Voting with their feet: some questions for the experts

Jahi Chappell recently copied me into an interesting Twitter exchange with Erle Ellis of the Breakthrough Institute (and one of the signatories of the Ecomodernist Manifesto, which I’ve criticised in various posts1) about the global exit from small-scale farming. His tweet also elicited responses from Haroon Akram-Lodhi, professor of international development at Trent University and co-editor of the excellent Peasants and Globalization, and from Rachel Bezner Kerr, a development sociologist at Cornell.

Ellis wrote ‘Opportunities of smallholder agriculture are so limited- people moving to cities are voting with their feet’. Akram-Lodhi appeared to agree: ‘People leave smallholder farming because it does not offer a livelihood. If it did, fewer would’, while Bezner Kerr argued ‘Current policies support industrial large-scale farms so yes, many farmers give up, but can change!’, a point echoed by Jahi in his responses.

As an advocate of small-scale farming in both rich and poor countries to help address our multiple problems, I’m in Jahi’s camp on this one. But I’m under no illusions about what life is like generally for poor small-scale farmers around the world. It’s hard to disagree with Ellis that the opportunities for small-scale agriculture are limited, so if people are ‘voting with their feet’ it’s hardly surprising. Still, there are various aspects of the ‘voting with their feet’ narrative that I’d question. I’m not an expert in these matters, but since Jahi’s tweet referenced a number of people who most likely are, I’ve framed these doubts in terms of five questions to the experts. I sincerely hope somebody who knows about these things might take the trouble to reply – I’ll be very grateful if they do, because these are questions I’ve long wondered about.

Before the questions, a few facts and figures. As shown in the graph below derived from the World Bank’s world development indicators2, in 1966 only 36% of the world’s 3.4 billion people lived in urban areas, whereas in 2014 53% of the world’s 7.3 billion did so. So, as has been widely remarked, we’ve moved from a majority-rural to a majority-urban world, the crossover occurring in 2007-8. But as the graph also shows there are more people living in the countryside now than ever before. In fact, the current rural population of 3.4 billion is about as many people as lived in the whole world in 1966. Still, there’s no doubting the growing importance of the urban: there are 2.7 billion more people living in urban areas now than in 1966.

Urban-rural residence




Now to the questions…


Question 1: How many foot-voters are there?

So the urban population has grown by nearly 3 billion over the last 50 years. But how many of these people actually fall into Ellis’s category of ex-rural foot voters? To answer that, we’d firstly need to rule out everyone actually born in urban areas through natural increase who therefore had no vote to make, a number that I’d imagine has increased considerably over the past few decades. I think we’d probably also need to rule out people who have stayed put in a countryside that has urbanised around them – a significant development in China, I believe, where (along with India) the sheer number of people drives a lot of the global demographic statistics. These folks may love their newly urbanised countryside or they may loathe it, but either way I’m not sure we can simply say they’ve ‘voted with their feet’. Then there are people who’ve moved to urban areas through compulsion – forced out by dam projects, land grabs, nature reserves and the like. If they ‘voted’ then there was only one tick-box on their ballot paper. And there are a lot of people living temporarily in urban areas while retaining a footing in the countryside – either short-term, maybe seasonal, work in the city before heading home to the family farm, or long-term urban residence with a view to returning to farm when they’re older and richer. These people may be ‘voting with their feet’ in some respects, but not in others. They’re hedging their bets with complex, mixed strategies of economic activity. How do they figure in the urbanisation statistics, and how do we count their vote? Despite all of the above, there are doubtless still a lot of erstwhile small farmers around today who at some point in their lives have said ‘screw this’, quit farming, and moved permanently to the town. What I’d like to know is, how many?


Question 2: Where do the foot-voters go?

I’d also like to know where the foot-voters go. People often seem to think in terms of migration to mega-cities like Mumbai, Manila or Lima, but most people don’t live in these places. In fact, presently only 22% of the world’s population lives in cities of more than a million people2. As I understand it, the definition of ‘urban’ used in the urban/rural definition is a settlement of 10,000 people or more. So how many of the foot-voters are going to small towns near their former rural homes, and what are the implications of this for the kind of livelihoods they seek?


Question 3: How do the foot-voters fare?

Presumably the foot-voters must have a strong sense that a permanent move to the town will make them enduringly better off. After all, to completely abandon a footing on the land, however precarious, is to deny themselves a potential source of income. My feeling is that there’s a lot of bet-hedging and rural-urban to-and-froing going on that’s obscured in the ‘foot voting’ narrative. And I suspect that a good many of the full-on foot-voting farm-abandoners are relatively well off folk who’ve got something lined up for themselves in the town. But I’d be grateful if someone could confirm or disprove this line of thinking by pointing me to some good research evidence.

I’d also be grateful if someone could point me to some good evidence on social mobility in large city slums. It seems to be a heinous crime these days to romanticise rural or peasant lives, and yet we do it so insouciantly with regard to the urban. In his book Whole Earth Discipline, Stewart Brand writes “let no one romanticise what the slum conditions are…but the squatter cities are vibrant…everyone is working hard and everyone is moving up” which strikes me as about as romantic an appraisal of life in a slum as it’s possible to write. But are they ‘moving up’? Where’s the evidence? Brand provides none. You’d expect Gordon Conway – eminent hunger expert and author of One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed The World? – to do a better job of marshalling some decent evidence one way or another. But what he actually does in that book is recount the plot of a novel in order to make the claim that permanent rural-urban migration is a route out of poverty. I came across a study of rural-origin rickshaw-pullers in Dhaka that suggests otherwise3, and another one of Bangalore slum residents suggesting likewise4. But I’d like to gain a better sense of the evidence overall. The foot-voters presumably hope for greater income and maybe for upward social mobility. To what extent are their hopes realised?

I’d imagine some methodological difficulties present themselves in answering that question. It seems commonplace nowadays to define poverty in terms of metrics like ‘$1 per day’. But I’m not entirely sure how these metrics are constructed. I believe the majority of the ‘<$1 per day’ poor are rural residents, but if by ‘a dollar’ we mean hard cash in hand I suspect that urban residents may need more hard cash crossing their palms in order to maintain a given standard of living than their rural counterparts. Any comments?

I’d guess that many of the foot-voters judge their options more realistically than the rather Dick Whittington-esque, rags-to-riches implication of the foot-voting narrative. It’s not that they leave the farm because they think they’ll ‘move up’ in the city. It’s that they think they’ll be slightly less dirt-poor in the town than on the farm, which is probably true…


Question 4: Why do the foot-voters still exist?

Foot-voting creates an image of individuals making individual decisions, but surely there are wider systemic forces involved? Presumably, foot-voting occurs mostly when there is strong economic growth creating good urban employment opportunities, the urbanization and the foot-voting being consequences of the growth and not prime movers of it. And in places where there isn’t strong economic growth, well then… But maybe someone could point me to the evidence…

If I’m right, then the curious thing is that there’s been prodigious global economic growth for centuries and yet there are still millions of small farmers in the countryside, apparently ready to ‘vote with their feet’. Perhaps there’s a problem here with the ‘foot voting’ narrative in its voluntarism and finalism. Is it simply a matter of small farmers uniformly now deciding that they’d like to quit farming and move to the city, thus soon bringing down the final curtain on small-scale farming? Well, Aesop was writing about the town mouse and the country mouse over 2000 years ago and it seems we’re still playing out that narrative. Have small-scale farmers been “left behind by modernity”, to quote Erle Ellis’s Breakthrough Institute colleague Mike Shellenberger, so that they need to move to the city where they can catch a bit of modernity for themselves? The truth is, almost everywhere, rural labour has long been thoroughly organised by the dictates of the global economy. So I suspect that people in the countryside who feel ‘left behind’ and who want to ‘vote with their feet’ may find themselves working against the grain of an economic system that pretty much wants them where they are and may not do a very good job of accommodating them off the farm – unless times are good and, for now at any rate, it needs their labour in the city. I did a quick analysis of World Bank data for just eight (admittedly quite populous) countries5 and found that they had a total of nearly 400 million rural people living below the national poverty line. Do the world’s cities have enough room to accommodate people who might ‘vote with their feet’ in those kinds of numbers?

Perhaps. Maybe the foot-voters are also foot-soldiers in a global agrarian transition, which is going to see ‘developed’-country levels of agricultural employment (low) and ‘developed’-country levels of urbanisation and GDP per capita (high) spread worldwide? I somehow doubt it, but I’d be interested in other people’s views.


Question 5: What about the but(t)-voters?

Let me put it another way. Over the past two or three hundred years globally there’s been a succession of enclosures, clearances, land grabs, migrations, forced proletarianizations, green revolutions, structural adjustment programmes and goodness knows what else, all with the aim or the result of getting people out of small scale farming. And yet there are more people living in the countryside now than ever before and still million upon million of poor small-scale farmers. So what is to be done about all of these people who seem to be voting with their butts, or voting “but…”, or wanting to vote with their feet but lacking the opportunity to do so? The dominant idea seems to be another helping of the same medicine – more proletarianization, more land grabs, a ‘doubly green revolution’ and so on. An alternative might be to accept that the world’s economy is structurally incapable of absorbing the entire global population into the ranks of the prosperously waged, and to focus instead on making life just a little bit easier for those impoverished small-scale farmers that Mike Shellenberger says have been ‘left behind’. So my final question for the experts is what policy changes do you think could be made to even up the ballot paper a little and make life easier for the millions of people who remain small-scale farmers?

Erle Ellis is widely quoted as an enthusiast for the concept of the Anthropocene – emphasizing the geological scale upon which humans have altered planet Earth. If I understand his arguments correctly, he says that we don’t face natural limits because humanity has the ability to change the parameters of the ‘natural’. And yet here he is, apparently saying that people are leaving the small farm as if there’s nothing that can be done about it, as if it’s some kind of implacable force of nature. I don’t buy it.



  1. Begum, S. and Sen, B. (2005) ‘Pulling rickshaws in the city of Dhaka: a way out of poverty?’Environment and Urbanization, 17, 2: 11-25.
  1. Krishna, A. (2013) ‘Stuck in place: investigating social mobility in 14 Bangalore slums’ The Journal of Development Studies, 49, 7: 1010-28.
  1. China, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and South Africa. See


Of pigs, peasants and pastoralists

I’ve been meaning to write a simple little blog post about the pigs I’ve been raising on my holding this year. But here at Small Farm Future we like to go for big picture analysis, and somehow the post has turned into a redesign for British agriculture in its entirety. Ah well, at least it enables me to riff on various hot topics recently featured on this blog: rewilding – particularly in the context of Miles King’s fascinating vision of nature-friendly arable farming; the affinities and tensions between livestock and arable, which in these modern consumerist times often figures as a vegans versus omnivores debate, but in the alternative farming world can also hinge on arguments about the respective ecological credentials of meat versus plant production, and more broadly in the longstanding historical tension between agrarians and pastoralists; the issue of whether organic farming can feed the world; and, lastly, the war cry of the latter-day agricultural improvers that we need to get people out of small-scale farming and increase the productivity of the land without increasing total land take.0 2015 09 21 Pigs in clover 2

But let’s start with my pigs. I have two weaners which I’ve been attempting to feed as much as possible from my on-farm resources, minimising the amount of grain or soy-based concentrate I buy in (no offence intended to any grain or soy-oriented readers…) It’s been going OK. The pigs are living in about an acre of mixed young woodland plantation, which includes an area of pasture and fodder crop. The fodder crops are alfalfa for protein (reasonably successful) and fodder rape (not so successful). The pigs have also been getting crab apples, some nuts, and a lot of vegetable waste from the market garden, including our reject potatoes. So far I’ve had them four months and got through just over one 25kg bag of concentrate. I’ll probably need to buy in a bit more before they’re finished, but I did get them relatively late in the year (July). I suspect the main limiting factor if I run this as a long-term project is going to be their soil-disturbing activities, which are quite profound even at a stocking density of 2 pigs/acre. A topic for further reflection and discussion…

Projects like this make me think about land use. What kind of land take is associated with these pigs? What else could or should I be doing with it instead? And if I were to generalise from what I’m doing, what would be the wider social and environmental implications? So in the light of the interim lessons from my pig project let me temporarily appoint myself God and redesign British agriculture as I see fit. I’m going to do it using the following self-imposed guidelines:

  • My agricultural output will be mixed
  • My British farmscape will need to furnish the entire calorific needs of the country’s population. It’s not that calories are the only important nutritional metric, but there’s no avoiding the fact that any plausible farm system has to meet its population’s energetic requirements, and this is among the more demanding tasks asked of it. I conjecture that in my mixed farming system, if I can take care of the calories most of the other nutritional needs can take care of themselves
  • Fertility will be organic, and largely self-generated on the farm
  • Farming will be small-scale and labour-intensive for a variety of reasons that I won’t dwell on here but have done in past posts and will do in future ones. You know it makes sense!
  • Livestock will be default, ie. they will complement the production of human food and not directly compete with it. In that sense, my pig project is much closer to default than grain/soy fed pigs, but it’s not quite default because of the fodder crops and the small amount of bought in concentrate
  • Trees on farms are good – for biodiversity, for the soil, for wildness, maybe even for timber. But people need to eat too

Let’s start by looking at existing UK agricultural land use, as reported in DEFRA’s Agriculture in the UK. Figure 1 gives you the lowdown.

Fig 1

Fig 1









And now let’s look in Figure 2 at what we’ve got in that cropped area.

Fig 2








Hmmm, this isn’t good. Not good at all. Happily, having arrogated temporary omnipotence to myself, I can soon put things right.

First of all, I have to profess my sympathies with Robert C, the upland sheep farmer who commented on my recent post about rewilding. His family have been farming sheep since the sixteenth century and they’re not going to be pushed around by Johnny-come-lately urban re-wilders. Plus, upland shepherding drives the whole of British sheep farming. Fair play, sir – to you and your kind, I allocate all of the sole right rough grazing for sheep farming. But I’m also sympathetic to the re-wilders – George Monbiot’s laments for the sheepwrecked uplands touch my soul. So I’m going to allocate half of the common rough grazing to the re-wilders, taking it out of agricultural production and getting some trees on it, while retaining the other half for sheep farming. Then I shall watch what unfolds from my lofty perch in the heavens before issuing my final judgment. May the best man win!

Now then, heaven forbid that I should invite the ridicule of the ag improvers by taking any more cropland, so I’m going to fix the cropland essentially at its current level of 4.7m ha. I am, however, going to add in the temporary grass, which is surely just cropland that’s lazing about and not reporting for work…and there’s no place for malingering of that sort in George Osborne’s Britain. I’m also going to add in the outdoor pig land. I don’t care if they’re outdoors – it if ain’t default, I’m calling a halt. So let’s do something more useful with that.

We’ll need to come back to the crop mix, but first we need to do a little more tidying around the edges of the cropland. As I mentioned, trees are good, so let’s arbitrarily (arbortrarily?) treble the amount of farm woodland (we can put a few pigs in it). We’ll do it by including the re-wilded commons in our woodland portion and then pinching just under a million hectares of the permanent grass. Hell, those aristocrats and horsey folk won’t even notice they’ve lost a smidgeon of their copious estate. We’ll also forest up the ‘all other’ land. I wasted too much of my youth as a data analyst pussy-footing around with residual categories. To any parcels of land that won’t clearly state their intentions I say this: I have a tree-planting auger, and I know how to use it…

So now let’s get back to the cropland. Dear oh dear. My fellow Brits – didn’t our parents tell us to eat our greens? Right, well we’re farming organically so let’s put a quarter down to legume-rich grass leys. Then we’ll have a quarter down to wheat, a quarter to potatoes and a quarter to vegetables. Oilseeds? No, sir. But I suppose we do need some oil or fat. Well, let’s have some dairy cows then. They can graze the permanent pasture and the leys. No concentrates, though.

That brings us to livestock. We’ve got a few sheep in the uplands and some dairy cows down on the farm. And we can eat the calves, of course. Apart from that, it’s tricky. How many default pigs can we have? Not many. Let’s say we can produce one default pig carcase per two hectares of farm woodland per year. And how many default hens? Depends on the farm size, of course. Let’s look at that next.

I’m figuring on about 10% of the working age population working as farmers – something I looked at previously. Maybe that sounds high. I think it’s probably a sensible, sustainable figure, and it may not be too far off the actual number toiling to fill the British plate when you count in all the people around the world to whom we’ve outsourced the most labour-intensive food production jobs. So that would be about 3.9 million farmers. Let’s say most of them live and work as couples. Then the average holding size would be about 6.7 hectares – not too dissimilar to my own humble plot, in fact. Assuming that these lowland farms have to do the bulk of the work in feeding the nation, each 6.7 hectare parcel would be charged with the nutritional welfare of about 33 people. And, coming back to the hens, how many default hens could we have on our 6.7ha? I don’t think too many. A bit of food waste, a bit of gleaning, a bit of grass and some insects from the field – shall we say six dual purpose birds to give us eggs and chicken pie? And let’s have some bees. Easy now with the honey. Default bees need it more than we do. But perhaps they’ll allow us to skim off 10kg a year.

I haven’t said anything about fruit and nut trees. Tough, I’m a veg grower. La Brassicata and I are going to be pretty darned busy growing your spuds and milking the cow, so if you want fruit and nuts as well you better come down to the farm and lend a hand. Actually, in this climate I think nuts are probably better thought of as an occasional gift of wild nature rather than a farm crop. And fruit production is quite specialist. But I imagine we can fit in a bit of top and soft fruit in our spare time – let’s say 200kg of apples and 50kg of raspberries.

Right, well there we have it. Agri-redux, courtesy of Spudman. Let me now plug in some figures to see what we can produce. Full details are on this spreadsheet and it’s a real back of an envelope job so I’d welcome any comments, especially if you want to challenge the plausibility of my yield figures or stocking densities. Absence of howling errors not guaranteed. Probably the key assumptions are a wheat yield of 4.3 tha-1, a potato yield of 20 tha-1, a grass-fed house cow producing 3000 litres of milk a year, dual purpose hens laying 200 eggs a year, and upland sheep farming producing 3 lamb carcases per hectare (an overestimate?) Most of those yield figures are quite low – lower than current yields from organic farming. But my suspicion is that there’s quite a surfeit of manure and other implicit energy subsidies in the organic farming of today stemming from our overdriven nitrogen and carbon cycles, our food imports and so on. I know on the basis of my experience that the figures I’m using should be achievable long-term with mostly on farm nutrient cycling, so they feel more properly sustainable or ‘agroecological’ to me. In any case, this way the result ought to give a minimal, baseline figure.

Assuming an energy requirement of 2,300 calories (9.6 MJ) per person per day, my figures turn out a national energy requirement of 2.25 x 1011 MJ and a total farm productivity of 2.58 x 1011 MJ – a ratio of 1.15 the latter over the former. So, my conclusion is that yes we can produce a decent, mixed and calorifically adequate diet for the UK population organically from its existing farmland. But only if we keep livestock numbers rigorously controlled and meat consumption low, and resign ourselves to getting most of our food energy from wheat and potatoes (see Fig 3) – which may not suit some folks. I’m sympathetic to the idea that we should diversify our diet away from simple carbohydrates. But I’m also sympathetic to the ideas that we should farm organically, with minimum tillage, on mixed farms and that we have to feed the population. So something has to give. I’d be interested to hear what other people’s priorities might be. As it stands, I’m projecting about 6-7kg meat per person per year from my system, something like a tenfold drop from current EU levels of consumption. And about 90 litres of milk (or 6-7kg of butter). By God, this is tight. Still, we can always go visit the candyman for a sprinkle of his magic Haber-Bosch dust. And, by my figures, there’s scope for trimming back the potato/wheat area a little. Or we could try to increase the margin in other ways – more labour input for diverse perennial cropping, a bit more farm specialisation (but not too much, we’ve fallen into that trap before…), urban farming with poultry and pigs as waste cyclers. And we do have to bear in mind that this is probably a minimum yield figure that we’re working with.

Fig 3








Now then, if we did away with the cropped area and grew grass instead we could put an end to all that damaging tillage farming. We could replace it with the most productive form of livestock farming – dairying – and bring in another house cow and calf, while keeping the other livestock, the fruit trees etc. But if we did that, we’d only be able to produce about 15% of the national population’s energy needs. That’s an interesting figure in relation to the old ecological rule of thumb that each step up in trophic level loses about 90% of the productivity of the previous level, which seems to be roughly borne out here.

There’s quite a move in alternative farming circles these days to talk up livestock farming – particularly in relation to extensive raising of ruminants for meat. Great claims are made for traditional range management, desert reclamation through grazing, carbon sequestration in grassland soils, grass-fed cattle, mob stocking and the like. I’m sceptical about some of them, though I find them plausible enough in the main. But I don’t find them plausible as a method of feeding humanity. They’ll feed small numbers of poor rangeland pastoralists and small numbers of rich grass-fed meat enthusiasts, but extensive pastoralism is no more viable as a plan for feeding contemporary humanity than hunting or foraging. That’s not intended as a criticism of people farming livestock agroecologically. If I took on a farm in present economic and ecological circumstances that’s what I’d probably do. And it makes sense to fit extensive livestock husbandry in where possible around more intensive provisioning strategies. But – as with Britain’s upland sheep – its role will be minor.

I think what this analysis shows is that, unlike extensive pastoralism, intensive, ‘organic’/ agroecological, local ‘peasant’ farming is feasible for national self-provisioning.  It may seem impossibly distant from how we farm now, but it’s not impossible as a provisioning strategy. And how we farm now may seem impossible in the not too distant future. So my punt is that the livestock of choice in the future will be the usual peasant menagerie: the house cow, the pig and the chicken, and not the pastoralist option of the ruminant herd. Though to make up the shortfall in the meat ration, insect and mollusc farming may have an emerging role too.

When I write posts like this, somebody usually says “yes, but what about the energy requirements?” and then bangs on about the land-take of horses or oxen. But most of the energy requirements in the food system relate to fertiliser synthesis and farm-to-consumer costs. Here, I’ve eliminated the former and the latter isn’t my problem. Hey, I’m growing your food for you, you expect me to worry about how you’re going to get hold of it too? You shouldn’t have bought that fancy townhouse! The world according to Spudman is a world of producer sovereignty, re-ruralisation and localisation. So if you want to live in the city, you’re gonna have to pay for the privilege. And if you want to call my vision ‘feudal’, it means you don’t know what ‘feudal’ means and, even more inexcusably, you haven’t yet read the essay I’m going to be posting up on here in a few weeks’ time about all that sort of thing. There, I think I got my retaliation in first.

OK, OK, so farm energy may still be a problem. But if so, it’s a hell of smaller problem with 4 million working the land than with 400,000 – and not just because of the direct substitution of human for fuel energy, but also because of the different kind of farming strategies involved. Give me 30 litres of petroleum a year for my on-farm use and I’ll cope OK. If, as Andy McGuire said here, our societies prioritised fuel use sensibly they’d make it (sparingly) available to farmers in preference to many other more frivolous uses and we could use if for centuries without facing such acute energy uncertainties as we presently do. But if I can’t have my 30 litres then I’ll plant 30 pine trees and make the damn stuff myself, or – as David suggested here – grow another biofuel crop, by trimming back the woodland or the meat. Really, when it comes to unsustainable energy use, farm traction comes low on the list. Meat comes in higher, but if you and my other 31 customers are really, really nice to me, I may just put a little chicken and bacon by for you for Christmas. Don’t eat it all at once!

Gosh, I’m feeling dizzy…I think I’m falling…what’s that I see? It’s a field…a field of…no, it can’t be…aargh!…oilseed rape. And where has all my woodland gone? Crash! Dammit, I think my omnipotent powers have deserted me and I’m back to the bare earth of the arable cereal fields with a bump. Sigh. Well, I’ll just have to work out how to deliver on that vision by normal, human means. Any suggestions gratefully received below…

Interim Report

Well, Vallis Veg has hit the big time. If you watch the latest episode of the BBC’s Countryfile programme you’ll see none other than Mrs Spudman herself carrying our cabbages in for sale at the Frome Food Assembly. Come to think of it, my moniker of ‘Mrs Spudman’ is perhaps a little bit sexist. I mean, I might be lumbered with that name but there’s no reason for her to have to bear it too simply by virtue of her foolhardy association with me. So I think perhaps I’ll call her La Brassicata from now on instead. What d’you think?

Anyways, thing is now that we’ve been featured (albeit fleetingly and silently) on national TV, orders for our humble wares have gone through the roof. So I’ve been too busy sorting out vegetables to finish off my next proper blog post. My thoughts on the BBC’s analysis of local food issues are probably best left unsaid. Why bite the hand that feeds you?

I’ve got a blog post in the offing about pigs, peasants and pastoralists that I hope will entertain my readers, so this post is just a promissory note to bring you some meatier stuff soon (though not that meaty, as you’ll see if you read the post) – hopefully in a couple of days when I get the chance to finish it off. Meanwhile, having got into trouble on Twitter for criticising somebody’s newspaper article without having read their book – a heinous crime, I know – I’ve obtained a copy of said book by the author in question, one Leigh Phillips. So far I’m finding Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-Porn Addicts every bit as bad as you’d expect from the title. But I haven’t finished it yet, so you never know – there may be a credible argument or perhaps even a nuance stuffed in there somewhere towards the end. God, this guy makes Mike Shellenberger seem like a paragon of academic gravitas, and that’s not intended as a compliment to Mike. On the up side, it’s helping me clarify some thoughts on ecological modernization which I’ve just started shaping up into an article involving a rather daunting amount of crunching with a World Bank data set. Veg-wrangling by day, and data-wrangling by night – what a lucky man I am! But having been warned off more ecomodernist-baiting by my long-suffering readers, I promise to publish the results elsewhere. So next up – pigs and peasants…er, soon-ish.

Promethean porn and Malthusian mistakes: a letter to Leigh Phillips

Dear Leigh

Hello, my name is Mr Puck. I heard about your new book, Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn-Addicts: A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff. Now, a title involving the word ‘porn’ that isn’t actually about, er, porn usually indicates something that’s well worth not reading (yes, reader, I know, I know – but you’ve come this far already). However, I’m interested in these issues so I decided I’d at least take a look at the blurb for your book and the puff-piece you wrote for it in The Guardian.

Your publisher, Zero Books, sets itself against what it calls the ‘cretinous anti-intellectualism’ of contemporary culture. That’s refreshing. And your book blurb promises a ‘combative and puckish’ style. Well, we greens do have a reputation for humour-free self-righteousness, and I’m all in favour of the mordant wit and trenchant analysis I associate with puckish writers. So, bracing myself, I settled down to read a little of your writing. Unfortunately, rather than the puck-wit I was expecting, another word soon came to mind that sounds very similar but means something different. I’ve spent a fair bit of time recently combatting the idiocies of so-called ‘ecomodernism’1 and I’ve tried to swear off further critique to focus instead on a more positive agenda of localist producerism, which is what I’ll be turning to in my next cycle of blog posts. But everybody needs to sound off once in a while, and after reading your epically fatuous thinking on this topic for me that time is now. The ‘progress-through-growth’ and ecomodernist tropes seem to acquire a spurious gravitas by simple repetition, so though I don’t have the luxury of a Guardian article to play with, I do feel obliged to do what I can to prevent the deluge and try to put my finger, however small, in the dyke. Besides, I can use your writing as a foil to make a few points about capitalist development and anti-Malthusianism that fit into my larger project. So below I offer some appropriately scattered responses to your scatter-brained thoughts.

Let’s begin with a quotation from your book blurb:

“the back-to-the-land ideology and aesthetic of locally-woven organic carrot-pants, pathogen-encrusted compost toilets and civilisational collapse is hegemonic”

I somehow get the sense that your publisher’s campaign against cretinous anti-intellectualism doesn’t run too deep. But anyway, back-to-the-land ideology is hegemonic? Are you serious? Could you give me your figures on the proportion of school-leavers or career-changers going into farming in developed countries? Or the proportion of government policies in said countries that promote the interests of small-scale local farming? What I think you really mean is that a handful of people are getting their voices heard about a new agrarianism, and you don’t like it. If only it were that easy to turn wishful thinking into hegemony…

Let’s talk some more about compost toilets, and let’s link it to your defence of growth. Because  actually I want to defend growth too – childhood growth. Research suggests that more than half the people of India, and almost three-quarters of rural people, have no access to a toilet2. They defecate in the open, and the illnesses this causes stunts childhood growth and haunts the future of those it affects. The Democratic Republic of Congo, a country with a GDP per capita only about a quarter that of India, has more than four times the level of access to toilets for its population. So not much link between economic progress and human welfare there. There is no evidence to my knowledge that compost toilets are any more pathogen-encrusted than other designs. All you need to make one is a bit of wood, plastic or straw. Surely a champion of the poor such as yourself should be extolling their virtues?

Meanwhile, here in Britain the majority of sewage sludge is returned to agricultural soils. And a darned good thing, too, though few seem aware of it. Does that make all our toilets compost toilets? Maybe, but what a process! We purify water, then foul it, then mix it with heavy metals from road runoff, then purify it again, remove the metals as best we can and then truck it from sewage plant to field. And folks say that small-scale, off grid farming is inefficient…

You’re not alone among the progress-through-growth crowd in singling out compost toilets for particular disdain3. But, honestly, these analyses are such worthless crap that I wouldn’t bother adding them to my muck pile.

Let’s now turn to Malthus. In his Essay on the Principle of Population the old salt argued that there would be an exponential growth in human population but only a linear growth in food production, so that population would outstrip the food supply and result in famine. It turned out he was wrong about population growth, which was less than he predicted. He was also wrong about the growth in the food supply, which was also less than he predicted4. Hey ho. What Malthus’s error doesn’t mean is that humanity will face no resource squeezes in the future. This is important. Let’s look at it some more. You write,

“Unlike any other species, our per capita rate of material and energy throughput alters as a result of changes in technology and our political economy.”

That’s true. In 1983 our species consumed 59 million barrels of petroleum per day, whereas in 2013 we consumed 91 million barrels. So you’re right – our throughput of this dangerously polluting resource indeed has changed. In just thirty years our use of it has increased by over 50%.

You write: “Through technological advance, we can use less of something to produce the same amount…”

That’s also true. We can. But in fact we rarely do. Rebound effects and the economic logic of capitalist growth are such that we generally use even more of something to produce relatively more still (see the oil example above).

You add: “… or replace one raw material with another. We didn’t “run out” of whale blubber. We replaced it with kerosene.”

Could I submit a polite request for you progress-through-growthers to stop harping on about whales and come up with some other examples of resource substitution, preferably ones that are actually true? Oil didn’t ‘save the whales’. It nearly wiped them out. When you can show that the whole modernization package, with all its complex and often unforeseen interdependencies, is resource-sparing and resource-substituting in absolute terms compared to the past, only then can you extol the environmental benefits of modernization. I think the evidence runs against you.

Here’s where the Malthusian bogeyman derails rational thought. It’s possible that countries like Britain and the USA will never again enjoy such cheap, abundant and versatile energy as they did throughout the 20th century. Not inevitable, but possible. And there is nothing ‘Malthusian’ about that statement. A recent commenter on this site wrote that scientists will solve the problem of cheap clean energy in the future because they have to solve it. Here’s where our modern approach to science and technology becomes a kind of magical thinking. Fingering our talismans, we mutter incantations like ‘scientific progress’ to assure ourselves that our techno-priests can resolve all the contradictions of our civilisation. And we issue the gnarly curse of ‘Malthusian’ to any heretic who dares to wonder whether resource constraints might ever be a problem.

You’re right of course that such constraints aren’t just actual, but are mediated by societies. This doesn’t mean that growth is good, ‘stuff’ is good, or that humanity will not experience resource squeezes or environmental crises. Consider these thoughts from Marxist geographer David Harvey,

“natural resources are…technical, social and cultural appraisals and so any apparent natural scarcity can in principle be mitigated, if not totally circumvented, by technological, social and cultural changes. But…cultural forms are frequently just as fixed and problematic as anything else….While [construing the relation to nature as inherently dialectical] would appear to deny the possibility of any out-and-out or prolonged, let alone ‘final’, environmental crisis, it also carries within it the prospect for cascading unintended consequences with widespread disruptive effects….it would be false to argue that there are absolute limits in our metabolic relation to nature that cannot in principle be transcended or bypassed. But this does not mean that the barriers are not sometimes serious and that overcoming them can be achieved without going through some kind of general environmental crisis”5

That’s the kind of cautious progressive thinking that greens can usefully engage with. Your bombastic claim that resource constraints are never a problem isn’t. The unintended consequences are already starting to cascade, and you have nothing to say about them other than your “get thee behind me, Malthusian!” imprecations.

You write that the green de-growth movement is complicit with neoliberalism and austerity. It strikes me that your brand of vulgar anti-Malthusianism is more so. Capitalism, pretty much by definition, is an economic logic in which the search for the greatest fiscal return to capital input is paramount. In certain unusual circumstances, such as we had here in Britain through most of the second half of the twentieth century, this is compatible with situations of technical innovation, increased resource use efficiency and greater rewards to labour. But it’s also compatible with colonial domination, chattel slavery and the increased immiseration of labour. Any sensible account of the history of capitalism – and certainly any sensible self-proclaimed leftist one – would pay less attention than you to technological advance and more to the accumulation of capital through increased labour and resource exploitation6. Capital goes where it’s easiest to make the most money, and only in rare historical circumstances has that logic benefitted those you call ‘ordinary folks’.

In the rich countries these ‘ordinary folks’, you write, “are closer in wealth and have far more in common with third-world workers than we do with our own bosses….Almost everyone I know is just struggling to get by. We don’t need the “Buy Nothing Days” of the trendy anti-consumerist Adbusters magazine, but rather some “Finally-Able-to-Buy-Lots-More Days”.

Despite the philosophical poverty of this cargo-cult, comprador capitalism, a faint ray of light does here illuminate your tunnel-thinking. But just as you’re on the verge of going somewhere worthwhile, somewhere where you might talk about a political alliance of global labour, you scurry off into your comfort zone, that lightless sewer where it’s more entertaining to mock the greens than to think seriously about eco-socialism.

And, Leigh, are you really saying that someone earning the US median income of $74 a day is in the same boat as the billion or so people on $1 a day? I don’t dispute the genuine distress and poverty of many people in developed countries, not least because poverty is never just about the basic mathematics of one’s income. But you need to figure diminishing marginal utility of income into your thinking. Someone on $1 a day will in all likelihood be struggling to get enough nourishment into their body to stay healthy. To them, $10 a day would represent impossible security. And $74 a day might as well be $740 a day, for all the difference it makes. So let’s keep a sense of perspective on our struggles and those of ‘almost everyone we know’, which I suspect in your case (and mine too) doesn’t include too many of the world’s poorest few billion.

Despite your avowed anti-capitalism, what you really seem to be saying is that managed capitalism can deliver prosperity to the masses so long as we claw back a bit of wealth from the richest few. It’s the same fairy-tale that the ecomodernists peddle – with a light touch on the tiller, a judicious trimming of the sails, the rising tide of ‘growth, progress, industry and stuff’ will float all boats, if you’ll forgive me for mixing my maritime metaphors. But it never has and it never will. For all the surplus liquidity in the world, there isn’t the remotest chance that any more than a tiny fraction of the poorest will ever see money that even approaches the income earned by the ordinary folks of the rich countries. The inequality is systemic.

Still, you’re right that ordinary people in rich countries are struggling in their own way. In 1957, Harold Macmillan could say ‘you’ve never had it so good’. Today, not even George Osborne would have the temerity to make such a claim, and he wisely prefers to demonise benefit claimants instead. There’ve been an accelerating number of local or global economic crises since the 1970s, and a burgeoning environmental crisis too. Here’s your opportunity to address how the ordinary people of the world might exploit systemic crisis and work together to replace the capitalism you claim to oppose with something better.

But you don’t take it. Instead the last part of your article is an extended panegyric for nuclear power. I’m not going to engage with it, except to say that whatever the rights and wrongs of nuclear power, it currently provides only 2% of the world’s primary energy production with little prospect of major expansion any time soon. France, your poster child for a sustainable decarbonised nuclear future, still has more than double the per capita carbon dioxide emissions than the global median, and how much more when you figure in its ghost emissions from China and the world’s other workshop nations? “The truth is”, you write, “that we can stop climate change and deliver expanding wealth for all.” If so, it’s not a truth you even begin to substantiate in your article.

You rightly point out that economic growth isn’t restricted to capitalist societies alone. But you don’t examine the scale and consequences of growth under other economic logics, and its vast amplification under conditions of global capitalism. For me, ‘de-growth’ doesn’t imply that any kind of economic growth must always be prevented. It just implies that the vast, systemic, inequality-promoting and biosphere-damaging levels of growth that the world has now achieved as a result of global capitalism need reining in. I can’t see how anyone who claims to be pro-labour and anti-capitalist should take such umbrage at the notion.

Truth is, we in the wealthier countries of the world are probably in for a dose of de-growth whether we like the idea or not. As Giovanni Arrighi pointed out, there’s been a succession of dominant geographical economic cores in modern world history from the Italian city states, to the Netherlands, to Britain, to the USA and now towards China and East Asia7. Each one moved from production to financialisation as it entered its decline, which is what’s happening at the moment in Europe and North America. Financial services now offer better returns to capital than industry in the declining core, but they don’t provide a stable basis for enduring global economic power. So perhaps we ‘ordinary folks’ in countries like Britain need to hope that the rising workers in countries like China will look to us with more generosity than we looked to them when the shoe was on the other foot. Progress-through-growthers like to claim that the workers of the world are united around their desire for cheap consumer goods and a western lifestyle. Undoubtedly there’s some truth in that, but perhaps we in the declining core need to jettison the quaint notion that these rising workers are going to join us in our consumerist penthouse, rather than briefly waving at us on their way up there as our respective elevators pass in different directions. Capitalism thrives on inequality. So given your enthusiasm for its ‘buy-lots-more’ approach, might I suggest you start work – urgently – on squaring industrial growth with socialist internationalism rather than just affecting an empty and complacent solidarity with the world’s striving masses? Or maybe you could curb your enthusiasm for going shopping and think about what a world beyond consumer sovereignty could look like. I think you might find it’s not such a bad place if we put our minds to it. And it’s the place we’re probably headed anyway. You’ve noticed that workers in the currently rich countries are beginning to struggle. There may be ups and downs to come, but their struggles are likely to become enduring and systemic. Wake up, man, and smell the coffee! Ditch your nostalgia for how things used to be and get with a de-growth programme to cushion the landing.

You call for a rediscovery of Promethean ambition. Perhaps you forget that Zeus sent us Pandora with her boxful of troubles as payback for Prometheus’s gift of fire. My own Promethean ambition is for us to embrace our techne, our human skills, and use them to live with humility and wisdom alongside others on our planet. For me, Prometheanism doesn’t mean going cap in hand to the gods with our ritual incantations – Science! Progress! Industry! Cargo! – and asking them for more miracles to get us out of the hole we’ve made for ourselves. Here and now, and with these words, I count myself out of the future-nostalgia mashups of ecomodernism and all manner of progress-through-growth tomfoolery with their cargo cult delusions. So now I really must get to work…


Mr Puck


  1. See;;
  1. See also Pascal Bruckner (2013) The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse, Polity, for another fanatically anti-fanatical work encompassing compost toilets and much other crap besides.
  1. See Denison F. (2012) Darwinian Agriculture, Princeton.
  1. Harvey, D. (2010) The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, Profile, pp.73-6.
  1. See, for example, Heller, H. (2011) The Birth of Capitalism, Pluto.
  1. Arrighi, G. (2009) Adam Smith in Beijing, Verso.

Soil food webs: from farm to garden?

Here’s something I’ve been meaning to write about since February, when I heard Elaine Ingham talking about soil food webs at the Canadian organic growers conference. Dr Ingham is one of the main movers and shakers behind this apparently increasingly influential perspective, which has found its way into the gardening firmament through books like Lowenfels and Lewis’s Teaming With Microbes. The idea in a nutshell is that plant/crop growth is interdependent with a complex web of small, mostly soil-living organisms. Plants exude proteins and carbohydrates into the soil, funded from their photosynthetic way of life, which provides food most importantly for bacteria and fungi, and thence to a vast array of other single- and multi-celled critters whose life and death in the soil provides the complex nutritive foundation upon which the larger organisms intelligible in the everyday human world build their lives – the trees, the shrubs, the grasses, the forbs, the birds, the mammals, the reptiles, the molluscs, the arthropods and so on.

Two main points emerge from this of relevance for farmers. The first is that despite our impressive level of human knowledge about the chemistry of soils and plants, we don’t really know exactly what our crop plants need to thrive at any given time – only the plants know that (‘know’, that is, in a biochemical sense – which brings to mind this nice article by Richard Mabey about plants as authors of their destinies in ways not always suspected by humans). So instead of fiddling about with idealised fertiliser regimens, we’d be better off just providing the plants with healthy soils teeming with life, and let the plants themselves get on with the job of self-nutrition. This is basically the familiar adage of the organic movement: feed the soil, not the plant. A further, unproven, implication is that plants which have been able to optimise their self-nutrition may better enable us, their predators, to optimise our own.

The second point concerns precisely how you ‘feed the soil’. What you don’t do, according to Dr Ingham, is add synthetic fertilisers or pesticides, because these salty additives kill soil life. Nor do you till, because this does the same – particularly in the case of delicate fungal hyphae, which are torn apart by ploughs and harrows. So instead you add compost – lots of it. That’s how you feed the soil.

Not just feed the soil, in fact, but according to Dr Ingham actually build it. She was scornful of the USDA agronomists who claim that soils form at a rate of (I think she said) one millimetre per year. She informed us that she could make a soil thirty feet deep in two days (or some such improbable amount…I forget the exact figure…), evidenced by her work to create a native Texan prairie in just one year at the gardens of the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas, where her photos showed us trucks dropping off compost by the ton. Cue astonished wows and whoops from the audience…

…and an uncontrollably arching eyebrow from me. It’s not, of course, that I question the morality of working to beautify the legacy of the USA’s 43rd president. Because, let’s face it, no amount of native Texan flora could make Mr Bush come up smelling rosy. No, it’s because…because…well, JUST WHERE THE HELL IS ALL THAT COMPOST COMING FROM? Surely from the detritus of an American agricultural civilization which, though it accumulates in centres of human population, ultimately stems directly or indirectly from its farmland. Let’s put it another way: if you put your mind and a decent number of large trucks to it, you can probably produce and spread compost several feet thick over the 13 acres of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and several other such institutions besides. What, I’d submit, you can’t do is spread it over the 900 million plus acres of farmland in the USA where I suspect the overall rate of soil formation is more likely going to approximate to that disparaged USDA figure, and then only if you’re lucky.

The implications of all this are potentially significant. First, I suppose I should pose the question as to whether Dr Ingham’s arguments are sound. There are those who would doubtless argue that farmers have been merrily tilling and spraying their fields for a long time now and nobody’s died yet – well, nobody identifiable anyway, apart perhaps from a few farmers. Personally I find it plausible that we’ll have to look after both soils and soil food webs better than we presently do if agriculture is to continue to serve humanity well long-term. And there does seem to be some evidence that repeated fertiliser and pesticide applications aren’t good for soils, but I’d be interested to hear more expert views than mine on this.

On a garden scale, I think it’d be quite easy to grow food in no-till beds nurtured by compost made on site. True, that’s partly because in a domestic growing situation people are rarely producing all their own food so there’s a net nutrient inflow – particularly in modern industrial societies awash with cheap energy and fertiliser. In a self-provisioning or ‘peasant’ situation it’d be harder, but probably still doable with careful attention to human and animal wastes, compost crops and the like. This is something I plan to start trialling soon and will hopefully be able to write about in the future with my own data to hand.

In a broadscale farming situation, though, it’s tricky to see a solution. You could go for the conventional no till approach with synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. You could go for the organic approach with clover leys and tillage. But both fall foul of Dr Ingham’s strictures. I suppose you may be able to establish some kind of permanent pasture and/or biomass crop with a cut & compost or graze & confine regimen, which enabled you to transfer nutrients to the crop. But I imagine it would be quite inefficient in terms of per hectare yields and possibly also energy inputs. Maybe organic no till methods will prove feasible, with crops established in a clover sward.

In southern England where I live, the cool, moist climate and heavy soils make for a very forgiving environment for tillage farming. The annual crops that we grow prosper in bacterially rather than fungally dominant soils, and bacteria are relatively little affected by tillage. So the system I’ve adopted has essentially been a standard organic ley and tillage one, albeit with a few closed-ish loop, no till affectations thrown in. But there are lots of good reasons to try to avoid tillage, especially if Ingham is right and you need a decent level of fungal hyphae in the soil even for annual agricultural crops to prosper. So maybe my present approach will prove unsustainable in the long run. But the George W. Bush presidential library approach is certainly unsustainable in the long run. Fitting, perhaps, for a rather unsustainable president. So are we then left only with the peasant self-provisioning option? Nurture your own soil, grow your own vegetables, compost your own excrement…oh and buy land, they’re not making it anymore, as Mark Twain had it. Or at least only at 1mm per year.

Well, that’s a familiar bottom line conclusion for me to reach. This website ain’t called ‘small farm future’ for nothing. Even so, my feeling is that Ingham’s no till, soil food web approach may be something of an ideal, and there’s room for messier compromises to be made with the world. It may be best not to till for soil, plant and human health, but perhaps the world is not so black and white that a judicious bit of tillage here and there is so impermissible. But perhaps that’s wrong. Perhaps, somewhere, or perhaps even everywhere, a long biological soil clock is starting to tick down on human agriculture.

Re-wilding: joined-up thinking needed

Last week I went to Rewilding: From Vision to Reality – a thought-provoking film and discussion panel with a group of people involved in the rewilding movement in Britain, played out in front of a packed and appreciative audience. George Monbiot, author of the book Feral and fellow-soldier in the battle against ‘eco-modernism’ was there, as was Colin Tudge, my colleague from the Campaign for Real Farming and wise voice in the alternative agriculture movement, along with various other interesting thinkers and practitioners. The event was filmed and is available here.

I came away from the evening thinking that what was being proposed could be really, really good. And alternatively that it could be really, really bad. Like almost everything in life, changes in one domain knock on to changes in other apparently unrelated ones, and in order to achieve the really, really good outcome changes in wildlife policy will need to be accompanied by appropriate changes in housing policy, tax policy, planning policy, food policy, farming policy and trade policy. A prime case for ‘joined up thinking’ in fact. I’m a great admirer of George Monbiot’s writing, and it’s to his credit that he writes thoughtfully and persuasively about all of these areas. The other participants, too, made a lot of subtle and convincing points. Nevertheless, I left with a few nagging doubts, centring mostly on the relationship between rewilding and agriculture, so here I want to work through them. I’ve got to admit that I’m not hugely up to speed on the rewilding movement – George’s book has been sitting in my in-tray for a while – but if you can’t think out loud on your own blog site, then where can you…?

Just the briefest of summaries of what’s on the table: ‘rewilding’ involves restoring to parts or all of Britain species that have been casualties of modernity – top predators like lynx, wolves, maybe even bears (a matter discussed on this site recently with Andy McGuire); keystone species such as beaver; and a huge variety of other organisms, birds, fish, invertebrates and the many plant species which have suffered huge losses as a result of modern fishing, farming and other land-use practices. George presented rewilding as a positive environmentalist agenda which ordinary people could rally behind, rather than the doom-and-gloom negativity of much environmental campaigning. He identified upland sheep farming as a particular problem: an environmentally-destructive yet economically marginal practice which is only sustained by EU subsidies. And he raised one of the greatest cheers of the evening with his attack on the EU farm subsidy regimen: a hugely regressive tax that rewards landowners the more that they own land. In the uplands, he argued, the subsidy incentivises ecological destruction, while in the more productive lowlands farmers don’t need it.

For his part, Colin inveighed against the fear-based productivist paradigm of mainstream (and indeed ‘ecomodernist’) agricultural policy in its obsession with raising productivity. We know how to produce enough food while farming in wildlife-friendly ways, he argued. And he raised a big cheer in turn with his comments on land reform and the possibilities for a people’s takeover of rural landownership through collective and commoning models to produce food and wildlife benefits locally.

I’m pretty much with them on most of that, but I think too glib an interpretation of these arguments can lead us astray and…well, those big cheers worried me a bit. Although I was impressed by the subtlety of the panellists’ thinking – none were arguing for a naïve rewilding uninformed by the needs of agriculture – I nevertheless sensed a possibly somewhat naïve anti-farmer and anti-private property sentiment underlying some of the proceedings. Most of us nowadays are so divorced from farming that it’s easy for misunderstandings to build up, and I for one have become less inclined to be critical of farmers since I switched from the lectern to the plough. Sheesh, it’s been an education. And while God knows there are farmers (and farm organisations still more) who deserve the opprobrium of anyone who cares about the land, let’s pause a moment to reflect on what we’re asking of our farmers – to be financially successful self-employed entrepreneurs, to produce healthy food at high volume and unprecedentedly low price, and to safeguard the environment, the landscape and its wildlife within those parameters. Is it any wonder that so many of them fail at some or all of those onerous demands? Or that there’s a recruitment crisis in farming, with a new cohort substantially failing to replace the old? As I’ve said before, a country basically gets the farmers it deserves.

So now let’s look at how a rewilding programme might pan out in a bad way. Over the next few decades, EU farm subsidies (Pillar 1…and Pillar 2?) are slashed to zero. Not a bad thing in many ways – it’ll end the scandalous subsidy of rich land speculators and have the effect George desires on upland sheep farming (I do have qualms about the upheaval in hill country pastoral traditions, but I think he’s right that things have got to change somehow). I haven’t looked in detail at the data, but I suspect however that without concomitant changes in food and trade policy it’ll also put paid to a lot of lowland farmers, including quite large-scale conventional ones, because I don’t really agree with George that lowland farmers don’t need a subsidy to stay afloat in present economic circumstances. Bear in mind that farmers are often selling below costs of production, working crazy hours and doing non-food production related things to stay in business. In this sense, in contrast to the wealthy landowner, the jobbing family farmer is not the real beneficiary of the EU subsidies. That honour goes to the processors, retailers and consumers who aren’t paying a realistic price for their food. Without subsidies or any protection from global commodity markets, agricultural margins will be shaved still further, putting family farmers out of business. Once in the hands of the corporates, I suspect that local agri-environmental outrages of the kind recently identified by George may diminish. Global agri-environmental outrages, however, will surely increase.

The ending of subsidies may disincentivise land speculation, but not too much – without wider land reform, rural landownership will still be a pursuit of the rich. Doubtless some landowners will be happy to rewild their estates. Doubtless too there’ll be local community buyouts. But if the lottery’s Local Food programme is anything to go by, these projects will likely do a much better job at making their lands wildlife friendly than at producing much food. It’s noteworthy that social enterprises set up with complex community management structures under the programme are now seeking individual entrepreneurs to make the farming work. In that sense, while I agree with Colin that it’s not so hard to farm in productive, sustainable and wildlife-friendly ways it is quite hard, and to be sure of success it involves a lot of hard work from people with strong personal motivations and incentives to do it over the long haul. I’ll wait to read Colin’s new book on these issues with interest, and I’ll talk in more detail about tenure systems and sustainable farming in future posts. For now I’m inclined just to say that anyone contemplating the establishment of a community food-producing social enterprise will probably find that obtaining the land is the easiest part of the struggle. And also that while commoning and collective land tenure systems can be very effective, things are more complex than ‘common good, private bad’. Let me put it this way: would the cheers that evening have been quite so loud had the suggestion been to socialise private home ownership rather than private land ownership?

Still, it won’t really matter if agricultural productivity in the UK goes down. There’ll still be high intensity farming in parts of the country that are well suited to it, which will gladden the hearts of the ecomodernists and the ‘land sparers’. The rest of our food we can buy from abroad. It may be produced in ecologically vulnerable regions (notably the semi-arid continental grasslands, of which I’ve written previously) and by economically vulnerable people, but that’s not really our problem. Or at least not for the moment it isn’t. The main driver of food production will still be price. Without reform of housing and planning policy, most people will remain crippled with massive expenditures to keep a roof over their heads and so will be looking for savings in other areas, such as food. The land-sparing, labour-shedding, capital-intensive model of agriculture will win out. Indeed, perhaps an omission in the discussions around agriculture at Vision to Reality was the issue of arable cropping, and even horticulture, in contrast to pastoralism which is probably an easier form of agriculture to rewild within extant agricultural thinking, but makes a relatively minor nutritional contribution to overall agricultural productivity. How should we rewild and reform lowland arable farming?

There’s always been a loose confederation of folk with an interest in keeping the hoi polloi out of the countryside and the result of the ‘bad rewilding’ that I’m imagining here is that the re-wilders will throw their lot in – deliberately or not, knowingly or not – with rich landowners, housing speculators, ecomodernist ‘land sparers’, agricultural ‘improvers’, rural heritage geeks, crusading planning departments and seekers after pliant urban wage labour to keep people out of the countryside, living in expensive and dysfunctional urban housing, eating cheap and questionably produced food, but at least with the opportunity to see more wildlife in the British countryside than presently on their occasional visits there.

However, I can also foresee a much more positive way in which rewilding might go if other policies move with it. To do so policymakers will need to place joint emphasis on food sovereignty, social equity and ecological restoration. In this scenario, housing and planning policy are reformed, partly along the lines admirably sketched by George here, to make housing more affordable, end land market speculation, revitalize market towns and small villages, and sponsor appropriate rural development. Agricultural emphasis shifts to the sustainable production of most food needs as locally as possible, with appropriate price supports, agricultural extension and so on, rather than being dictated by world market prices. What this looks like on the ground will be quite varied, but generally speaking it will involve a shift towards smaller scale, more labour intensive, more agroecological and more mixed farming methods, probably producing less meat, less simple carbohydrates and less food waste than at present, all of which would be no bad thing. The return of small fields, arable weeds, hedgerows, fallowing and cover cropping, small farm native woodlands and the like will be what Ivette Perfecto et al1 have called the agricultural ‘matrix’ which is a necessary complement to wilder wilderness. In this sense, the land sparing vs land sharing duality will come to be seen as a false and ideologically-driven opposition: as I argue here, as George argued at Vision to Reality, and as Joern Fischer argues in this nice essay drawn to my attention by Jahi Chappell, we clearly need both ‘land sparing’ and ‘land sharing’ simultaneously.

But all this will require more people living and working in the countryside. On that point, I feel obliged to note with some concern that one of the distinguished panel members at Vision to Reality objected to my planning application for residence on my small mixed farm on the grounds of its wildlife impacts. I think instead he should have supported it for that very reason. So I think there’s a job to do in steering the rewilding movement away from ecomodernist affectations concerning urbanisation and decoupling, and towards a rethinking and re-peopling of agriculture. More farmers in the countryside are needed for the sake of both rewilding and sustainable agriculture.  They’ll come if we create the right policy and economic environment. They’ll provide the demographic injection that farming needs. They’ll learn how to farm productively but sustainably. They’ll be deeply grounded in the life of their land, and they’ll become a keystone species opening a new niche for knowledge about wildlife, farming and the countryside in the wider society, which will run much deeper than if rewilding is only a matter of urban tourists going off on jaunts to look for wolves in the Scottish Highlands.

I think rewilding will probably work best long-term if it’s built upon that backbone – cheaper housing, dearer, better food, local food security, more labour-intensive, agroecological production and wider societal knowledge about both farming and wildlife. It may be difficult to set up the incentives correctly to discourage speculative landownership while encouraging productive, sustainable and wildlife-friendly farming. But economists are good at figuring out that sort of thing. We just need to get them working on problems like that, rather than on setting economic policy itself – something that, for wildlife, for farming, for social justice, and for the reasons set out in my previous post, is much too important to be left to the economists.


  1. Perfecto, I. et al (2009). Nature’s Matrix: Linking Agriculture, Conservation and Food Sovereignty, Earthscan.


Spudman meets the physiocrats

I promised you a respite from ecomodernism and I plan to keep my word. So, tempting though it is to essay a response to Suzy Waldman’s critical Tweets about my last blog post, I shall keep my powder dry for now. At least Suzy raises some genuinely interesting issues: proletarianization, what we want for our kids, and the economic fortunes of Burkina Faso. But if I write anything else about ecomodernism just now, I fear I’ll be sucked into a wormhole from which I shall never escape and spend the rest of my days muttering half-intelligible concatenations of phrases concerning the sparing of land, the budgeting of carbon, the salvation of cetaceans and the harvesting of cherries.

God forbid. So instead I plan to work my way towards answering Suzy more obliquely through Small Farm Future’s autumn seminar series in which I’m going to tell you about my pigs and my potatoes, say something about soil microbial life and – a related area – describe the nature of state formation and the peasant labour process. Then, let’s see now, I want to muse about meat, offer a brief analysis of the history of western economic thought, consider agricultural improvement in 19th century Scotland, and then expand the focus a bit to review the history of the entire world over the last nine million years. Meanwhile, in other news, the SFF office has received an interesting comment about our work on perennial grain crops from intermediate wheatgrass breeder Doug Cattani, and also an interesting comment on ‘land sparing’ arguments from agroecologist Jahi Chappell.

Anyway, all in all we have a packed autumn programme ahead of us – so do please get in, sit down, fasten your seatbelt and hold on. To save time, I may have to piggy-back some of the topics outlined above onto other ones. Indeed, let’s try that now. So today we’ll look at what my potato harvest can teach us about the history of western economic thought.

Farming on the micro-scale that I do, strict economic considerations suggest that I should probably devote myself largely to growing fancy salad leaves to garnish the plates of wealthy restaurant patrons, and then write my screeds about how small-scale farming can solve world hunger as a purely theoretical pursuit. However, some years ago my alter ego Spudman took me aside and pointed out there’s something of a contradiction there. Since then I’ve always tried to grow a little bit of a staple crop every year, usually potatoes, without beating myself up too much about the amount I grow in the face of the pressures for my farm to make money.

This year, my efforts have been especially desultory, as I’ve felt the need to prioritize other things. I bought 50kg of seed potatoes (25kg of earlies and 25kg of main crop), and cleared a total harvest of about 350kg. After so brazenly claiming in recent posts that small-scale farmers can produce higher per hectare yields, I’ve got to admit that this is an embarrassingly poor effort on my part. Naturally, I have an impressive suite of excuses at my command: in view of other priorities and the unpromising economics of small-scale commercial potato production, I didn’t sufficiently fertilise, ridge, weed or irrigate the crop during the hot, dry summer, and then the shaft on my vintage potato spinner gave out mid-harvest, leaving me with a more-troublesome-than-it-seems winter repair job and, most likely, more potatoes still in the ground than would otherwise have been the case, which will no doubt volunteer their presence in future years. Perennial crops, eh – dontcha just love ‘em!

Still, despite so grievously neglecting my charges, by putting my 50kg of seed potatoes in the ground in the spring, I managed by season’s end a sevenfold return on my investment. And that is a pretty magical result, is it not? So, at any rate, thought François Quesnay, whose Tableau économique of 1759 laid the foundations for the school of economic thought known as physiocracy. The physiocrats considered labour devoted to agriculture productive, and labour devoted to industry sterile. Perhaps one could say that the story of my potato harvest endorses their view: put a potato in the ground and it will reward you seven times over or more, put a steel shaft on a potato spinner and the damn thing just breaks. Eventually. Quesnay was also a physician, and perhaps a patriot: his metaphor of the economy was that of a corporeal body sustained by the circulation of things.

Now, I admit there are a number of additional complexities here, but this is a blog post, not a treatise on economic history, OK? Well now, there’s an idea! Let’s try to put the physiocrats into the broader context of the history of western economic thought, as typically conveyed in the ‘historical background’ paragraphs of standard economic textbooks. Or at least as might be conveyed in a first draft of such a textbook, before professional self-censorship intrudes.

So, first up, let’s hear it for the physiocrats. Their theories of ‘productive’ agriculture and ‘sterile’ manufacture were laughably misguided – show me the agrarian economy that can anywhere near match the economic productivity of an industrial one – but at least they were among the first to identify a distinctive phenomenon that we can call ‘the economy’, thus paving the way for the prodigious advances achieved by later economists. Indeed, the physiocrats were quickly superseded by Adam Smith, who gets the nod as the founding father of economics through his identification of something called the market, and not silly old agriculture, as the fundamental unit of analysis in the discipline. True, he had some funny ideas about agriculture and domestic trade being the ‘natural’ focus of economic development, in contrast to the ‘unnatural’ path taken in Europe by way of foreign trade, but every hero has an Achilles heel, right?

I suppose we now need to mention one Thomas Robert Malthus in our survey – not, heaven forbid, for his thoughts on population growth outstripping its resource base, which has turned out to be wrong and has earned Malthus a richly-deserved posthumous notoriety down to the present. I mean, OK, those thoughts exerted a big influence on Charles Darwin, whose theory of natural selection has earned him richly-deserved posthumous celebration down to the present. But the thing is, natural selection doesn’t really apply to humans because we’ve transcended nature through our technological knowhow, as proven by the fact there’ve been no major global Malthusian crises in the whole 200 years since he was writing, which is a very long time evolutionarily speaking. Anyway, the real importance of Malthus was in noticing that the tendency of markets to cycle between booms and busts suggests they don’t always work quite as smoothly as Smith conjectured – and that the job of economics is therefore to try and ensure they do.

Then there’s Ricardo, whose comparative advantage over Smith was his theory of comparative advantage, suggesting pace Smith that foreign trade is important after all. And also his theory of rent, suggesting pace the physiocrats that land rents arose from relative differences in land quality and not from the absolute bounty of land itself. Oh, and don’t forget Bentham, with his ridiculous useful quantification of abstraction and his illegitimately aggregative clever reduction of human values to the fungible, all wrapped up in that appalling famous phrase: ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’.

We should now perhaps mention some dissident visionaries, like Marx, Chayanov and Veblen. Actually, nah, let’s not. Much more important was the marginalist revolution of the late 19th century associated with the likes of Marshall and Jevons (he of Jevons paradox fame, paradoxically). This pushed Ricardo’s relativization a step further and established the modus operandi of neoclassical economics, which considers the level of prices, outputs and incomes relative to supply and demand. And that pretty much brings us into the era of modern economics, which has merely refined those basic themes of markets, trade, prices and outputs in the context of a modern global world market system that has taken relativization so far that our food prices tumble ever-downwards, and our complex fiscal instruments enable risk to be so relativized that even the poorest people in the developed western economies can now afford to take out sub-prime mortgages safely on modest homes, a privilege that will hopefully soon extend to poor people in the rapidly-urbanizing developing economies. And let us now end our history lesson there, circa 2007, for every history requires its end-point. Sure, some other stuff has happened since, but that’s history, eh? One damn thing after another.

But seriously now, what I find interesting about the historical trajectory that I’ve sketched above with such impartial scholarly acuity is that most of the early economists displayed strong concerns – perhaps you could call them anxieties – about agriculture and its attendant issues: the limits of productivity, the relations between humanity and nature, the effects of land quality and so on. This was gradually sundered from the economic package as we approach the present, until the discipline seemed to become almost wholly absorbed with the matter of price signals.

Another way of framing that historical trajectory in a single phrase might be ‘out of the absolute, the relative’. Indeed, you could probably say that of the social sciences in general. Social scientists of most varieties like to inhabit relations more than things. Not a bad instinct – holism over reductionism, relationality over essentialism, and so on. But I’d argue we now need something of a rebalancing towards the absolute. Not entirely – abandoning the vantage point of the relative is usually a quick route into the intellectual morass, which has swallowed up any number of ‘back to nature’ philosophies and provided endless point-scoring opportunities for those who like to stand on the apparently safe shore of the relative with the death-curse of ‘Malthusianism’ or ‘Stoicism’ on their lips. Still, wouldn’t it be nice if there were a contemporary economics that properly wrestled with the problem of agriculture and environment in the way that the classical economists did?

True, there have been some noble efforts in recent times. The work of people like Georgescu-Roegen and Daly founded ecological economics and placed the presentiments of the physiocrats into the more precise language of energy and entropy. But somehow their efforts haven’t displaced the mainstream metaphor of markets chasing net present value as the central fact of modern life, or of Smith’s myth of the ‘invisible hand’. And though you could probably argue plausibly that this is because Smith’s myth suits the suits who run the world, I think there’s more to it than that. I think the metaphors of market, debt and money so deeply condition our thought, even among those of us inclined to reject them, that we’ve yet to find the cultural language we need to steer our way with sufficient intellectual subtlety between the Scylla of natural absolutism and the Charybdis of net present value, price signals, market efficiency and all the rest.

Smith was remarkably prescient in describing the logic of an economic order that, in 1776 when his Wealth of Nations was published, had scarcely even begun to take shape. The tragedy of the economic discipline he helped found is that it’s been so successful at creating self-fulfilling prophecies, making the world over in the image of its distorted models of it. What we need now is a Smith for our times, someone who can breathe new life into the physiocrats’ metaphor of the biota as a body corporate, with a currency of energy and life, without forgetting what we’ve learned in the interim about the relational character of the (human) world. Which is why (memo to self) I want to remain open to people articulating alternative ‘back to nature’ philosophies of natural absolutes, however dubious I find them intellectually. They’re identifying a real problem in contemporary culture, which we will only overcome if we ruminate on it from many angles. In the meantime, I plan to curate the investment bestowed me by the sun in the form of my potato harvest, to fix the darned potato spinner, and to meditate some more on the economy of water and nitrogen as well as of relative human values.

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.