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‘In the end, the power of love is all’

As one of France’s most admired environmentalists, Pierre Rabhi advocates a simplified existence in order to live a sustainable, happy life. Jane Hanks falls under the sage’s spell in an exclusive interview

Pierre Rabhi is a French farmer, writer, philosopher and environmentalist who is well known to the French as a man who has been promoting an alternative, simpler way of life for many years, long before it became fashionable. He is now 80, but retirement is not for him as he continues to strive to create what for him would be a better world, with less emphasis on making money and more on being happy with what we already have.

Just recently a report from the government environment and energy management agency body Ademe quoted an Ipsos study which found that most households thought they had a total of 34 electronic pieces of equipment, but in fact the figure is closer to an astonishing 99 and that people buy three times more now than in 1960.

One of Pierre Rabhi’s many books, Vers la Sobriété Heureuse, was translated into English last year, The Power of Restraint. What did he mean by this title?

“We live in a world where there is part of it which is suffering from over consumption and throws too much away, and another part where there is still famine. We produce 40% more than we need.

“One fifth of our world, of which I am a part, uses four fifths of the world’s resources. I cannot morally accept that situation. To change that we need to adopt more modest lifestyles. In our society we have more than enough to eat, but even then we are not happy.

“There is no joie de vivre. People in the West are always worrying about what they do not have, rather than enjoying what they do have. If we were producing all these goods and people were satisfied, then maybe our civilisation would have been successful, but people are not happy, so we must change things.”

Pierre Rabhi’s image is that of a benign ascetic man, who wears simple clothes; one of his trademarks is the check shirt, cord trousers and braces he nearly always wears. Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, Culture Minister, Françoise Nyssen and former Environment Minister, Nicolas Hulot, have all been quoted as saying they have been influenced by his work. Showbiz characters too, such as actress Marion Cotillard have said he has guided them for years.

He has not avoided criticism and one journalist for Le Monde Diplomatique, Jean-Baptiste Malet, wrote an article pointing out that the agricultural methods he promotes have been marked as unscientific by some, that the success of his farms depend on unpaid volunteers who are there to learn the new techniques and that for someone who leads a simple life he rubs shoulders with rather too many millionaires.

When you talk to him though, there is no doubt about his sincerity in the message he is trying to get across, despite the complexity any social theory confronts. He recognises that he is now one of the people in the world who has a comfortable income, and he agrees there are levels of poverty in the western world which are too low as money is necessary to provide basic needs.

He is convinced of the virtue of the agricultural policies he is promoting. When I talked to him on the telephone I was struck by the genuine tone of his voice and his willingness to give up time to talk at length to me, and in consequence Connexion readers about the urgency of his simple message that we must do something to change our society.

Frugality was the norm  

He was born in Algeria, where his father was a blacksmith and he remembers those early days with pleasure as he saw his father working his forge and welcoming friends in front of his shop where they talked, drank tea, told jokes, laughed and also discovered serious issues. He remembers also the square in his town lined with shops and other artisans premises and that every day, songs wafted out of the workshops like small bits of serenity.

He says frugality was the norm but the people living in extreme poverty lived also in a culture of hospitality and charity. He recognises that it was not perfect, but that it was better than the alternative when the French found coal mines and the local people went to work in them, including his father, who he says then became sad:

“I was influenced by my childhood, where I saw people who lived a simple life and who helped each other and when they had enough to eat they were happy. There was a kind of  joy in their simplicity.”

His mother died when he was four years old and his father was worried about his son’s education and sent him to live with a childless French couple in the north of Algeria. Later he went to Paris and found work in a factory, which he says made him realise he could not subscribe to a “model of society that clearly alienated the individuals within it.”

He met his wife Michèle there and together they decided to get back to nature and in 1961 they moved to the Cévennes hills in Ardèche, where they have lived ever since.

He could not, at first, get a loan to buy a farm without an agricultural qualification and so studied for a Brevet d’Aptitude Agricole (BAA, agricultural competency certificate) before launching into a life on the land. His aim was not to make a fortune from farming, but to provide enough to live on. They did not have mains water for seven years or electricity for thirteen years.

This was at the period known as the Trente Glorieuses, when the French economy was booming and people were leaving the countryside for the towns while Pierre Rabhi was doing the exact opposite.

Anyone who has come to live in France for the good life will know that you quickly learn that living off the land is no bed of roses and Pierre Rabhi does admit there were difficult moments: “At the beginning when we started our farm it was hard. We had no money, but I had a brave wife and I was good with my hands and could get other work to make ends meet and we pulled through. My children helped too. We were always encouraged when people came to visit and who were appreciative of the way we had chosen to live.”

We can’t get no satisfaction

In The Power of Restraint, Pierre Rabhi talks about money not being able to fulfil every desire, the disaster of chemical agriculture and a disconnection between mankind and nature. In fact, for him a key to changing the way we live is for more and more of us to adopt a back to the land approach, where we grow as much of our food as we can, or at least buy locally, using, of course organic means to do so.

He has developed a form of farming called agroecology and he says you can grow anything anywhere, even in the most inhospitable of climates using these methods: “With agreocology, you produce food in line with nature and not against it. I have set up many organisations, which experiment to get the most out of the earth. It is not just with permaculture, but uses many techniques. All of it uses zero pesticides. I do not believe in reasonable agriculture, where some chemicals are used sometimes; I think it is too ambiguous.

“One of the most important books I have written, which was awarded a prize by the Ministry of Agriculture, is L’Offrande au Crépuscule [The Dusk Offering] published by L’Harmattan and describes how we used agreocology to produce food for local people in one of the most inhospitable areas, the Sahel region adjoining the Sahara Desert.

“The ideal is to keep on experimenting and finding new ways of producing food in line with the laws of nature instead of allowing our agriculture to be dominated by the Petro-Chemical industry.”

He says the food we eat in the western world is tainted: “At present what we produce is toxic with too many pesticides. Somebody said to me that when we eat we should not be saying “bon appétit” but good luck, because you don’t know what is in your food. It is why there are so many cancers and other diseases. If you pollute the air you breathe, the water you drink and the food you eat, people will be ill. We are destroying our world everywhere.”

He says that talking is not enough: “I think it is urgent that we do something to save our planet. I have written alot of books but you cannot just have the bla, bla, bla. You need action too. That is why I have set up so many associations which are out in the field trying to introduce new ways of providing food.”

The associations he has set up are: Les Amanins, an agroecology study centre at La Roche-sur-Grâne in the Drôme; Colibri, a platform for meetings and exchanges; the Ferme des Enfants, a school using Montessori methods on a farm at Lablachère, Ardèche; the Solan Monastery, in the Gard, where fifteen nuns from seven different nationalities were among the first to adopt agroecology; and Terre et Humanisme, which practises and teaches agroecology.

He has taught his agroecology in Mali, Senegal, Tunisia, Burkina Faso and Cameroon among others, to improve the food autonomy of local populations so that they need not depend on humanitarian aid.

He has written a charter for the earth and humanity, with a subtitle: What kind of planet will we leave to our children? What kind of children will we leave to our planet?

He is particularly savage when he criticises the present education system. “Education is very important. I deplore the system of education when instead of teaching children to support and help each other, we teach them to be competitive and do better than the others.”

And he is convinced that women will play an increasingly crucial role in ensuring the future of the planet, saying that the subordination of the feminine to an extreme and violent masculine world remains one of the major impediments to the positive evolution of mankind: “I do have faith in women in the future because they are not like us. They gave life and are less aggressive and are beginning to show their strengths and I think it is women who will help bring about change.”

His view on our present lifestyle is bleak: “To move forward we need intelligent people who understand that something needs to be done. There is a huge imbalance between urban life where there are too many people and the countryside, where there are not enough to produce the food we need in a sane way. 

“I think at present there are both unintelligent people who are leading us in the wrong direction and intelligent people who can see the problems. I think there is some hope as there is more and more demand for a new way of life. My assistant has 600 requests a year for conferences where I talk about changing lifestyles, so a great many people want to think and hear about it.”

So what can we do as individuals? He feels that if everyone changed just a little things could be different and that individual effort is worthwhile.

One of his favourite fables is that of the humming bird who faces a forest fire. All the animals flee, but the humming-bird continues to take tiny beakfuls of water to the flames. “Are you mad?” cry the other animals. “You cannot put the fire out on your own. “I know,” says the hummingbird, “but I will have done my bit.”

“But it has to be done with love and respect for humanity”, says Pierre Rabhi. “It is no good eating organic food and installing solar panelling, if you do not embrace the rest of mankind and share your experiences with them. In the end, the power of love is all.”

For the moment he has no intention of stopping his work. “I cannot give up yet. As long as I have enough energy I will continue. Also, if I did stand down I am not sure who would replace me so I have to keep going.”  (French only)

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