The three causes of global ecocide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human Ecological Impact = Grain Farming + Capitalism + Fossil Fuels

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

48 thoughts on “The three causes of global ecocide

  1. Taking the narrative tack makes for a nice alternative. But narrative necessarily depends upon the author’s appreciation of the subject. As we necessarily have different authors, we’ll have different narratives. Which authors to agree with? Which leaders to follow? Without external stress this may not raise a difficulty… but with stresses it is a less philosophical and more an immediate issue. One possibly decided by who can violently impose their will.

    Are the three issues of equal weight? Are they merely additive in regard to each other. or is some interaction to be discerned?

    Thanks for pointing to Jennifer Pournelle’s piece.

  2. I think the reasoning is sound and the ‘equation’ is more complex than it appears at first glance:

    Human Ecological Impact = Grain Farming + Capitalism + Fossil Fuels

    It seems to be synergistic (total impact is greater than the sum of individual impacts), and the variables are dependent on the other variables, like a type of system.

  3. I like this framing of our situation. I often wonder whether each step was inevitable, but regardless, here we are.

    I would add that corporations, an especially virulent expression of capitalism, have pushed the pedal to the floor, and are a new kind of entity that has concentrated power in a way that was beyond the expectation of their creators, and have corrupted what weak political structures we have.

    I read David Korten’s “When Corporations Rule The World” twenty years ago, and find it still relevant.

  4. A nice demonstration that capitalism is the problem here – it is the dominant logic that ultimately organises most other forms of resource allocation and use across the globe, including grain agriculture and fossil fuels.

    My only quibble arises at the point where you put aside your better judgement and cave in to those forcing you to use an equation! I would much prefer a spirited defence of the only historical ‘law’ worthy of the term: contingency. Humans do not follow universal laws of behaviour, so their history cannot and should not be reduced to an equation, which always implies that one thing combined with another MUST equal something else.

    In my view, the only proper medium for historical analysis is narrative, which you do nicely in the first half of the post. It’s fine to talk about tendencies, probabilities, etc (as long as nobody tries to quantify them!) – after all, we humans do like our habitual way of doing things. Of course, historical narrative is complex – not so much one strand as a whole host entangled and intermeshed, so dialectical thinking is also essential.

    I think you’re also right to criticise counter-factuals, for the same reasons. We cannot know how things would have turned out, because there is no law that will enable us to work it out. But given that none of us lived through most of the past, we have to use historical imagination to develop any understanding at all. And that same imagination is just what we need to visualise a future to work towards (again, just as you do above). Of course, such visions presuppose that we can act to change things, which just goes to show that human behaviour doesn’t follow laws.

    One final thing. Rather than ‘capitalism’ surely we should be talking about ‘capitalists’? To risk a Marxy sound bite, all change is struggle, so I think it’s worth talking in terms of those against whom we will have to struggle, rather than obscuring them behind a more systemic-sounding ‘capitalism’. Capitalism has tendencies and potentials, and many are habituated to acting in its interests, but it’s not a law, and it can be changed by confronting these people.

    Sorry, I know this is a bit of a rant. I’ve not been able to engage with this site for some time, and fear I’ve got carried away on my return…

    • I think we should stick to “capitalism” rather than capitalist. It is the system that breeds the capitalists and I see a big danger in confronting the “capitalist” and not the system. I see this a lot in the alternative food movement (especially in the US) which is keen on villifying “multinationals” but doesn’t get that they are as stuck in the system as the worker, the banker or the consumer.

      • I’m in two minds about this, because there is obviously a danger in vilifying a particular set of people, which might lead down the road of conspiracy theories and worse. So I’m all for trying to educate people about the all-subsuming nature of systems.

        However, we might all be within the system together, but there is a clear disparity between those to whom it gives power and those to whom it doesn’t. The interests of the capitalists tend to be more effectively and forcefully communicated and imposed than those of the consumers or workers. Moreover, the basic interests of consumers and workers – to provision themselves, to work in some meaningful fashion – are clearly less damaging in essence than those of the capitalists, which I think are essentially status and power.

        Finally, capitalists might be produced by the system, which is bigger than any one of them, but this kind of systemic language tends to denude people of any agency at all. Capitalists worked towards the positions they occupy, even if it was circumstantially easier for some than others, and they are capable of evaluating their own position at any moment, regardless of the pressures on them to act a certain way.

        So we need people to start thinking about alternative ways of provisioning themselves, but to give those alternatives more of a chance we need capitalists to stop being capitalists. I’m not suggesting we lose our systemic understanding of capitalism. But a narrative isn’t just a description – it makes a point. And I would suggest that point be directed at capitalists.

        • Interesting that in Chris’ post from 5 March (where he talks about “the elephant in the room”), he mentions “capitalist” seven times, and “capitalism” zero times.

          • Ah, but there it is an adjective modifying ‘economy’, ‘growth’ and ‘system’, not a noun!

            My main intention was to argue against the utility of equations in framing what is basically a historical problem: how have humans come to present an ecocidal threat to the globe? In this I’m agreeing with Chris’s views on the matter, I think, but perhaps taking a slightly harder line.

            In my experience the use of ‘systems’ to frame historical developments can be useful, but it tends to reduce appreciation of personal agency and contingency, hence my preference for ‘capitalists’ over ‘capitalism’. Semantics is important, although I’m starting to worry we’re going a little off-topic!

          • I like how Chris was specifying “the global capitalist economy” and “capitalist growth” instead of just criticizing “capitalism” in general.

            It seems that many people have some misconceptions about capitalism that prevent them from considering any critiques of it (in general). Yet, some self-described “capitalists” would probably agree with critiques of “the global capitalist economy”.

            Because of the current misunderstandings about capitalism, I believe that specific aspects of the system should be decried, instead of bashing the “ism” or its adherents.

          • Just noticed this article today, which complements some of the earlier discussion.

            Don’t Be Scared About The End Of Capitalism—Be Excited To Build What Comes Next
            by Jason Hickel and Martin Kirk
            https://www.fastcompany.com/40454254/dont-be-scared-about-the-end-of-capitalism-be-excited-to-build-what-comes-next

            Some quotations:

            “But question capitalism in public and you’re likely to get some angry responses. People immediately assume that you want to see socialism or communism instead.”

            “Right now we are overshooting Earth’s carrying capacity by a crushing 64% each year, in terms of our resource use and greenhouse gas emissions. The socialism that exists in the world today, on its own, has nothing much to say about this. Just like capitalism, it relies on endless, indeed exponential GDP growth, ever-increasing levels of extraction and production and consumption. The two systems may disagree about how best to distribute the yields of a plundered earth, but they do not question the process of plunder itself.”

            “Still, resistance to innovation is strong. One reason is surely that our culture has been stewed in capitalist logic for so long that it feels impregnable. Our instinct is now to see it as natural; some even go so far as to deem it divine. The notion that we should prioritize the production of capital over all other things has become a kind of common sense; the way humans must organize.”

            “Capitalism has become a dogma, and dogmas die very slowly and very reluctantly. It is a system that has co-evolved with modernity, so it has the full force of social and institutional norms behind it. Its essential logic is even woven into most of our worldviews, which is to say, our brains. To question it can trigger a visceral reaction; it can feel like an attack not just on common sense but on our personal identities.

            “But even if you believe it was once the best system ever, you can still see that today it has become necrotic and dangerous. This is demonstrated most starkly by two facts: The first is that the system is doing little now to improve the lives of the majority of humans: by some estimates, 4.3 billion of us are living in poverty, and that number has risen significantly over the past few decades. The ghostly responses to this tend to be either unimaginative–“If you think it’s bad, try living in Zimbabwe”–or zealous: “Well, that’s because there’s not enough capitalism. Let it loose with more deregulation, or give it time and it will raise their incomes too.”

            “One of the many problems with this last argument is the second fact: with just half of us living above the poverty line, capitalism’s endless need for resources is already driving us over the cliff-edge of climate change and ecological collapse. This ranges from those that are both finite and dangerous to use, like fossil fuels, to those that are being used so fast that they don’t have time to regenerate, like fish stocks and the soil in which we grow our food.”

  5. Thanks for the comments, and welcome back Andrew – nice to see you here again. ‘Thanks for the comments’ is a bit of cliché, but sometimes I feel I don’t thank commenters enough. I’d certainly have stopped writing long ago if nobody responded.

    So…equations, systems, ists and isms.

    Andrew, I take your points about historical contingency and historiography as narrative, and largely agree. Still, I’m not vastly repentant for writing my equation above since it’s so obviously not a ‘proper’ equation, unlike I=PAT which more readily masquerades as one. Seems like you have a background in history – I’d be interested in your thoughts on whatever happened to cliometrics. And on the traditions of historical variable-wrangling in historical sociology of the Barrington Moore sort – bourgeoisie + weak aristocracy = democracy kind of thing.

    Since my equation isn’t an equation, being more of a systemic proposition as Steve L says, I can’t really quantify it in the way asked by Clem. But I think you could plot it out in terms of dependent but contingent pathways. No grain farming, no capitalism. Grain farming, maybe capitalism but not necessarily. Grain farming and capitalism but no fossil fuels, probably capitalist burnout and commercialism. All three, same result but over a longer-time period with higher stakes. But that only tells you so much about history…

    On capitalism vs capitalists I can see both sides of the argument but ultimately I think I’m with Gunnar. Yes, it’s necessary to call out some of the more egregious kinds of capitalist – players in the financialization business, the corporations Steve C mentions, the politicians who underwrite it all and so on – but ultimately it’s the systemic character that needs both highlighting and transcending. I think Streeck’s definition is useful in stressing the systemic abdication of politics in the capitalist economy. Everybody then has to accommodate themselves to this as individual economic agents – for example, I’ve sought profit from food-growing and writing (poor choices, really) and also from the despised practice of rentierism. Am I a ‘capitalist’? Not really – but I’m an economic agent fitting into a capitalist system. It would be a fine thing if corporations and financiers were reined in, but I don’t think it would be enough in itself to end the pathologies of capitalism. We need a different economic logic system-wide, which in my opinion can only really be delivered through widespread access to land as the basis of livelihood.

    • I guess I’ll live with your ‘improper’ equation then! As far as I know cliometrics is alive and well in the pages of the Economic History Review and other such publications. I’m a medievalist by trade, so the evidence is often too poor for metrics to get a look in (although there’s some interesting work on the late medieval period in that vein). However, in general I tend to find that economic historians can be very good at describing things, but not so good (or perhaps not so interesting) at explaining them.

      I like your term ‘variable-wrangling’. For me it hints at the problem I tried to pose above. Too many of the kind of system-based explanations of history seem to work on a functionalist basis, where the aim is to set out the social machine as accurately as possible so that when you sit back and turn the handle all the people behave exactly as they should and history plays out before your eyes.

      This just seems wrong-headed to me. Yes, history did happen a certain way, but it didn’t have to. In my view the job of the historian is to try to understand the contingency of historical situations. People are always socialised and habituated to think and do in certain ways, but the conjunction of specific circumstances often present them with moments that challenge these habits and require them to choose. People do act like cogs in a machine insofar as they are shaped and shape themselves in specific ways, but the machine itself keeps morphing around them.

      All of which means I’m happy to talk about the capitalist system, but any explanation of it needs, I think, to focus on the capitalists who inhabit it and attempt to reproduce it. What drives them? How do they understand their roles in a changing world and what are they doing to maintain and extend those roles? And how might they be confronted?

      Of course, the narratives we tell inform our politics. I’d be interested to know how you connect this analysis of human ecological impact with your own politics. As a narrative, I find it more persuasive than variable-wrangling, but there’s obviously a sense in which it might also contribute to the latter, especially if your three elements are taken as isolated phenomena rather than intermeshed aspects of social development. So what does the narrative do? My take on it focuses on your emphasis on capitalism as the key, which subsumes agriculture and fossil fuels within its activities, and so I focus on capitalists. But if one were to take these elements as separate variables, one might come to other conclusions, which would inform different courses of action.

      You write very engagingly about a new economic system to ‘transcend’ capitalism, and this seems to tie in with your thoughts on supersedure, and the importance of building alternatives. I think you’re also involved with developing a land bank for small farmers (can’t remember the details on that!). Do you see a role for direct confrontation with capitalists in a strategy to hasten a small farm future? I’m thinking here of something other than XR, which seems to me more about changing culture through raising awareness.

    • Chris, you asked about the fate of “cliometrics”. There’s a good blog/website by Peter Turchin dedicated to Cliodynamics:
      http://peterturchin.com/cliodynamica/popular/

      His posts on elite over-production have made a big impact on my thinking. He also write a great deal about the dynamics of agrarian (i.e. grain-powered) states. He doesn’t write so much about capitalism. He would probably see capitalism as the current incarnation of the tendency for human society towards imperialism (or at least, that’s how I see it, informed by my reading of his work and others). He doesn’t write quite so much about fossil fuels.

      Nevertheless, I have far more time for Turchin’s version of cliodynamics than I do for Paul Ehrlich’s I=P*A*T. Turchin’s obsession with data and numbers aims to draw out complexity, rather than simplify the world.

      • Picking up on my own reply, having thought about it over lunch, I want to emphasise the point I made about imperialism.

        I wonder whether financialised, globalised capitalism is simply the most recent manifestation of the tendency for human societies to evolve in the direction of empires, extracting surplus and concentrating it in the core. Thus, I’m tempted to re-state Chris’ equation as:

        Human Ecological Impact = Grain Farming + Imperialism + Fossil Fuels

        It seems to me that empires are as old as grain farming (or possibly a bit older or younger – maybe I need to read “Against the Grain”?) and that they have all risen in similar ways to Capitalism: through developing a social contract/dominant logic that creates a positive feedback loop of accumulation and re-investment into future accumulation. Previous empires all eventually reached the limits of their organising logics and/or of their ecological base, as described by Joseph Tainter in his “Collapse of Complex Societies” and Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov’s “Secular Cycles”. I don’t think modern capitalism would have been distinguishable from previous forms of Empire without the boost provided by fossil fuels, and even then, there are more similarities than differences. But I acknowledge I’m a “lumper” rather than a “splitter”.

        • A quick after-thought. I note that the term “Empire” is quite popular in Peasant Studies, see Jan Douwe van der Ploeg’s work for example. But I’m no expert in that field by any means.

        • Interesting points. I’m largely with you, though the unusual thing about capitalist empire compared to preceding ones is the pre-eminence of commercial power and the presence of mass consumerism.

          Empire in peasant studies comes via Ploeg from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s 2000 book ‘Empire’. The resonances there require quite some unteasing – perhaps I’ll have a go at it sometime in another post.

          Turchin has come across my radar before, but only peripherally. Guess I should take a closer look.

          • “the unusual thing about capitalist empire compared to preceding ones is the pre-eminence of commercial power and the presence of mass consumerism.”

            Here I would briefly contend that each empire has its own distinct organising logic and is unusual in its own way. I don’t think you can lump all preceding empires into one category and draw out the capitalist empire as fundamentally different. For me, the underlying organising logic of the capitalist empire is the global financial system that organises almost all of the entire world’s economic activity. Other empires had their own organising logics fulfilling a similar function, but maybe not quite so total in their control of economic activity. But that’s just my opinion.

            Mass consumerism. Hmmm… Again, it depends on your perspective. Is consumerism really available to “the global masses”? I think consumerism’s actual availability as a practice is far more restricted than its appeal as an ideal to strive for, if that makes sense.

            I think most empires concentrate real economic power in very few hands, who then buy the collaboration of a further minority in order to implement the empire’s organising logic and then exploit the remaining majority. Consumerism and the middle class lifestyle, to me, are simply the way in which we (you, me and probably everyone reading this blog) have been “bought”, but the process of buying cooperation is not unique to capitalism. Roman citizens were also bought with bread and circuses.

            I’ll admit, I’m strongly influenced by George Orwell’s ideas, as expounded in his fictional book “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchal Collectivism”, referred to in Nineteen Eighty-Four, which I read as a teenager and haven’t been able to get out of my head since. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Theory_and_Practice_of_Oligarchical_Collectivism

            I’m also drawing on Ugo Bardi’s detailed work on the Roman empire: https://cassandralegacy.blogspot.com/2014/03/peak-civilization-how-roman-empire.html

            And here’s a link to the first chapter of Turchin and Nefedov’s book: http://assets.press.princeton.edu/chapters/s8904.pdf

            Thanks for the link to Jennifer Pournelle’s work by the way, absolutely fascinating. Reminds me of a good book (an anthology of different experts) on the early development of agriculture that I read in first year of university. An amazing field of study (no pun intended).

            And a final note, looking at the wikipedia entry, it seems “Imperialism” is more narrowly defined than “Empire”, so maybe I mean the latter rather than the former.

          • Thanks Joshua. Briefly, while I agree with much of what you say you’ve not (yet) convinced me to let go of the distinctiveness of capitalism – though whether it could have created a long-term global world system rather than short-term more localized world-systems (in Wallerstein’s language) in the absence of fossil fuels is debatable, hence its particular organising logic as only one among many, as you say – and indeed as I hinted above in my comments on anti-capitalism and anti-colonialism.

            In invoking mass consumerism, it’s not necessary for my argument to suggest that middle-class style consumer choice is widely available. But no previous empire has been majority urban and minority agrarian, with mass-produced manufactured items finding their way into even many of the poorest households.

            I agree with your points about the concentration of power and of buying cooperation. Perhaps I’d float the hypothesis that the capitalist empire has had to buy cooperation more deeply than most previous empires, and has had considerable success in doing so. Whereas premodern empires often (though not always) let people be in terms of language, religion, agrarian practice and so on, reserving extreme exemplary violence against any politically threatening factions, capitalist empire has penetrated the fabric of daily life more comprehensively and tries to animate us as citizens, patriots, self-made wo/men etc. Though it still uses extreme exemplary violence.

  6. Human Ecological Impact = Grain Farming + Capitalism + Fossil Fuels

    A significant part of me wants to take simple algebraic license with this narrative and see where it leads us. I’m not suggesting this has to have some peer reviewed statistical treatment… but if one proposes to tinker with a system, particularly one with such grave consequences (and one for which many thousands of years of experience (data? – cliometrics even 🙂 ) exists… then I am suggesting there could be some merit in trying some modeling. With a regression model you can estimate the amount of variation explained… which also offers a glimpse of how much variation remains to consider its source(s).

    Of course we’d need metrics … and this does muddy the waters right from the start. Define Human Ecological Impact… does one measure it in per capita terms? Some impacts have short term influences, other impacts have a longer run (chopping down a tree, vs clear cutting a mountainside… or blowing the top off the mountain to strip away a coal seem). Methane as GHG vs. Carbon dioxide…. First Peoples used to burn a large landscapes for hunting purposes. These landscapes regrow in time, but how many humans were fed for the extent of the blaze?

    Returning to per capita once more – what impact does longer life impart? Per capita misses on that, should we denominate with a metric like human year? Do the technologies that allow for longer lives deserve to be in the equation behind fossil fuels?

    If capital (no ism or ist… just the wealth) is by itself a cause for concern… the rich having more impact than the poor… then we might try to account for it as well.

    Yes, this gets messy. If it were simple, we’d not have a problem in the first place.

  7. As Pournelle noted in her review, “Scott’s central questions are more important. How and when do states become extractive? How, when, and why do people effectively resist such extractive efforts? Is it all on account of cereals? Monocropping? Or is this process universal?”

    My glib answer is that every state becomes extractive when there is something valuable to extract. Indeed, this is the operating mechanism of all life, so why should we be surprised that it would carry through to human social organizations. The lynx imposes its extractive tax on the hare, which vigorously resists the extraction. Yes, the process is universal.

    But even though extraction is pervasive throughout the biological world, none of it would be seen as negative “Ecological Impact”, not even from humans, except for the gigantic scale of the human extractive process. And when we look for the source of that scale we find that it correlates almost perfectly with the amount of exosomatic energy available to humanity. Without all that extra energy available to us, it would be hard to have much of an impact, regardless of the kinds of extraction we engage in or how we organize to do the extracting.

    Since we now get the vast majority of our energy from fossil fuels, the equation for ecological impact can be specific: Ecological Impact = Fossil Fuel Use. A more general version would be Ecological Impact = Energy Use. (Although there is a case to be made that some forms of energy have more impact than others, even non-carbon energy supplies would have large negative impacts at the scale we humans want to use them).

    Take the energy use away and all the ecological impact problems go away. Move everyone to small communal farms where there is nary a hint of capitalist activity and everyone sings Kumbaya in perfect harmony, but keep our existing rich world per capita energy use, and all the negative ecological impact remains.

    • I like the simplicity of this approach Joe… but I have a couple quibbles. In the llynx vs hare analogy you have a living biological system on both sides. The hare has a fighting chance (and each side will evolve through natural selection). Oil in the ground doesn’t fight back or evolve (though over time it does get more difficult to extract). The excess CO2 generated by burning the oil pushes the needle in the carbon cycle and modifies the planetary habitat (pushing evolution which as you point out is not necessarily a negative… though the winners in the ongoing evolutionary race may not include us, and therein our reason for dismay).

      On this same dimension (living biology on both sides of extraction) then energy use in and of itself should stay within bounds… so I have a tough time staying with the more general version (Ecological Impact = Energy Use).

      Before fossil fuel use there were human habitats that were overworked (over fished, cropped to depletion, over forested…) so I think there is still some merit in measuring other human behaviors. Further, each of these three extracted habitat examples can regenerate in time, so while not sustainable in a strict sense they aren’t victims of ecocide. They aren’t dead, but we have less use for them until our mistreatment is repaired.

      • The energy use I am proposing as the direct cause of ecocide is exosomatic energy use, use outside biological metabolism. This would include wood for fire and other ancient energy sources like wind and water (sailing ships and water wheels).

        Only human animals have any significant capability of using non-metabolic energy, but that ability is just an extension of the overall tendency of living things to extract resources from their surroundings. If other animals had the capability of using the energy sources that humans have, I am sure they would use them.

        Birds do frequently use wind energy, but as I understand it, plants are the only other creatures that use significant amounts of exosomatic energy (from the sun) and they have evolved to do everything they can to take as much as possible and prevent other plants from blocking their access to it. Stately trees take their extractive tax from the light that would otherwise allow plebeian understory plants to flourish. Perhaps the brush should revolt against the trees.

        Yes, it is possible to produce localized habitat degeneration without using fossil fuels, but using wood, wind and water is self limiting and localized. Using wood, wind and water without the benefit of machinery produced with fossil fuels can’t really do much to destroy the ecosphere, since they are such minor sources of exosomatic energy. Overuse of those resources, especially wood, will quickly result in a localized population decline from local environmental degradation, making the environmental impact self-limiting. It is only with the gargantuan amounts of energy made available by fossil fuels that we truly risk a global ecocide.

        And as I see it, the only way to give up our overuse of energy is to make it possible to live with far less per person. We do that by living on small farms and growing our own food. We retreat from the industrialization and urbanization that is only possible with large energy surpluses. We all have preferences as to how we manage the politics of a retreat from modern industrial civilization, but we must give it up one way or another.

        • Strongly recommend looking at the many authoritative references documenting overuse of forestry resources wood and attendant environmental damage pre-fossil fuel use. Soil degradation in the Mediterranean due to removal of trees and crap farming practices is well documented.

          And it wasn’t just local. A large scale international trade in wood existed when wealthy countries like England imported timber from around the planet pre-fossil fuels. Wood was ubiquitous in pre-fossil fuel developing economies. I don’t have the figure handy but it’s remarkable how many trees it took to build a merchant or naval ship.

          Water power was also extensively used which caused significant changes to riparian systems. And waterways were used extensively and added to for transport.

          Massively modifying their environment is what humans have commonly done until now. Have we learnt enough to do better? Next 30 years will be interesting.

        • I’d be interested in following up on this debate. It’s certainly true that pre-capitalist and pre-fossil-fuelled cultures could be environmentally destructive, though my reading is that sometimes the destruction was less than received wisdom has held (see Pournelle, for example). But arguably we’ve seen something of a step change in recent times.

  8. Great post man! Glad I found you’all. Been farming here in Oregon for 10 years now and really trying to shift to more perennials.
    It seems whenever capitalism is criticized someone pipes in with “but we have never really had true/pure capitalism so we don’t know if it works or not”. There is some truth to this but the same can be said about all the other ‘isms too. Communism has always taken a beating or been co-opted by ill intentioned individuals or groups. Socialism, when it is not being mislabeled as “just another word for communism” is something that many societies have been able to successfully apply in varying degrees blended with whatever other ‘ism they got going on. America had a good dose of it for many years.

    The one thing that all of the ‘isms have in common is faction of society who absolutely have no interest in having to work so they spend their efforts maneuvering themselves into a position where all things good flow to them. Capitalism is just the most overt in emphasizing this. Growth will happen with any ‘ism. The only thing slowing or stoping growth is outside forces, think sanctions, tariffs, trade agreements that aren’t, bombing back ti Stone Age, regime change, economic enslavement, etc.

    What we need is a total new ‘ism, one that takes the basic understanding of human behavior and supports all of what is good instead of eliciting all of what is bad. And when someone or group proposes something that brings out the worst in people they will be ridiculed and banished. I know for a fact that most people want to do good, help others, be kind, work together, share, and above all get it done! We are constantly told that this is not true and because we have structured ourselves under a system that brings out and in fact rewards bad behavior, we all have seen so much bad behavior that we think its who we are. It’s Bull$hit! HOw about HUMANISM!!!

    • Thanks for the Gray link. He often presents a sensible prognostication but I get the feeling he’s trotting out his old notions to a deadline here. Who knows what long-lasting changes we’ll see post-Covid 19? The Austrian government is already talking about cranking things back up by allowing larger stores to reopen a week from now, followed by restaurants and other businesses if the virus plays ball – ‘back to normal’ in other words, a scary thought in itself though through personal experience I find almost any changed way of living can feel tolerable after about 72 hours.

  9. In one of James Lovelock’s books on Gaia theory he opines that making fire was man’s original sin. If forced to reduce matters to an equation, impact equals fossil fuel use (burning) is the stark truth. Not all cultures or thinkers view fossil fuels, rocks and the like as outside the realm of ‘biological living systems’. Some imbue everything earthly with a soul, even if to most of us it just looks like part of the furniture.

  10. My in-tray has suddenly bulged so I can only essay a few brief answers to the interesting further comments.

    Inasmuch as attributing social causation is always an act of simplification, I can go with Joe’s equation as the most economical distillation of human impact. But I’d caution against the teleology of assuming that human societies will organise themselves so as to maximize use of available energy – especially when ‘available energy’ is a social product. Hence the importance of discussing capitalism – especially when we turn attention to degrowth and energy descent on a populous planet.

    Much to agree with in Andrew’s further comment. Sociologists/historians, lumpers/splitters, pattern/contingency – the debate will never end, and it’s one where I’m happiest to sit on the fence. Perhaps the main virtue of variable wrangling in historical sociology is the way it prompts debate and further questioning – the danger is when it considers its analysis to be ‘Scientific’ with a capital S. Hence I basically agree on the dangers of formulae. All the same, I appreciate the gauntlet that Clem has thrown down – I’m hopeful that someone on here other than me might accept his challenge…

    >Do you see a role for direct confrontation with capitalists in a strategy to hasten a small farm future?

    Yes, emphatically. But I’ll have to elaborate another time, insofar as I haven’t already done so previously on this site.

    Thanks for your comment jef, and welcome. Much to agree with there – especially the way you point out that ism-mongering is often a form of displacement activity for ‘real’ work … something I fear I’m often guilty of. Though the concept of humanism itself has a long and troubled history…

    …which thinkers like John Gray delight in trashing. Thanks for linking to that article Diogenese. I do like a lot of his writing (well, since he abandoned his embrace of Margaret Thatcher anyway) though he does sometimes remind me of a more cerebral version of John Michael Greer in his kneejerk hatred for anything that smacks of liberalism. Generally, I have more time for mainstream politics than Gray, and yet his residual liberalism in claiming that globalization has lifted people out of poverty and in dismissing the possibilities of economic localism strikes me as problematic.

    Thanks also to Simon … but trying to work this through in terms of a position on Gaia thinking is too much for me right now!

    Incidentally, Malcolm Ramsay has initiated a debate under my ‘For whom the bell tolls’ post. If anyone wants to weigh in, I’d be an interested observer.

    • But I’d caution against the teleology of assuming that human societies will organise themselves so as to maximize use of available energy – especially when ‘available energy’ is a social product.

      Perhaps you could point me in the direction of a society that did not maximize the use of available energy?

      That would be one that limited its production of children despite an abundance of food, did not expand into fertile lands unoccupied by other people and generally limited their use of fire as exogenous energy, perhaps by refusing to cook food and eat it raw or by not using it to clear land for horticulture, instead preferring the clearing of land by using hand tools. And how many agricultural societies are there that refuse to use available animals for draft purposes, tilling their fields or pulling their carts by hand while their oxen loaf about?

      Discounting the hermit sitting by his campfire, when is ‘available energy’ not a social product?

      • What I’m getting at is that increased energy usage isn’t really a force driving history, although increased energy use is often a historical trend. I discussed this in the second part of this post a while back: https://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/2018/02/history-crash/

        Available energy indeed is always a social product, but I don’t see this as a trivial point. Coal is just a worthless rock until somebody uses it for smelting iron or a heat engine, but the smelting or the engine doesn’t happen just because the coal is there.

        The example of industrial smelting of iron using coal in China 2000 years ago without coal then revolutionizing the social base of the society as it later did in the 19th century might illustrate what I mean by saying that human societies don’t necessarily organise themselves to maximise use of available energy. That’s not the same as saying that societies don’t make use of available resources and expand their activities.

  11. I’m sorry if this was mentioned here and I missed it… but a little over a week ago this article appeared in the Guardian:

    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/28/fruit-and-veg-will-run-out-unless-britain-charters-planes-to-fly-in-farm-workers-from-eastern-europe?CMP=share_btn_tw

    Given discussions here recently over Brexit, the virus, population issues, the UK’s ability to feed itself in the future… this particular piece ticks all the boxes.

    Here in the US there is a similar issue in the fresh fruit and vegetable industry, but the labor pool tapped from this shore of the pond largely originates from Mexico and other Central American countries.

    Having raised and picked fresh fruit and vegetables in my youth for the family market garden I appreciate the work. Our particular operation did not employ anyone from outside our immediate community (and very few even then from outside our immediate family)… so I don’t have a serious appreciation for, or understanding of the business model(s) on display in the article.

    At this juncture in my life I’ve no interest in growing fruit and vegetables commercially. A kitchen garden will suffice. Trading/donating excess produce will carry the day.

    The sociology of waking up one day in Bulgaria, and then picking strawberries in Hereford the next leaves me filled with wonder. I suppose this is the world we are faced with repairing.

    • I was speaking to my younger brother about how he might earn money to pay for university. His idea was to offer online English classes – something for which he is eminently qualified. However, I pointed out to him that everyone and their dog will be trying to earn money online during a lock-down and that he could instead work as an agricultural labourer, picking fruit and veg. Supply and demand would be in his favour. He wasn’t convinced.

      • everyone and their dog will be trying to earn money online

        Indeed. Our dog hasn’t had the opportunity, nor is she likely to get it. But if by some miracle she could offer English classes – well that would be something!

    • Yes, this is an interesting development – long before Covid-19, or indeed Brexit, the long-term outlook for commercial horticulture in its reliance on cheap foreign labour in the rich countries was shaky. I’m short on time to address this right now, but perhaps I’ll be able to come back to it later in the growing season – no doubt with the benefit of more hindsight…

      As in your youth, our own market gardening model doesn’t rely on migrant labour, which feels like a good place to be – but not an easy one to engineer nowadays.

      Flying in to pick strawberries as evidence of a broken world? You’ve nailed it…

      But Mexico – North America, right?

      • But Mexico – North America, right?

        Perhaps… I might argue that context matters. If you track a former trade agreement – NAFTA – then yes, North America. If you track a certain strain of red MAGA hat wearers then it gets more nuanced.

        So as I don’t have such a red hat I suppose I should keep Mexico in North America. Good catch.

  12. Great posts recently Chris! It’s both slightly gratifying and incredibly insulting – this sudden recognition in the form of being designated as “essential workers”. Orwellian much??
    On a policy note if you folks over there in Merry Olde come up with any good ideas for programs or initiatives to advance small farmer-ism in this rare time when the governments are desperately throwing money around please do share. As you can imagine Hawaii’s economy is virtually burnt to the ground by this thing, although in my neck of reconstituted peasantry it hasn’t hit too hard yet. In fact there is much more fervent support for local agriculture as no one wants to drive to the nearest city for groceries anymore. So now is the time to make the pitch for programs to strengthen local agriculture it seems.

  13. Thanks for yet another thought-provoking post, Chris, and thanks to all the participants in the lively discussion that’s followed. I really enjoyed Against the Grain, so I was very interested to read Pournelle’s review, as well. Scintillating, indeed! On that subject, the Cambridge Archaeological Journal published a Review Symposium of Scott’s book last fall (including a response from Scott himself) that I would dearly love to read in full, but, unfortunately, only one of the articles is open access.

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  16. While I appreciate the thought that obviously went into this, it doesn’t really engage with I=PAT. I=PAT tries to explain which factors contribute to human impact *at any given moment*, but also regardless of system. It helps to give a rough idea of which levers exist to influence human impact. Some levers are abstract, like ‘technology’, others aren’t, like ‘population’. The fact that there is no unit for ‘impact’ should tell you this is not a formula like F=M*A and that being able to render it tautological is pointless. Of course there can be discussion whether these are the only and best factors, but that’s not what Chris offers.

    Chris’ narrative gives a possible account of which systemic historical factors led to our current high impact situation. It indeed is a deeper and more fundamental look, but it says nothing about which specific factors influence impact. For instance, in Chris’ narrative, halving the US population doesn’t change impact. Fossil fuels are still there, capitalism is still there, grain farming is still there. Similarly, there’s no way to tell whether impact-wise it would be better to live like average Nigerians or like average Canadians (which both fit the narrative). So I think it’s clear I=PAT and Chris’ narrative serve different goals.

    Chris’ narrative suggests how we might have ended up in this high impact situation, and which systemic change is needed to undo it. It leaves individuals with nothing much to do, except for joining movements that try to change the system, or wait for systemic change. I=PAT on the other hand, offers no analysis of how we got here, but tells us how we might influence human impact. It could be that Chris thinks tinkering with the current system yields limited results and as such I=PAT offers nothing usable.

    I think it does. Whatever systemic change we will go through, the lower our total impact is before it, the more chance we have to make the transition smooth and quick. And I=PAT can help with that. Chris rightly asked in one of his previous posts whether population is a problem at all. The usual answer is to point at carrying capacity, followed by endless statistic-slinging. I prefer to think in terms of ‘wiggle room’. The Netherlands for instance, where I live, is set to suffer greatly from sea level rise, where a big chunk of the land might flood permanently, or become unusable for agriculture. I think it’s obvious that those problems will be easier to manage with fewer people, no matter what system we will be in, or whatever the carrying capacity might be. Having wiggle room means being more resilient.

    • Michael, thanks for that interesting comment. I’ll try to reply, but it may not be for a while as I’m heavily focused on finishing the editing of my book just now.

      • No worries! I thought your piece was very thought provoking, so I even felt the need to write a lengthier reply today that engaged more with the narrative itself. Please don’t feel the obligation to reply. If what I wrote was interesting enough for you, I’m sure you’ll work your view into one of your future posts.

        Looking forward to the book!

  17. I had another look at Chris’ narrative and I think one of the big shortcomings is that it can’t explain why in Western countries the impact got so much bigger since roughly the 1950s. Grain farming, capitalism and fossil fuels were all in place well before that, so something is missing.

    I’m not enough of a farmer (yet) to say whether grain farming really was the first step to our current situation, so I’ll accept that. But I think ‘capitalism’ is too specific. I’m willing to be schooled on it, but I don’t think communism as practiced in the Soviet Union was any better than capitalism with respect to impact. As such, I think the second step is better characterized as ‘industrialization’. Or better, mechanization combined with fossil fuels.

    In my view, mechanization has to be interpreted much wider than just ‘building machines’. At its most abstract it’s about having a mechanistic view of the world, and that is a product of the enlightenment. That explains why previous use of fossil fuels by the Chinese, the Romans and even 15th century Englishmen didn’t lead to systemic change.

    There was mechanization before the steam-engine, but the use of fossil fuels weaponized mechanization, to borrow a term from Chris. The intimate marriage between fossil fuels and mechanization is perfectly illustrated by the first use of the steam engine: to drain coal mines. After that it wasn’t long before people dreamed up countless ways to use steam-power to do labor-intensive tasks.

    But the mechanistic view of the world also inspired viewing the human body as a kind of machine. And by trying to figure out the mechanism that accounted for, for instance, child mortality, the general health got much better. This allowed the population to grow enormously. I think a dramatic drop in child mortality accounts for almost all of this, while increased life expectancy has not much to do with it. When you read that life expectancy used to be 40, you have to realize that it’s average life expectancy, not the age at which people would typically die. Anyone that made it through childhood would probably live to an age typical for current societies (or slightly lower). As an illustration, look up some of your favorite classic philosophers and see at what age they died.

    In the Netherlands (and I think similarly in other Western countries), the mortality rate decreased dramatically after 1870. But it took until 1960 before people stopped having 19th century sized families, aided by contraceptives and secularization. The period from roughly 1870 to 1960 accounts for the population booms in Western societies, so that’s why it’s so hard to change it now. The annual natural population growth in the Netherlands for instance, is close to 10000 at the moment. So it’s hard to change the size of population there, and a reduction of total impact can only be humanely achieved by lowering the impact per capita.

    But population growth is not enough to account for the rise in impact since the 1950s. I think the best candidate for that is consumerism. It forces us to be high impact, with trends and fashions, with planned obsolescence and tapping into our desire to display status by offering us buyable status symbols.

    To get back to population, some regions, like Africa, are still in the middle of the population boom period, so that’s why population control could be beneficial there. For instance, adopting a 3-child policy in Africa would mean 1 billion people less in 2050. If Africa makes its way to wide-spread consumerism (or climate change forces many Africans to migrate to high impact countries), the fewer people the better, impact-wise.

    Please understand, this is not to point the finger at Africa to do the hard work for Western countries. This is accepting that to see the impact of population growth, one needs to look many decades into the future, and realizing that it’s easy to grow a population quickly, but nearly impossible to make it smaller afterward in a natural way.

    To conclude, the historical narrative of how we got to our current high impact situation would thus be:

    Grain farming, mechanization, fossil fuels, population growth, consumerism.

    There’s no nice systemic ‘roll-back path’ as suggested by Chris’ narrative, mainly because population size reared its ugly head again, but I think it has much greater explanatory power.

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