The Proximity Principle and changing the way we live
Changing Course for Life - Local solutions to global problems
New European Publications, London. 2009
Reviewed by Chris Dixon
This unassuming paperback of just over 150 pages sets out a view of where the world currently is that few people involved in Permaculture design or Transition would disagree with. It also gives some interesting background on the author, whom many will know from his 2007 monthly "Letters from Poland", on BBC Radio 4's 'Farming Today', passionately highlighting the crisis provoked by forcing corporate globalisation onto traditional family farming communities.
Born in 1947, Julian Rose found himself heir to Hardwick, a one thousand acre estate and baronetcy, after the sudden death of an older brother and soon after, that of his father. From 1983 he became a full-time farmer, completing the conversion of the estate to organic farming methods, a process started in 1975. The Hardwick Estate blossomed into one of Britain's leading organic mixed farms, picking up a number of national awards and conducting numerous educational farm walks for a wide variety of people including socially deprived and urban young people and many international visitors.
Prior to this second career, he worked in television presentation, in Australia and America, and then in creative arts in Antwerp, where he led workshops in holistic thinking.
As an organic farmer he became a defender and promoter of holistic approaches to the rejuvenation of struggling rural economies. His unremitting insistence on the need to support local and regional, as opposed to 'global', food economies became known as 'The Proximity Principle'. That principle is at the core of this book, which offers much insight into the author's personal, if at times, controversial, beliefs.
Fifteen chapters include thoughts on Money and Economics, Technology and Science-for-Life, Time and Energy, Youth Meets Wisdom, Universal Law, and Order and Justice. The style is declamatory and passionate, with an overview of what is going wrong today and how the author believes we got here, which some readers may find over-simplified. For example, hunter gatherer and tribal societies are treated with a slightly rosy glow, ignoring the fact that these were far from ideal societies, often intensely repressive of the individual and of other tribes, and that, as stone age hunting techniques improved, these societies are thought to be responsible for the extinction of many of the larger herbivores on most continents. Many archaeologists now think that the move to farming was not one of choice but of necessity; we were simply too successful as hunter gatherers and over exploited natural resources, forcing us into the much poorer diet offered by farming.
Conversely, Julian Rose paints current society very black indeed, with the main offenders identified as politicians, pharmaceutical companies, the corporate world in general and various clubs of the elite including the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation and the rest of the usual suspects. (Conspiracy theorists will recognise familiar themes in other works by the author, such as "7 Steps to Defeat the Matrix” and “Put an End to War")
More external references, and a bibliography, further reading, and an index would have been helpful and added weight to this book.
The claim that the work "focuses on pragmatic human scale resolutions to conflicting socio-economic problems, proposing realisable 'local' solutions as an antidote to rapidly developing global crisis" is perhaps overstated. The recommendation from the chapter on "Technology and Science-for-Life", for example, is contentious:
"Wherever technologies exist that cannot be comprehended by ordinary people or cannot be constructed by simple skilled labour, they should, in almost all circumstances be considered inappropriate and systematically dismantled".
The reader might wonder who should make such a choice or carry out the required action. One of the resolutions from "Health and Medicine":
"Ensure that all local drinking water is of the highest achievable quality"
whilst laudable, in itself lacks practical solutions for how to achieve this in reality.
The author acknowledges that there are people around the world who are working in the right direction and it would have been helpful to provide indications of who they are and how the reader might connect with such work. Although the word "design" is used several times, there's nothing about Permaculture design or the practical design tools we need in order to actualise ideas. The author clearly feels the need for urgent action and the style of delivery is consequently forceful. It is worth noting that in Permaculture design, it was recognised at a very early stage in its evolution that pointing out everything that is "going wrong" tends to produce a fear response, and exhorting people to stop doing that and start doing this instead was not the best way to motivate them to action, (this is well stated in Rob Hopkins' Transition Town Handbook) so there is clearly a difference of perception here.
This may be a difficult book for some where the content and beliefs expressed extend into the area we may call metaphysics, although for others, this could be seen as a strength:
"..if I am correct in asserting that the amount of outside 'processed' energy that we seek to utilise in our daily lives is broadly proportionate to the amount of inner energy that remains unrealised in us, we can only solve our earth's precipitous ecological dilemma by realigning our human energies with the unseen universal forces that guide us towards making the right choices in life".
Readers will need to seek out ways and means of doing this themselves, as the book does not set out to be such a resource, but is, rather, an impassioned appeal for peace, sustainability and radical re-appraisal.
In general there is sound argument for depopulating cities and increasing rural dwelling, and it is clear that much more detailed action planning will be needed by focused urbanites co-operating to produce their own practical solutions.
Most people either already involved in or entering a greener perspective would readily accept that building local resilience is a keystone to the success of future communities, and there are many important points made in this book. The author identifies the dangers posed by an alliance between green activists, business and government:
"If we are to avoid getting sucked in to a 'green' commercial race for power, we will have to regroup, reconsider, and gain a proper understanding of the true way forward".
He similarly identifies a crucial question relating to energy production:
"Do we really want to go to the trouble of generating energy- even green energy- simply in order to maintain the same wasteful routines that currently preoccupy consumer-fixated societies around the world? Is there no more fulfilling use to be made of our energies during this lifetime?"
He places appropriate emphasis on the individual's responsibility in all this, and points to the importance of us developing a fuller understanding of our role in the world, though the lack of an index means that many of these gems are buried in the general text.
 For example, Paul S. Martin, Twilight of the Mammoths
 Available on the Changing Course for Life web site: