Of boomers and doomers

I suppose this is going over old ground, but I’ve been struck anew recently through various readings and conversations about the nature of techno-utopianism, and the difficulty we seem to have nowadays in breaking out of a boomer-doomer dualism – that is, either the (rather unhistorical) ‘boomer’ notion that human rationality, optimism and ingenuity always overcomes the social, economic and biophysical problems societies face, or the (boldly predictive, and therefore also unhistorical) ‘doomer’ notion that these problems are sure to overwhelm us and destroy civilisation altogether.

One such reading is David Rieff’s recent book The Reproach of Hunger1. There are interesting commonalities between his critique of the now dominant aid/development paradigm, and my own critique of ecomodernism within environmentalist thought. Given the different (if overlapping) focus and personnel involved, perhaps this suggests quite a generic ideology of techno-utopianism (TU) within contemporary thinking. Rieff’s book has helped me see its outlines more clearly, so with his help here I’d like to describe briefly some of its key elements. Rieff also has some interesting, if frustratingly vague, thoughts on the possibilities for a peasant-focused development paradigm, but more on that another time.

So here, for your consideration, are seven elements of TU ideology, lightly tossed with a few counter-thoughts of my own:

  1. Ideology: our first characteristic of TU ideology is that it considers itself to have no ideology, but instead merely a pragmatic focus on solving practical problems (such as climate change or extreme poverty) by using whatever methods demonstrably work. Its critics have ideology – they are ideologues, partisans, spoilers, whose critiques reflect their own narrow political agendas – but TU rises serenely above all that. It is, as Rieff puts it, an antipolitics, a political argument for the irrelevance of politics (and particularly for the irrelevance of changing the political status quo) in solving global problems: “Perhaps twenty-first century liberal capitalism’s greatest trick has been convincing the world that it is not an ideology, and as it did so, convincing itself as well”2.
  1. Engineering and medical metaphors: global problems (climate change, extreme poverty etc.) are conceived as dysfunction in complex systems, after the model of a mechanism (a broken machine requiring an engineer to fix it) or an organism (a sick body requiring a doctor to fix it – as in the pervasive metaphor of poverty as a ‘disease’). These metaphors lack a sense of intentionality. Global problems are also the result of people’s deliberate actions.
  1. Science: TU accords a premier role to science in ‘fixing’ global problems – surely no surprise in view of the preceding points, since scientific enquiry is modern humanity’s most successful example of transcending ideology using non-intentional (mechanical and medical/biological) models. To this way of thinking, global problems arise through technique rather than social power: for example, the contemporary poverty of small-scale farmers is seen as resulting from lack of access to agricultural technologies that increase their crop yields (such as GM crops, denied them by ideologues from wealthy countries) and not from the abolition of marketing boards or import tariffs under global free trade rules. As Rieff points out (and as I know all too well myself from my engagements with the ecomodernists) TU’s favourite kind of science is the “inventions, technological breakthroughs, and scientific discoveries not yet in existence [that] are so certain to occur…they can be counted on to address the world’s problems”3.
  1. Optimism: but paradoxically, TU ideology sets itself against pessimism, cynicism and naysaying. Development guru Jeffrey Sachs, for example, has tweeted “Cynicism is biggest obstacle to challenges such as ending poverty and fighting climate change”4. I’d have plumped for issues like war, skewed economic relations, runaway consumerism or the over-reliance on fossil fuels. But no – the real problem, apparently, is cynicism. In many ways, Rieff’s book is an extended diatribe against the rise of a kneejerk ‘optimism’ of this kind which thinks that problems such as hunger and extreme poverty are easily solved through positive thought. Despite the fact that nowadays, in his words, “hope and optimism are often presented as the only morally licit stance for any person of conscience and goodwill to take”, nevertheless “hope can also be a denial of reality and “solutionism” a form of moral and ideological vanity”5. Quite so. The reason I called this optimism ‘paradoxical’ is because it sits ill with the TU emphasis on science. TU cleaves towards science because science has been vastly more successful at comprehending physical and biological relationships (though not ethical ones – that intentionality issue again) than any other form of human knowledge. And it’s achieved this precisely because it doesn’t delude itself with ‘optimism’. Scientists are professional naysayers, rigorously trained in the art of disputing the grounds for all assertions. They don’t talk about the null hypothesis for nothing. And yet when science is transplanted to the ideological plane of solving human social problems, its proponents suddenly want to banish scepticism and enforce a one dimensional ‘optimism’. Pace Sachs, I’m tempted to say that the biggest obstacle to ending poverty or fighting climate change might be what Rieff calls “the bad habit of mistaking the nobility of [our] intentions for the feasibility of [our] goals”6. And the biggest asset is scientific realism, the ability to probe disinterestedly at the drawbacks of any suggested program. Unfortunately, the narrow ‘optimism’ of TU ideology enforces a highly partisan consensus of which programs are ‘realistic’. Thus, carbon pricing is not realistic whereas a worldwide switch to nuclear power apparently is; price floors for commodity crops grown by poor small-scale farmers are not realistic, whereas vertical integration into the value chains of corporate agribusiness is.
  1. Millenarianism: the optimism tic of TU ideology suggests that science isn’t ultimately what it’s about. Indeed, TU seems more redolent of millenarian religion than of science. ‘Science’ is merely the vehicle in TU’s secularized form of millennialism (as trumpet-wielding angels have been in other versions) to bringing about human perfection on earth. Like many millenarian sects, TUs believe redemption is close – Sachs, for example, has spoken of the present generation’s opportunity to end hunger for good and its duty to “heal the world”7. Though TU’s proponents are usually careful to avoid teleology (ie. the notion that future salvation is inevitably destined to happen – see here for example), this usually comes in the form of a weak caveat (‘there are no guarantees’) than any kind of serious countenancing of negative outcomes. I can (and have) offered various speculations concerning the cause of this irrational millennialism in the TU worldview. One of them is that people are deeply imbued with the capacity to wonder and to worship, but in modern times characterised by what sociologist Max Weber called the ‘disenchantment of the world’ there’s little left for us to worship or feel wondrous about but our own achievements – the problem of “humanism worshipping itself”8. A religious commitment to redemption dies hard, even within entirely secular thought, which is quite capable of coopting science within a millenarian purview.
  1. The power of the individual: perhaps this is a stronger feature of TU ideology in the development/hunger field than in ecomodernist environmentalism. It invests the idea that by being optimistic, by giving money to the right charities, by making the right consumption decisions and by supporting big campaigns like Make Poverty History, the wealthy western consumer is individually empowered to help the poor. Rieff calls this thinking “at best a consoling farce”9 in a world where persistent, structural causes are compounding poverty and inequality. Another dimension of it he touches on is the conviction that the power of individuals to change things is always positive, and always makes the world a better place. But as the contributors to another interesting recent book, Warlords, Inc.10, make clear, this isn’t necessarily so. Economic globalization and climate change, to name but two contemporary forces, are having the effect of weakening many sovereign, national governments in the global south. Into this confusion step warlords, para-states, criminal entrepreneurs, violent fundamentalists and a panoply of other agents whose goals could scarcely be more different from those of democrats, rationalists and egalitarians – and with the considerable advantage that they’re not saddled with any lofty (and costly) ambitions of making the world a better place. If individuals do have the power to remake the world, that in itself isn’t necessarily a good thing.
  1. The failure of government: Rieff deftly charts the shift in the development paradigm, which until the 1970s considered the structuring of the global economy in favour of corporate private enterprise to be part of the problem, but since the 1980s has increasingly seen it as part of the solution. For their part, although the ecomodernists sometimes offer weak support for government as a bulwark against the excesses of the private sector, the structuring of the global economy in favour of private corporate interests is rarely challenged. Indeed, the ecomodernists reimagine corporate agribusiness as a benevolent agent successfully uplifting the poor11, just as Silicon Valley ‘philanthrocapitalists’ like Bill Gates reimagine private philanthropy as a privileged vehicle for ending poverty, without acknowledging the role played by monopolistic rent-extraction of the kind that endows the philanthropy in reproducing poverty and inequality. I find Rieff’s claim plausible that corporate agribusiness is not deliberately malevolent, and is sometimes capable of delivering worthwhile pro-poor innovations. But I also find plausible his critique of the notion that “private business – the most politically influential, the most undertaxed and least regulated, and…the least democratically accountable sector among those groups that dispose of real power and wealth in the world – is best suited to be entrusted with the welfare and the fate of the powerless and the hungry” and I agree with his rueful conclusion that “No revolution could be more radical, no expectation…could be more counterintuitive, more antihistorical, or require a greater leap of faith”12.

~~~

So much for TU ideology and its ‘optimism’. What’s the alternative? Not, surely, hopelessness or despair. I think rather just an openness to the idea that some of the problems we currently face (like hunger, and climate change) may not be solvable within the parameters of our current political and economic systems, or indeed may not be solvable at all. Perhaps satisfying technological solutions to such problems will appear without the need for major systemic change. But perhaps they won’t. Let us think freely about all possible eventualities, rather than clinging determinedly to a redemptive narrative of business-as-usual solutionism that aggressively silences dissenters. Nobody can tell what the future holds, but there are good reasons for apprehension. As Rieff puts it, if even some of these apprehensions prove warranted, then the grandiose promises of the development elite (and, I’d argue, of the ecomodernists and techno-utopians more generally) “do not embody hope; they make a mockery of hope”13.

There’s a conservative politics implicit in TU ideology, which is quite comforting to those of us living in wealthy countries where few go truly hungry and where our use of non-renewable resources is out of all proportion to our numbers. This holds that there’s no viable alternative to existing economic and political arrangements, the challenge then being the essentially technical one of raising the rest of the world up to our level of resource use, while making it sustainable at the same time. But it seems to me that that challenge is most likely insurmountable. And in any case there are more satisfying alternatives.

As well as an implicit politics, there’s also an implicit psychology – the idea that people are more appropriately motivated by positive stories about how things will be better in the future if they do x than by negative stories about how things will be worse in the future if they don’t do y. I think this is true and, if I understand the work of social psychologists like Daniel Kahneman14 correctly, it’s pretty hard-wired into the human psyche. Still, Kahneman does imply that our predilection for triumph-against-the-odds narratives has been augmented in capitalist societies, and perhaps – following Rieff – more now than ever.

Both in personal life and in political life I think it’s good to have some optimism, a feeling that problems can be tackled and that things may turn out well. I also think it’s good to have some pessimism, a sober reckoning of the obstacles before us and the possibilities that things may not turn out as well as we’d like. Put the two together and you get the chance of realistic solutions. Either one on their own is less promising. So the ubiquitous notion that we just need optimism, positive stories, baffles me. It seems juvenile. As kids, we love to hear fairy stories and get scared by the awful and apparently inescapable fate the hero/ine faces at the hands of the baddies. But we know that there will be a satisfying redemption in which good will somehow miraculously prevail. Then we grow up and realise that in real life those redemptions don’t always occur. But when it comes to debating future sustainability and social justice, we seem to have entangled ourselves in a fairy tale narrative about optimism, the power of the individual and the redeeming character of science.

I can see plenty of reasons to take a pessimistic view that problems like war, hunger and climate change, independently and additively, will result in a lot of misery in the years to come. I can also see reasons to think optimistically that they can be overcome, or at least tolerably mitigated. But it seems to me that the most promising way of overcoming them is to ditch the techno-utopianism and business-as-usual economics currently dominating mainstream policy. And I’m not very optimistic that that will happen nearly soon enough. Still, life never was a fairy story, huh?

Postscript: though I’ve only just re-emerged from a break in blogging, I shall be silent again for a couple of weeks because…well, let’s just say I’m going on a spirit quest. A commenter at Resilience.org accused me of possessing a ‘deadened spirit’ and to tell the truth I am feeling a little stale, so I’m heading off for a week on a spirit-journey to see if I can catch me a live one…

References

  1. Rieff, D. 2016. The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice and Money in the 21st Century. London: Verso.
  1. Ibid. p.208.
  1. Ibid. pp.110-1.
  1. Ibid. p.215.
  1. Ibid. p.10.
  1. Ibid. p.34.
  1. Ibid. p.73.
  1. Ibid. p.29.
  1. Ibid. p.280.
  1. Raford, N. and Trabulsi, A. 2015. Warlords, Inc.: Black Markets, Broken States, and the rise of the Warlord Entrepreneur, Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.
  1. For example, Mark Lynas’s oft-quoted comment that Monsanto has done more than the entire organic movement to reduce insecticide use.
  1. Rieff op cit. p.229.
  1. Ibid. p.47.
  1. Kahneman, D. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Penguin.

The turning of the year

I’m not really sure when it feels right to talk about “the new year” in the endless cycle of life on the farm. I’m pretty sure that it isn’t 1st January though. Perhaps I’d go for late October or early November when the last transplants are out, the squash is in, the pace of work slows and thoughts turn to woodland work, repairs, planning and the like. Or perhaps it’s around now when the new season’s garden work really gets going. Home gardeners and intensive commercial growers already have many plants well established, but bringing early crops in has never made much sense to me for a small, low input operation like ours – gains in market price are cancelled by the additional inputs, and the stress of ensuring a return on the extra investment by getting the crop to market on time doesn’t seem worth it. Jean-Martin Fortier takes a different line in his book The Market Gardener, which a commenter on this site recently suggested I might discuss. Having now read the book, I’ll be happy to oblige soon…

It also feels like new year around now in terms of off grid life. The sun is getting high enough and the days long enough for the PV panels to do their work regardless of the weather – no more fretting over computer use on cloudy winter days (though the soil warming cable in our propagator now becomes a slight worry as it pulls a cool 150 watts out of the batteries all night). The solar hot water tubes are shaking out of their winter slumber too – except we’re now in the spring dip when the woodstove is no longer needed in the cabin but the tubes aren’t yet quite fully up to the job. Without the back boiler, our water at this time of year is decidedly lukewarm – an issue to tweak in the future perhaps. This winter I did the first proper thinning of our ten year old woodland, along with the yearly cut of the willow pollards, so I’m hoping we’ll have enough wood in from our site for next winter – if we’re still here. For indeed, my bureaucracy-busting alter ego Spudman is soon going to have to dust down his iron cloak and do battle once more with Mendip District Council in order to secure permanent permission to live on the farm. More on that to come.

Some things don’t change though, despite the turning of the year. For example, a correspondent has brought me news of an article by an old adversary – a critique of permaculture forest gardening from a master’s student in agroforestry at Bangor University on a brand new website, The Cultural Wildernenss. The article is detached and academic in tone rather than aggressive and ranty. And its author now sports an augustly scholarly beard. But it’s still, unmistakeably…Graham Strouts! Actually, I happen to agree with quite a lot of his critique. Though for one who bemoans the shoddy use of quantification in alternative agricultural circles, Graham’s like-for-like comparison of nut yields with potato yields on a tonnes per hectare basis almost made me laugh out loud. Various permaculturists have responded to his critique – and though a few of them were content to invoke that notorious permacultural fatwah to which I too have been subjected (“you’ll never understand permaculture”), I thought between them they offered some worthwhile counter-arguments. I’m still not convinced that Mark Shepard’s work is a clincher for the superiority of perennial polycultures, though. Ach well, I think I’m done with that debate for now (though I’ve updated my web page on it to include a few more things, including Brian Cady’s interesting thinking around ‘oligoennials’). And I’m done debating with Graham too. Despite apparently possessing a degree in sociology, he seems to have emerged from it blissfully ignorant of what the words ‘romantic’ and ‘feudalist’ actually mean, judging by his predilection for applying them to me in the various travesties of my arguments that he’s published. Hopefully he’ll study more diligently for his master’s degree, and somehow figure out what agroforestry is. I wish him well with that.

Another correspondent, another old adversary. Ted Trainer has drawn my attention to his critique of Leigh Phillips’ Austerity Ecology (also relevant here are some interesting discussions with Anthony Galluzzo concerning modernism in general and Leigh Phillips in particular). I’m just working through Ted’s interesting thinking on ‘The Simpler Way’ at the moment, which I hope to discuss soon. Ted says that my critiques of the ecomodernists haven’t addressed the numerical evidence concerning the rate of resource/economic decoupling that will be necessary for their vision to be realised. I suppose that’s fair enough, though for the record I’ve engaged in some basic analysis along such lines here and here. Leigh contacted me a while back promising, in amongst the insults (and, to be fair, some praise for offering to host his reply) that he’d write a rejoinder to my critiques of him. Nothing has yet been forthcoming, but hope springs eternal.

Anyway, all this argumentativeness over perennial polycultures and ecomodernism feels…well, just so last year. With the turning of the year, I plan to focus my upcoming posts mostly on an analysis of how a peasant farmscape might look in a Europe (…or Britain … or England … or Wessex) of the future, and what the politics of such a farmscape might involve. On the latter point, I want to pick up again on the discussion I started in this post around modernism, agrarian populism or what Bill Barnes calls ‘producerist republicanism’. The ensuing debate has led me to think that getting to grips with modernism is vastly more important than getting to grips with ecomodernism.

So that’s a rough outline of my future programme. But first I’m going to take a new year’s holiday from blogging for a few weeks. For one thing, I’ve got that rarest of beasts, a paid writing gig, to get done, and I also need to spend a bit of time researching the peasant farming posts to come. Hell, I’ve even got some farm work to do. So, I hope to be live again on Small Farm Future in late April/early May. Meanwhile should you need to fill that Small Farm Future shaped hole in your life – and if you’ve read this far, then you surely do – you can listen to me talking about WWOOF on BBC Radio’s Farming Today.

Retro-modernism

I wrote a lengthy piece about modernism in my last post. Then I drafted another lengthy piece about its critical implications for so-called ‘ecomodernism’, which became so lengthy that it turned into two posts. Then I read over them, and felt – bored.

So it’s probably time to move on from ecomodernism. But there’s a little bit of unfinished business to unfurl in this post before starting on something else. I may even need to spend some time actually farming soon (there’s ewes to lamb and seeds to sow), as well as putting in some research time for my next cycle of posts, so the pace may have to slacken.

Anyway – Unfinished business #1: I got some great feedback to my last post here on SFF, and at Resilience.org and via New York academic Anthony Galluzzo’s site. Constructive, engaged criticism – the blogosphere at its best. I’d argued with the help of the late Marshall Berman’s book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air1 that agrarian populism – that is, the localist politics of a neo-peasant small farm movement – is not anti-modern, nostalgic or backward-looking but on the contrary is thoroughly modernist in its willingness to abandon the weight of tradition accumulated through the history of capitalist development, and to chart alternative paths to sustainability and social justice. The criticisms that came back to me mostly hinged on a sense that I was over-extending the concept of modernism and effacing its negatives. Reasonable points, calling me back to my more sceptical pre-Berman take on modernism. But I still think Berman opens interesting ways of seeing how contemporary politics – including the green, leftist and agrarian populist politics with which I’m most engaged – have to develop more subtle narratives about history and human agency than they typically do. I hope to come back to this at a later date.

Unfinished business #2: I received some other interesting feedback recently. In my critical post on Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ book Inventing the Future, I implied that their analysis was more ‘grownup’ than that of Leigh Phillips in the latter’s book Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn Addicts. Srnicek messaged me back, writing “Thanks for the considered thoughts here”. Phillips also messaged me back, writing: “Twig-munching reactionary”. Then he added “I’m only replying to your ‘critique’ that mine is not a ‘grown-up’ argument”.

It’s a sweet thing when you put a tentative hypothesis out into the world and then get the solid proof of it zinging right back at you, and I should probably rest my case right there. But I’d like to probe just a little more at the world-according-to-Phillips in order to wrap up my ecomodernist theme for the time being. Mr Phillips has been promising for a while to write a refutation of my critical commentary on his oeuvre without, to my knowledge, coming up with the goods, so I hereby invite him to do so in a guest essay that I’ll happily host at Small Farm Future. His writing exemplifies what I consider to be various failings of the techno-fixer and/or ‘ecomodernist’ worldview. I’d like to offer a quick two-part overview.

Part I: Ecomodernism as retro-modernism

It strikes me that ecomodernism and techno-fixer approaches generally find a receptive audience among vaguely left and vaguely green folks who worry (albeit vaguely) about the sustainability of our present civilizational course and are therefore predisposed to be positive about local food, organic farming, renewable energy etc. without looking into the issues too deeply or thinking much about how life might change if such approaches were generalised. Works like the Ecomodernist Manifesto or Austerity Ecology are reassuring to them in their business-as-usual-but-raise-up-the-poor-while-defeating-climate-change-while-we’re-about-it optimism (optimism/pessimism is another problematic contemporary duality in the modernism/primitivism mould). To the uninitiated, ecomodernism reveals itself as a fresh new critique of localism, organics etc.

But it’s not a fresh new critique. As I’ve argued in more detail elsewhere2, the ecomodernist critique of localism, agroecology, energy descent etc is superficial, and the alternative narratives it mobilises are not new but are grounded in older liberal, neoliberal and communist modernisation movements which are now manifestly problematic. They involve a psychological flight from seeking an authentic self in favour of a self-overcoming Übermensch3, they involve a notion of modernity as a solidly achieved state rather than a provisional construct apt at any moment to melt into the air; and they involve, too, the notion of modernity as a one-size-fits-all technological culture to be spread by outmoded neo-colonial and/or Fordist means. In all these ways, I’d argue that ecomodernism is retro-modernism – less alive, less open to the changes and possibilities in the world, less modern, than the localism and the ‘folk politics’ that it derides as primitivist, romantic or backward-looking.

These retro-modernist leanings are disguised to casual readings of the main ecomodernist texts, but are not hard to discern (by ‘disguised’ I don’t mean in a deliberate, conspiratorial way – rather, they figure as an implicit set of unexamined assumptions). The disguised leanings of the ecomodernism associated with the Ecomodernist Manifesto and the Breakthrough Institute are towards neoliberalism (I’ll take the BTI’s professed pro-poor narrative more seriously when it campaigns as vociferously on green boxes as on golden rice). And the disguised leaning of Phillips’ Austerity Ecology is towards Bolshevism.

Part II: Ecomodernism as Bolshevism

Let me illustrate that briefly. Phillips stridently denounces Bolshevism and I don’t doubt that he feels as genuinely opposed to the excesses of the Bolshevik regime as anyone. Indeed, I think ecomodernism in its various incarnations is usually a genuine attempt to reckon with the problems of social justice and sustainability we face in the contemporary world. It’s just that its retro-modernism reconstitutes the problems it’s trying to redress so its solutions become self-undermining. In Phillips’ case, his arguments rest implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, on so many commonplaces of communist/Bolshevik ideology that it seems hard not to locate his analysis within communist retro-modernism, and hard to imagine how a political programme based on it would avoid the excesses of that ideology.

I wrote a more detailed critique of Phillips’ political theory, such as it is, elsewhere4. Here I just want to identify in short form the five main Bolshevik elements I discern in it.

  1. ‘Democracy’ – Phillips invokes democracy as a kind of deus ex machina to right the wrongs of contemporary global governance, but provides no account of what such a democracy would look like, and no account of what the political communities it’s organised within would look like either. This was also a failing in Marx (cf. Berman: “Marx never developed a theory of political community…this is a serious problem”5). The omission haunts the history of communism, and underlies the problem of democracy in places such as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or the erstwhile German Democratic Republic, neither of which have ever been conspicuously democratic. In Phillips’ democracy “all economic actions occur as a result of rational decision-making on the basis of maximum utility to society”6, a strong utilitarianism of the kind which is notoriously ruthless towards minorities and pariah groups. I fear the democracy of Mr Phillips very much.
  1. Global government – But there would be no escaping it, because Phillips aims for a single global socialist government. This would return us to good old-fashioned communist orthodoxy – the orthodoxy of Marx, Engels, Trotsky and Lenin that sought a global communist revolution, before Stalin gave up the ghost with his unambitious ‘socialism in one country’. According to Phillips, a global government is necessary to foster the rational decision-making demanded by the severity of the problems we face – at which point, his democracy really does start to look rather GDR-like.
  1. Big kit – And let it not be said that Phillips’ programme lacks for ambition. He quotes what he calls the “continent-straddling ambition” of the old left, approvingly citing Lenin: “Communism equals Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country”7. You could doubtless argue that breakneck Soviet industrial development brought benefits to an underdeveloped country. You could also argue that indeed it broke a lot of necks – mostly those of peasants, who bore the brunt of the country’s modernization, and in some respects still do. In the face of Phillips’ enthusiasm for what he calls ‘big kit’ solutions to global problems, I find Berman’s a more salutary voice: “Millions of people have been victimized by disastrous development policies, megalomaniacally conceived, shoddily and insensitively executed, which in the end have developed little but the rulers’ own fortunes and powers”8. As energy and climate crises loom, sadly I think we can expect to see many more such grandiose projects, delivering less than they promise, and quite possibly less even than their antecedents achieved, while clothing themselves in a techno-modernist rhetoric that’s contemptuous of humbler, less chancy, more sustainable and less grandiloquent ambitions. Phillips’ writing no doubt gives a foretaste of what’s to come, as does Graham Strouts’ enthusiasm for the idea of Hinkley C as compared to EDF’s unenthusiasm for its actuality.
  1. The working class: Phillips espouses another old-fangled orthodoxy about Marx’s ‘new-fangled men’, which was crude enough in Marx’s own writing and further debased by the Bolsheviks, namely that the proletariat is the privileged historical subject: “the working class is not just the liberator of itself, but of all mankind. It is the universal class”9. But the proletariat that emerges from Phillips’ pages is shallow, censorious, materially-oriented, pleasure-seeking and status-obsessed – basically indistinguishable from the capitalist bourgeoisies it supposedly replaces. Peasants have never really fitted into the ‘universal class’ rhetoric of vulgar Marxists, who generally like to speak for them and tell them what they ought to want: “It takes a certain kind of forgetfulness to be able to romanticise the hard-knock life of the peasant. The peasant would trade places with the gentleman horticulturist – or, more latterly, the Stoke Newington subscriber to Modern Farmer magazine – any day”10. It also takes a certain kind of forgetfulness to ignore the fact that the Bolsheviks built their regime substantially on the back of peasant rebellion and then, believing they knew what peasants really wanted and what was of ‘maximum utility to society’, returned the favour by murderously expropriating them. Peasants are too often written out of history by soi disant sympathisers who don’t want to romanticise them.
  1. The terror: And finally there’s Phillips’ taste for a mode of discourse that deals in archetypes rather than arguments, and sometimes doesn’t seem a million miles away from hate speech. So I, for example, am dismissed as a “twig-munching reactionary” while others figure as an “army of tattooed-and-bearded, twelve-dollar-farmers’-market-marmalade-smearing, kale-bothering, latter-day Lady Bracknells”11. And so on. I suppose there’s a danger of taking this all a bit too seriously, but then what are the implications? That Phillips’ analysis isn’t serious? It seems clear that he thinks it is – in which case I’d have to say that the way he engages his foes is…serious. Hacks with literary skills of this sort did a roaring trade in the 1930s, writing prepared confessions for show trials and anti-kulak posters. I hope they never get anywhere near political power again. If they do, I wouldn’t bet against me finding myself in a court some day confessing my degenerate kulak praetorian fascism. Until then, I plan to call it as I see it. Not everything Phillips writes sounds Bolshevik, but for me there’s a preening, self-regarding character to much of it that’s redolent of historic communist autocracy. It traduces the subtlety and variety of socialist traditions into rigid, bombastic certainties. And if it were to be realised politically, it would make the world a more frightening, more repressive and indeed a less sustainable place. Or, to quote from Anthony Galluzzo’s splendid piece of invective, Phillips uses “a Stalinoid rhetoric of productivism” involving a “cult of quantitative production-technological development and outputs-while reifying (rather than abolishing) the worker”. Quite so. This is old, old wine. Not even the bottles look that new.

But I think I’ve pretty much said my piece. Phillips has been promising for some time to unmask my innumerate arguments, and to provide the evidence to prove I’m wrong (another worrying ecomodernist tic, as if sifting different political philosophies and orientations to what human life is all about is simply a matter of ‘evidence’). He refers to my “blud-und-boden doom-mongering” which particularly intrigues me – I’d very much like to know what I’ve written that invites the Blud und Boden tag. Actually, I doubt Phillips has read much of what I’ve written. I think he just prefers the dualities of the propagandist – if it’s not standard modernist/rationalist fare then it must be anti-modernist/Blud-und-Boden reaction. In my eyes, what he calls my doom-mongering is a positive vision for a just and sustainable neo-agrarian future. Anyway, I’d be interested to read a genuine critique from him. Well, he knows how to contact me. Leigh, the next blog post is yours for the taking…

References

  1. Berman, M. 1982. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity. London: Verso.
  1. For example here. And here. And here. And here.
  1. cf. Berman op cit, p.42.
  1. ‘From growth economics to home economics’ – available here.
  1. Berman op cit, p.128.
  1. Phillips, L. 2015. Austerity Ecology & The Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff. Zero Books, p.227.
  1. Ibid p.189.
  1. Berman op cit, p.77.
  1. Phillips op cit, p.153.
  1. Ibid, p.252.
  1. Ibid, pp.92-3.

Peasantization as modernization – an alternative ecomodernism

I’ve spent – wasted, probably – a fair amount of time on this blog critiquing various techno-fixer scenarios for achieving future sustainability and social justice, most notably that of the self-styled ‘ecomodernists’1. I’m not going to rehash that here, but in this post and the next I’m going to come at the underlying issues from a different angle by reflecting on the question of modernism, which suggested itself to me through a rereading of the late Marshall Berman’s brilliant book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. At issue is the question of whether there’s a way out of the airless dualism in contemporary thought between modern/high tech/progressive/optimistic/positive/rational/urban vs primitive/low tech/reactionary/pessimistic/negative/romantic/rural that so disfigures debates about farming and social futures. Sorry to harp on about it, but I think it’s important. I’ll get back to some more on-farm content after these two posts.

I first read Berman’s book thirty-odd years ago – required reading as it was then for every trendy young cultural theorist – and was reminded of it recently while reading Austerity Ecology by Leigh Phillips, who invoked it in support of his enthusiasm for heroic, large-scale technological modernization. I couldn’t remember much about the book, except a nagging feeling that Berman’s thinking on modernization was a lot more nuanced and ambivalent than Phillips’. Indeed, even the passage from Berman that Phillips cites is quite ambivalent1. And so it proved on a rereading. In fact, it made me wonder if Phillips had really read the book – entertainingly, in view of the sub-theme that’s emerged in my engagements with him over exactly who’s read what, as elaborated by Ruben, my Canadian mole. I suppose I should be grateful to Mr Phillips for drawing me back to Berman – perhaps the price of reading the latter’s exceptionally good book was having to plough my way through the former’s exceptionally, er, not so good one…For reasons I’ll come to in my next post, I should probably try not to annoy Mr Phillips any more than I have to.

Anyway, the thesis I want to develop with Berman’s help is that a future neo-peasant society – relatively labour-intensive, relatively low-tech – of the kind I’ve long advocated involves a modernist vision, notwithstanding the common tendency to dismiss such thinking as backward, romantic or primitivist. Indeed, I think it’s a more supple and sophisticated form of modernism than the modernism of the ecomodernists – but that’s something I’ll pursue further in my next post. Perhaps I erred in my engagements with the ecomodernists by accepting their framing of the debate, allowing them to appropriate the idea of modernism for themselves. If what they’re describing is modernism, my thinking ran, then I guess I’m not a modernist. But here’s Berman’s opening definition:

“To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction. It is to be overpowered by the immense bureaucratic organizations that have the power to control and often to destroy all communities, values, lives; and yet to be undeterred in our determination to face these forces, to fight to change their world and to make it our own. It is to be both revolutionary and conservative: alive to new possibilities for experience and adventure, frightened by the nihilistic depths to which so many modern adventures lead, longing to create and to hold on to something real even as everything melts. We might even say that to be fully modern is to be anti-modern:  from Marx and Dostoevsky’s time to our own, it has been impossible to grasp and embrace the modern world’s potentialities without loathing and fighting against some of its most palpable realities.” (pp.13-14)

So that’s modernism, huh? Show me where to sign!

Berman suggests that the great thinkers of the 19th century who first wrestled with the problem of modernization were more subtle and alive to its ambiguities than we are today, when we tend to either embrace it blindly or condemn it out of hand, supplanting open visions of modern life and the possibility that it can be changed to suit contemporary needs and problems with closed and monolithic conceptions of what modernity entails. Quite so. In a long and brilliant chapter that I couldn’t possibly hope to summarize, encompassing the history of St Petersburg, Dostoevsky’s musings on class conflict in the modern city and the 19th century significance of London’s Crystal Palace, Berman draws a distinction between modernism as an adventure and modernism as a routine – more specifically, the social adventure of challenging fixed traditions and cultural conventions on the one hand, and, on the other, the routine of becoming subordinated by those immense and crushing bureaucracies.

In a moment, I’ll try to sketch the implications of this for my own concerns to articulate a small farm or neo-peasant future, but to further that aim I first want to look at another brilliantly-realised part of Berman’s book – his analysis of Goethe’s Faust. Again, I can’t do it – the poem-drama or Berman’s interpretation of it – any justice here, but I want to highlight three of Berman’s points that are relevant to my purposes. First is the notion, personified in the figure of Faust and his pact with Mephistopheles, that modernity is about endless development – development of the self and of personal agency and capacities, and development of society and its capacities. Although the engine of this developmental process in modern capitalist societies is money, capital accumulation, this isn’t the fundamental purpose. Worldly wealth is a recurrent fantasy in many societies, not limited to capitalist ones – to be rich, happy, and influential – but in capitalist societies that alone is not enough. Change and development become goals in themselves – constant change, constant reinvention, constant growth, a constant tearing down of the old and a ringing in of the new.

That process causes suffering. In the poem, Faust’s tragic lover Gretchen comes to grief because ultimately she can’t or won’t transcend the traditional, religious, small-town world from which she comes, a world that takes revenge on her for her temerity in even trying. As Berman puts it, the Gretchen tragedy

“should etch in our minds forever the cruelty and brutality of so many of the forms of life that modernization has wiped out. So long as we remember Gretchen’s fate, we will be immune to nostalgic yearning for the worlds we have lost” (p.60)

Amen to that. But the problem is, our crude 21st century versions of modernism want to subsume every possible critique of modernity into such nostalgic yearning, as if being Gretchen is the only possible alternative to being Faust. I’ve been accused of ‘romanticising’ the past often enough by people I’ve tended to assume haven’t bothered to read what I’ve actually written, but perhaps it’s more that the Faust-Gretchen duality is so deeply ingrained in their thinking that they can only comprehend anti-Faust as pro-Gretchen (yep, I’m looking at you Graham Strouts). As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, for those happy souls who are content never to stray beyond the comforting confines of that duality, I don’t think there’s anything I can possibly say to enlighten them3. But for the more intellectually curious, it’s worth mentioning two other relevant individuals in Faust, Philemon and Baucis – a sweet old couple who live a simple, rustic life in a cottage surrounded by lindens in the land where Faust is conducting his giant engineering projects. In Berman’s words

“They are the first embodiments in literature of a category of people that is going to be very large in modern history: people who are in the way – in the way of history, of progress, of development; people who are classified, and disposed of, as obsolete” (p.67)

Or, in the words of Goethe’s Faust,

That aged couple should have yielded
I want their lindens in my grip
Since these few trees are denied me
Undo my worldwide ownership….
Hence is our soul upon the rack
To feel, amid plenty, what we lack

That rage at obstinately unmodernizable people or those who speak up for them always feels close to the surface in modernism – and I think the more so in contemporary modernism which lacks the sophistication of its antecedents and which now finds it harder to do as Faust did and quietly arrange to have Philemon and Baucis removed (though it still does a pretty good job). Hence we get all manner of trickery of the kind evident in The Ecomodernist Manifesto and similar works – that, actually, everybody wants modernization, apart from a few romantic intellectuals who are complacent in their own privilege; or that unmodern people engage in unsustainable practices that can’t be allowed to continue; or that although modernization may inflict some temporary hardships upon those accustomed to a different way of life it will ultimately prove to be in their best interests. In my opinion, these are little more than salves to the modernist consciousness seeking its worldwide ownership, but washing its hands of the human cost.

Berman writes that Faust “comes to feel it is terrifying to look back, to look the old world in the face” (p.69) and to me this exactly captures a rage in modernism that troubles me. If we’re relaxed and confident in ourselves, we feel no need to belittle others’ achievements and to exaggerate our own. Nor do we want to be anyone else, because we’re happy enough being ourselves, but we’re open to the possibility of learning new things from other people, including people who some might say are beneath our contempt – for our part, we feel no need to judge. That genre of ecomodernist writing that contemptuously asks which period in history the critics of modernisation wish to return us to misses the point that there is no such period – the point, rather, is that we can open-mindedly learn from other societies, including ones from the past, rather than assuming that they have nothing to teach us and are beneath our contempt. I’d like to think that this view could command widespread agreement as a matter of simple cultural maturity – our way is not the only way – quite apart from the more practical lessons we might learn from the low energy societies of the past as we face an uncertain and quite possibly lower energy future ourselves. Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the case. If there’s one thing in contemporary culture I’d like to help change it’s this complacent assumption that primitive/modern is the only necessary lens for observing history – a complacency redolent of modernity as routine, not modernity as adventure, that more open vision of modern life of which Berman spoke.

The widespread tendency nowadays to dismiss non-modern peoples past and present, to impute a misery to their lives that we claim to have transcended, may sometimes have a factual grounding but I think also speaks to an anxiety that for all our restlessness, our endless growth, our appetite for the new and our contempt for the old, we haven’t found what seek, and we are not at peace. Indeed, the whole point of that restless modern urge is that we never can be at peace. Leigh Phillips makes that point explicitly and sees it as a positive – never be satisfied, always demand more – without seeing the psychological cost that our emphasis on constant self-reinvention imposes, and the cost in blood that is paid for it by the Philemons and Baucises of this world (or, if he does acknowledge the latter cost, he imputes the problem to ‘capitalism’ and considers it soluble through socialism, without seeing how the problem moves more deeply within modernization processes which both capitalism and socialism manifest).

The final point to make about Faust, which emerges from the last, is that there is no still centre towards which modernity is reaching, no finally achieved perfection. Again, it’s possible to see a positive side to that, but also an uncomfortable truth that appears to be lost on the ecomodernists – namely, to quote Berman again, that “yesterday’s Fausts may find themselves today’s Philemon and Baucises” (p.79). That indeed is the whole axis of the Faust myth: “Once the developer has cleared all the obstacles away, he himself is in the way, and he must go” (p.70).

Let me now briefly try to pull this together in relation to my thesis that a small farm future is a modernist future. I endorse Berman’s definition of what it is to be modern, a definition that is political and not technological, emphasising a striving for improvement in an ambiguous world full of difficult choices, and in particular the choice of adventure over boring routine or established hierarchy. In some historical circumstances the appropriate modernist choice has been to step away from small-scale peasant farming, and from the boredom and hierarchy it entailed, and that’s probably still true today for some people – though for fewer, I’d submit, than is commonly supposed by many a latter day savant.

For numerous people now living in the so-called ‘advanced’ countries of Western Europe, North America and elsewhere, on the other hand, I’d suggest that the opposite is the case. It is more adventuresome and more ‘modern’ to see that the world is changing, that the trajectory of high-tech liberal capitalism is leading us not only into environmental problems but also to economic and political crises out of which we in the global north are unlikely to emerge unscathed, and that an appropriate modernist response is to embrace this changing order by reaffirming the importance of good land husbandry, a defence of localism and local communities, and an emphasis on the limits to consumption – more adventuresome and more modern at any rate than the bureaucratic modernism-as-routine now lived by so many of us toiling in our offices, working for huge corporate enterprises in jobs whose purpose we’ve forgotten if we ever knew it in the first place, before the fearsome commute home through gridlocked streets to our apartments, where we hope the lights will stay on and the goods will keep flowing once ‘they’ have worked out how to sate our cities’ endless appetite for energy. Of course, it’s not easy for many people to escape that life for reasons both practical and psychological. But nor was it easy for their great grandparents to escape the farm or the conservative forces then holding them in their grip. The modernist adventure is never easy.

No doubt there’s a fine line between my argument for peasantisation as modernisation and a nostalgic, conservative hankering after old hierarchies and old certainties – but nevertheless there is a line, and to me it’s a pretty clear one. Berman helps elucidate it in his analysis of how Robert Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway destroyed the Bronx, where he grew up,

“So often the price of ongoing and expanding modernity is the destruction not merely of “traditional” and “pre-modern” institutions and environments but – and here is the real tragedy – of everything most vital and beautiful in the modern world itself….the so-called modern movement has inspired billions of dollars’ worth of “urban renewal” whose paradoxical result has been to destroy the only kind of environment in which modern values can be realized. The practical corollary of all this…is that in our city life, for the sake of the modern we must preserve the old and resist the new” (pp.295-318)

As in our city life, so in our country life. There was a time when the tractor over the horse, the bulk tanker over the milk churn, or whatever other examples you care to choose, seemed and probably were a liberation. But I don’t think it’s possible to be so complacent about the inflow of new agricultural technology and the outflow of agricultural labour any more. A peasant modernism isn’t against new technology, but it’s not necessarily for it either, and it may often default to older ways of doing things – more human labour, less power-hungry machinery – as a more modern response to our problems.

So if peasant modernism isn’t necessarily for new technology (the tendency to conflate modernisation with mere technological improvement is a mistake that Berman effectively criticises) then what is it for? Well, I guess every political ideology has some kind of future utopia in mind which usually looks…pretty boring. For the techno-fixers and ecomodernists it’s a workless society of urban, wealthy, plugged-in Eloi, drifting around in pursuit of their leisured interests. For a peasant modernist it’s a life lived close to the land and the rhythms of the natural world, a life of hard work sometimes sure enough, but also of human community and folk songs around the fire. In both cases, the adventure of struggling to realise the vision is maybe more appealing than the vision itself. But as I see it, the peasant modernist vision has more intrinsic appeal – there are endless, engrossing ways of improving small farms and the small communities of which they’re a part, whereas post-work utopias evince the same problem that Hannah Arendt detected in communist utopias – “the futility of a life which does not fix or realise itself in any permanent subject that endures after its labor is past” (p.128).

Incidentally, Gene Logsdon has written a nice essay recently which makes similar points to the ones I’m making here, but without the sociological theorising. Perhaps I could learn something there. Logsdon writes,

“One of the prejudices about artisanal, small-scale food farmers is that they are “going back” to the land. The truth is, they are going forward to the land. For several generations now the older people in our preponderantly urban population have handed down to their children an image of farming based on experiences that date back to the early 1900s. The hard life they described…got imbedded in the subconscious minds of urbanites even though they know it isn’t true anymore.”

Well said – although I think there are different resonances between North America, Western Europe, and so-called ‘developing’ countries today around this point. Still, perhaps an implication of Logsdon’s argument is that ecomodernism is a form of retro-modernism, attempting to solve old-fangled problems (the hardscrabble life of the small farmer) by old-fangled methods (labour-shedding, energy-intensive technological development). Of course, the life of the contemporary small farmer isn’t easy. But my point is that it’s modern – and usually more so than that of their salaried urban counterparts.

Still, I acknowledge various difficulties in my peasant modernist vision. One is how to realise or generalise it. Earlier strands of modernist thought have offered pat answers to achieving their own utopias – Marx’s notion (also espoused by Phillips) that there is an inherent tendency to self-overcoming within capitalism located within the working class, or the strange notion so intricately elaborated by capitalist (‘neoclassical’) economists that free markets deliver what everybody wants, or the even stranger notion elaborated by the ecomodernists that heaven is to be found in a world of urban residence, nuclear power and GM crops. None of these neat resolutions strike me as convincing – but that leaves the problem of how to take hold of the machinery of modernization and create a neo-peasant world out of it. Here I agree with Berman and other writers in the anti-folk politics or anti-small is beautiful tradition like Srnicek and Williams or, hell, maybe even Leigh Phillips, that local particularisms need some kind of meta-local political context to succeed – a context best delivered by agrarian populism in my opinion, though that’s hardly an answer in itself. The other major problem – which is not specific to neo-peasant modernism, but is shared by all modernist utopias – is how to retain the positive force of all that restless striving, self-development and adaptability to change that’s part of the modernist way, while transcending its destructiveness, its anti-humanism and its troublesome tendencies towards change for change’s sake. I confess that I don’t have any simple answers. I don’t think there are any simple answers. But I’ll do my best to grapple directly with these problems in some future posts.

References

  1. My main writings on this are a critique of the ecomodernist manifesto, along with a follow-up essay, a piece for Statistics Views on ecomodernist approaches to energy and poverty, an essay concerning ‘peasant socialism’ by way of a critique of Leigh Phillips’ Austerity Ecology, a piece about the climate deal in Paris, and my recent essay on Srnicek and Williams’ Inventing the Future.
  1. “To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are” Berman, M. (1982) All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience Of Modernity, London: Verso. Cited in Phillips, L. (2015) Austerity Ecology & The Collapse Porn Addicts, Winchester: Zero, p.255.
  1. http://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=864

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

S&W write,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

Goldilocks in the Highlands: some notes on scaling resilience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet a few pages later he says,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scaling resilience

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

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

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

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

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

Goldilocks in the Highlands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

Magical mathematics

Recently I got into a spot of bother on Twitter (it’s easily done) after I wrote an essay criticising an astonishingly bad newspaper article by one Leigh Phillips. The thing is, I hadn’t read his book and, silly me, I didn’t realise that you’re not supposed to criticise people’s newspaper articles until you’ve read their books. Well, now I have, and, er…it was astonishingly bad.

I know that some readers of this blog get bored by my engagements with the ecomodernists, whereas others find them interesting. So I’m going to try to keep everyone happy. I feel the need to recoup the wasted weekend I spent reading Phillips’ book by writing a few things about it, but I’m mostly going to do that elsewhere. The interesting task that Phillips sets himself, but makes a dreadful fist of tackling, is a socialist critique of left-green ‘small-is-beautiful’ relocalisation thinking. So I’m hoping to have an article about that on resilience.org soon. He also makes quite a mess of trying to critique the local food movement, a subject dear to this blog’s heart, and to be honest he’s not the only one to get in a tangle over this so I plan to write a little post about that on here soon. I’ve written a wider critique of some of the magical mathematics associated with ecomodernist thinking, including Phillips’s, which has just been published on the Statistics Views website. This post is essentially a brief summary of parts of that article, plus a foray into Mr Phillips’ enchanted world of geophagy, which I hope might be of wider interest even to people who don’t much care to follow all the twists and turns of ecomodernist tomfoolery. It falls into three parts.

Part 1: The future’s orange

…or at least it is if you believe this graph:

Energy capacity graph

 

Let me explain. A rising tide of voices is calling upon environmentalists to ‘do the math’ and embrace nuclear energy for the sake of the climate – though, as in this article the ‘math’ is rarely spelled out. So this graph is my attempt to do so. Certainly we need an urgent shift away from fossil fuels in order to prevent runaway climate change. The ecomodernists think that we can switch from fossil fuels to clean energy without disturbing the basic parameters of the energy-intensive economy. But most of our clean energy sources are ways of producing electricity, most of the energy we use isn’t electric, and most of the electricity we do produce employs fossil fuels. So this vision requires two big shifts – from fossil fuels to electricity and from fossil fuel electricity to clean electricity. Mike Shellenberger of the ecomodernist Breakthrough Institute says that we need 1-2 GW of new clean electric energy installed daily until 2050 in order to keep both the climate and the existing economy on track, which sounds to me like it might be an underestimate. Anyway, in the graph I’ve projected electricity generation at 2 GW per day of new clean capacity from now to 2050, assuming that hydro will only be able to double, that nuclear will furnish double the capacity of non-hydro renewables, and that new clean energy will substitute for old fossil energy. I’ve set these projected developments against what’s actually happened with new generating capacity over the last 35 years, using data from the US Energy Information Administration.

I think it makes for an interesting graphic, and perhaps I should let others interpret it as they will. But let me offer a few thoughts of my own. Current global nuclear energy capacity is 379 GW, of which China possesses 23 GW. According to Phillips, China aims to have up to 500 GW of nuclear capacity by 2050 – which is about 22 times more than it currently possesses, and 32% more than the entire world’s present capacity. Phillips says there is ‘ample hope’ that China can do this and decarbonise its power production. Well, if anywhere can, China can, I guess. But even if it does, that’ll only be about 3% of the total global nuclear capacity needed, which at over 18,000 GW will be an increase in nuclear capacity of 4,800% over the next 35 years. To put that into context, over the last 35 years it’s increased by 281%.

Well, we’re taught that you can’t project past trends into the future, which is just as well for the ecomodernists when you look at the graph. But even so, the math that I’ve done here leads me to think that building this amount of nuclear capacity globally within the next 35 years is such a tall order as to be pretty much beyond the bounds of possibility – and that’s to say nothing of the other transitions that would be necessary to put the energy properly to work. Or of what the resulting society would be like. Or of how countries a tad poorer than China might fund the transition.

But leaving all that aside and just focusing on the math – or the maths, as we say here (why is British maths plural, and American math singular?) – I’ve heard plenty of people saying that greens need ‘to do the math’ on nuclear, but I’ve rarely seen anyone spell out what the math is, as I’ve tried to do here. The casual reader may conclude that the energy transition is simply a matter of overcoming public misgivings about nuclear power and building some more nuclear installations. The reality, it seems to me, is that ecomodernist nuclear math is a fantasy mathematics – a magical mathematics, and not in a good sense. So I present my graph as Exhibit A in the case for energy descent.

Part 2: It’s not my fault…

Phillips argues that carbon emissions can be laid disproportionately at the door of the rich, so that, in his words,  “phrases such as “the greenhouse gas emissions of the average American” or “per capita consumption” contain absolutely no useful information” (Phillips, Austerity Ecology, p.56).

His evidence for this mostly comprises a list of the impressively carbon-intensive features of Roman Abramovich’s luxury yacht, but he does also state that the top 20% of income earners account for roughly 70% of consumption in the USA. So perhaps we could run a quick plausibility check on his argument by allocating out emissions in the same proportions. According to the World Bank’s latest world development indicators, US carbon dioxide emissions stand at 17.5 tonnes per capita (the 10th highest in the world, out of 193 countries). If we allocate 70% of those emissions to 20% of the population and recalculate the figure with that 70/20 omitted from numerator and denominator, we get a figure of 6.4 tonnes per capita, which would then place the US 50th out of 193 and still more than double the median emission figure of 2.5 tonnes per capita.

Or we could consider the recent analysis from Oxfam suggesting that the richest 10% of Chinese citizens have per capita emissions similar to the poorest 40% of Europeans, and the richest 10% of Indian citizens have per capita emissions only a quarter the level of the poorest 50% of US citizens, while the emissions of the poorest 50% of US citizens are 20 times higher than those of the poorest 50% of Indian citizens.

The thrust of Phillips’ argument is that ordinary working people around the world sit on the same side of the carbon footprint fence, in contrast to the rich who deserve all the blame for the climate crisis. It seems to me pretty clear that that isn’t the case – the emissions of poor people in rich countries vastly outstrip those of poor people in poor countries, or even of rich people in poor countries. I don’t propose to discuss the policy implications of that right now. All I want to suggest is that, as it turns out, phrases such as “the greenhouse gas emissions of the average American” or “per capita consumption” do contain some useful information after all. Unless you wish them away with magic mathematics…

Part 3: The myth of the myth of carrying capacity

The third chapter of Phillips’ book is entitled “To infinity and beyond! (Or: the myth of carrying capacity)”. You can pretty much tell from the Buzz Lightyear mathematics of its title that this chapter won’t be too good, and so it proves. Nevertheless, I’m nothing if not tireless in my pursuit of dodgy ecomodernist arguments so below I offer you a deconstruction of Phillips’ logic in this chapter, which runs something like this:

(1) There is no precise and objectively quantifiable point at which we can say that human activities have exceeded the earth’s capacity to support them.

(2) Therefore there is no limit to the earth’s carrying capacity…

(3) …well perhaps there is a limit at some point – if all the carbon on the entire planet was embodied in human beings, the earth’s carrying capacity would be around 1020 people. “To be fair,” Phillips concedes, “these hundred quintillion people would all have to be cannibals”. (Yeah, that’s right Leigh, that’s the only problem here…). But, he continues, these “back-of-the-envelope calculations do at least appear to tell us that Earth has the capacity to carry such a load” (p.63). Yes, he did actually write that sentence. The blurb on the back of the book informs us that Leigh Phillips is a ‘science journalist’ who writes for Nature. Nice work.

(4) Thomas Malthus was a 19th century clergyman who thought that human population growth would outstrip the capacity of the earth to provide sufficient food. He further thought, pessimistically and misanthropically, that no actions should be taken to lessen the plight of the starving poor. But his predictions have so far proven incorrect.

(5) Anybody who claims that there may be any biological or physical limits to human growth or expansion is thus a Malthusian, who is therefore…

(6) …wrong

(7) …and also pessimistic

(8) …and also misanthropic.

Now then, there are various problems with these lines of argument. To begin with, the…oh God, did I say that I was tireless in my pursuit of dodgy ecomodernist arguments? I suddenly feel overwhelmed with fatigue. Much as I’m prepared to waste a certain amount of my time arguing with ecomodernist nonsense, even I have my, ahem, limits (excuse the misanthropy). So I’m going to stop right here. Let me just say this: if you’re puzzling over where the chain of logical inferences in the numbered list above breaks down, I’ll leave you with this clue: it’s a whole number which is bigger than one and smaller than three.

Voting with their feet: some questions for the experts

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

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

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

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

Urban-rural residence

 

 

 

Now to the questions…

 

Question 1: How many foot-voters are there?

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

 

Question 2: Where do the foot-voters go?

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

 

Question 3: How do the foot-voters fare?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Notes

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

 

Promethean porn and Malthusian mistakes: a letter to Leigh Phillips

Dear Leigh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours

Mr Puck

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

2. https://www.wfp.org/hunger/who-are

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

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

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

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

7. op cit. p.73-4.