This is a slightly modified version of an article I wrote for the magazine of Leith Community Crops in Pots. Apart from where explicitly stated otherwise, I do not claim that this represents the views of the board of this organisation or, indeed, anyone associated with it. It is my personal opinion.
Environment not an election issue?
When I first drafted this, the dust had not yet settled after the Labour leadership contest. To the extent that the media mentioned policies at all (as opposed to Corbyn’s dress sense or singing proclivities), it was disappointing that the contenders’ views on the environment were not mentioned, as far as I know. Similarly, during the general election it seems that this fundamental issue was neglected.
Economic growth was apparently one point on which all the major parties and the media agreed – that it is unambiguously a good thing and so must be promoted, the only question being how to do this. There is huge evidence, however, that economic growth, per se, does not necessarily lead to a better quality of life for most people. (Indeed, when it is coupled to widening inequality, quite the opposite.) Furthermore, economic growth (as measured by GDP) has long been correlated with increased consumption of material goods and energy, and this increased consumption of goods and energy is related to the depletion of non-renewable resources and the destruction of the ‘ecosystem services’ on which we all depend.
Not apart but a part
To address this, there are those who argue for the marketisation – the trading, or buying and selling – of ecosystems and their ‘services’. The buzzword here (or buzzphrase) is ‘natural capital’. This is madness. The market has shown itself to be a volatile and dangerous entity, focused on the short term and wide open to manipulation by the selfish and greedy. The very use of the term ‘services’ is arguably both a symptom and a cause (part of a vicious circle, then) of our alienation from nature and the environment. We may think that we are apart from nature, when really we are a part of it, and a mere intellectual understanding of ‘ecosystem services’ (full knowledge of which is impossible anyway) is not enough to make a meaningful difference to how people (and corporations) behave. To put things bluntly, multinational corporations, legally obliged to seek short-term ‘profit’ for their shareholders, and governments, subserviently doing these corporations’ bidding and mindlessly chasing economic growth, constitute a cancer on planet earth. Fortunately there are many organisations and individuals wise to the folly of going down the ‘natural capital’ route, and there is an open letter against the World Forum on Natural Capital.
Monoculture-deserts and profit-sucking supermarkets
Food is a major element in this cancer and this alienation, and therefore of the global environmental and wellbeing crisis in which we find ourselves. Industrial agriculture depends on very few people but vast quantities of agrochemicals, fossil fuels and, in some places, scarce water, and converts thousands of hectares of nature into monoculture-deserts with sterile and impoverished soils. More energy is used in growing this kind of food than is produced from it, and much of what is grown, although edible by people, is then fed to animals for meat production – an extremely inefficient way of feeding people. Add to this the fact that between a third and a half of all the food produced is wasted – not least by profit-sucking supermarkets, which, by the way, destroy jobs rather than create them. (Walmart, Asda’s parent company, destroys three jobs for every two it creates, according to Breaking the Set.)
Cure for global ills
It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, things absolutely have to change, so that food becomes a major part of the cure for global ills, rather than a cause. The production of food must cease to be merely a massive industrial occupation, or a despised, low-status scrabble for existence (in the developing world, where the poor face massive competition for land and resources from the ruthless multinationals your pensions may be invested in). Neither should it be just a hobby for a few privileged middle-class people with spare money and time, and their own garden or allotment. This is entirely feasible. Cuba has already shown the way.
Shaky foundations in carbon-depleted soil
Growing food should be a part of all of our lives, at least at some point between cradle and grave, because it is both good for us and for the environment. No child should grow up not knowing where food comes from. Indeed, no child should grow up without having eaten food that she or he has grown. No child should grow up without having plunged his hands into good, rich soil, full of wriggling earthworms. It’s not smartphones or tablet computers which keep us alive. Our edifice of superficially sophisticated technology is, if only we could see it, tottering on very shaky foundations in carbon-depleted soil.
Hideously misguided politicians and ecocidal, monocropping juggernauts
Politicians rabbit on about the importance of ‘IT skills’, of ‘employability’, of being educated for the ‘jobs market’ in an ‘increasingly competitive world’. To emphasise and prioritise these things is hideously misguided short-termism, because no matter how adept little fingers are at ‘swiping’ tablet computers, they can do no ‘coding’, no ‘serving the marketplace’ on a devastated planet. Our society is incredibly fragile. We are a few days away from starvation and riots, should industrial agriculture, with its massive fossil-fuel dependency, its extended distribution systems and its increasingly narrow genetic base, break down and, with the climate change it contributes to, this is increasingly likely. The genetic base of our major food plants is, of course, getting narrower as traditional farmers, custodians of the wide gene pool from which many modern crops were developed, are ridiculed and displaced by ecocidal, monocropping juggernauts. They are even trying to make it illegal to save seeds. (Sorry, but that is far more important an issue than whether little Jenny is a whizz at Minecraft. And little Jenny should know it!)
Spin-off benefits and emotional connection
Furthermore (and perhaps most importantly), just as with languages, arts and culture, the spin-off benefits of engagement with nature and gardening are enormous. It’s not an either-or issue: if you want your children to do well academically – and be ‘competitive in the jobs market’! – then they need to be happy, healthy and balanced. And, I would argue, for the sake of the environment on which we all depend, they need to develop a profound emotional connection with nature as children if they are to care about it as adults, and no amount of classroom lessons or wildlife documentaries can provide this. They need to climb trees, build dens, collect tadpoles and get their hands dirty. (You’ll find more information on this on Leith Community Crops in Pots’ website.)
The organisation I work for – Leith Community Crops in Pots – exists for all these reasons. And it’s probably safe to say that I speak for most of the Crops in Pots community when I state that we would love it if children could identify more invertebrates, plants and animals than company logos. We have arguably failed them, and the future of mankind, if they can’t. With apologies to the Greens, it’s high time that politicians started to talk about such things – my 2016 Holyrood vote is yours to win!
Let me conclude by recommending a wonderful introduction to an alternative way of producing food, the BBC’s ‘Farm for the Future’ documentary on YouTube. I think you’ll enjoy it.
Since finishing this essay, the Paris attacks have further raised the profile of the Syrian conflict. How disappointing that relatively little coverage has been given to the role of climate change in its genesis. See these articles for more on this:
‘…It’s not an insult to the dead to wonder why France, a $2tn economy, couldn’t make a better offer to its disenfranchised youth than a bunch of sick bullies grooming them on the internet. It’s not apologism to try to understand why something happened. When Syria’s drought kicked in, 25% of the population became unemployed. The vast majority of the country’s livestock has died over the past decade. A lot of Isis are farmers with nowhere to go, their entire industry destroyed – you’d think they’d have more sympathy for journalists. Those who think radicalising a youngster has nothing to do with climate – have you seen Tatooine?’