“No economic interest, under no circumstance, can be above the reverence of life.” – Manfred Max-Neef, Chilean economist, 1932 -2019
A national conversation has begun which is alarming, yet also familiar. It talks about costs and trade-offs, losses and accounts. It is a conversation about human lives framed in the language of economics.
A recent study by Philip Thomas, professor of risk management at Bristol University, suggests that ‘If the coronavirus lockdown leads to a fall in GDP of more than 6.4 per cent more years of life will be lost due to recession than will be gained through beating the virus’.
Research like this presents us with a terrible dilemma, even leading some people to wonder whether the trade-off for trying to save elderly and vulnerable lives is really worth it, when it would cripple the economy for decades.
In times like these it helps to remember that we are presented with this misleading narrative every time we decide to act on our conscience. We are told we cannot halt the arms trade, because we will lose jobs. We are told we cannot reduce carbon emissions, because we will lose jobs. Now we are told we cannot save people’s lives, because we will lose jobs. For decades governments have used the threat of recession to badger us into maintaining an economic system that has made the poor poorer and the rich richer at the expense of the Earth’s support system. We are told this makes economic sense, but does it?
In Britain, over 20% of us are now considered obese, 40 % of our food is imported (with serious implications for food security and sovereignty), youth unemployment is at 14.4% and social isolation is on the increase.
What bright idea might offer a solution to these seemingly unrelated issues? The answer according to Colin Tudge, author of Six Steps Back to the Land, is a million more small-scale farmers.
In his book, Tudge calls for those of us ‘who give a damn’ to get involved in nurturing a vibrant food culture grounded in the practice of enlightened agriculture.
Enlightened agriculture—a term he coined in 2004 and often shortened to ‘real farming’—is defined as, ‘farming that is expressly designed to supply everyone, everywhere, with food of the highest standards, both nutritionally and gastronomically, without injustice or cruelty and without wrecking the rest of the world.’
It involves transforming our current food system of large-scale, industrial, high-input, low-waged to zero-hour labour monocultures to one that is maximally diverse, low input, tightly integrated, complex, skills-intensive and, in general, small-to-medium-sized.
“What I stand for is what I stand on.”
― Wendell Berry
Several years ago I was invited to work on a ‘Soil and Story’ project for the Soil Association. It was a wonderful opportunity to do some research into different cultural approaches to soil and earth. Now that I am in the process of co-organising A Land Conference in Devon I decided it might be worth looking up some of what I discovered working on that project. What follows is an extract from some of my research.
“The world’s indigenous peoples revered and still revere the soil as a power in itself, rather than as merely a provider of food, minerals or structural support. Native Americans say ‘the earth is our mother’ and refer to the soil as ‘our mother’s flesh’. The Maori of New Zealand call themselves ‘tangata whenua’, people of the land, and call her ‘the mother that never dies’. For the Australian Aborigines the land is the place of ‘dreaming’, and dreamtime stories explain how the land was created by the journeys of the spirit ancestors.
Towards a New Story of Economics
Humans are storytelling beings. In fact one could argue that it is impossible to make sense of the world without story. Storytelling is how we piece together facts, beliefs, feelings and history to form something of a coherent whole connecting us to our individual and collective past, present and future. The stories that help make meaning of our lives inform how we shape and re-shape our environment. This re-created world, through its felt presence in structures and systems as well as its cultural expressions, in turn tells us its story.
We live in a time of powerful globalised narratives. We no longer (or rarely) sit and listen to tales that were born of places we know intimately and told by people deeply connected to these places. Ours is a world saturated with information from every corner of the planet, voiced by ‘storytellers’ on television, radio, the internet, mobile phones, newspapers, billboards, books and magazines. It would appear that we now have access to a multitude of perspectives and, with that, more understanding of the different options open to human beings to live fulfilling lives. In reality however, the majority of us have to conform to a narrow set of rules not of our own making: the rules of economics.
“None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
There are things in this world I would like to draw a circle around. Things, or more accurately experiences, that I value so much that I want a special place for them, somewhere safe where they cannot be touched by what we so quaintly refer to as ‘the market’. Experiences such as beauty, love and freedom.