There could be at least some silver lining in the horrible black cloud of coronavirus. It might prompt the general change of direction and of mindset of the kind that the world so desperately needs. But, says Colin Tudge, if we leave our future in the hands of governments, we will probably just continue to lurch from crisis to crisis.
The Weston A Price Foundation no less has issued a blog to say that the coronavirus epidemic is “A Total Scam” which the world is taking far too seriously — apart from President Trump of course who thinks it will go away if he ignores it and shouts at journalists. Covid-19, says Weston Price, is no worse than winter flu which is nasty and kills people but doesn’t warrant a potentially global shut-down.
This, very obviously, is nonsense. Some bona fide experts predict that covid-19 could infect 50-80% of the world population. Conservatively, that could be around 4 billion people. The death rate has been around 3% which, if things pan out as predicted, means a total tally of around 120 million; equivalent, almost, to the populations of Britain and France combined; almost twice the number who died in World War II, which was by far the bloodiest conflict in human history; about six times as many as died in the flu pandemic of 1918-1920, which killed more people than the battles of World War I. If that is not serious it is hard to see what is.
The British government has responded with what many see as commendable vigour but others, including President Macron of France, feel is too little too late. In the background lurks the spectral, somewhat alien figure of Dominic Cummings, more interested it seems in his conception of the economy than in the human condition or the state of the biosphere. The newly-appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, has floated a £350 billion emergency fund with more to come. The latest government slogan in this age of slogans is “Whatever it takes!” As John Maynard Keynes pointed out, governments can always find money when they feel they need to. The response sounds heroic and is as the government points out, unprecedented. But then, covid-19 is itself unprecedented so of course the response must be too. We need to be asking — Is it enough? Is it in time? Will the money go to the people who need it and deserve it most – before they go bust?
As always in times of crisis, farmers are in the firing line. As always, the devil is in the detail. Thus a farmer friend of ours relies as many do on a holiday rental – farmers need to diversify these days if they want to earn enough to stay in business, and actually produce food. But people are cancelling bookings and disaster looms. More broadly, over the past 40 years of neoliberalism successive governments of all parties have been proud to tell us that Britain’s economy is above all globalised; firmly plugged in to the one grand global market. Accordingly, we import about half of our food and a great deal of the feed for our increasingly industrialised livestock. It’s cheaper that way and therefore more profitable and profit is seen as the sine qua non. Some governments, including the present one and Tony Blair’s “New Labour” government of the 1990s, seriously wondered and wonder whether we should farm in Britain at all, since so many foreigners have more sunshine and cheaper labour, and are happy to economise on safety.
More generally, British governments are urban-based and are content to live in an abstract, idealised world and have no feel for farming. Quite simply, they do not take it seriously. ‘Twas ever thus. Globalised agriculture in embryonic form was already on the cards more than 200 years ago, when we were importing cotton wholesale from India and wheat from America. Then, the Napoleonic wars and the threat of blockade focused attention on the need to grow food at home. At least it did until the memory faded and Britain’s farming was again neglected – until World War I again showed the need for it. But by the 1930s agriculture was run down once more – until the awful shock of World War II and the Atlantic blockade. During the war and until around 1970 British governments again took agriculture seriously – although, with the munitions factories idle after the war and with technophilia riding high, agriculture was launched very firmly on the road to agrochemistry and industrialisation. Not wise. Still, for a couple of decades or so, farmers were valued, and helped.
Then, in the 1970s, with neoliberalism on the horizon, interest in farming faded again. Agriculture began to be seen simply as another way of making money – “a business like any other” – and not a very efficient one at that. Better (some said) just to let it go the way of Britain’s coal mines and steelworks. Relics from yesteryear.
The present pandemic, horrible though it is, will be finite. The virus will surely stay with us and the whole coronavirus group will surely throw up new variants, each needing to be dealt with, but the pandemic phase of covid-19 will surely run its course. Those of us who survive – by far the majority – will largely be immune, and although the expression “herd immunity” has somewhat fallen into disrepute of late, it is, in the end, what will do the trick. It’s the same with all infective diseases apart from the kind that have mastered the trick of hanging around, like TB and leprosy. More quick-fire pathogens whatever form they take generally induce immunity in those they don’t kill and so they run out of potential hosts and can no longer go on the rampage. So it is that epidemics of measles or small pox or plague run through vulnerable populations like wildfire until there’s enough herd immunity to make life difficult; and often these days (more often than not, if the money is well spent) better hygiene and mass vaccination can prevent further epidemic. We may hope that coronavirus will be hastened on its way some time in 2021 by an effective vaccine, and subsequently kept in check.
But – and it’s a huge “but” — horrible though the present pandemic is, it is not the worst of the world’s ills. It is dwarfed by far by the louring threats of global warming, mass extinction, general environmental degradation, rising numbers, global hunger, mass poverty, growing inequality, and huge, perfectly justified discontent, leading to personal misery, societal breakdown, and an endless succession of conflicts, including all-out wars – too many even for most governments to keep track of; all exacerbated by mass migration of people from the worst-hit regions to countries that on the whole don’t want them. All those problems will still be with us when the pandemic is past.
So although all sensible minds and economies are focused on the present crisis, we must also be thinking ahead. Beyond question, the pandemic will change the world. Future generations, at least for a few decades, will divide history into the time before coronavirus, and the time after, just as my parents’ generation used to speak of the time before the war and the time after.
Over the past few decades a succession of international conferences and learned reports, plus various individual scientists, popes, and archbishops, have been telling us that “we cannot continue with business as usual” — but then the world’s most powerful governments, including Britain’s, have in general carried on as before, usually without breaking step. Yet the present pandemic, if it takes hold in the way that seems likely, must – surely? – cause even the most intransigent governments to realise that they, and we, really do have to change our ways and our preconceptions. The present pandemic was not directly caused by global warming or mass extinction or industrial farming but it must bring home the point that present ways of doing things, on all fronts, leave the whole world horribly vulnerable. We need to calm things down; take the heat out of our lives; stop seeking to grow the economy and compete to be richer than anyone else; stop believing quite so ardently in the algorithms of high tech and global trade. We surely should not seek to become insular and self-centred in the style of Trump and Putin but we should certainly seek to become more self-reliant, and to focus afresh on the things that really matter – personal fulfilment, convivial societies, a flourishing biosphere.
This would be a transformation, a metamorphosis – and the key to it, the world over, is agriculture. We need what I for some years have been calling “Enlightened Agriculture” aka “Real Farming” — rooted in the ideas of Agroecology (treat all farms as ecosystems) and Food Sovereignty (every society should have control of its food supply). More broadly, Enlightened Agriculture is rooted in the guiding principles of ecology and morality — as all human endeavours need to be. In practice it requires low-input farming (organic is at least the default position) with mixed farms (where feasible) with emphasis on agroforestry, usually in small-to-medium-sized units, with plenty of skilled farmers and growers, feeding primarily into local or regional economies. All nations should strive for self-reliance in food – at least producing enough of the basics to get by on – and exporting food only when the home population is well fed, and importing only what is truly desirable and cannot reasonably be grown at home. Such farming needs a corresponding cuisine – which basically means traditional cooking: “plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety”. There is no need for veganism on the one hand or ersatz meat on the other, which some see as panaceas, now bound in unlikely alliance.
In other words, we need agriculture that is almost diametrically opposite to the kind that successive British governments have been promoting for past 40 years – high-input, high tech farming on units as large as possible with minimum to zero labour, geared to the global market, and producing only what is most profitable.
So how in practice will the British government and other powerful governments respond when the covid-19 pandemic has run its course? Will they acknowledge that the world really does have to change, radically, at all levels – technical, economic, political, moral, and most broadly in mindset — and focus on what used to be called human values? Or will Boris, Cummings, Rees-Mogg, Gove and their cohorts, if they are still in power, endeavour, whatever they may promise to the contrary, simply to resurrect the status quo ante – high-tech neoliberalism with top-down control, masquerading as democracy?
I suspect the latter, for Britain’s governments since about 1980 have been one-trick ponies, technophilic and neoliberal. To them, that is progress; the trappings of a “developed” society. To them the status quo ante is normality, and normality is good and must be restored.
I become more than more convinced that we really cannot leave governments to manage the things that really matter: medicine, education, the biosphere at large, and above all farming. Governments are needed to dole out central funding but absolutely not to strategise and to micro-manage. Still less should we do what the present government and recent governments want to do, and hand responsibility to “the private sector”, which in practice means corporates. We need a new kind of economy, and new ways of governing ourselves. There are plenty of promising models out there and some encouraging precedents, which show that those models can work, given half a chance.
If this kind of idea emerges from the present pandemic – that we need a radical re-think, and that we cannot allow governments to do the thinking for us – then that would at least be considerable compensation for the present disaster.
Colin Tudge is currently writing a book to discuss the kind of changes that need to be made, and how. It should be published by the end of this year.