Ten years of small farm future

I wouldn’t normally be straining myself to get a post out on New Year’s Day, but (checks archive) blow me if today isn’t the tenth anniversary of this blog’s inception. Three hundred and fifty blog posts. Ten thousand comments. It’s quite some wordage. Has it all been worth it? I couldn’t possibly say, but I hope the landmark is enough for me to be forgiven the self-indulgence of a short trip down memory lane.

When I started the blog I was four years into my tenure as the main grower for Vallis Veg, the small local veg box scheme that I’d started with my wife (along with two other people working on the retail side). And I was four years past the last rites on my academic career. In the early years of the box scheme we sent out a printed newsletter to our customers with the boxes every week in which I sublimated my writing aspirations with reflections on the state of the world from my vantage point behind the wheel hoe. When we switched our website over to WordPress and my friend Steve suggested I might write a blog instead of a printed newsletter, smallfarmfuture.org.uk (or, at least, its forerunner) was born.

At the outset, I’d intended the blog essentially to be a replacement for my customer newsletters, but it quickly took on the form of a wider attempt to consider the ecology and the politics of a contemporary human culture and agriculture that, as I saw it, had gone seriously awry. In those early years, I was interested in debating different agricultural systems – especially now that I was working on them in real life rather than absorbing the secondhand wisdom of various alternative agriculture gurus. I also wanted to better understand why it was so difficult to make small businesses geared around renewable local agriculture work. At the same time, and relatedly, we were locked in a battle with our local council to be able to live on the land we farmed. Quite a lot hung on the outcome, in terms of whether my decision to quit a steady, well-paid job would turn out to have been a stroke of insane genius, or merely insane.

Around that time, I read Stewart Brand’s book Whole Earth Discipline and picked up the vibe of other renegades like Mark Lynas and Mike Shellenberger as they recanted a broadly left-wing, anti-capitalist environmentalism in favour of the kind of ‘green growth’ mainstream sustainability narrative that’s now common coin (at least Brand and Lynas only trumpeted their conversions once – Shellenberger does it with monotonous regularity, though I’m not sure he was ever really in the left-green camp he now repudiates). I found this ‘eco-modernist’ position, as it’s now rather problematically called, unconvincing and superficial, so I started engaging with it on my blog.

These early emphases have now faded somewhat. I’m still interested in farming methods, but I’ve come to the view that the main problem is not how people farm but how people organize themselves economically and politically, and if we get these latter right then the former will pretty much sort itself out in the long term. I’ve also become less interested in commercial agriculture and more interested in non-commercial horticulture, smallholding or homesteading, where online resources are already legion. Plus I’ve found that practical discussions seem too often to degenerate into the “you don’t want to do it like that” space, typically without the discussant troubling themselves enough to find out exactly how and why you are doing ‘it’ like ‘that’. So practical homesteading matters are likely to remain at most an occasional sub-theme here.

As to eco-modernism, my critique of The Eco-Modernist Manifesto co-authored by Brand, Lynas, Shellenberger and others considerably increased my readership, but my interest in engaging with it and indeed in engaging with most of the shouty, finger-pointy argumentation that passes for public intellectual debate these days around eco-modernism and much else besides has considerably decreased. I don’t think it gets us closer to solving contemporary problems, so I’ve tried as best I can (without complete success) to take my writing in different directions. Happily, enough people have found it illuminating for it to seem worth persevering with.

Talking of solving problems, one issue of concern to me on this blog has been our over-easy recourse to solutionist thinking in modern society. This applies of course to mainstream technocratic solutionism of the kind that considers our energy problems soluble via nuclear power, or our food system problems soluble via GM crops or industrially manufactured eco-gloop or whatever. But it also applies in the alternative farming or economics worlds. One part of this blog has involved articulating a scepticism towards off-the-peg ‘alternative’ solutions, whether technological or social. Although I might now frame it a bit differently, I was pleased on this front to get my critical review of perennial grain cropping into a peer-reviewed scholarly journal, somewhat prompted by an unpleasant exchange with an especially combative permaculturist. This was one of three peer-reviewed articles on farming and environmental issues I’ve published since quitting academia for the independent scholar’s garret. I doubt there will be any more.

Then came 2016, the year of the Trump and Brexit votes, widely heralded in certain over-excitable circles as much needed body blows to the complacent liberal capitalist global order. I didn’t think they were. Or, if they were, they weren’t very good ones. Perhaps I spent too much time on the blog dwelling on the politics around this, in particular on how fascist it was. To which the answer has turned out to be certainly a bit. It’s easy to dismiss such events as just the surface fizz of media politics, irrelevant to the deeper beats of nature, climate and energy that are the real drivers of contemporary human affairs and that are more deserving of attention. But as those beats get more disturbed, so does the politics – and ultimately it’ll probably be the politics, that is to say our organizational responses to biophysical crises, more than the crises themselves that will do for many of us.

Anyway, I guess the result of 2016 was to redouble my efforts to find an ‘alternative’ alternative politics and economics to both mainstream orthodoxies and the sham insurgencies of that year. This has been the main focus of the blog since then. It’s not a case of finding the right political economy, cueing the drumroll and then summoning it to save a grateful world. No doubt there will be more Trumps, Farages and Putins, and more neo-Bolshevik aspirants to the crown of world government burnished by the technocratic left. But there may be opportunities for deeper and more plausible forms of grassroots renewal on small farms and in small towns around the margins of this ossified megalo-politics, and my hope is that this blog has contributed in however small a way to clarifying those opportunities.

I wrote a couple of blog cycles in relation to that project. One on the Peasants’ Republic of Wessex where I looked at possibilities for local production of food and fibre in my region, and another on the History of the World in 10½ blog posts where I tried to put the politics into a larger context. Both of these, and many other strands from this blog, fed into my book, A Small Farm Future, published by Chelsea Green in 2020, which has been one tangible product of the blog that’s now out there making its way in the world.

I like to think that acquiring a smattering of scientific and political knowledge from an orthodox mainstream education has protected me from certain excesses typical of the dissenting autodidactic blogger, though perhaps hasn’t immunised me completely. In particular, a background in traditional left-wing and Marxist analysis has helped shape my worldview in ways that I still consider positive, but I find much of the analyses emerging from those traditions today too stuck in the ossified megalo-politics I mentioned to address current issues convincingly.

To my mind, this megalo-politics, and the orthodox educational canon associated with it, hasn’t kept its eye on the ball in relation to the politics appropriate to the current moment, and has badly erred by marginalizing, silencing and ridiculing other traditions and ideas more grounded in immediate material livelihood, the local and the sensory – such ideas and movements, for example, as agrarian populism, Romanticism and distributism. I’ve found myself sort of inventing an alternative political economy for myself along these lines, only to find that I was tapping into rich traditions of thought paralleling my own that previously I’d only dimly been aware of, or didn’t take seriously enough, because orthodox political thought didn’t take them seriously enough.

I’d long sought escape from Marxism and traditional leftism without quite finding a home elsewhere. Looking back on it, I think my book and this blog signal that uncertainty. But I’m now clearer about how to ground an alternative political economy and I hope I can develop that in the future. The stinker of a review my book got from a couple of Marxist bros stung me at the time, not least in its rank unfairness, but now seems almost like a necessary rite of passage into a less totalizing and more engaged worldview. Part of that involves an increasing interest not so much in arguing what the right politics are, but in how to deal with arguing over what the right politics are.

A few years back I wrote a sardonic post about how neither of my career choices – farmer and writer – were wise picks for turning coin, and I light-heartedly added a Donate button to the website to underline the point. It came as a pleasant surprise a couple of months later when somebody actually dug into their pocket and contributed. Since then there’s been a small trickle of donations to the site for which I am most grateful.

I get plenty of requests to place pre-written content for money or to monetize the site through advertising, which so far I’ve resisted (to be fair, most of them are probably just spam). Since I published my book, the contributions have dwindled. So I thought I might just mention that the book hasn’t exactly made me rich. In fact, one of the few jobs I’ve done that’s paid a worse hourly rate than writing this blog is writing my book. The truth is, I’m a very lucky human being and I don’t – at the moment anyway – need people’s cash to keep the wolf from the door. Undoubtedly there are people much more needful of your money than me. But if you’ve found any of my writing over the last ten years helpful or informative in any way, maybe you’ll consider a small donation so that I can at least scrape together a few coins and buy a bottle of something bubbly to celebrate ten years of smallfarmfuture.org.uk.

As to the future, who knows? I have a blog cycle about my book to finish, various other themes to share and a farm and burgeoning farm community to contribute to. Plus a growing anxiety about where humanity is headed. But definitely some good memories from a decade of engaging with other humans on this blog. Many thanks for the comments and debates here, from which I’ve learned a great deal.

Alternative agriculture: a polite discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes

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

From the arable corner to the recaptured garden

I discuss the idea that humanity has boxed itself into what I call the ‘arable corner’ in Chapter 5 of A Small Farm Future, and in this post I’m going to draw out some implications of that discussion.

The idea behind the ‘arable corner’ (perhaps I should have called it the ‘grain corner’) is that we’ve become over-reliant on a handful of arable/grain crops – 75% of global cropland is devoted to just ten crops, of which six are cereals and two grain legumes. And now it seems like we’re boxed in, because it’s hard to discern how to wean ourselves off them.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with these crops. One reason we grow them in such abundance is that they meet our needs so well. But it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Boxing ourselves into the arable corner isn’t great for human health, for livestock health, for ecosystem integrity or for socio-political wellbeing, as I document in Chapter 5. Here, I’ll reflect briefly on how we got into this mess, and how we might escape it.

Our key arable crops are all pretty much short-lived annuals, quickly producing seeds that pack a heavy punch of energy and protein to help the next generation get started – and it’s upon this inter-generational generosity in the plant tribe that humanity has built its civilizations. As I wrote a while back, were it not for this ecological quirk, we probably wouldn’t be facing many of our present intractable problems.

Some of these problems stem precisely from the annual habit of our arable crops, so one approach to solving them – on which I’ve previously written, and discuss a little in my book – is attempting to perennialize these crops. I’m not convinced this will work biologically. And if it does, I’m not convinced it’ll get us out of our socioeconomic predicaments. Nor do I fully understand why it’s presented as a more ‘natural’ way of farming compared with, say, breeding annual grains for fast, high yield, which is much more consonant with their life history. But I’m all in favour of experimentation – I just don’t think the perennializing folks should call the adoption of annual crops a ‘mistake’ in human history, as they sometimes do.

Going way back, perhaps even beyond the origins of Homo sapiens, people have understood that early successional ecosystems involving habitat disturbance and high plant nutrification are propitious environments for human provisioning, and they found numerous ingenious ways to push things in that direction. The swiddening that I mentioned in my last post is but one example. I think these are better regarded as elegant solutions to people’s contemporary problems rather than ‘mistakes’ – but it nevertheless seems unlikely that we’ll solve today’s problems in the same way, by doubling down on habitat disturbance and nutrification.

So if I’m proposing neither annual arable as usual nor perennial arable as an alternative, then what? I’ll come to that in a moment. But first I want to sketch a little social history around the arable corner. The old-time orthodoxy of the human turn to farming was that nomadic hunter-gatherers figured out how to sow and resow cereals, then settled down into sedentary villages to grow them, producing such a surplus of food and therefore people that occupational specialization became possible, and thence quickly thereafter the emergence of complex states that kickstarted humanity on its journey to all the benefits of modern civilization.

But newer scholarship as outlined by James Scott in his book Against The Grain suggests that much of this is wrong. Sedentism preceded grain domestication, which was only one of several flexible strategies of self-provisioning along the continuum of foraging and farming that stretches much further back into the human past than the putative ‘origins’ of agriculture within roughly the last 10,000 years. And grain domestication predated the emergence of complex states by several millennia. When complex grain-based states did emerge, the ordinary people commanded by them were generally worse off – worse off in their nutrition and health status, and worse off in their susceptibility to violence, economic exploitation and enslavement.

It’s true that by the time the early states got going, alternative games were almost up – population pressure and declining options for foraging impelled people towards arable, as per the old orthodoxy. But in the hands of Scott and similar authors this can be rendered as a tale of loss, not progress: “planting and livestock rearing as dominant subsistence practices were avoided for as long as possible because of the work they required. And most of the work arose from the need to defend a simplified, artificial landscape from the resurgence of nature excluded from it: other plants (weeds), birds, grazing animals, rodents, insects and the rust and fungal infections that threatened a monocropped field”1.

Scott argues that the architects of the early states such as Sumer were able to capture or ‘parasitize’ this arable sedentism, making its farmers the subject citizens of their hierarchical apparatus. Initially this required various forms of direct coercion to prevent people fleeing from drudgery and subjection but when population pressure on land passes a critical point, direct coercion can turn economic or legalistic, merely depriving the working class of the right to be independent cultivators.

The main counterviews to such negative appraisals of central state power within our modern system of states turn on either amplifying the productivity or mitigating the inequality orchestrated by the state, or both, so that even the humblest citizen might live like the kings of the past. But I think the jury is now in on this. Amplifying productivity has generated deep ecological problems. Inequalities remain stark and stubborn, and the most thorough attempts to remedy them have failed to endure and have involved numerous coercions of their own.

So maybe it’s worth looking for answers elsewhere. To my mind, a key hunting ground raised in Scott’s account is those long millennia of sedentary mixed cereal cultivation preceding the emergence of centralized states. Likewise, it seems there were long periods in British history of mixed sedentary cultivation during the Neolithic without state centralization. Even more interestingly in the British case, this was succeeded by greater status differentiation and centralization in the early Bronze Age, before reversion to more dissipated household-based organization thereafter2. There are similar examples from many other parts of the world – although predatory would-be states were often waiting in the wings in many of these cases, and were sometimes able to strike when conditions favoured them. But they didn’t necessarily endure, and what I find especially tantalizing in these examples is that there seemed to be supra-local political organization without centralized statehood.

And this is essentially the approach that I think commends itself today, partly by force of circumstance and partly by choice. Growing annual grains locally, predominantly on garden scales, along with a wide range of other annual and perennial, dryland and aquatic food and fibre crops in small-scale guilds that limit the ecological destructiveness of any one crop. Likewise growing mixed political institutions locally that limit the sociological destructiveness of the monocrop central state – but nevertheless actively growing those institutions, rather than assuming an inherent human ability towards anarchist or collectivist concord.

This links to another phrase I coin in my book – the recaptured garden. Elites and centralized states have often creamed off as much surplus as they possibly can from ordinary people – and one way they’ve maximized the return is by making ordinary people responsible for their own welfare, not least by making them grow their own food. Historian Steven Stoll calls this the ‘captured garden’3. Again, a modernist response is that people shouldn’t have to do this. Specialist farmers should release us from this captivity by growing our food for us, and governments should ensure that everybody has a tolerable income to pay for the necessities of life. Ask an average farmer or an ex-farming slum dweller in an average country of the modern world about their income and see how well that’s going.

I argue instead for reclaiming or recapturing the garden for ourselves. Globally, governments have at best a patchy record for freeing people from economic misery, and to this day a lot of people try to hang on to small patches of land as a risk-spreading strategy in the face of state hostility or indifference. Again, partly through force of circumstance and partly through choice I think people will need to press harder upon this recapturing, because governments will be increasingly unable to offer alternatives.

So, to escape the arable corner, the forms of state coercion associated with it and the ecological problems it creates I argue that our best chance is by becoming our own arable farmers, or rather mixed-arable gardeners, and by recapturing our gardens and the politics of our households from centralized states. I hope to fill out some of the details of this in future posts.

Notes

  1. James Scott. 2017. Against the Grain, p.96.
  2. Francis Pryor. 2014. Home.
  3. Steven Stoll. 2017. Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia.

Swidden as politics

I’m now turning to Part II of my book – ‘Small Farm Ecology’ – in my present blog cycle about A Small Farm Future. So far, this has been the part that’s prompted least comment, except for a few asides along the lines of ‘yeah well, everyone knows that small-scale agroecological localism is the best way forward’. Perhaps that’s a good sign, and the path ahead is less crooked than I’d thought. Or maybe I just move in small circles.

Whatever the case, there are still some issues from this part of the book that I’d like to explore in further detail in my next few posts. I begin Part II by discussing the ecology of agriculture which, I argue, is pretty similar whether we’re talking about mainstream, so-called ‘conventional’ agriculture or alternative, so-called ‘ecological’ agriculture. In both cases, humans push the land productivity envelope, essentially through habitat disturbance and nutrification that supports high-yielding, early successional crop plants – the (somewhat questionable) upside of this being easy calories (and other nutrients – but mostly calories) for us, the downsides being the destruction of wild habitats and more work for people to do (or possibly for their machines or for other people that they subordinate).

There are ways we can try to remediate these trade-offs, but on a planet inhabited for the foreseeable future with multiple billions of people I don’t think there are any magic bullet ways to overcome it so that we can simultaneously feed ourselves, go easy on the farm work and make room for all our fellow organisms. But what we can do is look at long-established agricultural systems for inspiration as to how it’s possible to manage human nutrition, labour input and habitat integrity in the long term. And I would emphasise that it’s inspiration and not replication that I’m talking about, because the issues we’re facing today aren’t necessarily the same as the ones facing the architects of those older systems.

One such system is swidden (‘slash and burn’) farming, which we were discussing here recently in relation to Scandinavian examples but is better known as a practice of ‘subsistence’ cultivators in tropical forests. Swidden is a long-fallow system in which trees in a patch of woodland are felled and burned, crops are grown for some years in the resulting fertile soil, and then the patch is left for many more years to revert to secondary forest before the cycle is repeated. Academic scholarship historically viewed swidden as a destructive and ‘primitive’ practice – kind of a step up from hunting and foraging, but still ‘backward’ compared to more intensive field agriculture.

This view has been re-evaluated more recently, with classic swidden revealed as an eminently sustainable and ecologically subtle practice (I say ‘classic’ swidden to distinguish it from the contemporary practice of newcomers in forest areas burning trees to establish new field systems under the impress of external pressures – also confusingly called swidden sometimes, and much less sustainable). The re-evaluation has called into question the evolutionary mentality of the earlier scholarship, where the presentation of foraging, swidden, field system farming and mechanized farming as a sequence unfurling through time represented another misleading legacy of the modernist-progressivist mindset that still mars so much contemporary thought in its concern with how we must move ‘forwards’ in technological intensity and never ‘look back’.

Instead, the newer thinking about swidden presents it not as an activity frozen in past time but as an active choice made by its practitioners in their contemporary circumstances, for various reasons.  Sometimes these are to do with optimizing labour inputs and crop outputs, which is worth bearing in mind on both sides of the debate about biomimicry in agriculture when people say things like “no one is fertilizing the rainforest”. In fact, people kind of are, or at least parts of it, and have long coaxed a subtle productivity from it through long-term human management, albeit without negating the aforementioned ecological truth that food output requires work input.

But the choice of swidden that interests me most for my present purposes is when it’s adopted as a way to avoid being caught in a political net of constant productivity gain and, ultimately, state centralization and ‘modernization’. So swiddeners aren’t necessarily ‘backward’ people who failed to ‘develop’ (those modernist-progressivist metaphors again). Sometimes they’re people with a pretty good idea what progress and development involve, and have chosen to avoid it.

Swidden itself is a practice that only works in specific biomes and within specific human ecologies. In southern England where I live it would be a really bad idea nowadays to try to burn down woodlands as a prelude to growing crops – and the trees wouldn’t burn anyway. But I still think it’s worth seeking inspiration from swidden, not necessarily as agronomy but as politics, specifically as a politics of autonomy. So for those of us who live in rural areas, it’s an interesting exercise to imagine what would be happening in our localities and how different the farming might look like if we were cultivating most of our livelihoods from the local landscape. Actually, it’s an even more interesting exercise for those of us who don’t live in rural areas.

Generally, the answer will be that instead of no crops or very few, there would be many, all eminently suited to the locality and to people’s needs within it – and there would probably be more heavily-managed tree crops in most places, making landscapes a little more swidden-like. In a sense, Part II of my book merely extrapolates this general point. In such a scenario, there would be many things we’re now accustomed to that we’d have to do without, or at least have less of. But some of them might be quite welcome: less political domination, less coercive labour markets.

One of the advantages of swidden as a politics of autonomy in places where it’s ecologically possible to practice it is that people living semi-transiently in dense and extensive woodland regions usually have many options for evading the exercise of state power, whereas somebody living as I do on a field on the edge of a market town in southern England doesn’t (perhaps the seven acres of woodland we planted when we first got onto the site was an act of subconscious desperation in this respect – though in fact even the limited privacy it’s afforded has been useful in numerous ways).

But that last sentence needs qualification. I argue in Part IV of my book that many of the world’s present centralized states may of necessity be withdrawing the flow of goods and welfare that they presently orchestrate across their entire territories. This could unfold in some troubling ways, but Part II of the book is kind of the happy interlude where I show that, in theory at least, it’s eminently possible for people to provide a satisfactory welfare for themselves locally. In the next few posts I’ll expand on this.

The US election: perspectives from an ear of grain

With an important election looming in the USA, let’s talk for a change about politics. But since this is primarily a farming blog, I thought I’d approach it obliquely from the agricultural angle of cereal breeding. It’s obvious when you think about it…

Actually, before we even get to the cereal breeding, we need to take a step back and talk about systems of classification. Because to make any sense of things, people inevitably need to divide up their perceptions of the world, grouping like things together. But our taxonomies can rarely if ever capture the complexity of existence perfectly. Anomalous cases, fuzzy boundaries and alternative reckonings abound.

One way these imperfections manifest is in the distinction between ‘lumpers’ and ‘splitters’. Take two palaeontologists arguing over some fragments of fossil bone. Professor Lumper thinks the small differences between like bones aren’t enough to justify classifying them as belonging to different species, whereas Professor Splitter takes the opposite view. Their argument is potentially endless and irresolvable – unless there’s some agreed objective standard against which to judge their claims. In the case of evolutionary biology, that standard arguably exists in the possibility of tracing descent from a common ancestor, though that’s not going to help the professors resolve this particular dispute.

The advantage of lumping is that it enables us to see big picture stuff, the broader patterning in the world. But push it too far and it becomes overly simplistic, and ultimately vacuous – and the grounds for the lumping can usually be questioned. The advantage of splitting is that you can grasp the fine-grained detail of things. But push it too far and you get lost in pettifogging specifics that prevent an appreciation of deeper underlying patterns.

I’m a lumper by inclination, and I’ll illustrate it here with reference to my aforementioned themes of grain breeding and politics.

First, the grain breeding. I’ve written critically in the past about efforts to breed high-yielding perennial grain crops in temperate climates. I won’t get deep into the issues but, lumper that I am, I think temperate herbaceous food plants basically fall into two categories: high yielding and short lived, or low yielding and long lived. Responding to my critique of their perennial grain breeding work, the splitters at the Land Institute say that every plant has a unique life history, and using artificial selection techniques they’re confident they can develop crops that will be just as high yielding as our present annual cereal crops, but long lived – and therefore more easily managed and less environmentally destructive in their consequences. I think they’ll most likely turn out to be wrong, because there are hard ecological trade-offs (those objective standards, those deeper underlying patterns) that they’re ignoring, which will forever obstruct a low input, low impact, high output agriculture. But, as I argue in my book (A Small Farm Future, pp.110-4), it doesn’t really matter if they’re wrong. In fact, I think an agriculture of lower yielding perennial grains is positively advantageous. So not only do I think they’re wrong, I hope they’re wrong.

Hold that thought a minute while I turn to the second issue. A few years back as Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign started firing up, various commentators (including me) took to debating whether Trump was a fascist. John Michael Greer wrote around that time that the parallel was absurd:

“Fascism…is a specific, tightly defined political and economic philosophy, and it’s not at all hard to look up what exactly Fascism was, what specific economic policies it pursued, and so on. Do that and you’ll find that Donald Trump is not a fascist.”

This, of course, is a classic case of splitism, with an appeal to objective standards thrown into the mix in the idea of ‘looking up’ what fascism was. But for better or worse you can rarely close the book just by ‘looking up’ what something ‘is’ in human affairs, even though more scholarly thinkers than Greer have traversed similar ground. Dylan Riley, for example, has written a lengthy essay excavating with great erudition all the many reasons why early 21st century US politics is completely different from the early 20th century European politics that spawned fascism. He’s absolutely correct in every respect. But, meh, he’s a splitter … and Trump is still a fascist.

Actually, let me qualify that. In the light of those earlier discussions and what we’ve seen of Trump and his administration since, I’d say that Trump himself is not a fascist, or indeed in full possession of any structured political thought. But his administration and the wider Republican party seems largely to have become fascist, at least by the lights of this lumper definition supplied by Primo Levi, who knew a thing or two about the subject:

“Every age has its own fascism, and we see the warning signs wherever the concentration of power denies citizens the possibility and the means of expressing and acting on their own free will. There are many ways of reaching this point, and not just through the terror of police intimidation, but by denying and distorting information, by undermining systems of justice, by paralyzing the education system, and by spreading in a myriad subtle ways nostalgia for a world where order reigned, and where the security of a privileged few depends on the forced labor and the forced silence of the many”1

I concede that the term ‘fascism’ is so widely attached to disparate positions – not least by right-wingers in relation to the left – that it’s in serious danger of succumbing to complete lumpist vacuity (like most political words, in fact). But I think the word, and Levi’s capacious definition, are worth retaining nonetheless to keep in mind the shadowed skeins of thought linking the fascisms of the early 20th century to the fascisms of the early 21st – the common ancestry, if you will.

And so we come to the impending 2020 US election. If Trump is re-elected, then I think I’ll have yet fewer compunctions than I did in 2016 in calling it a vote for fascism. I’ve seen more fully, as I hadn’t yet in 2016, the racism, the self-serving nostalgia, the forced silences, the buttressing of privilege and the naked will to power. In 2016 it was possible to write that liberals were just crying wolf. But it turns out that Trump is a wolf, if only perhaps a mangy outrider of a fiercer pack to come.

But enough has already been written about Trump and fascism. The more interesting question is whether if Biden is elected – as I fervently hope he is – a Democratic administration will also debouch ultimately into fascism. The point I’m making isn’t about the rights or wrongs of the political positions taken by any particular factions or individuals among the Democrats. Rather, it’s a doubt on my part that in a future of climate-induced dislocation, energy and material scarcity, disorderly economic contraction and polarized political mobilization, any regime trying to maintain power in a centralized nation-state, commiting itself to capitalist growth and seeking the assent of the governed will be able to avoid the trappings of fascism in Primo Levi’s sense.

So while perhaps I’m lumping too much here, I think it may prove useful to classify the politics we’re likely to see in the years to come in the ‘west’ or Global North into two kinds: fascist and non-fascist. Unless they change radically, the programmes of most of the mainstream parties currently will probably put them in the former camp (this certainly applies to the paler imitation of US politics going on here in Britain as the main parties increasingly resemble involuted theocracies obsessed with their own internal cosmologies rather than aspiring managers of an ever more unmanageable welfare capitalism).

The story of the non-fascist alternatives is yet to be written. But I don’t think it can be a story of centralized power, plentiful supplies of grain (perennial or otherwise) from breadbasket places like Kansas and cheap low-carbon energy oiling the wheels of locality-busting global commerce. In that sense it seems likely that the hard ecological trade-offs confronted by grain breeders and other architects of the energy supply will shape another hard trade-off that’s emerging in our politics. The story of trying to hold the existing political centre will be a story of fascism, Caesarism, bread and circuses. Whereas the non-fascist story will be one of trying to create livelihoods as convivially as possible, mostly from the local resources – human and non-human – to hand. The splitter in me thinks there could be many different kinds of convivial local society of this sort. The lumper in me thinks that almost all of them will be geared to the basic rhythms of the small mixed farm. And on that note, perhaps I’ll conclude with another line from Primo Levi: if not now, when?

Note

  1. Quoted here. Thanks to Andrew for this excellent reference.

The three causes of global ecocide

In a recent post I questioned the well-known formula: Human Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology. But I don’t question that humans now have a severe impact on earth systems. So if not PAT, then what? Here I’m going to lay out some other factors that I suggest underlie our impact and our present predicament in a more fundamental sense than the PAT variables. They’re also three in number – but I’m going to present them as a historical narrative, not a mathematical formula.

The first (and historically prior) cause of global ecocide, I suggest, is large-scale grain agriculture. It’s come in many variants, but the typical package – worked out long ago – involves a cereal and a grain legume for human and livestock feed, and a domestic animal (usually a ruminant, especially cattle) for transport, traction, fat, food, fibre and fertility management.

Nowadays, we often criticize this package in its modern form of ‘industrialized agriculture’ for its negative effects on the biosphere – soil erosion, water pollution, GHG emissions and so on. Indeed, these are all big problems. But the point I want to emphasize is not these potential failures of large-scale grain agriculture so much as its spectacular success in feeding humans in their multitudes. Under my aforementioned post, we were talking about the problem of ‘over-population’ and the ecological tendency for organisms (including humans) to multiply in response to energetic possibilities. So perhaps here’s our modern environmental tragedy in an ear of grain. The heavy energy and protein punch packed by a grain field enables humans to multiply. Not only that, but grain agriculture also allows many among the human multitudes it supports to devote themselves to things other than wresting a thin living from an unforgiving earth. And, as it turns out, a favored pursuit among these other things is wrecking the biosphere. It’s in what grain potentiates so easily that its real tragedy is revealed.

Wait, though. Potentiates, maybe – but is it inevitable? Not according to James Scott in his much-admired recent book Against The Grain. Neither according to Jennifer Pournelle in a short but scintillating review of Scott’s book, sympathetic but critical – six pages of coruscating thought that I’ve read four times without yet even beginning to plumb their depths. Between them, Scott and Pournelle point out that sedentism predated agriculture, grain domestication predated the rise of large-scale states and agricultures by several millennia – and that the earliest states weren’t grain states but forest or wetland garden states1. Can we say that grain farming inevitably led to modern ecocide, that people were fated to follow its high-energy path? No, I don’t think so. But Scott makes a plausible case for affinities between cereal agriculture and expansionary, centralized states. Today we’re living with that affinity – maybe dying with it too.

Is there another way? Yes. We could grow annual grains in “sparsely distributed garden-sized patches” with “limited negative impact”. So say authors from the Land Institute in Kansas, who are trying to develop perennial grain crops. Or at least said. When I published an article questioning their work, they seemed to row back from this point – asserting in essence that using annual crops almost always compromises the soil. Such ideas have percolated in more coarsened forms into the thought of permaculture ultras who disparage annual cropping of any kind – like Mark Shepard, who bizarrely claims that “Every human society from the temperate zone to the tropics that has relied on annuals to feed itself, is now gone”2.

Ah well, there’s a lot to be said for experimenting with perennial cropping systems – so long as one avoids hyperbole of this kind that too often seems to accompany it. Meanwhile, I’d suggest that those of us who grow annual grains in sparsely distributed garden-sized patches should carry on. There are too many of us to feed by throwing caution to the wind and investing in speculative chestnut-and-wild-garlic wheezes. I doubt we’d be despoiling the planet quite so successfully if it wasn’t for annual grains, but they’re not the fundamental problem.

What, then, is? Candidate number two, which came to the party much later than annual grains, is capitalism. There are many ways to define capitalism, but here I’ll offer one that borrows heavily from Wolfgang Streeck3: capitalism is a way of organizing societies where social wellbeing is secured largely as an unintended side-effect of competitive profit maximization in pursuit of capital accumulation. Hence, economies that brook no limit that anyone might wish to place upon them. Hence, too, economies that are constantly looking to expand. For an early capitalist country like England, only so much expansion was possible by trying to squeeze more out of domestic agriculture or manufacturing – ‘capitalism in one country’ is scarcely possible, and in fact capitalism has always been primarily about global trading networks.

One innovation this involved was raising credit in stupendous quantities through mechanisms like joint stock companies. The potential rewards of fitting out a transcontinental merchant fleet were high, but so were the risks, and the delay in cashing out. Humans have long dealt in symbolic economic thought (“I’ll sow these seeds now, then at the end of the season I’ll be able to sell the crop and use the money to buy a new wagon”) but the logic of capital was a kind of event horizon for symbolic thought that completely outstripped anything grounding it in local biophysical realities.

Also, a big part of the reason why global trade was so much more lucrative for capitalists than local trade was that if the lucre wasn’t actual lucre extracted from metal mines it was raised on the back of ill-rewarded labour elsewhere – in other words, capitalism has gone hand in hand with colonialism. The modern pro-capitalist argument is that the increase of capital benefits everyone, even if it benefits some more than others – ‘a rising tide floats all boats’. But – to press the metaphor – capital accumulation also works by scuppering many of the smaller boats, preventing their rise. In these circumstances, the smaller boats sometimes try to organize and collectively build a dry dock. Building such a dry dock is now an urgent global necessity.

So is capitalism, raised on the back of cheap grain farming, the true culprit in our global ecocidal tragedy? I’d argue yes, pretty much. The event horizon of its accumulative urge gives the modern economy its endless, earth systems-busting motion. If capitalism in one country was never possible, it’s now becoming apparent that capitalism on one planet is no longer possible, as the ecological footprinters have demonstrated – hence the growing enthusiasm for asteroid-mining, space colonization and other such tomfoolery.

But the story’s incomplete as it stands. Capitalism invites anti-capitalism. Colonialism invites anti-colonialism. It’s unlikely the European seaborne capitalist empires would have persisted long-term in the face of local opposition. Indeed, think only Thomas Jefferson, Touissant Louverture, Simón Bolívar. True, the capitalist worm was already in many of these buds – for example, the cotton capitalism of the US south versus the industrial capitalism of the north, with Jefferson’s small farm republic a mere daydream. Even so, ultimately it seems possible that the capitalist imperative would have exhausted itself in its expansionary efforts, prompting its own political negation, then reaching political equilibrium, and therefore dying.

The fact that this hasn’t yet (quite) happened is surely down to our third culprit – fossil fuels. On the one hand, immense world-transforming energetic power. On the other, immense world-transforming pollution. Also, heavily non-random distribution in the Earth’s crust, and usually major technical obstacles to extracting them. The result of all this, in a nutshell, was an enormous boost to the already-dominant capitalist countries who were able to corner the windfall and make the whole world over in their desired image. That doesn’t mean history stopped. The last few decades have seen the balance of global economic power shift somewhat towards Asia, China in particular – possibly the herald of epochal change, possibly not. And of course, China’s rise is also fossil-fuelled.

In fact, it was in China that fossil fuels were first used industrially – to smelt iron, starting some 2,000 years ago. But it’s only in the last century or so that fossil fuel combustion has come to haunt us ecocidally. Hence, just as the adoption of grain and sedentism long predated their use by expansionary centralized states that weaponized them as ecocidal agents, so did the adoption of fossil fuels long predate their use by still more expansionary capitalist states that likewise weaponized them. Humanity wasn’t necessarily fated to undermine the conditions of its own flourishing by the profligate combustion of fossil fuels. Capitalist humanity perhaps was.

Once again, proponents of fossil-fuelled capitalism point out the ‘rising tide’ of universal human benefit brought by cheap energy and compounding capital – without, I think, attending enough to the disbenefits that it’s also brought along the way. But perhaps more salient is a look towards the future than the past. For the capitalist economy to persist, it needs to grow – a ballpark figure for ‘healthy’ capitalist growth is 3% per annum. For earth systems to persist in anything like the form that our societies have developed to cope with, we need to stop combusting fossil fuels – minimally to net zero by 2070. Projecting 3% global economic growth to 2070 suggests that the economy by that date will have to be more than four times larger than the world economy of 2018, and it’ll have to find these extra three worlds of economic activity while reducing fossil fuel use from today’s almost 12 billion tonnes of oil equivalent used annually worldwide to zero. Nobody has yet explained to me convincingly, or even sketchily, how this can possibly happen. Which is probably why world leaders talk piously about carbon-cutting, but don’t actually do it. Not until viruses do it for them, at any rate.

So if I were to write an equation concerning humanity’s planetary impact, I’d write it in the form of the historical narrative above and not a mathematical identity. But if my hand was forced into equation mongering, I’d write an equation thus:

Human Ecological Impact = Grain Farming + Capitalism + Fossil Fuels

Historical counterfactuals are only parlour games, but there are things to be learned from games. So I’d suggest we can read this equation forwards historically. Without grain farming, we wouldn’t have capitalism or significant fossil fuel use. Most of us (and that would be many fewer than our current 7.7 billion) would probably be forest gardeners, perhaps accommodating ourselves to the numerous, Lilliputian statelets proliferating across the world, or more likely trying to dodge them.

With grain farming but without capitalism, most of us would probably be living in large commercial kingdoms under the thumb of centralized states, and we’d mostly be jostling to find poorly-paid work on farms, or in domestic service, or in the military – who would probably not be short of engagements.

With the full set of grain farming and capitalism and fossil fuels, most of us are jostling to find poorly-paid non-farm work, some of us have a wealth and global reach almost beyond the imagining of premodern peoples (but perhaps not quite: think Adam, think Prometheus), most of us are pretty poor, and earth systems are starting to collapse around us.

What if we read the equation historically backwards? It’s clear we need to ditch the fossil fuels before we’re overwhelmed by our own impacts. I somehow doubt we will, but hope springs eternal. If we do, then that will most likely take care of capitalism too, and good riddance to it – but it probably won’t disappear gracefully unless we attend vigorously to what comes after. For me, the best scenario for what comes after would involve something akin to the non-capitalist commercial kingdoms I mentioned above, but judiciously leavened with the best of the ancient and the best of the modern. From the ancient (and I mean really ancient), I propose semi-autonomous, small-scale forest gardening combining a judicious mix of perennial and annual plants, including grains in sparsely distributed garden-sized patches. From the not quite so ancient I propose a mostly civic republican politics of recognition – which I think is compatible with a more modern sense of individual human rights and due process that might just help see us through the travails to come with a minimum of bloodshed. From the modern also, I propose whatever life-enhancing technologies we’re able to carry with us – and agree upon – from the present. The difficulty, perhaps, is in agreeing on what ‘able to’ means, and in fully accounting for its costs.

It’s often assumed that ‘capitalism’ has given us modern marvels like clean water, heart triple bypass surgery or the joys (?) of online communication – a point that’s used to berate anti-capitalists for their supposed hypocrisy or primitivism. Actually, the relationship between capitalism and technology is much murkier. But it’s true that capitalism generates large economic surpluses, some of which have been devoted to life-enhancing inventions. In a post-fossil-fuelled, post-carbon future, generating economic surplus is likely to be challenging, so we’ll want to be careful what we do with it. In such a world, low carbon, labour-intensive work would be emphasized – so a world of small-scale farmers, market-stall holders, teachers, doctors and other health workers, social carers, and craftspeople. I’d argue that the most important task before us right now for lowering our impact – including lowering the impact of our choices on later generations – is to be midwives for delivering that world as quickly and as smoothly as possible. Reducing work opportunities for actual midwives seems to me rather less important.

Notes

  1. James Scott. 2017. Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. Yale University Press; Jennifer Pournelle. 2019. “Fields, gardens and staple states,” Journal of Peasant Studies 46, 4: 878-84.
  2. See variously: Lee DeHaan et al. 2007. “Perennial grains,” in Sara Scherr and Jeffrey McNeely (Eds) Farming with Nature: The Science and Practice of Ecoagriculture, Island Press; Timothy Crews and Lee DeHaan. 2015. “The strong perennial vision: a response”. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems 39, 5: 500-515. Chris Smaje. 2015. “The strong perennial vision: a critical review,” Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems 39, 5: 471-99; Shepard, Mark. 2013. Restoration Agriculture: Real-World Permaculture for Farmers. Acres USA.
  3. Wolfgang Streeck. 2016. How Will Capitalism End? Verso.

The International Day of Peasant’s Struggle – some notes from the farm

A happy International Day of Peasant’s Struggle to you. Talking of which, I’m still struggling away trying to write my book about peasants while the rest of the farm crew are up in London protesting about government inaction on climate change, which means I’m having to do a bit of proper work as well for a change – all reasons why this blog is wallowing in the doldrums at the moment.

So here are just a few nuggets to keep it ticking over for the time being. I’m hoping normal service will resume in the autumn.

In the book draft, I’d been penning a few critical thoughts concerning Emma Marris’s take on ‘post-wilderness’. Then I went out to do some farm chores, one of which was removing old shreds of plastic mulch littering the place. Under almost every one, I found a nest of ants mightily pissed off at the disturbance and the consequent need to move their precious eggs. Post-wilderness. What to make of it all, I can’t say.

Prior to the post-wilderness section, I crafted some thoughts on future energy scenarios, which prompted me to finally read this paper by Victor Court that Joe and Clem linked on here a while ago. My thanks to them for doing so, it’s a real cracker – not least because it connects up various issues of interest to me, including the matter of perennial crops in the context of r and K selection. An excerpt from the paper:

“the [principle of maximum entropy production (MEP)] provides the explicit criteria linking selection at the individual level with emergent and directional properties at higher levels of organization such as communities and ecosystems … there are three different MEP selection pressures at work during the development of an ecosystem. The first maximizes the rate at which entropy production increases through successional time, which, initially at least, is achieved via rapid colonization of species with fast individual/population growth rates called ‘r-selected species.’ The second selection component of MEP is for maximum sustained entropy production during maturity. This is achieved via maximizing biomass and structural complexity, which necessarily involves longer-lived, larger, slower-growing organisms named ‘K-selected species.’ The third selection component is for stress-tolerating species extending the effective mature phase and postponing retrogression of the ecosystem. Thus, given the existence of ecological disturbance in the landscape, the MEP theory leads to the prediction that there should be long-term co-existence of r- and K-selected species, a directional transition from r- to K-selected species during succession, and increasing predominance of K-selected species in ecosystems with longer disturbance return times.”

To my mind, this is suggestive of the hard trade-offs I hypothesized between productivity and longevity in temperate perennial grain crops and the unpromising options for artificial selection to create a win-win across those dimensions. Maybe it’s also suggestive of (1) an energetic basis to that elusive idea, an emergent property of ecosystems, which ecologists I’ve debated with on here like Ford Denison and Andy McGuire treat with great skepticism, and (2) a similar dynamic in human societies and civilizations when a new and abundant source of energy is tapped – from the high energy throughput, high entropy ‘r’ phase to the low energy throughput lower entropy ‘K’ stage. In that respect, perhaps we can expect a small farm future that will resemble aspects of the small farm past, unless and until it’s disturbed by the discovery or creation of new energetic stocks.

Meanwhile, I’m currently reading David Montgomery’s book Growing A Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life. I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of anyone who’s read it.

I’m also continuing to ponder my comment policy in the light of recent discussions on this site here and here, and also in the light of events in the wider world – especially the mass murder of people in New Zealand on the grounds that they were Muslim, by a murderer who invoked some of the same Islamophobic tropes that I’ve tolerated up to now on this site. Then again, he also invoked various environmentalist tropes, prompting some people (not in good faith, IMO) to identify him with an eco-terrorism of limits and boundaries. If anyone feels they have insights in these murky waters I’m (probably) interested to hear them…

Moving on, the blog post I’d most like to write at the moment but don’t have time to do properly is one about commons, and in particular the need to go beyond an Ostrom vs Hardin duality. I’ve recently seen a few posts and tweets suggesting that it’s wrong to even mention Hardin on the grounds of his racism, eugenicism and general wrongheadedness (hmmm, back to the comments policy issue…) But a true grasp of Ostrom’s work and that of other analysts of common pool resource regimes surely involves appreciating that successful CPRs are successful precisely inasmuch as they recognize the dangers of a Hardin-style tragedy and take well-crafted steps to avoid it. Trying to erase Hardin from polite discussion is about as sure a way of realizing his presentiments as I can imagine. More on that at some point soon, I hope.

Finally, our friend Adam Tooze – star of the this recent post guest-written by Michelle Galimba – has penned an interesting article in the LRB essentially arguing that Trump’s USA is gearing up for a gloves-off superpower showdown with China that constitutes a break with the narrative of globalization since the 1990s, but not with the longer-term reality of a US-led world political order, to which the globalization model now stands as a threat. What has ended, according to Tooze, is any claim on the part of the US that it has a wider, benevolent political model to share with the world. Or as some old TV celeb has-been recently put it, “From this day forward it’s going to be only America first, America first”. Hey, I think Professor Tooze must have been reading Small Farm Future.

 

An eco-futurist miscellany

More on organic farming, trade-offs, energy futures and small-farm definitions in this post. Veritably, it’s your one stop shop for a pick ‘n’ mix of eco-futurism…partly because indeed I have a few addendums to report on recent posts, and partly because despite my flippant recent remarks, I’m a bit too busy on the farm and on other things just now to put together a properly structured post.

So, first on organic farming, reflecting back on my previous post, I fear that despite my criticisms of the ecomodernists and their ‘land sparing’ agenda, I still accepted at face value a little too much of their lofty San Francisco research institute view of the world in it. My mistake was to concede without demur the claim that organic farming has lower yields and a greater land take for leys. Leafing through Peter Rosset and Miguel Altieri’s new book1, plus re-reading a paper by Catherine Badgley and co-authors2 (one of whom is Jahi Chappell, a valued contributor to this site) reminds me that organic yields are typically lower than conventional ones in wealthy countries but higher in poor countries.

The way I’d gloss this finding is that in rich countries ‘conventional’ farming is usually a high input – high output undertaking with per acre yields approaching yield potential, whereas in poor countries much ‘conventional’ farming is undertaken by poor people on small plots who can’t afford expensive inputs like fertiliser. So it’s usually a low input – low output undertaking. The introduction of various ‘organic’ and agroecological techniques – leguminous cover cropping, multi-cropping, mulching etc. – helps increase yields, so in these countries ‘organic’ farming (broadly conceived) helps move farmers toward low input – higher output systems. The two citations above provide numerous examples.

Given that a good deal of farming globally is of this conventional low input – low output kind in poor countries, I think the Blaustein-Rejto and Blomqvist article I was critiquing in my last post erred in not reckoning with this fact. And so did I. Mea culpa. I suspect it changes considerably the global picture they were trying to paint. Unless of course you take the view that poor farmers ought to get out of farming altogether and leave it to the big boys with the NPK…which pretty much does seem to be the Breakthrough Institute line. It’s not one I happen to agree with. But that’s another story.

Another line of enquiry on this point was raised in Joshua Msika’s comment that small farms produce the bulk of the world’s food. I mentioned in reply that a figure of 70-80% of the world’s food is often cited as the contribution of small and family farms, but the origins of the figure were ‘obscure’. I did a bit more digging around on this issue (mostly in the folder on my hard drive named ‘Small farm productivity’ – sometimes I marvel that my meticulous organisation is exceeded only by my forgetfulness) and found such figures in this report from the UN’S Food and Agriculture Organisation, and this one from the ETC Group. This report from GRAIN also weighs in on the issue.

Bear in mind, though, that a family farm isn’t necessarily that small by global standards. And that much of the food produced isn’t traded – so I think my original argument stands. Gunnar Rundgren made the interesting point that these figures may no longer hold true with the economic rise of India and China, where most of the world’s small farms have been located. Though working my way through Jan Douwe Van Der Ploeg’s Peasants and the Art of Farming3 as I currently am, I note that he talks of a ‘return’ to small family farms in China and Southeast Asia. Just as one line of enquiry closes, another one opens up… (By the way, Gunnar – your book is now near the top of my ‘to read’ pile…sorry I’ve been so slow).

Finally on the question of organic farming, here’s a shout out from Small Farm Future to the organic movement. There are plenty of people gunning for it in the world of conventional farming – as exemplified by the Breakthrough Institute article. And there are plenty of people gunning for it in the world of alternative or regenerative agriculture too. For sure, it’s not above criticism on numerous fronts. But the organic movement was talking about cover cropping, biodiversity and the importance of healthy soil and soil life – which pretty much everyone now agrees is important, even if they disagree on how to achieve it and how to balance the trade-offs involved – decades before most of us jumped onto those bandwagons. A little bit of credit where it’s due seems in order.

Ah, trade-offs – an interesting issue discussed by Andy and David under my last post. Above, I mentioned low input – low output farming and high input high – output farming. Wouldn’t we all love to practice low input – high output farming? Well, as Andy and David suggested, like many too-good-to-be-true, everyone’s-a-winner schemes, such systems are proclaimed often enough in print but are harder to find on the ground. Thomas Sowell’s adage “there are no ‘solutions’, only trade-offs” has a lot of force to it. Is he overstating his case? Possibly. But I think win-win situations indeed are harder to find than we often suppose.

In biological/agronomic contexts I was influenced on this point by Ford Denison’s book Darwinian Agriculture4 – Denison argued, convincingly I think, that it’s unlikely we’ll find simple win-win agricultural improvements that have been missed by millions of years of natural selection (and, I might add, thousands of years of human selection). Which is not to say that no improvements are possible. Wild grasses will never greatly improve their harvest index until they form a parliament and agree a long stalk non-proliferation treaty. But humans have done that job for them, for certain wild grasses at any rate, turning them from wild grasses to domesticates like wheat in the process, but it’s not a win-win…still less a win-win-win (ie. an improvement for all humans, all grasses, and all other organisms). There have been numerous downsides to the agricultural revolution.

I was musing about this point after being alerted to this paper by Snapp et al, which cites my own paper ‘The strong perennial vision’ with an implicit criticism, as follows: “Opportunity costs associated with the low grain yield relative to the high harvest index of annual crops are one of the most persistent critiques of perennial crops (Smaje, 2015). Agronomic evaluation of perennial analogues of annual wheat and rye suggest a substantial yield penalty….This is not surprising as, to date, minimal investments have been made in breeding perennial forms of annual crop species.”

Well, I’d rather be cited critically than not at all…but, hang on a minute, isn’t there a direction of causality issue here? As I see it, there isn’t a yield penalty because there’s been minimal breeding investment. There’s been minimal breeding investment because there’s a yield penalty, for reasons that are pretty hard-wired ecologically, and eminently understandable: as detailed in my paper, there’s a strong trade-off between longevity and harvest index, so the chances of producing a perennial grain as high yielding as annual grains is low. Farmers through the ages didn’t choose annual grains for productivity over perennials out of some random caprice but because they didn’t want to waste their time. In their response to my original paper5, the Land Institute picked me off on a few minor points and raised the valid issue of genetic load, but avoided the core issue of ecological rather than energetic trade-offs. That’s not to say that there isn’t a role for lower-yielding perennial grains (I have no problems with the weak rather than the strong perennial vision), but for those seeking a trade-off free substitution of annual for perennial agriculture…well, I’d advise packing a sleeping bag, because I think your journey will prove a lengthy one.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying, yup, there are no ‘solutions’, only trade-offs. One up to Sowell.

But what about win-wins in the social rather than the natural world? Quite simply, I find it hard to imagine any real-world policy that everybody in the world would universally think was a good idea. So too did Vilfredo Pareto, one of the founding fathers of Sowell’s discipline, economics, so he decided to give up without even trying. Economists define Pareto optimality as a situation in which nobody can be made better off without making someone worse off – an equilibrium point of maximum efficiency. No doubt it’s a comfort to those allocated next to nothing by the global economy to know that at least by Pareto’s lights the economy is an ‘efficient’ one. Pareto did more than most to take the ‘political’ out of political economy and help to birth a pseudo-scientific ‘economics’ with which the world has been saddled ever since. The (temporary?) eclipse of socialism, and even social democracy, with their theories of inherent class conflicts that vitiate any inherent win-win solutions to social trade-offs, has pushed us into a technocratic and solutionist world where issues like poverty and climate change are seen as technical matters of policy-making – but the incoherence of this view and the long-term troubles they’re storing up seem ever more apparent, as is nicely illustrated by Jason Hickel’s book The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions that I’m also working my way through at the moment. Hickel does a fine demolition job on the World Bank’s development indicators that I’ve been happily crunching numbers on in recent weeks, arguing that its claims about global poverty reduction that have become common coin nowadays are spurious. More on this soon, perhaps. Inasmuch as a good deal of the debate on my website of late has revolved around the slogan ‘it’s the soil, stupid’ I propose to move on to the contention that ‘it’s the politics, stupid’.

Anyway, Small Farm Future says embrace inherent conflict. Embrace trade-offs. Two up to Sowell.

Moving on to energy, I’ve been catching up with Chris Goodall’s carbon commentary blog. This passage caught my eye:

“Difficult not to be disappointed by the latest IEA figures on energy use. A decline in the rate of improvement in efficiency meant that global energy use rose 2.1% last year, twice the rate of 2017. Although renewables grew faster than any other energy source, they only provided about one quarter of the increase in overall demand. Oil use expanded, principally because of an increase in the sales of bigger cars, and coal burning increased, mostly for electricity generation. Coal use had fallen in the previous two years. Most tellingly of all, fossil fuels still provide 81% of global energy, a figure similar to the level of 3 decades ago.”

I was briefly tempted by Goodall’s book The Switch to entertain the notion of an emerging post-carbon energy revolution in the form of photovoltaics, but here perhaps he strikes a more realistic tone? On the other hand, David wrote under my last post about a once in a century paradigm shift currently occurring with renewables. I’m a mere amateur in these matters, but I’m interested in tracking the debate. Certainly, renewables are growing (I’m seeing lots of exponential-looking graphs about newly installed year-on-year renewables capacity in publications like the New Scientist, but I can’t quite shake off the feeling that an awful lot more of not very much is still not very much). If there’s a revolution occurring it’s not yet making it into gross global energy statistics. A few weeks back I noted Vaclav Smil’s marvellously fence-sitting observation of “two contradictory expectations concerning the energy basis of modern society: chronic conservatism (lack of imagination?) regarding the power of technical innovation, set against repeatedly exaggerated claims made on behalf of new energy sources”. Which side to jump?

And finally I’ve had various interesting communications about my post on the small farm as a ‘self-systemic’ entity – some positive, some negative. Thanks to everyone who’s contributed, even if I was less gracious than I might have been in response to some of the more negative comments. I think I failed to convey clearly enough exactly what I wanted to in that post. So I’m going to have another go at defining the small farm soon…when I get a break from the farming. In the meantime my working definition of a small-scale farmer is someone who’s too busy farming to write blog posts about how to define the small farm.

Notes

 1. Rosset, P. & Altieri, M. 2017. Agroecology: Science and Politics. Fernwood Publishing.

2. Badgley, C. et al. 2007. Organic agriculture and the global food supply. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. 22, 2: 86-108.

3. Van Der Ploeg, Jan Douwe. 2013. Peasants and the Art of Farming. Fernwood Publishing.

4. Denison, F. 2012. Darwinian Agriculture. Princeton UP.

5. Crews, T. et al. 2015. The strong perennial vision: a response. Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems 39: 500-15.

Pondering permaculture

I’ve now returned from my spirit quest feeling suitably spirited (report to follow). I also feel pretty rushed off my feet, with a deal of farm work and desk work to catch up on, including a review of George Monbiot’s new book to write. So normal service on this site will resume as soon as possible. Meanwhile, I offer you below a mere snippet of Small Farm Futurology in the form of a letter of mine recently published in Permaculture Magazine (No.88), which discourses on two themes aficionados of this site will perhaps be (wearily) familiar with, viz. my friendly scepticism towards the permaculture movement in general and perennial grain breeding in particular. À bientôt.

~~~

I appreciate the reference to my work in Winifred Bird’s article about perennial grain research (PM87), but I’d like to clarify why I’m sceptical about perennial grain agriculture. In essence, soil disturbance and high nutrient availability select for an annual growth habit in plants associated with high allocation to seeds (which is why farmers plough and fertilise the soil). Undisturbed soil and low nutrient availability select for a perennial growth habit associated with a low allocation to seeds. This is a strong ecological trade-off which is not easy to overcome, and nobody has yet really succeeded in doing so. It’s possible that artificial breeding efforts such as those being undertaken at the Land Institute will eventually bear fruit, but I think it’s more likely that breeders will only succeed in producing higher yielding varieties of low perenniality or lower yielding varieties of high perenniality. Results to date are not that impressive.

We need a diversity of approaches to tackle our contemporary problems so I think it’s good that perennial grain breeders are working on this issue. But I’m troubled by the bullish claims routinely made by Land Institute researchers and their champions about how they’re going to end what one of their researchers calls ‘10,000 years of conflict between agriculture and nature’. This strikes me as a piece of hubris ignorant of ecological trade-off theory and with no current basis in reality. I’m also troubled by the fact that humanity has become increasingly reliant on a torrent of cheap grain from the world’s prairie regions, above all from the USA, which has undermined more locally-adapted peasant agricultures globally. If we succeed in creating a high-yielding perennial prairie agriculture without addressing the wider political economy of grain production, the prospects for global sustainability and justice will be weakened. And I’m troubled by the enthusiasm of permaculturists to embrace perennial grains as an example of a more ‘natural’ agriculture – as the Land Institute researchers themselves concede, the ‘domestic prairie’ that they’re trying to create is a highly-managed, non-natural system. It involves no more nature mimicry than a cornfield.

As with perennial grain breeding, so with the permaculture movement more generally on the matter of trade-offs. On my holding I grow some annual crops, till some soil, have no swales, raised beds or forest gardens. There are reasons why this makes sense and reasons why it doesn’t: like everybody, I’m juggling many different and competing pressures to which there is never a single right answer. Reading PM87 I was struck by the wonderful diversity of people in the permaculture movement who are resolving their own pressures as best they can, often in very inspiring ways. But then reading the letters page, I was also struck by the less inspiring way in which people within the movement can be so anxious to police its boundaries and define their purity over others. So Westerners who “choose to breed” can’t be “serious about looking after the planet” (Brian Dempsey) and people who use railway sleepers or chlorinated water in their gardens aren’t “really organic” (Branislav Mitic). I’m flattered to be described by Winifred Bird in her article as a ‘permaculture farmer’, but when people with an interest in permaculture ask to visit my holding I increasingly find myself trying to put them off – I’ve grown weary of the censoriousness and unexamined assumptions about what constitutes a ‘real permaculture farm’ that all too often accompanies them. Resolving trade-offs, whether in plant breeding or in everyday life, is never simple. Without openness to complexity and contradiction, and without compassion towards the imperfect compromises of human life, there’s a danger the permaculture movement will become a restricted and self-righteous echo chamber of fixed ideas.

Sincerely

Chris Smaje

 

The turning of the year

I’m not really sure when it feels right to talk about “the new year” in the endless cycle of life on the farm. I’m pretty sure that it isn’t 1st January though. Perhaps I’d go for late October or early November when the last transplants are out, the squash is in, the pace of work slows and thoughts turn to woodland work, repairs, planning and the like. Or perhaps it’s around now when the new season’s garden work really gets going. Home gardeners and intensive commercial growers already have many plants well established, but bringing early crops in has never made much sense to me for a small, low input operation like ours – gains in market price are cancelled by the additional inputs, and the stress of ensuring a return on the extra investment by getting the crop to market on time doesn’t seem worth it. Jean-Martin Fortier takes a different line in his book The Market Gardener, which a commenter on this site recently suggested I might discuss. Having now read the book, I’ll be happy to oblige soon…

It also feels like new year around now in terms of off grid life. The sun is getting high enough and the days long enough for the PV panels to do their work regardless of the weather – no more fretting over computer use on cloudy winter days (though the soil warming cable in our propagator now becomes a slight worry as it pulls a cool 150 watts out of the batteries all night). The solar hot water tubes are shaking out of their winter slumber too – except we’re now in the spring dip when the woodstove is no longer needed in the cabin but the tubes aren’t yet quite fully up to the job. Without the back boiler, our water at this time of year is decidedly lukewarm – an issue to tweak in the future perhaps. This winter I did the first proper thinning of our ten year old woodland, along with the yearly cut of the willow pollards, so I’m hoping we’ll have enough wood in from our site for next winter – if we’re still here. For indeed, my bureaucracy-busting alter ego Spudman is soon going to have to dust down his iron cloak and do battle once more with Mendip District Council in order to secure permanent permission to live on the farm. More on that to come.

Some things don’t change though, despite the turning of the year. For example, a correspondent has brought me news of an article by an old adversary – a critique of permaculture forest gardening from a master’s student in agroforestry at Bangor University on a brand new website, The Cultural Wildernenss. The article is detached and academic in tone rather than aggressive and ranty. And its author now sports an augustly scholarly beard. But it’s still, unmistakeably…Graham Strouts! Actually, I happen to agree with quite a lot of his critique. Though for one who bemoans the shoddy use of quantification in alternative agricultural circles, Graham’s like-for-like comparison of nut yields with potato yields on a tonnes per hectare basis almost made me laugh out loud. Various permaculturists have responded to his critique – and though a few of them were content to invoke that notorious permacultural fatwah to which I too have been subjected (“you’ll never understand permaculture”), I thought between them they offered some worthwhile counter-arguments. I’m still not convinced that Mark Shepard’s work is a clincher for the superiority of perennial polycultures, though. Ach well, I think I’m done with that debate for now (though I’ve updated my web page on it to include a few more things, including Brian Cady’s interesting thinking around ‘oligoennials’). And I’m done debating with Graham too. Despite apparently possessing a degree in sociology, he seems to have emerged from it blissfully ignorant of what the words ‘romantic’ and ‘feudalist’ actually mean, judging by his predilection for applying them to me in the various travesties of my arguments that he’s published. Hopefully he’ll study more diligently for his master’s degree, and somehow figure out what agroforestry is. I wish him well with that.

Another correspondent, another old adversary. Ted Trainer has drawn my attention to his critique of Leigh Phillips’ Austerity Ecology (also relevant here are some interesting discussions with Anthony Galluzzo concerning modernism in general and Leigh Phillips in particular). I’m just working through Ted’s interesting thinking on ‘The Simpler Way’ at the moment, which I hope to discuss soon. Ted says that my critiques of the ecomodernists haven’t addressed the numerical evidence concerning the rate of resource/economic decoupling that will be necessary for their vision to be realised. I suppose that’s fair enough, though for the record I’ve engaged in some basic analysis along such lines here and here. Leigh contacted me a while back promising, in amongst the insults (and, to be fair, some praise for offering to host his reply) that he’d write a rejoinder to my critiques of him. Nothing has yet been forthcoming, but hope springs eternal.

Anyway, all this argumentativeness over perennial polycultures and ecomodernism feels…well, just so last year. With the turning of the year, I plan to focus my upcoming posts mostly on an analysis of how a peasant farmscape might look in a Europe (…or Britain … or England … or Wessex) of the future, and what the politics of such a farmscape might involve. On the latter point, I want to pick up again on the discussion I started in this post around modernism, agrarian populism or what Bill Barnes calls ‘producerist republicanism’. The ensuing debate has led me to think that getting to grips with modernism is vastly more important than getting to grips with ecomodernism.

So that’s a rough outline of my future programme. But first I’m going to take a new year’s holiday from blogging for a few weeks. For one thing, I’ve got that rarest of beasts, a paid writing gig, to get done, and I also need to spend a bit of time researching the peasant farming posts to come. Hell, I’ve even got some farm work to do. So, I hope to be live again on Small Farm Future in late April/early May. Meanwhile should you need to fill that Small Farm Future shaped hole in your life – and if you’ve read this far, then you surely do – you can listen to me talking about WWOOF on BBC Radio’s Farming Today.