A small farm future: some lessons from Ukraine

A couple of people suggested I might write something about the situation in Ukraine and associated events in relation to my thinking about a small farm future. There are two good reasons why I think I probably shouldn’t do that, one not such good reason, and one reason why I should.

The two good reasons are, first, it’s a bad intellectual habit to assimilate every new event as retrospective proof of one’s prior position, and, second, it’s a bad ethical practice to use the death and suffering of multitudes as an excuse to say ‘I told you so’. The less good reason is that I’ve never been to Ukraine and don’t know much about it. It’s less good because, judging by the proliferation of op-eds and hot takes, that’s been no bar to others. Maybe I should join the club?

The reason why I should is simply that when someone suggests I write something about an important topic, the chances of me avoiding it are about the same as a moth avoiding a flame. So I’ll concede at the outset, while trying to keep the contrary reasons in mind. In what follows, I identify nine themes I discussed in A Small Farm Future that seem worth appraising in the light of the war in Ukraine.

First, though, I want to make a point about the strange reversals of history and personal biography. As a left-inclined teenager in the early 1980s, the possibility of nuclear annihilation arising from the conflict between the Soviet Union and the USA in concert with its western allies seemed real. Me and my fellow CND members were routinely pilloried by right-wing politicians and newspapers as at best useful idiots and at worst fifth columnists for the spread of global communism. One of my maths teachers had worked previously in aeronautics and missile design, telling us of his wish to invent a weapon so awful that people would be sure never to use it. At the time, that struck me as a bad civilizational bet. As it’s turned out, I’ve been lucky to live into advanced middle age. But it still strikes me as a bad civilizational bet.

Anyway, there’s surely an irony that the threat now looming of a global war that pits Russia against the west has arisen not from a complacent appeasement of communism, but from a complacent appeasement of a kleptocratic and authoritarian right-wing Russian government pursuing a capitalism largely constructed by the west. The Russian regime has wormed its way deeply into the politics of its western counterparts, and differs from them largely just in its degree of sophistication and lip service to noblesse oblige. With liberals singing another verse of that old song “it shouldn’t be allowed to happen”, and elements of the hard left and hard right converging for different reasons on a more or less qualified support for Russia, not for the first time in my political life I’m looking for the box to tick called ‘none of the above’.

But let me move onto the nine themes from A Small Farm Future that I said I was going to raise, which are as follows:

1. Homo symbolicus

It’s almost a cliché nowadays that the world we experience emerges from the stories people weave about it. But it’s in the nature of clichés to often be essentially true. In A Small Farm Future I discussed this via the notion of ‘symbolic goods’ or a ‘symbolic economy’.  Three of the symbolic fictions I discussed in the book were money, the notion of progress and human control of nature (manifested in money … and in energy), and the notion of the nation. All of these are heavily in play in current events. At historical junctures like this, opportunities arise to change the stories we tell about the world, or to entrench them. Often, it’s easier to entrench them. With energy prices spiking alarmingly, various western leaders are talking about going easy on the already easy commitments of the COP26 climate agreements, and have been courting oil states otherwise recalcitrant to their preferred politics like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela in the hope of opening the oil spigot (a recalcitrance that no doubt is possible precisely because they’re oil states). The UK government is licensing further gas and oil exploration in the North Sea and talking about reviewing the case for fracking. An entrenched story of cheap money, cheap energy and cheap politics that may end up entrenching us all.

2. The arable corner: or, don’t put all your eggs in one breadbasket

In Chapter 5 of my book, I analyzed the way that humanity has boxed itself into a corner of overreliance on a handful of arable crops – cereals above all, and also grain legumes and oilseeds. This overreliance also manifests in growing dependence on a handful of breadbasket countries, including Russia and Ukraine, to feed the world. Current events have forced the mainstream news cycle to acknowledge some aspects of this and discover the concept of food security.

But only some aspects. There’s been little questioning about the overreliance on a handful of crops and a handful of breadbaskets in general. The questioning has just focused on the overreliance on Russia and Ukraine – a questioning that, as per my previous theme, involves doubling down on an old arable corner narrative, which goes like this: instead of relying on a fossil energy intensive and basically monocrop-oriented global agriculture we should rely on a fossil energy intensive and basically monocrop-oriented national agriculture.

There are three poorly examined assumptions in this non-radical narrative shift, which I’ll explore under my next three headings.

3. Don’t put all your eggs in one energy basket

Overreliance on Russian fossil energy has, of course, been another recent theme. Overreliance on fossil energy in general, not so much. Indeed, as I mentioned above, far from taking Russia’s off piste lurch from the well-groomed slopes of the global political economy as a hint that we should Just Stop Oil, the main take home message seems to have been that we should just look harder for it somewhere else.

This unshakeable need for cheap and easily available energy is an energy corner, or an energy trap, that parallels the arable corner, suggesting to me that the governments of the world are simply incapable of addressing how we can back out of these corners altogether. But, to stick with agriculture, the energy corner meets the arable corner in the notion that we need to ramp up local grain production, possibly by ploughing more land, using more fertilizer and trimming back fond hopes of nature-friendly farming. Of course, the fossil energy demands of this arable corner push us further into the energy corner. Press Repeat.

4. Fewer eggs, more baskets

An awful lot of global arable cropland, and the energy use associated with it, is devoted to producing fodder for livestock that we don’t need to eat. So if we’re facing a grain and energy squeeze, an easy way to make do with less is to stop using grain and energy for the wasteful feeding of livestock. We can’t necessarily just stop doing that overnight. But we can at least just start debating it and seriously planning for it overnight. And we’re not.

Just to reiterate the position I charted in A Small Farm Future, I’m not arguing for stock-free farming, which I think would be unwise in lower energy systems. I’m arguing instead that we back ourselves out of the arable corner through more diverse and resilient mixed local farming systems where livestock complement rather than compete with the production of crops for human consumption. Fewer eggs, more baskets.

5. The economy is social

I spent some time in A Small Farm Future discussing how the world is imprisoned today by two 18th century ideas: first, if we all selfishly look to our own gain and, second, if we all focus on the things that gain us the most monetarily, then this brings the greatest benefit to everybody. If there was ever any substance to these ideas, it’s long disappeared under the weight of their numerous downsides.

Those downsides were obvious enough to many people prior to the war in Ukraine. The war has simply furnished further illustrations of them. Here’s two that have passed across my screen:

With the hike in fertilizer and energy prices, a British farmer told a radio interviewer that he was planning not to sow any crops this year, feeling that he would probably make more money by selling his existing stock of fertilizer to other farmers.
Meanwhile, the UNCTAD Rapid Assessment Report on the impact of the war in Ukraine shows high levels of dependence on Russian and Ukrainian wheat imports in many African countries, including countries of the Sahara and Sahel already rocked by climate change, state failure and ethno-religious conflicts stoked by global geopolitics, creating in the words of the report “alarm for food security and political stability”.

Ultimately, the logic of specialization and maximizing net present value in a historically unequal world means people are forced to rely for basic food sustenance on players in other parts of the world over whom they have no control and who have no fundamental stake in their wellbeing. We need to update the memo from 18th century economics: if we all selfishly look to our own gain, and focus on the things that gain us the most monetarily, then a lot of people needlessly suffer – possibly including ourselves in the long run.

The alternative is for people to build local food systems geared to feeding themselves. This requires economic protectionism, which I believe the 21st century economic theory to come will show is a good thing once it’s got over its 18th century hangover, provided the economy is socialized sufficiently to penalize overly self-interested local economic actors.

But that’s another new(s) story that’s yet to emerge from the old.

6. Of migration and the death zone

I mentioned in my book Étienne Balibar’s idea that the world is increasingly divided between ‘life zones’ and ‘death zones’. Death zones are created by climate change, water scarcity, historical conflict, global power politics and 18th century economic theory. Life in the life zones prospers to a considerable degree as a result of death in the death zones. The death zones are proliferating, and people understandably try to move out of them to the life zones. Some of these refugees get a warmer welcome in the life zones than others.

All this was clear enough before the war. Perhaps the war has just further dramatized the fact that it’s hard to be sure where a new death zone may emerge. Which I’d hope might encourage a more welcoming, ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ kind of attitude towards refugees. The current distribution of the world’s population is based on the pattern of a capitalist global political economy emerging in a 280ppm CO2 atmosphere. The future distribution will be based on the pattern of local agrarian political economies in a 400++ppm atmosphere. That’s going to mean that people in the future will live in different sorts of places in different sorts of numbers to the present, which implies a lot of human movement. Ultimately, there’s nothing anyone can do to stop that movement. But of course they will try, and their efforts will create yet more needless suffering.

7. Fakin’ it: of nationalism … and the news

I discussed in A Small Farm Future the nation as a narrative or symbolic good – and the fact that for every nationalist narrative there are usually various counter-narratives. Such narratives and counter-narratives have, of course, been fundamental to the war in Ukraine and its representations in Ukraine itself, in Russia, in the West, in China, and elsewhere. Some political thinkers – right, left and green – have emphasized the positive aspects of nationalist narratives for improving the world. I expressed my doubts about that in my book.

I’m even more doubtful now. Maybe there was a stronger case for it in a sub 350ppm world trying to find a multilateral way out of colonialism and global war. But I think the dark side of nationalism has always been, as they say, a feature and not a bug. As I see it, the narratives of the nation need to be junked all the way down to the ground – which is a difficult and perhaps impossible thing to do, but, pace Anatol Lieven, a necessary one. It must include, I think, even nationalisms forged in adversity against a larger foe of the kind that have been brewing in Ukraine. It certainly must include imperial manifest destiny nationalisms of the kind that have long animated the USA, western Europe and Russia.

It would be easier to make a case for rebuilding a world of nation-states if some level of basic trust remained in the goodwill of governments and national news sources towards truth-telling and general human betterment. But after the last decade or so of infowars – Putin, Trump, Johnson, Cummings, Brexit, Climategate, Covid, Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, deepfakes, you name it – that trust has gone. It’s always struck me how much bureaucratic, police and medical intervention goes without public questioning into establishing the true facts around a single human death. Yet how insouciantly we dismiss the deaths of hundreds, thousands or millions as probably not even real when it doesn’t suit our narrative. Homo symbolicus. Still, there will always be some who stand witness, and I salute them.

8. The supersedure state

I argued in A Small Farm Future that the best option for creating a new congenial agrarianism will be in the gaps that develop in the reach of the modern state. I never suggested this was anything but a hopeful possibility, but even so the war has made me ponder this anew. It’s easy to chafe against the pettifogging restrictions of the overmighty modern state when you live under one, while neglecting its advantages over living in a death zone where the writ of the state doesn’t run. Still, I’m not arguing against the community services and basic peace that states at their best can orchestrate. I’m arguing that increasingly states will be unable or unwilling to orchestrate these things, and we will start to see states operating more often at their worst than their best, as in the present situation. So I’m sticking with my argument: increasingly, the onus will be on people as citizens themselves to build from the bottom up such supportive architecture as they deem they need to live well that has previously been associated with ‘the state’ but that they can no longer entrust to the modern institutions bearing that name. I just hope that most of the rebuilding won’t have to occur out of the ruins of war.

9. Mutual aid

Therefore, I think it’s a good idea to exercise our mutual aid muscles. A grower’s group I’m a part of got a plea for seeds and tools from Ukrainian horticulturists. We got together what we could and our collective offerings were dispatched in a van to Ukraine. It was an easy thing to do and it doesn’t count for much. But hopefully it counts for something. I went to a talk around that time from a Conservative MP who complained about the random generosity of the British public, and the logistical snafus involved in the endless vans strung along highways and border posts between here and Ukraine for the want of a more organized relief effort.

He’s probably right. But it’s the same as the argument about donating to homelessness charities rather than directly to a beggar on the street. The charity will no doubt make better use of the money, but the human connection of giving when someone asks and looking into their eyes goes beyond price. Ultimately, if anything sees us through into the next phase of history it will be human connectedness, not organizational efficiency.

36 thoughts on “A small farm future: some lessons from Ukraine

  1. And speaking of misallocation of agricultural resources. I listened to an interview with a “Ukrainian” “farmer” this week. He was from the Netherlands and moved to the Ukraine when the old Soviet system collapsed and bought a farm. Today he owns and farms 40,000 acres, largely supplying grain to Egypt (a country famous for feeding themselves and others until this past century), Pakistan, and Morocco. He also maintains a herd of 2000 dairy cows. And he has a little hobby farm operation he just started of 250 sows. He is your poster child, Chris. Of course, the interviewer wished him safety. He thanked her, currently he and his family are safe, back in the Netherlands. He is struggling, though. Many of his workers have either volunteered in the army or left the country. He was anxious about the future.

    • I believe this is an update on the same farmer (from 7.50sec for a snapshot of the US grain market, 8.50sec for the interview). The sheer scale(s) involved is interesting – too much grain to export via rail, contrasted with flour mills in all Ukrainian villages and towns – as well as the first hand experience of farming during a war.
      https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0016310

      • Thanks for that link Simon.

        A point made by one of the interviewees – US corn planting intentions will likely be reduced by 4% because of the increase in N price. For a 90 million acre crop this is a 3.6 million acre decrease. For context, this is an area roughly four times the size of Somerset.

        Much of the decrease will be absorbed by increase in soy acres – and this size of change to the year on year fluctuation in the US corn/soy balance is not atypical. In season planting weather can affect this relationship to a similar degree.

        Perhaps more salient (and rightly observed by the interviewee) the US nitrogen supply hasn’t been compromised – N is available; just seriously more expensive. There are, however, places where N is not available.

  2. With the hike in fertilizer and energy prices, a British farmer told a radio interviewer that he was planning not to sow any crops this year, feeling that he would probably make more money by selling his existing stock of fertilizer to other farmers.

    Fascinating. At the moment futures prices for commodity crops make such an assessment seem a tad ridiculous. Planting time in the Ukrainian breadbasket quickly approaches. I’m of a mind that if Putin gives up and pulls the Russian army out of Ukraine today the damages already inflicted will compromise the ability to produce the food that would have been produced without his intervention. Taking other land out of production voluntarily or otherwise seems counterproductive.

    Sometimes we say things for the effect. Sort of like leading a comment with ‘what rubbish’…. And I suppose there are other times a reporter quotes a remark for much the same ultimate purpose. And there is also the likelihood that none of us has a complete grasp on what the future holds – so anything we say may look pretty foolish within a few days or weeks of an utterance.

    But to change gears a bit and perhaps riff on your notion of life zones and death zones – it has been interesting of late to see opinions of migrant hospitality (particularly here in the US) changing. I’m not close enough to the European situation, but I still get the sense that the welcome mat for Ukrainian refugees looks a mite different there than for those from Syria or Africa. And here stateside the welcome mat is more than a mite different when one substitutes Central America for Syria or Africa.

  3. Maybe all wars, but certainly this one can seem such an unwieldy subject to discuss at times, so I appreciate you shining your light on it, Chris. Once again I come away informed, impressed, and feeling on the same wavelength in general.
    Fair point from Clem about the welcome mat. I can only think that this latest hemorrhaging of refugees is practically all women and young children, and that does appear to be drawing forth a very different response.
    Closer to home, the new faces in our village tell us they have received too many clothes and almost too much food. At the weekend my daughter became fast friends with a small Ukranian girl with big brown eyes. In the absence of a shared language they ran around and played for a while, stopping briefly from time to time to spontaneously hug one another. They wouldn’t know a language barrier from a bar of soap. Way to go!

    • They wouldn’t know a language barrier from a bar of soap.

      Beautiful. Thanks for sharing that.

      Too unfortunate we have to have this sort of catastrophe to remind us the human spirit is at its root still capable of such.

  4. Ukraine is probably the first real shot in the coming recourse wars , eastern Ukraine is resource rich the rest not so much . Russia has trillions of $ worth of untapped resources and a small population facing the West’s greed for commodities , 2014 was when the first shot was fired when the West ousted the elected government and dropped their own in , since then the don bas has been shelled at regular intervals even the U.N. has supplied humanitarian aid to that area and of course that is never mentioned in western media . Arbitrary maps drawn by arbitrary people forcing populations to live together .
    The next question to ask is how livable is Europe / UK without fossil fuels ? thousands head that way every day yet without energy many would freeze to death in a northern winter , they were burning sea coal in the 1500’s with a population 10% of what it is now , as energy supplies dry up they will be going the other way .
    Bad as things seem there is perhaps now a window to do something , I would love th be a fly on the wall in No10 when Bo Jo asks BP what they can do and BP shrugs his shoulders !

    • On not freezing to death…
      Retrospectively, the number one rule of real estate should have always been ‘insulation, insulation, insulation’.
      There’s some quite interesting info here, such as the new builds fit for a fossil-fuel free future on a farm in Notts.
      http://drharrall.com/blog/
      Straw bale versions are also feasible. Retrofitting current housing won’t be straightforward though.

  5. “Ultimately, if anything sees us through into the next phase of history it will be human connectedness, not organizational efficiency.”

    Hear hear!

    Efficient networks are brittle. Highly connected networks with some degree of redundancy are much more resilient.

    • True ! The EU common agriculture policy comes to mind .
      There is a report that 11% of Italian farmers are bankrupt , 30+% are in financial difficulty , the one size fits all does not work when policies try to shoe horn northern Ireland sheep farmers in with southern Italian olive farmers .
      Just in time delivery is just a nice way to say hand to mouth and that’s Fragile !
      Yup 12 people is about right + kids , everyone sees what everyone else is doing and learn the others skills .

  6. Wow, Chris!
    I saw what you did there, that was masterful.

    I’m going to ponder your methods and see if I can approximate your results.

    What am I talking about, you wonder?

    From point 8: “…the onus will be on people as citizens themselves to build from the bottom up such supportive architecture as they deem they need”

    From point 5: “The alternative is for people to build local food systems geared to feeding themselves.”

    I’ve been thinking about these sorts of issues for (especially) the last two years. Since we have entered into some weird interpersonal isolationism, at least where I live. I’d always thought that if we wanted to build a mutual aid society, or a new food system, or a new government, the way to start was to make a bunch of food and invite your neighbors over.

    It may be different where you live, but here in Kansas USA, even in the halcyon days ten years ago, that method only attracted a tiny fraction of our neighbors. Though the community picnics and art fairs, etc did somewhat better. Then 2016 happened, and people consciously sorted themselves by political affiliation.
    And now, post-2020, that sorting remains, but nearly everyone is avoiding meeting in groups larger than 12 people.

    But whatever, it’s sad, etc, I still have a few reliable friends, right?
    Except that I can’t talk with them about the news.
    The propaganda is so thick and deep, everybody I know is certain that they know more about the world news than is possible for any of us to know, and they tend to all repeat a very few well-rehearsed lines, no matter which political side they’ve picked.

    But it’s stupid to argue with my friends about the news. What could it possibly gain us?
    Still, I’m left with the impression that my friends are either not paying attention, or perhaps terribly naïve. Even so, there is nothing I can do to influence the trajectory of the disaster that is my country (other than tending my garden), why should I care what anybody believes?

    Answer: that feeling of isolation.

    I guess it’s good practice learning to keep my mouth shut.

    At least that blessed jewel of creative anarchy that is our little Tango dance group somehow has gotten through the fits and starts, and keeps sustaining us.
    We never started talking about politics. Just shut up and dance.

    Which is all to say that I’m pretty sure that I disagree with your political analysis of the current war, but I agree completely with your social analysis of what needs to be done so as to have a future.

    Thanks for listening.

    Thanks also Simon H for the story

    • Twelve people is a good number, I think.

      In a group of twelve you’ll probably have someone who likes to cook, someone with decent physical strength, someone with a house full of books, someone good with tools and machinery, someone good with animals, someone good with children, someone good with plants, and enough crossover for people to get help on projects they can’t complete themselves…

    • Communities do rally around , close to here wild fires caused all kinds of mayhem , some people have been loaned travel trailers to live in after their house burned down and clothes food and other necessities , local banks have replaced cards and cheque books to people that have an account but no form of identity left , just turn up with someone who knows you .
      Ranchers have had hay / feed delivered and cowboys turned up to drive livestock away from fire s and cut fences to get them to safety .

      • Yes, I am always encouraged when I see people coming together during a disaster.

        Though I wonder why it so often requires a disaster before people notice that we need each other.

        • Though I wonder why it so often requires a disaster before people notice that we need each other.

          Insightful question. If only there were a sociologist somewhere about…

          Without a disaster to steal our focus I think we wander about fumbling with our own individual perceived needs and wants. Our small group (12??) of dancers gets the next level of concern. And in the space between disasters I suppose that isn’t too bad a way to work. Disasters come in all shapes and sizes, which makes me wonder whether there is some correlate between the size of the disaster and its effect on widespread social solidarity. [now a statistically minded sociologist is needed… hmmmm]

        • Ha! Well, since I used to write articles about stats in social science for the website ‘Statistics Views’, I’m your man. Though tbh the bottom line of every single one of my articles was that society is far too complicated for mere statistics. A cop out, I know, but I mean how do we usefully quantify disaster scale and social solidarity?

          As to the galvanizing effect of disasters, I’ve been re-reading Alisdair MacIntyre’s ‘After Virtue’ lately. He argues that medieval minds were generally pre-galvanized by the idea that human institutions were fragile and vulnerable. No doubt you could argue this was because medieval social life *was* more fragile and vulnerable but, with MacIntyre, I think it goes deeper than that. In my expert opinion, our contemporary unpreparedness arises because in modern life we’re strongly committed to the (erroneous) idea that we can predict and instrumentally shape physical reality in accordance with our will. Well, we’ll see…

          • how do we usefully quantify disaster scale and social solidarity?

            OR – rather than attempt to explain how we are (lifeworld) why not try to imagine a future where a social system is put in place to ramp up social solidarity in the face of mounting disasters (system).

            Neither simple obviously. But one looks back, the other to the future.

          • Maybe one of the reasons I don’t see eye to eye with so many people is that I have a very strong sense of the provisionality of everything, and less confidence in my own power in the face of forces larger and more complex than I can comprehend. I spent large portions of my childhood attempting to exercise some control over a harmful situation and I learned that I couldn’t do it.

            So — I’m really not going to beat entropy, in the end (unless we get into religious eschatology, but this is perhaps not the time or place for an in-depth discussion of the Harrowing of Hell). I don’t think we can stop the greedy from being greedy; I don’t think we can significantly convince large numbers of people to do things that are beneficial but inconvenient and uncomfortable at the scale necessary to prevent the next century being really, really grim. Theologically this would be the point at which to mumble something about an apple, something about a serpent.

            That doesn’t mean I lack all agency, though. I couldn’t change my childhood situation but I sure did learn some interesting coping skills (some of which are more helpful than others in adulthood). I can’t change the way the world will be five days from now, or five years, or fifty, but maybe I can make it better for my household, my neighbourhood, my church community, without relying on unsustainable exploitation of planet or people.

            Effects matter as much as intentions do, but there is a certain freedom in saying “I know I can’t get the outcome I want” and trying to do some good anyway. If everything is provisional then every improvement, no matter how small, is cause for hope.

            Time to go check on the peas, though.

  7. So – thanks for the nudge, Brian. It’s about time I raised my game and upscaled. So let’s now say the cutoff point for small farm localism rests at an absentee owner with 40,000 acres.

    Also thanks for the reality check, Clem. Neither fertilizer prices nor grain futures prices are things that make their presence felt in my day to day work, so it’s good for me to hear about these things.

    And for a different kind of reality check, Simon. Interesting how language barriers mean less to children. And how much the generosity is flowing in your village.

    Re Diogenes, indeed I likewise suspect energy for space and water heating is likely to be a big post fossil fuel reality check in northern Europe, at least under current climatic assumptions. More so than food production. Amazing really how badly insulated many homes have been, even ones built at a time when people ought to have known better.

    Thanks also Eric for another reality check, though I’m still trying to work out exactly what it is … and exactly what it was I did that was masterful, and whether you really disagree with my analysis or if you’re operating at a level that’s way too meta for me. Anyway, I agree that defining a common basis for living in a community with other people is a major contemporary problem, and it’s getting worse. Part of my argument has always been that it gets easier if you focus on the gritty realities of local livelihood making. But people indeed are often loth to do that until they really have to, by which time it may be too late. Is there a case, perhaps, for learning to take our political positions a bit less seriously and taking other people’s humanity a bit more seriously?

    Finally, thanks Kathryn for that numerical offering. Roughly the number of people that’s been living on our holding of late, as it happens. But maybe we still need to cover a few more bases.

    • Ha!

      Yeah, I really don’t have much practice at sincerity, but I really did mean what I said literally, and I wasn’t being meta, as far as I can tell.

      Yes, I really do disagree with your political reading of the current war. And that doesn’t make any damn difference.

      “…learning to take our political positions a bit less seriously and taking other people’s humanity a bit more seriously”

      Exactly.

      Which is what I found masterful in your post. You presented an excellent example of how we can disagree on something trivial (but fraught) like politics, but still agree on the important things that we can work together on.
      Like making sure that our neighbors have something to eat and a place to live.

      And I do believe that encouraging people to dance with each other is the most important thing that I do.

      Thanks again.

      • Ok, thanks for the clarification.

        I suppose in the light of our agreeing on the important stuff, it would be wrong of me to ask you to explain where you disagree with me on the unimportant political stuff?

        Just so I can get all shouty and self-righteous about why you’re obviously wrong…

  8. When there is food on the table there are many problems. When there is no food on the table there is one problem”. Chinese proverb.

  9. The death zones are proliferating, and people understandably try to move out of them to the life zones. Some of these refugees get a warmer welcome in the life zones than others.

    I’m going to be somewhat counter-intuitive in my take on this, but please don’t mistake it for racist cruelty.

    Right now, the modern rich world is the “life zone” but it’s also a “killing zone” because it’s destroying the biosphere (in addition to other depredations it’s inflicting on existing “death zones”). The very last thing the world needs is to expand the killing zone, but that’s the very thing that happens when people move from a poor country to a rich country.

    Indeed, there will be a very great temptation, resulting from demographic changes that are becoming pervasive in the modern world, to turn to immigration for young workers. Most people will see only the positive in this. Poor people get to escape poverty. Migrants are welcomed rather than shunned or left to die and rapidly ageing populations of affluent moderns get to be well taken care of in their old age. Modern economies are boosted by an influx of young workers. Influxes of people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds result in a much more multicultural population, something that many people, including me, enjoy greatly.

    But there is a very great negative resulting from migrations of refugees or economic migrants from poor countries to wealthy countries: they are more or less rapidly integrated into the life of the wealthy country and they become far more affluent than they were before they moved. The killing zone of modernity just gets bigger and bigger. And as the killing zone expands, more people are incorporated into the death zone.

    So, while it may be counter-intuitive as can be, we don’t need to turn the death zones into our current life zones, we need our life zones to rapidly become more like existing death zones, or at least let them shrink as fast as demographically possible. Mass migration into areas of relative affluence can only make things worse (except, of course, for the migrants). The reverse, migrations from rich countries to poor countries, although very unkikely, might very well make things better.

    So, one good thing from the war in Ukraine is the turmoil it’s causing in the oil, gas and metals markets, which will put great downward pressure on the economies of the rich world, something we should welcome. The war going is going to shrink the “killing zone” at least a little bit, especially if the vast majority of refugees from Ukraine return home when it’s safe, which I think they will. If very many of those refugees do stay in Europe they will just expand the killing zone.

    I think it’s a pity that it takes things like a pandemic or a war to put a dent in the growth of modernity, but there we are. Despite decades of predictions and warnings about the danger and unsustainability of modern civilization, we just keep expanding it as fast as we can. If it goes on much longer, the whole world will be a death zone.

    • I see Joe’s point as applied to the near future, but I couldn’t get behind policies which would condone present-day suffering in “death zones” because of some theoretical greater good that’s based on assumptions about life and death zones in the future. I think the “death zone” and migration situations will turn out to be much more complicated.

      Looking at Japan as an example of a present-day “life zone”, the country relies on international trade for about 63% of its food (on a calorie basis, 2020). In simplified terms, Japan’s current production of food could feed around 37% of 126 million = 47 million people.

      Back in 1965, Japan’s food self-sufficiency ratio was 73%, so it could similarly feed 73% of the 1965 population of 99 million = 72 million.

      “The food self-sufficiency ratio, which indicates how much of domestic food supplies are covered by domestic production, was 73 percent in calorie terms in fiscal 1965 when the ministry started compiling the data.
      The rate showed a declining trend since then to post around 40 percent or less since fiscal 2020.
      More specifically, the rate was 37.17 percent in fiscal 2020”
      http://english.agrinews.co.jp/?p=10064

      Reduced international trade of food (for whatever reasons) could lead to periods when Japan is a “death zone” (along with other  places which are currently “life zones”.) As domestic food production intensifies and population decreases, these places could eventually become “life zones” supporting a smaller population.

      A “death zone” with significant agricultural production potential (like in the Ukraine currently?) could potentially become a “life zone” during periods of food shortages in the future.

  10. Thanks for further comments. Only time for a brief response to a couple…

    I strongly endorse Kathryn’s sense of humility about possibilities for positive change. It’s a feature of modernist thinking in its various forms – neoliberalism, Marxism etc – that there is some privileged transformative force (the market, the proletariat) available to sort everything out. I don’t think there is. But that insight can, I think, direct us towards other useful political projects.

    To Joe’s points, yes I appreciate where you’re coming from. I still don’t think attempts to prevent death zone to life zone migration will be effective, or ethical. But as systemic dysfunctions multiply, the lines get blurred. One of my arguments is that population pressure through in-migration to the world’s remaining life zones could result in political pressures for a small farm future which might not otherwise manifest.

    Maybe it’s worth thinking about it in terms of intra-national migration too? How about a scenario where, say, New York City starts looking more of a death zone, while upstate New York or Vermont are life zones that start drawing more people? Of course, the money in NYC might help to defray some of the approaching death temporarily, but as King Canute showed there’s only so much that human power can achieve long-term in the face of rising sea levels and other such feedback mechanisms.

      • Looks like net zero is coming faster every day , Europe seems to be looking at electricity price increasing by 100_% this year , BASF is saying that the loss of gas will cause 400.000 job losses as BASF close plant ,LIDL states some food prices will increase by 20% on Monday , Poland is rationing diesel , the UK is also talking of rationing diesel , Russia supplies 40% of Europe’s gas , the max the USA can provide is 6% and there is nowhere else to get it from , I doubt Putin is stupid enough to provide gas to keep Europe’s munition factories going , Europe’s industries are toast unless the politics change soon its looking more and more like collapse .

        • Hungary gets almost all its gas and over half its oil from Russia, so for the time being net zero remains a pipe dream. That said, most people where I live don’t live affluent lifestyles, peasantry is a living memory, and Orbán has put a price freeze on many staple goods.
          Visits to our local Ukrainian refugees has turned into a weekly fixture, mainly for my wife and children it has to be said. As they fled their cities in winter clothes, a boxful of women’s spring footwear was delivered this weekend, some pairs brand new, but most with one careful lady owner, never raced or rallied. They were very gratefully received. But the take-home ‘lesson from Ukraine’ voiced several times this weekend was if only we had more women in power, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

  11. Also thanks to Clem for linking the interesting article by Lind. I’m working fairly actively at the moment on the question of civic republicanism – hope to report back here in due course, not least on some of the points raised in the article.

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