Opinion: In the 19th century we couldn’t do without coal, in the 20th we couldn’t do without oil. In the 21st, we’re learning to prosper without either

Country Life's columnist Agromenes thinks we can have it all — prosperity and a thriving environment — if we do it right.

I am looking across a hay meadow where the buttercups are just over their best, but where the ox-eye daisies are in full bloom and the patches of ragged robin and red campion stand out against the green of the meadow grasses.

This is the joy of the traditional countryside: a field self-seeded, where there have been no chemicals for almost 30 years since last they poured on the nitrogen to attempt a crop of oilseed rape.

It’s taken time and patience, but the vetch and the clover, the bird’s-foot trefoil and the loosestrife have emerged, some from where they lay dormant in the soil and the rest carried by the birds, which themselves are back in noisy profusion.

“Hardly anyone in the 18th century thought we could do without slavery… In the 19th, we built a world that couldn’t do without coal and, in the 20th, one that couldn’t do without oil. In the 21st, we are learning that prosperity can be assured without either.”

There’s rural history everywhere. The star of Bethlehem and our lady’s smock are only two reminders of medieval iconography that used the names of flowers to tell the story of Fall and Redemption.

Back then, no one would have been amazed at the beauty of a single wildflower meadow. There were so many, universal in their profusion.

However, that was no earthly paradise, for universal, too, was backbreaking labour, short, impoverished lives and inescapable infant death. We must not substitute a romantic image of Camelot for the largely miserable reality of historic rural life.

We’ve bought our extension of life expectancy, our advances in medicine and widespread worker protection at the cost of flowering hay meadows. For nearly three centuries, leaders have believed that it’s either/or: either we mechanise, industrialise and urbanise or we remain in poverty, unable to feed our people, stuck in a continuing round of deprivation.

Whatever the system, communist or fascist, capitalist or socialist, we have shared a common belief that living standards, healthcare, education and opportunity depend on the onward march of the Industrial Revolution. In that, Messrs Bezos, Musk and Gates have inherited the mantle of Stevenson, Hargreaves and Brunel. As their forebears were, they are the harbingers of fundamental change: Amazon promising net zero by 2040; Tesla helping to wean the world off oil; Microsoft offsetting every emission its products have made. Even now, they are only part way there, but they have recognised the dawning of a new age, as the great reformers and entrepreneurs did in their time when they, too, were revolutionary.

“We have to undo the damage, make reparation to people and the planet”

We shouldn’t forget that hardly anyone in the 18th century thought we could do without slavery; it took Wilberforce and Clarkson to show we could. In the 19th, we built a world that couldn’t do without coal and, in the 20th, one that couldn’t do without oil. In the 21st, we are learning that prosperity can be assured without either. We know that slavery was an abomination, coal a terrible pollutant and oil threatens our very existence, but we also know we can eschew all of them and still improve living standards, education and opportunities.

It’s no longer either/or but both/and. This hay meadow, then, is a potent symbol of recovery and of hope. We lost so much in pursuit of gain. We were careless and often ignorant of the sufferings and the damage we caused, yet achieved so much materially. Now we have to undo the damage, make reparation to the people and the planet we have harmed and learn to provide sustainably the good things our society once won in so cruel, dirty and damaging a way.

That is a renewal that can reach deep into the countryside as regenerative farming starts the long journey to recover our lost biodiversity, as well as enabling us to maintain the standards we now take for granted.