Does Goldman Sachs care if you raise chickens? Some thoughts on accelerationism

“Goldman Sachs doesn’t care if you raise chickens” according to political scientist Jodi Dean, quoted by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (henceforth S&W) in their recent book, Inventing the Future1. And if that title doesn’t sufficiently telegraph S&W’s line of argument, perhaps their subtitle ‘Postcapitalism and a world without work’ will help, as will the insistent demands imperiously inscribed on the book’s cover: “Demand full automation – Demand universal basic income – Demand the future”.

In other words, it’s the kind of book that probably ought to be complete anathema to me. And in some ways it is. But actually I find myself in agreement with a good deal of what S&W have to say. It’s a serious, grownup book about the challenges now facing progressive politics – the kind of book that Leigh Phillips should have tried to write instead of penning fatuous putdowns to the green movement2. By contrast, S&W’s diagnosis for the mess we’re in seems to me spot on in many ways. But I think they lose their way when they try to provide solutions. It’s plain that they don’t know much about farming or about the history of agrarian populism. I’d like to think that if they corrected this – perhaps through a long chat with a farmer over a hard day’s shared work, like the one I recently had processing and salting down my recently-slaughtered pig (not sure what Goldman Sachs’ line is on suids) – we might find a surprising amount of overlap in our thinking.

The points at issue are important, I think, if we’re to create the kind of moral/ethical polities that Steve Gwynne raised in the comments on my recent post about commons – polities of the kind I think are necessary to achieve just and sustainable societies. So let me whizz through a few aspects of S&W’s analysis in order to lay some foundations for that project.

S&W perceptively analyse the demise of the implicit postwar capital-labour deal in the richer countries (essentially, full employment in return for political docility). What we’ve experienced more recently isn’t just more economic downturns but a fundamental reconfiguration of the labour market – the growth of an insecure ‘precariat’, the emergence of ‘jobless recoveries’ where economic upturns fail to generate new jobs, and the development globally of non-capitalist labour markets. I was pleased to note on the latter front that S&W don’t fall for the familiar ecomodernist fancy that the growth of slums is a positive sign of ascent from rural peasant misery towards urban middle-class plenty – in their view, slums represent “a dual expulsion from the land and from the formal economy” (p.96). Quite so.

These changes have complex causes, but S&W devote considerable attention to the rise of neoliberal ideology as one important factor. They point to neoliberalism’s origins among rather marginalised and unorthodox economic thinkers in Europe and the USA from the 1920s onwards, and show how the neoliberals brought their agenda into the political mainstream as a result of careful, strategic, long-term thinking which came to fruition after the global economic crises of the 1970s. Their argument is that contemporary capitalism in its neoliberal guise wasn’t an inevitable outcome of the modern political economy, which I think is true…but only inasmuch as capitalist economies have hitherto been restrained by non-capitalist considerations such as the ties of community, or nation, or ideas about economic relations as the servant to social wellbeing. Neoliberalism by contrast is the pure logic of capital, capitalism with its gloves off, albeit dressed up in many disguises about how the marketization of every sphere of life will bring wider benefits to all. So although it’s true that the neoliberal turn in the global economy wasn’t foreordained, nevertheless it was a clear developmental possibility latent within the more circumscribed capitalist economies prior to the 1980s neoliberal take-off.

S&W’s prescription for transcending neoliberal capitalism also has its strengths. Unlike Leigh Phillips, they’re not the kind of nostalgic, backward-looking socialists who still believe that the working class is uniquely placed to liberate all humanity from capitalist oppression, emphasising instead contemporary political struggles as populist struggles (which is refreshingly open-minded for writers still operating largely within traditional leftism). “Why do we devote one-third of our lives in submission to someone else?” they write of modern employment, thereby knocking on the front door of a populist critique of wage labour and concentrated property ownership. But then they turn away from it, developing what I struggle to call anything other than a technofantasy of a leisured world without work, where human Eloi are freed to pursue projects of self-realisation such as experimenting with their gender and sexual identity through new medical technologies in a world without Morlocks, whose role is performed by machines using limitless clean energy (S&W, p.2).

I won’t dwell here on why limitless clean energy and the complete automation of work seems a fantasy to me, because I’ve already written about it elsewhere. Perhaps I’ll just note in passing that S&W’s description of the technologies that are going to make human work redundant are thinly described – driverless cars are mentioned frequently, agriculture, construction and the various mechanical arts which presumably would be needed to keep the machines in order scarcely at all. More interesting to me is S&W’s conviction that nobody really wants to work, and their policy proposal for a universal basic income (UBI) so that people can live a sufficiently abundant life without actually having to.

S&W’s analysis of UBI is interesting – they make the point that it’s been seriously on the table in government policy discussions at various times and places, and that it’s affordable with a bit of judicious juggling of government finances, mostly involving increasing the tax burden on the wealthy. They also argue that the UBI would have to be set sufficiently high that it didn’t just act as an implicit subsidy to business. Personally, I’m sceptical that it would be possible to set it high enough in societies where large numbers of people wanted to avail themselves of the possibilities it provides to avoid work – with one important exception that I’ll come to soon. But then I’m also sceptical of S&W’s assumption that people actually do want to avoid work. I think what people mostly want to avoid is the subordination involved in working for someone else, and the repetitive emptiness of excessive work specialisation – dimensions of work that have been considerably augmented with the rise of the neoliberal global economy. Various writers have recently tried to recover the value of skilled practical work, of pitting yourself against the objective resistance of the natural world to human desires, whether that involves fixing a broken engine or bringing in a wheat harvest3. S&W are having none of it. In a typically overdrawn duality they say “In the end, the choice is between glorifying work and the working class or abolishing them both” (p.126). I don’t see it that way. To my mind, there are endless possibilities between glorification and abolition.

What seems to annoy S&W about reconfiguring work as craft is that it involves all the usual bugbears to their version of progressive thought, bugbears they summarise as “the small-scale, the authentic, the traditional and the natural”, a form of “folk politics” with the “guiding intuition that immediacy is always better and often more authentic, with the corollary being a deep suspicion of abstraction and mediation” (p.10). For S&W, on the other hand, “There is no authentic human essence to be realised, no harmonious unity to be returned to, no unalienated humanity obscured by false mediations, no organic wholeness to be achieved” (p.82).

Actually, I pretty much agree with that last sentence – my paper ‘Genesis and J. Baird Callicott’ drew similar inferences from the source material of the Garden of Eden story in the Book of Genesis4. And yet I still have what S&W would call ‘folk political’ tendencies in identifying with the small-scale, local and traditional. Again, I found myself agreeing with a good deal of S&W’s critique of ‘folk politics’ in contemporary leftist and anti-capitalist movements. But that was partly because their critique didn’t seem applicable to the kind of peasant agrarian populist politics I espouse. “They don’t mean me,” I thought, as they laid into folk politics for its “fetishisation of local spaces, immediate actions, transient gestures, and particularisms of all kinds” (p.3), objections that to my mind have little bearing on the particularisms of my daily practice as a farmer and the generalities of my political activism around agrarian populism. But it soon became apparent that, yes, they did mean me. Partly at issue is S&W’s criticisms of the local food movement, which I’ve already examined elsewhere and won’t further dwell on here, except to say I think their grasp of the issues is superficial and their critique naïve. But the more general problem is that S&W want to set up an opposition between ‘the immediate’ and ‘the mediated’, and to find the former wanting.

I don’t myself find this dualism terribly illuminating, and I want to try to transcend it. Let me invoke as my witness someone whose grasp of capitalism was certainly very mediated. In a famous passage in The German Ideology, Karl Marx wrote,

“In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

It interests me that three of Marx’s four examples refer to subsistence or self-provisioning activities. Anyone who seriously tries hunting, fishing or cattle-raising will find that they do in fact need to put some hours in and become ‘accomplished’ to succeed – all involve complex social relations, technologies and knowledges. They are not unmediated. But at the same time such activities do evince a kind of simplicity, and a testing of oneself against natural boundaries, that aren’t to be found in the kinds of ‘mediated’ city work or modern self-realisation that I think S&W have in mind when they refer to the mediated. And I want to hold on to that simplicity. Not because I’m baffled and frightened by the bewildering complexity of the modern world and want to retreat to some imagined simpler past as a comfort blanket – that, it’s true, is one historic manifestation of populism, understandable but unfortunate, with its tendency to blame outsiders and follow projects of historical, religious or moral purity. Let us call it Nigel Farage populism. The point I want to make is that, actually, the diversely productive self-provisioning and post-prandial philosophising imagined by Marx, mediated though it is, is a relatively simple and a relatively satisfying way to live. Is there not a danger of over-complicating the basic rhythms of human life?

Not according to S&W. In their critique, for example, of folk-political public campaigns to disinvest in dodgy banks, they say this neglects what they call “the complex abstractions of the modern banking system” (p.44). This seems an unfortunate turn of phrase when what we learned in 2008 is that, actually, the banking system is less complex and less abstract than the bankers and economists had thought, as complex fiscal abstraction ran aground on the hard reality of demands for actual purchasing power. But let me admit that I know very little about the banking system. I’m sure a knowledgeable person could convince me that it is quite complex, and that simplistic populist critiques of bankers don’t get us far. But their arguments would have to be…complex. Is it not rather simplistic to argue, as S&W do along with many defenders of the economic status quo, that populist anger with the banks is simply ‘simplistic’, without further elaboration?

There are too many of these extravagantly drawn dualisms in S&W’s thinking: “The choice facing us is…either a globalised post-capitalism or a slow fragmentation towards primitivism”5. Why? To my mind, such Procrustean oppositions do little more than buttress the dreary conservatism that so much self-avowed modern or progressive thought now inclines to: “Oh, you’re against mechanised agricultural intensification are you? Well I’d like to see you taking on a woolly mammoth with a pointy stick!”

S&W write,

“Whereas folk-political approaches lack an enticing vision of the future, struggles over modernity have always been struggles over what the future should look like: from the communist modernism of the early Soviet Union to the scientific socialism of postwar social democracy, and on to the sleek neoliberal efficiency of Thatcher and Reagan” (p.70).

OK, well let me ask you which of these visions for your future you find most enticing:

(a) living in a modest but comfortable house with a generous vegetable garden and access to meadows and pastures in the vicinity of a small friendly town with many like-minded people

(b) living in a society organised according to the principles of scientific socialism

(c) living in a society organised according to the principles of sleek neoliberal efficiency

Perhaps I’m stretching a point but S&W seem incapable of construing any political possibilities other than embracing technological acceleration, universalism (and precisely whose universalism, given that there is no human authentic human essence, no harmonious unity etc.?) and the imperative to expand and extend. They argue that only projects of this kind can lead to emancipation from capitalism, whereas folk politics is doomed to failure because it can’t reckon with the abstraction and global reach of capital. I’m inclined to propose a counter-thesis: projects of technological acceleration, post-work self-actualisation, restless self-improvement, simple universalism and anti-authentic mediation are potentially radical, liberatory and anti-capitalist but are so close to regnant capitalist ideologies of liberation from limits and self-overcoming that they will almost certainly be swallowed up by the existing order they set out to challenge – as indeed has mostly been the case with avant garde movements in modernism. Agrarian populist projects of self-provisioning, far from being what S&W call “freedom at the expense of abundance, represented by primitivist dystopias” (p.109) offer enticing visions of abundance, which are neither primitivist nor nearly as dystopian as the Eloi-vision of S&W. We do not have to choose between either Antonio Sant’Elia or John Zerzan.

But an agrarian populist vision for the future undoubtedly faces several difficulties. One of them is how to mediate (that ‘m’ word again) the focus on localism with the need to generalise it politically – the issue that Steve Gwynne and I were touching on in our discussion around the notion of the commons. I like S&W’s distinction between folk-politics and populism inasmuch as the latter seeks to build a common language and project – precisely what I hope I can contribute to in my own political writing and activism in groups like La Via Campesina. I also like their ideas about a universal basic income in this respect. Imagine a UBI programme fostered by a government that supported localism and small-scale farming – the budget might not stretch to what today would seem a very generous allowance, but in a context where a large number of people were producing a large number of their needs for themselves, it may not have to. For that to happen, though, a thorough reform of landownership would be required – an issue that, surprisingly, S&W don’t mention at all.

In summary, does Goldman Sachs care if you raise chickens? No, of course it doesn’t if you raise chickens, just as it doesn’t care if you withdraw your labour as an individual miner or farm labourer by way of political protest. But if we raise chickens as part of a political movement, then I think it’ll start to care, just as it or at least the political and economic establishment care when trade unions are able to use the power of labour as a collective political weapon. S&W teach us that new political projects take time to build, and that they have to be strategic. I have little interest in their own particular political project, but I take heart from their analysis that – possible political or ecological meltdowns notwithstanding – it may be feasible to build in time a strong global agrarian populist movement that changes the face of contemporary politics.

References

  1. Srnicek, N. & Williams, A. (2015). Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. London: Verso.
  1. Phillips, L. (2015). Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-Porn Addicts. Winchester: Zero.
  1. Eg. Sennett, R. (2008). The Craftsman, London: Penguin; Crawford, M. (2009). The Case For Working With Your Hands, London: Penguin.
  1. Smaje, C. (2008). ‘Genesis and J. Baird Callicott: the land ethic revisited’ Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 2, 2: 183-198.
  1. http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/05/14/accelerate-manifesto-for-an-accelerationist-politics/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sidney Mintz, 1922-2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Voting with their feet: some questions for the experts

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

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

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

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

Urban-rural residence

 

 

 

Now to the questions…

 

Question 1: How many foot-voters are there?

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

 

Question 2: Where do the foot-voters go?

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

 

Question 3: How do the foot-voters fare?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Notes

  1. http://dark-mountain.net/blog/dark-thoughts-on-ecomodernism-2/; http://www.resilience.org/stories/2015-09-10/ecomodernism-a-response-to-my-critics
  1. http://databank.worldbank.org/data/reports.aspx?source=world-development-indicators#
  1. Begum, S. and Sen, B. (2005) ‘Pulling rickshaws in the city of Dhaka: a way out of poverty?’Environment and Urbanization, 17, 2: 11-25.
  1. Krishna, A. (2013) ‘Stuck in place: investigating social mobility in 14 Bangalore slums’ The Journal of Development Studies, 49, 7: 1010-28.
  1. China, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and South Africa. See http://databank.worldbank.org/data/reports.aspx?source=world-development-indicators#

 

Promethean porn and Malthusian mistakes: a letter to Leigh Phillips

Dear Leigh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours

Mr Puck

References

  1. See http://dark-mountain.net/blog/dark-thoughts-on-ecomodernism-2/; http://www.resilience.org/stories/2015-09-10/ecomodernism-a-response-to-my-critics; http://www.resilience.org/stories/2015-10-09/the-persistence-of-the-peasantry-further-notes-on-the-inverse-productivity-relationship
  1. https://d3gxp3iknbs7bs.cloudfront.net/attachments/902b86b5-eb72-4f97-9a72-ea4f758be1aa.pdf
  1. See also Pascal Bruckner (2013) The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse, Polity, for another fanatically anti-fanatical work encompassing compost toilets and much other crap besides.
  1. See Denison F. (2012) Darwinian Agriculture, Princeton.
  1. Harvey, D. (2010) The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, Profile, pp.73-6.
  1. See, for example, Heller, H. (2011) The Birth of Capitalism, Pluto.
  1. Arrighi, G. (2009) Adam Smith in Beijing, Verso.

The persistence of the peasantry: further notes on the inverse productivity relationship

Look, I’m really, really sorry. I said I wasn’t going to write another blog post about ecomodernism but – no, no, please don’t go! This post strikes to the heart of what Small Farm Future is all about, and raises some interesting agricultural issues – the fact that it also engages with the ecomodernism debate is almost incidental, really. And I promise some other stuff next up. Just bear with me one last time.

So first a brief summary of my ecomodernism wars to date: the ‘ecomodernists’ brought out their Manifesto in April; I wrote a critique of it that was published on the Dark Mountain website in July; Mike Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute wrote a critique of my critique on Twitter, to which I responded with a follow up essay; to Mike’s hot denial, I described ‘ecomodernism’ as ‘neoliberalism with a green veneer’; Mike came to Britain to help Mark Lynas launch ecomodernism over here, but somehow the veneer slipped off on its journey across the Atlantic, and the two of them found themselves sharing a platform with those well-known environmentalists Owen Paterson and Matt Ridley, much to Mark Lynas’s later regret. Meanwhile, George Monbiot wrote a critical article in The Guardian about ecomodernism, to which Ted Nordhaus, Mike Shellenberger and Linus Blomqvist wrote a critical response. And Mark Lynas exchanged a couple of remarkably polite comments with me. Few dead yet.

But let us now home in on the issues raised by George Monbiot in his Guardian article with which Nordhaus et al (henceforth NSB) take issue, concerning small farm productivity and agrarian development. Monbiot made three main points:

  1. The ecomodernists claim that small-scale farming in poor countries is unproductive, but while its labour productivity is low its productivity per unit area is often higher than larger scale farming
  2. The ecomodernists favour engrossment of small farms and the redeployment of their labour into urban industrial employments, but where those employments are scarce the result is insecurity and underemployment. The advantage of low labour productivity is that where work is scarce and people are many, it can help distribute available income more equitably.
  3. The emerging dominance of Asian economies such as China was achieved by first building up a strong, surplus-producing peasant economy, not by destroying that economy in favour of top-down industrialisation.

The counter-critique by NSB focused largely on point 1, touched a little on point 2, and ignored point 3 altogether. I’ll come back to this. For now, let me quote their counter-critique directly, albeit with some elisions:

“…the relevant comparison is not between small farms and slightly larger ones in poor countries. It is between smallholder farms in developing nations and farms of any size in developed nations….

Yield gaps between farmers in rich nations and those in poor countries are profound. US farmers harvest five times more per hectare than African farmers in maize and more than three times in rice.

….In poor nations, the lack of access to alternative livelihoods for large rural populations is the reason that labor is cheap and relatively high yields can be achieved on very small farms….But any nature and land-sparing vision predicated on this model of agriculture would require maintaining large rural populations throughout the developing world in a state of deep agrarian poverty, with no alternative livelihoods to speak of….This seems to us to be neither a particularly plausible way to reduce human impacts on the environment nor an acceptable future for the billion people today living on less than a dollar a day.”

It’s worth noting in passing the rhetorical sleight of hand in that last sentence, with its implication that everyone living on <$1/day is a small farmer. In fact, a quarter of a billion of them are urban dwellers1, urban hunger is growing along with growing urbanisation2, and research suggests that the $1/day metric underestimates poverty in urban areas where living costs are higher3. But let’s put that down to honest error and move on to the weightier issues raised by NSB’s contention that comparing farm productivities within poor countries is less relevant than comparing them between rich and poor countries.

Now, why is that? Suppose I’m a policymaker in a central African country where more than half the population are small farmers, most of them very poor. Urbanism and industry are weakly developed, most of the country’s foreign exchange coming from mineral exports, cash crops like sugarcane and perhaps a bit of tourism. If I were of a statistically mischievous bent, I might ruefully admit to a visiting American dignitary that my country’s maize productivity was indeed woeful compared to hers and propose to restructure maize production along US lines, with much larger, more mechanized farms. Then I might add that US wheat yields per hectare are lower than China’s, where farm sizes average less than a hectare, and enquire whether she’s planning to subdivide US wheat farms accordingly. Oh, the fun you can have with statistics…

But seriously, why would I care what yields US farmers are achieving compared with those in my country, let alone to those in ‘Africa’? I can only think of two reasons. The first is if it were feasible to transfer the US technology so that my country could achieve similar yields. It isn’t. Soils, climate and hydrology are all different, and so are the possibilities for building the various infrastructures that permit a high input, high output, export-oriented grain agriculture. The very study that NSB cite as evidence for higher yield gaps in poor countries states that closing yield gaps using conventional farming techniques involves ecological trade-offs, which seems contrary to their position. It also involves economic trade-offs, which I’ll examine in a moment.

The second reason involves comparative advantage in the international division of labour. If the USA is better at producing maize and rice, then why not let it get on with that and provide staple grains to feed the world, while my country focuses on its own best economic suit, which wouldn’t be ‘subsistence’ production of grains. But there are multiple problems with this view. For one thing, as I’ve shown elsewhere, on the supply side the world is becoming increasingly reliant on the ecologically precarious semi-arid continental grasslands, such as the US’s breadbasket regions – putting more of our eggs globally into that basket doesn’t seem a good idea.

But, more importantly, the ecomodernists’ strictures against peasant farming as an impediment to economic development gets its causality back-to-front. It’s because of the lack of economic development that poor, small-scale farmers have to rely purely on ‘subsistence’ production. In some cases, the turn to peasant farming arose historically in the context of European colonialism, which broke precolonial states, extracted surpluses for its own economic purposes, and left a long-term legacy of peasantisation and ‘underdevelopment’4. More generally, economic potential is never uniformly distributed, a point the ecomodernists don’t seem to understand. True, it’s not a zero-sum game – it’s possible for every region to ‘develop’ simultaneously. But development is always uneven, always involves core regions and peripheral regions where the strength of the core is predicated on the weakness of the periphery. Typically, peasant farming is a strategy of the periphery, which emerges from those unequal economic relations. This leads to another important point: peasant or ‘subsistence’ farmers rarely produce their livelihoods independently of broader global economic relationships. Indeed, their households typically number people working as local wage labourers or migrant labourers nationally or internationally. In this sense, they provide a subsidy to the more ‘developed’ poles of the global economy. Take a moment-in-time snapshot of the world, and you see wealthy, urban, industrial, ‘developed’ economies set against impoverished, rural, peasant, ‘backward’ economies. Film it as a movie over decades, centuries, millennia, and these ‘developed’ and ‘backward’ economies are revealed as two sides of the same coin, with the impoverishment of the countryside/periphery typically a consequence of urban/core wealth.

Let us return to the choices facing our African policymaker. What do the ecomodernists suggest I do? Enact policies inimical to the interests of small-scale farmers (who, recall, form the majority of my population)? Note that urbanism is associated with wealth, and so promote urbanisation in the belief that it will enrich my population? Again, I’d be getting the direction of causality wrong. What would I do – set up a manufacturing industry to rival China, financial services to rival the UK, an aerospace programme to rival the US? Am I going to borrow money internationally to pump-prime this industrial take-off? That’s been tried before in my region, and it didn’t turn out well. Indeed, the region’s poverty-wracked peasants are the ones now paying the price for that mistake. Perhaps the ecomodernists are suggesting that small farms are better engrossed into corporately-controlled agribusiness enterprises with the erstwhile farmers re-employed as wage labourers? Indeed, the spectre of such ‘land grabbing’ haunts NSB’s text, and the ecomodernists’ writings on agriculture generally. But as Lorenzo Cotula has shown, though not entirely without benefits, corporate consolidation typically exacerbates local inequalities, substitutes local food production with provision of biofuels and other products furnishing non-local, non-food demands, and promotes migration from rural areas into insecure urban underemployment5.

Actually, I don’t think the ecomodernists really are suggesting these things. They’re not development specialists, and they don’t have much of a line on how to improve the lot of extant peasantries. Instead, they’re development theorists of a rather general kind. Their analysis is based on the questionable but vaguely plausible thesis that the modern world achieved net economic benefits through urban and industrial development that got people out of small-scale farming. In the case of the rise of ‘the west’ this was achieved through an immense amount of pain and dislocation, and in particular by transforming dependent European peasantries into independent farmers through mass migration to America and other parts of the world. The ecomodernists want to replicate this time-honoured development path in order to improve the lot of peasantries today, but of course there are no longer any Americas for today’s peasants to go to (or, to put it more strongly, the rise of the west occurred through uneven development enforced by the creation of colonial dependency, but colonialism isn’t or shouldn’t be an option today). In place of America the ecomodernists posit technological improvement, decoupling, narrowing yield gaps, GM crops, nuclear power and all the rest of it. As a strategy for tackling the twin aims of environmental sustainability and social justice I think it’s a long shot – on the first point because I’m doubtful that the favoured technologies will be able to achieve the necessary decoupling, and on the second because, as I’ve already mentioned, in an economic order where development depends upon underdevelopment, it’s difficult to achieve an acceptable universal development.

If not ecomodernism for delivering sustainability and social justice, then what? Well, NSB argue that labour is cheap in poor nations because of the lack of alternatives to agriculture, but it seems to me more plausible to say it’s because of these countries’ peripheral position vis-à-vis global economic cores, in which lack of access to livelihoods other than peasant farming is a symptom rather than a cause. After all, urban and/or industrial labour in these countries is also typified by its relative poverty and labour-intensity relative to the core. So given the improbability of turning themselves into economic cores any time soon, it’s not clear to me why NSB consider labour-intensive non-agricultural work so intrinsically preferable to labour-intensive agricultural work in these places. If I were that African policymaker, in a country where more than half of the people are small farmers, and with a weak urban-industrial orientation to the economic core, I’d be inclined to focus upon rural development and building my domestic market in agricultural products and rural industry. As Monbiot pointed out, this is how China and other Asian countries began the rise that’s now beginning to wrest global economic power from west back to east. It’s an absolutely critical point, and NSB’s neglect of it is a major weakness in their analysis. I’ll say more in a future post on the debates over ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ development paths and the implications of an Asian ‘industrious revolution’. But it seems to me that NSB and the ecomodernists have a rather unilinear view of economic development. The ‘western’ path they want to replicate was only one such route, and one not best suited to delivering the demands of sustainability and social justice in the contemporary world.

But let’s conclude by coming back to the inverse productivity relationship. It’s widely assumed by most parties to the debate that higher small-farm productivities arise from relatively greater per hectare labour inputs on small farms. Positions in the debate then turn on how to interpret the wider implications of that labour intensity. It seems to me that labour intensity is key, but as I’ve argued elsewhere it’s not the only issue. One study, for example, found smaller land parcels had higher per hectare productivity than larger ones cropped by the same households, which may be suggestive of agronomic rather than just economic causalities6. Such agronomic factors – things like intercropping, alley cropping, and non-linear returns to labour intensity spring to mind – haven’t been well investigated. Some of them may be scalable, others perhaps not. Perhaps the model we should hold in mind here is how we tend our gardens compared with how we tend our fields. There are many things the gardener can do to boost productivity, not all of them just scaled to labour input, that aren’t really feasible for the farmer. To increase field-scale productivity, the farmer has to place more reliance on agri-industrial technical innovation than on the homespun subtleties of the gardener’s art. So perhaps if we really want to emphasise land-sparing productivity we should aim to shift the balance from agriculture towards horticulture. Why isn’t that on the ecomodernists’ agenda?

How best to farm has always presented people with difficult and sometimes conflicting problems, and the potential trade-offs are only getting harder with today’s focus on equity, greenhouse gas reduction and biodiversity preservation alongside more traditional issues of land and labour productivity. I’d argue these complex problems aren’t usefully simplified into a binary choice of farming styles, as in NSB’s approach: either high-tech, high labour productivity farming, or low-tech, low labour productivity farming. An economist might produce a series of marginal labour productivity plots whose optimal solution would be quite different depending on how other inputs and outputs were priced – particularly outputs that currently have no price but really ought to, such as greenhouse gas production, nitrate pollution and the like. In Cotula’s words, “there is no one-size-fits-all model of agriculture that works best everywhere and at all times”7.

Indeed. No doubt once we’ve sorted out as best we can the agronomy of sustainable food production, the politics of equitable wealth distribution and the ecology of habitat preservation we could call in the economists with their marginal productivity plots to help us determine these issues of agricultural scale from place to place. The trouble is, there’s an occupational hazard in the dismal science: falling prey to the fairytale paradigms of neoclassical or neoliberal economics which claim to do the politics for us, and perhaps even the agronomy and the ecology too. Here, concepts such as Pareto optimality and the efficiency of gross product maximization create the mythical beast of the ‘perfect market’ which becomes ‘distorted’ by policies favouring farming styles that ‘the market’ would not (and, according to the paradigm, should not) select. This blog post by Jayson Lusk nicely illustrates the kind of tendentious reasoning that results, in which the jargon used to justify an apparently value-neutral technical estimation of farm scale doesn’t quite succeed in concealing the partisanship of the approach and the implicit political agenda in which gross financial product figures as the bottom line that matters most. It’s true, I think, that we advocates of small-scale farming can get a little too excited about the inverse productivity relationship, but I can’t help enjoying the spectacle in posts like Lusk’s of the neoclassical economists squirming as they try to reconcile real world circumstances with their paradigm. How many more times does it need stating that the model of reality doesn’t establish the reality of the model?

I see a parallel between the choices open to our African policymaker and rural policymakers here in Britain. Here too, although the economic cushion is much larger, farmers struggle to get by on the agrarian products of their farms alone and we’re enjoined to diversify into B&Bs, pheasant shoots, industrial lettings and the like. But not all UK farmers are well placed to diversify in these ways, just as not all peasants in poor countries are well placed to become ‘smallholder farmers’ earning hard money through cash cropping in a buoyant local or wider economy. Instead of just accepting today’s penurious global food prices and the concentration of landownership as economic facts of life, I believe the time is right for a thorough rethink of how we allocate rights to food and land globally.

There are no simple solutions, and NSB are right to pose the creation of a prosperous and sustainable agrarian economy as a problem. But their counterpoint of a prosperous and sustainable industrial economy is no more convincing, and it elides the problem of uneven development which constitutes one major reason why peasantries are still with us despite an imminent demise that’s been heralded by ‘modernisers’ of various persuasions for well over two centuries. The ‘western’ path to economic development has enriched many, but it’s impoverished many too in a non-random geographic pattern. It’s also led to ecological meltdown. So while almost everyone would no doubt agree that ‘development’ and ‘wealth creation’ are good things, I think we need a more subtle conversation than the ecomodernists seem prepared to entertain about what ‘development’ and ‘wealth’ might mean in the future. Whether we like it or not, for those of us in the overdeveloped west a future ‘development’ path may involve less wealth. Less wealth doesn’t necessarily have to mean less wellbeing – indeed, the contrary can be the case. But only if we go back to the agrarian economy and rethink it from the ground up.

References

1. http://foreignpolicy.com/2012/08/13/in-praise-of-slums/

2. https://www.wfp.org/hunger/who-are

3. http://www.ucl.ac.uk/dpu-projects/drivers_urb_change/urb_society/pdf_liveli_vulnera/IIED_Mitlin_David_urban_poverty_under_estimated.pdf

4. Araghi, F. (2009). ‘The invisible hand and the visible foot: peasants, dispossession & globalization’ in Akram-Lodhi, A. & Kay, C. (Eds ) Peasants and Globalization, Routledge.

5. Cotula, L. (2013). The Great African Land Grab? Agricultural Investments and the Global Food System, Zed.

6. Assunção, J. & Braido, L. (2007). ‘Testing household-specific explanations for the inverse productivity relationship’ American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 89, 4: 880-90.

7. op cit. p.73-4.

 

 

 

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?

 

Eco-Optimism, Eco-Pessimism, Eco-Modernism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

1. An Ecomodernist Manifesto p.8.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Of agricultural productivity: or, lies, damned lies…

…and a brief rumination on statistics.

First up, this recent post by Elizabeth Royte about city agriculture, claiming that 20% of the world’s food is grown in urban farms. Cue appropriately incredulous responses from commenters below the post questioning the figure. Think about it. Roughly half the world’s people live in towns, so assuming urban agriculture feeds only urban people, the suggestion is that around 40% of the food eaten in towns is grown in them. Hmmm.

In response to the doubters, Royte refers to this report from the Worldwatch Institute, whence the figure derives. The report states “Roughly 15–20 percent of the world’s food is grown in urban areas” without further elaboration or citation. So not much traction there. Put it this way – about 33% of global land area reputedly is devoted to agriculture, while the splendidly named GRUMP project reports that towns account for 3% of global land take. Let’s suppose that a generous 15-20% of those urban areas is devoted to urban agriculture (where do I get that figure from? Well, that’s for you to ask and me to know), that would imply urban agriculture is around 14 times more productive per acre than rural – which to be honest may just about sneak within the bounds of the not-totally-incredible, bearing in mind the different agricultural styles and scales involved. Not totally incredible, but not very likely – especially since my 15-20% urban agricultural land figure is surely an overestimate. And I doubt much urban agriculture is devoted to the meat-grain nexus which supplies much of the global, and certainly urban, plate.

Maybe the Worldwatch figure refers to proportion of production by value – all those fancy micro-salads and strawberries grown in vertical farms and the like. Still sounds like an overestimate to me, though. Or maybe the definition of ‘urban’ – which in many global datasets encompasses settlements of only 10,000 souls – includes peri-urban areas of small towns where undoubtedly a lot of global agriculture does take place. Or, as someone pointed out in response to Royte’s article, which referred to a figure of 800 million people globally involved in urban agriculture, perhaps it was assumed that all of these people produced all of the food they needed.

Another commenter wrote “I don’t care about the numbers being correct I’m just glad to see a movement towards nature”, and I’ll happily drink to that. There are endless reasons beyond mere productivity why supporting urban agriculture makes sense. The only rider I’d add is that there are plenty of people around who are eager to beat the drum for urbanism in general, like him, and him, and them, because of ideological prejudice political opposition to rural life and peasant production. Presently these types have to content themselves with arguments about the misery of peasant existence and the environmental negatives of rural life (often tendentiously imputing the ecological costs of agriculture practiced in rural areas to rural people alone), but how much better it would be for them if cities could escape their moorings in the messy, quasi-natural ecosystems of the countryside and float off into a Futurist realm of pure self-sustaining urban humanism. And so I say unto you, beware that 20% figure as it begins its inexorable creep upwards in the burgeoning fantasy of human overcoming.

Talking of dodgy statistics, another one recently placed under the spotlight in an interesting article by my LWA colleague Ed Hamer1 is the oft-repeated figure that globally we need to produce 70% more food by 2050. As Ed points out, since global population is predicted to increase only by about 30% by that date it’s not immediately obvious why so much more food is needed. More meat for the masses perhaps? In any case, the figure seems to suit the position of the ‘new productivists’ who argue that we need a big biotechnological push in order to meet future needs, though equally one could argue that in order to provide 70% more food by 2050 we need a big political push to get more people into small-scale agriculture and support peasant farming. I wonder why that argument doesn’t get so much airplay? But, more importantly, according to Ed it turns out that the 70% figure comes from a modelling exercise concerning how much more food is likely to be produced by 2050, an exercise involving various unrealistic assumptions to boot. In other words, the figure involves a methodological error graver still than the classic social science fallacy of turning an is into an ought – turning a may be into a must.

Oh well, facts never really prove much anyway, still less factoids, and fictoids like the 70% figure least of all. So I plan to carry on farming my own humble plot as best I can – a peri-urban semi-peasant producing for myself and for others, more than what my land provided before I took it over, less than what it could perhaps provide if it were all ploughed up for cereals, but probably a better mix of stuff overall. Live those contradictions…

References

1. Hamer, E. 2014/15. Feeding the nine billion. The Land, 17: 31-3.

Eco-panglossia: interim conclusions

My last few posts have mostly been grappling with that school of environmental thought that styles itself ‘eco-pragmatism’, that others dub ‘techno-fixing’ or ‘hair of the dog environmentalism’ (William Ophuls), and which I prefer to call eco-panglossianism, particularly when it’s chained to a kind of Spencerian doctrine of social evolution through technological progress.

I was going to put up a few more posts on the topic, but frankly I’ve become bored with it. I think I’ve pretty much said what I want to say about the eco-panglossians in my recent and not-so-recent posts, and now I want to move on to issues that seem to me more important than the cheerleading for nuclear power, GM crops, urbanisation etc. at the heart of the eco-panglossian project.

I suppose if it were possible to have a productive and civil debate with the eco-panglossians it would be more tempting to stay engaged, but I’ve learned from my dealings with the likes of Graham Strouts and Mary Mangan that this isn’t possible. They think that folks like me trying to articulate a left-green agrarian populism are misguided purveyors of contorted reasoning in service of an ideological agenda that lacks empathy with the plight of the poor. I think exactly the same of them, and there seems to be insufficient common ground for any worthwhile engagement. I’d find it easier to accept their self-avowed empathy for the poor if instead of writing posts glibly imputing urbanisation to the self-improving voluntarism of the rural poor, or on how GM crops enable peasant kids to go to school rather than doing the weeding, they would look just for once at things like international commodity trading and its effect on rural poverty or the nature of rural rent. But there you have it – as I’ve written before a basic point of difference between us is that they think the contemporary poor are poor mostly because they have too little technological capitalism in their lives, whereas I think it’s mostly because they have too much. Never the twain shall meet.

One thing that does give me pause about my own agrarian populist agenda is a doubt as to whether it’s truly possible to create sufficiently healthy, wealthy and happy lives for an acceptable proportion of humanity globally from small-scale, locally-oriented farming. It seems to me pretty clear that the existing industrial world system won’t be able to do so, despite the rosy Silicon Valley market utopianism of the eco-panglossians. And likewise with the pro-poor GM crops narrative, which I posted on recently. We seem condemned to repeat all the mistakes of the green revolution. What’s the betting that in 30 years’ time somebody will write a book called something like Two Billion Hungry: Can We Feed The World which will argue that modern biotech has amazing potential but has delivered less than it promised in alleviating hunger because of sociological, political and agronomic mistakes in its implementation, and will call for a novel redeployment of biotech solutions – a doubly green revolution – to tackle the resulting failures? Repeat feedback loop ad infinitum. You read it here first.

Still, the fact that the existing food system is clearly not fit for purpose doesn’t necessarily mean that a relocalised, repeasantised one will do the job any better. My recent reading, research and writing has been focused upon, firstly, the prospects for annual and perennial grain crops on the semi-arid continental grasslands, and, secondly, urbanisation and industrialisation in China. Tangential as those topics may seem to the matter at hand, I hope that once I’ve finished my next cycles of posts on them I’ll be able to make a stronger fist of tackling the prospects for an agrarian populism of the future.

In the meantime, I’m not too sorry to be letting go of the eco-panglossians and their Victorian worldview. I’d been planning to write something more on the stubbornly inequitable distribution of global resources despite the eco-panglossians’ ‘rising tide floats all boats’ rhetoric, and something on their rather one-dimensional take on the issue of ‘progress’ (though, to be fair, it’s one that’s widely shared in contemporary western thought). Likewise with the question of ‘optimism’. These ideological dimensions of eco-panglossianism and their place in the wider history of ideas do still interest me. But I’ve probably already said enough about them here on this blog and in my other output (such as ‘Farming past, farming future’) that I should stop belabouring these issues. In any case, once again it’ll be easier to come back to them after I’ve finished the next cycle of posts.

So, I’m going to be away for a week at a conference followed by a bit of down time before the maelstrom of the growing season hits. If you’ve commented on my site before, you have one week to say what you like below before I have a chance to reply. If you haven’t, then please feel free to do so – but forgive me that your comments won’t appear for a week until I can moderate them.

Next up – most likely a post on the inverse size-productivity relationship, and then we’re into the issue of annuals and perennials, starting with a post on Clem’s 100 species challenge. Hope to see you here in March.