Thursday, 13 October 2016

Send Robert MacFarlane to the moon

Look around you right now - what can you see?  Are you slouched on the sofa scrolling through the internet seeing what takes your fancy?  Maybe sat on a train as the countryside whizzes past outside, or hanging around the station waiting for the wrong kind of rain to blow through and stop delaying your train.  Or perhaps you're on your lunch break cramming in a sarnie and a low fat yoghurt before the phone rings again.

Wherever you are it would be nice to think you can see something natural nearby, but it seems to be less and less the case these days.  City centres, almost devoid of trees, are dominated by tarmac and glass - parks simply aren't profitable, the ones we've got are (thankfully) well protected but precious little chance of any new ones appearing.

London "greenery"
According to the Population Reference Bureau, in 1800 only 3% of the world's population lived in urban areas.  By 2008 the population was evenly split with 50% in urban areas and 50% in rural.  Current predictions state that by 2050 around 70% of the population of the world will live in an urban areas.

So why is this a problem?  Well, take a look around you - do you see nature?  Over 50% of the global population can't and if you can't see it, why should you care about it?

Yes I know lots of people from urban areas holiday in rural areas and care about it deeply, but that's likely to be an ever decreasing number.  We just don't engage with what's around us in the same way as we used to.

When I was a kid long coach or train journeys were full of activities that required us to look out of the window - how many cows could we count, first person to spot a tractor etc. These days, most kids I see in cars or on busses and trains are already plugged into a screen, often with headphones attached to complete the cocoon.
View from a train window in London

When I'm not trying to scratch a meagre living from writing I deliver training courses right across the country and I pretty much always ask if anyone has an interest in the outdoors - the hit rate is around 1 in 10 with the other 9 looking at me like I just sprouted a second head.

I've been catching up on my book reading recently by working my way through the entire Wainwright Prize shortlist (I've still got 1 1/2 books to go) and there are a couple of regular topics - books that focus on the depressingly negative impact humans are having on the planet or ones that describe the incredible restorative experience of reconnecting with nature.  "Hey guys, the outdoors is fantastic - shame we're busy wiping it all out."

I even paid a visit to the Cheltenham Literary Festival where one of this year's themes was the outdoors. I went along to a variety of interesting presentations (honestly, there is something there to suit everyone and I'll definitely be back next year) but perhaps the most impressive speaker was the person who'd been further away from nature than anyone else - Commander Chris Hadfield. He's enjoyed a perspective of the  earth that very few people achieve and he describes his experiences beautifully and movingly.

Cmdr Chris Hadfield
A humble blogger such as myself is far too smallfry to merit an interview with the great man, but I did queue for an hour to get my book signed and ask him a question.  "Did leaving the earth help you to feel more connected to it?"

His answer was instant "Absolutely yes it did" he said "Every 92 minutes you get to see the entire planet and it's incredibly beautiful.  I'd go back in a heartbeat - you should try it."

Sadly, I'm pretty sure NASA aren't about to launch a recruitment drive for middle aged women (though if they did I'd certainly give it a go) but it did get me thinking.  So far we've sent scientists and logical thinkers into space, but what would happen if we sent more creative minds up there?  People who have the ability to capture what they see and describe it in a way vivid enough to move us to do something about it?

Wordsworth's poems wouldn't have been nearly so impressive if all he'd had was a few dozen photos of the Lake District to work with - he had to be there to experience it before he could convey those experiences and emotions into literary works of art that still move people today.

We need to be moved - we need to be amazed and enthralled - we need to realise that this tiny blue and green squash ball floating around in space is all that we have and we're currently doing our level best to make it unfit for human habitation.

All of which explains why I want to send Robert MacFarlane to the moon - or Helen Mort (another supremely gifted writer) - so that they can tell us about it with words that might inspire us to give a damn and stop tearing the place apart.

No idea if Robert MacFarlane is up for it, but I asked Helen Mort and she didn't think it was an entirely bad idea - all we need to do now is get NASA on board (does anyone have their phone number?)

In the meantime I'll leave you with Major Tom himself - and if you want to be blown away by some amazing pictures of Earth, check out his book - You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes.