The problems of the world in eight balloons
(And the absolute importance of Enlightened Agriculture)

Written for the Campaign website in April 2014

We – humanity – need (do we not?) farming that supplies us all with good food, and does so without wrecking the rest of the world; the kind that we are calling Enlightened Agriculture, aka Real Farming.

But we will not bring Enlightened Agriculture into being if we think only about farming. We need to get everything else in place too – which is what this diagram is intended to encapsulate. All the main areas that we need to think about are summarized in eight balloons. All of them are interlinked. Each of them depends on all the others.

The top two balloons show what we surely should be trying to achieve: Convivial Societies within a Diverse and Secure Biosphere. (“Flourishing” biosphere would be better). We need to be clear about our overall goals. Conventional political parties in Britain have long since given up offering us any kind of vision. They just talk about “economic growth” – increase in GDP – in the vague hope, apparently, that if and when we are richer we can put to rights some of the things that are now so obviously wrong. (It hasn’t worked so far but they have not lost their faith).

The position of Enlightened Agriculture – the next balloon down – is pivotal. Farming is the sine qua non, the thing we absolutely have to get right, and Enlightened Agriculture rooted in agroecology must become the norm. But we will never get farming right so long as we treat it simply as “a business like any other” and conceive of business in the neoliberal fashion – not as the natural prop of democratic society but simply as a way of maximising short term wealth.

So to achieve the kind of farming we need we must transform the Economy – as shown in the next balloon down. Conservatives reach for their pistols when they hear such talk but in truth they have nothing to fear. Small to medium sized businesses (SMEs) will do the trick, preferably conceived as social enterprises (“washing their face” commercially but not required primarily to maximize short term profit) and, preferably though not necessarily, community owned. It all adds up to “economic democracy”. Such an economy would be a modern version of the mixed economy (social democracy) that was favoured in Britain with somewhat different emphases both by traditional Labour and traditional Tories for most of the 20th century – until it was swept aside, circa 1980, by the zeal of the neoliberals who put all their faith in market forces. This in practice has led to rule by corporates.

But we won’t have the kind of economy we need without an appropriate, sympathetic Government. Democracy is difficult but surely is both right and necessary. The government must be elected – but we must also be able to get rid of it promptly if it fails to act in our best interests. As Abraham Lincoln put the matter, government must be “of the people and for the people”. Instead, our present government, like the four governments that preceded it, is content to be part of an oligarchy, in virtual coalition with the corporates and banks and slices of academe who have taken the commercial shilling.

We also have to be clear why we are trying to create convivial society and a flourishing biosphere – and this is a matter of Morality. All the world’s great prophets agree that the guiding moral principles are those of compassion, humility, and reverence for the biosphere. They are enough. In absolute contrast, morality nowadays is left to the market. Whatever people will buy is taken to be good (with just a few exceptions, such as child pornography). Insofar as there is any theory behind it at all, modern morality at best is utilitarian -- and the market reduces this further to an exercize in cost-effectiveness. Oil-based pesticides are good, it’s argued, because (in the present economy) they are cheaper than astute husbandry. The battery pig too is OK because you get more pork to the dollar. What else is supposed to matter?

Neither will we succeed unless we understand as far as is possible what our own and our fellow creatures’ physical needs really are, and what the world is truly able to provide – and for this we need excellent Science: science that is truly rigorous but is also focused on the problem in hand. GMOs, the present obsession, soaking up the agricultural research budget, don’t fit the bill at all.

All human contemplation in the end is rooted in Metaphysics – the discipline that focuses on what have been called the “ultimate” questions: what is the universe really like; what is good; how do we know what’s true; and how come? None of these grand questions can be answered definitively and the last is particularly elusive – but this in itself is salutary. Metaphysical musing quickly shows us that -- for all our science -- life, the world, and the universe as a whole in the end are beyond our ken; that it’s privilege to be on Earth; that the world and our fellow creatures are not ours to kick around and re-shape; that we have had our chips and so has everything else unless we treat all living things with compassion and the biosphere as a whole with reverence.

So this is what this diagram is intended to summarize. It is not supposed to be a religious mandala although it may look like one. Neither is it a “route map” to guide us step by step to a better world -- not least because the world is unpredictable and route maps can lead us horribly astray. It is, rather, an agenda in graphic form: an outline of all things we need to think about (simultaneously!) if we are truly to put farming to rights, and the world as a whole. I/ we hope to help put flesh on the bones, or to fill in the balloons, in the years to come.

The diagram began as a doodle and Alex Towler of Oxford turned it into this neat graphic. Between weeding and planting, Lucy Ball of Whippletree Farm, Devon, is currently turning it into a work of art.

Colin Tudge, April 10 2014