Of authenticity and independence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small town planet, small farm future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So long for now

Chris

Scientists Behaving Normally: Junk science, Nonscience and Bias

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nature’s Matrix: or, of foreigners and Englishmen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nick: Cool. What does he say?

Chris: Well, Nick, essentially he argues that

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

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

Chris: Sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nick: The invisible hand of the market?

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

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

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

Nick: Now you’re talking!

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

Nick: Not human traits I have much admiration for…

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

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

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

Nick: Well, people need their mythologies…

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

Nick: I’ll ignore that remark.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Perfecto et al, op cit.

8. Ezekiel, 28: 16.

Everything Grows, Anything Goes, Everyone Blows: some thoughts on Emma Marris’s Rambunctious Garden

Well, an air of normality has returned to us here at Small Farm Future. A combination of sunny weather and endless meals of Clem’s slug stew have put those pesky molluscs on the back foot and enabled us to get some plants established at last. The money I paid for the potato planter has returned to me (though not, alas, the planter: now I know what people on ebay mean by the term ‘time waster’). And the hordes of permaculturists who were commenting on this blog a week or two ago seem to have departed to graze on other pastures. So what do we do now? Well, we go on, ploughing our lonely furrow.

My next few posts, then, are concerned as promised with the ‘balance of nature’ as applied to agriculture, which I briefly debated with Andy McGuire in response to some blog posts of his on this topic. As a preamble, I’m going to look specifically in this post at Emma Marris’s book Rambunctious Garden1, which touches directly on this issue, and which Andy cites in his posts.

I have to admit that I approached the book with some trepidation: it has an endorsement on the dust jacket from celebrity eco-panglossian Stewart Brand, and has also been enthusiastically commended by other foot soldiers from that warlike tribe. The dust jacket hails the book for its ‘optimism’ (usually a bad sign – I’ll post something soon on the important difference between ‘optimism’ and ‘hope’).  And it seems to be rapidly becoming a touchstone work by people championing policies that I find questionable. But notwithstanding all that I enjoyed reading it and found a good deal of Marris’s analysis persuasive.

That analysis, in a nutshell, is that much ecological thinking and conservation work is based on the idea of restoring natural environments to some kind of baseline state of ‘balance’ which has been upset, typically by human activities of recent origin. But this is an impossible aspiration, first of all because the evidence suggests that human activities (and ‘human’ here may even refer to pre Homo sapiens species in our genus) have always and inextricably been associated with profound transformation of the natural world, and secondly because ecosystems are never in balance anyway but are always an unstable congeries of organisms buffeted by random events and destined not to endure. In this respect, Marris reprises a venerable argument in ecology between Clements (he of the ‘climax vegetation’ and ecosystems as ‘superorganisms’ school of thought) and Gleason (of the ecosystems as random or ‘stochastic’ agglomerations of individuals school).

Well, the Gleasonians seem to have the upper hand in ecology at the moment and one merit of Marris’s book is that she spells out the implications. These are, essentially, stop moralising about pristine ‘untouched’ wilderness and embrace anthropogenic effects.  Don’t get too het up about ‘invasive species’, let anthropogenic nature take its course, enjoy the buddleia and the sycamore, the novel juxtapositions of organisms in ‘self-willed land’ (an appealing term, but a pretty problematic one for a Gleasonian…). Indeed, given the randomness of natural ecosystem assembly, you may actually find that anthropogenic ecosystems perform better than their wild predecessors, as for example on Ascension Island where the monotonous plain of ferns preceding human agency has now been replaced by a fully functioning cloud forest.

In short, everything grows in the rambunctious garden, and we should let it – we must relinquish our human notions of pristine nature and natural balance.

I think I can live with most of that. It’s probably easier for those of us hailing from what certain Americans call ‘old Europe’, where we can’t even pretend to have any significant remaining pristine wilderness, and where there’s been no recent history of explosive human colonisation. Richard Mabey’s book The Unofficial Countryside2 laid out the same basic thesis for us quite some years ago, though it’s true that even here conservationists do fuss rather about ‘native’ species.

This ‘everything grows’ thesis represents the weak narrative of Marris’s book (not ‘weak’ in the sense that it’s a bad argument, but in the sense that it’s a less radical position). But she also articulates a stronger narrative, perhaps inevitably. For once you’ve kicked away the foundations of ‘balanced’ natural ecosystems, embracing the Anthropocene  and the patch-disturbing antics of its guest star Homo sapiens, it becomes a bit difficult to know where to stop. Nature has no ultimate goal, no telos, and humanity is a part of it – therefore if nature has no balance either, then really anything goes. There are no criteria for discriminating between appropriate and inappropriate human interventions in the world, a point made by ecologist Mark Schwartz, who Marris cites (p.80) as follows,

“Without a baseline we have no target. Without a target, every kind of management, including those that result in lost native species is arguably a success. I fear such success.”

Me too, Mark, me too. It’s an onerous business, playing god, and most gods with a successful long-term track record go about it by laying down some ground rules. Call it a covenant, if you will. And here Marris misses a trick by failing to engage with the import of religious traditions that have done this – “give up romantic notions of a stable Eden” she enjoins, without apparently realising that the lack of stability and the consequent difficulty humans face in making good choices is exactly the problem articulated in the Eden story, and the problem her own ‘anything goes’ analysis bequeaths us (this very point is further examined in my paper ‘Genesis and J. Baird Callicott: the land ethic revisited’). Although Marris clearly does want humans to make good decisions on behalf of the biosphere as a whole and not go charging around like a bull in a china shop just because we can, her ‘anything goes’ logic rather pulls the rug from under her feet in finding criteria with which to make those good decisions. Nor does she have a great deal to say about farming, surely the arena in which making these decisions vis-a-vis the wider biota is paramount.

Still, even though the ‘anything goes’ position is quite challenging to those of us who advocate small-scale, local, largely mixed organic farming, it does have its up side. For of course it blows out of the water the so called ‘land sparing – land sharing’ debate, which is often used to critique relatively low yielding organic farming for its potentially greater land take. If anything goes, if ‘self-willed’  (or any-willed) land has no intrinsic inferiority to ‘pristine wilderness’, then there’s no virtue in land sparing. As Marris puts it: “More than sickly ecosystems nursed by park rangers, novel ecosystems are really wild, self-willed land with lots of evolutionary potential” (p121). She later writes: “Don’t ignore green, growing land just because it isn’t your ideal native landscape. Protect it from development, even if it is just a “trash ecosystem”. Build your cities in tight and up high, and let the scenery take over the suburbs” (p170).

Oh, hang on a minute. That last bit doesn’t sound much like a land sharing argument! And come to think of it, counterposing ‘sickly’ wilderness with ‘really wild, self-willed land’ doesn’t look like a very impressive effort at getting the anthropocentric moralising out of ecology. How did we get from ‘anything goes’ to ‘everyone blows’, an argument for cleansing the countryside of people and packing them tight in cities (whose ecological credentials, as I’ve argued here and here, are usually assumed rather than proven)? Now, I’m not given to conspiracy theories, but Marris’s ‘everyone blows’ conclusion seems to come out of nowhere, unless perhaps she’s playing a fiddle for the eco-panglossians, amongst whom the likes of Stewart Brand (he of the dust jacket endorsement) are happy to dismiss the rural peasant life of something like a third of the global population as, quite simply, ‘over’ on the basis of no significant evidence whatsoever.

Nope, give me anything goes over everyone blows. And give me everything grows over anything goes. For indeed I think that reports of the balance of nature’s death are somewhat exaggerated. I’ll say more about why in my next post – essentially that Clements versus Gleason isn’t quite the polar opposition it’s sometimes painted, and that too singular a focus on species-level dynamics is no less incomplete than too singular a focus on ecosystem-level dynamics. In fact, Marris herself frequently invokes notions of ecosystem ‘balance’, as when she argues that there’s a tradeoff between reproductive success and stress tolerance which is likely to enable native species to claw back niches from invasive exotics in the long-term.

You might reasonably ask how commonly she invokes such notions. But then I might reasonably ask for a bit more quantification of this sort in her own analysis. As a not terribly quantitatively-oriented social scientist by training, my own publications, like Marris’s, are full of phrases like ‘as many analysts have argued…’ or ‘the research tends to suggest…’, but on the rare occasions I’ve submitted papers to more technically-oriented journals I’ve generally been asked to sharpen up my act and provide a bit more quantitative precision. Take the Ascension Island example. Given that it’s pretty hard to find land anywhere on the planet quite as remote from other land masses as this speck in the South Atlantic, I don’t find the ‘stochasticity’ of its native flora and the possibilities for ‘improving it’ too surprising. But if you were to survey all the floras of the world and assess them against the same yardstick, how many of them would appear equally ‘improvable’ by human agency? Not so many, I suspect – and that’s before we even get into the debate about what ‘improvement’ really means. Much the same points can be made about exotics/invasives.

Ah well – I like people who stick their necks out and try to nail an interesting argument rather than getting too bogged down in over-cautious evidence-weighing, so long as they engage politely with other views and follow the basic rules of analysis. In that respect, I welcome Marris’s book. But its talk of ‘improvement’ does ring a few alarm bells, for the same reasons I touched on recently when I talked about the legacy of ideologies of agrarian ‘improvement’. My own writing has sometimes been accused of being ‘ideological’, which I’m fairly comfortable with since I don’t believe non-ideological writing is possible in the main. The danger of supposing that it is is in thinking that one’s superior contemporary insight can replace the error of past scientific misunderstandings – now revealed as contaminated by the political concerns of their day – with the clear-sighted truth of the present.

You don’t need to be a genius to see the trap awaiting there, especially in a book like Marris’s which places such a heavy political accent on certain ecological metaphors while seeking to overcome others. And indeed, just occasionally as I read, I fancied I saw a fugitive John Locke, that pioneering agricultural improver and proto-panglossian champion of human overcoming, disappearing amongst the written words as he whispered his excoriations of wilderness and waste into Marris’s ear. For I ask whether in the wild woods and uncultivated waste of America left to nature, without any improvement, tillage or husbandry, a thousand acres will yield the needy and wretched inhabitants as many conveniences of life as ten acres of equally fertile land do in Devonshire where they are well cultivated?3

And to cap it all, there’s that darned dust jacket quotation from Stewart Brand…

 

References

1. Marris, E. (2011) Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, Bloomsbury.

2. Mabey, R. (1973) The Unofficial Countryside, Little Toller.

3. Locke, J. (1689) Two Treatises of Government, II, 37.

The Green and the Gold: or, Peace to Permaculture

I was about to turn my computer on last Tuesday evening when Mrs Spudman suggested instead we sit out in the field with a glass of wine in the sunset. We watched a fox quartering the slope beneath us, listened to the birdsong die in the rising gloom, saw the first bats of the evening emerge and heard a man walking up the lane beyond the hedge stop, unaware of our presence, and offer a prayer for the beauties of the season. Time well spent, I think.

But when I turned my computer on the following evening after 48hrs of internet exile, I found a huge queue of comments on this old post of mine about permaculture awaiting moderation. The awesome power of the retweet at play, I think. There are now 61 comments beneath this post, comfortably a Small Farm Future record, and so many that I can’t really engage with them all. A sweet thing indeed for any blogger to be able to write, but one tinged with sadness too. For when I do respond to a particular comment, I feel bad about all the ones I could have responded to but didn’t. Oh the blogging life is such a rocky road to travel…

Anyway, I hope some of you permaculturists who kindly visited my site will stick with it, and to tempt you along I’m going to add some further thoughts about permaculture here. But first I’m going to talk about something else entirely in order to accustom you to this blog’s typically digressive, allusive and eclectic (OK, rambling) style.

First up, then, an interesting little debate on the always excellent Agricultural Biodiversity Blog about Norman Borlaug, whose centenary year this is. Was he the saviour or the murderer of millions? Oh come on, however passionately we take up our positions in the polarised world of food politics, hyperbole of this kind on both sides gets us nowhere (and, as I argued here, the fact that Borlaug can be painted both hero and villain tells us something important about the contingency of the intellectual frameworks with which we have to wrestle in food policy). Luigi Guarino of the ABB makes a similar point about the hyperbole involved in both sides of the golden rice controversy. As a walk-on extra in the latter, I’ve certainly felt the heat of hysterically pro-GM ideologues, my badge of honour being the accusation that my scepticism about golden rice was tantamount to me travelling to Bangladesh and stealing wheelchairs from disabled children, or some such silliness that I can’t be bothered to look up to get the proper quote.

That accusation came from a familiar old adversary to this site, Graham Strouts. Much as I appreciate a bit of righteous anger, like Guarino I have no taste for wealthy denizens of the global north parading their egos in the misplaced belief that they’re advocating for the poor, and not much taste either for the crude ideology of neo-colonial agricultural improvement or eco-panglossianism that Strouts showcases on his blog. But I just can’t help coming back to him every once in a while. I think it’s because when you read a celebrity eco-panglossian like Stewart Brand his honeyed words almost tempt you into thinking ‘By God, maybe he’s right’ until you remember to re-engage your critical faculties. Whereas with Graham the seething ideology of it all is only too apparent. The historian J.G.A. Pocock wrote that Sir John Fortescue was “the kind of amateur of philosophy who helps us understand the ideas of an age by coarsening them”1. Well, I submit that Graham Strouts is the Sir John Fortescue of eco-panglossiansm. I said as much to a bloke at a party the other night, only for him to edge nervously away from me. Can’t say I blame him, really. Sometimes my erudite wit scares even me.

Anyway, this lengthy preamble is really just by way of justification to explain why I’m going to engage here with Graham Strouts’ comments about my piece on permaculture, and not with those of the many permaculturists whose thoughtful responses to my blog post are really more deserving of attention. But though Graham isn’t thoughtful, he can certainly be thought-provoking. I’ve already addressed a number of the problematic claims from his post in a post here, and implicitly in an article for Stats Views here – in the present post I’m going to focus specifically on his main challenges to the permaculture movement, namely:

  •  that permaculture lacks substantive content: its design principles are nothing more than banal platitudes
  •  that what I called permaculture’s ‘cheerful can-do amateurism’ is in truth more a ‘gormless can’t do naivety’
  • that specific examples of permaculture principles being thoughtfully applied are required
  • and finally that what he calls ‘these earnest PDC-ers’ should ‘just go to ag school, study science and GET REAL’

1. Permaculture Principles

Most permaculturists, I think, are happy to accept that permaculture offers little that’s new or original. It merely packages (perhaps sometimes over-packages) various useful ideas and design principles from other disciplines and thinkers and presents them in a format that’s digestible for modern urbanites who’ve suddenly come to appreciate the banality of their cosseted and unsustainable existence and want to do something about it, however humble. Sometimes permaculturists forget this, and are apt to make excessive claims about the movement’s originality and its capacity to solve the world’s problems (just as eco-panglossians are apt to make excessive claims about the capacity of new technologies to do the same). As Deano put it in his blog comment “It does sometimes seem to take a while for people to ‘observe and interact’ with the facts, and then accept the feedback, and apply self-regulation.”

For me, the main substantive (though not original) content of the movement inheres in its emphasis on holistic design (but let’s call it lifecycle analysis and input-output optimisation to avoid any spiritual baggage), on pattern language and on biomimicry. The last of these touches on a new front opening up in the eco-panglossian war against human sufficiency and its furious and frightened insistence on a philosophy of human overcoming. But my next few posts are going to examine that issue in some detail, starting with a look at Emma Marris’s book Rambunctious Garden, seemingly becoming a keystone work in the eco-panglossian oeuvre, so I’ll leave that hanging for now.

Banal platitudes? Well, yes, I suppose. But what’s the nature of a banal platitude? It’s something that rings true and commands widespread agreement, but also something that’s difficult for people to get right – which is why they platitudinously resort to them as a reminder to stay on the right path. Quit while you’re ahead. Don’t count your chickens. Make hay while the sun shines. And so on (interesting how many of them derive from agriculture…) In a short permaculture design course it’s hard to do much other than mention the platitude and cite a few examples where it comes into play. But it takes whole lifetimes of agricultural thought and practice to apply them skilfully in specific contexts, make the right decisions and learn to farm well. Wendell Berry has written a beautiful essay about this, framing the issue as that of the ‘agrarian mind’ focused on the practical accomplishment of good work in the specific contexts of the farm2. I think permaculture has done a decent job of generalising some of the lessons one can learn from this ‘agrarian mind’, but it’s a dangerous enterprise and all too easy for students to take away from it outcomes when what they really need to see is processes (that was basically the point of my previous post on permaculture).

2. Gormless can’t do naivety

Well, there’s a lot of that about, to be sure. Particularly in the urban white collar worker who seems to be the eco-panglossians’  archetype of successful humanity, and who generally knows nothing about how to grow vegetables, fix an engine, butcher a lamb, make a fence or do a host of other useful things, but instead relies on artisans to do all of that for them, and naively elevates something called ‘science’ to the status of revelation and miracle.

Trust me on this, as a sometime academic sociologist I once was that archetype. But then I became a farmer – and, yes, my farming was pretty naive and gormless when I started. Still is, really. But I figure the world has more need of second rate farmers than second rate sociologists (it’s tempting to add that it’s also more in need of second rate sociologists than second rate eco-panglossians). Still, my farming is less naive and gormless than it was. To me, that’s the most important measure of ‘progress’.

Anyway, I think a lot of people who do a PDC come to it feeling miserable that contemporary education and economics has so deskilled them that they’re incapable of the basic self-care involved in providing their food, clothes and shelter (Simon Fairlie has written a nice article on this phenomenon of ‘distechnia’ here). If they graduate from their course and go on to grow a crap garden, or make some rubbish furniture out of wood from a skip, I salute them. Maybe their next effort will be better. Give me gormless can’t do naivety over wilful dependence any day.

And let’s not overplay the virtues of professionalism. When I get a professional in to do a job for me, sometimes they do it quicker, cheaper and better than I could. More typically they do it quicker, cheaper and worse than I could, because they don’t care about it as much as I do…and then it’s worth asking why I so valued the speed and cost that I hired them. Surprisingly often they do it slower, dearer and worse than I could – most of my faltering improvements to my skill set as a farmer have come from that realisation. And speaking as both a gormless permaculture farmer and a consumer of professional agricultural products from the shops, I’d say that the food production professionals do it quicker, dearer and worse than me…

In summary, gormless can’t do naivety can be rectified, whereas self-legitimating irrationalist scientism is virtually irremediable.

3. Examples of permaculture in action

Nope, I’m not falling for that one. I reject the tyranny of the exemplar. In the hands of the permaculture proponent it becomes exactly the kind of vapid exercise that I criticised in my previous post – Joel Salatin mob stocks his beef cattle, therefore all permaculturists ought to mob stock their beef cattle. And in the hands of its detractors it becomes a build ‘em up and knock ‘em down hostage to fortune of the predictable sort. There are countless examples of permaculture principles being thoughtfully applied for those who care to see, but I’m not going to play the name game. Oh what the hell – Vallis Veg is an example of the thoughtful application of permaculture principles. Is it a flawless example of permaculture design that others should flock to in wonder and then apply religiously to their own practice? No. But we came, we designed, we made it more productive than it had previously been and we (mostly) enjoyed ourselves while we did it. QED.

4. Learn science, go to ag school, get real

Well I’m all in favour of learning science and going to ag school, though I don’t think this bears any necessary relation to getting real. A ghastly pall of unreality afflicts the discourse of scientific agriculture, and the eco-panglossians are in the thick of its fog. Human problems are social problems and as I’ve argued here and here they are not solved simply by applying science or agricultural technology, which is not to say that the learning of science or agricultural technology is of no use. I would, however, venture to say that the crude techno-determinism and cultish mythologisation of science practiced by the eco-panglossians is, genuinely, of no use.

In a follow up post to my original one on permaculture I mentioned Hirschman’s ‘exit, voice and loyalty’ framework. The debate that the original post prompted convinces me that it was good to voice my doubts, rather than going for loyalty, even if the danger of the voice option is that it risks being gleefully picked up by those who wish to undermine from without the movement to which one still, after all, belongs. For me, that debate demonstrates that, as I wrote in my original post, “there’s enough self-critical dynamism in the movement” for it to retain my ultimate loyalty. Peace to permaculture, I say.

References

1. Pocock, J.G.A. (1975) The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition, Princeton.

2. Berry, W. (2002) ‘The whole horse: the preservation of the agrarian mind’ in A. Kimbrell (ed) The Fatal Harvest Reader, Washington.

 

 

Who owns the future?

Following on from a recent post of mine and from Clem’s comment therein about thinking of food and land in terms of private property with protections through the rule of law, I’ve been musing a bit on this issue and thought I’d mention a few things here that touch on it.

One of them is an interesting article by Guardian journalist John Harris called ‘The Tories own the future – the left is trapped in the past’. Leftwingers of the Twitterversity were quick to brand him a traitor to the left but I thought much of the article was bang on, even though I’ve got to say that it seems to me the Tories are trapped in the past too. Disclaimer: John is a near neighbour of mine here in Frome and a tireless campaigner for a relocalisation of the economy, but I don’t know him personally and carry no particular torch here.

I won’t dwell at length on all the implications of John’s article. What particularly struck a chord with me was his argument that the Conservative party is embracing a notion of trying to keep up in the ‘global race’, in which the industrious, the supple and the adaptable will be rewarded, while the lazy, staid and complacent will be punished. Witness Nick Clegg’s repeated derision for what he calls the ‘stop the world I want to get off’ view (OK, I know Clegg isn’t strictly speaking a Tory, but c’mon, let’s not split hairs). This plays to a common national self-image of hardworking, go-getting, self-reliance, in contrast to the moaning about welfare rights and protecting public services associated with the traditional left. It’s a more modern and globalised take on the way Margaret Thatcher pinched the working class vote from Labour in the 1980s by appealing to everybody’s inner shopkeeper (of course, there’s something of an affinity between shopkeepers and peasants, the latter being this blog’s favourite kind of people – shame that Thatcher lost touch with her inner peasant, and opted to help usher in neoliberalism rather than neopopulism).

One major problem, though, is that Britain’s chance of winning the global race, or even getting a sniff of the podium, is zero (some other nice articles in the Guardian recently, such as this one and this one have pointed out contrarily how working people generally are very well aware of this, and pursue other goals when possible). Ha Joon Chang’s book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism explains why quite effectively. And David Harvey’s book The Enigma of Capital, which I’m currently reading and will post something about soon, explains why we probably shouldn’t be trying. Whatever the case, the Coalition’s lack of a Plan B means that we’re skating on thin ice.

In terms of my personal politics, I like the traditional left’s emphasis on civic amenities, its ethic of community-wide care, and its recognition that it’s morally wrong (as well as politically short-sighted) to condone major and persistent inequalities. But I’m also drawn to somewhat more rightwing sensibilities: shit happens, you have to make the best of it without trying to find somebody to blame and the best way to do it is to cultivate your self-reliance. I’ve found my current occupation as a self-employed farmer highly educative in relation to this latter set of values, and I think it would be good if a lot more people did it. I’m under no illusions that I’ve achieved a significant degree of self-reliance, but farming has certainly helped me both develop my capacities of self-reliance and appreciate my limitations in respect of them. To obtain protection from weather, clean water, a healthy and fertile soil, a stock of domestic animals and plants, fuel and machinery, and, ultimately, food and fibre for myself and money for other things by selling food to others is no easy thing, and it ties me to the labours of so many other people living and dead.

My suspicion is that many people with well paid jobs and grid-connected homes in thoroughly domesticated neighbourhoods who talk about the virtues of self-reliance really have very little clue about what that truly means, and how the kind of anti-collectivist policies they advocate render self-reliance impossible for a huge swathe of humanity. Many such versions of ‘self-reliance’ really are nothing of the sort: they’re a distorted culture of narcissism, as discussed with a remarkable prescience towards my analysis by the late American cultural historian Christopher Lasch in his book The Culture of Narcissism. And the pro-globalisation, anti-‘stop the world’ rhetoric represents an almost millenarian belief in ‘progress’ as an ideology, a kind of true and only heaven: a concept of mine again astonishingly prefigured by Lasch in his book The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics. Harvey is also very good on the rhetoric of liberty, self-reliance and privatisation masking what he calls the “incredible centralisation of wealth and power observable in all those countries that took the neoliberal road”. But, as I say, more on Harvey soon.

So when, inevitably, we lose the global race, when we find that the global bus indeed has not stopped for us, what then? Harris talks of the demise of steady wage labour, the ageing of the population, and the increasingly problematic reach of the central state as key problems for the left to confront. It’s interesting to put them into the context of a relocalised food economy and a repeopled farming sector. I’m noticing youngish, well-educated thirtysomething people wanting to get into farming because they sense that it’s an issue for the future and because they can already see that the writing’s on the wall for notions of a steady and fulfilling career as employees in the information society. A young guy here in Frome is setting up a herb business, because there’s no other way he can find work. One of the problems for we latter day agrarian populists is that it’s difficult to argue for a mass people’s movement of farmers, when less than 1% of the population is in farming. But maybe running and then losing the global race will hasten the emergence of a repeopled farming community. It won’t be easy trying to wrest the farm estate from landed wealth, and then insulating ourselves from free trade ideology without thereby giving it back to the landed aristocracy by the back door. Still, I’m hopeful that these young people or later generations of them will succeed, be able to farm, and be able to judge the success of their on-farm actions in relation to their wider social projects, as per the ideas of Paul Richards I mentioned in another post.

Anyway, I think I agree with Clem’s instincts that private property with protections through the rule of law generally isn’t a bad way to go – not because private property is universally desirable, but because it’s a model that we understand well here and that has certain benefits so long as we make sure the legal protections are good and we don’t put the economists in charge. On this front, I had an interesting little discussion recently with Ford Denison on his Darwinian Agriculture blog about the ‘tragedy of the commons’ concept. As I suggested there, my feeling is that left-leaning enthusiasts of common property regimes are way too romantic about what those entail in practice, but right-leaning enthusiasts of private property regimes are way too romantic in their turn about the capacity of private property to deliver public goods – they also tend to mythologise concepts such as competition and efficiency, though both have their place. I subsequently came across Simon Fairlie’s brilliant historical analysis of common property regimes in Britain (after which Hardin modelled his influential but misleading ‘tragedy of the commons’ concept) and their destruction through enclosure. The ‘Private Interest and Common Sense’ section towards the end is especially thought-provoking. So yes, private property with protections through the rule of law undergirding a people-intensive farming sector is something I’d like to see, but as a way of delivering community welfare, not as an a priori economic ideology. The difficulties and contradictions of realising it is something I’ll try to come back to in future posts – and the unfulfilled promise of 19th/early 20th century agrarian populism in the USA touched on by Clem and Brian’s discussion is a key legacy to reckon with.

In the mean time, here’s a novel thought in answer to the Cleggist programme of trying to win the global race:

the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

A land worker at large in London

Time perhaps for a brief report on the demonstration staged by the Land Workers’ Alliance outside the DEFRA offices in Westminster’s corridors of power last week.

My colleagues in the LWA did a fine job assembling a generous farmer’s market stall of small farm produce adjacent to DEFRA’s imposing front door, much to the bemusement of its besuited denizens as they scurried out for their lunch breaks. It’s a bad time of year for us veg growers to be trying to demonstrate our productivity (rhubarb and salads featured prominently…) but all in all it was an impressive display. And some of the DEFRA employees even deigned to take one of our leaflets.

An excellent giant effigy of Secretary of State Owen Paterson was also produced, and one of the highlights of the day was the Effigy of State’s enthusiastic liaison with a corporate agribusiness doppelganger orchestrated by my colleagues (pictured). Entertaining, I thought, though perhaps stretching the point a little. But it seems that Mr Paterson has indeed been holding secret trysts with the GMO crowd, and doesn’t want anyone to know about it. Just goes to show how bang on trend the LWA is.

Though regrettably DEFRA wouldn’t entertain any direct engagement with us, the demo has led to some good media exposure and various other opportunities opening up. My colleague Jyoti Fernandes (to whom I’m eternally grateful for attending Vallis Veg’s planning appeal hearing and telling it like it is about small scale farming) has just featured on Farming Today and I think acquitted herself brilliantly in the trial-by-soundbite world of the modern media. Not so convinced by the counter-position sketched by Guy Smith of the National Farmer’s Union, who seemed quite happy with arbitrarily guillotining farm subsidies below 5 hectares (apparently on the grounds of efficiency - on which troublesome concept, more on this blog soon…), but not with arbitrarily guillotining them at £150,000. Maybe by parallel logic income tax should only be levied on those earning over, say, £30,000? Smith’s main argument seemed to be that large farms were putting subsidies gainfully to work by employing people. But since it’s widely agreed that small farms are more labour intensive, that, surely, is a fine argument for levelling the playing field in favour of smaller operations?

There’ve been a few negative responses to Jyoti’s interview in the Twitterverse, complaining that she unfairly insinuated that large farms produce unhealthier food. The LWA can easily be positioned as anti-large scale farming in this way – unfortunate, because as I’ve argued many times before on this blog, small-scale farmers have a lot in common with large-scale ones, and the real problems are with the large-scale food system not large-scale farmers as such. But just to follow up on the debate, Grant Walling asks “Could landworkers alliance explain why wheat from a 1000 acre farm is less healthy than wheat from a 100 acre farming business?” Well, I’m not aware that any of us have argued that it is – though I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody growing wheat on the smaller scale was preserving greater biodiversity and using less environmentally damaging methods. Like Martin Wolfe for example. Or John Letts. The larger point, though, is that nationally and globally we’re over-reliant on a handful of not massively healthy cereal and oilseed crops which scale up well to highly mechanised large-farm and large-retail production, whereas smaller scale farms typically produce a wider range of products, including the fruits and vegetables that pretty much everyone agrees we should be eating more of – except that here in the UK we’re importing most of the already inadequate quantities of these foodstuffs that we eat. It’s a disgrace, really – if only there were more small farms to produce them locally. What we need is a demonstration outside DEFRA…