The road to renaissance

Nothing short of a cross-the-board transformation – Renaissance — is needed to rescue the world from its present decline. But, says Colin Tudge, we first need to lay the foundations.


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Truly the world needs Renaissance – re-birth. We, humanity, need to re-think everything we do and take for granted from first principles and start again, re-structuring when necessary — which is much though not all of the time. The “first” principles are not those of any existing political ideology, or economic algorithm, or some wild mythology. They are the “bedrock” principles of morality, which aspires to tell us what it is right to do; and of ecology, which tells us what it is necessary to do to make a better world, and what it is possible to do within the all-too obvious limits of our planet. 

There are three huge problems. First, the sheer magnitude of the task. The world really is in a critical state on all fronts. Radical change is needed in all fields, from the day-to-day practice to the highest reaches of metaphysics and spirituality and everything in between. Indeed we need a new Zeitgeist; a radical, cross-the-board change of mindset; a new and very different attitude

Secondly, we’re running out of time. If we don’t make decisive changes to our attitudes and modus operandi in the next few years we’ll have passed the tipping point and there will be nothing to do but watch the world collapse around us. Many groups of people and ecosystems have reached that point already. 

Thirdly, and in some ways most importantly, the oligarchy of governments, corporates, financiers, and their chosen intellectual and expert advisers who currently dominate the world and shape all our lives are not on the case. They have their own agendas.By any normal standards the excesses of some of the world’s most powerful leaders are positively evil, from Putin and Xi Jinping to the warring generals (Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and “Hemedti”) who for their own reasons are currently wrecking Sudan. It remains one of life’s eternal mysteries, at least to me, why humanity – eight-and-a-bit-billion of us – allows our lives to be seriously compromised or indeed cut short, and the natural world too, by the ambitions and whims of a handful of sociopaths. 

Mercifully, most governments cannot properly be called “evil”. Most and perhaps all harbour some seriously venal individuals but most include some nice and conscientious people too. Evil or not, however, most governments at least in the modern world are seriously misguided. Thus in Britain there are some perfectly agreeable and dedicated Tories but their shared conviction that the hypothetically “free” global market can cure all our ills undermines and undoes all their good intentions. Wealth is the key to power and its creation and distribution must be regulated for the general good, or there can be no general good. Since all or nearly all governments and the rest of the powers-that-be are leading us in the wrong direction it follows that if the Renaissance is to happen at all (and it if doesn’t, then most of us and most of our fellow creatures  have surely had our chips) then it must be led by us, people-large, Ordinary Joes and Jos. Which is another complication. 

Some would say that the radical shift we need can be achieved if at all only by revolution. But although coups and revolutions do achieve good and necessary changes now and again, most get out of hand sooner or later and very few have ever truly achieved what their initiators intended. The French men and women who demanded Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality in the 1780s never envisaged the Reign of Terror in the 1790s, and the Russian revolutionaries of the early 20th century never envisaged Stalin, and the Arab Spring of 2011 et seq which raised such hopes, seemed quickly to return to the status quo ante. No conceivable revolution in the usual sense could achieve the transformation that is needed now.  Bit-by-bit reforms won’t do it either. Reform is necessary and achieves a great deal but individual reforms, however desirable, are all too often diverted or watered down or are ignored. Renaissance – re-birth – is definitely what the world needs. 

Of course, the radical cross-the-board, people-led and driven transformation cannot happen overnight. Clearly, too, although the Renaissance is long overdue – it should have begun decades or centuries ago — we are not yet prepared for it. But we need at least to start the process – to prepare the ground. And what we need by way of preliminary, is a global movement: a growing awareness among people at large of the kinds of things that need to be done; backed by steadily increasing activism. For activism isn’t necessarily or usually the prelude to terrorism, as governments like ours choose to pretend. It just requires us, all of us, to take serious things seriously and to do whatever we can to make good things happen.  As Gandhi allegedly said, we must be the world we want to create. I like to think that this blog is activism of a kind. It is at least an attempt to marshal the ideas needed to underpin the necessary transformation — and all big changes begin with ideas.

By the same token, “movement” does not mean marching in step, as in some Fascist rally. By no means should everyone in a movement think the same way. It has been said that no two people in any pew in any English church have the same thoughts or attitudes — but the Church of England has been and is a powerful and reasonably coherent force nonetheless. Movements need broad agreement – a general and strong feeling that the world needs changing and a general sense of the kinds of changes that are needed. But this doesn’t imply uniformity. The opposite indeed, for there is strength in diversity. Vive la difference.  It is vital though that the diverse elements should all be aware of the feelings and aspirations of everyone else and temper their own lives accordingly. All players need a sense of society in other words. Conscience. Morality indeed – rooted in the almost universally agreed virtue of compassion, which is the thing that the most powerful individuals in the present world have lost sight of. In truth, although we and the world are now more precariously placed than ever before, ‘twas ever thus. Most people are nice but nasty people tend to be in charge.

Yet here at last there is good news. For there is plenty of evidence that by far the majority of human beings are perfectly capable of compassion and really do care about their fellow human beings and the natural world. Of course there is self-interest in there too, for it is certainly in our long-term interests to take care of other people and our fellow creatures. Harmony is far more fruitful than perpetual strife.  But it’s certainly not all self-interest. As the Russian biologist and philosopher Peter Kropotkin argued in Mutual Aid at the end of the 19th century, all social animals including us have a strong sense of fellow feeling with others of their own kind – and indeed, often, with others of other kinds.  

Always I come back to the same point. We, humanity, need first of all to define or at least to outline our Goal in life which, I suggest, should be to create “Convivial societies that enable and encourage personal fulfilment within a flourishing biosphere”.  Any thought or action that leads us towards that Goal can then be considered good, and every idea or action that leads us away from it, is bad. 

Within this broad framework there are of course bucket-loads of often conflicting possibilities and opinions but so long as we agree on the broad ambition (“convivial societies, personal fulfilment, and a flourishing biosphere”) and approach the many problems with a cool head, then most of those problems are surely soluble, or at least liveable with. All that is absolutely vital is the broad agreement that the world must be led by care and compassion, and not by the perceived need to compete as ruthlessly as necessary for material wealth and dominance. And, I suggest, at least beneath the surface, by far the majority share this feeling – or if it’s not actually a majority then certainly enough to form a critical mass.  There’s a huge literature out there too on what needs to be done in practice (including my own modest work, The Great Re-Think, which summarises the main ideas behind this website). 

In short: the Renaissance we need still seems far off, with huge obstacles in the way, including or especially the oligarchy of big governments and big finance who are de facto the world’s leaders. But the Movement that must preface the Renaissance is already well in train. Huge numbers of people worldwide are already doing the kinds of things that ought to be done (and the job of governments should be to help them on their way). 


Just one problem remains – the problem that has beset all attempts to change the world for the better through all of history. For the tiny minority of dyed-in-the-wool oligarchs and especially the coterie of psychopaths who so often are the principal drivers, succeed as well as they do because they are so well coordinated. I’m not talking conspiracy. I don’t suppose that the world’s presidents regularly have cosy chats with the CSOs of the world’s biggest corporates or the godfathers of the Mafia to plot some kind of takeover.  It is the case, though, paradoxical though it may seem, that although the Putins and Stalins and Trumps of this world are ruthlessly competitive they succeed as well as they do by cooperating. All Mr Bigs have their own coteries of cronies, who they keep in tow with a combination of reward (a dukedom here, a directorship there) and threat (up to and including assassination). On the larger scale corporates compete with corporates and the superpowers compete with superpowers. But again, each of the various corporates and nation states who compete so ruthlessly with each other and cause such collateral havoc is very well coordinated and organised, each with its own bureaucracy and chains of command, and all emphasising the perceived virtue of loyalty (though whether loyalty is a virtue or not depends on what people are loyal to). And all nation states (and some commercial companies too) are protected by their own police and military, who are organised up to the hilt. 

Then again, the big players, however much they may hate each other, have much common ground. They all above all are obsessed with power, which in practice is achieved by wealth.    They do talk to each other too, and draw up treaties and contracts to cooperate up to a point, when it suits. Thus, despite the huge internecine strife, the oligarchy as a whole is coordinated. They are of the same mindset. They share a common interest in power and wealth, supported by bureaucracies and the military, and all seek to impose their ideas and their worldview on the rest of us. 

But the kind of people who see the need for radical change – for a new mindset rooted in compassion and tolerance and concern for our fellow creatures – tend to reject or at least have little interest in the methods by which the most influential people achieve and maintain their power. They are not obsessed with material wealth and have no desire to build empires or to impose their will top-down on everybody else. 

So how can people who eschew the means by which power is won and maintained, ever exert any real influence? How can those who want a very different world achieve their end without compromising their own raison d’etre? Part of the answer surely is to do as Gandhi allegedly recommended – just do the things that heed doing despite the ruling powers; a kind of non-violent below-the-radar anarchy, as advocated not least by Kropotkin and Tolstoy. Revolutions generally fall short, I suggest, largely because they tend to destroy the existing power structure without first installing its replacement, and so leave a power vacuum to be occupied by whichever opportunists get in first, whether it’s Stalin or the Mafia. The point of Renaissance is to do as Gandhi demonstrated: build the alternative in situ and allow or encourage the status quo to wither on the vine. As I say, the good news – perhaps the only good news! – is that many millions of people worldwide are already doing just that. 

PS: I know I say the same things over and over again but as that wise and seasoned campaigner Greta Thunberg has emphasised, we need to say the same things over and over again to make an impact. This is a first rule of advertising. (I have been told on good authority that the second great rule of advertising is to be brief. But that alas is beyond my powers.) 

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2 responses to “The road to renaissance”

  1. Scarlett Gingell avatar
    Scarlett Gingell

    Dear Colin,
    Finding this morning, to my huge delight, very recent commentaries of yours on the Net, I venture to send you some findings of mine.
    Last year, I was desperately trying to link “the law of diminishing returns” to the realization that preciselhy ‘that’ is what we have been doing for the past couple of centuries (at least) to our planet….and, at long last!, I came to Richard Heinberg.
    Please do look at a short series of short YouTubes…which are so marvellously enlightening, yet who knows about them, who contemplates their vital message?

    THE GREAT BURNING – 16 April, 2015 [2015—and most people are still sleeping] – In this short video, Richard Heinberg explores why The Great Burning — the combustion of oil, coal, and natural gas — must come to an end during the next few decades. If the 20th century was all about increasing our burn rate year after blazing year, the dominant trend of 21st century will be a gradual flame-out. This video is the second in a four-part series by Richard Heinberg and Post Carbon Institute. The themes covered in these [three short but information-PACKED] videos are much more thoroughly explored in Heinberg’s latest book, Afterburn: Society Beyond Fossil Fuels

    ALSO, about “onenes” and “WISdom/Compassion”:
    Indra’s Net is a profound and subtle image of the structure of reality in which every jewel at the cross-points of the infinite net is intimately connected with all other jewels in the universe, and a change in one jewel means a change, however slight, in every other jewel.” Contemporary physicists are in agreement that this is indeed a good description for the universe.

    The Buddhist Way, Christmas Humphreys: “…There are two pillars supporting the great edifice of Buddhism, the largest field of thought in the known history of mankind: Mahaprajna, great WISDOM, and Mahakaruna, great COMPASSION. The wisdom flows from the compassion and the compassion from the wisdom, for the two are one. These twin facets of cosmic consciousness must both be realized….”

    A Forgotten Truth, D. M. A. Leggett and M. G. Payne: “The Gospels quite correctly establish as the highest law of morality, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ But why should I do so since, by the order of nature, I feel pain and pleasure only in myself, not in my neighbour. The answer is not in the Bible but in the Vedas, in the great formula “THAT ART THOU/TAT TWAM ASI”, which gives in three words the combined sum of metaphysics, physics, and morals. ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself because you ARE your neighbour.’ In the words of the Bhagavad Gita, ‘He who knows himself in everything and everything in himself will not injure himself by himself.’ Every person around me is myself at a different point of space and time and at a different grade of being.”
    My very warmest regards and wishes, Thank You for all that you do and you have always done!!

  2. Dr Jenny Goodman avatar

    What you have written, Colin, is so important, and so fundamental if we are, as Ghandi suggested, to ‘be the change we want to see’.
    The Renaissance you discuss is predicated upon humanity’s capacity to love and cooperate with each other rather than fight and compete. The argument that’s often invoked to suggest that only war and competition are ‘natural’ to humans is a deliberate misunderstanding of Darwin’s theory of evolution. If we look closely at nature, especially down the microscope, what we actually see is symbiosis. At it’s most intimate, the symbiosis of algae and fungi to form lichens is so close that they are, as Robin Wall Kimmerer puts it in “Braiding Sweetgrass”, ‘married’. And in all animal bodies, as described eloquently in Ed Yong’s book “I Contain Multitudes”, bacteria and other microbes are essential to the survival of their hosts, including us – as we are to theirs. There is vastly more cooperation than competition in nature, so it cannot be impossible for us between ourselves.
    Indeed, most of daily life only proceeds by cooperation with family, friends and strangers. So why is the utopia we seek so hard to attain? Why is the world full of war when most people want peace, and of famine when there is in fact enough food to go round? You say it “remains one of life’s eternal mysteries . . . why humanity . . . allows our lives to be seriously compromised . . . by the ambitions . . . of a handful of sociopaths”. But you also answer the question, when you point out that “most people are nice, but nasty people tend to be in charge”.
    It is noticeable than in William Morris’s marvellous utopian novel, “News from Nowhere”, which I first read as an idealistic, socialist teenager and then again a few decades later, everybody is nice. Nobody’s nasty, nobody has power-cravings, nobody’s greedy. That’s the only reason why Morris’s imagined society works. However, for whatever reason, these nasty types do crop up in the real world, and they make it to the top. What can we do about that? First of all, understand it. You accurately describe such people as “the coterie of psychopaths”, and you say: “They are above all obsessed with power, which in practice is achieved by wealth”. We need to fathom the roots of this addiction to power and money, which drives the few who dominate all our lives.
    And meanwhile, if we can’t cure their addiction, we need to quietly defect from the society which they rule; defect and survive. This is what you describe in your book as creating the alternatives, living the alternatives. From small-scale farmers to eco-activists to feminist campaigners to Amnesty International and much, much more, it is the case, as you say, that “many millions of people worldwide are already doing just that”. This is also what Chris Smaje describes in his book “A Small Farm Future”; that we need to be “fostering local autonomies rather than agitating against state power” (p 259) and that there’s no point in “aiming primarily to topple the existing wider political economy, but to build superior alternatives to it” (p260). Then others will join us.
    This will work where revolutions classically fail. They fail because the power vacuum momentarily created by overthrowing the tyrant is quickly filled by the next power-hungry psychopath; hey presto, tyranny is back. It’s a bit like in gardening; if your garden is overgrown by weeds and brambles, it’s no good just digging them out and leaving bare earth; if that’s all you do, they will be back in no time. No, you need to plant the good plants, and lots of them, maybe even in amongst the brambles. Don’t leave the earth bare for the next botanical tyrant! Plant the good plants, the ones you want, the ones that nourish you and the earth.
    The other analogy that works is our own bodies, in particular our gut. If we have an overgrowth of unfriendly bacteria, antibiotics are sometimes a dangerous treatment, creating an equivalent of the ‘power vacuum’ and often resulting in new and even more hostile bacteria taking over. The more effective, subtler treatment, is to put in lots of different, good bacteria, and the foods that nourish them, and the herbs that support them; let them simply outnumber the unfriendly ones. When I’m treating a patient, I do nutrition before detox; put the good stuff in before you take the bad stuff out. Let the good stuff do its thing, and slowly push the toxins out. A quiet takeover of the good; not a revolution.

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