Keith Thomas published Man and the Natural World in 1983. It was based on a series of lectures by the famous English historian George Macaulay Trevelyan (1876-1962), an upper class outdoorsman who was sickened by how the Industrial Revolution was mutilating the natural world, and ruining a precious spiritual resource.
The subject of the book was how the relationship between humans and the natural world changed in England between 1500 and 1800, and Thomas documented these changes with fascinating thoroughness. Prior to 1500 was the medieval era, a time of endless turbulence, bizarre superstition, and devastating plagues. After 1800 came the hurricane of the Industrial Revolution, the world wars, the brief era of cheap and abundant energy, and the tsunami of hysterical insatiable consumers.
The period between 1500 and 1800 was also a time of explosive change. Europe was being flooded with vast wealth and cheap food from a network of new colonies. The rising age of modern science was reshaping our perception of the world, leaving obsolete religious beliefs in its dust. Population was exploding, the human realm was spreading across the countryside, and England was speeding toward the elimination of nature. It was three centuries of growth that enriched the greedy, exploited the powerless, and tormented tender-hearted nature lovers.
When Trevelyan delivered his lectures prior to World War II, he was deeply pessimistic about the future. He fantasized that before 1800, the works of man had only added to the beauty of nature. After 1800, the process reversed course and became rapid destruction. His lectures tried to present the era between 1500 and 1800 as a time of awakening, of gradually spreading changes in awareness. Unfortunately, the improvements that he noted did not change the course of civilization.
In 1500, the English commonly treated animals in a brutal manner — not because they were jerks, but because the notion of being respectful of animals had never occurred to them. The church had programmed society to believe that humans inhabited the realm between angels and brutes, and that nature was created for the use of man. So, the lords kicked the peasants, and the peasants kicked the critters. Horses were often worked to death, and then pushed into the ditch to feed the ravenous packs of mangy dogs.
Thomas presented a theory that the miserable loneliness of growing urbanization created a pet fad, and that close contact with submissive doggies and kitties showed us that animals were not dumb lumps of walking meat. Because of this new sensitivity, many people became more aware of animal abuse. This led to the creation of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824. Some came to believe that the killing of any animal was wrong, and these became vegetarians. Thomas was sympathetic with the fair treatment of animals, but he was taken aback by those who referred to the deliberate systematic extermination of wolves as a holocaust.
Most of the book examined the relationship between humans and animals. But Thomas also discussed the countryside, the green world. Prior to 1500, forests were extensive. They were home to scary animals and mean outlaws. Deforestation was seen as beneficial, converting wild chaos into civilized order. Both farmers and industry rapidly gobbled up the trees, and as the forests vanished, people began to regard the survivors with increasing fondness. Laws were passed to protect them, and to encourage tree planting.
In 1500, cities were the hip place to be. By 1800, they had become filthy, crowded, and creepy. Urban living inspired a growing number of people to escape to the countryside whenever possible. Over the years, a trickle turned into a torrent, and the nobility became alarmed that their country estates would soon be surrounded by a rash of tourist traps. They opposed new railroads in their homelands.
Wildness became trendy. Geometric gardens were out, as were identical trees planted in straight lines. Weeds were in. Landscaping that resembled wild nature was totally cool. Artists got rich painting gorgeous panoramas showing little or no evidence of human society.
Trevelyan’s pessimism was sane and reasonable. In the years following 1800, nature has taken her worst pounding ever, and animal misery has reached breathtaking new heights. There has never been a generation more isolated from the natural world than our own. With his book, Thomas gave us a revealing glimpse into a forgotten era when life was filled with animals, a time when civilization was muscle powered, and every breath was sweetened with the intoxicating aroma of steaming fresh manure.
Today we are suffering in the final decades of a tragic experiment with fossil powered civilization. Sane people eagerly await the year when the lights go out, the cell phones die, the machines go silent, and we return to a muscle powered way of life — the end of a long, miserable, stunningly destructive war on life, and the beginning of a much needed healing process. The future will be filled with animals once again. We will have no choice but to live in a radically different manner. Many horrid habits will be impossible to continue.
This book is a feast of material for creative people who are busy imagining the new stories and visions that will inspire the herd to wander in healthier directions. It provides us with perspective on how trends have flailed and floundered over the centuries, and it helpfully marks numerous approaches as failures. Attempts to reform civilization have enjoyed little success — its swift currents always sweep away intelligent ideas.
Obviously, the only “solution” for the problem of industrial civilization is to summon a priest to perform the last rites, and then take it off life support. We have been stumbling and staggering for centuries, lost and confused. Many powerful new stories will be needed to help us remember what it means to be human, to remember the long-forgotten treasure of wildness and freedom, to remember what it feels like to be fully alive. Go for it!
Thomas, Keith, Man and the Natural World, Pantheon Books, New York, 1983.