Oxford Real Farming Conference Global 2021 starts in just three days

Starting this Thursday, January 7 at 12 noon (GMT) ORFC Global 2021 will bring together thousands of farmers and food activists from across the world  Our new video gives a taster of what to expect. This is the biggest ever gathering of the real food and farming movement! We are proud and excited to be welcoming over 500 speakers from 75 countries at this crucial time in the future of our food and farming system.

Have you booked your tickets yet?



BeyondHERE webinars start next week (October 26)

The BeyondHere fellowship series is back with a new Autumn/Winter webinar programme that connects UK communities with inspiring international initiatives and approaches from other parts of the world.

Running from 26 October – 30 November facilitators from six global cities will share their place-based experience to explore new models of democratic working, local economic development, systems change, and education.

The series will include

+ Study Groups & Local Co-op Development
+ Impact Capital & the Growth of Employee Ownership
+ The Future of Organisational Design
+ Barefoot Lawyers & the Environment
+ Make your own Distributed Co-operative Organisation (DisCO)

NB For those of you who are fans of Ivan Illich – one of the most radical thinkers of the late 20th century, this webinar presented by Dougald Hine (co-founder of Dark Mountain and a school called HOME) will tell the story of his journey into the world of Illich’s friends and co-conspirators, how their work contributed to movements from Asset-Based Community Development to the Zapatistas, and how it can nourish the work of regenerative culture today.

To book your place go to www.stirtoaction.com/beyondhere

Fully funded places are also available – there are about 20 left.  To apply go here


The Northern Real Farming Conference: the start of something big

Colin Tudge reflects on the first ever Northern Real Farming Conference – and on why it matters

I was honoured to be invited to take part in the first Northern Real Farming Conference — hugely important in its own right, bringing new-thinking farmers together, and part of a much larger and indeed global movement that some including me are calling “the Agrarian Renaissance”. So what’s different about it? What makes “Real Farming” real?

Well, “Real Farming” is short for “Enlightened Agriculture” which is informally but adequately defined as “Farming that is expressly designed to provide everyone, everywhere, with food of the highest quality, both nutritionally and gastronomically, without cruelty or injustice and without wrecking the rest of the world”.

Many would say – and do say – that such a vision is “unrealistic”, and of course it is a million miles from what now prevails. But why should it be? The world already produces twice as much food as we really need and far more than we should ever need (since the world population is levelling out) – so why do a billion people still go hungry? Britain’s economy is the fifth largest in the world or so we are told yet a million must now resort to food banks – and the response from government is simply to pressure farmers to produce more food more cheaply. Yet it ought to be eminently possible to provide good food for all and to on doing so in effect forever and without the present harshness and the collateral damage.

So why don’t we?

Well, in a nutshell, farming these days is not designed – insofar as it is designed at all – to provide good food for everyone and to take care of the natural world (aka “the biosphere”). It is designed primarily to “compete” in the global market with all other businesses – arms, ‘planes, hairdressing, golf – for profit and “market share”. The kind of farming that is expressly intended to provide good food and look after the land and our fellow creatures is sidelined. The present approach is considered “realistic” even though the result is so obviously dysfunctional.

For ultra-citified governments like ours farming is an economic also-ran, a lot of trouble yet not a huge contributor to GDP. British governments haven’t really taken agriculture seriously since they got over the blockade of World War II. They have spent a great deal of time and our money on it but that’s not the same thing at all. So a prime task right now is to raise the status of agriculture and in particular of real farming and farmers. Adam Smith no less made the same point more than 200 years ago in The Wealth of Nations (1776):

“After what are called the fine arts, and the liberal professions, there is perhaps no trade that requires so great a variety of knowledge and experience…. The direction of operations, besides, which must be varied with every change of the weather as well as with many other accidents, requires much more judgement and discretion than that of those which are always the same or very nearly the same”.
Spot on – although farming with all its intricacies and its obvious importance should surely be ranked at least equally with “the fine arts and the liberal professions”.

In short, the world needs to reinstate farming centre stage. Indeed we would do well to build our entire lives around it – the economy, social life, and wildlife conservation, for without wildlife-friendly farming the cause of conservation is severely compromised, not to say dead in the water.
To make real farming work we need many more farmers. A good topic for the NRFC – and indeed for the whole world – would be to discuss how many farmers we really do need; what indeed is the appropriate proportion the world over. In Rwanda at least until recently 90 per cent of people worked on the land, which surely is too many. But, by the same token, the 1% or so full-time farmers in Britain and the US is obviously too few. Perhaps we and the US need 10 times as many. We certainly should not assume, as recent governments and their economic advisers have assumed, that the fewer the better, and that human beings should be replaced by robots and biotech, and that this is “progress”. High tech is now vital but the task of all tech should only ever be to abet good practice – not to replace human beings for short term profit. Both for its intellectual (and spiritual) content and for its practical importance every school should teach farming as a matter of course and every 14-year-old — even or especially in the inner cities — should be offered farming as a serious career option. That implies that it really should be a serious career option.

Of course, more farmers means more cost – but there would be huge savings too (including the well-nigh incalculable costs of ecological degradation) and besides, the real reason that so many people even in rich countries cannot afford food is not that food is too dear (in fact it is too cheap) but because of income inequality. It is impossible to establish a sensible price if some people earn 1000 times more than others, as is increasingly the case the world over. In short: we cannot introduce real farming unless we transform the economy. It is a huge mistake to assume, as is assumed, that we should simply try to plug the square peg of agriculture into the round hole of market-driven (“neoliberal”) economics. To put farming to rights, we need to dig deep.

Overall, then, the task before farming and for people who care about it is enormous. And the task is not, as the present generation of panjandrums assumes, to raise productivity and go on raising it or to go on reducing the price or simply to make it more and more profitable and to concentrate wealth in fewer and fewer hands, but simply to produce good food while looking after the people who produce it and our fellow creatures. In detail that is immensely challenging (as Adam Smith recognized and all farmers know) but in principle it ought to be easy. The world easily has the capacity to feed us all well without wiping out our fellow species and the fact that we so spectacularly fail to do so reflects the barrenness of thought in high places – and a loss of confidence and loss of direction among farmers, who have allowed themselves to be led by misguided intellectuals and the lure of big money.

It is time to turn things around – and the people best equipped to do this are the farmers themselves, who best understand what’s needed and how to go about it. It is time indeed for farmers and their allies to take the lead: nothing short of a farmer-led Agrarian Renaissance is required, as we have sometimes discussed at the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC). The task is indeed huge not least because the official mindset remains more or less unchanged – for the post-Brexit negotiations that could help to push things in the right direction will surely be focused on mega-trade deals, and so shove Britain’s and the world’s farming ever deeper into the throes of the global market, with the accent on short-term profit achieved through high-tech and scaling-up.

But now there are some serious counter-voices – many grass-roots movements and conferences designed to unite the various voices, on line when necessary, like the ORFC, the Food and Farming Conference of Wales held in 2019, and now the NRFC, with others in the pipeline elsewhere.
In short, the state of the world is disastrous but it is still possible to turn things round – but only if people who give a damn and know what they are doing (or at least are trying) pick up the reins.

Together with Graham Harvey and Ruth his wife, Colin Tudge is a co-founder of the Oxford Real Farming Conference; and is also co-founder of the College for Real Farming and Food Culture. His latest book, THE GREAT RE-THINK, should be published by the end of this year.

Why Compromise Won’t Do

Agriculture – and the world – are in desperate need of reform on all fronts – but reform on its own is not enough and it is dangerous to suppose that it is.

Though there’s no definite date for it yet, the government’s long-awaited National Food Strategy for England is due to be published next year – and meanwhile, to help things along, the restaurateur and food critic Henry Dimbleby has been invited to prepare an independent commentary. Part I of his review is now published and Part II is due in the Spring of 2021, and the government will then respond with a White Paper.

Part I has much to commend it. Its tone is moderate, humane, and level-headed and it at least touches base with most of the main issues. Who could ask for more? Yet its very acceptability makes it all the more pernicious. For what’s wrong with modern agricultural strategy – as with everything that has emerged from recent governments – is the underlying mindset: the fundamental and largely unexamined assumptions on which all their thinking and strategizing is based. Mr Dimbleby does not, as is surely needed, set out to describe a system of agriculture that could provide us all with the best possible food and keep the natural world in good fettle – and neither, we can be sure, will the government’s new strategy. Instead, as the case in all areas of endeavour, government policy is designed to squeeze, as best as may be done, the square pegs of agriculture and of wildlife conservation into the round holes of neoliberal doctrine and dogma.

The whole approach to agriculture needs radical transformation — in the proper sense: we need to get down to the roots of things. Policies and reports that seek simply or primarily to find accommodation with the status quo merely postpone our troubles. So to begin:

What’s wrong with the neoliberal approach? 

If the neoliberals had a coat of arms the motto beneath would read “Let the market decide!” This is supposed to be democratic since it implies that what is actually produced is what people want: so industry becomes an expression of the people’s will – and what else does democracy mean? The market is supposed to be “free” – and freedom is one of the great desiderata, is it not? If we are not free, then we are slaves (or so the thinking has it). Corporates may wreak havoc among ecosystems and traditional societies – but good on them! They are only pursuing their dreams, which we would all do if only we had the necessary get-up-and-go. In truth their bullishness is an example to us all. Government curbs are obstructive and mostly unnecessary.

In practice, though, the market is not the neutral, dispassionate, smooth-running machine that enables us all, better than any more regulated system can do, to partake of life’s goodies. It has become the moral arbiter – displacing the Church and the world’s gurus and philosophers. The market decides what is good and bad, and so it is left to shape all human values. Whatever “consumers” are prepared to pay for is OK, and whatever they won’t pay for, or pay too little for, is allowed to wither on the vine. Furthermore, “the market” is supposed to be maximally competitive – barring the odd trade deal and cartel to keep fractious outsiders at bay (including all those pesky countries that are too poor to join in but are sitting on useful resources – land, oil, niobium – that are grist to the mills of the more progressive). Competition has become the prime virtue – as ruthless as is necessary to come out on top. Cooperativeness and compassion are for wimps. “Get ahead” is the battle-cry, dinned into the heads of schoolchildren and tyro executives. Old-fashioned moralists are simply holding us up; standing self-righteously between us and the sunlit uplands.

The things we are encouraged to compete for (the neolibs make no bones about it) are money and influence, which are deemed self-evidently to be good. Millions of Americans in “the Christian Right” take it to be obvious that God Himself is a good neoliberal. Competitiveness and acquisitiveness are the way of the world that He, in His wisdom, created. Those exemplary Christians of the past who abandoned wealth (St Francis, St Anthony) or who warned against too much of it (St Gregory) are, well, old-fashioned: of their time. What they said was doubtless appropriate in the chivalric world of centuries past, but not now. The chivalric world wasn’t exactly comfortable, after all.

Agriculture, accordingly, like everything else in the neoliberal world, has been encouraged or compelled to be maximally profitable – not at some time in the hypothetical future but here and now. Either that, or fall by the wayside — and good riddance, for whatever does not fill the coffers to over-flowing is ipso facto unfit for purpose, and a drag on society.

The result of such thinking, and all that goes with it, is all too obviously disastrous. Market competition was supposed to increase “consumer choice” which for Thatcher and Blair alike was the ultimate goal – but in truth the ruthless infighting has reduced the former plethora of producers to a handful of corporates, which we are left to choose between. In Britain as elsewhere the super-rich have become incomparably richer while the middle classes have at best stood still and the poor, despite the massaged statistics, have been increasingly dispossessed and disenfranchised. All Britain’s public services – healthcare, education, public housing, and even the police and judiciary, though Tories are the self-proclaimed guardians of law and order – are in crisis, propped up by the superhuman efforts of at least some of their employees. Everything that was not nailed down and even some that was has been flogged off to the highest bidder, no matter what their provenance or political values. The natural world has been horribly neglected, its budgets steadily diminished. This in large part is why Britain’s wildlife has declined so tragically these past few years. There haven’t been enough scientists on the ground to monitor the collapse and to sound an early warning – or not at least in the mathematicised, chapter-and-verse form that governments and bureaucrats demand in the interests of what they spuriously call “evidence”.

Along the way, science has been horribly corrupted, as scientists are called in to justify the status quo – including some, especially in the US, who, at least according to Donald Trump, are still prepared to deny the reality of global warming. To be sure, some of the deniers are true mavericks, convinced that current explanations of climate change are wrong, or indeed that climate change is an illusion. They are surely wrong, but they are entitled to their opinion. Many deniers though are simply saying what their paymasters want to hear — scientists qua hired advocates. That really is corrupt.

What is really “realistic”?                                                                                                                            Yet anyone who does not think exclusively along neoliberal lines, ultra-materialist and “competitive”, is deemed to be “unrealistic”. Apparently it is more realistic to defend a doctrine and a modus operandi that are killing us all, and to seek accommodation with them, than it is to re-examine our politics and our values, admit that we have been lured down a blind alley, and start again. Reculer pour mieux sauter, as the French have it: “Take a run-up, the better to jump”.

Mr Dimbleby’s essay and, we may safely anticipate, the new and still evolving National Food Strategy, are exercises in compromise, and make a virtue of this. They are and will be attempts to reconcile and to come to terms with the status quo, where in reality we need to dig deep, re-examine all our premises, and start to create the kind of world we need — whatever the present powers-that-be choose to do. The conciliatory, moderately reformist route will only lead us further down the blind alley. The world is not lacking in good ideas, or good techniques, or goodwill. It’s the mindset that’s all wrong.

I discuss what we really need to do in my latest book THE GREAT RE-THINK, to be published later this year.
Colin Tudge, September 16 2020

Why Governments Always Sell Agriculture Short and Why We – People at Large – Need to Take Control

Colin Tudge on why

The case for an Agrarian Renaissance becomes more and more urgent

All governments are inadequate, for no collection of human beings or probably even of demi-gods could ever live up to what is theoretically desirable. None can satisfy everybody, and life is so unpredictable (non-linearity applies) that no government, however well-informed, can ever be sure that its policies will produce the desired results (even assuming that the desired results are indeed desirable). Nothing that the most socially conscious human beings might want to see happen – including the best possible health care and education – can be afforded. An NHS that met everyone’s highest standards would cost more than the total GDP. And so on. However well-intentioned they may be, governments must always fall short.

But some are more inadequate than others – and the last eight governments that the UK has endured have all in their different ways been dreadful, going on unspeakable. Thatcher, while daring to cite St Francis, did her best to undermine the whole concept of “society” and introduced the world (via Regan) to the moral wasteland of neoliberal economics. Crucially – fatally indeed, for many people – she all-but killed off public housing. Major’s quarrelsome makeshift government was essentially a filler-in. Blair and Brown succeeded by placing the term “socialism” on their Index Expurgatorius and embracing neoliberalism. Blair should never be forgiven for his role in the Iraq war, which scarred the world forever. Brown tried to square socialist principles (though not by that name) with neoliberalism and thereby showed that it cannot be done. The uneasy Tory-Lib Dem coalition almost killed off the Lib Dems. Then came Cameron and Osborne who, Thatcher-style, dared to speak of compassion while squeezing public services “till the pips squeaked” (as Denis Healey said in a different context), and flogging off whatever was most profitable. They also took us out of the EU, apparently by mistake, but we’re out nonetheless. I suppose, charitably, we could say that Theresa May did her best to pick up the pieces but she lacked the intellectual wherewithal and the charisma to carry it through. Thatcher did a reasonable imitation of Boadicea but May is one of nature’s school-ma’ams. Besides, she should never be allowed to live down her earlier role in Windrush.

But Boris and his collection of spivs and dinosaurs, taking their lead from Cummings the archetypal eminence grise, is surely the worst UK government since records began. For the misconceptions they sowed and the lies they spun in their Brexit campaign the leading Brexiteers deserve to be tried for treason, for they have done us far more harm than any spy. As James Meek observed in the London Review of Books (August 1 2019), for the past few years the Tories have lived in fear of Nigel Farage and succeeded in the last election only by embracing his policies so that he became redundant. They out-Faraged Farage. The present Tories leaders are neoliberal to the hilt, which is as great a departure from the Macmillan-Heath style of traditional Toryism as Blairism was and is from traditional Labour. “Let the market decide” is the neoliberal motto – whatever is most profitable is good, and whatever is intended merely to support human beings and look after the biosphere, is left to fall by the wayside, or sold off to whoever thinks they can make a buck out of it. The chauvinism and xenophobia of the present leadership is not overtly racist since they despise most mainland Europeans with almost equal vehemence. But blame is always seen to rest with Johnny Foreigner – apart from the rapidly diminishing shortlist of Johnny Foreigners with whom the present government hopes to do business, faute de mieux, after Brexit.

Whatever goes wrong with the world – whether climate change, economic collapse, or bad government – agriculture is always in the frontline. It always takes the brunt. Agriculture is the thing we all rely upon, absolutely, and our fellow creatures have no chance unless we farm in wildlife-friendly ways. Truly, agriculture is the sine qua non. Yet ultra-urbanized governments like ours aren’t interested in it, don’t even try to understand it, and are content to leave its affairs to the corporates and their intellectual and expert advisers, kept on retainers though cosily and respectably ensconced in academe. This indifference or fear of the agricultural unknown is reflected in the quality of the various Secretaries of State these past few decades – Secretaries of State not specifically for agriculture but for “the environment” and “rural affairs”, of which farming is seen to be just one. Thus Owen Patterson advised farmers to raise more beef to sell to the Chinese; Liz Truss urged farmers to raise more pork to sell to the Chinese (while berating them for not making more cheese); and Andrea Leadsom in her temporary role as protector of the natural world declared (though I paraphrase) that the lowlands are for farming and the uplands are for butterflies (though I’m not sure most butterflies would agree. They do like warmth and are not at their best in high winds). Overall, agricultural policy this past half century has been designed not to provide the British people with good food and to contribute to the wellbeing of the biosphere, or to look after the farming community, or to deal fairly with would-be trading partners, but to ram the square peg of agriculture into the round hole of neoliberal doctrine and dogma. Agriculture has been perceived as “a business like any other” and business has been re-conceived simply as a way of maximizing wealth, and concentrating that wealth in fewer and fewer hands.

It won’t do. Truly, people at large the world over, in every country, need to take control of farming. We need a people-led Agrarian Renaissance as a matter of urgency – with farmers and cooks (of the kind who really care about food) leading the charge. From there, with luck and concerted effort, the idea of a people’s takeover should be encouraged to spread to all areas of life. None of this would work, though, of course, unless people at large take more interest in agriculture and in the world at large than most seem to do at present.

In short, farming is obviously vital in its own right. But it is vital too in all aspects of all life on Earth and must be treated accordingly. Governments like ours are a million miles from understanding this. We should not simply try to persuade them to pay attention and to change their ways. We need to by-pass them, now and forever. We won’t put food and farming to rights unless we re-think the economy and the whole concept of governance; and we need to do the re-thinking. We cannot afford to leave it to the powers-that-be.

Colin Tudge’s latest book, The Great Re-Think, published by Pari Publishing, should be available later this year.

First Northern Real Farming Conference starts Sept 28

We are delighted to announce that the Northern Real Farming Conference programme is now live on the website and is being updated daily as we approach the event.
There are over 60 sessions focusing on business models, nature friendly farming, upland farming, cooperative and community supported agriculture, horticulture, public good, procurement, policy, ELMS, water management and more.
Join the network: share your experiences and network with other farmers, researchers and colleagues from the North of England and Scotland.
If you haven’t already booked your place you can still buy your tickets for the event.
Please do pass on details to colleagues, collaborators and friends who may wish be part of this event and the development of stronger northern real farming networks.
You can follow the event on Facebook or Twitter.

Real Farming Trust new position advertised: Communications Coordinator

The Real Farming Trust is looking for an experienced part-time communications coordinator who would be responsible for helping to develop and implement its communications strategy, including communication around the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) and associated events and other RFT programmes, but also the management of RFT’s wider communications, press, social media and websites.

Specific duties include:

  • To support the Event Manager and Senior Management Team with the development and delivery of a communications strategy and plan and act as the first point of contact for communications, monitoring and reporting progress and making sure the right members of the team are kept up to date and in the loop.
  • To ensure that our work is promoted effectively through media relations, social media, marketing communications, events and our website(s).
  • To support the ORFC team with event promotion and communications and to develop stories around our work, particularly in the lead up to ORFC and other events, and pitch these to targeted press.
  • To support other programme specific communications, including promoting the Loans for Enlightened Agriculture Programme and our new project, the College for Real Farming and Food Culture
  • To take charge of our social media – regularly getting material from the team, devising messages and campaigns and putting the right images together.
  • To work with the team to build and maintain a bank of case studies and personal stories and gather material for blog posts.
  • To ensure that communications are built on firm foundations by checking that all relevant legal and best practice procedures are in place, e.g. data protection.

The closing date for applications is 5pm on 21st September 2020. Interviews will take place via video conference on one of the following dates: 23rd, 29th or 30th September 2020. Unfortunately, we are not able to respond to those who are unsuccessful in getting an interview. Successful applicants will be notified by 22nd September.

For all further details please see here

Farmers, fear, and human nature

Our 2nd ORFC Review (May 1 2020) contained an article from Professor Charles Foster. Entitled: “Farmers show us how to fear properly”, in it Charles took what I perceived to be a somewhat dyspeptic view of human nature and so I wrote a riposte. Charles then replied to my reply. Here is the exchange, so far. If you would care to join in the conversation, please do.

Colin Tudge.

Charles Foster raises two very interesting points – and with one I agree absolutely and with the other I disagree absolutely. Since both are close to the core of the venture that now is the focus of my working life – our embryonic College for Real Farming and Food Culture — I feel I should comment.

First, I agree absolutely that farming is special and that those who do it well are special too. Adam Smith (1723-1790) made the point in 1776 in The Wealth of Nations, Book 1 Chapter X:

“After what are called the fine arts, and the liberal professions … there is perhaps no trade that requires so great a variety of knowledge and experience…. The direction of operations, besides, which must be varied with every change of the weather as well as with many other accidents, requires much more judgement and discretion than that of those which are always the same or very nearly the same”.

Farming is indeed at the heart of all the world’s affairs, both human and non-human. It affects everything else and is affected by everything else. It is the sine qua non. Get it right and everything else can start to fall into place. Get it wrong and everything else we do is compromised. The reverse is true too: we cannot get it right unless we get everything else right as well – the science, the economy, the underlying moral and metaphysical mindset. The present attempts by governments – abetted, to their shame, by so many scientists – to ram the square peg of agriculture in all its complexity into the round, simple-minded hole of neoliberal, market-led economics, all controlled by politicians who generally know nothing and seem to care less, is killing the world. As Foster and Smith agree, farming should be seen as the noblest and most vital of professions, along with teaching, medicine and the caring professions, and those who wrestle most assiduously with its intricacies should be among our most valued citizens. The idea that a stripped-down agriculture with a minimal or even zero workforce somehow represents modernity and progress is perhaps the greatest nonsense in a world that increasingly seems to make no sense at all. Britain in particular needs many more farmers rather than fewer and they must be properly rewarded. So far I couldn’t agree more.

But Charles’s second point — a dyspeptic view of human nature – is surely well wide of the mark. Prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic he says:

“Fear is interesting. It shows us, like nothing else, what we’re really like. It dissolves pretence and disables pose. And so we now know what, as a nation (if we really are a nation these days), we’re like. It’s not how traditionally we’ve liked to think of ourselves. We are not characterised by robust common sense, pragmatism, an irreverent sense of humour, an intolerance of highhandedness, and a stiff upper lip. We have been occupied by a virus, and it has taught us that our commitment to freedom is skin deep. We know now that, however much we think that Dad’s Army captures the true spirit of England, we would unhesitatingly capitulate to any invader who offered force, and turn in any Anne Frank we found hiding in next door’s loft.”

Actually, to my knowledge, nobody did betray Anne Frank and her family – or if they did, then the betrayer was very much out of synch with the rest. A great many people all over Europe risked and often lost their lives protecting fugitives from the Nazis. Anne Frank herself wrote in her diary on July 15 1944:

“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe people are really good at heart”.

Despite appearances, I am sure she is right. The idea that human beings as a species are fundamentally feckless and selfish has been a common theme of philosophers, priests, and politicians since the year dot. Plato thought that the mob, hoi-polloi, must be kept in their place by patricians and indeed by philosophers. Two thousand years later in his hugely influential Leviathan of 1651 Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) wrote:

“ … the nature of justice consisteth in keeping of valid covenants … but the validity of covenants begins not but with the constitution of a civil power, sufficient to compel men to keep them and then it is also that propriety begins”.
He goes on to tell that if human beings are left to themselves, without such civil power to keep us from each other’s throats —
“The life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

The Leviathan might be seen as the core text of the political Right, even for those who have never heard of it or indeed of Thomas Hobbes. It gives them an excuse to form an elite and boss the rest of us around, for if they did not then we would all be at each other’s throats. They rule for our benefit even if, sometimes, they need to be cruel to be kind. They see it as their duty to seize command. In our own times Theresa May above all promised “strong and stable government” even though in practice she delivered anything but.

Alas! In the mid-19th century Charles Darwin (1809-1882), kind and liberal gentleman that he was, added fuel to the right-wing fire. His idea of “evolution by means of natural selection” spelled out in The Origin of Species in 1859 emphasized competition for limited resource as the prime spur of evolutionary change. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) summarized Darwin’s idea as “survival of the fittest”, a phrase that Darwin later adopted. “Fit” in this context means “most apt”, as in “fit for purpose”. It did not necessarily imply brute strength and athleticism. And becoming more appropriate does not necessarily mean getting better in any absolute sense. Barnacles (which Darwin studied at at length) became more apt by losing their brains and sticking what had been their heads to the rock, which objectively speaking seems retrogressive. But the way that words are used and change their meaning seems alone to have given rise to the idea that natural selection necessarily favours the strong and aggressive and that it leads to progress and therefore that competitiveness is a necessary virtue, without which all life including human life would stagnate. Darwin emphasized that natural selection was not the only route to evolutionary change and that animals – and plants – are cooperative too: that it can pay to cooperate. Indeed, taken all in all, nature is more cooperative than it is competitive. If it were not so, life would not be possible at all. At all levels, life is a master class in cooperativeness.

Nowadays more and more biologists recognize that in reality, the best way to survive and to leave offspring is to cultivate the skills of cooperativeness. It seems clear too that in intelligent beings like us who seem to have a choice in the matter (as opposed to ants who seem to be more or less enslaved by their genes), cooperativeness is most robust when underpinned by compassion – by true concern for the feelings and wellbeing of others. In other words, Darwinian natural selection ought to favour compassion. Neoliberalism is intended above all to be competitive (barring the odd cartel) and this is seen to be “Darwinian” and therefore science-based and therefore true. This is bad biology and very bad moral philosophy.

Charles Foster acknowledges in his essay that Covid-19, like all such crises, has brought out the best in people; not just the heroism of front-line medical staff but of people-at-large, going to the shops for oldies and whatever else is compatible with lock-down. That is indeed the norm. Those who are truly unsocial, like the hedge-fund managers who plan to hoover up bankrupt companies at knock-down prices, are the exception. It is true, though, that a little evil goes a long way. A few bad people have a disproportionate influence. One rotten apple in the barrel, and all that. Those who see crises as opportunities for personal enrichment should be seen as sociopaths or indeed as psychopaths. It also an unfortunate fact, however, that ruthless competitiveness does bring material rewards in the short term; and that wealth brings power; and that the short term pre-empts the long term. So although those who think only of short-term personal wealth can properly be seen as psychopaths, they do tend to rise to the top, in the short term. This is all too evident in world politics. Is it not?

I have been arguing for some years that to put the world to rights we need a complete re-think – nothing less than a Renaissance; that this Renaissance must be rooted in food and farming – an Agrarian Renaissance; that the agriculture we need must be of the “Enlightened” kind – rooted in the principles of Agroecology and Food Sovereignty; that the Renaissance must be led by us, people at large; and that we, Ordinary Jo(e)s, are eminently capable to doing what is needed, not least because we are primarily cooperative, and that this is possible because we are primarily compassionate, even though a few people clearly are not, and even though the few who are not are all too apt to gain a short-term material advantage.

Colin Tudge Wolvercote May 4 2020


Very many thanks: a splendid response!

A few observations. It is certainly true to say that cooperation, community, and altruism have been enormously powerful evolutionary motors – both in humans and non-humans. I think that they are likely to have been more important than selfishness and competition, and have written a whole book saying so (The Selfless Gene). They are still very prominent -both in humans (as I expressly say in my blog) and in non-humans, and no doubt natural selection is still using them.

So far I think we agree. We may now start to disagree.

The commonest word used in relation to the pandemic is ‘unprecedented.’ Rarely is there any attempt to say exactly what about it is unprecedented. It is certainly not the threat posed to individuals or, as a matter of mere medicine, to populations. There have been far worse threats. The Black Death killed one in three. What is really unprecedented (and in many ways heartening) is the degree to which a statistically very low risk to a small part of the population is generally regarded as a justification for wholescale interferences with civil liberties and significant damage to the national and international economy. This is very interesting. To what can it be attributed?

There are two possibilities: One is a genuine concern for the small number of truly vulnerable people. The other is that it is a result of personal existential fear on the part of the relatively invulnerable bulk of the population, who are (as is usual amongst humans, for reasons well-established by evolutionary psychology) very poor calculators of risk. Both no doubt play a part.

In my blog I acknowledged the role of the first, but argued that the second is likely to be more important. Despite your counter-argument, I still think I was right. Apart from the point about the miscalculation of risk, there is something else going on, which is why I talked about the way that farmers live more satisfactorily with contingencies than others. Most of us are disproportionately fearful because mere biological existence or physical integrity are the only loci of our self-perceived significance. Many of us, for much of our lives, don’t believe or stand for anything much: we are atomistic, hard-shelled billiard balls, impervious to anything other than dread at losing something – biological life – which, by itself, is often not tremendously pleasurable.

To be clear: There is no one at all who is like this all the time, and there are many, many people who aren’t like this for any of the time. To be clear again, the fact that a person may not feel that she is significant does not for a moment mean that she is not: she is.

Fear is diagnostically useful: it can highlight our areas of ontological emptiness. it would be unfortunate if we missed the opportunity that the pandemic is giving us to see some important things about ourselves. Because there’s some very good therapy available.

All best wishes.

Agriculture Bill – 3rd Reading tomorrow (May 13): still time to ask your MP

There’s still time (just) to ask your MP to ask for certain key amendments to the Agriculture Bill which is being hastened through parliament in order to gain Royal Assent by the autumn. Here’s the link to the webpage with details of how and what to send your MP.

And here’s what Colin Tudge has to say about it:

The third reading of the government’s Agriculture Bill on Wednesday (May 13) is crucial, though it will probably attract very little attention from the British media and arouse commensurately little interest among MPs. For nothing matters more to humanity and to the natural world than agriculture and as things are, despite appearances and all the rhetoric, Britain’s agriculture like that of most of the world is a disaster: profitable for a few no doubt but hugely damaging ecologically and socially and obviously unsustainable. 
There are a couple of amendments to the original bill that are of outstanding importance. One says in effect that trade cannot and must not be conceived simply as a way of maximising short-term profit but as a means to improve wellbeing – good economically and socially both for sellers and buyers and raising the general quality of food. Others stress the absolute importance of agroecology – which, mercifully, for the past few years has enjoyed the services of its own All-Party Parliamentary Group, now chaired by Labour MP Kerry McCarthy. Britain’s and the world’s farming must move away from the neoliberal mindset which says that “farming is just a business like any other” and that business is just another way of making money, and embrace the idea that the job of agriculture is to provide good food for everyone, and provide good jobs, and look after the the biosphere. Otherwise we’re sunk.  Watch this space.

New study shows the “insect apocalypse” not quite as bad as thought

The research was published in Science (April 24 2020)

Abstract as follows:

Recent case studies showing substantial declines of insect abundances have raised alarm, but how widespread such patterns are remains unclear. We compiled data from 166 long-term surveys of insect assemblages across 1676 sites to investigate trends in insect abundances over time. Overall, we found considerable variation in trends even among adjacent sites but an average decline of terrestrial insect abundance by ~9% per decade and an increase of freshwater insect abundance by ~11% per decade. Both patterns were largely driven by strong trends in North America and some European regions. We found some associations with potential drivers (e.g., land-use drivers), and trends in protected areas tended to be weaker. Our findings provide a more nuanced view of spatiotemporal patterns of insect abundance trends than previously suggested.

A piece in ScienceAlert by Mike Mcrae, April 24 2020 gives an overview (extract as follows):

News of an insect apocalypse has become a familiar headline in recent years, with study after study pointing to an alarming loss in invertebrate numbers. As consistent as the message seems, the results don’t always agree with one another.

A new study led by ecologists from the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research suggests the decline in global populations might not be as steep as we thought, and could actually be improving in some areas.

That conclusion might appear to be in stark contrast to claims we heard last year that 40 percent of all insect species face extinction, with some claiming an annual decline of 2.5 percent in their numbers worldwide, or even higher in some corners of the globe.

But taken in context, the new study builds a picture that shows how important it is to protect our environment and pay close attention to this vital part of the biosphere.

By compiling more than 160 surveys monitoring the weight of insect and arachnid populations around the globe, the researchers were able to get a good sense of the biomass and distributions of creepy crawlies dating as far back as 1925.

Their figures suggest there’s a marked difference in trends for invertebrates in different ecosystems in different parts of the world.