What is Real Farming? What is the Real World?

Each January for the past three years the Oxford Farming Conference has faced opposition from the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC), and many suggest that the two should make common cause.

As a co-founder of the OFRC, I think otherwise.

More and more people are suggesting that the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) and the Oxford Farm Conference (OFC) should, in effect, merge. They may seem to be on opposite sides, with the OFC as the voice of “orthodoxy” and the ORFC as the “alternative”, but there’s only one world and we all have to get along. Industrial farming and the free market can’t be all bad, any more than “alternative” necessarily implies “hippy” (or greenie or commie). Surely each side can learn from the other. Surely the future lies with compromise.

But as one of the instigators of the ORFC, I don’t think that a merger, or conciliation, or even compromise, would be wise. Of course there are good, sane farmers and good science and goodwill in both conferences but they represent two different worldviews – and “worldview” embraces everything: not just the details of farming or the economy or politics and certainly not just of the here-and-now but the whole sense of what all of these things are for, and how they ought to fit together.

Quite simply, the present economy is almost absolutely at odds with what might be called biological reality – the fact that human beings in the end are a species of animal, which like all species, share this world with millions of other species (apparently about eight million) with whom we have to come to terms.  The bottom line is that if we kill the rest then we will kill ourselves. Economics as a whole seems to have lost touch with its roots. It ought to be about household management (where “household” includes everything from individual homes to entire nations to the whole world) but nowadays in most people’s minds including the minds of economists and politicians it just means money – more and more of it. With money comes power.

Present politics, for all the talk of democracy, in truth is very hierarchical just as was true of Feudalism. Supporters of neoliberalism – the modern, prevailing form of capitalism — argue that the free market is innately democratic because Tesco, say, cannot survive unless we (known as “consumers”) buy from them. We could stop them in their tracks by boycotting their shops and the fact that we don’t proves that we like them; and if huge and powerful organizations thrive only because we, people at large, like them – well: if that’s not democracy it’s hard to say what is. But life isn’t that simple. The corporates are now so powerful that they can shape the markets more or less to their will, riding rough-shod over individuals and local governments, and the collateral damage to people, our fellow creatures, and the Earth, is huge. Politics ought to be about service: heroic people volunteering to help to make the world a better place. Politicians need power if they are to do anything useful – power granted to them by people at large, so long as they act on the people’s behalf. But power is a buzz and it brings a great deal of privilege and politics all too easily becomes a game of power for its own sake.

Thus the concepts both of economics and of politics are seriously debased – and when you put the two together in their debased form you get a seriously grisly synergy. The organizations that become richest and hence most powerful are the ones that are most single-mindedly dedicated to the generation of wealth – and they in practice are the corporates, which are designed expressly for that purpose. The politicians who become the most powerful are the ones who do the sweetest deals with those generators of wealth. A too-cozy relationship between the government and the generators of wealth used to be called corruption. Now it is called reality. Individuals flit between cabinet and board-room and make a virtue of it.

Science ought to be about truth – how does the world really work? If we want science to get anywhere near the truth then we have to employ very intelligent people and then give them the freedom to think and the resources with which to explore. There have been times when some societies have done this. Right now, though, certainly in Britain, if you want to be employed as a scientist, and become a professor or director, especially in a science that has any kind of commercial pay-off as agriculture does, then you more or less have to take instructions from a corporate or from government; and it is increasingly difficult to tell the difference, since university departments, ostensibly public bodies, increasingly rely on corporate wealth.

So we have a positive feedback loop. Governments get into power by supporting corporates who make it possible for them to run for office; and they stay in power by supporting the generators of wealth; and scientists and technologists (and other experts and intellectuals too, but scientists and technologists are the great facilitators) can stay in work only by helping this nexus of power to do what it does. The loop is thus complete. Governments support corporates which support scientists who produce the kinds of “high” (science-based) technologies that produce wealth for corporates which in turn use some of that wealth to keep governments in power.

Some may write this off as conspiracy theory but it is not. The positive feedback loop that runs the world requires no conspiracy. On the one hand it simply requires the laws of physics – in particular, the laws of complexity, which in the nature of things produce organization out of chaos, which in this case means corporates out of primitive markets. On the other hand it demonstrates the principle of symbiosis, which in nature is universal, and is seen among creatures like fungi and algae that do not have the wits to conspire. Natural selection is all that’s needed. Fungi and algae that learn to live with each other, thrive. Together they form lichens. Neither player gives the matter a moment’s thought but natural selection ensures that the two together do very well and so there are lichens the world over on every rock and wall and tree. The nexus of corporate power, modern government, and big science is a metaphorical lichen.  Those who play the game get on, and those who don’t, don’t.

So is what is really real? What really matters? The status quo – the world created by the nexus of money, government, and science-based technology – looks good on the surface, and in the brochures. By carefully selected narrative the present can be made to look far better than the past, and in some respects it obviously is better. But the state of world as a whole – of the Earth, of humanity and of our fellow creatures — has never been more parlous. Everyone, even the Chief Scientist to the Government, agrees that we can’t go on as we are. For a great many people (the many millions who are starving to death or waiting for the next bombing raid) and for the many animals and plants that are going extinct, it could not conceivably be worse. The impression is given from the ruling nexus of corporates, government, and science that all the good things in the world depend on this nexus: that we would not have antibiotics if it wasn’t for Bayer or the erstwhile Glaxo; that we would all starve without Syngenta; that there would be no coffee without Starbuck’s. The impression is given too that all the bad things in the world are bad luck – or due to the fecklessness of human beings. After all, if the billion people who are now chronically undernourished had not been born – if their parents had exercised a little restraint – then they would not be starving. It stands to reason. But actually, of course, the reverse is at least equally true. Antibiotics were not invented by a private company and were developed in World War II by co-operatives of scientists. Syngenta’s and Monsanto’s GMOs have contributed nothing of unequivocal value that could not have been produced just as well (more cheaply and safely) by other means. There was coffee before there was Starbuck’s. People starve not because there are too many people but because the present food chain is not designed to feed everybody. It feeds only those who can pay. That’s what the market means.

So this, as I see it, is the key difference between the “alternative” ORFC and the “official” OFC.  The OFC accepts the status quo as the natural and inevitable state of the world, and calls it “reality”. It focuses accordingly on the details of the status quo: the future of the CAP; how in general to make farming more profitable; whether British farmers can afford to be kind to livestock if the continentals are not; and so on.

But the ORFC (as I see it) starts with the premise that we should not take the status quo for granted. The neoliberal form of capitalism, all-powerful hierarchical governance, and science that focuses more or less exclusively o profit are not the inevitable way of things and they are not producing a good, safe world. We need to live with the status quo in the short term because we are all stuck with it. Farmers have to make a living in the short term or there can be no long term. But also, and increasingly as matter of urgency, we have to ask whether the ideas that now underpin all human activity can really produce a world that is worth living in, or is really the best that we can do. These include the idea that the world works best if we all focus primarily on generating wealth, and that the fabric of the Earth itself and all our fellow creatures are mere resources, waiting to be turned into commodities, or more generally that some people are better than others and have more rights, or that people who belong to learned societies are necessarily the wisest, or that we can safely leave our affairs to experts and intellectuals. Indeed we should be asking, and never stop asking, what we are really trying to do on this Earth, and why. But we shouldn’t be asking these questions simply as an exercize in navel-gazing. As we address them, we see that there many ways of running the world, quite different from those that now prevail. We can also see that some brave pioneers have already shown how some of those ideas can work, for the public good, and for the benefit of the Earth itself.

As always, farmers and farming were at the core of this year’s ORFC, as they must be. But also, as always, excellent people from many walks of life addressed the state of the world as a whole in which we all live, and in which farming operates – and tried (insofar as this is possible in two days) to get a feel for how all the different threads weave together. Maybe it would be possible to address these issues with equal vigour within the purlieus of the OFC.  Maybe it would be possible to address them even more broadly, using corporate wealth to bring in speakers and delegates from all over the world. But in practice it is very difficult to see how or why the corporates who support the OFC which in turn is intended to reinforce the status quo, could seriously support discussions that question the whole basis of their existence.

So I reckon that for the time being at least, the ORFC, like the Campaign for Real Farming (which plays a very large part in the ORFC) should plough its own furrow. We might draw an analogy with China, or India, or Japan. For decades, all those countries turned their backs on the western economy that was seen to be the orthodoxy, and did not seek serious contact until they were good and ready. Then they took the world by storm. In the same way over the next few years the ORFC and the Campaign should focus on building the alternative – alternative philosophy, economy, governance, practice. Then, without conflict, and without wasting thousands of person- hours in fruitless discussions, these alternative ideas and ways will become the norm. That is the method of Renaissance. That, I reckon, is our best and probably our only hope.

Colin Tudge, Wolvercote, January 16 2012

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