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  • Writer's pictureSofia Greaves

we must cultivate our garden?

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

Garden, giardino, jardín, jardin.

gardaz, from PIE root

gher- (1) "to grasp, enclose."

Wikipedia tells me that a garden is "a planned space, usually outdoors, set aside for the cultivation, display, and enjoyment of plants and other forms of nature."

It also says that "the single feature identifying even the wildest wild garden is control".

Garden: to grasp, enclose


This blog: philosophy of gardening, cultivation & control via Voltaire, the European Union, and degrowth.


The Garden of Eden

Pangloss was professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and that, in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron's castle was the most magnificent of castles, and his lady the best of all possible Baronesses.

It is demonstrable, said he, that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for all being created for an end, all is necessarily for the best end. Observe, that the nose has been formed to bear spectacles—thus we have spectacles. Legs are visibly designed for stockings—and we have stockings. Stones were made to be hewn, and to construct castles—therefore my lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Pigs were made to be eaten—therefore we eat pork all the year round. Consequently they who assert that all is well have said a foolish thing, they should have said all is for the best.

Voltaire, Candide - The Optimist, 1759.

Voltaire: pointing out that it is totally possible to reason that the world is a perfect place. Reason is dangerously efficient. You can reason that things are for the best if you observe objects, and assign them causes and effects.

Legs are visibly designed for stockings—and we have stockings.

Legs and Stockings: observable proof of the perfect world order.

Legs and Stockings: proof that no other future is required, "things cannot be otherwise than as they are".

Legs: not designed for stockings.

Stockings: made to fit the shape of legs.

Legs: not a problem for stockings to solve.

Stockings: neither an inevitable, nor perfect, nor uncontestable solution for legs.

Conclusion: There can be a future beyond stockings.

Pigs were made to be eaten—therefore we eat pork all the year round.

Observing cause and effect: can mean constructing cause and effect in such a way that you find "reason" for the laws of the world as they currently are. for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged.

Voltaire: also making the point that optimism allows you to argue that things happen for a reason.

There is a concatenation of events in this best of all possible worlds: for if you had not been kicked out of a magnificent castle for love of Miss Cunegund: if you had not been put into the Inquisition: if you had not walked over America: if you had not stabbed the Baron: if you had not lost all your sheep from the fine country of El Dorado: you would not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts.

Voltaire: this is an optimistic view of the present as the best possible outcome. Optimism can be used to reason away bad practice inflicted by, for example, Christian fervour and brutality. NB, Candide, Pangloss and all characters in the book: thrown out of castles, dying from syphilis, flattened by earthquakes and burnt at the stake (auto da fé) yet unfailingly optimistic that everything happens for a reason and that this is therefore the best world possible.

Voltaire would seem pessimistic overall except for at the very end of the book which gives hope in the form of gardening.

Turk: I have no more than 20 acres of ground the whole of which

I cultivate myself with the help of my children; and

our labour keeps off from us three great evils - idleness, vice and want.

Candide: This good old man appears to me to have

chosen for himself a lot much preferable to that of the 6 Kings with which we will have dinner.

Pangloss: You are in the right, for when man was put into the garden of Eden, it was with an intent to dress it; and this proves that man was not born to be idle.

Voltaire: communal gardening is good work with moral effects and practically helps to create a better world founded upon moderation, choice and collaboration. You have a degree of choice. It is lazy to reason that things cannot change: the world to be "the best of possible worlds" either because a) everything happens as a consequence of uncontestable divine will (religious reasoning), or b) through scientific reasoning which can also be constructed such that it justifies the world as it is. Both arguments are symbolised by the Garden of Eden, as traditionally understood, where nothing is required to be changed: a land free from "work".

Voltaire: The Garden of Eden is the product of gardening. That garden is your life and society: a constant work of choice thus cultivation which can make it the best of possible worlds for you. Change and struggle is better than idleness.

Martin especially concluded that man was born to live in the convulsions of disquiet, or in the lethargy of idleness.

Pangloss: If you had not lost all your sheep from the fine country of El Dorado you would not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts.

Candide: Excellently observed. But let us cultivate our garden.

Il faut finir par cultiver son jardin. Illustration, Antoni Clavé


The European Union

In the entry on "wit" (esprit) in Voltaire's philosophical dictionary, 1752, he writes,

It’s the art of bringing together two separate things, or of dividing them where they appear linked, or of setting one against the other ; it’s a way of revealing only half of one’s thinking in order to let the reader guess the rest.

Wit: A classical sculpture placed on top of a bin.

Wit: Jonathan Swift writing a love poem about the shits

Wit: the art of irony.



The Spaniards had some confused notion of our country, to which they gave the name of El Dorado. Sir Walter Raleigh came close to it about 300 years ago; but the inaccessible rocks and precipices by which we are surrounded on all sides has secured us from the rapacious fury of the European peoples, who have unaccountable fondness for the pebbles and dirt of our land, for the sake of which they would murder us all to the very last man.


C: All we shall ask of your the clay of your country.

The King smiled at the request and said, I cannot imagine what pleasure you Europeans find in our yellow clay, but take away as much of it as you will, and much good may it do you.


In 2022, Josep Borrell, foreign policy chief in the European Union, addressed an audience at the European Diplomatic Academy in Bruges, Belgium.

Europe is a garden. We have built a garden. Everything works. It is the best combination of political freedom, economic prosperity and social cohesion that the humankind has been able to build – the three things together. The rest of the world is not exactly a garden. Most of the rest of the world is a jungle, and the jungle could invade the garden, he said.

JB in his unfailing optimism casts Europe as the garden of Eden the best of possible worlds.

A nice small garden surrounded by high walls in order to prevent the jungle from coming in is not going to be a solution. Because the jungle has a strong growth capacity, and the wall will never be high enough in order to protect the garden.

Garden: to grasp, enclose.

The single feature identifying even the wildest wild garden is control

The rest of the world is not exactly a garden.

JB implies that Europe needs to cultivate the rest of the world into a garden. He invokes the idea of "taming wilderness" used historically to justify colonial plantation economies according to the logic of "cultivate" itself: till, prepare for crops. As summarised by Katerina Richter (2019): this Baconian subjugation of nature and the people in it was to be achieved through Science: combining knowledge of something or someone with power over them.

JB styled EU ambassadors as "gardeners" and told them to go to work on the jungle.

Unfortunately, the 'jungle' is everywhere, including today in Ukraine, he said.

JB & his views can neither be taken to be representative of the European Union nor its science & knowledge service, the Joint Research Centre, where researchers increasingly looking at localised policy making. Yet when placed into the cultural context of JB and Voltaire, the imagination of Europe stamped all over the JRC appears problematic.

The garden of Europe contains a tree offering wheat, money, apples - indeed the whole earth – to fallen mortals and the rest of the world below.

Gardening, aesthetics and politics. I would like to briefly gesture to the imagination of China as a barcode peeling down. not exactly a garden.

At the JRC there is an ongoing collaboration between artist Gala Berger and agricultural policymaker Irene Guerrero called "Invisible Seeds." It is one of the projects I followed whilst conducting fieldwork with the Sciart initiative, which brings together artists and scientists in the hope of creating fruitful collaborations on policymaking issues. Such projects are anomalies within scientific institutions but essential given the importance of art not only to the communication of scientific research in 'real' thus visual, embodied & emotive ways, but also the process of research itself. Art & science are possessed of different methodologies hence ways of questioning the world; bringing them together is important when issues are complex and solutions are designed depending upon how problems are approached.

Stockings: solutions designed to fit the complex shape of legs.

Art & Science.


Two apparently separate Forms of knowledge production Platonic for centuries but not really because I met scientists who do French folk dancing.

Invisible Seeds involves opening up a dialogue on agricultural practices between artists from the indigenous Amazonian Shipibo-Konibo community and European policy maker Irene Guerrero. It is a project motivated by the desire to highlight different possible ways of practising sustainable agriculture. As Irene explained, in presentation,

I am a Scientist and I’m very much interested in the difference. The thing is that Science is how we build knowledge in a way. I am absolutely European, absolutely Western, absolutely North, so I know a way of creating knowledge. So this is the thing: that there are other ways of creating knowledge and I think that they are not exclusive. There is space for knowledge however you build it so I was very interested in digging into this idea [of] different ways of generating knowledge.

[…] I was very interested in confronting myself with other people generating and managing knowledge in a different way on the same subject... I really want to see what they tell us about how we do things in comparison with what we know.

Gala is from Argentina and has lived across South America. It was her wish to involve Amazonian artists in the research.

We decided to invite 5 women from the Amazon. They are like artists but also they work in agriculture, so I think the idea is to highlight some developments of the ancestral science of the Shipibo-Konibo community and also to put this in conversation with the policies of the European Union through the Scientists here.

We will go to the Amazon and Irene will share the aspects and things of the European law and we will put this in a conversation and from that conversation the artwork will be commissioned. This will all be reflected in some way in the artworks the difference between one thing and the other things.

Art & Science: opens up space for critical distance in the best of possible worlds and allows for exploration of different perspectives on how to cultivate the garden. the difference between one thing and the other things, but not the garden and the wilderness. Transformative? man was not born to be idle.

Artwork in image by Juana Reategui. Invisible Seeds, JRC Website.


The garden of degrowth

And they shall say, This land that was desolate is become like the garden of Eden; and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are become fenced, and are inhabited.

King James Bible, Ezekiel 36:35

The primary tenet of degrowth is that consumption and production must be downscaled to address climate change. degrowth is founded upon an ecological critique which emphasizes that we live in a planet with finite resources and therefore cannot keep growing exponentially; technology can't fix that problem (entropy), and the externalities of growth create problems which outweigh the benefits. The symbol of degrowth is the snail. Because it goes slowly and knows when to stop growing. Otherwise it will crush itself and die.

The cultural/social argument critiques the idea that mankind is "economic" and "rational" therefore cannot change. This is an argument about natural law which Voltaire satirised as follows.

Do you believe, said Candide, that men have always massacred each other as they do to-day, that they have always been liars, cheats, traitors, ingrates, brigands, idiots, thieves, scoundrels, gluttons, drunkards, misers, envious, ambitious, bloody-minded, calumniators, debauchees, fanatics, hypocrites, and fools?

Do you believe, said Martin, that hawks have always eaten pigeons when they have found them?

Yes, without doubt, said Candide.

Well, then, said Martin, if hawks have always had the same character why should you imagine that men may have changed theirs?

Oh! said Candide, there is a vast deal of difference, for free will——

And reasoning thus they arrived at Bordeaux.


Voltaire: man is not determined by natural law to be bad. Because, free will.

Voltaire: also sceptical about "free will" as a philosophical argument divorced from practical reality.

Voltaire: we must cultivate our garden.

degrowth: we want "convivial, autonomous and economical societies"

degrowth: people must work and consume less, be more content, but also be autonomous.

degrowth: we must cultivate our garden.

"Autonomy instead requires convivial tools, i.e. tools which are understandable, manageable and controllable by their users. An urban garden, a bicycle or a DoIt-Yourself Adobe house are convivial and autonomous. A weed-resistant GMO field, a high-speed train or an energy-efficient ‘smart building’ are not. A vocabulary for a new era, 2015."

In seeking to define autonomy degrowth engages in cultural historic debates combining free will, good governance and gardening for morality which are part of the Western Christian and Modern tradition.

A primary criticism of this field is the link between its conception of moral good life and control; degrowth also defines what is and is not part of the best of possible worlds and is involved in conceptualising its own Eden. What are the politics of its optimism?

weed resistant fields, not exactly a garden.

gardens: cultivation of a different kind, relationships based upon care and maintenance, collective practices, responsibilities, pride and participation.

On the one hand, degrowth points away from the colonial, Christian understanding of being and doing which has imposed certain knowledges and perspectives over others, one of which is the seeing of "Nature" as a subject and resource to be controlled. As explained by Kristin (2019): degrowth is situated in a modernity/coloniality discourse [which] aims to reconceptualise our understanding of modernity from the perspective of the (Latin American) subaltern. The central themes of this discourse have come up in all the gardens discussed:

1. We must: view the industrial and scientific revolutions as facilitated and made possible by colonialism and European political economic and cultural hegemony over the world.

if Columbus in an island of America had not caught the disease, which poisons the source of generation, and often indeed prevents generation, we should not have chocolate and cochineal.

2. We must understand that: Modernity/Coloniality doesn’t refer to specific historical periods or places of imperial domination, but to a logical structure of domination under a variety of rulers and powers...[it] imposes a specific cosmovision, i.e. the Euro-Atlantic civilisationary model’s ontological and epistemological principles, onto the rest of the world.

The rest of the world is not exactly a garden.

3. We must: decolonise knowledge by considering its assumptions in cultural context and by employing those ways of knowing and principles of knowledge that have been rendered invisible by the (neo)colonial processes of marketisation, Christianisation and development.

We decided to invite 5 women from the Amazon.

Voltaire's Candide for all that it satirises 18c society's assumptions about Natural law, value, religion and reason also contains its Modern/Colonial view of Nature. The idea that we must "cultivate our garden" thinks of "the garden" as a project to be managed rather than as having any free will of its own. Voltaire's garden is equal to civilisation and reflects how Imperial powers enclosed land to make society governable. Similarly, though he points out the existence of Science in El Dorado, Voltaire does not conceptualise it beyond his own institutions and practises.

But what gave him at once the greatest surprise and pleasure was that the Palace of Sciences, where he saw a gallery two thousand feet long filled with various apparatus in mathematics and natural philosophy.

degrowth: not that


"After progress. Commoning in degrowth" The Commoner.

degrowth is nonetheless sometimes imagined to be "the best managed" version of Nature and the best possible world. As in a book review of Hickel's Save the World,

Picture a garden. All its flora, fauna, and funga. It is an ecosystem that requires a healthy balance between those different components. The goal of a gardener is not to maximise crop growth – however tempting that might be during tomato shortages with turnip patches at hand! Over-fertilising, over-watering, or over-crowding can lead to imbalances that harm the garden’s long-term health. The best managed garden can provide a diverse and sustainable source of food.

The degrowth proposition...should leave governments and businesses with the mindset of a gardener. How best to grow an equitable and resilient society with purposeful and managed economic shrinkage?

Such passages point to the benevolent gardener as a caring cultivator. But "the garden" and "society" are still both something to be controlled: "cultivated" thus well-managed. Care and control. Kristin (2019) says this better than I when she highlights that even the ecological critiques at the foundation of degrowth cast Nature as material inputs and outputs to be reduced, for all that gardening practices wish to transform thinking about the exploitative urban/rural society/nature divide.

The symbol of degrowth is a snail.

But snails are pests for gardens.

How do you overcome the colonial politics of gardening for a better world? The question is already asked by degrowth discussions which focus on giving legal rights to Nature, which incidentally was also the theme of the Art & Science collaborations @ the JRC.

Establishing a different relation with nature is a prime condition to acquire the necessary attitudes and skills to combat global warming. Simply ensure legally enforceable rights to natural entities: and suddenly any decision as to what is the right or wrong action concerning the environment no longer hinges on human concerns. Trees, planets, clouds and roots: we want to explore how the material world matters, develop ways to understand the languages of nature and their legitimacy. Moulds, yeasts, grains, herbs: we also want to deepen our collective awareness on the tremendous legacy of humans in their intercourse with nature. JRC.

How the gardens suddenly made sense after all

It is possible to reason that the world is the best it can be.

It is also possible to imagine that we have built a garden.

The image of the best garden is a political tool

(the enemy of better is best)

Reasoning that we have cultivated the best possible garden is a form of optimism which justifies the existence of different types of governance, religious, scientific, colonial, and can prevent different futures from being explored.


"the single feature identifying even the wildest wild garden is control"

degrowth risks being...exactly a garden.


We must cultivate our garden.

We must cultivate our garden to make the best of possible worlds.

How to navigate the tension between cultivation and control?

Art and science collaborations can highlight that different forms of gardening exist

and therefore that solutions exist beyond the present understanding of best possible worlds.



It is demonstrable, said he, that things cannot be otherwise than as they are;

for all being created for an end, all is necessarily for the best end


it is demonstrable, said he, that things can be otherwise than as they are;

for all things having been created for an end

different things and ends can be created

Optimism - work the risk?


Nice passage on the benefits of urban gardening by Isabelle Anguelovski, Urban Gardening, DEGROWTH: A Vocabulary for a New Era.

From a social standpoint, through gardening, relationships in the neighborhood are strengthened and renewed, as gardeners actively engaged in garden clean-up, production, and maintenance. They enhance the connection between people and their neighborhood and provide a greater sense of community. Growers often build a collective project without appropriating spaces for private uses and enclosing it, share responsibilities, and imagine a different use (than speculative use) for the land (see commons). Gardens facilitate networking, promote interactions between groups, and promote local pride and citizens’ participation (Lawson 2005). From a health standpoint, they provide relaxation, healing, and trauma-recovery benefits, and also offer recreational and leisure opportunities for residents who might tend to remain isolated at home.

Critiques of urban gardening

urban gardens have been critiqued as the tools of neoliberal gentrification, "exclusionary spaces when they do not offer everyone in the neighbourhood the same benefits"; "The quantity, scale and crop types of urban gardens cannot possibly satisfy citizens’ nutritional needs".

Voltaire's Candide attacks Leibnitz's 'The Principle of the Best', 1710.

"God freely chose the best world from an infinite number of possible worlds"

Poems about shits

Jonathan Swift, The Lady's Dressing Room, 1732.

Classical busts & bins

From hotel in Bologna, this June:

As in De Chirico, The Uncertainty of the Poet, 1913.

Irene & Gala, Invisible Seeds

Watch presentation & info on the project:

Monsanto and GMO seeds

Brown, P. (2004, April 16). GM soya “miracle” turns sour in Argentina. The Guardian.

The Guardian article, and Gala Berger/Irene Guerrero's Invisible Seeds project both engage with the Monsanto monopoly which has since the 1970s invented, patented and sold genetically modified seeds of many different types, controls 23% of the seed market. Their Roundup Ready seeds maximize yield because farmers can spray pesticides (also sold by Monsanto) upon their soya, cotton, or sugar crops without the plants dying whilst still killing “weeds”. Farmers can consequently sow rows closer together because they no longer need rows wide enough for tilling weeds. As Gala tells me, "these seeds have super powers they can survive almost everything but they damage the soil and so it’s very complicated but in a way it builds on exploitation and extraction."


Ivan Illich thought of snails as the perfect argument that there is a limit to growth which as an objective will eventually have problems which outweighs its benefits. See Diary with a Snail blog

Rights for Nature

Rights of Nature (RoN) is a legal instrument that enables nature, wholly or partly, i.e. ecosystems or species, to have inherent rights and legally should have the same protection as people and corporations; that ecosystems and species have legal rights to exist, thrive and regenerate. It enables the defense of the environment in court – not only for the benefit of people, but for the sake of nature itself.

Some degrowth ideas about rights to nature:

Degrowth critiques

For brief overview of various political/ecological critiques which make up degrowth:

The degrowth agricultural research agenda

The degrowth agriccultural research agenda seeks out alternatives to industrial, capitalist agri-food systems (Nelson and Edwards 2021; Gerber 2020). These are characterised by extractive farming methods, blanket policies and standards applied across contexts irrespective of local knowledges, pesticides, colonial power relations, genetically modified seeds, all of which undermine the productivity of the soil & place farmers into difficulty with socio-economic consequences. The agenda seeks to address the problem that “transformative change occurs [only] from the bottom up through local grassroots initiatives that experiment with social innovation and alternatives to growth-based, industrial agri-food models”, whilst leaving other fields and political actors aside. There is the need therefore to consider “processes of diffusion of alternative practices, their embedding or emplacement in diverse geographical contexts”. In particular, “Indigenous movements, which remain largely unexplored, deserve explicit attention in light of repeated claims for a decolonial degrowth movement science” (Guerrero et al., 2023: 1585). To this end the agenda seeks to “mobilise diverse bodies of literature ranging from social movement scholarship, critical transformation research, new materialist literature on the more-than-human, political economy perspectives on agri-food systems such as food regime and rural studies, amongst others” (Guerrero et al., 2023: 1579). The degrowth agriculatural research agenda does not include art/science collaborations.

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