The Land – The Great ReThink

Paradigm Explorer Review

TOWARDS A PEOPLE-LED RENAISSANCE by David Lorimer for the Paradigm Explorer

 THE GREAT RE-THINK by Colin Tudge Pari Publishing, 2020, 363 pp., £15, p/b – ISBN 978-8-8895604-34-3

Colin’s felicitous phrase ‘convivial societies in a flourishing biosphere’ is the mantra conveyed by this remarkable tour de force of a book, the fruit of a lifetime of wide reading and deep reflection on the key challenges of our time, rooted in his case in our agricultural practices. The thesis is that we have to rethink everything from the first principles of morality and ecology, grounded in a transcendent metaphysics that was also rediscovered in the Florentine renaissance. Such a renaissance has to be a grass roots initiative for the very good reason that the dominant corporate oligarchy – a complex represented by Big Energy, Big Food, Big Agriculture, Big Tech, Big Chemical, Big Pharma and Big Finance, with its focus on increasing wealth and power – has bought up government policy and mainstream media, forming what some people refer to as a Deep State in terms of its pervasive global influence. However, as Paul Hawken noted in his 2007 book, Blessed Unrest, millions of NGOs are already working towards a more humane, regenerative and compassionate world, but the whole movement lacks a coordinating structure that could potentially be provided through Internet means. This theme has come up in a number of our recent webinars, notably in connection with indigenous cultures and the Humanity Rising initiative.

As Colin shows in the diagram accompanying his article in this issue, a grassroots Renaissance has to begin with a change of mindset and therefore values, the transformation of infrastructure towards genuine democratic government, green economic democracy and law, and action in terms of enlightened agriculture, food culture and appropriate technology, all in the service of a convivial society in a flourishing biosphere. This means redefining our aspirations and correspondingly our institutions and values, elements that determine the structure of the book: the nature of the task, the goal, action, infrastructure, mindset and prospects for the future. On the diagnosis front, Colin notes that our economies are still geared to maximising consumption and economic growth rather than well-being, and gives a good overview of the present state of the world. He then asks three fundamental questions: what is good? What is necessary? What is possible? He states – quite rightly in my view – that ‘All human action should be guided by moral/metaphysical principles on the one hand, and by the principles of ecology on the other.’ (p. 40) The systems implication is that ‘everything must be rethought in the light of everything else’ and in context in order to arrive at a coherent holistic worldview that applies perennial principles to everyday life.

The current economic context is one of neoliberal competition originating in the 1980s, and which is now past its sell by date in terms of collateral destructive social and ecological fallout and the fallacy of such metaphors as trickle-down and rising tides lifting all boats in a world of rising inequality. Even 100 years ago, philosophers like Kropotkin were highlighting mutual aid and cooperation as an alternative view on Darwin, which the more recent work of David Loye has reinforced. We are by nature convivial creatures with built-in empathy for each other. A flourishing biosphere has to be based on the same fundamental principles of morality, ecology and the sense of the sacred, characterised by Albert Schweitzer as Reverence for Life: ‘although competition is an inescapable fact of nature, cooperation is the norm.’ (p. 84) Morevoer, Gaia theory has amply demonstrated the reciprocity between life and the Earth in complex ecosystem feedback loops.

In terms of action related to jobs, crafts and robots, Colin charts the evolution of technology where IT ‘can be seen as the ultimate extended phenotype.’ Schweitzer also pointed out that there were three forms of progress relating to technology, socialisation and spirituality– he regarded the last as the most important, what Colin calls progress of heart and mind. Incredibly, he notes that ‘we are organising our own redundancy as a species, relegating humanity itself to the sidelines… which is surely not sensible ambition.’ (p. 109) This policy is underpinned by ‘uncritical technophilia’ in the service of maximising short-term profit and market share – characterised as the ‘realistic’ view; this word needs to be comprehensively redefined. The same redundancy is evident in industrial agro-monoculture with its arguments about economies of scale, and consequent displacement of millions of subsistence farmers into urban slums. Interestingly, current developments echo those of the early 19th century when skilled tradespeople were replaced by poorly paid machine minders. Hence Colin’s powerful argument that ‘what matters most is the effect that our technologies have on ourselves – our ways of life, our politics, our relationships, our health, our psyche – and on fellow creatures and only on Earth.’ (p. 121)

This brings him into the centrality of agriculture with its emphasis on ‘bigger and smarter technologies that maximise outputs and minimise labour’ whereby machinery will eventually be controlled from the farmer’s computer terminal. Such developments, as Colin rightly points out, ‘are the very opposite of what is required to foster conviviality and to keep the natural world in good heart.’ He then discusses the evolution of agricultural systems, explaining his own policy of ‘enlightened agriculture’ which he has translated into corresponding organisations and conferences on Real Farming. This is all well worth reading in detail – farms are regarded as ecosystems and agriculture as a key component of the biosphere. The key is to imitate Nature’s biological efficiency of sustaining life with minimal input and minimum waste, which involves a radical redefinition of the term efficiency as understood in capitalist terms. Colin sums this up in a series of six great untruths that threaten to kill us all. Correspondingly, he explained his ideas on a new food culture, drawing on the history of the nutrition and emphasising the importance of traditional cooking and folk knowledge, including putting cooking and gardening on the school curriculum.

The section on infrastructure covers political governance, an economy fit for purpose, and law as it relates to land management. Colin engages in radical critiques of all these systems, proposing a number of axes between polarities and advancing a view based on Keir Hardie’s green social democracy to replace our existing system of ‘metadarwinism’ and rule by oligarchy – the key question becomes ‘how to break the feedback loop that keeps the oligarchy and power and to expose the crude thinking lies behind it.’ (p. 200) He shows through the history of economics how we have evolved a system devoid of morality, ecological principles and compassion, a somewhat ironic development in view of Adam Smith’s work on human sympathy. Since the 1980s, finance capitalism has come to dominate economic systems where wealth has trickled up, markedly so as a result of pandemic lockdowns that have devastated small businesses worldwide. Colin sets out six key components of Green economic democracy, including a role for community ownership with a minimalist and circular economy. His chapter on the law of the land builds constructively on the radical ideas of Henry George.

The last part on mindset brings us to philosophical and ethical essentials required to underpin a 21st-century Renaissance. Colin discusses three basic approaches to morality – utilitarian/consequentialist, deontological/ focused on duty, and virtue ethics. He then proposes a universal morality based on compassion, humility and reverence for life, quoting the Dalai Lama’s call for a Revolution of Compassion. The next chapter gives a good summary overview of the history of science, culminating in an important section on the need for science to be taught alongside philosophy of science, including such empathic approaches like that of Barbara McClintock. I would like to have seen some mention in this discussion of the work of RG Collingwood, whose Essay on Metaphysics was a riposte to the logical positivism of the 1930s, making it crystal clear that metaphysics represented by presuppositions is an essential underpinning of all intellectual activity, including science. This work has more recently been developed by Nicholas Maxwell.

Overall, the cultural missing link is the metaphysics with its core questions: what is the universe really like? What is goodness? How do we know what is true? How come? In addressing the first question, Colin discusses transcendence, oneness, the sense of mystery and intuition. Increasing numbers of people, including myself, are sympathetic to the view that ‘consciousness may be a principal component of the universe itself’ (p. 314). However, Colin does not take the further step of explicitly discussing the western tradition of gnosis or direct non-dual knowledge that is its own experiential validation through what is traditionally known as the eye of the heart or the eye of contemplation. By contrast, the eye of reason requires evidential proof since its method and perception is indirect rather than direct, as Radhakrishnan has pointed out. The concept of oneness is absolutely crucial since it logically entails interdependence and interconnectedness that have profound implications at every level, as I myself have argued in Resonant Mind with my proposal for an ethic of interconnectedness. At the very least, Colin argues that the ideas of transcendence and oneness should be taken seriously along with his ethic of compassion, humility and reverence for life.

All social movements are based on key orienting principles and ideas. Most readers will agree that we are in need of a transformative upgrade based on our most profound transcendent and scientific principles. As Colin highlights in his conclusion, the ingredients are in fact already in place but kept largely out of view by the pressure of our current dominating infrastructure. As I suggested in my first paragraph, we need better coordination and communication of this New Renaissance worldview to which the Network is devoted, along with countless resonating self-organising initiatives. This brilliant analytical synthesis is a hugely significant contribution to articulating the necessary framework and should be very widely read, discussed and acted upon.