SDG2 - Zero Hunger

The Cruel Fantasies of Well-Fed People

The astonishing story of how a movement’s quest for rural simplicity drifted into a formula for mass death

By George Monbiot, published on, 4th October 2023

Tourism sells to you the story of what it has taken away. It markets the “traditional” and “unchanging” and, in doing so, changes it. As the old joke goes, “Come to this beautiful unspoiled island and spoil it.” The clock starts ticking from the moment the first person says “timeless”. Then, everything that is celebrated starts to become a shadow of itself.

Similarly, food and farming, industries now intimately connected in some places with tourism, are caught in the endless tension between their reality and their representation. As soon as a region becomes celebrated for its food, gastrotourism accelerates its gentrification. Soon, the old boulangeriesboucheries, and fromageries are replaced with boutiques selling home decor and handbags. Then, a new wave of specialist food shops appears among them, selling the old produce at boutique prices, prices that double with every adjective and place name.

The products are real, but the stories that surround them – the autochthonous peasant economy, the weathered subsistence among woods and meadows – are vitiated by their telling. The tourist dollars they attract internationalise the local economy. They convert the barns and sheds where cows were kept, grapes were pressed, honey was strained into Airbnbs or second homes. Pastures on the valley floor become glamping sites or pony paddocks. The money generated by the myth of timelessness draws local people away from the sparse living the labels revere.

Meanwhile, to keep pace with gastronomic demand, farming relentlessly intensifies. In the famous cheesemaking regions of France, you will scarcely see a dairy cow. Instead, vast tracts are cultivated for maize. Passing tourists romantically assume it’s sweetcorn for human consumption – the French must eat a lot of sweetcorn! No, it will be turned into silage to feed the cattle stalled in the vast steel sheds – cow factories – that have sprung up from Brittany to Savoie, a business as brutal and industrial as any other. Milk is trucked across hundreds of kilometers, trade fairs market the cheese from Dubai to Shanghai.

The further the cycle of intensification turns, the longer the teleconnections of the “local” economy, the more bucolic and homely the marketing becomes: close-ups of cracked and dirt-grained hands, chickens clucking through buttercupped meadows, girls in Heidi costumes, and all the other autophagous nonsense of the Spectacle.

The Spectacle of Production

To seek to reverse such economies of scale is not a relaxation into a “simpler” mode but a conscious and frantic race against entropy. Fair play to those who succeed! We need, among others, small local producers, ideally using new forms of high-yield agroecology. But it’s not for the faint-hearted. They are running up the down escalator, and it accelerates every year. Land prices, house rents, low farmgate prices, easier and more rewarding opportunities elsewhere all militate against survival in the new-old economy, let alone success. And you are always in danger (a danger, admittedly, that some embrace) of becoming your own trope, the re-created peasant self-marketed to the gluttonous Spectacle.

Of course, we all re-create ourselves to some extent. We are all self-consumers. But self-creation is seldom more intense than in sectors deemed “authentic.”

Bucolic re-creations bear little relation to the things they claim to be. What we now fetishise as “peasant food” is much richer and more diverse than the food peasants would once have eaten, except, perhaps, on feast days. Meat was, for most, a luxury, cheese eaten less often than we imagine, salads, in many places, not at all. Diets were often inadequate and deficient in crucial components, such as protein. This is one of the reasons – alongside other aspects of health – why the rustic ancestors we celebrate were, on average, tiny by comparison to us. 

Many of the “traditional” ingredients considered essential to the cuisine – such as tomatoes in Italy or peppers in Spain – were unknown until surprisingly recently to those whose diets we claim to honour. Much of the protein, insufficient as it was, came not from cheese and meat but from what we now call dhal. It had names (to give some English examples) like pease pottage, pease pudding, mushy peas, and pea soup. Few of these dishes are celebrated by gastronomes today. As George Crabbe remarked in The Village, written in 1783, such food was

“Homely not wholesome, plain not plenteous, such

 As you who envy would disdain to touch.”

But, to the wealthy people spending lavishly on what they fondly imagine to be peasant diets, every day is a feast day.

Lands of Plenty

We benefit above all from a different legacy: the marvel of the past 50 years of falling hunger during a time of rising population, a marvel we in the rich world scarcely acknowledge, so comfortable has it made us. This remarkable phenomenon was widely considered, just 60 or 70 years ago, simply impossible.

There are three things upon which I think we can all agree. First, that this marvel came at a great environmental cost. It was delivered through hungry and thirsty new crop varieties, reliant for their survival on lashings of agrochemicals, unsustainable water use, and practices that can accelerate soil degradation. Second, it also involved severe social and political dislocations, including land-grabbing, enclosures, and rising corporate power and concentration. Third, it might now be running out of road: the prevalence of global undernourishment rose from 613 million (median estimate) in 2019 to 735 million in 2022.

The immediate reasons for this partial reversal are the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but there are also three deeper and increasingly urgent issues: the decline of crucial resources, such as soil and water, environmental shocks hammering farm production, and the global food chain’s loss of systemic resilience.

So the question – one of the key questions of our time – is how we can feed a population likely to rise to 9 or 10 billion by the middle of the century before starting to decline reliably, equitably, and at a much lower environmental cost. In other words, how we might feed the world without devouring the planet is the subject of my book Regenesis.

There are, as I found, plenty of possible ways forward. But there are no ways backward. If we were to seek to restore the agricultural systems of, say, 60 or 70 years ago, a time, remember, when many people were deeply pessimistic about human nutrition and expected global starvation as the population rose, their grim predictions would materialise. Why? Because productivity was much lower than it is today. In 2023, a world of 8.1 billion people suffers far less hunger and famine than the world of 3.2 billion did in 1963, the year of my birth.

Let’s pause to consider this for a moment, because it is one of the most remarkable (and, bizarrely, least celebrated) transformations of our time.

The numbers who died in famines were especially high in the 1960s as a result of China’s Great Leap Backwards. An estimated 16.6 million perished during mass starvation events in that decade. This compares to 8.8 million in the 1950s and 3.4 million in the 1970s. But 3.4 million, by comparison to more recent figures, is massive. Between 2010 and 2016, the most recent years in the standardised dataset, 255,000 people died this way, all of them in the famine that afflicted Somalia. Since then, there have been four major famines: in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia (again), and Tigray, in which, in total, hundreds of thousands died. All four were caused by conflict. Famine is also much less geographically widespread than it used to be: it now tends to be confined to one nation or province at a time rather than afflicting vast areas.

To grasp just how astonishing this decline in mass death through hunger has been, we need to look at the death rate in famines as a proportion of the population. A century ago, the rate stood at 82 per 100,000 people. In the 1930s, it was 56, in the 1940s, 79, the 1950s, 32, the 1960s, 50, the 1970s, 8.4, and on down to the most recent figures: 0.5. At no known point in recorded history has the third horseman wielded less deadly power.

There’s a similar trend in total deaths from malnutrition (in other words, not only those that occurred in the mass events known as famines). These fell, on a fairly steady trajectory, from 656,000 in 1990 to 212,000 in 2019.

What lies behind these extraordinary trends? There are several reasons, but let me dwell on two crucial ones. One is the much greater availability of food per person. This is also a remarkable phenomenon. Our World in Data, which collates such global figures, shows that between 1961 and 2014, the world’s production of cereals rose by 280%. This is twice the increase in the global population during that period (136%). It was achieved almost entirely through higher crop yields per hectare.

Another is the long-distance transport of food, something that many of us have railed against, but which, for all its downsides, makes an essential contribution to falling rates of hunger. The reason is simple: if there is a bad harvest or outright crop failure in one place, food can now be shifted from regions with a crop surplus, either through trade or through aid and famine relief programs. The extreme globalisation of the food system has introduced new sets of problems. But without long-distance transport, many more would starve.

Returning to earlier modes of subsistence is a formula for global catastrophe on a scale that defies imagination.

The Great Divide

To make these obvious statements is to become the sworn enemy of many food and farming writers, influencers, and film-makers (who have a lucrative industry of their own to support). It is to commit the modern equivalent of blasphemy, as food nostalgia inspires semi-religious beliefs.

To make these statements with the support of numbers is to multiply the sin. As I’ve discovered since publishing the book, if there is one habit that incites fury more reliably than any others, it is to put numbers on the problem. Hectares, yields, nutrients, calories, inputs, outputs, costs, emissions, hunger, death: any form of quantification is as welcome in this arena as a tambourine in a Bach sonata.

Why? Because the romantic story of how food “should” be produced is entirely qualitative. It’s an aesthetic reverie. It’s about pictures, poetry, and gut feeling – understandable when it comes to food but literally lethal when it comes to ensuring everyone has it. It is the great indulgence of those who never miss a meal to celebrate the times and modes in which people missed plenty.

There are two entirely different questions here: “what production systems do certain well-nourished food writers in the rich world want to see?” and “how might everyone on Earth be fed?”. But, though often leading to very different conclusions, they are endlessly and callously confused with each other.

Fantasising about a food system in which the third horseman would ride victorious again is among the more perverse habits of comfortable people. The anger and passion with which some of them defend their formula for starvation is a wonder to behold. They privilege their aesthetics – their arcadian fantasies – above the wellbeing of 8 billion people.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised: nostalgia is among the most powerful and dangerous of all social forces. Woe betide the person who seeks to disabuse another of their fantasies about the past!

Well, I thought I had seen it all: the full gamut of cruel fantasies which privilege bucolic comfort zones above global necessities. But this was before I read the new book by Chris Smaje, a small farmer and writer with an academic background, called Saying No to a Farm-Free Future. The book has been praised by a number of prominent food, farming, and environmental writers and campaigners, most of whom subscribe to the worldview I have just described. It is becoming something of a bible for their movement. It promotes what appears to be a recipe for mass global starvation.

Before I go any further, I want to emphasise that Chris has every right to write and publish this book. He has been criticised online for fomenting internecine war within left/green circles (as have I). I don’t see it that way. The argument in which he participates is a crucial one, the divisions are real, and the debate needs to be had. I believe this is in fact the greatest of all rifts within environmental movements, and we do ourselves no favours by pretending it does not exist. Though his book is framed as an attack on my book Regenesis and, more broadly, on me, I’m glad he has written it. It is highly instructive.

Mark of the Beast

Chris launches his attack with labels. Apparently, I’m both an “ecomodernist” and an “urbanist.” He fails to define what he means by an ecomodernist. His use of the term would capture anyone who favours new or newish green technologies: solar panels, wind turbines, electrified railways, GIS mapping, induction hobs ….

do have a definition of ecomodernism:

a movement that treats green technology as a substitute for political and economic change.

I see it in the vision of people like Bill Gates and Ted Nordhaus, a vision I strongly oppose. I believe technology is just one of the components of the change we need: necessary but not sufficient. I’ve spent my working life pressing for political and economic change, seeking to dethrone the oligarchs (including Bill Gates) and corporations whose economic and political power impede both democracy and human flourishing.  

As for the charge of being an “urbanist,” the only evidence he advances is that a Dutch website calls for 90% of the population to live in cities by 2100. I had nothing to do with this, and the idea appalls me as much as it appalls Chris. But the way he writes this passage makes it look as if it’s my view: a shocking elision. I was not surprised to see a commentary on his book (since changed at my request) reporting this terrible idea as “one of Monbiot’s proposals.”

On these fictitious grounds, Chris states that I want a “depopulated countryside,” an “un-peopled” nature, to “eliminate” ruralism, to “keep as many people as possible out of garden-sized or small farm-sized patches in the countryside,” and to “concentrat[e] people in the cities as helpless consumers.” I want none of these things. In fact, I strongly oppose them all. I will state my position once more, but with no confidence that he or others will hear it: I do not want to see any depopulation of the countryside.

But in one respect, though I have no great enthusiasm for cities, I guess you could call me an urbanist. Why? Because I believe urban populations are a reality that cannot be wished away and, crucially, that they should have food. These, if I’m reading his book correctly, appear to be the two great dividing lines between my vision and Chris’s: I don’t want anyone to have to leave their homes; and I believe urban people need to be fed.

The “ecomodernist” and “urbanist” labels could be seen as the usual cut and thrust of debate: by attaching an alienating definition to someone, you might induce people to stop listening to what they’re saying and to dismiss their evidence and arguments out of hand. It’s the way certain politicians turn complex and difficult questions into culture war fodder. But as the book goes on, his labelling takes a much darker turn.

Priced Out

Chris devotes an entire chapter to inveighing against people (I am, apparently, the archetype) who believe that sustaining high crop yields is a good idea. Apparently, this is “agricultural improver ideology,” which is, in turn, an “urban-industrial articulation of class power against rural and agrarian people.” Sorry, what?

He explains this contention as follows: “The narrative of agricultural improvement has always had this class element to it – a concern with class improvement for unmanaged farmers as well as agricultural improvement for unmanaged farming.” Yup, that’s the real agenda: a cunning plot to improve farmers’ table manners. My interest in high yields couldn’t possibly be because I worry about how, without them, 8 billion people might be fed.

But this is by no means the end of it. If you believe that enough food should be grown to feed everyone, you are also guilty of “productivism,” “consumerism”, even “colonialism.”

This brings us to the issue he carefully swerves throughout the book: that a certain number of people requires a certain amount of food, and this food has both to be produced and to reach those who need it. If there’s not enough food, or it’s not accessible and affordable to everyone, people will starve. It seems extraordinary to have to point this out.

One of the reasons why high yields ensure that more people can be fed is that more supply reduces the price of food, making it more accessible to the poor. Chris flatly rejects this reasoning. He asserts, “Low food prices, high yields, and overproduction are at the root of food system problems, including global poverty and hunger.” He then goes on to make two statements that left my jaw on the floor:

Lower food prices are “the last thing the global poor need. The result is usually more poverty, more hunger”.


“Higher food prices might alleviate hunger globally.”

You might have imagined that such astonishing statements would be carefully explained and evidenced. But they are asserted without justification. The closest he gets is to point out that, in countries like the UK, people spend more on housing and energy than they do on food (which is true) and that the cheapness of this food helps the owners of housing and energy to generate more profit, which might be true, but would need some unpacking.

But this says nothing about the situation of the global poor, the subject of those two astonishing statements. So, let’s take a moment.

The global definition of an affordable diet is one that costs 52% or less of the average household expenditure. Using this definition, 3 billion people – over one-third of the global population – cannot afford a healthy diet. In other words, buying adequate food would mean spending more on it than on housing, energy, education, health, transport, clothing, and all other items put together.

Importantly, the 3 billion below the line include not just urban people and rural people working in the non-agricultural economy but also many subsistence farmers, some of whom cannot produce enough food and of sufficient diversity to meet their nutritional needs.

In some countries, a healthy diet costs more than the median income: even if people spent all their money trying to purchase one, they still couldn’t afford it. Yes, the problem is poverty: a gross maldistribution of wealth. Yes, this maldistribution urgently needs to be addressed, which is why we need political and economic change, not just new technologies. But while I have seen no evidence (and Chris provides none) that higher food prices alleviate global hunger, there is a wealth of evidence that they exacerbate it.

Is it really possible that you can write a book on food and farming and fail to grasp this basic fact? Yes, it seems it is. Saying No to a Farm-Free Future is a powerful lesson in how motivated reasoning can lead you to an utterly perverse and ludicrous position.

Let Them Eat Nothing

So, how does Chris Smaje believe people should be fed? After launching such a ferocious attack on evil bastards like me, you might expect him to produce a clear alternative. But another remarkable aspect of this book, and of the movement it speaks to, is how vague it becomes on such trifling matters as producing sufficient food for 8 billion people. Here are the most specific phrases I could find while trying to decipher how he proposes that everyone on Earth should be fed.

“Predominantly local self-provisioning of food, fiber and other material requisites of life”

We should “gain autonomy and feed ourselves.”

People should “spread themselves out in the landscape and make low energy livelihoods there.”

“Repeasantisation, where commercial farmers step off the productivity treadmill and …. orient themselves instead to more autonomous local agricultures geared to local needs”

“We could boost urban food provision by increasing the number of allotments, community gardens, market gardens, and truck farms on brownfield sites.”

So the question that arises – and please forgive this ecomodernist, urbanist, productivist, consumerist, colonialist framing – is who, in this world of “self-provisioning” and “repeasantised” commercial farmers, will feed those who do not feed themselves?

Most places where large numbers of people live do not have sufficient fertile land nearby to support them. A paper in the journal Nature Food found that only a quarter of the world’s people could be fed with staple grain crops grown within 100 kilometers of where they live. The average minimum distance at which the world’s people can be supplied with staple foods, it found, is 2,200 kilometers. Much of the world’s food is grown in vast, lightly-habited lands (US plains, Canadian prairies, Russian steppes etc.) and shipped to tight, densely-populated places.

These are the numbers to which people of Chris’s persuasion most furiously object, even though they have no answer to them. Why? Because the numbers are incompatible with their worldview. They show that, while agrarian localism might be great as far as it goes, it simply cannot, by itself, meet the challenge of feeding the world.

Cities can grow only a tiny fraction of their food, as Chris acknowledges elsewhere in his book. Again, it’s not hard to work out why. Urban areas occupy only 1% of the planet’s land, and this land is in high demand for other uses. Allotments, community gardens, market gardens, and truck farms are wonderful things to have, enhancing urban life, but they can produce only a very small proportion of a city’s demand for fruit and vegetables and close to none of its staple foods.

While this is predominantly an urban issue, it’s not just big cities that rely on non-local production. There are many areas dominated by smaller settlements which simply do not have the agricultural capacity to feed themselves. Even regions that are blessed with sufficient agricultural land and water could, as has happened many times in the past, see their production wiped out by local harvest failure, ensuring that a world of agrarian localism would, once more, become a world in which famine is ever-present and widespread.

So how will the 4.5 billion people who live in cities – over 60% of the global population – and many others living where there is little fertile land be fed? Answer comes there none. Seriously, in 159 pages, there is no explanation of how they would survive. If you’re not an agrarian localist either producing your own food or buying from local growers, you’re stuffed – or rather, starved. If Chris has a plan for feeding you, he hasn’t mentioned it.

Discussing his own proudly low-yield production of wheat and potatoes, Chris states:

“There’s no point labouring for next to nothing on someone else’s behalf when you’ve already grown enough to eat for yourself.”

This is why farmers who do not share his worldview pursue higher yields: these yields make it economically worthwhile to produce staple foods that can be sold to other people. We should thank our lucky stars for such people.

“Human Feedlots”

How did he get to this point? I can’t see into his mind, but part of the reason might be his hatred of cities. He rails against them like an Old Testament prophet denouncing Sodom and Gomorrah.

He describes them as “human feedlots,” a term I find grotesque and dehumanising. They “consume everything around them and then themselves.” They are “built on cheap and abundant energy and models of globalised trade that aren’t destined to endure.”

It is true that cities rely on unsustainable and exploitative models of extraction, consumption, and dumping. But this applies to the economy as a whole, urban or otherwise. The answer, I believe, is not to rain curses on them and their people but to replace the destructive economic models with systems in which everyone’s needs are met without breaching planetary boundaries. This is what Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics seeks. I believe we can move towards her vision with the help of what I call “private sufficiency, public luxury.” None of this, of course, magics away the need to produce sufficient food.

If I interpret his airy euphemisms correctly, the question of how urban people should be fed is not worth answering because cities are soon going to collapse, and their people will have no choice but to “spread themselves out in the landscape,” growing their own “food and fiber, building shelter, producing a modest livelihood from the local ecological base.” (Never mind that in many places the “local ecological base” could support only a small fraction of the region’s people).

When your solution is a societal collapse, you should ask yourself hard questions about what you are trying to solve.

The Great Cruelty

I guess there’s a small consolation here: that Chris might have given up on the idea that his xià xiāng – the mass migration to the countryside he envisages – will happen voluntarily. Perhaps he has, at last, realised that most people have no particular desire to have to grow their own food and fiber, make their own clothes, and build their own shelters. Instead, he now appears to believe that urban people will be forced by catastrophe to leave the cities and succumb to “re-ruralisation” and “repeasantisation”. It might be worth noting that the Old Testament prophets also foresaw the imminent collapse of urban life two and a half thousand years ago.

How mild and gentle he makes it sound! Refugees from the cities “spreading themselves out in the landscape” “producing a modest livelihood from the local ecological base.” When the fugitives disperse into the countryside, the inhabitants will doubtless greet them with open arms, saying, “Welcome, sister! Welcome brother! Here, have some fertile land. Oh, and some water, knowledge, skills, tools, traction, and all the other means to grow your own food and live happy lives as re-peasants in our agrarian wonderland.”

If history is any guide, this is not quite how it’s likely to pan out. The more probable outcomes of societal collapse include warlordism or full-scale war, coercion, fascism, slavery, disease, starvation, and mass death.

Moreover, if a cataclysm is sufficient to bring the cities down, it is likely also to destroy the basis of much of rural life. After all, the distinctions between the two are not nearly as crisp as Chris would have us believe. In fact, and horrifyingly, it’s likely that, as a result of environmental disaster, rural life in many parts of the world will collapse before urban life does, as suggested by a highly disturbing recent paper in Nature, showing how and where the “human climate niche” is likely to shrink. If anything, we are likely to become more reliant on long-distance transport to deliver our food – a prospect no one, myself included, relishes.

If a catastrophe of the kind Chris envisages – and sometimes appears to yearn – were to materialise, people everywhere are likely to become more desperate. The remaining fertile land and water would be even more valued and fiercely defended than they are today.

To me, Chris’s long-standing plan – to move the people to the food rather than the food to the people – is a further instance of the Great Cruelty of the past two centuries. The Great Cruelty is common to colonialism, capitalism, communism, Nazism, neoliberalism, and all the other conquering and interconnected forces that have dominated thought and action during this period. It can be summarised as follows:

People are counters, to be moved in their millions, as interests or ideology dictate, across the board game called Planet Earth.

It’s consistent with the kind of thinking that characterises cities as “human feedlots.”

Mysteries and Passions

But never mind. Whether there is enough food and everyone can afford to eat is, Chris says, a “secondary goal.” This is because it doesn’t “speak to the mysteries and passions of what animates human (or non-human) life,” which Chris describes as our “primary goals.” In obsessing about “productivity, numbers, yields, costs, and so forth,” we “risk missing what makes for the flourishing of humans and other organisms.”

Well, call me old-fashioned, or urbanist, or whatever label you choose to apply to me, but I would say that having enough food is pretty damn primary. In any hierarchy of human needs, it features close to the top [bottom, of Maslows hierachy]. I don’t for a moment deny that mysteries and passions are important to us, or that we need meaning and purpose to lead fulfilling lives, but their pursuit can be somewhat hampered if you are starving to death.

This is the heart of the matter. The particular “mysteries and passions” that appeal to people of Chris’s persuasion come first, and the physical requirements of other humans are secondary: they must either fit in somehow, or fall aside.

There is now a wide movement, some of whose leading figures are quoted on or in Chris’s book, that prioritises its mysteries and passions above other people’s survival to the point at which it promotes the idea of “withdrawing” and “walking away” from the effort to prevent Earth systems collapse. On behalf of the rest of the world, such people grandly proclaim that it’s futile to try to stop the slide. We should give up and “adapt to”, even embrace, whatever awaits.

But there is no “away” to walk to. Ecological and social collapse will find us, wherever we go. What some people can escape is the shared responsibility for facing our multiple crises, and our duty of care towards others.

The acceptance of – sometimes apparent longing for – collapse is among the greatest self-indulgences in human history. It is peculiar to people who are either relatively wealthy and insulated, or have the land and means to grow their own food (or both). It is a variation of the prepper mentality, whose props in this case are not bunkers, bitcoin, tinned food and AR-15s, but hoes, scythes and leather jerkins. (Though these “repeasantised” folk might discover that if the calamity does occur, they’ll also need some heavy weaponry to defend their land and crops).

While the Old Testament prophets had to rely on God’s wrath being visited upon the human feedlots, today the curses have more temporal means of realisation. All we now need do is nothing: let the corporations, the oligarchs and the rising consumer demand that are breaking Earth systems have their way, and some form of collapse is likely to occur, with or without God’s wrath. By deliberately stepping back from the struggle to contain these forces, and even seeking in some cases to dissuade others from participating, they make this possibility more likely.

My belief is that we have no right to grant ourselves this indulgence. Given that rich nations and wealthy people are primarily responsible for the planetary dysbiosis we all face, including the massive burdens the food system imposes on the living world, we all have a duty to engage. Engaging means valuing the lives of others as we value our own. Living on this planet, especially as a member of a privileged society, our lives are intimately bound with the lives of others, including those who live thousands of miles away. We cannot excuse ourselves from the responsibilities we owe to each other. Our aim should be not to use societal collapse as a tool to shape the world to our tastes, but to seek to avert societal collapse.

Discordant Notes

There are no perfect solutions in an imperfect world. Everything we might propose, including all the ways forward I suggest in Regenesis, has downsides. We are working in a very tight space, one in which 8 billion people and more need to be fed, within an Earth system whose planetary boundaries have already been breached, to a large extent as a result of food production.

There are no remaining comfort zones. There is no longer – if there ever was – scope for ideological congruence, for solutions that fit snugly into any one worldview. We will find ourselves in disconcerting places. We will be assailed by cognitive dissonance.

In seeking to address our great predicaments, we should be, as much as is humanly possible, open-minded, open-hearted, receptive to evidence, argument and persuasion. The answers, contradictory, incomplete and inadequate as they will always be, will be social, political, economic, organisational and technological. We might not like some of our own conclusions. But it’s not just about us.

When some writers and campaigners, prioritising their own mysteries and passions, appear to treat billions of people as disposable, it should tell us something important: we need to check ourselves. We need to ask what impulses we are following, whether we are really seeking the best outcomes for humanity and the living planet, or simply avoiding cognitive pain. We need, as much as we are able, to set our passions aside.


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