The ideas that catch on in the world are not necessarily or even usually the ones that come closest to the truth or benefit the most people, but are rather those that enrich and empower the people who believe in them.
To forestall the global collapse that now is well in train requires a total rethink. Fortunately, some excellent thinkers, doers and activists are on the case, as evidenced now by Food Sovereignty, Agroecology and Biocultural Diversity, edited by Michel Pimbert, director of Coventry University’s Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience.
In particular, says Pimbert, we need to take seriously the traditional knowledge that is still manifest in Indigenous societies worldwide. This knowledge often proves to be factually accurate and is of great practical use – not least in agriculture, which we must get right.
The world needs small, low-input, complex and skills-intensive farms of the kind that are still the norm worldwide – more than 70 percent of farms are one hectare or less. Such farms are the world’s biggest employers and still feed most of the world’s people even though they have largely been forced onto the most difficult land.
The world as a whole could gain enormously from their know-how, but the small farms are being swept aside as fast as big industry and governments, including here in the UK, can do the necessary deals and grab the land, while the farmers and their families head off for urban slums.
Longing to be with Nature
At least equally to the point, traditional ways of thinking are not rooted in the felt need to dominate Nature, or to increase personal wealth, as is de rigueur in the modern west. They are rooted in values – albeit values that may sometimes be difficult for westerners to appreciate.
Oxford University’s Nina Isabella Moeller describes an attempt by a German pharmaceutical company to persuade the Kichwa people of Ecuador to allow bio-prospecting – with of course shared profits, leading to wealth and modernity. The negotiations broke down. In the early meetings the Kichwa were simply bored – the men grabbed the opportunity to get drunk on free western booze.
The trappings of modernity held no allure. What did appeal was a song that a woman made up on the spot that expressed her yearning to fly like a toucan.
This may simply sound bizarre – the kind of fantasising that brings out the cynic in western hard- heads. Yet it is not a million miles from the sentiments to be found in Coleridge and Blake: a longing to be with Nature, or again to be part of it.
But although English Romanticism occupies a significant slice of conventional western education, it has very little influence on the strait-laced, “conventional” thinking that shapes economic and political strategy.
The power of intuition
The cultural contrast runs deeper. For, says Moeller, when a Kichwa healer was asked how he acquired his knowledge of medicinal plants, he said that when his grandmother was sick the plants themselves came into the house and danced and told him what they could do and how they should be prepared.
Such accounts reinforce the conventional western conviction that traditional peoples should be brought up to date for their own good – but we should surely be asking instead what such a story really implies.
To me it suggests that all human knowledge, the things we take to be true, rests ultimately on intuition; that intuition needs to be cultivated; and that the intuitions of peoples closer to a state of Nature may be far more refined than ours.
In large part we have exchanged our intuitive powers for what Pimbert calls the “lens vision” of materialism and logical positivism: the conviction that nothing is worth taking seriously that we cannot stub our toes on and mathematicise. We have gained by this – antibiotics and IT – but how much have we lost along the way?
Since the modern western paradigm is so obviously failing – threatening indeed to kill the whole world – we should ask, “How come?” Why have we, obsessively rational beings, allowed ourselves to be so led astray? Why do we put up with the status quo, which so obviously sells the world short and treats so many people, and other creatures, so cruelly? Why don’t we kick out the oligarchs who have brought the world to such a pass?
Gaëtan Vanloqueren and Philippe V. Baret provide at least part of the answer. The ideas that catch on in the world are not necessarily or even usually the ones that come closest to the truth or benefit the most people, but are rather those that enrich and empower the people who believe in them.
So it was that in the early 1970s in agricultural circles agro-ecology and genetic engineering were taken equally seriously, as promising newcomers. Since then, genetic engineering has been vaunted in high places as the world’s saviour: the only possible source of the new crops and livestock that the world is deemed (erroneously) to need.
The reasoning is flawed at every turn, and after nearly four decades of hugely expensive biotech research and development it is hard to find a single example of a GMO that is unequivocally good for humankind or for the biosphere.
Rethinking the world
Yet, even though GM crops cannot yet be raised commercially in Europe, they are the prime focus of Britain’s agricultural research strategy. Agro-ecology, by contrast, receives hardly any support at all.
Agro-ecology imitates Nature: farms are treated as ecosystems, diverse and low-input, demonstrably sustainable and resilient, and, when properly supported, just as productive as the industrial kind, and certainly productive enough.
Truly the world needs rethinking across the board. Truly the western post-Enlightenment paradigm needs to be challenged. As Vanloqueren and Baret acknowledge, we cannot simply “roll the clock back” but it is very foolish indeed to suppose that we have nothing to learn from traditional practices, or to assume a priori that “modern” western ways must be superior, or that the people who have adopted those ways are themselves superior and have a right to impose their will.
Food Sovereignty, Agroecology and Biocultural Diversity is essential reading for all who can see that the dominant paradigm has run its course. We need both to rethink, and to rethink the way that we think.
Colin Tudge is co-founder of The College for Real Farming and Food Culture. His latest book is Six Steps Back to the Land (2016). This article was first published in Resurgence & Ecologist. Download a free sample copy of online.