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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dark thoughts on ecomodernism

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

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

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

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

 

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Dark Thoughts On Ecomodernism

Chris Smaje

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Material wellbeing

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Modernization

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Decoupling

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“For I ask whether in the wild woods and uncultivated waste of America left to nature, without any improvement, tillage or husbandry, a thousand acres [will] yield the needy and wretched inhabitants as many conveniences of life as ten acres of equally fertile land do in Devonshire where they are well cultivated?”13

 

Civilization and Uncivilization

 

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

 

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

 

 

Referencess

 

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

 

  1. Figures from http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/mortality-ageing/mortality-in-england-and-wales/average-life-span/rpt-average-life-span.html#tab-Trends-in-Average-Life-Span

 

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

 

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

 

  1. https://data.oecd.org/agroutput/meat-consumption.htm

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. http://www.eia.gov

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The strong perennial vision: a response (again)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

Farm-free Fridays: or, pondering the Palaeolithic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

Of agricultural efficiency: the Vallis Veg mowing trial

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here are the results:

Area mown

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

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

Here are the results:

Energy used

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

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

Ratio area-energy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The modern commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In an impressively forgiving follow-up, Hemenway wrote,

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

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

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

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

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

The ancient commons

At the end of my last post I floated some questions about property rights and resource use, which I aim to address here – albeit obliquely – with a look at an old book about an old subject, but one that’s highly relevant to present day issues: historian J.M.Neeson’s Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820. I’ll follow it up with another post or two about the concept of the commons and its relevance today.

Neeson effectively dispels, if indeed it still needs dispelling, Garrett Hardin’s misleading concept of ‘the tragedy of the commons’. Instead she finds in England up to the 1750s and persisting beyond, a village-based common-field, common-pasture and woodland/wasteland peasant agriculture which she describes as “an effective, flexible and proven way to organize village agriculture” in which “the common pastures were well governed, the value of a common right was well maintained.” (p.156). I’ve written before about rural romanticism: it’s a trap that Neeson most certainly doesn’t fall into. She has no illusions about the tough and deeply inegalitarian realities of peasant life in 18th century England. But she’s alive to the complexities of the peasant commons and their importance to people who vigorously defended their way of life against the ultimately victorious encroachments of the enclosers. Indeed, she shows how the damaged trope of the ‘rural idyll’ still with us today has in some ways come down to us from the propaganda of the 18th century enclosers in their attempts to discredit the commons.

The level of detail in Neeson’s book probably goes beyond what most people lacking a specific interest in the period can easily stomach – so here I’m just going to paint in very broad brush a few things I learned from it that I think are relevant to contemporary issues around agriculture, environment and society.

1. The Commoning Ecology. In a society where access to land and its resources for ordinary people was relatively scarce (mostly because landownership was heavily concentrated), by partitioning usufruct rights out across the community commoning created numerous ways in which people could at least partially self-provision with food, fuel and other necessities through mechanisms such as gleaning in the fields, taking snapwood from the forests and grazing livestock on the commons. Put another way: in a society where energy was scarce and everyday needs had to be provided from local resources with few imports, the commons maximised sustainable resource use by partitioning out access to various local resources, albeit without challenging the basic pattern of resource ownership. I’ll come back to this point in an upcoming post.

2. The Commoning Economy. Notwithstanding the inequality, commoning included fine-grained ecological complementarity between economic classes in situations of energy/fertility scarcity: for example, the right of commoners to graze livestock on the headlands of ploughed land, thus making best use of available grazing while adding fertility to the fields. Commoners spanned a range of economic standings, from the near destitute to the comfortably off within the village economy. One argument in favour of commoning was that, by allowing the poor to raise livestock they couldn’t otherwise have afforded, it provided them with an income that kept them off the poor rate and enabled them to spend money in the village economy to the benefit of other local economic agents such as shopkeepers, blacksmiths etc.

Nevertheless, in 18th century England there were plenty of (wealthier) people who had reason to oppose the commons – usually on the basis of one of two somewhat contradictory positions. The first was that the commoners were mired in poverty, and it would be better for them to work as labourers for others where they would likely earn more as wageworkers than they would as independent proprietors. The second was that commoners weren’t poor enough – their access to the commons enabled them to live a relatively self-sufficient lifestyle, making them reluctant recruits to the proletarian labouring that many of their social superiors desired for them. “The use of common land by labourers operates upon the mind as a sort of independence” in the words of one 18th century report, but after enclosure would follow a “subordination of the lower ranks of society which in the present times is so much wanted” (Neeson, p.284). Not much wanted by the commoners themselves, though: a Northamptonshire petition, for example, lamented the “small but comfortable Subsistence” that would be lost with the enclosure of the commons. Other contemporaries argued that enclosure “impoverished twenty small farmers to enrich one” (Neeson, p.22) and that it would “tend to ruin ye nation”. The evidence marshalled by Neeson indeed suggests that enclosure typically brought further concentration of landownership and greater poverty to erstwhile commoners.

Herein lie two different economic models. There’s the model of the enclosers, the nationalists, and the modernists – a model of the lowly worker integrated into a large industrious society, a cog in the machine who, though subordinate, can expect a little of the largesse to come their way. And then there’s the model of the peasant or the commoner, a proprietor, thrifty, frugal, and not well off – but independent, and beholden to few. It’s Hamilton versus Jefferson; Marxism versus populism; or, as I’ve framed it elsewhere Kshatriya (king) versus Vaishya (farmer) values. In the 18th century, arguments raged not only over the morality of turning commoners into proletarians by fiat, but also over the respective agricultural productivities of the two models. That argument still continues.

Of course, these ways of life were connected to wider economic currents. In Neeson’s analysis, the relationship between the peasant commoning economy and the emerging wageworker capitalist economy in 18th century England is complex – indeed, the relationship between peasantries and capitalisms historically throughout the world has been highly complex, and in a future post I’ll be looking at Giovanni Arrighi’s fascinating analyses of this. But by century’s end, commoners in England were in retreat: widespread enclosure had led to a further concentration of landownership, and an increase in indigence and proletarianization. It’s worth noting in this connection the arguments of historian Emma Griffin, whose book Liberty’s Dawn, I reviewed in an earlier post: according to Griffin, few industrial labourers in early 19th century England expressed any nostalgia for the rural, agricultural life they’d left behind. Well, maybe Neeson helps us understand why: their forebears had mostly been shunted off the land a generation or two earlier. If you’re already a landless proletarian, you might as well be an industrial landless proletarian – the pay’s better (at least while the industrial economy is growing), and it’s easier to organise with your fellows. But, as Neeson amply demonstrates, the enclosures of 18th century England were fiercely resisted by those who stood to lose out from them.

3. Agricultural ‘Improvement’: I doubt the resonance of the 18th century enclosure debates in England with earlier and later incarnations of agricultural ‘improvement’ need much spelling out from me. John Locke justified the European expropriation of America from its indigenous inhabitants with a proto-encloser argument about the idleness and unproductiveness of the Indians. And today it’s not hard to find people urging the demise of a putatively unproductive and inefficient peasant agriculture – send them to the cities, where they can get proper paid work! Nowadays, the anti-peasant tone is paternalistic rather than critical: nobody wants to be a peasant anyway – it’s a “poverty trap and an environmental disaster” (Stewart Brand). Or “urbanization is often the only way out of the drudgery and insecurity of subsistence agriculture on the land. No doubt, many have been forced to the city as a result of corporate land-grabs, but many more make their way there in search of a better life not available in the parochial traditional village” (Graham Strouts).

An anonymous defender of the commons writing in 1780 suggested that an encloser had first to deceive himself about the value of commons: he must “bring himself to believe an absurdity, before he can induce himself to do a cruelty” (Neeson, p.38). The absurdity is the belief that because peasants or commoners can fall on hard times, this is a chronic and intrinsic limitation of small-scale proprietorship (another one I’d add is the apparent belief that small farm expropriation is a good remedy for small farm poverty). The cruelty is the expropriation. There’s a lot more that needs saying about the concept of “the parochial traditional village” and the voluntaristic, Dick Whittington image conjured by the neo-improvers of peasants lighting out for the city in search of a better life. But for now I’ll just say that the 18th century encloser/improver discourse in general and the absurdity/cruelty couplet in particular neatly captures the putatively anti-poverty and complacently anti-peasant language of the contemporary neo-improvers. I’m unsure as to whether their get ye to the city schtick represents a genuine belief in the enriching power of the city (for which there’s not a great deal of evidence) or is merely a (cynical?) ploy in favour of proletarianization and the disciplining of labour. Perhaps both: doubtless 18th century enclosers genuinely believed that their programme would uplift the rural poor by incorporating them as dependents into a hierarchical national and international economy. Doubtless 21st century enclosers believe the same.

I’m not myself an admirer of agricultural ‘improvement’ generally. I’m not convinced that enclosure actually did improve agriculture in late 18th century England, and I’m not convinced that the proposals of the latter day improvers to replace peasant agriculture with giant mechanised arable production will improve 21st century agriculture. But that doesn’t mean I think a commoning agricultural economy of the 18th century sort is appropriate today. I’ll turn to the contemporary commons in my next post.

PS: apologies for the advertising hyperlinks that seem to have appeared in this post. Looks like there’s some kind of security/hacking problem that I’ll have to try to figure out – in the mean time, the irony of writing a post about the commons which gets subverted by others for private gain is quite amusing, no?

 

Off Grid-ish


Small Farm Future's HQ

Time to bring it all back home today, with a sneaky behind the scenes virtual tour of Small Farm Future’s corporate headquarters.

The picture at left gives an overview of the complex, as seen from the lofty throne of the outdoor compost toilet. Funny that in these days of retro fashion the backyard loo hasn’t made a return to every hipster’s homestead wishlist. Ah well, more evidence that SFF is ahead of the curve.

So let me walk you through the various accoutrements visible on the edifice’s southern wing. At left is the satellite broadband dish through which my jeremiads about the false god of progress are beamed instantaneously around the world – and who would have thought that possible just a few short years ago? Up and right, at the back of the roof are our solar hot water tubes – mighty sentinels surveying the farm from the lordly height of their tin roof. Nothing very lordly about their performance in the darkest depths of December, however, so fortunately we have backup in the form of a wood burning stove with backburner whose chimney outcrops cheekily between the footings of their rivals. The Small Farm Future cabin is moderately well insulated for a prefab that’s only supposed to see us through 3 years of temporary planning permission. It does require a bit of space heating in winter from the wood burner, but surprisingly little. Heating water is another matter, though. Just as well we planted a veritable forest on site ten years ago, which pretty much serves our needs.

Prone on the roof beneath the tubes, you’ll observe twelve PV panels which provide the bulk of our electricity, via our 3kW inverter. 3kW would have been a fine thing indeed in the winter, but now that it’s summer we’re on electrical easy street, despite the odd cloudy day. At far right you’ll see our 1kW wind turbine lurking in camo colours in the lee of the building. Dang thing hardly turns at all where it is, especially now I’ve tied it with baler twine. Getting it generating will be a project for the autumn.

On the facing wall the attentive viewer will notice more solar panels – in this case for the dehumidifier, which blows warm, dry air into the cabin on sunny winter days. Far right is the Vallis Veg propagator, allowing us to flood the global market with an endless stream of cucumbers, tomatoes and aubergines – but with a night time power drain of 150W through its warming cable, it’s a bit of tease to our electricity supply. Through the window you may even be able to spot the nerve centre of the Small Farm Future publishing empire, the very locus of its awesome creativity, known affectionately by staff as ‘the dining table’. Such wags.

Mercifully out of view around the deck on the left are our 19kg propane cylinders, used for cooking and occasional heating. “The great thing about the propane cylinders” I opined airily to Mrs Spudman one dark December Saturday, “is that, unlike the solar panels, if we run out we can just go and buy some more”. Sure enough, it did run out the very next day. And my desperate search for replenishments among the garages and hardware stores of Somerset proved wholly fruitless. I’d like to say I was sleeping on the sofa that night, but in fact it was Mrs S who was sleeping on the sofa – it was a lot warmer in the living room. I now have several spares.

Regarding water, other than the magnificent plenitude of the Somerset skies, we currently rely on a mains pipe – though I did have to spend a merry week in January in an open canopy mini digger laying the pipe to the house. Now there is household talk of boreholes and reservoirs in the longer term. Another alliance with Mr Yanmar beckons.

Off grid-ish, then, but not off reliance on the wider world. No sir, I’m all too well aware of my position somewhere near the end of Mr Putin’s tailpipe, which is not where anyone really likes to be. Still, let me try to draw some wider conclusions from all of this in keeping with Small Farm Future’s general brief. Perhaps the first one to note is that technological progress such as LED lights and photovoltaics allows us to live a pretty congenial off grid-ish lifestyle which previously could only have been funded by a large diesel generator. But it still requires a certain amount of care from us – doing the laundry only on sunny days, equalising the batteries regularly, rationing hot water and so on. Not massive sacrifices, but things that connect us a bit more to the potentialities of the natural world around us, and also lower our energy use and our carbon footprint a bit.

Now, I’m not one to brag about the size of my carbon footprint. I’ve come to think that human beings seek ever new arenas in which to best their fellows – bigger house, newer car, angrier blog, more LinkedIn connections, lower carbon footprint, whatever. I can’t say I’ve completely succeeded in overcoming the need to play this childish game, but I reckon I do a much better job than most people in not comparing myself with others. So I really don’t want to make a big deal about what I’m doing as some kind of exemplary sustainable lifestyle. Given our particular circumstances this approach made the most sense to us, but it’s probably not a widely replicable model. Nevertheless, what I like about it is the fact that it does impose occasional limits: if the sun ain’t shining, the laundry stays undone, and so on.

There’s a lot of talk about the way that technological developments enable more efficient use of given resources – for example, a 4W LED light can now provide illumination equivalent to about 60W from an old incandescent bulb. But this relative decoupling of resource outputs from resource inputs only really matters if it helps achieve an absolute decoupling – less total resources used. And when you look at global resource use, most notably in relation to fossil fuels, this just isn’t happening. It’s all very well me postponing the laundry until a sunny day – meanwhile, they’re pumping water up a Welsh mountain at dead of night so that everyone can have a cup of tea after watching Coronation Street. Rebound effects abound.

So maybe my point is this: it’s often more efficient to produce a good like electricity, or public water, collectively, but the danger is that it is then undervalued by the public, who demand – from the government, from ‘scientists’, from ‘civilisation’ – that the spigot must be opened ever further. I’d argue that there’s something to be said – no more than that – for more people to have the chance of being responsible for an area of land and figuring out how they’re going to produce food, water, energy and other necessities from it, especially when there’s a carbon price or other long-term environmental cost as well as a fiscal price attached to their decisions. It concentrates the mind.

Wrapped up within that point is a set of issues about public, private and collective control of resources, which I want to address in my next couple of posts on the matter of commoning, past and present. Until then, it’s goodbye from Small Farm Future HQ: don’t forget to turn out the lights.

Eco-Optimism, Eco-Pessimism, Eco-Modernism

Some thoughts today on the weighty matters of my title, prompted by Tom’s departing broadside against me a couple of posts back. Perhaps I ought to just ignore it, but I’m slightly troubled by the fact that someone who’s been reading my blog for a while should (mis)interpret my thinking as he does. I’m sure the fault is largely mine, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to restate and clarify some of the main themes of this blog, and to lay down a future marker. If I accepted Tom’s stance on where the world is at I should probably quit my arguin’ ways, and my pretensions to being a farmer too, embrace the world as it is, enjoy my extremely privileged position within it and wait for the scientists to solve our problems. But I don’t, and I can’t. So if it’s worth me continuing both to write and to farm as I do at all, then it must be worth me trying to explain why I think as I do to whoever will listen (which I realise isn’t many – and even fewer now…)

At any rate, the intellectual content of Tom’s parting shot was as follows…

“large chunks of your thinking has been pessimistic, disregarding the basic reality that we are here and we have more stuff than our grandparents including the ability to survive cancer, a huge achievement due to science and a social system that utilises ambition and creativity. Regardless of the fact that it is corporations that benefit the most, we have benefitted too and to ignore that is disingenuous.”

To start with a point of agreement, Tom rightly says ‘we are here’. I take that to mean that societies ‘are where they are’ and all that really matters is the decisions they face about how to proceed into the future, how to deal with the threats they perceive, how to maintain and improve the characteristics that they value.  Agreed. But as well as ‘us’ being ‘here’, ‘they’ are also ‘there’. Who are ‘they’? People from the past and people in the present who live(d) a different kind of life.

I find the neurosis in our culture strange that constantly needs to compare ‘us’ with ‘them’, and find ourselves to be superior on the basis of our knowledge, our science, our machinery, our cancer rates or whatever. There are many things about our culture that I cherish, including its science and its cancer care (though to be honest I think a more significant medical achievement is the decline in infant mortality rates, which stem mostly from some fairly basic science – clean water, hygiene etc – rather than anything too modern and sophisticated). I don’t think I’ve ever written anything here intended to suggest there’s anything wrong with science or cancer treatment. But I suppose it’s true that I don’t much dwell on the wonders of modern science and technology. Cultural self-congratulation is not hard to find elsewhere for those who seek it. I’m more interested in discussing how to preserve the worthwhile technological gains we’ve made into the future in a sustainable and equitable way.

But there are things about our culture that I dislike, and, even though we are indeed where we are, I’d like to be open to the possibility that ‘we’ can learn things from ‘them’ in addressing them – not because their societies are better than ours, but simply because their societies are different. I don’t necessarily want our society to be more like any other particular historical society. But I think our society could be different and better than it is now, and that other peoples may have things to teach us about how to change for the better that are not gainsaid by the fact that ‘we’ are so keen to consider ourselves superior to ‘them’ on our metrics of choice.

Another ‘them’ is the contemporary global poor.  Bear in mind that there are about a billion people living today who are clinically undernourished, which is more people than lived on earth at any point up to about 1800. This brute fact makes it hard for me to agree with the ‘ecomodernist’ view that “humanity has flourished over the last two centuries”1. The world’s poorest do not necessarily have more stuff than their grandparents, and almost certainly have less stuff than ‘our’ grandparents. As I’ve already said, I don’t see the point in comparing our lives to those of others and deciding whose is best, but if we’re going to do it then I don’t consider ‘having more stuff’ a good comparative metric. We (though not ‘they’) certainly have a lot of stuff nowadays, some of which is very useful. There is a current of thought that the poor are lacking in the necessary stuff because they haven’t had the opportunity to join modern capitalist economic relationships. It’s implicit in our concept of ‘developed’ and ‘undeveloped’ countries. But in general I’m more persuaded by the Walter Rodney2 line of argument that places don’t ‘suffer from underdevelopment’. They’re actively underdeveloped by the overdeveloped ones, or, as Eric Hobsbawm3 has it, there are historical processes of uneven development. Thus I see capitalist economic relationships as part of the problem. That’s not to say that what preceded capitalism was much of a hoot either.

I struggle with the idea that ‘our’ social system utilises ambition and creativity – there are few opportunities for those one billion hungry to realise their own ambition and creativity. The whole notion sounds to me like a right-wing exercise in victim blaming. I agree that creativity is important, and even ambition has its place – but there are problems with it. Ambition and egalitarianism are odd bedfellows, unless carefully channeled. Christopher Boehm argues in his interesting book Hierarchy in the Forest that small-scale band societies tend to place a heavy emphasis on egalitarianism, and therefore consider it necessary to quash ambition whenever they see it. I think all this raises some troubling questions for the notion of a capitalist society that simultaneously vaunts ambition, creativity and egalitarianism. Economic growth may make those questions a little easier to resolve, but at best only defers them for someone else to sort out in the future. We can all trade statistics about cancer care, the availability of ‘stuff’, poverty rates and so on to assert what we will about the state of the world. Ultimately you have to choose the key values that you espouse and decide whether you think the dominant tendencies in our society are likely to deliver them: in my case those key values are equity, self-possession, social cohesion and ecological sustainability, and my answer is no. I think a non-capitalist agrarian society has a better chance (though only a chance) of delivering.

The nub of my original disagreement with Tom was about energy, not science. It strikes me that the kinds of science where it’s easiest to talk about progress are ones that are people and ideas intensive – the basic research sciences, electronics, medicine (including cancer treatment). Other aspects of our culture – agriculture, transport, construction, industry – are energy intensive, and there is to my mind a big question mark over our ability to fund them into the future with clean energy at the levels they currently enjoy. Tom says that scientists will solve this problem ‘because they have to’, but I just can’t see any warrant for thinking so other than blind faith. Most ‘ecomodernist’ thinking terminates in the same weak ‘someone’s bound to think of something’ gambit. But actually I think part of the problem we have in the overdeveloped world is the surfeit of energy we enjoy, which has made it far too easy for us to promote ecological dysfunction, usually in other parts of the world that ‘we’ don’t see. So as well as disputing the ease of a future high energy transition, I dispute that it’s necessarily a good idea – unless we do a better job of putting our economy into an ethical framework. Much is now being said about ‘energy poverty’, but I think this is largely a relative term. You’re only energy poor if you have less access to energy in a society organised around the needs of the energy-affluent. Access to some extra energy is a good thing, but how much is enough? I think we need to be asking that question persistently of much that we do. I’m not saying that science, technology, cheap energy etc. are ‘bad’. I’m saying that producing more (and producing more for less) isn’t always good – we ought to look more closely at what we want to produce and why, but to do that we need an economic system that doesn’t relentlessly incentivise the cutting of production costs. No doubt there’s some kind of historical relationship between scientific and capitalist development, but it’s not straightforward or identical. A critique of capitalist development is not a critique of scientific development.

So I don’t think that technologies, mostly, are intrinsically ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – everything depends on the social context within which they operate. Therefore I’m not a believer in simple techno-fixes, because the ‘environmental problems’ we have are systemic and related to social, even spiritual, orientations: they will not be solved by the piecemeal tinkering of engineers or agronomists, though that’s not to say there’s no room for a bit of piecemeal tinkering sometimes. I think that we – that is, everyone in the world – can have the opportunity to live good, abundant lives if we transform the economy, and I think part of that transformation would have to involve a turn to smaller-scale, lower-energy farming, which is my particular interest. We are lamentably short of good political and economic analyses of what such a transformation might look like, but I find the traditions of agrarian populism of most interest to me in thinking about it. Agrarian populism is not about anti-scientific stasis, but about how to make science and technology work long-term for the benefit of all, including or especially rural farmers, not short-term for the benefit of few.

I don’t have much use for the terms ‘optimism’ and ‘pessimism’. I think they’re essentially labels with which we bestow our approbation or disapproval upon others. Why is it intrinsically good to be ‘optimistic’ or bad to be ‘pessimistic’? In most species, natural selection soon culls ill-founded optimism. I’m not sure that humanity has yet transcended this dynamic, and as psychologists like Daniel Kahneman4 have shown, humanity has an advanced capacity for ill-founded optimism. Optimism suits the ‘everyone’s a winner’ mentality of contemporary capitalism, but everyone is not a winner. I find Banerjee and Duflo’s comment interesting that while rich people tend to ponder how to get poor people to defer gratification and invest the money that comes their way so as to escape poverty, poor people tend to accept more realistically that they will always be poor and use money to make their lives slightly more tolerable in the here and now5. Here is ‘ecomodernist’ Stewart Brand’s take on a Mumbai slum: “Dharavi…is vibrantly and triumphantly alive….Everyone is working hard, and everyone is moving up”6. And here is Katherine Boo’s take on another Mumbai slum, writing of Asha, one of its denizens:

“She had by now seen past the obvious truth – that Mumbai was a hive of hope and ambition – to a profitable corollary. Mumbai was a place of festering grievance and ambient envy. Was there a soul in this enriching, unequal city who didn’t blame his dissatisfaction on someone else?….Asha had a gift for solving the problems of her neighbors. And when she had control over the slum, she could create problems in order to fix them – a profitable sequence”7

Is Brand ‘optimistic’ and Boo ‘pessimistic’? If so, I think any workable policy efforts to improve the lot of the average slum dweller had better be based on pessimism.

I don’t think I’m pessimistic in the sense of throwing up my hands and reveling in the misery of it all. I believe in the possibility of people coming together to work out sustainable and equitable long-term solutions. That’s what I want to contribute to, but I don’t think it’s easy. I don’t have the confidence of Marxists in proletarian revolution or of rightwingers in optimally-allocating markets or any other such pat off-the-shelf solutions. So I’m not optimistic, but I’m hopeful – a distinction I’ve discussed at greater length here. I also think social power is a strong force distorting the possibility of equity and sustainability. The way I think about technology, progress and social power is well captured by a few excerpts from the eponymous hero of Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban’s novel about a post-nuclear holocaust world written, to quote from the dustjacket, in ‘‘language which reflects the decayed world around him” (and, come to think of it, weapons of mass destruction are technologies where impressive progress has indisputably been made over the past 50 years or so, with surprisingly little fanfare from the technophiles):

“How cud any 1 not want to get that shyning Power back from time back way back? How cud any 1 not want to be like them what had boats in the air and picters on the wind? How cud any 1 not want to see them shyning weals terning?

“Power dint go a way. It ben and it wer and it wud be. It wer there and drawing. Power wantit you to come to it with Power. Power wantit what ever cud happen to happen. Power wantit every thing moving frontways.

“I wernt looking for no Hy Power no mor I dint want no Power at all…THE ONLYES POWER IS NO POWER”

I’d like to help bring about an agrarian populist-inspired economic transformation, though I have embarrassingly little idea of how best to make it happen. Once you abandon the notion that there is some unfolding historical pattern leading ever onwards to progress and redemption, the way ahead inevitably becomes murkier. But I plan for now to continue thinking and writing about it. Perhaps the best use I can make of Tom’s irate comments about my irascibility is to try not to get riled as I sometimes have in the past by ‘ecomodernist’ blowhards or people writing patronising putdowns on my blog. So in future I’ll try to focus my writing more on what I’m for than on what I’m against. Shame, because I had a cracking little post lined up about Steve Savage’s take on food science. Well, I think it helps sometimes to develop your position negatively against that with which you disagree – especially in a blog format where essentially you’re thinking out loud. So I may stray into negative territory from time to time. But I’ll try to stick with my new plan. So thanks Tom (see that wasn’t so hard…)

References

1. An Ecomodernist Manifesto p.8.

2. Rodney, W. 1972. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.

3. Hobsbawm, E. 1976. ‘From feudalism to capitalism’ in Hilton, R. ed. The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism.

4. Kahneman, D. 2012. Thinking Fast and Slow.

5. Banerjee, A. and Duflo, E. 2012. Poor Economics.

6. Brand, S. 2009. Whole Earth Discipline.

7. Boo, K. 2012. Behind the Beautiful Forevers.

 

Grass dilemmas

Today a few musings prompted by a characteristically thoughtful and lyrical post on haymaking by Brian Miller.

As Brian points out, there’s really no comparison between the speed of hand or indeed horse-powered haymaking and what can be achieved even by a small 45hp tractor, let alone by a big one. The way that’s worked out in ‘developed’ country farming on a straightforward cost accounting basis is that fiscal output over fiscal input favours the tractor every time, and it also favours the big tractor over the small one, which is why the agricultural landscape in so many ‘developed’ countries looks like desert(ed) steppe. We tend to slip into talking about this kind of agriculture as being ‘efficient’. It may be so financially, but not necessarily in terms of carbon, energy or social accounting. I’ll be dealing with that issue in more detail in an upcoming post, aka ‘the Vallis Veg grass cutting experiment’.

But what I want to focus on here is some of my dilemmas around the classic agricultural balance between grass and tillage cropping (or ‘horn and corn’ as they used to say in these parts). Granted, nowadays both arable and livestock/grass farmers tend to rely on imported synthetic fertiliser and the grass farmers often plough and sow short-term temporary ryegrass leys, but in a classic mixed agricultural situation with few external inputs you’d go for a mix of permanent pasture, temporary grass and cropland. My 18 acre site was all permanent grass when I started – now it’s about 2 acres of vegetables, 7 acres of woodland/wood pasture and 9 acres of grass.

I’ve only recently established a small flock of sheep on the site, having finally got the green light to live here. I’m still basically just a glorified veg gardener, but I’ve been enjoying having the sheep around. The birth of my first set of lambs this spring was pretty special. God, it’s a lot of work though: and I was even thinking of getting a house cow at one point…

So now, how should I best manage my own little mixed farming experiment? A lot of people (especially if they’re vegan) say that livestock farming is land-inefficient, and we ought to trim it back and focus on direct human plant food. Fair enough, but I’d raise a few queries. First, 2 acres of veg is more than enough to keep me busy, especially on our rather poor, alkali soil where the best parts are already under cultivation. You could argue that we should therefore turn the rest of the land over to other people to do something more productive with it – which to some extent is what we’ve done, but we’ve found those arrangements aren’t 100% straightforward and in any case people aren’t exactly queuing up to become commercial fruit or veg growers. Trying to help out younger people who want to get a start in farming is definitely part of my longer terms plans, however. And so is more thought on private and collective land management – some posts coming up on that soon.

Another issue somewhat elided in the ‘just grow food crops’ argument is how to get enough fertility into your cultivated ground if you’re not importing synthetic fertility from offsite (we can – and I have – argue about how much need there is in the world for synthetic fertiliser. But drowning in an ocean of artificial fertility as we are here in southern Britain, and with significant downstream nitrate and phosphate pollution, personally I can’t see good arguments other than possibly financial ones for a small market garden startup to use synthetic fertiliser as a first resort). You can go the vegan organic route with temporary clover leys like Tolly’s interesting system, but then you’ve got quite a lot of forage that you’re just cutting with a tractor – if you’re not vegan, why not graze it too? The trouble is, I find in practice that a market garden is quite an intensive system: I’ve got raised no dig beds (of which more anon), polytunnels, all sorts of irrigation kit, seedlings etc. so I don’t really want a bunch of woolly grass munchers blundering around amongst it all. Hopefully in the future I’ll be able to set things up so that I can graze them out in my field crop rotations (more bloody fencing…) – but it’d have to be limited to a short period in the spring when there are no crops in the ground. I like the Hampshire Downs idea of grazing the sheep out in the wildlands during the day and then bringing them down into the fields at night. But again not easy to make work in practice – and obviously quite a low output system. I suppose there are confinement or cut-and-compost options too, but in practice it seems to me that using ruminants as nutrient vectors for an intensive market garden isn’t an easy stunt to pull off.

Oh well – maybe I should be happy just having them on the grass and keeping the pasture ticking over. That brings a few more dilemmas (life is full of them, no?) At this time of year the grass growth is so rampant that my flock can’t keep up, whereas winter is more problematic. The obvious thing to do is to make hay or silage like Brian, but I’m not sure I can quite justify getting a drum mower, hay bob and baler, all just for my ram and six ewes. And contractors are a pain. Here in warm, moist Somerset the grass grows virtually all year round and the sheep just about got by on it through the winter. I did make a little hay by hand – scythe, rake and wheelbarrow into the shed. But the sheep were none too keen on it, or indeed on the nice green bale I bought at the farm merchants. I noticed that, being unbaled, my own hay had its fair share of mouse droppings in it (despite the fact that the cat seemed to spend most of the winter asleep on top of it), and it didn’t feel so grand feeding it to the sheep. Not sure I’m up for making hay again by hand this summer. I think I like the idea of a foggage system, supplemented with a bit of bought in hay and maybe some concentrate for the pregnant ewes. Perhaps not the best way to get the most out of the grass, but most isn’t always best. I like all the insects, and the voles and raptors we have on site – plus our campers too, our most lucrative form of livestock, in the wild wood pasture.

One final sheep issue. I’m not sure what the balance of shepherding wisdom on this is, but I vaccinated my sheep against pulpy kidney and clostridial diseases under veterinary advice – all but one lamb, which is reserved for a valued customer who is not a fan of vaccination. His view, if I don’t misrepresent it, is that the adjuvants used in vaccines can be quite toxic, that the risk-immunity tradeoff is not good, that overuse of vaccines has similar consequences to overuse of antibiotics, and that the medical and veterinary industries are – how can I put this – fleecing us. I’m possibly with him on the latter point at least – after trawling the web for information on the incidence of said diseases I found very little, except for one piece claiming 50% lamb mortality prior to the advent of vaccines. For me personally, I’m pretty happy to be up with my tetanus jabs, but (especially for the small-scale shepherd) there’s a slightly more brutal cost-benefit calculus involved with the lambs, given that they’re off to the abattoir in just a few months. And so my question: to jab or not to jab?

Meanwhile I’ve been reading George Monbiot’s tirade against intensive meat farming. And his book Feral is in the in-tray: I gather it involves a tirade against extensive meat farming. I guess George just doesn’t like meat. I’m actually a great admirer of his writing, though I do think he tends to blame farmers themselves a little too much for the dysfunctions of the food system. Also in the in-tray is Philip Walling’s Counting Sheep, and James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life, which has become a minor literary sensation. I’m glad that some books about farming are intruding upon the obsessional recent trend for nature writing in Britain, even if I’m troubled that these guys may have stolen my schtick. Maybe once I’ve let George, Philip and James argue it all out I’ll be able to answer some of my dilemmas. But feel free to add your tuppenceworth below.