An Open Letter to the Soil Association

After decades of wasted time, when the Soil Association could have been a respected voice, calling on citizens to live within their ecological means, we’ve finally come to a cliff edge. We’ve but three or four years remaining to change how we live and change utterly – or to continue as we are and be changed both as a culture, and as individuals, by catastrophic flood, drought and storm. Those effects are apparent now, but will swell during just a few decades to unbearable proportions.
I’ve been speaking of this for so long, you may say that the stylus on my original (you say, laughably antique) gramophone is stuck in the groove. That groove has remained as a perennial truth and so – yes, I’m stuck.
Self-congratulatory voices proclaim (for instance) 100% electricity generation for Scotland by Scottish wind on a windy day, or the spread of solar panels in California, where the sun always shines, but this is meaningless – it was always going to be easy to generate current electricity demand by true renewables (wind, solar, hydro), but heat, transport and industrial/agricultural machinery? – Heat will be a struggle -the rest are out of reach. No renewable source has that much energy. The only solution is to abandon those demands and to find other ways to live.
Carbon capture and storage, wild hopes of future green technologies and equally-wild claims of accumulated carbon by a variety of farmed crops (the worst being grassland) all combine so that we do nothing to change our lives. Meanwhile, climate change is caused by how we live.
Here are some things that can no longer be – suburbia, super markets and retail parks, the family car, aviation (yes, all aviation), large container shipping and related road transport, fossil-powered field systems… My list is not really disputed by anyone who does the sums – it’s just that most hang on to the comfort of CCS and also to a fantasy of more beneficial land-use (mass forestation) and to geo-engineering.
Here is something I wrote in reply to a friend who regularly and helpfully comments on my writing –
Your understanding of permaculture is as deep – in love, gratitude and loyalty, as mine has been of organic systems – both formed in receptive, searching youth. Perhaps we both did find moral, ancestral codes to which we remain obliged – even though those ancestral voices were themselves very young! Of course, in maturity we can trace permaculture and organic tendencies in almost every period of history. When you were drinking at the good well of permaculture, “organic” voices had already become corrupted, opportunistic, consumeristic, branded, disconnected and shallow. I still drank (I thought) at the original spring. That accounts for my reactionary tendency. The leaders of the Soil Association have trampled carelessly over my holy ground – over my soul.
I reckon, permaculture can easily embrace the organic architecture without change – that is, an economic system which integrates with its ecological effects, by imitating the behaviours of organisms. That includes, not only rules of return – biomass for biomass, but an attempted (that is active) understanding, moral, spiritual, practical and scientific, of a natural world integrated with an economic world. The primal organic spring, like the permaculture spring, irrigated thoughts on trade and the trades and on households, as much as on farming systems. Such a spring is a perennial source of delights.
That such a source of delights was spurned, by the organic movement itself is a wound, which has never healed in me. To integrate an economy into an ecology is a difficult thing – with much leakage and cumbersome mismatching. We are fortunate that natural systems are so forgiving and that we are given such a wide leeway for mistakes. As a farmer/grower, I think the best I can aim for is a near enough balance – and so a permaculture. I’m reliant on a little leeway (principally sunshine). Recently there have been outrageous claims of farming systems, which accumulate carbon – and keep on accumulating it – the worst example being the grassland alchemists. Both permaculture and organic movements are polluted with them.
Yes. In disturbing natural systems, we cannot but be disruptive. It is fortunate that good growing techniques can aim for a near enough balance. We cannot be more ambitious than that. (It is a high ambition) Actually, where we fall short, the beneficent linear, non-cyclic contribution of sunlight may contribute to fill a little of our cyclic deficit. All good farming land in UK is cleared, natural woodland (or reclaimed coastal/wet lands) and only as undisturbed (unburnt) woodland can we consider it to be a net carbon sink. Our justification for disruption is the growing of food – we cannot add carbon sequestration to the list of our indulgencies. Similarly, our justification for disturbing the forest is for timber, but there again we must temper our sequestration dispensation.
Those sequestration claims are made to delay acceptance of this truth –
The ways we’ve chosen, or have been coerced to live are causing climate change, (& cascading ecologies & pillaged resources). The only method to restore a climatic balance is to change how we live. That is the only solution – not just a part of the package. We must search for ways to live within our ecological means.
Searching for ways to green how we currently live is futile. Our demands are too great. Searching for ways to green the supermarket is futile. Its demands are also too great. Though every super market is clad in solar panels, and though all the food sold is organically-grown, yet still – its demands will be too great. Pursuing the greening of those demands leads to three degrees of warming and soon. Those vast organic acres, which supply the super market, will draw down carbon into their soils only to the optimum point, where they stabilise after years of substance abuse. They cannot balance out centralised distribution (including internet purchases), suburbia, commuter culture, the family car, aviation, the manufacture of useless consumer goods…
The Soil Association should be side by side with the transition town, permaculture and agroecology movements in transition towards ways in which communities can live within their means. That is – as agricultures. That is also towards re-centred suburbia, and revived village and town centres, in which work and pleasure are walking distance from anyone’s door. Those infrastructures are decayed, but still present – awaiting occupation – proper shops and trades, appropriately-sized factories and workshops, market squares and also the pleasures – library, church, temple, mosque, concert hall, theatre, pub, café… That is, if you remember, the original and convivial organic dream of the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s. To appropriately-sized factories, we may add appropriately- sized fields.
For the past twenty years the Soil Association has been actively working against her own dream – chasing an ephemeral realism that super markets are (to quote her leaders) here to stay.
Well, if they are here to stay, then it will be to witness their own destruction – that is the end of settled human cultures and the overwhelming of every coastal city on Earth within decades.
We have seen at COP23 that governments of developed economies (fixated on economic growth) are incapable of assisting the changes necessary to remain within two degrees of warming (1.5 degrees are now beyond reach). As Kevin Anderson says, “Twenty-seven years after the first IPCC report, emissions this year (2017) will be 60% higher than in 1990” (economic growth has considerably outstripped the growth of wind turbines and solar panels) The future is entirely in the hands of civil society. Those organisations, such as the Soil Association, which were created by that civil society, may return to the places where they were born. I propose that, as those prodigals return, the richness (and innocence) of their natal soils should prove both a relief and a pleasure to them. After years of inappropriate anxiety, they may grow and breathe properly at last – as they (and nature) first intended.
Patrick Noble

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2 Responses to An Open Letter to the Soil Association

  1. alexheffron says:

    Fundamentally absolutely agree with you. Personally I don’t believe this current culture can be reformed, rather we must build a genuinely sustainable (shudder at that word) land-based culture once again from the dirt up. To me that will only happen if we fundamentally re-adress our relationship with nature and realise that it’s not actually a relationship at all. Because to suggest a relationship would be to suggest a separation. Like saying my arm needs a relationship with my brain. They’re different parts of the same organism. Until that delusion is addressed every attempt at a permaculture will hit the rocks. Until materialism is up-rooted we cannot possibly hope. I think we’re doomed to witness tremendous suffering. I don’t wish for that at all, and am open to the possibility of averting it, but if you ask me for my truthful opinion then that’s what I believe. That said, it’s easy to wallow in the darkness and whilst it’s a rich place, it’s not where we’re meant to reside. All one can do is to do what they can with their life – to give what they owe to their ancestors, and descendants. It’s time to realise we were born to this moment for a reason, and need to start taking our responsibilities seriously. Who knows what the future holds but the best I can do is to do what I can to build that alternative future out of which a future culture will rise out of. I may get caught in the ash, I don’t know, but out of that ash lays fertility. So in that sense all attempts at technological (‘natural’ or otherwise) fixes are doomed to failure. For me, culture (and soil of course) is the bedrock upon which all is built upon. Thank you once again as always for stimulating deep thought.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. bryncocyn says:

    Thanks very much Alex. Yes our trajectory is into the dark, but we are surrounded by such delight and beauty that we want to shout out, “Look – just look!” And we have such a deeply primal responsibility for children that we simultaneously want to shout out with a an equally-primal and violent rage. And then we think (those having failed), “What’s the best wording to quietly and reasonably explain…” Since all those three attitudes are natural attitudes (though for me they’ve utterly failed to find the smallest response from any but those who feel similarly), keeping natural responsibility and being open to receive passing natural delights at least keeps us naturally human!

    My hope is that since I’m often wrong, that this will be no exception and that multitudes will unexpectedly throng (biblical language) towards the wonderful ecologies of which they are apart – in winding caravans of delightfully-shrinking economies… Don Quixote is right.

    Like

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