“How to kill a billion people” – a note on famine in small farm societies

The quotation in my title comes from a brief online review of my book from someone who clearly wasn’t a fan. I suspect the person concerned didn’t actually read the book, but no matter. For my part, it seems to me quite likely that a billion people or more will die prematurely if we don’t soon implement something like the small farm future that I describe in the book. It’s worth sitting awhile with that contradiction. What an extraordinary moment in history when different people think that either persisting with or not persisting with the regnant political economy might slay us in such unimaginable numbers.

Maybe I’ll come back to that in another post. Here, I just want to make a few points about famine in societies of the past, present and future, building on the analysis from Chapter 10 of my book – famine being, along with its companions war, disease and poverty, among the likeliest contenders for causing the untimely deaths of billions.

So, one of the objections to the idea of an agrarian localist or a small farm future indeed is the notion that they’re prey to hunger or famine in ways that modern societies are not. The term ‘subsistence farmer’ hardly helps, routinely associated as it is with other words like ‘scratching’ or ‘bare’.

This conceals a more complex reality. As I document in my book, ‘subsistence’ farmers have generally been well capable of creating a thriving and diverse livelihood for themselves, and building in safeguards against poor seasons. Indeed, you can make a strong case that small-scale local farming systems are more resilient to famine than the present nexus of large-scale commercial farms and urbanism. Maybe you can make the contrary case too. But the scale of farm operation will make little difference to the famines that will arise in worst-case climate, socioeconomic and strategic scenarios of the future. I see a turn to low-impact, local, small-scale farming basically as our best option now for avoiding those worst-case scenarios, and probably our only option for dealing with their consequences should they occur.

Nevertheless, it’s historically true that small-scale ‘subsistence’ farmers sometimes pooled resources on a larger scale in order to even out the inherent uncertainties of farming, especially in environmentally challenging situations. It seems the Chacoan people of what’s now New Mexico did this from around 700-1200 AD, creating a centralized state that drew various communities into its orbit. The Chacoan state’s main function was redistributive in the face of livelihood uncertainties, and when it could no longer continue to underwrite its people’s welfare they went their separate ways.

Contrast this with Pierre Goubert’s analysis of the peasantry in 17th century France:

The majority of the poor in the countryside farmed only two or three acres, and tried to live off this land completely, which they were more or less able to do as long as the weather was kind and the harvests were good. But they were all forced to find money with which to pay the royal taxes (which went up sharply after 1635), as they had to be paid in coin, as well as to pay seigneurial and other dues. That is why they always had to take their eggs, young cocks, butter and cheese, and the best of the fruit and vegetables to market, or to the neighbouring big house….They could keep little for themselves except what was strictly necessary or unsaleable1

It’s worth bearing in mind that underlying reality when contemplating state formation in early modern Europe and the splendours of its royal courts.

Or consider this report from a citizen of the Dutch town of Limburg in 1790 where trade was limited and farming ‘almost medieval’: “One ate and drank what the farm provided. Because very little could be sold, the farmer had ample to eat”2.

And a final example, running counter to Monty Python’s famous historical thesis, and with some bearing on recent discussions here about the healthiness of animal products: research on ‘Dark Age’ Britain in the aftermath of Roman departure suggests that “an increase in animal protein (including the dairy products that were gained from a greater emphasis on pastoral husbandry) and a concomitant decrease in the proportion of carbohydrates in everyday diets appear to have led to general improvements in health across the board, visible in increases in average height, better dental health, and higher recovery rates from infection”, and hence “the beneficial effect on peasant household economies of the withdrawal of Roman secular and military administration”3.

So against redistributive states like the Chacoan, or the de facto self-reliance of Limburg, perhaps we can counterpose more hunger-prone scenarios fostered by large predatory states – the Romans in Britain and early modern states in Europe among them.

In reality, the distinction is perhaps overdrawn. There were hierarchical elements in the Chacoan state, and there were ubiquitous uprisings and complex social alignments in Europe and elsewhere against the predations of overmighty states that ensured a redistributive aspect. This latter point is important, and I’ll be pressing it in future – predatory states are sometimes willing to extract resources from ordinary people up to the point of rank starvation if they can get away with it, but what often stops them from doing so is the ability of ordinary people to organize politically and make themselves protagonists in the political drama of the state.

My examples so far have all been quite a way back in the past. What of present and recent times? Famine expert Alex de Waal calls the first part of the 20th century “the most dreadful period of famine in world history”4 when modern leaders of various political colours such as Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin and (later) Mao Zedong either actively created famines or connived at them in pursuit of their wider political goals. It’s perhaps worth noting that communist leaders like Stalin and Mao particularly inflicted hunger on the peasant classes whose activism was substantially responsible for putting them into power, in pursuit of breakneck industrialization policies dictated by Marxist-Leninist doctrines alien to peasant communism. Such famines of 20th century ‘development’ came on the heels of 19th century famines of colonial capitalism in other parts of Asia and Latin America. So there are good grounds for questioning the notion that famines were banished by modernization.

But more recently the incidence of major famines has declined, leaving us only with the small matter of chronic under-nutrition among possibly billions of people in a world that’s richer in total and per capita terms than ever before. ‘Developed’ or ‘middle income’ countries like Russia and China that experienced major famines in recent times are unlikely to experience them again in the near term, whereas ‘less developed’ countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, are on shakier ground. This prompts a narrative that capitalist or industrial development is the vanquisher of famine, and that we need more of it to finally banish it from the global scene.

I think this narrative is mistaken. I also think it rests on a horrifically ends-justify-means view of history that implicitly shrugs off the deaths of past millions as an acceptable cost of modernization. For all that, I’m as happy as anyone to celebrate the decline of major famines in the present. But it’s important to note they’ve declined largely because of an international humanitarian politics that considers famines unacceptable.

In A Small Farm Future I argue that we need to retain that humanitarianism, but I’m not sure that we’ll be able to do so under the auspices of our existing system of nation-states. There are already plenty of signs that this system’s mask is slipping, revealing the beggar-my-neighbour or beggar-my-populace face of the predatory state behind it. And that, in a nutshell, is why I think people are well advised to generate their own subsistence, or, better, to generate local communities that enable them to do so. If we don’t get on top of climate change (another challenge to which the existing system of states appears unequal) perhaps major famines are likely anyway, but if we leave our subsistence in the hands of the existing system of states we may well experience black swan famine events all the sooner and all the more devastatingly.

Of course, if everyone upped sticks overnight and headed to the countryside in search of a more sustainable subsistence (or if some neo-Maoist state forced them to), we certainly would experience famines and various other ghastly outcomes in short order. So the challenge is to see the writing on the wall before it’s too late and move more rationally towards a sustainable agrarianism. Or, as I put it on p.207 of my book, to choose a small farm future voluntarily in the present so as to avoid having a worse one imposed by Maos of the future.

Since we often extol the foresight of business leaders in modern capitalist society, perhaps we might learn from the example of internet billionaire Peter Thiel, who seems to have realized that in the final analysis you can’t eat money and has bought up a large spread of remote New Zealand farmland to safeguard against future uncertainties. Few of us have the means to do that, but what we can do is start working in any number of different ways to try to build a convivial agrarianism within our local communities. It won’t be easy, but if we pull it off then maybe some of us will be able to look back with pride at how we helped avoid killing a billion people.

Notes

  1. Pierre Goubert. 1986. The French Peasantry in the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge Univ Press, p.87.
  2. Geert Mak. 2010. An Island in Time. Vintage, p.55.
  3. Susan Oosthuizen. 2019. The Emergence of the English. ARC, pp.34-5.
  4. Alex de Waal. 2018. Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine. Polity, p.77.

Can organic farming feed the world?

I discuss various aspects of so-called ‘alternative’ agriculture at some length in Chapter 6 of A Small Farm Future1, and I don’t intend to retrace many of those steps here. But there’s a couple of further things I do want to say in this blog cycle. Here, I’ll focus on organic farming.

On page 125 (and also page 150) of my book I cite a 2007 study by Catherine Badgley and co-authors2, one of whom is Jahi Chappell who sometimes comments here, so I’m hoping he might weigh in with his thoughts on this post. Their paper suggests that organic agriculture based on biological fixation of nitrogen is capable of meeting global food demands without reliance on industrial synthesis of nitrogenous fertiliser (from now on in this post I’m going to use the symbols N to refer to plant-available nitrogen, BNF to refer to biological (or ‘organic’) nitrogen fixation and SNF to refer to synthetic/industrial nitrogen fixation). Interestingly, the Badgley paper also suggest that while organic yields in rich countries are typically lower than their ‘conventional’ counterparts, the opposite is often the case in poor countries, a point to which I’ll return.

Since the publication of my book, I’ve become aware of various papers by Professor David Connor critiquing the Badgley paper, and more generally the notion that it’s feasible to feed the world without SNF. Although I identify with organic/alternative agriculture and have never used synthetic N in my own farming, I don’t take an absolutely purist line about it in relation to the global food system. If SNF is necessary in some circumstances, I’m not going to lose sleep over it. Still, SNF is an energy-intensive business requiring a complex industrial infrastructure. Given energy and other constraints in the future, if it turned out we needed SNF at similar levels to the present to feed the world this would be quite a stumbling block for arguments favouring low-energy agrarian localism. So it’s worth considering Connor’s arguments.

The main objection to the possibility of ‘feeding the world’ through organic agriculture based on BNF is that it’s typically lower yielding than SNF-based agriculture. This yield penalty has two components – lower yield acre for acre in the corresponding crops, and the fact that organic agriculture has to build N via rotations with leguminous non-food cover crops that further increase its land-take. Connor argues that the Badgley paper failed to take proper account of this second issue, and therefore overestimated the global potential of organic agriculture.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of that point, I’m going to take a different tack and consider some figures that Connor presents3. He says that 21 Mega tonnes (Mt) of N are fixed annually by cover crop legumes, with the total amount of BNF estimated between 33-46Mt. This contrasts with 113Mt of SNF, giving the measure of the challenge – apparently a major shortfall in the possibility of feeding the world organically.

But let’s take a closer look at these figures, most of which are based on a 2008 paper by David Herridge and co-authors4. I’m going to see if I can find some ways to narrow the discrepancy between BNF and SNF reported by Connor, which at worst is over a fivefold difference in favour of synthetic (113:21). It’s rather a back-of-the-envelope job, and some of the underlying issues are quite complex, so of course I’d welcome any comments or refinements.

The Herridge paper that Connor draws on proposes a larger amount of global BNF than Connor of 50-70Mt, as follows:

Pasture & fodder – 12-25Mt

Rice – 5 Mt

Sugar cane – 0.5Mt

Legume cropland – 21.45Mt

Non-legume cropland – <4Mt

Extensive savanna – <14Mt

 

Connor’s 33-46Mt figure presumably comes from adding legume cropland to the lower and higher bounds of the pasture & fodder figures (21+12=33, 21+25=46), so he’s ignoring the other forms of BNF reported by Herridge. This seems reasonable in the case of extensive savanna, little of which is likely to find its way back into the agro-ecosystem, but not so reasonable in the case of the other, admittedly fairly minor, BNF sources – rice, sugar cane and non-legume cropland. So I propose to incorporate these into the BNF figure. This gives a range of 39-56 Mt BNF, something of an improvement on the worst-case ratio, but still at best only half the SNF figure.

Let’s now look at livestock. According to the FAO, 33% of global cropland is devoted to producing livestock fodder. This is a choice that humans make – in fact, that primarily rich humans make – and I’d suggest not a wise one in view of the energy and other squeezes we face. Therefore, I think we can drop it from our modelling. We need to design a renewable food system that can feed the global population adequately, fitting livestock into it where we can, rather than designing livestock systems to meet the demand for meat which compromise food access and renewability.

I’m not sure quite how to quantify this adjustment, however. Soy is a major fodder crop, and also an N-fixer, so possibly the proportion of global cropland devoted to producing fodder has lower SNF needs? Obviously, some of the N that’s fixed ends up in the fodder and not in the field, although some of that then ends up in manure which may be available as BNF. But I’m not sure how best to adjust for these pathways – and of course there are a lot of non-N fixing fodder crops. So for now I’m going to allocate 33% of SNF proportionately to the 33% of fodder cropland, until someone suggests a better methodology. So that’s 33% of superfluous SNF, which takes us down to 76 Mt SN.

SNF used for boosting the productivity of long-term pastures for livestock is, I’d argue, another superfluous use. I don’t have global figures for this. Rough calculations for the UK suggest that we use about 30% of our SN on pastures. I suspect the figure is much lower in most other countries. I’ll arbitrarily assume that it amounts to 3% globally – further information welcome. This would take total SNF down to 73 Mt.

The next thing to look at is human waste. Each of us excretes about 20g of N per day in urine and faeces – which amounts to a lot of N aggregated across the human population over a year. Here in the UK, we already do a pretty good job of getting this back to the fields, but at quite a high energetic cost in water treatment and transport. One of the arguments in favour of ruralization is that it’s much easier energetically to get human nutrients back into the fields when people are actually living on them (a graver threat to urbanism than many seem to appreciate, especially in relation to phosphate rather than N). Let’s assume we can get 75% of the N contained in global humanure into the fields (again, I’m open to a more refined analysis with this parameter). This shrinks annual global SN to 25 Mt.

Then there are various losses associated with international trade, processing and consumer waste, which could be vitiated in a society based on local food production. I estimate these at a rough and ready 19% on the basis of a paper by Mike Berners-Lee and colleagues5 – admittedly one with a somewhat different focus, so again I’m open to more nuanced clarification. This reduces SN to 20 Mt – about the same as BNF from legume cropland, and much less than is currently fixed by BNF overall.

There are various other ways in which we might nibble away at this remaining SNF figure. For example, we might invest more in plant breeding and crop development to maximize edible matter per unit of N input and increase organic yields, which has scarcely been an agronomic priority in recent times. Or we might increase the N input from wild margins either directly or through livestock intermediaries, or cut back on certain kinds of N-demanding production, or improve crop production through other means like irrigation, or improve N uptake in existing crops. Maybe we could reduce SN by such means to around 10 Mt, down from the initial figure of 113 Mt. The possible fivefold excess of SN over BFN (113:21) may now be reversed (10:56) – perhaps to the extent that it’s no longer wholly implausible to imagine a low-energy small farm future that’s largely an organic one?

A final point. Professor Connor writes:

“My concern is for the resource-poor farmers, especially in Sub Saharan Africa, who overwhelmingly are targets for help and advice to apply organic methods from misguided community organizations based in other countries. Soil fertility is so low there after at least a century of intensive nutrient extraction without replacement that denial of the need for N fertilizer makes the process of agricultural renovation impossible”5

 

This concern seems a worthy one. If the world does still need a modicum of SNF, the people who unquestionably need it most are poor (usually small-scale) farmers in regions like Sub-Saharan Africa. Whether those advising these farmers to apply organic methods are ‘misguided’ is another matter, because there’s a long history of poor farmers getting locked into dependency on high-cost inputs like synthetic N, largely to the benefit of those selling the inputs rather than to the farmers. So the advice of movements like Zero Budget Natural Farming in India for poor farmers to farm organically without SNF seems to me well founded. The higher yields for organic farming in poor countries reported in the Badgley paper seemed to arise from the availability of extension and advice helping farmers to manage inputs more systematically. This should surely be the first option to explore in improving yields before moving on to more energy-intensive options like SNF.

But perhaps we can frame this point about nitrogen equity the other way around. Given the grossly unfair distribution of global resources, rich countries should stop trying to squeeze greater productivity out of their own farming systems through profligate (or, perhaps, any) use of SNF, and make SN available at low or no cost to poor farmers in poor countries, should the latter feel the need for it.

 

Notes

  1. Chris Smaje. 2020. A Small Farm Future. Chelsea Green.
  2. Catherine Badgley et al. 2007. Organic agriculture and the global food supply. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 22: 86-108.
  3. David Connor. 2018. Land required for legumes restricts the contribution of organic agriculture to global food security. Outlook on Agriculture. 47: 277-82.
  4. David Herridge et al. 2008. Global inputs of biological nitrogen fixation in agricultural systems. Plant and Soil. 311: 1–18.
  5. Mike Berners-Lee et al. Current global food production is sufficient to meet
    human nutritional needs in 2050 provided there is
    radical societal adaptation. Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene. 6: 52.
  6. David Connor. 2018. Organic agriculture and food security: A decade of unreason finally implodes. Field Crops Research. 225: 128-9.

Can the peasant speak?

I’ve now reached Chapter 3, ‘The return of the peasant’, in my present blog cycle about my book A Small Farm Future, and I’m going to linger here for a few posts, even though it’s only a short chapter. I’ll begin at rather an oblique slant to the substance of the chapter by relating a story told to me by my friend P, reproduced here with his kind permission.

This photograph is of P’s grandfather, G, who was born in the province of Karelia, Eastern Finland, in 1889. At this time, Finland was an autonomous duchy of the Russian empire, and Russian Orthodox Christianity was prominent in Eastern Karelia. G’s ancestry in the immediate locality where he was born went back at least three generations, probably more. The subsistence-oriented swidden farming which we were recently discussing here (later transplanted to Appalachia by Scandinavian migrants) was a recent reality in this area. As P puts it, “this was a man whose roots were deep in the place that he came from. His cultural and farming practices were also deeply rooted in this landscape”.

G was the oldest of six children. When his father died in 1911 it fell to him to sort out the inheritance and allot the family land among his kinsfolk. G himself moved a little way from the village and established a new farm. In 1915 he got married, and between 1917 and 1937 the couple had nine children, two of whom died in infancy from pneumonia.

Swidden farming had been actively suppressed by the Finnish government in the mid-19th century as the country’s economy became increasingly connected with the wider world, and the timber resources of its wooded slopes imbued land with a higher monetary value than that represented in the crops of rye and oats that the swidden farmers grew to feed themselves. G’s farming career was built on these old and new foundations. The family grew cereals, vegetables, flax and hay, kept livestock and harvested wild fruits and fish for their own consumption, but also pursued market ventures to stay afloat in the newly monetized local economy.

In 1917, in the aftermath of war and revolution in Russia, Finland became independent and immediately plunged into a brutal civil war between left-wing and right-wing factions. P is unsure how this played out in his grandfather’s life, but there are family memories of famine during this time which were partially mitigated by their access to farmland. A few years after the civil war, a brother of G’s was shot dead by a policeman in a bar. As one of G’s daughters recalled the incident, “Uncle had been able to say ‘don’t shoot’ but the police at the time did not wait for explanations”. G assumed financial responsibility for the child of his slain brother.

In the Winter War of 1939-40, the Soviet Union attacked Finland and overran eastern Karelia. G’s family travelled west as war refugees in a goods train, while G himself packed up what he could from the farm into a horse-drawn cart and walked across the country with it to join them. Among new environs in Finland’s Lutheran west, G’s family and the family of one of his brothers were taken in by a local family in return for farm work. Later, the government allocated them some land in North Karelia to farm themselves. Around this time, G’s oldest son was hit by shrapnel in an explosion and permanently injured. This son’s wife died in childbirth. One of G’s daughters died of meningitis in the crowded home where they were living in exile.

In the Continuation War of 1941-44, Finland – temporarily allied with Nazi Germany – initially pushed Soviet forces out of the country. G and his family returned to their farm in eastern Karelia. The fighting continued. One of G’s daughters worked in civilian support of the war effort, including driving a wagon heroically under enemy fire to resupply frontline troops. Later, she was badly injured in a landmine explosion. As the Continuation War went against Finland, G and his family had to flee west again, using similar methods as before, with G once again walking across the country with a cart loaded with what he could rescue from the farm. After several vicissitudes, the family ended up back at the land they’d been given to the farm in north Karelia in the aftermath of the Winter War.

At the conclusion of World War II, the Soviet-Finnish border was settled, with the family’s original farm and homeland in east Karelia now falling within Soviet territory and permanently lost to them. G continued farming the new land he’d been given in Lutheran north Karelia. The photograph you see was taken in 1950, at the wedding of one of G’s sons. G died nine years later, three years before his youngest daughter gave birth to my friend P in England.

P showed me the picture of his grandfather I’ve reproduced above, before telling me the tale of his life that I’ve related. We agreed that his face seems to hold a sadness, perhaps a grief. Another friend who was shown the picture said that G looked ‘defeated’.  He was, apparently, an untalkative man, and he’s now long dead. He cannot tell us his feelings, and for sure nobody else can either.

But such silences don’t stop us today from expressing our opinions on what peasant farmers like G and others for whom history provides no amplifier must have thought. A common talking point nowadays is that peasant life was and is one of utter misery and backbreaking labour that nobody would ever voluntarily undertake. On page 78 of my book I cite a few authors who’ve worked this particular seam. They’re not hard to find.

But to weigh in with my own voice in the face of G’s silence, I wonder if this is the story he would tell. For sure, there’s relentless work and now-preventable disease in his story (as there still is for too many people today), and there’s heavy responsibility to care for a wider family through uncertain times. But it’s surely worth heeding too the nature of those times. G was one of many who lived his life in the crosshairs of global ‘development’, and who farmed under the ill-starred sign of political forces much larger than their local worlds. A famine caused, as they usually are, by politics and not by ‘natural’ events, the loss and injury of family members to the hostile forces of the state (the army, the police), the loss of natal land beyond an uncrossable modern border, possibly the loss of religious and cultural orientation too, the gnawing uncertainties of war, refugeeism and reliance on strangers, the hard work not only of farming but of establishing a new farm, not once but repeatedly in the face of a changing world. New politics, new borders, new nationalisms, new histories cascading through the early twentieth century. I wonder if it was the strain of these things more than the familiar seasonal cycle of hard work on the farm that we see in G’s sad face.

We’ll never know. An unbridgeable and silent river of history divides our present world from the one that G knew. As I see it, the case for a turn to peasant farming today is about trying to meet the challenges of the present, not about trying to recross that river. But maybe we can meet those challenges better if we’re able to bear witness to the pain that history has caused to peasant farmers like G, and also if we’re able to acknowledge that in their ability to furnish a household livelihood in the face of difficult circumstances we might look to farmers like him as inspirations in the difficult journey that lies ahead for us, rather than as yesterday’s people remembered only in the silence of old photographs.

A small farm future

My book A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth is now hurtling on its final trajectory to land on Planet Earth mid-October. To herald the impending event, I’ve set up this new page on the site, which will track the book’s earthly existence, and I’ve posted the new banner above to give a flavour. I have an advance copy in my hands – my thanks to the folks at Chelsea Green for turning my splurge of Word files into such a work of art. For the impatient, there are links on my page for pre-ordering a copy.

Talking of Planet Earth, a recent article by Hidde Boersma and Maarten Boudry (henceforth BB) entitled “Local Farming Can’t Save The Planet” has come to my attention. Since I argue at length in my book that, on the contrary, small-scale, locally-oriented farming is probably the only thing that can ‘save the planet’, or at least that can deliver a reasonably congenial life to the majority of the world’s people with minimum impact on wider biological and earth systems, I think it’s worth taking a look at BB’s arguments. Many of these nicely prefigure some major themes in my book, so it seems appropriate to engage with them here.

But before I do, a quick word on grounding assumptions is in order. If you assume that in the coming decades the effects of climate change will be manageable without major socio-economic dislocation, that the global energy economy will transition quickly to low carbon forms without major reductions in supply, that the availability of various other resources such as phosphorus, water and soil will likewise remain basically as at present, and that global inequalities and political instabilities will also fail to wreak any major changes to national and international governance, then I concede that the case for building economic localisms based around small-scale farming is weaker than if you assume otherwise. BB proceed implicitly with those assumptions, which in my view are an implausible extrapolation of current global trends. A good deal of my case for a small farm future is based on a different extrapolation. But let’s keep that in the background for now, and look more closely at BB’s arguments.

They begin their pushback against local food by saying that organic farming is 20-30% less efficient than conventional farming and is “a form of luxury consumption for well off westerners who can afford it”. By less efficient, I assume they mean per acre crop yields are 20-30% lower, which is generally true – at least in the rich countries. There are arguments that this yield gap can be closed, and arguments that it can’t, which I’ll reserve for another day. The biggest problem is that organic farming as it’s presently practiced isn’t the same as “local and small-scale” farming. BB assert that the latter is just as inefficient as organic farming, without citing any supporting evidence. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that small-scale farming in poor countries is more productive in yield per acre than larger farms (the so-called inverse productivity relationship). And there’s also evidence that organic or organic-ish techniques can be more productive than non-organic ones in certain situations, especially in poor countries.

There’s a complex underlying story to all this which I won’t try to unpick in any detail here. But it simply isn’t true that small-scale, local farming is always less land-efficient than ‘conventional’ farming. Nor is yield per acre the only worthwhile measure of efficiency in farming. Among the numerous other ones, the social efficiency of capital and labour deployment are also relevant. The cheapness of energy and the cheapness of capital in the rich countries create a misleading sense of scale efficiency.

A curious aspect of homing in on organics as an inefficient form of farming for the affluent, as BB and many other ‘conventional’ farming advocates do, is that there’s a vastly more inefficient form of farming for the affluent that they ignore – livestock. According to one recent study, the land use efficiency of producing protein from suckler beef is about 3,500% less than from peas (I have some problems with this kind of comparison, but I don’t dispute the fundamental trophic realities underlying it). So if we really want to talk about inefficient land use geared to furnishing the affluent, why don’t we focus first on the land devoted to livestock farming (proportion of total global agricultural land-take: >70%) rather than that devoted to organics (proportion of total global agricultural land-take: 1%)? A suspicion lurks that it might be because criticizing conventional livestock farming doesn’t fit so well with a preconceived ‘alternative farming can’t feed the world’ narrative. In my book, I provide analyses to suggest that alternative farming probably can feed the world – especially if we eat less meat (but not necessarily no meat). Continuing to feed the world is less certain if we carry on with ‘conventional’ farming, extensive meat production and other trappings of the high-energy economy.

A big difference between organic and ‘conventional’ farming is that the latter uses industrially synthesized nitrogenous fertilizer and mined phosphates. I don’t personally take a fundamentalist line against the use of these fertilizers in all circumstances, though it seems to me unwise to suppose that they’ll remain as cheap and abundant in the future as at present. But if we’re talking about the efficiency (in several senses of the term) of the global food and farming system, it’s worth thinking about where those fertilizers would be best deployed. My suggestion would be mostly among poor, small-scale ‘local’ farmers in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America and not so much in the over-nitrified wastelands of rich-country agricultures. The fact that this scarcely happens ought to prompt some questions about the supposed efficiency of the ‘conventional’ global food system. As should the fact that the 20-30% yield advantage of ‘conventional’ vis-à-vis organic farming is bought with an awful lot of fossil energy to manufacture fertilizers and pesticides.

Next in their article, BB say that “not every region has the right soil and climate for growing food” and they cite research that found only 28% of the global population at most could source their staple food requirements from within a radius of 100km. Now, the fact is that more or less every region does have the right soil and climate for growing food of some kind, but it’s true that the present geographical distribution of the world’s population isn’t conducive for many people to source their food locally. If everyone living in London, for example, immediately had to meet their staple food needs from within 100km, they’d starve in short order.

Here we come to the grounding assumptions I mentioned earlier. For some, that fact suggests that localism won’t be a plausible way of providing food in the future. For others, it suggests that living in London won’t be a plausible way of life in the future. Generally, people seek out places with the best economic opportunities. Throughout the 20th century those places were often urban, not least because of fossil fuel-enabled state policies that directly or indirectly promoted an unprecedented mass urbanization and a de-localization of agricultural production. This was a profound change to the deeper historical reality that the best economic opportunities are mostly in the places where it’s easiest to grow food and fibre. A mass ruralization in the 21st century and beyond in keeping with that deeper reality seems likely. Unfortunately, de-urbanization will probably be harder to achieve than urbanization. All the more reason to start now and find ways of settling people on small-scale holdings oriented to self-reliance and local production.

As an aside, the food writer Jay Rayner takes a similar line on this point to BB:

What matters is not where food is produced but how. The example I always give is of potatoes. In the right soil you will get 20 tons an acre; in the wrong soil you will get 16 tons. So, in the latter, you will need 20% more land or shed loads of carbon inputs to get the same outcome, even if it happens to be closer to you.

There are numerous unexamined assumptions in this passage, leading us from the fact that, other things being equal, some soils can produce more potatoes than others, to the implicit conclusion that it’s a good idea for people to buy potatoes from places with the best soils for growing them.

I examine these assumptions critically in my book, and I won’t spell them out here. But when BB say that “farming locally often means farming on less suitable soils”, they miss the point that that isn’t the case if you arrange your farming to suit the soil, and if you arrange your settlement patterns to suit the farming. Reverting this long-established geographical reality will likely be the major political challenge of the near future.

And that, I think, remains true notwithstanding BB’s argument that “even if you could grow all your food locally, it might still be more efficient to import it from another continent. That’s what economists call “comparative advantage.”” Here, BB rather mischaracterise comparative advantage, which is an almost obsolete concept in the modern global economy. It refers to situations where specifically local investors unable to invest elsewhere get the best financial returns when they support local trades that earn the highest returns to capital, regardless of how competitive they are globally. Basically, the concept of comparative advantage highlights the best ways of making money within the constraints of an international economy that no longer exists. Which is why if you want to make money nowadays you’re probably better off investing in wheat futures rather than in growing wheat, even if you live somewhere with the best wheat-growing soils.

But in the actual future to come rather than its present Wall Street version, you might well be better off growing wheat locally instead of investing your hard-won money in far-flung parts of the world in the expectation that more money will return to you. And that will probably require you to be living in a rural area, where there’s some room for you to do it.

The next major part of BB’s argument is a long exposition of the so-called ‘land sparing’ argument in favour of intensive agriculture for biodiversity reasons – in other words, the view that concentrating farming in intensive, nature-unfriendly ways on as small a land area as possible and thereby leaving more land for wilderness has greater conservation benefits than more nature-friendly but more extensive farming. Here, I’m just going to skate over a complex area with a few brief points.

First, BB simply assume that small-scale, local farming is less intensive than larger-scale farming aimed at more distant markets – but this isn’t necessarily true, as we know from the inverse productivity relationship. This renders moot a lot of their argumentation around the land sparing benefits of non-locally oriented farming, because it doesn’t necessarily spare more land than local farming.

Second, if you’re going to compare specific farming practices that are more or less land intensive, such as synthetic fertilizer based ‘conventional’ agriculture with organic agriculture, you need to include full lifecycle impacts. The smaller land take of synthetic fertilizer-based agriculture may (arguably) be a conservation plus. Not so the climate-forcing effects of fertilizer manufacture nor the eutrophication of watercourses from fertilizer runoff. And farm systems that incentivize farmers to maximize yields have cascading effects that aren’t necessarily beneficial for biodiversity – even at a basic local level such as the various slurry and diesel spillages recently in my own local watershed.

Third, as BB themselves concede, possible land sparing benefits are easily offset by rebound effects. If, for example, you shrink the amount of land needed to meet the demand for rice, then the freed land becomes available for meeting new demands – producing coffee, tropical fruits or golf courses perhaps. BB say that zoning restrictions are therefore needed to protect spared land, and note – rather spuriously – that land ‘marked as protected’ has increased in recent years. But if the wealth-generating and poverty-eradicating potential of the global capitalist economy championed by its advocates manifests, how will this play out long-term? Will the rising middle-class in poorer countries vote to forgo their coffee, fruit and golf in favour of nature reserves? Is that what the electorates in the rich countries have done? The alternative is a hard road that modern humanity may ultimately only travel out of necessity, but it’s one that I think we need to embark on, and it’s among the strongest arguments for local farming. People need to spread out across the landscape and, like other organisms, skim the flows that its ecological base can provide renewably. We need to learn how to do this by living it locally. For this and various other reasons, many ecologists argue that the sparing-sharing framework is a false dichotomy.

BB then turn to health issues, arguing against the view that the modern food system makes us sick on the grounds that we shouldn’t conflate processing with production: “It’s ultra-processed foods that are linked to obesity and cardiovascular disease, not the crops as such”. No doubt this is true, but it’s a fine distinction given that 70% of the world’s cropland is devoted to just nine crops, chosen largely because these are indeed the crops most amenable to ultra-processing.

Health-wise, BB also weigh in on Covid-19, arguing that “Enclosed, controlled systems with high levels of biosecurity minimize the risks of viral outbreaks. By contrast, on… small farms…the risk of novel species-jumping diseases is significantly greater.” I’ll leave until another time the complexities that make this a half-truth at best, pausing only to note that the world we live in isn’t some controlled experiment with two separate economies or worldviews – local/extensive and global/intensive – running side by side. Large farms and small farms in their present form are part of the same global political economy, with a singular risk profile that easily turns novel zoonoses into global human pandemics.

Finally, BB argue that “the declining cost of food associated with globalization and intensification has been an unmixed blessing for humanity” adding “the notion that cheapness is bad in and of itself reflects an elitist reflex that is offensive to the global majority … telling less well-off folks that they should just buy more expensive food is the policy equivalent of telling the sans-culottes to eat cake instead of bread.”

Indeed, that would be so … except that I can’t think of a single advocate for agrarian localism who actually does take the view that less well-off folks “should just buy more expensive food” (perhaps it’s no accident that the copious hyperlinks to supporting literature that pepper BB’s text dry up in this paragraph). Instead, we localistas emphasize the linkages in the global economy that enable it to furnish food at rock-bottom prices (achieved partly, it must be said, by relying on government subsidies and the poorly-paid labour of the numerous ‘less well-off folks’ who toil in the global food system), while simultaneously scouring economic rent from the global poor in the form of property prices, welfare charges, immigration policy, investment policy, labour policy and numerous other tactics.

Contrary to BB, I’d argue that declining food commodity prices in fact have been an extremely mixed blessing (indeed, more of an unmixed curse) to the global poor, by undercutting their capacities for local food autonomy and exposing them to the fluctuations of global commodity markets in which they have no comparative advantage at all. So, yes, food prices should be higher, but only as a necessary part of a wider rebalancing of land, labour, energy, capital, carbon and welfare that mitigates against the present extreme concentration of wealth and income in the hands of the global wealthy, and its destructive effects on the biosphere.

That, in a nutshell, is why I argue local farming can ‘save the planet’. But if you’re looking for more than a nutshell, the fully-referenced, feature-length version will be along soon.

Covid-19 economics: beyond austerity and debt-finance

Talk has already turned to how we’ll deal with the almighty economic blowback impending from the Covid-19 pandemic. The nearest parallel is the financial crisis of 2008 – a story of unregulated market failure that here in the UK the Conservative government somehow succeeded in turning into a story of state failure in the form of the allegedly spendthrift Labour government preceding them. This enabled it to follow low-spending, deficit-cutting austerity policies that, it’s widely acknowledged, only prolonged the economic pain – though it did have the desired effect from the government’s perspective of most hurting the people it cared least about, and generally weakening public institutions to which it was ideologically opposed.

Justifications for austerity are often informed by the so-called ‘household analogy’ that a country’s finances are just like those of an individual, debt-averse household – the idea that ex-Prime Minister Theresa May had in mind when she said “there is no magic money tree” to increase frozen public sector wages. This time around, plenty of commentators are warning against the siren song of austerity and the ‘economically illiterate’ household analogy as a response to the forthcoming economic crisis. But there are plenty on the right still trying to sing it. If they succeed once again in pinning the economic storms to come on lazy employees and install another round of austerity, I think I’ll give up whatever vestigial faith I still have in electoral politics.

But the anti-austerity view is interesting, no? If it’s right, then it seems that maybe there is a magic money tree after all, which will surely solve a lot of our problems. In this view, debt is nothing to be feared, but is merely another tool sovereign nations can use to oil the wheels of economic action. Economic historian Adam Tooze, whose magnum opus on the 2008 crash was reviewed on this site a while back by Michelle Galimba, unpicks the threads of this argument in this short and interesting essay. Tooze argues that, beyond the household analogy, the circular logic of a sovereign national citizenry as both its own creditor and its own debtor is “an illusion achieved by removing the real politics of debt – which are about class, not nationality”. So part of the tussle over debt is about who proportionately bears the brunt of government income-raising efforts. Generally, policies over the past forty years in the rich countries have benefitted (wealthy) rentiers such as property-owners, investors and shareholders over (low paid) employees and unemployees. They’ve also benefitted the financial sector over productive economic sectors – currently in the UK only about £1 in every £10 lent by the banks goes to non-financial firms, according to Josh Ryan-Collins (co-author of the must-read Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing).

Another part of Tooze’s argument bears on central banks like the US Federal Reserve, which defang debt by creating money, lowering interest rates and managing inflation. By thus removing government IOUs from private portfolios and putting them on the central bank’s balance sheet debts become “literally claims by the public on itself”.

A national economy that works in this way indeed seems very different to the economics of an indebted individual household beleaguered by hungry creditors. But Tooze mentions in passing national economies that are like this – namely those of “impoverished and desperate” countries dependent on foreign creditors who will lend only in strong international currencies like US$. The idea that a country like Burundi, for example, could pay its way out of an economic downturn by increasing its debt and repackaging it as an asset doesn’t really work.

This has several significant implications. For one thing, we tend to think of the vast sums accrued in the financial sectors of the rich countries as somehow sui generis, unconnected to poverty elsewhere. But, as argued by people like Cédric Durand in his book Fictitious Capital (or Intan Suwandi in her Value Chains), there’s a causal chain in this money-grubbing that can be traced back to the real, productive economy in the form of poorly-paid industrial labour in the Global South, particularly in ‘workshop of the world’ Asian countries like China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam. In yet poorer countries – many in sub-Saharan Africa, like Burundi – there’s little chance of creating even such subordinate industrial infrastructures, resulting in extreme rural and slum precarity.

So maybe we can resurrect the household analogy for national economies after all, simply by adding a little extra nuance. Poor-country economies are like poor households, subject to endless economic disciplining, scrutiny and moralising the moment they make economic claims upon richer creditors beyond their present means, and yet providing the foundation for the wealth of those richer creditors. Rich-country economies are like richer, middle-class households, mortgaged up to their eyeballs and buying easy credit from all takers without a whiff of moral censure.

This indebtedness of the rich works very well so long as there’s confidence in the wider economy that they’ll stay rich, and therefore that their debt will remain a useable asset – so long, in other words, that enough people believe in the magic of the money tree. It’s easy to believe the magic if the economy is growing and property prices are rising, or if the household earners are still pulling big salaries. It gets harder if those things are no longer true – and one thing we learned during the last financial crisis with its sub-prime mortgages and credit default swaps is that it’s all too easy for our human credulity to get away from us, allowing us to believe we can financialize our way out of bad debt. But once enough people stop believing in the magic of the money tree, things start falling apart.

Under my last post, Joe Clarkson wrote “How long will others accept money that the fed creates out of thin air? I think the answer is a long, long time.” I agree. The USA isn’t going to turn into Burundi tomorrow. Or the day after. But if you take a long historical perspective, I think that long, long time might turn out to be shorter than a lot of people expect. The extreme financialization of the rich countries isn’t economically sustainable. You can convince people that you’re wealthy by saying that you’re wealthy and behaving like you’re wealthy for a while – even more so if you have the institutional power to keep leveraging wealth created by others – but in our present world of stagnant incomes and sluggish growth ultimately reality catches up with you. The magic money tree turns out to be just another tree.

Likewise, inasmuch as the genuine wealth of the rich countries accrues by extracting much of it from the industrializing poorer ones, there’s a limited historical window before the latter find ways of keeping the wealth at home. One way of extending that window is by affecting lofty civilizational aspirations and a kind of noblesse oblige that makes economic power seem culturally attractive. This is something that the USA achieved historically with its democratic, anti-colonial revolution and its ‘American dream’, a veneer that still renders centrist commentators nostalgic about the “democratic and rights-based push” of US power in the face of today’s “authoritarian pull exerted by China”. As I see it, any such veneer started cracking with the Vietnam war and pretty much expired with the presidency of George W. Bush, rallying only half-heartedly under Barack Obama, and has now been buried for good with Donald Trump.

Wang Xiuying writes,

Liberal sentiment in China is at a low ebb. The pro-democracy cause has been weakened drastically since Trump took office. How do you defend a system that gives power to a celebrity with no knowledge of international relations who filed for corporate bankruptcy half a dozen times? Trump’s early attempts to wave away the threat of the virus looked dangerously short-sighted to people here; his bid for an America-only vaccine grotesque. As racist attacks against Chinese-Americans have surged in the US, along with the virus, it has become impossible to argue for a Western model of freedom and democracy.

Beyond the charmed precincts of western self-regard, I suspect people in many countries now fear China’s ‘authoritarian pull’ less than they fear the ‘democratic push’ of the USA.

All in all, it seems likely that turbulent times lie ahead – not only for the poor households of the world (real and metaphorical) but also for the (real and metaphorical) rich ones that are trying to keep up appearances in the straitened circumstances of the present. The USA (and its pint-sized outrider, Britain) are still thundering their importance in the world and the virtues of their economic models. But fewer people are listening.

Meanwhile, something interesting seems to be afoot in China. Its post-1978 modernization was built on the back of rural entrepreneurialism, but state policy since the 1990s has largely favoured urbanization and urban industrial development at the expense of the countryside – the familiar western model of economic development prescribed for post-war ‘developing’ countries by economists like Arthur Lewis.

Shaohua Zhan writes:

Lewis’s model was premised on the assumption that urban areas would provide livelihoods for rural labourers displaced by the industrialization of capitalist agriculture. This may have been the case for early-industrializing economies, but it was never a reality for the majority of countries in the Global South, where jobs in the city were poorly paid and often too scarce to absorb the total amount of excess labour, forcing peasants into the informal sector where they eked out a living in urban slums. Since the late 1970s, the model has ceased to apply even to developed countries. As neoliberal reforms led to the gradual replacement of secure jobs in the formal economy with precarious work in the informal sector, unemployment and under-employment surged, giving rise to social polarization and a swelling underclass

Thus,

By pushing for the financialization of rural land, the consolidation of farms and urban expansion, both state and capital intended to extract maximum surplus from China’s land and sustain high rates of economic growth. However, this mode of development has proved unable to provide secure livelihoods for the majority. Rising urban precarity has lent credence to those advocating for the protection of small-holder farming.

Sure enough, in 2017 the Chinese Government rowed back on its urban bias and introduced a policy of ‘Rural Revitalization’, while a 2018 government report remarked that a large rural population would continue to be a “basic reality in China”1.

Where this blog leads, the governments of the world are apt to follow…

OK, so I accept that Chinese policy isn’t (yet) fully in line with the vision for a small farm future I articulate here. Nevertheless, as we contemplate the global economic landscape in the wake of the pandemic, I’d suggest it’s wise to avoid both the ‘poor household’ economic analogy of austerity and the ‘rich household’ economic analogy of quantitative easing and endlessly deferred debt. Instead, another household analogy presents itself – household responsibility. So to the question ‘how will humanity’s collective household pay for Covid-19?’ my answer is neither to squeeze the poor, nor to squeeze the future by closing your eyes and believing in the magic of the money tree. Instead, I’d suggest you look out your old spade and hoe from the back of the garden shed. There’s work to be done.

Note

  1. Shaohua Zhan. 2020. “The land question in 21st century China.” New Left Review, 122: 115-33.

From energy transition to energy reduction

With the wholesale price for US crude oil famously, if briefly, turning negative recently, and – slightly less famously – with commenters in a thread under my last post suggesting that it’s technically straightforward to transition the existing energy system largely to renewables, it feels the time is right to address some post-lockdown and post-carbon energy realities. Let me state my three-part thesis upfront:

  1. It is not going to be easy technically or in any other way to transition the existing energy system to a low carbon one
  2. This means there will be profound changes in human societies over the coming decades
  3. It serves no sound purpose to dismiss the implications of (1) and (2) as ‘apocalyptic’

A recent paper published in Nature Climate Change and reported here seems corroboratory of my thesis in concluding that “merely adding new technologies is unlikely to bring the climate challenge under control, unless we also deliver behavioural, cultural and economic transformations” and that “technological promises allow those benefitting from the continued exploitation of fossil fuels and the comfortable lifestyles it enables to justify those practices to themselves”.

But let’s get going with a few facts and figures. Cautious estimates like those of the IPCC suggest that we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by about half within a decade and to net zero by 2050 if we’re to avoid global average temperature increases in excess of 2oC over preindustrial levels at century’s end, at which point the consequences of global heating are likely to be severely detrimental to human wellbeing (and the wellbeing of many other organisms).

GHG emissions are mostly caused by the combustion of fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal), so a key necessity for climate change mitigation is to transition the global energy economy out of fossil fuels. And the fact is, this hasn’t yet begun to happen. Globally in 1965, we consumed energy to the tune of 3,485 million tonnes of oil equivalent (TOE) from fossil fuels. By 2018 that figure had leapt to over 11,700 million TOE. And we can’t blame all this on population increase. In 1965, global fossil fuel use was 1.05 TOE per capita, whereas in 2018 it was 1.55.

These figures show that, far from a transition out of fossil fuels, our use of them has been amplifying. True, our use of lower carbon energy sources has increased at a faster rate than fossil fuels, to the extent that in 2018 the proportion of global energy consumption contributed by fossil fuels was ‘only’ 85%, whereas in 1965 it was 94%. But since we need to be sharply reducing fossil fuel use rather than increasing it, as at present, this is cold comfort. And most of the low carbon energy sources we’ve added since 1965 have been high-cost nuclear and hydroelectric projects with questionable environmental implications and limited potential for roll-out beyond a handful of countries. Only 4% of current global energy consumption comes from sources other than nuclear, hydro or fossil fuels.

This picture is set to change dramatically in the short-term with the Covid-19 crisis. Plummeting energy demand has hit the fossil energy sector disproportionately, which I’d suggest is partly because fossil fuels disproportionately service the non-electricity sector, and partly because once renewable capacity is installed the sun, wind and water that powers it cost nothing. But it would be misleading to conclude that the Covid-19 crisis is fostering an energy transition. If and when normal activity returns, so will fossil fuel use. Some people are saying that the fossil energy downturn we’re currently seeing due to Covid-19 could become the new normal. To me, that seems fanciful unless the new normal also encompasses the end of economic growth, the end of urbanization and the end of intensifying global economic linkage – and even then it may not be enough to reduce GHG emissions adequately. I’ll touch on those issues some more below, and in my next post, I hope. In the meantime, I’d suggest the present short-run decline in fossil energy use does not a renewable energy transition make.

Maybe not, the argument sometimes goes, but why look downheartedly backwards at how the energy economy has unfolded up to now when, Covid-19 or not, there are reasons to look optimistically forwards towards an impending energy transition? I guess I’d find it easier to endorse this view if there was actually any evidence that one is underway – though bearing in mind that we probably need to cut emissions in half within ten years, it’s quite possible that an energy transition that starts today is still going to be too late. I’m also mindful of Professor McLaren’s view in the Nature Climate Change article I mentioned: all this heralding of game-changing technologies that are just around the corner may amount to little more than greenwashing of current high energy lifestyles.

But let’s try to get a bit more of a handle on the energy transition that’s needed. Take a look at this table:

 

Year – 2018 GDP/capita (US$) Fossil energy consumption (TOE per capita) % Energy consumption from fossil fuels
USA 62,790 5.94 84
Australia 57,400 5.33 92
Canada 46,230 6.04 65
UK 42,940 2.29 79
Malaysia 11,370 2.97 94
China 9,770 2.00 85
South Africa 6,370 2.01 96
Indonesia 3,890 0.67 96
Vietnam 2,570 0.71 79
India 2,010 0.55 92
Bangladesh 1,700 0.22 99
World 11,310 1.55 85

Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019 and World Development Indicators

Most of the heralding for an energy transition I encounter comes in the form of small-to-medium scale investment in new electricity capacity in rich countries, where for a whole host of reasons the smart investment money undoubtedly is in renewables. And don’t get me wrong – I largely welcome such moves. I’ve even moved there myself, with my farm’s electricity, space, water-heating and (shortly) some of its transport running off renewables. But to make a convincing argument that we’re on the brink of a sustainable energy transition, small-scale electricity investment in rich countries is irrelevant. Instead, you need to put yourself in the shoes of the government in South Africa, or Bangladesh, or Indonesia, or various other global powerhouses of economic growth and industrialization shown in the table above, and then explain how they’re going to junk most of their energy sectors over the next decade or two and substitute the same level of energy capacity from low carbon sources. You need to explain how they’ll prematurely decommission their fossil energy infrastructures and create new ones affordably with per capita GDPs somewhere between about a sixth and a fortieth of US levels. And you need to explain why they’d be willing to sign up to this transition, when much richer countries are using proportionately far more fossil energy while failing to transition themselves.

There are levels and levels here that make the prospects for such a transition profoundly slim. Close connections between governments and the fossil energy industry varying from institutional inertia through to outright graft rightly gain attention from environmentalists, but are only the most superficial problem – though, even so, we seem to keep electing governments like the Trump administration or the Conservatives in the UK with absurdly pro-fossil fuel policies. The global inequities I mentioned that make it unlikely poorer countries will transition is another major problem. But even with the will, the sheer difficulty of transitioning an entire national and international economy and its infrastructure is formidable. If you’re looking to install a few megawatts of new electricity capacity, renewables may well be the cheapest route. It doesn’t follow that junking our global 11.7 billion TOE fossil energy capacity in favour of renewables is likewise cheaper.

We easily fall into the trap of saying that the obstacles to transition are ‘only’ political, and not technical. We might just as well say that the feasibility of transitioning is ‘only’ technical, but not practical – because not political. But I’m not even sure that a transition is technically feasible. Take solar electricity generation, which is widely touted as the best renewable option. To cut fossil fuel use by half globally in the next decade in favour of solar electricity, we’d have to increase global consumption of the latter from present levels forty-four fold in those ten years. To be persuaded that such a transition is even technically possible, I’d need to see some kind of plausibly costed manufacturing, siting and implementation plan, not generalities about how we’re on the brink of an energy revolution, or about how the marginal cost of installing small new renewable capacity is lower than for fossil fuels.

Likewise, to make a plausible case that a business-as-usual global economy can be sustained by renewables, it’s necessary to show not that it’s possible to smelt iron or manufacture fertilizer with renewable energy (it is) but that it’s possible to produce the 1.3 billion tonnes of steel or 120 million tonnes of N fertilizer manufactured annually at something like present prices, along with the numerous other products that currently make the (human) world go round as it does.

Of course, there’s a logical flaw in my statement above that to cut fossil fuels by half we’d need to install an equivalent amount of solar capacity. Instead, we could cut fossil fuels by half and not replace them with anything. Once we start thinking in terms of decreasing energy use, a new world of possibilities opens up. This, far more than any low carbon energy source du jour, is surely the real game changer.

So, looking again at the table above, let’s forget the 6.0 TOE of fossil energy used by each Canadian resident, or the 2.3 used by each UK one, or the 2.0 by each Chinese one or the 1.55 used by the ‘average’ citizen of the world. Let’s aim for something lower – very much lower, in the case of some countries. Can we achieve it just through efficiency savings? If so, please show me how. Because really I think the debate we need to be having, which is badly overdue, is what kind of different world a low energy world would look like. What kind of farming would we have? What kind of industry? What kind of health and social care? What kind of settlement patterns?

I’m not going to get into that here. I’ve written about it before, I’ve written about it in my forthcoming book, and hopefully I’ll write about it again. My view is that if we play a skillful hand, that kind of world could be more congenial for more people than the present one. And of course, the technical difficulties of using less energy are slighter than those of replacing fossil energy with renewables. The political difficulties remain profound. So that’s where we need to concentrate most of our efforts, not in dreaming up implausible scenarios for how to replace 11.7 billion TOE fossil fuel consumption with low carbon alternatives. The political difficulties of energy descent are much lessened globally if the small number of rich and powerful countries that use way above their share of fossil fuels become demonstrably committed to rapid energy descent. Which puts considerable onus politically on those of us who live in such countries.

Regrettably, I’m doubtful that we’ll actually see such an energy descent. I daresay there’ll be some fiddling around the edges, which might put us a bit lower than the 3.7-4.8oC heating over preindustrial temperatures by century’s end that we’re currently headed towards, but I’m not convinced it’ll be by enough to avoid apocalyptic outcomes. And I’d suggest that anyone who scorns the word ‘apocalyptic’ to describe 3.7-4.8oC heating probably isn’t paying attention.

But supposing we do achieve adequate energy descent. Doubtless there’ll be those who’ll consider the resulting world of labour-intensive horticulture, localized economies, ruralization and deindustrialization apocalyptic, or some variant of those other shopworn standbys – romantic, nostalgic or primitivist. But in all honesty I think it’s these folks who are living in the past. This is the world we now need to work towards, and to make as congenial as we can. It’s not a world with no industry or no machinery. Techno-utopians tend to pose dualities of the form if not a John Deere X9, then a stone sickle. This isn’t the choice we face. But we do face hard choices, and they won’t get easier if we waste time heralding the latest save-our-ass technology and deriding those working towards an adequately low energy future for their apocalypticism.

Earlier, I said that I largely welcome efforts to transition into renewables. I also said that we need to put most of our efforts into the politics of that transition, and to initiate an overdue debate about the kind of lower energy worlds we might create. Here’s why. Inasmuch as those working directly on implementing low carbon energy technologies pull in the same direction as those working politically to create more equitable, lower energy societies, then we gain strength from each other and make a fair and sustainable world more likely. Inasmuch as those working directly on implementing low carbon energy technologies prioritize replacing the existing fossil energy infrastructure with an equivalent low carbon one, then our efforts will probably be mutually undermining. My request to those working in the renewable energy industry is to ask themselves before undertaking any new project: “Will this help people to live a lower energy lifestyle than they previously did?” – which, regrettably, is not something we can say of the low carbon energy installed globally to date. If they can’t answer yes to the question, I’d request they dump the project and seek another one. It’s urgent.

The population problem problem

A while ago I wrote a post probing critically at the idea that human population levels were at the root of our contemporary environmental problems. It prompted various critical responses in turn, including this one from Alan Ware and Dave Gardner of World Population Balance that’s only just come to my attention. They published it so long ago that I suppose the moment to engage with it has probably passed, except that it’s helped me clarify a few thoughts – as has a recent article by Meehan Crist in the London Review of Books1. Since the issues involved are still very much with us, it seems worth wading into the population question once again, this time through the lens of the critique levelled by Ware and Gardner (henceforth WG) at my original post.

I mischievously titled that original post “Population – what’s the problem?”, not necessarily to suggest that population isn’t a problem but to question what kind of problem it is. On this score, WG have no doubts – for them, it’s an “existential problem”. They proceed to substantiate this, as do many analysts on the topic, mostly by asserting very emphatically that it is a problem, sometimes invoking the emphatic assertions of others, especially those most respected of others, ‘scientists’. These scientists include the World scientists’ warning to humanity and other works co-authored by Eileen Crist. Seems like you need to be called Crist to weigh in on this debate.

Ah well, I almost qualify – and for my part, notwithstanding all these assertions, I’d say that inasmuch as population is a problem it seems to me a secondary problem that’s derivative of other, deeper ones. But perhaps what’s of most interest here is not who’s right or wrong so much as how we frame the issues. You can frame them in such a way as to suggest that population indeed is the fundamental problem, or you can frame them otherwise. These different framings invoke different understandings of how the world operates and point to different policy or political conclusions. I think that WG’s approach, like most approaches that frame ‘over-population’ as the fundamental problem, points to policies that will have little impact on the resource depletion, species extinction, poverty and climate change issues they (and I) care about, and to a fanciful and troubling politics. Of course, this itself is a framing that others will no doubt question – but at least then we get closer to the issues dividing us.

One of WG’s main points of substance is that choosing not to have a child is, in a ‘developed’ country, the most effective way of reducing one’s carbon emissions. Citing a study from Lund University, they say that this is over seven times more effective than various other ‘green’ measures (like not flying) combined. That study draws on an earlier one2 which, if I understand it correctly (and it’s possible I don’t), assumes that carbon emissions will be fixed in the future at 2005 levels – the two studies then effectively attribute proportionately to parents in a generation G1 all these fixed-rate future emissions generated by all subsequent generations G1+n in an exponential decay function.

Well, no doubt there’s a logic to doing that. After all, if nobody had any children, then human impacts on earth systems would soon cease, so indeed all future impacts in some sense are attributable to parents. Following that logic, it’s hardly surprising that the choice to have a child weighs heavily on an individual’s impact in the study results. But to me, it’s a strange logic. Though it’s no doubt intended to inform decision-making at the margin in any given generation, to avoid multiple counting it surely must assume that the emissions and by implication wider behaviours of all G1+n generations are zero, according them no responsibility of their own, but only their parents or grand+ parents for birthing them or their forebears.

Conceptually, this approach rests on a strong methodological individualism – everything that happens must be regarded as only the sum of individual choices. Historically, it’s anachronistic, because it’s clear that if humanity is still around in a century or two then one way or another it won’t be burning significant fossil fuels, causing further major species declines and so forth. And spiritually and philosophically, the approach seems like a kind of inverted original sin whose logic surely terminates in the notion that humans should seek voluntary extinction through non-procreation to avoid the weight of later generations’ trespasses. The Lund authors note that none of the school textbooks they consulted mentioned having fewer children as a way to reduce emissions – a good thing in my opinion, since confusing the fact that a person has impacts with the idea that a person is an impact has potentially disastrous political consequences.

Let me propose another approach, which I think is suggested in the graph below. This plots global population, energy use, CO2 emissions, and real GDP year on year from 1972-2014 as ratios relative to the base year of 1971 (I calculated this from the World Development Indicators, which only have complete data for these four variables from 1971-2014).

The graph shows the three other variables of interest rising relatively faster than population. GDP shows the greatest relative increase – more than energy use or emissions, possibly suggestive of the decreasing energy intensity of the economy (‘relative decoupling’), or of the increasing dematerialization of our modern, fictitious money economy. But both energy and emissions are still rising in absolute terms, faster than population. The kink in 2008-9 of course indicates the economic crisis of those years, which was immediately reflected in lower energy use and lower emissions, but unsurprisingly was not reflected in a lower population.

I think the graph is prima facie evidence that there’s a dynamic of growth in our modern global society which is not fundamentally driven by, or necessarily responsive to, population growth. And given that it’s generally reckoned we need to reduce emissions to net zero by around 2070 to avoid catastrophic climate change, I’d also suggest that seeking population reduction isn’t the priority place to look. Not that we shouldn’t look there at all, as WG mistakenly accuse me of saying, just that it’s not the priority place to look. A similar point is made in a paper by Corey Bradshaw and Barry Brook, who state “over the next century at least, our largest and most immediate gains in sustainability will necessarily come from reductions in per capita consumption, whereas the benefits of fertility reduction will improve humanity’s prospects cumulatively over the long term.”3

Bradshaw and Brook’s fingering of consumption gets closer to the issue, but I’d suggest the real force that underlies the growth dynamic depicted in the graph and that overdrives population increase – the force I’m tempted to call the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about – is the global capitalist economy, as I mentioned in my original post. Increased per capita carbon emissions and energy use above population increase are the material trace of a capitalist growth dynamic.

If those energy and carbon trend lines were just the dependent outcome of consumer choice summed across our human billions, as WG suppose, there’d be a better case for emphasizing fertility reduction. But there’s a systemic logic to capital increase that goes beyond individual consumption decisions. In a capitalist system, capital needs to grow – that GDP line pretty much has to follow the course it does, and the emissions and energy lines pretty much have to trail after it.

Therefore, I question the notion that reduced fertility equates to reduced impact. It feels right, because if you choose not to have a child then, very tangibly, you’re aware of the food that this non-person is not eating, the journeys and flights they’re not making and so on. Yet the capitalist economy still has to grow. It’ll just have to find another way of doing it than monetizing your non-child – and it does.

I think WG effectively admit this when they write “The UN estimates that by 2050 we’ll have to increase food production 60% over 2009 levels in order to meet the demands of our swelling population.” They don’t give a citation, but I assume this is a variant of the ‘70% food increase by 2050’ factoid that’s been doing the rounds for years. Since even the highest projections of global population increase over the 2009-2050 period suggest it’ll be less than 60%, you could be forgiven for wondering where these 60% or 70% figures come from. The truth is they’re pretty misleading. All the same, in the unlikely event that the global capitalist economy is still happily growing by 2050 (at which point it’ll have to be over twice the size of today’s global economy), it’s possible that humanity indeed will be ‘demanding’ 60-70% more food by value than in 2009, because the ability of all that extra global wealth to command the production of beef, salmon, prawns, tuna, coffee, wine, palm oil and so on will be prodigious. One study has estimated that the highest additional demand for land globally by 2030 breaks down reasonably evenly between cropland, industrial forestry, biofuel production, grazing, urban expansion and land degradation4. A good deal of that, I’d suggest, is driven less by ‘the demands of our swelling population’ and more by the demands of our economy to swell.

WG’s position on all this strikes me as inadequate. They write:

“We’ve so far NOT demonstrated a willingness to consume less and reject the worship of economic growth in the interest of stabilizing the climate or preventing further destruction of ecosystems. This doesn’t mean we should give up on this solution. But it also doesn’t mean we should ignore a solution we HAVE demonstrated a willingness to do — choosing smaller families.”

No, we shouldn’t ignore it. But if my framing above is correct, then only directly rejecting boundary-busting economic growth can do the heavy work of lowering humanity’s ecological impact. Choosing smaller families doesn’t cut it. And here, I think it’s necessary to probe further into the ‘we’ that WG say are unwilling to consume less. It’s inherent to the nature of the growth-seeking capitalist economy to co-opt or destroy other, non-growth forms of economic organization, whether this takes the form of planning laws, property prices, land expropriations or the Bay of Pigs invasion. Uneven development is also inherent to the growth economy – it requires poor people and poor countries, even if it holds out the promise of making them a little less poor. The result of all this is that few of us have any option but to participate in the capitalist growth economy. And if we have to participate, who wouldn’t choose if they could to be a beef-eating wine drinker rather than a rice-eating helot? WG invoke a story of ourselves as consumers, wanting more stuff. And, sure, if that’s the only route to provisioning ourselves that the political economy allows, it’s not surprising that ‘we’ mostly want to be as prosperous a consumer as it’s possible to be. But this doesn’t begin to tell the story of what human lives are about or where our willingness might take us.

In the longer run, as Bradshaw and Brook quoted above suggest, there’s certainly a case for promoting reduced fertility. However, I’m doubtful it will culminate in this cornucopia that WG conjure up: “An average family size of one-child per couple for 100 years could lead to what some experts posit as a sustainable population of around 2 billion people living at a European standard of living.” No society has yet managed a modern European standard of living without (1) a vast and unsustainable fossil-fuelled energy economy, and (2) a history of colonial expropriation and neocolonial labour exploitation to the disbenefit of other non-European people living at lower standards of living. This positing of the experts surely belongs in the realms of idle speculation.

One of the ironies of the whole overheated population debate is that actually there’s not much disagreement on the policy practicalities – it’s widely accepted that everyone should be able to have voluntary control of their own fertility. But that’s already pretty much the reality in the rich, low-fertility countries that are largely driving the ecocidal global economy. Where these interventions are most needed is in poor, high-fertility countries that largely aren’t driving it – though it’s further complicated by poverty traps that encourage high fertility. In these contexts, WG’s world of just two billion people, living extravagantly consumerist lives of the modern European variety, and promoted by an organization that claims “overpopulation” is the root cause of poverty, all starts sounding slightly creepy to me. As Meehan Crist puts it:

“Listen closely to rights-based strategies to reduce carbon emissions through increased access to contraception and family planning. These strategies almost always involve black and brown women in developing countries having fewer babies. There is, of course, an unmet need for reproductive care and birth control in these countries, but we should be deeply sceptical of climate solutions that place the burden of solving the problem on women’s bodies, particularly the bodies of poor black and brown women, while demanding very little of those who actually caused the problem.”

Indeed, solving the global problems caused by humanity – and mostly by a small subset of it – is more than a numbers game. Which is why I see little merit in WG’s question to me – “Is he arguing for us to stabilize our population at today’s totally unsustainable level of 7.6 billion?” There’s no cutoff point or carrying capacity at which human numbers suddenly become ‘sustainable’. There are people, there are impacts, and there’s a relation between the two, which is fuzzy at best. It’s unlikely that the human population would have reached 7.6 billion in the absence of a modern global civilization that strains the planetary capacity to sustain it, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that a population of 7.6 billion is inherently ‘unsustainable’. It depends what we’re trying to sustain. If, as I’ve long argued here, it’s small farm societies of widely shared land access oriented to skimming their local ecological base, then we could sustain a lot more people than seems likely under present extremes of global wealth and poverty. Undoubtedly, we’d be in a better position if the population were smaller – particularly the population of the richer countries. Undoubtedly, voluntary fertility reduction is in principle a good idea. But it’s not a high-impact way of reducing humanity’s high impact, and it potentially leads us into political mischief if we claim that it does.

Meehan Crist points out in her article the enthusiastic embrace of carbon footprinting by the fossil fuel companies. While lobbying hard to keep extracting, and dragging their feet over climate science, the narrative that environmental impact is a matter of individual lifestyle choice in which we all need to do our bit suits them well, helping them to duck their own responsibilities. Ultimately, though, the responsibility rests at the level of an economic system which encourages this phoniness. Even so, as well as the phoniness, I feel the force of that personal responsibility narrative. As – full disclosure – a parent of four, I’ve long wrestled with my personal culpability in this area, and the many others in which as a wealthy westerner I impact the biosphere. Maybe someone reading this will conclude I’m irredeemable, and this post mere self-justification. Yet before I was a parent I was an anthropologist, and like most of my tribe I find the idea of emergent systems, not methodological individualism, a better fit with how the world works. So while as individuals, as consumers, as parents or as non-parents, we agonize and sermonize over our own and others’ lifestyle choices, the oil companies will keep lobbying, and the GDP and emissions lines will keep tracking upwards until we reach a point of reckoning when the size of the human population or how many children anyone has will be the last of our concerns.

 

Notes

1. Meehan Crist. 2020. ‘Is it OK to have a child?’ London Review of Books. 5 March.

2. Paul Murtaugh and Michael Schlax. 2009. ‘Reproduction and the carbon legacies of individuals’. Global Environmental Change 19: 14-20.

3. Corey Bradshaw and Barry Brook. 2015. ‘Reply to O’Neill et al and O’Sullivan: Fertility reduction will help, but only in the long-term’. PNAS 112, 6: E508-9. (My thanks to Jahi Chappell for this one).

4. Eric Lambin and Patrick Meyfroidt. 2011. ‘Global land use change, economic globalization and the looming land scarcity’. PNAS 108, 9: 3465-72.

What if we only ate food from local farms?

“We would die from starvation. It’s that simple.” Or so TV botanist James Wong recently tweeted in response to the title question, taken from a BBC feature. In this post I’m going to make the case that we wouldn’t, that it isn’t simple, and that in fact our chances of starving are probably higher – albeit in some quite unsimple ways – if we don’t start eating more food from local farms.

A good many of the comments under James’s tweet rehearsed various misconceptions about local food, so in a change to my intended programme I feel the need to put another side to the story in this post. If what I write here whets your appetite, so to speak, I cover these points in more detail in my forthcoming book, A Small Farm Future.

So…to answer the opening question, it’s necessary for some definitions – who is ‘we’, and what exactly does ‘local’ mean? Many of the commenters under James’s tweet took the question to mean ‘what if we, the inhabitants of Britain, only ate food that was grown in the country?’ which seems a reasonable starting point. If ‘we’, so defined, had to do this tomorrow, we’d probably struggle. But to me, the larger question is could we do it if we wanted to, given time to prepare?

Various commenters invoked the lessons of history in support of James’s assertion, correctly pointing out that Britain hasn’t been self-sufficient in food for two centuries. But what this tells us is that self-reliance hasn’t been a priority of national food policy over that period, not that it’s impossible. This raises the interesting question of why that’s so and whether it might change in the future, points I’ll come to shortly. First, though, it’s worth asking whether Britain could conceivably feed itself if it so wished.

Under current conditions, the answer seems to me a pretty clear yes. In 2018, the UK grew 13.5 million tonnes of wheat and 3.2 million tonnes of potatoes for human consumption on an area that amounted to about 31% of its arable land and 10% of its total farmland. Those two crops alone provide more than enough protein to meet the daily recommended amount for all of Britain’s 66.4 million people over a whole year, and about 85% of recommended calorific intake. It would be easy enough to meet the remaining 15% from crops on the rest of the farmland, or by expanding wheat and potato production a little.

We can make more stringent assumptions and still attain self-sufficiency. Suppose we grew wheat and potatoes organically without high-energy fertilizer inputs. If we assume rock-bottom-of-the-range organic wheat yields of 2.5 tonnes per hectare and organic potato yields of 20 tonnes per hectare (the corresponding figures for conventional crops currently are about 8 t/ha and 45 t/ha respectively) then we could meet the UK population’s total energy and protein needs even with these low yields on just 75% of the country’s current arable farmland area.

A diet comprising solely wheat and potatoes might sound grim, but bear in mind we’re feeding the entire population’s macronutrient needs from them on less than 20% of the country’s land area even assuming super-low yields. That gives a lot of space – all those pastures, orchards, gardens, allotments, city farms and all the rest of it – to lively up our diet with more variety. However hard it might be for us to shift to food self-reliance, the reason isn’t agricultural carrying capacity.

Commenters under James’s tweet raised various other objections to the possibility of British food self-reliance, but they mostly seemed to me exercises in whataboutery that missed their target. For example:

What about the war – Britain wasn’t even food self-reliant in the 1940s when the pressure was on and the incentive for it was sky-high. The main pressure that was on during the war was to win it. Improving national food self-reliance was an important but subsidiary goal to that overriding objective. With a vast amount of resource and labour devoted directly or indirectly to fighting, it’s hardly surprising that we failed to achieve food self-sufficiency.

What about the winter, when food is scarce? Seasons are pretty predictable, at least for now. So if you’re not importing food you can plan ahead. With modern refrigeration and other highfaluting, energy-intensive methods this is a doddle. Even without it, our forebears have bequeathed us numerous cunning techniques: canning, salting, smoking, clamping, drying, pickling and … remember Lent? … fasting. If all else fails, we can even grow Hungry Gap kale.

What about staples like oranges and coffee – we simply can’t grow them here. True. But they’re not staples. I’d sure miss coffee though. Next.

What about the Irish potato famine – national food self-reliance didn’t work out too well there! There’s a long answer to this, and a short answer. The short answer is that famines are rarely just about an absolute lack of food, and invariably involve questions of social entitlement – a view famously articulated by Amartya Sen in his book Poverty and Famines. When a famine strikes, look first at what’s going on socially and politically, not at the Malthusian equation of crop yields and mouths to feed.

OK, but what about major crop failures and poor seasons – you can’t always provide for your needs locally in the face of these fluctuations. Farming systems oriented to self-reliance build in resilience to crop failure, and most of them can survive a year or two of bad harvests pretty easily, except in situations like 1840s Ireland when people are forced into monocropping on tiny plots. But it’s true that markets for non-local food can sometimes be a boon in times of dearth. A couple of points to bear in mind here, though. First, money can buy you food, but only if you have money, so again we need to look at social entitlements. And second, if it’s not too obvious to say it, money doesn’t actually create food, so it’s unwise to assume that access to the former guarantees access to the latter. True, money can incentivize people to create food and sell it, but only under certain circumstances and in the face of various constraints. The more that we attend to securing our food needs locally under our own power, the less vulnerable we are to these circumstances and constraints outside our control.

oOo

Some further thoughts to close on these issues of food supply and money. Going back to the objection that Britain hasn’t been food self-reliant for two centuries, the missing piece in this puzzle is money. In the 19th century, Britain could buy grain more cheaply from abroad than it could produce it at home … and it had plenty of money, because all those people who weren’t farming were toiling in factories. But with transport and communications being what they were back then, we grew most of our own fruit and vegetables. Nowadays, the situation is reversed. We’re more or less self-sufficient in grain, but import a large proportion of our fruit and vegetables – essentially because grain is more fuel-intensive to grow whereas fruit and veg are more labour-intensive, and the relative prices of fuel and labour in Britain currently favour the former. Britain’s lack of food self-reliance over the last couple of centuries has a lot to do with price signals, and nothing much to do with ecological carrying capacity.

But things can change. Most countries are net importers of energy. Most of the world’s bread-basket regions are threatened by climate change and water scarcity. We need to stop using fossil fuels. While small, wealthy countries can at present pick and choose where to obtain their food on global markets, there is not – to paraphrase a former British prime minister – a magic global food surplus tree that will keep on providing for everybody so long as we water it with money. We’re so often enjoined nowadays not to romanticize the ability of peasant societies and local agricultures to achieve self-reliance. I think we’d be better off not romanticizing the ability of market trade to continue buying us out of food self-reliance. But if we do keep romanticizing global food trade, I think we’re far more likely to starve, sooner or later. This is for a number of reasons, including the fact that relying on a global food commodity system that responds to short-term price signals (driven mostly by cheap fossil fuel prices) and not long-term biophysical signals like a heating climate incentivizes practices that damage agroecosystems and earth systems. Meanwhile, cheap global food commodities already undermine local agricultures in places where people lack the economic opportunities to buy themselves out of hunger – more starvation.

So, if you’re rich enough to think about these things, I’d commend the opening question as a handy personal resilience health-checker. Are there farms and gardens within walking distance of where you live that can provide for all your food needs, and those of all the other local residents? More to the point if you’re not yourself a farmer or a grower, are there people within walking distance of where you live who are likely to be willing to provide for your food needs in future scenarios of energy, climate or economic turbulence? If not, perhaps you might start buying more from local farms in order to help stimulate the better local supply that you need, or even better become a local farmer yourself. Or move to where your answer to that question could conceivably be ‘yes’. It seems likely that in the coming decades a lot of people will be on the move, looking for places that can service their food needs in a climate-challenged and energy-constrained world. Might as well get going now…

Extinction Rebellion: Four Criticisms (and why they’re unconvincing)

The issue of climate change activism and the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement has caused me a good deal of intellectual and emotional soul-searching. A journey that began last year with a large helping of scepticism on my part took me last Friday to a cell in Sutton Police Station, where I whiled away several hours. I’m not going to tell that story here, but my enforced idleness at least gave me the opportunity to reflect on the various criticisms of XR that have been doing the rounds of the media, formal and social, during its actions over the last couple of weeks and why I’ve now come to find these criticisms unconvincing.

So below I bring you a sceptic’s guide to XR scepticism, in a two-part post that’ll be continued next time. In this first one I focus on issues that strike me as requiring a genuine, substantive response and/or that I wrestled with myself in embracing the movement. In the next one, I discuss objections that seem more like flummery to me (“XR is too white and middle-class”, “XR is a millenarian death cult”, “technical innovation will save us” etc.) but nevertheless tell us interesting things about our times.

I’ve chased down a few references and datasets to inform this post after regaining my freedom and internet connectivity (same thing, right?), but I’m dashing this out kind of free-form while I can still remember my thoughts without explicitly linking to many sources for these criticisms. They’re not hard to find online for anyone who cares to look.

Here we go, then – XR defended, Part I, in relation to four common objections.

1. With their nylon tents, smartphones, coach rides to London and so forth, XR activists demonstrably participate in the fossil fuel economy and are therefore hypocritical.

This is one I wrestled with personally longer than I should have. But it would only be true if the point of our demonstrations was to showcase our lifestyles as exemplary beacons for others to follow. What we’re actually saying is that climate change poses a massive collective problem to which we as individuals certainly contribute, but that can only be satisfactorily addressed right now if our most powerful collective institutions at present – namely our governments – treat climate change with appropriate urgency and radicalism.

Maybe it helps to invoke the language of addiction. If an alcoholic tells you they desperately want to quit drinking because of its damaging consequences, and then you see them knocking back the vino, you don’t accuse them of hypocrisy. The analogous role of government presently is to say “alcoholism is a very serious problem and we’re bringing through some truly radical policies to tackle it. Possibly next year. Or the one after. In the meantime, would you care for a glass of wine?” We need to get ourselves off fossil fuels – and we need governments to make it easier for us, not harder.

I’m not convinced that governments are capable of doing so. But I think it’s worth at least spending a few days of the year raising one’s voice alongside others to remind them that they really should.

I wonder if the argument about hypocrisy pulls so strongly because humans have a finely-tuned urge to push back against even the most minutely articulated suggestion of social superiority, which is no doubt evolutionarily functional in face-to-face settings (though regrettably not functional enough to prevent the emergence of monarchies, empires and capitalist world systems). It too easily leads us astray in our modern, vast, mediated societies when we read structural critique as mere personal self-aggrandizement. But if climate change activists need to get over any personal self-satisfaction – and I think XR does a good job in emphasizing the importance of this – then so do their critics. Would you rather be looking at the wreckage of a dying civilization and feeling good about yourself for at least not putting on airs and graces, or might you heed the warning of people who, like you, are contributing to the problem but are at least trying to sound a warning bell and chart another course?

And if you’re still not convinced, maybe this meme might help.

2. The protestors’ demands are cruel and absurd: they’d result in old people dying/poor countries unable to develop/us all living in the stone age.

The XR demand relevant to this is for the government to act now to reduce Britain’s emissions to net zero by 2025. It’s quite a stretch to get from there to the kind of claims in the sentence above, but I’ll try to unpack this a little.

If the government went for net zero by simply mothballing all fossil fuel infrastructure immediately, ceasing to airfreight medicines and so on then yes more old people would probably die. But instead it could aim towards net zero while attempting to mitigate social harm, especially to the most vulnerable people. If it did that, the people who’d experience the largest decline in their fortunes wouldn’t be vulnerable old people but fossil fuel companies and other corporate players. And, well, y’know, most of those planes in the sky aren’t up there carrying medicines… I can’t help feeling that the rush within the right-wing media to identify vulnerable groups who’d suffer from decarbonization is something of a smokescreen to deflect attention from the non-vulnerable groups who’d suffer from it more.

When it comes to poor countries being able to develop, I’d agree that it would be good for the poorest ones to be able to do so – even at the cost of higher emissions. For example, compare Burundi (GDP per capita: US$245; CO2 emissions per capita: 0.04 tonnes) with the UK ($41,125; 6.5 tonnes). However you distribute that average $245 around in Burundi, most people are going to be really poor, so the case for increasing it is strong. But here’s the thing: ‘development’ accrues mostly to the people or the countries who can gain the largest returns on investment, and this in turn depends on who has the most money to invest in the first place, as I showed in more detail here. Meanwhile, there’s a net financial drain from the poor countries to the rich countries. If rich countries like the UK junked their fossil fuel infrastructure and contracted their economies, it would increase the welfare of poorer countries while decreasing global emissions.

There’s also another facet to the issue of ‘development’, but I’ll come on to that under my next heading.

Finally on this point, would decarbonization and economic contraction revert us to the stone age, or at least to premodern living standards? To me, continuing on the present ‘business as usual’ pathway that could take us close to 5oC of warming by 2100 seems more likely to result in a future stone age than degrowth and decarbonization. But, as voluminously argued on this site over the years, a move towards more egalitarian, low energy, labour-intensive, local agrarian economies is more likely to increase welfare and living standards globally than decrease it.

3. Britain is a world leader in decarbonization with a tiny contribution to global emissions. Why aren’t the protestors targeting China or India instead?

It could perhaps be plausibly argued that Britain is a world leader in decarbonization, but what this mostly goes to show is how crap world leadership on decarbonization has been. In 1960, global CO2 emissions averaged 3.1 tonnes per capita, while by 2014 they’d reached 5.0 tonnes (the absolute increase, of course, has been much higher). The corresponding figures for Britain are 11.15 and 6.5 – a good improvement, but 6.5 tonnes per capita is still well above the global average and not good enough. Indeed, on current performance Britain is set to miss the carbon budgets that its own government has set itself for the mid-2020s and beyond. So on the basis of those figures alone, I’d argue there are plenty of reasons for us in Britain to protest to our government about inaction over climate change.

One reason that Britain’s emissions have declined quite impressively is that we no longer have a large, energy-hungry heavy industry and manufacturing sector, a baton that’s now been passed to other countries – China in particular. So the Chinese figure of 7.5 tonnes of CO2 per capita (still way below the US figure of 16.5 tonnes) needs to be interpreted in that light – a good proportion of China’s emissions arise in service of imports demanded from wealthy countries like Britain (India, by the way, emits 1.7 tonnes per capita, and is also a net exporter).

How big a proportion? According to this analysis CO2 emissions embodied in trade constitute -16% of Chinese emissions and +37% of UK emissions – so if we correct the figures I gave above accordingly (is that methodologically sound? I think so…) the Chinese emissions turn out at 6.3 tonnes per capita and the UK ones at 8.9 tonnes – another reason, I’d argue, for us in Britain not to get too uppity about Chinese emissions. If you throw in a proportion of the emissions embodied in all the local infrastructure to deliver those exports (roads, factories, ports etc.) then those figures would look even worse.

But whether the Chinese figures turn out higher than Britain’s or not, there’s a wider point to be made. If the poor countries of the world really ‘develop’ and attain something like the levels of wealth currently enjoyed by a country like Britain (though frankly this is fanciful within the present structuring of the global economy), then they’re probably going to have to do it along the lines that China did – with relatively cheap, low tech and dirty industrial infrastructures (concrete, coal etc.) So currently, the only path to ‘development’ on offer through the mainstream economy is one that leads to earth systems breakdown. We need to construe alternative futures – and as I’ve argued on this site and in my forthcoming book, the most plausible one I can see is a small farm future of local agrarian autonomies that nourish their ecological base.

Another dimension to the issue arises from the fact that carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels tend to accumulate long-term in the atmosphere, acting as a growing stock that forces temperatures ever upwards. Therefore, any carbon dioxide that we choose not to emit, in however small an amount, helps towards mitigating climate change. This also means that although many different things can happen to a given CO2 molecule, most of the ones emitted from fossil fuel combustion in humanity’s recent industrial past are effectively still up there, doing their climate forcing work.

On that front, this dataset again provides interesting information on historic, cumulative CO2 emissions. As recently as 1920, Britain was responsible for a quarter of all global cumulative emissions. That figure has now sunk to 4.9% – though that’s still quite a bit higher than its current annual contribution of 1.1%. Only four countries have higher cumulative emissions – the USA (way out in front at 25%), China (13%), Russia (6%) and Germany (6%). If you adjust the figures for each of these five countries by current population size then Britain comes second only to the USA, and not by much. Given that there’s a fixed budget of only about 14 years-worth of current global annual emissions to retain a 50-50 chance of staying within 1.5oC of global warming, one interpretation of these figures is that Britain has already had more than its fair share of fun with CO2, and now it’s time to step back gracefully – ideally by reaching net zero emissions in 2025 as XR demands – and cede space to countries like Burundi.

You’ll note that quite a lot of the figures I’ve used above are on a per capita basis. That seems fair to me. Each person has to take some responsibility for their own local emissions, rather than pinning the blame generically on other countries – and, as I’ve shown above, British emissions are pretty bad and worse than they first appear from current production-based emission figures when various corrections are introduced. Still, it’s true that whatever Britain does about its emissions, the consequences will be dwarfed by what China or India do because they’re much bigger countries.

But there are, finally, three lines of argument that suggest to me this has little bearing on the case for UK citizens to direct climate activism at the UK government.

First, since – as I indicated above – emissions are a cumulative stock, not a transient flow, then any CO2 that we’re able to avoid emitting has positive consequences for climate change mitigation. It really doesn’t matter that Britain is a small, insignificant country in terms of current global emissions – whatever we can abate is a help (incidentally, it’s funny how the sort of commentators who say that Britain is a small, insignificant country when it comes to climate change say exactly the opposite when it comes to Brexit…)

Second, since Britain was one of the first industrial/emitting powers, has one of the world’s largest economies and has emissions per capita that are still 30% higher than the global average, it’s hardly likely that bigger, poorer, ‘developing’ countries will commit seriously to climate change mitigation if we simply point the finger at them and don’t take radical steps to reduce our own emissions. Therefore we need to pressurize our government to do more.

Third and last, though it began in Britain, XR is an international movement, with people lobbying their governments in many countries. Usually, it’s easier for citizens to influence their own government than foreign governments, who have no formal or de facto accountability to them. A hundred British protestors blockading Waterloo Bridge is disproportionately more influential than a hundred British protestors blockading the Chinese Embassy – or Tiananmen Square for that matter. And to those enthusiasts for capitalism and freedom who say XR activists should be lobbying against climate change in Tiananmen Square, I say you should be lobbying for freedom there, so let’s go together – but you first.

4. How does stopping ordinary Londoners going about their business and the police from focusing on real crime help advance the cause of climate change mitigation?

This is a favourite of angry, right-wing radio talk show hosts and – though I must confess it’s one that I’ve struggled with too – ultimately I think they answer their own question. It does so in some measure by getting self-important blowhards in the media to talk about climate change and thus to raise it in public consciousness in ways that simply wouldn’t happen with legal demonstrations that would get precisely zero media coverage in comparison with Brexit, the royal family or the football results.

Most members of the public I encountered in the course of the protests were either enthusiastically or cautiously supportive of XR, and only a few abusively opposed – a number of the latter looking quite well to do, rather than ‘ordinary’. As I stood lined up against a wall with my fellow arrestees behind a phalanx of police officers, one kind passerby stopped and thanked each one of us personally for what we were doing. Almost every activist I’ve spoken with has similar stories about the high levels of public support they’ve met, sometimes from unlikely quarters like arresting police officers or city bankers. I think there’s more support for XR than a casual reading of the daily press might suggest.

As to the use of police resources, it’s up to the police and the government to decide what they want to devote their resources to. As the climate and other crises deepen, governments are going to have to spend an increasing proportion of their resources on the ‘intermediate economy’ that furnishes the final products – spending more of their income just on figuratively keeping the roads open. On that score, maybe they should thank XR for giving them a taste of things to come and letting them get some practice in.

In the midst of the latest rounds of protests, the Metropolitan Police issued a Section 14 order that enabled them to arrest any group of three or more identifiable XR activists assembling anywhere in London. Regardless of the underlying issue that’s being protested, I think a lot of people found the wider political implications of that troubling, just as a lot of people found the wider political implications of the government closing down parliament in order to get its way over Brexit troubling. It seems likely to me that the way many of the political, economic and ecological crises of our age will manifest is in increasingly divisive and authoritarian forms of governance – of which these perhaps are early signs. I think this needs resisting, and I think XR is helping to shape that resistance.

 

Note: Except where otherwise stated, all data reported above are derived from the World Bank’s World Development Indicator dataset, 2014 data (the latest year for which it provides emissions data).

The great convergence?

Apologies that I’ve been so silent of late on this blog. I’m afraid my book-writing chores are consuming almost all my desk-time at the moment and posts will probably continue to be sporadic at best until my submission deadline in the autumn. But let me at least bring you a sneak preview of some graphs I’m planning to present in the book (…and a couple that I’m not … thanks are due to my editor Brianne at Chelsea Green for allowing me to let the cat out of the bag). I’d be interested to hear any comments on my interpretations of the data I present below.

First, some context. I’ve long expressed my skepticism on this blog for various types of business-as-usual solutionism that suggest the numerous problems we face in the world are fixable within existing political and economic paradigms, usually through some kind of high-tech whizzbangery associated with the capitalist political economy, a broad current of thought sometimes known as ‘neo-optimism’. I don’t necessarily think all neo-optimist whizz-bangs are intrinsically a waste of time, but we need a Plan B … and this, I think, is a small farm future, which I suspect may well become Plan A. What would stop it from becoming Plan A is if someone could convincingly demonstrate that (a) the existing capitalist political economy is clearly the best bet for improving general human wellbeing, and (b) it can do so long-term in a planetarily sustainable way. Neither of these are easy to prove or disprove, especially (b) as it involves projecting into the future. I’m not going to address (b) here – perhaps I’ll try to answer it in a future post (Spoiler: … my guess is that the answer is a two-letter word beginning with ‘n’). But I’d like to say a little about (a).

A staple of neo-optimist fare is that we no longer live in a binary world of rich and poor countries – “the west and the rest”. Hans Rosling calls this binary view a “mega misconception” that belies the catch-up that’s been occurring in recent decades. “Poor developing countries no longer exist as a distinct group…” Rosling says, “there is no gap…This is not controversial. These facts are not up for discussion” and so on1. Along similar lines, Steven Pinker writes “Industrial capitalism launched the Great Escape from universal poverty in the 19th century and is rescuing the rest of humankind in a Great Convergence in the 21st2.

There are many ways of trying to prove or disprove such statements. Saying they’re not up for discussion is a neat one, because it exempts you from any dialogue about the limitations of your analysis and whether you’ve cherry-picked your examples. But let me discuss these assertions anyway – I’m going to put it to you that Rosling and Pinker are wrong.

Exhibit A in my argument is a plot of Gross Domestic Product per capita. Now, I know that GDP is widely and rightly criticized as a measure of human wellbeing (I’ll look at a different measure of wellbeing in a moment), but it’s not so shabby as a measure of the formal economic output that the industrial capitalism of which Pinker speaks excels. So if a Great Convergence is occurring within humanity in the 21st century fueled by industrial capitalism I think it would be reasonable to expect to see it in GDP per capita at the country level. What I’ve done in Exhibit A is take GDP per capita (in constant 2010 US$) for every country in the world from World Bank data and ranked them from highest (which, as it happens, is Luxembourg at $191,587) to lowest (Burundi, $219). Then I aggregated them into five groups on the basis of this ranking and calculated the average GDP per capita for each group for every year between 1960 and 2016 (the full time-range available in the World Bank data), weighted by the population sizes of each country in the group. So that’s what you’re seeing in the graph.

Exhibit A:

I struggle to reconcile this graph with Rosling’s pronouncement of the death of the gap and Pinker’s pronouncement of a ‘great convergence’. Each of the five groups has improved its GDP per capita, and Groups 2, 3 and 4 show some evidence of a climbing rate in recent years. But it seems to me that the most compelling story told by the graph is how much Group 1 has pulled away from the others. In 1960 the ratio between Groups 1 and 5 was 30. In 2016, it was 55. The ratios between Group 1 and Groups 2-4 over the same timeframe have narrowed, but the differences have greatly increased. I often commit what Rosling calls the ‘mega misconception’ of talking in binary terms about ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ countries. This graph makes me feel justified in doing so.

Rosling cautions in his book against the way that averages can mislead us, so lest Exhibit A leaves you in doubt I present Exhibit B which shows the full ranked distributions of GDP per capita for every country in 1985 and 2016 (the 2016 data in the red stretches out rightwards because there were more countries and less missing data in 2016 than in the blue 1985 line). Again, the picture seems pretty clear to me – a long shallow slope suggestive of lots of countries with similarly low GDP per capita, then a steep uptick on the right for a small number of countries with very high per capita GDPs. Maybe it’s reasonable to talk of ‘middle income’ countries in the light of Exhibit B. But I think talking in binary terms of ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ countries is eminently justifiable on the basis of these figures too. Perhaps it’s worth noting that of the forty countries in Group 1 all but six of them are either West European ones or postcolonial inheritors of a West European legacy (like the USA and Australia) – the six exceptions are Qatar, Singapore, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Brunei, which have their own historical stories to tell.

Exhibit B:

 

I’d suggest that there are usually different stories one can weave around data, and it surprises me that the likes of Rosling and Pinker who are supposedly expert data analysts don’t make more concessions to this. Is there a fitfulness to their factfulness?

So much for GDP. Let’s move on to life expectancy – a more direct measure of human wellbeing, albeit still of a rather crude and basic kind. In Exhibit C, I present population-weighted average life expectancy at birth for the same five groups defined in Exhibit A from 1960 to 2017. Here, there does seem to be some evidence of convergence – in 1960, average life expectancy for Group 5 was 42 whereas for Group 1 it was 70. By 2017 the corresponding figures were 65 and 81.

Exhibit C:

What to make of this convergence in life expectancy set against the non-convergence of GDP? Since GDP is a reasonable measure of industrial capitalist output I’d venture the hypothesis, pace Pinker, that whatever’s causing the convergence in life expectancy probably isn’t industrial capitalism. But let’s probe a little more at the life expectancy data.

Mothers and babies. A common misconception about life expectancy is that it tells us the age when most people die. In fact, life expectancy at birth averages out death over the life course – and people are much more likely to die in infancy or, for women, in childbirth than at other times in the life course up until old age. The deaths of these young and relatively young people (infants and mothers) pulls overall life expectancy radically downwards, so relatively small improvements in infant or maternal mortality can have relatively big effects on life expectancy. It’s harder to improve life expectancy at the old age end of the life course, and it gets progressively harder to improve infant mortality the lower it is, as is demonstrated by the flattening slope of the curves in Exhibit D which presents infant mortality rates from 1960-2017 for the five groups. Therefore the convergence in life expectancy shown in Exhibit C is to some degree an artefact of the fact that infant mortality was already quite low in the richer countries in 1960.

Exhibit D:

China. The most striking improvement in life expectancy shown in Exhibit B occurred in Group 3 in the 1960s, and this largely reflects the influence of China in view of its huge population. This was the China of Chairman Mao and his Cultural Revolution – which hardly seems a good advert for Pinker’s view that the convergence results from ‘industrial capitalism’. But maybe there are some complexities here. The improvements in China came hard on the heels of Mao’s disastrous ‘Great Leap Forward’ which was the cause of probably the biggest famine in human history, so the thought occurs that the 1960s uptick could be a kind of rebound from the famine. However, this paper at least seems to suggest otherwise – infant mortality in China crashed during the 1950s, spiked during the Great Leap famine (though without reaching pre-1950s levels) and then further crashed in the 1960s. Lynn White has argued that the roots of China’s recent economic miracle lie ‘bottom up’ in the chaos of the 1960s in the context of the Cultural Revolution and the aftermath of the Great Leap when the lack of political control from the center enabled rural people to engage in economic development that was later coopted by the state and is now often presented top-down in terms of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms3. In that rather special sense, perhaps it would be possible to assimilate the Chinese data to Pinker’s claim that the convergence results from ‘industrial capitalism’. But I think that would be quite generous to Pinker. I’d be inclined to say instead that “rural self-reliance launched a great escape from poverty in China”.

What’s the cause of declining infant mortality? Having trawled around various academic papers on this subject the tentative answer that I’ve come to turns out to be the same as the answer to most things – it’s complicated. Relevant factors seem to be things like access to basic primary health care, vaccination and mother’s education. I’d welcome further input on this. Possibly, one could argue that such factors have been delivered by ‘industrial capitalism’, if not in the relevant countries themselves then at least in the accumulation of global surplus that enables multilateral agencies, NGOs and other such organizations to intervene. But I think this would be tendentious without further substantiation, and it would require a good deal of detailed analysis that tracked the historic flows of resources into and (mostly) out of the poorer countries with high infant mortality. As I’ve written about in more detail elsewhere, the history of capitalism and ‘modernization’ generally seems to involve processes of huge immiseration that then prompt counter-movements and efforts towards humanitarian mitigation – to chalk these up as the positive achievements of capitalism is provocative, to say the least. Basically, capitalist societies are ones that entrust general social wellbeing to a small number of capital owners who compete to maximize their profits with fairly minimal restrictions on what they’re entitled to do with them. Industrial capitalist societies are ones where the competition is focused around manufacturing rather than, say, speculative finance as is now the case in many of the Group 1 countries (here I’m paraphrasing some of Wolfgang Streeck’s definitions4). Nothing much to write home about in all that about converging life expectancies… In fact, if we’re going to talk about a ‘great convergence’ in the 21st century we probably also need to talk about the ‘great divergence’ of the 19th century diagnosed in a 2001 book of that name by historian Kenneth Pomeranz.

The inefficiency of capitalism. In 1960 world GDP was $11.3 trillion in constant 2010 US$, while in 2017 it was $80.3 trillion – so in less than 60 years the global economy has grown to fit more than seven world economies of 1960 within itself. In per capita terms the corresponding figure is an almost threefold rise from $3,700 to $10,700. Infant mortality rates in 1960 averaged 28.4 deaths per 1,000 live births in the Group 1 countries and 174.3 in the Group 5 ones, whereas by 2017 the gap had narrowed to 4.0 in the Group 1 countries and 45.7 in the Group 5 ones – a welcome convergence, certainly, but a “great” convergence, in view of the fact that the global economy is more than seven times bigger? I’m not so sure. Going back to my original question, if we have to grow the global economy seven times over in order to move from 146 excess infant deaths between Groups 1 and 5 to 42 excess deaths, I’d question the view that industrial capitalism is the best bet for improving human wellbeing – especially when it’s not even clear that the convergence results from capitalism as such.

I’d welcome any comments.

Notes

  1. Rosling, H. 2018. Factfulness. Sceptre. p.22, 28.
  2. Pinker, S. 2018. Enlightenment Now. Penguin. p.364.
  3. White, L. 2018. Rural Roots of Reform Before China’s Conservative Change. Routledge.
  4. Streeck, W. 2016. How Will Capitalism End? Verso.