Clarkson: A Reformed, but Reluctant Environmentalist?

Clarkson’s Farm aired earlier this summer on Amazon Prime and instantly proved a veritable hit, with fans successfully lobbying for a second season. Clarkson’s show is both heart-warming and hilarious, and also indicates a departure from the presenter’s somewhat dismissive approach to climate issues. Has one year on a farm reluctantly turned Clarkson into an environmentalist? 

The Die-Hard Diesel Head 

Jeremy Clarkson is a man not usually associated with anything green (unless it’s some sort of flashy green coloured vehicle). The esteemed journalist and life-long car enthusiast is known for his brash, and unwaveringly dismissive, approach towards sustainability. He publicly criticised Greta Thunberg, pioneer of the globally reaching school strikes for climate change, telling her to “shut up” and “go back to school”. His reluctance to endorse electric cars remains strong, declaring “I’m nearly 60, so I can drive petrol cars until I die”. Clarkson’s latest documentary venture has, however, taken a turn away from his motor fuelled past. The Amazon Prime show Clarkson’s Farm was released on the 9th June 2020 and follows the former Top Gear presenter as he attempts to run the farm he owns in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire. The programme includes all the well known staples of a Clarkson focused documentary; his unrelenting, sometimes controversial humour, wit, and overarching love of power, speed and vehicle mechanics. Yet it also highlights, sometimes inadvertently, many environmental issues including the state of British  farming, with a poignant and earnest no frills approach. 

An Animal Lover? 

[Image Credit: Julie Aagaard via Pexels] 

In Episode 2, Clarkson decides that it’s time to buy some sheep, and promptly purchases a flock of 75 females. So begin his attempts to rear livestock, with some rather unsuspecting consequences. Clarkson has never been known for his affiliation with animal rights activism; he regularly criticises non-meat eaters, and meat alternatives, most recently likening the famous vegan Impossible burger to “the sludge at the bottom of a can of diesel”.  Yet, Clarkson’s foray into sheep farming exposes a level of empathy and connection to animals not previously displayed by the presenter. Despite the harsh realities of sheep rearing, the animals seem to bring real joy to him, and it’s clear his connection to them goes beyond profit, or their usefulness as lawn mowers. His fondness extends in particular to three sheep who for medical reasons were unable to bear lambs, and thus had to be sent for slaughter. On the car ride to the abattoir, he struggles with the moral implications of farming requirements, stating his confusion and mixed feelings towards the slaughter of these three animals. There’s a genuine connection to the realities of meat consumption for the car enthusiast, and visible distress is shown when he realises his sheep have been killed before he had the chance to say a last goodbye.

This experience does not bring about a strong aversion to meat consumption; in true Clarkson-esque style he’s later filmed tucking into a shepherd’s pie made from his own flock, describing them as ‘delicious’.  Yet, the importance of the connection he makes to these animals should not be understated; his acknowledgment of the joy they bring, and the concern for their comfort and wellbeing shows the sheep as live and sentient beings. Viewers are forced to confront what eating meat entails for the people behind their plates, and this in turn emphasises the need for ethical farming practices whereby animals are honoured and respected  as sentient beings, as is shown in Clarkson’s ham-fisted, but admittedly heartfelt rearing practices. 

Environmental Privilege

It’s difficult to tell whether this is intentional, but Clarkson does go some way to highlighting certain inadvertent contradictions within environmentalism as a movement, namely food mileage and carbon footprint. When discussing the stocking of avocados in his new Diddly Squat Farm Shop, he comments on the environmental implications of avocado consumption, often labelled as a staple of a vegan diet which aims to lower carbon footprint. On this he is not wrong; it’s estimated that the CO2 footprint of producing two small avocados comes to around 846.3 grams, the same as 1kg worth of bananas.  As predictable as Clarkson’s anti avocado-eating-leftist-millennial stance is, it does pose some thoughtful questions when considering what we should be consuming on a large scale, if we want to be mindful of the planet, and our food’s carbon footprint. The excessive emission of greenhouse gas is the primary factor driving earth’s current climate warming– to limit warming, a reduction in the carbon footprint of all human activities needs to be prioritised if we are to limit the earth’s continuous warming.

A vegan diet has long been touted as the most effective at combating climate change, and for good reason; plant proteins can be cultivated with 8 times less energy costs than meat based proteins. Yet, the importance and environmental benefits of locally sourced produce cannot be overlooked- British land management practices often result in lower carbon-footprint produce than overseas. Combined with drastically reduced food mile considerations, campaigners, such as Kierra Box from Friends of the Earth note that buying local can sometimes outweigh eating vegan. It’s impossible to engineer an environmentally perfect diet- but a combination of reduced meat consumption, with emphasis on local produce seems to present the most promising way forward. This of course can only be achieved if British farmers receive the support they need to produce grain and vegetables in high quantities. 

The State of British Agriculture 

[Home Grown: Image Credit Connor Danylenko via Pexels] 

Clarkson’s foray into farming digs further down into home-grown problems; notably, the policies in place to support and aid British farmers. From an entire year of farming, Clarkson’s enterprise earns a mere £144 profit; some of which must be put down to his hap-hazard, beginners management style. Largely this poultry profit is attributed to the disastrous weather which plagued 2020, the worst year for farming since 1976, with tumultuous storms and scorching temperatures. Luckily, subsidies remained in place for Clarkson; the UK government pledged £3 billion in subsidies to farmers in 2020, to supplement the remaining EU funding left. From this year on, however, direct subsidies to farms are set to decrease without which, data from the preceding decade suggests that 19% of UK farmers would not be able to break even with these government payments. This percentage rises to 42% when depreciation costs are included.                                   

It’s here that Clarkson’s show highlights one of the UK’s major environmental problems; to reduce carbon emissions, people need to be eating food grown closer to home. Yet British farmers are barely able to cover their costs of production. This is only set to worsen with increasing weather extremity, as the Met Office predicts summers becoming up to 60% drier and winters up to 30% wetter within the next 50 years. The despair faced by farming is highlighted by Clarkson, who looks utterly depleted when he’s told the farm’s annual revenue and cost. Speaking candidly to Charlie, his right hand man whose logical, realistic demeanour often causes him to be the bearer of bad news (hence his nickname ‘Cheerful Charlie’), he asks “What are farmers going to do?…Real farmers, the ones who don’t have Amazon film crews following them about…What do you do when these subsidies start to go down?” 

If Clarkson’s Farm tells us one thing, it’s that environmental issues have reached a point of cross generational, and cultural awareness. Jeremy Clarkson is many things; a seasoned presenter, a car-obsessed adrenaline junkie. He is not traditionally thought of as an environmentalist- yet this show proves that he can see a crisis when it’s coming. The future of British farming, which could hold so many possibilities for creating a self-sufficient, climate-adaptive UK food system, is under threat from both climate change and government policies. UK farmers could be part of the solution to the emerging climate crisis- but only if they get the support and funding they need. In the words of Clarkson “The next time you hear a farmer moaning about the weather- put your arm around him, and buy him a pint”. 

About the Author: Lizzi Philokyprou is an aspiring climate journalist, and current Lifestyle Editor at Wild Magazine. 

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