The sheep sacrifice

Continuing my amble through my book A Small Farm Future, my next stop in Part I is Crisis #7 – Land (pp.43-51). There’s a specific aspect of this that’s topical at the moment here in the UK, so I’ll begin with that and work my way towards a more general conclusion that’s implicit in the book.

With a no deal Brexit looming and the Government’s farm subsidy regimen shifting towards payments only for delivering ‘public goods’, it looks like hard times may lie ahead for many commercial farmers in the UK, none more so than for upland livestock farmers. The UK is by far the EU’s largest sheep producer, and about a third of its production is exported, the great majority to other EU countries. So sheep farmers (primarily in the uplands) face a double blow of contracting markets and contracting farm support. I’m not sure exactly how that will play out, but maybe with farmers shooting a lot of next year’s lambs. I hope none of them end up shooting themselves.

The decline of the upland livestock industry will be celebrated by many in the (re)wilding movement, for whom Britain’s ‘sheepwrecked’ mountains have become the iconic example of misplaced agrarianism at the expense of wilderness. Without the intensive grazing pressure of sheep, the argument goes, the mountains would regain their tree cover, with numerous benefits for biodiversity, as well as lowland flood abatement. And instead of eking out a marginal economic existence as farmers, the people of the uplands could then earn better rewards as custodians of the rejuvenating wilderness and workers in the consequently growing tourist industry.

The rewilders surely have a point. Sheep stocking in the uplands is at a high level historically and there’s much to be said for reducing it and creating more complex silvopastoral upland landscapes. Arguably, this would more closely resemble the farmed upland landscapes of the past, when the mountain valleys would also have had a greater diversity of arable farming, horticulture and local crafts and industries, much of it devoted to local needs. What changed was less an enthusiasm among upland farmers to cram the hills with sheep than the dictates of central government policy, in the UK as in many other countries, which has generally pushed farmers to focus upon the single most advantageous and remunerative crop in their area to the exclusion of almost everything else. There’s a danger that by design or default (re)wilding will figure as another top-down policy prescription imposed from afar, without connecting to local histories of mixed land use geared to feeding people locally.

This touches on debates about so-called ‘land sparing’ versus ‘land sharing’ that I discuss under Crisis #7 in the book. Behind them lies a wider philosophical question of human ecology: which is preferable, a world of domesticated and urbanized humans experiencing unpeopled wilderness only as visitors and sojourners, or a world of rather wilder humans making modest livelihoods in rural spaces? And perhaps behind them too lies a matter of practical ecology sparked by the classic ecological question of why the world is green – that is, are plant-rich terrestrial landscapes preserved from the depredations of herbivorous animals top-down by predator control of the herbivores, or bottom-up by plant defences against herbivory?

I won’t dwell on all that here, but essentially I’m in the bottom-up camp. Share land, wild ourselves by learning to live in place, and don’t over-fetishise predators because plants can more or less take care of themselves. Still, in the short term I daresay that erstwhile farmers in the uplands will make a better living working as tour guides than they ever did as shepherds. In the present economy, herding people always pays better than herding livestock. But while they might be making a better living – and while some, I’m sure, will genuinely take to tourist work – I’m not convinced that many upland folks will be making a better livelihood, in the sense of participating in a way of life that’s deeply structured to the sustaining possibilities of the local landscape. And this, ultimately, is what seems most likely to endure. The present collapse of tourism due to Covid-19 is surely only the harbinger of a larger and longer collapse in the possibility that the wider economy can keep infusing places with wealth greatly beyond their local means.

For sure, people gain from participating in the wider economy and the services it provides. Doubtless there are few who would want to renounce all of it in what Emma Marris (who I quote on p.27 of my book) calls the ‘grand sacrifices’ involved in turning our backs on our contemporary high-energy, high-throughput society. But that society isn’t quite as paradisiacal as is often supposed, especially for those with a less advantageous place within it. And, however paradisiacal it is, it’s in any case unlikely to survive the numerous crises that I outline in Part I of my book.

Therefore, I think many of us certainly will need to make sacrifices. So perhaps it’s as well for us to ‘sacrifice’ in the original sense of the word – to make sacred. An awful lot of contemporary thought makes sacred urban, fluid, high-energy consumer culture. It’s time to put this romanticism aside. We now need to find ways to come to terms with both the opportunities and the constraints within local agroecosystems like the forgotten silvo-arable-pastoral systems of upland Britain, thereby making them sacred.

But with the sacred comes the profane. So we also need to think through the difficulties of small farm localism, just as the romantics of urban modernity need to think through the difficulties of their own vision. As to whether continuing with present high-energy, urbanizing, monoculturalizing trends involves more sacrifice than low-energy, decentralizing, landscape diversifying trends, it really depends on what you consider to be sacred.

49 thoughts on “The sheep sacrifice

  1. “…it really depends on what you consider to be sacred.”

    Bingo. Economic growth seems to be a sacred cow. Some people (like Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus) consider technology to be sacred, and nuclear power plants to be 100% natural. I’m not exaggerating.

    “Putting faith in modernization will require a new secular theology… It will require a worldview that sees technology as humane and sacred…”

    “Many environmentally concerned people today view technology as an affront to the sacredness of nature, but our technologies have always been perfectly natural.”

    “our nuclear plants… 100 percent natural”

    from “Evolve” by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus

  2. I don’t have any idea about the economics of sheep farming in the UK, but with 7.8 billion people on the earth and the (gradual?) decay of industrial agriculture looming, as much food producing space as possible should be preserved for feeding people during difficult times. Certainly any land that has the potential for arable use should be kept domesticated. I think we’re going to need every acre we can get.

    Perhaps those in favor of re-wilding would counter that letting sheep pastures go to brush and then forest would enhance fertility of the soil for more productive later use. But I suspect that soil fertility is the last thing on their mind. After all, they might say, with unlimited nuclear power we can always grow all our food in multi-story structures right in the city where the food is needed. We can just substitute gro-lites for sunlight and let the land go wild.

    I can’t help but be perplexed, though, by the continuing expansion of agriculture into wild spaces all over the world. If technology is ever going to allow us to decrease our dependence on growing our food out in the open, it had better happen pretty soon. For all the talk about technology coming to the rescue, they’re letting the gravy train get pretty close to the end of the line.

    And if technological rescue doesn’t happen, and industrial agriculture does falter, then wilderness is not going to be very welcoming to refugees from cities looking for a place to grow something to eat. The prudent thing would be to keep land available for settling by small farmers and do everything possible to build soil fertility for a time when synthetic fertilizer is harder to come by. That small farm future may come sooner than we think.

    • I often wonder what rewilding means , to what point in history ? go back far ebiugh there were giant cattle wild hogs ,deer sheep and goats all wandering around the UK , before that mammoth and wooly rhino .
      Wild boar will decimate anywhere , thousands of mini bulldozers , goats and deer browse on young trees , sheep will nibble down to the dirt , it will certainly not look like a stately home park .
      I have listened to those that want to rewild the great plains to the point ” that it is as if no human ever laid a foot there ” , no one knows what that looked like , the native americans burned it regulary to drive bison to their deaths for the last 20,000 years or so .
      Here in TX, unmanaged areas ( and theres a lotof it ) burn regulary then naturaly regenerate yet some scream about air polution and roasted wildlife .

  3. Amen to that.
    Ecomodernists seem (understandably so?) to fetishise the technology sacred to them, while portraying those committed to a simpler way as exhibiting the excessive, irrational commitment, or fetish.
    All this apparent irrationality from both sides might render agreement… nigh on impossible?
    I guess much hinges on to what extent we fetishise the sacred, and (more to the point) if a fetish is indeed unchosen by us, to what extent can we then help ourselves. Apologies if that sounds like nonsense (early start!).

    • “Ecomodernists seem (understandably so?) to fetishise the technology sacred to them,”
      Its become a new religion . they use the same vocabulary as Francis of Assisi .

  4. A very thought-provoking post. I live in one of England’s upland sheep farming regions, so I’m particularly concerned with these questions.

    I’m all for taking inspiration from the ‘forgotten silvo-arable-pastoral systems of upland Britain‘, and am very interested in encouraging people to remember them again. The current interest in rewilding is certainly a double-edged sword at the moment. Benedict Macdonald’s book ‘Rebirding’ was, on the one hand, quite a revelation to me in its evocation of a more biodiverse Britain, but in the other, a huge disappointment in its advocacy of rural tourism as pretty much the only economic mechanism to support rural communities. The idea that such communities should have to rely for their existence entirely on the whims of people who live elsewhere seems to me the culmination of all that is wrong with the current globalised system.

    The main problem with a ‘low-energy, decentralizing, landscape diversifying‘ alternative is, as ever, getting from here to there. My local farming landscape faces very imminent problems. On the one hand it is dominated by relatively small farms, many family run. On the other hand, many are likely to go out of business under the new subsidy regime – particularly concerning is an aspect of the DEFRA policy that will offer financial encouragement to those wishing to retire from farming whilst at the same time delinking subsidy payment from actual farming, presumably to enable land-grabbing by investors. So there may not be much of an existing farming culture to work with before long.

    Of course, the big issue here is the pre-existing reliance on subsidies, linked ultimately to cheap food policies and supermarket dominance. How are we to break out of this towards a small farm future? I’ve become interested in James Rebanks’ efforts to make his upland Cumbrian farm more biodiverse, a much needed advocate of the ‘land-sharing’ approach. But he is only one farmer, who cannot reshape his local economy by himself, and is clearly able to do what he does in part because he can subsidise his work with the fruits of a successful literary career.

    My worry is that things have to fall apart considerably before we have the chance to build something new in their place. I’d rather start now, but how?

  5. In Feral George Monbiot interviews a Welsh Sheep Farmer who makes a very valid point about the cultural importance of sheep farming and his interviewee oints out that with the removal of (some) farmers will result in the loss of the history of the land.

    Having said that however I understand that many ‘sheep farmers’ are in fact absentee ranchers so they wont be a great loss.

    At the moment many upland sheep farmers end up earning less than they are paid in subsidies so we need to look at more realistic prices for sheep meat and wool.

    Some years ago I was walking near Abergavenney and was struck by the beauty of the oak woods which we would get were we to reduce or eliminate sheep grazing on the mountains. So it has its pluses and minus’s.

    Possibly a case for some selective rewilding, either by area so we can still experience the open uplands or on ‘case by case’ basis perhaps closing down the sheep ranches and keeping the owner occupied farms?

  6. The idea that there will be enough tourism post-Brexit to support farmers made me laugh. I think we are looking at potentially quite a few years of sharp shocks to food supplies.

    In the spirit of starting where we are rather than from an imaginary blank slate, though, I think we are going to be stuck with cities for a while yet.

    The house I rent in Zone 3 of London is over a hundred years old, and I think in another fifty or a hundred years it will probably still be here. This particular area has been settled since at least medieval times and probably longer, though belonging to “London” is a much more recent development and the population is obviously much higher now. And if, say, 25% of the population of London — a staggering number! — were to leave, it would still be a very large city, with all the opportunities and constraints that come with that. Some of the infrastructure might entirely crumble, but much would remain.

    So I think there’s value in asking what an urban small farm future might look like. How will cities need to function in order to not be places of miserable starvation? The answer is that, as with most things, they’ll need to be very different than we imagine them now… and maybe I don’t have a more specific answer than that. But insofar as I can imagine a city like London having a future at all, it involves much less energy-assisted travel, and much more local food production. Oddly, this is where I can imagine some of what I broadly think of as “permaculture stuff” helping — ornamental street trees gradually replaced by edible ones, chickens and veg in many more back gardens, retrofitting passive solar hot water, a lot more community food growing spaces in addition to back garden veg, more bicycles and many fewer cars.

    I don’t think any of this will be enough to safely and sustainably maintain London at its current size, but I do think every carrot and squash and raspberry I grow here instead of buying takes that little bit of pressure off of rural cash crop agriculture and the high-energy transport required to get it to cities. Last summer I picked fresh berries from the garden three times a week from the beginning of May to about the end of September. Sometimes that was just a handful; sometimes I had to make jam. With the exception of an Amelanchier that was here when we arrived, all those berries grow in containers. (We lost all the apples and plums at the allotment, though, due to a combination of a late hard frost and wooly aphids; hopefully this year will be better.) We don’t have much in the way of soil in the garden, so I have had to import a lot of material to get up and running, but we also compost all of our food waste and some of our human waste (we are not set up for composting solids safely, but I don’t hold with flushing nitrogen down the toilet if we can use it). We collect rainwater (more at the allotment than at home, as there is more space there for water butts and greater need for irrigation because of the larger number of crops and the lack of protection from wind). We save seeds, at least where it’s easy to do so. This model surely isn’t enough even to sustain a much smaller London, and it is only open to us because of our considerable existing privilege, but even if it is derided as hobbyist, it’s still better than nothing. Even within the urban landscape we can decentralise and diversify and reduce energy inputs.

    Speaking of the sacred, an awful lot of churches in the West have south-facing roofs and churchyards. Organisations like A Rocha and their “eco-church” certification are currently still small, but surely going in the right direction. I am Christian and have various thoughts about this! We can’t possibly grow enough food in the small churchyard at my church to feed everyone who comes to the soup kitchen and food bank, but we certainly supplement the donated veg with things we grow (and the three-cornered garlic that is endemic in the churchyard). We compost all our food waste and a good deal of paper waste, we collect rainwater, and once it’s safe post-COVID we’ll resume community gardening days where people learn gardening skills with us. All of this already fits into our theology without having to do any mental backflips: God made the world (therefore it is sacred), and the way we behave affects others and this matters (‘Whatever you do unto the least of these my brothers and sisters, you do unto me”). I think we probably don’t need to re-write what is sacred, we just need to make our daily actions and choices fit our existing theology better, and more explicitly reject the current dominant culture’s prioritisation of speed, fossil energy, monoculture, “convenient” single-use plastics, and so on. To my mind, these are all side effects of treating money (and especially, financial profit without human effort by the investor, as we see so often in crapitalism and which you summarised neatly in your book) as an idol. And existing Christian theological tradition definitely has something to say about the love of money, and definitely has something to say about idolatry. A certain amount of humility is required in this, as churches have so often failed to live out this aspect of our theology.

    What I struggle with is how to communicate that sacredness in a timely manner to people with no interest in church OR sustainability. Running around telling people who drive when they don’t need to that they are idol worshippers and need to repent isn’t going to go down well, especially given the context in which we frame such need. Of course I encourage interest in horticulture wherever I can, but it is entirely accurate that this is seen as a privileged hobby to have when there are so many people with no access to land or time to grow much. I think part of the problem is actually another sort of confused idolatry, which sees us expressing both our individuality and our sense of belonging through things we buy, rather than framing such choices as existing in a web of interconnected relationships, of which humans are only one part and without which we cannot survive.

    The (re-)wilding people are correct that our relationships with land and plants and animals are important. I have seen it argued that the humanism of Christianity, and particularly the idea that humans own and are therefore divinely entitled to the “natural” world in some sense, is problematic in terms of any sustainability project; but I don’t necessarily think that the human-centric nature of much Christian theology is the biggest problem. The issues of wanting to maximise status or profit or power at the expense of others or at the expense of longer term sustainability aren’t limited to Christian theology or culture. But Christianity did certainly adapt itself to colonialism, global crapitalism etc, changing the emphasis or interpretation of one doctrine or another — and in order to adapt ourselves to the multiple crises upon the world now, we will need to re-examine the theology we have inherited.

    Your take on a small farm future involves looking at and learning from a small farm past. For Christian theologians of a practical bent, there is much to be said for a similar exercise, looking at how religious communities have functioned in small farm contexts throughout history and what lessons can be learned from that.

    • And I’m sorry to write so much about London and cities in general, in response to an article on imminent pressures on and changes to rural land use! My more general point there was around moving toward more local food/crop diversity in cities, in hopes that doing so might also enable at least some small changes in rural areas too.

    • “…we just need to make our daily actions and choices fit our existing theology”

      Hear hear.

      And vice versa for those of us not aligned with an organized theology – with the proviso of paying attention to how we affect the world around us..

      But I think you are correct that the immediate work is at the individual, local level. Until the larger political economy becomes less of a death wish.

      Thanks

      • I’m Church of England, calling us “organised” is about of a stretch!

        More seriously: the balance between top-down and grassroots-up governance in churches can be fascinating. Currently the C of E has the issue that the bits of transitional governance in between these are generally voluntary and taken up by people who have time and patience for lots of boring meetings and very slow change, which means people of a certain privileged economic security and educational background, or with exceptional motivation for status within the church itself, do most of that work. I don’t think this problem is limited to the C of E, but it’s a good case study in how difficult institutional change can be, and why.

        That said, I think the existing diversity of theology and practice in the C of E is also a good sign. On a parish by parish level we are relatively free to decide whether e.g. eco-church certification, or community horticulture, or support for political land reform, or some combination of all three, will help the communities we serve. There is more to my faith than community service, but the community service part of it is integral. In the places where that is also true and where there are people who see the effects on food security of the changes we are going through, there will be at least some efforts toward mitigation or even local regeneration. There is an incredible amount of work to do here and I don’t think the churches alone can do it, but I am eager that churches and other faith groups should be involved in conversations on what we hold sacred and why, and how that plays out in our actions.

    • Hi Kathryn, I like your vision of retrofitted cities and “ornamental street trees gradually replaced by edible ones, chickens and veg in many more back gardens, retrofitting passive solar hot water, a lot more community food growing spaces in addition to back garden veg, more bicycles and many fewer cars.”

      This sounds a lot like David Holmgren’s “Retrosuburbia” vision. I can highly recommend his book: https://retrosuburbia.com/

      It’s unashamedly Aussie-centric and I would dearly like to see a translation of the book’s ideas to the British context. Despite this, I think it’s still a fantastic resource for thinking about our common future.

  7. Subsidy policy is problematic here in the U.S., driving poor land stewardship and decimating the rural economy. It is short sighted, the way that urban power centers exert their will on land use, commodify food to make it cheap for consumers, and profitable for large corporations.

    Full story is more complex, but these two links give a flavor of the issue:
    https://www.thoughtco.com/us-farm-subsidies-3325162
    https://usafacts.org/articles/federal-farm-subsidies-what-data-says/

    And of course, once again entirely oblivious of the food system’s fragility with respect to fossil energy availability.

    • Very true that cities demand cheap food and governments make sure they get it , yet there is a elephant in the room , climate , soy beans are now getting into short supply , prices are rising , governments could intervine and subsidise but that does not cure the problem of the comodity shortage , money is not food , chinas appauling wet summer made them the largest importer of soy , the usa lost huge ammounts from rainstorms , brazil is having a drought , the three largest producers of soy have or are having crop losses ( usa has droped estimated crop from 205 mm bushels to 140mm bushels ) , maize ( corn ) is not as bad but their is a problem . Putin is thinking of a export tax on grain as their harvest was poor .
      Now for the rewilders that want to remove production of foods from areas that will grow litte else but animals and replace meat by factory produced fake meat ( ignoring the transport, building, running and the carbon footprint involved all made from soy / peas / grains just at the time when grain growing is getting problematical due to adverse weather . France has ordered their farmers to plant 40% more soy next year .
      The idea that upland farmers farming tourists is laughable , covid killed that and the lack of transport in the future by banning petrol vehicles will compound the problem , few will ba able to afford them energy will be in short supply and the inherant problems of battery cars will make them useless in a cold country , ( a friend in wisconsin bought one , 250 miles range , with the heater on it dropped to 75 miles , virtualy useless he kept it for less than one winter ) .
      The technoutopian green new deal could work with about a third of the population we have now , who decides who dies ? .

      • Diogenese claimed:
        France has ordered their farmers to plant 40% more soy next year

        Reports actually indicate the French government intends to support a 40% increase in domestic production of “protein crops” over the next three years. Soy will likely lead much of the way, but peas, lentils, chickpeas, and beans are also indicated as worthy of the subsidy.

        https://www.agriculture.com/markets/newswire/update-1-france-seeks-to-expand-protein-rich-crops-to-cut-soy-import-reliance

        Diogenese is correct that China has become a big importer of US soybeans of late. This is complicated by politics – response to trade negotiated realities following on from tariff disputes for instance. But the longer term prospect(s) aren’t so dire. [longer term meaning a horizon of 2 to 10 years] For instance – if France is successful in substantially increasing their domestic protein crop production, there would be more South American production to go around. A goal of the French move is to relieve pressure on Brazilian rain forest destruction caused by increased soy plantings. Worthy of course, but not likely to find direct or immediate impact.

        I’m wondering what the French are intending to give up or replace when the 400,000 hectares come on line for protein crops??

      • The technoutopian green new deal could work with about a third of the population we have now , who decides who dies?

        It depends on whether TSHTF (“The Shinola Hits The Fan”), or BFATWD (“Boiling Frogs All The Way Down”).

        In a slow-crash scenario, normal attrition could fill the bill, perhaps aided a bit by CoViD-19. The Guardian recently had a story on twenty-somethings who, in light of the pandemic, were opting to have fewer or even no children.

        In a fast-crash scenario, all bets are off, and any number of catastrophic events could reduce the human population by a sizeable amount.

        But I’m afraid it will be boiling frogs, and a long, slow crash.

        To the extent that the US is often a leading indicator, the centuries-long march of “progress,” as measured by the mean human lifetime, has already reversed in the US, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.

    • I’m trying to get a feel for how the farm subsidies in the UK compare to those in the USA.

      Dividing annual farm subsidies by the number of acres results in about $25/acre in the USA, and $255/acre in the UK (under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy at current exchange rates). That’s an order of magnitude difference, per acre.

      However, looking at the annual farm subsidies “per capita” for the total populations of the USA and the UK, the results of the calculations were surprisingly identical:

      USA:  $22.6 billion/333m = $68 per capita

      UK:  £3.4bn/65.8m = 51.67 pounds per capita = $68 per capita

      • “Dividing annual farm subsidies by the number of acres”
        should read
        “Dividing annual farm subsidies by the number of farm acres”

      • An indication of what’s considered to be sacred:

        £3.4bn a year in subsidies to British Farmers.
        £10.5bn a year in subsidies to fossil fuels.

        “Currently, British farmers get around £3.4bn a year in subsidies under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)”

        “”In January last year, the European Commission published the report “Energy prices and costs in Europe”. It’s about subsidies paid by member states to support energy-related development. It found that the UK led the EU in giving subsidies to fossil fuels. It identified £10.5bn a year in support for fossil fuels in the UK”

        https://www.energyvoice.com/opinion/234139/uk-fossil-fuel-subsidies-exist-by-the-back-door/

  8. Turns out there is a bit more history to the French desire to increase their protein rich crops than I’d have imagined. In 2014 the USDA published this:

    http://www.liquid-energy.ch/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015-01-15-France-French-plan-for-protein-crops-2014-2020.pdf

    From that report, in a section suggesting that France is not competitive in protein crop production there is this:

    The French production of protein crops has declined in the past twenty years and, in 2013, accounted for less than two percent of total field crop area. This decline is due to low yields and profitability compared to alternative crops, especially since it is not possible to grow genetically engineered soybeans.

    Especially?? The poke there is aimed at the EU distaste for GMO… which is totally irrelevant. The yield differential between GMO and non-GMO soy is small
    (if indeed even real in many locations). But there is still the very significant matter of being in a position to convert hectares from current use toward crops desired by government bureaucrats. Top down vs. bottom up anyone?

    • Top down was the soviet method !
      I have allways thought farmers should ge a minimum wage paid on a small acarage then no subsidies on production over that limited acarage ( say 100 acres ) that would drive the corporate landholders out , no government tit to suck on , also quotas and limits on crops should go , peanuts grow well round here they are a legume and cope well with dry conditions but you gave to buy a liscence to grow them limited by the gov , that screwed the rotation of crops and forced huge amounts of fertiliser to be used , two crops of peanuts , one of cotton worked well , top down , not bottom up .

    • France as well as most other EU countries have had several tries to increase its protein crop production and the new Farm to Fork strategy of the EU has new goals for this. Meanwhile the EU will sign a new trade agreement with Mercosur countries that will increase exports of meat and soy to the EU…..The European dependency of protein crops goes a very long way back to the 1800s as most countries supported domestic grain production but left markets open for imports of protein crops to support the livestock industry. The “protein crops” are a major component in the industrialisation of the livestock sector and the abandonment of upland grazing in many parts of Europe in favour of grain/soy fed livestock and poultry.

  9. Thanks for a rich set of comments. I only have time for some brief responses.

    Indeed, everything including nuclear power is 100% natural. This empties ‘natural’ of any meaning. The key thing about sacredness is what it impels us not to do rather than what it impels us to do.

    The theoretical case for land sparing is belied by numerous actual instances of agricultural expansion, as discussed in my book – the apparent contradiction arising because land sparing arguments typically fail to grasp how the political economy works.

    I agree with Andrew that the problem is how to get from here to there – a problem that attends most things we discuss on this blog. I liked the way Chris Newman of Sylvanaqua Farms deflected this question on a recent podcast (which I’ll be discussing soon) – to paraphrase, if I had the answer I’d be world emperor, instead of sitting here writing this blog. But in the meantime I think it’s worth speaking up for the often forgotten ways that many ‘remote’ places successfully fed themselves in the past.

    I’m all for more tree cover and more wildness. But also for local self-provisioning. So the key is to confront those trade-offs. A worthy compromise is often to build working trees into the farmscape – trees to be planted, cut down or coppiced, replanted etc.

    Much of interest in Kathryn’s comments. I don’t write about cities all that much because they already get enough attention, but much to agree with here – we need more urban food self-reliance and we need deurbanization, and there are some obvious complementarities there. I talk about this a little in Chapter 15 of my book. I also agree that we don’t necessarily need to rewrite what’s sacred tout court, but in different times and places people emphasize different aspects of religious/sacred traditions to suit themselves and I think it’s time for a rethink (Chapter 16!). Interesting too on religious communities – more on that soon, I hope.

    Thanks for all the other comments, that I haven’t touched on here. I will try to come back to some of them when I can – especially the issue of different subsidy regimens. But pressure of other work is calling me right now…

  10. Apart from all the other flaws of the land-sparing strategy, the biggest flaw is probably the assumption that land that is abandonned for agricultural purpose in some magic way would become wilderness as if there were no other competing interests involved. Landowners quite simply want to get rent from their land…..

    In Sweden silvo-pastoral grazing of huge tracts of land was abandonned already more than 150 years ago. It was mostly encouraged by the government in order to support the emerging forest industries and earlier for the provisioning of iron works with charcoal. Around 10 millon hectares of grazed forest have now become increasingly intensively managed forest plantations, with considerably less bio-diversity than the previous landscape, but admittedly with more moose and wolf. Now we are quite desperately trying to revive some of the old traditions….

    • One thing to remember is that lots of places that modern folk think of as wilderness were actually deliberately managed for particular biomes by indigenous people. Much of Pacific Northwest of North America was regularly burned to promote vegetation that would support more game than climax forest.

      Pyric herbivory was common in the Great Plains and Western Australia was often subject to widespread use of human-caused fires.

      https://www.pnas.org/content/115/32/8143

      I’m pretty sure that almost all of the boreal forests and most of tropical rainforests were not significantly altered by indigenous people (although terra preta probably came from human action) but lots of “wilderness” was managed by humans for humans.

      I think that if the land is covered almost all of the time by a large variety of plants and animals, whether they are wild, planted, or the result of human interference in succession makes little difference to the health of the ecosphere.

      • I don’t have a citation, but my understanding is that indigenous people in the Amazonian rainforest routinely plant cuttings of trees and shrubs that are useful, too — much as I sometimes pick wild mushroom specimens that are edible species but too old to be appealing, and scatter them in more convenient-for-me areas. I may well transplant some actual cuttings of fruit trees, too, having happened upon what I think may be an old apple orchard in an area that isn’t so great for walking alone. Going to figure out which trees are worth it first (and maybe the very best ones are destined for grafting instead of just putting sticks in the ground to see if they root), but the crabapples that still had fruit on them last weekend after a frost are definitely on the list. I’m not sure at what point that kind of activity becomes “significant” alteration. It might look the same on the surface (in fact, if I plant fruit trees in a local park I am kindof counting on it not being noticed…), but definitely changes the proportion of edible plants in the local landscape.

        We aren’t the only species to deliberately alter our environment, of course; beavers do it too.

        I probably agree regarding keeping the ground covered by plants where possible.

    • Yes, agreed that the possibility of sparing land for wilderness isn’t matched by the actuality … kind of what I meant above in relation to the political economy. One issue is that demand inelastic crops (eg. wheat) just get replaced by demand elastic ones (eg. beef).

      Interesting on silvo-pastoral traditions in Sweden. I’ve been learning a little recently about swidden traditions in Finland … and in Appalachia, transplanted from Scandinavia. I’d be interested to learn more about this.

      And thanks for the Bardi link. There’s much detail in it with which I disagree, but I think what he’s trying to do overall makes sense. My own brief attempt to work through such issues is in Chapter 16 of my book. Like Bardi – and perhaps like you, Gunnar – I come from a non-religious secular modernist background (though that itself emerges from religious traditions…) and I’m not predisposed to spiritual reflection. Yet increasingly I’m coming to think this is key to many of our present predicaments.

      • Swiddening was practiced in Sweden also, mainly by Finnish people that were re-settled in Sweden long time ago. But later it was banned to safegauard trees for the mining/iron/steel complex. An old relative of mine claimed to have seen swiddening taking place around 1930 in the North och the county of Värmland. But I am afraid I can’t share many more details of the practices. I have observed swiddening in Peru, Brazil, many places in East Africa and South East Asia. You can clearly understand why farmers use it when you see the results and the comparably little work done. Of course, EROEI on swiddening is disastrous, but equally a good example of why EROEI is not always so relevant.

      • On the subject of spiritual reflection and the sacred, here’s a link to a splendid review of Eugene McCarraher’s The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity:

        https://bostonreview.net/class-inequality-philosophy-religion/james-g-chappel-bad-romance

        There’s a lot in the review that leads me to think McCarraher’s book might be of interest to you, Chris, as you continue to ponder the possibility that spiritual reflection “is key to many of our present predicaments.” Assuming, of course, that you’re not familiar with it (my quick search turned up no written mention here on the blog). Despite my religious skepticism and embarrassingly large to-be-read pile(s), I’m going to have hard time resisting the temptation to order a copy for myself. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

        “We live in a historical moment that, for all of its dangers, crackles with possibility. New worlds are in the offing. And even if most of them seem dystopian, the vertigo of our era is causing us to ask, anew, the very basic question about what kind of world we want. The Enchantments of Mammon asks this question, and seeks to revive a longstanding answer to it. What McCarraher wants is a world of community, magic, craftsmanship, and enchantment. These are old-fashioned words, to be sure, and not ones that will thrill every reader. If you are not predisposed toward that kind of nostalgia, this book will not convince you. It does not even try.

        “The point, instead, is to get readers who already share some of McCarraher’s values to see what other ones might follow. This is an important task: many people do thrill to that list of keywords, and many of them believe that this commits them to a kind of reactionary, religious separatism. Not in the slightest, McCarraher says. The only way to rekindle the virtue of craft and intimate community is to assault capitalism at its root, in league with anarchists and aesthetic radicals.

        “Whatever the exact contours of the argument, this style of reasoning is especially urgent in our times. The hour of pedagogy has passed, and the path forward will not involve “converting’ people to Marxism, or socialism, as worldviews. The surer path is to recognize that many people are already committed to deeply anti-capitalist and revolutionary values—even if they don’t quite realize it, or recognize those implications.”

        • Thanks for that Ernie. Looks very interesting – and definitely many resonances with my thinking. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts if & when you read it and will prob add it to my already gargantuan reading pile. I may also comment on this a little more in my next post.

  11. Indeed there’s a continuum of land management practices up to highly intensive year on year annual tillage cropping, and some of the more subtle ones historically often escaped notice. I discuss this in Part I (Crisis #7) and also in Part II (Chapter 4).

    The problem is that some of the more subtle and more ecologically benign ones are less productive than is necessary to feed our current multitudes as discussed in Chapter 4, though no doubt there’s scope for interesting debate around that. My argument is ultimately for high levels of local self-determination in food & fibre production for household needs, which I think best optimises the trade-offs.

    Indeed, ‘rewilding’ or even just ‘wilding’ prompts questions about what ‘wild’ means, and what the reference period is. In many places, as implied in my post above, the historic norm has been mixed tree-grass landscapes, maintained by ruminant grazing/browsing. We could do worse than building many of our farming systems on that base.

    Thanks Gunnar for the info on Swedish swidden – very interesting! As in Finland, it seems like the practice was banned in order to create greater economic linkage and discourage subsistence-oriented farming.

  12. Thanks for the review, Michelle. And thanks for drawing it to my attention, Clem. Were you keeping it under your hat, Michelle? Ah well, I finally got around to subscribing to your blog, so you won’t get away with it in the future 🙂

      • I was happy to do it…

        But quibbler that I am, I do have a tiny thought to offer on marketing… IF the piece has to be marketed, I don’t imagine it *must* be marketed by the author. Word of mouth (or keyboard comment) has some power to it.

        • Excellent point that particularly speaks to me locked as I currently am into an exhausting round of presentations and podcasts.

          But with SFF currently languishing around #95,000 on Amazon’s US bestseller list compared to a healthy 8,000 here in the UK, perhaps I could humbly request my US friends to do some word of mouthing or keyboarding on my behalf…

  13. The results of globalism .

    https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/1375635/Christmas-shopping-warning-Covid-food-shortage-latest-Tesco-Sainsburys-M-S-news

    Its that simple , this is not a real killer pandemic , yes worldwide millions have died but not tens or hundreds of millions , the black death killed near half of europe’s population thats a pandemic ! . France may be using this lever to get a better fishing quota , just goes to show growing stuff at home in your own garden / country is a priority if you want to eat . Supply chains are FRAGILE !

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *