04 January 2012

Let nature nurture the gadget generation

The countryside can reveal to children that machines should be their slaves, not their masters

By Roger Scruton | The Telegraph | 03 Jan 2012
Very few children today are brought up in the country and even children’s literature, which was once a sweet guide to Eden, now contains more gizmos and gadgets than landscapes - Let nature nurture the gadget generation
Very few children today are brought up in the country and even children’s literature, which was once a sweet guide to Eden, now contains more gizmos and gadgets than landscapes Photo: ALAMY

We’re familiar with the refrain: young people are spending far too much of their leisure time glued to screens, and therefore miss out on the rhythms and sensations of natural life. Alan Titchmarsh, the TV gardener, is only the latest person to articulate this, in an interview with Radio Times. The trouble is, we still don’t know what to do about the problem. Is there a way to reconnect people – the young, especially – to nature, and to inspire in them the feelings that have enriched the life of Alan Titchmarsh?

The world that I see from my window is a world of growing things, of grass and trees and copses, of wildlife and grazing animals – of things that impress me with their beauty and their vulnerability, and which bear the mark of human stewardship. My children share the view from this window, and also the emotions that spring from it. But their situation is exceptional. Very few children today are brought up in the country and even children’s literature, which was once a sweet guide to Eden, now contains more gizmos and gadgets than landscapes or plants.

The relation of children to nature is in fact at the heart of our environmental problems. The destruction of species and habitats, the craze for roads and rapid transport, plastic pollution, waste and spoliation – all these are threats to us. But they are threats only if people are no longer brought up to oppose them.

Children of my generation enjoyed nature walks, pond explorations, lessons in local history. We went on camping holidays and were encouraged to visit farms, to interest ourselves in the local food economy and to understand the process that puts food on the table. We were taught that the natural world was our responsibility, and that it was up to us to ensure its survival.

If you ask why the English countryside has endured through the ravages of industrialisation and population growth, then the answer lies here: it has survived because the cult of nature, inspired by our romantic art and literature, was taken up by a society of volunteers, who had learnt to appreciate their surroundings. That is why wildlife habitats, waterways and public footpaths are still maintained and why schemes for motorways, wind farms and out-of-town shopping centres cannot be imposed on the British people without encountering fierce and public-spirited opposition, as the Government is discovering over its planning guidelines. It is why the National Trust has four million members, and why there is not a precious landscape in our country that does not have a local society devoted to its protection. Our national habit of solving problems by taking charge of them is embodied in people such as Mr Titchmarsh and the Telegraph’s Robin Page. Robin Page’s Countryside Restoration Trust has encouraged people to volunteer in the defence of native species, to restore wildlife-friendly farming practices, and to set an example to children of the kind that we received from our schooling in the post-war years.

The wildlife trusts, which have been in existence for 100 years, invite children to take part in walks and visits, to clean up threatened habitats, and to learn about the delicate balance of nature on which we all depend. And these volunteer associations recruit public-spirited adults who long to pass on their knowledge and love of nature to any child prepared to listen to them.

This learning encounter is what matters most for the future of our countryside, and of course it happens more rarely than most of us would like. But still, it happens. It is true that many children today live, through no fault of their own, in a virtual reality. Their world is a no-place, which they enter through pressing magic buttons, and which they cannot change but merely observe in a state of passive excitement.

Nevertheless, children are also creatures of the earth, whose souls and bodies are attached to life-processes that they share with the rest of nature. And such children are deeply affected by the encounter with nature, when an enthusiastic adult is there to explain it to them. Take children to visit farms, send them on adventure holidays, expose them to the real world on which they depend for their nourishment, get them involved in activities that bring them into contact with wild animals, and which teach them the ways of respect – do these things and children, in my experience, will quickly remember that they are not machines but living organisms, and that the gadgets are not their masters but their slaves.

There is, however, an obstacle to that solution which is an even greater environmental threat than the video screen, and that is health and safety. None of our local farms would consider opening themselves to visits from school children, for the reason that they could never comply with the absurd regulations that govern every activity in which children are involved.

No one in his right mind would take children on an adventure holiday, now that every tiny risk has to be removed from it – and in any case, what is educational about an adventure holiday without risks? If someone were to consult me on environmental policy, therefore, I would give three pieces of advice: give a voice to the volunteers; give the children some air, and get rid of health and safety.

Roger Scruton’s 'Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet’ is published this week by Atlantic Books
© Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2012

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