From the dawn of everything to a small farm future: a review of Graeber & Wengrow

The late David Graeber and David Wengrow’s (henceforth GW) The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (Allen Lane, 2021) is the newest big book of revisionist global history on the block. I’ve been fighting the urge to write a review of it, but since it illuminates several themes of interest to this blog, what follows is a white flag of surrender to that fine ambition.

When I say The Dawn of Everything is a big book, I mean really big. Several reviewers of my own tome commented with palpable tiredness about how exhaustively argued (272 pages), endnoted (12 pages) and referenced (12 pages) it is, but it’s a mere pamphlet compared to GW’s numbers in this regard (526, 83 and 63, since you asked). I mention this partly to remind myself to say something later in this review about the rights and wrongs of quantification, and partly to dramatize the point that it’s impossible to summarize GW’s book and do any justice to the depth of their analysis, so I’m not even going to try.

What I am going to do is pick out a few themes that chime with my own interests, which, broadly speaking, are how to rethink almost the entirety of the present world political and economic system in the face of profound ecological and social crisis. As is often the way of such things, I’m going to focus a bit more on where I disagree or am uncertain about GW’s analysis than on points of agreement, so I just want to say upfront that their book is a magnificent achievement and a crowning glory for the extraordinary David Graeber before, alas too soon, he left us to join the ancestors.

Although GW’s book defies summary, I’ll offer a quick thumbnail anyway. Standard modern global histories tell us that our genus Homo emerged about 2 million years ago. These hominins of our genus, so the story goes, lived for most of that time in small, egalitarian foraging bands where nothing very interesting happened for multiple tens of thousands of years until men invented agriculture roughly 10,000 years ago. This enabled the accumulation of surplus, the division of labour, social stratification and the emergence of centralized states, culminating in the incredible technological mastery of the last couple of centuries centred around Europe and its offshoots.

This is often told as a story of heroic progress that puts white, agricultural men in the historical driving seat, but often enough the story is inverted, the heroes become villains, and we are called back to a time of innocent, egalitarian, non-racist, non-sexist foraging. This solidifies a seemingly immovable modern duality: upwards to a brighter future or downwards from a brighter past. Progress or a fall from grace, modernity or nostalgia, accelerationism or primitivism. Like GW, I’ve done my best over the years to escape this airless duality, but it’s a struggle. I hope their book becomes an important waymark in its overcoming.

In GW’s revisionist account, a lot of very interesting things happened during human ‘prehistory’ – in particular, playful and transitory experimentation with both egalitarian and stratified forms of society across vast interconnected human landscapes of continental scale. Then women invented agriculture (or, better, horticulture), basically as a niche craft specialization. For a long while nobody took it any more seriously than all the other ways people had of messing around outdoors. But eventually it did, literally, take root across much of the world, creating more populous but smaller, more localized societies that were more inclined to stress their cultural differences from one another. There was no definite relationship between the emergence of agriculture and the emergence of stratified, centralized polities. Historically, both foragers and farmers created large urban centres based on bottom up, relatively egalitarian forms of self-organization, but they also created ones with a parade of emperors, kings and other bigwigs.

We tend to dignify the latter with the concept of ‘the state’, but there’s never really been such a thing as ‘the state’ with a core, enduring set of attributes. Nevertheless, nowadays we do seem to have lost our human capacity for playful experimentation and are ‘stuck’ within a system of stratified, centralized polities. In GW’s words, “There is no doubt that something has gone terribly wrong with the world. A very small percentage of its population do control the fates of almost everyone else, and they are doing it in an increasingly disastrous fashion” (p.76). Amen to that.

Though their story differs from the anti-heroic version of the standard history, ultimately GW are fighting against similar biases in global histories that they see as too male, too white, too agrarian and too focused on centralized political power. At the same time, they’re underwhelmed by counter-histories concerning the superior mystic wisdom of ancient and indigenous peoples. Theirs is a humanistic tale that paints everybody in every society as creative and confused in the same measure, and perfectly capable of sustained critical reflection about their own society and others they encounter.

I have few quarrels with most of that, though I do think GW get into some tangles as they try to unfurl this argument over the grand sweep of history. Still, there’s an aspect of their grand narrative about the questionable concept of ‘the state’ that I’d like to highlight. Where GW criticize the modern tendency to define ourselves as living within the confines of the state and then cast back through history to locate its origins and the reasons for its successful persistence, I’d extrapolate their critique forwards. All too frequently, people project the trappings of what they understand to be ‘the state’ into the future and ridicule the idea that it may not persist, with jibes like Leigh Phillips’s ‘collapse porn’ shtick. But from GW’s telling, there’s no reason to find ‘collapse’ unlikely. The various elements that define a state regularly get scrambled and recombine in different ways. What historians call Dark Ages are often when centralized power wanes and ordinary people come into their own. So maybe folks should quit the name calling. Maybe we ‘doomers’ are really the optimists?

Of inequality and freedom

A big part of the fizz of human history arises because we’re simultaneously creatures that like to construct pecking orders and status gradations among ourselves, with a taste for attaching ourselves as flunkies to people higher up the heap, and creatures that like to demolish these gradations and emphasize our equality and autonomy. I don’t think the standard historical narratives we tell about ourselves emphasize this point and its oddity enough. When we devise political schemes that only find a place for one of these modalities, they usually soon founder as the other one asserts itself.

In his book Hierarchy in the Forest,Christopher Boehm has argued that the hierarchy/equality duality is an evolutionary legacy – both from our deep ancestry in a great ape lineage given to rigid (male) status ranking, and from our long human gestation in face-to-face foraging societies where egalitarian cooperation was a winning strategy. I find this plausible, based largely on a long period of intensive participant observation fieldwork that I began in about 1982 involving many evenings drinking in the pub, where I’ve found pompous self-aggrandizement and its negation via the fine art of taking the piss to be on display in roughly equal measure. The latter seems necessarily based on small-scale, face-to-face interaction and the micropolitics of gesture and language.

GW invoke Boehm respectfully, before scorning his view of a long egalitarian gestation in face-to-face groups. The truth, as they like to point out, is that we have vanishingly little idea of what people were doing and thinking over most of the 2-million-year history of our genus, so it’s wise to avoid guesswork. But this argument cuts both ways. GW present plausible archaeological evidence that foraging peoples prior to the spread of agriculture (but mostly only just prior to the spread of agriculture) played with status ranking and were part of much larger interacting populations. But this doesn’t prove our ancestors weren’t playing the egalitarian face-to-face band game most of the time through our evolutionary history. Their suggestion otherwise involves its own kind of guesswork. I feel that, as here, a little too often in their book they build some big conjectures on fragmentary evidence.

So to the idea that Paleolithic foraging peoples engaged in building urban hierarchies, I guess my response is ‘OK, but how often?’ GW do not, thankfully, attempt the kind of absurd, evidence-mangling quantifications that the likes of Steven Pinker engage in to prove his notions about the awfulness of the past, but without knowing how often pre-agricultural foragers built mass, status-ranked societies over the last couple of million years it’s hard to assess the weight of GW’s argument.

In the early part of their book, GW critique the whole emphasis of modern political thinking on equality, placing their emphasis instead on freedom. In some ways, their take is similar to the one I’ve been discussing recently under the banner of autonomy or self-possession. But I think they stretch the distinction a bit too far. It’s difficult to be truly autonomous in societies of great inequality, and as GW themselves ably document, societies that emphasize self-possession usually go to some lengths to ensure that inequalities don’t get out of hand. So in important ways freedom and (relative) equality are two sides of the same coin.

GW’s real kicker on the matter of equality comes later in the book when they discuss the unhappy confluence of sovereign power with bureaucracy that generates a good deal of what we understand by the notion of ‘the’ state. Impersonal notions of formal equality – treating people as interchangeable units or tokens of some particular class – is, they say, usually the harbinger of extreme political violence and inequality. Their position seems close to the civic republicanism that I’ve outlined in my own writings. What ultimately matters the most to people is not metrics of social equality but a sense that we’re participants in a political community that takes seriously what we have to say and gives us some leeway to lead the life we choose.

Such questions of participation were at the heart of political debates in Europe from the 17th to the 19th centuries as older forms of royal and imperial rule gave way to a modern politics shaped by thinkers like Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Unfortunately, GW miss the opportunity to get into this when they discuss these two thinkers in the early – and in my opinion, weakest – part of the book. GW have a different agenda, relating to what they call ‘the indigenous critique’, which leads them into a dismayingly superficial contrast between Rousseau and Hobbes as theorists of the original human condition, with Rousseau supposedly detecting a kind of propertyless primitive communism and Hobbes, by contrast, famously characterizing human life in this state of nature as “solitary, nasty, brutish and short”.

The problem is, neither Rousseau nor Hobbes were actually talking about the original human condition, as GW acknowledge without ever really getting out of the tailspin they set up for themselves by suggesting that they were (in fact, they concede, the historical event that most framed Hobbes’s thinking was the English Civil War concluding the same year he published his famous phrase). I hope to say more about the questions Hobbes was asking, probably in my next post, because I think we urgently need to ask similar questions again across much of the world today. I also think we need to find different answers to his ones, but the inspiration of his thinking lies in the way he formulated the problem of how people can form political communities from first principles.

On this point, GW make a great play for their ‘indigenous critique’ idea that such first-principles political thinking in early modern Europe was first crafted by indigenous people from beyond Europe’s boundaries, specifically from North America, as a response to their colonial encounters with Europeans, and this was then adopted by Europeans themselves with the indigenous origins being airbrushed out. Already, this is ruffling feathers among specialists of 18th century European history. Whatever the case, ultimately GW’s stronger contribution is probably their argument that ordinary people everywhere are perfectly capable of producing articulate critiques of the political forms taken by their own and other societies.

Three political forms

Let’s examine those forms. To greatly simplify GW’s analysis, and perhaps to extrapolate them somewhat faithlessly into an analysis of my own contriving, GW argue that there are basically three broad kinds of political society. There are republics, involving bottom-up political self-organisation by ordinary people operating more or less as equals. There are aristocratic ‘house’ societies, involving predatory warrior leaders and petty would-be kings with an unstable power expressed through fighting, gifting, feasting and general rape and pillage. And there are empires, in which the petty kings have grown up into more stable monarchies, usually by combining political sovereignty – that is, a sacred sense of authority – with bureaucratic organization.

GW’s sympathies are with the republics, as mine are, and a big part of their book is concerned to show that people can and have orchestrated them many times worldwide throughout history in the face of the other forms of politics. They’re also concerned to show how the different political forms often emerge through deliberate local differentiation from neighbouring forms (what GW call ‘schismogenesis’). So the house societies of eastern Anatolia emerged as a counter to the urban republics of Mesopotamia, and the egalitarian republics of indigenous, pre-European California emerged as a counter to the house societies of the Pacific Northwest.

All of this I find interesting and plausible. I’m just not sure how easy it really is to form bottom-up, more or less egalitarian republics. Again, I want GW to show us not just that this has happened, but how much it’s happened and what proportion of the people who’ve lived since the Neolithic have enjoyed true republican freedom. This isn’t something that can be quantified precisely from the archaeological record, but I think we have a rough idea. At one point, GW quote political scientist James Scott without demur in his view that “the period from about 3000BC to AD 1600 was a fairly miserable one for the bulk of the world’s farmers” (p.445). That’s a pretty large slice of humanity exempted from the freedoms that GW champion. And I’m not even sure it got much better after 1600.

At issue here is the way different kinds of political power interact. In GW’s Californian example, people chose to forge relatively egalitarian and peaceful non-slaveholding societies in deliberate contrast to the aristocratic, slaveholding house societies of the Pacific Northwest, and apparently did so with considerable success (interestingly, GW say this was accompanied with strong private property rights and the development of money systems within Californian societies that also deliberately avoided agriculture). But my feeling is that such successes are historically quite rare. I suspect that the non-egalitarian violence of house societies is easier to project historically, particularly when it allies with the non-egalitarian violence of empires. This is James Scott’s argument. Ordinary people living under imperial rule got squeezed between the legalized violence of the regime and the predatory violence of ‘barbarian’ peoples in the peripheries of empire.

Still, these forms of power aren’t static, and opportunities lie in their changing realities. Often, emperors are too busy playing with their sacred power behind the walls of their palaces to care too much about what their subjects are doing, so provided the latter pay their taxes and don’t challenge imperial power too directly, life in an empire isn’t always so bad. Likewise, in modern nation states, mini empires of the latter day, a strange nationalist alchemy has turned the sacred power of the emperor into the sacred power of the people themselves, giving ordinary folks a chance to press their advantage – albeit often at the expense of foreigners or enemies within.

House or warrior societies also provide opportunities for advancement for anyone who can project charismatic authority and is good at cracking heads. Or at least for any man. No doubt, there’s a kind of playfulness in a hell-raising, slave-raiding, heavy-drinking, sexually predatory house society of charismatic leaders and their henchmen. But this kind of play is highly gendered, and looks a lot more fun for the ones in charge of the playing than the ones being played.

GW generally present republican societies as more measured, more attentive to the dynamics of power and to the ways power can be corrupted and more focused on distributed power than in the other two political forms, where inegalitarian power ultimately is centred one someplace or someone. Gendered perspectives are a constant undertow in their book, and in some ways republicanism emerges from it as a more ‘female’ political form – more inclusive, connected and communicative. This contrasts with the way that in practice the historical republican tradition in Europe from classical times to the present has so often been militarist and masculinist, perhaps because civic republics have often been embattled enclaves carved out in times of trouble from larger warring polities.

I’m less optimistic than GW about the prospects for people to throw off the shackles of their oppression with a republican politics of freedom because of this embattled history, and because of the difficulties of escaping status inequalities that are underwritten with violence. Nevertheless, GW convincingly show that these difficulties can be overcome in certain situations. It seems possible that the post-capitalist and post fossil fuel world we may now be entering will be one of these situations – what I called in A Small Farm Future ‘supersedure situations’, where people improvise local politics in the face of waning state power. Generally, I think GW understate the advantages held by imperial and royal/warrior power in projecting itself, which is why they keep asking how it is that we got ‘stuck’ with it. They’re still asking this on page 503 of their book, by which time you’d have hoped they’d have an answer. But they do convincingly show that not everyone always gets stuck.

Of gender, households, families … and gardens

In fact, they do sort of have an answer to how we got stuck, in their interesting but rather undeveloped argument that royal and imperial power is modelled after the structure of patriarchal households. As GW see it, this is what gives inegalitarian violence its staying power. What matters isn’t really the king or the patriarch’s arbitrary violence, which ebbs and flows like the weather. It’s the fact that their capacity for violence is contained within a house (or a kingdom, for which the house is a metaphor) where there are ongoing relationships of care between people that gives this capacity its ongoing human force and that can turn violent weather into a stable climate. I’ll note in passing regarding recent discussions on this blog that in GW’s presentation, the kingdom comes after, or is modelled after, the family or the household – so the household gets priority.

I find all this quite persuasive, and it’s changed my views somewhat on points I made in A Small Farm Future about gender and household organization. I don’t recant the overarching analysis I presented there, just the particular spin I put on it. I’ll comment further on that in a separate post. For now, I’ll just note that GW’s argument about the nexus of violence and care only gets us so far in understanding how we get ‘stuck’ with sovereign power, because it merely displaces the question onto how we get ‘stuck’ with patriarchal household organization – a form, they note, that has been widespread historically.

Still, GW show us that on plenty of occasions historically patriarchal sovereign power gets flipped, and not necessarily for any apparent structural reason. It’s as if that more egalitarian, more republican and perhaps more female mode of politics is always there in the wings, awaiting its moment. And that, I think, is an important take home from their book. Never discount the possibility of transforming patriarchal sovereign power.

Another take home from their book, although GW don’t remark on it, is the ubiquity of small, family-based households as a basic unit of social organization. Again and again across their case studies ranging worldwide over human history, they present evidence of small family-based residential units. They choose to emphasize other things, like the way that these small units interact in numerous commons-based formats, and the way that official scripts for what constitutes a family get subverted in practice. These things are worth saying. But they don’t undermine the fact that small, face-to-face, kinship-based household units are so often the building blocks of human societies. The tendency to gloss over this and to de-emphasize kinship in the contemporary social sciences seems to me something of a blind spot that ultimately will need correcting.

GW pave the way for this correction quite nicely here and there – for example when they show how indigenous people in certain parts of North America prior to European colonization opted for scattered family homesteading as a means to escape sovereign patriarchal power, which is not always how the history of American homesteading is presented. But they pull their punches, and their rather weak argument against kin-based social organization – “many humans just don’t like their families very much” (p.279) – succumbs to the problem that many humans just don’t like anyone they have to negotiate social and economic relationships with long-term. Looking at its ubiquity throughout history, it’s tempting to conclude that appropriately sophisticated forms of kinship organization seem to be the best of a bad job in this respect.

GW’s take on kinship has its limitations, but their discussion of gender is more impressive. Their account of farming’s origins as a playful, egalitarian craft specialism of women in their role as expert experimental scientists of the domestic was a particular delight. I found these arguments plausible, although again with something of a surfeit of speculation over evidence. It rings true that people took slowly to farming, and in early agrarian sites like Çatalhöyük avoided certain livestock domesticates because hunting was more fun.

But GW’s view that the Bible’s Garden of Eden story ill fits this narrative surprised me. Surely the idea that Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and bade Adam do the same nicely captures this sense of female knowledge and mastery, and its longer consequences? In truth, I doubt the Eden story involves any memory of what was happening at places like Çatalhöyük. We’re closer today to the era of the Yahwist source for that story than s/he was to the era of Çatalhöyük. I say ‘s/he’ because some have speculated that the Yahwist writer of the Eden story was a woman, and a case can be made that the story is less straightforwardly misogynistic than it’s often presented. Perhaps it’s an attempt to make intelligible a kind of multi-millennial male sulk about the need to stop playing in the woods and assume domestic responsibilities. More on that another time, perhaps. But it leaves us with the same general problem bequeathed by GW’s own enigmatic text: why have we got so stuck with patriarchal household organization, sovereign power, and the state?

Well, while I’m on the subject of idealized gardens, I’d like to suggest GW might have profitably explored the distinction between horticulture and agriculture more fully in pondering this question. They point to many ancient examples of mass urban residence that didn’t ultimately lead to repressive state sovereignty. And they invoke the case of indigenous North America to suggest “it’s simply not true to say that if one falls into the trap of ‘state formation’ there’s no getting out” (p.481), based largely on their analysis of the rise and fall of Cahokia in present-day Illinois from around the 11th to the 14th centuries.

These examples, even the urban ones, generally involve people who were producing their own subsistence either through foraging or mixed horticulture. They didn’t seem to involve worlds with a lot of non-producers, or producers largely dependent on arable grain monocultures and herding. I’m not suggesting these crop choices drove the politics. Maybe it’s the other way around. The people who were able to retain their self-possession were the ones who didn’t get sucked into arable and pastoral dependence. Either way, if this is true people’s options for escaping state sovereignty across much of the world today look bleak. But maybe not impossible with a turn to horticulture and a small farm future?

Idealism and materialism

David Graeber was blessed with the ability to write sophisticated social science in accessible and (almost) jargon-free ways while addressing real world political issues, and The Dawn of Everything is no exception. I’m not going to humiliate myself by taking a deep dive into the underlying social theory of the book and reveal my inadequacies by comparison, but I do just want to venture some closing thoughts on questions of idealism and materialism. It’s a topic of interest mostly just to professional social scientists, philosophers and Marxists, but I hope to show that it may have wider implications in our present political moment as we try to get unstuck.

For social scientists, ‘idealism’ refers to the view that society is shaped and perceived ultimately through the ideas that people have about it, whereas ‘materialism’ refers to the view that society is shaped and perceived through the real underlying material conditions in which people live. Marxist versions of materialism hold that societies progress in determinate ways as a result of internal tensions, and their resolution, grounded in material conditions such as class conflict.

GW don’t have an awful lot of truck with Marxist materialism, inclining towards an idealist sense that social change is driven more by cultural movements than material conditions and conflicts. And they add an individualist element – people are self-conscious architects of their own cultural change, not just automata representing some broad class or cultural type.

I agree with them, and I imagine they’ll get some stick from Marxists for failing to espouse the approved materialism. Well, join the club. My feeling is that Marxists can be quite tolerant of idealist elements when circumstances suit, but as I read GW’s book and thought about the kind of Marxist critiques that have been levelled at me, it occurred to me that it may be time to turn Marxist materialism on its head.

Marxists don’t really like the ‘idealist’ notion that people just self-consciously reconstruct the political cultures they inherit, but those Marxists that have criticized me along ‘collapse porn’ or ‘disaster feudalism’ lines happily operate with the idealist notion that the vast inertial ship of modern fossil-fuelled industrial technology can simply be repurposed for the benefit of the many and not the few. GW’s book has helped me clarify my conviction that it more likely works the other way around. The inertial ship of industrial high technology is a material drag that must be abandoned (I know oil companies are villains, but the energetic-industrial problems we now face don’t arise solely or mainly because of their villainy). We can abandon it if we develop a different politics around food, energy and habitation, which is basically to say a different set of ideas about how we ought to live. Out of this, different material practices can emerge.

In that sense, I endorse GW’s upbeat conclusion that it’s within people’s power to change things and remake their social world – not a power or a social world restricted to particular classes, groups, genders or political ideologies, but one available to everyone. And this, I must stress, is not a ‘liberal’ or still less a conservative position, but a populist republican one, as I shall explore in more detail in another post.

At the same time, there’s another material drag on republican possibilities in our evolutionary predilection for status aggrandizement as well as status equality. So the dangers of arbitrary sovereign power reasserting itself are ever present, as subjects of regimes inspired by Marxist egalitarianism might perhaps attest. It’s probably unwise to bet against new emperors or new patriarchies emerging. All the same, GW give us plenty of inspiration for trying to stop them.

So concludes this review – and also I think my blogging for the year. Many thanks to commenters old and new for sharing their thoughts with me, which makes writing this blog the continuing pleasure that it is. My apologies for not always finding the time to respond as fully as I’d like. I hope to be back in the new year to finally finish the long-running blog cycle about my book. In the meantime, if you’d like a little more small farm futurology to tide you over, there’s always this and this. So wishing everyone happy holidays, and see you soon, I hope.

A small farm future – the case for common property

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

Of grain and gulags: a note on work, labour and self-ownership

I’ll begin with a brief account of how our modern global grain trading system was invented in Chicago in the 19th century, which is maybe a bit of a jolt from the present focus of this blog cycle on the forms of property but hopefully my purposes will become clear.

Prior to the railroad/grain elevator/futures market nexus that began to emerge in the 1850s, prairie grain farmers sold their product in sacks that retained their identity with the source farm through to the point of sale. The innovation of the railroad/elevator system was to create standardized grades of grain that enabled the harvest from individual farms to be amassed together in vast quantities as a fungible commodity like money. The innovation of the futures market was to remove uncertainty about future price fluctuations, essentially by enabling speculators to assume the burden of the risk by betting on movements in grain prices. Before long, the value of the futures being traded greatly exceeded the value of the physical grain in existence.

These innovations called forth vastly more economic activity than previously possible, created a torrent of cheap grain that flooded global markets and pushed farmers in other places out of grain production (and often out of farming altogether), and stimulated the growth of prairie grain farming, while removing from farmers themselves substantial economic autonomy, fostering perhaps a self-interest on their part in the grading of their grain at the margin, but not a more holistic interest in the story of their grain from field to fork. They also pretty much forged the global economy as we know it today (I’ll ignore the meat/livestock side of the story for brevity, but the globalization of meat production was another prong to the same history)1.

How do you feel about this story? I ask because I think it often prompts strong emotions, which divide between two mutually uncomprehending camps (OK, so real life is always a bit more complicated than the dualities we impose on it, but I think this one does neatly organize quite a bit of thinking).

One camp responds positively to the story. Perhaps some of its adherents will concede that not everything that happened was rosy, but consider these downsides remediable without fundamental change to the economic model first forged in Chicago. Some key words or phrases for this camp are efficiency, development, modernization, globalization, progress, technology, labour-saving and back-breaking labour.

The other camp responds negatively to the story, and doubts that the problems created by the global commodity grain economy can be remedied without fundamental change. Some key words or phrases for this camp are autonomy, freedom, craftsmanship, honest work, self-reliance and community. This is the camp I’m in, and I’ve spent way too long in fruitless debate with people who think these qualities are quaint, outmoded, dangerous or outright laughable.

I should note that if we dial back a few more years through prairie history, we’d find in many places mounted, bison-hunting American cultures who were violently usurped by the settler farmers. A few more years still, beyond any European colonial influence, and we’d find forager-horticulturists without horses or bison-based economies. Which is to say that it’s possible to reject a particular historical turn of events without invoking some prior state of grace where all was sweet and stable.

Something to notice about these two camps: in the first, work is negative – ‘saving labour’ is good, ‘back-breaking labour’ is bad. Whereas in the second, it’s positive – work is craftmanship and self-realization, a part of how you make your mark upon the world and of how you and others judge you.

Another thing to notice: the first camp orients to pooling, generalizing and abstracting things – grain, money and labour can be hugely amassed and take on protean forms that escape particular, local control. The second camp orients to the specifics of food as a source of life and pleasure, and money and work as relatively scarce means of self-realization. It opposes the mass multiplication of these qualities.

Overlaying the familiar modern left-right political duality on the two camps, the first can encompass the full gamut of modernist politics from far left to far right and most points in between, including the neoliberal status quo. The second no doubt sounds ‘conservative’ to some contemporary ears, with its emphasis on self-reliance, personal autonomy and particularistic community, but historically it’s also crossed the left-right divide.

Perhaps instead of trying to shoehorn the two camps into the left-right duality, it’s more illuminating to notice where their tensions arise in respect of it. I find the sociologist Richard Sennett’s distinction between unity and inclusion useful here:

“The Left divided between those who sought to establish solidarity top-down and those who sought to create it bottom-up; the centralized German labour union represented the one approach, the local American workshop the other …. There were … two versions of solidarity in these discussions, the one emphasizing unity, the other inclusion”2

So, on the left, our first camp aggregates labour into classes, and emphasizes the importance of class unity in achieving political goals. Which is fine from my point of view, in some instances. Sometimes, people do amass themselves self-consciously into a class to achieve political goals, and need to act as a unified bloc to achieve them.

But for me this way of thinking gets problematic when it offers itself as a general theory of society and social progress. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels made the claim that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” which, I would humbly suggest, is something of an overstatement. Marx and Engels’ politics was grounded in the notion that the landless industrial working classes emerging particularly in the richest countries of their day embodied the most perfectly realized and universalized class consciousness whose victory would bring this history of class struggle to an end. Whereas the executive of the modern state, according to the Communist Manifesto, was “nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”, people massed as landless labour and with a unified political consciousness arising from this would overturn the bourgeois state and repurpose it for the collective benefit of all, before the state ultimately ‘withered away’ in Engels’ famous phrase.

I find these views contradictory and unconvincing, indeed ironically somewhat ‘bourgeois’ in their obsession with aggregation and progress. But I’m not going to dwell on critiquing them here. Generally, I think this mass modernist mindset across its entire political spectrum has difficulties with or is uninterested in generating a politics of the person as a complex, intentional being set within a wider community and culture. On the far right, personhood is subordinated to the interests of the state or ethno-state. On the far left, it’s subordinated to class identity and the ever-receding promise that once all the bourgeois and counterrevolutionary elements have been destroyed, life will be sweet. Among the capitalist (neo)liberals, it’s subordinated to a similar millenarianism in the belief that if the economy is allowed to aggregate capital and labour as its internal logic dictates, then ultimately everyone will find redemption in the marketplace.

I don’t think the modern history of totalitarianism, gulags, holocausts, state-induced famines, extreme labour exploitation and extractivism bears out the first camp’s dreams. People who still hold to these dreams usually respond to past failures either by denying that they happened, or by saying that the people who suffered in them were beyond the pale and had it coming (that emphasis on unity against the enemy again), or by claiming that these events were distorted misapplications of the true ideology whose redemptive purity still floats above the grubby realities affected in its name.

But let me turn to the second camp. I guess at root I hold to the slightly-but-not-very modernist view that it’s good to honour the complexities and intentions of individual human persons, which are always set within a wider community and culture. This makes property a point of tension in the second camp in a way that it isn’t for the first camp, where individuals have no inherent claim against the aggregative will of states, classes or capital. Those of us in the second camp, however, believe that self-possession, owning one’s self, being an autonomous agent, is critical to human life.

Self-possession implies property in some sense – being able to claim a personal right to generate wellbeing from the world we share with other people and organisms. At one point in their influential new book, David Graeber and David Wengrow endorse societies that “guaranteed one another the means to an autonomous life”3 and it seems implicit in their view that this also means people in these societies guaranteed each other the means to an autonomous life, however varied notions of what constitutes a person and what constitutes autonomy might be in different times and places.

But how best to make this guarantee in the face of other people’s claims and the more collective aspects of social life is by no means straightforward, especially for those of us with some kind of leftist commitment to equity of one sort or another. So, for us, how to generate or mediate the social is problematic – which I guess is why I’ve spent a lot of time in my writing worrying about how to relate personhood and self-possession to collectivities like families, commons, communities, publics, classes, and states, without coming up with any ultimately satisfactory answers. In my view that’s probably okay, because I don’t think there are any ultimately satisfactory answers. There are permanent tensions involved in human politics, and these are some of them.

But at least by attending to them one is focusing on the right issues. To use Sennett’s terminology, I think creating inclusivity is a much harder problem than creating unity. But it’s a problem worth tackling, because as I see it insisting on a politics of unity long-term beyond transient political alliances creates more repressive, violent and anti-human societies than ones that focus on inclusivity. There are some radically different ways of trying to create inclusivity, and their fortunes depend on the wider social forces in play at a given place and time. I’ll say more about that in my next post.

A final couple of points. I’ve been criticized over the years by a number of Marxists for my anti-modernist and localist politics, for example by Alex Heffron and Kai Heron who consider my politics “ripe for far-right appropriation” and my vision of agrarian futures as one of merely “ek[ing] out a living” rather than “truly living”. Here is where the camps of aggregative labour versus honest work, of unity versus inclusivity, talk past one another. I stand firm in my vision of a small farm future against Heffron and Heron’s modernizing, aggregating, and frankly very bourgeois view that their version of class politics shines a modernizing light of improvement onto rural lives they arrogantly consider blighted by the particularities of local livelihood and community. One reason I’m a big believer in small farmers obtaining secure private property rights whenever they can is that it helps them avoid getting ‘improved’ out of existence through grandiose and usually ill-fated modernization schemes of the kind Heffron and Heron seem to favour.

As to ‘far-right appropriation’, I simply reject the notion there are prior political unities that anyone can draw lines around and defend against anyone else’s appropriations. The accusation stems from that top-down, imposed conception of supposed ‘unity’. For sure, one can make an issue of localism, culture, particularity and self-possession in ways that could lead to fascist misery. One can also make an issue of class unity and the supposed idiocy of rural life in ways that lead to dead peasants, gulags and communist misery. It’s easy to get into these thin-end-of-the-wedge type arguments, but now more than ever I don’t think they’re illuminating. The political field is changing, and old political demarcation lines offer increasingly poor guidance to the future. But older forms of politics are still relevant, as I will try to show in upcoming posts.

Notes

  1. I’m drawing here on William Cronon. 1991. Nature’s Metropolis.
  2. Richard Sennett. 2012. Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. p.39.
  3. David Graeber and David Wengrow. 2021. The Dawn of Everything. p.48.

“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.