Of Wessex and Londinium: a tale of two city-states

From the furies of Brexit, let me turn to a saner and more achievable political project: restructuring Britain into a neo-peasant society. Actually I think the one may lead to the other. Isn’t serendipity a wonderful thing? I’ve long felt that many of our political and environmental problems can best be tackled by means of a more peopled and localised agriculture, but I’ve never been able to dream up any plausible mechanisms for driving such change in contemporary society, other than bleak end-of-civilisation-as-we-know-it type scenarios. But now, thanks to that friend of the peasantry Boris Johnson and his merry band of Brexiteers, some real possibilities are emerging. Though whether they’re distinct from those bleak end-of-civilisation type scenarios remains to be seen.

Anyway, we’ll come to all that. What I want to do in this post is pick up the threads of the discussion about mega-cities in general and London in particular that I left hanging a few weeks ago. If a government emerged that was strongly committed to small-scale agriculture I think it would be entirely possible for it to organise the nation’s farming accordingly and provision large cities with its products. But that’s not the way the modern world has gone. It was on the cards at the moment of decolonisation in various countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, but the carrot of western-style development and the stick of western-style economic domination conspired against it. And when all’s said and done there is something of an affinity between urbanism and the agricultural status quo of heavily mechanised grain farming. So although it would be possible to ruminate on how to feed London’s 8 million from a world of encircling smallholdings, the idea doesn’t really inspire me.

Instead, what I propose to do is consider the possible shape of regional neo-peasant agricultures in England, and of one such regional agriculture in particular. When I first started thinking about this not so long ago it seemed like an appealing mental exercise, though not one that carried much political weight in the real world. But since then we’ve had Britain threatening to quit the EU, Scotland threatening to quit Britain, London threatening to quit England, the Labour Party threatening to quit itself, and all manner of other intrigue besides. In short, in the present moment of British politics everyone is threatening to quit everyone else if they don’t like them. So the secessionist implications of my analysis, which only recently seemed entirely far-fetched, are suddenly in step with the zeitgeist. What I’m going to focus my analysis on, then, is a neo-peasant agriculture in southwest England. Let us call it the state of Wessex. And I’m going to contrast it with various agricultural possibilities in the east and southeast, or Londinium as I will call it in order to capture the deep history of that city’s status as a greater or lesser centre within a larger imperium. As a sometime dweller of both Wessex and Londinium, I have to admit that my political sensibilities were mostly forged in the latter. But I hereby disinherit myself from it and throw my lot in with the neo-peasants of Wessex. Of course, many of my fellow Wessexers probably hanker more after the lifestyle of the contemporary Londoner than the kind of neo-peasant west country vision that I’m about to outline. If so, my message to them, one fully in keeping with the politics du jour, is: screw you. I’m perfectly happy for Frome to secede from the rest of the southwest if it has to. And as for those uppity east-side Fromies, they can take a hike too if they don’t like what I have to say…

In the light of the Brexit result, no one can surely claim any longer that people won’t voluntarily surrender their short-term wealth and wellbeing in service of larger aims, long a bugbear for any kind of contemporary peasant or agrarian populist activism. So let me push the Brexit experiment a stage further, and now formally announce the division of southern England into the Peasant Republic of Wessex and the Euro-imperium of Londinium. We could set up a border checkpoint in, say, Chippenham, announce a brief amnesty period in which people on either side of the border are permitted to migrate freely across it, and then settle down to observe the two-way traffic. What a fascinating sociological exercise that would be…

Anyway, let me now start putting a few parameters around my suggestion of a neo-peasant Wessex. When I’ve undertaken exercises like this before to construe a rebooted, smaller-scale agriculture, I’ve generally still thought in terms of commercial farming, albeit a more peopled one, furnishing the necessities of life for the wider population. But when I think about what prevents me from making my own holding both more productive and more ecologically benign, it’s the lack of human labour and/or the impossibility of securing the right kinds and quantities of labour (or, to put it another way, the impossibility of securing the right price for my products relative to the price of labour) when running the operation commercially that trips me up the most. I also think that the skill-set required of a sustainability-minded commercial farmer is a highly specialised and unusual one. There are far more people capable of doing a good job growing for themselves with sustainability in mind than there are who’ll do a good job growing for others in that way. So I think I agree with Ralph Borsodi, who others have mentioned on this site (I have to confess I’ve not yet read him – hopefully I’ll put that right), that it’s generally best for the smallholder not to rely on selling their produce.

At the same time, I’m not really in favour of a society comprised entirely of self-reliant smallholders. Looking at it in world-historical terms, I’m happy to go with the notion that the division of labour and the specialisation of agriculture isn’t any kind of existential advance on the life of hunter-gatherers or ‘subsistence’ agriculturists. But looking at it in terms of my already rather left-field advocacy for peasant-style living here in England in 2016, I think proposals for a ‘pure’ subsistence society face the problem that such a life would be deeply impoverished by any reasonable contemporary standard. While much that passes for wealth in the present world seems to me spurious and I consider a materially simpler life to be desirable, I don’t think those truths are best served by demanding that everyone grow their own parsnips. Another problem faced by proposals for a ‘pure’ subsistence society is that no such society has ever existed – but that’s something I’ll look at in further detail in a later post. Where this leads for now in terms of my neo-peasant exercise is making an essentially arbitrary judgment about how many self-reliant ‘peasants’ and how many commercial ‘farmers’ there might be, albeit that the categories admit to some overlap. And my answer is (at least provisionally, I haven’t yet finished crunching the numbers) – around 20% of working age (18-65) adult ‘peasants’, which would put my neo-peasant society on a par with countries such as Poland, Mexico and Iran. Though I’m open to other suggestions…

I’m going to reserve discussion of all the social, political and economic implications of my neo-peasant Wessex for later. For now, I just want to focus on what a neo-peasant agriculture might look like on the ground. What would it produce, how would it produce it, and would it be enough to feed the population? Anybody going about an estimation of this sort needs to make a lot of assumptions and plug in some plausible productivity data. I’m going to outline a lot of these assumptions in detail in my upcoming posts in the hope that somebody or other might read and challenge them, thus helping me improve my estimates. But I’ll mix a few jokes in with the stats, just to make it worth your while ploughing through it all. If even the prospect of my rapier wit doesn’t enthral you, I’ll aim to write a summary analysis when it’s all done and dusted so you can get to the bottom line without wading through the detail.

My general bias is towards underestimation rather than overestimation. I think there’s a tendency in the alternative farming movement to be overly optimistic about what we can produce, and I prefer to be the pessimist who gets a pleasant surprise than the optimist who gets a nasty shock. So if you think my estimates are too low, I won’t be too bothered (though I’d still be interested to hear from you). If you think they’re too high, that’s more of a concern.

My baseline data comes from DEFRA’s ‘Agriculture in the English regions’ dataset. My personal definition of the southwest is limited to Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, whereas official classifications also include Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Dorset – counties with a higher population density (252 people per km2 as compared to 183, since you asked) and also arguably a more eastward-oriented arable agriculture historically. But there you have it, I can’t unpick the data, so I’ll just have to make do with my six counties of Wessex. When it comes to Londinium, I’ve amalgamated the southeast and the east regions as part of its hinterlands, encompassing Hampshire, Sussex, Kent, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Bucks, Oxfordshire and Berkshire – which luckily for those resource-guzzling city-slickers encompasses a decent chunk of the best agricultural and horticultural land in the country.

But that’s probably enough for one blog post. I hope you’ll visit me again soon and let me introduce you to the people, food and farmsteads of Wessex.

Hunting for the exit

I left the prospect of my long-promised analysis of a neo-peasant future dangling at the end of my previous post. But the first lesson they teach you at blogging school is to hold your readership in suspense so they keep coming back for more. The second lesson they teach you is not to hold them in suspense so much that they decide not to come back at all. So I promise you upon my word that I’ll start the neo-peasant analysis in my next post. In this one I’m going to replicate my review of George Monbiot’s new book How Did We Get Into This Mess? which has recently appeared in The Land (Issue 20). If you’d like to read it all nicely laid out with The Land’s characteristically meticulous aesthetic, then it’s currently available on their website here. But if you’re content with the more homespun approach we take here at Small Farm Future, then it’s all laid out for you just below.

Meanwhile, the grand soap opera of British politics continues apace with more twists and turns than last year’s discarded baling twine. Andrea Leadsom, only recently touted as the Brexiter’s prime minister, fell on her sword to leave the way clear for Theresa May. Leadsom has now been made Secretary of State at DEFRA, the government department responsible for agriculture: perhaps a case of ‘well, you wanted Brexit, now you sort out the mess’. In a characteristically sharp blog post, Miles King sets out the implications. Present indications suggest my prediction of an ecomodernist turn in British agriculture, with the land sparing/land sharing divide set at the 500ft contour, could prove accurate. But I suspect there are plenty more episodes in the drama to come.

Anyway, let me turn my attention to George.

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Monbiot, George. 2016. How Did We Get Into This Mess? Politics, Equality, Nature. London: Verso.

It’s a poor reflection on the state of our civic culture that George Monbiot stands almost alone among journalists in the mainstream British media as a voice for the radical green left. I doubt it’s easy facing the opprobrium not only of the usual suspects but also the not-so-friendly fire of radicals looking to him for public representation of their own particular agendas. So let me begin by giving credit where it’s due. Monbiot’s new book, a selection of his journalism over the last ten years or so, showcases an immense achievement.

Since everything here was originally an op-ed piece in The Guardian, each chapter is short and pithy, making the book as a whole an easy read. The chapters are arranged in thematic sections, including among others energy, food and farming, the marginalisation and demonization of the weak and powerless (including children), the murky world of right-wing think-tanks and corporate lobbyists, the rise of neoliberalism, and wildlife, or “wild life”, as it’s better framed within the book. This last section is particularly strong. Whereas the tone in other sections is often strident (understandably so – as Monbiot ably documents, there’s a lot to feel strident about), there’s a kind of lyrical transcendence to his wildlife writings that encompasses and transfigures his more straightforwardly political pieces.

The book holds some frustrations, though. One of them is the inevitable downside of its punchy short-form journalism. Every piece stands up well in its own terms, but despite the shape given by the thematic approach it’s disappointing to heft such a weighty tome in your hands only to find that the many fruitful lines of thought that Monbiot opens up often aren’t followed through with the level of detail you’d hope to find in a book-length analysis. More importantly, that lack of detail enables Monbiot to run two different kinds of politics through the book without fully confronting their tensions. These are, respectively, a municipally-oriented democratic socialism and a more rurally-oriented producerism-cum-agrarian populism. Or, to put it crudely in terms of two periodicals that are dear to me, it’s the voice of The Guardian versus the voice of The Land. There’s much to be learned from both voices, but if we’re to answer satisfactorily Monbiot’s question of how we got into this mess – and perhaps more pressingly of how we’re going to get out of it – some further probing is required, because the two politics have different implications.

I’d summarise the democratic socialist story that Monbiot has to tell like this: The landowner ruling class in pre-capitalist Britain had the countryside and its riches pretty much stitched up. With the rise of coal, capitalism and colonialism, rural working people became an urban-industrial working class with little nostalgia for the dependent rural life they’d lost, though to his credit Monbiot takes resistance to enclosure in the British countryside and in the country’s colonies abroad more seriously than most. Urbanised and industrialised working people were instrumental in creating a more inclusive and egalitarian society, and with the enormous economic forces unleashed by fossil fuels and the globalisation of capitalist markets were eventually able to secure for themselves a share of wealth unimaginable to their forefathers in a “great flowering of freedom that has enhanced so many lives since the end of the Second World War” (p.4). But the gains achieved in this statist, meritocratic, Keynesian society stalled in the 1970s. The monetarist doctrines of Milton Friedman and his ilk were waiting in the wings, and with the election of Reagan in the USA and Thatcher in Britain they were politically realised in the ideology of neoliberalism, whose ‘growth at all costs’ mentality now threatens to reduce “the world’s diverse and differentiated marvels…to the same grey stubble” (p.177). Meanwhile, the gap that early capitalist development opened between productive industrialists and parasitic rentiers is narrowing once more. The captains of the neoliberal global economy are parlaying their control of these global marvels into personal riches and a small, exclusive ruling class, at great cost to the majority of the world’s people and to the natural world through the concentration of wealth, the dismantling of public services and the deregulation of business and financial markets. What’s needed, then, is a reversal of this neoliberal trajectory which “if unchecked, will catalyse crisis after crisis, all of which can be solved only by the means it forbids: greater intervention on the part of the state” (p.221).

The alternative producerist-populist narrative shares a good deal with this democratic socialist one, but frames it in bigger and less statist historical terms. It’s glimpsed in Monbiot’s writing when he argues that human freedom and self-actualisation are more important than comfort or the accumulation of material things. So while civilisation may be a good thing up to a point, it’s possible to have too much of it for various reasons. One is that “civilisation is boring” (p.95), stymying and limiting the full use of our mental and physical capacities while remorselessly reducing everybody to its purview: “the oddest insult in the English language [is] when you call someone a peasant,” Monbiot writes. “You are accusing them of being self-reliant and productive” (pp.141-2). Another issue is the environmental cost of servicing the non-self-reliant multitudes forged in civilisation’s image. In various chapters, Monbiot touches on the disproportionate call on global resources made by the wealthy (which includes most of us living in the global north), the difficulties of sustaining it in the face of long-term economic growth and a more equable global wealth distribution, and the life-denying pointlessness of much of our material consumption. Discussing the impossibility of endless growth, he suggests that industrial revolutions prior to the advent of fossil fuels were ultimately unable to sustain themselves, and collapsed. Indeed, the mathematics of compound growth suggest that “salvation lies in collapse” (p.175). He advocates an orderly retreat in the face of this reality before it’s foisted upon us more capriciously, for example by leaving the remaining fossil fuels in the ground to avoid runaway climate change.

The figure who awaits us if we do beat such a retreat is the peasant. Monbiot recognises, as so few do, that provisioning the world’s people adequately and sustainably is more about ownership, about widespread access to the land and its resources, than about the technocratic boosting of high-energy, low-labour agriculture. This is a populist or producerist, a peasant-centred, vision. But here is where the tensions between the social-democratic and the producerist strands of his analysis bite. Essentially, these turn upon whether you address problems in the manner of the rational-bureaucratic planner, asking how best to deliver services to the population, or whether you address them in the manner of the autochton, asking how best to inhabit and thrive in the land you call home.

So for example, in his well-known critiques of upland sheep farming, of livestock farming more generally and of the expansion of agriculture into what he calls “ever less suitable land” (p.97) Monbiot operates mostly in rational-bureaucratic mode, trying to reconcile the competing demands of conservation, food production and sustainability at the level of generalised policy. Much of this analysis is subtle and persuasive, as in his understanding of the disastrous disconnect between farm, forestry and conservation policy afflicting upland farming, and the social history underlying the emergence of an upland peasantry. But a more peasant-centred vision would find scope for mixed upland silvo-pastoralism. Abolishing small-scale farming in these ‘unsuitable’ places which “in the face of global trade…cannot compete with production in fertile parts of the world” (p.97) would not only be another act of enclosure, but – as I’ve argued in an article in The Land (Issue 18) – also an ecologically risky strategy that plays into the hands of corporate agribusiness.

Another case in point is his advocacy for nuclear power and his critique of “deep green” energy production – “Micro-hydropower might work for a farmhouse in Wales; it’s not much use in Birmingham” (pp.166-7). For sure, if we want to leave fossil fuels in the ground while hanging onto some semblance of civilisation in the short term we need large, concentrated sources of energy, and arguably there’s little in the cupboard besides nuclear. For those of us who advocate a peasant or neo-agrarian future, the fact that there are thousands of Birminghams in the world indeed is quite a problem. But it’s also a problem for nuclear advocates, whose favoured technology currently furnishes less than 2% of global energy production. Which is the more plausible strategy – to embrace something like a sixtyfold proliferation of nuclear power within a few short years along with the huge associated and currently unavailable technological changes that would be needed to keep all these Birminghams ticking along as they are? Or to embrace rapid energy descent, that salvational ‘collapse’ which Monbiot himself advocates? His critiques of pointless consumerism further raise the question of how much energy we actually need. He doesn’t provide estimates here, but it would be interesting to hear them – particularly if he spoke them with his wilder voice, the voice of a dweller in the land, rather than that of the rational planner or the urbane Guardian man.

To get out of the mess, I’m sure that we need both approaches. But it’s this wilder voice that I prefer in Monbiot’s writing. I don’t always agree with it, as when he contrasts the ‘linear thinking’ of agriculture with the ‘rambling and responsive’ existence of the forager (p.92) – an over-simplified distinction which effaces the possibilities for a rambling and responsive agriculture, for ‘wildness’ to be articulated within farming rather than against it. Still, Monbiot’s wild voice gets closer to the source of the mess we’re in – and is also much rarer – than the social-democratic urge to blame everything on Thatcher and Reagan, lobby for a return to pre-1980s public provision, and hope that modern technology will banish woes like climate change. The malaise runs very much deeper than that, as Monbiot convincingly demonstrates. In this book, he stands at the doorway of the producerist or agrarian populist vision I believe we need if we’re to create a just and sustainable future. But he doesn’t quite step through. In future books or collaborations I hope he will, because few people are better equipped to articulate it convincingly while retaining the necessary critical edge. In the meantime, what he’s given us here is a passionate, deeply informed and endlessly thought-provoking analysis of our times.  “To seek enlightenment about ourselves and the world around us: this is what makes a life worth living” (p.115). We’re lucky that he’s set himself that goal, and done so much to share it.

A farmer’s guide to Brexit

I promised a Brexit two-parter with a second post on agriculture, so that’s what I aim to deliver. It’s clear that the Brexit issue is going to reverberate for a long time to come, but I think I’d better start pressing the fade button on it for a while after this. Funny how quickly it’s flipped from a slow-burning issue of the disgruntled fringe in both main parties to a fast-burning issue of the disgruntled mainstream. Looking back at my pre-referendum predictions, I thought a Brexit result would cause strife in the Tory party, which it has. What I didn’t predict, though perhaps it’s obvious with hindsight, is that it would also lead to a full-on meltdown in the Labour Party. Compare the way the two parties have handled the fallout: on the right, the smooth and ruthless excision of Johnson and now probably Gove as a threat to Tory ruling hegemony; on the left, a massive and possibly terminal public brawl. Those who see Brexit as an opportunity to reshape our politics for the better, which includes me to some extent, have got their work cut out. I also failed to perceive how, especially outside Britain, many in the heterodox leftist circles where I usually find my inspiration would side with the neoliberals in heralding the Brexit vote as some kind of victory, rather than just another perplexing lurch in the long-term crisis. At issue, I think, are different notions of political sovereignty, on which I’ll have more to say later in the year.

Something that I did predict was the delusional excess currently parading across the country and its political talk shows: Britain is important once again, a great trading nation that now has a free hand to direct the flow of money and limit the flow of people. If the Brexiteers succeed in those dual objectives then it’s game, set and match for neoliberalism in the UK. But I doubt they will, so I feel reasonably relaxed about putting up with the current victory party. It’ll be over soon enough, and then things will get more serious. Perhaps the question is, as David Hare puts it, whether we’ll have politicians who are serious enough to cope with the aftermath.

Anyway, I’m just a humble farmer so let me leave all that aside and say a little about how this might pan out agriculturally. Policy wonkery isn’t really my forte, and neither is accurate prediction, so it seems. But let me hazard a few guesses about the agricultural landscape of a post-Brexit Britain…

The first point to make, along the lines of Tim Lang in this interesting commentary (interesting also for the mixture of wise and foolish comments beneath the article, including the good old vertical farming fallacy) is that food and farming are just about the biggest ticket items within the entire EU but got almost no coverage in the referendum campaign, except obliquely in terms of immigration issues. A case of “let’s quit the EU, and then start figuring out the implications”.

I think those implications are going to be quite troubling for farmers, consumers and Brexit negotiators. But a lot will depend on the shape of the Tory government that takes us out of the EU. My best guess (which on present form probably isn’t a very good one) is that the harder line neoliberalism associated with the Brexiteers will be a more dominant hue in the post-Cameron Tory party. My predictions below are based on that assumption.

A brief statistical interlude – the following three figures are worth bearing in mind: The average annual earnings in the UK are around £25,500; the average annual farmer’s earnings are around £19,500; and, three-quarters of the latter comes from support payments1.

So let me now take a few wild punts on how all this will play out:

Small-scale farmers: plus ça change. Britain has the largest-scale and most straightforwardly market-oriented agriculture of any EU country. After the last round of CAP negotiations, the British government could have chosen to keep basic farm payments for small farmers, cap maximum payments for large ones, and use the CAP framework and other trading mechanisms to support local small-scale farming in other ways. But it didn’t. In that sense, small-scale commercial farmers who are still in business may be Brexit-proofed ahead of the curve. But we also mostly focus on high value niche products which are quite income elastic. So if the post-Brexit economy bombs, then so might we.

Large-scale lowland farmers. Despite all the promises of the Brexiteers, I can’t see basic farm payments lasting much beyond the 2020 election. Their days are probably numbered in the EU too, but here in Britain we won’t be able to afford them, they’re not in keeping with the neoliberal faith, and there aren’t many farmers anyway, so their votes don’t matter much (besides, who else are they going to vote for – Jeremy Corbyn?) On the upside, a lot of that meddlesome EU environmental regulation will probably go too, which will save a bit of money. Expect more dead fish in the River Frome, and in other waterways the length and breadth of the country. Fuel and fertilizer prices, grain prices – ooh, it’s a knife-edge, but I’m sure a lot of the big guys will pull through. The schmooze factor between Big Agri and the Tory government will increase exponentially (expect pedestrian disruption between Nos. 16 and 17 Smith Square due to pavement repairs). But I’m not sure it’ll make much difference in the end.

Big Landowners. In his article Tim Lang takes a gentle sideswipe at George Monbiot for overdoing his CAP-as-a-subsidy-to-the-rich schtick. I’m with Tim on this, even though George is right that the CAP does function as an outrageously regressive negative income tax for wealthy landowners. But George tends to underplay the fact that, within Europe, it mostly functions as a subsidy to consumers and retailers (note earnings figures above). In any case, with Brexit I think the big landowning wing of the Tory party will lose out to the swivel-eyed neoliberals. But I’m not sure how much it’ll care. Tenant farmers are a pain in the backside anyway. Big landowners will most likely line up with all the current ‘getting our country back’ tosh, position themselves as custodians of the timeless English landscape and find other ways to cash in. They’re good at that sort of thing. They’ve been practicing it for, like, a thousand years.

Upland stock farmers. Hard times are in store when the subsidy regimen dies and the winds of neoliberalism blow harder. Ironically, perhaps the New Zealand sheep farmers who suffered in the 1970s when Britain tightened the screws on its EU membership (or EEC as it was then) will return the favour now we’re leaving it. But some of the British upland farmers will survive because, like the aristocracy, the peasantry is adept at hanging on to what it has. The lightening of the regulatory burden may help. So more dead fish, then. Don’t expect much rewilding or watershed management, unless it’s undertaken for free by Mother Nature on abandoned upland farms.

Dairy farmers. The final death knell for medium-scale family dairy farming? And no more generous grants for converting to indoor robotic systems. So a game for giant corporate players. But also perhaps some spaces opening up for low-impact micro-dairying?

Conservation policies and environmental regulation: you’re joking, right? (See Miles King for details).

A national food policy: are you some kind of communist? Read my lips: no centralised planning unless we have absolutely no other option. Which may turn out to be the case (see below).

Energy: I doubt there’ll be enough in the kitty for the new reactor at Hinkley Point, and negotiating with EDF just got harder. I also doubt that the instinctive Tory hatred towards renewable energy of any kind will change much. And now we’re out of the EU we don’t have to ratify that silly Paris climate deal. So I’d predict lots of fracking and open-cast Welsh coal. Probably not enough to keep us ticking over, but there’s a chap called Putin knocking at the door with some excellent deals up his sleeve. They seem a bit too good to be true, to be honest, but surely it would be madness to say no?

Horticulture: now that we’ve got our country back, will British consumers want to buy more British fruit and veg? I’m not so sure. They’ll have their job cut out anyway, because we import most of it from abroad (the EU, principally). And the stuff we do produce is heavily dependent on the kind of footloose migrant labour working long hours in hard jobs for low pay that we’re supposed to be getting rid of. Though a good deal of it is organised by criminal gangmasters who are unlikely to be affected by whatever edicts are issued out of Westminster. But maybe more horticulture jobs will open up for British people. What’s the betting that after further onslaughts on trade unions and labour legislation a good number of Brits will find themselves lying nose-to-stolon on giant picking rigs supplying strawberries for their favoured politicians’ jaunts to the tennis at Wimbledon, and will then vote the Lib Dems in at the next election in order that we rejoin the EU and bring the migrants back? Stranger things have happened. Though not many, to be honest. Anyway, rising fruit and veg prices are a fair bet for the future, turning them into luxury items that’ll be increasingly beyond the means of ordinary people. But that might foment an allotment movement, and once the smell of the veg patch is in people’s nostrils then peasant insurrection is never far away.

An ecomodernist calls: what this all seems to point to is that Britain could become a giant laboratory for ‘land-sparing’ ecomodernism, with its uplands re-wilded by default and intensive, large-scale, grain-heavy farming in the lowlands. Expect Mike Shellenberger to be flying in soon for another meeting with Owen Paterson (will Paterson soon be stalking the corridors of DEFRA once again, or is that just another Bremain scare story?) In terms of the ecomodernist agenda, the roll-out of GM crops in the UK is probably now a foregone conclusion, so we can look forward to the end of weeds and pests and the feeding of the poor and needy. But as I said before, new nuclear is probably off the agenda for the time being until we’ve saved a bit more cash. Mike, could you bring some piggybanks over with you?

Food prices and food policy: In summary, I imagine that we’ll keep churning out the wheat, barley and oilseed rape in the short-term until all our best agricultural soil has been washed into the English Channel (it’s OK to call it that again, right?) But food prices will probably rise, especially for things that require work to grow and actually taste nice: fruit, vegetables, meat and such. And our national food self-sufficiency will probably continue to dwindle, necessitating increased food imports bought with a weaker pound on less advantageous trading terms. As climate change, more populist government and trade protectionism begin to make their influence felt around the world the UK government will suddenly panic about the parlous state of the food supply and appoint a safe pair of hands to pilot a national food security policy – Boris Johnson, perhaps? And as we know from Johnson’s antics to date, anything could happen after that. My prediction is that he’ll target the planning system as a dastardly communistic impediment to free enterprise. The last time the Tories took a look at the planning system they ditched decades-worth of meticulous planning guidance in favour of a short document that they knocked out on the back of a beermat as they walked home from the pub. This time they’ll probably throw out the beermat too. And then, my friend, every acre of these fair isles will be ripe for a sturdy peasant farmer to fight it out with the aristocrats and property developers to take possession. What’s that you say? Who on earth in this day and age has a plan for how Britain could feed itself through peasant farming? Well, I’m glad you asked me that…

Reference

1. Figures from: https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/earningsandworkinghours/datasets/averageweeklyearningsearn01 and Wood, Z. 2016 ‘Figures that add up to higher food prices’ Guardian 04.07.16

The Breakdown of Nations

I suppose I have no option but to write about Brexit, adding my own small voice to the torrent of verbiage that’s already been devoted to the current extraordinary events.

There are endless possible questions and implications to be traced. How they’ll play out is anybody’s guess. What does already seem clear is that the Vote Leave campaign was based on a series of lies that have already unravelled, and its soundbite-politician architects have absolutely no clue how to deal with the political, economic and social mess they so carelessly engineered. Maybe some of the present sky-is-falling rhetoric of my fellow remainers will prove in time to be overblown, but as things stand scenarios like the end of Britain’s EU membership, the end of the EU itself, the end of the United Kingdom, the end of peace in Northern Ireland, the end of the UK’s voice in the world, the rise of racism and nativism in Britain and in Europe, the self-destruction of the Labour Party, recession, job losses and major, long-term national impoverishment are all on the cards, if not already happening. That’s a big list of achievements, though not in a good sense, for our electoral representatives to pull off at a single stroke. Many of them were probably inevitable in the longer term anyway, and some of them aren’t necessarily all bad in themselves. “Collapse now to avoid the rush” as some of my pro-Brexit neo-agrarian friends have put it. A considered retreat is one thing, unforced self-destruction quite another. Still, it’s been plain enough for a while that the days of the current global order are numbered and it would be naïve to imagine that the transition to the next one is always going to be smooth. What really matters is what the next order will look like.

It’s tempting to pursue that question along the many convoluted byways of the Brexit issue, but perhaps it’s best if I stick to this blog’s main themes – sustainable farming and the kind of politics that can foster it. In this post, I’m going to focus on the politics. In the next one, I’ll take a closer look at the agricultural implications of Brexit.

I’ve long argued that if we’re to create a sustainable agriculture (and therefore a sustainable culture) a more localised politics is needed, so on the face of it perhaps that ought to put me in the Brexit camp. Certainly, a lot of anti-neoliberal, pro-small farm folk I’ve encountered have pinned their colours to the Brexit mast – but not many of them are actually British. There are some local and some wider dimensions of the EU issue that complicate any simple Brexit = localism equation. It’s worth examining them, because they raise important questions about the politics of a neo-agrarian transition.

To flesh out the local issues, where better to start than my hometown of Frome? In the town elections last year, its denizens chose an independent local party – Independents For Frome – over established national party candidates for every single one of the town council’s seventeen seats. But in the EU referendum, as far as can be inferred from aggregate figures, they voted to remain. A contradiction? I don’t think so. Arguing for a localization of politics doesn’t necessarily mean that politics should only be localized. The trick is to create nested systems in which decisions, arbitration and spheres of influence are appropriately structured at different geopolitical levels – including very broad, global or continent-wide levels. In my vision of a more localised politics, there’s room both for organisations like Independents For Frome and for ones like the EU. Political scientists have been talking for some time of a ‘new medievalism’ in contemporary global politics, by which they mean that the Westphalian system of nation-states is breaking down into a more polymorphous politics of cities, regions, nations, identities, para-statal organisations, supra-statal organisations, trading leagues and so forth, rather like the more politically variegated pre-modern age. By contrast, the Brexit campaign was founded on a conservative, nostalgic, modernist project of reclaiming sovereignty for the nation-state. It’s not a project that I think can succeed, and it’s not one that I support anyway.

I suppose I might have supported it if I felt there was something worth rescuing in the concept of national sovereignty. The EU has its problems, after all – though in the cold light of day the wilder flights of the Vote Leave campaign are beginning to look a bit silly. It wasn’t the EU, it turns out, that was lurking in the park waiting to pounce on unsuspecting women and children, or creeping into your house at night to disorder your CD collection and steal odd socks from your washing machine. And the fact is, Westminster has its problems too. From medieval times, Britain has had very weak traditions of local political autonomy, which is one reason why it once rose to prominence as a global power above other European countries. Like many countries, it has strong traditions of popular radicalism, but more than many countries those traditions have been consistently frustrated by a political elite that has cannily absorbed most of the challenges to its power and kept a more or less continuous grip. The main checks on its power over the last couple of centuries have been the politics of organised industrial labour, the politics of municipal radicalism, the troubled politics of the UK union, and the EU. The first two were eclipsed in the 1980s (the self-destruction of the Labour Party in the wake of Brexit merely being another sad coda to that tale). The EU has now gone, and with it possibly the union. So although the referendum has left some blood on the carpet inside the conservative establishment, it’s also quite possibly delivered it a firmer grip on power than at any time since the beginning of the nineteenth century. Good news if you support the Conservative Party, and its neoliberal, pro-rich policies. Less so if you don’t hold this self-serving political class in high regard, which – bafflingly – seems to be a major point of issue for the Brexiteers. The truth is, Westminster has a crushing, centralising, conservative, undemocratic grip on power – the notion that the referendum is somehow liberatory for a more sovereign and localised politics seems to me very much mistaken.

There are many aspects to that lack of democracy. Some stem straightforwardly from Britain’s political institutions: the monarchy, the House of Lords, first-past-the-post voting, the stifling of municipal independence. Others have broader socio-political causes: inequalities of wealth, landownership and education, the corporate grip on the press and so on. But more important than the notion of democracy-as-voting is democracy as social interaction, the endless frictions, accommodations and slippages between us as individuals and as interest groups in our multiple social roles that constitute a democratic civil society. That’s what needs nourishing if we’re truly to build democracy, and it’s taken a hell of a battering in this referendum campaign.

A lot has been made of the class character of the Brexit debate – the out-of-touch political class, the cappuccino-quaffing, don’t-know-how-the-other-half-lives remain voters (though of course, Boris Johnson et al qualify on both counts there) versus the excluded post-industrial working class who want to take back control of their lives, who want to count for something again. I agree with Frome’s own Guardian man, John Harris, in dismissing what he calls “that lousy old Marxist trope of “false consciousness”, whereby people enthusiastically following the supposedly wrong cause are only a speech or poster away from enlightenment, and a sharp left turn”. But you don’t have to be all that Marxist to question the class mystification involved in the Brexit case for national sovereignty, a point that leaps out at me when I reconsider the work of Leopold Kohr in the light of the referendum.

Kohr’s book The Breakdown of Nations (1957) was one of the early offerings in the green localisation movement that I still consider myself to be a part of. When I read it a few years ago I thought Kohr had some wise things to say. I still do, but looking at this article about Kohr’s book in the context of the UK referendum (thanks to Ruben Anderson for drawing it to my attention) makes me think that we in the localisation movement need to raise our game. “Kohr,” the writer claims, “understood that God made atoms small, that small business invigorated the economy, that only a small number of people created real social change and that virtue came in a small box. He appreciated that we lived in a microcosmos, not a macrocosmos.”

To my mind, that’s a list of non-sequiturs. The size of atoms has nothing whatever to do with the size of polities. We live simultaneously in a microcosmos and a macrocosmos. And so on. Kohr argued that smaller European states have an organic primacy over larger conglomerate polities – Scotland as against the UK, for example. But here he succumbs to the seductive power of nationalist mythology. The myth of ‘Scotland’ has no more intrinsic coherence than the myth of the UK, or the myth of the EU. Consider the divisions between highland, lowland and island; Protestant and Catholic; the class connivance of the lairds with English interests against their tenants after 1746; lord versus subject; Rangers versus Celtic; English versus Gaelic; 45% for independence versus 55% against; 62% for EU membership versus 38% for exit. There is no single, coherent story to tell of authentic ‘smallness’ here that righteously divides the UK from the EU, and Scotland from the UK.

There is a coherent story to tell (though it’s only one of many) of authentically small farms, businesses and communities as parts of larger human and non-human conglomerations. It’s a story I’ve tried to tell on this blog and will continue to do so. It’s a story that can be told within and against the EU, within and against the UK, within and against Westminster. But I think I’d prefer to tell it within the EU, within the UK, and against Westminster. And if the EU has become an unreformable cabal of power-hungry neoliberals, then so has Westminster, with bells on, for at least the last forty years.

Still, what’s done is done. I think the worst (if probably the likeliest) thing now would be a messy compromise, which will leave the Brexit voters feeling cheated of their victory. So – perhaps to contradict my recent post on the perils of right-wing populism – I think what I’d most like to see from here is a clean, hard break from the EU under a Johnson premiership. No access to the single market. The promised brakes on immigration, so long as they’re done with humanity (and, of course, the return of all Britain’s own EU emigrants). It’s not that I vindictively want to see my country and its Brexiteers suffer the full consequences of their actions, but I think without it the lessons won’t be learned. Immigration was never fundamentally the problem. Bureaucratic EU rules were never fundamentally the problem. A declining post-industrial power drifting aimlessly in the sea of neoliberalism was the problem. Alternative economists talk about the ‘addictive’ nature of the mainstream economy, and as many an addict will recount you have to hit rock bottom before you can begin the path to recovery. Perhaps ironically a Johnson premiership in a fracturing, isolated UK under massive trading disadvantages could be the best hope that the long and divisive grip on power by a conservative establishment might finally crumble under the weight of its own contradictions, just at the moment of its apparent triumph.

It’s a high risk strategy, but from where we now stand all strategies seem to me high risk. The risk involved in the one I’m advocating has been identified by Polly Toynbee: “When leavers find there’s no money and no exodus, that it was all lies, where does their wrath turn next?” Already we’re seeing a rise in racist incidents, leaflets circulating with the legend ‘No more Polish vermin’ and so on. When reality dawns on the Brexiteers, we progressive populists have a huge job on our hands to try to shape the succeeding political narrative for the best, and it’s suddenly become a lot more urgent.

So as well as a Johnson premiership, I’d also like to see a resurgent left populism articulating the alternatives. Let other power blocs feast on our vacated place at the world table while we pursue our self-enforced agenda of economic localism, out of which some good could certainly come. I’m not entirely convinced a resurgent left populism will happen – especially in the light of the Labour Party’s abjectly unresurgent behaviour at present – but as long-term readers of this blog will know, I’m ever the optimist. And, luckily for Britain, Small Farm Future is here to guide the country through the morass in its hour of need. Indeed, I’ve just heard that our board of directors has approved in principle the hiring of an extra staff writer to improve our coverage of these weighty issues. All it needs now is the funds to make the appointment. The donate button is, as ever, top right. So a message to any pro-Brexit non-British neo-agrarians reading this: please dig deep. My country needs you. It needs your support. Above all, it needs your foreign exchange.

Requiem for the imperial city

In the early 19th century London was such an unhealthy place that it couldn’t sustain its population through indigenous births and had to rely upon net in-migration. Its death rate has long since declined to a more acceptable level, but today the capital relies as much as ever on in-migration. About 40% of its current population was born abroad. And foreign-born workers in London constitute more than a third of all foreign-born workers in the UK.

Those facts aren’t much, I realise, to build an entire hypothesis on, but I’m going to give it a go. Hell, there are people out there like Stewart Brand and Erle Ellis who’ve worked with less in trying to convince us that urbanisation is an unalloyed positive.

So here’s my alternative hypothesis to their narrative of joyful urbanisation: Some people want to live in the city and some people don’t, but most people want a secure livelihood. Historically, industrialisation and economic development have been associated with urbanism or urbanisation. Cities were job-creators, built around commerce and industry. So people, in search of that secure livelihood, have tended to go to them, temporarily or permanently. Cities were (and are) also resource sinks, drawing in food and other materials from much wider areas. They thus have an imperial aspect – gravitational centres, as it were, that orient their surroundings to themselves. In some cases, the imperialism is quite localised. In others – like London in its heyday, and apparently still today – it can be global in reach. But the nature of the livelihoods available in the post-industrial city seems to be changing. As I mentioned in a recent post, traditional urban sectors such as heavy industry and port functions are now much less labour intensive, and have also become too large to fit into traditional cities like London. In London, manufacturing is still important (mainly now of food products and clothing), but rising up the list are human and city services – domestic personnel, food retail, hospitality, security, transport, construction, landscape services and so on1.

In other words, cities concentrate people, thereby creating many employment opportunities for people to service other people. So there’s a kind of positive feedback loop of self-reinforcing urban concentration. Meanwhile, London as a so-called ‘world city’, with the benefit of political stability and ratcheting property prices, has increasingly become a playground for the global wealthy. At the same time, the possibilities for cheap accommodation in the city are dwindling – the generation-long onslaught on social housing symbolised most recently by the notorious bedroom tax, the curtailment of private renters’ and squatters’ rights, the closure of loopholes such as narrowboat moorages and heavier planning enforcement of ‘shedrooms’. So there’s a massive squeeze on the living conditions and standard of living of the traditional working class, and quite a squeeze too on the situation of relatively poorly paid middle class workers – teachers, social workers, nurses etc.

I have no idea how all this will play out in the future. But that high level of foreign-born workers is intriguing. It seems to me that cities like London are no longer operating in the way described by classical urban sociology – the slow (and often painful) assimilation of successive waves of migrants into the city’s stable demographic fabric (in London’s case, up to the 1970s, successively Jewish, Irish, Caribbean and South Asian for the most part). The present migrants seem a more provisional and footloose phenomenon than the migrants of the past. They are not necessarily there to stay, but there to earn while they can…largely by servicing the settled population, who rely on them even as they moan about them. On that latter point, there’s clearly a class dimension which is at issue in contemporary politics: the jobs done by migrants service wealthier people the most and tend to undercut the work or the work conditions of the traditional working class. Fortunately, here in the UK we have the political maturity to realise that this is due to structural economic and political factors, and can’t simply be blamed on the migrants themselves – oh, wait. Anyway, should London’s economic fortunes decline, or other cities in other places start to beckon harder, or opportunities in their homelands brighten, or today’s referendum propel Britain out of the EU, then perhaps we could expect London’s migrant population to decrease – with interesting consequences, I’d think, for the life of the city.

Meanwhile, I doubt this situation fosters economic resilience or stability for London. And since the population of Greater London constitutes around 16% of the whole UK population – a pretty high main city/total population ratio when set alongside comparable countries – I also doubt it fosters economic resilience or stability for the UK as a whole. But maybe that has some interesting implications. For one thing, although the UK (or at least England) is one of the more densely populated and heavily urbanised countries of the world, once you take London out of the picture, things start to look more spacious. The southwest region of England where I live has nearly 2 million hectares of farmland and a total population of 5.3 million, with only six cities in the region exceeding populations of 100,000 and only two exceeding 200,000 (Bristol is its largest city, and the tenth largest in the UK, with a population of 400,000). Population density here is 2.9 people per hectare of existing farmland – a contrast with London and the southeast, with 7.5 people per hectare of farmland in that region.

Of course, in reality you can’t just ‘take London out of the picture’. But when I advocate for a smaller scale and more localised agriculture I often come across the kind of objection that runs “Well, that all sounds lovely, but I live in London. How are you going to feed us?” As an ex-Londoner myself – and one, moreover, who has benefitted considerably from its overheated economy – I’m quite sympathetic to that question. Especially if it’s phrased open-endedly rather than as a challenge – less an aggressive ‘how are you going to feed us?’, and more a plaintive ‘how are you going to feed us?’ This is something I’m going to look at more closely in my upcoming posts.

Perhaps a more subversive implication of this line of thought would question London’s overdevelopment. Big (or biggish) cities undoubtedly have a role to play in concentrating various administrative, educational and commercial functions, although much of their old commercial-industrial raison d’être has now gone. But do we need a city of 8 million in a country of 63 million? How much of that population concentration has resulted from old patterns of development and the positive feedback loop I mentioned earlier? How many of those wealthy Londoners being serviced by not-so-wealthy migrants can a just and sustainable society afford? There are those who argue that by promoting ease of interaction, large cities display ‘super-linear power scaling with total population’2 – that is, they create economic activity disproportionate to their size. This hypothesis has been strongly disputed, even in its own terms empirically3, quite apart from the question of whether super-linear power scaling is such a great thing anyway when the case for degrowth is mounting. Indeed, others have argued that the fractal pattern of super-sized cities represents an instability in a complex system operating far from equilibrium4. I wonder if these competing perspectives are over-mathematizations. Perhaps in imputing some kind of ordained and intrinsic trajectory to city development they efface the way it emerges from the self-interested policies of states and their elites. Might it be time for policymakers to start thinking about ways of trimming back the hyperdevelopment of large cities like London in service of wider interests?

The situation is different in the growing megacities of the global south, though there are various similarities. One of them is the same basic imperialism that underlies their prodigious growth – a local imperialism of the city bleeding its rural hinterlands, and a global imperialism associated with institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, whose structural adjustment programs geared to opening markets for global free trade in agricultural commodities (allied with the utter hypocrisy of the US and the EU in continuing to subsidise their own agricultures) gave many peasants and rural poor people few other options. Despite the blandishments of Brand, Ellis and other urban advocates about the advantages of urban residence for poor people in the global south, I still haven’t seen any compelling evidence to suggest that it provides a solid route out of poverty for many, though I’m still open to persuasion. I suspect there may be a historical fallacy here: because urbanisation was associated with economic growth in various historic and contemporary cases (Europe, USA and, perhaps more problematically, China), it’s assumed that urbanisation is a necessary and sufficient condition for development. I’m not so sure. And I think there’s a road not taken here which is worth exploring – endogenous rural development.

But it’s hard to broach such possibilities because of our modernist romance with the idea of the city. In a Twitter exchange, Haroon Akram-Lodhi, whose work I greatly respect, pointed me to Katherine Boo’s amazing book about a Mumbai slum, Behind The Beautiful Forevers as an example of how ‘vibrant’ slum life is. The book certainly shows the ingenuity and tenacity that people in desperate circumstances display in getting by from day to day, which I suppose you could choose to call ‘vibrant’. But to me it also shows the violence, despair, corruption and systematic unfairness of slum life that makes it virtually impossible for all but a lucky few to escape. It’s not that the countryside is necessarily much different. Indeed, in most poor countries rural people are poorer on average than city people. But, leaving aside the question of how valid measures of poverty across the two settings are, it doesn’t follow that moving to the city will improve the lot of the rural poor. I’ve not yet seen convincing evidence for economic acceleration which is intrinsically related to urbanism per se.

Cities have a pretty impressive track record historically of achieving long-term imperialistic control. So I wouldn’t be surprised if places like London and Mumbai carry on their merry way long into the future, controlling the flows of people and resources over large distances, essentially in accordance with the whims of their established elites. But perhaps, if we listen hard, we might just catch a few strains of a requiem playing for them on the horizon of the future. Because what we really need is smaller, tighter cities that are more mutualistically geared to the needs of the wider society of which they form a part. And when it becomes clear, as I think it probably will, that the imperial mega-cities of the modern age are loading the dice against the displaced multitudes of their peripheries, who knows what kind of radical shakedowns of the country and the city might await?

References

1. http://www.migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/briefings/migrants-uk-labour-market-overview

2. West, G. and Bettencourt, L. 2011. Bigger Cities Do More with Less: New Science Reveals Why Cities Become More Productive and Efficient as They Grow. Scientific American. 305, 3: 44-45.

3. Shalizi, C. 2011. ‘Scaling and hierarchy in urban economies’. PNAS.

4. Orrell, D. 2012. Economyths, Icon, pp.93-4.

 

Notes on a spirit quest

I mentioned in my previous post that I’m slowly working my way towards an analysis of a neo-peasant future. Well, the operative word there is ‘slowly’ and here’s one of the slow bits. It comes in the form of the report I promised on my recent spirit quest, and also by way of a breather before I shoulder the onerous burden of the neo-peasant analysis. But I’ve also got to say that I’m reeling in the wake of Jo Cox’s murder. Various people are cautioning not to make political capital out of her death, which is probably wise. So let me make some symbolic capital out of it instead, in the context of a murderer allegedly yelling “Britain first” and “Keep Britain independent” as he killed her. Doubtless he was a disturbed man operating alone, but nobody ever really operates ‘alone’. The anti-EU referendum campaign has been a thoroughly poisonous exercise in small-minded nativism, and Cox’s murder looks to me like a kind of apotheosis of it. A left populist case could have been made for quitting the EU, but it wasn’t. For me, Cox’s murder symbolises the whirlwind we’ll reap from indiscriminate support for populisms of any kind as a way of shaking up the present political inertia. I will not lend my support to a politics of localism and self-determination without tolerance, egalitarianism and internationalism at its core. The primary task is to build such a movement, not hope to piggyback it onto squalid nativism. Britain isn’t ‘first’, and nor is anywhere else.

Anyway, reporting on my spirit quest seems a bit self-indulgent in the light of Cox’s death, but there we have it – writing a blog is nothing if not self-indulgent, as I further discuss below. I’m not even sure that what follows here (written a couple of weeks ago, before the murder) is wholly relevant to this blog’s own limited themes. I think it probably is. Anyway, it’s good to stretch the wings once in a while. We’ll be back on the farm soon enough. So here goes.

~~~

My friend Paul shamelessly revealed here not so long ago that I recently turned 50, an event that prompted more soul-wracked reflection on my part than I’d anticipated. Fortunately, having given up my academic career and most of my pretensions to professional respectability in my 30s, I got the bulk of my midlife crisis out of the way early and I’m now an only mildly disillusioned farmer rather than the kind of time-bomb of utter rage that young scholars learn to avoid as an academic rite of passage when they chance upon certain senior colleagues around the photocopier.

Even so, I’ve been turning over thoughts of death in my mind of late – and not exclusively my own. Throughout human history, the individual’s birth and death have generally been thought of as mere waymarks on a longer journey of the soul rather than the definitive start and endpoints they’ve become in the post-Christian west. It occurs to me that this has been a profoundly unsettling psycho-cultural change that goes less remarked than perhaps it should. I think it manifests in some odd conceptions that we often fail to notice: the idea that although we ourselves pass to dust, the civilisation of which we form a part progresses ever onwards towards godlike immortality, or the notion that as individuals we must be authors of a unique, important life that other people need to witness. I’ve never subscribed to the former conviction, but the latter…well, perhaps that’s why I took to writing this blog and am now repackaging my holiday notes under the grandiloquent title of a ‘spirit quest’.

Paul has a nice metaphor for our thoughts and ideas being like the spoor of an animal pursuing its course through the landscape. When others intersect with it, they might stop and sniff at it, and maybe follow it for a while as a part of their own journey. Or else they might just plough on through, only stopping long enough to piss on the trail they found. I’ve been truly gratified at the number of people who’ve taken the trouble to respond positively to my online spoor, I’ve learned a lot from them, and I feel bad that I sometimes haven’t found the time to respond adequately. Then again, my journey was bookended by a commenter opining on my deadened spirit and by another one criticising my empty criticality. So I hereby renew my ever ill-kempt resolve to try to spend my time among the sniffers, and not among the pissers. If I’m lucky, these notes might find a sniffer or two.

My journey is taking me first to the Scottish Highlands, on which I recently wrote. So I drive northward, mountain-bound, in a borrowed car. M4, M5, M6, M74. The spirit-traveller of old would measure their journey in the lengths of their own prostrate body, but today’s pilgrim works to tighter deadlines. The farm is at several crossroads in its own narrative – a good time to leave it and reflect, but there are others taking up the slack of my absence and I need to be back in a week. For a long time I rationed my fossil-fuel assisted travelling out of concern for the climate, but since Copenhagen I’ve become more slovenly. If everybody denied themselves journeys such as this, emissions would plummet. If I avoid it personally, it makes no difference. The eternal dilemma in the society of the crowd. On this trip, I choose to reject the duality of the environmentalist as either hypocrite or saint.

In any case, I can report with total certainty that not everyone is denying themselves journeys such as this. From Worcester to Manchester, it’s a stop-start dance in three lanes of laboured traffic. At 0mph I have plenty of time to reflect on the sticker adorning the 4×4 in front – “One life. Live it.” That post-Christian conceit again. Why do you only ever see it on 4x4s? Because driving off-road seems livelier than the constraints of the tarmac? How closely shuttered the horizon!

The traffic thins towards Carlisle. I stop for food at Tebay, the organic service station. Like most once-good consumerist ideas, it seems to be slowly regressing towards the mean. I peel off onto the A702, Edinburgh-bound. I like the fact that the main southern route to Scotland’s capital is a winding single carriageway. In Edinburgh, I spend the night sleeping on the floor of my son Oliver’s student digs. Oliver is coming to the Highlands with me. His room is cluttered with mountaineering equipment, some of it inherited from me. He’s slowly replacing it with more up-to-date kit, a fact I try not to ponder too metaphorically.

The next day we drive to the far northwest and climb Ben Hope, the mountain described by Robert Macfarlane in his celebrated book The Wild Places. I find Macfarlane’s writing engaging and irritating by turns – too self-absorbed in places, too overblown, too politically ill-attuned. His version of Ben Hope is pitiless and frightening. For us today it’s a gentle amble in the sun, T shirts on the summit with some pretty views. But then the clouds roll in, the warmth vanishes instantly and I remember that it was a winter night Macfarlane spent up here. Context is all. Perhaps I only find him irritating because he writes a lot like me, only better, and to vastly more acclaim.

South of Cape Wrath, the landscape is post-glacial, the ice age palpably recent. The land is still rising here in rebound from its glacial load. Macfarlane is right, this is just about the wildest landscape you can find in Britain. In one sense, it’s not so wild. You’re never more than about 30 miles from a road, and once on a road you’re probably never more than another 30 miles from a cappuccino or whatever damn thing you want. But imagine dwelling in this land, making your living from it. Few could, and those that once did are long departed. Highland or lowland, trade may be a saviour, but it’s also a destroyer. The sheep eat the people, as they once said in these parts. But now the sheep are mostly gone too. Not many people are returning, apart from wayfarers like me.

The clouds that rolled in yesterday have now set for the week. Oliver and I climb Arkle, stepping through the portal of a huge split boulder into pine forest and then the mountain’s rocky wastes. Blasted by an arctic wind, the only animal we see on the mountain is a small spider, scion of an ancient lineage.

We drive south again, through Assynt. I love this landscape of ancient inselbergs, and I’m intrigued by the recent crofter buyout of the Assynt estate. This country has some of the most unequal landownership in the world, but the winds of change are blowing in the new Scotland. I’d like to stay here a while and chase that story, but my visit is driven more by introspection and the desire to find some kind of redemption in the hills. I’d wanted a physical challenge, and I’d chosen An Teallach, thrilling to the reverential tones in the hillwalking guidebooks about adrenaline-fuelled scrambling on the Corag Bhuidhe pinnacles towering precipitously over Toll an Lochain. Packing nervously for the hike the night before I persuade Oliver to bring a rope.

“You read too many of those hillwalking books,” he says. “You’re a climber, not a hillwalker. You’ve led extreme grade rock.”

“Ah well, that was then. This is now.”

“Just stop reading those hillwalking books.”

But in the morning the clouds are low and the rain is hammering against my tent. I decide that the spirits of this quest have determined that my goal of traversing An Teallach will go unrewarded. I decide that I’m OK with that, like Peter Matthiesen in his book The Snow Leopard, searching for a spirit creature that he never glimpses. Oliver isn’t so sure. We drive to Torridon, the weather improving all the time, and with the sun now shining I’m no longer sure myself. Too late. Oliver goes fishing while I sit in a café reading George Monbiot’s new book, which I’ve been tasked to review. I also have with me James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life. The two make for argumentative bedfellows.

The next day dawns dull and wet again, but I’m not going to make the same mistake twice so we slog up to the ridge of Liathach – an objective that my hillwalking guide says is only marginally less terrifying than An Teallach. The views from the ridge are said to be magnificent, but ours rarely extend more than a few yards. We see no one else on the mountain all day. We’re pricked by a steely rain, outriding gusting northerlies. Tracing the ridge, we soon reach the Am Fasarinen Pinnacles – “a hard, exposed scramble that sets the pulse racing” the guidebook says. But it goes pretty easily. The only part where I stop to think is the descent of a small slab where there’s nothing much to hold onto. In a playground it would probably be none too taxing to the average eight year old, but with wet rock, numb hands, a fierce wind and a potentially fatal fall in the event of a slip it’s a somewhat different prospect. Looking down into the clouds boiling up from the corrie below I think for a second that I see my old friend Nick sitting on a dark bed of mist, trident in hand, beckoning me mischievously over. I turn to face the rock and lower myself gingerly, like an old man inching his way down a swimming pool ladder. There are no anthems in my head, and I’m cold, but it feels good to be here and good to have negotiated the pinnacles, as if indeed a pulse of deeper life-spirit flickers in me after all. Oliver scampers down the slab in four easy strides, facing out, and jumps onto the narrow bounding path.

“Guess you’re right,” I say, “That wasn’t so bad. Maybe I shouldn’t read those hillwalking guides so much.”

“Innit,” says Oliver, hefting his rucksack before he turns to kick up the edge of a sugary snowfield, the last remnant of winter, heading towards the final summit of Mullach an Rathain.

This is an era of diminished expectations. I do not think my children’s generation will find greater wealth or happiness than mine. I do not think that our culture is inexorably improving. But I find pleasure in the fact that my son is already a better mountaineer than I was.

In the valley, we backtrack along the road to our car. In places, there are deer-fenced exclosures, funded by EU money, to help with woodland regeneration. Outside them there’s little but heather. Inside, strong young saplings of birch and Scots pine. By God, that deer fencing looks a pricey business, though. And inside one of the exclosures we come across a doe, paler than usual, regarding us with infinite attention. I’m not inclined to take sides today in the ‘balance of nature’ debate, but I’m pleased to see her and take an illicit pleasure in the fact that she’s outwitted the fence. Perhaps she’s my spirit animal for this journey. The pine and birch grow strong around her.

On the final day in the Highlands we climb Slioch, again in cloud and rain. But as we follow the east ridge round to the summit of Sgurr an Tuill Bhain the sun burns through. A rainbow arcs northwards across the uninhabited lochans and moors of the Fisherfield Forest, pointing in the far distance to the sawtooth ridge of An Teallach itself, glinting in the sunlight. I don’t know whether to treat this sight as an emblem of my failure or of my success. Probably both, or neither. In any case, it’s beautiful. Rainbow, mountain, old tracks of ice. The spirit feels strong inside as we descend.

Oliver needs to get back to Edinburgh for a field ecology course. And I’m feeling the need to get back to the farm for some field ecology of my own. But I have a couple more things on my itinerary. First, a long drive south along England’s eastern coasts – a part of the country I’ve scarcely visited – and through the rich farmlands of Lincolnshire and the fens. There’s a beauty to the moors and beaches, but it’s unwillingly surrendered to the passing motorist whisked between appropriate stopovers. I try to find a campsite around Lincoln. There are ones marked on my map, but I don’t find them on the ground. Instead, incongruously, shuttered up in open farm country I find a couple of sex shops, and I begin to wonder if ‘campsite’ is some kind of east country euphemism. These late-night roads are unfriendly places, making a peon of the casual motorist: no stopping, no camping, layby closed. I’ve never stayed in a cheap service station hotel before. Who would? I assume there are always vacancies in such places. But from Lincoln, through Margaret Thatcher’s hometown of Grantham, and on to Peterborough, there’s no room at the inn. Just as I decide that the spirits of this journey are telling me to go home I find a room for the night.

The next morning, I start with coffee in the service station. Such non-places seem the very anathema of what I stand for, but I can’t help somehow liking them. A historical display near the burger bar shows how archaeologists found a bronze-age farm on this site, as the service station was built. Coachloads of football supporters arrive in raucous good humour. It’s easy for me to play the silent prophet and scorn their frivolity. Their team won, who cares? But I enjoy their enjoyment. Sometimes, there’s too little space for playfulness.

The fens are a place of industrial wind turbines, cereals and vegetables, undocumented workers, anti-EU sloganeering, and a cold shallow sea nibbling for purchase at the country’s edges. I drive along roads that speak of the fens’ drainage and Dutch connections: Forty Foot Bank, Sluice Road, Sixteen Foot Bank, Vermuden’s Drain. A family story holds that our ancestors were Dutch fen-drainers, hence the distinctly non-Anglo ‘j’ in the surname Smaje. The truth is more prosaic – and more interesting, speaking to the anxieties of history. The landscape is regimented here, its wildernesses confined to canal edges. Cow parsley and feral rape, kestrels. Occasionally the edge thickens to encompass a smallholding with geese and pigs. But mostly I see wheat, barley, rape, like all the arable fields of England. I reach the Breckland, where there are sand and trees, another destination of my journey, but I’m impatient now and there’s also a motorway leading westwards past self-proclaimed ‘historic market towns’ where suburban jumbles of ugly utility buildings reluctantly cede a few old town-centre streets. In Hemel Hempstead the inevitable happens and the ugly jumble on each side stretches to meet in the middle. Ah well, at least there are people playing cricket here. And perhaps in centuries to come those ugly buildings will be memorialised in turn. Hemel Hempstead: historic dormitory-commercial satellite? Somehow I can’t quite see it.

Just one more place to stop. Is this wise? The village where I grew up, and haven’t visited for nearly thirty years. My parents worked in London, and drew circles around it until they found the nearest place where they could afford a family home. I have no connections here now. The place today is even more self-memorialising than my own old memories of it. The Victorian building where Mrs Maunder once put me through my paces is now neatly museum-ized by a signpost: ‘The Old Schoolhouse’. And, talking of museums, the high street is emblazoned with the jaunty hues of the Roald Dahl museum, where once he was just an old bloke in the village who was known for writing books. No couple just out of college with two young kids could afford a place here now.

I climb the hill to the Anglican church where we used to walk up from the school for services, two abreast, girl and boy. A plaque on the wall lists every parish priest here from the thirteenth century. There have only been three since 1939, and I remember the first two from my school assemblies. The present incumbent started well after my time, and is the first female name on that list of ages. Perhaps I do believe in progress.

Another two hours and I’m home. The oaks we planted ten years ago now tower over me, their leaves a good three weeks ahead of the ones I’ve just seen in the Highlands. Spring has fully taken hold since I left. The first leafy crops of the season are ready to harvest. The lambs, so wraithlike just a few weeks ago, are now fully adhered to life. Soon it’ll be hay-making time. Or silage-making, anyway. More progress? I don’t know – I’ve returned with no more answers, no more spirit perhaps, than when I left. And no real home in the world but the one I’ve made, which is here.

Neo-peasantries: from permaculture to permanent agriculture

Over the coming posts I’m going to start slowly moving towards my next big theme: the practice and politics of a neo-peasant agriculture. But first I need to prepare the way with a bit of context, and one context is permaculture. The word is a contraction of ‘permanent agriculture’, so in that sense seems close to the kind of sustainable farming and society I seek. But it’s also a movement with a distinctive literature and community associated with it, a movement in which my own route ‘back to the land’ was originally forged. Yet now I’m not so sure how much permaculture (the movement) is likely to deliver permaculture (permanent agriculture). I’ve started to think that peasants or ‘neo-peasants’ are a more promising vehicle for permanent agriculture than permaculturists. That at any rate is what I’ll address in this post.

Framing neo-peasant agriculture in relation to permaculture may not be the best way to start this cycle of posts, but it’s uppermost in my mind after a series of readings and interactions recently – Dan Palmer’s interesting article on Christopher Alexander and his ‘challenge to permaculture’; a re-reading of what I think is a very important ‘state of permaculture’ article by Patrick Whitefield; a fascinating article in New Left Review about the enrichment of objects; and, a lively set of exchanges on Resilience.org regarding my letter in Permaculture Magazine, some of which degenerated into the kind of pissing contest that represents the permaculture movement at its doctrinaire worst.

That contest was initiated by Rick Larson, whose opening gambit to me was “My backyard is much more interesting than your simple tilled smallholding” – an assertion I find interesting for several reasons that I’ll come to. Rick’s major beef seems to be that mixed semi-commercial small-scale farming-cum-horticulture of the kind I practice is not the way forwards into a sustainable future, especially in its (in fact, rather minimal) use of tillage. As it happens, I largely agree with him, for reasons that I sketched in my review of Jean-Martin Fortier’s book. On the other hand, I also doubt that the backyard, no-till, perennial-heavy polyculture of the kind practiced by Rick would feature too heavily in such a future either. What I would say in favour of commercial farming is that it helps to concentrate the mind on inputs and outputs. Given that most backyard growers don’t furnish anything even close to their total household food requirements and tend to think of time in the garden as recreational, a spell working in commercial agriculture can be salutary in appreciating what it takes to feed a household, and also on how backyard methods might scale.

Anyway, let me now try to show why I think moving towards a sustainable neo-peasant agriculture may involve plotting a course away from permaculture as it’s typically now understood.

1. The limits of biomimicry

 A typical farm – even a traditional, small, mixed, organic one – doesn’t look much like a natural ecosystem. It thus stands indicted in the eyes of a certain kind of permaculture thinking, because nature provides the gold standard for efficient design.

But, as previously discussed in much more detail on this site, I’ve come to question that ‘certain kind of thinking’, largely as a result of books by two ecologists – Ford Denison1 and Phil Grime2. In brief, Denison argues that organisms are evolutionarily optimised by natural selection in ways that ecosystems aren’t. So there’s no reason to assume that the structure of natural ecosystems necessarily optimises the parameters sought by humans as they design their agro-ecosystems. Therefore, there’s a danger of what Denison calls the ‘misguided mimicry of nature’. The point is not that biomimicry is inevitably misguided. It’s just that there’s no reason to assume that a more biomimetic agroecosystem is necessarily a better or more efficient one simply because it’s mimetic.

Grime shows how organisms conform to different types across the axes of habitat disturbance and resource availability. Natural ecosystems commonly display low disturbance and low resource availability, selecting for more sessile, resource-conserving, stress-tolerant organisms. There’s an intrinsic appeal to mimicking such ecosystems because they’re robust and they get by with few inputs. But they’re also slow-growing, low in output and well defended from cropping and/or predation. By contrast, typical agroecosystems, and also a few natural ecosystems, are high disturbance, high resource setups. Productivity is high, but so are input and management costs.

A perfect solution would be to create an agroecosystem with the best of both worlds – low input, stable, robust, well-defended, but high output. Unfortunately, perfect solutions don’t exist. Both Denison and Grime emphasise trade-offs – if we try to maximise one thing (like food yield) we generally lose other desirable traits (like stress tolerance). As Thomas Sowell put it, “There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs”. I think this insight needs wider promotion within alternative agricultural circles.

2. Production functions: or, thinking like a celeriac

Take a look at this picture of the recently transplanted celeriac in part of my (no till) market garden (just try to ignore the lupins, comfrey, hornbeam, sunflowers, rhubarb and grasses OK?). Rick Larson calls this a ‘monoculture’. Well, maybe. Given that celeriac occupies only 80m2 (or around 0.1%) of a 7.3ha holding with well over a hundred other introduced species, and it won’t grow on this spot again for at least another six years, I think that’s stretching a point. But call it what you will. I think what’s more interesting is why I, like most commercial growers, generally avoid intercropping at the fine-scale, whereas a lot of backyard permaculture gardeners prefer it.

Small farm monoculture

Rick’s answer is that I’m ‘locked in’ to a detrimental system. To my mind that substitutes easy censure for more careful thought. I think the reason most commercial growers opt for these ‘monocultures’ is because labour is our key constraint – the labour involved in efficient planting, weeding, irrigation and harvesting, and the labour involved in planning crop quantities and rotations. It saves work if you don’t mix the crops up too much. But on a garden scale, space is often a more significant constraint than labour. It makes sense to cram in lots of different plants in a given area, and take advantage of their different growth habits and other properties that enable the gardener to make the most of limited space. Different trade-offs in different situations.

An economist might frame these considerations as a production function, a kind of input-output equation. So the inputs might be things like land area, soil quality, water, compost or fertility, human labour, mechanical or fossil energy inputs and so on. And the outputs might be things like food to eat or food to sell, the pleasure of working hard in the garden, the pleasure of not working too hard in the garden, as well as undesirable or negative outputs – soil erosion, greenhouse gas emissions, water drawdown and so on.

I don’t think there can ever be a single, ‘right’ solution to that production function – not for an individual and not for a society. We can trade-off labour inputs, land area, mechanical energy and so on in endless ways. I think most of us in the alternative farming movement would agree that we need more human input and less mechanical input into farming, but that only puts some vague boundaries around a few parameters.

But what I think is in the minds of the permaculture polyculturists is the notion that there are interactive effects when you put plants together. I’ve written about this in more detail elsewhere in a debate about polycultures with Patrick Whitefield that was sadly truncated by Patrick’s death. The basic point is that by planting, say, carrots alongside onions you expect to get better total yields, or the same total yields for less work, than if you planted them in separate blocks. But the truth is that the evidence for most of these interactive or ‘companion planting’ effects is poor, or at least highly contextual – something that’s discussed in more detail by Denison in his book and by me in my aforementioned post. And even when there is a demonstrable effect (eg. onions deterring carrot root fly), trade-offs are still in play. Should carrots be planted with onions? Well, it depends on the extent of the fly problem, the balance required between carrots and onions, the costs and efficacy of the deterrence vis-à-vis other deterrent methods, the labour costs, and so on. Is interplanting always preferable to monocropping? I think Patrick got it right when he wrote “any blanket statement…is almost certain to be wrong or at least only right in certain places and at certain times.”

In the excellent article from which I’ve taken that quotation, Patrick offers a mea culpa for the emphasis in his own early permaculture teaching on stand-alone ideas like swales which he taught because it differentiated permaculture from more traditional ways of working the land. I think this is an important insight, and I’ll say more about it below. For now, I’d just like to suggest that trade-offs abound – trade-off free improvements and genuinely interactive effects not already widely practiced by farmers and growers are rare. Rick says he finds the ‘monocultures’ of the kind I practice less interesting than his approach, which is fair enough. Different strokes for different folks. What interests me is whether a given garden polyculture offers any agronomic advantages over single crop rotations – not necessarily the case just because it looks more ‘natural’. The current evidence is weak. My advice to the budding backyard permaculturist would be: experiment with new things by all means, but treat traditional farming systems with some respect. Don’t assume they’re necessarily misguided. Maybe even allow them to challenge some of your assumptions. People have been doing this kind of farming, and thinking about how to do it better, for a very long time.

3. Designing from wholes to parts: or, check out my wineberries!

Designing from wholes to parts is the lesson of the influential design thinker Christopher Alexander, which Dan Palmer has recently argued should be better incorporated into permaculture. Some of the respondents to Palmer’s article argued, correctly I think, that this kind of thinking is already part of the permaculture toolkit – as in David Holmgren’s admonition to ‘design from patterns to details’. But what are the ‘wholes’ we’re thinking about when we do our designs? Typically a house and yard, perhaps a farm or community garden. These themselves are only parts. Few people other than government planners are really planning holistically at landscape-regional-society-wide levels, and for the most part not even them, increasingly subordinated as they are by a neoliberal ideology that claims the best kind of planning is no planning at all (except corporate planning).

Though it’s true that the ‘patterns to details’ message is well known in permaculture, ‘details to patterns’ thinking nevertheless seems to me surprisingly widespread within the movement. On Resilience.org I was criticised for admitting I didn’t have swales, raised beds or forest gardens on my holding – the implication being that they’re so obviously appropriate in every situation that I couldn’t have tried them and was therefore just offering empty criticisms from the outside (the definition of a ‘swale’ in the discussion turned out to be a path where the topsoil is dug out and heaped up alongside – in which case examination of the photo shows that in fact I do have swales on my holding. If the definitions of forest gardens and raised beds are equally fluid, I probably have them too, so perhaps I am a proper permaculturist after all…)

Criticising someone for not having specific landscape features is pretty absurd without detailed knowledge of their land and their thought processes about it, so I don’t think it’s worth wasting time on rebuttals. But I’d like to make a hypothesis about its underlying motivation. Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre argue in an interesting recent article3 that deindustrialisation (ie. the relocation of the mass production of cheap industrial artefacts away from the wealthy countries of the global north) has led to a change in the way that we in these wealthy countries articulate our identities in relation to the things around us. Specifically, we try to imbue things with enriched and particular value, making ‘exceptional objects’ of them. Boltanski and Esquerre trace the rise of practices such as stamp collecting in the 19th century, and the rise of public interest in the trappings of celebrity lifestyle or ‘stylish’ living more generally as a part of this process. These are signified by various rare and special objects and experiences, of the kind endlessly repackaged in TV home makeover shows and the like.

Green or radical-minded people may not have much truck with such things, but it feels to me that the suburban permaculture garden, with its carefully curated polycultures of unusual plants and its special design features recognised only by those ‘in the know’ – the swales, herb spirals, keyhole beds and so forth – are basically involved in these same practices of self-distinction. I’m not saying that they’re entirely lacking in any other rationale. It’s never a bad idea to play around growing backyard vegetables. But it strikes me that such processes of lifestyle distinction are often part of what a permaculture garden is about. Patrick’s admission that he taught about swales because they were ‘different’ seems of a piece with this. My own exemplar is the Japanese wineberry. I planted one on my site around the time I did my permaculture design course, mostly I think because it was the ‘in thing’ (possibly because Patrick enthused about them in his forest garden book, a popular tome at the time). I’m sure there are those who’d hate to be without their wineberries, but I’ve never been able to get too excited about them myself – I’d rather have raspberries or blackberries (but everybody knows about them…) When I see a Japanese wineberry now, it’s a bit like a masonic handshake or a clan totem, a surefire sign that the person who planted it did a permaculture design course circa 1999.

There’s nothing wrong with having a funky garden. But I’m not convinced such gardens will pass the test of permaculture as ‘permanent agriculture’, of provisioning people sustainably and well long-term. Perhaps there might be backyard permaculturists reading this who will holler their dissent. If so, I hope they’ll convince me I’m wrong. To do that, they’d have to provide some plausible information on how much of their yearly calorific, protein and other nutrient intake they furnish for themselves from their garden (by plausible I mean something more specific than saying “a lot”); how much of the fertility inputs and, perhaps, water are furnished from their site; how much of their time they spend working on it, and so on. There doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of good data out there on this in the permaculture movement. Mark Shepard4, to his credit, has provided some information about productivity on his perennial polyculture farm (or at least on a theoretical perennial polyculture farm), arguing that it outperforms a corn monoculture so much that it’s ‘not even funny’. But, unamusingly, his own figures prove the opposite, as I’ve shown here.

I don’t issue this challenge because I think my own small mixed semi-commercial farm in any way escapes from the same critique. Let us speak honestly – there are vanishingly few people in mainstream agriculture, in alternative agriculture or in backyard permaculture who even approach a ‘permanent’, locally self-provisioning agriculture. At best, we’re playing at being neo-peasants. And I’m not criticising anyone for playing. Play is good. Play is how we learn to do things for real. All I’m suggesting is that we should recognise it for what it is, avoid making exaggerated claims for what we do, and try to play nice with other people so our play builds up instead of knocking down (I’d add that constructive critique can be a worthwhile part of nice play). Play is also context-specific: I think Patrick’s ‘any blanket statement’ comment needs to be taken seriously. Which brings me to the matter of my “simple tillage” criticised by Rick.

We first need to remember that many of the plants which now dominate the human diet are disturbance-adapted, high resource-demanding, weed-susceptible types. That doesn’t mean that tillage is essential for growing them, but it does mean that alternative methods have to mimic what tillage achieves. I’ll assume that permaculturists aren’t going to do that with synthetic fertiliser and glyphosate, and I’ll further assume that they won’t do it by importing compost or manure from offsite, since this only displaces the dependence on tillage to unseen acreages elsewhere. What that basically leaves you with is some kind of permanent fertility-building sward on your holding, which you access via livestock or directly through cutting and composting. Both feasible, if probably less efficient than tilled leys. Maybe it would be possible to go with the Elaine Ingham/compost tea sort of approach, with extremely careful attention to onsite nutrient cycling. I’m not sure, I think the jury’s out on that one. Or, if you live somewhere with a cool, moist, temperate climate, little wind and water erosion and heavy, fertile soils, you might come to the conclusion that a bit of judicious tillage makes sense. I live in such a place, and that’s a conclusion I came to, along with many generations of peasant farmers in this region. Perhaps we’re wrong – but I think somebody who wants to make that case needs to ponder Patrick’s ‘blanket statement’ point and also the various trade-offs involved in the decision. Certainly, everyone I’ve come across locally who grows significant quantities of edible crops without tillage imports some of their fertility, which makes it difficult to wax too purist about the evils of tillage. Ultimately, I’m not (yet) convinced that backyard no-till polycultures which grow only a small proportion of a household’s food can scale up as a generalised permanent agriculture.

4. Playing with the state

Another consideration is that in designing food production systems we often focus on plot-level productivity and neglect the political relations within which plots are embedded – the Green Revolution mistake, which is all too easy to replicate in agroecological thinking. For a backyard permaculture plot in the UK, state policies are fairly indifferent – though they are making it increasingly hard for people to get a backyard plot in the first place. For a small-scale agroecological farm, on the other hand, the policies are mildly hostile. But in both cases, in the UK there’s an enormous fund of wealth, infrastructure and other implicit subsidies that we scarcely notice, many of them derived from the past and present plunder of other people in the world. You’d have to be an ascetically saintly hermit to avoid drawing down on this fund – in fact, I think it’s impossible. So again, while I don’t criticise myself or anyone else for doing so I think we should be aware of it. The situation is different in many past and present peasant societies. There, the state is wholly hostile, predatory, and given to extreme exemplary violence. When people say ‘nobody wants to live like a peasant’ I think the answer has to be ‘well, it depends on the nature of the state they’re involved with’. What will future states look like? What can we do to try to make them supportive rather than destructive of a permanent agriculture? That’s got to be part of the design process. Rick and I are lucky to be able to work with the growing systems we find ‘interesting’. In peasant situations where you have to produce almost your entire livelihood locally in the face of a state that offers you less than nothing, an effective agriculture becomes more important than an interesting one. I’m sure there are things to learn from interesting contemporary agricultures. But I think there are also things to learn from effective old-fashioned ones.

5. Conclusion

 I don’t know if such a thing as ‘permanent agriculture’ will ever exist. I certainly haven’t seen anything that I’d be happy to apply the label to, though there are some agroecosystems that come close – particularly low input-low output traditional peasant ones. Such traditional societies are often also attuned to the dangers of egocentrism and self-importance, and seek ways to undermine it – which is worth remembering, I think. These traditional agroecosystems don’t look much like many backyard permaculture gardens that I’ve seen in the UK or North America, and they don’t look much like my holding either. I plan to use them as a rough model (though only a rough one) for my outline of a neo-peasant future.

My last post on these matters earned me accusations of hypocrisy. I’ve tried here not to claim to be anything that I’m not, but if I’ve failed I apologise. The longer I’ve farmed, the less certain I’ve become of how best to do it. When it comes to farming skills, I don’t think I’m necessarily the sharpest blade on the power harrow, so maybe Rick and those permaculturists who’ve told me that I’ll ‘never understand permaculture’ are right. But nemesis lurks in even the funkiest of gardens…

Anyway, my challenge to myself and to anyone else who wants to advocate for a given type of agroecosystem is this:

  • Can you provide a sufficient account of its input and output costs relative to other systems that you disfavour for you to convince yourself (and, more importantly, others) that it’s unambiguously superior?
  • Can you examine your heart and be sure that there is no ego or self-aggrandizement in your analysis?

I think that’s a tough challenge. I’m not sure I’m equal to it. But I aim to give it a go.

References

  1. Denison, F. 2012. Darwinian Agriculture: How Understanding Evolution Can Improve Agriculture. Princeton Univ Press.
  1. Grime, JP. 2001. Plant Strategies, Vegetation Processes and Ecosystem Properties. John Wiley.
  1. Boltanski, L. & Esquerre, A. 2016. ‘The economic life of things’ New Left Review, 98: 31-54.
  1. Shepard, M. 2013. Restoration Agriculture: Real-World Permaculture for Farmers. Acres USA.

Lead us not into temptation: of Trump, Brexit and the wrong kind of populism

I had to recite the Lord’s Prayer at school every day for ten years, and have never spoken it since. But for my sermon today I’d like to elaborate a theme from one of its lines – “lead us not into temptation”.

The temptation to which I refer is voting for populist political candidates. Perhaps that will surprise long-term readers of this blog, who will be familiar with my enthusiasm for agrarian populism. So let me qualify the statement by paraphrasing that hapless British Rail spokesperson from many years ago who justified the company’s inability to deal with inclement weather by saying that the railways were afflicted by “the wrong kind of snow”. What I mean to say, then, is that it can be tempting to endorse the “wrong kind of populism” – the kind of populism with which you disagree, but are inclined to support anyway just in order to shake up a political status quo dominated for too long by what Susan Watkins nicely calls “the cartel parties of the extreme centre”. It’s a temptation that I think is best resisted.

For this reason, I’ve been slightly puzzled by John Michael Greer’s recent posts on the US presidential primaries. I think Greer is a perceptive and thoughtful writer, and though I can’t claim any great local expertise in the matter of US politics, it seems to me his argument is exactly right that Donald Trump’s rise draws from a wellspring of anger among an excluded working class who have borne the brunt of the neoliberal policies pursued by successive Republican and Democratic governments. However, Greer’s posts seem to involve more schadenfreude at the discomfort of established opinion in the face of Trump’s rise than any kind of sober analysis of what a Trump presidency might entail. It seems to me that a man who has gold-plated seatbelt buckles in his private jet is less likely to articulate the frustrations of the excluded classes than to manipulate them. The historical lesson of earlier populisms – not least in the USA – is that a just and radical ‘populism for the people’ has to guard carefully against co-optation by carpetbaggers with more sinister intentions.

Anyway, I have no say in the outcome of the US election so let me leave that thought right there. I do have a say in the forthcoming referendum on a British exit from the EU, where exactly the same dangers present themselves. Therefore I’d like to outline why I’m tempted to vote for Brexit, and why I probably won’t.

So first up, here are my five reasons for wanting to vote out:

  1. Many people in Britain like to hark back to the days when the country was the dominant global superpower. They think that Britain is still an important country in world affairs, whose influence is being diluted by its status as just another EU member. The truth is that Britain is not an important country in world affairs, and the only real global muscle it has comes through its EU membership. This would become swiftly apparent in the event of Brexit, enabling us finally to move on from the legacy of the past and get busy creating a less haughty and self-absorbed society.
  1. Britain’s major earner of foreign exchange is its financial services sector, which is not a positive force in the world and allows us to live beyond our means. It’s quite likely that the sector would take a heavy hit in the event of Brexit, which might allow us to recalibrate our way of life to local possibilities and maybe benefit the wider world too.
  1. Presently, fully half the EU’s entire budget is devoted to an absurd agricultural subsidy regimen. Ordinary, small-scale and family farmers are not the beneficiaries of this regimen and as far as I’m concerned they deserve every penny they can squeeze from it. Nevertheless, the Common Agricultural Policy is a disaster – not the least of its many failings is that it acts as a hugely regressive negative tax that rewards retailers, middlemen, self-righteous consumerism and wealthy landowners. Less than 1% of the UK population are farmers, but around £4 billion of agricultural subsidies are paid out in Britain. This is pretty much the way the British government wants it – it unerringly lobbies for CAP policies which suit the interests of larger-scale and corporate agricultural interests. Nevertheless, as things stand it can claim with some justification that its hands are tied by labyrinthine EU structures. Not so if Britain were fully independent and the government continued doling out billions to a small group of its landowning chums while cutting public services elsewhere. I find it hard to see how such a generous subsidy regimen propping up the agricultural status quo would be politically feasible long-term in a post-EU Britain, and I think that would ultimately be good for smaller-scale farmers engaged in longer term thinking than the subsidy-fuelled inefficiencies of present large-scale agriculture, and probably good for the populace as a whole.
  1. The fallout from Brexit and the straitened circumstances resulting from it would lead to enormous conflict in the Conservative Party. What’s bad for the Conservative Party is usually good for Britain.
  1. The EU is an undemocratic and quite possibly unreformable cabal of corporate interests and unscrupulous power-mongers. So is the UK government to be honest, but at least they’re our unscrupulous power-mongers. Perhaps we can keep a shorter leash on them here at home.

And here are my four reasons for staying in:

  1. Most of my reasons for supporting Brexit turn upon the notion that it’ll act like a good hard slap in the face to puncture our present hysterical illusions and bring us back to earth. But there’s a good chance that in fact it’ll only lead to more and worse hysterical illusions. And if you think that’s not possible, I have only two words to say to you: Donald Trump.
  1. Here are some more two-worders that ought to scare anybody into voting to stay in: Boris Johnson; Nigel Farage; Michael Gove; Iain Duncan-Smith. OK, so the last one’s a three-worder, but that’s the Tory party for you, eh?
  1. To put that last point more discursively, there’s a danger that with another four years of a Conservative Government almost guaranteed, at this particular political juncture a Brexit vote will put power into the hands of a dreadful right-wing rabble who will make the present government seem like the epitome of caring, centrist, compassionate conservatism. George Monbiot and Miles King have written persuasively on the disasters awaiting agricultural and environmental policy in the event of Brexit. Those disasters would likely ramify across all policy areas in a Brexit-rebooted Tory government. Paul Mason put it best – “Johnson and Gove stand ready to seize control of the Tory party and turn Britain into a neoliberal fantasy island….So even for those who support the leftwing case for Brexit, it is sensible to argue: not now.”
  1. Finally, much of the public debate about the referendum has turned upon an often borderline racist obsession with immigration. I think there are genuine issues that need to be addressed nationally and internationally about the nature of migration, in service of the migrants’ interests as much (in fact more) than anything else. But they will not be addressed by a post-EU UK unilaterally tightening its border control policies, which I doubt will be effective anyway. And in the meantime, I don’t want to give the slightest ammunition to those who would infer from the size of the Brexit vote some kind of blanket opposition to immigration.

~~~

So I think my conclusion is that while it’s tempting to vote for Brexit, I won’t be doing so. I want to play my part in building a proper, egalitarian, producerist populism. And this is a long-term project that will not be helped by jumping on the Brexit bandwagon. So I agree with Mason’s ‘not now’ approach. But his final paragraph highlighting the rise of extreme right-wing and anti-immigration parties in Europe is thought-provoking:

“The EU, politically, begins to look more and more like a gerrymandered state, where the politically immature electorates of eastern Europe can be used – as Louis Napoleon used the French peasantry – as a permanent obstacle to liberalism and social justice. If so – even though the political conditions for a left Brexit are absent today – I will want out soon.”

The reference to the French peasantry has obvious if rather complex resonances with the case for a contemporary agrarian populism – an issue for another post, perhaps. More straightforwardly, I guess it’s a case of wanting to stay in the EU for now in order to build a left-wing populism that will truly give us this day our daily bread, with the possibility of wanting to leave pretty soon in order to deliver us from evil. I might just have to start praying again.

Pondering permaculture

I’ve now returned from my spirit quest feeling suitably spirited (report to follow). I also feel pretty rushed off my feet, with a deal of farm work and desk work to catch up on, including a review of George Monbiot’s new book to write. So normal service on this site will resume as soon as possible. Meanwhile, I offer you below a mere snippet of Small Farm Futurology in the form of a letter of mine recently published in Permaculture Magazine (No.88), which discourses on two themes aficionados of this site will perhaps be (wearily) familiar with, viz. my friendly scepticism towards the permaculture movement in general and perennial grain breeding in particular. À bientôt.

~~~

I appreciate the reference to my work in Winifred Bird’s article about perennial grain research (PM87), but I’d like to clarify why I’m sceptical about perennial grain agriculture. In essence, soil disturbance and high nutrient availability select for an annual growth habit in plants associated with high allocation to seeds (which is why farmers plough and fertilise the soil). Undisturbed soil and low nutrient availability select for a perennial growth habit associated with a low allocation to seeds. This is a strong ecological trade-off which is not easy to overcome, and nobody has yet really succeeded in doing so. It’s possible that artificial breeding efforts such as those being undertaken at the Land Institute will eventually bear fruit, but I think it’s more likely that breeders will only succeed in producing higher yielding varieties of low perenniality or lower yielding varieties of high perenniality. Results to date are not that impressive.

We need a diversity of approaches to tackle our contemporary problems so I think it’s good that perennial grain breeders are working on this issue. But I’m troubled by the bullish claims routinely made by Land Institute researchers and their champions about how they’re going to end what one of their researchers calls ‘10,000 years of conflict between agriculture and nature’. This strikes me as a piece of hubris ignorant of ecological trade-off theory and with no current basis in reality. I’m also troubled by the fact that humanity has become increasingly reliant on a torrent of cheap grain from the world’s prairie regions, above all from the USA, which has undermined more locally-adapted peasant agricultures globally. If we succeed in creating a high-yielding perennial prairie agriculture without addressing the wider political economy of grain production, the prospects for global sustainability and justice will be weakened. And I’m troubled by the enthusiasm of permaculturists to embrace perennial grains as an example of a more ‘natural’ agriculture – as the Land Institute researchers themselves concede, the ‘domestic prairie’ that they’re trying to create is a highly-managed, non-natural system. It involves no more nature mimicry than a cornfield.

As with perennial grain breeding, so with the permaculture movement more generally on the matter of trade-offs. On my holding I grow some annual crops, till some soil, have no swales, raised beds or forest gardens. There are reasons why this makes sense and reasons why it doesn’t: like everybody, I’m juggling many different and competing pressures to which there is never a single right answer. Reading PM87 I was struck by the wonderful diversity of people in the permaculture movement who are resolving their own pressures as best they can, often in very inspiring ways. But then reading the letters page, I was also struck by the less inspiring way in which people within the movement can be so anxious to police its boundaries and define their purity over others. So Westerners who “choose to breed” can’t be “serious about looking after the planet” (Brian Dempsey) and people who use railway sleepers or chlorinated water in their gardens aren’t “really organic” (Branislav Mitic). I’m flattered to be described by Winifred Bird in her article as a ‘permaculture farmer’, but when people with an interest in permaculture ask to visit my holding I increasingly find myself trying to put them off – I’ve grown weary of the censoriousness and unexamined assumptions about what constitutes a ‘real permaculture farm’ that all too often accompanies them. Resolving trade-offs, whether in plant breeding or in everyday life, is never simple. Without openness to complexity and contradiction, and without compassion towards the imperfect compromises of human life, there’s a danger the permaculture movement will become a restricted and self-righteous echo chamber of fixed ideas.

Sincerely

Chris Smaje

 

Of boomers and doomers

I suppose this is going over old ground, but I’ve been struck anew recently through various readings and conversations about the nature of techno-utopianism, and the difficulty we seem to have nowadays in breaking out of a boomer-doomer dualism – that is, either the (rather unhistorical) ‘boomer’ notion that human rationality, optimism and ingenuity always overcomes the social, economic and biophysical problems societies face, or the (boldly predictive, and therefore also unhistorical) ‘doomer’ notion that these problems are sure to overwhelm us and destroy civilisation altogether.

One such reading is David Rieff’s recent book The Reproach of Hunger1. There are interesting commonalities between his critique of the now dominant aid/development paradigm, and my own critique of ecomodernism within environmentalist thought. Given the different (if overlapping) focus and personnel involved, perhaps this suggests quite a generic ideology of techno-utopianism (TU) within contemporary thinking. Rieff’s book has helped me see its outlines more clearly, so with his help here I’d like to describe briefly some of its key elements. Rieff also has some interesting, if frustratingly vague, thoughts on the possibilities for a peasant-focused development paradigm, but more on that another time.

So here, for your consideration, are seven elements of TU ideology, lightly tossed with a few counter-thoughts of my own:

  1. Ideology: our first characteristic of TU ideology is that it considers itself to have no ideology, but instead merely a pragmatic focus on solving practical problems (such as climate change or extreme poverty) by using whatever methods demonstrably work. Its critics have ideology – they are ideologues, partisans, spoilers, whose critiques reflect their own narrow political agendas – but TU rises serenely above all that. It is, as Rieff puts it, an antipolitics, a political argument for the irrelevance of politics (and particularly for the irrelevance of changing the political status quo) in solving global problems: “Perhaps twenty-first century liberal capitalism’s greatest trick has been convincing the world that it is not an ideology, and as it did so, convincing itself as well”2.
  1. Engineering and medical metaphors: global problems (climate change, extreme poverty etc.) are conceived as dysfunction in complex systems, after the model of a mechanism (a broken machine requiring an engineer to fix it) or an organism (a sick body requiring a doctor to fix it – as in the pervasive metaphor of poverty as a ‘disease’). These metaphors lack a sense of intentionality. Global problems are also the result of people’s deliberate actions.
  1. Science: TU accords a premier role to science in ‘fixing’ global problems – surely no surprise in view of the preceding points, since scientific enquiry is modern humanity’s most successful example of transcending ideology using non-intentional (mechanical and medical/biological) models. To this way of thinking, global problems arise through technique rather than social power: for example, the contemporary poverty of small-scale farmers is seen as resulting from lack of access to agricultural technologies that increase their crop yields (such as GM crops, denied them by ideologues from wealthy countries) and not from the abolition of marketing boards or import tariffs under global free trade rules. As Rieff points out (and as I know all too well myself from my engagements with the ecomodernists) TU’s favourite kind of science is the “inventions, technological breakthroughs, and scientific discoveries not yet in existence [that] are so certain to occur…they can be counted on to address the world’s problems”3.
  1. Optimism: but paradoxically, TU ideology sets itself against pessimism, cynicism and naysaying. Development guru Jeffrey Sachs, for example, has tweeted “Cynicism is biggest obstacle to challenges such as ending poverty and fighting climate change”4. I’d have plumped for issues like war, skewed economic relations, runaway consumerism or the over-reliance on fossil fuels. But no – the real problem, apparently, is cynicism. In many ways, Rieff’s book is an extended diatribe against the rise of a kneejerk ‘optimism’ of this kind which thinks that problems such as hunger and extreme poverty are easily solved through positive thought. Despite the fact that nowadays, in his words, “hope and optimism are often presented as the only morally licit stance for any person of conscience and goodwill to take”, nevertheless “hope can also be a denial of reality and “solutionism” a form of moral and ideological vanity”5. Quite so. The reason I called this optimism ‘paradoxical’ is because it sits ill with the TU emphasis on science. TU cleaves towards science because science has been vastly more successful at comprehending physical and biological relationships (though not ethical ones – that intentionality issue again) than any other form of human knowledge. And it’s achieved this precisely because it doesn’t delude itself with ‘optimism’. Scientists are professional naysayers, rigorously trained in the art of disputing the grounds for all assertions. They don’t talk about the null hypothesis for nothing. And yet when science is transplanted to the ideological plane of solving human social problems, its proponents suddenly want to banish scepticism and enforce a one dimensional ‘optimism’. Pace Sachs, I’m tempted to say that the biggest obstacle to ending poverty or fighting climate change might be what Rieff calls “the bad habit of mistaking the nobility of [our] intentions for the feasibility of [our] goals”6. And the biggest asset is scientific realism, the ability to probe disinterestedly at the drawbacks of any suggested program. Unfortunately, the narrow ‘optimism’ of TU ideology enforces a highly partisan consensus of which programs are ‘realistic’. Thus, carbon pricing is not realistic whereas a worldwide switch to nuclear power apparently is; price floors for commodity crops grown by poor small-scale farmers are not realistic, whereas vertical integration into the value chains of corporate agribusiness is.
  1. Millenarianism: the optimism tic of TU ideology suggests that science isn’t ultimately what it’s about. Indeed, TU seems more redolent of millenarian religion than of science. ‘Science’ is merely the vehicle in TU’s secularized form of millennialism (as trumpet-wielding angels have been in other versions) to bringing about human perfection on earth. Like many millenarian sects, TUs believe redemption is close – Sachs, for example, has spoken of the present generation’s opportunity to end hunger for good and its duty to “heal the world”7. Though TU’s proponents are usually careful to avoid teleology (ie. the notion that future salvation is inevitably destined to happen – see here for example), this usually comes in the form of a weak caveat (‘there are no guarantees’) than any kind of serious countenancing of negative outcomes. I can (and have) offered various speculations concerning the cause of this irrational millennialism in the TU worldview. One of them is that people are deeply imbued with the capacity to wonder and to worship, but in modern times characterised by what sociologist Max Weber called the ‘disenchantment of the world’ there’s little left for us to worship or feel wondrous about but our own achievements – the problem of “humanism worshipping itself”8. A religious commitment to redemption dies hard, even within entirely secular thought, which is quite capable of coopting science within a millenarian purview.
  1. The power of the individual: perhaps this is a stronger feature of TU ideology in the development/hunger field than in ecomodernist environmentalism. It invests the idea that by being optimistic, by giving money to the right charities, by making the right consumption decisions and by supporting big campaigns like Make Poverty History, the wealthy western consumer is individually empowered to help the poor. Rieff calls this thinking “at best a consoling farce”9 in a world where persistent, structural causes are compounding poverty and inequality. Another dimension of it he touches on is the conviction that the power of individuals to change things is always positive, and always makes the world a better place. But as the contributors to another interesting recent book, Warlords, Inc.10, make clear, this isn’t necessarily so. Economic globalization and climate change, to name but two contemporary forces, are having the effect of weakening many sovereign, national governments in the global south. Into this confusion step warlords, para-states, criminal entrepreneurs, violent fundamentalists and a panoply of other agents whose goals could scarcely be more different from those of democrats, rationalists and egalitarians – and with the considerable advantage that they’re not saddled with any lofty (and costly) ambitions of making the world a better place. If individuals do have the power to remake the world, that in itself isn’t necessarily a good thing.
  1. The failure of government: Rieff deftly charts the shift in the development paradigm, which until the 1970s considered the structuring of the global economy in favour of corporate private enterprise to be part of the problem, but since the 1980s has increasingly seen it as part of the solution. For their part, although the ecomodernists sometimes offer weak support for government as a bulwark against the excesses of the private sector, the structuring of the global economy in favour of private corporate interests is rarely challenged. Indeed, the ecomodernists reimagine corporate agribusiness as a benevolent agent successfully uplifting the poor11, just as Silicon Valley ‘philanthrocapitalists’ like Bill Gates reimagine private philanthropy as a privileged vehicle for ending poverty, without acknowledging the role played by monopolistic rent-extraction of the kind that endows the philanthropy in reproducing poverty and inequality. I find Rieff’s claim plausible that corporate agribusiness is not deliberately malevolent, and is sometimes capable of delivering worthwhile pro-poor innovations. But I also find plausible his critique of the notion that “private business – the most politically influential, the most undertaxed and least regulated, and…the least democratically accountable sector among those groups that dispose of real power and wealth in the world – is best suited to be entrusted with the welfare and the fate of the powerless and the hungry” and I agree with his rueful conclusion that “No revolution could be more radical, no expectation…could be more counterintuitive, more antihistorical, or require a greater leap of faith”12.

~~~

So much for TU ideology and its ‘optimism’. What’s the alternative? Not, surely, hopelessness or despair. I think rather just an openness to the idea that some of the problems we currently face (like hunger, and climate change) may not be solvable within the parameters of our current political and economic systems, or indeed may not be solvable at all. Perhaps satisfying technological solutions to such problems will appear without the need for major systemic change. But perhaps they won’t. Let us think freely about all possible eventualities, rather than clinging determinedly to a redemptive narrative of business-as-usual solutionism that aggressively silences dissenters. Nobody can tell what the future holds, but there are good reasons for apprehension. As Rieff puts it, if even some of these apprehensions prove warranted, then the grandiose promises of the development elite (and, I’d argue, of the ecomodernists and techno-utopians more generally) “do not embody hope; they make a mockery of hope”13.

There’s a conservative politics implicit in TU ideology, which is quite comforting to those of us living in wealthy countries where few go truly hungry and where our use of non-renewable resources is out of all proportion to our numbers. This holds that there’s no viable alternative to existing economic and political arrangements, the challenge then being the essentially technical one of raising the rest of the world up to our level of resource use, while making it sustainable at the same time. But it seems to me that that challenge is most likely insurmountable. And in any case there are more satisfying alternatives.

As well as an implicit politics, there’s also an implicit psychology – the idea that people are more appropriately motivated by positive stories about how things will be better in the future if they do x than by negative stories about how things will be worse in the future if they don’t do y. I think this is true and, if I understand the work of social psychologists like Daniel Kahneman14 correctly, it’s pretty hard-wired into the human psyche. Still, Kahneman does imply that our predilection for triumph-against-the-odds narratives has been augmented in capitalist societies, and perhaps – following Rieff – more now than ever.

Both in personal life and in political life I think it’s good to have some optimism, a feeling that problems can be tackled and that things may turn out well. I also think it’s good to have some pessimism, a sober reckoning of the obstacles before us and the possibilities that things may not turn out as well as we’d like. Put the two together and you get the chance of realistic solutions. Either one on their own is less promising. So the ubiquitous notion that we just need optimism, positive stories, baffles me. It seems juvenile. As kids, we love to hear fairy stories and get scared by the awful and apparently inescapable fate the hero/ine faces at the hands of the baddies. But we know that there will be a satisfying redemption in which good will somehow miraculously prevail. Then we grow up and realise that in real life those redemptions don’t always occur. But when it comes to debating future sustainability and social justice, we seem to have entangled ourselves in a fairy tale narrative about optimism, the power of the individual and the redeeming character of science.

I can see plenty of reasons to take a pessimistic view that problems like war, hunger and climate change, independently and additively, will result in a lot of misery in the years to come. I can also see reasons to think optimistically that they can be overcome, or at least tolerably mitigated. But it seems to me that the most promising way of overcoming them is to ditch the techno-utopianism and business-as-usual economics currently dominating mainstream policy. And I’m not very optimistic that that will happen nearly soon enough. Still, life never was a fairy story, huh?

Postscript: though I’ve only just re-emerged from a break in blogging, I shall be silent again for a couple of weeks because…well, let’s just say I’m going on a spirit quest. A commenter at Resilience.org accused me of possessing a ‘deadened spirit’ and to tell the truth I am feeling a little stale, so I’m heading off for a week on a spirit-journey to see if I can catch me a live one…

References

  1. Rieff, D. 2016. The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice and Money in the 21st Century. London: Verso.
  1. Ibid. p.208.
  1. Ibid. pp.110-1.
  1. Ibid. p.215.
  1. Ibid. p.10.
  1. Ibid. p.34.
  1. Ibid. p.73.
  1. Ibid. p.29.
  1. Ibid. p.280.
  1. Raford, N. and Trabulsi, A. 2015. Warlords, Inc.: Black Markets, Broken States, and the rise of the Warlord Entrepreneur, Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.
  1. For example, Mark Lynas’s oft-quoted comment that Monsanto has done more than the entire organic movement to reduce insecticide use.
  1. Rieff op cit. p.229.
  1. Ibid. p.47.
  1. Kahneman, D. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Penguin.