Sustainable design pioneers Sebastian and Brogan Cox have recently published a highly informative, dense little booklet called Modern life from wilder land: a manifesto for nature-first land and resource use. As if the pair haven’t enough going on – in addition to juggling the projects of a successful 10-year old eponymous design studio, producing handcrafted furniture from coppiced wood and experimenting with biomaterials – they are also very new parents.
None of this seems to have dulled their environmentalist passions and dedication to a circular economy. Both grew up in the countryside, on and around farms: Sebastian ‘a feral upbringing’ on his grandparents’ farm in Kent, and Brogan spending time on her grandparents’ pig farm in Lincolnshire. Perhaps becoming parents has spurred them on. Beyond their personal quest to live and work sustainably, they’re now on a mission to educate the consumer and fellow creative professionals, too.
Seeds were sewn for the manifesto, which targets UK land use, ‘over breakfast with Brogan one morning’, says Sebastian, But, with the arrival of baby Sorrel, it took nine months to write. Flicking through the chapters covering ‘Food’, ‘Forestry and Carbon Sequestration’, ‘Fuel and Energy’, ‘Fibre and Grown Materials’, and the crucial ‘How to Make this Happen’, it’s an inspiring read because it proposes solutions and provides successful case studies. It offers hope.
‘We were thinking about our own business and realised we were concerned about climate change and biodiversity decline,’ he says. ‘The thing that affects both of those is how we use our land. You can resolve any issue with infinite amounts of land, because you can either grow crops for more food, or you can grow energy crops (for fuel) such as willow and miscanthus. How we use our land is one of the biggest ethical issues we face today.’
The document encompasses a lot: advocating a reduction in food waste (the UK food industry wastes a shocking 1.9m tonnes per year), moving towards an organic, plant-based diet, returning to organic farming methods, afforestation, increasing natural crops to change the textile industry, the development of bio-plastics and bacterially grown materials, and moving to efficient, renewable energy. It’s forensic, with pie charts, graphs and stats, but there’s poetry, too, as Sebastian writes: ‘There are few spaces left to the preference of wildlife. We wish to alter this perspective, suggesting that wildness can be both beautiful and productive if we shift to resources that can be harvested from wilder land, which our native flora and fauna can occupy, too.’ At its heart is a nature-first land approach and the belief in collective consumer power to change producers’ methods and, in doing so, wider social policies.
In some respects, the manifesto is about turning back time and ‘progress’. Recalling his father’s farm, which closed in the late 1980s, Sebastian says. ‘It was a lovely old mixed farm, but when the intensification of farming ramped up and other farmers in Kent were ripping hedges out because the government was encouraging them to, and making massive prairie-style fields, it caused real conflict. My grandfather had been a keen bird watcher and naturalist, and my father thought, “if this is how farming is going we can’t, and don’t, want to survive like that”.’
Reducing the monoculture of these ploughed, prairie-style fields and returning trees and hedges to our ‘over-manicured nation’ can reap incredible results, says Sebastian, citing Wakelyns, an agroforestry farm in Sussex, where they use the natural predations of insects as a pesticide on crops. ‘You get symbiotic relationships in nature and they’re getting incredibly high yields at this farm, because they have these small lines of hedgerows between their crops. It’s just amazing and it’s so obvious.’
Rewilding isn’t a concept widely popular with all farmers today, a point of view Sebastian has sympathy for, to a degree – as he says, ‘I have huge respect for farmers, they do a difficult job. It’s a complicated issue that deserves a complicated response’. He cites Knepp Wildland in Sussex as an example of how rewilding can be profit-making, while acknowledging it doesn’t make sense for every farm in Britain. It has to be high on the agenda, though.
‘If you own and manage land you need to take those complications very bloody seriously,’ he says, ‘because you’re sitting on the solutions to our survival. There could be a very good case made that, as taxpayers and consumers, we should have a right to determine how people use their land. Although they own it, the land is actually part of the public goods, of clean air, biodiversity, a future for our children.’ He proposes a series of subsidies and taxes to help inform landowners how to use land for the benefit of both the public good and biodiversity.
As for us, we all have a huge role to play in making the UK self-sufficient, so that all the food we consume is produced here without relying on imports. Describing his own family, who only buy organic produce or food from regenerative farms, as ‘offalatarian’ because they also eat byproducts of the slaughter process, Sebastian believes we should adopt the ‘waste not, want not’ approach of our grandparents’ generation – using every scrap and eating less meat. Today, we spend around a 12th of our incomes on food, whereas during the 1950s a household more commonly spent a third on food. We need to recognise that the cheapening of food has been to the detriment of us, biodiversity and the planet. Saving the planet for future generations can seem mind-blowingly complex, too big to tackle, leaving people inert and hopeless. We salute environmentalists like Sebastian and Brogan for spelling things out so that, as consumers, we can make better informed decisions and grow a little more wild ourselves.
‘Modern life from wilder land: a manifesto for nature-first land and resource use’ is available to buy for £5 from sebastiancox.co.uk
This article features in ELLE Decoration Country Volume 16, on sale now
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