A sheep’s vigil

I said I’d swear off blogging for a month, but I thought I’d just drop by to note the appearance on the Dark Mountain Blog of my review of 2016, called ‘A sheep’s vigil’. And, since I’m here, I might as well sketch a little bit of extra context for that piece.

A view I’ve long charted on this site is that people’s health and wellbeing will ultimately best be served by an economy strongly grounded in the productive capacities of their local landscapes. My feeling is that the seismic political events of 2016 – Brexit, Trump etc – have taken us still further from that already remote possibility, and the notion that they represent a move towards anti-elitist localism is illusory. Therefore the overall mood of my analysis is pessimistic. On the other hand, had the gods ordained that 2016 should be the year of Bremain and Clinton, we would scarcely be much closer to my aspirations. So perhaps it could be argued that when the false dawn of 2016 becomes more widely apparent, it’ll turn out at least that these events were staging posts to a more genuine egalitarian localism. Trouble is, from where I stand, I can’t really see it – what comes to my mind instead is a Tom Waits line: “They say if you get far enough away you’ll be on your way back home. Well I’m at the station, and I can’t get on the train”.

So my piece mostly tries to chart what I see as a greater likelihood and a greater danger, that after Theresa May’s Brexit conservative government and Donald Trump’s presidency fail to deliver their undeliverable promises we’ll get something much worse. I got some stick on this site for talking about fascism in the context of the politics of 2016, and I’d concede that leftists do have the bad habit of yelling ‘Fascism!’ as a kind of reflex whenever they encounter resurgent right-wing politics. Still, the whole tenor of political discourse in the UK at the moment (perhaps it’s best if I avoid opining on the US situation, which I’m more remote from) is more proto-fascist than anything I’ve yet seen in British politics during my lifetime, with all its talk of ‘enemies of the people’, the revolt against ‘liberal’ elites, the scapegoating and the ressentiment. To compound it all, as I’ve charted on this blog, various voices among radical greens are, at best, content just to rub their hands at the gory spectacle of it all and, at worst, are cheerleading the slide towards nativism and state corporatism. Shame on them.

But, hey, it’s a new year, and if I can’t find a few rays of sunshine to penetrate the gloom in the salad days of January then I’ll be surpassing even my own championship levels of lugubriousness. So here’s a few positive thoughts, based largely on the books I read during the recent holiday:


I belatedly got around to reading Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer’s book about Christopher McCandless, who gave all his money to Oxfam, and wandered the western USA before unfortunately dying in Alaska as he sought truth in the immediate and the wild. Most cultures historically have found a place for world-renouncing transcendence and have valued people who seek it. Ours regrettably does not, but there’s no lack of people nowadays who nonetheless feel its pull. The McCandless story has influenced many people – some of whom try to repeat his exact trip and end up needing rescuing from the Teklanika River, or worse. So what’s the moral here? That people find some dumbass ways to get themselves into trouble? Well for sure but I’m looking for positives, remember? So I’d say it’s this: much as our society likes to peddle the myth that everyone wants to be rich and famous, it’s not actually true. But most people are quite suggestible and tend to tread the paths (literal or figurative) where others have gone before. So maybe it wouldn’t be so hard to divert a lot of them to a worthwhile path of transcendence. And the choice we face isn’t between either a six-figure salary in Manhattan or hunting for food in Alaska and dying a lonely death. You could try gardening, for starters.

The over-industrious revolution

I also finally got around to reading Jan de Vries’ article ‘The industrial revolution and the industrious revolution’ – one of the seminal contributions to the ‘industrious revolution’ debate that I’ll be discussing in later posts, and full of implications for sustainable agricultures and societies of the future. One of de Vries’ points is that the industrial revolution of Victorian England didn’t just come down from on high as a result of fossil energy capture and was then promulgated around the world to a grateful populace (which is kind of the ecomodernist version of history). Rather it arose substantially through a series of marginal decisions made by ordinary people living in pre-industrial households about how best to spend their time, with results that they could have scarcely imagined. And the moral of this story for me is the following answer to those who say that the rise of capitalism and its huge amplification in the quantity of material things was bound to happen, and is what everybody wants: no it wasn’t and no they don’t. A short answer, I’ll admit, but one I propose to expand on in due course. The positive message I draw from de Vries is that major historical change can happen from the bottom up without a coordinated political plan. So it’s conceivable that people will come to think that the revolution we’ve had these past two centuries has been a tad over-industrious, and will start finding some other ways of organising their time than wage labour to fund the industrial production of commodities.

Collapse in slo-mo

Next on my reading list was End Game: Tipping Point For Planet Earth? by palaeo-ecologists Anthony Barnosky and Elizabeth Hadly. I’d recommend it as light holiday reading. No seriously. Maybe I just don’t get out enough. Anyway, despite its lack of depth I thought there was a lot of good stuff in the book, and the palaeo-ecological angle comparing present circumstances to past climate change and extinction events was particularly interesting – a useful corrective to the aforementioned ecomodernists’ favourite ecology book, Emma Marris’s Rambunctious Garden.

I didn’t always agree with Barnosky and Hadly, and I was particularly irked by their failure to consider low tech and small-scale rather than hi tech and large-scale approaches to agriculture. Still, in chapter after chapter on population, resources, food, water, pollution, disease and war they lay down a set of sombre markers for the enormity of the challenge facing humanity. The positive message? Oh damn, I’d forgotten about that. Well not, I think, the falsely upbeat final chapter in which the authors get way too excited by the fact that California governor Jerry Brown is interested in their analysis, much as I empathise with the Stockholm syndrome that many of us exhibit when IMPORTANT PEOPLE occasionally choose to listen to us. It’s more about the nature and speed of the impending collapse that Barnosky and Hadly delineate – something that we’ve been batting around a bit in the comments section of some of my recent blog posts. Their analysis leads me to think that there will almost inevitably be blood, war, hunger, and immense human suffering in the years ahead – just as there have been for many in the years behind – but what there probably won’t be, even in some pretty bad ecological scenarios, is an immediate and total collapse of global civilisation. So that’s a comfort, huh?

People are people: I spent new year’s eve at a youth hostel in southern Portugal (it’s a long story), among a mixed crowd of English, Spanish, Portuguese, Australian and Germans, among others. A Lithuanian accordionist played the guitar, and sang cheerful American songs in English, English songs in Lithuanian, and Lithuanian songs in Spanish, I think. The Europeans made fun of the English for trying to pretend that we weren’t really European, and a fine old time was had by all. It made me think that for all the bitter political rhetoric and social media trolling, when people from different countries actually meet and talk to each other they’re often able to find ways to get along.

China sleeps: on new year’s day I came down with a bad cold. The shops were shut and I couldn’t get any Nurofen. Lying groggily in bed I realised to my horror that the only unread book in my possession was one primarily concerned with tax policy in early modern China. Cursing my intellectual pretentiousness – why hadn’t I brought a crime novel like a normal person? – but with few other options, I proceeded to learn more than could be reasonably expected of a man on his sickbed about the long-term machinations of the middle kingdom. A day or two later I saw the news of Donald Trump’s latest online China-baiting. And armed with my newfound knowledge, I took comfort from the fact that while Chinese regimes through history have certainly done their fair share of bullying and strong-arm stuff, they haven’t as a rule tended to go in for quixotic acts of military adventurism overseas or to lash out in revenge for slights – in contrast to, well, just as a wild example, let’s say, hmm, the USA. So that, I think, is another bit of good news as we contemplate the four years ahead.

Rationality: in other news, the former chief economist of the Bank of England has apologised for the bank’s overly pessimistic forecasts concerning Britain’s post-Brexit economic performance. Andrew Haldane said that the bank’s models were based on the assumption that people behaved rationally, but this turned out not to be the case. And the good news here is that Britain’s economy has emerged strong and triumphant in spite of all the doom-mongering over Brexit? No. We haven’t even left the EU yet – it’s far too early to tell. The good news is that senior economists are finally admitting that their models aren’t based on how people actually behave – something that thinkers from other disciplines (like him, and him, and even him) have been telling them for years. Even so, there’s something slightly pejorative about Haldane’s language of rationality and irrationality – maybe the real irrationality here relates to a discipline so fond of building behavioural models that aren’t based on how people actually behave. But perhaps I have to tread carefully here, since – to bring this post full circle – my critique of fascism is based largely on the fact that it’s irrational. I guess what I’d say is that politics is always unavoidably a matter of beliefs and values, and the belief that politics should be based on reason is at least as defensible as any other. That indeed was a key point of my Dark Mountain piece – that a liberal public sphere now has to be defended as a value. Economics, on the other hand, generally purports to be a value-neutral discipline that understands how humans behave. Clearly, however, it doesn’t. And the fact that the news is now out is…good.

Right, well that really is it. Happy new year. See you in February.

Hunting for the exit

I left the prospect of my long-promised analysis of a neo-peasant future dangling at the end of my previous post. But the first lesson they teach you at blogging school is to hold your readership in suspense so they keep coming back for more. The second lesson they teach you is not to hold them in suspense so much that they decide not to come back at all. So I promise you upon my word that I’ll start the neo-peasant analysis in my next post. In this one I’m going to replicate my review of George Monbiot’s new book How Did We Get Into This Mess? which has recently appeared in The Land (Issue 20). If you’d like to read it all nicely laid out with The Land’s characteristically meticulous aesthetic, then it’s currently available on their website here. But if you’re content with the more homespun approach we take here at Small Farm Future, then it’s all laid out for you just below.

Meanwhile, the grand soap opera of British politics continues apace with more twists and turns than last year’s discarded baling twine. Andrea Leadsom, only recently touted as the Brexiter’s prime minister, fell on her sword to leave the way clear for Theresa May. Leadsom has now been made Secretary of State at DEFRA, the government department responsible for agriculture: perhaps a case of ‘well, you wanted Brexit, now you sort out the mess’. In a characteristically sharp blog post, Miles King sets out the implications. Present indications suggest my prediction of an ecomodernist turn in British agriculture, with the land sparing/land sharing divide set at the 500ft contour, could prove accurate. But I suspect there are plenty more episodes in the drama to come.

Anyway, let me turn my attention to George.


Monbiot, George. 2016. How Did We Get Into This Mess? Politics, Equality, Nature. London: Verso.

It’s a poor reflection on the state of our civic culture that George Monbiot stands almost alone among journalists in the mainstream British media as a voice for the radical green left. I doubt it’s easy facing the opprobrium not only of the usual suspects but also the not-so-friendly fire of radicals looking to him for public representation of their own particular agendas. So let me begin by giving credit where it’s due. Monbiot’s new book, a selection of his journalism over the last ten years or so, showcases an immense achievement.

Since everything here was originally an op-ed piece in The Guardian, each chapter is short and pithy, making the book as a whole an easy read. The chapters are arranged in thematic sections, including among others energy, food and farming, the marginalisation and demonization of the weak and powerless (including children), the murky world of right-wing think-tanks and corporate lobbyists, the rise of neoliberalism, and wildlife, or “wild life”, as it’s better framed within the book. This last section is particularly strong. Whereas the tone in other sections is often strident (understandably so – as Monbiot ably documents, there’s a lot to feel strident about), there’s a kind of lyrical transcendence to his wildlife writings that encompasses and transfigures his more straightforwardly political pieces.

The book holds some frustrations, though. One of them is the inevitable downside of its punchy short-form journalism. Every piece stands up well in its own terms, but despite the shape given by the thematic approach it’s disappointing to heft such a weighty tome in your hands only to find that the many fruitful lines of thought that Monbiot opens up often aren’t followed through with the level of detail you’d hope to find in a book-length analysis. More importantly, that lack of detail enables Monbiot to run two different kinds of politics through the book without fully confronting their tensions. These are, respectively, a municipally-oriented democratic socialism and a more rurally-oriented producerism-cum-agrarian populism. Or, to put it crudely in terms of two periodicals that are dear to me, it’s the voice of The Guardian versus the voice of The Land. There’s much to be learned from both voices, but if we’re to answer satisfactorily Monbiot’s question of how we got into this mess – and perhaps more pressingly of how we’re going to get out of it – some further probing is required, because the two politics have different implications.

I’d summarise the democratic socialist story that Monbiot has to tell like this: The landowner ruling class in pre-capitalist Britain had the countryside and its riches pretty much stitched up. With the rise of coal, capitalism and colonialism, rural working people became an urban-industrial working class with little nostalgia for the dependent rural life they’d lost, though to his credit Monbiot takes resistance to enclosure in the British countryside and in the country’s colonies abroad more seriously than most. Urbanised and industrialised working people were instrumental in creating a more inclusive and egalitarian society, and with the enormous economic forces unleashed by fossil fuels and the globalisation of capitalist markets were eventually able to secure for themselves a share of wealth unimaginable to their forefathers in a “great flowering of freedom that has enhanced so many lives since the end of the Second World War” (p.4). But the gains achieved in this statist, meritocratic, Keynesian society stalled in the 1970s. The monetarist doctrines of Milton Friedman and his ilk were waiting in the wings, and with the election of Reagan in the USA and Thatcher in Britain they were politically realised in the ideology of neoliberalism, whose ‘growth at all costs’ mentality now threatens to reduce “the world’s diverse and differentiated marvels…to the same grey stubble” (p.177). Meanwhile, the gap that early capitalist development opened between productive industrialists and parasitic rentiers is narrowing once more. The captains of the neoliberal global economy are parlaying their control of these global marvels into personal riches and a small, exclusive ruling class, at great cost to the majority of the world’s people and to the natural world through the concentration of wealth, the dismantling of public services and the deregulation of business and financial markets. What’s needed, then, is a reversal of this neoliberal trajectory which “if unchecked, will catalyse crisis after crisis, all of which can be solved only by the means it forbids: greater intervention on the part of the state” (p.221).

The alternative producerist-populist narrative shares a good deal with this democratic socialist one, but frames it in bigger and less statist historical terms. It’s glimpsed in Monbiot’s writing when he argues that human freedom and self-actualisation are more important than comfort or the accumulation of material things. So while civilisation may be a good thing up to a point, it’s possible to have too much of it for various reasons. One is that “civilisation is boring” (p.95), stymying and limiting the full use of our mental and physical capacities while remorselessly reducing everybody to its purview: “the oddest insult in the English language [is] when you call someone a peasant,” Monbiot writes. “You are accusing them of being self-reliant and productive” (pp.141-2). Another issue is the environmental cost of servicing the non-self-reliant multitudes forged in civilisation’s image. In various chapters, Monbiot touches on the disproportionate call on global resources made by the wealthy (which includes most of us living in the global north), the difficulties of sustaining it in the face of long-term economic growth and a more equable global wealth distribution, and the life-denying pointlessness of much of our material consumption. Discussing the impossibility of endless growth, he suggests that industrial revolutions prior to the advent of fossil fuels were ultimately unable to sustain themselves, and collapsed. Indeed, the mathematics of compound growth suggest that “salvation lies in collapse” (p.175). He advocates an orderly retreat in the face of this reality before it’s foisted upon us more capriciously, for example by leaving the remaining fossil fuels in the ground to avoid runaway climate change.

The figure who awaits us if we do beat such a retreat is the peasant. Monbiot recognises, as so few do, that provisioning the world’s people adequately and sustainably is more about ownership, about widespread access to the land and its resources, than about the technocratic boosting of high-energy, low-labour agriculture. This is a populist or producerist, a peasant-centred, vision. But here is where the tensions between the social-democratic and the producerist strands of his analysis bite. Essentially, these turn upon whether you address problems in the manner of the rational-bureaucratic planner, asking how best to deliver services to the population, or whether you address them in the manner of the autochton, asking how best to inhabit and thrive in the land you call home.

So for example, in his well-known critiques of upland sheep farming, of livestock farming more generally and of the expansion of agriculture into what he calls “ever less suitable land” (p.97) Monbiot operates mostly in rational-bureaucratic mode, trying to reconcile the competing demands of conservation, food production and sustainability at the level of generalised policy. Much of this analysis is subtle and persuasive, as in his understanding of the disastrous disconnect between farm, forestry and conservation policy afflicting upland farming, and the social history underlying the emergence of an upland peasantry. But a more peasant-centred vision would find scope for mixed upland silvo-pastoralism. Abolishing small-scale farming in these ‘unsuitable’ places which “in the face of global trade…cannot compete with production in fertile parts of the world” (p.97) would not only be another act of enclosure, but – as I’ve argued in an article in The Land (Issue 18) – also an ecologically risky strategy that plays into the hands of corporate agribusiness.

Another case in point is his advocacy for nuclear power and his critique of “deep green” energy production – “Micro-hydropower might work for a farmhouse in Wales; it’s not much use in Birmingham” (pp.166-7). For sure, if we want to leave fossil fuels in the ground while hanging onto some semblance of civilisation in the short term we need large, concentrated sources of energy, and arguably there’s little in the cupboard besides nuclear. For those of us who advocate a peasant or neo-agrarian future, the fact that there are thousands of Birminghams in the world indeed is quite a problem. But it’s also a problem for nuclear advocates, whose favoured technology currently furnishes less than 2% of global energy production. Which is the more plausible strategy – to embrace something like a sixtyfold proliferation of nuclear power within a few short years along with the huge associated and currently unavailable technological changes that would be needed to keep all these Birminghams ticking along as they are? Or to embrace rapid energy descent, that salvational ‘collapse’ which Monbiot himself advocates? His critiques of pointless consumerism further raise the question of how much energy we actually need. He doesn’t provide estimates here, but it would be interesting to hear them – particularly if he spoke them with his wilder voice, the voice of a dweller in the land, rather than that of the rational planner or the urbane Guardian man.

To get out of the mess, I’m sure that we need both approaches. But it’s this wilder voice that I prefer in Monbiot’s writing. I don’t always agree with it, as when he contrasts the ‘linear thinking’ of agriculture with the ‘rambling and responsive’ existence of the forager (p.92) – an over-simplified distinction which effaces the possibilities for a rambling and responsive agriculture, for ‘wildness’ to be articulated within farming rather than against it. Still, Monbiot’s wild voice gets closer to the source of the mess we’re in – and is also much rarer – than the social-democratic urge to blame everything on Thatcher and Reagan, lobby for a return to pre-1980s public provision, and hope that modern technology will banish woes like climate change. The malaise runs very much deeper than that, as Monbiot convincingly demonstrates. In this book, he stands at the doorway of the producerist or agrarian populist vision I believe we need if we’re to create a just and sustainable future. But he doesn’t quite step through. In future books or collaborations I hope he will, because few people are better equipped to articulate it convincingly while retaining the necessary critical edge. In the meantime, what he’s given us here is a passionate, deeply informed and endlessly thought-provoking analysis of our times.  “To seek enlightenment about ourselves and the world around us: this is what makes a life worth living” (p.115). We’re lucky that he’s set himself that goal, and done so much to share it.

The devil shops local

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

Chris: Hello Nick! Long time no see…

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

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

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

Chris: Oh yes? How so?

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

Chris: Is that so? Who says?

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

Chris: Oh god.

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

Chris: Who?

Nick (triumphantly): George Monbiot!

Chris: Oh god.

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

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

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

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

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

Chris: No. They’re right.

Nick: You what? You agree with them?

Chris: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris: Quite.

Nick: Are you some kind of dangerous radical?

Chris: Look who’s talking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nick: Yes

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

Nick: Yes


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

Chris: Sorry I was just rendered temporarily speechless.

Nick: Here, sniff a bit of this brimstone.

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

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

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

Nick: Yes

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

Nick: It would seem so, yes.


Nick: More brimstone?

Chris (gagging): Thank you.

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

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

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

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

Nick: He doesn’t say.

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

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

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

Nick: No, honestly…

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

Nick: Big agribusiness types, on the whole.

Chris: Ha! I rest my case.

Goldilocks in the Highlands: some notes on scaling resilience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet a few pages later he says,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scaling resilience

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

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

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

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

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

Goldilocks in the Highlands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The ancient commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Spudman goes west

Time was when every virile young man such as myself was enjoined to go west and start up a small farm enterprise. Damn right, for as a superb recent article on the Statistics Views website outlines, small farms are usually more productive acre for acre than large ones. I may just have to write a blog post on that soon.

In any case, some time ago an invitation arrived in the Small Farm Future office for one of the team to go and talk at the Canadian Organic Growers’ conference in Toronto. I was far too busy myself, so I sent my faithful deputy, planning department-fighting superhero, and general alter ego Spudman. And so it was that two weeks ago Spudman upped sticks and headed west, first to Iceland and then ever more westward still to Toronto. Finding himself too late to stake a homestead claim in downtown Toronto, he booked into the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel and attended the conference instead. Then he obsessively monitored the local weather on his widescreen TV. Frederick Jackson Turner will be spinning in his grave.

In fact, I didn’t intend to post anything up here about his trip, but Spudman learned so many interesting things while he was away that I feel the need to post in summary form ten points about the trip as placemarkers for lengthier treatments at some point in the future.

1. Spudman had fascinating interactions with David Montgomery, author of Dirt, and of the forthcoming The Hidden Half of Nature, and with Elaine Ingham of Soil Foodweb Inc. about, er, soil food webs. Food for soil is food for thought, but there are dilemmas involved. Expect a blog post soon.

2. Spudman also came across Thierry Vrain and his work on the dangers of glyphosate, which I think is interesting not only in itself but also because of what it tells us about science politics. Ditto.

3. Spudman briefly discussed the Yellowstone supervolcano with a noted geologist at the conference. What’ll happen if that goes off, Spudman asked. Hmm, he replied, well that’s unlikely but if it does it’ll be the end of civilisation. Memo to self: enjoy each passing minute – you never know when a volcano may go off. Metaphorically. Or literally.

4. And talking of civilisation, ends and beginnings, and of ecological catastrophes, Spudman read a bunch of books on the trip and acquired a few more in the course of it, all on that general theme. The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse, Riddley Walker, On The Great Plains, From Prairie to Cornbelt, Nature and the English Diaspora, Independent People. The attentive reader will note that there are even a couple of novels thrown in there. Oh yes, Spudman does have a cultural side. More blog posts coming right up…

5. Spudman used to avoid flying on climate change grounds, but for various reasons that I’ll probably explain on here at some point he’s softened his stance on this a little in recent years. Then again, flying over Greenland at 38,000 ft he was struck by how easy it was to see the detail of the landscape below and how little atmosphere there was above. What a thin little skin it is that we all rely on so fundamentally. May just have to harden up that stance again…

6. …though talking of climate change and Greenland, the whole damn place was covered in ice. Did Spudman see any signs of melting ice as he flew overhead? No sir, he did not. Now that’s the sort of thing that counts as rock solid evidence on denialist websites. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, warmists.

7. …and talking of ice and warmth, let me report some latitudes and temperatures from the trip: Toronto, 44oN, -21oC; Frome 51oN, 9oC; Reykjavik, 64oN, -1oC. Thank heavens for the briny, and the North Atlantic Drift. Long may she flow.

8. Ah, Reykjavik. Ah, Iceland. Spudman saw pastures still turned to bedrock lava by the Vikings, when centuries ago their overgrazing of sheep allowed the arctic winds to blow the light volcanic soils to smithereens, never to return. Memo to self: do not overgraze your sheep, especially if you keep them in Iceland. Which I don’t. On the other hand, Spudman saw a single hydroponic hothouse enterprise furnishing something like 20% of the country’s hothouse veg, all powered from ‘green’ geothermal sources equivalent to the energy needs of a small town. Well at Small Farm Future we talk a lot about the concept of progress, and here at last we have incontrovertible evidence for it. Memo to self: if you want to run a successful market garden, be sure to place it on top of a giant plug of red hot magma. Then again, see point 3…

9. According to my tour guide, farming bombed in Iceland post war when farm women all decided to move to Reykjavik and get proper jobs. Now most farmers raise the famous Icelandic horses, which they sell at vast profit to rich Americans. There must be some kind of point relevant to this blog to be made there…

10. And, hot from the same source, I can report that Iceland was the world’s first democracy. It also comprised at the time all the chancers, dreamers, outlaws and ne’er do wells who couldn’t get by back home in Scandinavia. There too I think there must be a point to be made. Why I’m very sure of it…

Just another bloody day: thoughts on ‘Liberty’s Dawn’

A few thoughts in this post on historian Emma Griffin’s recent book, Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution1, which touches on many themes relevant to this blog.

From a close study of memoirs and autobiographical texts written by ordinary people caught up in the British industrial revolution, Griffin argues that industrialisation did not deskill and impoverish working people – as in the still-popular ‘dark interpretation’ of the industrial revolution associated with such figures as E.P. Thompson2 – but on the contrary raised incomes and provided fertile conditions for them to develop forms of religious and political association that enabled them to organise around their interests and help create a national public sphere as active participants rather than as a passive lumpen mass. Griffin’s autobiographers display no conspicuous nostalgia for the world of rural agriculture they lost, but instead embrace the new world of urban, industrial opportunity emerging around them.

This all sounds like an unpalatable history lesson for those like me who advocate a less industrialised, small scale farming society as a solution to many of our contemporary ills, and perhaps it is – it’s a compelling book in some ways, and I don’t want to try to shoot it down simply out of narrow partisanship. Still, there are a few gaps and question marks over Griffin’s analysis that I’d like to raise. Perhaps more positively, I’d like to find a way of incorporating her insights into a better small farm vision for the future.

So first the gaps and question marks, many of which Griffin herself acknowledges. Most obviously, however humble their origins the people who wrote down their memoirs were probably atypical members of their social group and had likely steered a more successful personal course through their turbulent times than those who left nothing to posterity, even if ‘success’ here might mean nothing more than being a stalwart of the Sunday school or the local reading club. Though Griffin acknowledges this, I’m not sure she takes it seriously enough in generalising from her findings. But let’s put such tedious methodological quibbles aside and for the sake of argument assume that her autobiographers speak for the majority in their sunny tales of industrialisation.

Another issue, which again Griffin acknowledges, is that the main working class beneficiaries of industrialisation were adult men. For children pressed into earlier and harsher industrial service than their rural farm counterparts, industrialisation was, in Griffin’s own words, “a disaster”3. The story for women is complex, but although young women in the industrial areas were beneficiaries of factory work, marriage usually ended their tenure as independent wage labourers and reallocated them to the familiar role of dependent domestic workers. Griffin often pauses her narrative to insist she’s not saying it was all a bed of roses, but even so for me the notion of industrialisation as ‘liberty’s dawn’ rides pretty roughshod over the evidence that Griffin herself is presenting in instances such as these. And this is doubly true for the fact that her analysis never strays beyond Britain’s shores: consider the half million slaves in the British Caribbean at the end of the eighteenth century producing sugar for the British working man’s tea, and consider also the unsavoury details of how that tea came to him4. As Britain began to flex its muscles as a global superpower, its liberty dawned an awful lot brighter for some than for others – and a good deal of evidence suggests that Britain’s industrial takeoff was funded in large measure by the toil of its colonial dependents5. This question of globalisation presages another issue that Griffin touches on but scarcely discusses: the more that you’re tied in to a global economy, the less control you have over your economic circumstances. The boom times are great, but what about the busts? The weaver William Thom took to the roads with his family in the 1830s when “in one week, upwards of six thousand looms in Dundee alone” fell silent6. Not much liberty there.

Coming more directly to the issue of farming, Griffin argues – convincingly in my opinion – that working people at the dawn of the industrial revolution were glad to see the back of a rural farm life involving chronic underemployment and subjection to the rural landowning classes. But let us be clear what rural life involved in eighteenth century Britain. Capitalism began in the English countryside in the sixteenth century7, and by the eighteenth agriculture was a thoroughly capitalist affair, with an essentially landless rural proletariat engaged in wage labour for landowners themselves pressurised by the vagaries of the market into cutting input costs and shedding labour wherever they could. The new urban proletarians were not trading in a life of jolly peasant autarchy for the cold discipline of the factory – they were trading in one kind of dependent wage labour for another, and better paid, kind.

I suppose you could go looking further back into history to try to find the jolly peasant autarchs, but it probably wouldn’t be wise.  Raymond Williams effectively satirised the search for the real, authentic countryside at some ever-receding point into the historical past in his book The Country and the City8. So let me accept Griffin’s history lesson and agree with her that there’s little to be gained other than a sense of wistful romanticism in supposing that preindustrial society holds a complete template for our future wellbeing (not, of course, the same as saying that jolly peasant autarchs have never existed, or that there’s nothing useful to be learned today from preindustrial times). But let me also point out, as I’ve done on this blog before, the dangers of a reverse romanticism in the ideology of ‘progress’, which identifies an axial point in the past to which we owe our present success and our future greatness. Griffin wholly falls into this trap, arguing that “It has been a very long time since the critics of industrialisation could plausibly deny the long-term benefits of industrial growth” (p.16) and  that, in the future, “Each generation will live longer, enjoy greater levels of material comfort, eat a more varied and exotic diet, and have more possessions” (p.241).

Well, to my mind it’s actually rather easy to plausibly deny the long-term benefits of industrial growth. And to project limitlessly increasing wellbeing, material comfort and material possessions betrays an alarmingly ahistorical failure to appreciate the limited trajectory of the very particular modern economic ideology associated with capitalist industrialisation. How can we mock those who imagine a perfect past and a miserable future, and then simply invert the temporal ordering of this ideology to imagine a miserable past and a perfect future? But I shall leave all that aside for now, because I want to return to ideologies of progress more explicitly in another post.

Industrialisation was different from what went before it, and Griffin does a good job of describing the new working class cultures that emerged in its wake. But maybe one can overstress the significance of industrialisation per se. The main story Griffin tells of industrialising Britain is the story of economic growth. In fact, even that is controversial: other historians such as Jan de Vries and Hans-Joachim Voth have argued that the evidence for economic growth in England’s early 19th century industrial revolution is surprisingly thin, and that the disciplining of labour (Thompson’s ‘dark interpretation’) was a more salient driver for its restructuring of work9. But leaving that aside, is Griffin saying anything more telling than that in times of economic growth and full employment things can go pretty well for the ordinary working person, and specifically the ordinary working man? I’m not sure that she is. Even so, that story in itself raises tricky questions for a contemporary agrarian populism of the sort I espouse because I think Griffin could be right that it’s difficult to generate all that much of an economic surplus in agriculture alone, even in capitalist agriculture – let alone non-capitalist agriculture. And perhaps she’s also right that it’s easier to achieve working class self-organisation in the unified public sphere potentiated by industrialisation and urbanisation than in rural farm society. That also seems to be David Satterthwaite’s main argument for the benefit of urbanisation in poor countries today10.

I’m not so sure that the relative ease of political organisation in towns is the greatest argument against small scale farming. And I’d argue that the public spheres which emerged in urbanising early modern economies aren’t entirely positive, because they easily give rise to nationalisms and other such mystifying ideologies. Small farm life historically has indeed tended to be materially spartan and inequitable, an inequity that has presented considerable challenges to rural working people in organising to achieve their goals in the face of landowner power. But it’s not as if peasants have always and everywhere failed in the pursuit of these goals, as the work of people like James Scott attests. Scott writes that the peasantry is

“a class scattered across the countryside, lacking formal organization, and best equipped for extended, guerrilla-style, defensive campaigns of attrition. Their individual acts of foot dragging and evasion, reinforced by a venerable popular culture of resistance and multiplied many thousand-fold, may, in the end, make an utter shambles of the policies dreamed up by their would-be superiors in the capital”11

Others have even argued that such forms of peasant agency can create new and more sustainable forms of labour-intensive capitalism – an argument that I want to explore in more detail in another post12.

The peculiar social structure of eighteenth century Britain at the point of industrial takeoff reflects the outcome of prior class struggles which had already created a class of vulnerable wage labourers without significant access to land and self-provisioning. It’s not surprising that some of them at least were enthusiastic about the new economic opportunities that then came their way with industrialisation. But to me this hardly deserves the sobriquet of ‘liberty’s dawn’. Quite apart from the travails of people elsewhere in the world who toiled in servitude to fulfil British interests, and quite apart from the busts that inevitably attend the booms when global capital imbues everyday economic relations, the economic uptick of industrialisation (if indeed that’s what it was) was surely just another bloody day in the long historical standoff between capital and labour. And in the global long run it has still led to wealth for the few, poverty for the many, and the ecocidal consequences of endless economic growth. The challenge for a contemporary agrarian populism is to map out a society where there can be wellbeing without excessive economic growth, a focus on sustainable agrarian production and social equity in the means of that production. It’s not an easy task, and Griffin teaches us that we shouldn’t look to eighteenth century or preindustrial Britain for a good model of how to achieve it. But what she fails to show, in my opinion, is that such models themselves are not worth aiming for.



1. Griffin, E. 2013. Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution, Yale UP.

2. Thompson, E. 1963. The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin.

3. Griffin, op cit, p.83

4. Blackburn, R. 1997 The Making of New World Slavery, Verso; Mintz, S. 1986 Sweetness and Power, Penguin.

5. Heller, H. 2011. The Birth of Capitalism, Pluto.

6. Griffin, op cit, p.39.

7. Wood, E. 2002. The Origin of Capitalism, Verso.

8. Williams, R. 1975. The Country and the City. Oxford UP.

9. de Vries, J. 2008. The Industrious Revolution, Cambridge UP; Voth, H-J. 2004. Living standards and urban disamenities, in Floud, R. & Johnson, P. eds. Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, Vol.1, Cambridge UP.

10. http://www.campaignforrealfarming.org/2011/10/city-capitalists-or-agrarian-peasants-where-does-the-future-lie/

11. Scott, J. 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance Yale UP, p.xvii

12. Arrighi, G. 2007. Adam Smith in Beijing, Verso.

Nature’s Matrix: or, of foreigners and Englishmen

My opportunities for writing blog posts are cruelly curtailed at the moment while I try among the other crazy things I do to make a living growing vegetables and to build a house that I’ll have to take down again in 3 years, so apologies for my present intermittency. But I haven’t been altogether absent from the blogosphere – against my better judgement, I got myself involved in another damn golden rice debate on Steve Savage’s blog. This truth I know: don’t debate golden rice with its many ardent fans – the insult to insight quotient will overwhelm you with its toxic magnitude. Still, I might try to derive a few worthwhile lessons from this sorry episode in my next post.

Meanwhile, a much more interesting debate arising from my previous post ensued between Clem Weidenbenner, Ford Denison and myself – at first here on Small Farm Future and then on Ford’s Darwinian Agriculture blog. How refreshing to be able to disagree respectfully with someone and learn from them, in marked contrast to the golden rice brigade… Perhaps one difference lies in debating with actual scientists, who are interested in testing ideas, rather than with people who simply wish to invoke ‘science’ as a magic incantation in support of existing positions. Ah well, more on that next time.

Anyway, time I think for one last walkabout around the theme I’ve been exploring these last two blog posts, for I feel I’ve not yet answered the question Patrick Whitefield posed after my first post – what’s a ‘good’ ecosystem, and what’s a ‘bad’ one?

To be honest, I’m not sure I can answer that, and I’m happy to let the conservationists and ecologists fight it out over the metaphors of flux and balance as applied to wild ecosystems, so long as they don’t go to town on either of them too much, as I previously argued. Consider, for example, this tale told by a friend of mine, who recently had a visit from what he called the ‘Himalayan Balsam Police’ – a local voluntary group of balsam-bashers who informed him that he had too much of the noxious exotic on his land, and threatened to report him to the authorities when he asked them to leave a few plants untouched for his bees. This doubtless exemplifies the problem pointed up by Emma Marris’s ‘everything grows’ critique. It also encapsulates the best and worst of Britain – the proliferation of voluntary groups and the concern for the environment are definite strengths, whereas an unhealthy obsession with the authenticity of the past, the evils of foreigners and ready recourse to higher powers go firmly on the debit side.

Maybe there’s a parallel here with the debate about heritage and the built environment – it’s nice to preserve some old historic buildings, but if you obsess about preserving everything from the past and outlaw almost any new developments you paralyse and reify your society. Part of the preservationist impulse no doubt springs from observing the godawful, cheap, jerry-built crap that passes for architecture in contemporary Britain. But maybe it’s better to focus the activism on improving the new architecture rather than clinging on to the old.

Hold that thought, and now apply it to agro-ecosystems. An excellent book by Ivette Perfecto and colleagues1 previously mentioned on this blog argues that local species extinctions are commonplace: what’s required is the in-migration of other conspecifics from the wider meta-population in order to restore the local population. For this to happen, it’s necessary for the agricultural matrix in between islands of biodiversity or fragments of wild ecosystems to be sufficiently wildlife-friendly to allow migration: a traditional cabruca cacao farm might fit the bill, whereas a giant soya monoculture probably wouldn’t. The book’s focus is tropical, which is where most of the world’s biodiversity and most of its people are, but it would be interesting to consider it in the temperate, post-wilderness context of a place like modern Britain. While the likes of Ford Denison have convinced me that there may not be an awful lot to be gained by polycultures or intercropping at the level of the individual garden bed or farmed field, the likes of Perfecto et al convince me that there probably is much to be gained by diversity at the level of the farm, and the wider farmed landscape. To substantiate that would doubtless require a lot of ecological research, some of which has already been done, with mixed results (though it’s tended to focus on comparing conventional with organic farms, not with small, mixed, ‘agroecological’ holdings)2. But there are wider issues at stake than how many butterfly species you find in two fields from your two respective farm systems. Since there are so many other economic and social benefits to a diverse, small-scale, locally-oriented, peasant rather than productivist agro-ecosystem, until someone proves my suppositions wrong I’m inclined to take Perfecto et al’s analysis as a decent bit of prima facie evidence for the combined ecological, economic and social benefits of small-scale diverse agro-ecosystems in temperate as well as tropical climates (in fact, they make this argument explicitly in the case of tropical agriculture practised by low income small farmers).

Well, I would do, wouldn’t I? Maybe it’s just a case of confirmation bias on my part. And that brings me to the topic of my next post… In the mean time, perhaps I’ll just echo Tom’s sentiments of a couple of posts back, and close with the thought that the good agroecosystem is the agroecological agroecosystem. Now repeat three times.


1. Perfecto, I., Vandermeer, J. and Wright, A. (2009) Nature’s Matrix: Linking Agriculture, Conservation and Food Sovereignty, Earthscan.

2. Eg. http://www.organicresearchcentre.com/manage/authincludes/article_uploads/ORC%20Biodiversity%20benefits%20of%20organic%20farming%20v4.pdf; Bohan, D. ‘Managing weed ecosystem service provision’ http://www.mfo.ac.uk/en/events/ecological-and-anthropological-approaches-agrobiodiversity-and-food-systems

A dialogue with the Devil: or, should farmers improve on nature?

Here, belatedly, is my promised follow up to the preceding Rambunctious Garden post. I’ve been travelling recently, and found myself sharing an old-style train compartment with a curious fellow who introduced himself as ‘Nick’. With the faint goaty aroma that enveloped him, his suspiciously round shoes and the bumps on his head poorly concealed with a demotic flat cap, it didn’t take me long to figure out who he really was. I like to think I managed to hold my own with him, but here at any rate is the transcript of my conversation with the old devil.

Nick: So, Chris, what are you reading there?

Chris: It’s a couple of blog posts by an agronomist called Andy McGuire.

Nick: Cool. What does he say?

Chris: Well, Nick, essentially he argues that

  • the view that agriculture should mimic nature is based on the mistaken notion that there is a ‘balance’ in nature
  • ‘balance of nature’ ideas assume that ecosystems are in equilibrium, that they operate in accordance with meta-local rules and display emergent properties. None of this is true.
  • these ideas also mistakenly impute complexity and optimisation (or ‘nature’s wisdom’) to ecosystems, including the idea that pests are best controlled by retaining a complex agro-ecosystem
  • thus, finally, (and quoting Andy directly) “If what we see in natural ecosystems is not optimized, but random…we should be able to do just as well or better. We can, with ingenuity, wisdom, and a good dose of humility, purposefully assemble systems that outperform natural ecosystems in providing both products and ecosystem services.” The lesson, in short, is the one that gives Andy’s post its title – ‘Don’t mimic nature on the farm – improve it’.

Nick: I’m not your student, you know – you can spare me the bullet points.

Chris: Sorry.

Nick: But I like the cut of his jib. So nature’s not in balance, eh? It’s all randomness, disorder and chaos.  I like that. I like that a lot.

Chris: Yes, I suppose you would. But that’s the first of my problems with his arguments. Manichaeism is all very well in religion – you know, heaven and hell, God and the Devil…

Nick: (splutters) Look, I was just a plain member and citizen of the celestial community, OK? The fact that certain fragile-egoed upstarts don’t like hearing truth spoken to power is not my fault.

Chris: Yeah, Nick, whatever. But leaving that aside, in the natural world there’s surely scope for some shades of grey. I mean, Andy seems to take the view that ecosystems must be either wholly optimised and in balance, or else wholly random. This neglects the surely more plausible possibility that they might be partially optimised and in balance, but also subject to random occurrences. His analysis draws heavily on Ford Denison’s work1, which makes the important point that organisms are more optimised than ecosystems because natural selection operates on the former and not the latter. That makes sense, but the fact that there’s a powerful optimisation mechanism acting on organisms doesn’t mean that they’re wholly optimised or in balance. By reverse logic, the fact that the optimising forces acting on ecosystems are weaker doesn’t mean that there is no optimisation.

Nick: Well, maybe. But then you’d have to specify what those external optimising forces at work in the ecosystem actually are.

Chris: Not necessarily. It’s possible for there to be emergent forces resulting from the interactions between the elements of the ecosystem which have that effect, without invoking some additional agency. I mean, for goodness sake, just take the evolved morphology or behaviour of predator and prey species, like wolves and bison. You can’t understand it as a sui generis form at the level of the species – it only makes sense as an emergent interaction between the species. And that’s just a simple dyadic relationship – there are so many additional complexities, some of which we probably don’t even know about, whereas others such as the ecology of keystone species or disturbance/stability dynamics we do. And yet McGuire argues, with little substantiation, that there are no emergent effects in ecosystems. You don’t need to hold to some strong Clementsian superorganism type view of ecosystems to argue to the contrary – I think those examples I’ve just given suffice, or Grime and Pierce’s arguments about the evolutionary strategies that shape ecosystems2. And I do wonder why people get so het up trying to disprove emergence in ecosystems. In economics, a discipline far more wedded to methodological individualism than is possible in biology, nobody seems to quibble about the notion of the ‘invisible hand of the market’ as an emergent property despite its quasi-mystical overtones.

Nick: The invisible hand of the market?

Chris: Yes, Adam Smith’s doctrine that people pursuing their own narrow self-interest in the market unwittingly produce socially beneficial aggregate outcomes.

Nick: People acting just for themselves produce social good? That’s the most depressing thing I’ve heard in ages!

Chris: Don’t worry, Nick – there are plenty of critics who argue that the invisible hand is more like an invisible foot, in which the mere pursuit of self-interest produces more collective misery than deliberate attempts to cause social harm3.

Nick: Now you’re talking!

Chris: Anyway, my point is that McGuire’s creating a straw man. If you look at the way people have articulated the ‘balance of nature’ concept, it’s much more sophisticated than some mystical notion of a steady equilibrium state. Look at people like Aldo Leopold or John Vandermeer or J. Baird Callicott – they don’t construe ‘balance’ at all in the way McGuire charges. I don’t necessarily agree with everything Callicott says, but he makes a lot of interesting points about emergence and balance in his essay on the topic4 – including that “stability is a notoriously ambiguous concept in ecology, and has more recently been parsed into several more specific concepts – persistence, resistance and resilience” (p.124).

Nick: Not human traits I have much admiration for…

Chris: Well, that’s as maybe, but a couple more points about this. First, while writers like Emma Marris and Andy McGuire are keen to distance themselves from Clements and pin their colours to Gleason’s standard, some of the people they cite in their favour like Stephen Jackson are much more ambivalent: Jackson says that while he considers ecosystems to be fluid and contingent, he also considers them to be entities with particular attributes and processes that are repeatable in space and time – and that Gleason and Clements aren’t quite the polar opposites that are often supposed5. By the way, he also reckons that ecosystem assemblages usually hang together only for about 12,000 years or so, which might be encouraging news for malcontents of civilisation and its unholy alliance of Homo sapiens with cereal crops.

Nick: Well, I like unholy alliances…but, oh, the fun I could have if that happened. (Collecting himself) Anyway, your second point?

Chris: my second point is that it might be better if we stuck with the quantifiable ecological science of concepts like resilience or resistance. Otherwise we just start yelling our preferred metaphors at each other. ‘Nature’s in balance!’ ‘Oh no it’s not, it’s in flux!’. Balance, schmalance, flux, schmux. This isn’t science, it’s just mythologisation.

Nick: Well, people need their mythologies…

Chris: You would say that, wouldn’t you, otherwise you’d be out of a job.

Nick: I’ll ignore that remark.

Chris: Yes, people need their myths and their shorthands. But as I suggested on Andy’s blog, the ‘balance of nature’ myth, though problematic in some respects – including real world cases such as the removal of indigenous peoples from nature reserves – is less problematic than the ‘flux of nature’ myth, which has been used through the ages to justify might is right, and the defeat of countless relatively sustainable agricultural systems and peoples in favour of destructively productivist ones. It’s not just me that thinks this either – various ecologists have pointed to the dangers of the ‘flux of nature’ metaphor along the lines of the ‘anything goes’ problem I identified in my previous post6. That’s why I think Andy’s post, despite I’m sure his noble intentions to articulate a scientific truth as he sees it, strikes me as ideologically loaded. It buttresses humanity’s already well developed tendencies towards hubris in supposing that it’s a simple thing to design human-improved ecosystems.

Nick: Yes, well if it weren’t for human hubris, my job would be a darned sight harder. But since you mention ‘human-improved ecosystems’ let’s talk about agriculture, which you haven’t really mentioned yet. Andy’s main point surely is that you can’t rely on the ‘balance of nature’ myth to design good agricultural systems. I mean, ever since I got humans kicked out of Eden (heh, heh), they’ve had to get by through agricultural systems that rely on humanity’s infernal ingenuity to improve on what the natural world can offer, and not through ‘mimicking nature’. Ford Denison is surely right that it’s misguided to mimic nature – things like perennial grain crops just ain’t gonna work.

Chris: Let’s try to unpick this carefully. So first, yes of course any type of agriculture is an ‘improvement’ on nature from a human point of view (or at least from the point of view of those humans practising it), though I don’t see how it can be described as an ‘improvement’ in any other transcendent sense. Nothing new there. I think what Andy’s really gunning at is the notion that we can best improve on our agro-ecosystems by better mimicking nature. In some situations, I’m sure he’s right. In others, I suspect he isn’t. I don’t think there are any cast iron laws of agro-ecosystem assembly that rule nature mimicry in or out. At one level, all agro-ecosystems involve nature mimicry: we’re a long way from creating purely synthetic food, much as the prospect appeals to some. At another level, I think Andy is using Denison’s ‘misguided mimicry of nature’ point misguidedly. Take perennial grain crops. If Denison is proved right that the perennial grain breeders will be unsuccessful – and I suspect he will be – the reason won’t be because the breeders erred in trying to mimic nature. It’ll be because they erred in not mimicking nature enough. To put it crudely, in nature we find short-lived, prolifically reproducing species and long-lived, cautiously reproducing species – not long-lived, prolifically reproducing species. Farmers have made use of this by, for example, rotating between annual cereal crops and grazed perennial grass leys – that’s a great example of good nature mimicry in an agro-ecosystem. But trying to keep your perennial grains and eat them? I’m not so sure. There are loads of other examples of good nature mimicry in agro-ecosystems, like mob-stocking to mimic the grass-ruminant-predator relationship I mentioned previously, or the research on the relationships between ants, scale insects, parasitic flies, ladybird beetles and parasitic wasps in traditional coffee production systems which suggests counterintuitively the need to retain ants in those systems7. Andy may not consider these things ‘complex’. Well, they’re complex enough for me, but what really matters is that there’s enormous scope for improving agriculture by mimicking nature. Denison’s point, surely, is not that it’s necessarily misguided to mimic nature, but that it’s easy to mimic nature misguidedly.

Nick: OK, OK – so there’s a role for nature mimicry after all. Are we done yet?

Chris: Nearly, Nick, nearly. One last point. A nice thing about Denison’s approach is that he’s very attuned to tradeoffs in a way that I think Andy’s posts miss. We may be able to ‘improve on nature’ in agriculture, but what are the costs? If I were trying to develop a new pumpkin variety, I’d probably want to improve on nature by hand pollinating my plants. If I had some kind of high value crop in a polytunnel, maybe I’d improve on nature by deliberately importing some pollinating insects. If I had a five acre field of these plants, I’d hope nature would just do the job for me. Maybe we’ll get into a situation where we’ve messed with nature so much that it’ll stop doing some of these jobs for us – in fact we’re probably already there in some cases. I think it’ll be hard for us to assume responsibility for many of these ‘ecosystem services’ at as low a cost to us as nature has provided, but as a thought experiment suppose we had to choose between a mini-drone we’d devised that could pollinate all our crops better than insects at virtually no cost, or the insects themselves…which choice, and why? Is the human ‘improvement’ of nature the obvious way to go here? Not to me. There’s also another tradeoff I’d highlight that I think Denison misses  in a comment picked up by Andy when he says “Local sourcing of nutrients in natural ecosystems…is a constraint imposed by the lack of external inputs, not an example of ‘nature’s wisdom’” (Denison, p.106). Maybe that’s so in the sense that there’s no wise superorganism type ecosystem in a strong Clementsian sense, but I think Denison misses the opportunity here to apply his tradeoff approach, understood as “having more of one good thing usually means having less of another” (Denison, p.44). In human agroecosystems it’s easy to import extra inputs, but this usually imposes costs of various kinds elsewhere in the total system. Are tradeoff free improvements achievable through increasing the flow of exotic inputs, or, to put it another way, is there an ‘invisible hand’ in the exotic input market? Maybe, but how often? The tradeoff if we let exotic inputs get out of hand is the speed, scale and uncertainty of anthropogenic change, not to mention its social costs, which Denison in fact alludes to and so do most of the other ecological writers I’ve already mentioned. That’s where the ideological character of the ‘flux of nature’ myth becomes troubling, because it intersects so readily with the hubristic myth of human overcoming.

Nick: Yeah, well there’s a lot of those folks living down my way. What was it God said to me just before he banished me – “By the abundance of your trading you became filled with violence within”8. Wish I could have quoted Adam Smith to him back in the day. But anyway, if you’re so down on the flux of nature metaphor, what alternatives do you propose?

Chris: I think we just need to be careful about any metaphors for nature that we use, because they never capture the entire reality that we have to deal with. I agree of course that we need agriculture, and that the ‘balance of nature’ myth isn’t always our best guide, but sometimes it is, and the ‘flux of nature’ myth can also be seriously misleading. We just have to tread a very narrow path in designing agroecosystems, and always keep in mind social goals (what kind of society is this agriculture ultimately for?) as well as just productivity goals. But sometimes I think any kind of human living involves a Faustian pact of one sort or another – we’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.

Nick: Well, that’s really made my day. Thanks, Chris – it’s been great talking to you.



1. Denison, F. (2012) Darwinian Agriculture, Princeton.

2. Grime, P. & Pierce, S. (2012) The Evolutionary Strategies That Shape Ecosystems, Oxford.

3. Hunt, E. (2002) History of Economic Thought, Armonk.

4. Callicott, J.B. (1999) ‘Do deconstructive ecology and sociobiology undermine the Leopold land ethic?’ in Callicott, J.B. Beyond The Land Ethic, Albany.

5. Jackson, S. (2006) ‘Vegetation, environment, and time: the origination and termination of ecosystems’ Journal of Vegetation Science 17: 549-55.

6. Eg. Pickett, S. and Ostfeld (1995) ‘The shifting paradigm in ecology’ in Kinght, R. and Bates, S. (eds) A New Century For Natural Resource Management, Washington DC; Perfecto, I. et al (2010) Nature’s Matrix, London.

7. Perfecto et al, op cit.

8. Ezekiel, 28: 16.

Everything Grows, Anything Goes, Everyone Blows: some thoughts on Emma Marris’s Rambunctious Garden

Well, an air of normality has returned to us here at Small Farm Future. A combination of sunny weather and endless meals of Clem’s slug stew have put those pesky molluscs on the back foot and enabled us to get some plants established at last. The money I paid for the potato planter has returned to me (though not, alas, the planter: now I know what people on ebay mean by the term ‘time waster’). And the hordes of permaculturists who were commenting on this blog a week or two ago seem to have departed to graze on other pastures. So what do we do now? Well, we go on, ploughing our lonely furrow.

My next few posts, then, are concerned as promised with the ‘balance of nature’ as applied to agriculture, which I briefly debated with Andy McGuire in response to some blog posts of his on this topic. As a preamble, I’m going to look specifically in this post at Emma Marris’s book Rambunctious Garden1, which touches directly on this issue, and which Andy cites in his posts.

I have to admit that I approached the book with some trepidation: it has an endorsement on the dust jacket from celebrity eco-panglossian Stewart Brand, and has also been enthusiastically commended by other foot soldiers from that warlike tribe. The dust jacket hails the book for its ‘optimism’ (usually a bad sign – I’ll post something soon on the important difference between ‘optimism’ and ‘hope’).  And it seems to be rapidly becoming a touchstone work by people championing policies that I find questionable. But notwithstanding all that I enjoyed reading it and found a good deal of Marris’s analysis persuasive.

That analysis, in a nutshell, is that much ecological thinking and conservation work is based on the idea of restoring natural environments to some kind of baseline state of ‘balance’ which has been upset, typically by human activities of recent origin. But this is an impossible aspiration, first of all because the evidence suggests that human activities (and ‘human’ here may even refer to pre Homo sapiens species in our genus) have always and inextricably been associated with profound transformation of the natural world, and secondly because ecosystems are never in balance anyway but are always an unstable congeries of organisms buffeted by random events and destined not to endure. In this respect, Marris reprises a venerable argument in ecology between Clements (he of the ‘climax vegetation’ and ecosystems as ‘superorganisms’ school of thought) and Gleason (of the ecosystems as random or ‘stochastic’ agglomerations of individuals school).

Well, the Gleasonians seem to have the upper hand in ecology at the moment and one merit of Marris’s book is that she spells out the implications. These are, essentially, stop moralising about pristine ‘untouched’ wilderness and embrace anthropogenic effects.  Don’t get too het up about ‘invasive species’, let anthropogenic nature take its course, enjoy the buddleia and the sycamore, the novel juxtapositions of organisms in ‘self-willed land’ (an appealing term, but a pretty problematic one for a Gleasonian…). Indeed, given the randomness of natural ecosystem assembly, you may actually find that anthropogenic ecosystems perform better than their wild predecessors, as for example on Ascension Island where the monotonous plain of ferns preceding human agency has now been replaced by a fully functioning cloud forest.

In short, everything grows in the rambunctious garden, and we should let it – we must relinquish our human notions of pristine nature and natural balance.

I think I can live with most of that. It’s probably easier for those of us hailing from what certain Americans call ‘old Europe’, where we can’t even pretend to have any significant remaining pristine wilderness, and where there’s been no recent history of explosive human colonisation. Richard Mabey’s book The Unofficial Countryside2 laid out the same basic thesis for us quite some years ago, though it’s true that even here conservationists do fuss rather about ‘native’ species.

This ‘everything grows’ thesis represents the weak narrative of Marris’s book (not ‘weak’ in the sense that it’s a bad argument, but in the sense that it’s a less radical position). But she also articulates a stronger narrative, perhaps inevitably. For once you’ve kicked away the foundations of ‘balanced’ natural ecosystems, embracing the Anthropocene  and the patch-disturbing antics of its guest star Homo sapiens, it becomes a bit difficult to know where to stop. Nature has no ultimate goal, no telos, and humanity is a part of it – therefore if nature has no balance either, then really anything goes. There are no criteria for discriminating between appropriate and inappropriate human interventions in the world, a point made by ecologist Mark Schwartz, who Marris cites (p.80) as follows,

“Without a baseline we have no target. Without a target, every kind of management, including those that result in lost native species is arguably a success. I fear such success.”

Me too, Mark, me too. It’s an onerous business, playing god, and most gods with a successful long-term track record go about it by laying down some ground rules. Call it a covenant, if you will. And here Marris misses a trick by failing to engage with the import of religious traditions that have done this – “give up romantic notions of a stable Eden” she enjoins, without apparently realising that the lack of stability and the consequent difficulty humans face in making good choices is exactly the problem articulated in the Eden story, and the problem her own ‘anything goes’ analysis bequeaths us (this very point is further examined in my paper ‘Genesis and J. Baird Callicott: the land ethic revisited’). Although Marris clearly does want humans to make good decisions on behalf of the biosphere as a whole and not go charging around like a bull in a china shop just because we can, her ‘anything goes’ logic rather pulls the rug from under her feet in finding criteria with which to make those good decisions. Nor does she have a great deal to say about farming, surely the arena in which making these decisions vis-a-vis the wider biota is paramount.

Still, even though the ‘anything goes’ position is quite challenging to those of us who advocate small-scale, local, largely mixed organic farming, it does have its up side. For of course it blows out of the water the so called ‘land sparing – land sharing’ debate, which is often used to critique relatively low yielding organic farming for its potentially greater land take. If anything goes, if ‘self-willed’  (or any-willed) land has no intrinsic inferiority to ‘pristine wilderness’, then there’s no virtue in land sparing. As Marris puts it: “More than sickly ecosystems nursed by park rangers, novel ecosystems are really wild, self-willed land with lots of evolutionary potential” (p121). She later writes: “Don’t ignore green, growing land just because it isn’t your ideal native landscape. Protect it from development, even if it is just a “trash ecosystem”. Build your cities in tight and up high, and let the scenery take over the suburbs” (p170).

Oh, hang on a minute. That last bit doesn’t sound much like a land sharing argument! And come to think of it, counterposing ‘sickly’ wilderness with ‘really wild, self-willed land’ doesn’t look like a very impressive effort at getting the anthropocentric moralising out of ecology. How did we get from ‘anything goes’ to ‘everyone blows’, an argument for cleansing the countryside of people and packing them tight in cities (whose ecological credentials, as I’ve argued here and here, are usually assumed rather than proven)? Now, I’m not given to conspiracy theories, but Marris’s ‘everyone blows’ conclusion seems to come out of nowhere, unless perhaps she’s playing a fiddle for the eco-panglossians, amongst whom the likes of Stewart Brand (he of the dust jacket endorsement) are happy to dismiss the rural peasant life of something like a third of the global population as, quite simply, ‘over’ on the basis of no significant evidence whatsoever.

Nope, give me anything goes over everyone blows. And give me everything grows over anything goes. For indeed I think that reports of the balance of nature’s death are somewhat exaggerated. I’ll say more about why in my next post – essentially that Clements versus Gleason isn’t quite the polar opposition it’s sometimes painted, and that too singular a focus on species-level dynamics is no less incomplete than too singular a focus on ecosystem-level dynamics. In fact, Marris herself frequently invokes notions of ecosystem ‘balance’, as when she argues that there’s a tradeoff between reproductive success and stress tolerance which is likely to enable native species to claw back niches from invasive exotics in the long-term.

You might reasonably ask how commonly she invokes such notions. But then I might reasonably ask for a bit more quantification of this sort in her own analysis. As a not terribly quantitatively-oriented social scientist by training, my own publications, like Marris’s, are full of phrases like ‘as many analysts have argued…’ or ‘the research tends to suggest…’, but on the rare occasions I’ve submitted papers to more technically-oriented journals I’ve generally been asked to sharpen up my act and provide a bit more quantitative precision. Take the Ascension Island example. Given that it’s pretty hard to find land anywhere on the planet quite as remote from other land masses as this speck in the South Atlantic, I don’t find the ‘stochasticity’ of its native flora and the possibilities for ‘improving it’ too surprising. But if you were to survey all the floras of the world and assess them against the same yardstick, how many of them would appear equally ‘improvable’ by human agency? Not so many, I suspect – and that’s before we even get into the debate about what ‘improvement’ really means. Much the same points can be made about exotics/invasives.

Ah well – I like people who stick their necks out and try to nail an interesting argument rather than getting too bogged down in over-cautious evidence-weighing, so long as they engage politely with other views and follow the basic rules of analysis. In that respect, I welcome Marris’s book. But its talk of ‘improvement’ does ring a few alarm bells, for the same reasons I touched on recently when I talked about the legacy of ideologies of agrarian ‘improvement’. My own writing has sometimes been accused of being ‘ideological’, which I’m fairly comfortable with since I don’t believe non-ideological writing is possible in the main. The danger of supposing that it is is in thinking that one’s superior contemporary insight can replace the error of past scientific misunderstandings – now revealed as contaminated by the political concerns of their day – with the clear-sighted truth of the present.

You don’t need to be a genius to see the trap awaiting there, especially in a book like Marris’s which places such a heavy political accent on certain ecological metaphors while seeking to overcome others. And indeed, just occasionally as I read, I fancied I saw a fugitive John Locke, that pioneering agricultural improver and proto-panglossian champion of human overcoming, disappearing amongst the written words as he whispered his excoriations of wilderness and waste into Marris’s ear. For I ask whether in the wild woods and uncultivated waste of America left to nature, without any improvement, tillage or husbandry, a thousand acres will yield the needy and wretched inhabitants as many conveniences of life as ten acres of equally fertile land do in Devonshire where they are well cultivated?3

And to cap it all, there’s that darned dust jacket quotation from Stewart Brand…



1. Marris, E. (2011) Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, Bloomsbury.

2. Mabey, R. (1973) The Unofficial Countryside, Little Toller.

3. Locke, J. (1689) Two Treatises of Government, II, 37.