Watching the watchers

I’ve had a certain amount of negative feedback on my current little exercise in describing a neo-peasant future, not so much here at Small Farm Future but in its wider tracks across cyberspace. Part of the problem seems to be its futurological aspects. Some people are quite certain that the future will be a techno-cornucopian one, with no place for the idea that there’ll be any need, let alone desire, for widespread localised, labour-intensive, land-based husbandry. Others are equally certain that, conversely, runaway climate change, energy scarcity and political collapse will so undermine our civilizational moorings that attempts like mine to plot some kind of stable locality society are futile.

For my part, I’m not so interested in the waiting game implied in either of these scenarios (waiting for somebody clever to come along and save our ass in the first scenario, or waiting around to die in the second). The exercise is based on the notion that we could, if collectively we so chose, organise ourselves into more localised and labour-intensive polities and economies, and that if we did so we might better secure our health and general wellbeing at a lower energetic and carbon cost. Whether that would be enough to save our ass in the long term doesn’t interest me all that much, basically because it goes too far into the realm of futurological speculation. But since more localised polities are, by definition, locally specific, and since they’ve not yet been achieved, it seems necessary to focus on particular places at some point in the future on the basis of a few plausible grounding assumptions, such as projected population size in 2039 in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, as per my last-but-one post. I’m interested in discussing what such a polity might look like and what obstacles its emergence faces. I’m not so interested in predicting its likelihood over other possible future scenarios. Ah well, there seem to be enough people around willing to play along with my little conceit to make it worth continuing to flesh it out.

My first task is to consider the productive possibilities of the neo-peasant polity before turning to tougher issues concerning its political and economic gestation. But before doing that in detail I just want to sketch one more bit of context.

In my previous post I looked amongst other things at the maximally extensive margin of productivity in Wessex agriculture, namely ruminants on permanent pasture. Suppose we decided to turn over all of Wessex’s farmland to permanent pasture and feed Wessex’s future 6.3 million people entirely on lamb and mutton. Not that I’m suggesting it would be a good idea – it just gives us a handle on that maximally extensive margin. By my calculations (I’ll explain my underlying assumptions in later posts) farming in this way we would only be able to furnish about 20% of the people of Wessex’s basic calorific requirements. Which actually sounds to me surprisingly high, but of course not high enough to prevent mass starvation.

Let us go to the other extreme, and look at the maximally intensive margin of productivity – which here in Britain would be a potato monoculture. If we aimed to exactly meet the calorific requirements of Wessex’s 6.3 million by growing only potatoes at current average conventionally-grown yield levels (again, not something I’d actually recommend) we could do so using only about 9% of Wessex’s existing farmland (or about 15% if we grew them organically).

Somewhere in the (rather large) gap between those two figures lies the potential for a productive mixed agriculture to feed the people of Wessex. If I were responsible for provisioning myself under no pressures of land availability, I’d focus on growing what I liked to eat and what I liked to farm. And in that case I think my farm would look closer to the sheep/pasture monoculture than the potato one – but I’d have other kinds of livestock, fruit and nut trees and bushes, and some vegetables. I’d probably also grow some potatoes and wheat, but as little as felt necessary for food security and ramping up the easy calories. I have a limited appetite for hand-planting and harvesting potatoes or wheat. With my tractor, on the other hand…

When people talk about the back-breakingly miserable life of the peasant, I don’t think they have this kind of pottering, forest-gardening, allodial, gentleman-peasant sort of existence in mind. Instead they’re thinking of what you might call the tithe-peasant, eking out a living on a small scrap of land grudgingly allocated them by someone more powerful, and who has to produce a considerable surplus in order to pay the latter personage their dues in cash or kind, thus propping up the rest of society on their overburdened shoulders. Historically, there have undoubtedly been more peasants of the latter than the former kind, so one important challenge for a future neo-peasant vision is how to try to tip the balance the other way.

And not only historically – there are many people in tithe-peasant situations today. And there’s also a kind of agricultural mindset that seeks to normalise it: Too poor to eat anything but Vitamin A deficient rice? Then let’s bioengineer Vitamin A into rice. The poor will still be eating nothing but rice, but they’ll no longer get Vitamin A deficiency, and that’s got to be a good thing, right? Those idealists who suggest that we should organise the world such that people can afford to produce or buy a more varied diet ought to check their privilege. “Let them eat broccoli!”, the idealists say. The very idea! (I can never read this four-word argument in favour of golden rice without marvelling at how shamelessly it telegraphs the vastly greater enthusiasm of its proponents for their favoured crop technology than for combating poverty).

For people in the richer world, food choices are usually less stark. But there’s a similar agricultural mindset at work, which prefers to build a whole food system around a handful of major commodity crops (rice, wheat, maize, soya, canola, palm etc.) which can be processed into a myriad of rather appealing and seemingly differentiated products, especially when suitably garnished with additional minor crops. It would be stretching a point to call the consumers in this latter-day global food system tithe-peasants (for one thing the work they now do to earn their food, if indeed there’s work for them to do, usually inclines more towards the mind-breaking than the back-breaking). But the parallel is there.

I also wonder if one aspect of this contemporary agricultural mindset’s normalisation is to stress the healthiness of its limited offerings – carbohydrates and monounsaturated vegetable oils over saturated animal fats and so on. The essentials of nutritional wisdom are quite beyond my own limited areas of expertise, though I take sad solace from the fact that they also seem beyond those of the nutritional experts, who after all were extolling the virtues of trans-fats not so many years ago. I’ve found some of the writings produced by the Weston Price Foundation very thought-provoking in this respect – for example, this one on canola, and this one on dietary fat. It’s work of this kind that lies behind the demanding injunction under one of my earlier posts from a certain commenter going by the name of Paul to see if I could create a localvore, neo-peasant diet in which 65% of the calories came from fat – a requirement that, thankfully, he later reduced to 45%.

Weston Price was a dentist and dental epidemiologist who looked at the effect of switching to modern western eating on people who had previously eaten more ancestral wholefood diets. A Google search of the Weston Price Foundation quickly takes you to a whole mess of hits denouncing the organisation for its quackery, including one called ‘Quackwatch’ which features this article about Weston Price’s work. Read alongside the work of the WPF authors themselves cited above, I found it so full of unsupported generalisations and tendentious reasoning that I contemplated establishing a new online watchdog called ‘Meta-quack’ or ‘Watch-watch’ or maybe ‘Quackback’. Indeed, the worldwide web is a veritable quagmire of angry claims and counter-claims concerning the regnant dietary consensus of a low fat, high carb, veg oil-based diet. Actually, the worldwide web is a veritable quagmire of angry claims and counter-claims concerning just about everything. But, if such a thing is possible, it’s even worse on dietary matters.

Indeed, not only the web. Recently, the National Obesity Council issued a report suggesting that eating saturated animal fat wasn’t necessarily bad for you and eating simple carbohydrates wasn’t necessarily good. Cue widespread outrage, mass resignation from the organisation’s scientific ranks and then, a few weeks later, the results of a big US longitudinal study which was spun by one of its authors as ‘butter bad, vegetable oil good’. The paper is behind a paywall and I can’t get access to it, but looking at the abstract my feeling is that the truth is likely to be very much more complex than that.

I’ve traversed this ground before. To my mind, if you want to untease relationships and causalities in the material world, careful, scientific, empirical study is basically the only game in town. But scientific truths are always provisional and usually take a long time to mature. And science is also always a social practice, and is not therefore immune from the usual noise of people doing their people-like things. So there’s an important distinction to be made between science and scientism – the latter essentially referring to situations where a scientist is willingly wheeled out to justify a simplistic policy prescription on the basis of a simplistic summary of what ‘the science says’. I had personal experience of this on the Food Climate Research Network when I criticised the EU pigswill ban. Somebody jumped on me for my ignorance of ‘the science’ and the potentially dire consequences of feeding swill. I asked him to point me to research that specified the trade-off between the elevated economic risk of swill feeding and the economic cost of alternative food waste disposal and fodder production. No response. I’m still not sure if any such work was done prior to implementing the ban. I certainly haven’t seen any. Still, I expect when swill feeding is eventually permitted once again, as it probably will be, there’ll be no shortage of experts on hand to justify the decision scientifically. I’m inclined to regard confident generalisations about the evils of butter or saturated animal fat with the same degree of scepticism. But I’m interested in hearing other views.

Anyway, let me try to draw the threads of this discussion together with the following seven propositions:

  • In the long-run, we’re all dead. But in the short-run, there’s something to be said for trying to construct more robust locality societies with local food production at the heart of them in order to prolong the life of civilisation-as-we-know-it. We’ll probably have more fun while we’re about it, too.
  • If it’s impossible to feed ourselves sustainably with the suitably-raised animal products we desire, it suggests that we may be approaching a resource squeeze. A crack is opening in Parson Malthus’s coffin.
  • If it’s impossible to feed ourselves with anything but carbohydrate-rich staple foods, then Malthus’s ghost is well out of the ground. In fact, it’s standing in the garden and knocking on the window …
  • …or alternatively it could just be that the garden is much too small and will have to be enlarged at the expense of the bigger gardens owned by richer folk. Then the ghost can be expelled to Zone 4 or 5 where it can graze contentedly for the time being along with the sheep.
  • When the gardens are shared out equally, we can hope that there’s space for a life of pottering silvo-agri-pastoral. In Wessex, we will probably have to grow some wheat and potatoes, though, and worry about that resource squeeze a bit. But let’s try not to go overboard with the arable stuff, because unless you have a tractor it’s back-breaking work. Nobody wants to live like a tithe-peasant.
  • Our silvo-agri-pastoral life will hopefully give us a diet rich in fruit, vegetables and saturated animal fats, with little in the way of simple carbohydrates and vegetable oils. The science says that this is a healthy diet. The science also says that this is an unhealthy diet. For now, I’m going to choose science of the former kind, and keep a close watch on the scientists.
  • Actually, that doesn’t go far enough. I’m going to keep a close watch on the watchers too, like the concerned citizens at Quackwatch. But come to think of it, I guess I’m also a watcher, so somebody ought to keep a close watch on me. And here’s your chance…

26 thoughts on “Watching the watchers

  1. Neither the technocornucopian nor the total apocalypse scenario seem likely to me. Meanwhile, localized food systems make avery problem less bad.

    I would like to read some the criticism of this idea. Or maybe I don’t. I spend too much time reading doltish stuff as it is.

  2. I think aside from a bit of good-natured phrenology, WAP mainly served as a vehicle to keep William Albrecht’s work in circulation.
    Which in turn serves me.

    Re grain farming: Long-straw varieties, in lowland agroforestry settings, fertilized with steaming piles of humanure produced by still-too-densely-populated urban centres. The year 2039.

  3. I’m trying to compare the labor of growing veggies with the labor of developing the hedges and fences (from locally sourced materials) necessary to keep my hypothetical livestock from wandering too far.

  4. I’m not in to waiting either. Carry on with your scenario building. I would ask, however, that as you continue to share the underlying assumptions, you especially state what fossil energy inputs you are assuming.

    While you are working on a 2039 timeline, I would think that aiming toward a new land use framework would want to also consider the longer term, so land use does not have to be reconfigured again, especially when trees can take decades to really come into their own for full production. And besides, to be as long term sustainable as possible, fuel use will need to radically decrease.

    Your upper bound calorie production assumes conventional growing, but the EROEI of potatoes or most any other annual food crop is radically different if all labor and no fuel is used for growing them.

  5. Of course you’re having negative feedback on your thoughts. As soon as you publish your ideas people are going to react. Please be aware that most of these reactions are coming from talkers and not from doers. I see myself more as a doer on my 9 acres gentleman-peasantry here in Flanders Belgium. (I really like the word because it says exactly what I am trying to establish here.)
    I am currently in Ecuador because my son lives here and he had a little daughter last month so we were obliged to visit him. We took about – give or take – 1000 liters of kerosene (at least) to take the trip by plane. (please correct if you disagree with this figure) Since I have a two wheel tractor with various implements for mowing, tilling and making hay for my sheep’s winter needs this amount of fossil energy would cover about 40 years of agriculture. (I feel really bad about taking such a trip and won’t repeat it again.)
    But if I see how many people take similar trips there are still choices to be made.
    On the other hand with the experience I have here about one acre could provide a whole family with enough healthy food the whole year round with a farm as you descibe: “my farm would look closer to the sheep/pasture monoculture than the potato one – but I’d have other kinds of livestock, fruit and nut trees and bushes, and some vegetables. I’d probably also grow some potatoes and wheat, but as little as felt necessary for food security and ramping up the easy calories.”
    A car in Belgium costs about 25.000 euros for which you have about 2 acres of land. Since there are plenty of cars in Belgium and most people have one or two cars it is a question of choice whether you buy land or a car.
    So 9 families share a 9 acre plot with one two wheel tractor. The sheep or cows bring in the nutrients from the silvo-pasture in the stable in the winter. Their manure is composted and brought in the vegetable garden which is tilled by the two wheel tractor and kept in shape with hand tools. The kune-kune pigs eat grass in summer and leftovers from the vegetable gardens in the winter. Some of the people work on this farm and most work in the outside world.
    This is not only a healthy and fulfilling lifestyle, it is also perfectly feasible in this part of the world. It’s a choice. (and in my opinion a nice one.)
    Please keep thinking, doing and writing. It is highly appreciated.

  6. Quis custodiet ipsos quackwatchers?

    Chris, I’m curious if Murray Bookchin’s notions of ‘libertarian municipalism’ play any role in your thinking about governance in a peasant populated, necessarily human-scaled community of the sort you’re mapping out, which seems ideal for his communalist theories.

    Also, wondering if you can point me to any good sources of info that describe the ‘silvo-agri-pastoral life’ – I kind of get this, but would appreciate digging into details…

    – Oz

    P.S. The captcha thing is malfunctioning again. Last time I checked, 18 – 5 was 13!! But apparently, captcha is using a different base numbering system….maybe octal…

  7. My question may be too complicated to be suitable for the comments, but I’ve been wanting to ask, and this post makes me want to ask even more: why the emphasis on collective decision-making? Aren’t the benefits of your neo-peasant society generally proportionately attainable at the margins? In other words, can’t we reap approximately 5% of the benefits if 5% of the population can take 5% of the land area and go neo-peasant with it? Or 20% if 20%, 40% if 40%, etc.?

    Your approach to science is refreshingly reasonable and well expressed, by the way. Thank you.

  8. I, too, had trouble with the captcha, for whatever it’s worth. I couldn’t figure out 20-four, but I succeeded with 2xfour. Here’s my attempt at 4×1.

  9. Thanks for those comments – some brief responses:

    Sorry about the captcha – I guess I need to keep it in view of the virus problems I had recently. It seems to work OK at my end, but do let me know if you’re continuing to have problems.

    Ruben – thanks for Quackmire. I’ll take your comment on balance as a request not to point you to any doltish critiques. So I won’t…

    Michael – thanks for that. Vision shared

    Steve, Rudy – I’ll try to write something on energy in due course. Though as Rudy points out, on-farm fossil energy use on a small mixed organic holding is really minimal compared to energy use in many other sectors. That would be my starting point… Thanks Rudy for those observations – very interesting – and also for your support…

    Oz – I’ve read a bit of Bookchin’s stuff, which is swirling around in my mind along with a lot of other people’s stuff. I’ll try to ground some of the political/economic details of this as best I can shortly. Not sure of a good source concerning the silvo-agri-pastoral life (other than Small Farm Future, of course…) Though Simon Fairlie’s book ‘Meat: A Benign Extravagance’ comes the closest I’ve seen to laying out this kind of vision.

    Eric – I don’t think it’s true that the benefits are proportionately attainable at the margins, but I don’t have a clear sense of how best to specify the relationship. At low levels of neo-peasant participation their efforts are socially, economically and ecologically irrelevant, and they’re ripe for political appropriation – pretty much like the present situation. Very high levels might be sustainable and possibly quite agreeable in many ways, but would be materially constrained and cash-strapped (ie poor) by contemporary standards. So I’m looking for a kind of sweet spot between those extremes. However, there’s a danger that peasant production will always get appropriated by more politically powerful actors, so in that sense I’d say the more peasants the better. This relates more to the social/economic issues I’ll be coming to shortly, but I’m interested in anyone’s views on this…

    • I can’t resist 😉
      “However, there’s a danger that peasant production will always get appropriated by more politically powerful actors”.

      I think you could substitute “peasant production” for almost any other ‘sustainable’ technology. Look at the way small scale renewable electricity generation have been hamstrung in the UK – our last energy secretary made a speech in which she talked about how renewables needed to pay their way. At the same time she was making sure oil and gas companies had ministerial access ( This imbalance of scale and power seems to hover menacingly over all of the environmental problems that we face – climate change, species extinction, soil erosion, loss of groundwater etc etc. The solutions are always local and specific while the problems originate in institutions (and their agents) anchored nowhere (except planet earth).

      As ever a statement of the problem is so much easier than positing tentative solutions. Throughout this thought experiment Chris has used the term peasant. I’m sure he has his reasons but I prefer “yeoman” which the dictionary defines as, “a man holding and cultivating a small landed estate; a freeholder” (quite close to the ‘gentleman-peasant’ several voices have mentioned). I prefer it for it’s connotations. It was the yeomanry who historically formed the county militias, they may not have occupied the most powerful positions in society but they were a social force that could not be ignored. They also mostly had the vote.

      So now I get shot down in flames cos I’m thinking aloud – but it seems to me that we need to find a way to reinstate this widespread connection between land use (and ownership) and political power. The logic of my thought is to restrict the franchise (eeek) to those that own land – so with each solution bringing its own problem we now need radical land reform (although I think Chris abolished the Duchy of Cornwall in an earlier post so we’re half way there with that) and reform of the funding of politics to ensure that all votes are equal and some are not more equal than others.

      Thinking a little wider I think it would be interesting to see how the work of the NFU has evolved as the number of farmers has shrunk and the size of farms increased.

        • Thanks for that Bruce. I’m in listening mode at the moment on the politcal-economic side to this, but I’ll come to it presently and I’m interested in all views. Not sure I like the logic of your thought either, but I understand where you’re coming from, and I appreciate you sharing it…

          • Yes got to be careful about thinking aloud – think first and then (maybe) write later. I guess like all that is being thought through here its about rooting things in a locality. Much easier to envision with food, slightly harder with energy but politics/money/power…… Yet if we don’t crack that everything else can unravel far to easily.

      • “Yeowoman” however is unpronounceable and lady-farmer just patronising, so I favour sticking with peasant. At least half of the farmers in the world are female and some of us even live Wessex (not me, mind). We own machinery and lend it out and we don’t all make soap for our neighbours!

  10. Re books on agro-silvo:
    Christian Dupraz, ‘Agroforesterie’ (in French), Gliessman – ‘Agroecology’, and then two books that deal with the why more than the how:
    Perfecto – ‘Nature’s Matrix’ and my favourite, Vera – ‘Grazing Ecology And Forest History’. The latter dealing especially with the pastoral side.

    • Thanks Michael! Wow, $100 – $200 for a copy of Vera’s Grazing Ecology…found a $25 copy of Gliessman, so guess I’ll start with that…while canvassing the local used book stores for the others!

      • Yes, I’ve not read Vera for the same reason – though Fairlie has a nice summary in the book I’ve mentioned.

        Seconded – Gliessman & Perfecto are both good, though tending a bit more towards the tropical.

        • Do you, ahem…own an ebook reader…? The author probably won’t mind that his publicly funded work is “retrievable” in PDF form.

          • If you need any help with the untranslated Medieval German footnotes, just ask 🙂
            The book definitely needs a revised second edition.

            On another note, someone recently walked onto my property, left my tools where they are, only went for some apples and squash and closed the gate behind him/her. Not really sure what to think of that.

          • I’ve always thought that when people start stealing vegetables for food it’s a sign that the great crisis is upon us. End times.

  11. As this vision comes into focus, I find it very appealing, and well thought out. What strikes me as yet undefined is the role of machines (tractors and combines). One of my tractors (John Deere M) is 70 years old, has had one engine rebuild, and is still in daily use. I expect it to be working on its hundredth birthday. With care, tractors last a very long time. Even if tractor manufacture ceased today, there will still be a lot of tractors around in 2039. Why not use them?
    Tractors have two big ecological negatives: 1: their embodied energy, almost all fossil fuel, together with the social and ecological messiness of mining, manufacture, and shipping, and 2: the requirement for fuel to operate. Taking an existing old tractor in good condition (perhaps intercepting it on the way to the scrapyard) more or less balances out the first of these. And one can imagine some kind of regional rape-seed oil biodiesel cooperative that can supply fuel with very modest ecological cost. (On my arable land I use only about 30 liters per acre per year of diesel). The advantages are so huge for tending arable plots, that it seems an eccentricity not to embrace them.
    I also mention the appeal of small combines, such as the tiny rice combines used in Japan. Pre-twentieth century harvest of grains and pulses with scythes and sickles was not only labor intensive, but very inefficient, with 20% or more of the crop winding up spilled on the ground. Gangs of women and children gleaning was a regular feature of English village life. Of course, this could be festive, and a mechanism of social solidarity. But if I could borrow a little combine (99% efficient) that would be my first choice.

    • Thanks for that Mike. I’m going to hold fire on energy and machinery for the moment, but I’m interested in hearing what people have to say and thinking about it. I’ll come back to it soon. But I’m pretty much with you – on-farm energy use is not the biggest energy nut to crack in a neo-peasant and/or energy constrained future. And there’s a lot to be said for old tractors. At 36 years, mine is a mere stripling compared to yours, but one advantage of old kit is that even a klutz like me can do the basic maintenance on it. And, as you point out, lifetime embodied energy for old tractors is pretty low. Over-complicated new tractors and the withering away of generalist farm skills may be a problem though…

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