If we want a world that is good to live in – or is indeed possible to live in – then, says Colin Tudge, we have to rethink everything we now take for granted and do most things differently (including, of course, agriculture).

We need to start the world all over again – to bring about a transformation; a metamorphosis. Indeed we need nothing less than a Grand Renaissance, even broader in scope and deeper in impact than the “Italian” Renaissance from the 14th century onwards that brought the Middle Ages to a close. For the world, now, with all its inhabitants, including humanity and our fellow creatures, is in a shocking, possibly terminal mess. Worse: the ideas that now dominate the world, and inform the oligarchy that rules over us – an oligarchy of governments, corporates, banks, and their chosen intellectual advisers – are hastening our collapse.

We must rethink, rapidly, across the board, all the ideas that we now take so much for granted that we hardly bother to question them: in science, politics, economics, morality – all areas of life. Then, or in reality at the same time, we must act on the new ideas – “create the world we would like to see”, as Mahatma Gandhi put the matter.

At least for starters, we need to rethink everything from every point of view, to give a kaleidoscopic view of the world. But then we need to go one step further: to rethink every point of view from every other point of view – to provide a worldview that is as nearly as possible holistic. Then we need to act on our new worldview – or rather, in practice, the new ideas and the different ways of doing things must proceed side by side, each informed by all the others. Ideas and actions must co-evolve. That’s the way life in general proceeds – the way the human brain evolved.

One final requirement. The powers-that-be, the oligarchs who run the world, are not going to make the Renaissance happen. Some of them see nothing wrong with the status quo. Some are convinced that they are doing a good job and have a duty to stay in power and continue along the present track. Others prefer not to acknowledge that anything is wrong. Others do see that a great deal is wrong but are convinced that no-one else could do better – and some simply prefer to be at the top of the heap and are determined to stay in power whether or not anyone else could do better. So if we are serious about the future then we ourselves, people at large, Ordinary Joes, must take matters into our own hands, and make the Renaissance happen. The Italian Renaissance of half-a-millennium ago was led “top-down” – brought about by bankers, artists, and intellectuals. The Renaissance we need now must be built from the bottom up. The coming Renaissance must be a giant exercise in democracy.

Everything needs to be rethought – as summarized in the following diagram:


The main areas for discussion are shown as balloons – eleven in all. The subject areas of most of the balloons correspond to standard academic disciplines or well-delineated crafts – science, economics, moral philosophy, farming, cooking etc. We should be grateful to the earlier Renaissance for defining those disciplines so clearly. But although these subdivisions are convenient, and surely necessary, they are also a trap. For as things are, science and economics and theology and everything else are generally taught at least in any depth only to those who express a particular interest in them at an early age. So very few people who aren’t scientists (or doctors or engineers or some such) have any deep insight into science – and most scientists have far less insight than they should because, usually, they know no philosophy, and don’t therefore know what science actually is and, equally importantly, what it is not. Science is wonderful and has become essential, but it is not the only source of valid knowledge and it is not the royal road to omniscience, as scientists all too often are brought up to believe (Part V). Economists these days tend to know little or no moral philosophy – and are wont even to deny that economics does or should have a moral content, though this truly is the deepest nonsense. Neither do they ask, with sufficient rigour, whether the assumptions on which they base their grand theories – assumptions about human psychology and the nature of the material world – bear any worthwhile relationship to social or ecological reality.

Thus, in the modern jargon, areas of expertise are “siloed” – each one tightly sealed within its own container, like the tall metal cylinders that are used to hold wheat and barley and beans down on the farm, with no meeting between them, except perhaps in ad hoc think tanks that in practice have all the coherence of Babel (and tend to conclude as they take their fees that the issues are “complex” and that anyone who tries to cut a way through is ipso facto an idiot).

Certainly, we need to divide our enquiries and our knowledge into bite-sized and manageable chunks for the purposes of study but – as the present state of the world is demonstrating – it is fatal to leave them divided. Scientists must know some philosophy, or they can never really know what science really is, or what it is not. Economists must be versed in moral philosophy or they are reduced merely to technicians, required simply to generate accountable wealth, without regard for how it is produced or who gets their hands on it or what it is used for; and they must be versed in ecology or their speculations will wreck the world (as indeed is all too obviously happening). Yet economists fall woefully short even as technicians. Their predictions are decidedly hit-and-miss. For although economics has some of the trappings of science (plenty of graphs and recondite formulae), in the end it is rooted in opinion – usually the opinion that the most powerful people at any one time find most convenient. Economics is mathematicized speculation. Yet economists are treated as sages, and allowed more than anyone else to determine how we live our lives. A huge mistake.

In short, nothing worthwhile and lasting can be achieved ad hoc. To get any one thing right, whatever that thing might be, we have to rethink everything else at the same time. That is what this College aspires to do: discuss all the ideas that need to be discussed, if we are to get any one thing right; then put all the ideas together to create a coherent philosophy, an all-embracing but continuously evolving narrative, a moral and practical framework, within which we and our fellow creatures can all live comfortably, as fulfilled as it is possible to be. The grand aim is to identify those ideas that seem to be true for all time – which collectively have been called “the Perennial Philosophy”; and then to show how those ideas may be applied to life’s practicalities – to politics, economics, farming, and all the rest. Thus the overall agenda of the Grand Renaissance is “to apply the perennial wisdom to everyday life”. The agenda is focused, however, on food and farming. The more immediate aim is to bring about an Agrarian Renaissance.

The balloons

The balloons – the areas of discussion – in the diagram are arranged in four tiers. The two balloons in the top tier, marked “THE GOAL”, define the point of the whole endeavour – what we are trying to achieve. And the practical aim of the Grand Renaissance I suggest should be to create Convivial Societies within a Flourishing Biosphere. Human beings should be able to live well – personally fulfilled; at peace; with justice – and in harmony with our fellow creatures, all evolving in their own sweet ways, in a world and a climate that have not been destabilized. I don’t see how we can improve significantly on such an ambition and I do think that it is eminently achievable, if only we analysed our real problems with a cool head, and with compassion, and did obvious things properly. What “convivial society” and “flourishing biosphere” entail is discussed in the later sections of Part I.

The second tier of balloons – “ACTION” – includes all the practical things we need to do if we are indeed to create convivial societies in a flourishing biosphere. Everything needs to be addressed afresh: building, including architecture; engineering of all kinds; health care – everything from highfalutin molecular biology, fine-tuned pharmacology and high-tech surgery through to nursing and social care. Education must be in there too.

All these practical pursuits are vital but none, I suggest, is more important than the focus of this College – the science, craft, and arts of farming and cooking. Farming – agriculture – is the thing we absolutely have to get right. It is the source of at least 90% of our food. Without it, 90% of us (at least) would not be here. Homo sapiens would not be an outstandingly numerous species – perhaps a few tens of millions worldwide. Agriculture is also the world’s principal employer – by far! There are an estimated two billion farmers worldwide and before we mechanize them out of existence we should ask what other industry could possibly employ so many, usefully; and indeed, ask what human beings are for, if we simply sit on the sidelines and watch the machines go past, and sell things to each other. Agriculture is the basis of most traditional economies – and hence, in the end, of all economies. But agriculture of a kind that could feed us all well must be matched by true food culture – people who care about food and, above all, know how to cook. Agriculture also needs to be biosphere-friendly, or there’ll be nowhere on Earth that’s fit to live in at all.

The agriculture that is now well on the way to prevailing is perceived by the powers-that-be as “a business like any other”, and business in this neoliberal world has been re-conceived simply as a way of maximizing wealth. So long as oil is available and affordable, it is in general most profitable to replace human labour with machinery and industrial chemistry and to replace traditional, mixed farms with large-scale monocultures – so that is what is done; and it is called “progress”. Thus the farming now favoured in high places might properly be called “Neoliberal–Industrial”. What we need in absolute contrast is Enlightened Agriculture, also known as Real Farming, loosely but adequately defined as:

“Farming that is expressly designed to provide everyone, everywhere, forever, with food of the highest quality, with kindness and justice, and without wrecking the rest of the world.

This apparently vaunting goal is eminently achievable if only the will were there, but it requires us to farm in ways and according to principles that are almost the precise opposite of the Neoliberal–Industrial kind. If we really do care about the future, then above all we need to transform agriculture. Since agriculture is affected by everything else, we cannot achieve this transformation unless we also attend to everything else as well. On the other hand, since agriculture affects everything else that we do so directly, the more we put farming to rights the more we should contribute to the grand causes of conviviality and ecological stability.

Thus the Grand Renaissance might most fruitfully begin with an Agrarian Renaissance; and as Olivier De Schutter discusses below (a small ray of hope!) the Agrarian Renaissance is already beginning, in many different ways, all around the world. So we can say that the goal of the Grand Renaissance is to apply the perennial wisdom to everyday life – and that the particular goal of the Agrarian Renaissance is to establish Enlightened Agriculture as the global norm. The ways and means and connotations of Enlightened Agriculture occupy the whole of Part II.

But Enlightened Agriculture can never become the global norm unless people at large take an interest, and give a damn. So to complement Enlightened Agriculture we need true Food Culture: the subject of Part III.

More broadly, Enlightened Agriculture and Food Culture cannot flourish, or even come into being, without a supportive INFRASTRUCTURE – and neither can anything else that’s worth doing. The three principal components of the infrastructure, in their respective balloons, are Governance, the Economy, and the Law. All must be on our side; and on the side of ideas and initiatives that could make the world a better place – such as Enlightened Agriculture. Again, though, in this present world, they decidedly are not. Governance, the economy, and much of the law are products of the status quo and designed in the main to protect the status quo. To question the status quo is “to rock the boat” (or indeed, in the prevailing twitchiness, to risk being viewed as a potential terrorist, at which point, apparently, the normal rules cease to apply). So in reality it has become very difficult to farm in enlightened ways and still make a reasonable living – or indeed to make a living at all.

In all things, including farming, the neoliberal economy favours an approach to life that is purely materialist and competitive to the point of ruthlessness. Governments of the kind that have prevailed these past 40 years have favoured the neoliberal economy and, paradoxically (since neoliberalism demands that markets should be “free” of all interference) have in practice used our money to support it. Appeals to non-material values – like kindness, and justice, and concern for other species or the fabric of the Earth – are written off as “unrealistic”. Any appeal to “spiritual” values sets the fat cats a-chortling, at least in my experience. The law is supposed to defend justice and ideally should be detached from government but in practice it seems to an uncomfortable extent simply to be on the side of the status quo; and, of course, governments have the power to change the law as they see fit, which in practice tends to mean as is convenient. Law is the great defender of earthly justice and yet very often is itself unjust. In short, the infrastructure of our whole society, the way we organize our affairs, needs rethinking too. We deal with these matters in Parts IV.1, IV.2, and IV.3.

Finally, in the bottom tier, at the foundation of all our thoughts and actions, is what I am here calling the ZEITGEIST, the “spirit of the age”. In truth, Weltanschauung, meaning “philosophy of life” might be closer to what’s intended, but Zeitgeist has entered the English language and Weltanschauung has not, or at least not yet, so Zeitgeist it is.

The Zeitgeist includes those very big ideas that shape all our thinking and – perhaps even more importantly – our attitude to life. Thus we can, if we choose, see other people as potential friends and allies who in any case should be treated with respect and compassion – or as rivals and potential enemies, or as simply irrelevant, to be swept aside if they get in the way. We can choose to regard other species as our fellow creatures, and the Earth itself as a great gift that we are privileged to be a part of – or we can treat all animals and plants, and the fabric of the Earth itself, as raw materials, “natural resources”, or “natural capital”, that we can and should turn into commodities, for sale to the highest bidder (and call it progress).

The Zeitgeist as perceived here is informed by the ideas of Science and by the opportunities and threats of Technology (Part V); and also by what are commonly called “the Humanities” (Part VI), in which I am including Moral Philosophy (VI.2). But, I suggest, all our very big ideas, including those of science and morality, are rooted in the end in Metaphysics (VI.1). Metaphysics asks what Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University, Washington DC, calls the “ultimate questions”. These I take to be: “What is the universe really like – is the material world all there is?”; “What are the roots of morality?”; “How do we know what’s true?”; and – the great unanswerable, but key nonetheless – “How come?” It is through contemplation of such questions, the wellspring as they are of all our thoughts (and of course they inform our feelings), that we might hope to arrive at something resembling wisdom; indeed find the roots of the Perennial Wisdom. Metaphysics thus emerges as the most profound and the most important of all human inquiries and so we might suppose that it would at the very least be at the heart of all university curricula. Yet in reality, metaphysics has gone missing from Western culture, except when entwined with the theologies of particular religions. The neglect of metaphysics, Professor Nasr suggests, is a prime cause of all the world’s ills. In this College we will be taking metaphysics very seriously indeed.

Finally, the Zeitgeist, and hence all life, is shaped by the Arts (VI.3). With Aristophanes or George Eliot or Tolstoy or Turner or Picasso or Schubert or John Lennon, or a thousand others, we look at the world differently.

In summary, the grand purpose of the College, reflected in this website, is twofold. The general aim is to stop and reverse our slide into oblivion, or at least into irredeemable awfulness – and for this we need to bring about a Grand Renaissance. This requires us to rethink all our theories and preconceptions – and to home in on the metaphysical concept of Perennial Wisdom, and apply its insights across the board. More specifically, as a focus and as a springboard for this whole endeavour – and also to tackle our immediate, practical problems – we need to explore and apply the concept of Enlightened Agriculture, and to bring about the Agrarian Renaissance. The whole endeavour rests in the end on the twin pillars of agriculture and metaphysics.

Of course the goal is hugely ambitious, not to say vaunting, and some would say absurd, and the chances of success – of transforming the world before this becomes impossible – are slight. But this is our best shot, nonetheless. We have to change direction radically, and fast, and this requires an across-the-board rethink from first principles, and restructuring, and we, people-at-large, have to do what needs doing because they, the powers-that-be, are committed to the status quo. We cannot, realistically, feel optimistic at this stage of our history. But we are still in with a chance and – surely? – we must never give up hope.

Colin Tudge, 20 December 2016