Master of Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge,
and former director-general of the National Trust
Beauty. It’s a word we all use to describe our delight in the world around us: a landscape we love, a butterfly’s wings translucent in the sunshine or a wondrous piece of architecture. Yet you’d be hard pressed to find the word in any official document, or to hear any politician utter it today. In fact, we seem almost embarrassed to talk about beauty, other than in private. Instead, we have invented all kinds of pseudo, management-speak words to describe the things we need to look after: expressions such as ecosystem services, natural capital and sustainable development. And when we’re making decisions about the future, all we seem to care about is whether we will deliver growth or generate an economic return.
But it wasn’t always like that. Beauty was a word and an idea that people in previous centuries used freely and confidently, including in legislation and public policy. And because people celebrated beauty, it was something they sought to create, in town and country, and they enacted laws to protect the things and places people loved.
The public good Beauty is written deeply into British culture. Some of the earliest texts show a yearning for it, with Chaucer reminding us that it was the beauty of an April spring that “longen folk to goon on pilgrimages”. Throughout history, artists and architects have sought to achieve aesthetic perfection, and nature has inspired countless poets and authors.
Perhaps the greatest champion of beauty was the poet William Wordsworth. In the early 19th century, he saw his beloved Lake District coming under pressure from the construction of ugly villas, the commercial extraction of ores, the invasion of an alien tree, the “spiky larch”, and the prospect of the railway arriving in Windermere. His cry—“is then no nook of English ground secure from rash assault?”—galvanised a movement of people who loved beauty and were prepared to stand up and defend it. John Ruskin took up the fight, campaigning against the horrors of rampant industrialisation and its social consequences, his efforts leading to the creation of the National Trust and to the first ideas about good planning.
Then, beauty mattered enough to shape policy for the public good. Indeed, after the horror of two world wars, the 1945 government implemented a package of measures designed to meet not only people’s basic human needs, but also their spiritual, physical and cultural wellbeing. The designation of National Parks, the protection of our cultural heritage and access to the countryside sat alongside the universal right to education, the National Health Service and the welfare state, as well as jobs and housing.
We understood then, as we seem to have forgotten now, that the human spirit is not satisfied by material progress alone. Yet today we seem to have become seduced by what the US economist Albert Jay Nock called “economism”: that which “can build a society that is rich, prosperous, powerful—even one that has a reasonably wide diffusion of material wellbeing. But it cannot build one that is lovely, one that has savour and depth, and which exercises the irresistible power of attraction that loveliness wields.”
What makes us happy? Today, when we talk about progress, we mean only economic progress, and our measure of that is gross domestic product (GDP). This charts only income, expenditure and production, and doesn’t even try to count the many things that matter but that money can’t buy, the things that make us happy, and the natural resources on which we all depend. So it flatters us into thinking that things are going well while we are destroying our long-term future.
Over the past century, we have lost a vast richness of nature and much of the diversity of our landscape; we have degraded our soils and natural resources. In spite of huge efforts, nature and the beauty of the wider countryside are in a worse state than when the conservation movement set out to protect them. Add to this the looming pressures of climate change and it is clear that we need to do things differently.
And here, beauty can help us. Beauty is not just about aesthetics; it is a way of looking at the world that values the things we can’t put a material price on, as well as the things we can measure. We seek prosperity, but we need a different kind of progress. We live in an era where fewer of us are driven by religious imperatives, but we are not lacking in spirituality, nor in the capacity to be moved to strive for better things. Beauty can give shape to that yearning.
Imagine how the world would look if we revived the fight for beauty. We’d build our cities, towns and infrastructure beautifully; we’d protect nature and the countryside, while still producing enough food. We’d care for our cultural inheritance and focus on improving our quality of life rather than striving for unsustainable levels of growth.
The 19th-century environmentalist John Muir, as so often, had the words for it: the fight for beauty is “not blind opposition to progress, but opposition to blind progress”. It’s a fight to which we all need to belong.
• Fiona Reynolds is the author of The Fight for Beauty: Our Path for a Better Future, published by Oneworld. A version of this article was first published in the Guardian newspaper