An attempt to summarize 50 years or so of contemplation in one 20-minute narrative on what we need to do, and can do, to pull humanity and the world back from the brink of oblivion. By Colin Tudge
The world is in a dreadful mess – who can doubt this? — but it doesn’t need to be. We are staring Armageddon in the face yet if only we did conceptually simple things well we could be looking forward, realistically and optimistically, to the next million years. That’s what “the long term” ought to mean.
So here is a brief ten-point guide to the things we need to think about and act upon to lift ourselves and the world from where we are to where we could and should be. First of all —
1: We need to state our Goal – and always to keep the Goal in mind.
Progress should be seen as movement towards the Goal. Any strategy, action, or technology which fails to edge us towards the Goal is at best neutral and is most likely to be pernicious.
Much or most of what most governments and corporates put their weight and our money behind is indeed pernicious — wasting time, money, effort, and resources, and doing little or nothing to help humanity at large and still less for the natural world. HS2 comes to mind. And of course all wars. And space tourism. Etc. It makes no sense. No wonder the world is in a mess.
Governments very rarely if ever spell out their Goals properly. They fail to tell us what they really believe is important; what they really think the world should be like; what is really going on in their heads and hearts. Party manifestos are statements of intent, which is not the same thing at all. Would-be governments rely on slogans to win (or lose) elections – high-sounding (they hope) but vacuous. As in “Make America Great Again” or “Take Back Control” (huh!) or, succinctly if destructively, Liz Truss’s “Growth, growth, growth!”
To be sure, some people — from dyed-in-the-wool neoliberals to Taoists – argue that we should not try to define our Goal at all. We, humanity, should simply go with the flow. But, I suggest, unless we have some sense of what we are trying to achieve, and why, we are likely to finish up in places we really don’t want to go. As indeed we have done. More of this in Footnote 1.
Which leads us to the next question:
2: What, in practice, should be our Goal? What should we be trying to achieve?
Specifically, I suggest, our– humanity’s — Goal in life should be to create
“Convivial Societies with Personal Fulfilment within a Flourishing Biosphere”
Please note “fulfilment” rather than the usual “happiness”, which tends to be reduced to hedonism; and “biosphere” which means “living world” rather than the usual “environment” which simply means “surroundings” and these days is equated with real estate — property with a cash value as determined by “the market”.
All three desiderata – society, individuals, and the natural world — are important. They are like the legs of the three-legged stool. If any one of the three is deficient or defective then the whole structure is compromised.
Very few societies have ever managed to take care of all three, or even tried to. No government that I know of has ever stated its Goal in these terms. No modern government and therefore no modern society has achieved a satisfactory balance. In Britain right now as has long been the case in the US we are focused too much on the individual at the expense of society. Indeed we have what the Canadian economist John Kenneth Galbraith called “private wealth and private squalor”. Care of the natural world (“the environment”) is seen as an add-on, at best, to be ditched whenever it seems to be getting in the way of “growth”, which preferably is achieved through private enterprise.
3: So to bring about the necessary changes we need –
“To re-think everything we do and take for granted from first principles, and to re-think everything in the light of everything else”.
“Everything” indeed means everything, from the details of day-to-day living to the deepest reaches of our souls, and everything in between. The “in between” includes all technologies and all politics and economies, by which we seek to translate our dreams and aspirations into reality. Are the technologies that shape our lives really appropriate – are they really leading us towards the Goal? Are the world’s governments helping good things to happen – or getting in the way? Does the prevailing economy foster conviviality, or help us to achieve fulfilment, or respect the lives of our fellow creatures? Are governments like ours – or any of the world’s most prominent governments – even trying to do such things?
Science, I suggest, should be free to follow its nose, and helped to do so. Its insights are wondrous, and are showing us how wondrous life and the universe really are, which is very definitely worth knowing and life-enhancing. The point of science I suggest it not to achieve dominance over the universe and the living world as Francis Bacon so perniciously taught us at the start of the 17th century and seems nowadays more or less to be taken for granted. It is, or should be, primarily to enhance our appreciation of this world and to see what a privilege to live in it. In practice, though, science is applied to daily life in the form of “high” technology; and the question – “is the technology appropriate?” is of particular relevance to high-tech precisely because it can be and is so powerful – transforming whole ways of life virtually overnight.
It is very dangerous too to exaggerate the power of science. It is not the royal road to omniscience as is often implied, and as some scientists and politicians still seem to believe. It has its limitations. So we also need the philosophy of science to tell us what science is, and what it is not, and what it can do and what it cannot.
The arts are vital. The arts are the human imagination in free flight. They take us to places, mental, emotional, and spiritual, we would not otherwise have gone. Like science, they reveal realities that we would not otherwise have realised. But more than anything else, they help to shape attitudes. It isn’t quite true to say that attitude is all. But it is a sine qua non. What matters absolutely to the future of humanity and of the world at large is whether or not we give a damn, and what we give a damn about, and that’s a matter of attitude.
4: The change we need to bring about requires both metamorphosis (change of form) and metanoia (change of mindset). Beyond doubt the action and the thinking we now need must be radical — in the proper sense of the word: getting down to the roots. Radical does not, as Britain’s present government seems to suppose, mean “terrorist”.
The radical change we need amounts to nothing less than a Renaissance, which literally means “re-birth”. And the Renaissance we need now must be even broader in scope and dig even more deeply than the European Renaissance of the 14th to the 17th centuries which brought the Middle Ages to a close, more or less, at least in Europe, for better and worse.
One further twist:
5: The Renaissance we need now must be led and driven by us: people at large. Ordinary Joes and Jos.
The Renaissance that paved the way for modernity was driven and led by an elite of intellectuals and artists, and financed by bankers. In truth, societies do need elites, when elites are conceived as groups of specially talented people who can do things that most of can’t but are necessary, either for the vital things of life (farmers, builders, engineers, doctors, nurses etc) or for our edification (teachers, writers, priests, etc) or to raise our spirits or deepen our appreciation of life (footballers, musicians, etc). We need to look after our elites to bring out the best in them.
But we need the elites to be on our side. As Abraham Lincoln said, government must be “of the people and for the people”, and these days, too we should add, albeit belatedly, “and for our fellow creatures”. Indeed this applies to everyone who has any kind of authority. Historically, and now, we have all too often allowed elites to forget their obligation to the rest of us and to the natural world and to do their own thing, to pursue their own agenda, and indeed to rule over us and often to treat other people and the natural world as their servants and chattels. The elite that now dominates the world is a virtual oligarchy of governments, corporates, financiers and the super-rich — who seem to have been given carte blanche to indulge their whims. Worse: the most powerful and the richest elites include a high proportion of sociopaths and psychopaths – far more than among people at large, who mostly just want to live pleasantly (convivially) and get on with their own lives. In general, elites are all too easily corrupted. For as Lord Acton observed at the start of the 20th century, “All power corrupts”.
In short: however special the elites may be, and however necessary or otherwise desirable, we, humanity at large, must remain in control.
(And, incidentally, there is nothing wrong with being an “Ordinary Joe or Jo”. As I have argued elsewhere, and will again, an ordinary human being as opposed to a psychopath, is a good thing to be).
6: The “first principles” that we need to engage are the “Bedrock Principles” of Morality, and of Ecology. They should be our constant guide in all strategy and action.
Morality seeks to tell us what it is good to do, and Ecology aspires to tell us what we need to do (to keep the world in good heart) and what it is possible to do. If we can do what is good, what is necessary, and what is possible, then we will have solved the world’s problems.
The Bedrock Principles should not be confused with mere ideologies, commonly expressed as “-isms”, as in Marxism, or the offshoot of capitalism known as neoliberalism. The Bedrock principles properly conceived have or at least should be felt to have a cosmic significance – an attempt to conform with and contribute to the sense of Tao, of universal harmony.
7: The Bedrock Principles of morality are the prime exemplars of the thread of moral philosophy known as Virtue Ethics, and the virtues that count most are those of Compassion, Humility, and the sense of Oneness – oneness with other people and with our fellow creatures.
All the world’s great religions and many traditional cultures emphasize these three prime virtues to a greater or lesser extent; and they are widely agreed among humanists too, including many of the kind who claim to be atheists. So these virtues may reasonably be seen as universal ideals of humanity; valued by everyone who is not a psychopath. (Where these ideals come from is another issue – to be explored elsewhere on this website).
Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway) the ruling elites in the present world including governments like ours are not guided by these bedrock principles but by their favoured isms, and by ambition and expediency. No wonder the world is in a mess.
8: The Renaissance must indeed be cross-the-board – everything re-thought and where necessary restructured — but it must be focused on “Enlightened Agriculture”.
For agriculture is at the root of everything we do. It affects everything else that we do and is affected by everything else. It is an essential set of technologies that in the end determine the fate and wellbeing of humanity and indeed of the whole biosphere. It is the thing we absolutely have to get right.
More specifically, we need Enlightened Agriculture (aka “Real Farming”) which is loosely but adequately defined as
“Agriculture that is expressly designed to provide everyone, everywhere, with food of the highest quality, both nutritionally and gastronomically, without injustice or cruelty and without wrecking the natural world”.
Enlightened Agriculture in turn combines the ideas and practises of Agroecology, which treats individual farms as ecosystems and seeks to create systems of farming that as far as possible in harmony with the ecology of the whole world; and of Food Sovereignty, which says that every society should keep control of its own food supply.
The whole endeavour (like everything else) should be underpinned by a version of Green Economic Democracy – a pragmatic, mixed economy that is geared to the wellbeing both of humanity at large and of our fellow creatures. The economy (and hence our lives) should not be constrained by the dogmas of some ism.
Conceptually Enlightened Agriculture is simple, and in practice it should be eminently achievable. Everyone even in the present, crowded world could be well fed, and we could at the same time keep the natural world in good heart. But in crucial ways the structure and methods of Enlightened Agriculture are diametrically at odds with the kind of “Neoliberal Industrial” farming that has long been favoured by governments and the corporates and their financiers, and has become the global norm.
Neoliberal-Industrial agriculture is not designed to provide us all with good food and to keep the natural world in good heart. It is designed instead to maximize wealth, and (although this isn’t usually make explicit!) to concentrate that wealth in fewer and fewer hands. A remarkably short shortlist of corporates now control or at least have power over almost all the world’s food supply, and the list of food industry super-powers grows steadily shorter as companies merge in the interests of financial “efficiency” in accord with the (neoliberal) imperative to compete for maximise profit, to be spread among shareholders (meaning the rich grow richer). On all fronts, the world is edging more and more closely towards monopoly, despite the laws that are meant to prevent it. Monopolies are not generally controlled by people at large, and are not generally designed for the general good of humanity and still less of the natural world.
So although Enlightened Agriculture is conceptually simple it cannot become the global norm unless we re-think the economy, and governance, and the kind of science we really need, and the kind of societies we want to create, and adjust our attitudes to each other and to the natural world. In other words, Enlightened Agriculture needs to become the global norm but it cannot come about unless we create a global movement that can bring the entire Renaissance into being. Nothing can be changed significantly in isolation, or not at least in the ways that are required.
Thus, the relationship between agriculture and the rest of what we do is reciprocal. Unless we redesign agriculture in line with the Bedrock Principles, then everything else we may choose to do will be compromised and in the end must fail. The cause of wildlife conservation is holed below the waterline unless we farm in wildlife-friendly ways. Indeed, as is now all too obvious, over-zealous industrial farming geared to short-term profit is a prime cause of mass extinction, global warming, and deprivation. Defenders of the status quo like to tell us that “we can’t save ‘the environment’ by wrecking the economy”. Perhaps not, but if we don’t gear the economy to ecological reality then we won’t have a world in which any kind of formal economy is possible at all.
9: Enlightened Agriculture must be complemented by a new Food Culture – and a wondrous serendipity.
That is, Enlightened Agriculture is dead in the water unless people at large are happy to eat what it provides.
Here, though, we finally encounter a marvellous serendipity – one very bright light in the midst of the general global gloom. For it transpires that —
There is a perfect correspondence between agroecological farming, sound nutrition, and the world’s finest cuisines.
For good farming, sound nutrition, and great cooking all revolve around the irreducibly simple formula
— “Plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety”.
In particular, all the world’s greatest cuisines on a broad axis from Italy to China use meat sparingly – not as the natural centrepiece of every meal but as garnish and stock, and only for occasional meaty blow-outs.
In other words, all most of us really need to do is to re-learn how to cook, and as far as possible to emulate the world’s greatest cuisines (which can and should include that of Britain). That really shouldn’t be hard!
But it is in the interests of governments and corporates and their selected advisers to give the impression that there is a global food crisis which they alone can solve. Indeed, some people in high places who truly mean to do good believe that this is the case. In truth, though, as I first ventured to suggest in my first ever book, The Famine Business, published in 1979, the powers-that-be and the economy and social structure that they have created, is a prime cause of the world’s ills. Furthermore, the present economy and the physical structure of modern cities and indeed of the countryside in industrialized countries make it very difficult for people at large to take the time to cook properly, or indeed at all, and modern education in general pays scant attention to cooking and farming (or to the need to create convivial societies and how this may be achieved).
10: All our biggest ideas, the ideas we live our lives by, including those of science and religion, in the end are rooted in Metaphysics.
Metaphysics addresses what many have called “the ultimate questions”. Such as (i): “What is the universe really like?”; (ii): “What is ‘good’?” (meaning what is the nature of goodness? Where does it come from?); (iii): “How do we know what’s true?”; and (iv): “How come?” – how and why are things the way they are? Why does the universe exist at all? Such questions cannot be answered definitively. Such metaphysical conundrums cannot be resolved definitively. The solutions we may offer are neither provable beyond all possible doubt (nothing is), nor not disprovable, even in theory. Yet the questions haunt us nonetheless and we just have to do the best we can.
But metaphysics, which asks these questions, has gone missing from modern, western-led culture and has more or less disappeared as an independent discipline. This means that humanity as a whole fails to ask systematically what really matters, and that we root our lives in ideologies and according to immediate circumstance. Truly we need to restore metaphysics to the centre stage. Without it we are as they say in aeronautical circles, “flying on our instruments”.
In summary, in a nutshell —
We need to bring about a people-led global Renaissance that is rooted in the bedrock principles of morality and ecology but is centred on the particularities of food and agriculture. In other words, we need to attend in equal measure both to the highest flights of human thought and spirituality, and to the minutiae of life, and to everything in between.
So where do we go from here?
The good news is that to a small but significant extent the Renaissance is already happening, or at least the foundations are being laid. Many thousands of organizations and many millions of individuals are already thinking the kinds of thoughts and having the kind of discussions and doing the kinds of things that are needed to make it happen — like, for example, creating community-owned small mixed farms, or local markets to support farmers who are already farming in enlightened ways. These initiatives may be seen as “islands of sanity” in a world that is otherwise dysfunctional and often seems downright deranged. The individual enterprises need not necessarily grow as all businesses are now urged to do, because all enterprises have a natural size. Instead whatever is good should be emulated and, if appropriate, multiplied. If the good initiatives do multiply and are in touch with each other then between them they could in the fullness of time and preferably very soon form a true alternative to the status quo, so that those who want to jump off the modern bandwagon, hurtling as it is to perdition, have somewhere to jump to.
Already the world has what’s needed to make the Renaissance happen, or at least to create a global movement that could lead us on to the Renaissance. There are easily enough like-thinking people in the world to form a critical mass; and although there’s still a great deal still to be thought about and done there is already enough goodwill and good ideas out there to put the Renaissance on a firm footing. What’s lacking, it seems to me, is coherence – which is what I have tried to work towards in my latest book, The Great Re-Think (Pari publishing 2021). I’m now trying to develop the ideas further through my new website, www.colintudge.com. Please tune in and offer a comment and help things along!
Some people – coming from very different perspectives! – argue that we shouldn’t have any particular Goal in mind. Thus some neoliberals of a crudely biological turn of mind draw a parallel between the free market and natural selection; and this, they argue, means that the competitive free market by which they set such store is therefore “natural” — the way of the world; and that since natural selection leads in no predetermined direction, we shouldn’t try to either. Since natural selection has produced such wonders – mushrooms, oak trees, us –we can expect the free market to as well. That argument does seem astonishingly cavalier, but I have heard it expounded in academic circles nonetheless.
Taoists are of a quite different stamp. Indeed, the ultra-competitive, ultra-materialist, acquisitive neoliberal could hardly be more different from that gentle, pacific, non-assertive Taoist. Yet they seem to have come to a similar conclusion. For Taoists argue that the universe has its own rhythm and works itself out in its own way – the way of the Tao, or Dao — and that we, mere human beings, should allow ourselves to go with the universal flow, for who are we do to otherwise? Of course there’s a huge qualitative difference between the natural outworking of the Universe as conceived by the Taoists, and the unregulated machinations of the neoliberal market as dreamt up in think-tanks. But they both seem to share a kind of fatalism.
Then again, in the 18th century, the Irish philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke argued both on moral and political grounds that no generation has a right to impose its will on the next. The five-year plans of Stalin and Mao and others show what can happen when any one generation does try to impose its will and its dogmas on those who come after.
So there are caveats. I suggest nonetheless that unless we keep some kind of Goal in mind then we are very likely to drift into something unspeakable. After all, most evolutionary pathways have led to extinction and the deregulated allegedly free market economy of the past 40-50 years threatens to do the same. But, as always, our Goal should be rooted in the bedrock principles of morality – compassion, humility, oneness – and ecology. Stalin’s and Mao’s mistake was and is to put their trust in some inevitably inadequate but nonetheless prescriptive ideology, and to confuse ideology with Principle.