One cheer for the commons

A recent article on proclaimed that ‘the commons is the future’, so let me state my thesis plainly at the outset: no it isn’t, and in the event that humanity manages to create sustainable societies and/or sustainable resource use in the future, common property regimes will likely only have a fairly minor role to play in them. I’m not going to dwell much on the Resilience article, some of which I agree with and some of which I don’t, but the general position I’m staking seems to put me at odds with a lot of environmental and egalitarian-minded people whose views I otherwise largely share, so maybe it’s worth exploring further – as I do below under a number of headings for ease of argument.

What is a commons?

People often talk rather loosely about the ‘global commons’ or humanity’s ‘common treasury’ of soil, air, water, knowledge, seeds etc. Part of the problem in thinking about commons arises right here at the definitional outset, because these things aren’t actually commons. They’re what economists call public goods – that is, a good where consumption is non-rivalrous and non-excludable, like air – the breaths I take don’t impede the breaths you take, and it’s hard for us to limit anyone’s access to air in such a way that we can charge them for breathing (…don’t mention it to George Osborne though, just in case). A commons, by contrast, is a resource where people’s use of it does affect others’ use, and indeed is often at risk of destruction by overuse. To remedy this, a commons identifies a specific community of users (and thus, by implication, a wider community of non-users) and a set of usage protocols that specify how the resource is to be used. A classic example is the commons of pre-industrial England, where certain local people were entitled to graze a set amount of livestock on land they didn’t own, or glean corn from the fields after harvest, or take gorse as firewood. The tripartite commons definition operates in these cases – a resource, a specific community, a usage protocol.

Private – Public – Common

Commons certainly have their place in the scheme of things, but I’m not entirely sure why they seem to be flavour of the month in alternative economics circles. Most likely it’s because both private and state ownership of economic resources have had a poor track record in recent times, with callously rapacious capitalism and repressive, monolithic communism both standing indicted in the historical dock. Do the commons, neither purely private nor purely public, offer a fresh option?

Maybe. But let’s look closer. Yavor Tarinski, in the aforementioned ‘Commons is the future’ article, refers to the work of leading commons scholar, the late Elinor Ostrom, on the commons in the Swiss Alpine village of Törbel. Tarinski writes, “In the Swiss village in question, local farmers tend private plots for crops but share a communal meadow for herd grazing.”

Let’s look at what Ostrom says:

“For centuries, Törbel peasants have planted their privately owned plots with bread grains, garden vegetables, fruit trees and hay for winter fodder. Cheese produced by a small group of herdsmen, who tend village cattle pasture on the communally owned alpine meadows during the summer months, has been an important part of the local economy. Written legal documents dating back to 1224 provide information regarding…the rules used by the villagers to regulate the five types of communally owned property: the alpine grazing meadows, the forests, the “waste” lands, the irrigation systems, and the paths and roads connecting privately and communally owned property”1

In other words, the primary subsistence activities undertaken by the villagers, which take up the majority of their time, are private affairs. Only in the case of a few less intensive activities are things arranged communally – important activities, to be sure, but scarcely indicative of a thoroughly communalised mindset. To me, it seems strange to home in on Törbel’s commons as somehow exemplary of a commoning life distinct from private property relations, when so much of the village economy is clearly organised through the latter.

Undoubtedly there’s a need in contemporary politics to transcend some of the more problematic consequences of traditional economic systems, both private and state organised, and commons provide some interesting examples of self-organising collective institutions in this respect. But as Ostrom herself pointed out, institutions are seldom wholly private or public – “the market” or “the state” (indeed, markets require state manipulation to operate, and even the most totalitarian of regimes is incapable of eliminating private economic relations). Ostrom provides many examples of the ways that commons – whether pastures, fisheries, irrigation schemes or water catchment protection – draw strength from what she calls “rich mixtures of “private-like” and “public-like” institutions defying classification in a sterile dichotomy”2. So perhaps there’s a need to go beyond simplistic notions of markets or states being bad and commons being good, and to specify more richly what kind of private, public or common institutions can be effective in different circumstances. Ostrom’s work stands as an impressive rebuke to those who think that communities can never organise their own resource use effectively without the help of the state or the market, but she’s at pains to show that commons don’t always work and aren’t always an appropriate mode of organisation.

So when do they work? Summarising Ostrom’s intricate analysis very crudely, the answer seems to be when there’s a relatively small number of people of fairly equivalent social standing who have a long-term interest in using a resource, particularly when that resource has a low value per unit area, or is erratically productive, or is hard to intensify, or is hard to exclude people from. I’ll come back to this. But I hope that answer begins to hint at why commons may not always be the optimal strategy for a sustainable agriculture of the future.

Of selfishness and altruism

The fact that commons seem to involve an element of altruism is, I suspect, one reason for the contemporary enthusiasm over them as a reaction to the tired nostrum of orthodox economic theory concerning intrinsic human selfishness. So are people intrinsically selfish or intrinsically altruistic? Both, surely. A close look at successful commons invariably reveals elaborately constructed procedures to detect and disincentivize cheating and free riding, while a close look at historical court proceedings associated with functioning commons reveals numerous actual examples of such behaviour. Not necessarily very frequent examples – the mark of a good commons is strong arrangements to ensure that people stick by the rules – but numerous enough for all that. Most people surely display all manner of altruism in their daily lives, but commons based on the notion that everyone will play ball because of an intrinsic human altruism soon founder.

To develop that point further, I’d suggest it’s untrue that private property regimes inevitably instil selfishness or that public authority is inevitably unresponsive and monolithic, just as it’s untrue that commoners are intrinsically selfish or intrinsically altruistic (David Bollier’s interesting book Think Like A Commoner sometimes errs, I believe, in its tendency to assimilate private property to capitalism and thence to beggar-my-neighbour self-interest: private property relations are not necessarily capitalist relations). Again, we need richer descriptions of the ways in which specific forms of economic organisation function or malfunction in specific cultural contexts. Part of the problem, I think, is the ascendancy of a neoliberal fundamentalism in western politics over the last thirty years or so that insists every sphere of life must be marketised. Recoiling from this delusion, and bruised by the defeat of the alternatives offered by traditional leftism, progressive thinkers have cast around for alternatives and lit upon the commons. But, as outlined earlier, commons usually only work well in particular rather specialised situations – and indeed themselves depend on wider private and public institutions. It’s often better, I’d argue, to work at correcting the malfunctioning aspects of private or public sector institutions than to assume that a commons will solve the problem.

Poverty and the commons

Much has been written on the enclosure of the commons – paradigmatically, on the extinction of commoners’ rights in early modern England. The reality of it was more complicated than pro- or anti-enclosure propagandists will usually admit, but I’m broadly sympathetic to the position sketched by historian J. Neeson that the enclosure of the commons represented the destruction of a peasantry and its reconstitution as a proletariat3. Enclosure undoubtedly imposed hardship on the rural poor, and for that reason I mourn it. Most of my writing revolves around making the case for a contemporary peasant agriculture. I do not welcome the destruction of peasantries, historic or contemporary.

But let’s get a grip. The loss of harvest gleaning rights must have been a blow to many a poor rural family, but would you like to go on your hands and knees through a cornfield in search of your supper? Commons can be a good way of intensifying land use, making them more ecologically and economically efficient, and thereby helping redress poverty in situations of great economic inequality. But they don’t in themselves radically challenge that inequality. Indeed, in some ways perhaps they buttress it. In situations where the poor have little access to resources, commons arise which help them make best use of what’s available to them. But there are better ways of creating access to resources. Those ways change over time, too. When the cost of containing livestock was prohibitive, it made sense for people to band together and employ a cowherd to tend their beasts on the common pasture. Nowadays, it would probably cost more to employ a herdsman on the commons than to fence your own fields.

But nowadays few of us have our own beasts or fields. Instead we have ideas and creative output we want to disseminate. The modern commons is about information and information sharing – an ‘open source’, ‘digital commons’. The idea of open source is that the great stock of human knowledge is a commons that shouldn’t be enclosed. But it seems to have turned into the notion that stuff ought to be free, and that people shouldn’t expect recompense for the work they put into uploading more content into the collective human consciousness. In other words, when we talk about the modern digital commons, the community and the protocol part of the commons definition goes missing. We happily fill Microsoft or Apple’s coffers so we can gain access to the content of this ‘digital commons’, but we expect the creators of content to furnish it for free on the grounds that they’re just recyclers of the knowledge commons, forgetting that so too are Microsoft and Apple. As farmers down the ages will tell you, the middleman makes the money and the producer gets little or nothing. This is not a commons.

There’s a donate button top right on my blog, by the way.

Contemporary peasants, contemporary commons

But I digress. Let me conclude by getting back to land use and thence to agriculture. Here’s an example of a contemporary commons that can work very well: residents in an urban area successfully petition their hard-pressed municipal authority to cede a piece of wasteground to them on a preferential long-term lease, organising themselves to tidy it up and improve access so that it becomes a valued recreational haven in the hurly-burly of the city. It works, because the characteristics of a successful commons that I outlined above mostly apply – a community of interest, an extensive resource that’s hard to intensify or exclude people from etc.

But now suppose that the commoners decide to plant a community vegetable garden on the site. At first, the volunteer days are well attended and the garden gets off to a flying start. But growing vegetables is a lot of work, and most people’s interest soon flags. Volunteer attendance starts to drop off, and the hardy few who are now carrying the project begin to resent making produce available to those who aren’t pulling their weight. They try to come up with some protocols about inputs and rewards from the garden at a fractious meeting in which accusations of selfishness fly from all quarters. Some residents really would like to help, but they aren’t sure if they’ll have the time, or even whether they’ll still be living here come next growing season. And now there aren’t enough volunteers even to keep the beds properly weeded. Then a property development company appears on the scene with its eye on the gardens, which it thinks could make a good site for housing. They offer to buy the commoners handsomely out of their lease. Many of them are keen on this idea. The community gardeners are aghast.

I’ve seen this kind of thing play out many times. I could dwell on the ramifications at length, but instead let me offer a brief closing thesis. Before we can have meaningful contemporary agricultural commons we need to create a relatively egalitarian community of small farmers who are in it for the long haul and who are anxious to preserve the productive potential of their local environment for themselves and their descendants. Once such a community has arisen, it will likely find many creative ways of forming commons around the interstices of its activities which will increase the efficiency of local resource use. So in this sense, yes, commons can definitely be a part of the future, and probably a bigger part than they currently are. But – as in Törbel – the most important, most intensive activities are likely to be better served by a private property regime, so long as it’s a private property regime geared primarily to providing homes and productive agricultural land to farmers who have independent agency within publicly-agreed norms of acceptable behaviour, rather than a private property regime geared to the easy monetisation of assets (in other words, that it’s a peasant and not a capitalist private property regime – a compassionate and community-minded one, yes, but a communal one, probably not). Private property certainly isn’t the only possible way of organising a just and sustainable human ecology, but it’s one that’s familiar to us westerners. And it’ll be hard enough wresting a private property regime of petty proprietorship from the fiery hell of capitalist land values without further saddling ourselves with idealistic commoning arrangements as a means to earn our daily bread. Let us not run before we can walk.


  1. Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing The Commons. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.61-2.
  1. Ibid. p.14.
  1. Neeson, J. 1993. Commoners. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Worst trade union of the year award: a Small Farm Future special

The year, I know, is scarce begun, and yet already I feel able to offer you three strong contenders for this new annual award from the small farm future stable, culled from my recent trip to the Oxford Real Farming Conference.

Now, trade unionism gets a bad press these days, and I have to admit that for all its associations with progressive leftism, the movement has mined a rich historic seam of small-minded conservatism and unenlightened self-interest. Still, you only have to look at what happens in the absence of trade unions to appreciate their importance – for example, in food journalist Felicity Lawrence’s sobering reports about the criminal exploitation of migrant labour in British agriculture. Or, talking of mining as I just was, an example from my own family history: my great grandfather, killed with sixty other men by a methane explosion in a Yorkshire pit during the pre-unionised days of the late 19th century. The mining company stopped his pay at the moment of his death. My grandmother said it was only the Salvation Army that kept her widowed mother from penury.

For all the demonization of the traditional working-class trade unions, it’s the white collar unions – the British Medical Associations and Law Societies of this world – who really put the ‘con’ into trade union conservatism. But perhaps the recent, narrowly-averted strike by junior doctors signals another step along the slow path of middle-class proletarianization being worked even upon the medical profession by the magic of neoliberal capitalism. The really powerful trade unions now left after the eclipse of blue and white collar power are not really ‘trade’ unions at all, but organisations that shore up landownership and the forms of cultural and social capital through which privilege is quietly reproduced. I was grateful to get a window into their world in and around my time at the ORFC.

And so, without further ado, I now present to you my shortlist for the worst trade union in the world award. First up, let’s hear it for the Duchy of Cornwall, as represented at the ORFC by its Secretary, Mr Alastair Martin. If you’re not up on your British constitutional history, the Duchy was founded by Edward III in 1337 to provide an income to his son and heir. And it’s still doing the business 700 years later for the present heir to the throne, Prince Charles, and six other members of his immediate family, in the form of a 135,000 acre portfolio of prime British real estate, mostly west country farmland.

Now I must admit, apparently unlike the majority of my fellow Brits I’ve never had much time for the royal family. Parasites. Feudal relics. All that bowing, scraping and toadying. Please. Still, despite his dodgy letters to the government, I suppose I’ve had a bit of a soft spot for Charles, whose heart seems to be in the right place on various matters and who enjoys something of a reputation as a do-gooder. So it was salutary to be reminded by Mr Martin that the primary purpose of the Duchy is to furnish its incumbent with cold, hard cash.

Well, fair play to the man – as an advocate of agrarian proprietorship I have no problem at all with the idea of furnishing the necessities of life from a piece of land. But, as an egalitarian-minded one, I do have a bit of a problem if those pieces of land are distributed too unevenly. I mean, I don’t want to go overboard – I don’t subscribe to the notion that everybody always has to have exactly the same. So, for the sake of argument, let’s say that a reasonable distribution would allocate no more than nine times more resources to the richest than the poorest. And let’s further assume that – as a result of his obviously superior intelligence, charm and good looks – Charles takes his rightful place in the upper echelons of this hierarchy, with the remainder of these fair isles allocated to its 64 million populace according to a rough bell curve, such that the richest 4% of the population, like Charles, each have a Duchy of Cornwall sized 135,000 acres to play with, whereas the poorest 4% have to scrape by with a measly 15,000 acres each. As pragmatic a compromise between modest egalitarianism and the natural differentiation of the human tribe as one could possibly imagine, don’t you think? And, on that basis, a few simple calculations reveal that the British populace would require something a little shy of 3 trillion square kilometres of land for their lebensraum – or around 21 times more than the entire land surface of the planet.

Get outta here, Charles – you’re a leech on the face of the earth.

Mr Martin made the further point that much of the Duchy’s land was farmed by tenants who could concentrate on the business of farming without the troublesome burden of landownership weighing on their minds – a liberation that he considered made them more efficient. But I’d venture to reframe his point thus: if you have no secure tenure to fall back on you’ll probably try to maximise your short-term income any darned way you can. And that, in a single sentence, pretty much encapsulates the emergence of capitalism, which arguably started right here in merrie England for exactly that reason – converting secure customary tenures into short-term fiscal leases created an upwards ratchet upon agricultural output. The rest, as they say, is history – and not one that ultimately turned out too well for the power of the monarchy and the wider aristocracy. And yet here they still are, the royal duchies and all the rest, owning land all over the place – a trade union of undeserving landowners. Parasites, as I said earlier. Feudal relics.

Next up, the National Farmers’ Union, as represented at the ORFC by Guy Smith, NFU vice-president. I’ve got to tip my hat to Mr Smith for straying from the safety of the Oxford Farming Conference across the road and daring to enter the lion’s den of the Oxford Real Farming Conference where he was given a predictably rough reception. To adopt a cricketing metaphor, when a batsman is facing a hostile attack it’s best to keep it simple, which was perhaps what was on Mr Smith’s mind as he dead batted every question like Faf du Plessis weathering an over of Moeen Ali teasers. Whereas Faf’s defensive measure of choice is a forward prod to silly mid-off, Mr Smith protected his stumps with the heavy bat of consumer demand, arguing that while there may indeed be many things wrong with the food and farming system, there’s nothing that farmers can do about them and there’s no alternative but to give the consumer exactly what s/he wants. Presumably the NFU policy favouring maize silage for anaerobic digestion emerges from this same public clamour. Certainly, the last time I was abroad on my local high street I heard shoppers talk of little else.

‘Consumer demand’ seems to be a clinching gambit for a lot of people these days about the sad reality of the way the world is, regardless of our fondest wishes. It’s not one that I personally find very convincing for several reasons that perhaps I’ll spell out in another post – but more importantly for my present purposes it’s surely not one that any self-respecting trade unionist should find convincing. How would it sound if a trade unionist said “sure, we’d all like safer working conditions in this mine/higher wages in this factory etc. but consumer demand being what it is the market will never bear it”. The whole point of being a trade unionist is that you organise politically in order to change what the market will bear in the direction of your favoured policies. I’m not the first to suggest that supposedly ‘free’ markets are essentially creations of monopoly capital working in concert with the state in support of the former’s interests (as George Monbiot likes to point out, you can tell a lot from the fact that DEFRA is headquartered at 17 Smith Square, and the NFU at 16 Smith Square). Nor am I the first to suggest that the NFU basically represents the interests of larger scale, wealthier farmers. I get the sense of a powerful and exclusive trade union busily organising in its members’ interests not to change the market in order to preserve policies which suit it very well. Helplessness in the face of consumer demand is a veil of economic power.

Some of Mr Smith’s other remarks were equally informative. Against the charge that contemporary farming practices were damaging soil he referenced Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and the US dustbowl. The extent to which the dustbowl really was a result of farming practices is debatable, but let’s just go with the logic of Mr Smith’s position – farmers have been wrecking soils for at least 80 years, so why should anyone start caring now? Finally, Mr Smith mentioned his pride in the barn owls living on his farm, and reckoned that the government ought to pay him £500,000 for each one. Er, why? I’ve always done my best to counter the crude and unfair stereotype of the farmer as subsidy-junky, but you’re not helping Mr Smith, you’re really not helping…

The third and final contender is Oxford University – well, let’s extend it to Cambridge University too. As I walked among the university’s dreaming spires in the course of the conference, various among the younger generation within my extended family were waiting to hear whether they’d received an offer to study there. The key variable for success, as it proved, was whether they’d received a private education. And it doesn’t just apply to my family – only 7% of people in Britain are privately educated, whereas 44% of Oxford’s students are. It seems an Oxbridge education unlocks the door to the upper echelons of public and private sector power in the UK: only 1% of the UK public is educated there, but its graduates comprise 75% of senior judges, 59% of cabinet ministers, 57% of permanent secretaries, 50% of diplomats, 47% of newspaper columnists, 44% of public body chairs and 33% of BBC executives. Talk about a closed trade union shop…

And the winner is: Hold your horses, hold your horses. In true awards ceremony style I’m going to keep you on tenterhooks by handing out the runner-up prize first. And that prize goes to…Oxford and Cambridge universities. Unquestionably a cancer within British society which narrows the perspective and the representativeness of key institutions and builds an inherent conservatism into them, nevertheless I have to concede that these universities do leave the door of their closed shop oh so very slightly ajar to new blood from the lumpen masses. True, it’s mostly window dressing…but there’s good research being done by good people at these places. And so I’m happy to concede that they’re the best of the bad bunch on show here.

We now come to the gold and silver positions. At first I was minded to award the gold to Mr Smith. After all, Oxbridge and the Duchy of Cornwall are only doing what comes naturally to them – defending inherited privilege, just as they’ve always done. But you, Mr Smith, are a trade unionist. You’re supposed to be representing farmers. Perhaps you’re even supposed to be representing agriculture. Why not offer an enlightened vision of the role it can play in delivering a just and sustainable world, instead of hiding behind the false god of consumer demand in order to promote a self-serving conservative agenda?

But on reflection I’ve decided that Mr Smith only merits silver…probably. Because if there’s one single thing that stands in the way of that just and sustainable agrarian future it’s the structure of landownership in this country, and the near impossibility for most people of owning what the great Dick Gaughan calls one handful of earth. To be fair, aristocratic landownership is only one part of the problem, but it’s emblematic of the pernicious death grip that money and privilege always have over real estate. That grip needs to be loosened before there’s the remotest possibility of achieving the small farm future that I believe is needed to achieve sustainability and social justice, so I hope that the gold medal I hereby award to the Duchy of Cornwall will go some way to helping loosen it. Step forward Mr Martin. Unless…well, I said that the Duchy of Cornwall only probably merits gold because, under questioning by small-scale market gardeners and land rights activists, Mr Martin said that the Duchy might consider making land available for small, alt-ag concerns. So if it donates, let’s say, 120,000 acres freehold to around 6,000 would be farmers, Small Farm Future is prepared to be magnanimous and downgrade the Duchy’s award to silver or bronze.

Before I close, and while I’m in the business of parading this cast of shifty characters across the halls of disrepute, perhaps it’s appropriate that I turn the spotlight a little closer to home. For although I’m scarcely a landowner in Prince Charles’s league, nevertheless I have a stake in property, not least my humble eighteen acres of finest Somersetshire, which most likely puts me in serious kulak territory. And while I refuse to yield to the scantily-mortgaged denizens of multiply-zero valued townhouses as they grumble about access to the countryside, I’m all too aware of what an extraordinarily privileged position I’m in compared to the majority of the world’s labourers and farmworkers. If there were truly effective unions organising the wretched of the earth, I suspect that many of us here in the UK would have a lot of rethinking to do about our expectations of the world.

So you want to be a farmer? Thirteen words of wisdom from me to myself

I gave two talks recently at the Oxford Real Farming Conference. One concerned peasant agriculture, which I’m planning to come back to on this blog later in the year as part of a series on constructing a neo-peasant agriculture for contemporary times. The other was at a session inaugurating the College for Real Farming and Food Culture, brainchild of science writer and ORFC founder Colin Tudge.

Colin asked me to describe my experiences establishing a small, ecologically-minded farming business, the obstacles we’d faced and how we’d overcome them. I only had a few minutes of the floor, and I didn’t want to present my own fumbling efforts to learn how to farm as any kind of blueprint for others to follow, so I decided to present the talk in the form of thirteen maxims I’d like to have been able to pass on to my younger self at the point I started my switch into the agrarian life. The talk seemed to go reasonably well and so here, by popular demand (or three emails at any rate), I’m reproducing it.

  1. Make sure you live on the land you farm, however you do it, whatever it takes, LIVE ON YOUR LAND!
  1. Run a small, mixed farm – we need maybe 2 million farmers in the UK, equating to an average farm size of 50 acres or less depending on how you crunch the numbers with permanent pasture, so if you think your farm needs to be bigger than that you need to be able to convince someone else why theirs has to be smaller.
  1. Try to insulate yourself as much as possible from depending on open market prices – it’s not easy, but there are various possibilities. Be creative. Start a non-profit social enterprise if you have to, but if you do tread very, very carefully.
  1. Try to sell retail, not wholesale.
  1. Farming is full of get-rich-quick schemers, and people obsessed with a pet approach of one kind or another. Listen to what they have to say with an open but sceptical mind, then discard what’s not useful – which is usually most of it.
  1. Or to put that another way, there’s essentially no such thing as a low input – high output farming system. Modern farming is generally high input – high output. The safe bet is low input – low output.
  1. If you’ve learned farming via a traditional agricultural education, then consider diversifying. If you’ve learned it (as I did) via an alternative agricultural education like the permaculture movement, then consider un-diversifying.
  1. Focus generally on producing basic foodstuffs and ignore the advice to ‘add value’ by getting into processing as a way of making money. ‘Add money’ rather than ‘adding value’, possibly by growing a high-earning cash crop. The best high-earning cash crop is usually people – get them somehow to come to your farm and to pay you for the privilege.
  1. Hold on to your ecological idealism, but don’t kill yourself. Use some diesel. But imagine if diesel wasn’t available or it had a carbon price attached to it of, say, £50/litre – would it be remotely possible to continue farming as you do? If not, rethink.
  1. Be completely honest and open about what you do with your customers, and show them your genuine gratitude for their custom. But don’t toady to them – let them know subtly that it’s producerism and not consumerism that makes the world go around.
  1. Be as open and honest as you absolutely have to be, and no more, with anyone else, especially government bureaucrats.
  1. Don’t worry too much about the howling errors you’ll inevitably make – the only people who’ll really scorn you are people who aren’t actually running a small farm business themselves…
  1. Remember that every farm and every farmer are different, and that you’ll be different too as the years pass. Remember too, as I’ve already said, that farming is full of charlatans offering their unwanted advice. So feel free to ignore everything I’ve just said. Except maybe this – if you start a new small farm enterprise you almost certainly won’t get rich quick, or even get rich slow, but if you’re lucky you may just stay in business and you’ll be doing something more interesting and more worthwhile than many, many other things you could do.

The devil shops local

Veterans of this blog may recall that some time ago I had a fascinating discussion about the ‘balance of nature’ with a curious fellow who turned out to be none other than the devil himself. Well, blow me if I didn’t meet him again as I journeyed home from the Oxford Real Farming Conference. He was sitting in a shadowed corner of the train carriage, hunched over a thick pile of papers and books, but unmistakeably my old friend Nick. We had another very interesting conversation so I thought I’d write it down as well as I can remember it and publish it here:

Chris: Hello Nick! Long time no see…

Nick (shielding his papers with his arms): Shhh! Don’t let anyone know who I am.

Chris: Oh, sorry. The devil in disguise, huh? What are you reading there?

Nick: As a matter of fact I’m looking at some very interesting findings, and between you and me I don’t think you’re going to like what they have to say…

Chris: Oh yes? How so?

Nick: Well, it turns out that this local food thing that you’re so into isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Chris: Is that so? Who says?

Nick: Well, for starters there’s this very interesting book by a chap called Leigh Phillips.

Chris: Oh god.

Nick: Look, I do read your blog, you know. I realise that you’re not exactly Mr Phillips’ biggest fan. But it’s not just him. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (S&W) say much the same in this new book of theirs. And even someone that I know you rate very highly has written a sniffy article about local food.

Chris: Who?

Nick (triumphantly): George Monbiot!

Chris: Oh god.

Nick (grinning malevolently): You see? Just admit it, you’re onto a loser with this one.

Chris: Look, George is a busy guy, he can’t always get everything spot on. As to the others…Well, I’m going to be publishing a critique of S&W soon, and I’ve already done one (in fact, more than one) for Leigh Phillips. Anyway, let’s leave the personalities out of this. What are their actual arguments?

Nick (rubbing his hands together): I thought you’d never ask. Let’s get started with the concept of food miles. All the authors I’ve mentioned point out some problems with it. Turns out that food grown locally may have a higher carbon footprint than food grown further afield – for example tomatoes for the UK market grown in sunny Spain rather than in heated tunnels in the UK. What do you have to say about that?

Chris: Since when did the devil care about carbon footprints – I’d have thought an overheated world would be right up your street?

Nick: That’s not the point. Do I detect a bit of evasiveness here?

Chris: No. They’re right.

Nick: You what? You agree with them?

Chris: Yes.

Nick: So you don’t even support local food yourself then!

Chris: Let me try to unpack this as succinctly as possible. If you tomato-pick particular examples such as, er, early tomatoes, then you can sometimes show that the non-local product has a lower impact than the local one. It may have other impacts that you’re excluding from your analysis, such as the water issues involved in transporting watery tomatoes from arid Spain to rain-soaked Britain. But leaving that aside, yes if you feel the need to buy early season tomatoes in Britain in the supermarkets you may be better off getting Spanish ones. Favoured anti-localist examples like the tomato gambit aside, I’m not convinced that the globalised food commodities in the average British shopping basket in total turn out better than their localised equivalents, but maybe they do. Localism, however, doesn’t just mean buying local – the point of it is that it’s aiming for a transformation of the food system, a transformation of that basket, so that we move towards a situation in which people start eating mostly what their locales can actually provide at a sensible cost – cost here being measured in carbon, in soil retention and other such environmental measures, as well as financially, and socially. The consumerist mindset expects to get whatever food your money will command from wherever in the world can produce it most cheaply, with any additional considerations such as carbon intensity factored in. If you accept its logic, then you’ll be wowed by figures like the relative carbon emissions of a kilo of British lamb versus a kilo of New Zealand lamb. But if you don’t, you’ll be more interested in how much lamb your local agriculture can realistically and sustainably provide. The anti-localist might say “A kilo of New Zealand lamb sold in Britain may be environmentally better than a kilo of British lamb sold here”. The localist might reply “Fewer kilos of more local, more carbon intensive lamb may be environmentally better than more kilos of non-local, less carbon intensive lamb”. Substantial and sustainable local sufficiency is a long-term goal, though. More pressing currently is retaining small-scale and local agriculture in the first place, so that you have something to work with. I’m inclined to think that that’s more important at the moment than kilo for kilo, theoretical carbon audits of local and non-local products.

Nick: Well, you say that – but Monbiot points out that a kilo of lamb protein produced on a British hill farm can cause more carbon emissions than someone flying to New York. That’s a stunningly high carbon cost. And Phillips says that it’s better to import fresh granny smiths all the way from New Zealand during the English summer than keeping British ones in cold storage…

Chris: I think George is overreaching himself a little there – those crazily high figures derive from an outlying datum on farm-level soil carbon. Soils have highly variable properties as sources or sinks for GHG emissions for reasons not directly related to how they’re farmed, so I don’t think it’s really fair to say that upland British lamb is always worse than lamb from elsewhere, or indeed from arable products. Saying the carbon cost of local food “can be higher” prompts the question of how often it actually is. And Leigh Phillips – hmm, I think he’d be better off wondering why there’s been a massive diminution in apple varieties (such as long keepers) associated with the rise of the global food system, or even – now here’s a radical thought – contemplating the possibility of not eating things that are out of season.

Nick: Ha! Anybody would think you’re opposed to the notion of consumer sovereignty.

Chris: Yes I am, as elaborated in some detail in my writings. One advantage of localism is that it stops people from thinking and writing in terms of consumerism’s generic ‘we’, replacing it with a more specific one. So it’s not “where should ‘we’ buy our apples from” as some global supply-chain efficiency issue. It’s where should ‘we’ here in our town or village buy our apples from as part of our own self-provisioning. And if the answer is “nowhere right now” or “nowhere very easily, because we live in a city of 30 million people” it prompts a much more interesting and urgent set of questions about producer-consumer relations in the present political and environmental context.

Nick: But the implication of all this is that a local food agenda involves a top to bottom overhaul of the entire political economy.

Chris: Quite.

Nick: Are you some kind of dangerous radical?

Chris: Look who’s talking.

Nick: Keep me out of this. Anyway, S&W – who, by the way, are radical leftists – say that the problem with the local food idea is that it flattens the complexities it’s trying to resolve into a simplistic binary of local-global. The bigger question, they say, relates to the priorities we place on the types of food we produce, how that production is controlled, who consumes that food and at what cost.

Chris: Yes, and those are exactly the questions raised in the local food movement. S&W’s critique is fatuous. It’s like saying that the problem with leftism is that it flattens the complexities it’s trying to resolve into a simplistic binary of left-right. Leftism. Localism. They’re just labels referencing diverse, dynamic and complicated movements. The point is that we ‘localists’ can’t see any plausible ways of tackling the profound problems we face in the contemporary world without a stronger turn to the local. S&W do have some interesting thoughts on this, and I’ll say more about them in another post, but the idea that localism only amounts to minimising food miles or buying artisanal bread or whatever is sheer nonsense. It suggests to me that the likes of Phillips and S&W just haven’t bothered to do much proper research into the local food movement.

Nick: OK, OK, but Phillips makes the interesting point that small-scale local production uses up more land than more technology-intensive agriculture because not every plot of land is equally well suited to all types of plant and animal. That’s got to be right – regional specialisation surely makes sense?

Chris: Phillips is mixing up a few different things here. The ‘uses up more land’ point sounds like the land sharing/land sparing debate which I and many, many others have written extensively about. I’m not going to dwell on it here, but much depends on what gross outputs the two agricultures produce, and also on whether ‘using’ land for agriculture turns out to be the same as ‘using up’ land. The other point about regional specialisation is more interesting. Of course it’s true that different locations are differentially suited to different products, and there’s been agricultural specialisation for centuries (such as dairy on the claylands and arable on the chalklands in my neck of the woods – chalk and cheese as they say). But specialisation operates at different spatial scales, and at larger ones it starts to get problematic. Some soils and climates are better than others for just about any crop, but beggars can’t be choosers – we can’t grow everything the world needs in the Ukraine or central California. Sometimes land that’s good enough to grow something is good enough. The real issue isn’t soil quality, but the logic of capital, which forces farmers to try to economise in every conceivable way. Finding the optimum soil for the crop is only one such way. Finding cheap and pliant labour is another. Developing large diesel-hungry machines to substitute labour yet another. Often enough, you get all of those combined – for example in East Anglian vegetable production, where vegetables are grown on deep, fertile, well-drained, stone-free soils, employing massive labour-saving and energy-hungry machinery and below-minimum-wage illegal workers furnished by criminal gangmasters. The soil I have isn’t as good for growing veg on, or probably as good for growing anything on, and I can’t produce vegetables as cheaply – but I guarantee that I can produce them at a lower carbon cost and without criminal labour exploitation. Talk of optimising agricultural production on global scales is all very well, but under conditions of globalised capitalism what that amounts to is basically soil-eating, labour-eating, climate-eating lowest common denominator consumerism. Substituting local for global production doesn’t necessarily overcome that in and of itself, but it’s a start. Localism negates the logic of unbridled capital accumulation.

Nick: Maybe so, but local agriculture has its own problems, doesn’t it? I mean, Phillips points out that customers of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) schemes complain about getting too many weird vegetables that they don’t really know what to do with and end up wasting them. So local agriculture isn’t necessarily very efficient, is it?

Chris: Would this be the same Leigh Phillips who thinks that the Earth has a carrying capacity of a hundred quintillion people?

Nick: Yes

Chris: And he’s worrying that CSA schemes produce slightly more waste than conventional food systems?

Nick: Yes


Nick: You’ve gone all quiet. Are you all right?

Chris: Sorry I was just rendered temporarily speechless.

Nick: Here, sniff a bit of this brimstone.

Chris (gagging): Yuk – thank you, that’s better. OK, so here’s the thing – the difference between CSAs and mainstream retail isn’t that the CSAs produce more waste but that the waste in the system is borne by the consumer who pays for it, and therefore notices it. Surely that’s a good thing? There is literally no waste production on my farm. We sell what we can, and since our customers are resourceful types who know how to cook a twisty carrot we waste less on that front than the mainstream retailers. What we can’t sell we try to eat ourselves. What we can’t eat we try to feed to our livestock. What we can’t feed to the livestock we compost to help restart the growing cycle. All Phillips is pointing to here is the fact that food waste in local production has more consumer visibility, rather than being hidden within a huge supply chain. And that people don’t know how to make use of fresh, local vegetables. That’s supposed to be a problem?

Nick: Fair enough. Still, there are some big kit technologies that people need which are never going to be furnished by all you silly little wannabe peasants. Take some of the GM technologies supported by Phillips, like releasing transgenic mosquitoes to tackle malaria…

Chris: Is this the same Leigh Phillips who emphasised conservation biologists’ inability to predict what would happen when a few wolves were released onto a small Canadian island?

Nick: Yes

Chris: And he thinks it’s a good idea to release transgenic mosquitoes over vast stretches of malarial country?

Nick: It would seem so, yes.


Nick: More brimstone?

Chris (gagging): Thank you.

Nick: He mentions other food-related GM technologies too, and takes a well-aimed swipe at Séralini’s laughably flawed glyphosate study. Anti-GM types love latching on to Séralini because he’s a properly credentialed scientist who published in a credible journal. But his paper has now been retracted. In Phillips’ words, “Pointing at Séralini’s work and shouting “Look! Science-y” ain’t enough”.

Chris: I’ve pretty much given up debating GM. One day the truth will out: I suspect that GM will have some kind of role to play once it’s been properly detached from corporate control – probably one that will confound both its strongest critics and its strongest proponents. I also suspect that glyphosate will turn out to be quite dodgy. Meanwhile, it seems pretty clear to me that publication bias is in play, with findings uncongenial to the GM case receiving way, way more critical scrutiny than their pro-GM counterparts, both in the research community and in the shouty realm of the blogosphere where such self-appointed biostatistical experts as Marc Brazeau – food writer, chef and trade union organiser – like to hold forth. I’m tempted to say that pointing at Séralini’s work and shouting “Look! Retracted!” ain’t enough either. However useful GM techniques ultimately prove to be, I’m not convinced that they’re a major point of economic transformation in the food system, which is still geared to the good harvest/bad return conundrum. Meanwhile, as Phillips himself concedes, we’re already starting to experience various social and agronomic problems with the current range of GM crops, such as the emergence of glyphosate-tolerant weeds…

Nick: Ah well, Phillips covers that – he points out that it can be tackled by various methods, including use of more locale-specific seeds…

Chris: How do more locale-specific seeds make any difference to weed resistance if they have glyphosate-tolerance built in?

Nick: He doesn’t say.

Chris: I don’t suppose he would. Ach, I’m done debating GM in general and Leigh Phillips’ take on the world in particular. Life’s too short to work my way through any more of his non-sequiturs and tendentious logic. Besides, I’m nearly at my station. Let me just summarise: we need to ditch the notions that food miles or the relative per kilo carbon intensity of given foods or the arguments in favour of so called ‘land sparing’ exhaust the rationale for local food production. We need to ditch tendentious and evidence-free notions about CSAs creating food waste, and we need to give scientific research around GM crops at least – oh, another century, I’d say – before anyone’s likely to be in a position to say anything with much confidence about them.

Nick: Gosh, well you’ve certainly convinced me. From now on, I shall be mingling with the tattooed and bearded twelve dollar marmalade-smearing kale botherers down at my local farmers’ market.

Chris: You’re just saying that, you old devil.

Nick: No, honestly…

Chris: So the farmers who live in your neck of the woods – are they mostly small-scale, local operators or big agribusiness types?

Nick: Big agribusiness types, on the whole.

Chris: Ha! I rest my case.

Sidney Mintz, 1922-2015

A belated happy new year from Small Farm Future. I’ve been off the farm (and blessedly computer-free) for quite a while over the holidays, most recently at the ever-informative Oxford Real Farming Conference. So I have a lot of farm work and a lot of writing and blogging to catch up on. The former is going to start asserting its priority over the latter, so please forgive me if the blog posts become a bit more sporadic. If in the coming weeks you should need to fill that Small-Farm-Future-shaped hole in your life – a problem no doubt shared with aching multitudes – you could always feast your eyes on my Dark Mountain piece about COP21.

But moving swiftly on, I want to start the new year by mourning a loss at the end of the old one. Early in 2015 I commemorated the sad death of Patrick Whitefield, whose writing and teaching greatly influenced me. I now want to mark the passing at the year’s end of another good man, whose work has likewise left its mark.

I only knew Sid briefly, in the course of what turned out to be a short and rather ill-fated sojourn as a graduate student in anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. I suppose I was in awe of him as something of an icon of American anthropology (I think the ecumenical conception of ‘America’ in Sid’s work permits the term ‘American’ in this case, when I’d otherwise want to resist the colonization of the term by the USA, which after all is only one of many American countries). But, as various obituaries have rightly stressed, for someone of his standing he was remarkably genial and free of egotism, and my interactions with him and with his thinking were one of the few unalloyed positives I took from my time in Baltimore.

Probably the best way for me to honour Sid here is to share some thoughts on why his work still matters to me in the different life I’ve chosen as a small-scale farmer and small-scale farming activist. At the time early in his career when anthropology still inclined towards the study of supposedly authentic and pristine ‘non-modern’ or ‘tribal’ societies, Sid chose to focus on the Caribbean, the decidedly non-pristine crucible and forerunner for our modern world system. To understand the small world of the Caribbean, Sid had to understand much bigger worlds – Africa, Europe, and the Americas more generally – in their interactions with it. And he had to understand them historically, still quite a novel approach in the functionalist-dominated anthropology of the time, though perhaps less so in the US than in Europe. So his work was painted on a vast historic canvas, for which he used the tools of Marxist structural and economic analysis, but (unlike many Marxists) without ever losing sight of the actual people living the structures of history. His writings like Worker in the Cane and The Birth of African-American Culture were theoretically sophisticated, but also moving and intensely human accounts of the way that people made sense of the hand dealt them by history, and the way they tried to make the most of it too, even when the hand was as unpromising as the one typically dealt to Africans in colonial America, and to many of their descendants today. In contrast to the abstruse Marxist and post-Marxist social theorising which were the stock-in-trades of much of my anthropological education, Sid was exemplary in his ability to use clear, simple language to convey sophisticated ideas, while maintaining a steady, sympathetic gaze on ordinary people as they went about making history through living their lives. I wish I could better follow his example.

Sid was probably best known for his book Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. It launched a thousand imitations about the role of this or that commodity in shaping the world as we know it, few of them with the erudition of the original. As Sid documented in his book, the importance of sugar in the development of globalization and global capital is hard to overestimate – shaping the fortunes of people on three continents and fostering many facets of modern public culture in the development both of slave plantation agriculture and of opposition to it. It’s easy to forget how recent these events are. I remember Sid mentioning that as a young anthropologist he’d met an old man in Puerto Rico who had been born a slave. Slavery itself is still with us today in illicit forms, of course, but even full-blown slave societies are less than two lifetimes distant.

I guess the brute historic facts of Atlantic chattel slavery are implicit in my thinking about small farm futures, because they dramatize in extreme form what strikes me as integral to capitalist globalization – an inhumane privileging of profit over people, which insinuates itself in barbaric forms wherever the agents of capital accumulation can get away with it, most often in colonial or neo-colonial situations. True, chattel slavery was abolished and its abolition in some ways reflected the emergence of a universalist humanitarianism which has been a mostly positive force in the modern world. True, too, that a localist agrarian world isn’t necessarily an egalitarian one. But the development of American plantation slavery contemporaneously with the development of the ‘Enlightenment values’ that so many people seem anxious to defend today as exemplary of a western developmental superiority over the ‘barbarism’ of others strikes me as an adequate rebuke to such hubris, and illustrative of what naked power gets up to behind its many veils. The prospects for achieving a sustainable, egalitarian small farm future perhaps seem pretty slim – it’s just that, for me, the prospects for achieving any other kind of sustainable, egalitarian future seem slimmer still.

Another aspect of Sid’s work that I find relevant to my present concerns, albeit a bit tangentially, is his writing on the ‘reconstituted peasantries’ of the Caribbean, and on Caribbean societies more generally as reconstituted creole societies, creating new, functional American wholes out of their European and African parts (his 1974 book Caribbean Transformations is the key text here). Just as Caribbean peasantries and Caribbean societies were post-modern responses to modernity in one of its most horrifying manifestations, so I think we need reconstituted peasantries and reconstituted societies in many parts of the world today as a post-modern response to modernity in its less immediately horrifying (at least for the fortunate denizens of the world’s wealthier countries) but therefore more insidious forms of globalized capitalist commodity agriculture and contemporary consumerism.

When I went to Jamaica in 1989 under Sid’s tutelage I wanted to study ‘peasant consciousness’ among small-scale farmers involved in both subsistence production and commodity sugar production, as a result of what with retrospect strike me as a set of rather arid and over-theoretical Marxist concerns, while armed with absolutely no knowledge at all about how people actually farmed. It’s probably best to draw a veil over my brief and hapless efforts to be an anthropological fieldworker (a book by one of Sid’s students who enjoyed a rather more successful academic career than me – Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Peasants and Capital – is worth a look as an example of the kind of good anthropology to which I aspired, and perhaps sort of still do). But in recent years, I’ve become a fieldworker in the more direct sense of having spent time actually working as a farmer in my field, and I’ve also come back to the issue of peasant consciousness – in particular, as manifested in the balance between personal or community self-provisioning and commodity production as a critical global question for contemporary times, even if it’s not one that is yet being widely asked.

I haven’t kept up with Sid’s more recent work on the anthropology of food – from what I’ve seen, his intellectual productivity stayed with him to the last – and I have to admit that I don’t think his work provides any simple answers to my current questions about peasant consciousness. Indeed, I don’t think there are any simple answers to it. One of the nice things about being an academic – even a politically-engaged, Marxist-oriented academic – is that you can eschew the activist’s tendency to propound simple solutions to complex problems. There’s plenty of activist posturing within academia, but Sid’s specific, engaged, humane work floats serenely above it, offering not answers but at least the possibility of better historical understanding, and better questions.

As I said of Patrick last year: rest in peace, Sid, and thanks for what you gave us.

Pertaining to peasants

And so we come to Small Farm Future’s final post of 2015. And what a year it’s been. We’ve battled with the over-optimism of perennial grain breeders, ecomodernists and perennial polyculture proponents. We’ve been endorsed by George Monbiot, chastised by Tom Merchant, dismissed by the Land Institute, ridiculed by the Breakthrough Institute and publicised by the good folks at We’ve had spinoff articles in The Land, in the august academic journal Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems, at Dark Mountain and at Statistics Views. We’ve even managed to sell some vegetables, raise some livestock, and harvest some wood for the winter. And, despite losing some commenters on this site for our anti-growth pessimism, we end the year optimistic about the growth in the number of comments. We’ve also had our first financial donations to the site (button on the top right, if you’re infused with the Christmas spirit…)

I’d really like to thank everyone who’s visited the site, and even more to those who’ve taken the trouble to comment – especially valued regulars like Clem, Brian, Vera, Ruben, Jahi, David, Andy, John and, um, anyone else I may have forgotten. And that goes for Paul, too, who is with us in spirit. I’ve learned a lot from all of you and I hope you’ll keep visiting. I read every comment on the site, though I’m finding that I don’t always have the time to reply. But I sincerely appreciate the input of everyone who stops by.

Well now, I’ve been cranking out the writing recently and have a few more seasonal offerings for the small farm connoisseur – an article over at called ‘From growth economics to home economics: towards a peasant socialism’ continuing my engagement with Leigh Phillips’ book which, as Brian rightly says, is a gift that keeps on giving. And I think I’ll have a piece next week on the Dark Mountain blog about the COP21 agreement in Paris. I’ll also be at the Oxford Real Farming Conference in, er, Oxford on 6-7 January, talking about peasants among other things. Since peasants are looming rather large in my writing at the moment, and since there are some things that trouble me slightly about the concept, I think I’ll end the year with a few remarks on a peasanty theme.

Earlier in the year, I read the late Daniel Nugent’s book Spent Cartridges of Revolution about the agrarian history of Chihuahua. In it, he made the point that the better off farmers in his study region were happy to embrace the term campesino as a self-identifier, whereas poorer farmers, recoiling from its negative connotations, would never dream of doing so, preferring to call themselves agricultores (farmers). That made me stop to think about my own motivations for identifying with the ‘peasant’ term. Is there an element of pretension involved? Or is it OK for middle-class folks to reappropriate it? Pejorative ethnic and sexual labels have similarly been reappropriated – I’d guess most often by people who for whatever reason don’t feel so hurt by the negative histories of the terms. Still, there’s undoubtedly a class dimension here which shouldn’t be erased. Peasant groups like La Via Campesina and the Landworkers’ Alliance, of which I’m a member, have been criticised on these grounds, and certainly one of the political fault lines in agrarian populism strongly (over?)-emphasised by Marxists is the class tensions between so-called ‘poor’, ‘middle’ and ‘rich’ peasants.

Another problem of course is those negative connotations. It interests me that my fellow speakers at the ORFC from central Europe describe the idea of peasant farming, however remote from contemporary life, as something that provides people with “feelings of existential security, an eternal constant within society”. Whereas in the Anglophone world I’d say the mood is more “thank God we’re not peasants any more – you’re not telling me you seriously want to go back to all that, are you?”, as indeed was the gist of one or two of the comments beneath my recent Resilience piece. So, contrary to the reappropriation position, a counter-argument is that anyone who uses the word ‘peasant’ as part of a vision for the future is immediately hobbling themselves with a whole bunch of unnecessary negative baggage, a point which I can find some sympathy for.

The recent debate between Giorgos Kallis and Kate Raworth on the use of the term ‘degrowth’ covered a lot of similar ground to the preceding point. I can see both sides of the argument, though ultimately I find myself more persuaded by Giorgos. I think there’s a bit too much pussyfooting around trying to find inoffensive terms for ideas that in fact are very radical, and on balance I favour some peasant bluntness in calling a spade a spade while agitating for a small farm future, despite recognising the political risks of doing so.

One problem I have is that I can’t think of another term that’ll do the job. ‘Smallholder farmer’ or small-scale farmer are OK as far as they go, and in fact I’d like to claim the term ‘farmer’ back from the large-scale, mechanised, so-called ‘conventional’ crew for the free use of anyone who so much as grows some pot herbs on an inner-city windowsill. I’d like everybody to ‘farm’ in that sense and assume it a dereliction of civic duty not to do so, much as drink-driving or chucking food in landfill is now sanctioned. ‘Oh, you don’t farm?’ people might say, disapprovingly surveying an empty windowsill in an urban apartment. How I wish. But the problem with the term, especially when it’s applied to existing peasant societies, is the way it smuggles in a commercial premise. A peasant is somebody who first of all produces food and other necessaries for themselves and their family, whereas a ‘smallholder farmer’ is someone who produces cash crops for market, and often rather fancy niche ones. I don’t mind debating the optimum balance between self-provisioning and marketing, but I think it’s critical to hang on to the distinction between the two in order to found more just and sustainable agrarian futures.

So there you have it – a fine Christmas present from you to me would be to furnish me with a serviceable term to replace the P word.

It only remains for me to wish anyone reading this a happy Christmas and new year if such things have meaning for you and – if they don’t – well then, a happy next few weeks until I update this site again probably in mid January with more peerless ponderings on the prospects for promoting peasantries…or whatever other term you may send my way.

Goldilocks in the Highlands: some notes on scaling resilience

A recent visit to the Scottish Highlands prompted some thoughts on several favoured themes of mine: the resilience or otherwise of local economies grounded in small-scale agricultural production, problems of migration as featured in a recent post, and questions concerning ‘modernization’ and economic development. So let’s take a brief tour around the Highlands and their history to help muse on the topic of a small farm future.

Perhaps the first thing a southerner notices on the long drive north is the narrowing of the roads and the thinning of the population. In many of the Highland glens there’s little but shooting estates and a few, very extensively raised sheep. But you don’t need to be much of an expert on Scottish history to know that these places were once more heavily peopled by poor, small-scale, subsistence-oriented tenant farmers, who left the land in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – sometimes willingly, sometimes not, in the process known as the Highland clearances.

It wasn’t as if the life of the poor Highland tenant was a bundle of laughs. As in the better known case of Ireland, when the potato harvest failed the small tenantry suffered, or starved. With population rising in the 18th century and relatively little in the way of industry the region fell into what clearance historian Eric Richards calls a ‘Malthusian trap’1. High wool prices and low land prices in the Highlands relative to the rest of Britain enticed commercial sheep farmers from the south willing to pay higher rents for exclusive, enclosed land than the small tenantry could possibly afford from their mostly subsistence farming. Thus was their fate sealed.

The idea of ‘clearing’ an inefficient peasantry to make way for more efficient large-scale farming has a long pedigree and lot of modern resonance. But a 21st century perspective on farming in the Highlands surely complicates that line of reasoning. After the (usually) self-supporting small tenants came the capitalist sheep farmers, but after wool prices collapsed in the mid-19th century came…not much. For all that we hear about the huge technological strides made by modern agriculture, it seems likely that upland agriculture in the Highlands is producing less now than in the days of the pre-clearance tenantry. Developments in agriculture since the clearances are certainly impressive, but it’s easy to forget how little they’ve overcome the basic dictates of soil and climate which still make the Highlands marginal for arable agriculture.

The small Highland tenantry made arable agriculture work there because they had few other options, which underscores another easily forgotten point – human labour is a farm input like few others for increasing productivity. Doubtless not many of us today would wish for the life of an 18th century Highland tenant, but it’s hard to gainsay what labour can achieve – worth bearing in mind when people say things like “organic farming can’t feed the world”, while invariably assuming existing levels of per hectare labour input.

Another aspect of this is something that I suspect is quite widespread in the larger historical contest of capital and peasantry. Whenever land farmed by primarily subsistence cultivators becomes attractive to primarily commercial farmers, the latter will generally gain control of it sooner or later because of the rents they can afford. So in mixed subsistence-commercial economies (that is, in virtually every peasant economy in the modern world), chances are the peasants have worse land – another point worth bearing in mind when farm productivities are compared.

In view of all of this it’s necessary, I think, to specify ‘efficiency’ very carefully when we compare peasant with commercial agriculture. Richards writes

“The old peasant agriculture was not only palpably less competitive, it was equally a waste of the region’s resources and could not even provide the people themselves with a decent secure livelihood” (p.409)

Yet a few pages later he says,

“more remarkable than the persistence of famine was the sheer survival of so many people in such difficult circumstances: it was tribute to the food value (per pound, per acre, and per man-hour) of the potato, and also to the observable fortitude and communal resilience of the people themselves” (p.416)

On the face of it, these two comments seem rather contradictory. But perhaps they’re not – the peasant agriculture was certainly less fiscally competitive than capitalist sheep farming. In terms of generating income to pay their landlords’ rent, a contemporary noted that the peasant system of farming

“cannot furnish them with the means of paying him one fourth, and in some situations not more than a tenth of the value of his land….and all must be scraped up among the poor, meagre tenants, in twos and threes of silly lambs, hens and pounds of butter” (Richards, p.144)

So it’s easy to understand why the landlords preferred the tenancy of a single large-scale commercial sheep farmer than multiple peasant tenancies. But were the peasants really ‘wasting’ the region’s resources? Only if you consider regional resources not in terms of what food and other produce the land can provide but in terms of what money it can generate, and this indeed was precisely the change in attitude that the clearances were signalling. If you think in terms of the productivity of the land, then I suspect the silly lambs and hens would have it.

In order to consider land resources in purely fiscal terms, it was necessary for the Highlands to be more closely linked to a wider economy, and again this was the larger economic story of the clearances. On the landlord side, the English broke the independence of Highland lords from the wider sweep of the British economy after the Battle of Culloden in 1746 (I say ‘the English’ rather than ‘we English’ because most of my ancestors were still on their way to the metropole from Scotland and Eastern Europe at the time – another migrant story). Economic integration brought money into the Highlands from English industrialists, Scottish colonial adventurers in India, the commercial sheep farmers of northern England and, later on, the world’s super-rich like Andrew Carnegie, seeking picturesque sporting estates.

On the tenant side, a mixed agriculture of cattle and subsistence cropping produced cattle exports in return for supplementary grain, at a much lower level of capitalisation than the sheep farmers furnished. And when the inevitable happened and the mixed cattle/arable lost out to sheep, British integration with its colonies provided destinations for the exiting small tenantry in places as far flung as Nova Scotia and Australia. It also provided destinations as near flung as the Highland coastline, where many landlords attempted to resettle their upland tenants in the guise of commercial fishermen or proletarian labourers in other industrial ventures. But these attempts to industrialise the Highlands very rarely worked. As Richards notes, “In the long run there were secular trends in the British economy which operated against industrial development in peripheral regions” (p.193).

Scaling resilience

The apparently contradictory notion that the Highland peasantry was both resilient and insecure reflects different ways of scaling resilience. I’d venture to say that, as individuals, the people of a Highland peasant hamlet were probably more resilient than most of us today could dream of, partly because of their practical skills and partly because of their expectations of life. But, as a society, their way of life wasn’t very resilient – they were too close to the margins of subsistence, too under-capitalised, too poorly connected to other, less local resources that might have enabled them to ride out the consequences of a poor harvest.

The result of greater economic integration, however, wasn’t an improvement in their resilience but their elimination – in other words, the familiar course of ‘agricultural improvement’ in which peasantries are replaced by more fiscally productive, but probably less nutritionally productive, methods of farming. According to agricultural improver ideology, because the new farming system and the erstwhile peasants it’s replaced are better linked to a wider and more capitalised economy everyone benefits, including the erstwhile peasants, who are able to find better paid jobs elsewhere in the economy. That was certainly one part of the story of the clearances – especially for those who left the Highlands for the south, or for Canada or Australia.

But Richards states that it took five generations before the reduced population remaining in the Highlands enjoyed better living standards, and not usually through any particular benevolence on the part of the ‘improvers’. How do we scale that at the level of the individual life? Further, he documents the fierce struggles against clearance put up by many among the Highland peasantry. Projecting such struggles forward into the present day when exactly the same arguments for agricultural ‘improvement’ are made, I’d say that it takes a certain level of city-dwelling privilege forgetful of the tribulations of dispossession to be able to romanticise the hard road to economic improvement, or to assume that the uncertain path of proletarianization is one that peasants always willingly embrace2. And in a present day context, it’s also worth bearing in mind that the opportunities for ‘improvement’ available to the dispossessed peasants essentially involved emigrating to relatively unpopulated areas in distant parts of the world where the indigenous inhabitants themselves were in the process of being ‘cleared’.

In 1886, the Crofters’ Holdings Act finally gave security of tenure to many of the remaining small farmers, partly as a result of an emerging public sphere of national communications of the kind Benedict Anderson identified as crucial to the development of nationalism in his influential book Imagined Communities. The public, it turned out, was more sympathetic to the small farmers than it was to the engrossing landowners, to the extent that a mythology of Highland ‘genocide’ has built up around the whole episode down to the present. Richards and other modern historians are properly circumspect about feeding this mythology, but sometimes veer into the contestable territory of improver ideology, as when Richards criticises the Crofters’ Act as a “vindication of the peasant mentality” which fossilised a small farm landscape, entrenched the power of a conservative minority over a progressive majority, and “failed to establish the conditions for economic progress for the crofters” (pp.386-7). While sympathetic to the plight of the peasantry, Richards concludes,

“The critics of Highlands landlords still generally fail to give substance to their denunciations by specifying plausible alternatives for the region in the age of the clearances” (p.418)

Goldilocks in the Highlands

Far be it from me, with no expertise in Highlands history, to propose I can meet that challenge. But I’d like to have a go, not so much as a specific claim about what could have happened in the Highlands in the 19th century, but as a more general claim about alternatives to the standard narrative of ‘agricultural improvement’.

Let me broach the issues by reiterating the point I made above: the problem for the peasantry prior to the clearances was that they weren’t well enough connected to a wider economy to avoid privation, whereas their problem during the clearances was that they’d become too well connected to a wider economy to avoid dispossession. So might there have been a ‘Goldilocks’ level of economic integration – not too little, and not too much, but just the right amount that could have permitted the persistence of a more prosperous peasantry? That may now be an academic question in the case of the Highland clearances, but I don’t think it is in the context of agrarian questions in the contemporary world. For people like me who are sceptical of claims that large commercial farms are necessarily better than small peasant farms on the grounds of either agricultural productivity or social equality, these issues are very much alive. Especially when there are no longer ‘blanks’ on the map to migrate to, and where economic marginalization is now a global experience. Or, to paraphrase Richards, in the long run there were secular trends in the global economy which operated against industrial development in peripheral regions (which is just about everywhere).

My initial response to the question of a Goldilocks economy is ‘no’. It’s not about the relative geography of economic integration, it’s about class and inequality. Discussing the even more dramatically polarised situation in 19th century Ireland, Richards writes “short of making the land over to the people (which may have been an answer), it is difficult to imagine exactly what a landlord should have done” (p.76).

So in Ireland, making the land over to the people may have been an answer, which reveals the landlord perspective written into the way that Richards construes the Scottish situation. I’m not sure how much of the available cultivable land the peasantry had, but talk of a Malthusian trap seems moot until you know the balance of landlord/tenant holdings. Of course, the landlords were never going to voluntarily extinguish themselves as a class in this way (though eventually they were pretty much extinguished anyway). So in this sense after 1746 they formed a class alliance with wider British landed and capitalist interests against the local small tenantry, who had virtually no legal redress against landlord power. But supposing instead they’d formed an alliance with the tenantry, reformed the structure of landownership, kept most of the non-local capital out and redeployed the existing capital across the farm sector on the basis of a kind of progressive Highland agrarian nationalism. I’m thinking of the sort that would go easy on the tartan and Walter Scott kitsch, and focus more on defending a path of local economic development.

As in the example of the Crofters’ Act, such a development would undoubtedly have reduced the net fiscal returns to landownership, invoked the fury of outside capitalist investors with their eye on the region and prompted the kind of difficult local conflicts between small farm conservatism and the ‘improver’ urge to engross that Richards alludes to. For all these reasons, it’s easy to see why such autonomist economic programmes so rarely succeed. And I acknowledge that in a place like the Highlands even that may not have been enough to solve the problem of the peasantry and capitalise it adequately. But I think it may have been, provided people were prepared to share in solidarity a way of life that was more frugal, but better grounded in the enduring potentialities of the region than the rackety booms and busts prompted by outside money. In less geographically challenging regions, the opportunities are greater.

In that sense, I think the Crofting Act in its broad essentials was probably spot on. And I think we could do with some parallel legislation the world over today, instead of sending capital – and to a lesser extent, people – on all sorts of crazy adventures around the world in the search to maximise returns, at considerable net cost to human wellbeing and ecological sustainability. To do so, I think we probably do need some Goldilocks thinking, because it’s not the way that big, continent-wide states conduct themselves. Scotland’s independence referendum was perhaps an early salvo in the Goldilocks war to come.

We also need class alliances. The landlord-peasant conjunction of 19th century Scotland has long passed into history, but perhaps there’s scope for the contemporary middle and working classes to unite regionally around their declining fortunes in opposition to the rising and internationalising fortunes of the super-rich, as in the Occupy movement’s “we are the 99%” slogan – another tussle that may only be getting started. I can see that kind of alliance going in two broad directions – a defensive and deluded populism seeking riches out of techno-fantasies, boom-time nostalgia and scapegoatism, or a regionalist but non-chauvinist agrarian populism grounded soberly in the capacities of the land and the people living on it to create an enduring sustenance. I aim to back the latter.


  1. Most of the historical information here is derived from Richards, E. (2013) The Highland Clearances, Birlinn. I’ve also consulted Wightman, A. (2010) The Poor Had No Lawyers, Birlinn; and, Davidson, N. (2004) “The Scottish Path to Capitalist Agriculture 2: The Capitalist Offensive (1747–1815)” Journal of Agrarian Change, 4, 4: 411–460.
  1. OK, so this is a playful reverse paraphrase of Leigh Phillips Austerity Ecology, Zero Books, p.252. I think the often fierce historic resistance to enclosure and proletarianization by peasantries rebukes the lazy generalization so often found within agricultural improver ideologies (such as ecomodernism) that peasant farmers always want to quit.

Magical mathematics

Recently I got into a spot of bother on Twitter (it’s easily done) after I wrote an essay criticising an astonishingly bad newspaper article by one Leigh Phillips. The thing is, I hadn’t read his book and, silly me, I didn’t realise that you’re not supposed to criticise people’s newspaper articles until you’ve read their books. Well, now I have, and, er…it was astonishingly bad.

I know that some readers of this blog get bored by my engagements with the ecomodernists, whereas others find them interesting. So I’m going to try to keep everyone happy. I feel the need to recoup the wasted weekend I spent reading Phillips’ book by writing a few things about it, but I’m mostly going to do that elsewhere. The interesting task that Phillips sets himself, but makes a dreadful fist of tackling, is a socialist critique of left-green ‘small-is-beautiful’ relocalisation thinking. So I’m hoping to have an article about that on soon. He also makes quite a mess of trying to critique the local food movement, a subject dear to this blog’s heart, and to be honest he’s not the only one to get in a tangle over this so I plan to write a little post about that on here soon. I’ve written a wider critique of some of the magical mathematics associated with ecomodernist thinking, including Phillips’s, which has just been published on the Statistics Views website. This post is essentially a brief summary of parts of that article, plus a foray into Mr Phillips’ enchanted world of geophagy, which I hope might be of wider interest even to people who don’t much care to follow all the twists and turns of ecomodernist tomfoolery. It falls into three parts.

Part 1: The future’s orange

…or at least it is if you believe this graph:

Energy capacity graph


Let me explain. A rising tide of voices is calling upon environmentalists to ‘do the math’ and embrace nuclear energy for the sake of the climate – though, as in this article the ‘math’ is rarely spelled out. So this graph is my attempt to do so. Certainly we need an urgent shift away from fossil fuels in order to prevent runaway climate change. The ecomodernists think that we can switch from fossil fuels to clean energy without disturbing the basic parameters of the energy-intensive economy. But most of our clean energy sources are ways of producing electricity, most of the energy we use isn’t electric, and most of the electricity we do produce employs fossil fuels. So this vision requires two big shifts – from fossil fuels to electricity and from fossil fuel electricity to clean electricity. Mike Shellenberger of the ecomodernist Breakthrough Institute says that we need 1-2 GW of new clean electric energy installed daily until 2050 in order to keep both the climate and the existing economy on track, which sounds to me like it might be an underestimate. Anyway, in the graph I’ve projected electricity generation at 2 GW per day of new clean capacity from now to 2050, assuming that hydro will only be able to double, that nuclear will furnish double the capacity of non-hydro renewables, and that new clean energy will substitute for old fossil energy. I’ve set these projected developments against what’s actually happened with new generating capacity over the last 35 years, using data from the US Energy Information Administration.

I think it makes for an interesting graphic, and perhaps I should let others interpret it as they will. But let me offer a few thoughts of my own. Current global nuclear energy capacity is 379 GW, of which China possesses 23 GW. According to Phillips, China aims to have up to 500 GW of nuclear capacity by 2050 – which is about 22 times more than it currently possesses, and 32% more than the entire world’s present capacity. Phillips says there is ‘ample hope’ that China can do this and decarbonise its power production. Well, if anywhere can, China can, I guess. But even if it does, that’ll only be about 3% of the total global nuclear capacity needed, which at over 18,000 GW will be an increase in nuclear capacity of 4,800% over the next 35 years. To put that into context, over the last 35 years it’s increased by 281%.

Well, we’re taught that you can’t project past trends into the future, which is just as well for the ecomodernists when you look at the graph. But even so, the math that I’ve done here leads me to think that building this amount of nuclear capacity globally within the next 35 years is such a tall order as to be pretty much beyond the bounds of possibility – and that’s to say nothing of the other transitions that would be necessary to put the energy properly to work. Or of what the resulting society would be like. Or of how countries a tad poorer than China might fund the transition.

But leaving all that aside and just focusing on the math – or the maths, as we say here (why is British maths plural, and American math singular?) – I’ve heard plenty of people saying that greens need ‘to do the math’ on nuclear, but I’ve rarely seen anyone spell out what the math is, as I’ve tried to do here. The casual reader may conclude that the energy transition is simply a matter of overcoming public misgivings about nuclear power and building some more nuclear installations. The reality, it seems to me, is that ecomodernist nuclear math is a fantasy mathematics – a magical mathematics, and not in a good sense. So I present my graph as Exhibit A in the case for energy descent.

Part 2: It’s not my fault…

Phillips argues that carbon emissions can be laid disproportionately at the door of the rich, so that, in his words,  “phrases such as “the greenhouse gas emissions of the average American” or “per capita consumption” contain absolutely no useful information” (Phillips, Austerity Ecology, p.56).

His evidence for this mostly comprises a list of the impressively carbon-intensive features of Roman Abramovich’s luxury yacht, but he does also state that the top 20% of income earners account for roughly 70% of consumption in the USA. So perhaps we could run a quick plausibility check on his argument by allocating out emissions in the same proportions. According to the World Bank’s latest world development indicators, US carbon dioxide emissions stand at 17.5 tonnes per capita (the 10th highest in the world, out of 193 countries). If we allocate 70% of those emissions to 20% of the population and recalculate the figure with that 70/20 omitted from numerator and denominator, we get a figure of 6.4 tonnes per capita, which would then place the US 50th out of 193 and still more than double the median emission figure of 2.5 tonnes per capita.

Or we could consider the recent analysis from Oxfam suggesting that the richest 10% of Chinese citizens have per capita emissions similar to the poorest 40% of Europeans, and the richest 10% of Indian citizens have per capita emissions only a quarter the level of the poorest 50% of US citizens, while the emissions of the poorest 50% of US citizens are 20 times higher than those of the poorest 50% of Indian citizens.

The thrust of Phillips’ argument is that ordinary working people around the world sit on the same side of the carbon footprint fence, in contrast to the rich who deserve all the blame for the climate crisis. It seems to me pretty clear that that isn’t the case – the emissions of poor people in rich countries vastly outstrip those of poor people in poor countries, or even of rich people in poor countries. I don’t propose to discuss the policy implications of that right now. All I want to suggest is that, as it turns out, phrases such as “the greenhouse gas emissions of the average American” or “per capita consumption” do contain some useful information after all. Unless you wish them away with magic mathematics…

Part 3: The myth of the myth of carrying capacity

The third chapter of Phillips’ book is entitled “To infinity and beyond! (Or: the myth of carrying capacity)”. You can pretty much tell from the Buzz Lightyear mathematics of its title that this chapter won’t be too good, and so it proves. Nevertheless, I’m nothing if not tireless in my pursuit of dodgy ecomodernist arguments so below I offer you a deconstruction of Phillips’ logic in this chapter, which runs something like this:

(1) There is no precise and objectively quantifiable point at which we can say that human activities have exceeded the earth’s capacity to support them.

(2) Therefore there is no limit to the earth’s carrying capacity…

(3) …well perhaps there is a limit at some point – if all the carbon on the entire planet was embodied in human beings, the earth’s carrying capacity would be around 1020 people. “To be fair,” Phillips concedes, “these hundred quintillion people would all have to be cannibals”. (Yeah, that’s right Leigh, that’s the only problem here…). But, he continues, these “back-of-the-envelope calculations do at least appear to tell us that Earth has the capacity to carry such a load” (p.63). Yes, he did actually write that sentence. The blurb on the back of the book informs us that Leigh Phillips is a ‘science journalist’ who writes for Nature. Nice work.

(4) Thomas Malthus was a 19th century clergyman who thought that human population growth would outstrip the capacity of the earth to provide sufficient food. He further thought, pessimistically and misanthropically, that no actions should be taken to lessen the plight of the starving poor. But his predictions have so far proven incorrect.

(5) Anybody who claims that there may be any biological or physical limits to human growth or expansion is thus a Malthusian, who is therefore…

(6) …wrong

(7) …and also pessimistic

(8) …and also misanthropic.

Now then, there are various problems with these lines of argument. To begin with, the…oh God, did I say that I was tireless in my pursuit of dodgy ecomodernist arguments? I suddenly feel overwhelmed with fatigue. Much as I’m prepared to waste a certain amount of my time arguing with ecomodernist nonsense, even I have my, ahem, limits (excuse the misanthropy). So I’m going to stop right here. Let me just say this: if you’re puzzling over where the chain of logical inferences in the numbered list above breaks down, I’ll leave you with this clue: it’s a whole number which is bigger than one and smaller than three.

Voting with their feet: some questions for the experts

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

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

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

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

Urban-rural residence




Now to the questions…


Question 1: How many foot-voters are there?

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


Question 2: Where do the foot-voters go?

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


Question 3: How do the foot-voters fare?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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



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


Of pigs, peasants and pastoralists

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

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

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

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

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

Fig 1

Fig 1









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

Fig 2








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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fig 3








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

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

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

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

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

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