Altius, Citius, Longius [higher, faster, farther]

Professor R Lindsay Robb

28 May 2010

Professor Robb  wrote the Editorial Notes for the January 1964 edition of Mother Earth in the interregnum between the death of Jorian Jenks, the journal’s editor since 1946, and the appointment of Robert Waller. What follows below is an abridged version of those Notes. Robb’s call for a broader social and ecological perspective should be seen in the context of the appearance a year earlier of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Harold Wilson’s famous speech to the Labour Party conference in October 1963, stressing the importance of a dynamic technological approach to a world of rapid change, may also be relevant. Robb’s article reminds us once again that the organic movement’s purpose is not primarily to sell consumer products, but to advocate a particular philosophy of humanity’s relationship to the natural world.  Robb had a varied career as an agricultural scientist – he spent time working with ICI before the war, served as a director of agriculture in Africa during the war, as well as becoming an eminenetn academic. His work for ICI, where had seen the world of chemical farming from the inside, makes his later commitment to the Soil Association all the more significant.

We are prone to think of progress in terms of propulsion – of ever increasing speed on land, on water and in the air, and now in outer space as we reach towards other planets. The motto of the age might well be: HIGHER, FASTER, FARTHER. But these achievements, at fantastic cost, may be of little human value, and may well be of increasing human embarrassment. Man has never been satisfied with what he needs: he wants all he can get. His greed, despite the lessons of history, is still insatiable.

Yet, despite the immense possibilities of “progress” in the physical world and the replacement – or at least reinforcement – of the human brain by the electronic, there are ominous shadows overhead. Failure on our part to come to terms with our environment [could mean] a signing of our own death warrant by destroying the natural resources on which we depend for our daily sustenance. As Stapledon so aptly put it: “unless man lives in a state of equilibrium with his environment, then man himself, inevitably, will be unbalanced”.1

Since it requires no great intelligence to decide against universal suicide, let us assume that sanity and sense will prevail, and that we shall use our immense human resources of science, technology, sense and wisdom to meet the challenge of developing and utilizing the resources of the earth for the fullest benefit of all mankind.

This calls for vision, imagination, and planning of the highest order and it calls for an ecological approach to all planning wherever human beings are concerned. Let us look at some of the new problems ahead.

Applied science and technology will inevitably lead to higher production of all commodities for which less and less human energy will be required. But in the wake of this accelerating development in which we move higher, faster and farther, a host of new problems will arise to bedevil us unless they are foreseen in time and adequate preparation for their solution has been well planned well ahead. Ever increasing numbers of employees will have fewer official working hours and a corresponding increase in leisure and time to do with as they please.

And here, despite antagonisms in the past between town and country, is something of common interest. Ample facilities made available for the use of leisure would open up new worlds to explore by [people] now free to follow the dictates of personal tastes. Town and country are not two separate entities but different parts of a larger unit of society. Here a better understanding of relationships to environment would promote a unifying co-operative spirit that could bring all the diverse elements of society into one ecological whole.

The ecological concept of wholeness is revealed in the rise to greatness of the ancient civilizations. [These] were created, not from a part, but from the entirety of their environments, and their environments included their religions, the gods of sun, wind, water, fertility and so forth, and these gods never allowed them to forget for long their complete and utter interdependence with the soil, climate, plant and animal life.

But this sense of interdependence has been weakened, is almost lost, in the industrialisation of this modern age and the congregation of the major part of the population into cities of ever increasing size. We have thus lost that essential unity with the soil. The break in this relationship is first indicated in the disregard for spiritual values and sense of obligation and obedience to the creative powers of the universe.

A new and dynamic relationship to our environment, or rediscovery of old ones, will be necessary if we are to achieve progress of any permanent value in the social and economic developments envisaged and avoid the degenerative diseases of this present age.

What is the role of the Soil Association in this vast projected development, with its trail of vital human problems which must inevitably follow as a consequence?

It must be remembered that a Soil Association is unlike any other agricultural organisation in as much as the soil is the mother of all and the root from which all others draw their sustenance and the centre from which human energy radiates. Its aims must now be restated and the first objective changed from “to bring together all those working for a fuller understanding of the vital relationships between soil, plant, animal and man” to the following: To promote over the whole human field, the fullest understanding of the vital relationships between soil, plant, animal and man and the equally vital relationship between man and his total environment, visible and invisible.

All planning not based on man’s vital relation to the soil is futile and fatal to success. We plan ecologically or prepare for chaos.

To a wanderer who, for nearly 30 years, has been based on non-British soils this stands out with crystal clarity. A Soil Association differs profoundly from agricultural machinery organizations, associations of millers, or livestock societies or auctioneers or any other: it is the mother of all, the roots which sustain them all and the centre of all human energy. The Soil Association must enlist the services of all with exploring minds to probe the truth about the soil, to uncover nature’s secrets and to reveal to fellow creatures their most profound and eternal relationship – that triunal man/earth/spirit union which must be preserved and cherished if we are not to perish and add another corpse of a vanished civilisation to those already strewn across the face of the earth.

It is just this very relationship which is at stake and in danger in the vast economic expansion of industry and agriculture which is now envisaged with all the force that science and technology can apply. No matter how advanced the science, how brilliant the technology and how efficient the management, its success will depend on human beings and not on machines. And success is not entirely a question of higher and higher productivity. There is a biological aspect which calls for equally high efficiency in planning as the economic; indeed it may well be the more difficult of the two, because the manufacture of goods is a matter of raw material, labour, capital and equipment which may be calculated with almost mathematical accuracy. The ecological implications on the other hand are more complex because they impinge on the daily lives of human beings of great diversity in thought, outlook and temperament.

While it is not possible to foresee or foretell the unfolding course of events and their full implications on society during the next half century, we can be certain that changes will be momentous, the pace rapid and tensions undiminished. The social revolution produced by the vast projected economic expansion of industry and agriculture is likely to be of greater magnitude than anything in the previous history of this country. The human need for help to adjust to a changing environment may be acute and here the Soil Association could make a fine contribution first by an extension of its present work in promoting the science of nutrition towards a new high level of human health, and second by promoting the philosophy of balance and wholeness and showing through its various media how a healthy person can adjust to find complete harmony in any environment.

The social revolution which has begun will gather momentum and the human problems will become ever more important to the Soil Association because they will be problems concerning soil, food, health and relationships to environment on an ever increasing scale.

Credit text

Professor R. Lindsay Robb (1885–1972)  was brought up on an Ayrshire dairy farm, and went on to become farm director at the West of Scotland Agricultural College, head of agriculture at London University’s Wye College in Kent and principal of Newton Rigg college in Cumbria. He worked overseas as a grassland advisor for Imperial Chemical Industries, in New Zealand, Australia and Southern Africa. During the Second World War he was director of agriculture for the British forces in North Africa, holding the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. In the 1950s, he worked in Central America for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. He retired from the United Nations in the early 1960s and proceeded to work for the Soil Association as a consultant at its research farm at Haughley in Suffolk, where he also lived. Robert Waller, editor of the Soil Association’s journal, devoted its October 1972 issue to Robb’s life and achievements.

Thanks to Philip Conford for help with the biographical information and for editing the original article.

End notes

1 Sir R. G. Stapledon (1882–1960), agricultural botanist, plant breeder and authority on grassland ecology.


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