What drives you to write in such depth about nature, landscapes, people and places?
Love and fear, simply put. I grew up with what was then an unexamined love for wild places and mountains in particular. I climbed and walked throughout my childhood and early adulthood. It was self-evident to me that nature held a power to heal, console, lift the heart and shape the mind. Now the sense of loss and danger is much greater; it's hard to write or even think far outside the sense of crisis and loss that grips the world at present, predominantly in the form of climate breakdown.
In Underland you talk about polar scientists drilling up ice cores - the underground evidence of our climate past - to find climate futures. The evidence is there, but do you think we have a strong understanding of this as a society?
Thinking hopefully, it's clear we've seen big shifts, in the past five years in particular; scientists breaking their supposed neutrality and advocating policy change on the back of their data sets; the acceptance – at last – across the media that the question of significance is not whether climate breakdown is underway, but how best to respond to it; the emergence of Green New Deal visions across nations and devolved polities (cities, towns, states, counties); and of course huge public awareness growth, driven by Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and other forces. Look at how central climate has become to the position-taking of the main Democratic presidential candidates this summer. Thinking less hopefully; the drivers of climate breakdown and environmental damage are so deeply and systemically entrenched that politics as we know it can scarcely reach them, and the time grows shorter and shorter...
How do you see the role of the arts in tackling big environmental and societal problems?
Rebecca Solnit writes famously of the need for "hope in the dark" – and of art's power to effect unexpected and large-scale change. But, of course, art can also do nothing, or worse than nothing. The Lost Words (see below) has been my own experience of hope in the dark; it has lived a wild and powerful life in culture and, arguably, in politics over the past two years, in ways Jackie Morris and I could never have dreamed before it happened!
You have a large following and have recently become active on social media. Why did you choose to do this?
I joined Twitter and Instagram two and a half years ago for two reasons. One, because I saw Twitter in particular acidifying into a toxic space, but felt it must still be possible to use it for the good; to create communities where generosity, sharing of expertise and support, informed and reflective debate, etc could all happen. That's been proved true. Come join us at @RobGMacfarlane! And the second reason was that I wanted, politically and ethically, to be able to respond quickly and with reach to questions of climate, conservation, etc. That, too, has happened.
Do you see yourself as a campaigner? Are you pushing for behaviour change when it comes to how we preserve our natural environment?
I guess so. I mean, like everyone, I'm many things. In the case of the living world, I'm a writer, I'm a citizen, I'm sometimes a marcher-in-the-street, and sometimes an organiser. Some of the most important writing I feel I've done was working with Chris Packham and others on The People's Manifesto For Wildlife, which we published a year ago, containing 200 ideas for political and structural change in Britain concerning our relationship with nature. I'm also a founding Trustee of Action For Conservation, a young charity which works with 12-17 year olds. It takes conservation into schools, and kids on free conservation summer camps, and also pioneers the world's largest youth-led, large-scale landscape regeneration project at Penpont in south Wales. So I guess I'm saying we all need to work for the good up and down the scales, and across institutions and forms.
The Lost Words addresses the importance of children understanding nature and words. Do you feel we're making progress on future generations' attachment to the natural world, and if not how can we improve this?
Yes, unmistakably we’re making progress. Actually – they are making progress. Look at the school climate strikes, look at the huge influence of Greta, look at how lucidly young people are articulating what threatens the future and what needs to be done. It's inspiring. I work a lot with 12-17 year olds at Action For Conservation, and I teach a lot of 18-21 year olds here at Cambridge. Oh, and I'm the parent to three children, all of whom have chosen to bank with Triodos. The young people I know are clear-sighted, passionate and they love the living world – human and more-than-human.
Underland by Robert Macfarlane is published by Penguin and available now from all good bookshops.