Of holism, particularism and photosynthesis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

23 thoughts on “Of holism, particularism and photosynthesis

  1. Got overshoot? Just increase the biological size of the planet!

    But since life has been evolving on the earth for so long, I venture that it is very unlikely that humans can do anything to increase total planetary biomass, except perhaps at the margins (by moving water from wet areas to dry areas for example).

    If total biomass is indeed nearly zero-sum, the only way to keep earthly life in some sort of healthy equilibrium is to have human aggrandizement of that life be well under the threshold of destabilization. Since we don’t know where that threshold is, we may have already screwed up the biosphere beyond repair. If so, I doubt that ‘improving’ photosynthesis will be the magic duct tape needed to hold things together.

    The safest thing to do would be rapid depopulation of humans. Equally good would be rapid reduction of our impact, which is where agrarian peasant-ism excels. I suspect that both of those solutions are to be manifest very soon, even though most humans will try to avoid them if they possibly can.

    • The realm where the limits on total biomass has been “addressed” most radically is in the ocean, and the solution has not been to increase biomass, but to increase turnover: the average alga lives for a week, as opposed to ~10 years for land biomass. The trade-off is that marine herbivores have very short lives as well. I’m afraid that’s where humanity is going as well: if you overshoot carrying capacity, mortality goes up. I also suspect that depopulation and per capita impact reduction will be too slow to fully avoid this.

  2. Ahhh… photosynthesis, (insert Elizabeth Barret Browning Sonnet 43 here).

    Yes, I would have a green cape in honor of chlorophyll… said as much right here at SFF. And photosynthesis is pretty incredible, no matter how you slice it. But there is much more to higher plants than their energy section. If Chris is not afraid of a compliment or two, the “I’m not a biologist” analysis offered here is pretty good for a humanities major. And if you need to pick a whipping boy for the ecomodernist plant biology field you could do worse than Le Page. So well done.

    Perhaps my favorite part of this posting, however, is the contrasting of holism vs reductionism (and the attendant spanking for how science weighs in heaviest on only one side of the couplet). So photosynthesis becomes something of a straw man in this particular debate. Fair enough, as I’m not sure it deserves a higher ranking.

    Photorespiration was once considered the bane of human efforts to conquer the meager efficiencies posted by plant photosynthetic efforts. So last century. There are still those who would continue down the reductionist path in search of photosynthetic improvements as a holy grail. I wish them the best. In the world of plant breeding where I’ve taken up shop to practice my trade I imagine photosynthesis contributes an important role and when possible any variation among aspects of its machinery will tend toward some sort of improvement when the whole organism (or the whole crop… not necessarily the mere sum of all individuals involved BTW) also tends toward some human defined improvement.

    For want of complete (or perhaps “up-to-date”) treatment of the latest in photosynthetic super-sizing I’ll go dig up the efforts underway here on the west side of the Atlantic and report back. There are some interesting researches in play… though I’m inclined to think ultimately that Chris’ analysis here will not be turned on its head – best outcome I think comes in getting on with the sort of work plant breeders have done all along… though with a clearer vision of just what the heck we’re actually wrecking in the first place.

  3. Don Ort at the University of Illinois lead a large team in publishing a perspective in PNAS:
    Redesigning photosynthesis to sustainably meet global food and bioenergy demand – available here:
    http://www.pnas.org/content/112/28/8529.full.pdf

    Fairly technical, but I think they do a pretty decent job of making most of it pretty accessible. Spoiler alert – pretty reductionist. But try it through the lens of a whole plant (or crop) scientist who imagines knowing more is somehow better than knowing less. As for being “up-to-date” this still falls short… Summer 2015. So I’ll go back into the abyss to fish out something even more current 🙂

  4. Stephen Long, also of the U. of Illinois, heads a smaller group offering a Leading Edge Review in Cell:

    Meeting the Global Food Demand of the Future by Engineering Crop Photosynthesis and Yield Potential – with a .pdf link here:

    http://www.cell.com/cell/pdf/S0092-8674(15)00306-2.pdf

    More technical than the PNAS article, but if you skip over the Greek symbols and pieces you just couldn’t be bothered by you will be rewarded with some commentary that gives an ecomodernist wannabe something to puff the chest over. But even this piece is a couple years on the shelf. So back to the mines.

  5. So here’s a link to the RIPE project… very up-to-date, and not so technical (though if you’re Jonesing for a techno-fix there are links there you can follow).

    http://ripe.illinois.edu/

    I shall retire from mining into photosynthetic marvels of the modern age for now. Questions and disputations entertained during business hours.

  6. I found this 2003 paper by Denison et al. of the same title, Darwinian agriculture, as the 2012 book:
    http://content.ebscohost.com/ContentServer.asp?T=P&P=AN&K=9985389&S=R&D=a9h&EbscoContent=dGJyMNLr40Sep684yOvqOLCmr0%2BeprZSs6u4SLaWxWXS&ContentCustomer=dGJyMPGut1GxrrBQuePfgeyx43zx#page=3&zoom=auto,-25,521
    Clem and Simon, those handwaving results (i.e. not reporting an increased yield) do not make me confident that Denison et al. will be proved wrong anytime soon. I thought the JIC press release particularly WTF: yes, many marine algae profit from a CCM by using bicarbonate, the concentration of which is ~100 times higher than CO2. Hello, anybody home? There is no bicarbonate in air, so why would you put this CCM in a plant?

    • No bicarbonate in air… not exactly the point. The C4 system operates in higher plants (eg., corn, sorghum) and if you step back a second and take a look, C4 essentially concentrates carbon dioxide levels and accomplishes the same function as the algal CCM. So the attempts to modify the CO2 to O2 ratio at the site of the carbon fixing enzyme RuBisCO is what this is all about.

      There is a study published where a transgenic soybean plant has been taken to yield in a field environment. The authors report the yield. I’ll head back into the ether and return with a link. But while I can speak to the idea that this is more than hand waving, I would share your skepticism that this approach will not cure all (may cure very little in the end).

      So long as CCM has been brought forward, it might be worth scratching a few neurons to tease apart why terrestrial plants seem to be satisfied with a RuBisCO that is happy to use O2 as a substrate in the first place. Hello, anybody home?

      • So here’s the link promised above:

        https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/c056/d0924f62c943c8ccd1a0b79b434bae666875.pdf

        The paper is titled:
        Enhancing soybean photosynthetic CO2
        assimilation using a cyanobacterial membrane
        protein, ictB in the Journal of Plant Physiology 212 (2017) 58-68.

        The research reported here was conducted several years ago, but this peer reviewed piece is just out this year.

        Given that the “event” (a transgenic soybean plant) was available several years ago to do this research, but is not (to my knowledge) being increased for commercial use is something curious. Hand waving may well be a fair accusation – but one could also ponder whether there is a market for this trait. Anyway, the claim that CCM for terrestrial plants is not worth pursuit… hmmmmm

  7. ” IF WE COULD ONLY STOP TRYING TO SOLVE THE PROBLEMS OF THE ‘WORLD’ AND FOCUS ON OUR OWN DANGED PROBLEMS, THEN THE WORLD WOULD BE A LESS PROBLEMATIC PLACE.”

    Golly Chris, I read that this morning and my ears are still ringing.

    Well yes. It is compatible with one of my own saying and gives me an excuse to repeat it. I don’t believe in “trying to make the world a better place” – it’s hubristic and can distort your view of things. I do believe in trying to make things slightly less bad than they otherwise would have been. This is entirely doable and not to be sneezed at.

    • Oh and, this “upgrading the natural world” malarkey. It sounds like Smartypants Contrarianism to me and I find it hard to believe that it is meant as anything other than trolling.

  8. Thanks for the comments – I’ll try to post more of a response when my decks have cleared in a day or two. But just to respond briefly to Martin, I think you maybe underestimate the nature of the beast – to the ecomodernist mindset, the proposed ‘upgrade’ is self-evidently wise/an unfortunate necessity* (*delete as applicable), and it’s the likes of us who are the contrarians. Agreed, though, that aiming to make things slightly less bad than they otherwise would have been is a worthy, if ambitious, goal.

  9. The eco-modernist position, as does most technophile arguments, reminds me a bit of my progressive political friends in Tennessee who have pushed for a state income tax. A tax that, currently, we are blessedly free of paying.

    In their reasoning, with all of this extra money flowing into the state coffers, all kinds of great and noble things could now be funded. They have exciting blueprints, models, and, this is more important, they have GRAPHS! But, it all rests on the shaky foundation that they would control all outcomes in the political sphere, which is currently, and has never been, the case.

    In science and technology, as with politics, one can’t model the social variables. And, one certainly can’t model the planetary variables without infinite experimentation. And, unfortunately, in this experiment, there is only one test-tube available.

    As a wise man once said, with some apparent wit: if we could only stop trying to solve the problems of the world and focus on our own danged problems, then the world would be a less problematic place.

  10. Chris, what is productivist ideology? Wiki is not very enlightening at all. Is it what some of us have been calling the Cult of MORE?

  11. As ever, not much to disagree with; as ever, a few comments…

    First, a little flippantly, I reckon permaculturists would like this – isn’t the holistic approach to local problems their bag?

    Second, there have been a lot of dualisms in recent posts, which has only gone to demonstrate bow useful they can be in starting a discussion, even if it also demonstrates how they inevitably end up collapsing into the complexity in the middle. With that in mind, reading this post and some of the comments put me in mind of another one: the static vs the dynamic. Ecomodernist vision seems to comprehend a static system from a detached viewpoint, a system that appears as a construction made of separate parts, each of which might be the target of alteration. The vision you promote is more about the dynamics of relationships viewed from one’s immediate position as a node in the broader mesh, and the idea that change is about altering the direction of the ride, not reinventing the system.

    Finally it strikes me that ‘the world’ mighty be usefully redefined according to your holistic localism at a personal level, as that set of relationships and connections which each person supports and is supported by, and which they might have some hope of affecting; a mesh of interpenetrating worlds. The flourishing of the world is suddenly a workable goal! Only if the world is viewed in the singular, as a mighty machine in which we are the littlest cogs, does it all seem so depressingly impossible.

    • “that set of relationships and connections which each person supports and is supported by”

      This. This, exactly.

      I too often fall for that business of seeing the world as an impenetrably complex machine with many tiny parts that I can manipulate to one end or another. Perhaps this view of the world is (some part of) the underlying curse of Western Civ. In any case, it is a widespread syndrome.

      It happens regularly that people who I am inclined to agree with will seize upon a tactic or a topic, some remedy to assuage our sense of aggrieved untermenschenhood. This idea will expand in volume until it crowds the friendship out of our relationship, and that ‘with us or against us’ thing starts up. At that point, I just want to look them in the eye and say “Listen, this is interesting, and you are doubtless correct in your analysis, but it is not what is important. What is important is that we can take care of each other, and if we keep our wits about us and work together, it is possible to live a decent life in a dangerous and changing world.”

      Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

      Sorry to drag in politics again.
      Back to photosynthesis; I am fascinated by the fact that plant genomes tend to be so vastly larger than animal genomes. Maybe it is not only because they are stuck in one spot and need to deal with whatever comes. Maybe their approach to living is also really different from ours, and complex in ways that we haven’t imagined yet.

  12. Btw, I sent online feedback to John Jeavons’ website for some clarification of his method, and got a letter from him yesterday, where he says:

    “[Biointensive] closed loop system, when properly practiced, as in How to Grow More Vegetables, has the ability to grow up to 20lbs of farmable soil per pound of vegetables eaten. However, if the method is used incorrectly it can deplete the soil two to six times faster.”

    I am a fan of his experimentation, but my mind can’t wrap itself around these figures. Help please?

  13. So, farm & family commitments have kept me away from the blogosphere for a couple of days – probably not a bad thing once in a while – but thanks everybody for keeping the debate going, as ever in various interesting ways. I don’t have an awful lot to add, but thanks to Clem for the technical perspectives which I’ll try to follow up, and to everyone else for reassuring me that there are arenas of useful debate here beyond ecomodernism – the issues around dualities and saving the world I find especially interesting, and Eric’s ‘with us or against us’ warning salutary. Though sadly that seems to be the drift of contemporary politics.

    Vera, yes – by ‘productivist ideology’ I mean the idea that increasing the per acre yield of our existing major crops is the main metric of agricultural success. On Jevons, I’m not sure I can help interpret his comment. As with various other gardening gurus, I find his methods interesting but his claims somewhat suspicious and overblown. 20 lbs of farmable soil per pound eaten? Hmmm. Forgive my scepticism, but it sounds like a great bit of guru-speak: do it right, and you can achieve “up to” [insert impressively large figure here], but do it wrong and the result can be [insert worryingly negative impact here] – resulting in an almost empirically unfalsifiable system. But maybe I’m being too harsh?

    • Some time in the mid 90’s I lived about a half mile down the seasonal creek bed from John Jeavons. The terrain was such that to drive there was 3.7 miles. Not prime farmland, obviously, but popular among the people who grew illegal crops. I would often see Jeavons driving his white Volvo down Ridgewood road to town, and I got to know his ex-wife and her husband who ran the Jeavons publishing enterprise. None of this is to suggest that I was welcome to drop by his place and see what was up, except during the annual open house field day.
      When that day came, my wife and I walked up the creek bed and paid a visit. We got some suspicious looks as we emerged from the woods onto the little patch of grass around Jeavon’s house.

      Guru is exactly the right word. John sat cross legged beneath a large tree and spoke calmly to us about his vision for a new agriculture. He bit into an apple and tossed away the core as a metaphor of current industrial farming practices. Then we got a tour of the gardens. His place is steep, and he gardens in small patches largely because that is the only option, given the topography.
      Nearly all of the people working there were women.
      As people began to leave, Jeavons said that he had a library of information about promising crop plants that he hoped some of us might try. He gave me a sheaf of articles about a particular tree bark that held promise as a leather substitute.

      That day was quite an experience, but I don’t think much of it had to do with agriculture.

  14. “We face some big, broad problems in the world – like how to feed humanity sustainably. Meanwhile, the scientific method has been spectacularly successful at understanding the world not so much in a big, broad holistic way, but in small, particular, reductionist ways. The problem with ecomodernism as I see it is that it makes the characteristically ‘modernist’ category error of trying to resolve the duality by addressing the general from the particular, by solving big, broad problems using small, reductionist means. I’d like to propose the opposite approach, of trying to solve small, particular problems by big, broad means.”

    I really like that statement, it sounds smart, perhaps it is….

    I concur with your scepticism about improved photosynthesis.

    Not that I am scientist enough to judge if it is possible but because there will be trade-offs like in almost all agriculture improvements. I reminds me of debates over GM draught resistant corn and GM or not GM perennial wheatgrass. Probably they are possible, but what will you lose on the way? Of course driving that argument tooooo farm agriculture as such is futile.

    The main routes to better yields have been increasing the share of the Net Primary Production that goes to a harvest useful for us humans as well as increasig the NPP. The first is by first selecting rewarding crops and later by plant breeding. The latter is accomplished by irrigation, fertilizers (increasing the total photosynthesis, while not increasing the efficiency of the process), heating (green houses) or cooling (shading in too hot climates) and other strategic human labour interventions such as clearing the land of a maturing crop to establish a new one swiftly (which is a reason for why perennial grains are hard to make as productive as non-perennials).

    I am also on the side of land and nature sharing as the main strategy, but with limited pockets of hard exploitation especially for intensive horticulture. In my unheated polytunnel on the 60 degree Norht I share very little with nature and take 4 crops per year. In the open fields I get one thrid of the yield and share it grudgingly with boars, moose, hares and deer. Our cows share our natural pastures with an incredible bio-diversity, a pastoral landscape in its real sense.

    Keep on posting Chris

  15. Thanks for the fascinating extra background on Jeavons, Eric, and for those observations and support, Gunnar. Always interesting to hear about different gardening/farming problems around the world – having problems with moose puts mine with roe deer into perspective, quite literally…

  16. Two things that get me quite riled up about the general (ecomodernist and beyond) approach of “we can rebuild it, make it better, faster, stronger…” is that a basic evolutionary dynamic is trade-offs. “Life history trade-offs” is a fundamental concept from my (limited) training in evolutionary biology. I usually summarize it as “you can’t do everything well.” This is also derivable, more or less, from control theory and optimization theory (from my former life as a chemical engineer). Optimizing for more than two, max three variables is nearly intractable analytically (e.g. through mathematical representations derived from first principles/observed mechanics) as opposed to modelling/model fitting–using approximations and simulations that don’t necessarily have any direct derivation from the underlying physics.

    Which is all to say, where we want productivity, pest resistance, taste, nutrition, harvestability, etc. to all co-occur…. there are going to be inevitable trade-offs and there is every reason in the world to think “technology” will not allow us to have it all. I can’t recall where I heard this recently, but an expert within the US government years ago said something to the extent of “they wanted it to be higher quality, produced more quickly, at lower cost. I told them that they could have any two of those.”

    The vaunted efficiency/productivity gains in agriculture of the past decades have never included the “full costs” (I have reservations about “true cost accounting,” but the overall idea that we are racking up costs that we don’t directly figure into our reasoning is, I think, vital and irrefutable; viz. http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/nr/sustainability_pathways/docs/Natural_Capital_Impacts_in_Agriculture_final.pdf, and other estimates where the unmeasured costs in agriculture might be equal to 100% or more of the market price of goods!). For all the ecomodernists’ concerns for impacts on the environment, and enthusiasm for technology, their appreciation of basic thermodynamics (nothing is free or perfectly efficient) and increasingly obvious (ecological) economics (unaccounted-for “externalities” are of significant magnitude and therefore would imply some serious rethinking of supposed technological gains) has always been deeply lacking in my view.

    I have mixed feelings about “saving the world,” mostly agreeing with Chris’s summation. At the very least, I do strongly believe that those wishing to “save the world” should start such a grandiose mission by working where they are–getting involved in your local governance and finding out/figuring out how you can be of effective service there, if you are so privileged as to have the capacity for service beyond providing for your own welfare. I think more of us should be involved locally, and actually, those involved at higher levels of governance should be selected out of those involved locally (along the lines of a more deeply developed and legally constituted participatory budgeting-type mechanism/institution: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0032329213512978), but that’s perhaps a topic for another time/my own manifesto.

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