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When my second child reaches my age I fear the NHS, along with the tiger and rhino, will be part of a mythologised arcadia
Three weeks old, warm and gently snoring on my shoulder as I write, you are closer to nature than you will ever be again. With your animal needs and animal cries, moved by a slow primordial spirit that will soon be submerged in the cacophony of thought and language, you belong, it seems to me, more to the biosphere than to the human sphere.
Already it feels like years since I saw you, my second daughter, in the scan, your segmented skeleton revealed like an ancient beast uncovered by geologists, buried in the rock of ages. Already I have begun to entertain the hopes and fears to which every parent has succumbed, perhaps since early hominids laid down the prints which show that the human spark had been struck.
Let me begin at the beginning, with the organisation to which you might owe your life. When I was born, almost 50 years ago, in the bitter winter of 1963, the National Health Service was just 15 years old. It must still have been hard for people to believe that – for the first time in the history of these islands – they could fall ill without risking financial ruin, that nobody need die for want of funds. I see this system as the summit of civilisation, one of the wonders of the world.
Now it is so much a part of our lives that it is just as hard to believe that we might lose it. But I fear that, when you have reached my age, free universal healthcare will be a distant fantasy, a mythologised arcadia as far removed from the experience of your children’s generation as the Blitz was from mine. One of the lessons you will learn, painfully and reluctantly, is that nothing of public value exists which has not been fought for.
The growth of this system was one of the remarkable features of the first half of the period through which I have lived. Then, wealth was widely shared and the power of those who had monopolised it was shaken. Taxation was used without embarrassment as a means of redistributing the commonwealth of humanity. This great social progress is also being rolled back, and, though perhaps I am getting ahead of myself, I fear for your later years. My generation appears to be squandering your birthright.
This destruction echoes our treatment of the natural world. In my childhood it would never have occurred to me that birds as common as the cuckoo, the sparrow and the starling could suffer so rapid a decline that I would live to see them classed as endangered in this country. I remember the astonishing variety of moths that clustered on the windows on warm summer nights, the eels, dense as wickerwork, moving downriver every autumn, field mushrooms nosing through grassy meadows in their thousands. These are sights that you might never see. By the time your children are born, the tiger, the rhino, the bluefin tuna and many of the other animals that have so enthralled me could be nothing but a cause of regret.
We now have a better understanding than we did when I was born – a year after Silent Spring was published – of the natural limits within which we live. The new science of planetary boundaries has begun to establish the points beyond which the natural resources which make our lives viable can no longer be sustained. Already, this tells us, we may have trespassed across three of the nine boundaries set out by researchers, and we are pushing towards three others.
You may live to see the extremes of climate change I have spent much of my life hoping we can avert, accompanied by further ecological disasters, such as the acidification of the oceans, the loss of most of the world’s remaining forests, its wetlands and fossil water reserves, its large predators, fish and coral reefs. If so, you will doubtless boggle at the stupidity and short-sightedness of those who preceded you. No one can claim that we were not warned.
There is another possible route, which I have spent the past two years researching and to which I have decided to devote much of the rest of my working life. This is a positive environmentalism, which envisages the rewilding – the ecological restoration – of large tracts of unproductive land and over-exploited sea. It recognises nature’s remarkable capacity to recover, to re-establish the complex web of ecological relationships through which, so far, we have crudely blundered. Rather than fighting only to arrest destruction, it proposes a better, richer world, a place in which, I hope, you would delight to live.
There is one respect at least in which this country and many others have already become better places. I believe that family life, contrary to the assertions of politicians and newspapers, is now better than it has been for centuries, as the old, cold model of detached parenting and the damage – psychological, neurological and (some research suggests) epigenetic – that it appears to have caused finally begins to disappear.
Perhaps the greatest source of hope and social progress arises from our rediscovery of the animal needs of babies and young children: the basic requirements of comfort, contact and attachment. Yes, attached parenting is taxing (now you are beginning to writhe and rumble and I fear that your mother, exhausted from a night of almost constant feeding, will soon have to wake again), but it is, I believe, the one sure foundation of a better world. Knowing what we now know, we have an opportunity to avert the damage, the unrequited needs that have caused so many social ills, which lie perhaps at the root of war, of destructive greed, of the need to dominate.
So this is where hope lies: right at the beginning, with the recognition that you, like all of us, arose from and belong to the natural world.