The tyranny of the ‘collaborative commons’

Busy times for me on and off the farm at the moment, but it feels like it’s time for another post. I’ll soon be returning to the Peasants Republic of Wessex by way of recounting the history of the world, but I’m not quite ready for that yet. Meanwhile, I seem to be in the business of knocking out little critical vignettes on various writers, having offered up Peter Frase and Michael Le Page in my last two posts. Two more to come, I think, before turning to other matters – on this occasion Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist1. I’m currently writing a full-scale review of the book to appear elsewhere. Here, I’m going to focus in specifically on the issue of ‘commons’ that Raworth raises in various parts of her book. I’ve written about it several times before on this blog, since I find myself much less enthusiastic about commons than most of my greenish-leftish-progressive-anti-capitalist fellow travellers. Ach, I’m a peasant populist at heart, and peasants have a canny sense of when a commons is a good idea and when it isn’t. Anyway, I’m not going to summarise exactly what Raworth says about commons, I’m just going to offer you the following six postulates about them prompted by my reading of her book.

  1. All forms of production are ‘collective’ – but that doesn’t make them a commons.

There are four main ways through which people organise their provisioning – households, private markets, governments and commons. Each have characteristic strengths and weaknesses, and are likely to be more or less appropriate in different situations. In order to succeed, all four of them rely upon collective arrangements between people to organise provisioning. A strong case can be made that the contemporary global economy is excessively focused on private markets to the detriment of collective human flourishing. But that’s not at all the same thing as arguing that provisioning should be organised in the form of commons.

  1. It’s easy to overstate the extent to which both the natural world and human history can be characterized as commons. And it’s unnecessary.

All organisms live interactively with others upon which they depend as part of wider communities. But in the natural world, their actions are rarely motivated by a concern for the wellbeing of the community and its resource bases as a whole – there are rarely agreed collective appropriation rules in nature. There frequently are collective appropriation rules in human societies, and often enough there are conflicts over them. It would be fair to say that in various times and places over the course of human history collective appropriation rights have sometimes been extinguished, to the detriment of some of the people involved and to the advantage of others. But I don’t think it would be fair to say that the history of most places, such as England, can be told substantially in terms of an ‘enclosure of the commons’ in which private appropriation by the aristocracy replaced collective appropriation by the populace. Additionally, there are various contemporary conflicts around the use of seeds, organisms and genes, and a strong case can be made in these instances that the privatisation of usage rights is a bad idea. It may even make sense to call this privatisation an ‘enclosure of the commons’. But the rights and wrongs of these conflicts are best framed in their own contemporary terms, rather than seeing them as analogous to medieval conflicts over agricultural land use or the way that organisms behave in ecosystems – except in such a broad and general sense as to be more or less meaningless.

  1. Agricultural commons work best for relatively low value, extensive, non-excludable situations with high labour costs of capital improvement, and the same is probably true of other commons.

The original meaning of a ‘common’ was an agricultural resource shared by a specific community in accordance with defined usage rules – and they typically arose in the kinds of situation described in the previous sentence. If you wanted to grow some onions for your table, it’s unlikely that you’d form a commons for the purpose – unless you had a taste for wasting a lot of your time trying to forge agreements in frustrating public meetings. Whereas if you wanted to collect firewood from your local woods, you might well feel it was worth the effort to work with others to create a commons so as to be sure there’d be some more firewood next year. Nowadays when we talk of commons we usually mean something more virtual – Raworth’s text is sprinkled with references to things like ‘the knowledge commons’, ‘the collaborative commons’ and ‘the creative commons’. An oft-cited example of such things is open source computer software. I can see how this particular example might fit with the typical characteristics of an agricultural commons within a community of software developers whose main livelihood is already secured (probably on the basis of paying a pittance for the food they eat) and who find more benefit from freely sharing bits of code they’re working on around their community than from trying to develop it on their own and then charging for it. But it’s a slippery slope, and once we start using terms like ‘the collaborative commons’ as a grander-sounding way to say ‘people sharing things’, the concept of the commons starts to lose useful meaning. It’s a given that people sometimes share things and sometimes don’t. We need to attend carefully to the circumstances in which they do or don’t, or in which they should or shouldn’t. Arguments with the logic of commons = sharing = good just aren’t careful enough.

  1. Production and circulation are different things.

I think the slippage I’ve just referred to from commons qua ‘defined collective usage agreement’ to commons qua ‘free stuff, freely shared’ matters quite a lot. To explain why I first need to introduce a distinction between production and circulation, which I’ll do via a quotation from Raworth:

“The triumph of the commons is certainly evident in the digital commons, which are fast turning into one of the most dynamic arenas of the global economy. It is a transformation made possible, argues the economic analyst Jeremy Rifkin, by the ongoing convergence of networks for digital communications, renewable energy and 3D printing, creating what he has called ‘the collaborative commons’….Once the solar panels, computer networks and 3D printers are in place, the cost of producing one extra joule of energy, one extra download, one extra 3D printed component, is close to nothing, leading Rifkin to dub it ‘the zero-marginal-cost revolution’. The result is that a growing range of products and services can be produced abundantly, nearly for free, unleashing potential such as open-source design, free online education, and distributed manufacturing”2

The confusion as I see it here is that, yes, the marginal costs of circulation are now nearly zero, but the actual costs of production aren’t necessarily much different from pre-internet or even pre-book times. It takes as much hard thought and hard work to put together a good course, a good political essay, a good poem or a good tractor design as it ever did. But once it’s put together, it can now be distributed almost costlessly around the world, potentially to an audience of billions. The zero-marginal-cost-revolution, if there is one, is a revolution of circulation, not production.

  1. Poorly-framed concepts of the commons punish creativity.

Well, no doubt this revolution is a fine thing. But follow the money. Those who control the circulation are in a position to effortlessly siphon off wealth, whereas those who control the production aren’t – which is why Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are a lot richer than any political essayist, poet or tractor designer. I don’t especially have a problem with that, except inasmuch as their private wealth derives from the ‘enclosure’ of appropriation rights from publicly-generated means of circulation. Which is surely an irony – a ‘collaborative commons’ based on privately owned, and possibly ‘enclosed’, means of circulation. But what I do have a problem with is the belittling of creativity or content-creation implicit in this whole ‘collaborative commons’ mindset. The way I see it, almost everybody has some kind of creativity – with words, or music, or materials, or ideas. The private market we use so pervasively to organise our lives is over-supplied with this torrent of human creativity, meaning it’s darned difficult to turn a buck from it. Fine, nobody was born deserving a favour from the world. But to my mind all this talk of ‘collaborative commons’ or ‘knowledge commons’ or Stewart Brand’s much quoted shibboleth that ‘ideas want to be free’ basically mystifies the hard work of production and gives the appropriation of circulation an easy ride. I wrote about this previously in relation to the debate between Josef Davies-Coates and Toby Hemenway concerning the former’s free circulation of the latter’s book, where the prevailing idea on the ‘knowledge commons’ side of the debate seemed to be that nobody really has any original ideas so they shouldn’t expect to make any money out of repackaging collective human wisdom.

OK, but we all have to eat – typically by either paying for someone to repackage collective human wisdom on the farm and grow food for us, or by doing it ourselves. And conversely we’re perfectly at liberty not to consume somebody else’s repackaged human wisdom on the “don’t use, don’t pay” principle, whether it comes in the form of poetry, political essays or a bag of corn chips. Those who want to push hard for a ‘collaborative commons’ with minimal rights of private creative appropriation need to explain how people would create their livelihoods in such a society. To be fair, Raworth does have the makings of an answer on this front, even if it’s the same one as most other writers in this leftish, technophile tradition – universal basic income. But she doesn’t really flesh out what that would end up looking like politically – less so, say, than Peter Frase, whose work I reviewed recently. My bet is that the most likely political endpoints for that would either be an economically insecure, moribund and dreary modernist authoritarianism (which we seem well on our way to achieving), or else a neo-peasant society in which we devote most of our creativity to providing our own food, clothes and shelter, with the occasional bonus of our music, stories, crafts or knowledge freely given to people we care about in our families and wider communities. I much prefer the latter outcome to the former, so if I have to nail my colours to the ‘collaborative commons’ mast I guess my rallying cry will be “Collaborative commons, universal basic income and two acres for all!” More on that anon.

  1. Commons aren’t always the best way of organising provision.

I can’t help feeling that a lot of the people who wax most lyrical about the benefits of the “collaborative commons” are probably salaried employees of large-scale public or private sector institutions who are less aware than they might be of exactly who is bearing the costs of the collaboration – or else perhaps a self-employed consultant able to charge out their time quite handsomely to the same. If so, a stint as a self-employed farmer providing basic food for themselves or selling it to a local community may prove eye-opening. I also can’t help feeling that a lot of the people who wax most lyrical about Elinor Ostrom’s book Governing the Commons as proving the superiority of the commons as a mode of provisioning probably haven’t actually read it. Fair play, it’s pretty dry stuff – I must admit that I skimmed over the odd page or two myself on the ins and outs of municipal water litigation in California. But Ostrom doesn’t argue that a commons – agricultural, digital, creative, knowledge, collaborative or whatever else – is necessarily the best way of organising things. Nor, I think, should anyone else.

oOo

Well, there you have it – a few top of the head thoughts I’ve skimmed off from the collective human genius, and repackaged right here. I’ll attempt to work it up into something a bit more rigorous in due course. Thanks for reading this far. I appreciate it. And now I better go and tend to my garden. Donate button is top right.

Notes

  1. Kate Raworth (2017). Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. London: Random House.
  1. Ibid. pp.83-4.

 

Of holism, particularism and photosynthesis

I’ve been hoping to get back to my Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, albeit by a roundabout route, but it’s busy days on the farm at the moment so it’ll have to wait. Instead let me offer a few scattered thoughts to follow on from the discussion last time of RoboBees, nature vs humanity and Clem’s enthusiasm for photosynthesis – thoughts prompted by an article in the New Scientist that I recently read under the misapprehension that it was hot off the press, only to find after drafting this post that it was published nearly three years ago (but still, I think, a propos). Never let it be said that Small Farm Future isn’t bang up with the latest science…

Anyway, where I want to go in this piece ultimately is some mildly philosophical thoughts on nature and farming, and on holism and reductionism, and the links between these two dualities – thoughts with some upbeat implications for a small farm future. But first I’m going to have to take you through another ecomodernist vale of tears. So for those of a nervous disposition – be warned.

My starting point is that trusty old ecomodernist standard that photosynthesis – the process at the foundation of complex life on earth by which plants convert solar energy and carbon dioxide into the chemical building blocks of their tissues – is chemically inefficient and can be improved by human bioengineering. I’ve heard this point made quite often without further elaboration in the ecomodernist circles that I eavesdrop into from time to time, and my instinct has always been to dismiss it as a typical example of ecomodernist hubris.

But in the New Scientist piece I mentioned, Michael Le Page gives a slightly more detailed overview than usual of the issue, and reports on research that he says has “taken a huge step forward” in engineering improved photosynthesis by inserting a faster-photosynthesising version of the key RuBisCo enzyme from a cyanobacterium into a tobacco plant1. From here, Le Page leaps to the favoured productivist ideology of the ecomodernists, arguing “This seems like great news in a world where demand for food, biofuels and plant materials like cotton continue to increase, and where global warming will have an ever greater impact on crop production. More productive plants mean greater yields”. Then, he makes another huge leap of logic…but I’ll come to that in a moment.

I’m not a biologist so I’m going to frame the issue to the best of my limited abilities and put out a call to anyone better grounded in this than me to put me right if my reasoning is flawed. So, as I understand it, the chloroplasts in plant cells where photosynthesis occurs derive originally from free-living cyanobacteria, as Le Page describes. At some stage in the evolutionary past (though not, I think, ‘a billion years ago’ as Le Page claims) some such cyanobacteria were incorporated into the cell architecture of ancestral plant species. They’ve retained some, but not all, of their original DNA independently of the plant’s, but the plant cells see to it that they live in a cossetted, beneficial environment (they know which side their bread is buttered) and the result is that chloroplasts turn over and mutate at a slower rate than free-living cyanobacteria, which are more subject to direct evolutionary selection pressure. My guess is that this is what Le Page is driving at when he says that the “enslaved cyanobacteria” of plants have had “little scope to evolve” and are therefore less well adapted to today’s relatively carbon dioxide impoverished environment than free-living cyanobacteria which “have been able to evolve unfettered”.

But it’s not as though plants haven’t innovated evolutionarily in photosynthetic matters. As Le Page himself points out, plants have evolved the more efficient C4 photosynthetic pathway – in fact, this has evolved independently at least 31 times within various plant genera, mostly in the warmer climates where the C4 pathway works best. So why have plants been able to evolve more efficient forms of photosynthesis but not the super-efficient ones of the cyanobacteria? I don’t know, but my guess would be it’s not because the ‘enslavement’ of their cyanobacteria makes them evolutionarily unadventurous (which strikes me as the misguided application of a human metaphor to the natural world). Even if mutation in chloroplasts turns over more slowly than in cyanobacteria, plants have been around a very long time and, other things being equal, the advantages of more efficient photosynthesis are such that just a few mutations along these lines across the whole history of the plant kingdom would quickly propagate itself. So my guess is that ‘other things’ aren’t equal. Or to put it another way, plants are not reducible to their chloroplasts – there are numerous forces acting on the whole plant which it has to deal with as a complete organism in its environment. And these doubtless create trade-offs for the plant between photosynthetic efficiency and other desired characteristics – maybe drought tolerance and speed of growth?

If that’s so, it still doesn’t mean in itself that it’s necessarily a bad idea to engineer more photosynthetically efficient plants. But it suggests that the resulting plants may not be so well adapted to other aspects of their environment. And this, in a nutshell, is the tragedy of agriculture. For example, wild cereals would never naturally evolve the characteristics bred into them to suit human purposes – namely, short stems to ensure that as much of their photosynthate as possible goes to the desired seed, and non-shattering rachis to ensure that as many of the seeds as possible go into the desired grain harvester. Put such a plant into a wild grassland and it would be instantly outcompeted by tall-stemmed, shattering varieties – which is why farmers have to spend their days ploughing, weeding, spraying and so forth. My feeling is that Le Page’s “supercrops” with their “turbocharged photosynthesis” will only be “super” when they’re cossetted in the field or garden – just like other genetic monstrosities such as the bread wheats that humans have created down the ages.

If I’m right it may be a blessing, because Le Page thinks otherwise – in his view, these supercrops may outcompete wild plants, and the inference he draws is that we should not only let them do so but actively promote this outcome, in his words by “upgrading many wild plants too”. His rationale for the ‘upgrade’ of crop plants is the familiar ‘land sparing’ argument: in his words, “boosting agricultural yield to feed more people with less land”. And his rationale for the wild upgrade is this: “Wild animals need to eat too, and we’re not leaving much for them. An ecosystem based on superplants would support more life overall”.

Well, that suggestion leaves me as outraged as the next right-thinking greenie, but I want to focus my attention on the logical structure of this argument, which I find curious. At issue is an old debate in ecology as to whether the assemblages of organisms we call ecosystems have some emergent higher-order structure – whether the ecosystem is, as it were, a ‘superorganism’ – or whether it’s a more random, dynamic and competitive order with no equilibrium state or baseline by which we can say ‘Ah, here’s a proper ecosystem – intact and in balance’. The current orthodoxy in ecology, as I understand it, inclines towards the latter view, as elaborated for non-specialist audiences by the likes of Andy McGuire and in Emma Marris’s book Rambunctious Garden2.

Marris’s book has a cover endorsement from ecomodernist granddaddy Stewart Brand, and I suppose it’s not hard to see why. If there’s no stable ecological baseline, no ‘right’ ecosystem, against which to judge human fiddling with the rest of the biota, then there can be no objection in biological principle to any kind of bioengineering or plant ‘upgrade’ that somebody might deem worth a shot. But that argument cuts both ways. By the same token, there can be no objection in biological principle to filling the countryside or even the national parks with peasant farmers pursuing a putatively less ‘efficient’ form of ‘land sharing’ agriculture. The relatively efficiencies of high-tech commercial agriculture and low-tech peasant agriculture are difficult to determine, and it’s by no means a given that the former outscores the latter. But the beauty of the ‘random ecosystem’ argument is that it doesn’t matter. If it were true that the natural world was a thing of delicate balance entirely outwith human affairs that was apt to collapse in a heap at the hint of human presence, then I could see the logic of the ecomodernist position, at least theoretically – get people into cities well away from ‘nature’, grow food in the most efficient, lowest land-take manner possible, go vegan etc. In practice, I don’t think this is a good idea because for numerous reasons I think human environmental impacts in the long-term and possibly even the short-term will be greater, not lesser, if we go down this route. But theoretically at least, it’s a position that might make sense. If, on the other hand, we accept that humans are a part of the natural world and will inevitably affect it, just as all other organisms do, then the logic of ‘sparing’ land for nature becomes harder to discern. Of course, humans affect nature disproportionately to our numbers (or perhaps a better measure would be to our biomass), so whether we’re ‘sparing’ or ‘sharing’ it’s surely a good idea for us to attend to our impacts on the natural world – but there’s nothing written in the book of nature that tells us what those impacts should be. So there’s no ecological rationale for Le Page’s plan to ‘upgrade’ wild plants so that wild animals have more to eat.

Maybe what’s going on here is another set of contradictions around another dualistic debate – holism versus reductionism. We face some big, broad problems in the world – like how to feed humanity sustainably. Meanwhile, the scientific method has been spectacularly successful at understanding the world not so much in a big, broad holistic way, but in small, particular, reductionist ways. The problem with ecomodernism as I see it is that it makes the characteristically ‘modernist’ category error of trying to resolve the duality by addressing the general from the particular, by solving big, broad problems using small, reductionist means. I’d like to propose the opposite approach, of trying to solve small, particular problems by big, broad means. Take any person in the world – what are the main problems they have to solve as an individual to live well? How about food, clothes, shelter and conviviality? And what are the main factors obstructing them? I don’t think the photosynthetic inefficiency of the eukaryotic cell tops the list.

When I published my critique of the Ecomodernist Manifesto somebody tweeted a response along the lines of “Not beyond the wit of humanity to solve our problems. Maybe beyond the wit of @csmaje.” Well, it certainly is beyond my wit to solve humanity’s problems, and I’m inclined to think that it’s also beyond humanity’s collective wit to solve its collective problems. But then again I don’t have to solve humanity’s problems, and nor does anyone else. Solving my individual problems concerning food, clothes, shelter and conviviality stretches my wit quite enough, but at least it seems potentially achievable. So my contention for debate is this: IF WE COULD ONLY STOP TRYING TO SOLVE THE PROBLEMS OF THE ‘WORLD’ AND FOCUS ON OUR OWN DANGED PROBLEMS, THEN THE WORLD WOULD BE A LESS PROBLEMATIC PLACE.

Let me be clear: I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t care about other people or other beings; I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t work collectively with others; I’m not arguing that private vice equals public virtue, along the lines of Adam Smith. One of the ironies of the Smithian position is that it takes a strong, universalist body like a centralised state to break down local connections sufficiently to enforce the pursuit of ‘private’ self-interest. I’m just arguing that specific problems addressed holistically at the local level may prove more tractable than general problems addressed specifically at the global level. All of those terms are up for debate, but my starter for ten would be that small-scale, local, ‘land-sharing’ agroecological farming based on tried and tested materials and methods will do a better job of feeding the world and the rest of the biota too than Le Page’s superplant upgrade. And I say that in full awareness that there are various major global crises underway, including mass extinction. I agree with Le Page that “we are way, way past the point where we can preserve Earth the way it was before we came to the fore”. I just don’t think particularistic solutions to holistic problems of the kind he offers will best overcome them.

In his book Darwinian Agriculture – my go-to text for sensible scepticism about the wilder claims of both biotechnology and ‘alternative’ agriculture – ecologist Ford Denison reports that the claim to be able to engineer improved photosynthesis has been around for about forty years and is not likely to be realised “anytime soon”3. After discovering that the cyanobacteria ‘upgrade’ of tobacco wasn’t exactly the latest news, I spent a bit of time searching the web for an update on this breakthrough – not so diligently that I can be sure of this, but I failed to turn up anything published within the last year or two to suggest that the ‘upgrade’ was closer to reality. Could this be yet another one of those fabled ecomodernist technologies, like nuclear fusion, destined to recede ever onwards into the almost theres of the future? If you can bring me any further news of this particular hereafter, I’d be happy to hear it…

Notes

  1. Michael Le Page. 2014. Turbocharge our plants. New Scientist. 224, 2989: 26-7.
  1. Emma Marris. 2011. Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. Bloomsbury.
  1. Ford Denison. 2012. Darwinian Agriculture: How Understanding Evolution Can Improve Agriculture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Nine futures

Everybody needs to unwind with a bit of escapist reading from time to time and, like many people I’m sure, one of my favoured genres in this respect recently has been treatises of left-wing futurology. I’m thinking, for example, of titles like Inventing the Future, How Will Capitalism End?, Alternatives to Capitalism and Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn Addicts1. I’ve found all of these books (with one exception, which I’d guess should be obvious from its title) to be interesting and thought-provoking, even if I don’t find myself fundamentally in agreement with them. Another one I’ve read recently, one of the best of the bunch, is Peter Frase’s Four Futures: Life After Capitalism2.

My aim in this post is to use Frase’s book as a cue to discuss some issues of interest to me, rather than reviewing or précising it as such – but I’d certainly recommend taking a look at it. Like many left-futurologists, Frase in my opinion gets a little too excited about the prospect of an automated and jobless future (one of the features of the genre is that you have to mention 3D printing, driverless cars or biomimicry on virtually every page as some kind of avatar of future abundance), but at least the insights he generates from these new-old chestnuts are subtler than most. Frase proposes a 2×2 matrix of future scenarios across the dualities of abundance/scarcity (which he links to the play of ecological outcomes like climate change and resource depletion) and equality/hierarchy (which he links to the outcome of class conflicts over the distribution of resources). It’s a simple device – perhaps an over-simple one – but a useful one. I wish I’d thought of it myself…

Frase fills this matrix with the ‘four futures’ of his title thus:

 

Abundance Scarcity
Equality Communism Socialism
Hierarchy Rentism Exterminism

In case these concepts aren’t clear I’d precis his ‘communism’ as an egalitarian, leisured world of technologically-undergirded jobless plenty, ‘rentism’ as a capitalism-max, competitive world of endless commodification, ‘socialism’ as a world of egalitarian shared labour to wrest a livelihood from a damaged nature, and ‘exterminism’ as a world in which an impoverished working class whose labour has become superfluous as a result of automation is subjected to increasingly militarised control, and ultimately to extirpation (a process that Frase already detects among other things in the paramilitary police disciplining of African-American youth in the USA). It’s an interesting point inasmuch as discussions of future constraint or collapse often omit class and converge around a kind of Mad Max scenario involving a war of all against all. More likely indeed is intensifying resource competition between rich and poor, with the odds strongly favouring the former.

Frase writes interestingly about all these scenarios – and about how one might bleed into another – raising a host of issues that I hadn’t thought much about, if at all. But, as ever, I want to focus on a couple of points where I disagree with him rather than the many where I agree, if only because they help me develop my larger theme. So, Frase writes “Freedom begins where work ends – the realm of freedom is after hours, on the weekend, on vacation and not at work”3. That’s certainly a familiar story we tell ourselves, but psychological research suggests it’s not necessarily true4: people often rate their feelings of wellbeing higher at work than at play – maybe not so surprising when you consider that at work people are often engaged positively with other people in order to achieve complex ends, which is kind of what humans are evolved to do. Whereas at leisure they’re often kicking around on their own among the alienating appurtenances of contemporary consumer culture, thinking “God, I’m supposed to be having fun – is this really what life’s about?”

Let me leave that thought hanging for a moment, and come on to a second point of disagreement. Frase critiques the ‘nature worshipping’ school of ecological thought, which holds that human actions are wrecking nature, on the grounds that humans are a part of nature – and that nature in any case is never ‘in balance’ but is always profoundly dynamic5. I won’t argue with that, but I’d dispute the merit of turning it into a duality that forces us to choose between ‘nature worship’ or ‘anything goes’. This leads to false choices. For example, Frase talks about the ‘mysterious phenomenon’ of bee colony collapse disorder in the USA, and suggests that one solution might be to manufacture pollinating ‘RoboBee’ micro-machines, concluding “there seems little choice at this stage to deepen our engagement with nature” and that we must “embrace our monsters” (ie. accept that there will be unintended consequences of human actions in the world6). Quite so – but we can deepen our engagement with nature in numerous ways, including by increasing the input of human labour into agriculture (people enjoy working, remember) and de-intensifying the production methods that are prompting colony collapse and other troubling symptoms of over-reach. To do so wouldn’t involve ‘nature worship’ – it would still be a managed human agroecosystem – but it would represent one point on the wide spectrum between sublimating ourselves within nature and assuming total control of it which is effaced in Frase’s bald dichotomy.

It strikes me that with this sort of thing it would help if we started thinking more hierarchically – ‘hierarchically’ not in the everyday sense of the term as rank ordering, like a football league table, but in the more technical sense of a Venn diagram, of parts encompassed by wholes without any necessary rank ordering. So, as indicated in the diagram below, it becomes possible to see that from the human perspective (H) there’s a distinction between the human and the natural, whereas from the perspective of nature (N), there is no such distinction (by the way, the relative size of ‘nature’ vis-à-vis the ‘human’ in the box isn’t intended to indicate their respective importance – it’s more an indicator of my incompetence with software). But it’s doubtful that there’s such a thing as ‘the perspective of nature’, so H and N are really just different manifestations of self-conscious, human theories of being. The natural implies the human and vice versa. It makes as much sense to debate the autonomy of one against the other as the autonomy of up from down.

nature-humanI’d apply the same logic to the way we think about human life as an individual or collective property. Despite a long and bizarre philosophical tradition of social contract theory based around the notion that each person is a sovereign individual who ‘contracts in’ to society, this is clearly not the case. There are aspects of being human that are ineluctably individual (I) and others that are ineluctably social (S), but individualism is contained within sociality: a complete individualism, like a private language, is an impossibility. However, I think it’s reasonable to say there can be different political styles that place greater emphasis on individualism or sociality. Through most of my life, I’ve been suspicious of individualism in politics, because far too often I see it as a right-wing tactic (ab)used by soi disant ‘self-made men’ who weren’t, in fact, made by their selves, but who use the ideology of individualism to kick away the social supports giving succour to other people who are less systemically advantaged.

soc-indiv

But for all that, I think there’s something alive in notions of individuality, autonomy or self-realisation that can’t be negated by truisms about the social nature of humankind. I guess I could try to establish the point with a general argument, but maybe I’ll just make it personal. So – one of the reasons I quit academia and tried to make my way as some kind of farmer was a growing sense of the soullessness of a life spent indoors living off the backs of others, and a diminishing self-respect as my ignorance and inability to create even a semblance of my own material subsistence began to dawn on me. Perhaps you could say that those are just my own issues, magnified through the lens of a culture that vaunts the Robinson Crusoe myth of individualism. Maybe so, though I think people wrestle with issues of self-realisation in every culture, and what interests me in any case is how to deal authentically in the currency of my own. Doubtless there are people who do manage to achieve self-realisation through our contemporary consumer culture – the anthropologist Danny Miller has built virtually his whole career around articulating this point, which is a good one…though it strikes me as something of a rearguard defence7. Consider the multitudes who longingly seek a small patch of city ground to garden, who get busy individualizing and improving their homes, or fixing up their cars – even those who follow any number of crazy adventure sports, or pursue authenticity through cuisine or mindful letting go (a recent list of the UK’s non-fiction bestsellers was split about 50:50 between cookery and how-to-be-happy books). It seems to me that the big story of global capitalist development over the past few centuries is the power of humanity collectively to create vast material flows, mostly to the benefit of a minority. And the story that’s scribbled in its margins, desperate to be told, is how much we yearn for an autonomy or self-realisation that the big story, for all its undeniable successes, can’t give.

So to get to my point, I’d like to suggest a third duality to add to Frase’s equality-hierarchy and scarcity-abundance dualities – collective vs. self-realising. I’d like to hedge it with lots of caveats about the social nature of self-realisation, and I’d also like to acknowledge that the distinction poses further questions. What is the ‘collective’ we’re talking about here? The state? Or some other (perhaps more than one?) basis of collective human identity? What does human self-realisation look like? Who is the ‘self’? And where might it go to get its realisation? One answer I’d give to the latter question, predictably perhaps, is that the self could do worse than working with a small number of other known people to transform or ‘humanise’ nature on labour-intensive, low tech small-scale farms.

But let me try to put the ‘self-realising vs collective’ duality to work in terms of wider political ideologies. Below I’ve split out Frase’s 2×2 matrix into an 8-cell matrix across my additional duality. I wouldn’t claim that the eight (well, actually nine – I’ve cheated) possible futures thus generated fit unambiguously into their respective boxes with no complexities or overlaps, but it does seem to me that the expanded table generates some points of interest.

 

Abundance Scarcity
Equality Collective Communism Socialism
Self-realising Anarchism Agrarian populism
Hierarchy Collective Social democracy Fascism – Feudalism
Self-realising Rentism Exterminism

Just to expand briefly on the new futures I’ve sketched (Frase’s original four are in italics) I’d say that anarchists don’t have to believe in technologically-driven abundance, but it helps. In this respect, Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism8, with its upbeat 1960s take on technological liberation, set the tone for much contemporary anarchist thought. Most of the anarchists I’ve come across (and not a few non-anarchists too) take the view that scarcity is imposed artificially by a self-interested, hierarchical, centralising state. I think they’ve got a point, but on the basis of my travails on the farm I’d say that anarchists can be wont to overstate the eagerness of Mother Nature to render her gifts unto humankind. And when they get down to work on the farm, it strikes me that things like property rights and questions of desert start looming larger than is usually allowed for in the parent doctrine. I’d acknowledge, though, that my comments here only scratch the surface of the anarchist tradition, to which I’m quite sympathetic overall.

Frase’s ‘rentism’ looks pretty much like the terminal logic of capitalism in its contemporary neoliberal guise, in which any collective notion of human wellbeing (trade unions, the human right to food etc.) is dismissed as a market distortion. It strikes me that this extreme individualism of present times represents a collective delusion which, if left unchecked, undermines its own conditions of possibility. In practice, it isn’t left unchecked – even the most enthusiastically neoliberal of regimes nowadays finds it necessary to intervene in private markets in numerous ways in order to secure human wellbeing (and indeed in order to secure private markets themselves, which would fold in short order without government sponsorship). But without straying beyond a commitment to capitalist private enterprise, there’s a spectrum of possibilities from the extreme individualism of rentism (everything, everybody and everywhere is commodifiable) to a more collective, social democratic sense that managed private markets serve human flourishing. A good deal of contemporary writing – pretty much the entire corpus of ecomodernism, for example – effaces the distinction, but a politics that makes human flourishing an end is different in principle to one that makes rentism an end. Unfortunately, in practice the dalliance of social democracy with the animal spirits of the market gives it few defences against a slide into rentism.

Fascism is a curious amalgam of most of the other political ideologies on show, but it seems to me that it’s at its strongest in situations of scarcity and social stress. There is no place at all within it for personal autonomy or self-realisation. ‘The leader’, ‘the party’, ‘the state’, ‘the people’ and the ‘nation’ are indissolubly fused in fascist ideology. But in practice such a fusion is impossible, which is why fascism has affinities with exterminism: the only way to reconcile its extremist ideology of pure corporate collective identity with plural social and individual worlds is to try to eliminate the pluralism.

I’ve listed feudalism (for want of a more accurate shorthand) in the same box as fascism because when the tortuous contradictions involved in the attempt of fascism to reconcile equality with hierarchy through recourse to ideas of corporate identity have exhausted themselves, what’s left in situations of resource scarcity is a more thoroughgoing sense of inequality: the few are born to rule, while the many are born to serve. This doctrine is collective inasmuch as it attaches rights and responsibilities to the respective castes in service of a wider sense of social order. It isn’t just a free for all. I’ll have a fair bit more to say about this in future posts, so for now I’ll just remark that this is quite an obvious way to go in situations of scarcity, but not an especially satisfactory one if you happen to be born among the many.

Finally, agrarian populism fits in the equality–scarcity–self-realisation box. In an agrarian populist society a large number of people are small-scale farmers (‘family farmers’, if you will) or artisans supporting the agrarian economy. So self-realisation is local and to a considerable extent individual/familial/household-based (more questions elided right there, I acknowledge) and geared to self-subsistence. The situation demands broad equality of entitlement to land and other productive resources, otherwise the populace ceases to be agrarian and we move towards more collective solutions. But, of course, in order to secure the equality, some kind of state or collective agency is required. This is the political contradiction at the heart of agrarian populism, which I mention here as an agrarian populist myself to highlight the fact that it’s not a panacea or an easy solution. It’s just that the solutions offered by the other doctrines seem yet more implausible and contradictory. I’d argue that agrarian populism fits within the ‘scarcity’ box for similar reasons to those that prompted our much-esteemed prime minister to remark recently that money doesn’t grow on trees (despite the fact that she seems to have magicked up this very week a cool £1 billion for Northern Ireland to keep herself in No.10). Just as money doesn’t grow on trees, the same is true with the fruit of the land. Well, OK, that’s not entirely true – some fruit does in fact grow on trees. But not much of it without appropriate breeding, grafting, fertilising, pruning and picking, using the scarce resources of land, energy, fertility and human labour.

So to summarise, the world of agrarian populism is one that seeks abundance-in-scarcity, and this is the trail I want to follow. Which leads me to a final point of divergence with Frase, who writes of a recurrent capitalist dynamic where,

“as workers become more powerful and better paid, the pressure on capitalists to automate increases. When there is a huge pool of low wage migrant farm labor, a $100,000 fruit picker looks like a wasteful indulgence. But when workers are scarce and can command better wages, the incentive to replace them with machinery is intensified”9

Not much to quarrel with there as historical retrospective – apart from the argument that the incentive to automate may sometimes stem more from the urge to make workers less powerful and more poorly paid10. But there are numerous ecological and economic reasons to think that, when projected into the future, this capitalist dynamic has an endpoint. After that occurs, it seems likely that hired labour, energy and machinery will all be expensive, so to the average farmer both migrant farm labour and $100,000 fruit pickers will then seem a wasteful indulgence. What commends itself in that scenario is the agrarian populism of the ‘middle peasant’, who’d most likely pick the fruit themselves, and then eat it.

Notes

  1. Srnicek, Nick and Williams, Alex. 2015. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. London: Verso; Streeck, Wolfgang. 2016. How Will Capitalism End? London: Verso; Hahnel, Robin and Olin Wright, Erik. 2016. Alternatives to Capitalism: Proposals for a Democratic Economy. London: Verso; Phillips, Leigh. 2015. Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn Addicts: A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff. Alresford: Zero Books.
  1. Frase, Peter. 2016. Four Futures: Life After Capitalism. London: Verso.
  1. Ibid. p.40.
  1. Kahneman, Daniel. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Penguin.
  1. Frase op cit. pp.101-6.
  1. Ibid. p.106.
  1. eg. Miller, Daniel. 2012. Consumption and its Consequences. Cambridge: Polity.
  1. Bookchin, Murray. 1971. Post-Scarcity Anarchism. Black Rose.
  1. Frase op cit. p.8.
  1. Eg. Malm, Andreas. 2016. Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming. London: Verso.

 

Lean Logic

The much-delayed Issue 21 of The Land Magazine has just been published – how did we cope with the waiting? If you search diligently through its pages, you’ll find a review in it by me of David Fleming’s fascinating book, Lean Logic1. Below I’m reproducing a longer version of the review than the one that appears in the magazine.

It may be worth just sketching the back story of the review. Fleming died in 2010 leaving his manuscript incomplete, and it was left to Shaun Chamberlin to pick up the gauntlet and see the work through to final publication – which he did with great aplomb and, I’m sure, no little legwork. Shaun kindly suggested to The Land’s editors that I might be worthy to review the book, and so it was that towards the end of last year the weighty tome landed in my mailbox.

Working my way through the book, I was enormously impressed with much of it, but also troubled by some of it, mostly for reasons that have cropped up recently on this website in debates over populism, nationalism and suchlike. I wrote a perhaps overly bad-tempered review draft, but felt a little embarrassed about it since it was Shaun himself who’d put the book my way. So with some trepidation I sent it to him for discussion. He proved splendidly broad-minded about it, and we had an interesting email exchange about David’s ideas in the course of which Shaun helped me to improve the review greatly from my first effort. Shaun pointed out that we can often agree with 90% of what someone says, yet focus on the 10% where we disagree, and I probably have to plead guilty of that here. I guess all I’d add is that I’ve found that dissonant 10% very informative in trying to think through the left agrarian populist project I’m generally engaged in on this blog…and I’m not sure David needs further plaudits from me in relation to the other 90%. But I hope I’ve managed to convey at least a measure of my admiration for his thinking in my review.

Version II of the review that I submitted to The Land was a rather sprawling effort, and I was asked to cut it by about a quarter. Then as the publication date loomed I was asked to cut it by another quarter – doubtless the real quality material had started rolling into the editorial office by that point… Well, no complaints from me – I have endless respect for Gill and Simon’s editorial nous. But though there’s something to be said for brevity, the result is that over the last few months I’ve produced four different versions of the review and I’ve had to cut out various bits that I’d have preferred to keep in.

So what I’m offering you below is kind of a Lean Logic Review – the Director’s Cut, which combines what I hope are the best features of all the various versions into the definitive text. I hope you enjoy it, because boy have I sweated over each and every one of the 2,000-odd words below.

oOo

The late David Fleming was a maverick economist who left his imprint across British environmentalism from the Green Party to the Transition movement by way of the New Economics Foundation. In Lean Logic, he presents a lifetime’s thinking on how humanity might deal with a coming ‘climacteric’ – an interlocking crisis of climate, energy, water, food and other resources. The master concept is leanness, which Fleming unfurls against the grain of our taken-for-granted approach to the contemporary capitalist economy by reincorporating ‘the economy’ as politics, and ultimately as culture – one culture among many. Thus, from the impressive but dysfunctional culture of contemporary capitalism, Fleming tries to discern the shape that lean cultures of a post-climacteric future might take – diverse, locally-specific, spiritually-oriented, and dedicated to human livelihood as self-creation rather than self-aggrandisement. He pursues the twists and turns of these issues in dictionary format across a sprawling, and decidedly unlean, 672 pages – not always in directions that I personally find persuasive, but always with integrity, thoughtfulness and a dash of humour. It’s an impressive achievement.

The easiest way I can engage with the book in a short review is by identifying four overarching threads. The first is the logic of argument, the rhetorical means by which people try to persuade others of their views – perhaps a subsidiary theme to the book’s larger concerns, but pertinent nonetheless. Advocates for radical alternatives to the status quo commonly find their views marginalised by all manner of rhetorical trickery which excludes them from the narrow centre ground of ‘serious’ opinion. Fleming is at his best in skewering such tactics in a series of brief, aphoristic entries which allow his mordant humour full rein.

The second thread is the use of systems theory to illuminate the worlds that both natural selection and human cultures have built in the past and might build in the future. I’m slightly sceptical about the usefulness of turning such disparate phenomena as animal bodies, transport networks, groups of conspecific organisms, the human economy, ecosystems and the internet into mere exemplars of ‘system’, and Fleming doesn’t always convince me that the systems he discusses (like Gaia, the Earth itself as system) are really ‘systems’, but his writing is invariably stimulating, especially when he turns to human social systems. A case in point is his clever analysis of the way that the increasing complexity in modern society rests on the increasing simplification of roles in its constituent individuals and communities. This makes it more resilient in its current capacity to prevent system shocks, but less resilient in its ability to recover from them.

Fleming’s third thread is devoted to the economics of resilience in the context of the climacteric. There’s some exemplary analysis here, not least in his characterizations of the ‘taut’ – but not ‘lean’ – contemporary capitalist economy and the way its growth ingests the natural capital it depends on, rather than subsisting sustainably from its flow. He contrasts this with more resilient societies historically that have limited or destroyed growth capital so as to preserve the natural resources on which life depends, often through practices that strike the modern mind as inefficient or frivolous. But he also shows how difficult it is to achieve resilience of this kind once the capitalist genie is out of the bottle: in capitalist societies, degrowth too readily means stagnation, recession and unemployment.

So far, so good. But, for me, Fleming’s thought becomes more problematic when he outlines how the ‘lean’ societies of the future might overcome the problems bequeathed by the present. His economic thought, for example, hinges on a strong contrast between market economies and ‘gift’ economies, where the exchange of things builds trust or solidarity in a concentric pattern emanating outwards from households and neighbourhoods. The problem here is partly an over-general definition of ‘market economy’: there have been many kinds of market economy historically, with vastly different consequences. But it’s also that the non-market exchange of things can build status inequality just as much as solidarity, as with patron-client and caste systems. The hankering to transcend impersonal market relations with socially-embedded exchange is understandable, but social embeddedness isn’t always positive. Fleming appreciates this, noting that “all gifts have strings attached” (p.178) and arguing that the market economy “supports a more egalitarian society than any other large-scale state has been capable of” (p.305). But I think he underestimates its importance, preferring to focus on the possibilities for building harmony rather than hierarchy through non-market exchange. The fundamental problem is not, however, the primacy of market over gift relations but the human will to power, which can happily inhabit both forms.

I’m not sure how troubling status inequality is to Fleming’s project, though, because the politics of Lean Logic are essentially conservative. There’s certainly an upside to this: while the mainstream politics of both left and right have dallied fatefully with market liberalism, it’s mostly been left to conservative thinkers of the kind that Fleming approvingly invokes – Edmund Burke, T.S. Eliot, Michael Oakeshott, Roger Scruton, Alasdair MacIntyre – to think seriously about community and tradition. Conservative thinking at its best – and much of Fleming’s writing fits this bill – helps us in the difficult task of living well in real-life communities. Perhaps it represents a kind of rugged individualism, in Fleming’s words “of being intuitively sure of who you are” (p.206) and able to deal with conflicts and setbacks without abdicating them to a levelling higher authority.

Amen to that. But the trouble with conservatism is that while it deals well with the random conflicts of life, it has less to say when those conflicts become systemic. For example, Fleming identifies the household – an economy rife with pure, unconditional giving – as a potential model for his preferred non-monetary gift society. But he scarcely mentions gender throughout the book, and doesn’t notice there’s a particular half of the population that disproportionately bears the cost of this unconditional giving. Indeed, he’s rather dismissive of systemic social identities like gender or class as politically significant, and dismissive of equality as an ethical end, arguing that equality is only a cipher for what really matters – community and social capital. There are grounds for arguing precisely the opposite.

When Fleming turns in his fourth thread to questions of culture, the conservatism becomes more problematic. Even here, much of what he writes is dazzlingly good. He has the anthropologist’s knack of making our contemporary culture seem strange, and the mystifying practices of other times and places seem perfectly sensible – as in his excellent analysis of medieval carnival, which showcases his fine judgment of the proper contexts for acting rationally, or spiritually, or playfully. I find his view persuasive that we get this wrong in contemporary western culture – and in this sense, whatever one’s views about a future climacteric, Fleming’s work stands up independently as cultural criticism.

But the concept of culture he finally arrives at in service of a future lean society seems the opposite of that outlined by the influential Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin, whose book2 on carnival Fleming cites. For Bakhtin, carnival exemplifies a ‘dialogic imagination’, forever open to new meanings, messy clashes of diverse people and ideas, contests over authority in which nobody has the last word. Fleming, by contrast, seems to be seeking some kind of single authentic note to ground culture as shared history and destiny. He frames this appealingly in a memorable phrase: “the story of you and the people you know, set in the place you know” (p.199). But it’s all too easy to invert the formulation and define culture by exclusion against the people and places you don’t know. That isn’t Fleming’s intention. Indeed, he warns against overemphasizing place-based identity: “gypsies and ships’ captains are not necessarily prevented from discovering their identity – but their place is the road, or the sea” (p.206). Yet to me this is an inadequate gloss for what happens to the placeless when culture is strongly defined around place.

There are many such stigmatised and often involuntary ‘wanderers’ in the modern world, and I fear a rigid application of Fleming’s ideas would further marginalise them. His intention is otherwise: to replace the rootless nomadism of contemporary capitalist culture with a world of “strong, distinctive local cultures, sharing mutual respect” (p.321). But here I’m with Bakhtin: cultural boundaries are never fixed enough to define separate, distinct, cultures-in-the-plural unambiguously, and ideas of culture and community are always essentially fictions – indeed, the idea of the nation as a fictive community-writ-large of ‘people you know’ only really arose with the emergence of capitalist mass society from the eighteenth century. Fleming approvingly cites Roger Scruton falling into this nationalist trap, construing ‘culture’ as a fictive shared history defined essentially through the exclusion of outsiders (pp.84-5). This is immediately followed with another approving citation, this time from Wendell Berry, which sounds similar in its weighting of the local but actually grounds culture in shared work on the land, not exclusive history. I wish he’d ditched Scruton and developed the implications of Berry, because in seeking a basis for the post-capitalist societies of the climacteric and lighting on the culture of the nation rather than the work on the farm, I fear he’s backing the wrong horse.

What I wouldn’t dispute is the importance of finding an alternative to the present economic path of neoliberal globalisation, and I think Fleming is right to seek it in the local. Given the contemporary decline of public confidence in large-scale state institutions, his preference for what he calls ‘local wisdom’ over top-down government intervention is hardly controversial. But there are dangers. Much as I like Fleming’s sunny discussion of the “fusion of insult and endearment” associated with “love of the place you live in and the play-potential with places which have the misfortune of being somewhere else” (p.303) the local can be much more vicious and divided than that. I’m thinking, for example, of rape in rural India as a high caste strategy to silence low caste dissent in places far away from any rational niceties about the inviolability of the individual or her body3. Or, less traumatically, an experience that perhaps I’ve shared with other readers of The Land: despite our localist or anarchist leanings, a gratitude towards planning inspectors, those functionaries of the rational-bureaucratic state, who decide in favour of our low impact smallholdings against the ‘local wisdom’ of district councillors and residents who wish to prevent them. Indeed, ever since the emerging centralised states of the late medieval or early modern period gradually started defining a sphere of entitled citizenship against the arbitrary privilege of the seigneurial manor, while at the same time reorienting local economies upwards to the larger ends of the state, I don’t think there’s been a single or a simple story to tell about the encroachment of state power into the sphere of the local in western Europe, and this is paralleled in other parts of the world. Fleming knows this, mentioning the “darker side” of localities (p.68). But, as with his approach to non-market exchange, he tends to gloss over it in favour of more positive interpretations.

Still, it would be wrong to pigeonhole Fleming with the happy multitudes of eco-futurologists who regard anything other than determined optimism about humanity’s prospects as an act of bad faith.  It’s plain from his writing that he doesn’t consider a convivial, lean society of the climacteric to be a foregone conclusion. His entry on ‘unlean’ societies is something of a missed opportunity, detouring into a long exposition of Karl Wittfogel’s discredited ‘Oriental Despotism’ hypothesis concerning the ecological causes of repressive autocracy, and his thought sometimes skirts the same deterministic territory. But ultimately he succeeds in going somewhere more useful – to an insistence on political agency rather than technological solutions to ecological problems, on thinking anew about the relationship between local autonomy and state power, and on robustly defending democracy.

Perhaps there’s an issue with the book along similar lines to one that’s emerged from time to time in comments on this blog. To what extent should we focus our politics on the future we’d like to see, or on the future we think we’ll get? Only Miss World contestants and religious millenarians like the ecomodernists are wont to construe a future of peace, prosperity and technology for all as the political telos of the present – leading them, depending on their other attributes, to enter beauty contests, work as analysts at the Breakthrough Institute or write furious blogs about the infidels blocking the stairway to heaven. But it’s not always clear to me whether Fleming is saying ‘this is the world we’re going to get, so you’d better get used to it’ or ‘this is the world we’re going to get, and here’s how we’ll make the best of it’ or ‘this is the world we’re going to get – delightful, isn’t it?’, perhaps a generic problem for all of us who fix our sights beyond the political short-term. I guess for me an is doesn’t make an ought.

Still, whatever one thinks of his answers, Fleming consistently asks good questions, with a combination of wit and mature wisdom that often makes his writing soar. The book’s intriguing illustrations and excellent production, for which congratulations are surely due to editor Shaun Chamberlin and the publishers, enhance the effect. For all my misgivings about it, it would have been a shame had Fleming’s death robbed us of his illuminating thought.

Notes

  1. Fleming, David (2016). Lean Logic: A Dictionary For The Future And How To Survive It, (Ed. Shaun Chamberlin) White River Junction: Chelsea Green.
  1. Bakhtin, Mikhail (1984). Rabelais and His World, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  1. Desai, Manali (2016). Gendered violence in India. New Left Review, 99: 67-83.

Population and development: more on Malthus

I’m going to follow up on my previous post and turn this into a Malthusian two-parter. Let me begin by offering you an exclusive behind-the-scenes peek into the intellectual ferment that is the Small Farm Future office. After publishing our post on Malthus last week the SFF team have been reading Chris Wickham’s doorstopper of a book Framing The Early Middle Ages, which makes reference to the late Danish economist Ester Boserup’s influential 1965 book The Conditions of Agricultural Growth, and specifically to Boserup’s ‘anti-Malthusian’ arguments. We’d read Boserup’s book a couple of years back and made a few notes on it, but failed to incorporate it properly into our thinking. Wickham’s reference to it fired off connections not only to our arguments about Malthus but also to neo-populist economic theory (in which category we can perhaps place the anthropologist Paul Richards’ gentle critique of Boserup), and to the concepts of agricultural involution and to low level and high level equilibrium traps which we’re currently wrestling with as part of a small side project in which we aim to bring you the history of the world in just four blog posts1. Well, maybe four and a half.

OK, let me drop the first person plural, the joke’s gone far enough. And let me also apologise for subjecting readers of this blog to the painful creaking of my thinking-out-loud gears as I try to get to grips with all of this stuff. The apology would be all the more heartfelt if I was actually employed to do this, rather than spending precious weekends trying to make sense of the world and committing my half-formed ideas to cyberspace, but there you go – I’m just grateful that there are people who feel it worth their while to respond. One of whom is Andrew, whose view of Malthusianism as a ‘dark fairy tale that should never be allowed to occur in reality’ is interesting food for thought.

Anyway, that’s a perhaps unnecessarily long preamble to say that here I’m going to offer some preliminary and disjointed thoughts on Boserup’s anti-Malthusianism, followed by some further thoughts on escaping Andrew’s dark Malthusian fairy tale.

The Malthus-Boserup contretemps hinges on how we construe the relationship between agricultural productivity and population growth. As Boserup sees it, Malthusians consider population growth to be determined by the level of agricultural productivity or technology, whereas in her view the causality runs in the other direction: population growth creates subsistence pressures that stimulate increased agricultural productivity. One of the major dimensions of agricultural productivity that she emphasises is labour: “I have reached the conclusion,” she writes, “that in many cases the output from a given area of land responds far more generously to an additional input of labour than assumed by neo-Malthusian authors”2. And much of her book demonstrates the point with various examples of the way that in non-industrial farming systems additional labour inputs into such things as irrigation, tillage and fertility management results in higher yields per unit area. The same applies to industrial farming systems, though here a good deal of the additional labour is mechanical, bringing problems of its own that I won’t address here.

I think Boserup is right about the spectacularly productive character of human labour – it’s something I’ve remarked on previously on this blog, and something that’s emerged implicitly from my ‘Peasant’s Republic of Wessex’ exercise, which has shown how relatively easy it is to feed large populations through labour-intensive methods even with conservative productivity assumptions. But while it’s true that population growth may prompt agricultural intensification, it doesn’t follow that this provides an adequate historical account of agricultural ‘development’ through history, or that population growth is a final, causal factor (this, essentially, is Richards’ critique of Boserup: she doesn’t provide a historical account to show that population growth is a consistent historical prime mover). But if we do entertain Boserup’s analysis as a historical theory, then it’s a curious concept of ‘development’. Why would a society produce more offspring than it can comfortably feed and then devote itself to disagreeable extra labour in order to make good the shortfall? After all, historically the peasant way has usually been to choose extra leisure over extra work whenever possible – much to the chagrin of would-be ‘agricultural improvers’ – and to restrict fertility accordingly, albeit through methods that tend to strike the modern mind as sad at best and utterly wicked at worst. Wickham shows that this was pretty much the strategy adopted by peasants in early medieval Europe when they could get away with it – which was usually when there wasn’t a strong, centralised state around to organise their labour according to its own designs. Perhaps I’m missing something, but Wickham’s enthusiasm for Boserup’s account as a historical theory baffles me for this reason, when his own work underlines the importance of the state, of centralised polities, in agricultural development. The significance of the state is something I’m planning to write about in more detail soon. For me, all this raises two related questions worth posing to assorted Boserupians, eco-modernists and techno-fixers assembled under the anti-Malthusian banner labelled ‘technical development’: who are the winners and who are the losers of any given ‘development’, and who’s doing the hard work in the society so ‘developed’? A third question might be: even granted an association between population growth and technical development, is it always so tight that the former never overruns the latter, creating a short-term Malthusian crisis?

Anyway, my feeling is that the contrast between the ‘neo-Malthusians’ and Boserup’s ‘anti-Malthusianism’ is overdrawn. I agree that there are many ways of staving off the dark fairy tale of an impending Malthusian crisis, of which labour intensification is a key one usefully highlighted by Boserup. But that scarcely refutes the basic Malthusian problems I discussed in my last post of resource pressures creating generalised stress which may be ‘referred’ elsewhere – onto other people, or onto other organisms. And it doesn’t establish any kind of historical truth that Malthus’s dark tale will always stay in the realms of fiction. After all, Boserup’s tale of ‘development’ through labour intensification is a pretty dark one itself.

Take my Londinium projections from a few posts back. Now imagine this scenario in Londinium a few years hence, which seems to me a possibility at least:

  • declining crop yields as a result of climate change
  • increasing energy prices
  • a global economic depression prompted by the unhappy confluence of public and private debt, stagnant growth and increasing social inequality
  • the steady withdrawal of basic agricultural commodities from global markets as governments prioritise national food security

A sensible government in those circumstances would probably develop a national food and farming policy with a heavy emphasis on cereal cropping. Let’s say it managed to furnish you with just about enough bread to keep the hunger pangs at bay. If you wanted anything much else to eat, you’d be sowing vegetable seeds in domestic gardens, training vines up walls, collaborating in community orchard ventures, joining neighbourhood pig clubs, and dreaming up as many plans for creative agricultural intensification in domestic spaces as you possibly could. Would you say you were experiencing a Malthusian crisis or going through a phase of Boserupian intensification? My friend, you’d be too busy gardening to care.

Anyway, let us suppose that we’re in such a situation, and the future portents are only looking worse. What are the available options? There are four main strategies, three of which are routinely discussed within the Malthusian framework, while the fourth – the most promising one, in my opinion – rarely is. Let me briefly summarize them.

1. The technical fix. This is pretty much Plan A, B, C and Z for most of the world’s governments and would-be governments. Not enough food? Figure out how to raise yields. Too much greenhouse gas? Figure out how to sequester carbon, deflect sunlight, or whatever. Malthus is vanquished by scientific progress. The problem with this is that you can’t guarantee you’ll come up with a fix in time. And even if you do, new solutions beget new problems and rebound effects, so you may just be kicking the can down the road until it turns into an even bigger and more intractable problem later on. Usually, technical fixes are only proximal engineering solutions to underlying social problems – and those problems remain. I still think it can be a good idea to pursue technical solutions. I don’t think it’s a good idea to pursue them as the main, still less the only, strategy to overcoming resource crises.

2. Embracing the fight. Alternatively, you can just embrace the gathering crisis and prepare to fight for your piece of the much-contested pie. But it’s a high-risk strategy. A lot of people seem to harbour the notion that they’ll be one of the ones to come out on top – kind of like the way that most people seem to think they’re a better than average driver. But in an all-out, civilization-shredding Malthusian crisis all bets are off. Thomas Hobbes famously wrote that in a ‘state of warre’ life was ‘nasty, brutish and short’, which is often interpreted as a historical argument for the progress of refined civilisation over rude barbarism. I’d interpret him to be saying rather that, absent some kind of non-violent proliferation treaty between people (in other words, absent politics), and we’re basically all losers. I’m sympathetic to the preppers and doomers who learn how to grow potatoes or handle a gun, partly because I can’t think of any reasons why it’s ever a bad idea to know how to provide for yourself, and mainly because I think the more people there are who understand the difficulties and compromises involved in self-provisioning, the closer we’ll be to a sustainable agrarian society. But ultimately almost no one can subsist alone, and all else is politics. The ones who know how to cultivate political alliances will do better than the ones who know how to cultivate potatoes – which will be a line of argument I’ll pursue more fully in Wessex and Londinium Part II.

3. Migration. The basic problem in a Malthusian crisis is that there are too many people in the denominator, so one of the easier fixes is for some of them to go somewhere else. This becomes increasingly hard to do as the ‘somewhere elses’ get filled up. The ‘Old World’ solved not a few of its problems in the short term by exporting a lot of its people to the ‘New World’, but it seems unlikely there are more New Worlds to be discovered (with the exception of outer space, a recurrent modernist dream which – a bit like nuclear fusion – has remained constantly unrealised to date). It’s possible that existing ‘worlds’ could be more densely settled by people using more land-intensive techniques (vegan smallholders on what was once extensive pasture, for example, as in my last-but-one post), or an otherwise Boserupian response to the Malthusian crisis. Doubtless there’s scope for migratory recolonizations of this sort, given the political will. But the problem here is a bit like the problem with the technical fix – without specific efforts to trim human lifeways so they fit extant ecological possibilities, migration or migratory intensification only delays the Malthusian moment. In his sad but lovely book about the encounter between farming and foraging peoples, The Other Side of Eden, Hugh Brody argues that, historically, farming societies have been the truly nomadic ones, forever parlaying their agrarian surpluses into surpluses of people, who ultimately must then seek their livelihood in new lands. When those lands have included foraging peoples, the results have usually been genocidal for the latter. In more recent times, importing service has had greater stress than exporting people, but the feeling remains that modern civilisation has been offloading the negative consequences of its actions onto other people or other organisms in ways that can ultimately only postpone rather than transcend its own reckoning with resource constraint.

4. Sub-critical juggling. Well, I know this is my hobbyhorse at the moment, but I think this way of thinking just doesn’t get its due. The logic of it goes roughly like this: no, humanity hasn’t yet transcended the Malthusian manacles of population excess relative to resource base and probably never will, but we potentially have some smart tricks up our sleeve to keep the old parson at bay so long as we avoid complacency. For starters, there are some techno-fixes that might be worth a try – typically of the humble common or garden variety (perhaps quite literally, eg. participatory plant breeding programmes) rather than the grandly revolutionary (eg. nuclear fusion). Then there’s the Boserupian turn to more labour and land intensive forms of agriculture, an approach sometimes pejoratively labelled by scholars as ‘involutionary’ (paradigmatically by the late Clifford Geertz3) but one which I suspect will prove a more enduring solution than ‘revolutionary’ modernist-industrial agriculture (more on this soon). A managed agricultural involution would be one strand of that larger effort alluded to above of trimming human lifeways to extant ecological possibilities, which in a sub-critical juggle scenario would also unfurl in arenas of consumption other than food. Finally, there’s the possibility that as the Malthusian shipwreck approaches, we avoid a Hobbesian rush to the lifeboats, a ‘warre of all against all’ under the cry of ‘everyone for themselves’, which risks killing a lot of people unnecessarily in the crush, and we do so by equalising chances and building collective sensibilities. Is it likely that human societies will adopt this sub-critical juggling approach? Well, perhaps not very – though I’d submit that it’s by far the most promising approach to avoid an unpleasant encounter with Malthus’s ghost. But it is a possible approach, and is not without its historical precedents. How so? Well, that will have to wait until we turn to Wessex and Londinium, Part II.

Notes

1. The books referred to in this paragraph are: Wickham, C. (2005) Framing the Early Middle Ages, Oxford; Boserup, E. (1965) The Conditions of Agricultural Growth, London; Richards, P. (1985) Indigenous Agricultural Revolution, London. On ‘agricultural involution’: Geertz, C. (1963) Agricultural Involution, Berkeley. On high level equilibrium traps, among others: Arrighi, G. (2007) Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century, London.

2. Boserup, op cit. p.14.

3. Geertz, op cit.

A taboo and a talisman

To start, just a quick summary of this site’s comment policy, which I’ve now added to the About page. No personally abusive comments directed towards me or other commenters, please. And no content of a racist, misogynist or otherwise prejudiced character, even if wrapped in a cloak of researcherly authenticity. Comments of this nature will be removed, and individuals with repeat infractions will be permanently barred. Final decision on the rules rests with me, with no discussion entered into. Well, at least there’s somewhere where I have sweeping executive powers. Though I’m hoping for political office along those lines in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex when it gets going. OK, enough said.

So now let’s get down to today’s business with a quiz question: Charles Darwin wrote “fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement X”. The work in question had a profound influence on Darwin’s thought: “Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work…” But what is X?

X was equally influential on Alfred Russel Wallace, co-originator of the theory of evolution by natural selection, who wrote: “But perhaps the most important book I read was X….It was the first great work I had yet read treating of any of the problems of philosophical biology…and twenty years later gave me the long-sought clue to the effective agent in the evolution of organic species.”

Darwin, and to a lesser extent Wallace, would surely be up there on many lists of the most influential scientists of all time. So you might expect the author of the mysterious X to be similarly feted. But that’s hardly the case. Karl Marx wrote of Thomas Malthus and his Essay on the Principle of Population, for that book is indeed the X in question, that it is “the great destroyer of all hankerings after human development”. There are plenty of people around today who’d say much the same of Marx, but that doesn’t seem to have helped rehabilitate Malthus. Things have moved on in the realm of ‘philosophical biology’, so I doubt contemporary evolutionary scientists find much need to read him. But every generation of social and political scientists seems to feel the obligation to disinter his remains, give them a good kicking, and then pronounce him buried once and for all.

Darwin’s thinking itself fell into eclipse in the early part of the twentieth century, prompting zoologist H.J. Muller to grumble “one hundred years without Darwinism are enough”. Which leads me to offer the following provocation: two hundred and nineteen years without Malthus are enough.

Let me explain why. First of all, it’s worth saying that while Malthus’s writing on population is virtually the only part of his work that gets discussed today, he was also a pioneering economist who was among the first to write about economic booms and busts, and the relative merits of protecting local markets or opening them up to wider competition – topics he debated lengthily with another founding father, David Ricardo. It was, in a sense, the original debate about localism and globalism, and it was one that Malthus lost both intellectually and politically. But with the economics of 2008 and the politics of 2016 ringing in our ears today, it seems to me that Malthus’s key economic concerns, if not necessarily his actual economics, are up for grabs again. Are open private markets, with their boom-bust cycles and their vast global flows of people and goods, the best way of securing human wellbeing? The number of people who think so in the world today seems to be diminishing.

Well, perhaps I’ll come back to Malthus’s economics in a later post. For now, let me follow the crowds and say a few words about his thinking on population.

The basics of the issue are simply stated. Malthus postulated that if otherwise unchecked the natural increase in the population of a species tends to outrun the resource base it needs to support itself, leading to misery and famine – a cruel way indeed for population and resources to return to equilibrium. It’s easy to see why this excited the interest of Darwin and Wallace. Overpopulation was a natural felling mechanism, selecting those individuals best able to cope with contemporary conditions. Played out over deep time, the result is evolution from one species to another.

But, the objection routinely goes, people aren’t just natural creatures subject to natural selection. We’re social creatures, and we make our own reality. So if the food supply starts diminishing we figure out ways to increase it, like inventing agriculture. Agriculture, however, can readily be assimilated to the ‘natural’, as part of humanity’s extended phenotype. So those who claim that Malthusian limits don’t apply to humans are effectively assigning our species the status of permanent evolutionary winners. Hmmm, well our species is still a latecomer in the evolutionary parade. And Malthus himself was writing only three lifetimes ago, not even an eye-blink in evolutionary time. Has humanity beaten evolution, and proven Malthus wrong? It’s far too soon to tell.

Henry George was a relatively early objector to Malthus along these lines of self-creating human exceptionalism:

“Both the jayhawk and the man eat chickens; but the more jayhawks, the fewer chickens, while the more men, the more chickens.”

Much latter-day anti-Malthusianism scarcely advances beyond George’s comment, while usually falling short of his aphoristic brio. But there’s a problem with it. George should have written “Both the jayhawk and the man eat chickens; but the more jayhawks, the fewer chickens, while the more men, the more chickens, though the fewer jayhawks”. In other words, humanity doesn’t just conjure extra chickens out of nowhere with a snap of its high-tech fingers. It does it mostly by drawing down on extra resources at the expense of the biota as a whole, and perhaps ultimately at its own expense. It’s not a completely zero-sum game. It’s possible to imagine ways that people might raise more chickens without significant extra detriment to the rest of the biota. But not many. If you look at biotic relationships holistically instead of dyadically as George did, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that humanity (well, some of humanity anyway) has escaped the Malthusian crunch by passing the buck on to other species, creating ‘overpopulation’ crises among them from exogenous habitat loss. Kind of a ‘referred’ Malthusian crisis that hasn’t affected its progenitors – yet.

Maybe as a result of falling human fertility rates and further technical developments, we’ll continue to evade the crunch. In that circumstance, how many other species we might carry through with us is pretty unclear, and its implications dependent on how dark green or biocentric you like your environmental philosophy. Mine, I have to confess, is quite light in hue, and I don’t especially hanker after a world undisturbed by the hand of humanity. Even so, I can’t help feeling that something must be philosophically and indeed spiritually wrong when our modern lives seem to be causing a mass extinction event on a geological scale. Nor does it seem wholly plausible to me that we will ultimately evade the evolutionary cliff that we’re so busy shepherding our fellow creatures over.

But are we facing a human Malthusian crisis right now? For the most part, the answer seems to be ‘no’. I’ve shown, for example, in my various recent projections of food production in a more populous future UK that it’s relatively easy to grow a lot of food for a lot of people using simple farming techniques – though the figures are a little too close for comfort to my liking, and it wouldn’t take much of a disturbance, perhaps just a small climate change tipping point for example, to pitch us into a crisis.

Well, it’s impossible to say whether a date with Malthus looms in the future (and what a truly unappealing prospect such an evening would be). What interests me more in the here and now is the way that members of my own particular tribe, the social scientists, seek to banish the very possibility of a future Malthusian crisis through what strikes me as an essentially superstitious practice, a touching of the talisman, which if it were observed by an anthropologist from another planet might well give them pause to wonder why Homo academicus var. social scientiensis goes to such irrational lengths to avoid the taboo of Malthusian constraint.

The talisman invoked by the social scientists to steer clear of the Malthusian taboo has the structure of a three-card trick. First up are the economists, who argue that as resource constraints loom, input prices increase, and this stimulates people to find lower cost substitutes. I won’t dwell on the problems with this line of reasoning. But I like this comment from David Fleming: “Every civilisation has had its irrational but reassuring myth. Previous civilisations have used their culture to sing about it and tell stories about it. Ours has used its mathematics to prove it”1.

The second card is the strongest in the hand, and it belongs variously to the historians, sociologists and political economists. Humans, they point out, are social creatures, so the trajectory of Malthusian crisis is never experienced simply as ineluctable natural constraint, but always as some kind of human conflict whose details can’t just be read off from the resource constraint itself. This is undoubtedly true. But social scientists being social scientists, they do like to push the logic of that argument a long way towards an emphasis on the social basis of resource constraint – to the extent of arguing, for example, that the whole idea of ‘scarcity’ is something of a fiction worked on the unsuspecting masses by the ideology of capitalism2. Well, I think there’s some truth in that (I am, after all, a social scientist), but only some truth. Ultimately, on a small planet with upwards of 7 billion large, hungry, human omnivores, some things are probably going to have to give whatever the economic ideology.

The third card belongs mostly to the anthropologists. Now, I have a soft spot for anthropologists, having at one point been kinda sorta one myself. The great thing about anthropologists is that they study people up close and in detail, which helps them avoid airy generalities. But the problem is that sometimes a bit of generalising isn’t such a bad idea, if you’ll excuse the generality. Take, for example, the anthropologist Christopher Taylor’s critique of Jared Diamond’s thesis in the latter’s book Collapse3, that population pressure on agricultural land was one of the factors underlying the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Taylor begins by acknowledging that such Malthusian pressure is indeed intense, but it can’t explain why the genocide erupted in 1994 specifically, when land pressure long predated it, nor can it explain why many of the génocidaires weren’t land hungry peasants. He lays out an alternative explanation in relation to contemporary geopolitics, colonial history and a specific local political culture history.

Now, I must admit that I’m not a big fan of Diamond’s writing, and I find many of the criticisms levelled at him by social scientists plausible. But he did take pains to suggest that population pressure was only one of several factors behind the genocide, and provided evidence that was at least suggestive of the possibility. Taylor’s response merely sidesteps the point. He concludes “Rwandans think about their leaders, their social system, and their place in this world in their own terms, not as Westerners, who try to find “scientific” reasons for cultural catastrophes”4. But it’s not especially controversial in social science to adduce reasons for the occurrence of human events which aren’t explicitly articulated by the humans involved themselves. If there was population pressure in Rwanda, it might have manifested in the form of generalised stress which found specific expression through pre-existing cultural, historical and political identities that had little to do with economic status per se. Is Malthus so beyond the pale that an explanation relating the genocide only partly to population pressure on land can’t even be entertained? And if so, consider the implications. First, that the catastrophe of the genocide must be explicable only in terms of local cultural responses to circumstances – which is surely as troubling a position politically as Diamond’s putatively ethnocentric universalism, implying as it does that Rwandans have a cultural predilection for genocide. Goodness knows where that kind of thinking can lead – maybe to incoherently racist quasi-academic theories about the character of ‘African culture’ which find their way onto the blogs of innocent small-scale farmers. And second, that if people are eminently capable of genocidal violence in the absence of any kind of Malthusian pressure, then just think what horrors await if such pressures do occur.

One of the main objections to Malthus indeed is his unsavoury politics, though a theory of ‘philosophical biology’ surely stands or falls on its own terms, rather than on the politics of its progenitor. After all, Darwin himself wrote a few things about the people he met on his travels around the world that sound a bit queasy to the modern ear, but nobody suggests that this somehow undermines his evolutionary theories. It’s not that I particularly want to defend Malthus’s pro-property and anti-poor views. Though I’ve read one or two quotations from his work supposedly demonstrating his incorrigible elitism that strike me as at least ambiguous. In some passages, his point rather seems to be that it’s a good idea to have a plan in order to avoid a resource crisis, and the poor are best off organising politically and using their labour as a weapon in order to improve their lot. Sounds like good advice to me. I don’t doubt there are other parts of his oeuvre that I’d find indefensible. Still, I do wonder if the opprobrium heaped on Malthus might have something to do with truths that strike a little too close to home. A recent blog commenter wrote of Malthus “It’s a bit crazy that we are, in the 21st century, still using concepts devised at the end of the 18th, to discuss our problems”. Well, maybe so – but if you’re going to bid Malthus on this one, then I’ll raise you Edmund Burke and Adam Smith.

Notes

  1. Fleming, D. 2016. Lean Logic, Chelsea Green, p.123.
  1. Panayotakis, C. 2011. Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy, Pluto.
  1. Diamond, J. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Penguin.
  1. Taylor, C. 2010. ‘Rwandan genocide: towards an explanation in which history and culture matter’ in McAnany, P. & Yoffee, N. (eds) Questioning Collapse, Cambridge UP, p.267.

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…

 

Notes

  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.

Notes

  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.