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.

It’s not too late, but it’s over: how COP26 changes everything

And so the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow has drawn to a close. Time for another break from my present blog cycle for a few thoughts on the implications.

Prior to the meeting the eco-philosopher Rupert Read wrote that he was hoping for a bad outcome because then “we citizens of the world will finally know the truth: that it’s up to us now. Us the people.”

This comment was met with some bewilderment or even anger among climate activists and technocrats. But I knew what he meant, and I agreed. The worst outcome would be if there were some apparently big breakthroughs that prompted unwary journalists and other opinion formers into thinking real movement had occurred and that the powers that be were on the case, only for it to turn out to be just more ‘blah blah blah’ to coin the phrase used by many of the activists at the meeting.

Well, there was certainly a lot of blah blah blah, and few commentators seems to be hailing the outcome as remotely equal to the crisis. Some are opting for a ‘glass half full narrative’ that courts the dangerous middle ground I mentioned (at least we’re now ‘phasing down’ coal and have ‘pledges’ on methane and deforestation etc). But with Bill McKibben, a somewhat more mainstream climate activist than Read, writing “It’s a fairy tale that world governments will fix our climate crisis. It’s up to us” I think it would be fair to say Read got his wish. Professor Kevin Anderson was blunter, saying that at COP26 “world leaders collectively chose to sign a death warrant”.

I’m with Read et al in thinking that governments won’t solve this and it’s up to us. But there’s a problem. What exactly should ‘we’ do? I spent a day in Glasgow at COP26, listening to some understandably angry and emotional youth activists exclaiming that it was they and not the politicos cloistered inside the Blue Zone who were the real leaders, but saying little about what their leadership entailed and how it was going to sort out the climate crisis. In the evening, I went on an Extinction Rebellion march intended to raise a rumpus outside a building where world leaders were allegedly dining, but in the end the police corralled us down a side street far out of earshot of any leaders, where we stood singing a familiar XR song:

People got the power

Tell me can you hear us

Getting stronger by the hour

Power! People! People! Power!

But the most abiding image for me of the event was the cold steel entry grille to the Blue Zone, which was as close as this particular person got to any power, ie. not very. I gather that many of those in possession of the appropriate authorizations to get beyond it didn’t feel much different.

Well, it’s easy to be cynical. The fact is, theoretically it’s not too late to avert average global warming in excess of 1.5oC above preindustrial levels – although it almost is – and there are lots of politicians, scientists, civil servants, academics, activists and others working hard to secure that outcome. Every molecule of greenhouse gas that humanity doesn’t put into the atmosphere brightens the future, so I salute their efforts.

All the same, I don’t think their efforts will be equal to the task, because there’s a large human impediment to it in the structures of political-economic power, for which all the steel grilles, police officers and elaborate entry authorizations in Glasgow stand as a metaphor. Some call it capitalism, or we could speak instead of growthism, developmentalism, various other isms or more generally the idea of ‘progress’ that I discuss particularly between pages 53 and 88 of my book. This article about India’s pledge to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2070 does quite a good job of examining whether this is a real breakthrough or blah blah blah, but the article’s unspoken assumption that, for the land of Gandhi as for everywhere else, there’s only one path to ‘development’ involving increased energy use, industrialization, urbanization and so forth pretty much gives the game away. Without a different political-economic model to that, it certainly is too late.

But too late for what? Too late to preserve the existing global political economy, certainly. But since this ill serves most people and most other organisms globally, that’s not in itself a bad thing. Perhaps the real problem is that none of the alternatives – like the small-scale neo-agrarianism I advocate – have any real mass traction.

In the face of that reality, a lot of people retreat to familiar forms of modernist politics and find vindication for the flavour they prefer in the COP26 outcome. On the left, there’s a lot of talk assimilating climate change to working-class struggles for justice and against capitalism. A historical problem for the left here is that not many working-class struggles for justice have really been fundamentally anti-capitalist, and the ones that have been have rarely lasted long. While some on the left downplay the likely effects of climate change and preserve top billing for the politics of labour, others invoke climate change as a kind of revolutionary prime mover to kickstart the stalled communist transition. To me, it seems likely that climate change will be a revolutionary prime mover, but the nature of prime movers is that they don’t usually deliver to order on the programmes of older political traditions.

Anatol Lieven neatly satirises this kind of thing in invoking Naomi Klein’s book about climate change, This Changes Everything. He writes that he’s fully in agreement with the title, but “The problem is that among the things it has not in fact changed is Klein’s own ideological priorities, which remain almost exactly what they would have been if climate change did not exist”1.

I’d argue this also applies often enough to those on the left who are switching their allegiance from the industrial working class to indigenous peoples as the subset of oppressed humanity most likely to bring about revolutionary renewal, thereby preserving their conviction that such a world-transforming subset of people actually exists. This idea is getting wider traction because many indigenous people are bearing the brunt of climate breakdown, are often skilled through long cultural practice at political resistance, are in the forefront of further capitalist extractivism, and may have a thing or two to teach about non-capitalist lifeways.

All of this is true, but I’m not convinced it gives sufficient leverage to generate a climate-proofed postcapitalist politics. One left-wing critic of mine wrote that my book says nothing about ‘indigeneity’ – kind of true inasmuch as I don’t use that deeply problematic term in it, but kind of untrue inasmuch as the whole drift of the book is against claims to authentic political or other identities of the kind that ‘indigeneity’ involves. I consider these politically disastrous, especially for humanity’s climate-challenged future.

This is especially true since much the most successful claims to indigeneity in the modern world have been nationalist ones along the lines that the government of a defined area serves the needs of a geographically and often ethnically exclusive people. Anatol Lieven, who I mentioned above, argues that because of this very success effective action on climate change must be built around nationalism via notions of consistent identity, individual sacrifice, and historical persistence. While he satirises the left for its vision of a “nice, ideologically positive apocalypse inhabited by diverse but mutually respectful populations” he rather hoists himself on his own petard by calling for “intelligent, far-sighted” versions of nationalism, and not “stupid, short-sighted” ones2. Yeah right, that’s really what you’re gonna get if you invoke the animal spirits of the nation…

You can see how this might pan out in some of British prime minister Boris Johnson’s pronouncements and actions around COP26. On the one hand, he warned of “shortages…movements, contests for water, for food, huge movements of peoples. Those are things that are going to be politically very, very difficult to control”. Meanwhile, his government is trying to figure out how to flout various international laws to turn back from British shores the currently rather small number of boats carrying undocumented migrants, suggesting what kind of reception those huge movements of people in the future are likely to get (but I think he’s right that, ultimately, these movements are going to be politically difficult to control, which has interesting implications). Despite claiming that, regarding climate change, we’re currently “5-1 down at half time”, Johnson also believes we can “build back greener, without so much as a hair shirt in sight” with such things as zero-emission planes allowing us – or at least some of us – to “fly guilt-free” in the future. All in all, less national sacrifice and more nationalist fantasy.

Without a persuasive mass climate politics from either left, right or middle, it’s easy to succumb to despair, as I did for a brief period recently. As I see it, going through a period of despair is better than clinging to false optimism or the boilerplate solutionism of modernist politics. But after the despair the approach I now favour is for people just to do something that they feel called to do. In my case, I think that’s going to be helping build up the human, plant and animal community on my little farm, pushing a distributist land reform politics where I can, carrying on with some writing, and probably calling time on my fledgling career as an environmental protestor.

My wife, whose career in the latter regard has been considerably more distinguished than mine, has come to a similar conclusion, more or less. While she was away blocking motorways and parliaments with Insulate Britain, I followed the news avidly and got myself pretty riled up when I felt the targeting or messaging of the group was wrong. I’ve had some interesting conversations about this with her. She takes the view that we cannot know the efficacy of our actions. There’s a case sometimes for getting over our individual selves and opinions and participating within a wider movement, even when we consider it flawed … and there’s also a case sometimes for not doing that. Either way, she’s increasingly lost interest in the opinion-mongering of those who think they know what should be done or what people should think, including her own. Indeed, there’s quite a bit of blah blah blah beyond the Blue Zone too, which can be problematic in its own way. And if you want my opinion, I think she has a point.

Some conclusions, then. It’s not too late, but it’s over. The global political impasse over climate change does suggest that it’s now down to “us, the people” to address the problem. None of ‘us’ really knows how to do that, but maybe it doesn’t matter. We will do it in a myriad piecemeal ways. Some of those ways, as per Boris Johnson’s remarks, will probably be ugly. I hope that other, prettier ways will supersede them. A fond hope? Probably, but the “nice, ideologically positive apocalypse” that Lieven scorns may not everywhere be quite as far-fetched as he supposes, and I will try to explain why in upcoming posts. So my plan for meeting the climate apocalypse is to keep thinking, keep writing, keep farming and keep being hopeful (but not ‘optimistic’) as best I can. What’s yours?

Notes

  1. Anatol Lieven. 2020. Climate Change and the Nation State, p.120.
  2. Ibid. pp.xvi & xxv.

Insulate Britain: Notes from Back Home

My recent silence on this site is due to the Insulate Britain campaign. I haven’t been involved in it directly, but various friends and loved ones have, including my dear wife. So over the last couple of weeks I’ve not only been trying (not very successfully) to step up into the large hole my wife has left in the work of the farm and the household, but also wrestling mentally and emotionally with numerous issues thrown up by the campaign and events associated with it. In this post I’m again going to break out of my present blog cycle and offer some perspectives on all this. The campaign is ongoing and my head is still in turmoil, so what I offer here is raw in more than one sense.

First, a summary of the campaign. The main idea has been to stop traffic at several points on Britain’s busiest motorway, the M25 London orbital, with activists standing or sitting across the carriageway. If they’re arrested and removed by the police, the idea is to return to the motorway and blockade it again once released until the Government starts addressing their demands. If they’re remanded in custody, the idea is that new activists take their place and blockade again. And so on. Their demands, in a nutshell, are for the Government to take action to insulate all social housing in Britain by 2025 and all other housing by 2030. The logic is that this is among the easiest of ways to deliver decarbonization, and one to which the Government has already substantially committed but failed to follow through. Also that it’s socially progressive in tackling fuel poverty and the annual deaths caused by cold and unheated housing, and that it will create new green jobs.

I think it would be fair to say that the campaign hasn’t been universally popular. Originally, I’d planned to write a post that worked its way critically through the various objections to it, but I’m no longer inclined to do this for reasons I’ll recount below. I do, however, want to address a couple of the objections because there are responses to them that deserve a wider airing.

The first is the oft-repeated point that if climate change activists in the UK really want to make a difference they should go to China and lobby the government there. There are many possible counterarguments to this, but there’s one that’s especially relevant at this particular moment in history. UK activists don’t need to go to China right now, because ‘China’ will soon be coming to the UK to attend the COP26 international climate change conference. What will the Chinese delegation make of attempts by the government of the host country – one of the richest in the world, and one whose per capita consumption CO2 emissions are nearly 30% higher than China’s at present – to pressurize it to take more action on climate change when that government lags even on its own commitments to elementary emissions-reduction measures? If there’s a good time to block the M25 and demand action on insulation, this is it.

The second point is more generic. In falling over themselves to find reasons to condemn the campaign, the press and the legions of keyboard warriors on social media have tried on for size any number of stories of individual people harmed by the campaign in their journeys, and of the alleged hypocrisy of prominent activists in failing somehow or other to practice what they preach. Some of these stories have already proven spurious, while others are no doubt genuine.

But this illustrates the very problem with climate change action. I suspect there’s some Palaeolithic wiring in the human brain that makes us excel at empathizing with specific people and their stories grounded in the here and now, and makes us excel equally at taking people down a peg or two at the merest hint of airs and graces. Sadly, we’re not so good at imagining the narratives that will flow from larger statistical trends, pooled outcomes or probability distributions. The person who didn’t make it to their hospital appointment invites outraged sympathy. The possibility that on current emissions trends there may not be any hospitals to go to a few decades hence doesn’t make it through our narrative filters. Nor do the unnamed many who die each year in their homes with cold, as compared to the vociferous few filling column inches with anger.

That may change. Perhaps Insulate Britain and the numerous other people and organizations raising the alarm over climate change will erode those narrative filters and make the drastic actions on climate change that are necessary feasible. But I’m not seeing evidence for this currently, and we don’t have much time. So a sombre learning for me arising from the campaign – as if, secretly, I didn’t know it well enough already – is that there’s a level of public indifference to the climate emergency, a level of commitment to the status quo, that makes it hard to see how we’ll turn things around in time to escape catastrophe.

Maybe Insulate Britain can be viewed in this respect as the mirror image of the capitalist corporation. The corporation manipulates people by giving them something they want (like an internet connection or a water supply), while its true purpose is to use that convenience to extract value from people and put it in the hands of a few shareholders, where its concentrated power causes untold damage in the wider world. Insulate Britain, on the other hand, manipulates people by giving them something they don’t want (traffic jams), while its true purpose is to use that inconvenience to generate wellbeing for the population at large and spread collective benefit across society.

And yet the public seems to prefer being manipulated by corporations rather than climate pressure groups. True, headlines about ‘the hated mob of eco-anarchists’ are probably more a construction of media moguls representing said corporations than an accurate barometer of public opinion. When the stories of the individual activists emerge – so many of them older women who have given selflessly of themselves throughout their lives to their communities, churches, families and wider society – we might get a better sense of who the true ‘mob’ are and of what kind of voices are most worth listening to in society. Nevertheless, I fear that when the dust has settled and all is said and done, too many people will still oppose the disruption of the protest more than the far greater disruption worked by climate capitalism in ways that will ultimately redound to our collective ruin.

Indeed, there’s another sombre learning here in relation to policing issues. My sources inform me that Insulate Britain’s actions have by and large been policed well and with proportionate force by most of the officers in attendance, although if there ever is a day of climate judgement I believe that Officer No.3032 – aka The Slasher – will be destined for a warm place somewhere down below. But press and public calls for violent ‘zero tolerance’ policing or vigilante counter-action play into the hands of a generalized authoritarianism.

The lesson, I think, is to be careful what you wish for. If you’re successful in your call for greater police power to meet eco-protest with violence, then don’t be surprised if those same powers are used against you in the future, perhaps when you’re protesting at the lack of food or fuel in the shops. Indeed, the current fuel and food supply crisis – caused not by protestors, but by government policies or the lack of them – has already caused far more disruption than Insulate Britain. There is now a palpable air of government failure and the need for citizenries to step up, of the kind I discussed in A Small Farm Future. Wishing for greater physical force in the hands of governments against their citizenries isn’t a smart move in these circumstances.

While all this has been going on and my wife has been away, I’ve been at home, trying to tend the farm and the household as best I can in her absence. I’ve picked apples, made kraut, baked bread, fed the pigs and made porridge for my daughter in the morning before she’s gone to school. And as I did it, a man keeping the fires burning at home while his wife was out fighting for justice, I sometimes raised two mental fingers to the analysts who’ve accused me of advocating for ‘patriarchal’ farming models. Which perhaps is to say that I did it with too much male pride and with too little genuine love. An ego yearning to be heard elsewhere, in protest or in print. Another learning.

The nature of Insulate Britain’s campaign has of necessity been clandestine. I’ve found it difficult not being able to contact my wife, having to find out what she’s up to by following the national news, worrying about the dangers she’s exposed to – perhaps worrying overly, when the lack of news fills the darker spaces of the mind. And I haven’t supported every one of Insulate Britain’s actions, or its messaging. An action where protestors fanned dangerously across the motorway among relatively fast-moving traffic, and failed to own the error, was a particular low point for me. At such times, I’ve felt that Insulate Britain has lost the plot and has got too wrapped up in its own dramatic narrative. But for sure I’ve lost the plot myself at times in the last few weeks.

One reason I’ve lost the plot is that somehow the campaign has prompted me to feel climate change not so much any more as an issue I analyze from my study but as a knot in my stomach, a clenching in my heart. More than ever, I’ve experienced climate change as a grief that’s perturbed my normal mental functioning. And I’ve found it hard bearing that at home alone – in some ways perhaps a harder burden even than the activists working together at the sharp end – though I’ve been fortunate to have friends to share it with. It’s led me to question some of the ways I use my time and my writing, the online debates I engage with and the kind of intellectual arguments I get involved with. There are going to be people denying the existence of climate change or saying that we should redress it with next-generation nuclear energy or working-class revolutionary struggle until the waves close over their heads. I think I need to leave all that behind, resign from those arguments and find ways of embracing emotionally and practically the different course that so far I’ve only charted sketchily through the written word.

Climate justice and a community of communities

After a rather academic post last time, here I’m going to interleave a more activist one.

I’d been planning to write more about household farming but I’ve been on a brief odyssey away from home which terminated with a visit to XR’s Impossible Rebellion in London – and which also terminated on my part with a night in a police cell. The officers arresting me contrived to yank my shirt off me as they carried me away, before dumping me on the pavement to nurse a few minor cuts and bruises while I unwittingly treated the photographers in attendance to the sight of my somewhat over-capacious middle-aged belly. Dignified it was not, but I’m hoping that if anyone links the scenes back to this blog, they’ll take it as proof positive of the excellent diet available in a small farm future 🙂

To be honest, I’m still a bit too wired after my arrest to settle down and write the intended post about household farming and I’m feeling the need to process recent events a little more. So instead, just a few thoughts prompted by my London trip.

The day began with a rally in Trafalgar Square where a Haitian activist spoke about his country’s founding in anti-slavery revolt and taught us a song from those times whose words, as I recall, were along the lines that there are no mothers or fathers here, only warriors, and we will avenge those of us who are slain. I don’t think I was the only white middle-class person there to shuffle my feet nervously as we sang along, thinking first of all “whoa, not sure I’d quite signed up to that” while also contemplating the unimaginable courage of the Haitian revolutionaries and many others fighting colonial violence orders of magnitude beyond anything in our experience.

But this isn’t some historical beauty contest. It’s about building alliances to achieve political aims now. XR has received quite a bit of criticism since its founding for its alliance-building failures, for its whiteness and middle-classness. So I for one was pleased to hear the voices of many black and minority ethnic people and others in the forefront of oppression throughout the day who were engaging with XR. But inevitably, upon coming home and taking another sip of Twitter poison, I’ve found endless screeds fulminating against XR on all sorts of grounds, not least its need to engage and mobilise black, minority ethnic and working-class activism, and sometimes for the very fact that its activists are ‘middle-class’, as if this is intrinsically disreputable.

I find myself increasingly unimpressed by this onslaught – the bad faith of it from the political right announces itself from miles away, but the bad faith of ‘progressive’ voices more concerned to build paper hierarchies of activist entitlement than practical coalitions of political engagement runs it a close second. As I see it, there’s a contradiction within much leftist thought between a view of oppressed people as the natural aristocracy of anti-systemic politics and a view of the non-oppressed as having some special responsibility to channel the activism of the oppressed. Often enough, whichever of these contradictory strands best diminishes middle-class activism in the case at hand is chosen – perhaps a successful strategy for promoting whatever version of political authenticity the writer wishes to burnish, but not so much for promoting actual anti-systemic politics.

Enough of this. I recently argued that nobody is more or less real than anyone else. True, certain identities and experiences of oppression give people unique insights into the modes and methods of political exclusion. What’s less convincing is to proceed from that to the grand Hegelian step that these insights uniquely ground possibilities for overcoming the political status quo.

In my brief time with XR in London I saw a lot of people from many different social positionings interacting with each other around climate activism – a community of communities seeking common ground. In that sense, I think I saw briefly in outline a version of the populist civic politics that I advocate in my book A Small Farm Future. People who weren’t burying or superseding their positionings or differences but building out from them to other people and figuring out how to ground a new politics out of those interactions.

Doing so in the context of a short-lived street protest is one thing. Doing it in the slower-burning and under-emphasized context of ongoing local XR group activism is harder. Much, much harder still is to do it in the context of building resilient local farm communities in a world where our deepest assumptions about how societies work materially are melting from the ground up. The only thing that might make this easier is its increasing necessity.

The window of opportunity for people to drive that process rather than be unwittingly driven by it is closing fast. With AR6 just out, COP26 drawing global attention to the UK, the government’s next phase in criminalizing protest not yet on the statute book, and with oppressive policing in the UK currently less severe than in most countries in the world, at least for people like me, when I was in London I felt that the onus on me and others like me is high at this particular historical moment to raise our voices around climate change and climate justice as best we can.

There are any number of ways one might do that, of which arrestable action at XR protests is only one. But I’ve run out of sympathy with those who think it’s a good use of their own time to argue that arrestable action at XR protests isn’t one.

More than a few on the left like to dismiss XR by recourse to nothing more than an infamous tweet from the organization repudiating identification with socialism or any other given political creed. The tweet was naively phrased, though I think there may be a populist/civic politics implicit in it that’s eminently defensible. Anyway, I’m kinda tired of this notion that there’s a singular left politics with the only true structural grasp of the forces underlying climate change, an ability to mitigate it and a more plausible political route for implementation than the one that XR is trying. I don’t buy the theory, I don’t buy the empirical politics, in Britain or most other places, and I think it smells too much of sour grapes and self-righteousness. It’s time instead to use our small quanta of individual and collective political power with a bit more humility and uncertainty. But with a conviction to use it all the same.

It isn’t nice to block the courtroom…

A bit of news from the home front here at Small Farm Future, and a few reflections based around it. Today, my wife received a suspended prison sentence for disrupting a court as an act of protest against government inaction on climate change. Here is a short video she made explaining her behaviour and making the case for radical action beyond business as usual, with her own vision focused around small-scale farming. Please share it with your networks if you’re minded to – pebbles, ripples and all that.

At an earlier court appearance, she was troubled to be told by a magistrate that her right to protest climate policy had to be balanced against the right of people such as car drivers to go about their business. In her view, this encapsulated the distorted priorities of our decisionmakers in effectively trading off present niceties with the very stability of Earth systems that enable human and other lives.

Here’s an excerpt from the livestream of the court disruption, and here she is talking outside the court after her sentence with Shel, her partner in non-crime, with some good points well made by both of them, in my opinion.

I don’t know if her course of action today was the right one. She and I have discussed many times the choices to be made in the face of the world’s present looming crises and the limited powers of individuals, including the individuals in government, to effect change. I don’t think there can ever be clear answers to the question of what is to be done. But I’m pretty sure that we do need to do something orders of magnitude faster and deeper than current climate policies if we’re to meet the challenge. So why not glue yourself to a courtroom? It’s not as if anything else is working much better.

And it’s not just climate change. Globally, we face a whole series of intersecting crises that include climate change, energy descent, biodiversity loss, water stress, soil stress, economic stagnation, political fracturing, social inequality, violence and refugeeism – as copiously discussed on this blog over the years, and also in my book. It’s possible to dream up various responses to these issues, but I haven’t yet seen any plausible suggestions as to how to solve the whole caboodle in real time without the most wrenching social change, and probably not even then.

But wrenching social change is barely on the table in current public discussions. I guess I’m singing to the choir on this blog, where often enough I’m chided for my overly sunny presentiments for the future – but in the wider world it’s rare to find people thinking seriously about the unhappy collision of biophysical and social problems that’s upon us. Even among climate scientists, such as some of those who comment on Ken Rice’s excellent …and Then There’s Physics blog, I find a sometimes troubling degree of scorn for the ‘doomers’ who allegedly overstate the climate impacts to come. No doubt some folks do over-dramatize the negative impacts (while far too many others surely under-dramatize them), but I’m not sure that climate scientists always appreciate how fragile the web of connections is between stable climate, abundant energy, stable politics, renewable soil, renewable water, growing prosperity and non-destructive social inequality in our present world.

To be honest, I don’t think social scientists necessarily appreciate it either. The physicist Robert Davies made the nice point to me that while physics is a ‘hard science’, sociology is a ‘harder science’, because understanding the behaviour of matter is as nothing compared to understanding the behaviour of human beings. Nobody can possibly say how these complex intersecting crises will pan out. For sure, nobody can say that they’re certain to pan out well.

So, what is to be done? As a sociologist-farmer I potter along with a doomer optimist webinar here, a gene editing one there, a spot of small-scale farming along the way, and a few little bits of politicking, policy-ing and writing. Who knows if these are the right things to do? Maybe I should glue myself to a courtroom instead?

In the short-run, the right thing for me to do is try to step up into the very large hole in the work of my household and my farm that my wife’s absence has created. Happily, since she wasn’t actually jailed as we’d anticipated, this will be less onerous than I’d been preparing myself for – so more blog posts are imminent.

It just remains for me to salute my wife’s fighting spirit. And caring spirit. Cordelia Rowlatt, you are a force of nature. My only complaint is that I’ve had the jingle of that darned song in my head for days now, with no sign of respite …Oh, it isn’t nice to block the courtroom (fade)

Two hundred miles from Hartlepool

I’m going to interrupt my present blog cycle about my book A Small Farm Future for one post to comment on recent political events in Britain. Where this post ends up in fact is pretty relevant to some of the larger arguments of my book.

The events I’m referring to are last Thursday’s elections in which, among other things, many people across the country voted for their local councils, electors in Wales and Scotland voted for their national assemblies and – most prominent in the news – a byelection in the ‘postindustrial’ northeast English town of Hartlepool that had previously only ever elected a Labour MP opted for the Conservative candidate by a large margin.

That candidate, Jill Mortimer, has been described in the press as ‘a farmer’, but I haven’t seen any descriptions of her farm nor any discussion of agricultural issues around the election. As I’ll relate below, the issues thrown up by this election do seem destined ultimately to devolve towards farming, but only by a roundabout route which I shall attempt to unpick here.

Mortimer’s main electoral pitch seemed to be about creating more local jobs by ‘cutting red tape’. It surprises me that anybody would still buy the line that the lack of jobs in Hartlepool arises from an excess of ‘red tape’, especially when that line is spun by someone from a party that has increased red tape and reduced jobs by exiting the European Union. But Brexit has always been more about political symbology than rational calculation. It’s the Excalibur of contemporary British politics – the true leader in these times of trouble shall be known by the fact they can extract a well-honed Brexit from the recalcitrant stone of Brussels.

Hartlepool was held by Labour in the 2019 election under present Labour leader Keir Starmer’s more left-wing predecessor, the much vilified Jeremy Corbyn – though perhaps only because back then the non-Labour vote was split between the Brexit Party and the Tories, who on Thursday vacuumed up the votes from the now defunct Brexit Party. Since Starmer took over, he’s ruthlessly purged the left-wing elements of the Labour Party (including Corbyn) and gone on a quest for the Holy Grail of electability by trying to recover votes from historically Labour-voting but often socially conservative postindustrial working-class constituencies in the north like Hartlepool, talking tough on immigration, going large on Union Jacks and patriotism and avoiding saying anything at all left-wing that might get him into trouble. It seems to me the byelection result is a straw in the wind for how that will turn out. Over the last few years, the Conservative Party has transformed itself into a right-wing populist coalition of the classic kind, and Starmer’s search for electability through winning back working-class votes via ‘pragmatic’ social democracy seems to me to be destined for failure and many more years out of office for as long as he continues trying to out right-wing populist the right-wing populists.

Eventually, I suspect the contradictions of right-wing populism will undermine it, the Excalibur of Brexit will lose its lustre, and Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson’s obvious preference for the billionaires of London over the ‘red wall’ electors of the north will count against him. But by then the last remnants of the centre ground in English politics will probably be gone, perhaps replaced on the one hand by an even more red-toothed and nativist English nationalism, and on the other by whatever political grouping can speak for a more radical and less belligerent alternative. On present performance, that grouping is unlikely to be the Labour Party.

The loss of the centre is so disorienting that old-guard social democrats like Will Hutton are trying to explain the Conservative Party’s success in terms of a new grassroots Keynesian centrism that the left can emulate. Well … I don’t mean to deny the impact that resourceful local politicians can have on creating new jobs and a bit of local buzz, but to enthuse about regional airports, free ports and public-private finance initiatives is to miss the larger structural reasons why Johnson’s billionaires are destined to remain in London, not to mention the large social-ecological reasons why the entire economy is running on empty.

Indeed, for all the chatter at the moment about Hartlepool, I’d suggest that much the most important political event in Britain – in fact, the world – this year will be occurring 200 miles to the northwest, with the COP26 meeting in Glasgow. If the outcome of this meeting is a binding international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by around 2050, starting right now, then maybe I’ll breathe easy again enough to think it’s worth debating how to create jobs in Hartlepool – though it’s hard to see airports or free ports fitting into such a scenario.

But if, as I fear, no such agreement is forthcoming, then the time is upon us to stop caring about which politicians can best mobilize non-local capital to create new jobs, and to focus on local survival instead. In various talks I’ve given after the publication of my book, I’ve been struck by how out on a limb I seem to be with this view that the climate path we’re currently on will spell the end of the political and economic world we now know – not necessarily because of its direct environmental effects, but because of the knock-on human implications. So I felt a certain grim vindication, hardly satisfaction, when I recently read Anatol Lieven’s book Climate Change and the Nation State, which made much the same point.

It interests me that Lieven, a conservative nationalist with considerably more mainstream gravitas than me, has come to many of the same conclusions that I did in my own book about the shape of future politics – in particular, on the need for what he calls civic nationalism (and I call civic republicanism) where people can find ways to meet the challenges of the climate emergency collectively in their communities. On many points, I fundamentally disagree with him, but in the face of that larger agreement I see little virtue in dwelling on them. The main problem as I see it is that Lieven’s own vision succumbs to the same problem he detects with more leftist versions. Lieven is scornful of greens and leftists who invoke a “nice, ideologically positive apocalypse” of open borders, multiculturalism, intersectionality and so on, which he sees as “ideological luxuries”. But exactly the same could be said of his own view of a nice, civic nationalist apocalypse in which all the contradictions and nasty bits of nationalism have somehow been excised.

The difficulty that both of us – in fact, all of humanity – faces, is that there’s no very obvious politics that can take us from where we currently are in the world (which isn’t that great for multitudes of people) to congenial forms of human society in a world of climate breakdown. To my mind, that doesn’t mean we should give up trying to find it, but I think a certain honesty about how the odds are stacked and a scepticism towards easy optimism and solutionism is called for.

Unfortunately, that easy optimism and the soft pedalling of climate change remains a common tic of contemporary politics. In a review of ecological economist Tim Jackson’s new book, Oliver Eagleton wrote that “environmental theorists” including Leigh Phillips (sic) have raised “serious questions about the practicability of degrowth models … can degrowthers prove the ecological benefits of their agenda justify the risk of plunging millions into poverty?”

The ecological, economic and political illiteracy of Eagleton’s comments is staggering, but this kind of thinking remains standard fare in mainstream political discussion – a world that’s still all about jobs, listening to voters, attracting investors, cutting red tape, growing the economy, investing in the future, positive visioning. A world of getting Brexit done, making America great again, green transitions and finding the Holy Grail.

I think we need to dispense with these emotional props and face the challenges of the future with more honesty. But I’m fearful of what might happen if and when we do, which is perhaps faintly visible in outline in Hartlepool and many of the other election results. On the one side, for all their differences, people like Anatol Lieven, Jeremy Corbyn or Keir Starmer trying to articulate some kind of rational collective politics, and on the other, a nativist politics of friends and enemies where might makes right.

The sliver of hope that I tried to promote in my book is that in the world to come it will probably be more obvious than it is right now that livelihoods must be wrested locally from rural land, and in countries like Britain there are very few people currently who are doing that – which is a problem, perhaps, but also a blessing, because it will be easier to create new peasantries of disparate origins in such circumstances.

So instead of a farmer gaining political advantage by promising to cut red tape and create more jobs, instead of trying to reinvent the industrial past of England’s northeast and reinvent the voter base of the political party that once represented the people who worked in those industries, I think we’d all be better off if we focused on creating more actual jobs in local farming. After COP26, it’ll be easier to say whether those jobs are more likely to arise by design or default.

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.

Where the story takes us

Pervasive, multi-faceted crisis and a cultural inability to deal with it: I’ve now said what I want to say in this cycle of posts about Chapters 1 and 2 of my book A Small Farm Future, and I’m ready to move onto Chapter 3. But first let’s take a breather. If there’s anything in the first two chapters you’d like me to further explain or justify, let me know (preferably by commenting at www.smallfarmfuture.org.uk where I’ll be sure to see the comment).

While we’re dawdling here, maybe I’ll say something about stories. On page 54 of my book, I discuss the idea of ‘symbolic goods’, which bears on how human actions arise out of the stories we tell ourselves about the way the world is – or, as Clifford Geertz famously put it, “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun”1. So we’re motivated by stories, and there are different stories we can tell about the same reality. Ultimately, though, factors independent of our stories condition their outcome whether we like it or not, and if we don’t find good ways of incorporating them into the narrative, then eventually the story will crumble.

Chapters 1 and 2 of my book tell a story about how our current modern global civilization has got itself into a mess by disregarding some such factors that complicate its tale of endless self-improvement. In writing them, I drew on a lot of research and evidence that I think make my own story quite robust. Nobody has yet convinced me that the story of these chapters is substantially wrong in its main details (there are some minor points I might now recast), though certainly there are other webs of significance that could be spun, and it’s not impossible I could be convinced that another story is more plausible. Which is why I’m dawdling at this crossroads into Chapter 3, waiting for another storyteller to come along and take me somewhere different…

While I wait, I’d like to mention three, perhaps four, other stories that have come to my attention lately.

The first relates to climate change, and has been spun around a recently published scientific paper suggesting that a stabilization of the Earth’s climate would occur much quicker than previously thought if human-caused greenhouse gas emissions cease2. Not my area of expertise, of course, but my sense of this paper is that it bore quite a lot of other news about the effects of current human emissions which was far from positive. However, the most prominent discussions of it among climate scientists that came to my attention on social media built a story from the climate stabilisation point to ridicule ‘end of civilisation’ doomsters for not keeping up with the science, positioning them alongside climate change deniers for imperilling concerted climate action.

There are two aspects of story-telling that interest me in this. The first is people’s meta-concern with the character of their story as a status claim in its own right, which is ubiquitous in discussions of climate change. My story is optimistic, pragmatic or science-based whereas your story is doomy climate porn or is tantamount to denialism because it lacks hope. No doubt there’s something to be said for addressing the wider effects of our stories on other people, but in my view those concerned about climate change spend too much precious time pointing fingers at other concerned people based on the supposed superior impact of their narrative. Enough. Call things as you see them, take action accordingly, be prepared to discuss and be prepared to be wrong. But don’t waste time plumping the meta-efficacy of your chosen narrative.

The second aspect is that while a few political leaders have stated their commitment to achieving net zero, the fact is we’re not even remotely on a path to achieving it, and new coal mines and fossil power stations are merrily sprouting up around the world. So to take the finding that ‘if we reach net zero, then the climate stabilizes’ as a way to lambast climate pessimism puts a heavier loading on the ‘if’ in that sentence than any real-world trend can bear. There’s a danger here of telling ourselves a nice story, whose protective armour allows us to dismiss other, darker stories when the armour isn’t real.

The second story I want to mention has gradually been taking shape in my mind of late as an identifiable narrative trend. It goes roughly like this: “The old-fashioned practices of industrial agriculture certainly did contribute to many of our contemporary problems, but innovative new forms of skills-intensive and tech-intensive smart agriculture mean that farmers can now feed the world sustainably while removing carbon from the atmosphere and making a lot of money too.” I propose to call this the “smart farming story”. And I don’t believe in it.

There are various entry points into the fallacies of the smart farming story, many of which I’ve covered on this blog over the years. I won’t pursue them here, except to say that if your farming makes you a lot of money then I’m pretty sure it won’t be helping solve our contemporary problems. I’m also pretty sure the money-making won’t last long. I’d propose this alternative: “Don’t worry too much about feeding the world or cutting carbon with your farming. Just try to do what you can to help your area grow as much food and fibre as possible to meet its local needs using whatever techniques you like, provided they use little fossil fuel and make little money”.

The final story or stories is something I was tracking a bit more avidly back in 2016 with the votes in the UK for Brexit and in the US for Donald Trump. In early 2021 both have reached a denouement, though perhaps not an ending, with a whimper in the former case and a bang in the second. The Brexit story involves two versions of neoliberalism, one based inside the EU and the other outside it, the latter mis-sold to the public as a story of nationalist assertion. The touted economic benefits for the people are unsurprisingly failing to materialise, though perhaps some will be happy that our fish are now British. For the rest of us, I’d suggest, the story now has to be about trying to create real popular localism out of the absurdities of Brexit, not a race to the bottom that will benefit only a few.

Regarding Trump, I doubt there’s much I can say that others haven’t already said better. The answer to the problems of our times may not be Biden-Harris, but it most certainly isn’t Trump and … that other guy. In keeping with my overall theme for this post, let me just say that I was struck by how very strange was the web of significance that so many of Trump’s insurrectionists in Washington DC had spun for themselves. People who believed themselves to be a part of a revolution were surprised that they were pepper sprayed by the police, or banned from flying home? What happened was serious, but the story that a lot of the protagonists seemed to have built around themselves was fundamentally unserious, as if they were mere actors in a TV show.

To generalize from this to my wider theme, I see this unseriousness, this TV show mentality, everywhere in our contemporary stories about ourselves – from the way we talk about climate change (it’s bad, but not so bad that it’s really going to change our world, ‘if’ we reach net zero), to the way we talk about smart farming (it’s good, so good that it can save our world and make us loads of money too), and even to the way we try to topple governments (it’s wild, it’s patriotic, and then we can fly home for the weekend).

We need some different stories.

Notes

  1. Clifford Geertz. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures, p.5.
  2. Chen Zhou et al. 2021. Greater committed warming after accounting for the pattern effect. Nature Climate Change.

Going nuclear

After the furies of engaging with fantasy reviews of my book in my last post, let’s get back to something safe and uncontroversial – nuclear power. Here, I continue with my theme from this post about energy futures, particularly the notion that we can transition from our present high energy, high carbon civilization to a future high energy, low carbon one based around nuclear power.

On page 31 of my book, I present a version of Figure 1 below, which shows global primary energy consumption since 1965 by energy source. It suggests that there’s been no transition out of fossil fuels up to now. True, we’re using a lot more low-carbon energy now than we were in 1965 – over 1,900 million more tonnes of oil equivalent in 2018, in fact. But we’re also using a lot more fossil energy too – over 8,000 million tonnes more over the same period. So at the moment, low-carbon energy is merely adding to our growing total use of energy, rather than substituting for the fossil energy component of it. On pp.31-3 of my book I discuss why this is so.

Figure 1: Global energy consumption by fuel type, 195-2018 (million tonnes of oil equivalent)

Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019

But of course what’s happened up to now isn’t a secure guide to the future. It’s possible that we soon will begin transitioning to a high energy, low carbon civilization and those climbing fossil fuel quantities in Fig 1 will drop away.

To probe that possibility we need to address a few somewhat technical points. First, most sources of low carbon energy furnish us with electricity, so a high-energy, low-carbon society would have to be largely an electrically powered one. An advantage of low carbon electrical energy is that it’s efficient in its final use, whereas something like a diesel engine or a coal-powered turbine wastes a lot of energy as heat. Therefore, in order to retain the level of final energy usage implied by the fossil energy shown in Figure 1 while replacing it with low carbon electricity, it wouldn’t be necessary to match the levels of total fossil energy consumption shown in the figure, which exceed low carbon consumption by a factor of more than 5. In his paper that I mentioned in my earlier post, Tom Biegler estimates that a more appropriate factor for Australia is a (“conservative”) 2.4 – which could perhaps be generalized globally given that the proportion of electrical energy to total energy consumption is about the same in each case.

When I put together the version of Figure 1 above that appears on page 31 of the book, I hadn’t pondered this point as much as I probably should have done – but I don’t think it matters for the purposes of a retrospective/historical presentation. The graph shows as a matter of historical fact that low-carbon energy has added to rather than substituted for fossil energy consumption, and this is worth knowing. But if we try to project into the future it does matter, because – as stated above – we may not need to use as much low carbon electrical energy in the future as the fossil energy we use now in order to get the same work done.

I used the uncertain “may not” in the previous sentence because there’s another side to the coin. There are some industrial processes like fertiliser and steel manufacture that are less energy intensive when using fossil fuels than electricity. Creating the higher capacity global electrical infrastructure that would be necessary for a fully electrified global energy system, including the end products like electric cars, will also require an enormous upfront energy outlay, as Joe Clarkson pointed out under my earlier post. So exactly how this might play out is debatable.

Anyhow, Figure 2 shows the low carbon electricity (nuclear or renewables, but excluding hydro) that’s been generated year on year from 1965 to 2018, with three projections for how it will have to increase if the global energy economy is to abandon fossil fuels by 2050.

Figure 2: Low carbon electricity generation and projections, 1965-2050 (TWh)

Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019

The blue line indicates the necessary increase if existing global final energy use turned exclusively to low carbon electricity, based on Dr Biegler’s conservative factor of 2.4, while ignoring the factors pushing energy use higher that I just mentioned – therefore underestimating the true challenge. But this leaves untouched the differences in energy use between richer and poorer countries, making this scenario implausible. Poorer countries are unlikely to invest massively in a low carbon energy transition without remedy to the gulf between rich and poor country levels of energy use – especially the energy-hungry poorer countries that are now the world’s industrial powerhouses, and that currently are heavily dependent upon fossil fuels.

The orange line adjusts for this by ‘levelling up’ to show the increased low carbon generation that would be required if every country in the world used energy at the same per capita level as Australia, on which Dr Biegler’s calculations are based – and why shouldn’t they?

Finally, the grey line shows the necessary increase if governments globally adopt the radical energy-cutting measures that a recent paper argued were feasible while retaining a decent life for citizens (though the paper professed uncertainty about how these cuts could be practically achieved).

Nobody can tell how the future will unfold, but my sense of things is that we will not see anything like the steep gradients in the blue and orange lines occurring in practice. The grey line is slightly more feasible, but is still a big leap – and would require rapid energy-cutting measures that are currently not occurring. And of course, for each passing year that new low-carbon generation falls behind the curve, the gradients just get steeper.

To my mind, the graph underscores a point made by Kevin Anderson: people have their silver bullet technologies of choice, but “you cannot build your way out with bits of shiny kit” – and that applies to both nuclear and renewable energy. So where does that leave us? Possibly with a more vernacular than literal interpretation of the phrase that it’s “time to go nuclear”. In other words, it’s time to accept that we need to drastically cut our energy usage in the rich countries, starting right now, and take our efforts to create a renewable economy up to a whole new level of urgency, throwing the kitchen sink (to mix my metaphors with another piece of high tech kit) at energy reduction. This would undoubtedly have to involve the richer countries helping the poorer ones to decarbonize, essentially by gifting them low carbon electricity capacity, which would also have the happy result of creating a more even global economic playing field.

It’s possible that’ll happen, but I can’t quite see it. It seems more likely that the pace of decarbonization will pick up a bit in the coming years, albeit with actual achievements failing to match spoken commitments. Probably, the worst case climate change scenarios for the century’s end will be avoided, accompanied by much thinktanking along the way about how a 3oC world really isn’t so bad – as seems to be the direction that the new look, more serious, post-Michael Shellenberger Breakthrough Institute is headed.

Then perhaps we reach a crunch point in the rich world – carbon taxes begin to bite, people have to hunker down more locally and grow more of their own food while welcoming newcomers from places where the hunkering hasn’t worked out, at the same time probably watching their tax dollars heading off in a desperate bid to reconcile the economic status quo with climate stability by building low carbon infrastructures in the poorer countries while seeing the likes of Jeff Bezos get ever richer, with economy-shredding climate shocks becoming ever more frequent. My hope is that they’ll find a way through that into a more equitable, more local, lower carbon world. But I couldn’t honestly say that it’s my expectation.

Turning the clock forward

The next stop in my tour through my book A Small Farm Future is Part I, which begins with a long chapter outlining ten crises that one way or another seem set in the coming years to thoroughly upend the world we’ve known.

As I see it, these crises are such that for good or ill a small farm future awaits many of us or our descendants. So after Chapter 1, the rest of the book is basically about how people might try to accentuate the good and mitigate the ills of this likely future – a difficult journey, with no guaranteed endpoint.

I’m not going to reprise what I say in Chapter 1 here on the blog, much of which in any case will be familiar to readers here. But in this and the next few posts I’d like to extend and further explain my thinking around some key points from this chapter, and also cast forward to Chapter 2 where I try to put the implications of our present crises into a wider political context.

I was a bit horrified to discover that a couple of readers assumed I’d placed the ten crises (starting with ‘Population’ and ending with ‘Culture’) in order of importance. The truth is that the ordering is somewhat random, based on ease of exposition, but generally trends from immediate or ‘proximal’ issues like climate change towards what I see as the deeper underlying ones in our politics, economics and culture. More importantly, I see all these crises as complexly interlinked, and scarcely amenable to simple, one-shot, technical solutions.

Still, we live in a world that’s complexly interlinked through the medium of cheap and abundant energy. Therefore it’s unsurprising, if ironic, that mainstream discussion of our present crises often emphasizes simplistic (albeit technically complex), one-shot solutions, primarily in relation to energy. It seems worth saying a little more about this, building on my analysis in Crisis #3 of Chapter 1 (pp.28-36), to address both the complexities and simplicities of energy.

My starting point is this article featuring Zion Lights, once a spokeswoman for Extinction Rebellion (XR) but now decamped to Mike Shellenberger’s pro-nuclear lobby group, in which she critiques XR for “peddling the notion that the solution to the climate crisis was to turn the clock back to a simpler time”.

I’ve said it before on this blog, but I guess it just has to be repeated again and again – few people in the environmental movement genuinely want to ‘turn the clock back’ to the past, and there was no point in the past that ever really was a ‘simpler time’. There are, however, quite a number of people around nowadays who apparently want to ‘turn the clock forward to a simpler time’ by imagining there are straightforward, one-shot solutions to our present problems like nuclear power or renewables that will make them simply disappear so we can get back to business as usual. Given the likely failure of such solutions, the point of looking at the past is not to recreate it but to try to learn what we can from people who of necessity lived in lower energy societies, because we’ll probably be inhabiting one ourselves soon enough.

But will energy options like nuclear power really fail to deliver the goods? Not long after reading the Zion Lights article I got involved in a Twitter exchange (yes, I know) with various nuclear enthusiasts – the sort where the condescending putdowns make you curse the day social media was invented, but where you keep going because you’re learning something, even though you end up feeling kind of dirty. Suffice to say that if some of these guys were put in charge of making the PR case for nuclear power, we can be certain it won’t happen.

One of the participants asked me to provide rational objections to nuclear power, and presented some “actual data from 2060” to show how nuclear could feasibly replace fossil fuels (a pie chart of energy projections provided by the Chinese government, as it happens) but quit the debate after I suggested that, er, actual data from 2060 doesn’t yet exist. Another participant – Dr Tom Biegler – linked to this paper he’d written about energy futures in Australia and suggested I read it. I’ve now done that and am ready to lay out my rational case against turning the clock forward to a simpler time when nuclear energy has solved our problems. It’s a sevenfold one, as follows:

1. The major resource and biophysical crises we face today on Earth, and many of the cultural and political ones, are ultimately traceable to humanity’s worldwide investment in powerful, strongly centralized, capital-accumulating political states. I’m doubtful that any satisfactory long-term solutions will be found without radically dissipating that capital and political energy. But nuclear power absolutely relies upon and justifies powerful, strongly centralized, capital-accumulating political states. Therefore I see it as incompatible with sustainable human culture.

2. Current nuclear technologies produce small but significant quantities of high-level waste which, as I understand it, remains dangerous for generations and has not yet been rendered safe – largely because it’s too expensive. It seems likely that it will be even more expensive for future societies, and probably beyond their technical capacities. Dr Biegler writes of the need to combat “deep-seated anti-nuclear sentiment” in relation to issues including waste disposal. The best way of combating this ‘sentiment’ is surely to solve the issue giving rise to it. In the meantime it seems to me quite rational not to further invest in technologies until their products can be made safe for future generations.

3. If we could swap out all fossil fuelled energy for nuclear-powered electricity, we would still be facing numerous resource crises concerning water, nitrogen, phosphorus, metals and soil, along with political and economic crises. One response to that might be to say that at least with abundant nuclear energy we’d have one less crisis on our hands. But it’s surely reasonable (rational, even?) to suggest that the very multiplicity of these crises is telling us that our problems aren’t fundamentally about energy, and nor are the solutions.

4. Talking of water, nuclear power stations such as the gigantic Hinkley C now under construction not too far from my home are often located next to the ocean because of their need for abundant water. But given the uncertainties about future climate change and sea level rise, it might be rational not to do this.

5. There are only about 30 countries worldwide generating nuclear power, mostly rich ones with extensive electricity infrastructures. Electrifying and transitioning most of the other countries to nuclear power within the next few decades is, to say the least, unlikely, and in any case would raise numerous further problems. The climate impact of feasible nuclear transitions therefore seems likely to be slight.

6. Bringing together the previous points, I do not trust a society that commits itself so insouciantly to capital-accumulating state centralism, to leaving dangerous waste as a legacy for future generations to deal with, to meeting systemic crisis with piecemeal solutionism, and to policies that benefit the few and not the many. Is my mistrust rational? I think so, but others might say it’s merely emotional or spiritual. If so, then I guess I’m for mere emotions and spirituality, and against rationality.

7. But, against such spiritual arguments, I’ve heard people make the case for nuclear power through the analogy of a physician treating a critically ill patient: however spiritually misguided the patient was in their lifestyle choices that led to the illness now killing them, the physician’s job is to try to keep them alive using whatever technologies are available. By analogy, nuclear power may save the life of our present civilization, however decadent it is. We can worry about its spiritual improvement later. As I see it, though, the patient may still be showing a few vital signs, but in truth they’re beyond salvation and the physician shouldn’t waste scarce time, money and material resources in heroic but fruitless attempts to save the unsavable. It would be better to devote them to more promising ends, such as founding a renewable culture. In this view, nuclear power is what Duncan McLaren nicely calls a “technology of prevarication”.

But is the patient really unsavable? That’s a tricky one, and will only be answerable with the benefit of hindsight. Nevertheless, Dr Biegler provides some numerical analyses in his report that give us a little purchase on the issue. I’ll discuss them in my next post.