“How to kill a billion people” – a note on famine in small farm societies

The quotation in my title comes from a brief online review of my book from someone who clearly wasn’t a fan. I suspect the person concerned didn’t actually read the book, but no matter. For my part, it seems to me quite likely that a billion people or more will die prematurely if we don’t soon implement something like the small farm future that I describe in the book. It’s worth sitting awhile with that contradiction. What an extraordinary moment in history when different people think that either persisting with or not persisting with the regnant political economy might slay us in such unimaginable numbers.

Maybe I’ll come back to that in another post. Here, I just want to make a few points about famine in societies of the past, present and future, building on the analysis from Chapter 10 of my book – famine being, along with its companions war, disease and poverty, among the likeliest contenders for causing the untimely deaths of billions.

So, one of the objections to the idea of an agrarian localist or a small farm future indeed is the notion that they’re prey to hunger or famine in ways that modern societies are not. The term ‘subsistence farmer’ hardly helps, routinely associated as it is with other words like ‘scratching’ or ‘bare’.

This conceals a more complex reality. As I document in my book, ‘subsistence’ farmers have generally been well capable of creating a thriving and diverse livelihood for themselves, and building in safeguards against poor seasons. Indeed, you can make a strong case that small-scale local farming systems are more resilient to famine than the present nexus of large-scale commercial farms and urbanism. Maybe you can make the contrary case too. But the scale of farm operation will make little difference to the famines that will arise in worst-case climate, socioeconomic and strategic scenarios of the future. I see a turn to low-impact, local, small-scale farming basically as our best option now for avoiding those worst-case scenarios, and probably our only option for dealing with their consequences should they occur.

Nevertheless, it’s historically true that small-scale ‘subsistence’ farmers sometimes pooled resources on a larger scale in order to even out the inherent uncertainties of farming, especially in environmentally challenging situations. It seems the Chacoan people of what’s now New Mexico did this from around 700-1200 AD, creating a centralized state that drew various communities into its orbit. The Chacoan state’s main function was redistributive in the face of livelihood uncertainties, and when it could no longer continue to underwrite its people’s welfare they went their separate ways.

Contrast this with Pierre Goubert’s analysis of the peasantry in 17th century France:

The majority of the poor in the countryside farmed only two or three acres, and tried to live off this land completely, which they were more or less able to do as long as the weather was kind and the harvests were good. But they were all forced to find money with which to pay the royal taxes (which went up sharply after 1635), as they had to be paid in coin, as well as to pay seigneurial and other dues. That is why they always had to take their eggs, young cocks, butter and cheese, and the best of the fruit and vegetables to market, or to the neighbouring big house….They could keep little for themselves except what was strictly necessary or unsaleable1

It’s worth bearing in mind that underlying reality when contemplating state formation in early modern Europe and the splendours of its royal courts.

Or consider this report from a citizen of the Dutch town of Limburg in 1790 where trade was limited and farming ‘almost medieval’: “One ate and drank what the farm provided. Because very little could be sold, the farmer had ample to eat”2.

And a final example, running counter to Monty Python’s famous historical thesis, and with some bearing on recent discussions here about the healthiness of animal products: research on ‘Dark Age’ Britain in the aftermath of Roman departure suggests that “an increase in animal protein (including the dairy products that were gained from a greater emphasis on pastoral husbandry) and a concomitant decrease in the proportion of carbohydrates in everyday diets appear to have led to general improvements in health across the board, visible in increases in average height, better dental health, and higher recovery rates from infection”, and hence “the beneficial effect on peasant household economies of the withdrawal of Roman secular and military administration”3.

So against redistributive states like the Chacoan, or the de facto self-reliance of Limburg, perhaps we can counterpose more hunger-prone scenarios fostered by large predatory states – the Romans in Britain and early modern states in Europe among them.

In reality, the distinction is perhaps overdrawn. There were hierarchical elements in the Chacoan state, and there were ubiquitous uprisings and complex social alignments in Europe and elsewhere against the predations of overmighty states that ensured a redistributive aspect. This latter point is important, and I’ll be pressing it in future – predatory states are sometimes willing to extract resources from ordinary people up to the point of rank starvation if they can get away with it, but what often stops them from doing so is the ability of ordinary people to organize politically and make themselves protagonists in the political drama of the state.

My examples so far have all been quite a way back in the past. What of present and recent times? Famine expert Alex de Waal calls the first part of the 20th century “the most dreadful period of famine in world history”4 when modern leaders of various political colours such as Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin and (later) Mao Zedong either actively created famines or connived at them in pursuit of their wider political goals. It’s perhaps worth noting that communist leaders like Stalin and Mao particularly inflicted hunger on the peasant classes whose activism was substantially responsible for putting them into power, in pursuit of breakneck industrialization policies dictated by Marxist-Leninist doctrines alien to peasant communism. Such famines of 20th century ‘development’ came on the heels of 19th century famines of colonial capitalism in other parts of Asia and Latin America. So there are good grounds for questioning the notion that famines were banished by modernization.

But more recently the incidence of major famines has declined, leaving us only with the small matter of chronic under-nutrition among possibly billions of people in a world that’s richer in total and per capita terms than ever before. ‘Developed’ or ‘middle income’ countries like Russia and China that experienced major famines in recent times are unlikely to experience them again in the near term, whereas ‘less developed’ countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, are on shakier ground. This prompts a narrative that capitalist or industrial development is the vanquisher of famine, and that we need more of it to finally banish it from the global scene.

I think this narrative is mistaken. I also think it rests on a horrifically ends-justify-means view of history that implicitly shrugs off the deaths of past millions as an acceptable cost of modernization. For all that, I’m as happy as anyone to celebrate the decline of major famines in the present. But it’s important to note they’ve declined largely because of an international humanitarian politics that considers famines unacceptable.

In A Small Farm Future I argue that we need to retain that humanitarianism, but I’m not sure that we’ll be able to do so under the auspices of our existing system of nation-states. There are already plenty of signs that this system’s mask is slipping, revealing the beggar-my-neighbour or beggar-my-populace face of the predatory state behind it. And that, in a nutshell, is why I think people are well advised to generate their own subsistence, or, better, to generate local communities that enable them to do so. If we don’t get on top of climate change (another challenge to which the existing system of states appears unequal) perhaps major famines are likely anyway, but if we leave our subsistence in the hands of the existing system of states we may well experience black swan famine events all the sooner and all the more devastatingly.

Of course, if everyone upped sticks overnight and headed to the countryside in search of a more sustainable subsistence (or if some neo-Maoist state forced them to), we certainly would experience famines and various other ghastly outcomes in short order. So the challenge is to see the writing on the wall before it’s too late and move more rationally towards a sustainable agrarianism. Or, as I put it on p.207 of my book, to choose a small farm future voluntarily in the present so as to avoid having a worse one imposed by Maos of the future.

Since we often extol the foresight of business leaders in modern capitalist society, perhaps we might learn from the example of internet billionaire Peter Thiel, who seems to have realized that in the final analysis you can’t eat money and has bought up a large spread of remote New Zealand farmland to safeguard against future uncertainties. Few of us have the means to do that, but what we can do is start working in any number of different ways to try to build a convivial agrarianism within our local communities. It won’t be easy, but if we pull it off then maybe some of us will be able to look back with pride at how we helped avoid killing a billion people.


  1. Pierre Goubert. 1986. The French Peasantry in the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge Univ Press, p.87.
  2. Geert Mak. 2010. An Island in Time. Vintage, p.55.
  3. Susan Oosthuizen. 2019. The Emergence of the English. ARC, pp.34-5.
  4. Alex de Waal. 2018. Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine. Polity, p.77.

49 thoughts on ““How to kill a billion people” – a note on famine in small farm societies

  1. Not to be a party pooper…

    I think it is more like billions and billions will die, vs. simply billions will die.

    But maybe that is not right, either. Maybe billions and billions is already baked in the cake, and all we are talking about is how miserable and how rapid.

    And how loss-ful. That seems very important to me. How much technology of living and farming and making will be lose (in the Ursula Franklin sense of technology).

    A small farm future is inevitable. Let’s try to make it easier for them.

  2. sorry but I thought this is pertinent .
    The farming technoutopians did not see this coming .
    “The biggest factor impacting the ability of US farmers to produce the food we need has nothing to do with the weather, the markets, trade, regulations, or disease. The worldwide shortage of computer chips will impact all aspects of agriculture for the next two years and beyond…farm equipment manufacturers have halted shipments to dealers because they don’t have the chips to put in the equipment…

    • Perhaps I’m not the average farmer, but chip manufacture will have zero impact on what my team and I have to do for the immediate future… We have zero chips in any of our current farm equipment (one of the farm trucks has a chip – but it already exists… no waiting in line to replace it now).

      I’m not aware of any laws or regulations that would force us to switch to chip dependent machinery. Indeed there are moves afoot to push back against new equipment being designed such that chips will control equipment to the point of being dead in the water if a chip should malfunction.

      And we keep our soybeans ‘chip free’… though one could suppose that if the plant protein to fake meat crowd want to do this you might someday see the fish in ‘fish and chips’ made from soy. But I’m thinking this isn’t the sort of chip they’re worried about 🙂

      • Walking round a “green ” tractor dealership the salesman friend states the only thing s built without chips are wheelbarows and shovels , the highest paid guy there who earns more than the owner is the computer tech , they have over $ 150000 of diagnostic equipment .

          • The D-17 has a mixed record for maintenance and repair… some off the shelf stuff still exists (spark plugs, oil filters), but some other parts are no longer manufactured so the choices I’m aware of are 3:

            A bone yard;
            Make your own…
            (substitution only works for some things like head lights.) – And making your own falls to a couple limiting factors as well – machining capabilities at the top of the list.

            The bone yard is an old iron users best friend. So if you have a hankering for an old beast that was never real popular… you’d better have some top notch machining skills.

            Your H was very popular, and every now and again I’ll see one being used in the field (mostly to pull a hay wagon), but at least they’re out there and running.

  3. The thing about animal farming after the Romans left is that animals take far less time to look after , a. Cow , hogs and a few sheep need perhaps an hour per day to look over watch and see they are ok , a field of barley takes days to prepare , sow , weed , and harvest , as do all field crops , animals are not so weather dependant , small farm / homesteading is all about maximum calories for minimum work , allthough the taxman tends to get involved !
    In the late Roman period taxes got so odius that farmers quit , hastening the downfall of the empire as state coffers emptied halting the import of food .The
    As in Rome taxes are the killer , having to make enough cash from limited acres to pay them with the super rich buying up land at inflated prices and using them as a tax loss against profits made elsewhere , this happened during the dustbowl where bidders from NY bought land at auction sight unseen over the phone , that happened in this county at tax for forfiture auctions on the town hall steps , Gates , Thiel and others are following in the same steps .

    • Animals need looking after everyday, not so with field crops. Yes there are days of work to prepare the ground and plant the crop, but until harvest time you only have to work in the field occasionally. Yes harvest takes time, but so does milking animals daily, or slaughtering them and processing their products. Yes, animals produce more calories for the amount of human labour expended, but you are eating higher on the food chain, which means you need more land, which means a smaller human population. My choice is no livestock. I have a small holding of 4 1/2 acres, half orchard and allotment, half woodland, Not having livestock means that I don’t have to go every day to the land (a mile from home) which is a blessing in wet weather and in the winter or if work dictates otherwise. This does not mean that I get no meat from my small holding, I have had many a rabbit, pigeon and squirrel for the pot. Dairy is not attractive as I am allergic to milk. At present in the UK direct taxes on the land are zero, we can but hope they stay that way. As for the billionaires buying up huge acreages, I would like to see them proving ownership after a collapse situation, and then enforcing it! Money gives them power now, but after collapse it will be the boots on each bit of ground that will have the power. It is a fact of history that peasants are hard to shift if they don’t want to move, and they usually don’t!

      • The “livestock or not?” question has been discussed at length elsewhere on this site; in a labour-intensive situation they can make a lot of sense for the labour (e.g. ducks eating slugs) and nutrient concentration (in the form of manure) they provide, as well as being a source of calories that can be harvested when you run out of other stuff. But if you don’t live on the smallholding you’re working, then even something like keeping a few ducks is definitely a lot harder.

      • Everyone should watch Tudor Monastry Farm , , it gives an idea of how farmers lived in 1600 , , pigs were fenced in then basically ignored , cattle were draught animals , sheep paid the rent .

  4. When people criticize your writings saying “humans will die” my first thought is “Obviously people will die because there are too many humans on earth.” If the global economy/civilization fails and is unable to continue providing resources the people who live in urban environments will be the first to fail. Currently roughly half of the human population lives in an urban environment. So, in the absence of food and water they won’t survive for more than a month or two. Three minutes without air, three days without water, three months without food…these are the human limits. So if we lose access to water we can expect to live for three days to a week at most if we drink contaminated water. The bottom line is that if a catastrophic collapse were to occur roughly half the human population would die off fairly rapidly.
    Those who already live self-sufficiently, who live a small farm will survive to carry on.
    Subsequently to half the population dying, I think another 25% of humans who don’t have the health or the skills to survive will also die off. Pharmaceutical products will no longer be available and anyone who needs a prescription to live will die. It is simply a matter of evolution, as change happens our ability to find the resources we need will decide who lives and who dies.
    When people criticize the ideas of your book, Chris, I would point out to them that human population has greatly exceeded earth’s carrying capacity. The problem will be access to resources. When our global economy (i.e. retail stores) can no longer provide for us we won’t survive. Three minutes without air, three days without water, three months without food….these are the boundaries of human limits. Within three months of a catastrophic collapse there won’t be 7.8 billion humans, there will be half at most. And with the collapse those of us who do survive will not likely receive news we won’t even know it has happened.

    • Death is natural; everyone will die someday. The sorrow comes from premature death and many years of satisfactory living forgone. When we say that “billions will die”, we imply that they will die tragically, “before their time”.

      That said, I do agree with the generalities of your analysis, although I think that it is overly optimistic. Whether collapse is rapid or slow, governments will try to protect ‘their’ people at the expense of ‘other’ people. War will break out even more frequently than it does now and those wars will kill even more people. Your “three minutes, three days and three months” should include “three milli-seconds”, the time it takes to die from a bullet to the head or being blown to bits by a bomb.

      The unspeakable horror of that last sentence should encourage everyone to work toward getting through the next few decades peacefully. One good step would be to make sure that you are never in a position where your survival depends on violence against other people, either by yourself or your government. A small farm will do that like nothing else (save hunting, fishing and gathering, perhaps). Try to create one for your family. Encourage your elected representatives to ensure that we have many more of them. I will do the same.

  5. Bigger farms and global supply chains bring us closer to putting “all the eggs in one basket.” The efficiency may be higher in some situations, but the potential for catastrophe (affecting billions) is also greater.

    An article in the MIT Technology Review, in response to the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to the World Food Program (the United Nations’ food assistance agency), is titled “Why people still starve in an age of abundance.”

    “Our wonderful global supply chain is not just failing to prevent hunger—it’s causing it.”

    “After nearly 60 years of trying to end hunger, the WFP is larger and busier today than ever before. The world’s farmers produce more than enough to feed the world, and yet people still starve. Why?”

    “It may be hard to reckon with, but our spectacular global food system isn’t what will stop people from starving—it’s exactly why they starve in the first place.”


  6. There might not be famines in the usual sense at the moment, but inequality is rife, and hunger exists. The soup kitchen at my church is feeding around a hundred people twice a week, plus around a hundred 3-day food bank parcels. Before the pandemic it was ten to twelve people, once a week.

    I definitely see the precarity of our guests as a result of the predatory nature of the state, as well as the failure of crapitalism as a distribution method.

    • And the difficulty of this is — how do we move toward a small farm future while also doing the emergency food aid we are doing now?

      There’s simply no way we could afford to source all of that food from small local farms.

      We do grow a small amount of food in the churchyard, but the growing space available is less than a standard allotment plot. Keeping livestock is out of the question. Recently a few of the soup kitchen guests have started volunteering in the garden. It’s great to see people engaging with the source of some of their food, learning about how different plants develop and grow. I think that getting people involved in gardening even though they have no gardens of their own might be the most important thing we can do in terms of future food security. It’s so very little, though. Peas and beans and potatoes and courgettes and chard and kale (so much chard and kale), and only really on back garden scales. Parsley and basil and garlic and coriander and rosemary — just because it’s a soup kitchen doesn’t mean the food has to taste like sawdust.

      We also have an eco-church award and are working toward the next level on that.

      This is all much more than many churches do. It just doesn’t feel like enough when you’re dividing up a giant sack of cheap, industrially-produced porridge oats or pasta into household-sized portions, and wondering what people will eat when that isn’t available any more.

  7. There is a general here point about the detrimental effects of hierarchical states on the ability of their citizens/subjects to subsist independently of those state structures that is convincing. Expropriation of whatever form, whether capitalist, tributary, feudal, etc, will always limit people’s ability to organise their own subsistence beyond restrictive margins. Localised or more widespread dearths of food are a dangerous possibility whether we blame the aristocracy for their elite consumption or the capitalists for leaving people too poor to buy.

    However, as some commenters note above, the historical examples given here of societies less constrained by such states all clearly benefited from a much smaller population density – pretty much a given before the twentieth century. I don’t believe we can act in the expectation of mass ‘excess deaths’ – anything can happen, or more importantly, can be made to happen. But there’s the rub. I like the idea that what we need to do ‘is start working in any number of different ways to try to build a convivial agrarianism within our local communities.’ But what does that mean in our age of high density populations?

    I don’t know. I’ve a feeling we need to look to movements in the world today where people are trying to do just that, such as the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil. But an important element of such movements is the fact that they are responses to specific local, regional or national conditions, and therefore do not necessarily offer a replicable pattern. The ‘movement’ element is important though – none if these developments would have happened without some form of collective drive that encourages shared experiences and thus develops and promotes a will to change things, and sometimes the ability to actually do so.

    • That’s an important point.
      When I made a similar observation to a concerned neighbour recently, his response was ‘such movements tend to fall apart if the participants don’t all share a spiritual belief’, which I couldn’t argue with.
      However, the Wiki page for Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement states it is inspired by someone called Marx (one of the Norse gods?)… but also by the cool-sounding ‘liberation theology’ and other ideologies, so that too follows the pattern.
      Are there any that break the mould?

      • I think religious commitments can be important, but I’m not sure they’re particularly significant in the Landless Workers Movement (or MST, to use its acronym). There, commitment is often built through the occupation of land, an initial phase in attempting to demonstrate that the land is not being used productively by its current owner, enabling the occupiers to press their own legal claim. The need to subsist on the land, collectively and often precariously, has a galvanising effect on the occupiers.

        But perhaps spirituality can be understood differently. Drawing on the theology of your Norse God, the alienated condition of labour in core capitalist societies – the fact that one’s ability to work is packaged up, sold for money, and directed to the ends of its buyer – means that simply working on one’s own behalf, towards one’s own ends, can be a spiritually liberating experience. It’s not easy to enjoy such experiences regularly in the everyday life of capitalist societies.

        I suppose actively cultivating such experiences might be akin to a spiritual journey of sorts, but without a religious element. The Zapatistas in Mexico have deliberately isolated themselves from the state, and are perhaps actively trying to create what I think Chris would call supersedure conditions. The attitude to land that this generates, as the source of a dignified life rather than a source of profit or credit, might be seen as a spiritual conversion!

  8. Thanks as ever for a rich set of comments. Only time to answer briefly before I need to turn my hand to a bit of practical local agrarianism, but much to ponder in these comments!

    I agree with those who are pointing out that chronic hunger in the contemporary world largely occurs because of the high-productivity global food system, not in spite of it – a point I discuss in my book. Full-on famines usually have a different aetiology, though.

    Regrettably, I think those of you who are projecting major mortality when resource/environmental shocks combine with urban overreach and political closure/nationalism/war are probably right. And there may not be much that can be done about it. But there can be better and worse outcomes even in the midst of horror, and small community-building efforts contribute to the better ones. So I wouldn’t underestimate the value of helping people to garden or to access food locally.

    I agree that shared spirituality can be another important positive in meeting these challenges. But also another set of complex imponderables. I want to turn more of my attention to this in future. I think it’s true that Marxism … or, maybe better, communism … at its best has operated as a form of positive spirituality in this regard. And, at its worst, as a form of negative spirituality dressed up as ‘science’ or objective truth. So this is a high stakes game. I aim to post more about it soon. I agree with Andrew that “simply working on one’s own behalf, towards one’s own ends, can be a spiritually liberating experience” but of course this is the kind of thing that’s got me labelled as ‘petty bourgeois’ by certain Marxists, and has got other people killed, starved or incarcerated when those kind of Marxists assume power.

    I wouldn’t overdo the population density point myself. Crop yields and cropping areas are now much higher too. These bring their own problems, but as I see it the fundamental problems remain social-spiritual and not ecological.

    Perhaps a quotation from ‘Miraculous Abundance’ (p.169) is apposite: “Give an individual guaranteed possession of a barren rock, he will transform it into a garden; give him a garden with a nine-year lease, he will turn it into a desert”. Maybe the larger question has become the length of the lease humanity supposes it has on Planet Earth.

    On livestock husbandry, I think you have to distinguish between what works in a modern society with its particular settlement geography, property rules, labour prices, animal welfare concerns and energy/material availabilities and what works in low energy agrarian societies. In the former, Philip’s arguments for stock-free smallholding make a lot of sense. But in the latter, animals don’t necessarily need looking after every day, and preparing the ground for crops is a non-trivial cost that may greatly outweigh the price of a herder and a couple of dogs on the common. The clue is in the numerous premodern societies that switched emphasis to herding over cropping as soon as ecological or political circumstances permitted – of which post-Roman England seems to be one example.

    Interesting stuff on the Zapatistas, MST etc. I wrote a little about them from a very non-expert perspective in the first draft of my book, but it got stripped out in the editing. I’m still a bit uncertain about how far to wade into them as examples of supersedure situations that repay in depth study for their generalizability, or how much it’s better for people to focus on their own local circumstances. That seems to have been an issue for the Zapatistas also, when they’ve told folks to be Zapatistas in their homelands instead of coming to Chiapas. Or here in the UK, when people get inspired by Transition Towns and move to Totnes? Rob Hopkins as an English Sub-Comandante Marcos – now there’s a thought!

    Finally, thanks Lynn for the New Mexico link – I’ll take a look.

    • Please, not the petty bourgeoise thing again! Although on a more serious note, the Zapatistas are particularly interesting for the way they attempt to avoid producing for the commodity market, and thus actively guard against the road to petit bourgeoisement. In any case, I think you’re right to steer clear of generalising from their situation. Perhaps we all need to search for the sub-commandante inside ourselves…

      One final go at the population density point. Again, I think you’re right to emphasise the social-spiritual over the ecological, but in the case of historical societies that switched to herding over cropping when expropriatory pressures were relaxed, don’t you think the current population density of the UK, and places like it, would find it rather difficult to do that? Would there be enough pasture for all of us to become predominantly pastoralist? No calculations necessary, I’ll take a rough and ready ‘probably’ or ‘probably not’ – I’ve genuinely no idea.

    • Andrew, I’ve barely even started on the petty bourgeois point! But I don’t want to lose your voice on here, so I’ll provide trigger warnings from now on 🙂

      Regarding pastoralism, my short answer would be a firm no, there isn’t enough pasture for current UK population levels to be predominantly pastoralist. But there’s a lot of grazing land that can’t be used for much else agriculturally and numerous ways of integrating or complementing cropping with livestock, so there’s plenty of potential to be slightly pastoralist and somewhat omnivore – though probably quite a bit less than current levels of Big Mac enhanced omnivory.

    • In the former, Philip’s arguments for stock-free smallholding make a lot of sense. But in the latter, animals don’t necessarily need looking after every day, and preparing the ground for crops is a non-trivial cost that may greatly outweigh the price of a herder and a couple of dogs on the common.

      I’ve got data!

      I basically run our goat business. Milking and caring for seven does, a buck, four wethers and three doelings (not sold yet) takes me about 2-3 hours a day. Yes, it is every day, but we train others so I can get a break now and then. I’m gearing up for haying, which will be dawn-to-dusk for several days for me at two helpers. Making all the cheese and yogurt we can eat and sell takes another hour a day, on average.

      Conversely, caring for the greenhouse and the outside gardens takes about 20 person-hours a day, for several months, at least!

      If you Look at our production, goat dairy is our second-biggest money maker, with produce being 4th, and yet, the dairy takes less labour!

      But the real reveal is what comes in 1st and 3rd: value-added products!

      This may be an artifact of modern markets, where most people in industrial nations primarily buy ready-to-eat food. In the coming subsistence world, I suspect non-farmers will be doing a lot more cooking than they do today.

      But it’s pretty hard to argue with not making the best of what you do produce from the land. We sell more cheese than we do milk. We sell more goat-milk soap than we do milk. We sell more carrot cake than we do carrots. We sell more fruit preserves than we do fruit.

      I hear other farmers complaining that they “had to compost” this or that crop for whatever reason. To me, “compost” is first, “failure to have made a value-added product,” and second, “failure to have fed an animal.”

      We can’t compete with our neighbour, who spends way more time than we do, producing perfect-looking carrots. Rather, we spend as little time as we can on carrots, and make carrot cake out of the poor, ugly, twisted, wireworm-blemished things.

      Eliminating waste is difficult without livestock and value-added products.

      • Thanks for that Jan – interesting & convincing data, and an interesting story you tell around it. I like your point that non-farmers will be doing more cooking than they do today!

  9. The famine argument is certinaly abused and overused for all kinds of ends. For example, I often hear that chemical fertilizers put and end to famine in Sweden. But the reality is that the last famine was 1870 and at that point chemical fertilizers were hardly used at all. The last famine coincide with a peak of landless agriculture poor (tenants, farm laborers etc). Combined with an economic downturn they could no longer make ends meet and ended up starving – while Sweden as a whole exporter oats to horse feed in Britain. Social factors are almost always determining famine and who gets to eat. Ultimately there are of course limits for the quantities of food that can be produced, but they have rarely been the reasons for starvation, the exception being when sudden natural disasters harm huge areas, e.g. by flooding. But those are exceptions than can be handled and have been handled in most cases quite efficiently.

    • Yes, agreed. De Waal recommends looking at what was happening politically in a country that experiences a famine before the famine struck as the most useful way of figuring out its cause… Perhaps similar to your point.

  10. Best soup garden moment today: the vicar was topping up the potato stacks, found a walnut that had been buried by a squirrel and sprouted, and transplanted the seedling into a pot. This is someone who in autumn 2019 had almost no gardening experience at all. I have no idea where we’re eventually going to put the walnut tree (if it survives), they get enormous eventually and the churchyard is pretty small. It still made me hopeful, or at least a little less discouraged.

    For me, ecology and faith are very much interlinked. I know there are many Christians for whom this isn’t the case, and there are many environmentally sympathetic people who are atheist or uninterested in spiritual experience. But religion is a multifacted thing, with the intellectual assent to certain truth claims about the world, the emotional experience of knowing oneself to be in relationship with God or the divine (or perhaps in relationship to the truth claims), the social and communal aspects of sharing those truth claims and experiences… it’s entirely possible that my portrayal of religion here leans very much in a Christian direction (I know, for example, that one can be atheist and also a very observant religious Jew — believing in God is optional, keeping kosher is not — whereas in Christianity there is a huge emphasis on belief)… Regardless of the incompleteness of my exploration of the many facets of religion, I think one helpful way to think about religions is as cultures of *response*: response to the world we find ourselves in, and response to that which we identify as sacred or holy.

    That means religion isn’t some kind of magical solution to the problem of changing our cultural attitudes toward crapitalism, fossil fuel consumption, industrialised food production, climate change, microplastic pollution, or anything else. All the problems you find in any group of humans will also be in a group of religious humans, including our lack of long-term thinking and our ability to put problems that are out of sight out of our minds.

    That said, religions that have been around for a while usually have something to say about a lot of human problems. Within Christianity there is quite a bit about how to deal with food poverty, from the gleaning laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, to the miraculous feeding of the five thousand from one boy’s lunch (however you want to interpret the miraculous bit of it, it’s clear that the disciples were initially reluctant because they were tired and hungry themselves, and this was not considered a good enough reason to let the crowd go hungry), to Matthew 25:31-40 (look it up on oremus.org if you’re curious). Over and over and over we’re told to look after one another.

    I don’t want this comment to turn into a sermon! But… I don’t think we need to invent a new religion in order to have a cultural movement toward a more sustainable future: the material is already there in the religions we have (or at least some of them), and the relationships people have within those faith communities are already there too. By all means use the ideas of liberation theology or the Zapatistas or the communists — but don’t throw out the good in your own culture (religious or otherwise) in the process. Rather, those of us who are already religious, or already belong to a culture, need to do the work of finding or forming a coherent theology/methodology/philosophy of surviving climate change within the traditions we already inhabit, because that is what is most likely to speak to the other people within our own communities; and then we need to put our money where our mouths are and act.

    Where I often get bogged down is in trying to figure out what that action should be. I think, as in a garden, it’s less important for everyone to take the exactly right action than it is to have what my anarchist friends would call diversity of tactics. My church has an eco-church award, as previously mentioned, as well as having a soup kitchen, food bank, clothes bank and of course the soup garden. Another church might have none of that but be committed to lobbying on housing and land reform, or to providing direct hospitality for asylum seekers (…who there will be more of if the pace of famines picks up), or some other thing. I have a garden and an allotment, not nearly as much as some of you have available for growing food, but I also have no car (yes, the twenty-something squashes which adorned my kitchen this past winter all came home with me on a bicycle).

    Is it enough? On a societal level, evidently not: we’re a long way, in practical terms, from the small farm future Chris envisages. But we can each only control what we do, and perhaps hope to gently influence those around us in the process. In my practice of Christianity there is an idea that faith isn’t a static thing where you get baptised and confirmed and then sortof gently bump along going to church on Sundays without engaging too much — we’re supposed to have a lively and active faith, a developing relationship with God, an increasing love for Jesus Christ, constantly improving capacity to serve, and so on. It’s not that we aren’t “good enough” for God as we are, so much as that we can always do better. The way this actually happens, though, is incremental and cyclical, otherwise a life of faith would be overwhelming and discouraging.

    So maybe the same thing applies in practical terms: maybe it’s less important to worry about whether I’ll ever be able to get out of the city and have a bit of land to call my own, and more important that I’m growing more of my own food than I was last year (even if some things are behind due to the cold spring). Maybe the same thing also applies in terms of the spirituality of a radically (i.e. rooted, as well as very different from the crapitalist status quo) sustainable practice: it’s less important to worry about whether spirituality can somehow be employed to fuel a movement for change, and more important to attend to whether the changes we make are spiritually fulfilling. (I think that if they are, they will also be compelling, though admittedly much can be lost in attempts at communication; and if they aren’t, they won’t in the end be satisfactory or sustainable even to ourselves.)

    • Thanks for that Kathryn. Much to agree with in it – particularly that religion isn’t a magic solution and that inventing a new one is less to the point than amplifying the possibilities within existing ones. My take on the latter front at a societal level is similar to what you’re saying at an individual level – a lively, active and changing engagement with what’s important in the tradition. I sketched some preliminary thoughts around this, mostly with reference to Christianity, in Chapter 16 of my book, but I want to come back to it.

      There are a whole series of questions about the relationships between religion, politics, social change and material circumstances, even in modern secular societies, which I think have greater importance than is often credited within those societies.

      I still have McCarraher’s ‘The Enchantments of Mammon’ in my to read pile, so will perhaps come back to this in 700+ pages time.

    • Many churches quietly and without advertising / shouting about it help as the book says ” store up your wealth in heaven ” .
      Our group helps with medical , drugs , doctors / hospital costs usually anonymously .

      • Medical care in a supersedure state is a whole other kettle of fish! In the UK we do still have the NHS.

        But yes: there are a lot of churches quietly picking up the pieces of lives that fall apart. In our case we have to shout about it at least a little bit, because our congregation is also mostly low income and so we need donations from the general public in order to keep things going.

    • Yes, if everyone calling themselves “Christian” actually made an effort to follow what Jesus is reported to have said, it would be a much different world.

      Try this: imagine Jesus meeting the Tainu in 1492 instead of Columbus

  11. OOPS cool thing posted …..
    We do not ask for praise or even be acknowledged , it is one of our duties to our fellow man .

  12. Coming at this from the perspective of how much land would we need to grow a year’s worth of food ( granted, it may not be fine dining but I think it would get us through to next year):
    Corn: 60 bushels of grain (~60 pounds per bu ) per acre from a low input organic system. If we ate a pound of corn per day it comes out to around 350# per year. 0.1 acre ( ~ 1/20 hectare for those working in metric units).
    Dry beans: 1500# / A. Two pounds per week ? 100#/ yr. 0.07 A, let’s call it a tenth.
    Soybeans 30 bu. / A. same as above.
    Wheat 40 bu/A. call that a tenth too.
    Potatoes We are still eating the cull and seconds from the 1/2 acre we grew for sales last year. 100 row feet ?
    Cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, etc. Half an acre ?

    All that leads me to think that we could grow all our food on an acre or so. We would need two for cover crop and rotation but we could probably tighten that up a little by overseeding corn and beans with small grain and clover, growing wheat and peas, etc.

    No fossil or alcohol fuels would make it harder but it is not out of the realm of possibility to do it with horses. I don’t know what it really takes to feed 4 working horses. The 25% rule of thumb must have a lower limit.

    Cities with 20 million people ( Mexico City, Beijing ) would struggle to feed themselves. Even cities like London, New York, or Los Angeles would have a hard time. But the reality is that usually most very poor rural people have always fed themselves.

    The rest of it seems like a failure of imagination. If we all drive electric cars climate change is solved and we can continue to consume and waste like there is no tomorrow. That is really true, at least for our grandkids… The world is going to be very different for humans, like it or not. Not understanding the scale and scope of the problem is the problem.


    • I think “two acres and a cow” is the traditional number.

      If we all switched to electric cars tomorrow we would still have particulate and microplastic pollution (from tyres and brakes), wear and tear on roads, and the various problems of road congestion to deal with; and that’s before looking at other sources of fossil fuel use like heating our homes, cooking, and manufacturing.

        • Interesting site Ernie. Though I imagine 8-9 people per acre does depend upon some pretty special acres.

          One of the 8 concepts to follow is plant open pollinated seed. Not a bad suggestion in and of itself, but it does limit one to landrace or OP corn, sorghum, and other crops that will do rather well once hybridized. And creating a hybrid for someone already in the save your own seed category isn’t too difficult a task to master. The payback in yield improvement is more than worth the extra step in seed production.

          • Good points, Clem. I’m pretty sure that Jeavons gardens in northern California, where I suspect some of the most “special acres” are to be found. That being said, there are thousands of mini-farms globally who have taken up Jeavons’s “Grow Biointensive” method, and part of the billing is that, thanks to a rigorous focus on rapid soil building, the method can create special acres (although perhaps not quite as special as northern California acres) in a wide variety of locations.

  13. The “green ” electric revolution is not going to happen , far too much environmental damage will occur to allow it to happen , out here in West TX the green lobby groups including members of the sierra club , are against more windmills / solar farms . Far too much bird kill amongst endangered species .
    There may be some E cars ( For the very rich ) but no E trucks , a 80,000 pound truck has a 6000 pound payload when batteries are used , they are simply not energy dense enough .
    Even in the rail there is no mention of battery trains ,they have no weight problem , they tried it on the 1930’s with lead acid batteries they failed for one major reason , one days work , four days charging , one locomotive to eight ” tenders ” . Charging times between lead acid and lithium are not that different .
    How the language is couched is a con , I read that the UK was 50% “energy “, FF free at some point last year , notice the word ” energy ” not “electricity ” was used , this was a patent falsehood as “electricity ” is 20% of the ” energy ” used in the UK every day and half of that was FF free , 10% of total demand / use .

  14. Hold that comment Greg and repost it a couple more posts down the line – I’ll be discussing such matters in relation to Chapter 11 of my book – ‘Can alternative agriculture feed us?’ But thanks for those thoughts – I’m planning to come back to this.

    Likewise with renewable energy, a perennial favourite on this website to which we must return anon. There’s much to be said for clean electrification, but indeed it seems unlikely that we’ll reach anything like present levels of energy usage in the near term, especially worldwide – with significant implications for how we live and how we farm.

    “We do not ask for praise or even be acknowledged” is a good lead in to yet another upcoming post … I have work to do!

    • I’ll say. It is getting to be summer and everything needs to be planted.

      Other than that, it is getting harder to find numbers for the embodied energy in solar panels. Do they generate significantly more energy than it takes to make them ? Are they a boondoggle or not ? Ethanol fuels are a hot topic in the corn belt but they may be a wash when it comes to ROI in energy. The unintended consequences of pesticides is completely ignored for now. Is high tech solar in the same boat ?

      We have not coughed up the dough for solar because I’m not convinced that manufacturing and etching solar cells is a ‘sustainable’ solution.


      • According to this study https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms13728.pdf
        “For every doubling of installed PVcapacity, there is a decrease in energy use of 13% and 12% and in greenhouse gas footprint of production of 17 and 24%, for poly and monocrystalline based PVsystems, respectively. As a result, there is a break-even since 2011 between the cumulative detriments and benefits of PV, in terms of both energy use and greenhouse gas emissions for a scenario that takes into account PV production location over time and a realistic PV performance scenario. Taking into account a worst-case PV performance scenario and model uncertainties, break even occurs in 2017 for net energy, and in 2018 for greenhouse gas emissions avoidance.”

      • I also found this report which paints a less rosy picture mainly due to prices and eventual limitations on several metals. https://www.iea.org/news/clean-energy-demand-for-critical-minerals-set-to-soar-as-the-world-pursues-net-zero-goals
        That pesky variable….price!
        So, what seems obvious to me is that we need design products that will last longer (i.e. eliminate planned obsolescence, design products that are easier to recycle, invest in more recycling facilities, AND reduce our need for automobiles. Urban sprawl in the US and zoning depends on automobiles to get from home to work and shopping. If we realize that families in the future may only have one automobile instead of 2-4, we can rezone accordingly. We also need to make public transportation more available and easier to use. We also need to reduce energy consumption in buildings.
        Thus, less driving and less home energy use means we don’t need as many solar panels, wind turbines, and EVs.

        • I notice you don’t mention bicycles in this comment.

          I know I’m not in the US suburbs but in Britain, but I am forty years old, do not have a driving license and have truly never felt I needed to own a car. Riding a bicycle has been a huge help in that.

          A bicycle is eminently more repairable than the cars of today. My single speed (which is my emergency “backup” bike) is something I can generally repair myself; my seven-speed enclosed hub bike is similar, though eventually (not sure when, they last literally decades) the rear hub will need replacing… I could theoretically do that (I don’t have a truing stand but building one of those is pretty trivial) but let’s just say that wheel building is a skilled job it makes sense to pay someone else to do. My e-assist adapted bike (for hauling larger loads or making longer journeys on bad jointcrap days) can still be ridden when the battery is totally dead; if I were a bit more computer-oriented I could do various bits of electronic diagnostics on it, too, but ultimately if I decide to convert that bike back to an acoustic it’s a matter of replacing the bottom bracket and the pedals, both of which are very standard parts. I do usually get others to do repair and servicing, and in doing so I support my local bike shops.

          All of this costs me a fraction of what even one car would cost me.

          I despair a bit that so many people who live in cities feel like they need to own cars. It’s one thing if you work as a delivery driver or do other variable on-site work of course, but those aren’t family cars anyway. For everyone else? Surely staying local most of the time, and maybe renting a vehicle for the odd occasion when you need to go further afield, is much more cost effective and efficient.

          And yes, I live in the UK… but I grew up in Canada, largely in suburbs that are pretty similar to US ones, and I didn’t feel the need to learn to drive there either. Winter was more challenging, but “stay home more in winter when the roads are bad” is something I can get behind, humanity has done this for a long time.

          The one area where it does seriously limit me is in trying to find suitable land for a smallholding of some sort. Not driving means we’ll really need to be close to some kind of town or village, preferably with a train station, and the option of finding somewhere to live and a separate bit of land 20 miles or so away (a pretty short drive, but more ambitious with a bike trailer full of whatever) is simply not sensible for us. The allotment is 2.5 miles, and pretty manageable, though I don’t visit daily. I wouldn’t want to go much further than four or five miles if I were looking after livestock, and I’d want the roads to be pretty cycle-friendly too. So that’s a major potential issue, but I’m not really willing to compromise on the driving side of things — I can’t afford it anyway, especially if I’m saving up to buy a bit of land.

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