My friends know me well.
This week, three people, independently, sent me the news that a high court judge had decided that wild camping was never permitted under the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985.
As of last Friday, nights like this are no longer legal without permission from the landowner:
My friends indeed know me well: they know that I don’t read the news and that this news would be important to me.
The judgement balances, precariously, on one man’s interpretation of the phrase ‘open air recreation’.
Chancellor of the High Court Sir Julian Martin Flaux supported the plaintiff that wild camping was not ‘open air recreation’ — despite the breathless adventures of generations of school groups, Scout troops, Duke of Edinburgh and Ten Tors expeditions, and the countless escapades of a multitude of ‘commoners’, as we’re known.
To be fair to the judge, I’ve spent more than a few nights out on Dartmoor and not all of them have fallen neatly into most people’s definition of ‘recreation’.
But, for me, nothing beats shivering the night away through nine hours of wind and fog until murky dawn ekes across the mire and it’s almost safe to pull on drenched boots and quag out into the sopping halflight.
If that’s not recreation, then I don’t know what it is. We’re not all into pheasant shoots and deer stalking.
Perhaps the objection rests more on the ‘open air’ part of the phrasing.
But, when you can see your own breath crystallise, it doesn’t matter that a skin of canvas blocks out the worst of the weather, that, to me, is ‘open air’.
My friends know me so well that I had, in fact, already heard the news from the Right To Roam campaign newsletter:
Wild camping is pitching a tent when your body is tired and allowing the landscape to hold you where you belong, it’s learning about yourself and nature and it’s being inspired by looking up at the cosmos like we have done for millennia.
We will not back down. We will not let [..] entitled, misanthropic behaviour destroy the only remaining scrap of land where we are permitted to sleep freely under the sky.
This news was important, not only to me, but to society at large and it has provoked an instant response.
The first thing to say is that the Dartmoor National Park Authority have already struck a deal with The Dartmoor Commons Owners’ Association.
This agreement swiftly restored the right to wild camp on some parts of the Dartmoor Commons and, if your interest in this story is only tent peg deep, then you can stop here.
There is still much to explore on the current map of permissive wild camping, including Hangingstone Hill, Fox Tor and the wonderful (and relatively accessible) Great Mis Tor.
But if, like me, you’re unnerved by the summary dissolution of long-held rights by a single judgement — transatlantic echoes of the US Supreme Court decision on abortion last year — then please read on.
1 Pleasure Permit, Please
While, in a practical sense, wild camping on Dartmoor was only illegal for a few days, the legal judgement has dealt a huge blow to the spirit of our land.
Wild camping is allowed now only by the grace of the landed gentry.
That means, not only that the area for permissive wild camping is restricted, but that campers must now follow a code of conduct as a condition of their presence on the land.
Don’t get me wrong: much of the code of conduct is eminently sensible and is currently identical to pre-existing national park guidance.
But who knows what might be added to this code in future?
The nature of permission, of course, is that it is conditional and may be withdrawn at any moment — indeed, this hasty agreement only lasts twelve months.
Adding injury to insult, the Dartmoor National Park Authority must now pay landowners for the privilege of allowing access. Money that they do not have.
And You Want Us To Be Grateful?
Interestingly, Friday’s legal challenge was brought by a single landowner, a man scornfully described in the Guardian as a ‘veteran City fund manager’, for the broader narrative of this story — and the reason why it’s worthy of your attention — is the greed of the super rich against the freedom of the commoner.
As Guy Shrubsole from the Right To Roam campaign told the BBC:
The public have just had their right to wild camp summarily snatched from them by a wealthy landowner — now we’re expected to be grateful to landowners who grant us permission to wild camp, and pay for the privilege. It’s a ransom note.
Dartmoor National Park Authority has two weeks to to submit intention to appeal the judgement, but the Right To Roam campaign are already raising funds to fight in court.
But the law protects wealth and it is very difficult to challenge the super rich in court, on their home turf.
So Right to Roam are also organising something more embodied, on the veteran City fund manager’s actual turf: a mass gathering tomorrow afternoon to ‘summon the spirit of Old Crockern, Dartmoor’s ancient defender against greed’.
From the panicked tone of the event page, they are expecting a lot of support.
Which Side Are You On?
If, like me, you can’t get down to Dartmoor tomorrow, I urge you to go again (and again), alone, with friends, with lovers, with enemies, and camp on inalienable soil.
This isn’t about judiciary interpretations, this is about that ancient socialist incantation: Which side are you on?
Are you on the side of the alienating privilege that would threaten with force your quiet enjoyment of land, river, forest, stars?
Or are you on the side of what I’ve learned to call Team Human?
Do you listen to Douglas Rushkoff’s podcast Team Human? He recently wrote a book based on the fact that loads of the world’s richest people have hired him as a consultant to tell them how to stay safe in a societal breakdown. His answer is the same as yours: humans.
Little did I know that following this trail would be like stepping away from a jigsaw and suddenly seeing how the pieces fit together.
Our 260,000 Year Winning Record
Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s basic premise is that there are two competing approaches to solving the catastrophes of late-stage capitalism — two teams, if you like.
There is the team led by escapist billion- and trillionaires, who propose technological solutions for every planetary and societal ailment and who believe that their wealth can isolate them from the misery that their ways of life and business has helped cause.
You know the ones: those who think that the way out of the climate crisis on Planet Earth is to set up a plutocratic colony on Mars.
And there is Team Human, who believe (perhaps like JFK) that ‘No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.’
Whatever the disease, the cure begins with humans getting together, communicating and cooperating.
(Here’s a tangental and tantalising example of what JFK meant when he said that ‘our problems are manmade’: did you know that ‘war’ was invented and only 13,000 years ago? — that’s 20,000 years after the invention of the flute, for goodness sake.)
Team Human might not be as sexy as an iPhone or the Metaverse, but at least we’ve got a winning record going back at least 260,000 years.
And we get to decide which team we’ll play for in every decision that we take.
We’re On Team Human
Everything we do in life either brings us closer together, or pushes us further apart, back into our illusory bubbles.
The veteran City fund manager, I’m sure, only brought his legal challenge in an attempt to solve a problem that he sees out in the world.
I genuinely believe that, according to his vision, the veteran City fund manager acted in good faith.
But he chose the escapist route, so beloved of the extraordinarily wealthy, and has used his riches to push others away.
Whatever his problem was, his victory is Pyrrhic: he has only made things worse for himself.
In contrast, the Team Human playbook declares that the only way to solve our problems for everyone, including veteran City fund mangers, is not with alienation, but with closer community, mutual aid, and human interdependency.
Making Power Irrelevant
My friends know me well: I really do avoid all news media.
It’s worth reading in full, but here’s the part that leapt out at me:
[The] more resilient and self-sufficient we can become on a local level, the less pressure we put on […] larger systems and decisions.
The more sustainable our local economies, the less brittle will be their response to a sudden influx of immigrants or Covid-related business closures.
The more quickly and efficiently we can assist each other during extreme weather events, the less dependent we’ll be on […] centralised authorities for cash.
Such cooperation may actually require that we reduce our exposure to the most inflammatory messaging coming from our for-profit news opinion shows and Internet platforms, which work hard to undermine the collaborative spirit we need to face the challenges ahead.
Until I read these words (and heard them at the beginning of this episode of the Team Human podcast), I’d never really understood why it was so important to me to restrict my exposure to news media.
I always knew there was something going on, that undirected consumption of news media had a deleterious effect on my soul, but I’d never framed that as part of the wider struggle for our future as a species.
Douglas Rushkoff showed me how the pieces fit together.
Connection and cooperation on a local level — human to human, here and now — makes the relentless negativity of the news media, and the power it represents, not only harmlessly avoidable, but ultimately irrelevant.
Team Human Very Rarely Loses
It may feel like we have a long way to go to establish social justice through connection and cooperation — and we do.
But it begins with a small decision that we take today to play on Team Human.
The good news is that Team Human has a roster of billions and all we have to do is take our place on the field.
A united response to one man’s interpretation of the law renders that interpretation irrelevant: a mass camp-out will not, cannot be budged by the threat of violence.
Repeated camp-outs, combined with other citizen responses, will, inevitably, repeal that interpretation and create new laws that protect access to nature.
As Erica Chenoweth, Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard, has found, rebellions involving 3.5 percent of the population very rarely fail.
In the UK, that’s 2.4m people. Just so you know.
The high court’s decision over wild camping on Dartmoor is a setback, but I can now see that it is an invitation to make The Choice.
Will I choose Team Privilege and plan in vain my escape from humanity and the common life, or will I take the side of Team Human and, not only join the fight to repeal this judgement, but keep on fighting until we have extended the right to roam across the whole of England and Wales, as it is today in Scotland?
It’s a choice for us all.
Perhaps the right to roam isn’t your home ground, but humanity is a team game and we need everyone to pull on a shirt and play.
So, whatever position you find yourself in, whatever special powers you bring onto the field, Team Human needs you — right now.
Thanks to Dan Sumption for pointing me in the direction of Team Human. Dan writes a concise, conscious newsletter over at The Mycoleum.
If you have any suggestions on how I can expand my mind, I’d be very grateful if you’d take a minute to reply to this email with a book, a podcast, an article, an intellectual or a musician that changed your paradigm.