“Run the economy like a business” – are you completely batshit crazy? we need to run it like a garden!

Another night of strange dreams led to a sleepless night for Madame as I tossed and turned and made (as she described them) weird noises. I dream a lot, and years of work – hard work too – with a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, have taught me to treat them with the utmost seriousness. So here’s the deal – my dream was about cutting metre square sections of rough grass full of weeds, and setting them out in the usual unspecified way, to conduct an experiment concerned with watching weeds grow. I even dreamed of setting the trailcam to time lapse mode in order to get a continuous film of them growing. Principal among them was our old garden enemy – Bindweed.

Then this morning I was reading Robin Wall Kimmerer marvellous book – “Braiding Sweetgrass” when a connection dropped into place and I was able to see a very small part of a remedy for the crisis we’ve now created for ourselves.

The hot seat!

Allow me a small diversion to help explain the background. I was a school governor for over forty years and in that time we interviewed at least six head teachers. In spite of endless pains we still managed to appoint one complete dud but otherwise they were great human beings with a passion for making children into moral grownups. We interviewed them over two days, handed them heaps of data and gave them an hour to read and digest it then come up with a viable step by step plan. We tested their management and leadership skills by asking them to debate the difficult data with other candidates. We watched and noted those who could embrace challenges thoughtfully and without becoming defensive. It was exhausting for us and even worse for the candidates, but slowly the best candidate for our particular school – with its own unique history and challenges – would emerge.

If you compare that level of diligence with the present election for Prime Minister you will understand immediately how our political system makes such terrible decisions. As I once heard on a bus on the way home from Southmead – “That Jack B …….. he can’t tell shit from pudding!” I have a whole collection of those kinds of remarks, overheard from people who stretch the colloquial into Shakespearean beauty. We have a parliament full of people who share Jack B’s incapacity.

So back to dreams and weeds and revelations, and the connection is this. When we plan the next season on the Potwell Inn allotment we pay attention to the space we have, the nature of the local climate and its variabilities; the soil and its state and – in particular – we pay attention to our own needs. Do we need fifty purple sprouting plants? How many pounds of tomatoes do we really need?

And we also know that our land isn’t just for us – it’s for the thousands of species that – while we can’t eat them – play a vital role in the ecology of the plot. Some of the pests who predate upon the pests who damage our crops are visible – frogs, toads, parasitic wasps and so forth. Some are microorganisms. Some are mixed blessings – badgers for instance; and foxes, cats and even rats play complicated roles of fleas and smaller fleas in the terms of the old rhyme.

Weeds and pests and their many interactions play such a huge and poorly understood role in the overall health of the plot that we leave them alone. So to chase down an analogy – we either draw a binary distinction between friend and foe, and then bomb the foe out of existence in the manner of intensive chemically driven agriculture, or we nurture the richest possible mix of living creatures and edible plants and allow nature to find the kind of balance that allows us a crop, reduces pest damage and leaves the soil in good heart. And it really works!

Running the economy – and especially the ecology – of the earth as if it were a business completely focused on financial profit and loss is a form of ideological madness. Public goods are very hard to monetize, and yet we know that climate destruction brings tremendous costs. We know that farming practices which lead to wholesale species destruction will result in food shortages. We know that viruses can cross over between animals and humans and cause pandemics, and we suspect that the destruction of animal habitat through forest clearance makes this possibility greater. We also know that intensive farming of any kind causes pollution; carbon release and therefore global heating. The point of this line of argument is to emphasise that running the earth as a business so often ignores the cost of adverse consequences. If the full long-term costs of maintenance and disposal of radioactive waste are added to the business plan no investor in their right mind would take the risk. Sadly our government is able to use our money to make us compulsory investors in this dangerous industry.

Running the economy – basing our governance on its impact on the whole earth would make big business howl. Just as an example – the current price of all electricity is based on the inflated price of fossil fuels. This represents the mad economics of subsidising the oil companies by penalising renewables. In a genuine – that’s to say not rigged – market. The renewables would outcompete the fossils on price and the oil and gas producers would have to invest their ill gotten gains in renewables in order to stay in business at all. This is not fantasy economics.

Why weeds then? Why embrace pests and predators? Because any unstable ecosystem will be made more stable if a natural balance is reached. Climate catastrophe is the end point of ignoring the instability made worse by politicians who make stupid policies such as running the economy like a business – and then facilitate the predatory activities of corporate behemoths.

James Lovelock died this week. His Gaia theory gives us the best possible tool for understanding the harm we’ve done to ourselves and future people. The key is going to be diversity. The binary world of bad science and dangerous politics needs to be swept away so we can learn to tend the whole earth – in all its inspiring diversity – as a garden.

Wildflower? Weed? Herb?

In the foreground Creeping Thistle, and in the background Ragwort

Allotments very quickly get out of hand, such is the vitality of nature, and so the photograph of this neighbouring allotment isn’t the product of idleness or long abandonment but simply because the allotmenteers were unable to tend their plot for a couple of months due to circumstances beyond their control. Most interesting to me is the fact that the shot shows two of only seven UK plants which are legally notifiable. They must be removed by law. If Ragwort is incorporated into hay and dried it’s capable of killing livestock – whereas whilst growing in the ground – livestock avoid it. Creeping thistle is a menace because its rhizomes spread aggressively – rather like bindweed – so from an allotmenteers’ point of view it’s the more pernicious of the two. I won’t bother to illustrate the bindweed because anyone who’s ever gardened will instantly recognise those white underground rhizomes. But the Creeping Thistle is tricky because most ordinary gardeners are less likely to recognise it. Here are some more photographs :

It’s all too easy to uproot one of these thistles and, finding something that looks very like a tap root, conclude it’s one of the other less pernicious ones. Unfortunately you have to dig deep – really deep – to find the thick white rhizome that spreads like wildfire. Those plants that grow from seed – and it produces a great number – grow a tap root in the first year and then develop the rhizomes in the second. Fortunately the seeds aren’t that successful, but even a tiny percentage of many thousands can soon turn into a problem. The best way of dealing with them is to uproot them before they flower – as in the left hand picture – when much of their energy has gone into making seeds. The four roots in the middle picture were loosened with a fork and pulled firmly to extract as much as possible, but even so they snapped off leaving much of the rhizome intact and ready to produce more plants. All we can do is hope to weaken it by frequently pulling them up. Madame and I were talking about this yesterday and we thought that the only domestic animal capable of eating thistles is probably a goat. We kept one back in the seventies and she would eat absolutely anything. Brilliant for clearing scrub!

Ragwort is a biennial and, once again, needs careful pulling to reduce numbers; but neither plant will ever be eradicated entirely because they have developed resistance to farm chemicals. Organic control (there’s a good leaflet on the Garden Organic website) is the only option for those of us who opt out of using chemicals.

Of course there’s a downside to controlling these plants because they are both highly attractive to pollinators and they make a lot of nectar ; so removing a weed also removes an important nectar or pollen source as well as a food plant for some of the butterflies and moths we most treasure. Our attitude towards so-called weeds exposes the mindset that places our human needs above the needs of all the other creatures. I’m not suggesting for a moment that we should let these weeds take over our plots, but I am suggesting that many of the small decisions we make on the allotment have an ethical and philosophical component that make our lives that bit more complicated; more morally responsible.

I’ve spent fifty or so years working with people who’ve got themselves into terrible trouble, because they came to a tipping point through countless tiny steps. Nobody sets out to kill all the bees, but they die anyway because a lot of people making little bad decisions can add up to a crime against the earth. These days we’re all creating wildflower gardens, but we shouldn’t neglect the contribution of less popular weeds. Even couch grass offers a particular niche for the Gatekeeper butterfly, and stinging nettles are vitally important for the Comma. Ragwort too is the foodplant for caterpillar of the Cinnabar Moth. While I was taking the photos for this piece I noticed that our Buddleia was devoid of butterflies, whereas I spotted five separate fly/insect/beetle species on the Ragwort. So what I’m suggesting is probably enough to give many gardeners apoplexy, but what is the real danger to an allotment site that would result from a few neglected patches around the edges? Another of our neighbours had an allotment that was truly out of control and, when she got a rude letter from the council, she sprayed it with glyphosate. The grasses and “weeds” all dutifully turned brown and keeled over which, in the present drought, presented a distinct fire hazard. But now after a couple of thundery downpours, they’re nearly all growing again.

So here’s a thought that dropped into my mind yesterday. Many of us enjoy watching gardening programmes on TV. We also love watching celebrity chefs promoting regional foods from across the world and cooking perfectly irresistible dishes. We watch nature via the TV screen and could almost come to believe that all’s well in the world. My challenging thought is this – do television, newspapers and magazines present a falsely rosy view of our situation within global ecological and climate breakdown? And if that’s the case are they functioning as a Panglossian ideological tool which, by presenting a false picture, allows us to think that things aren’t that bad after all?

I spend much of my life in a kind of enervating despair when I look at the present crop of politicians in the UK; the overwhelming majority of them unwilling to act effectively to address the challenges that face us. News bulletins recycle the dangerously stupid ideas dreamed up by politicians so morally corrupt you wouldn’t let them look after your pet dog for an hour. They cry “peace! peace! when there is no peace”.

I even worry that the Potwell Inn, when I write about the way we try to live in the midst of a collapsing culture, might feed the impression that at least some bits of the world are working optimally. They’re really not. We’re lucky enough to live in the centre of a World Heritage City and on some days as we look out over a green space lined with trees we could almost believe that we’re in the grounds of a Georgian stately home. But more often than not we look out on a public space where addicts gather to buy drugs from dealers on bikes (easier to escape on). The air we breathe is dangerously polluted by the constant traffic and the river is polluted to the extent that great rafts of foam float down it during flood conditions. While hundreds of dwellings have been taken out as AirBnb rentals, the waiting list for decent affordable housing in the City grows longer and longer. GP appointments are almost impossible to get; the waiting list for NHS dentistry is a minimum of three years and the local hospital is frequently overwhelmed. Meanwhile the more photogenic parts of the City are regularly closed off to facilitate the filming of endless TV series that draw ever greater crowds to see the places where invented characters do imaginary things. We live in a hallucinogenic haze of Jane Austin, TV soaps and Roman centurions suffused by fast food and the aroma of chip fat.

It’s the political roots of the present crisis that need to be dug out. We’re all too ready to ignore the roots of the pernicious weeds that thread through our political culture, choking out anything that might feed and sustain us. We don’t live the good life. The most we can hope for is to live the best possible life within a broken culture. Our tomatoes are just a tiny skirmish in the battle against climate collapse.

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