A centenary and two outputs

And so we come to Small Farm Future’s 100th blog post. Coincidentally, it’s also the first one to be sent from my new home on the farm, where I’m now living permanently (or at least until my next reckoning with Mendip District Council), using purely renewable energy from our off grid system. Well, when I say ‘purely renewable’ energy, there is of course the small matter of the satellite that spreads my messages of hope to a hungry world. But as I understand it, it was manoeuvred into position using nothing more than the hot air generated by all the blog sites such as this one that it hosts.

Anyway, what with it being my centenary and all, I hope you’ll allow me to indulge myself with a bit of self-publicity. I’ve had a couple of outputs recently that may be of interest to the small farm future fraternity. The first is an essay entitled ‘Farming past, farming future’ which has just come out in Dark Mountain 6 and is reproduced on this blog here. The essay considers the troubled future of our agrarian civilisation and uses the historical examples of Russian and American populism to articulate the social challenges that must be overcome, and the potential of agrarian populist movements to do so. Dark Mountain is an interesting project which is worth taking a look at, and there’s lots of other essays, stories, poems and artwork in Dark Mountain 6 which are almost as good as mine (sorry, I did say I was going to indulge myself today).

The other output is an interview with my good self conducted here at Vallis Veg by Phil and Lauren, globe-trotting permaculturists and sonic wizards of the web. You can hear my thoughts on vegetables, small scale farming, peasants, progress, the Book of Genesis – and other themes perhaps wearily familiar from this blog – filtered through Phil’s microphone, the evening chirruping of insects and, for my part, three glasses of red wine here. Enjoy!

Just another bloody day: thoughts on ‘Liberty’s Dawn’

A few thoughts in this post on historian Emma Griffin’s recent book, Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution1, which touches on many themes relevant to this blog.

From a close study of memoirs and autobiographical texts written by ordinary people caught up in the British industrial revolution, Griffin argues that industrialisation did not deskill and impoverish working people – as in the still-popular ‘dark interpretation’ of the industrial revolution associated with such figures as E.P. Thompson2 – but on the contrary raised incomes and provided fertile conditions for them to develop forms of religious and political association that enabled them to organise around their interests and help create a national public sphere as active participants rather than as a passive lumpen mass. Griffin’s autobiographers display no conspicuous nostalgia for the world of rural agriculture they lost, but instead embrace the new world of urban, industrial opportunity emerging around them.

This all sounds like an unpalatable history lesson for those like me who advocate a less industrialised, small scale farming society as a solution to many of our contemporary ills, and perhaps it is – it’s a compelling book in some ways, and I don’t want to try to shoot it down simply out of narrow partisanship. Still, there are a few gaps and question marks over Griffin’s analysis that I’d like to raise. Perhaps more positively, I’d like to find a way of incorporating her insights into a better small farm vision for the future.

So first the gaps and question marks, many of which Griffin herself acknowledges. Most obviously, however humble their origins the people who wrote down their memoirs were probably atypical members of their social group and had likely steered a more successful personal course through their turbulent times than those who left nothing to posterity, even if ‘success’ here might mean nothing more than being a stalwart of the Sunday school or the local reading club. Though Griffin acknowledges this, I’m not sure she takes it seriously enough in generalising from her findings. But let’s put such tedious methodological quibbles aside and for the sake of argument assume that her autobiographers speak for the majority in their sunny tales of industrialisation.

Another issue, which again Griffin acknowledges, is that the main working class beneficiaries of industrialisation were adult men. For children pressed into earlier and harsher industrial service than their rural farm counterparts, industrialisation was, in Griffin’s own words, “a disaster”3. The story for women is complex, but although young women in the industrial areas were beneficiaries of factory work, marriage usually ended their tenure as independent wage labourers and reallocated them to the familiar role of dependent domestic workers. Griffin often pauses her narrative to insist she’s not saying it was all a bed of roses, but even so for me the notion of industrialisation as ‘liberty’s dawn’ rides pretty roughshod over the evidence that Griffin herself is presenting in instances such as these. And this is doubly true for the fact that her analysis never strays beyond Britain’s shores: consider the half million slaves in the British Caribbean at the end of the eighteenth century producing sugar for the British working man’s tea, and consider also the unsavoury details of how that tea came to him4. As Britain began to flex its muscles as a global superpower, its liberty dawned an awful lot brighter for some than for others – and a good deal of evidence suggests that Britain’s industrial takeoff was funded in large measure by the toil of its colonial dependents5. This question of globalisation presages another issue that Griffin touches on but scarcely discusses: the more that you’re tied in to a global economy, the less control you have over your economic circumstances. The boom times are great, but what about the busts? The weaver William Thom took to the roads with his family in the 1830s when “in one week, upwards of six thousand looms in Dundee alone” fell silent6. Not much liberty there.

Coming more directly to the issue of farming, Griffin argues – convincingly in my opinion – that working people at the dawn of the industrial revolution were glad to see the back of a rural farm life involving chronic underemployment and subjection to the rural landowning classes. But let us be clear what rural life involved in eighteenth century Britain. Capitalism began in the English countryside in the sixteenth century7, and by the eighteenth agriculture was a thoroughly capitalist affair, with an essentially landless rural proletariat engaged in wage labour for landowners themselves pressurised by the vagaries of the market into cutting input costs and shedding labour wherever they could. The new urban proletarians were not trading in a life of jolly peasant autarchy for the cold discipline of the factory – they were trading in one kind of dependent wage labour for another, and better paid, kind.

I suppose you could go looking further back into history to try to find the jolly peasant autarchs, but it probably wouldn’t be wise.  Raymond Williams effectively satirised the search for the real, authentic countryside at some ever-receding point into the historical past in his book The Country and the City8. So let me accept Griffin’s history lesson and agree with her that there’s little to be gained other than a sense of wistful romanticism in supposing that preindustrial society holds a complete template for our future wellbeing (not, of course, the same as saying that jolly peasant autarchs have never existed, or that there’s nothing useful to be learned today from preindustrial times). But let me also point out, as I’ve done on this blog before, the dangers of a reverse romanticism in the ideology of ‘progress’, which identifies an axial point in the past to which we owe our present success and our future greatness. Griffin wholly falls into this trap, arguing that “It has been a very long time since the critics of industrialisation could plausibly deny the long-term benefits of industrial growth” (p.16) and  that, in the future, “Each generation will live longer, enjoy greater levels of material comfort, eat a more varied and exotic diet, and have more possessions” (p.241).

Well, to my mind it’s actually rather easy to plausibly deny the long-term benefits of industrial growth. And to project limitlessly increasing wellbeing, material comfort and material possessions betrays an alarmingly ahistorical failure to appreciate the limited trajectory of the very particular modern economic ideology associated with capitalist industrialisation. How can we mock those who imagine a perfect past and a miserable future, and then simply invert the temporal ordering of this ideology to imagine a miserable past and a perfect future? But I shall leave all that aside for now, because I want to return to ideologies of progress more explicitly in another post.

Industrialisation was different from what went before it, and Griffin does a good job of describing the new working class cultures that emerged in its wake. But maybe one can overstress the significance of industrialisation per se. The main story Griffin tells of industrialising Britain is the story of economic growth. In fact, even that is controversial: other historians such as Jan de Vries and Hans-Joachim Voth have argued that the evidence for economic growth in England’s early 19th century industrial revolution is surprisingly thin, and that the disciplining of labour (Thompson’s ‘dark interpretation’) was a more salient driver for its restructuring of work9. But leaving that aside, is Griffin saying anything more telling than that in times of economic growth and full employment things can go pretty well for the ordinary working person, and specifically the ordinary working man? I’m not sure that she is. Even so, that story in itself raises tricky questions for a contemporary agrarian populism of the sort I espouse because I think Griffin could be right that it’s difficult to generate all that much of an economic surplus in agriculture alone, even in capitalist agriculture – let alone non-capitalist agriculture. And perhaps she’s also right that it’s easier to achieve working class self-organisation in the unified public sphere potentiated by industrialisation and urbanisation than in rural farm society. That also seems to be David Satterthwaite’s main argument for the benefit of urbanisation in poor countries today10.

I’m not so sure that the relative ease of political organisation in towns is the greatest argument against small scale farming. And I’d argue that the public spheres which emerged in urbanising early modern economies aren’t entirely positive, because they easily give rise to nationalisms and other such mystifying ideologies. Small farm life historically has indeed tended to be materially spartan and inequitable, an inequity that has presented considerable challenges to rural working people in organising to achieve their goals in the face of landowner power. But it’s not as if peasants have always and everywhere failed in the pursuit of these goals, as the work of people like James Scott attests. Scott writes that the peasantry is

“a class scattered across the countryside, lacking formal organization, and best equipped for extended, guerrilla-style, defensive campaigns of attrition. Their individual acts of foot dragging and evasion, reinforced by a venerable popular culture of resistance and multiplied many thousand-fold, may, in the end, make an utter shambles of the policies dreamed up by their would-be superiors in the capital”11

Others have even argued that such forms of peasant agency can create new and more sustainable forms of labour-intensive capitalism – an argument that I want to explore in more detail in another post12.

The peculiar social structure of eighteenth century Britain at the point of industrial takeoff reflects the outcome of prior class struggles which had already created a class of vulnerable wage labourers without significant access to land and self-provisioning. It’s not surprising that some of them at least were enthusiastic about the new economic opportunities that then came their way with industrialisation. But to me this hardly deserves the sobriquet of ‘liberty’s dawn’. Quite apart from the travails of people elsewhere in the world who toiled in servitude to fulfil British interests, and quite apart from the busts that inevitably attend the booms when global capital imbues everyday economic relations, the economic uptick of industrialisation (if indeed that’s what it was) was surely just another bloody day in the long historical standoff between capital and labour. And in the global long run it has still led to wealth for the few, poverty for the many, and the ecocidal consequences of endless economic growth. The challenge for a contemporary agrarian populism is to map out a society where there can be wellbeing without excessive economic growth, a focus on sustainable agrarian production and social equity in the means of that production. It’s not an easy task, and Griffin teaches us that we shouldn’t look to eighteenth century or preindustrial Britain for a good model of how to achieve it. But what she fails to show, in my opinion, is that such models themselves are not worth aiming for.

 

References

1. Griffin, E. 2013. Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution, Yale UP.

2. Thompson, E. 1963. The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin.

3. Griffin, op cit, p.83

4. Blackburn, R. 1997 The Making of New World Slavery, Verso; Mintz, S. 1986 Sweetness and Power, Penguin.

5. Heller, H. 2011. The Birth of Capitalism, Pluto.

6. Griffin, op cit, p.39.

7. Wood, E. 2002. The Origin of Capitalism, Verso.

8. Williams, R. 1975. The Country and the City. Oxford UP.

9. de Vries, J. 2008. The Industrious Revolution, Cambridge UP; Voth, H-J. 2004. Living standards and urban disamenities, in Floud, R. & Johnson, P. eds. Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, Vol.1, Cambridge UP.

10. http://www.campaignforrealfarming.org/2011/10/city-capitalists-or-agrarian-peasants-where-does-the-future-lie/

11. Scott, J. 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance Yale UP, p.xvii

12. Arrighi, G. 2007. Adam Smith in Beijing, Verso.

The agribusiness fail

An interesting discussion occurred on my blog during my summer recess, which I thought I might address briefly in this post. It concerned inter alia the difficulties of earning a living through ‘alternative farming’, the pronouncements of Vandana Shiva, and the promise of sustainably synthesised fertiliser. I’m going to leave the last of these issues to a future post, and say a few words about the other two.

So, Brian Macmillan drew attention to this interesting article which argued that farmers using alternative approaches such as permaculture are struggling to stay afloat economically – a deficiency that author Frank Aragona provocatively called ‘The Permaculture Fail’. Unlike Tom, I found much of the discussion beneath the article quite interesting and well reasoned, though I do agree with Tom at least in part that the peak oil-collapse of capitalism-billions will die nexus can easily be overdone.

I’ve made plain on this blog before that I’m amicably sceptical about a number of permaculture’s sacred cows and, as Brian pointed out, Aragona’s article covered pretty similar ground to my own blog post on some of permaculture’s limitations. But, as I also made clear in that post, I’m not planning to throw out the baby with the bathwater: ultimately, I reject Aragona’s concept of the ‘permaculture fail’ for reasons that are well covered in some of the comments beneath his post. The most telling one, I think, is the simple point made by ‘onoway’: so called ‘normal’ farmers aren’t making any money either. Here in the UK, the Commission for Rural Communities found in 2010 (shortly before the government abolished it) that a quarter of farm households lived below the poverty line, and you can be pretty sure that most of them weren’t permaculturists.

Aragona writes “we have focused all of our energy on biological production techniques, many and most of which are sound, effective, and replicable, yet we have done so on top of a broken socio-economic model”. Well, speak for yourself: personally I only focus my energy on biological production techniques by day. By night I write this blog, in which I tirelessly fix broken socio-economic models. But sheesh, then somebody comes along and breaks the damn things again and nothing seems to change. The fact is that however anyone farms they do it on top of a broken socio-economic model. The alternative farming movement – for example, my colleagues in the Land Workers Alliance and Via Campesina – does a pretty good job of articulating exactly how the model is broken. A better job at any rate than ‘normal’ mainstream farming organisations such as the NFU, who are servants of that model (witness George Monbiot’s mischievous but telling comparison of the NFU’s address – 16 Smith Square, London SW1 – with DEFRA’s address – 17 Smith Square, London SW1). We alternative farmers are hardly alone in wishing to derail the present neoliberal juggernaut without quite knowing how.

Still, I think it’s true that permaculturists are often over-susceptible to illusory get rich quick schemes. The article mentions somebody who supposedly earns $90,000/acre from his farming. Well, I’m sure with skill, luck, hard work and a relentless focus upon non-essential products that might be possible, but with the help of that infallible oracle, Wikipedia, let me now demonstrate mathematically the impossibility of all farmers following suit:

(1) Total area of agricultural land globally: 12.07 billion acres

(2) Total economic output of this land area @ $90,0000/acre: $1086 trillion

(3) Actual total global economic output: $59 trillion

(4) Theoretical total agricultural output as a percentage of total global economic output: 1841%

QED

New ideas emerge in farming for sure, but if you’re aiming to produce basic foodstuffs I’d argue there are few shortcuts: you need to input either a lot of fossil fuel and fancy chemicals or a lot of your own/animal labour to get a financial return, and either way the return won’t be very much. You could argue that we shouldn’t be aiming for a financial return in the first place, as some of those commenting on Aragona’s article suggest. Fair point, though I think permaculturists can also be a bit over-susceptible to some confusions about money. But I’ll spin that particular yarn another time.

Aragona’s wider point is surely right, however – we need to develop some different socio-economic models. Of the various resources bequeathed us by history to do so, I find agrarian populism (leavened with a judicious quantity of Marxism, a touch of neo-Stoicism, an exotic hint of Taoism, a pinch of civic republicanism, and the tiniest half-pinch of liberalism) to be the most promising. And since Vandana Shiva is probably the highest profile advocate for agrarian populism around these days, I suppose I should leap to her defence in the light of the outrage caused by her GM/rape analogy. Or perhaps I should chide her and plead for less inflammatory rhetoric on both sides of the debate. But when you have the likes of Patrick Moore tweeting to GM Watch “You are murdering bastards and deserve to rot in hell for your anti-human sins” I just can’t help thinking “Go get ‘em, Vandana!”

Perhaps that last paragraph wasn’t the most spirited defence of a political stance ever mounted. Truth be told, I don’t think there’s a useful parallel between GM crops and rape (though when you look at what Shiva actually said, it wasn’t in fact quite such a direct analogy). There are certainly some troubling issues around seed sovereignty and violence, however. And though I find myself in disagreement with quite a lot of the particulars of what Shiva says, I like her  capacity – and the capacity of agrarian populism in general – to outrage the comfortable worldviews of Marxists and liberals alike. The mainstream media will wax with outrage and scorn for Shiva until it finds some other outside-the-box opinion-former to demonise. Meanwhile, the quiet and necessary work of articulating a left agrarian populism continues. For what it’s worth, I think Shiva does tend to romanticise peasant farming a little, though to be honest why the hell shouldn’t she? We’ve had two hundred years of shameless romanticising of the urban, and if Stewart Brand can get away with writing “Let no one romanticize what the slum conditions are…but the squatter cities are vibrant” then I demand my right to my jolly nature-loving peasants.

Truth be told, the cupboard of agrarian populist gurus is looking pretty bare these days – Shiva, James Scott, Philip McMichael, Paul Richards, maybe Colin Tudge? I might file an application myself. But whatever my specific disagreements with their respective oeuvres, I think they’re right in their basic contention that the best solutions to our social, economic and environmental problems are to be found from the ground up, and if small scale farmers and small scale communities are allowed to get on with the business of feeding their bodies and spirits, perhaps with a little bit of help from central governments rather than with their active hindrance, then those problems start to look less insurmountable. It’s what you might call the agribusiness fail.

Seven things WWOOF has taught me about the global economy

It’s been 10 years now since we started hosting farm volunteers at Vallis Veg, mostly through the excellent organisation World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. The idea is that the WWOOFer, as they are widely known, works a not-quite-full working week in return for board and lodging, with no money changing hands. We’ve had well over a hundred wonderful WWOOFers contribute to our work at Vallis Veg, and regrettably many hundreds more whose overtures I’ve had to turn down. I’ve learned things both general and particular from everybody who’s visited us. Here are seven general lessons about the global economy that I’ve distilled from their visits.

1. English is still a (the?) global language

Many prospective WWOOFers state that improving their English skills is a prime reason for their visit, including people from China and South Korea who might reasonably expect English-speakers to be keen to learn their languages. English still rules, OK? To be honest, I prefer people who actually want to farm. On the other hand, I’ve learned a lot about language through talking to our international WWOOFers (not quite the same as learning a lot of languages, sadly). And it’s been great for our kids to have people from all over the world passing through our household. Mercifully, honing English and putting in an honest day’s farm toil don’t seem to be mutually exclusive, so I extend a WWOOFerly hand of welcome to English-improvers, so long as you’re able to pass what I call the ‘courgette test’. That is, if I ask you to weed the courgettes you need to have sufficient language skills, gardening skills and/or common sense for me to find the courgettes still intact at the end of the day. If so, you’re in. A final word of advice to French speakers (though as a near monoglot Englishman it ill behoves me to laugh at anyone else’s poor vocabulary): the phrase ‘I am looking forward to your exploitation’ can be interpreted in several ways in English. None of them will be to your advantage.

2. The Spanish economy is in deep trouble

Since the fiscal balloon went up in 2008, the number of Spanish WWOOFers we’ve had has rocketed. And almost invariably intelligent, competent, well-educated and pleasant young people they are too. It’s just that they can’t find any jobs anywhere. What an indictment of the way the global economy works. Yes, market forces will out – but they’re a human artifice, and they exact a human cost.

3. The South Korean economy is in deep trouble

South Korea could hardly be more different, with a steady economic growth rate of around 5% over recent years. Small wonder that Michael Gove, our unlamented former Education Secretary, exhorted us Brits to try to keep up in the global race and match South Korea’s phenomenally successful development path (even though he kept quiet about the importance of the public sector in promoting it). But at what human cost? Those South Korean WWOOFers who are escaped to tell us warn of 18 hour school or work days, suicide nets around high school buildings and a depressing society of regimented automata. After collecting the morning’s eggs, one of them asked us if our hens were all male. Kind of makes you wonder what they’re taught in those 18 hour days.  Another wrote, engagingly ‘I was software engineer at Samsung who worked on best mobile phone in world, but now I leave. The reason? Samsung most workaholic company in world. Now I wish to grow gardens’. Just as compost is the same solution alike for both free-draining or waterlogging soils, so the extremes of the global economy have the same solution. Go WWOOFing, grow gardens.

4. (Western) girls (and boys) just want to have fun…

The phenomenon of the gap year, or the post-university round-the-world-to-find-myself trip, is easy to mock as an indulgence of the over-privileged classes. I say bring it on. Some of our best and most interesting volunteers fall into this category, and I only wish I’d done the same when I was their age instead of falling prey to the got-to-get-my-foot-on-the-ladder-and-make-a-success-of-my life delusion. Maybe I’d have learned to be a better farmer and a better person that way. And anyway, is it so different from other traditions among uncoerced peoples of the world, such as the Native American spirit quest? To the disaffected youth I say give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free – you can start by weeding the courgettes…

5. …and then they want to garden

One small, but I hope significant, new category of WWOOFer that I’m beginning to notice is what might be called ‘gap year redux’ – the thirtysomething graduate who’s spent a few years working in some kind of professional career before realising that they have become a mere plaything of an unjust, uncaring and unsustainable global economy that tries to buy them off with trinkets. There are many good places to go with this insight, but one of them is certainly to start reversing the centuries old propaganda that holds farming in general and working the land up close and manually in particular to be somehow an unbecoming and lowly pursuit. It’s not always completely straightforward hosting such folk, because the good habit of intelligent questioning can very easily slip into the bad habit of knowing-better-than-thouness or of latching onto the received wisdom of soi disant experts able to bridge the languages of agriculture and urban professional smart-talk: a problem that I identified in a previous post concerning the permaculture movement. But taking the rough with the smooth, the gap year reduxers give me more hope for the future than just about anything else. OK, so being one of them myself I’m probably biased, but reconstituting practical agriculture as something that smart people actually do rather than just talk about is critical, I think, to a just and sustainable future.

6. Human capital, or capital humans?

The basic WWOOF package of exchanging work for board and lodging with no money changing hands raises many interesting issues – certainly too many for immigration officers to cope with. Their predilection for deporting WWOOFers arriving on visitor visas must be distressing for those involved, but points to an incoherence in the way contemporary global governance distinguishes between the free movement of money and the free movement of people which I suspect cannot endure long-term. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable about the unpaid labour that goes into my farm, though I suspect our WWOOFers get a better deal than many a graduate intern now under-labouring  in the belly of the capitalist beast in the hope of a brighter future. I won’t expostulate at length on the question of agriculture and money here, but WWOOF at least begins to show a way in which people can come together, work, laugh, and achieve things together that they couldn’t achieve alone without the morbidly quantifying hand of money values interceding. Move over, Jeremy Bentham – people are ends in themselves. There is no such thing as human capital, only capital humans.

7. A woman’s work is never done

We (by which I mean me, Mrs Spudman and all our marriage guidance counsellors) have gradually worked out a marital division of domestic labour over the years that roughly approximates to half each, though if I’m entirely honest I’d probably have to admit that my share still doesn’t amount to that magical 50% figure of which many women through the ages must have dreamed. Not so, however, for 10 hellish days in August when Mrs Spudman abandoned four children and five WWOOFers to my tender mercies and left me with the whole domestic shebang while she swanned off to a wedding in America. Just couldn’t get that darned Kenny Rogers song out of my head all week. Four hungry children and five hungry WWOOFers imposed demands upon me from which, truth to tell, I still haven’t recovered. And yet it was as nothing compared to the burden that many women bear throughout their lives without thanks or pay and often without complaint. Yep, the global economy would be nothing, nothing at all, without the hidden work of women.

Of authenticity and independence

An unexpected benefit of having now almost fully moved to live permanently on our farm site (well, ‘permanently’ at least until our next reckoning with Mendip District Council, on which topic more soon) is that I no longer follow the news too much. Living in our town house, I just couldn’t help performing a morning ritual of flicking through the newspaper and listening to John Humphries wittering away on the Today programme, whereas now when I get up, checking on the sheep, or the seedlings, or the battery monitor, or the rain gauge, somehow seems more important.

Still, old habits die hard. The big political news last week of the Scottish independence vote could hardly escape me, and I even found myself listening to Radio 4′s You and Yours on my wind up radio while packing the veg boxes. ‘Wind up radio’ is the apposite term, because the programme featured a food historian called Dr Annie Gray, whose extraordinarily obtuse intellectual position amounted to the argument that because we in the Old World use foodstuffs in our cuisines like chillies and potatoes that hail originally from the Americas, there can be no such thing as ‘authenticity’ in a cuisine, and therefore anything should go – her preferred example being the joys of eating spam and creme egg toasties. Well, eat what you like, but by parallel logic I’m offering my pig sty as additional operating theatre space to my local NHS trust since it’s impossible to create a completely aseptic environment anyway. Of course, there’s an interesting debate to be had about what ‘authentic cuisine’ might mean. In some people’s hands, perhaps little more than a status-aggrandising opportunity to best those who don’t know that proper pasta is always eaten al dente. For Michael Pollan, it’s what your grandparents ate (so perhaps, worryingly, a spam and creme egg toastie might qualify). For the palaeo diet people, it’s what people ate before the big Neolithic blunder.

I guess my general line of argument would be that it’s never possible to place authenticity within unambiguous boundaries, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a try – you learn more from the attempt than you do from shrugging your shoulders at the whole idea and throwing another creme egg in the toaster oven, which ends up enforcing its own faux demotic concept of authenticity anyway. It reminds me of the endless circularities involved in debates about what’s ‘natural’, which culminate in the absurdity of people like Graham Strouts arguing that there is no such thing as natural limits, because there’s a natural tendency for people to supersede them in this best of all possible modern worlds. One teleology succeeds another. I think a farming rather than a culinary perspective would help when it comes to the matter of authentic food: the question is not what makes an authentic dish, but what makes an authentic relationship to the world around us.

I guess I just have to accept in these neoliberal times that attempts to define cultural or economic boundaries invite mockery, and the economic devastation worked by organisations like the WTO will be complemented by a cultural devastation worked by ignorant food writers like Jay Rayner, Steven Poole and Annie Gray who really ought to know better. Oh well, hopefully a few will survive this onslaught and be able to create properly considered local food and farming cultures in the future. At least there are some positive forces already rallying against eco-panglossianism and even some voices of ecological reason such as Ford Denison on this very blog. In the mean time, best I think to turn off the radio and get back to transplanting my Texel greens.

Oh, but how could I avoid following the Scottish referendum? As the great, great, great grandson of a Scottish crofter I was a little miffed to be denied the opportunity of having my say on this critical constitutional matter. Well, since the vote tellers didn’t ask my opinion I’m going to vent it to my blog instead – I would have voted ‘yes’. A yes result in Scotland would have nicely set the cat amongst the pigeons regarding local subsidiarity in the British Isles. Soon we would have realised that the ‘national interest’ was really just the interest of London, the southeast, bloated city fat cats, and their fellow travellers amongst the international plutocracy. ‘England’ would have become a rump state centred around London, and the rest of us would have happily seceded, breathing new life into more natural – even, perhaps, more authentic – smaller polities in the manner so cleverly articulated by Leopold Kohr in his book The Breakdown of Nations. We would have had to learn that our materially privileged former lifestyle – the cars, the instant broadband, the expensive foreign holidays, the property nest eggs – had been propped up by the privileged London elite we so despised, but that would be no bad thing. Back to the land we would have gone, and built a new, more materially sustainable small farm future.

Hang on a minute, though. An independent Scotland wanted to retain the pound, and EU membership? And voters were cowed by such terrible threats as having to pay more for their TV licences? Or perhaps were more rightly cowed by the football terrace rhetoric of separatism, its ugly 90 minute sectarianism. Meanwhile, in regionalised Britain the kind of faceless government bureaucrat who gave Vallis Veg planning permission for an agricultural residence would be swept away, and instead of inept Westminster government we would have the streamlined local responsiveness of Mendip District Council as our only arbiters?

I awake from this nightmare vision and tick the ‘no’ box. Perhaps we are not yet ready for a small farm future. But how badly I still want to tick yes. Yes – no – yes – no. Like a Democratic presidential candidate in the line of a Republican media feeding frenzy, I flip and I flop. Let us not be surprised in the coming years at the prospect of all sorts of strange and troubling but perhaps also enabling political realignments that make fools of all the pundits. As a callow graduate student in anthropology in the USA in the 1980s I was told by one of my professors that the Soviet Union had solved the problem of its ethnic and nationalist discords. And if you think it doesn’t matter what nonsense ivory tower academics might spout, let me tell you that the same fellow will shortly be the next president of Afghanistan. The problem of nationalism has been solved nowhere – not in the Soviet Union (if you don’t know where that is, just look on a map – so long as it’s 30 years old), not in Britain, and not in the USA. Which brings me on to the subject of nationalism, a small farm future, and the problems of agrarian populism. But first I really do have to go and transplant my Texel greens.

Small town planet, small farm future

I think it’s time for me to end my self-imposed exile from my own blog. I’m not completely out of the woods yet work-wise so there may be further service interruptions, but it’s been nice to see some ongoing conversations on the site since I posted my last entry, such as this one about permaculture, populism and Vandana Shiva and this one about nature mimicry. They’ve guilt-tripped me back into the blogosphere.

I aim to write some more on those themes in future posts, but for now I just want to post a few brief thoughts prompted by the issue of urbanisation – a favourite subject of mine on which I’ve previously written here, and here, and now here in my latest article for Statistics Views.

I won’t reprise my musings on the topic in the Stats Views article here. Instead, I just want to mention two points that I should perhaps have dwelt on a bit more in the article.

First, the notion that we’re now living on a ‘city planet’, with more than half the global population living in urban areas, frequently does the rounds in ‘eco-progressivist’ circles as a kind of shorthand proof that the tide of history is running against the possibility of small-scale agriculture or rural life more generally as a viable future for humanity. But the apparently simple fact of majority urban residence is quite misleading, and is something of a statistical artefact. Take India, the second most populous country in the world. ‘Urban areas’ there are defined in part as places with a population of at least 5,000. By Indian definitions, about 32% of its population is urban. But I wouldn’t define a place with a population of 5,000 as a ‘city’. How big is a city? Suppose you defined it as a place with a population of 300,000 – then only 19% of India’s population live in cities. If you take the twenty most populous countries in the world, which together account for 70% of the global population, then only 31% of their people live in cities of 300,000 or more1 – and I suspect the true figure is a bit lower, because of definitional peculiarities in China2.  So maybe we inhabit not so much a city planet as a small town planet.

I think that’s important because, unlike large cities, it’s possible for a village or town or even a small city of 100,000 or so to be oriented towards and well integrated with its rural hinterlands. A small farm future is readily compatible with a small town future, but probably not with a big city future. Fortunately, though, we’re still a long way from really being a ‘city planet’.

There’s a lot more to be said about the ways in which small-scale farming and small town life can be mutually reinforcing and can promote better ecological stewardship and human wellbeing – some of which is said in the various references I cite in the Statistics Views article. But I’ll aim to come back to the theme on this blog in future posts. Generally speaking, I think mainstream commentators and self-styled ‘eco-pragmatists’ are far too prone to present a dualistic contrast between city life fuelled by large-scale industrial agriculture on the one hand and a miserable peasant subsistence agriculture on the other. In truth, there’s a lot of space to explore in between the poles of a ‘city planet’ and a miserable subsistence agriculture – besides which ‘subsistence’ needn’t necessarily be miserable unless it’s made miserable by the depredations of elites, who typically rely on some kind of centralised (urban) authority in their work of expropriation. But that’s a story for another time.

The second point is perhaps best encapsulated in Stewart Brand’s aphoristic comment that “city growth creates problems, and then city innovation speeds up to solve them”3. I can find plenty of evidence to support the first part of his statement, but not so much for the second. One contemporary arena for the debate is the notion of increasing industrial resource use efficiency – or the ‘decoupling’ of economic growth from growth in the drawdown of non-renewable or polluting resources. Some experts dispute the existence of decoupling4, whereas others find evidence for it5 – which has led some to make such ringing pronouncements as this: “For the first time in history, we are growing richer while using less energy. That is unalloyed good news for budgets, incomes and the planet. We have reached a technological tipping point.”6

But as far as I can see, this statement is simply wrong, because it confuses absolute with relative energy use. It may be true that we’re producing more per unit of energy use globally than we used to, but we’re also producing more, period. The result is that we’re using more fossil fuels than ever before – 43% more petroleum in 2012/13 than in 1980, 127% more natural gas, and 105% more coal7 – and we’re emitting more greenhouse gases than ever before8. So on the face of it increased resource use efficiency seems positively associated with increased resource use. The Jeavons paradox rides again, perhaps?

In any case, the closer we approach the reality of becoming a ‘city planet’, the more I suspect absolute energy use and emissions will increase.  As Rees and Wackernagel put it “cities have become entropic black holes drawing in energy and matter from all over the ecosphere (and returning all of it in degraded form back to the ecosphere)” (citation in Statistics Views article). All the more reason, I think, to try to hang on to some notion of carrying capacity and articulate a vision for a small farm, and perhaps a small town, future.

References

1. Figures calculated from Files 1 & 15 of UN Urbanization Prospects, 2014. I can’t be bothered to calculate it for the world as a whole – I spent long enough messing about on spreadsheets as it is – but I suspect the global figure would be even less.

2. See, for example, http://demographia.com/db-define.pdf

3. Brand, S. 2009. Whole Earth Discipline. Atlantic Books.

4. Eg. Jackson, T. 2009. Prosperity Without Growth. Earthscan.

5. Eg. http://www.unep.org/resourcepanel/decoupling/files/pdf/decoupling_report_english.pdf

6. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/24/growth-enemy-planet-gdp-burning-fossil-fuels-technology

7. http://www.eia.gov/cfapps/ipdbproject/IEDIndex3.cfm?tid=5&pid=5&aid=2

8. https://www.wmo.int/pages/mediacentre/press_releases/pr_1002_en.html

Interruption of service announcement…And, sustainable farming? Problem solved!

Apologies for my sporadic blogging of late. I think I’m going to have to admit defeat and temporarily put Small Farm Future out to grass for a month or two (seldom a bad idea for a sustainable farm…) It seems that my paper on perennial crops may be accepted for publication by an academic journal but only with ‘major revisions’, so your humble blog editor needs to pull his finger out on that score. Meanwhile, Mrs Spudman is going on a jaunt to a family wedding in Ohio, leaving me to look after Spudgirl, the farm and the farmhouse all alone (save for a host of much-appreciated WWOOFers, on which subject my next blog will be winging its way to you, albeit not imminently).

I wouldn’t mind so much if we actually had a farmhouse, but since we’re still working frantically on building the damn thing, I’m feeling a trifle over-committed at the moment. It’s a shame to postpone the blog posts, especially as I had a couple of crackers lining up for you. Still, I want to inform aficionados of my acerbic narratives on all things small and agricultural (and I know you’re out there somewhere, both of you) that good things are in the offing. As well as the perennial paper, I have an essay coming out in October in Dark Mountain 6 which I hope at least begins to do what Brian was asking me to do, namely address the question of sustainable farming futures. And another one in August in Permaculture Activist about the troubled relationship between permaculture and science. And I shall also be writing something about urbanisation for my regular gig on the Statistics Views website, to be published in the autumn. I just don’t know how I find the time to do all this stuff. Well, merciless exploitation of my farm volunteers allied to a complete absence of a social life helps. Though saying that I shall be going to a Martin Simpson gig tonight. On my own.

So apologies once again for the hiatus. I hope the remains of the summer (or winter, for SFF’s avid southern hemisphere following) treat you all well. I aim to be jumping back on the blogwagon in September at the latest.

In the meantime, I have some other important news, brought to my attention courtesy of my brother Richard and his friend Steve: a simple hand tool is now available that can replace all the other machinery on the farm and reduce at a stroke the bloated carbon footprint of us over-dieseled Euro-American farmers. Just watch this promotional video and marvel at how you’ve managed to get by without one so far. The stirring music alone is enough to increase your productivity by a good few bushels per acre, I’d wager. All that’s needed now is for someone to devise the permaculture no-dig version.

So long for now

Chris

Scientists Behaving Normally: Junk science, Nonscience and Bias

I was all set to post as previously threatened another screed about golden rice in the wake of my spat on Steve Savage’s website with some of his commenters, when all of a sudden Steve releases a new post on the somewhat related issue of scientific evidence, which is perhaps of more general interest. So I think I’ll hold off for now on the golden rice and go with the science/evidence theme. In other news, I’ve been tangling with the former poet laureate on the Guardian letters page and with proponents of the pig swill ban among other things over at the Food Climate Research Network. Goodness, am I really that argumentative? Probably, alas. What a good thing I’m confined to this little window in the blogosphere (click x, top right).

Anyway, Steve’s argument is that science is a conversation which only begins with publication in a peer-reviewed journal, and that the system is hijacked when scientists aggressively move their findings into the mainstream public conversation before the scientific conversation has reached a consensus.  The basic lines of his argument are hard to fault, I think, except that the tendency for scientists to grandstand their conclusions for personal or political reasons is hardly new (think Edison vs Tesla), and ‘scientific consensus’ can often be an elusive destination. But the funny (actually, quite predictable…) thing is that all Steve’s examples of this deplorable practice are ones that have emphasised the negative effects of the mainstream food and farming system he champions. For many of us more sceptical of this system than Steve, the deplorable practice runs at least as much in the opposite direction, as for example in aggressively favourable public prejudging of golden rice by folks that Steve happily links from his blog.

Part of the problem, I think, is that because science has been so successful at unteasing causalities and informing technological developments we invest unreasonable expectations in it to arbitrate between different views of how the world should be which are ultimately rooted in politics and philosophy and which therefore cannot be resolved by scientific experiments. Steve wants there to be scientific conversations, but he doesn’t want Séralini’s study linking GM maize to cancer in rats to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, even though it’s apparently made it through the peer review process twice and was retracted in circumstances that were opaque at best.

That doesn’t seem very conversational of him – surely it’s better for these things to be available in the publicly-accredited scientific domain so that the conversation can truly begin. No doubt the study is flawed – almost all studies are flawed somehow or other. But the Séralini affair and others of its ilk does make me wonder whether there’s some publication bias going on in the world of GM research. If one or a few studies suggest a link between a GM crop and disease, it doesn’t mean that the case against GM crops is closed. A single study rarely proves anything. But you might expect to find the odd study in the scientific literature linking a GM crop to a negative health outcome of some sort even if only on the grounds of simple probability – the fact that there seem to be none (and the fact that those like Séralini and Pusztai who’ve attempted to suggest one have been so relentlessly hounded in ways quite alien to disputes in less politicised scientific arenas) is to me suspiciously redolent of publication bias, or worse. And not just to me – a study published in Environmental Sciences Europe argues that there have been ‘critical double standards’ in the evaluation of Séralini’s study as compared to the feeding studies conducted by Monsanto on their maize.

From publication bias to confirmation bias – one accusation among several levelled at me on Steve’s site by David Röll. My exchanges with Röll have led me to think that he’s basically a wind up merchant and I’m probably taking his comments way more seriously than I should, but hey let’s try to derive something useful from his windy rhetoric. So I’ll admit it, yes, I suffer from confirmation bias. And so, manifestly, does Steve Savage. And everyone else, surely. We all come to particular views over a period of time as a result of various direct and indirect influences and experiences, but the world’s complexity generally exceeds the neat lines with which we seek to organise it. When we encounter scientific research that appears confirmatory of our worldviews we latch on to it gleefully, again I’d argue in part because of the somewhat excessive cachet of science-as-truth in our culture. And when, inevitably, we encounter plausible research that challenges aspects of our worldviews, we look for flaws and rationalisations. And why not – that’s surely all part of ‘the conversation’. Nobody abandons a slowly accreted worldview overnight. Though hopefully addressing its contradictions and contrary evidence allows us to get more nuanced in our understandings.

The Berkeley physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn built an influential theory about the history of science around the notion that confirmation bias is part and parcel of the scientific process – a philosophy that can be summed up by the old cliché that you can determine the eminence of a scientist by the length of time they obstruct progress in their discipline. But the great thing about science – almost uniquely among human endeavour – is that its procedures ultimately enable it to overcome confirmation bias and the passing opinions of influential savants. As someone trained in social science rather than natural science, the misery of my discipline is that we just don’t have the same procedures available for escaping ideological blinders. On the other hand, the joy of it is that – economists aside – for the same reason we’re not so prey to the hubris of supposing that our convictions exist above the messy world of politics and argument, issuing instead like some fount of sweet water from the uncorrupted well of pure knowledge. Which is why I consider misguided the shrill appeals to ‘reason’, ‘science’ and ‘logic’ for deciding in favour of agribusiness-as-usual as a solution to contemporary problems promulgated by the likes of Graham Strouts and David Röll and, albeit less aggressively and more informatively, Steve Savage (though that’s not to say that there’s no role for these qualities in addressing such problems).

Science can overcome confirmation bias, but the process of this overcoming is neither fast nor simple. What particularly worries me is the apparently growing use of the label ‘junk science’ to summarily dismiss from consideration research or analysis that isn’t consonant with the supposed consensus asserted by the person deploying the term – the surest way for science to forget the radical questioning that gives it its edge over other modes of thought and to become just another church intent on dispatching the heretics. George Monbiot has shown how the junk science label arose out of corporate efforts to deny the scientific evidence on the consequences of tobacco and, more recently, on climate change. On a much smaller stage, the way that David Röll sought to dispatch my scepticism over golden rice was cut from the same cloth – it’s so much easier to dismiss your opponent for junk science, Gish gallop, conspiracy theory or whatever than actually engage with their arguments.

Well, there are those I’ve accused of Gish gallop myself – time is pressing, and why work through a foot-thick tissue of questionable assumptions and dodgy evidence (especially when the person concerned is only likely to respond with ad hominem abuse). But if you don’t engage with the specific arguments, it opens the door to your own confirmation bias and certainly gives you no right to consider your case proven. In many situations, science does not speak with one voice, and cases of outsider science becoming mainstream are legion. Much as I despair when someone says exactly this in justification of earth vibrational essences, perpetual motion machines or other nonsense (I’m thinking more of things like plate tectonics, the Alvarez hypothesis and the symbiosis in the eukaryotic cell), that fact remains. And in any case, all this talk of ‘the science’ in relation to essentially political commitments on food, farming and society is misleading – the advantages and disadvantages of different farming futures do not only or even mainly lie in what ‘the science’ tells us, but in what kind of social worlds we wish to inhabit. Which was pretty much my position in the FCRN debate, and is a recurrent theme on this blog. So thanks for coming back for more.

Nature’s Matrix: or, of foreigners and Englishmen

My opportunities for writing blog posts are cruelly curtailed at the moment while I try among the other crazy things I do to make a living growing vegetables and to build a house that I’ll have to take down again in 3 years, so apologies for my present intermittency. But I haven’t been altogether absent from the blogosphere – against my better judgement, I got myself involved in another damn golden rice debate on Steve Savage’s blog. This truth I know: don’t debate golden rice with its many ardent fans – the insult to insight quotient will overwhelm you with its toxic magnitude. Still, I might try to derive a few worthwhile lessons from this sorry episode in my next post.

Meanwhile, a much more interesting debate arising from my previous post ensued between Clem Weidenbenner, Ford Denison and myself – at first here on Small Farm Future and then on Ford’s Darwinian Agriculture blog. How refreshing to be able to disagree respectfully with someone and learn from them, in marked contrast to the golden rice brigade… Perhaps one difference lies in debating with actual scientists, who are interested in testing ideas, rather than with people who simply wish to invoke ‘science’ as a magic incantation in support of existing positions. Ah well, more on that next time.

Anyway, time I think for one last walkabout around the theme I’ve been exploring these last two blog posts, for I feel I’ve not yet answered the question Patrick Whitefield posed after my first post – what’s a ‘good’ ecosystem, and what’s a ‘bad’ one?

To be honest, I’m not sure I can answer that, and I’m happy to let the conservationists and ecologists fight it out over the metaphors of flux and balance as applied to wild ecosystems, so long as they don’t go to town on either of them too much, as I previously argued. Consider, for example, this tale told by a friend of mine, who recently had a visit from what he called the ‘Himalayan Balsam Police’ – a local voluntary group of balsam-bashers who informed him that he had too much of the noxious exotic on his land, and threatened to report him to the authorities when he asked them to leave a few plants untouched for his bees. This doubtless exemplifies the problem pointed up by Emma Marris’s ‘everything grows’ critique. It also encapsulates the best and worst of Britain – the proliferation of voluntary groups and the concern for the environment are definite strengths, whereas an unhealthy obsession with the authenticity of the past, the evils of foreigners and ready recourse to higher powers go firmly on the debit side.

Maybe there’s a parallel here with the debate about heritage and the built environment – it’s nice to preserve some old historic buildings, but if you obsess about preserving everything from the past and outlaw almost any new developments you paralyse and reify your society. Part of the preservationist impulse no doubt springs from observing the godawful, cheap, jerry-built crap that passes for architecture in contemporary Britain. But maybe it’s better to focus the activism on improving the new architecture rather than clinging on to the old.

Hold that thought, and now apply it to agro-ecosystems. An excellent book by Ivette Perfecto and colleagues1 previously mentioned on this blog argues that local species extinctions are commonplace: what’s required is the in-migration of other conspecifics from the wider meta-population in order to restore the local population. For this to happen, it’s necessary for the agricultural matrix in between islands of biodiversity or fragments of wild ecosystems to be sufficiently wildlife-friendly to allow migration: a traditional cabruca cacao farm might fit the bill, whereas a giant soya monoculture probably wouldn’t. The book’s focus is tropical, which is where most of the world’s biodiversity and most of its people are, but it would be interesting to consider it in the temperate, post-wilderness context of a place like modern Britain. While the likes of Ford Denison have convinced me that there may not be an awful lot to be gained by polycultures or intercropping at the level of the individual garden bed or farmed field, the likes of Perfecto et al convince me that there probably is much to be gained by diversity at the level of the farm, and the wider farmed landscape. To substantiate that would doubtless require a lot of ecological research, some of which has already been done, with mixed results (though it’s tended to focus on comparing conventional with organic farms, not with small, mixed, ‘agroecological’ holdings)2. But there are wider issues at stake than how many butterfly species you find in two fields from your two respective farm systems. Since there are so many other economic and social benefits to a diverse, small-scale, locally-oriented, peasant rather than productivist agro-ecosystem, until someone proves my suppositions wrong I’m inclined to take Perfecto et al’s analysis as a decent bit of prima facie evidence for the combined ecological, economic and social benefits of small-scale diverse agro-ecosystems in temperate as well as tropical climates (in fact, they make this argument explicitly in the case of tropical agriculture practised by low income small farmers).

Well, I would do, wouldn’t I? Maybe it’s just a case of confirmation bias on my part. And that brings me to the topic of my next post… In the mean time, perhaps I’ll just echo Tom’s sentiments of a couple of posts back, and close with the thought that the good agroecosystem is the agroecological agroecosystem. Now repeat three times.

References

1. Perfecto, I., Vandermeer, J. and Wright, A. (2009) Nature’s Matrix: Linking Agriculture, Conservation and Food Sovereignty, Earthscan.

2. Eg. http://www.organicresearchcentre.com/manage/authincludes/article_uploads/ORC%20Biodiversity%20benefits%20of%20organic%20farming%20v4.pdf; Bohan, D. ‘Managing weed ecosystem service provision’ http://www.mfo.ac.uk/en/events/ecological-and-anthropological-approaches-agrobiodiversity-and-food-systems

A dialogue with the Devil: or, should farmers improve on nature?

Here, belatedly, is my promised follow up to the preceding Rambunctious Garden post. I’ve been travelling recently, and found myself sharing an old-style train compartment with a curious fellow who introduced himself as ‘Nick’. With the faint goaty aroma that enveloped him, his suspiciously round shoes and the bumps on his head poorly concealed with a demotic flat cap, it didn’t take me long to figure out who he really was. I like to think I managed to hold my own with him, but here at any rate is the transcript of my conversation with the old devil.

Nick: So, Chris, what are you reading there?

Chris: It’s a couple of blog posts by an agronomist called Andy McGuire.

Nick: Cool. What does he say?

Chris: Well, Nick, essentially he argues that

  • the view that agriculture should mimic nature is based on the mistaken notion that there is a ‘balance’ in nature
  • ‘balance of nature’ ideas assume that ecosystems are in equilibrium, that they operate in accordance with meta-local rules and display emergent properties. None of this is true.
  • these ideas also mistakenly impute complexity and optimisation (or ‘nature’s wisdom’) to ecosystems, including the idea that pests are best controlled by retaining a complex agro-ecosystem
  • thus, finally, (and quoting Andy directly) “If what we see in natural ecosystems is not optimized, but random…we should be able to do just as well or better. We can, with ingenuity, wisdom, and a good dose of humility, purposefully assemble systems that outperform natural ecosystems in providing both products and ecosystem services.” The lesson, in short, is the one that gives Andy’s post its title – ‘Don’t mimic nature on the farm – improve it’.

Nick: I’m not your student, you know – you can spare me the bullet points.

Chris: Sorry.

Nick: But I like the cut of his jib. So nature’s not in balance, eh? It’s all randomness, disorder and chaos.  I like that. I like that a lot.

Chris: Yes, I suppose you would. But that’s the first of my problems with his arguments. Manichaeism is all very well in religion – you know, heaven and hell, God and the Devil…

Nick: (splutters) Look, I was just a plain member and citizen of the celestial community, OK? The fact that certain fragile-egoed upstarts don’t like hearing truth spoken to power is not my fault.

Chris: Yeah, Nick, whatever. But leaving that aside, in the natural world there’s surely scope for some shades of grey. I mean, Andy seems to take the view that ecosystems must be either wholly optimised and in balance, or else wholly random. This neglects the surely more plausible possibility that they might be partially optimised and in balance, but also subject to random occurrences. His analysis draws heavily on Ford Denison’s work1, which makes the important point that organisms are more optimised than ecosystems because natural selection operates on the former and not the latter. That makes sense, but the fact that there’s a powerful optimisation mechanism acting on organisms doesn’t mean that they’re wholly optimised or in balance. By reverse logic, the fact that the optimising forces acting on ecosystems are weaker doesn’t mean that there is no optimisation.

Nick: Well, maybe. But then you’d have to specify what those external optimising forces at work in the ecosystem actually are.

Chris: Not necessarily. It’s possible for there to be emergent forces resulting from the interactions between the elements of the ecosystem which have that effect, without invoking some additional agency. I mean, for goodness sake, just take the evolved morphology or behaviour of predator and prey species, like wolves and bison. You can’t understand it as a sui generis form at the level of the species – it only makes sense as an emergent interaction between the species. And that’s just a simple dyadic relationship – there are so many additional complexities, some of which we probably don’t even know about, whereas others such as the ecology of keystone species or disturbance/stability dynamics we do. And yet McGuire argues, with little substantiation, that there are no emergent effects in ecosystems. You don’t need to hold to some strong Clementsian superorganism type view of ecosystems to argue to the contrary – I think those examples I’ve just given suffice, or Grime and Pierce’s arguments about the evolutionary strategies that shape ecosystems2. And I do wonder why people get so het up trying to disprove emergence in ecosystems. In economics, a discipline far more wedded to methodological individualism than is possible in biology, nobody seems to quibble about the notion of the ‘invisible hand of the market’ as an emergent property despite its quasi-mystical overtones.

Nick: The invisible hand of the market?

Chris: Yes, Adam Smith’s doctrine that people pursuing their own narrow self-interest in the market unwittingly produce socially beneficial aggregate outcomes.

Nick: People acting just for themselves produce social good? That’s the most depressing thing I’ve heard in ages!

Chris: Don’t worry, Nick – there are plenty of critics who argue that the invisible hand is more like an invisible foot, in which the mere pursuit of self-interest produces more collective misery than deliberate attempts to cause social harm3.

Nick: Now you’re talking!

Chris: Anyway, my point is that McGuire’s creating a straw man. If you look at the way people have articulated the ‘balance of nature’ concept, it’s much more sophisticated than some mystical notion of a steady equilibrium state. Look at people like Aldo Leopold or John Vandermeer or J. Baird Callicott – they don’t construe ‘balance’ at all in the way McGuire charges. I don’t necessarily agree with everything Callicott says, but he makes a lot of interesting points about emergence and balance in his essay on the topic4 – including that “stability is a notoriously ambiguous concept in ecology, and has more recently been parsed into several more specific concepts – persistence, resistance and resilience” (p.124).

Nick: Not human traits I have much admiration for…

Chris: Well, that’s as maybe, but a couple more points about this. First, while writers like Emma Marris and Andy McGuire are keen to distance themselves from Clements and pin their colours to Gleason’s standard, some of the people they cite in their favour like Stephen Jackson are much more ambivalent: Jackson says that while he considers ecosystems to be fluid and contingent, he also considers them to be entities with particular attributes and processes that are repeatable in space and time – and that Gleason and Clements aren’t quite the polar opposites that are often supposed5. By the way, he also reckons that ecosystem assemblages usually hang together only for about 12,000 years or so, which might be encouraging news for malcontents of civilisation and its unholy alliance of Homo sapiens with cereal crops.

Nick: Well, I like unholy alliances…but, oh, the fun I could have if that happened. (Collecting himself) Anyway, your second point?

Chris: my second point is that it might be better if we stuck with the quantifiable ecological science of concepts like resilience or resistance. Otherwise we just start yelling our preferred metaphors at each other. ‘Nature’s in balance!’ ‘Oh no it’s not, it’s in flux!’. Balance, schmalance, flux, schmux. This isn’t science, it’s just mythologisation.

Nick: Well, people need their mythologies…

Chris: You would say that, wouldn’t you, otherwise you’d be out of a job.

Nick: I’ll ignore that remark.

Chris: Yes, people need their myths and their shorthands. But as I suggested on Andy’s blog, the ‘balance of nature’ myth, though problematic in some respects – including real world cases such as the removal of indigenous peoples from nature reserves – is less problematic than the ‘flux of nature’ myth, which has been used through the ages to justify might is right, and the defeat of countless relatively sustainable agricultural systems and peoples in favour of destructively productivist ones. It’s not just me that thinks this either – various ecologists have pointed to the dangers of the ‘flux of nature’ metaphor along the lines of the ‘anything goes’ problem I identified in my previous post6. That’s why I think Andy’s post, despite I’m sure his noble intentions to articulate a scientific truth as he sees it, strikes me as ideologically loaded. It buttresses humanity’s already well developed tendencies towards hubris in supposing that it’s a simple thing to design human-improved ecosystems.

Nick: Yes, well if it weren’t for human hubris, my job would be a darned sight harder. But since you mention ‘human-improved ecosystems’ let’s talk about agriculture, which you haven’t really mentioned yet. Andy’s main point surely is that you can’t rely on the ‘balance of nature’ myth to design good agricultural systems. I mean, ever since I got humans kicked out of Eden (heh, heh), they’ve had to get by through agricultural systems that rely on humanity’s infernal ingenuity to improve on what the natural world can offer, and not through ‘mimicking nature’. Ford Denison is surely right that it’s misguided to mimic nature – things like perennial grain crops just ain’t gonna work.

Chris: Let’s try to unpick this carefully. So first, yes of course any type of agriculture is an ‘improvement’ on nature from a human point of view (or at least from the point of view of those humans practising it), though I don’t see how it can be described as an ‘improvement’ in any other transcendent sense. Nothing new there. I think what Andy’s really gunning at is the notion that we can best improve on our agro-ecosystems by better mimicking nature. In some situations, I’m sure he’s right. In others, I suspect he isn’t. I don’t think there are any cast iron laws of agro-ecosystem assembly that rule nature mimicry in or out. At one level, all agro-ecosystems involve nature mimicry: we’re a long way from creating purely synthetic food, much as the prospect appeals to some. At another level, I think Andy is using Denison’s ‘misguided mimicry of nature’ point misguidedly. Take perennial grain crops. If Denison is proved right that the perennial grain breeders will be unsuccessful – and I suspect he will be – the reason won’t be because the breeders erred in trying to mimic nature. It’ll be because they erred in not mimicking nature enough. To put it crudely, in nature we find short-lived, prolifically reproducing species and long-lived, cautiously reproducing species – not long-lived, prolifically reproducing species. Farmers have made use of this by, for example, rotating between annual cereal crops and grazed perennial grass leys – that’s a great example of good nature mimicry in an agro-ecosystem. But trying to keep your perennial grains and eat them? I’m not so sure. There are loads of other examples of good nature mimicry in agro-ecosystems, like mob-stocking to mimic the grass-ruminant-predator relationship I mentioned previously, or the research on the relationships between ants, scale insects, parasitic flies, ladybird beetles and parasitic wasps in traditional coffee production systems which suggests counterintuitively the need to retain ants in those systems7. Andy may not consider these things ‘complex’. Well, they’re complex enough for me, but what really matters is that there’s enormous scope for improving agriculture by mimicking nature. Denison’s point, surely, is not that it’s necessarily misguided to mimic nature, but that it’s easy to mimic nature misguidedly.

Nick: OK, OK – so there’s a role for nature mimicry after all. Are we done yet?

Chris: Nearly, Nick, nearly. One last point. A nice thing about Denison’s approach is that he’s very attuned to tradeoffs in a way that I think Andy’s posts miss. We may be able to ‘improve on nature’ in agriculture, but what are the costs? If I were trying to develop a new pumpkin variety, I’d probably want to improve on nature by hand pollinating my plants. If I had some kind of high value crop in a polytunnel, maybe I’d improve on nature by deliberately importing some pollinating insects. If I had a five acre field of these plants, I’d hope nature would just do the job for me. Maybe we’ll get into a situation where we’ve messed with nature so much that it’ll stop doing some of these jobs for us – in fact we’re probably already there in some cases. I think it’ll be hard for us to assume responsibility for many of these ‘ecosystem services’ at as low a cost to us as nature has provided, but as a thought experiment suppose we had to choose between a mini-drone we’d devised that could pollinate all our crops better than insects at virtually no cost, or the insects themselves…which choice, and why? Is the human ‘improvement’ of nature the obvious way to go here? Not to me. There’s also another tradeoff I’d highlight that I think Denison misses  in a comment picked up by Andy when he says “Local sourcing of nutrients in natural ecosystems…is a constraint imposed by the lack of external inputs, not an example of ‘nature’s wisdom’” (Denison, p.106). Maybe that’s so in the sense that there’s no wise superorganism type ecosystem in a strong Clementsian sense, but I think Denison misses the opportunity here to apply his tradeoff approach, understood as “having more of one good thing usually means having less of another” (Denison, p.44). In human agroecosystems it’s easy to import extra inputs, but this usually imposes costs of various kinds elsewhere in the total system. Are tradeoff free improvements achievable through increasing the flow of exotic inputs, or, to put it another way, is there an ‘invisible hand’ in the exotic input market? Maybe, but how often? The tradeoff if we let exotic inputs get out of hand is the speed, scale and uncertainty of anthropogenic change, not to mention its social costs, which Denison in fact alludes to and so do most of the other ecological writers I’ve already mentioned. That’s where the ideological character of the ‘flux of nature’ myth becomes troubling, because it intersects so readily with the hubristic myth of human overcoming.

Nick: Yeah, well there’s a lot of those folks living down my way. What was it God said to me just before he banished me – “By the abundance of your trading you became filled with violence within”8. Wish I could have quoted Adam Smith to him back in the day. But anyway, if you’re so down on the flux of nature metaphor, what alternatives do you propose?

Chris: I think we just need to be careful about any metaphors for nature that we use, because they never capture the entire reality that we have to deal with. I agree of course that we need agriculture, and that the ‘balance of nature’ myth isn’t always our best guide, but sometimes it is, and the ‘flux of nature’ myth can also be seriously misleading. We just have to tread a very narrow path in designing agroecosystems, and always keep in mind social goals (what kind of society is this agriculture ultimately for?) as well as just productivity goals. But sometimes I think any kind of human living involves a Faustian pact of one sort or another – we’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.

Nick: Well, that’s really made my day. Thanks, Chris – it’s been great talking to you.

 

References

1. Denison, F. (2012) Darwinian Agriculture, Princeton.

2. Grime, P. & Pierce, S. (2012) The Evolutionary Strategies That Shape Ecosystems, Oxford.

3. Hunt, E. (2002) History of Economic Thought, Armonk.

4. Callicott, J.B. (1999) ‘Do deconstructive ecology and sociobiology undermine the Leopold land ethic?’ in Callicott, J.B. Beyond The Land Ethic, Albany.

5. Jackson, S. (2006) ‘Vegetation, environment, and time: the origination and termination of ecosystems’ Journal of Vegetation Science 17: 549-55.

6. Eg. Pickett, S. and Ostfeld (1995) ‘The shifting paradigm in ecology’ in Kinght, R. and Bates, S. (eds) A New Century For Natural Resource Management, Washington DC; Perfecto, I. et al (2010) Nature’s Matrix, London.

7. Perfecto et al, op cit.

8. Ezekiel, 28: 16.