The single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth…

…is a vegan diet. Well, at least it is according to Joseph Poore. But I have an alternative suggestion. The single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth is to stop thinking there’s a single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, or that bang for your buck metrics of this kind are helpful in formulating how best to live.

Here, I’ll elaborate that suggestion, grounding the discussion in the debate about veganism versus livestock farming. The debate gets a lot of airtime, and I’ll only touch lightly on a few aspects of it here. I say a little more about it in Chapter 8 of my book A Small Farm Future. As is often the case, it’s potentially endless, because the assumptions people bring to it and the contexts they apply them to are different. But hopefully I can at least clarify a few of those assumptions and contexts here.

Poore co-authored a widely-publicized paper a couple of years back that argued livestock products from even the best performing commercial farms have higher impacts across various environmental indicators than their vegetable counterparts (eg. each gramme of protein from beef has a higher impact on greenhouse gas emissions, land use, soil acidification, water eutrophication and scarce water drawdown than a corresponding gramme of protein from pulses). There are some aspects of the paper I’d quibble with, but by and large I don’t think there’s anything that’s demonstrably incorrect factually about the claims it makes (I can’t honestly say the same about some of Poore’s wider claims reported in the media).

However, as I said above, context is everything. So if your focus is the environmental impact of each unit of protein from ‘commercial farms’ of different styles, then without doubt the bean farm outdoes the beef one. But suppose you’re a smallholder living a low energy life, not a commercial beef farmer, and suppose you keep a cow or two. Your cows could help you do all or any of these things:

  • save work (including carbon-intensive machine work) by routing fertility around the farm
  • balance fertility in a timely way over the year (applying the summer’s surplus to the spring’s deficit)
  • turn inedible or harmful growth (unused marginal grazing, weeds) into food or fibre
  • help you manage your farmland in a low carbon or possibly even carbon-negative way
  • turn short-run or low value produce into longer-run or higher value produce (lard, butter, cheese) that improves your quality of life
  • provide transport and traction (oxen)
  • furnish useful coproducts (horn, bone, sinew, gut etc.)
  • provide a store of value and wealth
  • provide a source of companionship and pleasure…

…oh yes, and maybe provide some meat or milk too.

If you somehow factor all that into your calculations, then keeping cows may not look quite such a shabby option after all – especially since many of the points above are potentially carbon saving.

The same point applies to other kinds of farm livestock, all of which have their niche on the non-commercial farm as tappers, cyclers or producers of nutrients or other useful matter that are impossible or laborious for people to access directly. Their meat or other edible products are the bonus skimmed from the top of a larger, low-energy ecological labour.

But should you factor all that into your calculations? It’s not as if you’ll find a packet of multipurpose smallholder cow mince in the fresh meat aisle at Tesco’s, for reasons copiously analyzed over the years on this blog.

Meanwhile, the whole issue has become hyper-politicized on numerous fronts. On the one hand there’s the “Joe Biden Stole My Hamburger” brigade of entitled consumerism that’s been in the news lately, coopted by a rightwing politics of personal choice and freedom. On the other there’s the “pasture-fed beef can feed the world and sequester all our carbon emissions at the same time” shtick of regen-ag ultras. And on the third hand (three hands being a useful trait for a farmer) there’s the vegan “single biggest way to reduce your impact” or “cows are worse than cars” position.

None of these lines of argument withstand much scrutiny. It probably is true that if you find yourself in the supermarket in need of protein and you care about the intricate biotic web of the world and the human place within it then you’re better off buying beans than beef. And if the idea of not buying something to lower your environmental impact offends your sense of personal choice and freedom, then you probably shouldn’t be pushing a little cart around the supermarket picking stuff that other people have grown for you off the shelves and then standing in line to hand over your hard-earned cash to the giant corporate concern that owns it.

But I think we need to get beyond this arena of what I call ‘shopping aisle ethics’. If enough people care about the intricate biotic web of the world and the human place within it, then the multipurpose smallholder livestock-raising I mentioned earlier will become normalized by design because – as argued at length throughout my book – it’s hard to see a better way of providing for ourselves while caring adequately for that web than creating small farm-based communities, and low-energy smallholdings lacking in livestock are less efficient and more laborious places than ones that have some. Plus maybe you’ll find some real choice and freedom on your own small farm.

If, on the other hand, enough people don’t care about the intricate biotic web, then multipurpose smallholder livestock-raising will probably also become normalized, this time by default, because we’ll blow ourselves through the planetary boundaries that make other ways of life feasible, and folks with their noses to the grindstone will raise livestock to do a job of work.

Either way, we’ll be eating a lot less meat than consumers in the rich countries do today, and we’ll be worrying less about the single biggest way to reduce our impact on planet Earth, and a little more about the single biggest next job on the farm. If the latter is the main thing we’re worrying about, then the remaining denizens of ‘Planet Earth’ will probably have less to worry about from us.

Finally, a large part of the climate case against meat has to do with methane emissions from ruminants, but – as I discuss in more detail in A Small Farm Future – the conventions of methane accounting easily lead us to overstate the climate forcing impact of livestock and understate that of fossil fuels and other non-agricultural sources (which produce more methane than livestock globally anyway). But the wider issue is that the global fossil fuel economy underlies and enables the outsized global livestock economy. Without the former, we’d have to source much of our fibre, fertilizer and energy for industry and transport from the lands where we live, and this would put a constraint on the livestock we could raise on those lands that fossil fuels effectively remove.

So perhaps, after all, I’ve argued my way to the opposite of my opening gambit. There is one single biggest way to reduce your impact on the Earth – dispensing with fossil fuels. If we do that, livestock numbers will pretty much take care of themselves and will have minimal environmental impacts.

However, to make that happen isn’t a ‘single’ thing, and certainly not a thing that can be done by a simple choice in the shopping aisle. Instead, it’s a journey of many steps. And the journey will end for many people with a small farm where they live and work. For those with a taste for meat the good news is that when they get there they can raise a little livestock. In fact, they’d probably be unwise not to. The livestock they can feasibly raise won’t amount to a hill of beans as much meat as people in wealthy countries are used to eating at present. But if they’ve raised it themselves, with minimal off-farm inputs and maximal on-farm benefits, I think it’ll taste all the better gramme for gramme. Same goes for beans.

92 thoughts on “The single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth…

  1. Thanks for this. I wish more people would think this way, not just on this issue but in general. We have too many problems that are too interconnected for there to be any one magic bullet to fix anything. I suppose that isn’t going to stop people wanting one and/or pretending they’ve found one.

    • Agree . thinking of the repercussions of 0 carbon 0 beef has not even started to be thought about , take something simple, shoes , no oil /has based synthetics , no leather , what’s left ? , perhaps a new line in Nike clogs ? with little private transport people are going to need a lot of sturdy shoes !
      Then there’s clothes , no synthetic fabrics , cotton , linen and what ? wool , we are going to need a lot more acres growing clothes the legalization of growing hemp and millions of sheep .
      The knock on is endless .

  2. A few brief thoughts:

    Your bullet list mentions food three times but not health. In rich countries – as well as many poorer countries – the majority of adults are overweight or obese, and diet-related issues are either the top driver of ill-health and death, or contribute to it (as in the case of Covid-19). Thus “lard, butter and cheese” will not “improve quality of life” – quite the contrary. See for instance EAT Lancet (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/16/new-plant-focused-diet-would-transform-planets-future-say-scientists).

    You do not mention land use (thus ‘carbon opportunity costs’) nor biodiversity either. Constantly removing from the land ruminants or other livestock for food uses up much resources and makes the land’s nitrogen cycle more leaky.
    It’s not black and white, but many studies have shown that producing food more efficiently (land sparing) tends to be more biodiversity-friendly than extensive farming. Freeing large areas of land from livestock would also facilitate the reintroduction of the top predators which have been removed from Britain. You mention ‘weeds’ and ‘marginal grazing’ – but there is no such thing as either in a rewilding scheme.

    We could indeed use some animals for “companionship and pleasure”, but why then kill them, as juveniles? Would you kill your dog when he or she is barely an adult? People lucky enough to own enough land could keep grazers as pets, ideally non-ruminants, thus without the methane emissions: perhaps horses, ponies (including perhaps miniature ones), donkeys, etc. Some of these could perhaps replace meat-eating dogs or cats. Or pet pigs could be used to eat any leftovers, etc. That could take care of your first few bullet points too (e.g. perhaps mules, donkeys or horses for transport, etc) – & possibly others too, such as wealth, now that pets have a high financial value: some smallholders could breed herbivore pets for income.

    Re methane: livestock is the largest single source of anthropogenic emissions, according to the most recent methane budget (table 1 in https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9ed2), unless one pools together all fossil fuel sources: oil, gas, coal, industry and transport. But as – for instance – George Monbiot has often argued, methane is secondary to land use in terms of climate impacts, and land use is clearly the key factor for biodiversity impacts (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969715303697).

    As to methane accouting, debates about metrics are very much under way and a forthcoming U.N. report will stress that methane’s impacts have been much underestimated and that cuts in all sectors are more urgent than ever (https://www.euractiv.com/section/climate-environment/news/urgent-methane-cuts-needed-to-rein-in-climate-change-un-says).
    I believe one lead author might be prof Drew Shindell, who has been stressing some key cobenefits: “Eat less beef and less dairy. That’s the most straightforward thing. For the sake of our own health, we should be doing that anyway.” https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/methane-levels-reach-an-all-time-high/

    You claim that fossil fuel cuts will make extensive livestock farming inevitable but it has been shown many times that the reduced efficiency and additional methane emissions make it more climate impactful than intensive farming (and there’s the biodiversity argument of land sparing vs land sharing mentioned above).

    As for “those with a taste for meat”: Firstly, taste buds can adapt very fast to healthier plant-based diets, given a chance (http://health.usnews.com/health-news/blogs/eat-run/2013/10/28/the-case-for-taste-bud-rehab). Secondly, cultured meat and dairy (+ eggs and fish) are very much on their way, when not already marketed – on top of plant-based alternatives.

    • Thanks for that. I’ll respond briefly. As per my post, I think the contexts we’re talking about are very different.

      Regarding lard, butter & cheese, although I happily sit on the fence in the great animal fat & health debate, I agree with you that more of these in the diet of the average modern westerner might not be great for their health. But that wasn’t what I was talking about. If you’re producing the bulk of your subsistence on a high latitude smallholding with limited access to exogenous energy, these products get you through the lean times and give you portable high value commodities that will unquestionably improve your wellbeing.

      I’ve written at some length about rewilding and land sharing/sparing elsewhere – including in my book – and I’m not inclined to get into it here. The devil is in the detail, and it’s hard to generalize but I’m not in sympathy with your position on these points. There may be no such thing as weeds or marginal grazing in a rewilding scheme, but there very much is in an agricultural scheme – and how we feed ourselves in a populous, low energy world is a pertinent question that has to be answered by agriculture, not by rewilding schemes.

      I suppose some might consider a livestock agroecosystem with no deliberate killing/eating of the livestock feasible, albeit you’d lose some efficiency for the lack of animal-based food. I find it pretty hard to imagine a workable economics around it in a tight, low energy agrarian economy, and the fact that there have been no such economies organised in this way historically is perhaps suggestive.

      There are numerous points to discuss on methane accounting which I won’t address here, but will perhaps come back to in a future post. Briefly, I think it’s important to distinguish between stock and flow measures as discussed in this paper – https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fsufs.2020.518039/full … CO2eq measures don’t really cut it, though I agree we should be looking to reduce and not increase the global ruminant herd. And as I see it, it certainly does make sense to pool fossil fuel methane emissions – as well as remembering that, unlike the situation with livestock, the methane produced by this sector is also associated with the release of new carbon dioxide with much greater long term warming potential. So when it comes down to it, yes, the fossil fuel industry is more methanogenic than the livestock industry, as indeed is shown by the figures you cite, before we even start on the carbon dioxide … or for that matter the issues around manure and substitute fertilizers. Which is of course not to say that the livestock industry requires no reform or reduction.

      Finally, on fossil fuel cuts, again we’re not talking about the same thing. I’m referring to a situation without fossil fuels, where people have to generate food, fibre and fertility largely from local land. This is not the same as comparing intensive with extensive meat production in contemporary fossil fuelled situations – though even there the performance of intensive vs extensive meat seems to me less clear cut than you suggest, because these metrics rarely involve full implicit land use/carbon accounting.

      For all our differences, I think we’re in agreement that the existing meat industry is wholly unsustainable and we need to consume less meat in the rich countries. In fact, the smallholder food production analysis I did in Chapter 11 of my book turned out a lower per capita consumption of meat than the EAT Lancet study you invoke. Still, a very little meat, zero fossil fuelled smallholder economy will be more healthy and more efficient than a zero meat one, but I don’t think you’re applying your analysis to this kind of situation so we’re rather talking past one another.

      • Many thanks for your response. I’m sorry I haven’t fully read your book yet. I bought it months ago but it’s sitting within a tall pile of half-read books: I’ve been too ambitious with my lockdown plans!  But we’re debating your current post and I don’t think we’re talking that much past each other: we’re both providing information that can help make decisions on best food production strategies for the future. You’re pointing to the risks of falling for veganism as the single most important answer to many of our problems. I in turn wish to point to some of the risks of adopting a “less but better meat” strategy.

        It seems well established that meat consumption has actually gone up in the UK, the US and elsewhere in 2020 – and it certainly continues to grow fast globally – synchronously with the rise in chronic diseases and other health issues made worse or caused by a high consumption of animal-based foods. Thus meat consumption is the cause of a pandemic such as Covid-19 (with more such pandemics widely predicted) and people with diet-related chronic diseases, who would benefit from shifts to more plant-based foods now recommended within a nutrition consensus, are far more vulnerable to the disease.

        On methane: I’m well aware of the work done by some of the scientists you cite, but also of responses by top scientists warning of the ‘creative accounting’ that some interpretations have prompted. For instance Pete Smith (IPPC convening lead author since 1996, incl. for the recent IPCC ‘Climate Change and Land’ report and forthcoming AR6) starts with these words his rebuttal of such an interpretation: “When it comes to climate change, there is no ‘get out of jail free’ card for any sector of the economy. Livestock emissions are a big part of the climate problem and they must decline significantly if we are to have any chance of meeting both the U.N. Paris Agreement targets and the UK’s own net zero target.” https://sci-hub.se/10.1136/vr.m190

        Here another expert writes on the UK’s targets: “Moving towards a diet dominated by plants is a vital part of the fight against the climate crisis. We’ll probably never get a stable climate until meat has almost disappeared”. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/oct/06/a-nine-point-plan-for-the-uk-to-achieve-net-zero-carbon-emissions

        Other have debunked the erroneous distinction between climate impacts of fossil and biogenic methane emissions (promoted in particular by scientists paid by the livestock industry). See for instance: “methane is methane is methane” repeated by expert Robert Howarth https://twitter.com/howarth_cornell/status/1356365590487822339 and Jonathan Foley (head of Project Drawdown) https://twitter.com/GlobalEcoGuy/status/1356504176587603969. Another methane expert and IPCC Vice-Chair confirms: “Reducing emissions of all gases as much and as quickly as possible is the number one priority, whereas how we account for emissions of individual gases is (at least globally and for now) a distinctly second-order priority. https://twitter.com/ReisingerAndy/status/1184637052274348033. Also: “The science is simple and unambiguous. The lower methane emissions, the better for the climate” https://twitter.com/ReisingerAndy/status/1137483621739089920.

        More specifically about the “release of new CO2” associated with methane from fossil fuels, Robert Howarth writes this: “The IPCC weighting [which accounts for this CO2] is very small, based on out of date science, and is smaller yet when updated. Methane is methane, for all practical purposes. We should reduce methane whenever we can. 25% of global warming is from methane! This really makes a difference”. https://twitter.com/howarth_cornell/status/1356745952304971776 (He writes elsewhere that the difference in impact between fossil and biogenic methane is considered to be of ~2% but might soon be considered too negligible to count). And Jonathan Foley: “The GWP for biogenic methane is one unit less (out of ~40) to account for it [the CO2]. That’s just an accounting rule, which should probably be counted as a CO2 sink instead. But they [both types of methane] are basically the same”. https://twitter.com/GlobalEcoGuy/status/1356748225127063552

        I’ve mentioned the forthcoming UNEP report on methane and quoted prof Shindell stressing the cobenefits of diet shifts away from animal-based foods. He is indeed the lead author – and again stresses the public health cobenefits of methane cuts in this recent article:

        ‘While cutting back on CO2 emissions will remain urgent, “it’s going to be next to impossible to remove enough CO2 to get any real benefits for the climate in the first half of the century,” said Drew Shindell, the study’s lead author and a professor of earth science at Duke University. “But if we can make a big enough cut in methane in the next decade, we’ll see public health benefits within the decade, and climate benefits within two decades,” he said. The U.N. report, which is expected to be published next month by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition and UNEP, signals a shift in the global discussion of climate change, which has focused on reducing CO2.’ https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/24/climate/methane-leaks-united-nations.html

        Let’s remember that over the next decade methane – from all sources – will be causing more warming than CO2 https://www.cicero.oslo.no/no/posts/klima/methane-a-climate-blind-spot. Of course cutting fossil fuel emissions is absolutely key – we can all agree on that – but scientists are telling us that methane from all sources is also crucial to avoid disastrous tipping points.

        You wrote “Low-energy smallholdings lacking in livestock are less efficient and more laborious places than ones that have some”. But when I read the motives of small-scale farmers who have chosen to produce food without animal inputs, such as Iain Tolhurst in the UK, I see them stress that part of their decision was precisely to be more efficient and less labour-intensive. Here’s Tolly: “Producing animals and vegetables together is very challenging. Farming without animal inputs came out of necessity. Stockfree farming (…) is about good land management, looking after the soil and feeding more people from less land.” https://www.agricology.co.uk/field/farmer-profiles/iain-tolhurst-tolly).

        You write that there have been historically “no low energy agrarian economies [without an important livestock element]” but there have been some very important ones! For instance:

        “The milpa system in Mesoamerica, based on corn, beans, and squash, still exists and requires no animal inputs, nor did it ever use draft animals. This system is so efficient that before colonization, it fed what was likely the densest population on the planet at the time” http://millahcayotl.org/open-letter-to-the-owners-of-gracias-madre-and-cafe-gratitude/

        You mention “my” position on land sparing vs sharing: I don’t have one! I have insufficient expertise, so I just follow the debate with interest, seeing for instance both the benefits and limitations of projects such as Knepp. I fully agree that “the devil is in the detail”, and it’s obvious that there isn’t one clear cut formula, but you write that “how we feed ourselves in a populous, low energy world is a pertinent question that has to be answered by agriculture, not by rewilding schemes”, even though the biodiversity crisis is just as threatening to agriculture, and all of life, as the climate one – and rewilding is an obvious strategy to address it. So I can’t see how we can separate the two. Feeding ourselves as efficiently as possible, using as few resources, especially land, as we can, whilst ensuring a healthy diet for us all, has to be the top priority on all fronts. The human justice element of how much land (+ other resources) each human household can justify needing comes into it as well: which ones of us do you think should have access to the land for the two cows and other livestock that you suggest? The ratio is currently of approx. 0.12 cow per person. The mass of humans and cows + other livestock represent 96% of all mammals on Earth, with wild animals counting for only 4%.

        Here’s polymath Vaclav Smil on this issue: “The aggregate mass of cattle and humans is crushingly larger than the total mass of all wild vertebrates, and it clearly leaves too little space for the multitude of other species. Cows and men occupy much of the available land, consume much of its photosynthetic product, and generate an increasing amount of greenhouse gas.
        No wonder we are in the midst of mass-scale species extinction, with no readily acceptable and effective relief in sight. By 2050 there will be 9 billion people and, most likely, 2 billion cattle, together augmenting their already crushing dominance of Earth”. https://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/environment/planet-of-the-cows

        • Annie:
          The Vaclav Smil article you refer to gets a bit over the top. I am a Smil fan – but this piece is a touch out of character for him. He should have limited his comparison to other mammals, he’d have been much closer.
          From this:
          https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/115/25/6506.full.pdf

          A 2018 estimate of the total vertebrate biomass on Earth (chordates in Table 1) is .869 Gt C ; and the combined biomass of humans and ALL livestock (not just the cows) is .160 Gt C. This doesn’t appear to be “crushing” from where I sit.

        • The biomass of humans is indeed crushing, having doubled, and nearly doubled again in the past 90 years.

          However the number of cattle in North America is about the same as the number of bison that once were in North America.

          So the biosimplification we see around us has other sources.

      • Annie, your comments don’t seem to be addressed to a default livestock situation of widespread self-reliant smallholding with minimal fossil fuel use, so in that sense I do think we’re substantially talking past one another.

        Clearly, the shorter the time period of concern, the larger methane will loom in mitigation strategies. If the narrative is that we have to do whatever it takes to get emissions to zero over the next several decades, then fine let’s slash livestock emissions. But as I see it there would have to be two provisos. First, we’ll need livestock in the longer term in most renewable agrarian societies so it will be important to retain skills and bloodstock – hence perhaps a simple limit of a few livestock units maximum per household or some such could be introduced, which would bring other benefits. Second, I think the ‘methane is methane is methane’ narrative too easily shunts concern onto livestock as the lowest hanging fruit – it’s easier to give up meat than oil or natural gas. So I fear this becomes another evasion – plant trees, give up meat, target methane, do any damn thing other than address the root causes of the problem (in brief, fossil fuels + capitalism). So I couldn’t honestly support methane elimination in agriculture unless I saw it was happening in other sectors – no fossil fuelled cars, no aeroplanes or bulk container ships, no gas central heating etc.

        Regarding the methane/CO2 relation and the matter of biogenic methane, I’m unmoved by your framing of it in terms of ‘experts’ and ‘top scientists’ who ‘debunk’ those pointing up the complexities. The latter are also ‘experts’ and it’s a matter of debate, not ‘debunking’. As I said, I’ll try to write at more length on this specific point in due course. But you don’t seem to be addressing the point that in the long-term it’s almost entirely CO2 and not methane that’s doing the climate forcing, and it’s the new carbon that we’re putting into the carbon cycle via fossil fuel burning that lies behind this. If we stopped extracting and combusting fossil fuels within the next 30 years, then the livestock methane issue would sort itself out. Making a big play for the latter without the former seems to me a bit like standing under the cold shower while your house is burning down.

        Regarding your points about Tolly & stock free efficiency – well, he’s got more than 25% of his land down to leys which he tills in mechanically, and he’s a market gardener, not a smallholder. I’d agree that in present circumstances small-scale market gardeners have got enough on their plates without raising livestock, which are hard to integrate sensibly with plastic and capital-intensive modern market gardens anyway. But I’m not talking about that kind of situation. I’m talking about a situation where a lot of people are growing food for themselves without fossil fuels. Suddenly, the cows, pigs, chickens, horses or donkeys slot right in.

        In terms of land justice etc. a cow produces more milk than most households can handle, and historically people have been pretty good at figuring out commons to spread the benefits of livestock in tight farming situations. Land justice is a big problem, but livestock as a component of it is not. Granted, there are garden cultures that can get by pretty well without livestock and I think it’s a direction to aspire to. But most of them are in the humid tropics … and I suspect fish and other bushmeat figured in the diet. As latitude increases (and I suspect human populations will further concentrate in higher latitudes as climate change bites), so does the utility of livestock. But it’ll be tight, so for sure we’ll need to share the cows out carefully.

        Finally, OK I’m happy to go with rewilding + food production. In other words, land sharing. To produce sufficient food, issues with weeds & marginal grazing are relevant, whereas in the wilder parts of the agroecosystem they won’t be (maybe there’ll be room for foraging and hunting in those). The advantages of land sparing seem to me too often premised theoretically – IF people increase yields of a few key commodity crops and concentrate production then MAYBE the land area nominally released could be left for wildlife. To my mind, it’s too big a maybe, and it falls foul of Eric’s soyburger point, among others.

        • Agreed on the land sparing. Complementing your arguments: the land sparing “solution” also leaves out the biggest social force ever seen, capitalism. The notion that land will be spared because you use some land more efficiently is easily disproved on the real world, as landowners and capital will exploit the freed up land for some other puropose. When ag intensification spared land in Sweden, the abandonned land was often planted with dense spruce plantations, with very limited value för wild life….Jevon’s paradox applies here as well.

        • To pick up on Annie’s comment about Iain Tolhurst’s stock-free farm and your reply, Chris, I’ll mention Will Bonsall as, to my mind, the preeminent example of a stock-free gardener whose practices are very much in line with the principles of a small farm future. He grows food to eat, not sell, with a keen eye toward sustainability — minimal imports from the marketplace, maximal nutrient cycling on site — and grows only plants because he finds doing so to be a more efficient and satisfying way to feed himself and his family. Here’s an interview in which Bonsall discusses the practice and philosophy that has informed his nearly five decades of gardening:

          https://responsibleeatingandliving.com/favorites/will-bonsall-radical-self-reliant-gardening/

        • Thanks Ernie – the Bonsall interview is interesting. For people living on a little land in modern societies and wanting to maximise sustainability, I agree there’s a good case for vegan horticulture. I think there’s more to discuss under the concept of ‘efficiency’, however, viz:

          Land efficiency: there’s no doubt that vegan approaches squeeze more out of less, acre for acre. But the idea of default livestock is that you mitigate or possibly even eliminate the additional land-take.

          Labour efficiency: the flipside – generally, you get more nutrition per hour of labour from tending livestock than from tending a garden. So in historical situations when people have the option, they typically opt for livestock.

          Societal resource efficiency: societies without fossil fuels, plastics, nylon and other such modern accoutrements have generally found animals an indispensable source of non-food needs.

          Biotic efficiency: getting human nutrition from animals might seem inefficient, but ecosystems with animals in them aren’t inefficient. An ecosystem in which humans deliberately exclude all the ‘stupid mammals’ other than themselves is quite an odd one, and it’s worth thinking about why people might do that from a wider ecological perspective.

          I hope to write a little more about these points a couple of posts down the line…

          • I look forward to it, Chris. My own personal predilections lead me to look favorably on Bonsall’s approach, but, as you cogently lay out, his argument based on efficiency is far from air-tight. Nonetheless, I do appreciate his willingness to challenge orthodoxies. He’s an interesting, imaginative thinker. I’m currently reading his novel, Through the Eyes of a Stranger. It’s a fascinating portrait of what a truly sustainable, egalitarian society might look like, one that attempts to rekindle the best of the hunter/gatherer ethos while holding on to the best of what modernity has to offer.

          • Animals are the long term larder of food , crop failures from any reason used to leave England short of food regularly be for mass imports were available , there are lots of calories in livestock that will keep you going untill the next harvest , milk turned into butter or cheese is also a hedge against winter calorie shortages , what you would live in in England as a vegan in winter without some kind of greenhouse or imports would be a very boring diet of sprouts cabbage and kale , dried peas and beans / grains , ya basic Pottage .

          • “what you would live in in England as a vegan in winter without some kind of greenhouse or imports would be a very boring diet of sprouts cabbage and kale , dried peas and beans / grains , ya basic Pottage .”

            I think you could do considerably better than that. In addition to beans, grains, cabbage, and kale, add tree nuts, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, fresh, storable fruits (apples, pears), dried or otherwise preserved warm-season fruits and vegetables, winter squash, and assorted root vegetables (potatoes, carrots, turnips rutabagas, winter radishes, etc.). It wouldn’t take much creativity to do a lot better than pottage with that diverse assortment of foods. Just to clarify, though, and head off further debate — in bringing up Bonsall, my intent wasn’t to advocate for an exclusively vegan small farm future.

    • You claim that fossil fuel cuts will make extensive livestock farming inevitable

      What will be the prime mover after oil ? There were millions of horses worldwide before the invention of oil engines, Europe used oxen , something will have to replace oil , the Deere electric tractors have disappeared as failures , in small farms muscle will replace oil , human and animal with a cost to both .

    • Annie, the forthcoming IPCC report spend 30 pages on the misrepresentation of methane through the commonly used GWP-100, and this also changes the balance between extensive and intensive breeding of ruminants. In extensive breeding almost all emissions are methane while there is much less CO2 and N2O per produced unit. I would agree that land use is a much more important issue – and the limiting factor for grazing animals. But most grasslands are underutilized or badly utilized and the perception of an intrinsic conflict between grazing and wildlife is exaggerated.
      Semi-natural grasslands are actually bio-diversity hotspots, in Europe and elsewhere. Se e.g. https://pastoralismjournal.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/2041-7136-2-8

  3. Thanks to the pandemic, I am working from home. My desk looks out over the back garden.

    Several times a day ‘Houdini’ the chicken escapes and has to be shooed back in to the run.

    While I curse her at the same time she demonstrates your last point perfectly. There is something very calming about the presence of chickens, they go in at night about as quietly as my children go to bed (ie pass the ear protectors) eat the kitchen scraps, weeds and grass cuttings. Then there is the joy of a trip to Moores on Christchurch street for chicken food – which they very kindly turn into fertiliser and eggs for me.

    And of course everyone wants eggs so its a nice sociable thing.

    • Nice ,
      Has not happened here in TX people still commute , route 67 into DFW is still nose to tail traffic , many comuting 150 miles every day , even with a gas sipper that’s still a lot of gas every week commuting is the biggest CO2 problem .

  4. I have spent far too much time arguing with vegans on the internet, and I have found overwhelming ignorance there, and far too much blithe racism.

    It is unsurprising, because vegans generally found their ideology first, and now are seeking ways to support it. They crunch a few numbers from Wikipedia and set off to do battle. If they actually knew anything about ecology or agriculture, it would be very inconvenient to their ideology.

    One popular number is how much land is used by cattle, and how much food could be grown if that land was used for crops.

    In British Columbia, where I live, 2.7% of the land is prime agricultural.

    The vast and sprawling rangelands would not grow a carrot. It is amazing to hear these arguments and then go look at the soils. When you kick aside the ¼” of pine litter, there is mineral soil.

    Just absolute ignorance.

    Another thing I have never seen figured in the nutrient cycling that is already going on. The FAO says 86% of animal feed is not edible for humans. This is corn stalks, grasses, branches, moldy grains, old donuts and candy that got stuck together, swills from food processing plants and compost recycling.

    If we were to stop processing these flows, there would be a consequence, and that should be accounted for.

    The racism of the largely white veganerati is also enraging. They take numbers from the U.S. and extrapolate them to the world. I mean, this is a country that cannot organize healthcare. They think it is fine for the fourth-most valuable company in the world, Amazon, to pay wages below subsistence. The U.S. is a horrifying exploitation state meticulously designed to enrich the very few.

    And part of that is how they produce meat. It is not surprising that feedlots and abattoirs are torture chambers—they were designed to make money.

    But when you look around the world, there is an astonishing amount of people on the planet who are still using animals as part of a local, mixed, nutrient-cycling subsistence agriculture. Smallholdings produce at least 60% of the world’s food, and the FAO estimates they produce 80% of the food in sub-Saharan Africa.

    So to extrapolate from Bloodsucking Capitalism to all the countries of the world is just racist.

    Lastly, the comparisons made by Poore and so many others have fatal flaws I discussed in a rant I wrote called Life Cycle Analysis Must Die. Here is the point:

    LCA factors cannot hope to weight the future. It is all very fine to say one litre of petroleum is worth X, but 50 years from now our descendants may disagree strongly with the valuations we chose. As the residents of Easter Island learned, the last tree is literally priceless. Indeed, any factor cannot hope to truly capture the future value of all non-renewable resources.
    Will people suffering from some future pandemic for lack of disposable syringes wish our LCAs on styrofoam cups had used a higher factor? Can our convenience be valued against their health or life?

    Valuing non-renewable resources, as I have just shown, is an impossible task, which is why, at the very least, LCA should be used only to compare apples to apples. Styrofoam coffee cups are made from non-renewable oil, which cannot hope to be accurately weighted and by definition can never be sustainable. Paper cups are made from renewable trees and could theoretically be manufactured sustainably. The only use I could recommend for LCA would be to compare the unsustainable to unsustainable and the sustainable to sustainable. Of course, in our current system even renewable materials can not be easily extracted from a non-renewable power and transport system, making even this calculation very difficult.

    Unsustainable cannot be meaningfully compared to sustainable, or to possibly sustainable. Virtually all industrial foods, which includes almost all vegan foods, rely on fossil-fuelled planting, harvest and transportation, as well as fossil fuel-derived fertilizers and other treatments.

    It is not sustainable.

    We say that so often that it passes easily through our lips, but it should be arresting. It should stop us in our tracks.

    Sustainable means able-to-be-sustained.
    Unsustainable means it cannot be sustained.

    Therefore it will stop.

    Therefore, industrial agriculture, and the all the food fads contained within it, will stop. They cannot be sustained.

    So on one hand, we have food and farmways that have been or can be sustainable for millennia. And on the other, we have system barely over a century old that is already creaking towards the grave.

    This is not a fair, reasonable, or useful comparison.

    I am well aware that we are not going to achieve a sustainable food supply easily, quickly or even voluntarily. But when I choose how to spend my time, I choose to move towards sustainability, which, in this case, means away from veganism, and I believe towards a small farm future.

    • Agree , here in TX there are millions of acres that grows drought tolerant weeds and little else , one cow calf pair for each twenty acres states how fertile it is and further West it’s worse ,Hobbs NM is one cow calf pair to two hundred acres , try growing carrots on that !

    • Virtually all industrial foods, which includes almost all vegan foods, rely on fossil-fuelled planting, harvest and transportation, as well as fossil fuel-derived fertilizers and other treatments.

      Now Ruben…
      I’m an omnivore as well, and not ashamed of it. So in broad brush terms I’m in a similar camp. But vegan foods needn’t be industrial by definition. Indeed there are habitats older than the iron age where vegetation was the dominant ingredient in the Homo sapiens diet. Vegans by default rather than by design perhaps, but there was nothing industrial in the matter.

      And as for not being able to grow a carrot on a mineral soil in British Columbia. Please. Which is more difficult – learning to grow a carrot or calculating the LCA for growing a carrot (and having personal experience to provide the LCA data)?

      Yes, the other side goes hyperbolic. But does that excuse us? I don’t think so. There are good sound arguments to offer without making spurious exaggerations.

      I agree with gist of of your message, just not the manner of delivery.

      On my way out I’ll query something else – is the capitalism in Canada somehow less bloodsucking?

      • It is true, Clem, that vegan foods needn’t be industrial by definition.

        But for much of the world that has meant…draught animals for traction power and nutrient cycling.

        I suspect some may find the nightsoil option less palatable, and certainly having no traction power at all really reduces your yields.

        As far as the bloodsucking, yes, Canada is less bloodsucking. We are no less racist or colonialist, but we are less bloodsucking. Our Conservative Party, which I would put parallel with Barack Obama, does not even dare threaten our universal healthcare.

        And that is the biggest part of the false comparison of Amazon wages and Canadian minimum wages. We pay zero dollars for healthcare, except through our progressive taxation system.

        I got $1500 worth of IV antibiotics in one night after I got blood poisoning, and then five more days of outpatient IV antibiotics. Zero dollars.

        My parents have had two knees, a shoulder, several heart procedures. Zero dollars.

        So there is just an allover more humane life in Canada. We do not celebrate our bloodsuckers as our heroes. If anything, many of find them gauche.

        And that minimum wage is what you get, because you don’t have to pay hundreds for “insurance”. Many comparisons of the tax rates between the countries find that Canadians pay a lower effective rate than Americans, because we don’t spend the fantastical sums you give to enrich the medical industry.

    • They take numbers from the U.S. and extrapolate them to the world. I mean, this is a country that cannot organize healthcare. They think it is fine for the fourth-most valuable company in the world, Amazon, to pay wages below subsistence. The U.S. is a horrifying exploitation state meticulously designed to enrich the very few.

      Yep, one can (if they try) find things about the U.S. to criticize. But Ruben’s recent rant misses the mark in one detail. Amazon has a starting wage of $15 USD per hour (has for some time now). The minimum wage in Canada is less than $13 USD. AND the Amazon model has had impacts beyond their own walls:

      https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/05/business/economy/amazon-wage-effect.html

      I’m not a Jeff Bezos fanboy; just a stickler for some less hyperbolic discourse. The healthcare nonsense on our side of the border does seem tragic given the possibilities.

      Another detail:

      …meticulously designed to enrich the very few.

      On this I might suggest: not designed to prevent the enrichment of the few. [though there actually have been some design parameters which might prevent… though recent policy moves have neutered many.] If the result is no different, then what am I arguing over? Systemic vs. opportunistic. Policy changes of the former administration yielding the opportunity for more severe capitalistic wealth capture. While not yet evidenced, there is the chance that new policy maneuvers from the beltway might curb the ugliness. And Amazon’s recent wage policies could serve as a positive example rather than one to be held as “bloodsucking”.

      • I responded above, but I think suffice to say you and I have different politics here, and that I think the world would be a much better place without Bezos, Gates, Buffet.

        I think we need not a minimum wage, but a maximum wage, which, just to make it palatable, should be set around $250,000 per year.

    • “The racism of the largely white veganerati is also enraging.”

      I’m wondering whether that should be considered a racist statement?  People, in general, choose vegan diets for various reasons, including less impact on the Earth.

      “But nowhere has the vegan diet taken off more than in the African-American community. According to Pew Research Center survey, 8% of black Americans are strict vegans or vegetarians, compared to just 3% of the general population.

      “Those findings mirror a 2015 poll by the Vegetarian Resource Group, that found 8% of black people were strictly vegetarian, compared to 3.4% overall.

      “Recently, a January poll by Gallup found that 31% of non-white Americans had reduced their meat consumption in the past year, compared to only 19% of white Americans.

      “The trend is sparking a new generation of vegan influencers, like actress Tabitha Brown, who is getting her own cooking show after her vegan videos blew up on Tik Tok and Instagram…”

      https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-53787329

      • Do you mean noting the veganerati is largely white is racist?

        No, it isn’t. But saying you don’t see colour is. Thanks to the systemic nature of racism, white people will tend to get more of the airtime, even if they are underrepresented in the group.

        So, the demographic difference are interesting, but does not change that the veganerati are largely white.

      • “Do you mean noting the veganerati is largely white is racist? No, it isn’t. But saying you don’t see colour is.”

        No, that’s not what I meant. And I certainly see colour, which is why I pointed out the substantial numbers of Black vegans.

        I’ll clarify what I meant. Ruben wrote, “The racism of the largely white veganerati is also enraging. They take numbers from the U.S. and extrapolate them to the world.” The part of the argument which seems potentially racist, to me, is the implication that the “non-white” vegans don’t think that a vegan diet would help the environment and reduce humanity’s impact on Earth (a view which essentially involves the claimed racism of extrapolating U.S. numbers to the rest of the world).

        Could it be that extrapolating US numbers to the rest of the world is more a matter of ignorance (on the part of vegans both white and “non-white”), instead of racism?

        But I admit that ambiguities may have led me to read something into what Ruben wrote that he didn’t mean. Thus my questioning tone, instead of making obtrusive accusations presented as facts. But my main point was about vegan demographics and how “Black Americans are more likely to be vegan,” as the headline states.

        • Thanks for clarifying Steve. I will try to follow your lead and see if I can explain my thoughts better.

          I think we can leave aside the numbers of Black vegans, and South Asian vegans and Japanese vegans, and probably can agree the Voice of Veganism in the English speaking world is largely white.

          So, I am not quibbling about what ethnicities practice veganism, but I am stating the people who talk about it are largely white—not totally, but largely.

          Could it be that extrapolating US numbers to the rest of the world is more a matter of ignorance (on the part of vegans both white and “non-white”), instead of racism?

          I think you are right here, but I think ignorance is racism. It is about the impact, not the intention. The impact is racist.

          So, for example, when a white person shares their opinions about how others “ought” to eat—to me, a white man, they might just seem like a jerk.
          But given the history of white people forcing new foodways, diets, religions, education, languages, clothing and more on a multitude of different cultures, it is hard to escape the tone of paternalistic superiority.
          In fact dozens of cultures have evolved complete moral systems and foodways that have sustained them for millennia, and the fact that is not to the taste of white vegans is… racist.

          A vegan from that culture might have the exact same opinions as a white vegan not of that culture, and that is fine. That is how cultures change.

          But we are a point in time where it is glaringly clear that white people need to be very careful how they speak about other cultures, because the history is so heavy in the room.

          A parallel example—there is discussion that both Black and First Nations people may have higher reluctance to get COVID vaccines, because people who were unwillingly used for medical experiments are still alive. This is not ancient history. This is their friends and family.

          So, we live in a world in which the Government of Canada deliberately and methodically destroyed the foodways and right of self-provender of Indigenous people.

          And now there is an obesity epidemic in First Nations folks, and the Inuit have a great deal of difficulty affording the green peppers and lettuce that are flown in from Mexico.

          This is the current reality. So when white people say how people of other cultures “ought” to eat, even from ignorance, it is racist. That is the impact.

          Now, as to pure ignorance—I spoke of being ignorant of agriculture and ecology, and I am sure that is a major factor. Many Americans (again, a generalization, but America is overrepresented in media and social media in the English-speaking world) cannot find the USA on map. Many Americans have never left their country, through which they might have learned that they are not in fact, the greatest nation on earth. They might have seen that different cultures have created different organizing systems and different ways to solve problems.

          I once took my American relatives out for a nice dinner—and they requested the sushi be cooked.

          So, I think there is a massive amount of ignorance, of the sort Chris is trying to dispel here. Many, many people around the world work a small plot of land and husband an animal or a few to feed their family.
          There is absolutely nothing that can be extrapolated from American factory farms to that experience. It is completely unrelated, and on many metrics, is much better.

          So yes, there is ignorance of agriculture and ecology that causes people to say silly things. But when a white person directs those silly things at a person of colour, that is racist. That may not seem fair, but that the weight of our history.

  5. But I think we need to get beyond this arena of what I call ‘shopping aisle ethics’.

    Yes, but we still need to pay attention to the ethics of shopping aisles. If one is procuring one’s food from the shelves of a shopping aisle, it scarcely matters what one purchases. It is the creation and use of the shopping aisle itself that is the unethical behavior we should be concerned about.

    A shopping aisle is in a grocery store, almost always found in an urbanized built environment, and contains products (whatever they are) that are the result of enormous expenditures of energy (and carbon emissions) to grow, harvest, transport, process, package and deliver to the aisle.

    Compared with the underlying processes that enable one to shop in an aisle, take the stuff home and cook it in a modern kitchen, the differences in the carbon and environmental footprint of the products found there is small change. Vegan or otherwise, if you really want to make a difference, don’t get your food from a shopping aisle.

    • And there’s the thing: the vast majority of meat consumed comes from a supermarket aisle or restaurant catering supplier. So does the vast majority of everything else.

      If we go local, we will of necessity change what we eat; if we go local and fossil-free, even more so. And local constraints will soon show what is sustainable and what is not.

      I live in a city. It will be a while before I can escape. So I’m prioritising sustainable production for food where I’m a higher-order consumer (meat, fish,and to an extent eggs and dairy). I’m prioritising growing my own for plant foods with a short shelf life, high packaging needs, high expense, or where what I can grow just tastes better than anything I can buy. And I’m still using the grocery store for sugar, some grains, spices, and some fruit and veg (I simply don’t have enough storage space for a year’s worth of potatoes or carrots, even if I were to process them first, and our apple crop failed entirely…but I haven’t bought squashes or beans in a year except when the only way to get beans for seed was to buy the beans for eating). We still eat bananas, but I didn’t buy berries last year. I buy relatively local flour from a mill.

      Which is all to say — if anyone reading this can see the problem with supermarkets but feels stuck in an urbanised built environment, there may well be options that are better than nothing; and the more of this kind of thing you can do now, the more skill you will have when you are able to take the next steps.

      • Trying to live more locally has problems , finding a slaughter house is one , government regulations closed most local processors , selling home grown produce brings out a plethora of paperwork and inspection to meet “regulations “

  6. I largely agree. I’m very curious about how to get lard from a cow, though… 😉

    (I started cooking with beef dripping a couple of years ago and haven’t looked back. Cheaper than butter, often available in shelf stable glass jars , and oh so tasty.)

    • “I’m very curious about how to get lard from a cow, though”

      Good point! I always tend to think of animal fat for cooking generically as ‘lard’, but you’re right that’s incorrect.

      • In my analysis, the contribution of livestock to dietary fat is more important than the protein supply. The alternative fat sources are less attractive than the alternative protein sources.

        • My experience reflects your analysis.

          I didn’t *like* being mostly vegetarian for a decade — I was constantly hungry — but I could probably pull it off if I had to, as long as I had sufficient butter, cheese and yoghurt. Giving those up as well would leave me with nuts (which give me skin problems if I eat too many) and oilseeds (…now there’s labour intensity for you) as fat sources. This seems like a pretty bad idea if I’m going to expend 3500kcal/day on manual labour and also have no access to calorie-dense, industrially processed food. (I already do roughly this kind of energy expenditure on some allotment days, and it’s just an allotment.)

          Plus I’m not sure where we’re supposed to get vitamin D in the winter if we aren’t getting it from animals. It’s not like I can sunbathe in December. I guess some mushrooms make it in response to sun exposure (just like us), but I don’t know if drying them for winter use would preserve it.

  7. “stop thinking there’s a single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth”

    This aligns with my thinking, as for years now I have been changing patterns one small step at a time, so that the effort and end goal seems less daunting. The point is to do SOMETHING, and not get frozen in indecision or overthink it. I have a long way to go, but have also come a long way.

    This post also has me circling back to what I think is a central point for us to figure out; what is the path from here to a small farm future? What is the key tipping point example that those of us who are predicament aware can do to spark a mass change?

    Only part of this will be accomplished through individual change, so many obstacles are systemic. Land ownership, taxing and regulation philosophies, embedded incentives and subsidies for our unsustainable extractive economy, all will need to change, but I don’t know how we even get near the levers of power to nudge things.

    • Only part of this will be accomplished through individual change, so many obstacles are systemic. Land ownership, taxing and regulation philosophies, embedded incentives and subsidies for our unsustainable extractive economy, all will need to change, but I don’t know how we even get near the levers of power to nudge things.

      These are indeed almost insurmountable obstacles, but it’s even worse than that: consider that many of these systemic obstacles are driven by international competition. How much influence does one individual have on international economic forces?

      The atmosphere is a perfect example of Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” and the difficulty of managing a global scale commons. The whole world pays the cost of CO2 emissions, but if an individual country tried to reduce its own emissions ahead of a global emission reduction treaty involving every country, it would suffer severe economic repercussions. Which rich country is going to make the first move toward energy impoverishment?

      Further evidence for doubt that we will ever nudge those levers of power is found in the example of nuclear weapons. Here is a technology that drains resources, has no practical use except for deterence, that everyone wishes would be abolished, and yet we still haven’t figured out a way to get rid of them. Abolishing nuclear weapons would mean no hardship on anyone. It should be much more easy to come up with an international solution to abolish nuclear weapons than to abolish fossil fuels, yet we still can’t do it.

      All of the things that would need to be abolished to make room for a sustainable small farm future (we know what they are) would cause real hardship, even death, in their absence. Which
      rich individual or what comfortably affluent group is going to volunteer to lead the way into hardship and death? How do we transform billions of ordinary people into saints?

      I expect that nothing of consequence will be done and that we will leave it to nature to finally pull hard on that lever and shut things down. I may be wrong, but I think it is only prudent to assume the worst (and prepare accordingly).

      • Climate expert Glen Peters explains: “Lifestyle changes are a prerequisite for sustaining reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Two thirds of global emissions are linked to private household activities. Reducing emissions through lifestyle changes requires changing both broader systemic conditions and individual actions”. https://twitter.com/Peters_Glen/status/1336614551530442752

        The beauty of adopting plant-based diets is that there are instant benefits for one’s health and budget (even with current subsidies and other financial aids artificially buoying animal-based foods). Social traditions are the key influences in dietary choices, so the more individuals shift, the more norms can change and appropriate policies can follow. The cobenefits for public health are huge!

        I write “plant-based” rather than “plant-rich” diets because omnivores consistently underestimate their consumption of meat and dairy, so that many who think they have reduced probably haven’t. Here’s a tweet from today: “Germans underestimate their meat consumption by 72%. People in the US eat 49% more meat than they realise. One in three people in the UK claim to be cutting back on meat, but data show no decline in per capita consumption”. https://twitter.com/Rob_Percival_/status/1389273064794374152

        • Glen Peters was either imprecise or incorrect with “Lifestyle changes are a prerequisite for sustaining reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”

          If he thinks 7 billion people are going to choose to change their behaviour to reduce carbon, he is way behind the current models of behaviour change. That would be incorrect.

          If he is just imprecise, then perhaps he means “Changed lifestyles are a prerequisite”… which is system change.

          It seems likely it is a little of both, since he says “Reducing emissions through lifestyle changes requires changing both broader systemic conditions and individual actions”

          And he is just wrong about the possibility of change by individual actions. This is a founding myth of our culture, so most people believe it, but it is wrong.

          For example, for several decades we have been chided to turn down our thermostats, with poor results.

          Building code changes, however, have excellent results, as do energy retrofit programs.

          That is the difference between the individual and the systemic. Broadly, one fails, one works.

          Over a third of my personal ecological footprint is attributed to “National Services”. This is military, government, power grid, legal system, roadways, telecoms, etc etc of Canada. I cannot Lifestyle Choice that away, just as I cannot Lifestyle Choice away how power is generated in my province.

          And I want to repeat again that the health benefits of plant-rich diets are greatly contested. We evolved into modern humans thanks to massive nutrient density of meat.

          Lastly, from a lifestyle-change perspective, eating plant-rich is a poor strategy. Eating is something you have to do multiple times a day, and so changing diets is extremely demanding of our limited cognitive capacity.

          Simply buying green energy is twice as effective as eating plant-based, and that is a decision you only need to make once. This chart shows the impact of different lifestyle changes. Note the impact of having one fewer child is so massive they had to change the chart scale.

          The most effective individual steps to tackle climate change aren’t being discussed.

          • Yes, you’re pretty convincing on the structural vs individual point … though the same applies at the society-wide level to family size. Given that the studies seem to impute ongoing carbon emissions to infinite subsequent generations and apply them proportionately to the present generation then it’s a logical certainty that family size will be much the biggest change factor. But it’s a rather strange methodology.

          • Over a third of my personal ecological footprint is attributed to “National Services”. This is military, government, power grid, legal system, roadways, telecoms, etc etc of Canada. I cannot Lifestyle Choice that away, just as I cannot Lifestyle Choice away how power is generated in my province.

            I dunno Ruben, I guess so long as your Lifestyle Choice is to remain in BC and avail yourself of these National Services then you are correct… you’re stuck. But another Lifestyle Choice might be to move off grid where the government doesn’t have such a National Service footprint to attach to you.

            Perhaps there’s a subtle difference between bloodsucking capitalism and bloodsucking socialism?

            Choices are all around us, being blind to them is no excuse.

          • Chris, the methodology is a bit odd.

            But question is also odd. It is something like “Given that we know that lifestyle changes are very limited and cannot be taken up at a mass scale and are therefore doomed to fail, and while they are failing will consume a lot of precious attention that perhaps could have been used for something that had a chance of success—given that, what is the most impactful lifestyle change?”

            Out of a relatively useless collection, what is the most impactful?

            Clem, Americans are easily derailed by socialism, even as they drive on the densest network of socialized roads in the world, built with oil secured by the largest socialized military in the world. It is a tic that does not affect most of the rest of the world.

            And, here, in this conversation about the puny impact of personal lifestyle change vs. system change, the moving to an off-grid cabin is the ultimate example of the former.

          • I’ve gone round the houses over the years on the whole personal lifestyle question, and come to the conclusion that I like it if people choose to do *something* to address their impact, and I also like it if they don’t make too big a deal about its impactfulness.

            But I also think it’s worth prefiguring, however feebly, the kind of less impactful lifestyle that we consider may be the lot of future generations. So while choosing to live offgrid in a cabin may not have much impact now, I still think it’s a worthwhile thing to do since it’s probably where many of us are headed.

            I also agree there are some peculiarities in the way socialism seems to play to USAians, though I increasingly think there are also some peculiarities in the way it plays to socialists…

          • I don’t know anybody living “off-grid” in a cabin in the woods, but I know a few people living in cabins in the woods – at varying levels of poverty. Nearly all of them drive their cars to town just about every day.

            The one person I know living off-grid is doing it in the city, two blocks from me.

          • Ha ha, well I did say ‘however feebly’. But I like how this story is developing from Clem’s ‘off grid’ to Ruben’s ‘off-grid cabin’ to Eric’s ‘not off grid cabin in the woods’. For my part, I live off certain grids but not others in a building-regulation approved cabin in some woods that I planted, and I drive to town about once a week, sometimes on an electric trike. Will try harder…

          • Yes, the lifestyle stuff is hard work. It is quite likely that my home rabbitry and home canning uses more energy and creates more GHGs than buying the products from the store.

            But, as you say, it is important to prefigure the future. One of my main guides is to wonder what people will need in 200 years, and the answer is usually that they will need more skills, and the ability to learn more skills. That along with community practices, animism, and trauma work would be a good start for our survivors.

            And really, if someone flew across the ocean every week, but did so to negotiate radically upgrade building codes so homes were insulated and weathertight, they could tick a massive GHG reduction beside their name.

            As far as off-grid cabins, are these the second, vacation homes of the rich? Or the half-built energy hogs of the hippies who can’t afford building materials (that is what I grew up in, fortunately attached to the grid).

            If you want to make homes more efficient, one of the best strategies remains to stack them together so they are insulated on most sides by other homes.

            Bah. I have spent too many years working for and hoping for sensible approaches to consumption, including reimagining the grid. I am going to go pollinate the pawpaws.

          • “If you want to make homes more efficient, one of the best strategies remains to stack them together so they are insulated on most sides by other homes.”

            True, but if you want to make homes ecologically efficient a good strategy is to surround them with a garden big enough to provide all their food.

            You could alternatively stack the homes together and surround them with a really big garden to provide food for everyone, but that’s not usually socially efficient, because then people spend too much time arguing…

            Darned trade-offs!

          • I think the greatest contribution a large garden makes to lower your ecological impact is that it keeps you too busy to go shopping.

          • Wow!
            Ruben, you have paw paws?
            In BC?
            Congratulations!
            My sister with the (large) cabin in the woods outside Eugene Oregon never quite succeeded in getting paw paws established there.

            Paw paw pollination season is just about finished here in northeast Kansas.

          • Eric, Paw Paws are not native here—but we have a Mediterranean climate that is almost embarrassing. Non-Canadians assume we are wading through snow drifts on our way to hew logs with an axe, but actually we live in this little bubble that has none of the hallmarks of Canada. Very little snow, and none of the blackflies or mosquitoes the size of a compact car.

            We have a nursery nearby that we have bought from. They have a full-on citrus orchard at Fruit Trees and More We have a couple of olives, an orange, a lime, and a couple of paw paws. None of this has produced much, but this year I decided to hand-pollinate, so it will be interesting to see if that changes things.

            I read that paw paws evolved before bees—there certainly doesn’t seem to be anything local that is pollinating them.

      • Okay, I’ve read this far, and nobody has mentioned the one thing that anyone can do to reduce their impact on the planet to zero.

        Joe got close: “Which rich individual or what comfortably affluent group is going to volunteer to lead the way into hardship and death?”

        I am not advocating suicide.
        But let’s not fool ourselves. Especially since much of what industrial society is presently doing in the name of ‘profits’ is the equivalent of societal suicide.

        What I suggest is that we make a rough estimate of our positive and negative impacts on the planet, and start minimizing the negative and maximizing the positive.

        Eating a soyburger while stuck in traffic driving your prius to your job at an investment company is less than useless. It is delusional if you think it will somehow mitigate all the industrial waste that made such behavior possible.

        Minimize the negative – stop driving your car.
        Maximize the positive – rip out your lawn and plant vegetables and fruit trees.

        • — rip out your lawn and plant veges and fruit trees…

          What – nut trees get no love?? Just kiddin…

          I really like this. The two oaks I have planted in the yard are not smiling, but they’ll get over it. I especially like the choice of soyburger for the Prius set. You’re right, it doesn’t make up for other missteps, but most uses of soy get a nod from me.

          • Ha.
            I’m not against soyburgers, just want to be aware of how to use them.

            Also, nuts are fruits too (botanically) – just like soybeans.

            And oaks are nut trees.
            Make your oaks smile by racing the squirrels for the acorns…

        • I never started driving a car and don’t even have a license, so at least I’m ahead on that one. (Ironically, this would be much harder to pull off if I didn’t live in a major city. Sigh.)

          • Thanks Eric… but if we want to really get into the botanical specifics… a soybean is a seed, and the whole pod with the soybean in it is a fruit. A fruit is a ripened ovary. So a peach, an apple, an apricot… these are fruits. Nuts such as a peanut is a seed (like the soybean)… a walnut WITH the shell is the fruit. And you are right about the oak’s acorn – it is a fruit.

            And the plan for the acorns coming from our yard’s trees (those I do manage to get ahead of the squirrels) are headed for the pig sty. (ooops, that would be livestock… hmmm may have to rethink that part).

  8. Well, we are much in agreement. I would say that Poore’s statement in the press are outrageous and that he has no support in his own research for the statement that stop eating meat is the most important issue. In addition his own research, with all its limitations assumption, actually shows that there is an immense variation in both crops and livestock when it comes to emissions and that livestock raising in many cases is using less water than comparable plants. It is actually quite easy to look into what is and can be produced in the driest climates on earth to see that livestock is the preferred option (apart from where there is plenty of water for irrigation, which is normally NOT the case in dry climates….).
    Coincidentally I just made a calculation of how much you can realistically can product on grass. My conclusion is:
    -Those that claim that grazing animals can only make a marginal contribution to human nutrition are mistaken. Those that claim that we can feed the global population with grass-fed beef are equally wrong.
    -It certainly not possible to sustain the global population on a diet that is dominated by products from grazed animals, but grazing ruminants make a very significant contribution to human nutrition.
    -It is not likely that current total meat consumption (i.e. including also poultry and pork) could be sustained just from grazed animals.
    -It is likely possible to substantially increase global production of meat and milk from grazing animals to reach a quantity similar to the current consumption of beef and milk. ”
    https://gardenearth.blogspot.com/2021/05/we-cant-all-live-on-grass-fed-beef-but.html
    Having said that it is context specific as you said. Other calculations I have made show that in Sweden it is really not difficult to sustain a quite large consumption of beef and even more milk (milk is far too often overlooked, while it is many cases more important than meat from cattle) fed on grass. Because of the climate a substantial part of that grass would have to be hay or silage from arable land though. But the leys are meanwhile improving the land and keep weeds and other pest for food crops at bay.

  9. Another (short) comment, if I may: Some responses here, and possibly even the title and first words of the post, tend to imply that anyone promoting plant-based diets is a vegan (however that might be defined) and thus automatically biased. To me, this is rather like saying that if your doctor is a non-smoker she can’t possibly advise wisely on lung cancer.

    Yet the bias of many or most omnivores is rarely considered. Today sees the publication of a new study about ways to address the risk of pandemics – and public perceptions of such interventions. The authors conclude:

    “Our findings suggest that people, especially those highly committed to eating meat, willfully disregard solutions targeting animal agriculture and global meat consumption to prevent future pandemics, precisely because such solutions implicate their dietary habits. Better understanding motivated beliefs about the causes of and solutions to pandemics is critical for developing interventions”. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0195666321001860

    Similar bias applies to most other impacts of our food choices, but because omnivory is the dominant trend in our societies, it goes largely unnoticed.

  10. Thanks as ever for another thought-provoking set of comments. It always feels a bit wrong to pick up on some people’s comments and not others, but alas that’s what I’m going to do for brevity. I’ve certainly learned something from everyone here though.

    So…thanks Gunnar for your points on milk and fat – agreed – and for pointing to your interesting analysis. Something to ponder and come back to.

    Also thanks Joe for the thought-provoking nuclear weapons comparison – any further thoughts on that welcomed… To this part of the conversation, involving Steve C and Eric also, I feel the same bemusement about escaping the impasse – though I give it my best shot in Part IV of the book, which we’ll come to here eventually, I hope! Something along the lines of trying to build around the possibility that there will be places where local agrarianism comes to seem like the most attractive option before it comes to seem like the only option.

    And thanks to Annie for outlining a different view. I’ve addressed some specifics above, but I agree that ‘vegan bias’ isn’t any more in play than ‘omnivore bias’. Though I guess I do think that veganism has more affinity with a kind of urbanist/human exceptionalist stance than it does with a smallholder or ‘plain member and citizen of the biotic community’ stance, and that these push consequentially in quite different directions.

    Thanks also to everyone else 🙂

  11. I have nothing of substance to add here, mostly because I am plum tuckered from Springtime work on the multi-species homestead (where beans grow and animals graze). I just want to thank everyone here for such a fine, stimulating display of rational dialogue. This contentious issue is so emblematic of our polarized and factionalized times. I have learned from experience to steer clear of most debates on the issue, which are too often depressingly insular and unproductive. This discussion, however, felt genuinely positive. Bravo, my friends!
    In particular, I hope Chris and Annie continue to engage with one another. We’ve got to challenge each other and clarify our positions and have real, grounded conversations. That is what I see happening here. Thanks to both of you for making my day…

    • Hear, hear, Derrick! I almost never read the comments on other sites (and I stay away from most social media), but I relish the comments made by folks here. I could feel the heat in this latest set, but there was no boil-over. Bravo, everyone!

    • Thanks both, that’s good to hear. Indeed, I like to think of Small Farm Future as a rose garden sprouting from the sewer of social media 🙂

  12. Hi Chris, I have a lot of sympathy (or possibly more accurately empathy, as it’s quite emotional) for your proposition that fossil fuel use needs attention, rather than meat consumption.

    However, a brief note on the “methane is different to carbon dioxide” point: I have read the articles about stock and flow emissions, etc, and I can follow the general argument until I start wondering about what happens to the methane as it breaks down… Doesn’t it just turn into carbon dioxide? I have gone digging round the internet a few times but never found a straight answer to this. Plenty of statements that methane has a short half-life in the atmosphere, but very few statements saying where it goes or what it gets transformed into… Maybe I should do a bit more searching…

    Also, my trust in the GWP* alternative accounting proposal was substantially eroded when I realised they had quite strong links to the New Zealand sheep farming industry.

    All I’m saying is that it’s worth considering the remaining strength of your argument after you remove the “ah yes, but methane’s climate impact is overestimated because mainstream climate scientists don’t understand atmospheric chemistry” point. I think the argument for livestock in an fossil-free, eco-logical, climate friendly, small farm future is still strong even without that and you give critics less of a handhold.

    • Thanks Joshua. On the methane turning to carbon dioxide point, I think the issue is that quantitative emissions of the latter (around 40 billion tonnes annually) dwarf those of the former (around 150 million tonnes from agriculture), so the major significance of methane is its potency while it’s still methane. There is also the biogenic point, which needs unpicking.

      Regarding GWP accounting, I’m not sure my argument relies on the notion that mainstream climate scientists don’t understand atmospheric chemistry. It seems generally agreed that in the long term it’s CO2 that does the forcing. But in the short term, for sure if we want to cut emissions quickly then methane becomes a gas of interest. Here, the ‘methane is methane’ argument makes sense from an overall atmospheric chemistry perspective from people who are not contemplating radically different agrarian futures. But for those who do contemplate such futures, methane isn’t necessarily all the same.

      That last point applies independently of the biogenic/new methane issue, where there does seem to be some disagreement between scientists.

      I’ll have to follow up on the accusations of bias against the alternative accounting – perhaps you could provide some links? My initial response is scepticism, because it’s been quite widely promulgated by people with considerable ‘expert’ credibility. My sense is more of distorted interpretations of the work by livestock industry interests than of some wildly successful bit of industry astroturfing. But maybe I’m wrong. Certainly I agree that there are various strands of analysis pointing to a small farm with livestock future, so if any of them are compromised there may be a case not to use them.

    • @Joshua, It must be clarified that it is NOT “mainstream climate scientists” that put CO2eq and put them into LCAs and come up with figures of emissions from Livestock. The IPCC didn’t make the GWP-100 metric for use in LCAs, they made chose it to be able to communicate with policy makers. The real climate scientists, and the IPCC, keep the gases separated in their models because the CO2eq figure is misleading.

      There will be residual CO2 from methane when it breaks down. But that is no different from the CO2 in our breath or the breath of the cow. Even the IPCC GWP-100 for methane is different between fossil methane and biogenic methane as the fossil methane add “new” CO2 to the atmosphere, while the biogenic CO2 from methane is just circulating (the annual turnover of CO2 in the biological systems are far bigger than annual emissions).
      The upcoming IPCC report spends some 30 pages in discussing the problems with the methane metrics as used and communicated.
      I think you mix up the causation between GWP* and NZ sheep or dairy industries. They would be idiots if they didn’t embrace GWP*…..

      • Interesting clarification – thanks Gunnar. Also good to be reminded that the anthropogenic component of the carbon cycle is quite small (unlike the nitrogen cycle). My sense is that some climate scientists are a bit dismissive of the biogenic point, I guess because they’re concerned about doing anything possible right now to bring greenhouse emissions down as per the ‘methane is methane’ argument. Maybe that’s fair enough in its own terms, but it essentially becomes a land sparing argument for getting rid of cattle and pastures and hoping for wilderness. Even if that hope is realised, as I understand it we’re only looking at a few decades of sequestration before we reach equilibrium – and it will easily be lost if the land use changes. If we keep burning fossil fuels in the meantime, the ruminant methane argument does seem to me a bit like fiddling while Rome burns.

  13. Pingback: The single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth… – Olduvai.ca

  14. On the methane point discussed above, the ongoing discussion on Ken Rice’s ‘…and then there’s physics’ blog is worth a look – with various climate folks both emphasizing and qualifying the focus on methane. Oxford physics prof Ray Pierrehumbert writes:

    “Until we make progress on co2 methane is just a sideshow. Investment in co2 emission reduction gets you toward the main goal. Investment in methane does not. The confusion on methane comes from a focus on short term temperature targets , ignoring what happens afterwards. All made abundantly clear in my Annual Reviews article from some years back. Of course, it still makes sense to do low or negative cost methane abatement, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves about how much of the problem it can address.”

    https://andthentheresphysics.wordpress.com/2021/05/01/halting-the-vast-release-of-methane-is-critical/

    My take-home – there’s a strong case for reforming the global ruminant livestock industry (in fact there’s a case for doing this anyway, regardless of methane issues), but there’s no case for reforming smallholder ruminant herding on climate grounds.

    • There is some talk locally by the ranchers that beef animals that have never been given antibiotics emit less methane than those that live in feed lots given antibiotics in their feed , UT is starting to look into this , one wag said it seems steers need bio yogurt to get their natural gut bacteria back .

  15. The single biggest way to reduce your impact on the planet is to not have any children. Especially if you live in a wealthy country.

    The inherent conflict in that is that environmentalism isn’t about saving the planet, it is about saving the people. If there aren’t any people, what is all the fuss about ?

    If humans did something very dumb and completely wrecked the ecosystem we all depend on, in 10,000 years it would be hard to tell humans ever existed. In 100,000 years it wouldn’t matter a bit. And 100,000 years is a blink of the eye compared to one billion years. The planet will still be here. We won’t.

    SO back to saving humanity from itself, which I am sure we can do. Only 25% of the US population thinks that Donald Trump is telling the truth and won the last election. Just 30% don’t want to get vaccinated against C-19, which could be a self correcting problem. And 84% of the US population firmly believe the Earth is a sphere. The numbers are on our side.

    I don’t know Mr Poore. Does he farm ? Does he grow his own food ? If not, does he know what he is talking about or is he looking at someone else’s numbers ? Cows / meat isn’t the problem. It is the entire system.

    If we are going to limit ourselves to meat consumption, how about just eating less meat in general ? Personally, we do eat meet but most of the cow products we buy is suet to feed the birds since the insects are disappearing. We struggle to get through a dozen chickens a year but Rieder’s bacon is the food of the gods. Meat tastes great and is easy to prepare, but why does everyone assume that we can all live our 21st century lifestyle on a finite planet ?

    Chickens and rabbits are the most likely source of meat in a small farm future. Cows are too inefficient. Most of what goes in the front comes out the back. Is it a trade off worth making for butter, cheese, and a little income if they are using forages that are capturing a little carbon and are mostly holding the soil in place ?

    Pigs are a little better but chickens really shine when it come to feed conversion. You don’t even have to kill the chickens to harvest the protein. Not to mention that the eggs from pastured chickens are far superior to the factory farmed version.

    I think we are up against a framing issue. Telling Americans that electric cars are a joke and consumerism is not freedom will be a hard sell. We can’t continue to consume 3 1/2 planets worth of resources and expect a good outcome.

    Greg

    • Thanks Greg. My take is that there’s a difference between one’s direct impact on the planet (not related to children) and indirect/legacy impact (related to children). The difficulty with imputing the impact of the latter is that one way or another it seems to me unlikely that a few generations down the line our descendants will be impacting the planet (emitting GHGs, bulldozing forests etc) in the way we now do. All the same it might be a principled decision not to have any children, but to my mind it would also paradoxically be a symptom of the very problem. Life wills itself. Not to will life is expressive of the alienation that needs transcending.

      Regarding livestock, the fact that most of what goes in one end of a cow comes out the other is kind of what makes them ecologically efficient from a farming point of view – but not, I agree, from a ‘feeding the world’ point of view. Ruminants are ubiquitous critters in the wild, especially in grassland systems, and since so much of our farming globally replicates grassland systems it’s no surprise that ruminants have figured heavily historically. I’m pretty sure that people will work out good ways to use and share them in the future (so long as there still are people in the future), but I agree that pigs, rabbits and chickens slot in easier to the average smallholding. Whatever the case, people will be eating less meat in the future than we do now in the rich countries.

      • Not to will life is expressive of the alienation that needs transcending.

        Indeed. Easily the best sentence posted here in a while. Captures so much.

        Greg makes some excellent points – especially for temperate ecosystems where soils and weather patterns favor grains, veges, fruits and nuts. In more difficult habitats where grasses are ascendant there is plenty of room for the ruminants as Chris notes. To the next level question – what size ruminant? Are sheep and goats to be preferred to cattle? I don’t think it appropriate to project onto others the size of their critters. Logic might suggest smaller would suit small holdings better, but future holdings in all ecosystems will not automatically drift toward a one hectare size. Trade offs will be dealt with in the context of natural resources, climate, human needs/desires, cultures and so forth. And not all cattle are the same.

        Earlier in the comments to this posting Ruben observed that North American cattle numbers are today similar in some respect to the bison numbers that roamed the prairies of yesteryear. This substitution of one species for another then is not reducing net biodiversity. But so far as some bison are still present on the prairie, and there are now sheep as well, then a small increase in biodiversity has been accomplished. Reintroducing wolves has helped on the wilder side of the fence.

        As a plant breeder I should offer here that the breeding of cattle (going on for millennia) has set us up with a great biodiversity within Bos taurus. The tools developed by cattle breeders in the last half century to carry out their efforts have also contributed to the tool chests for breeders in other fields.

      • Clem and I are having more disagreement on this post than in the past four or five years put together.

        I like you Clem! I am glad you are here!

        Chris, I think “Life wills itself. Not to will life is expressive of the alienation that needs transcending.” is a slippery fish.

        I think this gives too much succour to the anthropophiles like Leigh Phillips, who thinks humans are great and what we do is great, and therefore we should have more humans and more things because that would be more great.

        Yes, every species that is still here has fought to reproduce. It has fought to fill its own needs.

        But of course humans have lost the balancing forces of nature. We have killed most of the things with big teeth. We kept the global pandemics away for a century.

        There is really nothing keeping our population in check or our consumption in check except that which we choose to impose ourselves.

        So yes, life wills itself. But we musn’t just throw our hands up and dam all the rivers and log all the forests and mine all the mountains so we can keep the life-willed humans in flat-screen TVs and pizza boxes.

        Small Farm Future is explicitly about limits on how life wills itself, so I know this is not controversial.

        All of which to say, I think that sentence slides too easily off the tongue, and deserves more context.

        • Hmm, well I agree with most of what you say here and I’d probably concede that deeper cultural analysis might qualify my remark, but I don’t see it as giving succour to anthropophiles. On the contrary, it emphasises our commonality with other organisms, and it critiques our exceptionalism in preferring something other than the onward creation of life. So no indeed, we musn’t dam all the rivers and log all the forests, and if we didn’t do that and actually found an ecological niche for ourselves we might find it easier to will human life rather than not willing it, as many presently do.

          • Chris, living as kin with the rest of creation is my deepest desire, so I really support finding/making our ecological niche—thank you for offering another angle to look at this from.

            And many human cultures have done that over the millennia, and lived sustainably in their ecosystem—at least after they killed off the megafauna.

            All sorts of techniques have been used: infanticide, eldercide, abortion, polyamory, and birth controls.

            I think this is a deep, deep alienation, at least among much of the overdeveloped world.

            If a fox spends more energy chasing mice than the fox gets from eating mice, the fox dies. But we have lost that straight-line relationship, such that some people do not know fried chicken comes from birds.

            And the more we learn about animals, the more clear it is that we are not separate from them… which makes me wonder what population control methods are being used by wolves and whales and ravens.

            What if these animals are also making quality of life decisions? Ravens could perhaps have more chicks—but then they would have less time for play.

          • Yep, you’re right to raise the point that procreation and population have always been and still are culturally mediated in numerous and sometimes violent ways among humans, and perhaps among other organisms. My comment that ‘life wills itself’ was not intended as a precursor to ‘therefore it’s good for people to have as many children as possible/as they want’. On the other hand to say that ‘the best way to reduce your impact on planet Earth is not to have any children’ points to a whole other set of cultural problems concerning the cultural preconditions for existence…

        • Ruben – I like you as well. I still have the picture of the ancient olive tree you sent me the last time we had to mend our fence.

          And I’m tickled to cross swords with someone who can make a good argument. I’d prefer the arguments don’t go overboard in hostile rhetoric, but sometimes a fella just has to vent.

          I may as well admit I’m sometimes guilty of poking the bear in ways that elicit such venting… and for that I should apologize to the civil members of the audience.

          Bear poking aside, there are nearly 10 billion of our species lurking about… but for some reason you and I seem to be the only two who quarrel.
          .
          .
          .
          .
          .
          Ok, so that’s not true. Perhaps the world would be better if it were?

          🙂 [olive branch emojis need to be designed for this comment space]…

          • Clem, maybe sort of a non-lethal Hunger Games, where we have spectacular costumes and parades, and engage in challenges to settle various issues? Sort of duelling seconds for the world?

          • I’d do a non-lethal Hunger Games…

            Can we get Jennifer Lawrence to assist??

  16. Joe Fassler has written an interesting (and quite long) piece on regenerative ag over at The Counter :
    https://thecounter.org/regenerative-agriculture-racial-equity-climate-change-carbon-farming-environmental-issues/

    Jahi Chappell, a sometime commenter here at SFF, is interviewed. The documentary Kiss the Ground is mentioned. Ruminant’s contributions to regeneration are mentioned.

    Mostly US centered, but international relevance can be found.

    Very heavily linked to outside resources… an web rabbit hole if you care to go there.

  17. A vision of “regenerative” that ignores access and equity would likely be not only incoherent but ineffective, undermining its conservation goals from the outset.

    This quote from the article conveys a sensibility that is often found in recent writing about sustainable agriculture, but one that fails the “historical patterns of land management” test. Many historical societies had very well developed systems of sustainable, regenerative food production and land stewardship without much in the way of equity.

    Indigenous cultures all over the world, from Hawaii (where I live) to
    tribal cultures in Fiji and tropical Africa, provide examples of sustainable food production with what many would now consider horrific inequality of social structure.

    Even state sponsored serfdom and slavery have been used in regenerative systems, from ancient Egypt to feudal Japan. It doesn’t matter to the land whether human justice motivates food production, only that the management of nutrient cycling, soil husbandry, energy management and other farm practices continue to maintain or increase soil fertility.

    It is certainly true that low-energy agriculture will require “less (fossil) carbon, more people” working the land, but whether the work is done by yeoman farmers of all colors or feudal serfs doesn’t matter to the ecosystems in the soil or on the soil surface.

    That said, there is truth to the belief that agricultural systems operating in a capitalistic global economy will have a hard time increasing the population of people working the land. Capitalism and industrial agriculture will almost certainly have to end before people will be able to participate in farming in the numbers required for sustainable practices to take hold and endure.

    But when that happens, there is an uncomfortably wide spectrum of social structures that could manage the lives of those farm workers and still sustain soil health in perpetuity. I certainly would prefer a society that emphasizes social equity and justice, but that may not be what we get. It won’t matter to the soil.

    • True – it won’t matter to the soil. Soil health is a human construct. It matters to us. If we neglect it, we eventually suffer (as will other critters depending upon the soil for their existence).

      To your point:
      Capitalism and industrial agriculture will almost certainly have to end before people will be able to participate in farming in the numbers required for sustainable practices to take hold and endure.

      That could be one course – and perhaps a likely course – but must it be such? We don’t need bloodsucking capitalism, but are all capital approaches necessarily bloodsucking?

      Industrial agriculture seems too broad a category – or at least defined too coarsely (like the article’s point about regenerative agriculture meaning different things to different folks). Is it possible there might be a sustainable sort of agriculture where industry might play a role (personal industry perhaps) ??

      A scythe, a hoe… very simple tools. But at one level they still reflect a certain sort of capital, and require a bit of industry to produce and maintain.

      Context.

  18. Thanks for the links & debate, Clem. Sorry, I’ve been a bit busy in the offline world the last few days. But I’ll take a look asap…

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