Saving George Monbiot

Since I’m (almost) halfway through my ‘history of the world’ blog cycle, I thought I’d take a halftime break and write about something else this week. Especially since an urgent task has suddenly presented itself to me – the need to save George Monbiot from becoming an ecomodernist. Now, let me start by saying that, week in week out for more years than I care to remember, George has been almost a lone voice in the mainstream British media putting the case thoughtfully and iconoclastically for radical, egalitarian and environmental alternatives to a status quo that’s so fawningly celebrated by the majority of his journalistic colleagues. He’s even publicly endorsed my critiques of ecomodernism. So as far as I’m concerned he has a lot of credibility in the bank, and I’m not one to fulminate against him too much just because I disagree with him over this or that issue. But when it comes to his recent article enthusing about the advent of artificial meat as the welcome death knell for livestock farming…George, you’re scaring me, man.

Actually, I agree with most of the premises in George’s article – the present global livestock industry involves barbarous cruelty to farm animals, is a grossly inefficient way of producing protein and is not, contrary to ‘carbon farming’ claims, a good way of mitigating climate change. However, I don’t agree with his conclusion that we should stop farming animals, for reasons that I’ll set out below and that will also hopefully illuminate some wider themes – including those implicit in a brief Twitter exchange I had with Marc Brazeau, another antsy online ecomodernist, who was effectively challenging advocates of ‘alternative’ farming to put up some quantitative metrics by which to judge their approach or else clear the way for the ecomodernist onslaught represented by intensive conventional arable farming on the grounds of its superior sustainability. Which is pretty much the same as George’s argument.

So to summarise so far, rather than the Spielberg reference of my title, perhaps the strapline for this piece should paraphrase a famous quote from another old film – Flash Gordon, that marvellous bit of 1980s schlock: “George, George, I love you – but I only have fourteen paragraphs to save you from the ecomodernists”. And here they are:

1. If you’re standing in the supermarket aisle, weighing up whether it’s environmentally sounder to buy a vegetarian dinner or that big juicy steak, the answer in that context is almost always going to be the vegetarian dinner. I say “in that context” because the choice is already framed by numerous background assumptions, which I’d summarise as the ‘ethics of the shopping aisle’. The ethics of the shopping aisle basically accepts that the consumer is the endpoint of a vast global corporate food system that relies on copious fossil fuel inputs across the entire production chain, and it also basically accepts that this system will continue in the long-term. If you don’t accept those propositions, you might imagine yourself instead living in a farm society in which people are producing their food from a few acres with minimal exogenous energy sources available to them. In these circumstances, you would probably grow crops in a rotation that included ruminant-grazed legume-rich grass leys and make use of the milk, meat, traction and fibre provided by the ruminants. You would probably also keep some poultry and pigs near the house or in the woodlands, to turn waste food, weeds and invertebrate pests into useful food. Almost certainly, you’d produce and eat less meat than we presently do in the UK. But, almost certainly too, you’d produce and eat some meat. I take the view that this omnivorous lifestyle is a better, and more sustainable, one than the vegan lifestyle commended by the ethics of the shopping aisle. Whether it’s better or not, I suspect it may be the best option available to us in a likely low-energy future – a future we’ll land in more easily if we prepare for it now. So I’d be willing to trade off a fair amount of ‘inefficient’ mixed organic agriculture in the present as a lead-in to a likely unavoidable mixed organic agriculture of the future.

2. I’d question his figures a little, but I wouldn’t dispute George’s general point that grazing is much less productive acre for acre than arable farming (although in the mixed organic ley farming described above the livestock add to, rather than subtract from, the productivity). But where is he going with all these figures about superior arable yields? There’s no critique of the productivist assumption that more is always better in his article. “One study,” he writes, “suggests that if we were all to switch to a plant-based diet, 15m hectares of land in Britain currently used for farming could be returned to nature”. But of course there’s no guarantee that it would – it might equally be turned over to car parks, golf courses or second homes. Or it might fuel further population growth, as he implicitly admits by arguing that the existing agricultural area could feed 200 million vegans. History would certainly suggest that rising agricultural productivity fuels population growth. Where’s the evidence that ‘nature’ would be the beneficiary here? There’s no theory of political economy behind George’s analysis to explain why maximising yields per hectare is the optimal agricultural choice.

3. And this sharp differentiation between farmland and ‘nature’ takes us into some murky terrain. As ecologist Joern Fischer has exasperatedly pleaded, people should stop using the simplistic duality of ‘land sparing’ versus ‘land sharing’ as the key trade-off in choosing between agroecosystems. In some situations it makes sense to increase productivity, in others to decrease it, and in others still productivity isn’t the main issue at all. Is it ecologically optimal to give over large areas completely to wilderness by developing intensive agriculture in concentrated areas, or is it better to create a matrix of less intensive agroecological corridors1? These are complex and context-specific questions. The land sparing/sharing debate echoes the ‘single large or several small’ nature reserve debate of the 1970s, on which Fischer says ecologists wasted a decade of research energy. He fears that we risk the same fate with the sparing/sharing debate. And on this point, George, you’re not helping. As you’ve said yourself it’s not a case of either/or – it’s a case of both/and, and of other things as well.

4. Besides which, the idea that by stopping farming we’re ‘returning land to nature’ is problematic because nature hasn’t left our farms – though I’ll admit that it’s flouncing towards the exit gate on some of them. If you want to appreciate, explore, or get to understand nature as recommended by the Ecomodernist Manifesto, all you need is a magnifying glass and a few teaspoonfuls of soil from the fields (though you’ll have to look harder on the intensive arable farms that George recommends…and if you live in the UK you’ll have to go a long way to find the soya farms he favours). But I don’t think this is the kind of nature George has in mind – there’s a sense at play in his article that there’s something intrinsically superior about a nature that’s uninhabited by humans, probably one with large iconic predatory mammals, than the kind of nature to be found on the average farm. But this, ironically, is surely something of a human affectation – there’s nothing in the fabric of the universe to say that a place that lacks humans is better than one that does not. I’m not against preserving tracts of true wilderness. But how to trade it off against human agroecosystems is not straightforward.

5. Here’s my take on that trade-off, however. A world with more wilderness and a stronger focus on large-scale, input-intensive arable farming is likely to be less stable, less sustainable and less nature-friendly than one with less wilderness and more small-scale, labour-intensive mixed organic farming. People in landscapes of the latter kind are more likely to actually inhabit them, and rely upon them. They therefore have a greater chance of recognising when their activities are having deleterious effects, and doing something about it. People in landscapes of the former kind don’t inhabit them and don’t enjoy this kind of feedback – mostly, they’re tourists, consumers or system functionaries who have less stake in overall system health. They’re shoppers in the aisle.

6. A farm is also a system, whose health needs to be safeguarded. Generally, growing the same handful of arable crops that give maximum yields of protein or carbohydrate year after year is not a good way of safeguarding farm or soil health. There’s a lot to be said for a cropland rotation that includes legume-rich grass leys. And if you grow legume-rich grass leys, then you should really grow some livestock too.

7. Not many people in the contemporary world can truly dwell in the house of ‘nature’ when it’s defined as per George and the ecomodernists as a habitat that isn’t a farm. Not many of us, that is to say, can hope to subsist by hunting and foraging. I don’t dismiss the benefits that we can derive from visiting these wild, not-farm places as tourists or TV viewers, but I don’t see it as a major plank of beneficial interaction with the biosphere for contemporary humanity either. A lot of us can, however, interact beneficially with animals as key species for our self-provisioning with food and fibre – a lot more of us than at present if government policies would only allow it. Many of us could raise bees, poultry or rabbits, and some of us could raise pigs, sheep and cattle. You want to interact with the beauties of nature and the mysteries of the universe? Let me put it like this – my own two most memorable animal encounters of this sort were watching a leopard kill an antelope, and helping birth a lamb for the first time from my small flock of sheep, a lamb that I later ate with friends and family. Both amazing, but one of them an essentially idle tourist spectacle, the other part of an ongoing, life-sustaining practice.

8. Identifying livestock farming as a primary cause of environmental degradation is largely a diversion. The real problems, as George has admirably documented in some of his other writings, are the gross disparities in the distribution of economic resources between people and between countries, and the abundance of polluting fossil energy. This includes the abundance of polluting fossil energy required to produce the synthetic fertilisers that help make the kind of arable yield figures George cites so impressive. Address those two problems, and livestock farming will find its appropriate level as part of our ecological solutions and not, as at present, part of our ecological problems2.

9. It seems rather early to be heralding artificial meat as the solution to our problems. As I understand it, at present it’s not even less energy-intensive than farmed meat. I don’t doubt that eventually it will be – though I hope we’ll keep an eye not only on its full life-cycle costs but also on its cascading social effects so that it doesn’t go the way of driverless electric cars and 3D printing as a cipher of ecomodernist argumentation of the form: “Efficient new technology X shows that time-honoured method Y must now be jettisoned”. George has written some great critiques of ecomodernism along such lines, so I can only think that his article strapline “as the artificial meat industry grows, the last argument for farming animals has now collapsed” was written by some hapless sub-editor, and not by the man himself. Say that it’s so, George!

10. Ecomodernists don’t like the precautionary principle, but I’m personally unwilling to substantially abandon it (just as a precaution, you understand). I’m unconvinced that artificial meat will prove to be the nutritional equal of its (well-)farmed counterparts any more than the margarines of the 1970s proved to be the nutritional equal of butter – and I suspect that people rich enough to buy farmed (or wild) meat will continue to do so, so that poor quality artificial meat will become the preserve of the poor (along with conflicted vegans). The result could be to add further fuel to the fire of the health gap between rich and poor, and with no net reduction of farmland in favour of ‘nature’. It doesn’t have to be that way…

11. I can’t help feeling that for want of any considered analysis of political economy the ecomodernists (and George in his offending article, though not elsewhere in his writings) are constructing a world that, in the unlikely event it works as intended, enables the wealthy few to experience wilderness, country living and proper meat, while the hoi polloi have to make do with various simulacra of the same, which are sugar-coated as ‘modern’, high tech and thus superior. Enough of this. Small Farm Future says cut out the fossil fuels, spread the land and its resources equitably and the livestock issue will sort itself out. Does that make for plausible policy? Well, maybe not for tomorrow, but perhaps for the day after tomorrow, at least in the Jared Diamond sense3. More plausible at any rate than ecomodernist narratives of nuclear-fuelled meat for all. In the meantime, we need to keep the farm skills and the bloodlines going, and stop the ethics of the shopping aisle from undermining proper ways of farming.

12. In moist climates like the UK there is often, to oversimplify, an ecological gradation and temporal progression from high-disturbance/high-nutrient habitats to low-disturbance/low-nutrient habitats. Human agriculture essentially involves trying to hold up that progression – stopping cropland from becoming grassland, and stopping grassland from becoming woodland. It does this because per acre crop yields are higher the closer you are to the high-disturbance/high-nutrient point of the progression – and, as George rightly suggests, crop yield is an important consideration. But it’s not the only one. Other considerations include crop and wild biodiversity, the nutritional properties of the food produced, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the ecosystems in question, and the work and other resource inputs involved in maintaining them. Again to oversimplify, I’d suggest that these considerations generally all point in the other direction, favouring grassland over cropland and woodland over grassland. And ultimately all of these considerations are subsumed into a wider one – what sort of life do we want to lead? It’s a complex set of trade-offs and not one that, in my opinion, lends itself to single and simple resolutions favouring more soya, more artificial meat, more urbanisation and more untrammelled wilderness of the kind George proposes.

13. This brings me to Marc Brazeau’s argument that the food movement should commit to sustainability based on metrics rather than to what he calls “feelings, hand waving and magical thinking”. Well…the notion that we can choose the kind of farms we want and therefore the kind of society we want based on quantitative metrics strikes me as magical thinking of the highest order – magical thinking of the same kind that leads George to proceed from soya yields to pronouncing the death of livestock farming. The questions we should be asking are how can I lead a good and meaningful life, how can I reconcile my answer with the different answers that other people come up with, and how might expected or unexpected future events complicate those answers? The notion that we can devise some kind of correct quantitative answer to these ineffable questions is, frankly, ludicrous – one born from the weird cult of the modern that thinks cost-benefit analysis or lifecycle analysis represents some kind of Solomonic truth. I don’t deny that such metrics have their uses, but not if they’re used to ‘prove’ a preconceived worldview, as I think is the case with both Brazeau’s and Monbiot’s interventions. So my first inclination is not to get caught up in these number wars. But I don’t like to duck a challenge, so let me stick my neck out and suggest a couple of metrics. First, take any contemporary farming method, then reduce its permissible fossil energy use by 99% from its current level and ask if it would be possible to continue farming more or less in the same way. Second, take any contemporary food retail method, then reduce the proportion of items produced more than 10 miles from the point of retail sale to a maximum of 1% and ask if it would be possible to continue farming in the area in more or less the same way. If the answer to either question is no, then my metrics would suggest that the extant farming system is probably not sustainable.

14. So there you have it. If you’re standing in the supermarket aisle and want to make the most sustainable choice – maybe listen to George and put that meat back on the shelf, but do try to support your local small-scale mixed organic farmers because someday you might need them. If you’re standing out on your field and want to make the most sustainable choice – don’t listen to George, and get yourself some livestock. If you want to think about food systems in the abstract and are seeking an appropriately precautionary food sustainability metric, I offer you the Small Farm Future 99/1 test. And if you’re George Monbiot – please don’t succumb to the dark side of the force. Go into the wilderness and let the devil tempt you if you must, but come back to us. We need you.

PS. In view of Miles King’s interesting comments below, I added a picture of an experimental wood pasture, Vallis Veg style.

Notes

  1. On this point see I.Perfecto et al. 2009. Nature’s Matrix, Earthscan.
  2. For an argument along these lines see S.Fairlie. 2016. ‘Meat tax’ The Land 19: 33-6.
  3. J.Diamond. 2013. The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies, Allen Lane.

61 thoughts on “Saving George Monbiot

  1. Very nice post, but I needed so little convincing it seemed like argument overkill. You had me by the middle of paragraph 1.

    The great advantage of pasture raised meat is the return on caloric investment for the farmer. Some pastoral societies are so ‘lazy’ that they skip virtually all horticulture and just concentrate on using animals to convert grass into protein and fat and live mostly on that. Its just one step up from hunting and gathering, which for some reason Monbiot forgets as the most ecologically benign way of getting food. It would be so nice if we could all be hunters and gatherers, but there are far too many of us for that now. Maybe even for all of us to be agrarian peasants, but that still looks like the best option available.

    I like your 99/1 test. It gets to the heart of the low rate of energy return on energy invested by those who practice industrial agriculture (and industrial meat production of any kind). As you point out, everyone talks yield and fails to mention where all the continuously depleting inputs are coming from.

    Monbiot doesn’t seem to realize that we rich world folk are eating fossil fuels. Ecomodernists may insist that we can switch to eating uranium, but I have my doubts about the sustainability of either of those two energy sources and I suspect Monbiot harbors the same doubts too. If he doesn’t, he hasn’t been paying attention.

    So going back to eating sunlight is very low risk and has a long and reliable track record. The trick is to get as many people to do it as soon as possible. They won’t then have to walk down the grocery aisle only to find that the shelves are empty.

  2. “tourists, consumers or system functionaries” – it’ll take courage for Modern/Urban Man to want to actively silence himself concerning what he thought he knew as “Nature”, and as farming as a process of going “at” Nature.

    For if that matrix of small-scale land use were fully functional, his guiding/manipulating role vis-a-vis it would cease to exist.

    Immanence. Hard to stomach for lifestyle buddhists.

  3. Another excellent and compelling post, as ever, Chris.

    If I may explore, very superficially, the psychology behind George’s trespass into the forbidden garden of Ecomodernism, it would be to point out this. George has been persuaded that herbivores are, on balance, bad.

    My theory goes that herbivores are primarily bad in nature – and have to be frightened into submission by Wolves and other predators. This is the so called “landscape of fear” theory beloved by trophic cascaders. The idea is that nature would return (by which they mean forest) to an area once the massively over-sized population of wild herbivores is brought to heel, by a combination of being eaten, and intimidation.

    The corollary of this “herbivore bad, carnivore good” dogma for nature, is that herbivores are also bad in Agriculture – they produce lots of methane; grasslands don’t really store any carbon, etc etc.

    Naturally these two arguments fit together, like a hand in a faux leather glove. Shift the national diet onto soya crunch, this will get rid of all those pesky sheep, wrecking the uplands of Britain: Nature (forest) will return.

    But there is another theory of rewilding, which is centred on the activity of – yes, you guessed it, herbivores. Frans Vera’s theories propose that there was no closed canopy natural wild forest in Europe. This is because large herds of herbivores (whose populations were primarily controlled by food availability and not predators) maintained a dynamic mosaic (kaleidoscope) of shifting forest, scrub, savannah and grassland.

    For the Vera-ites, wood pasture is the natural ecosystem across much of Europe. For them, herbivores are essential and good. I haven’t met any vegan Vera-ites. As the Vera view of what is natural is much closer to the pastoral landscapes that many cherish in Britain, it’s not surprising that Vera enthusiasts are also keen to support extensive livestock farming (ideally in park-like landscapes.)

    As to which hypothesis will in the end prove correct, well who can say? And it doesn’t really matter for the purposes of this debate. I just thought it might explain where, I think, George reached his current world view.

    • I’ve recommended Vera’s book to Chris on several occasions; yet has He read it 🙂 ?
      Vera-ites of course have little interest in forcing farmers to set up (cattle) deer parks, they have agroforestry systems to guide profitable farming.

  4. [Must admit, this reply got away from me, but hopefully some good items for thought buried in here…]

    Great post as always, Chris. Things have been crazy since my move to the UK, so I’ve actually had less chance to interact with you here (much less in real life) than before my move, but hope that will soon(ish) change, as my book comes out in January (unsubtle plug: Beginning to End Hunger, UC Press, Jan 2018! https://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520293090) and at least this phase of being overcommitted may yield to a new phase with new (over)committments.

    But that’s neither here nor there. One *incredibly* important thing I want to add to your point on quantitative metrics and, for example, Brazeau’s demand: what do we do when we lack good metrics? For example, as I’ve tried to tirelessly point out, Loevinsohn et al. (https://eppi.ioe.ac.uk/cms/Portals/0/PDF%20reviews%20and%20summaries/Agricultural%20technology%202012Loevinsohn%20protocol.pdf?ver=2012-12-12-104836-213) and related work (e.g. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.5367/oa.2016.0235) find that adoption literature has barely *any* transparently rigorous studies (6-12% of 214 studies closely examined; only 214 out of 22,000 studies screened were deemed suitable & of high enough quality of close examination).

    What are we to take from that? No-one I’ve met has interpreted it to mean that we need a whole-scale re-evaluation of all of our estimates of agricultural technology & adoption, even though I think Loevinsohn et al. are right (on their own terms). Many feel instead comfortable going with their pre-existing gestalt interpretation of the literature (or more accurately, what most of us have been told the literature says). And even if we take their work with a huge grain of salt with regards to yield, they point out that high-quality studies for anything *other than* yield are barely available at all. In other words, we simply don’t know with a high degree of certainty what affects what agricultural technologies have, in the abstract.

    How much biodiversity is conserved from smallholder farming vs. large-scale industrial farming? We don’t know and figuring out the causal connections is an active but very limited area of research. How many poor farmers are better helped via infrastructure and education as opposed to introduction of supposedly superior technology? *How much of “urbanization” is actually people moving into very small small “urban” areas (say, 20,000 – 40,000 people) as opposed to the cities we have in our mind’s eye? How much more “generative” are cities than a fully supported countryside? *How many farmer suicides are the result of the industrial agricultural treadmill?* What is the relative soil carbon advantages of different farming systems when you measure soil carbon to a significant depth and not just the first couple inches?

    For so many of these questions, we have fuzzy or non-existent answers, and these are mostly questions that *lend themselves* to quantification. Even if we take an informal, sloppy Bayesian approach, our interpretation of the voluminous but also extremely gap-ridden literature depends heavily on our priors and our theoretical framework (e.g., assumptions and values). Hell, “how many people could the world support if we are all vegans” already includes umpteen mechanistic assumptions about the world and an equal number of value judgments. There ARE no numbers to hand on how likely a large-scale switch to veganism is compared to, say, how likely a large-scale switch to a small farm future is. It is *riddled* with subjectivity, yet the likelihood is part of what makes the entire argument meaningful or not.

    This is to say nothing of the questions you raise about the *kinds* of interactions we have with nature, what we conceive of as nature, and what we conceive of as being worth saving (and for what reasons).

    Let us use numbers to inform us and to settle disagreements when we have agreed upon terms and measures. But we can’t pretend that numbers can substitute for such epistemological and ontological agreements, much less can resolve what values we prioritize and why. (For example, I wouldn’t be opposed to a numerical resolution to the costs versus benefits of precaution — say, lives saved with bold new technological advancement, versus lives damaged or ended through cavalier technologism — but to get to a number that would truly *mean* anything would actually mean compiling a huge amount of disparate data of varying quality from noncomparable sources PLUS accounting for uncertainties and inevitable large data gaps, plus numerous assumptions and counterfactuals… which is to say, I wouldn’t be opposed to meaningful numbers to help resolve the question, but I also question whether sufficiently meaningful numbers are *attainable*… which leaves us to competing values, subjectivities, prior assumptions, and inductive logic. Most unsatisfying, to a certain cant of mind, but unavoidable and, in a certain sense, freeing, if we must honestly discuss and compromise on competing values, rather than pretend that the need to do this can be avoided through what is an inescapably fanciful appeal to many numbers which don’t exist, some that can’t exist, and many that *should* exist but do not. Indeed, the politics of undone science is somewhere we could always use more voices advocating beyond expediency.)

    • Wow Jahi – you do get wound up… but I like this one; very much. Thanks for the Loevinsohn ref. Have taken a peek and see that I’ll need to spend some time digesting this one.

      cavalier technologism There’s a concept I can wrap my head around. Might just have to use the term in the future.

      It is interesting (to me at least) to step back from the debate for a second and observe us. One might safely assume that our forebears of 10,000 years ago didn’t cuss and discuss the relative merits or demerits of a pastoral lifestyle vs. hunting and gathering. No Bayesian priors were wanted, no carbon balance calculation, and likely no Nature vs Humankind concern beyond provision of food and safe lodging. They managed to muddle through with the resources to hand. All through the history of the world that Chris has presented we see SOME of the Homo sapiens managing to muddle through with the resources to hand. I emphasize ‘some’ because I find it an important point. Some of our forebears actively killed others; still others were enslaved mercilessly; some enslaved with a dollop of mercy (wage laborers for example). Many got horribly sick and died of issues we now routinely prevent.

      Going forward I expect ‘some’ of us will muddle through with the resources to hand – as has always been the case. The resources will change, and our ingenuity will continue to be tested. Predicting what our future selves will choose to do in the situations they will find themselves in when predicated merely upon the resources we can see right now is perhaps a worthy effort, but a fraught one. My own approach – to see what might be done with the current resources to hand, to modify them, to better understand how they work, might just offer our futures selves more opportunity.

      Thanks to Jahi’s link I now have one more tool in my toolbox for making a case – and a roadmap of how one might best use the tool. Very cool.

  5. Just one more example:
    On sparing/sharing, in “Ignoring Ecosystem-Service Cascades Undermines Policy for Multifunctional Agricultural Landscapes” (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fevo.2017.00109/full)
    “Since ecosystem
    services such as crop pollination depend on mobile organisms
    such as bees that may move between farms, a cost-efficient
    approach may require collaborative solutions as suggested above
    (Goldman et al., 2007). To do this we require good knowledge
    of the relationship between potential measures and outcomes on
    multiple indicators, but this knowledge is still often lacking.”

  6. Thanks for that speedy and interesting set of responses. And thanks for your Vera hypothesis hypothesis, Miles, which strikes me as plausible – and maybe also helps to explain the taste for big nature-scapes with scary predators that seems to go along with the enthusiasm for ‘soya crunch’. As to Michael’s question, it’s more a question of have I read Vera yet than yet have I read Vera. The answer in any case is ‘no’ – largely because it costs about fifteen veg boxes worth of profit to buy it. But I’m broadly familiar with the wider issues in this debate, as in Hairston’s ‘why is the world green’ and Murdoch’s ‘because it’s prickly and bad-tasting’, and maybe this is a context for my comments above on the resource/disturbance gradient. Hopefully I’ll get around to reading Vera some day – the only reference to him I recall in the ecological literature I’ve read is a few sniffy comments by Oliver Rackham. What’s the general estimation of his arguments within the wider ‘top-down/bottom-up’ debate?

  7. An interesting summary and rebuttal. Yet, Chris, as I read this I mutter to myself, much ado about nothing. History is not moving in a direction to likely favor any eco-modernist dreams. History will drive a “steak” through the heart of this hubristic nonsense. As Joe says, this fantasy is built on a diet of fossil fuels.

    But, if you insist on tilting at this particular windmill, Quixote, I’ll still continue to be your faithful “Panza” reader.

    BTW Michael, was Vera’s book published in English? I can’t find any online sources for it. If it was, I can try and get it on inter-library loan.

  8. Thanks for the further comments. To respond briefly:

    Jahi – thanks for those interesting thoughts & references, and congratulations on your book. I look forward to reading it…

    Miles/Michael – thanks also for the Vera link. I look forward to reading that too, now that my excuses are wearing out. But crikey, it’s even longer than one of my blog posts! I’d be interested to look at any secondary literature around this too if anyone can suggest anything – including your article Miles, if you could email it to me?

    Brian – as I see it, George is the Don Quixote figure here and I’m his Sancho Panza! I think he’s a bit too focused on the struggles and fantasies of the past (like maximising crop yields and technological solutionism) and he needs a faithful squire to point him in the right direction. I can see the case, also put by Vera (not THAT Vera, the other one…), for studiously ignoring all this ecomodernist babble, but the trouble is a lot of people are persuaded by it (the more so if an influential outsider like George starts dabbling in it) even though, as you rightly say in my opinion, history isn’t moving in that direction. The likely result someday will be an even bigger crisis than we’re already going to face, so I feel the need to do what I can…

    …which brings me to Clem – I’d argue that human societies have always been in crisis, and always involve tensions between people pushing in different directions, most likely including in different ecological directions, although the evidence doesn’t always remain for later generations to find. But some crises are worse than others, and as I see it the one we presently face is of such proportions that unfortunately we do have to cast our thinking far into the future, even though we know from humanity’s past track record that predicting the future is something we’re not good at. On that basis, I’d argue that it’s a very bad idea to abandon tried-and-tested methods of farming in favour of an emerging one on the grounds that the latter may possibly maximise just one or two out of the numerous variables of interest.

    • I’m not one to abandon tried-and-tested either. But I’m also not going to give up and conclude the end is nigh. We can find other solutions, even though possible new avenues may not help all humankind. I actually imagine there will be (as there already are to a large extent) many different types and styles and scales of agriculture. The determining factors will relate to the natural features of the landscape, climate, and other aspects (elevation, latitude, and so forth). Human wants, needs, and ‘fashions’ will also impact how food provision will take place – much like it already does.

      I forgot earlier to offer that the 99/1 metric is an interesting concept. I’m not sold it must be that tight (90/10 could suffice perhaps) but I do like the notion of taking the conversation in that direction.

  9. Good stuff, as I’ve come to expect here.

    I particularly like the ‘ethics of the shopping aisle’ meme. I can foresee this gaining some traction and being a very useful talking point going forward.

    I do want to have a tilt at your #5.
    5. Here’s my take on that trade-off, however. A world with more wilderness and a stronger focus on large-scale, input-intensive arable farming is likely to be less stable, less sustainable and less nature-friendly than one with less wilderness and more small-scale, labour-intensive mixed organic farming. People in landscapes of the latter kind are more likely to actually inhabit them, and rely upon them. They therefore have a greater chance of recognising when their activities are having deleterious effects, and doing something about it. People in landscapes of the former kind don’t inhabit them and don’t enjoy this kind of feedback – mostly, they’re tourists, consumers or system functionaries who have less stake in overall system health. They’re shoppers in the aisle.

    I see the trade-off and agree it exists. What I don’t see is the connection of dots between input intensive being a-priori less sustainable. Given the assumption that input intensive requires more fossil fuel… then some dots fall in line. But I’m not convinced the latter assumption is the only way one can envisage a potential future. Large scale monocultures were accomplished prior to diesel engines.

    And unless I’m misunderstanding you, there are folk living on the land in the areas that are currently being farmed on such enormous scales (at least here in the States). Operators – regardless of whether they are owners or tenants… operators are close by and likely have been most of their life. I agree there is a significant association with knowledge of place and ability to effectively husband the resource. I don’t see this being a liability in the present system.

  10. “I agree there is a significant association with knowledge of place and ability to effectively husband the resource. I don’t see this being a liability in the present system.”

    Could you expand on that, Clem? I have heard many large- and medium-scale farmers, themselves, saying that they don’t have the kind of intimate knowledge of place that other approaches to agriculture might engender; and spokespeople for farmers repeatedly insist that a certain kind of farmer they work with does just want to sit in a cab and press the right buttons to make it go, without having to concern themselves overmuch with detailed knowledge-based agriculture.

    Surely, that is a caricature of many (US) farmers; but just as surely, it is accurate in some cases and partly true in many more. It seems to me active and effective resource husbandry is without a doubt something that is continuously undermined by the current system. Do I misunderstand your meaning here?

    (This is not to say today’s large-scale US farmers are ignorant; rather, I think they have developed a whole different set of knowledges pertaining to navigating the industrial ag system; but this system seeks to continually minimize–“de-skill”–the craft of farmwork with the land, instead of treating it as a homogeneous input. Or, with “precision” farming, attempting to *create* a homogeneous input through detailed but somewhat opaque machinery and calculations.)

    • Short on time so may need to come back to this, but here goes…

      I would certainly agree that as the scale of an operation increases there will be less intimate knowledge of the resource – and here I’m particularly referring to soil properties. And I will also agree there are all sorts of farmers, still a few million in the US – some might fit your “… sit in a cab and press the right buttons …” demeanor. But there are also those who have been on a piece of ground their whole life, they intend to leave it to their progeny, they care about what it can do and the legacy they’ll leave. When forced to make management decisions under duress and choose between poor and poorer options you can feel their distress. These are the folk I want husbanding the land. Could they do an even better job if they were only taking care of half the resource? Probably. Given current economic realities though I’m guessing several would opt to leave agriculture altogether rather than suffer the cut in pay associated with halving their income.

      Precision agriculture – like most any new technology – could be used to short cut and avoid dealing with some issues. But I know of many situations where precision based techniques actually assisted long term farmers “see” situations they may have never been aware of (or confirm situations they may have only guessed were there). PA is still evolving in the areas where I travel most. It has its apostles and its naysayers. I look for it to be a positive over time.

      I know a farm family in Henry County, OH who has been on their plot for 5 generations now. The now retiring 4th generation farmer can tell you about how that soil has been farmed since the turn of the 20th century – by word of mouth from his father and grandfather. He does have a combine with some fascinating features. But his grandfather started out without any fossil fuel. You stand in Larry’s back yard and he points across the field to the house where he and his father were born. Grandpa was born a mile south. Hard to get much more intimate with the land here in the US.

      • Clem, I’m also short on time as – appropriately enough – I’m at a conference on how to extend small-scale agroecological farming. But a quick answer would be, yes, fossil fuel intensive inputs are key and hopefully that joins some dots. But even leaving fossil fuels asides, most inputs other than pure public goods are costs, and many of them are external costs in the present system. Technically, I’d say you’re right that higher input intensity isn’t intrinsically associated with lower sustainability. But in practical terms, at least at a society-wide level, I’d say it generally is. I’d also suggest that this applies to pre-industrial agriculture. I’d be interested to debate this further, but it may have to wait a couple of days.

        • Clem – “there will be less intimate knowledge of the resource” – I’d even say there will be a lot less resources to gain knowledge about, resources being parts that come into existence/become visible in more complex farming systems but have no place where shifting baselines rule.

          The modern farmer may be eager to learn, but how much is still THERE for him to learn about?

          • Michael – help me out here… I’m thinking there might actually be MORE resources if we can successfully move toward a small farm future. One resource we’ve been assuming we’ll lose (or suffer far less availability of) would be fossil fuel. But I can’t imagine the last guy with a can of gasoline will tip it over, find it empty, shrug his shoulders and offer “Now we die”.

            So we lose one power source (and perhaps with good riddance), but other power sources exist. We already know about several, and even though it’s not popular in these parts to suggest we might be clever enough to create others (ecomodernism and all that)… I’m betting those who’d rather not roll over and die will muddle through. It’s what we do. Once you’ve picked all the low hanging fruit you either climb the tree or get a ladder. Starving is for the other guy.

            But what sorts of ‘apples’ might still be up there in that fruit tree? Algae, sea weeds of many types, insects, and more. And I’m not suggesting we eat these things (though examples of edibles from such a list do exist) but more that we employ these resources as needed. So I’m guessing there will be more resources than we are currently using.

          • What I was getting at is that complexity multiplies resources, both in the traditional sense of having things like fuel and fibre close to home and as what was forgotten with the shift towards big ag, like pest protection that’s integrated without having to have a title like IPM.
            Once you’re abandoning that, expecting resources to come from somewhere out there, they are truly stretched

  11. Chris, Monbiot-saving paragraph #1 hits on your big assumption, the one which puts you most at odds with ecomodernism, and colors all that you write, that of a “likely low-energy future.” Here, I think that you are wrong, and also hope that you are wrong, for if you are right, then dieoff.com, overshoot, etc. are our future. Your vision of future agriculture will not work for the population we currently have, nor for the projected 11 billion, especially in a low-energy future. Meat vs. no-meat, extensive vs. intensive livestock production, none of this will matter if a low-energy future is what we are facing.

    • Hi Andy, nice to hear from you again. Your remarks provide a good opportunity for me to try to clarify where I’m coming from, which I think isn’t quite what you say – though you can certainly put that spin on it. As I see it, there is a very wide spectrum of future energy possibilities from a world of almost limitless availability to one of almost nothing and all points in between. Whatever energy scenario actually transpires, I think the kind of small-scale, local organic farming scenarios I construe here are the most sensible way to go regardless, more or less, because I think other possibilities create greater problems. That’s not to say that I think local organic farming will solve all our problems in and of itself – I see it rather as a more or less necessary but not sufficient condition. But if it turns out that future energy availability is high, it becomes harder to see how a local organic farming future will emerge. And if we’re to achieve such a future, it seems to me that we’d need to be building out a far greater amount of renewable energy infrastructure than we are right now, so my punt is on a lower energy future – and since this supports the kind of farming I’m advocating I guess that does tend to shape my focus towards low energy, local and organic approaches. Regarding the plausibility of what I advocate, I’d concede that if there’s a rapid descent towards the bottom end of the energy availability spectrum, or if various other disturbances such as major climate change, political breakdown or pandemics occur, then indeed few of the issues I discuss on here will matter. And that seems a serious possibility, but not one that I yet see as foreordained. Where I disagree with you is your view that my vision of future agriculture won’t work for the population we currently have, or for 11 billion. I’d argue on the contrary that our present agriculture won’t work and isn’t working for the current population or for a larger one in the future, but a localised more or less organic one just might, provided that a lot more people are involved in it and provided that we start implementing it now. I’d accept that the margins are narrow, though, and the odds against are stacked quite high, which is why I wish George wouldn’t further add to them.

      • I’d argue on the contrary that our present agriculture won’t work and isn’t working for the current population or for a larger one in the future,

        I’m not convinced the present system isn’t working. There certainly are some significant issues and you’ve pointed to many. And perhaps my personal definition of agriculture is so different it allows me a rosier assessment. For instance, I don’t fault our agricultural system for enormous losses due to human wastage. I’d further shield Ag. from political foibles where existing food supplies are held hostage by some humans in their attempts to exert control over others. But food today is incredibly inexpensive. This market reality alone stands in the way of our attempts to move toward a different future. If there were some way to incentivize or reward folk for doing something more than discuss the possible futures (such as we’re doing here) then solutions might start to materialize.

        Sure, the longer term potential to produce food given the energy intensive model we’re spoiled on now does make our current system suspect.

        • By what metric is today’s system “working”? I mean, any system that exists is “working” in the fact that it exists. “Producing lots of food at high human and environmental cost” doesn’t fit my definition of working, or at least, not working *well*. And indeed, the costs to health of (largely, but not exclusively) pesticides and fertilizers is significant; I would say even if we stipulated that this was the best system we know how to do at this point (which I don’t think is true), it wouldn’t meet my definition of “working” because of the damage to people and the environment it causes. Most estimates of total natural capital costs of agriculture put the social costs at 30 – 120% of the “sticker price.” A system with so much of its costs off the books also doesn’t strike me as “working.” Etc.

          I also don’t see it as a “market reality” that food is incredibly inexpensive… it is a result of conscious socio-political decisions (such as, for the most part, in the Global North) shielding farmers from the full impacts of overproduction. It is a result of what I call in my book the “the upside-down Fordism of the ‘low wage social contract'” (cf. Freedman and Lind 2013: https://www.newamerica.org/economic-growth/policy-papers/beyond-the-low-wage-social-contract/).

          I also don’t see how one can judge the ag system separately from the rest of the system. The decisions made in agriculture reflect numerous other decisions–for example, the immense resources spent to promote the Green Revolution, including advertising and propaganda (https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/War_and_Nature.html?id=pDW4YNkmvZYC and https://global.oup.com/academic/product/geopolitics-and-the-green-revolution-9780195110135?cc=gb&lang=en&).

          If we ignore sociopolitical considerations, it seems to me that many, many ag systems “work well”. The current one doesn’t stand out to me even in these terms… Thinking, at least, about famines, Mike Davis amply documents the ways in which many of the most significant in India, Brazil, and China resulted more from political systems than ag systems or weather (https://www.versobooks.com/books/2311-late-victorian-holocausts). So by that definition, all of those systems “worked well” 150 years ago, no?

          • Yep – any system that exists AND performs as designed is working. Mere existence doesn’t imply operating capability. But food production on planet Earth at the hands of Homo sapiens is occurring.

            To your point of whether the system is working well… well that is a different issue isn’t it? Before we get too wrapped up in a food fight we need to acknowledge that failure to produce food (i.e., a system NOT working) is undesirable. So undesirable in fact that societies and governments over time have built (quite deliberately IMHO) the system we now argue about so that failure to procure food is rare. There is also a time sensitive aspect to this. A novel approach to food production may promise a better ecological outcome, but if the larder goes empty…

            So my point is that the system we live in today works. I did not suggest it works well, and further I did not suggest we should abandon any effort to make it better. I did suggest that due to the rather low market value attached to food that our current system does not offer rewards to anyone attempting to change matters. You may not see this as a market reality, but run out and avail yourself of some agricultural resources (some land, seed, labor, etc.) and once you’ve raised a crop and sold it, come back and offer a few paragraphs on how upside-down Fordism prevented you from enjoying the experience.

            The thread originally suggested the system to hand won’t work without fossil fuels (and as aside Chris demurred that even the present system isn’t working). I objected to the latter but, with qualification, acknowledge that without fossil fuels it will be far more difficult to provide food for 7 billion (or for the likely additions of billions more) in the manner that most food is currently produced.

            To the quality of the food produced – excellent point. But here again it appears the market system we live under, where individuals choose between various food products and entertainment to the extent that quality food products are ignored for the cheaper, faster, more convenient *stuff* that fills a belly for the least cost so that more time can be spent with a little electronic gadget to hand… I can’t blame a farmer for that. Can you?

            To the holistic consideration of the human experience. I do want to side with you here. But even on this matter I’m not convinced any of us as an individual is capable of considering the whole of the system in any manner that approaches a satisfactory result. I hope that doesn’t sound defeatist – I don’t mean it that way. Food production can be accomplished many different ways, it isn’t always accomplished as we might hope. But so long as it is accomplished it offers us a chance to reflect on how we might proceed. Empty stomachs and all that.

            To your last paragraph – I appreciate your point, in fact I take it as evidence for my point… ag systems as they have evolved over time are quite robust. Political systems (which also evolve over time) share blame for short comings.

            So I’ll stick by my previous statements – the current system works. Could it work better? Yes. Will the system change for the better because we ‘think’ it should? I respect the power of thought… but I’d like to hope the thinkers have had breakfast.

          • For some resson couldn’t respond directly to your last post, Clem. But I don’t think we disagree on major points here. I guess I don’t find it terribly semantically interesting to equate “working” with “existing”, and you say you mean more than existing, you mean operating as designed… but that ignores the question “designed by whom, for what?” I don’t take the world to be so straightforward as to see the current system as the simple outcome of singular design. It has stumbled into being, disproportionately influenced by powerful vested interests, resisted by both people and nature, designed and re-designed and re-jiggered by people well-meaning, people amoral, and even people sinister. The system is not working as it was “designed” because there is no singular design document, manifesto, or committee. So I think it is vastly insufficient to the true origins of the current system to say it exists, and is performing as designed. It produces food, sure… and tons of wastes and negatives that it was not “designed” to produce but rather that many vested interests don’t care about or would rather not pay attention to. And insofar it was designed, it was designed to create political stability and profit, with food being a handy tool to do so.

            As far as markets and cheapness, what I mean to say is that food is not cheap by the “real” costs — real even in the light of modern economics, which admits the existence of externalities but dislikes the messy business of believing in them. It is “cheap” at the point of payment *for the many of us with a middle and upper-low income status*. It is, of course, not at all cheap for the around 1-2 billion who can’t afford the foods they might like, or the foods that might best or even sufficiently nourish them. I decline to call a system “cheap” that is unaffordable to 12% of the world or so, and that exacts so many costs on so many people (farmers included).

            I don’t blame farmers much for any of these things.

            I wish for thinkers to have had breakfast, indeed. And the fact that many would-be thinkers do not have sufficient breakfast (or lunch or dinner) to me makes somewhat irrelevant the fact that the food system produces food. To call that “working” — “the food system produces food that some people are fortunate enough to have the wherewithal to eat” — it just seems like an empty definition of “working” that I don’t see the point in terming it thus. It exists, and works according to the designs of some and against the designs of others. Why reduce all that complexity to “working”?

          • Jahi,
            Thanks for coming back… I’ll continue this reply at the end of the comment thread to give it more space…

  12. Hi Chris,
    I remain in awe of your capacity for engaging such proponents of ecomodernist ideals on their own terms. I do not have that kind of patience. Although I do have some very strong urges that I identify in myself as likely the root of much ecomodernist thought. Thankfully, reality’s grip on me has been just strong enough to prevent my falling head-first into that murky pool.

    That is to say that I believe a major underpinning of ecomodernist thinking is the strong urge to keep one’s self from getting dirty. Thus the ‘supermarket ethic’ of shiny vinyl tiled floors and orderly rows of tidy packages, and the whole economy that supports such things. The vegans are correct; this shiny façade hides the dirt and manure and death inherent in our modern diet. Interestingly, it makes the copious energy usage much more obvious, but almost no one seems to see that. But vegans are confused if they think that it is possible to fully eliminate the dirt and death from our sustenance. Dirt and death are just the nutrient cycle in action.

    And why is this urge to cleanliness such a strong motive in the first place? I get it, I don’t like killing animals, and I don’t like handling their dead bodies, and fear of mosquitoes and chiggers* keeps me indoors much to the detriment of my garden. Still, I have the idea that it goes beyond mere squeamishness. I think this is yet more flailing to prop up the idea that we are outside of Nature. A visceral rejection of any inkling that we become part of that nutrient cycle.

    If I thought there was any hope in reasoning against that conviction maybe I would rouse myself to argue with an ecomodernist, in some shadow of the way you do.

    That is, I am pleased that you have not given up all hope.

    * Nasty: http://dailyparasite.blogspot.com/2010/05/may-28-eutrombicula-alfreddugesi.html

    • Thanks Eric. It is indeed a pointless exercise engaging in dispute with the average ecomodernist, but George is different – more along the lines of an (influential) friend going through a wayward patch, I hope.

      I don’t want to engage in vegan-bashing, but I do agree with you that there often seems to be a curious dialectic (part of nature/not part of nature) at the heart of the position.

      You have chiggers too? Yeah, they suck…

      • Yes, sorry, I didn’t mean to sound vegan-bashing.

        I was thinking more of the motives underneath certain urban lifeways. There are plenty of earthy vegans out here on the college town – rural fringe.

    • @ Eric
      Just a short question: As from My net activities I know only one Chris who realizes what the nutrient cycle and openly says that to all those aesthetics vegans.
      Is it you Mr. Gaza ?

  13. Just to add to my comments above – first, the 99/1 metric was inspired by Kate Raworth’s book where she argued that ‘developed’ economies may have to reduce their emissions by 10% annually to avoid dangerous climate change, which would take us to something like 1% of present emissions not long after 2050. But hell I’ll go with 10% – anything’s better than the present. Also, I’ve just got a copy of Vaclav Smil’s new book on global energy history – I haven’t read it yet, but he seems to be arguing that it’s an open question whether we can build out a renewable energy infrastructure in time, and since he’s an energy expert who isn’t especially sympathetic to green-tinged doomsters, that seems interesting. But I’ll report back further when I’ve read it.

  14. Thanks 4 the art, I got know about Monbiots’ article on Facebook and.. my first thought was of you. Well … not personally you but rather about the manner way you are going to discredit his malignous image.

    Herewith I’d officially like to apply for the citizenship of your peasant republic – in case Monbiot and those tech cornutopians
    – will want to convert me to a GM soya bean and artificial meat eater. So that mather England could withstand those 200 milions beings.

  15. Thanks for the further comments. I’m still away at the conference with limited time, but Jahi has done a good job of picking up the gauntlet in the competing food systems thread above. Perhaps I’ll come back to this another time…

    Jura, I have a team working on citizenship issues for the peasant’s republic. Entrance requirements are rigorous, but I’m confident you’ll qualify. Teams of inspectors will be posted at the borders, checking for the smuggling of illicit substances such as artificial meat.

    • I can not recall when and as to what kind of stuff but I’m sure we had previously touched the topic of smuggling 🙂 in our comment exchange.

      Given a chance I’m applying for the inspector vacancy.
      I’d ensure a total imperviousness of our PR’s borders to artificial meat, GMos, and cornucopians ideas.
      I’m afraid thou I’d soon start some opposition movement propagating hunter gatherer life style as the only sustainable one and we shall rewild our overfarmed land :).
      As I’m of the opinion that it is not us who domesticated wheat but it is the wheat that domesticated us.

  16. Thanks for an interesting read – I don’t need convincing either that we need to eat less meat/dairy or that the current model of large scale arable farming is ecologically disastrous. I do worry sometimes that I mostly read what I already agree with – a problem of our times.

  17. I find the same flaw in argument from Monbiot as I do from the hardened Jetsonians like Phillips.
    Fine, George. If you want us to stop eating meat, what is your plan? I am not aware of any durable agriculture system that has not incorporated animals. So, if we are going to have sustainable agriculture without animals, how are we going to do it?
    Agrichemicals derived from fossil fuels? But they are depleting and therefore not sustainable, and furthermore, George himself argues we need to slash fossil fuel use to near zero.
    What is his plan?
    Phillips similarly fulminates—with the sad addition that, when it is pointed out his plan is exactly the same plan as the neoliberal multinational plan, says we will wrest control of agriculture for the people through “struggle”.
    If, for the first time, we are going to eject global megacorps from an industry they dominate, perhaps we should do that before we put the fox in the henhouse?
    What is his plan?
    I think Andrew, on this page, puts it succinctly:
    “Here, I think that you are wrong, and also hope that you are wrong, for if you are right, then dieoff.com, overshoot, etc. are our future. Your vision of future agriculture will not work for the population we currently have, nor for the projected 11 billion, especially in a low-energy future. Meat vs. no-meat, extensive vs. intensive livestock production, none of this will matter if a low-energy future is what we are facing.”
    The argument is that the future is too horrible to face, therefore you must be wrong.
    Not that the facts contradict you. Not that your analysis is flawed. Just that the conclusions are overwhelming.
    So, if you are a firefighter responding to a horrific blaze which has trapped hundreds of people inside a burning building, should you throw your hands in the air and collapse to your knees, sobbing?
    Or should you pull one or two people out, maybe even three or four?
    I think it is true that no physically possible agricultural system can sustainably feed a human population of 11 billion, or nine, or fifteen.
    Should we then just resign ourselves to relentless depletion of our soils and ecosystems, along with the nonrenewable resources we consume along the way, until finally starvation hits the 11 billion full in the face?
    I think it is wiser to begin the transition to sustainable agriculture as early as possible, and spread that as widely as possible. Yes, we may not feed 11 billion that way, but we will feed a lot more than we will if we let the technorapturists shepherd us over the cliff of their own denial.

    • This is a relatively minor aside, but you seem to be setting up a false dichotomy, Ruben. Regardless of historical precedent, domesticated animals are no more essential to agriculture than are fossil fuel derived fertilizers, pesticides, etc. As Will Bonsall of Khadigar Farm in Maine demonstrates, one can practice organic, sustainable, and productive agriculture without any inputs from domesticated animals (he goes so far as to argue that it’s actually more efficient to remove animals from the system).

      • Sincere thanks for that Ernie. It is great to see actual examples of human-powered, animal-free agriculture.

        But when we are discussing the future of several billion people, I don’t think we should dismiss historical precedent so quickly.

        As Nassim Nicholas Taleb points out, with statistical analysis, the longer something has has endured is a powerful predictor of how long it will continue to endure. (The math can be found in his book Antifragile)

        So, when we have examples of multi-millennia farming systems, there is a good chance those systems can function for several more millennia.

        So, I am impressed by Will Bonsall, but also find his prescription of self-sufficiency to be across my comfort line. He proclaims himself uninterested in producing a surplus for sale, which means we have no data to determine how much surplus could be generated with his system.

        And I don’t want, nor do I think there is any chance of a society adopting an agricultural system that only provides subsistence for each farmer.

        When we look at things at the society scale, we see how cultures have dealt with hilly ground and other marginal areas, how they trade seafood, and mined products like salt. We see how they have dealt with lean years and flush years. I find this a more useful picture of what our future may look like.

        Which is why I am such a fan of our host’s analysis. His peasant farmers are trying to create surplus sustainably, so that a portion of the people can feed the whole, while the other people do the work that Bonsall is not doing, like weaving cloth for his clothes; mining, refining, and manufacturing his metal shovels; logging and milling wood for his buildings; floating glass for his windows, et cetera.

        So, I am in no way disparaging Bonsall. In fact, I lionize Ralph Borsodi, who also advocated not farming for the market (and also weaved his own cloth).

        But I don’t yet find this convincing as a model for societal transition.

        • A model. Indefinite article. Possibly one of several (hopefully many). Convincing? Perhaps not. Or at least not yet.

          I see no harm in allowing – yea even encouraging someone else to have a go at trying different approaches. So it appears I’m agreeing with Ruben at least tangentially. Keeping a marvelous photo of a thousand year old olive tree close to hand…

          But (and you knew there had to be a BUT)… are we actually looking for just one model? Chris has some fairly bounded ideas – and yes he is not writing a concrete recipe with only one manner of preparation – but he’s focusing on a relatively small geography, and a specific set of circumstances. Nothing wrong with that – prevents the exercise being even more unwieldy than it is. What I’m pondering is whether it wouldn’t serve to open the window even wider and see what (or where) other things can be accomplished.

          And there’s been a fair amount of this happening here already. Ernie and Ruben’s comments just now are good examples. Lots of other examples could easily be mined from the depths of SFF. Sure, some directions seem doomed. But creative ideas are seldom born of new cloth.

          Experimenting with lots of different political systems, technologies, geographies, farming systems, markets, customs, and other influences. Wouldn’t it be great if we had this enormous planet to experiment with… you know, lots of different environments, different peoples enjoying different diets. That would be fantastic. And it would be great if there were some way to share experiences all across this magical planet in seconds. You could have a thought in the middle of the night in Wessex and within seconds folk in British Columbia could be reading about it. Wow, feel like I must be dreaming. Not sure I want to wake up.

        • Thanks Ruben, Clem & Ernie – an interesting direction of the debate at farm system & food system level.

          At farm system level, I haven’t looked at Bonsall’s work though I’ve heard of it – maybe someone could give me a reference? But I’ve thought quite a lot & experimented with this issue. I guess I’d distinguish between garden and farm scale. At garden scales, I’d agree that it’s possible to do without livestock and indeed that they can be more of a nuisance than a benefit. Even so, I’d suggest that if you’re producing your full subsistence horticulturally without direct or indirect fossil fuel subsidies you have to work pretty hard on fertility and pest management, and livestock can help – even full-on garden cultures like those of the South Pacific historically have used livestock (pigs). On farm scales, I’d say that it’s quite impossible to manage a farm effectively without livestock unless you have a large exogenous energy input (tractors, fertilisers etc.) Over the years, my thinking has gravitated more towards the self-provisioning garden than the commercial farm end of the spectrum for various reasons, one of them certainly being the difficult economics of producing food sustainably/ethically for market in the present political economy. However, I agree with Ruben that producing food for market is ultimately necessary, and in a different political economy it might not be so hard.

          Which brings us to food system issues. I agree with Clem that there’s scope for systems in the plural, for experimentation, for adaptation to the local, and for pluralism. On the face of it, these are all things that our capitalist political economy should foster – its ideological self-presentations are usually replete with words like ‘freedom’, ‘choice’, ‘individualism’, ‘innovation’, ‘independence’, ‘pluralism’ and so on. But the reality of the food system is entirely otherwise, and the ideological experience of those of us trying to develop local, small-scale, agroecological approaches often seems more typically one of ridicule for being retrograde, over-idealistic or unrealistic relative to overall demands than one of praise for experimenting. I guess all I’d add is that most parts of the world historically have developed tolerably sustainable mixed agricultures based on low energy inputs to furnish local needs, and we could do worse than learning from their example. I don’t think that those systems or the kinds of approaches I advocate on this site have all the answers, but I think their relentless marginalisation from mainstream debate is a mistake, quite possibly a civilisationally catastrophic one.

          • Thanks Simon – I just had a look at your interview with him. There’s little I’d disagree with in his comments. I’d even agree that agrarian systems ‘predicated’ on livestock are often problematic (though not always, as in various grassland pastoral systems). The issue is what ‘predicated’ means – here I’m essentially arguing for what Simon Fairlie calls ‘default’ livestock, systems which aren’t ‘predicated’ on livestock but use them to improve efficiency. However, I’d concede that it’s easy for them to have the opposite effect.

          • Hear hear, George deserves saving though I have disagreed with him a number of times.

            As for restorative ag without animal manure, bah. Even fanatical composter Jeavons argues for humanure, and ain’t we animals?

            As for feeding 11 billion, fuggetaboutit. The elites are planning a cull. After all, only the most psychopatic among them don’t care about saving some land under their feet, not to even mention water to drink.

  18. Oh good. I was waiting for a comeback on that Monbiot article. Two comments.

    First, I suspect there is a bit of contrarian streak in George M – I don’t know him personally (although he did once walk into a shop where I was buying some groceries – although I was tempted to go over and Be A Fan, I’m too cool for that) – but in a previous burst of controversy about nuclear power, Jonathan Porritt, who I suspoect does know him, implied that basically, he just loves a good ruck. and of course, there are the hidden demand characteriostics of being a well-known columnist and thinker – you have to keep on producing new ideas.

    (I might add that I don’t see anything at all wrong in having contrarian tendencies, as they can – in context – indicate a healthy intellectual adventurousness).

    Less frivolously Chris, can I say how much I agree with your paragraph 7 because it implicitly hits at what I term “wilderness snobbery” – the natural worlds should not be somewhere you have to take a trip to see.

  19. I’m now back from the increasingly unfamiliar world of face-to-face interaction, and can return to the spectral realm of online debate. Thanks for keeping it going in my absence.

    Collectively you’ve opened several lines of interesting discussion, but I’ll try to keep my comment fairly brief and maybe return to this another time. I guess it was Andy McGuire who really got the ball rolling with his comment that “Your vision of future agriculture will not work for the population we currently have”, to which I responded that our present agriculture won’t work and isn’t working. I’ll nod to the semantics raised by Clem and Jahi – yes, at one level a system is ‘working’ by virtue of existing. A point to make here is that our present food system includes a large component globally of home gardening, peasant farming, foraging, and organic fertility husbanding, as well as more formalised agroecological and organic approaches (how large is hotly debated…) so by the lights of that discussion, these methods are also ‘working’. But of course the formal agricultural sector is dominated by a small number of crops which are typically macronutrient-dense (but not necessarily ‘nutritious’), storable, transportable, processable and therefore highly tradable – and agronomic research, government agricultural intervention, and costly (in the widest sense) inputs are disproportionately devoted to these crops. To my way of thinking, this approach is unlikely to prove ecologically sustainable in the long-term, even if high levels of clean renewable energy are realised, and it also has numerous social and political negatives associated with it. Therefore I’d argue that it ‘doesn’t work’. I’m not against technical innovations in our existing energy or agricultural infrastructures that make them potentially more sustainable – but I am against the notion that the only problems we face are technical. Presumably, Andy thinks that my vision won’t work because he doubts that the kind of agriculture I favour can fill the shoes of the current mainstream, non-renewable input-intensive, commodity-crop agriculture. That may prove correct, but I’m not sure how he or anyone else can be so sure.

    What would interest me is not so much ‘metrics’ as ‘parameters’ for this discussion. Two key ones for me, which are related, are human labour and the politics of land. A lot of discussions – for example about the productivity of ‘organic’ vs ‘conventional’ agriculture – make assumptions about labour and energy inputs based on current profiles, but I see no need to limit myself thus. As Clem says, people strive hard not to starve, and a world of 5/7/9/11 billion agricultural workers looks very different to our present one because human labour is an extraordinarily productive input. OK, at some level there are physical/biological/ecological limits but I’m not sure anyone really knows what they are in a future labour-intensive agrarian world. So here I agree with Michael that complexity multiplies resources. The main limiting factor as I see it currently isn’t energy or acreage but social and political systems that don’t give people access to the land, water and social networks they need in order to realise a small farm/agroecological/neo-agrarian society, along with a whole lot of ideological baggage that seeks to ridicule such possibilities. However, if we continue to do no more than fiddle ineffectually with our presently dominant agricultural-economic order, then it seems to me likely that the main limiting factors will probably become climate change, energy crisis, water pollution, political breakdown and the various other horse-riders that exercise the apocalyptically-minded. A parameter for this discussion that I wouldn’t set a lot of store by is the current market price of food – though I agree with Clem that it’s a considerable impediment to food system change nonetheless.

    Sorry not to further acknowledge the interesting comments of various other people above – however, after two days away I feel the need to practise what I preach and go and apply some labour to my farm.

    • I will resist the semantic definition of working.

      It is exactly like pulling the head off an engine and dumping a handful of sand into the cylinders, then bolting the head back on and starting the car.

      Yes, the engine will fire, and the car will drive, thus performing its designed task.

      But only for a few minutes. Then the engine will seize, or explode; the car will never drive again and the engine will be unrepairable.

      And so we roll down the road with some people saying the car is working, and other people saying that science, experience, and observation of the sounds and shakes emanating from under the hood make it quite clear our future is numbered in minutes.

      So, we can keep arguing semantics, or some of us can bail out of the juddering soon-to-be wreck and set about thinking of other transportation.

      The Bright Green response is electric cars—No cylinders to fill with sand!—ignoring all the sand-filled engines multiplying in the manufacturing chain.

      The response I favour is one that is sustainable, or much closer to sustainable. If we build a walkable world then any bicycles we can muster are a luxury and a great productivity boost.

  20. Comment on the point about land sharing and land sparing. Been meaning to write about it meself, but caring for a demented relative has put the kibosh on my internet activities. So here goes: of course it’s both. Jayzus feck, why would anyone make an issue of it?! PLUS: unless humans curb themselves, neither nor both together will be sufficient in saving soil, saving land and water, saving wildlife, and saving humans. It used to be both, and increasing human population along with increasing civilizational idiocy (like paving over near everything and unbridled soil mining) has won every time. So yes please, stop the bull, arguing this vs that (thus turning them both into a pretense, a way of merely delaying the inevitable ruin), and start talking about the real everyday destruction that goes on in the face of both methods and what to do about it.

  21. I would add that the way “equivalence” is calculated between short lived methane and carbon dioxide is essentially flawed, and this contributes a lot to the eat no meat and save the planet narrative. The contribution to climate change via methane emissions of a stable number of ruminants is almost negligeable notwithstanding the potential for carbon sequestration. In a LCA each animal is considered new and an addition to methane emissions, but that is a totally flawed way of calculating. It corresponds almost to assume that land clearing takes place every year for farming. I try to elaborate on that point in this article. http://gardenearth.blogspot.se/2017/10/false-methane-math.html

    • Thanks Gunnar – good point, and a nice post of yours. I’ll have to look back at this issue in the FCRN report.

    • Yes, that’s much better. It’d be good if he could just reiterate a little more clearly the optimal agricultural strategies, though…

        • True. Looks like insects may be off the menu soon too. It puts one in mind of a David Shrigley drawing entitled ‘It’s getting worse’.

          • Thanks for the Shrigley ref… interesting how we are accustomed to looking at a rising bar chart (from left to right) as making progress. Perspective!

            I wonder if cultures that read from right to left have a similar pattern processing issue?? And of course the association that going upward is ‘always’ the desired direction.

            Bias – it’s what’s for breakfast.

  22. Trying to pickup again in reply to Jahi’s comment on 1 November…

    Not sure I was trying to answer a question of “designed by whom, for what”, but if that is the point, then let me offer… designed by those in the trenches at the moment, for their immediate needs for survival. If a tribe of first peoples inhabit a river bank on a vast prairie theirs is not a mission to ‘design’ a 2000 calorie diet balanced on all fronts and sustainable for all time. Theirs is an effort to accomplish what they need to survive, to hand down to their progeny the tools they have honed over time so they in turn might survive and prosper. If there is a guiding force (a designer) at this point it would be a force akin to evolution itself. If it works, it stays. If it doesn’t work, it goes. If this is your meaning by “it stumbled into being” then I will agree up to a point.

    To your point that the evolved system is “resisted by both people and nature” – I have to wonder about your specific complaint(s)… should one presume the poor, the hungry, the undernourished are the resisting people? Are the poisoned, clear cut, strip mined habitats the resisting nature? These are ugly matters indeed. But I still don’t equate their existence as proof the food system doesn’t work; and I think the semantics here are worth the debate. If the food system does not work – then it matters not whether one is powerful, of high status, or meek… we starve. Hunger, poverty, malnutrition and undernourishment exist not because there is a lack of food. The food exists – indeed you acknowledge that there is incredible waste of food resources (and I’ll wholeheartedly agree with you on that point). And to the complaints of nature – I will also agree that the food production process could be improved. But to double down with a simple ‘it doesn’t work’ argument seems to not just ignore facts, it assigns blame in the wrong quarter.

    Externalities and their proper accounting do need to be cussed and discussed. But they won’t matter if everyone starves. My argument is akin to putting out the fire before we start arguing over who lit the match.

    To my point about the relative inexpensive nature of modern food – I should make the comparison to the relative expense (of time/effort) afforded to food procurement in the past. I’m not challenging your statistics about how many of us cannot afford food. This is a horrible reality. What I am trying to assert is that far less effort is spent by humanity today in producing all the food that we have. And so the food is not as highly valued as it should be (and waste is not considered as nefarious as it should be). In the west we enjoy all manner of distractions that do not feed body or soul – because we can. We have abundant food and are freed from spending half our time procuring it. If there should be changes to the food system (and I agree there is quite a bit we should do to make it better) – how will these changes be brought about? We could write a manifesto, organize a committee – yeah, that’ll work. Or if there were some way to make food even more important in the common imagination (more expensive for instance) then there might be some sort of reward for those who find solutions. The build a better mouse trap routine. But so long as the mice are out of sight (and out of mind) then mouse trap research will suffer.

  23. Late to this discussion, but it seems to me one simple description of “working” for agriculture is: does it produce more Kcal worth of food energy than the input energy required to raise it? At present, conventional “efficient” agriculture takes 10 Kcal worth of energy resources to produce 1 Kcal of food. This is just not sustainable, unless the Cornucopians find an energy source that is too cheap to meter.

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