Virtue, Fashion and Climate Change

Chapter 3 of The Commons of Soil, by Patrick Noble

The current system will consume what we have in resources and erode what we have in skill until there is a catastrophe close to home enough for power to know that it must react, or lose power. Distant catastrophes have no effect. Moreover the market, contrary to the doctrine, sends no signals. The primary engine is oil and oil prices are protected. The other significant marker is food price and European and American economies have protectionist (cheap) food policies. So supply and demand are most deeply hidden where they are most important. Important scarcities are concealed, while frivolous drivers of spending are made extra-ordinarily visible!

Disvalued bread liberates the circus. Oil powered economies find virtue in managing frivolous scarcity through a variety of circuses. The bread is (sometimes) an anxiety, but is also outside normal market forces. The true market is extra mural.

Extra mural to the castellated facade of the casino is the soil which will truly feed its gamblers after oil has gone. Bring oil and food prices inside the walls and their values will escape beyond control. Of course, rising values would bring rising importance. Beyond the Casino Gates we find a world of new possibilities and portents.

This brings me to fashion and to fashion’s direct connection to the power of Commons and so to the powerful and connected influences of virtue.

Firstly, why not consider what we will lose in our austerity? The size of spending will shrink from the size of three Earths (two fossilised plus one living) to just one living earth! My farmer’s experience suggests that the powers of living soil will expand as pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and so on diminish. As soil life repopulates so symbiotic plant growth will expand, to the optimum (and variable) point where bio mass returned can equate to bio mass consumed in plants and animals.

So we lose the Green Revolutionary benefits of food grown from extra-planetary proteins in fossil rocks (potash, phosphate, calcium and magnesium) and nitrogen fixed by electricity generated from gas and coal. So long as soil has held water we have grown green revolutionary crops in marginal land. No more. Now prosperity is tied to the qualities of soil and the actions (virtues) of husbandry. We gain control of our tools and of the means to knowledge and lose oil-powered hierarchical education, intellectual property and technology transfer.

In observing the potency of fashion, many despair for our self-determination. But what is fashion? I think it has deeper roots into commons of virtue.

Fashionable virtues can change at a whim. The function of fashion in the evolution of societies is its responsive speed. To be seen to do the fashionably right thing is probably the most potent dynamo for behaviour. The most self-interested of us (and all politicians) will change quickly to be seen to be fashionably virtuous. I speculate that many species (possibly all mammals) have used fashion as a method for the rapid communal change necessary for changed circumstance.

Climate Change, the likely miseries of our children and the virtuous actions which may mitigate them, are surely material for fashionable adoption? The thing is, we don’t change behaviour by the power of reason. Rather we are attracted by an attractive idea. Then we construct a reasonable self-justification for change. We like to be seen as attractively virtuous.

Plainly the case for adaption to a world of pillaged resources in a precarious climate is easy to present. At least half of us accept it as reasonable. However, few of us act upon it because we do not act by reason. We remain fashionable to the current eyes of civic virtue and otherwise follow our temporal self-interest. It is not in our interest to hasten climate change, but we put the reasonable position aside as abstract, by adopting other pressing and reasonable behaviours for surely reasonable needs. The inner argument is of balanced virtues. We need to be seen to be virtuous. Someone drops a wallet. We pick it up and pass it back, even though we could easily extract the cash within without being noticed. So in this case, we have not acted in self-interest, but by wishing to belong in community. We share in the relief of the wallet owner and take pleasure from our virtuous act. We have been identified as a proper Citizen. We feel guilt at entering a supermarket, but buy our organic produce there. We put aside the reasonable thought that oil-powered centralised procurement/distribution systems are pushing us rapidly beyond the point of climatic balances, and imagine a supermarket selling nothing but organically-grown produce. Our organic purchases are market signals to the supermarket to provide more organic produce. Of course this is a self-justification for a surely pressing reasonable need (lack of time). Moreover our shopping basket (our identity) is conspicuously “Organic”.

The truth is, our behaviour has hastened climate change, while wasting valuable resources, but we have remained fashionably virtuous: organic, green, ethical and our children – beautifully healthy. Such a reasonable balancing of virtues produces unreasonable behaviour.

While adopting personal austerities or expensive renewable energy systems may be seen by many as the proper thing to do if one has the freedom and the money, it is simultaneously seen by many as showing off and even anti-social, in that some have not, or “can not” do these things. To behave so is to be impolite. It cannot be a civic virtue to be self-sufficient in energy generation, because many citizens have not the means to be so. Likewise the mass market of the supermarket provides for all and so those who shop in proper shops, corner shops, village shops and market squares are frequently derided as elitist.

“Those who succeed in politics are, by definition, people who prioritise extrinsic values. Their ambition must supplant peace of mind, family life, friendship – even brotherly love.
So we must lead this shift ourselves. People with strong intrinsic values must cease to be embarrassed by them. We should argue for the policies we want not on the grounds of expediency but on the grounds that they are empathetic and kind; and against others on the grounds that they are selfish and cruel. In asserting our values we become the change we want to see”
says George Monbiot (The Value of Everything, the Guardian 12th Oct 2010)

Skill is also supplanted by George’s politician. In the eyes of the Muse of Civic Virtue we are what we do. We are not what we think, or what we say. The mirror’s identity is of regret and ambition, for which there is no virtuous currency. Extrinsic values to which our inner vanity is subject define us as citizens. Intrinsic values connect us spiritually to mortality and need be seen by no-one, but they are nevertheless the source of extrinsic values, which become shaped by trial and error and necessary compromise. The truth is that those who succeed in politics (usually) have no values at all. They have expediency. In the political pond integrity sinks with the weight of both extrinsic and intrinsic values, while weightlessness rises. That is nothing new. Nor, I think, can it change. We see it, not only in politicians, but in the directors of both large companies and of very many apparently benign NGOs. Extrinsic values are potent and important. The compromise I make to belong is not a trivial one.

George is unusually inaccurate, but so are we all in busy moments. (He is accurate in spirit.) For my own terms, I have needed to re-define his. To supplant family life friendship and etc is not to prioritise extrinsic values, but to abandon them, because a consensus for amorality has allowed us to do so.


This is the last of three excerpts from Feasta member Patrick Noble’s new book, The Commons of Soil. The book is available at for £7.00. The previous two excerpts are here and here.

Patrick Noble is an organic farmer from Dinbych in North Wales. He writes that “the book’s cover photograph shows Bryn Cocyn’s fields: meats, vegetables and fruit destined for local farmers’ markets. Family labour for a self-reliant, but convivial future!”


Featured image: bright hair. Author: beer. Source:


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