Posted by: lialeendertz | February 23, 2011

The Middle East and my garden

This last couple of weeks I have found myself cheering the removal of a dictator I was only vaguely previously aware of, feeling emotional about the liberation of a people that I had previously presumed were liberated, feeling ignorant. But my real, deep puzzlement has been over emerging hints of our involvement. Why is there film of Tony Blair hugging Gaddafi? How come the tear gas used in Libya comes from a British firm? Why, precisely, do we appear to be friends with these people?

Then this morning I saw something that made the penny drop. Naomi Klein, on twitter, wrote : ‘Our enslavement to oil has required the repression of millions of Arab people. As they shake off their bonds, so must we.’

I know it seems stupid to try to draw a line between what is going on in the Middle East and my garden, one so momentous the other so small and insignificant, but it exists, so I thought I’d come on here and try to connect a few dots between what is happening on the news and us, the gardeners and cooks.

We (not just gardeners, all of us) have become dependant on oil for everything, but almost above all for food. From the tractors that plough the fields to the manufacture of chemical fertilisers that are sprinkled on to the tired soils to fluff them into performing one more time, to the harvesting machinery, preparation and packaging systems, distribution network and more. Our entire food system is tied to that stuff that Gaddafi has (or had). We are so very addicted that we turn our faces away from his massive cruelty (and dictatorships throughout the Middle East) in order to ensure ourselves a constant, uninterrupted supply.

Growing and buying organically, so that you are not encouraging the use of oil-based fertilisers and pesticides, buying seasonally and locally, to cut out air miles, buying raw products and cooking them from scratch, using every scrap of land to produce in a sustainable way, all these things seem like small things, but because of the disproportionate extent to which food is embroiled in this they are not. Each is a big deal, a political action. Every way that we can make ourselves less dependent on oil helps to release the wicked grip it has on us.

I’m not going to pretend to know anything like the full history of how this horror in the Middle East has come about, but I do know it hasn’t occurred because of some lone nutter. We have all been a party to this, and these people know it and they hate us for it. The ridiculous thing is that the alternative is so good, the organic approach, the local sourcing, the community growing, the cooking from scratch: it’s not a problem.

This post is not about wagging my finger or telling anyone off. I reckon many of you are already doing most of this stuff, but I just wanted to make that link explicit, cheer you on, remind you that every little bit of our easy living comes at a price to somebody and that we’re seeing it on the news every night at the moment. Gardeners and cooks have a real and important role, because we have the land (little bits often, but land nonetheless) or the skills, or both to stop being spoon fed and to grow up and start taking responsibility for ourselves.


  1. I applaud the rather thinly veiled excuse to the much maligned practice of ‘fluffing into a blog. Nice

  2. Wow, food for thought, that has certainly got me thinking! My mother had BP shares, but they have all been sold now and have funded her nursing home fees for the last year so they were a double-edged sword for us. Ronnie

  3. Excellent blog.

  4. I love it when you rant. Thanks for the reminder that we’re all doing our bit, especially after the depressing ‘news’ this week that organic food doesn’t taste better than non-organic food. *sigh*. Ps – the more organic food we buy the more insects we have, which is food for bats, swifts and sparrows. All of them are declining…


    • Don’t be depressed by the “news”. Much of the “organic food” found in supermarkets is appalling – I suspect the carrots are hydroponic – mass produced rubbish. regarding these as representative of organic veg is a convenient mistake for the industry to make, I think. I prefer supermarket dirty carrots to the anaemic plastic bags of “organic” ones, but neither of them are anywhere near a patch on my compost grown ones.

      • kateB and SallyO – What annoyed me about that research was that it implies the only reason for eating organic is for taste/nutrition ie for our benefit, when there are so many other reasons we should be doing it. It isnt just about us.

      • SallyO – good point, but I know people who will use that ‘research’ as reason to continue buying the cheapest etc, rather than support organic production – no matter how mass produced that organic production is. And you’re right Lia, the researchers assume we’re all buying organic for selfish reasons, which just reinforces that as the main reason to buy organic and all the other reasons (bats and birds and bees to name but a few) are lost

  5. Excellent and timely post. It is indeed all connected, though it can be hard to believe that one’s own relatively tiny actions can have an effect on a multi billion dollar industry that benefits so many of those in power. I can foresee many “interesting” conversations in our multi generation cash-strapped household, although in fairness we all share a desire for more organic food. Hopefully the new allotment will help.

  6. A great reminder to us all Lia, thank you for highlighting this debate. Your views are quite similar to mine but a little naive. You paint an idylic picture but that is not the world in which we live (alas).

    Farmers (organic or otherwise) will still have to cultivate the soil, encourage worm activity, aid drainage and improve soil structure. If the industrial type farmer disappeared overnight (which I doubt) and a more community-focused growing / farming direction takes place we would have to re introduce the use of animals in the cultivation of crops if we’re to successfully make the transition to organic agriculture without the use of machinery.

    I cannot see our latte drinking ‘Chelsea tractor’ driving people of 2011 going without. Even with our recession today people continue to do what they’ve learned when the boom times were here. Now that we’re used to this way of life I cannot see people (sad as it is) taking a step ‘backwards’ even for the betterment of the world as a whole and it’s people.

    Forget for the moment about our food, our health, ecosystems, sustainability, our environment what about the impoverished peoples of the world, the enslaved nations [Arab or otherwise]. Have a look at a fascinating read!

  7. Well put – very much a case of chickens coming home to roost.

  8. Great post

  9. A very nice post. I came to roughly the same conclusions last year, when the big oil spill was causing so much trouble, so it’s nice to have some company 🙂

  10. I was born the the Middle East (another story!) and as a child felt firsthand the first stirrings of political upheaval – then against colonial power.

    When we came back to UK we lived on the family smallholding where my grandpa believed in self-sufficiency. He just believed (having lived through the 1930s Depression) that the more he could do for himself the better. So his crops were manured with muck from his own chickens or from the farm up the road, he never tried to grow anything that struggled with the soil/sun/shade conditions he could offer, he was daily vigilant about spotting the first signs of pest infestation so it never got out of hand, and he rotated his crops to minimise disease. No oil-derived products in sight.

    What’s more as a family we ate, fruit and veg-wise, what we could produce with the exception of oranges. All fresh from our plot and whatever was in season.

    So why am I sharing this little slice of my family history? Because I believe, as Lia has said that each of us by doing our bit to grow our own food helps make us as a nation less reliant on oil. And that surely means less need to prop up tyrannical regimes in oil-producing countries. And means we have some self-help solutions instead of throwing up our collective hands in horror when food and fuel prices soar.

    Thanks Lia for joining up the dots for all to see!

  11. Couldn’t agree more.
    I did a chemistry degree in the early 80’s thinking the UK would need scientists to make the most of the newly found north sea oil. How wrong I was. So far we’ve just frittered this valuable resource away on building and clogging up motorways.
    But we have a window of opportunity to use the last of the easily extracted oil available at a reasonable price to invest in infrastructure that will power our lives and our economy for the next few years and make sensible changes e.g. eating local carrots instead of Chilean asparagus, that reduce our dependance on oil.
    Question is will we?

  12. A good point and a good reminder. Very thought provoking, especially as I’m sitting here waiting for a delivery of oil for our central heating! Have been meaning to find out more about air source heat pumps and solar panels so thanks, I’ll get on with it. In the meantime my rhubarb is just coming through, forcing pots in place, mmm rhubarb crumble.

  13. Thank you. Put this simply we can’t but get the message that we are all in some way to blame and can all do something to help.

  14. Great post. We all need to take responsibility and open our eyes to the truth. We all reach a comfort zone and become numb to the fact that our life of ease has direct link to those less fortunate. Every little change or small sacrifice we make can make a positive difference somewhere else

  15. What a great example of thinking globally and acting locally. I disagree that your view is naive or moving “backwards” as was suggested above. We are already moving forward to face many of humankind’s problems – not just by “going organic” but also by finding innovative technological solutions.

    I also don’t think you were suggesting doing away with machinery and returning to animal-based agriculture; We just need to use renewable energy to support agriculture. Changing our patterns of consumption and production (both of food and clean energy sources) signals to decision-makers that societies have shifting priorities and that these issues matter to us.

    Our biggest opportunity to be heard is by exercising our democratic rights at the voters’ box. It takes our governments time to respond to shifting values which is why we must make those local choices as well.

    It’s a great blog post. I saw Naomi’s original tweet and then her comment to your post in my Facebook news feed – an interesting cycle of information sharing!

  16. Oil, its price, & its eventual scarcity is going to be the backdrop against which the drama of our civilization will unfold. Nobody has yet come up with a viable alternative which will maintain this lifestyle we’re all so used to. Global oil consumption is increasing quickly & supplies are plateauing or decreasing. The writing is on the wall.

    Alternative energies such as solar & wind are great but the math doesn’t work out. When you look at the KWhours of energy being consumed, we just can’t make enough out of solar and wind. So do we go with more nuclear plants? Tides have been touted for years as a possible source of power generating but we’re not seeing any large scale projects coming online.

    So how exactly is this going to work 20,50,80 years down the road????

    Sometimes when I look at my kids, I get really scared for their future.

  17. I’m always going to make myself totally unpopular but I think maybe that imagining that a certain few of us being ‘good’ is going to have the necessary effect is a little grandiose. We are very small fish in a global situation.

    Making the necessary changes requires concentrated political action at a global level, and I don’t see why any of us that care enough can’t get out there and do that. The Save Our Woods campaign demonstrated what is possible when people care enough and work hard at it. It needs that, and more – more countries involved and more time, because it will be a long hard battle.

    If we’re not careful we’ll delude ourselves into thinking that doing the ‘right thing’ (and that is hard enough to know – the food miles thing alone can be a terrible illusion) is enough. It isn’t.


  18. Whats sickening me right now is that David Cameron is tarting his way around the middle east with representatives of no less than eight British arms manufacturers in tow. Shows what his priorities are.

  19. A great post and very thoughtful replies. Can’t add much except to say that I feel for those with no garden to grow food in and the majority who are completely dependent on fossil fuels for heating and hot water.

    We have to reduce our dependence on oil because it will run out or become unaffordable for many. The UK should have spent the proceeds of the last boom on insulation and subsidising solar hot water panels (the most efficient solar technology right now.) The alternative to reduced consumption is that Malthus will finally be proved right, 250 years late and human populations will fall to balance out the loss of the fossil fuel energy subsidy.

  20. Anne – I agree with a few bits, eg it will take political action…but very much not the idea that WE dont make the difference. Almost everything results from small repeated actions rather than huge events – fitness, the power of the supermarkets, our dependence on oil, your garden. We are dependent on oil not because of an overnight addiction but because slowly it has become the fuel that drives everything we do. WE have made it so – then, having used most of it up, we complain that because it is scarce and expensive.

    To think that politicians will make this change for us is naive – they are entirely tied to the oil-related industries and they only do what they think we will accept (their sole concern is to get in for another term, after all), so if we dont let them know we want change nothing will happen. And if we dont live more like we’d like it to be then there wont be the economics to make the change possible.

    It does have the rathe compelling argument in its favour that there simply isnt an alternative to a low carbon economy – we choose it with invention and positivity or it is forced upon us when things become much harder to deal with

  21. Mark – I didn’t suggest leaving it to politicians. I am saying that if we want real change we will have to become politicians.


  22. MarkD – Trust you to pick up on that…
    Ronnie – delighted it’s got you thinking. That was kind of the idea.
    Simon – Thanks
    KateB – I like to get a rant in every now and then. Yes, so very many reasons to grow organically.
    Janet – Money is a big issue when it comes to buying organic food. We are pretty cash-strapped ourselves, but the more I find out about the damage our usual way of growing/living is causing, the more it is becoming a priority, for me.
    Ena – It is hard to imagine people choosing to make these changes, but the fact is, as Mark points out above, there isnt actually a choice in the long run. The stuff is going to run out, and likely pretty soon. There are exciting alternatives to most of the problems this presents us with, organic gardening and sourcing is just one. For more do look at Permaculture Magazine. Very inspiring.
    The article you link to is about the way areas rich in oil often suffer a breakdown in democracy, a greater threat of military force, and an increase in poverty at a local level, very much exactly what I’m on about.
    Zoe, Victoria, Emma – thank you x
    Deborah – thanks for sharing that little slice of family history. What an inspiring place to come from, you lucky thing!
    Michelle – Will we? is very much the question. It’s not looking hopeful, but I guess the more people are informed about what’s coming, the more likely some sort of miraculous turnaround is. Thanks.
    Helen – how exciting and liberating it would be to go totally off grid like that. Good luck with your heat pumps and solar panels! And crumble too…all part of the picture.
    Sarah, Lorraine – thank you, yep there’s plenty we all can do and I’m not preaching from a point of anything like perfection myself. A long way to go here.
    Sarah – thanks so much for such a supportive comment. I completely agree.
    hgornblower – I think the trick is that things will have to change. We can’t sustain our lifestyles as they are but will have to find creative alternatives that are easily as good, if not better.
    Simon – Agreed. Ugly.
    Sue – I suspect you’re right, as our expansion has been very much propped up by oil. The tragic thing is that it will be those who did not benefit from the oil boom in the first place that will be the first casualties.
    Anne and Mark – I dont think that this is all there is to it, and I agree that we mustnt be smug and think because we are buying organic we dont have to do anything else, but I do believe that organic growing and buying is very important.
    We all have to think what part we can play. I dont have the time, energy or skills to start a movement like the Save Our Woods campaign. The one thing I can do is write and use my influence to encourage my small corner of the universe – gardeners – so that’s what I’m doing. Awareness raising is a huge part of this. I think people are inherently good, and inherently dislike the idea that their actions hurt others, but they need to know it first.
    There is already a huge movement across the globe of people who see the madness of our dependence on oil for so many reasons. It is greatly hindered by the confusing and obfuscating rhetoric of the climate change deniers, by the way. Ahem.

  23. That term ‘deniers’ is shameful – it really should be abandoned.

  24. Anne – sorry if I misunderstood you xx

    Lia – Very true about the deniers. Mostly its corporations/vested interests but the individuals is a funny one. As far as anything can be proven, man-induced climate change is proven. There is a very slender possibility, akin to (say) cigarettes being found not to be bad for you, that we are not the cause of it. To not act with that in mind as a certainty is to be pitting your wits againsts all of science. Argumentative …maybe dim and dangerous. Understandable though – people can find it hard to imagine a tomorrow that is very different to today. To tell people their way of living, probably their livelihood and possibly the lives of their children’s children are at risk is always likely to get a defensive response. It’s boring too…really boring…it’d be much nicer if it wasnt happening. But it is and fingers in the ears dont make it go away. Michael Pollan wrote a fine piece on it ages ago – the gist was how tiny changes we make create a different state of mind and it doesnt take many of those to make others see another way of doing things. Slowly it leads to ‘permission’ for politicians to act. Recycling is a perfect example…everyone does it but even a dozen years ago you were a fruitcake if you did

  25. Such a timely piece and thought-provoking comments, thank you. If you haven’t already seen Rebecca Hoskins’ A Farm for the Future then hunt it down online. Transition movements, permaculture, thinking and acting creatively, personal responsibility – we have all the ingredients for a future with more heart, greater integrity, local resilience and less oil.

  26. Anne – ‘Deniers’ is the correct term, because the evidence is clear and you and others are choosing not to see it. This has nothing to do with the holocaust. Your preferred word ‘sceptic’ suggests an inquiring and scientific approach that is just not relevant here.
    See George Monbiot

  27. And if people are ‘sceptical’, well, fair enough as far as it goes….keep looking, keep inquiring, keep searching for it not to be true by all means …..BUT when all the evidence points so very clearly as it does, to not acknowledge that all the evidence points so clearly ios a little odd. And to not act in response to that (while being sceptical and looking for alternative reasons for what is happening of you wish) is strange at the very least. Let’s be clear – there is not a single scientific paper published in any peer-reviewed publication in the history of the world that refutes climate change or that we are the cause. Not one…in decades of work funded by the wealthy petrochemical industry aiming to do just that. It would make everyone’s life much much easier if they could, and I wish they could but noone has.

    I wish the deniers were right, really. Until then a simple ‘cos I dont think so’ doesnt wash. One sliver of evidence would be good…but what do the deniers come up with..’I saw a program on Channel four once that said it was made up…’

    I get bored writing about it, it’s so dull, but whether I (or the deniers) like it or not, it is happening.

  28. Quite apart from the climate change evidence, there is the simple fact that millions of years ago, atmospheric carbon was locked up by plants in oil, coal, natural gas (and by sea creatures in chalk/limestone). The world cooled as a result. We have been busy digging up this locked up carbon for the past 250 years, extracting the concentrated energy in it and pumping the CO2 back up into the atmosphere from where it came in the first place. The modelling suggests that the world should re-heat in proportion to this release, and indeed it is.

    I’m just thankful that we haven’t found a way to extract energy from chalk. Then the planet would be in serious bother.

  29. Jackie – thank you, I have seen it, and I thought it was brilliant. It was very much one of the things that originally set me off thinking about the things gardening can contribute (or otherwise) and I too would urge others to track it down.

    Sue – thanks, a very interesting way of looking at it. Bet someone’s working on that chalk problem right now…!

  30. This is really helpful in its’ simplicity. It is so easy to perpetuate a feeling of disconnection when the links are not explicit. Thank you for reflecting on this and sharing.
    Maybe there are a lot more complex considerations to have but I believe that a simple illustration is very empowering to the ‘common’ person. Thanks Lia.

  31. Really pleased to find this blog – I’ve been missing Lia’s longer columns in the Guardian, in fact it’s one of the reasons I don’t buy it very often anymore. The other being reducing my car use (nearest shop is about 4 miles away, and we’ve little public transport here in midwales) Anyway, must go out and cut down some crack willow for next year’s winter.
    @ Ena – I’ve been practicing anti “Conspicuous Consumption” for about 36 years now – and I highly recommend it! Public transport let’s you meet interesting people, and making doing and mending is riveting 😉

  32. Times like this, this song always comes to my mind:

    “How can people have no feelings?
    How can they ignore their friends?
    Easy to be proud.
    Easy to say no.

    And especially people
    Who care about strangers,
    Who care about evil,
    And social injustice.
    Do you only
    Care about the bleeding crowd?
    How about a needing friend?”


  33. You have reignited the fire in my belly! I’m an allotmenteer, but I know many people are not so fortunate or could be bothered. I really wish more people would grow their own food, take pride in what they eat and understand the toil involved in the process – that way they would have more respect for farming and the true cost of food. There is much in the media at the moment on this subject, but little progress being made. I am making sure the next generation (my kids) now the provenence of food as my parents did for me!

  34. Anne…I never had you down as a Three Dog Night fan! The moon may indeed be made of cheese… x

  35. what am I saying…dash my sluggish brain..Golden Smog did it first….

  36. Jenny – thanks. It helped me to think it through here too

    Sally – welcome! Thank you. Am amazed/delighted anyone even remembers my longer columns in the Guardian.

    Jo W – fire in belly is good. I’m heading up to the allotment myself this morning.

    Anne/MarkD – I have no idea what yous are on about.

  37. Anne – Sorry, have just read that properly. I do care! I hope you dont think I’ve been mean. I just get kind of fired up about this x

  38. Hi – I originally read your post last week and have been thinking about my response. I totally agree with your comment and was very aware of our dependency on oil a couple of years back. I think there are two main problems. Firstly we need to really embrace alternatives to our oil dependency and so far I dont think we have got a real handle on this, some of the alternatives have their own high environmental prices and secondly I think you are ‘preaching’* to the converted. We all agree and are aware of the problem but I suspect that the wider population don’t and this is I think the biggest problem.

    While there are a growing number of people who grow their own, cycle to work etc etc etc, they are not the majority and that is what needs to change. It is much easier for most people to find reasons not to change the way they do things than to actually change their habits. Until public transport is sorted out, particularly outside of towns people will use their cars despite the rising costs. Until the price of meat gets too much we will to have a meat heavy diet etc.

    Personally, I think that there would need to be a crisis, as there was in World War II, before a lot of people would change their habits.

    NB: the use of the word preaching was just because that is the phrase I didnt *mean you were being evangelical!!!:)

  39. Thank you for making these links. The comments and sustained debate here is so very great and healthy, yay!

    May I suggest some rather good reading from a Popular Education
    Collective I have worked with: TRAPESE (Stands for Taking Radical Action through Popular Education and Sustainable Everything!) A Handbook for Changing Our World, free to download the chapters from the net.

    This conversation is leading toward how we make change collectively and where our power lies in relation to the current political system which is failing us. We have a choice now as to where this system will take us, which is more borders, more social control, more privitisation from the cuts to the rights to education, health care etc. green-wash money making, and less participation in democracy. This is a true story and is happening, we can all take part in how we write it and act in it and change it for something exciting, joyful, in the struggle for the story of social justice, a story that has been collectively written for centuries. Standing together on our land (which we cultivate and reclaim) making decisions where every voice is heard. Like I heard from a forest in Mexico ‘We do not want power for our selves, we want everything for everyone’

  40. Helen – Am touched you went off to think and came back. I agree that sadly it does rather look like it is going to take some crisis for people to change, but i dont think this post is preaching (thanks for the clarification!) entirely to the converted. Several of the comments above suggest otherwise, that it has made a few people stop and think.
    We do indeed need to do more than just garden organically and produce food, but every little thing helps in the right direction and I can only use my own small sphere of influence. When I am prime minister of course, it’ll all be different.

    Tasha – welcome, and thanks for your comments. The very exciting thing about blogs is that we get to have this kind of debate. I will certainly look up that organisation and I like your vision of the future.

  41. Read this when you first posted it and was stumped. The very mention of Libya and other countries bound up in the region’s unrest seizes me up, partly because I turn into a hedgehog in headlights and partly because there are so many things to get anxious and cross about.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: