In the happier days when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown once made a rather good joke. During a speech at the party celebrating this newspaper's 20th anniversary, he confessed that at times he had been exasperated by his hosts' editorial policy. He had unveiled some great economic policy, only to find the next morning that The Independent had devoted its front page to a "Save the Sparrow" campaign.
Behind the jape, one suspects, lay genuine bewilderment, perhaps laced with a certain contempt. In a busy, crisis-filled world, why on earth would serious, grown-up people run a lead story about a small bird in preference to a government initiative?
The ruinous effect of that approach, that inability of policy-makers to understand that environmental concern is about caring for the small and local as well as the global, is to be found between the lines of Natural England's State of the Natural Environment 2008 report. When its chief executive, Helen Phillips, writes that "for too long the natural world has been treated as a luxury, a nice-to-have optional extra", she could be describing her employers in government.
The report's argument – that it is time to stop taking nature for granted, to recognise that it provides the necessities of life and is an essential part of our cultural identity – might usefully be pinned on the wall beside the desk of Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary. He, neatly proving the point that was being made, greeted the publication from Natural England with the now-obligatory blather about global warming. "Climate change is presenting us with a new challenge in conserving biodiversity and managing our landscapes," he intoned.
This is government by greenwash. The state of the planet is used as a way of diverting attention from the particular to the general, from the local to the global. The problems which Natural England highlights – pollution of land and rivers, disastrous flooding and drainage policies, the effect of chemicals on the ecology of arable land, the neglect of woodland and rivers, poor management of wetlands – have little or nothing to do with global warming. They are the result of economic greed and government indifference. When Helen Phillips points out that, while wildlife in areas designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest is on solid footing, the diversity of species and landscape outside "nature's gated communities" is in decline, it is government policy to which she is referring.
For too long, the countryside has been seen by urban decision-makers as somehow beyond the normal, civilised, everyday experience of urban life – a fine setting for a weekend break, a walk or a second home, but little more. One after another, whey-faced junior ministers, usually residents of north London, have been charged with responsibility for something in which they have not the slightest interest or knowledge.
The result has been a vague awareness of the generalities of rural policy and a profound ignorance of the specifics. It can be seen in the cynical promotion of "eco-towns" – new towns with a light green makeover – and in open contempt for any group that has dared to argue that a much-loved part of the landscape is unsuitable for industrial development in the name of renewable energy. Supporting the idea of placing vast housing estates on what is now open country, the Housing Minister, Caroline Flint, deployed a cliché beloved of all vandals of the landscape. "Beauty," she said blithely, "is in the eye of the beholder."
We urgently need more biodiversity in government – a different species of decision-maker. For years, the wildlife and nature of these islands have been treated by ministers like the "optional extra" to which the Natural England report refers. If, as it suggests, there is a need to "hard-wire concern for the natural environment into all aspects of public policy", the first step is surely to find politicians who are not trapped in an urban mindset. Only when people who understand, and preferably live in, the countryside are involved in decisions affecting it will the problems identified in the report be addressed.
There is a cycle of ignorance about life outside cities, for which our politicians are largely responsible; we could use some education. Our schoolchildren, currently scared out of their wits by the spectre of the planet being burnt to a crisp, might learn more about the real natural world around them – why it is important and how they can help it.
Fewer pictures of sad polar bears on ice-caps are needed, and more information about dragonflies, honeybees, rivers and woods; fewer anguished generalisations about the state of the planet, more detailed policies to protect, conserve and encourage the natural world in our own national backyard.