Coming back from a useful meeting of senior governors and staff, I turned on the car radio to hear Monty Don interviewing the amazing Vandana Shiva on Radio 4. This is fantastic stuff to listen to. She is a wonderfully eloquent and learned advocate for a true approach to food security through small family farms, stability for farmers, diversity of crops and protection of animals and wildlife, as well as being a prominent advocate for the rights of women and girls in India. She builds on the work of Sir Albert Howard, Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry and others who have postulated (well, proven, actually) a strong economically sound rebuttal to the intensive industrial model of agriculture that prevails in most countries, that has ecology, whether animal, floral or human, at its core, and yields a model of wealth that is based on the prosperity of communities and families measured in all sorts of ways, not just monetary. I have blogged on her before, but she is worth pursuing in her thought. The key issue in all these thinkers is the argument for diversity – that when you an ecology of effort and growth – whether natural or in the human sphere, you get better, more interdependent communities. Listen to her TED talk here.
Last night, BBC4 broadcast Requiem for Detroit. There was plenty of other stuff on the telly last night, but having just finished George Packer’s book on the decline of modern America, I wanted to see a different view of the same problem. To be honest, I was astounded, and had had no real conception in my mind of the desperate situation in which Detroit finds itself. You read about its abandoned subdivisions and suburbs, its bankruptcy and the recent deals to try and reset it on a sounder footing, the loss of nearly a million people, but until you see family homes, 4 or 5-bedroom detached properties being overtaken again by “urban prairie” not a mile or two from the city centre, whole factories, theatres and important industrial monuments just collapsing or being stripped for metal, you can’t credit that a society would let this happen. If you can get to see the thing on iPlayer, do so. It was an extraordinary film, and I am still not quite able to cope with what I saw. it was like looking at a completely foreign thing, un-American in a profound way. I have witnessed the decline of the coal and tinplate industry in South Wales and have a sympathetic idea of how it declined and the way that it was managed with new light industry and eventual slow depopulation. But this was of a completely different order altogether. The famous photographs of Romain Meffre and Yves Marchand have been a witness to the city’s decline since they were taken in 2005, but seeing road after road, house after house, suburb after suburb, was like a relentless dirge of pain and torment for a society that from its inception sowed the seeds of its own destiny of destruction. Nothing shows better the triumph and self-glorification of single-industry commodification – build cars, make people drive them, send them out to the suburbs where they will have to be reliant on cars – and its eventual collapse both as an economic policy and a system of thought. The term post-apocalyptic has often been used for parts of the world where such destruction and decay has taken place – this is the first place where I began to feel it. And yet, as must always happen under God’s overarching grace to his creation, goodness and diversity is on its way back.
What remains now in suburban Detroit are the start of gardens and urban farms. Urban renewal is coming to Detroit by way of young people coming back to the city, making it diverse, self-sustaining in small, farming communities within pre-existing suburbs, within sight of its famous skyline. Farms all over the place, next to factories, in old gardens that were abandoned, in vacant lots and former car parks. There is something of a prophetic fulfilment here. It is as though God’s wisdom, the wisdom of creation, is reasserting itself in the hearts of men and women who are simply tired of cars and concrete, who can see diversity, sustainability not just as words but as a way of living, poorly perhaps to begin with, but living free of corporations and their inbuilt greed. As John Betjeman said in another context, the earth exhales. You begin to feel the triumph of ecology over commodity.
There are lessons here for us, should we care to stop and watch. Somehow the lessons are too deep – lessons for the spirit, in mourning and longing, rather than for the mind. And yet it is the mind that will need the sharpening it we are to live as we were intended to.