No farm future, no growth future, no farmer future: a SFF bulletin

Let me offer you a brief news roundup from the Small Farm Future editorial chair.

First up, this website’s favorite Guardian journalist George Monbiot has been unleashing his inner ecomodernist again with an article about producing protein for human consumption via bacteria that metabolize hydrogen produced from electrolysis of water using renewable electricity. So no soils or plants or actual farming involved, much to George’s delight.

I think George’s motivations are irreproachable, so I’m inclined to refrain from too intemperate a response. But one issue for me is that techno-fixery of this sort always neglects the underlying political economy – and this results in a losing game of whack-a-mole piecemeal solution-mongering that mis-specifies the problem as a technical one of overcoming resource limits rather than a socio-political one grounded in dynamics like economic growth. Another issue that interests me is George’s enthusiasm for the prosaic character of hydrogen-grazing bacteria as a way of puncturing the veneer of old-time agrarian romance that shields the horrors of industrial agriculture from public view. My feeling on the contrary is that only by properly inhabiting that romance and re-enchanting the relationship between people and land as a precious food-giving resource will the problems George identifies be solvable.

Anthony Galluzzo suggests that this kind of techno-fixery ducks the real issue of thinking through what a sustainable agroecological food system might look like and I must admit I think he’s got a point. One of the best attempts I’ve come across to do just that is Simon Fairlie’s 2010 book Meat: A Benign Extravagance, which I’ve been re-reading recently in the context of drafting my own book and been struck afresh at the brilliance of Simon’s analysis. George endorsed Simon’s book at the time, and I do wonder why he seems to have abandoned that line of reasoning in favour of a less ecological and more modernist ideology.

Talking of economic growth as I was, the notorious ‘skeptical environmentalist’ Bjorn Lomborg has weighed in with a critique of the degrowth movement. To my mind there’s an awful lot of dreck in his analysis, which I really have no inclination to rifle through here except to make two general observations. First, according to the IPCC as interpreted by Lomborg the impact of climate change in 2100 will cost only between 2-4% of GDP. This strikes me as a pretty meaningless assertion, but taking it at face value and assuming that the average global economic growth over the last five years of 2.8% is sustained over the 21st century (and it’s hard to imagine the economy surviving in its present form if growth is much lower) by my calculations that implies that global output in 2100 will be around US$800 trillion at present value, compared to its current US$80 trillion. I find it hard to imagine what the world in 2100 will find to do with another 9 helpings of our present global output in the unlikely event that it manages to create it. More to the point, 3% of 800 trillion dollars spent on climate change in 2100 amounts to about 30% of the world’s entire present output – so it looks like climate change may turn out to be pretty costly after all, even by the lights of a complacent analysis like this. Figures of this kind make me think that whatever the Lomborgs of this world would have us believe, a change is gonna come, and well before 2100.

Second, Lomborg writes “With blinkered analysis and misplaced concern, the [degrowth] academics essentially say that to reduce global warming slightly, we should end growth that can lift hundreds of millions out of poverty, avoid millions of air pollution deaths, and give billions the opportunity of a better life through improved health care, shelter, education, and income. There is something deeply disturbing about academics’ telling others to forgo the benefits they have enjoyed. What the world really needs is far more growth and far less hypocrisy.” This trope of ‘hypocrisy’ levelled at people who say that the benefits currently enjoyed by those of us lucky enough to live in the rich countries of the world will soon come to an end and cannot feasibly be spread across all of humanity seems to me a huge obstacle for devising workable and equitable solutions to global problems and really ought to be laid to rest. For my part, I salute the degrowth theorists for looking the future unflinchingly in the face and calling it as they see it – which, as I understand it, is not that the poorest people in the world need to stay as poor as they are, but that the richest people in the world need to be less rich. I’d recommend steering clear of Lomborg and reading these sensible suggestions from Jason Hickel for policies to unite both the degrowthers and the greengrowthers instead.

And talking of looking the future in the face, a paper that passed across my desktop reports that nearly a third of US citizens think that Jesus Christ will return within the next 40 years, signalling the end of the world – and are therefore unconcerned about trivial matters such as imminent environmental meltdown, despite often having relatively sustainable farming traditions in their backgrounds. Really, I had no idea…I might have to tear up my book draft and start again. Or just wait for the reckoning.

Now onto yet another dose of techno-futurism from yet another of this site’s favourite Guardian men – John Harris – this time concerning robotic farming. The idea is that once farm machinery is fully automated it can be downscaled and farming can be undertaken more ecologically by farm bots that can remove weeds by flaming them with lasers rather than using herbicides. Presumably instead of ploughing they’d also go large with the laser-weeding prior to sowing the crop. That’s a lot of lasering. And a lot of agrarian change. “I expected farmers to be quite luddite about the adoption of new technology,” robot farming pioneer Ben Scott-Robinson told Harris. “Some are, but there are a load of them who understand that new things need to happen.” When Harris asked him what the downsides were to the approach, Scott-Robinson said “Erm… well, at the moment, we can’t see any.”

So let me offer two suggestions. First, in one word, energy. And second in two words for anyone who uses the word ‘luddite’ pejoratively, labour dynamics. C’mon John, you’re a Labour man, you can’t let him get away with that! And on that note, here’s a nice article by Max Ajl critiquing the idea of a green new deal via, among many other things, the suggestion that we need to frame a new agrarian question of labour. Quite so. And another nice article by Joe Lowndes on the populist tradition in the USA and the perils of left populism – much to ponder there, which I hope to write on soon. My thanks to the ever-attentive Anthony Galluzzo for keeping me appraised of such things. I found both articles a sight for sore eyes in sketching the wider context of the global political economy, particularly the global agrarian political economy – something entirely missing from Jane O’Sullivan’s populationist worldview.

Ah yes, Dr O’Sullivan – she’s weighed in again in our simmering debate about population with a rejoinder that I find flawed in numerous ways. Clearly we’re never going to agree on much, and I find it a rather soul-sapping business engaging in this debate and trying to get to the basis of our empirical and political disagreements. So I’m wondering if any of the much-valued commenters on this site might give me a steer as to whether they’d find another response from me on this of interest, or whether it’s better to move to pastures new?

And finally I’m off (and offline) for a few days next week to give my first presentation to an academic audience for about a gazillion years. Hopefully I’ll be back in action by the week’s end, ready to unleash some more old nags thoroughbreds from the Small Farm Future stable.

68 thoughts on “No farm future, no growth future, no farmer future: a SFF bulletin

  1. As always, lots of good here for me to digest. In the meantime, Michael Liebreich has managed to stir a kerfuffle with an essay on green growth. I for one would be interested in your take (The Secret of Eternal Growth, published on the Initiative for Free Trade blog.)

  2. I’ve got no quarrel with Monbiot’s darling or eco-modernism in general, as long as it’s not that smug, never-torched-dirt brand of eco-modernism that is in a perpetual swoon over the robotic replacement of “crude” peasant ways of producing food. By all means brew that bacteria! It truly may play a big part of getting ourselves out of one part of the wicked mess that we are in. I have no romantic attachment to my way of making a living – this contaminated re-constituted neo-pastorialism that is so wasteful according to George. I see his point but at this juncture I think it’s a better way of life – and better for the planet – than quite a few other ways of life or potential land-uses, so I’ll stick with it until they get the economics of that solar protein figured out. Maybe my daughter will be brewing bacteria and nurturing native eco-systems back to health. We could think of it as another kind of farming.
    Of course the ability to produce protein {magically” from hydrogen could very well lead us into another Green Revolution scenario, where we get to pretend that there are no limits and no need to be responsible for human impacts as we blithely overshoot and cover the earth with protein factories and spaceports.

  3. Max Ajl rightly suggest that the dangers of overshoot must be countered by “institutionalizing the capacity to listen and learn from those who already have good solutions, but whose solutions are almost always ignored.” SFF readers will be pleased to know that Ajl believes those “good solutions” are centered around the production methods of agrarian peasants.

    But these solutions have been obvious for many decades, so I wonder why it is that they have been “almost always ignored”. I see two possibilities.

    One possibility is that people have internalized the “parable of the tribes”. The inability of agrarian peasants to create and maintain an industrial military may lurk in the background consciousness of everyone’s fantasy of being a bucolic small farmer. A nation composed of agrarian peasants is at the mercy of anyone who decides to use tanks and planes to take it. People may think, “Being a peasant farmer sounds quite nice from a lot of perspectives, but what do I do if someone comes to take it away?” Giving up a modern high-energy industrial state means becoming helpless to those who don’t.

    The other possibility is that most people just don’t like the prospect of spending their entire life working in the fields. There are many reasons for the ubiquity of the rural to urban migrations all over the world, but one of them is surely the draw of city life. And cities are like flypaper; once you go there, you’re stuck. The place you left in the country has adapted to your absence and now you can’t go back.

    • And cities are like flypaper; once you go there, you’re stuck. The place you left in the country has adapted to your absence and now you can’t go back.

      Not sure it’s all that drastic. One of my uncles managed to do exactly this. I am in the process of doing something along these lines [though to be fair the closest I’ve actually gotten to being “in the city” is being peri-urban (which for me is too close already…)] Where I think your idea is spot on – the difficulty for 2nd generation city dwellers to get out into the country. Hearing about it is much different than actually living it.

      My mother was a city girl born and raised (but both of her parents were born/raised on farms). She was long in coming around to country life. As her firstborn I would argue I can recall her still adapting to country ways long after I was old enough to appreciate that she struggled over the matter.

      Where I would hold out hope for the city dweller in the scenario of a massive movement outward from declining cities is two fold – the allure of the city is bound to be seriously tarnished… opportunities disappearing and so forth. And secondly, there would be a much larger cohort in a similar situation. A misery shared is a misery halved. And those of us less inclined to consider it a misery will just have to grin and bear it.

      • I fear that once the allure of the city is “seriously tarnished”, the resources needed for a mass migration to the country will be in short supply, the same reason that the city will have lost its allure. Modern industrialism will likely continue on its present course until it can’t, at which point a lot of options will have been lost.

        The challenge is figuring out a way to exercise the return-to-the-country option while we still can. I wish I could see a clear path toward taking that step, but I can’t.

        I’m old enough to remember the back-to-the-land ‘homesteading’ movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. My wife and I were late participants in 1974 and still live in the country. Back then, there was enough inexpensive land in the country to make it a plausible option for a young couple with more grit than money. No longer.

        • Back then, there was enough inexpensive land in the country to make it a plausible option for a young couple with more grit than money. No longer.

          More grit than money. That will likely describe the vast majority of survivors in the future – just as it puts a fair likeness to those ancestors of ours who struck out to settle frontiers throughout history.

          I’m guessing my family is behind yours by a half dozen years perhaps. But we didn’t go directly to the farm (though we both came from one)… it is after years of squirreling away some savings that we’ve accumulated the capital to purchase our land.

          I’m not convinced that there will be such a rapid deterioration. Any deterioration, regardless of rate of change, will still be a serious mess, but I imagine some of the brighter among us will set an example for others so that we might be spared the most catastrophic possible outcome. Being ready should be the hallmark of the brighter…

  4. Thanks for the comments. I’ve got to focus on other things for a few days now, but I’ll try to respond to this and any further comments on this post by the start of next week.

  5. Quick comments:
    1. Don’t bother with another blog on population. I think that topic has been roundly discussed in all of its angles here for now.
    2. Which academic conference are you heading off to? I’d be curious to know within which academic tribe you have decided to put your shoulder to the wheel and advance the debate. I’m in the process of figuring out whether I should do a PhD, and if so about what and with whom. The topics you write about here are ones that interest me, but I can’t figure out which academic community I would be speaking to. Most of the writing in our field seems to be blog-based.

  6. Thanks Chris for the update.

    I am with you generally, and inclined to not give George Monbiot too much trouble for writing about stuff. But I prefer it when the writer has a fair idea about their topic, though.
    So here I go. You all tell me if I have a clue.

    I looked at the Guardian article. I will not comment about the Land Sparing portion at the beginning, because I agree with it on some vague level, but I am convinced that our species will never spare anything that we can make a profit on, at least not until we get a complete social makeover. I don’t see that happening without the disaster that the article is urging us to avoid.

    I am much more interested in the devil’s details. George says that the Finnish process will become economical at 15 Euros per MWH. That is $17.05 at current exchange rates. I just paid $72.50 per MWH at my house, retail, not counting taxes & fees. That is 63.8 Euros. We have a ways to go, I’d guess. That was burnt coal electricity, by the way.

    But my first thought was about the making of food from hydrogen. The graphic at the top of the article shows a young woman eating pasta that is plugged into a wall socket. Clever, but pasta is not much protein. The text states that the Finns are using electrolized hydrogen, CO2 from the air (yay! climate mitigation!) and nitrogen, also from the air, along with trace minerals from somewhere. I had a feeling this was the formula. If they were making pasta and didn’t need the nitrogen, I might not object, but they are making protein, so we need to know where the nitrogen comes from.

    The focus of the article is the hydrogen though. Your old sparring partner Wes Jackson has estimated that 40% of the nitrogen walking around in extant human bodies has come through a Haber-Bosch process ammonia plant. That is a lot of tonnage. All that nitrogen came out of the air, and it took a lot of energy to get it into ammonia molecules. There are other ways to get nitrogen out of the air, and soybeans do it really well. Ask Clem. They use bacteria. Is this how the Finns are doing it? It had better be, because the thing about all those tons of ammonia is that they also needed tons of hydrogen. And the hydrogen that went through the Haber-Bosch factories was not made by solar electrolysis. Nearly all of it was stripped off fossil methane, because that is by far the cheapest way to get hydrogen.

    So it is kind of cute, in a way. Here we are, back at the Hydrogen Economy future again. How many years ago did all the various engineers quietly decide that was a dead end?

    • Nice catch Eric. I cruised through George’s piece far too quickly it seems. I also thought the pasta graphic was dumb, but this is too often the case with media for the masses – so I shrugged that off.

      In order to see where the scientists were coming up with their nitrogen I went back and used George’s link to the press release (and may end up going to the original scientific article if need be). Interestingly there is the same sort of casual dismissal of fact in the press release – In practice, all the raw materials are available from the air. And while I’m not an atmospheric scientist, I am struggling to imagine there is all that much iron, zinc, or manganese, just floating around in the air.

      There are also claims for a tenfold increase in energy efficiency. Not sure about how they determined this – would need to go to the source; but they do specifically cite soy as the biological product to compare to. So I have to give them props for that insight 🙂

      To answer your original question – on nitrogen for protein – they are harvesting whole cells it seems. Single cell protein is already ‘a thing’, and yeast and bacteria can be harvested from fermentation equipment already. The microbes used can fix nitrogen, so they do the hard work, and make their own proteins for their own livelihood. Then people harvest them. Cuts out the plant, so I’m less fascinated… but I can imagine Martian astronauts might be interested [though even for them it would be nice if the Martian atmosphere had iron, zinc, and a few other chems just floating around]

      • There are also claims for a tenfold increase in energy efficiency

        I am skeptical that it is possible to beat the thermodynamic efficiency of photosynthesis over the entire process, including the embedded costs of all the equipment involved, including the solar panels. A seed is a pretty low energy food manufacturing system.

        It might be easier to compete with industrial agriculture, since many calories from fossil fuels are needed to produce one calorie of food, but labor intensive, organic, subsistence agriculture will be hard to beat from an energy efficiency standpoint.

      • “where the scientists were coming up with their nitrogen”

        Haber Bosch is shown to be the nitrogen source in this paper being published next month:
        Carbon emission avoidance and capture by producing in-reactor microbial biomass based food, feed and slow release fertilizer: Potentials and limitations
        Ilje Pikaar et al.
        Science of The Total Environment
        Volume 644, 10 December 2018, Pages 1525-1530

      • Hey Clem, Is that really true that yeast get their nitrogen from the air? It can’t be can it? When the brewers go to great lengths to exclude air from their process to make the yeast go anerobic and make alcohol. Seems to me the yeast must be getting the nitrogen to make their proteins from the feedstock. In which case it would probably come from Haber-Bosch fertilizer on barley fields or grape vines. Even so, it takes a lot of sugar to make a modest amount of yeast protein, and especially with grain based brewing, the most (dry) volume is sugar-depleted grain that gets fed to animals afterward. Our yeast harvesters would need to find a way to separate the yeast protein from spent wort.

        Maybe you just need to develop some soy-based vodka…

        • Maybe you just need to develop some soy-based vodka… Someone out there is way ahead of us. Soy based spirits have been made. I can’t claim to have tried them, and I also have a hard time imagining how the economics works out – add to this that they haven’t hit the world stage with any success or we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

          I haven’t gone to the source article yet, but I think you are correct that yeasts aren’t the N fixers. My hunch (until looking for the facts) is that they are using bacteria for the N fix and then either co-cultivating with yeast (so that the bacteria essentially become the feedstock) or they might be sequentially raising the microbes.

          Barley used for brewing should be raised on lower amounts of N in the first place so that the barley has lower protein levels (for beer quality purposes). In rotation with a legume (I’d go for with soy of course) one may be able to raise sufficient barley without any Haber-Bosch derived N. Beer production predates HB by several centuries after all.

          As for separating yeast from spent wort… not so sure that is necessary – seems to me that we are the animals they intend to feed the spent wort to 🙁

          May need to take a deeper dive on this – in particular the efficiency claim(s). As Joe notes, improving efficiency over Mother Nature is a tough get. She’s had so long a head start. Where the work cited here might have some traction is that there are places on the planet where Mother Nature has failed to have a go at biomass production. Salt flats come to mind. Lots of solar energy to harvest, few to no organisms interested in the offer.

          • It occurs to me that the 10x energy efficiency claim comes from the fact that PV panels convert roughly that much more sunlight to electricity than a leaf converts to sugar. It would be typical for the writer to omit how the leaf assembles itself and does all the work at ambient temperature, whether anyone is watching it or not.

            Also interesting that they are proposing hydrolysis in the desert. Plenty of sunlight, but they will need to import the water.

  7. I’m skeptical about the energy requirements of making protein from metabolized hydrogen, especially since they seem to skirt around this issue. Some missing pieces include how much land and embodied energy is needed to produce the renewable energy and nitrogen source used to obtain a pound of protein. More-efficient processes may already exist.

    Looking at the amount of “edible protein per unit area of land” [Wikipedia], the highest listed is 356 pounds/acre for soybeans. However, much more protein can be obtained if that acre is planted with sugarcane, with the resulting sugar used to grow fungi (in a medium containing sugar and inorganic nitrogen salts). That one acre of sugarcane can result in more than 5000 pounds of protein, according to this paper from the 1960s:

    World Sources of Protein, Martin G. Weiss and Ruth M. Leverton,
    The Yearbook of Agriculture 1964

    The same paper mentions food made from Azobacter (which can utilize free nitrogen from the air):
    “Human taste panels did not distinguish biscuits in which the flour contained 2 percent Azotobacter powder. Protein content approached 75 percent, which is extremely high for vegetable products. The amino acid balance of the protein compared favorably with that from yeast and other micro-organisms.”

    I’d like to see the electrolysis-based process compared to such existing methods which grow yeast, fungi, or bacteria.

  8. Seems we have a couple different motivations at play… carbon capture is one, and avoiding carbon release is another. Both aiming to reduce CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere and head off warming.

    Thanks to Steve L’s Pikaar et al. ref above (which is behind a paywall) I found a related piece from the corresponding author (and same senior author) which discusses the same type of effort:

    From their abstract:
    The Haber Bosch process is among the greatest inventions of the 20th century. It provided agriculture with reactive nitrogen and ultimately mankind with nourishment for a population of 7 billion people. However, the present agricultural practice of growing crops for animal production and human food constitutes a major threat to the sustainability of the planet in terms of reactive nitrogen pollution. In view of the shortage of directly feasible and cost-effective measures to avoid these planetary nitrogen burdens and the necessity to
    remediate this problem, we foresee the absolute need for and expect a revolution in the use of microbes as a source of protein. Bypassing land-based agriculture through direct use of Haber Bosch produced nitrogen for reactor-based production of microbial protein can be an inspiring concept for the production of high quality animal feed and even straightforward supply of
    proteinaceous products for human food, without significant nitrogen losses to the environment and without the need for genetic engineering to safeguard feed and food supply for the generations to come.

    So they envision HB fixed N not contributing to pollution by spreading the N all over the earth, but piping it into reactors directly. Renewables used to prevent further fossil employment. Organic fertilizer is also a product. There’s likely a ways to go yet, but it seems the effort may be worth the trouble.

  9. “only by properly inhabiting that romance and re-enchanting the relationship between people and land”
    As Chris and Eric point out even if this effort pans out technically, it’s pointless if it is plugged into the same old nightmare matrix. Romance and re-enchantment are not the metaphors that I would use (despite having a strong streak of nature mystic myself), because not everyone does and because such concepts are not terribly transferable. How do you teach someone to become re-enchanted? But it is possible to create the possibility to get re-enchanted – by incentivizing conservation practices and small farms. You can communicate the ways in which humans are not distinct from their environment and that our well-being depends on the well-being of the environment (which simple message goes counter to the predatory capitalist narrative of maximizing profit). This is re-enchantment that looks like pragmatism, which is easer to sell “across the aisle,” as we say here in the States. I am thinking about all those gun-loving cowboys that I know that have a serious soft spot for the land and believe themselves to be conservationists in their own way (and better at it than the government that just wants to take away their guns and keep them from killing wolves, sigh!).

    • Yes, I agree with this. The point is not whether the techno-magic is possible, but whether it should be employed. Monbiot is clearly working within the existing capitalist world view on this, talking up the technology’s ‘approaching commercialisation’ and its ‘cost-competitiveness’. Maybe he thinks ecological salvation is best achieved behind the backs of the powers that be, leaving them with the comfort and profit of business-as-usual. Win-win?

      But he doesn’t consider the likelihood that failing to tackle capitalism will render it impossible to create his sci-fi future. Even assuming the commercial success of air-food beyond his wildest dreams, and the beginnings of ‘re-wiliding’ across much of the world, if people are still looking for profitability then the world will still look like a resource to them, just not an edible one, and it’s only a matter of time before something goes wrong…

      I think I’ve said this before, but it’s really annoying to see re-wilders like Monbiot arguing for ‘ecological restoration’ but leaving humans out of the ecosystem. He thinks this technology will ‘change our entire relationship with the natural word’, and he’s right – it will remove us further from it, trapped in our glass domes of civilization surrounded by a pristine sea of non-human ecology – permanently exiled from Eden.

      So I agree that ‘re-enchantment’ is the way forward, by whatever name you call it. Perhaps even a ‘re-wilding’ of humanity – would that be acceptable to your macho cowboys Michelle? Monbiot might have a point about the way the ‘truth’ of industrial farming is obscured from everyday eyes, but that’s a product of its position in capitalism, where the commodity in its very definition denies its origins. A particular vision of humans and the natural world working together has been employed by marketers to hide industrial agriculture, but Monbiot needs to realise that such a relationship is not therefore a Bad Thing.

      • I think that the entire point of eco-modernism is that we be “trapped in our glass domes of civilization surrounded by a pristine sea of non-human ecology” and thereby avoid the inconvenience and dangers of “nature, red in tooth and claw”.

        But I doubt that “enchantment” with nature is the converse of eco-modernism. When people re-integrate with the natural world it will seem no more enchanting to them than water is to fish or air is to birds. It will be the hum-drum daily reality that will be so ordinary as to be unremarkable.

        • “It will be the hum-drum daily reality that will be so ordinary as to be unremarkable.”

          … but with better mental health indicators?

          • Perhaps for a while, but Clarkson’s law of the Conservation of Happiness would suggest that a population’s mental health always reverts to the mean over time.

        • It’s probably a little indulgent but I quite like the language of ‘enchantment’. The etymology ultimately stems from the notion of being into sung into a song, which I think is a satisfyingly poetic way of describing the total entanglement between people and nature required of the ‘hum-drum daily reality’ of neo-peasant life.

          But I take your point. On thinking about this a little more I think It’s possible to turn Monbiot’s sci-fi future around and suggest that it also forms a romanticised vision, but in this instance employed to obscure the rather horrific truth of maintaining business-as-usual capitalism, even though we all know that doing so will destroy the conditions for human life.

          • I think that the entire point of eco-modernism is that we be “trapped in our glass domes of civilization surrounded by a pristine sea of non-human ecology” and thereby avoid the inconvenience and dangers of “nature, red in tooth and claw”.

            Or could it (the point of eco-modernism) be to buy some more time – kick the can down the road as it were – so we can figure out how to live without so much ugliness? Sure, one can enumerate a longish list of other technologies which have done exactly this, kicked the can… (Green revolution among others) so the argument might be made that we’ll never learn. And even though I prefer to hold out hope I’ll admit I’m not sure how close to the cliff we need to be before kicking the can goes off the metaphorical cliff and a significant number of us realize what has happened.

            To Andrew’s thought: employed to obscure the rather horrific truth of maintaining business-as-usual capitalism, even though we all know that doing so will destroy the conditions for human life. may I ask who the “we” are who know this? The SFF community, or the wider world? I’m not convinced the wider world agrees.

          • An interesting question Clem. ‘We’ is usefully vague! I suppose those who we might hope would know are those with economic or political power, and they are often too invested in our current system or perhaps even genuinely impressed by it to think it wrong-headed.

            But human-induced climate change is more widely accepted, so the real elephant in the room for these people is the connection between the two. It’s here I think that techno-utopias play a part in deflecting any admission of this connection, perhaps through deception, perhaps through genuine belief. As long as we (!) keep our collective foot on the accelerator we can geo-engineer our way out of this mess, and of course only capitalism can be relied upon to produce the necessary technical innovation.

            That said, I do think that, for many of these people, thinking and believing along those lines requires the psychological repression of increasing amounts of evidence to the contrary, and that the truth already lurks in their unconscious minds… But perhaps I just don’t want to let them off the hook.

          • Yes, I think Andrew has it right. The Industrial Destructionists would not be protesting so loudly any limits on their ability to ruin the natural world if they didn’t know on some level that it is suicide that they are pursuing. The loudness of the argument will forestall recognition of the consequences.

            For the rest of us, outside the main profit stream, there are the various opiates.

  10. We are the lucky ones. Lucky in the sense that we are even here in the first place. And here we are scratching our heads about the future, about what we have wrought, about where to go from here.

    Fresh off another democratic experience here in U.S. one might wonder where the next set of politicians will have us go. The talking heads will be sifting through the results for a while now – earning their daily bread – and unfortunately talking primarily to just their own tribe. Meanwhile the everyday citizen such as those of us here tinkers away to do what we can for the issues we deem appropriate and necessary. And for the time being we remain the lucky ones.

    There is a policy forum piece in the 2 November issue of Science that caught my attention. And though most of the content in Science is behind a paywall, this article is available (as well as its supplementary information):

    This article talks about gene editing (specifically mentioning CRISPR technology, but other techs can be folded into this tent nicely). Local government thought and consideration is advocated – which made me think of our discussions here at SFF. Questions quickly turn from ‘what can we do’ to ‘whether or not we should do it’. What long term consequences are we committing our children and grandchildren to?

    The Green Revolution, and DDT were technological innovations our predecessors chose to deploy. Those choices have been held up to scrutiny and regardless of how one appreciates the outcome(s) they can now serve as reference points for the debate about what to do with our newest toy technologies.

    In the past I’ve written at my blog or in comments on others that for the CRISPR and other gene editing technologies I have no dog in the fight. But it’s just come to me that this isn’t necessarily so. In the soybean genetics marketplace where I work there are GMO soybeans and non-GMO soybeans competing for consumer interest. I work on the non-GMO side, so even though I don’t actively oppose the GM technologies (indeed I’m fascinated by their potential uses) I do personally benefit (in some small way) when consumers choose non-GMO over the competition. When soybean might someday compete with a microbial soup from a bioreactor – will I get testy? Hope not, but will cross that bridge when I come to it. Meanwhile I’ll read what I can about alternatives, about the impacts of externalities, about possible governmental organizing principles, and reflect still more about how lucky I am in the first place to even be here and have these struggles to wrestle with.

    • Gratitude is always a good place to start from. It is easy to take for granted all that “progress” has wrought and the ceaseless toil of agriculturalists, large and small. But my gratitude is even greater to that intricate dissipative structure that Lovelock and Margulis, I believe, named Gaia. Gratitude leads straight to responsibility, at least in my book. They are two faces of the same root feeling.
      And that is why I have a serious problem with capitalism, specifically latter-day Anglo-American-style/globalized capitalism that knows neither gratitude nor responsibility. Not that I’m against capitalism – as one tool in the tool-box, appropriate in some arenas and not in others. (Re-localized capitalisms where businesses are responsible to their local community and environment, seems like a decent deployment of the tool.) We Americans seem to have made a bit of a religion of Capitalism in general, which is a category error. An economic design shouldn’t be a religion.
      So I agree with Andrew that “we” are all well aware that things are not right, but mostly, practically speaking, we seem locked in by our religion and its institutions, just like medieval peasants. “Growth” must happen according to the gospel of capitalism somehow or other, even if it means despoiling our environment and overshooting planetary boundaries like those famous blind rodents.

  11. Interesting interview with George Monbiot at the following, which covers some of the ground of his article but also adds some new points:

    Interestingly he places his own approach between the Scylla and Charibdis of ecomodernism and back-to-the-land-ism, although unfortunately characatures the latter with a riff on anarchy-primitivism. He also expands on his attitude to ‘technology’, but by this he seems to mean silver-bullet world-changing technologies rather than more humble stock.

    Having commented blithely on the errors of his ways above, I still think he’s wrong, but I find his thinking a little harder to fathom now. George is frightened by the fact that we’re almost out of time on climate change (fair enough), and seems to think that electric food is exciting because it could free up loads of land from agriculture very quickly, enabling massive carbon draw-down into re-growing wild forests. However, he’s also aware of the infant state of this technology, and doesn’t want to have to rely on it coming online tomorrow.

    This seems to contradict the idea that it offers a speedy transformation. But even if the technology were to come online soon, he seems to completely overlook the massive social, political and economic changes that would be necessary to herd humans off of the land into electric food-fed cities. This itself would take time and the upheaval would be astronomical. I just don’t understand why he thinks going back to the land is a trap, as it certainly wouldn’t involve any more upheaval than his techno-fix – probably a lot less. Perhaps he thinks neo-peasantism wouldn’t draw down enough carbon in time. Are there any studies on this kind of thing?

    I just can’t understand why he thinks one is more plausible than the other. But although he protests against ecomodernism, accelerationism and business-as-usual, I can’t help but think he’s been seduced by a kind of grand technological solutionism somewhere down the line.

    • After listening to the interview, I think that Monbiot is impaled on the horns of a dilemma, one horn being the urgent necessity of dealing with the environmental consequences of the modern industrial economy and the other being the lives of billions of people who rely on that economy for their survival.

      He rejects the very straightforward narrative of civilizational collapse and a return to agrarian peasantry or hunting and gathering and, as you note, seems to hope for a technological fix that, in combination with a political fix, will resolve the dilemma.

      Monbiot seems sincere; he really thinks that if we just rearrange our politics around the common interest and institute participatory democracy we can reject capitalism and zero in on a course of action that will save the environment and everyone’s life too.

      My view is that there is no resolution, that the predicament we are in will be resolved by the deaths of billions, or even extinction, and that there is no combination of political and technological magic that will enable everyone to live happily ever after.

      That said, there are ways that things can be made better (return to the land) and ways that things can be made worse (what we are doing). But even the very best we can do is likely to look like disaster to everyone living in the rich countries of the global North.

      It is hard to come up with a narrative to sell disaster to the masses, so my guess is everything will continue with industrial-capitalism-as-usual until something gives way, at which point it will end.

      It will be a hard sell, but my best gloss on what Monbiot calls the “primary narrative” goes like this (with apologies to Noah)…”There was disorder and destruction everywhere, but a small, brave and farsighted group saw that there was no global salvation to be had, no matter how heroic their effort, so they turned their strength to saving their families and communities from the impending maelstrom by becoming agrarian peasant preppers, thereby allowing them to become the tiny handful of seeds that would eventually sprout into the glorious return of a prodigal humanity to its humble and rightful place as just another one of Gaia’s dutiful children, gamboling with joy in her beautiful garden, never again to usurp her rightful place as the beneficent Mistress of all life on earth.”

      • Of course, there is already a whole basket full of “seeds” in the form of peasant farmers in poor countries, making the narrative of rich country preppers saving humanity totally silly.

        Whether prepping in a rich country will turn out better than carrying on as a civilization-dependent city dweller cannot be known ahead of time, so it is mostly an aesthetic choice. I like the country.

  12. Regarding the potential for a ‘speedy transformation”, the Solar Foods company (with professor Pasi Vainikka as the CEO) has a ‘roadmap’ projecting their first
    Solar Food factory producing 3500 kg/day [or 3.5 tonnes/day] by the end of 2021. The factory capacity is listed as ’50 million meals annually’. It looks like seed financing occurred in 2018, followed by a pilot process listed as 1 kg/day.

    For some perspective, I looked at the development of another single-cell-protein-based food, Quorn. (The mycoprotein in Quorn is obtained from a soil fungus grown in oxygenated water with glucose and fixed nitrogen added.) There was evidently a ten-year evaluation programme before it could be sold for human consumption, followed by a 20-year period of patent protection for the process.

    According to Wikipedia, the companies ICI and RHM collaborated on a “a continuous fermentation process for the production of Fusarium venenatum biomass… The two partners invested in patents for growing and processing the fungus, and other intellectual properties in the brand… In 1985, RHM was given permission to sell mycoprotein for human consumption after a ten-year evaluation programme… In the European Union, patents expire after 20 years from their filing date. Since the first patent application was filed in 1985, the mycoprotein patents had already expired in 2010 in all EU countries.”

    In 2018 (33 years after it was approved for human consumption), the production of Quorn has reached 50,000 tonnes per year [approx. 137 tonnes/day].

  13. A also listened to the Monbiot interview linked by Andrew above. And I come away with a slightly different take than either Andrew or Joe.

    The grand sweep of a silver-bullet technology, a game changer, does appear to be George’s big wish for our salvation. And like Andrew I’m not ready to forgo or overlook the contributions of lots of little, humble improvements. These little improvements can add up, can act in synergistic ways (implying more than simple linear addition) and involve lots of participants. A few smart folks with a big idea vs millions of people with tens of thousands of little ideas… I have to go with the latter if indeed I’m forced to choose. But why choose? Lets have a try at both.

    George and his interviewer do spend a good bit of time on politics. Chris may appreciate this. And Joe captures some of that in his comment. Where I disagree with Joe is in his fatalistic view that even what George has in mind is too little too late. I get rankled when extinction is tossed it – sorry. My view is that there is no resolution, that the predicament we are in will be resolved by the deaths of billions, or even extinction … a demographer might offer that within the next thirty years we will indeed witness the death of billions – just because there are billions of us alive today within a 30 reach of our natural demise. Yeah, I know – cheap shot. But short of some nuclear annihilation where the planet is destroyed I can’t get to extinction through effects of global warming. I do like the Noah narrative he wraps up with.

    I also like Steve’s digging into the Quorn technology for some perspective. On the one hand it does work – and on the other hand, it isn’t a silver bullet. Fits perhaps better with one of thousands of little successes that push the needle only a bit, but at least in a favorable direction.

    In the interview George confesses that his allegiance with the Green Party gave way to trying to make Labour a greener party. Just found that interesting – no judgement from here on that. He made a jab at how insignificant DEFRA seems to be held by the major parties – which I also found interesting, and here I would judge it insightful and disquieting. Perhaps Britain has lost its agrarian past so completely that it needs more than a handful of bloggers writing about any sort of farm future.

    George also took a jab at the word hope. He suggested it too easy to precede with “false”. This I will take umbrage with. I rather like the work and the concept it stands for. If you proffer hope and someone wants look at you cross-eyed and try to stand “false” in front of your thesis then it falls to you to point out their cowardice or their lack of understanding (else you may indeed have a false-hope). “Cowardice” he says? Yes. If no better attempt is on offer, than poo-pooing an idea just because it isn’t your own or because you are too lazy to do the required work then you come off as ‘in the way’ at best, and coward at worst. I hope that makes sense.

    • I was not clear about where the possibilities for extinction come from. As you note, global warming is way down on the list, if it belongs there at all, but it is a symptom of the resource consumption overshoot we have gotten ourselves into. It will be the political and social conflict that ensues when lack of resources start hitting populations hard that will be the potential cause for extinction.

      First among these is major nuclear war. As long as thousands of nuclear weapons are able to be utilized on a moments notice, extinction is only an accident or deranged politician away.

      The weapons themselves wouldn’t kill everyone, nor the fallout that would blanket the earth, but the nuclear winter that might last for a decade or more could do the job easily. I will admit that there might be a few thousand folks who are used to living in cold temperatures at high latitudes that might survive, but only if marine resources remain available.

      Nuclear war will become more and more probable as global economic conditions deteriorate and the resulting desperate clamor for government to “do something” gets louder and louder.

      Second on the list would be a deliberately created pandemic, created as part of a bio-weapons scheme or by bio-terrorism gone too far. Again, there might be folks who would either avoid exposure due to living in a remote location or by being naturally immune, but near-extinction, at least, would easily be possible.

      As to the “death of billions”; I think that the “premature” qualifier is assumed. 55 million people will die this year, most of them from the effects of old age, but if I referred to a potential sequence of events that would kill “tens of millions” I think most people would be right to be alarmed. They would never consider that I was talking about the passage of time.

      As to your overall point about “a few smart folks with a big idea vs millions of people with tens of thousands of little ideas…”; the little ideas are more subject to the influence of averaging. If half of those little ideas are slightly good and the other half slightly bad, not much change will happen. I think that the evidence of the last half century is that nothing significant will happen from grass roots activism on behalf of little ideas.

      A big idea has the chance of becoming an outlier, something that sweeps away an old order and institutes a new one. The invention of the steam engine is one example. It remains to be seen whether nuclear weapons will be another, but the potential is certainly there. I really doubt that food from electricity is going to be one.

      I put little weight on the benefit of “hope”. I will take a concrete plan of action over hope any day. And if I had to choose between hope and fear as a motivator for planning, I will take the side of fear. I know too many people who are relying on the “hope” that some bright teenager beavering away somewhere in the world will eventually produce the outlier invention that will miraculously save us all. Monbiot is one of them.

    • I think Joe offers a lot of plausible possibilities for disaster here, but perhaps the point is more about the initial assumptions we make before considering how to plan for the future. I find it hard to stomach planning on the basis of writing off a significant proportion of the human species before they’re even dead, even if those deaths are frighteningly plausible.

      I didn’t make much of Monbiot’s political points earlier, perhaps because I rather liked a lot of them, and so couldn’t indulge my critical side. Participatory democracy seems to overlap rather closely with civic republicanism in several respects, and would no doubt be viewed with favour by many on this blog. I think Monbiot’s comments on this are quite insightful, especially on trust and motivation.

      But this is also where I find Monbiot contradictory. Clem contrasts ‘a few smart folks with a big idea vs millions of people with tens of thousands of little ideas…’, and the latter option must surely be the foundational point of a bottom-up participatory democracy, and it’s therefore completely unclear why Monbiot puts such faith in technological silver bullets, rather than the ‘humble improvements’ that I think Clem also highlights nicely. There’s nothing wrong with electric food as one of many options that might work for some places in certain circumstances.

      Perhaps Monbiot reveals something in his points on narrative, which I must admit I found reductive and rather banal. His ‘restoration narrative’ in particular just seemed to be a poetic way of describing political success – the triumph of a new broom expressed in terms of its achievement of a Gramscian hegemony – in that sense it’s not surprising that he found it in every political success story he could think of. I also think the importance of story as a driver of the imagination is about more than just telling your version of how you hope the future will pan out with a few Tolkienesque turns of phrase thrown in for good measure. The Dark Mountain people seemed to me to have a better grasp of the importance of narrative, though I haven’t checked to see what they’ve been up to more recently.

      A transition to participatory democracy might initially fit into Monbiot’s narrative, but I’m not sure he has thought through the implications of this. Once democracy becomes linked entangled with the lives of smaller scale communities, each with their own priorities and concerns, any sense of narrative will fragment and splinter into a thousand and one stories. Despite his references to ‘the people’, I have a feeling he leans towards the ‘Lord of the Rings’ version of his narrative, in which one person changes the world. As a dormant member of the Green Party with a real interest in what a Labour government might do here, I can sympathise with his political perspective, and with the idea that ‘national level’ political community might be a powerful engine of change. But ultimately the kinds of political community that most of us on this blog are invested in are of the bottom-up variety, and when everyone’s a hero, it’s a lot harder to see the world in terms of grand paradigm shifts, or to lay such emphasis on the actions of one plucky band’s journey across Mordor to find the secret of electric food.

      I do respect many of Monbiot’s efforts, but find it so very frustrating that he does not add his considerable voice to the support of a small farm future, especially when many of his goals seem to be in sympathy with those expressed by people on this blog.

      • I find it hard to stomach planning on the basis of writing off a significant proportion of the human species before they’re even dead, even if those deaths are frighteningly plausible.

        In addition to being extremely distasteful, it’s infuriating. But those emotions have to be put aside to allow a more clear-eyed look at what the future may bring and allow one to plan accordingly.

        I know that suffering comes from attachment, even attachment to the act of planning for the future, but I also see such planning as being much the same as “chop wood, carry water”, an ever recurring simple chore that should be done as intently as possible. If you’re going to chop wood well, you have to see the wood. If you’re going to plan well, you can’t avert your gaze from what is likely to happen, distasteful as it may be.

        Once the chores are done, it’s easier to relax and enjoy life, come what may.

      • Yeah, I was about to note that Monbiot’s chosen “one narrative to rule them all” is so last century and painfully Euro-centric, but I’ll settle for your “reductive and rather banal.”
        Like everyone else, I don’t particularly want to be mean, but then narrative is serious stuff, and one ought to push for higher standards.

  14. Joe observes:
    “…the little ideas are more subject to the influence of averaging. If half of those little ideas are slightly good and the other half slightly bad, not much change will happen. I think that the evidence of the last half century is that nothing significant will happen from grass roots activism on behalf of little ideas.

    The wall came down in Berlin. An African-American male was elected President of the U.S. Apartheid ended in South Africa. Civil rights movement in the U.S. Ebola and HIV haven’t ended the human race. Tiananmen square. Gandhi.

    As for the influence of averaging on the little ideas – I think we (the collective ‘all of us’ we) deserve a bit more credit. I agree that there will be a distribution of value to all the ideas. Perhaps along a normal curve. But the better ideas get repeated and the worse ideas get dropped. I observe someone making a mistake and I decide to not repeat that one… but when I see a clever idea I make it a point to remember it, learn from it. Evolution works in a similar way.

    Now the clever observer will wonder why we have any troubles at all then. If over ten thousand years of little ideas being kept at the expense of the dumber ideas… why do we find ourselves anticipating Armageddon? The evil children get to keep their “better” ideas as well. The Red Queen hypothesis drops in here. The arms race of good ideas has to do battle with the opposition. [perhaps a Lord of the Rings narrative might help after all. Is it too late to wish to be Elvin?? I hope not 🙂 ]

  15. Thank you everyone for your erudite and thought-provoking debates while I was away. I feel like I’ve come far too late to the party to steam in with further comments of my own, so maybe I’ll just lay down a couple of markers for things I’d like to write some more about in the future arising out of this – first, something about the ‘enchantment’ of the relationship between people and land, and second something about the implications of state military power for future agrarian societies. I’m sort of tempted to write also on the technofix/back-to-the-land conundrum in the light of the Monbiot interview linked by Andrew (I’ve not yet listened to it), though I feel perhaps I’ve already done that one to death over the years on this site.

    I was in Munich last week, talking at the colloquium of the university’s Rachel Carson Center and then feeding in to a multidisciplinary postgraduate student seminar on environmental studies. It was a really interesting if fairly brief trip – I’ll probably try to write a post or two with some reflections on it. In answer to Joshua’s questions, I feel like I’ve been so long out of academia that I probably shouldn’t try to offer any observations or advice – except maybe that for a PhD I think the supervisor is key, so I’d recommend finding somebody whose work you admire and who you think you could get along with personally OK…all other considerations are probably less important…

  16. Considering Monbiot’s recent run-in with cancer, his faith in science as life-saver nonpareil can only have been fortified.

    When you identify suffering like he does – the natural world from our 1,000 cuts – a comforting response is to somehow transcend it, eliminate the problem. As animals I guess we only really do that when we die. In the meantime, seriously transforming our relationship with our home appears to be the order of the day.

    Hats off to Steve L’s sleuthing (world’s best cyber librarian?), and on the basis of his findings I doubt that this new Finnish foodstuff will Quorner the market, or alleviate hunger (like Quorn does), or be somehow better than ye olde magic seed and soil combo. Although – desperate times and all that – part of me hopes I’ll be proved wrong.

  17. I appreciate that Michelle spoke of enchantment and gratitude, and Clem said we are lucky, and Andrew wrote:
    “…perhaps the point is more about the initial assumptions we make before considering how to plan for the future.”

    Yes, and along those lines, the following assumption or premise [provided by Joe] seems to be an enchantment-killer (even if it’s true):
    “…the predicament we are in will be resolved by the deaths of billions…”

    I think that could easily be a distracting proxy for a less-considered variant:
    “…the predicament facing me as a human being will be resolved by my death…”

    This latter variant, to me, is a better premise or focus, which gets to the heart of the matter, through which we can come out more readily experiencing gratitude and enchantment. (And the ability to sleep at night.)

    The chores are never really done, and security is never really attained. Death is coming. In the meantime, instead of dying “a thousand times”, I think we can come to terms with our own mortality and, with less fears, allow ourselves to become enchanted (or re-enchanted).

    • Yes, Yes this!

      And what is capitalism? (I dare anyone to deny that capitalism is the main driver of environmental destruction these days)

      How is capitalism different from life insurance? How is capitalism (or any other acquisition religion) not driven primarily by fear of death?

      The enchantment comes from believing that we are part of the living world, and acting that way.
      Exactly the opposite of a technofix, and really hard to do if you are living in a big city.

    • Well said.

      A man certainly should come to terms with his own mortality, the sooner the better, and know that there is never any absolute certainty against mortality, which may happen at any moment.

      But part of his “coming to terms” is to persevere, to continue to act to support the lives of as many as possible, including himself and his family, but particularly that part of his family whose existence was made possible by his own volition, his children. If there is no responsibility for that, then there is no responsibility for anything.

      The prospect of the “death of billions” is not a distraction from one’s own mortal predicament, it reinforces it. How could it not? And since courage is not the absence of fear, but the will to act in spite of it, a courageous person will plan as best he can to exercise his responsibilities to the lives of those he holds dear, even against what he sees as enormous odds against success. Why should he not? What “chore” could possibly have a higher priority?

      It is certainly possible to be enchanted by life, even knowing how ephemeral it is, maybe even because it is so fleeting, and feel gratitude for every added day, not only because life is grand, but because every added day has allowed one the good fortune to proceed a little further down a well considered and responsibly chosen path. What could be more enchanting, produce more gratitude and allow more sound sleep than that?

      • Also well said.
        I recently enjoyed the realisation Gabe Brown made – as a farmer he realised he shouldn’t be facing each day planning what to kill on his farm (pests, moulds, etc) but instead work to enable more life on the place. Life is beautiful! Any way, back to the chores: fetch son, carry daughter:)

        • You could also be so lucky as to live in one of the places on Earth where the indigenous host culture has, with gentle determination, persisted in holding the door open to the realm of enchantment, despite the best efforts of Western Civ towards their utter destruction.

      • You could also be so lucky as to live in one of the places on Earth where the indigenous host culture has, with gentle determination, persisted in holding the door open to the realm of enchantment, despite the best efforts of Western Civ towards their utter destruction.

        • And the least ‘developed’ host culture, the better?
          But to wander, settle, resettle and sometimes play host – isn’t that what people have always done? Tribes in flux.
          Where I live, in Hungary, local historians acknowledge they’re from a line who wandered in, from where exactly is uncertain, to what is today called Hungary.

          The recent past here has a lot to teach about low-impact ways of life, as it still does in many places. There’s much of interest in village folk museums. But the gentle, and not so gentle determination generally, is towards getting on in life with all the enchanting mod cons, not towards preserving older, simpler, I think wiser ways, and this despite an almost overbearing Hungarian pride in what went before.

          I’m not entirely sure Western civilisation has an agenda to utterly destroy the kind of peasantry that enchants some of us, even though it does. Most people I know embrace capitalism despite themselves. Among those Hungarians who still remember life with earthen floors and without mains water and electricity, and who are now pretty much worn out, there’s no romance for the work that was involved, even when it’s obvious to some of them that, today, “we’ve developed too far”. The camaraderie lost is what makes the hearts swell. Do we deserve any better if there’s seldom agreement on what better means?

          • Hi Simon,
            Hungary is a fascinating place, I have never been there but as a pastoralist II have big respect for Hungarian horse culture! Also you guys have some amazing dog breeds.
            I probably should have been less cryptic but both Joe and I live in Hawaii where the native culture has so very much to teach us all about living with deep respect and love (aloha) for the natural world. As do so many indigenous people around the world. It is not so much a question of development or not, but of what is allowed to live, as you say, inspired by Gabe Brown.
            As for Liebreich, where to start with that? Yes, irreconcilable differences.

        • Yes, Michelle, I am very lucky indeed.

          As a mainland haole, I would also be lucky to escape with my hide intact if I presumed to assess the history of the relationship between indigenous peoples and European colonizers here in Hawaii (or anywhere really). Sometimes only expressions of sympathy and sorrow are appropriate. Discussion of this subject is one of them.

          • Aloha twice!
            I wasn’t sure Michelle if you’d replied to me or not, I dip in and out… yes, the Hungarian horse culture, the dog breeds (the Mudi is my favourite though the Vizsla is a beautiful dog too). There’s much to love; do drop by if ever life takes you this way.

      • The prospect of “the death of billions” can be a fear-invoking distraction from living more fully in the present. Telling a child to “watch out for cougars” can be a fear-invoking distraction away from an otherwise enchanting walk in the forest. Something to be aware of, surely, but not to dwell upon. Coming to terms with the possibility of encountering a cougar, and knowing what to do if it occurs, and accepting that it could kill me (like implicitly acknowledging that a car could jump the curb and kill me as I walk down a sidewalk) seems more conducive to “enchantment”.

        I think that someone who has come to terms with their own mortality, and not just intellectually and logically, but in a heartfelt (even heartbreaking) way, can then proceed with a greater appreciation for life, all life. The focus on self-preservation can soften. The circle of responsibility can expand beyond oneself and one’s family, affecting what we think about, and the decisions we make.

        Otherwise, environmental destruction could be somehow be justified as being responsible to family (at the expense of responsibility to the wider ecosystem). Of course, our culture can and does encourage it. (Gas-hogging SUV’s are chosen because they are seen as safer for one’s family…)

        • All true, but I foresee a time in the not too distant future when the circle of possibility, and therefore the circle of responsibility, will contract rapidly to a size far smaller than most moderns can even imagine. Is it irresponsible to anticipate that contraction as a means of preparing for it?

          Perhaps a little, but I think we are too far down a long road of environmental destruction to put much effort into reversing course. The destination toward which that road leads is almost upon us, with the vehicle accelerating ever faster. So I say, “Forget about the brake, this is the time to bail out before the crash and hope against hope for a softer landing”.

          • And so we’ve come back to Andrew’s topic of “initial assumptions we make before considering how to plan for the future”.

            I think there’s something to be said about staying “on board” to do what one can to try to reduce the destruction, since there’s a lot more at stake than saving one’s own skin (and kin). The decision to stay on board, vs bailing out, could possibly be linked to enchantment and mortality issues.

  18. Thanks for the additional ‘enchantment’ debate, which I’ll ponder. Also, I forgot to respond to Rob Davies’s comment at the very top regarding Michael Liebreich’s critique of degrowth. Tim Jackson wrote this response, which I found persuasive:

    The argument has rumbled on on Twitter, for example with Giorgos Kallis taking on his Liebreich-supporting antagonists.

    I’ve already wasted too much of my life engaging with ecomodernist type arguments. Evidence and scientific precision do matter, but beneath all the angry dismissals of scientific illiteracy it strikes me that really it’s incommensurable value differences that are a stake. But I’d be interested in people’s views.

    • You’re probably right…I guess the value difference inheres in the degrees of commitment to the modernity-as-improvement narrative. Thanks for the do the math link…I read it a while back but I should go back to it.

  19. Purely academic, but isn’t it an assumption to think you can ever be not on board? Even death isn’t a bail out, the body still having a miniscule effect as ash or food for the soil. I’m all for a small farm future as a general drift, but to live life to a finely executed plan… I see no enchanment in that.

    • Not just in death either… your point about one’s physical remains is cogent, but consider too one’s legacy. If you’ve reproduced then your offspring remain (usually), and if you’ve not reproduced you still leave the legacy of your actions; fingerprints if you will. Your care and stewardship of resources passes to the future just as pillage and ruin remain in your wake (if you’re guilty). One’s inventions and insights add to the human toolbox and survive them.

      As a young man I was cautioned by a Grandmother – be careful what you say, words can be hurtful. Words can be helpful as well, but in both cases they can be quite powerful and as they are remembered by those who hear them they too may survive us.

      It may be a bit more than academic to assume one can ever not be present, or not be a part of the world. Our choice, really, is whether our presence is for a good purpose or not.

      • Nicely put, Clem.
        “Least said, soonest mended” was a favourite of Grandfather’s, usually to keep things sweet on the domestic front.

        I never wish to labour a point any more than I already do, so didn’t stray into the territory of legacy and its tangibles and intangibles, but your point remains. If anyone can add to the human toolbox, perhaps that’s a good thing (one hopes), perhaps not. I’m not sure what the phobia of unintended consequences is called, but I think I’ve got it, perhaps because the collective human fingerprint seems to be a terrifying balls up as things stand. Hence I find any thoughts of personal legacy to be too egocentric to take on, almost distasteful, though that’s not to say I won’t get round to it.

  20. So I’m at a agricultural conference and there was a keynote futurist (ex-Navy intelligence) whose talk was all about how change is accelerating and we will all need to keep up – AI, blockchain, big data, etc. – or perish. (He mentioned an interesting nano-technology called grapheon.) I couldn’t walk away without asking him why in the whole 1.5 hour talk the words climate change did not once escape his lips. Was it because he thought he would lose his audience? He said that he was mostly a techno-optimist because you can’t change people.

    • Might he have been referring to graphene nanotechnology? This stuff is pretty interesting. [if curious, have a look at: ]

      Did he really say keep up or perish? That sounds a bit over the top (Navy speak?). Keep up or go to the back of the line – which is where you end up if you don’t keep up.

      In this sort of discussion – where we lay increasing technological capability beside increasing population size and ponder resource use against ecosystem service provision, the enormity of the system’s complexity gets ever larger. And to imagine we even have a clue how complex the whole system is is a bit hubristic. That said, there is a trend for our human population to be plateauing and possibly shrinking in the future – there is also some pressure on potential new technologies in some realms where we are sneaking up on physical limits. Transistors will only get so small.

      As for changing people – he has a point, up to a point. So long as there is food on the shelf and access to the shelf… The best people to work with for change are still learning to read and write. And it is their future that matters most. Helping them ‘keep up’ is most important.

      • It is astonishing to me that he was pushing a certain kind of culture on an already elite group of farmers (the ‘keep up’ culture), and yet is saying that people i.e. human culture cannot change. The logical inconsistency/ideological blindness is breathtaking to me, even if it is quite normal.
        The best people that you speak of probably have a more healthy philosophical relationship to nature than we do and hopefully we will not (metaphorically, if not literally) beat that out of them in the process of ‘educating’ them into modernity. Because we desperately need that different point of view.

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