Tagorean Deep Change

There is a deep change taking place in the world, I do believe, a change in the relationship between planet and people. It is, necessarily, a quiet change on the tiniest scale, invisible from all others who are not yet taking part in it. And yet, I do believe, this deep change will save us all, people and planet. In making this prediction a matter of belief, I am following Rabindranath Tagore, who refused to commit the sin of giving up his ‘faith in man’, despite the desperate crisis in civilisation which was the subject of his final address to the world. I have spent a long lifetime trying to understand and address our horrendous and stupid treatment of nature, and only now, in my late 70s, has the complete picture of cause and cure come together.

Identifying the causes of the desecration of nature has been a lifelong mission. It began with hearing my father’s three concerns back in the 1950s: the destruction of tropical rainforests with their extraordinary diversity of species; destruction of phytoplankton, photosynthesising microorganisms which produce most of the oxygen in the atmosphere, by sewage discharge into the waters over the continental shelves; and jet planes flying through the Heaviside Layer damaging the ozone which protects life from high energy radiation.

I often think back with affection and gratitude to my early introduction to environmental concerns. My father was prescient and right to include earth, sea and sky, and to point to the kinds of irresponsible activities which are causing irreversible harm. All he did though was sound off with his opinion, which may be a little unfair, as he did involve himself in politics. He joined the Green Party when it was the Ecology Party. He also joined the Labour Party, despite it being against the rules to belong to two parties at once. Local meetings of both parties took place at our house. That suggests that my father believed in the democratic process, but he didn’t. He was scathing about politicians, and advocated government by the world’s most intelligent people, his favourite candidate for such a role being Jacob Bronowski (1908-1974), who became a celebrity through the BBC’s programmes The Brains Trust and The Ascent of Man. My father’s intellectual snobbery was accompanied by reverence for classical Newtonian and Darwinian science, which was right according to him because it was logical. He had no time for Einstein’s famous equation which limited the speed of light and put time itself into question, let alone quantum theory. He was adamantly atheist and dismissed anyone with religious beliefs as obviously stupid.

I escaped the set of attitudes I grew up with only gradually, via Marxist revolutionary socialism, Tagorean rural reconstruction, and – only very recently – John Ruskin’s recognition that religion is essential for re-establishing the moral relationships of society he saw as having been destroyed by competitive business activity. Part of the early package may seem to apply to today’s world: my father’s and also Ruskin’s critical attitude to democracy, with the idea of rule by ‘the wisest and best of citizens’ rather than ‘seeking the opinion of a majority of the unwise and ill-informed’.[1] It has taken me sixty years to work out my own understanding of how our species has ruined the planet and how a deep change is taking place such that all may be well again.

It is not easy to be optimistic in the face of the perilous planetary crisis, and the pathetically meagre personal, community, national and international responses. Despite all that, I see evidence that our species is coming to its senses, which means reverting to how we were for most of the two hundred thousand years that anatomically modern humans have existed. We went wrong from a few thousands years ago onwards, accelerating into peril over the past few hundred years, then furiously rushing into catastrophe over the last few decades. We made three major mistakes over that period which must be reversed and remedied if we are to survive on a viable planet. They are Agriculture, Writing and Capitalism, three complex bundles of behaviours and attitudes. There are signs of reversal, and remedies are beginning to be put into practice. That is the deep change I believe is underway, but there is much work to do.

If Agriculture, Writing and Capitalism are already being reversed and remedied, presumably there are people who would agree with me that they were ruinous mistakes. It is easier to see who these people might be with Agriculture and Capitalism: environmentalists and socialists, although most activists would favour reform rather than utter undoing, which is what I am advocating. But most people regard Writing as a good thing and something to be proud of and encouraged, obviously essential and impossible to eradicate. But if we focus on agriculture, writing and capitalism in an ordinary sense (without the capitals), a similar set of attitudes and recommendations are found with critics of all three: they advocate selectivity, reform, improvement, they consider old and new movements and trends, but they accept that all three are aspects of human life which will go on in some form or another.

It is easy to provide a sketch of how agriculture, writing and capitalism were the original causes of the ecological and social crises we face in the modern age. I wrote earlier that the human species went wrong from a few thousands years ago onwards, accelerating into peril over the past few hundred years, then furiously rushing into catastrophe over the last few decades. Agriculture and writing were the two major mistakes from a few thousands years ago onwards. Agriculture, literally cultivation in fields, required deforestation, which resulted in land degradation and climate change. The surplus from agriculture supported an elite of rulers, warriors and priests, the latter were empowered by writing, which consolidated and widened social divisions. Capitalism, of course, kicked in a few hundred years ago, its impact increasing exponentially with advances in technology.

There is a moral argument for deciding to undo those three big mistakes. If they have caused such terrible harm, we must condemn them as sins and crimes, which means they must stop. However, even those who might be open to such an argument have excuses.

One excuse for not stopping is that it is not possible. In particular, surely we cannot survive without agriculture. Indeed, agriculture needs to be extended and intensified to feed our enormous and still increasing world populations. Writing too is thought to be essential to modern life. In the context of global crises, writing enables us to express and share concerns, put forward remedies, draw up plans and policies, and also to create distractions and invented worlds to escape depressing realities, and so on. Capitalism – or simply the economy – is essential, since we have to have a system for sharing resources and commodities through trade and finance. There is an excuse connected to the moral argument as such. If agriculture, writing and capitalism are mistakes, sins and crimes, they are not ours, now, today, so we have to make the best of what we have inherited and carry on. There is also the reformist excuse which states that the way to stop is to be selective, and plan to change piecemeal over time. Lastly, there is the excuse that we must and will stop, but not yet, only when others have told us what to do instead.

None of that matters since the deep change is happening, I do believe. Some of us, it doesn’t matter how few, are remembering human nature, how we were for two hundred thousand years before the three crazy mistakes took us and the whole planet down a ruinous path. Those few have work to do, particularly to reverse and remedy agriculture. Fields of monoculture crops need to be replaced by food forests capable of feeding our now enormous human population – but not the livestock and pets, which have to go. Creating food forests is a huge challenge, but we are learning how to do it. The deep change doesn’t need to be written about, but I am doing that anyway because it has taken me sixty years to realise what must and will happen, and because writing is compulsive and feels important, even to me who knows it is anything but important, and must and will stop.


[1] P.D. Anthony, John Ruskin’s Labour: A Study of Ruskin’s Social Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 30-1.