Of solutionism and anti-solutionism: interim thoughts on Wessex and Londinium

OK, so I said in my last post that I was done with crunching the numbers for my imaginary future republics of Wessex and Londinium. I lied to you. The discussion with Joe Clarkson under that post has prompted me to look at one last scenario. Suppose we followed his idea for a nationwide ‘transitional agrarian repopulation effort’, how might that look? So I took all the agricultural land in the UK (excepting rough grazing) and modelled an organic peasant-style allotment agriculture with conservative yield assumptions and low meat/dairy production in order to see what kind of population could be supported. In this post I’m going to report on that analysis, and then make a few interim comments about where I think this exercise has reached as a prelude to the next phase of the fantasy.

So first the agrarian repopulation effort. Here, I’ve taken an imaginary hectare of farmland and divided it up into 69% cropland, 6% garden and 25% orchard. The cropland is divided up into the following rotation: ley (29%), vegetables (29%), potatoes (14%), wheat (14%), beans (14%), excluding a bit set aside for fibre crops (hemp and flax). Total productivity is modelled according to the same assumptions I used for my Wessex neo-peasants. Dairy cows are grazed on the ley and half the orchard (this area in my imaginary hectare can support about a quarter of a cow). The other half of the orchard can accommodate a house and other non-productive land. There are also three laying hens on the hectare, who get by on scraps. So I’m assuming no meat or fish as such (though in reality there’d be some cull meat). But there are about 5 million hectares of rough grazing in the UK, so I’m assuming that we can raise sheep on this to the tune of just over 50kg of sheep meat per hectare per year.

On the basis of this near-vegetarian diet, I calculate that a hectare of farmland can support just over six people, and a hectare of rough grazing can support about 0.2 people. If you total that up across the UK’s 12 million+ hectares of farmland and 5 million hectares of rough grazing, it turns out the country can support about 77 million people – about 3 million more than the ONS projects the UK population at in 2039. I suppose I’m leaving quite a bit out of that equation in terms of subsistence necessities. Then again, my productivity assumptions are low. Overall, it looks to me as though Britain could just about feed its projected 2039 population using organic methods on small-scale holdings. Perhaps the equation is a bit too close for comfort, but if the present government’s actions are as loud as its words on restricting immigration only to those who bring truly value-adding skills, then maybe we’ll be looking at a population rather less than 77 million circa 2039. And if the skilled migrants it seeks are ones who know how to grow a productive organic garden, as perhaps they should be, then there’s a chance that yields will be a lot higher than I’m allowing for here. The feeling around this exercise isn’t quite the easy pastoral abundance I found for the Wessex neo-peasants, but it seems to me still a way away from Malthusian crisis.

Anyway that, I think, really does bring the curtain down on the agrarian productivity part of my ‘neo-peasant’ analysis. I’ve shown to my satisfaction, if to no one else’s, that it may be possible to feed an enlarged future UK population from small-scale farms using organic methods. Whether anything resembling that will actually happen depends in part on various largely physical parameters like climate and resource dynamics, and in part on social, political and economic parameters. There are others better able than me to analyse the physical parameters. Doubtless there are others better able than me to analyse the social ones too, but frankly not many of them are actually doing it and as a sometime social scientist I feel the need to weigh in on those latter issues. So what I plan to do is start a second cycle of ‘Wessex and Londinium’ posts in which I look at how and whether neo-peasant successor polities may emerge from the existing political economy. But before doing that I’m planning to take a short break with some posts on a few other things – hopefully they’ll all build in the same general direction.

As a bridge between Wessex & Londinium Parts I and II, in the remainder of this post I thought I’d reflect on a few issues that commenters have raised in recent posts which anticipate some of the themes of Part II. I don’t especially want to single anyone out or reopen any recent disputes, though perhaps that’s inevitable. So let me just offer my gratitude once again to everyone who takes the trouble to respond to my ramblings and press on with some thoughts on three general themes.

First, something on solutionism/anti-solutionism or optimism/pessimism. In the early days of this blog I got involved in a fair bit of wrangling with the ‘ecomodernists’ and others of a similar persuasion. To my mind, ecomodernism is a techno-centric and techno-determinist movement which at its core involves little more than an enthusiasm for nuclear power and GM crops. It dodges serious economic or social analysis in favour of superficial cheerleading for urban slums over rural smallholdings and a strange conviction that poverty stems fundamentally from an absence of modernity rather than being intrinsic to it. Many of its leading lights are based in California, and the movement indeed seems grounded in a certain kind of Californian sensibility – perhaps somewhere between Silicon Valley and Hollywood – with its sense that the world can easily be made and remade through a utopian, libertarian, technological capitalism. For the ecomodernists, the world presents itself predominantly as a set of technical challenges – how to feed the world, how to power it, and so forth. The mood is optimism, the modus operandi is solutionism. There’s no place in its vision for trade-offs, contradictions, competing interests, vicious circles or ‘wicked problems’ comprising a series of intractable and self-reinforcing dynamics.

To me, it’s an unconvincing vision. So I prefer to keep company with assorted anti-solutionists, declinists, downsizers and peasant populists – all those, in other words, who are typically dismissed for their pessimism. But – and here’s my point – I find neither the optimist or pessimist sides of this particular couplet especially illuminating. I see no virtue in optimism for the sake of optimism, just because it’s widely held to be the sacred duty of the individual in capitalist societies, however obviously threatened and moribund. On the other hand, an utter pessimism can be disabling, and not a little boring. There is, after all, no proposal for bettering the human condition that can’t readily be dismissed for its implausible sanguineness. But that route terminates in what I’m tempted to call the Private Fraser gambit, from the old comedy show Dad’s Army, in which the eponymous character would say with dark glee at every turn of events or possible remedy, “We’re doomed. Doomed!”

I’m not sure if the future will vindicate the Pollyannas or the Private Frasers. More likely the latter, I suspect. But the way I want to write about the future is to acknowledge that we face wicked problems and wicked trade-offs which are basically insoluble, and then focus on ways of trying to manage the wickedness sub-critically. This issue arose in one of my recent posts in the form of a debate about photovoltaic panels and electricity grids. Let me note first that I’m not intending to label anyone in that debate as a Pollyanna or a Private Fraser, a solutionist or an anti-solutionist. I’m raising it more to try to define my own position…which I think is this: The solutionist tends to see current possible energy transitions from (bad) fossil fuels to (good) renewables in terms of salvation and amelioration (hence the curious overlaps between ecomodernism and religious thinking). The anti-solutionist dismisses them as delusional techno-fantasies predicated on the very industrial modalities that will be erased by the multiple crises of contemporary civilisation. The sub-critical wicked problem manager instead might borrow from Mark Twain’s advice on land purchase: “invest in photovoltaics – they may not be making any more of it”. There are no solutions, but there are options now before us, and we have to decide which ones to take. Subsumed in such decisions are a host of practical questions, in this instance concerning the most realistic methods and modalities of energy generation under future constraints. Impossible to know, of course – but what I most want to see are concrete scenarios along these lines rather than generic professions of optimism/solutionism or pessimism/anti-solutionism. So there’s a job vacancy for an industrial ecologist in the Small Farm Future office. Meanwhile, Simon’s recent comment  helps ground the PV debate of that post in a more specific set of questions around off-grid energy, so thanks for that – I’m interested to hear what others think.

Second theme: a long set of discussions recently on this blog about the mechanisms by which the relative equity in land entitlements necessary for a sustainable, locality-based, neo-peasant or neo-agrarian society could be achieved – Georgist land value taxation, or what perhaps I could call Ramsayist local sovereignty and so on. All very interesting, and certainly a discussion I’d like to keep pursuing here. But I haven’t yet been persuaded that Georgism or Ramsayism are means towards a neo-peasant society rather than mechanisms for sustaining one. To press a metaphor, once you’ve decided to level the playing field there are numerous ways you can do it, some better than others – but first you have to decide to level the playing field. And it seems to me that the only way this will be decided is the only way that endogenous social change ever happens – when self-identifying groups of people create political alliances that ideologically promote certain kinds of self-interest as general interest, against the interests of other groups. Or, to put it another way, through class consciousness and class conflict. Perhaps that all sounds a bit outmodedly Marxist, though in truth most sociologists – by no means only Marxist ones – emphasise the importance of class and collective identification. Put simply, I don’t think Georgist or Ramsayist laws will get onto the statute book without becoming a successfully-realised class project of one sort or another. And what I want to focus my thoughts on most specifically in Wessex and Londinium Part II is what sort of class project that might be – in other words, what the social and political conditions of possibility are for a (Georgist? Ramsayist?) neo-peasant society.

Third theme: an interesting little debate between Clem and Paul over the immigration status of soy in the future Peasant’s Republic of Wessex. I can’t claim to speak for Paul, and I daresay I lack his level of hostility towards soy, but if I understand him rightly his argument is that a neo-peasant society requires a local food culture with a rich tissue of historical knowledge about what it’s doing, and this strikes me as an important point. True, if you push too hard at the historic logic of the local you come up against the difficult fact that almost nothing we grow here in northern Europe is local in provenance. Indeed, the few score major crops that are widely grown throughout the world mostly all hail from one of just a handful of centres of global crop diversity which few people can call home. In that sense, most of what we grow here both in Wessex and everywhere else can be regarded as an imported ‘super-crop’ with special characteristics that have grabbed people’s attention and made them want to replicate them at home. But in today’s world perhaps there are a small number of ‘super super-crops’ with characteristics that impose themselves even over the superiority of the general run of crop plants – partly because of their intrinsic qualities, and partly because of their compatibility with the demands of industrial processing. Soy, I’d suggest, is one of them.

So leaving aside Paul’s nutritional caveats, I take his point to be that it’s all too easy for a new non-local super super-crop to be parachuted into a locality on the basis of certain evidently superior qualities in ways that cut against the grain of local practice – and ultimately the local practice is as important as the crop. Certainly this has often been a problem as local/peasant agricultures confront global commercial ones: think GM cotton, green revolution rice, and the panoply of tropical cash crops. So I understand Paul’s concerns. But of course, agriculture can’t be set in stone. It would doubtless be a fine thing for Wessex gardeners to experiment with soy alongside their Martock beans and scarlet emperors and perhaps in time to find a place for it within the local horticultural repertoire. I think this touches on a chronic problem facing those of us who advocate for localism, both in culture and in agriculture: how to stay supple and remain open to the possibilities of the world, while at the same time honouring local lifeways and their good enoughness.

Turning full circle to the ecomodernists, some time ago I critiqued Leigh Phillips’ book Austerity Ecology, one of the sillier contributions to the genre, in which he extolled the constant search for human improvement against the logic of the good enough. Far too often in agriculture and in society at large ‘improvement’ has been a cipher for the class interest of the improvers, wittingly or not, at the expense of those being ‘improved’. But the solution isn’t necessarily to refute all possibilities of improvement. Perhaps in fact there’s no solution to this dilemma of the staid local against the superior incomer – another wicked problem, another dilemma to be managed sub-critically, rather than overcome.

63 thoughts on “Of solutionism and anti-solutionism: interim thoughts on Wessex and Londinium

    • Okay, I have read and now I roar.

      First off, I love the news that when you run the numbers on Joe’s scenario, the world does not end.

      Having been too often dismissed as a pessimist, I get a little shirty on this front.

      But what I would like to point out is that you set up a binary with “I’m not sure if the future will vindicate the Pollyannas or the Private Frasers.”

      But your preferred social group of “declinists, downsizers and peasant populists” is a third group between, vilified by either the Jetsonians for an excessive love of appropriate technology, or by the Near Term Extinctionists for too stubborn a grip on deep time.

      I expect a relatively cheerful peasant populism to be the group basking in vindication—and bathing in homemade cider.

      • I expect a relatively cheerful peasant populism to be the group basking in vindication—and bathing in homemade cider.

        Perhaps in a few decades. The interim is not likely to allow much basking, only hard, hard work for the peasantry and perhaps even more fear. They will eventually be vindicated, but not before some real tribulation. In the meantime, for a bit of comfort, let their cider also be hard.

          • Oh yes my friends.

            In the Peasant Republic, our beds will be soft and our cider will be hard. We will dance and sing and feast on fresh bread and meat with dark gravy—and every farmhand will have a sparkle in their eye.

          • Oh goody 🙂
            Perhaps I should toss my hat into the ring for the job vacancy for an industrial ecologist in the Small Farm Future office

            Hmmm, one wonders if I could even immigrate to Wessex. And if I could, how long would one need to be there to merit voting privileges… I hear there’s going to be another election in early June.

  1. The sub-critical wicked problem manager instead might borrow from Mark Twain’s advice on land purchase: “invest in photovoltaics – they may not be making any more of it”

    My sentiments exactly. I am old and not as strong as I used to be. I have lived without electricity and could do it again, but would prefer to delay that day as much as is easily possible. And even though I am a pure-blood “anti-solutionist”, I still have a PV powered, off-grid farm. I even have a spare pallet of PV modules stashed in an outbuilding for when they stop making them.

    I know that an off-grid electrical power system is an artifact of a civilization that won’t carry on much longer, but it can be made to last long enough to ease the transition to the non-electric life ahead. Enlightenment aside, chop wood and carry water is so much easier with an electric wood splitter and electric water pump.

  2. Regarding the California disposition, while I agree the craze of venture capitalism etc. has something to do with it, others still (especially) in silicon valley are more like garden variety watermelon economists (that is, green, eco-friendly visionaries on the outside, but red anti-capitalists beneath the surface). Consumerism is more so to blame as even on a social market consumerism remains a threat. Their anti-capitalist stance is 50% feel-goodery and 50% deflection of blame. They would wish to receive the luxurious, decadent ends of consumerism, and believe that some kind of communism (memetically referred to as Fully Automated Gay Luxury Space Communism in some circles) would preclude indsutrial-takeover of the market (it’s all because of those corporate businessmen! Not me, the other ones!). They believe the woes of one system or the other arises from the means of distribution rather than the means of production.

  3. I note that dairy cows are to be grazed on the ley, which I would think would be needed to be devoted to nitrogen fixing cover crops to enable the other crop rotations. Perhaps both can happen at once, but I wonder about taking milk and meat off the same patch that is to be fixing important nutrients. I don’t think that just the beans on 14% of the cropland are nearly enough to maintain soil fertility. Please clarify the nutrient cycle on your organic hectare.

    Please also note that the mutton from the rough grazing is mostly very distant from the arable land and still needs to be transported to where the people are, even if most people are working on their organic farms. What kind of transportation system are you assuming?

    • I share Joe’s ley query as the little blue bible of green manuring, Growing Green, I’m sure recommends a 1:1 ratio of crops:ley. No doubt I am missing something.

      • Not that I would presume to speak for Chris, but if I may I can make a case that the numbers above can be cribbed in a fashion to help make nitrogen numbers work (at least on paper).

        Chris allocates a ley of 29% and beans of 14% – which already brings us to 43% of the hectare. He has also allocated a not immodest 29% to the veges and if one were to take advantage of garden peas within this allocation (say 7% of the whole hectare, or roughly one quarter of the vege patch) then you arrive at a magic 50% or the 1:1 that Simon is looking for. Of course this suggestion completely overlooks the N recycling done by the milk cow who will be leaving her urine and feces behind on the pasture ley she is chomping upon.

        We might also wish to account for some N recycling from human wastes – which has been noted here in the past (indeed one of the most commented posts here before all the political drama took hold was one that covered Chris’ farm toilet system).

        Now before the complaint that the garden peas and the field beans are – by being removed for human food – not replacing N into the system: 1) See recycling of human wastes following consumption of legumes; 2) There is excess N left behind from peas and beans harvested for human food – even in the event the fodder is fed to livestock (but granted the fodder removal does cut into this, still the consuming livestock – well, you know). 3) Legumes co-cultivated with other species (clovers with grass in the ley) can push the productivity of the non leguminous counterparts such that the total organic matter produced is increased and the additional OM has benefits beyond the simple N concentration accounting.

        • I suppose it all makes sense, but only if the human waste nutrients are added back to the land. This implies that the people being supported by the hectare’s food production live within easy poop/pee transport distance. So not only is the land being farmed organically, but everyone lives in farm country.

          The Chinese, Koreans and Japanese were getting Chris’s population densities 150 years ago and even had cities, but they had constructed elaborate systems of water transport to carry human wastes back to the fields.

          I still think that these densities are impossible in a low energy situation without hundreds of years of cumulative low energy infrastructure. Of course if we are allowing diesel lorries (as in a transitional situation) it could all work as a hybrid amalgam of peasant agriculture and industrial support systems.

          I guess the same calculation applies to the shelter side of the equation. Since none of the arable hectare is woodland, all the wood needed for home construction or fuel is trucked in from distant sawmills and forests. In a transition situation, with plenty of electricity available, the small-holders can heat their homes with heat pumps or propane and forgo wood heat.

          I am looking forward to seeing Chris’s ideas for the potential creation of such an amalgam transition culture, as he says, “what the social and political conditions of possibility are for a (Georgist? Ramsayist?) neo-peasant society.” I personally think it will be difficult to talk people out of cities and onto the land without their having some concept of the vulnerability of their city lives and the eventual need for low energy food production.

          A few years ago I attended a presentation of a government funded study on how to increase local food production through diversified agriculture in the state of Hawaii (which imports a far higher percentage of its food than the UK). The study went into great detail about all the different strategies that had been tried to get people into farming, with little success. It turns out that the study found that small-farm food has a hard time competing in the market with imported food from distant industrial farms. (No giggling).

          During the Q&A, I pointed out that there was one sure-fire thing that could get lots of people interested in growing food. Everyone, including the presenter, was terribly curious about what that sure-fire thing could be until I revealed the answer, “Hunger”. Of course, that possibility had never been considered relevant.

          • Wish I’d been in the audience at that presentation. I can imagine the smile on my face when you landed that gem. And I’ve seen the same sort of confusion and disbelief in the Midwestern US.

            Ohio exports food. Lots of it. Our population density is a mere fraction of the UK’s which makes this possible. Ag is big business here of course, but that doesn’t lead to city folk having much appreciation for where their food comes from, what it requires to make it end up on a shelf where they can trade a couple dollars for it. It can shock the masses into recognition when a terrible winter storm is forecast… and there’s a run on groceries. Empty shelves can lead to receptive ears if one wants to demonstrate how fragile some aspects of our food system are. As soon as trouble passes though the shelves are stocked, and imaginations shift toward any and all other concerns. Fascinating to watch. [perhaps Ruben is right – vast majority of folk may only be using a small fraction (1%) of their cognitive abilities to deal with life].

          • Re small farms competing with industrial imports, protectionism makes itself apparently necessary here more than anywhere. The living standards in dependent southern states in America vs northern and Midwestern ones. But more pertinantly, it’s effects are being made known in Africa, where the mass import of free food from the west had destroyed all remnants of agriculture in most of the continent because you can’t compete with free. Same goes for their medical infrastructure which has undergone no development at all because of the massive influx of volunteer doctors.

          • You make a good point Calhoun. But I think you take too small a view when you strip away the impetus for some of these activities…

            Dumping some free food in the event of mass starvation (when no domestic food supply exists to be competed with) is hard to complain about. Continuing to dump cheap food when conditions might allow some local production IS worth complaining about.

            Trying to halt the spread of Ebola by dropping in some volunteer doctors is also a pretty smart approach. Indeed some of the Ebola effort aided in building much needed local medical infrastructure in those areas.

            If you come upon the fellow traveler by the side of the road, beaten and robbed, then think to yourself you need offer no assistance because the poor bloke will then not learn to care for himself… I think you’ve taken the wrong lesson.

            Protectionism makes for great oratory. And it makes for lousy neighbors.

          • Clem, while I’d agree with you that there are times when the case for international interventionism or free trade is strong, free trade is seldom a win-win and in the current phase of neoliberalism it increasingly resembles the kind of beggar-my-neighbour approach that is often imputed to protectionism. I’ve found Colin Hines’ book ‘Progressive Protectionism’ an interesting, if not entirely convincing, attempt to break out of the protectionism/free trade ideological deadlock: http://progressiveprotectionism.com/wordpress/ . I’m hoping to write more on this soon – I’d be interested in hearing people’s thoughts.

          • Chris – thanks as always for another view and the link, will have a look.

            I think we’re pretty much in agreement – perhaps scale or the construction of a binary between protectionism on the one hand and neoliberalism on the other is where the match of philosophy might be going off the rail.

            I like to think of trade at many levels. I can mow the neighbors yard for free because his Mum passed and he’ll be at the funeral. I certainly don’t imagine he’ll go out and sell his mower because he now expects me to mow for him always. And I’ll further not expect him to turn around in a week or so and offer to mow my lawn to repay the ‘favor’ – only perhaps if I need to leave town for the future funeral of someone I care about. At that point it would more resemble a trade, and less appear the care and respectful sharing of neighbors. And there is a pity in these acts descending from sharing to trade… but I hope to use that unfortunate aspect in a minute.

            I can expand the metaphor on scale while still personal to me. Say I am in need of a favor from a colleague in another state. We are not kin, not living next to each other, indeed at some level we may even be commercial competitors. If the favor to me would somehow enable my business at expense to hers I would never ask it [indeed a barter or commercial exchange would be negotiated and capitalism would win again]. But at some level it can be argued any thing, no matter how small or insignificant I think it is could be seen as benefitting me at her expense and thus impacting our businesses. Good grief. [as an aside, there is a capitalist accounting for good will, but it is not easily affixed to a balance sheet, so at some level of scale it still waffles into uselessness to the capitalist].

            Once we press the ‘neighbor’ or personal colleague (who remains a neighbor in a very real sense) relationship beyond personal acquaintance we still have a planet full of folk who – if by no other accounting than the fact we share the life boat of planet earth – are still neighbors. But with 7 billion neighbors I’m forced into some sort of polity whereby others are trusted to represent me and make choices on my behalf [negotiate trade, and offer relief when needed]

            So at a planetary scale I might imagine that the work I do make soybean an even more super super crop is a benefit to even a hungry beggar in Calcutta – even though this individual is not participating directly in a capitalist value chain that will somehow pass back a penny to my desk. How could I imagine such? If there are more and better soybeans available on the planet then I think – regardless of how they are traded – there will be more and better something available in other corners of the globe and hopefully one is a corner where our Calcutta neighbor grubs out his existence.

            If everyone along the path between here and there is so caught up in protectionism… how might his welfare improve? Is he to be left by the side of the road to starve because he cannot at this particular moment in time barter for his sustenance?

            I won’t pretend I have an overall answer – indeed if I felt I did I suppose I’m sufficiently vain to stand for office and guide us all out of our misery. But wholesale Protectionism appears to me about as desirable as wholesale Marxism. [perhaps the word choice should be ‘whole scale’].

            I’ll have a peek at your link – perhaps I’ll return in a more protectionist mood.

          • Clem, I don’t claim to have all the answers on this either and I won’t venture an opinion on the global benefits or otherwise of your own particular line of work, but in brief I’d say the issue is a scepticism that at the larger scales of human interaction you mention the global trading of economic activities does in general confer net human benefit – the idea is that net human benefit in fact is better secured by keeping things more local. Clearly, if the focus of every state is on promoting exports and stifling imports, then the outlook isn’t too good – so the idea of progressive protectionism is to try to build local economic autonomy within wider consensual frameworks. Not an easy thing to do. But I’m not myself persuaded by the standard economic narrative that barriers to trade inevitably lower welfare. Often enough, the opposite is the case, which is how we’ve got into this mess.

          • As an anecdote, my friend wrote a book set in the Dominican Republic (Dead Man in Paradise, truly excellent, read it).

            He noticed over the few years that he visited the DR that imported tinned food increasingly replaced local food—and the price was higher.

            I think every country should aspire to meet basic needs, and should use whatever tools necessary to achieve this.

            So, at the most basic, the caloric and nutritional needs of population should be meetable from within the borders. Alcohol too.

            An energy industry.

            Certainly a core building material, maybe lumber, maybe brick. Something suited to the climate and vernacular architecture.

            Maybe a basic clothing industry.

            Perhaps some sort of automotive industry? Tractors? Certainly bicycles.

            I don’t know what all should be included, but I consider this to of strategic importance, like the military. If it has to be subsidized, it should be.

            And then for all the stupid consumer crap of life, the free market is probably fine.

          • Calhoun, your statement that Africans are of lower IQ needs a citation if you do not want to be dismissed as a gibbering racist.

            Please note that IQ corrected for cultural factors will likely be necessary to please this crowd, who are no slouch, academically speaking.

            I thought maybe this was a slip of english as a second language and that you meant to say something like “lower rates of higher education”, but then I clicked through to your blog.

          • I’d be inclined to second Ruben, except any research literature purporting to link race with IQ or current fertility rates in ‘Africa’ with biological evolution will be so far out on the wilder shores of academic respectability that I for one am not going to spend time engaging with it – I guess I’ll leave the thread open for others to do so if they wish.

  4. I should recognize the nice treatment the humble soybean has received in this post. Thank you very much. We soybean breeders are working hard day and night to make this ‘super super-crop’ even more super. Breeding away anti-nutritional aspects; breeding in more favorable oil quality; breeding in better agronomic suitabilities… no rest for the wicked.

    And following on to Chris’ earlier request for data and other supporting information I should append here a link to a UK company that is selling soya seed in the UK and contracting for 2017 production:


    There is a .pdf file on the right side of the page where this link lands – the file has plenty of detail on soy in the UK [there were around 1,000 acres of soya in the UK last year! Who knew?]

    If the position at SFF for industrial ecologist has already been filled I might send a resume to Soya UK. Just have to get in on this June election.

  5. Thanks for the comments above… Have to try to keep my response brief…

    On the size of the ley, Clem’s response would be one way of looking at it. If Simon’s reference to ‘Growing Green’ is to Iain Tolhurst (& Jenny Hall’s) book of that name, then Tolly’s system (on which I’ve loosely based my own practices in the past, and my assumptions in this exercise) is a 2 in 7 (29%) ley in the field crops. Going further back in history, there is of course the famous Norfolk four-course rotation – so a 25% ley. In mixed organic farming systems there’s often a 50/50 grassland/cropland mix, but that’s a different ball game. Of course, the more ley the better really – swidden farming or hunter-gathering would be the logical endpoint of that route. But I think 29% should be adequate for the yields I’m modelling.

    Regarding cows, basically you have to cut the ley for weed control and to maintain the sward (the grass and clover do their job better if they’re cut). So if you don’t have grazing animals you have to cut it with a machine or by hand – and you’ll lose some of the fertility that way too. So I don’t really see any major disadvantages with cows (I guess you’ll lose a bit to their metabolisms and wanderings – but maybe the same applies to the human mower?) As Clem says, if you make full use of animal and human manure and animal bodies, you won’t lose much. And indeed there’s also a lot of undersowing you can do.

    On population and transport – well, this scenario is based on a thorough agrarian repopulation so yes it assumes that most people are living close to the land. On that front, I don’t think I’m going to worry myself overly about transporting meat from the rough pastoral places to the cropland places. People in the more sparsely populated pastoral places would eat a lot of meat, and people in the more densely populated cropland places wouldn’t. Though most places have a few pastoral options – here in northeast Somerset in the past ruminants moved transhumantly between the upland pastures of the Mendips in the winter to grazing on the Somerset Levels in the summer (Somerset = land of the summer grazing). Of course, it’s likely that rich people in the remaining cities will try to get more than their share of the meat by paying top dollar for it to be transported to them however it possibly can. Hopefully, we’ll have some Ramsayist rules in place to stop them…

    Wood and energy are more problematic, I admit, though bear in mind I’m only using existing (unwooded) farmland in this exercise, and there’d be scope for a bit of edge planting. Well, there’s always PV panels…

    And thanks for that on soy, Clem, and for your job application. Immigration policy in Wessex is currently being formulated. Our plan is to bring in an expert – one T. May, lately of the Home Office and Downing Street – who we’re hoping will be available for work commencing early June (an election in June to bring an end to May …?) Oh God, I can feel another Brexit post coming on. Time to stop writing right now.

  6. Sorry, should also have added – Ruben, I think you’re right to question my framing of optimism/pessimism in the sense that personally I find a ‘business as usual/ecomodernist’ type scenario to be depressing rather than optimistic, whereas your cheerful peasant populism is more heartening. I also agree with Joe that delivering such cheer is a tall order. But one worth trying to sub-critically manage our way towards, all the same. Cider certainly helps. And here in Somerset the cider is always hard. I’d like to invite you all here to sample it…but I can’t promise anything until the aforementioned Ms May’s report is on my desk.

  7. A side note for Clem: the Cyclopedia has a great chapter on soybeans. Strictly speaking of your beloved plants from a forage vantage, lays out the means to keep your livestock fat and sassy.

    • A fascinating history to be sure. The forage type soy genetics are very different from what we work with today for grain. And the early grain types (think 1930s and 40s) are pretty different as well – oil was king at the time.

      Above Joe and I mention the disconnect lots of folks have with their food source(s) and how food is produced in the first place. Along the same line there seems a similar phenomenon is beginning to form for farm folk concerning where their seed stock comes from. Most can talk about the latest technologies (GMO, and various herbicide/insecticide tech) but if you push a conversation toward how these technologies are accomplished genetically and physiologically within the plant (don’t even bother offering a glimpse at the legal and regulatory parameters involved), then eyes quickly glaze over. Just as mine do when a dairy bull breeder gets into the finer points of a GWAS aided marker assisted selection program for milk solids vs milk fat heritability.

      • It may be that the biggest obstacle to repopulating the land with agrarian peasants is the reluctance of most young people to becoming farmers. From the UK based Farmers Weekly, “One recent piece of research suggested as few as 4% of young people were considering a job in food and farming, with the widely held view that jobs are boring, repetitive and low-paid – and possibly even just for those with few other options.http://www.fwi.co.uk/news/survey-explodes-myths-about-careers-in-agriculture.htm

        The 2015 article then goes on to explain that farming involves fairly high pay compared to the average wage earner and is definitely high-tech, with all the cool machinery farmers use today.

        I’m sure the numbers are much the same in the US or any rich country. But in reality, being a peasant is likely to actually be “boring, repetitive and low-paid”. It’s only advantage is providing practitioners with the opportunity to eat (and drink hard cider).

        So perhaps we don’t need to worry about finding a place in the country for 96% of the population. They don’t want do be agrarian anything, much less peasants. We might need to wait for a real food availability crisis before most people will want to have anything to do with producing food. But by then it could easily be too late.

        So, in summary, the task ahead is to prepare for ‘careers’ that virtually nobody wants, are not seen by governments or planners as economically viable, necessary or prudent, and which most people think would sully their views of the picturesque countryside with huts, barns and poor folk grubbing in the soil. Sisyphus had it easy. We might have to rename such an effort a “Smajean Task”.

        • I think (but i don’t know) that there are more young people than that in the UK who’d be interested in farming if it was a realistic option. Land prices, machinery costs etc mean that its basically impossible to get into conventional farming which is really the only farming the Farmers Weekly is interested in and the only sort of farming presented to young people as a ‘career’. So what’s left for young people who want to get into farming is managing an enormous corporate owned food factory type farm or driving machinery for a contractor.

          My experience with kids is that they love growing things and they love looking after animals – those things lose their shine at some point but I’m not sure that’s not down to education.

          More than that as someone else pointed out the prospect of hunger may well change people’s minds about just what sort of career they might want. I heard Shaun Chamberlain interviewed a while back and he said he wasn’t interested in putting time/energy into anything that didn’t work in both a collapse and non collapse scenario – seemed smart to me.

        • I don’t think I agree with you Joe on the above. I have no idea of whether it’s a significant trend or not but there are a large amount of young people, often from urban areas flocking to the type of farming Chris highlights above. Young people whom are looking for meaningful, purposeful work that does something positive about the future rather than the ignorance or cynicism that’s taken their parents. In the large scale of things it may only be a small movement, but it’s a growing one. So many of the people going into it could be earning a lot more money for a lot less work elsewhere, but that’s not a persuasion for them. I realise it’s only a minority of my generation, and that most people my age are pursuing the lost dreams of their parents’ age but it exists. I realise we’re nowhere near a peasant stage either, but the work is not too far off. Boring is working in an office for The Man, or working on a till in a supermarket or watching hours of TV every night. Of course there are many my age who don’t fully accept their level of boredom, but they’re bored alright. Contrast that to those that are pursuing a life living on the land on farms like Chris’. These people tend to be enthused, excited, motivated, and less ignorant.

          Now ask these people if they want to work in agriculture – which for many young people in most parts of the country means driving a tractor all day long – of course they don’t want that. Nor do most want to be working in 500 cow dairies.

          If Chris is looking for a class movement to repopulate the countryside, this is where they’ll be found. I’m lucky because I live in North Pembrokeshire, where this movement exists and is gaining traction (largely due to the OPD framework). I would be surprised if there are many parts of the UK with a younger rural population than the region we’re in. It’s not for everyone, many will still race off to London pursuing dreams of a fancy car and house but then in a regional, de-centralised Britain, I envisage we’ll see pockets where people do successfully come together to build an agrarian society, if we can just stay out of the way enough of the problems London will try to drag us all into…

          I think an important aspect to this, which is something Chris has written about recently, is a patchwork of small privately owned farms as opposed to working on the estate for the wealthy or large commons-style farming. If people can be allowed to own their own few acres I think we’ll find that there is more motivation than having to do it for someone else. Utopian perhaps, but not impossible in some parts of Britain.

  8. At the risk of possibly trying to blog on Chris’s blog, I went with my two oldest sons to visit the Kingdom of Mercia. Travelling by train along the Severn Valley between Bewdley & Bridgenorth there are lots of small bungalows/Chalets/huts along the river bank, mostly I believe used for holidays/weekends but some with vegetable plots and chickens. The sort of thing Colin Ward would have got excited about but which gave me at least some sort of an idea of what the PRO Wessex might look like.

  9. About solutionism and anti-solutionism, it reminds me of, dare I whisper the acronym jmg (in lower case to indicate whispering), and his comments on the difference between problems and predicaments. Not the same, but a relevant distinction. Like you I find myself disliking either pole of that continuum. One of the curious realities of building a small farm, is that we have to simultaneously prepare for what the future might be, yet also survive in the current economic system.

    Ruben – I’d like to raise a glass of my home-brewed hard cider to you (sadly not of Somerset origin but it’s not as rough after a couple of pints…) for your post on the three capacities – material, technical and social. Very timely for me and a great framework to work with when discussing these kinds of topics with people. I like it.

  10. I’ve not as much time to read or respond as I’d like but I like the focus on options we might choose (even if we are all doomed ;-0) and I’m looking forward to the discussions of the politics. Chris Hedges says that the only way change happens is through movements with sufficient strength to scare the powerful – I think that’s probably true and so while I may think wealth taxes and, more specifically, a land value tax are an important part of the solution it’s not likely the rich and powerful are going to voluntarily decide to impose such things upon themselves. In a hungry, energy constrained, world they’d much rather have landless peasants than a society of independent yeoman.

  11. Glad to see a debate going on in my absence – it’s been a busy week. Well, I’d agree with Joe that it’s hard to see a smooth transition to a small farm future happening without some big external shocks. But I also agree with Bruce and Alex that the outlook for young people wanting to get into farming isn’t quite as bleak as Farmer’s Weekly would have us believe, depending on what we mean by ‘farming’, and I’m sceptical of the ‘peasant farming as back-breaking work’ trope, as I’ve written about here, among other places: https://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=678 . The way I’d see a smooth transition potentially happening, even if rather unlikely, is when a strategy of neo-peasant self-reliance starts to seem economically more attractive than a strategy of industrial or post-industrial wage labour (kind of the reverse of how capitalism emerged in England according to historians like de Vries and his ‘industrious revolution’ theory) – which is certainly on the cards as the costs imposed by the capitalist economy start to outweigh its benefits to the worker-consumers of the west, as shown by the likes of Wolfgang Streeck. I aim to write more about this soon.

    And thanks for that vision of PROW, John – yes, plenty of historical ‘roads not taken’ still (just) standing as potential examples.

    • Perhaps we just need 50% unemployment of young people as in this article about Greece from 2012 – http://www.dw.com/en/young-greeks-return-to-the-land/a-15881474

      As of 2016, the return to the land was still happening, although hard data is not easy to find, but lack of any real support for the process by the Greek government was making it hard to do according to this piece – http://sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/common-agricultural-policy-greece/

      Perhaps if a guaranteed jobs program were enacted to counter unemployment, with government as employer of last resort and with that last resort being as a farm worker on government owned or leased farm land, it might be a path to rural re-population without waiting for further deterioration of “post-industrial wage labour”.

      • Indeed – we’d be in a much better place with active government support for a small farm transition, rather than active government hostility, which seems to be the general global norm. Switching state thinking on such issues is the unlikely bit – though perhaps not entirely impossible. Maybe not soon enough to quench the fire, however.

  12. Looking at the figures…………..

    There were about 7.25 million 18-25 year olds in the UK in 2000

    even f we assume that given the opportunity 0.5% of them want a life as a small scale farmer and are able willing and suitable to train that’s still about 36,000 a year who have to be trained, equipped & given access to land …………….

    Looks like the time has come to restart the Land Settlement Association

    • Thanks for that Simon. Interesting that first out of the break use is strictly for livestock feed. It does appear some of the 2017 crop may end up in products on grocery shelves.

      I am quite biased, no doubting that, but given some time for folk to have a look, try it, and develop a feel for what soya can do for them I’m mildly optimistic for the future of soya in the UK.

      The farmer interviewed in the piece plans an 18 hectare field of soya this year. He was introduced by the presenter with his home location, which was not Frome… pity… maybe next year?

      • Glad it didn’t waste your time Clem. Occasionally there’s something on Farming Today that catches my ear. One such story, this past Tuesday, concerned plant breeding: Scientists in Norwich, England are working to change the nutritional profile of wheat by lowering its glycemic index to improve human health. The interviewer asked the researcher if this involved genetic modification, to which the researcher answered, “The approaches that we’re using involve using induced mutations in these genes. This approach doesn’t involve introducing new genes into the wheat plant and it’s not regulated as a GMO crop.” Simpleton that I am, I thought GM concerned any artificial alteration of genes to produce a desired characteristic. So could this be a way to introduce genetically modified food through the back door, or am I mistaken?

        • Great question Simon. In the final analysis it comes to our definitions of terms. Artificial, natural, “back door”, these terms and concepts are human inventions for the sake of communication.

          By merely pointing to the terminology I haven’t helped you with the biology behind this issue – so I’ll go there and then others can impose their philosophical viewpoints onto the biology.

          Mutations occur all the time. While one might consider them rare there are SO many DNA strands being synthesized all the time that even rare events happen with some regularity. Mutations are frequently difficult for the organism in which they occur, but not always. Some of the domestication of plants and animals from the wild came from our ancestors spotting mutations in the wild critter and keeping them. In a certain sense then, mutations have been a part of the human mission to settle and create agriculture.

          Mutations can be induced. While a cell is undergoing replication and DNA synthesis we can deliberately stress the process so that ‘accidents’ happen at an increased rate. Gamma radiation, and chemicals like EMS (Ethyl methanesulfonate) are pretty good at doing this. You would treat a large batch of seed and then plant them out and see which ones grow – and of those which grow, which ones are modified. Some will argue that because you have artificially induced these mutations you have stepped away from ‘natural’. I won’t weigh in on the philosophy here.

          Why didn’t the scientists who wanted to have herbicide resistance just do some mutation experiments? Some did. The W20 gene in soybean for resistance to sulfonyl urea herbicides DID come from a mutation project (and these soybean lines are non-GMO… by definition). But mutations tend to make small changes in the DNA sequence. Making very large changes could still be accomplished with mutations, but we are not patient critters.

          Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is another means of genetic modification. This is the transfer of DNA sequences (sometimes quite large) from one organism to another (across species boundaries). HGT appears to be the major path for antibiotic resistance transmittance between bacteria. HGT has a long history of occurrence in the natural world, so some will conflate HGT with the human effort to transfer a bacterial gene into a plant. It could happen in nature, so why don’t we just help it out? Again, no judgement from this quarter.

          The wheat breeders in the story you’ve referred to – I’m guessing they chose the mutation route for a couple reasons – likely the most important is that it is not GMO – so they avoid the political conflict. But it is also important to realize they are not trying to make TOO big a modification. They want to find a type that doesn’t make a certain chemical. By disrupting the gene that codes for construction of that chemical (or any of a host of other genes responsible for regulating the pathway to it) they hoped they could turn off or turn down the amount of chemical produced. Lots of targets. And they succeeded. If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t have heard about it.

          There is a newer technology (set of technologies actually) collectively called gene editing. The biology behind these is both fascinating and complex. Current winds within the regulating sphere of governments suggest gene edited critters will not be considered GMO. But this comes back to our human definitions and political viewpoints – so I’ll not project my own philosophical views here.

          Hope this helps. If I’ve caused other questions, you know where to find me.

          • Brilliant. Thanks for clearing that up for me Clem. My mind is often a hive of questions, though admittedly a hive shaped like a Mobius band, one woven from straw in the old style. And yes I do know where to find you! Thanks again.

          • Just to weigh in slightly on the philosophical issues – so we now know that a high glycemic index is bad for human health, and that wheat has a high GI. One response is to try to breed wheat with a lower GI, howsoever the breeding is done. Another response is to eat less wheat in favour of healthier food, like vegetables. I’m not saying that the wheat breeding approach is entirely misguided, but it interests me that it tends to be the dominant approach. Why not focus more effort on a switch to a more horticulturally-based diet? Well, maybe because it would have all sorts of implications for the nature of the agricultural labour force, landownership, intellectual property rights etc that will stay zipped up if we can just switch from high to low GI wheat. Just a thought…

          • Form of wheat… whole wheat is not so high in GI. Processed wheat is where the high GI comes from. See:

            Sorry, too lazy to get a better ref than the Wiki right now.
            (BTW, there is a nice chart there that shows various foods – and veges show up nicely… but so do pulses – notes the soy guy… just sayin).

            So if I might redirect a bit of discomfort detected in Dr Smaje’s reaction to the wheat breeding news – the take home for me is that lowering the GI in wheat genetics is helpful for the processed wheat consumer. The peasant farmer who is willing to use the whole wheat berry in her diet needn’t be bothered one way or the other. Wheat isn’t an unhealthy food in and of itself.

            There is absolutely nothing wrong with the idea of incorporating more veges into the diet. That’s a great suggestion. But if you want to tilt at windmills, let them come into focus before you lower the lance.

          • Hmm, well I suppose that’s true strictly speaking, though whole wheat flours, which I suspect would be the form in which most people consumed their ‘whole wheat’, look to me like they have a pretty high GI: http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/76/1/5.full.pdf. Anyway, granted your correction, then surely my argument applies a fortiori? My windmill may be blurry, but it’s very much still there – and if the problem is processed flour in particular then I consider my lance to have been correctly lowered.

  13. Have you seen this paper, Chris?

    Occupational Choice in Early Industrializing Societies: Experimental Evidence on the Income and Health Effects of Industrial and Entrepreneurial Work

    The authors tout it as the “first randomized trial of industrial empoyment on [sweatshop] workers,” and the results are germaine to your critique of ecomodernism. In an op-ed published in the New York Times today, they note that…

    “To our surprise, most people who got an industrial job soon changed their minds. A majority quit within the first months. They ended up doing what those who had not gotten the job offers did — going back to the family farm, taking a construction job or selling goods at the market.”

    • No, thanks for that Ernie – looks very interesting, I’ll take a look. It’s great when people keep me updated with papers like this. Keep ’em coming!

  14. I hadn’t meant to open a can of worms there, but that blurry GM line intrigued me. On reflection the research has a slightly comical edge, doesn’t it? Let’s see if we can’t lower the GI of processed wheat to match that of the wholewheat we started with. But who knows, maybe ‘Healthy Wheat!!’ (TM) will achieve an even lower GI, and chocolate eclairs will become ‘healthier’ than a slice of toasted sourdough bread.

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