Where the story takes us

Pervasive, multi-faceted crisis and a cultural inability to deal with it: I’ve now said what I want to say in this cycle of posts about Chapters 1 and 2 of my book A Small Farm Future, and I’m ready to move onto Chapter 3. But first let’s take a breather. If there’s anything in the first two chapters you’d like me to further explain or justify, let me know (preferably by commenting at www.smallfarmfuture.org.uk where I’ll be sure to see the comment).

While we’re dawdling here, maybe I’ll say something about stories. On page 54 of my book, I discuss the idea of ‘symbolic goods’, which bears on how human actions arise out of the stories we tell ourselves about the way the world is – or, as Clifford Geertz famously put it, “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun”1. So we’re motivated by stories, and there are different stories we can tell about the same reality. Ultimately, though, factors independent of our stories condition their outcome whether we like it or not, and if we don’t find good ways of incorporating them into the narrative, then eventually the story will crumble.

Chapters 1 and 2 of my book tell a story about how our current modern global civilization has got itself into a mess by disregarding some such factors that complicate its tale of endless self-improvement. In writing them, I drew on a lot of research and evidence that I think make my own story quite robust. Nobody has yet convinced me that the story of these chapters is substantially wrong in its main details (there are some minor points I might now recast), though certainly there are other webs of significance that could be spun, and it’s not impossible I could be convinced that another story is more plausible. Which is why I’m dawdling at this crossroads into Chapter 3, waiting for another storyteller to come along and take me somewhere different…

While I wait, I’d like to mention three, perhaps four, other stories that have come to my attention lately.

The first relates to climate change, and has been spun around a recently published scientific paper suggesting that a stabilization of the Earth’s climate would occur much quicker than previously thought if human-caused greenhouse gas emissions cease2. Not my area of expertise, of course, but my sense of this paper is that it bore quite a lot of other news about the effects of current human emissions which was far from positive. However, the most prominent discussions of it among climate scientists that came to my attention on social media built a story from the climate stabilisation point to ridicule ‘end of civilisation’ doomsters for not keeping up with the science, positioning them alongside climate change deniers for imperilling concerted climate action.

There are two aspects of story-telling that interest me in this. The first is people’s meta-concern with the character of their story as a status claim in its own right, which is ubiquitous in discussions of climate change. My story is optimistic, pragmatic or science-based whereas your story is doomy climate porn or is tantamount to denialism because it lacks hope. No doubt there’s something to be said for addressing the wider effects of our stories on other people, but in my view those concerned about climate change spend too much precious time pointing fingers at other concerned people based on the supposed superior impact of their narrative. Enough. Call things as you see them, take action accordingly, be prepared to discuss and be prepared to be wrong. But don’t waste time plumping the meta-efficacy of your chosen narrative.

The second aspect is that while a few political leaders have stated their commitment to achieving net zero, the fact is we’re not even remotely on a path to achieving it, and new coal mines and fossil power stations are merrily sprouting up around the world. So to take the finding that ‘if we reach net zero, then the climate stabilizes’ as a way to lambast climate pessimism puts a heavier loading on the ‘if’ in that sentence than any real-world trend can bear. There’s a danger here of telling ourselves a nice story, whose protective armour allows us to dismiss other, darker stories when the armour isn’t real.

The second story I want to mention has gradually been taking shape in my mind of late as an identifiable narrative trend. It goes roughly like this: “The old-fashioned practices of industrial agriculture certainly did contribute to many of our contemporary problems, but innovative new forms of skills-intensive and tech-intensive smart agriculture mean that farmers can now feed the world sustainably while removing carbon from the atmosphere and making a lot of money too.” I propose to call this the “smart farming story”. And I don’t believe in it.

There are various entry points into the fallacies of the smart farming story, many of which I’ve covered on this blog over the years. I won’t pursue them here, except to say that if your farming makes you a lot of money then I’m pretty sure it won’t be helping solve our contemporary problems. I’m also pretty sure the money-making won’t last long. I’d propose this alternative: “Don’t worry too much about feeding the world or cutting carbon with your farming. Just try to do what you can to help your area grow as much food and fibre as possible to meet its local needs using whatever techniques you like, provided they use little fossil fuel and make little money”.

The final story or stories is something I was tracking a bit more avidly back in 2016 with the votes in the UK for Brexit and in the US for Donald Trump. In early 2021 both have reached a denouement, though perhaps not an ending, with a whimper in the former case and a bang in the second. The Brexit story involves two versions of neoliberalism, one based inside the EU and the other outside it, the latter mis-sold to the public as a story of nationalist assertion. The touted economic benefits for the people are unsurprisingly failing to materialise, though perhaps some will be happy that our fish are now British. For the rest of us, I’d suggest, the story now has to be about trying to create real popular localism out of the absurdities of Brexit, not a race to the bottom that will benefit only a few.

Regarding Trump, I doubt there’s much I can say that others haven’t already said better. The answer to the problems of our times may not be Biden-Harris, but it most certainly isn’t Trump and … that other guy. In keeping with my overall theme for this post, let me just say that I was struck by how very strange was the web of significance that so many of Trump’s insurrectionists in Washington DC had spun for themselves. People who believed themselves to be a part of a revolution were surprised that they were pepper sprayed by the police, or banned from flying home? What happened was serious, but the story that a lot of the protagonists seemed to have built around themselves was fundamentally unserious, as if they were mere actors in a TV show.

To generalize from this to my wider theme, I see this unseriousness, this TV show mentality, everywhere in our contemporary stories about ourselves – from the way we talk about climate change (it’s bad, but not so bad that it’s really going to change our world, ‘if’ we reach net zero), to the way we talk about smart farming (it’s good, so good that it can save our world and make us loads of money too), and even to the way we try to topple governments (it’s wild, it’s patriotic, and then we can fly home for the weekend).

We need some different stories.


  1. Clifford Geertz. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures, p.5.
  2. Chen Zhou et al. 2021. Greater committed warming after accounting for the pattern effect. Nature Climate Change.

37 thoughts on “Where the story takes us

  1. I’d propose this alternative: “Don’t worry too much about feeding the world or cutting carbon with your farming. Just try to do what you can to help your area grow as much food and fibre as possible to meet its local needs using whatever techniques you like, provided they use little fossil fuel and make little money”.

    I understand the “use little fossil fuel”… but why the imperative to “make little money”?? Perhaps our individual senses of what constitutes a little money is at odds?

    Further, I find it a bit difficult to ponder whom we will turn to if the vast majority of us were to turn to small scale farming while also turning our collective small scale farming interests away from concern for global matters. I suppose the prescription to use little fossil fuel helps… but advising most to go small AND to ignore the dragon at the door at the same time…

    In that case I am in total agreement with the notion that we need a different story.

    • why the imperative to “make little money”?

      Personally, I think it is necessary to support the system as little as possible.

      Conversely, if you “make a LOT of money,” what will you do with it? Spending it furthers the destruction of our habitat! Perhaps just bury it in the back yard, taking it out of circulation, like leaving fossil sunlight in the ground?

      Well, I suggest that making as little as possible subverts the dominant paradigm at least as well as making lots of money, then burying it.

      Yet another good reason to avoid making money is to legally avoid paying taxes. Granted, if you live in a country where you approve of how taxes are spent, things might be different, but being from the US originally, my motivation for not making money was to avoid feeding the beast through my taxes.

      I thought this rationale might be harder to justify in Canada, but with the Federal government buying pipelines at way above their market value, and the Provincial government pouring billions into fracked natural gas, I’d just as soon not make enough money to pay taxes here, too!

      • Spending it furthers the destruction of our habitat!

        I suppose one with little imagination might be tempted by that assertion. But I imagine there might be the tiniest possibility some spending could be used to positive effect.

        Paying someone to plant trees where trees need be planted. Paying someone to fish plastic waste from watercourses. Paying for all the externalities that accrue to those items we deem necessary to purchase (which if properly accounted could sway how we determine exactly what IS necessary).

        Cleaning up and regenerating our habitat might serve us well. Of course it can be argued these insults to our habitat should never have occurred in the first place – but that is polluted water under the bridge. One can also argue that if everyone sticks to the necessary knitting of maintaining the habitat in their own place then all would be well. But again, this hasn’t been a widespread behavior.

        By suggesting that trying to make more than ‘just a little money’ I am not advocating making as much as possible. Conspicuous consumption is not my goal. Having something as a hedge against future difficulty, having the means to help friends and neighbors in need, and yes… when the tax collector knocks, having something to share (and sharing one’s opinion about how the taxes are spent is a duty not to be overlooked).

        • Thank you for taking that quote out-of-context. I’ll remind you that the line immediately before it said:

          if you “make a LOT of money,” what will you do with it?

          … and then we part ways in heated agreement, I hope.

        • I suppose it depends on how you want to make the money, too. Ricardian rent-seeking is not great. Financialised investment strategies are essentially charging rent on money you already have — and opportunities to do so in ways that don’t further degrade the environment are relatively few. You could, of course, sell your labour, but that seems to be a less and less certain route to any stable kind of wealth, and the types of labour that are most necessary for some kind of long-term survival are not particularly well remunerated.

          I am sure that with a little extra money, or even a lot, a great deal of good can be done. I am less sure that this good will always offset the externalities inherent in making the money in the first place.

          (Meanwhile, what money I do have I try to invest in skills and tools that will last and be useful even in the event of considerable economic, climate and political upheaval — and for my trouble, I am accused of “conspicuous consumption”. Sigh.)

          • Ricardian rent-seeking is not great.

            The rentier class has always been a burden on people who have not been able to “get their own.”

            But what is one to do? Even in so-called “socialist” or “communist” countries, monthly payments for living space is the custom.

            We try to offer alternatives in our equity-based co-op. But people have taken unfair advantage! We had one family using a house. We charged them fair-market rent, but kept only the official rate of inflation (about 2%) on the value of the dwelling, and put the rest into co-op shares for them. Then they left, and immediately demanded redemption of those shares! They expected to be able to live in a 1,500 sqft, five-bedroom house for two years for $400 a month, when the market rate was over $1,600!

            As much as I might wish it were otherwise, you either have equity, or you have rent. Do you see other alternatives?

            I am less sure that [doing good with extra money] will always offset the externalities inherent in making the money in the first place.

            I tend to agree. Although I optimized the return on money I had while I was in pursuit of it, I totally divested when we “bought the farm,” feeling that was a more honest place for money than on some spinning disks on a bank’s computer.

            I try to invest in skills and tools that will last and be useful [and] am accused of “conspicuous consumption”.

            Ha! That new shovel you bought is “conspicuous,” but a trip to Greece to lay on a beach would not be. 🙂

            My guilty pleasure is spare parts. Most people would call them “junk,” but my goal is to make our artifacts last as long as possible.

          • Kathryn wrote “Financialised investment strategies are essentially charging rent on money you already have”

            Yes, “financial returns” are sought even in the so-called “socially responsible investments” (SRI) as part of a story where this practice is normal and expected, despite other stories, such as in the Qur’an and the Bible (Psalm 15:1-5, for example) which prohibit or warn against the the charging of interest (usury).

            I’m somewhat cynical about SRI schemes which essentially extract wealth from poor communities and countries (wealth like labour and natural resources) instead of having the fruits of the local labour and resource extraction stay within the local communities.

            It’s obvious that charging interest, or getting a return on investment, generally takes back more (from an individual borrower, business, or community) than was initially given. A better twist on this story is to have any loans coming from a local lender, with any extracted wealth going back into the local community.

    • Thanks to Clem (or maybe to me ??) for opening up this line of debate. As I see it, again a tricky set of trade-offs that we get to more centrally in Part III of the book so I guess I’ll mostly hold fire until then. The larger question is how people can accumulate what they need in order to live tolerably well and hand down this capacity down to the next generation without either (a) concentrating resources in too few hands at the expense of others, or (b) running down the capacity of the Earth to bestow a tolerable life on future generations of people (and other organisms).

      • We can share the credit (or the blame)… and I can hardly wait for this to come back around in the discussion of Part III.

        While we wait I wish to offer a corollary of sorts… for the goal of making little money. Farmer A holds a piece land that in most years is just sufficient for his and his family’s needs. A bountiful year puts his larder in fine stead, and so with enough for a couple seasons he lets his fields rest – he is of a mind to “make little money”.

        A less fortunate neighbor sees the idle fields and is beside himself over the loss of opportunity… “I would be happy to pay the proper rent to use this land” he thinks. Our less fortunate gentleman is also of a mind to “make little money”; he is merely searching for an opportunity to survive… Is there then some formula we might derive to balance the trade offs we’ve set before ourselves?

        • This is where I emphasize the importance of community — intentional, or unintentional.

          I think this is an area where Chris and I are in some disagreement, but I think the “rugged individualist” of western civilization — unabashedly led by the US — has done enormous harm to the notion of community.

          I have seen foreclosure auctions where all the local farmers crowded around, keeping outsiders away, yet not casting a single bid, waiting for the farmer who is the target of the foreclosure to buy back his own land. That is community!

          I have also seen foreclosure mod scenes, where the vultures descend to pick clean the unfortunate carcass of some unfortunate farmer who was having a bad year.

          So, no rent is needed. All we need is community.

          If one farmer rents out his excess land to another farmer in need, he is still participating in the rentier class — and he can expect no better treatment if he comes upon hard times.

          But if all the farmers in a locale got together and helped the unfortunate farmer among them, they, too, might expect to be treated so someday.

          “Community” means so many things to so many people. I prefer Ivan Illich’s coviviality, or “the art of living together.”

          We have so many bad things coming down the road at us. I don’t think we should be planning to use the tools of capitalism (rent) to get us through the problems that capitalism got us into.

      • Nicely framed, Clem. We will need to probe some more at the nature of the neighbour’s misfortune, and discuss the wider societal connections of these two neighbours’ world in order to address your question. These wider societal connections often go by the name of what Jan calls here ‘community’. I’d be interested to hear from Jan in a nutshell where he thinks we might disagree to help with the ruminations.

        In any case, I’ll come back to this issue, which (once again) I see as another intractable trade-off. Community is a balm to the defects of money. Money is a balm to the defects of community. But it’s hard to properly have both at the same time.

        Recommended reading: Marshall Sahlins ‘Stone Age Economics’.

        • I’d be interested to hear from Jan in a nutshell where he thinks we might disagree to help with the ruminations.

          I think at some point, I was advocating for formal shared-ownership of farmland, which I think you expressed some skepticism about.

          Sorry this is such a vague recollection!

          I’m a “Schumacherian socialist.” The problems of the world are not so much due to capitalism versus socialism, as it is due to big versus human-scale, although I still think small-scale capitalism has most of the problems of big capitalism.

          I don’t think you can have true community without equity. I’ve seen a lot of what I call “serfdoms:” an older land-owner, and a bunch of young workers who are vaguely promised some sort of equity “Any Day Now™.”

          Then the land owner gets cancer, or a divorce, or some other Really Good Reason™, and the serfs are tossed out with a hearty “thanks for all the hard work!”

          For the past few hundred years or so, “shared equity” meant familial relationships, and indeed, the strongest community situations seem to be those that have a strong familial thread running through them. But in a biosphere that is already suffering from our combined weight, breeding your labour force and retirement plan no longer looks sustainable.

          So modern multi-generational farms will have to “recruit” their succession, rather than breed it.

          • So modern multi-generational farms will have to “recruit” their succession, rather than breed it.

            This is a very difficult process to structure. Do people buy in with an equity interest in the small farm? Is the farm turned into a non-profit with a board of directors who decide who works the farm and lives on it?

            The Foundation for Intentional Community has lots of resource books available that cover these issues. They may have some good ideas for those that want to tackle non-family ownership options.


            My wife and I discussed the issue of succession for our farm and decided to go the conventional route and put it in a family trust with our children as beneficiaries. Other people I know have tried different solutions.

            An elderly firend of mine is attempting to turn his farm into a non-profit. I don’t know how well it is working, yet.

            An elderly neighbor had no heirs and no other family to whom he wanted to give his land. He recruited a woman nurse to care for him until he died. He ensured the farm would go to her by marrying her.

            But I do think that groups of family-owned farms can still form durable communities. There are numerous examples from history, like the Amish and others. When times get tough, it will either become very easy to for rural areas to come together as community or it will be very hard. Time will tell.

          • Joe wrote “Do people buy in with an equity interest in the small farm? Is the farm turned into a non-profit with a board of directors…?”

            I’m a big fan of Community Land Trusts, in which the land itself is owned by a nonprofit (requiring a board of directors, which gives continuity beyond any individual’s lifetime), with long-term leases (like 99 years) for the residents who have equity in the structures on the land.

            A large farm acreage could be divided into 5 acre plots, for example, with one family per plot, and each original family building their home and outbuildings on their leased plot. If a family needs to move away, the structures can be sold to new residents, usually with some limitation on appreciation to make it more affordable. This model could work with farming communities as well as urban housing communities.

          • Informative discussion here – thanks. So … we’ll come back to all this.

            The model Steve describes is basically the same as that of the Ecological Land Co-op, on whose board I sit.

            Keywords to ponder in taking this discussion forward: community, commons, land, trust, family, household, food, farming, succession, inheritance, money, commerce, fairness.

  2. I think I agree with you that smart farming won’t save us. That’s because a lot of the smart farming stuff I see is — still — geared toward reducing the input of human labour, with any reduction in fossil fuel use seen as secondary. (I mentioned farm.bot in a comment on a previous post, and it seems a perfect example: there is an option to run it with solar panels, but it’s basically a mains-powered appliance that won’t work at all without power.)

    We don’t currently appear to have a shortage of human labour, or at least, not one that we don’t make up for with fossil fuels.

    I agree that we need different stories.

    Warning: tangent ahead!

    In the past few days I have been trying to find clothing that will keep me warm and dry without contributing to microplastic pollution or indeed eventually taking up landfill space. I’m coming to the conclusion that I am probably best making my own: some kind of woollen gansey with some kind of waxed cotton over the top when it’s really nasty out. And I already know, from making my own clothes and blankets occasionally and also from having others make me garments as a child, that the story of “I made this!” or “my grandmother knit this for me!” is a very different story than “I bought this!”

    Maybe that is part of the shift in narrative we need: for many more people to experience the love and care that goes into a homemade pickle or a hand-knitted jumper, both in giving and receiving. The skills of making such things oneself are seen as extraneous in the crapitalist narrative, but maybe the fossil fuel externality isn’t the worst one. Maybe the worst thing about buying all our clothing and all our food and all our toys is that this leaves us with only one story — “I bought this” and the surrounding ephemera — and it is an impoverished story indeed. Or maybe as a composer I would say that. My work involves making things up out of nothing, after all.

    That said, making things is a lot easier when I don’t have to recreate everything from scratch. I do write my music down on paper before it ever reaches a computer, but I don’t make the paper from scratch myself. (I don’t make my own sugar for jam, either.)

  3. To Clem’s points, perhaps I should have given a bit more context (which can be found in Crisis #9 and Chapter 16 of my book). I’m not suggesting that everyone should become a farmer and care naught for wider matters. I’m suggesting that everyone should do what they can to help improve their locality’s ability to meet material needs locally, and that in so doing they will be helping other localities do the same. Underlying this is a view of the contemporary global political economy principally as a form of monopoly capitalism that serves the interests of few, and is better replaced with less capitalized alternatives that emphasize universal access to right livelihoods locally.

    To Kathryn, I salute you for continuing to raise the neglected issue of fibre, fabric & clothes. I have to confess I’ve made little personal progress on this as a grower or processor since an ill-starred attempt to learn to knit about 20 years ago. I don’t think the land-take issues of textile crops are too major, but the domestic labour aspects are. Guess I’d say that the job of learning to be local is a challenging one, many of us (definitely including me) have a long way to go, but now is the time to start doing what we can, and probably doing more than we were before.

    • If you’re interested, there are loads of great videos on YouTube these days of how to knit, crochet and so on. I’ve found that a much easier way of learning new stitches than trying to figure it out from books or being shown in person by someone who doesn’t have the patience to show me ten times so I can get it right. I imagine similar resources exist for spinning and weaving.

      My skill in knitting, crochet and spinning is shallow and broad: I can do a few different stitches, and spin wool on either a wheel or a drop spindle, though it’s well over a decade since I had access to a wheel (I have a cute little ‘Turkish’ drop spindle which comes apart and stores nearly flat, so tend to use that). Fancy stitches, and weaving, and spinning with fibres other than wool would take more time/equipment/patience than I find myself with these days. But it’s enough that “knit a simple thick jumper” doesn’t seem impossible to me, any more than “grow a bunch of squashes” does. I make a hat or a pair of socks or a shawl every year or two to keep my hand in.

      My sewing skills are similar: rudimentary, but sufficient for simple items. And I know that if I really needed to I could hook up my (electric) 1960s sewing machine to a treadle.

      • (Oh: and I’d recommend crochet over knitting as a beginner-friendly fibre art. There’s nothing worse than realising you dropped a stitch 32 rows ago and having to try to pick it all back up, or frog back to there and re-do the lot. With crochet, such errors stay where you left them.)

        • In my personal journey, I’ve emphasised buying second-hand clothes and mending the clothes I already have over buying or making new ones.

          The world is completely awash with textiles (at least the parts of the world I’ve lived in). The skills we need to cultivate are how to upcycle, mend, refashion, adjust, darn and patch clothing. Making new clothes from scratch seems like just another form of consumption to me.

          Just my thoughts. There are probably earth-right ways of making clothes from scratch.

          • I highly recommend John-Paul Flintoff’s book Through the eye of a needle – The True Story of a Man Who Went Looking For Meaning and Ended Up Making His Own Y-Fronts, for taking a serious and convoluted issue (clothing and fashion) and presenting it with a light heart.
            The UK fibreshed initiative is also interesting and appears to be gathering pace – The Land looked in to it a couple of issues ago:
            Flax used to be grown locally here (NE Hungary) and a few remaining smocks and grain sacks still hang in the village museum. The tools to work the plant into a useable fibre were handmade, but it’s a skill set fast fading from living memory, though not unrecoverable.

  4. Well Chris the people arrested for the Washington debacle are all antifa , even the sacred guardian printed a picture of those standing in Congress one of which has a hammer and sickle tattooed on the back of his hand and as for the election there are 120million registered voters in the USA and 135 million votes counted , of course there was no fraud .!
    Global warming will be toned down the numbers for renewables simply don’t add up , the materials needed to replace vehicles and windmills are just not there never mind the infrastructure to feed it , every household owning a car needs a dedicated thirty amp feed , the grid can’t cope with that load .
    Farming , The great messiah Bill Gates is now one of the largest landowners in the USA he owns nearly 70,000 acres , small farm it ain’t , what’s he know that we don’t?

    • Diogenese, just a quick fact check should tell you that isn’t a hammer and sickle, it’s a symbol from a video game. And the only connection I’ve seen between the people arrested and antifa is that some of them had their pictures on an antifa website — not because they are antifa, but because they were being called out for the fascists they are.

      I agree that the current electrical grid wouldn’t support everyone who drives now driving a electric car. We’re going to have to figure out how to live without driving so much.

  5. A number of decades ago, I took a university course in Philosophy of Science taught by the renowned philosopher Carl Hempel. What stuck with me was his insistence that beliefs cannot be proven true or false. Moving beyond the semantics, it seems relevant that some stories are more or less based on tightly-held beliefs, instead of verifiable “facts” or “theories” which can be tested and reasoned with.

    Stories based on beliefs can become vehemently defended ideologies or -isms, with plenty of confirmation bias, cherry-picking of supporting data, and ad hominem attacks. I much prefer an intellectually honest debate, or better yet, a dialogue where both sides are open to learn and modify their positions.

    I appreciate the intellectual honesty behind the Small Farm Future story. As Chris wrote above, “I drew on a lot of research and evidence that I think make my own story quite robust… it’s not impossible I could be convinced that another story is more plausible.”

    • Hi Steve.
      I agree with you in principle, but I think that the details are important.

      Both of my parents were scientists… (long story).
      But, I got a good education in the use of logic. Interestingly, I did not learn anything about the limits of logic. Or more precisely, I learned the limits of logic as I learned to use logic, but I never paid much attention to those limits.
      Until I had my boring, typical existential crisis.

      I had already known that logic is the perfect tool for deriving meaning from data, answering questions when you have the relevant data, and even suggesting what data to collect (and how to collect it) when you don’t have enough data to reach a conclusion.

      But what I discovered is that logic cannot tell you what is important, what is fundamental, and most basic. Science requires postulates. Scientists generally agree on those postulates because they appear reasonable, but they are not derived logically. They are given.

      We have a name for this: faith. Or beliefs, as you say. Or “the character of their story” as Chris says.

      What we are seeing in the news is that many of us do not share a set of common beliefs.

      Your professor was correct, beliefs can’t be disproved because they aren’t arrived at logically – we just believe them, and build our logical construction on that.

      This bit of realization isn’t much help in resolving the kinds of conflicts we are seeing in the news, but I do think it is good to remember that Science is only a tool, and it can not work until we supply it with a set of beliefs to build upon.

      But I also agree with you that when observed (consensus?) reality disagrees with my logical construct, it is a much better idea to re-examine my beliefs than to create an alternate reality. It’s curious how alternate reality creation seems to have gotten so much easier (and more popular) lately.

      • Eventually (and it may take a long time) evolution sorts the consensus wheat from the consensus chaff. If we accept survival as a postulate, a precurser for being able to observe and participate in reality, we do then have some logical and scientific basis for evaluating reality and our prospects within it. All the other aspects life may be reserved for the realm of the aesthetic, but accepting the importance of survival provides a bit of solid ground to stand on.

        Of course, some people may believe that there are more important things than ‘mere’ survival (except in Heaven), but many people, like me, believe that existence is the prerequisite for essence; to do or be anything requires survival. I can accept it on faith and still appreciate the benefits, among which is the ability to write the history books (and tell the stories).

        But once we accept the importance of survival, the hard work begins. Who gets to survive and how? When should life be lost and for what reason. Tough questions, but logic and reason can help at least a little.

  6. Thanks Chris, I think you are correct, this is exactly the right thing to be talking about at this moment.
    It seems that for we humans, narrative is everything, and vice versa.

    I am especially pleased with your “TV show mentality” bit. This is precisely the point. People see things on a screen, and they receive some narrative from it without thinking about the energy and material that caused the events being pictured, or produced the recording equipment & media.

    Some time ago I had a friend tell me about a ‘reality’ TV program where someone was in Alaska and starving and didn’t know if they would survive. I asked my friend how it was possible for him to see that video. My friend couldn’t even imagine that there was a well-fed cameraman recording the ‘starving’ actor.

    I believe we are in this situation because it is possible to be ‘successful’ without ever learning any practical skills. Manipulating abstractions and social situations is much more profitable than anything involving actual physical material. So people think that any idea is just as possible as any other.

    So I salute Kathryn in her endeavors involving actual physical material. As an aside, I believe that woven fabric along with steel are ubiquitous at this moment, but will both become very dear when we have to produce all that we need from contemporaneous sunlight, as the phrase goes.

    I will also use this moment to beat that dead horse one more time by way of reminding Clem that money is very useful, and living without it these days is a recipe for misery, but even still, money is only an idea. It exists only in our minds, and we are the only species who cares about money at all.
    And while it is true that money comes from thin air, that does not mean that money does not produce (through the vehicle of our delusions & subsequent actions) an effect in the physical world outside of our ideas.

    I lived for a few years in Northern California. The most important export crops at the time were marijuana and lumber, in that order. I learned some things there.

    I learned that the natural rate of interest was 2%. The timberland owners who did a selective harvest of 50 year old trees could keep doing that indefinitely. Until the climate changes.
    Also, seeing the corporate land rape clear-cuts, I saw that it was possible to take a living landscape and turn it into money. The money was still just an idea, but a very destructive one, because that particular idea required the trees to be cut down and hauled away.
    What I learned from this was that once something was killed for money, no amount of money could bring it back. The flow went only one direction.

    Thus it may be over-generalizing, but it is not wrong to equate money with death.

    But people are confused. People want to be wealthy, and they think that means having a lot of money. Money is not wealth. That tree is wealth. If you cut it down, it may be useful for something, but you are spending your wealth. And the tree wealth is gone, unless you are really careful and wait another 50 years.

    • It is somewhat galling, really, that the externalities of fossil fuel materials and energy are so stark that it would cost me around three times as much to purchase a waxed cotton coat as a polyester (or whatever) one. The waxed cotton will last longer, but I’m not sure it will last three times as long. (I tend to be pretty hard on stuff.) I’m sure if the cotton were hand-woven, without the aid of fossil electricity, that difference would be even more stark.

      I expect that within my lifetime, things I take for granted now will become, if not unobtainable, very much more expensive, or at least subject to much greater price volatility than they are now. And some of those things are harder for me to make another way than others. I can definitely knit a jumper, a hat or a sock — and spin the yarn to do so, if I can get hold of a fleece. I can probably sew myself a decent cotton coat and treat it with wax. I might even be able to grow wax myrtle for the purpose of re-waxing it later (I’d love to keep bees, but there are allergy concerns in my household). But I’m probably not up to making my own supportive shoes (I need orthotics, it’s a giant bore), or my own bicycle, and I use both of those every day. The money I don’t spend on jumpers because I make my own might be jolly useful for shoes or inner tubes or a bottom bracket, just as the money I don’t spend on supermarket squashes and beans is freed up for food I can’t grow on the allotment.

      If I have a practical focus, it’s partly because I’ve lived with very little money relative to my needs before, and I expect to again. I am not in a position to save much money, but I am in a position to broaden my skill base. Trees may be wealth, but so are skills.

      I love that idea of a “natural” interest rate… But surely the number of 50-year-old trees one has available depends on the amount of land one has access to in the first place? There are no trees that old in my (rented) back garden yet, but it also isn’t large enough for ten trees, let alone fifty.

      The allotment that I work is flooded at the moment. This is partly because the entire site is in an old water-meadow, a floodplain of one of our London rivers. But it’s also because some of the previous tenants didn’t do their composting, so our plot is a good 8 or 12 inches below the boundary pathways in places. Dig, fertilize, harvest, spray weedkiller and repeat without adding enough material back in will eventually turn a silty loam into clay. Thankfully we do get regular deliveries of woodchips (from the council trimming street trees etc) and so I am resigned to a large amount of slug damage for the first few years while I build the soil back up. (I’m basically cold-composting the woodchips in trenches that I use as pathways, as well as putting some on the big compost heap every time I visit. When the pathways are mostly broken down I shovel the contents up onto the beds and fill the trenches with more woodchips.) I also filled a compost bay (made of pallets, so quite big) with leaves, so in a year or so I should have lots of lovely leaf mould to add.

      Looks like I am, yet again, on a bit of a tangent. But my point is that none of this rebuilding of the soil is any extra investment of money on my part. It sure takes some time, though. Diverting a seasonal stream to benefit from the silt deposits seems rather attractive by comparison, but sadly isn’t possible any more: the river itself was moved, decades ago, to make way for a motorway.

      • You can greatly speed up the wood chip composting process by adding household urine (probably not best in a path). There is a lot of nitrogen in urine that combines well with the carbon in the chips. It should break down quickly and make a fabulous soil amendment. Composting wood chips with urine in the winter when you can’t apply it to growing crops is a great nutrient saver. This article is only the latest to tout the benefits of urine recycling (for home heating of all things).


        We collect ours in 5 gallon plastic buckets with a snap-on plastic toilet seat (Reliance brand, available at Amazon for about $13). Our house has three urine buckets, two in bathrooms and one in my bedroom to make it easy for me to pee in the night.

        I’ve read that the urine produced by one person contains enough essential nutrients to grow all the food needed by that person. My own experience using urine as fertilizer confirms it for me. We rarely waste a drop.

        You may not have enough growing space to utilize all the urine your family produces, but I encourage you to use what you can and perhaps give away the rest to fellow allotment holders.

        • I’m already saving some of our urine for the compost pile; not as much as I’d like to, but a litre or two for every trip I make there (at least 2/week in winter, more in summer). The issue is that I can’t get there every day, and it’s two and a half miles, which I cycle.

          Snap-on toilet seats on buckets sound like the way to go, though, for ease of collection. I’ll see what I can find to that effect here.

  7. Insulation from consequences is one way I try to frame the unwinding story we are collectively writing. Fossil fuels have enabled us to do some serious can kicking, and delayed the banquet that RLS reminds us is inevitable. I think we’re at the point that the table is set and the smells from the kitchen are not that appetizing.

    Choices were made, behaviors that would never last for long in a small group setting were rewarded and amplified in the larger, impersonal economical system that evolved in the resource rich environment that oil enabled.

    In the Darwinian sense, an individual can exit the gene pool from just one poor choice. It is only slow steady statistical sifting that traits and behaviors are honed and passed on because they avoid death long enough to be replicated. species and cultures have much longer lifespans and it takes longer for consequences to play out.

    You can pick whatever story you want to explain our reality and what is important, but the more that story is disconnected from the real, physical world, the more likely that it will not endure.

    All cultures make choices with consequences, good and bad, but in our case, oil delayed the feedback loop to the point that we now have global environmental consequences that are unique and devastating.

    While I think Pogo had it figured out back in the 70’s, unfortunately in the collective sense that matters, we have been unwilling to acknowledge that fact.

  8. Thanks for the comments, lots of interesting threads but nothing very original to add to them on my part. Except that I can certainly vouch for the benefits of woodchip + urine (to upscale while achieving a cheeky net gain, I can also recommend running a campsite). Also except that I’m pretty sure antifa + election fraud is a story for the fantasy section.

    • 50 trades that have stood the test of time

      Fake news! “Antifa provocateur” wasn’t even on the list! 🙂

      Seriously, that’s a wonderful book! Lots of people dejectedly ask me (and I suspect Chris, too), “So, I guess I have to be a farmer, then?”

      This book provides a path for those who are not drawn to the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy.

      Meanwhile, the first of the season’s kids arrived last night, so I was thrilled to see trades in animal care at the top of the list, surpassing horticulture, even.

  9. Very interesting discussion . I must admit to be thinking of looking at the whole fiber/clothing thing . I have started in a small way by repairing clothes ( sowing and darning ) . Its amazing how many people just throw things out. Next up proddy mats and quilting as I can get material to reuse very cheaply .
    Getting back to the point about money . I do not think it helpful to look or talk about money as such rather than talk about the issue that is the realationship between Money/time/complexity
    Take for instance cutting hay I have a scythe Cost 200€/ Takes some time effort to use / Not that complex to use compare with my neighbout tractor Cost thousands / Very fast / cannot be repaired by me etc Its not just money . How can we put a value on land when our value of the work needed is not clear ?

    • How much scythe work have you done? How old are you?

      I once worked a whole acre into hay, using a scythe and shooks. I never ached so much in my whole life, and what they don’t tell you is that stacking your hay in shooks causes you to lose HALF of it, at least as animal feed! (We used the rotted outer layers for mulch.)

      I’d love to be doing horse-drawn agriculture. But we are in the real world, and we compete with others who are using tractors.

      My goal is to stay one step ahead of the rest of civilization during the decline. Two or three steps is too many, if you have to interact with the rest of civilization in any way!

      (And I see you have an Internet bill to pay. I had visions of marketing “hand-cut hay for pampered pets,” but I figured I’d need to get $100 a bale!)

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