Thoughtstoppers and thoughtstarters

John Michael Greer wrote a blog post a while back on his notion of ‘thoughtstoppers’, which he defined thus:

“a word, phrase, or short sentence that keeps people from thinking. A good thoughtstopper is brief, crisp, memorable, and packed with strong emotion. It’s also either absurd, self-contradictory, or irrelevant to the subject to which it’s meant to apply.”

One of his main examples of a thoughtstopper is the notion that Donald Trump is a fascist, and I think he has a point. It’s easy to apply the word ‘fascist’ to people as a dismissive epithet that prevents further thought or analysis, rather than opening it up. So, being the kind of person who finds it pretty easy to dismiss Trump as a fascist I think it’s useful to bear in mind the thoughtstopping dangers of doing so and try to offer a more elevated level of analysis. Of course, the same applies to those on the right inclined to accuse left-wingers of fascism, thereby further emptying the term of its residual meaning.

But a problem arises. It seems like Greer’s post has been very successful, and the notion that it’s a ‘thoughtstopper’ to identify Trump with fascism has become so ubiquitous that it’s pretty much become a thoughtstopper itself. There are, after all, some obvious parallels between the political and economic conundrums of the early 20th century and those of the present, and some obvious parallels between politicians of the right then and now in how they seek to articulate them. To deliberately avoid trying to understand present political dynamics by comparing, yes certainly their differences, but also their similarities, with past ones strikes me as another way to keep oneself from thinking.

Greer wrote “it’s absurd, in any but a purely thoughtstopping sense, to insist that Donald Trump is a fascist. Fascism, like Communism, is a specific, tightly defined political and economic philosophy, and…it’s not at all hard to look up what exactly Fascism was, what specific economic policies it pursued, and so on. Do that and you’ll find that Donald Trump is not a fascist; he’s an authoritarian populist of the classic sort, which is not at all the same thing.”

The problem is, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, politics isn’t a matter of tight formal definition by authoritative sources that enables you to determine correct or incorrect usage any more than consulting a dictionary enables you to use language ‘correctly’ in its living contexts. Sure, it would be easy to come up with definitions of fascism in its early 20th century guises that the Trump regime clearly wouldn’t fit, but more revealing to trace more genealogically the often surprising ways that political ideologies exert webs of influence, get changed and reconfigured, fade from the scene and then come roaring back.

I’ve made a few attempts to draft a post that does that in the case of the Trump/fascism nexus. It’s not too hard to do in relation to obvious waymarks like extolling physical violence against journalists committed by politicians from his party, or enthusing about the regimes of murderous strongmen abroad and about far-right mobs at home. But I haven’t come up with something that really satisfies me, I’m some distance from the action, and ultimately there’s little I can add to Gary Younge’s despairing comment: “The venality is so baroque, the vulgarity so ostentatious, the inconsistencies so stark, the incompetence so epic and the lies so brazen, it leaves you speechless. His vanity is without guile and the scandals that embroil him without end.”

In other words, the greatest thoughtstopper of all is probably Donald Trump himself – perhaps along with commentators like Greer who seem to think that Trump is a genuine champion of that much-mythologized category, the ‘white working class’. Instead I’d go with Tony Schwartz “About the only thing Trump truly has in common with his base is that he feels every bit as aggrieved as they do, despite his endless privilege.”

So perhaps I should turn my political scrutiny closer to my home in Britain. When newspapers call judges asking for democratic oversight of constitutional decisions “enemies of the people”, MPs write to universities asking for information on curriculum content in controversial topics, and former Conservative party leaders suggest that now might be a good time to start a war with Spain, perhaps I’d be better off attending to the sprouts of fascism in my own country.

Nah, I can’t summon the enthusiasm even for that just now. Tell you what – I’ll go even closer to home and scrutinize my own politics for its fascist content. And as my guide, I’ll draw from Melissa Harrison’s interesting novel All Among The Barley (Bloomsbury, 2018) set in a farm community in 1930s England, which has the incipient rural fascism of that time and setting as a major sub-theme. Harrison writes in an afterword that “in febrile, depression-hit 1930s Britain dozens of…groups, large and small, sprang up in town and country, many with openly fascist agendas and beliefs”. Then she helpfully provides a list of what she calls the ‘murky broth’ of these agendas and beliefs, against which I propose to test myself. It goes as follows:

Nationalism: nope, I think I’m clear on that score.

Anti-Semitism: ditto.

Nativism: ditto again.

Protectionism: well now, here it gets complicated. I do support protectionism, though not of the Donald Trump “I win – you lose” variety. That kind of neo-mercantilism propelled the early 20th century world into war, and much as I oppose aspects of the global ‘freeing’ of markets that followed, I think the latter is better than the former. But better still is local economic protectionism within a wider framework of economic amity – we protect our industry, you protect yours, and then let’s see what friendly economic exchanges might mutually work for us. This approach, however, is incompatible with capitalism – whereas fascism is not.

Anti-immigration sentiment: I shall be writing in more detail about this soon, but a quick summary of my position would be, again, nope – clear on that score.

Economic autarky: yes, count me in – see ‘Protectionism’ above. More generally, I think a fundamental reboot of the economy is needed, grounded in the local potentialities of the land and the environment and building from there. I’m not averse to a little trade and interchange, but I think it needs to be kept on a tight rein.

Secessionism: another complex one. Generally, I’m in favor of localist political arrangements, but I don’t see them as a panacea or an easy way to achieve sustainable human wellbeing (in fact there’s no easy way to achieve that), as I’ve tried to outline in my writings on civic republicanism. Scope for a further post on this, I think.

Militarism: I can generally report a clean bill of health on this one. Uniforms, weaponry and marching tunes don’t stir my blood. But the need for a militia to defend the republic might.

Anti-Europeanism: again, I’m in the clear. If Brexit politics in Britain had been able to articulate a pro-European secessionism I might have supported it, but the subtleties of such a position seem beyond the cadres of idiotic Brextremists that we currently suffer under. In fact, avoiding the petty nationalisms and militarisms that have plagued modern Europe is the main reason why I support pan-European politics, despite its shortcomings. I’d accept that the EU has been its own worst enemy on this front in many ways – though Britain has scarcely been in the firing line, so its anti-Europeanism makes little sense in that context.

Rural revivalism: Yes, by God.

Nature worship: Well, I find it hard to worship anything and I’m fine with that. But if I had to worship something, then ‘nature’ would probably top my list. An issue I need to work through some more, perhaps.

Organicism: this could mean several things beyond a taste for sowing clover-rich grass leys. But when it comes to human affairs, I’d generally count myself out. Yes, everything is connected as part of a vast cosmic mystery. No, this wider truth is not a good basis for organizing human politics. Assume disconnection and build from there.

Landscape mysticism: see ‘nature worship’ and ‘organicism’.

Distrust of big business – particularly international finance: in early 20th century politics this was often a coded reference to Jews, feeding the aforementioned anti-Semitism. For my part, I don’t distrust Jews. But I do distrust big business – particularly international finance.

So, by my reckoning I score 4½ out of 14 on Harrison’s fascist-finding ticklist. Perhaps not enough to count as a person of interest in the enquiry, but not quite in the clear. It just goes to show, as I said above, how political ideologies merge into one another, become reconfigured, and generally can’t be screwed down into tight little definitional boxes. A ‘murky broth’ indeed.

There are a couple of aspects of fascism that Harrison doesn’t deal with so well. The first is that in the early 20th century a big impetus for it was the fear that communism would take hold of the working classes and bring down capitalism – fascism was but the most extreme manifestation of wider attempts to find ways of incorporating the working classes into an anti-communist and pro-capitalist politics. To be fair, Harrison does touch on this in her novel without really paying it much attention. The wider question today on this point is why a politics with many features of the earlier fascisms seems to be resurgent when there’s so little threat of communism or even anything especially leftist in many of the places where it’s occurring. Though perhaps I’m just revealing my own political biases here. After all, some people think Barack Obama is a radical leftist.

The other problem with Harrison’s treatment of fascism is that she seems to think of it as some kind of movement for conservative restoration opposed to social change. She puts these words into the mouth of one of her characters as he discourses against fascism: “we cannot set our faces against change: it don’t do, it never has….we must have change – we must have it! For the past is gone, and that’s just the way of it. Change allus comes, and all that falls to a man to decide is whether he’ll be part of it or not”.

I think this fundamentally misunderstands the nature of fascism, which though it drew on nationalist ideologies of deep-seated rural culture and honest peasant toil actually had very little interest in preserving traditional moral economies or any such thing. Despite its organicism and history-mongering it was a movement deeply engaged with the state-industry-warfare nexus in entirely modernist terms. I’m not sure that it ever commanded huge support anywhere, but in troubled times it commanded enough support in some places to take hold and cause endless suffering and misery. I don’t think I’m being too Spenglerian to express the fear that in present troubled times, when the modernist state-industry-warfare nexus is manifestly unraveling, something similar could easily take hold again and do the same. And that, I submit, is a thoughtstarter, not a thoughtstopper.

No farm future, no growth future, no farmer future: a SFF bulletin

Let me offer you a brief news roundup from the Small Farm Future editorial chair.

First up, this website’s favorite Guardian journalist George Monbiot has been unleashing his inner ecomodernist again with an article about producing protein for human consumption via bacteria that metabolize hydrogen produced from electrolysis of water using renewable electricity. So no soils or plants or actual farming involved, much to George’s delight.

I think George’s motivations are irreproachable, so I’m inclined to refrain from too intemperate a response. But one issue for me is that techno-fixery of this sort always neglects the underlying political economy – and this results in a losing game of whack-a-mole piecemeal solution-mongering that mis-specifies the problem as a technical one of overcoming resource limits rather than a socio-political one grounded in dynamics like economic growth. Another issue that interests me is George’s enthusiasm for the prosaic character of hydrogen-grazing bacteria as a way of puncturing the veneer of old-time agrarian romance that shields the horrors of industrial agriculture from public view. My feeling on the contrary is that only by properly inhabiting that romance and re-enchanting the relationship between people and land as a precious food-giving resource will the problems George identifies be solvable.

Anthony Galluzzo suggests that this kind of techno-fixery ducks the real issue of thinking through what a sustainable agroecological food system might look like and I must admit I think he’s got a point. One of the best attempts I’ve come across to do just that is Simon Fairlie’s 2010 book Meat: A Benign Extravagance, which I’ve been re-reading recently in the context of drafting my own book and been struck afresh at the brilliance of Simon’s analysis. George endorsed Simon’s book at the time, and I do wonder why he seems to have abandoned that line of reasoning in favour of a less ecological and more modernist ideology.

Talking of economic growth as I was, the notorious ‘skeptical environmentalist’ Bjorn Lomborg has weighed in with a critique of the degrowth movement. To my mind there’s an awful lot of dreck in his analysis, which I really have no inclination to rifle through here except to make two general observations. First, according to the IPCC as interpreted by Lomborg the impact of climate change in 2100 will cost only between 2-4% of GDP. This strikes me as a pretty meaningless assertion, but taking it at face value and assuming that the average global economic growth over the last five years of 2.8% is sustained over the 21st century (and it’s hard to imagine the economy surviving in its present form if growth is much lower) by my calculations that implies that global output in 2100 will be around US$800 trillion at present value, compared to its current US$80 trillion. I find it hard to imagine what the world in 2100 will find to do with another 9 helpings of our present global output in the unlikely event that it manages to create it. More to the point, 3% of 800 trillion dollars spent on climate change in 2100 amounts to about 30% of the world’s entire present output – so it looks like climate change may turn out to be pretty costly after all, even by the lights of a complacent analysis like this. Figures of this kind make me think that whatever the Lomborgs of this world would have us believe, a change is gonna come, and well before 2100.

Second, Lomborg writes “With blinkered analysis and misplaced concern, the [degrowth] academics essentially say that to reduce global warming slightly, we should end growth that can lift hundreds of millions out of poverty, avoid millions of air pollution deaths, and give billions the opportunity of a better life through improved health care, shelter, education, and income. There is something deeply disturbing about academics’ telling others to forgo the benefits they have enjoyed. What the world really needs is far more growth and far less hypocrisy.” This trope of ‘hypocrisy’ levelled at people who say that the benefits currently enjoyed by those of us lucky enough to live in the rich countries of the world will soon come to an end and cannot feasibly be spread across all of humanity seems to me a huge obstacle for devising workable and equitable solutions to global problems and really ought to be laid to rest. For my part, I salute the degrowth theorists for looking the future unflinchingly in the face and calling it as they see it – which, as I understand it, is not that the poorest people in the world need to stay as poor as they are, but that the richest people in the world need to be less rich. I’d recommend steering clear of Lomborg and reading these sensible suggestions from Jason Hickel for policies to unite both the degrowthers and the greengrowthers instead.

And talking of looking the future in the face, a paper that passed across my desktop reports that nearly a third of US citizens think that Jesus Christ will return within the next 40 years, signalling the end of the world – and are therefore unconcerned about trivial matters such as imminent environmental meltdown, despite often having relatively sustainable farming traditions in their backgrounds. Really, I had no idea…I might have to tear up my book draft and start again. Or just wait for the reckoning.

Now onto yet another dose of techno-futurism from yet another of this site’s favourite Guardian men – John Harris – this time concerning robotic farming. The idea is that once farm machinery is fully automated it can be downscaled and farming can be undertaken more ecologically by farm bots that can remove weeds by flaming them with lasers rather than using herbicides. Presumably instead of ploughing they’d also go large with the laser-weeding prior to sowing the crop. That’s a lot of lasering. And a lot of agrarian change. “I expected farmers to be quite luddite about the adoption of new technology,” robot farming pioneer Ben Scott-Robinson told Harris. “Some are, but there are a load of them who understand that new things need to happen.” When Harris asked him what the downsides were to the approach, Scott-Robinson said “Erm… well, at the moment, we can’t see any.”

So let me offer two suggestions. First, in one word, energy. And second in two words for anyone who uses the word ‘luddite’ pejoratively, labour dynamics. C’mon John, you’re a Labour man, you can’t let him get away with that! And on that note, here’s a nice article by Max Ajl critiquing the idea of a green new deal via, among many other things, the suggestion that we need to frame a new agrarian question of labour. Quite so. And another nice article by Joe Lowndes on the populist tradition in the USA and the perils of left populism – much to ponder there, which I hope to write on soon. My thanks to the ever-attentive Anthony Galluzzo for keeping me appraised of such things. I found both articles a sight for sore eyes in sketching the wider context of the global political economy, particularly the global agrarian political economy – something entirely missing from Jane O’Sullivan’s populationist worldview.

Ah yes, Dr O’Sullivan – she’s weighed in again in our simmering debate about population with a rejoinder that I find flawed in numerous ways. Clearly we’re never going to agree on much, and I find it a rather soul-sapping business engaging in this debate and trying to get to the basis of our empirical and political disagreements. So I’m wondering if any of the much-valued commenters on this site might give me a steer as to whether they’d find another response from me on this of interest, or whether it’s better to move to pastures new?

And finally I’m off (and offline) for a few days next week to give my first presentation to an academic audience for about a gazillion years. Hopefully I’ll be back in action by the week’s end, ready to unleash some more old nags thoroughbreds from the Small Farm Future stable.

Our political saviors: the republicans

Let’s move on from the population debate and ransack the Small Farm Future archives for another controversy to rake over. Ah, how about this one, in which I presented civic republicanism (CR) as a political tradition worthy of consideration for our troubled times (yeah, I wasn’t referring to those republicans). I’d like to try nudging that issue forward a little here – particularly in the light of the criticisms of CR made by Stephen Gey in an article linked by Jody that I finally got around to reading. My thanks to her for drawing my attention to it.

A couple of scene-setting remarks. I don’t have much taste for abstract theorizing about the politically ideal society. But it seems clear that under numerous intersecting pressures the way the world has done politics over the last century or two is changing, and I think it’s as well to try one’s best to influence the changes in positive rather than negative directions in the given circumstances (in that remark alone I reveal my republican sympathies, but let’s leave that thought to lie…) Influential writers within the environmental movement like Paul Kingsnorth and David Fleming (building on the likes of Leopold Kohr) have to a greater or lesser degree assimilated localism to ethnic, ‘tribal’ or communitarian identities – believing that outside contemporary political institutions like the European Union there are forms of more deeply inherent pre-political identity between people which will enable them to forge better political agreements. I think this is a mistake. One of the benefits of CR is that it doesn’t assume political agreements just emerge when you have the correct ‘natural’ community. For republicans, there is no natural community – only ones that emerge out of political deliberation.

Incidentally, on that note I’ve just started reading Pieter Judson’s history of the Habsburg Empire – “the prison of nations” according to the 19th century nationalists seeking to dissolve it. Judson’s argument is that we’ve become too influenced by them and have bought into their narrative of ethnic nations preceding the empire, rather than seeing the way that the empire was in many ways constitutive of the nations. In any case, what interests me about CR is the resources it offers to try to create viable and sustainable successor polities to our present world ‘empire’ of nation-states that are as pleasant to live in as possible under the circumstances we face of increasing ecological, economic and political disorder.

Gey’s fundamental critique of CR is that it insists on defining collective goals for society, and thereby risks creating a tyranny of the majority. What if, when all the deliberation is over, it’s decided that everyone called Chris should be enslaved, or that other more obvious categories should be denied privileges – that women or non-property holders should not be permitted to deliberate, for example? For Gey, CR accords enormous power to the collective polis, whereas liberal or pluralist political theories take a more limited view of government. For them, a society’s ethos can’t be defined by collectively-decided singularities, which threaten to become tyrannical. Theirs is a live-and-let-live approach, where political society is one long argument that’s never resolved except in the meta-agreement that people agree to disagree. Perhaps their strongest emphasis is on limiting the power of arbitrary government.

Gey makes some telling points, but I also think there are problems with his line of argument. For one thing, I don’t see that the problem of excluding minorities is particular to CR. Every political doctrine defines the scope of the political community and potentially draws questionable lines of exclusion around it. Gey was a legal scholar and his piece is especially engaged with CR as articulated by a handful of republican legal theorists in the USA (Cass Sunstein in particular) – but CR is a wider tradition than I think he allows, and in much of it elaborate attention is devoted to the question of full and uncoerced participation in self-government. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), for example, was an early statement of the case for female political participation that was explicitly framed in republican terms against the view that there was a given or ‘natural’ political community comprising only propertied males.

But it’s true that CR doesn’t rest content with a minimalist framework of rules to live and let live by. The collective goals it defines through participation and deliberation are supposed to invest the citizenry’s practice. It strikes me that this is how all societies actually work, even if it’s not supposed to be how they work according to pluralist political theories. But CR certainly makes a stronger play for the idea than most political traditions. And a good thing too, in my opinion. In today’s world brought low by vast economic inequalities, climate change and other environmental degradations, I don’t think the pluralist who says to the republican “You presume to tell me that I must subordinate my particular interests to the wider common interest?” requires any more elaborate answer than “Damn right I do”. True, CR must pay attention to the possibility that notions of ‘the common good’ might mask oppressions of various kinds – but there’s plenty of attention to exactly that issue within its traditions. Its real emphasis is not on grimly enforcing majoritarian decisions of the “enslave all Chris’s” variety, but on developing the citizenry’s consciousness that immediate individual self-interest is usually a worse basis for building a good society than taking a broader society-wide view.

This brings me to Machiavelli (1469-1527) – the key thinker who paved the way for modern CR out of its classical roots. One aspect of Machiavelli’s politics was the need to avoid ‘factions’. For Gey, this republican antipathy to factionalism is another example of its potential tyranny – in a live-and-let-live world, politics is always inherently factional. But the problem with factions for Machiavelli is that they represent private interests, proposing laws “not for the common liberty, but for their own power” (Machiavelli Discourses I.18). Machiavelli calls this tendency to put private goods or interests over public ones ‘corruption’ (so for him ‘corruption’ means something different from our modern fingers-in-the-till sense of the term). Modern liberal political philosophy has come up with all sorts of arguments to suggest that, on the contrary, private interests beget public goods, of which Adam Smith’s metaphor of ‘the invisible hand of the market’ is probably the most famous. But even Smith looked admiringly at republican thought before concluding that it was inappropriate for an emerging commercial society. I think that’s true, but my contention here is that we now urgently need to transcend commercial society and create agrarian societies to which republicanism is better suited. And it’s also that anyone who thinks the ‘invisible hand of the market’ metaphor still usefully explains why government should take a back seat to the pursuit of private interests hasn’t been paying attention.

A few additional thoughts on delivering and living an agrarian republic. I find Machiavelli’s analysis of the ‘tumults’ (popular uprisings) that occur in republics of interest. He thought that in a relatively uncorrupted republic tumults can stave off corruption by preventing factions and re-vivifying political institutions, whereas in corrupted republics they merely accelerate corruption by enhancing factions and prompting violence between them. It interests me to think about some recent ‘tumults’ in western politics along these lines. There are those, for example, who think the votes for Brexit and Donald Trump were re-vivifying moves, and I do understand their logic. But to my mind rather they were signs of a corrupt factionalism that worked against ‘the common liberty’. Indeed, I think they were hyper-corrupt inasmuch as they probably work largely against the interests of many of those who supported them (though maybe less so in the case of Trump, who despite all the populist hue and cry still drew much of his support from wealthy white men). At the same time, I’d have to concede that the alternatives on offer weren’t much less corrupt.

So I’m not sure how much faith I now have in formal political processes in western politics to deliver an uncorrupted republic. In that sense, perhaps I’ve moved closer to a position I associated with David Fleming and criticized a while back in this post. Fleming wrote, “There is no case for dismantling the market; that will be done for us, all too soon” and “The task….is not about wrestling with the controls of economics to force it in the direction of degrowth, but about getting ready for the moment when the coming climacteric does the heavy work of degrowth for us”. In the discussion under that post, Shaun Chamberlin wrote that Fleming (whose book he edited) didn’t advocate sitting back and passively observing the demise of the market economy. Rather, he perceived “a far more urgent priority for our action – rebuilding the informal economy of community and culture that he foresees we will have to again rely on after the market economy fails us”. I’d pretty much go along with that, except that – as I said back then in response to Shaun – I think I’d place more emphasis than Fleming on political deliberation in that process and less on culture and religion (leafing again through Fleming’s tome, I see that there are quite a few CR ideas investing it, though he placed less emphasis on them than other concerns).

Culture and religion are important too, though, and I hope to write some more about them soon. Under my last post, Joe Clarkson wrote “I am prepared to be made poor (without making anyone else richer, so don’t volunteer to take my assets) and would welcome the circumstances which would force that condition on me and the rest of the rich world. I hope it happens soon.” To me, this is an excellently republican commitment to civic goals – a regrettably rare one in the contemporary rich world, but one that will probably become more widespread under the impress of events. Somehow it has to become a motivator of individual practice, but I’m not sure that it’s something best thought of under the rubrics of culture, religion or personal ethics. Perhaps it could be seen as a philosophical spiritualism of the kind familiar from Taoism in the east and Stoicism in the west (there are links between Stoicism and CR in antiquity, for example in the thought of Cicero). Or maybe just as the lived reality of republicanism’s collective goals.

But for now, I want to get back to the politics. The way I’d see republican political deliberation potentially emerging in the future is along the lines of what I called the ‘supersedure state’ in this post. It seems to me quite likely that people in many parts of the world will find the tendrils of the liberal-democratic capitalist state slowly withering without any other kind of political force necessarily filling the breach, making it increasingly necessary for them to self-organize by default. In these circumstances, people won’t find themselves a part of some obvious natural community with ready-made customs and procedures. Instead, they’ll be a random agglomeration trying to make things up as they go along in the persisting shadow of the capitalist world-economy. In that situation, I think CR has much to contribute.

Some of Gey’s strongest arguments against CR relate to the difficulties of implementing it in large-scale modern capitalist societies. By his own admission, these diminish the more you approach a smaller-scale, more face-to-face society in which more direct forms of deliberation are possible. In his words,

“by trying to recreate a modern version of the old model of direct democracy, the modern civic republicans end up preserving the bad things about the classical civic republican community – its conformism, inhospitality to dissent, and antidemocratic deference to some unassailable collective ideal such as “civic virtue” – while failing to recapture the old system’s one real advantage – its homey, personal, face-to-face means of identifying and achieving common goals.” (p.815)

This indeed is the kind of situation I have in mind for a future where CR fits the bill. I’d acknowledge the dangers of conformism and inhospitality to dissent that Gey identifies, though as I mentioned earlier I think the CR tradition is more robust to them than he supposed (CR isn’t the same as direct democracy). But I suspect this issue springs so readily to mind because when we think about small-scale agrarian societies we find numerous historical examples of authoritarianism, patriarchy, gerontocracy, caste oppression and other ‘illiberal’ forms of rule. I need to ponder this some more, but I’d like to make a few interim remarks about it.

Arguments for small-scale self-provisioning can’t really avoid being arguments for ‘family farming’. Since families are differentiated by gender and age, it’s necessary to consider both dimensions as potential sites for coercion and domination. And since family farms are differentiated by size, income and land quality, the potential for coercion and domination between farms as well as within them demands attention.

Focusing on coercion and domination within the individual farm, this seems to vary culturally – that is, the forces of coercion and domination are greater in some small farm societies than others in ways that aren’t obviously related to their agrarian character (though perhaps they may be less obviously related…?) But one aspect of agrarianism that does bear on gender and age oppression is the importance of property and inheritance, and therefore by implication local standing – the ‘family name’ – which bears heavily on young people, young women in particular. One reason for this is that status is easily lost, and among poor cultivators that can be economically disastrous, as is all too apparent for example from analysis of medieval peasantries in Europe among whom people were often only a bad harvest, a bout of illness or a questionable investment in land or marriage markets away from servitude.

But that insecurity wasn’t simply a given of agrarian life – it stemmed from extreme seigneurial domination. In more recent times, CR has invested the idea of a republic of property-owning smallholders who are not subject to that kind of domination. The best known of these times in the English-speaking countries are the aftermath of the English Civil War and the aftermath of the American Revolution. In the first case, James Harrington’s Oceana made the CR argument for a republic of smallholders, while in the second the best-known proponent was Thomas Jefferson. But it was the absolutism of Hobbes and the liberalism of Locke that won out in drawing the terms of the political debate in the first case, and the commercialism of Hamilton in the second, presaging the entirely non-republican age of commercial capitalism whose dying days now seem upon us. Republicanism has waned not because it was wrong, but because it lost those old political battles, and was less suited to the societies that emerged in the light of them.

So what really interests me is whether we may be entering another ‘Machiavellian moment’ when smallholder republicanism may, at least in some places, arise as a response to new times and challenges. If it does, I think the small farm futures it’ll bring about could look quite different from some of the small farm pasts that presently inflect our thinking about what small farm societies are like, successfully limiting some of the forms of domination I mentioned above that are often associated with those pasts. But only if we keep the channels of republican deliberation open. And even then, I perceive some serpents in the garden of which I hope to write more soon.

Debating population, poverty and development

Last week, Small Farm Future chalked up yet another first – the first vehement critique of one of our posts by a working academic with apparent expertise in the matter at hand. The post was this one about global population and its entailments that I published in June, and the critique came from Dr Jane O’Sullivan of the University of Queensland in Australia (our exchange is linked below).

I’d precis the main substance of Dr O’Sullivan’s critique as follows: my post failed to consider the importance of top-down government or expert-led population control policies (broadly conceived) in reducing global fertility (ie. births per woman) over the last 50 years, and failed to consider the implications of the recent slowdown in the decline of the fertility rate and its causes. If that was all that Dr O’Sullivan had said, it would have been easy for me to concede these points (especially if she’d made them politely). I don’t think the concession greatly alters the main points I was making in that post, though perhaps it does a little. But in the course of our ill-tempered exchange (I’m sure the fault was partly mine…though not, I think, entirely) Dr O’Sullivan also unleashed quite a barrage of assertions that in my opinion varied from the somewhat questionable to the downright misleading, along I’ll admit with the occasional useful nugget. I should probably give myself more time to reflect on the issues, but some of them are highly relevant to the wider themes of this blog, and I think are less clear-cut than Dr O’Sullivan supposes. So I thought I’d write a quick, work-in-progress kind of response now to present the issues as I see them, in the hope that other commenters may bring some wider illumination.

Here, then, are just a handful of the many issues arising out of the exchange, each one wrapped up with a point for discussion. The exchange itself can be found lurking at the bottom of my offending post, but is also linked at the end of this one for convenience.

The relationship between human fertility and poverty.

Dr O’Sullivan wrote that “population growth is the main driver of impoverishment and local environmental damage in high-fertility countries”. Focusing for now just on the impoverishment side of things, I think this claim is empirically wrong and could well be politically disastrous.

Let’s take for illustration the ten countries with the highest fertility rates in the world, all but one of which are African (in fact, all but nine of the fifty highest-fertility countries are African). According to the World Bank’s World Development Indicators the top ten are Niger (with a current average fertility rate of 7.2 births per woman), Somalia (6.3), Democratic Republic of Congo (6.1), Mali (6.1), Chad (5.9), Burundi (5.7), Angola (5.7), Uganda (5.6), Nigeria (5.5) and Timor-Leste (5.5).

An elementary knowledge of the recent and longer-term history of these countries and their regions would surely call into question the claim that population growth is the main driver of their impoverishment. I guess I could accept Dr O’Sullivan’s claim if it was rephrased thus:

“Leaving aside the net annual outflow of billions of dollars from sub-Saharan Africa to the rest of the world (see eg. Jason Hickel The Divide), and leaving aside also the fact that large parts of it are comprised not by ‘developing countries’ but by areas largely excluded from the distribution of global surplus to the extent that they’ve become politically dominated by violent non-state or quasi-state actors (see eg. Mark Duffield Global Governance and the New Wars), then there is some evidence to suggest an association between impoverishment and population growth caused by high fertility.”

But after reading through Dr O’Sullivan’s linked paper, I’m not convinced that that evidence is quite as strong as she claims. A lot of the evidence she discusses is based on country-level data suggestive of GDP growth postdating fertility decline. There are some problems with this aggregate-level post hoc ergo propter hoc argument as a justification for reducing individual fertility as an anti-poverty strategy. If one wants to argue that high fertility is the main driver of impoverishment within these countries then it’s necessary to show that, on average, a resident individual who has x children experiences greater poverty over their total lifecourse than another individual starting at an identical socioeconomic level who has <x children. And then it’s necessary to show that this effect is more powerful than other ones, such as the financial and resource drain from these countries and the effect of their political structuring.

Dr O’Sullivan does cite a review paper1 discussing research that may be suggestive at least of the first part of this, though its conclusions are expressed more cautiously than hers. But overall I think there are some problems of causal inference in parts of her paper. A problem I have with much ‘development’ research of this kind is its reification of the country as a unit of analysis, as if the world comprises a level playing field of nation-states each at a better or worse point of possibility on some universal ‘development’ trajectory. There doesn’t seem to be much sense of the uneven geopolitics of a world economic system and the implications of that for the wealth and poverty of nations.

But what troubles me most about Dr O’Sullivan’s assertion that population growth is the main driver of impoverishment in high-fertility countries is how that statement might play out in a world where isolationist and nativist voices are rising to political prominence in the wealthier countries. So let me rephrase her assertion once again, this time as it might be interpreted through the beady gaze of the US president, perhaps the best-known of those voices:

“People who live in shithole countries are poor because they have too many babies – so why should we do anything to help them?”

I appreciate that that’s absolutely not what Dr O’Sullivan is saying, but I think it might well be what a lot of people would choose to hear – and as I tried to suggest, there are a lot of pernicious opinions abroad concerning the responsibility of the poor in general and of poor Africans in particular for their own misfortunes, which would gladly assimilate arguments from intellectually respectable sources that fertility is the main driver of poverty. Dr O’Sullivan rebuffed my attempts to discuss this with her as “ad hominem attacks”. So be it. I acknowledge that unwanted pregnancies are a major issue in high-fertility countries, while for her part Dr O’Sullivan says she never denied there were “other factors at play”, but if one links fertility to poverty with no reference to the geopolitical structuring of global poverty – especially in the present political climate – I’m not sure that caveat cuts it. The consequence of proposing that the best way to tackle poverty is through population control policies might well be a further reduction in population control policies. I don’t like to get involved in arguments with other wealthy westerners about who’s the better champion of the global poor, but I do find it a little hard to swallow the charge of irresponsible writing from someone who draws the links between high fertility and poverty so complacently.

Discussion point: population growth is not the main driver of impoverishment in high-fertility countries.

Population, environmental damage and climate change.

It’s undoubtedly true that, as Dr O’Sullivan suggested, population growth is a driver of local environmental damage wherever it occurs. Well, it’s undoubtedly usually true. But she seems curiously anxious in her writing to emphasize the environmental damage (including greenhouse gas emissions) associated with high-fertility, low-income countries and to de-emphasize the damage caused by the low-fertility, high-income countries – even to the extent of making the spurious argument that lifestyles in the latter countries haven’t got more resource or emissions intensive in recent decades.

The main point I want to make here is not so much about which countries bear most responsibility for global environmental ills. The real problem as I see it is that we only really have one model of development and prosperity – the model that the low-fertility, high-income countries have followed – and if every other country follows it, it’ll be ruinous. Actually, it’s not possible for every country to follow it for economic as well as ecological reasons. But to the extent that that’s what’s on offer, it’s still ruinous. And it does have to be said that the offer has largely been orchestrated out of Washington DC, and to a lesser extent Beijing and Brussels, in service of those jurisdictions’ interests. So while there’s much to be said for population control, I think the notion that population control is the most important precursor to economic development and environmental protection is problematic. Perhaps one issue lurking behind my debate with Dr O’Sullivan is that we have pretty different ideas about what will ultimately count as ‘sustainable development’.

But I do also want to make the point that it is the low-fertility, high-income countries that bear most responsibility for global environmental ills – most especially greenhouse gas emissions, which are important not only in their direct effects but as an index of the wider environmental bads associated with the economies that disproportionately produce them. Dr O’Sullivan writes that “apart from climate change, most of the drastically negative impacts (on deforestation, soil erosion, biodiversity loss, fertiliser run-off, plastics in the ocean, overfishing, destruction of wetlands, draining of aquifers etc) is not happening in or in the name of the most industrialised countries.” I guess I’d argue firstly that a lot of all that is happening “in the name of” industrialized countries (my point in the previous paragraph)…besides which, things like plastic, synthetic fertilizer, modern fishing fleets etc. surely are inherently ‘industrialised’. Maybe more importantly, at our present point in what Dr O’Sullivan calls “the human project” her “apart from climate change” is a pretty big exemption – somewhat akin to me saying that apart from drinking a daily bottle of whisky I’m teetotal.

The graph below shows the carbon dioxide emissions produced in Australia over the last fifty-odd years in blue and the emissions produced in aggregate by the nine African countries previously mentioned with the highest fertility in red. I think it’s quite revealing – in 2014, Australia’s 23.5 million people produced almost two-and-a-half times more carbon dioxide emissions in total between them than the 389 million people living in the nine highest fertility African countries (we’re talking total, absolute emissions here, not per capita ones). True, Australia’s emissions have dropped a little recently – possibly only by displacing them elsewhere? But I trust nobody’s going to tell me I haven’t properly attended to this decline…

 

Last week while Dr O’Sullivan and I were debating, the Australian deputy prime minister Michael McCormack responded to the IPCC’s latest impassioned report on the climate change emergency by saying that the Australian government would not change its policy and reduce coal production “just because somebody might suggest that some sort of report is the way we need to follow and everything that we should do”.

I’d like to suggest that if Australians voted out Mr McCormack and replaced him with a serious politician who paid attention to the IPCC it would be a far more effective form of environmental damage-limitation than pursuing policies to limit population growth in, say, Nigeria. Let me try to quantify that statement. Please forgive me if I’ve got this calculation badly wrong, but by my reckoning in 2016 Australia produced 500 million tonnes of coal, which translates roughly into a billion tonnes of CO2. It’s predicted to increase that production by 1.1% annually over the next few years. A paper cited by Dr O’Sullivan2 suggests, I think, that by the year 2100 Nigeria could reduce its emissions from 2005 levels by 35% if it pursued population policies that put it on the low variant of the UN’s fertility projections. In 2005, Nigeria’s emissions were a little over a hundred million tonnes of CO2, so if it reduced these by 35% that would mean its emissions in 2100 would be about 37 million tonnes less – which is 4% of the emissions from Australia’s current annual coal production, or an amount that would be canceled out in less than three years just by the 1.1% annual increase in production. On current measures of per capita emissions, one extra Australian adds CO2 equivalent to that of about 41 extra people from the high-fertility African countries (probably an underestimate). At those levels, the 5.5 million extra Australians predicted by the UN medium fertility population variant in 2030 over 2012 will be responsible for more emissions than the 230 million extra people predicted for the nine highest-fertility African countries.

Dr O’Sullivan argues in her paper that access to voluntary family planning and birth control in the least-developed countries in order to minimize population growth is ‘low-hanging fruit’ in terms of climate change adaptation and mitigation (though the relationship between ‘birth control’ access and fertility seems quite debatable). But what constitutes ‘low-hanging fruit’ is a matter of political choice as well as technical feasibility. Promoting people’s ability to control their fertility needs no wider justification, but it’s not clear to me from what vantage point the extension of this ability into the least developed countries constitutes lower-hanging fruit for climate change mitigation than, say, reducing Australian coal production by a few percent.

Discussion point: Reducing fertility in high-fertility countries is not an especially important priority for tackling climate change.

Family planning programs and the fertility decline slowdown.

Dr O’Sullivan asserts that the slowdown in the global fertility decline is caused by less investment since the 1990s in voluntary family planning programs. She mentions a few countries where lower FP investment was followed by stagnating decline or rising fertility, but I’m not sure that she provides convincing evidence that this is the main reason for the slowdown that shows up in the overall global figures. I suggested that another possible explanation was artefactual – essentially, it’s easier to reduce fertility when people are having a lot of children than it is when fertility approaches two or less children.

I did a bit of analysis on the World Development Indicator dataset that I think is at least broadly suggestive that this may be so. First, taking the nine highest fertility African countries mentioned above, it turns out that their fertility decline hasn’t slowed but increased since the 1990s and in fact this is also true on average for the fifty countries in the world with the highest current fertility rates – albeit more true for the ones at the top of that distribution than the bottom, which further lends prima facie support to the artefactual explanation. The overall average for these countries was a fertility decline of 0.85 births between 1983 and 1999 and 1.06 births between 2000 and 2016. But looking at the fifty countries with the lowest current fertility, the 1983-99 decline was 0.69 births whereas the 2000-16 decline was only 0.06. So it seems that it may be the low rather than the high fertility countries driving the overall decline, as you’d expect from the artefactual explanation. I don’t know how plausible this explanation is, but on the face of it I’m not sure it’s less plausible than the notion that the global slowdown in fertility decline that’s occurred (except, apparently, in the high-fertility countries) stems mostly from less FP funding.

In global absolute terms, I’m guessing China is significant – its fertility rate bottomed at just under 1.5 births per woman in 1999 and has since risen to over 1.6, which in view of its population size is probably a lot of extra people. Presumably this is because of the relaxation of its population control policies, which in a sense might confirm Dr O’Sullivan’s line of argument – though since she emphasizes voluntary population control I’m not sure how far to concede this point… Certainly, before leaping to the conclusion that the slowdown is a FP policy failure it seems to me necessary to address artefactual possibilities, as well as other possible factors (growing inequality and civil conflict maybe?)

More generally, it seems to me difficult to isolate the effects of FP programs on global fertility as completely independent, exogenous effects that can be separated from wider governmental and civil society structures and from the agency of target populations. Writers like Banerjee and Duflo3 emphasize the complexity of family planning interventions, the independent agency of the poor and the complex links to fertility quite cautiously. One of their points – much along the lines of Jan Steinman’s comment – is that children are often a pension plan, and will most likely keep being produced in quantity so long as alternatives relying on more money remain unavailable. So while I’d acknowledge that I should have taken FP programs more seriously than I did in my original post, I think the issues are more complex than Dr O’Sullivan seems prepared to entertain.

Incidentally, the ten countries that have experienced the largest drop in their fertility rates since 2000 are Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Yemen, Nepal, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Djibouti, Guatemala, Lao and Timor-Leste. And of the ten highest fertility countries mentioned above, six of them come into the top quarter of the global draw in terms of post-2000 fertility decline, and all of them in the top half. I think there’s food there for some alternative theories of fertility decline than a singular emphasis on FP programs. Civil conflict seems to be a missing variable in much of the discussion about fertility.

Discussion point: to what extent is it possible to argue on the basis of available evidence that formal FP programs have been the main cause of the fertility decline?

Population and farm fertility

In her response to me, Dr O’Sullivan wrote “With too many people, low-impact mixed farming is no longer an option. Nitrogen fertilizer becomes essential”. I didn’t pick up on this point in debating with her because it didn’t seem important to the main lines of argument, but it’s important to the overall concerns of this blog and I think her statement is wrong. Presumably she’s referring to synthetic fertilizer, which is not fundamentally a land-sparing input but a labor-sparing (and energy-absorbing…and often a watercourse-polluting) one. Lynn White, for example, whose book I mentioned in my previous post, makes the point that the advent of synthetic fertilizer in quantity in Chinese agriculture from the 1980s scarcely increased crop yields, but it released a lot of agricultural labor for industrial activities. Population density in itself is not a major driver of the shift from ‘low-impact’ farming to synthetic fertilizer farming. My prediction is that with rising population, rising energy costs and stalling economic growth over the coming decades we’ll see a decline in synthetic fertilizer use and an increase in labor-intensive mixed farming.

Discussion point: With ‘too many’ people, rising energy prices and falling economic growth, low-impact mixed farming is likely to become the dominant form of agriculture in the future.

Population and land availability

If population increases, then other things being equal the amount of agricultural land available per capita will decrease. Historically, the main ways people have responded to that dynamic are:

  1. clearing more wildland for agriculture (not a good idea in our present world)
  2. lowering their fertility
  3. intensifying agricultural production (more labor per hectare, less meat etc.)
  4. importing food from elsewhere
  5. migrating

My country, Britain, comes reasonably low down the list of countries ranked by agricultural land area per capita (127th out of 209 countries, at 0.3ha per person). Historically, it’s followed all five of the procedures above. In the past, (5) has been one of its main strategies – one reason why there are now so many white folks in countries like the USA and Australia. Nowadays, (4) is one of its main strategies. Despite the pressure on land, there’s little talk about (2) in UK policy circles (though elsewhere in Europe, where fertility is lower than the UK, there are converse policy worries about demographic decline). Interestingly, many of the highest fertility African countries are quite high up in the top half of the list, with a lot of agricultural land available per capita – though I daresay one shouldn’t infer too much from that. Right up there in third place is Australia, with 15ha of agricultural land per person.

A question that nags at me is why, when it comes to discussing pressure on agricultural land in Africa, does point (2) always figure so insistently in the discussion? Not that (2) is a bad idea at all – but why do we hear so much less about, say, (5) – perhaps by establishing a migration program from Burundi to Australia, for example? I think it would be interesting to discuss why (2) seems to be regarded as ‘lower-hanging fruit’ for a country like Burundi than (5), and why (4) seems to be so favored in the UK.

Discussion point: what is the best way of ordering priorities among the five responses to decreased per capita farmland availability listed above? Does it vary from country to country, and if so on what grounds?

Resource availability per capita

Dr O’Sullivan writes that there is a “mathematical simplicity of population growth reducing natural resources per capita”. However, this point has been explicitly disputed from at least the 19th century down to the 21st by a long line of land economists, anthropologists and rural sociologists. This remains true whatever Dr O’Sullivan’s opinions are on Henry George’s religious views. I’m not saying that all these thinkers are correct in all their analyses. But my contention is this:

Discussion point: the relationship between population growth and available natural resources per capita is not mathematically simple (depending, I suppose, on how you define a ‘natural resource’…and also how you define ‘simplicity’).

Absolute and relative measures

There was quite a lot of toing and froing around absolute versus relative measures of this and that in my debate with Dr O’Sullivan. Some of her presentations of evidence strike me as pretty misleading, whereas others are potentially illuminating. I’m still not sure whether the relative increase in absolute population growth since 2000 is one of the illuminating ones or not. I’d be interested in any other views. As mentioned above, it seems quite likely that events in China are a major driver for this – and if so it may be the per capita environmental impacts rather than population numbers which are the ‘lowest-hanging fruit’ in this instance.

Discussion point: what can we infer from the relative increase in absolute population increase since 2000?

The right and the wrong of it

Dr O’Sullivan wrote of me “You argued that fertility was declining without any interventions to promote it, and that it would soon cause population to peak and decline, and that we could not effectively do more to influence it, and that we didn’t need to. I am arguing that these are demonstrably false positions.” Perhaps this sounds like sophistry, but I’m not sure that claims about the future, about the efficacy of something that we’re not actually doing and about normative priorities can be ‘demonstrably false’. Still, in the light of our exchange I’d certainly accept that I pressed those positions further than is warranted. I suppose eating some humble pie once in a while is a risk I must take in return for tossing my worthless opinions so vaingloriously into cyberspace on a regular basis. What makes it harder to do is Dr O’Sullivan’s charmlessly one-dimensional focus: firstly on only one part of my argument, secondly and more importantly on what seems quite a questionable take on population, development and the environment, and thirdly and more importantly still on some of her own highly problematic statements that lead us into other worlds of trouble.

Discussion point: “Over the last fifty years, fertility has crashed at a historically unprecedented rate, though it’s been a bit less unprecedented at the end of that time period than at the beginning (except in high-fertility countries where the decline has not leveled off) – and I should have addressed that”.

oOo

The exchange that Dr O’Sullivan and I had (with a few contributions from others – thank you) can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Notes

  1. Sinding, S. 2009. Population, poverty and economic development. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 364, 3023–3030.
  2. Casey, G. & Galor, O. 2017. Is faster economic growth compatible with reductions in carbon emissions? The role of diminished population growth. Environ.Res.Lett. 12 014003
  3. Banerjee, A. & Duflo, E. 2011. Poor Economics. Penguin.

Three deprivation narratives

I’ve been reading Lynn T. White’s book Rural Roots of Reform Before China’s Conservative Change (Routledge, 2018). I couldn’t honestly recommend it as a light bedtime read, but it’s absolutely fascinating nonetheless. Here I just want to reflect on the case of a rural migrant mentioned by White thus:

“A twenty-five-year-old legal migrant from Henan to Suzhou explained in 1994 why he was so much more productive on the delta: “We used to spend three months doing farm work, one month celebrating the Spring Festival, and eight months in idle time every year.” Now he was a restaurant waiter, working fourteen hours each day, seven days a week – but receiving 400 yuan (about US$50 a month, which was four times his previous Henan wage). When asked whether he thought he was working too hard, he replied with great eloquence….“No, it is better than sitting idly by watching people in cities getting rich. The conditions here are not bad at all. Color TV, electric heating, free meals – these are great. What I like most here is that I can take a shower every day. I was not able to take a bath during the entire winter at home. It would be too cold to do so in the river.” (p.354)

This example poses some potentially awkward questions for those like me who advocate for a small farm future – for more Henan and less Suzhou, so to speak. Could I look this man in the eye and tell him that he should have stayed on the farm? My answer to that, emphatically, is no.

But I think the implications of what he said are worth pondering. The first reason he gave for leaving the farm draws from a relative deprivation narrative – why molder away in rural poverty while city people make so much more money? The last reason he gave draws from an absolute deprivation narrative – back home, he couldn’t even take a shower during the winter!

This individual story fits easily into the dominant narrative of our times – people naturally seek prosperity, and when the opportunity arises will therefore move from countryside to city, and also from poorer countries to richer ones in search of it. Good luck to them – so long as the national and international economies are structured the way they are, I have zero sympathy for the anti-immigration rhetoric of right-wing populism, and little sympathy for left-populist peasant romanticism either.

But if you aggregate this one man’s journey across the global billions, urban and rural, who share his impoverished starting point, I can’t see this strategy of wealth-through-urbanization-and-economic-growth working. For one thing, while the global economy is certainly capable of lifting millions of people out of poverty in some places – China foremost among them – I don’t think it’s structurally or physically capable of doing it adequately everywhere. If, like me, you number among the top few hundred million in global wealth then that may not concern you much. Possibly it doesn’t concern a man like the Henan waiter either. And much as I’d like to think that such persistent inequalities would prompt the poor into political action to achieve a fairer distribution of the world’s resources, the fact is this only happens in historically unusual circumstances, as occurred in early 20th century China.

If economist Minqi Li, whose book China and the 21st Century Crisis (Pluto, 2016) I’m currently ploughing my way through (it’s another bedtime no-no, I’m afraid), is to be believed, these circumstances are also likely to occur in the mid-21st century, and will probably result in the end of the global capitalist order. Let me throw in another China book while I’m at it – David Bandurski’s Dragons in Diamond Village: Tales of Resistance in Urbanizing China (Melville House, 2016) – a much better candidate for bedtime reading, which shows vividly why somebody like this waiter may get richer in the city but will always be watching other people get richer still. Having corresponded recently with David (more on that anon), he pronounces himself pessimistic about the opportunities for resistance in Xi’s China. Time will tell.

Quite apart from the limited economic capacity of the global political economy to lift adequate numbers of people out of poverty, the other side of it is the limited environmental and energetic capacities to do so. If you aggregate the single migrant journey from Henan to Suzhou I’ve described here among all those similarly lacking in the food, shelter, comfort and entertainment that many of us take for granted, the consequences will quite simply be environmentally catastrophic and untenable long-term unless you buy into ecomodernist fantasies that it’s all manageable through nuclear power, GM crops and the like. So here we come to a third deprivation narrative – contemporary people pursuing eminently justifiable and personally rational goals deprive others, most especially future generations, of the opportunity to do likewise.

The only way I see out of this morass is to detoxify the first and third of these deprivation narratives while focusing relentlessly on the second. I’d like to think that it should be possible for everyone in the world to have safe and comfortable shelter (including access to tolerably warm bathing water) and an adequate diet (I’m not so sure about the color TV…or the free meals: isn’t there a capitalist story doing the rounds that the latter are a myth?) But to achieve that sustainably so that future generations don’t go without I think we’re going to have to let go of the relative deprivation story, the “people in cities getting rich”, by sharing the wealth around much more fairly.

Well, it’s a plan – and it’s been tried before, notably in China by one Mao Zedong. The aforementioned Minqi Li seems to be among the cohort that’s reevaluating Maoism positively, for example analyzing Mao’s Cultural Revolution as an attempt to “save the revolution” through “the dictatorship of the proletariat” (p.18). Personally, I struggle to justify the enormous destructiveness, misery and cruelty of it in those terms, when it seemed to be at least as much about saving the power of Mao Zedong through the dictatorship of Mao Zedong. I find Lynn White’s analysis more interesting – in his view, the disasters of Mao’s Great Leap Forward followed soon after by the power vacuum created by the Cultural Revolution fostered considerable local economic autonomy in China from the 1960s, and it was this bottom-up economic dynamism rather than the top-down reforms of the post-Mao government that laid the foundation for the country’s transformation into today’s huge industrial-capitalist power (I do find Li’s prognosis for how that transformation is likely to end in tears quite convincing, however).

So no, I’m not too keen on Maoist solutions to economic inequality. My preference is for agrarian populist solutions to it – which essentially means getting more people into farming and paying them better for it. Low economic returns to agriculture have often been a historical fact, but they’re not intrinsically an economic one. Still, the questions remain – is such a populist solution likely to occur, and how could it happen? My answers to that are ‘no’ and ‘with great difficulty’, but it’s the only solution that strikes me as likely to be successful long-term, so the long march back to Henan-with-hot-showers is the one I want to devote my thinking to. White and Li’s books have helped me to see that a little more clearly, though still through a glass darkly. I’ll try to elucidate it more in future posts.

New deals, old bottles

I’ve just come across an interesting article on Resilience.org skewering the old ecomodernist fable that the discovery of oil saved the whales from extinction. Funnily enough I wrote a blog post making much the same argument four years ago, which I think I’m right in saying is the only post I’ve written that received precisely zero comments. The perils of being ahead of one’s time… Well, no matter, let us press boldly on with a new post…which I fear may be my second one to attract no comments, since pressure of work on the farm and in the study has led me to grievous neglect of this website.

So, New Left Review has recently been running a series of articles on the environment and left politics, and I thought I’d comment briefly on a few points arising from them – not least in relation to Troy Vettese’s article ‘To Freeze the Thames’, which follows on neatly from my previous ‘half-earth’ post1.

Let me begin by saying that we leftists do often struggle with the issue of the environment. One member of our tribe recently told me proudly on Twitter that the left was ‘against nature’ (yes, really), and it’s true that historically we’ve had a bit of a thing about trying to keep the messy world of the natural, the organic and the rural at arm’s length through various ruses like economic growth, industrial development, tractor production and occasionally even the odd bout of peasant-slaying. So as you can imagine, I had to submit myself to several years of therapy before feeling able to commit to writing a blog called ‘Small Farm Future’. And I still own a tractor. Hell, some things are sacred.

Anyway, the point of all this is to start off with a thumbs-up for Vettese – while the neo-Bolshevik wing of left-green writing drifts towards self-parody in its demands for air conditioning as a human right, Vettese’s program of organic vegan eco-austerity and ‘natural geo-engineering’ strikes a more authentic note for me. Nevertheless, I have some problems with it…though also with Robert Pollin’s ‘green new deal’ and anti-degrowth response to Vettese (and others) in the latest issue of the journal2. So here’s a brief precis of the issues as I see them.

Vettese thinks we should plant trees to mitigate climate change. A lot of them. On the basis of a paper by Sonntag and colleagues in Geophysical Research Letters3, he suggests that if 800 million hectares of land were reforested globally, the carbon thus sequestered would reduce atmospheric CO2 to the low 300s ppm, a feat of ‘natural geoengineering’ far wiser than the various madcap high-tech schemes currently mooted, putting CO2 concentration into a “safer range”. The 800 million hectares would mostly be carved out of current agricultural land. For Vettese, “agriculture is by far the most profligate sector of the economy in its greenhouse gas emissions and land-take” (p.82) – particularly in terms of livestock production. So he proposes to find his forest land by ‘euthanizing the carnivore’ (a paraphrase of Keynes on landlords). No more ruminant meat or milk, and no more arable crops for livestock fodder. But Vettese also has roads and urban sprawl in his sights – not so much because of their emissions (“energy efficiency means that carbon pollution from cars is not as great as one might have expected”) but because of land scarcity. Land scarcity is Vettese’s big thing: “It is land scarcity, rather than rare natural resources, that is the ultimate limit to economic growth” (p.66).

Scarcity, schmarcity says Robert Pollin in the succeeding issue. Invoking the authority of Harvard physics professor Mara Prentiss’s ‘rigorous account’, he argues that the US could meet its entire energy consumption needs through solar energy alone while utilizing no more than – and possibly much less than – 0.8% of its total land area for photovoltaics. Other countries like Germany and the UK with higher population densities and lower insolation face somewhat more challenging tasks, having to ramp up their energy efficiency and devote a bit more land, but still only about 3%, to photovoltaics. And that’s pretty much the alpha and omega of Pollin’s intervention. In his view, if we quickly decarbonize the world’s energy supply, then we can continue growing GDP and global incomes – whereas degrowth scenarios would slash incomes, prompting an economic depression that would make social welfare and environmental protection improbable.

Working through these analyses, starting with Vettese, to my inexpert eye his inferences from the Sonntag paper seem sound. But even assuming the political will I’d question how easy it would be to forest large swathes of the world currently used for rangeland, which weren’t necessarily forested in the first place (there’s a side issue here about premodern human forest clearance which, again, Vettese disposes in favor of his scheme rather questionably, essentially via a single reference). Moreover, the Sonntag paper suggests that, in the absence of other mitigation efforts, the temperature reduction caused by the forestation would only be about 0.27K – so yes, “safer” in terms of climate change, but not necessarily “safe” (incidentally Sonntag says that only a minor fraction of the carbon sequestration would occur in the soil, which further makes me question the soil sequestration claims of the regenerative agriculture brigade I’ve previously discussed).

There are also problems with nutrient limitation to forestation that Sonntag explicitly omits from his analysis, but others have raised as an issue4. I can’t claim to be able to model forestation effects with the sophistication of Sonntag, but I do wonder about it. FAO data suggest that the mitigation provided by the world’s existing forest cover of about 4 billion hectares amounts to only about 5% of current emissions, so on the basis of those figures if forest cover doubled (a much greater forestation than proposed by Vettese) and all direct agricultural GHG emissions ceased but emissions otherwise remained the same, then global emissions would still be occurring at about 80% of current levels.

In fact, this is the biggest problem I have with Vettese’s analysis. Cars and other fossil fuel-burning technology may emit “less than one might have expected” but it depends on what “one expected” – this is an extraordinarily weak claim on which to build a whole mitigation approach. FAO data suggest that about 50% of global emissions come from the energy sector, 14% from transport and 7% from industry, with only about 11% coming from agriculture and another 11% from land use change (though some of the energy, transport and industry emissions are agriculture and food system related). Agricultural methane emissions largely associated with livestock only account for 6% of total emissions (leaving aside methane-GHG equivalence issues) and agricultural nitrous oxide emissions only partly associated with livestock account for 5% of total emissions. I get the sense that Vettese’s veganism may be the tail that’s wagging his climate mitigation dog – maybe another example of what Simon Fairlie calls the “mendacious rhetoric about cows causing more global warming than cars”5.

Still, I’m not fundamentally opposed to Vettese’s vision of an organic, vegetable-oriented agriculture. He says almost nothing about the geography of his proposals but I’m guessing that an eco-austere world of minimal fossil fuels and mostly vegan organic agriculture would also have to be a mostly rural world of distributed human populations. I don’t have too much of a problem with that, but in such a world organic smallholders would have to build fallows and leys into their cropping for fertility reasons and efficiency would be enhanced if they included some livestock to graze them and perhaps some pigs or poultry too to clean up wastes and do a little work around the holding (ground preparation, manuring, pest control etc.) In temperate climes particularly, their fat as well as their meat would certainly be a welcome and possibly a necessary addition to the diet.

But if Pollin is right this is all a huge overreaction. Just decarbonize the power supply, mostly through photovoltaics, then we can get back to economic growth as usual, and leftists can get back to the safe territory of their long-running battle with rightists about the just distribution of the spoils. I’d like to believe him, and I agree that switching away from fossil fuels towards photovoltaics as rapidly as we can right now is a good idea. But in the face of the world’s numerous intersecting social, political, economic and biophysical crises which have been voluminously discussed on this site over the years, I don’t think a rapidly decarbonized energy system, or even a wider ‘green new deal’ associated with it, is adequate to the task of renewal.

I took a look at the Prentiss book referenced by Pollin6. Table 11 on p.153 seems to be the critical one on which Pollin bases his claims. I can’t claim Prentiss’s exalted credentials as a physicist, but I was surprised at how un-“rigorous” the table seemed – no dates, no sources and somewhat slapdash in its use of units. But anyway, assuming the data she presents are sound, the basic claim seems to be that PV panels in the USA can on average capture 40 watts per square meter – ‘on average’ presumably meaning that this figure adjusts for summer and winter, night and day. That’s a lot more than the panels on my roof capture, though to be fair I live on a (usually) rain-soaked island at a more northerly latitude than the great majority of the US population. I do wonder a little about where Alaska fits into this picture, since it constitutes about 18% of US land area and is even more northerly than my location, but anyway taking Prentiss’s data as given suggests by my calculations that each of the USA’s 300 plus million residents would require something like 150 square meters of PV panels to furnish current energy consumption (and here we’re just talking about domestic energy consumption, not energy embodied in imported artifacts).

Pollin’s point is that, contra Vettese, this 150m2 when it’s aggregated up isn’t a large proportion of the USA’s land, and he’s right about that. But when you pace it out – 12.2 meters by 12.2 meters for every single resident in the world’s third most populous country – it does seem to me a large amount of material and engineering infrastructure, not to mention a huge social transition towards a completely electrified energy system. Pollin’s notion that it’s achievable worldwide without major perturbation in the global economy seems optimistic at best. For sure, anything humanity does to tackle the issues it currently faces is going to have to be huge. Pollin’s critique of the degrowthers for ducking current energy and carbon imperatives in favor of a more generalized approach to economic downscaling is perhaps well taken, but I can’t help thinking his analysis involves a complacency of its own.

Pollin says that a good ethical case can be made for high-income people and high-income countries to reduce their emissions to the same level as low-income people and countries, but that there’s no chance this will happen and “we do not have the luxury to waste time on huge global efforts fighting for unattainable goals” (p.21). The problem as I see it is that the same applies to his own prescription. While the world’s political structuring hinges on nation-states with vastly different levels of economic and military power jockeying with each other out of short-term economic self-interest with only the most reluctant (and dwindling) concessions to multilateral concord, then the idea of a rapid decarbonization in the USA – one of the most powerful of such nation-states – out of some wider ecological perspective seems remote. Likewise, the idea that other countries will prioritize decarbonization in meek acceptance of the fact that the US and other wealthy countries won’t play ball with their per capita emissions. Frankly, the idea of a rapid switch out of fossil fuels in a country enjoying a second fossil fuel bonanza in fracked natural gas – a country in which so many chafed under a center-right president widely regarded as some kind of communist, and then elected a successor who doesn’t think climate change is happening and wishes to invest in coal – seems highly unattainable to me. Mind you, politics has become so capricious and unpredictable these days that I wouldn’t entirely bet against some green new dealer making it to the White House in 2020. But if I had to put up some money, I’d still bet against it. Meanwhile, for his part Vettese also has a penchant for unattainable goals, in this case a venerable leftist one: “A solution to global environmental crises requires the humbling of the global bourgeoisie, the richest several hundred million” (pp.85-6). No doubt, but I’m not seeing how that will take shape in the present global political landscape.

Of course, it’s easy to pull down other people’s castles in the air without suggesting more plausible alternatives. Sadly all I have to offer is this: the time for climate change mitigation that will prevent major future climate perturbations is probably more or less over, and what we’re faced with is climate change adaptation. I think that process will be grim, but I also think that ultimately it will probably spell the end of the contemporary nation-state, the world system of states, and the global capitalist economy, and for some people at least that may prompt some more positive outcomes – perhaps along the lines of the world imagined by Vettese. I’m aware that some commenters on this site find such views repulsively negative, but I don’t see it that way. I’m looking for the most positive outcomes I can find out of the most realistic socio-political trajectories I perceive. More on that soon, I hope.

Notes

  1. Vettese, T. 2018. To freeze the Thames: Natural geo-engineering and biodiversity. New Left Review 111: 63-86.
  2. Pollin, R. 2018.De-growth vs a green new deal. New Left Review 112: 5-25.
  3. Sonntag, S. et al. 2016. Reforestation in a high-CO2 world—Higher mitigation potential than expected, lower adaptation potential than hoped for. Geophysical Research Letters 43: 6546-6553.
  4. Kracher, D. 2017. Nitrogen-Related Constraints of Carbon Uptake by Large-Scale Forest Expansion: Simulation Study for Climate Change and Management Scenarios. Earth’s Future 5: 1102-1118.
  5. Fairlie, S. 2010. Meat. Permanent Publications, p.184.
  6. Prentiss, M. 2015. Energy Revolution: The Physics and the Promise of Efficient Technology. Harvard Univ Press.

Half-earth, half-baked?

Firstly, apologies for failing to respond to some of the comments at the end of my previous post. For some reason I’ve stopped getting email alerts of new comments. The Small Farm Future technical team are on the case, but frankly they’re a pretty useless bunch so expect delays. Meanwhile, if your comments are stuck in moderation or not getting the attention from me that you feel they deserve maybe let me know via the contact form and I’ll action someone on the team to look into it.

Anyway, onward. I’ve been writing in my book draft lately about the role of livestock in a small farm future, which has led me by a somewhat circuitous but probably fairly obvious route to reading Harvard biologist and conservationist E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth (W.W. Norton, 2016), in which he argues that we should leave half our planet’s surface as “inviolable reserves” for nature.

I found it an interesting and informative, if also somewhat vague and rambling, little book (still, if I succeed in publishing a book that’s no more rambling than Wilson’s when I’m 87 I’ll be happy). One of Wilson’s key points is that we’re not yet even close to knowing all the species with which we share the biosphere, let alone knowing how they fit into wider sets of ecological relationships. Therefore, from numerous perspectives but not least human self-preservation, he argues that it’s not a good idea to wantonly let species go extinct. Yet this, sadly, is what’s currently happening by the hand of humanity, with an extinction rate now around a thousand times higher than before the spread of humans around the world. This amounts to a sixth mass planetary extinction, which will rival over a few human generations what the last one, the Chicxulub asteroid impact that ultimately did for the dinosaurs, achieved on one bad day – but in geological terms, the time difference is slight.

Wilson deploys his biological expertise to great effect throughout the book in a running battle with Anthropocene theorists, “novel ecosystem” enthusiasts and outriders of the ‘ecomodernist’ Breakthrough Institute like Emma Marris and Erle Ellis who’ve likewise detained me on this website over the years. The basic message of the Anthropocenites to threatened species and to the people who wish to defend them runs something like ‘this is a human planet now – so deal with it, or get out the way’. In practical terms, they raise the valid point that in an ever-changing and stochastic biota there’s never a baseline point of ‘balance’ to which conservationism can aim its restorative efforts. To which Wilson makes the nice rejoinder that this is a problem that should be formulated as a scientific challenge, not an excuse for throwing up our hands and singing que será será.

But then, in the penultimate chapter, he lets it all run through his fingers. Take this passage:

“The [human ecological footprint] will not stay the same. The footprint will evolve, not to claim more and more space, as you might at first suppose, but less. The reason lies in the evolution of the free market system, and the way it is increasingly shaped by high technology….Just as natural selection drives organic evolution by competition among genes to produce more copies of themselves per unit cost in the next generation, raising benefit-to-cost of production drives the evolution of the economy. Almost all of the competition in a free market…raises the average quality of life. Teleconferencing, online purchases and trade, e-book personal libraries, access on the Internet to all literature and scientific data, online diagnosis and medical practice, food production per hectare sharply raised by indoor vertical gardens with LED lighting, genetically engineered crops and microorganisms…” (p.191)

Enough already, Edward…we get your point. After nineteen chapters of amiable good sense, Wilson suddenly goes full ecomodernist, as if some devilish Breakthrough Institute hacker finally figured out how to make him stop his anti-Anthropocene agitating by messing with his neurons like a cordyceps fungus attacking one of his beloved ants.

I won’t dwell here on how wrongheaded all this is – regular readers and commenters on this blog are well appraised of the counter-arguments. I don’t even dispute that there are some aspects of emerging high technology that might help us mitigate some of our present predicaments. But, my dear professor, the ‘evolution’ of the ‘free market system’ is not among them – rather, it’s the ‘free market system’ (or, more precisely, corporate capitalism – which isn’t really the same thing at all, but is the beast that Wilson is implicitly invoking) that has biodiversity in its deathly grip.

Wilson is pretty vague about what a ‘half-earth’ devoted to inviolable nature would actually look like, though he tells us that it needn’t involve dividing off the planet into large pieces the size of continents or nation-states, and earlier on in the book he demurs from the idea that ‘wilderness’ necessarily implies a lack of human residents. He favors a lower human population, but says nothing about urban vis-à-vis rural residence or the nature of the agriculture necessary to support a half-earth world (other than his half-baked half-earth of vertical farming and LED lights). His simple point really is that the number of species going extinct usually varies by something like the fourth root of the area available to them, so if we make half the planet available to wild species we should retain about 85% of them. Of course, things are more complicated than that in reality, but maybe it’s not such a bad place to start – especially if we proceed by trying to ensure that existing wildernesses and centers of biodiversity are protected first.

A quick look at the FAO’s global land use statistics reveals that in fact only about 37% of the planet’s land area is devoted to agriculture, with about 4% devoted to cities, roads and other artificial surfaces. So by those lights Wilson’s half-earth ambitions are already achieved – though it’s doubtless fair to say that we humans have appropriated the nicest territory for our agriculture (about a third of nature’s 60% share is glaciated or barren land). Still, perhaps when Wilson says we should leave half the earth as “inviolable reserves” he means really inviolable – so no chemical pollution of any kind, and perhaps no climate change either, creeping in from the human side of the planet. If that’s so, then the ‘half-earth’ idea is a little misleading because it draws attention to land take, when it should really be drawing attention to human practices like GHG emissions and nitrate pollution (another reason to question the ‘land sparing’ critique of organic farming).

Maybe instead of a half-earth we need a quarter-earth – which would be easily achieved by cutting back on rangeland and arable crops grown as livestock fodder (nearly 70% of global agricultural land is permanent meadow or pasture – yet another inconvenient truth for the land sparers, who illogically obsess over the 1% of organically-farmed land). But I think what we really need is a no GHG emissions and a no pollution earth. How to achieve that? Well, I’m open to ideas but here’s my half-earth halfpenny’s worth: stop fishing in the open ocean, stop extracting fossil fuels, stop making synthetic fertilizer (except as a stopgap measure via special government derogation). Decide on the total human land-take, which gives a global per capita acreage. Then divide it up equally between the people of the world for carbon-free homesteading. Those who prefer not to avail themselves of this generous offer and continue working in the city would be entitled to do so with the proviso that they forfeit, say, 50% of their earnings on top of tax, split between practical conservation, farmer support, agroecological research funds and mitigation of the environmental bads caused by the commercial-industrial farming that their old-falutin city-slicking ways would probably bring forth.

I’ll admit that it needs working up a bit more – a few details to fill in, some implementation issues to address. Perhaps you can help me in that task. My starter for ten is that this system won’t emerge by the ‘evolution’ of a free market system increasingly shaped by high technology. Wilson might have realized this, if only he’d consulted an economist biologist…

The vaishya gambit

I have some good news and some bad news. The good news, at least for anyone who’s drawn to read this little Small Farm Future corner of the internet, is that I’ve just signed a contract with the publishers Chelsea Green to write a book, provisionally entitled Small Farm Future (sometimes I surprise even myself with my creative originality…) So you’ll soon be able to gorge yourself on a book-length version of my bloggerly musings. The bad news is that, starting now and for the next year or so, I’m going to have to prioritize the book-writing over the blog-writing. But I’m reluctant to abandon the blog altogether, so my plan is to write shorter, more knockabout pieces (if that’s even possible…) and most likely to turn the blog for the time being into something like a journal of the book writing process – not to give too much of my pearly wisdom away ahead of time, but perhaps to share a few of the knottier issues I’m working on as I go along, in the hope that I’ll get some comments back that will help me unravel them, as I’ve often found in the past.

So welcome, then, to Small Farm Future Mk II – my journal of a book year. But left hanging from my last post is the issue of transactional strategies in pre-capitalist, capitalist and potentially post-capitalist societies that I promised to address. Well, let me get the new style rolling with an experimental crack at dispatching the issue in a briefer, more rough-and-ready and much less thought-through way than I’d have previously entertained.

Most pre-modern societies found a place for asceticism (what I previously called the brahmanic or vaishya strategies) as a social and status role – conveniently, you might say, since there was less stuff to go around. Nevertheless, it was a potential route to high status – monasticism, anchorism etc.

In contemporary capitalist society the ascetic role has more or less disappeared, except perhaps for a few pariah groups who re-enchant lowliness and difference (Rastafari among working class Jamaican men, for example). But the possibilities for the rajanya or kingly role of ‘maximal’ transacting – being a tribute-taker and benefice-giver has greatly expanded in capitalist society. As customers, as citizens with rights and money, we like to throw our weight around. The customer is king, quite literally.

OK, not quite literally. In the Weberian terms introduced in my last post, status is a relatively non-expansible resource. Hence the innumerable ways people wishing to stake high status claims deploy to keep the hoi polloi and their vulgar wealth outside the castle. And hence perhaps some of the dissatisfactions of the consumerist lifestyle, which for all its sparkling wonders never quite delivers the satisfactions it seems to promise.

Unfortunately, I feel I now have to return to the vexed issue of personal environmental action, much as I’d prefer not to. So…you can give up on various rajanya activities (meat-eating, flying abroad etc.) because it’s the right thing to do environmentally, but it doesn’t make much difference to global outcomes because most other people are deeply entrenched in the dominant rajanya strategy, often to the extent that they consider your behavior irrational and, rightly or wrongly, maybe even a questionably brahmanical form of self-promoting status aggrandizement. This is written deeply into our contemporary religion – by which I mean economic theory – which holds that autarky is bad while trade and the trafficking of money is good.

Of course, it may turn out that through your self-denial you stole a march on all those idiots along the lines of John Michael Greer’s ‘collapse now to avoid the rush’ scenario, in which case you can allow yourself full gloating rights. But then your cover is truly blown…and in any case vaishya self-denial is more useful in that instance than self-denial of the brahmanical sort, because it’s only the former that puts bread on the table.

So, my feeling is that it’s too much to ask of most people to make individual ascetic decisions in a society that actively disincentivizes them and provides no cultural mechanisms for validating them as a collective practice. It’s a lot easier, for example, not to eat pork because that is deeply what your people do and are (including those you eat with) than because you disapprove of the intensive livestock industry and wish more people agreed with you.

The easiest way to imagine this changing is through force of circumstance. Thriftiness becomes a value because it has to in situations of economic constraint or environmental distress. But it’s interesting to conjecture about how that would normalize itself as collective cultural practice – partly because it may help us prepare for the inevitable and ease the process.

I raised the specter of ‘feudalism’ in my previous post, and many dystopian visions of the future likewise dwell on some kind of neo-feudalism as the destiny of a post-capitalist or post-fossil fuel future. There’s a political structure to historic feudalism that seems to me quite possible in the future – weakened successor states trying to fill the shell of a declining larger world-system through a kind of regional strongman politics. But the economic structure – a means of controlling labor in a land-abundant, labor-scarce world – doesn’t fit. The most likely scenario is the reverse – a land-scarce, labor-abundant (and politically-fragmented) world where if past history is anything to go by the economic model of choice would most likely be intensive self-worked smallholdings.

There’s a kind of smallholder-householder mentality, still with us to a degree, that has elements of the vaishya style. You fix things up yourself with your own resources, you only sell when the price is right, you avoid showy material forms of status display and so forth. These can be a form of status display themselves, but they can also become a kind of unconscious practice. They’re easier to achieve as a self-employed rural landowner than as a salaried urban dweller. The satisfactions of developing a smallholding – building its structures, creating its fields, planting and tending its woods and gardens – are more physically tangible and socially autonomous than the satisfactions usually available to the urban salaried dweller. You don’t need to invest in some spuriously autonomist notion of yourself as the lonely monarch of your one-acre kingdom in order to tap the make do and mend sensibilities of the vaishya style and find some fulfilment in it.

It may seem that there’s not much difference in practice between personal ethics to “do your bit for the environment” and the kind of collective vaishya style I’m proposing. But I’d argue to the contrary. How to encapsulate it? A practice of political economy rather than a critique of political economy? A style of practice rather than a practice of style? A collective intervention?

This vaishya style is typically dismissed by leftists as a right-wing, petty bourgeois, Poujadist mentality. It certainly can be, but I think the left would do better to start reimagining it as a building block for solidary post-capitalist societies. Otherwise the techno-grandiloquence and the crypto-capitalisms or crypto-Bolshevisms offered by the likes of Nick Srnicek, Leigh Phillips or Xi Jinping are pretty much all the left has to reckon with, which will leave it as the perpetual bridesmaid to capitalism-as-usual. The left as Nick Clegg to a David Cameron political economy. And we know how that turned out.

But where’s the structural basis for this vaishya practice to become an accepted way of being, a social norm, a class? Well, there’s the question. My feeling is that you don’t need to subscribe to an especially apocalyptic view of the future to think that the current multilateral global political order will unravel (it already is – with chronically stagnant growth, rising inequality and rising debt hustling it along its way). In those circumstances I think countries will start looking to shore up agricultural productivity and regional economic development, or else their declining command over their non-core regions will foster it by default (as per my analysis of what I’ve called the supersedure state).

So there’s that. But for various reasons I don’t find it especially persuasive that the world will smoothly reinvent itself as a network of sustainable smallholder republics in this way. On current trends, it seems more likely we’ll pass through a period of grand superpower tussling and delusional nationalist posturing with its scapegoating of immigrants and minorities and its writing-on-the-wall denialism, a politics of farragoes and chumps, a world in which Carl Schmitt’s politics of friend and enemy might emerge triumphant – but for a few islands, perhaps, of Machiavellian republicanism of the kind I outlined in an earlier post. Lord preserve us from a world of small-scale farmers presented as the ‘real people’ of the country.

But although I deplore the turn to rightwing populism in contemporary western politics, it’s perhaps revealing of the lie that was always at the heart of its liberalism. Schmitt was always lurking behind the Rawlsian veil of liberal internationalism underwritten by US power. Democracy, freedom, markets…and then Donald Trump bellowing the deeper verity – “America first!”

So ironically, perhaps the only chance for a truly liberal politics of friends and not enemies now lies in reconstructing a vaishya localism. But perhaps I’m being too pessimistic…?

The transition from capitalism to feudalism

Historians have spilled a lot of ink on the question of how capitalism supplanted feudalism, but what will happen in the future if by design, default or disaster our present capitalist society is supplanted by a lower energy alternative with more people devoting themselves to the agrarian arts? Will historians of the future be writing of the transition from capitalism to feudalism?

‘Feudalism’ can be a misleading term. Really, it refers to situations of weak political centralisation, parcellized sovereignty and low population density that were uncommon historically and were arguably limited only to parts of Europe and Japan. But people often use it as a shorthand term for more or less any kind of agrarian society, and those of us who advocate a small farm future are often met with the horrified response that it would amount to the return of feudalism or serfdom. Fortunately, these are only two among many of the forms that past agrarian societies took, and they occupy pretty much the least appealing part of the spectrum. Still, the question remains – would the social structure of a small farm future look anything like that of the small farm past, and if so shouldn’t we be worried about it?

I’m afraid I can’t answer that until I get my crystal ball back from the cleaners, but what I can do is offer some wider reflections on the structure of agrarian societies that might at least cast some light on the issue. The historical sociology of the transition to capitalism has been dominated by Marxist thinkers who emphasise the nature of production, energy capture and class relations between the owners of capital and the owners of labour. Illuminating stuff, but what I want to stress here is the nature of agrarian society as a status order (the relevant sociological pioneer here being Max Weber – cue boos and hisses from the Marxists). As I’ll discuss below, and still more in my next post, the interesting thing about this approach is the continuities rather than the differences that emerge across the divide between pre-modern agrarian societies, modern capitalist ones (which are also, of course, agrarian) and most likely the post-modern post-capitalist agrarian societies of the future.

I’ll spare the reader a precis of Weberian sociology, and instead come at my theme obliquely with an analysis of the varna categories bequeathed from ancient Indian thought. This is only by way of exemplification – should you wish to follow up the particularities, the key analysts I’m drawing on are McKim Marriott and Murray Milner1, both summarised in this superb book. Should you wish otherwise I hope you’ll bear with me anyway – I trust the relevance of my argument will emerge, in the next post if not in this one.

The varna categories – priest, king, farmer, servant – are outlined in a famous passage from the Rig Veda:

When they divided The Man, into how many parts did they apportion him? What do they call his mouth, his two arms and thighs and feet? His mouth became the brahman [priest]; his arms were made into the rajanya [king/warrior]; his thighs the vaishyas [farmers/’people’]; and from his feet the shudra [servants] were born.

When we look at how the varna categories were actually filled in Indian society historically there are various ambiguities, most importantly for my present purposes around the vaishya category, which rather than being a category heavily populated by a mass of farmers in fact is sparsely populated by merchant castes, with farmers mostly occupying the shudra category. I’ll come back to this shortly.

The varna categories replicate a basic structure common to numerous non-industrial agrarian societies (see, for example, David Priestland’s Merchant, Soldier, Sage or Ernest Gellner’s Plough, Sword and Book), which roughly speaking is:

  • king/warrior/noble
  • priest
  • merchant
  • farmer
  • servant/client/slave/outcast

Of course, these groups interact with each other materially in various ways. In India, as in all societies, material transactions are freighted with numerous social meanings – but perhaps in India more than in most societies. Depending on exactly what’s being transacted, it’s possible to speak very broadly of a kind of ‘hot potato’ or scapegoat way of thinking about transactions there: certain material things typically embody bad qualities, inauspiciousness (or maybe what we’d call ‘sin’ in Western religious traditions), which means that generally it’s good to give, and not so good to receive. Perhaps we can sense an echo of this even in contemporary capitalist society. To be the recipient of a gift isn’t always morally innocent – it can lower your social status with respect to the donor.

So each of the four varna categories has a characteristic transactional strategy associated with it. The king adopts the ‘maximal’ strategy of both giving and receiving extensively (as benefactor and tribute-taker). The priest adopts the ‘optimal’ strategy of giving but not receiving (seeking purity by passing on inauspiciousness and not receiving it). The vaishya (let’s keep it ambiguous for now who the vaishya actually is) adopts the ‘minimal’ strategy, neither receiving nor giving. The shudra (farmer/servant) adopts the ‘pessimal’ strategy of receiving but not giving, putting them at the bottom of the social pile.

Each of the four varna categories also has a characteristic ‘alter ego’, which represents a possibly disreputable version of themselves who in a sense stands outside acceptable society. The alter ego of the king is the bandit, who takes tribute by predatory violence. The king distinguishes himself from the bandit by two possible strategies. One is by legitimating his rule with respect to some kind of sacred authority (hence the close associations between kings and churches or priests), being a generous benefactor of temple building etc. The other is by being a ‘good king’ who protects and nurtures the people. In agrarian societies this amounts to a kind of protection racket, in which the king’s tribute-taking from ordinary people in order to endow his temples and generally act in a kingly manner is at least orderly and regularised, and he offers protection from the arbitrary violence of the bandit. But kings need a lot of tribute for their projects, so it’s easy for their exactions to become itself a kind of banditry and to be seen as such. Hence the numerous Robin Hood style myths – Good King Richard, Bad King John etc.

The alter ego of the priest is the renouncer – archetypically the penniless holy wo/man, the ascetic or the hermit who gives everything away and begs only enough to keep from starving. From this position almost outside society, they can critique its worldliness and corruption and attain great spiritual purity.

The alter ego of the vaishya as farmer is also the renouncer, who aspires to agrarian self-reliance. They don’t need many external inputs to furnish their household, nor do they need to go often to market. The strategy of the self-reliant ascetic, standing somewhat outside society is available to them.

On the face of it, the vaishya as merchant can’t adopt the minimal transactional strategy – after all, they’re buying and selling stuff the whole time. Potentially, and often actually, this is highly compromising to their social status. The ways around it are to act as if trade in mere objects is a trivial matter in which the merchant is not existentially implicated, allowing the cultivation of higher spiritual virtues (Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism would be a westernised version of this). Or else to use the profit to act like a king, and hope to convince people that you really are one.

The alter ego of the shudra is the outcast or untouchable. Receiving but not giving, and especially receiving polluting and inauspicious substances, puts you at the bottom of the heap, and potentially outside the heap altogether.

In terms of status ordering – well, the king is at the top, but in an agrarian society there can’t be many kings and it’s a high risk business. You have to exact a lot of tribute, endow a lot of benefices and fight off a lot of bandit would-be kings. The priest and the renouncer may also enjoy high status of a non-material kind if they can convince other people of their spiritual virtues. The vaishya-merchant is in a risky status position – nobody likes a usurer – but they may have ways of pulling the wool over people’s eyes and adopting a different status. The vaishya-farmer can’t claim much highfalutin status, but can effect a certain haughty independence and homespun honour. But in practice this status is often beyond the ordinary farmer’s means – a more likely result is that they’re a mere client or retainer of a higher ranking patron. Hence the relative lack of farmers in the vaishya category, and their strong showing among the shudras or, worse, in some unfree category – serf, debt-peon or slave. An awful lot of socio-historical drama in agrarian societies turns upon the way people try to augment social status – sometimes as a multi-generational strategy exceeding their own lifespan – according to their inherited potential in these various social roles.

I’m interested in this agrarian status structuring for two reasons. First, as I mentioned at the beginning, I wonder if it or something like it are generic to relatively low energy, localised agrarian societies. That would seem to be the case for many pre-modern agrarian societies. So in the event of a post-modern turn to agrarianism, could we expect things to look much different? I’m not drawn myself to the idea of a status order with everyone trying to climb up the greasy pole towards the few high status positions at the top, while seeking at all costs to avoid the miserable and deprecated ones at the base. Therefore, if this status structuring does seem particularly fitted to fully agrarian societies, I’d like to think of some ways to avoid this outcome.

Second, the rise of modernity, capitalism and industry seems to have swept away much of this pre-modern status order, but – as I’ll argue in my next post – much of it has arguably been retained in only a somewhat different guise, which adds further weight to the first point.

For me, the key relation in agrarian society is between the farmer and the king, or to put it in more generalised terms between the ‘citizen’ and ‘the state’. What is it like to be an ordinary person (ie. a farmer, generally speaking, or a tradesperson, in the agrarian economy) as a matter of political experience? The answer that seems burned into the modernist memory as it’s emerged from many pre-modern societies is that it’s pretty grim – the powerlessness of, say, an 18th century Russian serf or a 13th century English villein. But this kind of setup isn’t a given. In varied historical circumstances, it’s possible to distinguish a category of substantially independent small-scale farmers from more dependent categories of client or unfree (peasant/villein/serf) cultivators.

What circumstances? I’d suggest essentially only two. The first is situations of relative geographic isolation from the remit of the state – dwellers of mountains or forests, or occupants of colonial frontiers depopulated by disease or genocidal violence. The second, and for my purposes more interesting, case is when the semi-independence of the cultivator gains explicit recognition by the state and is incorporated into its political culture. Sometimes this arises through the military defeat of state forces by peasant militias – a rare occurrence historically, and one usually associated with a degree of geographical isolation as per the first circumstance. But it can also arise in situations where the state transcends the predatory warrior-aristocracy mode and constitutes itself to some degree in a more mutualistic relationship as part-benefactor of the cultivating classes. There are various examples of this, the most important surely being much of China through much of its imperial and arguably indeed its communist history.

In terms of the varna categories, the peasant as low-ranking, dependent cultivator corresponds with the shudra status – the servant, the client, the inferiorised recipient of the gift. The independent small-scale farmer corresponds with the vaishya status – the non-dependent, ascetic and thrifty yeoman who takes no gifts. If a possible future post-capitalist, low-energy agrarian society were to replicate the status categories of past agrarian societies – which seems to me quite likely, but not foreordained – then the agrarian style that most appeals to me is the vaishya one. It has the added benefit of elaborating status and a secure sense of self around not buying or consuming things excessively, which would be a useful attribute in a low energy society where there was less stuff to buy in any case. In fact, I’d venture to say that a little bit of vaishya sensibility mightn’t go amiss in contemporary capitalist society to help usher us towards something a bit more sustainable – but I’ll say more about that in my next post.

Notes

  1. Marriott, M. 1976. Hindu transactions: diversity without dualism. In Kapferer, B. (Ed) Transaction and Meaning. Philadelphia; Milner, M. 1994. Status and Sacredness. New York.

Magic economics

When your car is malfunctioning and you take it to a mechanic, you hope that they’ll diagnose the problem and give you some repair suggestions and costings. You don’t expect them to discourse lengthily on the wider transport system or on government priorities vis-à-vis roads and other infrastructure. It’s not their job.

I’d like to suggest that economists should likewise be seen as the mechanics of the political economy. I’m interested in their opinions on the pros and cons of different policy instruments for achieving desired political and social goals, using the technical skills developed in their discipline. I’m not interested in their opinions about what political and social goals are desirable – matters on which I don’t consider them to have more legitimate authority than anyone else.

I mention this in the context of a tweet from Branko Milanovic, an expert on the economics of global inequality (whose work was previously discussed on Small Farm Future here), in which he attempted to ridicule the ‘doughnut economics’ thinking of heterodox economist Kate Raworth, and by implication the wider tradition of alternative, degrowth-oriented economics.

Milanovic tweeted “Here is a list of some things that Doughnut economists could advocate if they seriously believed that the planet is in danger and that world GDP must not increase and yet abject global poverty must be reduced

Reduce work week to 2 days

Increase highest marginal tax rates to 80%

Double indirect taxes on all polluting goods

Triple the price of oil

Double subsidies to all renewable sources of energy

Sell (very expensive) meat only two days a week

Ban cheap airplane companies and double the price of air flights

Introduce a £1000 tax for all travel by car & airplanes outside the UK

Introduce UBI of say £200 per person per week

Define the goal of halving GDP and real incomes by 50% in 10 years

He added: “Then they should create a movement that would try, through political action, to implement these measures and find out how much support they get from rich countries’ populations.”

Well now, I’ve already documented my own issues with Raworth’s economics, but writing as someone who does seriously believe that human wellbeing (if not ‘the planet’) is in danger, that it’s probably not a great idea for world GDP to increase, and that abject poverty must be reduced, those suggestions all make a lot of sense to me. However, I’m not a fully paid up member of the economics tribe, so I’d be interested to hear the analyses of Milanovic and other economists concerning the detailed implications of these policy measures, which I’m sure could help sharpen the debate over how to improve equity, wellbeing and sustainability. I’m not, however, much interested in the fact that Professor Milanovic considers these measures absurd.

I’d like to reformulate Milanovic’s approach along the lines suggested by Raworth of being ‘agnostic’ about economic growth. So let’s take the last of his suggestions. Instead of defining the goal of halving GDP and real incomes by 50% in 10 years, I’d like to define the goal of halving (or, better, quartering) greenhouse gas emissions in 10 years, while reducing economic inequality to a global Gini value of, say, 30 over the same period. I’m happy for this to be done with any high-tech whizz-bangery Professor Milanovic cares to choose, so long as we hit our 10-year targets – though to my mind this implies it would have to be technologies that are available to roll out at scale right now, so vague talk about the future possibilities of thorium or fusion reactors, or emerging CCS technologies and suchlike won’t cut it. If it can be done while increasing GDP, then great. I struggle to see how that would be possible, but I’m open to suggestions from economists toiling down in the garage of the global political economy as to how they might pull it off. I’m not, however, open to suggestions from economists that the goals I’m proposing are inappropriate, since the grounds of these goals are not economic and therefore fall outside their disciplinary ambit.

Economists do like to weigh in on normative issues of this kind nonetheless – and here is where, for me, they cease being potentially useful mechanics and start to become priests, magicians or quacks. Still, the nature of the dogma, the magic or the quackery is interesting for what it reveals about contemporary ideology, so let us probe it a little further.

The first level of magical thinking is the one purveyed in Milanovic’s afterthought: people won’t vote for ‘degrowth’ policies, or at least people in rich countries whose votes count most for the way the world works won’t vote for them – so the idea is dismissed as absurd. However, if we make the uncontroversial assumption that human wellbeing really is seriously threatened by the existing structure of the global economy, then where is the absurdity? Not with the degrowth, but with the politics. Much as I acknowledge that the unenlightened short-term self-interest of a rich minority of the world’s population does create genuine obstacles for implementing a more sustainable political economy, the real force of Milanovic’s point here is surely a push to rethink the politics. I plan to write some more on this soon, but I’m unimpressed by the notion that current voter support is some kind of litmus test for policy plausibility. The fact that contemporary politicians are still playing petty power games and trying to buy off voters with absurd, undeliverable promises is an indictment of our current political maturity and an index of the difficult path ahead. It’s not an argument against degrowth.

Various other levels of magical thinking were amply demonstrated by respondents to Milanovic’s tweet on the thread linked above. One is the basically ecomodernist notion that economic growth and prosperity are necessary in order to create the surplus needed to invest in environment-saving technologies – in the words of the Tweeter ‘Econartist’, “Invest in renewable and nuclear tech big time, decommission coal, electrify the transport system, explore the myriad of proposed geoengineering solutions – anyone who tells you this can’t be done or that it’s too expensive is a charlatan”. Well, call me a charlatan but the problem here is that there’s no compelling evidence that ongoing global economic growth funds reduced emissions or other environmental positives…though doubtless we’ll soon be seeing projections on the imminent downturn of the environmental Kuznets ‘wave’. You get the sense that there may just be a stray vowel somewhere near the start of ‘Econartist’s’ Twitter handle.

Another strand of magic invoked by Econartist is the notion that exogenous environmental constraint on human action is some kind of Malthusian fallacy. Malthus-as-bogeyman is widely invoked nowadays – usually to purvey the tautological argument that since Malthus posited exogenous (or even just actual) environmental constraint on human action, and since as-we-all-know Malthus was wrong (and had nasty politics to boot), then clearly any argument that invokes environmental constraint on human action is Malthusian, and therefore wrong.

Luckily I find that in my day job as a grower it’s possible for me to say things like “The weather’s been poor this year – I expect we’ll get a lower crop yield” without being dismissed by my fellow growers for my Malthusianism. But when you’re far away from directly experienced environmental constraint – like on Twitter, for example, or in the average university – it’s easy to invoke Malthus-as-bogeyman and/or the magic of human ingenuity to banish the danger of the natural world intruding on one’s anthropocentric reveries. This debate from a while back here on Small Farm Future convinced me that if we want to insist on invoking Malthus-as-bogeyman then we need a carefully circumscribed definition of Malthusianism. Following Andrew in that debate, I’d suggest that it should be the notion that the uncontrollable passions of the lower orders result in an excess of population over available resources. To extend an anti-Malthusianism further than that strays into the kind of magical thinking that assumes a priori that human ingenuity inevitably banishes all non-human constraint. It clearly doesn’t…and furthermore it fortunately doesn’t need to (which is why I find Tom X Hart’s recent tweet to me that “the left is anti-nature” a depressing sign of the needless techno-mythologism into which too much of the left has sunk).

Finally, the issue that the growth folks never seem to confront is where it ends – and this is where the numbers themselves start to get magical. In 1967 global GDP was 16.1 trillion at constant 2010 US$, and in 2017 it was 80.08 trillion. Current average global economic growth averages about 2.3% per annum, which is pretty much the minimum necessary to avoid recession in the existing capitalist world economy. Projecting that forward over the next 50 years suggests a global GDP in 2067 of about 255 trillion, a global economy about 16 times the size of the 1967 one (the data are here). Where’s all that economic activity going to come from? In view of the lack of absolute decoupling between economic growth and environmental degradation, what environmental effects would that kind of economy have? No wonder the growth thinkers are getting so enthralled by space travel – more magic.

I suspect the main reason we’ve become so enamoured of economic growth is that it’s the only way of addressing the growing scandal of global inequality without fundamental political change. It doesn’t address global inequality very well, since most of the additional income created by economic growth goes to the already well off (for example, as Milanovic documents in his book Global Inequality, 44% of the increase in income between 1988 and 2008 went to the richest 5% of people). This inequality is systemic, as recognised long ago by ecological economics pioneer Herman Daly in his Steady-State Economics:

“We are addicted to growth because we are addicted to large inequalities in income and wealth. What about the poor? Let them eat growth! Better yet, let them feed on the hope of eating growth in the future! We have been growing for some time, and we still have poverty. It should be obvious that what grows is the reinvested surplus, and the benefits of growth go to the owners of the surplus who are not poor” (pp.103-4)

But the neat thing about the ideology of growth is that it’s easily deployed to dismiss the ‘elitism’ of its alternatives, along the lines that while most growth-induced income increases indeed go to the already well-off, nobody can conscionably oppose the small gains that go to the poor. So, for example, there were about 118 million fewer people earning less than $1.90 per day in 2013 than in 2012 – who can oppose that trend, even if the very rich were rewarded disproportionately more?

Certainly, this is a line that Milanovic spins, as here:

“One can hardly overestimate [the importance of economic growth] in poorer countries as a means of making the lives of ordinary people better. The disparagement of growth that surfaces from time to time comes mostly from rich people in rich countries who believe they can dispense with more economic growth. But these people are either deluding themselves or are hypocritical.” (Global Inequality, p.232)

…a point Milanovic proceeds to substantiate with several fairly specious arguments, including references to the secessionist and isolationist waves convulsing the politics of the west. Here, his arguments have already been overtaken by events, since – if we assume that people voted on the basis of rational calculation – support for the likes of Trump and Brexit must have involved a preference for political autonomy over economic increase.

But, more importantly, with such arguments Milanovic and the cadres of growth-promoters stray from the domain of their economic expertise into wider realms of political opinion where they have no firmer technical grounding for their views than anyone else. So I return to my original challenge. I’d like to see a world with a minimal drawdown of fossil fuels and other polluting and unsustainable resources, and much reduced inequalities in wealth and income. How to achieve that politically poses tricky questions that economists have no particular expertise to answer. How to achieve it economically is an arena where they can doubtless contribute. Milanovic’s list above strikes me, speaking as a non-expert, as a pretty good suite of economic policies for starting down the road to sustainability and equity. What I’d really like to see from him and other economists is in-depth analysis of the various pros and cons of each policy for delivering the world I and many other critics of economic-growth-at-all-costs would like to see. His thorough derision of all those policies holds no particular interest for me over that of any other online opinion-monger, with which the market is currently quite saturated, and the price therefore low.