This piece was written for Colin Tudge’s Great Re-think, which is intended to “develop the ideas needed to rescue humanity and our fellow creatures from what is now the brink of total disaster“. Colin and his wife Ruth West set up the Oxford Real Farming Conference 15 years ago.
Discussions of food and farming in progressive circles usually call for an ‘agroecological transition’. But we all know that human society in the industrialised west is heading in a different direction, locked into increasing consumption that is destroying the ecosystem that supports us. We need a radical fresh start, and that is the appeal of grassroots action, bottom-up development or, in Colin Tudge’s phrase, a ‘people-led renaissance’.
How do we do that? I think a key step is the provision of new spaces for public discussion. The word ‘space’ is doing a lot of work here, however. We need not just physical and virtual spaces for people to meet, but also spaciousness that can allow new thinking to arise, and it is above all the quality of the space that makes the difference. This doesn’t just happen by itself; it needs to be shaped by clear intentions, in line with our values.
It’s worth asking what those values are. Instead of novelty, for instance, I think it is time to value commitment. Instead of fame and success, let’s focus on service and wisdom. Rather than building and defending an attractive self-image, we need to cultivate the willingness to face our faults and learn from mistakes. The word ‘humility’ comes from the same root as ‘humus’ and it is just as important for our flourishing. These values of course are at odds with the society around us, but they are timeless as well.
I have been attending progressive gatherings on food and farming on and off for over thirty years: Permaculture convergences from the 1990s, Soil Association conferences in the 2000s, the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) from the 2010s and more recently the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference (WRFFC) of which I am a founding organiser. These events have all marked out a space which is markedly different from the mainstream, building a vision of human community in the context of a healthy biosphere, and powerfully embodying the intention to renew our society from the soil upwards. They are invaluable.
But as the forces of business as usual intensify around us, so we must continue to differentiate our spaces from the wider culture. We do not want to be another consumer choice among many, even if we could be the most popular choice, because we stand for something deeper than that. We are trying to create a new society, after all, and each event is an opportunity to give people an experience of a new way of being. When we see how our individual aspirations mesh with the flourishing of the collective, we are simultaneous humbled and uplifted, and we leave with a new sense of direction. But we should not take this transformation for granted. Here are some thoughts on how to do it better.
Get clear on our intentions. The quality of any social space is determined by the intention at its centre. Is it to showcase a new way of doing things, making a splash in the media and changing the wider narrative? Is it to build a community of like-minded people, nurturing its members? Is it to spark debate between opposing views, and so go deeper into inquiry? All these are good things to do, but we are probably going to have to choose one of them. Unless we revisit the question regularly and get clear on why we are gathering, we will default to simply repeating a winning formula, and we will be back to the pursuit of sales and numbers, just like everybody else.
Put people before organisations. While some delegates at ORFC and WRFFC will be paying their own way, many are paid for by the organisations they represent. This brings in a transactional element: an organisation which sends a delegate may expect to get something out of it, and this colours their presence, with a knock-on effect on the whole event. A large organisation that can afford to publicise its own sessions, for instance, will attract delegates at the expense of smaller ones, and any type of organisation will tend to look after its own interests, skimming off the energy of the grassroots. We need to counter this tendency by drawing attention to it, and cultivating its opposite, which means that organisations (and individuals, come to that) make a special effort to hold back on their own agendas. My pet idea is a new convention that for every self-promoting social media post an organisation puts out, they should create at least three – or why not ten? – celebrating the achievements of others.
Honour service and experience. Equality suggests a flat structure, where everyone’s voice is heard. But the words of a farmer who has been growing food agroecologically for thirty years will naturally carry more weight than those of an office worker whose main experience of farming comes from social media. Similarly, someone who has volunteered for years behind the scenes on a community project will see things that the newcomer misses. We must learn to listen for wisdom and authority.
Create paths for people to follow. A conference can have a big effect on its participants, shaping whole careers and projects. At the end of this year’s ORFC a woman told me that the previous year’s event had been so exciting that she almost needed medical attention. But we could do much more with this transformative power. We want to draw people along a path from customers to participants to leaders. This means getting to know them personally, over the long haul, and understanding the challenges that we all face, particularly the cycle of burnout and renewal.
Be more self-aware. All organisations and events have their blind spots and contradictions. Fortunately, it is not necessary to be perfect. What matters is that we see ourselves as we are, and are open to feedback. Whose voices are privileged, and why? Who sits hesitantly at the margins? Who doesn’t come at all, because they can’t afford it, or for fear they will not be welcome? Who is putting in long hours of unpaid work, and who is paid well for less? How well is the event fulfilling its aims?
Talk more openly. We want spaces where people can speak freely, and where ideologies take a back seat to civility and enquiry. Social media is having a polarising effect on public discourse, as the algorithms herd us into more extreme views, and we need to open up the centre ground. We need to practise deep listening and cultivate curiosity about views that are different from our own. That is much more important than the holding of correct opinions.
Put community building ahead of networking. The gaps between sessions are some of the best bits of a good conference. To meet old friends and make new ones, discovering shared intentions and bringing companionship to otherwise solitary struggles, is a joyful thing. It is also very likely to lead to new partnerships and the spreading of new ideas. But working the room, assessing people in terms of their usefulness to our projects, and checking out the competition – no. We want community, not a marketplace.
It can be very hard to stop and ask these questions. The pressure to keep doing more of the same is so great, and especially now that the economic climate drives organisations to compete and to fear for their future. But that’s all the more reason to create spaces which put humanity first, cultivating hope and solidarity and building a new vision. We must trust that that is what people are really looking for, in their hearts. From that place, we will be able to connect with others who are trapped in the vice of business of usual, and spread new hope.
Image: Small group meeting at a Permaculture convergence in Wales, Jane Powell.