The psyCommoner: Nature vs. Civilization – Thomas Allan

July 15, 2017 § Leave a comment


  1. The Wild

The Summer solstice marks the longest day of the year. The days are long and hopefully full of sunshine. And around about now it’s common to see newspaper and magazine articles celebrating the wild: wild swimming, wild gardening, wild food, wild camping and wild running.

These representations of a variety of human activities are usually set against backdrops of rare spaces of seemingly scarce natural beauty. Ancient woodlands, beautiful lakes, wooded dingles cut into hills, meadows with spectacular spreads of wildflowers where Owls and Kestrels hunt, hidden beaches and lost lanes. Fertile landscapes that awaken our senses, helping us get back in touch with our selves, with nature and leave the real world behind.

In fact, according to Community Psychologist and researcher Carl Walker, much research demonstrates the curative impact of green and waterside environments on mood, where regular use of the natural environment reduces the risk of mental ill health (1).

The wild, or ‘Nature’, however, is often represented as much by what it is not, as it is by what it is. It is places of natural beauty: countryside and rivers, mountains and creeks. It is not production or social organization: towns, roads, cars, offices, airports or factories. One, the profane, is ‘expressive of concepts of unfreedom’ (2); mundane individual and societal problems. The other, the sacred, carries ‘a promising but unspecified sense of an alternative’ (3). Manufactured objects, landscapes and the negotiation of social relations are not part of ‘nature’.

Nature, as noted by Environmental Historian William Cronon, is here seen as ‘an island in the polluted sea of urban-industrial modernity, the one place we can turn for escape from our own too-muchness’. Seen in this way, he continues, ‘wilderness presents itself as the best antidote to our human selves, a refuge we must somehow recover if we hope to save the planet.’ (4)

Still, it is reasonable to suppose that our capacity to access ‘nature’ depends on social opportunity and a range of contingencies embedded in everyday socio-economic life. You’ll need physical health, mobility, cognition and psychosocial wellbeing (or otherwise access to social support). You’ll need communication such as a phone, and affordable transportation such as a car, bike or public transport. You’ll need entitlement to time (paid or unpaid leave), money, food, clothes and equipment. You’ll probably want somewhere to stay and perhaps some company.

The point being that in our familiar notions of work, production and value, ‘nature’ is produced and repackaged as ‘leisure’ or ‘recreation’, apparently free time spent away from our work organizations, career building, formal education and domestic households. Yet this is a separation that ignores the economic and social forces that capture free time from an individual and sell it back to them as a commodity (5). Today, zero hours contracts, endless workplace restructures, austerity, reduced wages and social welfare cuts, anxieties, insecurity and a crisis in public health have left many without the means to traverse ‘real life’ into ‘nature’.

And if you are serious about leaving it all behind? You will need to consider other issues of accessing nature. According to an article in the Guardian, the UK has 60m acres of land; two thirds of which are privately owned by 0.36 percent of the population. The project of living within ‘nature’ is subject to the rules and exclusions of private or state land ownership and management. Historically, Simon Fairlie describes how the enclosure and privatization of hitherto common land in the UK has over a number of centuries led to extreme levels of land ownership concentration, depriving most British people of access to agricultural land (6).

Seen from another perspective, many decades living afloat on the Thames in London led to author, activist and group therapist Denis Postle’s extended experience of the wild. For Postle, ‘Wilderness’ serves as an integrating notion for the split between ‘nature’ and ‘civilisation’ (7):

Intimate appreciation of the dynamics of this wilderness led to the realisation that the city surrounding it and urban civilisation in general was also a wilderness and that the split between ‘nature’ and ‘civilisation’ was a major category error. Cities, the Internet, aircraft, washbasins and supermarkets are also ‘nature’.”

Here, nature and civilization are two inseparable spheres in symbiotic relationship. One may be described as the natural environment, not altered by human intervention. The other perhaps analogous to what Critical Geographer Noel Castree and colleagues have termed ‘social nature’, referring to how societies physically re-constitute nature ‘intentionally and unintentionally’ to the point it becomes institutionalised and ‘internalised into social processes’ (8).

The natural environment: climate, weather and natural resources, impacts social nature: human survival and economic activity. The ‘economy’, originally conceived of as household management and by extension the commons, relies on nature in the form of resource extraction to produce commodities that we buy and sell in private markets for profit or use; while traditionally the state has harnessed ‘nature’ through investing in infrastructure such as roads, bridges, airports, railways, buildings and power stations to facilitate expansion, employment, taxation and growth. The idea of what became known as ‘The Welfare State’ developed in the 20th Century as a form of arrangement between market and state to provide for human need, giving the state new responsibilities for the social and economic welfare of citizens.

In summary, different forms of production and social organization for survival are not unique to the modern era. But the endless drive for market strategies of growth in the era of industrialization has fundamentally transformed human geography such as through extensive urbanization and agricultural land conversion, disturbing the ‘metabolic interaction’ between humans and the earth. In myriad ways, one ‘nature’ has modified, displaced or diminished the Other.

Interestingly, it was from within this false dichotomy and the ‘Great Transformation’ that followed that is said to have given rise to the subjective experience of the poet John Clare.

  1. John Clare

    NPG 1469; John Clare by William Hilton

    by William Hilton, oil on canvas, 1820

John Clare (1793-1864) has been described as ‘known for his celebratory representations of the English countryside and his lamentation of its disruption’. He is said to have written powerfully ‘of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self’ (9).

Clare was from the village of Helpston, Peterborough; a village affected savagely by enclosures. According to author, economist and corporate policy advisor Fred Harrison, Helpston and its inhabitants were subjected to a social reconfiguration designed to maximise the rent of landlords; a transformation that crushed the customs and the values of people who had innovated throughout the ages by cultivating and tending nature until it became fit for human habitation (10).

These values and customs were significant, as Clare’s formative years were shaped by his personal relationships, situated ‘within the interplay of a topography of spatial openness and the aesthetics of his temporal awareness…his aesthetic senses tuned to the rhythm of the seasons’ (11):

In Clare’s world, there was an intimate relationship between society and environment. The open field system fostered a sense of community. You could talk to the man working the next strip; you could see the shared ditches. You could tell the time of the day by the movement of the common flock and herd from the village pound out to the heath and back. Once a year everyone would gather to ‘beat the bounds’, that is to say, walk around the perimeter of the parish as a way of marking its boundaries. The fields spread out in a wheel with the village as its hub…”

The customs and values of the commoner would not withstand the onslaught. The culture of economic improvement, a feature of John Locke’s political theory and English property law was cited as justification for the changes that followed. Court decisions on property rights followed in favour of exclusive private property rights and the dispossession of small producers (12).

Guided by the doctrine of classical liberalism, markets were recast as self-regulating institutions designed to fit humans supposed natural tendencies to maximise profit and exchange. Social progress was seen as best achieved by the unbridled power of self-regulating markets and self-interested entrepreneurs.

The rise of market norms and relations were ‘marked by ongoing attempts to commodify both labour and the biophysical environment’ (13) – what Karl Polanyi later termed ‘fictitious commodities’ (14) – and subject them to the demands of the market. Rather than understanding economic relations as embedded in society, and by extension between society and the natural world, human-environment relations became inverted as social relations were reengineered to serve the needs of self-regulating markets.

Insisting on markets as self-regulating institutions, free market ideology became the handmaiden of the new industrial interests (15):

Promoted as ‘progress’ the fields were enclosed and the circular configuration ripped apart in favour of a linear landscape. Where people once roamed, now there were restrictions. Families which for years had traversed the landscape as free people were now outlawed from the places that were cherished by their forefathers. But this was more than an exercise in redefining property rights and economic practices. Mind and bodies were compressed in an unrelenting process of confinement.” (16)

Insightfully, Harrison points out how Clare was recognised as a poet who ‘registered the rupture at the interface between the commons of people’s culture, and the commons of nature (resources that they shared)’ (17). Within these ruptures, Claire suffered from a number of physical and mental health problems that, according to Harrison, would represent what today is called ‘Bipolar Affective Disorder’ or ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’. The commons had helped shape his identity; interconnected with a web of relationships and experiences with land, love and community. Yet by the end of the 19th century, these had been ‘compressed into legal and social abnormalities that redefined people’s status with each other and with the land’ (18):

The separation of a population from its natural and social commons under the laws of the land created stresses of a schizophrenic character. These were evident in the decision makers, who had to balance the need to satisfy their ‘stakeholders’ – the landowners – with the need to keep the system operating. Rents had to be generated. The tensions were palpable in the paradoxes that tested the mental and moral landscapes”

Today, these beliefs and the complex interlocking of politics and economics still provide the organizing template for large parts of contemporary social and economic life. Private ownership, patriarchal forms of social organisation and market forces are seen as conducive to the ‘proper’ conservation and management of human and natural resources; while for most of us, our daily lives revolve around the continuous displacements and insecurities of the labour market – what Polanyi called ‘the pernicious nineteenth century dogma of the necessary uniformity of domestic regimes within the orbit of world economy’ (19).

Yet we are being stretched. As the forces of free market globalisation accelerate, inequality deepens and new demands are placed on individuals, social relations and communities. In submitting to the anonymous power of the market, people suffer structural unemployment, reduced wages and welfare and reduced entitlement to social assistance; continuously forced to adapt to new and shifting threats to develop new forms of coping strategies. As a number of studies have now shown, in today’s ‘turbo-charged and austerity-ravaged’ economy, anxiety, depression and insecurity have become the new normal (20).

Could what we have taken for so long as improvement and progress actually be damage and destruction of the psyCommons, as well as the social and natural commons? Despite extraordinary advances in science and technology, cultural critics, academics, artists, activists, concerned citizens and demonstrators alike have long drawn attention to the social consequences, ecological destruction and now ravaging psychological impact of corporate globalization.

What Clare’s experiences and poetry show us is that this Great Transformation was not only the recasting of economic orthodoxy and political power – associated primarily with the production, use and management of resources – but of the alienated self, and the destruction and reconstruction of subjectivity. It represents the psychological pain generated by the gradual devastation of people and place (21):

Inclosure came and trampled on the grave / Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave … And birds and trees and flowers without a name / All sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came.”

Still, the beautiful landscapes, lanes and secret beaches remain, yet more as a ‘reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires’ (22), rather than as an escape or antidote to real life. Wilderness, as Cronon points out, is not at all what it seems.


  1. Cunningham, L. & Walker, C. Building a New Community Psychology of Mental Health

  2. Linebaugh, P. Enclosures From the Bottom Up

  3. Ibid

  4. Cronon, W. The Trouble with Getting Back to Wilderness

  5. See Situationist International, Questionnaire: Section 12 (1964)

  6. Fairlie, S. A Short History of Enclosure in Britain

  7. Postle, D. Nature Vs Civilization: End of Life Notice

  8. Castree, N. & Braun, B. Social Nature: Theory, Practice & Politics

  9. Summerfield, Geoffrey. An Introduction to John Clare

  10. Harrison, F. The Traumatised Society

  11. Ibid

  12. Wood, E. Liberty & Property

  13. Davis, R. & Pinkerton, E. Neoliberalism and the Politics of Enclosure in North American Fisheries

  14. Polanyi, K. The Great Transformation

  15. Stiglitz, J. Foreword to The Great Transformation (2001)

  16. Harrison, F. The Traumatised Society

  17. Ibid

  18. Ibid

  19. Polanyi, K. The Great Transformation

  20. Taylor, JD. Spent? Capitalisms Growing Problem with Anxiety

  21. Monbiot, G. The Poet of the Environmental Crisis 200 years ago

  22. Cronon, W. The Trouble with Getting Back to Wilderness

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