SchNEWS Of The World


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The State is not something which can be destroyed by a revolution, but is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently.

- Gustav Landauer

I am a traveller by trade

I only have what I have made

A fortuneteller too, they say

And I can take you all away

- Sandy Denny

Bismark, the German Chancellor, once remarked unkindly or perhaps ironically that if the Irish ruled the Netherlands it would be under water, but if the Dutch controlled Ireland they could feed Europe.

There may be some truth in this anecdote. The Dutch are model farmers, even in remote unforgiving places like Connemara where the topsoil is found in the crevices between the granite rock. The Irish, by comparison, have struggled with the concept and practice of agriculture as a means of growing food to feed their populace. Farming is an industrial activity. Land is turned over for the use of monocultures like wheat, oaks, barley, potatoes and sugar beet or for the raising of cattle, and, where bogs and rocks predominate, sheep are grazed which denude hill and mountain side. The country's daily food needs, including vegetables and meat, is met by imports. Ireland's own production of food, especially dairy produce and meat, is mostly for export - as it has been since the land clearances of the 18th century.

The idea that people should grow their own food and keep animals for their own needs is given no credibility. Organic farming is not taken seriously, except by non-natives. Gardens are for lawns skirted by roses. Self-sufficiency is a hippy phrase. Bioregionalism is a word few understand and such a thing as a worker-led agricultural co-op is a nasty communist scheme. "Do we want to be organic farmers or waitresses or do we want to get on with it?" was the prevailing theme as Irish society opted for post-modern urban prosperity in the early 1990's.

A researcher taking the time to find out why this attitude prevails might see a government policy which only encourages industrial agriculture because the state abandoned the concept of community-oriented agriculture in the 1950's when it decided to make modern Ireland a haven for the chemical corporates. This was to boost its gross national product at the time when the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and US-led corporate capital was mapping out the first territories for the establishment of globalisation. Our researcher might also conclude that the majority of Irish land is unfit and the climate too variable for small-scale farming and gardening, that the amount of effort would not produce sufficient foodstuffs, that the Irish do not have what it takes to be farmers, unlike the Dutch!


The real reasons have both historical and contemporary precedents. Bismark might have had a different opinion of food production in Ireland if a utopian ideal in the early decades of the 19th century had been allowed to flourish and gain popularity. Modern agriculture might have included industrial, community, and family farming. Instead the agricultural co-op founded in Ralahine, near the Limerick-Ennis road in County Clare, in 1831 is a fragment of Irish history hardly known. Where it is known, it is dismissed as a failure. Ralahine failed because the proprietor of the land, John Scott Vandeleur, retained legal ownership of the estate. It did not fail because labour-intensive, worker-led, agricultural co-ops do not work.

This was the lesson of Ralahine, James Connolly wrote in Labour and Irish History. "Had all the land and buildings belonged to the people, had all other estates in Ireland been conducted on the same principles, and the industries of the country also organised, had each of them appointed delegates to confer on the business of the country at some common centre such as Dublin, the framework and basis of a free Ireland would have been realised."

In a moment of madness not unusual among the Anglo-Irish landlord class, Vandeleur's utopian scheme crashed when he lost at the gaming tables, fled the country, and allowed a Limerick relative to file for bankruptcy against him. There has been a suggestion that he was set up, because the British establishment did not want to see anarchist-style co-ops springing up all over the west of Ireland - particularly at a time when it was desperate to remove pesky peasants from the land, to turn it over to grazing for livestock, and increase the size of each farm.

The tragedy here is that a proliferation of food producing co-ops might have prevented the famines, which raged from the 1820's until the 1840's, because the peasant Irish would have had access to a variable food supply which they controlled. This is crucial. Famines are not caused by lack of food. They are caused by the lack of access to food and the inability, for various reasons, of people to grow or pay for it. In Ireland in the mid-19th century a species of potato known to suffer blight was the staple crop for the peasantry, as it was for most of the poor of northern and western Europe. They became dependent on it. When the crop failed successively the people starved, died of disease, or fled the country. They did not do this without a fight because they knew who the architects of their misery were.

A select committee of the House of Commons on 'The Employment of the Poor in Ireland' noted at the time that "those districts in the south and west presented the remarkable example of possessing a surplus of food while the inhabitants were suffering from actual want. The calamity may, therefore, be said to have proceeded less from the want of food itself than from the adequate means of purchasing it, or, in other words, from the want of employment".

Vandeleur's personal motives for setting up the co-op are not known. They were not as altruistic as some have argued. Vandeleur did not make it easy for the co-op workers. The rent he required the society to pay him was higher than the national average at the time, and while the workers did begin to amass savings from their earnings it would have taken them many years to accumulate sufficient funds to pay for "the stock, implements of husbandry, and other property" belonging to Vandeleur.

Yet the Ralahine co-op had a positive effect on the well-being and health of the workers. Edward Thomas Craig, the manager of the co-op, wrote that rural Ireland presented "a melancholy picture of a rich soil only partially cultivated, and a willing people unemployed". Irish peasants, Craig believed, did not know what to do with the land! What he should have added is that they were kept ignorant by a social system that was driven by a combination of absentee landlords, their Irish agents, the catholic middle-classes, catholic priests, and a belief system founded on religious autocracy. Their other problem was access to land and seed.

So it was natural that the established order would object to Vandeleur's Folly - the epithet given to the enterprise by Margaretta D'Arcy and John Arden when they told the story as a stage drama in 1978 - because they did not believe the peasants could look after their own interests. "Others objected to the system," Craig observed, "because it was not in accordance with the established rules of political economy."

Despite the opposition, Vandeleur's utopian dream was made a reality by the shrewd management of Craig and the industriousness of the workers. "The peasantry began to hope and indulge in the expectation that other landlords would adopt similar arrangements on their estates," wrote Craig. It wasn't to be. The conditions for the genocide of a people had been put in place. One million people are believed to have died as a result of the 'Great Hunger' of the 1840's and as many more immigrated.


What happened at Ralahine resonates through to the modern era. Large monocultural farming, with its emphasis on industrial and technological fixes, damages land and poisons eco-systems. It also produces high profits for land-owners, speculators, corporates, governments, and shipping agents. Roughly one 12th of the global population do not own the land they farm, "including a near majority of agricultural populations in south and south east Asia, central and south America, and southern and eastern Africa". With seed production now under the control of the corporates, and governments introducing legislation to outlaw seed saving, the means to self-sufficiency are being challenged. No land, no seed, no food.

The western world's obsession with meat has seen global consumption of beef, mutton, pork, and poultry climb to 217 million tons in 1999 - a five-fold increase since 1950. Most of this protein finds its way onto the plates of the rich (relative to their geographical location). The countries where land is used to produce meat have high levels of poverty and malnutrition. Export cash crops like coffee, cocoa, tea, sugar, and soybeans have the same effect. Rich, fertile land is owned, controlled, and used for raising meat, feed, or cash crops - all destined for the western consumer. Rice, wheat, maize (corn), and potato are the staple carbohydrate-rich foodstuffs for the majority of the 6.2 billion people who inhabit the planet - rice feeding almost two thirds of the human population - yet more cultivated land is being used for animal fodder (soybeans) and cash crops (coffee). Production of soybeans, used as a protein supplement in animal feed in the US, requires more land than wheat and corn. Despite a fivefold increase in land use for soybeans since 1950, the yield has increased by only a half. The consequence has been to clear more land for the cultivation of soybeans. In 2000, coffee production shot up ten percent to 7.1 million tons. Most the world's coffee, which is harvested in central and south America, is consumed in the stress-filled, industrialised world.

The result of this is malnutrition and starvation among the poor, and obesity and immune dysfunction among the rich. One billion people are under-nourished while one billion are over-nourished. Obesity is the cause of 300,00 deaths annually in the USA. Diabetes now affects 154 million people globally.


The alternative is a quiet non-violent revolution, which is gaining more credibility in central and south America, Asia and in fringe communities (such as islands) than in the western world. Yet wherever you look around the world, people are coming together to create co-operatives and movements which combine worker participation with fiscal realities and ecological solutions. Food centred eco-villages are lighting up like tiny beacons everywhere. Barter schemes, local currencies, and mutual aid clubs are working alongside capitalist economic methods of exchange in many communities. Movements set up to preserve and reclaim soil, trees and, water can be found in diverse locations such Australia, Germany, America, India, Ireland, and China.

What all these activities have in common is a gradual drift towards a bioregional paradigm, which - in a post-oil, post-consumer world - will be necessary if we are to feed ourselves no matter where we live. Without oil, food production and distribution will grind to a halt. But before that happens industrial agriculture will play a part. Ecologist David Pimental sees a grim future for a world dependent on the present system of food production. "When global, biological, and physical limits to domestic food production are reached, food importation will no longer be a viable option for any country." Despite an increase in global food production, world hunger is also increasing leaving only one solution - indigenous land ownership and bioregional production.

It would be easy to be cynical about these seemingly insignificant gestures on behalf of an eco-centred future. Many of the eco-co-ops and eco-villages in the western world lack significant social dimensions because they do not involve the indigenous communities. They tend to be elitist and isolationist in their orientation so from the start they have been seen from the outside as something that can be dismissed because, particularly in English language speaking countries, they have been characterised by the Beatrix Potter - JRR Tolkein - Edward Abbey - loving set. People who have never had to work in factories or live in dysfunctional families or suffer racial abuse or breath toxic pollution or experience gaol, alienation, discrimination, sectarianism, migration, or any of the everyday aspects of the lives of people in murderous urban ghettos and factory towns and crowded cities.

If any bioregional model of society is to take hold, it will have to embrace social as well as ecological issues. Despite five decades of warnings about the disintegrating ecology of the planet and analyses that our social problems have their roots in our domination of nature and labour, not one single leader of any country anywhere on the planet has taken notice. A report Walter Goldschmidt prepared for the US government in the 1980's found that small farm communities had better economies than agribusiness communities, were more stable and contributed to a higher standard of living. The US Department of Agriculture refused to release the report.

Just to make sure that the masses do not give it a thought, the media in all its forms has dismissed all ecological-centred activity as a threat to business, jobs, profits, and our benign material societies. If people cannot be persuaded to think ecologically, asking them to accept bioregional solutions to a problem they cannot see is a blind step into a scary world. Kirkpatrick Sale, in his impelling book on bioregionalism, does not underestimate the personal and social obstacles. "It will take some broad and persuasive education to get people to realise that it is not the bioregional task that is irrelevant but precisely the business-as-usual politics of all the major parties of all the major industrial nations, not one of which has made ecological salvation a significant priority, not one of which is prepared to abandon or even curtail the industrial economy that is imperilling us. And it will take patience to lead people past their fear and lingering hatred of the natural world, which grows as their ignorance of it grows."

His words are echoed by Chellis Glendinning: "We need to integrate into our lives a new philosophy that reflects the wisdom of what we are learning in our recovery and the wisdom of the kind of cultures that all humans once enjoyed - earth-based, ecological, and indigenous."

The Ralahine Co-op is not our past, it is our future and it is beginning to happen. The island of Cuba is a model organic farm. Arainn, off the west coast of Ireland, is becoming one. Regions of India have flourishing eco-villages that are self-sufficient in food. Projects to turn lawns into small-scale gardens in North America are modelled on European examples, particularly in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. It has been estimated that the USA could be self-sufficient in its food needs if it turned over all its lawns.

John Holloway argues that the struggle for radical change is now part of our everyday lives and that revolution must be understood as a question, not as an answer. It was a question posed by the peasant workers of Ralahine. The reclaiming of food production is the answer.

*An Talamh Glas (bluegreenearth) is a globally oriented collective working on two specific projects

- the publication BLUE ( and;

- the Ripple Project (an educational programme designed to help individuals and communities plan and set up bioregional food and craft producing centres, rural, and urban woodland forests and gardens.

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