Ecopolitics Today – The Great ReThink

Paradigm Explorer Review

The Land – The Great ReThink

Colin Tudge: The Great Re-Think: A 21st Century Renaissance (Pari, Italy: Pari Publishing 2020) pp.357 £15

Thomas Carlyle was once scolded for being too wrapped up in ‘ideas.’ The author of a famous history of the French Revolution, he replied, ‘There was once a man called Rousseau who wrote a book containing nothing but ideas. The second edition was bound in the skins of those who laughed at the first.’ Colin Tudge is a prolific author with a wealth of ideas and has done far more than Rousseau ever did to translate his ideas into practice (notably by co-founding the Real Farming Conference). An eirenic figure with a humorous turn of phrase he does not aspire to see his books bound in the skins of those he disagrees with. On the other hand he is in no doubt about the seriousness of the dangers which humanity faces and no doubt about the main culprit, a technophile neo liberalism which puts money and ‘growth’ before any other value. The Re-think of the book’s title is the question of how we build a different kind of world, a world of convivial societies in a flourishing biosphere, guided by morality, ecology and a sense of the sacred.

The book is written in a conversational, frequently ironic, style and fascinating material on, for example, the complexity of ecology or the history of food science over the past century. At its centre stands what he calls ‘enlightened agriculture’, and a challenge to contemporary approaches to land. He supports the idea of a land tax, but beyond that believes that in Britain (and why not elsewhere?) there ought to be a community buy-out of all farmland which would then be rented to individuals or companies who would use it for the common good. (In Britain at current prices this would work out at £8000 per head, which could be added to a lifetime mortgage).

Tudge begins by setting out the obstacles and the goal. Particularly interesting is his take on population which, he argues, is currently stabilising, and could fall to a very stable 1 or 2 billion or so—without recourse to pandemics, famines, or draconian measures. Humans, he believes, are programmed to be co-operative and altruistic. If you ask why things are so bad the answer is that a tiny minority of ultra-competitive people, focussed on power and wealth, become our leaders (I wonder what he makes of the 70 million Trump supporters?).

Agriculture stands at the heart of all human endeavour (because we have to eat) but industrial agriculture is killing us—a major contributor to climate change, pollution land degradation and the alienation of labour. In its place he wants ‘enlightened agriculture,’ characterised by the adoption of agroecology and food sovereignty. Farms, which are diverse ecosystems, should be organic, skills intensive, wildlife friendly and involve minimum tillage and inputs. He is all for science, provided it has sufficient humility. What is needed, in agriculture and elsewhere, is science assisted craft (he puts in a word here for the Austrian scythe), technologies which are small scale, decentralized, labour intensive, energy efficient, environmentally sound and locally autonomous. The small mixed farm should be the norm and far more people should be involved. Such farming would sustain not simply an adequate but a delicious diet for all, which would not be vegan, but would involve a little meat, primarily as garnish.  On ecological grounds he is sceptical of the demand to eliminate livestock from farming.

Such farming would rest on a better democracy and a different economy. Governance should be bottom up, socialist, (in a non-authoritarian sense), and gaiacentric. The economy should prioritise social enterprise, include community ownership in a mixed economy, be minimalist as opposed to maximalist (always seeking to increase GDP) and include a universal basic income.

The foundation of the whole thing is a morality based on compassion, humility and a reverence for nature, a metaphysics alive to the sacredness of all things and to the idea, suggested by some leading physicists, that all life might share in a common consciousness, and a  respect for the arts in which, above all, we explore our self- understanding and our vision.

The ingredients for this world, Tudge argues, are all in place. Farming, as understood by Via Campesina and LWA, might be the breakthrough point for its realisation.  The question, of course, is how we get the lure of the commodity, without which neo liberalism cannot survive, to wither on the vine.

Tim Gorringe, Emeritus Professor of Theology at Exeter University and also a smallholder.