Baboons, elephants, naked mole-rats, and of course human beings – all social creatures in the history of the world have evolved some form of leadership. None have ever been entirely non-hierarchical. Some have been ruled by whoever was toughest and most determined but the more viable ones are guided by their elders, wiser than the rest, and sometimes (as in African buffalo, believe it not) by a parliament of elders. In human societies larger than a tribe the elders were and are organized formally into a bona fide government, empowered to make laws and raise taxes.
The form of government matters – but what matters most is the relationship between the government and the governed. Are the governors simply bullies, despots or oligarchs, imposing their will and whims on the rest? Or are they truly, as Abraham Lincoln demanded, “Of the people and for the people”? Do they even – vain hope! – heed the words of Jesus as quoted by St Mark (10:42–44): “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all”? Are present-day governments really on our side? Are they on the side of the biosphere? – an urgent question for our time, though it hasn’t been asked often enough. Do they really give a damn about humanity as a whole, and about our fellow creatures? Even if their hearts are in the right place, are they up to the task? Finally, as Justinian asked, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” Who keeps the governors on track?
No government has ever been perfect or ever can be, but of all the possibilities, democracy is surely our best shot. In a true democracy, everyone has a say, and a chance to influence the way things are done. This seems to be right, morally; the principle of justice seems to demand that everyone can stick their oar in, if they care to. At its best, too, democracy is very effective. The best ideas often come from people whose voices would never be heard except in a democracy. Besides, since most people deep down really are nice (see Part I), governments that truly reflected our deep feelings would surely be better than the ones that dominate now, which encourage us all to compete for our own personal enrichment, and imply that, and act as if, compassion is strictly for wimps.
But democracy is difficult. Democracies, like all forms of governance, are very open to corruption. If societies bigger than a netball team try too hard to be democratic, and seek to canvass everyone’s opinion before they act, then nothing gets done at all or if it does, it takes far too long. As Oscar Wilde allegedly observed, “Democracy takes up too many evenings.” Overall, as Winston Churchill put the matter, “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others.”
In truth, the relationship between governors and governed can never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction but democracy seems the least unsatisfactory. The task, still, after many thousands of attempts, is to make it work. Farming poses some of the biggest challenges – but has also provided some of the most encouraging solutions.
In the following pages we will examine the special challenges, and how the world has dealt with them, and seek by a combination of theory and past experience to devise ways of ordering our own affairs that really could, and do, lead us towards the goal: convivial society in a flourishing biosphere. A great deal is known already but the quest for something better can never stop.