The persistence of the peasantry: further notes on the inverse productivity relationship

Look, I’m really, really sorry. I said I wasn’t going to write another blog post about ecomodernism but – no, no, please don’t go! This post strikes to the heart of what Small Farm Future is all about, and raises some interesting agricultural issues – the fact that it also engages with the ecomodernism debate is almost incidental, really. And I promise some other stuff next up. Just bear with me one last time.

So first a brief summary of my ecomodernism wars to date: the ‘ecomodernists’ brought out their Manifesto in April; I wrote a critique of it that was published on the Dark Mountain website in July; Mike Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute wrote a critique of my critique on Twitter, to which I responded with a follow up essay; to Mike’s hot denial, I described ‘ecomodernism’ as ‘neoliberalism with a green veneer’; Mike came to Britain to help Mark Lynas launch ecomodernism over here, but somehow the veneer slipped off on its journey across the Atlantic, and the two of them found themselves sharing a platform with those well-known environmentalists Owen Paterson and Matt Ridley, much to Mark Lynas’s later regret. Meanwhile, George Monbiot wrote a critical article in The Guardian about ecomodernism, to which Ted Nordhaus, Mike Shellenberger and Linus Blomqvist wrote a critical response. And Mark Lynas exchanged a couple of remarkably polite comments with me. Few dead yet.

But let us now home in on the issues raised by George Monbiot in his Guardian article with which Nordhaus et al (henceforth NSB) take issue, concerning small farm productivity and agrarian development. Monbiot made three main points:

  1. The ecomodernists claim that small-scale farming in poor countries is unproductive, but while its labour productivity is low its productivity per unit area is often higher than larger scale farming
  2. The ecomodernists favour engrossment of small farms and the redeployment of their labour into urban industrial employments, but where those employments are scarce the result is insecurity and underemployment. The advantage of low labour productivity is that where work is scarce and people are many, it can help distribute available income more equitably.
  3. The emerging dominance of Asian economies such as China was achieved by first building up a strong, surplus-producing peasant economy, not by destroying that economy in favour of top-down industrialisation.

The counter-critique by NSB focused largely on point 1, touched a little on point 2, and ignored point 3 altogether. I’ll come back to this. For now, let me quote their counter-critique directly, albeit with some elisions:

“…the relevant comparison is not between small farms and slightly larger ones in poor countries. It is between smallholder farms in developing nations and farms of any size in developed nations….

Yield gaps between farmers in rich nations and those in poor countries are profound. US farmers harvest five times more per hectare than African farmers in maize and more than three times in rice.

….In poor nations, the lack of access to alternative livelihoods for large rural populations is the reason that labor is cheap and relatively high yields can be achieved on very small farms….But any nature and land-sparing vision predicated on this model of agriculture would require maintaining large rural populations throughout the developing world in a state of deep agrarian poverty, with no alternative livelihoods to speak of….This seems to us to be neither a particularly plausible way to reduce human impacts on the environment nor an acceptable future for the billion people today living on less than a dollar a day.”

It’s worth noting in passing the rhetorical sleight of hand in that last sentence, with its implication that everyone living on <$1/day is a small farmer. In fact, a quarter of a billion of them are urban dwellers1, urban hunger is growing along with growing urbanisation2, and research suggests that the $1/day metric underestimates poverty in urban areas where living costs are higher3. But let’s put that down to honest error and move on to the weightier issues raised by NSB’s contention that comparing farm productivities within poor countries is less relevant than comparing them between rich and poor countries.

Now, why is that? Suppose I’m a policymaker in a central African country where more than half the population are small farmers, most of them very poor. Urbanism and industry are weakly developed, most of the country’s foreign exchange coming from mineral exports, cash crops like sugarcane and perhaps a bit of tourism. If I were of a statistically mischievous bent, I might ruefully admit to a visiting American dignitary that my country’s maize productivity was indeed woeful compared to hers and propose to restructure maize production along US lines, with much larger, more mechanized farms. Then I might add that US wheat yields per hectare are lower than China’s, where farm sizes average less than a hectare, and enquire whether she’s planning to subdivide US wheat farms accordingly. Oh, the fun you can have with statistics…

But seriously, why would I care what yields US farmers are achieving compared with those in my country, let alone to those in ‘Africa’? I can only think of two reasons. The first is if it were feasible to transfer the US technology so that my country could achieve similar yields. It isn’t. Soils, climate and hydrology are all different, and so are the possibilities for building the various infrastructures that permit a high input, high output, export-oriented grain agriculture. The very study that NSB cite as evidence for higher yield gaps in poor countries states that closing yield gaps using conventional farming techniques involves ecological trade-offs, which seems contrary to their position. It also involves economic trade-offs, which I’ll examine in a moment.

The second reason involves comparative advantage in the international division of labour. If the USA is better at producing maize and rice, then why not let it get on with that and provide staple grains to feed the world, while my country focuses on its own best economic suit, which wouldn’t be ‘subsistence’ production of grains. But there are multiple problems with this view. For one thing, as I’ve shown elsewhere, on the supply side the world is becoming increasingly reliant on the ecologically precarious semi-arid continental grasslands, such as the US’s breadbasket regions – putting more of our eggs globally into that basket doesn’t seem a good idea.

But, more importantly, the ecomodernists’ strictures against peasant farming as an impediment to economic development gets its causality back-to-front. It’s because of the lack of economic development that poor, small-scale farmers have to rely purely on ‘subsistence’ production. In some cases, the turn to peasant farming arose historically in the context of European colonialism, which broke precolonial states, extracted surpluses for its own economic purposes, and left a long-term legacy of peasantisation and ‘underdevelopment’4. More generally, economic potential is never uniformly distributed, a point the ecomodernists don’t seem to understand. True, it’s not a zero-sum game – it’s possible for every region to ‘develop’ simultaneously. But development is always uneven, always involves core regions and peripheral regions where the strength of the core is predicated on the weakness of the periphery. Typically, peasant farming is a strategy of the periphery, which emerges from those unequal economic relations. This leads to another important point: peasant or ‘subsistence’ farmers rarely produce their livelihoods independently of broader global economic relationships. Indeed, their households typically number people working as local wage labourers or migrant labourers nationally or internationally. In this sense, they provide a subsidy to the more ‘developed’ poles of the global economy. Take a moment-in-time snapshot of the world, and you see wealthy, urban, industrial, ‘developed’ economies set against impoverished, rural, peasant, ‘backward’ economies. Film it as a movie over decades, centuries, millennia, and these ‘developed’ and ‘backward’ economies are revealed as two sides of the same coin, with the impoverishment of the countryside/periphery typically a consequence of urban/core wealth.

Let us return to the choices facing our African policymaker. What do the ecomodernists suggest I do? Enact policies inimical to the interests of small-scale farmers (who, recall, form the majority of my population)? Note that urbanism is associated with wealth, and so promote urbanisation in the belief that it will enrich my population? Again, I’d be getting the direction of causality wrong. What would I do – set up a manufacturing industry to rival China, financial services to rival the UK, an aerospace programme to rival the US? Am I going to borrow money internationally to pump-prime this industrial take-off? That’s been tried before in my region, and it didn’t turn out well. Indeed, the region’s poverty-wracked peasants are the ones now paying the price for that mistake. Perhaps the ecomodernists are suggesting that small farms are better engrossed into corporately-controlled agribusiness enterprises with the erstwhile farmers re-employed as wage labourers? Indeed, the spectre of such ‘land grabbing’ haunts NSB’s text, and the ecomodernists’ writings on agriculture generally. But as Lorenzo Cotula has shown, though not entirely without benefits, corporate consolidation typically exacerbates local inequalities, substitutes local food production with provision of biofuels and other products furnishing non-local, non-food demands, and promotes migration from rural areas into insecure urban underemployment5.

Actually, I don’t think the ecomodernists really are suggesting these things. They’re not development specialists, and they don’t have much of a line on how to improve the lot of extant peasantries. Instead, they’re development theorists of a rather general kind. Their analysis is based on the questionable but vaguely plausible thesis that the modern world achieved net economic benefits through urban and industrial development that got people out of small-scale farming. In the case of the rise of ‘the west’ this was achieved through an immense amount of pain and dislocation, and in particular by transforming dependent European peasantries into independent farmers through mass migration to America and other parts of the world. The ecomodernists want to replicate this time-honoured development path in order to improve the lot of peasantries today, but of course there are no longer any Americas for today’s peasants to go to (or, to put it more strongly, the rise of the west occurred through uneven development enforced by the creation of colonial dependency, but colonialism isn’t or shouldn’t be an option today). In place of America the ecomodernists posit technological improvement, decoupling, narrowing yield gaps, GM crops, nuclear power and all the rest of it. As a strategy for tackling the twin aims of environmental sustainability and social justice I think it’s a long shot – on the first point because I’m doubtful that the favoured technologies will be able to achieve the necessary decoupling, and on the second because, as I’ve already mentioned, in an economic order where development depends upon underdevelopment, it’s difficult to achieve an acceptable universal development.

If not ecomodernism for delivering sustainability and social justice, then what? Well, NSB argue that labour is cheap in poor nations because of the lack of alternatives to agriculture, but it seems to me more plausible to say it’s because of these countries’ peripheral position vis-à-vis global economic cores, in which lack of access to livelihoods other than peasant farming is a symptom rather than a cause. After all, urban and/or industrial labour in these countries is also typified by its relative poverty and labour-intensity relative to the core. So given the improbability of turning themselves into economic cores any time soon, it’s not clear to me why NSB consider labour-intensive non-agricultural work so intrinsically preferable to labour-intensive agricultural work in these places. If I were that African policymaker, in a country where more than half of the people are small farmers, and with a weak urban-industrial orientation to the economic core, I’d be inclined to focus upon rural development and building my domestic market in agricultural products and rural industry. As Monbiot pointed out, this is how China and other Asian countries began the rise that’s now beginning to wrest global economic power from west back to east. It’s an absolutely critical point, and NSB’s neglect of it is a major weakness in their analysis. I’ll say more in a future post on the debates over ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ development paths and the implications of an Asian ‘industrious revolution’. But it seems to me that NSB and the ecomodernists have a rather unilinear view of economic development. The ‘western’ path they want to replicate was only one such route, and one not best suited to delivering the demands of sustainability and social justice in the contemporary world.

But let’s conclude by coming back to the inverse productivity relationship. It’s widely assumed by most parties to the debate that higher small-farm productivities arise from relatively greater per hectare labour inputs on small farms. Positions in the debate then turn on how to interpret the wider implications of that labour intensity. It seems to me that labour intensity is key, but as I’ve argued elsewhere it’s not the only issue. One study, for example, found smaller land parcels had higher per hectare productivity than larger ones cropped by the same households, which may be suggestive of agronomic rather than just economic causalities6. Such agronomic factors – things like intercropping, alley cropping, and non-linear returns to labour intensity spring to mind – haven’t been well investigated. Some of them may be scalable, others perhaps not. Perhaps the model we should hold in mind here is how we tend our gardens compared with how we tend our fields. There are many things the gardener can do to boost productivity, not all of them just scaled to labour input, that aren’t really feasible for the farmer. To increase field-scale productivity, the farmer has to place more reliance on agri-industrial technical innovation than on the homespun subtleties of the gardener’s art. So perhaps if we really want to emphasise land-sparing productivity we should aim to shift the balance from agriculture towards horticulture. Why isn’t that on the ecomodernists’ agenda?

How best to farm has always presented people with difficult and sometimes conflicting problems, and the potential trade-offs are only getting harder with today’s focus on equity, greenhouse gas reduction and biodiversity preservation alongside more traditional issues of land and labour productivity. I’d argue these complex problems aren’t usefully simplified into a binary choice of farming styles, as in NSB’s approach: either high-tech, high labour productivity farming, or low-tech, low labour productivity farming. An economist might produce a series of marginal labour productivity plots whose optimal solution would be quite different depending on how other inputs and outputs were priced – particularly outputs that currently have no price but really ought to, such as greenhouse gas production, nitrate pollution and the like. In Cotula’s words, “there is no one-size-fits-all model of agriculture that works best everywhere and at all times”7.

Indeed. No doubt once we’ve sorted out as best we can the agronomy of sustainable food production, the politics of equitable wealth distribution and the ecology of habitat preservation we could call in the economists with their marginal productivity plots to help us determine these issues of agricultural scale from place to place. The trouble is, there’s an occupational hazard in the dismal science: falling prey to the fairytale paradigms of neoclassical or neoliberal economics which claim to do the politics for us, and perhaps even the agronomy and the ecology too. Here, concepts such as Pareto optimality and the efficiency of gross product maximization create the mythical beast of the ‘perfect market’ which becomes ‘distorted’ by policies favouring farming styles that ‘the market’ would not (and, according to the paradigm, should not) select. This blog post by Jayson Lusk nicely illustrates the kind of tendentious reasoning that results, in which the jargon used to justify an apparently value-neutral technical estimation of farm scale doesn’t quite succeed in concealing the partisanship of the approach and the implicit political agenda in which gross financial product figures as the bottom line that matters most. It’s true, I think, that we advocates of small-scale farming can get a little too excited about the inverse productivity relationship, but I can’t help enjoying the spectacle in posts like Lusk’s of the neoclassical economists squirming as they try to reconcile real world circumstances with their paradigm. How many more times does it need stating that the model of reality doesn’t establish the reality of the model?

I see a parallel between the choices open to our African policymaker and rural policymakers here in Britain. Here too, although the economic cushion is much larger, farmers struggle to get by on the agrarian products of their farms alone and we’re enjoined to diversify into B&Bs, pheasant shoots, industrial lettings and the like. But not all UK farmers are well placed to diversify in these ways, just as not all peasants in poor countries are well placed to become ‘smallholder farmers’ earning hard money through cash cropping in a buoyant local or wider economy. Instead of just accepting today’s penurious global food prices and the concentration of landownership as economic facts of life, I believe the time is right for a thorough rethink of how we allocate rights to food and land globally.

There are no simple solutions, and NSB are right to pose the creation of a prosperous and sustainable agrarian economy as a problem. But their counterpoint of a prosperous and sustainable industrial economy is no more convincing, and it elides the problem of uneven development which constitutes one major reason why peasantries are still with us despite an imminent demise that’s been heralded by ‘modernisers’ of various persuasions for well over two centuries. The ‘western’ path to economic development has enriched many, but it’s impoverished many too in a non-random geographic pattern. It’s also led to ecological meltdown. So while almost everyone would no doubt agree that ‘development’ and ‘wealth creation’ are good things, I think we need a more subtle conversation than the ecomodernists seem prepared to entertain about what ‘development’ and ‘wealth’ might mean in the future. Whether we like it or not, for those of us in the overdeveloped west a future ‘development’ path may involve less wealth. Less wealth doesn’t necessarily have to mean less wellbeing – indeed, the contrary can be the case. But only if we go back to the agrarian economy and rethink it from the ground up.





4. Araghi, F. (2009). ‘The invisible hand and the visible foot: peasants, dispossession & globalization’ in Akram-Lodhi, A. & Kay, C. (Eds ) Peasants and Globalization, Routledge.

5. Cotula, L. (2013). The Great African Land Grab? Agricultural Investments and the Global Food System, Zed.

6. Assunção, J. & Braido, L. (2007). ‘Testing household-specific explanations for the inverse productivity relationship’ American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 89, 4: 880-90.

7. op cit. p.73-4.




On the iconography of my scythe

In his interesting historical study of small farmers in Namiquipa, Mexico, Daniel Nugent mentions a 1926 meeting between local farmers and state bureaucrats seeking their assent to form an ejido (communal landholding)1. For reasons I won’t go into here, the farmers were generally opposed to the idea. They were also inured to the prejudices of local elites and officials who tended to see them as ignorant, lazy peasants. When the time came for signing the papers to form the ejido most of them refused, some of them claiming that they’d forgotten how to sign their names. They had their reasons, but they knew that nothing they could do or say would overturn the ‘ignorant peasant’ stereotype. Claiming to be unable to write was their way of acting up to the stereotype sarcastically – debate was pointless, but at least they could have a bit of quiet fun at their interlocutors’ expense.


I’ve been thinking about that anecdote in my recent engagements over ‘ecomodernism’ – particularly in the context of my Twitter photograph, which depicts me wearing an old leather sunhat and wielding my scythe. My God, I thought, here I am, spending ages writing serious intellectual engagements with ‘ecomodernist’ ideology and rebutting spurious charges of romanticism, primitivism and so forth in the case against it – and then the first thing anyone looking at my Twitter account sees is me and that darned scythe. Romantic! Primitivist! My first thought was to replace the photo – and quickly – with something more appropriate, perhaps dusting down my old suit and getting Mrs Spudman to take a snap of me, smart as anything, tugging contemplatively at my beard as I unravel yet another knotty intellectual problem in the world of agroecology.

Well, I didn’t quite get around to doing that – but I did find the time to write a detailed response to Mike Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute’s objections to my critique of ‘ecomodernism’. Where I agree with the ‘ecomodernists’ is a shared commitment to lessening the burden of global poverty and to lessening the burden that humans place upon the rest of the biota. I disagree with them fairly fundamentally on the best means for achieving those goals, but I’d like to think there’s scope for debating, in detail, how we’ve come to our different positions. Then a pingback on the Dark Mountain website led me to Graham Strouts’ latest post, in which (at least by implication) my analysis of the Ecomodernist Manifesto and my response to Shellenberger is rendered as nothing more than eco-romanticism or even eco-fascism.

That’s when the story of the Namiquipan farmers sprung to mind. Just as there was nothing they could do or say to contest the stereotype of the ignorant peasant, to religious dogmatists of the ‘ecomodernist’ persuasion there is nothing I and other critics can do or say to persuade them that dissent from their stance can be anything other than romanticism, fascism or whatever other vacuous pejorative they want to hurl at us. I did post a comment on Graham’s website suggesting that readers might like to see for themselves what I actually wrote rather than relying on Graham’s version of it, but curiously this didn’t find its way onto his site. So much for rational debate. The lesson I’ve been too-slowly learning is that engagement with the ideologically sealed world of the ‘ecomodernists’ is a waste of time. So I’ve decided to stick with my scythe photo. One of the joys of being a small-scale mixed farmer is that we turn our hand to many things in the course of our work without any one of them being dominant, so although I do employ more mechanized mowing technology on my holding the scythe is as good as anything for representing what I do. As I’ve shown elsewhere, it’s an efficient and highly versatile tool in its context. If it seems old-fashioned and redolent of false romanticism for a bygone rural past, that speaks more to the inefficiencies of modern thinking than to the inefficiencies of past practice. And since there’s nothing I can do to rebut charges of romanticism from those who want to make them, like the putatively illiterate Namiquipans, I’ll stick (sarcastically) to my scythe. Why our contemporary culture has such acute sensitivity to romanticizations of the rural and agrarian while affecting complete indifference to romanticizations of the urban and technological is something I don’t really understand, but I don’t propose to worry about it too much in future.

Still, in an ideal world it would be good to have a dialogue with ‘ecomodernists’ of moderate persuasion. In the corner of the universe I inhabit it’s quite easy to think of ‘intensive farming’ (a complex term) as bad, urbanization as unfortunate, nuclear power as wrong and GMOs an abomination on the basis of various under-examined assumptions, so I think it’s no bad thing that the ‘ecomodernists’ are here to make the case for them. The trouble is, for all the talk of science, evidence, rationalism and the like, the case they make tends towards the superficial. Take Strouts’s comments on agricultural intensification “It is not rocket science…-if we can grow food more intensively, producing more from the same amount of land, then we need to use less land for farming which could release more of it for wild nature- hence sparing nature”. Had Sir Isaac Newton’s scientific thinking been of this calibre, what might he have said when the apocryphal apple struck his head? Probably something like “When apples detach from trees they obviously fall to the ground – it’s not rocket science”, hence delaying the development of actual rocket science by a generation, though at least sparing his contemporaries the overuse of this appalling cliché. But what he actually did was ask specific, probing questions that transcended ‘common sense’ – a concept that always needs to be deployed with extreme caution in science.

Likewise, it may appear obvious that it’s better environmentally to concentrate food production on as small a global acreage as possible through the use of high tech modern farming methods, but that view rests on several contestable assumptions which I mentioned in my previous post, namely that:

  1. high tech modern farming methods actually do produce more food per hectare than more traditional, labour intensive methods
  2. biodiversity is better enhanced by preserving slightly larger areas of wilderness which are cut off from each other by intensively farmed areas through which wildlife passage is more restricted, than by preserving slightly smaller areas of wilderness which are linked by more extensively farmed areas through which wildlife passage is less restricted
  3. the following equation holds true, and is indeed empirically testable: gross biodiversity (by some relevant metric) in more wilderness + less (and less wildlife-friendly) intensive farms > gross biodiversity in (less) wilderness + more (and more wildlife-friendly) farms
  4. these relationships will be preserved long-term in the event that the ‘ecomodernist’ strategy of ‘agricultural intensification’ and poverty reduction through urbanisation successfully increases and equalizes global wealth, without the wilderness so preserved succumbing to the pressures placed upon it by this increased global wealth.

As I pointed out in my previous post, there are reasonable scientific grounds for questioning all of these assumptions, and it’s in subjecting the assumptions to rigorous scientific testing that the real science, and the real debate, begins. It seems to me pretty unlikely that ‘the science’ will end up favouring a blanket worldwide strategy of either ‘ecomodernist’-style ‘agricultural intensification’ or agroecological-style so-called ‘extensification’ because the one ‘common sense’ generalization I think one can safely make of scientific research is that its answers are complex, context-dependent and provisional.

That, at any rate, is the kind of debate I’d like to be able to have with the ‘ecomodernists’. I’m sure I’d learn something. The kind of response I’ve actually received, though, doesn’t persuade me that, for all their talk of science, ‘ecomodernists’ of this ilk actually possess much in the way of scientific credentials. But I haven’t altogether given up hope that there might be some people out there who, while identifying with the ‘ecomodernist’ taste for ‘modernization’, are nevertheless capable of seeing that there may be some other worthwhile ways to organise life, and some complexities in the science that admit to a scintilla of debate. So my ‘ecomodernist challenge’ to anyone prepared to take it is to subject my two recent essays on ecomodernism to constructive criticism of their specific contentions (for example, my points about farming style and biodiversity above) rather than blanket dismissal by recourse to one-word pejoratives.I’d like to think that hardline ‘ecomodernists’ like Strouts or Shellenberger might take up the challenge, but I’m not holding my breath. I think there’s a nasty, anti-peasant, encloser ideology lurking within their putative concern for the rural poor, which can only be kept hidden by avoiding detailed debate and sticking to a techno-utopian script of nuclear power, GMOs etc which is sketched only in the broadest possible terms. In the absence of such a debate, I think I can best respond to the blandishments of the ‘ecomodernists’ with the silent humour of my scythe. And perhaps also longer-term by trying to articulate an egalitarian, internationalist agrarian populism fit for present times.

Daniel Nugent wrote “There is an empiricist argument against the proposition that the peasantry is doomed, namely that after all these years they just won’t go away. It is also possible, however, to make a positive argument, the ideological argument that they refuse to go away. Their persistence is an example of a development and formation parallel in space and time, if not oriented toward the same ends, to that of the state”2.

Nugent’s emphasis on the state is salutary, because any type of contemporary politics has to develop an ideological position with respect to it. Shellenberger wrote that his ecomodernist program isn’t neoliberal because it identifies a role for the state, suggesting a grave misunderstanding of the contemporary relationship between market economics and state-building. The ‘ecomodernists’ seem to believe – probably sincerely, but I think misguidedly, and in the face of much evidence to the contrary – that ever-greater incorporation into this grand statist politics will bring ever greater benefits to all the world’s people. Those of us who think otherwise need to articulate a different vision of a post-capitalist state. As one commenter on my essay sagely wrote “Rebutting bullshit is fun, but we got work to do”. Quite so. So now I need to go and mow the grass, and I also need to develop an agrarian populist theory of late capitalist state transformation. Bottom line: this post is another memo to self: get to work, Chris, get to work, by scythe or by keyboard, get yourself to work…


  1. Nugent, D. (1993) Spent Cartridges of Revolution: An Anthropological History of Namiquipa, Chihuahua, University of Chicago Press, p.98.
  1. Ibid. p.165.

Ecomodernism: a response to my critics

George Monbiot, bless him, has recently been tweeting his enthusiasm for my critique of the Ecomodernist Manifesto (‘Dark thoughts on Ecomodernism‘). This gained me quite a lot of positive responses, but also inevitably some negative ones – starting with a mild shot across the bows from one Fahad and thence a veritable blizzard of critical tweets from Mike Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute and a cast of fellow travellers.

Some of the issues raised by these critics and the questions they’ve posed of me seem worth following through in greater detail so that’s what I shall essay here. Apologies for the lengthiness of the reply – these promptings from my critics enable me to explore various interesting issues that I didn’t address or only touched on in my original essay, so I hereby commit these words to cyberspace as a companion essay to my ‘Dark thoughts…’ piece.

To be honest, it’s a bit dispiriting wading through some of the invective directed at me on Twitter. Primitivist! Pessimist! Malthusian! Feudalist! Romantic! You spend years writing stuff that painstakingly corrects these misconceptions about the case against modernization, only to be dismissed in one-word caricatures by people I have to think haven’t actually read what I’ve written. And if they have, then god help us, the myth of progress has us in an ideological death grip.

Anyway, I propose to dodge most of the name-calling and try to focus on issues of more substance. I’ll start with Fahad’s comments, but here I do want to begin by taking issue with one of the pejoratives – Fahad’s charge that I romanticize preindustrial society. Then I plan to work my way through Mike Shellenberger’s questions to me and his criticisms of my ‘Dark thoughts…’ piece. So the order of play is as follows:

  • On Romanticism
  • An aside on the politics of agrarian populism
  • Modernization & inequality
  • Of urbanization & ‘the village’
  • Agricultural modernization
  • Enclosure
  • Intensification & land sparing
  • Energy
  • An aside on whales
  • Conclusion

On Romanticism

Pace Fahad, what I actually wrote is that modern humanity faces some difficult problems, that I don’t think more ‘modernization’ is the most promising way of tackling them, that there are things we can learn from non-modern peoples that might help us, and that some people from non-modern societies lived fulfilled lives by their own standards. That’s romanticizing? If so, the implication is that to avoid romanticization you’d need to argue there’s nothing we can possibly learn from non-modern peoples, who have all lived out their lives in unalloyed misery. That goes well beyond what E.P.Thompson called ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’ into a realm of remorseless presentism and ethnocentrism. Call me a romantic, then, if it enables me to avoid such epic narcissism. And for more thoughts on the tricky issue of romanticization, have a look at this.

An aside on the politics of agrarian populism

Mike Shellenberger said he couldn’t see any politics in my position, so let me try to broach them briefly by way of another of Fahad’s tweets: “In human history, e.g. food supply in late 19th century. We innovated & managed to get out of those. We ignored Malthusian pessimists”. Interesting, but that’s not how I read the history of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Rather than an incipient global Malthusian crisis that was averted by technological developments resulting from collective human will, I see the key historical dynamic of that period as connected with the emergence of arguably the first truly globalized economy, which was created by British imperialism. There’s been a long-term historical trend in human societies whereby social forms that can direct and organise more people have the ratcheting effect of fostering the secondary formation of more societies in their image: clan and lineage societies beget more clan and lineage societies, (primary) monarchies beget more (secondary) monarchies, empires beget more would-be empires – a point examined in some detail across human history by Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus1. This trend doesn’t arise because these forms are ‘superior’ to other less centralizing ones in any fundamental way, but because the less centralizing ones get swallowed up by the more centralizing ones unless they organise in like manner. One way this manifested in the late 19th century was in terms of intense imperial rivalries in Europe – for example, the creation of ‘capitalism from above’ in Germany in competition with Britain and other major powers of the time – and indeed a similar dynamic in other countries, for example under Diaz in Mexico. In the German case, the country’s chemical industry was key to its modernization dynamic2, and few of its chemists were more significant than Fritz Haber – firstly in figuring out ammonia synthesis for agricultural fertiliser, and secondly in developing chlorine gas as a chemical weapon in World War I.

I see the Haber-Bosch synthetic fertiliser process more as an outcome of this competitive capitalist development than the result of some global humanitarian push to overcome a Malthusian limit. It’s had a profound impact on human history over the last century which is by no means reducible to its origins in that particular economic context. So I see little point in adopting a 1066 And All That view of history and debating whether it was A Good Thing or not. It’s led us to where we are now and what matters is the decisions we take from here.

Nevertheless, during that same period there were strong agrarian populist movements in many parts of the world. In some places (Mexico, India) they had a modicum of success, in others (Russia, the USA) they were conclusively defeated – and the emerging synthesis of an imperial, capitalist global economy with a mechanised and industrialised agriculture facilitated their defeat. I’m interested in reviving their legacy as a means of tackling the current problems we face – not in reviving those movements themselves in all their particularities. Things are different now, and in any case there was much in those movements with which to take issue. But agrarian populism, that road not taken a hundred odd years ago, is still in my view pregnant with possibilities for a more equitable and more sustainable future. It involves elements of socialism, but without that movement’s typical disdain for rural petty proprietors and its industrial-capitalism era concepts of ‘progress’. One of the problems, though, is that the ratchet effect I mentioned above makes it difficult for countries to step outside the political dynamic established by the core. The ones that do tend to have extremist ideological axes of one sort or another to grind – Ireland in the early 20th century, say, or Cambodia under Pol Pot. So for those of us working towards a more localized and autarkic agrarian economy, the casebook is not filled with terribly inspiring modern examples. We need to build a more open, internationalist food sovereignty movement. I’m proud to count myself a member of La Via Campesina, which at least has begun that long-term struggle.

I plan to say more about a contemporary agrarian populist politics in future posts. But I thought I’d just mention the points above by way of a thumbnail outline to fill Mike in on my politics. He retweeted this comment: “British environmental movements are not movements, and have “ethics without politics””. I partially agree with that – though I’d extend the charge from British environmental movements to ones throughout the western world, and indeed more generally to its leftist movements too. Witness the current turmoil in the Labour Party, symptomatic of the disarray caused by the loss of organised labour as the key dynamic of the left and by the siren song of neoliberalism. But against the implied criticism of the tweet, I’m happy to bide time. You don’t just snap your fingers and conjure some new alignment of left-green forces out of nowhere overnight. These things take time. Mike added that my line of argument was about lifestyle, not politics. Politics always is about aspirant lifestyles, but I can’t see how anyone could read my ‘Dark thoughts…’ essay as apolitical and ‘only’ about lifestyle. And if they do, I doubt there’s anything more I can say that would change their mind. But I’d add that Mike’s own programme sounds pretty lifestyley to me. “Ecomodernism is political program of cities, ag modernization & cheap energy” he writes. Cities! Modernization! Cheap energy! What a marvellous way to live! But you don’t make it into a politics just by calling it a political program.

Modernization and inequality

Let me now whizz through some points that ought to be easy to clear up before moving on to weightier matters. Mike summarizes my position as “There are still poor people. Hence, modernity is a complete failure….People are still dying from disease. Hence, modern medicine is a complete failure.” This isn’t even a reductio ad absurdum of my argument. It’s just an absurdum plain and simple. As even a casual reading of my essay should make clear, I don’t oppose modernity because it’s failed to end poverty. I oppose spurious claims that modernization doesn’t ever cause poverty or is the only means for ending it.

Mike also wrote “Ecomodernism says we have moral obligation to extend gifts of technology & modernity to those who have to date been left behind”. This notion of being ‘left behind’ by modernity is a common ecomodernist trope, but it’s a fallacy. The slaves shipped across the Atlantic to toil in the plantations of the New World, the modern slaves working southeast Asian fishing boats, the litter pickers of the Mumbai slums, the aborigines killed by colonial genocide and their descendants eking out an existence on reservations in America or Australia, the poor farmers and rural proletarians working across the fields and plantations of the world, the Bangladeshi sweatshop workers and the Filipina maids in the world’s great cities have not been ‘left behind’ by modernity but have lived it every bit as much as Silicon Valley millionaires or San Francisco policy analysts. Mike says that modernity has created more winners than losers. He’s a braver man than me to hazard some great reckoning of slaughtered Indians versus retired accountants, but maybe so, maybe so. My argument is not that people’s lot can never be improved by ‘modernization’ – but it is that modernization, like most political processes, creates winners and losers. Unlike most others, it has done it at an unprecedented speed and scale.

Of urbanization and ‘the village’

As I mentioned above, Mike wrote “Ecomodernism is political program of cities, ag modernization & cheap energy – do @GeorgeMonbiot and @csmaje really oppose those things?” This led to an exchange of tweets about urbanization, in which Mike wrote “Efforts to keep people in villages oppressive”.

Easy now. Do I ‘oppose cities’? No. Does Mike ‘oppose the countryside’? Presumably not. What absurd questions! But his point about ‘people in villages’ betrays another ecomodernist fallacy, which runs along the following lines: there are poor ‘subsistence’ farmers living in ‘villages’ who are untouched or almost untouched by ‘modernity’; given half a chance, they will all gladly leave this miserable existence and flock to city slums where they will earn more money and, ultimately, have a better chance of joining modernity’s winners. Like all simplistic caricatures there’s a grain of truth in it but, honestly, if somebody teaching an Anthropology of Development 101 class were marking an essay based on the urbanization arguments of Mike or of Stewart Brand they’d be generous to give it a pass. Where to even begin? Rural-urban and agrarian-industrial labour processes are thoroughly interpenetrated and have been from their inception in countless complex ways. Rural-urban migration is not a voluntarist act of latter-day Dick Whittingtons. A Mexican fruit-picker in California may be hoping to get a job as a computer programmer, or she may be saving money to extend her landholding back home within a complex set of family, community and wider political relations3. A Calcutta pavement dweller may have lost his farm and be gambling all on getting a no-hope job as a rickshaw puller, or he may have come to town for a few months to earn some extra money to help with the dowry for his sister’s wedding. There is a massive, sophisticated research literature on the great historical, economic and political complexities around migrant and rural labour of which the ecomodernists seem shockingly ignorant.

Notwithstanding these complex individual stories, the broader global pattern in recent years has been one of widespread and rapid urbanization. The reasons for it are complex and vary from place to place – China is a key and very interesting case which I will look at in more detail in a forthcoming post. But to submit a counter-generalization to the ecomodernist one, the key engine of rural-urban migration in most cases is government policies – and particularly those entrusted to global organisations like the IMF and the WTO – which systematically disfavour local agrarian economies. If you make it difficult for poor people to get by in the countryside, they will move temporarily or permanently to the city. The tragedy is that these policies don’t make it especially easy for people to get by in the city either. But it’s not impossible to adopt policies that make life easier for poor farmers – in which case, the pressure for migration may be lessened.

So it’s not a matter of ‘oppressively’ keeping people in villages. It’s about choosing policies that best support people’s realistic aspirations – all people’s, both rural and urban. The EM, and other keystone ecomodernist works like Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline, are conspicuously silent on global economic governance policies. They say nothing about the IMF, the WTO, the free flow of global capital and the constrictions on the flow of global labour. But the EM does espouse ‘economic integration’. Which is why I think it’s politics are essentially neoliberal. The ecomodernist notion that nobody wants to farm and everybody wants to move to the city meshes neatly with that neoliberal ideology.

Agricultural modernization

Let me now try to answer some of the other questions Mike posed to me. Do I support agricultural modernization? That could mean virtually anything, so let me say ‘yes’ to avoid needless controversy. But then Mike refined the question: do I support helping farmers increase yield per hectare? I asked him to specify which farmers and yields of what. He replied “Yield of food – crops, meat. All farmers.” To which my answer is, not necessarily.

Let me explain why by thinking about some different kinds of farmers. Take a poor, small-scale farmer somewhere in, let’s say, East Africa. She grows two main crops: coffee for cash, and maize to feed her family. Do I support helping her increase her coffee yields? Probably not, because overproduction of coffee and the dysfunction of tropical commodity markets4 has already driven coffee prices to penurious levels. If she can grow more, presumably so can other coffee growers, and her situation is not improved. Maybe if she could sell her coffee to a government marketing board with a guaranteed price floor, then my answer would be different. Or maybe if there were a public extension service that helped her diversify out of coffee into, say, growing okra to sell in the nearest market town, then I might support efforts to increase her okra yields. Such institutions were widespread in low income countries not so long ago, and were key planks in their own ‘modernization’ strategies. But for the most part they’ve now been swept aside by neoliberal reforms that insist nothing must interfere with the private market. I haven’t noticed much call among the ecomodernists for their return. Do I support helping her increase her maize yields? Possibly. But I’d like to know about what she’s signing up to – what are the input costs, and will the economics work out for her long-term, what is the long-term impact on soils and pests, and so on. I’d also like to know whether increasing her yields is actually the best way of easing her poverty. Maybe she has a lease with a local landlord who will find ways of appropriating her additional surplus as rent. If so maybe I’d be better off supporting her efforts to organise politically than supporting efforts to increase her maize yield.

Now take a farmer in Kansas growing 3,000 acres of wheat. Do I support helping him to increase his per hectare wheat yield? No. He already receives massive subsidies, both implicit and explicit, which help him and others like him to produce such a torrent of cheap grain for export that it undermines local agricultures the world over. His land is over-fertilized and under-protected from erosion beyond any rational allocation of global resources. As I’ve shown elsewhere5, urbanization around the world is placing an increasingly heavy burden on environmentally vulnerable semi-arid continental grassland areas such as Kansas to produce more of the world’s basic food staples. It’s a high risk strategy that I don’t support, so I’d like to see his per hectare yields decrease. I think they soon will anyway, whatever agronomic trickery humanity tries to throw his way to prevent it.

Finally, let’s take a small field on the outskirts of a town in southwest England. Perhaps it’s used for recreational equestrianism, or maybe to raise beef cattle. Meanwhile, most of the food consumed in the town is grown elsewhere – often in distant countries. Do I support increasing the yield per hectare of this field? Yes. I know of such a field. It was bought some time ago by a couple in their thirties. They allowed parts of it to grow wild and untrammelled. In other parts they planted trees for timber, wind protection and wildlife habitats. They kept some of the grass and diversified the livestock, raising sheep, pigs and poultry. Some of it they ploughed, growing several tonnes of potatoes and other vegetable crops each year. They sold their produce in the local town, and used some of the money they made to employ local people and build links with the community in other ways. How did they manage to increase yields? Partly by using a bit more fossil fuel than previously, but mostly by devoting their labour to it. And how do I know about this farm? OK, no surprises – it’s mine.

Presumably Mike will want to praise me for raising the per hectare yield of this field. Let’s see what he has to say: “What is the morality of privileged British intellectuals retreating to countryside to insist modernity has failed & must be turned back?” Ach well, there’s no pleasing some people. But let me rise above the personal jibe and pause to examine this revealing comment. For farmers and rural people historically, the countryside is not a place of ‘retreat’, and the town is not an ‘advance’. The countryside is where they live and work, and they don’t consider their knowledge of farm, wood and common to be of an inferior sort to the knowledge gained in cities. There’s a long history of disdain for the agrarian and the rural by metropolitan opinion-formers, and Mike here reveals his true colours. I suspect part of the reason that he and the other ecomodernists are so enthusiastic about large-scale high-tech farming is that it empties the countryside of people whose thinking challenges theirs and replaces them with like-minded technicians. Obviously people like me are the worst of the bunch – city intellectuals traitorously turned farmer. Ah well, there are plenty of British intellectuals who insist modernity has failed without ever leaving the confines of the senior common room – I prefer to grow some vegetables while I do so and put them on the plates of my fellow townsfolk. But I have never argued that modernity must be ‘turned back’.


In my original essay and in my Twitter exchange with Mike I describe ecomodernism as an enclosure movement – something he finds absurd. I’d suggest anyone with an interest might read the Ecomodernist Manifesto and then read my comments on enclosure in my essay and make up their own mind. Let me just say this – if you were writing a short document that aimed to identify the main actors responsible for our current environmental problems, how much space would you devote to Ice Age Native Americans, hunter-gatherers generally, poor peasant farmers, charcoal burners and bushmeat eaters? Rather less, I’d submit, than the EM does. The ecomodernists would no doubt say that these examples are to show there’s no space in our crowded modern world for inefficient forms of land use, a point I’ll examine in a moment. But, deliberately or otherwise, the effect is to denigrate people who don’t fit with the modernization narrative, and prepare the ideological ground for the elimination of their ways of life. Enclosure in England in the 18th and 19th centuries was prefigured by much learned discourse about agricultural improvement and the need to alleviate the indigence of the rural poor6. I see ecomodernism as a contemporary manifestation of that tradition. Mike says that ecomodernism is about love for humanity, but the EM doesn’t show much love for those who don’t fit within its own narrow parameters.

Intensification and Land Sparing

Mike asks if I embrace or oppose efforts to increase agricultural productivity to leave more room for nature. I find the concept of ‘leaving room for nature’ philosophically problematic, as I argued in my original essay, but I understand the point he’s making: in the interests of our fellow organisms, isn’t it better to produce our food on as little land as possible?

One answer I have to that question is yes, and therefore I favour small-scale labour-intensive peasant farming over high-tech mechanized arable farming. There’s been a lengthy academic debate about the so-called ‘inverse productivity relationship’ – that is, the widespread finding that small farms have higher yields per hectare than large ones. The issues around this are complex. I’ve written about them in this article for Statistics Views, and I won’t dwell on them here. But there are reasonable grounds to think that if land sparing is the aim, then the small-scale, low-tech, labour-intensive peasant farming methods derided by the ecomodernists ought to be the game.

Another answer I have is ‘I’m not sure’, for two reasons. First, the matrix arguments of ecologists like Ivette Perfecto7 suggest that biodiversity may be better preserved through extensive agricultural land use linking areas of wilderness than by having islands of wilderness isolated by blocks of intensive farming, even if those blocks may be smaller. Indeed, there are surely some questions to be asked here about what ‘room for nature’ actually means. Ecologists have often taken the view that virtually any kind of agricultural land is worthless as wildlife habitat, but this involves an element of value judgment based on notions of ‘pristine wilderness’ which have been effectively criticised among others by ‘post-wilderness’ proponents like Emma Marris, whose work has been enthusiastically endorsed by the ecomodernist tribe8. If indeed we now live in a ‘post-wild’ world, and if there’s nature to be found on the farm itself, then the case for intensifying agricultural land use weakens.

The second reason I’m not sure is that if the ecomodernist strategy of enriching the rural poor by packing them off to the cities while intensifying agriculture in the countryside actually works and turns all or most of humanity into financial winners (incidentally, the ecomodernists’ enthusiasm for golden rice suggests to me that perhaps they don’t really think it will work), then it won’t be long before the pristine wilderness only just spared succumbs to the vineyards, horse ranches, coffee groves, golf courses, fruit orchards and trophy hunting demanded by the emerging new billions of urban wealthy. The proposal may thus be self-defeating and it’d be better to explore other avenues: perhaps contraction and convergence towards a more egalitarian world of lower consumption.

I don’t think there can be a simple answer to the question ‘Do you support agricultural intensification?’ On my own farm, described above, have I intensified or extensified production? Both, actually. Mike criticises fear-based environmentalism, but I think the ecomodernists have a fear-based narrative of their own. It proposes that we need a massive increase in food production in the coming years without increasing land-take, and the only way we can do it is through clearing peasants off the land and replacing them with biotech-heavy mechanised farming. This serves their own particular technophile and anti-peasant agenda, but it’s not really true9.


Mike has more questions for me – do I oppose cheap energy, do I embrace nuclear energy, and if so how can we expand nuclear energy while ‘retreating’ (there we go again…) to ‘pastoral life’? Well, cheap energy is a tricky one. A neighbour of mine here in Somerset had a pallet of kiln-dried firewood that was grown in Eastern Europe delivered by truck to their door. On that score, yes I oppose cheap energy – it’s hard to see sustainable local agrarian economies emerging when the existing energy economy fosters such madness. On the other hand, as a farmer I appreciate the immense labour-saving potential of a can of diesel and a few simple machines, and I also appreciate that there are many people in the world whose suffering could be eased if only they had access to a little more energy. At the same time, it seems clear that we need to restructure the economies of the wealthy countries towards more labour-intensive and less energy-intensive activities, a point argued forcefully by Tim Jackson10. And it also seems clear that the course taken by the western industrial revolution and its successor age that we now inhabit, involving massive-scale substitution of labour by fossil energy, was historically anomalous and possibly unique. The current rise of China and other Asian economies is only partly copying that western model; it’s also following an indigenous, more labour-intensive development path which has been much discussed in academic debates over the so-called ‘industrious revolutions’ of Asia11 – a point I’ll discuss in more detail on this site soon.

So on balance, I think I’d probably say, albeit with reservations, that no, I don’t support ‘cheap’ energy, depending on one’s definition of ‘cheap’. I think the cause of social justice and sustainability is probably better served by a focus on the more equitable distribution of energy rather than too much focus on its absolute amount.

Do I ‘embrace’ nuclear energy? No, I couldn’t honestly say that I do ‘embrace’ it – though that’s not the same as saying that I’m opposed to it in every conceivable circumstance, which I’m not. I do want to highlight one feature of Mike’s views on this, though, which is commonly found among ecomodernists. A couple of people tweeted to him the thoughts that reducing meat consumption and establishing a strong carbon price would help foster sustainability. Mike was scornful: “I have as much confidence in vigorous global C-price occurring as spontaneous vegetarianism”. Fair enough – nevertheless, if the political will existed among certain governments of the world, a vigorous C-price or a large reduction in meat production could be achieved virtually overnight employing little more than policy implementation. Contrast that with nuclear power, an expensive and enormously complicated technology which currently accounts for only 2% of total global energy production and is produced in only 15% of the world’s countries. Mike throws up his hands at the thought of agreeing a C-price, yet seems to think it’s a simple matter to significantly replace fossil energy production worldwide (currently standing at 87% of primary energy production) by nuclear power within a timeframe that’s going to make a difference to climate change. You get the impression that, for the ecomodernists, some policy options are more equal than others.

In summary, I think I’d answer Mike’s question by saying that generally speaking I support a transition to less absolute energy use and a more equitable distribution of energy availability. I can imagine nuclear power having a role to play in that transition in some places, but it doesn’t seem to me to be the lowest hanging fruit. Would this nuclear power be incompatible with Mike’s so-called ‘retreat to pastoral life’? Well, by my calculations, the UK could produce all the food it needs in a sustainable long-term manner if about 12% of the working-age population were farmers12. Double that proportion for occupations ancillary to agriculture, and you get 76% of the workforce available for doing other things, such as running nuclear power plants. A bit of a simplistic calculation, I know, but it gives an idea. It would probably still be necessary to cull a number of what David Graeber has entertainingly called ‘bullshit jobs’. In that context, would it be impertinent of me to suggest that those aspiring to work in policy thinktanks might wish to consider whether a ‘retreat’ to the ‘pastoral life’ could be a better long-term bet?

An aside on whales

I briefly debated with Mike the implications of whale populations for the ecomodernist narrative. A sideshow, really, but I think it illuminates another interesting aspect of ecomodernist ideology. This is the view that modernization causes ecological problems, but then it fosters technical innovations which overcome the problems. Thus, the argument runs, in the case of various whale species modernization allowed them to be dangerously over-hunted, but then innovation allowed substitutes to be found for whale products, so the whales were saved.

I’m not wholly convinced by Mike’s claim that whaling came to an end solely because of technical substitution, but let me concede the point to avoid getting sidetracked into unnecessary dispute. Still, if we take the example of blue whale populations in the Southern Ocean where historically they were most populous, estimates are that prior to large-scale 20th century whaling there were about 300,000 of the animals there, whereas in the early 2000s – about 40 years after a complete ban on hunting them came into force – the population was estimated at around 1,00013. In other words, modern humans obliterated them to the point of extinction but didn’t quite finish them off entirely. Mike considers this exemplary of modernization’s success. Well, I guess if you’re allowed to choose your own criteria for judging a favoured project there’s a lot to be said for setting the bar low. But however Mike wants to spin it, I can’t see the story of the blue whale as a good advert for modernization.

Many other species have failed to make it with us through the modernization process at all. Somehow, humanity just didn’t innovate enough to find substitutes for dodos, passenger pigeons, thylacines and many other less feted species. This is important. The ecomodernists posit the emergence of modernist solutions to modernist problems as if this is some kind of ineluctable natural law. It isn’t. Blue whales got lucky, if you can call a >99% population decline ‘lucky’. Other species didn’t. So while of course it’s true that modern technical innovations can sometimes help remedy problems caused by modernization, there’s no reason to suppose they always can.


I tweeted to Mike that I see ecomodernism as neoliberalism with a green veneer. No doubt there are different shades of opinion within the movement, but I’ve not yet seen anything to persuade me otherwise. Ecomodernists offer no solutions to contemporary problems other than technical innovation and further integration into private markets which are structured systematically by centralized state power in favour of the wealthy14, in the vain if undoubtedly often sincere belief that this will somehow help alleviate global poverty. They profess to love humanity, and perhaps they do, but the love seems to curdle towards those who don’t fit with its narratives of economic, technological and urban progress. And, more than humanity, what they seem to love most of all is certain favoured technologies, such as nuclear power. Mike, you do not convince me, and until you do I will continue to advocate for a politics and an economics grounded in small-scale peasant agriculture from my rural ‘retreat’, and to practise that agriculture too in my own limited and ‘immoral’ way to the best of my ability.


  1. Flannery, K. & Marcus, J. (2012). The Creation of Inequality, Harvard University Press.
  1. Smil, V. (2001). Enriching The Earth, MIT Press.
  1. See, for example, Nugent, D. (1993). Spent Cartridges Of Revolution: An Anthropological History of Namiquipa, Chihuahua, University of Chicago Press.
  1. Robbins, P. (2003). Stolen Fruit – The Tropical Commodities Disaster, Zed Books.
  1. Smaje, C. (2015). ‘The dearth of grass: cereals, civilisation and colonialism’ The Land, 18: 34-7.
  1. Neeson, J. (1993). Commoners, Cambridge University Press.
  1. Perfecto, I. et al (2009). Nature’s Matrix, Earthscan.
  1. Marris, E. (2011). Rambunctious Garden – Saving Nature In A Post-Wild World, Bloomsbury.
  1. See an introduction to these issues in: Hamer, E. (2014-15). ‘Feeding the nine billion’ The Land, 17: 31-3.
  1. Jackson, T. (2009). Prosperity Without Growth, Earthscan.
  1. Arrighi, G. (2007). Adam Smith In Beijing, Verso.
  1. Giovanni Arrighi’s discussion (reference 11) of Adam Smith’s views on Europe’s ‘unnatural development path’ is interesting in this context.

Thinking like a molehill

“Thinking like a mountain” is such a resonant phrase that many people doubtless harbour their own notions about what it means without feeling the need to return to its source in Aldo Leopold’s eponymous essay1, or perhaps even knowing that Leopold is the source. But if you do go back to the essay what you get, in burnished literary prose, is mostly a rather persuasive argument not to mess around with ecosystems that you don’t fully understand. And in particular not to kill wolves if you don’t want to have problems with deer. You also get an argument that there’s something special about top predators: “Only the ineducable tyro can fail to sense the presence or absence of wolves, or the fact that mountains have a secret opinion about them”.

I agree with the first part of the sentence. In the admittedly brief periods I’ve spent in bear country, and in crocodile country, I’ve had an animal awareness of my surroundings – of what Leopold calls ‘the way shadows lie under the spruces’ – that I’ve never experienced in the bosom of human civilisation. Well…perhaps that’s not quite true, thinking of my occasional wanderings through dark urban alleys late at night. Still, I’m less sure about the mysticism investing Leopold’s notion of mountains and their secret opinion, what he calls the ‘mortal fear’ mountains have of the deer that, unchecked, will strip their sides of vegetation. In fact, I’m never very sure about mysticism, which is probably why I’ve been told that I’ll never understand permaculture by people who like to take their permaculture with a twist of the mystical.

Well, though I don’t know much about mystery, I do understand a few things about mountains, and also a few things about plants. So let me share some stories about both before coming back to Leopold’s famous phrase.

It’s been a pretty good growing season here in northeast Somerset – hot, dry weather for the most part, keeping the slugs at bay and affording the plants plenty of sugary sunshine. The only downside is that it’s been so dry we’ve had to irrigate a lot more than usual. Actually, there’s been another downside too, though I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it – productivity has been surprisingly poor, which is quite a problem in this of all years when we have to demonstrate to the powers that be that our business is a flourishing one.

The reason, we think, that productivity is down is because the irrigation has attracted worms, and the worms have attracted moles, who have tunnelled a veritable city subway beneath our vegetable beds. In previous years, moles have never been more than a minor irritant – in fact probably beneficial on balance thanks to their subsoiling activities. So we were slow to realise that this year they’re a problem. And when we did, we had to learn about the way they tunnel and feed so that we could place our traps effectively – resulting in two dead moles so far (incidentally, when I say ‘we’ here I must acknowledge the primacy of Mrs Spudman in nailing this particular issue).

We learned, in other words, to think like a molehill. Actually, no: much as I like the parallel with Leopold, and the implicit measurement of his achievement against ours, the fact is that molehills don’t think. Moles do. We learned to think like a mole.

I suspect one reason we were slow to figure this problem out is the way that thinking like Leopold’s invests our own thought. Traditionally, farmers have often been too quick to ascribe their loss to ‘vermin’ and to reach for the gun, the trap or the poison. Many of the organisms they wish to exterminate, like the mole, bring some benefits. So we’ve generally tried to avoid this ideology of the varmint, and refrain from too much extermination. But part of life’s art is surely adapting to present circumstances, figuring things out and knowing when to switch strategy. By which I mean to say that, if mountains have wise opinions, they’re surely contextual ones. It may not always be a good idea to pronounce something a pest and seek to kill it. But sometimes it is. Of course, part of the problem is that we’re under artificial external pressure to prove our productivity. Then again, most farmers historically have been under considerable and far from artificial pressure to secure theirs too in order, so to speak, to keep the wolf from the door.

I don’t want to recover old tracks in debating the ‘balance of nature’. Whether ‘nature’ is in balance or not in some larger sense, it’s never in balance during any given day or any given season on the farm. I still think the instincts of the organic farming movement, perhaps under the influence of figures like Leopold, are basically sound in promoting the idea of natural balance and seeing pest problems as potential indicators of system malfunction – being ‘plant positive’ and not ‘pest negative’ in Eliot Coleman’s terms. But only when it articulates them as rules of thumb, not as laws of nature. And not when some self-styled organic expert tells you your pest problems prove that you’re not farming properly: in my opinion, such people either have big egos, little experience, or a lot of luck.

This is where Leopold’s mysticism troubles me. I’m all in favour of leaving well alone in the wilderness and not imagining that humans can manage it better. But on a farm you can’t leave well alone. Sometimes you can live with the pests. And sometimes you can’t. It helps if you learn to think like them. But if you do, I suspect it might overturn some fond notions forged in the safe, abstract abundance of modern life where it’s easy to let the shadows lie any which way under the spruces without realising the self-indulgence involved. If worms could vocalise their sentiments, would they claim to favour ‘worm positive’ over ‘mole negative’ policies, or worship at the altar of natural balance in the face of velvet-muzzled death? I don’t think so. If we, to use another of Leopold’s famous dictums, are indeed ‘plain members and citizens of the biotic community’, then sometimes perhaps we need to act like one by fighting our corner.

I’ve just come back from a trip to Snowdonia, that eroded stub of a mountain chain first formed some 480 million years ago. Now that is a long, long time. When those mountains were young, terrestrial life was not yet established and the age of dinosaurs was much further into the future than it now stands to our past. Nowadays, the wolves are long gone from Snowdonia’s mountains, which are stripped of their vegetation by sheep and hikers. But the succession from wolf to sheep and hiker is less than the blink of an eye in the mountains’ existence. Do they have a secret opinion about the sheep, or the hikers? No, I can’t make that leap. Mountains don’t think, and even if they did, they wouldn’t care. Humans need to care – but that is our problem, not the mountains’. So what I take Leopold to be saying is no more than this: our immediate concerns are part of a larger story unfurling across place and time, a larger story that we ignore at our peril. True enough, but we’re imperilled too if we don’t attend to the immediate story unfurling at our feet on the farm. We need to think like a mountain. We also need to think like a mole.


  1. Leopold, A. (1949) A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here And There, Oxford University Press.

Telling new stories: from eco-modernism to eco-populism

My last two posts have pretty much brought me to the end of two themes that have loomed large in my recent writing: a political critique of ‘eco-modernism’ and an ecological critique of perennial grain breeding programmes. Time perhaps for a few brief reflections on where that work has taken me, and where to go next.

One thing to notice is that both themes involve critique rather than construction. Perhaps it’s easier to knock down someone else’s narrative than to build a convincing one of your own. So now I want to spend more time building an alternative narrative, which I would summarise as follows: we can best secure equitable and sustainable human livelihoods in the future by building local food economies inspired by (though not slavishly mimetic of) the traditional, small-scale, mixed, labour-intensive, energy-light, peasant farming systems involving appropriate mixtures of locally-adapted annual and perennial herbaceous and woody crops with livestock that have long been practiced in most parts of the world.

I’ll try to expand on that summary in forthcoming posts. Here I’ll just offer a few linking threads from the aforementioned critiques I’ve recently written to the alternative narrative I want to provide.

I previously coined the term ‘eco-panglossianism’ to characterize the ‘ecomodernists’, because the refrain of Dr Pangloss from Voltaire’s Candide “all for the best in this best of all possible worlds” pretty much seems to encapsulate their philosophy. Graham Strouts has castigated me for the sneering tone of the term, and though to be accused of sneering by Graham, one of the more abrasive members of the eco-panglossian tribe, is a case of the pot calling the kettle black, I suppose he’s right that it is a bit sneery, however apt it may be. The trouble is, until now I’ve not come across another suitable term – certainly not ‘eco-pragmatist’ or ‘eco-realist’, concepts that I don’t believe the eco-panglossians can justly appropriate for their own private use. Happily, the problem is now solved – ‘eco-modernist’ I can live with. For, as I argue in my Dark Mountain piece, the eco-modernists share a lot with the literary modernists who were strutting their stuff more than a century ago – a conception of present times as radically different from all that has gone before; an enthusiasm for cities in general, slums in particular, and a preference for trumpeting fancy new technologies rather than engaging in sober economic analysis; a narcissistic sense of breaking the mould and heralding a new dawn, which then becomes a conservative orthodoxy of its own. The ‘eco-modernists’ seem blissfully unaware of what ‘modernism’ means in the arts and social sciences. In those spheres, modernism is long dead, as indeed is postmodernism. They could learn a lot if they pondered the birth, life, and death of modernism as an intellectual movement. Meanwhile, yes, I’m happy to go with ‘ecomodernism’, so long as it’s OK for me to use the scare quotes without courting the accusation of a residual sneeriness?

Both the ‘ecomodernists’ and the perennial grain breeders (the latter with their promise to ‘end 10,000 years of conflict between humanity and nature’) have something of a weakness for magic bullet technologies that are supposedly going to end our troubles. I’m sceptical. That doesn’t mean I’m anti-technological, but I do dislike the kind of modernist political discourse that’s built up around science and technology in recent times, which tends to substitute an almost millenarian belief in future scientific breakthroughs to solve human problems for political and economic analysis. Perhaps this explains Tom Merchant’s angry resignation from my blog – to him, I think, it’s so obvious that humanity’s techne has already secured a future supply of almost limitless clean energy and health benefits just waiting to be rolled out to the masses, that any argument to the contrary can be dismissed as pessimistic or indeed disingenuous. But for me, the relationship between science, technology and economic ‘development’ in human history is pretty complex – there isn’t a simple historical identity between science and progress. Moreover, as I believe I showed in my Dark Mountain piece, and in previous analyses on this blog, globally we’ve become ever more reliant on fossil fuels and have scarcely even begun to chart serious alternative energy paths. If the political discourse around, say, nuclear power was along the lines of “we’ve got a painful energy transition ahead of us and some tricky issues to solve around agricultural sustainability and biodiversity, and for that reason we may need to start investing more heavily in nuclear power” I think I’d find it easier to go along with it. Instead, as in the Ecomodernist Manifesto, nuclear power is proffered as some kind of trump card, a divine providence, a ticket to a ‘great Anthropocene’. Job done. And these self-styled ‘rationalists’ want folks to believe that they’ve shed religious affectations about a heavenly afterlife?

Well, I guess I’m a bit of a modernist at heart too. Probably like the majority of people in present times – and unlike many who lived in the past – I believe in social progress, in the possibility and indeed the desirability of changing the way we organise things so as to make life better for us and our descendants in the future. Perhaps ironically, though, I think we’ll make more progress in achieving progress if we abandon the idea of progress. In other words, rather than committing ourselves to the relentless and ultimately rather abstract ratcheting implied by our metrics of growth, development, material wellbeing and so on, I believe we’d be better off asking what it is that we fundamentally want to achieve as individuals and societies. Of course, there’s no single answer, but when we do that honestly, many of the arguments about the ‘backwardness’ of peasant farming and the like start to fall away.

The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Too often, I’ve found myself drawn to debate the ‘efficiency’ of peasant agriculture vis-à-vis modern industrial agriculture. It’s a debate worth having, and an outcome in favour of industrial agriculture is by no means guaranteed, but the framing of the question is wrong. Ultimately, the case for peasant agriculture isn’t decided by policymakers in lofty halls of governmental power on the basis of its relative efficiency. One reason (though only one) why there are still millions, indeed billions, of peasants in the world today is because it’s a life worth living, and people have fought hard to defend it. It’s not an easy life, to be sure, but a good deal of its hardship stems from its susceptibility to the predations of other people living off the back of it, including the coffee-quaffing proponents of global commodity markets. The ‘ecomodernist’ line boils down to the argument that people shouldn’t be peasants because they’re easily exploited. It’s akin to the argument that women shouldn’t go out alone at night because they’re easily raped. In both cases, the onus of responsibility is shifted from perpetrator to victim: if peasants are easily exploited, then why not seek to overcome the exploitation rather than cheerleading their defeat?

A familiar ecomodernist response is that only by moving into wage labour in a capitalist economy based on high levels of energy use is it possible for the rural poor to lift themselves out of poverty. That’s certainly been the main anti-poverty strategy in recent times but it hasn’t worked, or at least it’s worked only for a lucky few in certain favoured circumstances. In the main, rural peasant poverty has merely given way to urban waged (or unwaged) poverty, while fossil energy use has spiralled upwards imperilling rich and poor alike (OK, poor more than rich, to be honest).

We need a different approach. And therefore, I’d argue, we need some new stories about why a recharged peasant agriculture makes sense as a response to the problems of our times. Those stories need to be specific, because ultimately there’s no such thing as ‘the peasantry’ – there are only rural, small-scale farmers, who are usually engaged in various kinds of struggle with bigger economic actors in order to realise their goals. But some have been more successful in those struggles than others, and there are certain common patterns in the kind of struggles they fight, so there’s room for generalization too. Brian Miller wrote a nice blog post recently about the peasantry in his neck of the woods, in the southeastern USA, which emphasized both what these American agrarians were for and what they were contending against. Quite a lot of my writing on this blog has been about what I’m against and this, I think, is a necessary part of the story. But I’d also like to start placing a bit more emphasis on what peasant agricultures can be for, and thence what a globally recharged peasant agriculture might look like. That involves drawing on the legacy of leftwing agrarian populism – an interesting project, I think, in these times of leftwing retreat and dangerous populist demagogues. It also involves refusing to be pigeonholed as romantic, elitist or ignorant about the plight of the poor. Eden, remember, is a myth that belongs more to the modernists than it does to the anti-modernists or the non-modernists.

I’ve often broached the issue of agrarian populism on this blog, but rarely confronted it directly. So maybe the time is now. Or at least soon. An important part of peasant life, which intellectuals and politicos can easily forget, is farming as an actual (and quite difficult) practice. So I’m planning a couple of more practical posts before swinging back towards the general themes of populism, property and the future of civilization as we know it. I’m also planning to complete the Welsh 3000s with Spudboy in the coming week for the second and, I hope, final time in my life, while also starting work on a major writing project, so please forgive me if the blog posts get a bit less frequent for a while.

Dark thoughts on ecomodernism

Last week it was perennial grain breeders, this week it’s ecomodernists: yes, your humble blog editor has another paper out taking aim at a favoured target. Gosh, am I really that disputatious? Well, there’s some as would say so. But more of that in a future post.

For now, let me merely offer a brief introduction to my paper ‘Dark thoughts on ecomodernism’, which is published today on the Dark Mountain website: a slightly lengthier version is reproduced below.

Long-term readers of this blog will know that for some time I’ve been conducting a low-level guerrilla war (albeit only of words) against the self-styled ‘eco-pragmatists’, ‘eco-realists’ or ‘eco-modernists’ – writers like Stewart Brand, Mark Lynas, Erle Ellis, and their acolytes. I’ve called them ‘eco-panglossians’ because I can think of no better figure than Dr Pangloss to encapsulate their doctrines. ‘Eco-modernist’ thinking is a many-headed monster, which pops up in the unlikeliest of places – so every time that I, and others more feted and gifted than me, chop at one of its manifestations, others immediately sprout forth. Happily, some of the doctrine’s leading lights have now written The Ecomodernist Manifesto which assembles all the key tenets of the creed in a single place, providing a handy one-stop shop for we critics of its nefarious greenwash. I’ve kept promising to write no more critical screeds on this site about the topic, alas with little success. But now that the folks at Dark Mountain have allowed me to get it all off my chest with a long-form essay, I’m hopeful of putting this particular theme in my recent writing to some rest, if not entirely to sleep.

Hold your horses, though. I still reserve the right in my next post to make a few further comments on my battles with the eco-panglossian beast, and where I plan to go with it in the future. Meanwhile, I offer you the following dark thoughts on ecomodernism:


*  *  *  *

Dark Thoughts On Ecomodernism

Chris Smaje


It’s been a year for manifestos. With the dust only recently settled on the British General Election, much has been heard about the different (though not that different) ‘narratives’ offered by the major political parties in their manifesto commitments. Meanwhile, a cabal of environmentalist thinkers and activists were busy putting together a manifesto of their own in the form of the Ecomodernist Manifesto (henceforth, EM), which was published in April1.


Unlike some of those election manifestos, the EM is a model of clarity. It has a goal to be reached, a process for reaching it, a problem that must be solved along the way, and a solution to the problem. The goal is “vastly improved material well-being, public health, resource productivity, economic integration, shared infrastructure, and personal freedom” (p.28). The process is modernization. The problem is leaving “room for nature”. And the solution is decoupling: decoupling human consumption from the drawdown of natural resources, and decoupling humans themselves from the world of nature and from their dependence upon it.


Dark Mountain has a manifesto of its own, of course. It could hardly be more different from the EM. I assume that people reading this blog have an idea of its contents, so I won’t dwell on it here. Nor will I pretend to be neutral in my estimation of these two manifestos’ respective merits. But like any ornery voter, I don’t willingly surrender myself to other people’s manifestos of whatever kind. When it comes to manifesto ‘narratives’, I want to find the stories that lie beneath the words, and compare them with my own. So here I’m going looking for the stories of ecomodernism in Dark Mountain’s light – and if that sounds oxymoronic, so be it. Perhaps there are some truths that only reveal themselves in another’s shadow.


Material wellbeing


Looking at the list of ecomodernist goals the key one is surely ‘vastly improved material well-being’ because things like public health are implied by it, while things like economic integration are a (debatable) means for achieving it. But the question arises, ‘vastly improved’ compared with what? The EM seems to have two answers. One is vastly improved with respect to people who lived in the past. The other is vastly improved for poor people living in the present.


On the first point, the EM states that humanity has flourished in the past two centuries, citing various pieces of supportive evidence: life expectancy increasing from 40 to 70 years, reductions in infectious diseases, a decline in violence and the rise of liberal democracy. Most of these claims are debatable. Two hundred years ago the global human population was around a billion; today, it’s seven billion and counting, but a billion are clinically undernourished – as many as existed two hundred years previously. Is that flourishing?


Well, maybe. I don’t see much merit in arguing the counter-thesis that the human condition has worsened in that time, but there are issues of emphasis and interpretation. Indeed, the EM is peppered with tendentious statistics and factoids that prompt an exasperated ‘yes, but…’. Take life expectancy. In England in 1841 (when records began) it was indeed around 40. But that was because of stunningly high infant mortality, which an urbanising country was only beginning to control in the cities. The modal age of death for females over ten in 1841 was 77, and it wasn’t until 2001 that ten more years were added to that figure, giving a more sober sense of the pace of change2. The upward trend came mostly through rather basic public health improvements such as adequate diets and clean water3, which don’t in themselves suggest any particular need for us to embrace complex ‘nature-distancing’ technologies today. Good diets, clean water: such fundamentals of human flourishing have often been the birthright of ‘non-modern’ peoples both past and present as well as modern ones.


Let me pursue the EM’s two century timeframe a little further. In England in 1815, parliamentary enclosures were putting the finishing touches to a process of land divestment that had turned rural peasants into urban proletarians over the previous fifty years4. Waterloo brought a shuddering end to one particular ‘modernising’ project that very year. The Peterloo massacre was four years in the future, the Reform Act seventeen. Slavery in the British Caribbean only had another twenty-three years to run, but plantation agriculture with coerced labour was gearing up in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and British depredations in India had barely started. “Modernization,” states the EM “has liberated ever more people from lives of poverty and hard agricultural labor, women from chattel status, children and ethnic minorities from oppression, and societies from capricious and arbitrary governance” (pp.28-9). Maybe so, but it has also delivered ever more people into them, both in the past and still today, often through colonial and neo-colonial projects of extraordinary violence which have always been part of the modernization package. So if today we can celebrate the improvements wrought over the last two centuries, what we’re ultimately celebrating is the ability of modernization to solve some of its own internal contradictions, usually through the struggles of those who’ve suffered at its hands, and usually without thought to the longer term environmental consequences. To compare 1815 with 2015 is in many ways to compare a low point with a high point in a longer, messier modernization cycle.


So much for poverty in the past. What of it today, for those people or those countries living in straitened circumstances in the midst of modernist plenty? A word you won’t find in the EM is inequality. There are glancing references to poverty, poor people and poor nations. But in the ecomodernist vision poverty is equated with a lack of modernization. There is no sense that processes of modernization cause any poverty. So there is no mention here of the vast literatures on the changing and varied economic fortunes of the many civilizations that have come and gone, or the changing and varied ideas they’ve had about themselves. There’s nothing on uneven development, historical cores and peripheries, proletarianization, colonial land appropriation and the implications of all this for social equality. The ecomodernist solution to poverty is simply more modernization. And you then begin to understand why the improvement in material wellbeing needs to be ‘vast’. Every year, for example, US citizens each eat 100kg of meat on average, whereas the rest of the world makes do with 31kg5. Since ecomodernism lacks any critique of consumption, instead choosing to equate increased consumption with increased wellbeing, its only feasible solution to this maldistribution of meat must be to raise up global meat consumption generally. If global levels equated with US levels, we would need to conjure something like another half billion tonnes of meat from global agriculture annually, and that probably would require the impressive breakthroughs in technology and resource use efficiency that the ecomodernists crave.


An obvious question is whether increasing meat consumption from 31kg to 100kg, or likewise increasing the consumption of anything much else, really does equate with ‘vastly improved material wellbeing’, still less with wellbeing writ large. A humbler ecomodernism might acknowledge that other people construe wellbeing and humanity’s place in the world differently, and consider how its programme might interact with theirs.




But the EM doesn’t do this. Instead, it insists there is no alternative. Once the historic brakes are off, it claims, modernization is intrinsic to human nature. And the ecomodernists want to release the brakes. This, they say, is no matter of narrow ideology: “Too often, modernization is conflated, both by its defenders and critics, with capitalism, corporate power and laissez-faire economic policies. We reject such reductions” (EM, p.28). At first this move seems generous, but its effect is to make modernization something universal and ineluctable, a process to which all right-thinking humans are committed, apart perhaps from a few straggling hunter-gatherers, peasants, backward agrarians and their latter-day champions, for “modernization is not possible in a subsistence agrarian economy” (p.13)


Now, there really is no such thing as a ‘subsistence economy’ – or if there is, then every economy is a subsistence economy inasmuch as it produces what those in control of it deem necessary for human subsistence. The anthropology of those so-called ‘primitive’ societies that we like to call ‘subsistence economies’ documents the elaborate measures they take to prevent the multiplication of material ‘needs’ and the emergence of inequality. Pierre Clastres, for example, has written, “when the Indians discovered the productive superiority of the white men’s axes, they wanted them not in order to produce more in the same amount of time, but to produce as much in a period of time ten times shorter”6.


Only in ‘modern’ societies does it strike people as obvious that the correct thing to do with superior technology is to produce more with it, and though not all modern societies have been capitalist ones capitalism has pushed this logic of modernization furthest. Its basic feature is the insecurity of both capitalist entrepreneurs and the populace at large before the impersonal dictates of the interest-bearing loan, forcing entrepreneurs into a ceaseless search to lower relative input costs and the populace into a wholesale reliance on monetized market exchange. In that process lies the fury of capitalist modernization to find new markets, new human relationships to monetize, new ways of improving efficiency and extracting value. And the result of that process is the ‘modern’ world that the ecomodernists describe – with its incredible material wealth for the few and its misery for the many (the true ‘subsistence agrarian economies’ are the ones that have been made such by losing out in the battles of modernization), its prodigious energy use, its constantly revolutionising technology, its relative resource efficiency and its absolute resource drawdown, its profound disruptions of the human and non-human environments.


The EM devotes considerable space to arguing that preindustrial peoples were worse environmentalists than we moderns – for example pointing to the relative inefficiency of foraging over farming, and raising the issue of the North American megafauna extinctions arguably associated with Paleoindian hunting. As a matter of historical accuracy, it seems hard to sustain the view that the environmental impact of the North American Paleoindians was any match to that of North Americans today. But the larger question is why the ecomodernists should feel the need to scorn the doings of peoples who preceded them by over 10,000 years. What exactly is their beef?


Perhaps one answer is that the ecomodernist worldview depends upon a universalizing narrative of smooth and pristine forward progress: ‘smooth forward progress’ in the sense that the human story it wishes to tell is one of almost uniform ascent towards greater wellbeing and greater control of nature; ‘pristine’ in the sense that the process involves no major contradictions. If the Paleoindians were indeed responsible for the megafauna extinctions, perhaps this makes them modernizers too, but not necessarily worse ones than us. Some authorities have argued that in fact the Paleoindians were able to overhunt the megafauna because they already possessed an agricultural toolkit and so were not completely reliant on bushmeat as a resource7. Indeed, the distancing of humanity from the ecologies surrounding it through technologies such as agriculture is a key motif in the EM: “Human technologies, from those that first enabled agriculture to replace hunting and gathering, to those that drive today’s globalized economy, have made humans less reliant upon the many ecosystems that once provided their only sustenance, even as those same ecosystems have often been left deeply damaged” (p.9).


Here, ecomodernism wants to emphasize humanity’s dwindling historical reliance on nature, and de-emphasize the ‘deep damage’ by construing it as a problem fixable through yet more technological distancing – a process that has aptly been called ‘hair of the dog environmentalism’8. The fact that, ironically, the Paleoindians may already have been embarked on this path and could perhaps be described as among the first of the ‘modernizers’ only really fans the flames of the ecomodernist argument in pushing the couplet of modernization and ecocide way back into prehistory.


I agree that we cannot go ‘back’ to premodern lifeways in any straightforward way. I accept the dangers of primitivism: we achieve little by simply reversing the modernist narrative of progress towards future perfection with a primitivist narrative of degeneration from a perfection in the past. But I also reject the metaphorical topography of going ‘back’ or moving ‘forwards’. All these dualities of progress-regress, Eden-Fall, heaven-hell etc. are products of civilization itself and its doctrines of modernization. From ancient Mesopotamia to modern China the evidence is clear: development implies underdevelopment, material wealth implies material poverty, freedom implies slavery and so on. These couplets are not two ends of a historical process, with modernization ringing the death knell for the misery of the past, but contradictions within the modernization process itself. Often, the negative term is merely placed beyond sight of modernization’s victors. Thus, the EM notes the reforesting of New England but fails to note the deforesting of New Guinea, or any possible connection between the two. It claims that reforestation is a resilient feature of development, without noting that global net reforestation rates are negative. And it implicitly assumes that ‘development’ is some unassailable historical achievement that can never be undone, rather than a temporary flux in longer-term political relationships that are always subject to renegotiations of the kind we’re currently seeing in the gradual transfer of America’s economic assets to China.


Human actions always have consequences in the wider world, but we have choices over how we respond to them. The ecomodernists replace choice with an unyielding historical progression: their worldview demands that there can have been no past times in which people might have lived as well or better in their own terms than we live today. For its part, the Dark Mountain manifesto describes progress as a myth. I largely agree. Here is the anxiety in the ecomodernist argument that has them gunning after long-dead Indians: once you abandon the notion of a smooth upward progress undergirded by technology, once you abandon the common or garden ethnocentrism that our own times and our own people sit at the apex of human achievement, then it’s possible to look at other peoples and ask open-mindedly whether there is anything we can learn from them, not so that we can live just like them, but so we can live better in our own terms.


The whole thrust of the EM is to answer ‘no’ to that question, but it becomes ensnared in contradiction. It states: “The parts of the planet that people have not yet profoundly transformed have mostly been spared because they have not yet found an economic use for them – mountains, deserts, boreal forests, and other “marginal” lands” (p.19). And yet these places have long been occupied by hunter-gatherers, herders, ‘primitive’ agrarians, the uncivilized, the ‘marginal’ and supposedly inefficient non-moderns whose ‘economic use’ of them stretches way back. I think the answer is ‘yes’. I think we can learn much from the uncivilized about equality, equanimity, self-reliance, the illusory nature of material acquisitiveness and what we, but not they, might call ‘natural resource management’. So much of the discourse of the modern world religions and so much of the angst in contemporary civilised society chafes on those very points, because we know that modernizing civilization hasn’t got them right.


In that sense, the EM reads like a religious tract. Despite all the trappings of science and policy analysis, it’s really an attempt to keep the barbarians from the gate and to insist that, while few now believe in the perfectibility of humanity in heaven as a sacred process, we can still believe in the perfectibility of humanity on earth as a historical process. We can, in the words of the EM, have a “great Anthropocene”. Well, maybe – but I don’t believe in perfectibility, sacred or profane. So I’m standing uncertainly at the gate, ready at least to give the barbarians a hearing.


The EM also reads like a literary tract. Curiously, despite adopting the moniker of modernism for themselves, the ecomodernists don’t identify with modernism as an aesthetic movement – and yet their programme meshes perfectly with that of the literary modernists. Like Baudelaire wandering through the less salubrious streets of nineteenth-century Paris, the ecomodernists want to invent a new language that scorns romanticism and the naturalistic, and embraces the city in general and the slum in particular as the engine of a new world order involving a self-conscious rupture with everything that has gone before. I won’t dwell on all the connections, or on the career and aftermath of modernism: from Baudelaire to Eliot to Iain Sinclair, from Marx to Stalin to Lyotard’s ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’9, from Le Corbusier to Ronan Point to the mock Tudor semi, from the Factory Acts to Henry Ford to Mark Zuckerberg. But as self-avowed ‘modernists’ the eco-modernists might do well to ponder the long career and drawn out death of modernism in the arts and policy sciences. Certainly, modernism was an important moment in its time. But now it’s over. The moment for eco-modernism is over too.




Inasmuch as modern civilisation’s drawdown of non-renewable natural resources is a problem (for the ecomodernists it’s essentially civilisation’s only problem; I’d offer a wider indictment), it makes sense to seek technical innovations that make more sparing use of resource inputs for a given output. This is called relative decoupling. But relative decoupling is only useful if it enables societies to use less total resources or emit less total pollution, in other words to achieve absolute decoupling.


Clastres’ story of the Indians, the white men and the axe comes to mind here, for though we’re achieving relative decoupling on some measures, we’re not achieving absolute decoupling. In 2012, CO2 emissions from coal and natural gas were more than double their levels in 1980, with petroleum emissions over 40% higher10 – and yet the EM claims that nations have been ‘slowly decarbonizing’ (p.20) . Nitrogen pollution is also rising, as the EM acknowledges, while adding the irrelevant qualification that “the amount used per unit of production has declined significantly in developed nations” (p.14). Another example is meat consumption, which the manifesto correctly states “has peaked in many wealthy nations” (p.14). But in 2012, the world produced about 238 million tonnes of meat, up a third from 179 million tonnes in 20005. And so it goes on. The EM consistently muddies the water between relative and absolute decoupling to create a rosier picture of global resource use than the data warrant.


It also consistently muddies the water between the certain, available technologies of today, and the uncertain, possible technologies of the future. “Human civilization can flourish for centuries and millennia on energy delivered from a closed uranium or thorium fuel cycle, or from hydrogen-deuterium fusion” it states (p.10), without acknowledging that there are scarcely any full-scale power plants currently in operation using these technologies. It follows this with an upbeat assessment of human prospects “given plentiful land and unlimited energy”. That raises the bar for disagreement pretty high, given those givens – but first I’d like more evidence about how ‘given’ they are. Despite excitable talk of unlimited nuclear energy, the truth is that currently only 31 of the world’s 200 countries have any nuclear energy capacity, and this furnishes less than 2% of global energy production. That figure may well go down. India, a leader in the push for a thorium-powered nuclear future, is also planning to treble its per capita coal use by 203011. This alone would make a mockery of the ecomodernists’ equation between development and decarbonisation. Present global energy scenarios remain almost wholly wedded to a fossil fuel future.


The other kind of decoupling the EM advocates is a physical decoupling of people from nature through urbanization, agricultural intensification and the restoration of wildlands, for in its words “Nature unused is nature spared” (p.19). As noted earlier, the Eden myth, the notion of a pristine and uncorrupted nature, has such a deep currency in our ‘modernizing’ culture that this sentence probably seems uncontroversial to many. But I find it strange and troubling. For uncivilised thought, its sentiments are unintelligible. ‘Nature’ is not something that goes ‘used’ or ‘unused’. And though humans can probably never escape entirely from a godlike differentiation of self from nature-other, our power lies not in ‘sparing’ nature but rather in moving purposefully within the realm of its power. Here the EM is caught in a morbid dialectic of capitalism, which first reduces everything in the world to a set of instrumental use values and then, abhorring what it’s done, tries to extricate a sacred wholeness from the consequences of its own ugliness. In contrast to the more anti-modern strands of radical environmentalism, ecomodernism is often characterized as an optimistic doctrine. But listen to the melancholy:


“We write this document out of deep love and emotional connection to the natural world. By appreciating, exploring, seeking to understand, and cultivating nature, many people get outside themselves. They connect with their deep evolutionary history. Even when people never experience these wild natures directly, they affirm their existence as important for their psychological and spiritual well-being. Humans will always materially depend on nature to some degree” (EM, p.25).


As a philosophical statement, there seems a grand absurdity in advocating rupture from something that you need to be a part of. I empathise with the sadness, but it’s a pity the ecomodernists try to overcome it with chest-thumping affirmations of human independence. They sound like the jilted lover, at once defiant: “I don’t need her anyway, I’m better than her”; then alone, and afraid: “she was everything to me, what will I do without her?” Eventually, the lover moves on. It’s less clear where a denatured humanity would move to. Here, again, the modernism of the ecomodernists already meets its end.


So, the ecomodernists seem to be saying, despite our human need for nature, we can’t be trusted to get along with it. We need a divorce, a division of the spoils: to us the city, and the minimum amount of farmland necessary to support it, to the rest of creation the wilderness where humans can go to look but not to live. I think this will prove self-defeating. Absent people from the production of their subsistence and install an economy of modernization which offers no philosophical challenge to the proliferation of material demands and you unleash the bedlam we see already: the ecological reach of wealthy cities is global. Beyond global – the demands of ‘developed’ urbanized countries exceed the planetary capacity to furnish them long-term. Maybe city wealth buys the ecological conscience to shop in farmer’s markets and subscribe to Greenpeace, but it buys a lot of other things as well – too many for the world to provide. And the notion that, properly managed, capitalist modernization will deliver fair wages, efficient production and ecological restoration for all is a utopian fantasy, just as it has always been. The ecomodernists’ programme will more likely terminate with an entrenched urban poverty that allows them, the elite, but not the newly enclosed urban masses, the luxury of ‘connecting emotionally’ with a cowed nature, or else perhaps just with metrogeddon.


The policy framework of ecomodernism is equally concerning. The EM in muted fashion, and other writings by some of its authors more forcefully, are in favour of urbanization and agricultural intensification, and against low-yield farming, people who depend on firewood for fuel, and the consumption of bushmeat. The targets here are obvious. Better to knock peasants, hunter-gatherers, commoners and other people not yet fully coopted by the capitalist dialectic off their perch and corral them into the slums of the growing global metropolis. “Let no one romanticise the slum conditions”, EM co-author Stewart Brand has written, before doing precisely that, “But the squatter cities are vibrant12.


It’s true that the fizz of urban economies draws in the rural poor – often temporarily, sometimes permanently. But it rarely delivers them out of poverty. And though it’s doubtless true that non-moderns can cause local environmental degradation, in the ecomodernists’ hands this small tail wags the large dog of the widespread degradation caused by wealthy, modernized citi-zens – and the tragic results of this kind of thinking reverberate around the nature parks and forests where indigenous peoples are cleared in the name of progress. Twenty-first century ecomodernism is an enclosure movement, much like the discourse of eighteenth century ‘agricultural improvement’: clear the commons, for the commoners are poor and indigent. Better they labour for others, where they will earn more and cause less trouble. As in the case of that earlier debate, there’s scope for much massaging of the evidence on both sides, but it’s by no means settled that modern, high-tech agriculture produces higher yields than small-scale farming; that the ‘intensive’ arable grain farming on which the urban world relies better promotes biodiversity or food security than small, mixed plots; that city slums provide good routes out of poverty for the rural poor; and that the nature-dependent rural poor exert a more baleful environmental influence than the nature-decoupled urban wealthy.


The same ‘improver’ arguments were used by John Locke in the 17th century to justify colonialism in words that, barring changes in literary convention and racial sensibility, wouldn’t be out of place in the EM:


“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?”13


Civilization and Uncivilization


That brings us back to the American Indians. Locke in his time and the ecomodernists in ours presumably considered the ‘modernization’ they underwent at the hands of European ‘improvement, tillage or husbandry’ beneficial. It’s not a view I can share. That’s not to say I’d endorse the Eden that other currents of civilized thought might wish to make of the uncivilized Indian, but I am drawn to Dark Mountain’s notion of ‘uncivilization’ – not so much as a social state to aspire to, but as an idea we might use to escape from false dualities in ‘civilized’ thought.


What lies beyond civilization? I’m not sure, and I’d need another essay to even begin outlining it. But, in brief, I think something more attuned to social contradiction and the need to keep certain human tendencies (acquisitiveness, hierarchy) in check. Something that values the quality of human relationships in their everyday particularity rather than their quantity in relation to abstract manifesto-style nostrums like development, freedom or productivity. Something that doesn’t reduce wellbeing to material wellbeing, and reduce the latter to questions of energy, objects and infrastructures. The EM’s narrative, like that of the major political parties, tells us that if we knuckle down we’ll soon be back on track. But, beyond civilization, the tracks are many, and it’s high time we explored off the beaten one.





  1. Asafu-Adjaye, J. et al (2015) An Ecomodernist Manifesto


  1. Figures from


  1. See, for example, McKeown, T. et al (1975). An interpretation of the decline of mortality in England and Wales during the twentieth century. Population Studies: A Journal of Demography, 29, 3: 391-422.


  1. Neeson, J. 1993. Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820, Cambridge.




  1. Clastres, P. (1989) Society Against The State, Zone Books, p.196.


  1. Tudge, C. (1998) Neanderthals, Bandits & Farmers: How Agriculture Really Began, Yale.


  1. Ophuls, W. 2011. Plato’s Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology, MIT Press.


  1. Lyotard, J. 1984. The Postmodern Condition. Manchester UP.




  1. Rose, D. 2015. ‘Captured by carbon’ The Guardian, 27.05.15, pp.29-31.


  1. Brand, S. (2010) Whole Earth Discipline, Atlantic Books, p.36.


  1. Locke, J. (1689) The Second Treatise of Government, 37.


The strong perennial vision: a response (again)

Time for a quick update on the issue of perennial grain crops, a recent focus of my writing, occasioned by a couple of spinoff articles I’ve recently published in The Land and Permaculture magazines, and also an interesting correspondence with Phil Grime, the plant ecologist whose work I drew on to inform my approach to the issue.

Just to provide the briefest of summaries, it would be unquestionably beneficial from an environmental point of view if our staple grain crops were perennial rather than annual in their growth habit, but yields of perennial grains currently are very much less than annual ones. That’s simply because people haven’t yet devoted enough effort to the artificial breeding of high yielding perennial varieties, according to the scientists at the Land Institute who have set themselves that task – amid considerable fanfare on their part and on the part of their admirers in the permaculture and alternative farming movements to the effect that their work will end the conflict between humanity and nature created by existing farming methods (in Land Institute founder Wes Jackson’s words, “For the first time in 10,000 years humans can now build an agriculture based on nature’s ecosystems”1). But I’m sceptical. There are, I think, strong ecological limits on plant habits which favour the couplets annual/high yield and perennial/low yield – a point I outlined in some detail in an article in the journal Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, based on Grime’s insights.

Land Institute scientists Timothy Crews and Lee DeHaan were having none of it. Grime’s analysis may hold good for wild plant ecologies, they said in a rejoinder to my article, but was of no relevance in situations of artificial breeding. They also painted my position to be that there are no major problems with annual-based agriculture, the issue really being just how to adapt European-style agriculture to local circumstances around the globe.

I hope that open-minded readers of my article will be able to see that these latter two characterizations of my analysis bear no relation to anything I actually said in it. Indeed, it seems to me that on the contrary it’s the perennial grain breeders in the semi-arid continental grasslands (such as Kansas, which the Land Institute calls home) who are messing about with European-style agriculture. As I show in my article in The Land, the people of the world are becoming increasingly reliant on grain harvests from these steppe regions at the expense of more locally adapted peasant agricultures. If it’s successful, the Land Institute programme may make steppe grain agriculture a little more sustainable, but in doing so it would further an essentially colonial, European-style agriculture which undermines local agricultures and is the very opposite of the process called for by Land Institute founder Wes Jackson in “becoming native to our places”.  My analysis, incidentally, is based on correlations over time in cross-sectional FAO data, which might make Andy McGuire blanche, if he’s reading this, hot as he is on the problem of spurious correlations. Ah well, such is the lot of the unfunded independent scholar, without access to elaborate data-gathering exercises.

Perennial grain crops seem to me to figure as something of a ‘magic bullet’ solution in the alternative farming world, rather akin to the discourse around GM in conventional farming. In both cases, their proponents think the technology will abolish the contradictions and difficulties of agriculture, as in Jackson’s ‘ending 10,000 years of conflict’ comment. Back in the real world, I think the contradictions of agriculture and of human life in general are ineluctable. Better we figure out how to live with them than dream of abolishing them, as I’ve argued elsewhere2. My article in Permaculture Magazine outlines the way I try to do so as best as I can (which, I fear, is not very well) in my own farming practice, given the poor yields of perennial crops, and the poor environmental performance of annual ones.

Thus, the inferences Crews and DeHaan make about my enthusiasm for annual cropping and European agriculture really are red herrings, as I’ve shown in my two recent articles, and at some length in posts on this site, such as here. Not so their point about artificial versus natural selection. If they’re right that Grime’s analysis is irrelevant to artificial breeding, then my scepticism about the possibility of a high-yielding and environmentally-conserving perennial grain crop is significantly and perhaps fatally undermined. I don’t think they are right, though, as I argued at some length here. It seems to me far too glib to exempt artificial breeding from any of the tradeoffs that obtain in the natural world by virtue of the human agency involved, particularly when that agency is directed at replicating natural systems (Jackson calls his approach ‘natural systems agriculture’). Still, I thought it was worth contacting Professor Grime to solicit his view. His reply is available here. It makes quite interesting reading, I think, for various reasons which go beyond my specific dispute with the Land Institute. I think I’ll let it speak for itself rather than presuming to summarize it here, but I take it to be broadly supportive of my position that breeding perennial grain crops with seed yields to match annual ones while preserving the desired perennial characteristics really is a long shot.

Various other people who are better grounded in this sort of thing than me, like Ford Denison and Clem Weidenbenner, have hinted in their responses that while broadly supportive of my arguments I may be slightly overdoing the strength of the tradeoff between perenniality and seed yield. Perhaps that’s so. Still, I feel reasonably happy that my analysis is sound in its main details. I’m also a bit disappointed that Crews and DeHaan were unwilling to make any concessions whatsoever to its plausibility. David Van Tassel, another Land Institute scientist, wrote a blog post asking for responses to help him identify his blind spots. Well, I think my article identifies quite a number of blind spots in the Land Institute’s general position. But there you go – I guess I’m old enough to know that disputing somebody’s position sometimes only entrenches it, and I daresay I’m guilty of that myself often enough. Ah well, I’m glad to have been able to look into the issues, answer them to my own satisfaction at least and to make my answer sufficiently plausible for it to pass muster in a respected academic journal. My interest was originally piqued by a one-sided paean to perennial crops on a permaculture website, which was to some extent informed by the Land Institute’s overblown “ending 10,000 years of conflict” trope. I’d like to think that the Land Institute might at least rein in on that kind of rhetoric a little so as not to over-stimulate the excitable imaginations of another generation of  permaculturists, but perhaps that’s too much to hope.


  1. Jackson, W. 2002. Natural systems agriculture. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment. 88: 111-7. But note that in their rejoinder to me, Crews and DeHaan of the Land Institute state that their programme involves developing ‘never seen in nature’ agroecosystem.
  1. Smaje, C. 2008. ‘Genesis and J. Baird Callicott: the land ethic revisited’ Journal for the Study of Nature, Religion and Culture,

Farm-free Fridays: or, pondering the Palaeolithic

So, no comments on my previous post – obviously my contention that medieval agriculture was more efficient than its modern counterpart was wholly uncontroversial. Let me up the ante in this post, then, and shout out for the pre-Neolithic diet as a healthier way of eating than most of what’s come after. This, by the way, is also my attempt to address Clem’s question about why I’ve claimed that a grain/legume diet is not especially healthy.

You can barely move these days for people following the Palaeo diet it’s so faddish, but I think the issues it raises are interesting. I’m not an expert on this, but that’s never stopped me before on this blog, so here’s a tentative appraisal of the issues.

The classic agricultural package developed in various centres of domestication around the world about 10,000 years ago involved a starchy cereal crop (or sometimes a starchy non-cereal crop), a legume and often domestic livestock, perhaps most importantly ruminants. This furnished people with the basic macronutrients they needed (energy, protein) and it furnished farmland with a potentially sustainable nutrient cycle involving crops, grass fallow, nitrogen fixation and manure. In some places (eg. China, New Guinea) crop domestication was more horticultural than agricultural, with a wider range of vegetable crops supplementing the grains, beans and meat. Either way, it’s hard to gainsay the success of the package in terms of productivity and human population growth – what we like to call ‘civilization’ depends upon it, and it seems unlikely we’ll be departing from its main features any time soon.

But it may be that it’s not so good for us. The argument, as I understand it, is that simple carbohydrates cause cardiovascular and immune system problems, and the seedy agricultural diet (grains, beans) causes us to ingest various anti-nutritional agents which the seeds have evolved, presumably as a defence against destructive ingestion by herbivorous animals. This causes illness: the gut-inflaming effect of proteins like gluten leading to long-term immune system problems, anti-nutritional substances in legumes like soy potentially leading to health problems of various sorts (the Weston Price Foundation has produced this indictment sheet against soy), glycaemic load from simple carbohydrates playing cardiovascular havoc and so on. The result, so the argument goes, is the chronic disease prevalence of modern times: heart disease, diabetes, arthritis etc. Pre-agricultural peoples didn’t generally eat such heavily seedy diets, and since there have been many more pre-agricultural generations than post-agricultural ones people are still not evolutionarily well adapted to the agricultural diet. Nevertheless, people have been experimenting with agriculture and its dietary effects for a long time, so perhaps it’s possible to qualify a purist emphasis on a ‘palaeolithic’ diet with the notion of an ‘ancestral’ diet: using the tricks of our farming forebears to lessen some of the negative health effects of our chosen seedy agricultural foods, for example with purely grass fed ruminants, or sourdough bread or fermented soy products.

Well now, what to make of all this? There are those who dismiss it as some kind of deep ecology impulse to return to Palaeolithic lifeways, and who are therefore inclined to point out that life in the Palaeolithic often wasn’t so healthy. That latter point is perhaps somewhat debatable, but is also irrelevant – the point is not to live like Palaeolithic people, but to eat like them inasmuch as that might be better for our health. I haven’t looked in detail at the research evidence. Certainly, there are some peer-reviewed biomedical papers that favour the palaeo diet hypothesis – like this one – but I’d be interested in any comments on the plausibility of the hypothesis from a nutritional point of view. Of course, there was no single palaeo diet –  some folks, like the people who lived at Wadi Halfa in the Nile Valley 15,000 years ago, ate a lot of starchy plants1. Other Palaeolithic people didn’t. I don’t know if archaeologists have been able to reconstruct patterns of morbidity and mortality associated with these various different palaeo diets – probably not in the case of the Wadi Halfa people because their favoured starchy fare was so sought after that many of them died young defending it – early evidence, perhaps, of the dangers attending humanity’s attraction to junk food. I can’t imagine that morbidity data on the basis of the archaeological evidence would be all that robust, which I suppose may weigh somewhat against the Palaeo diet hypothesis itself.

It may be that in fact there are stronger selection effects for the agricultural diet than might be supposed. As I understand it, rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease are pretty catastrophic among modern hunter-gatherers when they switch to contemporary agricultural diets: if a similar selection effect operated on our early farming forebears then perhaps we’re better fitted to our seedy diet than you’d expect purely on the basis of the timescales involved…though the fact that these are mainly chronic diseases of later (post-reproductive) life, and the fact that they’re highly prevalent today perhaps suggests otherwise.

In my writings on perennial grain cropping I drew on Phil Grime’s competitor-stress tolerator-ruderal ecological framework, and also on Wes Jackson’s idea of agriculture as a failing experiment to produce a large standing crop of humans. Put those two together, and you get the notion of agricultural civilization as a kind of human ruderal strategy in contradistinction to the competitor/stress tolerator strategy of hunter-gatherers: agricultural civilizations produce large numbers of low status, impoverished, poorly nourished and essentially expendable people, while reproducing their basic structures through knowledge transfer among elites. Nowadays we’re a bit more squeamish than civilizational elites of old about accepting the fact that agricultural societies produce a stratum of impoverished and expendable people – which perhaps is why people like Graham Strouts get angry when people like me argue that biotech developments like golden rice essentially just normalise extreme poverty, and why advocates of ‘free’ markets like to insist – despite all historical evidence to the contrary – that capitalism will liberate everybody. It’s curious, come to think of it, how the ‘ecomodernists’ advocate urbanization as a solution to rural poverty, and then deride anybody who suggests that poor urban dwellers ought to be able to afford anything other than rice, as per Mary Mangan’s diatribes against me or the denialist Mark Lynas rather silly ‘let them eat broccoli’ slogan. If the palaeo diet people are correct, then it’s surely ironic that you have to be quite rich in order to eat as healthily today as many of our ‘uncivilised’ forebears did.

I can’t see myself personally or humanity collectively taking to a strict palaeo diet in the near future. But it might be worth thinking about its implications and trying to move a little in that direction. Food policy commentators are pointing to the unsustainable tendency in rich countries for people to eat ‘feast food’ as everyday fare, and also to the unsustainable tendency in those same rich countries to import vegetables from countries where cheap labour is abundant (even if cheap water ultimately isn’t…) So why don’t we take just a few modest steps to move towards a more local and horticultural and a less agricultural (grains-grain legumes-meat) diet? As well as ‘meat-free Mondays’ we could have ‘farm-free Fridays’, in which we tried to source everything we ate for one day of the week from the (local) garden rather than the (global) field, producing veg intensive, carb-light meals (OK, as a small-scale market gardener, I know I’m biased here). And we could try to limit our meat consumption to special occasions when we’d be willing to pay for the true cost of livestock, raised – to use Simon Fairlie’s term2 – as ‘default livestock’ in larger mixed farming systems…which would probably mean sharing out the grass-fed ruminant meat and going easy on the soy-fed monogastrics. Building local solidarity through sharing meat at feasts – well now, there’s another time-tested Palaeo strategy we might do well to try…


  1. Flannery, K. & Marcus, J. 2012. The Creation of Inequality, Harvard, p.40.
  2. Fairlie, S. 2010. Meat: A Benign Extravagance, Permanent Publications.

Of agricultural efficiency: the Vallis Veg mowing trial

Well, I lied to you. I said I was going to write a concluding post on the theme of the commons. But then I realised that this topic is kind of connected to a larger set of issues I’ve been wanting to explore about efficiency, scale, agrarian structures and the like. ‘Kind of connected’ is a useful phrase I picked up from an undergraduate lecture by one of my professors, Paul Richards (author of the brilliant Indigenous Agricultural Revolution…I wish I’d realised then how lucky I was to be taught by him). Paul said that on bad days it felt like the only conclusion he could come to about the world was that everything was kind of connected to everything else in complex ways that he couldn’t quite understand. And ain’t that ever so.

So I’m going to hold off on the conclusion to my commoning theme for a while, and work up to it more slowly and obliquely. Mind you, since introducing a ‘Donate’ button to my blog I suppose I do have a paying public to think about now. Let’s have a look at the account balance, then. Oh. OK, I’ll write what I damn well please…

Now then, Clem commented a couple of posts back on the issue of economies of scale in agriculture, and Brian Miller wrote an interesting post about farm energy and haymaking not so long ago. So let’s bring those themes together. Are there economies of scale in grass-cutting? My friend, I bring you the results of the official Vallis Veg mowing trial.

So, one bright June morning I spent a minute cutting grass with each of the following five increasingly scaled up mowing technologies available to me on my holding:

  1. With my bare hands
  2. With a 25cm hand sickle
  3. With a 50cm scythe (ditch blade)
  4. With a petrol-engine strimmer
  5. With a 5ft pasture topper attached to a 45hp diesel tractor

Only a minute, you say? Well, I’m a busy guy – besides, how long do you fancy pulling out perennial pasture grass with your bare hands?

And here are the results:

Area mown

My scythe isn’t the biggest and it wasn’t at its keenest, nor am I the best scythesman. Then again my tractor/topper aren’t the biggest either. But really there’s no two ways about it, the middle ages (scythe) beats the bronze age (sickle) by a factor of more than 4, and the industrial age (tractor) beats the middle ages by a factor of over 17. Comparing the tractor to bare hands, we could say there’s a labour efficiency factor of at least x132 with modern technology over no technology.

But let’s look at the energy inputs involved. Here I’m assuming a person eats 2,500 calories = 10.5 MJ per day, so I impute a minute’s portion of that daily intake to the operator in each case. Then there’s the embodied energy in the tools and machinery. Doubtless how to figure this in could be debated endlessly, but for simplicity I’ve taken a (probably now dated) standard figure for the per kg energy used in steel manufacture multiplied by the weight of the kit and the fraction of its expected working life devoted to the minute of grass cutting. Finally, I’ve added in the energy contained in the fuel used on the assumption that petrol and diesel contain about 36 MJ/l. I’m neglecting a lot of the other upstream costs of producing machinery and fossil fuel which probably biases the analysis in favour of the powered machinery, but there you go. Like I say, I’m a busy guy.

Here are the results:

Energy used

No surprises that the quicker the method of cutting the more gross energy it uses. The assumptions underlying my energy analysis are on an accompanying spreadsheet available from my Research and publications page. Of course, these assumptions are questionable, but I doubt any plausible set of alternatives would change the overall picture much. I’d be interested to know how a big modern tractor with a more efficient diesel engine would compare with my Ford 3600. Possibly it’d do a better job. On the embodied energy front I doubt that these tractors will still be plying their trade on small farms in forty years’ time as many of the Ford 3600 generation of tractors are, but since fuel use is the major factor, well…I guess one of those beasts could probably cut ten times the area of my rig in the same time, though it’d still probably use more fuel. How about plugging in these assumptions: compared to my tractor setup a big modern rig weighs four times more, cuts ten times more, uses double the fuel, and has a working life of 15 years working 2 days a week.

At any rate, let’s now put the two measures from the previous graphs together in a ratio:

Ratio area-energy

So, when it comes to energetic efficiencies of scale, the accolade goes to…the Middle Ages! Proof at last of what I’ve long argued on this site – a bit of technology is a wonderful thing, but the trick is knowing when to stop. The modern tractor rig assumptions improve the output/input ratio from 21 (my tractor) to 99 – only a little less efficient than using bare hands (110), but still eight times less efficient than the scythe.

OK, now I’m not seriously arguing that modern agriculture should dispense with its tractors and other powered machinery and return to the scythe…though I’m probably prepared to take that argument more seriously than most. Still, I think analyses like this do call into question the terms of the debate about agricultural efficiency or economies of scale. Modern mechanised agriculture has been labour ‘saving’, essentially by turbocharging traditional agricultural practices with the use of non-renewable and polluting fossil fuels. But it’s not especially efficient.

Now, if I were a mainstream economist, I’d probably just look at labour and fuel inputs as (relatively) substitutable factors of production. With agricultural diesel at 50p per litre and the minimum wage at £6.50 per hour the choice of grass-cutting method is a no brainer. I suppose if you figured in a sufficiently high carbon price as an externality it might change the picture a bit, but hey who cares about carbon pricing? Certainly not the governments of the world.

The problem with looking at labour and fuel inputs as substitutable factors of production is that it erases the politics and the history behind that simple 50p/l vs £7.50/hr choice. There’s a political and historical backstory here.

For proponents of agricultural ‘modernization’, the backstory is one of technological improvements releasing a grateful peasantry from backbreaking drudgery on the land (aside: in writings on agriculture, use of the word ‘backbreaking’ is a surefire signal that the virtues of Monsanto or John Deere are about to be extolled). For its opponents, the backstory is one of the deliberate separation of the working class from their means of subsistence on the land so they could be redeployed as industrial wage slaves. In both cases I think the narrative somewhat overstates the coherence of the process, which really emerged long-term from people responding to the more immediate incentives of the 50p/l vs £7.50/hr kind without being overly concerned about what kind of society (whether benevolent or malign) they were ultimately creating – though as David Graeber argues in his excellent tome Debt: The First 5000 Years, such responses themselves emerge from longer-term culture histories concerning money and exchange.

In any case, the modern result of these trends has been the creation of a pretty dysfunctional agricultural economy whose dominant tendencies involve substituting jobs with diesel wherever possible, paying less for food than its costs of production, shoring up the deficit for the lucky few rich farmers with government subsidies, pricing rural land beyond the means of ordinary people and ordinary farmers, and concentrating people in urban areas, where many experience chronic unemployment or underemployment, while the consequences of carbon emissions, soil loss etc are left to future generations to sort out, if they can.

Now, I’m not proposing so simple a solution to this mess as arming the un(der)employed urban masses with scythes and telling them to go cut something down (interesting, if alarming, as that process might be). Or banning tractors. I don’t think there are any simple solutions. But one way to move towards some complex solutions to these complex problems is to start telling some different and, yes, more complex stories about agriculture and its history and economics. And perhaps one of these stories, as per my grass cutting experiment, is to point out that agriculture is not more efficient, but less efficient than it used to be, at least according to one significant measure of agricultural performance. Perhaps you could still say that it’s more labour efficient, but wrapped up in that concept are a whole set of issues about the social organisation of labour, energy futures and so on. We need to be debating those issues openly, rather than erasing them by recourse to spurious notions of efficiency or idle conjectures about the future availability of limitless clean energy. I’m aiming to make my own particular contribution to that debate in this ongoing cycle of posts…

The modern commons

My previous post addressed the ancient agricultural commons of preindustrial England. Here I’m going to look at some issues about contemporary commons, before wrapping up this little odyssey on the commoning theme in my next post.

Although many agricultural commons still exist among small-scale farmers globally, the hot commons issues nowadays aren’t about common land resources so much as intellectual property rights, copyright, digital commons and so forth. I can’t say that I’m much of an expert on all that, but since my main occupations are as a small-scale farmer and a small-scale writer I do have a passing interest in the issues.

I recently came across a debate from a few years back on Josef Davies-Coates United Diversity blog which splendidly traverses the terrain I wish to explore. Davies-Coates unilaterally published an electronic version of permaculture writer Toby Hemenway’s book Gaia’s Garden on his site, prompting Hemenway to request a takedown: “Why would you steal from your colleagues and teachers like this? It makes it very hard to write again if we aren’t supported,” Hemenway wrote, “Free is not sustainable”.

Cue an extensive, heated debate involving a cast of hundreds the like of which I’ve not witnessed since, er, Hemenway last posted his thoughts here on Small Farm Future. I can’t summarize all the arguments of Davies-Coates and his supporters, but I think the key ones are these:

  1. free online content will probably help boost hard copy sales – or, to put it another way, there’s money to be made from the internet if you know how
  2. “Commons-based peer production of free software and content” is more sustainable than copyright/private property rights based models, essentially because it’s a model of sharing and abundance, of ‘free culture’ for a ‘free society’, as opposed to the artificially-imposed scarcity involved in property rights based systems
  3. copyright infringement is not analogous to theft: the former is deprivation of potential earnings, whereas the latter is deprivation of property
  4. creators – including authors – ought to be fairly compensated for their efforts
  5. all creative work is derivative – or, in the words of one commenter, “Donkeys like Mr. Hemenway are just regurgitating stuff he has read or learned from others….Writing his book while standing on the combined experience of the entire human race, and calling it his property, is like me sitting in a boat and calling the ocean mine”

What to make of all this? Maybe a helpful starting point is a clear definition of what a commons or ‘commons-based peer production’ actually is, namely a resource (like a pasture, or, nowadays, perhaps a computer operating system) whose usage is not restricted to a single owner but is available to a specific wider community in accordance with a set of usage protocols enforceable by and upon that community.

Notice, then, what a commons is not: it is not a free for all, an open access regime where anybody can use the resource as they wish without reference to the community’s usage protocols, which invariably specify who can use the resource and how they can use it. Notice, too, how a traditional agricultural commons worked: it made the fruits of land available to (usually poor) people who did not own the land, but were then entitled to private gain from it (eg. by grazing a cow on common pasture and then selling its milk). And notice, finally, that some things are ‘common pool resources’ and not actual commons because the usage community and usage protocols are not clearly defined, and probably can’t be: these include the stock of human knowledge, biodiversity, the global atmosphere and indeed most things that people nowadays like to call the ‘global commons’, which is basically an oxymoron.

A lot of people today, myself included, feel that private property rights have gone too far in many spheres of life. We’re drawn to commons as an alternative model, and since we’re reacting against private individual rights we tend to emphasize the communal aspect of the commons, and not to notice the private property rights they involve. But these rights are critical: a common pasture is of no benefit to the commoner who cannot sell the milk from the cow she grazes on it.

OK, let me put this back into the context of the Hemenway – Davies-Coates debate. Certainly, creative work is derivative of our forebears, as is simply being alive. Does that mean that nobody is entitled to claim ownership of what they’ve produced? I don’t see the logic there (except in one specific sense I’ll come to). The stock of human knowledge is available to other people to make what they will of it, as Hemenway has done. If you think that what he’s made of it is worthless regurgitation then you’re at liberty not to buy it, but I don’t see how this entitles you to replicate his regurgitations as you wish. In that sense, copyright infringement is entirely analogous to theft. What, after all, makes a thing like my tractor my property and not yours? Not really any specific relation between me and the particular bits and pieces constituting my tractor, but – like copyright – a social relationship of convention between me and other people in my community acknowledging that those bits and pieces are for me, and not you, to use as I wish, principally in fact for making potential earnings (since, hobbying aside, why else would I want a tractor?) On that note, as a farmer I’m in exactly the same position as Hemenway the author. On land husbanded by my forebears, I sow seeds bred by my forebears, tend them with tools and techniques developed by my forebears, and then I sell the product of my labour to make money for myself.

I suspect that people find a farmer selling regurgitated human knowledge in the form of vegetables less objectionable than a writer selling regurgitated human knowledge in the form of books, though it’s not really clear to me why. But in fact as a farmer I encounter some of the same attitude: the land and its products should not be bought and sold for private gain. I’m sympathetic to that notion, provided that it’s applied equitably across society. On his website, Davies-Coates asked Hemenway if he honestly had no mp3s on his hard drive that he hadn’t paid for, but you could turn that line of questioning back on itself. Did Davies-Coates steal his computer, pay nothing to his internet service provider, electricity company and so forth? Generally I find that people who think I shouldn’t profit from my writing or my farming seem much less worried about the profits that accrue in other sectors of the economy.

More than in most of those other sectors, farmers and writers – productive, creative occupations both – find themselves too easily at the mercy of middlemen who profit excessively on the back of their creativity and narrow the range of what it’s possible for them to create. The internet has brought creative benefits in making it easier for people to upload and share what they want, but we delude ourselves if we think that it’s some kind of new creative commons. On the contrary, what’s happening is that those middlemen controlling the circulation of content (Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Apple etc) are making a mint, while those producing it are increasingly squeezed and expected to produce it for nothing – a point made nicely in Emilie Bickerton’s article ‘Culture after Google’ which you can read here absolutely free! For now at least. Anyway, I think Hemenway had it right: free is not sustainable.

Well, maybe free could be sustainable, but only in what some of the commenters on Davies-Coates’ post were calling a ‘gift economy’. So let’s be clear about what a gift economy means. This week you take my book and publish it on the internet, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. Next week I take your car, and there’s nothing you can do to stop that – though maybe I’ll give it back in a month, or a year. Do such economies exist? Yes, but they’re not usually ones in which people have books or cars to give away. They’re usually so-called ‘primitive’ societies in which almost everyone is engaged in the same basic subsistence activities – foraging or farming, making their own tools and their own shelter – and in which they have long-term, face-to-face relationships with their gift partners. One of the commenters on Davies-Coates blog – the one who called Hemenway a donkey, who turns out to be a fellow farmer – showed an awareness of this issue, writing “I’m not sure I want everyone growing their own food. Who would I sell to?”

Exactly so. A gift economy is one which enforces strong egalitarianism through weak development of material culture, and in which everyone pretty much takes care of themselves. I don’t think it’s such a bad economy for all that. I think there’s a lot to be learned from it. But it’s streets, absolutely streets, away from how people actually live nowadays in the UK or the USA.

In an impressively forgiving follow-up, Hemenway wrote,

“I just have a big piece of my life invested in the old system, and, like a conservative farmer, pulling it loose is a slow process that both legally and financially I can’t do overnight. We’re in an interesting time, where the old and the new are both working, neither one perfectly, often with conflict, and we’re not at resolution yet.”

Indeed we’re not at resolution yet. We do not inhabit anything remotely resembling a gift economy. Some of the commenters endorsing Davies-Coates’ line of argument even confessed to moonlighting for cash in the mainstream economy in order that they could produce their proper work for free. That’s not a gift economy, and it gives no high ground from which to criticise Hemenway. Actually, there are two contradictory strands in the anti-Hemenway line of argument, as per points (1) and (2) in my summary above. One is that if you upload a lot of stuff for free, then you’ll probably make more money in the long run. The other is that you should upload stuff for free, and you shouldn’t be trying to make money from it. If I were Hemenway, I’d have been much less conciliatory either way. On the first count, it’s his decision and not Davies-Coates’ as to how he chooses to market his work. And on the second, if you want to have a gift economy then fine – you upload my book, then I’ll come and have your computer. In any case, permaculture is supposed to be about whole system design, not piecemeal slagging of individual people for the way they make a living.

Nevertheless, I think there’s some truth in the notions of ‘abundance’ and ‘free culture’ on the Davies-Coates’ side of the argument, because the existing mainstream economy does create artificial scarcity, and it’s not so difficult for people to create abundant lives collectively. But it is quite difficult, especially if there are others who freeride on your efforts. ‘Abundance’ or ‘free culture’ too easily morph in our present market society mindset into getting something for nothing. The ancient commoners knew that culture is never really free, and that if their way of life was to persist in the face of those looking to exploit them and the landscapes they inhabited then they needed to define their community and its protocols of reciprocity with great care. It’s a lesson that the would be commoners of today need to learn too.

Can we learn it? I’m not sure. I’ll try to pull together some of the issues from this post and the last to address that question in my next post. Which I’ll be uploading on the internet for free. However, I’ve decided to add a ‘Donate’ button to this blog so that those who get something out of my writing can have the opportunity of giving something back, courtesy of the free WordPress plugin you’ll see installed on the sidebar of my site. Now there’s a gift economy for you.

Maybe I’ll check the balance before answering my question…