To find my resting place

So many lines of enquiry left open from recent posts, and so many other things calling me away from my true vocation, which (obviously) is churning out these blog posts… Ah well, patience, patience – we’ll come to them all in the end, I hope. It’s like good old-fashioned British public services – it’s free, so you’ll just have to wait in line and accept what you’re given…

…which on this occasion is a somewhat unfinished post that’s been sitting in the pending tray for quite some time. But I’m going to publish it now in its naked state so I can polish off some other jobs – and if you read it, at least you’ll get a glimpse of what it’s like down in the Small Farm Future engine room. The post follows on quite naturally from the last – indeed, perhaps I risk the accusation that I’m over-labouring the same point, even down to picking over the same article by Paul Kingsnorth. If so, apologies in advance – we’ll move on to something different next time.

My broad theme is nationalism, identity, immigration and the places we call home (the title, incidentally, is from a Burning Spear song that I used to listen to a lot. It seems vaguely relevant).

I thought I’d start with a brief bit of my own (migrant) family history by telling the tales of my four grandparents, which I hope will help me illustrate a few points.

My mother’s father was a Yorkshire coalminer who fought in the trenches in World War I, and despite these two risky enterprises lived to a ripe old age. His grandfather had migrated to the South Yorkshire coalfields from Aberdeenshire. His grandfather’s grandfather, born in 1799, ran a smallholding in that part of Scotland and so far as I know was my last direct ancestor whose work life was devoted to farming.

My mother’s mother was the daughter of a Yorkshire miner, some of whose family had migrated there from the coalfields of South Wales. He was killed in a pit explosion along with most of the other men on his shift not long after she was born, and in those pre-welfare state days her mother struggled mightily to raise her four children alone, along with many of the other women of the village widowed by the mine. My grandmother said that if it hadn’t been for the help of the Salvation Army she fears her family would have been destitute.

My father’s father moved from factory work in northwest England to London, where he eventually became a teacher and lay Baptist preacher. Some of his ancestors were East European Jews who had moved to the Netherlands, taken citizenship there (the Netherlands being the first European country to grant citizenship to Jews in 1819) and then migrated to Britain, changing their surname from Smaaje-Halevi to Smaje in the charmingly naïve belief that English speakers would find ‘Smaje’ any easier to pronounce. I think the Judaism pretty much disappeared with the migration and the name change. One of the Smajes married a woman from Somerset, where I now live.

My father’s mother was born to Protestants in Northern Ireland (whose ancestors were no doubt of Scottish or English origin), moving to London after marrying my grandfather. My father grew up in London and my mother met him there after moving from Yorkshire to work in London. When my brother and I were born my parents moved out of London to somewhere they could afford a house, and I grew up in a semi-rural village about thirty miles outside London. After some years of living in London myself, I now live in northeast Somerset, about a hundred miles from where I grew up.

There are five points I’d like to make by way of – I hope not unreasonable – generalisation from that potted family history.

First, I reckon my pedigree as a true blue southern Englishman is probably about as good as most other people of my tribe – which is to say, not very good at all.

Second, in England (and Scotland) probably more than most countries it’s a pretty long time since many people have been working rural land. For those of us who seek a small farm future here, we will not find its workforce by looking among the current stock of farming folk.

Third, as my grandmother’s mother found out, living in a small village among known neighbours doesn’t necessarily make the vicissitudes of life easy to negotiate. The kindness of strangers – in this case, the Salvation Army – can be a boon.

Fourth, people tend to move to where there are opportunities for work. The potential paths are many, but the ones my forebears took are scarcely surprising – from East Europe to the Netherlands, and Britain. From Scotland and Wales to England. From Yorkshire to London. From periphery to core, as historical sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein likes to put it.

And finally, even though I’ve spent almost all my life living in southern England there isn’t a single patch of earth in this whole wide world where somebody doesn’t have a better claim than me to truly be a local. Maybe that applies to my daughter too, who was born here in Frome. My guess is that it probably applies to the majority of the world’s people.

Seeking what he calls a benevolent green nationalism, in a recent article Paul Kingsnorth had this to say:

“It must be 20 years since I read the autobiography of the late travel writer Norman Lewis, The World, The World, but the last sentence stays with me. Wandering the hills of India, Lewis is asked by a puzzled local why he spends his life travelling instead of staying at home. What is he looking for? “I am looking for the people who have always been there,” replies Lewis, “and belong to the places where they live. The others I do not wish to see.”

That sentence has stayed with me too, because it makes Lewis sound like a total arse – partly because if you spend all your time travelling in search of the authentically rooted it seems to me that you’re kind of missing the point, and partly because of the alt-modern sensibility underlying Lewis’s contempt for the unrooted people – the global majority, wandering mongrels like me and my ancestors, the herd, the untermensch, the plastic people, the unreal people, rootless cosmopolitans. These are some of the names I’ve heard.

We sorely need in the world today some stronger ways of relating people more authentically to place, but for me any doctrine that “does not wish to see” the unemplaced multitudes is a non-starter, and a potentially dangerous one at that. One of the dangers is that after a couple of centuries of state-nationalist propaganda, we’ve become far too ready to connect a love of place or the comforting rhythms of the local to the designs of our emphatically non-local polities.

For example, when asked why he’d volunteered to fight in World War I, the writer Edward Thomas famously scooped up a handful of English soil and said “Literally, for this”. I’d be more sympathetic if he’d said “Figuratively, for this” and then provided some kind of rationale that linked his affinity for the decayed humic residues of the various organisms he was holding in his hand – whose distribution in few cases is limited to England alone – with the machinations of the British imperial government in its contest with Austria-Hungary and other jostling political powers of the world system. But no, the trick of nationalism is to leave such things unsaid, inciting our minds to make strange connections between the local things and people we love and abstract entities like England, empire or state.

Unlike Thomas, my grandfather wasn’t a poet or an author. He was a soldier, a miner and a gardener who rented his allotment and his house. Apparently, he never spoke about the war. I wonder if he would have endorsed Thomas’s sentiments – I believe that many enlisted men did. Or would he have endorsed this alternatively earthy metaphor from the Ed Pickford/Dick Gaughan Worker’s Song:

But when the sky darkens and the prospect is war/ Who’s given a gun and then pushed to the fore / And expected to die for the land of our birth / When we’ve never owned one handful of earth?

oOo

Humans are an inherently migratory, patch-disturbing, neophilic species. It’s a fair bet that even among the people “who have always been there”, most of them haven’t been there for all that long, and have lived as they do now for less time still. As discussed on this site recently, even the individuals who are most genetically remote from each other on earth share a common ancestor who lived no more than a few thousand years ago. We’re also an inherently self-conscious species. One of the best reasons I can think of for the need for us to relate more authentically to our local places is that if we don’t there’s a fair chance we’ll soon be screwed, so it makes sense for us to reckon with that fact and act accordingly…

…And one of the best ways to relate more authentically to our local places is to produce our livelihoods from them with a minimum of exotic energy imports. My feeling is that people who are able, self-consciously, to do this are more likely to have a rich sense of emplacement and inherent self-worth that’s uncomplicated by local pride, still less by any kind of “my country, right or wrong” abstract nationalism. Where they live is special and is also nothing special. Exotic people, the foreign-born, are welcome to find a place alongside the local-born if they’re playing the same livelihood game. Perhaps more than welcome – they may bring some new knowledges. As Joe Clarkson observed on this site a while back, trustworthiness in such a society is something that can be earned on the basis of being a provider of food or other materials. Little else really matters.

The state, the political centre, has both nothing and everything to do with this. It has nothing to do with it inasmuch as it has no call on people’s emotional attachments to the places that they live, and to the people that live there. If you wouldn’t lay down your life for an abstraction like the EU, why would you lay it down for an abstraction like England? For your family, for your farm, for your ‘community’…well…

It has everything to do with the state inasmuch as, absenting total civilizational breakdown, the kind of locality society I’m describing can only be delivered by a state that’s centralised at some level and is constituted as the servant of such a society, rather than one that constitutes itself as its master, drawing local legitimacy upwards to its own purposes. Fat chance of that, you might say, and I’d have to concede the scale of the task. But at least it specifies where the work has to be done and the nature of what’s involved. In the wake of Trump and Brexit, I’ve seen too many liberals and leftists rapidly backtracking on their former commitments to multiculturalism, multinationalism, multilateralism, cosmopolitanism and other such standard fare of the left in the hope they can keep the wolves at bay by throwing them some tasty sacrificial morsels from their new-found communitarianism. I think it’s the wrong strategy. The shifting norms won’t keep the wolves at bay, but merely encourage them.

Many nomadic foraging cultures have learned from bitter experience that individual egos need to be kept in check for the greater good of the band as a whole. So a hunter returning to camp never brags about his kill for fear of social reprisal. “Terrible hunting today,” he might say, “Just couldn’t seem to aim straight. All I got was a couple of stringy morsels I’ve left by the fire.” Whereupon the rest of the group rushes to the fire, knowing they’re in for a huge feast. For the hunter’s meat, I’d submit our modern nations. Don’t heft your soil in your hand and use it as a metonym for England. Heft it and say instead well this soil is poor stuff – worse, I’m sure, than the fine soils of your country – but it’s the soil I know best. Maybe there’ll come a time when you’ll feel you have to fight for that poor soil of home. But if that happens, I think you’ll be able to narrate a better logic for your fight than Edward Thomas could for his. Soil is no excuse to go looking for a fight.

I suspect that the imaginary attachment between soil and nation-state affected by the likes of Thomas comes more readily to us modern arrivistes, the people that Norman Lewis does not wish to see. People generally seek emotional attachment to something bigger than their own horizons, and over the last couple of centuries a lot of work has been put into making the nation-state seem the obvious choice to people living sub/urban lives where the groundedness of a productive soil or a known community is missing. It’s possible to overstate this case. Local farming isn’t the only way to have an authentic relationship with the universe, local farmers aren’t necessarily immune from the siren song of nationalism, and not everyone who lives in the city mourns its implicit alienation.

Still, I think there’s a stronger truth to it than will be found rummaging around in the wardrobe of the nation-state to find some benevolent green nationalist clothing. Nationalism is too self-consciously constructed and too wrapped up in the legitimation of centralised political power to proffer benevolence. It’s better to serve the soil and its organisms than it is to serve “this sceptred isle…this England” (interesting that Shakespeare should have put those words into John of Gaunt’s mouth in a play about a changing world where medieval honour is usurped by scheming and statecraft). There are numerous ways to serve the soil that have no connection with political power, and that are available to everyone, whether they’ve “always been there” or not. In fact, if you haven’t “always been there” probably the major way you can start belonging to the place where you live is to start serving its soil. Most likely, that’s how the people who’ve always been there pulled it off when they first arrived.

“How long have you been here?” is a question freighted with well-known political dangers that we seem to be courting once again in the contemporary world. In a local farm society “Would you like to join us for lunch?” is a safer (if not entirely innocent) way of playing status games. But what I’ve said here operates mostly at the level of individuals and communities. I see no role for nationalism, benevolent green or otherwise among them. But I haven’t said anything about immigration and the larger interactions of states and civilisations. Ah well, there’s always the next post. Or more likely one of the ones after that.

Florence, Texas

First, a quick bit of housekeeping. I think my RSS feed has stopped working, but I want to check with anyone who might subscribe to this blog by that route. If you’d be so good as to send me a message via the Contact Form to that effect I’d be grateful – you could just put a message in the subject line saying ‘Feed working’ or ‘Feed not working’. Many thanks. Alternative ways of keeping updated about the blog are via Facebook or by following me on Twitter. What a virtual world I live in. It’ll all end in tears – you read it here first. But in the meantime, I’m about to establish yet another way of keeping up with Small Farm Future in the form of a monthly digest of blogs and other publications from the Smajian stable. If you want to be sure of keeping abreast of the Small Farm Future world, drop me a line via the Contact Form and I’ll put you on the list.

Right, now down to business. I’d like to raise a standard in this post for two doctrines that I think speak to our troubled times. I’ve discussed them both before, but it occurs to me that perhaps I haven’t brought them together systematically enough or thought about them conjointly with enough clarity. This is a preliminary effort to do so, which as it happens also bears on some of the debates emerging out of a few of my recent posts. The doctrines I have in mind are civic republicanism (that’s the Florence part of my title) and agrarian populism (the Texas part). Let me explain…

It’s a commonplace of anti-establishment politics nowadays to oppose globalisation and neoliberalism – and even to oppose ‘liberalism’ without the ‘neo’, as in critiques of the machinations of the much-derided ‘liberal elites’. I’m pretty much signed up to this agenda, but I’m not signed up to invoking in place of global neoliberalism some kind of communitarian localist alternative that’s assumed to be a superior pre-political ‘natural’ community – clan, tribe, nation, ethnic group, ‘the local community’ and so on. This is for three reasons.

First, such identities usually turn out to be much less ‘natural’ than their proponents like to claim. They rarely reach back to some pre-political, essential or unproblematic claim on people’s emotions and loyalties. Instead they emerge from other – usually quite recent – processes of political claim-making. As Immanuel Wallerstein put it “first the boundaries, then the passions”.

Second, these identity claims can be dangerously exclusive, not only towards the claims made by other peoples outside the group, but also towards alternative claims made by people within it – I get an inkling of this when I see people who argue for greater parliamentary oversight of Britain’s farcical Brexit negotiations denounced as “enemies of the people”. While the existing global neoliberal order is dangerously exclusive too, I don’t see the virtue in exchanging one kind of dangerous exclusivity for another.

Third, while the manufactured contemporary neo/liberal political community is certainly problematic, that doesn’t mean it’s necessary to give up on the notion of any kind of manufactured political community. Indeed, I’d argue that all political communities have to be manufactured, and the sooner we give up the notion of ‘natural’, pre-political communities and their virtues the better. The ‘recovering environmentalist’ Paul Kingsnorth pushes a bald dichotomy between ‘globalism’ on the one hand and what he calls “people’s deep, old attachment to tribe, place and identity” on the other. Not so fast, sir. Can there not be a constructed, political, deliberative kind of particularistic moral community that we don’t just assume into existence on the basis of its ‘depth’ or ‘antiquity’?

Enter civic republicanism. It’s a political tradition with roots in the classical world that was given its modern shape by the much-maligned Niccolò Machiavelli of Florence (hence the ‘Florence’ of my title) and arguably last had real political traction during the early years of the US republic in the thought of people like Thomas Jefferson. It lost politically to the ‘modern’ doctrines of liberalism and socialism, but now that those doctrines seem to have run their course, bequeathing the world numerous problems in their wake, civic republicanism has enjoyed a mini-revival, albeit so far mostly just in the writing of political philosophers rather than in much real-world politics.

A thumbnail definition of civic republicanism would be that it’s a form of politics founded on interdependent, individual citizens, who form a political community by deliberating and forging common goods or ‘values’ as the basis of living politically together. In this respect, it’s different from,

(a) libertarianism, which is focused on individual rights, not common goods

(b) liberalism, which is focused on defining political practice not political outcomes

(c) socialism, which focuses on class-based restitution of inequality (and ideology)

(d) communitarianism, which (like Kingsnorth) focuses on a ‘natural’, pre-political basis for the polity

I think all of these traditions have something to commend them (communitarianism is the one that impresses me the least), but a version of civic republicanism seems to me best fitted to creating viable post-global, post-capitalist, ecologically-sustainable societies.

I’ll try to lay out in more detail what such a version might look like in a future post. I guess for now I’d just say that I share the high value placed by liberalism and libertarianism on individual rights and freedom (contrast it with arbitrary legal process and a coercive political economy), but I don’t think those principles always supervene over common goods (eg. the freedom to erode away your farm soil in pursuit of short-term profit). And I share with socialism an understanding of the corrosive nature of unchecked private wealth which often has a class structuring, but without the confidence of socialism that class rather than citizenship can act as the motor of restitution, or that equality rather than justice represents a preferred end-state. I also share with parts of the socialist tradition the idea that values are shaped collectively and systematically – that is to say that we’re shaped by ideology. But I’m not sure that there’s such a thing as ‘scientific socialism’ which escapes ideological blinkers.

In a recent post I invoked libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick’s ‘framework for utopias’ as a way of thinking about a sustainable post-capitalist future, to a mixed reception. I suppose I was unconsciously motivated by a civic republican impulse to suggest that if you take individual rights seriously, you can’t have untrammelled freedom unless you make the implausible assumption that individual freedom inevitably promotes collective freedom, ie. common goods or agreed common values (much of the ‘New Optimist’ school of thought – Steven Pinker, the ecomodernists etc. – seems to me like so many attempts to shore up this assumption…implausibly.) Since we can’t all choose our ideal utopia and go to live there, I think Nozick’s framework pushes us towards a civic republican need to determine common goods deliberatively. With hindsight, I think some of the ensuing discussion (including my own) about individualism, independence and collectivism under that post would have benefitted from a civic republican lens, and a sharper focus on ideology.

One of the problems with civic republicanism is that it’s hard to create and maintain a community of citizens in the face of other political forms. The present global capitalist order, undergirded by libertarianism/liberalism, generates vast wealth for the few which is partly coopted (increasingly badly) by states and used to buy off enough of the many to keep the lid on the system. Socialist alternatives have typically involved claims originating among the many for a bigger piece of the pie, usually based on well-founded class ressentiment and often accompanied by a utopian belief that this class project will somehow result in universal benefit for all. As the class basis for the socialisms of the 19th and 20th centuries has frayed, many contemporary socialisms seem to have narrowed into a kind of cargo cult version of capitalism, of relations over essences, until we reach the final materialist essence of the ‘fully automated luxury communism’ variety, in its more sophisticated (Kate Raworth, Paul Mason, Nick Srnicek) or less sophisticated (Leigh Phillips) forms. Historically, civic republicanism has often been the preserve of small-scale, tightly-organised and quite militaristic societies, defending their common goods from the barbarians at the gate. I fear that it may operate like that in the future too, against any number of capitalist, socialist or nativist ‘barbarians’, but one can always hope.

I’ve recently come across an excellent essay by Eric Freyfogle, a sympathetic critique of Wendell Berry’s thought which, among other things, emphasises his debt to and his divergences from civic republicanism. One of Freyfogle’s points, which bears on my recent post about personal behaviour and ecological damage, is that Berry strongly emphasises individual morality and individual culpability in the aggregate for our contemporary ecological bads. For Freyfogle, Berry’s approach “largely blames the individual for problems that are far bigger than the individual. It increases the level of guilt in a way that can detract attention from the larger failures of collective responsibility”.

Freyfogle goes on to make the argument that as a citizen I might support government action that penalises or disincentivises profligate fossil-fuel use, while as an individual I might continue to avail myself of the opportunities afforded by cheap fossil fuels – a situation in which I think many of us, most certainly me, find ourselves today. A typical response is to think that our individual behaviour reveals our ‘true’ character, revealing our citizenship activism as mere hypocrisy. Certainly this seems to be Berry’s view. Freyfogle demurs from it, on the grounds that it overemphasises the importance of individual choices made in isolation as both the true mirror of our character and the most significant domain for political change. As I suggested in my ‘Be the change’ post, and others suggested in the discussion, it may be a good idea to de-emphasise this religious dimension of ecological action as personal morality and to place more emphasis on our actions as interdependent political citizens in defining common goods. Civic republicanism offers one means of doing so.

Shifting focus somewhat now, I’ve long argued for a version of agrarian populism or left agrarian populism as a key to future sustainable societies. An important intellectual ancestor in this respect is Alexander Chayanov, a Russian economist of peasant farming who was murdered in Stalin’s gulag and whose ideas keep getting murdered by later generations of Marxists. Jan Douwe van der Ploeg’s Peasants and the Art of Farming: A Chayanovian Manifesto is a brilliant (if unfortunately rather turgidly written) reconstruction of Chayanov’s thought for the present age – other writers like James Scott, Paul Richards and Eric Wolf have also freshened up Chayanovian perspectives in more recent times. There have also been numerous agrarian populist political movements around the world, probably the best known in ‘western’/Anglo-US consciousness being the Farmers’ Alliance and the People’s Party that briefly rose to prominence in the late 19th century USA out of its Texan heartlands (hence the ‘Texas’ of my title).

I’ve spent time pondering whether these older agrarian populist movements have much to teach us today about a politics for modern times. The answer proffered by US historians has varied according to intellectual fashion and the prevailing political winds – from Frederick Jackson Turner’s ‘No’ (1890s) to John D. Hicks ‘Yes’ (1930s) to Richard Hofstadter’s ‘No’ (1950s) to Lawrence Goodwyn’s ‘Yes’ (1970s) to Charles Postel’s ‘Not much’ (2000s). I feel inclined to side with Postel…but also with Ploeg. I think we need to recuperate the economics of the family or peasant farm, and the Chayanovian tradition can help us with that. But to achieve it politically, I think past agrarian populist movements are of limited use. For Postel, US agrarian populism was less far removed than is often supposed from the liberal politics that supplanted it, whereas for Freyfogle “the Populists rose and fell because their moral dreams lacked any means of accomplishment”. Civic republicanism offers a stronger political frame to hang an agrarian populist economics from, but I think is also caught on the horns of that dilemma.

Meanwhile, populism has now taken on a very different cast in western politics with the election of Donald Trump, the UK’s Brexit vote and the rise of far-right populist parties across Europe. These events have prompted many anguished liberal disavowals of the ‘populist threat’ recently, such as in books by Yascha Mount and William Galston that are skewered by Thomas Frank in an interesting recent review. For Frank – as for many other commentators, like John Michael Greer – the rise of US populism stems from the abandonment of ordinary working people by the political class, and particularly by ‘the left’ and the Democratic Party. “Reduced to its essentials” says Frank “populism is America’s way of expressing class antagonism….Anyone can be the voice of those who work, and when one party renounces its claim the other can easily pick it up”. A problem he diagnoses in much current liberal antipathy to contemporary populism is complete ignorance of past populist traditions and why they arose.

A great advantage of Frank over someone like Greer is that he isn’t taken in by Trump’s populist posturing:

“The right name for Trump’s politics is “demagoguery” or “pseudo-populism”. By lumping him together with the genuine reform tradition of populism, we do that tradition a violent disservice.”

I’d go so far as to say that we do that tradition a disservice even by calling Trump a pseudo-populist. Sure, he borrows a few scraps of rhetoric from the populist rulebook like economic protectionism, but with none of the accompanying vision and intent. I suppose there is an identifiable right-wing populism which he recycles in his rhetoric – anti-immigrant, anti-liberal, anti-intellectual, nationalist/nativist, and rhetorically supportive of working people, or at least working men. It’s a shame that it goes by the same name as the reformist tradition Frank identifies, because the two have little in common.

In the UK, the Brexit campaign lacked even Trump’s thin veneer of populist reformism. It was sustained largely by elixirs of neoliberalism and haughty isolationism. I’ll confess that my reaction here at Small Farm Future to the Brexit and Trump results perhaps borrowed a little from the horrified liberal zeitgeist. It invited accusations that I wasn’t a proper populist, which suits me fine because I doubt I’m a ‘proper’ anything. But Frank’s intervention encourages me to think that in part it was the reaction of a horrified populist seeing the tradition hijacked – and watching commentators like Greer turn into apologists for the hijacking.

There’s also perhaps some transatlantic confusion here. As far as I’m able to discern from my distant vantage point, it does seem that in the US many conservatives have finally decided that they don’t much like capitalism and globalisation. Good for them. What I think they can’t then do is pull a Greer and pin all the evils of capitalism, the market and globalisation on the left/Democrats as if the right/Republicans are unsullied by the same associations. But this whole political iteration doesn’t work in the UK where the right/Conservatives remain wedded to neoliberalism, albeit with a few nationalistic twists, while the left/Labour attempts to extricate itself from Blairite neoliberal globalism and articulate a social democratic vision grounded in national sovereignty. Both parties are mired in what strike me as irresolvable contradictions, though it seems to me that Labour has more potential to emerge out of them with something akin to US-style reformist-populism.

If and when it does, I think it’ll be plunged immediately into the kind of contradictions faced by civic republicanism – how to create an engaged citizenry, how to defend the republic from disintegrative alternative forces, how to define agreement around common goods. But at least these are problems worth wrestling with. By contrast, how to make America great again is not a problem worth wrestling with.

For my part, I think I need to wrestle some more with the overlaps and contradictions between the various traditions I’ve identified here as a possible base for sustainable future societies: civic republicanism, agrarian populism, the individual rights focus of libertarianism and probably the justice and ideology focus of leftism, broadly conceived. I’d also like to acknowledge the importance, noted by Kingsnorth, of attachment to place, but without making it the basis of competitive or exclusionary political identity. So for me the siren songs of nationalism, nativism, communitarianism and Trumpian demagoguery, as well as neoliberalism, are all part of the problems that must be overcome.

Talkin’ bout a revolution: a response to the Breakthrough Institute

The Breakthrough Institute have published a response to my critical commentary on a recent post of theirs. Here I continue the debate, because I think it might clarify some worthwhile issues. I’d like to thank Dan Blaustein-Rejto and Kenton De Kirby (henceforth B&D) for engaging constructively with me – a welcome improvement on what’s come my way from some previous Breakthrough folk.

Broadly, the issue between us is our different visions of agrarian, and therefore human, futures. I stress more people working on more small farms and a degree of deurbanisation, they stress increases in farm scale, a continued agrarian-urban transition out of agriculture and an emphasis on yield increase. On some points, I’d suggest our differences are not as great as B&D suppose: for example, I’m not necessarily for small farms and against yield increases or the use of synthetic fertiliser in all eventualities. But we’ll come to that.

I’m going to structure my response under three headings: change, ‘development’ and wealth.

Change

B&D suggest that my vision involves revolutionary change that would have to reverse robust global trends, and therefore isn’t feasible. My first response to that is to ask what makes a trend ‘robust’ and irreversible. Suppose, for example, that global trade rulings force countries with large populations of poor farmers to open their markets to rich-country agricultural commodities and to abandon food price controls and social welfare provision. We’d surely expect life to get tougher for the poor farmers and for them to seek other sources of income in place of or in addition to their dwindling farm income. Well, that’s pretty much what’s happened over recent decades. You could say that it’s a ‘robust trend’. But it’s a robust trend that’s resulted from policy decisions – and other policy decisions are possible.

There are other trends much more robust than the ones I’m lobbying to reverse that attract less fatalism than B&D apply to agrarian transitions. For example, the sexual harassment of women by men has a long historical pedigree, but nobody seems to be arguing against the #MeToo movement on the grounds that predatory male sexuality is a ‘robust trend’. To invoke a trend as an argument against a policy proposal risks turning an ‘is’ into an ‘ought’. Doubtless it could be argued that #MeToo has a greater chance of reversing male sexual aggression than a neo-peasant movement has of reversing current global agrarian and economic trends. It would be interesting to see such an argument laid out, because I think it could be quite revealing of where the obstacles lie. Meanwhile, I’d say ‘low chance of success’ is not the same as ‘bad idea’.

I want to push further at that last point. The word ‘revolutionary’ has numerous connotations, not all of which I embrace, but I’m happy to accept that my stance involves a commitment to ‘revolutionary’ change in some sense of the term. Our present epoch is revolutionary through and through, so I’m not sure describing a proposed change as ‘revolutionary’ really counts against it. Proponents of mainstream agriculture happily talk about the ‘green revolution’, while other analysts describe the early 20th century mechanisation of farming in the wealthy countries as ‘the second agricultural revolution of modern times’1. The 20th century was garlanded with political revolutions, many of them with small-scale farmers at their heart. But the capitalist global economy has been the most revolutionary force of all. It’s constantly made and remade the world with a success that I think stems less from the over-emphasised fact that it’s what everyone wants, as B&D imply, than from the fact that its unparalleled powers of wealth creation have been locked in by mutually-dependent political and business elites, with limited payback to the majority of the world’s people.

The truth is that any plausible vision for a prosperous and sustainable future from here on will have to be revolutionary. For example, let’s review the implications of B&D’s solid trend towards agricultural transition and their business-as-usual approach to the global economy in its present form. Assuming current global economic growth of 2.5% per annum (and anything less over a prolonged period would surely imply economic crisis within current economic parameters), in fifty years’ time the global economy will have to be producing additional economic activity well over double the entire present global output. It will have to do so after reducing fossil energy use pretty much to zero (currently about 80% of global energy use is fossil fuel based) in order to stave off drastic climate change. And if it’s going to deliver increased prosperity for the half of the humanity who currently live off about US$5 a day or less, it’ll have to do a vastly better redistributive job than it’s done over the last 20 years, when the lowest-earning half of the world’s people only received around 10% of the income increase over the period2. That all sounds pretty revolutionary to me.

‘Development’ and the global peasant-family farm

B&D impute to me the belief that small-scale farming has great inherent value, but that’s not really true. I don’t, for the most part, argue for small-scale farming as a valuable end in itself. I argue for it largely because it seems to me the most feasible way of delivering sustainable prosperity (or ‘development’) to the world’s people in the future. In saying that, I agree with B&D that my vision is very revolutionary and not very feasible. However, I think it’s less revolutionary and more feasible than theirs.

The idea of a future based on peasant farming may seem far-fetched, but I want to offer a brief sketch to suggest why it could be less far-fetched than it may seem at first. Consider two farms. One comprises an acre or so, and is farmed by a poor family in a poor country who use it to grow mostly subsistence crops. The other comprises several hundred acres, and is farmed by a family who are not poor by global standards and who live in a rich country, using numerous high-tech inputs like tractors to grow mostly commodity crops. The two farms look very different. The first might be described as a ‘peasant’ farm, whereas the second most likely wouldn’t be. But they both have the same ‘peasant-like’ structure vis-à-vis the wider economy. They both use mostly family labour, which is rewarded not by an hourly wage but by a share of the farm’s output. And they both involve capital investments (buildings, land, livestock, equipment and human knowledge) which isn’t valued in terms of the opportunity cost of the returns to its annual investment, but in terms of its contribution to the long-term productivity of the farm, including its potential productivity after the death of its present incumbents and on into the future incumbency of their descendants.

Contrast that with the simpler economics of a fully capitalist farm. Labour and capital are just costs on the debit side of the equation. Profit is realised output less costs, year by year. If costs exceed profit, or even if they don’t but the difference imposes sufficient opportunity costs to capital investment then the farm soon closes and the released capital is invested elsewhere. That’s not the case with the peasant or the family farm in the same situation. Its circumstances are dire, but it’s not looking to maximise returns on immediate investment, so the chances are it’ll survive.

At root, I think it will prove more feasible to create a prosperous and sustainable future by adopting policies that make life easier for existing peasant and family farmers of this sort than by adopting policies that make life harder for them, and easier for capitalist farmers. This is for numerous reasons that I won’t go into here – though I have done over the years on this blog, and am happy to discuss in more detail should anyone wish…some of the reasons in any case are probably quite obvious just from my brief description. In broadest outline, I think an agrarian future based on support for these kinds of farms will take a lot of damaging hot capital out of the global economy, do a better job of reproducing the biophysical means for continued human flourishing and do a better job, too, of spreading fairly such prosperity as can be sustainably created. However, supporting both such kinds of farms would involve ensuring that the second type doesn’t undermine the first.

Commenting on my ideas, B&D state that “with less international agricultural trade, countries would have to either convert more land to farming to make up for the drop in food, or people would have to deal with higher prices, change their food consumption, or go hungry more often.” That may be so if all I was suggesting was limiting international food trade alone, but I’m arguing for something rather more ‘revolutionary’ than that – broadly, for an agrarian economy that widens opportunities to take up small-scale farming and narrows opportunities to gain economic rent from land.

Wealth and the transition out of agriculture

The revolution that B&D prefer is another iteration of the one that today’s rich countries passed through, which they summarise as follows:

“Historically, the agrarian transition of people moving from rural farming communities to urban centers has greatly improved people’s lives. As urbanization occurs, incomes rise, access to healthcare increases, and population growth slows, among other beneficial changes in social outcomes.”

All that has been true – well, kind of eventually true – for the citizens of some countries, albeit usually at the expense of people elsewhere. But I think there’s a failure of imagination here to suppose that what worked for, say, Britain in the 19th century will inevitably work for, say, Niger in the 21st…and also to suppose that such transitions mark a once and for all arrival at prosperity. Prosperity increase is not exactly a zero-sum game, but it more closely approximates to it in a world dedicated to maximising net present value through frictionless financial movement. The idea that, in such a world, Niger will achieve prosperity by urbanising like Britain did 200 years ago neglects the pyramid-scheme resemblances of the present global economy: the benefits of agrarian transition accrue largely to those who undertake it first. Or perhaps, over time, to those who undertake it best. So to my mind, on that note the lesson of China’s current transition (one that was achieved in some measure by investing in peasant agriculture) is not that other parts of the world should try to follow its example, but that they should try to build as much economic resilience as possible out of local resources.

Contrary to B&D’s global agrarian transition, then, I’d argue that putting one’s trust in an economic model explicitly geared to maximising short-run fiscal returns on investment, with other benefits essentially epiphenomenal, is a very high risk way of seeking to improve people’s lives globally today. And not a very effective one either: relative to the generation of wealth, it hasn’t so far been conspicuously successful at distributing it.

B&D imply that people inherently prefer urban over rural life, and that various other aspects of the global farmscape result from the free exercise of choice. I’d suggest instead that people inherently prefer prosperity, and will seek it where they can find it – and that the shape of the global farmscape results mostly from the free exercise of choice by the rich, not by the poor. Whatever the case, despite all the pressures to shed labour from agriculture there are still more than 1.2 billion farmers in the world at a minimum estimate – over 16% of the global population. Supporting their desire for prosperity while keeping them in farming seems to me a wiser overall strategy than willing them into cities and assuming that short-run capital intensive farming will more successfully fill the vacuum they leave.

A couple of final points on yield. Within the parameters of the non-capitalist family farm (whether rich or poor) described above, in some circumstances it may be an excellent idea to increase per hectare yields through any number of different means, and I have no particular problem with that. I do have a problem, though, with the idea that improving per hectare yields is a fundamental desideratum for agriculture globally, regardless of any other considerations. And on the matter of yield improvement, I mentioned above the ‘second agricultural revolution of modern times’. The first one occurred in the 18th century in countries like Britain, arguably as much or more through the spread of ideas about better ways to farm than through increased energy or other high-tech inputs – what today we might call an ‘agroecological revolution’. It may be wise to devote more thought to innovations of that sort than to the idea that greater yields only arise as increased returns to land input by means of other costly inputs. I’m all for breakthroughs, but we often have too impoverished a notion of what technological ‘breakthroughs’ look like, let alone breakthroughs in a more general sense.

Notes

  1. M. Mazoyer and L. Roudart. 2006. A History of World Agriculture. Earthscan.
  2. B. Milanovic. 2016. Global Inequality. Harvard UP.

To be or not to be the change

Coming up on Small Farm Future – some posts on the hows and whys of social transformation towards more sustainable societies, which have been prefigured in recent posts like this one on ‘self-systemic’ agriculture and my previous one on utopias – perhaps particularly in relation to the ensuing discussion about individualism and collectivism. Here, I’ll look at the question of transformation via personal consumption choices in societies of mass consumption, which I touched on a while back. That discussion prompted Peter Kalmas, climate scientist and author of Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution to get in touch and kindly send me his book.

Maybe first I should set out a brief position statement. As I see it, the world is beset with enormous inequities, creating a lot of human misery, and looming environmental crises, creating yet more human (and non-human) misery. The dominant paradigm for tackling these problems involves lifting people out of poverty through growing the capitalist global economy, and mitigating the environmental problems caused by this economic growth through technical innovation. I don’t think this will work on either count – it won’t lift many people out of poverty and it won’t succeed in mitigating environmental problems. If we continue down this path, it seems to me likely that there will be major breakdowns in human social systems and in the Earth’s biophysical systems. In fact, there already are. These may proliferate in all sorts of surprising and dystopian ways, but I don’t see much point in speculating about how such ‘collapse’ scenarios may unfold. I do see a point in speculating about alternative scenarios that may create better outcomes, and in particular about how such scenarios may emerge from present social processes, because that may give some kind of a handle on how to increase the probability of those better outcomes occurring. So that, generally speaking, is what I want to focus my writing around.

One possible way of achieving these better outcomes is if the wealthy consumers of the world change their consumption behaviour: stop flying, stop driving, stop buying products that use conflict minerals, stop eating resource-intensive meat, stop shopping in value-scouring supermarkets, stop using polluting plastic and so on. Peter’s book (I can’t claim to have read it word-by-word and cover-to-cover…I’m afraid the in-box is too full…but I’ve spent some time looking over it) first sets out the evidence for climate change, the seriousness of its consequences and the pressing need to do something about it. Then it looks at the numerous things us carbon-spewing rich western consumers can do to lessen our impact on the climate system. And it emphasises that many of these things don’t involve loss and self-sacrifice, but can be part of a more fulfilling and interesting way of life.

I don’t have any quarrel with that. The science, as far as I can tell, is compelling – it’s a really good idea if we reduce global carbon emissions, fast. And somehow that’s going to have to involve people in high-emission regions like Western Europe and North America cutting their emissions drastically. Well then…Peter’s book shows us how to get started.

I guess the problem I have is that I don’t think it’ll work – for three reasons, of increasing gravity.

The first is a twist on the familiar criticism of environmentalists – they talk about the dangers of climate change while flying off to environmental conferences in exotic locations etc etc. They’re hypocrites who don’t practice what they preach…what we might call the John Michael Greer critique. The risk that I think Peter’s proposals run is the opposite: the dread prospect of environmentalists who don’t fly off to exotic conferences, who instead preach what they practice.

People don’t like hypocrites for sure, but nor do they like preachy environmentalists telling them that they shouldn’t do stuff. Now, I’m sure Peter isn’t at all preachy, but I think it’s hard to avoid people reading those bad, virtue-signalling motives into any public avowal of carbon restraint. If you consider yourself a role model helping other people lessen their planetary impact by following your example, I’d be willing to bet that a fair proportion of those other people will dismiss you as insufferably smug unless you have social skills that greatly exceed my own (which to be fair wouldn’t be difficult – that’s why they only let me communicate with the world through this computer). I’ve been down this road myself – I’ve been the Puritan at the party, shocked at the wanton ways of lesser folk. I ended up not liking that guy much and now try to cultivate a different persona. Let he who is free of sin and all that…

Some of the commenters under my last post emphasised the need for greater collaboration and less private individualism in a sustainable post-capitalist society of the future. So how about this? Suppose you’ve given up eating meat because of its environmental impact – good for you — and an acquaintance invites you over to a special meal, which in their worldview is a beef-fest. I suggest you keep your meat abstinence private and tuck in. One or two meaty meals are neither here nor there in terms of global environmental protection. More important that you build community by publicly accepting your acquaintance’s generosity. But if it’s important to you to be seen not to be eating meat, I’d want to ask why. Is publicly-dramatised individual abstinence the best route to sustainability? Maybe…but maybe not?

The second problem is essentially the free rider problem – if everybody refrained from behaviour X it would have a significant impact on global emissions, whereas if it’s just me and a handful of other freaks while everyone else carries on regardless it has no significant impact on global emissions. Might as well carry on Xing, then? Well, Peter makes the point that lower impact choices can often be the fun choice – who wants to sit in a traffic jam when you can be biking through the woods? It’s a good point, but I don’t think you can sustain it across the board – particularly in the context of a society that’s systemically organised on the basis that many or most (rich) people will have to drive to work, fly for business or pleasure, be instantly reachable via mobile phone, shop at the supermarket etc. It’s not that these possibilities are intrinsically great in themselves, but in a society that’s organised around them you have to go out of your way to avoid them, which may sometimes be possible and indeed attractive at the individual level, but not really possible for the population en masse.

Actually, that’s the thing that draws me most to people making ethical lifestyle choices – that little spark of individuality driving them to swim against the current, resist the machine etc. But then here we are, back to individualism…

Perhaps a wrinkle within this second problem is the complexity of the issues concerning the shape of a future sustainable society. There’s no end of ‘expert’ opinion telling us, for example, that feedlot beef involves lower emissions than pasture-fed beef, which is probably true depending on how you choose to draw the parameters around your analysis. But it’s also probably true that in a sustainable, low-energy society there’d be some pasture-fed cattle, but no feedlot cattle. So should you eat only feedlot beef to lower your emissions, eat only pasture-fed beef to help stimulate sustainable farming, or eat no beef at all in the hope that somehow by so doing you can wash your hands of these agrarian dilemmas? Beats me.

But suppose you take a different view to my first two points. If you model environmentally responsible behaviour, you’ll inspire others to do likewise. And if everyone did likewise, then the problem is solved.

Except that – point three – it’s not going to happen without profound systemic change. The present political economy is deeply invested in a massively energy-intense model of modernist-urbanist creation, destruction and re-creation involving vast flows of people and goods. Individually it’s possible to lower your footprint via numerous consumption decisions such as cycling rather than driving to work. Collectively, if it does prove possible to aggregate those decisions then it’ll tank the system and there’ll be no work to cycle to. OK, so maybe that’s precisely the aim – but then you need a different systemic vision, which is not implicit in the consumption decisions and can’t be assumed just to happen as a dependent outcome of them. In other words, the system has emergent properties – it needs ‘systemic’ restructuring at the level of the system.

I’m doubtful of the possibilities for aggregating those consumption decisions by example or exhortation in a society organised fiscally to incentivise the exact opposite. I see a parallel here with the ‘make the healthy choice the easy one’ paradigm in health promotion. Historical examples: don’t subsidise sugar production and then exhort people not to eat sugar; don’t manufacture dangerous cars and then tell people to drive carefully; don’t make flying the easiest and cheapest choice and then expect people not to do it.

I also see a parallel with 18th century anti-slavery activism in Britain. Middle-class people (middle-class women in particular) started talking about the link between the sugar they were drinking in their tea and the blood-soaked horrors of the colonial economy that was delivering it to them. But for all that in Britain today we like to think that it was William Wilberforce and his cohorts who personally put a stop to the slave trade, the ending of the trade and of slavery itself was a long drawn-out affair that responded mostly to changes in the global political economy and the superpower politics of the day – system emergence again.

Nevertheless, I’d concede that the behaviour of the parts is important. Anti-slavery activism more-or-less created the modern public sphere of respectable opinion and concern for unknown others that I think could be critical for a tolerable post-capitalist future. So whether you incline more towards Peter’s stance or mine, maybe the important thing is hanging onto the possibility that we can politely put out our alternative views in public.

None of the arguments I’ve proffered make a case for not trying to lower one’s personal environmental impact as such. I agree with Wendell Berry when he writes,

“to be fearful of the disease and yet unwilling to pay for the cure is not just to be hypocritical; it is to be doomed. If you talk a good line without being changed by what you say, then you are not just hypocritical and doomed; you have become an agent of the disease”1

I’d only add that even if you are changed by what you say and try to take some practical steps towards a cure within the current iteration of the global political economy, you’re almost certainly still an agent of the disease. That’s not an argument against taking the practical steps. It is an argument against their efficacy in the absence of finding routes towards structural transformation.

So I’m sympathetic to the ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’ message. I don’t think it’s morally innocent to take a plane flight just because personal choice in that respect makes little difference to global outcomes. But what makes a bigger difference is collective, organised, political action geared to systemic change. The ‘be the change’ message is attributed to Mohandas Gandhi, but this is what Gandhi actually said (which Peter accurately quotes in his book):

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change toward him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”

I find Brian Morton’s interpretation of this passage quite persuasive: “Gandhi is telling us that personal and social transformation go hand in hand, but there is no suggestion in his words that personal transformation is enough. In fact, for Gandhi, the struggle to bring about a better world involved not only stringent self-denial and rigorous adherence to the philosophy of nonviolence; it also involved a steady awareness that one person, alone, can’t change anything, an awareness that unjust authority can be overturned only by great numbers of people working together with discipline and persistence.”

Looking back from the present at the key causes for which Gandhi stood– Indian independence from colonial rule, non-violence and rural self-reliance – it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that his activism was only conspicuously successful in relation to the first of these. And ultimately this was the easiest one, because it fitted a pre-existing collective narrative of national self-assertion which is all too evident today under the aggressive Hindu nationalism of Modi (there’s a larger story here about the intersections and dissonances between Gandhism and Hindu nationalism, but let’s not go there now).

So in summary, while there’s much to be said for changing personal consumption habits in response to the climate crisis, I doubt that the necessary social transformation can be generated purely from aggregating such changes. In which case, I guess it behoves me to offer some alternative suggestions as to where the impetus for social transformation might come from. Ay, there’s the rub – I wish I had the answers. Conventional political positions just keep rollin’ on as if they do, but to me they seem exhausted. The right thinks history is on its side: human nature, markets, cultural identities will generate the correct solutions (never mind that these things are numerously and numinously contradictory). The left thinks history is on its side: social conflict powering historical change will propel righteous collective solutions. Both left and right are invested deeply in technological solutionism – which is why the books written by their avant-garde futurists all seem uncannily similar. Stewart Brand, Leigh Phillips, Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker, Nick Srnicek, Mark Lynas: they sound like the modulated voice of a single character from some nightmarish modernist novel. Lord deliver me from fully automated luxury communism. Or capitalism.

Partly I think solutionism itself is the problem. There are no ‘solutions’ and no right answers. But I’d like to think there may be better answers to the numerous crises we currently face – not just the climate crisis but other biophysical crises, as well as social ones (economic justice, cultural meaning). One possibility is to bring more marginalised political traditions onto the stage – anarchism, environmentalism, libertarianism (any contradictions there? …you betcha). Or else to seek some radical rupture with the politics of the past that seems better fitted to our contemporary predicaments.

So…what path to take? The old familiar mainstream, the marginal, or the radically new? Hell, I’m opting for all of the above. I think we need to revitalise the best of the old traditions of right and left, while bringing in the contributions of more marginal political positions from the past – and articulating them all afresh in the completely novel historical circumstances we face.

It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it, and I already started out last time in my post on libertarianism and utopia (and in other previous posts too, like this one). So watch this space…though please forgive my lessened current output, resulting from various other pressing projects.

Meanwhile, I’d thoroughly recommend a read of Peter’s book, and I’d urge you (non-smugly) to try lowering your carbon footprint. Just don’t tell me that you’re doing it.

Notes

  1. Berry, W. 2017. The World-Ending Fire. Penguin. P.55.

A small farm utopia

When I made a case for a small farm future somewhere or other a while back, I got a tweeted reply “Your utopia is my dystopia”.

I found this slightly odd since the case I try to make for small-scale farming isn’t that it’s the best of all possible worlds – more like the best of a bad job given the circumstances we face. Though to be fair I do tend to emphasise some of the positives of small farm societies and some of the negatives of the big farm society we currently live in, if only to try to even up the score a little from our present tendencies towards urban romanticism. I’d acknowledge that the genre of back-to-the-land ruralism is shot through with utopian elements, and it doesn’t always work out for those who try it. But sometimes it does. Maybe one reason working a small farm retains its romantic appeal is because working outdoors on your own account to furnish for your material needs is quite a plausible way of becoming a fulfilled human being.

But in a wider sense, I think the whole language of ‘utopia’ is problematic. Every political philosophy with a vision for the future is utopian in the sense that it propounds some kind of idealised narrative of the better world it seeks. And there are surely few philosophies as utopian as contemporary capitalism, with its disingenuous belief in market exchange as the guarantor of prosperity, liberty and prudence. So there’s a case for claiming back ‘utopia’ from its pejorative connotations. In this post, however, I want to take a different tack and make the case that small-scale (or what I’ve called self-systemic) farming furnishes a kind of necessary material logic for a plausible utopia. Perhaps it’s an exercise in l’esprit de l’escalier, so that the next time someone tells me a small farm future is their dystopia, I’m better placed to find out how their own particular utopia will manage to avoid it.

My starting point is an influential book, Anarchy, State and Utopia, by the libertarian political philosopher, the late Robert Nozick1. In it, among other things, Nozick tries to derive the process of utopia-construction from first principles. His method is to provide a long list of impressively diverse famous people from history and challenge his readers to describe the society that would best suit all of them to live in.

“Would it be agricultural or urban? Of great material luxury or of austerity with basic needs satisfied? What would relations between the sexes be like?”2

And so on. By this route, Nozick leads us to his apparently inevitable conclusion: “The idea that there is one best composite answer to all of these questions, one best society for everyone to live in, seems to me to be an incredible one”3. For Nozick, this commends a view of utopia not as a single society which can somehow optimise the impossible differences between individuals, but as the possibility for people to form their own utopias:

“Utopia is a framework for utopias, a place where people are at liberty to join together voluntarily to pursue and attempt to realize their own vision of the good life in the ideal community but where no one can impose his own utopian vision upon others.”4

Despite the passing mention of agriculture in the passage cited above, Nozick never really broaches in his discussion the material basis of these utopian lives. So when he talks about utopias that may be agricultural or urban, he neglects the fact that people living in an urban utopia would most likely have to import food and other necessities from people living in a rural one – and, in a utopia, the rural people may not wish to export their products. I can imagine plenty of people signing up to rural utopias in which they undertake to provide food and other necessities for themselves. But ones where they grow food and then have to sell it on fluctuating global commodity markets over which they have no control in order to earn money in the hope that they’ll be able to use it to buy what they need via other fluctuating commodity markets? Not so much.

Contemporary society has come up with two conceptual workarounds to this problem – neither of which ‘work around’ it quite well enough, in my opinion. The first is the idea of the gain from market trade, as elaborated by a line of thinkers including Adam Smith and Friedrich von Hayek. As Smith put it in a famous passage from The Wealth of Nations (1776):

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages.”5

However, in market exchange these ‘advantages’ are inevitably pecuniary, and it’s an assumption rather than a fact that pecuniary advantage rather than, say, autonomy, self-possession or leisure is a more fundamental human motivator. Indeed, an important part of the history of modernity has been about instilling in the populace a sense of pecuniary advantage as paramount via various carrots and sticks. And while the ramification of market exchange globally has certainly created a lot of pecuniary wealth, given that about half the people of the world today subsist on less than US$5 a day in purchasing power equivalents6, the outcome hardly seems utopian.

The other workaround is the broadly ecomodernist one that supposes all the hard work to sustain the material basis of life will increasingly be done by machines and robots, turning the people of the world into leisured Eloi free to pursue whatever dramas they wish. At which point I’m inclined to reach for the ‘Your utopia is my dystopia’ retweet button. In any case, on numerous economic, ecological, energetic and political grounds, I doubt this will come to pass.

Let us instead re-run Nozick’s ‘framework for utopias’ without assuming that a given individual or community can expect another one to furnish its needs, or that it can do so itself through costless mechanics. I think this considerably narrows the universe of possible utopias. In practice, it’s likely that some people would wish to farm while others wouldn’t, establishing the possibility of mutually beneficial trade. But note the powerful position of a farmer or other necessity-provider in that situation, and the incentive towards self-reliance for every individual or community in view of the risks of external dependency. Implicitly, it seems to me that Nozick’s framework for utopias would generate something like a self-systemic, small farm future.

You could argue, I suppose, that Nozick’s wranglings with utopia just go to show the incoherence of libertarian philosophy, with its absurd notion of sovereign individuals freely contracting in or out of societies or utopias. I’m quite sympathetic to that view – for example, Nozick’s notion of taxation being equivalent to slavery leaves me cold. A truly independent person would be dead within a few hours of birth, and everything else about what it is to be human ramifies outwards to those around us, those before us, and those after us.

Even so, some societies are more individualistic than others. Individualistic and collectivist societies each generate their own particular miseries and compensations to the people comprising them. Western society, though, places a lot of store on individualism. The notion that an individual can be whatever they want to be is rarely true in practice, and would seem absurd in more collectivist cultures, but it runs deep in ours – and I for one am not especially in favour of trying to change it. I am in favour of honestly exploring its logic, though. And on that note, I certainly agree with Nozick that the fewer opportunities there are for some people to impose their utopian visions on others the better. I also agree that – going back to the individualist core of his framework for utopias – you should be able to be whatever you want to be. So it’s probably wise to work up a small plot and grow some potatoes while you’re about it.

So there you have it – philosophical proof at last for the virtues of a small farm future. I’ve occasionally been accused of a kind of Maoist or Khmer Rougeist peasant purism, but that’s never been my intention. However, I can see the force behind Nozick’s framework for utopias. Everyone has some notion of how society ought to be organised in the future, but there’s no reason why your utopia should impinge on mine or vice versa, right? OK, so we’d both best get tilling, then. Or no-tilling. As you wish.

Notes

  1. R. Nozick. 1974. Anarchy, State and Utopia. Blackwell.
  2. Ibid. pp.310-11.
  3. Ibid. p.311.
  4. Ibid. p.312
  5. A. Smith. 1776. An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Book I, Chapter II.
  6. J. Hickel. 2017. The Divide. Heinemann.

An eco-futurist miscellany

More on organic farming, trade-offs, energy futures and small-farm definitions in this post. Veritably, it’s your one stop shop for a pick ‘n’ mix of eco-futurism…partly because indeed I have a few addendums to report on recent posts, and partly because despite my flippant recent remarks, I’m a bit too busy on the farm and on other things just now to put together a properly structured post.

So, first on organic farming, reflecting back on my previous post, I fear that despite my criticisms of the ecomodernists and their ‘land sparing’ agenda, I still accepted at face value a little too much of their lofty San Francisco research institute view of the world in it. My mistake was to concede without demur the claim that organic farming has lower yields and a greater land take for leys. Leafing through Peter Rosset and Miguel Altieri’s new book1, plus re-reading a paper by Catherine Badgley and co-authors2 (one of whom is Jahi Chappell, a valued contributor to this site) reminds me that organic yields are typically lower than conventional ones in wealthy countries but higher in poor countries.

The way I’d gloss this finding is that in rich countries ‘conventional’ farming is usually a high input – high output undertaking with per acre yields approaching yield potential, whereas in poor countries much ‘conventional’ farming is undertaken by poor people on small plots who can’t afford expensive inputs like fertiliser. So it’s usually a low input – low output undertaking. The introduction of various ‘organic’ and agroecological techniques – leguminous cover cropping, multi-cropping, mulching etc. – helps increase yields, so in these countries ‘organic’ farming (broadly conceived) helps move farmers toward low input – higher output systems. The two citations above provide numerous examples.

Given that a good deal of farming globally is of this conventional low input – low output kind in poor countries, I think the Blaustein-Rejto and Blomqvist article I was critiquing in my last post erred in not reckoning with this fact. And so did I. Mea culpa. I suspect it changes considerably the global picture they were trying to paint. Unless of course you take the view that poor farmers ought to get out of farming altogether and leave it to the big boys with the NPK…which pretty much does seem to be the Breakthrough Institute line. It’s not one I happen to agree with. But that’s another story.

Another line of enquiry on this point was raised in Joshua Msika’s comment that small farms produce the bulk of the world’s food. I mentioned in reply that a figure of 70-80% of the world’s food is often cited as the contribution of small and family farms, but the origins of the figure were ‘obscure’. I did a bit more digging around on this issue (mostly in the folder on my hard drive named ‘Small farm productivity’ – sometimes I marvel that my meticulous organisation is exceeded only by my forgetfulness) and found such figures in this report from the UN’S Food and Agriculture Organisation, and this one from the ETC Group. This report from GRAIN also weighs in on the issue.

Bear in mind, though, that a family farm isn’t necessarily that small by global standards. And that much of the food produced isn’t traded – so I think my original argument stands. Gunnar Rundgren made the interesting point that these figures may no longer hold true with the economic rise of India and China, where most of the world’s small farms have been located. Though working my way through Jan Douwe Van Der Ploeg’s Peasants and the Art of Farming3 as I currently am, I note that he talks of a ‘return’ to small family farms in China and Southeast Asia. Just as one line of enquiry closes, another one opens up… (By the way, Gunnar – your book is now near the top of my ‘to read’ pile…sorry I’ve been so slow).

Finally on the question of organic farming, here’s a shout out from Small Farm Future to the organic movement. There are plenty of people gunning for it in the world of conventional farming – as exemplified by the Breakthrough Institute article. And there are plenty of people gunning for it in the world of alternative or regenerative agriculture too. For sure, it’s not above criticism on numerous fronts. But the organic movement was talking about cover cropping, biodiversity and the importance of healthy soil and soil life – which pretty much everyone now agrees is important, even if they disagree on how to achieve it and how to balance the trade-offs involved – decades before most of us jumped onto those bandwagons. A little bit of credit where it’s due seems in order.

Ah, trade-offs – an interesting issue discussed by Andy and David under my last post. Above, I mentioned low input – low output farming and high input high – output farming. Wouldn’t we all love to practice low input – high output farming? Well, as Andy and David suggested, like many too-good-to-be-true, everyone’s-a-winner schemes, such systems are proclaimed often enough in print but are harder to find on the ground. Thomas Sowell’s adage “there are no ‘solutions’, only trade-offs” has a lot of force to it. Is he overstating his case? Possibly. But I think win-win situations indeed are harder to find than we often suppose.

In biological/agronomic contexts I was influenced on this point by Ford Denison’s book Darwinian Agriculture4 – Denison argued, convincingly I think, that it’s unlikely we’ll find simple win-win agricultural improvements that have been missed by millions of years of natural selection (and, I might add, thousands of years of human selection). Which is not to say that no improvements are possible. Wild grasses will never greatly improve their harvest index until they form a parliament and agree a long stalk non-proliferation treaty. But humans have done that job for them, for certain wild grasses at any rate, turning them from wild grasses to domesticates like wheat in the process, but it’s not a win-win…still less a win-win-win (ie. an improvement for all humans, all grasses, and all other organisms). There have been numerous downsides to the agricultural revolution.

I was musing about this point after being alerted to this paper by Snapp et al, which cites my own paper ‘The strong perennial vision’ with an implicit criticism, as follows: “Opportunity costs associated with the low grain yield relative to the high harvest index of annual crops are one of the most persistent critiques of perennial crops (Smaje, 2015). Agronomic evaluation of perennial analogues of annual wheat and rye suggest a substantial yield penalty….This is not surprising as, to date, minimal investments have been made in breeding perennial forms of annual crop species.”

Well, I’d rather be cited critically than not at all…but, hang on a minute, isn’t there a direction of causality issue here? As I see it, there isn’t a yield penalty because there’s been minimal breeding investment. There’s been minimal breeding investment because there’s a yield penalty, for reasons that are pretty hard-wired ecologically, and eminently understandable: as detailed in my paper, there’s a strong trade-off between longevity and harvest index, so the chances of producing a perennial grain as high yielding as annual grains is low. Farmers through the ages didn’t choose annual grains for productivity over perennials out of some random caprice but because they didn’t want to waste their time. In their response to my original paper5, the Land Institute picked me off on a few minor points and raised the valid issue of genetic load, but avoided the core issue of ecological rather than energetic trade-offs. That’s not to say that there isn’t a role for lower-yielding perennial grains (I have no problems with the weak rather than the strong perennial vision), but for those seeking a trade-off free substitution of annual for perennial agriculture…well, I’d advise packing a sleeping bag, because I think your journey will prove a lengthy one.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying, yup, there are no ‘solutions’, only trade-offs. One up to Sowell.

But what about win-wins in the social rather than the natural world? Quite simply, I find it hard to imagine any real-world policy that everybody in the world would universally think was a good idea. So too did Vilfredo Pareto, one of the founding fathers of Sowell’s discipline, economics, so he decided to give up without even trying. Economists define Pareto optimality as a situation in which nobody can be made better off without making someone worse off – an equilibrium point of maximum efficiency. No doubt it’s a comfort to those allocated next to nothing by the global economy to know that at least by Pareto’s lights the economy is an ‘efficient’ one. Pareto did more than most to take the ‘political’ out of political economy and help to birth a pseudo-scientific ‘economics’ with which the world has been saddled ever since. The (temporary?) eclipse of socialism, and even social democracy, with their theories of inherent class conflicts that vitiate any inherent win-win solutions to social trade-offs, has pushed us into a technocratic and solutionist world where issues like poverty and climate change are seen as technical matters of policy-making – but the incoherence of this view and the long-term troubles they’re storing up seem ever more apparent, as is nicely illustrated by Jason Hickel’s book The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions that I’m also working my way through at the moment. Hickel does a fine demolition job on the World Bank’s development indicators that I’ve been happily crunching numbers on in recent weeks, arguing that its claims about global poverty reduction that have become common coin nowadays are spurious. More on this soon, perhaps. Inasmuch as a good deal of the debate on my website of late has revolved around the slogan ‘it’s the soil, stupid’ I propose to move on to the contention that ‘it’s the politics, stupid’.

Anyway, Small Farm Future says embrace inherent conflict. Embrace trade-offs. Two up to Sowell.

Moving on to energy, I’ve been catching up with Chris Goodall’s carbon commentary blog. This passage caught my eye:

“Difficult not to be disappointed by the latest IEA figures on energy use. A decline in the rate of improvement in efficiency meant that global energy use rose 2.1% last year, twice the rate of 2017. Although renewables grew faster than any other energy source, they only provided about one quarter of the increase in overall demand. Oil use expanded, principally because of an increase in the sales of bigger cars, and coal burning increased, mostly for electricity generation. Coal use had fallen in the previous two years. Most tellingly of all, fossil fuels still provide 81% of global energy, a figure similar to the level of 3 decades ago.”

I was briefly tempted by Goodall’s book The Switch to entertain the notion of an emerging post-carbon energy revolution in the form of photovoltaics, but here perhaps he strikes a more realistic tone? On the other hand, David wrote under my last post about a once in a century paradigm shift currently occurring with renewables. I’m a mere amateur in these matters, but I’m interested in tracking the debate. Certainly, renewables are growing (I’m seeing lots of exponential-looking graphs about newly installed year-on-year renewables capacity in publications like the New Scientist, but I can’t quite shake off the feeling that an awful lot more of not very much is still not very much). If there’s a revolution occurring it’s not yet making it into gross global energy statistics. A few weeks back I noted Vaclav Smil’s marvellously fence-sitting observation of “two contradictory expectations concerning the energy basis of modern society: chronic conservatism (lack of imagination?) regarding the power of technical innovation, set against repeatedly exaggerated claims made on behalf of new energy sources”. Which side to jump?

And finally I’ve had various interesting communications about my post on the small farm as a ‘self-systemic’ entity – some positive, some negative. Thanks to everyone who’s contributed, even if I was less gracious than I might have been in response to some of the more negative comments. I think I failed to convey clearly enough exactly what I wanted to in that post. So I’m going to have another go at defining the small farm soon…when I get a break from the farming. In the meantime my working definition of a small-scale farmer is someone who’s too busy farming to write blog posts about how to define the small farm.

Notes

 1. Rosset, P. & Altieri, M. 2017. Agroecology: Science and Politics. Fernwood Publishing.

2. Badgley, C. et al. 2007. Organic agriculture and the global food supply. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. 22, 2: 86-108.

3. Van Der Ploeg, Jan Douwe. 2013. Peasants and the Art of Farming. Fernwood Publishing.

4. Denison, F. 2012. Darwinian Agriculture. Princeton UP.

5. Crews, T. et al. 2015. The strong perennial vision: a response. Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems 39: 500-15.

Nitrogen wars

In a change to my published programme, I thought I’d engage with a couple of posts on nitrogen recently emerging from the Breakthrough Institute. In fact the issue is quite relevant to my last post, and to the next scheduled one. For more on the regenerative agriculture issue I’ve recently discussed, I’m following the debate over Andy McGuire’s recent blog post with interest. Meanwhile, for more on ecomodernism of the Breakthrough Institute variety, Aaron Vansintjan has just published this nice little critique. Doubtless we’ll take a spin around both these issues here at SFF again in the future.

Anyway, having directed some scepticism of late towards various aspects of the alternative farming movement that I consider myself to be a part of, perhaps it’s time I twisted the other way.  So here I want to take a critical look at the Breakthrough Institute’s line on the necessity of synthetic nitrogen in world agriculture, which is laid out in its agronomic aspects in this post by Dan Blaustein-Rejto and Linus Blomqvist (henceforth B&B), and in its historical aspects in this one by Marc Brazeau.

To begin, let me say that I’m not implacably opposed to the use of synthetic fertiliser in every situation, and I don’t think that a 100% organic agriculture globally is necessarily desirable or perhaps currently feasible. However, I think the narrative presented in the two BI posts is misleading. As is often the case, the sticking points lie not so much in what the posts say as in what they don’t say. I know Christmas is a long way off, but I’m going to lay this out in terms of the ghost of nitrogen past, the ghost of nitrogen present and the ghost of nitrogen future.

The ghost of nitrogen past

Marc Brazeau’s piece reminds us that, prior to the invention of the Haber-Bosch process for ammonia synthesis at the start of the 20th century, countries went to war to secure nitrogen for their farmers. He focuses on the international conflicts of the 19th century over the guano islands off South America, with their vast concentrations of richly nitrogenous seabird faeces.

It’s a nice piece in its own terms, but there’s a bigger historical story it omits. Brazeau broaches it, but doesn’t develop it, in this passage,

“The full lower 48 [US states, in the 1850s] was available for cultivation, and yet soil fertility was already a challenge. US agriculture is currently tasked with feeding 325 million citizens while exporting $150 billion worth of food. But in the 1850s, with just 25 million citizens to feed and hundreds of millions of acres of some of the most fertile soil in the world, on farms where manure-producing cattle, hogs, and poultry were well-integrated with crop production, US presidents were promising to get tough on guano prices and US business interests were verging on war in the Caribbean over fertilizer.”

For their part, B&B note that:

“During the 19th century, the populations of the United States and Europe were growing at an unprecedented pace — the U.S. population increased tenfold and Britain’s more than tripled…To raise farm productivity, these imperial powers started to import nitrogen-rich guano.”

What’s going on here? Well, the key surely lies in B&B’s phrase “these imperial powers” and in the spectacular US population increase, which wasn’t just a baby boom. In 1803, after defeat in Haiti, Napoleon gave up on his ambitions for an American empire and sold a fair old whack of that lower 48 to the US (another large tranche was subtracted from Mexico in 1848). The US spent much of the succeeding century progressively divesting the original inhabitants of their access to it and during that process, multitudes of European-origin settlers moved in – witting or unwitting foot soldiers of their government’s imperial ambitions. As historian Geoff Cunfer puts it, these pioneers “may have devoted most of their land, time, and energy to subsistence activities out of necessity” but they were “aggressively committed to…commercial cash-crop agriculture as fully and as soon as possible”1, because of their intimate connection to the global imperial nexus via their own government’s global ambitions.

Meanwhile in Europe, after Napoleon’s defeat Britain emerged as the dominant imperial and industrial power of the 19th century. With the abolition of its Corn Laws in 1846, cheap grain from North America (and, increasingly, other places with continental grasslands whose original inhabitants were also violently displaced in favour of export-oriented grain agriculture such as Australia and Central Asia) started flooding into industrialising Britain. The British agricultural workforce dwindled, and the British farmers who managed to survive the resulting agricultural crisis started favouring higher value, non-staple crops2.

All of which is to suggest that the search for cheap nitrogen in countries like Germany, the USA and Britain from the 19th century wasn’t just some inherent truth about the nature of farming and population increase, as the casual reader might surmise from the BI posts. Rather, it was the product of aggressively expansionist imperial-industrial ambitions, fuelled by fears among industrialising powers that lack of food autonomy made them vulnerable to enemies. If that point needs underscoring, perhaps Haber’s other main claim to chemical fame as the overseer of Germany’s successful chemical weapons programme during World War I might help to dramatize it.

Brazeau implicitly accepts this imperialist-expansionist aspect to the politics of agricultural nitrogen, but turns it into a world-historical truism:

“the Roman Empire was largely defined by imperial expansion, in search of fresh sources of nitrogen. They found it in the form of soil which had not yet been exhausted. The whole Mediterranean basin became tasked with feeding the city-state at the heart of the empire. All this is to say that this is not an industrial agriculture problem; clearly, it’s been a central obstacle of civilization for thousands of years. If the problem of nitrogen scarcity could be solved by cover crops and manure, it would have been solved long ago.”

But I think the direction of causality is wrong here, and so is the conclusion. Imperial expansionism sometimes involves a search for cheaper farm inputs, but the search for cheaper farm inputs is not usually the cause of imperial expansionism. And for a long time, in many parts of the world whose polities were not expanding aggressively, the problem of nitrogen scarcity was solved perfectly well by cover crops and manure.

The ghost of nitrogen present

But that was then and this is now. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the past, the fact is there are now 7.6 billion of us living on an ecologically fragile planet who somehow need to eat. The case set out by B&B in favour of synthetic fertiliser and against organic methods is, as they confess, the well-worn one that the lower average yields and higher average land-take of organic farming militates against it as a sustainable solution for contemporary food production.

Again, what strikes me about this argument is the things that aren’t said – four things in particular.

Thing #1. The idea that, as much as possible, we should aim to use less rather than more land for human crops surely commands wide agreement. So suppose you come to the issue afresh and take a look at global agricultural land use. You’d find that by far the largest proportion of the food that people eat is grown on arable land, which constitutes 29% of all agricultural land globally. You’d also find that about a third of this arable land was used to grow livestock fodder. You’d find that a small proportion of food comes from permanent crops, occupying 3% of all agricultural land. You’d find that the remaining 67% of farmland comprises permanent grassland, which produces a very small proportion of the food eaten globally in the form of meat – possibly no more than about 4%3. And you’d find that just over 1% of all this agricultural area was devoted to (formally) organic farming. If you did this, I think you’d probably conclude that the easiest way to reduce the global agricultural land take would be to reduce the amount of permanent pasture, followed by the amount of arable cropland devoted to livestock fodder, in view of the trophic inefficiencies involved. You might also wonder why B&B don’t mention this at all, and why they’re so exercised about the putative inefficiencies of the minuscule organic farming sector rather than the inefficiencies of the enormous livestock sector4.

Thing #2: Another idea that seems to command wide agreement is that it’s good to ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ with nitrogen fertiliser, as with many other things. Fertiliser has major upstream (energy) costs and downstream (pollution) costs, so using as little as possible surely makes sense. In their post, B&B go through various options for improving crop fertilisation through such things as better management of cover crops, manure and food waste. They don’t give an overall figure for how much synthetic fertiliser could be saved, but totting up their numbers it looks to me like it might be as much as 80% – though maybe I’ve got that wrong. Even if it’s much less, that’s surely a good place to start for improving agricultural efficiency, rather than targeting organic farming. If the answer to the question ‘how much land should we use for agriculture?’ is ‘as little as possible’, the answer to the question ‘how much organic farming should there be?’ is surely ‘as much as possible’. We live in a world of awkward trade-offs.

Thing #3: labour is a missing variable in the BI posts, but it’s lurking in their shadows. B&B state that traditionally farmers reserved between 25-50% of their land for (not directly edible) N-fixing legumes. These figures seem to trace back to Vaclav Smil’s fascinating book Enriching the Earth5. Smil states therein that traditional Chinese agriculture never devoted more than 10% of cropland to green manures, while in parts of England the corresponding figure was 13% up to 1740 and 27% by 1836. In his definitive contemporary guide to organic farming Nicholas Lampkin argues for a minimum ley of 35%6. What accounts for this apparent historical decrease in the efficiency of organic fertilisation? Probably a number of things (including yield increase), but I suspect one of them is declining labour availability and increasing mechanisation. In contexts of low food insecurity, low labour availability and high mechanisation, it’s just easier for organic farmers to build fertility with long leys. But there are other options – as in labour-intensive Chinese or historical European agriculture, with their finer-combed local recycling of nutrients. Personally, I think more labour-intensive and local agricultures are the right way for agriculture to develop. I accept that other people may disagree. I don’t accept that current levels or trends in agricultural labour inputs should be assumed to be inherently the right ones.

Thing #4:  B&B write, “organic farms typically have 20% lower yields than conventional farms, requiring more land to produce a given amount of food. This means less land for wildlife habitats or other purposes”. But hold on – that’s only true if you assume that farms themselves aren’t wildlife habitats, that wildlife is indifferent to the habitats afforded by organic and conventional farms, that the possibilities for wildlife to move between habitats across farmland is unaffected by farming styles, that increased production or per hectare yields is always desirable, that ‘other purposes’ are more important than organic farming…and many other things besides. All of these points are at least debatable. I keep going back to this excellent brief critique of the so-called ‘land sparing’ argument by ecologist Joern Fischer, which to my mind effectively skewers the misplaced certainties of B&B’s one liner. As Fischer’s analysis suggests, while producing as much crop as possible from as small an area as possible using synthetic fertiliser certainly can be an appropriate goal in some situations, it’s an oversimplification to imply that the greater land-take of organic farming inherently limits its claims to environmental benefit7.

The ghost of nitrogen future

What would a future world that dispensed with synthetic fertiliser look like? Scarily profligate, according to B&B. They write: “Since synthetic fertilizer provides nearly 60% of current nitrogen for producing crops, eliminating it without making any other changes would require far more farmland to fix enough nitrogen to maintain production….The world would need to more than double the amount of cropland.”

The italicisation is B&B’s, not mine. Note its nervousness. Isn’t it a little bizarre to assume there would be an international drive so radical as to make global agriculture entirely organic but without making any other changes? In truth, ‘without making any other changes’ seems to be the leitmotif of the Breakthrough Institute’s entire programme, which amounts to the view that people in rich countries can carry on living as they do, people in poor countries will soon be able to live in the same way, and with a bit of high-tech magic it can all be achieved while lessening humanity’s overall environmental impact.

Well, it’s a view – a fanciful one in my opinion, and not one that I’d like to see manifested even if it were possible. But I’d note that it is just a view – one of many different visions about what a good life and a good future might entail. Trying to realise it is a choice that’s open to us. Other choices are also available. What I dislike about the BI posts is the way they implicitly lead the reader to conclude that a synthetic nitrogen future is inevitable and scientifically foreordained, rather than a choice we can make – one with consequences for better and worse, as with all choices.

The alternatives? Well, if we want to talk about inefficient agricultures, the vastly inefficient production of meat (disproportionately consumed by the world’s richer people) is an obvious place to start. I’m not a vegan and I think there’s a place for livestock on the farm and a place for permanent pasture in global landscapes – indeed, I’ve argued the case for it strongly in the past. But the scale of the global livestock industry doesn’t have to be taken as a given. As Fischer suggests, it isn’t incumbent upon humanity to meet every economic demand that arises. After all, the UN has a special rapporteur on the human right to food – it doesn’t have one on the human right to meat. Of course, it’s not fair that only the rich should get easy access to meat. There are various ways to proceed from that point: maintaining or increasing meat production levels is only one of them.

Smaller-scale, more labour-intensive agricultures geared to better nutrient cycling would be another alternative starting place. I won’t rehearse all the arguments here about depeasantisation, urbanisation and livelihoods, not to mention carbon and energy futures, but a large commercial farm that uses synthetic nitrogen and other relatively expensive inputs isn’t intrinsically better than a smallholding that doesn’t. I think it’s time we laid aside the expansionary and ultimately imperialist mindset that insists otherwise, and settled down a bit. If the US reined in some of that $150 billionsworth of food exports that Brazeau mentions (which it’s ‘tasked’ with only really through its own self-interested economic agenda), less input-intensive and more labour-intensive agricultural approaches may become a little more feasible again worldwide, and could bring many benefits. Moving towards less aggressively expansionist economic ideologies in general certainly seems worth pondering as a route for humanity’s future. You might take a different view – but it would be good if we could at least agree that we’re talking about different views, not the inescapable truths that the BI posts seem to suggest.

Just to crank a few numbers of my own around these issues, I looked at FAO data on current global production of barley, cassava, maize, millet, plantains, potatoes, rice, sorghum, soybeans, sugar, sweet potato, taro, wheat and yams (my calculations are here if anyone would like to probe or critique them). This list probably encompasses most of the world’s major energy-rich crops (oil crops excepted), but scarcely even begins to capture total agricultural productivity. Totting up the total calories produced from them and then dividing that figure by the total calories needed by a 7.6 billion strong humanity at 2250 kcal per day, I find there’s a 43% surfeit over human calorific need from those crops alone. If we then correct the production figure downwards by the 20% that B&B say is the typical organic yield penalty, include a generous 35% organic ley and make a few adjustments for existing organic production and livestock products from the ley, we find that organic production can probably meet around 90% of total human calorific needs just from those 14 crops at existing levels of land-take. That’s just a ballpark, back-of-envelope calculation, but it suggests to me that this ‘organic agriculture can’t feed the world’ trope is a bit overblown. I’m not too bothered about whether it can or not – but I think we’d be better off debating the subjective content of our visions rather than writing them in ways that seek to buttress their historical inevitability or objective truth.

 Notes

 1. Cunfer, Geoff. 2005. On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, p.99.

2. Thirsk, Joan. 1997. Alternative Agriculture: A History. Oxford UP.

3. A ballpark figure I’ve come up with from FAO data, based on all the cattle, sheep, goat and horse meat produced globally (so possibly an overestimate?)

4. Data in this paragraph from http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/QL; http://orgprints.org/32677/19/Willer-2018-global-data-biofach.pdf; http://www.fao.org/animal-production/en/

5. Smil, Vaclav. 2001. Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production. MIT Press.

6. Lampkin, Nicholas. 1990. Organic Farming. Farming Press, p.150.

7. Actually, Blomqvist has written a longer piece on this specific issue here, which is quite interesting – but not to my mind ultimately convincing that the ‘land sparing’ concept is robust to the kind of criticisms levelled by Fischer.

In praise of stupid: for a self-systemic farming

I’ve been blogging for over six years under this ‘Small Farm Future’ moniker, without devoting much effort to defining what a ‘small farm’ actually is. So I thought I’d try to make at least some minor amends on that score in this post. Strangely, I think the results bear on recent discussions here, including the one under my last post on regenerative agriculture.

The standard response to the question ‘how small is a small farm?’ is the same as the standard response to most questions – it depends. A small peri-urban market garden may be a fraction of an acre, whereas a small upland livestock operation may be hundreds or even thousands of acres. So a quantitative definition in terms of land area doesn’t get us far. The same of course holds true for defining large farms. Blank quantification doesn’t elucidate the essential difference between ‘small’ and ‘large’.

Perhaps we get closer to the crux if we say that a small farm is one that serves its local community. A small farm is not one that sells its produce into national or international commodity markets, but one that usually sells directly to local customers. I think this definition is serviceable, but it obscures some details that need highlighting. Most ‘local communities’ in wealthy countries – and, in fact, generally in the world today – are not fundamentally organised with respect to local space and resources. In this sense, a small farm serving its local community is anomalous. Further, because of the non-localism of local economic space, many of the inputs used in small farms are necessarily not that local. The result is that most of us who produce food for local sale have to compromise in various ways, and expect our customers to understand the nature of these compromises sufficiently to keep buying from us rather than simply going to the supermarket. That’s not impossible, but it’s not easy, and it goes some way to explaining why there aren’t many small farms, and why a lot of the ones that do start up go out of business. Michelle’s fascinating account on this site of operating a ranching operation in Hawaii at local and not-so-local retail levels nicely illustrates the kind of dilemmas that arise.

Maybe another way of broaching these issues is to say that a small farm is one that doesn’t grow staple cereal crops for sale. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that the history of modern global civilization is keyed fundamentally to the story of how the world’s immense semi-arid continental grasslands were transformed through colonial violence in Old World and New from human ecologies of foraging and pastoralism to ones of (increasingly mechanised) cereal production1. The resultant vast global flows of cheap grain have successively undermined smaller-scale and more localised agricultures – first in the colonial heartlands (eg. the English agricultural crisis of the 1880s), then in the grain-producing grasslands themselves (eg. with the substantial demise of independent rural farm communities in the US mid-west, starting in the 1920s and 30s) and finally with the demise of peasant grain production and increasing import dependence throughout most of the postcolonial world from the 1960s as a result of international grain trading and food dumping2. To a considerable degree, global grain prices drive the price of almost everything else, and small farms serving local markets can’t compete with them, at least within the narrow framing of the contemporary economy. In other words, small farms have to be ‘niche’ to survive…and are therefore fairly irrelevant to the global food system.

For numerous reasons that I’ve set out on this blog over the years, I think this global food system (and therefore global civilisation writ large) is increasingly beset by crises that it will probably be unable to resolve through its existing structures. I also think that the small farm is the most likely saviour from these crises – but a ‘post-global’ or ‘post-industrial’ small farm won’t look much like the small farms of the present, and it may not look much like the small farms of the past either.

But that’s for the future. For now, the definition of the small farm that I most want to work with is the idea of it as a ‘self-systemic’ entity. Let me try to explain. Generally, I don’t favour technological solutionism in the face of the world’s problems, because I think it usually bequeaths at least as many problems as it solves and in fact is exemplary of the kind of super-scaled terraforming that’s precisely what got us into the mess we’re in in the first place. This would apply, for example, to mitigating climate change by installing vast mirrors in space or seeding the oceans with iron filings. It also applies to much agricultural scheming – from ‘conventional’ approaches such as precision farming, agri-chemical no till, vertical farming, hydroponics etc. to ‘alternative’ ones such as organics, mob-stocking, perennial grain cropping and regenerative agriculture.

Generally, I’m reasonably sympathetic to ‘holistic’ ideas about the common thread between good farming, good food, good health and good earth stewardship, though these connections are often tied up too neatly for my taste in much advocacy for various alternative farming techniques. The claims for the benefits of these techniques often outrun the evidence for them, and I’m uncomfortable with the way that they’re so often presented as a complete system which people in general ought to follow in order to solve humanity’s problems – indeed, that they’d be stupid not to. Stupidity has long been imputed by the advocates of progress and agricultural ‘improvement’ to small farmers practicing self-systemic agriculture historically3. It’s not hard now to find contrary examples of alternative agriculture enthusiasts returning fire to ‘conventional’ agriculture. I daresay I’ve erred myself in this respect.

Well, call me stupid but I now want out of this megalomaniac solutionism. So I’m tempted to define the small farm as ‘anti-systemic’. The small farm is a farm which is not run on principles like feeding the world, solving climate change, cutting costs or prices, increasing market share, impressing neighbours or peers, beating out the competition, maximising yield or saving the planet. It’s a place whose farmers are trying to provision themselves with the resources to hand, not build a ‘system’ to proselytise and ramify. But of course farming is intrinsically ‘systemic’ – it involves numerous deliberate procedures and input-output loops that you learn from other people, mess around with and apply or modify to the best of your ability. So I’ve gone with the notion of ‘self-systemic’ – the small farm is a farm system that purports no more than furnishing the self.

This raises more questions than it answers, but I think they’re the right kind of questions. One set of questions proceeds from the notion of the ‘self’, because nobody is just a ‘self’. How am I connected to other people? What is my ‘community’? What duties do I have in respect of it, and it to me? What duties do I have to people who are not in my ‘community’? To my descendants, or my ancestors? Another set of questions proceeds from the notion of the resources ‘to hand’. What lands, soils, water, air, energies, plants, germplasm and minerals can be said to be ‘to hand’? And what legacies in respect of them does my farming leave?

There’s nothing massively original in what I’m saying, but I think we easily forget its import. The permaculture movement, for example, has been good at posing these first principle questions – what are the resources of this land and this community? But permaculture design often reverts to systemic shibboleths – no till, perennial plantings, space stacking etc. One of the last comments of the late, lamented permaculturist Patrick Whitefield on this blog was this:

The longer I practice permaculture…the more I’m convinced that dogma and off-the-peg solutions don’t help at all. Every situation is unique. Every piece of land is unique and so are the people who work it. It behoves us to choose the unique solution that will work best in each situation….Having a favourite theory and pushing that above all others is no help to anyone.

Actually, the comment was aimed critically at me, but it’s one I wholly agree with…and much of my critical writing within the alternative agriculture movement has really been an attempt to articulate it. By contrast, not only our entire civilization but also most of the alternatives and critiques of it within and without agriculture proceed too easily from the notion that every piece of land and every person is not unique, but assimilable to wider truths. And of course, all of us and all places are participants in wider relationships that aren’t just self-generated. To me, that contradiction is at the heart of contemporary dilemmas – agricultural, political, environmental, spiritual. And I’d like to place the self-systemic small farm at the heart of them.

Schumacher wrote that ‘small is beautiful’ (though apparently he hated the title). Beckerman countered that ‘small is stupid’. Contemporary complacency over climate change is characterised as ‘The Age of Stupid’. Keith Hart writes that agriculture bears a political weight beyond its economic importance because rural imagery shapes the modern idea of the nation as resistant to modernism under the slogan “stop the world, I want to get off”4 – the characteristic slogan of a superficial anti-romanticism.

I’d like to define the small farm as something that’s richly and knowingly indifferent to all these stupidities and counter-stupidities, and to the worldliness, anti-worldliness or other-worldliness that the slogan invoked by Hart is trying to fix and anatomize. It’s hard to attain such a complex indifference – but I think it’s worth a try.

Notes

  1. See, for example: W. Cronon. 1991. Nature’s Metropolis. Norton; R. Netz. 2004. Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity. Wesleyan UP; D. Moon. 2013. The Plough That Broke The Steppes. Oxford UP.
  2. M. Mazoyer & L. Roudart. 2006. A History of World Agriculture. Earthscan.
  3. Examples are provided by J. Handy. 2009. Almost idiotic wretchedness: a long history of blaming peasants. Journal of Peasant Studies. 36, 2: 325-44.
  4. K. Hart. 2004. ‘The political economy of food in an unequal world’ in M. Lien and B. Nerlich (eds) The Politics of Food, Berg.

Waiting on amber: a note on regenerative agriculture and carbon farming

This post offers some further notes on the issue of carbon farming and regenerative agriculture, arising out of the discussion in this recent post of mine, particularly via the comments of Don Stewart. Don set me some onerous homework – a lengthy presentation by Elizabeth and Paul Kaiser of Singing Frogs farm in California, another lengthy presentation by David Johnson of New Mexico State University, and an interview with Australian soil scientist Christine Jones. Diligent student that I am, not only have I now completed these tasks but I’ve also read various other scientific papers and online resources bearing on the issue and am duly turning in my assignment. I hope it’ll provide some interest and a few points for discussion.

I started out with considerable sympathy towards carbon farming and regenerative agriculture, but with a degree of scepticism about some of the loftier claims made on its behalf by regenerative agriculture proponents (henceforth RAPs). And in fact that’s pretty much where I’ve ended up too, but with a somewhat clearer sense of where my grounds for scepticism lie. I hope we’ll see a shift towards more regenerative agriculture in the future. But if that’s going to happen, the RAPs will have to persuade a lot of people more inclined to scepticism than me about the virtues of their proposals – and if they’re going to do that, I think they’ll need to tighten up their arguments considerably. Anyway, in what follows I define what I understand regen-ag to be and then critically examine some of the claims about it.

Defining regenerative agriculture and carbon farming

Doubtless there are numerous possible emphases, but the fundamental idea revolves around restoring or maintaining the biological life of the soil, in particular the fungal component. Working as symbionts to plants and other soil organisms, fungi are able to deliver nutrients to plants that are otherwise unavailable, and also to sequester carbon by absorbing carbon dioxide from the air and turning it into stable organic carbon compounds in the soil. In order to achieve this, it’s essential to avoid tillage, since this destroys the fungal hyphae in the soil, and to keep the soil covered with living plants at all times so that there’s a healthy rhizosphere (root zone) interacting with the soil food web. It can also be necessary to inoculate the soil with the right kinds of fungi – apparently, not just any fungi will do1.

So the three key characteristics of this kind of agriculture are zero tillage, continuous cover cropping and fungal inoculation. David Johnson states that a one-off ‘dusting’ of 400-500lbs of inoculant per acre (that’s 450-560kg per hectare for those of us still hanging on in there in Project Europe) is all that’s necessary to create the right initial conditions in the soil for many years to come.

Proponents of this kind of regenerative agriculture have variously claimed that it can:

  • Protect soil from erosion and depletion, and indeed actively build soil
  • Provide adequate crop nutrients with minimal external inputs
  • Produce high yields
  • Produce healthy crops that are weed and pest-free
  • Sequester human greenhouse gas emissions – possibly all of them
  • Earn greater financial returns for farmers
  • Improve human health

If all that turns out to be true, then this is fantastic news. But these are powerful claims, and it’s surely reasonable for them to be examined closely before we collectively hitch our wagon to regen-ag. So here, in each case I try to highlight things that seem to be more or less well established beyond reasonable doubt, and things that don’t seem so well established, at least to me. I’m not an agronomist or a soil scientist, so doubtless there are things that aren’t obvious to me which are obvious to others, though I have a sneaking feeling that a few of the non-obvious things are brushed aside a little too quickly in the Regen-Ag movement, perhaps because they don’t quite fit the narrative. And then there are one or two things I’d like to highlight that seem not well established at all. So we have green-amber-red: Small Farm Future’s traffic light guide to Regen-Ag.

  1. Regen-Ag protects and builds soil

I think it’s reasonably well established that no till, continuous cover-cropping protects soil from physical erosion better than tillage farming2, so we can start with a green light. It’s not an all or nothing thing, however. There are places with strongly erosive conditions where it’s a really, really bad idea to practice tillage agriculture from a soil protection point of view, and others with less erosive conditions where perhaps it’s only a slightly bad idea. Sensitivity to local context, and other pressures, is in order before deciding how much to censure tillage practices. Nevertheless, I think it can be agreed that tillage is best avoided whenever possible. Of course, the mainstream ‘no till’ approach involves using copious quantities of glyphosate, synthetic fertiliser and heavy, compacting machinery of the kind that the late, lamented Gene Logsdon subjected to gentle ridicule in various articles3. It’s tempting to say that’s a whole different ball game from Regen-Ag, but actually it isn’t entirely. Many farmers lauded for their Regen-Ag credentials like Gabe Brown and Gail Fuller routinely use glyphosate or other herbicides, even if at a lesser rate than conventional farmers4. I’m not inclined to criticise them for it, but it falls some way short of the desiderata for a healthy soil food web generally emphasised by the RAPs, without apparently receiving much discussion.

In terms of actually building soil, RAPs like Christine Jones and Elaine Ingham commonly critique the widespread notion that soil formation is a slow process, arguing that topsoil formation can be ‘breathtakingly rapid’5. But it’s rarely stated how rapid. Many no till, regen systems I’ve seen involve importing compost in bulk. But that’s not soil building – it’s soil importing. So my question is, allowing for an initial ‘dusting’ of inoculate à la David Johnson, how quickly do soils under a regen-ag regimen typically ‘build’ with no subsequent imports or amendments, with crops being removed from them for human consumption all the while? Until that question is satisfactorily answered, I think the ‘building’ claim stays on amber.

The Kaiser’s Singing Frogs farm seems to involve importing quite a lot of compost, even if it’s used only as a soil amendment that helps stimulate the soil food web. In addition to the compost applied to their growing beds, they raise most of their plants initially as transplants in the greenhouse, which presumably also involves importing a lot of substrate. This is how most small market gardens operate, including mine (we import woodchip and some substrate). In our present economy, flush with fertility and fossil fuels, it’s a rational thing to do. But you do have to pay close attention to where the compost or substrate comes from, and how feasible it would be to scale its supply up across the farm sector as a whole, before concluding that soil-building of this sort has global replicability. Historically, in low energy situations the choice was essentially between tillage farming or diligent and extremely labour-intensive cycling of nutrients locally. As we confront the possibility of a lower energy future, it seems unlikely that farming systems based on importing compost in bulk will figure heavily.

  1. Regen-Ag provides adequate crop nutrients

There seem to be two ideas here. First, that once the soil food web is in good heart, there are enough nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil to give the crops all the nitrogen they need in better forms than synthetic fertiliser, which ultimately has a destructive effect on the soil food web and on the ability of plants to take up nutrients5. And second, that the overall metabolism of the soil food web makes the other nutrients needed by the crop more available than in soils compromised by conventional practices.

The first point seems plausible to me, but not definitively established. I think more quantitative evidence is required, which I didn’t find in my various readings of the RAPs. Much as I share the dislike of the RAPs for synthetic fertiliser (and I’ve never used it myself), about 40% of the current global food supply is based on the application of synthetic nitrogen compounds – this was a major limiting factor in 19th and early 20th century agriculture, and it seems doubtful that human populations would have reached their current level without the invention of the Haber-Bosch process6. Undoubtedly, there are downsides to synthetic fertiliser. The RAPs may be right that ultimately it’s destructive of soil health. And we may be able to do without it – either by careful cycling of organic nutrients, or by the kind of soil food web route advocated by the RAPs. Various people – including me – have asked whether it’s possible to feed the world through organic farming alone, and answered with a tentative yes. It certainly makes sense to start weaning ourselves off synthetic fertiliser whenever we can, but from a global food security viewpoint our current tentative yeses don’t seem quite enough for us to blithely ditch the synthetics quite yet. Generalised or anecdotal claims that crops will do better without synthetic fertiliser are all very well, but I think such claims have to stay on amber until more quantitative data is forthcoming.

In relation to other nutrients, I get that a thriving soil biota can pull in carbon, nitrogen and oxygen from the atmosphere, but all the other nutrients have to come from the soil. David Johnson talks about the “increase in the availability” of such nutrients in his version of Regen-Ag, which he calls “Biologically enhanced agricultural management” (BEAM)7. It’s plausible to me that a healthy soil biota makes these nutrients more available to crops than they’d otherwise be, but (unlike C, N and O) it can’t conjure them out of thin air. So if crops are being taken off, then it seems to me that ultimately these nutrients are being mined from the soil, unless they’re somehow getting put back too8. But since Dr Johnson also enthuses about retaining his modern lifestyle and jetting off to distant conferences, it doesn’t seem that he’s thinking of a smallholder-style world of careful nutrient cycling. So I wonder where these nutrients are coming from. Maybe the RAPs would argue that there are effectively limitless quantities of them in the soil if only they can be made more available by the soil biota – I’ve heard Elaine Ingham imply as much9. But again, I’d like to see more quantification of this point. By my calculations, for example, the 65 million of us in the UK need to consume about 24,000 tonnes of phosphorus annually, which would minimally involve stripping the phosphorus in its entirety out of about 24 million tonnes of soil every year, and that at an improbable 100% extraction rate. So for the moment I consider this another amber, at best.

  1. Regen-Ag produces high yields

Yet again, I’m struggling to find much quantification here. In Christine Jones’s article, various farmers practising regen-ag are mentioned who are “getting fantastic yields”10. Well, how fantastic? Wheat yields in the USA, for example, have averaged 46.7 bushels per acre nationally over the last five years11. How do the wheat yields of regen-ag farmers compare? I’m not seeing too many hard and fast figures in the literature.

Let me unpack this point a little under these four heads:

  • Biomass and harvest index
  • Necessary yield
  • Competition and agronomic variation
  • Cropland-grassland balance

Biomass and harvest index: David Johnson presents figures for the most productive natural ecosystems which suggest they produce up to four times more biomass than agroecosystems despite all the fertilisation and irrigation lavished on the latter. From this he infers that “We’re doing something wrong”12. But the main purpose of agroecosystems isn’t to maximise the production of biomass, it’s to produce digestible human food – carbohydrates, proteins etc. Human crop breeding efforts have actively tried to reduce the amount of inedible biomass relative to the edible portion of the crop (ie. increase the harvest index). In this sense, Johnson’s comparison presents little useful information. Further, the high productivity natural ecosystems he identifies are all from hot and/or humid places (swamps, rainforests…even kelp beds). It’s not clear that the same is true of his agroecosystem figure, so I’m not sure he’s comparing like with like. Then Johnson presents data showing that his BEAM system produces way more biomass than even the natural ecosystems. He doesn’t always make it clear exactly what these high biomass BEAM plants are, but they generally seem to be cover crops which, by definition, are plants that are unusually good at quickly producing copious leafy biomass in the short-term. So it’s not necessarily surprising that they outperform the range of plants found in natural ecosystems and agroecosystems. High biomass production can be one important agricultural goal, but what’s ultimately of greatest interest is the yield of the edible portion of the crop. The table that Johnson really needs to present here is the yield of edible biomass or of metabolisable human nutrients in the various different regimens. It’s impossible to know if we’re ‘doing something wrong’ in crop yield terms until he does.

Necessary yield. Of course, yield isn’t everything. A lot of crops are fed inefficiently to livestock, or exported, or end up as food waste. Undoubtedly there’s some slack in the system, so it doesn’t necessarily matter if regen-ag yields are lower than conventionally-grown crops if they bring other benefits. As with enthusiasts for perennial grain crops, the RAPs seem to feel the need to claim that crop yields are as good or better than conventional crops, when this may not be necessary for their case, and potentially draws us into needlessly oppositional arguments. But ultimately it’s necessary for any agricultural system to yield enough to feed the people relying on it. What counts as enough isn’t an exactly quantifiable number, but it should be roughly quantifiable, and I’d like to see the RAPs roughly quantify it.

Competition and agronomic variation: at one point in his presentation, David Johnson likens our major crop plants to weeds and says “we’re good at growing weeds”. That’s exactly right. The basic characteristic of most of our major crop plants is that, like most weeds, they’re pioneer, short-lived (usually annual or biennial, sometimes short-lived perennial) plants that usually fare best in disturbed (ie. ploughed), highly fertile ground. As argued above, disturbed ground isn’t ideal for other reasons, so if we’re going to grow our standard crops in regen-ag systems, then essentially we’re going to have to ‘trick’ them into growing in circumstances they don’t particularly favour. In particular, we’re probably going to have to grow them through cover crops that may compete with them for water, light and some nutrients, even if they may donate other nutrients (like nitrogen). Therefore we might expect them to yield less. Generally, the way farmers bicrop cash crops with cover crops if they don’t use herbicide (which in fact most of them do) is to use some kind of inherent seasonal check to the latter (eg. flooding, extreme heat/drought, or extreme cold) or else by damaging them mechanically by some method that falls short of full tillage. But that’s not possible everywhere – for example, in the moist temperate zone where I live, cover crops can happily grow more or less year round and I’m not sure there are obvious ways that, for example, a cereal crop could be established directly into them with uniform success and good yields. This article about Kansas regen-ag farmer Gail Fuller says “Instead of trying to figure out the best way to terminate a cover crop or pasture, Fuller is looking for ways to knock it back for a few days to allow the cash crop to compete as a companion crop”. Where I live, I don’t think ‘knocking back’ a cover crop for a few days would be anything like enough to establish a successful cereal crop into it – which is why cover-cropping farmers here continue to use glyphosate routinely. My feeling is that further experimentation with cover cropping may eventually mitigate this problem, probably at the cost of some yield loss. But it doesn’t seem to me that humanity has really cracked this one yet. I think the RAPs need to discuss this issue more clearly, perhaps with an acknowledgment that – as with their ideal cover crop – it’s not yet cut and dried.

Cropland-grassland balance: many of these cash crop-cover crop trade-offs disappear when the focus shifts to farming ruminants on grass, because – notwithstanding many farmers’ taste for temporary perennial ryegrass – the cash crop in this instance is essentially a long-term cover crop, which therefore fits easily into the logic of regen-ag. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the farmers who get star billing as regen-ag pioneers are often ranchers on extensive, semi-arid grassland who are restoring soil and vegetation in the aftermath of ill-advised intensive grazing or tillage. All credit to them, but in terms of global food production it would be stretching a point even to call this a sideshow. The problem with grass as a crop is that humans have to jump a trophic level in order to be able to consume it as beef, lamb etc. and – as the likes of George Monbiot tirelessly, and correctly, remind us – this is pretty inefficient energetically. The contribution of rangeland beef to global food intake is minimal. On this note, Gabe Brown is frequently cited as a regen-ag pioneer. I haven’t yet established exactly what Brown’s system is and what his yields are, though it seems he has long fallows in his grazing rotations. Makes sense…but then he has a lot of (presumably cheap) acres to play with. Maybe his yields stand up even so. If so, it hardly fits into a Boserup model of agricultural intensification. Gail Fuller says “with low grain prices my bottom line is better grazing cover crops and pastures than growing corn…Right now, I make more money grazing”13. Of course, that’s absolutely fine at the individual farm level (though maybe it raises a question mark or two about those ‘fantastic’ regen-ag yields). But at the global food system level, it probably wouldn’t be fine, and we need to address that too.

In summary, I’m open to the idea that regen-ag methods produce ‘fantastic’ yields, but I’d like to know what they are. If no-till, cover-cropping methods can match or surpass tillage plus added-fertility methods for crop yield (rather than biomass yield) then that indeed would be fantastic – but it would run counter to what we’ve learned historically about agricultural development. Even if they can’t match them, it may not matter if they can yield enough. But some good, global quantification is necessary. For the moment, there are many ambers here.

  1. Regen Ag produces healthy crops that are weed and pest free

It seems plausible that a healthy soil biota, with fungal networks optimising nutrient transfer, will produce healthy crops – perhaps healthier than ones propped up by an agri-chem plus tillage approach. At the same time, as mentioned above, most of our crops are based on weedy, pioneer species that like to hoover up nutrients in disturbed soil, and they’ve been further bred to amplify these characteristics. So the idea that they’re happier in undisturbed fungal soils arguably requires demonstrating, rather than being assumed. I’d judge this assertion to be hovering on amber.

No doubt it’s true that healthy plants are more resistant to weeds and pests. This has long been the refrain of the organic movement, and I think it’s defensible so long as you don’t overplay the argument. Our crops, remember, are basically weeds, and the kind of soils they like to grow in will generally be to the liking of other weeds that humans don’t want. At Singing Frogs Farm, the Kaisers emphasise the use of mature transplants as a strategy to prevent weed ingress. That makes sense in the context of a small market garden, but it speaks of weed management, not a weed-free agronomy. It’s also labour and compost-intensive. It’s not necessarily applicable to broadscale farming – unless the argument is that we should minimise the latter and emphasise small-scale, labour-intensive farming. That, I think, is precisely what we should be doing. But we won’t have banished weeds, and we’ll have to scratch our heads to find the necessary inputs.

The pest issue mirrors the weed one. Different kinds of pests adapt to different kind of cropping regimens in different ways, and again it’s a matter of management rather than banishment. The Kaisers discuss the bird and insect problems they have and the crop covers they use to minimise these – so clearly they have pest problems. I find implausible the notion of a farm so tuned in to the natural world that none of its crop ends up in the stomachs of wild critters. Indeed, a farm tuned in to the natural world probably ought to be one in which some of its crop does end up in the stomachs of wild critters.

For me, it’s a red light on this claim.

  1. Regen ag sequesters human greenhouse gas emissions – possibly all of them.

It’s generally agreed that soils can act as a sink for carbon, and that soils containing a healthy food web are better at sequestering it – for example, through the fungal creation of chitin which holds it in a relatively immobile form. So I think we can probably award a green light to the basic claim that regenerative agriculture can sequester carbon. I say ‘probably’ because there are studies that contest the idea of carbon sequestration through no-till regimens14 – it seems to be the case that the ‘regimen’ can be more important than the ‘no till’. Still, I think it would be fair to say that the balance of the literature suggests sequestration is at least a possibility.

Even so, I’d like to make four caveats.

First, I’d hope we can all agree that the best form of carbon sequestration is the one where humanity leaves the world’s hydrocarbons in their well sequestered present locations deep down in the earth. Carbon sequestered shallowly in soils by living organisms is always going to be more potentially mobile. You could argue that, in practice, humanity just isn’t going to leave all that energetically useful carbon where it currently lies in the rock, and that we therefore need to think about other mitigation strategies. Fair enough. But David Johnson’s insouciance about continuing to live our present high energy, fossil-fuelled lifestyle while mitigating its effects through shallow sequestration in living soils doesn’t inspire me with a great deal of confidence.

Second, no till farming doesn’t have it all its own way in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, because it’s typically associated with greater nitrous oxide emissions – and in some situations these outweigh the carbon sequestration gains: “increased N2O losses may result in a negative greenhouse gas balance for many poorly-drained fine-textured agricultural soils under no-till located in regions with a humid climate”15. That sounds like an apt summary of many of the soils where I live. Proof again, if it were needed, that in agriculture as in many other things there are no one-size-fits-all solutions.

Third, there may be a limit on soil sequestration potential. Regen-ag heroes like Gabe Brown are lauded for taking on farms degraded by over-tillage and soil carbon loss and then building up the soil carbon stocks. But it seems to be the case that you can only build up the soil carbon for so long16 – we’re talking years, or decades at most – before it reaches an equilibrium where there’s no agricultural benefit to increasing carbon (as the Kaisers have already found) and it gets harder to do so anyway. So there may be a fairly short time-frame in which the carbon sequestration benefits of regen-ag are operative. Experiments like David Johnson’s have also been undertaken under short time-frames so far. Some caution about how much we can extrapolate these findings long into the future is probably in order.

Fourth and finally, we come to the vexed question of how much of the carbon that humanity is adding to the atmosphere can be sequestered in soil. The scientific consensus seems to be something in the region between 7-16% of current emissions17 – a useful amount, certainly, but not decisive enough to keep the climate change wolf from the door. RAPs like Christine Jones and David Johnson think that the potential is much greater, but frankly I’m doubtful of their claims. Jones appears to have something of a track record of questionable over-estimations of soil carbon sequestration potential of such proportions that it’s prompted even luminaries of the alternative farming movement such as Simon Fairlie and Rafter Sass Ferguson to distance themselves from her claims18.

Meanwhile, Johnson argues that since fossil fuel combustion is only responsible for about 3% of the carbon in the global carbon cycle, it’s better to focus mitigation efforts on the biotic side of the cycle. This strikes me as specious. True, there are large natural sources, sinks and fluxes of carbon which dwarf the anthropogenic ones, but these are well-established patterns that aren’t significantly responsible for the radiative forcing we’re now seeing as a result of adding new carbon to the cycle. And if I understand this right, this new carbon, this 3% (I think it’s possibly more than 3% if you consider all anthropogenic causes of radiative forcing), is being added every year. However we tend the soil, can we really expect the existing carbon cycle, its soils and vegetation, to take care of an additional 3% on top of its relatively stable totals on our behalf in each and every year for the foreseeable future so that we can continue flying around the world to go to soil carbon conferences? That’s a very large demand to place on Mother Nature. I suspect she has other plans. If the claim is that on the basis of a few short-term, small-scale, local experiments like Johnson’s we can be sure beyond reasonable doubt that all anthropogenic carbon emissions can be stably sequestered long-term in agricultural soils, then I fear I’m looking at amber turning to red.

This isn’t the first time it’s been claimed we can adopt agricultural practices that will sequester all anthropogenic carbon and banish our climate change woes. Those earlier claims were shown to be spurious19. The same outcome seems likely this time around.

  1. Regen-Ag earns greater rewards for farmers

I think the basis for this claim is that regen-ag farmers spend less on agri-chemical inputs, presumably without a concomitant decline in outputs. So it’s plausible that the current handful of regen-ag pioneers are making a bit more money just at the moment. But unfortunately markets don’t fix food commodity prices at levels determined by outmoded technical inputs – in fact, they barely fix food commodity prices at levels determined by inputs at all. If they did, I’d be a rich man. So if regen-ag proves itself and spreads, then absenting major structural change in the global political economy, no farmer is going to get wealthy from it, because commodity prices will adjust. In other words, it’ll play out the same way as every other technical innovation that’s enabled farmers to increase yields or reduce inputs without for the most part becoming notably better off. Even David Johnson concedes that farmers will need to be paid in order to adopt his BEAM approach. He says that we shouldn’t expect farmers to bear the brunt of society’s environmentally-damaging behaviours. I agree, though historically they generally have done. Of course, in the long run it’s not sound business sense for Homo sapiens Inc. to erode away all its agricultural soils, so at some level it must ultimately be true that it ‘pays’ to adopt regenerative practices. But in the short-run, while I’m sure some farmers have improved their incomes as a result of adopting regen-ag approaches, I’m not seeing a persuasive argument for how regen-ag will in itself improve farmer income. Another red light.

  1. Regen-Ag can improve human health

The main idea here – one debated under my earlier post – is that without a healthy soil biota to transport nutrients readily around, our crop plants are unable to access the range of nutrients (particularly the micro-nutrients) that they need for their full health, with negative consequences in turn for human health. I find this idea intuitively quite plausible, but intuition only takes one so far. Proponents of mainstream agriculture are fond of saying things like “nitrogen is nitrogen”, and to be honest I’ve not seen much evidence to refute them. Evidence of harm to human health from the proliferation of nitrates and other agro-chemicals in the environment is clear, so there are grounds for shifting away from it on that basis alone. But evidence of harm to human health from impaired soil food webs is more elusive. It seems to be the case that the nutrient density of our food is in decline, but it’s possible that this results from eating high-yielding modern crop varieties with poorer micro-nutrient uptake and from a poorer overall diet20, not because of the non-availability of micro-nutrients in the soil.

Christine Jones has this to say about the link between current agricultural practices and cancer:

“Not that long ago the cancer rate was around one in 100. Now we’re pretty close to one in two people being diagnosed with cancer. At the current rate of increase, it won’t be long before nearly every person will contract cancer during their lifetimes. Cancer is also the number one killer in dogs. Isn’t that telling us something about toxins in the food chain? We’re not only killing everything in the soil, we’re also killing ourselves — and our companion animals”21

Let’s unpack these statements a little. In the UK22 the current cancer ‘rate’ in the sense of new cases of malignant cancer occurring each year across the whole population is 1 in 182, but that translates into the expectation that indeed around one in two people will be diagnosed with cancer in the course of their lives23. If by a cancer ‘rate’ of 1 in 100 Jones means that ‘not that long ago’ only 1 in 100 people got cancer at any point in their lives (compared to the 1 in 2 today) I’d like to know how long ago that was. It would certainly be much longer ago than the 20th century, and the problem is that when you go back that far there are lots of other causes of morbidity – infectious disease and accidents, for example – that confound the attempt to make inferences about cancer aetiologies from rate changes. The fact that cancer incidence in pre-modern populations was low doesn’t necessarily mean that carcinogenicity in those times was concomitantly low (though that might be the case).

The difficulties of inferring changing carcinogenicity from historic incidence rates are compounded by changing age structures. The population now has a larger proportion of older people than before, and since the incidence of cancer is strongly associated with age, a good deal of the increase in cancer rates is purely an artefact of the ageing population. Meanwhile, cancer incidence is currently reducing in many ‘developed’ countries24 – though as a result of complex, multifactorial influences that push in different directions. So the straightforward answer to Jones’s question – isn’t the secular increase in cancer rates telling us something about toxins in the food chain? – is no, you just can’t infer that. That doesn’t mean she’s necessarily wrong. For all I know, it could be true that there’s a declining intake of micronutrients (or an increase in toxins – Jones seems a bit unclear on this point) with a positive effect on cancer incidence. Though if the finger of suspicion is pointing specifically at the decline of soil food webs, I’d observe that tillage agriculture has been the norm in many places for a long time, so the link between increased cancer incidence today and the destruction of soil food webs seems questionable. In any case, what’s clear is that the evidence Jones cites in support of her ‘toxins in the food chain’ view doesn’t in fact support it. There does seem to be evidence linking high dietary intakes of heavily processed food with raised cancer incidence25. Given current dietary patterns, adopting a diverse diet of fresh, unprocessed food may yield more health dividends than a switch to a regen-ag diet.

I’ve dwelt at some length on this rather abstruse cancer issue partly because I think it’s bad intellectual practice to justify an assertion in relation to evidence that doesn’t actually support it, and also because I think sloppiness of this order will easily torpedo the RAPs’ claims about the evidential base for regenerative agriculture more generally as they try to build wider support for regen-ag – and that would be a shame.

I think the health claims for regen-ag currently have to get red light status – though that may change in the future. I find it plausible that numerous aspects of our present food system may be associated with increased cancer incidence. It’s just that I haven’t (yet) seen any plausible evidence linking regen-ag practices to reduced cancer incidence.

Conclusion

I won’t try to summarise what I’ve said above. All in all, my traffic light assessment of the RAPs’ claims suggests to me a few greens, rather more reds, and a lot of ambers. There are numerous reasons why moving towards a regen-ag approach and sequestering some carbon in soils probably makes sense, but there’s a distinct lack of convincing empirical evidence to support many of the stronger claims made by the RAPs. For now, I feel like I’m waiting on amber.

Note: My thanks to Don Stewart for prompting this line of enquiry and to Clem Weidenbenner for an informative discussion.

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References

  1. David Johnson
  2. Eg. http://www.pnas.org/content/104/33/13268.short
  3. Eg. https://thecontraryfarmer.wordpress.com/2010/06/16/no-till-is-a-big-white-lie/
  4. Eg. http://www.cornandsoybeandigest.com/conservation/take-soil-and-farm-beyond-conservation; for a discussion of this among British farmers, see https://anewnatureblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/30/thoughts-on-the-glyphosate-saga/ 
  5. https://www.ncat.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Acres-story-for-web-posting-March15_Jones.pdf
  6. V. Smil. 2017. Energy and Civilization, MIT Press, p.308; V. Smil. 2001. Enriching the Earth. MIT Press.
  7. David Johnson
  8. Disclosure: I once vehemently and obtusely sought to deny this point in an online discussion with an Australian scientist whose name now escapes me. Sorry, sir – I was wrong.
  9. E. Ingham. 2015. Presentation at Canadian Organic Growers’ Conference, Toronto, Feb 2015.
  10. https://www.ncat.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Acres-story-for-web-posting-March15_Jones.pdf
  11. https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/wheat-data/
  12. David Johnson
  13. Gail FullerJ. Baker et al. 2007. Tillage and soil carbon sequestration – what do we really know? Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment. 118: 1-5; Z. Luo et al. 2010. Can no tillage stimulate carbon sequestration in agricultural soils? Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment. 139: 224-231.
  14. P. Rochette. 2008. No-till only increases N2O emissions in poorly-aerated soils. Soil & Tillage Research. 101, 1-2: 97-100.
  15. S. Singh. 2009. Climate Change and Crops; DEFRA (2007). The effects of reduced tillage practices and organic material additions on the carbon content of arable soils.
  16. IPCC; CGIAR; Singh, Ibid.
  17. S. Fairlie. 2010. Meat. Permanent Publications; Rafter Sass Ferguson.
  18. George Monbiot; D. Briske et al.
  19. M. Fan et al. 2008. Evidence of decreasing mineral density in wheat grain over the last 160 years. Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology. 22, 4: 315-24; F. Denison. 2010. Darwinian Agriculture. Princeton UP.
  20. https://www.ncat.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Acres-story-for-web-posting-March15_Jones.pdfI’m not sure which country’s rates Jones is referring to. I’m most familiar with UK data, so I’ve used that – I doubt the conclusions I draw here would be radically different if data were used from other ‘developed’ countries.
  21. https://www.cancerdata.nhs.uk
  22. A. Jemal et al
  23. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/feb/14/ultra-processed-foods-may-be-linked-to-cancer-says-study

Energy prospects: little to Smil about?

Last week saw much of Britain in the grip of uncharacteristic snowstorms and freezing temperatures. The picture shows the woods near my holding in their snowy raiment. I thought it would be crowded when I went walking there, because it’s usually a popular spot. But with the roads impassable, it was almost deserted. Ah yes, traffic chaos – the cue for the usual British complaints about how bad we are at coping with a bit of snow (I always think a bad feature of British culture is our readiness to complain about how bad we are at things). No doubt it’s possible to blame the government (another common British pastime, though one I suspect not limited to this country alone) but the truth is we hardly ever have snow like this, and it would be pointless to stand constantly prepared for it. When I’ve been in places where heavy snows are a regular occurrence, what’s struck me most is the enormous fossil energy input invested in the snowploughs, gritting trucks, snow blowers, 4WDs, heating systems and so forth. All that ancient sunlight invested in keeping modern people moving, no matter what. In the 19th century Russia of Turgenev’s Sketches From A Hunter’s Album that I’m currently reading, what’s striking is that when travellers get hit by inclement weather they basically stay put, sometimes for weeks on end. Though to be fair, travelling in 19th century Russia was mostly a pursuit of the wealthy few. There’s nothing like serfdom for keeping you close to home.

Anyway, this is all vaguely relevant to my present theme, which is some thoughts on Vaclav Smil’s Energy and Civilization: A History (MIT Press, 2017). It’s hard to keep up with Smil’s output, since he seems to produce about three books every year, but I find him an interesting writer. Energy is so critical to the present and future of global civilization, and yet it gets curiously little attention in everyday debate. Smil is an academic expert on the topic, and he’s never been especially sympathetic to the green-hued, peak oil worrying, nuclear-bothering tribe that’s my spiritual home. For me, then, he’s worth a read so he can round out my rough edges.

There’s an awful lot of information crammed into the 400 plus pages of this latest offering. Veritably, it’s a nerd’s delight. Who knew, for example, that a draft mule has a working speed of 0.9-1.0 ms-1 with a power output of 500-600W, whereas a donkey manages only 0.6-0.7 ms-1 at 100-200W? I was going to save that for the next dinner party I was invited to, but there you go – now I’ve given it away for free. I get very few dinner party invites these days, anyway. Can’t think why.

So, as usual in a blog post of this sort I’m not going to try to precis the whole book, but just offer a few idiosyncratic sleeve notes of my own devising on parts of it that especially piqued my interest. They fall under seven headings:

 1. Peak oil

Smil has long been a critic of the peak oil hypothesis, and he criticises it again here. Of course it’s true that the availability of fossil hydrocarbons isn’t determined solely by how much of them are left in the ground – improvements in extraction technologies, changing demand and the throughput of the global economy are also relevant. But when Smil himself writes “Modern civilization has been created by the massive, and increasing, combustion of fossil fuels, but this practice is clearly limited by their crustal abundance” (p.18) you get the sense that his anti-peak oil convictions are wavering a little. Clearly, humanity is depleting the ‘crustal abundance’ of hydrocarbons. It would be nice to hear Smil’s estimate as to when that depletion might start to become noticeable, or – since, as he rightly says, a better way of tracking future energy scenarios is considering the marginal cost of production – what the future price curve is likely to look like. You get the sense from various asides in the book that his answers might be something like ‘pretty soon’ and ‘not nice’. Elsewhere (p.440), Smil opines that the exhaustion of fossil fuels is unlikely because climate change will get us first. So that’s a comfort.

2. Fossil fuel

That ‘modern civilization’ quotation above expresses a reality that, unlike many, Smil does not shy away from. The world today is massively dependent on fossil fuels and, for all our modern ingenuity, few really convincing future alternatives have yet emerged. Here’s another ‘modern civilization’ excerpt from him: “Modern civilization depends on extracting prodigious energy stores, depleting finite fossil fuel deposits that cannot be replenished even on time scales orders of magnitude longer than the existence of our species. Reliance on nuclear fission and the harnessing of renewable energies…have been increasing, but by 2015 fossil fuels still accounted for 86% of the world’s primary energy, just 4% less than a generation ago, in 1990” (p.295). It seems to me likely that there will be a continuing shift away from fossil fuels towards renewably-generated electricity, but the idea that it will be able to match current levels of energy use any time soon, or ever, seems fanciful. Moreover, as Smil points out, while electricity can substitute for fossil fuels in some sectors “there is no affordable, mass-scale alternative available for transportation fuels, feedstocks (ammonia, plastics) or iron ore smelting” (p.383). More comfort – time to get composting?

3. Energy transitions

Smil is well known for his argument that energy transitions are typically slow, even when new and obviously superior energy sources become available, largely because of sunk infrastructure costs. Photovoltaic enthusiasts like Chris Goodall have questioned this. I couldn’t possibly comment, except to say that the strength of the global economy is intimately connected with that fossil fuel infrastructure, so a rapid buildout of alternatives looks, shall we say, economically challenging – this perhaps is Gail Tverberg’s point, represented on here some time ago by the much-missed commenter wysinwyg. On the upside, Smil decries the chronic conservatism and lack of imagination that people display in relation to the power of technical innovation to improve future energy scenarios. But lest anyone is tempted to pigeonhole him with the techno-fixers, he also decries in the very same sentence the “repeatedly exaggerated claims made on behalf of new energy sources” (p.436)

4. Nuclear power

Smil describes nuclear power as a ‘successful failure’. Successful, because at one stage it was providing about 17% of the world’s electricity relatively cleanly (but remember that electricity is only a small proportion of the world’s total energy use). Failure because of “technical weaknesses of dominant designs, the high construction costs of nuclear plants and chronic delays in their completion, the unresolved problem of long-term disposal of radioactive wastes, and widespread concerns about operation safety” (p.284). Though Smil is rather scathing about the safety concern issue, the other ones seem of sufficient gravity that Small Farm Future proposes respectfully to relabel nuclear power as a ‘failed failure’. No doubt it will continue to play a marginal role in the energy mix in a few wealthy countries for the time being, but presently the chances of it stepping in to replace global fossil fuel dependence seem to be essentially nil.

5. Cities

Smil is refreshingly candid about the energy-hunger and social dysfunction of cities. Urbanisation, he suggests, involves substantial increases in per capita energy use (p.355). He adds that “large parts of many of the world’s largest cities remain epitomes of violence, drug addiction, homelessness, child abandonment, prostitution and squalid living….Cities have always been renewed by migration from villages – but what will happen to the already mostly urban civilization once the villages virtually disappear while the social structure of cities continues to disintegrate?” (p.437). Smil is under no illusions about the nature of rural, agrarian poverty, but it’s nice to see him avoiding the siren song of romanticising urban slums along the lines of Stewart Brand and the multitudes of his ecomodernist imitators. Smil does, however, talk positively about superlinear scaling, where increased population density results in disproportionately positive effects. My sense of the research literature is that some of the superlinear scaling claims are overblown, but I’ve somewhat lost track of this one. If anyone could point me to some relevant studies I’d be grateful. Meanwhile, Smil’s take-home message seems to be that it’s pretty miserable being poor in the countryside, and just as bad or even worse in the city. More comfort.

6. Agricultural involution

Smil has quite a lot to say about the energetic basis of premodern agrarian societies, which is interesting but not something I’m going to dwell on too much here. He asserts that societies based only on animate energies struggled to provide an adequate food supply for their populations, which no doubt has generally been true – but doing so was rarely a top priority for the ruling classes in agrarian societies of the past. I think it would be a good idea if we strived to make it a top priority for the ruling classes in agrarian societies of the future. Smil invokes the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s classic study of ‘agricultural involution’ in colonial Indonesia, essentially to argue that the intensification of traditional peasant agriculture can support increasing population densities but is ultimately a road to nowhere that reaches a point of diminishing return. However, he doesn’t engage at all with Geertz’s point that the involution of subsistence rice production in Indonesia was articulated with the production of sugar as a colonial cash crop. Suppose instead of the extractive colonial situation an ‘involuted’ peasant agriculture geared to providing for the teeming peasant multitudes, articulated with a state geared to using whatever surplus it could generate to deliver collective benefits to those multitudes, particularly by supporting labour-intensive, community-building sectors like health and social care. It seems to me that a future agricultural involution is likely in many countries with current high-energy capitalist agricultures. It would be a good idea to try to organise the state in such societies to distribute rather than concentrate or export the accrued benefits of the involutionary turn.

7. Materiality and social status

Finally, Smil makes the excellent point that our contemporary high energy civilization needs to delink social status from material surfeit if we’re to successfully negotiate the energy and resource squeezes that await us. He points out that what he (problematically, perhaps) calls the old ‘high cultures’ of the past never engaged in the mass production of consumer goods. Some might argue that this was because there were few ‘highs’ in these ‘high cultures’ and a lot of ‘lows’, something that we’ve mercifully transcended in conditions of modernity. But I don’t think that argument entirely washes, and it wouldn’t hurt to look at ourselves a bit more self-critically. Smil suggests that we need to move beyond the equation of civilization with high energy throughputs. It’s a demanding task, but I can only say amen to that.