“If George’s vision comes to pass it will, contrary to his own aspirations, represent an alignment between progressive environmentalism and corporate-capitalist interests that will delay further, perhaps catastrophically, the need to create low-input agrarian localisms and ecological culture.”
“It challenges us to think outside the box, presents at least some of the dilemmas with which it wrestles in an even-handed way and introduces us to a technology we may hear more about in future. However, it is too often an overly simplified and unhelpfully polarising contribution to the current debate about how to reshape food systems.”
Earlier in the summer, George Monbiot had a new book out – which went on to win the Orwell Prize for political writing – and which was feature at the time on these pages: “A revolution in food and farming” – Vision Group for Sidmouth and What is the role of the farmer? – Vision Group for Sidmouth
‘Regenesis’ is a breathtaking vision of a new future for food and for humanity. Drawing on astonishing advances in soil ecology, Monbiot reveals how our changing understanding of the world beneath our feet could allow us to grow more food with less farming. He meets the people who are unlocking these methods, from the fruit and vegetable grower revolutionizing our understanding of fertility; through breeders of perennial grains, liberating the land from plows and poisons; to the scientists pioneering new ways to grow protein and fat. Together, they show how the tiniest life forms could help us make peace with the planet, restore its living systems, and replace the age of extinction with an age of regenesis. Regenesis (UK) and Regenesis by George Monbiot: 9780143135968 | PenguinRandomHouse.com: Books (USA)
It is on several Christmas book lists, including the New Statesman and Times (paywall): 18 best science and environment books of 2022 | Culture | The Times
Bill McKibben: George Monbiot’s Regenesis (Allen Lane) is fascinating throughout, but I’d especially point readers – and aspiring writers – to the first chapter, a textbook case of how not to write a dry textbook. His story of soil is so alive, the anecdotes and evidence so well marshalled, that it will change your perception of the ground beneath your feet. Monbiot won the Orwell Prize… Best books of the year – New Statesman
The Royal Geographic Society made it the book of the month:
Monbiot has his detractors of course. Not everyone will agree with his critique of farmers and the current subsidy system, and many would be sad to see a rural landscape without livestock. Plenty more will be put off by the thought of a protein-producing system that’s separate from the wholesome nourishment of the land. But his are robust and well-researched arguments that set out a new vision for feeding the world, one that doesn’t rely on a sentimentalised notion of farming that often has little resemblance to the present-day realities. And, if nothing else, Regenesis opens up a vital debate about how to protect a precious substance on which we’re so reliant and yet is so little talked about – soil, the most fecund and beautiful of dirty words. Review: Regenesis, by George Monbiot – Geographical
The New Scientist interviewed him during the book launch:
Does Monbiot overestimate not only the willingness of the general public to eat bacteria as their main source of protein, but to entirely change food habits – something at the heart of all cultures? Regenesis review: Farming is killing the planet but we can stop it | New Scientist
The New York Review laid out his prognosis very clearly:
George Monbiot argues that none of the most rapidly spreading alternative farming methods can help save our food system from impending crisis. It’s Not Easy Being Green | Tim Flannery | The New York Review of Books
However, not all ‘greens’ would agree.
Monbiot criticises ‘rapidly spreading alternative farming methods’ – and so the response from one such body representing these methods is particularly interesting – with its conclusion here:
Despite these criticisms, Regenesis is a valuable book. It challenges us to think outside the box, presents at least some of the dilemmas with which it wrestles in an even-handed way and introduces us to a technology we may hear more about in future, whether we like it or not. For the SFT, however, it is too often an overly simplified and unhelpfully polarising contribution to the current debate about how to reshape food systems over the next few decades, in ways that make them environmentally sustainable and helps to produce food that reduces the incidence of diet-related disease, rather than allowing this to increase still further. Considering Regenesis: A Perspective from the Sustainable Food Trust | Sustainable Food Trust
Another well-considered response comes from Chris Smaje of the Small Farm Future blog – with the opening of his piece here:
A step sideways from my last two posts about urbanism and ruralism with a review of George Monbiot’s book Regenesis (Allen Lane, 2022) – though it’s kind of a propos, since his book showcases the pro-urbanism and anti-ruralism I’ve been critiquing.
I want to tread carefully, particularly because George is a decent human being who’s devoted his considerable talents to making the world a better place and who scarcely deserves most of the mud that’s flung at him. Still, when I gave a talk about my own book at the Food and Farming Literature Festival, Miles King asked for my views on George’s analysis, noting it was the elephant in the room for those like me making the case for agrarian localism. Now that I’ve read the book, I’d have to agree with Miles. If George’s vision comes to pass I think it will, contrary to his own aspirations, represent an alignment between progressive environmentalism and corporate-capitalist interests that will delay further, perhaps catastrophically, the need to create low-input agrarian localisms and ecological culture.
So, given his influence, I feel the need to make the case as best I can for localist alternatives to George’s regenesis.
Farmers often get riled by George’s plain dislike of livestock farming, more so by his almost as plain dislike of livestock farmers. He’s now extended the former pretty much to farming in general. But the main problem with his analysis as I see it is the underlying assumptions about human society and ecology. That’s mostly what I’m going to write about here under four headings – urbanism, government, land sparing and modernism – but there are some agricultural puzzles at the heart of the book, and we’ll need to look at those too.
First, it might be helpful to offer a brief thumbnail of the book’s structure. And to give credit where it’s due, it all starts off very well with a nice chapter about the work George does in the orchard he planted in Oxford and the amazing organisms in the soil beneath it, followed by two strong chapters that forensically anatomize the pathologies of the food and farming system in Britain and beyond. Things start to go awry at the end of that third chapter with the case for land sparing, which I’ll come to. But then the book changes direction with three engaging but problematic chapters about various people, mostly in Britain, striving to address these pathologies and improve the existing food and farming system.
These chapters are problematic because, while they’re sympathetic (sometimes overly) to their protagonists and the approaches they’ve taken, they don’t characterize the issues underlying these approaches sharply enough. With one surprising exception, this allows George to set the various approaches up – albeit in the nicest possible way – to fail in comparison to his preferred approach. This is the factory-based fermentation of food to feed humanity, the (also problematic) case for which is laid out briefly in Chapter 7 of the book.
The book then moves to a wrap-up by way of Chapter 8, the most problematic of the lot, which basically elaborates George’s contention that “The pastoral story is one that urban civilization tells against itself without a flicker of disquiet: the shepherds and their sheep are good and pure, while the city is base and venal” (p.216). If only that were true, we’d be a darned sight closer to creating genuinely regenerative and renewable human ecologies than at present, though still a way off. Alas, the opposite is the case.
From regenesis to re-exodus: of George Monbiot, mathematical modernism and the case for agrarian localism – Resilience and From regenesis to re-exodus: of George Monbiot, mathematical modernism and the case for agrarian localism | Small Farm Future