Here’s three random facts that I’ll try to weave into a worthwhile post. First, it’s proving to be one of the worst growing seasons in the UK that anyone can remember. Second, UK dairy farmers have been planning to strike in order to secure a fairer share of the retail value for their products. And third, the archaeologist Joseph Tainter – whose classic book The Collapse of Complex Societies I’m currently reading – argues that complex societies often arise as ‘energy averaging systems’ which are able to offset agricultural failure in one area by drawing in resources from elsewhere.
I’ll start with a bit more on Tainter’s thesis. He argues that various civilisations – the Maya of Mesoamerica and the Chacoans of the North American southwest are two he considers in detail – developed when smaller-scale subsistence-oriented cultivators banded together in larger polities as a means of avoiding subsistence crises when harvests failed locally.
Part of that package includes the emergence of organisational infrastructure and elites to oversee it, the latter diverting more than their fare share of resources to their own ends, all of which ultimately has to be paid for by the activities of the cultivators, or the peasantry if you will. But in the early phases, these developments can generate a successful dynamic – agricultural innovation and intensification, subsistence and military security, the development of the arts and sciences, and so on. As time goes on, though, further investments in complexity generate fewer benefits, while imposing greater burdens upon the producers, to the extent that the disadvantages of complexity can begin to outweigh the advantages to the mass of the population, or to client states. When that happens, the conditions for civilisational collapse are created. Most commentators writing about collapse tend to treat it as a disaster, but Tainter points out that this is only a partial view. People may actively choose collapse as a better option than the diminishing returns offered by a moribund civilisation. So for example the Germanic successor states to the Roman empire offered most people what they most wanted – peace and prosperity – at less cost than the empire had, even at the expense of providing a less sophisticated scientific and artistic culture. That, at any rate, is a very brief summary of a long and complex argument.
Meanwhile, back home here in Somerset 2012 has been a truly dreadful growing season, with crop failures left right and centre, and even bankers such as courgettes struggling to come through. Wholesale prices for UK veg have skyrocketed as a result of the shortage. That should be thoroughly good news for growers like me, except that – living as we do in a complex civilisation, indeed probably the most complex global civilisation ever – elaborate energy averaging mechanisms are in place to ensure that there are no local food shortages, and that greedy farmers can’t clean up. Most of them involve whisking food enormous distances around the world from wherever it’s cheapest to grow. Which is good news for consumers, at least in the short-term, but not so good for growers, who have become a kind of global neo-peasantry, footing much of the ecological, social and economic bill for all of this complexity. Certainly, our experience at Vallis Veg this year has been a big drop in customer numbers – people are willing to support us over the supermarkets up to a point, what with our friendly, local, green credentials, but if we’re still giving them swedes and cabbages in June, then the supermarkets begin to beckon.
I won’t criticise anyone individually for making that kind of decision, but what we’ve created collectively and globally in this way is a food system that tends always to undermine local farming cultures and to immiserate farmers, albeit some more than others, to the benefit of middlemen and consumers. Hence the motivation of the UK dairy strike. In global perspective, that’s a course of action only possible among relatively well off farmers, but for those who are comfortably employed in contemporary Britain I don’t think the significance should be underestimated of a group of self-employed, relatively poorly paid, and relatively unorganised farmers telling their fellow citizens that enough is enough.
The broader question raised by all this for me is what is the right size for a well functioning food economy (which ultimately is the same question as what is the right size for a well functioning economy)? If the economy is very small and localised, then there’s a risk that real hardship will result with the inevitable annual fluctuations in productivity. Nobody wants that, and so people will naturally band together to create a larger economic safety net. But we delude ourselves if we suppose that allowing the economy to grow to any size increases our economic security – a supposition usually accompanied by self-serving ideological noise about the benefits of globalisation and market discipline. All that does is create farms, like banks, that are “too big to fail”, without adding anything to net human benefit (in fact, subtracting from it).
I think such farms and banks will fail, for roughly the same reasons that Joseph Tainter argues most complex civilisations ultimately fail. And I think it will be a good thing when they do, even if it means that many people will have to live less sophisticated and less expansive lives. I don’t think we’ve yet reached the stage when the disbenefits of current civilisational complexity are apparent to most people living in the charmed circle of modern western society and its global spinoffs. But those disbenefits are pretty apparent to anyone attempting to run a farm, and even more so to anyone attempting to run one with ecological or sustainability objectives in mind. I suspect they’re growing more apparent to ever-widening segments of the populace. But even if civilisational collapse can sometimes be the wisest choice, it’s rarely pretty. So the sooner we start thinking about the proper size for our food economies and how to achieve it the better. That little problem is one I propose to tackle in another post. In the mean time, I’d welcome any thoughts.