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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urbanism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

Land sparing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An agricultural puzzle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of maths, modernism and grandmothers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of climate crimes, community conflicts and carbon cowboys

I should really be getting back to my blog cycle about A Small Farm Future, but I have a motley assortment of agenda items I feel the need to share in this and the next post. I’ll try to round them off as quickly as I can.

1. Climate crimes

First, I can report that at City of London Magistrates’ Court last week I was duly found guilty of climate protesting, or more specifically of failing to comply with a condition imposed under Section 14 of the Public Order Act 1988. I was given a conditional discharge on the grounds of my ‘previous good character’ (previous??), which means that technically I’m unable to boast having a criminal record.

But I do have to pay the prosecution’s costs – a rather eye-watering amount, especially when you consider their case didn’t amount to much more than getting me to say “yes, I was there” and “yes, I did do that”. I only wish my occupations as writer and farmer paid as well by the hour. Suffice to say the generous donations I received on the tenth anniversary of this blog have been well and truly neutralized, and I’m beginning to rue the purchase of that bottle of bubbly in January. Well, y’all know where the donate button is…

It would have been a lot cheaper if I’d simply pleaded guilty, but I don’t feel very guilty. Narked would be a better word to describe my mood after the trial, at least if you’re a Brit of my generation. It wasn’t the verdict itself – always a certainty – so much as the manner of it, which showcased the vast indifference of the court and by extension the state to the climate crisis engulfing us. I was already aware of that indifference, of course. It was the reason for my civil disobedience in the first place. But bearing witness to it in a court on unequal terms when the indifference was directed at me personally gave it a sharper emotional edge than I’d expected.

Anyway, I’ll say more about my supposed crimes and misdemeanours in my next post. Walking out of the courthouse right in the middle of London’s financial district, where a disproportionate number of the real climate criminals go about their business with the full support of the state, suddenly felt a bit on the nose in the circumstances. With my dear wife, who’d come to support me in court and thankfully on this occasion managed to resist the temptation to glue herself to its walls, we searched amidst this besuited miasma of peacocking masculinity, this ossified architectural monumentalism of phallocentric inadequacy, this Potemkin palace of overcapitalized excess, for an eatery whose menu didn’t involve prosecution-level costs for the prosciutto starter alone. Eventually we located a little place down the appropriately named ‘Change Alley’, where I proceeded to treat myself to a beefburger, thus contributing mightily to the problem of global heating, no wait, doing my bit to help sequester historic greenhouse gas emissions, gosh, this is confusing (see below).

2. Community conflicts

In the week prior to my trial I spent a couple of days at my desk trying to prepare my case, for all the good it did. The boredom of this led me into various distractions and temptations, such as slipping the brake on my usually restrained Twitter habit. This is something Martin cautioned me never to do in a comment here a while back. He was right. I think there must be some disequilibrium in the universe creating a Newtonian third law of Twitter engagement with a twist: for every action in the Twittersphere there’s a greater and more irate reaction (though to be fair my Twittering did receive some pretty good notices too). In the rest of this post, I’m going to run the rule over some of this to-and-fro, most of which could be regarded as friendly fire conflicts within the broad community of alternative/renewable agriculture. It’s a truism, of course, that people standing on adjacent ground often make the bitterest enemies. I’ll be interested what the regular commenters here at smallfarmfuture.org.uk make of it.

By far the politest and most congruent exchange was with @GIFTCIC on the matter of county farms, these being farms owned publicly by local governments in England and Wales with the idea of helping new entrant farmers get established, and of keeping land out of speculative clutches. Both ideas are close to my heart, and in view of the way that many local authorities have sold off or neglected their agricultural estate, and of the various crises now tormenting us to which small, locally-oriented farms provide some mitigation, @GIFTCIC’s call for a campaign of government compulsory purchase to revive the county farm estate makes a lot of sense.

It’s the kind of thing I’d write to my MP to support, if it wasn’t for the fact that my MP is currently suspended amidst allegations of sexual, drug and financial offences. Wherein lies a reason I struggle to get too excited about lobbying for county farms. With the vomit stains still spaffed up the wall from the partying at No.10, with backbench MPs spending their time looking at tractor porn or worse, and with magistrates neglecting to listen for even a few minutes to arguments about the necessity to protect against climate change, my personal cost-benefit calculus for pressing the organs of the state to take enlightened agrarian action no longer turns up favourable odds. I’d probably go so far as to say that helping to put more land into government hands right now, or possibly ever, is a risky option.

@GIFTCIC wrote: “We don’t have the luxury of time for anarcho syndicalism to the commons”, which may be so. My take is that we don’t have the luxury of time for any proposal on how humanity can extricate itself from its present predicaments, so we might as well focus our personal efforts on our own favoured approaches and try to support those of likeminded people as best we can. I lay my own hat in broadly anarchist-populist or civic republican attempts to build a new bottom-up politics locally in the shell of the old. Building the county farm estate is no hindrance to that, and possibly a help, but in my opinion probably not a key lever.

My exchange with @PSBaker10 was a bit more conflictual. It appears he’s not a fan of my book and its vision of low input, small-scale agricultures, writing  “To be more than a pipe dream you need projections, ball-park figures. How to realize such a future? Who’d be the farmers, how to train them? Investment costs … major irrigation, polytunnels, subsidies, extension service, insurance for climate shocks. Else – magical thinking!”

Let me just reiterate why I don’t think my description of a small farm future is a pipedream or a case of magical thinking. It’s because it or something like it is probably going to happen whether we like it or not. It might happen in more congenial ways or less congenial ones, and the relative congeniality will not be related to how soundly small farmers have planned their polytunnel investments. It will be related to how the biophysical and socioeconomic shocks unravelling present systems play out. This in turn depends considerably on the nature of the political forces at large in societies of the future. So it’s to these latter that I now devote most of my attention. A small farm future is not an ideal I’m championing, although there are aspects I do try to speak up for. Rather, it’s a coming reality that I’m trying to analyze in order to make the best of it.

@PSBaker10 added: “Not suggesting a detailed plan, but you need some sort of theory of change or framework. E.g. adaptive development based on complexity science … Ramalingam’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos is a good guide. Otherwise it’s just blah blah blah.”

I don’t doubt there’s much to be gained from more detailed thought about all that would be entailed practically and materially in a move to small farm localism, provided we don’t overestimate our predictive powers. Who’d have thought even last year, for example, that my own ramshackle little English farm would be donating spare seeds and old tools to growers in one of the most fertile and productive agricultural regions on Earth, before war sawed off its normal supply chains? These kind of shocks are propagating, so for my part I think over-specified attempts at farm planning or political course-plotting themselves exemplify ‘blah blah blah’.

But each to their own. I’m just a lone-hand writer-farmer with no great interest or skill in financial forecasting (even though, strangely, my book has on occasion been right up there on Amazon’s bestseller list for this very topic). Maybe others might weigh in and help build a picture of the small farm business future – a more useful pastime than sniping at me on Twitter, I’d submit. Actually, I’ll be touching on this a couple of blog posts down the line, but at a level of generality that I think befits the huge uncertainties involved.

The only thing I want to add to this particular debate is the suggestion that readers take my projections about such things as three or thirty-three acre farms of the future powered by horses or oxen with a pinch of salt. I just can’t help myself from jumping off the main highway and exploring these old-time byways of small farms with oxen or draught horses. This is for a variety of pressing contemporary reasons, but also as a slightly mischievous counterpoint to the endless newspaper articles about the robotized agrarian techno-cornucopias to come that seem to expect their readers to (a) believe them, and (b) welcome them. In truth, I don’t think it’s so important exactly what form or size these future holdings take so long as they’re providing real food and fibre locally with broadly renewable methods and building local community. The real issue is the politics. Which I concede often does sound like just a load of blah blah blah. Until it suddenly explodes in your face.

3. Carbon cowboys

Finally, my journeyings on Twitter brought me into the firing line of various ardent advocates for regenerative ruminant grazing. Ironically, this was in the context of a thread I wrote making the case for livestock in low impact, renewable agricultures – specifically in the grassland-cropland rotation of ley farming. However, in writing that we will nevertheless need to eat less beef in the future I provoked the ire of various regenerative grazing advocates, who took a distinctly contrary view.

I didn’t particularly want to argue, so I softened my position and said that ‘maybe’ renewable agricultures of the future could accommodate more cattle globally than the present 1.7 billion. But nope, that wasn’t good enough for @soil4climate who insisted there was no maybe about it. When I tried to suggest lightheartedly that ‘maybe’ is the right answer to most questions, this is what came back to me:

“We aren’t interested in appeasing people who don’t understand soil or the essential role of ruminants in restoring it. We’re interesting in removing 300 billion tons of legacy carbon from the atmosphere and turning it into pasture and protein. Cows can do that. Not doubters.”

…a tweet that was liked by some thirty people, most of whom seemed to be beef farmers, perhaps in more ways than one. Well, here’s my last attempt to be conciliatory: in my opinion, beef and ruminant farmers unfairly get it in the neck for climate change/methane emissions and if I were one of them (which I sometimes am, on a very micro scale) I would probably be quite annoyed about it too. However, that doesn’t justify the kind of dogmatic self-righteousness from carbon cowboys – to use Simon Fairlie’s somewhat snarky but apposite phrase – on display in the quotation above.

What a curious world we live in where ruminant agriculture is identified by one vociferous minority as a major cause or even the major of climate change (the veganic argument), while another vociferous minority (the carbon cowboys) identifies it as the major way of mitigating climate change. My sympathies lie closer to the latter, but in truth I think ruminant grazing is neither a major cause of climate change nor a major way of preventing it. And while grazing ruminants on permanent grassland will definitely be a key local livelihood practice in some places, generally it will play only a minor role in the global agricultures of the future. I’ll explain the thinking behind this further in another post. Meanwhile, I plan to go a bit easier on Twitter.

It takes an ecovillage…: some thoughts on ‘Going to Seed’

I enjoyed writing a book review for my last post so much that I’m going to write another one this time around. But whereas last time it was a long review of a very long book addressing itself to a large slice of human history, here I offer you a short review of a much shorter book about the life of a single man.

The man in question is Simon Fairlie, and the book is Going to Seed: A Counterculture Memoir (Chelsea Green, 2022). Disclosure: I know Simon a little, as I suspect do many people in England with more than a passing involvement in the movement for local, sustainable agriculture – testament either to the still regrettably small corps of people the movement commands, or perhaps more positively to Simon’s tireless efforts in making the case and spreading the word on numerous fronts. I’ve written for Simon’s excellent periodical The Land and there’s an endorsement from me inside his book. So, needless to say, I am not an unbiased observer.

Parts of Simon’s life story were therefore familiar to me as I read his memoir: cofounder of the influential low impact agricultural community, Tinker’s Bubble; land rights activist and rural planning expert; reviver of the fine art of scything; acutely perceptive agricultural thinker, whose book Meat: A Benign Extravagance is still the best-articulated vision of a just and sustainable small farm future I know. Other parts were newer to me: an upper-crust if unconventional childhood, dropping out in the 1960s and joining the hippy trail to India, 1990s road protesting and a brief stint in jail as a member of the Twyford Six (“an unwarranted honorific given the minimal degree of martyrdom we had to undergo”), work as a stonemason high aloft at Salisbury Cathedral – and, generally, a life lived at an angle to mainstream working and living arrangements.

The book has a conventional autobiographical structure, a chronological self-narration from childhood to senior citizen, which surprised me at first. It’s not the kind of thing I’d have expected Simon to write at all. But the payoff from such an acute observer of the world is that his story, from 1950s childhood to 2020s dotage, becomes a deft social history of postwar England (and other places, but mostly England). Throughout, Simon has been drawn to people retaining or creating lifeways that resist or negate the dictates of the conventional economy, and he offers numerous wonderful little vignettes from these various front lines – for example, in his account of the now-defunct seacoaling community inhabiting the beaches near Newcastle that he briefly joined in the 1980s, “an example of an open access commons operating within the shell of a capitalist transaction”.

Simon’s attention to the way such communities form – and the way the powers-that-be try to crush them – elevates the book far beyond the personal into a nuanced appreciation of the cultures of capitalism, making it a fitting complement to the book I previously reviewed. But narrated in the context of an individual life, and with Simon’s trademark salty style, it’s considerably more of a page turner.

I like the telling little details he notices – how, for example, chicken was a luxury food in the 1950s because of its dependence on then relatively expensive arable grain fodder, while grass-fed beef and lamb were more easily available. The implications of such observations for agricultural futures today are large, yet go dismayingly little discussed in contemporary food system debates. Simon’s portrait of the 1950s emphasizes how even a fairly privileged upbringing in one of the most privileged countries in the world at that time involved much closer connection to a relatively renewable local agrarian economy than today. This is worth bearing in mind when making the case for low impact local agrarianism in the teeth of derision from techno-solutionists of the present, who are apt to accuse one of wishing to go back to the stone age, or the middle-ages, or [insert supposedly awful period of past history of choice]. The appropriate response to this is to say that we don’t wish to “go back” anywhere, but a passing appreciation among our critics of the way that the neoliberal extremism of recent years has undermined even the residual local sustainability and food autonomy in many countries, including Britain, in just a few decades wouldn’t go amiss.

There were two related areas of discussion in Simon’s book that left me wanting more analysis from him. The first relates to the relative failure of the timber enterprise at Tinker’s Bubble, which he describes as follows:

“the main reason was that the timber operation was a joint enterprise that required the co-operation of several people … And we hippies, although we wanted to live in a community, actually weren’t too good at working communally. That’s not to say we couldn’t. It was more that most of the time most of the people didn’t want to. A squad of professional soldiers under orders would have achieved in a few days what took us months or even years to get together.

The problem had been apparent from the outset. We started out with communal work days, but it was often difficult to get some people to join in and after about eighteen months these were dropped. Instead we adopted a system where different people took responsibility for different tasks, but not everyone carried out their roles, and the forestry fell behind. By 1999…work was no longer structured around a farm plan. Instead each person was supposed to achieve a land-based income through their own devices…The result was a multiplicity of veg patches…hand tilled with spade and mattock” (pp.221-2)

In this revealing microcosm from a single modern agricultural community, Simon pretty much tells the history of local agrarian societies writ large – working communally where they have to, wrestling to find formal collective work arrangements able to fit around the crooked timber of humanity, but generally preferring to organize agriculture in ways that create personal autonomy over the work regimen and opting where possible for intensive cultivation on an individual or household basis, while leaving collective arrangements for the more extensive, whole-landscape level stuff.

I’ve written about this in more detail elsewhere, but in short I don’t think Simon should blame it on any unique failings among the hippies at Tinker’s Bubble. The contrast with a squad of soldiers under orders is informative. History suggests that it’s usually only under rather special, and perhaps undesirable, forms of hierarchy that it becomes easy to create a readily manageable day-to-day work regimen that’s genuinely collective in form. Contemporary writers too often fall into the trap of supposing this is some particular failing of our modern, selfish individualism. It isn’t.

Simon later moved to Monkton Wyld, another well-known intentional community here in southwest England. He speaks a little more highly of it, but – unlike Tinkers Bubble – he wasn’t involved in the arduous process of establishing its routines, and, as he acknowledges himself, the community doesn’t make its livelihood from agriculture and, when he moved there, was already running along the lines that Tinker’s Bubble eventually adopted, where “each person is responsible for their own field of activity, but is answerable to the community for their performance”.

For me, this raises questions of a kind we recently discussed on this blog that touch upon the second point of interest, namely family and personal relationships. Throughout the book, Simon discusses his sometimes stuttering family and romantic relationships with impressive candour and self-criticism, and occasional raw honesty. Yet I was struck by this passage in which he shares his thoughts about how intentional communities address internal tensions:

“Nothing bodes worse, in my view, than ‘feelings meetings’ called to resolve interpersonal problems or plumb the depths of the communal psyche … Occasionally we get visitors, or prospective members who want to promote this kind of collective narcissism and I’m glad to say they get pretty short shrift from most of our members. ‘Least said, soonest mended’ is not a solution for all ills, but it is the policy to be preferred in the first instance.”

I don’t much disagree, and I likewise tend to shy away from collective over-sharing of emotional introspection. But, indeed as Simon says, ‘least said soonest mended’ isn’t a solution for all ills, and it seems to me that the culture around this in current times – particularly manifested in generations younger than mine or Simon’s – has improved in its recognition that people often do need to talk through their complications with each other in constructive ways, and sometimes need the help of others to do it. This is usually true whether the community of concern is a family, a workplace, a neighbourhood, an intentional community, an ecovillage or a country. My sense of this, somewhat amplified by reading Simon’s book, is that it doesn’t matter all that much which of these levels we’re talking about. The need to address and sometimes redress power relationships and interpersonal tensions is similar at all levels of human interaction.

This is why I’ve come to think that the endless and often fierce arguments about whether families, friendship groups, local or intentional communities, governments, commons, wider publics or statutory agencies are the best form of fundamental organization for a well-functioning society are ultimately futile. I have a slight bias against governments and statutory agencies because I don’t think they’re very good at sharing their feelings constructively and then moving on. But ultimately all these levels of human organization face parallel challenges, and squabbling over which is best serves little purpose. At Monkton Wyld as for every other well-functioning social unit, each person is responsible for their own field of activity, but is answerable to the wider community. And the wider community must also somehow be answerable to each person. Enough said. Time to move on.

In this brief review, I’ve just picked out a few strands from Simon’s rich and informative narrative – I’d warmly commend anyone interested enough to have read this far to get themselves a copy of the book, where they’ll find much more to entertain and inspire them. On its final page, Simon writes:

“I’m not one of those bronzed and wiry septuagenarians who take on challenges like rowing across the Atlantic. I’m pink and fat, and I avoid having to bend down to tie up my shoelaces. Yet despite this corporeal decadence, I can still milk the cows, muck out the yard and mow quarter of an acre of hay in a morning, and I intend to keep it up. I expect to die in bed with my boots on, having been too knackered and drunk to take them off”

Let’s hope that doesn’t happen until those boots have tramped many more miles, and he’s shared more of his acute wisdom and radicalism, and a few more stories, with the rest of us.

A small farm future – the case for common property

In my last post, I made the case for private property rights in a small farm future. In this one, I’ll make a case for common property rights (‘commons’). There’s no contradiction because private and common rights usually accompany each other. I’ve written quite a bit about commons in the past, usually from a somewhat sceptical viewpoint – not because I dispute their importance, but because I think they’re too often invoked as a rather fluffy feelgood word to mean ‘people doing good things together’. When we look at agricultural societies, we see that there are certain things they achieve with commons and certain things they don’t, and I think this is informative for the small farm societies we need to form in the future. But I don’t want to lose sight of the ‘people doing good things together’ aspect, which I’ll come to at the end.

In this article, I described the scope of commons in agrarian societies under the rubric of what I called the ‘four Es’: commons are usually extensive (applying to low value and/or diffuse resources), elemental (relating to the wider play of the landscape beyond individual private control, such as controlling fire risk, managing water or shaping the earth), extra (a bonus on top of ordinary economic activities, often with a social welfare function) and/or exclusive (applying to a definite and restricted community).

So in the future small farm communities I’m imagining, I’d expect to see commons around things like firewood gathering, irrigation, flood defence and cattle grazing – but probably not around gardening, cereal cropping, haymaking or milking. Robert Netting and Simon Fairlie have both written about the complex interleaving of private and common rights in traditional European dairying systems along these lines. Broadly speaking, cows were privately owned by individual households and the housing, milking and haymaking for them was likewise undertaken privately, but much of the grazing and cheesemaking was organized as commons. As Simon puts it, “This elegant system paid scant allegiance to ideology – it evolved from the dialogue between private interest and common sense”1. I expect much the same will transpire eventually with future agricultural commons.

Drawing on Robert Netting’s work, commons theorist Elinor Ostrom suggests that commons are particularly suited for agricultural situations where2:

  1. The per acre value of the goods being produced is low
  2. The availability of the goods fluctuates
  3. The possibilities for improving or intensifying productivity are low
  4. A large territory is needed for effective use
  5. Large groups of people are needed for effective capital investing activities

From this list, it’s easy to see why things like gardens and arable fields are rarely organized as commons, whereas woodlands and grazing often are.

I had an interesting if brief discussion on Twitter with @aliceLBPclub about the production of textiles in a small farm future. My feeling is that generally this probably wouldn’t be organized as a commons overall, but – as with Simon’s dairying example – it might have some commoning aspects. Supposing people widely grow a fibre plant like flax. This wouldn’t fit within the commons criteria mentioned above and would most likely be grown on an individual household basis, unless it required special conditions or skills to grow it, in which case things might get interesting. But, as with a crop like wheat (or the cheeses mentioned above), processing it might be more efficiently done in a single large facility serving the community’s needs. By the lights of the criteria outlined above, I don’t think this facility would likely be a commons as such.

Maybe the best model for it would be a cooperative. People pool some of their surplus resources to create the processing facilities in the expectation that they will get some fair share of the final product. Shoehorning a few issues here, inasmuch as the processing involves specialist skills and training, the cooperative might be a guild, in which craft specialists manage the training, conduct and price-setting of their membership in service of the wider community.

A craft guild is a bit different from an agrarian commons in terms of the underlying ecology, but similar in terms of its social structure, which is basically this3:

A commons or guild = a resource + a community + a set of usage protocols

How this works out in practice depends a lot not only on the nature of the resource but also on how the community and the usage protocols are defined. Who’s excluded, who’s included, and what are the rules of the game for those involved? Part of my scepticism about the way commons and guilds are often invoked is that they are not by virtue of their form of organization intrinsically positive, egalitarian or socially beneficial. That’s been their intention and their achievement often enough, but not always.

The classic criticism of agricultural commons is that they promote inefficient use or, worse, overuse that runs down the resource. This, notoriously, was Garrett Hardin’s argument in his 1968 article ‘The tragedy of the commons’. It was also Arthur Young’s argument as he enthusiastically pressed the case for the enclosure of agricultural commons in England in the late 18th century. Young came to regret his enclosing ardour, while even Hardin admitted that what he’d called a commons really wasn’t and is better described as an open access regime where, in contrast to the definition above, there’s no defined community or usage protocols to prevent degradation.

Still, for all the justifiable mud flung at Hardin, the fact is it’s possible for a commons to degrade into an open access regime, or for a situation to default to an open access regime because of the failure to create a commons – a point made forcefully enough by Elinor Ostrom herself. Current examples include the collapse of the world’s pelagic fisheries, and the ever-escalating levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In both cases, the problem seems to be the inability to create a stable community with shared norms around the resource – partly perhaps because when it comes to forming communities, people are creatures of the particular earth, not the fluid skies or waters.

The classic criticism of the craft guild rests at the other boundary of the commons – not an access regime that’s too open, but one that’s too closed. The guild stops operating in service of the community and starts operating in service of itself, creating unreasonable entry barriers, fixing prices and engaging in other such monopolistic forms of anti-social behaviour. In this sense, the rogue guild was one of the forerunners to the modern capitalist corporation – and, ironically, the idea of ‘freeing’ the market was experienced in some quarters as genuinely liberatory.

Now we’ve seen how the story of monopoly capitalism has worked out (summary: not well), a lot of us are looking back to the previous world of commons and guilds as the basis for a better model. And rightly so. But there are a few caveats worth bearing in mind. First, commons and guilds are not in themselves a solution to the problems of transcending capitalism’s world of strange delights. As I suggested above, their organizational form is ethically neutral. The same goes for cooperatives, which – as I’ve argued elsewhere – when they operate in a world that’s systematically organized in the interests of capital, too easily just replicate the structural tensions of that world. The real challenge is to reconstruct communities and economies along more just and sustainable lines. Commons and guilds really come into their own after that work of reconstruction.

But even when they do come into their own – especially when they come into their own – the ways that commons and guilds can fail that I detailed above need to be taken seriously. The story we often tell today is how they were broken top down by the forces of economic accumulation against the will of ordinary people, and it’s partly true. But ordinary people also did some of the breaking themselves as they sought to escape from restrictions that were sometimes less than ideal in practice. Balancing collective, partial and individual interests in relatively self-reliant local communities isn’t easy and needs to be front and centre of ongoing local politics.

The genius of capitalism has been defraying these difficulties of local politics by continually opening up new economic frontiers that sweeten the politics of local community with economic service. That was the achievement of the other main forerunner of modern capitalism, the joint stock company that pooled resources to finance the high-risk, high-return business of overseas maritime adventuring. But that achievement has come at a threefold price. First, the economic service has generally arisen from extracting extra value from people elsewhere – that is, from colonialism of one form or another. Second, it’s often denatured local communities back at the source even as it’s defrayed some of their difficulties. And, third, not only has it started to run out of new frontiers and resources to commodify, it’s also destroyed the ecological integrity of the ones it’s already commodified – hence the interest of people like Elon Musk in opening up places like Mars. So the job of reconstructing local human ecologies becomes especially difficult, because we’ve forgotten how to live without being propped up by other people’s value creation, or because the extraction of value has profoundly damaging effects on the social fabric.

Still, people everywhere are pretty creative at generating new social fabrics and new kinds of mutual aid. So my conclusion is this: grow fibres, pool resources, weave fabrics, build commons, make guilds. But do it carefully and be prepared to unstitch them when they go wrong, which sometimes they certainly will.

As to my opening point about people doing good things together, people will need to develop new agricultural commons of the classic sort in the small farm futures of many places, but in the short-term more malleable and inclusive arrangements will often be in order, as with responses to various emergency situations where defining strict membership criteria and usage protocols isn’t to the point. More fundamentally, I believe the key aspect of commoning as doing good things together won’t lie in the exact boundary definitions of common versus private property, but in the fact that both take their place within a larger collective politics of creating resilient and renewable local societies where people are autonomous and self-possessed actors within larger cooperative networks.

Notes

  1. See Robert Netting. 1993. Smallholders, Householders; Simon Fairlie. 2009. ‘A short history of enclosure in Britain’ The Land 7, 16-31.
  2. Elinor Ostrom. 1990. Governing the Commons, p.63.
  3. Borrowing here from David Bollier. 2014. Think Like A Commoner, p.15.

A Small Farm Future: Some Problems Re-Stated

Ted Trainer has recently published a critical if fairly friendly essay about aspects of my book A Small Farm Future, called ‘Small Farm Future: why some anticipated problems will not arise’. In it, he references Alex Heffron and Kai Heron’s critical and considerably less friendly essay about my book. I’d been thinking about responding when I came across an article by Sarah Mock called “I tried to prove that small family farms are the future. I couldn’t do it”. Mock is a former associate of Chris Newman, author of the widely aired essay “Small family farms aren’t the answer”. Also languishing on my to do list has been the idea of writing a response to Col Gordon’s podcast series Landed about regenerative farming in the Scottish Highlands, which I found excellent in almost every respect apart from its oft-repeated refrain that “the small family farm is a colonial concept”.

There’s considerable overlap between these various interventions around what I think are some quite problematic, if commonly held, views concerning individualism, collectivism, property and capitalism, and their implications for a small farm future. So since they’re somewhat a propos to the point I’ve reached in this blog cycle, I thought I’d address this using some of the aforementioned interventions as my cues. As someone who thinks that small family farms probably are the answer (depending a bit on what the question is) it seems worth stating the case for them, which I do below in the form of some bold declarations that I subsequently try to justify. I hope this may clarify key points of agreement and disagreement with the people mentioned above.

1. The small family farm is a resilient and successful socio-economic form. Mock’s essay heralding the demise of the small family farm is but one contribution to a voluminous global literature dating back centuries. Yet such farms keep holding on, or even springing up, in each new generation worldwide. You don’t see articles heralding the demise of the small family firm of carmakers, because such firms are long gone and the prospects for a household to scratch a living by manufacturing and selling cars are zero. Not so for producing and selling food. Hence, I’d suggest the considerable success of the small family farm is worth emphasizing.

There are two main reasons for its persistence. The first is that the forces of capitalization, rationalization, massification and industrialization that have revolutionized most industries, though all too apparent in agriculture too, have been less successful in this sector than most others, essentially because living ecologies are quite hard to commodify. The second is that possession of a small spread of land enables people to extricate themselves at least partially from those same forces of capitalization and massification, and this is therefore a permanently appealing possibility to people who seek autonomy from those forces.

As I see it, these two issues are likely to play out in the future in ways that make small farms much more common than they presently are in the rich countries. Indeed, while Mock is right that the present structure of the economy makes life hard for the small commercial farmer, the writing is manifestly on the wall for that structure, and the economy to come is likely to be more conducive to the small farmer, if not necessarily to the small commercial farmer.

2. The small family farm has worldwide appeal, and is not intrinsically a ‘colonial concept’. Mock claims in her article that the romantic ideal of a small family farm is virtually unique to the USA, but this is patently false. There’s a version of it in pretty much every country in the world. For sure, it’s invariably complicated by often bitter local histories of landlord domination, ethnic strife or colonial oppression, and it’s contested by the modernist lure of urbanism and its projected riches – a lure that, in my opinion, is every bit as romantic and problematic as its agrarian alternatives. In some places, the history of the small family farm is intimately bound up with colonialism, but small family farms are not intrinsically a colonial concept – an idea that would come as a surprise to many small family farmers throughout history in Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania and the Americas operating outside of colonial contexts, or running small family farms within them precisely as a positive and creative response to colonial oppressions.

3. Entrepreneurialism cannot be the bedrock of a just and renewable agrarian economy. Ted Trainer writes:

“Small Farm Future could give the impression that the small farms will be functioning according to institutions and mentalities that prevail today, that is, whereby farmers are independent “business-people” sinking or swimming by selling produce into markets, and are able and keen to accumulate wealth as individual competing mini-entrepreneurs”.

If that’s the impression people take from my book, then I’ve failed badly to convey my true thoughts – but I like to think that an attentive read of Chapter 14 should give the reader pretty much the opposite impression to the one Ted connotes, one that’s actually pretty similar to his own. As I see it, the bedrock of any just and renewable agrarian economy has to be the ability and the wherewithal to produce a congenial livelihood primarily for oneself or one’s household, and secondarily for one’s community from renewable and primarily local resources, not so much in cash but in the necessities of life, in food, in fibre and in shelter. To do so requires limiting the play of entrepreneurialism and the flow of capital, though perhaps not snuffing them out entirely.

Sarah Mock, on the other hand, endorses the market entrepreneurialism of new agrarian pioneers working under cooperative and collective arrangements where they “identify market opportunities” and work with “financiers to meet the needs of their customers as well as their partners and employees”. The problem with this is that they thereby submit themselves to precisely the same forces of capitalist rationalization that bear down on the small commercial family farmer. So whereas Mock implicitly brackets small family farmers with large-scale commercial operators and invokes commercial cooperative farming as a viable alternative, the truth is that all three are in the same boat when they operate commercially in generalized commodity markets. A few small family farmers and co-ops might survive in this situation – usually by increasing in size, cutting labour inputs and mechanizing, just as the corporates do – but the real dividing line is between commodity market operators of any kind and farms of any kind that are serving their own or heavily delimited local needs.

As far as I’ve been able to tell from a distance, this failing of the commercialized cooperative seems to have pretty much been the fate of Chris Newman’s Sylvanaqua Farm model – a fate that I predicted here, analyzed further here and that Mock herself critiqued in some detail here. It therefore surprises me that she doesn’t reflect a bit more critically on the difficulties of commercial cooperative farming in her present piece (incidentally, the Sylvanaqua commercial co-op was one of the models Heffron and Heron championed as a superior alternative to the small family farm).

Mock traces her enthusiasm for cooperative models to the pioneering efforts of people of colour in the USA, who “have proven that alternative farming systems are viable even when they’re not favored”. For his part, Trainer imputes the ills of the present world to “12,000 years of conditioning to prioritise individualism, competitiveness and aggressive wealth acquisition”. I think a more nuanced reading is required in both cases, as I try to outline under the next two points.

4. People of colour have proven that alternative farming systems are viable even when they’re not favored, but have not particularly proven or sought to prove that collective farming systems are superior. People who are subjected to discrimination and enforced poverty have little opportunity to improve their situation except by pooling their skills and what few resources they command – in this sense, I agree with Mock that people of colour in the USA historically have proven the viability of alternative and unfavoured farming systems. In a very different historical situation, Col Gordon makes a similar point about collective forms of subsistence cattle farming in the premodern Scottish Highlands. But in agrarian situations involving less extreme discrimination and impoverishment people typically develop systems that mix cooperative and private/household production, which each have their pros and cons. Such mixed collective/private systems have also been both an aspiration and an achievement of black farmers in the USA. Almost every enduring agrarian society involving collective property also involves private property. So it would be a good idea to stop talking about them as if they’re incompatible, and to home in a little more carefully on the nature of the different property regimes involved – something I’ll elucidate in upcoming essays here.

5. Capitalist societies do not prioritise individualism or competitiveness. Ted’s “12,000 years” reference is presumably to the conventionally reckoned dawn of agriculture, but for now I’m just going to refer to modern capitalism, which is often described as individualistic, competitive and accumulative. I agree with the accumulative bit, and I agree that in a certain sense modern capitalist societies could be described as individualistic and competitive. But this is also quite misleading. Take a walk around one of the city blocks where most people in the rich countries live these days. Look at people’s dwellings – those tiny spaces, those vast sinks of energy, water, food and resources from elsewhere. The people living in them could barely survive a week without relying on a huge network of other people to service them – there’s nothing ‘individualistic’ about them, apart from the fact that their occupants often feel lonely and crave more human companionship, which is ‘individualistic’ only in a rather special sense. And most of these people work for huge corporations or public bodies whose modus operandi generally involves eliminating competition, not encouraging it.

6. Many people seek autonomy and a sense of personal, practical competence within a wider community, of the kind that’s possible in a small farm society. Ted Trainer argues that in the future people will need to develop new forms of local cooperation. I agree, although in many ways they will be reinventions of older forms of local cooperation. But in view of the highly collective nature of contemporary capitalist societies just mentioned, I don’t think it will necessarily be so hard to do this.

I think the hardest thing to develop in the small farm societies succeeding our present urban-capitalist ones won’t be the collectivism but the individualism – the jack-of-all-trades practical competence, the sense of making do without being able to call in expert help or cheap, pre-manufactured solutions, the autonomy of everyday decision-making on the farm.

Sometimes, this agrarian individualism gets associated with right-wing attitudes that wrongly scorn the inability of poor people to help themselves (on which, see point 4 above). Yet those who live in low-energy small farm societies know that they absolutely rely on a wider community to prosper. In such societies, there’s a creative tension between individualism, autonomy and personal competence on the one hand and community support and integration on the other. It’s the very lack of individualism in modern capitalist society – our inability to deliver the basic self-care of producing food, clothes and shelter – that many people find so alienating, and that draws them to the ‘romance’ of the small farm. But re-creating that individualism and practical competence isn’t easy.

7. Commons are specific, and delimited. The typical form of collectivism in low-energy small farm societies is a commons – common grazing, common irrigation strategies, common woodland management and the like. I’ll say more about this in another post, but usually commons are specific to particular people and activities and form a relatively small and delimited though important part of day-to-day economic life in low-energy societies. Modern activists have got into very generalized ways of talking about commons – ‘the digital commons’, ‘the atmospheric commons’, even ‘the global commons’ – which may have tactical payoffs but are also quite misleading. There’s often a lot of work involved in low-energy, local societies when people of equal standing and no hierarchical authority structure come together to thrash out collective agreements. So they try to avoid it unless the alternatives are obviously worse.

Also, the specific character of the common resource is important. In a low capital/energy society, it makes little sense for people to graze cattle individually – but it may make sense for them to milk cattle, or make hay, or grow vegetables or cereals individually, and this is often what happens. So when Col Gordon contrasts the early commons-based subsistence cattle economy of the Scottish Highlands with a later private mixed farming economy in the area he’s not really comparing like with like. He nicely shows in his podcasts that the colonization of the premodern Highland pastoral economy by Scottish and English interests themselves resting on a wider colonial project were instrumental in creating a mixed farming economy based on private ownership. This is not the same as showing that the private character of mixed farm tenure is itself a colonial concept.

8. Humans are not ants, and status contests are a real thing in every human society. Here I come to probably my main point of disagreement with Ted Trainer. If I understand him rightly, he thinks a new cooperative human culture without status contests must be created to generate renewable local societies (so do Heffron and Heron). I don’t think this is feasible, though fortunately I don’t think it’s necessary either – but I do agree that cooperation must be emphasized and status contests limited.

One dimension of this that I won’t say much about here is gender relations and patriarchy. Bizarrely, Heffron and Heron characterize my arguments as ‘patriarchal’, whereas every other reviewer who’s commented on this has correctly seen them as anti-patriarchal. Ted considers the whole issue a red herring, because he thinks future cooperative societies will be intrinsically gender equal. I find this a bit complacent, but I hope he’s right that the gains of modern feminism will be sustained and amplified through the troubles to come. However, I don’t think it’ll happen by default, so I make no apologies for making an issue of it in my book.

Leaving gender aside, I do want to make some further remarks about more general tendencies towards status differentiation in human interactions. People have a fine-honed tendency to try to get one over other people, and to try to make themselves the big man (or woman – but usually man) who gathers camp followers around them. It’s kind of ironic that one of the most prominent schools of thought nowadays that seeks to refute this as a basis of social action comprises people who seem happy to call themselves ‘Marxists’. People play the holier than thou game in all sorts of unexpected arenas of human interaction – for example, in claims to being a proper farmer, a real permaculturist or to being especially masterful at mindfully letting go of petty human concerns. I discuss this in Chapter 16 of my book and will come back to it in a future post.

But people also have a fine-honed tendency to try to take others down a peg or two and to contest claims of superior status. In his book Hierarchy in the Forest the anthropologist Christopher Boehm argues there are evolutionary reasons for this hierarchy-equality dualism that stretch into humanity’s deep past. Whether he’s right or not there’s a mountain of evidence from numerous societies spanning human history that people are forever playing games of status aggrandizement and status levelling (including, of course, evidence from modern communist societies).

Ted writes that “Hunter gatherer societies have mechanisms which prevent the emergence of inequality and greedy tyrants”, which is exactly right, but I think this supports my position better than his. These societies need to contrive explicit mechanisms to prevent status differentiation, precisely because humans, while intrinsically social, are not intrinsically collectivist – and hunter gatherer peoples are keenly aware of the problems that arise if they don’t take active steps to stop would-be big men from taking hold. Truly collectivist species – ants, for example – have no need to invent mechanisms that keep their individual members in line.

When I was on a panel a while back with a prominent US farmer involved in a cooperative farm, I asked her if she’d learned any lessons about how to run such a cooperative enterprise successfully. As I recall, she pulled a face and said something along the lines that the more people you work with, the more arguments and obstacles you face. As someone who’s a member of various co-ops myself, I recognized the pain in her face, though I also recognize that co-ops can still be a good idea. She imputed the problems to the selfishness of the modern capitalist societies we live in, but for the reasons I’ve mentioned above I think it goes a lot deeper than that.

So, in summary, I disagree with Ted that selfishness, self-aggrandizement and status conflict won’t be problems in renewable future societies. They’re a problem in every human society. But on the upside, as his example of hunter gatherer societies suggests, this isn’t necessarily an insurmountable problem in creating functional egalitarian societies. Indeed, clever societies find ways to make use of people’s status-climbing energies while preventing them from becoming destructive.

Nevertheless, status conflict does need careful attention and management. Cooperatives whose members claim to get along perfectly with no need for conflict resolution are usually riven with implicit tensions that quickly tear them apart – often enough even ones that claim to be based on the collectivist wisdom of older or non-capitalist societies. I think there’s a wider lesson there for the cooperative societies of the future.

9. We need to talk about ‘the family’ part of ‘the small family farm’. I’m not going to do it here, because this essay is long enough already and because to some extent I’ve already done it here and here. But, as with status contest, there’s a need to acknowledge that family relationships are and will likely continue to be a critical part of life, and wise societies try to make the best of their positives while mitigating their negatives.

I think there’s a failure of left-wing or ‘progressive’ thought on this issue that allows the right to run riot with the concept of the family. Many people on the left that I know devote enormous attention to parental, sibling and spousal relationships in their personal lives and yet are scornful of family relationships in their writing and politics.

In his A People’s Green New Deal Max Ajl calls for agrarian reform to break large farms “into units which can be tended by families using agroecological methods, or lassoed into cooperatives”, and again talks elsewhere of the need for small plots workable by “non-patriarchal familial units or organized in cooperatives” (p.117 and p.144). He doesn’t expand on these sensible suggestions (and Kai Heron doesn’t press him on them in his interview with Max, despite the strictures against family farming he expresses in his critique of me). Fair enough, maybe – but it does leave some questions open about the shape of family farming in the futures they envisage. Ultimately, analysis of the ‘family’ part of the ‘small family farm’ is necessary, because it’s not going to go away.

10. We also need to talk about states and publics. Again, I won’t say much about this here for brevity and because I’ll be writing about it in future essays. But just briefly, Ted says that I suggest certain problems might “have to be dealt with by “public” means, without detailing how”. This seems a bit harsh, given that I devote some attention in my book to the concept of the public sphere, to civic republican politics and to the concept of the supersedure state. Ted himself talks of “formal arrangements for dealing with problems individually or publicly” – also without detailing how! Regarding Heffron and Heron, he writes that they “do not make clear what they would want but it would seem that the core Marxist principle of eliminating private ownership of the means of production would lead them to advocate state ownership of the farming sector.”

Heffron has certainly advocated for the nationalisation of landownership, so that sounds about right. Personally, I’m not so keen to hand Boris Johnson the keys to my farm, but I doubt Heffron really favours that either. The way Marxist theories of the state generally get around this is to imagine that a working-class revolution will occur in which the state becomes the servant of an uncorrupted people’s will. Right-wing or cultural nationalists also think the state serves an uncorrupted people’s will, but of a different kind and genesis. Ted seems to think something similar, albeit again with a different framing.

I don’t share this viewpoint, and I’m extremely wary of any approach to the state that sees it as a positive manifestation of some unfolding political good. As I see it, supervening political authority is a contrivance and an unfortunate necessity that’s always likely to fail in various potentially unpleasant ways. But it’s not inevitably fated to fail everywhere and at all times. On that slim possibility, I hang my hopes. Such hopes, however, can only ever be realised in practice, by people figuring out the politics in the lived reality of their daily lives. They can’t be written down as a blueprint in a book. In that sense, I could never “detail how” republics can sort out political problems, however many words I’m allowed. Therefore I can’t honestly apologise for not trying.

Pig apples: or, why small farmsteads are efficient and effective

Nearly twenty years ago, we planted seven acres of woodland on our holding with help from a government grant that stipulated the trees must be native woodland varieties. Among the ones we chose were crab apples, which we planted along the rides and woodland edges because of their growth habit, sourcing the saplings from a nursery specializing in native woodland trees.

As the trees developed, it became clear they weren’t just ordinary crabs – I guess they’d crossed with cultivated varieties to produce large, juicy, dessert-apple type fruits. The fruits were still pretty unappealing to the human palate but not so, I discovered, to the porcine one. Over the years, our pigs have been happy to chow down on them without limit. In the last month or two of their lives, the two pigs I raised this year ate little else.

But since the apple trees are spread around the holding along the rides and it’s not really practicable to let the pigs range at large, this bounty involves us picking or collecting most of the apples for them. Recently, I’ve been going out at least a couple of times every day with a large trug, filling it with the not-quite-crabs, and taking it to the pig enclosure. After a while, a distinctive apple browse line developed on the trees at my 5’10” plus an arm length height. From then on, I contrived various tricks – jumping for apples, shaking them off the high boughs or pulling the branches down with my shepherd’s crook. When my son and his girlfriend visited, she sat on his shoulders and threw apples down from on high, one at a time into the trug.

The pigs went to slaughter this week, and I’m already missing my daily apple-wrangling walks, zinging arms from the nettled brush around the trees included. As rather occasional meat-eaters, the two pigs should keep my wife and I ticking over with chops and sausages for quite some time. As I mentioned in A Small Farm Future (pp.190-1), I think the relatively free-ranging woodland lifestyle of my pigs along with their mixed diet of mostly fresh wholefoods like the crab apples gives their meat a quality you’re unlikely to find in any store-bought pork. But if I were raising pigs commercially and trying to earn a living wage, you can be sure there wouldn’t be much jumping for crab apples in my business model.

There are four wider points I want to draw out from all this.

First, within every human ecology – including every farm – there is almost always some extra bounty available that can increase the flow of food or fibre, but it will probably require additional inputs, often human labour. True, we might have saved ourselves work had we planted the crabs in the pig enclosure from the outset, although we couldn’t have known in advance how bountiful they would prove, and they do other work where they’re sited. Plus, there’s other forage for the pigs in their enclosure – with pigs, the fodder footprint invariably exceeds the fencing one.

Someone cleverer than me might be able to calculate an energy return on investment figure or a kind of counterfactual trophic analysis. If we left the apples, let the birds, rodents, insects or microbes eat them, and fed the pigs on something else, how might the balance of labour input and food output on the farm look then? In the absence of such data, I’d suggest that given the excrement from the pigs who eat the apples and from the people who eat the pigs stays on the farm, and given the improvement in the mental and physical health of the farmer and his family gained from their apple walks, it’s a fair bet that collecting up the crabs brings a positive return. So, whatever the ins and outs of our crab apple story, I think the broader point remains. There is bounty on the farm, but you have to work for it. Those who espouse ‘land sparing’ or ‘intensive’ agriculture will hopefully agree that the labour intensification on my farm enabling me to substitute apples for fodder grown on cropland elsewhere is a good illustration of their point.

But – and this is my second point – while it’s feasible to wander around a smallholding with a trug looking for apples to feed two pigs, it probably isn’t feasible to wander around a largeholding with a trug looking for apples to feed two hundred or two thousand pigs. So there are diseconomies of large scale to the ecological efficiency of the farm’s unbidden bounty.

Still – third point – this kind of ecological efficiency or land-sparing intensification is costly in terms of human labour time, and we seem deeply opposed to labour intensification in modern life, particularly when it relates to farming. Almost uniquely among the sectors of the labour market, in modern times we celebrate when jobs are lost from agriculture, not gained.

The main reason for this is that it’s easier to generate a larger hourly wage in other sectors, and nowadays we tell ourselves a story that a larger wage equates to larger happiness. No doubt there’s some truth in that, although as the fossil-fuelled growth engines of the global industrial economy palpably begin to splutter, it seems destined to be less true of the immediate future than it’s been of the immediate past. But besides all that, it is to a large degree just a story that we tell ourselves. I’m all in favour of the occasional, quietly contemplative, hands-in-pockets country walk but, well, walking the known routes of my farm, trug in hand, to collect apples to feed the pigs to feed me is ultimately more meaningful, and more fun.

Modern society has built a vast cultural edifice of anti pastoral, anti ‘romantic’, pro urbanist myth-making to negate the idea that the rural smallholding life is a meaningful one. Well, I concede that it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But plenty of people already see through these myths, and their numbers are only likely to grow as it dawns quite how unappealing the alternative brews on offer increasingly are. How people choose to live and what they value are not fixed on tablets of stone, but respond to the circumstances they experience and the stories they’re told. Both are changing.

Walking around a holding with a trug choosing the right crab apples to deliver to the pigs can be spiritually rewarding, but it’s not especially taxing intellectually or physically. Even so, it’s a task that’s currently beyond the capabilities of even the most sophisticated of robots. But consider this thought experiment. Suppose a renewably-powered robot is invented that can achieve this task as precisely as you, at a price that you can afford by selling a few joints of pork or other smallholding products. This seems to me an unlikely happenstance, but just suppose. What would you then do? Possibly, you could tend the robot that tended you, but it’s unlikely. With a bit of instruction, most of us can learn how to keep a basic heat engine of the kind you find in an old tractor more or less ticking along, but the engineering involved in such a robot would be quite beyond us.

With this robot, I think we would have created a simulacrum of ourselves that would steal meaning from our lives, while possessing none of its own. And we would mooch around our smallholdings, hands in pockets, envying our busy robots. Or more likely mooch around our urban parks, wondering at the meaning of life and whether this is really all there is.

Or we could forget about labour-saving robots and just go out and pick some freaking apples. Then in our spare time, we could do things like writing blog posts enthusing about the job-creating possibilities of the smallholding life. Or pamphlets anyway.

But, and here I come to my fourth and final point, this latter possibility comes with a necessary precondition. We can only realistically do this if we can exercise substantially autonomous choice over our livelihood-generating and self-provisioning strategies. We can’t do it if we’re under external pressure to raise our output levels and lower our input costs. In other words, we probably can’t do it if we’re under consistent pressure from market or state forces to improve our economic ‘efficiency’ – and, by that token, probably diminish our ecological efficiency. Which is to say that we probably can’t do it unless we have strong proprietorial rights over our smallholdings.

And this brings us to the question of tenure and property rights, which I will be examining in my next few posts.

How I grew, and lost, a rainforest

And so I’ve come to the end of my posts concerning Part II of A Small Farm Future and I shall soon be moving onto Parts III and IV, which are the ones that have generated most of the discussions and disputations over the book. I include this post by way of a deep breath, reflecting back on the ground we’ve recently covered and forward toward what’s to come.

Let me begin by reprising the tale of our woodland here at Vallis Veg, which I’ve previously discussed here, among other places. Between 2004 and 2007 we planted seven acres of young saplings on our site, which have now grown into some pretty hefty trees providing numerous benefits – constructional timber, firewood, food, wildlife habitat, wind protection and recreation among them. I’ve discussed before the debate about whether it’s better to allow natural regeneration, or to force the issue by planting saplings, as we did. In any given situation there can be arguments either way, with the balance of them perhaps usually favouring the low input natural regeneration route.

But I’ve come to think of this debate as rather pointless. Given the human dominance of the farmed landscape, what really matters is the decision to opt for trees. If you take the natural regeneration route, you’ll probably lose several years of potential tree growth – which could be significant for humans on our short-run timescales, but not really significant on forest time. In our woodland, wild trees and herbaceous understory plants that we never designed into the system ourselves are beginning to make their presence felt. In a few decades, I don’t think it will have mattered much to anybody but ourselves during a few head-start years how the trees came about. Aside from the possibility that climate change will get the final word, soon enough the only thing that will matter is whether the people who are stewarding the land after us suffer the woodland to continue or not.

Campaigning eco-journalist George Monbiot makes a good case for reconsidering parts of Britain’s woodland cover as rainforest, a resonant word that might make us re-evaluate the way we think about our trees. He defines rainforest as forest wet enough to support epiphytes such as mosses. In the same article, he goes on to make a slightly less good case for preferring natural regeneration over tree-planting on various grounds, including the notion that a plantation “takes decades to begin to resemble a natural forest”.

So let me present to you Exhibit A – a tree we planted that’s now encircled with epiphytic moss. And Exhibit B, a view of part of our woodland shot from behind Vallis palace that I’d suggest arguably does at least ‘resemble’ a natural forest. Reader, I grew a rainforest in fifteen years!

I don’t want to go out of my way to annoy George, but I can’t resist also presenting Exhibit C – ovine silvo-pasture. But, talking of livestock, let’s go back to Exhibit A. What is that unsightly gouging in the soil around my moss-encircled rainforest tree? That, my friend, is the work of two pigs I’m currently raising. Which perhaps is problematic, at least if you follow the advice of my fellow Chelsea Green author Steve Gabriel in his interesting book Silvopasture. Steve argues that the rooting of pigs too easily disturbs the soil around trees, threatening the long-term survival of the trees to the extent that pigs are not a great choice for agroforestry livestock, despite their woodland origins.

It’s not my intention to pick a quarrel with Steve, who I’m sure knows a great deal more than I do about agroforestry systems. In the case of my own particular system, I usually raise two pigs over six months out of every two years in about two acres of mixed woodland, grassland and cropland with supplemental feeding, which I think keeps the habitat pressure relatively low. Even so, it’s possible that the depredations of the pigs seen in Exhibit A will prove lethal in the medium term to that tree (the pigs seem to home in on particular trees and grassland patches, leaving others undisturbed). So perhaps I will be guilty of destroying a rainforest not long after growing it, though the likely death of its ash trees seems a weightier matter, and one that’s beyond my control.

But I can’t summon an awful lot of anxiety about the pig damage. People have learned a lot in recent times about the intricate complexities of old growth forests and the extraordinary symbioses between their plants, fungi, animals and microbes. But I fear this too easily generates a misplaced snootiness about younger growth woodlands and the simpler, more aggressive interactions they contain, where trees have the role of what forester Peter Wohlleben calls ‘street kids’, prematurely left to fend for themselves in a risky, live fast die young lifestyle.

Wohlleben himself shows in his book The Hidden Life of Trees that even in the absence of human intervention the road to old age for a tree is strewn with dangers, with most never making it. And why in any case should the absence of human intervention be a relevant datum? Humans, like pigs, play the ecological role of patch-disturber, holding up ecological succession and introducing greater mosaic diversity into the landscape. This is not in itself an ignoble role, even if the number of people and the number of pigs in the world today has made us more than ‘patch’ disturbers. Organisms that cause trees to grow or not to grow and cause them to fall before their time are another part of woodland ecology.

Simon Fairlie wrote a fascinating chapter in his wonderful book Meat about the trade-offs between grassland and woodland in agriculture that he called ‘The struggle between light and shade’. This speaks to an open question in our farming systems that we can never quite get right – how much patch disturbance and how much succession, how much labour input and how much nature’s way, how many perennials and how many annuals, how much grass, how much woodland, how much cropland? As my pigs root among the trees, I’m conscious that this question is forever open – and I’m only one of the protagonists in it, who doesn’t necessarily get the final word.

But as I turn my attention in forthcoming posts to the more political and social aspects of farm systems, I want to interpret the ‘struggle between light and shade’ more metaphorically. So much of our thinking invests itself in totalizing dualities. Right versus wrong, good versus evil, truth versus error, ‘science’ versus ideology, righteousness versus sin, or light versus shade. As I prepare to wade into the partial and messy world of human affairs and opinions, in which I hold some pretty firm ones of my own, I want to pause for a moment in the forest’s dappled glades that the pigs have opened up. Neither right nor wrong, neither light nor shade. This is not a vapid argument that the ‘middle ground’ is always best. Perhaps it’s just an argument for a bit of intellectual patch disturbance, to follow the pig’s way, without pre-commitment to the benefits of either light or shade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some further thoughts on organic fertility

I’m going to continue my theme from my last post about organic fertility in future farming, picking up on a few of the very interesting comments that people made in response to it. Apologies that it’s taken me a while to get around to this follow up post – work just keeps finding me. In fact, I’m going to keep this briefer than originally planned so as to keep my head above the water.

Anyway, many thanks for the comments. For the most part, I’m not going to respond to named individuals, instead focusing on the general issues people raised. I’m going to do it in the form of a set of numbered propositions that hopefully will clarify my position, and perhaps also act as a spur to further discussion. A lot of the comments focused in one way or another around the framing of my post, so I’ll begin with that.

  1. The title of my previous post – ‘Can organic farming feed the world?’ – was probably a poor choice and arguably falls into a Lakoff framing trap, with its underlying implication that non-organic (‘conventional’, ‘industrial’ or synthetic nitrogen) farming faces no parallel question. For my part, I do not assume that non-organic farming as it’s generally practiced at present will be able to continue to feed the world (in fact, I strongly suspect it won’t be able to). All the same, I think it’s legitimate to ask the same question of organic farming, and follow through on the implications.

 

  1. The structure of my post followed David Connor’s paper, which looked top-down globally at the amount of biological (‘organic’) nitrogen fixation (BNF) and the amount of synthetic (‘non-organic’/‘industrial’) nitrogen fixation (SNF). An alternative approach is to look bottom-up locally – how much land and other resources do I need to provision myself without SNF in the place/region/country where I live? This latter approach is precisely the one I took in Chapter 11 of my book A Small Farm Future for the case of the UK – and the answers I came up with is ‘not very much’ and ‘yes, we can easily provision ourselves using only BNF’. But you have to make a lot of detailed assumptions to undertake the bottom-up approach, which are difficult enough for a single country or bioregion, let alone for the whole world. So there’s something to be said for looking top-down globally as a complementary approach, starting from the reality of how much BNF and SNF there actually is in the present world.

 

  1. Still, the problem with this top-down, status quo approach is that it often mistakes the way things are for the way they should or must be. I like to think that my previous post gently undermines such assumptions in Connor’s paper. We don’t need to devote cropland to livestock production. We can devote more labour to global agriculture than we presently do. We don’t need to waste so much food. And so on. In this way, I think we move the debate more towards the bottom-up approach. Can we get by globally with only BNF? Probably yes, just about, if we change some of our framing assumptions about how we do agriculture globally.

 

  1. But why does it matter whether we can get by with only BNF? In the world as it presently is, at the level of the individual farm, my answer is – it doesn’t. Indeed there may sometimes be a case for using SNF and, at the farmer-to-farmer level, I concede there’s much to be said for avoiding a polarized SNF versus BNF debate (with the proviso that this onus also falls on pro-SNF, anti-organic advocates like Connor). However, I think it does matter at the level of the total farm system, because SNF requires highly complex industrial infrastructure, and it readily enables farmers to engage in non-resilient and unsustainable cycles of productivity gain. I don’t think we can build congenial and renewable cultures long-term on this basis. So if it turns out we can’t feed ourselves without SNF, then we’re in quite a predicament. Happily, that doesn’t really seem to be the case. Suggesting how that may be so was the main point of my previous post.

 

  1. There are different ways to increase productivity in agriculture, of which N fixation methods are only one. Another is devoting more human labour to smaller, more intensively worked holdings and farmscapes. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the importance of this more labour-intensive approach for a renewable human future – it’s central to my book, and to this blog. Implicitly, though, more labour-intensive farming probably means more BNF. It certainly means more careful N cycling.

 

  1. Underlying the N debate is another one about the place of livestock in our farming and of meat in our diets. I’m not going to wade too deeply into that here, although I’m aiming to devote a future post to it (see also Chapter 8 of A Small Farm Future). Commenters on my previous post touched on the issue of using soy to manufacture ‘fake meat’ more efficiently than of using it to feed livestock that are slaughtered for meat. Again, I see this as a present vs future food system issue. In present circumstances, maybe there’s something to be said for favouring ‘fake meat’ over actual meat. In future circumstances, there will be something to be said for a world of smallholdings and agricultural commons where livestock are kept primarily to improve the efficiency of tapping and cycling nutrients in low energy farming systems. Either way, we will be producing a lot less ‘real’ meat for human consumption (though its consumption across the population may be better distributed).

 

  1. Thinking in terms of BNF and SNF rather than organic/conventional farming is useful to avoid missing the various ways in which N from SNF finds its way into organic farming or gardening, which people then too easily assume derives from BNF. This is probably even more important when it comes to phosphate rather than N. The study cited by Shaun Warkentin suggests that around 70% of P inputs in a sample of organic farms in France came from conventional sources, and the main conventional source for P is unsustainable mining. Ultimately, the long-term necessity to cycle rather than mine P could be a key factor propelling humanity back to a predominantly rural, distributed and agrarian human geography.

 

  1. The excellent possibilities for BNF and for P cycling in small-scale paddy rice farming systems suggest they are a renewable farming approach of choice for the future where they’re feasible. The methanogenic nature of paddy farming (and of smallholder livestock keeping) is irrelevant to its long-term sustainability, whereas short-term elimination of fossil fuel combustion is critical. Economic development policies should support small-scale paddy farming and avoid explicit or implicit fossil fuel dependence.

 

  1. With characteristically effective sleuthing, Steve L has uncovered the figure of 28 Mt of fertilizer lost annually in the food supply chain. With this corrected for, the need for SNF potentially shrinks to near zero – but I’m not sure how much N there is in this 28 Mt, so I’ll leave that tantalizing prospect hanging for now.

The sheep sacrifice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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