Of solutionism and anti-solutionism: interim thoughts on Wessex and Londinium

OK, so I said in my last post that I was done with crunching the numbers for my imaginary future republics of Wessex and Londinium. I lied to you. The discussion with Joe Clarkson under that post has prompted me to look at one last scenario. Suppose we followed his idea for a nationwide ‘transitional agrarian repopulation effort’, how might that look? So I took all the agricultural land in the UK (excepting rough grazing) and modelled an organic peasant-style allotment agriculture with conservative yield assumptions and low meat/dairy production in order to see what kind of population could be supported. In this post I’m going to report on that analysis, and then make a few interim comments about where I think this exercise has reached as a prelude to the next phase of the fantasy.

So first the agrarian repopulation effort. Here, I’ve taken an imaginary hectare of farmland and divided it up into 69% cropland, 6% garden and 25% orchard. The cropland is divided up into the following rotation: ley (29%), vegetables (29%), potatoes (14%), wheat (14%), beans (14%), excluding a bit set aside for fibre crops (hemp and flax). Total productivity is modelled according to the same assumptions I used for my Wessex neo-peasants. Dairy cows are grazed on the ley and half the orchard (this area in my imaginary hectare can support about a quarter of a cow). The other half of the orchard can accommodate a house and other non-productive land. There are also three laying hens on the hectare, who get by on scraps. So I’m assuming no meat or fish as such (though in reality there’d be some cull meat). But there are about 5 million hectares of rough grazing in the UK, so I’m assuming that we can raise sheep on this to the tune of just over 50kg of sheep meat per hectare per year.

On the basis of this near-vegetarian diet, I calculate that a hectare of farmland can support just over six people, and a hectare of rough grazing can support about 0.2 people. If you total that up across the UK’s 12 million+ hectares of farmland and 5 million hectares of rough grazing, it turns out the country can support about 77 million people – about 3 million more than the ONS projects the UK population at in 2039. I suppose I’m leaving quite a bit out of that equation in terms of subsistence necessities. Then again, my productivity assumptions are low. Overall, it looks to me as though Britain could just about feed its projected 2039 population using organic methods on small-scale holdings. Perhaps the equation is a bit too close for comfort, but if the present government’s actions are as loud as its words on restricting immigration only to those who bring truly value-adding skills, then maybe we’ll be looking at a population rather less than 77 million circa 2039. And if the skilled migrants it seeks are ones who know how to grow a productive organic garden, as perhaps they should be, then there’s a chance that yields will be a lot higher than I’m allowing for here. The feeling around this exercise isn’t quite the easy pastoral abundance I found for the Wessex neo-peasants, but it seems to me still a way away from Malthusian crisis.

Anyway that, I think, really does bring the curtain down on the agrarian productivity part of my ‘neo-peasant’ analysis. I’ve shown to my satisfaction, if to no one else’s, that it may be possible to feed an enlarged future UK population from small-scale farms using organic methods. Whether anything resembling that will actually happen depends in part on various largely physical parameters like climate and resource dynamics, and in part on social, political and economic parameters. There are others better able than me to analyse the physical parameters. Doubtless there are others better able than me to analyse the social ones too, but frankly not many of them are actually doing it and as a sometime social scientist I feel the need to weigh in on those latter issues. So what I plan to do is start a second cycle of ‘Wessex and Londinium’ posts in which I look at how and whether neo-peasant successor polities may emerge from the existing political economy. But before doing that I’m planning to take a short break with some posts on a few other things – hopefully they’ll all build in the same general direction.

As a bridge between Wessex & Londinium Parts I and II, in the remainder of this post I thought I’d reflect on a few issues that commenters have raised in recent posts which anticipate some of the themes of Part II. I don’t especially want to single anyone out or reopen any recent disputes, though perhaps that’s inevitable. So let me just offer my gratitude once again to everyone who takes the trouble to respond to my ramblings and press on with some thoughts on three general themes.

First, something on solutionism/anti-solutionism or optimism/pessimism. In the early days of this blog I got involved in a fair bit of wrangling with the ‘ecomodernists’ and others of a similar persuasion. To my mind, ecomodernism is a techno-centric and techno-determinist movement which at its core involves little more than an enthusiasm for nuclear power and GM crops. It dodges serious economic or social analysis in favour of superficial cheerleading for urban slums over rural smallholdings and a strange conviction that poverty stems fundamentally from an absence of modernity rather than being intrinsic to it. Many of its leading lights are based in California, and the movement indeed seems grounded in a certain kind of Californian sensibility – perhaps somewhere between Silicon Valley and Hollywood – with its sense that the world can easily be made and remade through a utopian, libertarian, technological capitalism. For the ecomodernists, the world presents itself predominantly as a set of technical challenges – how to feed the world, how to power it, and so forth. The mood is optimism, the modus operandi is solutionism. There’s no place in its vision for trade-offs, contradictions, competing interests, vicious circles or ‘wicked problems’ comprising a series of intractable and self-reinforcing dynamics.

To me, it’s an unconvincing vision. So I prefer to keep company with assorted anti-solutionists, declinists, downsizers and peasant populists – all those, in other words, who are typically dismissed for their pessimism. But – and here’s my point – I find neither the optimist or pessimist sides of this particular couplet especially illuminating. I see no virtue in optimism for the sake of optimism, just because it’s widely held to be the sacred duty of the individual in capitalist societies, however obviously threatened and moribund. On the other hand, an utter pessimism can be disabling, and not a little boring. There is, after all, no proposal for bettering the human condition that can’t readily be dismissed for its implausible sanguineness. But that route terminates in what I’m tempted to call the Private Fraser gambit, from the old comedy show Dad’s Army, in which the eponymous character would say with dark glee at every turn of events or possible remedy, “We’re doomed. Doomed!”

I’m not sure if the future will vindicate the Pollyannas or the Private Frasers. More likely the latter, I suspect. But the way I want to write about the future is to acknowledge that we face wicked problems and wicked trade-offs which are basically insoluble, and then focus on ways of trying to manage the wickedness sub-critically. This issue arose in one of my recent posts in the form of a debate about photovoltaic panels and electricity grids. Let me note first that I’m not intending to label anyone in that debate as a Pollyanna or a Private Fraser, a solutionist or an anti-solutionist. I’m raising it more to try to define my own position…which I think is this: The solutionist tends to see current possible energy transitions from (bad) fossil fuels to (good) renewables in terms of salvation and amelioration (hence the curious overlaps between ecomodernism and religious thinking). The anti-solutionist dismisses them as delusional techno-fantasies predicated on the very industrial modalities that will be erased by the multiple crises of contemporary civilisation. The sub-critical wicked problem manager instead might borrow from Mark Twain’s advice on land purchase: “invest in photovoltaics – they may not be making any more of it”. There are no solutions, but there are options now before us, and we have to decide which ones to take. Subsumed in such decisions are a host of practical questions, in this instance concerning the most realistic methods and modalities of energy generation under future constraints. Impossible to know, of course – but what I most want to see are concrete scenarios along these lines rather than generic professions of optimism/solutionism or pessimism/anti-solutionism. So there’s a job vacancy for an industrial ecologist in the Small Farm Future office. Meanwhile, Simon’s recent comment  helps ground the PV debate of that post in a more specific set of questions around off-grid energy, so thanks for that – I’m interested to hear what others think.

Second theme: a long set of discussions recently on this blog about the mechanisms by which the relative equity in land entitlements necessary for a sustainable, locality-based, neo-peasant or neo-agrarian society could be achieved – Georgist land value taxation, or what perhaps I could call Ramsayist local sovereignty and so on. All very interesting, and certainly a discussion I’d like to keep pursuing here. But I haven’t yet been persuaded that Georgism or Ramsayism are means towards a neo-peasant society rather than mechanisms for sustaining one. To press a metaphor, once you’ve decided to level the playing field there are numerous ways you can do it, some better than others – but first you have to decide to level the playing field. And it seems to me that the only way this will be decided is the only way that endogenous social change ever happens – when self-identifying groups of people create political alliances that ideologically promote certain kinds of self-interest as general interest, against the interests of other groups. Or, to put it another way, through class consciousness and class conflict. Perhaps that all sounds a bit outmodedly Marxist, though in truth most sociologists – by no means only Marxist ones – emphasise the importance of class and collective identification. Put simply, I don’t think Georgist or Ramsayist laws will get onto the statute book without becoming a successfully-realised class project of one sort or another. And what I want to focus my thoughts on most specifically in Wessex and Londinium Part II is what sort of class project that might be – in other words, what the social and political conditions of possibility are for a (Georgist? Ramsayist?) neo-peasant society.

Third theme: an interesting little debate between Clem and Paul over the immigration status of soy in the future Peasant’s Republic of Wessex. I can’t claim to speak for Paul, and I daresay I lack his level of hostility towards soy, but if I understand him rightly his argument is that a neo-peasant society requires a local food culture with a rich tissue of historical knowledge about what it’s doing, and this strikes me as an important point. True, if you push too hard at the historic logic of the local you come up against the difficult fact that almost nothing we grow here in northern Europe is local in provenance. Indeed, the few score major crops that are widely grown throughout the world mostly all hail from one of just a handful of centres of global crop diversity which few people can call home. In that sense, most of what we grow here both in Wessex and everywhere else can be regarded as an imported ‘super-crop’ with special characteristics that have grabbed people’s attention and made them want to replicate them at home. But in today’s world perhaps there are a small number of ‘super super-crops’ with characteristics that impose themselves even over the superiority of the general run of crop plants – partly because of their intrinsic qualities, and partly because of their compatibility with the demands of industrial processing. Soy, I’d suggest, is one of them.

So leaving aside Paul’s nutritional caveats, I take his point to be that it’s all too easy for a new non-local super super-crop to be parachuted into a locality on the basis of certain evidently superior qualities in ways that cut against the grain of local practice – and ultimately the local practice is as important as the crop. Certainly this has often been a problem as local/peasant agricultures confront global commercial ones: think GM cotton, green revolution rice, and the panoply of tropical cash crops. So I understand Paul’s concerns. But of course, agriculture can’t be set in stone. It would doubtless be a fine thing for Wessex gardeners to experiment with soy alongside their Martock beans and scarlet emperors and perhaps in time to find a place for it within the local horticultural repertoire. I think this touches on a chronic problem facing those of us who advocate for localism, both in culture and in agriculture: how to stay supple and remain open to the possibilities of the world, while at the same time honouring local lifeways and their good enoughness.

Turning full circle to the ecomodernists, some time ago I critiqued Leigh Phillips’ book Austerity Ecology, one of the sillier contributions to the genre, in which he extolled the constant search for human improvement against the logic of the good enough. Far too often in agriculture and in society at large ‘improvement’ has been a cipher for the class interest of the improvers, wittingly or not, at the expense of those being ‘improved’. But the solution isn’t necessarily to refute all possibilities of improvement. Perhaps in fact there’s no solution to this dilemma of the staid local against the superior incomer – another wicked problem, another dilemma to be managed sub-critically, rather than overcome.

An English Berry?

There’s a new collection of Wendell Berry’s essays available, edited by Paul Kingsnorth of Dark Mountain fame, which was reviewed by premier league literary hack DJ Taylor in last week’s Guardian Review. Taylor’s review entertained me, because his reaction was quite similar to mine when I first read Berry in the 1990s:

“Hey, this is really conservative…reactionary…utopian…”

“Hang on, this is really humane, clear-eyed and, er, pretty convincing”.

I wrote a letter to the Guardian along these lines, which to my astonishment they published in this week’s edition. I was delighted to get the phrase ‘egalitarian agrarian populism’ into a national newspaper (I’d have preferred ‘left agrarian populism’, but in view of recent harangues here at Small Farm Future I wanted to aim for maximum inclusivity).

Taylor’s review touched on the issue of whether there were any UK versions of Berry – the closest he could think of were the Distributists “a bizarre coalition of traditional conservatives…and left-leaning radicals” who were “the last genuinely reactionary political movement in the UK”, together with the likes of George Ewart Evans and John Stewart Collis, who he concedes aren’t really very close.

Hmmm, well the Distributists may have been an odd bunch, but I’m tempted to say that modern advocacy for small-scale agrarianism only seems intrinsically reactionary if you buy into the hokum that ‘progress’ inheres in ever larger fields and tractors. And surely UKIP can stake a good claim for being the last genuinely reactionary political movement in the UK. But leaving that aside, agrarianism’s political lineages in different countries does strike me as an interesting topic.

Lenin distinguished between what he called the American and Prussian paths to capitalism – respectively ‘bottom up’ in a country of settler pioneers without aristocratic landownership (albeit neglecting here the issue of the aboriginal population), and ‘top down’ in a country dominated by such landownership. This idea was developed by later scholars such as Terence Byres and Barrington Moore1. But in Britain, or at least England, a primary and indigenous capitalist development bridging the aristocracy and the wider populace intercedes between these paths. England, stereotypically, was “a country of shopkeepers” – and latterly perhaps one of spivs, wide boys and even aristocratic wheeler-dealers. Could this explain the muddying of conservatism and leftism that Taylor identifies in the Distributists and perhaps for that matter across England’s history of rural radicalism in the likes of Blake, Coleridge, Morris, Lawrence, Orwell and so on – an undertow, at once politically radical and reactionary, to the grubby business of turning coin?

I don’t know, but it’s a theory… For my part, I’m not averse to embracing some of the conservative elements within that tradition, just as I’m not averse to embracing such elements within Berry. Still, I always feel a bit sceptical of that conservative tradition in Britain, and suspicious of its motives. Could Berry’s beautiful article on the ‘agrarian mind’2 have been written by an English conservative? Maybe, but I suspect not without a patronising accent or two, a consciousness of where real social standing lies. At the same time, the leftist instinct to dissolve everything into social relations – nature as mere politics or social process – has its own limitations, illuminating as it sometimes is. Perhaps a ‘bizarre coalition’ of radicals and conservatives is no bad thing?

Such, at any rate, are my immediate thoughts on these matters. I’d be interested in other perspectives. Any suggestions for an English Berry, or what one might look like?

Meanwhile, since my letter in the Guardian Review doesn’t seem to have made it online, I’ll reproduce it here. Revolutions have been built on less…

“DJ Taylor’s review of Wendell Berry’s collected writings (Review, 4 March) evoked wistful memories. When I first read Berry twenty years ago I was a progressively-minded urban intellectual and, like Taylor, I instinctively tried to pigeonhole Berry’s thought as conservative, reactionary, utopian etc. Like Taylor, I failed – those elements are there, but only as one part of a supple and humane moral vision. I now work on a farm, and advocate for egalitarian agrarian populism however I can. The world needs Berry’s voice more than ever.”

I haven’t read any of Berry’s stuff for a while. Doubtless it’s not above criticism. What I remember liking about it is the impossibility of assimilating it to the dreary dualism of progress (ascent to a future golden age) vs. regress (descent from a past golden age). It may be that the future, like the past, will involve a larger proportion of the population working on small, labour-intensive farms than is presently the case. There’s no necessary implication there that the future will be like the past in other ways, or that it ought to be. But it’s worth thinking about how the way we have to or ought to farm conditions the other possibilities of our lives. Maybe I should write a blog about that – I could call it Small Farm Future…



  1. Moore, B. 1966. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy; Byres, T. 1996. Capitalism From Above and Capitalism From Below.
  1. Berry, W. 2002. ‘The whole horse: the preservation of the agrarian mind’ in Kimbrell, A. (Ed) The Fatal Harvest Reader.

The elephant in the room is capitalism. Maybe.

I’d been hoping to pay another visit to the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, but red tape has been holding me up at the border so it’ll have to wait probably for another couple of weeks. Instead, I thought I’d offer a few top-of-the-head thoughts on Felicity Lawrence’s recent article about agricultural pesticide use in The Guardian – or, more specifically, on some of the under-the-line responses it prompted.

Whenever someone writes an online article about virtually any aspect of the environmental challenges facing humanity, you can pretty much guarantee that underneath it somebody is going to write a comment that closely approximates to this: “The real issue here is human over-population. It’s the elephant in the room that trendy green thinkers don’t want to talk about.” In distant second place you’ll usually find a similar comment about meat eating. And, even less commonly, one about the flying or other carbon-intensive sins of said trendy green thinkers.

These comments doubtless emanate respectively from the childless, the vegan, and the foot-powered, and represent the pharisaical human tendency to elevate whatever behaviours we engage in that we feel are especially praiseworthy to a kind of touchstone status by which we can judge others less virtuous than ourselves. Hovering in the background of such thought is the ever present charge of hypocrisy, as in this recent tweet aimed at George Monbiot’s opposition to fossil fuel extraction: “Hey @GeorgeMonbiot – You PERSONALLY give up all items made or sustained by fossil fuels first, then we’ll talk.”

David Fleming nails this way of thinking especially well when he writes,

“Though my lifestyle may be regrettable, that does not mean that my arguments are wrong; on the contrary, it could mean that I am acutely aware of values that are better than the ones I achieve myself. If I lived an impeccable life, I could be lost in admiration for myself as an ethical ideal; failings may keep me modest and raise my sights”1

But, more importantly, all the obsessive finger-pointing about individual behaviours neglects the systemic logic which provides their ground. This was Marx’s insight in his critique of the utopian socialists – capitalism isn’t an especially nasty system because capitalists are especially nasty people. Therefore, building some nice factories with pleasant managers won’t solve the problem. The problem is that individual people ultimately have little choice but to respond to the behavioural drivers dictated by the logic of the (capitalist) system – and these drivers, investing a million innocent little decisions, have nasty consequences.

That brings me to my main point: when it comes to pesticide use in farming – actually, when it comes to a lot of things – if we want to talk about ‘the elephant in the room’, it isn’t human population. It’s capitalism.

Consider this thought experiment. Suppose that, magically, human population halved overnight. I guess the consequences would depend a bit on exactly who it was that disappeared, but maybe not so much in the end. Imagine, for example, that it was the poorest 50% of the world’s population. The effect on greenhouse gas emissions would be slight, but the effect on the food system in the rich countries would probably be pretty significant. In the short term, there’d be no more cheap labour furnishing all the labour-intensive items that we currently outsource – the fruit and vegetables, the flowers, the prawns, the coffee and so on. But the basic agricultural economics of high labour costs and low fuel costs in the rich countries would remain. Pesticide regimens are basically labour-saving technologies in a situation of low energy costs. I can’t see them changing much in the event of a population cataclysm among the world’s poor. Indeed, with the onus now falling on the rich countries to provide their own labour-intensive food commodities in a high labour cost situation, the impetus would be for further mechanisation and probably an intensification of pesticide-dependent farming in order to keep the fruit and veg flowing.

Now imagine that the disappearances mainly affected the world’s richest. The short-term effect on greenhouse gas emissions would be dramatically positive. Longer-term, though, the cataclysm would further impel the economic trajectory that’s already underway, a shifting centre of economic gravity from the north and west to the south and east. The labour-energy balance in these populous southern/eastern countries would shift further towards present rich country norms, prompting labour flight from agriculture and greater pressures towards mechanisation (and pesticisation). The acute labour shortage in the depopulated rich countries would push in the same direction.

So my feeling is that if pesticide-dependent farming is the problem then, no, the elephant in the room is not the size of the human population – it’s the relative value of human and mechanical labour. Since there’s a more-or-less fixed limit to the productivity of the former, but not so much in case of the latter, then the developmental pressure is always to substitute the latter for the former. But only in situations where capital increase is the fundamental bottom line. Marx again: in a non-capitalist market society, money acts mostly just as a medium of exchange. If you make pots and I grow vegetables, it’s convenient for me to buy your pots and for you to buy my vegetables through the intermediary of money. Vegetables become money become pots, commodities become money become commodities, or C → M → C, in Marx’s terms.

With capitalism, though, money is invested in order to produce a commodity, which is sold for money: M → C → M. But if the value of the first M is the same as the second, there’s not much point going to the trouble of turning the first M into C, only to get the same M back again. The logic of the process is really M → C → M’, where M’ > M. And there in a nutshell is the massive transformative power of capitalism: once you unleash the pure logic of M’ > M, anything that stands in its way will ultimately be crushed. That’s why in the average arable field, you’re only likely to see the occasional farmworker driving a massive spraying rig, and not dozens of thoughtful polycultural agroecologists.

For the purposes of this post, I’m remaining agnostic about the pros and cons of modern pesticide regimens. There are those who like to argue that there’s nothing to worry about – mostly by stressing that pesticide levels fall within the range deemed safe by government bodies and by impugning the credentials or agenda of anyone who says otherwise. Presumably, unless they’re shareholders in agrochemical companies, even these folks would agree that it’s not an active virtue to spray our crops with pesticides. But whatever the rights or wrongs of doing it, the crops are going to stay sprayed so long as we make M’ > M the primary logic impelling our economic system.

Coming back to my thought experiment, barring an unprecedentedly massive genocide or natural disaster, that kind of population decrease clearly isn’t going to happen. For sure, there’s a good case for nudging humanity towards lower numbers by using the various small policy levers available. But human population dynamics are a path-dependent and highly complex system which can’t easily be manipulated by wishing things were different. It’s not an ‘elephant in the room’ that, once identified, is easily resolved.

By that logic, you could say the same of capitalism. I think Marx was definitely onto something with his C → M → Cs and his M → C→ Ms, but it now seems pretty clear that some magic solution to the world’s problems is not going to fall from the sky simply through the overthrow of capitalism. Complex problems require complex solutions. There is no elephant in the room. Or else maybe there are many.

Still, I don’t think the shortage of elephants takes us right back to square one. We’ve learned a couple of useful things along the way here. The first is that humans experience the brute facts of nature through the conditioning grid of our culture. That doesn’t mean there’s some kind of law that human culture always overcomes the challenges of the natural world – often enough it manifestly hasn’t. But human culture always mediates those challenges. Which is why I’m pretty sure that whatever shape the problem of human population might have, it doesn’t resemble an elephant.

The second useful thing is that, however complex our problems are, there may be particular pressure points within our cultural mediation of the world where it’s really worth focusing political attention if we want to change things. I think the hard logic of M’ > M is probably one of them.


  1. Fleming, D. 2016. Lean Logic, p.5.









Spudman meets the physiocrats

I promised you a respite from ecomodernism and I plan to keep my word. So, tempting though it is to essay a response to Suzy Waldman’s critical Tweets about my last blog post, I shall keep my powder dry for now. At least Suzy raises some genuinely interesting issues: proletarianization, what we want for our kids, and the economic fortunes of Burkina Faso. But if I write anything else about ecomodernism just now, I fear I’ll be sucked into a wormhole from which I shall never escape and spend the rest of my days muttering half-intelligible concatenations of phrases concerning the sparing of land, the budgeting of carbon, the salvation of cetaceans and the harvesting of cherries.

God forbid. So instead I plan to work my way towards answering Suzy more obliquely through Small Farm Future’s autumn seminar series in which I’m going to tell you about my pigs and my potatoes, say something about soil microbial life and – a related area – describe the nature of state formation and the peasant labour process. Then, let’s see now, I want to muse about meat, offer a brief analysis of the history of western economic thought, consider agricultural improvement in 19th century Scotland, and then expand the focus a bit to review the history of the entire world over the last nine million years. Meanwhile, in other news, the SFF office has received an interesting comment about our work on perennial grain crops from intermediate wheatgrass breeder Doug Cattani, and also an interesting comment on ‘land sparing’ arguments from agroecologist Jahi Chappell.

Anyway, all in all we have a packed autumn programme ahead of us – so do please get in, sit down, fasten your seatbelt and hold on. To save time, I may have to piggy-back some of the topics outlined above onto other ones. Indeed, let’s try that now. So today we’ll look at what my potato harvest can teach us about the history of western economic thought.

Farming on the micro-scale that I do, strict economic considerations suggest that I should probably devote myself largely to growing fancy salad leaves to garnish the plates of wealthy restaurant patrons, and then write my screeds about how small-scale farming can solve world hunger as a purely theoretical pursuit. However, some years ago my alter ego Spudman took me aside and pointed out there’s something of a contradiction there. Since then I’ve always tried to grow a little bit of a staple crop every year, usually potatoes, without beating myself up too much about the amount I grow in the face of the pressures for my farm to make money.

This year, my efforts have been especially desultory, as I’ve felt the need to prioritize other things. I bought 50kg of seed potatoes (25kg of earlies and 25kg of main crop), and cleared a total harvest of about 350kg. After so brazenly claiming in recent posts that small-scale farmers can produce higher per hectare yields, I’ve got to admit that this is an embarrassingly poor effort on my part. Naturally, I have an impressive suite of excuses at my command: in view of other priorities and the unpromising economics of small-scale commercial potato production, I didn’t sufficiently fertilise, ridge, weed or irrigate the crop during the hot, dry summer, and then the shaft on my vintage potato spinner gave out mid-harvest, leaving me with a more-troublesome-than-it-seems winter repair job and, most likely, more potatoes still in the ground than would otherwise have been the case, which will no doubt volunteer their presence in future years. Perennial crops, eh – dontcha just love ‘em!

Still, despite so grievously neglecting my charges, by putting my 50kg of seed potatoes in the ground in the spring, I managed by season’s end a sevenfold return on my investment. And that is a pretty magical result, is it not? So, at any rate, thought François Quesnay, whose Tableau économique of 1759 laid the foundations for the school of economic thought known as physiocracy. The physiocrats considered labour devoted to agriculture productive, and labour devoted to industry sterile. Perhaps one could say that the story of my potato harvest endorses their view: put a potato in the ground and it will reward you seven times over or more, put a steel shaft on a potato spinner and the damn thing just breaks. Eventually. Quesnay was also a physician, and perhaps a patriot: his metaphor of the economy was that of a corporeal body sustained by the circulation of things.

Now, I admit there are a number of additional complexities here, but this is a blog post, not a treatise on economic history, OK? Well now, there’s an idea! Let’s try to put the physiocrats into the broader context of the history of western economic thought, as typically conveyed in the ‘historical background’ paragraphs of standard economic textbooks. Or at least as might be conveyed in a first draft of such a textbook, before professional self-censorship intrudes.

So, first up, let’s hear it for the physiocrats. Their theories of ‘productive’ agriculture and ‘sterile’ manufacture were laughably misguided – show me the agrarian economy that can anywhere near match the economic productivity of an industrial one – but at least they were among the first to identify a distinctive phenomenon that we can call ‘the economy’, thus paving the way for the prodigious advances achieved by later economists. Indeed, the physiocrats were quickly superseded by Adam Smith, who gets the nod as the founding father of economics through his identification of something called the market, and not silly old agriculture, as the fundamental unit of analysis in the discipline. True, he had some funny ideas about agriculture and domestic trade being the ‘natural’ focus of economic development, in contrast to the ‘unnatural’ path taken in Europe by way of foreign trade, but every hero has an Achilles heel, right?

I suppose we now need to mention one Thomas Robert Malthus in our survey – not, heaven forbid, for his thoughts on population growth outstripping its resource base, which has turned out to be wrong and has earned Malthus a richly-deserved posthumous notoriety down to the present. I mean, OK, those thoughts exerted a big influence on Charles Darwin, whose theory of natural selection has earned him richly-deserved posthumous celebration down to the present. But the thing is, natural selection doesn’t really apply to humans because we’ve transcended nature through our technological knowhow, as proven by the fact there’ve been no major global Malthusian crises in the whole 200 years since he was writing, which is a very long time evolutionarily speaking. Anyway, the real importance of Malthus was in noticing that the tendency of markets to cycle between booms and busts suggests they don’t always work quite as smoothly as Smith conjectured – and that the job of economics is therefore to try and ensure they do.

Then there’s Ricardo, whose comparative advantage over Smith was his theory of comparative advantage, suggesting pace Smith that foreign trade is important after all. And also his theory of rent, suggesting pace the physiocrats that land rents arose from relative differences in land quality and not from the absolute bounty of land itself. Oh, and don’t forget Bentham, with his ridiculous useful quantification of abstraction and his illegitimately aggregative clever reduction of human values to the fungible, all wrapped up in that appalling famous phrase: ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’.

We should now perhaps mention some dissident visionaries, like Marx, Chayanov and Veblen. Actually, nah, let’s not. Much more important was the marginalist revolution of the late 19th century associated with the likes of Marshall and Jevons (he of Jevons paradox fame, paradoxically). This pushed Ricardo’s relativization a step further and established the modus operandi of neoclassical economics, which considers the level of prices, outputs and incomes relative to supply and demand. And that pretty much brings us into the era of modern economics, which has merely refined those basic themes of markets, trade, prices and outputs in the context of a modern global world market system that has taken relativization so far that our food prices tumble ever-downwards, and our complex fiscal instruments enable risk to be so relativized that even the poorest people in the developed western economies can now afford to take out sub-prime mortgages safely on modest homes, a privilege that will hopefully soon extend to poor people in the rapidly-urbanizing developing economies. And let us now end our history lesson there, circa 2007, for every history requires its end-point. Sure, some other stuff has happened since, but that’s history, eh? One damn thing after another.

But seriously now, what I find interesting about the historical trajectory that I’ve sketched above with such impartial scholarly acuity is that most of the early economists displayed strong concerns – perhaps you could call them anxieties – about agriculture and its attendant issues: the limits of productivity, the relations between humanity and nature, the effects of land quality and so on. This was gradually sundered from the economic package as we approach the present, until the discipline seemed to become almost wholly absorbed with the matter of price signals.

Another way of framing that historical trajectory in a single phrase might be ‘out of the absolute, the relative’. Indeed, you could probably say that of the social sciences in general. Social scientists of most varieties like to inhabit relations more than things. Not a bad instinct – holism over reductionism, relationality over essentialism, and so on. But I’d argue we now need something of a rebalancing towards the absolute. Not entirely – abandoning the vantage point of the relative is usually a quick route into the intellectual morass, which has swallowed up any number of ‘back to nature’ philosophies and provided endless point-scoring opportunities for those who like to stand on the apparently safe shore of the relative with the death-curse of ‘Malthusianism’ or ‘Stoicism’ on their lips. Still, wouldn’t it be nice if there were a contemporary economics that properly wrestled with the problem of agriculture and environment in the way that the classical economists did?

True, there have been some noble efforts in recent times. The work of people like Georgescu-Roegen and Daly founded ecological economics and placed the presentiments of the physiocrats into the more precise language of energy and entropy. But somehow their efforts haven’t displaced the mainstream metaphor of markets chasing net present value as the central fact of modern life, or of Smith’s myth of the ‘invisible hand’. And though you could probably argue plausibly that this is because Smith’s myth suits the suits who run the world, I think there’s more to it than that. I think the metaphors of market, debt and money so deeply condition our thought, even among those of us inclined to reject them, that we’ve yet to find the cultural language we need to steer our way with sufficient intellectual subtlety between the Scylla of natural absolutism and the Charybdis of net present value, price signals, market efficiency and all the rest.

Smith was remarkably prescient in describing the logic of an economic order that, in 1776 when his Wealth of Nations was published, had scarcely even begun to take shape. The tragedy of the economic discipline he helped found is that it’s been so successful at creating self-fulfilling prophecies, making the world over in the image of its distorted models of it. What we need now is a Smith for our times, someone who can breathe new life into the physiocrats’ metaphor of the biota as a body corporate, with a currency of energy and life, without forgetting what we’ve learned in the interim about the relational character of the (human) world. Which is why (memo to self) I want to remain open to people articulating alternative ‘back to nature’ philosophies of natural absolutes, however dubious I find them intellectually. They’re identifying a real problem in contemporary culture, which we will only overcome if we ruminate on it from many angles. In the meantime, I plan to curate the investment bestowed me by the sun in the form of my potato harvest, to fix the darned potato spinner, and to meditate some more on the economy of water and nitrogen as well as of relative human values.

Thinking like a molehill

“Thinking like a mountain” is such a resonant phrase that many people doubtless harbour their own notions about what it means without feeling the need to return to its source in Aldo Leopold’s eponymous essay1, or perhaps even knowing that Leopold is the source. But if you do go back to the essay what you get, in burnished literary prose, is mostly a rather persuasive argument not to mess around with ecosystems that you don’t fully understand. And in particular not to kill wolves if you don’t want to have problems with deer. You also get an argument that there’s something special about top predators: “Only the ineducable tyro can fail to sense the presence or absence of wolves, or the fact that mountains have a secret opinion about them”.

I agree with the first part of the sentence. In the admittedly brief periods I’ve spent in bear country, and in crocodile country, I’ve had an animal awareness of my surroundings – of what Leopold calls ‘the way shadows lie under the spruces’ – that I’ve never experienced in the bosom of human civilisation. Well…perhaps that’s not quite true, thinking of my occasional wanderings through dark urban alleys late at night. Still, I’m less sure about the mysticism investing Leopold’s notion of mountains and their secret opinion, what he calls the ‘mortal fear’ mountains have of the deer that, unchecked, will strip their sides of vegetation. In fact, I’m never very sure about mysticism, which is probably why I’ve been told that I’ll never understand permaculture by people who like to take their permaculture with a twist of the mystical.

Well, though I don’t know much about mystery, I do understand a few things about mountains, and also a few things about plants. So let me share some stories about both before coming back to Leopold’s famous phrase.

It’s been a pretty good growing season here in northeast Somerset – hot, dry weather for the most part, keeping the slugs at bay and affording the plants plenty of sugary sunshine. The only downside is that it’s been so dry we’ve had to irrigate a lot more than usual. Actually, there’s been another downside too, though I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it – productivity has been surprisingly poor, which is quite a problem in this of all years when we have to demonstrate to the powers that be that our business is a flourishing one.

The reason, we think, that productivity is down is because the irrigation has attracted worms, and the worms have attracted moles, who have tunnelled a veritable city subway beneath our vegetable beds. In previous years, moles have never been more than a minor irritant – in fact probably beneficial on balance thanks to their subsoiling activities. So we were slow to realise that this year they’re a problem. And when we did, we had to learn about the way they tunnel and feed so that we could place our traps effectively – resulting in two dead moles so far (incidentally, when I say ‘we’ here I must acknowledge the primacy of Mrs Spudman in nailing this particular issue).

We learned, in other words, to think like a molehill. Actually, no: much as I like the parallel with Leopold, and the implicit measurement of his achievement against ours, the fact is that molehills don’t think. Moles do. We learned to think like a mole.

I suspect one reason we were slow to figure this problem out is the way that thinking like Leopold’s invests our own thought. Traditionally, farmers have often been too quick to ascribe their loss to ‘vermin’ and to reach for the gun, the trap or the poison. Many of the organisms they wish to exterminate, like the mole, bring some benefits. So we’ve generally tried to avoid this ideology of the varmint, and refrain from too much extermination. But part of life’s art is surely adapting to present circumstances, figuring things out and knowing when to switch strategy. By which I mean to say that, if mountains have wise opinions, they’re surely contextual ones. It may not always be a good idea to pronounce something a pest and seek to kill it. But sometimes it is. Of course, part of the problem is that we’re under artificial external pressure to prove our productivity. Then again, most farmers historically have been under considerable and far from artificial pressure to secure theirs too in order, so to speak, to keep the wolf from the door.

I don’t want to recover old tracks in debating the ‘balance of nature’. Whether ‘nature’ is in balance or not in some larger sense, it’s never in balance during any given day or any given season on the farm. I still think the instincts of the organic farming movement, perhaps under the influence of figures like Leopold, are basically sound in promoting the idea of natural balance and seeing pest problems as potential indicators of system malfunction – being ‘plant positive’ and not ‘pest negative’ in Eliot Coleman’s terms. But only when it articulates them as rules of thumb, not as laws of nature. And not when some self-styled organic expert tells you your pest problems prove that you’re not farming properly: in my opinion, such people either have big egos, little experience, or a lot of luck.

This is where Leopold’s mysticism troubles me. I’m all in favour of leaving well alone in the wilderness and not imagining that humans can manage it better. But on a farm you can’t leave well alone. Sometimes you can live with the pests. And sometimes you can’t. It helps if you learn to think like them. But if you do, I suspect it might overturn some fond notions forged in the safe, abstract abundance of modern life where it’s easy to let the shadows lie any which way under the spruces without realising the self-indulgence involved. If worms could vocalise their sentiments, would they claim to favour ‘worm positive’ over ‘mole negative’ policies, or worship at the altar of natural balance in the face of velvet-muzzled death? I don’t think so. If we, to use another of Leopold’s famous dictums, are indeed ‘plain members and citizens of the biotic community’, then sometimes perhaps we need to act like one by fighting our corner.

I’ve just come back from a trip to Snowdonia, that eroded stub of a mountain chain first formed some 480 million years ago. Now that is a long, long time. When those mountains were young, terrestrial life was not yet established and the age of dinosaurs was much further into the future than it now stands to our past. Nowadays, the wolves are long gone from Snowdonia’s mountains, which are stripped of their vegetation by sheep and hikers. But the succession from wolf to sheep and hiker is less than the blink of an eye in the mountains’ existence. Do they have a secret opinion about the sheep, or the hikers? No, I can’t make that leap. Mountains don’t think, and even if they did, they wouldn’t care. Humans need to care – but that is our problem, not the mountains’. So what I take Leopold to be saying is no more than this: our immediate concerns are part of a larger story unfurling across place and time, a larger story that we ignore at our peril. True enough, but we’re imperilled too if we don’t attend to the immediate story unfurling at our feet on the farm. We need to think like a mountain. We also need to think like a mole.


  1. Leopold, A. (1949) A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here And There, Oxford University Press.

The modern commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In an impressively forgiving follow-up, Hemenway wrote,

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

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

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

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

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

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…)


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.


Small farm romance

So let’s turn the lights down low, set out the candles and uncork a bottle of red. For here at Small Farm Future it’s time for us to talk about romance.

Well, when I say ‘romance’ what I mean is the tendency to be romantic. No, that’s not quite it. Oh hell, what I’m really trying to say, darling, is that sometimes people romanticise things. Not least, small scale or peasant farming. Which perhaps is why when I speak up for it, as I often do, I frequently find myself saying that it’s important not to romanticise rural life, or peasant farming, or whatever.

And maybe it is important. But maybe it’s also worth asking why it’s important. What exactly is at stake in romanticising small-scale farming? For me, the question has additional bite because nobody ever prefaces a discussion of city life or urbanization by saying ‘It’s important not to romanticise the metropolitan’. And I mean, never. With the result that people can get away with the most extraordinary romanticisations of the urban, like this. What is it about the rural and agrarian that makes us so afraid of committing the sin of romanticism, when we do it so insouciantly in the face of the urban?

Perhaps defining some of the forms of romanticism would help. I think a key one is the notion that our own society is rent by irreconcilable contradictions of some kind, and that other societies are free of them and therefore more fulfilled. That kind of romanticisation can be played out historically – past (or future) societies were (or will be) more whole and authentic than present ones. Or it can be played out geographically – other peoples of the world are more whole and authentic than us. It’s interesting how the target of such romanticism itself changes historically. Dominant strands of western thought in the late nineteenth century placed Arabs somewhere near the top of the idealisation league (you see it later on too among Orientalists like Lawrence or Thesiger) and hunter-gatherer peoples near the bottom. Dominant strands of western thought today pretty much reverse that ordering. Generally speaking, I think these projected idealisations and demonisations are a trap, and it’s important not to romanticise other societies in this way. Oops, there I go again.

Well, it is important – but not obviously more so than the converse mistake of narcissistically assuming that people in other societies are less blessed than us and that therefore there is nothing we can learn from them. To take that line you need to combine a strong anti-romanticism with a strong myth of progress – an unfortunate marriage, which alas is all too common, not least among the eco-panglossians who I’m gunning for in my present cycle of blog posts. But the need to exercise a bit of caution in idealising other lifeways can’t in my opinion explain the widespread and visceral denunciation of romanticism that accompanies virtually any attempt to extol the peasant, the local, the rural or the homespun, the more so in the face of the fact that contemporary culture is not at all squeamish about romanticising certain other things, such as media celebrity.

Reflecting on the two main jobs I’ve done in my life – university academic and small-scale farmer – let me offer this observation. My career as an academic was comfortable, interesting, well paid, potentially fulfilling, and accorded a high social status by others, but it wasn’t romantic. My career as a farmer is less comfortable, quite mundane at times, poorly paid and poorly regarded, but generally speaking it’s more fulfilling and more romantic. What’s the difference? I’m not completely sure, but I’d hazard the opinion that farming involves engaging yourself fully, both mentally and physically, with a natural world which is ultimately indifferent to your designs for it, and there’s something about that process that captures the human imagination as few other things can – and certainly not a good many of the modern paper shuffling office jobs which can cut the world down to their own size by word-wrangling. Maybe if you throw in an element of physical risk the romance is augmented, which is why a lot of kids want to be firefighters, deep sea fishermen and the like, and perhaps why a lot of adults who put aside such dreams for better paid paper shuffling work spend their weekends and a good slice of their money rock-climbing, scuba diving, surfing or whatever. Of course, farming is one of the most dangerous jobs around these days, though I have to concede that being crushed by a toppling round bale, a horny bull or a reversing muck spreader isn’t the most romantic of ways to go.

We have quite a few visitors to our holding from a similar urban/suburban, professional/middle class background to myself. I’d say about 1 in 10 of them surveys my workplace with a beaky look that says something like “so you got a Ph.D. and now here you are grubbing around in the soil weeding cabbages – how did it go so wrong?” The other 90% have a very different look, maybe envious, maybe empathetic, that seems to say “You bloody escaped, didn’t you? You’re living the dream, you lucky bastard”.

It’s a subset of the latter people, I think, that the notion of farm romanticism or rural idylls really inhabits, and – if you’ll forgive me the cod Freudianism – I think the reason is denialism, or self-justification: “I’d like to live that kind of life too, but the reason I can’t is that it’s just not realistic.” Well, fair enough – it isn’t that realistic for most people (London property-owners excepted, who could easily afford to throw it all in and buy a smallholding upcountry…if only…if only…if only what? If only it wasn’t such a romantic dream? Philip Larkin, you’re so eloquently wrong). But the reason it’s not realistic is because of economic and political policies which, deliberately or otherwise, make it extremely difficult for anyone to start a small farm and make it work as a business. And, as I’ve argued before on this blog and will argue again in different ways in the future, those policies are not facts of nature, but human artifices which can be changed should we wish to embrace the romance of a small farm future, which I think we should.

The same goes for the standard refrain about how it’s wrong to romanticise poor peasant farmers in low income countries, a point I’ve addressed before on this blog and will come back to again in more detail soon. I’ll readily concede that many such farmers would ditch their holdings without a second thought if they had the remotest chance of getting one of those pen-pushing city jobs I was earlier decrying. The reason for that, I submit, is that they’d prefer not to be the butt of global and local policies that shaft small farmers – the problem being the policies, and not anything intrinsic to small-scale farming as such. There’s more to be said here in relation to academic debates about agrarian populism and the moral economy of the peasant – and I’ll be saying it soon, I promise you.

Talking of agrarian populism, as a self-avowed agrarian populist myself, I have to admit that there’s a dark side to its politics historically, in which romanticism is implicated. Many countries have developed nationalist ideologies which stress the goodness of their countrysides and the people who inhabit them. Sometimes this can be relatively benign, as in the ‘green and pleasant land’ of chocolate box England (notwithstanding the resulting idiocies of the planning system). But it’s not always benign, as in those variants of populism that distinguish the ‘real people of the country’ from urban degenerates, Jewish bankers and the like. One of the tasks for a contemporary agrarian populism is to emphasise the romance and the authenticity of farming and rural life, without projecting that authenticity onto any particular category of people. That has to involve acknowledging that farming isn’t the only worthwhile thing to do, that cities have their own romance. But cities already have plenty of cheerleaders, including the eco-panglossians and their one dimensional dismissals of peasant agriculture in favour of urbanisation. We need more people speaking up for a working, sustainably farmed countryside.

I began this post with wine and candles, so let me end it by playing with the semantics of the word ‘romance’. Most of us, I’d guess, would be happy to have more romance in our lives of that individual sort – a deep and unselfish engagement in the fullness of our being with another person, who we cannot and do not wish to master. I think most of us would also be happy to have more romance of a different (but not entirely different) kind in our work: a deep and unselfish engagement in the fullness of our being with the wider social and natural world, which we cannot and do not wish to master but can relate to from a position of dignity and self-possession as we engage our labour with it. Doubtless there are those who can find that romance in academia and other kinds of word-wrangling – I couldn’t, but good luck to them. However, I have found it in farming and in living a little closer to the rhythms of the natural world, some of the time at least. So the next time I catch myself on the point of saying ‘we shouldn’t romanticise small-scale farming’ I hope I’ll stop myself to ask ‘why not?’

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

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

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

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

Nick: Cool. What does he say?

Chris: Well, Nick, essentially he argues that

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

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

Chris: Sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nick: The invisible hand of the market?

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

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

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

Nick: Now you’re talking!

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

Nick: Not human traits I have much admiration for…

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

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

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

Nick: Well, people need their mythologies…

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

Nick: I’ll ignore that remark.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Perfecto et al, op cit.

8. Ezekiel, 28: 16.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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