Feeding Wessex without fossil fuels

The last time we were in Wessex, I showed that its denizens circa 2039 could probably feed themselves quite comfortably using organic farming methods with 20% of the population concentrating largely on neo-peasant subsistence farming using 40% of existing lowland farmland, and the remaining 80% of the population fed by larger-scale, more cereal staple oriented farming from the remaining 60% of the farmland, plus a bit of upland grazing.

However, as it stands that scenario does depend on a fossil energy-intensive ‘business as usual’ approach on the large-scale farms. It seems worth pondering an alternative, zero fossil energy scenario. Here we begin to exceed even my own generous comfort zone for idle speculation about the future – if there’s no fossil fuel use in Wessex farming in 2039 (or beyond), what might be the social and economic correlates? Probably not one with 80% of the population still happily residing in towns and working as video game programmers, conservatory salesmen or whatever.

Still, I don’t propose to worry about that too much in this post. For now, let’s just consider the farming side of it, and see if we can find another way to power the food production for 80% of Wessex’s population.

That immediately plunges us into a speculative debate about the shape of the future energy mix which could go on until…well, 2039. So here I’m going to curtail it brutally by making the following doubtless highly debatable assumptions. I’m going to assume that there won’t be enough renewably generated electricity to power electric, fuel cell or electro-synthesised hydrocarbon tractors. I’m going to assume that none of the magic, much-touted next-generation or generation-after sources of limitless clean power such as thorium or nuclear fusion have come through. And I’m going to assume that wood methanol isn’t a viable source of agricultural energy, as a couple of people have suggested to me that it might be. The way I read the runes on that one is as follows:

You get about 27 litres of methanol from a tonne of wood, and you get about 3 tonnes of wood from a hectare of managed woodland, so you get about 80l of methanol from a hectare of woodland. Methanol has about half the energy density of diesel. You need about 100l of diesel (so 200l of methanol) to farm a hectare of arable land each year. I’ll assume you need about a quarter of that to farm a hectare of permanent grass, minimally, about as much again to manage the rest of the production and transport economy around food. That works out at about 1.2 million hectares of managed woodland to service 1.8 million hectares of farmland, which would exceed the land area of Wessex by nearly a third (while also neglecting the energy needs of the woodland management). Methanol can be made from other carbon-rich waste, but it seems to me a stretch to think it could be a major agricultural energy source unless anyone can provide some radically more promising figures.

Another suggestion I received was to put aside my West Country obsession with cows and make methane instead of milk from the grass via anaerobic digestion. Now, I’ve always regarded these straight-to-methane schemes as a dastardly vegan plot to deny me the froth I so badly need on my morning cappuccino, but after crunching a few numbers I’ve got to admit that the plan has something to commend it. In fact, the numbers seem to stack up so spectacularly well that I feel I must have made a terrible error somewhere, so let me run through my arithmetic in some detail with the hope that someone can either corroborate it or else point out the error of my ways.

Let’s start by calculating how much energy we need to run our Wessex food system. I’m going to assume that we need 100 litres of diesel per hectare on the farm for arable operations, and 25 litres for grassland management. Then to fuel the entire food economy from farm to fork, I’m going to assume we need another 200 litres of diesel equivalent per hectare (for both arable and grassland) – an assumption loosely based on the emissions scenarios in Tara Garnett’s Cooking Up A Storm. Diesel has an energy content of 38.6 MJl-1. So if we take our 166,000 ha of cropped arable at 300 l/ha diesel and our 795,000 ha of permanent grassland and arable ley at 225 l/ha and multiply that sum by 38.6 MJ we get a total energy requirement of about 8.8 billion MJ (or 8.8 PJ if you prefer).

On the supply side I’m assuming 20 tonnes of fresh silage per hectare1 (or 5.5 tonnes dry matter), grown organically (average conventional yields are more than double that), and 160m3 of biogas per tonne of silage2, with an energy content of about 22 MJ/m3 – so that works out at about 68,000 MJ/ha. If we take a quarter of our permanent pasture – some 223,000 ha – and set it aside for silage as biogas feedstock, that’ll give us 15.1 PJ of energy, which is nearly double our energy requirement. As I understand it, methane-powered tractors are already a reality at engine efficiencies similar or above those of conventional diesel, and though the biogas coming out of the digester needs a bit of refining, the process efficiency is quite high. Embodied energy of plant construction seems to turn out at around 10% of total energy output3, so the overall energy costs seem manageable.

Obviously we need to re-run our food productivity figures in the light of taking out a quarter of the permanent pasture (hopefully rotating cows over it and returning some or all of the digestate to it will keep the silage production sustainable). But since this part of the farm system otherwise produces relatively low-output grass-fed cows, the overall loss of productivity may not be too severe. And so it proves – removing 25% of the permanent pasture for biogas drops the supply/demand ratio for food energy from 1.07 to 0.99, with all the other nutritional ratios remaining >1. An energy ratio of 0.99 is doubtless a bit too close for comfort, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to find an extra bit of productivity. The lazy way would be to plough some more permanent pasture for wheat – about 22,000 ha or 3% of the total permanent pasture diverted to wheat would restore food energy productivity to the 7% surfeit we were experiencing with fossil diesel (call it 6% to make provision for a ley). But there would be other more elegant, if more labour intensive, ways of doing it. And remember that I’m making a lot of conservative assumptions about yields.

Originally I’d been thinking in terms of biodiesel from oilseed rape as the way we’d have to go in a fossil-fuel free Wessex. That method produces almost, but not quite, as much fuel energy per hectare as biogas from organic silage, but only by devoting a big chunk of precious cropland to the oil crop. And the rape would have to be grown conventionally, using synthetic fertiliser and pesticides, with additional energetic and environmental implications. An advantage of rape is that the meal or press cake from the oil extraction process yields a high energy livestock feed, which partially compensates for the loss of cropland. But rape just doesn’t seem to me to stack up as well as biogas – particularly since it looks like I can keep enough cows to get my cappuccino in the morning and still have fuel to start up the tractor. Another advantage of anaerobic digestion and biodiesel over the photovoltaics we were discussing in my last post is that the basic engineering technologies in both cases seem simpler, which perhaps gives them a better chance of making it through the climacteric as per the previous discussion.

Well, there you have it. As I’ve said many times before, I’m not trying to suggest in this exercise that it would a simple or even a likely thing for a future Wessex to feed itself, especially if it were as energy-constrained as the one I’ve been discussing here. I don’t want to come over all ecomodernist (not that ecomodernists have much time for such down home energy technologies as anaerobic digestion). But my proposition for discussion is that it may be a possible thing.

Notes

  1. See, for example, the Organic Farm Management Handbook, or this.
  1. http://www.biogas-info.co.uk/about/feedstocks/
  1. http://opus.bath.ac.uk/22984/1/UnivBath_PhD_2010_W_Mezzullo.pdf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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.

Of agricultural efficiency: the Vallis Veg mowing trial

Well, I lied to you. I said I was going to write a concluding post on the theme of the commons. But then I realised that this topic is kind of connected to a larger set of issues I’ve been wanting to explore about efficiency, scale, agrarian structures and the like. ‘Kind of connected’ is a useful phrase I picked up from an undergraduate lecture by one of my professors, Paul Richards (author of the brilliant Indigenous Agricultural Revolution…I wish I’d realised then how lucky I was to be taught by him). Paul said that on bad days it felt like the only conclusion he could come to about the world was that everything was kind of connected to everything else in complex ways that he couldn’t quite understand. And ain’t that ever so.

So I’m going to hold off on the conclusion to my commoning theme for a while, and work up to it more slowly and obliquely. Mind you, since introducing a ‘Donate’ button to my blog I suppose I do have a paying public to think about now. Let’s have a look at the account balance, then. Oh. OK, I’ll write what I damn well please…

Now then, Clem commented a couple of posts back on the issue of economies of scale in agriculture, and Brian Miller wrote an interesting post about farm energy and haymaking not so long ago. So let’s bring those themes together. Are there economies of scale in grass-cutting? My friend, I bring you the results of the official Vallis Veg mowing trial.

So, one bright June morning I spent a minute cutting grass with each of the following five increasingly scaled up mowing technologies available to me on my holding:

  1. With my bare hands
  2. With a 25cm hand sickle
  3. With a 50cm scythe (ditch blade)
  4. With a petrol-engine strimmer
  5. With a 5ft pasture topper attached to a 45hp diesel tractor

Only a minute, you say? Well, I’m a busy guy – besides, how long do you fancy pulling out perennial pasture grass with your bare hands?

And here are the results:

Area mown

My scythe isn’t the biggest and it wasn’t at its keenest, nor am I the best scythesman. Then again my tractor/topper aren’t the biggest either. But really there’s no two ways about it, the middle ages (scythe) beats the bronze age (sickle) by a factor of more than 4, and the industrial age (tractor) beats the middle ages by a factor of over 17. Comparing the tractor to bare hands, we could say there’s a labour efficiency factor of at least x132 with modern technology over no technology.

But let’s look at the energy inputs involved. Here I’m assuming a person eats 2,500 calories = 10.5 MJ per day, so I impute a minute’s portion of that daily intake to the operator in each case. Then there’s the embodied energy in the tools and machinery. Doubtless how to figure this in could be debated endlessly, but for simplicity I’ve taken a (probably now dated) standard figure for the per kg energy used in steel manufacture multiplied by the weight of the kit and the fraction of its expected working life devoted to the minute of grass cutting. Finally, I’ve added in the energy contained in the fuel used on the assumption that petrol and diesel contain about 36 MJ/l. I’m neglecting a lot of the other upstream costs of producing machinery and fossil fuel which probably biases the analysis in favour of the powered machinery, but there you go. Like I say, I’m a busy guy.

Here are the results:

Energy used

No surprises that the quicker the method of cutting the more gross energy it uses. The assumptions underlying my energy analysis are on an accompanying spreadsheet available from my Research and publications page. Of course, these assumptions are questionable, but I doubt any plausible set of alternatives would change the overall picture much. I’d be interested to know how a big modern tractor with a more efficient diesel engine would compare with my Ford 3600. Possibly it’d do a better job. On the embodied energy front I doubt that these tractors will still be plying their trade on small farms in forty years’ time as many of the Ford 3600 generation of tractors are, but since fuel use is the major factor, well…I guess one of those beasts could probably cut ten times the area of my rig in the same time, though it’d still probably use more fuel. How about plugging in these assumptions: compared to my tractor setup a big modern rig weighs four times more, cuts ten times more, uses double the fuel, and has a working life of 15 years working 2 days a week.

At any rate, let’s now put the two measures from the previous graphs together in a ratio:

Ratio area-energy

So, when it comes to energetic efficiencies of scale, the accolade goes to…the Middle Ages! Proof at last of what I’ve long argued on this site – a bit of technology is a wonderful thing, but the trick is knowing when to stop. The modern tractor rig assumptions improve the output/input ratio from 21 (my tractor) to 99 – only a little less efficient than using bare hands (110), but still eight times less efficient than the scythe.

OK, now I’m not seriously arguing that modern agriculture should dispense with its tractors and other powered machinery and return to the scythe…though I’m probably prepared to take that argument more seriously than most. Still, I think analyses like this do call into question the terms of the debate about agricultural efficiency or economies of scale. Modern mechanised agriculture has been labour ‘saving’, essentially by turbocharging traditional agricultural practices with the use of non-renewable and polluting fossil fuels. But it’s not especially efficient.

Now, if I were a mainstream economist, I’d probably just look at labour and fuel inputs as (relatively) substitutable factors of production. With agricultural diesel at 50p per litre and the minimum wage at £6.50 per hour the choice of grass-cutting method is a no brainer. I suppose if you figured in a sufficiently high carbon price as an externality it might change the picture a bit, but hey who cares about carbon pricing? Certainly not the governments of the world.

The problem with looking at labour and fuel inputs as substitutable factors of production is that it erases the politics and the history behind that simple 50p/l vs £7.50/hr choice. There’s a political and historical backstory here.

For proponents of agricultural ‘modernization’, the backstory is one of technological improvements releasing a grateful peasantry from backbreaking drudgery on the land (aside: in writings on agriculture, use of the word ‘backbreaking’ is a surefire signal that the virtues of Monsanto or John Deere are about to be extolled). For its opponents, the backstory is one of the deliberate separation of the working class from their means of subsistence on the land so they could be redeployed as industrial wage slaves. In both cases I think the narrative somewhat overstates the coherence of the process, which really emerged long-term from people responding to the more immediate incentives of the 50p/l vs £7.50/hr kind without being overly concerned about what kind of society (whether benevolent or malign) they were ultimately creating – though as David Graeber argues in his excellent tome Debt: The First 5000 Years, such responses themselves emerge from longer-term culture histories concerning money and exchange.

In any case, the modern result of these trends has been the creation of a pretty dysfunctional agricultural economy whose dominant tendencies involve substituting jobs with diesel wherever possible, paying less for food than its costs of production, shoring up the deficit for the lucky few rich farmers with government subsidies, pricing rural land beyond the means of ordinary people and ordinary farmers, and concentrating people in urban areas, where many experience chronic unemployment or underemployment, while the consequences of carbon emissions, soil loss etc are left to future generations to sort out, if they can.

Now, I’m not proposing so simple a solution to this mess as arming the un(der)employed urban masses with scythes and telling them to go cut something down (interesting, if alarming, as that process might be). Or banning tractors. I don’t think there are any simple solutions. But one way to move towards some complex solutions to these complex problems is to start telling some different and, yes, more complex stories about agriculture and its history and economics. And perhaps one of these stories, as per my grass cutting experiment, is to point out that agriculture is not more efficient, but less efficient than it used to be, at least according to one significant measure of agricultural performance. Perhaps you could still say that it’s more labour efficient, but wrapped up in that concept are a whole set of issues about the social organisation of labour, energy futures and so on. We need to be debating those issues openly, rather than erasing them by recourse to spurious notions of efficiency or idle conjectures about the future availability of limitless clean energy. I’m aiming to make my own particular contribution to that debate in this ongoing cycle of posts…

Off Grid-ish


Small Farm Future's HQ

Time to bring it all back home today, with a sneaky behind the scenes virtual tour of Small Farm Future’s corporate headquarters.

The picture at left gives an overview of the complex, as seen from the lofty throne of the outdoor compost toilet. Funny that in these days of retro fashion the backyard loo hasn’t made a return to every hipster’s homestead wishlist. Ah well, more evidence that SFF is ahead of the curve.

So let me walk you through the various accoutrements visible on the edifice’s southern wing. At left is the satellite broadband dish through which my jeremiads about the false god of progress are beamed instantaneously around the world – and who would have thought that possible just a few short years ago? Up and right, at the back of the roof are our solar hot water tubes – mighty sentinels surveying the farm from the lordly height of their tin roof. Nothing very lordly about their performance in the darkest depths of December, however, so fortunately we have backup in the form of a wood burning stove with backburner whose chimney outcrops cheekily between the footings of their rivals. The Small Farm Future cabin is moderately well insulated for a prefab that’s only supposed to see us through 3 years of temporary planning permission. It does require a bit of space heating in winter from the wood burner, but surprisingly little. Heating water is another matter, though. Just as well we planted a veritable forest on site ten years ago, which pretty much serves our needs.

Prone on the roof beneath the tubes, you’ll observe twelve PV panels which provide the bulk of our electricity, via our 3kW inverter. 3kW would have been a fine thing indeed in the winter, but now that it’s summer we’re on electrical easy street, despite the odd cloudy day. At far right you’ll see our 1kW wind turbine lurking in camo colours in the lee of the building. Dang thing hardly turns at all where it is, especially now I’ve tied it with baler twine. Getting it generating will be a project for the autumn.

On the facing wall the attentive viewer will notice more solar panels – in this case for the dehumidifier, which blows warm, dry air into the cabin on sunny winter days. Far right is the Vallis Veg propagator, allowing us to flood the global market with an endless stream of cucumbers, tomatoes and aubergines – but with a night time power drain of 150W through its warming cable, it’s a bit of tease to our electricity supply. Through the window you may even be able to spot the nerve centre of the Small Farm Future publishing empire, the very locus of its awesome creativity, known affectionately by staff as ‘the dining table’. Such wags.

Mercifully out of view around the deck on the left are our 19kg propane cylinders, used for cooking and occasional heating. “The great thing about the propane cylinders” I opined airily to Mrs Spudman one dark December Saturday, “is that, unlike the solar panels, if we run out we can just go and buy some more”. Sure enough, it did run out the very next day. And my desperate search for replenishments among the garages and hardware stores of Somerset proved wholly fruitless. I’d like to say I was sleeping on the sofa that night, but in fact it was Mrs S who was sleeping on the sofa – it was a lot warmer in the living room. I now have several spares.

Regarding water, other than the magnificent plenitude of the Somerset skies, we currently rely on a mains pipe – though I did have to spend a merry week in January in an open canopy mini digger laying the pipe to the house. Now there is household talk of boreholes and reservoirs in the longer term. Another alliance with Mr Yanmar beckons.

Off grid-ish, then, but not off reliance on the wider world. No sir, I’m all too well aware of my position somewhere near the end of Mr Putin’s tailpipe, which is not where anyone really likes to be. Still, let me try to draw some wider conclusions from all of this in keeping with Small Farm Future’s general brief. Perhaps the first one to note is that technological progress such as LED lights and photovoltaics allows us to live a pretty congenial off grid-ish lifestyle which previously could only have been funded by a large diesel generator. But it still requires a certain amount of care from us – doing the laundry only on sunny days, equalising the batteries regularly, rationing hot water and so on. Not massive sacrifices, but things that connect us a bit more to the potentialities of the natural world around us, and also lower our energy use and our carbon footprint a bit.

Now, I’m not one to brag about the size of my carbon footprint. I’ve come to think that human beings seek ever new arenas in which to best their fellows – bigger house, newer car, angrier blog, more LinkedIn connections, lower carbon footprint, whatever. I can’t say I’ve completely succeeded in overcoming the need to play this childish game, but I reckon I do a much better job than most people in not comparing myself with others. So I really don’t want to make a big deal about what I’m doing as some kind of exemplary sustainable lifestyle. Given our particular circumstances this approach made the most sense to us, but it’s probably not a widely replicable model. Nevertheless, what I like about it is the fact that it does impose occasional limits: if the sun ain’t shining, the laundry stays undone, and so on.

There’s a lot of talk about the way that technological developments enable more efficient use of given resources – for example, a 4W LED light can now provide illumination equivalent to about 60W from an old incandescent bulb. But this relative decoupling of resource outputs from resource inputs only really matters if it helps achieve an absolute decoupling – less total resources used. And when you look at global resource use, most notably in relation to fossil fuels, this just isn’t happening. It’s all very well me postponing the laundry until a sunny day – meanwhile, they’re pumping water up a Welsh mountain at dead of night so that everyone can have a cup of tea after watching Coronation Street. Rebound effects abound.

So maybe my point is this: it’s often more efficient to produce a good like electricity, or public water, collectively, but the danger is that it is then undervalued by the public, who demand – from the government, from ‘scientists’, from ‘civilisation’ – that the spigot must be opened ever further. I’d argue that there’s something to be said – no more than that – for more people to have the chance of being responsible for an area of land and figuring out how they’re going to produce food, water, energy and other necessities from it, especially when there’s a carbon price or other long-term environmental cost as well as a fiscal price attached to their decisions. It concentrates the mind.

Wrapped up within that point is a set of issues about public, private and collective control of resources, which I want to address in my next couple of posts on the matter of commoning, past and present. Until then, it’s goodbye from Small Farm Future HQ: don’t forget to turn out the lights.

Eco-Optimism, Eco-Pessimism, Eco-Modernism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

1. An Ecomodernist Manifesto p.8.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Spudman goes west

Time was when every virile young man such as myself was enjoined to go west and start up a small farm enterprise. Damn right, for as a superb recent article on the Statistics Views website outlines, small farms are usually more productive acre for acre than large ones. I may just have to write a blog post on that soon.

In any case, some time ago an invitation arrived in the Small Farm Future office for one of the team to go and talk at the Canadian Organic Growers’ conference in Toronto. I was far too busy myself, so I sent my faithful deputy, planning department-fighting superhero, and general alter ego Spudman. And so it was that two weeks ago Spudman upped sticks and headed west, first to Iceland and then ever more westward still to Toronto. Finding himself too late to stake a homestead claim in downtown Toronto, he booked into the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel and attended the conference instead. Then he obsessively monitored the local weather on his widescreen TV. Frederick Jackson Turner will be spinning in his grave.

In fact, I didn’t intend to post anything up here about his trip, but Spudman learned so many interesting things while he was away that I feel the need to post in summary form ten points about the trip as placemarkers for lengthier treatments at some point in the future.

1. Spudman had fascinating interactions with David Montgomery, author of Dirt, and of the forthcoming The Hidden Half of Nature, and with Elaine Ingham of Soil Foodweb Inc. about, er, soil food webs. Food for soil is food for thought, but there are dilemmas involved. Expect a blog post soon.

2. Spudman also came across Thierry Vrain and his work on the dangers of glyphosate, which I think is interesting not only in itself but also because of what it tells us about science politics. Ditto.

3. Spudman briefly discussed the Yellowstone supervolcano with a noted geologist at the conference. What’ll happen if that goes off, Spudman asked. Hmm, he replied, well that’s unlikely but if it does it’ll be the end of civilisation. Memo to self: enjoy each passing minute – you never know when a volcano may go off. Metaphorically. Or literally.

4. And talking of civilisation, ends and beginnings, and of ecological catastrophes, Spudman read a bunch of books on the trip and acquired a few more in the course of it, all on that general theme. The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse, Riddley Walker, On The Great Plains, From Prairie to Cornbelt, Nature and the English Diaspora, Independent People. The attentive reader will note that there are even a couple of novels thrown in there. Oh yes, Spudman does have a cultural side. More blog posts coming right up…

5. Spudman used to avoid flying on climate change grounds, but for various reasons that I’ll probably explain on here at some point he’s softened his stance on this a little in recent years. Then again, flying over Greenland at 38,000 ft he was struck by how easy it was to see the detail of the landscape below and how little atmosphere there was above. What a thin little skin it is that we all rely on so fundamentally. May just have to harden up that stance again…

6. …though talking of climate change and Greenland, the whole damn place was covered in ice. Did Spudman see any signs of melting ice as he flew overhead? No sir, he did not. Now that’s the sort of thing that counts as rock solid evidence on denialist websites. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, warmists.

7. …and talking of ice and warmth, let me report some latitudes and temperatures from the trip: Toronto, 44oN, -21oC; Frome 51oN, 9oC; Reykjavik, 64oN, -1oC. Thank heavens for the briny, and the North Atlantic Drift. Long may she flow.

8. Ah, Reykjavik. Ah, Iceland. Spudman saw pastures still turned to bedrock lava by the Vikings, when centuries ago their overgrazing of sheep allowed the arctic winds to blow the light volcanic soils to smithereens, never to return. Memo to self: do not overgraze your sheep, especially if you keep them in Iceland. Which I don’t. On the other hand, Spudman saw a single hydroponic hothouse enterprise furnishing something like 20% of the country’s hothouse veg, all powered from ‘green’ geothermal sources equivalent to the energy needs of a small town. Well at Small Farm Future we talk a lot about the concept of progress, and here at last we have incontrovertible evidence for it. Memo to self: if you want to run a successful market garden, be sure to place it on top of a giant plug of red hot magma. Then again, see point 3…

9. According to my tour guide, farming bombed in Iceland post war when farm women all decided to move to Reykjavik and get proper jobs. Now most farmers raise the famous Icelandic horses, which they sell at vast profit to rich Americans. There must be some kind of point relevant to this blog to be made there…

10. And, hot from the same source, I can report that Iceland was the world’s first democracy. It also comprised at the time all the chancers, dreamers, outlaws and ne’er do wells who couldn’t get by back home in Scandinavia. There too I think there must be a point to be made. Why I’m very sure of it…

Of organic fertility and renewable energy

Tom has been pestering me for a while to say something about the synthesis of nitrogenous fertiliser using renewable energy. Originally I planned to write several lengthy posts with lots of data and references on this point in particular and on fertilisation in general, but I’m just too darned busy. So here is a briefer and less polished working through some of the issues.

1. Organic Fertility & Its Critics

There’s a wider context here, which is the onslaught against the supposed inefficiency of the organic approach by proponents of so called ‘conventional’ farming on websites such as Biology Fortified, Applied Mythology and SkeptEco. The same onslaught has spawned a thicket of papers and op-eds along the lines of ‘Can organic farming feed the world?’ to which your humble blog editor has, somewhat to his regret, himself contributed. ‘Somewhat to his regret’ because as I understand it around 60% of global nitrogenous fertility comes from organic sources. And we’re asking ‘can organic farming feed the world?’ Shouldn’t we be asking ‘can conventional farming feed the world?’ OK, I accept that organic & conventional farming aren’t entirely reducible to their respective approaches to nitrogen but, c’mon, who’s zoomin who?

Part of the anti-organic onslaught, I suspect, derives from the fact that the presentiments of the organic pioneers about the need to conserve and husband soil organic matter is now confirmed as a rock solid scientific certainty, an ‘inconvenient truth’ for its critics who then feel the need to run organics down in other ways. But I suspect the future shape of farming won’t be determined by partisan opinion-spouters on either side of the organic/‘conventional’ divide. Consider the following statement,

“It is both totally logical and cost-effective to use the resources you already have available in the most efficient way, before you invest in additional inputs…. Soil gradually loses condition, with modern day farming practices requiring it to withstand greater pressures, yet its health is often overlooked, even jeopardised through the use of acidifying fertilisers”1

Who is this outrageous provocateur for the organic way? None other than Hugh Frost, Product and Technical Manager for Mole Valley Farmers, my local agricultural merchants who supply and advise the largely ‘conventional’ farmers in my neck of the woods. It’s interesting to note such comments from a ‘conventional’ farming insider making an implicit ‘organic’ critique of ‘conventional’ practices without the need to mention organic farming at all. So let us be clear – aside perhaps from those benightedly arable-ised regions of the earth intent on mining to death the rich soils bequeathed them by nature, synthetic fertilisers really ought to be a last and not a first resort.

2. Spare the land and spoil the child

Nevertheless, it’s true that per hectare yields of most organic crops grown in present circumstances are lower than those of ‘conventional’ crops. This prompts the so called land sparing-land sharing debate, which essentially boils down to asking whether it’s better to grow intensively with scorched earth ‘conventional’ methods (including more synthetic fertiliser) on a smaller area and leave the rest of creation to the wild things, or to adopt a greater agricultural land-take albeit with organic methods that are hopefully more nature friendly.

To me, this sparing-sharing contrast seems overdrawn, for the following reasons among others:

  • we feed vast quantities of our primary arable crops to livestock or to biofuel digesters, and we throw away vast quantities of the rest without eating it (sorry, I don’t have the figures to hand – I’m busy, remember? – but if anyone wants to send some my way, I’d be grateful), so the notion that current agricultural practices ‘spare’ land seems misplaced to me. Why does it make more sense to retain these wasteful practices while slightly reducing the land take with added synthetic fertility than redressing waste and growing organically as much as possible?
  • it’s not clear that intensive ‘conventional’ agriculture plus a bit of extra wilderness is in fact more nature-friendly than more extensive organic agriculture, as suggested by ecological matrix arguments or the ‘post-wild world’ views associated with the likes of Emma Marris
  • the notion that ‘conventional’ farming outyields organic depends on various implicit assumptions about the conditioning of both ‘conventional’ and organic farming by extant agricultural economics: suppose instead that there were 8 million farmers in the UK, that red diesel cost £10/l and carbon emissions were taxed at £10/kg, then recompute
  • looking around my neighbourhood at all the potential sources of organic fertility that go unutilised because the price of labour makes them cost-ineffective, I’d conjecture that if we had those 8 million farmers growing organically, they could easily double the amount of organic fertility available, especially with a bit of smart design on their farms
  • evidence that demand for organic produce is driving wilderness destruction is lacking: more plausible candidates are the increasing demand for pork and chicken associated with the growth of the urban middle classes much championed by the eco-panglossians, and more generally the drawdown on natural resources associated with unsustainable economic growth

The last point gives me my title for this sub-section. The eco-panglossians enthuse about getting people out of allegedly ecologically destructive peasant farming and into the cities where they can get an education and become proper, caring environmentalist citizens who pay their annual dues to Greenpeace. I’m sure they’re right that rising Greenpeace subs correlate with urbanisation, but so do all the consumerist behaviours that give Greenpeace its raison d’être. Anyway, more on that another time.

3. There’s more to life than bread and nitrogen

The debate about farmland fertility is heavily focused around nitrogen. That’s fair enough up to a point as it’s a critical plant nutrient, but it’s also just about the easiest one to furnish provided you have enough energy to hand. Maybe some day humanity will be able to take care of nitrogen for good thanks to abundant clean energy and Messrs Haber and Bosch, in which case other plant nutrients that are harder to supply will become limiting factors. That doesn’t mean of course that we shouldn’t aim for renewable nitrogen, but it’s not a case of clean energy + Haber-Bosch = job done in agriculture.

Likewise the debate about agricultural productivity is heavily focused around cereals and grain legumes. Well, we all need our calories and protein and there are a lot of us on the planet. But just as plants need more than nitrogen to be truly healthy, so do people need more than tortillas and beans. Let’s hear it for vegetables, and rein in a bit on the calories per hectare malarkey.

4. Drugs: just say no

Elsewhere I’ve likened fertiliser use to illicit drugs: it gives us a nice quick hit, but with bad long-term consequences for health, if not necessarily for our own health then at least for the health of those anoxic downstream aquatic environments where our fertilisers get flushed, and in relation to associated carbon emissions. That probably goes for all forms of fertiliser, including organic, but especially for cheap and soluble synthetics.

The other parallel is addiction: once you’re on the drugs/fertiliser treadmill you’re buzzing, and it’s hard to get off, as evidenced by the spiralling demand for pork, chicken and other such temptations. There are equity issues here, which I’ll post on soon. But the larger point is can we ever say no, we don’t need more of this, we’ve got enough? I’m not seeing it in the way that the global food system works, just as you don’t tend to find too many abstemious and judiciously indulging crack addicts. If we’re going to ask questions like ‘can organic farming provide enough food for the world’ we first need a proper discussion about how much is enough.

5. Sustainable addiction

But OK, OK. Having said all of the above, I’m not so censorious that I think nobody should ever use any synthetic fertiliser, just as I don’t think it’s always wrong for anybody to take a narcotic hit if they want to. So, if we first attend to endogenous organic fertilisation, diversify our agriculture away from an obsession with economic growth and per hectare productivity of grains, and clean up the way we produce and dispose of nitrogenous fertiliser then, to answer Tom’s question, yes I think there could be a place for synthetic nitrogen fertiliser made with renewable energy on farms.

But I’d like to ask a few questions about what this might involve. Somebody whose chemistry is less rusty than mine may be able to better confirm this line of thought, but my feeling is that nitrogen is the kind of element that likes to play alone. It requires an awful lot of energy to persuade it to come out and play with its hydrogen buddies. And if you’re doing so with renewably generated electricity, my guess is that it would take even more energy than ammonia synthesised from coal or natural gas, because you’d have to work harder to get the hydrogens to play along. The figure in the back of my mind for the energetic cost of modern ammonia synthesis with natural gas is 36 MJkg-1. I’m not sure if that’s per kg of nitrogen or per kg of ammonia (can anyone help?) DEFRA figures suggest that applying 150kg of N per hectare (or even more) is not uncommon for arable crops. So let’s propose a small farm situation in which annually the farmer fertilises one hectare with 150kg of fertiliser at a (very conservatively estimated) 40 MJkg-1. I think that would be a requirement of 150 x 40 = 6000 MJ – which by my calculations is about the amount of fuel energy you’d need to drive an efficient modern car about 3000km (that’s Lands End to John O Groats, back to Lands End then back to John O Groats again before you run out of gas on the fourth leg somewhere in the southern highlands). Quite a lot of energy in other words.

Now, having been living off grid and renewably generating my own electricity with PV panels and a few other gizmos for the past 3 months I’ve developed more than a passing interest in renewable energy performance. We have 12 PV panels rated at 200W (oh, I’m so looking forward to the summer) and a 3000W inverter, which means we can’t really use power hungry things like electric stoves and kettles. Still, we’ve got by pretty well over the winter with a fridge, LED lights, charging laptops, powering drills and angle grinders, and doing the washing on sunny days. For most of the heavy lifting domestic energy usages, however, we’ve burned wood or used bottled gas. Our total electricity use in 3 winter months has been about 200 KWh = 720MJ. So let’s generously estimate an annual usage of 5000MJ – not quite enough to produce our 150kg of fertiliser. And that from an electricity system that costs about £10,000 to install new (though hopefully it’ll last a long time). I guess some of its pricey components like batteries and inverters may not be needed for a fertiliser synthesis system, but presumably there’d be other costly elements in such a system.

Bottom line is I’m not convinced that the best way to go for me in terms of on-farm fertility is to generate electricity and then use it to make fertility. I think electricity is best reserved for the things you really need it for, like computers and power drills, and fertility is best taken care of organically. Doubtless it could be shown that it’s not very efficient producing small amounts of fertiliser using small renewable installations on small farms, and that it’s better to scale up industrially and sell the fertiliser to farmers. But then we’re back in the ‘economies of scale and simplification’ loop that the small farm movement is trying to break out of.

My alternative suggestion is this: develop and incentivise bioregional farming systems that take care of as many of the local population’s needs for agricultural produce as possible using biotic fertility. I think people may be surprised at how much is possible, but also at what has to give and what new thinking is required. If that proves inadequate to your region’s needs, then develop an expensive certification system allowing farmers who fulfil the appropriate criteria and demonstrate their ability to safeguard downstream ecosystems to purchase synthetic fertiliser from renewably-powered industrial units, provided their products are stamped with a label stating ‘Certified Non-Organic’. Data on the proportion of certified non-organic produce consumed in each region would then be collected by national agriculture departments and used in regional sustainability indicators, which could inform economic policies to incentivise reductions in the use of precious electricity to synthesise fertiliser.

Well, it’s a thought.

Notes

1. Frost, H. 2014. ‘The soil’s digestive system – improving nutrient uptake’ MVF Newsletter, No.601 June 2014 p18.

 

On energy

So, continuing with my odyssey behind enemy lines in the land of the eco-panglossians, we now come to the matter of energy. And if you’re still reading, Tom, with this post we begin our countdown towards the question of sustainably synthesized fertiliser (having made you wait so long, I fear my comments on this are going to be a terrible anti-climax when I finally get to them…)

Let me begin with a comment made by the inestimable Mr Strouts on his blog a while back, to wit that ‘Fifty years is a looooong time in the world of energy’. Now, it strikes me that this view is historically incorrect. From the dawn of human history to the nineteenth century there was basically little more than wind, water and biotic energy available. The technologies that made use of them at the dawn of the nineteenth century were a good deal more sophisticated than those that made use of them at the dawn of, say, the ninth century or previously, but there wasn’t an awful lot of difference in the nature of the supply. So perhaps we could posit the alternative hypothesis that for about 200,000 years very little happened at all in the world of energy. Or to express it in a more Stroutsian manner, that fifty years is a shooooort time in the world of energy. Arguably this began to change in the nineteenth century, when humanity started to rely more on fossil fuels. Doubtless the energy sector of today looks very different to that of the early nineteenth century, but our basic reliance on fossil fuels is much the same, so whether fifty years is a long time or not in the modern world of energy seems to me moot.

We can’t of course predict what the world of energy will look like fifty years hence, but perhaps we can learn a few lessons by looking back over the last fifty years. Actually, the data I’m going to present only look back over the last 31 years (from 1980-2011 to be precise) because this time series is all that’s available on the excellent US Energy Information Administration website. I’ll leave it to others to judge what 62% of a looooong time is – a long time, if not a looooong time perhaps? Hopefully long enough to be worth a look, anyway.

So, my first graph (Figure 1) presents total world primary energy production, which in 1980 amounted to 287 quadrillion BTUs. Of that, 89% came from fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas). Fast forward to 2011 and total world primary energy production has leapt to 518 quadrillion BTUs, of which 87% came from fossil fuels. So perhaps I ought to concede that Graham is right and things have changed. We’re now producing nearly twice as much energy as we were 31 years ago. But on the other hand we’ve scarcely budged our proportionate reliance on fossil fuels. Plus ça change…

World primary energy production

It’s often argued that we’re getting better at getting more out of our energy, so I suppose another interesting statistic would be per capita energy use over the same time period. I’m not really sure how relevant this figure is, because eco-panglossians are not the types to bother over such trifling possibilities as the limits to human growth, and limits-to-growthers are not going to be placated by any per capita sleight of handery. Still, let’s look at the figure anyway – here it is, in Figure 2. Goodness me! In 1980 we produced 64.7 quadrillion BTUs per billion population (or 64.7 million BTUs per capita, if you prefer), whereas in 2011 we were producing 74.1 million BTUs per capita – a 15% increase in energy intensity.

World primary energy production per capita

Perhaps you could argue that this is a good thing, reflecting increasing energy availability to people who previously went without. Well, there is some evidence for that: as Figure 3 shows, per capita energy consumption has declined 9% in the heaviest per capita energy consuming region (North America) and increased 65% in Asia and Oceania (mostly reflecting China’s rise – I wonder if there’s any connection there). The Asia and Oceania figure also includes Australia, which has recorded a 13% rise to a whopping 289 million BTU per capita, while things look pretty static in Europe. Here’s another figure: in 1980 per capita energy consumption in the highest consuming region (North America) was nearly 20 times more than the lowest consuming region (Africa). In 2011 that discrepancy was still sixteen fold, with most of the relative decrease associated with decreasing American consumption rather than increasing African. Even China’s current per capita consumption is still less than a quarter that of the US. So arguably there’s been limited progress on distributional equity, even leaving aside any larger sustainability issues about energy dependency.

Per capita energy consumption by region

Let us turn from total energy production and consumption to the production of electricity. Figure 4 shows total world electricity generation from 1980-2011. Its growth exceeds the growth of total energy production – we’re now generating 2.6 times more electricity than we were in 1980. But it’s worth pointing out what a small proportion of global energy production the electricity sector occupies. In 1980, electricity generation amounted to about 10% of total global energy production. In 2011 the figure was 14%. And if we look at the mix of electricity generation methods, we see once again that it’s dominated throughout by fossil fuels (70% in 1980, 67% in 2011). The corresponding figures for nuclear power were 9% (1980) and 12% (2011), and for renewables 22% (1980) and 21% (2011).

Total electricity generation

Let’s just point out the implications of those figures in relation to nuclear power, which is one of the eco-panglossians’ major hobby horses. The likes of Stewart Brand and Mark Lynas seem to see it as our energetic saviour, but leaving aside any specific rights and wrongs of the technology, let’s not forget that it’s a method of generating electricity, which currently furnishes only around 14% of our total energy needs, and of that 14% only 12% currently is nuclear. Supposing we increased nuclear generation tenfold (which I imagine would be difficult to do any time soon even with a complete consensus over it, and even then only in the richer countries) – it would still be providing us with less than 20% of our total energy.

Why, then, this big eco-panglossian fanfare for nuclear? Writing of the new nuclear plant being built just down the road from me at Hinkley Point using expensive and old fashioned pressurised water technology, the self-styled scientific rationalist Mr Strouts opined “technology does not follow some kind of god-given path to heaven”. He follows this plausible contention with the sentence “So we can embrace Hinkley C as a victory against extreme Luddism of the Greens, while lamenting that it is not Thorium”. Non-sequitur alert! In this avowedly non-teleological teleology, thorium is more heavenly than PWR, but PWR is more heavenly than whatever the Greens support and, being closer to heaven, therefore ought to be supported. Here, scientific rationalism crumbles under only moderate stress, to be replaced by an irrational technophilia for its own sake, regardless of whether it makes sense in the circumstances. This is the beating heart of eco-panglossianism, all too evident in Whole Earth Discipline, its sacred text: never let cold rationality or economic nuance get in the way of techno-boosterism.

Another entertaining aspect of the Hinkley Point fiasco is the fact that, after the British government of the 1980s deregulated the electricity industry because they disliked the socialistic implications of a centrally planned public supply, they’re now giving British public money to a publicly owned utility company from the planned economy of China to build the darned thing.  But let us leave that thought hanging until another time.

The conclusions I’d draw from the EIA data and the wider energy scene are as follows. For a looooong time, people were reliant on renewable biotic, wind and water energy. After that, for a long time we’ve been reliant on fossil fuels, we’re now more reliant on them than ever before and we have few other tools in the box, or new ones in the offing. (This, incidentally, is also pretty much the conclusion of Vaclav Smil in his book Energy: Myths and Realities (AEI Press, 2010), Smil being very far from a fellow traveller in the camp of those of us Graham likes to call ‘greentards’). We may not be in any imminent danger of running out of fossil fuels, but the growth of the unconventional sector is surely suggestive that, if not yet over, the party has at least got to that stage when you start rummaging in cupboards or secretly filching half drunk glasses in order to keep your spirits up.

This is the point at which I think the eco-panglossians are at their weakest and least rational, and therefore at their most stridently outspoken. Doubtless drawing inspiration from the fairytale world of neoclassical economics where rising prices incentivise a smooth transition to substitute goods, they are generally of the opinion that somebody is bound to think of something. And of course they might turn out to be right. ‘Never bet against human ingenuity’ in the words of Daniel Lacalle. From the looooong perspective of five decades, no doubt fracking or the tar sands create the impression of limits being transcended – or at least of a breathing space being created so that if somebody sorts out nuclear fusion, if somebody sorts out batteries, if somebody… But from the looooong perspective of 200,000 years, I’m inclined to take a Philip of Macedon approach to these ‘ifs’. As one of the respondents on Lacalle’s blog excellently put it: “Colossal quantities of surplus energy allows human ingenuity (specifically, technology). It does not follow that technology allows surplus energy. Your betting advice seems to assume reversal of causality.” Yes indeed – I’m happy to applaud human ingenuity, but I can’t find much evidence in human history to suggest that we will easily overcome the dwindling availability of cheap, versatile and highly concentrated fossil energy. So why not give ourselves a head start– slap a massive carbon tax on fossil fuel for us westerners, divert the lion’s share of what’s remaining to low income countries where grid energy is in short supply so they can prepare well too, incentivise a shift to a more renewable electricity-based energy mix, and contemplate a future of energy descent.

In my earlier post on energy, I wrote “If people sort out clean energy, there’s still a raft of issues such as water scarcity, phosphate scarcity, soil loss, past carbon emissions, anthropogenic nitrification, oh and social justice, to keep us eco-realists worried” to which Strouts responded by posting some pictures of Tigger (himself) and Eeyore (me) along with the thought “You can almost hear [Smaje’s] hands wringing together and his mournful cries of “woe is me!”

Very droll…though I suspect irony detection isn’t Graham’s strong suit. Still, he’s reading me wrong. I’m Tiggerishly optimistic that humans won’t succeed in transcending energy limitations long term, which cheers me up no end because energy availability is a strong ecological limit to which all species, including humans, are pretty well adapted and know how to not only cope with, but thrive in, given half a chance. Don’t get me wrong – a bit of cheap and concentrated energy is a marvellous thing, and can help improve human wellbeing if judiciously used. The problem is that ‘judicious use’ seems rare among the human virtues. In the unlikely event that humans do overcome energy limitations long term, well then yes I do have to confess an Eeyoreish streak – it’ll be a disaster for the poor, a disaster for other species, and we’ll soon get tripped up by that raft of other limitations I alluded to that at present we’ve scarcely even begun to think about. But more on that in upcoming posts.

 

Small town planet, small farm future

I think it’s time for me to end my self-imposed exile from my own blog. I’m not completely out of the woods yet work-wise so there may be further service interruptions, but it’s been nice to see some ongoing conversations on the site since I posted my last entry, such as this one about permaculture, populism and Vandana Shiva and this one about nature mimicry. They’ve guilt-tripped me back into the blogosphere.

I aim to write some more on those themes in future posts, but for now I just want to post a few brief thoughts prompted by the issue of urbanisation – a favourite subject of mine on which I’ve previously written here, and here, and now here in my latest article for Statistics Views.

I won’t reprise my musings on the topic in the Stats Views article here. Instead, I just want to mention two points that I should perhaps have dwelt on a bit more in the article.

First, the notion that we’re now living on a ‘city planet’, with more than half the global population living in urban areas, frequently does the rounds in ‘eco-progressivist’ circles as a kind of shorthand proof that the tide of history is running against the possibility of small-scale agriculture or rural life more generally as a viable future for humanity. But the apparently simple fact of majority urban residence is quite misleading, and is something of a statistical artefact. Take India, the second most populous country in the world. ‘Urban areas’ there are defined in part as places with a population of at least 5,000. By Indian definitions, about 32% of its population is urban. But I wouldn’t define a place with a population of 5,000 as a ‘city’. How big is a city? Suppose you defined it as a place with a population of 300,000 – then only 19% of India’s population live in cities. If you take the twenty most populous countries in the world, which together account for 70% of the global population, then only 31% of their people live in cities of 300,000 or more1 – and I suspect the true figure is a bit lower, because of definitional peculiarities in China2.  So maybe we inhabit not so much a city planet as a small town planet.

I think that’s important because, unlike large cities, it’s possible for a village or town or even a small city of 100,000 or so to be oriented towards and well integrated with its rural hinterlands. A small farm future is readily compatible with a small town future, but probably not with a big city future. Fortunately, though, we’re still a long way from really being a ‘city planet’.

There’s a lot more to be said about the ways in which small-scale farming and small town life can be mutually reinforcing and can promote better ecological stewardship and human wellbeing – some of which is said in the various references I cite in the Statistics Views article. But I’ll aim to come back to the theme on this blog in future posts. Generally speaking, I think mainstream commentators and self-styled ‘eco-pragmatists’ are far too prone to present a dualistic contrast between city life fuelled by large-scale industrial agriculture on the one hand and a miserable peasant subsistence agriculture on the other. In truth, there’s a lot of space to explore in between the poles of a ‘city planet’ and a miserable subsistence agriculture – besides which ‘subsistence’ needn’t necessarily be miserable unless it’s made miserable by the depredations of elites, who typically rely on some kind of centralised (urban) authority in their work of expropriation. But that’s a story for another time.

The second point is perhaps best encapsulated in Stewart Brand’s aphoristic comment that “city growth creates problems, and then city innovation speeds up to solve them”3. I can find plenty of evidence to support the first part of his statement, but not so much for the second. One contemporary arena for the debate is the notion of increasing industrial resource use efficiency – or the ‘decoupling’ of economic growth from growth in the drawdown of non-renewable or polluting resources. Some experts dispute the existence of decoupling4, whereas others find evidence for it5 – which has led some to make such ringing pronouncements as this: “For the first time in history, we are growing richer while using less energy. That is unalloyed good news for budgets, incomes and the planet. We have reached a technological tipping point.”6

But as far as I can see, this statement is simply wrong, because it confuses absolute with relative energy use. It may be true that we’re producing more per unit of energy use globally than we used to, but we’re also producing more, period. The result is that we’re using more fossil fuels than ever before – 43% more petroleum in 2012/13 than in 1980, 127% more natural gas, and 105% more coal7 – and we’re emitting more greenhouse gases than ever before8. So on the face of it increased resource use efficiency seems positively associated with increased resource use. The Jeavons paradox rides again, perhaps?

In any case, the closer we approach the reality of becoming a ‘city planet’, the more I suspect absolute energy use and emissions will increase.  As Rees and Wackernagel put it “cities have become entropic black holes drawing in energy and matter from all over the ecosphere (and returning all of it in degraded form back to the ecosphere)” (citation in Statistics Views article). All the more reason, I think, to try to hang on to some notion of carrying capacity and articulate a vision for a small farm, and perhaps a small town, future.

References

1. Figures calculated from Files 1 & 15 of UN Urbanization Prospects, 2014. I can’t be bothered to calculate it for the world as a whole – I spent long enough messing about on spreadsheets as it is – but I suspect the global figure would be even less.

2. See, for example, http://demographia.com/db-define.pdf

3. Brand, S. 2009. Whole Earth Discipline. Atlantic Books.

4. Eg. Jackson, T. 2009. Prosperity Without Growth. Earthscan.

5. Eg. http://www.unep.org/resourcepanel/decoupling/files/pdf/decoupling_report_english.pdf

6. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/24/growth-enemy-planet-gdp-burning-fossil-fuels-technology

7. http://www.eia.gov/cfapps/ipdbproject/IEDIndex3.cfm?tid=5&pid=5&aid=2

8. https://www.wmo.int/pages/mediacentre/press_releases/pr_1002_en.html