Our reactions to the G20 and ambivalence to rural life are symptoms of a wider dislocation

Two headlines grabbed my attention last week: the trillion dollars pledged by the G20 to be pumped into the global economy, and a survey revealing that one in 10 people in Britain can’t identify a sheep. I was torn as to which I should write about until it occurred to me that, deep down, they are connected.

Last week’s G20 agreement has been hailed as a historic turning point in global economic affairs, and a personal triumph for Gordon Brown. The headline-grabbing wad of cash pledged by the world’s richest nations, plus a set of measures aimed at curbing the more wayward practices of Anglo-American banking, seem to have left most people satisfied.

Thanks to the synchronised flourish of 20 gold-plated pens, a looming global crisis has apparently been averted, and we can all get back to a mildly chastened version of business as usual. Phew.

But what exactly has been achieved? A system of flagrant mismanagement and opacity — the chief engine of which has been a fantasy lifestyle fuelled by the exploitation of people and resources, the apparent “growth” of which turns out to have been a parallel fantasy — has been hauled back off the crash pile and kick-started in the hope that this time round it will run a better race.

Like the Industrial Revolution before it, the global economy is a machine driven by its own internal logic. Social transformation is its by-product, not its goal. When cash injections and financial regulation are the only language we can find to discuss what is ultimately a matter of human dwelling, we have a problem.

Take living in cities, for example. These days, the notion that mass migration from rural to urban areas is both inevitable and inherently beneficial goes largely unchallenged. The trappings of urban life — a TV, a car, a washing machine — are thought to easily outweigh the disadvantages of rural poverty. What is less commonly admitted is that rural poverty is itself often the consequence of urban migration. In many parts of the world, living in the countryside is no longer an option precisely because the countryside has been transformed in order to feed cities. As for whether urban life is better than rural, why not ask the 26 million Chinese migrant workers who currently find themselves unemployed?

All of which brings me back to those sheep. How is it possible in a nation blessed with fertile agricultural land — 70% covered in it, no less — that one in 10 of us can’t recognise a sheep? OK, not everybody eats lamb or wears woolly jumpers, but the point is that we live totally cut off from nature, from reality. Six hundred years ago Britain was one of the richest nations on earth, thanks to its superior sheep. Our woolly friends may not be the economic force they once were, but they can still mow the grass while fertilising the soil, make us smile as they frolic in the spring, and provide us with clothes and delicious Sunday lunches.

The global economy is like a paper trade-wind blowing miles above our heads. It affects us not because it is directly connected to our lives, but precisely because it isn’t. Sheep, trillions of dollars: take your pick. It’s all about how we live, and what we value.