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Three Meals Away from Anarchy

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 2, 2012

The Ecologist, a British magazine, has an intriguing interview with theologian Martin Palmer.   He’s co-founder of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) and his book Sacred Land (Piatkus) came out yesterday in the United Kingdom and appears to be available on Kindle. He has some good, contrarian stuff to say about our global rush from the countryside into cities, and also about the  misguided inclination among environmentalists to justify protecting the natural world on utilitarian grounds.  Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

You mention the abandonment of London in past crises, do you think cities are particularly at risk?

One of the trends that most alarms me about contemporary thinking, say within the United Nations, is this drive to speed up the movement of people from the countryside into the cities so that you can industrialise the countryside. If you’ve got the people in the cities, the theory goes that it’s much easier to supply them with food, warmth and energy, and you industrialise nature.

But cities live off the countryside, not the other way round. Think of all the great disaster movies: they’re right. What will happen in a crisis is everybody will try and escape to the countryside. We are almost wired to relate survival and sustainability with not being in cities. Building the mega-cities where you rely upon transport to get you 30 miles from your suburb into the middle of Shanghai, or where you rely on airplanes bringing you orange juice from Kenya into central London, nice, but not sustainable. It’s so fragile, we saw that with the Volcanic ash incident two years ago, in one week we had people in complete panic.

If you get a collapse in nature, and the only communities you’ve got are huge and entirely reliant upon a tiny group of workers to provide food, clean water and energy, if those groups are affected, if there is a collapse, if you can no longer transport food, no longer grow the food, if the soil is eroded, if the Sun’s gone because of volcanic ash or even our own activities and disasters, then those communities have no ability to actually eat anything on the land. And if you look at all the great collapses of civilisations, it’s the cities that go first. There was a very famous statement by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Second World War, William Temple, and I think it sums it up, ‘we are only 3 meals away from anarchy.’ if you’re heading towards your third missed meal and there’s nothing in the local Tesco express, what do you do?

How important are both the countryside and nature to human existance?

I think knowing about the countryside is crucial because we are a grazing species and in order for us to graze, we need the crops and the materials to graze upon. And the destruction of the countryside, whether that’s through urbanisation, industrialisation, soil erosion, deforestation, it’s almost like a suicide pact. We need this to sustain us. But also we are a species that has the capacity to wonder. One of the great mistakes in the environmental movement is to become utilitarian. To argue for example that why we keep the Amazon is because it’s a carbon sink. Well, maybe it’s the fact that a third of all species live in the Amazon is another reason for preserving it. Yes, we need the countryside and we need nature to keep us alive, but we are not the only creatures on this planet that have the right to be fed and kept alive by nature as part of nature.

I think we’ve got to start shifting the discussion away from ‘what can we do to survive?’ to ‘what can we do to ensure that nature survives, and therefore, we survive?’ I think we have to remember we are a wondering species, we are the ones that gaze the stars and wonder who the hell we are, we are the ones who sit by the sea and look at the infinity of the sea disappearing into the horizon and see that as a metaphor for our own lives. And at the moment we purely become concerned with nature as something that sustains us, rather than feeds us spiritually, psychologically and emotionally, I think we’ve lost the plot.

 

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