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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

From the arable corner to the recaptured garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

History deep, prospect wide

There’s one other theme from the Introduction to my book that I want to raise in this cycle of posts before moving on to Part I.

But first, maybe it’s relevant to my theme to take a quick look at wider news. I heard they had an election over in the USA, but it seems all isn’t yet settled and there are competing narratives about the result and its implications. Was the Democratic victory fraudulent or bona fide? (Clue: the latter). Did the left of the Democratic party nearly lose the election for it, or help push it over the line? Was the Trump presidency a strange anomaly or a harbinger of future political turbulence? Is the onus on ‘liberals’ to understand why so many people voted for Trump, or on ‘conservatives’ to understand why so many more didn’t? Is Trumpism destined to live on in the hearts and guns of the now semi-mythical ‘white working class’ – or is it actually a project of the white middle class, or some other group? And, if implemented, will Biden’s climate policies be able to change the game, or will they meet an impossible trade-off between fossil-fuelled capitalism and climate-induced degrowth?

Closer to home here in the UK, a Biden presidency may spell the end of the no deal Brexit brigade’s ascendancy. Expect a last minute trade deal on disadvantageous terms with the EU trumpeted as a great victory, through which the remaining vital organs of British capitalism will be carved up between larger global players – perhaps with the UK itself as a political entity the ultimate casualty. Meanwhile, with the Northern Independence Party forming and opposition growing within the Labour Party against its lurch to authoritarian centrism, the supersedure state of which I speak in Part IV of my book may be upon us sooner than I thought.

Ah yes, so finally on the news front … my book. It was briefly riding as high as about #7,000 on the Amazon bestseller list, which I’m told isn’t bad going at all. See the My book page for some online resources (including how not to buy it from Amazon), recent reviews and other exciting news about said tome. And do please consider writing an online review, especially if it’s positive.

So … I’ll be watching with interest to see how the various narratives described above unfold, while hoping that the US (and the UK) will emerge from their present imbroglios without irreparable damage. But now I want to turn to another case of divergent narratives that I broach in the Introduction to my book.

On page 7 I write “Throughout the world, there are long and complex histories by which people have been both yoked unwillingly to the land and divested unwillingly from it”. These histories fuel many different and often competing stories about land, food and belonging, but also a kind of modern historical forgetfulness about the complexity of human relationships with land (and water) through time.

I argue throughout the book that it’s necessary to overcome this forgetfulness, and recover the stories of land and loss that lie behind it in all their complexity and dissonance. Without this, I doubt we’ll be able to make wise decisions that will really work locally about the many pressing issues we face today. We’d probably resort instead to superficial morality tales that have long outlived their usefulness drawn from an (also superficial) grasp of history. And such tales are legion. Here in England, they include the notion that enclosure spelled the end of peasant agriculture, that industrialization ultimately liberated people from poverty, and that this industrialization was some endogenous process of modernization and development that had nothing to do with England’s colonial exactions elsewhere in the world.

I’d hope people reading my book would come away from it with a sense that such stories are oversimplifications that no longer serve us. But the book makes limited headway in telling better historical tales, largely because I only had so many pages to play with and the world is a large and complex place. But those deeper tales do need to be told. Carwyn Graves’s interesting review of my book from a Welsh perspective is a good example of how one might begin that telling.

In the meantime, I’d suggest – to paraphrase a recent British prime minister – that “no history is better than bad history”. In other words, given the unique set of problems people presently face, it’s as well to try to be as open-minded as possible about how to solve them rather than drawing on bad historical analogizing to close off particular approaches. Here are some common examples of the kind of bad analogizing I have in mind:

  • This country/region won’t be able to feed itself in the future, because it never did in the past
  • A small farm future would be unpleasant because the small farm past was
  • There have been people in the past who were happy to quit peasant farming, so nobody will be happy to take it up in the future
  • Nobody will renounce mass consumer society for a small farm future of simple living in the future, because in the past people opted for the former over the latter
  • Technology will solve people’s present problems because it solved people’s past ones
  • Any future attempt to create local agrarian autonomy will be crushed by centralized states, as in the past
  • Positive change will be led by the downtrodden, because past experience shows they’re the ones who truly appreciate how the present system works

I’m not saying that such statements will inevitably turn out to be wrong. I’m just saying that they might turn out to be wrong, and a superficial analysis of past analogues to our contemporary questions is a poor guide to how they will, in fact, turn out.

One of the defects of the historical analogizing I’m criticizing is that it’s ill attuned to dissonance, contradiction and competing narratives. So while, for example, it’s true that Britain has long been a net importer of food, throughout this time there have been people arguing that it can and should largely feed itself. They weren’t necessarily wrong, they just lost the political argument. Maybe their successors will be luckier. Perhaps there are implacable forces in history, but I suspect not as many as at first it seems when so many people jump on the bandwagon of the ‘had to happen’ on the flimsy evidence of the ‘did happen’. The past could have led to a different present. The present may lead to a future beyond our current imaginings.

So let your history run deep, and your horizons scan wide. Next up: Part I.

Collapse: a helpful guide for the perplexed

My previous post about so-called ‘collapse porn’ arguably demands a sequel (it should probably have been a prequel) on the definition and nature of collapse. That’s what I’ll try to do here – first with some brief definitional comments, then with a bit of context on collapse literature, and finally with some remarks for discussion on the possible causes of future social collapse.

Though it sort of undermines the purpose of this post, I’ve got to start by saying that trying to define collapse seems to me somewhat futile, in much the same way as trying to define a ‘small farm’ or of fixing and reifying any complex human construct. Maybe collapse is only truly meaningful with long historical hindsight. In my previous post, I mentioned Charlemagne, crowned emperor of Rome more than 300 years after the continuous line of Western Roman emperors had ceased. And Rome’s legacy persists in numerous ways today, more than a millennium after Charlemagne. Yet nobody would say the Roman Empire remains. How, precisely, can we define and date its end? Maybe that’s less to the point than the fact that it clearly ended.

Archaeologist Joseph Tainter, whose book The Collapse of Complex Societies I mentioned in my previous post, uses this working definition: “A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity” (p.4). Inevitably, that poses further definitional questions – what do we mean by ‘rapid’, what do we mean by ‘significant loss’ and what do we mean by ‘sociopolitical complexity’? Spurious quantification or pernickety refinement seems unlikely to illuminate these points, but perhaps it’s worth devoting a few words to ‘sociopolitical complexity’.

I’m not convinced the socio-politics that put Donald Trump in the White House or Boris Johnson in No.10 are any more complex than those that the average member of a hunter-gatherer band has had to negotiate on a daily basis down the ages – indeed, they’re probably rather less complex. But unlike such band members, Trump and Johnson nominally lead polities that thoroughly penetrate and organise the lives of many millions of people, and that involve a highly specialised and urbanised division of labour supported by the availability of cheap fossil fuels. My feeling is that some or many parts of the world will soon be in for a dose of Tainter-style collapse, with ‘rapid’ (ie. over no more than a few decades, following Tainter) and ‘significant’ loss of sociopolitical complexity, in the sense that the political centres presided over by the likes of Trump and Johnson won’t be able to organise social life across their territories to the extent they presently do, nor sustain their present specialised divisions of labour.

That, in a nutshell, is what I mean by collapse.

Now, the idea that governments like Boris Johnson’s won’t be able to sustain their geographical reach or economic specialization, thus precipitating collapse, isn’t something I intrinsically fear. In fact, I welcome it. A major reason why historical collapses are usually painted in bleak colours is because their histories are written by elites who lose most from them – by the Johnsons, shall we say, and not by the Smajes and other Pinocchio-mangling lesser folk. Historically, such underlings have often welcomed collapse. The problem is that with rapid collapse, there’s a chance that political actors worse even than Johnson, hard though that may be to imagine, may step into power. And that’s a major reason why, as per my last post, I think we should attend to the sound of the distant waterfall as the ship of state floats down the river.

I won’t attempt anything but a cursory description of the literature analysing potential collapse, though I’d be interested to hear other people’s suggestions for worthy contributions to it. Inevitably, that literature varies from the learned to the loopy. One of the cornerstones of collapse literature in modern times has been the Limits to Growth report emerging from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and first published in 1972. Despite its academic pedigree, critics have long sought to position the report as more loopy than learned, but with increasing difficulty over the years as actual trends have pretty much tracked the ones modelled by the LTG authors (see this, for example, or this). Meanwhile, various new currents of thinking have emerged around energy, climate and economic futures that take forward the ‘business as usual is not an option’ package of LTG.

A recent iteration of these debates has been prompted by Jem Bendell’s paper ‘Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy’. Bendell, a social scientist, begins his paper with an overview of findings in climate science, from which he infers the likelihood of a ‘near-term collapse in society’. Inevitably, critics have piled on various aspects of Bendell’s intervention, often citing celebrated climate scientist Michael Mann’s views on the matter. Mann described Bendell’s paper as a “perfect storm of misguidedness and wrongheadedness” in comments to Nafeez Ahmed, and then weighed in on Ahmed’s own interesting intervention as “unhelpful doomist messaging premised on poor understanding of climate science”.

I’m not fundamentally invested in Bendell or Ahmed being right, but I’m interested in the framing by Mann and those who invoke him. Mann’s understanding of climate science is surely superior to Bendell or Ahmed’s, but the focus of his comment is on ‘unhelpful doomist messaging’, which is in the realms of politics and psychology, not climate science. ‘Unhelpful’ to whom? Who should the messaging be ‘helping’, and why? What political project is compromised by ‘doomism’? And what if ‘doomist messaging’ turns out to galvanise public opinion in favour of more radical climate action?

I’d suggest that Mann’s scientific expertise lends no greater weight to his opinions on these points than to the opinions of many others, perhaps even less weight than the opinions of social scientists like Bendell and Ahmed. Actually, a sad truth of social science is that – far more than climate science – it’s really not very good at predicting anything. So while this means that the likes of Bendell probably aren’t on firm ground when they infer inevitable near-term social collapse, it also means that the likes of Mann probably aren’t on firm ground when they infer the opposite.

Talking of firm ground, research involving another celebrated climate scientist – James Hansen – suggests that sea levels may rise by as much as several metres within a century or so. With a doubling of atmospheric CO2 from its preindustrial 280ppm, average global temperature is probably set to rise, according to recent research, by 2.6-3.9 Celsius. Given the fine-tuned ‘sociopolitical complexity’ and fragile interdependencies of our modern civilization, can anyone in good faith rule out the possibility of social collapse in such circumstances? Some years ago, James Woolsey wrote that it would take an “extraordinary effort” for any country to “look beyond its own salvation” in scenarios like this. What’s interesting here is more the commenter than the comment, since Woolsey is an ex-director of the CIA, an organisation with a better track record than most at social science prediction. Doubtless this is largely because it has more power than most social scientists to turn its predictions into reality. Perhaps a presentiment of collapse is when even CIA experts throw up their hands at impending realities they can’t game their way out of.

For my part, I lack Woolsey’s crystal ball, but I’ll wrap up with a few comments for discussion on why I think it’s eminently possible that we may indeed be facing a near-term collapse in society, which I present briefly under six headings:

Economic: The present global economy is based on a model of growth that generates proportionate returns on investment. Over the last fifty years the total world economic product has grown on average by about 7% annually in real terms, standing in 2019 at about 85 trillion in constant 2010 US$. If you project that growth forwards over the next 50 years, by my calculations the global economy in 2070 will be over 30 times bigger than the present one. It seems to me pretty clear that that’s not going to happen, so the course of the global economy in the near future will be different from its course in the near past. Perhaps, looking back, future historians will describe that changed course as a collapse.

Political: In modern times, blatant inequality – more than rank poverty – fuels political turbulence. Inequalities have been getting more blatant, while politics in many parts of the world have been getting more turbulent, with the rise of various so-called populist movements, authoritarian figureheads, renewal movements and state failures. There’s a chance of declining political legitimacy and a resulting weaker reach of state power. Perhaps this could manifest in a rapid, significant loss of the established level of sociopolitical complexity. In other words, present political trends may prompt collapse.

Energetic: as I recently discussed, our present society is overwhelmingly and increasingly reliant on fossil fuels: average fossil fuel consumption per capita globally is over 1.5 tonnes of oil equivalent, and this constitutes 85% of our energy use. We need to transition out of fossil fuels, firstly (and very urgently) because they’re the main contributor to global heating, and secondly because they’re not renewable. But no transition is yet underway, and it’s hard to see how to achieve one that furnishes over 1.5 TOE per capita, especially at something similar to present energy prices. Therefore, it seems likely that in the future per capita energy availabilities will decline, along with the highly specialised and urbanised division of labour that goes with them. This could involve a rapid, significant loss of established levels of sociopolitical complexity. You know where I’m going with this, right…?

Climate: alternatively, and perhaps more likely, we might carry on relying on fossil fuels, burning our way towards 3 or 4 degrees of global heating. In this scenario, we’re talking about large sea level rises, multiple breadbasket failures, mass climate-fuelled migration, greater fire risks, greater flood risks, greater storm risks and various other related scenarios. Governments may be able to retain their territorial reach, their political legitimacy, and their ability to organise political space so as to retain established levels of sociopolitical complexity as they wrestle with these profoundly challenging issues. Then again, they may not…

Nuclear: the mutually assured nuclear destruction of the Cold War, along with its proxy conflicts, have given way in the 21st century to situations exemplified by US foreign policy in Iran, North Korea and the disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq. Nuclear proliferation is clearly in an individual state’s interest as a bulwark against US military power. But globally it makes nuclear conflict more likely. Meanwhile, the disposal problem for high-level nuclear waste has been endlessly kicked down the road, seemingly because it’s too expensive even for wealthy modern states to deal with. Imagine how difficult it might be for non-wealthy states of the future wrestling with a plethora of other problems. I’m not exactly sure what the association between modern nuclear civilization and collapse might be. But I suspect it could prove quite strong.

Infectious disease pandemic: Well, we’re in one now. But unless we’re afflicted with something as or more infectious than Covid-19 and considerably more lethal, I can’t see this as an agent of collapse in and of itself. Not even the Black Death achieved that, with its vastly higher mortality. Indeed, it was arguably a source of social renewal. Then again, the Black Death afflicted societies that didn’t have a highly urbanised and specialised division of labour, and where a large portion of the population produced their own subsistence. I doubt modern societies would be so resilient in the face of such a pandemic, which may indeed cause a rapid and significant loss of sociopolitical complexity in them.

But probably the main way in which a pandemic may work as an agent of collapse – indeed, the main way in which all of the factors mentioned above might – would be as one part of a multifactorial story. Economic decline plus political disorder plus failed energy transition plus global heating plus new health challenges (let’s not even mention nuclear issues) might easily, to borrow Michael Mann’s phrase, create a perfect storm prompting sociopolitical collapse. To rule this possibility out of our reckonings about the future seems to me a case of futurological cherry-picking or selective messaging that I can only describe as…unhelpful.

Why oil didn’t save the whales – and why it matters

A widely aired talking point among those who believe that new technological developments are the key to solving our environmental problems is that “oil saved the whales”. In this view, the emergence of petroleum products in the mid-19th century undercut the price of whale oil, prompting the decline of the whaling industry and thus reprieve for the giants of the deep from being hunted to extinction. But “oil saved the whales” isn’t usually a claim about the past so much as one about the future: the seemingly intractable problems of resource over-exploitation that trouble us today will be solved by new technologies, just as the over-exploitation of whales was solved in the past.

It’s a cute argument. But unfortunately its historical claims are blatantly false – and this calls into question its claims for the future. Far from saving the whales, it was oil that nearly obliterated them, and may yet still do so. The real lessons to be drawn from the history of whaling are more interesting and more complex than the oil salvation narrative. By laying them out here, I hope I might help draw attention to better means for tackling present problems than the one suggested by the oil salvation story.

But let’s first delve briefly into some facts and figures to explore that story. I’m hoping to do this in more depth at some point, but for present purposes we can get quite a long way just by looking at this single graph of the global sperm whale catch from 1800-1980 derived from a paper by Merrill Gosho and colleagues1 (the figures are given as ten-year aggregates).

In the first half of the 19th century the sperm whale was the premier species sought by whalers, mostly US-based, for its oil – much of it used in lamps. What gets the oil-salvationists excited is the dip you see in the graph around 1850, which was around the time that kerosene lamp-oil became available – an innovation that this oil salvation narrative personalizes in the name of Abraham Gesner, who formed the Kerosene Gaslight Company in 1850. Whether the dip really was caused just by the advent of kerosene is debatable. There were various other factors in play, including the depletion of sperm whales in existing whaling grounds. But it seems plausible that kerosene did play some role.

The real problem for the oil salvation narrative comes when you cast your eyes rightwards along the graph at the 20th century sperm whale catch. If we start in 1950, a century after Gesner’s supposedly game-changing invention, over 8,000 sperm whales were taken that year, more than three times as many as in 1850. In fact, more sperm whales were taken in the single decade of the 1950s than in the entire heyday of the sperm whale industry from 1800-1850.

It gets worse if we look at other whale species. Barely any of the fast and elusive rorqual species like blue whales were taken before the late 19th century, because traditional whaling technology wasn’t up to catching them. But in the years around World War I the number of blues taken, mostly in the Antarctic, was around 6,000 per year, and with the invention of the factory ship this leapt to nearly 30,000 blues in 1930-1. One reason the sperm whale catch accelerated in the 1950s was because there were few blues left to catch.

So that, in a nutshell, is why oil didn’t save the whales. It was the modern, industrialized whaling of the 20th century potentiated by fossil oil that truly put whales into danger.

But let’s turn to what we can learn from humanity’s whaling misadventures, which I would itemize as follows.

Technology doesn’t just ‘move forwards’, it cascades. You can take a particular moment or context – the lamp oil market in 1850, for example – and stake a claim for the ecological benefits of a new product like kerosene. But to provide an adequate account of technological impact, you need to trace the ramifications forward in all their cascading complexity. In the case before us, this would involve the deadly impact on whales of fossil-fuelled whaling technologies after 1850, later technological developments such as the invention of margarine and hydrogenation techniques that stimulated a new demand for whale oil in the 20th century, the falling price of whale oil that made it competitive with other oils once again with the rise of labour-cutting mechanization and more efficient processing, new demands for baleen and other whale products, and so on. Any new technology, including kerosene, isn’t a one-shot intervention into a small slice of history like a specific lamp oil market. It cascades across the totality of human history and natural history.

In fact, technology doesn’t ‘move forwards’ at all, nor ‘backwards’ – it just moves. Kerosene might have been an environmental boon for whales in 1850. In its best-known present use as aviation fuel, it’s an environmental disaster in terms of climate change, which may not turn out too well for whales in the long run – or for us. In fact, the development of liquid fossil fuels in the later 19th century, of which kerosene was one strand, didn’t turn out too well for whales even in the short run. ‘Oil saved the whales’ is an untestable claim that the future will turn out well, based on a questionable claim that the past turned out well. It amounts to saying no more than ‘somebody’s bound to think of something’. I’d suggest it’s better to focus on the problems of the present, using the means that are presently available to us.

Low impact technologies can be high impact. Until the mid-19th century, the whaling industry used the same ‘sustainable’ methods as aboriginal whalers from time immemorial: sail, oar, harpoon, lance. And yet because of the social organization of the industry and the clever deployment of sustainable technology in the form of transoceanic sailing ships, it had a global impact on whale depletion. Industries using low impact technologies aren’t necessarily low impact industries.

Capitalism sucks. By which I mean, following the previous point, organising industries in capitalist ways often results in sucking ever more non-renewable resources from the world. The graph above suggests as much. Fossil oil didn’t replace whale oil, it enabled whale oil to be added to an expanding repertoire of resource drawdown. The same is true of renewable energy technologies today. The problem can only really be addressed by changing the nature of the economy, not by changing the means through which it sucks.

Ecological systems have inertia… Although forty years have passed without much large-scale commercial whaling (and many more years than that in the case of some species), recovery of stocks has been glacially slow. I’m hoping to examine this in greater detail, but as I understand it only with one species – the gray – have numbers yet returned to anything like their pre-whaling levels. No doubt this partly has to do with other and ongoing human-induced problems in the oceans (whales entangled with fishing nets, for example) but the nature of whales as stress tolerator or K-selected species means they can’t cope well with a perturbation like large-scale whaling, and they recover from it only slowly or perhaps not at all. A good deal of the biota is similar, suggesting that disturbance events can have negative effects long into the future after they’ve ended – worth noting, perhaps, for many other dimensions of human action upon the world besides whaling.

…and so do economic systems. A firm principle of the oil salvation narrative is that human inventiveness brings forth new and superior alternatives to old and ecocidal ones, like kerosene for whale oil, and that market forces then swiftly do the work of ecological transition. But, leaving aside kerosene’s own ecocidal effects (Point 2), the history of whaling really doesn’t fit this narrative well. Substitutes for almost every whale product existed long before commercial whaling was banned in 1982, 130 years after Mr Gesner’s marvellous invention. The truth is that market forces don’t swiftly do the work of ecological transition, for numerous reasons – sunk costs, industry resistance, political leverage, wider geopolitics to name a few. Cue TED talk: “Oil didn’t save the whales, and market forces aren’t going to solve climate change.”

Social systems cascade too. The oil salvation narrative settles on the singularity that commercial whaling was banned only because superior substitutes for whale products had been found. But in the real world, political decisions usually result from many factors, often with a fair slice of contingency thrown in. The existence of substitutes was no doubt one factor. Other factors included the declining whale catch, possible extinction arising from over-exploitation, and the rise of animal rights philosophies, environmentalist lobbying and direct action against whaling. Global geopolitics too. From my reading of the jockeying at the IWC and the endless foot-dragging of the whaling nations prior to the moratorium, it takes a very reductive worldview to discount all these other factors and impute the moratorium solely to technological substitution.

Activism matters. And on that basis, I’d say that activism matters. It’s impossible to say how much it was the mobilisation of organisations like Greenpeace and changing public attitudes towards the relentless hunting of large mammals that resulted in the moratorium and how much it resulted from other more technocratic factors. But it seems clear to me that without impassioned (and media savvy) public activism the moratorium would have been less likely. So if you want to right a wrong, you could try to invent something that you hope market forces will take up and tip things in your preferred direction. Or you could protest more directly – for example by standing in a small boat between a whale and a gunner’s grenade. To me, it’s a rash theorist who claims to know for sure that Abraham Gesner is more deserving of a vote of thanks from the whales than, say, Paul Watson.

The tragedy of the commons is a thing. As I’ve argued before on here and examine in more detail in my book, the debate about commons is stuck in a rut – Hardin versus Ostrom gets us started, but now we need to move on. In less than a century, humanity reduced blue whales to about 4% of their pre-whaling numbers. You could call this a tragedy of the commons, or – if you prefer – you could call it a tragedy of failing to create a commons, although there was still a common law of the sea in operation during the years of unrelenting, fossil-fuelled whaling. Whatever terminology you favour, the fact is that people don’t always succeed in preventing open access, private property or state regimes from over-exploiting resources and wild creatures.

When going uphill, change down a gear. The oil salvation narrative is part of the wider one in mainstream economics that human ingenuity along with price signals will enable us to do more, to do it better and to do it faster unto eternity. No doubt this seemed plausible during much of the 20th century. But as the fossil fuelled bonanza hustled the human omnibus ever faster downhill, it made little difference to us whether we made sustainable use of whale products or not. And today it seems clearer that the downslope won’t last forever. There’s a good chance we’ll hit a steep energy upslope soon enough, and a climate change upslope before that, and at these points we’d be well advised – like any sensible driver – not to keep piling on full throttle in top gear in the hope it’ll get us to the top of the hill. Instead we need to slow down, change down a gear and trim the vehicle to the realities of the landscape. Oil didn’t save the whales. A low carbon, cheap energy revolution isn’t just around the corner. Slow down. Look out of the window. It’s a beautiful world out there.

 

Note

  1. Gosho, Merrill, et al. 1984. ‘The Sperm Whale.’ Marine Fisheries Review 46: 54–64.

 

Of scarcity and scale

Let me begin with a quick heads-up on my forthcoming book. It’s been somewhat delayed in the editing, but Covid-19 permitting it’s now slated for publication at the end of October. So please be sure to keep some cash in your piggy bank for the tail-end of the year…

One reason the book was delayed in the editing is because the initial draft grew a little unwieldy and I’ve had to spend time paring it down. There’s just so much to say about smallness, farming and the future! Some of my edits are destined to languish forever on the cutting room floor, perhaps rightly so, but there are a few sections I think deserve to see the light of day. So I’m aiming to publish them here on the blog as a kind of ‘best of the rest’ selection – or, to a put a more positive spin on it, as background reading that fills out in greater detail some of the book’s balder and briefer assertions and analyses.

This post is the first of these selections, lightly edited to fit into the blog format, involving some reflections on farm scale, yield and income. Right now, however, I’m in the thick of the final book edit, so please forgive me if my replies to any comments are more peremptory than normal.

oOo

For numerous reasons, I’ve long argued for a small farm future, where a large proportion of the population work as small-scale agricultural proprietors producing food both for themselves (a crucial point, as I’ll emphasize below) and for market sale. But it has to be said that historically the lot of the small proprietor often hasn’t been a happy one.

Optimal in theory, sub-optimal in practice – in his book Agricultural Revolution in England1, Mark Overton includes an interesting table that enables us to probe this issue. The table presents data from two pre-industrial English grain farms, which are hypothetical but presumably grounded in Professor Overton’s experience as a prominent agricultural historian – a large farm of 100 acres and a small farm of 10 acres:

Farm Productivities
Column

1

 

2

 

3

 

4

 

5

 

6

 

7

 

8

 

9

 

10

Row Harvest ratio to normal Acres Yield (bushels/acre) Gross output Seed On farm consumption Net output Price (d/bushel) Total income Income/labor unit
Large farm
1 1.5 100 15 1500 250 50 1200 4 4800 4800
2 1.2 100 12 1200 250 50 900 6.6 5940 5940
3 1 100 10 1000 250 50 700 10 7000 7000
4 0.8 100 8 800 250 50 500 16.9 8450 8450
5 0.5 100 5 500 250 50 200 55.3 11060 11060
Small farm
6 1.5 10 15 150 25 50 75 4 300 300
7 1.2 10 12 120 25 50 45 6.6 297 297
8 1 10 10 100 25 50 25 10 250 250
9 0.8 10 8 80 25 50 5 16.9 84.5 84.5
10 0.5 10 5 50 25 50 -25 55.3 -1382.5 -1382.5

 

In Rows 1-5 Overton gives some input/output figures for the large farm under various assumptions of good, normal and poor harvest. In an agricultural economy that’s largely self-sufficient in staples locally or nationally, demand for grain is price inelastic (ie. it stays fairly constant regardless of price, because everybody needs to eat). Because of this inelasticity, in times of dearth the price of grain shoots up disproportionately to the fall in output, meaning that the large farm gets more income in bad harvest years than good ones (compare Row 1, Column 9 with Row 5, Column 9).

The outcome isn’t so happy for the small farmer, shown in Rows 6-10. In the poorest harvest years, s/he produces less grain than s/he needs to consume (Row 10, Column 7), and has to buy in extra grain to eat at the inflated scarcity price, therefore making a net loss (Row 10, Column 9). Too many seasons like that and the farm goes under, forcing the farmer to find some other employment – if they can.

But Overton makes a key and rather hidden assumption. Before it sells any grain the farm household first has to meet its own need for sustenance, which is the same year by year for a given household size regardless of the harvest. Overton allows for this in Column 6, but he makes it the same for both the 100 and 10 acre farms. So the same number of farmworkers in both cases (and the same yields per acre) but on the large farm the same number of workers are applied to an area ten times the size of the small farm, and therefore have ten times the labour productivity.

That’s a reasonable (in fact, conservative) picture of what tends to happen when small-scale farmers with hand tools or draft teams confront large-scale ones with all the paraphernalia of modern fossil-fuelled industrial agriculture. The labour productivity of the latter is vastly greater, and since labour is a major cost driver, this pushes poor small-scale farmers out of staple crop production and into commodity crop or non-farm employment markets where they’re subject to wider market forces, usually to their disadvantage. This is why calls in the rich countries to improve labour-shedding technologies, increase yields and lower the price of food in order to ‘feed the world’ in fact are more likely to starve it.

But I’m not sure Overton’s labour productivity figures present a reasonable picture of preindustrial English agriculture, or situations generally where the large-scale farm has no technology or labour-productivity advantage. Suppose we recalculate Overton’s table assuming that each acre of farmland requires the same amount of human labour applied to it. It then looks like this:

Farm productivities scaled to labor productivity
Column

1

 

2

 

3

 

4

 

5

 

6

 

7

 

8

 

9

 

10

Row Harvest ratio to normal Acres Yield (bushels/acre) Gross output Seed On farm consumption Net Output Price (d/bushel) Total income Income/labor unit
1 1.5 100 15 1500 250 500 750 4 3000 300
2 1.2 100 12 1200 250 500 450 6.6 2970 297
3 1 100 10 1000 250 500 250 10 2500 250
4 0.8 100 8 800 250 500 50 16.9 845 84.5
5 0.5 100 5 500 250 500 -250 55.3 -13825 -1382.5
Small farm
6 1.5 10 15 150 25 50 75 4 300 300
7 1.2 10 12 120 25 50 45 6.6 297 297
8 1 10 10 100 25 50 25 10 250 250
9 0.8 10 8 80 25 50 5 16.9 84.5 84.5
10 0.5 10 5 50 25 50 -25 55.3 -1382.5 -1382.5

 

By equalizing the labour productivities in Column 6, the advantage of the large farm has disappeared. Like the small farm, its income turns negative in the poorest harvest years, and its financial returns per unit of labour are exactly the same. In fact, in preindustrial England and in many other places historically the evidence suggests that, if anything, there are diseconomies of large scale in terms of output per acre, so the small farm may be advantageously placed.

There are four points I’d like to draw out from this little exercise by way of conclusion.

First, there isn’t some natural economic law that favours large over small economic units. Only in specific social and technical circumstances is this likely to be the case.

Second, one such case has been global agricultural mechanization over the past century or so. If like units of labour earn more or less the same per hour whatever they do, and if there are no diseconomies of increased scale in relation to labour-shedding agricultural mechanization, then small farms producing grain by hand or small machine will be disadvantaged relative to larger farms that are terraformed to the requirements of large machines employing equivalent labour. What seems much less clear to me is that this will continue to be true into the future. In the coming years we’re probably going to have to find low carbon employment for people in their multitudes. In this situation, labour productivity will probably be less important than carbon intensity and gainful employment – and the small farm may be better fitted to that end.

Third, a talking point in mainstream agricultural economics is that ‘free’ markets rather than household or community self-reliance are a better safeguard against hunger. Sometimes that can be true. The exorbitant prices for grain apparent in Column 8 as the yields in Column 3 decline might have been smoothed out with imports of cheaper grain from other parts of the world experiencing grain surpluses.

But there are several grounds for caution here. There’s the problem of dumping I mentioned above, with long-term negative effects on the local economy. There’s the issue that while cheaper grain imported from elsewhere may be welcome when harvests are poor, the exporters are usually price-seekers, not humanitarians. The cheaper grain may not be cheap enough to fully relieve distress – distress arising largely from local social arrangements which wider market dynamics aren’t geared to mitigating. Indeed, speculation on financialized global markets is a driver of food price increases, not a wider market solution to local distress. Finally, in the climate and water-challenged world that’s now upon us, it’s unwise to assume that cheap grain at steady prices will be readily available on the global market. The places that produce most of the grain surpluses are among the ones that are most climate and water challenged – and, as we’ve seen recently, when push comes to shove administrations prioritize production for domestic use, at least for those among their populations they wish to court.

Fourth and finally, inasmuch as farms of any scale might be economically threatened by poor harvests, it seems to me that Overton’s analysis points to two remedies. The first is that the farm household should place a high priority on producing for its own needs in a resilient, pessimal manner so that the net output figures in Column 7 are unlikely ever to turn negative, even in bad years, as a matter of ecological management. The second is that the farm household should aim to be part of a wider community and economy of farm households whose political guardians offer them support so that in bad years the figures in Column 7 don’t turn negative as a matter of political fiat. I think both of these remedies will be necessary in a sustainable and resilient small farm future.

Generally, the point I want to stress is that the bad outcome for the small farmer of the kind highlighted by Overton doesn’t arise from some intrinsic disadvantage of small scale, but from relative labor productivities in the existing globalized capitalist market – which isn’t the only way or necessarily the most sensible way of organizing food production and social wellbeing.

Reference

  1. Mark Overton. 1996. Agricultural Revolution in England: The Transformation of the Agrarian Economy 1500-1850. Cambridge University Press.

 

The three causes of global ecocide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human Ecological Impact = Grain Farming + Capitalism + Fossil Fuels

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

The great convergence?

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

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

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

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

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

Exhibit A:

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

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

Exhibit B:

 

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

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

Exhibit C:

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

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

Exhibit D:

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

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

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

I’d welcome any comments.

Notes

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

Trans-continental Hustle, Or An Admittedly Anecdotal Review of Adam Tooze’s Crashed

Today I’m happy to bring you a rare guest post in the form of a review of historian Adam Tooze’s magnum opus, Crashed penned by Michelle Galimba, rancher and valued commenter here at Small Farm Future. Tooze’s book has been sitting in my in-tray for some time, but thanks to Michelle I can now let it linger there a while longer. Meanwhile, there may be another service interruption on this blog while I toil over my own opus, but I’m hoping to present some further ruminations on property and commons emerging out of my last post and my current book draft, perhaps in a couple of weeks’ time. For now, it’s over to Michelle – my thanks to her for letting me publish her review.

Adam Tooze. 2018. Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World. Allen Lane.

I have a friend who, in the fall of 2008, was working on a real estate development project that was funded through Lehman Brothers.  One day he was jubilant at having made some money off what turned out to be Lehman’s “dead cat bounce,” and another day not long after, on September 15, he was deeply depressed when his project went up in flames, along with so much of Wall Street. Lehman’s bankruptcy ended the stream of easy credit for such marginal real estate projects. “Well”, I said to him that day, as he lamented his ill fortune, “you still have all your limbs and youʻre in no danger of starving to death, so it’s not so bad!” In the ranch business, neither personal safety nor making payroll are things I take for granted. My friend scorned such peasant consolations; heʻd been living high in the glow of success that hot money bestows.  He tried, for a couple of years, to put another funding deal together with increasingly sketchy potential partners, but in the end the property was foreclosed upon and sold at auction to another real estate investment company. I strongly disapproved of my friend’s development plans – converting agricultural land into residential agricultural “estates” – so the Great Recession had the silver lining of throwing some sand in the gears of the growth machine, at least for my corner of the world.

I’ve never really understood what happened in 2008, and I suppose that is what motivated me to take up Adam Toozeʻs Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World. Iʻm not predisposed to thinking about economics, except as it relates to the practical matter of running the ranch.  I never took an economics course in college and what books I’ve read have been along the lines of Economics for Dummies.  I regretted my ignorance in reading Crashed – although Tooze explains each piece of financial machinery that plays a role in the train-wreck, the book nevertheless made heavy demands on whatever shreds of economic lore I’ve picked up along the way.  Expect to wade through many a sentence as this: “Because the collateral that was preferred by the triparty repo markets was Treasurys, in the spring of 2008 the Fed instituted another program, the Term Securities Lending Facility, under which it lent out top-rated US Treasurys on twenty-eight day terms in exchange for a variety of mortgage-backed securities, including private label.”

Although Crashed  primarily traces the financial crisis in the US and Europe during the period 2006-2018, Tooze brackets his tale of Euro-American financial implosions by sketching the “financial balance of terror” between China and the US and delineating how dangerous this ‘balance’ is.  The Great Recession and the Euro-zone sovereign debt showdowns that followed, for all their drama, were the “wrong crisis” – merely a preliminary sideshow set off by bad acting investment banks, rather than the potential Crash which still lies waiting in the financial and trade imbalances between China and other “emerging markets” on the one hand, and the “advanced economies” of Europe and the US on the other.

It is within the brackets of this larger problem that the Great Recession happened. It is a sobering thought.

I’ve read Crashed through once, and I may very well do so again.  Despite its weighty subject and imposing heft, it is an engrossing page-turner, and just about any of those nearly 700 pages is food for much pondering.  Tooze is a master narrator who can engage the reader in  “the grand sweep of global economic imbalances” and the dramatic moments of high-stakes decision-making, as well as deploy the quote juste and the well-deserved smack-down: “In the course of the crisis, the GOP had shown itself to be less a party of government than a political vehicle through which conservative, white Americans expressed their alarm at the earthquakes shaking their world.”  If anything Tooze’s narrative skills hurry one along too quickly (though I’m not complaining) in a dramatic rush of money, power, and political calculation as these morph and metastasize between North America to Europe and back again.

I could go on for quite a bit about Crashed, if my own local dramas about small animal slaughter capacity and agricultural water rights weren’t eating into my writing time, but to be very brief, (one of) Tooze’s overarching theses is that politics creates economics, which, though verging on the obvious, cannot be said often enough, especially among Americans. We don’t have to acquiesce to the neoliberal economic ideology that passes for common sense and hard-headed realism even as its inadequacy for organizing a functional, healthy society is crystal clear. The financial foolishness that led to the crises of the last ten years was enabled by a political-economic worldview whose orthodoxy could use some hard questioning. Tooze’s book, by getting into “the black box” of the Crash and showing how “ the economics of the financial system” worked clarifies how profoundly self-serving and short-sighted the “innovations” of the financial elite are, and how little they deserve the deference and even adulation they still too often receive.

Another key argument is that, contrary to a perception much encouraged by the financial industry and governments on both sides of the Atlantic, the banks that binged most irresponsibly on the American sub-prime mortgage market and who were therefore most desperately in need of American dollar liquidity from the various American bailout facilities (TARP, TAF, currency swap lines, etc.) had their headquarters in Europe.  Tooze argues that it was the American’s “bazooka” response, rather than the European “austerity” approach to the sovereign debt crises in Greece, Ireland, and Spain that was most effective in terms of quick recovery.   But whether the American approach will truly be ‘effective’ in the long term and big picture is an open question. The cost in political capital for Obama and the Democrats was considerable, spawning the Tea Party backlash, and leading to our current political nightmare.  Yes, the financial system got back on its feet, but did we corrupt our political institutions in the process and spawn a debilitating and vicious culture war to boot?

Crashed perhaps focuses a bit too much on the political personalities tasked with responding to the Euro-zone crises (although this is one of its strengths as well), and never mentions the part that depleting resources/environmental constraints played in these crises – as we run out of natural resources to devour, generating the returns to which we have grown accustomed requires the thin-air financial ‘innovations’ that led to the Crash.  Also, the book could use another run through by a diligent proof-reader, but I’m almost literally nit-picking there.  It is a great read – insightful, thought-provoking, challenging, entertaining even – and I’ll not look at the business section of the newspaper the same again.

The ironic thing is that what saved my friend after his Lehman-funded real estate deal went belly-up were the very small farmers that would have been displaced by his “estates.”  He eventually re-invented himself as a specialty coffee broker, and now makes his money consolidating and marketing the product of those same small coffee farmers, generally Filipino or Hispanic immigrants, highly capable people but with limited command of business English, to the high-end coffee market.  This global market access creates the niche product pricing (several times what a Columbian or Guatemalan farmer gets) that supports a modest first-world lifestyle for the farmers: it keeps them in trucks and fertilizer and they have some money left over to bet on the illegal cock-fights that happen nearly every weekend in a remote corner of someoneʻs orchard.

I have to wonder if the high-flyers of Wall Street and the City of London may all someday have to re-invent themselves as my friend did.  Will the gigantic bubble of speculative finance that was not dealt with but rather enabled by years of QE lead to the Mother of all Crashes in the near future? Will the Mother of all Crashes lead to a more grounded, less leveraged way of living for more people?  Hard to say.

Of cages and hedges

Comments are back on after my return from a brief and computer-less sojourn in the Scottish Highlands. Computer-less, but TV-enabled (the opposite to my usual life on the farm), enabling me to watch endless programs about homesteading in Alaska and, when the mood took me, to keep up with the UK’s fast-developing, eminently predictable and wholly avoidable constitutional crisis over Brexit.

For those with better things to do than following the machinations in Westminster, here’s a quick summary of how Conservative MPs have recently voted.

  • No confidence in Theresa May’s leadership of the party: 117 out of 317
  • No confidence in Theresa May’s Brexit deal with the EU: 118 out of 317
  • Confidence in Theresa May’s government: 317 out of 317

No, me neither. Meanwhile, Small Farm Future has been engaging in arcane voting procedures of its own in relation to the heated issue of which topic to post on next. And the winner (by a crushing margin) is…the unexpurgated version my article ‘Of cages and hedges’ which has recently appeared in The Land Magazine (Issue 24, pp.56-7, since you asked).

After this post, I’ll post my interview with David Bandurski – author of the book Dragons in Diamond Village, on which my article in The Land was based. Then there’ll be radio silence for a while so I can focus on writing my own book. After that I’ll write a post on property, immigration and boundaries. And that’s a promise.

But first, here’s ‘Of Cages and Hedges’:

oOo

The lessons of China’s tumultuous history demand attention from those of us who advocate for more localized, land-based economies as part of the solution to global problems. The only civilization to survive more-or-less intact from antiquity to the present, much of its history was characterized by a relatively stable compact between a property-owning peasantry and an imperial bureaucracy the envy of peasants in other lands[i]. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century ‘modernisation’ sharpened the conflict between social classes, culminating in Mao’s communist revolution and its enforced ‘iron rice bowl’ of rigidly-policed peasant equality and sufficiency. According to political scientist Lynn White, the disasters of Maoist economic policy and political intriguing in the 1950s and 60s created substantial local autonomy – and, more than the top-down reforms of the post-Mao regime, this autonomy fostered a peasant-led, bottom-up economic dynamism that laid the foundations for China’s emergence in recent years as a major global capitalist power[ii].

Land-workers and food sovereignty activists won’t need much convincing that, given the chance, peasants and rural people can create abundant and thriving local economies. But other aspects of China’s rise are more troubling to that narrative. Chen Yun famously described China’s post-Mao economy as a ‘birdcage’, in which the free-flying and prosperity-generating bird of capitalism was kept to its proper bounds by a socialist cage. But the reality is that in modern China the bird has long since flown the cage. This comes as no surprise to Marxists, who’ve always suspected that peasants are really just capitalists or landless wage-workers in disguise. But for agrarian thinkers who want to retain a notion of thriving but stable, non-capitalist rural economies, we somehow need to come up with a better cage.

Another troubling issue is revealed by a look at global farming statistics. Worldwide since 1990, there’s been a decline of 240 million people reported as employed in farming. But looking country-by-country, there’s been an outflow of 448 million people from farming – the majority (311 million) from China, where the proportion of people working in agriculture has declined from 55% in 1991 to 18% in 2017. That implies that there’s been an increase in farm employment elsewhere, and indeed there are 84 countries with a net increase in the number of people in farming totalling 208 million people. The majority of these (161 million) are in sub-Saharan Africa, partly reflecting the strong population growth in that region but also reflecting its poverty[iii]. It’s hard to preach an enticing vision for the peasant way when the majority of people entering it are the poorest on earth, and the majority of people exiting it live in a country that’s hurtling along a capitalist path of self-enrichment.

But a closer look at that capitalist path reveals a more complex story of ‘enrichment’, albeit one that’s familiar in its main details from capitalist paths of enrichment in other times and places. After the rural dynamism mentioned above got the ball rolling, China’s rise as a global economic power was based on export manufacturing industries built on the back of cheap migrant labour from the countryside to urbanizing-industrializing areas. One reason for its cheapness has been China’s household registration system, whereby rural migrants remain classified by their places of origin and are denied access to the superior health, educational, social and fiscal services available to city residents, thereby personally bearing much of the social costs of the industrialization founded in their labour[iv].

More recently, as with other maturing capitalist powers, there’s been a significant shift in Chinese wealth-creation out of industrialization and into financialization – particularly in relation to urban real estate. David Bandurski’s fine book Dragons in Diamond Village traces how this works, mostly via the engaging stories of individual people fighting the corrupt web of city officials, party leaders, village heads and police officers[v]. A distinctive feature of this in urbanizing China that Bandurski analyses in detail is the violent pressure that falls on collectively-held village land as it’s swallowed up by urbanization. These ‘urban villages’ have typically become crowded residential city neighbourhoods housing poor rural migrant labourers – slums in other words – with the original villagers acting as petty landlords under predatory pressure to relinquish their rights to village land and even to their own houses for the purposes of property development or gentrification, with the proceeds pocketed higher up the political food chain.

The plight of the urban villagers may seem a lesser one than that of the rural migrant labour force, and indeed in an interview with me David Bandurski explained that other urban-dwellers were often dismissive of their resistance to state enclosure, assuming that they were doing nicely out of their property rights. But he emphasized the predatory power of the state forces ranged against them, adding “I never understood the need to minimize the suffering of urban villagers by pretending they were sultans in comparison to struggling migrants. But you often heard this. And I think this arises in part from the political stigmatization of self-interest, which is confused with greed.”[vi]

This self-interest/greed nexus is an interesting feature that emerges from the analysis of Chinese capitalism by Bandurski and others. Capitalist development in the west has drawn on powerful but largely fallacious theories that individual self-interest, or even greed, fosters collective wellbeing, stretching right back to Adam Smith’s discussion of the invisible hand of the market in his Wealth of Nations published in 1776. Western capitalist mythology still celebrates the ideology of the little guy, the individual entrepreneur with the great idea, despite the dominance of the actual economy by vast corporate-monopoly enterprises. Bandurski writes contrastingly of China:

“one of the distinguishing features of what has been called “urbanization” in a Chinese context is that the role of the human being is minimized against the backdrop of a larger-than-life vision of the urban. A kind of urban mythology of the city as a place of dynamism and ultimately prosperity. You can see this readily in the propaganda around the city, which emphasizes the modern fabric of the city—the skyscrapers, the monuments, the high-speed rail…on one trip to countryside in Henan I saw how the mosaic scenes outside rural homes had been changed from scenes of nature to scenes of the megacity dominated by an expressway in diminishing perspective running through the center, luxury cars whishing past montages of architecture from Shanghai and Beijing. The caption was always: “Road to Prosperity.” But there were never people in those scenes, any more than in the government’s urban propaganda.”[vii]

Who knows how this will all turn out – but if economist Minqi Li’s analysis is correct, the probable answer is not well. At present, the combination of rising if poorly distributed incomes and the growing authoritarianism of the Xi Jinping regime is keeping the lid on social unrest in China. Bandurski pronounces himself “not very optimistic about the prospects for land rights activism becoming a real political force in China”. Longer-term, though, Li argues that at some point this century China’s dependence on fast economic growth through the terms of trade with its export partners along with its dependence on a prodigious fossil-energy use that’s neither economically nor ecologically sustainable will prompt a major crisis – political, economic and environmental – that will reverberate across China and the rest of the world and probably destroy much of what many people now take for granted about the modern world system[viii].

For westerners like me who’ve grown up in the alternative farming movement, it’s the older pre-revolutionary China that’s loomed largest in our thinking. Books like F.H. King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries emphasized the long-term sustainability of China’s labour-intensive, horticultural civilization, influencing western ecological movements like permaculture[ix]. In permaculture circles I’ve heard the adage repeated more than once that “the Chinese have forgotten more about gardening than the rest of the world ever knew”. But sadly it seems that their forgetting may now have matched our ignorance. In David Bandurski’s uncompromising words:

“One of the most basic things to understand about China’s so-called rural population is its clear and increasing remoteness from agricultural life. The vast majority are not farmers at all. Even one, two and now even three generations back they are not farmers. They have little or probably in most cases no agricultural knowledge.”[x]

It’s hard to derive an optimistic message from the familiar stories here of hard-won agricultural knowledge easily lost, enrichment by enclosure, economic maldistribution, short-term money-making at the cost of long-term crisis, and the elusiveness of a gilded rather than an iron cage to contain the spirits of the market. But China still has more people in farming than most industrialized countries, and a history of wrenching social transformation that may yet surprise the world again. David Bandurski mentions that many among China’s rural-industrial workforce still consider the family smallholding as a hedge against economic insecurity, while adding that, “This land isn’t a hedge in the real sense that any sustainable income could probably be derived from it, but only in the sense that it might enable subsistence at the most basic level.”[xi] The challenge as I see it is that the world at large urgently needs to improve its hedges – which may not sound like the right conclusion in view of what we know about the enclosure of the commons, though personally I’m convinced that well-hedged (in every sense) private smallholdings of the kind pioneered long ago in China can still offer one of the more persuasive roadmaps out of the present morass.

 

[i] Eric Wolf. 1969. Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. Harper & Row.

[ii] Lynn White. 2018. Rural Roots of Reform Before China’s Conservative Change. Routledge.

[iii] Figures in this paragraph calculated from World Development Indicators: http://databank.worldbank.org/data/reports.aspx?source=world-development-indicators

[iv] Hsiao-Hung Pai. 2013. Scattered Sand: The Story of China’s Rural Migrants. Verso.

[v] David Bandurski. 2016. Dragons in Diamond Village: Tales of Resistance from Urbanizing China. Melville House.

[vi] David Bandurski, personal communication.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Minqi Li. 2016. China and the 21st Century Crisis. Pluto.

[ix] F.H. King. 1911. Farmers of Forty Centuries: Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan. Rodale.

[x] Bandurski, personal communication.

[xi] Ibid.