Thirteen years ago I marched in one of the largest demonstrations in Britain’s history.  The Countryside March had brought together environmental activists and critics of transnational business, dyed-in-the-wool Tories and leftover beatniks, peers and paupers.  Today, if the ongoing Coalition versus the Countryside debate is any indication, it’s time to march again.

In Greece, Megalopoli is a byword for environmental blight.  What puts apocalyptic spin on this news is that Megalopoli is in Arcadia literally, not by way of a classicist’s longing for a lost paradise.  The largest province in the Peloponnese, modern Arcadia has been devastated by the effluvium from the Megalopoli power plant into the Alfeios river.

The ancients believed that the Alfeios ran under the sea and came to the surface in Sicily, where it sprang up as the Arethusa, the modern Fonte Aretusa, near Syracuse.  This completes the apocalyptic trope, as visitors to the province of Syracuse soon learn that it too, like its Greek cousin in ancient mythology, has been polluted by a power plant.  Here in Sicily, the byword for environmental blight is Augusta.

Whether technological or industrial in origin, rooted in politicians’ opportunism or in developers’ greed, few places in the cradle of Western civilization have escaped such disfigurement.  It is preposterous to think of the Mediterranean as a holiday destination, as many Northern Europeans do, murmuring under their breath that thank goodness there are still some unspoilt bits left them.  The folly of it is the European counterpart of the innocence with which the American visitor to Windsor famously remarked that the castle is nice—too bad they’ve built it so close to Heathrow.

Rather it behooves these northerners to ask, if the divine landscape of Greece and Italy has been so wrecked by opportunism and greed, what of their own landscape?  What of Britain, Germany, Russia?  Historically, what had happened in the Mediterranean in all things—in science, in art, in war—happened in due course in the world at large.  What reason to suppose that this time round the gods will spare us?

A hypocrite’s retort to the environmentalist’s wail is that the Mediterranean is no Disneyland and must keep up with progress.  “Real people live here,” runs the argument beloved of corrupt Italian, Spanish, and Greek politicos, “not shepherds and shepherdesses from central casting.  The landscape is for them, not they for the landscape, and whether it’s fossil fuels or wind turbines they need for modern living, let’s have it.  So long as it isn’t nuclear power, of course.”

The dastardly thing about this argument is that it sounds socialist to socialists and Thatcherite to socialites.  One plays well in the couloirs of perennially socialist European politics, while the other goes down a treat in the corridors of Coalition power.

In fact, in Britain the tradition of bulldozing landscape ascends to the epoch of Thatcher’s successors, when much of the political responsibility had passed on to the great reformer’s ideological epigones, with only her doctrines and none of her wisdom to guide them.  Examples of the 1990’s witch hunt for alleged vestiges of socialism abound, and it is enough to recall the abolition in 1997 of the century-old Net Book Agreement, which made British literary culture the dumping ground for American publishers that it is today, to realize just how irreversible the damage.

How to balance Arcadia with the exigencies of housing, transport, and climate is the question dominating the comment pages.  With the Localism Bill approaching in Parliament, and 60 years of planning policy set to go up in the smoke of the developers’ bulldozers, the planning and wind-energy debate is dividing the government.  Less closer to home is the bewilderment of the visitor to Sicily who must pass through a forest of wind turbines to arrive at the ancient Greek temples of Selinunte, or of the resident of a city like Palermo, who must trudge through miles of putrid Bauhaus concrete that goes by the name of social housing before he can glimpse the Moorish domes.

The specter of socialism now haunting the Coalition, as it haunted the Thatcherite ideologues in John Major’s day, will not be exorcised from the body politic by more cheap housing, more wind turbines, more supermarkets and flyovers.  On the contrary, such an absurd and vicious assault on Britain’s physical and social landscape is nothing but socialism by capitalist means, well known, in fact, to the ideologues of Soviet politburos under the name state capitalism.  Whenever an ideologically driven government begins to collude with vast economic powers to bring about social change, let the citizen beware.

When Alpheus fell in love with Arethusa, spying on her as she bathed, the nymph spurned the youth’s advances and became the spring that forever bears her name.  So our civilization, if it is to survive, must spurn the advances of ideology.