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The Land – The Great ReThink

Ecopolitics Today – The Great ReThink

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Ecopolitics Today is back, starting with an introduction to The Great Rethink: a 21st Century Renaissance, a soon-to-be-published book by biologist and scientific author Colin Tudge. So here goes.

Yes, we are making the Earth uninhabitable for humans. Not a startling statement, but as Greta Thunberg has to keep pointing out, too few powerful people are trying to take corrective action.

Colin Tudge, in his new book The Great Rethink, notes that the personality traits driving ambitious people into positions of power and influence—such as the desire to secure wealth and political control for themselves and their associates—are the opposite of the characteristics required to share Earth’s resources between all people, living principled lives in thriving, diverse ecosystems. The big questions are how to remove power from those who crave it for themselves, and then how to transfer it to benign agents capable of enacting policies for Earth rescue.

‘Renaissance’ is an answer proposed by Colin Tudge in this book. By Renaissance he means the creation of societies that are convivial, in the sense of happily collaborative rather than fiercely competitive, and are set in a flourishing biosphere. Renaissance would be the work of ‘Ordinary Joes and Jos,’ building the world they want alongside the extractive systems that now dominate. The author prefers the Renaissance concept over Revolution (unknown outcomes!) or Reform of the existing system (too slow and timid).

But time is the enemy, even of Renaissance. As the earthy character Arthur Fallowfield used to say on the radio comedy show Beyond Our Ken, ;…the answer lies in the soil.’ Yet topsoil is being lost at such alarming rates that its capacity to provide answers is but a fraction of its potential when the radio show was made between 1958 and 1964. The Sustainable Soils Alliance warns that soil is being lost ten times faster than it is being formed, that between 1850 and 2015 the UK lost 84% of its best-quality topsoil, and that the current annual soil loss from wind and water erosion, from this one small quartet of countries, is about 2.9 million tonnes, weighing as much as 240,000 double-decker buses.

Without soil, we cannot feed ourselves. This harsh truth is rushing towards us like an apocalyptic thunderbolt, but most governments do not seem to care.

Colin Tudge is especially skilled at interpreting and setting science in the wider context of our civilisation. He is a biologist who has spent decades explaining scientific topics to non-specialist audiences, has written several books including The Secret Life of Trees and Global Ecology, and in 2008 with his wife Ruth West launched the Campaign for Real Farming. Two years later the duo, with writer and former agricultural adviser to The Archers, Graham Harvey, set up the annual Oxford Real Farming Conference. Colin Tudge bridges the divide between humanities and sciences, famously labelled ‘the two cultures’ by C P Snow back in 1959. Snow, in The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, argued that the schism seriously complicated the task of advancing knowledge, culture and governance. In The Great Rethink Colin Tudge takes bridge rebuilding a step further into the world of metaphysics, essentially the study of mind, including our understandings of reality, and importantly what we do not know and can never know. In this respect, The Great Rethink is a work of philosophy as well as of anxiety at the current trajectory of Earth mismanagement.


The book is divided into six parts: setting out the problems, the goal to work towards, the fundamental importance of craft work in the production and preparation of good food, the necessary infrastructure, the scope and depth of thought required, and how to start translating thought into the next steps we need to take. William Morris and John Ruskin would appreciate the arguments, I think. This may alarm some technophiles, because William Morris, who died in 1896, and John Ruskin, who passed away on the 20th day of the 20th century, favoured skill and craftsmanship over the reduction of work to simple processes in automated factories, the assembly line mentality that has done so much to spur damaging, resource-gobbling techno-consumerism.

Colin Tudge proposes that the numbers of farmers in the UK needs to rise up to tenfold. There would be more small, mixed farms practising what he calls ‘Enlightened Agriculture’, and plant-based diets with some meat but not much, and a great deal of diversity.  Food growing and cookery would become fundamental components of the school curriculum.

There is no shortage of potential farmers in the UK, evidenced by the interest in Wales’ policy for One Planet Developments, and the numbers applying to the Ecological Land Co-operative for smallholdings, but the status of land as a prime investment class in a neoliberal world means that, apart from special schemes like these, land is too expensive for new farmers who are ‘Ordinary Joes and Jos’.

Neoliberalism, the belief that market forces result in the most efficient decisions, has led us in completely the wrong direction, the book insists, far away from the co-operative, compassionate and convivial societies, living in flourishing ecosystems, that are our best hope of survival.

Personally I think we lack time for a Renaissance, to build a new structure capable of replacing the old one as it implodes, although I do not doubt the need for one. I am more inclined to think of scattered lifeboats, which could in time form a pioneer flotilla.

Colin Tudge has not lost hope, though. The very last sentence of the book is: ‘Truly we are on the brink of catastrophe but there is still hope.’

The Great Rethink: a 21st Century Renaissance is scheduled to be published on January 7th 2021, by Pari Publishing, ISBN (International Standard Book Number) 9788895604343, 364 pages. £15 to pre-order.

PDR, October 2020

 Patricia Racher