Book Review: Gunnar Rundgren’s “Garden Earth”

Garden EarthGarden Earth: From Hunter and Gatherer
Global Capitalism and Thereafter
by Gunnar Rundgren

Reviewed by Grace Gershuny

Gunnar Rundgren is well known in the international organic community as an articulate leader, consultant, theorist, and practitioner of organic agriculture world wide.  A founder of the influential Swedish organic certification program KRAV, he later became President of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), helping transform it from a highly Euro-centric organization to one with strong representation from every continent.  His consulting organization, Grolink, helps train organic farmers in Africa and has advised several UN agricultural programs.  Grolink also publishes an electronic newsletter called The Organic Standard, for which I have served as a correspondent for several years.  Having high expectations of his ambitious and far-reaching book, recently translated from Swedish into English, I was not disappointed.

This book is of interest to social ecologists for its political and philosophical stance that offers unapologetic anti-capitalist insights and well founded information about the evolution and current status of global food production and distribution systems.  Though he is clearly not a ‘true believer’ of any particular faction, he refers to Bookchin and other left libertarian thinkers as well as deconstructing some of the more pernicious ‘free market’ theorists. The book’s subject is very broad in scope, but brings the reader through a carefully reasoned and accessible discourse that outlines a clear path towards wider adoption of organic practices.  The creation of a sustainable food system requires a cultural shift toward organic values, and away from the domination of the market system.

The book is divided into four parts, beginning with “The Great Narrative” which traces the evolution of modern society from the long period of human life as hunters and gatherers, and includes a discourse on “How Technology and Energy Shape Our World.”  Part II addresses ecological challenges such as global warming, water and land degradation, and chemical pollution, and includes several chapters that discuss different aspects of agriculture and food production.  The concluding chapter in this section offers a lucid philosophical discussion on the relationship between humans and nature.  In asserting that “Human beings are part of nature, have always been and will always be,” Rundgren places himself firmly in opposition to the belief, prevalent within the organic community, that human creations are inherently at odds with the natural world.  Rather, he argues, the history of human exploitation of nature is more appropriately seen as “a history of a few people exploiting many other people.”

Part III deals with “Our Society,” with a focus on economics and development issues, and an emphasis on how resources are distributed and the social forces that define how we divide our lives between work and leisure pursuits.  The concluding chapter in this part calls into question “The Legitimacy of Capitalism” and the supremacy of the market economy, which turns all aspects of life into commodities to be bought and sold, and turns citizens into consumers.  Asking the question, “Can capitalism be combined with sustainable development?” Rundgren outlines the logic of the commodification of nature thus:  “Capitalism is dependent on a thriving society and on the exploitation of nature’s resources for its existence.  At the same time, capitalism undermines both those fundamentals of its own existence.  This is the real crisis of capitalism.”  The hope, perhaps paradoxically, lies in human nature, and the observation that most social interactions do not involve profit seeking.  “It is humanity as such that makes the world a decent place to live in, despite capitalism and not thanks to capitalism.”

Part IV gives the author’s prognosis of “What Lies Ahead of Us?”  Now that capitalism has “passed its best-before date,” what kind of society can emerge to prevent the impending ecological and social crash predicted by a wide range of critics and theorists.  This is clearly an unknown realm, which defies confident prediction.  Nevertheless, as Rundgren emphasizes, “even if we can’t be sure or we know that we will never know for sure, it is our obligation to do our best to ensure that future generations will have a decent life.”  The conclusion offers “Garden Earth,” envisioned as a reconstructive alternative to corporate capitalist ideology.  What this entails, among other things, is “expanding liberty and the notion of liberty to include also the capabilities of the individual and to resolve the false contradiction between the freedom of the individual and that of society.”

While this book represents serious and well researched scholarship, abundant with factual data from authoritative sources, it is written in a very accessible style with a sense of personal warmth and lighthearted humor that keeps one’s interest without excessive jargon.  It succeeds in painting a picture of the role of organic production systems in counteracting the environmental crisis created by the failed ‘free market’ system, without lapsing into overly abstract rhetoric.  Like its author, it is both philosophically deep and grounded firmly in earth bound reality.  Reading it, to be sure, affirms my own understanding of this big picture.  Social ecologists might debate some of his explicit and implicit positions, a debate that  is encouraged by the author.  This work gives us an excellent tool for understanding agriculture and food systems through a social ecology compatible lens, and a valuable contribution to the discussion of how to bring about a society that is rational, prosperous, equitable and ecologically based.

Garden Earth is available in both hard copy and e-book editions.  For more information:


2 Replies to “Book Review: Gunnar Rundgren’s “Garden Earth””

  1. Review: Garden Earth

    Gunnar Rundgren asserts that most people have not yet realized the extent of the changes required so as to produce another Garden of Eden. Humankind needs a completely new economy; a new society.
    Another society has to be built on values and conditions other than those of the capitalist society. It is a society oriented to closing gaps – gaps between people, between man and woman, between ruler and ruled; between ‘we’ and ‘them’, between one country and another, and between man and nature.
    It is about unifying the many divisions that currently exist – division of labour, division between production and consumption, between work and leisure, between the individual and society, between economy and society and between beauty and efficiency.
    This book is an examination of the consequences of the over exploitation of raw materials and natural resources; the release of greenhouse gases and climate change; the effects of the unleashed chemicals into our living environment.
    It describes human development as based on cheap energy sources and the release of fossil fuels, and the implications of their exhaustion.
    What we have today is a capitalist social system in which those countries that developed first have benefited the most where competition is prized at the expense of cooperation. Self interest rather than solidarity, along with endless growth and consumption.
    In this social system there is social, economic, moral inequality where most people are poor, malnourished and a billion people go hungry every day.
    In the future, we will need to build a new world in which local stewardship is essential along with community life and civil society.
    Gunnar Rundgren is concerned to reveal that the development of a sustainable world cannot be achieved by talk. It will demand the adoption of new values and priorities. He carefully links current human development and technology and economics and social systems to historical events so as to identify an holistic approach to social ecology. His analyses are complex but always clear. His discourse arises from ‘praxis’: the consideration of the implications of social behaviour and social problems. I found his evidence and examples convincing and fully support his conclusions as to the futures of civil society.
    His writing was well informed, based upon wide reading of social, environmental, economic texts and reports. He was very careful to allow the evidence to speak rather than any ideology.
    Thank you.

    Kelvyn Richards,
    A Discourse: Social Ecology

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