Talkin’ bout a revolution: a response to the Breakthrough Institute

The Breakthrough Institute have published a response to my critical commentary on a recent post of theirs. Here I continue the debate, because I think it might clarify some worthwhile issues. I’d like to thank Dan Blaustein-Rejto and Kenton De Kirby (henceforth B&D) for engaging constructively with me – a welcome improvement on what’s come my way from some previous Breakthrough folk.

Broadly, the issue between us is our different visions of agrarian, and therefore human, futures. I stress more people working on more small farms and a degree of deurbanisation, they stress increases in farm scale, a continued agrarian-urban transition out of agriculture and an emphasis on yield increase. On some points, I’d suggest our differences are not as great as B&D suppose: for example, I’m not necessarily for small farms and against yield increases or the use of synthetic fertiliser in all eventualities. But we’ll come to that.

I’m going to structure my response under three headings: change, ‘development’ and wealth.


B&D suggest that my vision involves revolutionary change that would have to reverse robust global trends, and therefore isn’t feasible. My first response to that is to ask what makes a trend ‘robust’ and irreversible. Suppose, for example, that global trade rulings force countries with large populations of poor farmers to open their markets to rich-country agricultural commodities and to abandon food price controls and social welfare provision. We’d surely expect life to get tougher for the poor farmers and for them to seek other sources of income in place of or in addition to their dwindling farm income. Well, that’s pretty much what’s happened over recent decades. You could say that it’s a ‘robust trend’. But it’s a robust trend that’s resulted from policy decisions – and other policy decisions are possible.

There are other trends much more robust than the ones I’m lobbying to reverse that attract less fatalism than B&D apply to agrarian transitions. For example, the sexual harassment of women by men has a long historical pedigree, but nobody seems to be arguing against the #MeToo movement on the grounds that predatory male sexuality is a ‘robust trend’. To invoke a trend as an argument against a policy proposal risks turning an ‘is’ into an ‘ought’. Doubtless it could be argued that #MeToo has a greater chance of reversing male sexual aggression than a neo-peasant movement has of reversing current global agrarian and economic trends. It would be interesting to see such an argument laid out, because I think it could be quite revealing of where the obstacles lie. Meanwhile, I’d say ‘low chance of success’ is not the same as ‘bad idea’.

I want to push further at that last point. The word ‘revolutionary’ has numerous connotations, not all of which I embrace, but I’m happy to accept that my stance involves a commitment to ‘revolutionary’ change in some sense of the term. Our present epoch is revolutionary through and through, so I’m not sure describing a proposed change as ‘revolutionary’ really counts against it. Proponents of mainstream agriculture happily talk about the ‘green revolution’, while other analysts describe the early 20th century mechanisation of farming in the wealthy countries as ‘the second agricultural revolution of modern times’1. The 20th century was garlanded with political revolutions, many of them with small-scale farmers at their heart. But the capitalist global economy has been the most revolutionary force of all. It’s constantly made and remade the world with a success that I think stems less from the over-emphasised fact that it’s what everyone wants, as B&D imply, than from the fact that its unparalleled powers of wealth creation have been locked in by mutually-dependent political and business elites, with limited payback to the majority of the world’s people.

The truth is that any plausible vision for a prosperous and sustainable future from here on will have to be revolutionary. For example, let’s review the implications of B&D’s solid trend towards agricultural transition and their business-as-usual approach to the global economy in its present form. Assuming current global economic growth of 2.5% per annum (and anything less over a prolonged period would surely imply economic crisis within current economic parameters), in fifty years’ time the global economy will have to be producing additional economic activity well over double the entire present global output. It will have to do so after reducing fossil energy use pretty much to zero (currently about 80% of global energy use is fossil fuel based) in order to stave off drastic climate change. And if it’s going to deliver increased prosperity for the half of the humanity who currently live off about US$5 a day or less, it’ll have to do a vastly better redistributive job than it’s done over the last 20 years, when the lowest-earning half of the world’s people only received around 10% of the income increase over the period2. That all sounds pretty revolutionary to me.

‘Development’ and the global peasant-family farm

B&D impute to me the belief that small-scale farming has great inherent value, but that’s not really true. I don’t, for the most part, argue for small-scale farming as a valuable end in itself. I argue for it largely because it seems to me the most feasible way of delivering sustainable prosperity (or ‘development’) to the world’s people in the future. In saying that, I agree with B&D that my vision is very revolutionary and not very feasible. However, I think it’s less revolutionary and more feasible than theirs.

The idea of a future based on peasant farming may seem far-fetched, but I want to offer a brief sketch to suggest why it could be less far-fetched than it may seem at first. Consider two farms. One comprises an acre or so, and is farmed by a poor family in a poor country who use it to grow mostly subsistence crops. The other comprises several hundred acres, and is farmed by a family who are not poor by global standards and who live in a rich country, using numerous high-tech inputs like tractors to grow mostly commodity crops. The two farms look very different. The first might be described as a ‘peasant’ farm, whereas the second most likely wouldn’t be. But they both have the same ‘peasant-like’ structure vis-à-vis the wider economy. They both use mostly family labour, which is rewarded not by an hourly wage but by a share of the farm’s output. And they both involve capital investments (buildings, land, livestock, equipment and human knowledge) which isn’t valued in terms of the opportunity cost of the returns to its annual investment, but in terms of its contribution to the long-term productivity of the farm, including its potential productivity after the death of its present incumbents and on into the future incumbency of their descendants.

Contrast that with the simpler economics of a fully capitalist farm. Labour and capital are just costs on the debit side of the equation. Profit is realised output less costs, year by year. If costs exceed profit, or even if they don’t but the difference imposes sufficient opportunity costs to capital investment then the farm soon closes and the released capital is invested elsewhere. That’s not the case with the peasant or the family farm in the same situation. Its circumstances are dire, but it’s not looking to maximise returns on immediate investment, so the chances are it’ll survive.

At root, I think it will prove more feasible to create a prosperous and sustainable future by adopting policies that make life easier for existing peasant and family farmers of this sort than by adopting policies that make life harder for them, and easier for capitalist farmers. This is for numerous reasons that I won’t go into here – though I have done over the years on this blog, and am happy to discuss in more detail should anyone wish…some of the reasons in any case are probably quite obvious just from my brief description. In broadest outline, I think an agrarian future based on support for these kinds of farms will take a lot of damaging hot capital out of the global economy, do a better job of reproducing the biophysical means for continued human flourishing and do a better job, too, of spreading fairly such prosperity as can be sustainably created. However, supporting both such kinds of farms would involve ensuring that the second type doesn’t undermine the first.

Commenting on my ideas, B&D state that “with less international agricultural trade, countries would have to either convert more land to farming to make up for the drop in food, or people would have to deal with higher prices, change their food consumption, or go hungry more often.” That may be so if all I was suggesting was limiting international food trade alone, but I’m arguing for something rather more ‘revolutionary’ than that – broadly, for an agrarian economy that widens opportunities to take up small-scale farming and narrows opportunities to gain economic rent from land.

Wealth and the transition out of agriculture

The revolution that B&D prefer is another iteration of the one that today’s rich countries passed through, which they summarise as follows:

“Historically, the agrarian transition of people moving from rural farming communities to urban centers has greatly improved people’s lives. As urbanization occurs, incomes rise, access to healthcare increases, and population growth slows, among other beneficial changes in social outcomes.”

All that has been true – well, kind of eventually true – for the citizens of some countries, albeit usually at the expense of people elsewhere. But I think there’s a failure of imagination here to suppose that what worked for, say, Britain in the 19th century will inevitably work for, say, Niger in the 21st…and also to suppose that such transitions mark a once and for all arrival at prosperity. Prosperity increase is not exactly a zero-sum game, but it more closely approximates to it in a world dedicated to maximising net present value through frictionless financial movement. The idea that, in such a world, Niger will achieve prosperity by urbanising like Britain did 200 years ago neglects the pyramid-scheme resemblances of the present global economy: the benefits of agrarian transition accrue largely to those who undertake it first. Or perhaps, over time, to those who undertake it best. So to my mind, on that note the lesson of China’s current transition (one that was achieved in some measure by investing in peasant agriculture) is not that other parts of the world should try to follow its example, but that they should try to build as much economic resilience as possible out of local resources.

Contrary to B&D’s global agrarian transition, then, I’d argue that putting one’s trust in an economic model explicitly geared to maximising short-run fiscal returns on investment, with other benefits essentially epiphenomenal, is a very high risk way of seeking to improve people’s lives globally today. And not a very effective one either: relative to the generation of wealth, it hasn’t so far been conspicuously successful at distributing it.

B&D imply that people inherently prefer urban over rural life, and that various other aspects of the global farmscape result from the free exercise of choice. I’d suggest instead that people inherently prefer prosperity, and will seek it where they can find it – and that the shape of the global farmscape results mostly from the free exercise of choice by the rich, not by the poor. Whatever the case, despite all the pressures to shed labour from agriculture there are still more than 1.2 billion farmers in the world at a minimum estimate – over 16% of the global population. Supporting their desire for prosperity while keeping them in farming seems to me a wiser overall strategy than willing them into cities and assuming that short-run capital intensive farming will more successfully fill the vacuum they leave.

A couple of final points on yield. Within the parameters of the non-capitalist family farm (whether rich or poor) described above, in some circumstances it may be an excellent idea to increase per hectare yields through any number of different means, and I have no particular problem with that. I do have a problem, though, with the idea that improving per hectare yields is a fundamental desideratum for agriculture globally, regardless of any other considerations. And on the matter of yield improvement, I mentioned above the ‘second agricultural revolution of modern times’. The first one occurred in the 18th century in countries like Britain, arguably as much or more through the spread of ideas about better ways to farm than through increased energy or other high-tech inputs – what today we might call an ‘agroecological revolution’. It may be wise to devote more thought to innovations of that sort than to the idea that greater yields only arise as increased returns to land input by means of other costly inputs. I’m all for breakthroughs, but we often have too impoverished a notion of what technological ‘breakthroughs’ look like, let alone breakthroughs in a more general sense.


  1. M. Mazoyer and L. Roudart. 2006. A History of World Agriculture. Earthscan.
  2. B. Milanovic. 2016. Global Inequality. Harvard UP.

42 thoughts on “Talkin’ bout a revolution: a response to the Breakthrough Institute

  1. A good answer to B&D. Small farms are important because the rural-to-urban trend must reverse due to an increasing inability to supply urban resource demands and also because small farms can mitigate many of the worst aspects of the trend while it still exists.

    I do think that if you are talking to urbanites in the rich world, it will not be very persuasive to emphasize the prosperity of small farmers in poor countries or even family farms in rich ones. As long as the grocery stores are full, it’s easy to ignore farming altogether and tout the glories of urban life.

    The fact that trend-reversal is inevitable due to carrying capacity overshoot should get the attention of those city dwellers most threatened by it, but somehow it never does. I wonder if even when trend-reversal is in full swing and accelerating whether folks like B&D will realize what is happening? How much will cities have to decay before their residents decide they are not the best place to live?

    Unfortunately, without a concerted effort to make it easier for people to leave cities and make a reasonably comfortable living on a small farm, cities may have to become pretty miserable before they are abandoned. B&D’s approach is to reiterate that they are not miserable yet, so what’s the big deal? That approach is far too convincing for too many people.

  2. I have deleted several opening sentences.

    I am stunned at the thoughts people of the Breakthrough ilk can string together and think it is a logical argument. Not only has their logic taken a long, long vacation by the sea, they consistently fail to show basic facts on which their vacationing logic hangs.

    So, I don’t think they do actually argue in good faith. I think they are just ideologues, more tightly wedded to their fantasy than to reality.

    They have been accused of being industry shills many times in the past, but I am not actually sure they are smart enough to sell out. They strike me as superstitious priests of the sort who would burn witches for curing headaches with willow bark tea.

    Bear in mind, this is me exerting great effort to be polite.

    Their first example is synthetic nitrogen. Great. Show us the resource stocks and flows. Show us the energy demands. Show us inputs to the system that will produce and apply said synthetic nitrogen.

    And then show us how that will be sustainable. Because if it is not sustainable, who the sweet, great, holy, unbridled, good, flaming merciful gives a damn flying zucchini parmigianio.

    Then on to yields. So wisely they intone that we must increase yields if we are to spare any lands for the creatures of the land and air.

    Show us the comparison between monocropped yields and intermixed multiple uses. Then compare the wheat, soy or corn yields from a rocky hilltop.

    And when they discuss the land sparing they are so passionate about, do they mean all the land that has washed down the Mississippi to kill the Gulf? Do they mean all the land that blew away in the Dust Bowl and blows still? Do they mean all the land that has eroded away such that farmers must build a ramp down into their fields? That is the outcome of their fever-stoked dreams.

    And again, after you have shown us the material resources and energy needed for this chrome-plated system, show us how this intensive, mechanized Jetsonian farmscape is sustainable. How is it able to be sustained, when the dirt cannot stay on the farm? (Not soil, in their future. Soil is not necessary to grow plants.) How is it able to be sustained when climate science tells us we must cut 95% of our carbon emissions?

    Lastly, radical and revolutionary? Show us how the farming practices in a lineage reaching back ten thousand years is radical. Show us how practices that would be immediately recognizable to any farmer in the past century, or millennia, is radical.

    Nassim Taleb notes that statistically, the longer something endures, the greater the chance of it continuing to endure. This is not a sure bet, which is the point of his Black Swans. But the chances are a lot better.

    In fact, their ceaseless promotion of techniques and materials that cannot be sustainable and can only be measured in lifespans of months, years or decades at the most, has no foundation in science or statistics.

    Oh yes, and people who live in small town are actually happier than city-dwellers, should one care to look at the studies.

    It is not a mystery why 70% of the world’s food is produced on small farms, even if the corporations the Breakthrough “think” tankers give free propaganda for would have us believe otherwise.

    They promote practices that create climate chaos. They are only interested in things that cannot be sustained. They seem to actively wish to pad the human population so more people die miserably.

    Who are the real Malthusians?

    They show no grasp of basic logic, and certainly no understanding of systems theory or ecology. They are ideologues and fools three times over. This is the yipping of lap dogs. I would throw them a cookie if I thought they would ever shut up.

    Chris, you are better man than me for your patience.

    • And tangentially related to land-sparing, this comment from a farmer friend:

      “There’s a study in the works out of Tufts looking at land use in a grass-fed beef diet vs. a vegan diet. No-animal agriculture loses, because of land use.”

      • That was awesome, Ruben! I was going to say some things about the lameness of B&D’s argument being entirely unworthy of Chris last week, but deleted them too.
        I don’t enjoy engaging in internet arguments myself because it gets me too distracted from the “drudgery” but I think Chris does and it’s a joy to spectate. You crushed it, Chris! So thanks to B&D for their response, however feeble!

    • Wow. Hope you’re feeling better now.

      I’m reminded of the photo of an ancient olive tree a good friend sent me. That one lone tree has been sustained over quite a serious period – so far as an individual specimen is concerned. And then my mind wanders to the olives. Who might count all the generations of humans who have enjoyed the opportunity to eat an olive from that single tree. It amazes me.

      Many years ago Kevin Kelly was writing a blog while he was working on his book What Technology Wants. I was one of the followers there (circa 2009). Kevin’s thesis sounds very much like the B&D blather that uprooted country folk who are pressed to move to the urban environment because they are displaced through machinery or some other resource reallocation(s) are quite excited about the move away from the drudgery of farm work. And for some I suppose this is a fair assessment. But I know at least a handful of people for whom such a displacement was not exciting in the least. Reminds me a bit of the exchange:
      “He was once asked – ‘You’re a smart man, why aren’t you rich’?
      He replied – ‘Your a rich man, why aren’t you smart’?”

      The vision expressed by B&D, by K Kelly, and for that matter by many who would haunt venues such as Davos appears to me to want what technology provides rather than what the soul really must have. The expression ‘idle rich’ has elbowed its way into my consciousness at the moment. If happiness is to be idle, then I must be a sad lot.

  3. Counter-Example
    I will just point to this article as an example of what is demonstrably possible, using a ‘partnership with nature’ coupled with ‘appropriate technology’ philosophy:

    Whether the methods can be applied to larger farms as well as the small, intensive farm described here is unknown. The authors think it can be. But they also make some good points about the low capital requirements of this farm, which is important in terms of facilitating transition from urban to food producing employment.

    These are small, practical farmers, so you won’t see much in the way of randomized double-blind trials. But as was pointed out in the British Medical Journal, there have also never been randomized double-blind trials proving that parachutes really work.

    Don Stewart

    • Are you sure about the parachutes? I would think they were tested first with dead weight dummies or blocks of stone or wood before people used them. If not, the first users were fools.

      • Joe
        The BMj article was a little tongue in cheek.

        The point is that, for example, a recent Cochrane Review refused to issue any guidance because no ‘gold standard’ tests had been done…while there was evidence enough to indicate that certain treatments are very likely effective.

        When a farmer makes something work, it is evidence that it CAN be done. Whether a bunch of academics, divided into two groups and given generic instructions, can make it work is a different question.

        Don Stewart

        • When something occurs it isn’t necessarily that it was made to happen by some agent. And by its mere occurrence it is not proof that some predicate action or event ’caused’ it – so rushing to the conclusion that an occurrence demonstrates something CAN be done is not scientific.

          At the same time just because something is not scientific doesn’t mean it isn’t real or that the conjectured cause is not the correct cause. When others (be they academics or not) have difficulty repeating a particular outcome from the suggested treatments there are good reasons for doubt.

          • Clem
            A farm is an extraordinarily complex system. Interventions which may yield good results in the hands of a talented farmer may not work very well when someone is ‘following the instructions’. That commonly happens with intensive grazing, for example.

            When you use the phrase ‘not scientific’, we could have a long discussion about exactly what that means. But I don’t intend to pursue it.

            Don Stewart

  4. To me, the credibility of a writer (or ‘institute’) is correlated to whether the views conveyed in their writings affect their future funding and income. By this metric, I believe that Chris has much more credibility. Regarding content, there is no contest.

  5. Is this Ecomodernism? Is it reductionist science? Is it holistic science? How does it relate to small farms?

    Both agriculture and chronic disease are part of the broad field of metabolism. As we hear in the interview, ‘human metabolism is a mess for everyone, everywhere in the world’. We can say the same about industrial farming. The answer, according to Dr. Barrie in the interview, is more intelligent partnering with our microbes. Which is precisely the same message delivered by David Johnson. And the small farm in Connecticut strives to partner more successfully with microbes.

    Is partnering with microbes an ‘Ecomodernist’ idea? A ‘Regenerative Agriculture’ idea? A reversion to historical farming? If Dr. Barrie is correct that ‘5 years from now all chronic disease medicine will be microbe based’, does that suggest that ’10 years from now, all farming will be microbe based’? Will the drug companies dominate, with products which let us drug the microbes in such a way that the microbes don’t interfere with unbridled hedonism? Will the Ag Chemical companies dominate by producing genetically modified microbes which allow us to grow crops by remote control, so that everyone can live happily in cities?

    The landscape is changing so rapidly that I doubt anyone really knows….and certainly not me. However, I will suggest a few ideas:
    *The key may turn out to be thermodynamic efficiency. The solutions which require the least production of entropy may be the winners. When we had plenty of oil, the winners turned out to be those processes which generated entropy most rapidly. I believe we are now witnessing a sea change.
    *My guess is that the composition of microbes in the gut and in the ground will turn out to be malleable. If David Johnson can generate enormous diversity in his Johnson-Su compost pile, then I see no reason why the gut can’t generate enormous diversity. Dr. Barrie states that diversity is a key to health.
    *Engineering will be important. In the interview, there is a discussion about those people who do not have the proper microbes to turn broccoli into sulforaphane. Yet Dr. Barrie indicates that eating the right diet will generate the correct microbes. I suspect that, in a farm field, inoculation with a hugely diverse compost will, likewise, generate an enormously diverse set of microbes.
    *The old order will not go down without a fight. The drug companies and the Ag Chemical giants are not going to roll over and play dead. The doctors may not understand what the AI machine is telling them to do, but they will not relinquish control of the prescription pad. The processed food industry will double down on what it is that they do. The research scientists will do their best to accomplish with synthetic compounds what can be accomplished with food and sleep and exercise.

    I wish I knew about the Revolution and the fate of small farms and gardens. Jaron Lanier’s recent book and articles about the failure of the ‘internet dream’ should be a cautionary tale to all of us about how ‘evil forces’ can gain control.

    Don Stewart

  6. Thanks for the comments. Gosh, I feel like I have a veritable army with me on this one – with Ruben as our champion. Sir, once your spark is lit truly you’re a forest fire.

    I don’t have much to add, except to say I think Joe is right that it’s an uphill task to get urban consumers to see the rural producer perspective – even though they would if they knew which side their bread was buttered, rather literally. This seems a key dimension to work on. Joe’s point about the realisation lag when business as usual stops working is also thought-provoking. Given that above I state that neither B&D’s vision nor my own seems likely to be realised in practice, I wonder if it’s worth a few thoughts on what seems more likely? Or maybe it’s best to steer clear…

    I’m also interested in the Tufts study Ruben mentions – presumably this is about the need for leys in the absence of synthetic fertiliser, and thence the benefits of ruminants for grazing them?

    The parachute thread offers some light relief. I guess one reason to use double blind study designs is because of the power of the placebo effect. However, I doubt there’d be a placebo effect with a dummy parachute. Or if there was, it wouldn’t last long.

  7. Excellent, job done I’d have thought – though I doubt you’ve heard the last of them…

    Reading the Breakthrough piece, they seem to be suffering from a kind of Stockholm syndrome. There are implicit admissions that The Robust Global Trend is a voracious Beast: without synthetic nitrogen, It will ‘convert important ecosystems and forests to new farmland’; if we don’t raise yields It will have adverse ‘environmental impacts’. These are not Good Things, and yet the Breakthrough people won’t even consider challenging It – no, actually they can’t live without It.

    Instead, all their energy is poured into encouraging it to feed in global mega cities of the future, in the hopes that it will lay off pristine nature beyond the fences (but of course it would break through those fences in the end). The Beast is ‘far beyond the control of countries and other actors’, i.e. them. These people have made a movement out of their powerlessness, a virtue of their captive state. They have fallen in love with the Beast. It is, after all, very ‘robust’…

  8. The Breakthrough Institute barely touches on the issue of nitrogen pollution. For the state of Minnesota alone, the externalized or “social costs” of nitrogen fertilizer application have been partially estimated to be roughly $1 billion annually. Researchers found that the social costs were greater than $10 per kg of nitrogen fertilizer applied at some sites.

    Included in that $10/kg calculation are damage estimates due to contamination of domestic wells and public water suppliers (groundwater), and emissions of GHG and air pollution. Not included were the damages due to degraded surface water quality or hypoxia.

    “Other costs associated with nitrogen [which were not included in the calculations]
    Nitrate and human health
    Nitrate and aquatic pests and parasites
    Nitrate and livestock
    Nitrate and property values
    Nitrate and aquatic ecosystems”

    The social costs of nitrogen
    Bonnie L. Keeler, Jesse D. Gourevitch, et al.
    Science Advances 05 Oct 2016:
    Vol. 2, no. 10, e1600219

    Presentation from the primary authors:

  9. Chris, you wrote a good rational response to B&D’s criticism. It can be a thankless task arguing with people who have made up their minds, but I applaud your attempt. Having grown up in a small rural community (pop. 1500) in Minnesota I have an appreciation for what small farms and small communities offer. Small farms make possible the small communities that develop to support them. I can recall the butcher shop, bakery, creamery, grocery stores, cafe/hotel, plumbers, electricians, carpenters (who all offered opportunities for apprenticeships), clock repair/jewelry store, clothing stores, veterinarian, banker, lawyers, school teachers, preachers, etc. All were small businesses. All raised families. All spent money within the community.
    I’m sure there are many reasons why small farmers and farming communities failed to thrive in the US but one of the reasons was the policies of Earl Butz, who served as Secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. His policies favored large-scale corporate farming and an end to New Deal programs. Butz wanted to dismantle the small family farm much as EPA secretary Scott Pruitt supports the fossil fuel industry and will do his best to dismantle environmental protection.
    Earl Butz is widely known by his warning to farmers “get big or get out.” His policies encouraged farmers to go deeply into debt buying new farm equipment, seeds, and chemicals. Debt forced farmers to over produce or face bankruptcy. Over production reduced prices of commodities, thus causing even more overproduction. The benefactors of this situation were the food processing industry, the seed and chemical industry, and the farm equipment manufacturers. I suppose at first everyone seemed to benefit from cheaper food, but in the long run it has ruined the health of Americans.
    So you are right on the money when you wrote “it’s a robust trend that’s resulted from policy decisions – and other policy decisions are possible.” Under Butz the US Department of Agriculture farm policies favored corporate farms. Wendel Berry’s essay “Failing our Farmers” is an excellent response to this policy.
    So yes, perhaps we can change policy again. It may not seem connected but I think changing our diet to improve our health and changing policies to fix our broken healthcare system may be the solution.
    Corn and soybeans are necessary for the manufacture of cheap processed food and and CAFO meat. Eating this food causes disease. Who benefits from disease? The healthcare and pharmaceutical industries, which now account for almost 25% of our GDP. If we eat more whole food, support local small farmers, we will improve our health and reduce the sale of the main products of industrial agriculture. We can put them out of business!
    If we could convince our government to create a single payer healthcare system we would no longer need corporate jobs that provide health insurance. If people could choose where to live without having to worry about healthcare benefits, I think more individuals and families would move to small communities where land and housing is less expensive. I think even in urban cities more people would be able to start small businesses. Small farm families could support themselves without worrying about health care.
    The last piece of this will be affordable land and reducing the crazy burden of insane governmental restrictions on the sale of meat and dairy products. State regulations are geared for big farmers and are impossible for small farmers to follow. Perhaps here is where “revolutionary” tactics might be in order! Farmers squatting on land and black market sale of fresh milk and meat!
    At some point the future will change because of necessity.

    • Oh dear.

      Jody said:
      Corn and soybeans are necessary for the manufacture of cheap processed food and and CAFO meat. Eating this food causes disease.

      I have argued in the comments of this blog many times about the virtues of soy. And even though I’d love to let a corn aficionado stand up for the grass in that crack, I’ll go to bat for corn this once. So, Jody dear; what disease is caused by eating corn or soy? I’m not advocating for a diet based on only those two ingredients. And I’m not suggesting these are the finest ingredients for any and all situations. But in moderation both these plant products make fine human foods. They have for many millennia. Their domestication was no fluke, and they continue to serve agriculture at all scales – peasant and mega-farmer both.

      I do like the small town aspect of your comment. And to your listing of Wendell Berry’s work I might add his effort: The Unsettling of America where skewering Earl Butz is done with fine flair.

      • Clem,
        I agree with you on the virtues of soy. I have no objection to eating soybeans whole or lightly processed into foods such as tofu, tempeh, miso paste, etc. Very healthy for you! What I am referring to are how corn and soybean extracts are used as ingredients for manufacturing food products. To be even more precise, they become unhealthy when combined with large amounts of salt, sugar, fats, and oils to create highly addictive food products that do cause disease. The list of diseases include obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and cancer. Corn and soybean meal left after extracting isolates also become animal feed for CAFOs. Cheap meat, cheap fast food designed to cause us to overeat. This is the food I object to. This is the food that most of the corn and soybean are used to manufacture.
        I like how Michael Pollan discussed whole food and differentiates whole food from processed food in his book the Omnivores Dilemma. You can read one of his articles here.
        I also object to the unfair distribution of profits and the cost to consumers from this type of food. Farmers are paid $3.78 per bushel for corn. A bushel weighs fifty six pounds, or 896 ounces, divided by 18 ounces equals 50 boxes of corn flakes per bushel. Of course, the entire 18 ounces will not be all corn, and even if it were, the cost of the corn in an 18-ounce box of corn flakes, valued at $3 a bushel, would be just six cents.
        I can pay $3 to $5 for box of corn flakes that contains a relatively small amount of corn. Or I can pay about the same for a 5 lb bag of corn meal. Which makes more economic sense to me the consumer? I’d like to see more farmers selling direct to consumers, or perhaps to small town millers to make the flour and meal we eat or feed to animals.

  10. I couldn’t post this response at B & D’s blog, apparently – Hope you all are interested:
    A couple of points, in response:
    Those before us, in a world fairly empty of pollution and laborers and full of energy resources, brilliantly and fittingly used technology and energy resources to eliminate labor. Now, in our world emptying of resources, filling with pollution, and full of willing workers, we can better emulate the ingenuity of those before us, not by eliminating more of our abundant labor with scarce and polluting resource use, but by shifting technologies again to those using our currently copious labor resources in place of some non-renewable and dwinding energy resources. This can also diminish the greenhouse gas pollution that threatens a climate crisis, which endangers our agricultural food supply. This calls for more humanity in the land, less or changed technical innovation, and overall, less pursuit of labor efficiency and more pursuit of resource efficiency.
    How can further scaling up farming increase yields? Aren’t yields per area fairly static? Or are you speaking of yield per hour worked?
    Overall, agriculture extracts by simplifying living systems, which renders them less resilient, less light-resource-efficient and less efficient at maintaining fertility – This is inescapable, intrinsic in one system extracting its livelihood or energy from another system. To an important extent, we get more of the plants we like by killing the rest.
    While, previously, agricultural industrialization accompanied higher living standards and city growth, this was in a world fairly empty of people and full of resources. We can’t do that again now with 7.5 billion of us and 410ppm CO2 in air, plus other increasingly concentrated greenhouse gases together altering the climate our food agriculture relies on.

  11. My take on a small farm future is that it is the appropriate response to a reduced energy future. Be it ten years or fifty till the edge of the cliff is evident to everyone else, it is inevitable. We should be urgently beginning a very difficult transition and scale back to local carrying capacity. So I think Chris and the Breakthrough Institute talk past one another because they do not share the base premise that future agriculture ( as well as ALL other human endeavors) must make do with less energy inputs. Unless this becomes a common starting point for discussion, the debate will go nowhere.

    Having said that, the debate is still important, not so much to convince the Institute, but on the off chance that enough voices questioning the status quo will create enough momentum to nudge the policy makers.

  12. Robust Trends; Illusions; Engineering
    The EcoModernists think that arguing with robust trends is a waste of time and effort. Two of the most robust trends are:
    *Time passes
    *The Default Mode Network in the human brain keeps our nose to the grindstone

    Taking up the issue of Time first. Carlo Rovelli’s book The Order of Time pretty well demolishes the notion of time that almost all of us consider to be self-evident. Along the way Rovelli also demolishes the notion of ‘the world is made of things’. On page 96 we learn that nothing ‘is’, but that things ‘happen’.

    My point here is not to argue about the physics, nor to persuade you that your can safely ignore your upcoming court date. Merely to point out that just because there is a robust trend doesn’t make it so.

    The point about the Default Mode Network requires some explanation. Once scientists began to put humans in machines to study their brain activity they made a discovery. While the subject was resting comfortably, with no assigned problem to solve as yet, their brain was nevertheless quite active. Yet the pattern of the activity was different than when they were asked to solve some problem. That ‘doing nothing in particular’ state was labeled the Default Mode Network, and turned out to be well worthy of study.

    Michael Pollan’s current book How To Change Your Mind has some interesting observations about the function of the DMN, childhood, adulthood, and psychedelics (the chapter on Neuroscience). It turns out that young children do not have a developed DMN, and so they have a ‘lantern’ focus…wide, not narrow. But as adults our DMN tends to keep us narrowly focused (a ‘spotlight’). It also turns out that psychedelics tend to quieten the DMN, which leaves people free to experience everything the brain can process. The DMN essentially censors anything it doesn’t perceive as being narrowly concerned with survival. Remove the censorship and the world suddenly seems a lot richer. And for many people, less scary. So, for example, terminal cancer patients treated with psychedelics tend to lose their fear of death, perceiving that they are ‘one with the universe’.

    Science has pretty consistently told us that we are ‘one with the universe’…think of Carl Sagan and his ‘we are all stardust’ statement. Or Revelli’s demolishing of our notions that time and space are something independent within which the universe happens to exist. Or with the current explosion of knowledge about microbes, and the conclusion of some scientists that humans are just vehicles constructed by the microbes to further their evolutionary goals. But what the psychedelics do is generate a visceral feel for what it means to be ‘one with the universe’.

    Does the feeling survive when the effects of the psychedelics wear off? Apparently quite a few people experience permanent changes. Among the institutions studying the effects is Johns Hopkins.

    Psychedelics are not the only way to achieve the ‘one with the universe’ feeling. Pollan discusses several ways to quieten the DMN, from meditation to wearing eye shades.

    Carlo Rovelli notes that just a few grains of psychedelics can completely upset a person’s world view. Pollan experiences this when he revisits his old writing room in New England, and is overcome by the beauty of nature outside his window (while under the influence of Magic Mushrooms).

    So the faith that the EcoModernists place in ‘robust trends’ needs some examination. Authoritarian institutions such as churches and governments and lords of the manor have always opposed psychedelics and other ‘escapes’. It’s easy to understand why. The half-dozen richest people in the world are rich only because the other 7 and a half billion continue to agree that they collectively owe them lots of money. The most robust trend of all is probably the fact that some people will worship Mammon and that some tiny minority of them will actually get filthy rich. But because ‘rich’ implies ‘owed money’, the whole edifice rests shakily atop the absence of a few grains of psychedelics.

    If we want to Engineer a Peasants Republic, then I think we need to regularly revisit the ‘lamp’ environment of young children. You will read in Pollan some interesting thoughts about how the young are designed to develop their own way of coping with the world that they find around them, for which they need the ‘lamp’. Those of us who are old keep shining our spotlight into all the dark corners looking for the world ‘the way it was and still should be’….but, alas, we don’t find it.

    Don Stewart

  13. One of the main ‘revolutionary changes’ the Breakthrough Institute dismisses (as unrealistic) is ‘changing what type of food people eat’. Their base assumption is that ‘reversing robust global trends simply isn’t feasible’. While the global increase in meat consumption, per capita, is indeed a fairly robust trend, this hasn’t deterred others from suggesting that it be reversed, and for good reason.

    Considering the significant costs of nitrogen use in European agriculture (costs to health, ecosystem, and climate), the Dutch government (among others) proposed changing diets to ‘demitarian’ (halved consumption of meat and dairy), since ‘changing protein sources saves feed, N, and land’.

    ‘Changing to healthy –demitarian- diets in EU alone would reduce N emissions by ≈40%  –– could save 100 mln ha of land globally.’

  14. Thanks for the further comments. Much to agree with in them. I like Brian’s case for labour-intensive innovation. And also his point about yields. Increasing per hectare yields by increasing per hectare human labour input is one potentially worthwhile way to go, but tends to be discounted in ‘modernist’ thinking. The only yield increase that’s really incentivised in modern agriculture is some variant on profit or gross value added, although many countries fiddle about a bit paying for public goods. It’d be interesting if they took Steve’s nitrate figures fully on board. Currently we subsidise farmers to use fertiliser and then we subsidise them some more to mitigate some of its bad consequences…and most of them still don’t make much money. Hence the need for a different kind of farming policy mentioned above.

    I agree with Steve that in these debates the ships do tend to pass in the night. But I still think debate can help to clarify respective positions. For example, talk of ‘robust trends’, ‘revolutionary change’ and the lives that people ‘desire’ hides some of the realities of present and future agrarian change – including, as Steve points out, its energetic basis. So it’s good to be confronted with the reality of one’s position – B&D take that approach with me, but I think it’s only fair to return it…

    …on which note here’s some advice from an ecomodernist on how to engage opponents: . Seems wise to me…but it’s funny how rarely most of us live up to it…including B&D, despite their much more reasoned tone than the likes of Mike Shellenberger. Can’t really judge my own output… The ‘tropes’ point is interesting. I felt my original 2015 critique of the Ecomodernist Manifesto was telling, whereas Shellenberger dismissed it as I recall as a ‘mass of tropes’. Whereas ‘robust trends’ etc has the same ring for me… Ah well, the arts of war…

    I also like Andrew’s Stockholm syndrome point, which I hadn’t really thought of before but rings true. Especially when you consider how many among the ecomodernist tribe started out from more oppositional environmentalist positions and then recanted.

    • ‘Currently we subsidise farmers to use fertiliser and then we subsidise them some more to mitigate some of its bad consequences…’

      As described below, the benefits of fertilizer are clearly outweighed by the costs to society. Yet, the bad policies continue, enabled by moneyed interests.

      ‘The economic benefit of N in primary agricultural production ranges between €20-80 billion/yr and is lower than the annual cost of pollution by agricultural N which is in the range of €35-230 billion/yr. Internalizing these environmental costs would lower the optimum annual N-fertilization rate in Northwestern Europe by about 50 kg/ha.’

      Costs and benefits of nitrogen for Europe and implications for mitigation.
      Van Grinsven HJ…
      Environ Sci Technol. 2013 Apr 16;47(8):3571-9.

      • It’s worse than I imagined (according to an article at Rural America, a blog whose mission is ‘to make the issues that rural America is grappling with part of national discourse’):

        ‘…When world leaders convened for the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris in December, only one major intergovernmental initiative emerged to deal with climate change and agriculture—and it was controlled by the world’s largest fertilizer companies.

        ‘The Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture, launched at the 2014 United Nations (UN) Summit on Climate Change in New York, was the culmination of several years of efforts by the fertilizer lobby to block meaningful action on agriculture and climate change. The Alliance’s 29 non-governmental founding members included three fertilizer industry lobby groups, two of the world’s largest fertilizer companies (Yara of Norway and Mosaic of the United States), and a handful of organizations working directly with fertilizer companies on climate change programs. Today, 60 percent of the private sector members of the Alliance still come from the fertilizer industry.’

        ‘…the fertilizer companies have moved aggressively to control the international debate on agriculture and climate change, and to position themselves as a necessary part of the solution…’

        ‘In North America, for instance, Yara and other fertilizer companies and lobby groups co-founded the Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture (“Field To Market”) alongside other major food and agribusiness companies… Also active in this alliance are big U.S. environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the The Nature Conservancy (TNC). These NGOs work directly with Yara, Mosaic and other fertilizer companies on “climate smart” fertilizer efficiency programs…’

        ‘The Politics of Fertilizer and the Exxons of Agriculture’
        by GRAIN [an international non-profit organization]
        April 28, 2016

        • I don’t have any strong feelings for synthetic fertilizer, and would be perfectly happy if we managed without them, but I think the blog post that you cite, although certainly interesting, makes some huge assertions:

          “Food and agriculture are low hanging fruits for action on climate change. Dramatic and rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved in our food systems without major economic consequences. The elimination of chemical fertilizers is one of the easiest and most effective places to start.”

          I don’t know if there is a word for the opposite of eco-modernism but such pronouncements would seem to exemplify that other extreme. I do wish it were all as easy as stated. My sense is that a rapid, dramatic reduction in the use of synthetic fertilizers would certainly reduce fossil fuel use but it could get very, very messy in the short term.

          • Yes, that article has its faults, but it provides a clue to why synthetic fertilizers are still being overprescribed, and why the environmental costs of fertilizers (which go beyond fossil fuel use) are still being externalized. The political influence of the fertilizer industry is much greater than I had imagined.

    • I note that the Breakthrough Institute is funded at least partly by the Pritzker Innovation Fund, of which Rachel Pritzker is the president and founder. The Pritzker family is very wealthy (I think the family includes at least 12 billionaires) and very well known for their extensive philanthropy. We are all a product of our environment to a great extent, so I suspect the outlook of anyone who has always been fabulously wealthy is likely to be affected by that wealth at least a little.

      I wonder whether it is even possible for someone who has been raised in circumstances of great wealth to imagine a future where virtually everything she is accustomed to has vanished. It would be only natural that even if she sees the dangers of industrial civilization very clearly, she would imagine a future where somehow those dangers have been averted, but also where the ‘best’ of modernity is preserved, including the physical and political structures that allow the life she leads. But if modernity itself is the danger to our ecosystem, then there is no possibility of any kind of modernism, eco or otherwise, being the salvation she seeks for it.

      I think the gap between the worldviews of agrarian peasantism (ecopeasantism?) and ecomodernism is so great that it will never be bridged, at least not until the modernists have lived for a few years as peasants and thereby gain an understanding of the unremarkable normalcy of peasant life. Only then might they see the prospect of universal agrarian peasantry as the plausible ecological response it actually is. In fact, it may well be that considering the dangers the future has in store, it is the only prospect that has any plausibility at all.

      • She might be wary of what a future without ecomodernist salvation might mean for her family, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that the structures within which the extremely rich dominate aren’t something that either a short or a long descent will have significant influence on.

        She simply isn’t a Medici. If she was, she’d look for an easily defensible part of the country, start buying political influence and then buying up most of the agricultural land of the state, set up private security contractors as the precursor to a private army etc. etc.

        But even if all the present super-rich were cowards merely trying to escape to their islands in the case of a meltdown, we’d still have as much structural inequality as there ever was.

  15. Back to a previously mentioned topic: psychedelics.

    The way I get myself into a psychedelic frame of mind is to read several books simultaneously. If I believe anything, it is that somehow these books appear (e.g., when the student is ready, the teacher will appear). The current 4 book are:
    *The Order of Time by the physicist Carlo Rovelli
    *The Strange Order of Things by the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio
    *How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan, a journalist best known for writing The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
    *The Systems View of Life, by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi

    According to Damasio, the seeking of homeostasis (or, alternatively homeodynamic systems) is a key element in understanding all life. And if we pay attention to Adrian Bejan, the physicist and engineer, perhaps of ‘nonliving’ entities also. So the acid test of any proposal is whether humans and the world in general can perceive the proposal as furthering homeostasis.

    The EcoModernists believe that homeostasis will be a direct result of ever expanding technical mastery on the part of humans. Anybody paying attention to the current warnings by scientists about the homeodynamic state of the Earth will have serious doubts about that proposition.

    What the EcoModernists do tap into is the notion that each of us, as individuals, can find our own brand of homeostasis by continually increasing our consumption of the goods produced by industrial civilization (or by industrial civilization using low-entropy energy sources, if one is more sophisticated).

    So, we might reflect that any proposal, such as a Neo-Peasant economy, must find some other compelling way to demonstrate consistency with homeostasis for the individual….or perhaps a social group…or perhaps the larger world of the living…or perhaps all of creation.

    Now here is where Pollan’s book gets interesting. Because people who have very recently been treated with psychedelics in controlled environments have seen the EcoModernist illusions fall away, to be replaced by a ‘oneness with the universe’ perception. You should note that Pollan was a thorough going materialist when he began his research.

    I’ll give a quote from page 343:
    ‘Patrick then described an epiphany having to do with simplicity. He was thinking about politics and food, music and architecture, and–his field–television news, which he realized was, like so much else, ‘over-produced’. We put too many notes in a song…to many ingredients in our recipes…too many flourishes in the clothes we wear, the houses we live in…it all seemed so pointless when really all we needed to do was focus on the love. Just then he saw Derek Jeter, then the Yankee shortstop, making yet another balletic turn to first base. I was convinced in that moment I had figured it all out…It was right there in front of me…love…the only thing that mattered. That was to be my life’s cause.’

    In Capra and Luisi, I recommend reading Chapter 13: Spirituality, Ecology, and Education. I’ll give a short quote from page 290:

    ‘Things derive their being and nature by mutual dependence and are nothing in themselves (quoting Nagarjuna, a Buddhist sage)’. This remarkable statement can be seen…as a quintessential expression of the systemic conception of reality.’

    On page 96, Rovelli says that:
    nothing ‘is’; things ‘happen’

    Rovelli’s book is composed of 3 parts. In the first part he thoroughly demolishes our Newtonian conceptions of time and space. In the final section, he begins to reconstruct time as a creature such as a human needs to experience it. Capra and Luisi note that spirituality is about the unseen. Rovelli might note that the fundamental fields which constitute reality can be measured with instruments, but we don’t see them with our unaided senses. My conclusion would be that, if our proposal hopes to appeal to a general desire for homeostasis, it better not be too reliant on the non-existence of time or space. (Which doesn’t prevent engineers from taking advantage of seemingly irrational behavior at the quantum level to produce products which work at the macro level.)

    Capra and Luisi, page 286:
    ‘the fact that their observations take place in realms that are inaccessible to the ordinary senses. In modern Physics, these are the realms of the atomic and subatomic world; in mysticism, they are non ordinary states of consciousness in which the everyday sensory world is transcended.’ On page 282 the authors note the traditional use of psychedelics to achieve mystical insights.

    So the fundamental question I pose:
    Can a Peasants’ Republic be achieved in the absence of a Spiritual encounter?

    Following on that question we have myriad questions of Engineering. Can LSD and other psychedelic substances provide a gateway into mysticism? Can the currently demonstrated effectiveness of the psychedelics in terms of end-of-life quality of life and the breaking of addictions be extended to notions like a life of simplicity? (As exemplified, at least in the short term, by the TV news man.)

    On that latter point, Pollan is not entirely reassuring. While his ‘mystical’ turn after each experience was profound, he gradually reverted back to materialism. There may be something here to learn from religions….such as, you have to go to church once a week. Or, more to the point of a Peasants’ Republic, ‘there shall be regularly scheduled feasts with all contributing’.

    Don Stewart

    • I can attest to the fact that taking LSD can result in some powerful experiences that reveal a lot about oneself and ones relationships. I am still married to the young woman with whom I did everything in the late 60s, including taking LSD. Maybe it’s the key to a long marriage. 🙂

      But based on my observations back then, when most of the people I knew where also tripping fairly frequently, LSD rarely has a permanent or even long-lasting effect on personality. All the people I knew then matured into the people I expected them to be even before psychedelics swept through our college campus. I can say the same for myself and my wife.

      I never made a lifelong habit of taking acid. I doubt that I would now want to try it again after so many years. Contemplation of the future of civilization while tripping? Bummers, man!

    • Perhaps the reason psychedelic’s effects do not seem to last long or become life changing is because they cause a temporary change in neurochemicals. Regular meditation is a slower process but the results are more long term.

      I found the book “The Systems View of Life” very interesting and informative. I’ve always viewed science systematically and this book really helped paint a big picture connecting all the branches of study (science, philosophy, spirituality) and into a larger interconnected system.
      I’ve been reading “Killing the Host, How Financial Parasites and Debt Destroy the Global Economy.” by Michael Hudson. My father always told me “don’t go into debt!” and “Save your money if you want to buy something.” Good advice. I have often wondered how the whole world can owe more money than actually exists. Turns out the whole world owes this money to a relatively small percentage of people. Credit and debt really are how banks and Financial companies keep us under control and allow a small percentage of people to take control of all the wealth. Makes it difficult to change the economic system when it’s controlled by people who want to own everything and us to work for them.

  16. Oversight
    I also meant to note Carlo Rovelli’s observation that a few grains (of presumably LSD) can completely upset one’s conventional view of how the world works.
    Don Stewart

    • To be truly modern is to be anti-modern… Your approach to reading reminds me of psychedelic rocker Roky Erickson’s ‘lantern’ approach to consuming TV (sometimes referred to as ‘the idiot’s lantern’, incidentally). Erickson, a proponent of LSD use, reputedly liked to have a dozen TVs running consecutively. He also battled with profound mental illness. How to tie this in with land use? Well, I’ve just watched this on my little TV, and I believe it’s an interesting design utilising geothermal energy in a solar greenhouse design. I hope some readers find it useful. Nebraskan oranges, I ask you.

      • Here is the Chinese version:

        Also, I’m not an expert on psychedelics, but I will hazard a guess. A psychedelic inhibits the Default Network, which allows things which are normally not conscious to emerge into consciousness. But the psychedelic does not magically generate some new ideas. Its just ideas which were floating around already, but were below the level of consciousness. If someone has ideas which are seriously dangerous, then the use of a psychedelic may just permit the dangerous ideas to become dominant in one’s life.

        BUT, psychedelics are one of the great hopes for straightening out the mess in mental health treatment in the US. I just don’t fully understand why.

        Don Stewart

  17. Thanks for the further comments. I’ve been offline over the weekend at various farming and family events. Just a couple of comments. My thanks to Steve for the fertiliser info, and also to Michelle for raising the issue of overly totalising visions, in this case both for and against fertiliser – I’m feeling the need to write something about that soon in view of recent experiences, even though it’s yet another post that wasn’t on my original playlist.

    Also, I’m interested in Joe’s point about Rachel Pritzker – “It would be only natural that even if she sees the dangers of industrial civilization very clearly, she would imagine a future where somehow those dangers have been averted, but also where the ‘best’ of modernity is preserved, including the physical and political structures that allow the life she leads. But if modernity itself is the danger to our ecosystem, then there is no possibility of any kind of modernism, eco or otherwise, being the salvation she seeks for it.”

    I think that would be a fair summation of where I’m coming from – and maybe where I’m deluding myself – although the aspects of modernity I seek to preserve and the extent to which I consider ‘modernism’ a project that’s either worth saving or possible to save are pretty different from mainstream and/or ecomodernist positions, I think.

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