From regenesis to re-exodus: of George Monbiot, mathematical modernism and the case for agrarian localism

A step sideways from my last two posts about urbanism and ruralism with a review of George Monbiot’s book Regenesis (Allen Lane, 2022) – though it’s kind of a propos, since his book showcases the pro-urbanism and anti-ruralism I’ve been critiquing.

When you read a book with which you profoundly disagree, I guess it’s usually best just to shrug, put it back on the shelf and get on with your work. The hatchet job review is a popular but ignoble genre. Having been the object of one myself I can attest the outcomes are rarely positive, apart perhaps from a warm glow of superiority in the reviewer, which is usually ephemeral.

So I want to tread carefully, particularly because George is a decent human being who’s devoted his considerable talents to making the world a better place and who scarcely deserves most of the mud that’s flung at him. Still, when I gave a talk about my own book at the Food and Farming Literature Festival, Miles King asked for my views on George’s analysis, noting it was the elephant in the room for those like me making the case for agrarian localism. Now that I’ve read the book, I’d have to agree with Miles. If George’s vision comes to pass I think it will, contrary to his own aspirations, represent an alignment between progressive environmentalism and corporate-capitalist interests that will delay further, perhaps catastrophically, the need to create low-input agrarian localisms and ecological culture.

So, given his influence, I feel the need to make the case as best I can for localist alternatives to George’s regenesis. I will try to do it while being mindful of the pitfalls of the hatchet job.

Farmers often get riled by George’s plain dislike of livestock farming, more so by his almost as plain dislike of livestock farmers. He’s now extended the former pretty much to farming in general. But the main problem with his analysis as I see it is the underlying assumptions about human society and ecology. That’s mostly what I’m going to write about here under four headings – urbanism, government, land sparing and modernism – but there are some agricultural puzzles at the heart of the book, and we’ll need to look at those too.

First, it might be helpful to offer a brief thumbnail of the book’s structure. And to give credit where it’s due, it all starts off very well with a nice chapter about the work George does in the orchard he planted in Oxford and the amazing organisms in the soil beneath it, followed by two strong chapters that forensically anatomize the pathologies of the food and farming system in Britain and beyond. Things start to go awry at the end of that third chapter with the case for land sparing, which I’ll come to. But then the book changes direction with three engaging but problematic chapters about various people, mostly in Britain, striving to address these pathologies and improve the existing food and farming system.

These chapters are problematic because, while they’re sympathetic (sometimes overly) to their protagonists and the approaches they’ve taken, they don’t characterize the issues underlying these approaches sharply enough. With one surprising exception, this allows George to set the various approaches up – albeit in the nicest possible way – to fail in comparison to his preferred approach. This is the factory-based fermentation of food to feed humanity, the (also problematic) case for which is laid out briefly in Chapter 7 of the book.

The book then moves to a wrap-up by way of Chapter 8, the most problematic of the lot, which basically elaborates George’s contention that “The pastoral story is one that urban civilization tells against itself without a flicker of disquiet: the shepherds and their sheep are good and pure, while the city is base and venal” (p.216). If only that were true, we’d be a darned sight closer to creating genuinely regenerative and renewable human ecologies than at present, though still a way off. Alas, the opposite is the case.

Anyway, with that in mind, let’s turn to my first problematic theme of the book – urbanism.

Urbanism

George quarrels frequently with arguments for local food throughout his book, but the real clincher as far as he’s concerned is an oft-cited study in Nature Food that found it would only be possible to feed a small proportion of the world’s people from food grown within a 100km radius of their homes, because so many people live in cities far away from the world’s breadbasket regions. In George’s words,

You can negotiate with politics and economics, market structure and corporate power. But you can’t negotiate with arithmetic. Given the distribution of the world’s population and of the regions suitable for farming, the abandonment of long-distance trade would be a recipe for mass starvation (p.146)

Later on, he writes that “most of our food has to be grown, for simple mathematical reasons, far from where we live” (p.226).

Suppose we shifted the focus from the distribution of the population across space to the distribution of money across the population. We might then rerun the first quotation something like this:

You can negotiate with politics and economics, market structure and corporate power. But you can’t negotiate with arithmetic. Given the distribution of global wealth and of occupations suitable for amassing it, policies to radically alter these would be a recipe for mass impoverishment and ruralization.

I doubt George would ever write that second paragraph. But then why write the first? The distribution of the human population towards cities and away from productive farmlands isn’t a matter of simple mathematics but of a complex (though perhaps not that complex) political, economic and social history that you absolutely can argue with, that’s strongly related to the distribution of wealth, and that in any case is beginning to rewrite itself regardless of anyone’s arguments. For reasons that I and others have explored elsewhere, the future is going to be rural. And in that future the places where most people will live will be the ones that are suitable for farming. Not for mathematical reasons, but for ecological and biophysical ones.

That does not, of course, mean it’s a good idea to abandon long-distance food trade overnight, which certainly would result in mass starvation. Happily, no serious proponent of local food does argue that. Nevertheless, it would be a good idea to start rethinking global trade and settlement patterns from the ground up, bearing in mind the coming rural re-exodus from fossil fuelled and capital-fuelled urbanization. I concede it’s a difficult thing to do. So is redistributing wealth. But it’s fundamentally a political and ecological thing to do. Arithmetic has little to do with it.

In Chapter 3, George makes a familiar, and superficial, case against local food – what I’d call the bad-beef-and-heated-greenhouses gambit. As I discussed in my previous post, the main problem is that this gambit considers only the unit carbon costs of high-input systems, not the total costs of such systems compared to low-input local alternatives. I won’t go over that ground again here. The debate, if you can call it that, between localists and global food trade proponents is pretty polarised. Maybe there’s space for some middle ground. Just because localism can’t provide everything it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t provide more. But ultimately I think there’s a parting of the ways between the two visions here. Urbanism and long-distance trade require massive carbon, energy and materials intensive infrastructures that I doubt will be feasible in the long-term within liveable planetary boundaries, so to me the ‘mathematics’ suggests local food production and a migratory exodus to where that’s possible – in other words, to ruralism.

Therefore, it’s worth preparing for a different future and seeking inspiration where it can be found. George mentions the “traditional, benign system of management” practiced by the Maasai (p.80) and the “transformative” nature of the Zero Budget Natural Farming approach in Southern India (p.176). But when it comes to agrarian traditions closer to home, the sympathy dries up – preindustrial rural life in Britain involved “grinding misery” (p.215), “the countryside is neither innocent nor pure. In some places, it is more corrupt than the city” (p.223), “traditionally, rich and diverse diets prepared from fresh ingredients depended (and still depend in some parts of the world) on the near-servitude of the women who cooked them” (p.206).

It’s not that these claims are groundless. But they’re over-generalized nostrums, not analysis, and they work rhetorically to sanitize the modern city, which has plenty of misery, impurity and patriarchy of its own. I’m sure this isn’t his intention, but in George’s telling it’s almost as if a bit of ruralism and agroecology is OK for poor herdsmen and farmers in low-income countries, but ill becomes us wealthy denizens of the urbanized and so-called ‘developed’ countries. As I see it, the lessons of agrarian localism from past and present societies worldwide run very much deeper, and we in the rich countries are probably the ones that most need to learn them.

Government

The lack of deeper analysis about the histories of urbanization and poverty is an odd feature of the book. For all the coruscating vigour of its assault on the existing food and farming system in the early pages, the main policy message is a rather limp ‘there ought to be a law against it’. Indeed, as George points out, often enough there is a law against it, but the law is ignored and unenforced.

Bad governance and self-interested corporate lobbying are every bit the curses George identifies, but this falls a long way short of a structural understanding of the political economy. What is the history that has delivered so many people to the city? What kind of work is keeping them there rather than producing an agrarian livelihood in the countryside? Why are some people so rich, while so many more are so poor? Why are some countries so rich, while so many more are so poor? Why has farming become so ecocidal?

I won’t try to answer those questions here – I provide a brief account in A Small Farm Future. But in failing to address them, I think George builds his proposals on weak foundations. To safeguard the industrial fermentation of food he advocates from corporate capture he calls for strong anti-trust laws, open-source innovation and technology transfer. Which is all great, but it’s scarcely happened in the food system to date and there’s no reason to think industrial fermentation will be different. In fact, there are reasons to think it’ll be worse.

Likewise, George wants to extract people from farming and the countryside to leave more room for nature. But, as he rightly says, “Intensification will spare wild places from farming only if it’s coupled with a strong political commitment to protect or restore them” (p.92). He doesn’t explain what will generate that commitment in a corporatized and urbanized world.

A localist critique of this present world begins by understanding that the price of food and other necessities, the price of human labour, the price of land and housing, the price of energy and the price of money are interrelated in complex ways with the simple result of badly screwing most people on the planet, and screwing future generations and the natural world worse. All serious attempts to make the case for agrarian localism appreciate that these prices, their interrelation and everything entailed in that need a fundamental rethink.

Instead, the tack George takes is to argue that food prices must be kept low so as not to further disadvantage the poor (I’d recommend a look at the writing of Eric Holt-Giménez’s among others for an alternative, perhaps counterintuitive but more plausible argument that low food prices in fact are a fundamental cause of global poverty). With merely anecdotal evidence from a chance encounter with a well-dressed woman and her superficial views (pp.129-31), George is anxious to pigeonhole the local food movement as a form of elitism that’s ignorant about the reality of poor people’s lives. It’s not his finest moment as a political thinker or campaigner.

Land sparing

Probably the key claim in Regenesis is that we need to spare land for nature – that is, concentrate the production of food and fibre on as small an area of high-yielding land as possible so that we can leave as much of the rest as possible for the wild things. A lot of the book’s wider arguments hang on the plausibility of that claim.

How plausible is it? Well, at least a bit. But I question whether George pulls it off sufficiently to bear the weight of his argument. For one thing, there are issues with the supporting evidence. With an intimidating string of research references George claims that farming is the greatest cause of habitat destruction, wildlife loss and extinction (p.90). But on closer inspection, some of these references appear to be arguing that future expansion of farming into hotspots of biodiversity is a major threat, which isn’t quite the same thing. And two of the references seem to be the same one, referenced twice.

A forgivable error, no doubt. But generally, while the near 100 pages of references in the book make for a great resource, I fear they also create the misleading sense that the book’s contentions reflect nailed on certainties in the research literature and not, as is inevitably the case, a personal selection from a more variegated corpus that buttresses a specific line of argument.

An approach that others emphasize more than George is ‘land sharing’ – devising forms of land use amenable both to wildlife and to humans and the organisms they farm. George does make some nods to it (see especially p.91). But I don’t think he characterizes the issues well. Miles King pointed out on this blog a while back that George and many others in the rewilding movement who emphasize land sparing fit into a top-down control school of ecological thought, which I’d caricature as ‘predators good, herbivores bad’. But there are other schools of thought, including the bottom-up argument I’d caricature as ‘plants rule, herbivores and predators follow’, which is more open to land sharing.

This all gets a bit technical and I’ll write more about it another time. For now, I just think it’s worth noting that the science around this isn’t quite as settled as you’d think from reading George’s book. Indeed, there are those who question the whole sparing-sharing duality.

All the same, as you look around most of our urban and agricultural landscapes, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that we’re giving the wild things a hard time. Indeed, it seems we’re in the midst of a mass extinction of geological scale caused by humans, so something has certainly gone badly wrong. But is it just the logic of advanced agriculture, as George implies (p.198)? I’d argue instead that it’s the logic of advanced, fossil-fuelled, grain-based capitalism – and if that’s so it suggests different solutions to George’s one of a vegan, urban-industrial, land-sparing food system in which most people are alienated from the production of their food.

Even if you incline to George’s land-sparing view, I want to point out a remarkable assumption in Regenesis. Effectively, George argues that because all farming causes at least some wildlife loss, then the optimal response is to have no farming. Despite a few weak concessions to land sharing, he doesn’t entertain much possibility for trade-off or compromise – less or better farming for less wildlife loss. Instead, the book proceeds inexorably to its conclusion that humanity must extract itself as far as possible from its day-to-day implication with nature for creating its livelihood. But even if it’s true that all forms of farming are wildlife stressors, it doesn’t follow that a farm free world is the optimum response. It’s a curiously non-ecological argument. Give me Aldo Leopold’s land ethic any day in preference to it – humans are plain members and citizens of the biotic community. Which means trampling over some of its other members. But plainly.

An agricultural puzzle

In most parts of the world, people developed low-input agricultures in premodern or preindustrial times with better ‘land ethical’ claims than we, their successors, can command. These agricultures were marvellously varied, but a common enough approach was mixed ley farming – building soil and fertility with grass and grassland herbs (most importantly legumes such as clover) which were usually grazed by ruminants, then disturbing the soil in some way (for example, ploughing and harrowing) to establish high-output but fertility-draining and soil-draining crops for human consumption, before starting the cycle again.

This is ‘mixed’ farming because it mixes livestock, fodder crops and human crops, and ‘ley’ farming because it involves temporary grasses and herbs, or leys. Livestock in these systems are usually cleverly integrated as tappers and cyclers of nutrients that complement rather than compete with human food production – what Simon Fairlie calls ‘default livestock’ in his brilliant book Meat: A Benign Extravagance.

Many of the problems associated with modern farming that George diagnoses in the first part of Regenesis have arisen from the abandonment of mixed ley farming and other traditional low input agricultures with the advent of synthetic fertilizer, heavy mechanization and long-distance trade for routine food commodities. These jointly potentiated the modern livestock and biofuels industries that compete with the production of food for humans, and with wildlands for non-humans. George critiques these industries in Regenesis, but not the underlying technologies that potentiate them. In fact, these technologies are critical for his own preferred approaches, which surely rings some alarm bells.

He must know about the case for default livestock and mixed organic ley farming, because it’s laid out in intricate detail in Simon’s book, and on its cover there’s a fulsome endorsement from George himself (incidentally, Simon has a review of George’s book in the next issue of The Land which will be worth a read). Yet this case gets barely a mention in Regenesis. Instead, George offers a strange view of organic farming as somehow being about raising lots of livestock to accumulate manure for fertilizer, rather than being about building grazed leys into crop rotations. And he says almost nothing about mixed farming – a notable exception being on p.86 where he writes “So livestock, even when integrated into mixed farming systems…are powerful drivers of ecological destruction” – quite a non-sequitur, because he’s demonstrated no such thing in his preceding discussion. It’s almost as if he’s aware that low input mixed ley systems with default livestock are the Achilles heel of his whole argument, so he brushes them aside.

Actually, he does talk about such systems at some length in his discussions of Iain Tolhurst’s market garden, and Ian Wilkinson’s farming project in Oxfordshire. In the case of Iain Tolhurst (universally known in UK growing circles as Tolly), the complicating factor is that although what Tolly’s doing in effect is mixed organic ley farming, he doesn’t have any livestock. But he does grow leys in his veg rotation, which he then ploughs up in what he calls “a cycle of exploitation and regeneration: break it, mend it, break it, mend it” (p.108).

That’s an apt description of the mixed organic ley farming ethos. In Tolly’s case, on a moderately small modern market garden, it makes sense to do it without livestock, and to use a tractor for managing the ley by mowing, ploughing and so forth. On a preindustrial farm, that work would be done by cattle and/or horses. Which raises a point usually missed in the ‘livestock as inefficient land use’ argument. The flipside is that livestock are a very efficient complement to human labour for managing the larger farmed landscape with a minimum of human effort in situations without fossil fuels or other sources of cheap and abundant energy. In present economic circumstances, as Tolly reports in George’s book, the maths favour relatively fossil-fuel intensive, stock-free market gardening. But maths can change. I suspect mixed farms with default livestock will make a comeback.

Tolly is one of several agricultural and horticultural pioneers whose exploits George examines sympathetically in the middle chapters of the book, but ultimately finds wanting – not always for convincing reasons. The one example where he remains uncritical is the attempt to breed high-yielding perennial grains at the Land Institute in Kansas. He cites this Land Institute link to claim its breeders have achieved perennial grain yields reaching 50-70% of the yields from annual grains. I couldn’t find this figure from the link, but perhaps it’s there somewhere. This Land Institute link from two years ago suggests a figure of 20-30%, which seems more in keeping with the historical trajectory of its breeding work. Given George’s enthusiasm for land sparing, it’s odd that he’s so enthusiastic about such a low-yielding crop. Perhaps, like the plant breeders at the Land Institute, he’s confident this shortfall will be made up in time, bemoaning “it’s ridiculous that this crucial technology has been left to a small non-profit with limited funds” (p.227).

But it hasn’t. There have been many efforts to breed high-yielding perennial dry grains, which have basically all failed for probably insurmountable ecological reasons. For sure, there’s something to be said even for low-yielding perennial grains, and it’s worth having a few institutions working to improve their yields without compromising longevity – provided the prospects and the consequences aren’t oversold. Perhaps the true appeal of perennial grains lies in its business-as-usual economics – a more nature-friendly form of farming but one that doesn’t require more hands in the garden and fits easily within the modernist ‘maths’ of combine harvesters and teeming cities.

Ultimately, of course, Regenesis takes land sparing to the logical conclusion of factory-fermented nourishment. As I see it, there are multiple problems with this. There’s the nitrogen and energy requirements (prodigious amounts of scarce low-carbon electrical energy will be needed to synthesize the gloop, rather than the free solar energy tapped by farmers). There’s the final surrender to corporate interests. There’s the likelihood that rich people will continue to demand proper meat, grains, coffee, tropical fruit and so on, so that the gloop becomes another poverty-entrenching technology like golden rice, with less land-sparing impact than supposed. And there’s the final alienation from nature that will probably undermine the entire point of it. Maybe the upside is that Regenesis opens all these issues up for debate. I just wish its author could have laid the implications out a bit more even-handedly.

Of maths, modernism and grandmothers

But alas I think he’s been carried away by ecomodernism. When I wrote my critique of the Ecomodernist Manifesto some years ago, George engaged positively with me about it and I’ll always be grateful for the boost he gave my writing back then. But in the years since he’s drifted ever closer to embracing the creed, and now seems largely signed up to it, barring a largely gestural commitment to small-scale farmers and agroecology.

The strongest ecomodernist argument against low-input agrarian localism is that it’s too little too late to address the prodigious global crises of our times. I wrote a while back along these lines that George seemed to have become a kind of ‘last chance saloon’ ecomodernist, embracing big, bold, solutionist technologies out of desperation, because small-scale localism seemed inadequate to the task. I can appreciate the pull of this argument, even though I don’t agree with it. But reading Regenesis makes it clear I was wrong. George now seems to have embraced the ecomodernist credo in its own terms, calling for “bold, complex and holistic” thinking (p.199) which he imputes only to an urban-industrial solutionism he implausibly supposes will eliminate farming altogether. His now hardened, anti-rural, anti-agrarian, pro-industrial technophilia is simply incapable of attaching those labels to low-input, job-rich rural agroecology.

I’ve always felt there’s an irony in the ‘modernism’ of ecomodernism to which its proponents seem oblivious. The word ‘modernism’ doubtless sounds positive to many, but not to everyone. Modernism is the industrial and colonial extermination of pre-existing lifeworlds. It’s Max Weber’s iron cage of rationalization and bureaucracy. It’s a self-conscious and self-important break with a deprecated past. It’s the joyless, accumulative logic of a Thomas Gradgrind or a Captain MacWhirr, the “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” of Marx and Engels. And it’s this, from George Monbiot:

It’s time we became obsessed by numbers. We need to compare yields, compare land uses, compare the diversity and abundance of wildlife, compare emissions, erosion, pollution, costs, inputs, nutrition, across every aspect of food production (p.225)

Readers of this blog will know that I’m not averse to a bit of bean counting myself, and I don’t disagree with this in principle. But the world is a complex place, and numbers contain dark powers of oversimplification. Quantifying all these parameters in the way George suggests requires us to make models of vastly complex social and biological worlds that can never be definitive. Numbers can help refine our questions, but they don’t give us unequivocal answers, unless we mistake our models of reality for the reality of our models.

So, given George’s increasingly visceral dislike of farmers, farming and ruralism, his unwillingness to entertain any middle ground between human and non-human land uses, his conviction that urbanism is a mathematical reality rather than a historical accomplishment, his embrace of modernism’s iron cage, and his influential voice in the media, I fear for where this taste for quantification will lead. I imagine it would be pretty easy for some take-away-the-number-you-first-thought-of bit of modelling to ‘prove’ that the little bit of countryside I’ve lived, worked and dreamed on for the past twenty years would be better off subjected to compulsory government purchase and turned over to rewilding, while the vegetables we grow are replaced by ‘sustainably-sourced’ ones imported from god knows where, and I’m forced to take my chances eating ‘precision’ fermented gloop in the city.

If that were to happen, the bit of land where I live and work would become, literally, the hill I would die on.

For this reason, I think it’s really, really inadvisable for George to write Gradgrindian sentences like this: “The transition is likely to happen, however fiercely the defenders of the old dispensation resist it: it appears to possess an inexorable economic logic” (p.210). It’s inadvisable because there’s no such thing as ‘an inexorable economic logic’, there are just political games with winners and losers – a point the old George Monbiot once understood. And it’s really, really inadvisable because it’s basically an invitation to a form of class war. In that eventuality, I’ll be on the opposite side to George, making common cause with farmers, growers, preppers, hunters and rural dwellers who in other circumstances I might dispute with. But sides, like quantitative social models, reduce the complexities of the world. I hope it won’t come to that. So many farmers are impoverished, demoralized and unfairly scapegoated for society’s wider sins. There are better ways to herald systemic change than this.

Yet in the very chapter where George makes his pitch for farmfree food and incites his war against rural society, he nicely writes an implicit counternarrative that undermines his case. This, I think, is the real crux of the book and the one I want to amplify.

It comes in an amusing section where George takes Michael Pollan to task for his admonition not to eat anything your great-great-great grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food. He does this by detailing the grim diet of his own grandmother, who he says would be a great-great-great grandmother to most of those alive today (a clever gloss, since his grandmother’s lifetime coincided with two world wars, which surely had some bearing on the unappetizing menus that formed her). Still, I broadly agree with George – there’s no reason in principle not to embrace new foods. But the kicker comes in George’s obvious fondness and nostalgia for what he learned from his grandmother:

She was a tough, skilled and knowledgeable countrywoman, connected to the land, who caught or collected some of her food, and made her meals from scratch….staying with her was the highlight of my school holidays. She taught me to make tiny imitations of insects from scraps of fur and feathers, and use them to deceive fish in the river behind her house …. In August and September, we gathered mushrooms … She taught me to watch, to listen, to name the birds and flowers (p.200-1)

There’s a sense here of a woman emplaced in a natural landscape that she knew and took notice of because she partially provided for herself from it, and of a boy who learned from her how to see and act in it, and how to love it. The irony is that the boy has become a man where that love leads him to negate future possibilities for such emplacement. Future grandmothers raised on industrial gloop will have no parallel knowledge to pass on, spelling yet further danger to the natural world.

There’s nothing wrong with new foods as such, provided they’re nurtured in food cultures that draw the eater into the wider pulse of the local ecology. If they don’t, then the natural world and the humans it supports are in danger – and this is true if we’re talking about tahini from a supermarket jar or fermented gloop from a nearby factory. We don’t need re-genesis, but a de-urbanizing re-exodus to places where we can create such food cultures. The real lesson from George Monbiot’s grandmother, I’d submit, is not the narrowness of her diet but the breadth of her knowledge. Similarly, when George fulminates against petting farms for selling a fantasy image of what actual livestock farming is like, he neglects the possibility that they’re popular precisely because they offer people a sense of real, economic connection to animals and to livelihood-making that has almost been lost, and that his own proposals would finally snuff out for good. I doubt that will lead where he wants.

Alternative agriculture: a polite discussion

In this post I’m going to sweep up some issues left hanging from comments under my last one, along with further issues lurking within Part II of my book A Small Farm Future, and all wrapped up inside a larger point of contention. Each of these issues on its own could fill several posts, so we’re in for a bumpy ride.

Let’s start with the larger point of contention. In the face of contemporary environmental and agricultural problems, there’s a danger of succumbing to magic bullet, techno-fix thinking without paying attention to trade-offs and deeper complexities, or to socio-political issues. This applies of course to mainstream ‘light green’ or ‘ecomodernist’ thinking, with its enthusiasm for nuclear power, GMOs, smart cities, vertical farming and all the rest of it. But it also applies in the ‘alternative’ sector when ideas like regenerative agriculture, perennial grains, permaculture or intercropping (or, for that matter, solar panels, veganism etc.) are touted as one-stop solutions to our problems. Likewise, I think, with social solutionism. There’s no single or simple way of organizing society that ticks all boxes.

Over the years, I’ve set out my stall in straightforward opposition to mainstream techno solutionism, but also in what I’ve intended as friendly scepticism toward alternative solutionism. Alas, some of the debates prompted by this latter position haven’t always been that friendly. I don’t really want to go looking for arguments with anyone working broadly within alternative agriculture, permaculture or human-centred economics – though I’ve learned the hard way that people have different judgements about the boundary between ‘looking for discussion’ and ‘looking for arguments’.

One of these arenas is regenerative agriculture, discussed (all too briefly) in Chapter 6 of my book, where imaginations sometimes run wild with the idea that tweaking tillage and cover-cropping practices will enable farmers to feed the global population long-term without fundamental change to the organization of farming and society, while sequestering all our carbon emissions stably in the soil. As Gabe Brown has it, “Naysayers often question whether regenerative agriculture can really heal our planet while producing nutrient-dense food”1.

There’s quite a moral loading there on the ‘naysayers’, and a certain vagueness around what ‘healing the planet’ and ‘nutrient-dense food’  might mean. So I’d rephrase the sentence as follows: “It’s worth asking whether various specific regenerative agriculture practices could, if generalized, prevent soil erosion and soil nutrient depletion while sequestering human greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and providing enough food to feed expected human populations long-term.” And, whatever the associations with being a ‘naysayer’ might be, I think it would be wise to entertain the notion that the answer to this question might be no.

I talk about some of the emissions and food production issues implied here in more detail in A Small Farm Future. In terms of soil nutrients, Joshua Msika nicely summarizes the regen-ag approach as a focus on carbon as the limiting element: “Carbon provides the energy the soil micro-organisms need to mobilise the other nutrients: The energy to fix atmospheric nitrogen, the energy to mine locked-up phosphorus, etc.”

I find this plausible, including Joshua’s use of the word “mine” to refer to phosphorus and other non-gaseous plant nutrients – suggesting both the creativity of regen-ag thinking and the dangers of it falling into dogma if it’s presented as a simple techo-fix. For all the sound and fury of regen-ag advocacy, I’ve seen no estimates within it for the rate of this mining – and certainly not in the places where my critics told me to look. Happily, Clem Weidenbenner rode to my rescue under my last post, suggesting that currently there’s enough phosphorus for us to mine from the soils for about 100 years. This doesn’t seem to me an awfully long time, civilizationally. When you place it alongside looming energy scarcity I think it suggests not so much that regenerative agriculture can heal the planet while producing nutrient-dense food but that folks would be well advised to invest in compost toilets, cycle organic matter, move out of cities and learn how to garden organically.

It’s curious to me that alternative ag types who are generally quite wised up about the dangers of depleting resource pools and the benefits of ecological cycling seem so defiantly insistent that farmers can keep conjuring minerals out of nothing. To be fair, I did my share of defiant insisting myself some time ago, indeed to an embarrassing degree, so I guess I can understand the power of wishful thinking. The more so because modernist culture does like to insist on its ability to escape from limits (just so boringly ‘Malthusian’), to the extent that clever and well educated people like Pascal Bruckner can dismiss environmentalist enthusiasm for composting human waste as a crazy ‘scatological fantasy’, an ‘epiphany of the excremental’2, rather than, er, an attempt to cycle scarce and vital minerals through the agroecosystem.

So … count me in with carbon farming, nutrient dense food, healing the planet, cover cropping and soil protection. Also with cutting out fossil fuels, deurbanization and rural settlement, closed loop nutrient cycling, labour-intensive horticulture and compost toilets. I can’t really imagine a lasting ‘regenerative agriculture’ without that second list.

Another area of alternative agriculture where I’ve exercised my contrarian muscles over the years is in questioning an over-emphasis on perennial over annual crops. Don’t get me wrong – I think more perennials and fewer annuals is a necessary step. I continue to think that Mark Shepard goes way, way over the top when he writes “Every human society that has relied on annual crops as staple foods in their diet has collapsed. Every single one”2, and I still think it’s high time people in the alternative agriculture movement stopped demonising annual crops as some kind of original sin, and stopped over-promoting the labour and yield benefits of perennials. Nevertheless, we surely do need to embrace more perennial agricultures and try to transcend the tyranny of annual ‘staple’ crops – the ‘arable corner’ that I discuss in Chapter 5 of my book. Perhaps in the past I didn’t sufficiently acknowledge that the pro-perennial boosters have their heart in the right place. So mea culpa and note to myself: yes to more acorns, hazels, sea buckthorn, pendulous sedge and beef in my diet. Whereas sourdough? Maybe see you next week.

Finally, a word about intercropping and polycultures. On page 121 of A Small Farm Future, I write “Attempts to prove that diverse crop polycultures yield more biomass, calories or other nutrients acre for acre haven’t been conspicuously successful, except in the special and non-generalisable case of legume mixes”. Is that true? Well, maybe or maybe not – I’m interested in your opinions. The more important point, I think, is one that I go on to make on pp.121-2:  “[mixes] of annual and perennial food crops, orchards, pasture and woodland [work] as reasonably integrated whole with complementarities that support human livelihoods on the farm and in the nearby town, while lowering external dependencies for energy and other inputs.”

Whatever the optimum mix or non-mix of crops might be at plot or field level in relation to desired outputs like yield, I suspect that at the township, farmscape or foodshed level, a small farm future will be a crop diverse farm future.

In summary: two cheers for regenerative agriculture, perennial cropping, intercropping and naysaying. Now let the argument discussion begin…

 

Notes

  1. Gabe Brown. 2018. Dirt to Soil. Chelsea Green, p.186.
  2. Pascal Bruckner. 2013. The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse. Polity, pp.150-3.
  3. Mark Shepard. 2013. Restoration Agriculture. Acres USA, p.xix.

Why oil didn’t save the whales – and why it matters

A widely aired talking point among those who believe that new technological developments are the key to solving our environmental problems is that “oil saved the whales”. In this view, the emergence of petroleum products in the mid-19th century undercut the price of whale oil, prompting the decline of the whaling industry and thus reprieve for the giants of the deep from being hunted to extinction. But “oil saved the whales” isn’t usually a claim about the past so much as one about the future: the seemingly intractable problems of resource over-exploitation that trouble us today will be solved by new technologies, just as the over-exploitation of whales was solved in the past.

It’s a cute argument. But unfortunately its historical claims are blatantly false – and this calls into question its claims for the future. Far from saving the whales, it was oil that nearly obliterated them, and may yet still do so. The real lessons to be drawn from the history of whaling are more interesting and more complex than the oil salvation narrative. By laying them out here, I hope I might help draw attention to better means for tackling present problems than the one suggested by the oil salvation story.

But let’s first delve briefly into some facts and figures to explore that story. I’m hoping to do this in more depth at some point, but for present purposes we can get quite a long way just by looking at this single graph of the global sperm whale catch from 1800-1980 derived from a paper by Merrill Gosho and colleagues1 (the figures are given as ten-year aggregates).

In the first half of the 19th century the sperm whale was the premier species sought by whalers, mostly US-based, for its oil – much of it used in lamps. What gets the oil-salvationists excited is the dip you see in the graph around 1850, which was around the time that kerosene lamp-oil became available – an innovation that this oil salvation narrative personalizes in the name of Abraham Gesner, who formed the Kerosene Gaslight Company in 1850. Whether the dip really was caused just by the advent of kerosene is debatable. There were various other factors in play, including the depletion of sperm whales in existing whaling grounds. But it seems plausible that kerosene did play some role.

The real problem for the oil salvation narrative comes when you cast your eyes rightwards along the graph at the 20th century sperm whale catch. If we start in 1950, a century after Gesner’s supposedly game-changing invention, over 8,000 sperm whales were taken that year, more than three times as many as in 1850. In fact, more sperm whales were taken in the single decade of the 1950s than in the entire heyday of the sperm whale industry from 1800-1850.

It gets worse if we look at other whale species. Barely any of the fast and elusive rorqual species like blue whales were taken before the late 19th century, because traditional whaling technology wasn’t up to catching them. But in the years around World War I the number of blues taken, mostly in the Antarctic, was around 6,000 per year, and with the invention of the factory ship this leapt to nearly 30,000 blues in 1930-1. One reason the sperm whale catch accelerated in the 1950s was because there were few blues left to catch.

So that, in a nutshell, is why oil didn’t save the whales. It was the modern, industrialized whaling of the 20th century potentiated by fossil oil that truly put whales into danger.

But let’s turn to what we can learn from humanity’s whaling misadventures, which I would itemize as follows.

Technology doesn’t just ‘move forwards’, it cascades. You can take a particular moment or context – the lamp oil market in 1850, for example – and stake a claim for the ecological benefits of a new product like kerosene. But to provide an adequate account of technological impact, you need to trace the ramifications forward in all their cascading complexity. In the case before us, this would involve the deadly impact on whales of fossil-fuelled whaling technologies after 1850, later technological developments such as the invention of margarine and hydrogenation techniques that stimulated a new demand for whale oil in the 20th century, the falling price of whale oil that made it competitive with other oils once again with the rise of labour-cutting mechanization and more efficient processing, new demands for baleen and other whale products, and so on. Any new technology, including kerosene, isn’t a one-shot intervention into a small slice of history like a specific lamp oil market. It cascades across the totality of human history and natural history.

In fact, technology doesn’t ‘move forwards’ at all, nor ‘backwards’ – it just moves. Kerosene might have been an environmental boon for whales in 1850. In its best-known present use as aviation fuel, it’s an environmental disaster in terms of climate change, which may not turn out too well for whales in the long run – or for us. In fact, the development of liquid fossil fuels in the later 19th century, of which kerosene was one strand, didn’t turn out too well for whales even in the short run. ‘Oil saved the whales’ is an untestable claim that the future will turn out well, based on a questionable claim that the past turned out well. It amounts to saying no more than ‘somebody’s bound to think of something’. I’d suggest it’s better to focus on the problems of the present, using the means that are presently available to us.

Low impact technologies can be high impact. Until the mid-19th century, the whaling industry used the same ‘sustainable’ methods as aboriginal whalers from time immemorial: sail, oar, harpoon, lance. And yet because of the social organization of the industry and the clever deployment of sustainable technology in the form of transoceanic sailing ships, it had a global impact on whale depletion. Industries using low impact technologies aren’t necessarily low impact industries.

Capitalism sucks. By which I mean, following the previous point, organising industries in capitalist ways often results in sucking ever more non-renewable resources from the world. The graph above suggests as much. Fossil oil didn’t replace whale oil, it enabled whale oil to be added to an expanding repertoire of resource drawdown. The same is true of renewable energy technologies today. The problem can only really be addressed by changing the nature of the economy, not by changing the means through which it sucks.

Ecological systems have inertia… Although forty years have passed without much large-scale commercial whaling (and many more years than that in the case of some species), recovery of stocks has been glacially slow. I’m hoping to examine this in greater detail, but as I understand it only with one species – the gray – have numbers yet returned to anything like their pre-whaling levels. No doubt this partly has to do with other and ongoing human-induced problems in the oceans (whales entangled with fishing nets, for example) but the nature of whales as stress tolerator or K-selected species means they can’t cope well with a perturbation like large-scale whaling, and they recover from it only slowly or perhaps not at all. A good deal of the biota is similar, suggesting that disturbance events can have negative effects long into the future after they’ve ended – worth noting, perhaps, for many other dimensions of human action upon the world besides whaling.

…and so do economic systems. A firm principle of the oil salvation narrative is that human inventiveness brings forth new and superior alternatives to old and ecocidal ones, like kerosene for whale oil, and that market forces then swiftly do the work of ecological transition. But, leaving aside kerosene’s own ecocidal effects (Point 2), the history of whaling really doesn’t fit this narrative well. Substitutes for almost every whale product existed long before commercial whaling was banned in 1982, 130 years after Mr Gesner’s marvellous invention. The truth is that market forces don’t swiftly do the work of ecological transition, for numerous reasons – sunk costs, industry resistance, political leverage, wider geopolitics to name a few. Cue TED talk: “Oil didn’t save the whales, and market forces aren’t going to solve climate change.”

Social systems cascade too. The oil salvation narrative settles on the singularity that commercial whaling was banned only because superior substitutes for whale products had been found. But in the real world, political decisions usually result from many factors, often with a fair slice of contingency thrown in. The existence of substitutes was no doubt one factor. Other factors included the declining whale catch, possible extinction arising from over-exploitation, and the rise of animal rights philosophies, environmentalist lobbying and direct action against whaling. Global geopolitics too. From my reading of the jockeying at the IWC and the endless foot-dragging of the whaling nations prior to the moratorium, it takes a very reductive worldview to discount all these other factors and impute the moratorium solely to technological substitution.

Activism matters. And on that basis, I’d say that activism matters. It’s impossible to say how much it was the mobilisation of organisations like Greenpeace and changing public attitudes towards the relentless hunting of large mammals that resulted in the moratorium and how much it resulted from other more technocratic factors. But it seems clear to me that without impassioned (and media savvy) public activism the moratorium would have been less likely. So if you want to right a wrong, you could try to invent something that you hope market forces will take up and tip things in your preferred direction. Or you could protest more directly – for example by standing in a small boat between a whale and a gunner’s grenade. To me, it’s a rash theorist who claims to know for sure that Abraham Gesner is more deserving of a vote of thanks from the whales than, say, Paul Watson.

The tragedy of the commons is a thing. As I’ve argued before on here and examine in more detail in my book, the debate about commons is stuck in a rut – Hardin versus Ostrom gets us started, but now we need to move on. In less than a century, humanity reduced blue whales to about 4% of their pre-whaling numbers. You could call this a tragedy of the commons, or – if you prefer – you could call it a tragedy of failing to create a commons, although there was still a common law of the sea in operation during the years of unrelenting, fossil-fuelled whaling. Whatever terminology you favour, the fact is that people don’t always succeed in preventing open access, private property or state regimes from over-exploiting resources and wild creatures.

When going uphill, change down a gear. The oil salvation narrative is part of the wider one in mainstream economics that human ingenuity along with price signals will enable us to do more, to do it better and to do it faster unto eternity. No doubt this seemed plausible during much of the 20th century. But as the fossil fuelled bonanza hustled the human omnibus ever faster downhill, it made little difference to us whether we made sustainable use of whale products or not. And today it seems clearer that the downslope won’t last forever. There’s a good chance we’ll hit a steep energy upslope soon enough, and a climate change upslope before that, and at these points we’d be well advised – like any sensible driver – not to keep piling on full throttle in top gear in the hope it’ll get us to the top of the hill. Instead we need to slow down, change down a gear and trim the vehicle to the realities of the landscape. Oil didn’t save the whales. A low carbon, cheap energy revolution isn’t just around the corner. Slow down. Look out of the window. It’s a beautiful world out there.

 

Note

  1. Gosho, Merrill, et al. 1984. ‘The Sperm Whale.’ Marine Fisheries Review 46: 54–64.

 

Half-earth, half-baked?

Firstly, apologies for failing to respond to some of the comments at the end of my previous post. For some reason I’ve stopped getting email alerts of new comments. The Small Farm Future technical team are on the case, but frankly they’re a pretty useless bunch so expect delays. Meanwhile, if your comments are stuck in moderation or not getting the attention from me that you feel they deserve maybe let me know via the contact form and I’ll action someone on the team to look into it.

Anyway, onward. I’ve been writing in my book draft lately about the role of livestock in a small farm future, which has led me by a somewhat circuitous but probably fairly obvious route to reading Harvard biologist and conservationist E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth (W.W. Norton, 2016), in which he argues that we should leave half our planet’s surface as “inviolable reserves” for nature.

I found it an interesting and informative, if also somewhat vague and rambling, little book (still, if I succeed in publishing a book that’s no more rambling than Wilson’s when I’m 87 I’ll be happy). One of Wilson’s key points is that we’re not yet even close to knowing all the species with which we share the biosphere, let alone knowing how they fit into wider sets of ecological relationships. Therefore, from numerous perspectives but not least human self-preservation, he argues that it’s not a good idea to wantonly let species go extinct. Yet this, sadly, is what’s currently happening by the hand of humanity, with an extinction rate now around a thousand times higher than before the spread of humans around the world. This amounts to a sixth mass planetary extinction, which will rival over a few human generations what the last one, the Chicxulub asteroid impact that ultimately did for the dinosaurs, achieved on one bad day – but in geological terms, the time difference is slight.

Wilson deploys his biological expertise to great effect throughout the book in a running battle with Anthropocene theorists, “novel ecosystem” enthusiasts and outriders of the ‘ecomodernist’ Breakthrough Institute like Emma Marris and Erle Ellis who’ve likewise detained me on this website over the years. The basic message of the Anthropocenites to threatened species and to the people who wish to defend them runs something like ‘this is a human planet now – so deal with it, or get out the way’. In practical terms, they raise the valid point that in an ever-changing and stochastic biota there’s never a baseline point of ‘balance’ to which conservationism can aim its restorative efforts. To which Wilson makes the nice rejoinder that this is a problem that should be formulated as a scientific challenge, not an excuse for throwing up our hands and singing que será será.

But then, in the penultimate chapter, he lets it all run through his fingers. Take this passage:

“The [human ecological footprint] will not stay the same. The footprint will evolve, not to claim more and more space, as you might at first suppose, but less. The reason lies in the evolution of the free market system, and the way it is increasingly shaped by high technology….Just as natural selection drives organic evolution by competition among genes to produce more copies of themselves per unit cost in the next generation, raising benefit-to-cost of production drives the evolution of the economy. Almost all of the competition in a free market…raises the average quality of life. Teleconferencing, online purchases and trade, e-book personal libraries, access on the Internet to all literature and scientific data, online diagnosis and medical practice, food production per hectare sharply raised by indoor vertical gardens with LED lighting, genetically engineered crops and microorganisms…” (p.191)

Enough already, Edward…we get your point. After nineteen chapters of amiable good sense, Wilson suddenly goes full ecomodernist, as if some devilish Breakthrough Institute hacker finally figured out how to make him stop his anti-Anthropocene agitating by messing with his neurons like a cordyceps fungus attacking one of his beloved ants.

I won’t dwell here on how wrongheaded all this is – regular readers and commenters on this blog are well appraised of the counter-arguments. I don’t even dispute that there are some aspects of emerging high technology that might help us mitigate some of our present predicaments. But, my dear professor, the ‘evolution’ of the ‘free market system’ is not among them – rather, it’s the ‘free market system’ (or, more precisely, corporate capitalism – which isn’t really the same thing at all, but is the beast that Wilson is implicitly invoking) that has biodiversity in its deathly grip.

Wilson is pretty vague about what a ‘half-earth’ devoted to inviolable nature would actually look like, though he tells us that it needn’t involve dividing off the planet into large pieces the size of continents or nation-states, and earlier on in the book he demurs from the idea that ‘wilderness’ necessarily implies a lack of human residents. He favors a lower human population, but says nothing about urban vis-à-vis rural residence or the nature of the agriculture necessary to support a half-earth world (other than his half-baked half-earth of vertical farming and LED lights). His simple point really is that the number of species going extinct usually varies by something like the fourth root of the area available to them, so if we make half the planet available to wild species we should retain about 85% of them. Of course, things are more complicated than that in reality, but maybe it’s not such a bad place to start – especially if we proceed by trying to ensure that existing wildernesses and centers of biodiversity are protected first.

A quick look at the FAO’s global land use statistics reveals that in fact only about 37% of the planet’s land area is devoted to agriculture, with about 4% devoted to cities, roads and other artificial surfaces. So by those lights Wilson’s half-earth ambitions are already achieved – though it’s doubtless fair to say that we humans have appropriated the nicest territory for our agriculture (about a third of nature’s 60% share is glaciated or barren land). Still, perhaps when Wilson says we should leave half the earth as “inviolable reserves” he means really inviolable – so no chemical pollution of any kind, and perhaps no climate change either, creeping in from the human side of the planet. If that’s so, then the ‘half-earth’ idea is a little misleading because it draws attention to land take, when it should really be drawing attention to human practices like GHG emissions and nitrate pollution (another reason to question the ‘land sparing’ critique of organic farming).

Maybe instead of a half-earth we need a quarter-earth – which would be easily achieved by cutting back on rangeland and arable crops grown as livestock fodder (nearly 70% of global agricultural land is permanent meadow or pasture – yet another inconvenient truth for the land sparers, who illogically obsess over the 1% of organically-farmed land). But I think what we really need is a no GHG emissions and a no pollution earth. How to achieve that? Well, I’m open to ideas but here’s my half-earth halfpenny’s worth: stop fishing in the open ocean, stop extracting fossil fuels, stop making synthetic fertilizer (except as a stopgap measure via special government derogation). Decide on the total human land-take, which gives a global per capita acreage. Then divide it up equally between the people of the world for carbon-free homesteading. Those who prefer not to avail themselves of this generous offer and continue working in the city would be entitled to do so with the proviso that they forfeit, say, 50% of their earnings on top of tax, split between practical conservation, farmer support, agroecological research funds and mitigation of the environmental bads caused by the commercial-industrial farming that their old-falutin city-slicking ways would probably bring forth.

I’ll admit that it needs working up a bit more – a few details to fill in, some implementation issues to address. Perhaps you can help me in that task. My starter for ten is that this system won’t emerge by the ‘evolution’ of a free market system increasingly shaped by high technology. Wilson might have realized this, if only he’d consulted an economist biologist…

Songs from the wood

We shall soon be turning to weightier matters here at Small Farm Future, so let us pause for breath and take a stroll around the woods of our home turf at Vallis Veg this fin(ish) morning. Here, have some musical accompaniment, and relax.  After all, it’s not as if there are any other important political events to discuss today.

It was nearly fourteen years ago when La Brassicata and I bought our little eighteen acre slice of Somerset. At the time, it comprised permanent pasture in its entirety, with just one mature tree on the site (plus a couple of hedgerows). I was very enthused by the idea of planting trees in those days, after a brush with the law (Ben Law, that is), and over the next four years we planted more than seven acres of the blighters – fruit orchards, nut orchards, short-rotation willow coppice, alder/hazel windbreaks, hawthorn and blackthorn hedges and – most of all – large blocks of mixed native deciduous trees.

A few years after that, I read some of the critiques of arboricentrism that were arising within and without the permaculture movement – Patrick Whitefield’s strictures against the carefully-curated facsimiles of ancient woodland springing up around the countryside like so many out-of-place lollipops borne aloft on ugly plastic sticks, and Simon Fairlie’s broadside against permaculturists for turning agricultural grassland capable of producing high value food into low value woodland1.

These, I think, were worthwhile critiques – people can indeed get a bit over-enthusiastic about trees, and it’s always good to ask ‘Why am I doing this?’ of any farming choice. But ultimately I have few regrets about doing what we did (well, maybe the blackthorn…) The ugly lollipop phase only lasts a few years, and nothing gives me more pleasure on our holding now than the beauty of the well-established young woodland mantling the site.

20170608_094726

Patrick himself admitted that the entire British countryside is a largely human fabrication, so I see no particular reason to take umbrage at the ‘artificiality’ of tree planting. Perhaps there’s more merit in Simon’s critique, but the per hectare productivity of purely grass-fed livestock isn’t that impressive. A vegetable garden with a few rows of potatoes of the kind we’ve planted here more than compensates nutritionally for the loss of productive pasture to the trees. Besides, it’s possible to stack functions as the English commoners of old did with their wood pastures – a practice I’ve mimicked here with my sheep in and around the woodland.

20170513_164922

The woodland we’ve planted has brought various tangible and less tangible benefits. Fruit and nuts, tree hay, wind and sun protection, privacy (which surely helped in our successful planning application for a dwelling), children’s dens, and wildlife habitat – I can’t prove anything on the latter front, but the bird and invertebrate life in our woodland does seem to me richer than that I’ve observed in the surrounding arable and pastoral fields. The woodland has also proved a hit with our campers, who like their individual tree-dappled pitches – not a venture we anticipated when we planted the woodland, but one that certainly supplements the unpromising economics of food production, and that we probably couldn’t have done without the trees.

But I guess the main economic contribution of trees is their wood. With older woodland than ours, and with the requisite skill and machinery, of course it’s possible to make construction timber – which we’ve already done in a minor, homespun way around the site. An easier use, touched on in recent debates here about sustainable energy futures, is to burn it for space or water heating, or for mechanical power.

The original idea of our planting back in 2005/6 was to cut a large part of it for fuelwood (and, perhaps, craft-wood) coppice, in time-honoured local fashion. But for various practical and aesthetic reasons we’re not so keen to coppice it now. Almost all the trees were originally planted on a 3x3m spacing, as required by the Forestry Commission contract under which we did the planting. So now the time has come to start thinning them – this past winter of 2016/17 being the first one in which I did any appreciable amount of it. The picture below shows your humble blog editor posing in front of this winter’s thinnings.

20170329_141006

 

And this one, the same wood after a few minutes’ madness with the chainsaw (I wouldn’t recommend the resting position in the picture to anyone but a seasoned woodsman like me).

Woodpile

Now then, a quick bit of home economics. Our current palatial residence comprises a prefab wooden cabin c/w woodstove, along with the static caravan that furnishes the stunning architectural backdrop to the last picture. The woodstove provides space heating in (most of) the cabin and hot water via a back boiler throughout the winter (hot water in the summer comes from solar tubes). The caravan is only used as a bedroom, which we heat in the winter with a butane stove – just a quick burn before we go to bed to stop our breath from misting too much as we dive under the bedclothes. Still, I know what you’re thinking. Butane! Plus the insulation in the caravan is almost non-existent, so it feels like all we’re really doing is adding another little bit of entropy to the universe. Ah, such are the vagaries of the British planning system and its insistence upon ‘sustainable’ development. But we only get through about one 15kg butane cylinder each winter (plus about half a dozen 19kg propane cylinders for cooking through the year – another candidate for a wood-burning solution). We’ll be building a permanent – and properly insulated – house to replace the caravan this year or next, so I suspect there’ll be another wood-burner. But how best to heat the new house with it – masonry stove, central heating, underfloor heating, or the same warm living room surrounded by chilly bedrooms that we’re used to? What’s that you say? Passive house? Yeah, OK, OK.

Anyway, I reckon the pile of wood you see in the picture should pretty much be enough for our heating and hot water needs over next winter. I’ll let you know next year whether I turn out to be right. In addition to the wood pictured, I cut a 44m row of willow coppice, displayed on the back of the tractor in the next photo (well, strictly pollard rather than coppice – deer and rabbit pressure being what it is, I generally cut the poles at 4 feet).

20170323_150552

I have a six year rotation of willow, comprising Salix viminalis in 6 x 44m rows (sorry about mixing imperial with metric measures…it’s only going to get worse as our confusion in Britain about which side of the Atlantic we’re on intensifies). This is the eighth year I’ve cut it (so the wood in the picture was the second cut from the second row). I cut it a bit late, at the end of March, and left it stacked outside through a pretty warm, dry spring as whole poles until last month when I finally got around to sawing it up – at which point it weighed 240kg in total. So would it be fair to guess a final air-dry weight of at least 140kg? That’d work out at about 6 tonnes per hectare of air-dry wood – quite low for short-rotation coppice where yields of up to 20 tonnes per hectare are reported. Though to be fair my willow coppice gets the full force of the strong prevailing southwesterly winds on the site (it doubles as a windbreak) and has never had any appreciable added fertiliser.

Next year, I’d imagine we’ll be cutting a lot more thinnings than the amount shown in the picture above. And I’d guess that if we had a mature coppice system established we could probably get more out still. I’m aiming to plant a bit more fuelwood coppice in my upcoming agroforestry project. Meanwhile, I experimented with cutting a micro-cant of ash pollards in the pig enclosure (pictured, first just after cutting in early March, and now in June with the regrowth).

20170326_122813

 

 

 

 

 

20170608_102505

I’m not sure if it’ll work on that scale – it’ll be interesting to see (the light shade cast by ash will surely help…) But the point I’m moving towards here on the basis of the experiences described above is that I think a reasonably well-wooded smallholding like ours can probably grow enough wood to provide heating, hot water and cooking for a household, maybe two households. There may be a bit left over for construction and farm timber, and for providing mechanical power such as the steam engines we were discussing here a few weeks ago – but I suspect not a whole lot. So there may be a significant limitation there in terms of my self-sufficiency aims for the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, in the absence of abiotic forms of energy capture such as photovoltaics. That, at any rate, is my proposal for debate. Britain is a densely populated country, but it has a lot of farmland – probably enough to feed the population tolerably well, as I’ve argued in my cycle of Wessex posts. The corollary, however, is that it doesn’t have much woodland – maybe enough for heating, cooking and hot water, probably not enough for construction or energy.

I reckon I probably used about 10 litres of petrol in the small chainsaw pictured above to fell, limb and then cut up all the trees pictured above (I’d probably have used a little less if I wasn’t such a laggard with the file…) Next year I’ll try to measure it properly. All the trees were hauled out by hand to the track bisecting our property and then taken up to the house by tractor, using a pretty negligible amount of diesel. I might use Spudgirl’s pony next year for some horse-logging and make him earn his keep a little more. Anyway, even with the chainsaw it felt like a lot of damned hard work (perhaps the more so now my bones are a little creakier than they once were). The thought of doing it with a bowsaw makes my hands go clammy. I know, I know, I’m not a proper populist and I’m not a proper peasant either. Still, the lesson I infer for the latter-day peasant republic in Britain is that if we want to fund even a low energy input agrarian society with renewable energy, I think we’ll need to be looking beyond biomass and towards technologies like wind and photovoltaics. These technologies are now cheap enough, and I’m not persuaded that the trapped asset argument on the radical green side of the political divide makes a whole lot more sense than the foot-dragging of the fossilheads on the right. Still, in the short-term every peasant household in Wessex gets a ration of 25 litres of petrol per annum for its chainsaw and 2-wheel tractor, and until our economic policy wonks have figured out how to develop a local import substitution industry, we’ll be prioritising trade deals with Germany and Japan so that Mr Stihl and Mr Honda can ease our aching arms.

PS. I’m going to be hunkered down somewhere well away from any internet connection over the next few days, so if you’re kind enough to comment on this post please forgive me if I don’t respond until some time next week.

Notes

  1. Whitefield, P. 2009. The Living Landscape. Permanent Publications; Fairlie, S. 2010. Meat: A Benign Extravagance. Permanent Publications.

 

Sheepwrecked or wheatwrecked? Towards a Wessex pastoral

In my last post I began setting out a vision for a neo-peasant agriculture in southwest England (or the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, as I’m calling it). My starting assumption is to keep agricultural land use roughly the same as it presently is, which relative to the rest of the country means there’s more permanent pasture for ruminant grazing and less cropland for arable and horticultural production. That prompts me to briefly hit the ‘Pause’ button on the neo-peasant vision, and to think – ruminate, even – a little more about livestock.

A loose confederation of animal welfare activists, human health activists and environmentalists have popularised the view that globally we need to produce less meat and livestock, and it’s not a view I’ll quarrel with for the most part. If you look at the world from a global land use perspective, the way humanity produces meat is scandalously cruel, polluting, bad for our health and inefficient. On the other hand, if you look at a given small agricultural land parcel from a local self-provisioning perspective, as my Wessex neo-peasants will be doing, then including livestock is a no-brainer from an efficiency point of view, and possibly from a health and pollution point of view too. Simon Fairlie has set out all the issues in great detail and with no little aplomb in his excellent book Meat: A Benign Extravagance, so I won’t dwell on them here. Essentially, everything turns on adopting what Simon calls ‘default’ livestock strategies – that is, using livestock to complement rather than compete with the production of food for direct human use on the farm.

In the case of animals like pigs and chickens, the default strategy is fairly obvious and makes perfect sense unless you’re a DEFRA bureaucrat – get them to eat waste human food and thus get a second bite of the cherry, so to speak. In the case of ruminants like cows and sheep, the issue is more complex. Ruminants eat grass, which humans can’t eat directly, and in that sense are default animals par excellence (so long as they’re not sneakily boosted with grains and legumes). But you don’t get a whole lot of meat (or milk) per hectare of grass. In some situations – upland grazing, for example – you might be inclined to accept whatever meagre gifts the grazing offers (but then again, you might not – see below) because although you don’t get much meat per hectare you’ll get a lot more of it, for less work, than any other food you might try to produce there. Actually, that point also holds true for lowland organic farming. If you’re not fertilising your crops with exotically-produced synthetics, you’ll probably need to build a generous amount of temporary grass-clover ley into your crop rotation, which won’t produce any food for you in itself. So getting some ruminants in to graze your ley commends itself as a default livestock strategy, which adds to your productivity. Nevertheless, you might come to the view that there is too much grass and too many ruminants in your farming system overall, and seek to adjust those parameters downwards.

But why would you come to that view? I can think of seven possible reasons, and here I’m going to whizz through them briefly by way of an introduction to my neo-peasant theme.

1- Animal rights: you might take the view that it’s wrong to domesticate animals, keep them in captivity and then kill them in accordance with your own personal agenda. It’s a view that I grudgingly respect, but don’t share. It’s also a view that has had virtually no plausibility in any historic peasant society anywhere (India included, albeit in interesting ways), which perhaps is worth bearing in mind. But whatever the rights and wrongs of it, it’s an essentially ethical stance which is independent of my present theme of farm system productivity. Therefore I’m merely going to acknowledge it as a consideration and move on.

2- Human health: you might take the view that animal products are bad for human health, saturated animal fat having been a particular whipping boy in this respect in recent years. I’m going to come back to this issue in another post, so I’ll leave it hanging for now. It’s worth mentioning though that in northerly climes such as Britain there have been no local sources of dietary oil or fat other than animal ones until the very recent advent of oilseed rape (canola) as an arable break crop.

3- Carbon emissions: ruminants, notoriously, are significant emitters of methane as a result of the extraordinary fermentation vats contained in their digestive tracts, and have therefore been regarded as climate change culprits. But then again, unlike tilled cropland, permanent pasture can be a net carbon absorber. But then again, well established permanent pasture is typically in carbon equilibrium, or worse – finding uses for it other than the slim returns from ruminants would probably be more climate-friendly. But then again, including a few ruminants in a default peasant livestock silvo-pasture system could well be one of those more climate-friendly uses. And so the debate rages on. My personal summary of the issues would be this: the science of soils, woodlands, grasslands, ruminants and carbon is bafflingly complex, but what seems clear is (1) It’s a bad idea to clear established wild forest or grassland in order to grow fodder for animals (probably human animals included), and (2) Climate change is a huge global problem because we have an unprecedentedly high-energy global economy based overwhelmingly on the combustion of greenhouse gas-producing fossil fuels, not because small-scale farmers keep ruminants on existing grassland. Next.

4, 5, & 6- the Monbiot critique: They’re coming thick and fast now. 4 is biodiversity. 5 is ecosystem services. 6 is land use preferences. I’m lumping them together because these all feature in George Monbiot’s influential critique of what he memorably calls the ‘sheepwrecked’ British uplands. In a nutshell, Monbiot’s argument is that excessive grazing of sheep in the British uplands has created a treeless and ecologically impoverished wasteland of poor soils, rough grasses and heather which is dreary to look at, provides slim pickings for wildlife, and contributes to flooding downstream by quickly releasing surface water runoff rather than holding it up, as a diversely treed natural landscape would. Compounding these considerable disadvantages, in Monbiot’s view, is the fact that upland sheep farming is so unproductive, being largely propped up by farm subsidies. In his words, “Wales imports by value seven times as much meat as it exports. This remarkable fact suggests a shocking failure of productivity”1.

I’m sympathetic to the Monbiot critique, but not yet 100% persuaded by it. Taking his quotation, I’d  begin by observing that agriculture in its entirety is so befuddled by economic perversities that few sound inferences are possible when comparing the money values of any given agricultural commodities. But what that import-export disparity most strongly suggests to me is that the people of Wales like to eat more meat than their local landscape can sustainably provide – which is fairly typical of people in wealthy countries, and is not a failing of the upland sheep industry per se. If the people of Wales, like the people in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, had to furnish their requirements for meat (or, more to the point, for fat) from their own local resources, then we can be pretty sure that there’d be a lot of sheep in the uplands. Or, to put it another way, the apparent ‘unproductiveness’ of upland sheep farming may be an artefact of how you go about comparing farm systems.

We can push that last point in several directions. For one thing, it’s worth mentioning that much upland sheep farming isn’t geared primarily to producing meat but to producing purebred bloodstock, which are integrated with meatier lowland breeds in a variety of ways that increase the efficiency and resilience of sheep farming in Britain as a whole. In that sense, it’s misleading to look at upland sheep farming in isolation. A more holistic view reveals an efficient default livestock system – the so-called ‘sheep pyramid’2 – operating nationwide that optimises the agricultural potential of the country’s different landscapes.

Or perhaps we might ponder at more length the putative ‘failure of productivity’ that Monbiot detects in the Welsh meat trade imbalance. In Britain (and presumably in Wales too) we eat around ten times more chicken and pork meat than sheep meat. Chickens and pigs are fed mostly on crops from arable farms that could otherwise be serving human needs. We also eat around three times more cattle meat than sheep meat, and there’s more arable-based concentrate in cattle diets than in ovine ones. So in default livestock terms, upland sheep meat is arguably more, not less, productive than these non-default counterparts.

To press the point further, I’m inclined to question whether the ‘productivity’ of land is relevant to the issue of its agricultural ‘wrecking’. There’s no doubting the far greater agricultural productivity of the North American grasslands (or for that matter the East Anglian flatlands) than the Welsh uplands, but could we not say that these places are ‘wheatwrecked’ or ‘cornwrecked’ in the same way that the British uplands are ‘sheepwrecked’? And surely a case could be made that New Zealand is also sheepwrecked, even if it produces lamb at lower carbon and dollar prices, given that it had no resident mammals of any kind prior to European colonization? In his book Feral, Monbiot describes his disappointment in moving from the overpopulated English lowlands to the wild Welsh uplands, only to find his new home much less wild than he’d anticipated – a landscape, in fact, moulded by human agriculture for almost as long as the lowlands. Much of Monbiot’s critique of the contemporary agricultural practices and policies compounding the problem is (quite literally) on the money, but I think the intuitive appeal of his rewilded upland anti-pastoral draws in good measure from a set of somewhat naïve homologies: mountain:lowland – wild:tame – beauty:ugliness – good:bad. As James Rebanks points out in his book The Shepherd’s Life, visitors to the mountains are often oblivious to the human landscape generations of its inhabitants have made – or if not oblivious, then perhaps actively hostile to its putative poverty, destructiveness and inefficiency. This is the same argument that’s always used to clear peasants off the land. There are many forms of enclosure, and some of them point towards the abolition of agriculture to benefit the wilderness rather than the ‘improvement’ of agriculture to benefit society. What’s usually lost along the way is local appreciation of agricultural carrying capacity. In the globalised modern world, preserving our local wildernesses usually equates to wrecking a wilderness somewhere else that’s lower in the global pecking order.

I can see the force in the argument that it’s better to wheatwreck the prairies than to sheepwreck the Welsh uplands because at least the prairies are feeding a lot of people. Thus speaks the voice of the rational-bureaucratic planner, of whom I wrote in my recent review of George’s new book. But I still prefer the voice of the autochton: if there’s wrecking to be done, it’s best to wreck your own habitat for your own food, because otherwise there’s little chance of bringing the wreckage under long-term control. And, as I’ve argued elsewhere, it seems probable that the semi-arid continental grasslands – a basket into which humanity has been cramming an increasing proportion of its collective eggs in recent decades – may well become agriculturally wrecked soon enough. Wiser, I think, to look first at one’s own local agricultural resources.

Still, what’s surely better than wrecking is trading off the various potentialities of the uplands – for meat (and the other nine useful products derived from sheep), for wildness, for biodiversity and for watershed management. I don’t see that this is a case for either sheep or watershed management, either sheep or biodiversity. But I’d appreciate input from anyone reading this who has more expertise than me in these matters3. One study I’ve read suggests that planting small strips of trees on upland slopes can reduce flood peaks by 40%, an approach that’s surely compatible with upland sheep husbandry in a silvo-pastoral system4. I’d like to see the Monbiot critique develop in this direction: assuming a national or sub-national food economy that’s largely self-sufficient, and will probably therefore have to take advantage of upland sheep and upland grass, but assuming too the need for sensible, whole-systems thinking about wildlife and watershed management, what kind of mixed land use policies best commend themselves in the uplands?

That’s a lot of assuming, of course. Current government policy does not assume national food self-sufficiency or holistic wildlife and water management. Instead, it crowds shoddy (to coin a pastoral term) new-build houses onto lowland floodplains and supports a dysfunctional agricultural subsidy regimen whose major beneficiaries are not upland sheep farmers but mostly consumers and retailers, secondarily large-scale landowners, with active farmers coming well down the list. Writers like Rebanks show how upland sheep farming communities in Britain come about as close as we currently have to a peasantry. And if there’s a battle for political influence over upland land use between the upstream peasantry for grazing rights and the downstream urbanites for flood abatement and rambling rights, it’s pretty obvious who’s likely to win. But in the long term I think we’ll need to devote some effort to protecting our uplands for farming and protecting our lowlands from farming. The Monbiot critique is a good starting point for more holistic land use policy, but it’s only a starting point, and it’s a bit too black and white.

7- Meat for Mr Malthus: well-raised meat is a concentrated source of good nutrients, and many people like to eat it in preference to most other things. But it’s a land-hungry way of producing human nutrition. So if a society discovers that it’s struggling to produce the meat it wants from the land it has available, this can act as a useful early warning that resource limits are looming. There are all sorts of ways of responding to the signal, some better and some easier than others – limiting meat access just to the wealthy, trimming back human population, applying more human labour to more intensive forms of livestock husbandry, hoping for technical innovations that will produce more meat on less land, increasing the proportion of cropland relative to pasture or rangeland, increasing the total amount of farmed land (perhaps through colonial land-takes) and so on. I think a sensible approach is to treat it as a warning shot across the bows and downsize. People often make the point that Britain is not self-sufficient in food, as if this is some fact of nature. The likelihood is, despite its unprecedentedly large present population, Britain could easily be self-sufficient in food if that was something that we collectively wished to prioritise. We are nowhere near any kind of Malthusian crisis (though climate change could force a rapid reassessment…and of course our present enormous agricultural footprint has imposed a Malthusian crisis on other species).

Still, I doubt we could easily be self-sufficient in food at current levels of meat consumption. So perhaps the time has come for us to trim back, proportionately or absolutely, our permanent pasture (and the ghost pasturages we use in other countries) and tie it more specifically into mixed organic farming systems which primarily grow crops for direct human needs. In a relatively closed agricultural system, there are always going to have to be short run adjustments between cropland and pasture, and it’s no disaster for us here in Wessex (and the other wealthy countries of the world) to eat a bit less meat. This does raise interesting questions about localism, agricultural specialisation and land use efficiency: the wet and grassy west of Britain was exchanging meat for grain long before the absurdly amplified trade imbalances of the present global agrarian system. I’d argue that a neo-peasant agriculture probably has to trade off a degree of land use efficiency for local self-reliance, though it’s worth pondering that equation in detail – how local? how efficient? how self-reliant? Too much emphasis on land use efficiency at supra local levels leads to sheepwrecked mountains and wheatwrecked plains.

At least here in the claylands of Wiltshire and Somerset there are traditions of more localised pastoral farming to draw on, as described by the disapproving John Aubrey in the seventeenth century,

Hereabout is but little tillage or hard labour, they only milk the cowes and make cheese; they feed chiefly on milk meates, which cooles their braines too much, and hurts their inventions. These circumstances make them melancholy, contemplative and malicious4

Sounds good to me. Arable farming indeed is the agriculture of hard labour – of landowning elites and overworked, politically powerless, malnourished workers. Most likely, modernity and globalisation have only bought a temporary reprieve from that historic truth. Give me Abel over Cain, milk meates and coole braines over inventive tillers.

So ultimately I think I’d opt for the omnivore’s argument over the vegetarian’s: the problem isn’t that there are too many ruminants; it’s that there are too many people. Probably the best (the most humane) long-term way of solving this problem is to allocate agricultural land fairly among the existing population, and let individuals figure out for themselves how best to balance their taste for meat with their desire for enough food on the table, and their desires and needs to reproduce. Such, at any rate, might be the policy framework adopted by the enlightened rulers of the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex.

~~~

All that has taken us a long way from my point of departure, which was asking how much permanent pasture it’s appropriate to have on a lowland neo-peasant farm, and how much mountain grazing it’s appropriate to have in the uplands. And the answer I’ve come to is this: as much as possible, subject to the needs for sufficient calories to feed the population, for holistic landscape management, and for space for wildlife and biodiversity. How marvellous that someone’s finally come along and cleared that issue up once and for all, huh?

Notes

 

  1. Monbiot, G. 2016. How Did We Get Into This Mess, Verso, p.121.
  1. See eg. Walling, P. 2014. Counting Sheep: A Celebration of the Pastoral Heritage of Britain, Profile.
  1. One issue that I’d like clarification on is the relative balance between sheepwrecking and natural biogeography to explain the treeless uplands. I notice on my forays to Snowdonia how at higher elevations the few straggling rowans hunker in sheltered streambeds, while stands of ash, hawthorn and other species grow more abundantly lower down, despite the presence of sheep throughout.
  1. Jackson, B. et al. 2008. The impact of upland land management on flooding: insights from a multiscale experimental and modelling programme. Flood Risk Management, 1: 71-80.
  1. Quoted in J.H. Bettey, 1977. Rural Life in Wessex 1500-1900, Moonraker Press, p.16.

Re-wilding: joined-up thinking needed

Last week I went to Rewilding: From Vision to Reality – a thought-provoking film and discussion panel with a group of people involved in the rewilding movement in Britain, played out in front of a packed and appreciative audience. George Monbiot, author of the book Feral and fellow-soldier in the battle against ‘eco-modernism’ was there, as was Colin Tudge, my colleague from the Campaign for Real Farming and wise voice in the alternative agriculture movement, along with various other interesting thinkers and practitioners. The event was filmed and is available here.

I came away from the evening thinking that what was being proposed could be really, really good. And alternatively that it could be really, really bad. Like almost everything in life, changes in one domain knock on to changes in other apparently unrelated ones, and in order to achieve the really, really good outcome changes in wildlife policy will need to be accompanied by appropriate changes in housing policy, tax policy, planning policy, food policy, farming policy and trade policy. A prime case for ‘joined up thinking’ in fact. I’m a great admirer of George Monbiot’s writing, and it’s to his credit that he writes thoughtfully and persuasively about all of these areas. The other participants, too, made a lot of subtle and convincing points. Nevertheless, I left with a few nagging doubts, centring mostly on the relationship between rewilding and agriculture, so here I want to work through them. I’ve got to admit that I’m not hugely up to speed on the rewilding movement – George’s book has been sitting in my in-tray for a while – but if you can’t think out loud on your own blog site, then where can you…?

Just the briefest of summaries of what’s on the table: ‘rewilding’ involves restoring to parts or all of Britain species that have been casualties of modernity – top predators like lynx, wolves, maybe even bears (a matter discussed on this site recently with Andy McGuire); keystone species such as beaver; and a huge variety of other organisms, birds, fish, invertebrates and the many plant species which have suffered huge losses as a result of modern fishing, farming and other land-use practices. George presented rewilding as a positive environmentalist agenda which ordinary people could rally behind, rather than the doom-and-gloom negativity of much environmental campaigning. He identified upland sheep farming as a particular problem: an environmentally-destructive yet economically marginal practice which is only sustained by EU subsidies. And he raised one of the greatest cheers of the evening with his attack on the EU farm subsidy regimen: a hugely regressive tax that rewards landowners the more that they own land. In the uplands, he argued, the subsidy incentivises ecological destruction, while in the more productive lowlands farmers don’t need it.

For his part, Colin inveighed against the fear-based productivist paradigm of mainstream (and indeed ‘ecomodernist’) agricultural policy in its obsession with raising productivity. We know how to produce enough food while farming in wildlife-friendly ways, he argued. And he raised a big cheer in turn with his comments on land reform and the possibilities for a people’s takeover of rural landownership through collective and commoning models to produce food and wildlife benefits locally.

I’m pretty much with them on most of that, but I think too glib an interpretation of these arguments can lead us astray and…well, those big cheers worried me a bit. Although I was impressed by the subtlety of the panellists’ thinking – none were arguing for a naïve rewilding uninformed by the needs of agriculture – I nevertheless sensed a possibly somewhat naïve anti-farmer and anti-private property sentiment underlying some of the proceedings. Most of us nowadays are so divorced from farming that it’s easy for misunderstandings to build up, and I for one have become less inclined to be critical of farmers since I switched from the lectern to the plough. Sheesh, it’s been an education. And while God knows there are farmers (and farm organisations still more) who deserve the opprobrium of anyone who cares about the land, let’s pause a moment to reflect on what we’re asking of our farmers – to be financially successful self-employed entrepreneurs, to produce healthy food at high volume and unprecedentedly low price, and to safeguard the environment, the landscape and its wildlife within those parameters. Is it any wonder that so many of them fail at some or all of those onerous demands? Or that there’s a recruitment crisis in farming, with a new cohort substantially failing to replace the old? As I’ve said before, a country basically gets the farmers it deserves.

So now let’s look at how a rewilding programme might pan out in a bad way. Over the next few decades, EU farm subsidies (Pillar 1…and Pillar 2?) are slashed to zero. Not a bad thing in many ways – it’ll end the scandalous subsidy of rich land speculators and have the effect George desires on upland sheep farming (I do have qualms about the upheaval in hill country pastoral traditions, but I think he’s right that things have got to change somehow). I haven’t looked in detail at the data, but I suspect however that without concomitant changes in food and trade policy it’ll also put paid to a lot of lowland farmers, including quite large-scale conventional ones, because I don’t really agree with George that lowland farmers don’t need a subsidy to stay afloat in present economic circumstances. Bear in mind that farmers are often selling below costs of production, working crazy hours and doing non-food production related things to stay in business. In this sense, in contrast to the wealthy landowner, the jobbing family farmer is not the real beneficiary of the EU subsidies. That honour goes to the processors, retailers and consumers who aren’t paying a realistic price for their food. Without subsidies or any protection from global commodity markets, agricultural margins will be shaved still further, putting family farmers out of business. Once in the hands of the corporates, I suspect that local agri-environmental outrages of the kind recently identified by George may diminish. Global agri-environmental outrages, however, will surely increase.

The ending of subsidies may disincentivise land speculation, but not too much – without wider land reform, rural landownership will still be a pursuit of the rich. Doubtless some landowners will be happy to rewild their estates. Doubtless too there’ll be local community buyouts. But if the lottery’s Local Food programme is anything to go by, these projects will likely do a much better job at making their lands wildlife friendly than at producing much food. It’s noteworthy that social enterprises set up with complex community management structures under the programme are now seeking individual entrepreneurs to make the farming work. In that sense, while I agree with Colin that it’s not so hard to farm in productive, sustainable and wildlife-friendly ways it is quite hard, and to be sure of success it involves a lot of hard work from people with strong personal motivations and incentives to do it over the long haul. I’ll wait to read Colin’s new book on these issues with interest, and I’ll talk in more detail about tenure systems and sustainable farming in future posts. For now I’m inclined just to say that anyone contemplating the establishment of a community food-producing social enterprise will probably find that obtaining the land is the easiest part of the struggle. And also that while commoning and collective land tenure systems can be very effective, things are more complex than ‘common good, private bad’. Let me put it this way: would the cheers that evening have been quite so loud had the suggestion been to socialise private home ownership rather than private land ownership?

Still, it won’t really matter if agricultural productivity in the UK goes down. There’ll still be high intensity farming in parts of the country that are well suited to it, which will gladden the hearts of the ecomodernists and the ‘land sparers’. The rest of our food we can buy from abroad. It may be produced in ecologically vulnerable regions (notably the semi-arid continental grasslands, of which I’ve written previously) and by economically vulnerable people, but that’s not really our problem. Or at least not for the moment it isn’t. The main driver of food production will still be price. Without reform of housing and planning policy, most people will remain crippled with massive expenditures to keep a roof over their heads and so will be looking for savings in other areas, such as food. The land-sparing, labour-shedding, capital-intensive model of agriculture will win out. Indeed, perhaps an omission in the discussions around agriculture at Vision to Reality was the issue of arable cropping, and even horticulture, in contrast to pastoralism which is probably an easier form of agriculture to rewild within extant agricultural thinking, but makes a relatively minor nutritional contribution to overall agricultural productivity. How should we rewild and reform lowland arable farming?

There’s always been a loose confederation of folk with an interest in keeping the hoi polloi out of the countryside and the result of the ‘bad rewilding’ that I’m imagining here is that the re-wilders will throw their lot in – deliberately or not, knowingly or not – with rich landowners, housing speculators, ecomodernist ‘land sparers’, agricultural ‘improvers’, rural heritage geeks, crusading planning departments and seekers after pliant urban wage labour to keep people out of the countryside, living in expensive and dysfunctional urban housing, eating cheap and questionably produced food, but at least with the opportunity to see more wildlife in the British countryside than presently on their occasional visits there.

However, I can also foresee a much more positive way in which rewilding might go if other policies move with it. To do so policymakers will need to place joint emphasis on food sovereignty, social equity and ecological restoration. In this scenario, housing and planning policy are reformed, partly along the lines admirably sketched by George here, to make housing more affordable, end land market speculation, revitalize market towns and small villages, and sponsor appropriate rural development. Agricultural emphasis shifts to the sustainable production of most food needs as locally as possible, with appropriate price supports, agricultural extension and so on, rather than being dictated by world market prices. What this looks like on the ground will be quite varied, but generally speaking it will involve a shift towards smaller scale, more labour intensive, more agroecological and more mixed farming methods, probably producing less meat, less simple carbohydrates and less food waste than at present, all of which would be no bad thing. The return of small fields, arable weeds, hedgerows, fallowing and cover cropping, small farm native woodlands and the like will be what Ivette Perfecto et al1 have called the agricultural ‘matrix’ which is a necessary complement to wilder wilderness. In this sense, the land sparing vs land sharing duality will come to be seen as a false and ideologically-driven opposition: as I argue here, as George argued at Vision to Reality, and as Joern Fischer argues in this nice essay drawn to my attention by Jahi Chappell, we clearly need both ‘land sparing’ and ‘land sharing’ simultaneously.

But all this will require more people living and working in the countryside. On that point, I feel obliged to note with some concern that one of the distinguished panel members at Vision to Reality objected to my planning application for residence on my small mixed farm on the grounds of its wildlife impacts. I think instead he should have supported it for that very reason. So I think there’s a job to do in steering the rewilding movement away from ecomodernist affectations concerning urbanisation and decoupling, and towards a rethinking and re-peopling of agriculture. More farmers in the countryside are needed for the sake of both rewilding and sustainable agriculture.  They’ll come if we create the right policy and economic environment. They’ll provide the demographic injection that farming needs. They’ll learn how to farm productively but sustainably. They’ll be deeply grounded in the life of their land, and they’ll become a keystone species opening a new niche for knowledge about wildlife, farming and the countryside in the wider society, which will run much deeper than if rewilding is only a matter of urban tourists going off on jaunts to look for wolves in the Scottish Highlands.

I think rewilding will probably work best long-term if it’s built upon that backbone – cheaper housing, dearer, better food, local food security, more labour-intensive, agroecological production and wider societal knowledge about both farming and wildlife. It may be difficult to set up the incentives correctly to discourage speculative landownership while encouraging productive, sustainable and wildlife-friendly farming. But economists are good at figuring out that sort of thing. We just need to get them working on problems like that, rather than on setting economic policy itself – something that, for wildlife, for farming, for social justice, and for the reasons set out in my previous post, is much too important to be left to the economists.

Reference

  1. Perfecto, I. et al (2009). Nature’s Matrix: Linking Agriculture, Conservation and Food Sovereignty, Earthscan.

 

Nature’s Matrix: or, of foreigners and Englishmen

My opportunities for writing blog posts are cruelly curtailed at the moment while I try among the other crazy things I do to make a living growing vegetables and to build a house that I’ll have to take down again in 3 years, so apologies for my present intermittency. But I haven’t been altogether absent from the blogosphere – against my better judgement, I got myself involved in another damn golden rice debate on Steve Savage’s blog. This truth I know: don’t debate golden rice with its many ardent fans – the insult to insight quotient will overwhelm you with its toxic magnitude. Still, I might try to derive a few worthwhile lessons from this sorry episode in my next post.

Meanwhile, a much more interesting debate arising from my previous post ensued between Clem Weidenbenner, Ford Denison and myself – at first here on Small Farm Future and then on Ford’s Darwinian Agriculture blog. How refreshing to be able to disagree respectfully with someone and learn from them, in marked contrast to the golden rice brigade… Perhaps one difference lies in debating with actual scientists, who are interested in testing ideas, rather than with people who simply wish to invoke ‘science’ as a magic incantation in support of existing positions. Ah well, more on that next time.

Anyway, time I think for one last walkabout around the theme I’ve been exploring these last two blog posts, for I feel I’ve not yet answered the question Patrick Whitefield posed after my first post – what’s a ‘good’ ecosystem, and what’s a ‘bad’ one?

To be honest, I’m not sure I can answer that, and I’m happy to let the conservationists and ecologists fight it out over the metaphors of flux and balance as applied to wild ecosystems, so long as they don’t go to town on either of them too much, as I previously argued. Consider, for example, this tale told by a friend of mine, who recently had a visit from what he called the ‘Himalayan Balsam Police’ – a local voluntary group of balsam-bashers who informed him that he had too much of the noxious exotic on his land, and threatened to report him to the authorities when he asked them to leave a few plants untouched for his bees. This doubtless exemplifies the problem pointed up by Emma Marris’s ‘everything grows’ critique. It also encapsulates the best and worst of Britain – the proliferation of voluntary groups and the concern for the environment are definite strengths, whereas an unhealthy obsession with the authenticity of the past, the evils of foreigners and ready recourse to higher powers go firmly on the debit side.

Maybe there’s a parallel here with the debate about heritage and the built environment – it’s nice to preserve some old historic buildings, but if you obsess about preserving everything from the past and outlaw almost any new developments you paralyse and reify your society. Part of the preservationist impulse no doubt springs from observing the godawful, cheap, jerry-built crap that passes for architecture in contemporary Britain. But maybe it’s better to focus the activism on improving the new architecture rather than clinging on to the old.

Hold that thought, and now apply it to agro-ecosystems. An excellent book by Ivette Perfecto and colleagues1 previously mentioned on this blog argues that local species extinctions are commonplace: what’s required is the in-migration of other conspecifics from the wider meta-population in order to restore the local population. For this to happen, it’s necessary for the agricultural matrix in between islands of biodiversity or fragments of wild ecosystems to be sufficiently wildlife-friendly to allow migration: a traditional cabruca cacao farm might fit the bill, whereas a giant soya monoculture probably wouldn’t. The book’s focus is tropical, which is where most of the world’s biodiversity and most of its people are, but it would be interesting to consider it in the temperate, post-wilderness context of a place like modern Britain. While the likes of Ford Denison have convinced me that there may not be an awful lot to be gained by polycultures or intercropping at the level of the individual garden bed or farmed field, the likes of Perfecto et al convince me that there probably is much to be gained by diversity at the level of the farm, and the wider farmed landscape. To substantiate that would doubtless require a lot of ecological research, some of which has already been done, with mixed results (though it’s tended to focus on comparing conventional with organic farms, not with small, mixed, ‘agroecological’ holdings)2. But there are wider issues at stake than how many butterfly species you find in two fields from your two respective farm systems. Since there are so many other economic and social benefits to a diverse, small-scale, locally-oriented, peasant rather than productivist agro-ecosystem, until someone proves my suppositions wrong I’m inclined to take Perfecto et al’s analysis as a decent bit of prima facie evidence for the combined ecological, economic and social benefits of small-scale diverse agro-ecosystems in temperate as well as tropical climates (in fact, they make this argument explicitly in the case of tropical agriculture practised by low income small farmers).

Well, I would do, wouldn’t I? Maybe it’s just a case of confirmation bias on my part. And that brings me to the topic of my next post… In the mean time, perhaps I’ll just echo Tom’s sentiments of a couple of posts back, and close with the thought that the good agroecosystem is the agroecological agroecosystem. Now repeat three times.

References

1. Perfecto, I., Vandermeer, J. and Wright, A. (2009) Nature’s Matrix: Linking Agriculture, Conservation and Food Sovereignty, Earthscan.

2. Eg. http://www.organicresearchcentre.com/manage/authincludes/article_uploads/ORC%20Biodiversity%20benefits%20of%20organic%20farming%20v4.pdf; Bohan, D. ‘Managing weed ecosystem service provision’ http://www.mfo.ac.uk/en/events/ecological-and-anthropological-approaches-agrobiodiversity-and-food-systems

A dialogue with the Devil: or, should farmers improve on nature?

Here, belatedly, is my promised follow up to the preceding Rambunctious Garden post. I’ve been travelling recently, and found myself sharing an old-style train compartment with a curious fellow who introduced himself as ‘Nick’. With the faint goaty aroma that enveloped him, his suspiciously round shoes and the bumps on his head poorly concealed with a demotic flat cap, it didn’t take me long to figure out who he really was. I like to think I managed to hold my own with him, but here at any rate is the transcript of my conversation with the old devil.

Nick: So, Chris, what are you reading there?

Chris: It’s a couple of blog posts by an agronomist called Andy McGuire.

Nick: Cool. What does he say?

Chris: Well, Nick, essentially he argues that

  • the view that agriculture should mimic nature is based on the mistaken notion that there is a ‘balance’ in nature
  • ‘balance of nature’ ideas assume that ecosystems are in equilibrium, that they operate in accordance with meta-local rules and display emergent properties. None of this is true.
  • these ideas also mistakenly impute complexity and optimisation (or ‘nature’s wisdom’) to ecosystems, including the idea that pests are best controlled by retaining a complex agro-ecosystem
  • thus, finally, (and quoting Andy directly) “If what we see in natural ecosystems is not optimized, but random…we should be able to do just as well or better. We can, with ingenuity, wisdom, and a good dose of humility, purposefully assemble systems that outperform natural ecosystems in providing both products and ecosystem services.” The lesson, in short, is the one that gives Andy’s post its title – ‘Don’t mimic nature on the farm – improve it’.

Nick: I’m not your student, you know – you can spare me the bullet points.

Chris: Sorry.

Nick: But I like the cut of his jib. So nature’s not in balance, eh? It’s all randomness, disorder and chaos.  I like that. I like that a lot.

Chris: Yes, I suppose you would. But that’s the first of my problems with his arguments. Manichaeism is all very well in religion – you know, heaven and hell, God and the Devil…

Nick: (splutters) Look, I was just a plain member and citizen of the celestial community, OK? The fact that certain fragile-egoed upstarts don’t like hearing truth spoken to power is not my fault.

Chris: Yeah, Nick, whatever. But leaving that aside, in the natural world there’s surely scope for some shades of grey. I mean, Andy seems to take the view that ecosystems must be either wholly optimised and in balance, or else wholly random. This neglects the surely more plausible possibility that they might be partially optimised and in balance, but also subject to random occurrences. His analysis draws heavily on Ford Denison’s work1, which makes the important point that organisms are more optimised than ecosystems because natural selection operates on the former and not the latter. That makes sense, but the fact that there’s a powerful optimisation mechanism acting on organisms doesn’t mean that they’re wholly optimised or in balance. By reverse logic, the fact that the optimising forces acting on ecosystems are weaker doesn’t mean that there is no optimisation.

Nick: Well, maybe. But then you’d have to specify what those external optimising forces at work in the ecosystem actually are.

Chris: Not necessarily. It’s possible for there to be emergent forces resulting from the interactions between the elements of the ecosystem which have that effect, without invoking some additional agency. I mean, for goodness sake, just take the evolved morphology or behaviour of predator and prey species, like wolves and bison. You can’t understand it as a sui generis form at the level of the species – it only makes sense as an emergent interaction between the species. And that’s just a simple dyadic relationship – there are so many additional complexities, some of which we probably don’t even know about, whereas others such as the ecology of keystone species or disturbance/stability dynamics we do. And yet McGuire argues, with little substantiation, that there are no emergent effects in ecosystems. You don’t need to hold to some strong Clementsian superorganism type view of ecosystems to argue to the contrary – I think those examples I’ve just given suffice, or Grime and Pierce’s arguments about the evolutionary strategies that shape ecosystems2. And I do wonder why people get so het up trying to disprove emergence in ecosystems. In economics, a discipline far more wedded to methodological individualism than is possible in biology, nobody seems to quibble about the notion of the ‘invisible hand of the market’ as an emergent property despite its quasi-mystical overtones.

Nick: The invisible hand of the market?

Chris: Yes, Adam Smith’s doctrine that people pursuing their own narrow self-interest in the market unwittingly produce socially beneficial aggregate outcomes.

Nick: People acting just for themselves produce social good? That’s the most depressing thing I’ve heard in ages!

Chris: Don’t worry, Nick – there are plenty of critics who argue that the invisible hand is more like an invisible foot, in which the mere pursuit of self-interest produces more collective misery than deliberate attempts to cause social harm3.

Nick: Now you’re talking!

Chris: Anyway, my point is that McGuire’s creating a straw man. If you look at the way people have articulated the ‘balance of nature’ concept, it’s much more sophisticated than some mystical notion of a steady equilibrium state. Look at people like Aldo Leopold or John Vandermeer or J. Baird Callicott – they don’t construe ‘balance’ at all in the way McGuire charges. I don’t necessarily agree with everything Callicott says, but he makes a lot of interesting points about emergence and balance in his essay on the topic4 – including that “stability is a notoriously ambiguous concept in ecology, and has more recently been parsed into several more specific concepts – persistence, resistance and resilience” (p.124).

Nick: Not human traits I have much admiration for…

Chris: Well, that’s as maybe, but a couple more points about this. First, while writers like Emma Marris and Andy McGuire are keen to distance themselves from Clements and pin their colours to Gleason’s standard, some of the people they cite in their favour like Stephen Jackson are much more ambivalent: Jackson says that while he considers ecosystems to be fluid and contingent, he also considers them to be entities with particular attributes and processes that are repeatable in space and time – and that Gleason and Clements aren’t quite the polar opposites that are often supposed5. By the way, he also reckons that ecosystem assemblages usually hang together only for about 12,000 years or so, which might be encouraging news for malcontents of civilisation and its unholy alliance of Homo sapiens with cereal crops.

Nick: Well, I like unholy alliances…but, oh, the fun I could have if that happened. (Collecting himself) Anyway, your second point?

Chris: my second point is that it might be better if we stuck with the quantifiable ecological science of concepts like resilience or resistance. Otherwise we just start yelling our preferred metaphors at each other. ‘Nature’s in balance!’ ‘Oh no it’s not, it’s in flux!’. Balance, schmalance, flux, schmux. This isn’t science, it’s just mythologisation.

Nick: Well, people need their mythologies…

Chris: You would say that, wouldn’t you, otherwise you’d be out of a job.

Nick: I’ll ignore that remark.

Chris: Yes, people need their myths and their shorthands. But as I suggested on Andy’s blog, the ‘balance of nature’ myth, though problematic in some respects – including real world cases such as the removal of indigenous peoples from nature reserves – is less problematic than the ‘flux of nature’ myth, which has been used through the ages to justify might is right, and the defeat of countless relatively sustainable agricultural systems and peoples in favour of destructively productivist ones. It’s not just me that thinks this either – various ecologists have pointed to the dangers of the ‘flux of nature’ metaphor along the lines of the ‘anything goes’ problem I identified in my previous post6. That’s why I think Andy’s post, despite I’m sure his noble intentions to articulate a scientific truth as he sees it, strikes me as ideologically loaded. It buttresses humanity’s already well developed tendencies towards hubris in supposing that it’s a simple thing to design human-improved ecosystems.

Nick: Yes, well if it weren’t for human hubris, my job would be a darned sight harder. But since you mention ‘human-improved ecosystems’ let’s talk about agriculture, which you haven’t really mentioned yet. Andy’s main point surely is that you can’t rely on the ‘balance of nature’ myth to design good agricultural systems. I mean, ever since I got humans kicked out of Eden (heh, heh), they’ve had to get by through agricultural systems that rely on humanity’s infernal ingenuity to improve on what the natural world can offer, and not through ‘mimicking nature’. Ford Denison is surely right that it’s misguided to mimic nature – things like perennial grain crops just ain’t gonna work.

Chris: Let’s try to unpick this carefully. So first, yes of course any type of agriculture is an ‘improvement’ on nature from a human point of view (or at least from the point of view of those humans practising it), though I don’t see how it can be described as an ‘improvement’ in any other transcendent sense. Nothing new there. I think what Andy’s really gunning at is the notion that we can best improve on our agro-ecosystems by better mimicking nature. In some situations, I’m sure he’s right. In others, I suspect he isn’t. I don’t think there are any cast iron laws of agro-ecosystem assembly that rule nature mimicry in or out. At one level, all agro-ecosystems involve nature mimicry: we’re a long way from creating purely synthetic food, much as the prospect appeals to some. At another level, I think Andy is using Denison’s ‘misguided mimicry of nature’ point misguidedly. Take perennial grain crops. If Denison is proved right that the perennial grain breeders will be unsuccessful – and I suspect he will be – the reason won’t be because the breeders erred in trying to mimic nature. It’ll be because they erred in not mimicking nature enough. To put it crudely, in nature we find short-lived, prolifically reproducing species and long-lived, cautiously reproducing species – not long-lived, prolifically reproducing species. Farmers have made use of this by, for example, rotating between annual cereal crops and grazed perennial grass leys – that’s a great example of good nature mimicry in an agro-ecosystem. But trying to keep your perennial grains and eat them? I’m not so sure. There are loads of other examples of good nature mimicry in agro-ecosystems, like mob-stocking to mimic the grass-ruminant-predator relationship I mentioned previously, or the research on the relationships between ants, scale insects, parasitic flies, ladybird beetles and parasitic wasps in traditional coffee production systems which suggests counterintuitively the need to retain ants in those systems7. Andy may not consider these things ‘complex’. Well, they’re complex enough for me, but what really matters is that there’s enormous scope for improving agriculture by mimicking nature. Denison’s point, surely, is not that it’s necessarily misguided to mimic nature, but that it’s easy to mimic nature misguidedly.

Nick: OK, OK – so there’s a role for nature mimicry after all. Are we done yet?

Chris: Nearly, Nick, nearly. One last point. A nice thing about Denison’s approach is that he’s very attuned to tradeoffs in a way that I think Andy’s posts miss. We may be able to ‘improve on nature’ in agriculture, but what are the costs? If I were trying to develop a new pumpkin variety, I’d probably want to improve on nature by hand pollinating my plants. If I had some kind of high value crop in a polytunnel, maybe I’d improve on nature by deliberately importing some pollinating insects. If I had a five acre field of these plants, I’d hope nature would just do the job for me. Maybe we’ll get into a situation where we’ve messed with nature so much that it’ll stop doing some of these jobs for us – in fact we’re probably already there in some cases. I think it’ll be hard for us to assume responsibility for many of these ‘ecosystem services’ at as low a cost to us as nature has provided, but as a thought experiment suppose we had to choose between a mini-drone we’d devised that could pollinate all our crops better than insects at virtually no cost, or the insects themselves…which choice, and why? Is the human ‘improvement’ of nature the obvious way to go here? Not to me. There’s also another tradeoff I’d highlight that I think Denison misses  in a comment picked up by Andy when he says “Local sourcing of nutrients in natural ecosystems…is a constraint imposed by the lack of external inputs, not an example of ‘nature’s wisdom’” (Denison, p.106). Maybe that’s so in the sense that there’s no wise superorganism type ecosystem in a strong Clementsian sense, but I think Denison misses the opportunity here to apply his tradeoff approach, understood as “having more of one good thing usually means having less of another” (Denison, p.44). In human agroecosystems it’s easy to import extra inputs, but this usually imposes costs of various kinds elsewhere in the total system. Are tradeoff free improvements achievable through increasing the flow of exotic inputs, or, to put it another way, is there an ‘invisible hand’ in the exotic input market? Maybe, but how often? The tradeoff if we let exotic inputs get out of hand is the speed, scale and uncertainty of anthropogenic change, not to mention its social costs, which Denison in fact alludes to and so do most of the other ecological writers I’ve already mentioned. That’s where the ideological character of the ‘flux of nature’ myth becomes troubling, because it intersects so readily with the hubristic myth of human overcoming.

Nick: Yeah, well there’s a lot of those folks living down my way. What was it God said to me just before he banished me – “By the abundance of your trading you became filled with violence within”8. Wish I could have quoted Adam Smith to him back in the day. But anyway, if you’re so down on the flux of nature metaphor, what alternatives do you propose?

Chris: I think we just need to be careful about any metaphors for nature that we use, because they never capture the entire reality that we have to deal with. I agree of course that we need agriculture, and that the ‘balance of nature’ myth isn’t always our best guide, but sometimes it is, and the ‘flux of nature’ myth can also be seriously misleading. We just have to tread a very narrow path in designing agroecosystems, and always keep in mind social goals (what kind of society is this agriculture ultimately for?) as well as just productivity goals. But sometimes I think any kind of human living involves a Faustian pact of one sort or another – we’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.

Nick: Well, that’s really made my day. Thanks, Chris – it’s been great talking to you.

 

References

1. Denison, F. (2012) Darwinian Agriculture, Princeton.

2. Grime, P. & Pierce, S. (2012) The Evolutionary Strategies That Shape Ecosystems, Oxford.

3. Hunt, E. (2002) History of Economic Thought, Armonk.

4. Callicott, J.B. (1999) ‘Do deconstructive ecology and sociobiology undermine the Leopold land ethic?’ in Callicott, J.B. Beyond The Land Ethic, Albany.

5. Jackson, S. (2006) ‘Vegetation, environment, and time: the origination and termination of ecosystems’ Journal of Vegetation Science 17: 549-55.

6. Eg. Pickett, S. and Ostfeld (1995) ‘The shifting paradigm in ecology’ in Kinght, R. and Bates, S. (eds) A New Century For Natural Resource Management, Washington DC; Perfecto, I. et al (2010) Nature’s Matrix, London.

7. Perfecto et al, op cit.

8. Ezekiel, 28: 16.

Everything Grows, Anything Goes, Everyone Blows: some thoughts on Emma Marris’s Rambunctious Garden

Well, an air of normality has returned to us here at Small Farm Future. A combination of sunny weather and endless meals of Clem’s slug stew have put those pesky molluscs on the back foot and enabled us to get some plants established at last. The money I paid for the potato planter has returned to me (though not, alas, the planter: now I know what people on ebay mean by the term ‘time waster’). And the hordes of permaculturists who were commenting on this blog a week or two ago seem to have departed to graze on other pastures. So what do we do now? Well, we go on, ploughing our lonely furrow.

My next few posts, then, are concerned as promised with the ‘balance of nature’ as applied to agriculture, which I briefly debated with Andy McGuire in response to some blog posts of his on this topic. As a preamble, I’m going to look specifically in this post at Emma Marris’s book Rambunctious Garden1, which touches directly on this issue, and which Andy cites in his posts.

I have to admit that I approached the book with some trepidation: it has an endorsement on the dust jacket from celebrity eco-panglossian Stewart Brand, and has also been enthusiastically commended by other foot soldiers from that warlike tribe. The dust jacket hails the book for its ‘optimism’ (usually a bad sign – I’ll post something soon on the important difference between ‘optimism’ and ‘hope’).  And it seems to be rapidly becoming a touchstone work by people championing policies that I find questionable. But notwithstanding all that I enjoyed reading it and found a good deal of Marris’s analysis persuasive.

That analysis, in a nutshell, is that much ecological thinking and conservation work is based on the idea of restoring natural environments to some kind of baseline state of ‘balance’ which has been upset, typically by human activities of recent origin. But this is an impossible aspiration, first of all because the evidence suggests that human activities (and ‘human’ here may even refer to pre Homo sapiens species in our genus) have always and inextricably been associated with profound transformation of the natural world, and secondly because ecosystems are never in balance anyway but are always an unstable congeries of organisms buffeted by random events and destined not to endure. In this respect, Marris reprises a venerable argument in ecology between Clements (he of the ‘climax vegetation’ and ecosystems as ‘superorganisms’ school of thought) and Gleason (of the ecosystems as random or ‘stochastic’ agglomerations of individuals school).

Well, the Gleasonians seem to have the upper hand in ecology at the moment and one merit of Marris’s book is that she spells out the implications. These are, essentially, stop moralising about pristine ‘untouched’ wilderness and embrace anthropogenic effects.  Don’t get too het up about ‘invasive species’, let anthropogenic nature take its course, enjoy the buddleia and the sycamore, the novel juxtapositions of organisms in ‘self-willed land’ (an appealing term, but a pretty problematic one for a Gleasonian…). Indeed, given the randomness of natural ecosystem assembly, you may actually find that anthropogenic ecosystems perform better than their wild predecessors, as for example on Ascension Island where the monotonous plain of ferns preceding human agency has now been replaced by a fully functioning cloud forest.

In short, everything grows in the rambunctious garden, and we should let it – we must relinquish our human notions of pristine nature and natural balance.

I think I can live with most of that. It’s probably easier for those of us hailing from what certain Americans call ‘old Europe’, where we can’t even pretend to have any significant remaining pristine wilderness, and where there’s been no recent history of explosive human colonisation. Richard Mabey’s book The Unofficial Countryside2 laid out the same basic thesis for us quite some years ago, though it’s true that even here conservationists do fuss rather about ‘native’ species.

This ‘everything grows’ thesis represents the weak narrative of Marris’s book (not ‘weak’ in the sense that it’s a bad argument, but in the sense that it’s a less radical position). But she also articulates a stronger narrative, perhaps inevitably. For once you’ve kicked away the foundations of ‘balanced’ natural ecosystems, embracing the Anthropocene  and the patch-disturbing antics of its guest star Homo sapiens, it becomes a bit difficult to know where to stop. Nature has no ultimate goal, no telos, and humanity is a part of it – therefore if nature has no balance either, then really anything goes. There are no criteria for discriminating between appropriate and inappropriate human interventions in the world, a point made by ecologist Mark Schwartz, who Marris cites (p.80) as follows,

“Without a baseline we have no target. Without a target, every kind of management, including those that result in lost native species is arguably a success. I fear such success.”

Me too, Mark, me too. It’s an onerous business, playing god, and most gods with a successful long-term track record go about it by laying down some ground rules. Call it a covenant, if you will. And here Marris misses a trick by failing to engage with the import of religious traditions that have done this – “give up romantic notions of a stable Eden” she enjoins, without apparently realising that the lack of stability and the consequent difficulty humans face in making good choices is exactly the problem articulated in the Eden story, and the problem her own ‘anything goes’ analysis bequeaths us (this very point is further examined in my paper ‘Genesis and J. Baird Callicott: the land ethic revisited’). Although Marris clearly does want humans to make good decisions on behalf of the biosphere as a whole and not go charging around like a bull in a china shop just because we can, her ‘anything goes’ logic rather pulls the rug from under her feet in finding criteria with which to make those good decisions. Nor does she have a great deal to say about farming, surely the arena in which making these decisions vis-a-vis the wider biota is paramount.

Still, even though the ‘anything goes’ position is quite challenging to those of us who advocate small-scale, local, largely mixed organic farming, it does have its up side. For of course it blows out of the water the so called ‘land sparing – land sharing’ debate, which is often used to critique relatively low yielding organic farming for its potentially greater land take. If anything goes, if ‘self-willed’  (or any-willed) land has no intrinsic inferiority to ‘pristine wilderness’, then there’s no virtue in land sparing. As Marris puts it: “More than sickly ecosystems nursed by park rangers, novel ecosystems are really wild, self-willed land with lots of evolutionary potential” (p121). She later writes: “Don’t ignore green, growing land just because it isn’t your ideal native landscape. Protect it from development, even if it is just a “trash ecosystem”. Build your cities in tight and up high, and let the scenery take over the suburbs” (p170).

Oh, hang on a minute. That last bit doesn’t sound much like a land sharing argument! And come to think of it, counterposing ‘sickly’ wilderness with ‘really wild, self-willed land’ doesn’t look like a very impressive effort at getting the anthropocentric moralising out of ecology. How did we get from ‘anything goes’ to ‘everyone blows’, an argument for cleansing the countryside of people and packing them tight in cities (whose ecological credentials, as I’ve argued here and here, are usually assumed rather than proven)? Now, I’m not given to conspiracy theories, but Marris’s ‘everyone blows’ conclusion seems to come out of nowhere, unless perhaps she’s playing a fiddle for the eco-panglossians, amongst whom the likes of Stewart Brand (he of the dust jacket endorsement) are happy to dismiss the rural peasant life of something like a third of the global population as, quite simply, ‘over’ on the basis of no significant evidence whatsoever.

Nope, give me anything goes over everyone blows. And give me everything grows over anything goes. For indeed I think that reports of the balance of nature’s death are somewhat exaggerated. I’ll say more about why in my next post – essentially that Clements versus Gleason isn’t quite the polar opposition it’s sometimes painted, and that too singular a focus on species-level dynamics is no less incomplete than too singular a focus on ecosystem-level dynamics. In fact, Marris herself frequently invokes notions of ecosystem ‘balance’, as when she argues that there’s a tradeoff between reproductive success and stress tolerance which is likely to enable native species to claw back niches from invasive exotics in the long-term.

You might reasonably ask how commonly she invokes such notions. But then I might reasonably ask for a bit more quantification of this sort in her own analysis. As a not terribly quantitatively-oriented social scientist by training, my own publications, like Marris’s, are full of phrases like ‘as many analysts have argued…’ or ‘the research tends to suggest…’, but on the rare occasions I’ve submitted papers to more technically-oriented journals I’ve generally been asked to sharpen up my act and provide a bit more quantitative precision. Take the Ascension Island example. Given that it’s pretty hard to find land anywhere on the planet quite as remote from other land masses as this speck in the South Atlantic, I don’t find the ‘stochasticity’ of its native flora and the possibilities for ‘improving it’ too surprising. But if you were to survey all the floras of the world and assess them against the same yardstick, how many of them would appear equally ‘improvable’ by human agency? Not so many, I suspect – and that’s before we even get into the debate about what ‘improvement’ really means. Much the same points can be made about exotics/invasives.

Ah well – I like people who stick their necks out and try to nail an interesting argument rather than getting too bogged down in over-cautious evidence-weighing, so long as they engage politely with other views and follow the basic rules of analysis. In that respect, I welcome Marris’s book. But its talk of ‘improvement’ does ring a few alarm bells, for the same reasons I touched on recently when I talked about the legacy of ideologies of agrarian ‘improvement’. My own writing has sometimes been accused of being ‘ideological’, which I’m fairly comfortable with since I don’t believe non-ideological writing is possible in the main. The danger of supposing that it is is in thinking that one’s superior contemporary insight can replace the error of past scientific misunderstandings – now revealed as contaminated by the political concerns of their day – with the clear-sighted truth of the present.

You don’t need to be a genius to see the trap awaiting there, especially in a book like Marris’s which places such a heavy political accent on certain ecological metaphors while seeking to overcome others. And indeed, just occasionally as I read, I fancied I saw a fugitive John Locke, that pioneering agricultural improver and proto-panglossian champion of human overcoming, disappearing amongst the written words as he whispered his excoriations of wilderness and waste into Marris’s ear. For I ask whether in the wild woods and uncultivated waste of America left to nature, without any improvement, tillage or husbandry, a thousand acres will yield the needy and wretched inhabitants as many conveniences of life as ten acres of equally fertile land do in Devonshire where they are well cultivated?3

And to cap it all, there’s that darned dust jacket quotation from Stewart Brand…

 

References

1. Marris, E. (2011) Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, Bloomsbury.

2. Mabey, R. (1973) The Unofficial Countryside, Little Toller.

3. Locke, J. (1689) Two Treatises of Government, II, 37.