The contrast is startling – between what is, and what could be. For although there are people in high places – politicians, financiers, corporate executives, and a fair selection of intellectuals – keen to tell us that all is well, or at least is on the right lines, or would be if only it weren’t for terrorists and doubting Thomases and other boat-rockers and gainsayers, in truth the world is in a shocking mess, possibly terminal.

Yet it needn’t be. Even at this late hour we – humanity – could still, if we truly had the will, and if we went hard at it, create a world that was good for all living creatures, human and otherwise. The politicians and economists who now dominate the world tend to think at most in five-year chunks, while 30 years is the “long term”. Some – including some very well informed scientists, and popes and archbishops – speak as if the 21st century is our last, at least in a tolerable form. But Homo sapiens is a young species and there is no good biological reason why it shouldn’t still have millions of years to run. Although a billion now go hungry, according to the United Nations, and we are told from on high that this is because there are too many of us, in truth we already produce enough to support 14 billion – twice the present population and 40 per cent more than we should ever need (since numbers should level out at around 10 billion). We should be thinking not simply of today and tomorrow and the next decade or so but also of the next million years. Our descendants should still be here in abundance – and could, if we and they play our cards right, feel far more secure and personally fulfilled than most of humanity do now. And although it is conservatively estimated that half our fellow species are in imminent danger of extinction (at least four million out of an estimated eight million) most of them could still be here in a million years, sharing the planet with us, a great deal more harmoniously than is now the norm.

We cannot blame our present failures on the world itself, as some are wont to do. We need not even blame ourselves too much, for although we are now doing the wrong things, we – human beings – are perfectly capable of doing the right things if only conditions are right; if only we have the right information and the opportunity to do the things that are obviously worth doing. The world is now such that we are encouraged to do bad things. Indeed it is becoming harder and harder to survive by doing good.

So what’s to be done? In practice there are three ways to bring about the kind of changes we need. The first is by Reform: incremental changes that take us step by step from where we are to where we need to be. But although reform has its place – of course! – it cannot achieve the kind of large-scale changes that are now needed, and certainly not in the time available. Even if we could speed things up – shift legislation at breakneck speed through governments and international agencies – there is in truth no plausible step-by-step route that could take us from where we are to where we need to be. There will and need to be discontinuities. Some institutions that now seem all-powerful just have to go, including a fair slice of the corporates of the kind that now dominate the economy and hence shape our lives. Indeed, corporates as a whole need to be re-conceived and re-configured. In short: reform is necessary but not sufficient.

The second route to radical change is by Revolution: taking on the status quo head-to-head. Sometimes this seems unavoidable – but it should be seen only as a last resort. Revolutions usually turn violent even if they don’t begin that way. The collateral damage is often enormous. The outcome of all political action is unpredictable – the relationship between cause and effect is “non-linear”; but revolutions are non-linear in spades. No violent revolution in the history of the world has ever turned out the way its instigators intended. The sailors who triggered the Communist Revolution of 1917 did not anticipate Stalin. Even the Founding Fathers of the United States were shaking their heads within a few decades of their victory over England. Things really weren’t turning out as the Declaration of Independence envisaged. So Revolution isn’t the answer either.

But there is a third possible route to radical change: Renaissance. We have to rethink absolutely everything that we do, from first principles, and act upon our new ideas; in effect, to start the world all over again.

That is what this College is about: Renaissance; rethinking everything that we do from first principles and then, or at the same time, acting upon those thoughts. In truth we need a Grand Renaissance, rethinking everything that we now take for granted. In this College, though, mainly for practical reasons, we will focus primarily on food and farming: on creating an Agrarian Renaissance and a corresponding Food Culture. But there are deep, universal ideas to do with morality and our own place within the universe that must inform everything that we do – not just agriculture but all politics and economic theory, and our attitude to each other and to other species. These universal ideas have collectively been called the Perennial Wisdom. We could say that the task of the Grand Renaissance is to apply the Perennial Wisdom to everyday life – and the Agrarian Renaissance emerges as a part of this all-encompassing endeavour. If other people establish other colleges with different foci but with an overall similar aim – the College of Enlightened Architecture, say, or the College of Enlightened Commerce – then they can and surely would share their common interest in perennial wisdom, and in the ways in which it might be applied.

On this website, for practical purposes, we have divided the grand task into seven parts. In Part I we will look, first, at the grand concept of Renaissance, and what it entails; then at the State of the World, to see what needs to be done; and then at the grand ambition, the point of the whole endeavour – to create Convivial Societies within a Flourishing Biosphere.

Colin Tudge, 21 December 2016