Although cultures are journeys without arrival and pleasures are similarly found in actions, not achievements, it is within our nature to picture the journey’s end.
Step from the road at each nightfall and the endless daylight sky becomes an intimate dome round Everyman’s eyes. The stars will be just as imagined – all in their places. The phases of the moon will be precisely as they’ve always been. Everything will connect – my Palaeolithic ancestors found an identical order at night’s encampment and stars can be shown to children, which will remain to hold their gaze long after we are dead.
Daylight is cruelly unpredictable and the journey through it must cope with that, but at night we find order and comfort. It is the time of tale-telling and sanctity. Until the brutality of modern times, even warring armies would lay down their weapons and opposing camp fires would glow beneath the same stars.
It is then that we tell stories – of many things and adventures – but also of the Earthly place at the journey’s end – perhaps where truth and justice meet in a perfectly-formed river valley – an alluvial plain happy for agriculture, intimately-cradled by useful trees – then further, a fish-teeming estuary and the adventurous sea.
Paradise, Utopia, Nowhere – are essential. They depict a perfectly-formed, moral shaping-spirit of humanity happily settling an utterly symbiotic terrain – as orderly as the stars – with Earth as foster-mother to agriculture, or to nomadic seasonal cycles.
Utopia is the intimate, night-time counter-measure to broad daylight – as the night sky draws a perfect hemisphere over each person’s eyes. That orderly, but marvellous cathedral is an optical illusion, just as Utopia is an intellectual one, because daylight has different rules, which Utopia will not fit. Those that try the fit will come to grief.
But the utopian measure of our silly attempts to live perfect lives in half-visible and immeasurably-complex terrains cuts us down to size. Comedy and tragedy are our perennial daylight states. We fall into holes before we see them. In truth, we understand a hole only by falling into it and then climbing out again. A common comic state binds communities. Comedy is the central and primal common. Pomposity is the funniest state of all – those who have sought personal success can never create a life as orderly as the night sky, which comforts everyman. Nor can a successful life achieve anything approaching the stories of Utopia. I like you for your weaknesses and respect you for your strengths – so communities trade diminutives as they lean inwards to what forms them. We ruffle the hair of misadventure, while admiring its daring.
The same event can be comic to the mind and tragic to the heart.
There is a peculiar time of crepuscular magic when the dawn evokes a hushed, innocent hope for the day, or at dusk when the sky domes gently – we imagine tenderly, round our foolish heads and the day’s events can be forgiven. – Times for setting out or homecoming.
Both are good times for plans – at dusk – reasoning out the lessons which had lain hidden in our failures – so that we can laugh through our tears – and then at dawn – un-trodden dew on the grass; birdsong; mist rising from the river valley – and the road towards hope. However cruel the daylight will become as the sun climbs higher, Utopia can remain – not in a head-full of plans – but in the heart.
The terrain is always foster mother.
Soil, plant, animal man – indivisible.
Of course Death is the funniest event of all.
Those better worlds dreamed beneath orderly stars (such as capitalism and communism) will always turn sour in broad daylight. Fanatics holding tight to such dreams fall into pit holes, but deny meaning to the pit, because the perfect future leads them on.
The tragedy and comedy are that each denied pit is a true source book for a better world. As R D Laing once said, the life I am trying to find is the me that is trying to find it. Capitalism and communism have both led to war, dispossession, poverty and perennial, echoing, outraged reactions of revenge and then further wildly applied dreams of a better world. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity, sang Yeats in 1919 amongst the desolation of the war to end all wars, which bred the wounded souls of the fanatics who lead us to another. Today it is the same. Truth is illusive and so the best are self-doubting, while the worst are passionately intent on imposing their manias – such as liberal markets for all, GM crops and a variety of futuristic ideas which they speculate will negate the need to behave well in the present.
Utopia has a function, not to application in daylight, but to its telling at night. The tales are often of both gods and men. Not a soul has met those gods, so why think to apply the rest? Carl Marx’s communism and Adam Smith’s capitalism are both very good tales and remain so, in spite of the daylight chaos they’ve both caused in the hands of fanatics. Actually, neither has been truly applied.
I’m not about to enter my Notes from Nowhere into the lists of opposing daylight ideologies, but neither will I say it has no function. It comforts me at night. The thing about fire-side tales is that their moral structure is unchanging as the stars, but the people in them change, or are added and taken away, as the unpredictable daylight teaches.
The inherited, intrinsic, moral shaping-spirit of humanity can no longer find a perfect fit in nature. It cannot, because agricultures are artificial and fallible and require an additional layer of pragmatic, extrinsic and fallible ethics. Designed for the maintenance of the common good, those ethics are the basis of law. The advantage of fallibility is the comic and tragic telling of misadventure, which is the cultural binding of social systems. It is also the source-book for cultural tools – never perfected – never finished – an ever-flowing spring or a magic cauldron which is never empty. As we’ll explore in the second half of this book, there’s not a new thought under the sun, but there can be new tools for a new circumstance.
Anyway, my Midsummer Night’s Utopia can be changed at each nightfall – depending on the lessons of the day.
Here I must reveal that my dream is an organic one, in which the guiding first principle is the rule of return. A community can extract from its terrain only so much as it returns, so that communities replicate macrocosms of an organism – or microcosms of the Earth. We’ll explore how common biomass from which we enclose a temporary property (by our labour) must be returned again in some form to the common, so that the mass of bio is maintained. Otherwise, the terrain will yield insufficiently for following seasons.
In this, we have no choice, since the use of fossilised biomass has not only outweighed the natural balance of climatic cycles, but is also approaching, firstly the moment when its increasing scarcity will cause political imbalance (oil wars and civil unrest) and secondly the frequency of moments, when communities will have no access to it at all. When infrastructures are founded on a limited supply, economic collapse is inevitable.
At dusk, as stars gather round my solitary head, I dream of a road from my present community, which is founded on what will disappear, towards a community founded on what has remained.
In this I am step by step with the modern transition town movement and with the founders of the organic movement before and just after the deep trauma of the Nineteen Thirty-Nine to Fourty-Five War. Their dream was of revitalised soils, a renaissance of skills and for newly-convivial cultures.
My dream does not include contemporary organic farmers who have pursued acceptance on super market shelves through consumer-led branding. They pursue anachronism and worse – a dependency on it. I’d be led by the physics of nature and by the methods which might (always fallibly) provide for the sustainable needs of modern settlements. My produce cannot be branded, because there is little that is specific about it – good ordinary food from good, ordinary earth. Its source is not my property, but the common. Its monetary value is (or should be) my labour value.
I start with a considerable advantage – If we subtract input from output, “organic” out-yields every other method of production. Other people may use the terms biodynamic, agroecological, or permacultural for essentially organic methods – No matter. I use organic because it is simple – method which gains efficiency by imitating the cyclic behaviour of organisms.
Another advantage to a life without oil is that manual labour must dramatically increase to full employment. The green revolution has produced yields which are very poor related to resource-use and not exceptional per acre, even though it has been extremely efficient in man-hours. Intensive, mostly-manual organic horticulture will produce similar yields. That is high yields per acre, very high yields when input is subtracted from output, but very low yields per man-hour. That the Green Revolution had boasted high yields as mere output, with no subtraction of its considerable inputs, is a measure of its folly. Such thinking goes alongside measurements of spending (GDP) as a measurement of prosperity. Green Revolutionaries call spending, prosperity – even though much that is spent has caused the revolution’s assets to diminish.
What does a culture need? – As many hours for each “man” to fulfil her/his ingenuity, dexterity and worth as a contribution to the sufficiency of the whole.
Moreover, much of the contribution to cereal yields in the last fifty years has been through in-line breeding – an advantage which organic techniques won’t lose, when (as it must) “conventional” agriculture loses its driving force. Oil for cultivation, coal and gas for nitrogen manufacture and phosphate and potash from finite holes in the ground are not a durable foundation. Hydro-electric nitrogen fixation (from Norway) will re-position itself to the more urgent demands of the electric transport market. (Nitrogen fertiliser has acted like a battery for energy storage) Anyway, a future agriculture must be curious about the environment in which it settles – that is highly-“scientific”. It has become a commonplace to observe that we know more of the Moon, than of the soil beneath our feet.
Ain’t it strange that species selected by the first Neolithic farmers for further selection are still the species which dominate modern agriculture? I suppose that an ordinary member of the Palaeolithic would have known far more of the plants, fungi and animals which supported her, than members of the modern “scientific” community. Observation of large-seeded grasses by hunter-gatherers, led to their curious cultivation and to the incurious, hubristic modernity which has created the ring roads and retail parks of today.
As Michael Pollen has noticed, those large edible seeds may have been presented to entice humanity to spread them across the world – not grasses cultivated by humanity, but humanity cultivated by grass.
Modern hunter-gatherers of the super market aisle must observe the fragility of their oil-driven position and think again of a new fall – back into agriculture – bearing a tree of knowledge of species and their cultivation. That requires a scientific (sceptical and humble) mind, an adventurous spirit and the dexterity of the tool-maker to regularly re-hone her regularly-failed tools.
Liberty from the restraints of today’s schooling may evoke a rush of learning. The fact that schooling is compelled to provide evidence of year on year improvements is further evidence of a dangerously-rigid and “progressively”-narrowing mindset – in which a child of today must know more than a child of yesterday. The children who went on to create agriculture: the plough; the hydraulic ram; the harnessing of beasts had no schooling, but for certain – a wide knowledge of the world around them – classified into a vocabulary (I speculate) both more extensive and more specific than anyone imprisoned at a desk today. There is not a new thought under the sun – only new tools for new circumstance. Let’s learn our circumstance then reshape our tools. We have a Palaeolithic mind in an agricultural world of our own making. The story of the Fall is perennial to us. Oil power presented the illusion of a return to the garden, in which we could gather the fruits of the super market aisle without thinking of the consequence. Now, we must choose to be fallen, walk away from the Oil Garden and then study our circumstance – the life beyond Paradise.
Here’s the thing – If a life without oil is impossible, then life is impossible. I won’t accept that. The foundation for all cultures is food-supply. Cities, trade and the trades are all emergent properties of agriculture. If we can find ways to grow enough food, then the rest, however difficult, can follow. If we cannot grow enough food then…. ‘nuf said.
With regards to growing enough food, the question to be asked is not, which crops will yield the most? – But how can cultures as a whole integrate most happily in their terrains? The vivacity of a terrain is in the complexity and variety of fungi, bacteria, plants animals and so on – all of which contribute to the optimum biomass of the whole. The apparent high yield of monocultures reduces the optimum yield of the whole. Likewise, animals have evolved as essential parts of ecosystems. Their apparently low-yield to agriculture is an essential, contributory part to an optimum high-yield of the whole.
Nevertheless, the biomass of vegetarian animals is very small relative to the biomass of plants. A far smaller biomass of predators has evolved in turn, to prey on them. Plague-like, omnivorous Humanity must, in consequence choose a mostly vegetable diet, supplemented by appropriately-small amounts of meat. Economy must mirror ecology to achieve an optimum success.
The arrogance of a vegan diet is that it removes all animals, but humans from its husbandry system in pursuit both of high yield and the virtue of not preying on the same animals it had previously “removed”. It is a system which transcends evolution by the conceit of a humane idea. A vegan system can be maintained only by the return of human faeces and urine – not permissible to many post-modern vegans. The illusion of a possibility is achieved by importing composting material from outside the system – thus diminishing a neighbour’s crop-yields. In my book, we must consider our neighbours. I don’t like to grow fat, because my neighbour grows thin. Green manures and atmospheric nitrogen will provide insufficient maintenance. An uncompromising vegan farmer wishing to pass the land to her children in the condition she found it will fail. – She will have diminished the common.
I propose that a wiser and more humble approach would be to settle back into nature by learning from nature; from all species – to produce a diet, something like today’s occasionally-lapsing vegetarian who cannot resist butter on her bread, has milk in her tea, occasionally eats fish, or omelettes and falls guiltily at the smell of bacon. Nevertheless, the basis of her diet would remain vegetable, fruit and seed.
I think that my reader will know that grain trucked into feed-lots, batteries and broiler houses is economically and ecologically impossible. I think that most, as I do, will also think that such calculated cruelty is wrong – that it is inhumane. What is humane and inhumane is inherited and deep within us.
Domesticated cattle, sheep, poultry and so on can fulfil their natural and social behaviours (more and sometimes less) in fields. Carp can live a good life in a man-made pond, because lakes and ponds are their natural habitat. Salmon, on the other hand cannot live naturally in a fish farm – they need to migrate. I think it will probably prove true that increasing the happiness of our domesticated animals will increase their economic contribution. If we want to eat salmon we must catch wild salmon – and then in judicious quantities. Treating animals as though they were man-made machines is no way to integrate efficiently into the optimum economic yields of a complex ecology. Exceeding an optimum, particular yield will always create a negative feedback from ecology to economy and reduce the yield of the whole to below its optimum. Harvest too much today and we’ll harvest too little tomorrow.
The same might be said of energy-use – Even though a litre of oil may have the energy of two (or more) weeks of manual labour, it has not the complex ingenuity, dexterity and contributory happiness of the humanity it replaces. Fourty years ago Ivan Illich explored the same paradox in his book Energy and Equity, in which he showed that the average American need only walk at slightly less than five miles an hour to achieve the same distance as his car would travel after adding the hours worked to pay for it. What’s more the walking American (integrated into a culture for walking) would use only about five percent of his time in travel, whereas the petrol-powered American would use twenty eight percent.
In curiously settling within its ecology, my folk movement may gain a currently-unseen diversity of advantages over today’s monocultures. – That’s Fairy Land for you. It’s unseen until you find it. The super market aisle provided what was already done invisibly and without consent. You say consumer-choice is consent? If cultures are what we do, then consent has lost us a culture. The excitement of being a part of the cultivation may replace dependency on that loss with pleasure.
We are about to be expelled from the super market garden. If we choose to walk out now it will be towards a better world than the one that will remain if we wait for the casino to collapse.
As bottles pass round our campfires and we gaze upwards as rising sparks mingle with stars, here is my contributory tale.