Who are ‘we’?

I read a letter in Tuesday’s Guardian with interest. It was under the name of a former, highly respected, RSPB colleague of mine, Gareth Morgan, who now works for the Soil Association.

Gareth’s main point is that radical change to farming is need, presumably including lots more organic farming, in order to have more wildlife in the countryside. Well, he would say that wouldn’t he? There is little doubt that change is needed and I agree completely that organic farming could play a very important part in restoring wildlife to our countryside.

But it was his use of the words ‘our’ and ‘we’ that got my attention. Eh?

Here are their uses in his letter;

The State of Nature report confirms what we already knew – we are losing the battle to save nature. Fundamentally, despite some successes for rare species, our efforts are failing.

This will require a wholesale change to how we farm and what we eat – we can only eat what the planet can sustain. We can’t just carry on as usual.

We all have a role to play. The government needs to support farmers as they shift to proven, more nature-friendly practices, like organic, making sure they earn a fair living while doing so and protecting them from cheap imports that harm the environment elsewhere.


If you think about what ‘we’ means in this letter it keeps changing – funny language English isn’t it?

‘We’ are losing the battle to save nature? I’m losing nature from my life but I’m not losing the battle, others are losing the battle by not doing nearly enough. The very use of the word ‘we’ suggests that we are all on the same side which we quite clearly are not. The NFU is not engaged in any battle to save nature and never has been. Some farmers are, but actually very few. And government hasn’t even fired a shot in the battle to save nature, it keeps gunning down nature with its actions (HS2, Badgers, failure to ban burning of blanket bogs and cuts to Natural England’s budget for example). Only if you judge people by their words rather than their actions can anyone really think that we are all fighting a battle to save nature. Even, dare I say it again, the Soil Association has been a bit low profile in recent years on this subject.

How ‘we’ farm? I don’t farm – I pay farmers in several different ways (in the shops, in my taxes and in the impacts imposed on me by poor farming practices) for farming, but farmers farm. And government sets farming policy and the system of sticks and carrots that should deliver food, a good environment and wildlife. I don’t think I’m getting good value for money from my considerable investment in farming.

What ‘we’ eat? This is a real choice for all of us – the whole population. It is a choice constrained by availability and what the retailers and farming system produce but every day we (you, me and everyone else) have several choices about what to eat and where to buy it and we must use that power as much as we can. Gareth will be pleased to know (I hope) that my weekly Riverford organic vegetable box is an important part of my support of agriculture. And my five vegetarian days a week are a further statement (and a gradual lowering of use of some dairy products alongside). I’ve never heard the NFU praising a low-meat diet or promising to grow the food that the country needs whatever it is…

I heard, on Farming Today this morning, Tony Juniper being asked about rumours that the agriculture industry is asking for the Agriculture Bill to be changed so that it is not ‘Public money for public goods’ as promised but ‘Continuing subsidies for farmers for their benefit not ours, and some public money for some public goods’. Tony couldn’t say, what should have been said, that this would be a sign of massive bad faith by this government and would be caving in to the farming industry to the disadvantage of the taxpayer and the environment. But that is what it would be.

So, I think we (all of us) need to be quite careful with our use of the word ‘we’ – if used carelessly it pretends that everyone is on the same side and everyone most certainly is not, and that everyone shares the same amount of blame for failure, and everyone most certainly does not.

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8 Replies to “Who are ‘we’?”

  1. Funnily Mark, I have been thinking about this (sloppy use of some words) a lot recently. The examples are innumerable but generally fall into the generalisation fallacies category.

    The "we" has always annoyed me a great deal in scientific TV, generalising or applying the achievements of a few talented individuals to humankind generally for example. "We have travelled to the moon," etc. Or even the self congratulatory tone of programs talking about the human race being supremely intelligent, whilst it's obvious that they are little more than noisy baboons, especially in view of the limited control they seem to have over their own destinies.

    There is also the downright dishonest, "people are saying," referring to "my editor just said."

    And in political debate "we have voted for," etc.

    It strikes me that most people that write stuff are actually pretty lazy and sloppy and don't go nearly far enough to define the terms they are using. A common twitter response to tweets nowadays is define "we" or any other term used loosely. I rarely get a reply.

  2. How come some ex RSPB chap suddenly goes to the Soil Association and becomes a supposedly expert on farming.What a load of crap.
    Certainly Organic farming would slightly help nature and birds but not by very much and there are certainly better ways to help nature.
    It is alright talking about organic products if you are really well off but the majority of people do not or cannot pay the extra money that organic products make.
    In lots of cases there are products that need sprays to produce things that are the standard the shopper of today demands.

  3. That’s a bit presumptive, erring on arrogance to assume that you are not part of this problem and you are certainly not the solution. Mankind has always sort to pass the blame elsewhere rather than having the consensus motivation to admit that WE are the common denominator in all the ills of this world.

    Your right you are no farmer, and you and I’m afraid a lot of your followers have no idea of land management, you, and they have benefitted not only from cheap food but of investments made on your behalf. The pension you are enjoying now is only possible because of the resource exploitation of the past, you, me, them are as much to blame for the plight of this planet as any farmer.

    You have enjoyed the working luxury of being a salaried employee, you’ve never taken risks that could financially ruin your life, you’ve sat in meeting, orchestrated countless focus groups, enjoyed an envious corporate lifestyle, never getting your hand dirty, and someone else has picked up your tab.

    When you consider that 20% of the world’s population (that’s us) consumes 80% of the world’s resources, and that the remaining 80% (that’s them) wish to be on the same level as the 20% elite. If you feel you can deny those 80% the same life attributes you have enjoyed, then you are a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

    I don’t disguise I have a low regard on the conservation organization in this country. Six years of a farm’s rewilding project has exposed me and opened my eyes to of the incompetence of the people who work within this sector. I thought that my world of advertising and PR had the monopoly for dysfunctional, graduation of wastrel’s, but we can’t get any near those in conservation.

    1. Thomas - maybe you should take more water with it, or perhaps add some facts. Quite a good illustration of my point that we are not all on the same side, though. Thanks.

  4. Is it not the case that if you replace 'we' and 'our' with the word 'humans', it adds the missing clarity? After all, we are all on the same boat, even if some folk don't care whether their side sinks, taking the rest of us with it.


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