The tragedy of the climate commons and one way I tried to fight it

A little more in this post about the climate protesting I mentioned last time that recently landed me in the dock, since a couple of folks said they were interested to hear about it. Then back next time to my ongoing blog cycle about A Small Farm Future. Mostly, I want to focus this post on some wider aspects of the protesting that in fact link to the book, but a brief account of the events from a personal perspective will help set the scene, and may be of interest.

Last year, I went to the opening rally of Extinction Rebellion’s August ‘rebellion’ in Trafalgar Square, then joined the march that processed towards Covent Garden. Some wily activists had somehow managed to erect a gigantic, two-storey pink table on the junction at Long Acre, with people locked onto its legs and others perched atop to prevent the police from easily removing it. The site quickly turned into quite a protest party, while the police – almost as quickly – encircled the whole junction, including some of its surrounding shops and cafés. They let people exit the cordon but not enter it, at least so it seemed to me (more about this detail later).

I stayed inside the cordon during the afternoon, dropping into a couple of the cafés for food and drink. At around 7pm the police announced they were making the protest illegal under Section 14 of the Public Order Act, meaning that we needed to disperse. I decided not to do that, and instead sat in front of a protestor who was locked on to a table leg, reasoning that it would take the police longer to remove the lock-ons and dismantle the table if they first had to remove the likes of me.

A police officer engaged with me, warning me of various consequences should I be arrested such as estrangement from my family, a travel ban to the USA, and trouble with my employers. These weren’t terribly disquieting threats, since several members of my family are far more active climate protestors than me, I don’t really need to go to the USA, and while my boss can be an absolute arse sometimes, he is, since I’m self-employed, highly unlikely to fire me.

Anyway, long story short, I was arrested around 8pm and carried off by four officers, losing the odd item of clothing and sustaining a few cuts and bruises in the process, as well as having my feet used as an involuntary battering ram against a bystander, all of which I think stemmed more from police incompetence than ill-will.

Half an hour handcuffed in a van, then booked in at Walworth police station. Mugshots, fingerprints, DNA sample, and seven hours in a cell. Fitful sleep mixed with staring at the Samaritans and drug/alcohol advice messages on the ceiling, thinking about all the misery that must have been contained within those walls. Then release in the small hours of the morning, a chat with the lovely XR support people waiting outside the police station, and stumbling home.

As I’ve written here before, when XR started I was sceptical about it for various reasons that I now consider mistaken, one of which was probably my own implicit fears of confronting authority, mixed with a preciousness about the need for my actions to be entirely within my control in some perfectly theorized and intellectualized moment of political history-making.

Not how it works.

I wrote in A Small Farm Future about the need for communities to carve out spaces of autonomy from the power of centralized states so they can develop viable and renewable forms of local livelihood-making. Well, what we achieved at Long Acre was very far from that, but if someone like me for whom the consequences of arrest are so low can’t even minimally follow through on his own ideas and help to hold the micro-space of a single road junction for a few hours while raising the profile of the climate emergency in the process, then I feel my politics imploding with implausibility. Or else bloating with that political preciousness I mentioned – waiting, always waiting, for the correct political moment that I’ve theorized before deigning to act.

The efficacy of my little escapade in Covent Garden is debatable of course, as is everything that I or anyone else can do to mitigate the challenges of our times – writing books or blogs, growing food, shopping thoughtfully, composting waste, working with relevant organisations, political activism. I think my arrest was reasonably worthwhile in the circumstances, and meaningful at least to me – not least because it was shortly before the key international COP26 meeting in Glasgow, and it seemed to me then (and still now) that if there was a right time to raise a public rumpus about the need for urgent and radical climate action, it was at that particular moment.

Eight months on, as I related in my last post, I was convicted for the Section 14 breach. I represented myself in court, on the grounds that the only way I’d be found not guilty would be if my lawyer identified some obscure legal technicality to exploit, which wasn’t really the point – and I’d still end up paying my lawyer more than the actual fine.

The prosecution called as a witness the police superintendent who’d imposed the Section 14. I thought his case for doing so was weak. Criminal damage (some XR stickers on an ATM). His discussions with some taxi drivers who said they’d like to run us protestors over (taxi drivers, eh?). Graffiti on the pavement (it’s London). A nightclub that was closed on the day of the protest but might have lost business the next day if the protest had continued (it didn’t). Café owners short of business.

On that last point, when I got the chance to cross-examine him I put it to him that if the police choose to seal off an area and stop people entering it, then it’s likely that any cafés inside said area will lose business as a result of that decision. He replied along the lines that the police hadn’t sealed off the area, and were letting genuine customers through their cordon if they could prove they’d booked ahead. Like you do when you’re a tourist in the middle of London and fancy a slice of pizza.

Nah, that area was sealed off.

When it was my turn in the dock, I tried two lines of defence. First, the right to protest. Something I hadn’t realized until recently is that although a public highway is for the use of the public, the law is vague on exactly what that use should be. Protesting on it isn’t necessarily a less legitimate use than driving along it (as one of the refrains at XR protests goes: “Whose streets? Our streets!”). In my opinion, it’s reasonable for the police to have the power to disperse protests to mitigate serious public danger or disruption. But stickers on an ATM, or cafés losing custom when they’re ringed by police officers, don’t strike me as serious public danger or disruption, given the circumstances.

This raises a point of wider political importance. For all the angry voices calling for greater police powers to shut down climate protest, in truth the police haven’t always used – or perhaps have been instructed not to use – the existing powers available to them, I suspect because jails full of scientists, elderly priests, retired community workers and suchlike aren’t a good look, and aren’t that great for public finances either. But once the authorities do have summary powers to limit collective protest, then political liberty is on the line. The lock ‘em up brigade might pause to ponder how much the powers that be care about their own cherished ideals. Those calling for increased state power against the public might end up regretting what they wished for.

Anyway, in court I made a brief case setting my right to protest as enshrined in the Human Rights Act against the superintendent’s overzealous Section 14. Then I moved on to my second, and I think more important, defence of necessity.

If you smash a door down in the normal course of things, you’re liable to be charged with criminal damage. But if a building is on fire and you smash the door down to rescue someone trapped inside, our legal and political systems and our common sense align pretty well in accepting that this is not a crime.

When it comes to climate change the building is definitely on fire, but our legal and political systems are barely capable of locating the door, let alone smashing it (last year saw the highest GHG emissions ever). Often, they prefer to criminalize ordinary folks who try to show them where the door is. What we have here is a collective action problem, in which people find themselves unable to create the cooperative structures they need to assure their own joint self-interest (in other words, we have a tragedy of the commons – a concept that, though badly misnamed, goes quite some way to explaining the climate crisis, even as many thinkers queue up to dismiss it).

One of the problems is that it’s not easy to tie cause (climate change) directly to effect (e.g. human suffering) and to effective actions to alleviate it (e.g. climate protesting). But recent scholarship is increasingly able to relate individual human deaths and suffering from extreme weather events pretty much directly to climate change. And the IPCC’s recent report – signed off by most of the world’s governments – acknowledges for the first time that civic engagement, including protest and civil disobedience, is the foundation for collective action of the kind that’s needed for transformative approaches to climate change. So we’re getting increasingly close to establishing a parallel of this sort:

burning building – smash door – save people

climate change – protest – save people

That, at any rate, was my second line of defence – necessity to protect against a greater harm. I didn’t expect my argument to carry the day. OK, if I’m honest, I suppose I did harbour a kind of Hollywood fantasy with me in the Henry Fonda role, holding the court spellbound with my moral passion and faultless logic. The not guilty verdict would then go down in history as the moment when the tragedy of the climate commons was definitively overturned, and the case of Regina v Smaje would be on everyone’s lips for years to come, which would be especially amusing because nobody would know how to pronounce it (rhymes with rage, since you asked).

OK, so … er … it didn’t turn out quite like that. Magistrates don’t establish case law, so they were pretty much inevitably going to find me guilty. But what they could have done is said yes, we hear your view that the grounds for the Section 14 were weak and that climate protest is important, we hear your argument that our society lacks the institutional structures capable of tackling climate change, and it needs to raise its game to save lives. Regrettably, however, our hands are tied and we’re obliged to find you guilty and award costs against you.

Instead, the senior magistrate cut me off in full flow, said that we’re all concerned about climate change, but that doesn’t explain why I knowingly disobeyed a police officer back in August.

On the contrary, I think it explains it precisely.

If indeed we’re all concerned about climate change, then it seems to me that we’re not concerned about it enough, or not concerned in the right way. The point I was making wasn’t a general one about climate change of the tut tut, isn’t it terrible variety. It was a specific one about how our political institutions, including our courts, are unable to deal with it, which is why the problem compounds and why ordinary folks like me therefore need to challenge these institutions directly. When the magistrate cut me off I think it illustrated the collective action problem I was describing. But I’d still have preferred some indication that he understood the point, or cared.

And so onto cross-examination by the prosecutor, mostly a bunch of questions about the impact of the protest on the local community that I couldn’t honestly answer, so I didn’t. I did answer one question in a way I now regret, assenting to the fact that I’d been at the protest all day and had therefore had a chance to protest, as if after a long day of protesting we can tuck climate change up in bed, kiss it goodnight, and wake up to a cooler morning.

Yes, I did have a chance to protest. But I didn’t have a chance to protest enough, just as we don’t all care about climate change enough. One of the few ways ordinary people have of getting people in power to pay more attention to climate change – not enough attention, but more attention – is to engage in civil disobedience of a kind that might get you arrested. I guess I succeeded in that, at least.

Anyway, as I related in my last post, it was guilty as charged, costs to the prosecution, and then out into the rarefied air of the City of London, where the real climate criminals were heading out to lunch.

Some personal take homes. I have few regrets about this episode. In fact, I feel I can hold my head a little higher. I’m glad we were able to claim some political space in central London and turn the public highway over to non-violent public protest for a few hours – not a huge achievement in the face of what’s needed, but more than nothing. I’m glad I pleaded not guilty, because I don’t think I am guilty in any sense that matters. I slightly regret any disruption we caused to local businesses, though I think the police over-stressed this, and under-stressed their own role in it. Compared to the climate-caused disruptions to come the bad effects of our action were negligible, but I plan to donate a proportion of a day’s income to a relevant local community cause. And I’m glad I went to court, looked the representatives of the state in the eye, and presented a defence I believe in.

All the same, I’ve felt a little down since the trial – maybe something about seeing the indifference of our political institutions to the present emergency up close, and personally embodied. I still believe in the rule of law, even though I think the public needs to test it on a regular basis. But I’m not as respectful of the process as I was before my trial – stand up, sit down, yes sir, no sir, and shut up you’re guilty. I now better understand the arc that other activists have followed: play it by the book the first time around and feel the indifference, express your own indifference the next time, then probably do some jail time. But I’m not sure I want to hurl my body or my bank balance at the immoveable edifice of the state again in that way – unless a larger mass of other people are doing it too. Wherein lies another collective action problem – I’ll put myself on the line and defy the state for our collective benefit only if you will too. Truth is, I don’t think it would take an awful lot more people before things started to shift, though maybe not enough for meaningful global change. But until we somehow break out of this impasse we’re stuck tragically trashing the climate commons without lifting a finger to stop it.

Finally, I’m still hearing people dismissing actions like mine on the grounds that, first of all, it’s easy for a white, middle-class person like me to wrangle with the legal system in this way, and secondly that XR-style climate protesting doesn’t constitute a real anti-systemic movement able to challenge the existing political economy.

On the first point, I suppose it is quite easy for people like me to do such things, which is one reason why I think it behooves us to do them. However, to say that it’s easier for the privileged to take political action somewhat undermines the belief, still prevalent on the left, that true political agency is more or less the exclusive property of the oppressed. Perhaps you could argue that climate issues are too removed from the rigours of daily working-class life, but that doesn’t really wash because the true political agency argument rests on the notion that only the working-class is able to take a complete and unvarnished view of things.

I’d argue instead that nobody and no specific class is able to take a complete and unvarnished view of things, that no anti-systemic movements cross some threshold of the ‘real’ through the character of their membership or the character of their analysis, least of all when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions which nobody has yet really succeeded in building any mass collective politics around. I’d argue, too, that there’s no particular virtue in boycotting existing climate protest movements from the conviction that you personally have access to some higher-level political consciousness, though there may be good reasons for boycotting them in practice. I’m not suggesting that issues of voice and inclusivity are irrelevant. Just that there can never be a singular, all-inclusive voice, nor a perfect, unflawed action.

All of which points to the analysis in Part IV of my book about the need for a populist politics of political alliances, grounded in the production of renewable local livelihoods. Hopefully I’ll get to it eventually in this blog cycle. Provided I keep out of trouble.

Of climate crimes, community conflicts and carbon cowboys

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

1. Climate crimes

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

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

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

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

2. Community conflicts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Carbon cowboys

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

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

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

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

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

From the IPCC to Just Stop Oil: my week of climate politics

It seems necessary to knock out a quick post about climate change – not something I’d planned to do right now, though perhaps I should have if I’d kept a closer eye on the news cycle. But with the IPCC’s 6th assessment report on mitigation of climate change just published, it seems somehow apropos. Plus, unexpectedly, I found myself helping out with the Just Stop Oil protests earlier this week, which has brought climate issues and climate activism right back to the forefront of my thoughts.

Other people are better placed than me to give their hot takes (literally, alas) on the content of the IPCC report. As a part-time observer of climate science social media, a full-time proponent of low-input agrarian localism and an almost accidental climate activist, I’m going to restrict myself to a few remarks on some of the report’s wider ripples in those arenas as I see them.

My sense of the professional climate science and climate change world is that people within it have, honourably, been making stark and loud warnings for a long time of the need for rapid and radical change to our modern GHG-emitting ways. But at the same time, some of those voices have been rather dismissive of two forms of rapid and radical change that I believe to be entailed in their analysis – a shift to low-energy agrarian localism, and non-cooperation or disobedience towards fossil-fuel extractive capitalist nation-states.

I find much to agree with in Professor Julia Steinberger’s writings, for example – including a good deal of her analysis in this Twitter thread arising from the IPCC report. And I salute her endorsement of current climate change protesting.

Where I part company with Prof Steinberger is in her view that scientists haven’t been raising the alarm with sufficient urgency until very recently, and that we’re “on the cusp of being able to replace fossil fuels completely”. Nothing I’ve yet seen has convinced me that we’re remotely on the cusp of being able to replace fossil fuels globally at current levels of energy use, let alone at levels that give people in low income/low energy countries fair access to resources. This is one of several reasons why I think the future for many people is likely to be lower energy, lower carbon, more localized and more job rich – a small farm future. But elsewhere Prof Steinberger has disavowed the case for low energy agrarian localism. As with much eco-socialism in the Global North, her position errs towards another version of techno-fix business as usual, the ‘electrify the hell out of everything’ mantra.

I’m not opposed to electrifying the hell out of everything, provided that we attend to the upstream and downstream consequences – the fossil fuelled pulse it would involve, the human and resource consequences of mining the lithium and rare earths, the nuclear proliferation and nuclear waste issues – so that this new electrified dawn doesn’t indeed just turn into hell. But, in addition to the fact that it will still involve using less energy, the real problem isn’t the hardware but the software, our cultures of materialism and capitalism. These, ultimately, are what need re-engineering more than our energy technologies. So I feel a bit torn when Professor Steinberger fulminates against those who imply “we should just give up” or who say it’s too late to do anything. I agree we shouldn’t give up and it’s not too late to do anything. But, with hindsight, it seems easy to see that ultimately it was always going to be too late to do anything within a cultural regimen inherently dedicated to endless commodification and the increase of capital. So unless that regimen is brought swiftly to its end, then yes – it probably is too late.

There’s one ‘too late’ that does seem to emerge clearly from the IPCC report. If GHG emissions don’t peak within three years at the latest, it says, then it will be too late to limit global warming to 1.5C above preindustrial levels by 2100. Of course, if they don’t peak by then, that doesn’t mean it’s too late to take action against climate change. It’ll just be too late to avert the 1.5C warming beyond which human and ecological catastrophes amplify. But I think climate experts sometimes protest too much against the simplifications of popular ‘only x years to save the Earth’ narratives. Time is not on humanity’s side in retaining a congenial climate, and there’s no historic evidence yet that we can rein in GHG emissions (absolute or per capita) in the absence of exogenous shocks to the ordinary functioning of the global capitalist political economy.

This sad truth demands a variety of responses from a variety of people, including small-scale farmers and renewable energy folks. But also people protesting against governments’ ongoing commitment to fossil fuel extractivism, existing and new. In the absence of such protests, governments will think we haven’t noticed the gap between their words and deeds, and be emboldened to barrel onwards towards a catastrophic 3 degrees of warming. For this reason and others, after a slow start I’ve become a supporter of Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil, and I spent a good part of last week helping with the Just Stop Oil protests in southeast England.

I worked mostly as a driver (I’m confident the smart readers of this blog don’t need me to explain why this is not especially contradictory or hypocritical), dropping off activists at protest sites and collecting them from police stations after they were released from custody. Never in my younger days did I imagine I’d be driving London’s roads in the small hours, checking the mirrors to make sure I wasn’t being tailed by the police, and making smart exits from drop off sites to try to avoid getting arrested myself. Still, these are the times we’re living in – a time when the British government, and for that matter its Labour opposition, has completely lost its moral compass, and when real adults are needed in the room.

Or, more specifically, real young adults. Many of the actions were spearheaded by Youth Climate Action, and I’ve got to say I was greatly impressed by the dedication, integrity and insight of the young people I met on my nocturnal journeys around London, and by young activists like Miranda Whelehan and Xanty who submitted themselves to the usual media bullying from their elders and supposedly betters, and came out on top. The idiotic baiting of Miranda Whelehan by Richard Madeley and Lowri Turner on Good Morning Britain is quite something to behold.

While the home secretary barks for more powers to silence civic protest, in truth the bite of existing powers has not been used to its full extent against climate protestors. My guess is that the cost and propaganda own goal involved in jailing a cavalcade of elderly priests, young graduates and harmless community workers is too high. So at present, the personal cost of arrestable nonviolent direct climate action is not large. Even so, the numbers involved remain disappointingly low and Peter Kalmus’s question ‘What will it take to get people off the sidelines?’ in the face of climate breakdown is to the point.

Of course, there are plenty of people with enough on their plates already, and there’s no dishonour in feeling unable to get involved. But, honestly, the ignorance and complacency of Lowri Turner in that interview with Miranda Whelehan – with her talk about doing the recycling and the need for people to get on with their lives – was truly shameful. If she were half as informed as Ms Whelehan about what ‘getting on with your life’ would look like in a world of 3C warming, she wouldn’t embarrass the airwaves with such blather.

Let me close with a little story prompted by Ms Turner’s comment that “We’ve had a winter without any protests, but as soon as the sun comes out, ooh it’s eco-festival time. And it is a festival, it’s a big jamboree”.

Indeed, it’s been quite sunny lately – during the day. But at night there’ve been people in their eighties blockading oil terminals as the snow has fallen. For my part, I stood alone outside a police station for seven cold night hours until after the dawn in case the young activists inside were released, rather ill-prepared and under-dressed for it because it hadn’t originally been my job. By the end of my vigil, I was shivering almost uncontrollably. It’s not a great deal of suffering to write home about in the larger scheme of what many at Just Stop Oil have gone through, still less for those engulfed by the climate agony that’s upon us. But it was not a jamboree.

The larger point, though, is that I was there, looking out for people I’d never met. Nothing too heroic in that, but the world is full of such small acts of care and kindness between strangers as well as between friends and family, acts that draw from a concern about others beyond the compass of statist politics. If there’s any saving of humanity in the years ahead it will be built from such small acts, and not from the concocted outrage and divisiveness of our contemporary political and media cultures. Perhaps also it will be built out of new forms of civic politics that local networks arising out of climate activism are helping to forge. My time with Just Stop Oil gave me just a glimmer of hope for these possibilities. I fear it will be too little and too late in the face of larger forces, but this is part of my answer to those I was debating yesterday who criticize Miranda Whelehan and Just Stop Oil for having no vision for a post-oil world. The part of the vision that they’re helping to supply is a new non-state politics of care. And that’s important.

A small farm future: some lessons from Ukraine

A couple of people suggested I might write something about the situation in Ukraine and associated events in relation to my thinking about a small farm future. There are two good reasons why I think I probably shouldn’t do that, one not such good reason, and one reason why I should.

The two good reasons are, first, it’s a bad intellectual habit to assimilate every new event as retrospective proof of one’s prior position, and, second, it’s a bad ethical practice to use the death and suffering of multitudes as an excuse to say ‘I told you so’. The less good reason is that I’ve never been to Ukraine and don’t know much about it. It’s less good because, judging by the proliferation of op-eds and hot takes, that’s been no bar to others. Maybe I should join the club?

The reason why I should is simply that when someone suggests I write something about an important topic, the chances of me avoiding it are about the same as a moth avoiding a flame. So I’ll concede at the outset, while trying to keep the contrary reasons in mind. In what follows, I identify nine themes I discussed in A Small Farm Future that seem worth appraising in the light of the war in Ukraine.

First, though, I want to make a point about the strange reversals of history and personal biography. As a left-inclined teenager in the early 1980s, the possibility of nuclear annihilation arising from the conflict between the Soviet Union and the USA in concert with its western allies seemed real. Me and my fellow CND members were routinely pilloried by right-wing politicians and newspapers as at best useful idiots and at worst fifth columnists for the spread of global communism. One of my maths teachers had worked previously in aeronautics and missile design, telling us of his wish to invent a weapon so awful that people would be sure never to use it. At the time, that struck me as a bad civilizational bet. As it’s turned out, I’ve been lucky to live into advanced middle age. But it still strikes me as a bad civilizational bet.

Anyway, there’s surely an irony that the threat now looming of a global war that pits Russia against the west has arisen not from a complacent appeasement of communism, but from a complacent appeasement of a kleptocratic and authoritarian right-wing Russian government pursuing a capitalism largely constructed by the west. The Russian regime has wormed its way deeply into the politics of its western counterparts, and differs from them largely just in its degree of sophistication and lip service to noblesse oblige. With liberals singing another verse of that old song “it shouldn’t be allowed to happen”, and elements of the hard left and hard right converging for different reasons on a more or less qualified support for Russia, not for the first time in my political life I’m looking for the box to tick called ‘none of the above’.

But let me move onto the nine themes from A Small Farm Future that I said I was going to raise, which are as follows:

1. Homo symbolicus

It’s almost a cliché nowadays that the world we experience emerges from the stories people weave about it. But it’s in the nature of clichés to often be essentially true. In A Small Farm Future I discussed this via the notion of ‘symbolic goods’ or a ‘symbolic economy’.  Three of the symbolic fictions I discussed in the book were money, the notion of progress and human control of nature (manifested in money … and in energy), and the notion of the nation. All of these are heavily in play in current events. At historical junctures like this, opportunities arise to change the stories we tell about the world, or to entrench them. Often, it’s easier to entrench them. With energy prices spiking alarmingly, various western leaders are talking about going easy on the already easy commitments of the COP26 climate agreements, and have been courting oil states otherwise recalcitrant to their preferred politics like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela in the hope of opening the oil spigot (a recalcitrance that no doubt is possible precisely because they’re oil states). The UK government is licensing further gas and oil exploration in the North Sea and talking about reviewing the case for fracking. An entrenched story of cheap money, cheap energy and cheap politics that may end up entrenching us all.

2. The arable corner: or, don’t put all your eggs in one breadbasket

In Chapter 5 of my book, I analyzed the way that humanity has boxed itself into a corner of overreliance on a handful of arable crops – cereals above all, and also grain legumes and oilseeds. This overreliance also manifests in growing dependence on a handful of breadbasket countries, including Russia and Ukraine, to feed the world. Current events have forced the mainstream news cycle to acknowledge some aspects of this and discover the concept of food security.

But only some aspects. There’s been little questioning about the overreliance on a handful of crops and a handful of breadbaskets in general. The questioning has just focused on the overreliance on Russia and Ukraine – a questioning that, as per my previous theme, involves doubling down on an old arable corner narrative, which goes like this: instead of relying on a fossil energy intensive and basically monocrop-oriented global agriculture we should rely on a fossil energy intensive and basically monocrop-oriented national agriculture.

There are three poorly examined assumptions in this non-radical narrative shift, which I’ll explore under my next three headings.

3. Don’t put all your eggs in one energy basket

Overreliance on Russian fossil energy has, of course, been another recent theme. Overreliance on fossil energy in general, not so much. Indeed, as I mentioned above, far from taking Russia’s off piste lurch from the well-groomed slopes of the global political economy as a hint that we should Just Stop Oil, the main take home message seems to have been that we should just look harder for it somewhere else.

This unshakeable need for cheap and easily available energy is an energy corner, or an energy trap, that parallels the arable corner, suggesting to me that the governments of the world are simply incapable of addressing how we can back out of these corners altogether. But, to stick with agriculture, the energy corner meets the arable corner in the notion that we need to ramp up local grain production, possibly by ploughing more land, using more fertilizer and trimming back fond hopes of nature-friendly farming. Of course, the fossil energy demands of this arable corner push us further into the energy corner. Press Repeat.

4. Fewer eggs, more baskets

An awful lot of global arable cropland, and the energy use associated with it, is devoted to producing fodder for livestock that we don’t need to eat. So if we’re facing a grain and energy squeeze, an easy way to make do with less is to stop using grain and energy for the wasteful feeding of livestock. We can’t necessarily just stop doing that overnight. But we can at least just start debating it and seriously planning for it overnight. And we’re not.

Just to reiterate the position I charted in A Small Farm Future, I’m not arguing for stock-free farming, which I think would be unwise in lower energy systems. I’m arguing instead that we back ourselves out of the arable corner through more diverse and resilient mixed local farming systems where livestock complement rather than compete with the production of crops for human consumption. Fewer eggs, more baskets.

5. The economy is social

I spent some time in A Small Farm Future discussing how the world is imprisoned today by two 18th century ideas: first, if we all selfishly look to our own gain and, second, if we all focus on the things that gain us the most monetarily, then this brings the greatest benefit to everybody. If there was ever any substance to these ideas, it’s long disappeared under the weight of their numerous downsides.

Those downsides were obvious enough to many people prior to the war in Ukraine. The war has simply furnished further illustrations of them. Here’s two that have passed across my screen:

With the hike in fertilizer and energy prices, a British farmer told a radio interviewer that he was planning not to sow any crops this year, feeling that he would probably make more money by selling his existing stock of fertilizer to other farmers.
Meanwhile, the UNCTAD Rapid Assessment Report on the impact of the war in Ukraine shows high levels of dependence on Russian and Ukrainian wheat imports in many African countries, including countries of the Sahara and Sahel already rocked by climate change, state failure and ethno-religious conflicts stoked by global geopolitics, creating in the words of the report “alarm for food security and political stability”.

Ultimately, the logic of specialization and maximizing net present value in a historically unequal world means people are forced to rely for basic food sustenance on players in other parts of the world over whom they have no control and who have no fundamental stake in their wellbeing. We need to update the memo from 18th century economics: if we all selfishly look to our own gain, and focus on the things that gain us the most monetarily, then a lot of people needlessly suffer – possibly including ourselves in the long run.

The alternative is for people to build local food systems geared to feeding themselves. This requires economic protectionism, which I believe the 21st century economic theory to come will show is a good thing once it’s got over its 18th century hangover, provided the economy is socialized sufficiently to penalize overly self-interested local economic actors.

But that’s another new(s) story that’s yet to emerge from the old.

6. Of migration and the death zone

I mentioned in my book Étienne Balibar’s idea that the world is increasingly divided between ‘life zones’ and ‘death zones’. Death zones are created by climate change, water scarcity, historical conflict, global power politics and 18th century economic theory. Life in the life zones prospers to a considerable degree as a result of death in the death zones. The death zones are proliferating, and people understandably try to move out of them to the life zones. Some of these refugees get a warmer welcome in the life zones than others.

All this was clear enough before the war. Perhaps the war has just further dramatized the fact that it’s hard to be sure where a new death zone may emerge. Which I’d hope might encourage a more welcoming, ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ kind of attitude towards refugees. The current distribution of the world’s population is based on the pattern of a capitalist global political economy emerging in a 280ppm CO2 atmosphere. The future distribution will be based on the pattern of local agrarian political economies in a 400++ppm atmosphere. That’s going to mean that people in the future will live in different sorts of places in different sorts of numbers to the present, which implies a lot of human movement. Ultimately, there’s nothing anyone can do to stop that movement. But of course they will try, and their efforts will create yet more needless suffering.

7. Fakin’ it: of nationalism … and the news

I discussed in A Small Farm Future the nation as a narrative or symbolic good – and the fact that for every nationalist narrative there are usually various counter-narratives. Such narratives and counter-narratives have, of course, been fundamental to the war in Ukraine and its representations in Ukraine itself, in Russia, in the West, in China, and elsewhere. Some political thinkers – right, left and green – have emphasized the positive aspects of nationalist narratives for improving the world. I expressed my doubts about that in my book.

I’m even more doubtful now. Maybe there was a stronger case for it in a sub 350ppm world trying to find a multilateral way out of colonialism and global war. But I think the dark side of nationalism has always been, as they say, a feature and not a bug. As I see it, the narratives of the nation need to be junked all the way down to the ground – which is a difficult and perhaps impossible thing to do, but, pace Anatol Lieven, a necessary one. It must include, I think, even nationalisms forged in adversity against a larger foe of the kind that have been brewing in Ukraine. It certainly must include imperial manifest destiny nationalisms of the kind that have long animated the USA, western Europe and Russia.

It would be easier to make a case for rebuilding a world of nation-states if some level of basic trust remained in the goodwill of governments and national news sources towards truth-telling and general human betterment. But after the last decade or so of infowars – Putin, Trump, Johnson, Cummings, Brexit, Climategate, Covid, Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, deepfakes, you name it – that trust has gone. It’s always struck me how much bureaucratic, police and medical intervention goes without public questioning into establishing the true facts around a single human death. Yet how insouciantly we dismiss the deaths of hundreds, thousands or millions as probably not even real when it doesn’t suit our narrative. Homo symbolicus. Still, there will always be some who stand witness, and I salute them.

8. The supersedure state

I argued in A Small Farm Future that the best option for creating a new congenial agrarianism will be in the gaps that develop in the reach of the modern state. I never suggested this was anything but a hopeful possibility, but even so the war has made me ponder this anew. It’s easy to chafe against the pettifogging restrictions of the overmighty modern state when you live under one, while neglecting its advantages over living in a death zone where the writ of the state doesn’t run. Still, I’m not arguing against the community services and basic peace that states at their best can orchestrate. I’m arguing that increasingly states will be unable or unwilling to orchestrate these things, and we will start to see states operating more often at their worst than their best, as in the present situation. So I’m sticking with my argument: increasingly, the onus will be on people as citizens themselves to build from the bottom up such supportive architecture as they deem they need to live well that has previously been associated with ‘the state’ but that they can no longer entrust to the modern institutions bearing that name. I just hope that most of the rebuilding won’t have to occur out of the ruins of war.

9. Mutual aid

Therefore, I think it’s a good idea to exercise our mutual aid muscles. A grower’s group I’m a part of got a plea for seeds and tools from Ukrainian horticulturists. We got together what we could and our collective offerings were dispatched in a van to Ukraine. It was an easy thing to do and it doesn’t count for much. But hopefully it counts for something. I went to a talk around that time from a Conservative MP who complained about the random generosity of the British public, and the logistical snafus involved in the endless vans strung along highways and border posts between here and Ukraine for the want of a more organized relief effort.

He’s probably right. But it’s the same as the argument about donating to homelessness charities rather than directly to a beggar on the street. The charity will no doubt make better use of the money, but the human connection of giving when someone asks and looking into their eyes goes beyond price. Ultimately, if anything sees us through into the next phase of history it will be human connectedness, not organizational efficiency.

Rural gentrification Part III: of locals and migrants

My last post concerning rural gentrification led into the wider issue of future migration patterns, which I’ll address briefly here. I haven’t got much to say about it that I haven’t already said either here or in my book but maybe a little repetition is warranted.

As I see it, human movement within and between countries is likely to be a massive reality in the years to come, and the ‘rural gentrification’ trend among contemporary neo-agrarian homesteaders discussed in my previous post is merely a straw in the wind presaging it. Globally, estimates from international agencies suggest that anywhere between 200 million and a billion people could be displaced from their homes and potentially on the move over the next few decades as a result of climate change. Independently and in concert, changing economic realities seem likely to be another large impetus.

At a more granular level, some researchers question such headlines on the grounds that even when prompted by ‘natural’ phenomena like droughts or floods, migration always involves multifaceted human responses that modulate expected scales and directions of movement. Such caveats are always worth bearing in mind, especially when the idea of impending large-scale migration is so routinely used to stoke fear and generate all kinds of political mischief. All the same, in view of the climate, energy, water, soil, political and economic realities before us, I find it hard to imagine that the human world to come won’t involve migrations of a different order.

Initially, much of that migration seems likely to be relatively localized and inter-urban or rural-to-urban. Long-term, it’ll be urban-to-rural. The brute reality is that current global settlement patterns are based on flows of energy, water and money that aren’t sustainable in the long run, so those patterns will change. Given that reality, change wrought by large-scale human migration within but also between countries looks like the least disastrous way that it will happen.

I’ve sometimes been criticized for being ‘pro-migration’ – not least in the Twitter thread that generated this mini-series of blog posts. But in the face of what’s to come, saying that one is pro or anti migration is beside the point. You might as well say you’re for or against the weather. Like it or not, it’s going to happen. The real question is how you respond to it.

To state my position: I’m not especially ‘pro’ migration, but nor am I anti-migrant. In an ideal world, I’d like it if people didn’t routinely have to travel in large numbers far from their homeplace to make a livelihood. So, rather than being pro-migration, I’d describe myself as pro the right not to have to migrate. The challenge is how to make it feasible for the majority of the world’s people to exercise that right. In one of the essays that generated this blog mini-series, Anarcho-Contrarian suggested various income and property tax measures to help keep people rooted to their homeplace. I largely agree with them, but I don’t think they’d be enough to do the job in the present global moment. I’d suggest the following three policies in the wealthier countries, starting tomorrow, might to the job:

  1. A ratchet tax on fossil fuels, perhaps something of the order of an extra 5p per litre of petrol retail per week (that’s about $0.26 per gallon of gas in US units, if I’ve got my sums right) levied across the whole supply chain
  2. A 100% death or inheritance tax above a small cutoff point, say £5,000 (US$6,750) cash or one acre of farmland (farmland is currently selling at about £9,000 per acre in England at present – though another view would be that farmland isn’t currently selling in England)
  3. According rights to national and local governments worldwide to limit the inflow and outflow of capital within their jurisdictions

No doubt there’s scope for a few tweaks to these policies, but without something like them the combination of climate breakdown and the concentration of wealth will be such that a lot of people will be on the move in the coming years in search of a decent livelihood, or even of bare survival. My sense is that a lot of localist objections to in-migrants of various kinds are basically objections to the social and economic hollowing out and decline of place which results more from the flow of money than the flow of people. Certainly, there’s no prospect of reducing the latter without radical change to the former.

But sadly, I doubt such policies will be enacted anywhere. Much more likely is the proliferation of border walls and border militarization of one sort or another (US-Mexico, India-Bangladesh, N/W-S/E Mediterranean etc) the result of which will be a lot of death and suffering on the outer side of the borders and increasing civic degradation on the inner side to the point where in some places it may become debatable whether life is really better on the inside than the outside. And at the end of it all, in history measured by decades or centuries, I doubt it’ll do much to stop the redistribution of the global population that would have happened if the borders had just stayed open. Better to address climate change and capital migration now?

Those of us who live in a rural part of a high-latitude country where the future prospects for food production remain reasonably good can expect to see a lot of in-migration in the coming decades. I don’t doubt this will cause frictions, but I’m not especially sympathetic towards attempts by the existing residents of those places to keep the migrants out. Such residents have been the beneficiaries, albeit not usually the main beneficiaries, of the capital inflows and greenhouse gas emissions fuelling the migration. Those in glasshouses should not throw stones.

The same cliché probably serves yet more so for ex-urban sophisticates with a tendency to disparage the countryside and country folk, if and when they join the exodus from the cities. Get your acre and learn to homestead. Who’s the bumpkin now?

But I don’t want to get too oppositional about this. Anarcho-Contrarian wrote of the “legitimate grudge” that rural people may hold against urban-modernist narratives that tell them “you are not good enough; your place is not good enough” and whose “children and grandchildren were functionally confiscated from them”. I agree, but their children and grandchildren will soon be coming home, and they will not be the same kind of people they would have been had they never left.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing provided the returnees don’t come back with a sense of innate superiority – which is less likely if they’re returning in the face of urban crises and meltdowns. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with spending some time away from home and learning new things on other stages. Perhaps other societies outside the modern western one have done a better job of melding the so-called ‘great tradition’ of urban literate ‘high’ religious culture with the ‘little tradition’ of rural oral culture. In The Shepherd’s Life, James Rebanks recounts his alienating high school education that forced ‘great tradition’ culture down the throats of kids grounded in the practicalities of local farming life, his later enthrallment with the world of books that took him to Oxford University as a mature student, and then his return to sheep farming. There’s scope for more people’s lives to take such a course, ideally without each chapter involving such grating disjunctions.

Likewise, the pressure of in-migration to productive rural places may be positive inasmuch as it forces new patterns of more sustainable land use and landownership (ie. small-scale, self-reliant homesteading or smallholding), an argument I propounded in Part IV of A Small Farm Future. There are those who want to frame such changes in terms of class struggle, which may turn out to be the case in some places. But it seems to me unlikely that these class struggles will bear much relation to anything presaged in Marxist thinking about the class conflicts that fuelled the emergence of modern capitalism. A different and more populist lens is required. I aim to write more about it in due course.

So I guess I’m not in step with the two main stories about migration emerging respectively from the political left and right. Or maybe I’m partly in step with elements of each. I dislike the racialized stoking of fears about ‘floods’ of migrants heading from Global South to Global North or from the city to the country purveyed on the right. But migration does seem to me to raise critical social issues. It’s not just a moral panic stoked by the right, and extreme geographic or labour mobility are not intrinsically good things. ‘Floods’ of migrants has the wrong connotations, but the weather and the tides are definitely changing and unless radical policy measures are taken we’re going to see large changes in human population distributions. We’ll probably see them even if they are taken. Managing this well, avoiding individual or out-group blaming and trying to use the changes to generate positive political outcomes are important challenges. Difficult ones too.

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)