It is ironic that British scholars and scientists have been central to the articulation of EU environmental law and policy, the most developed body of such law in the world
Among its myriad effects, Brexit threatens a radical shakeup of UK agriculture with the withdrawal of billions of pounds of EU subsidies. There is considerable anxiety in the agricultural community as most farmers rely on some form of income support from the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Without a policy of smooth transition, the transformation of agriculture will lead to a radical shift in land values as many farmers lose their holdings to the international market.
The fall of the CAP opens up the ominous possibility of the corporate countryside, the brave new world of high intensity agribusiness, accelerated road building, suburban residential and retail commercial developments, airports and tourist facilities. In an era of cheap land and perhaps negative interest rates - not to mention the housing crisis - development will proceed apace as the integrity of the countryside is forever altered.
Contrary to this nightmare scenario, the current CAP policy favoured stability, and in recent decades, environmental criteria and objectives, linked through cross-compliance to farming subsidies. Activities such as crop diversification, pesticide control, wildlife corridors have been central to the Pillar I requirements for EU subsidies. Such activities are still in place across the UK and indicate an alternative path for the British countryside, other than the corporate takeover of rural Britain.
It is ironic that British scholars and scientists have been central to the articulation of EU environmental law and policy, the most developed body of such law in the world. Indeed, given the high level of public education in the UK on environmental issues, especially of such issues as climate change, it would be difficult, and in fact, counter-productive, to walk away from such a longstanding commitment to the environment.
Confronted however by the forced choice between economic development and the environment, many may tolerate the incremental destruction of the rural landscape. But, we must be clear that this is a false choice and that a better approach to the countryside is possible than a passive drift toward the wasteland. To get a glimpse of the nightmare scenario, we need only consider the American (formerly rural) landscape of suburbs, retail malls, theme parks, landfills and industrial farms.
Nevertheless, Britain differs from the Americans since they have already created their wasteland. The UK still stands at the crossroads, not having taken the plunge toward overdevelopment and corporate agriculture. Indeed, while the UK will leave the EU, there is no good reason to simply surrender the countryside to the vast corporate monolith. Yet, such surrender will occur in the absence of political clarity, imagination and investment.
At the crossroads, we may still articulate a new vision for the countryside, one which expresses the concerns and desires of stakeholders - farmers, conservationists, land and land tenure reform advocates, communities, and environmentalists. In this way, Brexit provides an unprecedented opportunity to take a step forward from the status quo, and in the spirit of the new independence, to remake the countryside in the interests of citizens and communities.
The new vision cannot simply be a re-branding of the CAP into a BAP subsidy regime. While the CAP allowed the agricultural community to subsist, it also institutionalised inertia, homogeneity and dependency in the rural economy - and the domination of the supermarket.
The new policy must instead work for farmers and consumers, working together with rural stakeholders for a new settlement and an array of smart subsidies. In the absence of EU criteria - and with a desire to avoid the disastrous effects of a liberalisation of the land market - we may be more ambitious and embark upon an alternative path of countryside development which supports the needs of farmers, citizens and communities, but continues, and indeed, accelerates efforts to protect, diversify and restore the environment.
The central concepts of the new vision of the countryside, I will suggest, are access, sustainability, diversity and restoration. Access concerns the needs of citizens for land - farmers, families, communities and recreationists. The needs of each of the groupings, often overlapping, can be accommodated in the new countryside.
Land reform, farm tenancy and ownership reform, community land acquisition and ownership, rural industries, farmer-community production and distribution partnerships, the rights to wander and to use waterways - these are some of the watchwords for a progressive vision of the countryside in the post-Brexit era.
Sustainability speaks of an ecological approach to the rural landscape, in agriculture, forestry, fisheries policy and land management. Such notions are well known to countryside stakeholders and indicate a commitment to the indefinite vitality of arable land and the integrity of rural eco-systems.
Land is not simply a factory of inputs and outputs, whether in agriculture, tourism, housing or property development. The rural landscape is a diverse habitat for human communities in relation to vegetation and animal life - it is not simply a space of production, but a lifeworld.
Diversity entails a vibrant and complex rural landscape, understanding that agriculture and other activities are situated within the broader life of the countryside. The integrity of the rural ecosystem will accommodate an agricultural practise which is sensitive to its place within the new countryside. Poly-culture, biodiversity, organic cultivation, wildlife corridors - these are some of the practises which will heal the rift between intensive agriculture and the wider ecological space.
Restoration works for an augmentation of the rural landscape through the restoration of forests and common lands. Such aspirations stand at odds with the nightmare of a corporate countryside - but they were also impossible in the context of the CAP. It is well known, for example, that EU subsidies required the elimination of "wasteland," a harsh word for forest growth, ponds and other ecological features. EU policy was a barrier to policies of reforestation and the spirit of many of its own stated priorities. In the post-Brexit paradigm, attractive prospects emerge for ambitious initiatives to restore a robust British countryside
The metaphor of the crossroads cannot be over-emphasised, between the path of neo-liberal drift to the corporate countryside, in the image of America, and that of the new British landscapes which will be cultivated through cooperation between the devolved nations, rural communities and farmers.
A progressive rural policy, for the protection and enhancement of the rural landscape and the rural economy, in the interest of citizens and communities, promises a unity of purpose and interest among the many interested stakeholders of the rural landscape from farmers to environmentalists, workers to consumers, ramblers to young families seeking a new start in life.
Dr James Luchte is a philosopher, author, writer and poet. He has written for many publications, including Salon, Counterpunch, Tele-SUR, Daily Wales, Planet Magazine, Agonist and Farmer's Weekly.
He is currently Visiting Professor of Philosophy and Aesthetics at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics. His latest book, Mortal Thought: Hölderlin and Philosophy (Bloomsbury 2016), details the revolutionary significance of the poet's thought for philosophy, art and politics.