The elephant in the room is capitalism. Maybe.

I’d been hoping to pay another visit to the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, but red tape has been holding me up at the border so it’ll have to wait probably for another couple of weeks. Instead, I thought I’d offer a few top-of-the-head thoughts on Felicity Lawrence’s recent article about agricultural pesticide use in The Guardian – or, more specifically, on some of the under-the-line responses it prompted.

Whenever someone writes an online article about virtually any aspect of the environmental challenges facing humanity, you can pretty much guarantee that underneath it somebody is going to write a comment that closely approximates to this: “The real issue here is human over-population. It’s the elephant in the room that trendy green thinkers don’t want to talk about.” In distant second place you’ll usually find a similar comment about meat eating. And, even less commonly, one about the flying or other carbon-intensive sins of said trendy green thinkers.

These comments doubtless emanate respectively from the childless, the vegan, and the foot-powered, and represent the pharisaical human tendency to elevate whatever behaviours we engage in that we feel are especially praiseworthy to a kind of touchstone status by which we can judge others less virtuous than ourselves. Hovering in the background of such thought is the ever present charge of hypocrisy, as in this recent tweet aimed at George Monbiot’s opposition to fossil fuel extraction: “Hey @GeorgeMonbiot – You PERSONALLY give up all items made or sustained by fossil fuels first, then we’ll talk.”

David Fleming nails this way of thinking especially well when he writes,

“Though my lifestyle may be regrettable, that does not mean that my arguments are wrong; on the contrary, it could mean that I am acutely aware of values that are better than the ones I achieve myself. If I lived an impeccable life, I could be lost in admiration for myself as an ethical ideal; failings may keep me modest and raise my sights”1

But, more importantly, all the obsessive finger-pointing about individual behaviours neglects the systemic logic which provides their ground. This was Marx’s insight in his critique of the utopian socialists – capitalism isn’t an especially nasty system because capitalists are especially nasty people. Therefore, building some nice factories with pleasant managers won’t solve the problem. The problem is that individual people ultimately have little choice but to respond to the behavioural drivers dictated by the logic of the (capitalist) system – and these drivers, investing a million innocent little decisions, have nasty consequences.

That brings me to my main point: when it comes to pesticide use in farming – actually, when it comes to a lot of things – if we want to talk about ‘the elephant in the room’, it isn’t human population. It’s capitalism.

Consider this thought experiment. Suppose that, magically, human population halved overnight. I guess the consequences would depend a bit on exactly who it was that disappeared, but maybe not so much in the end. Imagine, for example, that it was the poorest 50% of the world’s population. The effect on greenhouse gas emissions would be slight, but the effect on the food system in the rich countries would probably be pretty significant. In the short term, there’d be no more cheap labour furnishing all the labour-intensive items that we currently outsource – the fruit and vegetables, the flowers, the prawns, the coffee and so on. But the basic agricultural economics of high labour costs and low fuel costs in the rich countries would remain. Pesticide regimens are basically labour-saving technologies in a situation of low energy costs. I can’t see them changing much in the event of a population cataclysm among the world’s poor. Indeed, with the onus now falling on the rich countries to provide their own labour-intensive food commodities in a high labour cost situation, the impetus would be for further mechanisation and probably an intensification of pesticide-dependent farming in order to keep the fruit and veg flowing.

Now imagine that the disappearances mainly affected the world’s richest. The short-term effect on greenhouse gas emissions would be dramatically positive. Longer-term, though, the cataclysm would further impel the economic trajectory that’s already underway, a shifting centre of economic gravity from the north and west to the south and east. The labour-energy balance in these populous southern/eastern countries would shift further towards present rich country norms, prompting labour flight from agriculture and greater pressures towards mechanisation (and pesticisation). The acute labour shortage in the depopulated rich countries would push in the same direction.

So my feeling is that if pesticide-dependent farming is the problem then, no, the elephant in the room is not the size of the human population – it’s the relative value of human and mechanical labour. Since there’s a more-or-less fixed limit to the productivity of the former, but not so much in case of the latter, then the developmental pressure is always to substitute the latter for the former. But only in situations where capital increase is the fundamental bottom line. Marx again: in a non-capitalist market society, money acts mostly just as a medium of exchange. If you make pots and I grow vegetables, it’s convenient for me to buy your pots and for you to buy my vegetables through the intermediary of money. Vegetables become money become pots, commodities become money become commodities, or C → M → C, in Marx’s terms.

With capitalism, though, money is invested in order to produce a commodity, which is sold for money: M → C → M. But if the value of the first M is the same as the second, there’s not much point going to the trouble of turning the first M into C, only to get the same M back again. The logic of the process is really M → C → M’, where M’ > M. And there in a nutshell is the massive transformative power of capitalism: once you unleash the pure logic of M’ > M, anything that stands in its way will ultimately be crushed. That’s why in the average arable field, you’re only likely to see the occasional farmworker driving a massive spraying rig, and not dozens of thoughtful polycultural agroecologists.

For the purposes of this post, I’m remaining agnostic about the pros and cons of modern pesticide regimens. There are those who like to argue that there’s nothing to worry about – mostly by stressing that pesticide levels fall within the range deemed safe by government bodies and by impugning the credentials or agenda of anyone who says otherwise. Presumably, unless they’re shareholders in agrochemical companies, even these folks would agree that it’s not an active virtue to spray our crops with pesticides. But whatever the rights or wrongs of doing it, the crops are going to stay sprayed so long as we make M’ > M the primary logic impelling our economic system.

Coming back to my thought experiment, barring an unprecedentedly massive genocide or natural disaster, that kind of population decrease clearly isn’t going to happen. For sure, there’s a good case for nudging humanity towards lower numbers by using the various small policy levers available. But human population dynamics are a path-dependent and highly complex system which can’t easily be manipulated by wishing things were different. It’s not an ‘elephant in the room’ that, once identified, is easily resolved.

By that logic, you could say the same of capitalism. I think Marx was definitely onto something with his C → M → Cs and his M → C→ Ms, but it now seems pretty clear that some magic solution to the world’s problems is not going to fall from the sky simply through the overthrow of capitalism. Complex problems require complex solutions. There is no elephant in the room. Or else maybe there are many.

Still, I don’t think the shortage of elephants takes us right back to square one. We’ve learned a couple of useful things along the way here. The first is that humans experience the brute facts of nature through the conditioning grid of our culture. That doesn’t mean there’s some kind of law that human culture always overcomes the challenges of the natural world – often enough it manifestly hasn’t. But human culture always mediates those challenges. Which is why I’m pretty sure that whatever shape the problem of human population might have, it doesn’t resemble an elephant.

The second useful thing is that, however complex our problems are, there may be particular pressure points within our cultural mediation of the world where it’s really worth focusing political attention if we want to change things. I think the hard logic of M’ > M is probably one of them.


  1. Fleming, D. 2016. Lean Logic, p.5.









13 thoughts on “The elephant in the room is capitalism. Maybe.

  1. I believe an axis of centralization is also important in this discussion, as there are different criticisms of very centralized and controlled MCM’s (State Capitalism, or the state being the chief investor in commodities), and decentralized, entrepreneurial models, that lend themselves more to outright consumerism. There are too many factors affecting whether or not a private investor chooses to reinvest, and into what, to accurately discuss, but I think it is safer to assume that the nature of civilization is to decentralize, as a means to feed consumerism. Market economies are really good at distributing resources in a seemingly intelligent way, but they fail address key problems with supplying finite resources. And when people talk about repealing capitalism, it’s in reference to the all-consuming nature of civilization under decentralized models of investment.

  2. As if this was not complex enough already….

    Capitalism without SOME (G)government regulation (to create a playing field) ultimately self-destructs. So into the equation must go a G.

    We are all feeding at the same trough. We are all contributing to the contents of said trough. Widespread pesticide use, like many harmful things, makes market sense.

    So, if we want to keep our nice planet it seems we need another variable added to our alphabetic algorithm. S. As in, that is STUPID, even if it makes market sense so M. MAYBE we should not do that.

    At this point I must confide that I used to skip math class to play in my garden. Therefore I can be of no help in rewriting the equation to account for my additions.

    In other news I have had less than one icy of rain since June 5th. Time to move the hose one last time before bedtime.

    Thank you for the post and for creating a space for small farmers to play with ideas.

  3. I’m inclined to think that the nastiness of capitalism is very much because “capitalists are especially nasty people,” particularly if we define capitalists as those people that would over-simplify their economic transactions, reducing people and things and processes to commodities and then letting extreme price competition take care of the details, mostly out of their/our sight. As Wendell Berry wrote: “If people begin the effort to take back into their own power a significant portion of their economic responsibility, then their inevitable first discovery is that the ‘environmental crisis’ is no such thing; it is not a crisis of our environs or surroundings; it is a crisis of our lives as individuals, as family members, as community members, and as citizens. We have an “environmental crisis” because
    we have consented to an economy in which by eating, drinking, working, resting, traveling, and enjoying ourselves we are destroying the natural, the god-given world.”

    And, as is often the case with me once I get started with Berry quotes, I find it hard to stop, so I’ll share a few more that I find relevant.

    “The answers to the human problems of ecology are to be found in economy. And the answers to the problems of economy are to be found in culture and character. To fail to see this is to go on dividing the world falsely between guilty producers and innocent consumers.”

    “The objectivity of the laboratory functions in the world as indifference; knowledge without responsibility is merchandise, and greed provides its applications.”

    “A corporation, essentially, is a pile of money to which a number of persons have sold their moral allegiance.”

    “When one works beyond the reach of one’s love for the place one is working and for the things and creatures one is working with and among, then destruction inevitably results.”

    “…the environmental crisis rises closer to home. Every time we draw a breath, every time we drink a glass of water, every time we eat a bite of food we are suffering from it. And more important, every time we indulge in, or depend on, the wastefulness of our economy–and our economy’s first principle is waste–we are *causing* the crisis. Nearly every one of us, nearly every day of his life, is contributing *directly* to the ruin of this planet. A protest meeting on the issue of environmental abuse is not a convocation of accusers, it is a convocation of the guilty. That realization ought to clear the smog of self-righteousness that has almost conventionally hovered over these occasions, and let us see the work that is to be done.”

    “…the environmental crisis has its roots in our *lives*. By the same token, environmental health will also be rooted in our lives. That is, I take it, simply a fact, and in the light of it we can see how superficial and foolish we would be to think that we could correct what is wrong merely by tinkering with the institutional machinery. The changes that are required are fundamental changes in the way we are living.”

    “…our country is not being destroyed by bad politics, it is being destroyed by a bad way of life. Bad politics is merely another result.”

    “It is certain, I think, that the best government is the one that governs least. But there is a much-neglected corollary: the best citizen is the one who least needs governing. The answer to big government is not private freedom, but private responsibility.”

  4. Intresting article Chris. I see lots of those comments about population – mostly they have nothing to do with population but are a very convenient way of justifying inaction.

    I’ve been reading David Flemming recently and he says something about how previous societies and cultures actually avoided excessive accumulation of capital by using various means to remove it from their societies – burying huge amounts of treasure with the dead was one example, another was the buidling of useless structures (pyramids?). His point was that the logic of capital is to grow exponetially inside a limited system and that to maintain appropriate scaling some capital must be destroyed.

    I like the writing of Wendell Berry and I think he writes very clearly. I wouldn’t argue with his thoughts. I might make the observation that he had land and that that gave him choices not available to many. And even with land…. Many organic growers selling at my local farmers market are reliant on customers willing to pay the premium over the price in the local supermarket, customers who are able to do that because they don’t work in parts of the economy that prioritise an ecological ethic. My partner works for an environmental charity – I annoy her by asking about where the money that funds their work comes from and how it was made. They do good work but at what cost? Is that fair question?

    I don’t dispute that the environmental crisis is rooted in our lives but the lives we can lead are to an extent circumscribed by the system in which they grow. To ignore either side of that equation will inevitably lead to failure. I started saying I’d been reading David Fleming recently – I’ve also been reading Dmitry Orlov which perhaps suggests I’m moving from hope toward resignation with regard our chances of solving any of the interlocking problems our society has created for itself.

    • I say choose a field where you can do the complexity involved justice, and trust that everything else will fall into place.

      What else could we want?
      Caesarism is making a comeback, a global Depression is in the offing, there already isn’t enough energy left to support another round of 20th century empire for the next few million years, courses in craftsmanship are well attended in both Greece and Londinium, and pesticides are wonderful so long as you can rely on the ecosystem you’re farming in staying predictable.

      Most people, of course, don’t understand the requisite complexity of the ecosystems they should be farming in the High Altithermal.
      (Some do: )

      Ceterum censeo:
      If population halves overnight, I blame Drosophila suzukii.

  5. hmmm… If there were less of us why would we need to spray pesticides over sufficient amount of crops?

    Are sure of Mother Nature not to find a way to decrease human numbers significantly. ?
    The former plagues were due to high urban density and poor sanitary condition. 500 years pased and … how about a human induced plague (dont know what , zika, GMO, lack of energy to maintain nuclear infrastructure, and most probable of all a war for limited resources)

    I’m a compexity theory follower..
    and complexity keeps growing.

    • >If there were less of us why would we need to spray pesticides over sufficient amount of crops?

      Because it would be cheaper!

      >Are sure of Mother Nature not to find a way to decrease human numbers significantly. ?

      Oh, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mother Nature finds some ways. I’m not so sure that people will find any though – not ones that are fast, specifically targeted at population decrease, and politically acceptable at any rate.

      • If everyone was educated enough and have enough energy in form of money would one buy the cheaper, but but potentially noxious food?.

        The condition would be easy fillable if there were less of us.
        So it is not the matter of the system
        but the “properly formated subject”.

        I realize we may not have enough time to decrease our number as we are feeling Seneca’s breath on our backs and I also doubt in solving the issue worldwide.
        Neither homo Economicus nor Comnisticus is possible to full extent.
        I just dare to hope for Homo Sustainabilicus after the WTSHTF

        • Well, I guess I’d argue that a properly formed subject is a system property – both in terms of education and, more pertinently, the money, since M’>M tends to make money a scarce resource for many people. I do agree with you though that if we wanted a pesticide-free agriculture it wouldn’t be hard in principle.

          • “M’>M tends to make money a scarce resource for many people”

            I think it’s actually the other way round: the dual nature of money (the fact that it functions as both medium of exchange and store of wealth) leads to it becoming a scarce resource for many people (as people with a surplus take it out of circulation), and that’s what underlies the M’>M dynamic.

            I think a lot of people see capitalism as an essentially cultural thing, but I regard it as ‘legislatic’ (i.e. a product of law). From that perspective I see the duality of money as one of two pillars of malign capitalism (along with minority control of land) without which markets would function fairly benignly.

            But I totally agree about it being the elephant in a lot of rooms.

  6. Great post Chris – basically, sounding one of my favorite themes: it’s the patterns, stupid! That is, as Donella Meadows pointed out, the *least* effective places to intervene in a system are:

    12. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards).
    11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows.
    10. The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks, population age structures).

    Whereas the most effective places:

    3. The goals of the system.
    2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises.
    1. The power to transcend paradigms.


    In permaculture terms, we have to look at the underlying patterns – those deep structures that determine, in large measure, the system behaviors and outcomes.

    IMO, you’ve provided an excellent argument along exactly these lines – so long as we do not alter the all-important incentive structures of a system, which are so frequently economic, we can expect no fundamental change to occur. It doesn’t matter whether those evil capitalists are actually evil, nasty, mean people. That’s a *moral* judgement that’s immaterial for purposes of system change (in fact, in a sense, it’s an argument *against* system change). The relevant question is: what incentive structures are built into our particular flavor of capitalism?? And M’ > M is a terrific nutshell way of illuminating at least one of these.

    BTW, a terrific book that looks at forms of ownership from this standpoint, and in fact uses Christopher Alexander’s notions of pattern languages for this purpose, is Marjorie Kelly’s ‘Owning Our Future.’ On the off chance you’d like to read this someday and perhaps provide commentary, I’m hittin’ that donate button!

    – Oz

    P.S. CAPTCHA is misbehaving again…

  7. Thanks for the further comments – I’m slow to reply as I’ve been away. Sorry to hear about further problems with captcha – I’ll see if there’s anything I can do.

    @Malcolm – interesting points. I’ll have to ponder them further, but I like your ‘legislatic’ point (is that a word?) – seems a promising way of grounding a left agrarian populism. I suppose the direction of causality point is ultimately a historical (and perhaps cultural?) one in terms of the origins of capitalism and its prime movers – something I hope to be coming on to soon.

    @Oz – yes, much to agree with there. I think it was you who sent me Meadows’ article a while back – I liked it a lot, highly persuasive. And thanks for donating and for the Kelly tip. Maybe I’ll buy her book…or else invest the capital in a higher-returning blog…

    • Legislatic is definitely a word, Chris – I know because I coined it myself! (In a letter to my MP three years ago – couldn’t find an off-the-shelf word that had that meaning.)

      The reason I regard the direction of causality as significant is that it provides a clear target for reform: issue money in a different form (a form in which the medium of exchange loses value if it stops circulating at an acceptable rate) and one of the legs of malign capitalism is pulled out from under it. But if we treat the pernicious results of capitalism as arising from cultural factors it’s hard to see any real prospect of defeating it.

      Having said that, I’m not sure the root problem in your original example is essentially monetary. My feeling is that the impulse to squeeze as much as possible out of the land is more a product of remote ownership, and operates whether the land is bought as an investment or just inherited. (Or unjust inherited, perhaps I should say, since derelict inheritance law is a key part of that other leg.)

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