy of real nature.

The myth of real nature is less likely to inspire those whose lives are directly linked to the land. Food cannot be produced without interfering with the environment. By their very existence, people who live and work in the countryside are continually changing their environment. In this situation it is difficult for people to regard vermin and insects as their moral equals. Their culture and way of life must of necessity reflect a human-centred moral order.

In contrast, advocates of Cool Britannia believe that the ‘privileging’ of human creativity is both arrogant and old fashioned. That is why there is no place in Cool Britannia for the people and culture of the countryside.

In the clash of values between Cool Britannia and Old Britain, the fox hunters are the easy targets. There has always been a legacy of populist resentment against the way of life of the rural gentry. But the real issues at stake cannot be reduced to fox hunting. Cool Britannia, which strives for a risk-free world, cannot comprehend the arrogance of those who believe humanity has the right to refashion the countryside in its own image. They must be evil or at the very least misguided people.

As with all simplistic world views, Cool Britannia cannot resist the temptation to dictate to others about how they should live their lives. That is why advocates of Cool Britannia positively light up as the words ‘zero tolerance’ trip off their tongues.

A sad and anxious moral order by definition runs on zero tolerance. The stigmatisation of the culture of the countryside represents not so much the affirmation of urban values but a desperate attempt by Cool Britannia to further rein in the scope for human action. The target is not just the fox hunter. Anyone who interferes with ‘real’ nature risks the opprobrium of a culture that finds it difficult to trust people. At the very least, such people must be made to understand that they are seriously in need of counselling.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent. His books include:

  • Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting Twenty-First Century Philistinism (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age (Routledge, 2003)
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  • Paranoid Parenting: Why Ignoring the Experts May Be Best for Your Child (Chicago Review Press, 2002)
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  • Culture of Fear: Risk Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation
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Visit Frank Furedi’s website

Read on:

Farmers turned park-keepers, by James Heartfield

spiked-issue: Modern life

spiked-issue: Foot-and-mouth

(1) Sunday Times Magazine, 5 April, 1998

This article was first published in Another Country, eds Michael Mosbacher and Digby Anderson, The Social Affairs Unit 1999. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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