Food & Water featured

The living –the boundless relation between humans and nature

March 15, 2023

In May our new book Det levande (The Living) will be published in Sweden. ”We” in this case is Ann-Helen Meyer von Bremen, my partner, wife, co-farmer and co-writer and myself.

As can be gleaned from the title, the book’s theme is the relation between us and the rest of the living nature. As the theme is an eternal point for reflection and negotiations it is probably not surprising that we don’t land in a definitive position on the bigger issue. Nevertheless, we believe we shed some light on the many aspects of humans’ interactions with the rest of the living world. We certainly have some ideas for improvements but the book is definitively not one in the 10-things you can do to save the planet/be a better person/have a happy life – genre.

We draw from our own experiences from our small farm which is located into a forested part of the country, where we try to manage land, meadow, bogs, lake and forests in a regenerative, organic, sustainable, nature-friendly (words come and go to describe how we can interact with and ”manage” nature in a way that on the one hand gives humans a nice life and respects the rest of the living. I have long lost faith in that we can find a word that encompass that without being corrupted by the market) way. In addition, we report from various experiences, such as a visit to the Sequoia National park in California, fishing salmon in the lake Vänern, and palm oil plantations in Sumatra, just to mention a few.

What is the unique selling point of our book is that we tie those practical experiences into historical, philosophical, spiritual and political perspectives as well as to the ecological and economic contexts. There are books that dive deep into the fascinating life of trees, eels or mushrooms; there is research about how lichens can survive in outer space; there are books about the spiritual or philosophical aspects of human nature relations and books about how we are hosts to millions of bacteria. We try to knit those many aspects together and make some sense out of it.

The term Anthropocene which has had such an appeal the last decade is double edged. On the one hand, it does point to the very big (mostly negative) impact humans have on the planet, on biodiversity, on the huge cycles of carbon, nitrogen and water and  the like. It cautions us to take it easier, reduce our foot print and adjust ourselves better to nature. On the other hand, Anthropocene can also fuel the notion of how the exceptional creature Homo sapiens has powers bigger than nature, that we can shape nature in the same way as the potter shapes clay. Ecomodernists and transhumanists often talk about the Good Anthropocene, a new Golden age of humanity. In some way this is just a continuation of the sustainable development narrative that since the 1980s have fooled people that there are ways to eat the cake and grow it at the same time.

Having a farm means that we manage a piece of nature. To some extent, we shape it according to our own minds. As everyone that ever has farmed can testify, it doesn’t always work out the way you would like it to. Again and again, nature limits our reach as farmers, nature strikes back, nature doesn’t always do what we want it to do.

But has nature really agency? Well, kind of. I am not really a believer in a Gaia or Mother Earth with a purpose and a meaning or to ascribe intentions in a bigger sense to the deer eating our vegetables or the moth eating our cabbage. Having said that, it is still obvious that all the living make things happen, and that we (humans) are not as much in control as we pretend to be – or believe we are.

Despite all the bravado of the Anthropocene, we are to a large extent still at the mercy of the living and dead. Even the distinction between the living and the dead is a construct of our mind that is obsessed with categories, dichotomies etc. All life is based on the dead matter and essential elements. Plants and animals are dependent on the process by which lichens and roots extract minerals from rock.

And life has created its own conditions and changed the dead planet into a wonder of life. The story of extreme growth and the subsequent collapse of fern forests during the Carboniferous period is a tale of how other life forms also can change the planet in ways even more than humans have ever done. The modern industrial technosphere which underpins the modern world is based on the dead organic matter from this period. In light of this we are scavengers, feeding on long dead life turned into lifeless matter.

Are we also parasites sucking life out all other life on the planet? Listening to some environmentalists one can certainly get that impression. While there is some truth in it, it still leads our thoughts in the wrong direction. As William Cronon says in his essay The Trouble with Wilderness: “ if nature dies because we enter it, then the only way to save nature is to kill ourselves.” The view that the planet would be a better place without humans is in some way understandable but in most ways it is illogical, inhumane and in particular not really actionable. If we kill ourselves we will also kill nature as we know it, not only because we will not be there to experience it. Most of the nature we can see and experience is not wild. Even 12 000 years ago humans had transformed much of the planet – admittedly not in the same way as we have done the least five hundred years, but still radically. Most of the nature that people admire is shaped or at least shared by humans.

Having said that, it is obvious that humans today harm other life forms and ecosystems in a negative way. Our species is an engineer of ecosystems just like termites, beaver and elephants. Of course there is a difference in scale and depth of ours manipulations and there is also this notion of “ownership” or entitlement that colors so much of human-nature interactions (something we explore at length in the book). We have no unique “right” to nature’s gifts and the fact that you “own” a piece of land, as we do, should not give you the right to exploit it. Still, to live on (and off) the land is what we do, we just have to do it in a light way. Sounds easy, but it isn’t.

In the coming months, I will expand on some of the themes of the book. Probably not too frequently as spring is slowly arriving, cows are calving, we will be busy with the launch of the book and associated events, I am working on a study for the WWF on the use of feed in Swedish livestock farming and a building project on the farm keeps me quite busy as well.

Gunnar Rundgren

Gunnar Rundgren has worked with most parts of the organic farm sector – from farming over markets and certification to policy - since 1977 when starting the pioneer organic farm, Torfolk. For many years he worked as a consultant for several United Nations organizations and development cooperation organizations including Sida and the World Bank. He became a World Board member of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements 1998 and was the president 2000-2005. He has published several books about the major social and environmental challenges of our world, food and farming. He has been awarded honorary doctorates the Uganda Martyrs University the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and is a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry. He has a small farm with vegetables, fruits, nuts and a small herd of cattle in Sweden.

Tags: Anthropocene, Building resilient food and farming systems, connection to nature