The biology of politics

Colin Tudge seeks to explain why the nice majority of people allow themselves to be ruled by a nasty minority

Most people are nice most of the time – meaning unselfish, cooperative, compassionate: feeling that other people – and other species – matter, and willing to put themselves out on others’ behalf. All of us are capable of nastiness but by far the majority would prefer to be nice, if they are not taken advantage of thereby. Most of us, too, are happy to be part of the gang. Few truly choose to be solitary, and few truly relish being out in front. Few of us except perhaps in moments or euphoria truly want to be leaders and even fewer are truly endowed with leadership qualities.

But human beings, like all successful species, are heterogeneous, not to say polymorphic. Some stand out among us. Sometimes this is to the good – for the world would be a sadder and certainly a duller place without the genius of Beethoven, or Einstein, or Prince Siddhattha Gotama. Some good people of genius are also outstanding leaders: Mahatma Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela come to mind. All sought to lead their societies and indeed all humanity into better times. It is surely true, too, more generally, that the most universally successful long-term survival tactic is not to be ultra-competitive but to be cooperative; and cooperativeness is best reinforced by compassion – a sense that other people matter too. As Jesus put the matter, “the meek shall inherit the Earth”.

Alas, though, in the short term, until such time as society slumps into depression or explodes in chaos and war, it can pay those of selfish mien who seek to come out on top to be ultra-competitive, and as ruthless as may be necessary. Vicious, in short. Nasty. A few very rare individuals combine viciousness with some at least of the qualities of leadership – enough to induce others to follow them. Alas, too, the short term dominates the long term, for in practice the long term is merely a succession of short terms joined end to end.

Vicious thugs are both rare and damaging, and people who are both rare and damaging are commonly classed as psychopaths. But vicious thugs who also have enough chutzpah to inspire others are all too likely to dominate whatever society they live in – and so the world is always liable to be dominated by psychopaths. The present line-up includes Assad in Syria; Bolsonaro in Brazil; Modi in India; Viktor Orban in Hungary; several in Africa; and for the time being at least – who knows how long? – the unspeakable General Min Hlaing in Burma. But the global brand leaders in organized psychopathy are Putin in Russia and Xi Jinping in China. Donald Trump desperately wanted to join this all-powerful cabal and buddied up to both of them. But they rejected him. America has too much history – or perhaps too little. Also, of course, Trump wasn’t and isn’t bright enough. The super-elite are indeed vicious thugs but they are also clever. The world as a whole is all very public school, at its worst. No out-and-out thickos are allowed in the prefects’ room, or not at least in the inner circle.

All this is very primitive, in the proper sense of the word: reflecting our biological origins. For in the end human beings are primates – the third chimpanzee, as Jared Diamond put the matter; and as chimpanzees we are super-social creatures who quickly languish and die when isolated. But we are also tribal – which is good and advantageous insofar as it prompts us to cooperate with our neighbours, and bad and generally very damaging insofar as it prompts us to treat outsiders as the enemy. We are cursed too as chimps are with an in-built urge to follow whoever we perceive to be a strong leader – primarily to protect ourselves against the apparent or sometimes real threat of attack by rival tribes. The irony is, of course, that it’s the leaders who make the wars. Ordinary people just get to fight them. People on opposite sides who personally may have much in common – a shared love of football or home and hearth or wildlife or whatever – try to kill each other, in essence to protect the interests of their ostensible leaders with whom they have nothing in common at all, except that they live in the same country, though without ever meeting.

All this of course is just story-telling, an exercise in speculative biology. Yet it is enough, I suggest, at least in outline, to explain the past and present fate of the world: why we allow ourselves to be led by people who play by different rules from most of us — people who in large part hold us in contempt, except insofar as we are useful; why indeed the nice majority allow themselves to be ruled by a minority of psychopaths who are often extremely nasty.

This account, as it stands, provides no solutions. But diagnosis comes before cure, and I think it is helpful to spell out the nature of the problem.

These ideas are expanded in Colin’s latest book, The Great Re-Think, published by Pari

WANTED: A different attitude to science

Linnaea floribus geminatis = Linnaea borealis in Flora Svecica… (1745, Stockholm) by Carl Linnaeus

The Linnean and other learned societies might soon be priced out of their prestigious headquarters in London’s Piccadilly – and this, says Colin Tudge, reveals a deep flaw in our attitude to science

In our materialist, neoliberal society in which money is the measure of all things science is construed, and taught, almost entirely as a materialist pursuit — as the source of high technologies that can “compete” in the world market and make us all rich. (Or at least make some of us rich — those who are deemed to matter. Who, broadly speaking, are the ones who are rich already). Science is supposed to achieve this by helping us (humanity; known in Parnassian vein as “Man”) to control or indeed to “conquer” nature, roughly as recommended by Francis Bacon at the start of the 17th century, when recognizably modern science first got decisively underway. The immediate aim was and is to adjust the otherwise hostile natural world to our needs: “conquer” disease, keep us well fed, and generally make us more comfortable (and indeed richer).

The 18th century, the climactic age of the “Enlightenment”, saw the rise of capitalism and forged the grisly alliance of science and money that is with us still. Science provides the material understanding that gives rise to bigger and smarter technologies that in turn are geared to the perceived compulsion to maximize wealth – measured in money. William Blake’s “dark satanic mills” captures the thinking admirably. Conventional thinking has it too that all human endeavour is driven by our innate human desire to acquire and to dominate. These are not attractive characters, many might feel, but they are perceived nonetheless to be the defining features of human nature, shaped over aeons by natural selection, which has required us above all to compete, wax fat, and multiply our own particular kind, or at least to multiply the genes that ultimately underpin our urge to acquire and dominate. Or that at least has been the prevailing view these past few decades. The desire to be rich and dominant is therefore perceived to be natural and therefore to be right.

All of the above is dubious biology (which sadly misrepresents Darwin), and very bad moral philosophy, for as many a philosopher and Christian saint has pointed out, what is natural is not necessarily what is morally right. Much more to the point, though, is that there is no good reason to assume that greed and acquisitiveness are the prime features of human nature – or of any other creature, come to that — and there are many reasons to suppose that they are not.

Then again, the materialism of science and the spirituality of religion are often seen to be at odds. They seem to lead us to quite different worldviews. At least, again, that seems to be the received truth. Yet the great scientists and philosophers of science who launched the age of recognizably modern science in the 17th century were all devout: Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Leibniz, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, John Ray. All saw their research as a form of worship – seeking to understand the mind of God and hence to draw closer to him. To be sure, they could be very practical too. Newton pursued astronomy partly as an aid to navigation. Hooke’s microscopy had very obvious relevance to medicine. All in all though those fathers of modernity felt the same way about science as J S Bach, some decades later, felt about music; that it was for the glory of God. For them, science was a spiritual quest.

I can’t myself claim to be a bona fide scientist but I wanted to study biology from the age of six (nature study we called it at that innocent age) and it was the aesthetics and the sense of mystery – the thrill — that drew me into it: the world of nature pervaded by a sense of what the German theologian Rudolf Otto called “the numinous”; of an underlying intelligence; an underlying divinity. Later I earned a living by writing about science and met and talked to many hundreds of scientists and medics and I know that many of them feel that way too, even if they don’t necessarily express the thought in the language of Christian theology. Science, they feel, at its roots, is an aesthetic and spiritual pursuit. That is what it is really for, and why it deserves a special place in our culture. And that, I suggest, without dumbing down, is how it should be taught.

Such thoughts have now been brought to the surface by news in The Observer (February 18, 2021, p 3) that our dyed-in-the-wool neoliberal government wants to charge the five learned societies that lodge in London’s Burlington House an “economic rent”: the same amount that an oil sheikh or a Russian oligarch or Donald Trump might be prepared to pay to dwell amongst such real estate. I’m sure the super-rich could get permission to park their helicopters in Green Park (or anything else they might want to do) and then it’s just a brief stroll across Piccadilly. With cops to hold up the traffic and their personal bodyguards they’ll be safe enough. Obviously the learned societies should pay the going rate. Stands to reason, doesn’t it? And what trumps reason? And what is reason, but calculation? And isn’t money the universal calculus, and hence the ultimate measure of worth and of value?

The five learned tenants of Burlington House include the Society of Antiquaries of London; the Geological Society; the Royal Astronomical Society; the Royal Society of Chemistry; and the Linnean Society. The sixth inhabitant – the Royal Academy of Arts – is not apparently affected by the rent hike. The Linnean Society is close to my heart. I was a Fellow for some years before I foolishly allowed my fellowship to lapse when we left London. But I visited the library a lot when I wrote my book on taxonomy, The Variety of Life (which I would love to update, incidentally. Though not as a solo turn this time round, if anyone out there is interested). I also went to quite a few meetings, though not enough, and they were, and still are, splendid.

Much or most of the Linnean Society’s work is of direct relevance to everyday life, contributing directly to the wellbeing of humanity and the natural world. But also – and for my money of even greater significance – the Linnean has been and still is a guardian of “pure” biology, of scholarship for its own sake, not simply to control nature for our own material benefit but to enable us more fully to appreciate the world we find ourselves in. There is still a strong emphasis on taxonomy but the overall vision of the society is far broader, as recorded on its website: to contribute to “a world where nature is understood, valued, and protected”. Absolutely.

Among much else the Linnean houses some fine collections – not least of original illustrations by Beatrix Potter, who was a wonderful observer of the natural world as is evident not simply from her magical depictions of fungi but also from Peter Rabbit and the rest. Peter wears a blue blazer but he’s still a very rabbity rabbit. Perhaps the Linnsoc’s greatest coup was the paper by Messrs Darwin, C, and Wallace, A R, which was read in their absence in 1858, on their parallel insights into evolution by means of natural selection – although the society secretary, in his annual report, famously or infamously recorded that nothing much of interest had happened that year. Wallace wasn’t there because he was in darkest Brazil and Darwin was holed up in darkest Kent or perhaps was taking noisome waters in some sulphurous spa. Darwin published Origin of Species just a year later, in 1859. Origin of Species was a rushed job. Darwin intended to write the definitive work later but never got around to it. Often the rushed jobs are the best. You never can quite “recapture that first, fine careless rapture”.

The Linnean was founded in 1788 and was granted its Royal Charter in 1802. It is named of course after the Swedish biologist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778). The Swedes liked to Latinize their names in those days. Linnaeus was truly the founder of modern taxonomy. He divided all living creatures (or all the ones he knew about) into two kingdoms, animal and plants (in which he somewhat waywardly included fungi. Surely he knew they are not plants?). Nowadays all living creatures are divided into three “domains” (Bacteria, Archaea, and Eucaryota) and the eukaryotes are split into about seven kingdoms including Animals, Plants, Fungi (which in truth are closer to animals than to plants) and a miscellany of seaweeds, slime moulds, and single-celled “protists”. But the basic hierarchical structure is still much the same as Linnaeus proposed.

He also bequeathed the modern way of naming living creatures – in Latin binomials, the generic name followed by the specific, as in Homo sapiens and Bellis perennis. He wasn’t quite as original as he may seem, however. Nobody ever is. All stand on the shoulders of giants, as Newton acknowledged, and depend on the labour of lesser lights (which Newton surely would not have acknowledged). Thus Linnaeus derived his Latin binomials largely

from the Latin herbals of earlier centuries and John Ray had made a very good fist of classification in the 17th century (though this is less well recognized than it should be). Linnaeus himself was a wonderfully flamboyant character, who led the local citizens on botanical rambles – with all of them kitted out in special livery and accompanied by a brass band. Presumably when and if he went bird-watching he left the brass band at home. But plants can’t run. (I like brass bands. But there’s a time and place.)

The Linnean Society moved to Burlington House in 1856. Sandra Knapp, now president of the society, told The Observer that the three buildings that surround the main courtyards of Burlington House “were built specifically for the use of the learned societies by Queen Victoria as a cultural hub in central London”. But although Britain’s governments in the mid-19th century were pretty hard-nosed, today’s neoliberals are even harder. Like Hermann Goering, when they hear the word “culture” they reach for their collective revolver. Thus in 2012 the Linnsoc paid £4000 in annual rent – peppercorn for such a place, but appropriately so. Then neoliberal ideology took over and by 2020 the rent had ballooned to £130,000 – a 3000% mark-up. “If this continues at this rate”, says Dr Knapp, “we will have to relocate”.

Where to? One wonders. Some big shed in, say, Slough? (Only 30 minutes to Central London by train. Even quicker by HS2, if it stopped there, which it won’t. Or anywhere else, apparently.) Surroundings matter, enormously. I personally was lured into biology partly or largely by visits with my pa to London’s Natural History Museum, its arches festooned with terracotta pterodactyls, grand and mysterious and other-worldly – yet not sci-fi but our own world as it once was. And what will happen to London’s “cultural hub”? The Victorians were into commerce, too, big time – it was, in the end, the point of the Empire – and they loved technology too. Both came together triumphantly in the Great Exhibition of 1851. But although orthodox Christian theology was losing its grip in England (receding, wrote Matthew Arnold in Dover Beach, in a “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar”) the Victorians very obviously retained a sense of values apart from those of razzmatazz and money. Broadly, they still very obviously had a sense of the sacred and of the divine. It’s that, above all, that seems to have gone missing. Only money counts these days, at least with the people with the most power, like our present government. The possible exodus of the Linnean and the others is a symbol of the materialist shift. The melancholy roar continues – to leave, so Arnold went on to say, only the “naked shingles of the world”.

For science, for humanity, and for our fellow creatures and the fabric of the Earth, this – essentially the loss of the sacred – is the most damaging blow of all.

Colin Tudge expands these ideas in The Great Re-Think.

Illustration of Linnaea floribus geminatis (Linnaea borealis) in Linnaeus’s Flora Svecica (1745, Stockholm). Image: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

POSTSCRIPT: THE BIGGER PICTURE

Two weeks after its article on The Linnean The Observer brought news of the government’s “reckless” cuts to UKRI – the UK Research and Innovation agency, which controls science funding in Britain: from £245 million to £125 million (14 March, p15). For alas, the plight of the Linnean is but a symptom of a far greater malaise – the deep philistinism of the present government and all it stands for, which is or are the very worst qualities of the Right: opportunistic, materialist, self-centred, dedicated above all else to tangible wealth and personal advancement. Everything that is necessary and most worthwhile in this country and is dependent on public support is starved of funds: science; the arts; agriculture; education; housing; transport; and, most immediately, the National Health Service which, our government has the effrontery to claim, is closest to its heart. All are threatened with privatization – takeover by the highest bidders. Instead of the things that matter we have short-term putative earners and vanity projects including the fifth Heathrow air-strip, HS2, and Boris’s absurd proposal for a (literal) bridge to Ireland. All will waste money, damage the biosphere still further, detract from the things that really matter, and lead us deeper into the mire.

The Tories and its splinter group UKIP affect to be patriotic, not to say chauvinistic. They also claim to be fiscally wise. Yet in their twelve years in power the succession of Tory governments (with noises off briefly from the Lib-Dems) has contrived to turn what they perceive to be Great Britain into a banana republic, selling off whatever is saleable (which seems to be all of it) and increasingly dependent on foreign capital and whim – the very opposite of the sovereignty that they claim to hold dear. Britain’s very palpable decline is not their fault of course. They blame the Left, the Russians, Iran, the EU, or whoever else may swim into view, and now Covid. But they are the government after all, and they have been for a long time. They do have a lot of real power. Surely a little bit of the buck must stop with them.

To put things right it isn’t enough just to vote for somebody else at the next election. Keir Starmer is the most plausible alternative and is surely a good man and this alone would be a pleasant change but it’s not enough. Neither Labour nor any other existing political party can do the things that really need doing. Indeed, probably, no mere political party of any conceivable kind can do what really needs doing. Government of one kind or another is surely necessary (societies need some kind of central organization, and someone has to take the decisions that affect the whole world) but governments alone can and should do only what the people at large want them to do. What’s most essential is that people at large should want the right kind of things and should have enough influence to ensure that those things happen.

As I argue in The Great Re-Think, to put things right – or at least to point the world in the right direction – we need first of all, the sine qua non, to spell out what it is we are actually trying to achieve: something more substantial than “Take back control” or “Put America first”. Our goal, I suggest, should be to create or at least to work towards “convivial societies – with personal fulfilment – within a flourishing biosphere”.

To achieve this, we need to re-think everything we now take for granted from first principles: what we value and why; what kind of government and economy we really need; what in practice we need to do, to create the kind of world we really want. Crucially, in the above, “we” means everyone. The change we need must be led by us. People at large.

High on the agenda is democracy. Democracy is difficult – indeed it can never be perfect. But we have to make it work. Most countries now claim to be democracies (some even have the word “democratic” in their title – often those with least claim to it) but in most countries, including this one, democracy at best is a travesty. Overall, the breadth and depth of the changes required amount to nothing less than a Renaissance, which literally means “re-birth”. But the Renaissance we need now must be people-led. Then, with the goal agreed and the appropriate structures in place, we can begin where necessary to re-structure. Not everything needs to be re-structured – some of what we have, including the NHS, is just what’s needed (at least in principle) and there are plenty of good models to build upon in other fields including agriculture and education; and there are even some good up-and-running economic models out there (including community ownership and various forms of cooperative). In practice the Renaissance we need can best be led by an Agrarian Renaissance – a re-think of farming and food. These in the end are the most important of all human pursuits, affecting everything else and affected by everything else. Serendipitously too, and despite appearances, they are the most amenable to a people’s takeover.

In short, what’s happening in the world at large in many countries including the biggest and most influential, is infinitely depressing; and for the most part the world’s most influential people are either wicked (it’s not too strong a word and in some cases is not strong enough) and/or ignorant and incompetent (often staggeringly so). Yet the present is exciting too. To borrow a phrase from the gung-ho neoliberals, “There are no problems – only opportunities”. Despite the best efforts of the people who now run the world we, people at large, do have an opportunity to set out and enact a new agenda: ideas and ways of life that really could keep humanity and the natural world in good heart in effect forever, starting with the next million years. Let’s go for it.

The Great Re-Think by Colin Tudge is published by Pari Publishing.

Sustainable, yes – but what are we trying to sustain?

Colin Tudge has been reading Farming is Changing, the government’s plan for Britain’s agriculture

It’s fashionable to stress these days that whatever we do in this life should be “sustainable”, which presumably means that whatever we do, we should be able to go on doing for as long as we want to do it. That seems eminently sensible. The alternative, after all, is to be unsustainable which (a) implies temporary (no long term solution in the offing) and (b) implies destructive (for otherwise it would be sustainable).

But there’s a huge snag, which seems rarely to be pointed out. For human societies and the world at large have often endured systems that in practice have been highly sustainable yet were, and are, extremely unpleasant, at least for most people. A world in which a tiny elite is extremely rich and the rest are slaves, who are fed no more than they need to stay alive and are prevented from breeding except to provide their own replacements, can be eminently sustainable. Ants prove this – and so can human beings, if they have a strong enough police force and smart surveillance. Or then again: a world in which 95% of present-day species had been lost could theoretically be sustainable if we retained the right species (though that is a big “if”, since we do not and cannot ever really know what species contribute what. Ecology is a young science which in any case, can never deal in certainties).

Indeed, the ecologically filleted scenario has long been with us in one form or another. Gardens are very desirable and can be wildlife havens in a crowded world and gardening is supreme among crafts, but gardens nonetheless can all too easily become an exercise in mass extinction. Uninvited wildlife is not welcome at Versailles. In homelier vein, weekend gardeners are encouraged to zap everything that did not come from Homebase with ever-smarter toxins that do come from Homebase. So it is too with farming. Farms can harbour a wondrous variety of wild creatures, providing many a niche for many specialist species that would otherwise be rare. Or else, in the interests of convenience and cash efficiency, they can be reduced to monocultures and Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).

The elites who preside over such social or ecological dystopias defend them with a shortlist of stock arguments. What is done may sometimes seem brutal, but it is necessary, they say. “There is no alternative”. In any case the status quo is just the way the world is – and is the way it is meant to be. The elite represent excellence, and excellence is what matters most. Or – forget all that, for all that really matters is that might is right. Besides, if there is no God, who is to judge? Or – better still – those with power simply take it to be self-evident that God, or the gods, must be on their side, for if it were not so then they, the elite, would not be on top. Many supporters of all the world’s nastiest autocrats claim to be operating within the dictats of their chosen religion, sometimes but by no means always with the approval of their priests. The leading prophet of the great religions, like Jesus, Muhammad, and the Buddha, must surely turn in their graves at much of what is done in their name.

In short, both forms of dystopia, the socially unjust and the generally destructive, or a mixture of the two, are eminently achievable and have often proved sustainable at least for centuries at a time. Slaves can be kept in line with tranquillisers, in the manner of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World – or simply by what Juvenal called “bread and circuses”. The energy needed to make the pesticides that keep nature in check can be provided by solar power.

Indeed, to a very large extent, are we not in dystopia already? As Mephistopheles said in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus when asked if he intended to return to Hell –“Why this is hell. Nor am I out of it”. Britain is certainly not the worst place to live but even here there is enormous, and increasing, inequality of income. It wouldn’t make sense for us all to earn exactly the same amount but at present there’s a 1000-fold discrepancy between richest and poorest (several million a year vs several thousand) and this on the face of things seems grotesque. On the ecological front, there are quite a few heartening examples of wildlife recovery (bitterns are booming, no pun intended) but the general decline this past half century has been catastrophic.

Surely, though, our elected government is on the case? Politicians still can’t bring themselves to use the term “biosphere”, meaning living world, and perhaps are unaware of it, but they do at least speak of “the environment”, meaning “surroundings”, and this was strictly the reserve of eccentrics when I was a lad. And did not George Osborne after the crash of 2008 tell us that “We are all in this together”? Didn’t David Cameron speak of “One nation”? Did he not speak of “compassion”? Indeed he did – while he and friend George were cutting benefits. Did he not promise that his Tories would be “the greenest government ever?” Indeed so – though budgets for conservation have been squeezed and squeezed until, as Denis Healey said in another context, “the pips squeak”.

In most recent times, did not the smiling Rishi Sunak promise to do all that is necessary, or at least possible, to help us through the economic disaster that must follow Covid? Yes he did – until this year’s autumn review, when he froze the wages of some of the least well paid and most deserving. Did not Boris promise above all to “support the NHS”? Yes indeed – which, I suggest, given the Tory track record, should set the alarm bells ringing. At the Tory Party conference of 2003 Iain Duncan Smith was clapped for an astonishing and absurd 18 minutes – and was booted out a few weeks later. Michael Gove’s OTT praise for Theresa May came only days before she too bit the dust. Beware the government bearing gifts.

Now the government is planning to reform or indeed to reconfigure Britain’s agriculture, as summarized in a 28-page leaflet called Farming is Changing. It is full of high-sounding sentiments, not least that farmers should be paid for protecting “the environment”: conserving wetland, planting trees, and the rest. But the government’s new strategy does not come close to doing what really needs to be done — which is to create an agriculture that is friendly both to wildlife and to people and yet provides us all with good food. The summary is heavy on re-wilding — which has its place but has obvious limitations — but has very little to say about food production which surely is what most people feel farming is really for. It is surely a good idea to get more wildlife on to farms and sometimes perhaps to replace unproductive farms with nature reserves, but presumably if we do that we will produce less food – so how is the deficit to be made good?

We could and presumably will buy more from abroad, thus transferring our own ecological problems elsewhere. This can be achieved with bilateral trade deals, notably with the US, or by re-colonising Africa, not with armies of soldiers and civil servants as in the nasty old days of Empire but benignly, through the legal, respectable, and effortlessly enforceable mechanisms of modern commerce. Home grown production can be boosted with “sustainable intensification” which means high tech and in particular, means biotech. High tech also has its place of course –it can be a huge and often vital asset (like the Covid vaccine) – but it should never be the first port of call. “Uncritical technophilia” is very dangerous. Finally, of course, in line with the global Zeitgeist, the present government is neoliberal to the core. It is taken to be self-evident that everything we do must be maximally profitable, or at least be profitable enough to “compete” in the deregulated (“free”) global market. Any other suggestion is “unrealistic”.

Neither to my knowledge has this, or any previous government, seriously asked how much food humanity as a whole (and Britain in particular) really needs to produce, and what proportion of what we do need should be produced at home. All these issues would require deep thinking, and deep thinking is not what governments like ours do. Serious inquiry leads all too easily to the rocking of boats or indeed to the derailment of gravy trains. The present government is, after all, Conservative, and their job, they feel, is to conserve the status quo (the clue is in the title).

In fact, taken all in all, the government’s plans, at least as summarised in its new leaflet, suggest that agriculture should be divided into two conceptual halves. On the one hand we will have high-tech cash-efficient corporates, running food factories and CAFOs. On the other hand we’ll have a cosmeticised countryside run by dispossessed farmers re-branded as game wardens and tour guides. We will engage with other countries not by working with them to make the world a better place – more just; more ecologically sound – but through trade deals and inevitably fragile treaties, intended primarily to maximize and concentrate disposable wealth. Farming, as the term has been understood these past 10,000 years, will disappear – which is exactly what some intellectuals and leading politicians would like to see happen.

Shiny new food factories and ever greater wealth and ever tighter organisation are equated with progress. Ecology is too messy and traditional farmers are often stroppy and best got rid of, like the miners. The end result, of course, would be a society that is even more hierarchical, with rich and super-rich landowners and shareholders — and the rest, which means most of us. This will be Feudalism in a modern guise: Feudalism supported by the tricks of modern finance, with corporates instead of aristocrats. As such it will be very robust. With energy supplied by the sun, wind, and nuclear power, it could indeed be sustainable; and since it would make the rich even richer, and hence more powerful, and the rich and powerful call the shots, it is all too likely to come about.

But is this the kind of world we want? Some farmers might be content to be game wardens and enjoy a steady income, at least until the policy changes, although most will have to retire or to “re-train” in something completely different (with, say, Amazon). A future generation might grow used to ersatz food, and forget what the real thing tastes like. This can happen very quickly. We can all be happy enough provided we comply – and those who don’t comply by definition are troublemakers and deserve to be done down. All autocrats agree on this, from Trump to Xi Jinping.

Yet a great many people feel in their bones that this really won’t do. Happiness should not depend on compliance with the status quo. The human spirit seems to have gone missing. The biosphere should not be seen simply as a resource, a cornucopia. On a practical level, trade deals, corporate-owned food factories run by technocrats, and synthetic wilderness are surely not the most desirable end-point – and for all kinds of reasons are unlikely to prove as sustainable as their protagonists suppose. Surely we need ways of farming that integrate reasonable levels of food production with true concern for our fellow creatures and for valued ways of life — plenty of employment in jobs that are both agreeable and fulfilling, and are good for society and the world as a whole.

In short, we do need to operate in ways that are sustainable – but it is vital, too, to sustain ways of life that are worth sustaining. We need as a sine qua non to define our goal: what are we trying to achieve, and why? And the goal, I suggest, should be “to create convivial societies, with personal fulfilment, within a flourishing biosphere”. Good farming is at the heart of this, for agriculture is at the heart of all the world’s affairs, both human and non-human; and to do what’s really needed it needs to be rooted in the principles of agroecology and food sovereignty (neither of which of course is mentioned in the government’s plans). What’s on offer, looked at sceptically, is quasi-feudalism propped up by gratuitous high tech, designed to compete for profit in the global marketplace. That is not what’s needed at all.

I discuss all this in my new book, The Great Re-Think. It will be launched in January 2021 but can be pre-ordered online from Blackwell’s and Waterstone’s.

Tough decisions? What tough decisions?

Colin Tudge reflects on the inability of government(s) to grasp the nettle

Rishi Sunak is not the worst government frontbencher by any means. At least until his Spending Review of 25 November, he might even have qualified as a good bloke. But then, even the best of ministers these past 40 years and for most of the time before that have fallen far short of what’s really needed. Thus he tells us that the government will be curbing foreign aid and freezing the wages of essential but public employees yet again because – much as he hates to – the covid-induced economic meltdown has forced him and his colleagues to make “tough decisions”.

The stark truth is, though, that governments like ours never make tough decisions. For Britain is still among the world’s richest countries despite the setbacks, and richer than many can dream of – for most in this finite world can never realistically aspire to our present material wealth. What we really need right now – and have needed for the past several millennia – is something resembling equitability: no-one too poor to live with dignity and with peace of mind, and no-one so rich that they impose their whims on the rest of us. Pope Gregory the Great, aka St Gregory, said this very thing in the 6th century.

But equitability really does require a shake-up. It requires the government by whatever means (taxes and land reform seem the most obvious) not to seek ever more, and ever more unrealistic, “growth” but to redistribute the nation’s wealth, from the top few per cent who would still be rich on a fifth of what they have now to the lowest third, who are very obviously suffering. That would indeed be tough – both because it would in practice be difficult technically but also because it would absolutely go against the present political grain and incommode the people with the most clout.

It’s the same with agriculture. All the new measures that the government is introducing or plans to introduce acknowledge that “business as usual” is no longer an option (it never was, but we’ll let that pass) – but the nettle, nonetheless, is never grasped. It is still taken more or less for granted that agriculture, like everything else, must not only be profitable (generate more money than is invested) but must make a profit even within the present economic structure – which means in competition with all other enterprises within the global market. Any other course is deemed to be “unrealistic”.

But right now, while oil is still affordable (because the price is adjusted to make sure that it is) and wealth is centralized in fewer and fewer hands (because that’s what happens in an unrestrained “free” market), the cheapest and hence the most profitable way to produce food is to replace human skill with machinery and industrial chemistry (throw people out of work), and introduce monocultures on the largest possible scale, and call that “efficiency”. The idea that agriculture should be led by ecological realism (agroecology) and justice (food sovereignty) is put on hold, or indeed is never seriously considered. The doctrine has it that the market and high tech will find a way.

Until and unless we govern ourselves according to the principles of morality (what is it right to do?) and of ecology (what is it necessary and possible to do?) we will continue to sink into the mire. But to get from where we are to where we need to be – that really would require tough measures. Among other things it would require governments like ours to take on their chums and to bite some of the hands that feed them.

The reality is that governments, including ours, are often harsh and sometimes downright brutal. But tough? Not really.

Colin Tudge’s latest book, The Great Re-Think, will be launched in January and can be pre-ordered online from Blackwell’s (with a discount) or Waterstone’s.