It is essentialin building the Renaissance, to do as conventional governments rarely do well and generally neglect to do altogether — which is to define what it is we are actually trying to achieve; and this, I’ve suggested, should be 

“To create convivial societies that allow and encourage personal fulfilment, and to ensure that the natural world remains in good heart”. 

All three are important —  society; individuals; and the living world. Each is important in its own right, and each is compromised unless all three are taken care of. Societies after all are compounded of individuals, and the society as a whole cannot be truly convivial if the individuals within it are unfulfilled, which means they are discontented. And everyone needs to be fulfilled, insofar as this is possible. Societies in which a few people flourish and the rest suffer – or at best “lead lives of quiet desperation” as Henry Thoreau put the matter – fall  far short of what’s desirable; and in most societies– not least in Britain – this is the case, and always has been.  But humanity as a whole will go to the wall if we don’t treat the biosphere well – and we all suffer personally, psychologically and spiritually, if we fail to engage with nature, and begin to appreciate its wonders. We need to restore the sense of the sacred.Destruction of nature should not simply be unlawful, but unthinkable. The ancient moral/metaphysical concept of oneness is essential.

Of course, this somewhat glib agenda raises huge questions, such as: 

  1. Is “convivial society” even possible? Are human beings really able to be truly “convivial”? Aren’t human beings conditioned by their evolution to compete, one with another, fighting to “get ahead”? 
  2. Why “fulfilment”? Why not simply “happiness”? 
  3. What do we mean by a “flourishing biosphere? How can we keep the biosphere in good heart? And why bother? Shouldn’t we just treat the natural world as a “resource”, as seems to be the official mindset? 

Overall, I suggest that all action and all policy, and all serious thought that affects policy, should be rooted in the bedrock principles of morality and ecology; and all should be directed towards the Goal of conviviality, fulfilment, and a flourishing biosphere. Only those actions and policies that are so rooted, and which lead us towards that Goal, should be called “Progress”. Everything else – which is most of what happens now – is either a diversion or, at least in the long term, is seriously damaging. 

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Convivial Society  

I got the idea of “convivial” society from the Austrian Catholic priest and philosopher Ivan Illich who in 1973 wrote Tools for Conviviality — which I see virtually as a companion piece to E F Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful¸ published in the same year. Both ask the question that the modern powers-that-be (governments like ours, the corporates and financiers, and their chosen advisers) singularly fail to ask, which is, quite simply, “What are we trying to achieve, and why?” What are our values?  

I suggest that these two books, by Illich and Schumacher, together with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis which he first launched on the world in the 1970s,laid out beautifully what should have been the agenda of the late 20th century, and on into this one. Had people in positions of influence followed their collective agenda, the world surely would not be in the mess it’s in now. But alas, instead, from around 1980 onwards, the world’s leaders, led by Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the US, bought into the idea of neoliberalism, in which all human life is conceived as an all-out struggle to maximize material wealth and achieve dominance. Theirs is the line of thought that has apparently caught on and has become the Zeitgeist. And that, I suggest, is the biggest single reason that we are now staring Armageddon in the face. A serious and possibly fatal wrong turning, dating in modern form from circa 1980. 

The word “convivial” derives very simply from the Latin con meaning “with” and vivere meaning “to live”. The word itself does not ostensibly mean that the living together should be harmonious but that is strongly implied. After all, a society that isn’t harmonious at least in a rudimentary way cannot cohere, and whqat cannot cohere must fall apart. Common sense and common observation suggest that to be harmonious a society must be just – a fair deal for everyone — which in most societies in the modern world and especially it seems in the most powerful countries, including ours, is not what we see, and indeed is not the stated goal. Common sense and observation imply too that harmony requires a mindset of unselfishness, cooperativeness, and general benevolence and amity – the complete opposite of the perceived need to compete as ruthlessly as necessary for material gain and dominance, which in the present, neoliberal world is de rigueur. 

The question arises —  “Can human beings really be ‘convivial’?”, except in a contrived kind of way at Christmas or at weddings. But once the festive tables are cleared we revert to business as usual, where “usual” is perceived to be the never-ending global dogfight. 

Yet it surely is pretty obvious that most human beings (all except those who are psychologically damaged), can be convivial. For most, too, conviviality and all that goes with it are our preferred state. I like very much this comment from the 14-year-old Ann Frank, written in 1942 when she and her families were hiding for their lives from the Nazis: 

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

This surely is true – or at least is more true than untrue. But as discussed in various essays on this website there seems to be a huge gap between what most people really would prefer, deep down, and what the world’s most influential people are imposing on us – and what we are allowing them to impose on us. Yet most societies these days claim to be democratic and some certainly embrace some of the basic requirements of democracy, including free elections and universal suffrage. And democracies are supposed to reflect the wishes of the people, are they not? 

The task for this section is to ask in more depth whether conviviality with all that implies can ever become the global norm, and if so how; and also – most importantly – to look at societies that are already showing what conviviality implies and how it can be sustained. Theorising is one thing but demonstration is another.

Further thoughts on Convivial Society


Barbequing is the one form of entertaining that seems to be growing in popularity rather than declining. Hospitality seems to come less naturally to us than the Greeks. But can you learn to be a good host?

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Personal Fulfilment 

Note, first of all, if you would, the word “fulfilment” rather than the more usual “happiness”. Happiness too often is equated with hedonism, and hedonism with doing nothing. Pursuits that are truly fulfilling require effort and at times may lead to extreme suffering but we feel deep down that they are worth it. 

Most pernicious is the myth that human beings are made happy by material wealth, and that we are made miserable without it. To some extent of course this is a self-fulfilling prophecy because no-one can be happy if they lack the very basics of life – food and adequate shelter – but in an ultra-competitive and unregulated (“free”) economy like ours, more and more people are deprived of the basics, even in the world’s richest countries including the US and Britain. Governments like ours seem to suppose that the solution lies in more economic “growth” – acquiring and accumulating more and more material wealth. But it’s not lack of wealth per se that’s causing this, for the US still has the largest economy in the world and Britain still has the fifth or sixth largest. It’s the unfairness that really matters. The neoliberal economy in effect is designed to make the rich richer, while the poor must take pot luck. To survive at all in modern Britain people need to be far richer than the global norm simply because the economy is not designed or intended to cater for people who aren’t. If the economy was more equitable, everyone in Britain could at least be comfortable without any more material “growth”. Meanwhile the rich justify their ascendancy with the thought that they are superior human beings – which, they are wont to suggest, must be the case, or they wouldn’t be rich. QED. 

Then again, the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 tells us in the second paragraph that its authors –

“ … hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”. 

This sounds good, but taken at its face value it is deeply pernicious. After all, what is Donald Trump doing, if not pursuing his inalienable right to do his own thing in pursuit of happiness? Or Al Capone? 

At the other extreme, in the film of Dr Zhivago, a Bolshevik leader tells his followers that “the individual doesn’t matter”. Which prompts one of his followers to ask, “What does matter, Comrade? I’ve forgotten”. Indeed. If individual human beings don’t matter, what does, at least on this earthly plane? 

So how do we reconcile the individual’s “right” (according to the US founding fathers) to seek happiness in their own way, with the need to keep society as a whole in good heart? The answer, of course, as Jesus emphasized 2000 years ago, is through service.  When people achieve fulfilment by serving others, and/or by helping to improve the wellbeing of the biosphere as a whole, then the society really can function. Many people from all walks of life do achieve fulfilment in this way. I wonder indeed whether those who choose simply to pursue their own material ends are ever truly fulfilled. 

(I hope all this doesn’t sound too pious. I’m just trying to establish the principles, here).   

Further thoughts on Personal Fulfilment

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A Flourishing Biosphere 

Please note the term “biosphere” meaning “living world” rather than the more usual “environment” which literally means “surroundings” and in practice tends to mean stage scenery or, in this ultra-materialist Zeitgeist, is equated with real estate. 

And, of course, the biosphere right now is in dire straits. Specifically, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 41% of amphibians are now threated with extinction, plus 37% of sharks and rays, 36% of reef building corals, 34% of conifers, 26% of mammals and 12% of birds – and these surely are highly conservative estimates. It’s a fair bet that if we go on as we are then most of the species we know about will have gone by the end of this century. 

Indeed we are in the throes of the sixth mass extinction in the (nearly) four billion history of life on Earth. It’s by far the fastest extinction, too, and it’s caused more or less entirely by us: human beings. It’s customary to say that the fault lies with human greed, suggesting that there’s a deep flaw in our nature that makes this destruction inevitable. But this, surely, is the wrong way to put it. The fault lies more specifically with policy and with strategy – more specifically with a deeply flawed mindset and bad ideas that mostly are imposed from above by the combined force of powerful governments, big business and big finance, and intellectuals and experts who either through conviction or convenience lend their support to the powers-that-be. As discussed elsewhere on this website, the prime fault of humanity at large has been and is to allow ourselves to be dominated by the wrong people, while failing to provide a viable alternative. 

In this section I want, as throughout this website – with the help of everyone who wants to join in – to ask the most fundamental questions, which, I suggest, are: 

1: What does a “flourishing biosphere” imply?

2: Why should we give a damn? — and 

3: If we do give a damn – what can we do to stop the rot? 

Briefly, to anticipate: 

1: There is much emphasis these days on biodiversity which has indeed become a buzz-word. Among other things diversity is considered to be an easy metric though in truth it’s a far trickier measure than it looks and taken alone can be very deceptive. 

In any case, diversity is only one important measure of natural wellbeing. Of key significance too are abundance and, most important of all, of dynamism – the amount of interaction and interdependence within any one ecosystem. 

2: The reasons for caring about the natural world are both anthropocentric and – to my mind even more important – biocentric or ecocentric or gaiacentric (which perhaps is the best term of all). Most official attitudes and strategies are entirely anthropocentric –rooted in the belief that the natural world matters only insofar as it can be seen directly to benefit us; and with the at least dim perception that if the natural world is trashed then humanity must suffer too. At best, then, the anthropocentric attitude to wild nature is an exercize in “enlightened self-interest”. At worst it is simply exploitative. 

The biocentric attitude is rooted in the conviction that other creatures and the fabric of the Earth itself matter, for reasons both moral and spiritual. Wanton despoliation should not be seen merely as a crime but as a sin: a crime against the universe. 

3: To stop the rot, insofar as this is possible, we need to think and act on two fronts. First, we need to give a damn – and to cultivate a truly biocentric attitude. This requires us to take seriously concepts of a spiritual nature which the prevailing, hard-nosed disciples of neoliberalism and scientism neglect, and indeed disdain. 

But secondly, contrariwise, we need as far as is possible to know what we are doing – to understand as far as can be understood the consequences of our own actions, whether of a destructive or a constructive kind. For this we need the best possible science and in particular we need the science of ecology (which in truth is a broad church of sciences). 

Both threads, the spiritual and the scientific, need to be pursued with all possible vigour – and the findings must then be translated into economic and political strategy and of course to day-to-day practice, not least or perhaps especially in agriculture. 

Further thoughts on A flourishing Biosphere

Fellow creatures

Share this article: An on-line book about the natural world and our attitude towards it, to be published blog-by-blog in irregular instalments PREFACE  PROMETHEUS AND ICARUS – A TALE OF TWO GREEK HEROES Biology is my thing. I’ve been engaged with it for more than 70 years. It’s what I focused on at school and … Read more

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