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.

2 thoughts on “Sustainable, yes – but what are we trying to sustain?

  1. Great article, Mr.Tudge, and I applaud your clear-sighted but un-sceptical stance on what I myself see as a dire situation – “quasi-feudalism propped up by gratuitous high tech” etc.

    Looking forward to reading The Great Re-Think!

  2. At last, someone asking the obvious question.

    In the 1987 UN document “Our Common Future” (aka The Bruntland report) told us, “No single blueprint of sustainability will be found, as economic and social systems and ecological conditions differ widely among countries.”

    This entirely avoids the issue of what “sustainability” means. The issue is not a missing blueprint, or variation in economic, social or ecological systems. The main problem with sustainability is that nobody knows what we want to sustain.

    There are many candidates, though there’s no guarantee that any pair of them can be sustained simultaneously. Human populations? Inequity? A particular way of life? Someone’s living standards? Certain bits of our culture? Somebody’s current set of values? Our economic, financial or banking systems? Energy supplies? Food supplies? A particular legal system? Coffee? The current set of intergovernmental organisations? The current political map of the world? The extent of tropical forests? Atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases? Human health? Or something about our environment – perhaps the ecological integrity of something (if only someone would define ecological integrity)? Numbers of non-human species?

    Just what has been sustained over the last thousand years?

    Or even the last hundred?

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