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.

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.

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.
C

The radical toadstool

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures

by Merlin Sheldrake (The Bodley Head, London, 2020).

A brief appreciation by Colin Tudge.

If the world is to be better after The Virus has done its worst then it needs to be radically different. Everything needs to be re-thought and most of it needs to be re-structured. Encouragement comes not from what politicians call “recovery”, implying a return to the status quo ante, but from a plethora of radical thinkers on all fronts: economics, politics, science, religion. All are relevant to farming because everything is relevant to farming, and farming is relevant to everything else, even if the people in charge of the world don’t realise that.

Among the radical thinkers and of seminal significance is a new generation of biologists who question the idea ascribed to Charles Darwin that life is innately and primarily competitive: a “struggle for life” as Darwin regrettably put the matter; one long punch-up from conception to the grave (or indeed from before conception, because the gametes may compete too). For in truth, life is at least as cooperative as it is competitive. If it were not so, life would not be possible at all. All Earthly life is a dialogue between two classes of molecule – proteins and nucleic acids: amino acids and nucleotides. The eukaryotic cell is a master-class of cooperativeness – a coalition of different kinds of microorganism fused into one. Ecosystems are competitive but in the end everything depends on everything else. Competition is a fact of life to be sure but cooperativeness is its essence. Modern biology indeed is leading us to embrace the ancient, metaphysical, essentially Eastern concept of oneness. All life is one.

All this comes across in Merlin Sheldrake’s new book – which is on fungi in particular and mycelia in particular. Plants almost certainly could not have ventured from water to land without the help of fungi (and other micro-organisms) breaking down rock to create the rudiments of soil; integrating with the plants’ own tissues and serving them as roots. Today’s land plants have roots of their own but largely depend nonetheless on their mycelial extensions. All the trees in a forest may be joined by the mycelial connections between them into one great physiological unit that in principle could cover a continent.

More broadly, fungi are a kingdom in their own right – an alternative life-form that does things differently. Linnaeus’s suggestion in the 18th century that they were just degenerate plants was the biggest mistake he ever made — which, I suggest, has hugely and damagingly distorted our appreciation of them, and hence of the nature of life in general. Sheldrake’s book requires us to re-assess. If the world was cooperative, as nature really is, and not just a battle for ascendancy, as we are told is the case, there would indeed be cause for hope. The kind of radical thinking the world really needs can begin with mushrooms.

Colin Tudge April 19 2020

Entangled Life will be published on September 3 2020. It can be pre-ordered here

What happens after Covid-19?

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.