Capitalism, Environment, Food, Singapore

Cleverness versus Wisdom: reflections on Singapore and Cuba

This blog post first appeared here on Cultivate’s website…


Rethinking our relationship with Nature (and with each other) is the fundamental issue of our time. Till now, we have sought to dominate her, to control her, to bring her to heel. This has led us into a series of ever more ‘clever’ complex and large scale interventions.

Food didn’t grow fast or amply enough, so we ploughed. This depleted the soil, so we added nutrients and fertilisers. Insects ate some of our crops, so we poisoned them. The modern era – the emergence of capitalism, the industrial revolution, the domination of economic rationality, and the explosion of scientific and technical knowledge – brings us new Promethean powers. We expand and intensify our interventions against Nature, against ourselves.

Capital demands land. Land ownership is concentrated. Peasants are kicked off the land and forced into the towns to form the newly emerging working class. This proletariat must be fed, and fed cheaply. Capital demands labour. Populations rise. ‘Too many mouths to feed,’ they say. To intensify farming yet further is the response.   

Economic rationality reduces all life to calculus. Thus, we add and we subtract. We add. We bombard our fields with chemical pesticides and fertilisers. We begin even to genetically manipulate our staple crops. We subtract. We take out the biologically active, nutritional substances in our daily bread so that it stays edible for longer. We kill our food to extend its life.

Economic rationality and capital demand intensity. We establish monocultures. We shrink the gene pool by selecting but a few species and breeding them for yield. Perfect conditions for infectious diseases. We must pump our cattle, our chickens, our fish full of antibiotics. Bacteria begin to resist. We launch a counter-offensive.

Capital demands time. We can’t wait: for bread to rise; for cows to fatten, for pigs to breed. We put Mother Nature on the treadmill. We develop techniques to speed her up. Chemicals, hormones, steroids.

Capital makes food profitable. Modern advertising and mass production. Their combination entices us. Capital demands growth. Consumption is our economic duty. Food is produced to get us hooked. ‘Craveability’ says the food industry. ‘Addiction’, in plain speech. Fat, sugar, corn syrup. Supersized, obese, diabetic,…malnourished.

The treadmill begins to break down. Mother Nature is heating up and can take no more. Depleted soil, depleted seas. Mass extinctions. Tortured animals. Poisoned land. Poisoned people. She fights back. Heat, ice, wind, rain, floods, droughts. See, hear, feel her fury. Our civilisation teeters.


Unsurprisingly, for such an arrogant and ignorant species, we have called ourselves ‘homo sapiens’ – the wise human. Better perhaps to call ourselves ‘homo callidus’ – the clever human. We have been oh so clever, but we have not been wise. ‘Humanity is too clever to survive without wisdom’, said E F Schumacher. We are now, tragically, proving him right. But, there is, there always is, an alternative. If industrial farming is the agricultural expression of homo callidus then permaculture is the agricultural expression of homo sapiens.

Permaculture is wise. Permaculture seeks to observe Nature, to learn from her, to mimic her, to work with her. Permaculture sees human beings not as owners, but as trustees of our land. Permaculture seeks to minimise rather than maximise work. Permaculture seeks to foster biodiversity. Permaculture envisages and facilitates new social relationships too: smaller farms, reinstating common land, sharing surpluses, exchanging based on mutual need and use. Permaculture does not jettison science. Permaculture is scientific; it uses the scientific method to help Nature to heal herself, ourselves – to restore our land, to replenish our soil. Science should begin not with assumption, but with observation. Permaculture encourages us to watch, listen, sense. Permaculture runs by natural time. Nature sets the timeframe, not the economy. Permaculture expresses and embodies a truly sustainable and flourishing relationship with Nature and between ourselves. It is, I believe, the foundation of the wise society.


Like all societies, Singapore is at a crucial juncture. This tiny island now has almost 5.5 million people. Building continues relentlessly. Almost all of its food is now imported. Consumption drives the economy. Its jungle is virtually gone. Its coast is gravely polluted. Singapore is in collective denial about any of this.

Singapore is very clever. Singapore has developed new technologies to produce food in small spaces. Grow upwards! Hydroponics! No need for soil! Just use water infused with minerals. Aeroponics! No need even for water. Just stack plants in a room and spray the roots! Thousands of crops in the sky! Fish can be farmed vertically too. Great, round tubs of water, one on top of the other. Coming soon to Singapore. Pretty clever stuff! But how wise?

Like everywhere, the path toward wisdom in Singapore is blocked on all sides by formidable political and economic structures and institutions. A shift in the direction of true sustainability would require serious political organisation from below; from a civil society that currently barely exists. It would require major political and economic change. It might even make Singapore itself unviable as an independent nation-state. But, not necessarily. Even in densely populated, urbanised environments, we can grow food plentifully and wisely. Necessity, as ever, is the mother of invention…


In the early 1990s, Cuba faced economic devastation. The implosion of the Soviet Union and the wider Communist Bloc provoked a 75% (seventy five percent!) collapse in GDP! The fall of the Second World and the ongoing and tightening American embargo meant that, quite simply, Cuba’s access to export markets and to vital imports and credit evaporated. Sugar had been Cuba’s predominant export, turning much of its landscape into a dangerous monoculture.

Remarkably, in stark contrast to the shock therapy and structural adjustment that brought former socialist societies to their knees, the Cuban government vowed to defend the social achievements of the Revolution and significantly democratised elements of the social and economic response to this vast crisis. What was clearly urgently needed was a huge and rapid increase in food production. Not only were food imports suddenly unaffordable, but artificial farming inputs were too. There was not even enough oil to transport sufficient food from rural to urban locations. This crisis stimulated a drive toward organic, permacultural techniques of urban food production. The government gave land to all those wanting to grow food, but ‘urban agriculture’ flourished too in people’s gardens, and even on their balconies, roofs, and porches. Even when the crisis abated, this urban flourishing continued. Estimates vary, but today Havana produces well over half its required food and is recognised as a world leader in urban agriculture. Beyond the environmental benefits, the social benefits of small-scale, local production and community exchange have been equally significant.

Time for wisdom

Our collective redemption requires a fundamental transition: from commodity production to production for social need; from economic, instrumental logic to political, ethical reason; from homo callidus to homo sapiens; from cleverness to wisdom. The paths to wisdom, to a flourishing and sustainable relationship with Nature and each other, are not definitively prescribed, and will vary from society to society, but they are clear enough. There is enough evidence to suggest that the journey has already begun. We make the road by walking. The more who join us on this journey, the easier and smoother our transition.


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