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The Renaissance begins here

Colin Tudge argues that we, people at large, Ordinary Joes, need to take the world’s affairs in hand and start all over again.

Let us make 2014 the year of Renaissance; re-birth; when we – all of us; people at large; Ordinary Joes — call a halt to the status quo, leave the oligarchs to wither on the vine, and start all over again. Nothing less will do.

Only we, Ordinary Joes, can bring the necessary change about. The oligarchs, the powers-that-be who run the world – corporates and banks and governments like Britain’s and their chosen intellectual advisers – have no interest in change. They think they are doing a good job; that the status quo is OK: not exactly perfect perhaps but the best that can be done. All alternatives are “unrealistic”. If things are not quite as they should be (mass poverty, global warming, dysfunctional banks, that sort of thing) then at least the world, led by them, is on the right lines. We must, as George Osborne keeps telling us in the particular context of the British economy, stay on course. We will get there in the end. Poverty will be done away with. Global warming will be contained – or, more realistically, we will learn to adapt to it (provided we don’t live too near the sea). The banks just need to get rid of a few bad eggs. Anyone can make a mistake.

In the long term everyone should follow the ways of the modern western world, with loads and loads of stuff and – even more to the point – the freedom to choose what stuff they have: Tesco or Morrison’s; KFC or Macdonald’s; Microsoft or Apple; Top Shop or Miss Selfridge; Adidas or Nike. This is of course what most people self-evidently want and so to achieve it is democracy. Those who don’t want to pursue the paths of freedom and democracy must be seen as backsliders or indeed as scroungers, and shut out of the good times until they see the error of their ways. Those who object actively to the status quo are terrorists, and must be done away with. We must maintain the “war” against terror forever and ever and in war, all’s fair.

The route to this Nirvana is through “economic growth”. We must strive every year to create more measurable wealth than the year before. The mechanism is that of the free, unfettered market. Everything that we might conceive of – not just cars and computers but also education and orangutans and walks in the park – must be given a monetary value; and what each thing is worth can then be judged by how much people are prepared to pay for it. That is simple, logical, and all-embracing, and does away with all the messy subjectivity that bedevils discussions of aesthetics or morality. We just have to set up the market and let it rip. Then, whatever people will pay for is deemed to be morally right, by definition. The market is maximally competitive to ensure that it works efficiently, to the consumers’ advantage. If a few suppliers come out on top – well: that’s because they are the best. Traders can survive only by providing what people will pay for, at the lowest possible price. Taken all in all, the system can be seen as democracy in action. The system – given the semi-formal title of neoliberalism — is unimpeachably logical, and readily quantifiable, and may qualify virtually as a science. Indeed, the all-out stress on competition seems distinctly Darwinian – and since Darwin was a scientist an economy based on his ideas must be scientific.

Science indeed is the key to growth. Not any old science, of course. We can’t have scientists paid at public expense to probe the ways of the universe if there is no pay-off; and we certainly can’t expect private companies to pay for what doesn’t make their shareholders richer. They are not charities, for goodness’ sake.

So science must mean high-tech, of the kind that is geared to the market. Indeed, high tech must itself be seen as a commodity, to be sold to the highest bidder. Britain’s Secretary of State for the Environment and Rural Affairs, and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which provides the grants for agricultural research, have put their weight and our money behind GMOs not because they bring any proven benefit but because they make a lot of easily accountable money for a few big companies, and this can then be registered as GDP; and because foreign politicians can claim to be progressive by kicking out their own native farmers and importing western high tech. GM technology has achieved nothing truly worthwhile in 30 years that could not have been done more cheaply and safely by more traditional means, and indigenous farmers given a little logistic help could almost always supply all their people’s needs. But that, apparently, is beside the point. To their shame – or simply perhaps because they don’t get paid otherwise – many professional scientists have gone along with the act. Science is one of humanity’s greatest achievements but when it loses its integrity it loses its reason for being. High tech should be among humanity’s greatest assets but when it becomes the handmaiden of power groups it all too easily becomes our enemy, offering enormous power to minorities of narrow focus. The powers-that-be within science, starting with the Royal Society, should reflect. But there is little sign of this. Science, like everything else, is required to march to the drum of the neoliberal market, and of the most influential players within it.

But it doesn’t stop there. Once the money has been generated by trading it may be further multiplied by the devices of “finance capitalism”: variations on a theme of lending with interest. That way economic growth can be enhanced indefinitely. Indeed Britain grew so rich in recent years by manipulating other people’s money that successive governments have wondered whether we really need to produce anything at all. Tony Blair’s government seriously wondered whether we should be wasting time on agriculture, when we could import all the food we need from Africa and Brazil. The money generated by the devices of finance capitalism doesn’t really exist but it is deemed to exist and all of us are free to borrow it and pretend that it is real, and buy things with it. So we have the debt economy; but the interest paid on the debts is counted as GDP and so is deemed to be economic growth, so all is well.

Of course it is obvious to everyone who isn’t an oligarch — a politician or a CEO or a banker or an intellectual — that this whole house of cards is a nonsense. Clearly it doesn’t work. Beneath the glitz and the promise, a billion people are chronically hungry; the world population of diabetics is bigger than the whole United States, and twice that of Russia; one billion live in urban slums – almost one in three of all town-dwellers; half our fellow species are in imminent danger of extinction; fresh water is dwindling fast but still is horribly squandered; and global warming is real. The Earth is big and resilient and it has taken time to knock the life out of it but we’re almost there.

For the Earth and its ecosystems simply cannot be manipulated at will in the way the intellectuals have promised. The philosophy of science this past century has told us that the universe is innately uncertain and cause and effect is “non-linear” and our knowledge must always be limited – although it is logically impossible to know how limited it is. The market that is supposed to make its own morality, in practice is morally vile. Even Milton Friedman, the Chicago economist who founded neoliberalism (and wasn’t himself a monster although his brainchild has become one) acknowledged that the market unfettered cannot guarantee justice. Since the market can supply only what people will pay the most for, it is bound to cater first to the whims of the rich and may never get round to the needs of the poor at all. Through all the three decades of the global “free” market and unrestrained finance capitalism the rich have grown steadily richer while the poor and even the middle classes have grown poorer. Houses in England are now beyond most people’s reach simply because it has suited the oligarchs to keep them expensive by not building enough – just as De Beer’s maintains the price of diamonds.

So we need to start all over again – ignoring the oligarchs with their heads full of nonsense. In principle we could start anywhere – everything needs attending to. But I suggest we might start with the food chain – farming and all that goes with it. Agriculture is self-evidently important: we will all die if farming packs up on us. The way we farm determines, more than anything else, whether our fellow creatures flourish or disappear. Agriculture affects everything else that we do – so if we get it right then everything else we might aspire to becomes possible, including world peace and an end to world poverty and good health and general amity. Good food for everyone forever should be well within our grasp. But if we get agriculture wrong then nothing can work.

Here, strange though it may seem, there is a huge serendipity. For it looks at first sight as if the modern food chain is sewn up. Governments like ours use our money to carry out agricultural research of the kind that brings benefit to a few high-tech companies developing esoteric technologies that can be supplied and controlled only by themselves.  Governments like ours, assisted by chosen intellectuals, then provide the advocacy to promote those technologies. Diplomatic as well as commercial pressure is then applied to foreign governments to adopt those technologies. The alternatives – basically the world’s traditional farms that really could do the job if given a chance – are systematically squeezed out and run down. Farm labour is cut and cut again — ostensibly to reduce costs for the benefit of consumers, though in truth food gets dearer and dearer; and the farmers and their families must flee to the cities, and swell the slums. The human cost is not easy to translate into money and so it is left off the balance sheet. But the labour is replaced by industrial chemistry and heavy engineering so the capital costs shoot up; but the costs are paid for by loans, and the interest swells the banks and this is called GDP so all is well.

In absolute contrast, farms that are truly sustainable and remain productive in the long term must be conceived as ecosystems in the manner of “agroecology” which means they must be low-input and diverse, which means they must be skills-intensive and so in practice are generally small to medium-sized. But farms without labour cannot be complex. Monoculture must rule. Heavy investment in machines and chemistry is eased by economies of scale and so the monocultural units (the word “farm” hardly seems appropriate) become bigger and bigger. In the Ukraine there are arable units of 300,000 hectares – roughly the size of Kent. Even in Britain there are plans for dairy units of 8000 animals-plus (one of 1000-plus has already been given the go-ahead in Wales) and, as always, there are politicians who think that scale-up and high-tech mean progress and are eager to smooth the path. The more we go down the industrial route the greater is the need for high-tech which in turn needs capital which generates interest– and so the wheel turns and turns; a takeover of traditional farming, aided by governments like Britain’s which see themselves as extensions of the corporate boardroom and make a virtue of it; and alas by scientists who do the same and think they are thereby being worldly.

Worse yet: land worldwide is owned by a tiny minority of the world’s people. Britain, the great democracy, is among the least equitable of all. A thousand year legacy of feudalism and aristocratic whim has left vast areas in the hands of a remarkably few ancient families; and a great deal more has been sold off to the highest bidders, for whatever purpose, in line with our modern everything-must-go economy. To be sure, some of the traditional landowners are among the staunchest opponents of high-tech corporate monoculture, and the champions of agroecology. But many of today’s landowners of whatever kind just see land as another commodity.

Then we have “vertical integration” – which again is seen as a commercial virtue. Big monocultures produce great outputs all at once of a uniform kind which must be handled by comparably huge and well-endowed distributors and retailers. So the chain is complete: Monsanto, monoculture, Cargill, Tesco, or their equivalents; all with immense commercial power, which in reality means political power and the freedom to control the principal channels of public information, and even to control formal education and academic research.

Yet the chain is vulnerable. Despite everything, more and more individuals worldwide – and, even more to the point, more and more communities – are beginning to re-establish the alternative: small mixed farms and markets, sometimes though not necessarily owned by local people, held in trust in perpetuity for the purposes of  farming that is ecologically and socially sound, and is truly sustainable. Here at home, I and my wife, Ruth (West) have founded “Funding Enlightened Agriculture” (FEA), designed to direct money through all appropriate routes – from crowd funding to shares – to such enterprises. We have an excellent board of advisers; have already given significant support to three or four new ventures; and are on course to expand exponentially over the next few years.

Still you may say – “Small beer!”; a drop in the ocean compared to corporate might, backed as it is by governments and the best-endowed portions of academe. But not necessarily. Despite the derision and neglect, traditional farms worldwide which typically are small, mixed, and low-input – the basis of agroecology – still supply 50% of the world’s food, and are the world’s biggest employers. In short, worldwide, small, mixed, skills-intensive farming is still the norm. Another 20% of our food comes from fishing, hunting, and people’s back gardens. So the big industrial monocultures that are supposed to represent the future, and swallow up such vast tranches of private investment and public money, and the lion’s share of the research grants, in practice supply only 30% of our food. Those who seek to build on traditional farming are commonly written off as “idealists”. In truth they are the realists; promoting the kind of farming that, demonstrably, can meet the world’s needs. The hype behind high-capital, high-input, zero-labour industrial agriculture is pure ideology. There is nothing behind it except the dogma of neoliberalism, and a seriously old-fashioned faith in the omniscience of science and the omnipotence of high tech. Morally and indeed intellectually, the oligarchic emperors have no clothes. Once people at large begin to realize this, the palace walls must surely crumble.

Neither should we assume that the kind of investment attracted by FEA and comparable initiatives is doomed to remain small-scale. Just to take one only slightly fanciful scenario: it would be perfectly feasible, if we (people at large) put our weight behind it, to bring about a complete people’s buy-out of Britain’s farmland. The total area of farmland is 20 million hectares. Britain’s population is around 60 million – a third of a hectare each (easily enough, incidentally, to achieve self-sufficiency or its equivalent). Farmland at today’s hugely inflated prices is around £25K per hectare. That’s £8,000 each. Few can readily lay hands on £8000 – but if it was a loan spread over a lifetime, that is almost trivial by today’s standards; and certainly far less than we are now forking out to restore our dysfunctional and anti-social banks. People’s land ownership – preferably community ownership, with the land held in a network of trusts – would bring enormous, obvious advantages. Among other things, it would mean that the price of food no longer depended on the whims of land speculators. More generally, land devoted to community-owned mixed farms geared to local markets would cut out the middle-men – and the middle-men, who tell us that they strive so hard to keep the prices down, account for 80% of the current price of food. In short, community buy-out would be win-win-win (apart, that is, for the oligarchs).

The Renaissance the world needs should be across the board: education, medicine, transport, manufacture, housing, science, the banking system – everything needs rescuing and humanizing. But we can and surely should begin with farming – an “Agrarian Renaissance”. A great deal is going on already. The FEA is just one part of a huge and growing global trend (although we think it could be key). The methods appropriate to the Agrarian Renaissance will not be directly applicable in all contexts but the basic principles surely are: democratic governance, as localized as is feasible – government that is truly on our side; a low-key economy – basically capitalist but small-scale and with the moral and social agenda firmly in place; and always acknowledging, as no large-scale economy has ever done, the biological realities and physical limits of the Earth, and the needs and claims of our fellow species.

So why don’t we just acknowledge that this is what needs doing, and go for it?