Debating population, poverty and development

Last week, Small Farm Future chalked up yet another first – the first vehement critique of one of our posts by a working academic with apparent expertise in the matter at hand. The post was this one about global population and its entailments that I published in June, and the critique came from Dr Jane O’Sullivan of the University of Queensland in Australia (our exchange is linked below).

I’d precis the main substance of Dr O’Sullivan’s critique as follows: my post failed to consider the importance of top-down government or expert-led population control policies (broadly conceived) in reducing global fertility (ie. births per woman) over the last 50 years, and failed to consider the implications of the recent slowdown in the decline of the fertility rate and its causes. If that was all that Dr O’Sullivan had said, it would have been easy for me to concede these points (especially if she’d made them politely). I don’t think the concession greatly alters the main points I was making in that post, though perhaps it does a little. But in the course of our ill-tempered exchange (I’m sure the fault was partly mine…though not, I think, entirely) Dr O’Sullivan also unleashed quite a barrage of assertions that in my opinion varied from the somewhat questionable to the downright misleading, along I’ll admit with the occasional useful nugget. I should probably give myself more time to reflect on the issues, but some of them are highly relevant to the wider themes of this blog, and I think are less clear-cut than Dr O’Sullivan supposes. So I thought I’d write a quick, work-in-progress kind of response now to present the issues as I see them, in the hope that other commenters may bring some wider illumination.

Here, then, are just a handful of the many issues arising out of the exchange, each one wrapped up with a point for discussion. The exchange itself can be found lurking at the bottom of my offending post, but is also linked at the end of this one for convenience.

The relationship between human fertility and poverty.

Dr O’Sullivan wrote that “population growth is the main driver of impoverishment and local environmental damage in high-fertility countries”. Focusing for now just on the impoverishment side of things, I think this claim is empirically wrong and could well be politically disastrous.

Let’s take for illustration the ten countries with the highest fertility rates in the world, all but one of which are African (in fact, all but nine of the fifty highest-fertility countries are African). According to the World Bank’s World Development Indicators the top ten are Niger (with a current average fertility rate of 7.2 births per woman), Somalia (6.3), Democratic Republic of Congo (6.1), Mali (6.1), Chad (5.9), Burundi (5.7), Angola (5.7), Uganda (5.6), Nigeria (5.5) and Timor-Leste (5.5).

An elementary knowledge of the recent and longer-term history of these countries and their regions would surely call into question the claim that population growth is the main driver of their impoverishment. I guess I could accept Dr O’Sullivan’s claim if it was rephrased thus:

“Leaving aside the net annual outflow of billions of dollars from sub-Saharan Africa to the rest of the world (see eg. Jason Hickel The Divide), and leaving aside also the fact that large parts of it are comprised not by ‘developing countries’ but by areas largely excluded from the distribution of global surplus to the extent that they’ve become politically dominated by violent non-state or quasi-state actors (see eg. Mark Duffield Global Governance and the New Wars), then there is some evidence to suggest an association between impoverishment and population growth caused by high fertility.”

But after reading through Dr O’Sullivan’s linked paper, I’m not convinced that that evidence is quite as strong as she claims. A lot of the evidence she discusses is based on country-level data suggestive of GDP growth postdating fertility decline. There are some problems with this aggregate-level post hoc ergo propter hoc argument as a justification for reducing individual fertility as an anti-poverty strategy. If one wants to argue that high fertility is the main driver of impoverishment within these countries then it’s necessary to show that, on average, a resident individual who has x children experiences greater poverty over their total lifecourse than another individual starting at an identical socioeconomic level who has <x children. And then it’s necessary to show that this effect is more powerful than other ones, such as the financial and resource drain from these countries and the effect of their political structuring.

Dr O’Sullivan does cite a review paper1 discussing research that may be suggestive at least of the first part of this, though its conclusions are expressed more cautiously than hers. But overall I think there are some problems of causal inference in parts of her paper. A problem I have with much ‘development’ research of this kind is its reification of the country as a unit of analysis, as if the world comprises a level playing field of nation-states each at a better or worse point of possibility on some universal ‘development’ trajectory. There doesn’t seem to be much sense of the uneven geopolitics of a world economic system and the implications of that for the wealth and poverty of nations.

But what troubles me most about Dr O’Sullivan’s assertion that population growth is the main driver of impoverishment in high-fertility countries is how that statement might play out in a world where isolationist and nativist voices are rising to political prominence in the wealthier countries. So let me rephrase her assertion once again, this time as it might be interpreted through the beady gaze of the US president, perhaps the best-known of those voices:

“People who live in shithole countries are poor because they have too many babies – so why should we do anything to help them?”

I appreciate that that’s absolutely not what Dr O’Sullivan is saying, but I think it might well be what a lot of people would choose to hear – and as I tried to suggest, there are a lot of pernicious opinions abroad concerning the responsibility of the poor in general and of poor Africans in particular for their own misfortunes, which would gladly assimilate arguments from intellectually respectable sources that fertility is the main driver of poverty. Dr O’Sullivan rebuffed my attempts to discuss this with her as “ad hominem attacks”. So be it. I acknowledge that unwanted pregnancies are a major issue in high-fertility countries, while for her part Dr O’Sullivan says she never denied there were “other factors at play”, but if one links fertility to poverty with no reference to the geopolitical structuring of global poverty – especially in the present political climate – I’m not sure that caveat cuts it. The consequence of proposing that the best way to tackle poverty is through population control policies might well be a further reduction in population control policies. I don’t like to get involved in arguments with other wealthy westerners about who’s the better champion of the global poor, but I do find it a little hard to swallow the charge of irresponsible writing from someone who draws the links between high fertility and poverty so complacently.

Discussion point: population growth is not the main driver of impoverishment in high-fertility countries.

Population, environmental damage and climate change.

It’s undoubtedly true that, as Dr O’Sullivan suggested, population growth is a driver of local environmental damage wherever it occurs. Well, it’s undoubtedly usually true. But she seems curiously anxious in her writing to emphasize the environmental damage (including greenhouse gas emissions) associated with high-fertility, low-income countries and to de-emphasize the damage caused by the low-fertility, high-income countries – even to the extent of making the spurious argument that lifestyles in the latter countries haven’t got more resource or emissions intensive in recent decades.

The main point I want to make here is not so much about which countries bear most responsibility for global environmental ills. The real problem as I see it is that we only really have one model of development and prosperity – the model that the low-fertility, high-income countries have followed – and if every other country follows it, it’ll be ruinous. Actually, it’s not possible for every country to follow it for economic as well as ecological reasons. But to the extent that that’s what’s on offer, it’s still ruinous. And it does have to be said that the offer has largely been orchestrated out of Washington DC, and to a lesser extent Beijing and Brussels, in service of those jurisdictions’ interests. So while there’s much to be said for population control, I think the notion that population control is the most important precursor to economic development and environmental protection is problematic. Perhaps one issue lurking behind my debate with Dr O’Sullivan is that we have pretty different ideas about what will ultimately count as ‘sustainable development’.

But I do also want to make the point that it is the low-fertility, high-income countries that bear most responsibility for global environmental ills – most especially greenhouse gas emissions, which are important not only in their direct effects but as an index of the wider environmental bads associated with the economies that disproportionately produce them. Dr O’Sullivan writes that “apart from climate change, most of the drastically negative impacts (on deforestation, soil erosion, biodiversity loss, fertiliser run-off, plastics in the ocean, overfishing, destruction of wetlands, draining of aquifers etc) is not happening in or in the name of the most industrialised countries.” I guess I’d argue firstly that a lot of all that is happening “in the name of” industrialized countries (my point in the previous paragraph)…besides which, things like plastic, synthetic fertilizer, modern fishing fleets etc. surely are inherently ‘industrialised’. Maybe more importantly, at our present point in what Dr O’Sullivan calls “the human project” her “apart from climate change” is a pretty big exemption – somewhat akin to me saying that apart from drinking a daily bottle of whisky I’m teetotal.

The graph below shows the carbon dioxide emissions produced in Australia over the last fifty-odd years in blue and the emissions produced in aggregate by the nine African countries previously mentioned with the highest fertility in red. I think it’s quite revealing – in 2014, Australia’s 23.5 million people produced almost two-and-a-half times more carbon dioxide emissions in total between them than the 389 million people living in the nine highest fertility African countries (we’re talking total, absolute emissions here, not per capita ones). True, Australia’s emissions have dropped a little recently – possibly only by displacing them elsewhere? But I trust nobody’s going to tell me I haven’t properly attended to this decline…

 

Last week while Dr O’Sullivan and I were debating, the Australian deputy prime minister Michael McCormack responded to the IPCC’s latest impassioned report on the climate change emergency by saying that the Australian government would not change its policy and reduce coal production “just because somebody might suggest that some sort of report is the way we need to follow and everything that we should do”.

I’d like to suggest that if Australians voted out Mr McCormack and replaced him with a serious politician who paid attention to the IPCC it would be a far more effective form of environmental damage-limitation than pursuing policies to limit population growth in, say, Nigeria. Let me try to quantify that statement. Please forgive me if I’ve got this calculation badly wrong, but by my reckoning in 2016 Australia produced 500 million tonnes of coal, which translates roughly into a billion tonnes of CO2. It’s predicted to increase that production by 1.1% annually over the next few years. A paper cited by Dr O’Sullivan2 suggests, I think, that by the year 2100 Nigeria could reduce its emissions from 2005 levels by 35% if it pursued population policies that put it on the low variant of the UN’s fertility projections. In 2005, Nigeria’s emissions were a little over a hundred million tonnes of CO2, so if it reduced these by 35% that would mean its emissions in 2100 would be about 37 million tonnes less – which is 4% of the emissions from Australia’s current annual coal production, or an amount that would be canceled out in less than three years just by the 1.1% annual increase in production. On current measures of per capita emissions, one extra Australian adds CO2 equivalent to that of about 41 extra people from the high-fertility African countries (probably an underestimate). At those levels, the 5.5 million extra Australians predicted by the UN medium fertility population variant in 2030 over 2012 will be responsible for more emissions than the 230 million extra people predicted for the nine highest-fertility African countries.

Dr O’Sullivan argues in her paper that access to voluntary family planning and birth control in the least-developed countries in order to minimize population growth is ‘low-hanging fruit’ in terms of climate change adaptation and mitigation (though the relationship between ‘birth control’ access and fertility seems quite debatable). But what constitutes ‘low-hanging fruit’ is a matter of political choice as well as technical feasibility. Promoting people’s ability to control their fertility needs no wider justification, but it’s not clear to me from what vantage point the extension of this ability into the least developed countries constitutes lower-hanging fruit for climate change mitigation than, say, reducing Australian coal production by a few percent.

Discussion point: Reducing fertility in high-fertility countries is not an especially important priority for tackling climate change.

Family planning programs and the fertility decline slowdown.

Dr O’Sullivan asserts that the slowdown in the global fertility decline is caused by less investment since the 1990s in voluntary family planning programs. She mentions a few countries where lower FP investment was followed by stagnating decline or rising fertility, but I’m not sure that she provides convincing evidence that this is the main reason for the slowdown that shows up in the overall global figures. I suggested that another possible explanation was artefactual – essentially, it’s easier to reduce fertility when people are having a lot of children than it is when fertility approaches two or less children.

I did a bit of analysis on the World Development Indicator dataset that I think is at least broadly suggestive that this may be so. First, taking the nine highest fertility African countries mentioned above, it turns out that their fertility decline hasn’t slowed but increased since the 1990s and in fact this is also true on average for the fifty countries in the world with the highest current fertility rates – albeit more true for the ones at the top of that distribution than the bottom, which further lends prima facie support to the artefactual explanation. The overall average for these countries was a fertility decline of 0.85 births between 1983 and 1999 and 1.06 births between 2000 and 2016. But looking at the fifty countries with the lowest current fertility, the 1983-99 decline was 0.69 births whereas the 2000-16 decline was only 0.06. So it seems that it may be the low rather than the high fertility countries driving the overall decline, as you’d expect from the artefactual explanation. I don’t know how plausible this explanation is, but on the face of it I’m not sure it’s less plausible than the notion that the global slowdown in fertility decline that’s occurred (except, apparently, in the high-fertility countries) stems mostly from less FP funding.

In global absolute terms, I’m guessing China is significant – its fertility rate bottomed at just under 1.5 births per woman in 1999 and has since risen to over 1.6, which in view of its population size is probably a lot of extra people. Presumably this is because of the relaxation of its population control policies, which in a sense might confirm Dr O’Sullivan’s line of argument – though since she emphasizes voluntary population control I’m not sure how far to concede this point… Certainly, before leaping to the conclusion that the slowdown is a FP policy failure it seems to me necessary to address artefactual possibilities, as well as other possible factors (growing inequality and civil conflict maybe?)

More generally, it seems to me difficult to isolate the effects of FP programs on global fertility as completely independent, exogenous effects that can be separated from wider governmental and civil society structures and from the agency of target populations. Writers like Banerjee and Duflo3 emphasize the complexity of family planning interventions, the independent agency of the poor and the complex links to fertility quite cautiously. One of their points – much along the lines of Jan Steinman’s comment – is that children are often a pension plan, and will most likely keep being produced in quantity so long as alternatives relying on more money remain unavailable. So while I’d acknowledge that I should have taken FP programs more seriously than I did in my original post, I think the issues are more complex than Dr O’Sullivan seems prepared to entertain.

Incidentally, the ten countries that have experienced the largest drop in their fertility rates since 2000 are Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Yemen, Nepal, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Djibouti, Guatemala, Lao and Timor-Leste. And of the ten highest fertility countries mentioned above, six of them come into the top quarter of the global draw in terms of post-2000 fertility decline, and all of them in the top half. I think there’s food there for some alternative theories of fertility decline than a singular emphasis on FP programs. Civil conflict seems to be a missing variable in much of the discussion about fertility.

Discussion point: to what extent is it possible to argue on the basis of available evidence that formal FP programs have been the main cause of the fertility decline?

Population and farm fertility

In her response to me, Dr O’Sullivan wrote “With too many people, low-impact mixed farming is no longer an option. Nitrogen fertilizer becomes essential”. I didn’t pick up on this point in debating with her because it didn’t seem important to the main lines of argument, but it’s important to the overall concerns of this blog and I think her statement is wrong. Presumably she’s referring to synthetic fertilizer, which is not fundamentally a land-sparing input but a labor-sparing (and energy-absorbing…and often a watercourse-polluting) one. Lynn White, for example, whose book I mentioned in my previous post, makes the point that the advent of synthetic fertilizer in quantity in Chinese agriculture from the 1980s scarcely increased crop yields, but it released a lot of agricultural labor for industrial activities. Population density in itself is not a major driver of the shift from ‘low-impact’ farming to synthetic fertilizer farming. My prediction is that with rising population, rising energy costs and stalling economic growth over the coming decades we’ll see a decline in synthetic fertilizer use and an increase in labor-intensive mixed farming.

Discussion point: With ‘too many’ people, rising energy prices and falling economic growth, low-impact mixed farming is likely to become the dominant form of agriculture in the future.

Population and land availability

If population increases, then other things being equal the amount of agricultural land available per capita will decrease. Historically, the main ways people have responded to that dynamic are:

  1. clearing more wildland for agriculture (not a good idea in our present world)
  2. lowering their fertility
  3. intensifying agricultural production (more labor per hectare, less meat etc.)
  4. importing food from elsewhere
  5. migrating

My country, Britain, comes reasonably low down the list of countries ranked by agricultural land area per capita (127th out of 209 countries, at 0.3ha per person). Historically, it’s followed all five of the procedures above. In the past, (5) has been one of its main strategies – one reason why there are now so many white folks in countries like the USA and Australia. Nowadays, (4) is one of its main strategies. Despite the pressure on land, there’s little talk about (2) in UK policy circles (though elsewhere in Europe, where fertility is lower than the UK, there are converse policy worries about demographic decline). Interestingly, many of the highest fertility African countries are quite high up in the top half of the list, with a lot of agricultural land available per capita – though I daresay one shouldn’t infer too much from that. Right up there in third place is Australia, with 15ha of agricultural land per person.

A question that nags at me is why, when it comes to discussing pressure on agricultural land in Africa, does point (2) always figure so insistently in the discussion? Not that (2) is a bad idea at all – but why do we hear so much less about, say, (5) – perhaps by establishing a migration program from Burundi to Australia, for example? I think it would be interesting to discuss why (2) seems to be regarded as ‘lower-hanging fruit’ for a country like Burundi than (5), and why (4) seems to be so favored in the UK.

Discussion point: what is the best way of ordering priorities among the five responses to decreased per capita farmland availability listed above? Does it vary from country to country, and if so on what grounds?

Resource availability per capita

Dr O’Sullivan writes that there is a “mathematical simplicity of population growth reducing natural resources per capita”. However, this point has been explicitly disputed from at least the 19th century down to the 21st by a long line of land economists, anthropologists and rural sociologists. This remains true whatever Dr O’Sullivan’s opinions are on Henry George’s religious views. I’m not saying that all these thinkers are correct in all their analyses. But my contention is this:

Discussion point: the relationship between population growth and available natural resources per capita is not mathematically simple (depending, I suppose, on how you define a ‘natural resource’…and also how you define ‘simplicity’).

Absolute and relative measures

There was quite a lot of toing and froing around absolute versus relative measures of this and that in my debate with Dr O’Sullivan. Some of her presentations of evidence strike me as pretty misleading, whereas others are potentially illuminating. I’m still not sure whether the relative increase in absolute population growth since 2000 is one of the illuminating ones or not. I’d be interested in any other views. As mentioned above, it seems quite likely that events in China are a major driver for this – and if so it may be the per capita environmental impacts rather than population numbers which are the ‘lowest-hanging fruit’ in this instance.

Discussion point: what can we infer from the relative increase in absolute population increase since 2000?

The right and the wrong of it

Dr O’Sullivan wrote of me “You argued that fertility was declining without any interventions to promote it, and that it would soon cause population to peak and decline, and that we could not effectively do more to influence it, and that we didn’t need to. I am arguing that these are demonstrably false positions.” Perhaps this sounds like sophistry, but I’m not sure that claims about the future, about the efficacy of something that we’re not actually doing and about normative priorities can be ‘demonstrably false’. Still, in the light of our exchange I’d certainly accept that I pressed those positions further than is warranted. I suppose eating some humble pie once in a while is a risk I must take in return for tossing my worthless opinions so vaingloriously into cyberspace on a regular basis. What makes it harder to do is Dr O’Sullivan’s charmlessly one-dimensional focus: firstly on only one part of my argument, secondly and more importantly on what seems quite a questionable take on population, development and the environment, and thirdly and more importantly still on some of her own highly problematic statements that lead us into other worlds of trouble.

Discussion point: “Over the last fifty years, fertility has crashed at a historically unprecedented rate, though it’s been a bit less unprecedented at the end of that time period than at the beginning (except in high-fertility countries where the decline has not leveled off) – and I should have addressed that”.

oOo

The exchange that Dr O’Sullivan and I had (with a few contributions from others – thank you) can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Notes

  1. Sinding, S. 2009. Population, poverty and economic development. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 364, 3023–3030.
  2. Casey, G. & Galor, O. 2017. Is faster economic growth compatible with reductions in carbon emissions? The role of diminished population growth. Environ.Res.Lett. 12 014003
  3. Banerjee, A. & Duflo, E. 2011. Poor Economics. Penguin.

Three deprivation narratives

I’ve been reading Lynn T. White’s book Rural Roots of Reform Before China’s Conservative Change (Routledge, 2018). I couldn’t honestly recommend it as a light bedtime read, but it’s absolutely fascinating nonetheless. Here I just want to reflect on the case of a rural migrant mentioned by White thus:

“A twenty-five-year-old legal migrant from Henan to Suzhou explained in 1994 why he was so much more productive on the delta: “We used to spend three months doing farm work, one month celebrating the Spring Festival, and eight months in idle time every year.” Now he was a restaurant waiter, working fourteen hours each day, seven days a week – but receiving 400 yuan (about US$50 a month, which was four times his previous Henan wage). When asked whether he thought he was working too hard, he replied with great eloquence….“No, it is better than sitting idly by watching people in cities getting rich. The conditions here are not bad at all. Color TV, electric heating, free meals – these are great. What I like most here is that I can take a shower every day. I was not able to take a bath during the entire winter at home. It would be too cold to do so in the river.” (p.354)

This example poses some potentially awkward questions for those like me who advocate for a small farm future – for more Henan and less Suzhou, so to speak. Could I look this man in the eye and tell him that he should have stayed on the farm? My answer to that, emphatically, is no.

But I think the implications of what he said are worth pondering. The first reason he gave for leaving the farm draws from a relative deprivation narrative – why molder away in rural poverty while city people make so much more money? The last reason he gave draws from an absolute deprivation narrative – back home, he couldn’t even take a shower during the winter!

This individual story fits easily into the dominant narrative of our times – people naturally seek prosperity, and when the opportunity arises will therefore move from countryside to city, and also from poorer countries to richer ones in search of it. Good luck to them – so long as the national and international economies are structured the way they are, I have zero sympathy for the anti-immigration rhetoric of right-wing populism, and little sympathy for left-populist peasant romanticism either.

But if you aggregate this one man’s journey across the global billions, urban and rural, who share his impoverished starting point, I can’t see this strategy of wealth-through-urbanization-and-economic-growth working. For one thing, while the global economy is certainly capable of lifting millions of people out of poverty in some places – China foremost among them – I don’t think it’s structurally or physically capable of doing it adequately everywhere. If, like me, you number among the top few hundred million in global wealth then that may not concern you much. Possibly it doesn’t concern a man like the Henan waiter either. And much as I’d like to think that such persistent inequalities would prompt the poor into political action to achieve a fairer distribution of the world’s resources, the fact is this only happens in historically unusual circumstances, as occurred in early 20th century China.

If economist Minqi Li, whose book China and the 21st Century Crisis (Pluto, 2016) I’m currently ploughing my way through (it’s another bedtime no-no, I’m afraid), is to be believed, these circumstances are also likely to occur in the mid-21st century, and will probably result in the end of the global capitalist order. Let me throw in another China book while I’m at it – David Bandurski’s Dragons in Diamond Village: Tales of Resistance in Urbanizing China (Melville House, 2016) – a much better candidate for bedtime reading, which shows vividly why somebody like this waiter may get richer in the city but will always be watching other people get richer still. Having corresponded recently with David (more on that anon), he pronounces himself pessimistic about the opportunities for resistance in Xi’s China. Time will tell.

Quite apart from the limited economic capacity of the global political economy to lift adequate numbers of people out of poverty, the other side of it is the limited environmental and energetic capacities to do so. If you aggregate the single migrant journey from Henan to Suzhou I’ve described here among all those similarly lacking in the food, shelter, comfort and entertainment that many of us take for granted, the consequences will quite simply be environmentally catastrophic and untenable long-term unless you buy into ecomodernist fantasies that it’s all manageable through nuclear power, GM crops and the like. So here we come to a third deprivation narrative – contemporary people pursuing eminently justifiable and personally rational goals deprive others, most especially future generations, of the opportunity to do likewise.

The only way I see out of this morass is to detoxify the first and third of these deprivation narratives while focusing relentlessly on the second. I’d like to think that it should be possible for everyone in the world to have safe and comfortable shelter (including access to tolerably warm bathing water) and an adequate diet (I’m not so sure about the color TV…or the free meals: isn’t there a capitalist story doing the rounds that the latter are a myth?) But to achieve that sustainably so that future generations don’t go without I think we’re going to have to let go of the relative deprivation story, the “people in cities getting rich”, by sharing the wealth around much more fairly.

Well, it’s a plan – and it’s been tried before, notably in China by one Mao Zedong. The aforementioned Minqi Li seems to be among the cohort that’s reevaluating Maoism positively, for example analyzing Mao’s Cultural Revolution as an attempt to “save the revolution” through “the dictatorship of the proletariat” (p.18). Personally, I struggle to justify the enormous destructiveness, misery and cruelty of it in those terms, when it seemed to be at least as much about saving the power of Mao Zedong through the dictatorship of Mao Zedong. I find Lynn White’s analysis more interesting – in his view, the disasters of Mao’s Great Leap Forward followed soon after by the power vacuum created by the Cultural Revolution fostered considerable local economic autonomy in China from the 1960s, and it was this bottom-up economic dynamism rather than the top-down reforms of the post-Mao government that laid the foundation for the country’s transformation into today’s huge industrial-capitalist power (I do find Li’s prognosis for how that transformation is likely to end in tears quite convincing, however).

So no, I’m not too keen on Maoist solutions to economic inequality. My preference is for agrarian populist solutions to it – which essentially means getting more people into farming and paying them better for it. Low economic returns to agriculture have often been a historical fact, but they’re not intrinsically an economic one. Still, the questions remain – is such a populist solution likely to occur, and how could it happen? My answers to that are ‘no’ and ‘with great difficulty’, but it’s the only solution that strikes me as likely to be successful long-term, so the long march back to Henan-with-hot-showers is the one I want to devote my thinking to. White and Li’s books have helped me to see that a little more clearly, though still through a glass darkly. I’ll try to elucidate it more in future posts.

New deals, old bottles

I’ve just come across an interesting article on Resilience.org skewering the old ecomodernist fable that the discovery of oil saved the whales from extinction. Funnily enough I wrote a blog post making much the same argument four years ago, which I think I’m right in saying is the only post I’ve written that received precisely zero comments. The perils of being ahead of one’s time… Well, no matter, let us press boldly on with a new post…which I fear may be my second one to attract no comments, since pressure of work on the farm and in the study has led me to grievous neglect of this website.

So, New Left Review has recently been running a series of articles on the environment and left politics, and I thought I’d comment briefly on a few points arising from them – not least in relation to Troy Vettese’s article ‘To Freeze the Thames’, which follows on neatly from my previous ‘half-earth’ post1.

Let me begin by saying that we leftists do often struggle with the issue of the environment. One member of our tribe recently told me proudly on Twitter that the left was ‘against nature’ (yes, really), and it’s true that historically we’ve had a bit of a thing about trying to keep the messy world of the natural, the organic and the rural at arm’s length through various ruses like economic growth, industrial development, tractor production and occasionally even the odd bout of peasant-slaying. So as you can imagine, I had to submit myself to several years of therapy before feeling able to commit to writing a blog called ‘Small Farm Future’. And I still own a tractor. Hell, some things are sacred.

Anyway, the point of all this is to start off with a thumbs-up for Vettese – while the neo-Bolshevik wing of left-green writing drifts towards self-parody in its demands for air conditioning as a human right, Vettese’s program of organic vegan eco-austerity and ‘natural geo-engineering’ strikes a more authentic note for me. Nevertheless, I have some problems with it…though also with Robert Pollin’s ‘green new deal’ and anti-degrowth response to Vettese (and others) in the latest issue of the journal2. So here’s a brief precis of the issues as I see them.

Vettese thinks we should plant trees to mitigate climate change. A lot of them. On the basis of a paper by Sonntag and colleagues in Geophysical Research Letters3, he suggests that if 800 million hectares of land were reforested globally, the carbon thus sequestered would reduce atmospheric CO2 to the low 300s ppm, a feat of ‘natural geoengineering’ far wiser than the various madcap high-tech schemes currently mooted, putting CO2 concentration into a “safer range”. The 800 million hectares would mostly be carved out of current agricultural land. For Vettese, “agriculture is by far the most profligate sector of the economy in its greenhouse gas emissions and land-take” (p.82) – particularly in terms of livestock production. So he proposes to find his forest land by ‘euthanizing the carnivore’ (a paraphrase of Keynes on landlords). No more ruminant meat or milk, and no more arable crops for livestock fodder. But Vettese also has roads and urban sprawl in his sights – not so much because of their emissions (“energy efficiency means that carbon pollution from cars is not as great as one might have expected”) but because of land scarcity. Land scarcity is Vettese’s big thing: “It is land scarcity, rather than rare natural resources, that is the ultimate limit to economic growth” (p.66).

Scarcity, schmarcity says Robert Pollin in the succeeding issue. Invoking the authority of Harvard physics professor Mara Prentiss’s ‘rigorous account’, he argues that the US could meet its entire energy consumption needs through solar energy alone while utilizing no more than – and possibly much less than – 0.8% of its total land area for photovoltaics. Other countries like Germany and the UK with higher population densities and lower insolation face somewhat more challenging tasks, having to ramp up their energy efficiency and devote a bit more land, but still only about 3%, to photovoltaics. And that’s pretty much the alpha and omega of Pollin’s intervention. In his view, if we quickly decarbonize the world’s energy supply, then we can continue growing GDP and global incomes – whereas degrowth scenarios would slash incomes, prompting an economic depression that would make social welfare and environmental protection improbable.

Working through these analyses, starting with Vettese, to my inexpert eye his inferences from the Sonntag paper seem sound. But even assuming the political will I’d question how easy it would be to forest large swathes of the world currently used for rangeland, which weren’t necessarily forested in the first place (there’s a side issue here about premodern human forest clearance which, again, Vettese disposes in favor of his scheme rather questionably, essentially via a single reference). Moreover, the Sonntag paper suggests that, in the absence of other mitigation efforts, the temperature reduction caused by the forestation would only be about 0.27K – so yes, “safer” in terms of climate change, but not necessarily “safe” (incidentally Sonntag says that only a minor fraction of the carbon sequestration would occur in the soil, which further makes me question the soil sequestration claims of the regenerative agriculture brigade I’ve previously discussed).

There are also problems with nutrient limitation to forestation that Sonntag explicitly omits from his analysis, but others have raised as an issue4. I can’t claim to be able to model forestation effects with the sophistication of Sonntag, but I do wonder about it. FAO data suggest that the mitigation provided by the world’s existing forest cover of about 4 billion hectares amounts to only about 5% of current emissions, so on the basis of those figures if forest cover doubled (a much greater forestation than proposed by Vettese) and all direct agricultural GHG emissions ceased but emissions otherwise remained the same, then global emissions would still be occurring at about 80% of current levels.

In fact, this is the biggest problem I have with Vettese’s analysis. Cars and other fossil fuel-burning technology may emit “less than one might have expected” but it depends on what “one expected” – this is an extraordinarily weak claim on which to build a whole mitigation approach. FAO data suggest that about 50% of global emissions come from the energy sector, 14% from transport and 7% from industry, with only about 11% coming from agriculture and another 11% from land use change (though some of the energy, transport and industry emissions are agriculture and food system related). Agricultural methane emissions largely associated with livestock only account for 6% of total emissions (leaving aside methane-GHG equivalence issues) and agricultural nitrous oxide emissions only partly associated with livestock account for 5% of total emissions. I get the sense that Vettese’s veganism may be the tail that’s wagging his climate mitigation dog – maybe another example of what Simon Fairlie calls the “mendacious rhetoric about cows causing more global warming than cars”5.

Still, I’m not fundamentally opposed to Vettese’s vision of an organic, vegetable-oriented agriculture. He says almost nothing about the geography of his proposals but I’m guessing that an eco-austere world of minimal fossil fuels and mostly vegan organic agriculture would also have to be a mostly rural world of distributed human populations. I don’t have too much of a problem with that, but in such a world organic smallholders would have to build fallows and leys into their cropping for fertility reasons and efficiency would be enhanced if they included some livestock to graze them and perhaps some pigs or poultry too to clean up wastes and do a little work around the holding (ground preparation, manuring, pest control etc.) In temperate climes particularly, their fat as well as their meat would certainly be a welcome and possibly a necessary addition to the diet.

But if Pollin is right this is all a huge overreaction. Just decarbonize the power supply, mostly through photovoltaics, then we can get back to economic growth as usual, and leftists can get back to the safe territory of their long-running battle with rightists about the just distribution of the spoils. I’d like to believe him, and I agree that switching away from fossil fuels towards photovoltaics as rapidly as we can right now is a good idea. But in the face of the world’s numerous intersecting social, political, economic and biophysical crises which have been voluminously discussed on this site over the years, I don’t think a rapidly decarbonized energy system, or even a wider ‘green new deal’ associated with it, is adequate to the task of renewal.

I took a look at the Prentiss book referenced by Pollin6. Table 11 on p.153 seems to be the critical one on which Pollin bases his claims. I can’t claim Prentiss’s exalted credentials as a physicist, but I was surprised at how un-“rigorous” the table seemed – no dates, no sources and somewhat slapdash in its use of units. But anyway, assuming the data she presents are sound, the basic claim seems to be that PV panels in the USA can on average capture 40 watts per square meter – ‘on average’ presumably meaning that this figure adjusts for summer and winter, night and day. That’s a lot more than the panels on my roof capture, though to be fair I live on a (usually) rain-soaked island at a more northerly latitude than the great majority of the US population. I do wonder a little about where Alaska fits into this picture, since it constitutes about 18% of US land area and is even more northerly than my location, but anyway taking Prentiss’s data as given suggests by my calculations that each of the USA’s 300 plus million residents would require something like 150 square meters of PV panels to furnish current energy consumption (and here we’re just talking about domestic energy consumption, not energy embodied in imported artifacts).

Pollin’s point is that, contra Vettese, this 150m2 when it’s aggregated up isn’t a large proportion of the USA’s land, and he’s right about that. But when you pace it out – 12.2 meters by 12.2 meters for every single resident in the world’s third most populous country – it does seem to me a large amount of material and engineering infrastructure, not to mention a huge social transition towards a completely electrified energy system. Pollin’s notion that it’s achievable worldwide without major perturbation in the global economy seems optimistic at best. For sure, anything humanity does to tackle the issues it currently faces is going to have to be huge. Pollin’s critique of the degrowthers for ducking current energy and carbon imperatives in favor of a more generalized approach to economic downscaling is perhaps well taken, but I can’t help thinking his analysis involves a complacency of its own.

Pollin says that a good ethical case can be made for high-income people and high-income countries to reduce their emissions to the same level as low-income people and countries, but that there’s no chance this will happen and “we do not have the luxury to waste time on huge global efforts fighting for unattainable goals” (p.21). The problem as I see it is that the same applies to his own prescription. While the world’s political structuring hinges on nation-states with vastly different levels of economic and military power jockeying with each other out of short-term economic self-interest with only the most reluctant (and dwindling) concessions to multilateral concord, then the idea of a rapid decarbonization in the USA – one of the most powerful of such nation-states – out of some wider ecological perspective seems remote. Likewise, the idea that other countries will prioritize decarbonization in meek acceptance of the fact that the US and other wealthy countries won’t play ball with their per capita emissions. Frankly, the idea of a rapid switch out of fossil fuels in a country enjoying a second fossil fuel bonanza in fracked natural gas – a country in which so many chafed under a center-right president widely regarded as some kind of communist, and then elected a successor who doesn’t think climate change is happening and wishes to invest in coal – seems highly unattainable to me. Mind you, politics has become so capricious and unpredictable these days that I wouldn’t entirely bet against some green new dealer making it to the White House in 2020. But if I had to put up some money, I’d still bet against it. Meanwhile, for his part Vettese also has a penchant for unattainable goals, in this case a venerable leftist one: “A solution to global environmental crises requires the humbling of the global bourgeoisie, the richest several hundred million” (pp.85-6). No doubt, but I’m not seeing how that will take shape in the present global political landscape.

Of course, it’s easy to pull down other people’s castles in the air without suggesting more plausible alternatives. Sadly all I have to offer is this: the time for climate change mitigation that will prevent major future climate perturbations is probably more or less over, and what we’re faced with is climate change adaptation. I think that process will be grim, but I also think that ultimately it will probably spell the end of the contemporary nation-state, the world system of states, and the global capitalist economy, and for some people at least that may prompt some more positive outcomes – perhaps along the lines of the world imagined by Vettese. I’m aware that some commenters on this site find such views repulsively negative, but I don’t see it that way. I’m looking for the most positive outcomes I can find out of the most realistic socio-political trajectories I perceive. More on that soon, I hope.

Notes

  1. Vettese, T. 2018. To freeze the Thames: Natural geo-engineering and biodiversity. New Left Review 111: 63-86.
  2. Pollin, R. 2018.De-growth vs a green new deal. New Left Review 112: 5-25.
  3. Sonntag, S. et al. 2016. Reforestation in a high-CO2 world—Higher mitigation potential than expected, lower adaptation potential than hoped for. Geophysical Research Letters 43: 6546-6553.
  4. Kracher, D. 2017. Nitrogen-Related Constraints of Carbon Uptake by Large-Scale Forest Expansion: Simulation Study for Climate Change and Management Scenarios. Earth’s Future 5: 1102-1118.
  5. Fairlie, S. 2010. Meat. Permanent Publications, p.184.
  6. Prentiss, M. 2015. Energy Revolution: The Physics and the Promise of Efficient Technology. Harvard Univ Press.

Half-earth, half-baked?

Firstly, apologies for failing to respond to some of the comments at the end of my previous post. For some reason I’ve stopped getting email alerts of new comments. The Small Farm Future technical team are on the case, but frankly they’re a pretty useless bunch so expect delays. Meanwhile, if your comments are stuck in moderation or not getting the attention from me that you feel they deserve maybe let me know via the contact form and I’ll action someone on the team to look into it.

Anyway, onward. I’ve been writing in my book draft lately about the role of livestock in a small farm future, which has led me by a somewhat circuitous but probably fairly obvious route to reading Harvard biologist and conservationist E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth (W.W. Norton, 2016), in which he argues that we should leave half our planet’s surface as “inviolable reserves” for nature.

I found it an interesting and informative, if also somewhat vague and rambling, little book (still, if I succeed in publishing a book that’s no more rambling than Wilson’s when I’m 87 I’ll be happy). One of Wilson’s key points is that we’re not yet even close to knowing all the species with which we share the biosphere, let alone knowing how they fit into wider sets of ecological relationships. Therefore, from numerous perspectives but not least human self-preservation, he argues that it’s not a good idea to wantonly let species go extinct. Yet this, sadly, is what’s currently happening by the hand of humanity, with an extinction rate now around a thousand times higher than before the spread of humans around the world. This amounts to a sixth mass planetary extinction, which will rival over a few human generations what the last one, the Chicxulub asteroid impact that ultimately did for the dinosaurs, achieved on one bad day – but in geological terms, the time difference is slight.

Wilson deploys his biological expertise to great effect throughout the book in a running battle with Anthropocene theorists, “novel ecosystem” enthusiasts and outriders of the ‘ecomodernist’ Breakthrough Institute like Emma Marris and Erle Ellis who’ve likewise detained me on this website over the years. The basic message of the Anthropocenites to threatened species and to the people who wish to defend them runs something like ‘this is a human planet now – so deal with it, or get out the way’. In practical terms, they raise the valid point that in an ever-changing and stochastic biota there’s never a baseline point of ‘balance’ to which conservationism can aim its restorative efforts. To which Wilson makes the nice rejoinder that this is a problem that should be formulated as a scientific challenge, not an excuse for throwing up our hands and singing que será será.

But then, in the penultimate chapter, he lets it all run through his fingers. Take this passage:

“The [human ecological footprint] will not stay the same. The footprint will evolve, not to claim more and more space, as you might at first suppose, but less. The reason lies in the evolution of the free market system, and the way it is increasingly shaped by high technology….Just as natural selection drives organic evolution by competition among genes to produce more copies of themselves per unit cost in the next generation, raising benefit-to-cost of production drives the evolution of the economy. Almost all of the competition in a free market…raises the average quality of life. Teleconferencing, online purchases and trade, e-book personal libraries, access on the Internet to all literature and scientific data, online diagnosis and medical practice, food production per hectare sharply raised by indoor vertical gardens with LED lighting, genetically engineered crops and microorganisms…” (p.191)

Enough already, Edward…we get your point. After nineteen chapters of amiable good sense, Wilson suddenly goes full ecomodernist, as if some devilish Breakthrough Institute hacker finally figured out how to make him stop his anti-Anthropocene agitating by messing with his neurons like a cordyceps fungus attacking one of his beloved ants.

I won’t dwell here on how wrongheaded all this is – regular readers and commenters on this blog are well appraised of the counter-arguments. I don’t even dispute that there are some aspects of emerging high technology that might help us mitigate some of our present predicaments. But, my dear professor, the ‘evolution’ of the ‘free market system’ is not among them – rather, it’s the ‘free market system’ (or, more precisely, corporate capitalism – which isn’t really the same thing at all, but is the beast that Wilson is implicitly invoking) that has biodiversity in its deathly grip.

Wilson is pretty vague about what a ‘half-earth’ devoted to inviolable nature would actually look like, though he tells us that it needn’t involve dividing off the planet into large pieces the size of continents or nation-states, and earlier on in the book he demurs from the idea that ‘wilderness’ necessarily implies a lack of human residents. He favors a lower human population, but says nothing about urban vis-à-vis rural residence or the nature of the agriculture necessary to support a half-earth world (other than his half-baked half-earth of vertical farming and LED lights). His simple point really is that the number of species going extinct usually varies by something like the fourth root of the area available to them, so if we make half the planet available to wild species we should retain about 85% of them. Of course, things are more complicated than that in reality, but maybe it’s not such a bad place to start – especially if we proceed by trying to ensure that existing wildernesses and centers of biodiversity are protected first.

A quick look at the FAO’s global land use statistics reveals that in fact only about 37% of the planet’s land area is devoted to agriculture, with about 4% devoted to cities, roads and other artificial surfaces. So by those lights Wilson’s half-earth ambitions are already achieved – though it’s doubtless fair to say that we humans have appropriated the nicest territory for our agriculture (about a third of nature’s 60% share is glaciated or barren land). Still, perhaps when Wilson says we should leave half the earth as “inviolable reserves” he means really inviolable – so no chemical pollution of any kind, and perhaps no climate change either, creeping in from the human side of the planet. If that’s so, then the ‘half-earth’ idea is a little misleading because it draws attention to land take, when it should really be drawing attention to human practices like GHG emissions and nitrate pollution (another reason to question the ‘land sparing’ critique of organic farming).

Maybe instead of a half-earth we need a quarter-earth – which would be easily achieved by cutting back on rangeland and arable crops grown as livestock fodder (nearly 70% of global agricultural land is permanent meadow or pasture – yet another inconvenient truth for the land sparers, who illogically obsess over the 1% of organically-farmed land). But I think what we really need is a no GHG emissions and a no pollution earth. How to achieve that? Well, I’m open to ideas but here’s my half-earth halfpenny’s worth: stop fishing in the open ocean, stop extracting fossil fuels, stop making synthetic fertilizer (except as a stopgap measure via special government derogation). Decide on the total human land-take, which gives a global per capita acreage. Then divide it up equally between the people of the world for carbon-free homesteading. Those who prefer not to avail themselves of this generous offer and continue working in the city would be entitled to do so with the proviso that they forfeit, say, 50% of their earnings on top of tax, split between practical conservation, farmer support, agroecological research funds and mitigation of the environmental bads caused by the commercial-industrial farming that their old-falutin city-slicking ways would probably bring forth.

I’ll admit that it needs working up a bit more – a few details to fill in, some implementation issues to address. Perhaps you can help me in that task. My starter for ten is that this system won’t emerge by the ‘evolution’ of a free market system increasingly shaped by high technology. Wilson might have realized this, if only he’d consulted an economist biologist…

The vaishya gambit

I have some good news and some bad news. The good news, at least for anyone who’s drawn to read this little Small Farm Future corner of the internet, is that I’ve just signed a contract with the publishers Chelsea Green to write a book, provisionally entitled Small Farm Future (sometimes I surprise even myself with my creative originality…) So you’ll soon be able to gorge yourself on a book-length version of my bloggerly musings. The bad news is that, starting now and for the next year or so, I’m going to have to prioritize the book-writing over the blog-writing. But I’m reluctant to abandon the blog altogether, so my plan is to write shorter, more knockabout pieces (if that’s even possible…) and most likely to turn the blog for the time being into something like a journal of the book writing process – not to give too much of my pearly wisdom away ahead of time, but perhaps to share a few of the knottier issues I’m working on as I go along, in the hope that I’ll get some comments back that will help me unravel them, as I’ve often found in the past.

So welcome, then, to Small Farm Future Mk II – my journal of a book year. But left hanging from my last post is the issue of transactional strategies in pre-capitalist, capitalist and potentially post-capitalist societies that I promised to address. Well, let me get the new style rolling with an experimental crack at dispatching the issue in a briefer, more rough-and-ready and much less thought-through way than I’d have previously entertained.

Most pre-modern societies found a place for asceticism (what I previously called the brahmanic or vaishya strategies) as a social and status role – conveniently, you might say, since there was less stuff to go around. Nevertheless, it was a potential route to high status – monasticism, anchorism etc.

In contemporary capitalist society the ascetic role has more or less disappeared, except perhaps for a few pariah groups who re-enchant lowliness and difference (Rastafari among working class Jamaican men, for example). But the possibilities for the rajanya or kingly role of ‘maximal’ transacting – being a tribute-taker and benefice-giver has greatly expanded in capitalist society. As customers, as citizens with rights and money, we like to throw our weight around. The customer is king, quite literally.

OK, not quite literally. In the Weberian terms introduced in my last post, status is a relatively non-expansible resource. Hence the innumerable ways people wishing to stake high status claims deploy to keep the hoi polloi and their vulgar wealth outside the castle. And hence perhaps some of the dissatisfactions of the consumerist lifestyle, which for all its sparkling wonders never quite delivers the satisfactions it seems to promise.

Unfortunately, I feel I now have to return to the vexed issue of personal environmental action, much as I’d prefer not to. So…you can give up on various rajanya activities (meat-eating, flying abroad etc.) because it’s the right thing to do environmentally, but it doesn’t make much difference to global outcomes because most other people are deeply entrenched in the dominant rajanya strategy, often to the extent that they consider your behavior irrational and, rightly or wrongly, maybe even a questionably brahmanical form of self-promoting status aggrandizement. This is written deeply into our contemporary religion – by which I mean economic theory – which holds that autarky is bad while trade and the trafficking of money is good.

Of course, it may turn out that through your self-denial you stole a march on all those idiots along the lines of John Michael Greer’s ‘collapse now to avoid the rush’ scenario, in which case you can allow yourself full gloating rights. But then your cover is truly blown…and in any case vaishya self-denial is more useful in that instance than self-denial of the brahmanical sort, because it’s only the former that puts bread on the table.

So, my feeling is that it’s too much to ask of most people to make individual ascetic decisions in a society that actively disincentivizes them and provides no cultural mechanisms for validating them as a collective practice. It’s a lot easier, for example, not to eat pork because that is deeply what your people do and are (including those you eat with) than because you disapprove of the intensive livestock industry and wish more people agreed with you.

The easiest way to imagine this changing is through force of circumstance. Thriftiness becomes a value because it has to in situations of economic constraint or environmental distress. But it’s interesting to conjecture about how that would normalize itself as collective cultural practice – partly because it may help us prepare for the inevitable and ease the process.

I raised the specter of ‘feudalism’ in my previous post, and many dystopian visions of the future likewise dwell on some kind of neo-feudalism as the destiny of a post-capitalist or post-fossil fuel future. There’s a political structure to historic feudalism that seems to me quite possible in the future – weakened successor states trying to fill the shell of a declining larger world-system through a kind of regional strongman politics. But the economic structure – a means of controlling labor in a land-abundant, labor-scarce world – doesn’t fit. The most likely scenario is the reverse – a land-scarce, labor-abundant (and politically-fragmented) world where if past history is anything to go by the economic model of choice would most likely be intensive self-worked smallholdings.

There’s a kind of smallholder-householder mentality, still with us to a degree, that has elements of the vaishya style. You fix things up yourself with your own resources, you only sell when the price is right, you avoid showy material forms of status display and so forth. These can be a form of status display themselves, but they can also become a kind of unconscious practice. They’re easier to achieve as a self-employed rural landowner than as a salaried urban dweller. The satisfactions of developing a smallholding – building its structures, creating its fields, planting and tending its woods and gardens – are more physically tangible and socially autonomous than the satisfactions usually available to the urban salaried dweller. You don’t need to invest in some spuriously autonomist notion of yourself as the lonely monarch of your one-acre kingdom in order to tap the make do and mend sensibilities of the vaishya style and find some fulfilment in it.

It may seem that there’s not much difference in practice between personal ethics to “do your bit for the environment” and the kind of collective vaishya style I’m proposing. But I’d argue to the contrary. How to encapsulate it? A practice of political economy rather than a critique of political economy? A style of practice rather than a practice of style? A collective intervention?

This vaishya style is typically dismissed by leftists as a right-wing, petty bourgeois, Poujadist mentality. It certainly can be, but I think the left would do better to start reimagining it as a building block for solidary post-capitalist societies. Otherwise the techno-grandiloquence and the crypto-capitalisms or crypto-Bolshevisms offered by the likes of Nick Srnicek, Leigh Phillips or Xi Jinping are pretty much all the left has to reckon with, which will leave it as the perpetual bridesmaid to capitalism-as-usual. The left as Nick Clegg to a David Cameron political economy. And we know how that turned out.

But where’s the structural basis for this vaishya practice to become an accepted way of being, a social norm, a class? Well, there’s the question. My feeling is that you don’t need to subscribe to an especially apocalyptic view of the future to think that the current multilateral global political order will unravel (it already is – with chronically stagnant growth, rising inequality and rising debt hustling it along its way). In those circumstances I think countries will start looking to shore up agricultural productivity and regional economic development, or else their declining command over their non-core regions will foster it by default (as per my analysis of what I’ve called the supersedure state).

So there’s that. But for various reasons I don’t find it especially persuasive that the world will smoothly reinvent itself as a network of sustainable smallholder republics in this way. On current trends, it seems more likely we’ll pass through a period of grand superpower tussling and delusional nationalist posturing with its scapegoating of immigrants and minorities and its writing-on-the-wall denialism, a politics of farragoes and chumps, a world in which Carl Schmitt’s politics of friend and enemy might emerge triumphant – but for a few islands, perhaps, of Machiavellian republicanism of the kind I outlined in an earlier post. Lord preserve us from a world of small-scale farmers presented as the ‘real people’ of the country.

But although I deplore the turn to rightwing populism in contemporary western politics, it’s perhaps revealing of the lie that was always at the heart of its liberalism. Schmitt was always lurking behind the Rawlsian veil of liberal internationalism underwritten by US power. Democracy, freedom, markets…and then Donald Trump bellowing the deeper verity – “America first!”

So ironically, perhaps the only chance for a truly liberal politics of friends and not enemies now lies in reconstructing a vaishya localism. But perhaps I’m being too pessimistic…?

The transition from capitalism to feudalism

Historians have spilled a lot of ink on the question of how capitalism supplanted feudalism, but what will happen in the future if by design, default or disaster our present capitalist society is supplanted by a lower energy alternative with more people devoting themselves to the agrarian arts? Will historians of the future be writing of the transition from capitalism to feudalism?

‘Feudalism’ can be a misleading term. Really, it refers to situations of weak political centralisation, parcellized sovereignty and low population density that were uncommon historically and were arguably limited only to parts of Europe and Japan. But people often use it as a shorthand term for more or less any kind of agrarian society, and those of us who advocate a small farm future are often met with the horrified response that it would amount to the return of feudalism or serfdom. Fortunately, these are only two among many of the forms that past agrarian societies took, and they occupy pretty much the least appealing part of the spectrum. Still, the question remains – would the social structure of a small farm future look anything like that of the small farm past, and if so shouldn’t we be worried about it?

I’m afraid I can’t answer that until I get my crystal ball back from the cleaners, but what I can do is offer some wider reflections on the structure of agrarian societies that might at least cast some light on the issue. The historical sociology of the transition to capitalism has been dominated by Marxist thinkers who emphasise the nature of production, energy capture and class relations between the owners of capital and the owners of labour. Illuminating stuff, but what I want to stress here is the nature of agrarian society as a status order (the relevant sociological pioneer here being Max Weber – cue boos and hisses from the Marxists). As I’ll discuss below, and still more in my next post, the interesting thing about this approach is the continuities rather than the differences that emerge across the divide between pre-modern agrarian societies, modern capitalist ones (which are also, of course, agrarian) and most likely the post-modern post-capitalist agrarian societies of the future.

I’ll spare the reader a precis of Weberian sociology, and instead come at my theme obliquely with an analysis of the varna categories bequeathed from ancient Indian thought. This is only by way of exemplification – should you wish to follow up the particularities, the key analysts I’m drawing on are McKim Marriott and Murray Milner1, both summarised in this superb book. Should you wish otherwise I hope you’ll bear with me anyway – I trust the relevance of my argument will emerge, in the next post if not in this one.

The varna categories – priest, king, farmer, servant – are outlined in a famous passage from the Rig Veda:

When they divided The Man, into how many parts did they apportion him? What do they call his mouth, his two arms and thighs and feet? His mouth became the brahman [priest]; his arms were made into the rajanya [king/warrior]; his thighs the vaishyas [farmers/’people’]; and from his feet the shudra [servants] were born.

When we look at how the varna categories were actually filled in Indian society historically there are various ambiguities, most importantly for my present purposes around the vaishya category, which rather than being a category heavily populated by a mass of farmers in fact is sparsely populated by merchant castes, with farmers mostly occupying the shudra category. I’ll come back to this shortly.

The varna categories replicate a basic structure common to numerous non-industrial agrarian societies (see, for example, David Priestland’s Merchant, Soldier, Sage or Ernest Gellner’s Plough, Sword and Book), which roughly speaking is:

  • king/warrior/noble
  • priest
  • merchant
  • farmer
  • servant/client/slave/outcast

Of course, these groups interact with each other materially in various ways. In India, as in all societies, material transactions are freighted with numerous social meanings – but perhaps in India more than in most societies. Depending on exactly what’s being transacted, it’s possible to speak very broadly of a kind of ‘hot potato’ or scapegoat way of thinking about transactions there: certain material things typically embody bad qualities, inauspiciousness (or maybe what we’d call ‘sin’ in Western religious traditions), which means that generally it’s good to give, and not so good to receive. Perhaps we can sense an echo of this even in contemporary capitalist society. To be the recipient of a gift isn’t always morally innocent – it can lower your social status with respect to the donor.

So each of the four varna categories has a characteristic transactional strategy associated with it. The king adopts the ‘maximal’ strategy of both giving and receiving extensively (as benefactor and tribute-taker). The priest adopts the ‘optimal’ strategy of giving but not receiving (seeking purity by passing on inauspiciousness and not receiving it). The vaishya (let’s keep it ambiguous for now who the vaishya actually is) adopts the ‘minimal’ strategy, neither receiving nor giving. The shudra (farmer/servant) adopts the ‘pessimal’ strategy of receiving but not giving, putting them at the bottom of the social pile.

Each of the four varna categories also has a characteristic ‘alter ego’, which represents a possibly disreputable version of themselves who in a sense stands outside acceptable society. The alter ego of the king is the bandit, who takes tribute by predatory violence. The king distinguishes himself from the bandit by two possible strategies. One is by legitimating his rule with respect to some kind of sacred authority (hence the close associations between kings and churches or priests), being a generous benefactor of temple building etc. The other is by being a ‘good king’ who protects and nurtures the people. In agrarian societies this amounts to a kind of protection racket, in which the king’s tribute-taking from ordinary people in order to endow his temples and generally act in a kingly manner is at least orderly and regularised, and he offers protection from the arbitrary violence of the bandit. But kings need a lot of tribute for their projects, so it’s easy for their exactions to become itself a kind of banditry and to be seen as such. Hence the numerous Robin Hood style myths – Good King Richard, Bad King John etc.

The alter ego of the priest is the renouncer – archetypically the penniless holy wo/man, the ascetic or the hermit who gives everything away and begs only enough to keep from starving. From this position almost outside society, they can critique its worldliness and corruption and attain great spiritual purity.

The alter ego of the vaishya as farmer is also the renouncer, who aspires to agrarian self-reliance. They don’t need many external inputs to furnish their household, nor do they need to go often to market. The strategy of the self-reliant ascetic, standing somewhat outside society is available to them.

On the face of it, the vaishya as merchant can’t adopt the minimal transactional strategy – after all, they’re buying and selling stuff the whole time. Potentially, and often actually, this is highly compromising to their social status. The ways around it are to act as if trade in mere objects is a trivial matter in which the merchant is not existentially implicated, allowing the cultivation of higher spiritual virtues (Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism would be a westernised version of this). Or else to use the profit to act like a king, and hope to convince people that you really are one.

The alter ego of the shudra is the outcast or untouchable. Receiving but not giving, and especially receiving polluting and inauspicious substances, puts you at the bottom of the heap, and potentially outside the heap altogether.

In terms of status ordering – well, the king is at the top, but in an agrarian society there can’t be many kings and it’s a high risk business. You have to exact a lot of tribute, endow a lot of benefices and fight off a lot of bandit would-be kings. The priest and the renouncer may also enjoy high status of a non-material kind if they can convince other people of their spiritual virtues. The vaishya-merchant is in a risky status position – nobody likes a usurer – but they may have ways of pulling the wool over people’s eyes and adopting a different status. The vaishya-farmer can’t claim much highfalutin status, but can effect a certain haughty independence and homespun honour. But in practice this status is often beyond the ordinary farmer’s means – a more likely result is that they’re a mere client or retainer of a higher ranking patron. Hence the relative lack of farmers in the vaishya category, and their strong showing among the shudras or, worse, in some unfree category – serf, debt-peon or slave. An awful lot of socio-historical drama in agrarian societies turns upon the way people try to augment social status – sometimes as a multi-generational strategy exceeding their own lifespan – according to their inherited potential in these various social roles.

I’m interested in this agrarian status structuring for two reasons. First, as I mentioned at the beginning, I wonder if it or something like it are generic to relatively low energy, localised agrarian societies. That would seem to be the case for many pre-modern agrarian societies. So in the event of a post-modern turn to agrarianism, could we expect things to look much different? I’m not drawn myself to the idea of a status order with everyone trying to climb up the greasy pole towards the few high status positions at the top, while seeking at all costs to avoid the miserable and deprecated ones at the base. Therefore, if this status structuring does seem particularly fitted to fully agrarian societies, I’d like to think of some ways to avoid this outcome.

Second, the rise of modernity, capitalism and industry seems to have swept away much of this pre-modern status order, but – as I’ll argue in my next post – much of it has arguably been retained in only a somewhat different guise, which adds further weight to the first point.

For me, the key relation in agrarian society is between the farmer and the king, or to put it in more generalised terms between the ‘citizen’ and ‘the state’. What is it like to be an ordinary person (ie. a farmer, generally speaking, or a tradesperson, in the agrarian economy) as a matter of political experience? The answer that seems burned into the modernist memory as it’s emerged from many pre-modern societies is that it’s pretty grim – the powerlessness of, say, an 18th century Russian serf or a 13th century English villein. But this kind of setup isn’t a given. In varied historical circumstances, it’s possible to distinguish a category of substantially independent small-scale farmers from more dependent categories of client or unfree (peasant/villein/serf) cultivators.

What circumstances? I’d suggest essentially only two. The first is situations of relative geographic isolation from the remit of the state – dwellers of mountains or forests, or occupants of colonial frontiers depopulated by disease or genocidal violence. The second, and for my purposes more interesting, case is when the semi-independence of the cultivator gains explicit recognition by the state and is incorporated into its political culture. Sometimes this arises through the military defeat of state forces by peasant militias – a rare occurrence historically, and one usually associated with a degree of geographical isolation as per the first circumstance. But it can also arise in situations where the state transcends the predatory warrior-aristocracy mode and constitutes itself to some degree in a more mutualistic relationship as part-benefactor of the cultivating classes. There are various examples of this, the most important surely being much of China through much of its imperial and arguably indeed its communist history.

In terms of the varna categories, the peasant as low-ranking, dependent cultivator corresponds with the shudra status – the servant, the client, the inferiorised recipient of the gift. The independent small-scale farmer corresponds with the vaishya status – the non-dependent, ascetic and thrifty yeoman who takes no gifts. If a possible future post-capitalist, low-energy agrarian society were to replicate the status categories of past agrarian societies – which seems to me quite likely, but not foreordained – then the agrarian style that most appeals to me is the vaishya one. It has the added benefit of elaborating status and a secure sense of self around not buying or consuming things excessively, which would be a useful attribute in a low energy society where there was less stuff to buy in any case. In fact, I’d venture to say that a little bit of vaishya sensibility mightn’t go amiss in contemporary capitalist society to help usher us towards something a bit more sustainable – but I’ll say more about that in my next post.

Notes

  1. Marriott, M. 1976. Hindu transactions: diversity without dualism. In Kapferer, B. (Ed) Transaction and Meaning. Philadelphia; Milner, M. 1994. Status and Sacredness. New York.

Magic economics

When your car is malfunctioning and you take it to a mechanic, you hope that they’ll diagnose the problem and give you some repair suggestions and costings. You don’t expect them to discourse lengthily on the wider transport system or on government priorities vis-à-vis roads and other infrastructure. It’s not their job.

I’d like to suggest that economists should likewise be seen as the mechanics of the political economy. I’m interested in their opinions on the pros and cons of different policy instruments for achieving desired political and social goals, using the technical skills developed in their discipline. I’m not interested in their opinions about what political and social goals are desirable – matters on which I don’t consider them to have more legitimate authority than anyone else.

I mention this in the context of a tweet from Branko Milanovic, an expert on the economics of global inequality (whose work was previously discussed on Small Farm Future here), in which he attempted to ridicule the ‘doughnut economics’ thinking of heterodox economist Kate Raworth, and by implication the wider tradition of alternative, degrowth-oriented economics.

Milanovic tweeted “Here is a list of some things that Doughnut economists could advocate if they seriously believed that the planet is in danger and that world GDP must not increase and yet abject global poverty must be reduced

Reduce work week to 2 days

Increase highest marginal tax rates to 80%

Double indirect taxes on all polluting goods

Triple the price of oil

Double subsidies to all renewable sources of energy

Sell (very expensive) meat only two days a week

Ban cheap airplane companies and double the price of air flights

Introduce a £1000 tax for all travel by car & airplanes outside the UK

Introduce UBI of say £200 per person per week

Define the goal of halving GDP and real incomes by 50% in 10 years

He added: “Then they should create a movement that would try, through political action, to implement these measures and find out how much support they get from rich countries’ populations.”

Well now, I’ve already documented my own issues with Raworth’s economics, but writing as someone who does seriously believe that human wellbeing (if not ‘the planet’) is in danger, that it’s probably not a great idea for world GDP to increase, and that abject poverty must be reduced, those suggestions all make a lot of sense to me. However, I’m not a fully paid up member of the economics tribe, so I’d be interested to hear the analyses of Milanovic and other economists concerning the detailed implications of these policy measures, which I’m sure could help sharpen the debate over how to improve equity, wellbeing and sustainability. I’m not, however, much interested in the fact that Professor Milanovic considers these measures absurd.

I’d like to reformulate Milanovic’s approach along the lines suggested by Raworth of being ‘agnostic’ about economic growth. So let’s take the last of his suggestions. Instead of defining the goal of halving GDP and real incomes by 50% in 10 years, I’d like to define the goal of halving (or, better, quartering) greenhouse gas emissions in 10 years, while reducing economic inequality to a global Gini value of, say, 30 over the same period. I’m happy for this to be done with any high-tech whizz-bangery Professor Milanovic cares to choose, so long as we hit our 10-year targets – though to my mind this implies it would have to be technologies that are available to roll out at scale right now, so vague talk about the future possibilities of thorium or fusion reactors, or emerging CCS technologies and suchlike won’t cut it. If it can be done while increasing GDP, then great. I struggle to see how that would be possible, but I’m open to suggestions from economists toiling down in the garage of the global political economy as to how they might pull it off. I’m not, however, open to suggestions from economists that the goals I’m proposing are inappropriate, since the grounds of these goals are not economic and therefore fall outside their disciplinary ambit.

Economists do like to weigh in on normative issues of this kind nonetheless – and here is where, for me, they cease being potentially useful mechanics and start to become priests, magicians or quacks. Still, the nature of the dogma, the magic or the quackery is interesting for what it reveals about contemporary ideology, so let us probe it a little further.

The first level of magical thinking is the one purveyed in Milanovic’s afterthought: people won’t vote for ‘degrowth’ policies, or at least people in rich countries whose votes count most for the way the world works won’t vote for them – so the idea is dismissed as absurd. However, if we make the uncontroversial assumption that human wellbeing really is seriously threatened by the existing structure of the global economy, then where is the absurdity? Not with the degrowth, but with the politics. Much as I acknowledge that the unenlightened short-term self-interest of a rich minority of the world’s population does create genuine obstacles for implementing a more sustainable political economy, the real force of Milanovic’s point here is surely a push to rethink the politics. I plan to write some more on this soon, but I’m unimpressed by the notion that current voter support is some kind of litmus test for policy plausibility. The fact that contemporary politicians are still playing petty power games and trying to buy off voters with absurd, undeliverable promises is an indictment of our current political maturity and an index of the difficult path ahead. It’s not an argument against degrowth.

Various other levels of magical thinking were amply demonstrated by respondents to Milanovic’s tweet on the thread linked above. One is the basically ecomodernist notion that economic growth and prosperity are necessary in order to create the surplus needed to invest in environment-saving technologies – in the words of the Tweeter ‘Econartist’, “Invest in renewable and nuclear tech big time, decommission coal, electrify the transport system, explore the myriad of proposed geoengineering solutions – anyone who tells you this can’t be done or that it’s too expensive is a charlatan”. Well, call me a charlatan but the problem here is that there’s no compelling evidence that ongoing global economic growth funds reduced emissions or other environmental positives…though doubtless we’ll soon be seeing projections on the imminent downturn of the environmental Kuznets ‘wave’. You get the sense that there may just be a stray vowel somewhere near the start of ‘Econartist’s’ Twitter handle.

Another strand of magic invoked by Econartist is the notion that exogenous environmental constraint on human action is some kind of Malthusian fallacy. Malthus-as-bogeyman is widely invoked nowadays – usually to purvey the tautological argument that since Malthus posited exogenous (or even just actual) environmental constraint on human action, and since as-we-all-know Malthus was wrong (and had nasty politics to boot), then clearly any argument that invokes environmental constraint on human action is Malthusian, and therefore wrong.

Luckily I find that in my day job as a grower it’s possible for me to say things like “The weather’s been poor this year – I expect we’ll get a lower crop yield” without being dismissed by my fellow growers for my Malthusianism. But when you’re far away from directly experienced environmental constraint – like on Twitter, for example, or in the average university – it’s easy to invoke Malthus-as-bogeyman and/or the magic of human ingenuity to banish the danger of the natural world intruding on one’s anthropocentric reveries. This debate from a while back here on Small Farm Future convinced me that if we want to insist on invoking Malthus-as-bogeyman then we need a carefully circumscribed definition of Malthusianism. Following Andrew in that debate, I’d suggest that it should be the notion that the uncontrollable passions of the lower orders result in an excess of population over available resources. To extend an anti-Malthusianism further than that strays into the kind of magical thinking that assumes a priori that human ingenuity inevitably banishes all non-human constraint. It clearly doesn’t…and furthermore it fortunately doesn’t need to (which is why I find Tom X Hart’s recent tweet to me that “the left is anti-nature” a depressing sign of the needless techno-mythologism into which too much of the left has sunk).

Finally, the issue that the growth folks never seem to confront is where it ends – and this is where the numbers themselves start to get magical. In 1967 global GDP was 16.1 trillion at constant 2010 US$, and in 2017 it was 80.08 trillion. Current average global economic growth averages about 2.3% per annum, which is pretty much the minimum necessary to avoid recession in the existing capitalist world economy. Projecting that forward over the next 50 years suggests a global GDP in 2067 of about 255 trillion, a global economy about 16 times the size of the 1967 one (the data are here). Where’s all that economic activity going to come from? In view of the lack of absolute decoupling between economic growth and environmental degradation, what environmental effects would that kind of economy have? No wonder the growth thinkers are getting so enthralled by space travel – more magic.

I suspect the main reason we’ve become so enamoured of economic growth is that it’s the only way of addressing the growing scandal of global inequality without fundamental political change. It doesn’t address global inequality very well, since most of the additional income created by economic growth goes to the already well off (for example, as Milanovic documents in his book Global Inequality, 44% of the increase in income between 1988 and 2008 went to the richest 5% of people). This inequality is systemic, as recognised long ago by ecological economics pioneer Herman Daly in his Steady-State Economics:

“We are addicted to growth because we are addicted to large inequalities in income and wealth. What about the poor? Let them eat growth! Better yet, let them feed on the hope of eating growth in the future! We have been growing for some time, and we still have poverty. It should be obvious that what grows is the reinvested surplus, and the benefits of growth go to the owners of the surplus who are not poor” (pp.103-4)

But the neat thing about the ideology of growth is that it’s easily deployed to dismiss the ‘elitism’ of its alternatives, along the lines that while most growth-induced income increases indeed go to the already well-off, nobody can conscionably oppose the small gains that go to the poor. So, for example, there were about 118 million fewer people earning less than $1.90 per day in 2013 than in 2012 – who can oppose that trend, even if the very rich were rewarded disproportionately more?

Certainly, this is a line that Milanovic spins, as here:

“One can hardly overestimate [the importance of economic growth] in poorer countries as a means of making the lives of ordinary people better. The disparagement of growth that surfaces from time to time comes mostly from rich people in rich countries who believe they can dispense with more economic growth. But these people are either deluding themselves or are hypocritical.” (Global Inequality, p.232)

…a point Milanovic proceeds to substantiate with several fairly specious arguments, including references to the secessionist and isolationist waves convulsing the politics of the west. Here, his arguments have already been overtaken by events, since – if we assume that people voted on the basis of rational calculation – support for the likes of Trump and Brexit must have involved a preference for political autonomy over economic increase.

But, more importantly, with such arguments Milanovic and the cadres of growth-promoters stray from the domain of their economic expertise into wider realms of political opinion where they have no firmer technical grounding for their views than anyone else. So I return to my original challenge. I’d like to see a world with a minimal drawdown of fossil fuels and other polluting and unsustainable resources, and much reduced inequalities in wealth and income. How to achieve that politically poses tricky questions that economists have no particular expertise to answer. How to achieve it economically is an arena where they can doubtless contribute. Milanovic’s list above strikes me, speaking as a non-expert, as a pretty good suite of economic policies for starting down the road to sustainability and equity. What I’d really like to see from him and other economists is in-depth analysis of the various pros and cons of each policy for delivering the world I and many other critics of economic-growth-at-all-costs would like to see. His thorough derision of all those policies holds no particular interest for me over that of any other online opinion-monger, with which the market is currently quite saturated, and the price therefore low.

Comparative disadvantage

When I make the case for greater local self-reliance in agriculture I quite often come across the counter-argument that Britain hasn’t been self-sufficient in food since the early 19th century. This is true, but what’s not so often noted is that we’re now not self-sufficient in different kinds of foods to those we weren’t self-sufficient in 200-odd years ago. Back then we were self-sufficient in most things except for staple grains, whereas now we’re mostly self-sufficient in staple grains while we’re not self-sufficient in most other things, our greatest food-trade deficit being fresh fruit and vegetables.

The reasons for this switch aren’t hard to find. As a result of crop-breeding, mechanisation, the development of artificial fertilisers and other agro-chemicals, along with the EU’s productivist aims and subsidy regimens, cereal productivity nationally, and per hectare or per hour of human labour, is now much greater than it was in the early 1800s. So despite a six-fold population increase since then, we’ve become pretty much self-reliant in cereal grains – though it’s a fragile self-reliance, based to a considerable degree on imported fossil fuels. But the cost of labour and the opportunity-cost of agricultural land is now also much greater, while the relative cost of energy is much lower – all of which mean it’s cheaper to import bulky, labour-intensive products like fruit and vegetables than to produce them domestically as we did a couple of centuries ago.

Wait, scroll back. Did somebody mention the EU? Britain voted to leave that creaking old juggernaut years ago and then struck out boldly on its own, right? The answer to that is yes and no, my friend, yes and no. Yes, we did narrowly vote to leave the EU more than two years ago, but no we haven’t left yet. Instead, we’ve had two years of epic fudging, as the government has tried and largely failed to work out how to leave the EU without tanking the economy, while simultaneously dealing with vast amounts of other fallout, such as the Irish border question. Perhaps I’ll write another post soon that runs the rule over this monumental waste of political energy, but here I’d like to focus on just one aspect of the aforementioned fallout, namely post-Brexit agricultural policy.

The government’s consultation paper Health and Harmony: the Future for Food, Farming and the Environment in a Green Brexit set out its post CAP policy thinking, receiving a response from me and, apparently, about 43,999 other people and organisations. I don’t think I was the only one to notice that there was precious little about food or farming in the paper. The government seems to be planning some kind of environmental payments scheme to farmers on a ‘public money for public goods’ basis, but the notorious single farm payment subsidy regimen is soon to be history, with nothing to replace it. This was predicted long ago on this website – not that it was a hard prediction to make.

Well, the SFP was a bad scheme, and it won’t be mourned by many. Though much as folks like to bang on about the way it enriched people who didn’t need enriching and turned farmers into subsidy-junkies, the truth is the real junkies were retailers and consumers grown reliant on rock-bottom farm-gate prices. I won’t further plumb that particular line here, but it’s worth noting the implications of the SFP’s demise. There’s to be no emphasis on national food production or security, instead just a thoroughly neoliberal commitment to making British agriculture globally competitive. Which it probably won’t be across almost all dimensions of food production, with the possible exceptions of things like whisky and smoked salmon. My guess is that in the short-term we’ll see farmers getting out of farming and becoming landscape managers, while retailers and consumers continue getting their cheap food fix by importing more from abroad, regardless of the longer-term consequences – something like the ‘bad rewilding’ scenario I outlined some time ago. Farms will prioritise chasing money for wildlife management and visitor attractions, while we export the responsibility for producing our food to other countries willing to sell on global markets (and possibly less anxious to protect what remains of their own wildlife).

Nothing wrong with all that, according to mainstream economic theory. If each country focuses on what it’s best at producing and imports what other countries are best at producing, then everyone gains – this was all explained long ago by David Ricardo in the theory of ‘comparative advantage’ set out in his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817).

Comparative advantage is still routinely invoked as a justification for free trade today, so it remains sadly necessary to explain why it’s a poor foundation for contemporary economies. If investors who are unable to freely put up their capital outside their own country – which was generally the case when Ricardo was writing – wanted to obtain the best possible financial returns, then it made sense for them to invest in their local or national industries with the greatest comparative advantage. But since Ricardo’s day, the entire drift of global financial policy has been to remove the trade barriers that pushed investors to seek comparative advantage, and also to virtualise the economy away from the production of physical things and towards the increase of money itself. So while an English capital-holder today may be better advised to invest in cloth than wine (Ricardo’s original examples) if they want a high return on investment they’re almost certainly even better advised to invest in derivatives on Wall Street. This replacement of comparative advantage by absolute advantage fundamentally changes the economic game in ways that quaint Ricardian theories of international trade are powerless to model.

Meanwhile, national and local governments have numerous responsibilities. Trying to maximise fiscal flows and foreign exchange earnings are certainly among them, but there are many others – the health and wellbeing of the populace, the resilience of infrastructures (including soil health and food security) and so on. Global policymakers nowadays seem to be gripped by a huge Hayekian delusion that all of these things are best secured by hawking them on global commodity markets. Even so, most wealthy countries take steps to protect their agricultures and ensure that their farmland remains productively farmed. You can certainly criticise the way they go about it – as in the EU’s common agricultural policy – on numerous grounds, but the basic motivation behind it seems sound. It’s unusual, and I think ill-advised, for a country to cast out its agriculture as Health and Harmony does in favour of the religious mantra that ‘the market will provide’.

Eighteen months ago I was pilloried on here by a couple of commenters for supporting continued British membership of the EU on the grounds that the latter is committed to neoliberalism. But it seemed obvious then, and it seems even more obvious now, that aside from a few misty-eyed nationalists the main impetus for Brexit within the Conservative Party came from people dissatisfied with the EU because it wasn’t neoliberal enough. The Health and Harmony paper seems confirmatory of this point. A case could have been made for a ‘progressive’ Brexit, but it would be stretching a point to say that that case has even been a marginal part of Brexit politics. In this sense, though I don’t like to use the term, people who supported Brexit for its progressive possibilities strike me as essentially useful idiots for neoliberalism. Though it’s possible, if fortune smiles on them, that they may yet have the last laugh.

In the short term, though, Britain is putting itself at a comparative disadvantage in pursuit of ‘competitiveness’ in the global agrarian economy. It’s worth bearing in mind that agriculture currently contributes less than 1% of Britain’s gross value added economic output, and under any realistic medium-term economic scenario it’s hard to see that increasing in any major way. But Britain could more or less feed itself from its existing agriculture if the government chose to make that a priority. To me, that seems a much wiser option than trying to wring another few million quid from a more ‘competitive’ agriculture.

Meanwhile, another aspect of Ricardo’s economics is looming ever larger. Ricardo supported international free trade because he perceived that in a protected capitalist market landowners would be able to extract economic rent – an excess return over production costs – as a result of increasing food demand. Essentially, he construed a scenario in which labourers did honest work to earn their wage and capitalists did honest work to earn their profit, while landlords pocketed an increasing share of the economic surplus thus generated without lifting a finger.

This dynamic of Ricardian rent has largely been in abeyance for many years in the rich countries. Food prices have been low and rural landownership has rarely been a royal road to wealth. But as industry and economic growth stalls and inequalities widen, the prospect of the economy falling into the grip of landlordism grows. If we extend the logic beyond agricultural land per se, it’s already happened. It’s already happened from a poor country perspective in terms of the extraction of Ricardian rent by rich countries in controlling access to the global economy (this is one reason to welcome exit from the protectionism of EU agricultural policy – but Britain unilaterally falling on its sword in this way probably won’t benefit poor people globally a great deal). And it’s already happened from a rich country perspective in the substantial exit of businesses from matters of production in favour of battling to control the means of circulation – intellectual property rights, branding and so forth. The emergence of a rentier capitalism which has no interest in putting capital to work in service of material improvement (always a minor theme at best in earlier capitalist iterations in any case) has a thoroughly Ricardian resonance.

The way I see this panning out is a period of tricky trade wheeler-dealing that won’t be more economically beneficial to Britain than EU membership was, but may inaugurate a brief honeymoon of cheap, low-quality imported food and possibly improved wildlife habitats at home (we’ll conveniently ignore the consequences for ghost acres abroad). Then as climate change begins to bite in the global breadbasket countries and calculated self-interest looms larger in the global political economy, I think we’ll be in for a major food crisis where it’ll suddenly seem like a good idea for the government to be supporting the local production of food, and where large landowners in possession of lightly-farmed estates may start to feel some class-aligned political heat.

At that point, the government will start casting desperately around for solutions to the self-inflicted problem of its Ricardian nightmare. Luckily, Small Farm Future will be here for it, shining a guiding light that will help it overcome the Ricardian perils of our age with this simple two point plan:

  1. A new protectionist economics, focused around local production for local use. This protectionism won’t be of the tit-for-tat, ‘my country first’ kind being reinvigorated by idiotic politicians like Donald Trump. It will take the form of an internationally agreed, convivial kind of protectionism in which collective strength is gained from individual difference.
  2. A new anti-landlordism economics. But not in the traditional socialist or capitalist manner of alienating people from the fruits of their own work on the land, because the benefits of this ‘globalising’ move will no longer be paying out. In this situation, the most obvious form of anti-landlordism is of the if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em variety, in which more or less everyone becomes their own landlord.

The result of this protectionist, anti-landlord economics would look a lot like the small farm future I’ve long promulgated on this blog. What a funny coincidence. Undoubtedly, figuring out how to deliver this future from the unpromising present is a major conundrum. Happily, here at Small Farm Future we have all the answers – and we’ll start revealing them soon. But not just yet. First I have to go and pinch out my tomatoes.

Population: what’s the problem?

Apologies for the clickbait-y title. My question isn’t a rhetorical one intended to suggest that human population levels aren’t a problem. I don’t doubt they are. But it seems to me much less clear than a lot of people seem to think exactly what kind of problem they are, and what – if anything – could or should be done about it, which is what I want to aim at in this post. I raised these issues in my last post of 2017, which prompted some lively debate. But neither the post itself nor the comments under it quite nailed the issue for me, so here goes with another attempt.

1. Of proximal and underlying causation

In a recent article by the evergreen George Monbiot bemoaning plastic pollution in the oceans, the first comment under the line had this to say: “Two answers – population control and capitalism control – but no takers…not even George!”

It strikes me that this response is spot on…and also entirely misses the point. It’s spot on because although plastic pollution in the oceans is an immediate problem, it has deeper underlying causes which are summarily encapsulated by the words ‘population’ and ‘capitalism’ about as well as by any others. I think it’s a bit unfair to accuse George of not being a ‘taker’, since part of the point of his article was to suggest that self-fuelling economic growth – ‘capitalism’ by another name – is intrinsically destructive of the environment. Still, it’s surely true that without large global populations subject to the forces of capitalist commodification, the problem of plastic in the ocean would be very much less severe than it presently is.

But what is the ‘answer’ to the problem of plastic pollution, now that it’s there? Is it really population control and capitalism control? Suppose when the governments of the world met to negotiate the Montreal Protocol they’d said “the immediate problem of the ozone hole is caused by CFCs in aerosol propellants, but the underlying problem is population and capitalism. Therefore, rather than banning CFCs we propose to adopt a more holistic approach and exhort each member country to foster population control and work towards economic alternatives to capitalism”? Luckily, they didn’t, and the ozone hole is now a lot smaller than it otherwise would have been as a result.

Doubtless population and capitalism remain underlying problems, investing other issues – such as plastics in the ocean. Again, though, are population control or capitalism control the best means we have of addressing these other issues right now? Apparently, about 90% of ocean plastic pollution arises from just ten river systems in Asia and Africa, basically as a result of inadequate waste management systems and a lack of public consciousness about waste disposal in these rapidly industrialising places1. The most efficient remedy would seem to be targeting investment in waste management systems in the relevant places. It’s not a radical strategy aimed at the underlying generative factors, but it’s probably the most effective strategy aimed at the actual problem. Generally, I’m in favour of approaches that tackle the underlying nature of a problem, but sometimes it’s possible to overcomplicate things. The main problem with plastics in the ocean is plastics in the ocean.

It’s not an either/or thing, of course. Alongside strategies to reduce plastic pollution, strategies to reduce population and transcend capitalism also have their place. However, when someone like George writes an article identifying a particular issue such as this and gets the population/capitalism brush-off in response, I can’t help feeling that this is a way of relegating the problem from serious policy attention in the here and now. It would be a good thing if human population was lower than it is. But it isn’t, and it strikes me that very few of our contemporary problems are best tackled by prioritising population control as the main policy response. Certainly not plastics in the ocean.

2. Theories and causes

Nevertheless, it seems clear that high levels of human population lurk somewhere behind the numerous environmental crises of our age. But exactly how to elucidate the relationship between population and environmental impact is less obvious. In my previous post I critiqued ecological economist Herman Daly for a simplistic take on this (Daly is a fine thinker, but his subtlety seems to desert him on population matters). In a recent article, Daly said,

“Environmental impact is the product of the number of people times per capita resource use. In other words, you have two numbers multiplied by each other – which one is more important? If you hold one constant and let the other vary, you are still multiplying. It makes no sense to me to say that only one number matters”2

But, as I mentioned in my previous post, I just can’t see how Daly’s logic escapes a tautology that becomes obvious when you write his words down as an equation:

(1) Impact = Per Capita Impact x Population

=>

(2) Impact = (Impact ÷ Population) x Population

The fact that total impact varies in direct proportion with population when it’s written as a function of impact per population is a mathematical truism, but it doesn’t tell us whether population actually does affect impact in the real world. The same is true of the I = PAT formula that’s also often invoked to characterise the relationship between impact and population. These mathematical formulae are merely a priori assertions, not empirical findings of real-world relations.

Let me take this example. In the 1960s the global whaling fleet was catching about 25,000 fin whales annually. We could take the fin whale catch as one indicator of environmental impact. Global human population was about 3.5 billion at the time, so the per capita impact of fin whale hunting was about one whale per 140,000 people. Population back then was increasing globally by about 2% per annum. So was the fin whale catch increasing by about 2% as well? No. Only a handful of nations were involved in whaling, and catch levels were determined by various factors that had little to do with global population. You just can’t write a meaningful, predictive per capita impact x population equation in this instance.You need to fit a theory to the data, not data to a theory.

Doubtless there are other issues where population level does have a more direct and independent effect – greenhouse gas emissions, for example. But we know that individual-level emissions vary between people by a factor of at least 2,000 according to life choices and circumstances, so if we’re going to insist on writing an environmental impact equation with population level as an independent variable in it, it’s going to have to be something of the form:

(3) I = p∑iv

Where I = total impact, p = total population, i = per capita impact and v is a variable factor representing these individual differences in emission levels.

The fact is, you just can’t infer from such a formula that I is going to vary directly with p.

Perhaps this is all an over-elaborate way of making the familiar point that what matters most isn’t population level itself, it’s what populations do – burning fossil fuels, clearing forests, dropping plastic in rivers and so on. Some populations do a lot more of those things than others. So generally speaking, v seems to me a more important variable to focus policy attention around than p.

3. Fertility decline

And this is particularly true because while the population debate rages on, meanwhile – unnoticed by many – global fertility is crashing at a historically unprecedented rate, as indicated in the graph below, which shows fertility rates worldwide and for the world’s five most populous countries over the last 55 years.

Source: World Development Indicators –  http://databank.worldbank.org/data/reports.aspx?source=world-development-indicatorshose

Those who say there’s inadequate attention to population control might do well to ponder the implications of this graph. In just fifty years, global fertility has more than halved, from an average 5.07 live births per woman in 1964 to 2.45 in 2015. In three of the five most populous countries of the world, fertility rates are considerably below replacement rate – and in fact this is true in about half the countries of the entire world. I would have thought that the trend shown in this graph would be widely celebrated by the anti-population lobby, but it scarcely seems to get a mention. True, population itself rather than population growth rate or fertility rate is continuing to rise for the time being as a result of the time lag between present fertility and its manifestation in future birth rates – there’s not much that can be done about that, short of mass murder or enforced childlessness. Fertility rates have to drop first before population level does, just as a car has to stop accelerating before it can start slowing. But for those who say that not enough is being done to reduce population, I wonder what realistic policy measures they believe could have been implemented over the last fifty years that could have improved on this 50% fertility decline.

It’s worth noting that not many countries apart from China have implemented explicit population control policies, and if you look at the graph you’ll see that the point at which China introduced its one child policy (1979) came after its steepest fertility decline. So it seems that on this one, the people of the world have voted with their feet…or maybe with other parts of their anatomy…and done the policymakers’ work for them. Certainly, it would have been hard to implement official population control policies globally as effective as this gigantic act of self-implementation, and perhaps unwise too – many countries are going to face significant social problems in the coming century as a result of this demographic collapse, however welcome it may be for other reasons3.

Of course, the demographic collapse doesn’t mean that our environmental and resource problems are going to magically sort themselves out. Which is another reason why the ‘problem’ isn’t really ‘population’…‘capitalism’ gets a bit closer to the mark, perhaps. The billions of people who live on just a few dollars a day certainly do have an environmental impact, but it’s really not them who are driving the drastically negative impacts in the contemporary world. However, I’d guess that the majority of them would love to live as impactful a life as the average European or North American if only they could. In that sense, globally reducing fertility rates aren’t necessarily much to celebrate.

But maybe with global population set to decline in the future, there’s less need to panic about increasing crop yields, ‘sparing’ land, intensifying agriculture and all the other components of high tech solutionism that are routinely trotted out in relation to rising human numbers and pressure on earth systems. Maybe the idea of settling in to our existing local places for the long haul at historically very high, but soon to be declining, numbers might prompt some more sober thinking about the possibilities of a more sustainable, steady-state kind of agriculture.

The reasons for the astonishing fertility decline don’t seem completely clear, but are largely to do with the demographic transition (declining birth rates following declining death rates) and ‘modernization’, generally speaking. So inasmuch as the line I take on this website is generally opposed to ‘modernization’, perhaps it’s worth musing on the implications of a small farm future for fertility rates or future population levels.

Against the notion that peasant farmers always have high fertility, the evidence suggests that in situations where population pressure on land is a limiting factor (which could well be the case for a lower energy, small farm future in a country like Britain), people attempt to keep their fertility levels low4. But high fertility can look like a good idea if you have no means of supporting yourself in old age and/or you or your children are unlikely to be able to attain a secure livelihood. So if I were responsible for social policy in a resource-constrained country of small farmers in the future, I think I’d prioritise primary health care for mothers and infants, social care for the elderly, and educational/job creating opportunities for young people. Doubtless this would pose many challenges, but on the upside they’re all people-intensive rather than energy or capital intensive projects, and that’s where the true wealth of human societies lies.

I’m in no position myself to lecture anyone about the evils of human fertility but here’s a final thought: there’s something quite odd historically about societies that deem having children to be a bad or irresponsible choice on the grounds of environmental impact, without attending more directly to the nature of the impacts themselves. I have no idea how that’ll pan out, since there are so few historical precedents. My guess is that while other countries will try to ape the high-consumption low-fertility western style, not many will succeed and in the longer term that high consumption low fertility style will go the same way as other weird religious cults of the kind that emphasise celibacy and service to some jealous and demanding god. People will get old, the freezers containing the corpses of the transhumanists will run out of juice, the trinkets will lose their lustre, and ultimately our societies will be replaced by ones that are better able to farm and function at sustainable levels of energy use by attending more to v and not so much to p in equation (3) above.

Notes

  1. Schmidt, Christian et al. 2017. Export of plastic debris by rivers into the sea. Environmental Science & Technology. 51, 21: 12246-53.
  2. Daly, Herman. 2018. Ecologies of scale. New Left Review. 109: 81-104. p.93
  3. Morgan, Philip. 2003. Is low fertility a 21st century crisis? Demography. 40, 4: 589-603. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2849155/
  4. Netting, Robert. 1993. Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Intensive, Sustainable Agriculture. Stanford UP.

A marginal farm anniversary

It was exactly ten years ago today that I and my co-conspirators at Vallis Veg sold our first veg box, as good an anniversary as any to define the point that I became a farmer (perhaps I should say ‘grower’ or ‘market gardener’, but I dislike the way the word ‘farmer’ is policed – a familiar motif in the last decade has involved people of various stripes telling me that I’m not a ‘proper farmer’. To which my considered answer is – Yes I bloody am. And so are you if you grow any food.)

Anyway, I thought I’d indulge myself on my anniversary with a brief memoir of my farming life and the non-farming life that preceded it, if only to try to explain to myself how on earth I ended up doing this. (Apologies for the autobiographical tone that’s crept into these last two posts – normal service will return next time). This post is modelled loosely after another autobiographical essay, Wendell Berry’s ‘The making of a marginal farm’1 – sacrilegiously, perhaps, since I daresay Berry is a considerably better farmer than I am, and a better writer to boot. And yet there are some overlaps and dissonances between his story and mine that interest me. So here goes.

As I related in my previous post, I had a semi-rural/semi-suburban childhood in a village about thirty miles from London. But, unlike Berry, farming or even gardening had a minimal role in my youth. There was a little farming going on in the area, and a handful of farm kids, but farming never really presented itself to me as a viable career option, and wasn’t presented as such by my elders. Though farming didn’t appeal, historically there’d been a furniture industry in the area where I lived, which manifested as large remnant beech woods, full of mysterious bodger’s hollows. As a teenager, I’d go for long solitary walks in the woods and feel some kind of spiritual peace in them that felt lacking elsewhere. For me, the natural world – however trammelled by human hand – figured largely as an arena of escape.

The truth is, despite a happy-enough childhood in a pleasant-enough part of one of the world’s richer countries, I never really felt from a young age that the kind of society I was growing up in made much sense or answered to people’s fundamental needs. It’s taken me a long time to find a way of being that does make sense and does answer those needs, and I’m still not sure I’ve found it. But I do sometimes think there’s a kind of unbridgeable divide among people in the modern world. Some, like me, can’t understand the appeal of a suburban, salaried, satrapped life, while others slip gladly into its flow. The risk that’s run by my kind is romantic illusions about other kinds of society, a persistent and pervasive sense of alienation, and all manner of grass-is-greenerism that sends us off on one wild goose chase after another. But our great advantage is a perspectival depth that means we shall never, ever write a sentence like this one from Anthony Warner: “every society that has ever existed would eagerly swap their lives with someone living in the developed world today”. And for that, I am truly grateful.

My path out of adolescence took me into an anthropology degree in London where, under the influence of my mostly Marxist teachers and of Michael Taussig’s neat but problematic book The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America, I conceived a somewhat overwrought interest in peasant societies as resistant to the modernist logic of capitalism – an interest I pursued to no great effect in brief attempts to be an anthropologist in Mexico and Jamaica before realising that the singular skills of the field ethnographer were permanently beyond my grasp. Perhaps my attempts to get to grips with peasantries wasn’t helped by my ignorance and general lack of interest concerning what peasantries actually do, namely farming. Still, the thinking that I’d done about peasant societies sowed a seed – to coin a horticultural metaphor – that has been important to me later in life.

I then spent ten years trying to fit myself around more-or-less unsuitable jobs in London and environs at the end of which my roles in life were husband, father, and alienated lecturer in sociology with a self-respect that was diminishing by the day. Berry hints at his own alienation as an academic in New York, and his life-changing decision to go back to his native Kentucky. Kentucky, says Berry, was his fate. But for me there wasn’t really anything or anywhere to ‘go back’ to. There was no pre-manufactured ‘fate’ beyond urbanism or suburbanism, no authentic touchstone for my life except what I invented for myself. As per recent discussions on this blog, I honour small farm societies like Berry’s that have retained such a thing, but without surrendering too many of my critical faculties to the lure of tradition. Berry, to be fair, does the same, to some extent.

Around this time my wife went on a permaculture design course and insisted I do likewise. Two weeks at Ragman’s Lane Farm with the late lamented Patrick Whitefield proved revelatory, supplying something of that missing touchstone – farming, gardening, a human ecology wrought from a natural world neither friend nor enemy, a deep entangled history of humans and landscapes opening beneath my feet on the land I’d walked unknowingly for years. More recently I’ve largely parted ways with permaculture – I’ve found the movement around it too given to fixed ideas, complacent dualities and a strident sense of purity. I argued with Patrick, usually amicably, in the early years of this blog about such matters, but I’ve found too many others in the movement less supple in their thinking. Still, for me it was a key to another world and I’ll always be grateful for that.

We spent a couple of years transitioning into agriculture, much of them in Canada, strangely enough. Then in 2003 we bought eighteen acres of pastureland in Somerset. Berry describes his good fortune in having learned how to run a team of horses in his youth, just before the skill receded into history, which established the course of his farming career. I wasn’t quite that lucky, but my wife and I did enjoy one stroke of generational good fortune. We’d bought some property in London in the early 1990s at a time when a young couple doing average-ish jobs could more or less afford to do so – something that would be quite impossible now. That purchase, along with a certain bloody-mindedness, has enabled us to carve out a kind of semi-independent smallholder life that we probably couldn’t otherwise have achieved.

For the first five years of our tenure as rural landowners we did very little on the site except plant trees (a story I’ll relate in another post), grow a little veg and raise a few pigs. We had young children, no house on the site and non-farm work to do to keep the wolf from the door. I fancied myself as a Berry-like figure and dabbled rather ineffectually in creative non-fiction writing. One agent said they liked my manuscript, but I didn’t give enough of myself in it. Another agent said they liked my manuscript, but nobody wanted to listen to a non-entity like me banging on about myself. I decided to give up on my literary pretensions and start a market garden instead.

I’ve rarely been so happy as I was in the early stages of establishing that garden. But it proved to be a fragile happiness. I went about it wrongly, too manically. Having turned my back on a secure professional career to the bemusement of friends and family, I was desperate for the market garden to be successful, naïve about the forces ranged against it, too unskilled and – how easy to see with hindsight – still in mourning for my jettisoned career and a sense of my own importance. One of the problems of modernist culture is that it places too much emphasis on this importance of the unique individual life. One of the problems of many pre-modern cultures is that they placed too little emphasis on it. Independent smallholding cultures are better, I think, at navigating between these perils. Something that working the land has taught me is that the individual person is basically unimportant, but just important enough – and that to a considerable extent the importance is objectified in the particular transformations of the farmed landscape itself. I still have bad days, when I slip into thinking that my life has some kind of higher purpose or distinctive signature that I’m failing to embroider as I should. But mercifully fewer as the years on the land pass by.

Anyway, for five years I grew vegetables and sold them – still living in a house in town some distance from the site. In comparison to the lives that many small farmers lead, I had it easy. But living like this it was hard to make the business and other aspects of my life work, and it took its toll. I don’t think the life of the market grower suits many people, and I wouldn’t unequivocally commend commercial horticulture as a career. Perhaps I should have read my Wendell Berry more attentively:

“it is possible for a family to live on such ‘marginal’ land, to take a bountiful subsistence and some cash income from it and, in doing so, to improve both the land and themselves. (I believe, however, that at least in the present economy this should not be attempted without a source of income other than the farm….To attempt to make a living from such land is to impose a severe strain on land and people alike)”2

Amen to that. Though I’d add that an advantage of commercial husbandry is that it teaches you more quickly than you’d probably learn otherwise about the true costs of human labour and other inputs, the miraculous but Faustian power of fossil fuels, the wisdom of quitting while you’re ahead, and the dismal economics of the food system. By working as a commercial grower, I learned that I’m not an especially good one. Still, the world has more need of second rate farmers than of second rate sociologists…and I also learned through doing it that, whatever my limitations, the struggles of farmers and growers to stay afloat don’t arise out of the fact that they’re not good at what they do. This has stood me in good stead for looking unflinchingly in the face of the endless claims one encounters about new ways of farming that are supposedly better for the environment while making more money too, and also in the face of the endless claims that farmers doing bad environmental things are bad people.

Since 2013, I’ve no longer been the main commercial grower at Vallis Veg. But we do now live on our land – a struggle documented on this website – which has eased many former burdens. My roles today encompass tractor driver, mechanic, stockman, woodsman, fencer, plumber, carpenter, electrician, subsistence gardener, purveyor of stale urine and general éminence grise in the market garden – though the current growing team are doing a much better job than I did running the show, so I fear it’s more a case of grise than éminence. I wouldn’t say I’m especially competent at most of the roles I listed, but I’m more competent at them than when I first started, and I daresay more competent than I would have been if I’d stayed a sociologist – and I get some satisfaction from that. The truth is that I burned myself out a little trying to run a market garden as I did. But looking back on it now, most of the relationships I have that matter to me feel like they’ve been strengthened through some tempering in that fire, and I feel happy that I’ve helped to create a thriving homestead flowing with people, livestock and wildlife, out of modest beginnings. I’ve encountered a little carping of one sort or another about what we do and how and how we do it. Ah well, there’s plenty that we’ve done or failed to do worth carping over for those who wish to carp. But there’ve been a lot of positive interactions too, and for all our errors I feel a sense of achievement that we’ve somehow kept a small farm business on the road for a decade.

Ah yes, errors. We’ve made a lot of mistakes over the years, and there are many things I’d do differently if I had the chance again. But we haven’t made many head-in-hands mistakes that cause me to lose much sleep. The commonest mistakes fall into four main categories, 1. Not knowing what I’m doing, 2. Following someone else’s advice without devoting enough thought to whether it’s right for me and my land, 3. Taking on too many different things, 4. Over-dominating a job with too much fossil fuel.  Perhaps all but the last of these categories are reducible to the first, but the worst mistakes have involved all four. Like Berry, probably my worst one was digging a pond that didn’t really work. But I can’t quite summon the Homeric levels of tragic self-critique that Berry does over his failed project. I used less fossil fuel in making it than I’d have done on a frivolous trip to London to see a friend or see a show, and I’ll get it to work somehow next year. Or the one after. Probably. I also console myself with the thought that people who use fossil fuel and don’t know what they’re doing probably cause less damage in the world than people who use fossil fuel and do.

Talking of fossil fuels, the basic reality of global farming today is that those with access to them can produce food more cheaply. This drives a global division of labour: capital-intensive mechanised farming in the rich countries, labour-intensive less mechanised farming in the poor countries. Which explains why there isn’t much market gardening in Britain, and the country’s biggest food trade deficit – around £9 billion – falls in the fresh fruit and vegetables sector. Berry concludes his essay with these words,

“To spend one’s life farming a piece of the earth…is, as many would say, a hard lot. But it is, in an ancient sense, the human lot. What saves it is to love the farming”3

Wise words, no doubt – but to love the farming in a global economic context that writes its economic bottom line in diesel is not only a hard thing, but a conflicted thing. I can’t claim to have extracted myself from those dismal economics but my good fortune is that, on the ground and on the page, at least I’ve found some opportunities to try.

Finally, a dedication:

To Cordelia, for sharing the journey

To Moon, for picking up the baton

And to multitudes, for lending a helping hand

Notes

  1. Wendell Berry. 2017. ‘The making of a marginal farm’ in Paul Kingsnorth (ed) The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry. Penguin.
  2. Ibid. pp.44-5
  3. Ibid. p.47