Ruskin and the environment

Jul 21, 2016 | Neil Sinden

Earlier this week we experienced the hottest day of the year so far, after the hottest June on record globally.  The outside temperature was a stupefying 30 degrees in the shade and I was pleased not to be sweltering in the middle of a city.    But we were delighted to be in London last week for what is the latest in the series of ‘consultation seminars’ we have organised to inform our work here at Ruskin Land.

The event was kindly hosted by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) – my former employers – at their offices near the Tate Modern in vibrant Bankside.  In attendance were more than thirty of the country’s leading environmental campaigners and arts organisers who were invited to consider the relevance of John Ruskin’s ideas for their work today.     Among them were representatives of the Woodland Trust, Open Spaces Society, Sylva Foundation, the Big Draw,  the Black Environment Network and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings which was established in 1877 by William Morris, one of Ruskin’s earliest and most illustrious followers.  Ruskin was also an important influence on the creation of the CPRE – as shown in the excellent new book 22 Ideas That Saved The English Countryside – as well as the Open Spaces Society, so it was especially good to reconnect with those groups.

The highlight of the event was a stimulating presentation by Dr Sara Atwood, a Ruskin scholar from the US.  Her talk, entitled The Secret of Sympathy, explored our use of language to describe nature and how this profoundly affects our relationship with it.   Developing some of the themes in her lecture ‘The Earth Veil’ published by the Guild of St George last year, she talked about Ruskin’s interest in close observation of the natural world as a key to understanding and the way in which he saw nature as a whole, a set of interconnections, rather than in a compartmentalised, fragmented way.

Sara argued that “part of the problem we face in dealing with environmental challenges is our dependence on the language of science, technology and business.  After all, language doesn’t just express our thoughts, it helps to shape them. ”  Using abstract, narrowly scientific terms such as natural capital, ecosystems services and biodiversity, she claimed, detracts from our personal and emotional experience of nature and thereby alters our relationship with it.    While Ruskin has been described by some as a ‘proto-environmentalist’, Sara said he would have hated that clunky term for similar reasons.

A fascinating discussion followed about how today’s environmentalists (for want of a better term!) should fashion a new way of talking about their work and why it is so important for our wellbeing, as part of the natural world.  As with earlier seminars the discussion will help us develop our plans for working with the artists and others to connect with all communities and bring Ruskin’s ideas to life.


This may seem a long way from the practical day to day job of caring for the farmland and woodlands here in the Wyre Forest.  Building on its track record over the past decade, the  Wyre Community Land Trust, its staff and the many volunteers involved, is well placed though to talk about its work in ways which communicate a deeper and more meaningful relationship with the natural world. This is what the CLT has been trying to do in a small way with the public events we have been organising this year, including the Butterfly Picnic which takes place this coming weekend  And it is what we hope to explore more fully here at Ruskin Land in the coming years.