Of chancers and last-chancers

Time for me to arise from my book-editing duties and offer belated new year wishes from Small Farm Future. Already, it’s been a year of reversals. The year when the USA finally stopped just chasing after rogue states and actually became one. The year when the UK decided its best option for economic renewal was to ape Singapore – forgetting not only that Singapore achieved economic renewal by aping Britain, but also unfortunately that Singapore aping Britain has a brighter look about it than Britain aping Singapore aping Britain. It’s also the year when the British police classified Extinction Rebellion as an extremist organization and urged state employees to exercise vigilance in the face of people “speaking in strong or emotive terms about environmental issues like climate change”. Truly, the lunatics are running the asylum.

Another reversal, though perhaps not so unexpected, is that it’s the year in which the celebrated campaigner and journalist George Monbiot seems to have finally gone full ecomodernist, embracing the case for humanity to abandon farming and embrace lab-grown, ‘farm-free’ food.

I posted on this a while back in response to an early shot across the bows from George about the direction he was travelling. The discussion under that post was one of the most erudite, informed and wide-ranging ones there’s ever been on my site, most likely because I played little part in it. So I don’t plan to cover the same ground. As I’ve often said about George in the past, since he’s just about the only radical left-green voice widely heard in the British media, I try not to get too infuriated when he takes positions with which I disagree. But jeepers, it’s getting harder. This post is probably my last throw of that particular dice.

I’ll skip the technicalities of George’s surely unproven case that farm-free food stacks up on energetic or health grounds, something that prompted a fascinating discussion under my previous post. I’ll skip too making the case for the ‘extensive farming’ that George casually dismisses as being worse than intensive farming on the basis of a paper from the ur-ecomodernists of the Breakthrough Institute, who only a few years ago he was criticizing for their criticisms of extensive farming. Though I must say in passing that it’s not a great look to found an argument for junking the entire historic basis of human provisioning on the authority of a hardly disinterested paper which draws its data from another paper which draws its data from a handful of LCAs of current practices with only a couple of data points seemingly aligning with the anti-extensive view.

The more troubling issue for me is the implicit convergence of George’s position towards forms of what some have bluntly labelled ecofascism. Again, he was vigorously and rightly contesting such views only recently when Steven Pinker mischaracterized the environmental movement for being “laced with misanthropy”, indulging in “ghoulish fantasies of a depopulated planet” and “Nazi-like comparisons of human beings to vermin”. There are too many issues to unpick here. I guess right now I just want to say two things. First, historically, getting people out of farming has rarely ended well for the ex-farmers, and there are more farmers in the world than any other single job. And second, making people mere spectators of the natural world is unlikely to do either people or the natural world a long-term favour. George’s plan for sparing nature is self-defeating.

But what I really want to explore is why George has ended up where he has, and to do that I’d like to offer the following nature spotters’ guide to the ecomodernists, which my recent research has established come in four distinct sub-species.

The Old Timers: long ago, in more innocent days, talking up the capacity to find market and high-tech solutions to emerging environmental problems was no doubt an alternative view to the countercultural zeal of Schumacher et al that was worth making. So let us bear no grudges against the likes of Julian Simon or Wilfred Beckerman. But, guys, what a monster you spawned…

The Rogue Males: Sometimes people get on a train of thought that takes them way beyond their anticipated destination. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s good to stay fresh and skeptically enquiring. But it’s also easy to succumb to your own sales patter or hero narrative. This is a particular danger for smart, charismatic males as they age. Take a bow, Stewart Brand.

The Chancers: the bread-and-butter ecomodernists of today are polemicists for capitalism-as-usual and high-tech solutionism who increasingly clearly are flogging a dead horse. They often get accused of being industry shills, a matter on which I couldn’t comment. Maybe it’s more likely that they’re shilling for their own industry, which is writing benedictory books about how everything will be fine and we just all need to carry on doing what we’re doing. Their work is occasionally illuminating but one-sided to the point of dishonesty, as is usually revealed by the fatuous insults they direct at their critics: Marxist, Luddite, primitivist, romantic etc. In my experience, it can be scary when faced with a herd of such chancers braying these words at you – but in truth they’re flighty beasts who can easily be dispatched by shouting “absolute decoupling” very loudly.

The Last-Chancers: the gentlest members of the ecomodernist bestiary, these are people who have looked long and hard at the future to which we’re hurtling and got very, very scared. They’ve spent a lot of time trying to warn us about this wolf at our door, only to find that not only do we treat their prophecies with indifference but we’ve actually welcomed the wolf in and installed him in the White House and No.10. Understandably, they’ve now given up on prophecies and politics and are desperately clutching at whatever darned thing they think might just conceivably save us in the last chance saloon we now inhabit – nuclear power, lab-grown eco-gloop or whatever.

My theory is that George has become a last-chancer, perhaps with a dash of rogue male thrown in. I sympathize, but I don’t think it’ll work. It certainly won’t work without a detailed plan of how you transcend the moment of ecomodernist salvation and institute a steadier state ecological economy in its aftermath, which the last-chancers don’t seem to do – perhaps because it would have the self-undermining result of drawing them back into politics.

So, however improbable, it seems to me that the only things that will save us are two of the oldest human trades: farming and politics. I plan to keep nailing my colours to those masts.

But I do have a Plan B if George’s vision succeeds. In that eventuality, I’m going to slip the fence of his urban dystopia with my sheep, find a pleasant grassy spot somewhere, and make my living as a mammal and a farmer, surrounded by other wild creatures.

Meanwhile, at some point soon I might have to withdraw my props for George and attach them to someone like Vaclav Smil – an energy analyst who seems to be travelling in the opposite direction, from fossil fueled eco-scepticism to a more somber take on humanity’s future, including our invariably misplaced enthusiasm for sunrise technologies to save us from bad politics and bad culture.

65 thoughts on “Of chancers and last-chancers

  1. I agree that George has become a Last-Chancer, desperately embracing nuclear power and GMOs, as if the end justifies the means, and the “unnatural” can save “nature”. (In his article, George doesn’t mention that the bacterial base for the synthetic food he touts is genetically modified.)

    “Solein is made by genetically engineered bacteria. That certainly falls under the umbrella of new production processes, but the EU is notoriously cautious of GMO’s, so they might be hesitant to approve solein. At the very least, hoping for a less than two-year turnaround for regulatory approval is… optimistic.”

  2. Hope this doesn’t come across the wrong way but what is the desired function of your first paragraph? I used to absolutely love this blog, and all the detail, as well as the opinion, but paragraphs like this first one make me feel you’d rather I didn’t read you any more. Hopefully I’m alone in this but I thought I’d mention it.

  3. Hello Chris
    I used to read George regularly but have given up in the last year or so . I notice much what you have said, and he is zealous with it. He is right about the sheep wreck of the UK up lands, but they used to have a much more diverse culture/agriculture which could be revived, but George is batting for its final destruction.

    A question, how much money does it take to set an ersatz meat factory, and how much money does it take to raise a few chickens or rabbits at home, or a few sheep, pig and a heifer on a handful of acres. George you are shilling for the corporations, providing a profits solution for the rich, not food for ordinary people. PS animals are self reproducing, they don’t need fossil fuels to rebuild the factory every twenty years, the energy to do that is getting more expensive and harder to get every year i.e. ersatz meat is not a solution, its a profit stream looking for a rigged market.

    Sorry for the rant. Philip

  4. Good points from Steve & Philip – thanks.

    Chris, thanks for the feedback. Well, the function of the first para I guess is just to tip my hat to new news concerning other topics that I’ve discussed in other posts after quite a long layoff from blogging. Not quite sure why it makes you feel I don’t want you to read any more, but if other people feel the same way let me know and I’ll try to cut to the chase more in future. I’d certainly like people to read and engage with my posts. Though I’d be a little sorry to feel I have to censor my occasional indulgence in a bit of inane chatter…

    • The first paragraph seemed simply a playful round-up to me, and the link to the XR story was eye-opening – I’ve sent it along to multiple friends. So please, no need to change a thing, especially as a result of vague and ill-defined criticism.

  5. But I do have a Plan B if George’s vision succeeds. In that eventuality, I’m going to slip the fence of his urban dystopia with my sheep, find a pleasant grassy spot somewhere, and make my living as a mammal and a farmer

    … and a taxonomist. It is important work after all. Linnaeus and his brood have helped quite a bit. And your four subspecies make for a fair start. But once off on that quest the road may quickly thicken with the muddy mess of ‘off types’, mutants, adaptations, further sub-speciation, and… shudder… evolution.

    Sulking off into the wilderness, taking your ball and going home, could serve. I know I’ve considered it more than once. But how does it help overall? I suppose it would allow for a respite, some time for considering other alternate plans. Many of us are more creative following a holiday.

    But that’s enough poking at Plan B… what of the Plan A merits? Vaclav Smil is quite the clever one. And, at least for moment, he’s not living under the smelly umbrellas of either 1600 Pennsylvania, or #10 Downing. That’s helpful.

    If I might, let me offer another aging white male scientist. Stuart Kauffman. He has a text out called Humanity in a Creative Universe. – which I’ve only just begun, but find it quite compelling thus far.

    • Clem, to take your comments on my Plan B maybe more seriously than you intended, what I’m driving at here is the authoritarianism implicit in much ecomodernist futurism – a world where you’re obligated to live in a city powered by nuclear energy, eat eco-gloop, earn wages in the capitalist economy and keep well out of the wilderness except on carefully-curated spectating safaris for fear of disturbing wild creatures. I’d want to rebel against such a world – hopefully alongside others. Please just give us each our 1.6 global acres of land and let us build a better life than that…

      • I think I get that… indeed if there were to somehow be such an ecomodernist turn of fate then I would happily join those making up the “alongside others”. A couple things pull me back from such a vision… (I may have hinted too little seriousness in consideration of Plan B, but I’ll still quibble).

        The techno-future you’ve described may well ensconce the dreams of some (Brand perhaps), but I can’t imagine it being acceptable for a sufficiently large polity that it could win the day in enough of the worlds seats of power. Cities can be cute, but even Brand lives on a boat (so there’s an acre and a half for someone else 🙂 ).

        We’ve scratched our collective noggins over how we might settle on the small parcels and continue in a peaceful mode, free from the miscreants who might take what isn’t theirs. What happens when the children take ill, or when an accident threatens one’s health? Our forebears did indeed manage all those threats, but is this something we willingly resurrect?

        But those concerns aside – let me turn our gaze to a point you’ve also made here concerning politics. When checking out George’s article you link to above I passed through to the Nature Sustainability piece he links (Balmford et al ’18) which is fine of itself, but lots of things we’ve already spent time on here. But I went next to see who else has cited Balmford and came on this:


        I find this interesting – political suggestions/solutions. Maybe worth a peek?

  6. Chris (and others) – firstly thank you for making this one of the havens of clear thinking and polite, erudite discussion on the internet.

    I don’t think I have ever posted before but Monbiot’s recent altercation with this eco-gloop has forced the boat out. Are any of you aware of serious maths/ research into the energetic basis required for the techno-utopia ecomodernists look forward too? In other words, the actual total energy available for humans to use on earth (incl and excl fossil fuels), the total energy required to maintain the internet (at current and ‘projected’ levels of use) – and similar salient figures?

    It seems to me that if sufficient energy is there, digital tech and AI trends are likely to continue, at least for a proportion of earth’s population. But it seems from what I have seen that this is a near impossibility for all of the world’s population (just as it is now) – having some hard data though would shore up those assumptions massively

    • The problem with sufficient energy is the asumption that everything will be electric yet 80% of energy used is for transport , we have no batteries with the energy density of diesel , how many nukes or windmills will it take to replace the UK and US truck fleet alone , the ecotechnoutopia is a myth .
      And just as a side Chris 40 year old non high tech , zero tech tractors here in the USA are fetching more at auction than 10 year old , you can fix them , 15 year olds with computer failure are being canibalised then sold for scrap ,technology has run its course its too dificult , costly and unreliable to keep going .
      Canary in the coalmine ?

  7. The answers to your energy questions are available (check out Smil’s Energy in World History, Cottrell’s Energy and Society or even Fridley and Heinberg’s Our Renewable Future), but the details are less important than the overall picture. For a high tech product, like fermented protein powder, to be produced, distributed and consumed by large numbers of people requires that a high technology civilization already exists. Just think of the large stainless fermentation tanks involved in protein powder production. The materials and fabrication of those tanks and the other ancillary equipment needed involves numerous supply chains that can only be maintained with huge amounts of energy throughput and a well organized industrial economy.

    Right now the vast majority of the energy required for running our industrial civilization comes from fossil fuels. To avoid their use with nuclear or renewable energy would require conversion of all primary energy sources to electricity. Unfortunately, doing the conversion would mean replacing almost all of our existing energy structure and building out four or five times as much electrical transmission infrastructure as already exists, all of which would require vast amounts of energy, which would initially come from fossil fuels. Without draconian rationing of fossil energy for uses other than the energy transition, building the new energy world would explode any remaining carbon budget.

    Monbiot is scared of the future, as well he should be and, like Chris suggests, he is grasping at any straw that could prevent the horrific future facing us. If we keep our industrial civilization going, we are headed for a hothouse earth, with no chance of having that civilization surviving. Or we have to give up industrial civilization now in order to avoid ruining the climate, which would result in rapid population reduction, especially in wealthy countries that depend on worldwide industrial supply chains to support their big cities.

    There is really no way out of this predicament for society as a whole. Since nobody seems interested in organizing any realistic public mitigation strategies for the descent, it is left to individual families and small groups to deal with the fallout of the predicament as well as they can.

    • For a high tech product, like fermented protein powder, to be produced, distributed and consumed by large numbers of people requires that a high technology civilization already exists.

      I dunno Joe… do they really require huge stainless steel fermentation tanks? Seems to me there’s been some fairly significant fermentation going on for such a long time (thinking fermented barley products here) – in a quite robust industry even before fossil fuels popped up. Sure, the scale needs to be very significantly increased, but there are very clever engineers for that.

      Conversely, scale for fermentations needn’t be massive – a perusal of the craft beer industry can testify to this. So take on a small scale fermentation system in every small community, bounded by small farms so that some traditional food is still to hand.

  8. I think George is a last chancer – might come a time when we all, in our own ways, will be last chancers.

    Latest issue of The Land arrived today so won’t be joining in the discussion here.

    Happy new year to you all.

  9. Thanks for commenting, Carwyn, and for your high praise – always nice to hear new voices here. And thanks for the replies.

    Regarding Clem’s question about health care in the wilderness, my guess is that overall health globally would improve in a small farm future from the present situation where diseases of excessive poverty and affluence hold sway. But I’d certainly like to take some health care facilities with us into Farmer-land and I don’t see a problem with that – science-based healthcare isn’t the sovereign property of urban-capitalist civilization. I’d concede, though, that a small farm future wouldn’t be able to fund the level of high-tech healthcare we’re accustomed to in the rich countries. I guess you gotta take the rough with the smooth. But we could probably have good palliative care – another low-carbon, labour-intensive industry to match farming. And I think there’d be less terror of death in Farmer-land than in Gloop-land, which would help.

    Thanks for the link Clem. A quick scan suggests an interesting article – though it’s curiously depoliticized. Policy surely isn’t just the “institutionalization of behaviors and practices” but an outcome of power, which is why some views of nature are more influential than others…

    As to tractors, yep we’ll take some old ones into Farmer-land and leave the new ones to the Gloop-landers. They’ll need to melt them down soon enough to keep the factories running…

    • As to tractors, I was flipping through a magazine today in a waiting room, and saw an article where an Old Order Amish fellow answered questions about the Amish. When asked why they don’t use tractors in their fields, he replied that their largest farms have only 150 acres, so they don’t need tractors.

      It seems pretty clear that having less dependencies on complex manufactured goods will result in greater resilience when times get tough.

  10. scale for fermentations needn’t be massive

    The context here is feeding 7.6 billion people, over half of whom live in cities, with fermented protein. The scale needed to replace farmed protein is huge. If we are only talking about feeding small communities, low energy farming is perfectly adequate.

    A better first step would be to outlaw animal protein; that would free up a lot of farm land right away. But after reading Smil’s book on growth, including human growth and maturation, it will be tough to prevent stunting without animal protein.

    Face it: there just aren’t any good options for feeding billions of people without industrial food production of some kind. And so long as industrial practices are used, environmental destruction will continue.

    • Simon Fairlie’s comments in the latest issue of The Land as previously mentioned by Bruce also bear interestingly on this.

    • thing is with animal protien they eat the byproducts we do not eat ,they get very little whole grain , beet pulp, soy bean meal , canola meal , corn gluten meal , they dont get ” the good stuff ” they get the crap unfit for human consumption ,its where the gluten goes that they take out for the gluten intolerant / after the food industry has had the best out of it and its only fit for ruminants stuff that in my younger years was used as fertiliser or dumped in landfill .

  11. Hmm…I thought your first paragraph amusing in a laugh-so-you-donʻt-cry way.
    As for Monbiotʻs argument, I can only hope that his techno-food is all that he hopes for. I would eat eco-gloop bread and processed protein from now until the end of my days (but not the lab-grown meat, sorry, thereʻs something deranged about all that, Iʻd rather just not eat meat) if it would truly help to re-wild this world, but…the trade-off doesnʻt ring true to me.
    More likely itʻll go the other way and techno-food will nurture even more alienation, psychopathy, hierarchy, learned helplessness, and exploitation, as others here have mentioned. But, as part of the solution, why not? Maybe there will be meadows again in Champaign, Illinois.
    What are the institutions that will keep techno-food on track in its role of allowing for the re-wilding the world? What institution will shape and enforce the trade-off? Those are some of the big questions that need to be answered for any kind of food system.

    • “More likely it’ll go the other way…”
      I agree. Institutions are already failing on so many fronts, without any mandates for “re-wilding the world”.

      Monbiot points out that “nowhere on Earth can I see sensible farm policies developing. Governments provide an astonishing £560bn a year in farm subsidies, and almost all of them are perverse and destructive, driving deforestation, pollution and the killing of wildlife.” Yet, later in the same article (linked above by Chris), Monbiot pins his hopes on the same failing institutions:

      “If governments regulate this [farmfree food industry] properly, they could break the hegemony of the massive companies that now control global food commodities. If they don’t, they could reinforce it.”

  12. Technofood, even if it is more efficient use of resources ( which I wonder, once all inputs are toted up) is one more thing to distance and disconnect us from the natural world. A major aspect of poor policy is this idea that nature is “other” and the deep interconnection we have, the reliance we have on it is not essential to our survival.
    I looked at their website, and saw lots of glossy pictures, little data, and appeals to investors. One wonders how animal testing, other ways to confirm its true equivalence to “natural” protein sources might shake out.

    It also is one more step toward trying to exceed the natural limits of the biospere we are a part of. No one seems to want to acknowledge and accept limits. They may well have good intentions, but ( and yes, this can be a touchy subject) anything that encourages greater human population is a step in the wrong direction. I’ll pass.

  13. Definitely time to drop George, I think.

    I was struck by the characterisation of the ecomodernist crusade as a ‘ new vegan religion’ by the Sustainable Food Trust piece linked by Chris. Of course not every vegan should be tarred with the same brush, but one thing that comes over strongly in George’s film Apocalypse Cow (but is ignored in his article) is his veganism.

    One scene has George shoot a deer as part of a controlled culling, and focuses thereafter on his emotional response to what he’s just done, including stroking the corpse. He also agrees to eat the resulting venison burger, as the product of a death made necessary by the deer’s negative effects on upland ecosystems, which he ultimately credits to removal of the animal’s wild predators such as wolves. George states that he would prefer the control of deer populations to occur naturally, at the teeth of wolves, rather than as currently, through the ‘grim reality’ of controlled culling.

    This illustrates for me a kind of paradox in George’s veganism. On the one hand he exhibits an emotional concern for the deer, lamenting its death, but on the other he would prefer a world in which deer are regularly torn apart by wolves rather than shot cleanly and efficiently by humans.

    If veganism is acting as a religion here, then it’s implications for the politics of its adherents are worth thinking about. Religions often imply politics: the one with which I am most familiar, Christianity, often drove a politics formulated around the salvation of the soul. As has been pointed out here many times, ecomodernism chases a complete separation of the human and the natural. Thinking of this in religious terms is, I think, quite terrifying – it seems to me to imply the sacralisation of both nature and humanity, but as opposite polarities that should never intersect, and opens doors to all sorts of assertions about what constitutes the ‘purity’ of each.

    Capitalists, certainly, will happily assimilate a vision of the unnatural human and sell as much gloop as possible off the back of it. But the quasi-religious promotion of a vision of humanity as necessarily and righteously separate from nature is more than irresponsible, it’s actively destructive of any long-term future for humanity on this planet. Are the Last-Chancers desperately grasping for salvation, or are they actually embracing a death cult?

    • again George dies not understand animal feeding they get the crap Left after processing , even going back centuries millers sold bran as animal feed their is little human use for it .
      Animals eat BYPRODUCTS , George would not like a nice bowl of distilers dried grains or soy bean meal for breakfast .

  14. Chris, thanks a lot for quick and really graceful counter to this yet another eco-gloop manifestation. At the moment I do not know anyone in the Anglosphere (I’m not a native speaker) who can combine making a living from the land with this depth of vision mixed with ability to argue in the really constructive way. Please, keep up this work of yours – it’s really needed, especially now, in the light of the most recent news on climate modelling: https://news.yahoo.com/climate-models-suggest-paris-goals-may-reach-042212665.html
    By the way – where is your book finally out? I can’t help waiting to get my hands on it…

  15. TFTFC.

    2-1 in favour of sardonic opening paragraphs to date, so for the moment I guess I’ll continue, judiciously.

    Thanks for your kind remarks Maciej – I suppose I should confess that I’m not making my living entirely from the land at the moment, though I did spend some years working as a full-time grower, which hopefully counts for something. Exactly how I do make a living is a mystery even to me. Maybe that deal I cut at the crossroads with the sulphurous-smelling dude has something to do with it. And then of course there’s the donate button up top…

    On animal feeds, well yeah a lot of it is byproduct but as I understand it a good chunk of arable land is devoted to fodder. Does anyone have a good source of global data on this? I’ve used some FAO publications in the past, but it seems like a bit of a dark art.

    On veganism and alienation from nature, a lot to agree with Steve and Andrew there but perhaps I’ll hold off from further comment because I have a post forthcoming that bears on this theme. OK, not strictly a post so much as an edit from my cutting-room floor. I fear there may be a few of those coming your way on this site this year – but rest assured they’re all strictly quality controlled.

    …and talking of the book, thanks for those publication details Steve. Now we know.

    • I can’t see too far beyond editing the damn text at the moment, but no doubt I’ll be discussing publicity with the publishers soon.

      I’ll set up a mailing list soon to circulate information about talks, reviews etc. Anyone interested, drop me a line via the Contact Form and I’ll include you in it. I promise not to spam you with too many messages.

    • On animal feeds, well yeah a lot of it is byproduct but as I understand it a good chunk of arable land is devoted to fodder. Does anyone have a good source of global data on this? I’ve used some FAO publications in the past, but it seems like a bit of a dark art.

      I’ve no affiliation with the FAO, but given the scale of what they’re trying to accomplish I’ve been satisfied they’re attempts have some merit. The biblical Tower of Babel story comes to mind. You and I both speak English… but we can’t even agree on what to call a zucchini squash. There are acres and hectares, different types of gallons, so on and so forth. Trying to get a global read on agriculture is a monumental task.

      Byproducts (a term to use carefully, BTW) can be used in various ways. If there were no livestock to feed, poor quality food and byproduct could be composted. So another angle to explore is highest value use. And context is going to influence highest value determinations. Culture will influence context. So where swine might be a species capable of consuming unwanted scrap… there are millions who will not consume swine for cultural reasons.

      As long as I’m staking out complications… giving land over to fodder (where we’re assuming we humans won’t be eating said fodder) the fodder itself might be a byproduct if one’s intention is a cover crop or rotation for regeneration of soil quality. Further value proposition.

      Yep, it is complicated. The FAO is far from faultless. But until a different group demonstrates they can do a better job of it, I’m willing to have a peek at FAO results. I just keep in mind its a bit like looking down from 10,000 feet (or 3,000 meters) instead of standing there at ground level.

        • Thanks Steve – an interesting piece.

          Just below the paragraph you’ve quoted is a statement suggesting that as the human demand for animal products surges we might expect a 500 percent increase in demand for eggs. They don’t include a timeline… (as I said above – they’re not faultless) but in the same paragraph they’ve suggested 74 percent increase for meat and 54 percent increase for dairy products in a comparable time wedge. So eggs it is.

          How many ducks, chickens, turkeys, or other egg layers on the Vallis Veg homestead? Planning a five fold increase in the coming years? I’m guessing that eco-goop that George is fond of can be fed to egg layers.

      • just as a side corn gluten acts as a germination inhibitor , its used round here to stop the growth of ” stickers ” aka grass burs .

  16. “I love not man the less, but Nature more” (Lord Byron) it says on Monbiot.com.
    I wonder if George is actually scared or just occasionally acts irrationally owing to loss-aversion (of his/our beloved Nature). Could be both.

  17. I’ve got no beef (sorry) with the FAO, just a sense of bandying figures around that feel like looking down from 10,000ft, as Clem nicely puts it. The third of cropland figure is a case in point, and is the one I’ve used before. Much to agree with in Clem’s thoughts on fodder crops generally.

    If there was a 500% increase in egg production or a 50-70% increase in meat or dairy globally then I might just have to join George and the last chancers, though possibly for different reasons. I can’t see it happening, however. More locally, we have fully five laying hens at Vallis Veg. A 50% increase is possible here, but probably the ceiling.

    Re Simon’s point, yes George has written movingly about nature loss in the past and I understand his feelings, but as I said above I think turning people into spectators of nature is ultimately counterproductive. There’s perhaps also a danger of “I love not man the less, but Nature more” becoming “I love not man the less, but Nature more – well, man a little bit less TBH”.

    • A broad smile passed this one on reasoning what a 50% increase in the Vallis Veg chicken flock would look like. From the maths instilled in me I come up with seven and a half chickens at a “ceiling” saturation. The smile relates to the image of the half chicken… which might perhaps be the origin of boneless chicken wings??

      I’d keep going with thoughts of roosters being worth only half a chicken where eggs are the end product desired, but imagine I should duck any further poultry illusions before some consider me a turkey for having gone down this path in the first place.

      [I suppose a 50% increase in pun apologies is now in order…]

      • Miniature chicken?
        The Malaysian Serama bantam is the smallest breed of chicken in the world, weighing less than 500g. They are only 15-25 centimetres tall and are the result of crossing Japanese bantams with Malaysian bantams.

      • C’mon Clem, farming is all about appropriate approximations!

        But yes, another way to go with this is the issue of roosters, or cocks as they are somewhat indelicately called over here. If the ram is half the flock, then maybe the cock is half the flock?

        In fact, we have a bantam rooster who I didn’t include in my figures. So let’s project a 50% increase to 9 birds, perhaps including a Malaysia Serama so that the bantam’s manhood (cockhood? No, I’d better stop) isn’t further challenged.

  18. I know George Monbiot does/did grow Veg, and he talks about sea fishing from his kayak, but I wonder if loke a lot of townies he’s never .got’ farming.

    While I grew up a city boy, I’ve been chased across farmyards by many an agitated dairy cow so I have an idea of what its all about

  19. Hi Chris –

    Long-time reader, first-time commenter. 😉 And looking forward to the book. My first thought when I saw George’s post going around was that I’d like to see what you made of it.

    Reading your post and the discussion, I thought of a passage early in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, where she describes a class with her third-year General Ecology students. She’s given them a survey that asks them, among other things, to rate their understanding of ‘negative interactions between humans and the environment’ – which they rate highly – and ‘positive interactions between humans and the environment’. Among two hundred students, on a scale of nought to ten, the median answer to the latter question is none. ‘I was stunned,’ she writes. ‘How is it possible that in twenty years of education they cannot think of any beneficial relationships between people and the environment?’ Her answer is as long as the rest of the book, but my crude summary would be: their response fits so closely to their experience, cut off from the living world and dependent on an industrial system that can only approach the living world as resources for commodity production, that they have had no chance to encounter the reality that other relationships are possible and have been essential to human survival in most of the times and places we have lived. My first thought reading George’s piece was, Jesus, the last thing we need is to cut ourselves off even further from involvement with the living world, there’s no way that ends well.

    Meanwhile, I was struck by a passage on Joe Brewer’s Facebook page this week, which led to a discussion in which George’s piece was brought in. Joe is summarising a chapter in the book he’s working on:

    ‘The lesson of this chapter is that humans have only managed to overshoot our population by bringing the natural succession of ecosystems to a halt. This is what agriculture is… the simplification of a landscape that kills undesirable “weeds” so that more humans might be fed. Only when we cultivate a mature spiritual relationship with death can we see that the collapse of human population is how ecological succession will once again commence at the scales needed to restore health to the Earth. This is the dark secret of sustainability. I am no longer afraid to say it out loud – first to myself in the quiet corners of my soul; and now publicly for all who seek to keep humanity from going extinct as this giant bubble bursts in the next few decades.’

    I’m all for cultivating ‘a mature spiritual relationship with death’, but I mistrust the rhetoric of fearlessly speaking ‘the dark secret of sustainability’ (don’t proclaim yourself a fearless truth-teller, say your piece and let others be the judge), and my gut-level reaction is also to mistrust the simplicity of this kind of argument about overshoot, agriculture and population. Equally, I don’t work with the numbers or the soil in the way you do, so I’m cautious of putting too much weight on my gut reaction. Maybe you’ve done this to death in previous debates over population, so if you don’t want to retread the ground I’d understand – but what made it seem relevant here is that in the comments on Joe’s post, Vinay Gupta showed up quoting George’s ‘farm-free food’ piece as the counter to inevitable collapse of human population. Indeed, I think the loop between Joe’s position and Vinay’s is probably the same one that gets George to where he is at – the ‘last-chance’ position you describe well here. So I guess my question is, beyond my own gut-level hunch that both those positions are too simple, can we flesh out the plausibility of another path?

    (And given you are in the middle of working on a book, feel free to pass on attempting to answer that massive question!)

    • Hi Dougauld – fascinating comment, and fascinating question. Right now, I have time only to say yes, I think we can flesh out the plausibility of another path … but an attempt on my part to flesh it out even briefly is going to have to wait a day or two. If anyone else wants to pitch in here in the meantime, that’d be grand… Actually, the next blog post I’m planning bears directly on this … but when I’ll find the time to write it is another mysterious question…

      • Dougauld asked:
        can we flesh out the plausibility of another path?

        I believe the plausibility of another path is certain… so for me the issue is whether ‘we’ consciously flesh one out. By the first half of that I merely mean that if we don’t make a plan, we will still find ourselves on some path, and, like Dougauld I don’t image either of the paths on offer is likely to materialize.

        Further, I’m quite certain there will be path proposers. And likely more than we’ll need. So in a sense I’m suggesting the simplistic answer is – yes, we can flesh out the plausibility of another path.

        But to riff on the original question – is one alternate path sufficient? Is a single path even a good idea?

        If I might be so rude – I’m supposing Dougauld’s real interest is in seeing what an alternate path might look like, and how plausible it might be. And I’m quite interested in that question myself.

        In my little place in time and space I move along my own particular path and try to imagine a future I want to be in and how various choices in front of me might influence getting there. Being closer to my end than my beginning I also consider what my children and grandchildren might like to have in their futures. I doubt I’m unique in this regard. Indeed, if 7 or 8 billion of us are going to be making path choices, there is plenty of raw material for exploration.

        Earlier in the comment thread I tried to suggest the enormity of the FAO attempt to survey our agricultural use of the planet. In order to bring some simplicity one has to go to great heights and ignore much of the surface layer detail. But we all realize the devil’s in the details.

        Are paths even apparent so far above? And if we all follow a particular path, doesn’t it quickly become a freeway, and then eventually a clogged passage?

        I’d suggest we all consciously make our own paths, paying most attention to the world we are closest to, but also giving some thought to how the rest of the planet and our fellow travelers might be allowed to share the space. If eco-goop helps fill a belly here or there I don’t imagine that a bad thing. So long as carrots don’t disappear altogether.

    • The path that would keep more people alive through an overshoot correction would be a deliberate de-urbanization similar to the Down to the Countryside Movement during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Done more slowly and with adequate support from government, it would create the opportunity for millions of city folk to save their lives by becoming agrarian peasants.

      But the structural/political details of such a program are daunting. Private land in rural areas would be confiscated to be divided up into smallholdings. Resources that would normally go to housing construction in cities would be diverted to very small housing structures for the small farms. Industrial production would be diverted to the implements and animal powered machinery needed for the new farmers. Production of meat animals would be converted to production of draft animals of all types. Food would be rationed so that new farmers could be fed while working on setting up a program of soil fertility enhancement required to avoid the use of industrial fertilizers.

      While there are no thermodynamic or material resource impossibilities in a program of deliberate de-urbanization and de-industrialization of agriculture, much of the population left behind in cities would still be vulnerable and would suffer dramatic lifestyle changes in support of a rural population that would effectively abandon cities, and the people left in them, to their doom.

      It would take heroic self-sacrifice from everyone, rural and urban alike, to enact a such a program. Perhaps if parents saw that it was the only way to save their young offspring they could stay behind while their kids were “sent-down” to the farms, but without that kind of clear familial interest and support I doubt that it could ever happen.

      It’s an interesting thought-experiment to think up alternative paths, just like many people do with Green New Deals and Ecomodernist Manifestos and other plans to save the world. None of them will ever happen. The transition through the population bottleneck will be chaotic and probably very violent. I’m attempting to prepare for it, but still very much dread what it to come. Those that live through to the other side will then have to adapt to a rapidly changing climate that would probably obviate every Alternate Path attempted.

      Still, I can’t see any better way to face the future than being a peasant.

    • Dougald, it’s really sad but that is the experience I’ve had chatting to my teenage nephews about the interaction between humans and ‘the environment’ too. The levels of nihilism and cynicism coming from them really troubles me. These are two engaged boys – both very different personalities – but both come to the same conclusion of some sort of grand-level control of essentially a benevolent (or maybe not so) dictator. I’m currently reading Richard Seymour’s The Twittering Machine and it ties in nicely with some of his concerns about the popularity of behaviouralism and the drive towards large corps controlling human behaviour through manipulation utilising large data sets. How tragic that children grow up in the world to think we are nothing but a parasitical stain. Of course not all, and I don’t know whether my anecdote here, or the one you mention represents teenagers as a whole, but my hunch is that it represents a large number, if even a minority. Perhaps the majority haven’t even considered it that fully? I really don’t know.

      Any answer for me has to bring humans back into contact with the soil and nature around us. Further disconnection through any of the ecomodernist means, I think, will only lead us further into trouble, even if they do manage to find some short-term respite, or ‘solution’.

  20. I thought about writing something on Monbiot´s farm-free food, but then I realised I already wrote it one and half year ago….

    “Let’s assume that George is right. We solve that food dilemma with electric food produced out of thin air (which is in essence what he suggests). And we do the same for housing, transport and all other things we humans need. We let nature be by itself as we harm it as soon as we use it and live in it.

    There is where he loses my interest. I think George is talking about de-materialization of the human civilization, and for me that is not an appealing future. As a matter of fact, there is little difference between this vision and the transhuman dreams. I believe there are many material reasons for why this dream will never come through, but my main objection is that it will not have any meaning. In that dream we have not only broken through the material limits for our civilization, we have also, literally, broken out of our skin, we don’t even accept the limits of our own body. Perhaps this is the Buddhist nirvana, but while it will free us from suffering and from all those annoying limits set by the material world, it will also free us from meaning. ”


    • Great site you linked to.

      I checked out the UK and the US in addition to Egypt. The data for the increase in cereal production per hectare since 1960 were similar for all three countries, yet fertilizer use per hectare varied considerably. Egypt is using almost 600 kg per hectare, the UK about 257 kg per hectare and the US was 125 kg per hectare. Now fertilizer use is probably across all crops, not just cereal grains, but it is still interesting to see the variation from country to country.

      It is also important to keep in mind the fact that in 1960, the first year of cereal yield in the charts, most cereals were grown without synthetic fertilizer. Yield increases since then have been partly due to improved crop varieties, but much of the increase comes from added nutrients from fertilizer. Without that fertilizer, yields would collapse.

      • Have to agree – a pretty interesting site. Much of the Ag. data are from the FAO (not a bad thing, but see above… literally – like 10,000 ft)

        Joe’s assertion that “much of the increase comes from added nutrients from fertilizer” is fine on its face but may obscure important facts. Resource use efficiency work (at least in the US and UK) has demonstrated that for corn and wheat nitrogen use efficiency is trending upward.
        A very nice review of the issue is provided by Achim Doberman in 2005: https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1319&context=agronomyfacpub

        And from a plant breeding perspective one can look up Hawkesford and Griffiths, 2019, Current Opinion in Plant Biology – Exploiting the genetic variation in nitrogen use efficiency for cereal crop improvement. (concerning wheat in the UK)
        A .pdf is available for the latter, but the link is ridiculous. Look it up with Google Scholar.

        Joe’s final point then – that without that fertilizer, yields would collapse… well, naturally depends upon what one means by “collapse”… but if we turn to our trusty soybean (and assorted other legumes) we can have our cereal and eat it too.

      • Having farming relatives in the UK they told me that chemical fertilisers were realy taken up during the 2nd world war , they were ordered to get rid of all their animals and grow crops for human consumption by the war ag , they literaly shoveled it off farm trailers they had no real idea how much to use , trial and error untill they figured it out .
        New strains of wheat had not realy been invented then , wheat grew to five feet tall , breeding has brought that down to a foot tall genetics is what increased yealds fertiliser not so much .
        that is their experiance

  21. Pingback: Of chancers and last-chancers : Food First

    • Impacts of soil carbon sequestration on life cycle greenhouse gas emissions in Midwestern USA beef finishing systems
      Stanley P.L., Rowntree J.E., Beede D.K., DeLonge M.S., Hamm M.W.
      (2018) Agricultural Systems, 162 , pp. 249-258.

      • On-farm beef production and emissions data are combined with 4-year soil C analysis.
      • Feedlot production produces lower emissions than adaptive multi-paddock grazing.
      • Adaptive multi-paddock grazing can sequester large amounts of soil C.
      • Emissions from the grazing system were offset completely by soil C sequestration.
      • Soil C sequestration from well-managed grazing may help to mitigate climate change.


      • Thanks very much, Steve. This is quite useful. Also read the NPR piece. I suppose a similar response would pertain to the other study Monbiot cites from Nature Sustainability in favor of intensification: ‘The environmental costs and benefits of high-yield farming’, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-018-0138-5.
        Sadly, even though the authors of this study have made it clear that they were not arguing that organic farming is necessarily low-yielding, and thus their paper shouldn’t be seen as an endorsement of status quo industrial farming, this is exactly how it has been appropriated by chemical industry and other propagandists like the American Council on Science and Health – notorious anti-environmental front group that “defends fracking, BPA, and pesticides” among other noble green causes, funded by a rouge’s gallery of corporate polluters: ‘Conventional Farms Are Better for Environment Than Organic Farms’ (https://www.acsh.org/news/2018/09/22/corporate-farms-are-better-environment-organic-farms-13438).
        The only mild critique of this study I can find is a blurb, basically, from the Soil Association, at the end of this BBC article summarizing it: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-45520399. Have you seen any other more substantive responses to this one?

      • Taking a quick look at that paper (‘The environmental costs and benefits of high-yield farming’), I think the section titled ‘Conclusions, caveats, and knowledge gaps’ provides ample grounds for critiquing any articles that misapply this study’s conclusions.

        Their first conclusion: “Useful data are worryingly limited.”

        They considered only a few sectors and only “a narrow set of externalities—not including important impacts such as soil health or the effects of pesticide exposure on human health.”

        “We were not able to examine complex agricultural systems (such as mixed farming or agroforestry) that might have relatively low externalities.”

        Their third conclusion (out of three): “Pursuing promising high-yield systems is clearly not the same as encouraging business-as-usual industrial agriculture.”

        “Some high-yield practices we did not examine, such as the heavy use of pesticides in much tropical fruit cultivation, are likely to increase externality costs per unit production. Of the high-yield practices we did investigate some, such as applying fossil-fuel-derived ammonium nitrate to UK wheat, impose disproportionately high environmental costs.”

        And their final caveat: “We close by stressing that for high-yield systems to generate any environmental benefits they must be coupled with efforts to reduce rebound effects… Without such linkages, systems that perform well per unit production may nevertheless cause net environmental harm…”

        LInk at this page to download full-text PDF:

      • A more recent study, co-authored by the same Balmford, found that low-yield agriculture practiced on about one-third of the ‘spared land’ resulted in better populations for more species (compared to leaving the spared land as completely ‘natural habitat’.)

        “We discovered that, as in previous studies elsewhere, simple land sparing, with only natural habitats on spared land, markedly out-performed land sharing in its effect on region-wide projected population sizes. However, a novel ‘three-compartment’ land-sparing approach, in which about one-third of spared land is assigned to very low-yield agriculture and the remainder to natural habitats, resulted in least-reduced projected future populations for more species.”

        Land sparing to make space for species dependent on natural habitats and high nature value farmland
        Claire Feniuk, Andrew Balmford and Rhys E. Green
        Published: 28 August 2019

      • There’s intensification and then there’s sustainable intensification. This report from 2019 looks at “sustainable intensification” and compares it to “agroecological and related approaches”.

        Among the benefits of the latter:
        “In contrast, agroecological and related approaches are viewed as contributing substantively to the access and utilization dimensions of FSN [food security and nutrition] and to the third principle of social equity/responsibility. Participation and empowerment are central in these approaches.”

        Selected quotes:

        16. This report describes several innovative approaches to SFSs [sustainable food systems] and clusters them in two main categories: (i) sustainable intensification of production systems and related approaches (including climate-smart agriculture, nutrition-sensitive agriculture and sustainable food value chains) that generally involve incremental transitions towards SFSs; and (ii) agroecological and related approaches (including organic agriculture, agroforestry and permaculture) that some stakeholders consider to be more transformative. While the former category starts from a premise that, to address future challenges, productivity per unit of land needs to increase in a sustainable manner, which is what is meant by sustainable intensification, the latter emphasizes reducing inputs and fostering diversity alongside social and political transformation focused on improving ecological and human health and addressing issues of equity and governance.

        18. Sustainable intensification and related approaches are viewed as contributing most strongly to FSN [food security and nutrition] by improving availability and stability, as well as to the operational principles of resource efficiency and resilience. In contrast, agroecological and related approaches are viewed as contributing substantively to the access and utilization dimensions of FSN and to the third principle of social equity/responsibility. Participation and empowerment are central in these approaches.

        Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that
        enhance food security and nutrition.
        A report by the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition of the Committee on World Food Security, Rome. HLPE. 2019.

    • In this article, someone from the Breakthrough Institute questioned the conclusions of the study I cited above.


      Some other information from this article:

      “About 75% to 80% of grass-fed beef sold in the U.S. is grown abroad, from Australia, New Zealand and parts of South America… Many U.S. customers who want to support local food are likely unaware of the foreign origin of most grass-fed beef. By law, if meat is “processed,” or passes through a USDA-inspected plant (a requirement for all imported beef), it can be labeled as a product of the U.S.”

  22. This study concludes that “cultured meat is not prima facie climatically superior to cattle”.

    Climate Impacts of Cultured Meat and Beef Cattle
    (Lynch and Pierrehumbert, 2019)

    “Cattle systems are associated with the production of all three GHGs above, including significant emissions of CH4, while cultured meat emissions are almost entirely CO2 from energy generation. Under continuous high global consumption, cultured meat results in less warming than cattle initially, but this gap narrows in the long term and in some cases cattle production causes far less warming, as CH4 emissions do not accumulate, unlike CO2… We conclude that cultured meat is not prima facie climatically superior to cattle; its relative impact instead depends on the availability of decarbonized energy generation and the specific production systems that are realized.”


  23. George Monbiot’s article cited “research by the thinktank RethinkX”, and Keith Woodford took a closer look at the RethinkX report:

    ‘The report is beautifully written and provides an impression of strong evidence… I always say back to people to go and look at the report disclaimers, which no-one seems to notice. The disclaimers include the following:
    “Any findings, predictions, inferences, implications, judgments, beliefs, opinions, recommendations, suggestions, and similar matters in this report are statements of opinion by the authors and are not statements of fact. You should treat them as such and come to your own conclusions based upon your own research.”
    And then a little further down:
    “This report includes possible scenarios selected by the authors. The scenarios are not designed to be comprehensive or necessarily representative of all situations. Any scenario or statement in this report is based upon certain assumptions and methodologies chosen by the authors. Other assumptions and/or methodologies may exist that could lead to other results and/or opinions.”
    I also send people to the seldom-read Appendix where it says that…’


  24. Nothing to disagree with here … but wanted to add that “last chancer” sounds a bit mean to me – the more accurate title might be “Counsellor of Despair”

    Yes, Monbiot enjoys controversy (a rather useful trait, if tempered with a thoughtful disposition) and yes, as a journalist he has to keep coming up with new things to say, but he’s said in the past that, in effect, the whole system is basically too big and aggressive to fight with any chance of winning.

    How else to explain how someone who’s normally pretty sharp can cheer an idea which utlimately depends on even more electricity being generated – presumably with a handwave of “lots of nukes”.

  25. Thanks everyone for keeping this thread going, and special thanks to Steve L for his indefatigable sleuthing into research papers, one of the many things that makes this blog worth writing. Also an apology to Dougauld for still not addressing his question (hell, let’s extend the apology to everyone on this blog over the years who’s put more time into their comments than I’ve felt able to give in return).

    My book editing duties are trundling onwards and keeping me from the blog, but hopefully there’s now some light at the end of the tunnel so I’m hoping to jump aboard here again soon.

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