Requiem for the imperial city

In the early 19th century London was such an unhealthy place that it couldn’t sustain its population through indigenous births and had to rely upon net in-migration. Its death rate has long since declined to a more acceptable level, but today the capital relies as much as ever on in-migration. About 40% of its current population was born abroad. And foreign-born workers in London constitute more than a third of all foreign-born workers in the UK.

Those facts aren’t much, I realise, to build an entire hypothesis on, but I’m going to give it a go. Hell, there are people out there like Stewart Brand and Erle Ellis who’ve worked with less in trying to convince us that urbanisation is an unalloyed positive.

So here’s my alternative hypothesis to their narrative of joyful urbanisation: Some people want to live in the city and some people don’t, but most people want a secure livelihood. Historically, industrialisation and economic development have been associated with urbanism or urbanisation. Cities were job-creators, built around commerce and industry. So people, in search of that secure livelihood, have tended to go to them, temporarily or permanently. Cities were (and are) also resource sinks, drawing in food and other materials from much wider areas. They thus have an imperial aspect – gravitational centres, as it were, that orient their surroundings to themselves. In some cases, the imperialism is quite localised. In others – like London in its heyday, and apparently still today – it can be global in reach. But the nature of the livelihoods available in the post-industrial city seems to be changing. As I mentioned in a recent post, traditional urban sectors such as heavy industry and port functions are now much less labour intensive, and have also become too large to fit into traditional cities like London. In London, manufacturing is still important (mainly now of food products and clothing), but rising up the list are human and city services – domestic personnel, food retail, hospitality, security, transport, construction, landscape services and so on1.

In other words, cities concentrate people, thereby creating many employment opportunities for people to service other people. So there’s a kind of positive feedback loop of self-reinforcing urban concentration. Meanwhile, London as a so-called ‘world city’, with the benefit of political stability and ratcheting property prices, has increasingly become a playground for the global wealthy. At the same time, the possibilities for cheap accommodation in the city are dwindling – the generation-long onslaught on social housing symbolised most recently by the notorious bedroom tax, the curtailment of private renters’ and squatters’ rights, the closure of loopholes such as narrowboat moorages and heavier planning enforcement of ‘shedrooms’. So there’s a massive squeeze on the living conditions and standard of living of the traditional working class, and quite a squeeze too on the situation of relatively poorly paid middle class workers – teachers, social workers, nurses etc.

I have no idea how all this will play out in the future. But that high level of foreign-born workers is intriguing. It seems to me that cities like London are no longer operating in the way described by classical urban sociology – the slow (and often painful) assimilation of successive waves of migrants into the city’s stable demographic fabric (in London’s case, up to the 1970s, successively Jewish, Irish, Caribbean and South Asian for the most part). The present migrants seem a more provisional and footloose phenomenon than the migrants of the past. They are not necessarily there to stay, but there to earn while they can…largely by servicing the settled population, who rely on them even as they moan about them. On that latter point, there’s clearly a class dimension which is at issue in contemporary politics: the jobs done by migrants service wealthier people the most and tend to undercut the work or the work conditions of the traditional working class. Fortunately, here in the UK we have the political maturity to realise that this is due to structural economic and political factors, and can’t simply be blamed on the migrants themselves – oh, wait. Anyway, should London’s economic fortunes decline, or other cities in other places start to beckon harder, or opportunities in their homelands brighten, or today’s referendum propel Britain out of the EU, then perhaps we could expect London’s migrant population to decrease – with interesting consequences, I’d think, for the life of the city.

Meanwhile, I doubt this situation fosters economic resilience or stability for London. And since the population of Greater London constitutes around 16% of the whole UK population – a pretty high main city/total population ratio when set alongside comparable countries – I also doubt it fosters economic resilience or stability for the UK as a whole. But maybe that has some interesting implications. For one thing, although the UK (or at least England) is one of the more densely populated and heavily urbanised countries of the world, once you take London out of the picture, things start to look more spacious. The southwest region of England where I live has nearly 2 million hectares of farmland and a total population of 5.3 million, with only six cities in the region exceeding populations of 100,000 and only two exceeding 200,000 (Bristol is its largest city, and the tenth largest in the UK, with a population of 400,000). Population density here is 2.9 people per hectare of existing farmland – a contrast with London and the southeast, with 7.5 people per hectare of farmland in that region.

Of course, in reality you can’t just ‘take London out of the picture’. But when I advocate for a smaller scale and more localised agriculture I often come across the kind of objection that runs “Well, that all sounds lovely, but I live in London. How are you going to feed us?” As an ex-Londoner myself – and one, moreover, who has benefitted considerably from its overheated economy – I’m quite sympathetic to that question. Especially if it’s phrased open-endedly rather than as a challenge – less an aggressive ‘how are you going to feed us?’, and more a plaintive ‘how are you going to feed us?’ This is something I’m going to look at more closely in my upcoming posts.

Perhaps a more subversive implication of this line of thought would question London’s overdevelopment. Big (or biggish) cities undoubtedly have a role to play in concentrating various administrative, educational and commercial functions, although much of their old commercial-industrial raison d’être has now gone. But do we need a city of 8 million in a country of 63 million? How much of that population concentration has resulted from old patterns of development and the positive feedback loop I mentioned earlier? How many of those wealthy Londoners being serviced by not-so-wealthy migrants can a just and sustainable society afford? There are those who argue that by promoting ease of interaction, large cities display ‘super-linear power scaling with total population’2 – that is, they create economic activity disproportionate to their size. This hypothesis has been strongly disputed, even in its own terms empirically3, quite apart from the question of whether super-linear power scaling is such a great thing anyway when the case for degrowth is mounting. Indeed, others have argued that the fractal pattern of super-sized cities represents an instability in a complex system operating far from equilibrium4. I wonder if these competing perspectives are over-mathematizations. Perhaps in imputing some kind of ordained and intrinsic trajectory to city development they efface the way it emerges from the self-interested policies of states and their elites. Might it be time for policymakers to start thinking about ways of trimming back the hyperdevelopment of large cities like London in service of wider interests?

The situation is different in the growing megacities of the global south, though there are various similarities. One of them is the same basic imperialism that underlies their prodigious growth – a local imperialism of the city bleeding its rural hinterlands, and a global imperialism associated with institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, whose structural adjustment programs geared to opening markets for global free trade in agricultural commodities (allied with the utter hypocrisy of the US and the EU in continuing to subsidise their own agricultures) gave many peasants and rural poor people few other options. Despite the blandishments of Brand, Ellis and other urban advocates about the advantages of urban residence for poor people in the global south, I still haven’t seen any compelling evidence to suggest that it provides a solid route out of poverty for many, though I’m still open to persuasion. I suspect there may be a historical fallacy here: because urbanisation was associated with economic growth in various historic and contemporary cases (Europe, USA and, perhaps more problematically, China), it’s assumed that urbanisation is a necessary and sufficient condition for development. I’m not so sure. And I think there’s a road not taken here which is worth exploring – endogenous rural development.

But it’s hard to broach such possibilities because of our modernist romance with the idea of the city. In a Twitter exchange, Haroon Akram-Lodhi, whose work I greatly respect, pointed me to Katherine Boo’s amazing book about a Mumbai slum, Behind The Beautiful Forevers as an example of how ‘vibrant’ slum life is. The book certainly shows the ingenuity and tenacity that people in desperate circumstances display in getting by from day to day, which I suppose you could choose to call ‘vibrant’. But to me it also shows the violence, despair, corruption and systematic unfairness of slum life that makes it virtually impossible for all but a lucky few to escape. It’s not that the countryside is necessarily much different. Indeed, in most poor countries rural people are poorer on average than city people. But, leaving aside the question of how valid measures of poverty across the two settings are, it doesn’t follow that moving to the city will improve the lot of the rural poor. I’ve not yet seen convincing evidence for economic acceleration which is intrinsically related to urbanism per se.

Cities have a pretty impressive track record historically of achieving long-term imperialistic control. So I wouldn’t be surprised if places like London and Mumbai carry on their merry way long into the future, controlling the flows of people and resources over large distances, essentially in accordance with the whims of their established elites. But perhaps, if we listen hard, we might just catch a few strains of a requiem playing for them on the horizon of the future. Because what we really need is smaller, tighter cities that are more mutualistically geared to the needs of the wider society of which they form a part. And when it becomes clear, as I think it probably will, that the imperial mega-cities of the modern age are loading the dice against the displaced multitudes of their peripheries, who knows what kind of radical shakedowns of the country and the city might await?

References

1. http://www.migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/briefings/migrants-uk-labour-market-overview

2. West, G. and Bettencourt, L. 2011. Bigger Cities Do More with Less: New Science Reveals Why Cities Become More Productive and Efficient as They Grow. Scientific American. 305, 3: 44-45.

3. Shalizi, C. 2011. ‘Scaling and hierarchy in urban economies’. PNAS.

4. Orrell, D. 2012. Economyths, Icon, pp.93-4.

 

Notes on a spirit quest

I mentioned in my previous post that I’m slowly working my way towards an analysis of a neo-peasant future. Well, the operative word there is ‘slowly’ and here’s one of the slow bits. It comes in the form of the report I promised on my recent spirit quest, and also by way of a breather before I shoulder the onerous burden of the neo-peasant analysis. But I’ve also got to say that I’m reeling in the wake of Jo Cox’s murder. Various people are cautioning not to make political capital out of her death, which is probably wise. So let me make some symbolic capital out of it instead, in the context of a murderer allegedly yelling “Britain first” and “Keep Britain independent” as he killed her. Doubtless he was a disturbed man operating alone, but nobody ever really operates ‘alone’. The anti-EU referendum campaign has been a thoroughly poisonous exercise in small-minded nativism, and Cox’s murder looks to me like a kind of apotheosis of it. A left populist case could have been made for quitting the EU, but it wasn’t. For me, Cox’s murder symbolises the whirlwind we’ll reap from indiscriminate support for populisms of any kind as a way of shaking up the present political inertia. I will not lend my support to a politics of localism and self-determination without tolerance, egalitarianism and internationalism at its core. The primary task is to build such a movement, not hope to piggyback it onto squalid nativism. Britain isn’t ‘first’, and nor is anywhere else.

Anyway, reporting on my spirit quest seems a bit self-indulgent in the light of Cox’s death, but there we have it – writing a blog is nothing if not self-indulgent, as I further discuss below. I’m not even sure that what follows here (written a couple of weeks ago, before the murder) is wholly relevant to this blog’s own limited themes. I think it probably is. Anyway, it’s good to stretch the wings once in a while. We’ll be back on the farm soon enough. So here goes.

~~~

My friend Paul shamelessly revealed here not so long ago that I recently turned 50, an event that prompted more soul-wracked reflection on my part than I’d anticipated. Fortunately, having given up my academic career and most of my pretensions to professional respectability in my 30s, I got the bulk of my midlife crisis out of the way early and I’m now an only mildly disillusioned farmer rather than the kind of time-bomb of utter rage that young scholars learn to avoid as an academic rite of passage when they chance upon certain senior colleagues around the photocopier.

Even so, I’ve been turning over thoughts of death in my mind of late – and not exclusively my own. Throughout human history, the individual’s birth and death have generally been thought of as mere waymarks on a longer journey of the soul rather than the definitive start and endpoints they’ve become in the post-Christian west. It occurs to me that this has been a profoundly unsettling psycho-cultural change that goes less remarked than perhaps it should. I think it manifests in some odd conceptions that we often fail to notice: the idea that although we ourselves pass to dust, the civilisation of which we form a part progresses ever onwards towards godlike immortality, or the notion that as individuals we must be authors of a unique, important life that other people need to witness. I’ve never subscribed to the former conviction, but the latter…well, perhaps that’s why I took to writing this blog and am now repackaging my holiday notes under the grandiloquent title of a ‘spirit quest’.

Paul has a nice metaphor for our thoughts and ideas being like the spoor of an animal pursuing its course through the landscape. When others intersect with it, they might stop and sniff at it, and maybe follow it for a while as a part of their own journey. Or else they might just plough on through, only stopping long enough to piss on the trail they found. I’ve been truly gratified at the number of people who’ve taken the trouble to respond positively to my online spoor, I’ve learned a lot from them, and I feel bad that I sometimes haven’t found the time to respond adequately. Then again, my journey was bookended by a commenter opining on my deadened spirit and by another one criticising my empty criticality. So I hereby renew my ever ill-kempt resolve to try to spend my time among the sniffers, and not among the pissers. If I’m lucky, these notes might find a sniffer or two.

My journey is taking me first to the Scottish Highlands, on which I recently wrote. So I drive northward, mountain-bound, in a borrowed car. M4, M5, M6, M74. The spirit-traveller of old would measure their journey in the lengths of their own prostrate body, but today’s pilgrim works to tighter deadlines. The farm is at several crossroads in its own narrative – a good time to leave it and reflect, but there are others taking up the slack of my absence and I need to be back in a week. For a long time I rationed my fossil-fuel assisted travelling out of concern for the climate, but since Copenhagen I’ve become more slovenly. If everybody denied themselves journeys such as this, emissions would plummet. If I avoid it personally, it makes no difference. The eternal dilemma in the society of the crowd. On this trip, I choose to reject the duality of the environmentalist as either hypocrite or saint.

In any case, I can report with total certainty that not everyone is denying themselves journeys such as this. From Worcester to Manchester, it’s a stop-start dance in three lanes of laboured traffic. At 0mph I have plenty of time to reflect on the sticker adorning the 4×4 in front – “One life. Live it.” That post-Christian conceit again. Why do you only ever see it on 4x4s? Because driving off-road seems livelier than the constraints of the tarmac? How closely shuttered the horizon!

The traffic thins towards Carlisle. I stop for food at Tebay, the organic service station. Like most once-good consumerist ideas, it seems to be slowly regressing towards the mean. I peel off onto the A702, Edinburgh-bound. I like the fact that the main southern route to Scotland’s capital is a winding single carriageway. In Edinburgh, I spend the night sleeping on the floor of my son Oliver’s student digs. Oliver is coming to the Highlands with me. His room is cluttered with mountaineering equipment, some of it inherited from me. He’s slowly replacing it with more up-to-date kit, a fact I try not to ponder too metaphorically.

The next day we drive to the far northwest and climb Ben Hope, the mountain described by Robert Macfarlane in his celebrated book The Wild Places. I find Macfarlane’s writing engaging and irritating by turns – too self-absorbed in places, too overblown, too politically ill-attuned. His version of Ben Hope is pitiless and frightening. For us today it’s a gentle amble in the sun, T shirts on the summit with some pretty views. But then the clouds roll in, the warmth vanishes instantly and I remember that it was a winter night Macfarlane spent up here. Context is all. Perhaps I only find him irritating because he writes a lot like me, only better, and to vastly more acclaim.

South of Cape Wrath, the landscape is post-glacial, the ice age palpably recent. The land is still rising here in rebound from its glacial load. Macfarlane is right, this is just about the wildest landscape you can find in Britain. In one sense, it’s not so wild. You’re never more than about 30 miles from a road, and once on a road you’re probably never more than another 30 miles from a cappuccino or whatever damn thing you want. But imagine dwelling in this land, making your living from it. Few could, and those that once did are long departed. Highland or lowland, trade may be a saviour, but it’s also a destroyer. The sheep eat the people, as they once said in these parts. But now the sheep are mostly gone too. Not many people are returning, apart from wayfarers like me.

The clouds that rolled in yesterday have now set for the week. Oliver and I climb Arkle, stepping through the portal of a huge split boulder into pine forest and then the mountain’s rocky wastes. Blasted by an arctic wind, the only animal we see on the mountain is a small spider, scion of an ancient lineage.

We drive south again, through Assynt. I love this landscape of ancient inselbergs, and I’m intrigued by the recent crofter buyout of the Assynt estate. This country has some of the most unequal landownership in the world, but the winds of change are blowing in the new Scotland. I’d like to stay here a while and chase that story, but my visit is driven more by introspection and the desire to find some kind of redemption in the hills. I’d wanted a physical challenge, and I’d chosen An Teallach, thrilling to the reverential tones in the hillwalking guidebooks about adrenaline-fuelled scrambling on the Corag Bhuidhe pinnacles towering precipitously over Toll an Lochain. Packing nervously for the hike the night before I persuade Oliver to bring a rope.

“You read too many of those hillwalking books,” he says. “You’re a climber, not a hillwalker. You’ve led extreme grade rock.”

“Ah well, that was then. This is now.”

“Just stop reading those hillwalking books.”

But in the morning the clouds are low and the rain is hammering against my tent. I decide that the spirits of this quest have determined that my goal of traversing An Teallach will go unrewarded. I decide that I’m OK with that, like Peter Matthiesen in his book The Snow Leopard, searching for a spirit creature that he never glimpses. Oliver isn’t so sure. We drive to Torridon, the weather improving all the time, and with the sun now shining I’m no longer sure myself. Too late. Oliver goes fishing while I sit in a café reading George Monbiot’s new book, which I’ve been tasked to review. I also have with me James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life. The two make for argumentative bedfellows.

The next day dawns dull and wet again, but I’m not going to make the same mistake twice so we slog up to the ridge of Liathach – an objective that my hillwalking guide says is only marginally less terrifying than An Teallach. The views from the ridge are said to be magnificent, but ours rarely extend more than a few yards. We see no one else on the mountain all day. We’re pricked by a steely rain, outriding gusting northerlies. Tracing the ridge, we soon reach the Am Fasarinen Pinnacles – “a hard, exposed scramble that sets the pulse racing” the guidebook says. But it goes pretty easily. The only part where I stop to think is the descent of a small slab where there’s nothing much to hold onto. In a playground it would probably be none too taxing to the average eight year old, but with wet rock, numb hands, a fierce wind and a potentially fatal fall in the event of a slip it’s a somewhat different prospect. Looking down into the clouds boiling up from the corrie below I think for a second that I see my old friend Nick sitting on a dark bed of mist, trident in hand, beckoning me mischievously over. I turn to face the rock and lower myself gingerly, like an old man inching his way down a swimming pool ladder. There are no anthems in my head, and I’m cold, but it feels good to be here and good to have negotiated the pinnacles, as if indeed a pulse of deeper life-spirit flickers in me after all. Oliver scampers down the slab in four easy strides, facing out, and jumps onto the narrow bounding path.

“Guess you’re right,” I say, “That wasn’t so bad. Maybe I shouldn’t read those hillwalking guides so much.”

“Innit,” says Oliver, hefting his rucksack before he turns to kick up the edge of a sugary snowfield, the last remnant of winter, heading towards the final summit of Mullach an Rathain.

This is an era of diminished expectations. I do not think my children’s generation will find greater wealth or happiness than mine. I do not think that our culture is inexorably improving. But I find pleasure in the fact that my son is already a better mountaineer than I was.

In the valley, we backtrack along the road to our car. In places, there are deer-fenced exclosures, funded by EU money, to help with woodland regeneration. Outside them there’s little but heather. Inside, strong young saplings of birch and Scots pine. By God, that deer fencing looks a pricey business, though. And inside one of the exclosures we come across a doe, paler than usual, regarding us with infinite attention. I’m not inclined to take sides today in the ‘balance of nature’ debate, but I’m pleased to see her and take an illicit pleasure in the fact that she’s outwitted the fence. Perhaps she’s my spirit animal for this journey. The pine and birch grow strong around her.

On the final day in the Highlands we climb Slioch, again in cloud and rain. But as we follow the east ridge round to the summit of Sgurr an Tuill Bhain the sun burns through. A rainbow arcs northwards across the uninhabited lochans and moors of the Fisherfield Forest, pointing in the far distance to the sawtooth ridge of An Teallach itself, glinting in the sunlight. I don’t know whether to treat this sight as an emblem of my failure or of my success. Probably both, or neither. In any case, it’s beautiful. Rainbow, mountain, old tracks of ice. The spirit feels strong inside as we descend.

Oliver needs to get back to Edinburgh for a field ecology course. And I’m feeling the need to get back to the farm for some field ecology of my own. But I have a couple more things on my itinerary. First, a long drive south along England’s eastern coasts – a part of the country I’ve scarcely visited – and through the rich farmlands of Lincolnshire and the fens. There’s a beauty to the moors and beaches, but it’s unwillingly surrendered to the passing motorist whisked between appropriate stopovers. I try to find a campsite around Lincoln. There are ones marked on my map, but I don’t find them on the ground. Instead, incongruously, shuttered up in open farm country I find a couple of sex shops, and I begin to wonder if ‘campsite’ is some kind of east country euphemism. These late-night roads are unfriendly places, making a peon of the casual motorist: no stopping, no camping, layby closed. I’ve never stayed in a cheap service station hotel before. Who would? I assume there are always vacancies in such places. But from Lincoln, through Margaret Thatcher’s hometown of Grantham, and on to Peterborough, there’s no room at the inn. Just as I decide that the spirits of this journey are telling me to go home I find a room for the night.

The next morning, I start with coffee in the service station. Such non-places seem the very anathema of what I stand for, but I can’t help somehow liking them. A historical display near the burger bar shows how archaeologists found a bronze-age farm on this site, as the service station was built. Coachloads of football supporters arrive in raucous good humour. It’s easy for me to play the silent prophet and scorn their frivolity. Their team won, who cares? But I enjoy their enjoyment. Sometimes, there’s too little space for playfulness.

The fens are a place of industrial wind turbines, cereals and vegetables, undocumented workers, anti-EU sloganeering, and a cold shallow sea nibbling for purchase at the country’s edges. I drive along roads that speak of the fens’ drainage and Dutch connections: Forty Foot Bank, Sluice Road, Sixteen Foot Bank, Vermuden’s Drain. A family story holds that our ancestors were Dutch fen-drainers, hence the distinctly non-Anglo ‘j’ in the surname Smaje. The truth is more prosaic – and more interesting, speaking to the anxieties of history. The landscape is regimented here, its wildernesses confined to canal edges. Cow parsley and feral rape, kestrels. Occasionally the edge thickens to encompass a smallholding with geese and pigs. But mostly I see wheat, barley, rape, like all the arable fields of England. I reach the Breckland, where there are sand and trees, another destination of my journey, but I’m impatient now and there’s also a motorway leading westwards past self-proclaimed ‘historic market towns’ where suburban jumbles of ugly utility buildings reluctantly cede a few old town-centre streets. In Hemel Hempstead the inevitable happens and the ugly jumble on each side stretches to meet in the middle. Ah well, at least there are people playing cricket here. And perhaps in centuries to come those ugly buildings will be memorialised in turn. Hemel Hempstead: historic dormitory-commercial satellite? Somehow I can’t quite see it.

Just one more place to stop. Is this wise? The village where I grew up, and haven’t visited for nearly thirty years. My parents worked in London, and drew circles around it until they found the nearest place where they could afford a family home. I have no connections here now. The place today is even more self-memorialising than my own old memories of it. The Victorian building where Mrs Maunder once put me through my paces is now neatly museum-ized by a signpost: ‘The Old Schoolhouse’. And, talking of museums, the high street is emblazoned with the jaunty hues of the Roald Dahl museum, where once he was just an old bloke in the village who was known for writing books. No couple just out of college with two young kids could afford a place here now.

I climb the hill to the Anglican church where we used to walk up from the school for services, two abreast, girl and boy. A plaque on the wall lists every parish priest here from the thirteenth century. There have only been three since 1939, and I remember the first two from my school assemblies. The present incumbent started well after my time, and is the first female name on that list of ages. Perhaps I do believe in progress.

Another two hours and I’m home. The oaks we planted ten years ago now tower over me, their leaves a good three weeks ahead of the ones I’ve just seen in the Highlands. Spring has fully taken hold since I left. The first leafy crops of the season are ready to harvest. The lambs, so wraithlike just a few weeks ago, are now fully adhered to life. Soon it’ll be hay-making time. Or silage-making, anyway. More progress? I don’t know – I’ve returned with no more answers, no more spirit perhaps, than when I left. And no real home in the world but the one I’ve made, which is here.

Neo-peasantries: from permaculture to permanent agriculture

Over the coming posts I’m going to start slowly moving towards my next big theme: the practice and politics of a neo-peasant agriculture. But first I need to prepare the way with a bit of context, and one context is permaculture. The word is a contraction of ‘permanent agriculture’, so in that sense seems close to the kind of sustainable farming and society I seek. But it’s also a movement with a distinctive literature and community associated with it, a movement in which my own route ‘back to the land’ was originally forged. Yet now I’m not so sure how much permaculture (the movement) is likely to deliver permaculture (permanent agriculture). I’ve started to think that peasants or ‘neo-peasants’ are a more promising vehicle for permanent agriculture than permaculturists. That at any rate is what I’ll address in this post.

Framing neo-peasant agriculture in relation to permaculture may not be the best way to start this cycle of posts, but it’s uppermost in my mind after a series of readings and interactions recently – Dan Palmer’s interesting article on Christopher Alexander and his ‘challenge to permaculture’; a re-reading of what I think is a very important ‘state of permaculture’ article by Patrick Whitefield; a fascinating article in New Left Review about the enrichment of objects; and, a lively set of exchanges on Resilience.org regarding my letter in Permaculture Magazine, some of which degenerated into the kind of pissing contest that represents the permaculture movement at its doctrinaire worst.

That contest was initiated by Rick Larson, whose opening gambit to me was “My backyard is much more interesting than your simple tilled smallholding” – an assertion I find interesting for several reasons that I’ll come to. Rick’s major beef seems to be that mixed semi-commercial small-scale farming-cum-horticulture of the kind I practice is not the way forwards into a sustainable future, especially in its (in fact, rather minimal) use of tillage. As it happens, I largely agree with him, for reasons that I sketched in my review of Jean-Martin Fortier’s book. On the other hand, I also doubt that the backyard, no-till, perennial-heavy polyculture of the kind practiced by Rick would feature too heavily in such a future either. What I would say in favour of commercial farming is that it helps to concentrate the mind on inputs and outputs. Given that most backyard growers don’t furnish anything even close to their total household food requirements and tend to think of time in the garden as recreational, a spell working in commercial agriculture can be salutary in appreciating what it takes to feed a household, and also on how backyard methods might scale.

Anyway, let me now try to show why I think moving towards a sustainable neo-peasant agriculture may involve plotting a course away from permaculture as it’s typically now understood.

1. The limits of biomimicry

 A typical farm – even a traditional, small, mixed, organic one – doesn’t look much like a natural ecosystem. It thus stands indicted in the eyes of a certain kind of permaculture thinking, because nature provides the gold standard for efficient design.

But, as previously discussed in much more detail on this site, I’ve come to question that ‘certain kind of thinking’, largely as a result of books by two ecologists – Ford Denison1 and Phil Grime2. In brief, Denison argues that organisms are evolutionarily optimised by natural selection in ways that ecosystems aren’t. So there’s no reason to assume that the structure of natural ecosystems necessarily optimises the parameters sought by humans as they design their agro-ecosystems. Therefore, there’s a danger of what Denison calls the ‘misguided mimicry of nature’. The point is not that biomimicry is inevitably misguided. It’s just that there’s no reason to assume that a more biomimetic agroecosystem is necessarily a better or more efficient one simply because it’s mimetic.

Grime shows how organisms conform to different types across the axes of habitat disturbance and resource availability. Natural ecosystems commonly display low disturbance and low resource availability, selecting for more sessile, resource-conserving, stress-tolerant organisms. There’s an intrinsic appeal to mimicking such ecosystems because they’re robust and they get by with few inputs. But they’re also slow-growing, low in output and well defended from cropping and/or predation. By contrast, typical agroecosystems, and also a few natural ecosystems, are high disturbance, high resource setups. Productivity is high, but so are input and management costs.

A perfect solution would be to create an agroecosystem with the best of both worlds – low input, stable, robust, well-defended, but high output. Unfortunately, perfect solutions don’t exist. Both Denison and Grime emphasise trade-offs – if we try to maximise one thing (like food yield) we generally lose other desirable traits (like stress tolerance). As Thomas Sowell put it, “There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs”. I think this insight needs wider promotion within alternative agricultural circles.

2. Production functions: or, thinking like a celeriac

Take a look at this picture of the recently transplanted celeriac in part of my (no till) market garden (just try to ignore the lupins, comfrey, hornbeam, sunflowers, rhubarb and grasses OK?). Rick Larson calls this a ‘monoculture’. Well, maybe. Given that celeriac occupies only 80m2 (or around 0.1%) of a 7.3ha holding with well over a hundred other introduced species, and it won’t grow on this spot again for at least another six years, I think that’s stretching a point. But call it what you will. I think what’s more interesting is why I, like most commercial growers, generally avoid intercropping at the fine-scale, whereas a lot of backyard permaculture gardeners prefer it.

Small farm monoculture

Rick’s answer is that I’m ‘locked in’ to a detrimental system. To my mind that substitutes easy censure for more careful thought. I think the reason most commercial growers opt for these ‘monocultures’ is because labour is our key constraint – the labour involved in efficient planting, weeding, irrigation and harvesting, and the labour involved in planning crop quantities and rotations. It saves work if you don’t mix the crops up too much. But on a garden scale, space is often a more significant constraint than labour. It makes sense to cram in lots of different plants in a given area, and take advantage of their different growth habits and other properties that enable the gardener to make the most of limited space. Different trade-offs in different situations.

An economist might frame these considerations as a production function, a kind of input-output equation. So the inputs might be things like land area, soil quality, water, compost or fertility, human labour, mechanical or fossil energy inputs and so on. And the outputs might be things like food to eat or food to sell, the pleasure of working hard in the garden, the pleasure of not working too hard in the garden, as well as undesirable or negative outputs – soil erosion, greenhouse gas emissions, water drawdown and so on.

I don’t think there can ever be a single, ‘right’ solution to that production function – not for an individual and not for a society. We can trade-off labour inputs, land area, mechanical energy and so on in endless ways. I think most of us in the alternative farming movement would agree that we need more human input and less mechanical input into farming, but that only puts some vague boundaries around a few parameters.

But what I think is in the minds of the permaculture polyculturists is the notion that there are interactive effects when you put plants together. I’ve written about this in more detail elsewhere in a debate about polycultures with Patrick Whitefield that was sadly truncated by Patrick’s death. The basic point is that by planting, say, carrots alongside onions you expect to get better total yields, or the same total yields for less work, than if you planted them in separate blocks. But the truth is that the evidence for most of these interactive or ‘companion planting’ effects is poor, or at least highly contextual – something that’s discussed in more detail by Denison in his book and by me in my aforementioned post. And even when there is a demonstrable effect (eg. onions deterring carrot root fly), trade-offs are still in play. Should carrots be planted with onions? Well, it depends on the extent of the fly problem, the balance required between carrots and onions, the costs and efficacy of the deterrence vis-à-vis other deterrent methods, the labour costs, and so on. Is interplanting always preferable to monocropping? I think Patrick got it right when he wrote “any blanket statement…is almost certain to be wrong or at least only right in certain places and at certain times.”

In the excellent article from which I’ve taken that quotation, Patrick offers a mea culpa for the emphasis in his own early permaculture teaching on stand-alone ideas like swales which he taught because it differentiated permaculture from more traditional ways of working the land. I think this is an important insight, and I’ll say more about it below. For now, I’d just like to suggest that trade-offs abound – trade-off free improvements and genuinely interactive effects not already widely practiced by farmers and growers are rare. Rick says he finds the ‘monocultures’ of the kind I practice less interesting than his approach, which is fair enough. Different strokes for different folks. What interests me is whether a given garden polyculture offers any agronomic advantages over single crop rotations – not necessarily the case just because it looks more ‘natural’. The current evidence is weak. My advice to the budding backyard permaculturist would be: experiment with new things by all means, but treat traditional farming systems with some respect. Don’t assume they’re necessarily misguided. Maybe even allow them to challenge some of your assumptions. People have been doing this kind of farming, and thinking about how to do it better, for a very long time.

3. Designing from wholes to parts: or, check out my wineberries!

Designing from wholes to parts is the lesson of the influential design thinker Christopher Alexander, which Dan Palmer has recently argued should be better incorporated into permaculture. Some of the respondents to Palmer’s article argued, correctly I think, that this kind of thinking is already part of the permaculture toolkit – as in David Holmgren’s admonition to ‘design from patterns to details’. But what are the ‘wholes’ we’re thinking about when we do our designs? Typically a house and yard, perhaps a farm or community garden. These themselves are only parts. Few people other than government planners are really planning holistically at landscape-regional-society-wide levels, and for the most part not even them, increasingly subordinated as they are by a neoliberal ideology that claims the best kind of planning is no planning at all (except corporate planning).

Though it’s true that the ‘patterns to details’ message is well known in permaculture, ‘details to patterns’ thinking nevertheless seems to me surprisingly widespread within the movement. On Resilience.org I was criticised for admitting I didn’t have swales, raised beds or forest gardens on my holding – the implication being that they’re so obviously appropriate in every situation that I couldn’t have tried them and was therefore just offering empty criticisms from the outside (the definition of a ‘swale’ in the discussion turned out to be a path where the topsoil is dug out and heaped up alongside – in which case examination of the photo shows that in fact I do have swales on my holding. If the definitions of forest gardens and raised beds are equally fluid, I probably have them too, so perhaps I am a proper permaculturist after all…)

Criticising someone for not having specific landscape features is pretty absurd without detailed knowledge of their land and their thought processes about it, so I don’t think it’s worth wasting time on rebuttals. But I’d like to make a hypothesis about its underlying motivation. Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre argue in an interesting recent article3 that deindustrialisation (ie. the relocation of the mass production of cheap industrial artefacts away from the wealthy countries of the global north) has led to a change in the way that we in these wealthy countries articulate our identities in relation to the things around us. Specifically, we try to imbue things with enriched and particular value, making ‘exceptional objects’ of them. Boltanski and Esquerre trace the rise of practices such as stamp collecting in the 19th century, and the rise of public interest in the trappings of celebrity lifestyle or ‘stylish’ living more generally as a part of this process. These are signified by various rare and special objects and experiences, of the kind endlessly repackaged in TV home makeover shows and the like.

Green or radical-minded people may not have much truck with such things, but it feels to me that the suburban permaculture garden, with its carefully curated polycultures of unusual plants and its special design features recognised only by those ‘in the know’ – the swales, herb spirals, keyhole beds and so forth – are basically involved in these same practices of self-distinction. I’m not saying that they’re entirely lacking in any other rationale. It’s never a bad idea to play around growing backyard vegetables. But it strikes me that such processes of lifestyle distinction are often part of what a permaculture garden is about. Patrick’s admission that he taught about swales because they were ‘different’ seems of a piece with this. My own exemplar is the Japanese wineberry. I planted one on my site around the time I did my permaculture design course, mostly I think because it was the ‘in thing’ (possibly because Patrick enthused about them in his forest garden book, a popular tome at the time). I’m sure there are those who’d hate to be without their wineberries, but I’ve never been able to get too excited about them myself – I’d rather have raspberries or blackberries (but everybody knows about them…) When I see a Japanese wineberry now, it’s a bit like a masonic handshake or a clan totem, a surefire sign that the person who planted it did a permaculture design course circa 1999.

There’s nothing wrong with having a funky garden. But I’m not convinced such gardens will pass the test of permaculture as ‘permanent agriculture’, of provisioning people sustainably and well long-term. Perhaps there might be backyard permaculturists reading this who will holler their dissent. If so, I hope they’ll convince me I’m wrong. To do that, they’d have to provide some plausible information on how much of their yearly calorific, protein and other nutrient intake they furnish for themselves from their garden (by plausible I mean something more specific than saying “a lot”); how much of the fertility inputs and, perhaps, water are furnished from their site; how much of their time they spend working on it, and so on. There doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of good data out there on this in the permaculture movement. Mark Shepard4, to his credit, has provided some information about productivity on his perennial polyculture farm (or at least on a theoretical perennial polyculture farm), arguing that it outperforms a corn monoculture so much that it’s ‘not even funny’. But, unamusingly, his own figures prove the opposite, as I’ve shown here.

I don’t issue this challenge because I think my own small mixed semi-commercial farm in any way escapes from the same critique. Let us speak honestly – there are vanishingly few people in mainstream agriculture, in alternative agriculture or in backyard permaculture who even approach a ‘permanent’, locally self-provisioning agriculture. At best, we’re playing at being neo-peasants. And I’m not criticising anyone for playing. Play is good. Play is how we learn to do things for real. All I’m suggesting is that we should recognise it for what it is, avoid making exaggerated claims for what we do, and try to play nice with other people so our play builds up instead of knocking down (I’d add that constructive critique can be a worthwhile part of nice play). Play is also context-specific: I think Patrick’s ‘any blanket statement’ comment needs to be taken seriously. Which brings me to the matter of my “simple tillage” criticised by Rick.

We first need to remember that many of the plants which now dominate the human diet are disturbance-adapted, high resource-demanding, weed-susceptible types. That doesn’t mean that tillage is essential for growing them, but it does mean that alternative methods have to mimic what tillage achieves. I’ll assume that permaculturists aren’t going to do that with synthetic fertiliser and glyphosate, and I’ll further assume that they won’t do it by importing compost or manure from offsite, since this only displaces the dependence on tillage to unseen acreages elsewhere. What that basically leaves you with is some kind of permanent fertility-building sward on your holding, which you access via livestock or directly through cutting and composting. Both feasible, if probably less efficient than tilled leys. Maybe it would be possible to go with the Elaine Ingham/compost tea sort of approach, with extremely careful attention to onsite nutrient cycling. I’m not sure, I think the jury’s out on that one. Or, if you live somewhere with a cool, moist, temperate climate, little wind and water erosion and heavy, fertile soils, you might come to the conclusion that a bit of judicious tillage makes sense. I live in such a place, and that’s a conclusion I came to, along with many generations of peasant farmers in this region. Perhaps we’re wrong – but I think somebody who wants to make that case needs to ponder Patrick’s ‘blanket statement’ point and also the various trade-offs involved in the decision. Certainly, everyone I’ve come across locally who grows significant quantities of edible crops without tillage imports some of their fertility, which makes it difficult to wax too purist about the evils of tillage. Ultimately, I’m not (yet) convinced that backyard no-till polycultures which grow only a small proportion of a household’s food can scale up as a generalised permanent agriculture.

4. Playing with the state

Another consideration is that in designing food production systems we often focus on plot-level productivity and neglect the political relations within which plots are embedded – the Green Revolution mistake, which is all too easy to replicate in agroecological thinking. For a backyard permaculture plot in the UK, state policies are fairly indifferent – though they are making it increasingly hard for people to get a backyard plot in the first place. For a small-scale agroecological farm, on the other hand, the policies are mildly hostile. But in both cases, in the UK there’s an enormous fund of wealth, infrastructure and other implicit subsidies that we scarcely notice, many of them derived from the past and present plunder of other people in the world. You’d have to be an ascetically saintly hermit to avoid drawing down on this fund – in fact, I think it’s impossible. So again, while I don’t criticise myself or anyone else for doing so I think we should be aware of it. The situation is different in many past and present peasant societies. There, the state is wholly hostile, predatory, and given to extreme exemplary violence. When people say ‘nobody wants to live like a peasant’ I think the answer has to be ‘well, it depends on the nature of the state they’re involved with’. What will future states look like? What can we do to try to make them supportive rather than destructive of a permanent agriculture? That’s got to be part of the design process. Rick and I are lucky to be able to work with the growing systems we find ‘interesting’. In peasant situations where you have to produce almost your entire livelihood locally in the face of a state that offers you less than nothing, an effective agriculture becomes more important than an interesting one. I’m sure there are things to learn from interesting contemporary agricultures. But I think there are also things to learn from effective old-fashioned ones.

5. Conclusion

 I don’t know if such a thing as ‘permanent agriculture’ will ever exist. I certainly haven’t seen anything that I’d be happy to apply the label to, though there are some agroecosystems that come close – particularly low input-low output traditional peasant ones. Such traditional societies are often also attuned to the dangers of egocentrism and self-importance, and seek ways to undermine it – which is worth remembering, I think. These traditional agroecosystems don’t look much like many backyard permaculture gardens that I’ve seen in the UK or North America, and they don’t look much like my holding either. I plan to use them as a rough model (though only a rough one) for my outline of a neo-peasant future.

My last post on these matters earned me accusations of hypocrisy. I’ve tried here not to claim to be anything that I’m not, but if I’ve failed I apologise. The longer I’ve farmed, the less certain I’ve become of how best to do it. When it comes to farming skills, I don’t think I’m necessarily the sharpest blade on the power harrow, so maybe Rick and those permaculturists who’ve told me that I’ll ‘never understand permaculture’ are right. But nemesis lurks in even the funkiest of gardens…

Anyway, my challenge to myself and to anyone else who wants to advocate for a given type of agroecosystem is this:

  • Can you provide a sufficient account of its input and output costs relative to other systems that you disfavour for you to convince yourself (and, more importantly, others) that it’s unambiguously superior?
  • Can you examine your heart and be sure that there is no ego or self-aggrandizement in your analysis?

I think that’s a tough challenge. I’m not sure I’m equal to it. But I aim to give it a go.

References

  1. Denison, F. 2012. Darwinian Agriculture: How Understanding Evolution Can Improve Agriculture. Princeton Univ Press.
  1. Grime, JP. 2001. Plant Strategies, Vegetation Processes and Ecosystem Properties. John Wiley.
  1. Boltanski, L. & Esquerre, A. 2016. ‘The economic life of things’ New Left Review, 98: 31-54.
  1. Shepard, M. 2013. Restoration Agriculture: Real-World Permaculture for Farmers. Acres USA.

Lead us not into temptation: of Trump, Brexit and the wrong kind of populism

I had to recite the Lord’s Prayer at school every day for ten years, and have never spoken it since. But for my sermon today I’d like to elaborate a theme from one of its lines – “lead us not into temptation”.

The temptation to which I refer is voting for populist political candidates. Perhaps that will surprise long-term readers of this blog, who will be familiar with my enthusiasm for agrarian populism. So let me qualify the statement by paraphrasing that hapless British Rail spokesperson from many years ago who justified the company’s inability to deal with inclement weather by saying that the railways were afflicted by “the wrong kind of snow”. What I mean to say, then, is that it can be tempting to endorse the “wrong kind of populism” – the kind of populism with which you disagree, but are inclined to support anyway just in order to shake up a political status quo dominated for too long by what Susan Watkins nicely calls “the cartel parties of the extreme centre”. It’s a temptation that I think is best resisted.

For this reason, I’ve been slightly puzzled by John Michael Greer’s recent posts on the US presidential primaries. I think Greer is a perceptive and thoughtful writer, and though I can’t claim any great local expertise in the matter of US politics, it seems to me his argument is exactly right that Donald Trump’s rise draws from a wellspring of anger among an excluded working class who have borne the brunt of the neoliberal policies pursued by successive Republican and Democratic governments. However, Greer’s posts seem to involve more schadenfreude at the discomfort of established opinion in the face of Trump’s rise than any kind of sober analysis of what a Trump presidency might entail. It seems to me that a man who has gold-plated seatbelt buckles in his private jet is less likely to articulate the frustrations of the excluded classes than to manipulate them. The historical lesson of earlier populisms – not least in the USA – is that a just and radical ‘populism for the people’ has to guard carefully against co-optation by carpetbaggers with more sinister intentions.

Anyway, I have no say in the outcome of the US election so let me leave that thought right there. I do have a say in the forthcoming referendum on a British exit from the EU, where exactly the same dangers present themselves. Therefore I’d like to outline why I’m tempted to vote for Brexit, and why I probably won’t.

So first up, here are my five reasons for wanting to vote out:

  1. Many people in Britain like to hark back to the days when the country was the dominant global superpower. They think that Britain is still an important country in world affairs, whose influence is being diluted by its status as just another EU member. The truth is that Britain is not an important country in world affairs, and the only real global muscle it has comes through its EU membership. This would become swiftly apparent in the event of Brexit, enabling us finally to move on from the legacy of the past and get busy creating a less haughty and self-absorbed society.
  1. Britain’s major earner of foreign exchange is its financial services sector, which is not a positive force in the world and allows us to live beyond our means. It’s quite likely that the sector would take a heavy hit in the event of Brexit, which might allow us to recalibrate our way of life to local possibilities and maybe benefit the wider world too.
  1. Presently, fully half the EU’s entire budget is devoted to an absurd agricultural subsidy regimen. Ordinary, small-scale and family farmers are not the beneficiaries of this regimen and as far as I’m concerned they deserve every penny they can squeeze from it. Nevertheless, the Common Agricultural Policy is a disaster – not the least of its many failings is that it acts as a hugely regressive negative tax that rewards retailers, middlemen, self-righteous consumerism and wealthy landowners. Less than 1% of the UK population are farmers, but around £4 billion of agricultural subsidies are paid out in Britain. This is pretty much the way the British government wants it – it unerringly lobbies for CAP policies which suit the interests of larger-scale and corporate agricultural interests. Nevertheless, as things stand it can claim with some justification that its hands are tied by labyrinthine EU structures. Not so if Britain were fully independent and the government continued doling out billions to a small group of its landowning chums while cutting public services elsewhere. I find it hard to see how such a generous subsidy regimen propping up the agricultural status quo would be politically feasible long-term in a post-EU Britain, and I think that would ultimately be good for smaller-scale farmers engaged in longer term thinking than the subsidy-fuelled inefficiencies of present large-scale agriculture, and probably good for the populace as a whole.
  1. The fallout from Brexit and the straitened circumstances resulting from it would lead to enormous conflict in the Conservative Party. What’s bad for the Conservative Party is usually good for Britain.
  1. The EU is an undemocratic and quite possibly unreformable cabal of corporate interests and unscrupulous power-mongers. So is the UK government to be honest, but at least they’re our unscrupulous power-mongers. Perhaps we can keep a shorter leash on them here at home.

And here are my four reasons for staying in:

  1. Most of my reasons for supporting Brexit turn upon the notion that it’ll act like a good hard slap in the face to puncture our present hysterical illusions and bring us back to earth. But there’s a good chance that in fact it’ll only lead to more and worse hysterical illusions. And if you think that’s not possible, I have only two words to say to you: Donald Trump.
  1. Here are some more two-worders that ought to scare anybody into voting to stay in: Boris Johnson; Nigel Farage; Michael Gove; Iain Duncan-Smith. OK, so the last one’s a three-worder, but that’s the Tory party for you, eh?
  1. To put that last point more discursively, there’s a danger that with another four years of a Conservative Government almost guaranteed, at this particular political juncture a Brexit vote will put power into the hands of a dreadful right-wing rabble who will make the present government seem like the epitome of caring, centrist, compassionate conservatism. George Monbiot and Miles King have written persuasively on the disasters awaiting agricultural and environmental policy in the event of Brexit. Those disasters would likely ramify across all policy areas in a Brexit-rebooted Tory government. Paul Mason put it best – “Johnson and Gove stand ready to seize control of the Tory party and turn Britain into a neoliberal fantasy island….So even for those who support the leftwing case for Brexit, it is sensible to argue: not now.”
  1. Finally, much of the public debate about the referendum has turned upon an often borderline racist obsession with immigration. I think there are genuine issues that need to be addressed nationally and internationally about the nature of migration, in service of the migrants’ interests as much (in fact more) than anything else. But they will not be addressed by a post-EU UK unilaterally tightening its border control policies, which I doubt will be effective anyway. And in the meantime, I don’t want to give the slightest ammunition to those who would infer from the size of the Brexit vote some kind of blanket opposition to immigration.

~~~

So I think my conclusion is that while it’s tempting to vote for Brexit, I won’t be doing so. I want to play my part in building a proper, egalitarian, producerist populism. And this is a long-term project that will not be helped by jumping on the Brexit bandwagon. So I agree with Mason’s ‘not now’ approach. But his final paragraph highlighting the rise of extreme right-wing and anti-immigration parties in Europe is thought-provoking:

“The EU, politically, begins to look more and more like a gerrymandered state, where the politically immature electorates of eastern Europe can be used – as Louis Napoleon used the French peasantry – as a permanent obstacle to liberalism and social justice. If so – even though the political conditions for a left Brexit are absent today – I will want out soon.”

The reference to the French peasantry has obvious if rather complex resonances with the case for a contemporary agrarian populism – an issue for another post, perhaps. More straightforwardly, I guess it’s a case of wanting to stay in the EU for now in order to build a left-wing populism that will truly give us this day our daily bread, with the possibility of wanting to leave pretty soon in order to deliver us from evil. I might just have to start praying again.

Pondering permaculture

I’ve now returned from my spirit quest feeling suitably spirited (report to follow). I also feel pretty rushed off my feet, with a deal of farm work and desk work to catch up on, including a review of George Monbiot’s new book to write. So normal service on this site will resume as soon as possible. Meanwhile, I offer you below a mere snippet of Small Farm Futurology in the form of a letter of mine recently published in Permaculture Magazine (No.88), which discourses on two themes aficionados of this site will perhaps be (wearily) familiar with, viz. my friendly scepticism towards the permaculture movement in general and perennial grain breeding in particular. À bientôt.

~~~

I appreciate the reference to my work in Winifred Bird’s article about perennial grain research (PM87), but I’d like to clarify why I’m sceptical about perennial grain agriculture. In essence, soil disturbance and high nutrient availability select for an annual growth habit in plants associated with high allocation to seeds (which is why farmers plough and fertilise the soil). Undisturbed soil and low nutrient availability select for a perennial growth habit associated with a low allocation to seeds. This is a strong ecological trade-off which is not easy to overcome, and nobody has yet really succeeded in doing so. It’s possible that artificial breeding efforts such as those being undertaken at the Land Institute will eventually bear fruit, but I think it’s more likely that breeders will only succeed in producing higher yielding varieties of low perenniality or lower yielding varieties of high perenniality. Results to date are not that impressive.

We need a diversity of approaches to tackle our contemporary problems so I think it’s good that perennial grain breeders are working on this issue. But I’m troubled by the bullish claims routinely made by Land Institute researchers and their champions about how they’re going to end what one of their researchers calls ‘10,000 years of conflict between agriculture and nature’. This strikes me as a piece of hubris ignorant of ecological trade-off theory and with no current basis in reality. I’m also troubled by the fact that humanity has become increasingly reliant on a torrent of cheap grain from the world’s prairie regions, above all from the USA, which has undermined more locally-adapted peasant agricultures globally. If we succeed in creating a high-yielding perennial prairie agriculture without addressing the wider political economy of grain production, the prospects for global sustainability and justice will be weakened. And I’m troubled by the enthusiasm of permaculturists to embrace perennial grains as an example of a more ‘natural’ agriculture – as the Land Institute researchers themselves concede, the ‘domestic prairie’ that they’re trying to create is a highly-managed, non-natural system. It involves no more nature mimicry than a cornfield.

As with perennial grain breeding, so with the permaculture movement more generally on the matter of trade-offs. On my holding I grow some annual crops, till some soil, have no swales, raised beds or forest gardens. There are reasons why this makes sense and reasons why it doesn’t: like everybody, I’m juggling many different and competing pressures to which there is never a single right answer. Reading PM87 I was struck by the wonderful diversity of people in the permaculture movement who are resolving their own pressures as best they can, often in very inspiring ways. But then reading the letters page, I was also struck by the less inspiring way in which people within the movement can be so anxious to police its boundaries and define their purity over others. So Westerners who “choose to breed” can’t be “serious about looking after the planet” (Brian Dempsey) and people who use railway sleepers or chlorinated water in their gardens aren’t “really organic” (Branislav Mitic). I’m flattered to be described by Winifred Bird in her article as a ‘permaculture farmer’, but when people with an interest in permaculture ask to visit my holding I increasingly find myself trying to put them off – I’ve grown weary of the censoriousness and unexamined assumptions about what constitutes a ‘real permaculture farm’ that all too often accompanies them. Resolving trade-offs, whether in plant breeding or in everyday life, is never simple. Without openness to complexity and contradiction, and without compassion towards the imperfect compromises of human life, there’s a danger the permaculture movement will become a restricted and self-righteous echo chamber of fixed ideas.

Sincerely

Chris Smaje

 

Of boomers and doomers

I suppose this is going over old ground, but I’ve been struck anew recently through various readings and conversations about the nature of techno-utopianism, and the difficulty we seem to have nowadays in breaking out of a boomer-doomer dualism – that is, either the (rather unhistorical) ‘boomer’ notion that human rationality, optimism and ingenuity always overcomes the social, economic and biophysical problems societies face, or the (boldly predictive, and therefore also unhistorical) ‘doomer’ notion that these problems are sure to overwhelm us and destroy civilisation altogether.

One such reading is David Rieff’s recent book The Reproach of Hunger1. There are interesting commonalities between his critique of the now dominant aid/development paradigm, and my own critique of ecomodernism within environmentalist thought. Given the different (if overlapping) focus and personnel involved, perhaps this suggests quite a generic ideology of techno-utopianism (TU) within contemporary thinking. Rieff’s book has helped me see its outlines more clearly, so with his help here I’d like to describe briefly some of its key elements. Rieff also has some interesting, if frustratingly vague, thoughts on the possibilities for a peasant-focused development paradigm, but more on that another time.

So here, for your consideration, are seven elements of TU ideology, lightly tossed with a few counter-thoughts of my own:

  1. Ideology: our first characteristic of TU ideology is that it considers itself to have no ideology, but instead merely a pragmatic focus on solving practical problems (such as climate change or extreme poverty) by using whatever methods demonstrably work. Its critics have ideology – they are ideologues, partisans, spoilers, whose critiques reflect their own narrow political agendas – but TU rises serenely above all that. It is, as Rieff puts it, an antipolitics, a political argument for the irrelevance of politics (and particularly for the irrelevance of changing the political status quo) in solving global problems: “Perhaps twenty-first century liberal capitalism’s greatest trick has been convincing the world that it is not an ideology, and as it did so, convincing itself as well”2.
  1. Engineering and medical metaphors: global problems (climate change, extreme poverty etc.) are conceived as dysfunction in complex systems, after the model of a mechanism (a broken machine requiring an engineer to fix it) or an organism (a sick body requiring a doctor to fix it – as in the pervasive metaphor of poverty as a ‘disease’). These metaphors lack a sense of intentionality. Global problems are also the result of people’s deliberate actions.
  1. Science: TU accords a premier role to science in ‘fixing’ global problems – surely no surprise in view of the preceding points, since scientific enquiry is modern humanity’s most successful example of transcending ideology using non-intentional (mechanical and medical/biological) models. To this way of thinking, global problems arise through technique rather than social power: for example, the contemporary poverty of small-scale farmers is seen as resulting from lack of access to agricultural technologies that increase their crop yields (such as GM crops, denied them by ideologues from wealthy countries) and not from the abolition of marketing boards or import tariffs under global free trade rules. As Rieff points out (and as I know all too well myself from my engagements with the ecomodernists) TU’s favourite kind of science is the “inventions, technological breakthroughs, and scientific discoveries not yet in existence [that] are so certain to occur…they can be counted on to address the world’s problems”3.
  1. Optimism: but paradoxically, TU ideology sets itself against pessimism, cynicism and naysaying. Development guru Jeffrey Sachs, for example, has tweeted “Cynicism is biggest obstacle to challenges such as ending poverty and fighting climate change”4. I’d have plumped for issues like war, skewed economic relations, runaway consumerism or the over-reliance on fossil fuels. But no – the real problem, apparently, is cynicism. In many ways, Rieff’s book is an extended diatribe against the rise of a kneejerk ‘optimism’ of this kind which thinks that problems such as hunger and extreme poverty are easily solved through positive thought. Despite the fact that nowadays, in his words, “hope and optimism are often presented as the only morally licit stance for any person of conscience and goodwill to take”, nevertheless “hope can also be a denial of reality and “solutionism” a form of moral and ideological vanity”5. Quite so. The reason I called this optimism ‘paradoxical’ is because it sits ill with the TU emphasis on science. TU cleaves towards science because science has been vastly more successful at comprehending physical and biological relationships (though not ethical ones – that intentionality issue again) than any other form of human knowledge. And it’s achieved this precisely because it doesn’t delude itself with ‘optimism’. Scientists are professional naysayers, rigorously trained in the art of disputing the grounds for all assertions. They don’t talk about the null hypothesis for nothing. And yet when science is transplanted to the ideological plane of solving human social problems, its proponents suddenly want to banish scepticism and enforce a one dimensional ‘optimism’. Pace Sachs, I’m tempted to say that the biggest obstacle to ending poverty or fighting climate change might be what Rieff calls “the bad habit of mistaking the nobility of [our] intentions for the feasibility of [our] goals”6. And the biggest asset is scientific realism, the ability to probe disinterestedly at the drawbacks of any suggested program. Unfortunately, the narrow ‘optimism’ of TU ideology enforces a highly partisan consensus of which programs are ‘realistic’. Thus, carbon pricing is not realistic whereas a worldwide switch to nuclear power apparently is; price floors for commodity crops grown by poor small-scale farmers are not realistic, whereas vertical integration into the value chains of corporate agribusiness is.
  1. Millenarianism: the optimism tic of TU ideology suggests that science isn’t ultimately what it’s about. Indeed, TU seems more redolent of millenarian religion than of science. ‘Science’ is merely the vehicle in TU’s secularized form of millennialism (as trumpet-wielding angels have been in other versions) to bringing about human perfection on earth. Like many millenarian sects, TUs believe redemption is close – Sachs, for example, has spoken of the present generation’s opportunity to end hunger for good and its duty to “heal the world”7. Though TU’s proponents are usually careful to avoid teleology (ie. the notion that future salvation is inevitably destined to happen – see here for example), this usually comes in the form of a weak caveat (‘there are no guarantees’) than any kind of serious countenancing of negative outcomes. I can (and have) offered various speculations concerning the cause of this irrational millennialism in the TU worldview. One of them is that people are deeply imbued with the capacity to wonder and to worship, but in modern times characterised by what sociologist Max Weber called the ‘disenchantment of the world’ there’s little left for us to worship or feel wondrous about but our own achievements – the problem of “humanism worshipping itself”8. A religious commitment to redemption dies hard, even within entirely secular thought, which is quite capable of coopting science within a millenarian purview.
  1. The power of the individual: perhaps this is a stronger feature of TU ideology in the development/hunger field than in ecomodernist environmentalism. It invests the idea that by being optimistic, by giving money to the right charities, by making the right consumption decisions and by supporting big campaigns like Make Poverty History, the wealthy western consumer is individually empowered to help the poor. Rieff calls this thinking “at best a consoling farce”9 in a world where persistent, structural causes are compounding poverty and inequality. Another dimension of it he touches on is the conviction that the power of individuals to change things is always positive, and always makes the world a better place. But as the contributors to another interesting recent book, Warlords, Inc.10, make clear, this isn’t necessarily so. Economic globalization and climate change, to name but two contemporary forces, are having the effect of weakening many sovereign, national governments in the global south. Into this confusion step warlords, para-states, criminal entrepreneurs, violent fundamentalists and a panoply of other agents whose goals could scarcely be more different from those of democrats, rationalists and egalitarians – and with the considerable advantage that they’re not saddled with any lofty (and costly) ambitions of making the world a better place. If individuals do have the power to remake the world, that in itself isn’t necessarily a good thing.
  1. The failure of government: Rieff deftly charts the shift in the development paradigm, which until the 1970s considered the structuring of the global economy in favour of corporate private enterprise to be part of the problem, but since the 1980s has increasingly seen it as part of the solution. For their part, although the ecomodernists sometimes offer weak support for government as a bulwark against the excesses of the private sector, the structuring of the global economy in favour of private corporate interests is rarely challenged. Indeed, the ecomodernists reimagine corporate agribusiness as a benevolent agent successfully uplifting the poor11, just as Silicon Valley ‘philanthrocapitalists’ like Bill Gates reimagine private philanthropy as a privileged vehicle for ending poverty, without acknowledging the role played by monopolistic rent-extraction of the kind that endows the philanthropy in reproducing poverty and inequality. I find Rieff’s claim plausible that corporate agribusiness is not deliberately malevolent, and is sometimes capable of delivering worthwhile pro-poor innovations. But I also find plausible his critique of the notion that “private business – the most politically influential, the most undertaxed and least regulated, and…the least democratically accountable sector among those groups that dispose of real power and wealth in the world – is best suited to be entrusted with the welfare and the fate of the powerless and the hungry” and I agree with his rueful conclusion that “No revolution could be more radical, no expectation…could be more counterintuitive, more antihistorical, or require a greater leap of faith”12.

~~~

So much for TU ideology and its ‘optimism’. What’s the alternative? Not, surely, hopelessness or despair. I think rather just an openness to the idea that some of the problems we currently face (like hunger, and climate change) may not be solvable within the parameters of our current political and economic systems, or indeed may not be solvable at all. Perhaps satisfying technological solutions to such problems will appear without the need for major systemic change. But perhaps they won’t. Let us think freely about all possible eventualities, rather than clinging determinedly to a redemptive narrative of business-as-usual solutionism that aggressively silences dissenters. Nobody can tell what the future holds, but there are good reasons for apprehension. As Rieff puts it, if even some of these apprehensions prove warranted, then the grandiose promises of the development elite (and, I’d argue, of the ecomodernists and techno-utopians more generally) “do not embody hope; they make a mockery of hope”13.

There’s a conservative politics implicit in TU ideology, which is quite comforting to those of us living in wealthy countries where few go truly hungry and where our use of non-renewable resources is out of all proportion to our numbers. This holds that there’s no viable alternative to existing economic and political arrangements, the challenge then being the essentially technical one of raising the rest of the world up to our level of resource use, while making it sustainable at the same time. But it seems to me that that challenge is most likely insurmountable. And in any case there are more satisfying alternatives.

As well as an implicit politics, there’s also an implicit psychology – the idea that people are more appropriately motivated by positive stories about how things will be better in the future if they do x than by negative stories about how things will be worse in the future if they don’t do y. I think this is true and, if I understand the work of social psychologists like Daniel Kahneman14 correctly, it’s pretty hard-wired into the human psyche. Still, Kahneman does imply that our predilection for triumph-against-the-odds narratives has been augmented in capitalist societies, and perhaps – following Rieff – more now than ever.

Both in personal life and in political life I think it’s good to have some optimism, a feeling that problems can be tackled and that things may turn out well. I also think it’s good to have some pessimism, a sober reckoning of the obstacles before us and the possibilities that things may not turn out as well as we’d like. Put the two together and you get the chance of realistic solutions. Either one on their own is less promising. So the ubiquitous notion that we just need optimism, positive stories, baffles me. It seems juvenile. As kids, we love to hear fairy stories and get scared by the awful and apparently inescapable fate the hero/ine faces at the hands of the baddies. But we know that there will be a satisfying redemption in which good will somehow miraculously prevail. Then we grow up and realise that in real life those redemptions don’t always occur. But when it comes to debating future sustainability and social justice, we seem to have entangled ourselves in a fairy tale narrative about optimism, the power of the individual and the redeeming character of science.

I can see plenty of reasons to take a pessimistic view that problems like war, hunger and climate change, independently and additively, will result in a lot of misery in the years to come. I can also see reasons to think optimistically that they can be overcome, or at least tolerably mitigated. But it seems to me that the most promising way of overcoming them is to ditch the techno-utopianism and business-as-usual economics currently dominating mainstream policy. And I’m not very optimistic that that will happen nearly soon enough. Still, life never was a fairy story, huh?

Postscript: though I’ve only just re-emerged from a break in blogging, I shall be silent again for a couple of weeks because…well, let’s just say I’m going on a spirit quest. A commenter at Resilience.org accused me of possessing a ‘deadened spirit’ and to tell the truth I am feeling a little stale, so I’m heading off for a week on a spirit-journey to see if I can catch me a live one…

References

  1. Rieff, D. 2016. The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice and Money in the 21st Century. London: Verso.
  1. Ibid. p.208.
  1. Ibid. pp.110-1.
  1. Ibid. p.215.
  1. Ibid. p.10.
  1. Ibid. p.34.
  1. Ibid. p.73.
  1. Ibid. p.29.
  1. Ibid. p.280.
  1. Raford, N. and Trabulsi, A. 2015. Warlords, Inc.: Black Markets, Broken States, and the rise of the Warlord Entrepreneur, Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.
  1. For example, Mark Lynas’s oft-quoted comment that Monsanto has done more than the entire organic movement to reduce insecticide use.
  1. Rieff op cit. p.229.
  1. Ibid. p.47.
  1. Kahneman, D. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Penguin.

The revolution will not be market gardenized: some thoughts on Jean-Martin Fortier

It was suggested to me recently that I might like to pen some thoughts on Jean-Martin Fortier’s book The Market Gardener1. And indeed I would. Here they are.

At one level, I think the book is very, very good. It’s packed with useful information on how to establish and run a successful, small-scale, local, organic market garden, clearly borne of years of experience and careful thought. A good many of Fortier’s recommendations are things that we’ve also adopted over time at Vallis Veg, albeit perhaps not quite with his efficiency or singularity of purpose. So I’d say this is definitely one for the bookshelf of any aspiring market gardener, alongside other classics like Eliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower and Hall and Tolhurst’s Growing Green.

I have some reservations, though. These lie not so much in what the book says as in what it doesn’t say, because there are wider contexts within which market gardening needs discussing – and in which The Market Gardener is being discussed – that make me uneasy. They prompt me to question the importance accorded market gardening in alternative farming circles and to wonder whether we should be placing the emphasis elsewhere.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me approach my broader theme by summarising a few of Fortier’s points, presenting them – as Fortier partly does himself – in the form of a kind of Bildungsroman, which I will then compare to the trajectory of my own farming life.

So we start with a young man and his partner who wish to pursue careers in commercial horticulture. To begin with, they rent a small piece of land where they grow and sell some vegetables, scraping by just about tolerably from year to year. But then they want to settle down, build a house and put down some roots. They establish themselves on a 1.5 acre semi-urban plot, close to a market for their produce which is not already saturated by other small-scale growers. They buy a new Italian two-wheel tractor with a PTO and various attachments, better fitted to the scale of their operation than a pricier four-wheel farm tractor, though in fact most of the work on their holding is accomplished by simple hand tools. They don’t grow vegetables year-round, or – given their scale – ones where the economic return per unit area is low, such as potatoes, squash and corn. So they grow mostly high-value summer vegetables, which they produce in large quantities through intensive cultivation methods (including gas-heated polytunnels). For this, they use compost in bulk which they buy in from commercial providers. This is partly because the production of top quality compost is an expert science they consider best left to people who aren’t specialist growers, and partly because the work involved in producing compost in such quantity with the mostly non-powered tools at their disposal would exceed their labour (and land?) capacity. In any case, their business flourishes and they make a decent living through vegetable sales.

Let me compare this story with that of a not quite so young man (yes, that would be me) and his partner who, fired up by a reformist zeal to help make the food and farming system more sustainable, sought a peri-urban plot in which to enact their not yet fully-formed agricultural visions. A 1.5 acre plot for a small house and large garden would have been fine, but they found in practice that most plots contained large houses and small gardens, while there was massive price pressure on peri-urban farmland, keenly sought as it was by all sorts of people with deeper pockets than them (and most certainly than anyone financing themselves through small-scale horticulture). But after six months of thorough searching they felt lucky to be able to purchase an 18 acre edge of town site (bigger than they’d planned, or had much experience in managing), albeit one lacking the necessary permissions to build a house. Despite distractions such as raising children and trying to earn some money to get by in the meantime, they too established a small market garden of about 1.5 acres on their site (planting the rest with orchards and woodland, or leaving it as permanent pasture). After some early messing around on the machinery front, they bought a 25 year old 50hp farm tractor with front loader, and assembled implements for it cheaply from ebay and farm sales – probably for a similar total cost to a brand new Italian two-wheel tractor. The implements were a bit of a ragbag, though – different working widths, offsets etc. So they also ended up buying a cheaper two-wheel tractor, better suited to working a small market garden (while, like Fortier, also mostly using hand tools). The four-wheeler remained invaluable for other jobs on the site. One of these was compost management – after experimenting with a range of onsite and offsite compost options, the couple adopted as their main fertility strategy the composting of wood chips brought in by local tree surgeons and mixed with other organic matter from the site. Although, like Fortier, relying mostly on high-value summer crops for their income, the couple operated year-round, growing winter crops and low value ones like potatoes, for although the fire of sustainability had dimmed in them somewhat through the years, they still felt the need at least to make some kind of effort to grow staple crops. A major boost to the business occurred in late 2016 when, thirteen years after buying the land, they finally received permission from the local council to build a permanent residence on it (OK, I’m forward projecting there – at any rate, that thirteen year hiatus is not untypical for rural worker applications in the UK planning system).

So now, on the basis of those two narratives I’d like to make a few observations about market gardening:

  1. Location, location, location: Fortier’s advice on siting your market garden close to your market and away from where other small growers are operating is wise, but not necessarily easily achieved. His stated customer base is 200 families. I think you can figure on a market of about 1.5% of households in a town if there are no other small growers locally serving it, which means you need to find an affordable 1.5 acres, preferably with a residential option, on the edge of a town of about 30,000 with no other growers in sight. Not impossible – but not easy. Here in southern England, land of that sort without residential permission can easily change hands for up to around £50,000 and with it for closer to £1 million. On the upside, it’s probably quite easy to find towns where there aren’t any small local growers. On the downside, there are good reasons for that. Markets don’t stay unsaturated for nothing…
  1. Equipment: personally, I don’t think you’ll save money by going for a new 2-wheel tractor over an old 4-wheel one. But if you only have 1.5 acres, a 2-wheel one better fits the scale. My site, with its 2-wheel and 4-wheel tractors, is arguably over-capitalised for its scale. If there were other small growers in the vicinity, sharing would make sense (but there aren’t – see point 1). I’m not sure it matters too much though. The embodied energy of this kit is low. So is the fuel use, though it’s probably higher than Fortier’s…
  1. Ghost acres: …but we do need to bear in mind that Fortier is exporting his compost requirements, as indeed I do too to a lesser extent. Even so, I’d estimate that at least half my tractor use relates to fertility management. I’m not sure how fuel efficient my small-scale compost handling is compared to large-scale commercial composting operations – I’d like to find some data on this – but impressionistically on the basis of my occasional visits to municipal composting sites, I’d say their use of fossil fuels is prodigious (moving bulky organic waste around is very energy intensive). And so too is the ‘virtual’ land take associated with growing all the fertility which is being concentrated on Fortier’s plot. I had this debate some years ago with Charles Dowding, another well-known small-scale grower who imports his compost. Charles’ view was that the compost is a waste product that’s almost going begging in our energy and nitrogen-sated world, and that it’s hard enough for a small grower to stay in business as it is without fussing over fertility provenance. I find it difficult to disagree, but I do think it’s incumbent upon people who adopt such methods not to make strong claims about the productivity or sustainability of small plots without acknowledging the ghost acres involved and their associated environmental costs. I’m not necessarily saying that Fortier is guilty of this, though I’m not convinced he’s entirely innocent either.
  1. Summertime, and the livin’ is easy (1): any small-scale commercial grower who stays in business long is probably going to have to make their peace with concentrating upon high-value summer vegetables. There’s nothing wrong with that, and many good reasons to support local small-scale farms that do it. But let there be no doubt that such farms are not ‘feeding’ their customers in the sense of meeting their full dietary needs. Without growing crops year-round and providing other foodstuffs, particularly staples, the proportion of total food demand provided by such a farm is not large. Again, not necessarily a problem, unless anybody is claiming otherwise…
  1. Summertime, and the livin’ is easy (2): …but Fortier is certainly right that this is the easiest way to make money from a small plot. He claims that it’s possible to bring in CAN$60,000 – 100,000 per acre in vegetable sales at a 40% profit margin, which I think is plausible – my per acre net income from veg sales languishes at the very bottom of that range. But Fortier is probably a better farmer than me, and he doesn’t waste his time as I do growing potatoes and other such tomfoolery. Still, I’m hanging on in there, eight years in, earning something rather less than the UK average income for a more than full-time job. As Fortier says, it’s not really about the money anyway, and it’s a good way of life. I guess I just worry that these kind of books can foster unreasonable expectations. The Market Gardener has an endorsement on the front from Joel Salatin, another rock-star alternative farmer, who writes “Few books have grabbed my attention as dramatically as this one – because it’s ultimately do-able for thousands of would-be food and farm healers”. Salatin’s books – with titles like Pastured Poultry Profits and $alad Bar Beef – also create the impression that alternative, small-scale farming is something of a gravy train. Well, I endorse the sentiment up to a point. At a time when career prospects for young people in many other walks of life are diminishing, it’s time to scotch the old clichés that “nobody wants to farm any more” and that farming is “back-breaking work”. But let’s not feed false hopes. Mark Shepard’s book Restoration Agriculture, problematic as I find it in some respects, is refreshingly candid by comparison in telling his readers straight – you won’t make money through farming of any kind, now deal with it and get on with farming in a way that feels right. My line on the financial side of starting a small peri-urban market garden would go something like this: if you’ve got good farming skills and good business skills, if you work hard and persevere, if you’re lucky finding the right piece of land and perhaps lucky in general, and if you prioritise money-making above most other things in your business planning, then you may well be able to earn the kind of money that a lot of people expect pretty much as of right straight out of college. Alternatively, armed with Fortier’s book you may establish your market garden only to find that it goes under in a few years (and, let’s face it, most small businesses do go under). What did you do wrong? Probably not much…
  1. In a field far, far away …because somewhere, probably a long way from where you live (and more than likely in another country altogether) there’s a market garden that looks more like a large arable farm (or maybe a city of glass), sited on top quality, fertile, rich, deep, stone-free soil. With help from some very large, very high-tech and very fuel-hungry machinery, most likely some very poor and probably undocumented workers, quite possibly organised by criminal gangmasters, and a raft of implicit and explicit government supports and subsidies, this garden turns over more produce in a day than growers like me or Jean-Martin Fortier do in several years, and it exports some of it to your area where it’s sold at a fraction of the cost that we can produce it. That’s the baseline reality against which the local food and urban agriculture movement operates. When I started market gardening myself, I thought of it as a way of helping to transform a crazy food system through ennobling practical action rather than lots of fine words and political rhetoric. I still do, to an extent. But ultimately I don’t think we can transform the existing food economy in the ways it needs transforming by vaunting the possibilities for a few thousand growers in a society of millions to make a tolerable living. We need the words and the politics. We need wider, more radical transformations.
  1. Greenhouse guesstimates. For many different reasons, I would like to see a world in which there were more local growers like Fortier and fewer of those giant agribusiness vegetable operations. However, I think it’s unwise to assume that the small, local, organic operations are more ecologically benign just because they’re, well, nicer. Once you start trucking compost around in bulk and burning propane in your polytunnels, it may well turn out that the agribusiness operation has a lower carbon footprint per kilo of vegetables produced than the small organic urban operation. That may not be true, and in any case it’s not the only important consideration, as I’ve argued here. But it may be true, it is a consideration, and it’s not really addressed in Fortier’s book.
  1. A customer calls. Still, there are plenty of folks who are willing to pay more for good quality, locally-grown fresh vegetables. Well, there are some folks at any rate (note to younger self: don’t overestimate how much people are going to love you for being a local veg grower). Mostly quite wealthy folks, in fact. In this sense, the renaissance of small-scale peri-urban veg growing returns market gardening to its roots as a service for the urban wealthy. In the past, the rural rich had gardeners to grow vegetables on their estates, while ordinary rural folk grew their own. The poor, both rural and urban, mostly did without vegetables altogether. But with the cost of transporting bulky fresh produce long distances prohibitive, and with horse manure relatively easily available in towns, peri-urban horticulture found its niche supplying the growing class of the urban well-to-do. Nowadays, wealthy urban hipsters go artisan, while the rest mostly buy their now much cheaper (relatively speaking) vegetables from those distant agribusiness ventures via local mainstream retailers, and the poor (many of whom work in the food system, if they can find work at all…) probably still largely go without. Again, this is not a criticism of peri-urban growers (like me) who mostly serve the conscientious wealthy. Perhaps our customers are the leading edge of a consumer movement that will re-energise sustainable local food production. Though I somehow doubt it. As things stand, I’d argue that peri-urban small-scale growing doesn’t in itself radically challenge the status quo of an inegalitarian and agribusiness-dominated food system.
  1. Enter the peasant. Instead of trying to make a living from your plot mostly by monetising your returns from it, suppose you were trying to make a living mostly by eating your returns from it. What would your 1.5 acres look like then in comparison to Fortier’s, or to mine? I think it would look more like mine than Fortier’s, but probably not much like either. If it was at the kind of latitude where both he and I live, I think there would be a lot of space devoted to grains, seed legumes and potatoes. There would be some soft fruit and espaliered top fruit, and maybe some short rotation willow coppice. There would probably be some grass to feed livestock – livestock that would perhaps be shared with others in the neighbourhood, part-using their land too, or part-grazed on common land. The high-value vegetables dominating Fortier’s holding and mine would be relegated to a few small beds outside the back door. Someone who was managing their land in this sort of way could possibly be described as a peasant, or a neo-peasant. I don’t think it’s necessary for everyone to live like this, but if we want a just and sustainable global society I think it is necessary for a lot more people to live like it than is currently the case in countries like Canada and the UK. At present, it’s only really an option for a few remnant peasant-type populations in these countries, together with the downsizing wealthy. So we need to find ways to enable more people to choose this way of life. I’m not sure that the approach Fortier advocates (and that he and I have chosen) is the best way, though it was probably the best way available to us given the political and economic constraints we faced. My upcoming cycle of posts aims to explore what this better, peasant way might look like, and the political and economic changes it will require.
  1. An inner voice speaks: “Jeez Chris, lighten up”, it says. “The guy just wants to show you how to sell a few veg. He’s not trying to rewrite Das Kapital or change the world.” Another inner voice replies “Fair enough, but the problem is we’ve too often been guilty of conflating the one with the other in the alternative food movement. Me included. And perhaps also alternative farming hero, Masanobu Fukuoka. “I can remain patient no longer,” Fukuoka wrote. “With this straw, I, by myself, will begin a revolution”2”.

I admire the sentiment, but I’m less persuaded by it than I used to be. Gardening can be a radical act, sure enough. But if there’s to be a revolution, I think radical gardening will better serve to chart a route beyond a revolutionary past than towards a revolutionary future. And the relationship between radical gardening and market gardening is debatable at best.

References

  1. Fortier, J. 2014. The Market Gardener. New Society Publishers.
  1. Fukuoka, M. 1978. The One-Straw Revolution. New York Review Books, p.181.

The turning of the year

I’m not really sure when it feels right to talk about “the new year” in the endless cycle of life on the farm. I’m pretty sure that it isn’t 1st January though. Perhaps I’d go for late October or early November when the last transplants are out, the squash is in, the pace of work slows and thoughts turn to woodland work, repairs, planning and the like. Or perhaps it’s around now when the new season’s garden work really gets going. Home gardeners and intensive commercial growers already have many plants well established, but bringing early crops in has never made much sense to me for a small, low input operation like ours – gains in market price are cancelled by the additional inputs, and the stress of ensuring a return on the extra investment by getting the crop to market on time doesn’t seem worth it. Jean-Martin Fortier takes a different line in his book The Market Gardener, which a commenter on this site recently suggested I might discuss. Having now read the book, I’ll be happy to oblige soon…

It also feels like new year around now in terms of off grid life. The sun is getting high enough and the days long enough for the PV panels to do their work regardless of the weather – no more fretting over computer use on cloudy winter days (though the soil warming cable in our propagator now becomes a slight worry as it pulls a cool 150 watts out of the batteries all night). The solar hot water tubes are shaking out of their winter slumber too – except we’re now in the spring dip when the woodstove is no longer needed in the cabin but the tubes aren’t yet quite fully up to the job. Without the back boiler, our water at this time of year is decidedly lukewarm – an issue to tweak in the future perhaps. This winter I did the first proper thinning of our ten year old woodland, along with the yearly cut of the willow pollards, so I’m hoping we’ll have enough wood in from our site for next winter – if we’re still here. For indeed, my bureaucracy-busting alter ego Spudman is soon going to have to dust down his iron cloak and do battle once more with Mendip District Council in order to secure permanent permission to live on the farm. More on that to come.

Some things don’t change though, despite the turning of the year. For example, a correspondent has brought me news of an article by an old adversary – a critique of permaculture forest gardening from a master’s student in agroforestry at Bangor University on a brand new website, The Cultural Wildernenss. The article is detached and academic in tone rather than aggressive and ranty. And its author now sports an augustly scholarly beard. But it’s still, unmistakeably…Graham Strouts! Actually, I happen to agree with quite a lot of his critique. Though for one who bemoans the shoddy use of quantification in alternative agricultural circles, Graham’s like-for-like comparison of nut yields with potato yields on a tonnes per hectare basis almost made me laugh out loud. Various permaculturists have responded to his critique – and though a few of them were content to invoke that notorious permacultural fatwah to which I too have been subjected (“you’ll never understand permaculture”), I thought between them they offered some worthwhile counter-arguments. I’m still not convinced that Mark Shepard’s work is a clincher for the superiority of perennial polycultures, though. Ach well, I think I’m done with that debate for now (though I’ve updated my web page on it to include a few more things, including Brian Cady’s interesting thinking around ‘oligoennials’). And I’m done debating with Graham too. Despite apparently possessing a degree in sociology, he seems to have emerged from it blissfully ignorant of what the words ‘romantic’ and ‘feudalist’ actually mean, judging by his predilection for applying them to me in the various travesties of my arguments that he’s published. Hopefully he’ll study more diligently for his master’s degree, and somehow figure out what agroforestry is. I wish him well with that.

Another correspondent, another old adversary. Ted Trainer has drawn my attention to his critique of Leigh Phillips’ Austerity Ecology (also relevant here are some interesting discussions with Anthony Galluzzo concerning modernism in general and Leigh Phillips in particular). I’m just working through Ted’s interesting thinking on ‘The Simpler Way’ at the moment, which I hope to discuss soon. Ted says that my critiques of the ecomodernists haven’t addressed the numerical evidence concerning the rate of resource/economic decoupling that will be necessary for their vision to be realised. I suppose that’s fair enough, though for the record I’ve engaged in some basic analysis along such lines here and here. Leigh contacted me a while back promising, in amongst the insults (and, to be fair, some praise for offering to host his reply) that he’d write a rejoinder to my critiques of him. Nothing has yet been forthcoming, but hope springs eternal.

Anyway, all this argumentativeness over perennial polycultures and ecomodernism feels…well, just so last year. With the turning of the year, I plan to focus my upcoming posts mostly on an analysis of how a peasant farmscape might look in a Europe (…or Britain … or England … or Wessex) of the future, and what the politics of such a farmscape might involve. On the latter point, I want to pick up again on the discussion I started in this post around modernism, agrarian populism or what Bill Barnes calls ‘producerist republicanism’. The ensuing debate has led me to think that getting to grips with modernism is vastly more important than getting to grips with ecomodernism.

So that’s a rough outline of my future programme. But first I’m going to take a new year’s holiday from blogging for a few weeks. For one thing, I’ve got that rarest of beasts, a paid writing gig, to get done, and I also need to spend a bit of time researching the peasant farming posts to come. Hell, I’ve even got some farm work to do. So, I hope to be live again on Small Farm Future in late April/early May. Meanwhile should you need to fill that Small Farm Future shaped hole in your life – and if you’ve read this far, then you surely do – you can listen to me talking about WWOOF on BBC Radio’s Farming Today.

Slaughterhouse Zero

Following on from my post about our compost toilet (the full photo experience is now available at Resilience.org, by the way), I thought I’d stick with the visceral theme and devote a few words to the closure of my local abattoir in the centre of my town, only about a mile from my holding. Apparently it failed to meet modern hygiene standards.

I imagine this will be one of the less mourned business closures among the good people of Frome. Tales abounded of the rivers of blood running down Vicarage Street at dead of night, or the unearthly screams of doomed animals reverberating off the walls of St Johns church. Urban myths, methinks. Plenty of people are happy to eat meat, but fewer like to be reminded about what eating meat involves. I welcomed the fact that the abattoir was in the town centre, so that people going about their daily business could at least see the trucks and trailers of live animals heading to their final destination and have some kind of connection to the business of life and death that is farming. Even so, most local residents I’ve talked to didn’t know there was an abattoir in town.

I for one will mourn its loss. I can’t say I ever particularly enjoyed taking my animals there – not least because of the increasingly overbearing legislation and form-filling that has accumulated around the raising and slaughtering of livestock in recent years, mostly as a result of food scares associated with large-scale farming that nevertheless bite hardest on small-scale farmers. But it was good to have a small local abattoir that was happy to process just a few animals, and which was close enough by to keep the stress of moving them to a minimum. In the 1980s there were more than a thousand abattoirs in Britain, a number that has now dwindled to less than 300. Leaving aside issues about the role of livestock in sustainable farming (I’ll be considering this in more detail soon) I’m not at all convinced that these closures are a good thing for either animal or human welfare. Our culture seems endlessly concerned with micro-managing small risks of the kind that lie behind small abattoir closures, while blithely ignoring much larger risks – climate change, to name but one.

If we’re to have the kind of small farm future that I think we need to create a just and sustainable society then we’ll also need a local agricultural infrastructure to support it. The closure of Frome’s abattoir is one more little step in the wrong direction. Time was when the point of a small market town like Frome was mostly to provide those kind of services to the people living and working in its rural surroundings. It wasn’t so long ago that there was still a cattle market in the town centre. Year by year, the contact of the general public with farming is eroded.

A walk around Frome reveals a plethora of lovely old buildings with all manner of hatchways, trapdoors, gantries, workshops, stables and so forth that show how work, including agricultural work, was once part of daily residential life in the town. Today they’re almost purely residential. Many of these buildings now have listed status and are part of the town’s conservation area. Strange how we’re so concerned to preserve the form of old buildings but so happy to dispose of their function. Those who speak up for a more localised mixed agriculture are widely dismissed as backward-looking romantics, whereas those who maintain the pretence of it by preserving old buildings are hailed as forward-thinking conservationists standing up to the vandalism of development.

To me, the more telling vandalism is in the gutting of local economies, symbolised by the huge industrial abattoirs, markets, feedlots and all the other paraphernalia of modern large-scale farming, which removes agriculture from public view. In the past, towns and cities usually grew up around working functions, as commercial or industrial centres. But now these functions have become so large and concentrated that often they can no longer fit even within the distended boundaries of our modern cities. The port at Shanghai, the largest in the world, at 3,600km2 is more than twice the size of Greater London. And most of Britain’s old port cities, including London, are no longer working ports – a function that has been outsourced to non-urban places like Felixstowe with greater legroom. All this raises the question of what modern towns and cities are actually for…but that’s something I aim to look at in another post.

A tour around my toilet

After a string of posts on eco/modernism, it’s time for something earthier. And since the Small Farm Future office recently received a request for a feature on compost toilets, we’ve decided to bring you a world exclusive photo-essay on the sanitary facilities at SFF headquarters. What could be earthier than that?

There is a connection to the last cycle of posts, though, which I hope I’ll be forgiven for mentioning briefly. Because it’s not hard to find texts within the ecomodernist corpus that scorn the humble compost toilet1. Perhaps there’s a simple division in the world between those who think it’s absurd to compost human waste, and those who think it’s absurd not to. But consider the consequences. In India, more than half the population (which amounts to something not too shy of 10% of all humanity) has no access to a latrine of any kind. Open defecation, it has been shown, is associated with intestinal illnesses causing childhood stunting, and this results in numerous health problems throughout the life course2. It’s also associated with assaults on women and children occasioned by their search for secluded spots for defecation. And that’s to say nothing of the fertility lost to agriculture by failing to make use of human waste (which is considerable – by my calculations, the urine produced by Britain’s population could furnish something like 40kg of nitrogen per hectare of cropland, which would put us well on the way to agricultural self-fertility).

The narrative of ecomodernism makes much of high-tech items like golden rice and nuclear power as means for improving the lot of the poor. But since all a compost toilet requires is some wood or plastic and a bit of easily-imparted knowledge, I’d be interested to see an economic evaluation comparing the per dollar benefits of creating access to compost toilets to poor communities lacking latrines with the fancy technologies preferred by the ecomodernists. Though on reflection, not that interested – I’m not against worthwhile research, but I guess one reason I quit academia was a sense that a lot of the money devoted to economic evaluations of whether to do this thing or that thing was probably better spent on actually doing this thing or that thing. In fact, what I’d really like to see is an economic evaluation of how useful economic evaluations are. But I digress – rather embarrassingly, as I’ve scarcely even started.

So let us turn our attention to some compost toilets in their practical manifestations. Here’s one, and ain’t she a beauty? This is the first one we built at Vallis Veg – a magnificently lofty throne from which I’ve surveyed my farm on many a fine sunny morning with the door thrown wide open just like this to welcome the rising sun, while I simultaneously perform other important work. Though not if I’m expecting visitors. Unless I know them very well.

Digital Camera

Digital Camera

We now have four separate compost toilets on the premises, all source separating ones, and all basically variants on the same theme. The unlovely IBC in the foreground of the photo showcases our receptacle of choice for the solids in two of our toilets. As Michael argued under my last post, the near future may turn out to be a salvage economy – so here’s my tip: invest in IBCs now! Source separation makes a lot of sense, to my mind. The urine is more readily usable, and it’s also much bulkier so if it’s mixed in it creates a slurry that’s trickier to deal with. Standard sewage systems are even more slurry-based, of course. All that wasted water! In urban situations no doubt it’s harder to avoid slurry-based sewerage, just as industrial farming demands slurry in preference to the simple farmyard manure systems of the small mixed farm, occasioning the need for more complex downstream treatment, if it’s treated at all. I just feel so sorry for all those poor animals cooped up in their little pens and so alienated from their environment that they’ve been trained to flush away their own fertility.

Now I’d love to be able to take you for a look around the back of my toilet (sorry if that sounds a bit wrong) but unfortunately I’ve had a devil of a job uploading some of my photos due to what a Google search reveals is known as “the notorious WordPress upload problem”. Too notorious for me to solve just now at any rate. So you’ll just have to imagine a chimney into the IBC, which funnels nasty smells safely upwards into the innocent Somerset air. And a large square of dark fabric covering it, the idea being to make it darker inside so that flies are attracted up the chimney and out towards the light. We haven’t generally found flies to be too much of a problem, except on the odd hot, still summer day when there are a few more around than feels ideal. Maybe in a climate less given to roiling cloudiness than western Britain, more elaborate insect-proofing may be required. And then to the right you can see imagine 25 litre containers (old wholesale laundry liquid cans) where the urine goes. We have about 20 of these. When almost all of them are full, we empty them onto our woodchip compost windrows. Not a particularly pleasant job – more because of the weight of manhandling the cans than their somewhat noxious contents – but it doesn’t need doing all that often.

The compost toilet in the picture has served us loyally for the last five years or so. The IBC has only just filled completely (though the site wasn’t residentially occupied until 18 months ago), and we’ll now let it mature for another 2 years before using it (probably not directly on food crops – more likely on top fruit, willow or hay). But we recently came across the new-fangled idea of having a toilet indoors. Apparently, it’s the very rage nowadays among all the fashionable folk. And so with the help of our friends Joanna and Josh, we recently built a fetching little wooden cabin-style addendum to our humble abode comprising separate indoor composting toilet and shower room, which unfortunately you’re also mostly just going to have to imagine. I really wanted to demonstrate how well it blends in with the adjoining north wing of Vallis Veg Mansions, which we built according to a traditional English farmhouse design dating right back to the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, a signal piece of legislation that made the pursuit of new dwellings in the countryside other than those possessing wheels something of a lifelong quest. But you’ll just have to imagine a nice little cedar-clad cabin adjoining a godawful plastic trailer. Still, my bureaucracy-busting alter ego, Spudman, will soon be dusting off his cape and preparing to do battle with Mendip District Council once again in pursuit of a wheel-less house. But that’s a story for another time.

The indoor toilet has proved a hit with the family so far, and certainly with me. No more pulling on boots and venturing out in the lashing rain in the middle of the night after a few too many down at the Farmers Arms. Again, I’d like to show you our double-chambered toilet design, with two IBCs enrobed in their cedar raiment. Unfortunately, that’s something else I’m going to have to leave to your imagination. We figure that it takes a couple of years to fill an IBC, and then another couple of years of undisturbed composting. Hence two IBCs so that we can alternate between them.

Now, something I can show you is the door to the inner sanctum of this temple of self-fertility.

ct1 small

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Would you like to take a look inside? Well, all right then…

ct2 small

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…and there you have it, our smallest room in all its woody glory, with a stack of cut willow pollards drying at the back ready for the woodstove next winter. And so that brings our tour of the compost toilet to a conclusion – I hope you… Sorry, what was that? You want to see what? Hmmm, well, where I come from I was taught to honour a visitor’s requests whenever possible, however unusual. So, er, here’s a world exclusive view down my toilet.

IMG_4587

You’ll notice the advanced source-separating technology hidden in the toilet bowl, which cleverly accommodates itself to both female and male anatomies – albeit in the latter case only if one adopts a seated posture for excretions of both kinds. Which I’ve noticed is quite beyond the capacities of certain among our male visitors, who leave the distinct impression that sitting down to pee is an insurmountable challenge to their deepest sense of self. They also often leave a suspiciously moist residue inside the IBC where it ain’t supposed to go. But I find that men with experience of organic growing are generally better able to take it in their stride. I like to think this is because we’re somehow more secure in our masculinity. Though I fear it’s more likely that time spent organic gardening has fostered a willingness to endure any indignity in the hunt for good compost.

Beside the bowl (previous photo) you’ll note a bucket of sawdust, which we mostly obtain at no cost from a local forestry sawmill (so no dodgy glues and suchlike in our compost). A handful down the bowl after each deposit adds a useful shot of carbon and has the added benefit of concealing the visual and olfactory evidence of one’s effusions from the following hapless visitor. Without source separation, a lot more sawdust would be required, reducing system efficiency.

And, finally, let me show you the urine can in the new toilet, usually concealed by the floor hatch you see in the picture. A piece of high-end technology that would surely delight Stewart Brand himself…

Hatch2

I should add that I deserve very little credit for designing or building the incredible contraptions on show here, which are the speciality of my beloved. Pretty much my only contribution has been wiring in the lights. But I like to think that’s my role in life – whether in the wide open reaches of the blogosphere or the narrow confines of our backwoods abode, I bring illumination where previously there was darkness…

And that’s pretty much it. Next week: inside my laundry basket.

References

  1. For example, Phillips, L. (2015) Austerity Ecology & the Collapse Porn Addicts. Yes, that book. And also Bruckner, P. (2013) The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse.
  1. Spears, D. (2013) ‘The nutritional value of toilets: How much international variation in child height can sanitation explain?’ https://d3gxp3iknbs7bs.cloudfront.net/attachments/902b86b5-eb72-4f97-9a72-ea4f758be1aa.pdf