Campesino a campesino: a trip to Nicaragua

As I’ve mentioned, I recently visited Nicaragua as part of a research project on ‘Transitions to agro-ecological food systems’ that I’ve been involved with, conducted by the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex. The research involved working with agro-ecological farmers in the UK, Senegal and Nicaragua, and the trip brought together some of the farmers and researchers from each country. In this post, I thought I’d offer a few informal reflections on the research, and the Nicaragua trip.

In each country, the researchers took a kind of ‘citizen’s jury’ approach to the project, getting the farmers to map their experiences of the food system and then to define specific issues that they wanted to research further in order to ease the desired transition to an agro-ecological food system, followed by a workshop with ‘change agents’ – people with some capacity to help realise these changes. At the Nicaragua meeting, we came together and discussed the similarities and differences between the three countries in the focus of our deliberations and the ways forward. Here are some of the issues that came up:

Seeds: maintaining local farmer control of seed production and markets (and fighting the encroachment of transgenic crops) was a major theme both in Nicaragua and Senegal, but wasn’t much discussed in the UK. There certainly are concerns around seeds in the UK – quite similar ones to the concerns in the other two countries – but few farmers or growers here take responsibility any longer for their own seed production. There are those who argue that this is a good thing – plant breeding is a highly specialist business, and farmers benefit from leaving it to the experts and sticking to their own skill set. One problem here is that what suits the ‘business’ of plant breeding doesn’t necessarily suit the business of being a local agroecological farmer. There’s much to be said for farmers and plant breeders working in concert, but the structure of the agricultural industry often puts them at loggerheads. On that note, I enjoyed meeting actual farmers from relatively low income countries who told me point blank that they wanted to retain control over local seed production and didn’t want GM crops. No doubt there are other shades of opinion in their countries, but I’ve been told more than once by other privileged westerners/northerners that GM crops are an unquestionable boon to the world’s poorer places and that my scepticism about them merely indicates my white, western/northern privilege (or, in the words of one especially apoplectic ecomodernist, that my ideology was akin to stealing wheelchairs from Bangladeshi children), so it’s good to know that my views are shared by others less white and geopolitically privileged than me. In truth, I already knew it – any claim that a particular kind of plant-breeding technology must be inherently pro-poor is obviously bogus. Still, you can’t beat hearing a story straight from the root, rather than one filtered through layers of researcherly foliage.

An additional problem with giving up seed-saving is that it’s another small step on the journey that alienates farmers from the wide suite of skills they need to fully inhabit the land. I for one am a little envious of other countries who haven’t yet taken that step.

Traditional cuisine: finding ways to encourage people to eat traditional, locally-grown foods rather than processed foods heavy in global commodity crops was a theme in all three countries – though again it emerged least strongly in the UK. Teaching cookery skills and sponsoring local restaurants were avenues that were being explored. In the UK, one project has involved doctors prescribing fresh vegetables for low income patients on poor diets, with local authorities paying small-scale local producers to provide the food – a use of public money with a reportedly good social return on investment.

Markets: ‘the market’ is one of those words that conflates things which ought to be separated. In each of the three countries, albeit in different ways, the farmers wanted to strengthen ‘the market’ in the sense of local venues where buyers and sellers come together physically for the exchange of things they need. In order to do this, we agreed that we needed less of ‘the market’ in the sense of a non-physical, globalised abstraction in which a minority of people launch money in order to receive more of it in return. Though, saying that, there can also be problems with local markets – especially when their control falls into the hands of a few. The best solution is for the majority of people to have access to land, the ultimate source of the values able to come to market… Perhaps I should qualify that statement by way of a quotation from IDS big cheese Ian Scoones, whose interesting if rather turgidly academic book Sustainable Livelihoods and Rural Development: Agrarian Change & Peasant Studies I’m reading at the moment:

“The real world is of course more complex than the usual default policy debate constructed around a set of simple dichotomies – large versus small, external versus local, food production versus cash crops, backward versus modern” (p.59)

Indeed, a case can be made along these lines for allowing markets to be complemented by ‘the market’, but as Scoones himself points out ‘the market’ is supported by a “strong coalition of investors, private sector agribusiness players, national governments and local elites” whose “expert-accredited narrative” (ibid.) has much more influence over economic reality than the food sovereignty agenda we were articulating in Nicaragua. Therefore I’m happy to line up with my fellows in the marketing discussion group at the meeting (pictured) and press for the food sovereignty agenda. Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world…

Land: access to land for agro-ecological farming was a big issue in the UK, less of a concern in other countries. I’ve probably harped on about it often enough on this blog to keep it brief here. The UK farmers put some emphasis on the role of the planning system in relation to private land purchases, because this is an easy hit for improving the situation without having to introduce any major political or economic changes. Issues around farm tenancies and publicly owned farmland were also highlighted in the UK. In Nicaragua, the government programme that provides women with a plot of land sufficient for personal needs, together with some household livestock, excited some interest…particularly among a few of the women from the other countries who suddenly expressed a hitherto latent enthusiasm for emigrating to Nicaragua. Which brings us to…

Female empowerment: I heard some conflicting views about gender oppression (and thence the need for the aforementioned programme) in Nicaragua. While we were travelling around the country I saw a few placards in communities stating “Aquí respetamos a las mujeres”, which kind of implies that maybe there are folks allí que no respetan a las mujeres. Not that the UK is innocent of gender oppression. Certainly, gender issues loom large in what I’ll tentatively term “sustainable development”. Which reminds me…I need to round off my ‘return of the peasant’ blog cycle with a look at gender soon.

Commodification & self-reliance: another issue in relation to making markets more functional is reducing their levels of commodification – ‘commodities’ in the sense of traded objects entirely torn from their local contexts of production. In Senegal, this manifests in peanut farming, which is environmentally destructive and makes growers dependent on global commodity prices. The common refrain is that such commodity crops are the route to wealth which, through specialisation and the magic of ‘the market’, enables farmers to buy themselves out of the kind of miserable subsistence existence associated with mixed cropping of local food crops, where they can barely scratch a living from the unforgiving earth. Each of the three countries had their own local manifestations of this ideology, and each country’s farmers also had distinctive counter-narratives insisting that it ain’t necessarily so.

Subsidies: I mentioned the attraction to female farmers of moving to Nicaragua, but some of the farmers from the other countries kinda liked the sound of moving to the UK to harvest some of the EU farm subsidies they’d heard about. So we from the UK had to explain the realities of the system: in a few years of stressy bureaucratic wrangling, I managed to wrest no more than a thousand quid or so out of HM’s government, before it decided to stop small-scale farmers from claiming altogether. Meanwhile, and talking of HM, the queen netted a cool half a million a year from the scheme. Oh well, I guess she needs it more than me. But, more important than the inequities between small and large-scale landowners farmers in affluent countries is the way that US and EU subsidies punish farmers in less affluent countries – such as the anti-competitive $1 billion or so going to US peanut farmers, to pick an aforementioned crop. So, to get a little technical, here’s a brief primer on the clean economic logic of free markets: the greatest net benefit results when countries remove protectionist measures and compete on equal terms in liberalised global markets, except when the most powerful countries decide not to.

There are also, of course, the numerous implicit subsidies associated with fossil fuel use and other nasty economic externalities – a general experience common to all three countries, albeit with some differences of detail.

Farmer networks and change agents: there are more small-scale and agroecological farmers in Nicaragua and Senegal than the UK, with richer interactions between them and the organs of government, and more powerful small-farmer organisations such as (talking of peasants, as we were under my last post) Nicaragua’s Programa campesino a campesino. In the UK, I think it would be fair to say that – despite the researchers’ best efforts – we struggled to get any ‘change agents’ to talk to us who had significant power to change the status quo. This seemed to be less true of Nicaragua and Senegal, though that’s not to say that the life of the small-scale agroecological farmer in those countries is all plain sailing. Perhaps one of the reasons it was hard to engage policymakers in the UK is that they’re all so busy trying to work out what the hell is going to happen to UK farming after Brexit. And here it’s fascinating to note that Michael Gove, arch Brextremist and now head honcho at DEFRA, is giving the keynote speech at the forthcoming Oxford Real Farming Conference – unless he accidentally booked himself into the wrong conference. I’ll be reporting back with interest on what he has to say.

At the end of the trip we paid a visit to the 10 acre holding of one of the Nicaraguan participants, where I took this picture of citrus fruits growing under the shade of a coconut palm, hard by the cassava, yams and coffee bushes. Here, where the sun shines and the rain falls year-round, my strictures against perennial staple cropping are no longer operative. Perhaps I’ll see if I can persuade La Brassicata to move there and get herself on the waiting list for a holding, where I can skivvy for her in the tropical warmth. Oh, alas, ‘tis but a dream – so now I must leave you to schlep out into the snow and empty our compost toilet.

But not without first offering my thanks to Elise Wach, Santi Ripoll, Clare Ferguson and Jorge Irán Vásquez Zeledón for their work on the project and the trip, and to everyone else involved in it for making is so interesting.

Back to the future

Last week I succumbed to a bad habit of mine that I’ve been trying to put behind me – leaving snarky comments on ecomodernist websites. I won’t dwell too much here on the ins and outs of the issues, or on ecomodernism itself – hell, there’s a whole page of this site devoted to that, even if it’s not very up-to-date. In this post, I’d just like to extract a few kernels from the issue that are relevant to my next cycle of posts. But first let me venture a working definition of the creed for anyone who’s lived thus far in blessed innocence of it: ecomodernism typically combines overenthusiasm for a handful of technologies as putative solutions to contemporary problems (typically nuclear power and GM crops), underenthusiasm for any social orders other than capitalist modernity, a fetishisation of both humanity and nature as surpassing splendours each in their separate spheres, questionable evidence-selection to support the preceding points, and high disdain for those who take a different view.

The question I want to address in this post is why I get so easily riled whenever I encounter professions of this faith. Well, I guess I got off to a bad start: my first experience of it was a brush with the absurdly apoplectic Graham Strouts, and then the only marginally slicker Mike Shellenberger. I’d acknowledge that there are less strident voices within the movement who genuinely think it represents humanity’s best remaining shot at escaping the dangers encircling us. And since all the remaining shots available to us seem pretty long ones to me, if the ecomodernists could only concede the likely length of those odds I wouldn’t so much begrudge them their schemes. But – other than being the unfortunate possessor of a bilious personality, perhaps the likeliest explanation for my ire – I’d submit three general reasons as to why ecomodernism gets under my skin.

The first is that I think it suffers from an intellectual phoniness. Not deliberately in most cases, I’m sure. But it reminds me of my time in academia. It reminds me of the kind of student, competent but coasting, who produces an overconfident seminar paper. It’s not that they haven’t done the reading and marshalled some evidence – though not quite as much as they think. It’s not that they haven’t put it together into some kind of logical framework that they genuinely think best fits the data – though not quite as neatly as they suppose. It’s that they haven’t fully inhabited the task. They’ve looked the world in the face, flinched, and written a Powerpoint presentation with a set of facts and bullet points instead. It reminds me, also, of the kind of academic colleague who’s charming and persuasive, who has a good story to tell, who hangs out with the right crowd, who churns out a large quantity of mediocre work which won’t endure but which serves their near-term purposes pretty well. It contrasts with the people who pursue the path of scholarship – meticulous, self-critical and questing after truths, rather than just a tale to tell. I think everyone who does intellectual work should aspire to work of the latter sort, and worry that their actual work doesn’t measure up, worry that it succumbs to the worldly temptations of the former, of being a merely ‘successful’ intellectual. I don’t think ecomodernism worries about this nearly enough to be convincing.

And when it comes to telling stories, ecomodernism has a great one to tell. People really want to hear and believe in it – which means it’s rife with the potential for mischief-making. Essentially, it tells us that there’s nothing wrong with the way that we in the ‘developed’ countries now live – all that’s needed is for us to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation (which can be achieved relatively easily with some technological fixes) and for us to ensure that global resources are better shared among all the people of the world. And along the way it delivers a pleasingly counterintuitive message: some of the things environmentalists have traditionally told us were bad – like nuclear power, GM crops, pesticides, and the expropriation of peasantries – are actually pretty good, and some of the things they’ve traditionally told us were good – like organic farming and photovoltaic or wind energy – are generally pretty bad. It’s not hard to see why this story is so appealing to many people of goodwill living in the overdeveloped countries. All the more reason for its proponents to be sure of the line that they’re spinning and to welcome dissenting voices if they aspire to be scholars rather than spiritual preceptors.

And yet this is so often not the case. I’d better restrict myself to just one small example from one of the articles that triggered my ire recently, Emma Marris’s Can we love nature and let it go?, which involves so much tendentious reasoning in among the odd telling point that I’ll be chasing my tail for page upon page if I fully engage with her arguments. The article makes the familiar pitch for decoupling human consumption from resource drawdown. In Marris’s words, “we must reduce our per-capita and cumulative human footprint”, an appealing goal because “it does not pit the planet’s poor people against its endangered species” and it involves “no grand sacrifices”. And, Marris says, decoupling has already begun: “It took around 25 percent less “material input” to produce a unit of GDP in 2002 as compared with 1980.”

Not much to object to there in principle. No facts I’d seek to dispute. The problem is the ecomodernist story Marris builds around it, because I see a wholly different one lurking in her text – I’ll briefly try to draw it out, with the caveat that I’m doing it in a back-of-the-envelope way to illustrate a point. I’m not offering polished scholarship.

So, taking Marris’s relative decoupling point (she doesn’t distinguish between relative and absolute decoupling), it’s true that there’s been some improved efficiency in resource use. World Bank data, for example, show that between 1980 and 2000 (roughly the timeframe chosen by Marris to exemplify this point) global carbon dioxide emissions per unit of energy used declined by about 5%. They did then climb back up so that by 2015 they exactly matched those of 1980, which kind of makes me wonder if Marris’s timeframe was deliberately cherry-picked, but let’s leave that aside. The more significant point is that from 1980 to 2000 actual emissions increased by 27%, and actual gross world product increased by 300%. If we extend the timeframe from 1980 to 2013 (the last year figures are available from the World Bank dataset) then actual emissions increased by 84% and gross world product by 589%.

I’ve played with these figures to construe various future scenarios, but I ran out of time and enthusiasm to put them into any kind of presentable numerical framework. However, I think I’m on firm ground in saying that if we want to achieve some modicum of global equity by 2050 while giving ourselves a shot at keeping climate change under 2oC by following the kind of ecomodernist ‘decoupling’ and ‘no grand sacrifice’ scenario presented by Marris then we’ll probably have to find at least another world’s worth of economic activity in the next thirty years, adding another $80 trillion at a minimum to the existing gross world product of $80 trillion, and we’ll have to do that while decreasing carbon dioxide emissions year on year from now on at a little more than the rate we’ve been increasing them ever since 1980. In other words, Marris’s figures for relative decoupling between 1980 and 2002 don’t even begin to capture the magnitude of that task. Now, I acknowledge that her article is primarily about sparing land for nature rather than climate change as such (though it’s doubtful how much ‘nature’ will survive a rapidly warming world). And, sure, we can project the emergence of trend-breaking new technologies (nuclear power being an ecomodernist favourite, of course). But I’m not seeing evidence that takes these decoupling conjectures out of the realm of wishful thinking. Frankly, it amazes me that someone can invoke data suggesting a modicum of relative decoupling as any kind of harbinger of an adequately reduced cumulative human footprint in a world of ‘no grand sacrifices’ without conceding any plausibility to bleaker visions. This is the phoniness of which I speak. And there’s a lot of it about – philosopher Julian Baggini was at it only last week in this Guardian article.

So let me state as clearly as I can the implications of the story I see written in the margins of the ecomodernist decoupling tale: it will be impossible to avert dangerous global climate change unless the current association between greenhouse gas emissions and economic growth is reversed immediately, an event whose likelihood is not suggested by any current evidence. If the solution to global poverty is sought through economic growth in the absence of fast absolute decoupling, then emissions will greatly increase, hastening the onset of dangerous climate change and threatening any anti-poverty gains.

So it seems to me we face a situation in which both absolute greenhouse gas emissions and major global disparities in wealth need to be reduced rapidly, and the familiar tools for achieving this of technological innovation and economic growth simply aren’t up to the task. In these circumstances, I think we need at the very least to start considering some radically different ways of being – including the possibility of people in the richer countries living and farming more like people in the poorer countries. It’s no longer a question of trying “to squeeze more out of less” as Marris puts it – something that in any case we’ve signally failed to do (at best, we’ve squeezed even more out of more). I think it’s now a question of trying “to do different with different”. In fact, ‘doing different with different’ should always be a question – the ecomodernist notion that capitalist modernity is some kind of summit of human achievement (Anthony Warner: “By pretty much any measure you can think of, the golden age is now”) is an ethnocentric fancy. And this is the second reason why ecomodernism makes me angry – its complete ideological closure to doing different with different, which results from a crude and unexamined commitment to the ideology of the modern: for ‘progress’, against ‘romanticism’. Frankly, it annoys me that people trying to articulate agrarian populist approaches to intractable problems of poverty and environmental degradation have to waste so much time engaged in rearguard defences around these points – “No, I don’t think that peasants are all happy in their simple poverty, that we should ‘go back’ to living a simple, preindustrial life” and so on and so on. Worse, under the star of ecomodernism this debate quickly turns into an argument for biotechnology as intrinsically pro-poor – Bt cotton, glyphosate etc. as saviours of the poor. There’s a whole other side to that argument, but it’s a place I’m reluctant to go for fear of contributing to the unedifying spectacle of rich westerners arguing with other rich westerners about which of them is the true champion of the poor. We need to get over ourselves here, and debate how to overcome the scourge of poverty with openness. Moral high country blocks the view.

The third reason for my anger is the David v Goliath nature of the battle. I don’t know anything about the funding of the ecomodernist firmament, but it’s a slick old business, with its thinktanks, TED talks, manifestos and briefings telling politicians, business leaders and the general public pretty much what they want to hear. Contrast that with the mere handful of academics, grassroots groups and lone wolf bloggers like me putting the case for agrarian populism and it feels like a losing battle.

A couple of years ago my critique of the Ecomodernist Manifesto, got a modicum of wider notice and briefly drew me into a minor flurry of online debate, including a comment I left on Ben Heard’s website in response to his statement that the ecomodernists were open to challenging debate. I linked to a couple of my articles in which that debate was joined – to which Heard responded “At a smidge under 5,000 and 5,500 words respectively, I fear you may be writing to yourself rather than an audience. Looks like some interesting discussion therein and if you seriously expect people to read it please, re-cut them with a whole lot more discipline in the writing.”

I only discovered this comment recently. At one level, the hypocrisy of it kind of amused me – my critique was pretty much the same length as the Manifesto, which Mr Heard happily read. Nobody is obliged to read anything, but I’m not sure you can conscionably call for a debate and then duck out of it by retrospectively imposing editorial conditions on your interlocutors. But ultimately, yes, I guess I am pretty much writing to myself, and though I feel honoured to have acquired a small online readership, no doubt my loquaciousness and lack of editorial professionalism limits my reach. Most of the time, that doesn’t bother me. I’ve long been fully resigned to the fact that my words and deeds count for nothing in the world (OK, I’m lying: let me say instead that I’ve recently become partially resigned to it…) I now just want to do the best thinking and writing I can within the limits of my capacities and circumstances. But then I get to thinking that ecomodernism is making the world just that little bit worse, making the solutions to its problems just that little bit more intractable, entrenching those habits of thought and deed which in the end will have to be disinterred and reconfigured that much more laboriously. And that makes me think that I ought to sharpen up my act, follow Mr Heard’s advice and try to make myself as slick as an ecomodernist. Perhaps I should form my own institute – the Breakdown Institute? Well, if anyone wants to give me a steer on this, I’m all ears. And if nobody responds, then I’ll readily embrace the truth of Mr Heard’s words and follow my heart – which I think is to write as I please, for myself, for trying to understand the world as I see it, trying as best I can to be a scholar and not a phony, and (let me admonish myself) focusing on an effort to do good work for its own sake rather than wasting time practicing the arts of rhetorical war in the battle over ecomodernism…

…which is just as well, because next up is my ‘History of the world in ten and a half blog posts’ – an essay considerably longer than the ones that so exasperated the ever-so-busy Mr Heard. Well, I’m pretty sure that ecomodernism lacks persuasive answers to our problems, so I think I need to look elsewhere, at my own pace. And the place to start looking is human history, in case it can turn up anything more promising. I’ll readily admit that past history is a poor guide to the future. Unfortunately it’s the only one we’ve got.

Marris argues that the good thing about her decoupling approach is that it doesn’t rely on “a sudden and unprecedented improvement in our moral character”. An interesting point – did the proliferation of our contemporary environmental problems stem from a sudden and unprecedented degeneration in that character? I don’t think so. So maybe that suggests we might be able to learn some useful things for the future by looking at the past – which is not, of course, a very ecomodernist sort of thing to say. It ought to be.

Of bad science and bad SCIENCE: the angry farmer meets the angry chef

The plaudits seem to be piling up for Bad Science and the Truth about Healthy Eating1 by Anthony Warner, better known as ‘The Angry Chef’ for his foul-mouthed assaults on the pseudoscientific pretensions of the alternative health and diet industry. Well, my advocacy for alternative farming has never really been strongly grounded in nutritional considerations, and to be honest I find a lot of the book a pretty convincing takedown of some of the wilder shores of contemporary food faddism. So perhaps I’d be best off focusing on other things. But there are things that trouble me about Mr Angry’s line of argument, which bear on the general themes of this blog, so I’m going to conclude my recent series of critical book reviews with a look at his opus. Because you see, for someone who’s so angry about bad science, there’s a remarkable quantity of bad science in the book. The reason, I think, is because Mr A is less interested in science than in SCIENCE, and the result of this is…bad.

I’ll explain the difference between lowercase science and uppercase SCIENCE towards the end of this essay. But first I want to home in on the chapter of Mr Angry’s book in which he most reveals his penchant for bad science – Chapter 7 in Part II of the book called “When science goes wrong”, which focuses on the Paleo diet.

The Paleo diet idea in brief is that human diets changed radically after the widespread global adoption of agriculture starting around 10,000 years ago. This involved the substitution of energy dense foods based on cereals (and, later, also sugar) for the less carb-heavy fare to which our species and its antecedents had previously been accustomed. According to Paleo diet proponents, the high-energy input and low-exercise output regimen of modern life is associated with many of the chronic diseases of later life that plague us today, because a mere 10,000 years or less of agricultural lifeways has been insufficient for full evolutionary adaptation. There are numerous additional complexities to the Paleo diet idea which are set out in Loren Cordain’s eponymous book2, but that, I think, will have to suffice as a thumbnail sketch.

Trying to sort the chaff from the grain in Mr Angry’s attempted refutation of the Paleo hypothesis, if that’s not an inappropriate metaphor, I hope it’s fair to summarise it by way of the following six points:

  1. The Paleo hypothesis misunderstands evolution, since it assumes that evolution creates “one perfect being at a single point in time and then chug[s] along unaltered as the world changes around it”3. The truth is that “evolution doesn’t stop” – which Mr A supports with reference to the post-agricultural emergence of lactose tolerance.
  1. There were many different Palaeolithic peoples who ate widely different diets, so it’s impossible to determine what ‘the’ Paleo diet should be.
  1. Palaeolithic peoples did, in fact, consume carbohydrates.
  1. The Paleo hypothesis is sexist: its contemporary proponents tend to be men, and their “hypothesised Palaeolithic lifestyle” involving relatively high levels of meat consumption is “likely to appeal to a certain retrograde misogyny – the muscular male hunter bravely wrestling bears, while the women tend the children and pick a few berries”.
  1. The Paleo hypothesis romanticises the Palaeolithic period, a point that Mr Angry makes by various characterisations of it such as this: “As a species, we did all of our evolving in the golden age, when men were men and women wore bikinis made of mammoth fur”.
  1. The Paleo hypothesis involves a dangerous refusal of expert knowledge, because despite the fact that there’s a grain of truth to some of it and that it has a few academic advocates “in accepting the misunderstanding of science that underlies it there is a real danger of abandoning the tenets of reason. Once you reject the voices of real experts in favour of charismatic advocates with a prettier story, you leave yourself open to packs of pseudoscience wolves.”

What to make of all this? First, I’d draw a distinction between points 1-3, which are at least potentially good scientific objections to the Paleo hypothesis, and points 4-6 which are bad scientific objections – in fact, they’re not ‘scientific’ at all. Points 4 and 5 are ad hominem criticisms of contemporary people who espouse the Paleo hypothesis. I have no idea if they’re well-grounded and I don’t really care, because to use the kind of language favoured by Mr A himself, if it’s true that pre-agricultural diets are better for human health then, scientifically speaking, it doesn’t matter a flying f*** what views people espousing such diets take on matters of gender or history.

Point 6 is not so much an unscientific objection to the Paleo hypothesis as an anti-scientific one. For, as Mr A is at pains to emphasise throughout his text, the modus operandi of science, the whole reason for its spectacular success, is that it doesn’t satisfy itself with the ‘expert’ opinions of people in authority, but relentlessly questions received wisdom. For sure, if you want to take an intellectual shortcut on a scientific matter you’re probably better off asking for the opinions of someone who has some relevant scientific qualifications than those of someone who doesn’t. But science proceeds by way of empirical hypothesis-testing, not expert opinion-making, and the glory of it is that ultimately it stands or falls irrespective of anybody’s opinions. The criticisms voiced by the experts Mr Angry cites seem to take aim more generically at the idea of ‘a Paleo diet’ rather than any specific hypothesis underlying it. In any case, his contention that the Paleo hypothesis is rejected by all the experts apart from “a few academic advocates to give it some validity” is rather tendentious. There seems to be a reasonable body of writing in peer-reviewed journals that is broadly supportive4.

So I think we can reject points 4-6 as bad scientific objections to the Paleo hypothesis. Kind of weird to find such bad science in a book critiquing bad science, huh? Well, I think Mr A has his reasons, and I’ll come on to that soon.

But first let’s look more closely at the possibly more plausible points 1-3. Mr Angry is on firm ground in arguing that evolution doesn’t create perfect creatures at particular points in time and then stops. That certainly would be a misunderstanding of evolution. But, so far as I can discern, it’s not what proponents of the Paleo hypothesis actually think. Mr A doesn’t provide any references to support his characterisation of the evolutionary theory behind the Paleo hypothesis, which strikes me as intellectually sloppy. I think I’m detecting the sweet, dry aroma of straw, shaped into human form.

I’ll come back to evolutionary theory in a moment but, just to pick up on points 2 and 3, here is where we may be getting somewhere. If it turns out that Palaeolithic diets were typically as rich in carbohydrates as contemporary ones (and perhaps more to the point, as rich in simple carbohydrates) then that really would throw a spanner into the Paleo hypothesis. Here, Mr A does cite a paper, which argues that starchy foods were important in the pre-agricultural diet5. But so far as I can tell it doesn’t argue that carbohydrates or simple carbohydrates formed as significant a proportion of the diet as they do today – indeed, other research papers suggest the opposite6. Mr A himself mentions that among adults in the contemporary UK 12.1% of their dietary energy comes from added sugar, and for 11-18 year olds the figure is what he calls a “a genuinely shocking” 15.6%. It’s clearly true that Palaeolithic diets were quite varied and that Palaeolithic people would have sought out sources of carbohydrate when they could. But how many of them regularly consumed sucrose or simple carbohydrates more generally at the kind of levels reported by Mr A for the contemporary UK? My guess would be few, if any. And if that’s so, then there’s surely a prima facie case for the plausibility of the Paleo hypothesis.

Let me now briefly try to reconstruct the rudiments of a plausible Paleo diet hypothesis which is robust to the kind of objections raised by Mr Angry. First, I don’t think it’s scientifically controversial to say that there are widely consumed foodstuffs today that have potentially anti-nutritional or morbid properties as well as nutritional ones – soy, rape (canola), wheat and sugar spring to mind. There are ways of trying to minimise these properties – plant-breeding, preparation methods and dietary diversity among them. But I think it’s plausible to suggest that consumption of the crops I’ve mentioned – all huge global commodity crops – is likely to be higher than in pre-agricultural diets7.

Second, let us consider the nature of disease and exposure to risk factors associated with it. In some cases, diseases and disease-causing agents are experienced as binaries: you either have malaria or you don’t, you were either exposed to asbestos or you weren’t. But in many cases exposure is a continuous variable – for example, high blood pressure is associated with various health problems, but blood pressure is distributed continuously within populations. The point at which we define someone as suffering from the disease of hypertension is essentially arbitrary8. I hypothesise that the same may be true for the negative effects of foodstuffs like sucrose and gluten. Some people are highly susceptible and may display various morbid symptoms at low exposures, while others will be utterly impervious. The rest of us will be strung out along the continuum between these two poles. We won’t, for example, experience morbid symptoms simply by eating a few slices of bread, but if we eat a lot of bread over many years it’s possible that some of us eventually will experience morbid symptoms as a result. So, for example, the notion criticised by Mr Angry that no amount of sugar consumption is safe may be overly alarmist, but isn’t necessarily without scientific foundation. And one of the findings of preventive medicine is that population health is improved more radically if exposure to the risk factor is reduced by a little bit across the whole population than by a lot only among those most susceptible to it9. So even if in some cases (like coeliac disease, for example) there’s a genetic aetiology which isn’t simply distributed continuously, there may still be a case for taking a ‘less is better’ approach.

Third, let us consider the nature of evolution. Organisms, including humans, are born with characteristics substantially inherited from their parents which have usually developed over the evolutionary long haul because they conferred adaptive abilities to cope with the kind of environments the species in question experienced. Often, the kind of environment an organism experiences is similar to that experienced by its parents and ancestors, but sometimes environments change. In these circumstances, stronger selective pressures act upon the inherent variability within the species, favouring those organisms with characteristics that are better suited to the new environment. But, in the short-run at least, natural selection is a blunt instrument, acting only upon relative reproductive success. Therefore, if an organism experiences an environmental change that reduces its adaptive fitness in the post-reproductive phase of its life the selective effect will be slighter (though not, as discussed on this blog a while back, zero). And even in the case of stronger selective pressures, it can take a long time for natural selection to ‘catch up’ with the environmental change by progressively eliminating less adaptive characteristics in the population.

Fourth, let us consider the nature of the historical human diet. I’d hypothesise that it’s evolutionarily adaptive for humans to like and favour nutrient-rich foods such as sugar and other carbohydrates, fat, meat and other protein-heavy food. But in the hunter-gatherer situations that have typified the greatest proportion of our species and its antecedents’ time on earth, these foods were usually relatively hard to come by10. Mr Angry states with appropriate caution that we don’t really know in detail what our Palaeolithic forebears ate, and – as I’ve mentioned – he cites a research paper that suggests carbohydrate was an important part of our diet before agriculture, but doesn’t suggest how important. He also states that “even the evil grains were widely consumed for much of [the Palaeolithic period]”. This time he provides no supportive evidence for this statement, but there are research papers that suggest otherwise11.

One other little notion I’d like to throw into the mix here is the finding that rates of diabetes in societies consuming modern ‘western’ diets seem to be much higher than those of hunter-gatherer societies and others following ‘ancestral’ diets, but rates among people who’ve switched from an ‘ancestral’ diet to a modern western one may be higher still12.

OK, let me try to parlay all that into the Angry Farmer’s own personal Paleo hypothesis, which goes something like this: most ancestral human populations were adapted to diets lower in gluten-containing wheat, sugar and other simple carbohydrates than is typical of the modern western diet. Exposure to higher levels of these foodstuffs in the contemporary western diet is causally associated with various chronic diseases of later life such as diabetes and heart disease. Evolution hasn’t ‘stopped’ with the invention of agriculture – there is likely to be a selective effect favouring people who are less susceptible to such chronic diseases. But the effect is likely to be relatively weak and has not yet had time to eliminate the negative consequences of a cereal and carbohydrate-rich diet. Therefore, to reduce the risk of these disease outcomes it may be prudent for people to reduce their carbohydrate and wheat consumption. Lactose tolerance is another post-agricultural evolutionary adaptation – and one where the selective effect is likely to be stronger than in the case of gluten or carbohydrate tolerance because it confers the ability for whole populations to exploit new pastoralist niches that would be harder to occupy for lactose intolerant people. The weaker selective effect of post-reproductive chronic illness is inoperative in this case. Lactose tolerance is, however, just about the only clearly identified post-agricultural dietary adaptation. As Katharine Milton argues, “We know of few specific genetic adaptations to diet in our species”13. And even lactose tolerance isn’t that widespread across the human species.

Of course, I haven’t proved the Paleo hypothesis here. But I like to think I’ve established that it has a basic scientific plausibility that’s robust to Mr Angry’s objections. Note that it doesn’t depend on any notion that the Palaeolithic was some kind of ‘golden age’, or on a view that evolution creates one perfect being at a single point in time which is then impervious to change. It may turn out to be empirically wrong. But, for his part, Mr Angry furnishes no evidence to suggest that it is.

So why does he go to such lengths to ridicule it, employing such exemplarily bad science along the way? I think it’s because he’s less interested in critiquing bad science per se than in purveying a broader cultural argument. The milder form of this argument is that we shouldn’t get too hung up on our food choices or use them as status symbols. The essential message is: everything in moderation, enjoy life as you go, inject a bit of rationality into your thought and don’t point the finger of blame too much at yourself or other people. My feeling is that humans aren’t that good at rationality and incline quite naturally to symbolic thought, especially with culturally powerful things like food, and to games of status and blame. So I think Mr A has quite a battle on his hands to realise his vision – maybe that’s why he’s so angry. Sir, the angry farmer feels your pain. As a supporter of various lost causes myself, I’m not inclined to be too critical of this mild form of the argument, which strikes me as quite sensible.

But as the book wears on, the argument turns into something much more strident, totalising and, ultimately, pretty weird. Here are a few quotations:

“It is not enough to tackle dietary myths in isolation, attacking each one with competing evidence-based messages. In order to sell sensible, truthful messages, scientific truth itself needs to be made into an idea that sticks”

“To question science is to ignore everything it has done for man, to overlook the astounding progress of the last few hundred years”

“Processed convenience food has set women free, and every time we criticize convenience choices, we are showing our desire to drag women’s bodies and minds away from the workplace and back into the kitchen”

“I will always decry anyone who makes wild insinuations” …. “every society that has ever existed would eagerly swap their lives with someone living in the developed world today”

Here, ‘science’ as a form of rational, critical inquiry is turning into something else – a cultural or ideological proposition that contemporary ‘developed’ society is uniquely desirable and liberatory as a result of the inherent truthfulness of its science, which is now reconfigured in the argument as a unified repository of the good, something that must not be criticised for fear of falling into error. In other words, ‘science’ in this strand of Mr Angry’s presentation has assumed the mantle of religion or the revealed truth of God’s word. My shorthand term for this way of thinking about science is an uppercase SCIENCE, and it has precious little to do with science as a form of critical inquiry. Others refer to it as the ideology of scientism.

And this is all eerily familiar, no? The vaunting of contemporary ‘developed’ society against the inferiority of all other human societies. The religious style of elevating a particular truth claim – SCIENCE – over the putatively inferior, superstitious and relativist claims of its critics. The invocation of an oppressed category of people – in Mr Angry’s case, usually women – as uniquely liberated by the superior qualities of the culture in question, thereby positioning its critics as pariahs, in this case as misogynists. Oh, we’ve been here before – whether it’s diet, golden rice, nuclear power, urbanisation, ‘scientific agriculture’, or simply ‘progress’, the ideology of ecomodernism spreads its slimy tentacles ever wider. It always stakes a claim to speak up for the oppressed, for decency, and for progress, and against false idols like romanticism and relativism. And it’s always struck me as essentially religious in form – never more clearly than in Mr Angry’s exposition. Consider his comment:

“Poor dietary choices do not occur when people are driven by hedonistic pleasure, they occur when people eat without thought, and that will never happen if we engage with and truly love the food we eat”.

To me, this counter-Puritanism looks indistinguishable from the kind of unscientific mumbo-jumbo that Mr Angry spends so much time trying to debunk in his book. You could just as easily, and just as incorrectly, say that you’ll never get lung cancer if you smoke for hedonistic pleasure and truly love the tobacco you puff. As in Raj Patel’s fine book Stuffed and Starved, I think the truth is that we’ve ‘scientifically’ engineered our way to a global diet in which too many people get too much ‘feast food’ (typically the poorer people in the richer countries) and too many people get too little food at all (typically the poorer people in the poorer countries).

Ah well, I like to think I’ve written enough about ecomodernism in the past and have acquired a sufficiently like-minded and discerning readership on this blog not to labour the point of what, to use one of Mr A’s own favoured words, utter dumbfuckery his claims about hedonistic eating or the trans-historical desirability of contemporary ‘developed’ society are. So I’d just like to conclude with a few further thoughts about ‘science’.

At one point in his book, Mr Angry quotes from a speech by John F. Kennedy about the US moon programme in which the president said “space science, like nuclear science and all technology has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man”. And yet there is no sense of this same ambivalence, of cultural contradictions and trade-offs, of paths closed off as new ones open up, in his own thinking about science, which he’s content to describe simply as “the greatest force for progress that there has ever been”. Well, off the top of my head, here are five great anti-‘progressive’ forces in the contemporary world which have all emerged as a result of the progress of science:

  • anthropogenic climate change
  • thermonuclear weapons
  • accelerated biodiversity loss
  • eutrophication of rivers and oceans
  • loss of antibiotic efficacy through prophylactic agricultural use

My guess is that all of them have the potential to imperil human lives at a level orders of magnitude beyond that caused by Gwyneth Paltrow’s half-arsed dietary advice or the Gerson therapy and other dodgy ideas of the kind excoriated by Mr Angry, precisely because of the efficacy of the scientific method in combination with the vastly transformative nature of the capitalist economy. And if one had to choose the single greatest threat to humanity in contemporary society caused by the refusal to heed scientific opinion, it would surely have to be climate change, something that Mr Angry doesn’t mention once. And, seriously, which science-denier is the greater threat – Ms. Paltrow or JFK’s unsurpassably idiotic successor in current occupation of the White House? Ah well, I suppose just because we face major existential threats as a result of our science, there’s no reason to avoid writing books about the minor existential threats we face as a result of our non-science. But I don’t think these should be built up into a closed ideological defence of SCIENCE as an ideology of modernity and inherent progress. Despite the rather toxic debate we’ve got into recently concerning the status of experts in the wake of Michael Gove and Charlie Gard, this doesn’t seem a great historical moment to be extolling scientific progress, the cult of the expert and ‘development’ as virtues. In fact, I think books like Mr Angry’s are part of the problem. Which makes me kind of…angry.

Notes

  1. The Angry Chef. 2017. Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating. OneWorld.
  1. Cordain, Loren. 2002. The Paleo Diet. John Wiley & Sons.
  1. The Angry Chef, op cit. I read the book on an e-reader and regrettably I have no idea how to give page references.
  1. eg. Kuipers, Remko et al. 2012. A multidisciplinary reconstruction of Palaeolithic nutrition that holds promise for the prevention and treatment of diseases of civilisation. Nutrition Research Reviews 25: 96-129; Lieberman, Leslie. 2003. Dietary, evolutionary and modernizing influences on the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes. Annual Review of Nutrition 23: 345-77; Lindeberg, Staffan. 2012. Paleolithic diets as a model for prevention and treatment of western disease. American Journal of Human Biology 24: 110-5; Milton, Katharine. 2000. Hunter-gatherer diets – a different perspective. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 71, 3: 665-7.
  1. Hardy, Karen et al. 2015. The importance of dietary carbohydrate in human evolution. The Quarterly Review of Biology. 90, 3: 251-68.
  1. Milton, op cit.
  1. Savard, Manon et al. The role of wild grasses in subsistence and sedentism. World Archaeology 38, 2: 179-96.
  1. Rose, Geoffrey. 1993. The Strategy of Preventive Medicine. Oxford University Press.
  1. Ibid.
  1. Milton, op cit.
  1. Savard et al, op cit.
  1. Zimmet, Paul. 1992. Challenges in diabetes epidemiology – from west to the rest. Diabetes Care 15, 2: 232-52.
  1. Milton, op cit.

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.

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.

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.

Energy in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex

I think it’s about time I paid my next visit to the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex. But first, news of another publication from the Small Farm Future stable – a piece entitled ‘Why Britain should protect and cherish its small farms’ published by the insurance arm of everybody’s favourite farming union, the NFU. When asked why the tone of the article was more moderate than that usually to be found here on this website, Small Farm Future CEO Chris Smaje replied, “Because NFU Mutual pay better than the punters on this blog. Though, since you mention it, the donate button is…oh, you know where it is. Next question.”

Anyway, let’s get back to Wessex. On my previous voyages there, I’ve learned that the republic’s population – some 20% higher than the region’s current one – can provide for their food and fibre needs using organic methods and tractive agricultural energy from home-grown biogas. Which is quite something, I think. But agricultural energy is the easy bit. Can the republic provide sustainably and indigenously for its wider energy needs?

To answer that question, it’s necessary to define both what sustainable energy production might look like and what the population’s energy needs are. On the first point, I guess I’d say that it really ought to be a low carbon source, which pretty much rules out any kind of fossil fuel. Ideally it would also have to be locally available and at a cost appropriate to a substantially agrarian society, but I’ll come on to that soon. It’s possible of course that by the time the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex comes into being circa 2039 there’ll be a whole new generation of hitherto unheard of clean energy technologies available. But I don’t think we can count on it. As a starting point, then, I propose to look at how much energy we can produce locally from existing renewable technologies.

To address the issue of how much energy we need – well, no doubt we could debate that endlessly. Let’s start by looking at how much energy we use currently – and the answer is 2.85 kW per person directly consumed in the UK (and, I shall assume, in its Wessex subdivision). Or, to put it another way, something like a domestic washing machine rattling away on its full power usage day and night,  year-round for each and every one of us.

Can renewables realistically furnish us with that level of energy? I think there’s a clear answer to that: no. We often get excited about the possibilities for generating electricity with renewables and perhaps with other low-carbon technologies like nuclear, but we tend to forget that electricity only constitutes about 10% of our total energy use. Currently, fossil fuels power a good chunk of our electricity production and the vast bulk of all our other energy usage. I think it’s realistic to replace existing non-renewable electricity generation with renewables. I don’t think it’s realistic to replace the entire energy economy with them, barring some major technological breakthroughs.

So if we’re going to have a hope of a sustainably-powered Wessex we’re going to have to make some energy cutbacks. Let’s take a look at where the energy is used currently in the UK and see where we might wield the knife.

This is displayed in the pie chart below. The largest component of our energy use is transport, of which the largest component is domestic transport (at 20% of total energy usage), with 9% devoted to air travel. So there’s the easiest initial hit – I can’t really see much of a role for aircraft in the Peasant’s Republic, except perhaps for a few scientific and meteorological drones and the odd air show to remind us of more profligate times, so I think we can lop 9% off our total usage straightaway. It’ll be a fillip for the tall ships industry that used to thrive here in the west country.

Energy use

 

 

Personal domestic transport looms large amongst the rest of the transport energy use. I think we can trim that pretty savagely. Farmers are never that keen to leave the farm anyway, and we can try to beef up rail and bus services a little. So let’s reduce car journeys by 80%. Now we’re getting somewhere. Or perhaps in fact we’re not getting anywhere much. But maybe if electric cars catch on, the 80% reduction in energy won’t have to correspond to quite such a dramatic fall in actual journeys.

A lot of commercial transport energy is devoted to transporting food, which will be locally available in the republic, so I think we can make some savings there. It’s often said that long-distance commercial transport has a low energy cost, which is true and is reflected in the figures here. But it’s still higher than if you don’t transport food long distance at all, so I’d suggest that some savings can be made. Besides which all sorts of frivolous items get freighted around these days. Hell, there’s no time for all of that on the farm. So I propose that we can cut commercial transport energy by at least 30%.

The next hungriest energy user is people’s homes, which command 29% of total usage – mostly in the form of space and water heating. My proposal is that we can reduce this by about 60% – firstly by investing properly in retrofitting insulation for older properties, secondly by using more efficient combined heat and power stations for energy supply (which lend themselves well to renewable feedstocks) and thirdly by using pricing structures and general exhortation to encourage people to conserve hot water, turn the thermostat down and just put a bloody jumper on if they’re cold. Investing more in solar hot water systems may also be a good idea.

We now come to industry, which uses about 17% of total energy. At 23,600 ktoe nationally, this is only about 40% of the industrial energy the country used in 1970. The improvement partly comes from the fact that industry now produces about 17% more product per unit of energy input than it did fifty years ago, but mostly from the fact that Britain no longer has a significant mining, steel, car or shipbuilding industry as it did in 1970, and so now effectively imports a good deal of energy in the form of industrial products bought from abroad. On the other hand, in 1970 Britain’s heavy industry was to some extent an export industry, and given the agrarian nature of the People’s Republic of Wessex (many fewer fancy cars, remember) the need for 1970s levels of industrial production is debatable. So it’s difficult to determine an appropriate figure for industrial energy use. My proposal is to leave it exactly at its present value.

To give an idea of what that might look like, I’ve plucked some figures for the energy embodied in various materials from the internet and constructed the following table to indicate the sort of material resources that an abstemious farm household might use. The table shows, for example, that a four person household might have five tonnes of wood in their farmhouse and associated buildings, which they’d expect to last for 25 years. And so on down the list, including a 2 tonne tractor to furnish their own needs and that of forty-odd customers for 40 years (my own tractor has another three years to go before celebrating its 40th birthday), and a car or small van shared between two households (which, as it turns out, has by far the heaviest energy take). Perhaps some of these materials could be recycled at the end of their expected life, but I haven’t taken that into account.

Table: Lifetime embodied energy costs

  Emb. energy (MJkg-1) Mass (kg) Users Expected life (yrs) Energy use per person per year (MJ)
Wood 2.3 5,000 4 25 115
Plastic 13.8 10 1 1 138
Glass 32.3 50 4 25 16
Steel (tractor) 55.30 2,000 50 40 55
Steel (car) 55.30 1,300 8 12 749
Total         1,074

At about 1,100 MJ per capita, the direct usage figures assumed in the table for the Wessex population constitute about 7% of the total industrial energy budget I’ve construed of 23,600 ktoe allocated out on a per capita basis (apologies for jumbling up the units – I blame my data sources). Obviously, the industrial energy budget also needs to supply various intermediate goods, including the replacement of stock, and public goods as well. Is the 93% margin here sufficient to cover that? I’m not sure – I’d be interested in other views. I think it probably is. Indeed, perhaps these figures suggest the industrial energy budget could be trimmed a little. On the other hand, maybe we should allow our household a bit more plastic, a few more trinkets…my vote as an organic grower would be for extra Enviromesh.

The final component of the total energy budget is services, constituting 14% of total energy. A mere 6% of this services component is devoted to agriculture, which just goes to show how relatively energy-light providing food is. The other main components are retail (19%), warehousing, hotel/catering, and education (all 13%). I’m figuring we can make a few savings on the shops, warehouses and hotels – so I propose to reduce the services budget by 25% overall.

If we trim energy use in the manner I’ve described above, we can reduce per capita energy use in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex by a little more than half its present value – down to around 1.3 kW per capita.

Now that we’ve got energy demand down to something halfway sensible let’s look at what methods of generation are available and see if we can meet it.

To start with, we have about 700,000 hectares of woodland that could be managed for fuelwood in Wessex, comprising the woodland areas on the neo-peasant holdings, woodland edges on field boundaries and non-farm woodland. Assuming a sustainable yield of 3 tonnes of fuelwood per hectare per year, that gives us just under 50 GJ of fuel energy per hectare – or about 8% of our total energy requirement. Some way to go!

Well, we can throw in the biogas from silage anaerobic digestion that I looked at in a previous post – that gives us another 6%, and every little helps.

Looking at current sources of renewable energy provision in the UK there are a few other relatively minor sources we can add – biogas from human sewage, energy from waste combustion (which I’ll assume will be half its present value, as I think there’ll be less waste in Wessex), geothermal heat (too expensive, I’d think, to significantly expand on present values in Wessex), and wave/hydro energy, which I’m assuming we could at least double (see further comments below). Adding all that together, we get another 4% of our total requirement.

Turning to wind energy, the UK is well provided with wind although it currently only furnishes about 3% of our total energy use. This is partly because of government foot-dragging, but also because of the huge dominance of fossil fuels in the overall energy mix mentioned above. I’m not convinced that the massive expenditures and engineering feats required of offshore wind installations will be feasible in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex (there are no major offshore wind installations in the southwest at present), but onshore wind is another matter and is now relatively cheap. I think it should be possible to expand onshore wind tenfold in Wessex from the current per capita level for England (a lesser figure than the UK as a whole, which is inflated by high levels of wind energy in Scotland) – in which case we could furnish about 17% of the energy requirement from wind.

Totalling what we’ve got so far takes us to just 36% of our (already greatly trimmed down) energy requirement. At this point my hands get clammy and an insurgent thought pops into my head: “Oh my God – the ecomodernists are right. Renewables are a delusion! We need to go nuclear.” Well, let’s at least look at a nuclear option. After all, the current government has, in its wisdom, chosen to build a huge new nuclear power station in the heart of Wessex, not forty miles upwind of where I now sit. Hinkley C is projected to produce 3.2 GW of power at a minimum cost of £30 billion all in. If it’s built, I doubt we Wessexers will be able to keep all that energy to ourselves, so let’s allocate it out to the UK population on a per capita basis. And if we do that we’ll add, as a maximum, the grand total of 4% to meeting our energy requirement.

I guess you could argue that nuclear isn’t as limited by space and natural energy input considerations as other low carbon forms of supply, but at £10 billion+ per gigawatt – plus decommissioning costs and various other downsides – I’m really not sure how well this stacks up. You could argue that after the capacity-building exercise of Hinkley, future installations will be cheaper. Or, after watching EDF scrambling around and potentially bankrupting itself in its bid to build Hinkley, you could argue that in the context of a chronically sluggish UK economy, Hinkley probably won’t get built, and even if it is there won’t be any more Hinkleys after that. Phew! The ecomodernists are wrong after all – we greentards can rest easy.

Another grand option would be a tidal barrage across the River Severn. Going the full monty on this could furnish about 10% of our energy requirements. But it’d be another massive and prohibitively expensive engineering project. The Severn is a handy and scandalously underused bit of local topography for energy generation, and I’m sure there’d be scope for getting something from it with more modest schemes (as very conservatively projected above), but perhaps – like the government – we should leave big tidal projects on the back burner for now.

The other main way to go, as mentioned in an earlier post, is photovoltaic electricity. Suppose we put 15m2 of PV panels on the roofs of Wessex’s 3.15 million-odd households (the panels wouldn’t necessarily have to go on every roof – perhaps we can just imagine 15 m2 x 3.15 million = 4725 hectares of panels on brownfield sites generally). Assuming a yearly energy input of 5.4 Wm-2 that would give us about 30% of our energy needs. Well, we’re beginning to get somewhere now, but we’ve still only met 66% of our needs. Maybe we could meet the rest of them by putting PV on farmland. We’d need about 54,000 ha, which we could take from our permanent pasture. We could run sheep on the solar farms, rather than dairy cows. I’ve seen it claimed that 95% of the grass on a solar farm is still accessible for grazing, but since photons can’t simultaneously energise both panels and grass, we’ll surely have to reduce the productivity of the grazing. I’ve been unable to find a figure for how much, but I guess there’s going to be a fair bit of incident and reflected light on the grass at different times of the day. So could we say 50%? On that basis, we can still feed Wessex’s population just about adequately and meet our energy target. It’s quite a PV dominated solution, with about 2.5% of Wessex’s land surface covered with panels (you could, I suppose, put them out at sea as Miles King suggests for a solar-hydrogen solution – though since the main enemy of PV panels is water, I’m not sure if this is such a great idea).

Of course, there’s an energetic cost to manufacturing and replacing panels – as indeed there is to all the other forms of generation. Assuming an embodied energy of 4070 MJm-2 and a working life of 30 years, we’ll need to devote 8% of the energy allocated to industry to panel manufacture. Sounds doable?

Well, there you have it. It looks to me like the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex might just about be able to get by with a tight but tolerable per capita energy availability. There’s probably too much reliance on PV in the model I’ve outlined above in view of problems like intermittency. I think this can be overstated, and there are various evening-out technologies in the pipeline – but in the meantime, it’s probably best if we Wessexers aim to do our smelting and welding in the summer. Countries that, unlike Britain, aren’t stuck in a permanent swirl of cloud somewhere not far from the North Pole may find the PV approach more congenial.

There are other possibilities like crop biofuels. The issue here is competition with food crops (and lower per hectare energy output) – possibly remediable with such emerging technologies as algal biodiesel. Ultimately there are a set of rather complex tradeoffs between energy descent measures, energy cost per joule, energy productivity per unit area, embodied energy costs and various specifics such as engineering complexity, decommissioning costs etc. It looks to me like they might be resolvable – just – through a mix of solar, wind and tidal energy with some biofuels thrown in and strong downward pressure on usage. What seems to me more likely in practice is that the government will persist with a high energy route of fossil fuel and nuclear with a smattering of renewables until it runs out of road. Well, never let it be said that Small Farm Future wasn’t here pointing it towards the path of righteousness…

Waiting for the climacteric: or, the return of the greentard

I left the issue of the agricultural energy supply for the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex hanging at the end of my last post. So, in keeping with the infuriating elliptical style favoured on this blog, I propose not to address it in this one. Instead, I want to broach some wider energy-related issues with the help of two acquaintances of this site, before narrowing the scope to agricultural energy in a future post.

The first acquaintance is, sadly, dead, yet so ebullient that his thought is setting tongues a-wagging in environmental circles even now. I refer to the late David Fleming, whose book Lean Logic has recently been published thanks to the excellent editorship of Shaun Chamberlin, and is garnering all sorts of critical plaudits1. There’s a lot of finely crafted stuff in the book, though I must admit that I’m not quite as wowed by Fleming’s thought as many others are. I have a review of the book coming out in the new year so I won’t dwell on all that now. Instead, I just want to mention Fleming’s approach to the concept of the climacteric.

Fleming defines a climacteric as “a stage in the life of a system in which it is especially exposed to a profound change in health or fortune” and goes on to predict an imminent global climacteric in the years between 2010 (the year he died) and 2040, comprising “deep deficits in energy, water and food, along with climate change, a shrinking land area as the seas rise, and heat, drought and storm affecting the land that remains. There is also the prospect of acidic oceans which neither provide food nor remove carbon; ecologies degraded by introduced plants and animals; the failure of keystone species such as bees and plankton; and the depletion of minerals”2.

Phew, well that’s quite a list – though nothing that most of us haven’t heard before, and endlessly debated across the whole spectrum of doom-mongering and boom-mongering. What interests me about it for present purposes is the rather quietist inferences Fleming draws from the concept of the climacteric towards contemporary socio-economic activism. “There is no case for dismantling the market,” he writes, “that will be done for us, all too soon”3. And again, “The task….is not about wrestling with the controls of economics to force it in the direction of degrowth, but about getting ready for the moment when the coming climacteric does the heavy work of degrowth for us”4.

Is this way of thinking the declinist mirror to those great 20th century progressive narratives of capitalism and communism which believed in unstoppable, positive climacterics delivered by human agency – whether through free markets or proletarian revolutions – which would inevitably deliver human betterment? If so, I suspect it may prove equally problematic. For one thing, it relies on a finely balanced quantum of crisis: too little, and the status quo ante is soon restored in elite interests until we lurch into the next crisis; too much, and all bets are off as to how humanity fares, or if it even survives as a species. For another thing, how will this balance be achieved? The work that Fleming says will be done for us seems to involve no human mechanisms, no politics, no history, by which humans might act upon the climacteric. This gives the concept a rather religious, millenarian feel – of attending to the end days, when human betterment may come. Through the ages a lot of prophets have thus gathered a flock and instructed them to await a new dawn. They haven’t always been wrong. But they usually have been, and personally I’m not much inclined to throw in my lot with them.

So suppose – just suppose – that humanity found, right now, a source of clean energy of an appropriate magnitude, which enabled us to avert at this eleventh hour the worst consequences of climate change, and to continue on the merry way of our present high energy, growth-oriented global economy. In such circumstances, the sting would be drawn from many features of Fleming’s climacteric. Would it then be a case of ‘job done’ for green politics, another end of history in which humanity could at last settle down and enjoy the fruits of a green capitalism for all? I don’t think so. I think the underlying problems of the capitalist growth model would remain – the deep and intrinsic inequality, the environmental degradations that continued to leak from our actions, the spiritual vacuity. Which is not to say that finding an abundant source of clean energy right now would necessarily be a bad thing.

There are those, of course, who are confident that the search is already over. And that brings us to our second familiar personage. I have to admit that since my jousting with him in the early days of this website, I haven’t been keeping up lately with the-world-according-to-Graham-Strouts. ‘Greentard’ (= ‘green retard’, I think) was one of the kinder, and funnier, insults he tossed my way as I learned, too slowly, that slipstreaming in someone else’s personal furies is bad for the soul. But I have to admit that I did take a peek at one of his recent blog posts, in which he invokes the authority of David MacKay, author of Sustainable Energy: Without The Hot Air – another book by a recently deceased author treated to a wide adulation that I can’t fully share. Strouts, like all good ecomodernists, considers the answer to the energy problem to be nuclear power, dismissing renewables as a ‘delusion’. To underscore the futility of renewable energy vis-à-vis nuclear, Strouts cites a table from MacKay’s book indicating the low power per unit land/water area of various renewable energy technologies by comparison with fossil or nuclear energy in the UK. And he includes a strapline quotation from MacKay “I’m not pro-nuclear, just pro-arithmetic”.

Let me digress briefly at this point to explain my misgivings about MacKay’s book. On pp.17-18, MacKay makes two important statements about the approach he takes in it: first, that it’s about physical limits to sustainable energy, not current economic feasibility; and second, that there’s a difference between ‘factual assertions’ and ‘ethical assertions’ and that his book is about facts, not ethics. On the first point, I’d assert (factually? ethically?) that a book which looks only at physical and not economic limits, while no doubt informative, is at best of limited use in making policy decisions about a society’s energy options. Thus, the table on power per unit area that Strouts reproduces conveys absolutely no useful information in itself about energy choices. And on the second point – well, the fact/value distinction can be useful, but it tends to be rather overplayed by ecomodernists and other technophiles lacking a sense that the way people live is always and inevitably cultural and ideological. Before we ask factual questions about energy options we need to ask another factual question, to which there can be no merely factual answer: how much energy is enough?

A further problem arises with MacKay’s fact/value distinction. The number of facts that are potentially relevant to a given issue is almost unlimited, so as MacKay sat down to write his tome he inevitably had to choose which facts he was going to assert and which ones he wasn’t. What was the basis on which he did that? A ‘factual’ one? I don’t think so. In his chapter on nuclear power, for example, he states that “nuclear power’s price is dominated by the cost of power-station construction and decommissioning”5, but he provides virtually no information on what these costs are which might help the reader decide on the viability of nuclear energy. He goes on to describe the amount of high-level nuclear waste in the UK in terms of the number of Olympic swimming pools it occupies (a fact). He continues, “the volumes are so small, I feel nuclear waste is only a minor worry”6 (not a fact). And then we have the “I’m not trying to be pro-nuclear. I’m just pro-arithmetic” line – which is also very far from anything resembling a factual assertion. The problem I have here is that when a distinguished scientist sets out their stall by saying that they’ll be dealing in factual, not ethical, assertions, it’s easy to get swept up in this rhetorical trick and be led to believe that ‘the science’ tells us to adopt a particular course of action which the presentation of the data leads us to. But the fact is, it’s impossible to avoid ethical assertions. Much as the ecomodernists with their religious faith in scientism wish to believe otherwise, ‘the science’ never tells us to do anything.

Still, I’m not necessarily against nuclear power on principle as a potential part of the energy mix. I’m just against ecomodernists relentlessly favouring it on the basis of the tendentious use of spurious facts, as in Strouts’ post. Meanwhile, in another corner of the blogosphere there are others also arguing that the search for the magical source of clean energy is over – but for them the source isn’t nuclear, it’s photovoltaics.

Chris Goodall’s book The Switch is a good summary of the case from the PV corner7. One advantage of Goodall over MacKay (other than an extra seven years of hindsight) is that he’s an economist, so he tends to think in terms of £/kWh, which is ultimately the key driver of energy choices. Another advantage is that he thinks in terms of how much energy we should be using – 3kW per person by 2035 (fact!). He’s a bit sketchier than I’d like on some of the technical details, though pretty well informed for all that. But another big advantage is that he takes a global perspective. Being a cloudy country a long way north, Britain is one of the worst places in the world for generating PV energy. However, the ‘average’ person in the world lives less than half the distance from the equator than us benighted Brits. The scepticism about PV expressed by MacKay (and Strouts) may have some force in the UK, but it’s less plausible in most of the rest of the world.

By Goodall’s calculations, the UK would need about 16% of its land area to be covered with PV panels to provide for all our energy needs. Before we dismiss that as an impossibly profligate use of our scenic landscapes, it’s worth bearing in mind that we currently devote 75% of our entire land area to agriculture, a lot of it ryegrass and cereal monocultures, while still failing to feed ourselves by a distance, even though we could if we wanted. Still, it’s no doubt fanciful to suppose that we could or should cover that much of the country in PV panels. Whether that means it’s a good idea to build the Hinkley C nuclear power station to generate about 7% of the UK’s electricity at a build cost in excess of £20 billion, and then pay £92.50 per MWh for the next 35 years is less clear. The Intergenerational Foundation has argued that a PV solution would cost about £40 billion less than Hinkley C overall. For my part, I’d want to ask whether the UK might better spend some of the money earmarked for Hinkley C on trimming 7% from our energy demand. But I fear that the government has tied its hands through its agreements with French and Chinese energy companies (there’s a whole ironic backstory here about Britain’s inability to undertake its own energy projects, and its post-Brexit inability to flex its negotiating muscles, but I’ll pass over it here).

Whatever the ‘pro-arithmetic’ theoretical case for nuclear power, the economic case is looking increasingly thin vis-à-vis PV in most parts of the world, possibly even in Britain. But I’m not sure the nuclearphiles in government or among the serried ranks of the ecomodernists are really that interested in the economics of it. I think for political and ideological reasons that have little to do with arithmetic they’re drawn to mega-projects, the white heat of high technology, big grids and generating installations that require centralised control, and potentially dangerous technologies like nuclear that require lots of regulation, security apparatus and the like.

The advantages of PV are that it’s modular, dispersed, not grid reliant, and increasingly cheap. As Goodall shows in his book, there are numerous outstanding problems with it if it’s to become the global energy supplier of choice, but also numerous emerging solutions to them which could well hold greater promise than the solutions offered by the nuclear industry. In the end, I think it’s likely that globally PV will predominate over other energy technologies despite its unpalatability to politicians and opinion-formers through the fact-based arithmetic of £/KWh. But that’s not the main point I want to make. The main point I want to make is the thought experiment I mentioned above. Suppose that humanity solves the clean energy conundrum one way or another: Will that solution automatically solve the other environmental crises we face? And will it automatically generate equitable societies dedicated to human health and wellbeing?

No, I just can’t see it. But what I can see is the glimmer of a possibility – no more than that – that serious investment in clean energy (PV, mostly) might give us something of a reprieve from the worst of Fleming’s climacteric. And if it does, given that such a small proportion of current global energy use relates to electric power generation where most of the promising renewable technologies are clustered, I’d hope that we’d have to make do with a lot less energy per capita in the wealthier countries than we presently do, otherwise I can’t easily see how we’d create the kind of localised, low energy societies that seem necessary for human flourishing. But in contrast to Fleming, I don’t think any of this will be ‘done for us’. If we want to avoid the worst consequences of his climacteric and if we want to build decent, equitable, abundant societies, we’ll need to do the heavy work ourselves. For me, there’s no waiting for the climacteric – we have to fight for what we want, starting now.

References

  1. Fleming, D. 2016. Lean Logic: A Dictionary For The Future & How To Survive It, Chelsea Green.
  1. Ibid. p.43.
  1. Ibid. p.103.
  1. Ibid. p.189.
  1. MacKay, D. 2009. Sustainable Energy – Without The Hot Air, UIT Cambridge, p.165.
  1. Ibid. p.170.
  1. Goodall, C. 2016. The Switch: How Solar, Storage & New Tech Means Cheap Power For All, Profile.

Two tribes

I’m going to take some breaks from my neo-peasant analysis and start weaving in a few other stories. I think they’ll help to build the bigger picture. And I feel like some time off from Excel spreadsheets. So to start with, in this post I’m going to describe my recent weekend among two strange tribes.

The first tribe I visited was holed up for three days at Bristol University, where it was holding a pow-wow called ‘Radical Technology Revisited’. The backstory here involves an influential and eponymous book, published exactly forty years ago in 1976, by a group of countercultural techies gathered around the Centre for Alternative Technology in North Wales. A fine opportunity, then, for a retrospective on the concerns set out in the book, and the way the world looks now.

Perhaps you can already imagine the demographic of the conference, but let me underline it by noting that Rob Hopkins (b.1968) was invited as a discussant to represent ‘the voice of youth’. I thought he did a good job, and he celebrated the assembled authors for influencing (slightly) younger activists of his and my generation and for not, as he put it, going down the ‘Stewart Brand route’ of ecomodernism as they grew older. It was nicely judged praise, and I’d echo the respect he offered to CAT authors like Peter Harper, whose lively iconoclasm is a refreshing voice in the green movement. But in relation to the Stewart Brand route, after listening to a few of the presentations I’ve got to say that, by God, it’s a close-run thing.

In the transport session, for example, those of us who live in the countryside were invited to raise our hands, and were then ritually humiliated for our carbon-intensive sins. In other sessions, the impetus towards rural self-reliance in the original book was recanted as an ‘Arcadian vision’, while Tara Garnett of the Food Climate Research Network, though setting out clearly some of the tensions around the idea of local food, also opted for the pejorative language of idylls, romance and nostalgia in her characterization of the green and local food movements. In the food session, Martin Ince confidently proclaimed the certainty that nobody actually wants to engage in labour-intensive small-scale farming.

I’ve written before about these ubiquitous, ahistorical and apolitical stereotypes, but permit me to twist the stick once again. If, over several centuries, you remove ordinary people from access to productive land; if you arrange agriculture to produce a small number of commodity crops for distant markets using exotic inputs rather than serving its locality; if you allow food prices and land prices to get so out of kilter that almost nobody can afford to farm, that only rich people can afford to live in the countryside, and that poor farmers globally need to search for paid work wherever the pull of the global economy takes them; and if you impose a car-based infrastructure on the countryside while systematically stripping it of services and public transport, then, yes, it’s probably fair to say that it’s greener to live in the city and that few want to be small-scale farmers. But there’s no reason to accept all that as given. After two centuries of relentless urbanist propaganda, we’ve almost lost even the very language with which we might plausibly set out radical ruralist alternatives. And so people reach for the easy pejoratives of ‘Arcadia’, ‘rural idylls’, ‘romanticism’, ‘nostalgia’ and so on. Meanwhile, the ecological footprint of cities like London exerts an ever-increasing chokehold across the globe, while urbanites congratulate themselves on their ethical ways, and urban dysfunctions proliferate. When can we start talking of urban idylls?

After the conference, I read historian Peter Linebaugh’s pamphlet Ned Ludd & Queen Mab: Machine-Breaking, Romanticism, and the Several Commons of 1811-12, which was kindly given to me as a gift by Aaron Vansintjan of Uneven Earth. And then I started reading Eric Wolf’s classic Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. Despite the undeniable pull of capitalism’s ‘if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em’ logic, I think critics, journalists and intellectuals have a responsibility to remember the working people – including small-scale farmers – who have also flatly contested it, sometimes at the cost of their lives. Historically, there have been very many of them.

Still, there were a few complicating voices at the conference. Herbert Girardet was one of them, undermining the whole urban idyll argument with the simple, subversive observation that the newly urbanizing masses of India and China increase their carbon footprints by a factor of 4 or 5 over their rural counterparts when they move to the city. He also noted the pull of urbanization in the route out of poverty it offered. To my mind, these comments were about as clear an incitement to think about low-impact rural development as a global strategy as it’s possible to have. But that would involve a truly radical politics and, sad to say, that wasn’t the flavour of this conference. For the most part, it was about as radical as an editorial in The Times. My sense was of a bunch of guys (and indeed they were mostly male) who emerged from their flirtation with 1960s counterculture and the back-to-the-landism of the time into vaguely progressive mainstream careers which have instilled in them the sense of authority to dismiss radical politics as naïve or parochial – words that recurred throughout the conference. Ah well, they’ve probably done more good with the urban car clubs and housing estates they’ve designed than I have by growing a few tons of silly vegetables.

By the end of the first day I was thoroughly riled by what I was hearing, betraying my anger in a comment from the floor that probably made me sound like an idiot. I’m not quite sure why the proceedings got so under my skin. I guess I’m just another imperfect human being, one who’s heard the urban idyll trotted out a few too many times, and one with an aversion to the overconfident authoritativeness affected by people (men, usually) at professional conferences. I guess I’d hoped for something a bit more…radical. Still, I do agree with Peter Harper’s comment that radical green thinkers need to do some maths to flesh out their visions. So we’ll be heading back to neo-peasant Wessex soon…

But meanwhile there was a whole different shout going on down in Devon – Dark Mountain’s annual get together, where I’d been asked to speak to the theme of ‘Land literacy and farming on the edge of extinction’. It was quite a change of scene – more women, more young people, more radicalism. I don’t know how fully signed up I am to Dark Mountain’s manifesto, but I like the fact that the Dark Mountain project at least questions conventional narratives of progress and civilisation in a world of consumption, and confronts the possibility that mere optimism may not be enough to sort our problems. I like the fact too that Dark Mountain is looking for some different stories to tell.

I shared the platform with Cate Chapman (Ecological Land Co-op) and Molly Campbell (a US-based indigenous food activist). Our story in a nutshell was this: me – there’s no single, correct narrative of ‘land literacy’ or farming, there are no silver bullets, and we can neither overcome nature nor merely mimic it in our farming practice, but we need more people in agriculture, more work, and to do that we need to challenge large-scale landownership; Cate – the Ecological Land Co-op is one practical model for how we can go about getting more people into agriculture; Molly – there are traditional food knowledges that are in danger of being commodified just as their bearers are in danger of being obliterated. I thought the session went OK, and covered about as much as was possible in an hour or so, but afterwards someone told me she’d disliked our presentations, and so had everyone else in the audience she’d talked to. “There are lots of people singing in the green valley”, she told me, adding that we’d failed to address the role of art in achieving agrarian change. I didn’t have too much of a response at the time. I’d pretty much had my fill of conferences for the weekend. I had some business to attend to in Wales, and a side-trip planned to Snowdonia, where I often go to give my soul respite. And my soul certainly needed some respite. I made my excuses and left.

The next day I hiked alone into Cwm Llafar – one of the less frequented valleys in one of the less frequented parts of the national park. No one else was there, and no one knew that I was there either, which suited me just fine. The last time I’d been here was thirty years ago, in winter, when I climbed an ice route that weaved up the formidable cliff of Ysgolion Duon at the valley’s head. I must have been a different person then. The route looked terrifying. I’d climbed it with my Chacal ice axes, state-of-the-art technology in the 1980s but, now on permanent loan to my impecunious son, objects of ridicule in his university climbing club for their laughable antiquity. Modern axes are superior, lighter, with clever convexities in shaft and pick. That, I think, is radical technology. That, I think, is progress.

From the head of Cwm Llafar, a steep path breaks right past rocks smoothed by a curtain of gently slipping water to flank the cliff of Llech Ddu up into the subsidiary valley of Cwmglas Bach. Approaching the path, I startled a group of wild Carneddau horses. They cantered away from me, but as they climbed the hillside, a foal detached itself from the group and came galloping back, straight at me. It broke to my right just before it reached me, and then circled curiously. Probably born this year in this same remote valley, it occurred to me that it may never have seen a human being before. I slowly reached out a hand towards it, but it snorted and then wheeled away. Somehow, that encounter quenched my desire to climb my chosen route. I followed the pull of the path for a while, lost it several times and slowed to take in my surroundings, then found the path again and pressed on. Eventually, I located my ridge and started up it.

The climbing was easy, but the rock was greasy, and the route steepened into a forbidding veil of mist. I became uncomfortably aware of the yawning cliff beneath my feet, and the fact that no one knew I was there started to seem less comforting. A dark mountain indeed, with two stories of the future playing in my head. One placed me contentedly in the pub that evening, quietly satisfied with another route well climbed. The other placed my lifeless body at the foot of Llech Ddu with only the horses for company until someone eventually found it. In an anti-Cortesian move, I left my rucksack at the base of a tower on the misty ridge, ensuring that I’d have to turn back at some point. And soon enough I did, leaving the summit for another day and spending a reflective hour exploring these two green valleys where I was all alone.

No, there aren’t nearly enough people singing in the green valley. And if all they’re doing is singing in it, then I’m not for them but for the people who are growing their food. Stories count for little in themselves. What matters is their material consequences. To me, the role of art in peopling the green valley lies somewhere between the minimal and the non-existent. And the same probably goes for radical technology.

A weekend among two foreign tribes, then, followed by a little time to myself. And then I was happy to get back to the farm. On the track our cat had cornered a mouse, and was toying with it, rather unenthusiastically. Knowing I was watching, perhaps she thought I might give her some food and save her the trouble. But every time the mouse tried to scamper away it triggered her predatory instinct, and she went after it. Then the mouse would turn, drawing itself up to its full height (which wasn’t much), and fronting up to its tormentor. For her part, the cat seemed unnerved by its bravery, batting at it only half-heartedly. Eventually the mouse managed to sidle away. The cat trotted off, cultivating an air of dignity. And I went in to the warmth of my hearthside, my family, my tribe.