RDN and Richard Mabey

Posted by RDN under Mind & body on 19 April 2014

Richard Mabey writes in the Slightly Foxed Quarterly (Issue 41, Spring 2014) about Vole, the pioneering environmental magazine which Richard Boston started and edited in the 1970s (the latter, I also did, much less well, for its last few issues). I get a bit of a mention…. …. as having been one of the regular writers on the paper: amongst Jeremy Bugler, Gillian Darley, and others, there is

“…. even Richard D North, who before his mysterious metamorphosis into the intellectual voice of environmental contrarianism, was the cheerfully anarchic contributor of a bicycling column entitled Volocipede…”.

A bit further on he says that a charitable view might have it that we all evolve and can be useful, in different ways:

“Even Richard North’s transmutation [might be seen] as benign, by providing developmentally useful provocation for those who disagreed with him.”

Years ago, Richard Mabey and I were quite close and I certainly hope that we can meet again. For now, and in case his stated view of me is common or sticks, here are a word or two about my progress from proto-green to what I am now.

I was a 20-something, and then a 30-something, wannabe writer with too big an urge to write and too little to say. I was (I still am) an ex-public schoolboy; a bit boho; a bit arty; a bit right-wing; a bit libertarian; a bit dreamy; quite practical; too adept at playing social games, but ripped-up by them too; a bit Puritan, and bit Cavalier. I was looking for authenticity, and at times found it in Victorian ruins; the landscape; bicycles. I was no Tory and no Labourite. Greenery had its charms, and so did Californian Shelter-style  hippiedom. I liked Andy Williams more than Bob Dylan.

Then I was mugged by reality, not least when writing a column on rubbish for Vole. I realised I loved the waste industry. (Later, I would find I loved the chemicals, pharmaceuticals, nuclear, farming, fur and fashion industries.) (By the way, my Real Cost – published in 1986, researched in maybe 1983 – marks the cusp, of the change of mind: it is caught between luddism and progressivism.)

I have recounted in my Life On a Modern Planet (1995) and in my Scrap the BBC! (2009), how I became, by the mid-1980s, pretty sceptical of the intellectual, factual, spiritual and emotional claims of what one might think of as the Green Paradigm. My change of mind was not mysterious, though it was bumpy. It felt like, as I lived it, a process of enrichment in which I understood that industrial capitalism had somehow to be fitted in with the older, poetic, love of the rural (and the primitive). It was bound to be a complex accommodation. But it was an unavoidable one. Actually, I thought it could be very fruitful.

When I joined the fledgling Independent in 1986 as its environment correspondent, my position was made clear and was – with some mild enthusiasm from the senior founders, I recall – accepted as being well-informed, well-mannered, committed and journalistically lively.

So, yes, I evolved and changed my view. And yes, I was interested in confronting what I took to be shibboleths. Yes, I admit to being prone to a larkiness of style which can look like condescension. And yes, I liked an argumentative scrap. But I do rather resent the idea that I was a contrarian. Firstly, actually my positions were moderate. Secondly, they were not devised merely or mostly as a reaction to the green mainstream, or any other. (I was sometimes corralled as a “contrarian” with Wilfred Beckerman and Matt Ridley, and that’s good company. But I am not as robust as – for instance – Matt Ridley, nor ever have been.)

The process of change that I undertook was fairly simple. I had been a fan of Ivan Illich in the early 1970s, and very interested in his take on radicalism, institutions, and development thinking. I was also nervously thrilled and fascinated by Hermann Khan, and what become thought of as American Cornucopianism. I had been reading The Economist since the late 1960s, and was strongly influenced by it and by Norman MacRae. I think what happened that was that as a young man I had slipped almost unconsciously into what one might call Ruskin-Wordsworth English Romanticism and was wrestling with the accommodation between that sort of position and a growing understanding that entrepreneurship, industry and capitalism had to be celebrated as being the only plausible solution to poverty everywhere in the world (and much else). I had never thought socialism might be the answer. I did for a while think an Illichian Green thing might be. I came to see that full-on greenery was even more of an illusion and delusion than socialism. I was never an anarchist, though certainly I was richly conflicted and liked a party; I had a problem with authority, but knew I was no republican. I knew that I loved the British Constitution.

I have laboured long and quite hard to posit alternatives to the Green Paradigm. And more recently I have tried to explain how right-wing thinking is richer than either socialist or green thought.

Now, when Richard Mabey says my work might be “developmentally useful”, it is possible that he thinks my readers will become better at being thoroughly green or socialist as a result of heading off my arguments. (That is my least preferred outcome.) Or he might mean that greens and lefties might learn to refine their positions to thoroughly incorporate the best of what I have to say. (Not an awful outcome.) I hope that he means that my green or socialist opponents might learn from me, and have the scales fall from their eyes. (Halleluiah!)

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