The tyranny of the ‘collaborative commons’

Busy times for me on and off the farm at the moment, but it feels like it’s time for another post. I’ll soon be returning to the Peasants Republic of Wessex by way of recounting the history of the world, but I’m not quite ready for that yet. Meanwhile, I seem to be in the business of knocking out little critical vignettes on various writers, having offered up Peter Frase and Michael Le Page in my last two posts. Two more to come, I think, before turning to other matters – on this occasion Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist1. I’m currently writing a full-scale review of the book to appear elsewhere. Here, I’m going to focus in specifically on the issue of ‘commons’ that Raworth raises in various parts of her book. I’ve written about it several times before on this blog, since I find myself much less enthusiastic about commons than most of my greenish-leftish-progressive-anti-capitalist fellow travellers. Ach, I’m a peasant populist at heart, and peasants have a canny sense of when a commons is a good idea and when it isn’t. Anyway, I’m not going to summarise exactly what Raworth says about commons, I’m just going to offer you the following six postulates about them prompted by my reading of her book.

  1. All forms of production are ‘collective’ – but that doesn’t make them a commons.

There are four main ways through which people organise their provisioning – households, private markets, governments and commons. Each have characteristic strengths and weaknesses, and are likely to be more or less appropriate in different situations. In order to succeed, all four of them rely upon collective arrangements between people to organise provisioning. A strong case can be made that the contemporary global economy is excessively focused on private markets to the detriment of collective human flourishing. But that’s not at all the same thing as arguing that provisioning should be organised in the form of commons.

  1. It’s easy to overstate the extent to which both the natural world and human history can be characterized as commons. And it’s unnecessary.

All organisms live interactively with others upon which they depend as part of wider communities. But in the natural world, their actions are rarely motivated by a concern for the wellbeing of the community and its resource bases as a whole – there are rarely agreed collective appropriation rules in nature. There frequently are collective appropriation rules in human societies, and often enough there are conflicts over them. It would be fair to say that in various times and places over the course of human history collective appropriation rights have sometimes been extinguished, to the detriment of some of the people involved and to the advantage of others. But I don’t think it would be fair to say that the history of most places, such as England, can be told substantially in terms of an ‘enclosure of the commons’ in which private appropriation by the aristocracy replaced collective appropriation by the populace. Additionally, there are various contemporary conflicts around the use of seeds, organisms and genes, and a strong case can be made in these instances that the privatisation of usage rights is a bad idea. It may even make sense to call this privatisation an ‘enclosure of the commons’. But the rights and wrongs of these conflicts are best framed in their own contemporary terms, rather than seeing them as analogous to medieval conflicts over agricultural land use or the way that organisms behave in ecosystems – except in such a broad and general sense as to be more or less meaningless.

  1. Agricultural commons work best for relatively low value, extensive, non-excludable situations with high labour costs of capital improvement, and the same is probably true of other commons.

The original meaning of a ‘common’ was an agricultural resource shared by a specific community in accordance with defined usage rules – and they typically arose in the kinds of situation described in the previous sentence. If you wanted to grow some onions for your table, it’s unlikely that you’d form a commons for the purpose – unless you had a taste for wasting a lot of your time trying to forge agreements in frustrating public meetings. Whereas if you wanted to collect firewood from your local woods, you might well feel it was worth the effort to work with others to create a commons so as to be sure there’d be some more firewood next year. Nowadays when we talk of commons we usually mean something more virtual – Raworth’s text is sprinkled with references to things like ‘the knowledge commons’, ‘the collaborative commons’ and ‘the creative commons’. An oft-cited example of such things is open source computer software. I can see how this particular example might fit with the typical characteristics of an agricultural commons within a community of software developers whose main livelihood is already secured (probably on the basis of paying a pittance for the food they eat) and who find more benefit from freely sharing bits of code they’re working on around their community than from trying to develop it on their own and then charging for it. But it’s a slippery slope, and once we start using terms like ‘the collaborative commons’ as a grander-sounding way to say ‘people sharing things’, the concept of the commons starts to lose useful meaning. It’s a given that people sometimes share things and sometimes don’t. We need to attend carefully to the circumstances in which they do or don’t, or in which they should or shouldn’t. Arguments with the logic of commons = sharing = good just aren’t careful enough.

  1. Production and circulation are different things.

I think the slippage I’ve just referred to from commons qua ‘defined collective usage agreement’ to commons qua ‘free stuff, freely shared’ matters quite a lot. To explain why I first need to introduce a distinction between production and circulation, which I’ll do via a quotation from Raworth:

“The triumph of the commons is certainly evident in the digital commons, which are fast turning into one of the most dynamic arenas of the global economy. It is a transformation made possible, argues the economic analyst Jeremy Rifkin, by the ongoing convergence of networks for digital communications, renewable energy and 3D printing, creating what he has called ‘the collaborative commons’….Once the solar panels, computer networks and 3D printers are in place, the cost of producing one extra joule of energy, one extra download, one extra 3D printed component, is close to nothing, leading Rifkin to dub it ‘the zero-marginal-cost revolution’. The result is that a growing range of products and services can be produced abundantly, nearly for free, unleashing potential such as open-source design, free online education, and distributed manufacturing”2

The confusion as I see it here is that, yes, the marginal costs of circulation are now nearly zero, but the actual costs of production aren’t necessarily much different from pre-internet or even pre-book times. It takes as much hard thought and hard work to put together a good course, a good political essay, a good poem or a good tractor design as it ever did. But once it’s put together, it can now be distributed almost costlessly around the world, potentially to an audience of billions. The zero-marginal-cost-revolution, if there is one, is a revolution of circulation, not production.

  1. Poorly-framed concepts of the commons punish creativity.

Well, no doubt this revolution is a fine thing. But follow the money. Those who control the circulation are in a position to effortlessly siphon off wealth, whereas those who control the production aren’t – which is why Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are a lot richer than any political essayist, poet or tractor designer. I don’t especially have a problem with that, except inasmuch as their private wealth derives from the ‘enclosure’ of appropriation rights from publicly-generated means of circulation. Which is surely an irony – a ‘collaborative commons’ based on privately owned, and possibly ‘enclosed’, means of circulation. But what I do have a problem with is the belittling of creativity or content-creation implicit in this whole ‘collaborative commons’ mindset. The way I see it, almost everybody has some kind of creativity – with words, or music, or materials, or ideas. The private market we use so pervasively to organise our lives is over-supplied with this torrent of human creativity, meaning it’s darned difficult to turn a buck from it. Fine, nobody was born deserving a favour from the world. But to my mind all this talk of ‘collaborative commons’ or ‘knowledge commons’ or Stewart Brand’s much quoted shibboleth that ‘ideas want to be free’ basically mystifies the hard work of production and gives the appropriation of circulation an easy ride. I wrote about this previously in relation to the debate between Josef Davies-Coates and Toby Hemenway concerning the former’s free circulation of the latter’s book, where the prevailing idea on the ‘knowledge commons’ side of the debate seemed to be that nobody really has any original ideas so they shouldn’t expect to make any money out of repackaging collective human wisdom.

OK, but we all have to eat – typically by either paying for someone to repackage collective human wisdom on the farm and grow food for us, or by doing it ourselves. And conversely we’re perfectly at liberty not to consume somebody else’s repackaged human wisdom on the “don’t use, don’t pay” principle, whether it comes in the form of poetry, political essays or a bag of corn chips. Those who want to push hard for a ‘collaborative commons’ with minimal rights of private creative appropriation need to explain how people would create their livelihoods in such a society. To be fair, Raworth does have the makings of an answer on this front, even if it’s the same one as most other writers in this leftish, technophile tradition – universal basic income. But she doesn’t really flesh out what that would end up looking like politically – less so, say, than Peter Frase, whose work I reviewed recently. My bet is that the most likely political endpoints for that would either be an economically insecure, moribund and dreary modernist authoritarianism (which we seem well on our way to achieving), or else a neo-peasant society in which we devote most of our creativity to providing our own food, clothes and shelter, with the occasional bonus of our music, stories, crafts or knowledge freely given to people we care about in our families and wider communities. I much prefer the latter outcome to the former, so if I have to nail my colours to the ‘collaborative commons’ mast I guess my rallying cry will be “Collaborative commons, universal basic income and two acres for all!” More on that anon.

  1. Commons aren’t always the best way of organising provision.

I can’t help feeling that a lot of the people who wax most lyrical about the benefits of the “collaborative commons” are probably salaried employees of large-scale public or private sector institutions who are less aware than they might be of exactly who is bearing the costs of the collaboration – or else perhaps a self-employed consultant able to charge out their time quite handsomely to the same. If so, a stint as a self-employed farmer providing basic food for themselves or selling it to a local community may prove eye-opening. I also can’t help feeling that a lot of the people who wax most lyrical about Elinor Ostrom’s book Governing the Commons as proving the superiority of the commons as a mode of provisioning probably haven’t actually read it. Fair play, it’s pretty dry stuff – I must admit that I skimmed over the odd page or two myself on the ins and outs of municipal water litigation in California. But Ostrom doesn’t argue that a commons – agricultural, digital, creative, knowledge, collaborative or whatever else – is necessarily the best way of organising things. Nor, I think, should anyone else.

oOo

Well, there you have it – a few top of the head thoughts I’ve skimmed off from the collective human genius, and repackaged right here. I’ll attempt to work it up into something a bit more rigorous in due course. Thanks for reading this far. I appreciate it. And now I better go and tend to my garden. Donate button is top right.

Notes

  1. Kate Raworth (2017). Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. London: Random House.
  1. Ibid. pp.83-4.

 

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.

Nine futures

Everybody needs to unwind with a bit of escapist reading from time to time and, like many people I’m sure, one of my favoured genres in this respect recently has been treatises of left-wing futurology. I’m thinking, for example, of titles like Inventing the Future, How Will Capitalism End?, Alternatives to Capitalism and Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn Addicts1. I’ve found all of these books (with one exception, which I’d guess should be obvious from its title) to be interesting and thought-provoking, even if I don’t find myself fundamentally in agreement with them. Another one I’ve read recently, one of the best of the bunch, is Peter Frase’s Four Futures: Life After Capitalism2.

My aim in this post is to use Frase’s book as a cue to discuss some issues of interest to me, rather than reviewing or précising it as such – but I’d certainly recommend taking a look at it. Like many left-futurologists, Frase in my opinion gets a little too excited about the prospect of an automated and jobless future (one of the features of the genre is that you have to mention 3D printing, driverless cars or biomimicry on virtually every page as some kind of avatar of future abundance), but at least the insights he generates from these new-old chestnuts are subtler than most. Frase proposes a 2×2 matrix of future scenarios across the dualities of abundance/scarcity (which he links to the play of ecological outcomes like climate change and resource depletion) and equality/hierarchy (which he links to the outcome of class conflicts over the distribution of resources). It’s a simple device – perhaps an over-simple one – but a useful one. I wish I’d thought of it myself…

Frase fills this matrix with the ‘four futures’ of his title thus:

 

Abundance Scarcity
Equality Communism Socialism
Hierarchy Rentism Exterminism

In case these concepts aren’t clear I’d precis his ‘communism’ as an egalitarian, leisured world of technologically-undergirded jobless plenty, ‘rentism’ as a capitalism-max, competitive world of endless commodification, ‘socialism’ as a world of egalitarian shared labour to wrest a livelihood from a damaged nature, and ‘exterminism’ as a world in which an impoverished working class whose labour has become superfluous as a result of automation is subjected to increasingly militarised control, and ultimately to extirpation (a process that Frase already detects among other things in the paramilitary police disciplining of African-American youth in the USA). It’s an interesting point inasmuch as discussions of future constraint or collapse often omit class and converge around a kind of Mad Max scenario involving a war of all against all. More likely indeed is intensifying resource competition between rich and poor, with the odds strongly favouring the former.

Frase writes interestingly about all these scenarios – and about how one might bleed into another – raising a host of issues that I hadn’t thought much about, if at all. But, as ever, I want to focus on a couple of points where I disagree with him rather than the many where I agree, if only because they help me develop my larger theme. So, Frase writes “Freedom begins where work ends – the realm of freedom is after hours, on the weekend, on vacation and not at work”3. That’s certainly a familiar story we tell ourselves, but psychological research suggests it’s not necessarily true4: people often rate their feelings of wellbeing higher at work than at play – maybe not so surprising when you consider that at work people are often engaged positively with other people in order to achieve complex ends, which is kind of what humans are evolved to do. Whereas at leisure they’re often kicking around on their own among the alienating appurtenances of contemporary consumer culture, thinking “God, I’m supposed to be having fun – is this really what life’s about?”

Let me leave that thought hanging for a moment, and come on to a second point of disagreement. Frase critiques the ‘nature worshipping’ school of ecological thought, which holds that human actions are wrecking nature, on the grounds that humans are a part of nature – and that nature in any case is never ‘in balance’ but is always profoundly dynamic5. I won’t argue with that, but I’d dispute the merit of turning it into a duality that forces us to choose between ‘nature worship’ or ‘anything goes’. This leads to false choices. For example, Frase talks about the ‘mysterious phenomenon’ of bee colony collapse disorder in the USA, and suggests that one solution might be to manufacture pollinating ‘RoboBee’ micro-machines, concluding “there seems little choice at this stage to deepen our engagement with nature” and that we must “embrace our monsters” (ie. accept that there will be unintended consequences of human actions in the world6). Quite so – but we can deepen our engagement with nature in numerous ways, including by increasing the input of human labour into agriculture (people enjoy working, remember) and de-intensifying the production methods that are prompting colony collapse and other troubling symptoms of over-reach. To do so wouldn’t involve ‘nature worship’ – it would still be a managed human agroecosystem – but it would represent one point on the wide spectrum between sublimating ourselves within nature and assuming total control of it which is effaced in Frase’s bald dichotomy.

It strikes me that with this sort of thing it would help if we started thinking more hierarchically – ‘hierarchically’ not in the everyday sense of the term as rank ordering, like a football league table, but in the more technical sense of a Venn diagram, of parts encompassed by wholes without any necessary rank ordering. So, as indicated in the diagram below, it becomes possible to see that from the human perspective (H) there’s a distinction between the human and the natural, whereas from the perspective of nature (N), there is no such distinction (by the way, the relative size of ‘nature’ vis-à-vis the ‘human’ in the box isn’t intended to indicate their respective importance – it’s more an indicator of my incompetence with software). But it’s doubtful that there’s such a thing as ‘the perspective of nature’, so H and N are really just different manifestations of self-conscious, human theories of being. The natural implies the human and vice versa. It makes as much sense to debate the autonomy of one against the other as the autonomy of up from down.

nature-humanI’d apply the same logic to the way we think about human life as an individual or collective property. Despite a long and bizarre philosophical tradition of social contract theory based around the notion that each person is a sovereign individual who ‘contracts in’ to society, this is clearly not the case. There are aspects of being human that are ineluctably individual (I) and others that are ineluctably social (S), but individualism is contained within sociality: a complete individualism, like a private language, is an impossibility. However, I think it’s reasonable to say there can be different political styles that place greater emphasis on individualism or sociality. Through most of my life, I’ve been suspicious of individualism in politics, because far too often I see it as a right-wing tactic (ab)used by soi disant ‘self-made men’ who weren’t, in fact, made by their selves, but who use the ideology of individualism to kick away the social supports giving succour to other people who are less systemically advantaged.

soc-indiv

But for all that, I think there’s something alive in notions of individuality, autonomy or self-realisation that can’t be negated by truisms about the social nature of humankind. I guess I could try to establish the point with a general argument, but maybe I’ll just make it personal. So – one of the reasons I quit academia and tried to make my way as some kind of farmer was a growing sense of the soullessness of a life spent indoors living off the backs of others, and a diminishing self-respect as my ignorance and inability to create even a semblance of my own material subsistence began to dawn on me. Perhaps you could say that those are just my own issues, magnified through the lens of a culture that vaunts the Robinson Crusoe myth of individualism. Maybe so, though I think people wrestle with issues of self-realisation in every culture, and what interests me in any case is how to deal authentically in the currency of my own. Doubtless there are people who do manage to achieve self-realisation through our contemporary consumer culture – the anthropologist Danny Miller has built virtually his whole career around articulating this point, which is a good one…though it strikes me as something of a rearguard defence7. Consider the multitudes who longingly seek a small patch of city ground to garden, who get busy individualizing and improving their homes, or fixing up their cars – even those who follow any number of crazy adventure sports, or pursue authenticity through cuisine or mindful letting go (a recent list of the UK’s non-fiction bestsellers was split about 50:50 between cookery and how-to-be-happy books). It seems to me that the big story of global capitalist development over the past few centuries is the power of humanity collectively to create vast material flows, mostly to the benefit of a minority. And the story that’s scribbled in its margins, desperate to be told, is how much we yearn for an autonomy or self-realisation that the big story, for all its undeniable successes, can’t give.

So to get to my point, I’d like to suggest a third duality to add to Frase’s equality-hierarchy and scarcity-abundance dualities – collective vs. self-realising. I’d like to hedge it with lots of caveats about the social nature of self-realisation, and I’d also like to acknowledge that the distinction poses further questions. What is the ‘collective’ we’re talking about here? The state? Or some other (perhaps more than one?) basis of collective human identity? What does human self-realisation look like? Who is the ‘self’? And where might it go to get its realisation? One answer I’d give to the latter question, predictably perhaps, is that the self could do worse than working with a small number of other known people to transform or ‘humanise’ nature on labour-intensive, low tech small-scale farms.

But let me try to put the ‘self-realising vs collective’ duality to work in terms of wider political ideologies. Below I’ve split out Frase’s 2×2 matrix into an 8-cell matrix across my additional duality. I wouldn’t claim that the eight (well, actually nine – I’ve cheated) possible futures thus generated fit unambiguously into their respective boxes with no complexities or overlaps, but it does seem to me that the expanded table generates some points of interest.

 

Abundance Scarcity
Equality Collective Communism Socialism
Self-realising Anarchism Agrarian populism
Hierarchy Collective Social democracy Fascism – Feudalism
Self-realising Rentism Exterminism

Just to expand briefly on the new futures I’ve sketched (Frase’s original four are in italics) I’d say that anarchists don’t have to believe in technologically-driven abundance, but it helps. In this respect, Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism8, with its upbeat 1960s take on technological liberation, set the tone for much contemporary anarchist thought. Most of the anarchists I’ve come across (and not a few non-anarchists too) take the view that scarcity is imposed artificially by a self-interested, hierarchical, centralising state. I think they’ve got a point, but on the basis of my travails on the farm I’d say that anarchists can be wont to overstate the eagerness of Mother Nature to render her gifts unto humankind. And when they get down to work on the farm, it strikes me that things like property rights and questions of desert start looming larger than is usually allowed for in the parent doctrine. I’d acknowledge, though, that my comments here only scratch the surface of the anarchist tradition, to which I’m quite sympathetic overall.

Frase’s ‘rentism’ looks pretty much like the terminal logic of capitalism in its contemporary neoliberal guise, in which any collective notion of human wellbeing (trade unions, the human right to food etc.) is dismissed as a market distortion. It strikes me that this extreme individualism of present times represents a collective delusion which, if left unchecked, undermines its own conditions of possibility. In practice, it isn’t left unchecked – even the most enthusiastically neoliberal of regimes nowadays finds it necessary to intervene in private markets in numerous ways in order to secure human wellbeing (and indeed in order to secure private markets themselves, which would fold in short order without government sponsorship). But without straying beyond a commitment to capitalist private enterprise, there’s a spectrum of possibilities from the extreme individualism of rentism (everything, everybody and everywhere is commodifiable) to a more collective, social democratic sense that managed private markets serve human flourishing. A good deal of contemporary writing – pretty much the entire corpus of ecomodernism, for example – effaces the distinction, but a politics that makes human flourishing an end is different in principle to one that makes rentism an end. Unfortunately, in practice the dalliance of social democracy with the animal spirits of the market gives it few defences against a slide into rentism.

Fascism is a curious amalgam of most of the other political ideologies on show, but it seems to me that it’s at its strongest in situations of scarcity and social stress. There is no place at all within it for personal autonomy or self-realisation. ‘The leader’, ‘the party’, ‘the state’, ‘the people’ and the ‘nation’ are indissolubly fused in fascist ideology. But in practice such a fusion is impossible, which is why fascism has affinities with exterminism: the only way to reconcile its extremist ideology of pure corporate collective identity with plural social and individual worlds is to try to eliminate the pluralism.

I’ve listed feudalism (for want of a more accurate shorthand) in the same box as fascism because when the tortuous contradictions involved in the attempt of fascism to reconcile equality with hierarchy through recourse to ideas of corporate identity have exhausted themselves, what’s left in situations of resource scarcity is a more thoroughgoing sense of inequality: the few are born to rule, while the many are born to serve. This doctrine is collective inasmuch as it attaches rights and responsibilities to the respective castes in service of a wider sense of social order. It isn’t just a free for all. I’ll have a fair bit more to say about this in future posts, so for now I’ll just remark that this is quite an obvious way to go in situations of scarcity, but not an especially satisfactory one if you happen to be born among the many.

Finally, agrarian populism fits in the equality–scarcity–self-realisation box. In an agrarian populist society a large number of people are small-scale farmers (‘family farmers’, if you will) or artisans supporting the agrarian economy. So self-realisation is local and to a considerable extent individual/familial/household-based (more questions elided right there, I acknowledge) and geared to self-subsistence. The situation demands broad equality of entitlement to land and other productive resources, otherwise the populace ceases to be agrarian and we move towards more collective solutions. But, of course, in order to secure the equality, some kind of state or collective agency is required. This is the political contradiction at the heart of agrarian populism, which I mention here as an agrarian populist myself to highlight the fact that it’s not a panacea or an easy solution. It’s just that the solutions offered by the other doctrines seem yet more implausible and contradictory. I’d argue that agrarian populism fits within the ‘scarcity’ box for similar reasons to those that prompted our much-esteemed prime minister to remark recently that money doesn’t grow on trees (despite the fact that she seems to have magicked up this very week a cool £1 billion for Northern Ireland to keep herself in No.10). Just as money doesn’t grow on trees, the same is true with the fruit of the land. Well, OK, that’s not entirely true – some fruit does in fact grow on trees. But not much of it without appropriate breeding, grafting, fertilising, pruning and picking, using the scarce resources of land, energy, fertility and human labour.

So to summarise, the world of agrarian populism is one that seeks abundance-in-scarcity, and this is the trail I want to follow. Which leads me to a final point of divergence with Frase, who writes of a recurrent capitalist dynamic where,

“as workers become more powerful and better paid, the pressure on capitalists to automate increases. When there is a huge pool of low wage migrant farm labor, a $100,000 fruit picker looks like a wasteful indulgence. But when workers are scarce and can command better wages, the incentive to replace them with machinery is intensified”9

Not much to quarrel with there as historical retrospective – apart from the argument that the incentive to automate may sometimes stem more from the urge to make workers less powerful and more poorly paid10. But there are numerous ecological and economic reasons to think that, when projected into the future, this capitalist dynamic has an endpoint. After that occurs, it seems likely that hired labour, energy and machinery will all be expensive, so to the average farmer both migrant farm labour and $100,000 fruit pickers will then seem a wasteful indulgence. What commends itself in that scenario is the agrarian populism of the ‘middle peasant’, who’d most likely pick the fruit themselves, and then eat it.

Notes

  1. Srnicek, Nick and Williams, Alex. 2015. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. London: Verso; Streeck, Wolfgang. 2016. How Will Capitalism End? London: Verso; Hahnel, Robin and Olin Wright, Erik. 2016. Alternatives to Capitalism: Proposals for a Democratic Economy. London: Verso; Phillips, Leigh. 2015. Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn Addicts: A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff. Alresford: Zero Books.
  1. Frase, Peter. 2016. Four Futures: Life After Capitalism. London: Verso.
  1. Ibid. p.40.
  1. Kahneman, Daniel. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Penguin.
  1. Frase op cit. pp.101-6.
  1. Ibid. p.106.
  1. eg. Miller, Daniel. 2012. Consumption and its Consequences. Cambridge: Polity.
  1. Bookchin, Murray. 1971. Post-Scarcity Anarchism. Black Rose.
  1. Frase op cit. p.8.
  1. Eg. Malm, Andreas. 2016. Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming. London: Verso.

 

Mixed messages

Well, it’s busy times here at Vallis Veg so I’m just going to offer a brief news roundup for this week’s post.

I spent last weekend at the West Country Scythe Fair and the associated Land Skills day sponsored by the Land Workers’ Alliance, where I ran a session on small-scale mixed farming. Traditional (peasant) farming systems in most parts of the world usually involve a mixed farming strategy (crops and livestock), but commercial farming today rarely does – notwithstanding the ongoing practice of combining dairy with arable in conventional systems, which is better than nothing. A typical traditional mixed system involves ruminants grazing temporary clover-rich grass leys (the fertility-making part of the system), which are then ploughed for cropping (the fertility-taking part of the system). The other livestock (pigs and poultry, mostly – but let’s not forget our invertebrate friends, like bees and worms) fit in around the edges of the system, tapping nutrients that might otherwise go to waste. And the motive power of the animals, if carefully managed, delivers various benefits around the farm.

Nowadays, we’re swimming in a sea of manufactured nitrates and mined phosphates that undercuts the value of the traditional mixed farm (and also has significant external costs upstream and downstream). Even organic growers who don’t apply these products directly often rely implicitly on the mountains of manure or municipal compost made possible by the synthetic nitrogen economy and the land uses it permits. Cheap fossil energy likewise undercuts the careful nutrient cycling and motive capacities of farm livestock that are part of traditional mixed farming strategies.

My guess is that traditional mixed farming strategies will come into their own again if, as seems likely, we move towards a more energy and phosphate constrained future. But it’s easier to devise a mixed system on a broad-scale arable farm, where you can alternate between grazed ley and ploughed cropland. My main interest these days is in promoting smallholding-based, subsistence-oriented farming, preferably one involving no or low levels of tillage, achieved without herbicide. A common situation here is one like my holding – intensively cropped garden beds, surrounded by permanent pasture – and it’s harder in this system to arrange the nutrient transfer between grassland and cropland. You can, of course, confine the livestock on conserved forage and collect the manure that way – though I prefer a low input-low output system with the livestock out on the grass as much as possible. Generally, it’s not really feasible to bring them directly into the cropped system.

On the upside, a garden grown for personal subsistence with little off-farm nutrient leakage doesn’t require that much fertility input, so the problems aren’t insurmountable. I had some interesting conversations at the Skills Day with enthusiasts of regenerative agriculture – which I’ve been slightly sceptical of, perhaps as a result of my aversion to gurus and the extravagant claims sometimes made by them or on their behalf. But perhaps I need to rethink this – the idea of a no till subsistence garden with a flourishing soil biota nourished by on-farm resources is an appealing one, and it shouldn’t be impossible to achieve. All suggestions gratefully considered.

Another set of issues we discussed is the mob-stocking approach advocated by the likes of Joel Salatin (really, I suppose, just an intensification of traditional rotational grazing systems). Again, I’ve always been slightly sceptical – partly because of my guru-phobia, partly because it looks like a lot of work for limited rewards, and partly because when I tried it my sheep were utterly impervious to electric fencing, fencing being quite an issue for the small-scale farmer needing to enclose small paddocks. It’s hard to see how to do it economically with any method other than electric fencing. In this respect, sheep are probably much more troublesome than cattle – though one or two people at the Skills Day were unflappably optimistic about the possibilities of electrically-fenced sheep, so perhaps I’ll give it another go. I certainly don’t feel that the present state of my pastures reflects especially well on my farming skills, so I need to do something different. Again, on a bigger scale, there’s a lot to be said for alternating between sheep and cattle (worm burdens are at issue here), but it’s harder to do this on small scales.

One of the easiest livestock options for the small farmer is the household pig or hens, fed substantially from food waste. Of course it’s now a criminal offence to feed even hens with kitchen waste – which strikes me as a fine indicator of how badly wrong our contemporary ecological politics have become.

Ah, politics. Well, in other news a major ‘mixed message’ that’s come through recently is the general election result. Not since 2005 has the British public convincingly endorsed a single political party. Maybe it’s time for a bit more mixture, some cross-party collaboration to fit the public mood? Corbyn’s achievement in the teeth of a divided party and a hostile media is impressive. For me, the best thing about it is that it scotches the mantra that only centrist, middle-of-the-road policies and candidates can achieve electoral success. So although I’d argue as per recent discussions on this site that none of the formal political parties are fully engaging with the issues that really matter, this result encourages me that eventually they might.

Part of that recent discussion here included David’s comment that I should devote less attention to politics. And here I am talking about the general election….I guess what I’d say is that it depends on what you mean by ‘politics’. I don’t find the daily tittle-tattle of professional politics especially interesting or relevant to much that matters, but I don’t think I give it much attention on this blog. I do think the broad outcomes of electoral politics matter, even if all the party platforms fail to a greater or lesser extent to engage with the most pressing issues we face. But as to politics in general, this surely is absolutely crucial to the possibilities for a small farm/sustainable future. It’s the difference between a few visionaries/misfits scraping around at the edges of the business-as-usual world, and actually creating a viable agrarian society. If, for example, we’d like to see more of the mixed farming systems I was discussing above, then the only way it’ll happen is if we engage somehow with the political process to make it happen. My main interest isn’t with formal party politics (though that’s certainly one dimension of activism) but with the possibilities of building a movement (from a low base, I admit) for a sustainable agrarian society. Hence my position in my recent debate with Malcolm Ramsay about his proposed changes to property law. I can’t see these happening unless they’re articulated within a political movement with associated views on the way that class and power operate in contemporary society. Articulating such views as best I can feels to me a worthy enterprise for this blog.

Those, at any rate, are my principles. But like Groucho Marx, if you don’t like them maybe I could find some others. So I’d welcome any comments…but I’m going to be off in the internet-free wilds again for a few days, so please excuse me if I don’t reply until later next week.

Songs from the wood

We shall soon be turning to weightier matters here at Small Farm Future, so let us pause for breath and take a stroll around the woods of our home turf at Vallis Veg this fin(ish) morning. Here, have some musical accompaniment, and relax.  After all, it’s not as if there are any other important political events to discuss today.

It was nearly fourteen years ago when La Brassicata and I bought our little eighteen acre slice of Somerset. At the time, it comprised permanent pasture in its entirety, with just one mature tree on the site (plus a couple of hedgerows). I was very enthused by the idea of planting trees in those days, after a brush with the law (Ben Law, that is), and over the next four years we planted more than seven acres of the blighters – fruit orchards, nut orchards, short-rotation willow coppice, alder/hazel windbreaks, hawthorn and blackthorn hedges and – most of all – large blocks of mixed native deciduous trees.

A few years after that, I read some of the critiques of arboricentrism that were arising within and without the permaculture movement – Patrick Whitefield’s strictures against the carefully-curated facsimiles of ancient woodland springing up around the countryside like so many out-of-place lollipops borne aloft on ugly plastic sticks, and Simon Fairlie’s broadside against permaculturists for turning agricultural grassland capable of producing high value food into low value woodland1.

These, I think, were worthwhile critiques – people can indeed get a bit over-enthusiastic about trees, and it’s always good to ask ‘Why am I doing this?’ of any farming choice. But ultimately I have few regrets about doing what we did (well, maybe the blackthorn…) The ugly lollipop phase only lasts a few years, and nothing gives me more pleasure on our holding now than the beauty of the well-established young woodland mantling the site.

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Patrick himself admitted that the entire British countryside is a largely human fabrication, so I see no particular reason to take umbrage at the ‘artificiality’ of tree planting. Perhaps there’s more merit in Simon’s critique, but the per hectare productivity of purely grass-fed livestock isn’t that impressive. A vegetable garden with a few rows of potatoes of the kind we’ve planted here more than compensates nutritionally for the loss of productive pasture to the trees. Besides, it’s possible to stack functions as the English commoners of old did with their wood pastures – a practice I’ve mimicked here with my sheep in and around the woodland.

20170513_164922

The woodland we’ve planted has brought various tangible and less tangible benefits. Fruit and nuts, tree hay, wind and sun protection, privacy (which surely helped in our successful planning application for a dwelling), children’s dens, and wildlife habitat – I can’t prove anything on the latter front, but the bird and invertebrate life in our woodland does seem to me richer than that I’ve observed in the surrounding arable and pastoral fields. The woodland has also proved a hit with our campers, who like their individual tree-dappled pitches – not a venture we anticipated when we planted the woodland, but one that certainly supplements the unpromising economics of food production, and that we probably couldn’t have done without the trees.

But I guess the main economic contribution of trees is their wood. With older woodland than ours, and with the requisite skill and machinery, of course it’s possible to make construction timber – which we’ve already done in a minor, homespun way around the site. An easier use, touched on in recent debates here about sustainable energy futures, is to burn it for space or water heating, or for mechanical power.

The original idea of our planting back in 2005/6 was to cut a large part of it for fuelwood (and, perhaps, craft-wood) coppice, in time-honoured local fashion. But for various practical and aesthetic reasons we’re not so keen to coppice it now. Almost all the trees were originally planted on a 3x3m spacing, as required by the Forestry Commission contract under which we did the planting. So now the time has come to start thinning them – this past winter of 2016/17 being the first one in which I did any appreciable amount of it. The picture below shows your humble blog editor posing in front of this winter’s thinnings.

20170329_141006

 

And this one, the same wood after a few minutes’ madness with the chainsaw (I wouldn’t recommend the resting position in the picture to anyone but a seasoned woodsman like me).

Woodpile

Now then, a quick bit of home economics. Our current palatial residence comprises a prefab wooden cabin c/w woodstove, along with the static caravan that furnishes the stunning architectural backdrop to the last picture. The woodstove provides space heating in (most of) the cabin and hot water via a back boiler throughout the winter (hot water in the summer comes from solar tubes). The caravan is only used as a bedroom, which we heat in the winter with a butane stove – just a quick burn before we go to bed to stop our breath from misting too much as we dive under the bedclothes. Still, I know what you’re thinking. Butane! Plus the insulation in the caravan is almost non-existent, so it feels like all we’re really doing is adding another little bit of entropy to the universe. Ah, such are the vagaries of the British planning system and its insistence upon ‘sustainable’ development. But we only get through about one 15kg butane cylinder each winter (plus about half a dozen 19kg propane cylinders for cooking through the year – another candidate for a wood-burning solution). We’ll be building a permanent – and properly insulated – house to replace the caravan this year or next, so I suspect there’ll be another wood-burner. But how best to heat the new house with it – masonry stove, central heating, underfloor heating, or the same warm living room surrounded by chilly bedrooms that we’re used to? What’s that you say? Passive house? Yeah, OK, OK.

Anyway, I reckon the pile of wood you see in the picture should pretty much be enough for our heating and hot water needs over next winter. I’ll let you know next year whether I turn out to be right. In addition to the wood pictured, I cut a 44m row of willow coppice, displayed on the back of the tractor in the next photo (well, strictly pollard rather than coppice – deer and rabbit pressure being what it is, I generally cut the poles at 4 feet).

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I have a six year rotation of willow, comprising Salix viminalis in 6 x 44m rows (sorry about mixing imperial with metric measures…it’s only going to get worse as our confusion in Britain about which side of the Atlantic we’re on intensifies). This is the eighth year I’ve cut it (so the wood in the picture was the second cut from the second row). I cut it a bit late, at the end of March, and left it stacked outside through a pretty warm, dry spring as whole poles until last month when I finally got around to sawing it up – at which point it weighed 240kg in total. So would it be fair to guess a final air-dry weight of at least 140kg? That’d work out at about 6 tonnes per hectare of air-dry wood – quite low for short-rotation coppice where yields of up to 20 tonnes per hectare are reported. Though to be fair my willow coppice gets the full force of the strong prevailing southwesterly winds on the site (it doubles as a windbreak) and has never had any appreciable added fertiliser.

Next year, I’d imagine we’ll be cutting a lot more thinnings than the amount shown in the picture above. And I’d guess that if we had a mature coppice system established we could probably get more out still. I’m aiming to plant a bit more fuelwood coppice in my upcoming agroforestry project. Meanwhile, I experimented with cutting a micro-cant of ash pollards in the pig enclosure (pictured, first just after cutting in early March, and now in June with the regrowth).

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I’m not sure if it’ll work on that scale – it’ll be interesting to see (the light shade cast by ash will surely help…) But the point I’m moving towards here on the basis of the experiences described above is that I think a reasonably well-wooded smallholding like ours can probably grow enough wood to provide heating, hot water and cooking for a household, maybe two households. There may be a bit left over for construction and farm timber, and for providing mechanical power such as the steam engines we were discussing here a few weeks ago – but I suspect not a whole lot. So there may be a significant limitation there in terms of my self-sufficiency aims for the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, in the absence of abiotic forms of energy capture such as photovoltaics. That, at any rate, is my proposal for debate. Britain is a densely populated country, but it has a lot of farmland – probably enough to feed the population tolerably well, as I’ve argued in my cycle of Wessex posts. The corollary, however, is that it doesn’t have much woodland – maybe enough for heating, cooking and hot water, probably not enough for construction or energy.

I reckon I probably used about 10 litres of petrol in the small chainsaw pictured above to fell, limb and then cut up all the trees pictured above (I’d probably have used a little less if I wasn’t such a laggard with the file…) Next year I’ll try to measure it properly. All the trees were hauled out by hand to the track bisecting our property and then taken up to the house by tractor, using a pretty negligible amount of diesel. I might use Spudgirl’s pony next year for some horse-logging and make him earn his keep a little more. Anyway, even with the chainsaw it felt like a lot of damned hard work (perhaps the more so now my bones are a little creakier than they once were). The thought of doing it with a bowsaw makes my hands go clammy. I know, I know, I’m not a proper populist and I’m not a proper peasant either. Still, the lesson I infer for the latter-day peasant republic in Britain is that if we want to fund even a low energy input agrarian society with renewable energy, I think we’ll need to be looking beyond biomass and towards technologies like wind and photovoltaics. These technologies are now cheap enough, and I’m not persuaded that the trapped asset argument on the radical green side of the political divide makes a whole lot more sense than the foot-dragging of the fossilheads on the right. Still, in the short-term every peasant household in Wessex gets a ration of 25 litres of petrol per annum for its chainsaw and 2-wheel tractor, and until our economic policy wonks have figured out how to develop a local import substitution industry, we’ll be prioritising trade deals with Germany and Japan so that Mr Stihl and Mr Honda can ease our aching arms.

PS. I’m going to be hunkered down somewhere well away from any internet connection over the next few days, so if you’re kind enough to comment on this post please forgive me if I don’t respond until some time next week.

Notes

  1. Whitefield, P. 2009. The Living Landscape. Permanent Publications; Fairlie, S. 2010. Meat: A Benign Extravagance. Permanent Publications.

 

Off to the polls again: a Small Farm Future election special

I suppose I should probably honour the imminent general election with a blog post, though unlike last year’s referendum I find myself incapable of getting too excited about it. There’s a lot of agitated Facebook chatter among my political friends locally about the labyrinthine tactical voting logics and ways of trying to stop Brexit in its tracks, while others claim to feel politically homeless and unrepresented by the political parties. What, only just now? Ah well, let’s get an election post out of the way and then I can focus on more important matters (next week’s post: my woodlot).

Apparently, the electorate now divides into three categories: ‘hard remainers’, ‘hard leavers’ and ‘re-leavers’, the latter referring to those who voted remain but think the government now has a duty to leave – some of whom even plan to vote Tory for the first time as the ‘party of Brexit’. I’m not sure about the ‘duty’ bit, but I suppose I’m a re-leaver, though certainly not a Tory-voting re-leaver. All the anguished talk about an eleventh hour deliverance from Brexit seems to me so much wasted breath. The path from David Cameron’s backbencher-appeasing referendum to Theresa May’s hard Brexit is a long one littered with deceit, but what’s done is done.

The referendum result is often taken as a litmus test of one’s true political colours: are you a remainer and therefore a member of the hated liberal metropolitan elite, or a leaver and therefore a true populist? Well, I can’t disavow my remainer instincts or my grounding in a liberal metropolitanism, but nor do I have much respect for over-general chat about how to defeat the threat of populism. Populism, as I’ve long argued, comes in many different forms, with as much clear water between them as there is between the various populisms and ‘mainstream’ non-populist positions. I’m still quite fearful about where Brexit will lead. In earlier posts, I raised the fear of fascism and got a certain amount of stick for it. Maybe rightly – I think I’d now characterise the right-wing realignments we’re seeing somewhat differently, and I’ll perhaps write more about that in the future. But I still read some of the politics that have emerged around Brexit through the lens of fascism. I can see some potentially positive outcomes from Brexit, but it’s a long climb out of the hole we’ve got ourselves into, with a lot of traps along the way.

So to me, this election feels like the phoney war before the real business begins. I’m not even sure why Theresa May decided to call it. Strictly speaking, she surely shouldn’t have done, now the Fixed Term Parliament Act is in force – but I note that one of the Conservative manifesto promises is to repeal the Act. It is, after all, an old and anachronistic piece of legislation introduced by…the Conservatives, as long ago as…2011. All the reasons I can think of for May’s decision basically boil down to Conservative short-term self-interest, though it now seems there’s an outside chance it might backfire, which would be amusing. David Cameron wasn’t exactly a hard act to follow. There’d be a certain satisfaction if May loses next week and steals from him his one remaining accolade as the worst prime minister ever. Certainly, the cult of May is already looking a bit more threadbare than it did just a few weeks ago, and though being the Brexit prime minister can’t be the easiest of jobs, she wanted it – and so far she’s delivered little but empty rhetoric. My punt is on another slim Tory majority, and an election that proves precisely nothing.

But let me not allow my prejudices to get the better of me. I propose to look with an open mind at the party manifestos and – to take a leaf out of UKIP’s immigration policy book – introduce a rigidly objective points system with which to score them in the exercise below, your handy Small Farm Future cut-out-and-keep guide to the General Election 2017. Speaking as a self-confessed egalitarian, all the parties start on zero points – apart from the Conservatives and UKIP who start with -1 on the grounds that, compared to the other parties, the mainstream press gives them a ridiculously easy ride. One benefit at least of Small Farm Future not quite counting as the mainstream press is that I can redress the balance in whatever arbitrary way I choose.

OK, well I can’t run through the minutiae of every policy proposal here, so I’m going to focus the scoring around themes that are of particular relevance to this blog. A manifesto will score positively if it:

  • Mentions farming. At all. Last time, most of them didn’t.
  • Mentions support for farming, particularly small-scale or organic farming.
  • Mentions conservation or biodiversity in a positive light.
  • Focuses on production geared to local needs rather than global trade.
  • Has anything persuasive to say about tackling climate change and transitioning out of fossil fuels.
  • Has anything persuasive to say about tackling social injustice globally.
  • Has anything persuasive to say about tackling social injustice nationally.
  • Addresses the root cause of issues around access to land or housing.
  • Says anything substantially positive about immigration rather than just focusing on the need to control it. Not because I think controlling immigration is necessarily a bad idea, but because a party willing to court the ridicule of the tabloid press’s demonising rhetoric deserves credit.

Conversely, a manifesto will be marked down for:

  • Proposing policies likely to work against any of the aforementioned worthy goals
  • Overuse of hubristic and vacuous phrases such as ‘leading international action against climate change’ or making Britain the ‘world’s Great Meritocracy’ (there’ll be a double penalty for vacuous phrases in capital letters)
  • Flagrantly contradictory policy proposals, especially if justified on flagrantly spurious grounds.
  • Anything redolent of a dodgy ecomodernism.
  • Use of the word ‘leadership’ and of the phrase ‘strong and stable’. The phrase ‘strong and stable leadership’ gets a special booby penalty of minus 10 points.

OK, well since I’m a Great Believer In Meritocracy, I’ll run the rule over the manifestos in order of votes achieved by the five parties at the last election – so we’ll start with the Conservatives.

The Tories do mention farming and agriculture, thirteen times to be precise – so that takes their score up to zero at the get go. Not much on how they’re going to support farming though – other than saying for the sake of stability they’ll commit the same cash support in total to farming as at present up to the end of the present parliament and then rip it all up and start again. How stable does that make farmers feel? Hell, I’m feeling generous – another point, and the Tories open up an early lead. But wait, there’s more – the Tories have ‘huge ambitions for our farming industry’ and ‘are determined to grow more, sell more and export more great British food’. Where are all those land sparers when you really need them? Why not just grow ‘enough’ and sell ‘enough’ food? It’s back to zero, I’m afraid. There’s some fairly vague stuff on delivering environmental improvements, but we’ll be generous again and give them a point. Plus improving animal welfare…which includes the possibility of changing the law to allow people to let packs of dogs loose on foxes. Sorry, but we’re up contradiction creek here, and it takes the Tories back to zero. From here, unfortunately, it all starts going downhill. The manifesto is enthusiastic about fracking – they do it in the USA, so it must be good. Onshore wind isn’t ‘right for England’, though. And as to photovoltaics – er, did we mention how successful fracking has been in the US? All that now puts the Tories at -3. Climate change is mentioned five times, but without real substance – except to say that ‘we will continue to lead international action against climate change’. Oops. Still, it turns out that Britain is a ‘global nation’ – unlike all those other non-global nations wasting space around the planet. And the manifesto is firm – ‘strong and stable’, even – that there’ll be no secession of smaller non-global nations like Scotland from larger ones like the UK – not least because it would make Scotland poorer. That all sounds eerily familiar, but I can’t quite place where I’ve heard these secessionist arguments aired before. Britain is also – oh dear – a fully capitalised ‘Great Meritocracy’, and not only once, but six times over. It sounds good, but what does it even mean? Sorry, I’m too exhausted to find out. But I daresay there’s a few proposals in there to even up the widening inequalities in the country. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they’ll actually implement a few of them – so two points there. When it comes to tackling social inequalities globally, we learn that: “British scientists and inventors have helped to address some of the greatest challenges facing the world’s poorest people”…which, as we all know, mostly revolve around an insufficiency of money science. Ecomodernist alert! No proposals here either on dealing with the root causes of the housing crisis, except building more homes – which doesn’t count. Finally, the Tories really shoot themselves in the foot on the taboo phrases count, scoring -13 for ‘strong and stable’, -24 for ‘leadership’ and -70 for ‘strong and stable leadership’.

The final tally for the Conservatives: -115.

Next up is Labour. Their manifesto also mentions farming quite a lot – they do want to preserve export access to European markets, but on the plus side they’re going to protect the domestic market from cheap and inferior imports. They also plan to “reconfigure funds for farming and fishing to support smaller traders, local economies, community benefits and sustainable practices”. Wait, ‘smaller traders’? Is that a sneaky reference to small-scale farming there? I’m not sure, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. They also plan to plant a million trees. They don’t say why, but trees are good, right? So we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt again. And they want to reinstate the Agricultural Wages Board – so there’s a little bit of social equality there. All in all, I’m scoring Labour at four points so far. On climate change, the levels of windy rhetoric are about the same as the Tories, though whereas the Tories are merely continuing to lead international action against climate change, Labour is setting itself the altogether stiffer challenge of reclaiming Britain’s leading role in tackling climate change. Whatever – they still lose a point. Nothing from Labour on wind or PV, but some positive talk about renewable energy and a commitment to banning fracking. So they’re back up to four. They’re a bit firmer – strong and stable, even – on nature conservation, including a proposal to ban neonicotinoids. And despite falling for the same ‘build more houses’ flummery as the Tories, they do at least promise to look into the possibility of land value taxation. Like the Tories, they’re opposed to Scottish independence. Well, the obvious hypocrisy in relation to Brexit is somewhat less than the Tories, but I’m going to dock them two points anyway. Why? Because everyone hates Jeremy Corbyn, right? They gain two points on immigration, however, for refusing to be cowed by the Daily Mailism of the present moment. And they get three points for their social equality agenda – including scrapping the bedroom tax and benefits sanctions. Finally, we just need to see how they fare on the taboo phrases. Pretty well, actually – just three mentions of ‘leadership’ and no ‘strong and stable’.

The final tally for Labour: six points – the frontrunners so far.

Third is UKIP. Once again, farming gets a billing. Indeed, UKIP gives the clearest nod so far to small farms – saying explicitly that it will support small enterprises, cap subsidies at £120,000 and ensure subsidies go to the farmer and not the landowner. UKIP is also the only manifesto that mentions organic farming – albeit in the form of a slightly puzzling aside that organic farmers will be paid 25% more under the stewardship scheme. Puzzling, because currently they get paid 100% more – so is this actually a cut they’re proposing? I guess we’ll never know unless UKIP is voted into power. Which is a longer-winded way of saying we’ll never know. But hell, on the basis of what I’ve read so far I might actually vote for these guys. They even get all Walden Bello and start talking about how African farmers suffer as a result of tariff barriers. So currently they’re running Labour close at four points. But now we start riding the down curve. Obviously, there’s nothing positive in UKIP’s manifesto about immigration. Indeed, we have a splendid case of a flagrantly contradictory policy justified on flagrantly spurious grounds – opening up opportunities for all women by denying all women the opportunity to wear a burqa or niqab in public. This policy is apparently also about ensuring appropriate access to Vitamin D – it’s not liberating not to get enough of it, you see. UKIP will also repeal the Climate Change Act, withdraw from the Paris climate agreement and the emissions trading scheme, remove subsidies from wind and photovoltaic energy and invest in fracking. Ah well, at least they’re not claiming to show global leadership on climate change – but after that little lot it’s back down to zero for them, I’m afraid. On devolution, if Scotland has its own parliament then UKIP wants one for England too. And it’ll abolish the House of Lords. Well, let’s give them a point for all that – who knows, under UKIP we may soon end up with the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex. But there’s nothing serious on social inequalities or on tackling the housing crisis, except the usual schtick on building more houses, albeit in this instance building them in factories. On the taboo phrase count, UKIP infringes with but a single use of the word ‘leadership’.

The final tally for UKIP: a very creditable zero points.

Next up, the Lib Dems. Lots here on farming too, but also this fine brainteaser – ensuring British farming remains competitive by refocusing it around the production of healthy food. No, me neither. Anyway, let’s accentuate the positive – there’s some quite good stuff here on farming…helping new entrants…looking at different ownership models…moving away from direct subsidies…and some specific conservation proposals, such as suspending neonicotinoids. The Lib Dems have a lot to say on climate change, including … yes, you guessed it … that the UK “plays a leadership role in international efforts to combat climate change”. But on the upside they’re going to expand renewables (including onshore wind) and oppose fracking. There’s also stuff on reducing inequalities nationally and internationally – including scrapping the bedroom tax. The Lib Dems are going to build more houses…but at least they’re also going to look at a Land Value Tax. And, like Labour, they’re dissenters to the immigration demonization game. Also, thankfully, there’s no strength and stability in the Lib Dem manifesto … but there are four leaderships.

Putting all that in the Who-should-I-vote-for machine yields this final tally: three points.

Finally, the Greens. Well, what can I say? For an eco-lefty like me, they should be a shoo-in shouldn’t they? But their ‘manifesto’ basically amounts to a few bullet points written on the back of a ticket stub on the way home from the pub. To be fair, they don’t have the funding of the other parties – and I think they’re so darned democratic that they don’t have the structures to knock out a proper manifesto at the call of a snap election. Ah well, let’s see how we fare. They do mention farming, once: they’re going to pass a law “to promote sustainable food and farming”. So that’s good, I guess. Though really I’d like to know what’s going to be in the law. They’re also going to support small businesses. Call me biased, but that amounts to explicit support for small farms, no? Hey! What did you just call me? With the greens, there’ll be universal basic income and land value taxation. And, thank God, no global leadership on climate change, just an undertaking to act ‘strongly’ on it (careful now…don’t try to stabilise it too, will you?) in order to ‘protect the natural world we love’, which is kind of sweet. And, of course, no fracking, nuclear power, coal power stations or fossil fuel subsidies. The Greens will adopt “A humane immigration and asylum system that recognises and takes responsibility for Britain’s ongoing role in causing the flow of migrants worldwide”. And they’re the only party with a clean sheet on the taboo phrases. Under the Greens, there’ll be no strength, no stability and no leadership.

So, totting all that up, WE HAVE A SURPRISE WINNER – the Greens on seven points. And if you think I’m biased, let me remind you that I’ve just subjected each party’s manifesto to a rigorous points-based analysis as fair and objective as UKIP’s immigration policy.

Final thoughts, with a local spin. Last week, I went to a hustings of our five local candidates. I did genuinely think that the Green candidate, Theo Simon, was the best of a bad bunch – a ‘bad bunch’ that included several members of the audience, whose jeers and frequent cries of ‘Bullshit!’ did not, to my mind, exemplify speaking truth to power so much as exemplify speaking bullshit to power. Theo was at his most passionate in calling for free education from primary to tertiary, and a health service able to cater to everyone’s needs. Great, but how do we pay for it? A few weeks back, I discussed the difficulties facing the western capitalist economy as outlined by Wolfgang Streeck among others. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has recently suggested that the costings provided in both the Labour and the Conservative manifestos don’t stack up. My feeling is that the right is stuck in an ideology of spiralling inequality and crumbling public services, while the left complacently assumes that a bit of fiddling with the tax system is going recreate thriving public services for all, overseen from a benevolent political centre. It’s in the face of this kind of thinking that I feel my politics really are populist. The political centre – right or left – can barely hold any longer. Really, we need to start building up again from what ‘the people’ can sustain, locally…which means, in the first instance, from what we can produce on the farm. Ah well, at least all the parties are now thinking about farming – a fringe benefit of Brexit.

The Ecological Land Co-op

I’d been aiming to publish a bit of good news on this site for a change, just when I learned yesterday the very bad news of the Manchester bombing. I guess I can understand some of the logic of anti-modernist and anti-liberal movements – I’ve even been called a dangerous extremist myself once or twice for that reason. What I struggle to understand or empathise with is the emotional interior of anyone who kills people at random, and what they think it achieves. My thoughts are with those personally affected.

Well, maybe the best thing I can do is press on with the good news anyway…which is that, finally, forty odd years after Margaret Thatcher launched her revolution of small-time shareholding, for the first time in my life I’ve bought some shares. I hope the spirit of Margaret is smiling on me, though to be honest if I were to dedicate my purchase to an indomitable politician my pick would be Caroline Lucas. The shares, you see, are in the Ecological Land Co-op (ELC), which raises finance from investors in order to create affordable low-impact smallholdings – a congruent aim with my small farm future brief.

I think organisations like the ELC are a necessary step on the path to a small farm future here in Britain for reasons neatly captured by a pithy answer I read a year or two back to a question posted on the British Farming Forum about how to get into farming: “Be born into it, marry into it or make a stack of money and buy your way into it.” OK, so there are other options – go to agricultural college, become a farm manager, or if you’re lucky perhaps take on a tenancy. But in the UK landownership is the sine qua non of security, especially if you harbour fancy notions of farming ‘ecologically’. And agricultural land is pretty darned expensive – £10,000 per acre is about par. At an auction I attended recently, one 3.5 acre parcel went for £110,000. And this is bare land without a dwelling – you can probably multiply those values tenfold for a plot with planning permission for a dwelling, regardless of whether it has an actual farmhouse on it or not.

Ah, planning permission, planning permission. In rural England, we seem to talk of little else. Well, I’ve been down this road too many times on this blog before, but I’m going to try to explain very briefly how this works and where the ELC comes in. Since 1947, building in the so-called ‘open’ countryside has been rigorously restricted. I concede there’s some logic to it – scattering random houses around the countryside probably isn’t a great idea. So if you buy a plot of agricultural land and want to build a house on it, you have to persuade the powers that be that you have a good agricultural case for your proposed dwelling. Again, not such a bad idea – otherwise the fields would soon be paved over by people seeking nothing more than a house on the cheap.

The problem is, the powers that be are notoriously unpersuadable. The two main stumbling blocks usually revolve around proving that there’s an ‘essential need’ to live onsite and proving that the business will be financially viable. On the first point, let me give the example of my planning authority whose Local Plan states in paragraph 6.121 “In most cases, it will be as convenient and more sustainable for [farm] workers to be accommodated in existing accommodation in nearby towns and villages” – a wording shamelessly lifted from now defunct government guidelines and re-purposed to keep the riff-raff off the land until 2029. But, seriously, ‘as convenient and more sustainable’? Anyone who’s actually tried to run a farm while living somewhere else would likely respond, “no it bloody isn’t” but perhaps paragraph 6.121 suffices to indicate the journey in store for anyone seeking to persuade their local authority of their need to live on the land.

On the second point, the idea of running a business that’s financially viable probably doesn’t seem a demanding hurdle, except hardly anyone makes any appreciable money out of farming these days and the whole sector is pretty much propped up by a subsidy regimen courtesy of the EU (interesting times ahead…) But small-scale farmers aren’t eligible for subsidies and the costs of actually establishing a farm (even a homespun one like mine with its aging machinery and freecycled infrastructure) are prohibitive.

The result is that people who basically just want to run a viable farm can spend years and years wrangling with local planning authorities, and an awful lot of time and public money is wasted trying to prevent people from doing a little bit of good in their local communities.

This is where for me the ELC ticks a lot of boxes. By raising money from investors, it’s able to lease or sell leasehold smallholdings at more affordable prices, thus obviating the aforementioned need for the would-be farmer otherwise to choose the circumstances of their birth, enter a loveless marriage of convenience, or toil miserably to turn an income when they should be turning a furrow. It has paid staff who are able to take on the burden of attaining planning permissions – a task made easier by the accumulation of expertise within the organisation and by establishing a successful track record. And by acting as a watchful but benevolent landlord, it can take the sting out of the inevitable but usually misplaced mutterings among local residents and planning officers that a rural worker’s dwelling application is only a front by scammers in search of a cheap house.

The downsides – well, I suppose it’s not a very radical solution to the problem of rural land availability. The smallholdings the ELC can offer in view of all its other commitments aren’t that affordable, and a lot of the money raised from well-meaning investors like me goes into the pocket of the vendor. Though since I’m a sometime property vendor myself I can’t really complain – I can only assuage my guilt by buying ELC shares. Ultimately, it seems to me four changes are needed if we’re to create a sensible and sustainable turnover of agricultural land. First, a way of capturing its value socially – Malcolm Ramsay was discussing his interesting proposals along those lines on this site a few weeks back. Second, a modification of the planning system to make it supportive of rather than hostile towards people pursuing genuine small-scale agricultural projects (this wouldn’t require any legislative change – just a change of planning authority culture). And third a way of monitoring such projects to ensure their genuineness – though I’d make a proviso here that established ‘born in’ farmers should be subject to the same monitoring, so as not to discriminate against new entrants. These three suggestions, however, only involve the commercial farming sector – whereas what I’ve been driving at on this blog of late is the need to embrace low impact subsistence smallholdings. This could quite easily be achieved with a few tweaks to the self-build policies that councils now have in place and a bit more thought in Local Plan drafting. Though regrettably subsistence smallholding doesn’t loom large in any of the major parties’ political priorities just now, so I suspect the policies will remain untweaked.

Well, in the meantime at least the ELC is here raising the profile of these issues and painstakingly preparing fertile ground – both literally and figuratively – for a more sustainable agrarian future. The good news is the share offer is still open – so if you’ve got some spare cash to invest in a worthy cause, you can come join me in the (slow and peaceful) revolution.

Lean Logic

The much-delayed Issue 21 of The Land Magazine has just been published – how did we cope with the waiting? If you search diligently through its pages, you’ll find a review in it by me of David Fleming’s fascinating book, Lean Logic1. Below I’m reproducing a longer version of the review than the one that appears in the magazine.

It may be worth just sketching the back story of the review. Fleming died in 2010 leaving his manuscript incomplete, and it was left to Shaun Chamberlin to pick up the gauntlet and see the work through to final publication – which he did with great aplomb and, I’m sure, no little legwork. Shaun kindly suggested to The Land’s editors that I might be worthy to review the book, and so it was that towards the end of last year the weighty tome landed in my mailbox.

Working my way through the book, I was enormously impressed with much of it, but also troubled by some of it, mostly for reasons that have cropped up recently on this website in debates over populism, nationalism and suchlike. I wrote a perhaps overly bad-tempered review draft, but felt a little embarrassed about it since it was Shaun himself who’d put the book my way. So with some trepidation I sent it to him for discussion. He proved splendidly broad-minded about it, and we had an interesting email exchange about David’s ideas in the course of which Shaun helped me to improve the review greatly from my first effort. Shaun pointed out that we can often agree with 90% of what someone says, yet focus on the 10% where we disagree, and I probably have to plead guilty of that here. I guess all I’d add is that I’ve found that dissonant 10% very informative in trying to think through the left agrarian populist project I’m generally engaged in on this blog…and I’m not sure David needs further plaudits from me in relation to the other 90%. But I hope I’ve managed to convey at least a measure of my admiration for his thinking in my review.

Version II of the review that I submitted to The Land was a rather sprawling effort, and I was asked to cut it by about a quarter. Then as the publication date loomed I was asked to cut it by another quarter – doubtless the real quality material had started rolling into the editorial office by that point… Well, no complaints from me – I have endless respect for Gill and Simon’s editorial nous. But though there’s something to be said for brevity, the result is that over the last few months I’ve produced four different versions of the review and I’ve had to cut out various bits that I’d have preferred to keep in.

So what I’m offering you below is kind of a Lean Logic Review – the Director’s Cut, which combines what I hope are the best features of all the various versions into the definitive text. I hope you enjoy it, because boy have I sweated over each and every one of the 2,000-odd words below.

oOo

The late David Fleming was a maverick economist who left his imprint across British environmentalism from the Green Party to the Transition movement by way of the New Economics Foundation. In Lean Logic, he presents a lifetime’s thinking on how humanity might deal with a coming ‘climacteric’ – an interlocking crisis of climate, energy, water, food and other resources. The master concept is leanness, which Fleming unfurls against the grain of our taken-for-granted approach to the contemporary capitalist economy by reincorporating ‘the economy’ as politics, and ultimately as culture – one culture among many. Thus, from the impressive but dysfunctional culture of contemporary capitalism, Fleming tries to discern the shape that lean cultures of a post-climacteric future might take – diverse, locally-specific, spiritually-oriented, and dedicated to human livelihood as self-creation rather than self-aggrandisement. He pursues the twists and turns of these issues in dictionary format across a sprawling, and decidedly unlean, 672 pages – not always in directions that I personally find persuasive, but always with integrity, thoughtfulness and a dash of humour. It’s an impressive achievement.

The easiest way I can engage with the book in a short review is by identifying four overarching threads. The first is the logic of argument, the rhetorical means by which people try to persuade others of their views – perhaps a subsidiary theme to the book’s larger concerns, but pertinent nonetheless. Advocates for radical alternatives to the status quo commonly find their views marginalised by all manner of rhetorical trickery which excludes them from the narrow centre ground of ‘serious’ opinion. Fleming is at his best in skewering such tactics in a series of brief, aphoristic entries which allow his mordant humour full rein.

The second thread is the use of systems theory to illuminate the worlds that both natural selection and human cultures have built in the past and might build in the future. I’m slightly sceptical about the usefulness of turning such disparate phenomena as animal bodies, transport networks, groups of conspecific organisms, the human economy, ecosystems and the internet into mere exemplars of ‘system’, and Fleming doesn’t always convince me that the systems he discusses (like Gaia, the Earth itself as system) are really ‘systems’, but his writing is invariably stimulating, especially when he turns to human social systems. A case in point is his clever analysis of the way that the increasing complexity in modern society rests on the increasing simplification of roles in its constituent individuals and communities. This makes it more resilient in its current capacity to prevent system shocks, but less resilient in its ability to recover from them.

Fleming’s third thread is devoted to the economics of resilience in the context of the climacteric. There’s some exemplary analysis here, not least in his characterizations of the ‘taut’ – but not ‘lean’ – contemporary capitalist economy and the way its growth ingests the natural capital it depends on, rather than subsisting sustainably from its flow. He contrasts this with more resilient societies historically that have limited or destroyed growth capital so as to preserve the natural resources on which life depends, often through practices that strike the modern mind as inefficient or frivolous. But he also shows how difficult it is to achieve resilience of this kind once the capitalist genie is out of the bottle: in capitalist societies, degrowth too readily means stagnation, recession and unemployment.

So far, so good. But, for me, Fleming’s thought becomes more problematic when he outlines how the ‘lean’ societies of the future might overcome the problems bequeathed by the present. His economic thought, for example, hinges on a strong contrast between market economies and ‘gift’ economies, where the exchange of things builds trust or solidarity in a concentric pattern emanating outwards from households and neighbourhoods. The problem here is partly an over-general definition of ‘market economy’: there have been many kinds of market economy historically, with vastly different consequences. But it’s also that the non-market exchange of things can build status inequality just as much as solidarity, as with patron-client and caste systems. The hankering to transcend impersonal market relations with socially-embedded exchange is understandable, but social embeddedness isn’t always positive. Fleming appreciates this, noting that “all gifts have strings attached” (p.178) and arguing that the market economy “supports a more egalitarian society than any other large-scale state has been capable of” (p.305). But I think he underestimates its importance, preferring to focus on the possibilities for building harmony rather than hierarchy through non-market exchange. The fundamental problem is not, however, the primacy of market over gift relations but the human will to power, which can happily inhabit both forms.

I’m not sure how troubling status inequality is to Fleming’s project, though, because the politics of Lean Logic are essentially conservative. There’s certainly an upside to this: while the mainstream politics of both left and right have dallied fatefully with market liberalism, it’s mostly been left to conservative thinkers of the kind that Fleming approvingly invokes – Edmund Burke, T.S. Eliot, Michael Oakeshott, Roger Scruton, Alasdair MacIntyre – to think seriously about community and tradition. Conservative thinking at its best – and much of Fleming’s writing fits this bill – helps us in the difficult task of living well in real-life communities. Perhaps it represents a kind of rugged individualism, in Fleming’s words “of being intuitively sure of who you are” (p.206) and able to deal with conflicts and setbacks without abdicating them to a levelling higher authority.

Amen to that. But the trouble with conservatism is that while it deals well with the random conflicts of life, it has less to say when those conflicts become systemic. For example, Fleming identifies the household – an economy rife with pure, unconditional giving – as a potential model for his preferred non-monetary gift society. But he scarcely mentions gender throughout the book, and doesn’t notice there’s a particular half of the population that disproportionately bears the cost of this unconditional giving. Indeed, he’s rather dismissive of systemic social identities like gender or class as politically significant, and dismissive of equality as an ethical end, arguing that equality is only a cipher for what really matters – community and social capital. There are grounds for arguing precisely the opposite.

When Fleming turns in his fourth thread to questions of culture, the conservatism becomes more problematic. Even here, much of what he writes is dazzlingly good. He has the anthropologist’s knack of making our contemporary culture seem strange, and the mystifying practices of other times and places seem perfectly sensible – as in his excellent analysis of medieval carnival, which showcases his fine judgment of the proper contexts for acting rationally, or spiritually, or playfully. I find his view persuasive that we get this wrong in contemporary western culture – and in this sense, whatever one’s views about a future climacteric, Fleming’s work stands up independently as cultural criticism.

But the concept of culture he finally arrives at in service of a future lean society seems the opposite of that outlined by the influential Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin, whose book2 on carnival Fleming cites. For Bakhtin, carnival exemplifies a ‘dialogic imagination’, forever open to new meanings, messy clashes of diverse people and ideas, contests over authority in which nobody has the last word. Fleming, by contrast, seems to be seeking some kind of single authentic note to ground culture as shared history and destiny. He frames this appealingly in a memorable phrase: “the story of you and the people you know, set in the place you know” (p.199). But it’s all too easy to invert the formulation and define culture by exclusion against the people and places you don’t know. That isn’t Fleming’s intention. Indeed, he warns against overemphasizing place-based identity: “gypsies and ships’ captains are not necessarily prevented from discovering their identity – but their place is the road, or the sea” (p.206). Yet to me this is an inadequate gloss for what happens to the placeless when culture is strongly defined around place.

There are many such stigmatised and often involuntary ‘wanderers’ in the modern world, and I fear a rigid application of Fleming’s ideas would further marginalise them. His intention is otherwise: to replace the rootless nomadism of contemporary capitalist culture with a world of “strong, distinctive local cultures, sharing mutual respect” (p.321). But here I’m with Bakhtin: cultural boundaries are never fixed enough to define separate, distinct, cultures-in-the-plural unambiguously, and ideas of culture and community are always essentially fictions – indeed, the idea of the nation as a fictive community-writ-large of ‘people you know’ only really arose with the emergence of capitalist mass society from the eighteenth century. Fleming approvingly cites Roger Scruton falling into this nationalist trap, construing ‘culture’ as a fictive shared history defined essentially through the exclusion of outsiders (pp.84-5). This is immediately followed with another approving citation, this time from Wendell Berry, which sounds similar in its weighting of the local but actually grounds culture in shared work on the land, not exclusive history. I wish he’d ditched Scruton and developed the implications of Berry, because in seeking a basis for the post-capitalist societies of the climacteric and lighting on the culture of the nation rather than the work on the farm, I fear he’s backing the wrong horse.

What I wouldn’t dispute is the importance of finding an alternative to the present economic path of neoliberal globalisation, and I think Fleming is right to seek it in the local. Given the contemporary decline of public confidence in large-scale state institutions, his preference for what he calls ‘local wisdom’ over top-down government intervention is hardly controversial. But there are dangers. Much as I like Fleming’s sunny discussion of the “fusion of insult and endearment” associated with “love of the place you live in and the play-potential with places which have the misfortune of being somewhere else” (p.303) the local can be much more vicious and divided than that. I’m thinking, for example, of rape in rural India as a high caste strategy to silence low caste dissent in places far away from any rational niceties about the inviolability of the individual or her body3. Or, less traumatically, an experience that perhaps I’ve shared with other readers of The Land: despite our localist or anarchist leanings, a gratitude towards planning inspectors, those functionaries of the rational-bureaucratic state, who decide in favour of our low impact smallholdings against the ‘local wisdom’ of district councillors and residents who wish to prevent them. Indeed, ever since the emerging centralised states of the late medieval or early modern period gradually started defining a sphere of entitled citizenship against the arbitrary privilege of the seigneurial manor, while at the same time reorienting local economies upwards to the larger ends of the state, I don’t think there’s been a single or a simple story to tell about the encroachment of state power into the sphere of the local in western Europe, and this is paralleled in other parts of the world. Fleming knows this, mentioning the “darker side” of localities (p.68). But, as with his approach to non-market exchange, he tends to gloss over it in favour of more positive interpretations.

Still, it would be wrong to pigeonhole Fleming with the happy multitudes of eco-futurologists who regard anything other than determined optimism about humanity’s prospects as an act of bad faith.  It’s plain from his writing that he doesn’t consider a convivial, lean society of the climacteric to be a foregone conclusion. His entry on ‘unlean’ societies is something of a missed opportunity, detouring into a long exposition of Karl Wittfogel’s discredited ‘Oriental Despotism’ hypothesis concerning the ecological causes of repressive autocracy, and his thought sometimes skirts the same deterministic territory. But ultimately he succeeds in going somewhere more useful – to an insistence on political agency rather than technological solutions to ecological problems, on thinking anew about the relationship between local autonomy and state power, and on robustly defending democracy.

Perhaps there’s an issue with the book along similar lines to one that’s emerged from time to time in comments on this blog. To what extent should we focus our politics on the future we’d like to see, or on the future we think we’ll get? Only Miss World contestants and religious millenarians like the ecomodernists are wont to construe a future of peace, prosperity and technology for all as the political telos of the present – leading them, depending on their other attributes, to enter beauty contests, work as analysts at the Breakthrough Institute or write furious blogs about the infidels blocking the stairway to heaven. But it’s not always clear to me whether Fleming is saying ‘this is the world we’re going to get, so you’d better get used to it’ or ‘this is the world we’re going to get, and here’s how we’ll make the best of it’ or ‘this is the world we’re going to get – delightful, isn’t it?’, perhaps a generic problem for all of us who fix our sights beyond the political short-term. I guess for me an is doesn’t make an ought.

Still, whatever one thinks of his answers, Fleming consistently asks good questions, with a combination of wit and mature wisdom that often makes his writing soar. The book’s intriguing illustrations and excellent production, for which congratulations are surely due to editor Shaun Chamberlin and the publishers, enhance the effect. For all my misgivings about it, it would have been a shame had Fleming’s death robbed us of his illuminating thought.

Notes

  1. Fleming, David (2016). Lean Logic: A Dictionary For The Future And How To Survive It, (Ed. Shaun Chamberlin) White River Junction: Chelsea Green.
  1. Bakhtin, Mikhail (1984). Rabelais and His World, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  1. Desai, Manali (2016). Gendered violence in India. New Left Review, 99: 67-83.

Population and development: more on Malthus

I’m going to follow up on my previous post and turn this into a Malthusian two-parter. Let me begin by offering you an exclusive behind-the-scenes peek into the intellectual ferment that is the Small Farm Future office. After publishing our post on Malthus last week the SFF team have been reading Chris Wickham’s doorstopper of a book Framing The Early Middle Ages, which makes reference to the late Danish economist Ester Boserup’s influential 1965 book The Conditions of Agricultural Growth, and specifically to Boserup’s ‘anti-Malthusian’ arguments. We’d read Boserup’s book a couple of years back and made a few notes on it, but failed to incorporate it properly into our thinking. Wickham’s reference to it fired off connections not only to our arguments about Malthus but also to neo-populist economic theory (in which category we can perhaps place the anthropologist Paul Richards’ gentle critique of Boserup), and to the concepts of agricultural involution and to low level and high level equilibrium traps which we’re currently wrestling with as part of a small side project in which we aim to bring you the history of the world in just four blog posts1. Well, maybe four and a half.

OK, let me drop the first person plural, the joke’s gone far enough. And let me also apologise for subjecting readers of this blog to the painful creaking of my thinking-out-loud gears as I try to get to grips with all of this stuff. The apology would be all the more heartfelt if I was actually employed to do this, rather than spending precious weekends trying to make sense of the world and committing my half-formed ideas to cyberspace, but there you go – I’m just grateful that there are people who feel it worth their while to respond. One of whom is Andrew, whose view of Malthusianism as a ‘dark fairy tale that should never be allowed to occur in reality’ is interesting food for thought.

Anyway, that’s a perhaps unnecessarily long preamble to say that here I’m going to offer some preliminary and disjointed thoughts on Boserup’s anti-Malthusianism, followed by some further thoughts on escaping Andrew’s dark Malthusian fairy tale.

The Malthus-Boserup contretemps hinges on how we construe the relationship between agricultural productivity and population growth. As Boserup sees it, Malthusians consider population growth to be determined by the level of agricultural productivity or technology, whereas in her view the causality runs in the other direction: population growth creates subsistence pressures that stimulate increased agricultural productivity. One of the major dimensions of agricultural productivity that she emphasises is labour: “I have reached the conclusion,” she writes, “that in many cases the output from a given area of land responds far more generously to an additional input of labour than assumed by neo-Malthusian authors”2. And much of her book demonstrates the point with various examples of the way that in non-industrial farming systems additional labour inputs into such things as irrigation, tillage and fertility management results in higher yields per unit area. The same applies to industrial farming systems, though here a good deal of the additional labour is mechanical, bringing problems of its own that I won’t address here.

I think Boserup is right about the spectacularly productive character of human labour – it’s something I’ve remarked on previously on this blog, and something that’s emerged implicitly from my ‘Peasant’s Republic of Wessex’ exercise, which has shown how relatively easy it is to feed large populations through labour-intensive methods even with conservative productivity assumptions. But while it’s true that population growth may prompt agricultural intensification, it doesn’t follow that this provides an adequate historical account of agricultural ‘development’ through history, or that population growth is a final, causal factor (this, essentially, is Richards’ critique of Boserup: she doesn’t provide a historical account to show that population growth is a consistent historical prime mover). But if we do entertain Boserup’s analysis as a historical theory, then it’s a curious concept of ‘development’. Why would a society produce more offspring than it can comfortably feed and then devote itself to disagreeable extra labour in order to make good the shortfall? After all, historically the peasant way has usually been to choose extra leisure over extra work whenever possible – much to the chagrin of would-be ‘agricultural improvers’ – and to restrict fertility accordingly, albeit through methods that tend to strike the modern mind as sad at best and utterly wicked at worst. Wickham shows that this was pretty much the strategy adopted by peasants in early medieval Europe when they could get away with it – which was usually when there wasn’t a strong, centralised state around to organise their labour according to its own designs. Perhaps I’m missing something, but Wickham’s enthusiasm for Boserup’s account as a historical theory baffles me for this reason, when his own work underlines the importance of the state, of centralised polities, in agricultural development. The significance of the state is something I’m planning to write about in more detail soon. For me, all this raises two related questions worth posing to assorted Boserupians, eco-modernists and techno-fixers assembled under the anti-Malthusian banner labelled ‘technical development’: who are the winners and who are the losers of any given ‘development’, and who’s doing the hard work in the society so ‘developed’? A third question might be: even granted an association between population growth and technical development, is it always so tight that the former never overruns the latter, creating a short-term Malthusian crisis?

Anyway, my feeling is that the contrast between the ‘neo-Malthusians’ and Boserup’s ‘anti-Malthusianism’ is overdrawn. I agree that there are many ways of staving off the dark fairy tale of an impending Malthusian crisis, of which labour intensification is a key one usefully highlighted by Boserup. But that scarcely refutes the basic Malthusian problems I discussed in my last post of resource pressures creating generalised stress which may be ‘referred’ elsewhere – onto other people, or onto other organisms. And it doesn’t establish any kind of historical truth that Malthus’s dark tale will always stay in the realms of fiction. After all, Boserup’s tale of ‘development’ through labour intensification is a pretty dark one itself.

Take my Londinium projections from a few posts back. Now imagine this scenario in Londinium a few years hence, which seems to me a possibility at least:

  • declining crop yields as a result of climate change
  • increasing energy prices
  • a global economic depression prompted by the unhappy confluence of public and private debt, stagnant growth and increasing social inequality
  • the steady withdrawal of basic agricultural commodities from global markets as governments prioritise national food security

A sensible government in those circumstances would probably develop a national food and farming policy with a heavy emphasis on cereal cropping. Let’s say it managed to furnish you with just about enough bread to keep the hunger pangs at bay. If you wanted anything much else to eat, you’d be sowing vegetable seeds in domestic gardens, training vines up walls, collaborating in community orchard ventures, joining neighbourhood pig clubs, and dreaming up as many plans for creative agricultural intensification in domestic spaces as you possibly could. Would you say you were experiencing a Malthusian crisis or going through a phase of Boserupian intensification? My friend, you’d be too busy gardening to care.

Anyway, let us suppose that we’re in such a situation, and the future portents are only looking worse. What are the available options? There are four main strategies, three of which are routinely discussed within the Malthusian framework, while the fourth – the most promising one, in my opinion – rarely is. Let me briefly summarize them.

1. The technical fix. This is pretty much Plan A, B, C and Z for most of the world’s governments and would-be governments. Not enough food? Figure out how to raise yields. Too much greenhouse gas? Figure out how to sequester carbon, deflect sunlight, or whatever. Malthus is vanquished by scientific progress. The problem with this is that you can’t guarantee you’ll come up with a fix in time. And even if you do, new solutions beget new problems and rebound effects, so you may just be kicking the can down the road until it turns into an even bigger and more intractable problem later on. Usually, technical fixes are only proximal engineering solutions to underlying social problems – and those problems remain. I still think it can be a good idea to pursue technical solutions. I don’t think it’s a good idea to pursue them as the main, still less the only, strategy to overcoming resource crises.

2. Embracing the fight. Alternatively, you can just embrace the gathering crisis and prepare to fight for your piece of the much-contested pie. But it’s a high-risk strategy. A lot of people seem to harbour the notion that they’ll be one of the ones to come out on top – kind of like the way that most people seem to think they’re a better than average driver. But in an all-out, civilization-shredding Malthusian crisis all bets are off. Thomas Hobbes famously wrote that in a ‘state of warre’ life was ‘nasty, brutish and short’, which is often interpreted as a historical argument for the progress of refined civilisation over rude barbarism. I’d interpret him to be saying rather that, absent some kind of non-violent proliferation treaty between people (in other words, absent politics), and we’re basically all losers. I’m sympathetic to the preppers and doomers who learn how to grow potatoes or handle a gun, partly because I can’t think of any reasons why it’s ever a bad idea to know how to provide for yourself, and mainly because I think the more people there are who understand the difficulties and compromises involved in self-provisioning, the closer we’ll be to a sustainable agrarian society. But ultimately almost no one can subsist alone, and all else is politics. The ones who know how to cultivate political alliances will do better than the ones who know how to cultivate potatoes – which will be a line of argument I’ll pursue more fully in Wessex and Londinium Part II.

3. Migration. The basic problem in a Malthusian crisis is that there are too many people in the denominator, so one of the easier fixes is for some of them to go somewhere else. This becomes increasingly hard to do as the ‘somewhere elses’ get filled up. The ‘Old World’ solved not a few of its problems in the short term by exporting a lot of its people to the ‘New World’, but it seems unlikely there are more New Worlds to be discovered (with the exception of outer space, a recurrent modernist dream which – a bit like nuclear fusion – has remained constantly unrealised to date). It’s possible that existing ‘worlds’ could be more densely settled by people using more land-intensive techniques (vegan smallholders on what was once extensive pasture, for example, as in my last-but-one post), or an otherwise Boserupian response to the Malthusian crisis. Doubtless there’s scope for migratory recolonizations of this sort, given the political will. But the problem here is a bit like the problem with the technical fix – without specific efforts to trim human lifeways so they fit extant ecological possibilities, migration or migratory intensification only delays the Malthusian moment. In his sad but lovely book about the encounter between farming and foraging peoples, The Other Side of Eden, Hugh Brody argues that, historically, farming societies have been the truly nomadic ones, forever parlaying their agrarian surpluses into surpluses of people, who ultimately must then seek their livelihood in new lands. When those lands have included foraging peoples, the results have usually been genocidal for the latter. In more recent times, importing service has had greater stress than exporting people, but the feeling remains that modern civilisation has been offloading the negative consequences of its actions onto other people or other organisms in ways that can ultimately only postpone rather than transcend its own reckoning with resource constraint.

4. Sub-critical juggling. Well, I know this is my hobbyhorse at the moment, but I think this way of thinking just doesn’t get its due. The logic of it goes roughly like this: no, humanity hasn’t yet transcended the Malthusian manacles of population excess relative to resource base and probably never will, but we potentially have some smart tricks up our sleeve to keep the old parson at bay so long as we avoid complacency. For starters, there are some techno-fixes that might be worth a try – typically of the humble common or garden variety (perhaps quite literally, eg. participatory plant breeding programmes) rather than the grandly revolutionary (eg. nuclear fusion). Then there’s the Boserupian turn to more labour and land intensive forms of agriculture, an approach sometimes pejoratively labelled by scholars as ‘involutionary’ (paradigmatically by the late Clifford Geertz3) but one which I suspect will prove a more enduring solution than ‘revolutionary’ modernist-industrial agriculture (more on this soon). A managed agricultural involution would be one strand of that larger effort alluded to above of trimming human lifeways to extant ecological possibilities, which in a sub-critical juggle scenario would also unfurl in arenas of consumption other than food. Finally, there’s the possibility that as the Malthusian shipwreck approaches, we avoid a Hobbesian rush to the lifeboats, a ‘warre of all against all’ under the cry of ‘everyone for themselves’, which risks killing a lot of people unnecessarily in the crush, and we do so by equalising chances and building collective sensibilities. Is it likely that human societies will adopt this sub-critical juggling approach? Well, perhaps not very – though I’d submit that it’s by far the most promising approach to avoid an unpleasant encounter with Malthus’s ghost. But it is a possible approach, and is not without its historical precedents. How so? Well, that will have to wait until we turn to Wessex and Londinium, Part II.

Notes

1. The books referred to in this paragraph are: Wickham, C. (2005) Framing the Early Middle Ages, Oxford; Boserup, E. (1965) The Conditions of Agricultural Growth, London; Richards, P. (1985) Indigenous Agricultural Revolution, London. On ‘agricultural involution’: Geertz, C. (1963) Agricultural Involution, Berkeley. On high level equilibrium traps, among others: Arrighi, G. (2007) Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century, London.

2. Boserup, op cit. p.14.

3. Geertz, op cit.

A taboo and a talisman

To start, just a quick summary of this site’s comment policy, which I’ve now added to the About page. No personally abusive comments directed towards me or other commenters, please. And no content of a racist, misogynist or otherwise prejudiced character, even if wrapped in a cloak of researcherly authenticity. Comments of this nature will be removed, and individuals with repeat infractions will be permanently barred. Final decision on the rules rests with me, with no discussion entered into. Well, at least there’s somewhere where I have sweeping executive powers. Though I’m hoping for political office along those lines in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex when it gets going. OK, enough said.

So now let’s get down to today’s business with a quiz question: Charles Darwin wrote “fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement X”. The work in question had a profound influence on Darwin’s thought: “Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work…” But what is X?

X was equally influential on Alfred Russel Wallace, co-originator of the theory of evolution by natural selection, who wrote: “But perhaps the most important book I read was X….It was the first great work I had yet read treating of any of the problems of philosophical biology…and twenty years later gave me the long-sought clue to the effective agent in the evolution of organic species.”

Darwin, and to a lesser extent Wallace, would surely be up there on many lists of the most influential scientists of all time. So you might expect the author of the mysterious X to be similarly feted. But that’s hardly the case. Karl Marx wrote of Thomas Malthus and his Essay on the Principle of Population, for that book is indeed the X in question, that it is “the great destroyer of all hankerings after human development”. There are plenty of people around today who’d say much the same of Marx, but that doesn’t seem to have helped rehabilitate Malthus. Things have moved on in the realm of ‘philosophical biology’, so I doubt contemporary evolutionary scientists find much need to read him. But every generation of social and political scientists seems to feel the obligation to disinter his remains, give them a good kicking, and then pronounce him buried once and for all.

Darwin’s thinking itself fell into eclipse in the early part of the twentieth century, prompting zoologist H.J. Muller to grumble “one hundred years without Darwinism are enough”. Which leads me to offer the following provocation: two hundred and nineteen years without Malthus are enough.

Let me explain why. First of all, it’s worth saying that while Malthus’s writing on population is virtually the only part of his work that gets discussed today, he was also a pioneering economist who was among the first to write about economic booms and busts, and the relative merits of protecting local markets or opening them up to wider competition – topics he debated lengthily with another founding father, David Ricardo. It was, in a sense, the original debate about localism and globalism, and it was one that Malthus lost both intellectually and politically. But with the economics of 2008 and the politics of 2016 ringing in our ears today, it seems to me that Malthus’s key economic concerns, if not necessarily his actual economics, are up for grabs again. Are open private markets, with their boom-bust cycles and their vast global flows of people and goods, the best way of securing human wellbeing? The number of people who think so in the world today seems to be diminishing.

Well, perhaps I’ll come back to Malthus’s economics in a later post. For now, let me follow the crowds and say a few words about his thinking on population.

The basics of the issue are simply stated. Malthus postulated that if otherwise unchecked the natural increase in the population of a species tends to outrun the resource base it needs to support itself, leading to misery and famine – a cruel way indeed for population and resources to return to equilibrium. It’s easy to see why this excited the interest of Darwin and Wallace. Overpopulation was a natural felling mechanism, selecting those individuals best able to cope with contemporary conditions. Played out over deep time, the result is evolution from one species to another.

But, the objection routinely goes, people aren’t just natural creatures subject to natural selection. We’re social creatures, and we make our own reality. So if the food supply starts diminishing we figure out ways to increase it, like inventing agriculture. Agriculture, however, can readily be assimilated to the ‘natural’, as part of humanity’s extended phenotype. So those who claim that Malthusian limits don’t apply to humans are effectively assigning our species the status of permanent evolutionary winners. Hmmm, well our species is still a latecomer in the evolutionary parade. And Malthus himself was writing only three lifetimes ago, not even an eye-blink in evolutionary time. Has humanity beaten evolution, and proven Malthus wrong? It’s far too soon to tell.

Henry George was a relatively early objector to Malthus along these lines of self-creating human exceptionalism:

“Both the jayhawk and the man eat chickens; but the more jayhawks, the fewer chickens, while the more men, the more chickens.”

Much latter-day anti-Malthusianism scarcely advances beyond George’s comment, while usually falling short of his aphoristic brio. But there’s a problem with it. George should have written “Both the jayhawk and the man eat chickens; but the more jayhawks, the fewer chickens, while the more men, the more chickens, though the fewer jayhawks”. In other words, humanity doesn’t just conjure extra chickens out of nowhere with a snap of its high-tech fingers. It does it mostly by drawing down on extra resources at the expense of the biota as a whole, and perhaps ultimately at its own expense. It’s not a completely zero-sum game. It’s possible to imagine ways that people might raise more chickens without significant extra detriment to the rest of the biota. But not many. If you look at biotic relationships holistically instead of dyadically as George did, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that humanity (well, some of humanity anyway) has escaped the Malthusian crunch by passing the buck on to other species, creating ‘overpopulation’ crises among them from exogenous habitat loss. Kind of a ‘referred’ Malthusian crisis that hasn’t affected its progenitors – yet.

Maybe as a result of falling human fertility rates and further technical developments, we’ll continue to evade the crunch. In that circumstance, how many other species we might carry through with us is pretty unclear, and its implications dependent on how dark green or biocentric you like your environmental philosophy. Mine, I have to confess, is quite light in hue, and I don’t especially hanker after a world undisturbed by the hand of humanity. Even so, I can’t help feeling that something must be philosophically and indeed spiritually wrong when our modern lives seem to be causing a mass extinction event on a geological scale. Nor does it seem wholly plausible to me that we will ultimately evade the evolutionary cliff that we’re so busy shepherding our fellow creatures over.

But are we facing a human Malthusian crisis right now? For the most part, the answer seems to be ‘no’. I’ve shown, for example, in my various recent projections of food production in a more populous future UK that it’s relatively easy to grow a lot of food for a lot of people using simple farming techniques – though the figures are a little too close for comfort to my liking, and it wouldn’t take much of a disturbance, perhaps just a small climate change tipping point for example, to pitch us into a crisis.

Well, it’s impossible to say whether a date with Malthus looms in the future (and what a truly unappealing prospect such an evening would be). What interests me more in the here and now is the way that members of my own particular tribe, the social scientists, seek to banish the very possibility of a future Malthusian crisis through what strikes me as an essentially superstitious practice, a touching of the talisman, which if it were observed by an anthropologist from another planet might well give them pause to wonder why Homo academicus var. social scientiensis goes to such irrational lengths to avoid the taboo of Malthusian constraint.

The talisman invoked by the social scientists to steer clear of the Malthusian taboo has the structure of a three-card trick. First up are the economists, who argue that as resource constraints loom, input prices increase, and this stimulates people to find lower cost substitutes. I won’t dwell on the problems with this line of reasoning. But I like this comment from David Fleming: “Every civilisation has had its irrational but reassuring myth. Previous civilisations have used their culture to sing about it and tell stories about it. Ours has used its mathematics to prove it”1.

The second card is the strongest in the hand, and it belongs variously to the historians, sociologists and political economists. Humans, they point out, are social creatures, so the trajectory of Malthusian crisis is never experienced simply as ineluctable natural constraint, but always as some kind of human conflict whose details can’t just be read off from the resource constraint itself. This is undoubtedly true. But social scientists being social scientists, they do like to push the logic of that argument a long way towards an emphasis on the social basis of resource constraint – to the extent of arguing, for example, that the whole idea of ‘scarcity’ is something of a fiction worked on the unsuspecting masses by the ideology of capitalism2. Well, I think there’s some truth in that (I am, after all, a social scientist), but only some truth. Ultimately, on a small planet with upwards of 7 billion large, hungry, human omnivores, some things are probably going to have to give whatever the economic ideology.

The third card belongs mostly to the anthropologists. Now, I have a soft spot for anthropologists, having at one point been kinda sorta one myself. The great thing about anthropologists is that they study people up close and in detail, which helps them avoid airy generalities. But the problem is that sometimes a bit of generalising isn’t such a bad idea, if you’ll excuse the generality. Take, for example, the anthropologist Christopher Taylor’s critique of Jared Diamond’s thesis in the latter’s book Collapse3, that population pressure on agricultural land was one of the factors underlying the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Taylor begins by acknowledging that such Malthusian pressure is indeed intense, but it can’t explain why the genocide erupted in 1994 specifically, when land pressure long predated it, nor can it explain why many of the génocidaires weren’t land hungry peasants. He lays out an alternative explanation in relation to contemporary geopolitics, colonial history and a specific local political culture history.

Now, I must admit that I’m not a big fan of Diamond’s writing, and I find many of the criticisms levelled at him by social scientists plausible. But he did take pains to suggest that population pressure was only one of several factors behind the genocide, and provided evidence that was at least suggestive of the possibility. Taylor’s response merely sidesteps the point. He concludes “Rwandans think about their leaders, their social system, and their place in this world in their own terms, not as Westerners, who try to find “scientific” reasons for cultural catastrophes”4. But it’s not especially controversial in social science to adduce reasons for the occurrence of human events which aren’t explicitly articulated by the humans involved themselves. If there was population pressure in Rwanda, it might have manifested in the form of generalised stress which found specific expression through pre-existing cultural, historical and political identities that had little to do with economic status per se. Is Malthus so beyond the pale that an explanation relating the genocide only partly to population pressure on land can’t even be entertained? And if so, consider the implications. First, that the catastrophe of the genocide must be explicable only in terms of local cultural responses to circumstances – which is surely as troubling a position politically as Diamond’s putatively ethnocentric universalism, implying as it does that Rwandans have a cultural predilection for genocide. Goodness knows where that kind of thinking can lead – maybe to incoherently racist quasi-academic theories about the character of ‘African culture’ which find their way onto the blogs of innocent small-scale farmers. And second, that if people are eminently capable of genocidal violence in the absence of any kind of Malthusian pressure, then just think what horrors await if such pressures do occur.

One of the main objections to Malthus indeed is his unsavoury politics, though a theory of ‘philosophical biology’ surely stands or falls on its own terms, rather than on the politics of its progenitor. After all, Darwin himself wrote a few things about the people he met on his travels around the world that sound a bit queasy to the modern ear, but nobody suggests that this somehow undermines his evolutionary theories. It’s not that I particularly want to defend Malthus’s pro-property and anti-poor views. Though I’ve read one or two quotations from his work supposedly demonstrating his incorrigible elitism that strike me as at least ambiguous. In some passages, his point rather seems to be that it’s a good idea to have a plan in order to avoid a resource crisis, and the poor are best off organising politically and using their labour as a weapon in order to improve their lot. Sounds like good advice to me. I don’t doubt there are other parts of his oeuvre that I’d find indefensible. Still, I do wonder if the opprobrium heaped on Malthus might have something to do with truths that strike a little too close to home. A recent blog commenter wrote of Malthus “It’s a bit crazy that we are, in the 21st century, still using concepts devised at the end of the 18th, to discuss our problems”. Well, maybe so – but if you’re going to bid Malthus on this one, then I’ll raise you Edmund Burke and Adam Smith.

Notes

  1. Fleming, D. 2016. Lean Logic, Chelsea Green, p.123.
  1. Panayotakis, C. 2011. Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy, Pluto.
  1. Diamond, J. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Penguin.
  1. Taylor, C. 2010. ‘Rwandan genocide: towards an explanation in which history and culture matter’ in McAnany, P. & Yoffee, N. (eds) Questioning Collapse, Cambridge UP, p.267.