Promethean porn and Malthusian mistakes: a letter to Leigh Phillips

Dear Leigh

Hello, my name is Mr Puck. I heard about your new book, Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn-Addicts: A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff. Now, a title involving the word ‘porn’ that isn’t actually about, er, porn usually indicates something that’s well worth not reading (yes, reader, I know, I know – but you’ve come this far already). However, I’m interested in these issues so I decided I’d at least take a look at the blurb for your book and the puff-piece you wrote for it in The Guardian.

Your publisher, Zero Books, sets itself against what it calls the ‘cretinous anti-intellectualism’ of contemporary culture. That’s refreshing. And your book blurb promises a ‘combative and puckish’ style. Well, we greens do have a reputation for humour-free self-righteousness, and I’m all in favour of the mordant wit and trenchant analysis I associate with puckish writers. So, bracing myself, I settled down to read a little of your writing. Unfortunately, rather than the puck-wit I was expecting, another word soon came to mind that sounds very similar but means something different. I’ve spent a fair bit of time recently combatting the idiocies of so-called ‘ecomodernism’1 and I’ve tried to swear off further critique to focus instead on a more positive agenda of localist producerism, which is what I’ll be turning to in my next cycle of blog posts. But everybody needs to sound off once in a while, and after reading your epically fatuous thinking on this topic for me that time is now. The ‘progress-through-growth’ and ecomodernist tropes seem to acquire a spurious gravitas by simple repetition, so though I don’t have the luxury of a Guardian article to play with, I do feel obliged to do what I can to prevent the deluge and try to put my finger, however small, in the dyke. Besides, I can use your writing as a foil to make a few points about capitalist development and anti-Malthusianism that fit into my larger project. So below I offer some appropriately scattered responses to your scatter-brained thoughts.

Let’s begin with a quotation from your book blurb:

“the back-to-the-land ideology and aesthetic of locally-woven organic carrot-pants, pathogen-encrusted compost toilets and civilisational collapse is hegemonic”

I somehow get the sense that your publisher’s campaign against cretinous anti-intellectualism doesn’t run too deep. But anyway, back-to-the-land ideology is hegemonic? Are you serious? Could you give me your figures on the proportion of school-leavers or career-changers going into farming in developed countries? Or the proportion of government policies in said countries that promote the interests of small-scale local farming? What I think you really mean is that a handful of people are getting their voices heard about a new agrarianism, and you don’t like it. If only it were that easy to turn wishful thinking into hegemony…

Let’s talk some more about compost toilets, and let’s link it to your defence of growth. Because  actually I want to defend growth too – childhood growth. Research suggests that more than half the people of India, and almost three-quarters of rural people, have no access to a toilet2. They defecate in the open, and the illnesses this causes stunts childhood growth and haunts the future of those it affects. The Democratic Republic of Congo, a country with a GDP per capita only about a quarter that of India, has more than four times the level of access to toilets for its population. So not much link between economic progress and human welfare there. There is no evidence to my knowledge that compost toilets are any more pathogen-encrusted than other designs. All you need to make one is a bit of wood, plastic or straw. Surely a champion of the poor such as yourself should be extolling their virtues?

Meanwhile, here in Britain the majority of sewage sludge is returned to agricultural soils. And a darned good thing, too, though few seem aware of it. Does that make all our toilets compost toilets? Maybe, but what a process! We purify water, then foul it, then mix it with heavy metals from road runoff, then purify it again, remove the metals as best we can and then truck it from sewage plant to field. And folks say that small-scale, off grid farming is inefficient…

You’re not alone among the progress-through-growth crowd in singling out compost toilets for particular disdain3. But, honestly, these analyses are such worthless crap that I wouldn’t bother adding them to my muck pile.

Let’s now turn to Malthus. In his Essay on the Principle of Population the old salt argued that there would be an exponential growth in human population but only a linear growth in food production, so that population would outstrip the food supply and result in famine. It turned out he was wrong about population growth, which was less than he predicted. He was also wrong about the growth in the food supply, which was also less than he predicted4. Hey ho. What Malthus’s error doesn’t mean is that humanity will face no resource squeezes in the future. This is important. Let’s look at it some more. You write,

“Unlike any other species, our per capita rate of material and energy throughput alters as a result of changes in technology and our political economy.”

That’s true. In 1983 our species consumed 59 million barrels of petroleum per day, whereas in 2013 we consumed 91 million barrels. So you’re right – our throughput of this dangerously polluting resource indeed has changed. In just thirty years our use of it has increased by over 50%.

You write: “Through technological advance, we can use less of something to produce the same amount…”

That’s also true. We can. But in fact we rarely do. Rebound effects and the economic logic of capitalist growth are such that we generally use even more of something to produce relatively more still (see the oil example above).

You add: “… or replace one raw material with another. We didn’t “run out” of whale blubber. We replaced it with kerosene.”

Could I submit a polite request for you progress-through-growthers to stop harping on about whales and come up with some other examples of resource substitution, preferably ones that are actually true? Oil didn’t ‘save the whales’. It nearly wiped them out. When you can show that the whole modernization package, with all its complex and often unforeseen interdependencies, is resource-sparing and resource-substituting in absolute terms compared to the past, only then can you extol the environmental benefits of modernization. I think the evidence runs against you.

Here’s where the Malthusian bogeyman derails rational thought. It’s possible that countries like Britain and the USA will never again enjoy such cheap, abundant and versatile energy as they did throughout the 20th century. Not inevitable, but possible. And there is nothing ‘Malthusian’ about that statement. A recent commenter on this site wrote that scientists will solve the problem of cheap clean energy in the future because they have to solve it. Here’s where our modern approach to science and technology becomes a kind of magical thinking. Fingering our talismans, we mutter incantations like ‘scientific progress’ to assure ourselves that our techno-priests can resolve all the contradictions of our civilisation. And we issue the gnarly curse of ‘Malthusian’ to any heretic who dares to wonder whether resource constraints might ever be a problem.

You’re right of course that such constraints aren’t just actual, but are mediated by societies. This doesn’t mean that growth is good, ‘stuff’ is good, or that humanity will not experience resource squeezes or environmental crises. Consider these thoughts from Marxist geographer David Harvey,

“natural resources are…technical, social and cultural appraisals and so any apparent natural scarcity can in principle be mitigated, if not totally circumvented, by technological, social and cultural changes. But…cultural forms are frequently just as fixed and problematic as anything else….While [construing the relation to nature as inherently dialectical] would appear to deny the possibility of any out-and-out or prolonged, let alone ‘final’, environmental crisis, it also carries within it the prospect for cascading unintended consequences with widespread disruptive effects….it would be false to argue that there are absolute limits in our metabolic relation to nature that cannot in principle be transcended or bypassed. But this does not mean that the barriers are not sometimes serious and that overcoming them can be achieved without going through some kind of general environmental crisis”5

That’s the kind of cautious progressive thinking that greens can usefully engage with. Your bombastic claim that resource constraints are never a problem isn’t. The unintended consequences are already starting to cascade, and you have nothing to say about them other than your “get thee behind me, Malthusian!” imprecations.

You write that the green de-growth movement is complicit with neoliberalism and austerity. It strikes me that your brand of vulgar anti-Malthusianism is more so. Capitalism, pretty much by definition, is an economic logic in which the search for the greatest fiscal return to capital input is paramount. In certain unusual circumstances, such as we had here in Britain through most of the second half of the twentieth century, this is compatible with situations of technical innovation, increased resource use efficiency and greater rewards to labour. But it’s also compatible with colonial domination, chattel slavery and the increased immiseration of labour. Any sensible account of the history of capitalism – and certainly any sensible self-proclaimed leftist one – would pay less attention than you to technological advance and more to the accumulation of capital through increased labour and resource exploitation6. Capital goes where it’s easiest to make the most money, and only in rare historical circumstances has that logic benefitted those you call ‘ordinary folks’.

In the rich countries these ‘ordinary folks’, you write, “are closer in wealth and have far more in common with third-world workers than we do with our own bosses….Almost everyone I know is just struggling to get by. We don’t need the “Buy Nothing Days” of the trendy anti-consumerist Adbusters magazine, but rather some “Finally-Able-to-Buy-Lots-More Days”.

Despite the philosophical poverty of this cargo-cult, comprador capitalism, a faint ray of light does here illuminate your tunnel-thinking. But just as you’re on the verge of going somewhere worthwhile, somewhere where you might talk about a political alliance of global labour, you scurry off into your comfort zone, that lightless sewer where it’s more entertaining to mock the greens than to think seriously about eco-socialism.

And, Leigh, are you really saying that someone earning the US median income of $74 a day is in the same boat as the billion or so people on $1 a day? I don’t dispute the genuine distress and poverty of many people in developed countries, not least because poverty is never just about the basic mathematics of one’s income. But you need to figure diminishing marginal utility of income into your thinking. Someone on $1 a day will in all likelihood be struggling to get enough nourishment into their body to stay healthy. To them, $10 a day would represent impossible security. And $74 a day might as well be $740 a day, for all the difference it makes. So let’s keep a sense of perspective on our struggles and those of ‘almost everyone we know’, which I suspect in your case (and mine too) doesn’t include too many of the world’s poorest few billion.

Despite your avowed anti-capitalism, what you really seem to be saying is that managed capitalism can deliver prosperity to the masses so long as we claw back a bit of wealth from the richest few. It’s the same fairy-tale that the ecomodernists peddle – with a light touch on the tiller, a judicious trimming of the sails, the rising tide of ‘growth, progress, industry and stuff’ will float all boats, if you’ll forgive me for mixing my maritime metaphors. But it never has and it never will. For all the surplus liquidity in the world, there isn’t the remotest chance that any more than a tiny fraction of the poorest will ever see money that even approaches the income earned by the ordinary folks of the rich countries. The inequality is systemic.

Still, you’re right that ordinary people in rich countries are struggling in their own way. In 1957, Harold Macmillan could say ‘you’ve never had it so good’. Today, not even George Osborne would have the temerity to make such a claim, and he wisely prefers to demonise benefit claimants instead. There’ve been an accelerating number of local or global economic crises since the 1970s, and a burgeoning environmental crisis too. Here’s your opportunity to address how the ordinary people of the world might exploit systemic crisis and work together to replace the capitalism you claim to oppose with something better.

But you don’t take it. Instead the last part of your article is an extended panegyric for nuclear power. I’m not going to engage with it, except to say that whatever the rights and wrongs of nuclear power, it currently provides only 2% of the world’s primary energy production with little prospect of major expansion any time soon. France, your poster child for a sustainable decarbonised nuclear future, still has more than double the per capita carbon dioxide emissions than the global median, and how much more when you figure in its ghost emissions from China and the world’s other workshop nations? “The truth is”, you write, “that we can stop climate change and deliver expanding wealth for all.” If so, it’s not a truth you even begin to substantiate in your article.

You rightly point out that economic growth isn’t restricted to capitalist societies alone. But you don’t examine the scale and consequences of growth under other economic logics, and its vast amplification under conditions of global capitalism. For me, ‘de-growth’ doesn’t imply that any kind of economic growth must always be prevented. It just implies that the vast, systemic, inequality-promoting and biosphere-damaging levels of growth that the world has now achieved as a result of global capitalism need reining in. I can’t see how anyone who claims to be pro-labour and anti-capitalist should take such umbrage at the notion.

Truth is, we in the wealthier countries of the world are probably in for a dose of de-growth whether we like the idea or not. As Giovanni Arrighi pointed out, there’s been a succession of dominant geographical economic cores in modern world history from the Italian city states, to the Netherlands, to Britain, to the USA and now towards China and East Asia7. Each one moved from production to financialisation as it entered its decline, which is what’s happening at the moment in Europe and North America. Financial services now offer better returns to capital than industry in the declining core, but they don’t provide a stable basis for enduring global economic power. So perhaps we ‘ordinary folks’ in countries like Britain need to hope that the rising workers in countries like China will look to us with more generosity than we looked to them when the shoe was on the other foot. Progress-through-growthers like to claim that the workers of the world are united around their desire for cheap consumer goods and a western lifestyle. Undoubtedly there’s some truth in that, but perhaps we in the declining core need to jettison the quaint notion that these rising workers are going to join us in our consumerist penthouse, rather than briefly waving at us on their way up there as our respective elevators pass in different directions. Capitalism thrives on inequality. So given your enthusiasm for its ‘buy-lots-more’ approach, might I suggest you start work – urgently – on squaring industrial growth with socialist internationalism rather than just affecting an empty and complacent solidarity with the world’s striving masses? Or maybe you could curb your enthusiasm for going shopping and think about what a world beyond consumer sovereignty could look like. I think you might find it’s not such a bad place if we put our minds to it. And it’s the place we’re probably headed anyway. You’ve noticed that workers in the currently rich countries are beginning to struggle. There may be ups and downs to come, but their struggles are likely to become enduring and systemic. Wake up, man, and smell the coffee! Ditch your nostalgia for how things used to be and get with a de-growth programme to cushion the landing.

You call for a rediscovery of Promethean ambition. Perhaps you forget that Zeus sent us Pandora with her boxful of troubles as payback for Prometheus’s gift of fire. My own Promethean ambition is for us to embrace our techne, our human skills, and use them to live with humility and wisdom alongside others on our planet. For me, Prometheanism doesn’t mean going cap in hand to the gods with our ritual incantations – Science! Progress! Industry! Cargo! – and asking them for more miracles to get us out of the hole we’ve made for ourselves. Here and now, and with these words, I count myself out of the future-nostalgia mashups of ecomodernism and all manner of progress-through-growth tomfoolery with their cargo cult delusions. So now I really must get to work…


Mr Puck


  1. See;;
  1. See also Pascal Bruckner (2013) The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse, Polity, for another fanatically anti-fanatical work encompassing compost toilets and much other crap besides.
  1. See Denison F. (2012) Darwinian Agriculture, Princeton.
  1. Harvey, D. (2010) The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, Profile, pp.73-6.
  1. See, for example, Heller, H. (2011) The Birth of Capitalism, Pluto.
  1. Arrighi, G. (2009) Adam Smith in Beijing, Verso.

35 thoughts on “Promethean porn and Malthusian mistakes: a letter to Leigh Phillips

  1. Oh no! Now it’s official Smaje is addicted to fighting the ecomodernist, technofantasist crowd.

    Sir, was pot your gateway drug to ruining your life by wrangling with the ecomodernist bullies? Why no, I think it was inhaling all that hay dust. And before I knew it, it was all I could think of. My wife tried to smother me with a pillow because I started gibbering at them in my sleep. My life has become unmanageable, and I am starting Obsessive-compulsive Technofantasist Troll Fighters Anonymous -D 😀

    They have a steady call:
    * compost toilets are gross and uncivilized, not shitting in drinking water (they know this one sells; most humans would rather not think about what role their shit plays in the world)
    * nukes! (recently this brigade has seized on the story of rewilding in the Chernobyl region as “proof” that nuke disasters can’t be that bad for us after all; I think it is an indictment of modern humanity that wildlife can thrive even in severely contaminated areas as long as humans are excluded — read “we” the technophilic hordes are worse for nature than a nuclear meltdown)
    * vulgar anti-Malthusian [love that phrase] namecalling (a venerable tradition going way back to Engels)
    * genuflection in the direction of the Cult of MORE
    * nukes!
    * other planets will save us!
    * nukes!

    Chris, let go and let God. 🙂

    • You’re right, you’re right. I’ve checked myself in for a few days of rehab on the farm. And then I’ll publish a post next week that definitely, DEFINITELY won’t be about ecomodernism.

      And thanks for the bittersweet humour of your Chernobyl point

  2. Dear Mr Puck
    Wow, what a shuck
    You don’t pass the buck
    Nor dodge or duck
    Others with whom you’ve no truck.
    So with lots of luck
    And a bit more pluck
    You’ll always have postings that just don’t suck.
    (quitting now before like sounding words yank me down the rabbit hole)

  3. Well, you certainly give good value, Chris. And I love a good rant. Although it really shouldn’t surprise any that this over-developed world, as it is currently manifested, won’t change course or let go. Unlike the major glacier in Greenland that just decoupled, our trajectory was set at the lift-off of the modern industrial era. The idea of more and cheaper stuff is appalling and ludicrous and entirely predictable. So, I’m with Vera, time to decouple and float out to sea.

    Then again, don’t, because you do give good value, my friend.

    • Brian, thanks for the advice, and the compliment – both accepted! I think I’d like to reserve the right to write some more about the issues raised by the ecomodernists, among others – modernisation, capitalist development, farm intensification, urbanisation etc etc, but agreed there’s not much to be gained from engaging with these folks themselves.

      Still, Leigh Phillips has promised a rebuttal of the ‘innumerate core of my beef’, so that might be interesting to see if he produces it. Am I missing something, or is there an irony in people committing themselves to exponential economic growth while ridiculing Malthus’s pessimism in projecting exponential population growth?

      • Are the eco-modernists actually advocating (or hoping for) exponential growth? Simple linear growth should be difficult enough. One might even be satisfied with some sort of matched per capita…

        But to go specifically to your question of there being irony – I only think it ironic if the two are coupled. Decoupling should take care of this. You have economic growth on the one hand, and population growth on the other hand.

        Renewables vs non-renewables. Re-usables, recyclables, substitutions, apartheid. It all makes sense eventually. [apartheid in the sense of global governing by a wealthy minority]…

        But maybe the two (growth and population) are indeed coupled; coupled at the hip? Population decline should cause economic slowdowns or perhaps even contractions. But what about robots and computers? If we delegate everything to our mechanical creations then an economic increase should be possible without a corresponding increase in population. And if we all die and there is no one left to turn off the robots and computers then all the ‘stuff’ is going to pile up until they run out of non-renewable inputs (and their programming is inadequate to find substitutions).

        But wait, robot tractors – tasked with farming to generate our food would be obsolete if we all die off. Robotic tractor manufacturers will likewise be useless. The robotic robot manufacturers will soon figure out that their time is short. The computers will no longer have these simplistic minded hominids to befuddle and they’ll all crash. Rust ensues.

        Hey, what is rust but oxidized iron? So I guess you’re right again. It is ironic.

  4. Thanks for the rebuttal. Still, about this:

    “France, your poster child for a sustainable decarbonised nuclear future, still has more than double the per capita carbon dioxide emissions than the global median, and how much more when you figure in its ghost emissions from China and the world’s other workshop nations?”

    What is the source for such a claim? I presume you are talking about geographic emissions (generated in France), what numbers did you consider for the French emissions and the world median?
    I was under the impression they were pretty close, although i’m still looking for official stats showing this…

    • The GHG figure that gets used a lot in the media, for example, is from electricity generation. France does well on this metric as the current generally accepted GHG emissions from nuclear power are very low. I don’t think Chris’s readers would be interested in a detailed description of primary vs final energy so simplifying a bit, with energy GHG emissions there’s also thermal energy and transportation fuels. And, of course, other important GHG emission streams are from agriculture, land use change and so on. There’s an extensive academic literature on this topic, the UN, OECD, US IEA and other bodies publish publish authoritative grey literature statistics so there’s no lack of data.

        • Happy to help if I can. Paradigm shift is a phrase that gets overused but it’s probably a reasonable description of what’s started with energy supply systems. The ostensible reason is concern about anthropogenic GHG emissions but IMO there’s clearly other drivers including energy resilience and how cost-effective renewables have become for onsite and local energy generation.

          How societies allocate wealth is outside my range of expertise but clearly there are opportunities from a change of this magnitude.

  5. Just adding a comment in response to some of the discussions on Twitter about the post above from @VanessaSpedding @GonePlaces and @Leigh_Phillips.

    I guess it would be good to know if everyone agrees on what is meant by ‘economic growth’. We’re talking annual compound economic growth, as typically (if problematically) measured by gross domestic or gross world product, right? In 1990 the gross global figure was about $27 trillion. By 2014, it had nearly trebled to $76 trillion at an annual average growth rate of about 4.3%. If we project that rate forward, the economy will double again by the year 2031. So in other words, within the next 17 years we’ll have created another entire world-full of economic activity. Ten years after that, in 2041, we’ll have added another world-full, and in 2047, six years later, another world again. A 3% growth figure seems to be the minimum accepted to keep the existing global economy in good order, so on that slightly lower figure we’d quadruple the existing economy by 2061.

    That’s kind of how the capitalist economy works. With all due respect to @GonePlaces it’s not necessary to have compound economic growth in order for everyone in the world to live a decent life – there’s a difference between human wellbeing or human development and economic growth – but it is necessary to have it in the existing economic order (see David Harvey’s book cited above – a socialist book about the world economy and its environmental implications that certainly is worth reading). So what seems to be on the table is the notion that we can more or less quadruple or quintuple the global economy within the next 40 years or so, while somehow ending climate change (and poverty) in the process.

    I can’t say I find that plausible. Of course it’s true that non-capitalist economic systems have also fostered economic growth historically. But not at the kind of levels I pointed out above. And I can’t see that a plausible socialist response to the problems we’re experiencing in a $76 trillion global economy is to make it bigger.

    Another thing to clarify is the use of the term ‘Malthusian’. In 1807 Malthus over-estimated population growth, mistakenly thinking that it would increase exponentially. Somehow, this seems to have resulted in people like Mr Phillips, who apparently wants the economy to grow exponentially, dismissing the notion that there may be resource constraints in the future that will affect human flourishing as ‘Malthusian’, and therefore obviously wrong. Or am I missing something?

    Much of Mr Phillips’ Twitter responses to me focus on the fact that I haven’t read his book. Leigh, let me first explain myself, and then offer you a deal. I read your ‘Guardian’ article and it was excruciatingly bad. Then I read the blurb for your book, and it was worse. I wrote a blog post engaging with what was said in your article and on your publisher’s website. Your Twitter comments reinforce my sense that you have nothing worthwhile to say about socialism, economics, the environment or green thought. Therefore I’m really not interested in reading your book. However, if you write a substantive response to my comments in my blog post then I will read the blasted thing, OK? But if it contains any more cringe-inducing sentences like “the back-to-the-land ideology and aesthetic of locally-woven organic carrot-pants, pathogen-encrusted compost toilets and civilisational collapse is hegemonic” then so help me God I will tear it apart page by page, wipe my arse with it, and throw it in my compost toilet.

    • Further postscript: just noticed embarrassing error in my post above of confounding ‘per capita throughput’ with absolute use. Then again, ‘per capita throughput’ is an irrelevant measure of resource use, and ‘rate of throughput’ is meaningless. Dunce’s corner for both of us…

    • An interesting development I’ve noticed over my life has been the decrease in cost of many technologies at smaller scale. And another relevant factor is the ease and range of information access over the Internet.

      To pick some examples from energy generation, in a band about 40 degrees north and south of the equator, PV has dropped in price to the point where it is often competitive with the retail cost of electricity. For embedded generation, PV can be installed at scales from a few kW to MW. One growth area in Australia for PV (and other renewable energy generation) is what is called behind-the-meter generation at large energy users. I’m doing some consulting in that area with a company that is now offering embedded generation solutions into the MW range. Companies are interested in embedded generation as a hedge against energy price rises and several other benefits. Modern, efficient woody biomass energy systems developed in Austria over the last 30 years can be deployed at scales from residential through community to larger scale. Many woody biomass systems at community scale in Germany, Austria and the Scandinavian nations are run by local cooperatives. Financial benefits from implementing energy efficiency initiatives largely accrue to the homeowner, school, factory, university, commercial building tenants (which can cause an agency issue) and so on. With all of these technologies, there is a wealth shift from centralised energy supply stakeholders to the energy consumer.

      Staying with energy, to make onfarm ethanol and biodiesel from small areas of energy crops is trivial from a technical perspective and the techniques are widely available on the Internet. Again, this represents a wealth shift from centralised fossil fuel suppliers to farmers. Farms traditionally used up to 20% of their area for growing fodder for traction animals. I think a strong argument can be made for onfarm liquid fuel production for onfarm use.

      Traditional CNC tools cost tens of thousands upwards. There’s some good quality DIY CNC kits available on the Internet for under $5k. These are more limited in their usage than the more expensive commercial offerings but are fine for the right application.

      Large areas of Africa are skipping the centralised telephone network system we grew up with and moving straight to mobiles. There’s extraordinarily high mobile penetration in some countries with low per capita GDP.

      The availability of cost-effective technology at a range of scales and access to information can result in wealth shifts in developed nations and also raises interesting possibilities for how quality of life can improve in lower income nations. Whether or not this will happen is, of course, another question 🙂

    • Don’t be shy Chris, tell us how you really feel.

      I do want to offer a big thanks and hat tip for the mention of the twitter conversation above. I’m still struggling to figure out just exactly how anything useful is accomplished in the twitterverse, but I can offer that while trying to follow the conversation you mention I saw a quote from Joshua Schimel that I followed… it led me to Joshua’s (an ecologist, soil science guy at UC Santa Barbara) blog [ ]

      On confusion of terms – most likely at the root of many disagreements. We just have to keep trying. I’ll confess to a certain spike in my blood pressure as soon as I detect a reference to Malthus… and that likely biases my thinking too quickly. But if someone tosses ‘Malthusian’ about for its baiting value (which might be the case for Leigh’s book) then confusion is no longer to blame.

    • I’ve just finishing reading it Chris (review pending), and to save you the trouble, yes it does contain “more cringe-inducing sentences”, many more. Apparently more localised food systems inevitably mean “turning more forest, wetlands and grasslands into agricultural space, releasing vast quantities of carbon in the immediate term and, in the future, eliminating the carbon sinks that forests would have represented”. There’s a great one where he quotes, without comment, someone who says “the very idea that one should be concerned about privacy or dignity while shitting is one that hippy-radicals and academics mock”. Er, sorry? And parts of it are hilarious. I will let you know when the review goes up. Don’t waste your time on it Chris. Your time is far better spent writing great blogs like this, rather than reading books that dismiss you and I as “anti-packaging jihadis”, “degrowth militants”, “green Mr Magoos”, and “an army of tattooed-and-bearded, twelve-dollar-farmers’-market-marmalade-smearing, kale-bothering, latter-day Lady Bracknells”. Those kind of capture where the guy’s coming from.

      • Ah thanks Rob – but too late, I read it over the weekend (I got a cheap copy secondhand just a few weeks after it was published, which a propos his laughter about all those 1970s doomsday books which you now find in bargain bins just goes to show the accelerated circulation of commodities in late modernity). Oh what a joyful read. Tragic really that someone so well informed and smart who could have written a worthwhile and constructive leftist critique of what he calls ‘austerity ecology’ manages to marshal so much evidence and then get it all so fundamentally wrong. But maybe not so surprising because, despite his protestations, he’s clearly a Stalinist at heart. Will you send me a link to your review? I’m planning to write a few pieces engaging with various aspects of his arguments so it would be good to build up a file of responses…

  6. Dear Chris
    Oh Its irritating that Malthus’s very bad mathematical metaphor for population growth and food supply is being paraded out again to prove that he was wrong about infinite growth. It’s nonsense! The prime determinant of food production is the number of hands available to grow the food. Until climatic and geological limits are hit an increasing population will be able to feed themselves by their own hands. Once those limits are hit food supply will not increase further and population growth will curtail shortly thereafter. There have been many places around the world with stable populations in the past until the “modern world” hit them. To clarify; population and food supply grow together, until external limits are hit then stop growing. Yes there are famines, but historical examination usually reveals that political and economic systems have far more to do with who lives and dies than the absolute level of food available, and some famines have been purely political acts i.e. Ukraine 1930s and China 1960s.
    Philip Hardy

    • “Once those limits are hit food supply will not increase further and population growth will curtail shortly thereafter.”

      A population cannot grow past its food supply, however shortly. We are made from food and water. If more food is not forthcoming, no new humans. A small criticism for sure, and that goes in the direction of the good reverend Malthus too. 🙂

      They have done experiments with mice, and just decreasing the food supply gradually decreased them gradually. Too bad we can’t do it with humans, it would be the humane thing to do…

  7. Hi Chris —

    Thought you might find this book (if you’d not already read it, or one of its previous editions) interesting/useful. It’s by one of my former colleagues at Washington State, and the mentor of a student that went on to work with me (the inestimable Amber Heckelman: ). A part of the whole “downside/flipside” of “modernization/development” that ecomodernists insist on ignoring or minimizing:

    Victims of Progress
    By John H. Bodley

  8. Just saw a story on Wall St Journal today that is alarming. The nuke mongers are on the march again. They want to redo the rules of the game to say that hey, a bit of radiation never hurt anyone! And change the exposure parameters. Nothing in the article about storage problems, or the fact that uranium will run out soon.

  9. Thanks for this. it’s a couple years later and i wonder how Leigh would write his unfortunate book with the knowledge of the sixth mass extinction event unequivocally underway. All is perhaps already lost, and his technotopia, if it were possible (which it isnt) can hardly be less appetizing to the hapless billions already crushed underfoot by the core principles he ironically fetishizes.

    • Well said – my feeling is that he probably wouldn’t write it any different now. For all the talk of science, there’s not much weighing of evidence in, er, evidence with him. He never did follow up on my offer of a rejoinder that he accepted…

  10. Pingback: Magical Mathematics - Resilience

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