A version of this article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday October 2 2011
This book was thrust upon me in Barefoot long ago. It describes the efforts of Rory Spowers (BBC journalist and “passionate environmentalist”) to transform a 60-acre Sri Lankan tea estate into an organic farm. I read it quickly and then put it aside. I have re-read the book to see whether I am more inclined now to agree with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recommendation: “Inspiring stuff.” Fearnley-Whittingstall sees “candour and wit, the agony and ecstasy of trying to live the green dream.”
Editors Without Whom
It seems to be customary for writers to give fulsome praise to their editors, even when the editors have done a shoddy job. Spowers thanks Gavin Lewis “for his skills at transforming an unwieldy manuscript into what you are now holding.” Never you mind what I am holding, this book needs better editing.
There are 300 pages to the book but the main body of it ends on page 192. There follow an epilogue, an afterword and essays entitled Transport, Habitat, Energy, Water, Economics, Biodiversity, Organisation, Food, Health, Oceans, Peace, Education. There is a glossary and an index. Then there is information about the websites of The Web of Hope, Project Flamingo and Samakanda – “an ecological learning centre”.
This is all worthy, if second-hand, stuff, but belongs in a different book. What is being marketed to the tourists in Barefoot is the personal experience not the smug preaching. The front cover says: “A Year in Green Tea and Tuk-Tuks -”my unlikely adventure creating an organic farm in Sri Lanka.” That is a very clunky title, editors! There is a blurb on the back cover from Tim Smit: “This is a book of great charm and warmth that captures perfectly the restless spirit of all of us.” Not all of us, Tim.
There are indigestible chunks of expository prose. Showing a remarkable capacity to remember verbatim lengthy conversations, Spowers attempts to put across technical information in the form of dialogue of the kind found in bad movies. “’That sounds like a good example of bio-mimicry’, I said. ‘Using nature as the inspiration for designing a model with systemic benefits.’ “ There follows a long response from his interlocutor, Ranil, which includes phrases such as “analog forestry”, “the inherent energy of the landscape”, “the fundamental problem with modern agriculture and monocultures”. Rory sagely responds, “‘All in the name of efficiency’. ‘That’s right,’ said Ranil, his eyebrows arching.”
The editors have also allowed much dead language. Here are a few specimens. “The reality starts to strike home. Our conversation came full circle. Ongoing dilemma. Within a stone’s throw. It cuts no ice. Antibiotics were dished out like Smarties. The episode left me in tatters. A fount of knowledge and vibrant wisdom. The corporate world was no longer his bag. The ‘nanny state’ syndrome. The atmosphere was charged, almost visibly electric. Why reinvent the wheel? A veritable Who’s Who of the prime movers from a wide spectrum of disciplines. It was a no-brainer. I keep my eyes peeled. Fairly comprehensive. Almost virgin. (One is either a virgin or not. No room for ‘almost’. “I knew her before she was a virgin”). Equally blown away. My head was spinning. Boundless enthusiasm. Hope is a four-letter word.”
Shopping in the New Age Supermarket
Spowers writes: “It’s easy to dismiss such stories as flaky New Age claptrap.” Spowers is receptive to claptrap from all kinds of sources. At one point, he solemnly participates in some primitive bone-scattering ritual, the significance of which escapes me. He quotes a Cree Indian saying. He also quotes that old fraud Buckminster Fuller. Guru Ramesh Balsekar “showed his students how to undermine the conditioned processes of the mind.” Someone, whom Rory feared would be “another boring American”, seemed to pass muster because he cared about crop circles, alien abductions and the Da Vinci Code. Spowers, like Queen Elizabeth II, and unlike any rational thinker, seems to approve of homeopathy. “There’s a very good doctor at the Lighthouse Hotel. She’s a homeopathic doctor from South Africa. All the medicines are made from plants.”
Hypocrisy and Greenwash
It is entertaining to watch Spowers hopping about trying to justify his own actions. He is very self-righteous about his motives. “As the media interest waned during the 90s and corporate ‘greenwash’ tactics were used to discredit the science behind climate change, my understanding and passion for the issues increased.”
“Although I accept that the current form of free market capitalism is a reality, it does not necessarily imply that I agree with it. If I feel driven to work towards environmental awareness and an ecological lifestyle, then that is the part that I am destined to play. Ultimately, I have no option.”
Rory allows us to share his moral dilemmas. He worried that a house’s size was”compromising to my ecological conscience, in terms of things like energy and water-use.” The water-use meant the swimming pool. He squares that with himself because a pool was “almost a prerequisite if we were to look for holiday rentals”. The pool “was for me a typical example of the compromises we are all forced to make.” He then tries to divert us by telling us what a bad thing AC is. Thanks, but we know that.
He worries constantly about the effect he is having on the environment but inevitably manages to convince himself that he is OK. “If I was really ‘walking the talk’, I would be taking the bus to Galle and never getting on a plane.” It hurts him to be considered “just another environmentalist in a four-wheel drive”. Why worry though? A “tuk-tuk” is roughly 200 times more polluting than his car.
How does a “tuk-tuk” compare to a plane? Mayer Hillman, a public-policy scholar, has shown that for each passenger on a round trip from the UK to Florida 1.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide is discharged.
Rory squirms a lot to justify his urge to travel. It seems that eco-warriors have to fly endlessly around the world attending conferences. He even has to go to London to shop, presumably because we don’t have shops in Sri Lanka., After deciding to settle in Sri Lanka he makes a trip back to London to purchase “essentials”. He complains about the London traffic and the size of his supermarket bill. “Very rapidly, I remembered why we had left”. He did not fly straight back though, but took another flight to San Francisco. It was worth the trip because a “visionary eco-economist” confirmed his views about Big Pharma and the oil industry: “This shit works. Their shit doesn’t.”
He fearlessly challenges the notion that “sustainable living was inevitably linked with deprivation and denial.” So, that means it’s OK for his children to watch 24-hour cartoons on TV and for him to fly all over the world and to smoke and use a four-wheel drive. He says that a friend thinks him hypocritical for smoking. He recognises that there are “difficult and complex questions” but he does not answer them. “We are locked into a system that prevents us making many of the changes we may aspire to.” “We see that change is always propelled by the individual, or that a small action can be an instrumental part of the significant changes that arise through complex processes.” He should read Allen Brandt’s brilliant book The Cigarette Century. Giving up smoking is a major, and not impossibly difficult, existential act of war against corporate thuggery and media manipulation.
Rory Spowers’s book is published by Rupert Murdoch.
Spowers finds the government’s standard wage rate of Rs 238 per day “positively insulting and nobly pays 350. (The current minimum rate for an estate labourer is 450) “This has now proved destabilising and local tea estate owners are up in arms, complaining that they are losing their workers to our project. I am now in a difficult position and reluctant to bring the figures back in line”. He asks himself if he is in the business of neo-colonialist globalisation exploiting cheap labour in the name of eco-speak. “These are hard questions and they weigh heavily on me”. He salves his conscience by giving small loans to cultivate mushrooms and “encouraging” workers to make coconut wood products to sell to people passing through. He feels that this will “help to keep money circulating within the local economy rather than losing it to the global economy”.
This reminds me of a Peter Sellars monologue in which he plays a philanthropic aristocrat dispensing to the peasants improving tracts and potato peelings. Spowers is clearly engaged in making money out of Sri Lanka. What harm? “Set in sixty acres of tea estate and pristine rain-forest, a short drive from the coast, Samakanda is an ecological sanctuary and tropical forest garden bursting with fresh, organic produce. Come and stay in one of our three rainforest bungalows, watch the birds swooping through the trees at sunset, eat authentic Sri Lankan food and fall asleep listening to the jungle. Or come for the day, hike the rainforest trails, learn to cook local dishes with our organic produce and absorb the spectacular views from the comfort of a hammock”
As well as becoming more cranky in my old age, I am also becoming more dubious about the benefits of travel.
Tim Smit seems to think a restless spirit is a good thing. In the N’importe où hors du monde section of his Spleen of Paris, Baudelaire compared such restless travellers with a sick man in a hospital who wants to be near the window when he is by the heater and by the heater when he is by the window. Then he dies.