Waiting on amber: a note on regenerative agriculture and carbon farming

This post offers some further notes on the issue of carbon farming and regenerative agriculture, arising out of the discussion in this recent post of mine, particularly via the comments of Don Stewart. Don set me some onerous homework – a lengthy presentation by Elizabeth and Paul Kaiser of Singing Frogs farm in California, another lengthy presentation by David Johnson of New Mexico State University, and an interview with Australian soil scientist Christine Jones. Diligent student that I am, not only have I now completed these tasks but I’ve also read various other scientific papers and online resources bearing on the issue and am duly turning in my assignment. I hope it’ll provide some interest and a few points for discussion.

I started out with considerable sympathy towards carbon farming and regenerative agriculture, but with a degree of scepticism about some of the loftier claims made on its behalf by regenerative agriculture proponents (henceforth RAPs). And in fact that’s pretty much where I’ve ended up too, but with a somewhat clearer sense of where my grounds for scepticism lie. I hope we’ll see a shift towards more regenerative agriculture in the future. But if that’s going to happen, the RAPs will have to persuade a lot of people more inclined to scepticism than me about the virtues of their proposals – and if they’re going to do that, I think they’ll need to tighten up their arguments considerably. Anyway, in what follows I define what I understand regen-ag to be and then critically examine some of the claims about it.

Defining regenerative agriculture and carbon farming

Doubtless there are numerous possible emphases, but the fundamental idea revolves around restoring or maintaining the biological life of the soil, in particular the fungal component. Working as symbionts to plants and other soil organisms, fungi are able to deliver nutrients to plants that are otherwise unavailable, and also to sequester carbon by absorbing carbon dioxide from the air and turning it into stable organic carbon compounds in the soil. In order to achieve this, it’s essential to avoid tillage, since this destroys the fungal hyphae in the soil, and to keep the soil covered with living plants at all times so that there’s a healthy rhizosphere (root zone) interacting with the soil food web. It can also be necessary to inoculate the soil with the right kinds of fungi – apparently, not just any fungi will do1.

So the three key characteristics of this kind of agriculture are zero tillage, continuous cover cropping and fungal inoculation. David Johnson states that a one-off ‘dusting’ of 400-500lbs of inoculant per acre (that’s 450-560kg per hectare for those of us still hanging on in there in Project Europe) is all that’s necessary to create the right initial conditions in the soil for many years to come.

Proponents of this kind of regenerative agriculture have variously claimed that it can:

  • Protect soil from erosion and depletion, and indeed actively build soil
  • Provide adequate crop nutrients with minimal external inputs
  • Produce high yields
  • Produce healthy crops that are weed and pest-free
  • Sequester human greenhouse gas emissions – possibly all of them
  • Earn greater financial returns for farmers
  • Improve human health

If all that turns out to be true, then this is fantastic news. But these are powerful claims, and it’s surely reasonable for them to be examined closely before we collectively hitch our wagon to regen-ag. So here, in each case I try to highlight things that seem to be more or less well established beyond reasonable doubt, and things that don’t seem so well established, at least to me. I’m not an agronomist or a soil scientist, so doubtless there are things that aren’t obvious to me which are obvious to others, though I have a sneaking feeling that a few of the non-obvious things are brushed aside a little too quickly in the Regen-Ag movement, perhaps because they don’t quite fit the narrative. And then there are one or two things I’d like to highlight that seem not well established at all. So we have green-amber-red: Small Farm Future’s traffic light guide to Regen-Ag.

  1. Regen-Ag protects and builds soil

I think it’s reasonably well established that no till, continuous cover-cropping protects soil from physical erosion better than tillage farming2, so we can start with a green light. It’s not an all or nothing thing, however. There are places with strongly erosive conditions where it’s a really, really bad idea to practice tillage agriculture from a soil protection point of view, and others with less erosive conditions where perhaps it’s only a slightly bad idea. Sensitivity to local context, and other pressures, is in order before deciding how much to censure tillage practices. Nevertheless, I think it can be agreed that tillage is best avoided whenever possible. Of course, the mainstream ‘no till’ approach involves using copious quantities of glyphosate, synthetic fertiliser and heavy, compacting machinery of the kind that the late, lamented Gene Logsdon subjected to gentle ridicule in various articles3. It’s tempting to say that’s a whole different ball game from Regen-Ag, but actually it isn’t entirely. Many farmers lauded for their Regen-Ag credentials like Gabe Brown and Gail Fuller routinely use glyphosate or other herbicides, even if at a lesser rate than conventional farmers4. I’m not inclined to criticise them for it, but it falls some way short of the desiderata for a healthy soil food web generally emphasised by the RAPs, without apparently receiving much discussion.

In terms of actually building soil, RAPs like Christine Jones and Elaine Ingham commonly critique the widespread notion that soil formation is a slow process, arguing that topsoil formation can be ‘breathtakingly rapid’5. But it’s rarely stated how rapid. Many no till, regen systems I’ve seen involve importing compost in bulk. But that’s not soil building – it’s soil importing. So my question is, allowing for an initial ‘dusting’ of inoculate à la David Johnson, how quickly do soils under a regen-ag regimen typically ‘build’ with no subsequent imports or amendments, with crops being removed from them for human consumption all the while? Until that question is satisfactorily answered, I think the ‘building’ claim stays on amber.

The Kaiser’s Singing Frogs farm seems to involve importing quite a lot of compost, even if it’s used only as a soil amendment that helps stimulate the soil food web. In addition to the compost applied to their growing beds, they raise most of their plants initially as transplants in the greenhouse, which presumably also involves importing a lot of substrate. This is how most small market gardens operate, including mine (we import woodchip and some substrate). In our present economy, flush with fertility and fossil fuels, it’s a rational thing to do. But you do have to pay close attention to where the compost or substrate comes from, and how feasible it would be to scale its supply up across the farm sector as a whole, before concluding that soil-building of this sort has global replicability. Historically, in low energy situations the choice was essentially between tillage farming or diligent and extremely labour-intensive cycling of nutrients locally. As we confront the possibility of a lower energy future, it seems unlikely that farming systems based on importing compost in bulk will figure heavily.

  1. Regen-Ag provides adequate crop nutrients

There seem to be two ideas here. First, that once the soil food web is in good heart, there are enough nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil to give the crops all the nitrogen they need in better forms than synthetic fertiliser, which ultimately has a destructive effect on the soil food web and on the ability of plants to take up nutrients5. And second, that the overall metabolism of the soil food web makes the other nutrients needed by the crop more available than in soils compromised by conventional practices.

The first point seems plausible to me, but not definitively established. I think more quantitative evidence is required, which I didn’t find in my various readings of the RAPs. Much as I share the dislike of the RAPs for synthetic fertiliser (and I’ve never used it myself), about 40% of the current global food supply is based on the application of synthetic nitrogen compounds – this was a major limiting factor in 19th and early 20th century agriculture, and it seems doubtful that human populations would have reached their current level without the invention of the Haber-Bosch process6. Undoubtedly, there are downsides to synthetic fertiliser. The RAPs may be right that ultimately it’s destructive of soil health. And we may be able to do without it – either by careful cycling of organic nutrients, or by the kind of soil food web route advocated by the RAPs. Various people – including me – have asked whether it’s possible to feed the world through organic farming alone, and answered with a tentative yes. It certainly makes sense to start weaning ourselves off synthetic fertiliser whenever we can, but from a global food security viewpoint our current tentative yeses don’t seem quite enough for us to blithely ditch the synthetics quite yet. Generalised or anecdotal claims that crops will do better without synthetic fertiliser are all very well, but I think such claims have to stay on amber until more quantitative data is forthcoming.

In relation to other nutrients, I get that a thriving soil biota can pull in carbon, nitrogen and oxygen from the atmosphere, but all the other nutrients have to come from the soil. David Johnson talks about the “increase in the availability” of such nutrients in his version of Regen-Ag, which he calls “Biologically enhanced agricultural management” (BEAM)7. It’s plausible to me that a healthy soil biota makes these nutrients more available to crops than they’d otherwise be, but (unlike C, N and O) it can’t conjure them out of thin air. So if crops are being taken off, then it seems to me that ultimately these nutrients are being mined from the soil, unless they’re somehow getting put back too8. But since Dr Johnson also enthuses about retaining his modern lifestyle and jetting off to distant conferences, it doesn’t seem that he’s thinking of a smallholder-style world of careful nutrient cycling. So I wonder where these nutrients are coming from. Maybe the RAPs would argue that there are effectively limitless quantities of them in the soil if only they can be made more available by the soil biota – I’ve heard Elaine Ingham imply as much9. But again, I’d like to see more quantification of this point. By my calculations, for example, the 65 million of us in the UK need to consume about 24,000 tonnes of phosphorus annually, which would minimally involve stripping the phosphorus in its entirety out of about 24 million tonnes of soil every year, and that at an improbable 100% extraction rate. So for the moment I consider this another amber, at best.

  1. Regen-Ag produces high yields

Yet again, I’m struggling to find much quantification here. In Christine Jones’s article, various farmers practising regen-ag are mentioned who are “getting fantastic yields”10. Well, how fantastic? Wheat yields in the USA, for example, have averaged 46.7 bushels per acre nationally over the last five years11. How do the wheat yields of regen-ag farmers compare? I’m not seeing too many hard and fast figures in the literature.

Let me unpack this point a little under these four heads:

  • Biomass and harvest index
  • Necessary yield
  • Competition and agronomic variation
  • Cropland-grassland balance

Biomass and harvest index: David Johnson presents figures for the most productive natural ecosystems which suggest they produce up to four times more biomass than agroecosystems despite all the fertilisation and irrigation lavished on the latter. From this he infers that “We’re doing something wrong”12. But the main purpose of agroecosystems isn’t to maximise the production of biomass, it’s to produce digestible human food – carbohydrates, proteins etc. Human crop breeding efforts have actively tried to reduce the amount of inedible biomass relative to the edible portion of the crop (ie. increase the harvest index). In this sense, Johnson’s comparison presents little useful information. Further, the high productivity natural ecosystems he identifies are all from hot and/or humid places (swamps, rainforests…even kelp beds). It’s not clear that the same is true of his agroecosystem figure, so I’m not sure he’s comparing like with like. Then Johnson presents data showing that his BEAM system produces way more biomass than even the natural ecosystems. He doesn’t always make it clear exactly what these high biomass BEAM plants are, but they generally seem to be cover crops which, by definition, are plants that are unusually good at quickly producing copious leafy biomass in the short-term. So it’s not necessarily surprising that they outperform the range of plants found in natural ecosystems and agroecosystems. High biomass production can be one important agricultural goal, but what’s ultimately of greatest interest is the yield of the edible portion of the crop. The table that Johnson really needs to present here is the yield of edible biomass or of metabolisable human nutrients in the various different regimens. It’s impossible to know if we’re ‘doing something wrong’ in crop yield terms until he does.

Necessary yield. Of course, yield isn’t everything. A lot of crops are fed inefficiently to livestock, or exported, or end up as food waste. Undoubtedly there’s some slack in the system, so it doesn’t necessarily matter if regen-ag yields are lower than conventionally-grown crops if they bring other benefits. As with enthusiasts for perennial grain crops, the RAPs seem to feel the need to claim that crop yields are as good or better than conventional crops, when this may not be necessary for their case, and potentially draws us into needlessly oppositional arguments. But ultimately it’s necessary for any agricultural system to yield enough to feed the people relying on it. What counts as enough isn’t an exactly quantifiable number, but it should be roughly quantifiable, and I’d like to see the RAPs roughly quantify it.

Competition and agronomic variation: at one point in his presentation, David Johnson likens our major crop plants to weeds and says “we’re good at growing weeds”. That’s exactly right. The basic characteristic of most of our major crop plants is that, like most weeds, they’re pioneer, short-lived (usually annual or biennial, sometimes short-lived perennial) plants that usually fare best in disturbed (ie. ploughed), highly fertile ground. As argued above, disturbed ground isn’t ideal for other reasons, so if we’re going to grow our standard crops in regen-ag systems, then essentially we’re going to have to ‘trick’ them into growing in circumstances they don’t particularly favour. In particular, we’re probably going to have to grow them through cover crops that may compete with them for water, light and some nutrients, even if they may donate other nutrients (like nitrogen). Therefore we might expect them to yield less. Generally, the way farmers bicrop cash crops with cover crops if they don’t use herbicide (which in fact most of them do) is to use some kind of inherent seasonal check to the latter (eg. flooding, extreme heat/drought, or extreme cold) or else by damaging them mechanically by some method that falls short of full tillage. But that’s not possible everywhere – for example, in the moist temperate zone where I live, cover crops can happily grow more or less year round and I’m not sure there are obvious ways that, for example, a cereal crop could be established directly into them with uniform success and good yields. This article about Kansas regen-ag farmer Gail Fuller says “Instead of trying to figure out the best way to terminate a cover crop or pasture, Fuller is looking for ways to knock it back for a few days to allow the cash crop to compete as a companion crop”. Where I live, I don’t think ‘knocking back’ a cover crop for a few days would be anything like enough to establish a successful cereal crop into it – which is why cover-cropping farmers here continue to use glyphosate routinely. My feeling is that further experimentation with cover cropping may eventually mitigate this problem, probably at the cost of some yield loss. But it doesn’t seem to me that humanity has really cracked this one yet. I think the RAPs need to discuss this issue more clearly, perhaps with an acknowledgment that – as with their ideal cover crop – it’s not yet cut and dried.

Cropland-grassland balance: many of these cash crop-cover crop trade-offs disappear when the focus shifts to farming ruminants on grass, because – notwithstanding many farmers’ taste for temporary perennial ryegrass – the cash crop in this instance is essentially a long-term cover crop, which therefore fits easily into the logic of regen-ag. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the farmers who get star billing as regen-ag pioneers are often ranchers on extensive, semi-arid grassland who are restoring soil and vegetation in the aftermath of ill-advised intensive grazing or tillage. All credit to them, but in terms of global food production it would be stretching a point even to call this a sideshow. The problem with grass as a crop is that humans have to jump a trophic level in order to be able to consume it as beef, lamb etc. and – as the likes of George Monbiot tirelessly, and correctly, remind us – this is pretty inefficient energetically. The contribution of rangeland beef to global food intake is minimal. On this note, Gabe Brown is frequently cited as a regen-ag pioneer. I haven’t yet established exactly what Brown’s system is and what his yields are, though it seems he has long fallows in his grazing rotations. Makes sense…but then he has a lot of (presumably cheap) acres to play with. Maybe his yields stand up even so. If so, it hardly fits into a Boserup model of agricultural intensification. Gail Fuller says “with low grain prices my bottom line is better grazing cover crops and pastures than growing corn…Right now, I make more money grazing”13. Of course, that’s absolutely fine at the individual farm level (though maybe it raises a question mark or two about those ‘fantastic’ regen-ag yields). But at the global food system level, it probably wouldn’t be fine, and we need to address that too.

In summary, I’m open to the idea that regen-ag methods produce ‘fantastic’ yields, but I’d like to know what they are. If no-till, cover-cropping methods can match or surpass tillage plus added-fertility methods for crop yield (rather than biomass yield) then that indeed would be fantastic – but it would run counter to what we’ve learned historically about agricultural development. Even if they can’t match them, it may not matter if they can yield enough. But some good, global quantification is necessary. For the moment, there are many ambers here.

  1. Regen Ag produces healthy crops that are weed and pest free

It seems plausible that a healthy soil biota, with fungal networks optimising nutrient transfer, will produce healthy crops – perhaps healthier than ones propped up by an agri-chem plus tillage approach. At the same time, as mentioned above, most of our crops are based on weedy, pioneer species that like to hoover up nutrients in disturbed soil, and they’ve been further bred to amplify these characteristics. So the idea that they’re happier in undisturbed fungal soils arguably requires demonstrating, rather than being assumed. I’d judge this assertion to be hovering on amber.

No doubt it’s true that healthy plants are more resistant to weeds and pests. This has long been the refrain of the organic movement, and I think it’s defensible so long as you don’t overplay the argument. Our crops, remember, are basically weeds, and the kind of soils they like to grow in will generally be to the liking of other weeds that humans don’t want. At Singing Frogs Farm, the Kaisers emphasise the use of mature transplants as a strategy to prevent weed ingress. That makes sense in the context of a small market garden, but it speaks of weed management, not a weed-free agronomy. It’s also labour and compost-intensive. It’s not necessarily applicable to broadscale farming – unless the argument is that we should minimise the latter and emphasise small-scale, labour-intensive farming. That, I think, is precisely what we should be doing. But we won’t have banished weeds, and we’ll have to scratch our heads to find the necessary inputs.

The pest issue mirrors the weed one. Different kinds of pests adapt to different kind of cropping regimens in different ways, and again it’s a matter of management rather than banishment. The Kaisers discuss the bird and insect problems they have and the crop covers they use to minimise these – so clearly they have pest problems. I find implausible the notion of a farm so tuned in to the natural world that none of its crop ends up in the stomachs of wild critters. Indeed, a farm tuned in to the natural world probably ought to be one in which some of its crop does end up in the stomachs of wild critters.

For me, it’s a red light on this claim.

  1. Regen ag sequesters human greenhouse gas emissions – possibly all of them.

It’s generally agreed that soils can act as a sink for carbon, and that soils containing a healthy food web are better at sequestering it – for example, through the fungal creation of chitin which holds it in a relatively immobile form. So I think we can probably award a green light to the basic claim that regenerative agriculture can sequester carbon. I say ‘probably’ because there are studies that contest the idea of carbon sequestration through no-till regimens14 – it seems to be the case that the ‘regimen’ can be more important than the ‘no till’. Still, I think it would be fair to say that the balance of the literature suggests sequestration is at least a possibility.

Even so, I’d like to make four caveats.

First, I’d hope we can all agree that the best form of carbon sequestration is the one where humanity leaves the world’s hydrocarbons in their well sequestered present locations deep down in the earth. Carbon sequestered shallowly in soils by living organisms is always going to be more potentially mobile. You could argue that, in practice, humanity just isn’t going to leave all that energetically useful carbon where it currently lies in the rock, and that we therefore need to think about other mitigation strategies. Fair enough. But David Johnson’s insouciance about continuing to live our present high energy, fossil-fuelled lifestyle while mitigating its effects through shallow sequestration in living soils doesn’t inspire me with a great deal of confidence.

Second, no till farming doesn’t have it all its own way in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, because it’s typically associated with greater nitrous oxide emissions – and in some situations these outweigh the carbon sequestration gains: “increased N2O losses may result in a negative greenhouse gas balance for many poorly-drained fine-textured agricultural soils under no-till located in regions with a humid climate”15. That sounds like an apt summary of many of the soils where I live. Proof again, if it were needed, that in agriculture as in many other things there are no one-size-fits-all solutions.

Third, there may be a limit on soil sequestration potential. Regen-ag heroes like Gabe Brown are lauded for taking on farms degraded by over-tillage and soil carbon loss and then building up the soil carbon stocks. But it seems to be the case that you can only build up the soil carbon for so long16 – we’re talking years, or decades at most – before it reaches an equilibrium where there’s no agricultural benefit to increasing carbon (as the Kaisers have already found) and it gets harder to do so anyway. So there may be a fairly short time-frame in which the carbon sequestration benefits of regen-ag are operative. Experiments like David Johnson’s have also been undertaken under short time-frames so far. Some caution about how much we can extrapolate these findings long into the future is probably in order.

Fourth and finally, we come to the vexed question of how much of the carbon that humanity is adding to the atmosphere can be sequestered in soil. The scientific consensus seems to be something in the region between 7-16% of current emissions17 – a useful amount, certainly, but not decisive enough to keep the climate change wolf from the door. RAPs like Christine Jones and David Johnson think that the potential is much greater, but frankly I’m doubtful of their claims. Jones appears to have something of a track record of questionable over-estimations of soil carbon sequestration potential of such proportions that it’s prompted even luminaries of the alternative farming movement such as Simon Fairlie and Rafter Sass Ferguson to distance themselves from her claims18.

Meanwhile, Johnson argues that since fossil fuel combustion is only responsible for about 3% of the carbon in the global carbon cycle, it’s better to focus mitigation efforts on the biotic side of the cycle. This strikes me as specious. True, there are large natural sources, sinks and fluxes of carbon which dwarf the anthropogenic ones, but these are well-established patterns that aren’t significantly responsible for the radiative forcing we’re now seeing as a result of adding new carbon to the cycle. And if I understand this right, this new carbon, this 3% (I think it’s possibly more than 3% if you consider all anthropogenic causes of radiative forcing), is being added every year. However we tend the soil, can we really expect the existing carbon cycle, its soils and vegetation, to take care of an additional 3% on top of its relatively stable totals on our behalf in each and every year for the foreseeable future so that we can continue flying around the world to go to soil carbon conferences? That’s a very large demand to place on Mother Nature. I suspect she has other plans. If the claim is that on the basis of a few short-term, small-scale, local experiments like Johnson’s we can be sure beyond reasonable doubt that all anthropogenic carbon emissions can be stably sequestered long-term in agricultural soils, then I fear I’m looking at amber turning to red.

This isn’t the first time it’s been claimed we can adopt agricultural practices that will sequester all anthropogenic carbon and banish our climate change woes. Those earlier claims were shown to be spurious19. The same outcome seems likely this time around.

  1. Regen-Ag earns greater rewards for farmers

I think the basis for this claim is that regen-ag farmers spend less on agri-chemical inputs, presumably without a concomitant decline in outputs. So it’s plausible that the current handful of regen-ag pioneers are making a bit more money just at the moment. But unfortunately markets don’t fix food commodity prices at levels determined by outmoded technical inputs – in fact, they barely fix food commodity prices at levels determined by inputs at all. If they did, I’d be a rich man. So if regen-ag proves itself and spreads, then absenting major structural change in the global political economy, no farmer is going to get wealthy from it, because commodity prices will adjust. In other words, it’ll play out the same way as every other technical innovation that’s enabled farmers to increase yields or reduce inputs without for the most part becoming notably better off. Even David Johnson concedes that farmers will need to be paid in order to adopt his BEAM approach. He says that we shouldn’t expect farmers to bear the brunt of society’s environmentally-damaging behaviours. I agree, though historically they generally have done. Of course, in the long run it’s not sound business sense for Homo sapiens Inc. to erode away all its agricultural soils, so at some level it must ultimately be true that it ‘pays’ to adopt regenerative practices. But in the short-run, while I’m sure some farmers have improved their incomes as a result of adopting regen-ag approaches, I’m not seeing a persuasive argument for how regen-ag will in itself improve farmer income. Another red light.

  1. Regen-Ag can improve human health

The main idea here – one debated under my earlier post – is that without a healthy soil biota to transport nutrients readily around, our crop plants are unable to access the range of nutrients (particularly the micro-nutrients) that they need for their full health, with negative consequences in turn for human health. I find this idea intuitively quite plausible, but intuition only takes one so far. Proponents of mainstream agriculture are fond of saying things like “nitrogen is nitrogen”, and to be honest I’ve not seen much evidence to refute them. Evidence of harm to human health from the proliferation of nitrates and other agro-chemicals in the environment is clear, so there are grounds for shifting away from it on that basis alone. But evidence of harm to human health from impaired soil food webs is more elusive. It seems to be the case that the nutrient density of our food is in decline, but it’s possible that this results from eating high-yielding modern crop varieties with poorer micro-nutrient uptake and from a poorer overall diet20, not because of the non-availability of micro-nutrients in the soil.

Christine Jones has this to say about the link between current agricultural practices and cancer:

“Not that long ago the cancer rate was around one in 100. Now we’re pretty close to one in two people being diagnosed with cancer. At the current rate of increase, it won’t be long before nearly every person will contract cancer during their lifetimes. Cancer is also the number one killer in dogs. Isn’t that telling us something about toxins in the food chain? We’re not only killing everything in the soil, we’re also killing ourselves — and our companion animals”21

Let’s unpack these statements a little. In the UK22 the current cancer ‘rate’ in the sense of new cases of malignant cancer occurring each year across the whole population is 1 in 182, but that translates into the expectation that indeed around one in two people will be diagnosed with cancer in the course of their lives23. If by a cancer ‘rate’ of 1 in 100 Jones means that ‘not that long ago’ only 1 in 100 people got cancer at any point in their lives (compared to the 1 in 2 today) I’d like to know how long ago that was. It would certainly be much longer ago than the 20th century, and the problem is that when you go back that far there are lots of other causes of morbidity – infectious disease and accidents, for example – that confound the attempt to make inferences about cancer aetiologies from rate changes. The fact that cancer incidence in pre-modern populations was low doesn’t necessarily mean that carcinogenicity in those times was concomitantly low (though that might be the case).

The difficulties of inferring changing carcinogenicity from historic incidence rates are compounded by changing age structures. The population now has a larger proportion of older people than before, and since the incidence of cancer is strongly associated with age, a good deal of the increase in cancer rates is purely an artefact of the ageing population. Meanwhile, cancer incidence is currently reducing in many ‘developed’ countries24 – though as a result of complex, multifactorial influences that push in different directions. So the straightforward answer to Jones’s question – isn’t the secular increase in cancer rates telling us something about toxins in the food chain? – is no, you just can’t infer that. That doesn’t mean she’s necessarily wrong. For all I know, it could be true that there’s a declining intake of micronutrients (or an increase in toxins – Jones seems a bit unclear on this point) with a positive effect on cancer incidence. Though if the finger of suspicion is pointing specifically at the decline of soil food webs, I’d observe that tillage agriculture has been the norm in many places for a long time, so the link between increased cancer incidence today and the destruction of soil food webs seems questionable. In any case, what’s clear is that the evidence Jones cites in support of her ‘toxins in the food chain’ view doesn’t in fact support it. There does seem to be evidence linking high dietary intakes of heavily processed food with raised cancer incidence25. Given current dietary patterns, adopting a diverse diet of fresh, unprocessed food may yield more health dividends than a switch to a regen-ag diet.

I’ve dwelt at some length on this rather abstruse cancer issue partly because I think it’s bad intellectual practice to justify an assertion in relation to evidence that doesn’t actually support it, and also because I think sloppiness of this order will easily torpedo the RAPs’ claims about the evidential base for regenerative agriculture more generally as they try to build wider support for regen-ag – and that would be a shame.

I think the health claims for regen-ag currently have to get red light status – though that may change in the future. I find it plausible that numerous aspects of our present food system may be associated with increased cancer incidence. It’s just that I haven’t (yet) seen any plausible evidence linking regen-ag practices to reduced cancer incidence.


I won’t try to summarise what I’ve said above. All in all, my traffic light assessment of the RAPs’ claims suggests to me a few greens, rather more reds, and a lot of ambers. There are numerous reasons why moving towards a regen-ag approach and sequestering some carbon in soils probably makes sense, but there’s a distinct lack of convincing empirical evidence to support many of the stronger claims made by the RAPs. For now, I feel like I’m waiting on amber.

Note: My thanks to Don Stewart for prompting this line of enquiry and to Clem Weidenbenner for an informative discussion.

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  1. David Johnson
  2. Eg. http://www.pnas.org/content/104/33/13268.short
  3. Eg. https://thecontraryfarmer.wordpress.com/2010/06/16/no-till-is-a-big-white-lie/
  4. Eg. http://www.cornandsoybeandigest.com/conservation/take-soil-and-farm-beyond-conservation; for a discussion of this among British farmers, see https://anewnatureblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/30/thoughts-on-the-glyphosate-saga/ 
  5. https://www.ncat.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Acres-story-for-web-posting-March15_Jones.pdf
  6. V. Smil. 2017. Energy and Civilization, MIT Press, p.308; V. Smil. 2001. Enriching the Earth. MIT Press.
  7. David Johnson
  8. Disclosure: I once vehemently and obtusely sought to deny this point in an online discussion with an Australian scientist whose name now escapes me. Sorry, sir – I was wrong.
  9. E. Ingham. 2015. Presentation at Canadian Organic Growers’ Conference, Toronto, Feb 2015.
  10. https://www.ncat.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Acres-story-for-web-posting-March15_Jones.pdf
  11. https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/wheat-data/
  12. David Johnson
  13. Gail FullerJ. Baker et al. 2007. Tillage and soil carbon sequestration – what do we really know? Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment. 118: 1-5; Z. Luo et al. 2010. Can no tillage stimulate carbon sequestration in agricultural soils? Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment. 139: 224-231.
  14. P. Rochette. 2008. No-till only increases N2O emissions in poorly-aerated soils. Soil & Tillage Research. 101, 1-2: 97-100.
  15. S. Singh. 2009. Climate Change and Crops; DEFRA (2007). The effects of reduced tillage practices and organic material additions on the carbon content of arable soils.
  16. IPCC; CGIAR; Singh, Ibid.
  17. S. Fairlie. 2010. Meat. Permanent Publications; Rafter Sass Ferguson.
  18. George Monbiot; D. Briske et al.
  19. M. Fan et al. 2008. Evidence of decreasing mineral density in wheat grain over the last 160 years. Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology. 22, 4: 315-24; F. Denison. 2010. Darwinian Agriculture. Princeton UP.
  20. https://www.ncat.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Acres-story-for-web-posting-March15_Jones.pdfI’m not sure which country’s rates Jones is referring to. I’m most familiar with UK data, so I’ve used that – I doubt the conclusions I draw here would be radically different if data were used from other ‘developed’ countries.
  21. https://www.cancerdata.nhs.uk
  22. A. Jemal et al
  23. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/feb/14/ultra-processed-foods-may-be-linked-to-cancer-says-study

Energy prospects: little to Smil about?

Last week saw much of Britain in the grip of uncharacteristic snowstorms and freezing temperatures. The picture shows the woods near my holding in their snowy raiment. I thought it would be crowded when I went walking there, because it’s usually a popular spot. But with the roads impassable, it was almost deserted. Ah yes, traffic chaos – the cue for the usual British complaints about how bad we are at coping with a bit of snow (I always think a bad feature of British culture is our readiness to complain about how bad we are at things). No doubt it’s possible to blame the government (another common British pastime, though one I suspect not limited to this country alone) but the truth is we hardly ever have snow like this, and it would be pointless to stand constantly prepared for it. When I’ve been in places where heavy snows are a regular occurrence, what’s struck me most is the enormous fossil energy input invested in the snowploughs, gritting trucks, snow blowers, 4WDs, heating systems and so forth. All that ancient sunlight invested in keeping modern people moving, no matter what. In the 19th century Russia of Turgenev’s Sketches From A Hunter’s Album that I’m currently reading, what’s striking is that when travellers get hit by inclement weather they basically stay put, sometimes for weeks on end. Though to be fair, travelling in 19th century Russia was mostly a pursuit of the wealthy few. There’s nothing like serfdom for keeping you close to home.

Anyway, this is all vaguely relevant to my present theme, which is some thoughts on Vaclav Smil’s Energy and Civilization: A History (MIT Press, 2017). It’s hard to keep up with Smil’s output, since he seems to produce about three books every year, but I find him an interesting writer. Energy is so critical to the present and future of global civilization, and yet it gets curiously little attention in everyday debate. Smil is an academic expert on the topic, and he’s never been especially sympathetic to the green-hued, peak oil worrying, nuclear-bothering tribe that’s my spiritual home. For me, then, he’s worth a read so he can round out my rough edges.

There’s an awful lot of information crammed into the 400 plus pages of this latest offering. Veritably, it’s a nerd’s delight. Who knew, for example, that a draft mule has a working speed of 0.9-1.0 ms-1 with a power output of 500-600W, whereas a donkey manages only 0.6-0.7 ms-1 at 100-200W? I was going to save that for the next dinner party I was invited to, but there you go – now I’ve given it away for free. I get very few dinner party invites these days, anyway. Can’t think why.

So, as usual in a blog post of this sort I’m not going to try to precis the whole book, but just offer a few idiosyncratic sleeve notes of my own devising on parts of it that especially piqued my interest. They fall under seven headings:

 1. Peak oil

Smil has long been a critic of the peak oil hypothesis, and he criticises it again here. Of course it’s true that the availability of fossil hydrocarbons isn’t determined solely by how much of them are left in the ground – improvements in extraction technologies, changing demand and the throughput of the global economy are also relevant. But when Smil himself writes “Modern civilization has been created by the massive, and increasing, combustion of fossil fuels, but this practice is clearly limited by their crustal abundance” (p.18) you get the sense that his anti-peak oil convictions are wavering a little. Clearly, humanity is depleting the ‘crustal abundance’ of hydrocarbons. It would be nice to hear Smil’s estimate as to when that depletion might start to become noticeable, or – since, as he rightly says, a better way of tracking future energy scenarios is considering the marginal cost of production – what the future price curve is likely to look like. You get the sense from various asides in the book that his answers might be something like ‘pretty soon’ and ‘not nice’. Elsewhere (p.440), Smil opines that the exhaustion of fossil fuels is unlikely because climate change will get us first. So that’s a comfort.

2. Fossil fuel

That ‘modern civilization’ quotation above expresses a reality that, unlike many, Smil does not shy away from. The world today is massively dependent on fossil fuels and, for all our modern ingenuity, few really convincing future alternatives have yet emerged. Here’s another ‘modern civilization’ excerpt from him: “Modern civilization depends on extracting prodigious energy stores, depleting finite fossil fuel deposits that cannot be replenished even on time scales orders of magnitude longer than the existence of our species. Reliance on nuclear fission and the harnessing of renewable energies…have been increasing, but by 2015 fossil fuels still accounted for 86% of the world’s primary energy, just 4% less than a generation ago, in 1990” (p.295). It seems to me likely that there will be a continuing shift away from fossil fuels towards renewably-generated electricity, but the idea that it will be able to match current levels of energy use any time soon, or ever, seems fanciful. Moreover, as Smil points out, while electricity can substitute for fossil fuels in some sectors “there is no affordable, mass-scale alternative available for transportation fuels, feedstocks (ammonia, plastics) or iron ore smelting” (p.383). More comfort – time to get composting?

3. Energy transitions

Smil is well known for his argument that energy transitions are typically slow, even when new and obviously superior energy sources become available, largely because of sunk infrastructure costs. Photovoltaic enthusiasts like Chris Goodall have questioned this. I couldn’t possibly comment, except to say that the strength of the global economy is intimately connected with that fossil fuel infrastructure, so a rapid buildout of alternatives looks, shall we say, economically challenging – this perhaps is Gail Tverberg’s point, represented on here some time ago by the much-missed commenter wysinwyg. On the upside, Smil decries the chronic conservatism and lack of imagination that people display in relation to the power of technical innovation to improve future energy scenarios. But lest anyone is tempted to pigeonhole him with the techno-fixers, he also decries in the very same sentence the “repeatedly exaggerated claims made on behalf of new energy sources” (p.436)

4. Nuclear power

Smil describes nuclear power as a ‘successful failure’. Successful, because at one stage it was providing about 17% of the world’s electricity relatively cleanly (but remember that electricity is only a small proportion of the world’s total energy use). Failure because of “technical weaknesses of dominant designs, the high construction costs of nuclear plants and chronic delays in their completion, the unresolved problem of long-term disposal of radioactive wastes, and widespread concerns about operation safety” (p.284). Though Smil is rather scathing about the safety concern issue, the other ones seem of sufficient gravity that Small Farm Future proposes respectfully to relabel nuclear power as a ‘failed failure’. No doubt it will continue to play a marginal role in the energy mix in a few wealthy countries for the time being, but presently the chances of it stepping in to replace global fossil fuel dependence seem to be essentially nil.

5. Cities

Smil is refreshingly candid about the energy-hunger and social dysfunction of cities. Urbanisation, he suggests, involves substantial increases in per capita energy use (p.355). He adds that “large parts of many of the world’s largest cities remain epitomes of violence, drug addiction, homelessness, child abandonment, prostitution and squalid living….Cities have always been renewed by migration from villages – but what will happen to the already mostly urban civilization once the villages virtually disappear while the social structure of cities continues to disintegrate?” (p.437). Smil is under no illusions about the nature of rural, agrarian poverty, but it’s nice to see him avoiding the siren song of romanticising urban slums along the lines of Stewart Brand and the multitudes of his ecomodernist imitators. Smil does, however, talk positively about superlinear scaling, where increased population density results in disproportionately positive effects. My sense of the research literature is that some of the superlinear scaling claims are overblown, but I’ve somewhat lost track of this one. If anyone could point me to some relevant studies I’d be grateful. Meanwhile, Smil’s take-home message seems to be that it’s pretty miserable being poor in the countryside, and just as bad or even worse in the city. More comfort.

6. Agricultural involution

Smil has quite a lot to say about the energetic basis of premodern agrarian societies, which is interesting but not something I’m going to dwell on too much here. He asserts that societies based only on animate energies struggled to provide an adequate food supply for their populations, which no doubt has generally been true – but doing so was rarely a top priority for the ruling classes in agrarian societies of the past. I think it would be a good idea if we strived to make it a top priority for the ruling classes in agrarian societies of the future. Smil invokes the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s classic study of ‘agricultural involution’ in colonial Indonesia, essentially to argue that the intensification of traditional peasant agriculture can support increasing population densities but is ultimately a road to nowhere that reaches a point of diminishing return. However, he doesn’t engage at all with Geertz’s point that the involution of subsistence rice production in Indonesia was articulated with the production of sugar as a colonial cash crop. Suppose instead of the extractive colonial situation an ‘involuted’ peasant agriculture geared to providing for the teeming peasant multitudes, articulated with a state geared to using whatever surplus it could generate to deliver collective benefits to those multitudes, particularly by supporting labour-intensive, community-building sectors like health and social care. It seems to me that a future agricultural involution is likely in many countries with current high-energy capitalist agricultures. It would be a good idea to try to organise the state in such societies to distribute rather than concentrate or export the accrued benefits of the involutionary turn.

7. Materiality and social status

Finally, Smil makes the excellent point that our contemporary high energy civilization needs to delink social status from material surfeit if we’re to successfully negotiate the energy and resource squeezes that await us. He points out that what he (problematically, perhaps) calls the old ‘high cultures’ of the past never engaged in the mass production of consumer goods. Some might argue that this was because there were few ‘highs’ in these ‘high cultures’ and a lot of ‘lows’, something that we’ve mercifully transcended in conditions of modernity. But I don’t think that argument entirely washes, and it wouldn’t hurt to look at ourselves a bit more self-critically. Smil suggests that we need to move beyond the equation of civilization with high energy throughputs. It’s a demanding task, but I can only say amen to that.

From info-tech to post-capitalism?

Times have been hard of late for us leftists. Despite the fact that a good deal of our tradition’s criticisms of capitalism and modernity have proved accurate, the expected solutions haven’t really come – and when leftist governments have assumed power, they’ve often compounded the problems. New issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss and resource squeezes, not to mention feminism, decolonisation and identity politics, have arisen and challenged old leftist certainties. Small wonder that there’s a cottage industry in the publishing world for new leftist books trying to make sense of all these emerging trends.

I’ve tried to keep up as best I can with a selection of these volumes. They vary from the gob-smackingly bad – like Leigh Phillips’ neo-Bolshevik Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn Addicts – to the serious and thought-provoking. To my mind, almost all of them suffer from an insufficiently analysed commitment to ‘progress’ and technological solutionism. It’s not that I’m arguing instead for regress and anti-technological, reactionary backwardness…here, you can already sense the narrow straitjacket that leftism (and not only leftism, but most mainstream political thought) throws around the debate over ‘progress’ and technology. We need to do a better job when we talk about these ideas and acknowledge their complexities. Not much chance of that with public intellectuals like Steven Pinker strutting their stuff – what’s this weird modernist obsession with proving how much better life is now than in the past all about?

Anyway, Paul Mason’s book Postcapitalism: A Guide To Our Future (Penguin, 2015) is one of the better efforts I’ve read among this bad bunch. I still think it suffers from some of the characteristic weaknesses of mainstream leftist thought – and I think it would probably have been better titled Capitalism: A Guide To Our Past – but I’ve come away from it feeling enriched and informed. I’m not going to try to summarise it here, but I do want to review a few of Mason’s points that bear most directly on some of the concerns of this blog.

1. Capitalist crisis: Leftists, and Marxists in particular, have long argued that there are inherent tendencies to crisis within the capitalist economy, basically associated with the contradiction between finding consumers to buy its products and immiserating labour to cut its costs, and with replacing human labour with machinery. These tendencies are genuine, but the capitalist economy has proved much more resilient than the early Marxists supposed in overcoming its crises, essentially by finding ever new arenas (places, people, products) to commodify. It’s possible that the present impasse of the global capitalist economy will prove to be no more than another one of these temporary crises, but there are various signs that it’s more serious than that. In briefest outline, these include the unprecedented reliance on debt-fuelled growth by most of the major ‘developed’ countries, the scouring of value from these countries’ own increasingly immiserated populations, placing more wealth into the hands of an increasingly small global economic elite, the pressures of resource crisis and climate change, and the emergence within many of the major western economies of an impetus towards beggar-my-neighbour trade protectionism of the kind associated with the rhetoric, if not the deeds, of a figure like Donald Trump, with all the attendant 1930s-style dangers of global trade wars turning into global military conflict.

2. Working-class response: Marx himself had a rather naïve, intellectually-driven faith in the industrial working class as the universal historical class that would by itself right the wrongs of capitalism and of previous economic systems. But the more influential Marxist position, associated with someone who achieved actual political power, is Lenin’s critique of the ‘trade union consciousness’ of the industrial proletariat: without party cadres to push them into proper communism, according to Lenin all you get with industrial workers is demands for better pay and conditions. That’s pretty much the same viewpoint as legions of conservative thinkers, except what’s a negative for Lenin is a positive for them – witness, for example, John Michael Greer’s voluminous writings on the ‘wage class’ in the USA and its lack of interest in socialism. Mason, much more convincingly, shows how working class movements across the ‘developed’ world in the 19th and early 20th centuries actually did involve a strong leftist (though rarely Marxist) critique of capitalism, which emphasised education, self-improvement, the dignity of skilled manual work and the rich associational life of an engaged, disciplined, politicised workforce. As the contradictions of early 20th century capitalism began to mount, these movements faltered – destroyed by authoritarian populism and/or fascism, or bought off by social democracy, and ultimately snuffed out by neoliberalism with its destruction of organised labour in the west and its individualisation of economic action.

3. The rise of info-tech. The old leftist project is in ruins, then, but Mason sees new possibilities in the rise of networked information as the currency of 21st century human interaction. In his view, information goods are corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly, because markets are based on scarcity, whereas information is abundant. Meanwhile, info tech is lowering the marginal costs of production of numerous commodities – including basic physical commodities. The peer production of free stuff enabled by the info tech revolution is growing, enabling people to interact with each other as social beings outside the marketplace. Just as the old idea of the working class as the universal political class dies, a new idea of the well-educated and networked as the universal political class is born. At the same time, traditional forces of capitalist control are attempting to reassert themselves: vast tech monopolies like Google, repressive-authoritarian states and the constant reinvention of indebtedness to entrench exploitation. Hence are the contemporary battle lines between capitalism and post-capitalism drawn.


I think Mason has some brilliant insights into the story of capitalism and of the left’s somewhat-but-not-entirely futile attempts to understand and challenge it. I’m less convinced by the way he construes the coming conflict between monopoly capitalism and post-capitalist info-tech. I just don’t think he provides anything like a ‘thick’ enough description of future energy and resource prospects, the present structure of commodity manufacture and the nature of the open source or peer production movement to give his claims real weight. So it would be easy to dismiss his analysis as another example of starry-eyed, high tech, 3D-printer-fantasising flummery of the kind that disfigures so much ‘postcapitalist’ writing on the left these days. And indeed, in many ways his approach to the ‘zero marginal cost revolution’ isn’t that different to Kate Raworth’s, which I treated to a fairly peremptory dismissal on this site not so long ago.

But I don’t want to jettison his arguments quite so hastily. This is partly because he has a more nuanced view of info-tech as a contradiction within capitalist production, rather than simply as something that’s going to ride to the rescue of a grateful humanity. And it’s partly because I think his analysis can be reformulated in a more interesting way. So I’m going to conclude by trying to reformulate it.

I’ve long been sceptical of the idea of commons as a fundamentally superior form of economic organisation for the production of food and other key basic commodities (perhaps I’ll try to lay this argument out more systematically in another post). Given the opportunity, I think most people historically have preferred to provide for their household needs themselves as far as possible (which is not to say that commoning arrangements haven’t nevertheless been important in numerous ways). But it does seem to be the case that there’s a thriving ‘digital commons’ of peer-produced, open source free stuff out there in the world of information. I think Mason possibly overstates the significance of Wikipedia, Linux and Android compared to, say, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook, but he undoubtedly has a point. So I wonder if there’s some key difference between the world of food production and the world of information production?

I’m not sure – if there is, I think it’s probably around such issues as the production of food demanding ongoing physical work over periods of time that are determined by the rhythms of the natural world and not by the choice of the worker, with rewards demanding that the marginal cost of production is quite low relative to the total cost of production. In the world of peer production of information – a new WordPress widget, for example – the work is more modular, determined by the choice of the worker, and with marginal costs of production quite high relative to the total cost of production. And the social kudos gained from producing the widget is much higher than the social kudos gained from producing, say, a carrot. So there’s that. But I think the main thing that’s going on here is that info-tech peer production is essentially an elite pursuit, only available to those in highly privileged positions within the global political economy, whose ability to produce stuff for free rests upon a lot of other people working hard to service their basic needs. The same might be said of a home veg grower who gives most of her produce away or volunteers at a community garden.

In that sense, the peer production of free stuff is made possible by hidden exploitation within the global political economy, and probably therefore stands in a somewhat less revolutionary position to that political economy than Mason supposes. But I think he’s still right that there’s a possibly terminal crisis afoot in that political economy, and that the networked, educated individual may have a role to play in ushering us towards something else. And this is where his critique may connect up with my conception of the supersedure state that I outlined recently.

Here’s how things may unfold. Conservative forces will try to maintain capitalism-as-usual – debt-fuelled growth, austerity and inequality, ever more draconian immigration control, authoritarian state power, connivance with multinational monopolies and so on. But, despite achieving short-term successes and creating a lot of misery, they won’t triumph everywhere, partly as a result of opposition from Mason’s networked, educated people (among others), partly because of exogenous pressures like energy prices and climate change, and partly because they won’t be able to deliver what capitalist political economies have always ultimately been able to deliver to enough people in previous eras to guarantee their survival – increasing wealth and consumer luxury.  Generally, states will weaken, and civil society will have thrust upon it the responsibility of providing for basic needs.

This will turn out to be a lot harder than many people thought – including networked, educated individuals who discover that securing a steady supply of food, clothing, energy and shelter isn’t as easy as producing a WordPress widget. Nevertheless, their instincts towards open collaboration with strangers, lateral thinking, environmental care and shared space will stand them in good stead when it comes to rethinking community provisioning from the ground up. As per my analysis of the supersedure state, states will gradually retreat towards their core centres and populations, which will be increasingly remote from and inaccessible to the majority of people living within their de facto boundaries. Commercial, cash-crop oriented export farming will start to lose its economic rationale, and this is the point at which new, locality-oriented forms of ‘peer production’ of basic necessities may step into the breach. There will be numerous challenges, false steps and failures, but there may also be interesting models, social innovations and successes.

That, at any rate, seems something to aim at. I don’t think we’ll see the world that Mason would like to see – essentially one of free or nearly free basic necessities, universal basic income and a lot of volunteering, leisure and peer production of info-tech. But I think we might see, at least in some places, a world that’s better than that, based on local work, community self-provision and wider political networks of amity within the increasingly empty and moribund shell of a larger body politic left over from 20th century capitalism. In that sense, it’s a world that may have similarities with the one built by the organised, leftist working-classes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Let’s just hope that history doesn’t then repeat itself too much.

History crash

My previous post offered a retrospective take on my ‘Peasant’s Republic of Wessex’ post cycle that I completed a while back. I thought I might now turn to another such retrospective, this time on my recently-completed ‘History of the world’ cycle. So I’d like to offer a few thoughts on the way we think about history, with the help of a couple of books from my recent reading.

JG Ballard’s Crash is one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read – a novel about people who are sexually aroused by cars, and in particular by deaths and injuries in car crashes, deliberately orchestrated or otherwise1. It’s a disturbing, semi-pornographic and some might say depraved book, to which a publisher’s reader of the draft manuscript famously wrote “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish”. It’s also, in my opinion, completely brilliant. I can’t imagine what the hell was going through Ballard’s mind in writing it, but for me it touches on two themes relevant to this blog.

The first is that we tend to talk about technology nowadays as if it’s something that’s radically separable from what it is to be a person. So with cars, for example, we might draw up some kind of balance sheet where we say that the advent of the automobile has been positive, because it’s allowed us to get to places quicker and more freely, while acknowledging the downsides – road injuries, air pollution etc. I take Ballard to be saying that this way of thinking is flawed. Cars have changed who we are, and bled into the very fabric of what it means to be a person in the 20th or 21st centuries. So asking if they’re a good thing or not is an incoherent question, because to answer it depends on there being some kind of contemporary human point of view that’s entirely independent of the car itself – and there isn’t. Generalise that to any technology – farming, for example, or a 3KWh/person/day energy economy – and suddenly we’re mercifully freed from all our chatter about backwardness, progress and so on. Of course, it works the same in reverse. We can’t say that people lived at a more unhurried pace in the 19th century before they had cars, so if we only got rid of the automobile then our lives would resemble the unhurried ones of a bygone age.

This all suits me just fine. I’ll admit that Ballard stretches a point with his rather extreme illustration, and that there are clear continuities between what it means to be a person in the 21st century and the 19th, and indeed very much further back than that. Still, I think Crash makes a nicely relativizing move. What are the grounds on which we judge the currents of history or morality? They’re less clear cut than we often like to think. People are always engaged in often mutually exclusive current projects of future history-making (eg. ecomodernists versus neo-agrarian populists) which usually invoke some kind of historical warrant for their choice. But although we can no doubt learn some things from history so long as we’re conscious of the way they’re refracted in our present gaze, these historical warrants are usually quite illusory. What really matters is the current projects.

The second point I derive from Ballard is our tendency to read present tendencies moralistically into the future as utopias or dystopias, which again I take him to be resisting. So for example an ecomodernist might say that if we could only make cars using clean renewable fuel available to all in the future, then truly we can have a great Anthropocene. Utopia. A more traditional environmentalist might say that if we don’t end our infatuation with personal motorised transport, then a grim future of runaway climate change, collapsing ecosystems, choking air pollution and social isolation beckons. Dystopia. I think Ballard is saying ‘Just look around. Utopia and dystopia are already here, depending on how you choose to see them’. Take this passage:

“The entire zone which defined the landscape of my life was now bounded by a continuous artificial horizon, formed by the raised parapets and embankments of the motorways and their access roads and interchanges. These encircled the vehicles below like the walls of a crater several miles in diameter”.

For the protagonists in Ballard’s story this is a world full of beauty, stories, alluring dangers and sex. Utopia. For me, it’s hell on earth – and I used to live there. Dystopia. But I can find beauty, stories, alluring dangers and, er, well maybe sex in less wholly humanised and technological environments. The present global situation is such, I think, that we need to talk about the future more urgently than any generation ever did before, but I still think Ballard is right to warn us away from projecting our desires and fears moralistically into the future. What are we fighting for politically? Whatever it is, it’s not the future but what’s around us right now. Let’s sharpen our focus on the way we want to live right now, rather than trying to transcendentalize it with reference to the past or the future.

The second book I want to mention is Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels by Ian Morris2, professor of classics at Stanford University and based on his Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Princeton University – so not at all semi-pornographic or depraved, then. Morris offers a grand survey of human history, the sort of enterprise to which of course I’m wholly sympathetic, but to be honest I feel rather more in tune with Ballard’s line of thought than with Morris’s. I’ll concede there are some definite riches within Morris’s pages, but here I’m going to focus on just one aspect of his thinking that it suits me to analyse for my present purpose – essentially his view of historical development, which I find problematic.

When I was a budding student of anthropology at university, an intellectual crime that my teachers were especially anxious to stamp out in us was teleological functionalism. Quite a mouthful, so let me explain if it’s not clear3. ‘Functionalism’ refers to the notion that the forms societies take can be explained in terms of some kind of function that they perform. This approach rode high in early 20th century social science, and there are doubtless some sophisticated forms of functionalism that may still have something to commend them, but generally the approach has fallen by the wayside. ‘Teleological’ refers to a process that is goal-directed through time. So to give an absurd example of a teleological functionalist approach, you might argue that the driving force of human societies has always been the urge to put people on the moon. If you were then asked why societies historically transitioned from foraging to farming, you might say that it was necessary to have a complex division of labour in order to develop craftspeople and other such specialists who would eventually learn to devise spaceships. If you were asked why the Neolithic gave way to the Bronze Age, you might say that learning to smelt bronze was a necessary step on the way to creating the modern alloys that are necessary in order to have spaceflight. And so on. The obvious flaw in this is that you can’t logically invoke a phenomenon as an explanatory factor for societal changes that have not (yet) brought that phenomenon into existence. More generally, social explanations of the kind ‘Social form X occurred in order to make Y possible’ are suspect – unless Y was an explicit intention of the people bringing X about, which is rarely the case in most forms of teleological explanation.

Morris is smart enough to avoid obviously teleological functionalist arguments most of the time, but they shadow his whole thesis and sometimes rise to the surface, as in this passage on ‘Agraria’, the term he borrows from Ernest Gellner to describe inegalitarian, preindustrial farming societies:

“each age gets the thought it needs. In the absence of fossil fuels, the only way to push energy capture far above 10,000 kilocalories per person per day is by moving towards Agraria, where economic and political inequality are structurally necessary, and in the face of necessity, we adjust our values. Moral systems conform to the requirements of energy capture, and for societies capturing between 10,000 and 30,000 kilocalories per person per day, one of the most important requirements is acceptance of political and economic inequality”4

The obvious objection to this is that, while it may be true that in the absence of fossil fuels you can’t push energy capture over the 10,000 kilocalories figure without instituting inequality, there’s no particular reason why you should choose to, and indeed throughout most of the history of our genus nobody did. The fact that in the last few thousand years the amount of energy capture and the amount of inequality have increased are both social facts that demand explanation – the former fact does not explain the latter.

I think this matters for two reasons. First, Morris’s stance erases and effectively validates the ideological processes by which the elites of Agraria formed themselves and created effective ‘acceptance’ of political and economic inequality. I don’t think this was a matter of everybody choosing the right morality to fit their new agrarian circumstances. It was a matter of people jockeying for advantage within the ever-changing constraints that they found themselves in, much as they do now – albeit that over time those constraints do tend to congeal into various enduring ‘common sense’ ideologies such as the equality of all, or the obviously natural differences between noble and commoner. Second, it makes history the servant of some ineluctable dynamic, in this case that of increased energy capture, and it usually throws in an accompanying dose of implicit or explicit moral approbation – it hasn’t all been great, but look at all the wonders civilisation has given us that could never have been achieved in a foraging society! Perhaps we could call it the Pinkerization of history.

To my mind, the world is much more contingent than this. Increasing energy capture is not a historical dynamic, but a byproduct of the will to power and status that aligned in this direction – but could align in numerous other ways. Each age doesn’t get the thought it ‘needs’ – it’s both enabled and constrained by the thought it inherits from its predecessors, it wrestles with their contradictions and the dilemmas of its day, then it hands on the mess to its successors.

So having finished writing my history of the world, I shall be turning to contemplate its future. The author I’d prefer to keep in mind while doing so is Ballard rather than Morris.


  1. J.G. Ballard. 1973. Crash. London.
  2. I. Morris. 2015. Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve. Princeton.
  3. In the last week, the word ‘teleological’ has suddenly arisen to public consciousness in the UK as a result of our hapless foreign secretary using it to justify his opposition to the EU – Steven Poole provides a neat antidote here.
  4. Morris op cit, pp.83-4.


Three acres and a cow

My title comes from a 19th century English song, which includes this verse…

If all the land in England was divided up quite fair / There would be work for everyone to earn an honest share / Well some have thousand acre farms which they have got somehow / But I’ll be satisfied to get three acres and a cow

…but more immediately, it comes from a great evening of folksong and storytelling I heard recently in which Robin Grey and Katherine Hallewell told – well, not quite the history of the world in 10½ blog posts so much as the history of the fight for access to land by ordinary people in Britain in 11 lovely folk songs. If you get a chance to see the show, I’d thoroughly recommend it (and for those in my neck of the woods, it’s returning to Frome on 10 March). It’s not quite as comprehensive as my recent historithon here at Small Farm Future, but it’s a darned sight more tuneful.

The main aim of this post, though, isn’t to talk about the show so much as to pick up on a couple of themes hanging over from various previous posts and post cycles. In particular, I want to address a point that Ruben made in a comment concerning the need for a sustainable post-capitalist society to produce an agrarian surplus in order to fund a division of labour and thus a viably diverse social order. I want to marry it with what I called my 99/1 test (in which a food-farm system is defined as sustainable if it can persist with 99% of food sourced from within 10 miles of any given retail point and with fossil energy use set at 1% of the current level). Clem suggested a 90/10 test might be more apposite, so I propose to (roughly) split the difference and apply a 95/5 test – though actually in the analysis here I’m going to ignore retail provenance altogether, implicitly assuming that it’s 100% local.

In later posts, I’ll discuss the sociological aspects of what such low energy post-capitalist farm societies might look like. But here I want to revisit my Peasant’s Republic of Wessex analysis and consider what such a society might look like out in the fields. Somewhat like three acres and a cow, as it turns out. Or at least three acres and a quarter of a cow.

I’ve identified two sources for current levels of in-field fossil energy use in British farming. This one reckons it at 17 litres of diesel per hectare per year, and this one at 127 litres – a rather alarming discrepancy. Ah well, let’s take the mean (72 litres) and then reduce it by 95%. That gives us about 3.6 litres of diesel to grow our crops each year on a nominal hectare. I’m going to assume two people working full-time year-round producing a basic range of crops appropriate to the southwest English climate to feed themselves and anyone else they can, given those diesel and labour parameters. And I’m going to assume they’ll be growing organically (no sneaky additional energy embodied in fertiliser). On that basis, what I’d probably do is grow a grass/clover ley which I’d till in with a small 2-wheel tractor and grow potatoes as my main staple crop (in reality I might grow some wheat as well, but my personal experiments with small-scale wheat growing haven’t amounted to much, and I don’t have good local yield figures for such systems). I know tillage isn’t exactly the flavour of the month at the moment and I’ll be talking more about that in my upcoming post on carbon farming, but my feeling is that in a super-low energy situation it’s probably the optimum solution to the equation of land, labour and yield. If you think you could do as well with a no till system, then fine – you can use your diesel for something else…such as hauling around all the compost you’ll most likely be making.

Anyway, so much for the tillage. The rest of my production would be done with hand (or foot) tools (I’m ignoring energy embodied in small tools, and the various bits of agri-plastic I’d undoubtedly be blagging for mulch). Plus whatever animal or human help I could muster. Note that my focus here is on producing a healthy subsistence, and not on high value leafy crops as is the present lot of most small-scale market growers.

OK, maybe I’m pushing the limits here but on that basis I think I could probably cultivate about a quarter of an acre (0.11ha) of potatoes as part of a seven course field rotation with a two year ley. I’d also grow a garden with six 20m beds, including one ley. I’d have a small fruit orchard of a little under 0.1ha, with some grazing beneath the trees. I’d have a 300m2 strawberry patch, a few bee hives, and a few hens. I’d also grow some mushrooms on logs. If that was pretty much the extent of my holding I wouldn’t have enough grazing for a dairy cow, but my orchard and leys would be enough for a quarter of a house cow so I’d share one (and the associated calf meat) with three other farmers. In practice, I’d probably grow a somewhat more diverse mixture of things (rather than, say, 300m2 of pure strawberries), but I think the above will do as an illustrative example.

So there we have it. That little lot should keep me and my beloved busy enough over a year.

If I plug all that into my Peasant’s Republic of Wessex spreadsheet, which has been sitting around looking reproachfully idle on my desktop for many months now, then we get the following expected average yields: about 2 tonnes of potatoes, 4 tonnes of cabbages, 0.2 tonnes of drying beans, 4 tonnes of carrots, 4 tonnes of squash, generally around 100kg of various garden vegetables, 0.5 tonnes of apples, 0.2 tonnes of strawberries, 67kg of hazels, 1250 eggs, 800 litres of milk, 70kg of beef, 10kg of chicken and game, and 25kg of honey. Perhaps a little too much to expect of two people with minimal fossil fuel inputs in an organic system, but I think possibly doable in a well-established and well-managed system. Comments welcome.

Adding up the total land take of the setup I described above turns out a figure of 0.92 hectares (2.3 acres). So if you added some space for a house, outbuildings, tracks, hedges and perhaps a bit of woodland, you’d be close to Robin and Katherine’s 3 acre figure, though sadly you’d only have quarter of a cow.

Setting those productivity figures against recommended yearly intakes across my five chosen nutritional indicators (energy, protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Magnesium and Iron) the surplus productivity of my two farmworkers varies across the indicators – the surplus is highest for Vitamin A, where they produce enough for the adequate nourishment of 209 souls, and lowest for energy, where they produce enough only for just over 11 people (11.5).

So taking that lowest figure of 11 per hectare as the productive limit of this system and assuming that all arable land is cultivated in this way we find that the system could feed 91% of the current population of the southwest and 75% of the current population of England as a whole. If we extend it into all the farmland currently down to permanent pasture (but not rough grazing) we could feed 310% of the current southwest population and 147% of the whole England population. This excludes the extra potential productivity from rough grazing, domestic gardens and other currently non-agricultural green spaces. In other words, feeding the country in this way is a doddle. The reason it meets nutritional requirements so comfortably in comparison to my previous ‘Peasants’ Republic of Wessex’ exercise is because in the latter case I went with a livestock-heavy system based on the existing balance of grassland and cropland, whereas here I’ve gone for a more George Monbiot-friendly system with minimal livestock. Though, unlike George’s preferred approach to meat, at least my livestock have legs – or one leg, anyway. To be honest, I think the kind of setup I’m describing here would be more likely to occur in low energy future scenarios than the livestock-heavy approach I previously took, though there’d still be a lot of room around the edges of it for domestic poultry, neighbourhood pig clubs etc. There’d probably need to be, since there’s not otherwise much usable fat or oil in this three acres diet. And rather than courting controversy as I did last time around by trying to produce a non-fossil fuel full energy budget for such a society, I’m drawn to the simplicity of this one. Assume 5% of current energy use across all sectors and go figure…

But I’d like to make a couple of brief remarks on how I’d go figure it. Farmers, like everyone else, generally take the easiest option available under the constraints they face. In situations where land is plentiful but labour is constrained (labour constraint being effectively the same as energy constraint) the easy option is meat-heavy pastoralism. In situations where land is constrained but labour is plentiful, the easy option is grain-heavy arable. In situations where both land and labour are constrained, as here, the easiest option would probably look something like what I’ve just described – a meat-light mixed cropping approach with as little arable as you can get away with, which would probably be a lot more than you’d ideally like.

Vaclav Smil writes that no country with an annual energy consumption under 5 GJ/person can guarantee the basic necessities of life to everyone, whereas some societies oriented to egalitarian resource distribution can provide for an adequate life at around 40-50 GJ/person1. If the UK’s total energy consumption was decreased by 95% it would put us at around 4.5 GJ/person.

The 95/5 test would seem to suggest a wicked, twisted road ahead. Maybe it’s too stringent? I’m somewhat agnostic about the shape of humanity’s energy future, but it never hurts to plan conservatively…

In terms of the farming population, two people feeding 11.5 people would give us 17% of the population directly working in farming, but if we calculate it on the basis of present labour norms with those aged <18 or >65 excluded from the labour force, the figure is about 31% in farming. If such a situation came to pass in practice I think we could relax the 18-65 active labourer definition a little, so perhaps we could assume farmers would constitute about 25% of the population – similar to current levels in countries like Iran, Ecuador, Tunisia and Uzbekistan. The current level in the UK is about 2%, though this isn’t really a comparable figure because we export a lot of the responsibility for producing our food to farmers in other countries. Still, if we decided that we should produce all our food in this way, we’d have to start shifting about 23 people out of every 100 from their current employment into farming. Any suggestions as to which job sectors the Ministry of Agricultural Redeployment in the Peasants’ Republic should concentrate on will be gratefully received.

Incidentally, I shall be on internet detox over the weekend so no further comments or responses from me until next week.


  1. Vaclav Smil. 2017. Energy and Civilization: A History. MIT Press, p.358ff.

The supersedure state

I said that I wanted to focus on the shape of possible agrarian, post-capitalist states of the future in my forthcoming writing, so I thought I’d anticipate that here by reproducing my article from the current issue of The Land magazine (Issue 22, 2018, pp.28-30). The editors of that august journal in their wisdom entitled it ‘The human hive’ (and accompanied it with some beautiful woodcut illustrations of an apian nature), but here it goes under my preferred title of ‘The supersedure state’. My next few posts are going to attend to various other items of business – though some of them do bear on this theme – but I thought I’d lay this out now as a kind of organising concept for the things I want to write about agrarian states, which I’ll try to fill out in more detail on this site shortly. So I’ll be coming back to this – but in the meantime, of course I’d welcome any comments. I’m not sure if this is exactly the same version as the one that appeared in The Land, but I think it’s close enough.


The tumult of recent political events in many western countries has brought a new word to the lips of political commentators – populism. Generally, populism and its personification in figures such as Donald Trump and Nigel Farage has been presented in mainstream circles as a dangerous political turn, a threat to the established order of things, and not without good reason. But for those who’d like to replace the present global neoliberal economy with a more local, more equitable and more land-based or agrarian society there are overlaps with populism that raise a few questions – in particular, these three:

  1. ‘Populism’ means a politics of or for ‘the people’, which doesn’t sound like such a bad idea – so what’s the problem with it?
  2. Are there any fruitful links between the populisms now emerging in contemporary western countries and an older and now largely forgotten politics associated with peasant parties in various countries during the 19th and early 20th centuries, a politics known as ‘agrarian populism’?
  3. If populism threatens the established order, perhaps that’s no bad thing and represents a political opportunity of some kind – but what kind?

The answer to the first question is that populist positions often involve an over-simplified contrast between ‘ordinary people’ and a scapegoated ‘elite’, which is seen as thwarting the interests of the former – and there are tacit rules of inclusion and exclusion regarding membership in both categories that aren’t politically innocent. In the populist politics of Brexit, for example, ‘ordinary people’ has a nationalist coding that excludes migrants, including long-term residents from continental Europe, especially East Europeans. And the ‘elite’ has a class and political coding that mostly references liberal, urban, left-wing ‘chattering classes’ rather than the chief wielders of economic power.

So the problem with a populist politics of the people is that ‘the people’ is usually a less inclusive term than it appears, and the solution to their problems is usually more complicated than the humbling of the elite that’s proposed. Nevertheless, it might still be plausibly argued that in the present era of neoliberal globalisation, there are elites which organise against the interests of ordinary people, and the latter have not been well served by the game of ping-pong between lookalike politicians that passes for democratic politics. That argument can be taken in numerous directions, some of which might endorse an anti-elitist politics for ‘ordinary people’ without endorsing any of the populisms currently on the table, from Donald Trump’s Republican presidency to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership.

Spooling back a century or so, it becomes a little easier to grasp what a populist politics of ordinary people against the elite meant. In various countries – the USA, Russia, Mexico and India, to name a few – most ‘ordinary people’ were small-scale and typically self-sustaining (or ‘peasant’) farmers, many of whom considered their interests to be in conflict with various political, financial, colonial or aristocratic elites in their home countries, and organised an anti-elitist populist politics of the people accordingly, for example in the form of the US Populist Party, which put up presidential candidate James Weaver in 1892. In the 1920s, economist Alexander Chayanov published key works of the Russian ‘neo-populist’ school, which emphasised the resilient and self-perpetuating nature of the Russian peasant household economy1. The US Populist Party merged with the Democratic Party in 1896 and fizzled out thereafter, partly because US politics ultimately delivered a good deal of what the populists had wanted, albeit not quite in the form they’d wanted it – a greater share for workers in national wealth, but in the form of an urban-industrial workforce and depopulated farmscapes2. For his part, Chayanov was summarily tried and shot in Stalin’s gulag in 1937. Perhaps these two contrasting endpoints for populism in the USA and the USSR symbolise the 20th century fate of agrarian populism in general: squeezed out in the Cold War rivalry between capitalism and communism, neither of which were notably sympathetic to independent peasantries. Even so, agrarian populism has had a complex afterlife through the 20th century and into the 21st, inflecting pro-peasant and anti-globalisation politics represented in figures like Vandana Shiva and in the food sovereignty movement. And there are also various points of crossover here with the traditions of right-wing populism that typically emphasise the local and the rural, ‘indigenous’ traditions over cosmopolitanism, individual independence over state dirigisme, and so on.

I can’t trace here the complexities of these inflections and crossovers – though it’s unfortunate that the eclipse of agrarian populism as a living political tradition obscures the lessons that today’s agrarian activists might infer from it in negotiating those complexities. But to answer my second question above, I’d suggest that, yes, there probably are fruitful connections to be drawn between these populisms old and new – but the issues facing us today aren’t exactly the same as those facing the small farm populists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The most obvious difference is that there are hardly any small-scale farmers in the ‘developed’ countries any more. Peasant or agrarian populism as a politics of ‘the people’ makes sense when a large proportion of the people are peasants or agrarians. It looks less convincing in a modern urban world where only a small minority of people directly work the land. However, the chances of sustaining this world indefinitely in the face of the numerous environmental crises it’s provoked seem slim, as do the chances of achieving a fair distribution of resources in the neoliberal global political economy that sustains it by systematically rewarding the few at the expense of the many. For these reasons, a contemporary agrarian movement has arisen which has a lot in common with the agrarian populist and neo-populist movements of a century ago, emphasising self-reliant, low impact, low energy, land-based lifestyles, a fair distribution of resources, greater political autonomy and so on – in other words, the kind of world described by the Land’s manifesto on the inside cover of this magazine.

But that movement remains quite small and – compared to the stormy agrarian politics of the 19th and 20th centuries, which toppled numerous empires, aristocracies and colonial powers – it operates in a world where revolutionary thirst for change no longer has much traction. This seems to have prompted a few alternative thinkers among leftists and greens to embrace the ersatz tumults of recent electoral politics in the west such as the Trump and Brexit results as at least some kind of new opening in the moribund politics of neoliberalism-as-usual, and therefore something to be welcomed3. The death of liberalism and globalism in the face of the new populisms has been gleefully embraced by these thinkers as a hopeful sign that a more egalitarian green localism may be in the offing – perhaps in much the same way that Marxists of old used to think that a dose of capitalism was a necessary evil for every society to go through if it was ever to experience the joys of socialism. But the path from right-wing populism to green localism doesn’t seem intrinsically more likely than numerous other possible paths, and though it’s tempting to share in the schadenfreude directed at once sanctimonious centrists in their dismay at the current turn of events, there are some problems with cheerleading the death of liberalism. Chief amongst them is the danger that with the death of a globally-oriented liberalism might come the death of the public sphere, defined as “rational-critical debate about public issues conducted by private persons willing to let arguments and not statuses determine decisions”4, as seems to be happening under the star of the new populism in countries such as Russia and Turkey. The outlook for an equitable and sustainable agrarian localism is bleak in these circumstances – so maybe defending the liberal public sphere from the Trumps, Putins and Farages of this world is a pressing task for a contemporary agrarian populism.

However, we’re undoubtedly now living through a populist moment in which such figures are at least temporarily ascendant while familiar liberal-global institutions such as the EU appear to be unravelling, so it’s as well to try to plot a course from where we now are to where the contemporary agrarian movement might like us to go. It seems clear that the populist politicians now in power are unequal to the task of their sloganeering: they will not be able to “make America great again” or “take back control”. But perhaps they’ve nonetheless instinctively realised what still escapes the mainstream – that liberal-democratic global capitalism is dead in the water and needs refashioning. Academic political economist Wolfgang Streeck comes to much the same conclusion in his recent analysis of the chronically growing debt, stagnant growth and rising inequality gnawing away at the vital organs of the global capitalist beast:

“Contemporary capitalism is vanishing on its own, collapsing from internal contradictions, and not least as a result of having vanquished its enemies – who…have often rescued capitalism from itself by forcing it to assume a new form. What comes after capitalism in its final crisis, now under way, is, I suggest, not socialism or some other defined social order, but a lasting interregnum…a prolonged period of social entropy, or disorder”5

There are various ways in which this interregnum might get filled, some of them extremely worrisome. But I’d like to suggest how an equitable agrarian populism might step into the breach on the basis of the following four ‘might-come-true’ predictions:

  • National and individual incomes in most of the rich western countries will decrease along with the volume of international trade – a process that in the UK will be hastened by Brexit but is likely to happen anyway. The possibilities for ducking the implications of this scenario through scapegoating are numerous, but there’s a chance that eventually it’ll prompt a more sober reorientation of national and local economies to the more immediate needs of the citizenry.


  • The de jure territorial reach of the central state in the west is likely to remain much as it is now for the foreseeable future, but its de facto power outside its core regions (in England, London and the southeast) is likely to wane as the ratio between public service benefits and tax income becomes ever more unpromising. Weakened governments will retrench around core areas and industries, leading to (semi-)benign (semi-)neglect elsewhere.


  • The returns to large-scale commodity-crop farming and large-scale landownership outside the state cores will diminish to the point of redundancy. Large-scale landownership in these areas will start to become politically and morally risky in the context of impoverished local populations looking to supply their needs from local resources increasingly through non-monetary means.


  • The preceding developments will resist resolution by any singular means – no high-tech solutionism, fiscal windfalls, sweeping political or religious revitalisation movements and so forth. Attempts to organise and provide for regional populations will be predominantly local, piecemeal, experimental, practical and plural, and they’ll enjoy varying degrees of success…


…or to put it another way, something like Detroit may soon be coming to a sleepy English village near you.

If this situation occurs, there will doubtless be scope for numerous elements of our present political traditions to recombine in various more or less successful ways in the changed circumstances, and the same is true of landholding traditions – rentiers and tenants, owner-occupiers, collective property and commons. Streeck is probably right that a single defined social order won’t prevail. Since Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees (1714), political scientists have been fond of using apian metaphors for politics, so I’m inclined to do likewise and call what I’m describing here a ‘supersedure state’. In the normal succession of a bee colony, the mass society decides that the ruling queen is no longer fit for purpose, builds some orderly alternative structures, and after a brief power struggle a singular new ruling queen emerges. Supersedure occurs, by contrast, when the existing queen goes missing in action without any orderly alternative structures to replace her. In these circumstances, the workers try to cobble together a new queen out of whatever’s to hand that will best do the job of maintaining the colony, but usually end up producing a smaller, weaker queen. I think our human colonies may likewise see more of such weakened, cobbled-together successor states – ‘supersedure states’ – in the disorderly future that Streeck predicts, and less of the smoothly revolutionary politics of the past. As the Land’s manifesto persuasively states: “Capitalism is a confidence trick, a dazzling edifice built on paper promises. It may stand longer than some of us anticipate, but when it crumbles, the land will remain.” The traditions of agrarian populism seem best suited to creating a modicum of stability, prosperity and justice in this politically weakened, land-oriented aftermath of capitalism – better, at any rate, than obvious alternatives such as neo-feudalism, neo-fascism or revitalising cargo cults seeking to restore capitalism, communism and other modernist nightmares.

However, a network of pluralist agrarian supersedure states probably isn’t the most likely contender for the future shape of the world. If the curve of politics in disparate countries of the world today – the UK, the USA, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, India, China – is anything to go by, we may be more likely to see ruthless neo-mercantilist international economic competition between countries, fractious distributional conflicts within them, and nationalist-nativist populisms trying to breathe life into all sorts of arbitrary boundaries between people and peoples. This is not an enticing prospect, so perhaps it’s a good idea to address how an agrarian populist future of supersedure states might be wrested from this other mode of populism.

The short answer is a two-pronged approach, the first of which aims to buttress wherever possible any or all permutations of peasant, family-based, small-scale, local market oriented, diverse and high nature-value farming. Historically, this fits comfortably into various populist agendas, agrarian and otherwise, and is the sort of thing readily found in UKIP election manifestoes. The second aims to buttress wherever possible a liberal public sphere, rational-critical debate, small state local democracy based on the power of arguments rather than statuses accruing from membership in closed categories of ‘the people’, ‘the real people’ or ‘ordinary people’, an egalitarian economic localism combined with a plural political internationalism, and so on. These sorts of things won’t be found in UKIP election manifestoes, and doubtless sound a lot more like the old-fangled neoliberal globalism which most populists, with some justification, want to overturn. But the key is the combination of the two prongs. The first without the second creates a reactionary nationalist back-to-the-landism which can conceal all sorts of modernist horrors under the pretence of a romantic peasantism – the ‘Ringing Cedars’ movement in Russia being one contemporary example. The second without the first easily results in neoliberal globalism as usual. Each prong draws on old political traditions. The intention, however, is not to replicate those traditions but, just as with Peter Kropotkin’s idea of creating a new anarchist future out of communal past traditions, to build “an absolutely new fact, emerging in new conditions and leading inevitably to absolutely different consequences”6.

There’s no inevitability about successfully creating this kind of ‘absolutely new’ politics, but it does seem possible that it will become a more obvious and attractive option than it presently seems as the drawbacks of conventional agriculture and conventional politics of both the mainstream and reactionary-populist varieties make themselves apparent. Admittedly, I’ve barely addressed the numerous difficulties and contradictions that would be involved in making this politics work. But here, in a nutshell, is the opportunity I mentioned in my third question above: the opportunity to create a tolerably prosperous, egalitarian, sustainable future based on an agrarian localism of supersedure states from the political tumults of the present moment.


  1. Chayanov, A. [1986]. The Theory of Peasant Economy. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  2. Postel, C. 2007. The Populist Vision. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  3. Examples here include green thinkers like Paul Kingsnorth and John Michael Greer, and august voices on the left like the New Left Review.
  4. Calhoun, C. 1992. Habermas and the Public Sphere. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  5. Streeck, W. 2016. How Will Capitalism End? London: Verso.
  6. Kropotkin, P. 1993. Words of a Rebel. Montreal: Black Rose

An Oxford education

Perhaps I should essay a brief report here on things I heard and learned at the 2018 Oxford Real Farming Conference that I attended a couple of weeks back. If I try to lay it all out in connected prose I’ll probably come grinding to a halt after about 5,000 words, so I thought I’d present it mostly in the form either of little news snippets or of one-sentence assertions…the latter being things I heard people say, or thoughts I had while listening at the conference. So I don’t necessarily agree with all of these assertions, some of which are mutually contradictory anyway. But that’s fine. Most of the time, I don’t even agree with myself. Anyway, here goes.


The biggest name at the conference was secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs (and arch-Brexiteer), Michael Gove. Quite a coup for the ORFC to get him not only to attend, but to agree to an unscripted Q&A session.

The audience listened in increasingly open-mouthed astonishment as Gove critiqued the inequities in the subsidy system that rewarded wealthy landowners, bemoaned the poor state of agricultural soils under the existing agricultural regimen, restated his opposition to neonic insecticides, critiqued the economic externalities involved in cheap food and emphasised the importance of supporting farmers for delivering environmental benefits.

There are numerous reasons to be sceptical about Gove’s agenda. Undoubtedly, the Tories are trying to re-position themselves as environmental champions again, probably because they’re aware that hardly anyone under the age of about 45 voted for them at the last election (remember David Cameron’s hug-a-husky moment, before he switched to ‘green crap’). And Gove is probably trying to resurrect his career after the long knives of the Brexit campaign.

Still, maybe it’s still better to have a DEFRA secretary at least saying these kind of things than, as before, saying the opposite and/or steering well clear.

Unlike Owen Patterson, Gove doesn’t hail from the landed wealth wing of the Tory party. As a famous doubter of expert opinion and trasher of professional lobbying, DEFRA – much more than the Department of Education – could be just the place where his talents can be put to best use.

The debate in the Tory party at the moment resembles the 19th century debate over the Corn Laws between landed capital, manufacturing capital and financial capital.

The carpets of Conservative Party HQ are seamed with blood.

Gove was equivocal on glyphosate. Expect chemical no-till farming to become the new green.

Everybody now seems to accept that the writing’s on the wall for large-scale landowners pocketing public money via farm subsidies – even the Country Landowners Association (sorry, now the Country Landowners and Business Association) who were in attendance. One positive outcome of Brexit, I think, that I predicted some time ago…

…but while this change will probably have some marginally beneficial consequences for social equity in the country at large, the money is unlikely to be redeployed in farming, but removed from it entirely. So probably tough times ahead for the already struggling medium-scale farm. Example: there are plenty of holdings that keep 2 breeding sows and plenty that keep 2,000. There are very few that keep 200. Is this a problem? I think so.

Farmers have four options: Get big, get niche, get out or get bankrupt.

Gove said there’d be support for upland stock farmers. Good news for James Rebanks. Bad news for George Monbiot. Relevant reading: another brilliant article from the pen of Simon Fairlie, ‘Return of the shepherd’ The Land, Issue 22.

The basic payments scheme inflates land prices (DEFRA).

No it doesn’t (CLA)

When Britain quits the EU, the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principles written into EU law won’t be transferred to British law.

When Britain quits the EU, there will be a regulatory gap, both in terms of legislation and regulatory staff.

Brexit is a great opportunity for Britain to set more appropriate local standards for food and farming.

Any post-EU trade deals Britain makes after a hard Brexit will potentially shatter local standards for food and farming, particularly a trade deal with the USA.

But any post-EU trade deals will have to be ratified by parliament, so if our elected representatives don’t like them they can throw them out.

If only it was as simple as that.

US farm animals are dosed with twice as much antibiotics as British ones.

Economic protectionism is a good idea, but only within a wider consociation of essentially amicable states. Otherwise the risk is the kind of trade-war bellicosity of the 1930s, potentially lurching into actual war. But presently there’s no global mechanism to achieve local protectionism and global consociation.

A system of cheap food depends on a system of cheap labour.

Britain currently imports a large part of its agricultural workforce from Eastern Europe, partly because of economic demand for labour from the weaker east European economies, but also because East European workers come with a range of agricultural skills that are in short supply in Britain, mostly through the running down of a proper framework for agricultural education.

In the context of Brexit, the supply of East European workers is dwindling.

Agricultural colleges are concentrating on graduate education, turning out students who want to be farm managers, rather than farm workers.

Allotment gardens available for student use at one agricultural college were derelict.

When faced with a 50-50 choice between investing in labour or investing in machinery, farm managers usually opt for machinery.

Machinery is generally high cost and large scale (= labour saving). The result is that the farm landscape is fitted to the machinery, rather than fitting the machinery to the farm landscape.

Much of the time, machinery sits in the shed. It can do the job it’s designed to do much more quickly and cheaply than human labourers. But without human labourers, much additional environmental work that could be done on the farm – hedging, ditching, woodland management etc. – doesn’t get done.

Nobody wants to work on farms any more.

Lots of people want to work on farms, but the opportunities are limited.

Working on farms is now a lonely occupation – and more dangerous, because of the human lack.

We need to grow more vegetables in the UK.

The UK government’s recent agricultural policy emphasised the need to ‘Grow more, sell more and export more’. Actually we should be trying to grow better, sell better and eat better.

New entrants to farming somehow need access to land. Or do they?

Dispersed grazing provides opportunities for new entrants.

Secure agricultural tenancy rights would take the heat out of the battle to secure access to land.

But there would be a hot battle to gain secure agricultural tenancy rights.

There is a long-term battle being fought between proponents of food democracy and food control. An Uberisation of the food system is occurring, in which the controllers of the software capture the majority of the value.

The food system is dependent on self-exploitation by its workers. It’s not a good system.

Something like 75% of the value in the food sector is captured beyond the farm gate.

Government benefits for the low waged working in the food processing and retail sector are an implicit subsidy to the process/retail industry.

We need shorter food chains.

France does a better job than the UK of controlling land concentration and retaining small-scale agriculture. But is it at the expense of accepting a patriarchal gerontocracy?

The number of farm holdings in the UK is reducing at a rate of about 2% per annum.

There is a precipitous decline in biodiversity and wild species numbers in Europe – and it’s largely due to farming practices.

The focus of the land value tax debate has been on property uplift, not on agricultural land as an enduring public good.

We tend to think of tax as a source of government revenue or for incentivising behaviours. We should also think of it as a means for preventing patrimonial, anti-democratic wealth accumulation.

Landowners capture the majority of the uplift value associated with turning land over to residential property development.

No they don’t.

Yes they do.

Traditional landed estates should be preserved because they’re a good way of handing down agricultural land through the generations.

No they’re not.

It took a war to reform Britain’s antiquated systems of property ownership and social security.

Brexit is like a war. But hopefully with fewer casualties.

Yes, hopefully.

Somebody at the conference I’d not met before had read my paper on perennial grains. They even agreed with it, and felt the Land Institute’s response missed the point. Validation! By Jove, it was all worthwhile…

A spade is a spade is a spade, but a perennial is not a perennial is not a perennial. Seeds are seeds. Fruits are fruits.

No they’re not.

Yes they are.


Chewing on the olive branch: GM crops and Mark Lynas ver 2.0

Another year, another speech about GM crops at the Oxford Farming Conference by renegade environmentalist and ecomodernist provocateur, Mark Lynas. Back in 2013, Mark gave a speech to the OFC in which he recanted his opposition to GM crops and turned his guns on his erstwhile comrades in the anti-GM and wider organic and environmentalist movements. It gained extensive media coverage. Well, there’s nothing the ‘mainstream media’ (more on that concept in a forthcoming post…) like more than a former radical rejoining the fold…

This time, Mark returns with a much more conciliatory message, offering what he calls an “olive branch” and “the contours of a potential peace treaty” between the pro and anti-GM contingents. If this had been the speech he’d given in 2013 I think a lot of bad blood could have been avoided. But there we have it – it’s good to seek concord where we can, so as a sometime anti-GM blogger I thought I’d run my eye over Mark’s olive branch and see whether I’m able to grasp it. For what it’s worth, I’ve pretty much stopped writing about GM, mostly because I don’t think it’s an especially important issue in terms of future sustainability or social equity (Mark now seems to agree, implicitly) and partly because debating it always seems to generate far more heat than light. I guess my thinking on it has changed a little too. But maybe I should dust down my GM files one last time and proffer my response to Mark – always among the more conciliatory of that bellicose ecomodernist tribe – taking his seven point peace plan point by point.

But first, in other news, word has reached the Small Farm Future office that the Trump administration is prohibiting officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using the following words or phrases: ‘vulnerable’, ‘entitlement’, ‘diversity’, ‘transgender’, ‘fetus’, ‘evidence-based’ and ‘science-based’. Hmm, language police – the first stage of fasci__ ? Shush, we’ll be coming to that in a forthcoming post. Meanwhile, in a retaliatory counter-move certain to chill the atmosphere at the highest levels in the White House, Small Farm Future is banning the following words or phrases from this website: ‘snowflake’, ‘political correctness’, ‘social justice warrior’, ‘false flag’, ‘cultural Marxism’, ‘fake news’, ‘the will of the people’, ‘the silent majority’ and ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ in all its variants.

Anyway, back to Mark Lynas’s olive branch. Here are its seven twigs:

  1. Environmentalists should accept the science of GMO safety, and scientists in return need to accept that politics matter in how scientific innovations are deployed.

I think I could cautiously go along with that. I don’t (any longer) think that there are intrinsic safety issues with GMOs as a general category of things. On the other hand, I’m increasingly concerned that current agricultural approaches in general aren’t safe strategies for humanity. So there are bigger safety fish to fry. On the ‘politics matter’ side of things, damn right they do – but you wouldn’t know it from the zillion megabytes of angry GMO boosterism I’ve seen over the years. It doesn’t say an awful lot for humanity that the lessons we didn’t learn in the original ‘green revolution’ (viz. new crops don’t in themselves solve poverty and hunger) are the same lessons we didn’t learn about GMOs. Oh well, no use crying over spilt milk. I’m ready to shake on it…

…except that the science of glyphosate safety is now looking increasingly shaky, on several fronts, and glyphosate has been the glove puppet to the hand of GM. Mark writes “I don’t want to get into the glyphosate debate here”. I’m not surprised. I get the sense he no longer thinks the biotech industry have all the white hats, and the organic or environmental movement all the black ones. But he can’t quite bring himself to say so.

Also, Lynas admonishes anti-GM activists: “stop with the fearmongering and the Franken-mumbojumbo….please move on.” My feeling is that most anti-GM activists have ‘moved on’, and the ‘Frankenfood’ epithet is now used more frequently by pro-GM activists to ridicule their opponents than the other way around. In fact, I seem to recall seeing a research paper somewhere reporting that finding quantitatively, but I can’t seem to locate it now – any steers on that gratefully received. Anyway, yes, let’s talk more about what Kinchy calls the ‘scientized politics’ around GMOs and less about their generic safety as such.


  1. We drop national GMO bans and instead allow fully informed choices to be made by consumers in the marketplace via rigorous labelling and full traceability.

Nope, sorry, not on board. Mostly because I’m not an unqualified fan of global governance and I’m not a fan at all of global markets. Elected governments should be able to set the policies they please. They can always be replaced by other elected governments with different policies. Long-term readers of this blog may wonder how I can square that with my opposition to Brexit. Well, you’ll just have to wait for my upcoming Brexit post…

I’m also somewhat opposed to this one because consumers in the marketplace are very rarely able to make fully informed choices, no matter how much labelling. But maybe I could sign up to it. If GM farmers have to pay for an elaborate licensing operation that entitles them to put ‘Certified GM product’ on the label, I guess I’d be interested in seeing it put out to consumer testing.

One further quid pro quo. Mark writes “Activists must stop agitating for bans and prohibitions”. How about in return the GM industry stops agitating for the retraction of research papers from scientific journals when they dislike the findings? The hounding of figures like Séralini has been quite extraordinary, and the motivations of some of the people involved are murky. This is a one way street – Diels et al, for example, reported statistically significant correlations between author affiliation to the GM industry and study results favourable to GM crops (Food Policy. DOI: 10.1016/j.foodpol.2010.11.016). Time to end the publication bias.


  1. We all get over the Monsanto obsession but make a much more serious effort to start getting off the chemical treadmill and moving farming onto more sound ecological principles.

Well, let’s face it, Monsanto has an unsavoury corporate history. Was it really a good idea for the company that helped supply Agent Orange to the US military in Vietnam to ask for our trust in launching a potentially risky and scary-sounding food technology in order to help it sell more weedkiller? It was also in my view a huge mistake for Monsanto to go anywhere near so-called Terminator Technology, and for it to ask farmers to sign an overly restrictive technology agreement that curtailed seed-saving and the perceived independence of farmers.

These are not my words, but a certain Mark Lynas’s – and about as good a summation as I’ve seen as to precisely why a lot of anti-GM activists have obsessed about Monsanto. I agree, though, that it would be good to move farming onto sounder ecological principles, such as avoiding the broad spectrum killing of weeds and insect pests. But since much of the GM industry comprises herbicide tolerant crops, and much of the rest of it comprises Bt-expressing crops, it seems to me the industry has a long way to go. There’s a problem here with pest resistance and with the potentially short shelf-lives of crops that’s intrinsic to the underlying model of agriculture as a social practice within which the corporate and large-scale GMO industry operates, and I’ve rarely seen the GM boosters pay anything more than lip-service to this. Mark now endorses the warnings about pest resistance long made by Greenpeace and the Soil Association – organisations that he’s spent too much of the past five years ridiculing. Now he writes “let’s drop the snide attacks on organic and agro-ecological approaches generally”. Well, that would be nice. But he also writes “I’m certainly not about to apologise for anything. One apology is enough for a lifetime I think.” Only one apology in a whole lifetime? Boy, I usually offer more than that in a single day. Well, I am English. But then so’s he. I think a teeny-tiny apology to the organic movement from the biotech boosters for relentlessly targeting the things it’s got wrong rather than the numerous things that it’s got a lot more right than them over the years would be in order.

On the “getting off the chemical” treadmill front, Mark writes “It is very clear… that insect-resistant crops have helped reduce applications of insecticide” and “it is also clear that the adoption of herbicide-tolerant crops has helped shift farming away from more toxic herbicides”. Now, I must admit that I haven’t been closely following the recent research literature on these issues (not that one can treat it as entirely unbiased – see point 2), but Mark’s careful choice of words invites suspicion. If insect-resistant crops have helped reduce applications of insecticide then that’s good for farmers, but my question is whether the use of these crops has increased or decreased the overall selective pressure for resistance among the relevant pests? If the former, as seems likely in view of the heavy reliance on Bt traits, then current reduced applications may be the calm before the storm. And when it comes to herbicides, Mark doesn’t seem to be claiming that herbicide applications are reduced, only that herbicide-tolerant crops have shifted farming away from more toxic herbicides. More toxic than what? More toxic in what way? I’m assuming that we’re talking about glyphosate here, whose toxicity is currently moot. And, as Professor Ian Boyd recently argued, ‘non-toxicity’ is generally only measured in lab tests or field trials – “The effects of dosing whole landscapes with chemicals have been largely ignored by regulatory systems”. What seems to have happened in farming generally – GM or non-GM – over recent years is a vast growth in the use of glyphosate, and thus a vast over-simplification in farming methods. So could we agree that one good step in getting off the chemical treadmill would be to stop using glyphosate-tolerant transgenic crops?


  1. We agree to support public sector and non-corporate uses of genetic engineering where these can clearly contribute to environmental sustainability and the public interest.

Yes, provided we also agree to support private sector and corporate uses of genetic engineering only where these can clearly contribute to environmental sustainability and the public interest.


  1. We support all forms of agriculture that aim to find ways towards greater sustainability. Let a hundred flowers bloom.

Yes, but bear in mind the coiner of the ‘hundred flowers’ phrase was one of the most tyrannous pluralism-crushers in human history. If we compare the amount of historic government and private sector support for, say, glyphosate-tolerant crops to, say, permaculture gardening, it’s apparent that, as in Mao’s China, some flowers are given a lot more chance to bloom than others. If this suggestion means anything, it has to be reflected in funding and other forms of societal support. So in view of the historic advantages accruing to the GM industry, here we’re talking about a large transfer of resources into agroecology, right?


  1. We stop the name-calling… the deal is I won’t call you anti-science if you don’t call me a Monsanto shill.

This should be easy for me, since opposing the use of particular technologies isn’t the same as opposing science, and I’ve never called anyone a shill (well, OK, I once sort of nearly did, to my later regret). Though a couple of times I’ve experienced vigorous put-downs on GM from people who seem to have no other internet presence, which kind of makes me wonder. Then again, the most virulent online criticisms I’ve received other than on the GM issue have come from permaculturists objecting to my take on perennial grain breeding. Maybe there’s just something about seeds that makes people really angry.

Anyway, the main kind of name-calling I’ve encountered over GMOs occurs in relation to claims about their poverty-alleviating powers. It’s one reason I’ve largely stopped writing about them, because it’s unedifying when rich westerners preen themselves in front of other rich westerners about their superior concern for the poor. So I’m heartened to see Mark criticising the absurd claim that opposition to Golden Rice is a ‘crime against humanity’. But dismissing those who favour tackling Vitamin A deficiency through poverty relief and dietary improvement rather than through Golden Rice with the phrase ‘let them eat broccoli’, as Mark did, is not much less absurd. If you use that phrase, it means you’re happy that some people are so poor they can’t afford to eat anything but rice, so long as it’s fortified to prevent one of the more acute manifestations of the resulting nutritional deficiencies. It would be good to see Mark explicitly repudiate his prior position on this.


  1. Let’s make ethical objections to genetic engineering explicit and in the process recognise real-world tradeoffs about where we do and don’t use this technology.

OK, agreed. Mark adds “Let’s also continue to work together to build a shared vision for where we want food and farming to be in the 21st century. To me, this vision would include feeding the 800 million people who are hungry. Tolerating this situation is a moral outrage that surely dwarfs all others in this debate.”

Also agreed. Mark writes, “I’ve visited numerous plant breeding labs in the last 5 years and spoken to a lot of plant scientists. I have yet to meet a single one, including those using the various techniques of genetic engineering, who claim that GMOs are going to feed the world or magically solve all our agricultural problems.”

Well, that’s a good start – if only public debate had reached that level of understanding. Nevertheless, there seem to be plenty of scientists (and even more scientism-ists) who advocate for various GM interventions without displaying much conception of the wider social and agronomic factors that may lead to the success or failure of the intervention. So I think there’s a long way to go before we’re all singing from the same sheet on what the tradeoffs are. I’d suggest that we’ll have made some progress once the following statement commands widespread agreement:

Crop development of all kinds can potentially ameliorate the situation of poor people. BUT POVERTY IS NOT CAUSED BY POOR CROP VARIETIES AND WILL NOT BE ENDED BY BETTER ONES.

Still, Mark’s intervention is no doubt a welcome attempt at least to start finding some middle ground. My feeling is that it will generate a lot less media coverage and excitement than his 2013 speech did. And if I’m right, I’d like to invite him to ruminate on why that might be…

Complicating the commons

A happy new year to you from Small Farm Future. So many things to write about in 2018…especially after getting back from the ninth Oxford Real Farming Conference, the biggest and best yet. The main theme I want to examine this year is the political shape of the state, specifically the agrarian states that I hope in the future may hold some promise for getting us out of the mess we’re currently in. On that note, my article on what I call the ‘supersedure state’ has just been published in the latest issue of The Land Magazine1. I’ll be republishing it on this site soon. At the end of this post, I’ll lay out a brief menu of things I’m going to be writing about here at SFF in the first part of the year, but first I want to anticipate my theme of the agrarian state by offering some further reflections on the concept of ‘the commons’ – which I’ve written about before, but feel moved to address further in the light of some of the presentations I heard at the Oxford conference, and of the interesting interview with George Monbiot in The Land.

Politically and intellectually, it seems like the idea of the commons is gaining traction – probably because the state and the market, its major rivals, have acquired something of an image problem in recent times. Politically, ‘the state’ has become associated with the unresponsive, centrally planned economies of communist regimes, and ‘the market’ with the flagrant inequalities and value-scouring short-termism of contemporary capitalism and/or neoliberalism. Intellectually, the story that’s often told about the commons starts with Garret Hardin’s notorious ‘tragedy of the commons’ argument that resources are over-used to the point of exhaustion in a commons because nobody has an individual interest in preserving them, and proceeds by way of Elinor Ostrom’s counter-analyses demonstrating various successful resource-preserving commons arrangements – some arising spontaneously through community-level agreements – to argue that the commons, rather than the state or the market, is the way forward2.

There’s much to commend these views, but they also involve some over-simplifications. The one that I particularly want to highlight here is our tendency to assume that markets and capitalism are complementary, if not synonymous. But they’re not. Historically, there’ve been plenty of market societies that weren’t capitalist, and plenty of capitalist societies (including our present one) which are not conspicuously market-friendly.

A capitalist society is one that secures its collective reproduction as an unintended side-effect of competitive profit maximization3, and only in certain rather unusual circumstances does that manifest in the development of widespread ‘free’, private markets of the kind identified in economic theory. As various thinkers have shown, markets are about exchanging goods through the medium of money, whereas capitalism is about using money to create more money, and one of the main ways capitalists do so is by using political patronage to help them create monopolies that limit market freedom. This is pretty much the situation we’re in today with the food system, and indeed in most other parts of the economy – as the economist Herbert Simon put it, we live in an organizational economy in which most economic transactions occur within corporate or government organisations, not in a market economy where they occur primarily in markets4. If we truly lived in a market economy, there would probably be something like 2 million farms in Britain, rather than the present 200,000.

Now, an attentive reading of Elinor Ostrom’s book suggests not that commons are a widespread and successful way of organising economic production, but on the contrary they’re rare and fraught with difficulty. To cut a long story short, in agricultural settings they usually only work at relatively small scales among groups of people who are relatively poor and who have relatively equal social standing, exploiting relatively extensive resources that are relatively low in value such as woodlands or grazing. People didn’t generally organise pre-capitalist agrarian societies predominantly through commons in the Hardin/Ostrom sense because it would have been a nightmare to do so, and the same is true a fortiori in contemporary society as we search for an alternative, post-capitalist economics. There are those who extend the concept of commons nowadays beyond agriculture into other realms, such as the notion of the ‘digital commons’. I’m not sure how convincing the parallel is, but if indeed there are commons in the digital world they don’t seem a whole lot more influential within it than traditional commons are within agriculture.

This would be a dispiriting conclusion if it propelled us back towards the dualities of state/market or communism/capitalism. But since, as I argued above, there’s nothing intrinsically capitalist about private markets, it doesn’t have to. My argument is that we should develop much more extensive private markets in food. If that happened, we’d find that the landscape would fill with lots of small-scale proprietors, who’d develop commoning arrangements between themselves as appropriate. And if they were supported by the state, this would really help to keep capitalism at bay.

A lot of the people who enthuse the most about commons are the kind of people who are themselves small proprietors, or aspire to be. I think they sometimes see their private ownership of land as a necessary evil in a capitalist society, whereas I’d suggest that it’s a desideratum for a non-capitalist society. Let’s have a look at these lyrics from Dick Gaughan’s song, The World Turned Upside Down, which expresses classic commoning sentiments:

This earth divided
We will make whole
So it will be a common treasury for all

The sin of property
We do disdain
No man has any right to buy and sell
The earth for private gain

For me, the key phrase here is “sell the earth for private gain”, and I take ‘gain’ to mean ‘unfair advantage’ – what economists call ‘rent’ in the technical sense of a situation in which monopoly control of a scarce, in-demand good enables the controller to name their price, however extortionate. But that isn’t necessarily the situation that obtains if I buy a plot of land and grow food crops on it which I sell at a local market. In that case, ‘property’ just means I’ve bought the right to an income stream from the land that will hopefully enable me to cover my ordinary living costs, just as a plumber does by charging out the costs of their time, tools and skills. Nor does the fact that I ‘own’ the land necessarily mean that I have an unchallenged right to do what I like on it or with it – the wider polity that has accorded me the right to derive income from it might, if it so chooses, forbid me from engaging in any number of damaging activities on it or from passing it on to my children if in so doing that would confer ‘private gain’ or rent. It can persuasively be argued that, in the UK, the state doesn’t intervene nearly enough in the ability of private property owners to extract economic rent, resulting in extravagantly high land prices. But that isn’t intrinsically an argument against private property as such.

Consider the alternative of a propertyless world in which the land indeed is a ‘common treasury’. Perhaps I’d like to use the land in my environs to produce clean water and energy and to grow some food for myself. Perhaps you’d like to build a road through it, making it easier for you to commute to a bigger town where you earn your salary as a commodity broker. Imagine if every single land or resource use decision had to be thrashed out individually within your ‘community’. Having spent more of my life than I care to recall in community meetings trying to agree on – well, just about anything – I do wonder if people who call for commons as a general way of organising everyday life have ever actually tried it. It brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s witticism about socialism: the trouble is, it takes up too many evenings.

In his recent writings, George Monbiot argues for a land value tax, with the revenue thus gained being divided, after paying for public services, between communities which then set up democratic structures to manage its dispersal5. I agree that this is a good idea, subject to the nature of the democratic structures and the difficulties of forging a meaningful consensus at the level of the ‘community’. George gives various examples of how private property can deliver community benefits, especially when the planning process is participatory. I think he’s right, but for me it’s a stretch to call this a ‘commons’ – really, we’re talking about local determination of fiscal residues from the revenues of a larger centralised state, which has already top-sliced money for public goods, and mostly about collective private benefit from private ownership. I’d prefer to think of it as a reinvigorated public sphere within a society of private property right-holders. It’s something I’d endorse, particularly if the ‘public’ we’re talking about is one that’s substantially oriented to self-sustenance on the basis of local land and natural resources, with strong oversight from a centralised state at higher and lower geopolitical levels to defend public interest over private property rights, and also private interest over public appropriation. But I don’t think it helps to call it a commons or to suppose that it’s something radically different from an economy grounded in the state or the market. Because if you do, you tend to obscure or even scorn what you most need to develop – widespread private property rights, strong local markets, and a centralised state oriented to public wellbeing by regulating both.

One other thought on this. If you develop such a social order, you’ll get a lot of small local businesses and not so many large corporations. Is that what you’d want? A century ago, there were more firms manufacturing cars in France alone than there are in the whole world today. Today, there are only two manufacturers of large airliners in the world, and two major computer operating systems (OK, three, maybe four). Some might talk about economies of scale, though I’m not convinced that this is the only reason these huge monopolies have emerged. But there are also diseconomies of scale in the way that humanity shapes the world to fit its mega-monopolistic ways . Much of the technology that we take for granted today (but maybe don’t need) might not survive in a true state-market political economy of the kind I’m describing, rather than in our present organisational political economy. Perhaps that’s no bad thing?


Anyway, how to conjure such a state-market political economy out of our present mess is the main thing I want to focus on in my upcoming writing. Not that I necessarily have any brilliant ideas for snapping my fingers and making it happen. But there are a few lines of enquiry I want to pursue. Some of them take me back to the debates I was having here at Small Farm Future about this time last year in the thick of the Brexit-Trump imbroglio. I think it’s about time I – cautiously – picked up a few of those threads again. Cautiously, but maybe also quickly – I’ve already prepared a retrospective on Mr Trump a year on and I fear that it may be rendered obsolete either by the 25th amendment or the global consequences of his argument with Mr Kim Jong Un about the size of their, er, buttons. But let me at least try to cultivate an aura of calm. All in good time. So what I’m planning to offer readers in the first part of this year in addition to ruminations on the agrarian state is posts on the size of my garden, the number of cow legs I can reasonably manage, some juggling with an olive branch, a bracing dip into the deep waters of anthropological theory and Mesopotamian history, some brief trips to India, Cuba, Oxford and Alt-America, a wrecker’s guide to system theory, that perennial favourite of this site – energy futures and societal collapse – and a few tips on fencing, though possibly not of the kind you’d imagine in a blog ostensibly devoted to farming. At the same time, I’m trying to focus on a larger-scale writing project, so it’s possible my posts will be less frequent than they have been recently. But I hope you might stop by here and have a read or – still better – leave a comment…though please note that if you’d like me to reply it’s best to leave your comment at Small Farm Future and not at the various other waystations of cyberspace to which my posts sometimes migrate. À bientôt.


  1. C. Smaje. 2018. The human hive. The Land 22: 28-30.
  2. G. Hardin. 1977. ‘The tragedy of the commons’ in G. Hardin & J. Badel (eds) Managing the Commons, W.H. Freeman; E. Ostrom. 1990. Governing the Commons, Cambridge UP.
  3. See more detailed discussion here
  4. H. Simon. 1991. Organizations and markets. Journal of Economic Perspectives. 5, 2: 25-44.
  5. eg. 2018. ‘Reclaiming the commons’ The Land 22, 12-15.

The broken glass: some thoughts on ‘Population 10 Billion’

Danny Dorling’s book Population 10 Billion1 has been sitting in the in-tray of the Small Farm Future review department (along with a whole load of other books) for a couple of years now. I’ve been on their case about it, but until now I’ve had nothing from those slackers. Maybe I should introduce performance related pay… On which note, just a shout out for this blog’s seasonal appeal for funds, Wikipedia-style: “if every reader of Small Farm Future donated, er, about £1,000 annually, I could devote myself to it full-time and turn out the reviews a lot faster.” Or maybe I should make a pact with the devil and run ads. What d’ya think? Meantime, donate button is on the right.

Anyway, I have now read Dorling’s book and I want to share a few thoughts about it. They’re not in the form of a comprehensive warts-and-all review – rather, I want to highlight five themes of interest to me that anticipate some future posts, on which I think Dorling has thought-provoking things to say. And here they are:

1. Possibilism and the broken glass

Dorling defines himself as a ‘practical possibilist’ in his orientation to the future, arguing that we need more “stories that sit between those who say that all will be fine, and those who claim that we are doomed” (p.6).

It’s a good opening gambit, except that I think almost everyone occupies this ‘possibilist’ middle ground. Let’s call those who think ‘all will be fine’ in the future the optimists or utopians, and let’s call those who think that all of us are doomed no matter what we do from here the pessimists or dystopians. That leaves a very wide spectrum of opinion between those two poles. And yet we spend way too much time playing status games about our chosen positions on the continuum, castigating others for their excessive optimism or pessimism. I daresay I’ve been guilty of this myself at times. Enough of it. What really matters is debating the underlying models or visions, not sorting out the pecking order of who’s most appropriately optimistic or pessimistic.

For that reason, I’d like to suggest retiring the metaphor of the half empty or half full glass. Besides, why does it always have to be half empty or full? Suppose it was a quarter full, or three-quarters empty? Would we still be debating whether we were full or empty kind of people, or would we get busy trying to do something useful?

Another problem is that, for me at least, the human world seems a pretty dysfunctional place even in the absence of issues like climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss etc. Suppose someone waved a magic ecomodernist wand and vanquished all our environmental problems so that the world could settle into its existing social, political and economic arrangements for the long haul. For me, this would be a profoundly depressing prospect. All that misery, unfairness and anomie! So no, I don’t look at the potential salvation of contemporary civilisation as something to feel ‘optimistic’ about


Did you just hear the sound of a glass breaking? Me too. But was it a half-full or a half-empty one? Let me tell you this. I – don’t – care.

2. Population growth

Anyway, forget all that. When it comes to population, Dorling says the glass is half-full. Despite all the fears of a spiralling human population swamping the planet, he points out that fertility is falling almost everywhere, often rapidly. Human numbers are still set to rise for some time because of the demographic lags involved, but possibly as early as 2075 (p.38) an absolute decline in human population may start on the basis of current demographic trends without the need to invoke future collapses and catastrophes – the four horsemen, Dorling says, may already have paid their visit.

What interests me most about Dorling’s line of argument here is not the human numbers involved or their likely impact, but the historical demographics of it. Human numbers began to surge around 1850, and stopped surging around 1970. This is the context in which all of us alive today have been formed, but it’s historically unprecedented and it doesn’t look set to continue in the future. Dorling cautions that we need to stop seeing our recent past as some kind of stable norm from which to predict the future. His discussion of why this recent anomaly occurred is interesting, if a bit vague – issues such as the long-term consequences of Europe’s conquest of the Americas, the fossil fuel dividend, the rise of capitalism and concomitantly rising inequality. His discussion of how it’s coming to an end is also frustratingly vague at times – and, dare I say it, over-optimistic – but also interesting in its focus on improving public health, improving social rights, particularly for women, and migration. Let’s just hold those thoughts for a moment…

3. Population and Consumption

Dorling is entertainingly severe on the school of thought that puts population levels and consumption levels jointly in the dock for our present environmental ills. My own illustrative example of his point comes from the following passage, where Herman Daly – rightly feted as a pioneer of ecological or steady-state economics – is taking another writer, Mark Sagoff, to task for asserting that pollution results not from our numbers, but from our lifestyles and rate of consumption:

“The false denial of cause a in order more forcefully to assert cause b is faulty as logic and tiresome as rhetoric. It becomes ludicrous when the effect is caused by multiplying a and b together”2

OK, but what are a and b here? If a x b is total resource use (or pollution) and b is total population, then a must be per capita resource use, which is the same as total resource use divided by total population. So another way of writing Daly’s ‘causal’ equation of a and b is:

Total Resource Use = (Total Resource Use / Population) x Population

So I think Dorling, and Sagoff, are right. Population cancels out. The problem is resource use.

But that’s not quite the end of the story. The conceptual problem surely arises because both rising population and rising resource use are joint determined consequences of a deeper underlying historical trend – which, for shorthand, I’d call capitalism. Call it commercialisation, globalisation or marketization if you prefer. Barring some unprecedented catastrophe, there are going to be a lot of us on the planet for generations to come, and the reason we got to be here is basically because of capitalism/commercialisation etc. But population and resource use are ultimately autonomous variables. So can we maintain our high (if soon to be decreasing) human populations under a different economic regimen with a lower total resource use?

Dorling thinks so and, to his credit, although he occasionally veers towards ecomodernist terrain he’s clear that the answer doesn’t lie in some high tech solutionism which would have 8-10 billion people in the future consuming at US levels without environmental cost. “We who consume most have to consume less”, he writes (p.20). He talks – over-optimistically, in my opinion – about how the ‘developed’ western countries have already reached ‘peak stuff’, but I find his general line of argument interesting. Global population is set to decline, the conditions that prompted its enormous recent surge are no longer operative, and people are tentatively moving into a phase of more dematerialised consumption.

I doubt that on current trends these factors will be enough to stave off some major shocks. But I think they’re complementary in interesting ways to the neo-agrarian or neo-peasant agenda I promote on this blog. One of the main reasons people oppose a small farm or ‘peasant’ future is because the recent peasant past has been pretty grim. That’s partly because governments have deliberately made it so, but we’re emerging from a world of high rural fertility and high rural poverty into a new world of lower fertility based on more health and social rights, a degree of dematerialisation among the wealthiest but also a powerful need for the wealthiest to consume less. To my mind, this points to the need for a new kind of global peasantism based on relatively labour-intensive but relatively low fertility and socially entitled peasant households engaged in high nature value, reasonably remunerated (in cash to some extent, but more importantly in kind) local farming. I’m not saying that it’ll be easily achieved, but it does help identify some big social trends that peasant and agrarian activists can hitch their wagons to, and it puts some clear water between what a peasantism of the future might look like and what some of the peasantisms of the past looked like. Certainly, we can learn from the latter, but reading Dorling underlines for me a point I’ve tried to make before – a small farm future doesn’t necessarily have to look exactly like a small farm past.

However, in order to hang on to the benefits of a low fertility, steady state society we need to retain peace, order and social rights, particularly women’s rights. In other words, we need to retain the kind of liberal public sphere that – another point I’ve made before – various cheerleaders for a post-liberal politics within and without the environmental movement are enthusiastically trying to dismantle at the moment.

Bottom line: more or less whatever happens we’re set to have unprecedentedly high populations for a long time to come, a population level arising from a high consumption capitalist society. But it’s possible that in future there may be a lower consumption, non-capitalist, high population society. Let’s get on it.

4. Migration

I’m planning to write another post about migration soon, but to anticipate a few points by way of Dorling’s analysis, he points out that while much of our attention in the ‘developed’ countries on migration issues focuses on the international movement from poor countries to rich countries, the movement of poor people between poor rural hinterlands and their nearest large cities is and will be of vastly greater demographic importance.

Still, if we do just focus on international migration, Dorling suggests that poor migrants go to where wealth is concentrated, because wealth creates secondary employment markets to service it (note that this isn’t the same as saying that wealth ‘trickles down’ to the poor). Poor migrants from high fertility countries also tend to quickly assume the fertility patterns of the host society – so if global population reduction is a goal, then increased international migration from poor (and typically high fertility) countries to richer, lower fertility countries is a good way to achieve it. But if a rich society does want to reduce in-migration of people from poorer countries, a good way to achieve it is by reducing its inequalities in wealth.

Another issue is the bulging elderly population in many ‘developed’ societies as fertility crashes in the younger generations – an arguably one-off social problem which can be tackled by in-migration of young workers from poorer countries to balance temporary fertility/mortality disparities, which is often the way migration functions.

So some things to chew on there, which I’ll come back to in a later post. But where I’m generally going to go with this is probably fairly obvious – the best and most humane way of reducing in-migration in a ‘developed’ society isn’t by trying to ban it. “When migrants come,” Dorling writes, “times are generally good” (p.256). There are, perhaps, some additional complexities here, but Dorling has a point. After all, there seems to be no clamour in London to stop people migrating there from, say, Cumbria on the grounds that they’ll take jobs from Londoners. That’s not how the job market works. But if we turned to a society structured like neo-peasant Wessex, the migration picture would undoubtedly start to look different.

5. Cities

Dorling’s writing on cities seems a bit conflicted, but let me quote this:

“the worst of poverty is now found in cities, places where people can have literally nothing, not even a scrap of land. It is, perhaps, surprising we do not fear the city and our current demographic transition more” (p.202)

And also this, from Vaclav Smil’s recent book,

“another great uncertainty is the long-term viability of urban living….large parts of many of the world’s largest cities remain epitomes of violence, drug addiction, homelessness, child abandonment, prostitution and squalid living…Cities have been always renewed by migration from villages – but what will happen to the already mostly urban civilization once the villages virtually disappear while the social structure of cities continues to disintegrate?”3

Again, I hope to write more about this soon, and I’d want to question an over-simple ‘city vs. village’ dichotomy, but after spending years wading through endless, skin-deep eco-modernist paeans to the redeeming power of the slum, I find it refreshing to see some popular-academic writings telling a different story.


And that pretty much wraps up Small Farm Future for 2017. I haven’t made as much progress as I’d have liked in getting to the politics of an agrarian populist society, but I did at least get some groundwork done in outlining what such a society might look like productively and in getting a lot of global history off my chest as a kind of background to the politics. Thanks to those hardy souls who’ve ploughed through all that output. And thanks more generally to everyone who’s read and commented on this site – it’s appreciated. Hopefully, 2018 will provide opportunities to move things on. Though I do have a few side projects to attend to as well, such as building a house. Ah well, it’s good to keep busy. So happy festivities to everyone, whichever way you care to take them, and hopefully we’ll meet here again sometime in January.


  1. Dorling, D. 2013. Population 10 Billion: The Coming Demographic Crisis and How to Survive It. Constable.
  2. Daly, H. 1998. ‘Reply to Mark Sagoff’s “Carrying capacity and ecological economics”’ in Crocker, D. and Linden, T. eds. Ethics of Consumption. Rowman & Littlefield, p.55.
  3. Smil, V. 2017. Energy and Civilization: A History. MIT Press, p.437.