What if all students spent a year working the land before university?
Written by Hugh Warwick
School leads inexorably to further education for the majority. But in the rush to qualify, to meet the tick-box requirements of curriculum assessors, there is a loss of time to think. After a 14-year slog young people are in need of a break to ask searching questions. What do they want to do with their lives? Do they want to saddle up a mountain of debt to take out into the “real world”?
What if there was to be a pause. A year in which you have the chance to earn your tuition fees while at the same time learning more about yourself. A time to explore a life outdoors. A time to grow food, develop community and repair a damaged environment. A truly productive gap year.
The number of social, health and ecological benefits that can be gained from a year of working in common purpose is astounding. Breaking down social barriers by having people working together from all over the country will remind us how much we have in common. Working outside in nature is known to benefit us in body and mind – not just because I might be a bit of a hippy, but because peer-reviewed science shows that it does. We know that convalescence is faster, recidivism is reduced, learning is deeper and our minds are eased in nature.
Learning where food comes from, growing it and eating it, will help tackle unhealthy patterns of consumption. Rural communities will benefit from an influx of people. Villages might become more than dormitories once more. Hedges would be laid, drystone walls built, fruit harvested, weeds pulled, ditches cleared. The emphasis would shift from contractors’ tractors to people power. The threatened absence of seasonal workers from Europe, as we retreat after Brexit, will be catered for as well.
This would not be restricted to the countryside. Urban growing and community projects would also be up and running. The wonderful Oxford City Farm, just beginning to grow near my home, is one of many projects that could benefit from a tide of willing workers.
So why would teenagers want to take part in this “eco-conscription”? People are naturally good, helpful, community-minded and kind. Just look at recent events to see the ease with which the good floods out in response to crisis. And as millions gathered for the Great Get Together weekend, you could see how it did not need an immediate crisis to bring out the best. There is an exaggerated sense of how bad we all are, promulgated through much of the media; I believe that there is good in everyone.
As we get older we get tied into commitments such as jobs and family that can make getting involved in community-based projects harder. So the time to tap into this innate quality is while commitments are few.
Now, conscription is a scary idea; associated with the great threats that come with war, so it is sure to antagonise. But I believe we need to start treating the multiple environmental crises as the serious threat they are. We need to consider them in the same league as the threat presented by an army massed on our borders. This is not (just) a green manifesto. Eco stems from the Ancient Greek “oikos” and means home. Ecology, the study of the home; economy, its management. Eco-conscription is about working together for our collective home.
The benefits to our “home” of having people working on the land, reconsecrating the sacrilege of our industry, are immense. Reweaving the connections, rebuilding the Linescape will forge links for wildlife and for people.
It is a virtuous circle. We know that contact with nature is good for us. We also know that without contact with nature we will not form an attachment, we will not learn to love it. And as I have said before, quoting the American writer Stephen Jay Gould: “We will not fight to save what we do not love.”
Imagine a cohort of young people who had gained a real insight into where food came from. Who had learned to respect the land. Who had worked with a common goal. Imagine the power these young people would have, the self-awareness as well as the skills. I bet it could even increase our chances of winning international football matches …
In return for the work there is a reward – this would be the gateway to further education. Not only would you have the tuition fees paid, you would have also had a year to consider what you really wanted to do. Now it might be that you never want to set foot in a field again, ever. Or possibly it will be the way you find a calling and a connection.
This may seem far-fetched but I would never have predicted the progress that was made with smoking and plastic bags, for example. Yes, this is state coercion. But does that make it any worse than the corporate coercion that has helped create such an insular, unfit and unhappy society; that has helped create an ecological desert in the countryside? This is a chance to fight back against the enemy, because this is a war. We have just not woken up to the fact yet.
How will we pay for it? Well when the country is on a war footing, money can be found. Trident is going to cost £205bn and over £1tn was set aside for the banks. It is just a case of making choices; prioritising. And while I balk at the idea of using a natural capital argument, the benefits to society just in terms of physical and psychological wellbeing will undoubtedly be worth the investment.
Like all good ideas, this is not entirely new. It builds on the back of the alternative offered to conscription for the German army, it even harks back to the Civilian Conservation Corps that was set up in the 1930s as part of President Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Of course there will be those who believe that this is wrong, that there should not be a compulsion to take part in eco-conscription. And it would be wrong of me to insist that everyone take part. So there will be an opportunity for opponents to state their case and to become, in effect, “conscientious objectors”. They could be given the alternative job of joining the army.
SOURCE: The Guardian