The hypocrisy of environmentalists and the need for economic growth

Environmentalists are hypocrites, right? They condemn all sorts of behaviours like driving cars or taking plane flights in which they themselves indulge, and they want to deny poor people the right to the same luxuries by saying that the economic growth which promises to widen access to such luxuries is unsustainable.

These, frankly, are pretty dumbass criticisms, but environmentalism probably isn’t going to get far until it can somehow transcend them, and they get aired every day – not only by ignorant pub bores, but often by extremely smart people. I didn’t plan to write this post, but in the last week I’ve come across these familiar criticisms by two such smarties – the late Professor Hans Rosling, in this entertaining TED talk from 2010, and global inequality expert Professor Branko Milanovic in his brilliant, but somewhat flawed, recent book Global Inequality1, which I’ve just finished reading. Perhaps we could also throw in the Angry Chef from my previous post, who writes along similar lines that “The irony of people questioning what science has done for us whilst typing on a computer, connected to the internet via a fibre optic cable, should not be lost”. I want to address these criticisms partly because they fit neatly into the present narrative arc of this blog. But also because, rather than just trying to absolve myself as a guilty environmentalist, I want to try to turn that familiar critique on its head and go somewhere more useful with it.

The first part of the critique – the hypocrisy of personal complicity with environmental ‘bads’ – is the easiest to combat. Taking the Angry Chef’s example of computers, back in the 1980s I completed an entire university degree without once looking at a computer, whereas today I’d struggle to get through a single day without doing so. That’s not because I’ve changed, but because the world has. Of course, I could choose to take a stand and not use a computer, or a car, or aeroplanes. There’ve been times in my life when I’ve done exactly that. I passed my driving test in 1983, but didn’t actually own a car until 2007 (ironically, when I started running my ‘sustainable’ farming business). At various times and for varying durations I’ve similarly taken stands on flying, meat-eating, TV ownership etc. What difference has it made to the future of the world? Virtually none. Here we have the exact opposite of the free rider problem – let’s call it the oppressed pedestrian problem. In a ubiquitously motorised society, weigh up the personal costs of not driving against the benefits it delivers to the world at large, throw in the question of how much personal complicity affects the truth that motor vehicles are environmentally problematic, and go figure. The problem is structural, not individual. Nowadays I try to respect people who choose to avoid environmentally-negative behaviours, refrain from criticising people who don’t, and focus as best I can on what seems to me more important – the larger social structures that enable or constrain these choices.

Perhaps it’s harder to combat the second part of the critique, as articulated by Hans Rosling in his talk about the lack of access to washing machines among the majority of the world’s people – and more specifically, the majority of the world’s women. Surely, Rosling suggests, environmentalists who have access to one can’t without hypocrisy wish to deny the same access to all the world’s people? Actually it’s not so hard to combat this accusation. Do I use a washing machine? Yes. Do I wish to deny use of a washing machine to the 5 billion people in the world who don’t have access to one? No.

See, that was pretty easy. I do entertain a few caveats about Rosling’s position – the element of technological determinism involved in supposing that gender inequality is overcome by machines, the impact of the collective contexts in which people do or don’t have access to any particular technology, and the over-simplified connections he makes between labour-saving machinery, education and improved income. But, no, I think it would be great if everyone had access to a washing machine. I also think it would be great if nobody was threatened by climate change. There’s certainly a trade-off there, and I’m not persuaded by Rosling’s fond hopes for a decarbonised energy supply that can fund rich-country levels of energy use globally. But that’s another issue. For me, the main problem is that I doubt many of those billions actually will have access to a washing machine any time soon, if ever. So if it’s right to advocate for a better life for the world’s poor – and I think it is – then we need to start thinking afresh about how to do so. I want to broach that in the remainder of this post, perhaps in a rather roundabout way, by reviewing aspects of Branko Milanovic’s book.

If I had to nominate one single graph to make sense of the present human world, I think it would be the plot of relative gain in real per capita income by global income level over the last thirty years presented by Milanovic on page 11 of his book – the so-called ‘reclining S’ or ‘elephant’ graph, on account of its resemblance to said beast (you can see a version of it here). Essentially, the graph highlights four categories of people who could be termed the paired ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ from the neoliberal globalisation of the economy in recent history2. These are, first, the very richest people in the world, who’ve increased their income by nearly 70% over this period (Milanovic shows that, within this group, there’s a sub-set of super-rich ‘global plutocrats’ who’ve done even better). The second category of winners, who’ve done even better in relative terms, is what Milanovic calls the “emerging global middle class” – essentially the increasingly well-off middle-to-high earners in middle income countries experiencing fast economic growth. In practice, virtually all of these people live in China or a handful of other Asian countries. The losers are, first, the very poorest people in the world, who’ve increased their income by less than 20% (arguably it might not have increased much in the absence of globalisation, though I strongly suspect fiscal deregulation hasn’t helped their cause). And second, the poorer people in the high income countries, who while still earning more than the ‘emerging global middle class’ haven’t increased their income at all over the last 30 years, and so have fallen very much further behind the richer people in their home countries. It’s worth bearing in mind that these are relative rather than absolute figures, so they underemphasise the degree of wealth concentration that’s occurred over the period: someone on $1 a day who doubles their income has $1 a day more, while someone on $1,000 a day who doubles their income has $1,000 a day more. Indeed, 44% of the absolute income gain over the last 30 years has gone to the richest 5% of people3.

The elephant graph suggests that the world may be a slightly less unequal place than it was 30 years ago (the global Gini coefficient was 72.2 in 1988 and 70.5 in 2008) – although since inequality was at an all-time high in 1988, another way of saying this, Milanovic cautions, is that “global inequality today is at almost the highest point ever in history”4. This small reduction is almost entirely due to the rise of a hitherto ‘missing’ middle class in a handful of Asian countries such as China – which of course means that inequality within these countries has grown.

Here we have the well-known ‘Kuznets curve’, proposed by the economist Simon Kuznets in the 1950s. A country typified by ‘subsistence’ peasant agriculture will have a relatively egalitarian income distribution, but most people will be poor. As a country ‘develops’ by switching to industry, average income increases, but so does inequality. Eventually, however, inequality starts declining through worker organisation, trade unionism, state welfarism and the like. The Kuznets curve seemed to describe pretty well what happened in early-industrialising regions like Western Europe and North America until the 1980s, but the rising inequality indicated in the ‘elephant’ graph since then confounds it. Milanovic talks – not entirely convincingly, to my mind – of Kuznets ‘waves’, whereby countries like China are now going through their first Kuznets curve, while countries like the UK and the USA have started riding a second Kuznets curve. Milanovic discusses various reasons why inequality is now rising and may decline again in the future in these ‘second curve’ countries, though he doesn’t persuade me that this will necessarily happen, and I’m not sure he even persuades himself. It may be better to ditch the Kuznets hypothesis and all the talk of ‘curves’ and ‘waves’ altogether, and instead contemplate the possibility of chronic future inequality.

But let me try to apply the rather abstract results of the elephant graph to some questions of recent history and social policy. Going back to our old friends from 2016, the Brexit and Trump votes, it’s easy to see from the graph why there might have been a level of disillusionment among working-class voters in the UK and the USA about the consequences of globalisation that propelled them towards those particular ‘anti-global’ choices. Lectures about the damage those choices might wreak upon national prosperity probably didn’t wear too well with people who haven’t seen much of the prosperity come their way (obviously voting choices were a lot more complex than that, but I think that assertion is defensible – at least it puts me in the crowded company of many other wise-after-the-event commentators5).

However, the graph also suggests that looming over the shoulders of the relatively poor people in the rich countries are the relatively rich people in the poor countries (who are still poorer in absolute terms than the former, though they’re catching up). The notion that a Trump administration or Britain’s merry band of Brexiteers have either the will or the capacity to reverse the ebb of economic power away from the declining middle and working classes of the west and towards the rising middle classes of Asia seems, for numerous reasons, fanciful.

One thing that emerges strongly from Milanovic’s analysis, though he doesn’t place much emphasis on it, is how geopolitically concentrated the rise of the ‘global middle class’ is, being restricted to a handful of (admittedly very populous) Asian countries. In other words, it looks like the core-periphery structure of the global economy as described historically by world systems theorists like Immanuel Wallerstein is being replicated. What we’re seeing is less the rise of a ‘global’ middle class as the handing on of an economic leadership baton from the west to southern/eastern Asia, with other regions such as Africa and Latin America remaining more or less peripheral. Milanovic shows that prior to around 1820 what mattered most to a person’s economic life chances was their class, regardless of their nationality: it paid to be ‘well-born’, wherever you were actually born. But since then, location has mattered more than class. So for example almost anyone born in Britain is likely to have better economic life chances than almost anyone born in Zambia. There is, as Milanovic puts it, a ‘citizenship premium’ which advantages or disadvantages you largely on the basis of what passport you’re entitled to hold.

Going back to the Trump and Brexit results, one issue that loomed large in those campaigns was immigration – in the Brexit campaign, for example, around the issue of migrants from poorer East European countries undercutting the economic chances of the struggling British working class. “It’s not racist to talk about immigration” was the mantra du jour.

Well, no it’s not. But one of the things I admire most about Milanovic’s book is the clear-eyed way in which he does talk about it, and the way that in so doing he confronts the great unmentionable of economics – that is, the hypocrisy of supporting the free flow of capital around the world without supporting the free flow of labour.

Now, I got a certain amount of stick on this site around this issue a while back, for example being accused of ‘xenophobia’ for, among other things, my lack of enthusiasm for rigorous immigration control. No, me neither. But anyway, I’m completely with Milanovic on this one. Poorer people in richer countries can make a sound ethical argument for a fairer national distribution of income. Poorer people in poorer countries can make a sound ethical argument for a fairer international distribution of income – but if that’s not going to happen, which seems likely, then they can make a sound ethical argument in favour of migrating somewhere they can earn more. If people in richer countries think migration of that sort is unacceptable, then how can it be acceptable for the (relative) ‘have nots’ in a given rich country to expect redistribution from the ‘haves’?

I can’t see an ethical answer to that question. And indeed the only affirmative answers I’ve seen to it are pretty avowedly non-ethical and implicitly nationalist: it’s OK for poor people in rich countries to expect a better deal from their richer co-nationals, but not OK for poor people in poor countries to expect a better deal from richer foreigners. Situations of ubiquitous economic growth tend to keep such questions at bay, because things don’t seem so bad if everyone is getting richer, even if some are a lot richer than others. But in a likely future of chronically low and maldistributed growth, these distributional conflicts are only going to sharpen. Arguments against global migration from poor to rich countries are ultimately winner takes all or might is right arguments. Such arguments have an obvious appeal to the currently mighty (in which category, globally, almost everyone in a country like the UK fits), but they tend to lose their lustre if the mighty should fall (in which category, looking at Milanovic’s analysis, the UK might well fit in the future). Be careful what you wish for (Milanovic has some ‘compromise’ suggestions for dealing with global migration which strike me as quite sensible – perhaps I’ll look at these in more detail another time).

No doubt the ethical notion that people should cede current riches to the less well-off seems ludicrously idealistic, although it’s a commonplace nowadays to consider other ethical systems, such as those of foraging nomads, where the idea that you should take the lion’s share for yourself and let others go hungry simply because you can is absolute anathema – a sensible strategy, the anthropologists tell us, in uncertain times when you never know who’ll next be sated and who’ll be hungry. Perhaps that’s worth pondering as we confront an uncertain collective global future. As ever, ‘idealism’ is contextual – to me, the ‘obvious’ strategy proposed by my critics of clamping down on new or recent migrants is only obvious in the context of a certain modern mindset that’s best transcended.

Still, that mindset is deeply grounded in our politics, which has rarely been about ethics, except perhaps occasionally in recent times with the thinnest veneer of liberal internationalism. Generally, it’s been about power. I can’t see the rich world willingly giving up its advantages – so I suspect it will yield them slowly and unwillingly. I foresee a future of intense distributional conflict and quite probably war. If that happens, I hope those who’ve justified the current turn of western politics on distributional grounds (like John Michael Greer…) will keep quiet rather than trying to find non-distributional arguments to justify the status quo ante.

Are there any alternatives to this grim scenario? Well, possibly – but Milanovic isn’t much help in locating them. Despite his economic heterodoxy, he returns to the mainstream fold on the question of economic growth, ridiculing the idea of degrowth as a hypocritical fancy of rich westerners and arguing – albeit with the historical evidence in his favour – that economic growth is much the most powerful tool yet found for improving the lives of ordinary people in poor countries. He adds,

““Deglobalization” with a return to the “local” is impossible because it would do away with the division of labor, a key factor of economic growth. Surely, those who argue for localism do not wish to propose a major drop in living standards or a Khmer Rouge solution to inequality”6

Well, speaking personally I’d say certainly not the latter but possibly the former – especially if the drop in living standards falls mainly on the current rich, as Milanovic himself prescribes. One of the problems with his analysis is the rather crude way he contrasts industrial societies with pre-industrial ones as ‘subsistence’ societies, and uses fiscal income interchangeably with ‘living standards’. I don’t want to succumb to too starry-eyed a version of pre-industrial society, but the pre-industrial Britain of the 18th century, for example, was not a ‘subsistence society’ and there are some things that money can’t buy – indeed, there are some things that the pervasive marketization prompted by rising national incomes may jeopardise. This was true in early 17th century northeast England, for example, which experienced the last clearly documented famine in the country – one that afflicted not ‘subsistence’ peasants, but commercial livestock farmers suffering a market crash that made them too poor to afford grain7. Similar pressures afflict poor cash-crop farmers today8. I’m not altogether against the idea of the rural poor quitting peasant farming for something that pays better, but it’s a risky business. Despite the blandishments of ecomodernists and well-paid university professors, the fact is that many of the rural poor keep a foot in subsistence production as a risk-insurance strategy. I don’t think you have to side with the Khmer Rouge to argue that it sometimes ‘pays’ not to seek higher incomes above all else.

Milanovic nicely points out how bad social scientists, including economists, have been at predicting the future, serially succumbing to the fateful temptation to project short-run current trends as long-term structures. But let me put my cards on the table – I think it would be a good idea if people in the rich countries had lower living standards, and people in the poor countries had higher ones. I can’t exactly see how this will happen on the basis of current economic realities, but I’ll conjure with a scenario where those current realities are breaking down.

This involves chronic economic stagnation and debt in western countries of the kind analysed by political economists like Wolfgang Streeck9, the continuing leakage of economic power to Asia and the curveball (or perhaps googly, to use a more Anglocentric metaphor) of climate change and energy crisis renting the fabric of the global economy. In those circumstances, I think a lot of rural peasant cultivators globally will suffer, but so will a lot of urban merchant bankers in the west, and the balance may tip away from the latter and towards the former a little – perhaps to the extent that being a rural peasant cultivator in a country like England starts to seem less crazy than it presently does.

Let me run with that scenario a little further. Suppose that a post-Brexit Britain manages to control its borders, experiences the huge economic slump that obviously awaits it and, in a moment of clarity, sees that its problems aren’t fundamentally the fault of immigrants, the EU, or the Chinese, and that the solutions aren’t to be found in humbling itself before an uncaring global economy. Milanovic writes,

“An interesting question to ask is what might happen if the growth rate decelerated and fell to zero, and the economy became stagnant, but at a much higher level of income than in stagnant preindustrial economies. It is not inconceivable that Kuznets cycles would continue to take place against the background of an unchanging mean income, producing a picture similar to the one we have for pre-industrial economies”10

…which is one of wildly gyrating inequality in response to exogenous shocks. But a conceivable alternative might be what’s termed a ‘high level equilibrium trap’ which I’ll be looking at in future posts – a stable, efficient, dynamic but stagnant economy in which the primary asset is human labour. Managed well, I think this could be the best kind of economy for steering our way equitably, sustainably and resiliently through the future shocks awaiting us. ‘Managing it well’ would involve an attentiveness to resilience rather than to economic growth, an opposition to extremes of wealth accumulation, and a focus on sustainable, labour-intensive local industries. Like peasant farming, for example. I’m not sure it’s an especially likely future outcome. But it’s a possible one, and it’s better than most of the alternatives, which seem to me to cluster around the two possibilities of ecomodernist fantasy-land or internecine nationalist-mercantilist conflict.

But let me round off by returning to Professor Rosling and his washing machines. As I’ve said, the good professor was right that nobody who has access to a washing machine really ought to lecture those who don’t about what consumer items they can or can’t have. But I doubt for all that that what Rosling calls ‘the washing line’ – the level of income at which people can afford a washing machine – is going to encompass a great many more of the world’s people than it presently does, or that the global energy supply will be able to decarbonise at anything like the levels which would be required to greatly lower the washing line while avoiding runaway climate change. I also doubt that the benefits of the washing machine he outlines that accrued to the lucky earlier generations of technology-adopters such as his mother in Sweden – an education instead of hard domestic work, bringing rising income within reach – is going to work the same way for would-be washing machine owners of the future. There are just too many well-educated people chasing too few jobs in an increasingly dysfunctional and stagnant economy. As Milanovic puts it, the difference in skills and abilities between high and low earners in the future is likely to be increasingly small – the main difference being chance and family background11, not washing machines and education.

Another way of putting all this is that economic growth, education and technological development as means of improving the human lot are old stories that are probably going to work less well in the future. Like the ‘science’ discussed in my last post, they’re not bad things in themselves, but if people pin inordinate hopes on them as vehicles for future human betterment I think, increasingly, they’ll be disappointed. Environmentalists have been saying these things for years. However many washing machines or plane flights they personally enjoy, that doesn’t make them wrong. It’s time we started thinking structurally, and stopped shooting the messenger.

Notes

  1. Branko Milanovic. 2016. Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization. Harvard University Press.
  1. Though there are some difficulties of interpretation here, highlighted in this critique by Caroline Freund which I only came across as I prepared to publish this post. I’ll have to think about this some more – there are aspects of her argument I don’t find convincing, but some of her points are quite telling.
  1. Milanovic, p.24.
  1. Milanovic, p.253.
  1. Though, once again, the Freund critique puts a different spin on the figures, reverting us to another familiar response to the Brexit and Trump results – an inexplicable desire for economic self-harm, which in some ways is quite encouraging for my general thesis here.
  1. Milanovic, p.192.
  1. Mark Overton. 1996. Agricultural Revolution in England. Cambridge University Press, p.141.
  1. Peter Robbins. 2003. Stolen Fruit: The Tropical Commodities Disaster. Zed.
  1. Wolfgang Streeck. 2016. How Will Capitalism End? Verso.
  1. Milanovic, p.58.
  1. Milanovic, p.215.

Of bad science and bad SCIENCE: the angry farmer meets the angry chef

The plaudits seem to be piling up for Bad Science and the Truth about Healthy Eating1 by Anthony Warner, better known as ‘The Angry Chef’ for his foul-mouthed assaults on the pseudoscientific pretensions of the alternative health and diet industry. Well, my advocacy for alternative farming has never really been strongly grounded in nutritional considerations, and to be honest I find a lot of the book a pretty convincing takedown of some of the wilder shores of contemporary food faddism. So perhaps I’d be best off focusing on other things. But there are things that trouble me about Mr Angry’s line of argument, which bear on the general themes of this blog, so I’m going to conclude my recent series of critical book reviews with a look at his opus. Because you see, for someone who’s so angry about bad science, there’s a remarkable quantity of bad science in the book. The reason, I think, is because Mr A is less interested in science than in SCIENCE, and the result of this is…bad.

I’ll explain the difference between lowercase science and uppercase SCIENCE towards the end of this essay. But first I want to home in on the chapter of Mr Angry’s book in which he most reveals his penchant for bad science – Chapter 7 in Part II of the book called “When science goes wrong”, which focuses on the Paleo diet.

The Paleo diet idea in brief is that human diets changed radically after the widespread global adoption of agriculture starting around 10,000 years ago. This involved the substitution of energy dense foods based on cereals (and, later, also sugar) for the less carb-heavy fare to which our species and its antecedents had previously been accustomed. According to Paleo diet proponents, the high-energy input and low-exercise output regimen of modern life is associated with many of the chronic diseases of later life that plague us today, because a mere 10,000 years or less of agricultural lifeways has been insufficient for full evolutionary adaptation. There are numerous additional complexities to the Paleo diet idea which are set out in Loren Cordain’s eponymous book2, but that, I think, will have to suffice as a thumbnail sketch.

Trying to sort the chaff from the grain in Mr Angry’s attempted refutation of the Paleo hypothesis, if that’s not an inappropriate metaphor, I hope it’s fair to summarise it by way of the following six points:

  1. The Paleo hypothesis misunderstands evolution, since it assumes that evolution creates “one perfect being at a single point in time and then chug[s] along unaltered as the world changes around it”3. The truth is that “evolution doesn’t stop” – which Mr A supports with reference to the post-agricultural emergence of lactose tolerance.
  1. There were many different Palaeolithic peoples who ate widely different diets, so it’s impossible to determine what ‘the’ Paleo diet should be.
  1. Palaeolithic peoples did, in fact, consume carbohydrates.
  1. The Paleo hypothesis is sexist: its contemporary proponents tend to be men, and their “hypothesised Palaeolithic lifestyle” involving relatively high levels of meat consumption is “likely to appeal to a certain retrograde misogyny – the muscular male hunter bravely wrestling bears, while the women tend the children and pick a few berries”.
  1. The Paleo hypothesis romanticises the Palaeolithic period, a point that Mr Angry makes by various characterisations of it such as this: “As a species, we did all of our evolving in the golden age, when men were men and women wore bikinis made of mammoth fur”.
  1. The Paleo hypothesis involves a dangerous refusal of expert knowledge, because despite the fact that there’s a grain of truth to some of it and that it has a few academic advocates “in accepting the misunderstanding of science that underlies it there is a real danger of abandoning the tenets of reason. Once you reject the voices of real experts in favour of charismatic advocates with a prettier story, you leave yourself open to packs of pseudoscience wolves.”

What to make of all this? First, I’d draw a distinction between points 1-3, which are at least potentially good scientific objections to the Paleo hypothesis, and points 4-6 which are bad scientific objections – in fact, they’re not ‘scientific’ at all. Points 4 and 5 are ad hominem criticisms of contemporary people who espouse the Paleo hypothesis. I have no idea if they’re well-grounded and I don’t really care, because to use the kind of language favoured by Mr A himself, if it’s true that pre-agricultural diets are better for human health then, scientifically speaking, it doesn’t matter a flying f*** what views people espousing such diets take on matters of gender or history.

Point 6 is not so much an unscientific objection to the Paleo hypothesis as an anti-scientific one. For, as Mr A is at pains to emphasise throughout his text, the modus operandi of science, the whole reason for its spectacular success, is that it doesn’t satisfy itself with the ‘expert’ opinions of people in authority, but relentlessly questions received wisdom. For sure, if you want to take an intellectual shortcut on a scientific matter you’re probably better off asking for the opinions of someone who has some relevant scientific qualifications than those of someone who doesn’t. But science proceeds by way of empirical hypothesis-testing, not expert opinion-making, and the glory of it is that ultimately it stands or falls irrespective of anybody’s opinions. The criticisms voiced by the experts Mr Angry cites seem to take aim more generically at the idea of ‘a Paleo diet’ rather than any specific hypothesis underlying it. In any case, his contention that the Paleo hypothesis is rejected by all the experts apart from “a few academic advocates to give it some validity” is rather tendentious. There seems to be a reasonable body of writing in peer-reviewed journals that is broadly supportive4.

So I think we can reject points 4-6 as bad scientific objections to the Paleo hypothesis. Kind of weird to find such bad science in a book critiquing bad science, huh? Well, I think Mr A has his reasons, and I’ll come on to that soon.

But first let’s look more closely at the possibly more plausible points 1-3. Mr Angry is on firm ground in arguing that evolution doesn’t create perfect creatures at particular points in time and then stops. That certainly would be a misunderstanding of evolution. But, so far as I can discern, it’s not what proponents of the Paleo hypothesis actually think. Mr A doesn’t provide any references to support his characterisation of the evolutionary theory behind the Paleo hypothesis, which strikes me as intellectually sloppy. I think I’m detecting the sweet, dry aroma of straw, shaped into human form.

I’ll come back to evolutionary theory in a moment but, just to pick up on points 2 and 3, here is where we may be getting somewhere. If it turns out that Palaeolithic diets were typically as rich in carbohydrates as contemporary ones (and perhaps more to the point, as rich in simple carbohydrates) then that really would throw a spanner into the Paleo hypothesis. Here, Mr A does cite a paper, which argues that starchy foods were important in the pre-agricultural diet5. But so far as I can tell it doesn’t argue that carbohydrates or simple carbohydrates formed as significant a proportion of the diet as they do today – indeed, other research papers suggest the opposite6. Mr A himself mentions that among adults in the contemporary UK 12.1% of their dietary energy comes from added sugar, and for 11-18 year olds the figure is what he calls a “a genuinely shocking” 15.6%. It’s clearly true that Palaeolithic diets were quite varied and that Palaeolithic people would have sought out sources of carbohydrate when they could. But how many of them regularly consumed sucrose or simple carbohydrates more generally at the kind of levels reported by Mr A for the contemporary UK? My guess would be few, if any. And if that’s so, then there’s surely a prima facie case for the plausibility of the Paleo hypothesis.

Let me now briefly try to reconstruct the rudiments of a plausible Paleo diet hypothesis which is robust to the kind of objections raised by Mr Angry. First, I don’t think it’s scientifically controversial to say that there are widely consumed foodstuffs today that have potentially anti-nutritional or morbid properties as well as nutritional ones – soy, rape (canola), wheat and sugar spring to mind. There are ways of trying to minimise these properties – plant-breeding, preparation methods and dietary diversity among them. But I think it’s plausible to suggest that consumption of the crops I’ve mentioned – all huge global commodity crops – is likely to be higher than in pre-agricultural diets7.

Second, let us consider the nature of disease and exposure to risk factors associated with it. In some cases, diseases and disease-causing agents are experienced as binaries: you either have malaria or you don’t, you were either exposed to asbestos or you weren’t. But in many cases exposure is a continuous variable – for example, high blood pressure is associated with various health problems, but blood pressure is distributed continuously within populations. The point at which we define someone as suffering from the disease of hypertension is essentially arbitrary8. I hypothesise that the same may be true for the negative effects of foodstuffs like sucrose and gluten. Some people are highly susceptible and may display various morbid symptoms at low exposures, while others will be utterly impervious. The rest of us will be strung out along the continuum between these two poles. We won’t, for example, experience morbid symptoms simply by eating a few slices of bread, but if we eat a lot of bread over many years it’s possible that some of us eventually will experience morbid symptoms as a result. So, for example, the notion criticised by Mr Angry that no amount of sugar consumption is safe may be overly alarmist, but isn’t necessarily without scientific foundation. And one of the findings of preventive medicine is that population health is improved more radically if exposure to the risk factor is reduced by a little bit across the whole population than by a lot only among those most susceptible to it9. So even if in some cases (like coeliac disease, for example) there’s a genetic aetiology which isn’t simply distributed continuously, there may still be a case for taking a ‘less is better’ approach.

Third, let us consider the nature of evolution. Organisms, including humans, are born with characteristics substantially inherited from their parents which have usually developed over the evolutionary long haul because they conferred adaptive abilities to cope with the kind of environments the species in question experienced. Often, the kind of environment an organism experiences is similar to that experienced by its parents and ancestors, but sometimes environments change. In these circumstances, stronger selective pressures act upon the inherent variability within the species, favouring those organisms with characteristics that are better suited to the new environment. But, in the short-run at least, natural selection is a blunt instrument, acting only upon relative reproductive success. Therefore, if an organism experiences an environmental change that reduces its adaptive fitness in the post-reproductive phase of its life the selective effect will be slighter (though not, as discussed on this blog a while back, zero). And even in the case of stronger selective pressures, it can take a long time for natural selection to ‘catch up’ with the environmental change by progressively eliminating less adaptive characteristics in the population.

Fourth, let us consider the nature of the historical human diet. I’d hypothesise that it’s evolutionarily adaptive for humans to like and favour nutrient-rich foods such as sugar and other carbohydrates, fat, meat and other protein-heavy food. But in the hunter-gatherer situations that have typified the greatest proportion of our species and its antecedents’ time on earth, these foods were usually relatively hard to come by10. Mr Angry states with appropriate caution that we don’t really know in detail what our Palaeolithic forebears ate, and – as I’ve mentioned – he cites a research paper that suggests carbohydrate was an important part of our diet before agriculture, but doesn’t suggest how important. He also states that “even the evil grains were widely consumed for much of [the Palaeolithic period]”. This time he provides no supportive evidence for this statement, but there are research papers that suggest otherwise11.

One other little notion I’d like to throw into the mix here is the finding that rates of diabetes in societies consuming modern ‘western’ diets seem to be much higher than those of hunter-gatherer societies and others following ‘ancestral’ diets, but rates among people who’ve switched from an ‘ancestral’ diet to a modern western one may be higher still12.

OK, let me try to parlay all that into the Angry Farmer’s own personal Paleo hypothesis, which goes something like this: most ancestral human populations were adapted to diets lower in gluten-containing wheat, sugar and other simple carbohydrates than is typical of the modern western diet. Exposure to higher levels of these foodstuffs in the contemporary western diet is causally associated with various chronic diseases of later life such as diabetes and heart disease. Evolution hasn’t ‘stopped’ with the invention of agriculture – there is likely to be a selective effect favouring people who are less susceptible to such chronic diseases. But the effect is likely to be relatively weak and has not yet had time to eliminate the negative consequences of a cereal and carbohydrate-rich diet. Therefore, to reduce the risk of these disease outcomes it may be prudent for people to reduce their carbohydrate and wheat consumption. Lactose tolerance is another post-agricultural evolutionary adaptation – and one where the selective effect is likely to be stronger than in the case of gluten or carbohydrate tolerance because it confers the ability for whole populations to exploit new pastoralist niches that would be harder to occupy for lactose intolerant people. The weaker selective effect of post-reproductive chronic illness is inoperative in this case. Lactose tolerance is, however, just about the only clearly identified post-agricultural dietary adaptation. As Katharine Milton argues, “We know of few specific genetic adaptations to diet in our species”13. And even lactose tolerance isn’t that widespread across the human species.

Of course, I haven’t proved the Paleo hypothesis here. But I like to think I’ve established that it has a basic scientific plausibility that’s robust to Mr Angry’s objections. Note that it doesn’t depend on any notion that the Palaeolithic was some kind of ‘golden age’, or on a view that evolution creates one perfect being at a single point in time which is then impervious to change. It may turn out to be empirically wrong. But, for his part, Mr Angry furnishes no evidence to suggest that it is.

So why does he go to such lengths to ridicule it, employing such exemplarily bad science along the way? I think it’s because he’s less interested in critiquing bad science per se than in purveying a broader cultural argument. The milder form of this argument is that we shouldn’t get too hung up on our food choices or use them as status symbols. The essential message is: everything in moderation, enjoy life as you go, inject a bit of rationality into your thought and don’t point the finger of blame too much at yourself or other people. My feeling is that humans aren’t that good at rationality and incline quite naturally to symbolic thought, especially with culturally powerful things like food, and to games of status and blame. So I think Mr A has quite a battle on his hands to realise his vision – maybe that’s why he’s so angry. Sir, the angry farmer feels your pain. As a supporter of various lost causes myself, I’m not inclined to be too critical of this mild form of the argument, which strikes me as quite sensible.

But as the book wears on, the argument turns into something much more strident, totalising and, ultimately, pretty weird. Here are a few quotations:

“It is not enough to tackle dietary myths in isolation, attacking each one with competing evidence-based messages. In order to sell sensible, truthful messages, scientific truth itself needs to be made into an idea that sticks”

“To question science is to ignore everything it has done for man, to overlook the astounding progress of the last few hundred years”

“Processed convenience food has set women free, and every time we criticize convenience choices, we are showing our desire to drag women’s bodies and minds away from the workplace and back into the kitchen”

“I will always decry anyone who makes wild insinuations” …. “every society that has ever existed would eagerly swap their lives with someone living in the developed world today”

Here, ‘science’ as a form of rational, critical inquiry is turning into something else – a cultural or ideological proposition that contemporary ‘developed’ society is uniquely desirable and liberatory as a result of the inherent truthfulness of its science, which is now reconfigured in the argument as a unified repository of the good, something that must not be criticised for fear of falling into error. In other words, ‘science’ in this strand of Mr Angry’s presentation has assumed the mantle of religion or the revealed truth of God’s word. My shorthand term for this way of thinking about science is an uppercase SCIENCE, and it has precious little to do with science as a form of critical inquiry. Others refer to it as the ideology of scientism.

And this is all eerily familiar, no? The vaunting of contemporary ‘developed’ society against the inferiority of all other human societies. The religious style of elevating a particular truth claim – SCIENCE – over the putatively inferior, superstitious and relativist claims of its critics. The invocation of an oppressed category of people – in Mr Angry’s case, usually women – as uniquely liberated by the superior qualities of the culture in question, thereby positioning its critics as pariahs, in this case as misogynists. Oh, we’ve been here before – whether it’s diet, golden rice, nuclear power, urbanisation, ‘scientific agriculture’, or simply ‘progress’, the ideology of ecomodernism spreads its slimy tentacles ever wider. It always stakes a claim to speak up for the oppressed, for decency, and for progress, and against false idols like romanticism and relativism. And it’s always struck me as essentially religious in form – never more clearly than in Mr Angry’s exposition. Consider his comment:

“Poor dietary choices do not occur when people are driven by hedonistic pleasure, they occur when people eat without thought, and that will never happen if we engage with and truly love the food we eat”.

To me, this counter-Puritanism looks indistinguishable from the kind of unscientific mumbo-jumbo that Mr Angry spends so much time trying to debunk in his book. You could just as easily, and just as incorrectly, say that you’ll never get lung cancer if you smoke for hedonistic pleasure and truly love the tobacco you puff. As in Raj Patel’s fine book Stuffed and Starved, I think the truth is that we’ve ‘scientifically’ engineered our way to a global diet in which too many people get too much ‘feast food’ (typically the poorer people in the richer countries) and too many people get too little food at all (typically the poorer people in the poorer countries).

Ah well, I like to think I’ve written enough about ecomodernism in the past and have acquired a sufficiently like-minded and discerning readership on this blog not to labour the point of what, to use one of Mr A’s own favoured words, utter dumbfuckery his claims about hedonistic eating or the trans-historical desirability of contemporary ‘developed’ society are. So I’d just like to conclude with a few further thoughts about ‘science’.

At one point in his book, Mr Angry quotes from a speech by John F. Kennedy about the US moon programme in which the president said “space science, like nuclear science and all technology has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man”. And yet there is no sense of this same ambivalence, of cultural contradictions and trade-offs, of paths closed off as new ones open up, in his own thinking about science, which he’s content to describe simply as “the greatest force for progress that there has ever been”. Well, off the top of my head, here are five great anti-‘progressive’ forces in the contemporary world which have all emerged as a result of the progress of science:

  • anthropogenic climate change
  • thermonuclear weapons
  • accelerated biodiversity loss
  • eutrophication of rivers and oceans
  • loss of antibiotic efficacy through prophylactic agricultural use

My guess is that all of them have the potential to imperil human lives at a level orders of magnitude beyond that caused by Gwyneth Paltrow’s half-arsed dietary advice or the Gerson therapy and other dodgy ideas of the kind excoriated by Mr Angry, precisely because of the efficacy of the scientific method in combination with the vastly transformative nature of the capitalist economy. And if one had to choose the single greatest threat to humanity in contemporary society caused by the refusal to heed scientific opinion, it would surely have to be climate change, something that Mr Angry doesn’t mention once. And, seriously, which science-denier is the greater threat – Ms. Paltrow or JFK’s unsurpassably idiotic successor in current occupation of the White House? Ah well, I suppose just because we face major existential threats as a result of our science, there’s no reason to avoid writing books about the minor existential threats we face as a result of our non-science. But I don’t think these should be built up into a closed ideological defence of SCIENCE as an ideology of modernity and inherent progress. Despite the rather toxic debate we’ve got into recently concerning the status of experts in the wake of Michael Gove and Charlie Gard, this doesn’t seem a great historical moment to be extolling scientific progress, the cult of the expert and ‘development’ as virtues. In fact, I think books like Mr Angry’s are part of the problem. Which makes me kind of…angry.

Notes

  1. The Angry Chef. 2017. Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating. OneWorld.
  1. Cordain, Loren. 2002. The Paleo Diet. John Wiley & Sons.
  1. The Angry Chef, op cit. I read the book on an e-reader and regrettably I have no idea how to give page references.
  1. eg. Kuipers, Remko et al. 2012. A multidisciplinary reconstruction of Palaeolithic nutrition that holds promise for the prevention and treatment of diseases of civilisation. Nutrition Research Reviews 25: 96-129; Lieberman, Leslie. 2003. Dietary, evolutionary and modernizing influences on the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes. Annual Review of Nutrition 23: 345-77; Lindeberg, Staffan. 2012. Paleolithic diets as a model for prevention and treatment of western disease. American Journal of Human Biology 24: 110-5; Milton, Katharine. 2000. Hunter-gatherer diets – a different perspective. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 71, 3: 665-7.
  1. Hardy, Karen et al. 2015. The importance of dietary carbohydrate in human evolution. The Quarterly Review of Biology. 90, 3: 251-68.
  1. Milton, op cit.
  1. Savard, Manon et al. The role of wild grasses in subsistence and sedentism. World Archaeology 38, 2: 179-96.
  1. Rose, Geoffrey. 1993. The Strategy of Preventive Medicine. Oxford University Press.
  1. Ibid.
  1. Milton, op cit.
  1. Savard et al, op cit.
  1. Zimmet, Paul. 1992. Challenges in diabetes epidemiology – from west to the rest. Diabetes Care 15, 2: 232-52.
  1. Milton, op cit.

The tyranny of the ‘collaborative commons’

Busy times for me on and off the farm at the moment, but it feels like it’s time for another post. I’ll soon be returning to the Peasants Republic of Wessex by way of recounting the history of the world, but I’m not quite ready for that yet. Meanwhile, I seem to be in the business of knocking out little critical vignettes on various writers, having offered up Peter Frase and Michael Le Page in my last two posts. Two more to come, I think, before turning to other matters – on this occasion Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist1. I’m currently writing a full-scale review of the book to appear elsewhere. Here, I’m going to focus in specifically on the issue of ‘commons’ that Raworth raises in various parts of her book. I’ve written about it several times before on this blog, since I find myself much less enthusiastic about commons than most of my greenish-leftish-progressive-anti-capitalist fellow travellers. Ach, I’m a peasant populist at heart, and peasants have a canny sense of when a commons is a good idea and when it isn’t. Anyway, I’m not going to summarise exactly what Raworth says about commons, I’m just going to offer you the following six postulates about them prompted by my reading of her book.

  1. All forms of production are ‘collective’ – but that doesn’t make them a commons.

There are four main ways through which people organise their provisioning – households, private markets, governments and commons. Each have characteristic strengths and weaknesses, and are likely to be more or less appropriate in different situations. In order to succeed, all four of them rely upon collective arrangements between people to organise provisioning. A strong case can be made that the contemporary global economy is excessively focused on private markets to the detriment of collective human flourishing. But that’s not at all the same thing as arguing that provisioning should be organised in the form of commons.

  1. It’s easy to overstate the extent to which both the natural world and human history can be characterized as commons. And it’s unnecessary.

All organisms live interactively with others upon which they depend as part of wider communities. But in the natural world, their actions are rarely motivated by a concern for the wellbeing of the community and its resource bases as a whole – there are rarely agreed collective appropriation rules in nature. There frequently are collective appropriation rules in human societies, and often enough there are conflicts over them. It would be fair to say that in various times and places over the course of human history collective appropriation rights have sometimes been extinguished, to the detriment of some of the people involved and to the advantage of others. But I don’t think it would be fair to say that the history of most places, such as England, can be told substantially in terms of an ‘enclosure of the commons’ in which private appropriation by the aristocracy replaced collective appropriation by the populace. Additionally, there are various contemporary conflicts around the use of seeds, organisms and genes, and a strong case can be made in these instances that the privatisation of usage rights is a bad idea. It may even make sense to call this privatisation an ‘enclosure of the commons’. But the rights and wrongs of these conflicts are best framed in their own contemporary terms, rather than seeing them as analogous to medieval conflicts over agricultural land use or the way that organisms behave in ecosystems – except in such a broad and general sense as to be more or less meaningless.

  1. Agricultural commons work best for relatively low value, extensive, non-excludable situations with high labour costs of capital improvement, and the same is probably true of other commons.

The original meaning of a ‘common’ was an agricultural resource shared by a specific community in accordance with defined usage rules – and they typically arose in the kinds of situation described in the previous sentence. If you wanted to grow some onions for your table, it’s unlikely that you’d form a commons for the purpose – unless you had a taste for wasting a lot of your time trying to forge agreements in frustrating public meetings. Whereas if you wanted to collect firewood from your local woods, you might well feel it was worth the effort to work with others to create a commons so as to be sure there’d be some more firewood next year. Nowadays when we talk of commons we usually mean something more virtual – Raworth’s text is sprinkled with references to things like ‘the knowledge commons’, ‘the collaborative commons’ and ‘the creative commons’. An oft-cited example of such things is open source computer software. I can see how this particular example might fit with the typical characteristics of an agricultural commons within a community of software developers whose main livelihood is already secured (probably on the basis of paying a pittance for the food they eat) and who find more benefit from freely sharing bits of code they’re working on around their community than from trying to develop it on their own and then charging for it. But it’s a slippery slope, and once we start using terms like ‘the collaborative commons’ as a grander-sounding way to say ‘people sharing things’, the concept of the commons starts to lose useful meaning. It’s a given that people sometimes share things and sometimes don’t. We need to attend carefully to the circumstances in which they do or don’t, or in which they should or shouldn’t. Arguments with the logic of commons = sharing = good just aren’t careful enough.

  1. Production and circulation are different things.

I think the slippage I’ve just referred to from commons qua ‘defined collective usage agreement’ to commons qua ‘free stuff, freely shared’ matters quite a lot. To explain why I first need to introduce a distinction between production and circulation, which I’ll do via a quotation from Raworth:

“The triumph of the commons is certainly evident in the digital commons, which are fast turning into one of the most dynamic arenas of the global economy. It is a transformation made possible, argues the economic analyst Jeremy Rifkin, by the ongoing convergence of networks for digital communications, renewable energy and 3D printing, creating what he has called ‘the collaborative commons’….Once the solar panels, computer networks and 3D printers are in place, the cost of producing one extra joule of energy, one extra download, one extra 3D printed component, is close to nothing, leading Rifkin to dub it ‘the zero-marginal-cost revolution’. The result is that a growing range of products and services can be produced abundantly, nearly for free, unleashing potential such as open-source design, free online education, and distributed manufacturing”2

The confusion as I see it here is that, yes, the marginal costs of circulation are now nearly zero, but the actual costs of production aren’t necessarily much different from pre-internet or even pre-book times. It takes as much hard thought and hard work to put together a good course, a good political essay, a good poem or a good tractor design as it ever did. But once it’s put together, it can now be distributed almost costlessly around the world, potentially to an audience of billions. The zero-marginal-cost-revolution, if there is one, is a revolution of circulation, not production.

  1. Poorly-framed concepts of the commons punish creativity.

Well, no doubt this revolution is a fine thing. But follow the money. Those who control the circulation are in a position to effortlessly siphon off wealth, whereas those who control the production aren’t – which is why Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are a lot richer than any political essayist, poet or tractor designer. I don’t especially have a problem with that, except inasmuch as their private wealth derives from the ‘enclosure’ of appropriation rights from publicly-generated means of circulation. Which is surely an irony – a ‘collaborative commons’ based on privately owned, and possibly ‘enclosed’, means of circulation. But what I do have a problem with is the belittling of creativity or content-creation implicit in this whole ‘collaborative commons’ mindset. The way I see it, almost everybody has some kind of creativity – with words, or music, or materials, or ideas. The private market we use so pervasively to organise our lives is over-supplied with this torrent of human creativity, meaning it’s darned difficult to turn a buck from it. Fine, nobody was born deserving a favour from the world. But to my mind all this talk of ‘collaborative commons’ or ‘knowledge commons’ or Stewart Brand’s much quoted shibboleth that ‘ideas want to be free’ basically mystifies the hard work of production and gives the appropriation of circulation an easy ride. I wrote about this previously in relation to the debate between Josef Davies-Coates and Toby Hemenway concerning the former’s free circulation of the latter’s book, where the prevailing idea on the ‘knowledge commons’ side of the debate seemed to be that nobody really has any original ideas so they shouldn’t expect to make any money out of repackaging collective human wisdom.

OK, but we all have to eat – typically by either paying for someone to repackage collective human wisdom on the farm and grow food for us, or by doing it ourselves. And conversely we’re perfectly at liberty not to consume somebody else’s repackaged human wisdom on the “don’t use, don’t pay” principle, whether it comes in the form of poetry, political essays or a bag of corn chips. Those who want to push hard for a ‘collaborative commons’ with minimal rights of private creative appropriation need to explain how people would create their livelihoods in such a society. To be fair, Raworth does have the makings of an answer on this front, even if it’s the same one as most other writers in this leftish, technophile tradition – universal basic income. But she doesn’t really flesh out what that would end up looking like politically – less so, say, than Peter Frase, whose work I reviewed recently. My bet is that the most likely political endpoints for that would either be an economically insecure, moribund and dreary modernist authoritarianism (which we seem well on our way to achieving), or else a neo-peasant society in which we devote most of our creativity to providing our own food, clothes and shelter, with the occasional bonus of our music, stories, crafts or knowledge freely given to people we care about in our families and wider communities. I much prefer the latter outcome to the former, so if I have to nail my colours to the ‘collaborative commons’ mast I guess my rallying cry will be “Collaborative commons, universal basic income and two acres for all!” More on that anon.

  1. Commons aren’t always the best way of organising provision.

I can’t help feeling that a lot of the people who wax most lyrical about the benefits of the “collaborative commons” are probably salaried employees of large-scale public or private sector institutions who are less aware than they might be of exactly who is bearing the costs of the collaboration – or else perhaps a self-employed consultant able to charge out their time quite handsomely to the same. If so, a stint as a self-employed farmer providing basic food for themselves or selling it to a local community may prove eye-opening. I also can’t help feeling that a lot of the people who wax most lyrical about Elinor Ostrom’s book Governing the Commons as proving the superiority of the commons as a mode of provisioning probably haven’t actually read it. Fair play, it’s pretty dry stuff – I must admit that I skimmed over the odd page or two myself on the ins and outs of municipal water litigation in California. But Ostrom doesn’t argue that a commons – agricultural, digital, creative, knowledge, collaborative or whatever else – is necessarily the best way of organising things. Nor, I think, should anyone else.

oOo

Well, there you have it – a few top of the head thoughts I’ve skimmed off from the collective human genius, and repackaged right here. I’ll attempt to work it up into something a bit more rigorous in due course. Thanks for reading this far. I appreciate it. And now I better go and tend to my garden. Donate button is top right.

Notes

  1. Kate Raworth (2017). Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. London: Random House.
  1. Ibid. pp.83-4.

 

Of holism, particularism and photosynthesis

I’ve been hoping to get back to my Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, albeit by a roundabout route, but it’s busy days on the farm at the moment so it’ll have to wait. Instead let me offer a few scattered thoughts to follow on from the discussion last time of RoboBees, nature vs humanity and Clem’s enthusiasm for photosynthesis – thoughts prompted by an article in the New Scientist that I recently read under the misapprehension that it was hot off the press, only to find after drafting this post that it was published nearly three years ago (but still, I think, a propos). Never let it be said that Small Farm Future isn’t bang up with the latest science…

Anyway, where I want to go in this piece ultimately is some mildly philosophical thoughts on nature and farming, and on holism and reductionism, and the links between these two dualities – thoughts with some upbeat implications for a small farm future. But first I’m going to have to take you through another ecomodernist vale of tears. So for those of a nervous disposition – be warned.

My starting point is that trusty old ecomodernist standard that photosynthesis – the process at the foundation of complex life on earth by which plants convert solar energy and carbon dioxide into the chemical building blocks of their tissues – is chemically inefficient and can be improved by human bioengineering. I’ve heard this point made quite often without further elaboration in the ecomodernist circles that I eavesdrop into from time to time, and my instinct has always been to dismiss it as a typical example of ecomodernist hubris.

But in the New Scientist piece I mentioned, Michael Le Page gives a slightly more detailed overview than usual of the issue, and reports on research that he says has “taken a huge step forward” in engineering improved photosynthesis by inserting a faster-photosynthesising version of the key RuBisCo enzyme from a cyanobacterium into a tobacco plant1. From here, Le Page leaps to the favoured productivist ideology of the ecomodernists, arguing “This seems like great news in a world where demand for food, biofuels and plant materials like cotton continue to increase, and where global warming will have an ever greater impact on crop production. More productive plants mean greater yields”. Then, he makes another huge leap of logic…but I’ll come to that in a moment.

I’m not a biologist so I’m going to frame the issue to the best of my limited abilities and put out a call to anyone better grounded in this than me to put me right if my reasoning is flawed. So, as I understand it, the chloroplasts in plant cells where photosynthesis occurs derive originally from free-living cyanobacteria, as Le Page describes. At some stage in the evolutionary past (though not, I think, ‘a billion years ago’ as Le Page claims) some such cyanobacteria were incorporated into the cell architecture of ancestral plant species. They’ve retained some, but not all, of their original DNA independently of the plant’s, but the plant cells see to it that they live in a cossetted, beneficial environment (they know which side their bread is buttered) and the result is that chloroplasts turn over and mutate at a slower rate than free-living cyanobacteria, which are more subject to direct evolutionary selection pressure. My guess is that this is what Le Page is driving at when he says that the “enslaved cyanobacteria” of plants have had “little scope to evolve” and are therefore less well adapted to today’s relatively carbon dioxide impoverished environment than free-living cyanobacteria which “have been able to evolve unfettered”.

But it’s not as though plants haven’t innovated evolutionarily in photosynthetic matters. As Le Page himself points out, plants have evolved the more efficient C4 photosynthetic pathway – in fact, this has evolved independently at least 31 times within various plant genera, mostly in the warmer climates where the C4 pathway works best. So why have plants been able to evolve more efficient forms of photosynthesis but not the super-efficient ones of the cyanobacteria? I don’t know, but my guess would be it’s not because the ‘enslavement’ of their cyanobacteria makes them evolutionarily unadventurous (which strikes me as the misguided application of a human metaphor to the natural world). Even if mutation in chloroplasts turns over more slowly than in cyanobacteria, plants have been around a very long time and, other things being equal, the advantages of more efficient photosynthesis are such that just a few mutations along these lines across the whole history of the plant kingdom would quickly propagate itself. So my guess is that ‘other things’ aren’t equal. Or to put it another way, plants are not reducible to their chloroplasts – there are numerous forces acting on the whole plant which it has to deal with as a complete organism in its environment. And these doubtless create trade-offs for the plant between photosynthetic efficiency and other desired characteristics – maybe drought tolerance and speed of growth?

If that’s so, it still doesn’t mean in itself that it’s necessarily a bad idea to engineer more photosynthetically efficient plants. But it suggests that the resulting plants may not be so well adapted to other aspects of their environment. And this, in a nutshell, is the tragedy of agriculture. For example, wild cereals would never naturally evolve the characteristics bred into them to suit human purposes – namely, short stems to ensure that as much of their photosynthate as possible goes to the desired seed, and non-shattering rachis to ensure that as many of the seeds as possible go into the desired grain harvester. Put such a plant into a wild grassland and it would be instantly outcompeted by tall-stemmed, shattering varieties – which is why farmers have to spend their days ploughing, weeding, spraying and so forth. My feeling is that Le Page’s “supercrops” with their “turbocharged photosynthesis” will only be “super” when they’re cossetted in the field or garden – just like other genetic monstrosities such as the bread wheats that humans have created down the ages.

If I’m right it may be a blessing, because Le Page thinks otherwise – in his view, these supercrops may outcompete wild plants, and the inference he draws is that we should not only let them do so but actively promote this outcome, in his words by “upgrading many wild plants too”. His rationale for the ‘upgrade’ of crop plants is the familiar ‘land sparing’ argument: in his words, “boosting agricultural yield to feed more people with less land”. And his rationale for the wild upgrade is this: “Wild animals need to eat too, and we’re not leaving much for them. An ecosystem based on superplants would support more life overall”.

Well, that suggestion leaves me as outraged as the next right-thinking greenie, but I want to focus my attention on the logical structure of this argument, which I find curious. At issue is an old debate in ecology as to whether the assemblages of organisms we call ecosystems have some emergent higher-order structure – whether the ecosystem is, as it were, a ‘superorganism’ – or whether it’s a more random, dynamic and competitive order with no equilibrium state or baseline by which we can say ‘Ah, here’s a proper ecosystem – intact and in balance’. The current orthodoxy in ecology, as I understand it, inclines towards the latter view, as elaborated for non-specialist audiences by the likes of Andy McGuire and in Emma Marris’s book Rambunctious Garden2.

Marris’s book has a cover endorsement from ecomodernist granddaddy Stewart Brand, and I suppose it’s not hard to see why. If there’s no stable ecological baseline, no ‘right’ ecosystem, against which to judge human fiddling with the rest of the biota, then there can be no objection in biological principle to any kind of bioengineering or plant ‘upgrade’ that somebody might deem worth a shot. But that argument cuts both ways. By the same token, there can be no objection in biological principle to filling the countryside or even the national parks with peasant farmers pursuing a putatively less ‘efficient’ form of ‘land sharing’ agriculture. The relatively efficiencies of high-tech commercial agriculture and low-tech peasant agriculture are difficult to determine, and it’s by no means a given that the former outscores the latter. But the beauty of the ‘random ecosystem’ argument is that it doesn’t matter. If it were true that the natural world was a thing of delicate balance entirely outwith human affairs that was apt to collapse in a heap at the hint of human presence, then I could see the logic of the ecomodernist position, at least theoretically – get people into cities well away from ‘nature’, grow food in the most efficient, lowest land-take manner possible, go vegan etc. In practice, I don’t think this is a good idea because for numerous reasons I think human environmental impacts in the long-term and possibly even the short-term will be greater, not lesser, if we go down this route. But theoretically at least, it’s a position that might make sense. If, on the other hand, we accept that humans are a part of the natural world and will inevitably affect it, just as all other organisms do, then the logic of ‘sparing’ land for nature becomes harder to discern. Of course, humans affect nature disproportionately to our numbers (or perhaps a better measure would be to our biomass), so whether we’re ‘sparing’ or ‘sharing’ it’s surely a good idea for us to attend to our impacts on the natural world – but there’s nothing written in the book of nature that tells us what those impacts should be. So there’s no ecological rationale for Le Page’s plan to ‘upgrade’ wild plants so that wild animals have more to eat.

Maybe what’s going on here is another set of contradictions around another dualistic debate – holism versus reductionism. We face some big, broad problems in the world – like how to feed humanity sustainably. Meanwhile, the scientific method has been spectacularly successful at understanding the world not so much in a big, broad holistic way, but in small, particular, reductionist ways. The problem with ecomodernism as I see it is that it makes the characteristically ‘modernist’ category error of trying to resolve the duality by addressing the general from the particular, by solving big, broad problems using small, reductionist means. I’d like to propose the opposite approach, of trying to solve small, particular problems by big, broad means. Take any person in the world – what are the main problems they have to solve as an individual to live well? How about food, clothes, shelter and conviviality? And what are the main factors obstructing them? I don’t think the photosynthetic inefficiency of the eukaryotic cell tops the list.

When I published my critique of the Ecomodernist Manifesto somebody tweeted a response along the lines of “Not beyond the wit of humanity to solve our problems. Maybe beyond the wit of @csmaje.” Well, it certainly is beyond my wit to solve humanity’s problems, and I’m inclined to think that it’s also beyond humanity’s collective wit to solve its collective problems. But then again I don’t have to solve humanity’s problems, and nor does anyone else. Solving my individual problems concerning food, clothes, shelter and conviviality stretches my wit quite enough, but at least it seems potentially achievable. So my contention for debate is this: IF WE COULD ONLY STOP TRYING TO SOLVE THE PROBLEMS OF THE ‘WORLD’ AND FOCUS ON OUR OWN DANGED PROBLEMS, THEN THE WORLD WOULD BE A LESS PROBLEMATIC PLACE.

Let me be clear: I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t care about other people or other beings; I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t work collectively with others; I’m not arguing that private vice equals public virtue, along the lines of Adam Smith. One of the ironies of the Smithian position is that it takes a strong, universalist body like a centralised state to break down local connections sufficiently to enforce the pursuit of ‘private’ self-interest. I’m just arguing that specific problems addressed holistically at the local level may prove more tractable than general problems addressed specifically at the global level. All of those terms are up for debate, but my starter for ten would be that small-scale, local, ‘land-sharing’ agroecological farming based on tried and tested materials and methods will do a better job of feeding the world and the rest of the biota too than Le Page’s superplant upgrade. And I say that in full awareness that there are various major global crises underway, including mass extinction. I agree with Le Page that “we are way, way past the point where we can preserve Earth the way it was before we came to the fore”. I just don’t think particularistic solutions to holistic problems of the kind he offers will best overcome them.

In his book Darwinian Agriculture – my go-to text for sensible scepticism about the wilder claims of both biotechnology and ‘alternative’ agriculture – ecologist Ford Denison reports that the claim to be able to engineer improved photosynthesis has been around for about forty years and is not likely to be realised “anytime soon”3. After discovering that the cyanobacteria ‘upgrade’ of tobacco wasn’t exactly the latest news, I spent a bit of time searching the web for an update on this breakthrough – not so diligently that I can be sure of this, but I failed to turn up anything published within the last year or two to suggest that the ‘upgrade’ was closer to reality. Could this be yet another one of those fabled ecomodernist technologies, like nuclear fusion, destined to recede ever onwards into the almost theres of the future? If you can bring me any further news of this particular hereafter, I’d be happy to hear it…

Notes

  1. Michael Le Page. 2014. Turbocharge our plants. New Scientist. 224, 2989: 26-7.
  1. Emma Marris. 2011. Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. Bloomsbury.
  1. Ford Denison. 2012. Darwinian Agriculture: How Understanding Evolution Can Improve Agriculture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Nine futures

Everybody needs to unwind with a bit of escapist reading from time to time and, like many people I’m sure, one of my favoured genres in this respect recently has been treatises of left-wing futurology. I’m thinking, for example, of titles like Inventing the Future, How Will Capitalism End?, Alternatives to Capitalism and Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn Addicts1. I’ve found all of these books (with one exception, which I’d guess should be obvious from its title) to be interesting and thought-provoking, even if I don’t find myself fundamentally in agreement with them. Another one I’ve read recently, one of the best of the bunch, is Peter Frase’s Four Futures: Life After Capitalism2.

My aim in this post is to use Frase’s book as a cue to discuss some issues of interest to me, rather than reviewing or précising it as such – but I’d certainly recommend taking a look at it. Like many left-futurologists, Frase in my opinion gets a little too excited about the prospect of an automated and jobless future (one of the features of the genre is that you have to mention 3D printing, driverless cars or biomimicry on virtually every page as some kind of avatar of future abundance), but at least the insights he generates from these new-old chestnuts are subtler than most. Frase proposes a 2×2 matrix of future scenarios across the dualities of abundance/scarcity (which he links to the play of ecological outcomes like climate change and resource depletion) and equality/hierarchy (which he links to the outcome of class conflicts over the distribution of resources). It’s a simple device – perhaps an over-simple one – but a useful one. I wish I’d thought of it myself…

Frase fills this matrix with the ‘four futures’ of his title thus:

 

Abundance Scarcity
Equality Communism Socialism
Hierarchy Rentism Exterminism

In case these concepts aren’t clear I’d precis his ‘communism’ as an egalitarian, leisured world of technologically-undergirded jobless plenty, ‘rentism’ as a capitalism-max, competitive world of endless commodification, ‘socialism’ as a world of egalitarian shared labour to wrest a livelihood from a damaged nature, and ‘exterminism’ as a world in which an impoverished working class whose labour has become superfluous as a result of automation is subjected to increasingly militarised control, and ultimately to extirpation (a process that Frase already detects among other things in the paramilitary police disciplining of African-American youth in the USA). It’s an interesting point inasmuch as discussions of future constraint or collapse often omit class and converge around a kind of Mad Max scenario involving a war of all against all. More likely indeed is intensifying resource competition between rich and poor, with the odds strongly favouring the former.

Frase writes interestingly about all these scenarios – and about how one might bleed into another – raising a host of issues that I hadn’t thought much about, if at all. But, as ever, I want to focus on a couple of points where I disagree with him rather than the many where I agree, if only because they help me develop my larger theme. So, Frase writes “Freedom begins where work ends – the realm of freedom is after hours, on the weekend, on vacation and not at work”3. That’s certainly a familiar story we tell ourselves, but psychological research suggests it’s not necessarily true4: people often rate their feelings of wellbeing higher at work than at play – maybe not so surprising when you consider that at work people are often engaged positively with other people in order to achieve complex ends, which is kind of what humans are evolved to do. Whereas at leisure they’re often kicking around on their own among the alienating appurtenances of contemporary consumer culture, thinking “God, I’m supposed to be having fun – is this really what life’s about?”

Let me leave that thought hanging for a moment, and come on to a second point of disagreement. Frase critiques the ‘nature worshipping’ school of ecological thought, which holds that human actions are wrecking nature, on the grounds that humans are a part of nature – and that nature in any case is never ‘in balance’ but is always profoundly dynamic5. I won’t argue with that, but I’d dispute the merit of turning it into a duality that forces us to choose between ‘nature worship’ or ‘anything goes’. This leads to false choices. For example, Frase talks about the ‘mysterious phenomenon’ of bee colony collapse disorder in the USA, and suggests that one solution might be to manufacture pollinating ‘RoboBee’ micro-machines, concluding “there seems little choice at this stage to deepen our engagement with nature” and that we must “embrace our monsters” (ie. accept that there will be unintended consequences of human actions in the world6). Quite so – but we can deepen our engagement with nature in numerous ways, including by increasing the input of human labour into agriculture (people enjoy working, remember) and de-intensifying the production methods that are prompting colony collapse and other troubling symptoms of over-reach. To do so wouldn’t involve ‘nature worship’ – it would still be a managed human agroecosystem – but it would represent one point on the wide spectrum between sublimating ourselves within nature and assuming total control of it which is effaced in Frase’s bald dichotomy.

It strikes me that with this sort of thing it would help if we started thinking more hierarchically – ‘hierarchically’ not in the everyday sense of the term as rank ordering, like a football league table, but in the more technical sense of a Venn diagram, of parts encompassed by wholes without any necessary rank ordering. So, as indicated in the diagram below, it becomes possible to see that from the human perspective (H) there’s a distinction between the human and the natural, whereas from the perspective of nature (N), there is no such distinction (by the way, the relative size of ‘nature’ vis-à-vis the ‘human’ in the box isn’t intended to indicate their respective importance – it’s more an indicator of my incompetence with software). But it’s doubtful that there’s such a thing as ‘the perspective of nature’, so H and N are really just different manifestations of self-conscious, human theories of being. The natural implies the human and vice versa. It makes as much sense to debate the autonomy of one against the other as the autonomy of up from down.

nature-humanI’d apply the same logic to the way we think about human life as an individual or collective property. Despite a long and bizarre philosophical tradition of social contract theory based around the notion that each person is a sovereign individual who ‘contracts in’ to society, this is clearly not the case. There are aspects of being human that are ineluctably individual (I) and others that are ineluctably social (S), but individualism is contained within sociality: a complete individualism, like a private language, is an impossibility. However, I think it’s reasonable to say there can be different political styles that place greater emphasis on individualism or sociality. Through most of my life, I’ve been suspicious of individualism in politics, because far too often I see it as a right-wing tactic (ab)used by soi disant ‘self-made men’ who weren’t, in fact, made by their selves, but who use the ideology of individualism to kick away the social supports giving succour to other people who are less systemically advantaged.

soc-indiv

But for all that, I think there’s something alive in notions of individuality, autonomy or self-realisation that can’t be negated by truisms about the social nature of humankind. I guess I could try to establish the point with a general argument, but maybe I’ll just make it personal. So – one of the reasons I quit academia and tried to make my way as some kind of farmer was a growing sense of the soullessness of a life spent indoors living off the backs of others, and a diminishing self-respect as my ignorance and inability to create even a semblance of my own material subsistence began to dawn on me. Perhaps you could say that those are just my own issues, magnified through the lens of a culture that vaunts the Robinson Crusoe myth of individualism. Maybe so, though I think people wrestle with issues of self-realisation in every culture, and what interests me in any case is how to deal authentically in the currency of my own. Doubtless there are people who do manage to achieve self-realisation through our contemporary consumer culture – the anthropologist Danny Miller has built virtually his whole career around articulating this point, which is a good one…though it strikes me as something of a rearguard defence7. Consider the multitudes who longingly seek a small patch of city ground to garden, who get busy individualizing and improving their homes, or fixing up their cars – even those who follow any number of crazy adventure sports, or pursue authenticity through cuisine or mindful letting go (a recent list of the UK’s non-fiction bestsellers was split about 50:50 between cookery and how-to-be-happy books). It seems to me that the big story of global capitalist development over the past few centuries is the power of humanity collectively to create vast material flows, mostly to the benefit of a minority. And the story that’s scribbled in its margins, desperate to be told, is how much we yearn for an autonomy or self-realisation that the big story, for all its undeniable successes, can’t give.

So to get to my point, I’d like to suggest a third duality to add to Frase’s equality-hierarchy and scarcity-abundance dualities – collective vs. self-realising. I’d like to hedge it with lots of caveats about the social nature of self-realisation, and I’d also like to acknowledge that the distinction poses further questions. What is the ‘collective’ we’re talking about here? The state? Or some other (perhaps more than one?) basis of collective human identity? What does human self-realisation look like? Who is the ‘self’? And where might it go to get its realisation? One answer I’d give to the latter question, predictably perhaps, is that the self could do worse than working with a small number of other known people to transform or ‘humanise’ nature on labour-intensive, low tech small-scale farms.

But let me try to put the ‘self-realising vs collective’ duality to work in terms of wider political ideologies. Below I’ve split out Frase’s 2×2 matrix into an 8-cell matrix across my additional duality. I wouldn’t claim that the eight (well, actually nine – I’ve cheated) possible futures thus generated fit unambiguously into their respective boxes with no complexities or overlaps, but it does seem to me that the expanded table generates some points of interest.

 

Abundance Scarcity
Equality Collective Communism Socialism
Self-realising Anarchism Agrarian populism
Hierarchy Collective Social democracy Fascism – Feudalism
Self-realising Rentism Exterminism

Just to expand briefly on the new futures I’ve sketched (Frase’s original four are in italics) I’d say that anarchists don’t have to believe in technologically-driven abundance, but it helps. In this respect, Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism8, with its upbeat 1960s take on technological liberation, set the tone for much contemporary anarchist thought. Most of the anarchists I’ve come across (and not a few non-anarchists too) take the view that scarcity is imposed artificially by a self-interested, hierarchical, centralising state. I think they’ve got a point, but on the basis of my travails on the farm I’d say that anarchists can be wont to overstate the eagerness of Mother Nature to render her gifts unto humankind. And when they get down to work on the farm, it strikes me that things like property rights and questions of desert start looming larger than is usually allowed for in the parent doctrine. I’d acknowledge, though, that my comments here only scratch the surface of the anarchist tradition, to which I’m quite sympathetic overall.

Frase’s ‘rentism’ looks pretty much like the terminal logic of capitalism in its contemporary neoliberal guise, in which any collective notion of human wellbeing (trade unions, the human right to food etc.) is dismissed as a market distortion. It strikes me that this extreme individualism of present times represents a collective delusion which, if left unchecked, undermines its own conditions of possibility. In practice, it isn’t left unchecked – even the most enthusiastically neoliberal of regimes nowadays finds it necessary to intervene in private markets in numerous ways in order to secure human wellbeing (and indeed in order to secure private markets themselves, which would fold in short order without government sponsorship). But without straying beyond a commitment to capitalist private enterprise, there’s a spectrum of possibilities from the extreme individualism of rentism (everything, everybody and everywhere is commodifiable) to a more collective, social democratic sense that managed private markets serve human flourishing. A good deal of contemporary writing – pretty much the entire corpus of ecomodernism, for example – effaces the distinction, but a politics that makes human flourishing an end is different in principle to one that makes rentism an end. Unfortunately, in practice the dalliance of social democracy with the animal spirits of the market gives it few defences against a slide into rentism.

Fascism is a curious amalgam of most of the other political ideologies on show, but it seems to me that it’s at its strongest in situations of scarcity and social stress. There is no place at all within it for personal autonomy or self-realisation. ‘The leader’, ‘the party’, ‘the state’, ‘the people’ and the ‘nation’ are indissolubly fused in fascist ideology. But in practice such a fusion is impossible, which is why fascism has affinities with exterminism: the only way to reconcile its extremist ideology of pure corporate collective identity with plural social and individual worlds is to try to eliminate the pluralism.

I’ve listed feudalism (for want of a more accurate shorthand) in the same box as fascism because when the tortuous contradictions involved in the attempt of fascism to reconcile equality with hierarchy through recourse to ideas of corporate identity have exhausted themselves, what’s left in situations of resource scarcity is a more thoroughgoing sense of inequality: the few are born to rule, while the many are born to serve. This doctrine is collective inasmuch as it attaches rights and responsibilities to the respective castes in service of a wider sense of social order. It isn’t just a free for all. I’ll have a fair bit more to say about this in future posts, so for now I’ll just remark that this is quite an obvious way to go in situations of scarcity, but not an especially satisfactory one if you happen to be born among the many.

Finally, agrarian populism fits in the equality–scarcity–self-realisation box. In an agrarian populist society a large number of people are small-scale farmers (‘family farmers’, if you will) or artisans supporting the agrarian economy. So self-realisation is local and to a considerable extent individual/familial/household-based (more questions elided right there, I acknowledge) and geared to self-subsistence. The situation demands broad equality of entitlement to land and other productive resources, otherwise the populace ceases to be agrarian and we move towards more collective solutions. But, of course, in order to secure the equality, some kind of state or collective agency is required. This is the political contradiction at the heart of agrarian populism, which I mention here as an agrarian populist myself to highlight the fact that it’s not a panacea or an easy solution. It’s just that the solutions offered by the other doctrines seem yet more implausible and contradictory. I’d argue that agrarian populism fits within the ‘scarcity’ box for similar reasons to those that prompted our much-esteemed prime minister to remark recently that money doesn’t grow on trees (despite the fact that she seems to have magicked up this very week a cool £1 billion for Northern Ireland to keep herself in No.10). Just as money doesn’t grow on trees, the same is true with the fruit of the land. Well, OK, that’s not entirely true – some fruit does in fact grow on trees. But not much of it without appropriate breeding, grafting, fertilising, pruning and picking, using the scarce resources of land, energy, fertility and human labour.

So to summarise, the world of agrarian populism is one that seeks abundance-in-scarcity, and this is the trail I want to follow. Which leads me to a final point of divergence with Frase, who writes of a recurrent capitalist dynamic where,

“as workers become more powerful and better paid, the pressure on capitalists to automate increases. When there is a huge pool of low wage migrant farm labor, a $100,000 fruit picker looks like a wasteful indulgence. But when workers are scarce and can command better wages, the incentive to replace them with machinery is intensified”9

Not much to quarrel with there as historical retrospective – apart from the argument that the incentive to automate may sometimes stem more from the urge to make workers less powerful and more poorly paid10. But there are numerous ecological and economic reasons to think that, when projected into the future, this capitalist dynamic has an endpoint. After that occurs, it seems likely that hired labour, energy and machinery will all be expensive, so to the average farmer both migrant farm labour and $100,000 fruit pickers will then seem a wasteful indulgence. What commends itself in that scenario is the agrarian populism of the ‘middle peasant’, who’d most likely pick the fruit themselves, and then eat it.

Notes

  1. Srnicek, Nick and Williams, Alex. 2015. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. London: Verso; Streeck, Wolfgang. 2016. How Will Capitalism End? London: Verso; Hahnel, Robin and Olin Wright, Erik. 2016. Alternatives to Capitalism: Proposals for a Democratic Economy. London: Verso; Phillips, Leigh. 2015. Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn Addicts: A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff. Alresford: Zero Books.
  1. Frase, Peter. 2016. Four Futures: Life After Capitalism. London: Verso.
  1. Ibid. p.40.
  1. Kahneman, Daniel. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Penguin.
  1. Frase op cit. pp.101-6.
  1. Ibid. p.106.
  1. eg. Miller, Daniel. 2012. Consumption and its Consequences. Cambridge: Polity.
  1. Bookchin, Murray. 1971. Post-Scarcity Anarchism. Black Rose.
  1. Frase op cit. p.8.
  1. Eg. Malm, Andreas. 2016. Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming. London: Verso.

 

Mixed messages

Well, it’s busy times here at Vallis Veg so I’m just going to offer a brief news roundup for this week’s post.

I spent last weekend at the West Country Scythe Fair and the associated Land Skills day sponsored by the Land Workers’ Alliance, where I ran a session on small-scale mixed farming. Traditional (peasant) farming systems in most parts of the world usually involve a mixed farming strategy (crops and livestock), but commercial farming today rarely does – notwithstanding the ongoing practice of combining dairy with arable in conventional systems, which is better than nothing. A typical traditional mixed system involves ruminants grazing temporary clover-rich grass leys (the fertility-making part of the system), which are then ploughed for cropping (the fertility-taking part of the system). The other livestock (pigs and poultry, mostly – but let’s not forget our invertebrate friends, like bees and worms) fit in around the edges of the system, tapping nutrients that might otherwise go to waste. And the motive power of the animals, if carefully managed, delivers various benefits around the farm.

Nowadays, we’re swimming in a sea of manufactured nitrates and mined phosphates that undercuts the value of the traditional mixed farm (and also has significant external costs upstream and downstream). Even organic growers who don’t apply these products directly often rely implicitly on the mountains of manure or municipal compost made possible by the synthetic nitrogen economy and the land uses it permits. Cheap fossil energy likewise undercuts the careful nutrient cycling and motive capacities of farm livestock that are part of traditional mixed farming strategies.

My guess is that traditional mixed farming strategies will come into their own again if, as seems likely, we move towards a more energy and phosphate constrained future. But it’s easier to devise a mixed system on a broad-scale arable farm, where you can alternate between grazed ley and ploughed cropland. My main interest these days is in promoting smallholding-based, subsistence-oriented farming, preferably one involving no or low levels of tillage, achieved without herbicide. A common situation here is one like my holding – intensively cropped garden beds, surrounded by permanent pasture – and it’s harder in this system to arrange the nutrient transfer between grassland and cropland. You can, of course, confine the livestock on conserved forage and collect the manure that way – though I prefer a low input-low output system with the livestock out on the grass as much as possible. Generally, it’s not really feasible to bring them directly into the cropped system.

On the upside, a garden grown for personal subsistence with little off-farm nutrient leakage doesn’t require that much fertility input, so the problems aren’t insurmountable. I had some interesting conversations at the Skills Day with enthusiasts of regenerative agriculture – which I’ve been slightly sceptical of, perhaps as a result of my aversion to gurus and the extravagant claims sometimes made by them or on their behalf. But perhaps I need to rethink this – the idea of a no till subsistence garden with a flourishing soil biota nourished by on-farm resources is an appealing one, and it shouldn’t be impossible to achieve. All suggestions gratefully considered.

Another set of issues we discussed is the mob-stocking approach advocated by the likes of Joel Salatin (really, I suppose, just an intensification of traditional rotational grazing systems). Again, I’ve always been slightly sceptical – partly because of my guru-phobia, partly because it looks like a lot of work for limited rewards, and partly because when I tried it my sheep were utterly impervious to electric fencing, fencing being quite an issue for the small-scale farmer needing to enclose small paddocks. It’s hard to see how to do it economically with any method other than electric fencing. In this respect, sheep are probably much more troublesome than cattle – though one or two people at the Skills Day were unflappably optimistic about the possibilities of electrically-fenced sheep, so perhaps I’ll give it another go. I certainly don’t feel that the present state of my pastures reflects especially well on my farming skills, so I need to do something different. Again, on a bigger scale, there’s a lot to be said for alternating between sheep and cattle (worm burdens are at issue here), but it’s harder to do this on small scales.

One of the easiest livestock options for the small farmer is the household pig or hens, fed substantially from food waste. Of course it’s now a criminal offence to feed even hens with kitchen waste – which strikes me as a fine indicator of how badly wrong our contemporary ecological politics have become.

Ah, politics. Well, in other news a major ‘mixed message’ that’s come through recently is the general election result. Not since 2005 has the British public convincingly endorsed a single political party. Maybe it’s time for a bit more mixture, some cross-party collaboration to fit the public mood? Corbyn’s achievement in the teeth of a divided party and a hostile media is impressive. For me, the best thing about it is that it scotches the mantra that only centrist, middle-of-the-road policies and candidates can achieve electoral success. So although I’d argue as per recent discussions on this site that none of the formal political parties are fully engaging with the issues that really matter, this result encourages me that eventually they might.

Part of that recent discussion here included David’s comment that I should devote less attention to politics. And here I am talking about the general election….I guess what I’d say is that it depends on what you mean by ‘politics’. I don’t find the daily tittle-tattle of professional politics especially interesting or relevant to much that matters, but I don’t think I give it much attention on this blog. I do think the broad outcomes of electoral politics matter, even if all the party platforms fail to a greater or lesser extent to engage with the most pressing issues we face. But as to politics in general, this surely is absolutely crucial to the possibilities for a small farm/sustainable future. It’s the difference between a few visionaries/misfits scraping around at the edges of the business-as-usual world, and actually creating a viable agrarian society. If, for example, we’d like to see more of the mixed farming systems I was discussing above, then the only way it’ll happen is if we engage somehow with the political process to make it happen. My main interest isn’t with formal party politics (though that’s certainly one dimension of activism) but with the possibilities of building a movement (from a low base, I admit) for a sustainable agrarian society. Hence my position in my recent debate with Malcolm Ramsay about his proposed changes to property law. I can’t see these happening unless they’re articulated within a political movement with associated views on the way that class and power operate in contemporary society. Articulating such views as best I can feels to me a worthy enterprise for this blog.

Those, at any rate, are my principles. But like Groucho Marx, if you don’t like them maybe I could find some others. So I’d welcome any comments…but I’m going to be off in the internet-free wilds again for a few days, so please excuse me if I don’t reply until later next week.

Songs from the wood

We shall soon be turning to weightier matters here at Small Farm Future, so let us pause for breath and take a stroll around the woods of our home turf at Vallis Veg this fin(ish) morning. Here, have some musical accompaniment, and relax.  After all, it’s not as if there are any other important political events to discuss today.

It was nearly fourteen years ago when La Brassicata and I bought our little eighteen acre slice of Somerset. At the time, it comprised permanent pasture in its entirety, with just one mature tree on the site (plus a couple of hedgerows). I was very enthused by the idea of planting trees in those days, after a brush with the law (Ben Law, that is), and over the next four years we planted more than seven acres of the blighters – fruit orchards, nut orchards, short-rotation willow coppice, alder/hazel windbreaks, hawthorn and blackthorn hedges and – most of all – large blocks of mixed native deciduous trees.

A few years after that, I read some of the critiques of arboricentrism that were arising within and without the permaculture movement – Patrick Whitefield’s strictures against the carefully-curated facsimiles of ancient woodland springing up around the countryside like so many out-of-place lollipops borne aloft on ugly plastic sticks, and Simon Fairlie’s broadside against permaculturists for turning agricultural grassland capable of producing high value food into low value woodland1.

These, I think, were worthwhile critiques – people can indeed get a bit over-enthusiastic about trees, and it’s always good to ask ‘Why am I doing this?’ of any farming choice. But ultimately I have few regrets about doing what we did (well, maybe the blackthorn…) The ugly lollipop phase only lasts a few years, and nothing gives me more pleasure on our holding now than the beauty of the well-established young woodland mantling the site.

20170608_094726

Patrick himself admitted that the entire British countryside is a largely human fabrication, so I see no particular reason to take umbrage at the ‘artificiality’ of tree planting. Perhaps there’s more merit in Simon’s critique, but the per hectare productivity of purely grass-fed livestock isn’t that impressive. A vegetable garden with a few rows of potatoes of the kind we’ve planted here more than compensates nutritionally for the loss of productive pasture to the trees. Besides, it’s possible to stack functions as the English commoners of old did with their wood pastures – a practice I’ve mimicked here with my sheep in and around the woodland.

20170513_164922

The woodland we’ve planted has brought various tangible and less tangible benefits. Fruit and nuts, tree hay, wind and sun protection, privacy (which surely helped in our successful planning application for a dwelling), children’s dens, and wildlife habitat – I can’t prove anything on the latter front, but the bird and invertebrate life in our woodland does seem to me richer than that I’ve observed in the surrounding arable and pastoral fields. The woodland has also proved a hit with our campers, who like their individual tree-dappled pitches – not a venture we anticipated when we planted the woodland, but one that certainly supplements the unpromising economics of food production, and that we probably couldn’t have done without the trees.

But I guess the main economic contribution of trees is their wood. With older woodland than ours, and with the requisite skill and machinery, of course it’s possible to make construction timber – which we’ve already done in a minor, homespun way around the site. An easier use, touched on in recent debates here about sustainable energy futures, is to burn it for space or water heating, or for mechanical power.

The original idea of our planting back in 2005/6 was to cut a large part of it for fuelwood (and, perhaps, craft-wood) coppice, in time-honoured local fashion. But for various practical and aesthetic reasons we’re not so keen to coppice it now. Almost all the trees were originally planted on a 3x3m spacing, as required by the Forestry Commission contract under which we did the planting. So now the time has come to start thinning them – this past winter of 2016/17 being the first one in which I did any appreciable amount of it. The picture below shows your humble blog editor posing in front of this winter’s thinnings.

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And this one, the same wood after a few minutes’ madness with the chainsaw (I wouldn’t recommend the resting position in the picture to anyone but a seasoned woodsman like me).

Woodpile

Now then, a quick bit of home economics. Our current palatial residence comprises a prefab wooden cabin c/w woodstove, along with the static caravan that furnishes the stunning architectural backdrop to the last picture. The woodstove provides space heating in (most of) the cabin and hot water via a back boiler throughout the winter (hot water in the summer comes from solar tubes). The caravan is only used as a bedroom, which we heat in the winter with a butane stove – just a quick burn before we go to bed to stop our breath from misting too much as we dive under the bedclothes. Still, I know what you’re thinking. Butane! Plus the insulation in the caravan is almost non-existent, so it feels like all we’re really doing is adding another little bit of entropy to the universe. Ah, such are the vagaries of the British planning system and its insistence upon ‘sustainable’ development. But we only get through about one 15kg butane cylinder each winter (plus about half a dozen 19kg propane cylinders for cooking through the year – another candidate for a wood-burning solution). We’ll be building a permanent – and properly insulated – house to replace the caravan this year or next, so I suspect there’ll be another wood-burner. But how best to heat the new house with it – masonry stove, central heating, underfloor heating, or the same warm living room surrounded by chilly bedrooms that we’re used to? What’s that you say? Passive house? Yeah, OK, OK.

Anyway, I reckon the pile of wood you see in the picture should pretty much be enough for our heating and hot water needs over next winter. I’ll let you know next year whether I turn out to be right. In addition to the wood pictured, I cut a 44m row of willow coppice, displayed on the back of the tractor in the next photo (well, strictly pollard rather than coppice – deer and rabbit pressure being what it is, I generally cut the poles at 4 feet).

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I have a six year rotation of willow, comprising Salix viminalis in 6 x 44m rows (sorry about mixing imperial with metric measures…it’s only going to get worse as our confusion in Britain about which side of the Atlantic we’re on intensifies). This is the eighth year I’ve cut it (so the wood in the picture was the second cut from the second row). I cut it a bit late, at the end of March, and left it stacked outside through a pretty warm, dry spring as whole poles until last month when I finally got around to sawing it up – at which point it weighed 240kg in total. So would it be fair to guess a final air-dry weight of at least 140kg? That’d work out at about 6 tonnes per hectare of air-dry wood – quite low for short-rotation coppice where yields of up to 20 tonnes per hectare are reported. Though to be fair my willow coppice gets the full force of the strong prevailing southwesterly winds on the site (it doubles as a windbreak) and has never had any appreciable added fertiliser.

Next year, I’d imagine we’ll be cutting a lot more thinnings than the amount shown in the picture above. And I’d guess that if we had a mature coppice system established we could probably get more out still. I’m aiming to plant a bit more fuelwood coppice in my upcoming agroforestry project. Meanwhile, I experimented with cutting a micro-cant of ash pollards in the pig enclosure (pictured, first just after cutting in early March, and now in June with the regrowth).

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I’m not sure if it’ll work on that scale – it’ll be interesting to see (the light shade cast by ash will surely help…) But the point I’m moving towards here on the basis of the experiences described above is that I think a reasonably well-wooded smallholding like ours can probably grow enough wood to provide heating, hot water and cooking for a household, maybe two households. There may be a bit left over for construction and farm timber, and for providing mechanical power such as the steam engines we were discussing here a few weeks ago – but I suspect not a whole lot. So there may be a significant limitation there in terms of my self-sufficiency aims for the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, in the absence of abiotic forms of energy capture such as photovoltaics. That, at any rate, is my proposal for debate. Britain is a densely populated country, but it has a lot of farmland – probably enough to feed the population tolerably well, as I’ve argued in my cycle of Wessex posts. The corollary, however, is that it doesn’t have much woodland – maybe enough for heating, cooking and hot water, probably not enough for construction or energy.

I reckon I probably used about 10 litres of petrol in the small chainsaw pictured above to fell, limb and then cut up all the trees pictured above (I’d probably have used a little less if I wasn’t such a laggard with the file…) Next year I’ll try to measure it properly. All the trees were hauled out by hand to the track bisecting our property and then taken up to the house by tractor, using a pretty negligible amount of diesel. I might use Spudgirl’s pony next year for some horse-logging and make him earn his keep a little more. Anyway, even with the chainsaw it felt like a lot of damned hard work (perhaps the more so now my bones are a little creakier than they once were). The thought of doing it with a bowsaw makes my hands go clammy. I know, I know, I’m not a proper populist and I’m not a proper peasant either. Still, the lesson I infer for the latter-day peasant republic in Britain is that if we want to fund even a low energy input agrarian society with renewable energy, I think we’ll need to be looking beyond biomass and towards technologies like wind and photovoltaics. These technologies are now cheap enough, and I’m not persuaded that the trapped asset argument on the radical green side of the political divide makes a whole lot more sense than the foot-dragging of the fossilheads on the right. Still, in the short-term every peasant household in Wessex gets a ration of 25 litres of petrol per annum for its chainsaw and 2-wheel tractor, and until our economic policy wonks have figured out how to develop a local import substitution industry, we’ll be prioritising trade deals with Germany and Japan so that Mr Stihl and Mr Honda can ease our aching arms.

PS. I’m going to be hunkered down somewhere well away from any internet connection over the next few days, so if you’re kind enough to comment on this post please forgive me if I don’t respond until some time next week.

Notes

  1. Whitefield, P. 2009. The Living Landscape. Permanent Publications; Fairlie, S. 2010. Meat: A Benign Extravagance. Permanent Publications.

 

Off to the polls again: a Small Farm Future election special

I suppose I should probably honour the imminent general election with a blog post, though unlike last year’s referendum I find myself incapable of getting too excited about it. There’s a lot of agitated Facebook chatter among my political friends locally about the labyrinthine tactical voting logics and ways of trying to stop Brexit in its tracks, while others claim to feel politically homeless and unrepresented by the political parties. What, only just now? Ah well, let’s get an election post out of the way and then I can focus on more important matters (next week’s post: my woodlot).

Apparently, the electorate now divides into three categories: ‘hard remainers’, ‘hard leavers’ and ‘re-leavers’, the latter referring to those who voted remain but think the government now has a duty to leave – some of whom even plan to vote Tory for the first time as the ‘party of Brexit’. I’m not sure about the ‘duty’ bit, but I suppose I’m a re-leaver, though certainly not a Tory-voting re-leaver. All the anguished talk about an eleventh hour deliverance from Brexit seems to me so much wasted breath. The path from David Cameron’s backbencher-appeasing referendum to Theresa May’s hard Brexit is a long one littered with deceit, but what’s done is done.

The referendum result is often taken as a litmus test of one’s true political colours: are you a remainer and therefore a member of the hated liberal metropolitan elite, or a leaver and therefore a true populist? Well, I can’t disavow my remainer instincts or my grounding in a liberal metropolitanism, but nor do I have much respect for over-general chat about how to defeat the threat of populism. Populism, as I’ve long argued, comes in many different forms, with as much clear water between them as there is between the various populisms and ‘mainstream’ non-populist positions. I’m still quite fearful about where Brexit will lead. In earlier posts, I raised the fear of fascism and got a certain amount of stick for it. Maybe rightly – I think I’d now characterise the right-wing realignments we’re seeing somewhat differently, and I’ll perhaps write more about that in the future. But I still read some of the politics that have emerged around Brexit through the lens of fascism. I can see some potentially positive outcomes from Brexit, but it’s a long climb out of the hole we’ve got ourselves into, with a lot of traps along the way.

So to me, this election feels like the phoney war before the real business begins. I’m not even sure why Theresa May decided to call it. Strictly speaking, she surely shouldn’t have done, now the Fixed Term Parliament Act is in force – but I note that one of the Conservative manifesto promises is to repeal the Act. It is, after all, an old and anachronistic piece of legislation introduced by…the Conservatives, as long ago as…2011. All the reasons I can think of for May’s decision basically boil down to Conservative short-term self-interest, though it now seems there’s an outside chance it might backfire, which would be amusing. David Cameron wasn’t exactly a hard act to follow. There’d be a certain satisfaction if May loses next week and steals from him his one remaining accolade as the worst prime minister ever. Certainly, the cult of May is already looking a bit more threadbare than it did just a few weeks ago, and though being the Brexit prime minister can’t be the easiest of jobs, she wanted it – and so far she’s delivered little but empty rhetoric. My punt is on another slim Tory majority, and an election that proves precisely nothing.

But let me not allow my prejudices to get the better of me. I propose to look with an open mind at the party manifestos and – to take a leaf out of UKIP’s immigration policy book – introduce a rigidly objective points system with which to score them in the exercise below, your handy Small Farm Future cut-out-and-keep guide to the General Election 2017. Speaking as a self-confessed egalitarian, all the parties start on zero points – apart from the Conservatives and UKIP who start with -1 on the grounds that, compared to the other parties, the mainstream press gives them a ridiculously easy ride. One benefit at least of Small Farm Future not quite counting as the mainstream press is that I can redress the balance in whatever arbitrary way I choose.

OK, well I can’t run through the minutiae of every policy proposal here, so I’m going to focus the scoring around themes that are of particular relevance to this blog. A manifesto will score positively if it:

  • Mentions farming. At all. Last time, most of them didn’t.
  • Mentions support for farming, particularly small-scale or organic farming.
  • Mentions conservation or biodiversity in a positive light.
  • Focuses on production geared to local needs rather than global trade.
  • Has anything persuasive to say about tackling climate change and transitioning out of fossil fuels.
  • Has anything persuasive to say about tackling social injustice globally.
  • Has anything persuasive to say about tackling social injustice nationally.
  • Addresses the root cause of issues around access to land or housing.
  • Says anything substantially positive about immigration rather than just focusing on the need to control it. Not because I think controlling immigration is necessarily a bad idea, but because a party willing to court the ridicule of the tabloid press’s demonising rhetoric deserves credit.

Conversely, a manifesto will be marked down for:

  • Proposing policies likely to work against any of the aforementioned worthy goals
  • Overuse of hubristic and vacuous phrases such as ‘leading international action against climate change’ or making Britain the ‘world’s Great Meritocracy’ (there’ll be a double penalty for vacuous phrases in capital letters)
  • Flagrantly contradictory policy proposals, especially if justified on flagrantly spurious grounds.
  • Anything redolent of a dodgy ecomodernism.
  • Use of the word ‘leadership’ and of the phrase ‘strong and stable’. The phrase ‘strong and stable leadership’ gets a special booby penalty of minus 10 points.

OK, well since I’m a Great Believer In Meritocracy, I’ll run the rule over the manifestos in order of votes achieved by the five parties at the last election – so we’ll start with the Conservatives.

The Tories do mention farming and agriculture, thirteen times to be precise – so that takes their score up to zero at the get go. Not much on how they’re going to support farming though – other than saying for the sake of stability they’ll commit the same cash support in total to farming as at present up to the end of the present parliament and then rip it all up and start again. How stable does that make farmers feel? Hell, I’m feeling generous – another point, and the Tories open up an early lead. But wait, there’s more – the Tories have ‘huge ambitions for our farming industry’ and ‘are determined to grow more, sell more and export more great British food’. Where are all those land sparers when you really need them? Why not just grow ‘enough’ and sell ‘enough’ food? It’s back to zero, I’m afraid. There’s some fairly vague stuff on delivering environmental improvements, but we’ll be generous again and give them a point. Plus improving animal welfare…which includes the possibility of changing the law to allow people to let packs of dogs loose on foxes. Sorry, but we’re up contradiction creek here, and it takes the Tories back to zero. From here, unfortunately, it all starts going downhill. The manifesto is enthusiastic about fracking – they do it in the USA, so it must be good. Onshore wind isn’t ‘right for England’, though. And as to photovoltaics – er, did we mention how successful fracking has been in the US? All that now puts the Tories at -3. Climate change is mentioned five times, but without real substance – except to say that ‘we will continue to lead international action against climate change’. Oops. Still, it turns out that Britain is a ‘global nation’ – unlike all those other non-global nations wasting space around the planet. And the manifesto is firm – ‘strong and stable’, even – that there’ll be no secession of smaller non-global nations like Scotland from larger ones like the UK – not least because it would make Scotland poorer. That all sounds eerily familiar, but I can’t quite place where I’ve heard these secessionist arguments aired before. Britain is also – oh dear – a fully capitalised ‘Great Meritocracy’, and not only once, but six times over. It sounds good, but what does it even mean? Sorry, I’m too exhausted to find out. But I daresay there’s a few proposals in there to even up the widening inequalities in the country. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they’ll actually implement a few of them – so two points there. When it comes to tackling social inequalities globally, we learn that: “British scientists and inventors have helped to address some of the greatest challenges facing the world’s poorest people”…which, as we all know, mostly revolve around an insufficiency of money science. Ecomodernist alert! No proposals here either on dealing with the root causes of the housing crisis, except building more homes – which doesn’t count. Finally, the Tories really shoot themselves in the foot on the taboo phrases count, scoring -13 for ‘strong and stable’, -24 for ‘leadership’ and -70 for ‘strong and stable leadership’.

The final tally for the Conservatives: -115.

Next up is Labour. Their manifesto also mentions farming quite a lot – they do want to preserve export access to European markets, but on the plus side they’re going to protect the domestic market from cheap and inferior imports. They also plan to “reconfigure funds for farming and fishing to support smaller traders, local economies, community benefits and sustainable practices”. Wait, ‘smaller traders’? Is that a sneaky reference to small-scale farming there? I’m not sure, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. They also plan to plant a million trees. They don’t say why, but trees are good, right? So we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt again. And they want to reinstate the Agricultural Wages Board – so there’s a little bit of social equality there. All in all, I’m scoring Labour at four points so far. On climate change, the levels of windy rhetoric are about the same as the Tories, though whereas the Tories are merely continuing to lead international action against climate change, Labour is setting itself the altogether stiffer challenge of reclaiming Britain’s leading role in tackling climate change. Whatever – they still lose a point. Nothing from Labour on wind or PV, but some positive talk about renewable energy and a commitment to banning fracking. So they’re back up to four. They’re a bit firmer – strong and stable, even – on nature conservation, including a proposal to ban neonicotinoids. And despite falling for the same ‘build more houses’ flummery as the Tories, they do at least promise to look into the possibility of land value taxation. Like the Tories, they’re opposed to Scottish independence. Well, the obvious hypocrisy in relation to Brexit is somewhat less than the Tories, but I’m going to dock them two points anyway. Why? Because everyone hates Jeremy Corbyn, right? They gain two points on immigration, however, for refusing to be cowed by the Daily Mailism of the present moment. And they get three points for their social equality agenda – including scrapping the bedroom tax and benefits sanctions. Finally, we just need to see how they fare on the taboo phrases. Pretty well, actually – just three mentions of ‘leadership’ and no ‘strong and stable’.

The final tally for Labour: six points – the frontrunners so far.

Third is UKIP. Once again, farming gets a billing. Indeed, UKIP gives the clearest nod so far to small farms – saying explicitly that it will support small enterprises, cap subsidies at £120,000 and ensure subsidies go to the farmer and not the landowner. UKIP is also the only manifesto that mentions organic farming – albeit in the form of a slightly puzzling aside that organic farmers will be paid 25% more under the stewardship scheme. Puzzling, because currently they get paid 100% more – so is this actually a cut they’re proposing? I guess we’ll never know unless UKIP is voted into power. Which is a longer-winded way of saying we’ll never know. But hell, on the basis of what I’ve read so far I might actually vote for these guys. They even get all Walden Bello and start talking about how African farmers suffer as a result of tariff barriers. So currently they’re running Labour close at four points. But now we start riding the down curve. Obviously, there’s nothing positive in UKIP’s manifesto about immigration. Indeed, we have a splendid case of a flagrantly contradictory policy justified on flagrantly spurious grounds – opening up opportunities for all women by denying all women the opportunity to wear a burqa or niqab in public. This policy is apparently also about ensuring appropriate access to Vitamin D – it’s not liberating not to get enough of it, you see. UKIP will also repeal the Climate Change Act, withdraw from the Paris climate agreement and the emissions trading scheme, remove subsidies from wind and photovoltaic energy and invest in fracking. Ah well, at least they’re not claiming to show global leadership on climate change – but after that little lot it’s back down to zero for them, I’m afraid. On devolution, if Scotland has its own parliament then UKIP wants one for England too. And it’ll abolish the House of Lords. Well, let’s give them a point for all that – who knows, under UKIP we may soon end up with the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex. But there’s nothing serious on social inequalities or on tackling the housing crisis, except the usual schtick on building more houses, albeit in this instance building them in factories. On the taboo phrase count, UKIP infringes with but a single use of the word ‘leadership’.

The final tally for UKIP: a very creditable zero points.

Next up, the Lib Dems. Lots here on farming too, but also this fine brainteaser – ensuring British farming remains competitive by refocusing it around the production of healthy food. No, me neither. Anyway, let’s accentuate the positive – there’s some quite good stuff here on farming…helping new entrants…looking at different ownership models…moving away from direct subsidies…and some specific conservation proposals, such as suspending neonicotinoids. The Lib Dems have a lot to say on climate change, including … yes, you guessed it … that the UK “plays a leadership role in international efforts to combat climate change”. But on the upside they’re going to expand renewables (including onshore wind) and oppose fracking. There’s also stuff on reducing inequalities nationally and internationally – including scrapping the bedroom tax. The Lib Dems are going to build more houses…but at least they’re also going to look at a Land Value Tax. And, like Labour, they’re dissenters to the immigration demonization game. Also, thankfully, there’s no strength and stability in the Lib Dem manifesto … but there are four leaderships.

Putting all that in the Who-should-I-vote-for machine yields this final tally: three points.

Finally, the Greens. Well, what can I say? For an eco-lefty like me, they should be a shoo-in shouldn’t they? But their ‘manifesto’ basically amounts to a few bullet points written on the back of a ticket stub on the way home from the pub. To be fair, they don’t have the funding of the other parties – and I think they’re so darned democratic that they don’t have the structures to knock out a proper manifesto at the call of a snap election. Ah well, let’s see how we fare. They do mention farming, once: they’re going to pass a law “to promote sustainable food and farming”. So that’s good, I guess. Though really I’d like to know what’s going to be in the law. They’re also going to support small businesses. Call me biased, but that amounts to explicit support for small farms, no? Hey! What did you just call me? With the greens, there’ll be universal basic income and land value taxation. And, thank God, no global leadership on climate change, just an undertaking to act ‘strongly’ on it (careful now…don’t try to stabilise it too, will you?) in order to ‘protect the natural world we love’, which is kind of sweet. And, of course, no fracking, nuclear power, coal power stations or fossil fuel subsidies. The Greens will adopt “A humane immigration and asylum system that recognises and takes responsibility for Britain’s ongoing role in causing the flow of migrants worldwide”. And they’re the only party with a clean sheet on the taboo phrases. Under the Greens, there’ll be no strength, no stability and no leadership.

So, totting all that up, WE HAVE A SURPRISE WINNER – the Greens on seven points. And if you think I’m biased, let me remind you that I’ve just subjected each party’s manifesto to a rigorous points-based analysis as fair and objective as UKIP’s immigration policy.

Final thoughts, with a local spin. Last week, I went to a hustings of our five local candidates. I did genuinely think that the Green candidate, Theo Simon, was the best of a bad bunch – a ‘bad bunch’ that included several members of the audience, whose jeers and frequent cries of ‘Bullshit!’ did not, to my mind, exemplify speaking truth to power so much as exemplify speaking bullshit to power. Theo was at his most passionate in calling for free education from primary to tertiary, and a health service able to cater to everyone’s needs. Great, but how do we pay for it? A few weeks back, I discussed the difficulties facing the western capitalist economy as outlined by Wolfgang Streeck among others. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has recently suggested that the costings provided in both the Labour and the Conservative manifestos don’t stack up. My feeling is that the right is stuck in an ideology of spiralling inequality and crumbling public services, while the left complacently assumes that a bit of fiddling with the tax system is going recreate thriving public services for all, overseen from a benevolent political centre. It’s in the face of this kind of thinking that I feel my politics really are populist. The political centre – right or left – can barely hold any longer. Really, we need to start building up again from what ‘the people’ can sustain, locally…which means, in the first instance, from what we can produce on the farm. Ah well, at least all the parties are now thinking about farming – a fringe benefit of Brexit.

The Ecological Land Co-op

I’d been aiming to publish a bit of good news on this site for a change, just when I learned yesterday the very bad news of the Manchester bombing. I guess I can understand some of the logic of anti-modernist and anti-liberal movements – I’ve even been called a dangerous extremist myself once or twice for that reason. What I struggle to understand or empathise with is the emotional interior of anyone who kills people at random, and what they think it achieves. My thoughts are with those personally affected.

Well, maybe the best thing I can do is press on with the good news anyway…which is that, finally, forty odd years after Margaret Thatcher launched her revolution of small-time shareholding, for the first time in my life I’ve bought some shares. I hope the spirit of Margaret is smiling on me, though to be honest if I were to dedicate my purchase to an indomitable politician my pick would be Caroline Lucas. The shares, you see, are in the Ecological Land Co-op (ELC), which raises finance from investors in order to create affordable low-impact smallholdings – a congruent aim with my small farm future brief.

I think organisations like the ELC are a necessary step on the path to a small farm future here in Britain for reasons neatly captured by a pithy answer I read a year or two back to a question posted on the British Farming Forum about how to get into farming: “Be born into it, marry into it or make a stack of money and buy your way into it.” OK, so there are other options – go to agricultural college, become a farm manager, or if you’re lucky perhaps take on a tenancy. But in the UK landownership is the sine qua non of security, especially if you harbour fancy notions of farming ‘ecologically’. And agricultural land is pretty darned expensive – £10,000 per acre is about par. At an auction I attended recently, one 3.5 acre parcel went for £110,000. And this is bare land without a dwelling – you can probably multiply those values tenfold for a plot with planning permission for a dwelling, regardless of whether it has an actual farmhouse on it or not.

Ah, planning permission, planning permission. In rural England, we seem to talk of little else. Well, I’ve been down this road too many times on this blog before, but I’m going to try to explain very briefly how this works and where the ELC comes in. Since 1947, building in the so-called ‘open’ countryside has been rigorously restricted. I concede there’s some logic to it – scattering random houses around the countryside probably isn’t a great idea. So if you buy a plot of agricultural land and want to build a house on it, you have to persuade the powers that be that you have a good agricultural case for your proposed dwelling. Again, not such a bad idea – otherwise the fields would soon be paved over by people seeking nothing more than a house on the cheap.

The problem is, the powers that be are notoriously unpersuadable. The two main stumbling blocks usually revolve around proving that there’s an ‘essential need’ to live onsite and proving that the business will be financially viable. On the first point, let me give the example of my planning authority whose Local Plan states in paragraph 6.121 “In most cases, it will be as convenient and more sustainable for [farm] workers to be accommodated in existing accommodation in nearby towns and villages” – a wording shamelessly lifted from now defunct government guidelines and re-purposed to keep the riff-raff off the land until 2029. But, seriously, ‘as convenient and more sustainable’? Anyone who’s actually tried to run a farm while living somewhere else would likely respond, “no it bloody isn’t” but perhaps paragraph 6.121 suffices to indicate the journey in store for anyone seeking to persuade their local authority of their need to live on the land.

On the second point, the idea of running a business that’s financially viable probably doesn’t seem a demanding hurdle, except hardly anyone makes any appreciable money out of farming these days and the whole sector is pretty much propped up by a subsidy regimen courtesy of the EU (interesting times ahead…) But small-scale farmers aren’t eligible for subsidies and the costs of actually establishing a farm (even a homespun one like mine with its aging machinery and freecycled infrastructure) are prohibitive.

The result is that people who basically just want to run a viable farm can spend years and years wrangling with local planning authorities, and an awful lot of time and public money is wasted trying to prevent people from doing a little bit of good in their local communities.

This is where for me the ELC ticks a lot of boxes. By raising money from investors, it’s able to lease or sell leasehold smallholdings at more affordable prices, thus obviating the aforementioned need for the would-be farmer otherwise to choose the circumstances of their birth, enter a loveless marriage of convenience, or toil miserably to turn an income when they should be turning a furrow. It has paid staff who are able to take on the burden of attaining planning permissions – a task made easier by the accumulation of expertise within the organisation and by establishing a successful track record. And by acting as a watchful but benevolent landlord, it can take the sting out of the inevitable but usually misplaced mutterings among local residents and planning officers that a rural worker’s dwelling application is only a front by scammers in search of a cheap house.

The downsides – well, I suppose it’s not a very radical solution to the problem of rural land availability. The smallholdings the ELC can offer in view of all its other commitments aren’t that affordable, and a lot of the money raised from well-meaning investors like me goes into the pocket of the vendor. Though since I’m a sometime property vendor myself I can’t really complain – I can only assuage my guilt by buying ELC shares. Ultimately, it seems to me four changes are needed if we’re to create a sensible and sustainable turnover of agricultural land. First, a way of capturing its value socially – Malcolm Ramsay was discussing his interesting proposals along those lines on this site a few weeks back. Second, a modification of the planning system to make it supportive of rather than hostile towards people pursuing genuine small-scale agricultural projects (this wouldn’t require any legislative change – just a change of planning authority culture). And third a way of monitoring such projects to ensure their genuineness – though I’d make a proviso here that established ‘born in’ farmers should be subject to the same monitoring, so as not to discriminate against new entrants. These three suggestions, however, only involve the commercial farming sector – whereas what I’ve been driving at on this blog of late is the need to embrace low impact subsistence smallholdings. This could quite easily be achieved with a few tweaks to the self-build policies that councils now have in place and a bit more thought in Local Plan drafting. Though regrettably subsistence smallholding doesn’t loom large in any of the major parties’ political priorities just now, so I suspect the policies will remain untweaked.

Well, in the meantime at least the ELC is here raising the profile of these issues and painstakingly preparing fertile ground – both literally and figuratively – for a more sustainable agrarian future. The good news is the share offer is still open – so if you’ve got some spare cash to invest in a worthy cause, you can come join me in the (slow and peaceful) revolution.

Lean Logic

The much-delayed Issue 21 of The Land Magazine has just been published – how did we cope with the waiting? If you search diligently through its pages, you’ll find a review in it by me of David Fleming’s fascinating book, Lean Logic1. Below I’m reproducing a longer version of the review than the one that appears in the magazine.

It may be worth just sketching the back story of the review. Fleming died in 2010 leaving his manuscript incomplete, and it was left to Shaun Chamberlin to pick up the gauntlet and see the work through to final publication – which he did with great aplomb and, I’m sure, no little legwork. Shaun kindly suggested to The Land’s editors that I might be worthy to review the book, and so it was that towards the end of last year the weighty tome landed in my mailbox.

Working my way through the book, I was enormously impressed with much of it, but also troubled by some of it, mostly for reasons that have cropped up recently on this website in debates over populism, nationalism and suchlike. I wrote a perhaps overly bad-tempered review draft, but felt a little embarrassed about it since it was Shaun himself who’d put the book my way. So with some trepidation I sent it to him for discussion. He proved splendidly broad-minded about it, and we had an interesting email exchange about David’s ideas in the course of which Shaun helped me to improve the review greatly from my first effort. Shaun pointed out that we can often agree with 90% of what someone says, yet focus on the 10% where we disagree, and I probably have to plead guilty of that here. I guess all I’d add is that I’ve found that dissonant 10% very informative in trying to think through the left agrarian populist project I’m generally engaged in on this blog…and I’m not sure David needs further plaudits from me in relation to the other 90%. But I hope I’ve managed to convey at least a measure of my admiration for his thinking in my review.

Version II of the review that I submitted to The Land was a rather sprawling effort, and I was asked to cut it by about a quarter. Then as the publication date loomed I was asked to cut it by another quarter – doubtless the real quality material had started rolling into the editorial office by that point… Well, no complaints from me – I have endless respect for Gill and Simon’s editorial nous. But though there’s something to be said for brevity, the result is that over the last few months I’ve produced four different versions of the review and I’ve had to cut out various bits that I’d have preferred to keep in.

So what I’m offering you below is kind of a Lean Logic Review – the Director’s Cut, which combines what I hope are the best features of all the various versions into the definitive text. I hope you enjoy it, because boy have I sweated over each and every one of the 2,000-odd words below.

oOo

The late David Fleming was a maverick economist who left his imprint across British environmentalism from the Green Party to the Transition movement by way of the New Economics Foundation. In Lean Logic, he presents a lifetime’s thinking on how humanity might deal with a coming ‘climacteric’ – an interlocking crisis of climate, energy, water, food and other resources. The master concept is leanness, which Fleming unfurls against the grain of our taken-for-granted approach to the contemporary capitalist economy by reincorporating ‘the economy’ as politics, and ultimately as culture – one culture among many. Thus, from the impressive but dysfunctional culture of contemporary capitalism, Fleming tries to discern the shape that lean cultures of a post-climacteric future might take – diverse, locally-specific, spiritually-oriented, and dedicated to human livelihood as self-creation rather than self-aggrandisement. He pursues the twists and turns of these issues in dictionary format across a sprawling, and decidedly unlean, 672 pages – not always in directions that I personally find persuasive, but always with integrity, thoughtfulness and a dash of humour. It’s an impressive achievement.

The easiest way I can engage with the book in a short review is by identifying four overarching threads. The first is the logic of argument, the rhetorical means by which people try to persuade others of their views – perhaps a subsidiary theme to the book’s larger concerns, but pertinent nonetheless. Advocates for radical alternatives to the status quo commonly find their views marginalised by all manner of rhetorical trickery which excludes them from the narrow centre ground of ‘serious’ opinion. Fleming is at his best in skewering such tactics in a series of brief, aphoristic entries which allow his mordant humour full rein.

The second thread is the use of systems theory to illuminate the worlds that both natural selection and human cultures have built in the past and might build in the future. I’m slightly sceptical about the usefulness of turning such disparate phenomena as animal bodies, transport networks, groups of conspecific organisms, the human economy, ecosystems and the internet into mere exemplars of ‘system’, and Fleming doesn’t always convince me that the systems he discusses (like Gaia, the Earth itself as system) are really ‘systems’, but his writing is invariably stimulating, especially when he turns to human social systems. A case in point is his clever analysis of the way that the increasing complexity in modern society rests on the increasing simplification of roles in its constituent individuals and communities. This makes it more resilient in its current capacity to prevent system shocks, but less resilient in its ability to recover from them.

Fleming’s third thread is devoted to the economics of resilience in the context of the climacteric. There’s some exemplary analysis here, not least in his characterizations of the ‘taut’ – but not ‘lean’ – contemporary capitalist economy and the way its growth ingests the natural capital it depends on, rather than subsisting sustainably from its flow. He contrasts this with more resilient societies historically that have limited or destroyed growth capital so as to preserve the natural resources on which life depends, often through practices that strike the modern mind as inefficient or frivolous. But he also shows how difficult it is to achieve resilience of this kind once the capitalist genie is out of the bottle: in capitalist societies, degrowth too readily means stagnation, recession and unemployment.

So far, so good. But, for me, Fleming’s thought becomes more problematic when he outlines how the ‘lean’ societies of the future might overcome the problems bequeathed by the present. His economic thought, for example, hinges on a strong contrast between market economies and ‘gift’ economies, where the exchange of things builds trust or solidarity in a concentric pattern emanating outwards from households and neighbourhoods. The problem here is partly an over-general definition of ‘market economy’: there have been many kinds of market economy historically, with vastly different consequences. But it’s also that the non-market exchange of things can build status inequality just as much as solidarity, as with patron-client and caste systems. The hankering to transcend impersonal market relations with socially-embedded exchange is understandable, but social embeddedness isn’t always positive. Fleming appreciates this, noting that “all gifts have strings attached” (p.178) and arguing that the market economy “supports a more egalitarian society than any other large-scale state has been capable of” (p.305). But I think he underestimates its importance, preferring to focus on the possibilities for building harmony rather than hierarchy through non-market exchange. The fundamental problem is not, however, the primacy of market over gift relations but the human will to power, which can happily inhabit both forms.

I’m not sure how troubling status inequality is to Fleming’s project, though, because the politics of Lean Logic are essentially conservative. There’s certainly an upside to this: while the mainstream politics of both left and right have dallied fatefully with market liberalism, it’s mostly been left to conservative thinkers of the kind that Fleming approvingly invokes – Edmund Burke, T.S. Eliot, Michael Oakeshott, Roger Scruton, Alasdair MacIntyre – to think seriously about community and tradition. Conservative thinking at its best – and much of Fleming’s writing fits this bill – helps us in the difficult task of living well in real-life communities. Perhaps it represents a kind of rugged individualism, in Fleming’s words “of being intuitively sure of who you are” (p.206) and able to deal with conflicts and setbacks without abdicating them to a levelling higher authority.

Amen to that. But the trouble with conservatism is that while it deals well with the random conflicts of life, it has less to say when those conflicts become systemic. For example, Fleming identifies the household – an economy rife with pure, unconditional giving – as a potential model for his preferred non-monetary gift society. But he scarcely mentions gender throughout the book, and doesn’t notice there’s a particular half of the population that disproportionately bears the cost of this unconditional giving. Indeed, he’s rather dismissive of systemic social identities like gender or class as politically significant, and dismissive of equality as an ethical end, arguing that equality is only a cipher for what really matters – community and social capital. There are grounds for arguing precisely the opposite.

When Fleming turns in his fourth thread to questions of culture, the conservatism becomes more problematic. Even here, much of what he writes is dazzlingly good. He has the anthropologist’s knack of making our contemporary culture seem strange, and the mystifying practices of other times and places seem perfectly sensible – as in his excellent analysis of medieval carnival, which showcases his fine judgment of the proper contexts for acting rationally, or spiritually, or playfully. I find his view persuasive that we get this wrong in contemporary western culture – and in this sense, whatever one’s views about a future climacteric, Fleming’s work stands up independently as cultural criticism.

But the concept of culture he finally arrives at in service of a future lean society seems the opposite of that outlined by the influential Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin, whose book2 on carnival Fleming cites. For Bakhtin, carnival exemplifies a ‘dialogic imagination’, forever open to new meanings, messy clashes of diverse people and ideas, contests over authority in which nobody has the last word. Fleming, by contrast, seems to be seeking some kind of single authentic note to ground culture as shared history and destiny. He frames this appealingly in a memorable phrase: “the story of you and the people you know, set in the place you know” (p.199). But it’s all too easy to invert the formulation and define culture by exclusion against the people and places you don’t know. That isn’t Fleming’s intention. Indeed, he warns against overemphasizing place-based identity: “gypsies and ships’ captains are not necessarily prevented from discovering their identity – but their place is the road, or the sea” (p.206). Yet to me this is an inadequate gloss for what happens to the placeless when culture is strongly defined around place.

There are many such stigmatised and often involuntary ‘wanderers’ in the modern world, and I fear a rigid application of Fleming’s ideas would further marginalise them. His intention is otherwise: to replace the rootless nomadism of contemporary capitalist culture with a world of “strong, distinctive local cultures, sharing mutual respect” (p.321). But here I’m with Bakhtin: cultural boundaries are never fixed enough to define separate, distinct, cultures-in-the-plural unambiguously, and ideas of culture and community are always essentially fictions – indeed, the idea of the nation as a fictive community-writ-large of ‘people you know’ only really arose with the emergence of capitalist mass society from the eighteenth century. Fleming approvingly cites Roger Scruton falling into this nationalist trap, construing ‘culture’ as a fictive shared history defined essentially through the exclusion of outsiders (pp.84-5). This is immediately followed with another approving citation, this time from Wendell Berry, which sounds similar in its weighting of the local but actually grounds culture in shared work on the land, not exclusive history. I wish he’d ditched Scruton and developed the implications of Berry, because in seeking a basis for the post-capitalist societies of the climacteric and lighting on the culture of the nation rather than the work on the farm, I fear he’s backing the wrong horse.

What I wouldn’t dispute is the importance of finding an alternative to the present economic path of neoliberal globalisation, and I think Fleming is right to seek it in the local. Given the contemporary decline of public confidence in large-scale state institutions, his preference for what he calls ‘local wisdom’ over top-down government intervention is hardly controversial. But there are dangers. Much as I like Fleming’s sunny discussion of the “fusion of insult and endearment” associated with “love of the place you live in and the play-potential with places which have the misfortune of being somewhere else” (p.303) the local can be much more vicious and divided than that. I’m thinking, for example, of rape in rural India as a high caste strategy to silence low caste dissent in places far away from any rational niceties about the inviolability of the individual or her body3. Or, less traumatically, an experience that perhaps I’ve shared with other readers of The Land: despite our localist or anarchist leanings, a gratitude towards planning inspectors, those functionaries of the rational-bureaucratic state, who decide in favour of our low impact smallholdings against the ‘local wisdom’ of district councillors and residents who wish to prevent them. Indeed, ever since the emerging centralised states of the late medieval or early modern period gradually started defining a sphere of entitled citizenship against the arbitrary privilege of the seigneurial manor, while at the same time reorienting local economies upwards to the larger ends of the state, I don’t think there’s been a single or a simple story to tell about the encroachment of state power into the sphere of the local in western Europe, and this is paralleled in other parts of the world. Fleming knows this, mentioning the “darker side” of localities (p.68). But, as with his approach to non-market exchange, he tends to gloss over it in favour of more positive interpretations.

Still, it would be wrong to pigeonhole Fleming with the happy multitudes of eco-futurologists who regard anything other than determined optimism about humanity’s prospects as an act of bad faith.  It’s plain from his writing that he doesn’t consider a convivial, lean society of the climacteric to be a foregone conclusion. His entry on ‘unlean’ societies is something of a missed opportunity, detouring into a long exposition of Karl Wittfogel’s discredited ‘Oriental Despotism’ hypothesis concerning the ecological causes of repressive autocracy, and his thought sometimes skirts the same deterministic territory. But ultimately he succeeds in going somewhere more useful – to an insistence on political agency rather than technological solutions to ecological problems, on thinking anew about the relationship between local autonomy and state power, and on robustly defending democracy.

Perhaps there’s an issue with the book along similar lines to one that’s emerged from time to time in comments on this blog. To what extent should we focus our politics on the future we’d like to see, or on the future we think we’ll get? Only Miss World contestants and religious millenarians like the ecomodernists are wont to construe a future of peace, prosperity and technology for all as the political telos of the present – leading them, depending on their other attributes, to enter beauty contests, work as analysts at the Breakthrough Institute or write furious blogs about the infidels blocking the stairway to heaven. But it’s not always clear to me whether Fleming is saying ‘this is the world we’re going to get, so you’d better get used to it’ or ‘this is the world we’re going to get, and here’s how we’ll make the best of it’ or ‘this is the world we’re going to get – delightful, isn’t it?’, perhaps a generic problem for all of us who fix our sights beyond the political short-term. I guess for me an is doesn’t make an ought.

Still, whatever one thinks of his answers, Fleming consistently asks good questions, with a combination of wit and mature wisdom that often makes his writing soar. The book’s intriguing illustrations and excellent production, for which congratulations are surely due to editor Shaun Chamberlin and the publishers, enhance the effect. For all my misgivings about it, it would have been a shame had Fleming’s death robbed us of his illuminating thought.

Notes

  1. Fleming, David (2016). Lean Logic: A Dictionary For The Future And How To Survive It, (Ed. Shaun Chamberlin) White River Junction: Chelsea Green.
  1. Bakhtin, Mikhail (1984). Rabelais and His World, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  1. Desai, Manali (2016). Gendered violence in India. New Left Review, 99: 67-83.