Embarrassed about love: a short analysis of Michael Gove’s ‘Green Brexit’ speech

Here’s the presentation I gave at the Nature Connections 2018 conference at Derby University on 20th June.

I ended the talk with a minute silence “for the Swifts, and the seabirds of Shetland, and the insects and all the other species whose numbers are in such massive and catastrophic decline” – a powerful moment for many in the room.

Embarrassed about love

With this presentation I want to explore how it is that we are living in a culture where politicians and policymakers are unwilling to talk about valuing the natural world for its own sake and on its own terms – more than that, there is an embarrassment about expressing love and reverence for nature. To think about where has this come from and what can we do about it I draw on cognitive and ecolinguistics and ecopsychology.

Economic and instrumental frames about nature dominate political discourse, as various scholars have observed (Goatly 2007; Lakoff 2010; Stibbe 2015). We are all familiar with terms signifying this such as ecosystem services, natural capital, natural resources, environmental assets, livestock. This language both reflects and promotes an anthropocentric ethic that assigns value to the natural world for the services it provides, for its role as a resource to be controlled and exploited, which happens largely through private ownership (Goatly 2007). Sometimes the intrinsic value of nature is acknowledged, its wonder and beauty celebrated, and the needs of other species are recognised and respected, but this is rare enough for it to come as a surprise when it does.

After his appointment to environment secretary, which the then Energy & Climate Change secretary Ed Davey characterised as “like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse”, Michael Gove stunned environmentalists by making speeches where he not only called himself an environmentalist, but also used phrases such as, I care about the fate of fellow animals and my commitment to the environment springs from the heart. He refers to trees as a source of beauty and wonder maintaining that we need beauty in our lives. The dismay and anger at his appointment turned to astonishment not just because this was the man with a terrible track record on green issues but because we are much more used to the absence of expressions of emotional connection in political discourse.

I focus on Gove’s speech The Unfrozen Moment – Delivering a Green Brexit’ because it contains conflicts and tensions that exemplify for me the core problem of our culture: which is that there is both acceptance and denial (or disavowal) of the intrinsic value of the natural world, of other species.

We can see that even as Gove argues that to be fully human means to recognise our dependency and connectedness with the natural world, a world that we share with other species, as illustrated with these extracts:

We can never be fully ourselves unless we recognise that we are shaped by forces, biological and evolutionary, that tie us to this earth that we share with others even as we dream of capturing the heavens.

protect the species we share this planet with

Gove is also presenting an economic, instrumental and anthropocentric perspective: trees are a source of beauty and wonder for us and have instrumental value as a carbon sink. Fish are renewable resources, stocks; and environmental degradation is a threat to our future prosperity and security.

Because trees are not only a source of beauty and wonder, living evidence of our investment for future generations, they are also a carbon sink, a way to manage flood risk and a habitat for precious species.

we’ve run down the renewable resources – from fish to soil – on which our future depends.

Now, it is because environmental degradation is such a threat to future prosperity and security that I deeply regret President Trump’s approach

Gove acknowledges We’ve allowed extractive and exploitative political systems to lay waste to natural resources, endangering the future health of the whole world but the proper stewardship that he calls for is ultimately in service of us. The loss he laments matters because these are resources on which our lives and our future depends.

And at the same time, across the globe, we’ve seen climate change threaten both fragile natural habitats and developing human societies, we’ve allowed extractive and exploitative political systems to lay waste to natural resources and we’ve placed species of plants and animals in new and mortal danger while gambling with the future health of the whole world.

Indeed, ultimately, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and the energy which powers enterprise, are all threatened if we do not practice proper stewardship of the planet.

Gove has talked about being haunted by images of damage to oceans by plastic in Blue Planet and he also tweeted a recommendation for Mark Cockers’ book Our place. In the Green Brexit speech he describes being motivated by both reason and emotion:

But I am also an environmentalist because of hard calculation as well as the promptings of the heart. We need to maintain and enhance the natural world around us, or find ourselves facing disaster.

In his use of the term ‘hard’, we can infer that Gove associates his feelings of care and beauty and inspiration with softness. The heart is soft, the rational mind is hard.

Gove also makes a distinction between his emotional attachment to natural beauty and feelings for nature that spring from sentiment:

Now I have been frank before when talking about animal welfare and my feelings for landscape, wildlife and natural beauty spring from sentiment. Growing up between the North Sea and the Cairngorms, spending weekends in the hills and weekdays with my head in Wordsworth and Hardy, Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Edward Thomas, I grew up with an emotional attachment to natural beauty which inevitably influences my feelings towards questions on everything from architecture to ivory.

and science, as has been observed (Richardson 2018). Actually it is not just a distinction but a relationship of opposition, as signified by the first word ‘but’:

But while natural beauty moves us deep in our souls, environmental policy also needs to be rooted, always and everywhere, in science. There will, of course, always be a need to make judgements about the best method of achieving environmental goals, in ways which improve rather than upend people’s lives. But it is only by adherence to scientific method, through recognising the vital importance of testing and re-testing hypotheses in the face of new evidence and through scrupulous adherence to empirical reasoning, that we can be certain our policies are the best contemporary answer to the eternal questions of how we live well and honour the world we have inherited and must pass on enhanced to our children.

Science is hard-headed. We must think ahead ‘coolly and rationally’, he argues:

Fisheries management should always be guided by science – by a hard-headed assessment of which species and stocks can be fished

And it’s absolutely vital that we think ahead, coolly and rationally, to do what we can to both move towards greener energy generation and adapt to changing temperatures.

So what we can see here is an association of feelings and emotions, which are located in the heart, with softness and hotness; and rationality, empirical reasoning and science with coolness and hardness. In English the conceptual metaphor WARM IS GOOD tends to be dominant but here it is coolness that is good. Hardness is good. It is the classic reason-emotion dualism, the roots of which go back to the Scientific Revolution and the philosophy of René Descartes, when as the philosopher Mary Midgley (2003) describes, the mind was disembodied in a “violent separation of mind from body” and emotion came to seen as soft and “beneath the dignity of scientists”.

Gove refers to environmental organisations and their capacity to move hearts. He calls them idealistic whilst those of us in powerhave to live in a world of compromise and deal-making.

Environmental organisations – from WWF to the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts to Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth – enjoy memberships in the tens and hundreds of thousands, and also the support of millions more and a capacity to move hearts more powerful than any other set of institutions in our civil society.

And their campaigning energy and idealism, while occasionally uncomfortable for those of us in power, who have to live in a world of compromise and deal-making, is vital to ensuring we continue to make progress in protecting and enhancing our environment.

Emotionally-driven idealism vs reality.

But it is this world of deal-making that has allowed the extractive and exploitative political systems to lay waste to natural resources that he refers to, endangering the health of humans and other species.

However, look at this – Gove is talking about Trump taking the USA out of the Paris Agreement. He says, I sincerely hope the recent indications that the President may be minded to think again do signal a change of heart

Now, it is because environmental degradation is such a threat to future prosperity and security that I deeply regret President Trump’s approach towards the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. I sincerely hope the recent indications that the President may be minded to think again do signal a change of heart.

Here the heart is the main driver.

So we can see there are inconsistencies and tensions in Gove’s conceptualisation of the role of emotion in environmental decision-making. This tension, I suggest, is present to some degree in all of us.

Gove, quoting Byron, says our approach should be to love not man the less but nature more. This phrase presupposes separation between humans and nature.

Our approach should therefore be, in Byron’s words, to love not man the less but nature more.

But it would appear that we do love nature in this country. As Mark Cocker (2018) points out, we have by far the highest membership of wildlife conservation organisations in Europe. And yet we have the worst statistics for decline of species. Tree cover is well below the European average (13% compared to 37%). We care, and yet the destruction continues to get worse. Perhaps we don’t care enough. Giving money to charities and signing petitions can serve to make us feel like we are doing something, absolving us from having to do anything more substantial – a form of coping strategy, a displaced commitment. Or perhaps in this ‘real world’ of compromise and deal-making, love of nature loses out to love of material wealth, status and power.

When people do express their biophilia, such as is happening in Sheffield with the tree protests, this ‘power of ferocious love’ as Naomi Klein (2014, p342)calls it, can seriously unnerve other people. The passion may be perceived as threatening and met with aggression. Sheffield City Council wants to jail its citizens over it. We appear to have a very uneasy relationship with strong emotions about nature.

This tempering and qualifying of emotional connection with rational hard-headedness, the fear of appearing soft, of not living in the real world. What is the real world?

In a study in the 70s with a representative sample of the San Francisco Bay area 82% reported being deeply moved by the beauty of nature. Such experiences are a type of peak experience, and studies have found that peak experiences are often not revealed by individuals to other people because they regard it as a special and intimate personal experience, and fear it might be devalued or put down (Davis et al, 1991). I have found evidence of this in my own research (Andrews, 2017). This fear is perhaps connected to findings of recent Common Cause (2016) research that people tend to under-estimate the extent to which self-transcendence values, which include appreciation of and care for nature, are deemed important by others, despite most people holding these values (74% of respondents regarded these values as important but 77% of respondents thought others didn’t’). The 1970s is a long time ago and a lot has changed in society since then. But perhaps people are still having these experiences and feelings but think that others are not, so they don’t talk about it. And not talking about it reinforces the belief that others don’t feel the same way.

So where does all this lead. It would be interesting to find out how common peak experiences in nature are, how widespread an appreciation of the intrinsic value of other forms of life. Perhaps we find that these are more common than is thought, making the idea of sharing them more acceptable, less risky. And in sharing experiences and feelings we create new social norms where other living beings are respected as subjects, not objects, with needs, intents and purposes of their own. This subject-subject relation opens us up to feelings of pain and grief at the harm we are causing these beings, at the loss that is happening. As an ecopsychologist and climate psychologist I think this question is incredibly important: how can we as a society honour feelings of pain and grief, and how can we mourn the loss publicly, collectively?

It is with these new social norms that we discover what it means to be fully human because we regain not just our birthright of connection to other living beings but we also regain connection to all of our selves, including to our emotional selves.

(c) Nadine Andrews

With the final minute I invite us to hold a minute silence. We’ve had a minute silence recently for Grenfell and various terrorist attacks. This is an invitation to have a minute silence now for the Swifts, and the seabirds of Shetland, and the insects and all the other species whose numbers are in such massive and catastrophic decline.

Thank you.

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3 Responses to Embarrassed about love: a short analysis of Michael Gove’s ‘Green Brexit’ speech

  1. asimong says:

    Nadine, I love your approach to these matters. For me, it represents a brave attempt to have a window into our hearts acknowledged, welcomed even, within the academic community. I have the sense that your perspective is a vital part of any wholesome way into the future. Just saying. I don’t know what I can do to help!

  2. Pingback: Conflicted about emotions: ecological grief, love and truth | cultureprobe

  3. Pingback: From subject-object to subject-subject: new social norms to avert ecological catastrophe | cultureprobe

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