The three causes of global ecocide

In a recent post I questioned the well-known formula: Human Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology. But I don’t question that humans now have a severe impact on earth systems. So if not PAT, then what? Here I’m going to lay out some other factors that I suggest underlie our impact and our present predicament in a more fundamental sense than the PAT variables. They’re also three in number – but I’m going to present them as a historical narrative, not a mathematical formula.

The first (and historically prior) cause of global ecocide, I suggest, is large-scale grain agriculture. It’s come in many variants, but the typical package – worked out long ago – involves a cereal and a grain legume for human and livestock feed, and a domestic animal (usually a ruminant, especially cattle) for transport, traction, fat, food, fibre and fertility management.

Nowadays, we often criticize this package in its modern form of ‘industrialized agriculture’ for its negative effects on the biosphere – soil erosion, water pollution, GHG emissions and so on. Indeed, these are all big problems. But the point I want to emphasize is not these potential failures of large-scale grain agriculture so much as its spectacular success in feeding humans in their multitudes. Under my aforementioned post, we were talking about the problem of ‘over-population’ and the ecological tendency for organisms (including humans) to multiply in response to energetic possibilities. So perhaps here’s our modern environmental tragedy in an ear of grain. The heavy energy and protein punch packed by a grain field enables humans to multiply. Not only that, but grain agriculture also allows many among the human multitudes it supports to devote themselves to things other than wresting a thin living from an unforgiving earth. And, as it turns out, a favored pursuit among these other things is wrecking the biosphere. It’s in what grain potentiates so easily that its real tragedy is revealed.

Wait, though. Potentiates, maybe – but is it inevitable? Not according to James Scott in his much-admired recent book Against The Grain. Neither according to Jennifer Pournelle in a short but scintillating review of Scott’s book, sympathetic but critical – six pages of coruscating thought that I’ve read four times without yet even beginning to plumb their depths. Between them, Scott and Pournelle point out that sedentism predated agriculture, grain domestication predated the rise of large-scale states and agricultures by several millennia – and that the earliest states weren’t grain states but forest or wetland garden states1. Can we say that grain farming inevitably led to modern ecocide, that people were fated to follow its high-energy path? No, I don’t think so. But Scott makes a plausible case for affinities between cereal agriculture and expansionary, centralized states. Today we’re living with that affinity – maybe dying with it too.

Is there another way? Yes. We could grow annual grains in “sparsely distributed garden-sized patches” with “limited negative impact”. So say authors from the Land Institute in Kansas, who are trying to develop perennial grain crops. Or at least said. When I published an article questioning their work, they seemed to row back from this point – asserting in essence that using annual crops almost always compromises the soil. Such ideas have percolated in more coarsened forms into the thought of permaculture ultras who disparage annual cropping of any kind – like Mark Shepard, who bizarrely claims that “Every human society from the temperate zone to the tropics that has relied on annuals to feed itself, is now gone”2.

Ah well, there’s a lot to be said for experimenting with perennial cropping systems – so long as one avoids hyperbole of this kind that too often seems to accompany it. Meanwhile, I’d suggest that those of us who grow annual grains in sparsely distributed garden-sized patches should carry on. There are too many of us to feed by throwing caution to the wind and investing in speculative chestnut-and-wild-garlic wheezes. I doubt we’d be despoiling the planet quite so successfully if it wasn’t for annual grains, but they’re not the fundamental problem.

What, then, is? Candidate number two, which came to the party much later than annual grains, is capitalism. There are many ways to define capitalism, but here I’ll offer one that borrows heavily from Wolfgang Streeck3: capitalism is a way of organizing societies where social wellbeing is secured largely as an unintended side-effect of competitive profit maximization in pursuit of capital accumulation. Hence, economies that brook no limit that anyone might wish to place upon them. Hence, too, economies that are constantly looking to expand. For an early capitalist country like England, only so much expansion was possible by trying to squeeze more out of domestic agriculture or manufacturing – ‘capitalism in one country’ is scarcely possible, and in fact capitalism has always been primarily about global trading networks.

One innovation this involved was raising credit in stupendous quantities through mechanisms like joint stock companies. The potential rewards of fitting out a transcontinental merchant fleet were high, but so were the risks, and the delay in cashing out. Humans have long dealt in symbolic economic thought (“I’ll sow these seeds now, then at the end of the season I’ll be able to sell the crop and use the money to buy a new wagon”) but the logic of capital was a kind of event horizon for symbolic thought that completely outstripped anything grounding it in local biophysical realities.

Also, a big part of the reason why global trade was so much more lucrative for capitalists than local trade was that if the lucre wasn’t actual lucre extracted from metal mines it was raised on the back of ill-rewarded labour elsewhere – in other words, capitalism has gone hand in hand with colonialism. The modern pro-capitalist argument is that the increase of capital benefits everyone, even if it benefits some more than others – ‘a rising tide floats all boats’. But – to press the metaphor – capital accumulation also works by scuppering many of the smaller boats, preventing their rise. In these circumstances, the smaller boats sometimes try to organize and collectively build a dry dock. Building such a dry dock is now an urgent global necessity.

So is capitalism, raised on the back of cheap grain farming, the true culprit in our global ecocidal tragedy? I’d argue yes, pretty much. The event horizon of its accumulative urge gives the modern economy its endless, earth systems-busting motion. If capitalism in one country was never possible, it’s now becoming apparent that capitalism on one planet is no longer possible, as the ecological footprinters have demonstrated – hence the growing enthusiasm for asteroid-mining, space colonization and other such tomfoolery.

But the story’s incomplete as it stands. Capitalism invites anti-capitalism. Colonialism invites anti-colonialism. It’s unlikely the European seaborne capitalist empires would have persisted long-term in the face of local opposition. Indeed, think only Thomas Jefferson, Touissant Louverture, Simón Bolívar. True, the capitalist worm was already in many of these buds – for example, the cotton capitalism of the US south versus the industrial capitalism of the north, with Jefferson’s small farm republic a mere daydream. Even so, ultimately it seems possible that the capitalist imperative would have exhausted itself in its expansionary efforts, prompting its own political negation, then reaching political equilibrium, and therefore dying.

The fact that this hasn’t yet (quite) happened is surely down to our third culprit – fossil fuels. On the one hand, immense world-transforming energetic power. On the other, immense world-transforming pollution. Also, heavily non-random distribution in the Earth’s crust, and usually major technical obstacles to extracting them. The result of all this, in a nutshell, was an enormous boost to the already-dominant capitalist countries who were able to corner the windfall and make the whole world over in their desired image. That doesn’t mean history stopped. The last few decades have seen the balance of global economic power shift somewhat towards Asia, China in particular – possibly the herald of epochal change, possibly not. And of course, China’s rise is also fossil-fuelled.

In fact, it was in China that fossil fuels were first used industrially – to smelt iron, starting some 2,000 years ago. But it’s only in the last century or so that fossil fuel combustion has come to haunt us ecocidally. Hence, just as the adoption of grain and sedentism long predated their use by expansionary centralized states that weaponized them as ecocidal agents, so did the adoption of fossil fuels long predate their use by still more expansionary capitalist states that likewise weaponized them. Humanity wasn’t necessarily fated to undermine the conditions of its own flourishing by the profligate combustion of fossil fuels. Capitalist humanity perhaps was.

Once again, proponents of fossil-fuelled capitalism point out the ‘rising tide’ of universal human benefit brought by cheap energy and compounding capital – without, I think, attending enough to the disbenefits that it’s also brought along the way. But perhaps more salient is a look towards the future than the past. For the capitalist economy to persist, it needs to grow – a ballpark figure for ‘healthy’ capitalist growth is 3% per annum. For earth systems to persist in anything like the form that our societies have developed to cope with, we need to stop combusting fossil fuels – minimally to net zero by 2070. Projecting 3% global economic growth to 2070 suggests that the economy by that date will have to be more than four times larger than the world economy of 2018, and it’ll have to find these extra three worlds of economic activity while reducing fossil fuel use from today’s almost 12 billion tonnes of oil equivalent used annually worldwide to zero. Nobody has yet explained to me convincingly, or even sketchily, how this can possibly happen. Which is probably why world leaders talk piously about carbon-cutting, but don’t actually do it. Not until viruses do it for them, at any rate.

So if I were to write an equation concerning humanity’s planetary impact, I’d write it in the form of the historical narrative above and not a mathematical identity. But if my hand was forced into equation mongering, I’d write an equation thus:

Human Ecological Impact = Grain Farming + Capitalism + Fossil Fuels

Historical counterfactuals are only parlour games, but there are things to be learned from games. So I’d suggest we can read this equation forwards historically. Without grain farming, we wouldn’t have capitalism or significant fossil fuel use. Most of us (and that would be many fewer than our current 7.7 billion) would probably be forest gardeners, perhaps accommodating ourselves to the numerous, Lilliputian statelets proliferating across the world, or more likely trying to dodge them.

With grain farming but without capitalism, most of us would probably be living in large commercial kingdoms under the thumb of centralized states, and we’d mostly be jostling to find poorly-paid work on farms, or in domestic service, or in the military – who would probably not be short of engagements.

With the full set of grain farming and capitalism and fossil fuels, most of us are jostling to find poorly-paid non-farm work, some of us have a wealth and global reach almost beyond the imagining of premodern peoples (but perhaps not quite: think Adam, think Prometheus), most of us are pretty poor, and earth systems are starting to collapse around us.

What if we read the equation historically backwards? It’s clear we need to ditch the fossil fuels before we’re overwhelmed by our own impacts. I somehow doubt we will, but hope springs eternal. If we do, then that will most likely take care of capitalism too, and good riddance to it – but it probably won’t disappear gracefully unless we attend vigorously to what comes after. For me, the best scenario for what comes after would involve something akin to the non-capitalist commercial kingdoms I mentioned above, but judiciously leavened with the best of the ancient and the best of the modern. From the ancient (and I mean really ancient), I propose semi-autonomous, small-scale forest gardening combining a judicious mix of perennial and annual plants, including grains in sparsely distributed garden-sized patches. From the not quite so ancient I propose a mostly civic republican politics of recognition – which I think is compatible with a more modern sense of individual human rights and due process that might just help see us through the travails to come with a minimum of bloodshed. From the modern also, I propose whatever life-enhancing technologies we’re able to carry with us – and agree upon – from the present. The difficulty, perhaps, is in agreeing on what ‘able to’ means, and in fully accounting for its costs.

It’s often assumed that ‘capitalism’ has given us modern marvels like clean water, heart triple bypass surgery or the joys (?) of online communication – a point that’s used to berate anti-capitalists for their supposed hypocrisy or primitivism. Actually, the relationship between capitalism and technology is much murkier. But it’s true that capitalism generates large economic surpluses, some of which have been devoted to life-enhancing inventions. In a post-fossil-fuelled, post-carbon future, generating economic surplus is likely to be challenging, so we’ll want to be careful what we do with it. In such a world, low carbon, labour-intensive work would be emphasized – so a world of small-scale farmers, market-stall holders, teachers, doctors and other health workers, social carers, and craftspeople. I’d argue that the most important task before us right now for lowering our impact – including lowering the impact of our choices on later generations – is to be midwives for delivering that world as quickly and as smoothly as possible. Reducing work opportunities for actual midwives seems to me rather less important.

Notes

  1. James Scott. 2017. Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. Yale University Press; Jennifer Pournelle. 2019. “Fields, gardens and staple states,” Journal of Peasant Studies 46, 4: 878-84.
  2. See variously: Lee DeHaan et al. 2007. “Perennial grains,” in Sara Scherr and Jeffrey McNeely (Eds) Farming with Nature: The Science and Practice of Ecoagriculture, Island Press; Timothy Crews and Lee DeHaan. 2015. “The strong perennial vision: a response”. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems 39, 5: 500-515. Chris Smaje. 2015. “The strong perennial vision: a critical review,” Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems 39, 5: 471-99; Shepard, Mark. 2013. Restoration Agriculture: Real-World Permaculture for Farmers. Acres USA.
  3. Wolfgang Streeck. 2016. How Will Capitalism End? Verso.

After the Anthropocene: notes from a distempered winter

Most of my outdoor this work this winter has involved felling in quantity the European ash trees on our farm. Another species stricken by a new pathogen, one seemingly far more deadly to it than the SARS-CoV-2 virus currently afflicting humanity. In this case it’s the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus that’s killing somewhere between 70 and 90% of ash trees across Europe.

I’m not especially sentimental about trees, and the task hasn’t felt unduly sorrowful. If we survive our own affliction, we’ll make use of the felled wood and replant with a wider mix of younger trees, improving the vitality of our woodland. Even so, the loss of the ash troubles me. And, as I fell them, there’s cause to wonder at these silent creatures we planted just sixteen years ago, when our own children were young, now dwarfing my height and weight many times over. In winter especially, they seem hardly alive. They make no complaint intelligible to human senses as the chain bites into them. Yet beneath the smooth sheen of their bark there are life processes of immense complexity, not too unlike the ones in my own body, that I’m bringing to an end.

I doubt I’ll ever be an expert woodsman, but this winter I’ve felt comfortable with the chainsaw in my hands – no longer a novice tiptoeing nervously around the machine’s raw danger, but holding it close and feeling relaxed. It sounds absurd to call chainsawing meditative, but that’s how I felt about it – devoting my mind to the tangible facts of gravity, planning my cuts, judging the tree’s fall line, attuning myself to the minute physics of compression and tension in the fallen tree as I sliced and diced its tissue, feeling my sweat and the acrid exhaust as the residue of real work, and taking small pleasure in a modest competence. At this point in my life, modest competence is about as much as I can hope for from my jack-of-all-trades smallholding career.

The chainsaw is almost a cliché of industrial society’s brutal onslaught against nature, yet that onslaught has now reached the stage where a person toting a chainsaw in the woods is far too quaint and human-scaled a proposition for commercial forestry to turn a profit. Nowadays, giant forwarders and feller bunchers that topple trees like ninepins in remote upland plantations are the only realistic business model. But I suspect those days will pass, and a time will come again when we’ll keep our trees close by, and our saws and axes will be tools of considerate husbandry.

As I work in the woods I notice small signs of self-willed nature that we never included in our planting plan. Elder, birch and even walnut sprouts where we planted only ash. Grey squirrels – that indomitable American import – scamper overhead, building their dreys. Wrens and long-tailed tits flit among the brash piles. Moss encircles the ash trunks. A spider, perfectly camouflaged against a trunk, crouches motionless until I unwittingly brush it and it scuttles away. Most of this would be flattened by someone operating a feller buncher without them even noticing.

And then of course there’s the Hymenoscyphus that’s sickening the ash – no small sign, this – most likely the outcome of too much human trafficking across the bounds of biogeography, much like our own troubles with SARS-CoV-2. In these northerly latitudes we have so few tree species, I feel we can’t afford to lose these ash. We have few tree species, and just one great ape. I mourn their losses too, for – as I said in my last post – they are me.

But what a strange world we apes have made for ourselves! A perennial issue for the small farmer is how to adjust to the dictates of bureaucracy – too big in scale to easily adopt the below-the-radar stance of the private householder, too small in scale for many of the one-size-fits-all regulations to make sense. My intended operations on the ash brought me just within the lower limits of the need for a felling licence, so I decided to apply for one – but when it emerged that a rare species of horseshoe bat was roosting in the semi-natural woodlands near our site my application was held, pending a full ecological assessment before I was allowed to touch a tree.

There are some ironies here. The reason the bats are rare is because most of our native woodlands have been razed for agriculture. But while there’s no requirement for farmers to restore any woodland on their fields for bats or other reasons – in fact, under existing regulations, there’s a large disincentive – those of us who take it upon themselves to create more mixed habitats anyway chafe under restrictions arising from this wider neglect.

Eventually, our licence came through. We were told that, if managed carefully, our proposals wouldn’t disadvantage the bats and may even bring them benefits. I’d like to take a lesson from this respectfully back to the person who wrote on this website some years ago that our new woodland planting was of ‘no ecological value’. I think I can now safely demur, with a paper trail from the Forestry Commission as my evidence, for it seems our woodland planting has ecological value vis-à-vis horseshoe bats, at least. But what is ‘ecological value’? And who gets to quantify it? Horseshoe bats? Ash? Hymenoscyphus fraxineus?

Meanwhile, around the same time as our little local horseshoe bat issue was going on it’s possible that, in another part of the world, another species of horseshoe bat was harbouring a virus that jumped over to humans and started laying waste to many of us. It’s started laying waste, too, to many of the established social arrangements through which we’ve come to think of ourselves as creatures quite above the cut and thrust of the ordinary biology affecting other organisms. Workplaces. Salaries. Airlines. Capital. Well-stocked supermarkets.

Where this story ends it’s far too soon to tell, of course. Some say that with Covid-19 nature is sending us a message. I guess that’s true, though I’d add that nature has always been sending us messages, every second, every day. Many of them we don’t need to notice, while some of them we probably should notice when we don’t. Some of them are small and some – like Covid-19 – are big.

I’d also add that while nature may be sending us a message, there are numerous ways we could answer it – and nature doesn’t much care which answer we choose. So my guess is that everyone will find ways to interpret the pandemic as somehow confirmatory of their pre-existing philosophies. For my part, I’m hoping that we’ll hear a little less in the future about the Anthropocene – the notion that humans now condition earth systems so deeply and so one-sidedly to our advantage as a species that we can name a geological era after ourselves. Because what it’s felt like to me this winter as I’ve worked within the woodland is that I’m not a master of my world but a dweller in the land, acting on it according to my designs and being acted on by other organisms according to theirs, whether it’s ash or elder, horseshoe bats or Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, Forestry Commission bureaucrats or a tiny package of invisible RNA that may yet fell me before the year is out as surely as I’ve felled my ash.

Equally, I expect Anthropocene aficionados and enthusiasts for ecomodernism will double down, concluding from the pandemic that humanity needs to further escape its animal constraints – perhaps initially by developing a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 (I’d be with them on that) but ultimately by escaping our embodied, earthbound existence and trafficking with the gods among the byways of the universe (not so much).

I’ve learned there’s little point in arguing with these dreamers, but I hope the pandemic might make a few folks otherwise apt to fall for their siren song pause and take stock. Humans are mighty architects of nature for sure, but so are other organisms – and maybe we’d do better to find a seat at the table alongside them, rather than scorning their presence. In the longer term, I think it might help us find that seat if one message we take from Covid-19 is along the lines of Rob Wallace’s writings on agribusiness and the political economy of disease that people were discussing under my last post – writings that point, I think, to a small farm future.

Ultimately, the song of nature is call and response. It’s a collective game of gambits and counter-gambits that doesn’t have much truck with uppity soloists. So while I half agree with this website’s go-to agronomist Andy McGuire that there’s scarcely such a thing as a ‘balance of nature’, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we humans have no need to seek our own kinds of balance. Maybe chainsaws but not forwarders. Maybe vaccines but not spaceships.

My fallen ash trees now lie piled up in the woodland rides. Soon I plan to cut them, split them and stack them in the woodshed. Some warmth to see me through another winter, I hope, with another set of challenges. More songs, more stories.

For whom the bell tolls: a Small Farm Future COVID-19 special

Since nobody seems to be talking about anything except COVID-19 at the moment I thought I’d join the crowd and, in a change to my published program, write a blog post about the pandemic.

Of course, there’s a lot to be said for the Jürgen Klopp gambit of refusing to talk about things you know nothing about, but I propose to take the opposite tack on the grounds that (1) while indeed I know very little about anything, as the proud owner of a 25 year-old master’s degree in health planning with a quarter-helping of epidemiology in the mix, I humbly submit that I’m at least as well qualified to talk about it as most of the other blowhards who’ve been weighing in online; (2) the outbreak bears directly on many themes of relevance to this blog, and; (3) if the blogosphere was designed only for the dissemination of expert knowledge, it would be a very different beast to its present shape. Possibly a better one, but that’s another story.

So, without further ado, here are Small Farm Future’s five take home (and stay there) messages concerning COVID-19.

1. What if we only ate food from local farms? This was the title of a recent post of mine, in which I critiqued TV botanist James Wong’s view that in this scenario, we’d starve. I argued in that post that if we continue to romanticize global trade we’d be more likely to starve, sooner or later. And now, all of a sudden, sooner seems more of a possibility than later as the precariousness of long global supply chains in the face of even minor system perturbations begins to bite.

True, COVID-19 isn’t directly a food crisis – though it may turn into one if the rather elderly cohort of people still foolishly involved in the underpaid business of growing food for humanity succumbs disproportionately to the virus, or if our much-vaunted ‘just in time’ automated supply chains turn out to be less automated and not quite as in time as we thought. Perhaps the proof of the pudding is in the eating – and on that front our small market garden has been inundated with new customer enquiries in the last week from people who’ve clearly come to a view that local supply mightn’t be such a bad way to go right now.

Good news for us, I guess, except where I live – and where most people live in the rich world – we’re not remotely capable of meeting current food or other needs renewably from local supply at present, in large measure because we’ve resolutely championed the ‘efficiency’ of global supply chains and enthusiastically undermined local land-based skills and infrastructures. Meanwhile, most of us live crowded together in vast cities which can only be kept healthy by large inputs of (fossil) energy – maybe we can ‘self-isolate’ briefly in these circumstances, but not long-term. For numerous reasons long expounded on this blog, long-term we need to create predominantly rural societies that are geared to renewably skimming their local ecological bases. Maybe COVID-19 might prove the shot across the bows we need in this respect?

Like many long-term advocates of such localization I’ve had to put up with a certain amount of scorn over the years for my errant views. I don’t want to peddle too much reverse scorn right now, and I want to do what I can personally to help see us all through this crisis. But I’m hoping that COVID-19 might encourage some folks to be a little more open-minded about small farm localism in the future. What if we only ate food from local farms? Maybe James Wong might now consider amending his tweet thus: “We’d starve – it’s as simple as that. So let’s see what we can do to rebuild local agricultures.”

2. Follow the money. After the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease, the government introduced strict containment legislation that outlawed feeding livestock anything that had been in a kitchen, however it was treated, apparently on the grounds of potential contamination from imported food bearing the infection. A more reasonable and energy-efficient policy would surely have been to accept the low possibility of infection by this route, promote good biosecurity and contain local outbreaks (which would be easier with local foodsheds and farm infrastructures). I can’t help feeling that this didn’t happen because the more stringent policy created financial benefits for large-scale meat exporters, fodder producers, middlemen and tax collectors, while the main losers were small-scale farmers with no political voice.

Then with COVID-19 the government’s initial response was the exact opposite – it’s going to be endemic, so let’s not overdo containment and isolation, but build herd immunity through letting the infection run its course. The problem with this is that it meant a lot more people would probably die, and that health services would be overwhelmed. When this became apparent, the government dramatically changed tack and adopted drastic containment – but probably not soon enough to avoid deaths that seem preventable had they been more willing to learn from other countries. Herd immunity is hard to sell to the herd when it means a significant proportion of its loved ones will die. And whereas small farmers don’t have much political voice (livestock even less), the human herd does still have some call on political decision-making.

While the government chose the opposite strategy in the two cases, the common thread is that both were the options that least disturbed the economy’s capital-accumulating dynamo, despite the negative human impacts – minor in the former case, probably major in the second. Of course, these decisions are difficult, and a smooth-running global economy is itself a human benefit – though to some people far more than others. Ultimately, though, what seems to have happened in this crisis is, to put it crudely, that human society has trumped the human economy. I think the consequences could be profound, and I hope people will notice this and try to work it through.

***Addendum: farming minister George Eustice has just warned that “buying more than you need means others may be left without”, neatly encapsulating a universal truth that goes curiously unrecognized in orthodox economic theory and in the standard case for the superiority of the capitalist political economy undergirded by private market solutions. Eustice’s easy distinction between needs and wants as something that’s apparently self-evident is worth cutting out and keeping for when the orthodoxy has regained the confidence to reassert itself ***

3. OK, boomer – our problems are structural. Coincidentally, just as the discussion under my last post on population highlighted the point that a considerable part of our ‘over-population’ problem stems not from the fact that too many babies are being born but from the fact that people are living to much older ages, here comes a disease that disproportionately fells the elderly. At the same time, as William Davies has elegantly argued, trends in employment and property prices in the rich countries have effectively created a class divide between entitled older generations and disinherited younger ones. Generationally, compared to a fiftysomething like me, I’d say people coming into adulthood today have a rougher time of it than I did (yes, I know the world is supposed to be getting better and better all the time, but that’s another chart-topper I’ve never been able to dance to).

I’ve seen a bit of online schadenfreude at the plight of the elderly with respect to COVID-19 – not especially pretty, yet maybe understandable in small doses in the light of these generational inequalities. Clearly, though, moving wealth down the generations a little sooner than it might otherwise have happened doesn’t materially alter the nature of our class divisions. Which underscores another point I took some pains to make in my previous post – we badly need to stop thinking about the problems we face as aggregates of our individual decisions and behaviours, and think about emergent system structures instead. Our ecological problems won’t be inherently eased by a smaller population. Our economic problems won’t be inherently eased by old, rich people dying sooner. And so on. Please.

4. Will the real tough-talking politicians stand up? In recent years, global politics has thrown up a series of divisive, showboating, self-aggrandizing politicians who talk tough to camera – Donald Trump and Boris Johnson to name but two. To me they seem like media constructions who lack the moral fibre to deserve to be called ‘tough’. Real toughness involves telling citizens hard truths they may not want to hear, but empathically, organizational ability and shouldering responsibility rather than trying to offload blame onto ‘Chinese viruses’ and the like. But maybe that’s just me. If figures like Trump and Johnson manage to bluster their way through a crisis like this with their popularity intact, I think it’ll be time for me to give up and tend my own garden … well, I hope to tend it either way, but you know what I mean. But maybe a silver lining of COVID-19 might be that the tangible physical crisis prompts a rethink among electorates about the kind of people we want leading us, and the kind of issues we need them to confront.

5. No wo/man is an island. This is a time when I think we’d do well to remember John Donne’s ageless wisdom: “No man is an island, entire of itself … Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

But how we best enact this is more open to question. Inevitably, many of us will see in COVID-19 the mirror of our preferred politics – as in those right-wing commentators pointing to the empty supermarket shelves and economic misery as exemplary warnings of what would happen under socialist or green regimes, while ignoring that, actually, they’ve happened under right-wing, capitalist ones. But I’m no exception. I think the crisis underscores that old saw of green politics – ‘think global, act local’. The first part is maybe easier – no more talk of ‘Chinese viruses’ – but the acting locally raises intriguing issues. In times of crisis, especially in urban situations, a lot of the usual individualist concerns drop away and people create ingenious new commons to get by, ‘paradises built in hell’ in the resonant phrase of Rebecca Solnit. But I’d argue the longer and larger task is to dwell less on this transient commoning and focus instead on building the conditions in which people can create their own livelihoods renewably and locally as individuals-in-communities. So we need a sense of subsidiarity from the global to the local and thence to the household and the individual. More on that shortly…

Well, more on that shortly, I hope. If I don’t make it through the epidemic, let me just say that it’s been a pleasure writing this blog over the years and interacting with its readers. Santé!

The population problem problem

A while ago I wrote a post probing critically at the idea that human population levels were at the root of our contemporary environmental problems. It prompted various critical responses in turn, including this one from Alan Ware and Dave Gardner of World Population Balance that’s only just come to my attention. They published it so long ago that I suppose the moment to engage with it has probably passed, except that it’s helped me clarify a few thoughts – as has a recent article by Meehan Crist in the London Review of Books1. Since the issues involved are still very much with us, it seems worth wading into the population question once again, this time through the lens of the critique levelled by Ware and Gardner (henceforth WG) at my original post.

I mischievously titled that original post “Population – what’s the problem?”, not necessarily to suggest that population isn’t a problem but to question what kind of problem it is. On this score, WG have no doubts – for them, it’s an “existential problem”. They proceed to substantiate this, as do many analysts on the topic, mostly by asserting very emphatically that it is a problem, sometimes invoking the emphatic assertions of others, especially those most respected of others, ‘scientists’. These scientists include the World scientists’ warning to humanity and other works co-authored by Eileen Crist. Seems like you need to be called Crist to weigh in on this debate.

Ah well, I almost qualify – and for my part, notwithstanding all these assertions, I’d say that inasmuch as population is a problem it seems to me a secondary problem that’s derivative of other, deeper ones. But perhaps what’s of most interest here is not who’s right or wrong so much as how we frame the issues. You can frame them in such a way as to suggest that population indeed is the fundamental problem, or you can frame them otherwise. These different framings invoke different understandings of how the world operates and point to different policy or political conclusions. I think that WG’s approach, like most approaches that frame ‘over-population’ as the fundamental problem, points to policies that will have little impact on the resource depletion, species extinction, poverty and climate change issues they (and I) care about, and to a fanciful and troubling politics. Of course, this itself is a framing that others will no doubt question – but at least then we get closer to the issues dividing us.

One of WG’s main points of substance is that choosing not to have a child is, in a ‘developed’ country, the most effective way of reducing one’s carbon emissions. Citing a study from Lund University, they say that this is over seven times more effective than various other ‘green’ measures (like not flying) combined. That study draws on an earlier one2 which, if I understand it correctly (and it’s possible I don’t), assumes that carbon emissions will be fixed in the future at 2005 levels – the two studies then effectively attribute proportionately to parents in a generation G1 all these fixed-rate future emissions generated by all subsequent generations G1+n in an exponential decay function.

Well, no doubt there’s a logic to doing that. After all, if nobody had any children, then human impacts on earth systems would soon cease, so indeed all future impacts in some sense are attributable to parents. Following that logic, it’s hardly surprising that the choice to have a child weighs heavily on an individual’s impact in the study results. But to me, it’s a strange logic. Though it’s no doubt intended to inform decision-making at the margin in any given generation, to avoid multiple counting it surely must assume that the emissions and by implication wider behaviours of all G1+n generations are zero, according them no responsibility of their own, but only their parents or grand+ parents for birthing them or their forebears.

Conceptually, this approach rests on a strong methodological individualism – everything that happens must be regarded as only the sum of individual choices. Historically, it’s anachronistic, because it’s clear that if humanity is still around in a century or two then one way or another it won’t be burning significant fossil fuels, causing further major species declines and so forth. And spiritually and philosophically, the approach seems like a kind of inverted original sin whose logic surely terminates in the notion that humans should seek voluntary extinction through non-procreation to avoid the weight of later generations’ trespasses. The Lund authors note that none of the school textbooks they consulted mentioned having fewer children as a way to reduce emissions – a good thing in my opinion, since confusing the fact that a person has impacts with the idea that a person is an impact has potentially disastrous political consequences.

Let me propose another approach, which I think is suggested in the graph below. This plots global population, energy use, CO2 emissions, and real GDP year on year from 1972-2014 as ratios relative to the base year of 1971 (I calculated this from the World Development Indicators, which only have complete data for these four variables from 1971-2014).

The graph shows the three other variables of interest rising relatively faster than population. GDP shows the greatest relative increase – more than energy use or emissions, possibly suggestive of the decreasing energy intensity of the economy (‘relative decoupling’), or of the increasing dematerialization of our modern, fictitious money economy. But both energy and emissions are still rising in absolute terms, faster than population. The kink in 2008-9 of course indicates the economic crisis of those years, which was immediately reflected in lower energy use and lower emissions, but unsurprisingly was not reflected in a lower population.

I think the graph is prima facie evidence that there’s a dynamic of growth in our modern global society which is not fundamentally driven by, or necessarily responsive to, population growth. And given that it’s generally reckoned we need to reduce emissions to net zero by around 2070 to avoid catastrophic climate change, I’d also suggest that seeking population reduction isn’t the priority place to look. Not that we shouldn’t look there at all, as WG mistakenly accuse me of saying, just that it’s not the priority place to look. A similar point is made in a paper by Corey Bradshaw and Barry Brook, who state “over the next century at least, our largest and most immediate gains in sustainability will necessarily come from reductions in per capita consumption, whereas the benefits of fertility reduction will improve humanity’s prospects cumulatively over the long term.”3

Bradshaw and Brook’s fingering of consumption gets closer to the issue, but I’d suggest the real force that underlies the growth dynamic depicted in the graph and that overdrives population increase – the force I’m tempted to call the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about – is the global capitalist economy, as I mentioned in my original post. Increased per capita carbon emissions and energy use above population increase are the material trace of a capitalist growth dynamic.

If those energy and carbon trend lines were just the dependent outcome of consumer choice summed across our human billions, as WG suppose, there’d be a better case for emphasizing fertility reduction. But there’s a systemic logic to capital increase that goes beyond individual consumption decisions. In a capitalist system, capital needs to grow – that GDP line pretty much has to follow the course it does, and the emissions and energy lines pretty much have to trail after it.

Therefore, I question the notion that reduced fertility equates to reduced impact. It feels right, because if you choose not to have a child then, very tangibly, you’re aware of the food that this non-person is not eating, the journeys and flights they’re not making and so on. Yet the capitalist economy still has to grow. It’ll just have to find another way of doing it than monetizing your non-child – and it does.

I think WG effectively admit this when they write “The UN estimates that by 2050 we’ll have to increase food production 60% over 2009 levels in order to meet the demands of our swelling population.” They don’t give a citation, but I assume this is a variant of the ‘70% food increase by 2050’ factoid that’s been doing the rounds for years. Since even the highest projections of global population increase over the 2009-2050 period suggest it’ll be less than 60%, you could be forgiven for wondering where these 60% or 70% figures come from. The truth is they’re pretty misleading. All the same, in the unlikely event that the global capitalist economy is still happily growing by 2050 (at which point it’ll have to be over twice the size of today’s global economy), it’s possible that humanity indeed will be ‘demanding’ 60-70% more food by value than in 2009, because the ability of all that extra global wealth to command the production of beef, salmon, prawns, tuna, coffee, wine, palm oil and so on will be prodigious. One study has estimated that the highest additional demand for land globally by 2030 breaks down reasonably evenly between cropland, industrial forestry, biofuel production, grazing, urban expansion and land degradation4. A good deal of that, I’d suggest, is driven less by ‘the demands of our swelling population’ and more by the demands of our economy to swell.

WG’s position on all this strikes me as inadequate. They write:

“We’ve so far NOT demonstrated a willingness to consume less and reject the worship of economic growth in the interest of stabilizing the climate or preventing further destruction of ecosystems. This doesn’t mean we should give up on this solution. But it also doesn’t mean we should ignore a solution we HAVE demonstrated a willingness to do — choosing smaller families.”

No, we shouldn’t ignore it. But if my framing above is correct, then only directly rejecting boundary-busting economic growth can do the heavy work of lowering humanity’s ecological impact. Choosing smaller families doesn’t cut it. And here, I think it’s necessary to probe further into the ‘we’ that WG say are unwilling to consume less. It’s inherent to the nature of the growth-seeking capitalist economy to co-opt or destroy other, non-growth forms of economic organization, whether this takes the form of planning laws, property prices, land expropriations or the Bay of Pigs invasion. Uneven development is also inherent to the growth economy – it requires poor people and poor countries, even if it holds out the promise of making them a little less poor. The result of all this is that few of us have any option but to participate in the capitalist growth economy. And if we have to participate, who wouldn’t choose if they could to be a beef-eating wine drinker rather than a rice-eating helot? WG invoke a story of ourselves as consumers, wanting more stuff. And, sure, if that’s the only route to provisioning ourselves that the political economy allows, it’s not surprising that ‘we’ mostly want to be as prosperous a consumer as it’s possible to be. But this doesn’t begin to tell the story of what human lives are about or where our willingness might take us.

In the longer run, as Bradshaw and Brook quoted above suggest, there’s certainly a case for promoting reduced fertility. However, I’m doubtful it will culminate in this cornucopia that WG conjure up: “An average family size of one-child per couple for 100 years could lead to what some experts posit as a sustainable population of around 2 billion people living at a European standard of living.” No society has yet managed a modern European standard of living without (1) a vast and unsustainable fossil-fuelled energy economy, and (2) a history of colonial expropriation and neocolonial labour exploitation to the disbenefit of other non-European people living at lower standards of living. This positing of the experts surely belongs in the realms of idle speculation.

One of the ironies of the whole overheated population debate is that actually there’s not much disagreement on the policy practicalities – it’s widely accepted that everyone should be able to have voluntary control of their own fertility. But that’s already pretty much the reality in the rich, low-fertility countries that are largely driving the ecocidal global economy. Where these interventions are most needed is in poor, high-fertility countries that largely aren’t driving it – though it’s further complicated by poverty traps that encourage high fertility. In these contexts, WG’s world of just two billion people, living extravagantly consumerist lives of the modern European variety, and promoted by an organization that claims “overpopulation” is the root cause of poverty, all starts sounding slightly creepy to me. As Meehan Crist puts it:

“Listen closely to rights-based strategies to reduce carbon emissions through increased access to contraception and family planning. These strategies almost always involve black and brown women in developing countries having fewer babies. There is, of course, an unmet need for reproductive care and birth control in these countries, but we should be deeply sceptical of climate solutions that place the burden of solving the problem on women’s bodies, particularly the bodies of poor black and brown women, while demanding very little of those who actually caused the problem.”

Indeed, solving the global problems caused by humanity – and mostly by a small subset of it – is more than a numbers game. Which is why I see little merit in WG’s question to me – “Is he arguing for us to stabilize our population at today’s totally unsustainable level of 7.6 billion?” There’s no cutoff point or carrying capacity at which human numbers suddenly become ‘sustainable’. There are people, there are impacts, and there’s a relation between the two, which is fuzzy at best. It’s unlikely that the human population would have reached 7.6 billion in the absence of a modern global civilization that strains the planetary capacity to sustain it, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that a population of 7.6 billion is inherently ‘unsustainable’. It depends what we’re trying to sustain. If, as I’ve long argued here, it’s small farm societies of widely shared land access oriented to skimming their local ecological base, then we could sustain a lot more people than seems likely under present extremes of global wealth and poverty. Undoubtedly, we’d be in a better position if the population were smaller – particularly the population of the richer countries. Undoubtedly, voluntary fertility reduction is in principle a good idea. But it’s not a high-impact way of reducing humanity’s high impact, and it potentially leads us into political mischief if we claim that it does.

Meehan Crist points out in her article the enthusiastic embrace of carbon footprinting by the fossil fuel companies. While lobbying hard to keep extracting, and dragging their feet over climate science, the narrative that environmental impact is a matter of individual lifestyle choice in which we all need to do our bit suits them well, helping them to duck their own responsibilities. Ultimately, though, the responsibility rests at the level of an economic system which encourages this phoniness. Even so, as well as the phoniness, I feel the force of that personal responsibility narrative. As – full disclosure – a parent of four, I’ve long wrestled with my personal culpability in this area, and the many others in which as a wealthy westerner I impact the biosphere. Maybe someone reading this will conclude I’m irredeemable, and this post mere self-justification. Yet before I was a parent I was an anthropologist, and like most of my tribe I find the idea of emergent systems, not methodological individualism, a better fit with how the world works. So while as individuals, as consumers, as parents or as non-parents, we agonize and sermonize over our own and others’ lifestyle choices, the oil companies will keep lobbying, and the GDP and emissions lines will keep tracking upwards until we reach a point of reckoning when the size of the human population or how many children anyone has will be the last of our concerns.

 

Notes

1. Meehan Crist. 2020. ‘Is it OK to have a child?’ London Review of Books. 5 March.

2. Paul Murtaugh and Michael Schlax. 2009. ‘Reproduction and the carbon legacies of individuals’. Global Environmental Change 19: 14-20.

3. Corey Bradshaw and Barry Brook. 2015. ‘Reply to O’Neill et al and O’Sullivan: Fertility reduction will help, but only in the long-term’. PNAS 112, 6: E508-9. (My thanks to Jahi Chappell for this one).

4. Eric Lambin and Patrick Meyfroidt. 2011. ‘Global land use change, economic globalization and the looming land scarcity’. PNAS 108, 9: 3465-72.

What if we only ate food from local farms?

“We would die from starvation. It’s that simple.” Or so TV botanist James Wong recently tweeted in response to the title question, taken from a BBC feature. In this post I’m going to make the case that we wouldn’t, that it isn’t simple, and that in fact our chances of starving are probably higher – albeit in some quite unsimple ways – if we don’t start eating more food from local farms.

A good many of the comments under James’s tweet rehearsed various misconceptions about local food, so in a change to my intended programme I feel the need to put another side to the story in this post. If what I write here whets your appetite, so to speak, I cover these points in more detail in my forthcoming book, A Small Farm Future.

So…to answer the opening question, it’s necessary for some definitions – who is ‘we’, and what exactly does ‘local’ mean? Many of the commenters under James’s tweet took the question to mean ‘what if we, the inhabitants of Britain, only ate food that was grown in the country?’ which seems a reasonable starting point. If ‘we’, so defined, had to do this tomorrow, we’d probably struggle. But to me, the larger question is could we do it if we wanted to, given time to prepare?

Various commenters invoked the lessons of history in support of James’s assertion, correctly pointing out that Britain hasn’t been self-sufficient in food for two centuries. But what this tells us is that self-reliance hasn’t been a priority of national food policy over that period, not that it’s impossible. This raises the interesting question of why that’s so and whether it might change in the future, points I’ll come to shortly. First, though, it’s worth asking whether Britain could conceivably feed itself if it so wished.

Under current conditions, the answer seems to me a pretty clear yes. In 2018, the UK grew 13.5 million tonnes of wheat and 3.2 million tonnes of potatoes for human consumption on an area that amounted to about 31% of its arable land and 10% of its total farmland. Those two crops alone provide more than enough protein to meet the daily recommended amount for all of Britain’s 66.4 million people over a whole year, and about 85% of recommended calorific intake. It would be easy enough to meet the remaining 15% from crops on the rest of the farmland, or by expanding wheat and potato production a little.

We can make more stringent assumptions and still attain self-sufficiency. Suppose we grew wheat and potatoes organically without high-energy fertilizer inputs. If we assume rock-bottom-of-the-range organic wheat yields of 2.5 tonnes per hectare and organic potato yields of 20 tonnes per hectare (the corresponding figures for conventional crops currently are about 8 t/ha and 45 t/ha respectively) then we could meet the UK population’s total energy and protein needs even with these low yields on just 75% of the country’s current arable farmland area.

A diet comprising solely wheat and potatoes might sound grim, but bear in mind we’re feeding the entire population’s macronutrient needs from them on less than 20% of the country’s land area even assuming super-low yields. That gives a lot of space – all those pastures, orchards, gardens, allotments, city farms and all the rest of it – to lively up our diet with more variety. However hard it might be for us to shift to food self-reliance, the reason isn’t agricultural carrying capacity.

Commenters under James’s tweet raised various other objections to the possibility of British food self-reliance, but they mostly seemed to me exercises in whataboutery that missed their target. For example:

What about the war – Britain wasn’t even food self-reliant in the 1940s when the pressure was on and the incentive for it was sky-high. The main pressure that was on during the war was to win it. Improving national food self-reliance was an important but subsidiary goal to that overriding objective. With a vast amount of resource and labour devoted directly or indirectly to fighting, it’s hardly surprising that we failed to achieve food self-sufficiency.

What about the winter, when food is scarce? Seasons are pretty predictable, at least for now. So if you’re not importing food you can plan ahead. With modern refrigeration and other highfaluting, energy-intensive methods this is a doddle. Even without it, our forebears have bequeathed us numerous cunning techniques: canning, salting, smoking, clamping, drying, pickling and … remember Lent? … fasting. If all else fails, we can even grow Hungry Gap kale.

What about staples like oranges and coffee – we simply can’t grow them here. True. But they’re not staples. I’d sure miss coffee though. Next.

What about the Irish potato famine – national food self-reliance didn’t work out too well there! There’s a long answer to this, and a short answer. The short answer is that famines are rarely just about an absolute lack of food, and invariably involve questions of social entitlement – a view famously articulated by Amartya Sen in his book Poverty and Famines. When a famine strikes, look first at what’s going on socially and politically, not at the Malthusian equation of crop yields and mouths to feed.

OK, but what about major crop failures and poor seasons – you can’t always provide for your needs locally in the face of these fluctuations. Farming systems oriented to self-reliance build in resilience to crop failure, and most of them can survive a year or two of bad harvests pretty easily, except in situations like 1840s Ireland when people are forced into monocropping on tiny plots. But it’s true that markets for non-local food can sometimes be a boon in times of dearth. A couple of points to bear in mind here, though. First, money can buy you food, but only if you have money, so again we need to look at social entitlements. And second, if it’s not too obvious to say it, money doesn’t actually create food, so it’s unwise to assume that access to the former guarantees access to the latter. True, money can incentivize people to create food and sell it, but only under certain circumstances and in the face of various constraints. The more that we attend to securing our food needs locally under our own power, the less vulnerable we are to these circumstances and constraints outside our control.

oOo

Some further thoughts to close on these issues of food supply and money. Going back to the objection that Britain hasn’t been food self-reliant for two centuries, the missing piece in this puzzle is money. In the 19th century, Britain could buy grain more cheaply from abroad than it could produce it at home … and it had plenty of money, because all those people who weren’t farming were toiling in factories. But with transport and communications being what they were back then, we grew most of our own fruit and vegetables. Nowadays, the situation is reversed. We’re more or less self-sufficient in grain, but import a large proportion of our fruit and vegetables – essentially because grain is more fuel-intensive to grow whereas fruit and veg are more labour-intensive, and the relative prices of fuel and labour in Britain currently favour the former. Britain’s lack of food self-reliance over the last couple of centuries has a lot to do with price signals, and nothing much to do with ecological carrying capacity.

But things can change. Most countries are net importers of energy. Most of the world’s bread-basket regions are threatened by climate change and water scarcity. We need to stop using fossil fuels. While small, wealthy countries can at present pick and choose where to obtain their food on global markets, there is not – to paraphrase a former British prime minister – a magic global food surplus tree that will keep on providing for everybody so long as we water it with money. We’re so often enjoined nowadays not to romanticize the ability of peasant societies and local agricultures to achieve self-reliance. I think we’d be better off not romanticizing the ability of market trade to continue buying us out of food self-reliance. But if we do keep romanticizing global food trade, I think we’re far more likely to starve, sooner or later. This is for a number of reasons, including the fact that relying on a global food commodity system that responds to short-term price signals (driven mostly by cheap fossil fuel prices) and not long-term biophysical signals like a heating climate incentivizes practices that damage agroecosystems and earth systems. Meanwhile, cheap global food commodities already undermine local agricultures in places where people lack the economic opportunities to buy themselves out of hunger – more starvation.

So, if you’re rich enough to think about these things, I’d commend the opening question as a handy personal resilience health-checker. Are there farms and gardens within walking distance of where you live that can provide for all your food needs, and those of all the other local residents? More to the point if you’re not yourself a farmer or a grower, are there people within walking distance of where you live who are likely to be willing to provide for your food needs in future scenarios of energy, climate or economic turbulence? If not, perhaps you might start buying more from local farms in order to help stimulate the better local supply that you need, or even better become a local farmer yourself. Or move to where your answer to that question could conceivably be ‘yes’. It seems likely that in the coming decades a lot of people will be on the move, looking for places that can service their food needs in a climate-challenged and energy-constrained world. Might as well get going now…

Down the toilet…

Still mired as I am in book editing, I’m not finding the time to engage with this blog as I wish. Hopefully, that’ll change soon. But I feel the need to make a brief appearance here today to mark Britain’s exit from the European Union – and, not unconnectedly, to talk about toilets.

Moves have been afoot for a ‘Big Ben bong’ at midnight tonight to celebrate our ‘independence’ from the EU, with a crowdfunder to expedite the repair and refurbishment of the clock in time for the big moment. I always thought a bong was something for smoking intoxicating substances in cafés – which is kind of appropriate, because a lot of people probably won’t have much else to do but sit around and take their mind off things once Brexonomics bites. But the appeal didn’t raise enough money, and permission to ring the bell was refused by the Houses of Parliament anyway. Somehow I can’t help seeing this as an omen for Brexit: the icon of British sovereignty is broken and in need of repairs, not enough people care enough to pay for them, and in any case the repairs are stymied by bureaucratic nay-saying of the kind we were supposed to have overcome by leaving the EU.

This is always the way with nationalism. The unities and resolutions it asserts never quite work, because the underlying story is always more complicated. Fintan O’Toole – whose acerbic Brexit commentaries have consistently hit the nail on the head for me – puts it like this:

“There is no doubt that Brexit has worked in the way that nationalist movements try to – it has united people across great divides of social class and geography in the name of a transcendent identity …. But the problem is that this unity of national purpose functions within a nation that does not actually exist: non-metropolitan England and parts of English-speaking Wales. And it is purchased at the very high price of creating much deeper divisions between England-without-London and the rest of the British-Irish archipelago.”

The opportunity in this is that it could ultimately weaken Westminster’s grip on the country – most strongly at first in Scotland and Ireland, but eventually in England and Wales too. Once the scent of secession is in the nostrils, there’s no telling where it might end – possibly in those parts of pro-Brexit, non-metropolitan England having to take full responsibility for their own wellbeing. I’m not sure that’s what they were voting for, but in the long run it may well be what people are going to have to do across the world in the face of our numerous economic and environmental problems. So … Brexit … hell yeah, why not? Let’s start practicing. The Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, here we come.

Actually, I don’t think Brexit is a secession so much as what I’ve called elsewhere a supersedure. Britain has left ‘Europe’ but is still part of it, just as the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex would still be part of a larger polity. So, much as I’d have preferred to avoid the numerous absurdities of Brexit, I think it’ll prove an interesting experiment in what’s to come. Not least because the EU has long been an exclusive club to which other countries have desperately sought entry. I think we’re about to find out why.

What’s to come agriculturally looks like the ending of per acre subsidies for landowners, with public money paid only for delivering ‘ecosystem services’. Which is great, except that since there’s no commitment to national food self-reliance, we’re also set for agricultural trade deals on probably disadvantageous terms – certainly for the average farmer. Expect more farm closures, lots of nature-friendly rewilding at home, and cheap, nature-unfriendly food from abroad … while we can still pay for it.

Still, who cares? We’re sitting pretty on our farm. The outlook for UK veg growers is good, we’re not reliant on subsidies, and we’ve already made considerable strides towards supersedure. For example, our compost toilets save us from wasting water or fertility that we can furnish ourselves, ultimately saving us money that we probably soon won’t have as the rest of the world carves up lonely and vulnerable little Britain. It started with voting for Brexit. It’ll end with townsfolk spreading over the countryside and carefully composting their shit. Welcome to my world. Well, there are worse ways to live. At least when I look down the toilet I know that, however feeble my other accomplishments, I’ve made some kind of solid contribution.

But never let it be said that here at Vallis Veg we hoard our riches at the expense of others. The wisdom of our accumulated compost toilet experience is now available to you in our online course, where you’ll be safe in the hands of our resident toilet expert, my dear wife Cordelia. It’s her show and not mine, but if you look very closely you may just catch a glimpse of some of my dodgy plumbing. The good news is, you get the first seven minutes – in which Cordelia explains how to supersede yourself just a little bit from the capitalist system – absolutely free. And the rest for a mere £45 …which I guarantee we won’t spend on bongs, of any description.

Of chancers and last-chancers

Time for me to arise from my book-editing duties and offer belated new year wishes from Small Farm Future. Already, it’s been a year of reversals. The year when the USA finally stopped just chasing after rogue states and actually became one. The year when the UK decided its best option for economic renewal was to ape Singapore – forgetting not only that Singapore achieved economic renewal by aping Britain, but also unfortunately that Singapore aping Britain has a brighter look about it than Britain aping Singapore aping Britain. It’s also the year when the British police classified Extinction Rebellion as an extremist organization and urged state employees to exercise vigilance in the face of people “speaking in strong or emotive terms about environmental issues like climate change”. Truly, the lunatics are running the asylum.

Another reversal, though perhaps not so unexpected, is that it’s the year in which the celebrated campaigner and journalist George Monbiot seems to have finally gone full ecomodernist, embracing the case for humanity to abandon farming and embrace lab-grown, ‘farm-free’ food.

I posted on this a while back in response to an early shot across the bows from George about the direction he was travelling. The discussion under that post was one of the most erudite, informed and wide-ranging ones there’s ever been on my site, most likely because I played little part in it. So I don’t plan to cover the same ground. As I’ve often said about George in the past, since he’s just about the only radical left-green voice widely heard in the British media, I try not to get too infuriated when he takes positions with which I disagree. But jeepers, it’s getting harder. This post is probably my last throw of that particular dice.

I’ll skip the technicalities of George’s surely unproven case that farm-free food stacks up on energetic or health grounds, something that prompted a fascinating discussion under my previous post. I’ll skip too making the case for the ‘extensive farming’ that George casually dismisses as being worse than intensive farming on the basis of a paper from the ur-ecomodernists of the Breakthrough Institute, who only a few years ago he was criticizing for their criticisms of extensive farming. Though I must say in passing that it’s not a great look to found an argument for junking the entire historic basis of human provisioning on the authority of a hardly disinterested paper which draws its data from another paper which draws its data from a handful of LCAs of current practices with only a couple of data points seemingly aligning with the anti-extensive view.

The more troubling issue for me is the implicit convergence of George’s position towards forms of what some have bluntly labelled ecofascism. Again, he was vigorously and rightly contesting such views only recently when Steven Pinker mischaracterized the environmental movement for being “laced with misanthropy”, indulging in “ghoulish fantasies of a depopulated planet” and “Nazi-like comparisons of human beings to vermin”. There are too many issues to unpick here. I guess right now I just want to say two things. First, historically, getting people out of farming has rarely ended well for the ex-farmers, and there are more farmers in the world than any other single job. And second, making people mere spectators of the natural world is unlikely to do either people or the natural world a long-term favour. George’s plan for sparing nature is self-defeating.

But what I really want to explore is why George has ended up where he has, and to do that I’d like to offer the following nature spotters’ guide to the ecomodernists, which my recent research has established come in four distinct sub-species.

The Old Timers: long ago, in more innocent days, talking up the capacity to find market and high-tech solutions to emerging environmental problems was no doubt an alternative view to the countercultural zeal of Schumacher et al that was worth making. So let us bear no grudges against the likes of Julian Simon or Wilfred Beckerman. But, guys, what a monster you spawned…

The Rogue Males: Sometimes people get on a train of thought that takes them way beyond their anticipated destination. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s good to stay fresh and skeptically enquiring. But it’s also easy to succumb to your own sales patter or hero narrative. This is a particular danger for smart, charismatic males as they age. Take a bow, Stewart Brand.

The Chancers: the bread-and-butter ecomodernists of today are polemicists for capitalism-as-usual and high-tech solutionism who increasingly clearly are flogging a dead horse. They often get accused of being industry shills, a matter on which I couldn’t comment. Maybe it’s more likely that they’re shilling for their own industry, which is writing benedictory books about how everything will be fine and we just all need to carry on doing what we’re doing. Their work is occasionally illuminating but one-sided to the point of dishonesty, as is usually revealed by the fatuous insults they direct at their critics: Marxist, Luddite, primitivist, romantic etc. In my experience, it can be scary when faced with a herd of such chancers braying these words at you – but in truth they’re flighty beasts who can easily be dispatched by shouting “absolute decoupling” very loudly.

The Last-Chancers: the gentlest members of the ecomodernist bestiary, these are people who have looked long and hard at the future to which we’re hurtling and got very, very scared. They’ve spent a lot of time trying to warn us about this wolf at our door, only to find that not only do we treat their prophecies with indifference but we’ve actually welcomed the wolf in and installed him in the White House and No.10. Understandably, they’ve now given up on prophecies and politics and are desperately clutching at whatever darned thing they think might just conceivably save us in the last chance saloon we now inhabit – nuclear power, lab-grown eco-gloop or whatever.

My theory is that George has become a last-chancer, perhaps with a dash of rogue male thrown in. I sympathize, but I don’t think it’ll work. It certainly won’t work without a detailed plan of how you transcend the moment of ecomodernist salvation and institute a steadier state ecological economy in its aftermath, which the last-chancers don’t seem to do – perhaps because it would have the self-undermining result of drawing them back into politics.

So, however improbable, it seems to me that the only things that will save us are two of the oldest human trades: farming and politics. I plan to keep nailing my colours to those masts.

But I do have a Plan B if George’s vision succeeds. In that eventuality, I’m going to slip the fence of his urban dystopia with my sheep, find a pleasant grassy spot somewhere, and make my living as a mammal and a farmer, surrounded by other wild creatures.

Meanwhile, at some point soon I might have to withdraw my props for George and attach them to someone like Vaclav Smil – an energy analyst who seems to be travelling in the opposite direction, from fossil fueled eco-scepticism to a more somber take on humanity’s future, including our invariably misplaced enthusiasm for sunrise technologies to save us from bad politics and bad culture.

Happy holidays – but not TOO happy, please

And so another year of blog posts comes to an end. It’s been a rather sparse one, I fear, with a mere sixteen posts, as compared to my usual output in the 30s and 40s. Well, I have been writing a book – and regrettably I’m still deep in that process, a tale that perhaps I’ll tell another day. So the lean patch is set to continue into next year. But there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

Which brings me to my holiday message. Perusing the small section of current affairs titles in my small-town independent bookshop the other day, I came across a plethora of light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel books: Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism and Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists – all bearing the canonical ecomodernist glad tidings that we’ve never had it so good, and things are only going to get better. What’s with this strange publishing phenomenon? I wouldn’t mind seeing the odd such volume on the shelves as a counterweight to the general doominess of our times, but this doominess scarcely seems to have made it into mass non-fiction. On the face of it, the way these kind of books are cornering the market in popular futurology would make you think that after years of misery we’re on the brink of a golden age.

The face of it isn’t the right place to look, though. Human orneriness being what it is, well-grounded presentiments that the good times are about to end seem to have spawned a thriving market for latter-day prophets to reassure us otherwise. And where there’s a market for people’s hopes, there’s sure to be a crowded field of hucksters ready to tell them what they want to hear – spirit mediums or Harvard psychology professors, hearing voices from beyond the grave or divining future plenty from graphed data (on this latter point, Jessica Riskin has recently published one of the better critiques of Steven Pinker’s screed, in which she emphasizes Enlightenment as self-critique – an uncomfortable message that doubtless we’d all do well to heed. A bonus of her analysis is that she’s one of the few people writing about the Enlightenment these days who actually knows something about the Enlightenment).

Perhaps part of the problem here is our modern emphasis on the importance of that fleeting emotion, happiness. So often nowadays, we’re told that people want upbeat narratives and happy endings, not doom and gloom. Which of course is what ecomodernism provides in spades. There’s a double irony here, since the notion that people want upbeat narratives seems to be something of a modernist affliction, and one that we’d probably be happier without. When we spend too much time or money pursuing ease and simple self-gratification, happiness often eludes us. If, on the other hand, we accept that we won’t always be happy and instead dedicate ourselves to working with other people on difficult long-term projects that motivate us for reasons beyond individual happiness and with uncertain chances of success, then often enough something like happiness bubbles surprisingly upwards out of our actions and interactions.

Ultimately, I’m not sure that people really do just want happy stories or anaesthetics like ecomodernism. But I accept that we do all have a tendency to avoid self-criticism, making us easy prey for those ready to reassure us that modern life does no harm, when it very clearly does. And a tendency to submit to powerful myths that are not easily overturned, such as our modern myths of progress.

Ah well, trying to overturn them and tell a different story is a difficult long-term project to which I’ve dedicated myself. And in doing so I’ve gained a certain amount of happiness along the way, not least through engaging with other people on similar journeys through this blog. But let’s face it, happiness can only get one so far – there are few convincing substitutes for cold, hard cash. And since I’ve dedicated myself so wholeheartedly this year to writing, I’ve come up a bit short in the latter department. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by Mrs Small Farm Future, who’s expecting a bit more small farming and a bit less futuring from me next year.

So you know what I’m going to say. The ‘Donate’ button is top right. I’ll readily admit that I haven’t showered you with bloggerly riches of late, but I’m hoping that the bookshops will be selling at least one volume next year that twists the stick in a different direction to the ecomodernists – if only I can keep up with my lonely literary discipline. To paraphrase Wikipedia – if all my readers in their impressive multitudes were to donate just £2, I’d be able to… I’d be able to… I’d be able to afford the bus fare to my next XR demo, possibly with enough left over to part-fund the trip that would doubtless result to the magistrate’s court. So please dig deep.

Whether you donate or not, I hope to see you here again in the new year, as soon as my other duties permit. In the meantime I wish you happy holidays. Though not, of course, too happy – there are more important things to be getting on with.

Let us eat Brexit

Unfortunately I was too busy to pen an election blogpost prior to the event, but on the upside at least this makes foretelling the result easier – I predict a thumping majority for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party, putting an end to ten years of thin majorities and scrabbling coalitions in British politics.

OK, so I admit that hindsight makes prediction quite a bit easier, but even now a lot of us are still scratching our heads trying to work out what the hell just happened. Ideally, I’d like to avoid adding my voice to the welter of wise-after-the-event opinion-mongering that claims to know exactly what the Labour Party got wrong, and write instead on the implications for my main themes of sustainable localism and agrarianism. But in order to achieve the latter, I think I do need to indulge in a little of the former…

Labour’s erstwhile top brass have blamed the result on their ambiguous stance on Brexit, compared to Johnson’s simplistic ‘let’s get Brexit done’ messaging. Some Labour activists outside the Corbyn faction have called this ‘mendacious nonsense’ and blamed the unpopularity of the leader himself. There’s no denying Corbyn’s low public esteem, but it’s worth further pondering this analysis.

First, it’s not actually an analysis – further steps are needed to explain how voters proceed from personal dislike of Corbyn (“There’s something about his mannerisms” in the words of one Labour-turned-Conservative voter in a depressed, post-industrial erstwhile Labour town) to voting instead for Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (Eton and Oxford), whose congenital disdain for such places and people couldn’t be plainer. But if that’s all there is to it, then at least we can all go home, stop devoting any attention to actual politics, plug in the TV and just give Kelvin and Oti the keys to No.10.

Personally, I think Brexit did have a lot to do with the result – as indeed even the “something about his mannerisms” voter maintained, and as is suggested by the correlations between leave-voting areas in 2016 and Johnson-voting ones in 2019. However, this too requires further analysis. What kind of Brexit Johnson will ‘get done’ remains unclear, but it’s pretty clear that it won’t ‘get done’ on 31 January, and when it’s ‘done’ the situation of struggling voters in Britain’s post-industrial towns will almost certainly be worse. I can’t help feeling that what we were voting for wasn’t any actual Brexit that Johnson has either the power or desire to deliver, but Brexit as a kind of ideal that’s slipped its real-world moorings – Brexit as a dream of autonomy and control regained in an uncertain world, Brexit as analgesic, Brexit as totem. A case of let them eat Brexit.

This is fantastic news for those of us who have other potentially unpalatable political truths to deliver, such as my own conviction that we need to develop a labour-intensive, small farm-based economic localism to see us through our present crises. Forget the agonised political analysis and the enormous difficulties of realizing it. Just give it a vague and upbeat moniker – ‘the transformation’, perhaps – find a useful idiot to promote it in a mainstream party, and talk constantly about how it’ll enable us to take back control. Job done.

Oh, who am I kidding – that’s not how it’d play, is it? What the Conservatives have pulled off is just another variant of a classic right-wing populist heist: deliver some jam-tomorrow message cloaked in nationalist garb aimed at the ‘majority’ working class while demonizing enemies within and without like socialists, immigrants and gypsies, and propagate the message aggressively through the good offices of deep-pocketed patrons and a compliant press run by the same, who are the only people likely to reap any substantial benefit from the result.

Populism of this kind has been one of the more successful politics of modern times (witness the USA, India, Brazil, the Philippines, Hungary, Poland etc.), so there are reasons to think it could be the long-term making of the Conservative Party. But there are also reasons to think otherwise. The government’s hybrid new constituency of well-to-do little Englanders and alienated Brexit ex-Labour voters would be a hard one to hold together long-term even for a popular, able and wily Conservative politician – and I don’t think Johnson is any of those things. After the referendum I wrote that Johnson was largely responsible for packaging up a fantasy Brexit for mass consumption and now needed to be given the leeway to try to deliver the real one. After three years of faff, that hour is now upon us. Honestly, I could have written the same post last week – it wouldn’t have lost much for contemporary relevance.

I’m not sure this will pan out well for Johnson. It seems likely that Britain’s already hollow economy will be further carved out by the EU and the USA on his watch, and it may not be easy to pin the blame on them, particularly the USA, long-term. Likewise the integrity of the UK itself – including the irony that Corbyn’s sympathies for Irish republicanism seem to have strengthened Johnson’s hand, while the latter’s Brexit may well do more for Irish reunification than Sinn Féin ever could. Johnson fancies himself as a Churchill figure, but as he-who-can-no-longer-be-named once said, history repeats itself – the first time as tragedy the second time as farce. Maybe Brexit is Johnson’s World War, and it’ll be followed by an Atlee.

But what kind of Atlee? I think it would be a huge mistake if the Labour Party tacked rightwards as a result of this election. Centrism scarcely got a thumbs up from voters (look what happened to the Lib Dems … or to Dominic Grieve) and the Tories are always likely to be better at muscular nationalist populism than the Labour Party. Also, peering through the absurdities of Britain’s first-past-the-post and multi-national politics, the fact is that Corbyn got a higher proportion of the vote in this election than any Labour leader not called Tony Blair since Neil Kinnock in 1992, and in the 2017 election under his leadership a higher proportion than anyone since Harold Wilson in 1970 – despite levels of media vilification far beyond those that even Kinnock endured. That’s not to say Labour doesn’t need a different approach and a different leader. But I don’t think the lesson of this election is that it needs a more centrist one.

As various commentators have suggested, the Labour Party’s malaise has deep historic roots that long pre-date Corbyn’s tenure, relating to the demise of the organized industrial working-class and its forms of community-building and self-education. What’s now needed to create an electable left populism is longer-term community-building of another kind, promoting locally shared spaces and resources, environmental care and economic autonomy that tries to build bridges among whoever’s locally in place. That strategy is also the one that’s needed to build a sustainable small farm future. So for me it’s clear at least where to focus political energy.

The short-term consequences of Johnson’s victory for farming and the countryside seem grim. Although many farmers seemingly voted Conservative, they’re a small constituency of no electoral importance to the party, especially now it’s shorn of its more patrician elements in favour of the radical right. It’s extremely unlikely that the financial support farmers will get post-Brexit will match the largesse of the EU – I think many will go to the wall as a consequence, the countryside will be carved up by market forces, and Britain’s food system will be forced open by its new trading situation, becoming more import-dependent. The hope has to be that, in this vast churn of farm property sales and rural destruction to come, the necessity for building local economic autonomies and ecological conservationism will become more obvious, along with the opportunities to do so.

Ciao Mao?

Apologies for my recent silence on here, not least in relation to the interesting comments at the end of my last post to which I couldn’t find the time to reply. No sooner had I revived this blog from my long book-writing layoff than I was laid low again with various urgent tasks – including a return to the book manuscript for an editorial overhaul. These tasks are ongoing so I fear I may have to disappear again for a while, but I hope more briefly than the last hiatus. And perhaps I’ll show up for a couple of interim posts. After all, another Brexit-fuelled election beckons – and where would British politics be without the next instalment of the widely-celebrated Small Farm Future miniseries: Which-of-these-darned-idiots-do-I-have-to-vote-for-this-time?

But let me sign off with a brief train of thought. Just as I was getting to grips with Julia Lovell’s fascinating book Maoism: A Global History who should appear in my Twitter feed the other day but an old adversary of Small Farm Future, Leigh Phillips, agitating against agrarian labour intensification on the grounds that it was a policy pursued by the genocidal Maoist regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia. That’s right, folks: in Leigh-world, if Pol Pot adopted agrarian labour intensification, then it follows that those who advocate agrarian labour intensification must support the politics of Pol Pot. By this logic, Leigh’s huge enthusiasm for nuclear power surely reveals itself as mere advocacy for the Gulag…

The only reason I mention this flummery is because it strikes me that the exact opposite thesis is probably more worthy of attention: unless we adopt agrarian labour intensification, the chances of a resurgent Maoism are amplified.

Let me try to put a little flesh on those bones…

Maoism is a virtually incomprehensible political doctrine in the west, and in any case has come to seem a dead letter with the eclipse or collapse of almost all the world’s significant Maoist regimes. But let’s not be too hasty with the obituaries. As with most political ‘isms’ the exact parameters of Maoism are ever fluid and hard to specify precisely, which is why these isms keep reinventing themselves, often in unexpected places. In the case of Maoism, wherever there are poor rural populations who perceive themselves to be oppressed by colonial or neocolonial power and are ready to contest it with violence, then the grounds for it are prepared.

There are a lot of places like that in the world today, and Maoism is far from a dead letter in many of them. There are set to be more such places in the future, with rural poverty and ever more nakedly coercive neocolonial power set to be augmented. So I wouldn’t bet against future Maoist insurgencies… Indeed, more sophisticated thinkers than Phillips such as his Verso stablemates Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann in their Climate Leviathan raise the spectre of future ‘Climate Mao’ regimes arising on the back of climate crisis and other perturbations in global politics, to which such regimes have ready-made answers…

…ready-made, but pretty unappealing – at least I can agree with Phillips on that. So for those of us who’d rather not see a return of Maoism, what is to be done? You get a sense of Phillips’ answer from the subtitle of his first book – “A defence of growth, progress, industry and stuff”. Via a shopworn reading of Karl Marx on the necessity of capitalism prior to socialism, Phillips cheerleads the present global capitalist economy as the precursor to socialist prosperity for all. Probably, he and his chums at the Breakthrough Institute genuinely believe this shtick, though their strident scorn for anyone who questions if it’ll really turn out so well does make me wonder if they protest a little too much. Radical-sounding but business-as-usual and corporate-friendly plays well to many galleries.

Yet if it doesn’t turn out so well, then the conditions for Climate Mao are ramped up another notch. We know these plotlines – further global inequality, further rural immiseration, further Ricardian landlordism and rentier capitalism, further climate breakdown, further political militarization. And, for reasons copiously discussed on this site over the years, there are plenty of reasons to think it won’t turn out so well.

An alternative, also copiously discussed on this site, is a more local, non-growth oriented, sustainable, agrarian and – yes – more labour-intensive (creating more green, low-carbon jobs is a good thing, right?) human ecology. The consequences would be globally redistributive and effectively anti-colonial, taking a lot of the heat out of the preconditions for Maoist insurgency. And possibly some of the heat out of the atmosphere too.

To put it another way, if you’d prefer to avoid harsh dystopias of involuntary rural simplicity in the future of the Pol Pot variety, then there’s a good case for working up some gentle utopias of voluntary rural simplicity right now, and trying to implement them. Inevitably, they’ll involve more people spending more time working in the garden. For many us, that isn’t such an appalling prospect, so long as there isn’t somebody alongside us there holding a gun to our heads on the lookout for incorrect thought. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much what it feels like metaphorically when you engage with Mr Phillips…

Finally, a housekeeping point. I’m happy to receive individual communications via the Contact Form on matters of particular or private interest, with replies at my discretion. But if you’d like to debate or contest something I’ve said in a blog post and get a reply from me, please post it as a public comment on my Small Farm Future site, and I’ll do my best. Thank you. And ciao for now.