Automation and a small farm future

The previous post in my present blog cycle about my book A Small Farm Future discussed the section on political economy (pp.53-73). Much as I’d like to dwell on various other issues raised therein, I feel I should probably move on to the next part of the book. But fortunately, having just read Aaron Benanav’s stimulating new book Automation and the Future of Work (Verso, 2020), an engagement with it in this post enables me to sweep up a few further issues from that section while simultaneously moving on. Always good to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.

I did, in fact, cite Benanav’s work in the aforementioned political economy section of my book, but when I was writing it he hadn’t yet published his own one, which I’ve found helpful in further clarifying my thinking. In this and in a later post, I’ll suggest that his analysis strengthens the case I make for a small farm future, even though that’s not a direction he goes himself. But, as I’ll shortly argue, it could be … and maybe it should be.

Let’s start with Benavav’s appraisal of the present global labour market: many fewer people (proportionately) working in agriculture than previously, many fewer people working in manufacturing than previously, many more people in precarious and low paid employment or underemployment in the service sector than previously, and a very small but growing number of people amassing unprecedentedly stupendous wealth.

A common explanation for these trends is the ‘automation theory’ that argues they arise from labour-shedding technological development. This occurred first in agriculture with what Benanav (p.42) calls ‘the major destroyer of livelihoods in the twentieth century’ in the form of agrarian ‘nitrogen capitalism’ (so named because of agri-industrial reliance on manufactured nitrogenous fertiliser, though in truth it involved a suite of fossil fuel-based developments, so perhaps it’s better seen as another variant of fossil capitalism).

Whatever the terminology, it’s refreshing to see Benanav call agrarian industrialisation for what it is – a destroyer of livelihoods – rather than resorting to the usual upbeat euphemisms of ‘labour saving’ or ‘agricultural improvement’. Now that automation threatens livelihoods across a swathe of other employment sectors – including such bastions of white-collar privilege as medicine and law – perhaps it becomes easier to make the case that in agriculture as in other sectors ‘labour saving’ isn’t necessarily a good thing.

But actually, the main thrust of Benanav’s book is a critique of automation theory. If the present stagnation of the global labour market were really caused by automation, he argues, we’d expect to see a spiralling growth in labour productivity, whereas the trend is better explained by falling global manufacturing output that he imputes to industrial overcapacity and underinvestment. This leads to his important claims that, during the 20th century, manufacturing was “a unique engine of economic growth” and that modern governments have found no other ways to sustain growth when manufacturing output has faltered (pp.34-5).

A minor point to draw from all this in relation to my own book is that I largely ducked the question of future technologies in agriculture because too much attention to drones, robots, GM, GPS, vertical farming and all the rest of it seemed something of a diversion, but I wasn’t 100% comfortable with this evasion. So I find Benanav’s analysis reassuring in suggesting that these really aren’t the main questions before us. For this reason, I’m not going to discuss in this blog cycle the things I do have to say about automation, ‘progress’ etc. in Chapter 2 of my book, which in any case we’ve discussed at length on this website over the years.

So if emerging technologies aren’t the main question, what is? Benanav’s analysis suggests that the faltering growth engine of manufacturing output underlies the present worldwide economic malaise, with more and more workers pushed into necessarily labour-intensive and low-paid service industries. Sometimes this involves small-scale family operations competing successfully with large and highly capitalized firms on the basis of involutionary job creation strategies. It also involves industrial corporations favouring monopolistic competition, the asset bubble of financialization and squeezing worker pay and conditions. And it seems likely that these trends represent a limit or endpoint to the present structure of the global political economy that’s inherent to its internal logic, regardless of wider issues like climate change, energy futures or resource drawdown.

The main question, then, is how might the global political economy escape this impasse once we abandon the fruitless idea that the answer lies in technological development? As I see it, there are four main options, three of which Benanav touches on in his book, and one of which (the most promising one, in my opinion) he doesn’t.

First, there’s the possibility that the global political economy will find a way to barrel through the present crisis and restart the growth engine of industrial development. There are, after all, multitudes of poor people globally who would be only too happy to lead lives of industrialised plenty of the kind many of us lead in the richer countries and the richer parts of the poorer ones. As China increasingly takes over the reins of global economic leadership from the USA, developments like its Belt and Road Initiative may provide exactly the kickstart that’s needed. But I think it’s unlikely. China’s industrialization, like the ones of the western powers preceding it, is based on a coercion of labour that’s unlikely to sustain growth long-term and is already displaying the morbid symptoms of late-stage western capitalism. Throw in the effects of climate change and resource crisis, and it’s hard to see the locomotive of global industrialization escaping the siding where it’s currently languishing and getting back onto the main track.

Second, there’s the possibility of ‘our country first’ economic nationalism. On this point, Benanav is surely right to suggest that “a chronically low demand for labour will not be alleviated by tariff barriers or walled borders” (p.65). I’d argue nonetheless that it would probably be a good way to go for the poorest countries experiencing a net outflow of assets in the globalized economy if they were able to make it happen, but economic nationalism operating at large across the world certainly isn’t going to usher in a new cornucopia of surging global growth and prosperity. I guess Brexit Britain has just started a small experiment on your behalf in this respect. You’re welcome.

Third, there’s the possibility of redistributing the product of the global economy more fairly between rich and poor, young and old. To me, this seems ethically right and will probably happen quite widely one way or another anyway if governments don’t act, because too much inequality sustained for too long prompts political movements geared to restitution. But for all its necessity, it seems to me that a fairer redistribution of economic product doesn’t strike to the root of the problem much more than the other possibilities, because it likewise doesn’t provide the means for radically creating more product and transcending industrial overcapacity and low labour demand.

Here’s where Benanav’s analysis gets, for me, most interesting, but also most problematic. There are different ways in which a fairer distribution of product might be delivered politically. The one Benanav explores is a propertyless socialist utopia in which people collectively divide the necessary work of social reproduction between themselves on a fair and democratic basis, devoting the rest of their time to pursuing their personal passions and pleasures.

There’s much I find appealing in his vision, and some of it covers very similar ground to my own discussion of utopias in my book (pp.85-8). Benanav and I agree that it’s not OK to expect subordinated categories of labour to do the hard work of domestic and social reproduction, and nor is it plausible to expect new developments in automation to ride to the rescue and do it for us. The main point of his brief utopian exercise isn’t to provide some fully realized blueprint for the future, but to suggest that it’s possible for us to create congenial lives for ourselves with existing technology in the here and now, rather than waiting for future technological developments to deliver us into a fantasy future world without work. On this point I wholeheartedly agree.

All the same, there are aspects of his utopia that I find either implausible or unappealing. I won’t expound on them at length here because I hope to come back to this in later posts, but in brief I think he puts too much faith in people’s ability to smoothly divvy up the work between themselves and deliver on what’s expected through ill-defined democratic processes. This is all the more problematic inasmuch as Benanav acknowledges there are kinds of work that can’t be widely shared because they require specialist skills (he mentions farming in this connection) and inasmuch as it would be necessary to somehow hold producers accountable if they failed to come up with the goods.

As for the unappealing, the freedoms that Benanav accords people in his utopia seem to me overly individualistic, disconnected and intellectual. His examples include painting murals, learning languages, inventing things and ‘choosing to explore nature’ (pp.91-2) – this being the only mention I noticed in his book of the extra-human ecological world. It all sounds a bit like a university professor dreaming up a quiet suburban retirement for himself, which – as I suggest in my book (p.85) – is essentially what most written utopias are. And I use the word ‘himself’ here deliberately, because there are some interesting gender framings involved in all this. But we’ll come to that in a later post.

Benanav nevertheless contends – correctly in my opinion – that “feelings of autonomy, mastery and purpose are what generate the best work” (p.89), yet it seems to me hard to reconcile this with the highly generalized collective divvying up of work and the holding of producers to account that he identifies – a point that, again, I’ll develop in another post. Rather than drifting around in an agreeable but ultimately somewhat vapid and probably unrealisable ‘post-scarcity’ world, I think true autonomy, mastery and purpose arise through experiencing resistances to one’s agency, partly in relation to other people (the points where collective agreements fail) and partly in relation to the necessary practice of creating a livelihood out of the extra-human world of nature, rather than the option of simply exploring it. In both cases, a sense of autonomy, mastery or purpose arises when one feels equal to the challenge, which is usually only possible through an intimate, grounded, personal, local knowledge of the social and natural landscape.

In other words, the fourth way to address the impasse of the present global political economy may be to embrace the possibility – so admirably implied by Benanav throughout his book, but never confronted head on – of creating a labour-intensive, semi-autonomous livelihood through farming, homesteading or gardening largely on one’s own account, within a wider society which is collectively oriented to enabling people to live that way. Agricultural involution of this sort is far more generative of a sense of purpose than creating involutionary service sector jobs, far more compatible with a low or no economic growth society (a point Benanav makes on p.38), and far less ecologically destructive. It would amount to a small farm future – not a panacea, not a utopia, but a plausible goal to aim at. In my forthcoming posts I’ll continue to outline its contours.

27 thoughts on “Automation and a small farm future

  1. Haven’t read Benanav, but his classification of work reminds me of Martin Hägglund’s, whose best selling book This Life makes a very strict division between necessary work and spiritual work. Necessary work includes what you and I are busy with, producing food. I (as yourself) have always mixed food production with other intellectual kinds of work. I have never found the necessary work of producing food being a soulless toil and the intellectual work has certainly not always been so spiritual, even though the hourly pay has been ten times as high…..

  2. the faltering growth engine of manufacturing output underlies the present worldwide economic malaise

    Yes, and the faltering is the inevitable result of relying on non-renewable resources, particularly energy resources, for manufacturing inputs. Despite increases in energy and material use efficiency (relative decoupling), it still takes a lot of energy and a lot of stuff to make a lot of products. There is no “solution” to depletion but to stop relying on things that can only deplete to nothing.

    Why can’t people grasp the meaning and consequences of “non-renewable”? If it can’t be renewed, it will eventually be gone. Most people are now observing the consequences of an ever-increasing scarcity with eyes wide shut. They just don’t want to believe it will all end. But it will end, in tears.

  3. https://www.zerohedge.com/commodities/worlds-largest-insect-farm-be-built-illinois-amid-signs-soaring-food-inflation
    Chicago-based food processing company Archer Daniels Midland and InnovaFeed, a French firm that makes insect protein for animal feed, are set to build the world’s largest insect protein factory farm in central Illinois, according to Forbes.
    Soylent green in the future ?
    IMHO the powers that be are trying to make sure there is no way to farm in a small way and make a profit , banning meat is just one way to bancrupt small and large ranchers / farmers .
    How many ag workers / dairy’s / cheese plants will this put out of work ?

    • I tried to research the food conversion efficiency of black soldier fly larvae but could only find that they weigh 25% as much as the food they are fed when being fed on food scraps. Meat chickens do far better than that but they are feed much higher quality food.

      Feeding BSFs on food scraps that would otherwise go into a landfill might be a good idea, as might be feeding them on animal feces which would otherwise go into the ocean (there has been a lot of work on this in Germany) but I suspect that feeding plants on composted food scraps and animal feces would produce as much or more protein than BSF larvae.

      I think it would make sense to use insects for food conversion but only if the insects then become food for humans directly instead of running them through animals first. The Chicago project might make economic sense (for reasons I don’t know) but I doubt that it makes environmental sense if the product is used for animal feed.

      • There are space and downstream transportation savings that accrue to the insects… there are also timing matters (egg to process age) that make for easier response to market timings.

        The BSF do lend themselves to a SFF quite nicely… one can keep the larvae for scrap conversion in out of the way small spaces. Rearing the larvae in the first place is more technically involved, so within a small farm community it may well be that a BSF larvae grower will become a special member like a black smith or a potter.

        Running the bugs through another animal does incur the trophic level cost Joe mentions… but eating the larvae directly does raise the serious ‘ick’ factor (which can be overcome) but there is also a cost to safety – detecting diseased and otherwise inedible insect larvae is not a skill set on wide display (though again… this can conceivably be overcome).

        Composting and running material through plants first also has costs. Running a coffee bean through a Civet isn’t free either, and the ick factory of drinking coffee made from beans retrieved from Civet poop appears to have been overcome in some… so who knows, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

      • I looked in to BSF, but am too far north to make it work without elaborate adaptations. “on the list” is to ramp up worm composting, with worms as high protein input to chickens.

        When you grow a lot of your own veg, and do weeding and brush clearing, there is a lot of material generated that has no human food use but can be converted by worms.

        WAY down the road would be considering avoiding the trophic loss and eating direct.

        • Thanks Steve… but I’m curious, what sort of elaborate adaptations would you need for a northern latitude so that you could work with the black soldier fly? The BSF requires something worms for worm composting don’t?

          • Clem: I am in Wisconsin, USDA zone 4b. Black soldier flys are very much a warm climate insect, I’ve read they only colonize zone 7 and higher. I would have to figure out warm housing and continuing a captive breeding cycle through the winter.

            The reading I did at the time made it sound tricky to do, not just maintaining temp, but keeping the reproduction going. Worms I’ve done at small scale, and it’s pretty easy.

          • Agreed that the production of eggs and larva is a big deal – and likely too much for the casual user (thus the comparison to black smith above). But once you have larva to work with you can put ’em in a box in a closet. I know this because I was a science fair judge for a young lady (12?) who had done just this. She had 20 boxes of BSF, so many that she kept some in her mother’s closet. This surprised me… and upon a bit of digging on my part she allowed that her mother wasn’t smitten with the idea, but it worked out for them. So a little extra space in the house will do… but then again, it all comes back to scale. If you want to feed a large flock of chickens (say 50 layers) and provide half their feed in the form of BSF – then twenty boxes in the house closets is probably not going to do it.

            But turn that around – what supply of material are you looking to use up? Less than 20 boxes worth?

            Still – the raising of larva to start off with is going to be a barrier in some locations. And if you have other worms that can do the same thing, then why bother?

        • I live in the tropics and have “volunteer” BSF larvae in my chicken manure composters most of the year (I compost layers of chicken manure/food scraps and fine wood chips) but they are hard to extract from the compost without a special bin with sloped ramps for the larvae to crawl up and out.

          It’s impossible to find commercial BSF bins in Hawaii even though there are a few made in the US. The best bins I’ve seen are made of fiberglass in the Phillipines but they aren’t available here. Shipping costs would be too much from anywhere out of state.

          I can make some bins out of plywood and line them with fiberglass to help keep them from rotting away, but that project seems to always be just too far down on my priority list.

          Several bufo marinus toads like to congregate around the base of the composters at night to get the larvae that manage to make it out. What few larvae the toads don’t eat get eaten by the chickens in the morning. Too bad I can’t eat the toads (they’re poisonous).

  4. Didn’t and won’t read Benanav’s book, but read the reviews at New Statesman and International Policy Digest. I’m coming to the conclusion that he is looking at our predicament from a rather too intellectual and ivory tower perspective.

    I’m not an academic, but have been peak oil aware for many years, and so frame things in a more big picture energy flows sort of way. I don’t see a post scarcity future, or dilemmas about unemployment. As our billions of energy slaves leave the picture, mulling over what to do with our free time or excess labor will not be a problem. Oh, the various paths we may take are all going to be fraught with pain to one extent or another, but productivity curves and job scarcity will not be the problem to solve. Getting population and local carrying capacity in balance will be the uncomfortable political dilemma to address.

    I don’t deny that the intersection of economy and social hierarchy schemes are important, but some schemes will be off the table as energy declines. Your section in crisis #9 on the evolution of capitalism made my head hurt, and I wonder if we are still not fully understanding what happened and how inevitable it was or was not.

    Again, not my area, but I’m also not convinced that Benanav explains lower productivity and demand for manufactured goods as a central part of “the answer”. Simply another symptom.

    I worked in a company that built infrastructure for the energy industry for over 100 years ( the company did, not me!) . We built structures and facilities that might have lifetimes of 50-75 years, with reasonable maintenance programs. Point is, during the steep part of the growth curve, we were very busy, but after all the refineries and power plants were built, a huge supply chain ecosystem had a much lower growth rate, and even declines.

    Unless the growth continued to be steep, there was going to be less need for the huge productive capacity of the 50s-80s. This is the “global overcapacity” he mentions. But EROEI also enters in to the picture. Engineers and tradesmen were paid very well partly because of demand for our skills, but also because the net energy to society was so high, primary energy producers made quite high profits, and wealth truly did trickle down ( or diffuse throughout).

    So much of the service economy is not about essentials, but about spending discretionary income. Less income going to energy and other primary industry suppliers and the well paying jobs they offered, less multiplier effect to the wider economy and thus lower wages in the service sector.

    Note that people are still eating without restaurants being open. I feel bad for folks caught in this situation, but those jobs are not a very good EROEI.

    Automation itself is still an important topic to explore and consider policy ramifications. At one time I was intrigued by the idea of little solar powered autonomous robots weeding the garden, but I think even if that does occur, it will be a short term phenomenon, as the complex technosphere needed to deploy and maintain it will be short lived. This is why I tinker with hand crank fanning mills and bike powered threshers. Technology that leverages human muscles will be needed, and scaled appropriately for a small fam future. Lots to figure out here. AI and TIOT are too fragile and unresilient for a low energy future. Painting or philosophizing while lounging on a settee- right out.

  5. Perhaps my entire comment here is a bit of a tangent, but:

    What are the forms of automation that would work in a small farm context without large scale industrial production? Or what are the conditions necessary for such small scale automated systems to be worthwhile?

    I’m installing a solar irrigation system this spring at the allotment, which, in combination with the very large amount of rainwater storage I’m putting in this winter, should reduce my reliance on the mains water available onsite. It’s quite clever: the pump runs for a few minutes every 3h in daylight, but how long it runs for depends on how much the sun has charged the batteries, so days with more sun will mean more irrigation. That in turn means I’ll have more time (and energy) for weeding, though hopefully there won’t be quite as much of the bindweed this year, and I’m hoping the weather will be more conducive to some spring cover crops than it was last year which should also help.

    What I’d really like, though, is a wind-powered system. A saqiyah, basically, but powered by a wind turbine rather than a draught animal, since I don’t have draught animals on the allotment. The plot is quite exposed and the dry wind seems to bother some of the plants more than the hot sun does. But more than that, something with no electronic parts is something that I can at least hope to maintain myself.

    Both of these strike me as technologies that allow me to dip into local resource flows (stored rainwater, and energy from solar or wind) to reduce the amount of human labour I do (10L watering cans are heavy and London summers have been dry enough that irrigation is needed), and which should work on a fairly small scale.

    Doing any of this without using industrial plastics or metal is currently beyond my means, alas. But it seems to me that small scale, distributed, mechanical automation does not necessarily cause the same sort of trouble that industrial scale fossil-driven automation can. The problem then is in how to implement such automated systems without relying on the industrial side of things to start with. (It ought to at least be possible to build my proposed wind powered saqiyah out of wood, but it’s well beyond my own (nonexistent!) woodworking skills, and the more efficient it is the lighter and more fragile the parts will be. I can maintain a bicycle, too, but building one from scratch is another problem entirely…)

    I’m sure most readers here know about it already, but lowtechmagazine.com is an interesting read, with a number of lower-tech methods for all sorts of things, not only horticultural in nature.

    On the other end of the spectrum is farm.bot — very high tech, very small scale, rather expensive, and it feels like even more of a ‘toy’ than my solar irrigation kit. Though the temptation to get one, enclose it in clear polycarbonate, stick a license plate on it and park it on the road outside the house is quite strong.

  6. When I lived in Japan in the 90s they were still trying to afford a full employment society. So, a department store would have octogenarian security guards, and a row of pretty “greeters”.

    There is little I think is more unhinged than the Fully Automated crowd. Every organism on the planet secures its own sustenance or it starves.
    We should work! We should all work!

    • Every organism on the planet secures its own sustenance or it starves.

      Except those that don’t. First to come to mind are the young, but one might argue the young secure their own sustenance by some sort of trickery over their parent or guardian. Next to present are the convalescing – individuals too damaged or ill to procure their own, yet provided for by altruistic colleagues. One might suppose these latter organisms also have some devious sort of call upon resources they’ve not individually procured. But I’m not a member of a group that would argue such.

      To the main idea of the comment though… absolutely. If capable, we should work. And working needn’t end at some preappointed point in time either.

      • I’d be inclined to remove “should” from this and say that, collectively, we must work, else starve. And I would add that none of us are so self-sufficient that we can even pretend this does not involve working together, on some level.

        How we distribute that work, and how we treat those unable to do certain kinds of work or any work at all, are political and moral decisions, constrained by practicalities. There is room for a fair amount of variation in how those political decisions work out in different contexts, with different sets of constraints; there is even a certain amount of overall resilience inherent in there being many different models of cooperation used and developed.

        What I see happening now is the constraints changing, rapidly, and inequitable systems that already lacked resilience becoming more extreme and more obvious in their shortcomings.

    • And there’s the problem , with automation people are not needed have no income so where’s the money coming from to buy all the automated manufactured products ? There’s no profit made in or growing anything that no one can afford .

  7. Only time for a brief comment…

    I’m with you all on the point that energy and resource scarcity pushes towards economic stagnation, but what I find interesting about Benanav’s analysis is that it suggests there’s an internal logic of stagnation even in the absence of energy and resource scarcity – and this is important because it pulls the rug from under the feet of those who think there are energy or resource techno-fixes just around the corner that will pull us out of the slump…

    …unless, that is, you’re arguing that declining output is only a result of decreasing EROEI in the energy sector. I’m not convinced of that, but would be interested to see it elucidated. Of course, it doesn’t have to be an either/or – declining output growth and decreasing EROEI are probaby both pushing service sector stagnation.

    There are things in Benanav’s book that I’d take issue with, but there’s also much that I find illuminating, and I’m trying to take a leaf out of Jahi’s book in seeking to draw positively from someone’s work rather than home in on the disagreements: https://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/2020/11/no-easy-answers-a-response-to-alex-heffron-and-kai-heron/#comment-212593. As I say above, I think there’s an implicit argument for a small farm future within it which I find informative, even if Benanav himself wouldn’t see it that way.

    Regarding insect farming, energetic considerations aside, and despite its possible benefits, I take seriously the notion that it’s a way of shoring up existing high capital, low labour farming models at the expense of local agrarianism. Besides which, isn’t the justification for new industrial development supposed to be that it’s driven by consumer demand?

    Time precludes me wading in on other topics, but I agree that work is (generally) good (more on that in another post), and that small to medium tech is worth discussing. On which point thanks to Steve for the bike thresher. I’ve messed around with small scale grain growing for years, somewhat ineffectually because I haven’t devoted myself properly to sorting out processing issues … good nudge to think more about this.

    • Besides which, isn’t the justification for new industrial development supposed to be that it’s driven by consumer demand?

      One might hope…
      But I’m of the impression that consumers demand food. Cheap (or less expensive) food in most cases. So the justification is really not hard to follow from a consumer demand angle. Perhaps one might inquire what the costs of the food are with all externalities factored in. If a BSF installation (regardless of scale) can provide safe, reliable food with a smaller environmental and social footprint, then where is the harm?

      Eric F’s comment below makes a good point about scale. But there is also an aspect of craft and individual valuations. Person A may be persuaded that a commodity, mass produced vehicle is just what they want. Standard parts (also mass produced and readily available almost everywhere)… whereas Person B may appreciate the craft and quality of a vehicle built by hand.

  8. It looks like the factory farming of insects is primarily used for supplying feed for the aquaculture of fish and shrimp (plus some oil for animal feed, and fertilizer made from the frass). This seems better than scraping the ocean floors and using wild populations of fish and krill for farmed fish food. The insect factory uses corn byproducts (and waste heat) from the facility next door (which makes cornstarch?).

    The factory farming of insects (with 480,000 tons/year of product output from this one facility) is presumably highly automated. Automation seems connected to scale, making more sense for large scale operations, and/or more feasible with large scale manufacturing of the automated equipment. At a very small scale, a backyard farmer could raise insect larvae to feed the fish in her pond, with zero automation.

    Where is the line drawn between work-saving devices and automation? Does it depend on the amount of capital expenditure? (If a loan is typically needed to buy it, then it’s automation?)

  9. An interesting set of arguments…

    First, I don’t think it is useful to differentiate between “Nitrogen Capitalism” & “Fossil Capitalism”. Fossil methane is how we capture the nitrogen. Just as the “Hydrogen Economy” would be driven by fossil methane if anyone were to subsidize it enough to make it pay.

    I will admit (yet again) to having a bad attitude. I have yet to read an article about automation by anyone who shows any signs of ever having worked on a factory floor. Maybe they have, but never looked back after getting their degree…

    But the important thing to remember is that automation only pays with mass production. Automation is incredibly expensive, and it only justifies investment if the capital and set-up costs are spread over a huge manufacturing run. At the small manufacturing company where I ‘work’, any one of our products can be made much faster than the time it takes to even program the robots, never mind paying for their purchase. Toyota has robot welders. Those hot-rod customizers do all their work by hand.

    What this means is that the commodity products get automated, and anything done in small quantity is labor intensive. Which not only tends to drive small-batch products out of the market, but cheapens and homogenizes everything it touches.

    And once the factories are built, they churn out (mediocre) product with very little human labor. Thus, automation cannot be a driver of growth. It is a way of turning raw materials and energy into the maximum quantity of cheap junk for the least money. This process serves nobody except the owner of the factory, and the sooner we stop believing it is somehow ‘normal’, the better off we will be.

  10. Just finding time to come back to this post now, but perhaps the horse has bolted.

    Here at Vallis Veg we’re at the worms for chickens stage of technological development, but not yet at the insects for people or, God forbid, the Soylent Green stage.

    On the matter of consumer demand, in brief I’d say that it’s not an independent variable but is always derived politically (William Cronon’s agrarian history of Chicago, ‘Nature’s Metropolis’ is pretty good on this in terms of the way nascent agribusiness carefully shaped the desires of doubtful consumers). No doubt people want to have both a thriving local economy with plenty of fulfilling work and cheap consumer goods. The fact that they’ve mostly ended up with the latter at the expense of the former doesn’t mean they wanted the latter more.

    So I agree with Eric F. An interesting point Benanav makes which is complementary to Eric’s argument that automation cannot be a driver of growth is that industrialization now creates long, labour-intensive supply chains of poorly paid and environmentally destructive jobs. Another reason to favour a small farm future.

    So to Steve L’s question ‘Where is the line drawn between work-saving devices and automation?’, I’d say the former is when you get to choose to make your work easier if you like, and the latter is when someone else has to choose if you still have work whether they like to or not.

    Talking of Eric & Steve, I’m glad that we still have Steve L and Steve C commenting on this blog, and also glad that we still have Eric F, but not so glad that we seem to have lost Eric B. Probably my crass politics. Which brings us to the next post…

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