IN CONVERSATION : ALEX IN CANTERBURY

 

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A shopper is briefly diverted by an advertising fixture in central Canterbury. The space is given to artificial grass; Jessops Europe Limited also invokes nature, telling us that ‘image is everything’.

 

AUDIO Coming soon

Alex and I catch up months after a chance meeting in Cardiff and discuss some of the differences between the English speaking countries, our interior lives and their external effects.


TRANSCRIPT

JO: It’s lovely of you to stay in touch .. I was bowled over when I met you and I was really happy that we were able to follow up. So, I’m going to start by asking you … how are you guys? What have you been up to?

A: [ ]

JO: Just for some background … to bring it all back to our memory … the front of our mind .. I met you in the Nos Da hostel, didn’t I ? In Cardiff. And I remember, we had about an hour’s conversation, I think, before I left … and I remember ethno-botany …

A: you were on your motorcycle …

JO: yes, that’s right … and I remember, I was packing up, I think .. trying to move off to Mid Wales … and I remember you talked about ethno-botany and I think we had a really interesting chat about humans and the way the landscapes we regard as natural are in fact the result of many thousands of years of human interaction with nature … does that ring any bells?

A: absolutely, yes … it’s kind of … it’s been a longstanding preoccupation of mine and I have the pleasure to … at the moment .. be totally immersed in questions of this type … because I’m studying this programme … ethno-botany … it’s a Masters degree in ethno-botany … through the University of Kent in Canterbury …

JO: yes

A: and interestingly … this is … although it’s certainly a personal quest for understanding the human-environmental connection … today it does seem a really important global question …

JO: yes

A: a lot of different people are grappling with … it feels very timely to be engaged in .. you know … questioning what our role is and what it should be

JO: for sure … I should say actually … Alex … you background is in botany .. in biology, yes?

A: No, I have somewhat of a mixed background … I think that’s good preparation for engaging with these things … I have an undergraduate degree in comparative religions … with a focus in hinduism and buddhism .. that sort of grounds me in some of the sort of alternative philosophical approaches to human nature …

JO: yes

A: then professionally … I have mostly done a mixture of field biology as you are mentioning …. working with birds and plants … and then also different forms of environmental education

JO: yes

A: learning to teach children …. I’ve found that one of the best ways to learn is actually to try and teach … and so I started years ago … working at summer camps, and tutoring and so on .. and then I spent the last three years in California developing educational programming for a small conservation charity organisation

JO: yes

A: [ ]

JO: and .. where were you … I don’t think I asked you at the time .. where were you raised, in the States? I am assuming it was in the States …

A: yes, that’s right … I am American .. I’m …hailing from the mid-west … I grew up in Indiana in Wisconsin .. right in the centre of the country … but since then I’ve lived in many, many different parts of the US … I’ve sort of been touring my own country .. in a comparable way to how you are touring yours …

JO: yours is a bit bigger …

A: yes .. I probably haven’t seen as much as you have ..

JO: yes … it’s long overdue in my case, I think .. I mean it’s not quite as small, I think, as some of our continental country visitors feel it is … I could tell you some funny stories about … my mother has an Australian cousin who visited and stayed with them in the West Midlands .. here … where I am speaking to you from now … and that’s approximately the centre of the country … as the name implies … or at least the centre of England I should say and they asked him one day “what are you doing for lunch today then?” him and his wife .. and he said “we are going to eat at Rick Stein’s place” … he’s a TV chef that people know here … and Mum and Dad said “what? You can’t do that … it’s in Cornwall!” which is, you know, the far south west … and he said “what are you talking about? It’s only down the road.” Because they are from Australia … but that … you know … we know on the roads that’s a 5-6-7 hour journey which we regard as like a big undertaking … but to him it’s no biggie … yes

A: well … you’re reminding me about something … that I’ve … that I’ve had to come to terms with a little bit … living in the UK … you know … there’s a total difference between time .. there’s a different relationship of time and space here ..

JO: yes … that’s interesting …

A: to places like Australia and the United States …

JO: how does it feel for you?

A: It’s been comfortable but I think … you know .. it’s an adjustment … in many ways … sharing a language with a country sets you up to believe that there are more similarities than there really are … and I think that there’s quite a difference in consciousness … in the way that people relate to themselves .. to each other … and to []

JO: what are you finding? How does it compare?

A: well .. I think it’s a little bit related to this bit about travelling because … you know …in the US, everything is efficiency oriented … all buildings are built to purpose …you know … roads are very straight … most of the country … at least the parts where I grew up is actually an absolute grid …

JO: yes

A: a perfect grid .. with North-South-East-West orientation …

JO: yes

A: and here it is completely different … obviously … the way that everything in the UK is rooted in history .. means that … you know .. all of the buildings that are serving one purpose were built for something very different … so they’re usually pretty inefficient for the purpose they do serve … the same can be said for all elements of infrastructure .. like roads and energy grids and all this ….

JO: yes

A: so it’s a little bit uncomfortable when you are used to … you know … big, simple, efficient systems … but then at the same time … something that so much impresses me here is the fact that it is quite a small country .. it’s smaller than most of the states in my country ….

JO: yes

A: and I think what that means is people here are much more comfortable with less .. so surprised to see how little space people have in their homes .. everything’s just smaller and more compact … cars … dwellings … yards … you know .. possessions …fridgerators .. beds

JO: yes

A: every element of life here is quite a bit more compressed … and people are completely happy with that … completely content .. in a way … maybe that’s because they don’t know how it is in other places … you know .. in America, most houses and yards and cars are probably three or four times as big as the same economic level would be here …

JO: yes

A: but that’s just because we have more space … you know .. to use and to allocate … so I really am impressed with [ ] the way … just being reminded that contentment is not related to objective material measures … it’s a state of being …

JO: yes

A: you know and we have to [ ] that based on our system of evaluation ….

JO: yes

A: and so the poultry little house that I live in here in Canterbury .. you know .. it’s quite an upper middle class dwelling in this country … if you think of it as such then you’ll be happy here … but if you come from the US .. you’d think you were living in squalor .. and that’s just an attitude you bring with you … it’s just a different way of valuing space so … this is really important .. I think … important point for me to understand … because it means that if there are different ways to value space and materiality then maybe I’m not stuck with my … with the level of valuation that I have right now … maybe there is a potential that I can shift the way I think about the world … [ ]

JO: yes … I mean it’s interesting .. we travel, don’t we, in more than .. in more than just a physical way … through the course of our lives we experience different things … we have our eyes opened if we will let them be opened … we change our minds about things … we come to see things differently … but I find .. sort of in the middle of my life now .. I find that even if I can move and grow intellectually away from maybe my background or away from my culture … away from the dominant culture, let’s say … I still find there are pangs … there’s a sort of gravitational pull of the old, very deep formation that happened very early on in your life … are you with me?

A: absolutely …

JO: yes … so what I am getting at there, I suppose … there are … I will still respond to things in a way that I would not choose to and I am aware that it’s because of my sort of very deep … that constitution that took place … of me .. you know .. throughout my development going right back into childhood .. those things are very, very deep …in fact, you are almost tempted to say .. you are made of them … you know … so you have to sort of grow alongside what is there … it’s not a question of replacing it but of growing new sort of centres of value and new ways of seeing things and trying to … trying to allow or hoping that your emotional self will sort of reanchor itself where you’ve moved to intellectually .. but it’s not … it’s not simple …

A: well, that’s quite an interesting assessment … you’re right … and I think that’s an important nuanced point to make that we hear people rallying around calls for change a lot .. but what does that really require? This is not a question that people often like to engage in … how possible is it to change? If we are to change, what elements of ourselves are capable of that? …. So your three parts are sort of the nature of the problem … and then what needs to be done and then how do we do that?

JO: yes … and you don’t have to agree with that approach because some people are very much opposed to specifying a sort of blueprint … as they would see it … they think it’s rather something that evolves along the way provided you approach things in a certain way … if you approach things in a very participatory, democratic, unfolding kind of a way … they would say you get a better end result than if you say “well this is what we need and this is how we get there” … but I incline more towards that … which is probably why I am walking around with this structure in mind .. so it’s up to you …

A: no problem .. [ ]

JO: what I am saying is don’t be railroaded

A: [ ] thoughts with this structure that you’ve laid out

JO: yes … how would you … how would you describe the nature of the problem as you put it?

A: yes … there is a very interesting one … I think .. you know … as soon as we begin to discuss this, we have to recognise that, first of all, the world contains an incredible plurality of being…. And this is something we engage with directly … in the study of ethano-botany, which is sort of a branch of anthropology … if you will … that different societies view the world in a completely, you know, unrelated way … from each other … and although the boundaries are beginning to blur, and the forces of globalisation are continuing to bring worldviews more and more in alignment, we often are starting from an incorrect place … when we think about this discourse because we tend to immediately think about the problems as defined in the West …

JO: ok

A: we’re immediately falling back on our interpretation of reality and our experience of reality in the developed world … and it’s just not true … we have to remember that the vast majority of people .. in South America, in Africa, in Asia, and also in Eastern Europe, in the remote parts of Russia … Northern Canada and the native American tribes … they don’t share our values … and they don’t share our observations about the world either … so I think that’s an important caveat to make before we even sort of step into the discussion about the nature of the problems …

JO: ok

A: we face … because the discourse around these problems .. you know .. that we’re going to sort of stick to throughout our conversation .. I think … is a discourse that is appropriate in the West … defined by the values of the West .. but it is not by any means the only way of viewing the problem …

JO: yes … I mean … one hopes … and this becomes a philosophical discussion quite quickly but one hopes that one has listened to effectively a plurality of voices by .. although I am constrained to reading in my own language, of course … but I kind of like to think that I can hear a lot of those voices … I am thinking .. as I am speaking . I am thinking of some of the North American Indians … is it Winona LaDuke .. do you know Winona LaDuke?

A: yes, absolutely …

JO: so, I don’t have much exposure to First Peoples’ voices but I get a little bit here and there and I hear … I hear voices of people like Vandana Shiva … who is in India … and … who are the others that might come to mind quickly ? Birgitta Jonsdottir in Iceland …

A: yes … these are excellent names you are calling [ ] .. I’ve studied them quite a lot … I’ve a good friend who spent a year in India working with Vandana on her seed banking  project

JO: yes …

A: really inspiring .. and I think .. I think what this comes back to .. is just the need to travel because .. you know .. reading the word on the page is helpful … but it’s really … as you’ve seen touring the UK, and I’ve seen touring the US, there’s no replacement for getting out there and really interfacing with people …

JO: yes, ok

A: [ ] follow up on this … [ ] about plurality, it is necessary to directly engage and if we could … if we could bring people from developing countries to the developed world and if we could bring people from the developed world to developing countries in a kind of free and open exchange … I think .. right there .. so much important discourse would happen ..

JO: yes

A: and we would immediately open conversations that are really important …

JO: Do you feel that’s really been missing?

A: Yes, I do. … I do … and that’s why I wanted to start by saying that because I’m … I’m quite wary of the typical approach that is taken in Europe, for instance .. of assessing the world’s problems for them, and coming up with brilliant solutions and then going around the  world and implementing those solutions … is the kind of speech that you hear …

JO: yes

A: infiltrating the banks … and I’m just not sure that that works or that that’s appropriate …

JO: yes, sure …

A: it is … you know … the discourse as it stands … so … [ ]

JO: there’s been .. there’s been … [ ] you’ll hear .. and see .. there’s been a lot in my conversations around the country and in my observations … I’ve bumped into quite a few political demonstrations and listened to a few speeches … I’ve also been to a couple of museums like the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool and imperialism, colonialism, neo-imperialism, development, uneven development versus participatory development was discussed in Scarborough with Nick … a lot of these things have really been quite close to the surface all the time … all the way round … and I think what you are talking about is bound up with that history, isn’t it? Even when people are well meant or well intended sometimes … there is … there is an unawareness of how much one might just be walking in with one’s own view of the world and then imposing it … even if with good intentions … which I don’t think are always good but can be … one can still be blundering because of this history .. if you are not aware of it …

A: absolutely … I think this is a human issue …. that at the end of the day, it’s much easier to speak than to listen … I think maybe if I look at the problem itself .. I see it as a two sided beast … a two headed dragon … There are the external problems that we are probably going to spend most of our time speaking about … and then there are the internal problems that those external problems stem from … and in my mind, not enough attention is given to the derivative nature of our external structural problems in the world today …

JO: ok … so are you talking about how we think … what we value … what’s going on in our interior, emotional lives …

A: absolutely … I would … I would identify it as an issue of consciousness … in the most direct sense … and even confusing what we think with what we are … is part of the problem right there …

JO: what does that mean?

A: well .. you know … this is … this is a … this is a complex issue … and I don’t think we can do more necessarily than touch on it … but there are many levels of being and it appears that the nature of our inner lives has .. has changed … from what it was some hundreds or some thousands of years ago .. and this is of course totally unqualified statement … it’s hard to know … but this is one of the common teachings across most of the religious systems and philosophical systems that in the past .. people were different … and there’s been a slow degradation of morality and of inner being … that has brought us to the point where we are today. Within the Vedic traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism … we’re in the final … we’re at the very beginning of the final era which is called the Kali Yuga … it’s the last great period of history before the final destruction and it’s seen as the period with the least … the least connected nature when people have sort of fallen out of touch with their … the inner way … of being … which was a guiding force … in previous eras … So, I think it’s dangerous to just take words like that at face value … they do need to be engaged in … and I definitely have questioned what this means … what this could mean … so … you know .. taking that … taking that assumption that the external problems are derived from internal ones … it is important to look at the external problems and I’ve been working as a conservationist for some years and I’ve been fairly shocked at how unwilling the conservation community is to truly face the roots of the structural problems in the world … To my mind … it’s pretty … it’s pretty simple … it comes down to … you know … a small number of closely interrelated things … the heart of everything is population growth … exponential population growth and pared with this … is the capitalist theory of economics … which also favours unending growth and … these are sort of self-referential obviously … but at the heart I think you can trace back most of our ecological problems to these two parallel forces … social problems .. obviously … are quite different … I’m not sure that we’ve really had many periods of human history where there was a great deal more social equality than there is today … inequality has taken different forms … historically .. and different cultures … but I am not sure that people have ever truly lived in a utopian sense in balance with each other …

JO: I think …

A: just to look at the environmental issue .. [ ]

JO: I think I read a nice … a nice history by a writer called Chris Harman … it’s called a People’s History of the World, I think … I think he writes that, for sure, for 5000 years we’ve had terrible social inequality of various kinds in various places … so it has been .. I’m hesitant to say ‘the norm’ .. but it has been observed throughout the last 5000 years .. but he was at pains to emphasise that before that, it was highly unlikely that we were anything like as unequal

A: that’s quite interesting because this period … 5000 years … before the present … it corresponds to history itself … before that it’s basically archaeology … 5000 years is about the beginning of our earliest textual evidence

JO: yes

A: and there’s a positive movement at some point in the past between what can be called proto-historic, matriarchal social systems to historically rooted patriarchal social systems and it could be very well be in his analysis and also in reference to what I am saying about social inequality … we are focusing mostly on the modern era of patriarchal, historical humanity

JO: yes

A: which, of course, is a small, slither of the full period of time that we’ve been on this planet

JO: yes

A: as a species … but it’s very difficult .. maybe impossible .. to reach back that far … I think I would just add for people who are interested in this subject … I actually recommend Flounder by Gunter Grass .. he analyses this problem about the growth of history in a very interesting manner, using as his subject a string of women going all the way back to prehistory … and then extending up to the modern era .. and each of them stand in relation to their society in a fairly comparable way … he shows this unbroken link going back thousands of years which has slowly … slowly … well at the same time remaining rooted in some of the basic processes … like subsistence and fertility and care … there’s been a slow, usurping of the role of the feminine forces within society

JO: yes .. you know … you’re reminding me of a conversation I had in Canterbury with a woman … Ellen, her name was … who described herself as a goddess-priestess .. and she said we are suffering from toxic masculinity … and this doesn’t mean necessarily men or patriarchy – although it, of course … it’s not entirely disassociated with patriarchy – but these are forces as you’ve just said .. they are present in everyone .. and there are different sorts of masculinities and femininities .. but she felt we were really suffering the consequences of what she called a toxic masculinity …

A: I think she was definitely correct about that … very concise way of putting it … I’ve noticed before .. some of the methods of self-distraction that people utilise in the world today .. are .. could be interpreted as groping attempts to reconnect with the feminine .. and in particular I am thinking about widespread use of marijuana … among young people .. [ ] people of all cultures and all classes in the developed world … and this is a … this is a very .. this is a plant which has a feminine energy and it has a balancing effect on overdeveloped masculinity and there are lots of negative side effects that come from working with this plant, but just the fact that so many people are drawn to engage with it …

JO: yes

A: to me shows to what extent masculinity has gotten out of control … within so many of us … in our urge to dominate the environment which comes back to these external problems … that we were talking about before …

JO: yes

A: the .. the unending growth of capital … the growth of material … the growth of humans … the growth of population … this itself is a dominating tendency and it’s .. it probably is something that comes more from this historical period than from before it … before this last 5000 years, we were engaged in a desperate struggle to exist … alongside many other beings … on a relatively equal footing … within these systems of complex interrelationship … so what has happened? What has happened to shake the system off balance? This is a really deep question … and I don’t know …

JO: yes … is there anything else .. I’ve got one eye on the clock .. is there anything else you’d like to say about the interior side, do you think?

A: I don’t think so for now … we may return to it …

JO: I think one of the virtues of the project – which wasn’t necessarily designed in – it’s a little bit of happenstance and serendipity … is how you get a sort of mosaic … well that’s probably not quite the right metaphor but .. I .. you know … I’ve heard things all over the country that either complement or echo or counterpoint things I’ve seen and heard elsewhere …

A: that is bizarre …

JO: yes … it has … I mean … a number of .. a lot of people said to me along the way … which was another sort of coincidence .. “things are meant to happen for a reason” … and I have a very … I have a very … do you know what came into my head … ‘toxic’ came into my head … I have a very old, sort of toxic dislike for … I’d put that in a category with superstition and maybe even religion and so on … that’s my background … you know … close to home .. and I’ve had to sort of counter that and try and open up some space as I’ve aged … and I’ve probably become what I would call ‘agnostic’ … do you use that term? We tend to say “are you an atheist?” or “do you have a faith?” or “are you agnostic?” .. Do you use that word?

A: I’ve … I’ve certainly moved through a similar cycle .. I think .. myself … [ ]

JO: yes .. so I’ve become I’d say sort of open-minded … that’s really all it amounts to …

A: sorry I was just .. you .. just sparked a memory … I was at a Buddhist meditation group recently and I heard a man say “well .. I was born a Christian and then I became an atheist and then I became an agnostic and then I became a Buddhist .. and here I am” …

JO: yes … well I think he’s doing it right …

A: [ ]

JO: yes … I certainly feel that I’ve grown … and what you .. it is .. you can feel a kind of cycle too because, of course, you revisit some of your early experiences and maybe reevaluate them and see them in different ways

A: it is an interesting question of what is constant … you know .. within me … because I am constantly reinterpreting myself …. there’s all the evidence in psychology that even our memories are not even close to the experiences .. that actually our memories are in some ways are stepping stone to … or crutch really for personality and that … every time I remember something, I call memory forth from my mind and it gets immediately … you know … through the act of remembering it, it gets reencoded … it gets reinterpreted .. given where I am in that moment in time … who I am at that moment … who I am speaking with what things have been in my consciousness recently … my current views … so it gets re-stored with a new layer … of understanding … a different way of understanding … maybe even some elements of it are reinforced and others are decreased .. and so slowly over time, the things that we remember most often become less and less true … less and less true to lived experience when they occurred … and, so the memories that we cherish most are closer and closer to becoming fabrications of our own personality rather than objectively true memories … and the memories we remember the least often … these ones are the closest to objective truth …

JO: that’s very interesting, isn’t it? Shall we … shall we … go outside, so to speak? Shall we think about the external? We’ve already established that there might be too many .. too many of us … and I think the population is on track to increasing very much, isn’ it … over the next few years even … from … we’re on the way up an exponential curve, I think …

A: absolutely …

JO: yes … I do have to, at this point, say .. I always get nervous listening to arguments about this because … I think there’s a British NGO called Population Matters … whilst I … whilst I do understand the concerns … and I also have heard arguments that a lot of this is to do with the degree to which women are empowered across the world … once they tend to get control of their lives and fertility, they tend to stop having quite so many children .. I think I’ve seen that argument .. although I can’t say I’ve researched it very much … so I hear that.. but I’m also aware, of course, of all the baggage to do with Malthus .. and the poor … you know … the poor are poor ’cause they can’t stop having children … and it’s their own fault … and .. what it does is .. it distracts from the way we live … it distracts from the material intensity with which we in the West live whilst preaching … you know … if you want to be flippant about it … whilst preaching to the poor in sub-Saharan Africa about the need to stop having kids … actually.. I think there are whole villages in the continent of Africa and I dare say in India and elsewhere that have a vastly smaller carbon footprint than a British or an American household …

A: absolutely … that’s very helpful

JO: so that’s just a sort of caveat …

A: but I do I think .. I mean I hear what you are saying but I do think I disagree in essence …I mean … at heart, it is quite simple .. the … like you’ve said .. you know .. there’s absolute, exponential growth on a level of population … and it’s this that has created … you know .. agricultural monocropping … you know .. this is what’s .. this is what … really the force that has shaped the changing world … there is another element of it, of course … but, I think it’s most important that we focus on population growth …

JO: ok …

A: so .. .I see what you are saying … that population growth … you are right … is a problem of developing nations … right now China and India are increasing at unbelievable rates whereas the developed world … it’s mostly static … and in some places even slightly negative … and this is true .. obviously it’s linked with feminine empowerment .. but it’s it’s really linked to other things as well … I think there’s a … what happens here is that in the developing world or you could say for all of us traditionally .. having as many children as possible was absolutely necessary for several reasons … you know … one is that we were in a battle with the environment …. more likely than not … if I have six kids .. you know … two of them … or three of them even .. might pass away before they are able to start their own family .. so this is kind of conscious decision but it’s part of the biological logic of reproduction .. that there’s an understanding that lives are at risk

JO: yes

A: and the other side of it, of course, is that labour was a very simple unit … manhours …were the method of farming … the more hands you had on deck … the more you wereable to get done and the more you were able to provide for yourself … so naturally if you had a family of ten .. it’s actually easier to feed all ten of you … than if you have a small family of four

JO: sure …

A: you might starve if you only have a tiny family of four and so … so this tendency pushed for the growth of population … the problem of course is that with biomedicine becoming more and more capable of preventing infant mortality … extending life expectancy … there is a disconnect … suddenly people are living a lot longer and more and more of them are surviving … and yet the deeply entrenched values of family size and family growth lag behind the biological reality of people living longer … so it’s … it really has nothing to do with .. people are poor because they have more children .. I think it’s just that there’s a disconnect between history and modernity … and slowly, as a country develops, people’s fulfilment comes in a different way .. it takes a long time for cultures to recognise on a deep, unconscious level that it’s not necessary any more to have six children … that that’s not actually going to increase your ability to provide for your family .. it’s not really a benefit … in fact it could .. as you are indicating … it could become a burden ..

JO: yes

A: but in addition … there are other ways to find fulfilment in life .. other than raising a family … you know … this concept of having a career … of having a job … well this doesn’t even … this still doesn’t even exist with millions and millions of people in the developing world that are just struggling on a level of what we call subsistence .. subsistence farming … selling, you know, bits of non-timber forest products and a few animals they might raise on the side … there’s no such thing as having a career .. and so we have found ways to sort of replace the family in our inner lives with other things … other goals … and, as that begins to happen, then our urge to have a family wanes … and this is all linked, of course, with female empowerment … so I hear you .. it’s a complicated discourse … but I do think at the end of the day .. the pressure that we are placing on the ecological systems of the world is primarily based on the population growth … and secondarily based .. like you’ve indicated … on .. well it comes back to our discussion about the UK and the US … something internal in people that tells us that we want more … need more .. deserve more … and so, in the same way that the population is vastly increasing, and every person needs a basic amount of food and [ ] and water to exist .. also, people .. every one of those people who has been born … wants more than their parents had … wants more than their grandparents had … and I think maybe if we look at those two forces side by side .. then they are the root of

JO: yes

A: all of this ….

JO: moving … moving sort of … ’cause I’m conscious time is ticking by .. we are … we are kind of covering the ground … if I said to you “ok … so we’ve got to find some way of bringing that curve away from its current trajectory … stabilise it if not get it down …” … what does a better world look like to you? Because presumably … eventually … you would feel we need to get the population stabilised at a level that is less of a burden on the biosphere .. what sort of a world will … ’cause we’ll have a transition period and then we’ll get hopefully into a steady state … is that how you think of it? Or am I putting words in your mouth?

A: it sounds simple right? Yes … [ ]

JO: This is … this is the sort of beermat approach …

A: when you look at population [ ] … and this question of how do we stabilise population … it seems that historically there’s really only two potential .. one is to … you know .. remove the force of biomedicine .. from .. you know which is morally untenable … absolutely .. and the other is to allow the developing world to develop … and assist it to do so …and this is a little bit scary .. when we arrive at that conclusion .. but there may be an inevitability to this … it really has to be one or the other … the combination of traditional ways of living with modern biomedicine is not a good one for the planet … right now ..

JO: Did you say ‘allow’ the developing world to develop?

A: yes.

JO: Why did you say ‘allow’ ?

A: well … because at this point … from what I can see … we’re not doing that … most of the development projects, as they are called … you know … done by the big international banks .. and development agencies coming from the US and Europe .. and China, of course … are actually done to benefit the developed world … they are .. they’re a sort of … neoliberal colonialism .. extracting power resources … electricity .. water… mined goods and … so that those things can be utilised in the developed world … so right now, I’m a little bit scared of the word ‘development’ and ‘international development’…

JO: yes

A: because from what I see it really has nothing to do with uplifting the developing world .. it is much more about feeding the appetites that exist here … which really does bring me to the second side of it … how … you know .. if we are able to stem population growth through allowing the rest of the world to develop … how do we stop the other problem that you so aptly identified … this problem of expanding appetite … we need more food … we need more fossil fuels .. we need more space … we need more electricity .. . I think this is at the heart of my current studies because this need for more is not rooted in any kind of natural relation with the world … this is definitely an internal problem … but it’s deeply connected to the disconnection we have with our natural systems … and to my mind … one of the most shocking things today is how little people interact with the natural world … how little time people spend time outside … how little that they know about their food systems and about the natural ecosystems that we exist within … I think if you take most American or British schoolchildren and ask them to go outside and you know, name you ten different birds or ten different trees, they’re going to struggle to do so …

JO: yes

A: and that’s a really scary proposition because clearly this need for more is related to the kind of capitalist, expansionary growth model … this is fed inside the home … this is not something that comes to people when they are outside … in the natural world … because what we find when we are in nature is that it’s all there … it’s all available .. we are a part of this beautiful tapestry and everything that we need is at our fingertips .. if I really allow myself to learn about the natural world, I find that there’s food in my front yard that I call a weed … you know … there’s an incredible amount of fulfilment that’s offered … in the environment around me … for all of my bodily and emotional desires … that I, without knowing about them, am unable to access … so the biggest part of the work that we need to do in the developed world … alongside the work in the developing world … is to find ways to reconnect people with the natural environment … I think only that work will actually result in changes of inner consciousness to the point where we become content with what we have … and stop worrying [ ]

JO: I hear you and it sounds good to me .. . it sounds good to me … what does it mean in terms of the landscape do you think? For example, one suggestion coming from the Real Farming Trust and I think that was … that came out of the Campaign for Real Farming … it’s centered in Oxfordshire … not too far from where you are … not next door … but not too far … is that we need to move to a landscape full of smallholdings … so mixed small farms of only 5 or 6 acres inhabited by the people that work and farm there … they may well do other things too but part of their work will be to produce food locally which gets distributed locally, and possibly nationally and maybe even internationally .. but, instead of these great big … I mean in America, it’s much bigger … but in Britain you can have fairly large … and they are getting bigger some of them .. farms of monocrops … monocropping … monocultures … they are saying they’ve got to go … and arable and other suitable land needs to be covered in people working the land … does that count as connecting with nature do you think? That maybe combined with rewilding?

A: [ ] and this is … this really goes to the heart of it because … this discipline of ethno-botany .. the power of it … it brings … is a reenvisioning of humanity as part of the ecosystem … and this means that our needs are met by the ecosystem … and, so this is actually quite different from the normal mode of interacting with nature … where we’re going to promote things like walking your dog … because you’re getting outside … which seems to fulfil what I was just saying earlier … but it doesn’t really … and I think the real connection comes from interdependence … it comes from actually relying on the natural system … in some way … and this doesn’t mean that we don’t need to have .. you know .. safety checks … I don’t think we should be getting rid of our supermarket distribution chains … because then .. what happens when you have a drought ? We would have … you know people would die … this is what used to happen … in times of famine … and I’m not advocating that … but I do think what you are saying is absolutely correct … when you have people living on the land … growing their own food … they’re coming to rely on it on a very personal level … and they’re also knitting themselves together with their neighbours … and a localised community in relation with the land … in dependence with the land … actually on the land … and this is a really important route and this can be done I think quite easily … like you’re saying .. I mean if I’m a farmer of two acres … well that’s not a full time job, is it? I mean unless it’s an [ ] .. you know .. unless it’s a veg box scheme … but I can .. I can have a job in a nearby town … I can have a job that I maybe do through the internet and I can be connected with the world through all the modern technology … through my home .. but I can also be spending half my time outside farming my few acres of land … it’s just a huge part … a huge step toward what we need … I’m gratified to see that these things are happening … there’s been a huge movement of desire within the consumer level and also of interest within young people … to .. you know .. this whole back to the land thing … was a term they used in the 1970s … it’s a little bit tongue in cheek but I really do believe there’s a lot of good that can come of it

JO: yes

A: there’s many, many people who are starting small farms, smallholdings, organic, local agricultural operations, all around the developed world right now …

JO: is that the case in the States too?

A: hugely so … I mean in a vast way ..

JO: interesting … I don’t, of course, necessarily hear much of that … so I probably in my head think of America as being summarised by the crop spraying plane in the Hitchcock film … do you know the one I mean?

A: yes … well this is interesting because, of course, you are right .. where I grew up is basically dominated by two crops … we have corn and soy beans … well, if I look at my diet, I don’t really eat hardly any soy beans … and almost no corn … which is an indication that these cash crops are not really providing my diet … so the sort of agrobusiness of farming today is not related to direct, physical reliance on the land any more …

JO: yes

A: but this does not preclude the potential for these smallholdings and they really are becoming a huge force … the west coast of the US … California, Washington, and Oregon .. which is a .. you know … one of the liberal wellsprings of the developed world has had a huge movement of organic agriculture .. you know .. for the last thirty or forty years and the same could be said for the north east … and interestingly, right where I grew up … in places like Indiana and Ohio, there’s also a lot of this type of agriculture happening … we have a system called CSAs … community supported agriculture … which is quite similar to the veg box schemes you have in the UK …

JO: yes

A: and it’s a way of creating interdependence on a community level where the risk is taken away from the farmer through the faith and the trust of the community … so you get 50 people to sign up at the beginning of the season and each pay you something like $400

JO: yes

A: and …

JO: that money will come in no matter what, yes?

A: in this way .. yes … the farmer is able to generate all the income they need at the beginning of the season to buy their fertiliser … to buy their seeds … fix their tractor … get the operation going … and then in return … those people are given … you know .. a box of produce … every week for the entire growing season … any surplus, the farmer is then also able to sell again at local farmer’s markets or through, you know, local distribution networks … so this has become very common [ ]

JO: great stuff …. that’s been brilliant Alex … would you believe it has been an hour?

A: I believe it. Well… let me just … let me just point you to two or three things that are happening … locally and internationally … that I am quite excited about and I think .. one of them, we’re touching on already … which is a fantastic organisation out in Devon… based around the city of Plymouth … called Tamar Grow Local … and this is afantastic  organisation .. it’s trying to rejuvenate an entire local food network …

JO: ok … is that T-A-M-A-R ?

A: that’s right … [ ]

JO: I think it’s the Tamar …

A: river …

JO: we say Tamar, I think

A: ok, sure … and it’s a watershed based organisation … but they are doing incredible work on many different scales … they’ve started many, many tens of local organisations … including a whole variety of different Community Supported Agriculture techniques and .. [ ] yes .. look into [ ]

JO: great stuff, yes …

A: really impressive … they’re working at several different scales and they have a really unique theory of development … where, whenever one of their operations fails, they actually see it as a benefit because the resources that are freed up through the dissolution of one small cooperative are then incorporated into the structure of other forms … very interesting model of development … I do think that most of the good work being done in the world is being done by local and regional organisations … small scale, very efficient flexible groups like Tamar Grow Local and the same could be said for the work of conservation … so all around the world, I think there’s a movement away from the WWFs the BirdLife Internationals

JO: the big [ ]

A: Flora and Fauna ..

JO: NGOs

A: conservation giants … which are often, with their top down approaches … mismanaging funds … and creating real problems on the ground … there’s a movement away from these types of organisations to more local, locally based groups … and I’m thinking of one in Morocco .. called the Global Diversity Fund … which is doing incredible work to rejuvenate local livelihoods, approaches for communities on the ground that are sustainable … and connected …. and by doing this, they’re meeting both economic and conservation needs simultaneously …

JO: yes

A: and then on the theoretical level .. I think it’s really important to engage with these issues … with other great minds … and there’s a fantastic conference coming up in Oslo this coming June … called Pollen …

JO: Pollen

A: yes .. that’s right .. it’s a biannual conference .. this will be the second one … and a whole range of speakers and workshops will engage with the issues … green economy … political ecology …. and alternative sustainabilities … these are people who are thinking about what does a post growth economy look like? How do we get there? What tools do we have at our disposal?

JO: yes

A: and just as an example of one of the potential approaches that’s being tried out .. there’s a really interesting experiment in higher education that’s going on in Lincolnshire … called the Social Science Centre …

JO: I don’t know that …

A: which is a free cooperative university project so this is an example of ways we might be able to sort of decouple the profit driven economics drive within higher education from the basic act of learning …

JO: yes

A: which is a big problem … [ ]

JO: it is, yes … that’s a growing problem over here ..

A: I’m concerned, you know, about the debt … the debt system … which is basically what university has been in the US for a long time … and what it has now become in the UK as well … and so, any technique that we can find to reinvigorate education in a real, cooperative manner, I think is crucial to any kind of efforts that we make toward changing the structures we live in ..

JO: yes … sure … Amen. That’s my Christian background coming out.

A: Hallelujah!

JO: that’s been absolutely brilliant. And I think you’ll agree, in due course, when I get all my transcriptions and things online, you’ll see how much it echoes what I’ve heard elsewhere .. it’s very … it’s very interesting how, as a collective, you can hear it’s all there .. but, of course, each of us has a certain slant, or a certain starting point, or a piece of the puzzle .. I heard in Girvan, Scotland … on the south west coast of Scotland .. Gordon said “small is beautiful” … and it’s a similar idea … it’s … I know Schumacher wrote it … I think I read his book a long time ago and I tried to see the Schumacher Institute in the south west… they’re in Devon … did you know, they’re down in Devon?

A: no

JO: so … I will send you a .. I mean I’m going to put all these things eventually into a directory in the project, so it will all be visible in due course … but I’ll send you anything I think you might be interested in I can think of … send you a list …

A: fantastic … well I definitely appreciated talking with you it … I just want to mention one thing

JO: yes

A: in passing … which is that I had a professor in college who had a funny thing he would do … he told me about during the end of … he was my advisor so I got to know this man pretty well … every year he would sit down with his freshman class … the freshmen who had just arrived on campus – eighteen year olds and their first year in college … and he would ask them a series of something like three questions … and they were very broad questions … like “what is a good life?” “what is your role in your community?” things of that nature …

JO: yes

A: a small number of questions … three to five questions … and then he would collect … they would be anonymous … and then he would collect together all of the answers …and he did this every year for something like 15 or 20 years and as he sat down to actually look at this accumulation of data … what he noticed is that the answers of the students in any given year were very similar to each other … and the answers collated together over one year compared to the next year were fairly similar but with subtle shifts and then as he looked at, you know, one classes’ answers compared to a class 5 or 10 years later, you could see vast differences in the basic understanding of self, and being, and others …

JO: isn’t that interesting?

A: in his mind, what he was doing was tapping into, a kind of an unconscious wisdom which constitutes the human species across all of us and these students … although they knew so little … they were so young and so undeveloped … they carried with them a kind of a generational understanding of being … [ ]

JO: we are a social animal, yes?

A: all of the different, you know … not only their parents … but all of the social and economic and political pressures of that moment in time .. and he thought this was a really interesting way [ ] use people as a sounding board of the state of the world and in a way it sounds like you’re doing a very similar project …

JO: I think yes … I think … I wasn’t necessarily aware of that before starting but I think that is arguable … although I wouldn’t say I’ve designed a robust sample … but yes, in some ways it’s true, I think … brilliant … thank you very much, that’s been absolutely terrific ..


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