BBC4’s splendid new Nature and Us: A history through art (first of three, Monday of last week) put the boot into Christianity. James Fox led us through a dazzling display of humankind’s compulsion to depict the natural world. All the earliest art — cave art, for example — shows not the human form, but animals.
He was properly alert to religion from the outset: this artist/subject relationship surely has a cultic impulse, simultaneously a plea for a successful hunt and also an act of expiation, a plea for forgiveness for the intended killing. This celebrates a connection between our species and theirs.
The agricultural revolution changed everything: humans now treat the natural world as a commodity, as they plant, tend, and harvest. The resulting surplus enabled the astonishing creative achievements of ancient civilisation — but a separation between Us and Them. Greek sculpture and art places humanity dead centre of everything, making gods in our image, not the other way round. Christianity completes the sundering: in Genesis, God commands us to subdue, have dominion over nature: it is simply there for our benefit. The Eden myth has profound contemporary ecological relevance: our sin drives us out of the perfect natural home created for us.
My gallop through does no justice to a significantly rich and provocative documentary — and Fox confesses happily that Christianity inspires many of his favourite works of art — but nature is, indeed, banished to the background.
The importance of Restoring The Earth: The age of nature (BBC4, Wednesdays) is not undermined by its portentous tone. This is — relatively — good news: sequence after sequence gives us examples of how, worldwide, nature has recovered — far quicker than anyone might expect — after catastrophic depredation. Even Bikini Atoll, pulverised by atomic tests, has thriving coral reefs.
The keynote is interconnectedness: intensive farming, forest-clearing, pesticides, and fertiliser strike at the base of the food chain. No insects means, eventually, that land is too barren for human thriving. The amazing ability of nature to bounce back is entirely dependent, of course, on rigorous discipline. Recovery demands that we all live more simply and less greedily, and reject short-term gain to achieve sustained ecological well-being. There’s good reason for its sounding like a sermon.
For grand opera, watch Blair and Brown: The New Labour revolution (BBC2, Mondays). Here, with unprecedented contributions from the key characters, is a classic political arc. From the wreck of Old Labour defeats spring green shoots, a meteoric rise to amazing triumph; yet the seeds of destruction fester away. What enables the achievement of idealistic, radical goals: solid worth or charismatic charm; loyalty or ruthless ambition; prioritising friendship or power?