The inestimable John Thackara writes: 5 years ago I obtained an extraordinary 736 page book called Lean Logic: A Dictionary For The Future and How To Survive It. Written over a thirty year period by the English ecologist David Fleming, the book had been published in a limited edition after the author’s untimely death. Now, thanks to an heroic, expert and loving effort by editor Shaun Chamberlin and publisher Chelsea Green, Lean Logic has now been published in a slightly (628 pages) shorter form.
The text below is my original review.
The publisher describes it as a “community of essays”. In my words it’s half encyclopedia, half commonplace book, half a secular bible, half survival guide, half … yes, that’s a lot of halves, but I hope you get the picture. I have never encountered a book that is so hard to characacterise yet so hard, despite its weight, to put down.
The editors of Lean Logic, who have completed the project following Fleming’s untimely death, say it’s about “cooperative self-reliance in the face of great uncertainty”. Well, yes. But today I have also read entries on nanotechnlogy, carnival, casuistry, multiculturalism, and the ‘new domestication’ – and I still have more than 1,000 entries to read. Waiting for me ahead are entries on road pricing, the vernacular, trust, resilience, the marshes of Iraq.
Lean Logic does not sugar-coat the challenges we face: an economy that destroys the very foundations upon which it depends; climate weirdness; ecological systems under stress; shocks to community and culture. Neither does the book suggest that there are easy solutions to these dilemmas. As Fleming has said, “large scale problems do not require large-scale solutions – they require small-scale solutions within a large-scale framework.
This is not a book to read from start to finish – although entry Number 1, on Abstraction, is engaging enough.
Fleming defines abstraction as “Displacement of the particular – people, places, purpose – by general principle”. Within a few lines Fleming introduces someone I never heard of, Alexander Herzen [1812-1870], as one of the first writers to “make the case for local detail, for pragmatic decision-making, for near-at-hand, for ‘presence’. Fleming goes on to quote such other “scourges of abstraction” as Oliver Goldsmith, Montaigne, Joseph Conrad, and Matthew Arnold. And that’s all on page one.
Among the incredibly useful passages I’ve already discovered are: a long text about ‘resilience’ and its multiple meanings; a clear account of Energy Decent Action Plans; an explanation of Harmonic Order; a comparative guide to barter through the ages; and a section on Lean Health.
Fleming was a co-founder of the UK Green Party, chair of the Soil Association, and active from its early days in the Transition Towns movement. He was one of the first people in the world to understand the implications for industrial civilzation of peak oil, and a good deal of the book is about energy in its many meanings. Fleming was the inventor – and advocate for more than a decade – of Tradeable Energy Quotas or TEQs. This energy rationing scheme is designed to share out fairly a nation’s shrinking – as it must and will – energy/carbon budget, while allowing maximum freedom of choice over energy use.
But Lean Logic is neither a policy manifesto nor a dry technical guide. It’s an incredibly nourishing cultural and scientific treasure trove. Its pages span ethics, science, culture, art, and history. The book’s greatest strength, for this mesmerized reader, is the lightness with which it draws on knowledge from earlier periods of history, and from other cultures.