Comparative disadvantage

When I make the case for greater local self-reliance in agriculture I quite often come across the counter-argument that Britain hasn’t been self-sufficient in food since the early 19th century. This is true, but what’s not so often noted is that we’re now not self-sufficient in different kinds of foods to those we weren’t self-sufficient in 200-odd years ago. Back then we were self-sufficient in most things except for staple grains, whereas now we’re mostly self-sufficient in staple grains while we’re not self-sufficient in most other things, our greatest food-trade deficit being fresh fruit and vegetables.

The reasons for this switch aren’t hard to find. As a result of crop-breeding, mechanisation, the development of artificial fertilisers and other agro-chemicals, along with the EU’s productivist aims and subsidy regimens, cereal productivity nationally, and per hectare or per hour of human labour, is now much greater than it was in the early 1800s. So despite a six-fold population increase since then, we’ve become pretty much self-reliant in cereal grains – though it’s a fragile self-reliance, based to a considerable degree on imported fossil fuels. But the cost of labour and the opportunity-cost of agricultural land is now also much greater, while the relative cost of energy is much lower – all of which mean it’s cheaper to import bulky, labour-intensive products like fruit and vegetables than to produce them domestically as we did a couple of centuries ago.

Wait, scroll back. Did somebody mention the EU? Britain voted to leave that creaking old juggernaut years ago and then struck out boldly on its own, right? The answer to that is yes and no, my friend, yes and no. Yes, we did narrowly vote to leave the EU more than two years ago, but no we haven’t left yet. Instead, we’ve had two years of epic fudging, as the government has tried and largely failed to work out how to leave the EU without tanking the economy, while simultaneously dealing with vast amounts of other fallout, such as the Irish border question. Perhaps I’ll write another post soon that runs the rule over this monumental waste of political energy, but here I’d like to focus on just one aspect of the aforementioned fallout, namely post-Brexit agricultural policy.

The government’s consultation paper Health and Harmony: the Future for Food, Farming and the Environment in a Green Brexit set out its post CAP policy thinking, receiving a response from me and, apparently, about 43,999 other people and organisations. I don’t think I was the only one to notice that there was precious little about food or farming in the paper. The government seems to be planning some kind of environmental payments scheme to farmers on a ‘public money for public goods’ basis, but the notorious single farm payment subsidy regimen is soon to be history, with nothing to replace it. This was predicted long ago on this website – not that it was a hard prediction to make.

Well, the SFP was a bad scheme, and it won’t be mourned by many. Though much as folks like to bang on about the way it enriched people who didn’t need enriching and turned farmers into subsidy-junkies, the truth is the real junkies were retailers and consumers grown reliant on rock-bottom farm-gate prices. I won’t further plumb that particular line here, but it’s worth noting the implications of the SFP’s demise. There’s to be no emphasis on national food production or security, instead just a thoroughly neoliberal commitment to making British agriculture globally competitive. Which it probably won’t be across almost all dimensions of food production, with the possible exceptions of things like whisky and smoked salmon. My guess is that in the short-term we’ll see farmers getting out of farming and becoming landscape managers, while retailers and consumers continue getting their cheap food fix by importing more from abroad, regardless of the longer-term consequences – something like the ‘bad rewilding’ scenario I outlined some time ago. Farms will prioritise chasing money for wildlife management and visitor attractions, while we export the responsibility for producing our food to other countries willing to sell on global markets (and possibly less anxious to protect what remains of their own wildlife).

Nothing wrong with all that, according to mainstream economic theory. If each country focuses on what it’s best at producing and imports what other countries are best at producing, then everyone gains – this was all explained long ago by David Ricardo in the theory of ‘comparative advantage’ set out in his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817).

Comparative advantage is still routinely invoked as a justification for free trade today, so it remains sadly necessary to explain why it’s a poor foundation for contemporary economies. If investors who are unable to freely put up their capital outside their own country – which was generally the case when Ricardo was writing – wanted to obtain the best possible financial returns, then it made sense for them to invest in their local or national industries with the greatest comparative advantage. But since Ricardo’s day, the entire drift of global financial policy has been to remove the trade barriers that pushed investors to seek comparative advantage, and also to virtualise the economy away from the production of physical things and towards the increase of money itself. So while an English capital-holder today may be better advised to invest in cloth than wine (Ricardo’s original examples) if they want a high return on investment they’re almost certainly even better advised to invest in derivatives on Wall Street. This replacement of comparative advantage by absolute advantage fundamentally changes the economic game in ways that quaint Ricardian theories of international trade are powerless to model.

Meanwhile, national and local governments have numerous responsibilities. Trying to maximise fiscal flows and foreign exchange earnings are certainly among them, but there are many others – the health and wellbeing of the populace, the resilience of infrastructures (including soil health and food security) and so on. Global policymakers nowadays seem to be gripped by a huge Hayekian delusion that all of these things are best secured by hawking them on global commodity markets. Even so, most wealthy countries take steps to protect their agricultures and ensure that their farmland remains productively farmed. You can certainly criticise the way they go about it – as in the EU’s common agricultural policy – on numerous grounds, but the basic motivation behind it seems sound. It’s unusual, and I think ill-advised, for a country to cast out its agriculture as Health and Harmony does in favour of the religious mantra that ‘the market will provide’.

Eighteen months ago I was pilloried on here by a couple of commenters for supporting continued British membership of the EU on the grounds that the latter is committed to neoliberalism. But it seemed obvious then, and it seems even more obvious now, that aside from a few misty-eyed nationalists the main impetus for Brexit within the Conservative Party came from people dissatisfied with the EU because it wasn’t neoliberal enough. The Health and Harmony paper seems confirmatory of this point. A case could have been made for a ‘progressive’ Brexit, but it would be stretching a point to say that that case has even been a marginal part of Brexit politics. In this sense, though I don’t like to use the term, people who supported Brexit for its progressive possibilities strike me as essentially useful idiots for neoliberalism. Though it’s possible, if fortune smiles on them, that they may yet have the last laugh.

In the short term, though, Britain is putting itself at a comparative disadvantage in pursuit of ‘competitiveness’ in the global agrarian economy. It’s worth bearing in mind that agriculture currently contributes less than 1% of Britain’s gross value added economic output, and under any realistic medium-term economic scenario it’s hard to see that increasing in any major way. But Britain could more or less feed itself from its existing agriculture if the government chose to make that a priority. To me, that seems a much wiser option than trying to wring another few million quid from a more ‘competitive’ agriculture.

Meanwhile, another aspect of Ricardo’s economics is looming ever larger. Ricardo supported international free trade because he perceived that in a protected capitalist market landowners would be able to extract economic rent – an excess return over production costs – as a result of increasing food demand. Essentially, he construed a scenario in which labourers did honest work to earn their wage and capitalists did honest work to earn their profit, while landlords pocketed an increasing share of the economic surplus thus generated without lifting a finger.

This dynamic of Ricardian rent has largely been in abeyance for many years in the rich countries. Food prices have been low and rural landownership has rarely been a royal road to wealth. But as industry and economic growth stalls and inequalities widen, the prospect of the economy falling into the grip of landlordism grows. If we extend the logic beyond agricultural land per se, it’s already happened. It’s already happened from a poor country perspective in terms of the extraction of Ricardian rent by rich countries in controlling access to the global economy (this is one reason to welcome exit from the protectionism of EU agricultural policy – but Britain unilaterally falling on its sword in this way probably won’t benefit poor people globally a great deal). And it’s already happened from a rich country perspective in the substantial exit of businesses from matters of production in favour of battling to control the means of circulation – intellectual property rights, branding and so forth. The emergence of a rentier capitalism which has no interest in putting capital to work in service of material improvement (always a minor theme at best in earlier capitalist iterations in any case) has a thoroughly Ricardian resonance.

The way I see this panning out is a period of tricky trade wheeler-dealing that won’t be more economically beneficial to Britain than EU membership was, but may inaugurate a brief honeymoon of cheap, low-quality imported food and possibly improved wildlife habitats at home (we’ll conveniently ignore the consequences for ghost acres abroad). Then as climate change begins to bite in the global breadbasket countries and calculated self-interest looms larger in the global political economy, I think we’ll be in for a major food crisis where it’ll suddenly seem like a good idea for the government to be supporting the local production of food, and where large landowners in possession of lightly-farmed estates may start to feel some class-aligned political heat.

At that point, the government will start casting desperately around for solutions to the self-inflicted problem of its Ricardian nightmare. Luckily, Small Farm Future will be here for it, shining a guiding light that will help it overcome the Ricardian perils of our age with this simple two point plan:

  1. A new protectionist economics, focused around local production for local use. This protectionism won’t be of the tit-for-tat, ‘my country first’ kind being reinvigorated by idiotic politicians like Donald Trump. It will take the form of an internationally agreed, convivial kind of protectionism in which collective strength is gained from individual difference.
  2. A new anti-landlordism economics. But not in the traditional socialist or capitalist manner of alienating people from the fruits of their own work on the land, because the benefits of this ‘globalising’ move will no longer be paying out. In this situation, the most obvious form of anti-landlordism is of the if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em variety, in which more or less everyone becomes their own landlord.

The result of this protectionist, anti-landlord economics would look a lot like the small farm future I’ve long promulgated on this blog. What a funny coincidence. Undoubtedly, figuring out how to deliver this future from the unpromising present is a major conundrum. Happily, here at Small Farm Future we have all the answers – and we’ll start revealing them soon. But not just yet. First I have to go and pinch out my tomatoes.

Population: what’s the problem?

Apologies for the clickbait-y title. My question isn’t a rhetorical one intended to suggest that human population levels aren’t a problem. I don’t doubt they are. But it seems to me much less clear than a lot of people seem to think exactly what kind of problem they are, and what – if anything – could or should be done about it, which is what I want to aim at in this post. I raised these issues in my last post of 2017, which prompted some lively debate. But neither the post itself nor the comments under it quite nailed the issue for me, so here goes with another attempt.

1. Of proximal and underlying causation

In a recent article by the evergreen George Monbiot bemoaning plastic pollution in the oceans, the first comment under the line had this to say: “Two answers – population control and capitalism control – but no takers…not even George!”

It strikes me that this response is spot on…and also entirely misses the point. It’s spot on because although plastic pollution in the oceans is an immediate problem, it has deeper underlying causes which are summarily encapsulated by the words ‘population’ and ‘capitalism’ about as well as by any others. I think it’s a bit unfair to accuse George of not being a ‘taker’, since part of the point of his article was to suggest that self-fuelling economic growth – ‘capitalism’ by another name – is intrinsically destructive of the environment. Still, it’s surely true that without large global populations subject to the forces of capitalist commodification, the problem of plastic in the ocean would be very much less severe than it presently is.

But what is the ‘answer’ to the problem of plastic pollution, now that it’s there? Is it really population control and capitalism control? Suppose when the governments of the world met to negotiate the Montreal Protocol they’d said “the immediate problem of the ozone hole is caused by CFCs in aerosol propellants, but the underlying problem is population and capitalism. Therefore, rather than banning CFCs we propose to adopt a more holistic approach and exhort each member country to foster population control and work towards economic alternatives to capitalism”? Luckily, they didn’t, and the ozone hole is now a lot smaller than it otherwise would have been as a result.

Doubtless population and capitalism remain underlying problems, investing other issues – such as plastics in the ocean. Again, though, are population control or capitalism control the best means we have of addressing these other issues right now? Apparently, about 90% of ocean plastic pollution arises from just ten river systems in Asia and Africa, basically as a result of inadequate waste management systems and a lack of public consciousness about waste disposal in these rapidly industrialising places1. The most efficient remedy would seem to be targeting investment in waste management systems in the relevant places. It’s not a radical strategy aimed at the underlying generative factors, but it’s probably the most effective strategy aimed at the actual problem. Generally, I’m in favour of approaches that tackle the underlying nature of a problem, but sometimes it’s possible to overcomplicate things. The main problem with plastics in the ocean is plastics in the ocean.

It’s not an either/or thing, of course. Alongside strategies to reduce plastic pollution, strategies to reduce population and transcend capitalism also have their place. However, when someone like George writes an article identifying a particular issue such as this and gets the population/capitalism brush-off in response, I can’t help feeling that this is a way of relegating the problem from serious policy attention in the here and now. It would be a good thing if human population was lower than it is. But it isn’t, and it strikes me that very few of our contemporary problems are best tackled by prioritising population control as the main policy response. Certainly not plastics in the ocean.

2. Theories and causes

Nevertheless, it seems clear that high levels of human population lurk somewhere behind the numerous environmental crises of our age. But exactly how to elucidate the relationship between population and environmental impact is less obvious. In my previous post I critiqued ecological economist Herman Daly for a simplistic take on this (Daly is a fine thinker, but his subtlety seems to desert him on population matters). In a recent article, Daly said,

“Environmental impact is the product of the number of people times per capita resource use. In other words, you have two numbers multiplied by each other – which one is more important? If you hold one constant and let the other vary, you are still multiplying. It makes no sense to me to say that only one number matters”2

But, as I mentioned in my previous post, I just can’t see how Daly’s logic escapes a tautology that becomes obvious when you write his words down as an equation:

(1) Impact = Per Capita Impact x Population

=>

(2) Impact = (Impact ÷ Population) x Population

The fact that total impact varies in direct proportion with population when it’s written as a function of impact per population is a mathematical truism, but it doesn’t tell us whether population actually does affect impact in the real world. The same is true of the I = PAT formula that’s also often invoked to characterise the relationship between impact and population. These mathematical formulae are merely a priori assertions, not empirical findings of real-world relations.

Let me take this example. In the 1960s the global whaling fleet was catching about 25,000 fin whales annually. We could take the fin whale catch as one indicator of environmental impact. Global human population was about 3.5 billion at the time, so the per capita impact of fin whale hunting was about one whale per 140,000 people. Population back then was increasing globally by about 2% per annum. So was the fin whale catch increasing by about 2% as well? No. Only a handful of nations were involved in whaling, and catch levels were determined by various factors that had little to do with global population. You just can’t write a meaningful, predictive per capita impact x population equation in this instance.You need to fit a theory to the data, not data to a theory.

Doubtless there are other issues where population level does have a more direct and independent effect – greenhouse gas emissions, for example. But we know that individual-level emissions vary between people by a factor of at least 2,000 according to life choices and circumstances, so if we’re going to insist on writing an environmental impact equation with population level as an independent variable in it, it’s going to have to be something of the form:

(3) I = p∑iv

Where I = total impact, p = total population, i = per capita impact and v is a variable factor representing these individual differences in emission levels.

The fact is, you just can’t infer from such a formula that I is going to vary directly with p.

Perhaps this is all an over-elaborate way of making the familiar point that what matters most isn’t population level itself, it’s what populations do – burning fossil fuels, clearing forests, dropping plastic in rivers and so on. Some populations do a lot more of those things than others. So generally speaking, v seems to me a more important variable to focus policy attention around than p.

3. Fertility decline

And this is particularly true because while the population debate rages on, meanwhile – unnoticed by many – global fertility is crashing at a historically unprecedented rate, as indicated in the graph below, which shows fertility rates worldwide and for the world’s five most populous countries over the last 55 years.

Source: World Development Indicators –  http://databank.worldbank.org/data/reports.aspx?source=world-development-indicatorshose

Those who say there’s inadequate attention to population control might do well to ponder the implications of this graph. In just fifty years, global fertility has more than halved, from an average 5.07 live births per woman in 1964 to 2.45 in 2015. In three of the five most populous countries of the world, fertility rates are considerably below replacement rate – and in fact this is true in about half the countries of the entire world. I would have thought that the trend shown in this graph would be widely celebrated by the anti-population lobby, but it scarcely seems to get a mention. True, population itself rather than population growth rate or fertility rate is continuing to rise for the time being as a result of the time lag between present fertility and its manifestation in future birth rates – there’s not much that can be done about that, short of mass murder or enforced childlessness. Fertility rates have to drop first before population level does, just as a car has to stop accelerating before it can start slowing. But for those who say that not enough is being done to reduce population, I wonder what realistic policy measures they believe could have been implemented over the last fifty years that could have improved on this 50% fertility decline.

It’s worth noting that not many countries apart from China have implemented explicit population control policies, and if you look at the graph you’ll see that the point at which China introduced its one child policy (1979) came after its steepest fertility decline. So it seems that on this one, the people of the world have voted with their feet…or maybe with other parts of their anatomy…and done the policymakers’ work for them. Certainly, it would have been hard to implement official population control policies globally as effective as this gigantic act of self-implementation, and perhaps unwise too – many countries are going to face significant social problems in the coming century as a result of this demographic collapse, however welcome it may be for other reasons3.

Of course, the demographic collapse doesn’t mean that our environmental and resource problems are going to magically sort themselves out. Which is another reason why the ‘problem’ isn’t really ‘population’…‘capitalism’ gets a bit closer to the mark, perhaps. The billions of people who live on just a few dollars a day certainly do have an environmental impact, but it’s really not them who are driving the drastically negative impacts in the contemporary world. However, I’d guess that the majority of them would love to live as impactful a life as the average European or North American if only they could. In that sense, globally reducing fertility rates aren’t necessarily much to celebrate.

But maybe with global population set to decline in the future, there’s less need to panic about increasing crop yields, ‘sparing’ land, intensifying agriculture and all the other components of high tech solutionism that are routinely trotted out in relation to rising human numbers and pressure on earth systems. Maybe the idea of settling in to our existing local places for the long haul at historically very high, but soon to be declining, numbers might prompt some more sober thinking about the possibilities of a more sustainable, steady-state kind of agriculture.

The reasons for the astonishing fertility decline don’t seem completely clear, but are largely to do with the demographic transition (declining birth rates following declining death rates) and ‘modernization’, generally speaking. So inasmuch as the line I take on this website is generally opposed to ‘modernization’, perhaps it’s worth musing on the implications of a small farm future for fertility rates or future population levels.

Against the notion that peasant farmers always have high fertility, the evidence suggests that in situations where population pressure on land is a limiting factor (which could well be the case for a lower energy, small farm future in a country like Britain), people attempt to keep their fertility levels low4. But high fertility can look like a good idea if you have no means of supporting yourself in old age and/or you or your children are unlikely to be able to attain a secure livelihood. So if I were responsible for social policy in a resource-constrained country of small farmers in the future, I think I’d prioritise primary health care for mothers and infants, social care for the elderly, and educational/job creating opportunities for young people. Doubtless this would pose many challenges, but on the upside they’re all people-intensive rather than energy or capital intensive projects, and that’s where the true wealth of human societies lies.

I’m in no position myself to lecture anyone about the evils of human fertility but here’s a final thought: there’s something quite odd historically about societies that deem having children to be a bad or irresponsible choice on the grounds of environmental impact, without attending more directly to the nature of the impacts themselves. I have no idea how that’ll pan out, since there are so few historical precedents. My guess is that while other countries will try to ape the high-consumption low-fertility western style, not many will succeed and in the longer term that high consumption low fertility style will go the same way as other weird religious cults of the kind that emphasise celibacy and service to some jealous and demanding god. People will get old, the freezers containing the corpses of the transhumanists will run out of juice, the trinkets will lose their lustre, and ultimately our societies will be replaced by ones that are better able to farm and function at sustainable levels of energy use by attending more to v and not so much to p in equation (3) above.

Notes

  1. Schmidt, Christian et al. 2017. Export of plastic debris by rivers into the sea. Environmental Science & Technology. 51, 21: 12246-53.
  2. Daly, Herman. 2018. Ecologies of scale. New Left Review. 109: 81-104. p.93
  3. Morgan, Philip. 2003. Is low fertility a 21st century crisis? Demography. 40, 4: 589-603. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2849155/
  4. Netting, Robert. 1993. Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Intensive, Sustainable Agriculture. Stanford UP.

A marginal farm anniversary

It was exactly ten years ago today that I and my co-conspirators at Vallis Veg sold our first veg box, as good an anniversary as any to define the point that I became a farmer (perhaps I should say ‘grower’ or ‘market gardener’, but I dislike the way the word ‘farmer’ is policed – a familiar motif in the last decade has involved people of various stripes telling me that I’m not a ‘proper farmer’. To which my considered answer is – Yes I bloody am. And so are you if you grow any food.)

Anyway, I thought I’d indulge myself on my anniversary with a brief memoir of my farming life and the non-farming life that preceded it, if only to try to explain to myself how on earth I ended up doing this. (Apologies for the autobiographical tone that’s crept into these last two posts – normal service will return next time). This post is modelled loosely after another autobiographical essay, Wendell Berry’s ‘The making of a marginal farm’1 – sacrilegiously, perhaps, since I daresay Berry is a considerably better farmer than I am, and a better writer to boot. And yet there are some overlaps and dissonances between his story and mine that interest me. So here goes.

As I related in my previous post, I had a semi-rural/semi-suburban childhood in a village about thirty miles from London. But, unlike Berry, farming or even gardening had a minimal role in my youth. There was a little farming going on in the area, and a handful of farm kids, but farming never really presented itself to me as a viable career option, and wasn’t presented as such by my elders. Though farming didn’t appeal, historically there’d been a furniture industry in the area where I lived, which manifested as large remnant beech woods, full of mysterious bodger’s hollows. As a teenager, I’d go for long solitary walks in the woods and feel some kind of spiritual peace in them that felt lacking elsewhere. For me, the natural world – however trammelled by human hand – figured largely as an arena of escape.

The truth is, despite a happy-enough childhood in a pleasant-enough part of one of the world’s richer countries, I never really felt from a young age that the kind of society I was growing up in made much sense or answered to people’s fundamental needs. It’s taken me a long time to find a way of being that does make sense and does answer those needs, and I’m still not sure I’ve found it. But I do sometimes think there’s a kind of unbridgeable divide among people in the modern world. Some, like me, can’t understand the appeal of a suburban, salaried, satrapped life, while others slip gladly into its flow. The risk that’s run by my kind is romantic illusions about other kinds of society, a persistent and pervasive sense of alienation, and all manner of grass-is-greenerism that sends us off on one wild goose chase after another. But our great advantage is a perspectival depth that means we shall never, ever write a sentence like this one from Anthony Warner: “every society that has ever existed would eagerly swap their lives with someone living in the developed world today”. And for that, I am truly grateful.

My path out of adolescence took me into an anthropology degree in London where, under the influence of my mostly Marxist teachers and of Michael Taussig’s neat but problematic book The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America, I conceived a somewhat overwrought interest in peasant societies as resistant to the modernist logic of capitalism – an interest I pursued to no great effect in brief attempts to be an anthropologist in Mexico and Jamaica before realising that the singular skills of the field ethnographer were permanently beyond my grasp. Perhaps my attempts to get to grips with peasantries wasn’t helped by my ignorance and general lack of interest concerning what peasantries actually do, namely farming. Still, the thinking that I’d done about peasant societies sowed a seed – to coin a horticultural metaphor – that has been important to me later in life.

I then spent ten years trying to fit myself around more-or-less unsuitable jobs in London and environs at the end of which my roles in life were husband, father, and alienated lecturer in sociology with a self-respect that was diminishing by the day. Berry hints at his own alienation as an academic in New York, and his life-changing decision to go back to his native Kentucky. Kentucky, says Berry, was his fate. But for me there wasn’t really anything or anywhere to ‘go back’ to. There was no pre-manufactured ‘fate’ beyond urbanism or suburbanism, no authentic touchstone for my life except what I invented for myself. As per recent discussions on this blog, I honour small farm societies like Berry’s that have retained such a thing, but without surrendering too many of my critical faculties to the lure of tradition. Berry, to be fair, does the same, to some extent.

Around this time my wife went on a permaculture design course and insisted I do likewise. Two weeks at Ragman’s Lane Farm with the late lamented Patrick Whitefield proved revelatory, supplying something of that missing touchstone – farming, gardening, a human ecology wrought from a natural world neither friend nor enemy, a deep entangled history of humans and landscapes opening beneath my feet on the land I’d walked unknowingly for years. More recently I’ve largely parted ways with permaculture – I’ve found the movement around it too given to fixed ideas, complacent dualities and a strident sense of purity. I argued with Patrick, usually amicably, in the early years of this blog about such matters, but I’ve found too many others in the movement less supple in their thinking. Still, for me it was a key to another world and I’ll always be grateful for that.

We spent a couple of years transitioning into agriculture, much of them in Canada, strangely enough. Then in 2003 we bought eighteen acres of pastureland in Somerset. Berry describes his good fortune in having learned how to run a team of horses in his youth, just before the skill receded into history, which established the course of his farming career. I wasn’t quite that lucky, but my wife and I did enjoy one stroke of generational good fortune. We’d bought some property in London in the early 1990s at a time when a young couple doing average-ish jobs could more or less afford to do so – something that would be quite impossible now. That purchase, along with a certain bloody-mindedness, has enabled us to carve out a kind of semi-independent smallholder life that we probably couldn’t otherwise have achieved.

For the first five years of our tenure as rural landowners we did very little on the site except plant trees (a story I’ll relate in another post), grow a little veg and raise a few pigs. We had young children, no house on the site and non-farm work to do to keep the wolf from the door. I fancied myself as a Berry-like figure and dabbled rather ineffectually in creative non-fiction writing. One agent said they liked my manuscript, but I didn’t give enough of myself in it. Another agent said they liked my manuscript, but nobody wanted to listen to a non-entity like me banging on about myself. I decided to give up on my literary pretensions and start a market garden instead.

I’ve rarely been so happy as I was in the early stages of establishing that garden. But it proved to be a fragile happiness. I went about it wrongly, too manically. Having turned my back on a secure professional career to the bemusement of friends and family, I was desperate for the market garden to be successful, naïve about the forces ranged against it, too unskilled and – how easy to see with hindsight – still in mourning for my jettisoned career and a sense of my own importance. One of the problems of modernist culture is that it places too much emphasis on this importance of the unique individual life. One of the problems of many pre-modern cultures is that they placed too little emphasis on it. Independent smallholding cultures are better, I think, at navigating between these perils. Something that working the land has taught me is that the individual person is basically unimportant, but just important enough – and that to a considerable extent the importance is objectified in the particular transformations of the farmed landscape itself. I still have bad days, when I slip into thinking that my life has some kind of higher purpose or distinctive signature that I’m failing to embroider as I should. But mercifully fewer as the years on the land pass by.

Anyway, for five years I grew vegetables and sold them – still living in a house in town some distance from the site. In comparison to the lives that many small farmers lead, I had it easy. But living like this it was hard to make the business and other aspects of my life work, and it took its toll. I don’t think the life of the market grower suits many people, and I wouldn’t unequivocally commend commercial horticulture as a career. Perhaps I should have read my Wendell Berry more attentively:

“it is possible for a family to live on such ‘marginal’ land, to take a bountiful subsistence and some cash income from it and, in doing so, to improve both the land and themselves. (I believe, however, that at least in the present economy this should not be attempted without a source of income other than the farm….To attempt to make a living from such land is to impose a severe strain on land and people alike)”2

Amen to that. Though I’d add that an advantage of commercial husbandry is that it teaches you more quickly than you’d probably learn otherwise about the true costs of human labour and other inputs, the miraculous but Faustian power of fossil fuels, the wisdom of quitting while you’re ahead, and the dismal economics of the food system. By working as a commercial grower, I learned that I’m not an especially good one. Still, the world has more need of second rate farmers than of second rate sociologists…and I also learned through doing it that, whatever my limitations, the struggles of farmers and growers to stay afloat don’t arise out of the fact that they’re not good at what they do. This has stood me in good stead for looking unflinchingly in the face of the endless claims one encounters about new ways of farming that are supposedly better for the environment while making more money too, and also in the face of the endless claims that farmers doing bad environmental things are bad people.

Since 2013, I’ve no longer been the main commercial grower at Vallis Veg. But we do now live on our land – a struggle documented on this website – which has eased many former burdens. My roles today encompass tractor driver, mechanic, stockman, woodsman, fencer, plumber, carpenter, electrician, subsistence gardener, purveyor of stale urine and general éminence grise in the market garden – though the current growing team are doing a much better job than I did running the show, so I fear it’s more a case of grise than éminence. I wouldn’t say I’m especially competent at most of the roles I listed, but I’m more competent at them than when I first started, and I daresay more competent than I would have been if I’d stayed a sociologist – and I get some satisfaction from that. The truth is that I burned myself out a little trying to run a market garden as I did. But looking back on it now, most of the relationships I have that matter to me feel like they’ve been strengthened through some tempering in that fire, and I feel happy that I’ve helped to create a thriving homestead flowing with people, livestock and wildlife, out of modest beginnings. I’ve encountered a little carping of one sort or another about what we do and how and how we do it. Ah well, there’s plenty that we’ve done or failed to do worth carping over for those who wish to carp. But there’ve been a lot of positive interactions too, and for all our errors I feel a sense of achievement that we’ve somehow kept a small farm business on the road for a decade.

Ah yes, errors. We’ve made a lot of mistakes over the years, and there are many things I’d do differently if I had the chance again. But we haven’t made many head-in-hands mistakes that cause me to lose much sleep. The commonest mistakes fall into four main categories, 1. Not knowing what I’m doing, 2. Following someone else’s advice without devoting enough thought to whether it’s right for me and my land, 3. Taking on too many different things, 4. Over-dominating a job with too much fossil fuel.  Perhaps all but the last of these categories are reducible to the first, but the worst mistakes have involved all four. Like Berry, probably my worst one was digging a pond that didn’t really work. But I can’t quite summon the Homeric levels of tragic self-critique that Berry does over his failed project. I used less fossil fuel in making it than I’d have done on a frivolous trip to London to see a friend or see a show, and I’ll get it to work somehow next year. Or the one after. Probably. I also console myself with the thought that people who use fossil fuel and don’t know what they’re doing probably cause less damage in the world than people who use fossil fuel and do.

Talking of fossil fuels, the basic reality of global farming today is that those with access to them can produce food more cheaply. This drives a global division of labour: capital-intensive mechanised farming in the rich countries, labour-intensive less mechanised farming in the poor countries. Which explains why there isn’t much market gardening in Britain, and the country’s biggest food trade deficit – around £9 billion – falls in the fresh fruit and vegetables sector. Berry concludes his essay with these words,

“To spend one’s life farming a piece of the earth…is, as many would say, a hard lot. But it is, in an ancient sense, the human lot. What saves it is to love the farming”3

Wise words, no doubt – but to love the farming in a global economic context that writes its economic bottom line in diesel is not only a hard thing, but a conflicted thing. I can’t claim to have extracted myself from those dismal economics but my good fortune is that, on the ground and on the page, at least I’ve found some opportunities to try.

Finally, a dedication:

To Cordelia, for sharing the journey

To Moon, for picking up the baton

And to multitudes, for lending a helping hand

Notes

  1. Wendell Berry. 2017. ‘The making of a marginal farm’ in Paul Kingsnorth (ed) The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry. Penguin.
  2. Ibid. pp.44-5
  3. Ibid. p.47

To find my resting place

So many lines of enquiry left open from recent posts, and so many other things calling me away from my true vocation, which (obviously) is churning out these blog posts… Ah well, patience, patience – we’ll come to them all in the end, I hope. It’s like good old-fashioned British public services – it’s free, so you’ll just have to wait in line and accept what you’re given…

…which on this occasion is a somewhat unfinished post that’s been sitting in the pending tray for quite some time. But I’m going to publish it now in its naked state so I can polish off some other jobs – and if you read it, at least you’ll get a glimpse of what it’s like down in the Small Farm Future engine room. The post follows on quite naturally from the last – indeed, perhaps I risk the accusation that I’m over-labouring the same point, even down to picking over the same article by Paul Kingsnorth. If so, apologies in advance – we’ll move on to something different next time.

My broad theme is nationalism, identity, immigration and the places we call home (the title, incidentally, is from a Burning Spear song that I used to listen to a lot. It seems vaguely relevant).

I thought I’d start with a brief bit of my own (migrant) family history by telling the tales of my four grandparents, which I hope will help me illustrate a few points.

My mother’s father was a Yorkshire coalminer who fought in the trenches in World War I, and despite these two risky enterprises lived to a ripe old age. His grandfather had migrated to the South Yorkshire coalfields from Aberdeenshire. His grandfather’s grandfather, born in 1799, ran a smallholding in that part of Scotland and so far as I know was my last direct ancestor whose work life was devoted to farming.

My mother’s mother was the daughter of a Yorkshire miner, some of whose family had migrated there from the coalfields of South Wales. He was killed in a pit explosion along with most of the other men on his shift not long after she was born, and in those pre-welfare state days her mother struggled mightily to raise her four children alone, along with many of the other women of the village widowed by the mine. My grandmother said that if it hadn’t been for the help of the Salvation Army she fears her family would have been destitute.

My father’s father moved from factory work in northwest England to London, where he eventually became a teacher and lay Baptist preacher. Some of his ancestors were East European Jews who had moved to the Netherlands, taken citizenship there (the Netherlands being the first European country to grant citizenship to Jews in 1819) and then migrated to Britain, changing their surname from Smaaje-Halevi to Smaje in the charmingly naïve belief that English speakers would find ‘Smaje’ any easier to pronounce. I think the Judaism pretty much disappeared with the migration and the name change. One of the Smajes married a woman from Somerset, where I now live.

My father’s mother was born to Protestants in Northern Ireland (whose ancestors were no doubt of Scottish or English origin), moving to London after marrying my grandfather. My father grew up in London and my mother met him there after moving from Yorkshire to work in London. When my brother and I were born my parents moved out of London to somewhere they could afford a house, and I grew up in a semi-rural village about thirty miles outside London. After some years of living in London myself, I now live in northeast Somerset, about a hundred miles from where I grew up.

There are five points I’d like to make by way of – I hope not unreasonable – generalisation from that potted family history.

First, I reckon my pedigree as a true blue southern Englishman is probably about as good as most other people of my tribe – which is to say, not very good at all.

Second, in England (and Scotland) probably more than most countries it’s a pretty long time since many people have been working rural land. For those of us who seek a small farm future here, we will not find its workforce by looking among the current stock of farming folk.

Third, as my grandmother’s mother found out, living in a small village among known neighbours doesn’t necessarily make the vicissitudes of life easy to negotiate. The kindness of strangers – in this case, the Salvation Army – can be a boon.

Fourth, people tend to move to where there are opportunities for work. The potential paths are many, but the ones my forebears took are scarcely surprising – from East Europe to the Netherlands, and Britain. From Scotland and Wales to England. From Yorkshire to London. From periphery to core, as historical sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein likes to put it.

And finally, even though I’ve spent almost all my life living in southern England there isn’t a single patch of earth in this whole wide world where somebody doesn’t have a better claim than me to truly be a local. Maybe that applies to my daughter too, who was born here in Frome. My guess is that it probably applies to the majority of the world’s people.

Seeking what he calls a benevolent green nationalism, in a recent article Paul Kingsnorth had this to say:

“It must be 20 years since I read the autobiography of the late travel writer Norman Lewis, The World, The World, but the last sentence stays with me. Wandering the hills of India, Lewis is asked by a puzzled local why he spends his life travelling instead of staying at home. What is he looking for? “I am looking for the people who have always been there,” replies Lewis, “and belong to the places where they live. The others I do not wish to see.”

That sentence has stayed with me too, because it makes Lewis sound like a total arse – partly because if you spend all your time travelling in search of the authentically rooted it seems to me that you’re kind of missing the point, and partly because of the alt-modern sensibility underlying Lewis’s contempt for the unrooted people – the global majority, wandering mongrels like me and my ancestors, the herd, the untermensch, the plastic people, the unreal people, rootless cosmopolitans. These are some of the names I’ve heard.

We sorely need in the world today some stronger ways of relating people more authentically to place, but for me any doctrine that “does not wish to see” the unemplaced multitudes is a non-starter, and a potentially dangerous one at that. One of the dangers is that after a couple of centuries of state-nationalist propaganda, we’ve become far too ready to connect a love of place or the comforting rhythms of the local to the designs of our emphatically non-local polities.

For example, when asked why he’d volunteered to fight in World War I, the writer Edward Thomas famously scooped up a handful of English soil and said “Literally, for this”. I’d be more sympathetic if he’d said “Figuratively, for this” and then provided some kind of rationale that linked his affinity for the decayed humic residues of the various organisms he was holding in his hand – whose distribution in few cases is limited to England alone – with the machinations of the British imperial government in its contest with Austria-Hungary and other jostling political powers of the world system. But no, the trick of nationalism is to leave such things unsaid, inciting our minds to make strange connections between the local things and people we love and abstract entities like England, empire or state.

Unlike Thomas, my grandfather wasn’t a poet or an author. He was a soldier, a miner and a gardener who rented his allotment and his house. Apparently, he never spoke about the war. I wonder if he would have endorsed Thomas’s sentiments – I believe that many enlisted men did. Or would he have endorsed this alternatively earthy metaphor from the Ed Pickford/Dick Gaughan Worker’s Song:

But when the sky darkens and the prospect is war/ Who’s given a gun and then pushed to the fore / And expected to die for the land of our birth / When we’ve never owned one handful of earth?

oOo

Humans are an inherently migratory, patch-disturbing, neophilic species. It’s a fair bet that even among the people “who have always been there”, most of them haven’t been there for all that long, and have lived as they do now for less time still. As discussed on this site recently, even the individuals who are most genetically remote from each other on earth share a common ancestor who lived no more than a few thousand years ago. We’re also an inherently self-conscious species. One of the best reasons I can think of for the need for us to relate more authentically to our local places is that if we don’t there’s a fair chance we’ll soon be screwed, so it makes sense for us to reckon with that fact and act accordingly…

…And one of the best ways to relate more authentically to our local places is to produce our livelihoods from them with a minimum of exotic energy imports. My feeling is that people who are able, self-consciously, to do this are more likely to have a rich sense of emplacement and inherent self-worth that’s uncomplicated by local pride, still less by any kind of “my country, right or wrong” abstract nationalism. Where they live is special and is also nothing special. Exotic people, the foreign-born, are welcome to find a place alongside the local-born if they’re playing the same livelihood game. Perhaps more than welcome – they may bring some new knowledges. As Joe Clarkson observed on this site a while back, trustworthiness in such a society is something that can be earned on the basis of being a provider of food or other materials. Little else really matters.

The state, the political centre, has both nothing and everything to do with this. It has nothing to do with it inasmuch as it has no call on people’s emotional attachments to the places that they live, and to the people that live there. If you wouldn’t lay down your life for an abstraction like the EU, why would you lay it down for an abstraction like England? For your family, for your farm, for your ‘community’…well…

It has everything to do with the state inasmuch as, absenting total civilizational breakdown, the kind of locality society I’m describing can only be delivered by a state that’s centralised at some level and is constituted as the servant of such a society, rather than one that constitutes itself as its master, drawing local legitimacy upwards to its own purposes. Fat chance of that, you might say, and I’d have to concede the scale of the task. But at least it specifies where the work has to be done and the nature of what’s involved. In the wake of Trump and Brexit, I’ve seen too many liberals and leftists rapidly backtracking on their former commitments to multiculturalism, multinationalism, multilateralism, cosmopolitanism and other such standard fare of the left in the hope they can keep the wolves at bay by throwing them some tasty sacrificial morsels from their new-found communitarianism. I think it’s the wrong strategy. The shifting norms won’t keep the wolves at bay, but merely encourage them.

Many nomadic foraging cultures have learned from bitter experience that individual egos need to be kept in check for the greater good of the band as a whole. So a hunter returning to camp never brags about his kill for fear of social reprisal. “Terrible hunting today,” he might say, “Just couldn’t seem to aim straight. All I got was a couple of stringy morsels I’ve left by the fire.” Whereupon the rest of the group rushes to the fire, knowing they’re in for a huge feast. For the hunter’s meat, I’d submit our modern nations. Don’t heft your soil in your hand and use it as a metonym for England. Heft it and say instead well this soil is poor stuff – worse, I’m sure, than the fine soils of your country – but it’s the soil I know best. Maybe there’ll come a time when you’ll feel you have to fight for that poor soil of home. But if that happens, I think you’ll be able to narrate a better logic for your fight than Edward Thomas could for his. Soil is no excuse to go looking for a fight.

I suspect that the imaginary attachment between soil and nation-state affected by the likes of Thomas comes more readily to us modern arrivistes, the people that Norman Lewis does not wish to see. People generally seek emotional attachment to something bigger than their own horizons, and over the last couple of centuries a lot of work has been put into making the nation-state seem the obvious choice to people living sub/urban lives where the groundedness of a productive soil or a known community is missing. It’s possible to overstate this case. Local farming isn’t the only way to have an authentic relationship with the universe, local farmers aren’t necessarily immune from the siren song of nationalism, and not everyone who lives in the city mourns its implicit alienation.

Still, I think there’s a stronger truth to it than will be found rummaging around in the wardrobe of the nation-state to find some benevolent green nationalist clothing. Nationalism is too self-consciously constructed and too wrapped up in the legitimation of centralised political power to proffer benevolence. It’s better to serve the soil and its organisms than it is to serve “this sceptred isle…this England” (interesting that Shakespeare should have put those words into John of Gaunt’s mouth in a play about a changing world where medieval honour is usurped by scheming and statecraft). There are numerous ways to serve the soil that have no connection with political power, and that are available to everyone, whether they’ve “always been there” or not. In fact, if you haven’t “always been there” probably the major way you can start belonging to the place where you live is to start serving its soil. Most likely, that’s how the people who’ve always been there pulled it off when they first arrived.

“How long have you been here?” is a question freighted with well-known political dangers that we seem to be courting once again in the contemporary world. In a local farm society “Would you like to join us for lunch?” is a safer (if not entirely innocent) way of playing status games. But what I’ve said here operates mostly at the level of individuals and communities. I see no role for nationalism, benevolent green or otherwise among them. But I haven’t said anything about immigration and the larger interactions of states and civilisations. Ah well, there’s always the next post. Or more likely one of the ones after that.

Florence, Texas

First, a quick bit of housekeeping. I think my RSS feed has stopped working, but I want to check with anyone who might subscribe to this blog by that route. If you’d be so good as to send me a message via the Contact Form to that effect I’d be grateful – you could just put a message in the subject line saying ‘Feed working’ or ‘Feed not working’. Many thanks. Alternative ways of keeping updated about the blog are via Facebook or by following me on Twitter. What a virtual world I live in. It’ll all end in tears – you read it here first. But in the meantime, I’m about to establish yet another way of keeping up with Small Farm Future in the form of a monthly digest of blogs and other publications from the Smajian stable. If you want to be sure of keeping abreast of the Small Farm Future world, drop me a line via the Contact Form and I’ll put you on the list.

Right, now down to business. I’d like to raise a standard in this post for two doctrines that I think speak to our troubled times. I’ve discussed them both before, but it occurs to me that perhaps I haven’t brought them together systematically enough or thought about them conjointly with enough clarity. This is a preliminary effort to do so, which as it happens also bears on some of the debates emerging out of a few of my recent posts. The doctrines I have in mind are civic republicanism (that’s the Florence part of my title) and agrarian populism (the Texas part). Let me explain…

It’s a commonplace of anti-establishment politics nowadays to oppose globalisation and neoliberalism – and even to oppose ‘liberalism’ without the ‘neo’, as in critiques of the machinations of the much-derided ‘liberal elites’. I’m pretty much signed up to this agenda, but I’m not signed up to invoking in place of global neoliberalism some kind of communitarian localist alternative that’s assumed to be a superior pre-political ‘natural’ community – clan, tribe, nation, ethnic group, ‘the local community’ and so on. This is for three reasons.

First, such identities usually turn out to be much less ‘natural’ than their proponents like to claim. They rarely reach back to some pre-political, essential or unproblematic claim on people’s emotions and loyalties. Instead they emerge from other – usually quite recent – processes of political claim-making. As Immanuel Wallerstein put it “first the boundaries, then the passions”.

Second, these identity claims can be dangerously exclusive, not only towards the claims made by other peoples outside the group, but also towards alternative claims made by people within it – I get an inkling of this when I see people who argue for greater parliamentary oversight of Britain’s farcical Brexit negotiations denounced as “enemies of the people”. While the existing global neoliberal order is dangerously exclusive too, I don’t see the virtue in exchanging one kind of dangerous exclusivity for another.

Third, while the manufactured contemporary neo/liberal political community is certainly problematic, that doesn’t mean it’s necessary to give up on the notion of any kind of manufactured political community. Indeed, I’d argue that all political communities have to be manufactured, and the sooner we give up the notion of ‘natural’, pre-political communities and their virtues the better. The ‘recovering environmentalist’ Paul Kingsnorth pushes a bald dichotomy between ‘globalism’ on the one hand and what he calls “people’s deep, old attachment to tribe, place and identity” on the other. Not so fast, sir. Can there not be a constructed, political, deliberative kind of particularistic moral community that we don’t just assume into existence on the basis of its ‘depth’ or ‘antiquity’?

Enter civic republicanism. It’s a political tradition with roots in the classical world that was given its modern shape by the much-maligned Niccolò Machiavelli of Florence (hence the ‘Florence’ of my title) and arguably last had real political traction during the early years of the US republic in the thought of people like Thomas Jefferson. It lost politically to the ‘modern’ doctrines of liberalism and socialism, but now that those doctrines seem to have run their course, bequeathing the world numerous problems in their wake, civic republicanism has enjoyed a mini-revival, albeit so far mostly just in the writing of political philosophers rather than in much real-world politics.

A thumbnail definition of civic republicanism would be that it’s a form of politics founded on interdependent, individual citizens, who form a political community by deliberating and forging common goods or ‘values’ as the basis of living politically together. In this respect, it’s different from,

(a) libertarianism, which is focused on individual rights, not common goods

(b) liberalism, which is focused on defining political practice not political outcomes

(c) socialism, which focuses on class-based restitution of inequality (and ideology)

(d) communitarianism, which (like Kingsnorth) focuses on a ‘natural’, pre-political basis for the polity

I think all of these traditions have something to commend them (communitarianism is the one that impresses me the least), but a version of civic republicanism seems to me best fitted to creating viable post-global, post-capitalist, ecologically-sustainable societies.

I’ll try to lay out in more detail what such a version might look like in a future post. I guess for now I’d just say that I share the high value placed by liberalism and libertarianism on individual rights and freedom (contrast it with arbitrary legal process and a coercive political economy), but I don’t think those principles always supervene over common goods (eg. the freedom to erode away your farm soil in pursuit of short-term profit). And I share with socialism an understanding of the corrosive nature of unchecked private wealth which often has a class structuring, but without the confidence of socialism that class rather than citizenship can act as the motor of restitution, or that equality rather than justice represents a preferred end-state. I also share with parts of the socialist tradition the idea that values are shaped collectively and systematically – that is to say that we’re shaped by ideology. But I’m not sure that there’s such a thing as ‘scientific socialism’ which escapes ideological blinkers.

In a recent post I invoked libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick’s ‘framework for utopias’ as a way of thinking about a sustainable post-capitalist future, to a mixed reception. I suppose I was unconsciously motivated by a civic republican impulse to suggest that if you take individual rights seriously, you can’t have untrammelled freedom unless you make the implausible assumption that individual freedom inevitably promotes collective freedom, ie. common goods or agreed common values (much of the ‘New Optimist’ school of thought – Steven Pinker, the ecomodernists etc. – seems to me like so many attempts to shore up this assumption…implausibly.) Since we can’t all choose our ideal utopia and go to live there, I think Nozick’s framework pushes us towards a civic republican need to determine common goods deliberatively. With hindsight, I think some of the ensuing discussion (including my own) about individualism, independence and collectivism under that post would have benefitted from a civic republican lens, and a sharper focus on ideology.

One of the problems with civic republicanism is that it’s hard to create and maintain a community of citizens in the face of other political forms. The present global capitalist order, undergirded by libertarianism/liberalism, generates vast wealth for the few which is partly coopted (increasingly badly) by states and used to buy off enough of the many to keep the lid on the system. Socialist alternatives have typically involved claims originating among the many for a bigger piece of the pie, usually based on well-founded class ressentiment and often accompanied by a utopian belief that this class project will somehow result in universal benefit for all. As the class basis for the socialisms of the 19th and 20th centuries has frayed, many contemporary socialisms seem to have narrowed into a kind of cargo cult version of capitalism, of relations over essences, until we reach the final materialist essence of the ‘fully automated luxury communism’ variety, in its more sophisticated (Kate Raworth, Paul Mason, Nick Srnicek) or less sophisticated (Leigh Phillips) forms. Historically, civic republicanism has often been the preserve of small-scale, tightly-organised and quite militaristic societies, defending their common goods from the barbarians at the gate. I fear that it may operate like that in the future too, against any number of capitalist, socialist or nativist ‘barbarians’, but one can always hope.

I’ve recently come across an excellent essay by Eric Freyfogle, a sympathetic critique of Wendell Berry’s thought which, among other things, emphasises his debt to and his divergences from civic republicanism. One of Freyfogle’s points, which bears on my recent post about personal behaviour and ecological damage, is that Berry strongly emphasises individual morality and individual culpability in the aggregate for our contemporary ecological bads. For Freyfogle, Berry’s approach “largely blames the individual for problems that are far bigger than the individual. It increases the level of guilt in a way that can detract attention from the larger failures of collective responsibility”.

Freyfogle goes on to make the argument that as a citizen I might support government action that penalises or disincentivises profligate fossil-fuel use, while as an individual I might continue to avail myself of the opportunities afforded by cheap fossil fuels – a situation in which I think many of us, most certainly me, find ourselves today. A typical response is to think that our individual behaviour reveals our ‘true’ character, revealing our citizenship activism as mere hypocrisy. Certainly this seems to be Berry’s view. Freyfogle demurs from it, on the grounds that it overemphasises the importance of individual choices made in isolation as both the true mirror of our character and the most significant domain for political change. As I suggested in my ‘Be the change’ post, and others suggested in the discussion, it may be a good idea to de-emphasise this religious dimension of ecological action as personal morality and to place more emphasis on our actions as interdependent political citizens in defining common goods. Civic republicanism offers one means of doing so.

Shifting focus somewhat now, I’ve long argued for a version of agrarian populism or left agrarian populism as a key to future sustainable societies. An important intellectual ancestor in this respect is Alexander Chayanov, a Russian economist of peasant farming who was murdered in Stalin’s gulag and whose ideas keep getting murdered by later generations of Marxists. Jan Douwe van der Ploeg’s Peasants and the Art of Farming: A Chayanovian Manifesto is a brilliant (if unfortunately rather turgidly written) reconstruction of Chayanov’s thought for the present age – other writers like James Scott, Paul Richards and Eric Wolf have also freshened up Chayanovian perspectives in more recent times. There have also been numerous agrarian populist political movements around the world, probably the best known in ‘western’/Anglo-US consciousness being the Farmers’ Alliance and the People’s Party that briefly rose to prominence in the late 19th century USA out of its Texan heartlands (hence the ‘Texas’ of my title).

I’ve spent time pondering whether these older agrarian populist movements have much to teach us today about a politics for modern times. The answer proffered by US historians has varied according to intellectual fashion and the prevailing political winds – from Frederick Jackson Turner’s ‘No’ (1890s) to John D. Hicks ‘Yes’ (1930s) to Richard Hofstadter’s ‘No’ (1950s) to Lawrence Goodwyn’s ‘Yes’ (1970s) to Charles Postel’s ‘Not much’ (2000s). I feel inclined to side with Postel…but also with Ploeg. I think we need to recuperate the economics of the family or peasant farm, and the Chayanovian tradition can help us with that. But to achieve it politically, I think past agrarian populist movements are of limited use. For Postel, US agrarian populism was less far removed than is often supposed from the liberal politics that supplanted it, whereas for Freyfogle “the Populists rose and fell because their moral dreams lacked any means of accomplishment”. Civic republicanism offers a stronger political frame to hang an agrarian populist economics from, but I think is also caught on the horns of that dilemma.

Meanwhile, populism has now taken on a very different cast in western politics with the election of Donald Trump, the UK’s Brexit vote and the rise of far-right populist parties across Europe. These events have prompted many anguished liberal disavowals of the ‘populist threat’ recently, such as in books by Yascha Mount and William Galston that are skewered by Thomas Frank in an interesting recent review. For Frank – as for many other commentators, like John Michael Greer – the rise of US populism stems from the abandonment of ordinary working people by the political class, and particularly by ‘the left’ and the Democratic Party. “Reduced to its essentials” says Frank “populism is America’s way of expressing class antagonism….Anyone can be the voice of those who work, and when one party renounces its claim the other can easily pick it up”. A problem he diagnoses in much current liberal antipathy to contemporary populism is complete ignorance of past populist traditions and why they arose.

A great advantage of Frank over someone like Greer is that he isn’t taken in by Trump’s populist posturing:

“The right name for Trump’s politics is “demagoguery” or “pseudo-populism”. By lumping him together with the genuine reform tradition of populism, we do that tradition a violent disservice.”

I’d go so far as to say that we do that tradition a disservice even by calling Trump a pseudo-populist. Sure, he borrows a few scraps of rhetoric from the populist rulebook like economic protectionism, but with none of the accompanying vision and intent. I suppose there is an identifiable right-wing populism which he recycles in his rhetoric – anti-immigrant, anti-liberal, anti-intellectual, nationalist/nativist, and rhetorically supportive of working people, or at least working men. It’s a shame that it goes by the same name as the reformist tradition Frank identifies, because the two have little in common.

In the UK, the Brexit campaign lacked even Trump’s thin veneer of populist reformism. It was sustained largely by elixirs of neoliberalism and haughty isolationism. I’ll confess that my reaction here at Small Farm Future to the Brexit and Trump results perhaps borrowed a little from the horrified liberal zeitgeist. It invited accusations that I wasn’t a proper populist, which suits me fine because I doubt I’m a ‘proper’ anything. But Frank’s intervention encourages me to think that in part it was the reaction of a horrified populist seeing the tradition hijacked – and watching commentators like Greer turn into apologists for the hijacking.

There’s also perhaps some transatlantic confusion here. As far as I’m able to discern from my distant vantage point, it does seem that in the US many conservatives have finally decided that they don’t much like capitalism and globalisation. Good for them. What I think they can’t then do is pull a Greer and pin all the evils of capitalism, the market and globalisation on the left/Democrats as if the right/Republicans are unsullied by the same associations. But this whole political iteration doesn’t work in the UK where the right/Conservatives remain wedded to neoliberalism, albeit with a few nationalistic twists, while the left/Labour attempts to extricate itself from Blairite neoliberal globalism and articulate a social democratic vision grounded in national sovereignty. Both parties are mired in what strike me as irresolvable contradictions, though it seems to me that Labour has more potential to emerge out of them with something akin to US-style reformist-populism.

If and when it does, I think it’ll be plunged immediately into the kind of contradictions faced by civic republicanism – how to create an engaged citizenry, how to defend the republic from disintegrative alternative forces, how to define agreement around common goods. But at least these are problems worth wrestling with. By contrast, how to make America great again is not a problem worth wrestling with.

For my part, I think I need to wrestle some more with the overlaps and contradictions between the various traditions I’ve identified here as a possible base for sustainable future societies: civic republicanism, agrarian populism, the individual rights focus of libertarianism and probably the justice and ideology focus of leftism, broadly conceived. I’d also like to acknowledge the importance, noted by Kingsnorth, of attachment to place, but without making it the basis of competitive or exclusionary political identity. So for me the siren songs of nationalism, nativism, communitarianism and Trumpian demagoguery, as well as neoliberalism, are all part of the problems that must be overcome.

Talkin’ bout a revolution: a response to the Breakthrough Institute

The Breakthrough Institute have published a response to my critical commentary on a recent post of theirs. Here I continue the debate, because I think it might clarify some worthwhile issues. I’d like to thank Dan Blaustein-Rejto and Kenton De Kirby (henceforth B&D) for engaging constructively with me – a welcome improvement on what’s come my way from some previous Breakthrough folk.

Broadly, the issue between us is our different visions of agrarian, and therefore human, futures. I stress more people working on more small farms and a degree of deurbanisation, they stress increases in farm scale, a continued agrarian-urban transition out of agriculture and an emphasis on yield increase. On some points, I’d suggest our differences are not as great as B&D suppose: for example, I’m not necessarily for small farms and against yield increases or the use of synthetic fertiliser in all eventualities. But we’ll come to that.

I’m going to structure my response under three headings: change, ‘development’ and wealth.

Change

B&D suggest that my vision involves revolutionary change that would have to reverse robust global trends, and therefore isn’t feasible. My first response to that is to ask what makes a trend ‘robust’ and irreversible. Suppose, for example, that global trade rulings force countries with large populations of poor farmers to open their markets to rich-country agricultural commodities and to abandon food price controls and social welfare provision. We’d surely expect life to get tougher for the poor farmers and for them to seek other sources of income in place of or in addition to their dwindling farm income. Well, that’s pretty much what’s happened over recent decades. You could say that it’s a ‘robust trend’. But it’s a robust trend that’s resulted from policy decisions – and other policy decisions are possible.

There are other trends much more robust than the ones I’m lobbying to reverse that attract less fatalism than B&D apply to agrarian transitions. For example, the sexual harassment of women by men has a long historical pedigree, but nobody seems to be arguing against the #MeToo movement on the grounds that predatory male sexuality is a ‘robust trend’. To invoke a trend as an argument against a policy proposal risks turning an ‘is’ into an ‘ought’. Doubtless it could be argued that #MeToo has a greater chance of reversing male sexual aggression than a neo-peasant movement has of reversing current global agrarian and economic trends. It would be interesting to see such an argument laid out, because I think it could be quite revealing of where the obstacles lie. Meanwhile, I’d say ‘low chance of success’ is not the same as ‘bad idea’.

I want to push further at that last point. The word ‘revolutionary’ has numerous connotations, not all of which I embrace, but I’m happy to accept that my stance involves a commitment to ‘revolutionary’ change in some sense of the term. Our present epoch is revolutionary through and through, so I’m not sure describing a proposed change as ‘revolutionary’ really counts against it. Proponents of mainstream agriculture happily talk about the ‘green revolution’, while other analysts describe the early 20th century mechanisation of farming in the wealthy countries as ‘the second agricultural revolution of modern times’1. The 20th century was garlanded with political revolutions, many of them with small-scale farmers at their heart. But the capitalist global economy has been the most revolutionary force of all. It’s constantly made and remade the world with a success that I think stems less from the over-emphasised fact that it’s what everyone wants, as B&D imply, than from the fact that its unparalleled powers of wealth creation have been locked in by mutually-dependent political and business elites, with limited payback to the majority of the world’s people.

The truth is that any plausible vision for a prosperous and sustainable future from here on will have to be revolutionary. For example, let’s review the implications of B&D’s solid trend towards agricultural transition and their business-as-usual approach to the global economy in its present form. Assuming current global economic growth of 2.5% per annum (and anything less over a prolonged period would surely imply economic crisis within current economic parameters), in fifty years’ time the global economy will have to be producing additional economic activity well over double the entire present global output. It will have to do so after reducing fossil energy use pretty much to zero (currently about 80% of global energy use is fossil fuel based) in order to stave off drastic climate change. And if it’s going to deliver increased prosperity for the half of the humanity who currently live off about US$5 a day or less, it’ll have to do a vastly better redistributive job than it’s done over the last 20 years, when the lowest-earning half of the world’s people only received around 10% of the income increase over the period2. That all sounds pretty revolutionary to me.

‘Development’ and the global peasant-family farm

B&D impute to me the belief that small-scale farming has great inherent value, but that’s not really true. I don’t, for the most part, argue for small-scale farming as a valuable end in itself. I argue for it largely because it seems to me the most feasible way of delivering sustainable prosperity (or ‘development’) to the world’s people in the future. In saying that, I agree with B&D that my vision is very revolutionary and not very feasible. However, I think it’s less revolutionary and more feasible than theirs.

The idea of a future based on peasant farming may seem far-fetched, but I want to offer a brief sketch to suggest why it could be less far-fetched than it may seem at first. Consider two farms. One comprises an acre or so, and is farmed by a poor family in a poor country who use it to grow mostly subsistence crops. The other comprises several hundred acres, and is farmed by a family who are not poor by global standards and who live in a rich country, using numerous high-tech inputs like tractors to grow mostly commodity crops. The two farms look very different. The first might be described as a ‘peasant’ farm, whereas the second most likely wouldn’t be. But they both have the same ‘peasant-like’ structure vis-à-vis the wider economy. They both use mostly family labour, which is rewarded not by an hourly wage but by a share of the farm’s output. And they both involve capital investments (buildings, land, livestock, equipment and human knowledge) which isn’t valued in terms of the opportunity cost of the returns to its annual investment, but in terms of its contribution to the long-term productivity of the farm, including its potential productivity after the death of its present incumbents and on into the future incumbency of their descendants.

Contrast that with the simpler economics of a fully capitalist farm. Labour and capital are just costs on the debit side of the equation. Profit is realised output less costs, year by year. If costs exceed profit, or even if they don’t but the difference imposes sufficient opportunity costs to capital investment then the farm soon closes and the released capital is invested elsewhere. That’s not the case with the peasant or the family farm in the same situation. Its circumstances are dire, but it’s not looking to maximise returns on immediate investment, so the chances are it’ll survive.

At root, I think it will prove more feasible to create a prosperous and sustainable future by adopting policies that make life easier for existing peasant and family farmers of this sort than by adopting policies that make life harder for them, and easier for capitalist farmers. This is for numerous reasons that I won’t go into here – though I have done over the years on this blog, and am happy to discuss in more detail should anyone wish…some of the reasons in any case are probably quite obvious just from my brief description. In broadest outline, I think an agrarian future based on support for these kinds of farms will take a lot of damaging hot capital out of the global economy, do a better job of reproducing the biophysical means for continued human flourishing and do a better job, too, of spreading fairly such prosperity as can be sustainably created. However, supporting both such kinds of farms would involve ensuring that the second type doesn’t undermine the first.

Commenting on my ideas, B&D state that “with less international agricultural trade, countries would have to either convert more land to farming to make up for the drop in food, or people would have to deal with higher prices, change their food consumption, or go hungry more often.” That may be so if all I was suggesting was limiting international food trade alone, but I’m arguing for something rather more ‘revolutionary’ than that – broadly, for an agrarian economy that widens opportunities to take up small-scale farming and narrows opportunities to gain economic rent from land.

Wealth and the transition out of agriculture

The revolution that B&D prefer is another iteration of the one that today’s rich countries passed through, which they summarise as follows:

“Historically, the agrarian transition of people moving from rural farming communities to urban centers has greatly improved people’s lives. As urbanization occurs, incomes rise, access to healthcare increases, and population growth slows, among other beneficial changes in social outcomes.”

All that has been true – well, kind of eventually true – for the citizens of some countries, albeit usually at the expense of people elsewhere. But I think there’s a failure of imagination here to suppose that what worked for, say, Britain in the 19th century will inevitably work for, say, Niger in the 21st…and also to suppose that such transitions mark a once and for all arrival at prosperity. Prosperity increase is not exactly a zero-sum game, but it more closely approximates to it in a world dedicated to maximising net present value through frictionless financial movement. The idea that, in such a world, Niger will achieve prosperity by urbanising like Britain did 200 years ago neglects the pyramid-scheme resemblances of the present global economy: the benefits of agrarian transition accrue largely to those who undertake it first. Or perhaps, over time, to those who undertake it best. So to my mind, on that note the lesson of China’s current transition (one that was achieved in some measure by investing in peasant agriculture) is not that other parts of the world should try to follow its example, but that they should try to build as much economic resilience as possible out of local resources.

Contrary to B&D’s global agrarian transition, then, I’d argue that putting one’s trust in an economic model explicitly geared to maximising short-run fiscal returns on investment, with other benefits essentially epiphenomenal, is a very high risk way of seeking to improve people’s lives globally today. And not a very effective one either: relative to the generation of wealth, it hasn’t so far been conspicuously successful at distributing it.

B&D imply that people inherently prefer urban over rural life, and that various other aspects of the global farmscape result from the free exercise of choice. I’d suggest instead that people inherently prefer prosperity, and will seek it where they can find it – and that the shape of the global farmscape results mostly from the free exercise of choice by the rich, not by the poor. Whatever the case, despite all the pressures to shed labour from agriculture there are still more than 1.2 billion farmers in the world at a minimum estimate – over 16% of the global population. Supporting their desire for prosperity while keeping them in farming seems to me a wiser overall strategy than willing them into cities and assuming that short-run capital intensive farming will more successfully fill the vacuum they leave.

A couple of final points on yield. Within the parameters of the non-capitalist family farm (whether rich or poor) described above, in some circumstances it may be an excellent idea to increase per hectare yields through any number of different means, and I have no particular problem with that. I do have a problem, though, with the idea that improving per hectare yields is a fundamental desideratum for agriculture globally, regardless of any other considerations. And on the matter of yield improvement, I mentioned above the ‘second agricultural revolution of modern times’. The first one occurred in the 18th century in countries like Britain, arguably as much or more through the spread of ideas about better ways to farm than through increased energy or other high-tech inputs – what today we might call an ‘agroecological revolution’. It may be wise to devote more thought to innovations of that sort than to the idea that greater yields only arise as increased returns to land input by means of other costly inputs. I’m all for breakthroughs, but we often have too impoverished a notion of what technological ‘breakthroughs’ look like, let alone breakthroughs in a more general sense.

Notes

  1. M. Mazoyer and L. Roudart. 2006. A History of World Agriculture. Earthscan.
  2. B. Milanovic. 2016. Global Inequality. Harvard UP.

To be or not to be the change

Coming up on Small Farm Future – some posts on the hows and whys of social transformation towards more sustainable societies, which have been prefigured in recent posts like this one on ‘self-systemic’ agriculture and my previous one on utopias – perhaps particularly in relation to the ensuing discussion about individualism and collectivism. Here, I’ll look at the question of transformation via personal consumption choices in societies of mass consumption, which I touched on a while back. That discussion prompted Peter Kalmas, climate scientist and author of Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution to get in touch and kindly send me his book.

Maybe first I should set out a brief position statement. As I see it, the world is beset with enormous inequities, creating a lot of human misery, and looming environmental crises, creating yet more human (and non-human) misery. The dominant paradigm for tackling these problems involves lifting people out of poverty through growing the capitalist global economy, and mitigating the environmental problems caused by this economic growth through technical innovation. I don’t think this will work on either count – it won’t lift many people out of poverty and it won’t succeed in mitigating environmental problems. If we continue down this path, it seems to me likely that there will be major breakdowns in human social systems and in the Earth’s biophysical systems. In fact, there already are. These may proliferate in all sorts of surprising and dystopian ways, but I don’t see much point in speculating about how such ‘collapse’ scenarios may unfold. I do see a point in speculating about alternative scenarios that may create better outcomes, and in particular about how such scenarios may emerge from present social processes, because that may give some kind of a handle on how to increase the probability of those better outcomes occurring. So that, generally speaking, is what I want to focus my writing around.

One possible way of achieving these better outcomes is if the wealthy consumers of the world change their consumption behaviour: stop flying, stop driving, stop buying products that use conflict minerals, stop eating resource-intensive meat, stop shopping in value-scouring supermarkets, stop using polluting plastic and so on. Peter’s book (I can’t claim to have read it word-by-word and cover-to-cover…I’m afraid the in-box is too full…but I’ve spent some time looking over it) first sets out the evidence for climate change, the seriousness of its consequences and the pressing need to do something about it. Then it looks at the numerous things us carbon-spewing rich western consumers can do to lessen our impact on the climate system. And it emphasises that many of these things don’t involve loss and self-sacrifice, but can be part of a more fulfilling and interesting way of life.

I don’t have any quarrel with that. The science, as far as I can tell, is compelling – it’s a really good idea if we reduce global carbon emissions, fast. And somehow that’s going to have to involve people in high-emission regions like Western Europe and North America cutting their emissions drastically. Well then…Peter’s book shows us how to get started.

I guess the problem I have is that I don’t think it’ll work – for three reasons, of increasing gravity.

The first is a twist on the familiar criticism of environmentalists – they talk about the dangers of climate change while flying off to environmental conferences in exotic locations etc etc. They’re hypocrites who don’t practice what they preach…what we might call the John Michael Greer critique. The risk that I think Peter’s proposals run is the opposite: the dread prospect of environmentalists who don’t fly off to exotic conferences, who instead preach what they practice.

People don’t like hypocrites for sure, but nor do they like preachy environmentalists telling them that they shouldn’t do stuff. Now, I’m sure Peter isn’t at all preachy, but I think it’s hard to avoid people reading those bad, virtue-signalling motives into any public avowal of carbon restraint. If you consider yourself a role model helping other people lessen their planetary impact by following your example, I’d be willing to bet that a fair proportion of those other people will dismiss you as insufferably smug unless you have social skills that greatly exceed my own (which to be fair wouldn’t be difficult – that’s why they only let me communicate with the world through this computer). I’ve been down this road myself – I’ve been the Puritan at the party, shocked at the wanton ways of lesser folk. I ended up not liking that guy much and now try to cultivate a different persona. Let he who is free of sin and all that…

Some of the commenters under my last post emphasised the need for greater collaboration and less private individualism in a sustainable post-capitalist society of the future. So how about this? Suppose you’ve given up eating meat because of its environmental impact – good for you — and an acquaintance invites you over to a special meal, which in their worldview is a beef-fest. I suggest you keep your meat abstinence private and tuck in. One or two meaty meals are neither here nor there in terms of global environmental protection. More important that you build community by publicly accepting your acquaintance’s generosity. But if it’s important to you to be seen not to be eating meat, I’d want to ask why. Is publicly-dramatised individual abstinence the best route to sustainability? Maybe…but maybe not?

The second problem is essentially the free rider problem – if everybody refrained from behaviour X it would have a significant impact on global emissions, whereas if it’s just me and a handful of other freaks while everyone else carries on regardless it has no significant impact on global emissions. Might as well carry on Xing, then? Well, Peter makes the point that lower impact choices can often be the fun choice – who wants to sit in a traffic jam when you can be biking through the woods? It’s a good point, but I don’t think you can sustain it across the board – particularly in the context of a society that’s systemically organised on the basis that many or most (rich) people will have to drive to work, fly for business or pleasure, be instantly reachable via mobile phone, shop at the supermarket etc. It’s not that these possibilities are intrinsically great in themselves, but in a society that’s organised around them you have to go out of your way to avoid them, which may sometimes be possible and indeed attractive at the individual level, but not really possible for the population en masse.

Actually, that’s the thing that draws me most to people making ethical lifestyle choices – that little spark of individuality driving them to swim against the current, resist the machine etc. But then here we are, back to individualism…

Perhaps a wrinkle within this second problem is the complexity of the issues concerning the shape of a future sustainable society. There’s no end of ‘expert’ opinion telling us, for example, that feedlot beef involves lower emissions than pasture-fed beef, which is probably true depending on how you choose to draw the parameters around your analysis. But it’s also probably true that in a sustainable, low-energy society there’d be some pasture-fed cattle, but no feedlot cattle. So should you eat only feedlot beef to lower your emissions, eat only pasture-fed beef to help stimulate sustainable farming, or eat no beef at all in the hope that somehow by so doing you can wash your hands of these agrarian dilemmas? Beats me.

But suppose you take a different view to my first two points. If you model environmentally responsible behaviour, you’ll inspire others to do likewise. And if everyone did likewise, then the problem is solved.

Except that – point three – it’s not going to happen without profound systemic change. The present political economy is deeply invested in a massively energy-intense model of modernist-urbanist creation, destruction and re-creation involving vast flows of people and goods. Individually it’s possible to lower your footprint via numerous consumption decisions such as cycling rather than driving to work. Collectively, if it does prove possible to aggregate those decisions then it’ll tank the system and there’ll be no work to cycle to. OK, so maybe that’s precisely the aim – but then you need a different systemic vision, which is not implicit in the consumption decisions and can’t be assumed just to happen as a dependent outcome of them. In other words, the system has emergent properties – it needs ‘systemic’ restructuring at the level of the system.

I’m doubtful of the possibilities for aggregating those consumption decisions by example or exhortation in a society organised fiscally to incentivise the exact opposite. I see a parallel here with the ‘make the healthy choice the easy one’ paradigm in health promotion. Historical examples: don’t subsidise sugar production and then exhort people not to eat sugar; don’t manufacture dangerous cars and then tell people to drive carefully; don’t make flying the easiest and cheapest choice and then expect people not to do it.

I also see a parallel with 18th century anti-slavery activism in Britain. Middle-class people (middle-class women in particular) started talking about the link between the sugar they were drinking in their tea and the blood-soaked horrors of the colonial economy that was delivering it to them. But for all that in Britain today we like to think that it was William Wilberforce and his cohorts who personally put a stop to the slave trade, the ending of the trade and of slavery itself was a long drawn-out affair that responded mostly to changes in the global political economy and the superpower politics of the day – system emergence again.

Nevertheless, I’d concede that the behaviour of the parts is important. Anti-slavery activism more-or-less created the modern public sphere of respectable opinion and concern for unknown others that I think could be critical for a tolerable post-capitalist future. So whether you incline more towards Peter’s stance or mine, maybe the important thing is hanging onto the possibility that we can politely put out our alternative views in public.

None of the arguments I’ve proffered make a case for not trying to lower one’s personal environmental impact as such. I agree with Wendell Berry when he writes,

“to be fearful of the disease and yet unwilling to pay for the cure is not just to be hypocritical; it is to be doomed. If you talk a good line without being changed by what you say, then you are not just hypocritical and doomed; you have become an agent of the disease”1

I’d only add that even if you are changed by what you say and try to take some practical steps towards a cure within the current iteration of the global political economy, you’re almost certainly still an agent of the disease. That’s not an argument against taking the practical steps. It is an argument against their efficacy in the absence of finding routes towards structural transformation.

So I’m sympathetic to the ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’ message. I don’t think it’s morally innocent to take a plane flight just because personal choice in that respect makes little difference to global outcomes. But what makes a bigger difference is collective, organised, political action geared to systemic change. The ‘be the change’ message is attributed to Mohandas Gandhi, but this is what Gandhi actually said (which Peter accurately quotes in his book):

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change toward him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”

I find Brian Morton’s interpretation of this passage quite persuasive: “Gandhi is telling us that personal and social transformation go hand in hand, but there is no suggestion in his words that personal transformation is enough. In fact, for Gandhi, the struggle to bring about a better world involved not only stringent self-denial and rigorous adherence to the philosophy of nonviolence; it also involved a steady awareness that one person, alone, can’t change anything, an awareness that unjust authority can be overturned only by great numbers of people working together with discipline and persistence.”

Looking back from the present at the key causes for which Gandhi stood– Indian independence from colonial rule, non-violence and rural self-reliance – it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that his activism was only conspicuously successful in relation to the first of these. And ultimately this was the easiest one, because it fitted a pre-existing collective narrative of national self-assertion which is all too evident today under the aggressive Hindu nationalism of Modi (there’s a larger story here about the intersections and dissonances between Gandhism and Hindu nationalism, but let’s not go there now).

So in summary, while there’s much to be said for changing personal consumption habits in response to the climate crisis, I doubt that the necessary social transformation can be generated purely from aggregating such changes. In which case, I guess it behoves me to offer some alternative suggestions as to where the impetus for social transformation might come from. Ay, there’s the rub – I wish I had the answers. Conventional political positions just keep rollin’ on as if they do, but to me they seem exhausted. The right thinks history is on its side: human nature, markets, cultural identities will generate the correct solutions (never mind that these things are numerously and numinously contradictory). The left thinks history is on its side: social conflict powering historical change will propel righteous collective solutions. Both left and right are invested deeply in technological solutionism – which is why the books written by their avant-garde futurists all seem uncannily similar. Stewart Brand, Leigh Phillips, Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker, Nick Srnicek, Mark Lynas: they sound like the modulated voice of a single character from some nightmarish modernist novel. Lord deliver me from fully automated luxury communism. Or capitalism.

Partly I think solutionism itself is the problem. There are no ‘solutions’ and no right answers. But I’d like to think there may be better answers to the numerous crises we currently face – not just the climate crisis but other biophysical crises, as well as social ones (economic justice, cultural meaning). One possibility is to bring more marginalised political traditions onto the stage – anarchism, environmentalism, libertarianism (any contradictions there? …you betcha). Or else to seek some radical rupture with the politics of the past that seems better fitted to our contemporary predicaments.

So…what path to take? The old familiar mainstream, the marginal, or the radically new? Hell, I’m opting for all of the above. I think we need to revitalise the best of the old traditions of right and left, while bringing in the contributions of more marginal political positions from the past – and articulating them all afresh in the completely novel historical circumstances we face.

It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it, and I already started out last time in my post on libertarianism and utopia (and in other previous posts too, like this one). So watch this space…though please forgive my lessened current output, resulting from various other pressing projects.

Meanwhile, I’d thoroughly recommend a read of Peter’s book, and I’d urge you (non-smugly) to try lowering your carbon footprint. Just don’t tell me that you’re doing it.

Notes

  1. Berry, W. 2017. The World-Ending Fire. Penguin. P.55.

A small farm utopia

When I made a case for a small farm future somewhere or other a while back, I got a tweeted reply “Your utopia is my dystopia”.

I found this slightly odd since the case I try to make for small-scale farming isn’t that it’s the best of all possible worlds – more like the best of a bad job given the circumstances we face. Though to be fair I do tend to emphasise some of the positives of small farm societies and some of the negatives of the big farm society we currently live in, if only to try to even up the score a little from our present tendencies towards urban romanticism. I’d acknowledge that the genre of back-to-the-land ruralism is shot through with utopian elements, and it doesn’t always work out for those who try it. But sometimes it does. Maybe one reason working a small farm retains its romantic appeal is because working outdoors on your own account to furnish for your material needs is quite a plausible way of becoming a fulfilled human being.

But in a wider sense, I think the whole language of ‘utopia’ is problematic. Every political philosophy with a vision for the future is utopian in the sense that it propounds some kind of idealised narrative of the better world it seeks. And there are surely few philosophies as utopian as contemporary capitalism, with its disingenuous belief in market exchange as the guarantor of prosperity, liberty and prudence. So there’s a case for claiming back ‘utopia’ from its pejorative connotations. In this post, however, I want to take a different tack and make the case that small-scale (or what I’ve called self-systemic) farming furnishes a kind of necessary material logic for a plausible utopia. Perhaps it’s an exercise in l’esprit de l’escalier, so that the next time someone tells me a small farm future is their dystopia, I’m better placed to find out how their own particular utopia will manage to avoid it.

My starting point is an influential book, Anarchy, State and Utopia, by the libertarian political philosopher, the late Robert Nozick1. In it, among other things, Nozick tries to derive the process of utopia-construction from first principles. His method is to provide a long list of impressively diverse famous people from history and challenge his readers to describe the society that would best suit all of them to live in.

“Would it be agricultural or urban? Of great material luxury or of austerity with basic needs satisfied? What would relations between the sexes be like?”2

And so on. By this route, Nozick leads us to his apparently inevitable conclusion: “The idea that there is one best composite answer to all of these questions, one best society for everyone to live in, seems to me to be an incredible one”3. For Nozick, this commends a view of utopia not as a single society which can somehow optimise the impossible differences between individuals, but as the possibility for people to form their own utopias:

“Utopia is a framework for utopias, a place where people are at liberty to join together voluntarily to pursue and attempt to realize their own vision of the good life in the ideal community but where no one can impose his own utopian vision upon others.”4

Despite the passing mention of agriculture in the passage cited above, Nozick never really broaches in his discussion the material basis of these utopian lives. So when he talks about utopias that may be agricultural or urban, he neglects the fact that people living in an urban utopia would most likely have to import food and other necessities from people living in a rural one – and, in a utopia, the rural people may not wish to export their products. I can imagine plenty of people signing up to rural utopias in which they undertake to provide food and other necessities for themselves. But ones where they grow food and then have to sell it on fluctuating global commodity markets over which they have no control in order to earn money in the hope that they’ll be able to use it to buy what they need via other fluctuating commodity markets? Not so much.

Contemporary society has come up with two conceptual workarounds to this problem – neither of which ‘work around’ it quite well enough, in my opinion. The first is the idea of the gain from market trade, as elaborated by a line of thinkers including Adam Smith and Friedrich von Hayek. As Smith put it in a famous passage from The Wealth of Nations (1776):

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages.”5

However, in market exchange these ‘advantages’ are inevitably pecuniary, and it’s an assumption rather than a fact that pecuniary advantage rather than, say, autonomy, self-possession or leisure is a more fundamental human motivator. Indeed, an important part of the history of modernity has been about instilling in the populace a sense of pecuniary advantage as paramount via various carrots and sticks. And while the ramification of market exchange globally has certainly created a lot of pecuniary wealth, given that about half the people of the world today subsist on less than US$5 a day in purchasing power equivalents6, the outcome hardly seems utopian.

The other workaround is the broadly ecomodernist one that supposes all the hard work to sustain the material basis of life will increasingly be done by machines and robots, turning the people of the world into leisured Eloi free to pursue whatever dramas they wish. At which point I’m inclined to reach for the ‘Your utopia is my dystopia’ retweet button. In any case, on numerous economic, ecological, energetic and political grounds, I doubt this will come to pass.

Let us instead re-run Nozick’s ‘framework for utopias’ without assuming that a given individual or community can expect another one to furnish its needs, or that it can do so itself through costless mechanics. I think this considerably narrows the universe of possible utopias. In practice, it’s likely that some people would wish to farm while others wouldn’t, establishing the possibility of mutually beneficial trade. But note the powerful position of a farmer or other necessity-provider in that situation, and the incentive towards self-reliance for every individual or community in view of the risks of external dependency. Implicitly, it seems to me that Nozick’s framework for utopias would generate something like a self-systemic, small farm future.

You could argue, I suppose, that Nozick’s wranglings with utopia just go to show the incoherence of libertarian philosophy, with its absurd notion of sovereign individuals freely contracting in or out of societies or utopias. I’m quite sympathetic to that view – for example, Nozick’s notion of taxation being equivalent to slavery leaves me cold. A truly independent person would be dead within a few hours of birth, and everything else about what it is to be human ramifies outwards to those around us, those before us, and those after us.

Even so, some societies are more individualistic than others. Individualistic and collectivist societies each generate their own particular miseries and compensations to the people comprising them. Western society, though, places a lot of store on individualism. The notion that an individual can be whatever they want to be is rarely true in practice, and would seem absurd in more collectivist cultures, but it runs deep in ours – and I for one am not especially in favour of trying to change it. I am in favour of honestly exploring its logic, though. And on that note, I certainly agree with Nozick that the fewer opportunities there are for some people to impose their utopian visions on others the better. I also agree that – going back to the individualist core of his framework for utopias – you should be able to be whatever you want to be. So it’s probably wise to work up a small plot and grow some potatoes while you’re about it.

So there you have it – philosophical proof at last for the virtues of a small farm future. I’ve occasionally been accused of a kind of Maoist or Khmer Rougeist peasant purism, but that’s never been my intention. However, I can see the force behind Nozick’s framework for utopias. Everyone has some notion of how society ought to be organised in the future, but there’s no reason why your utopia should impinge on mine or vice versa, right? OK, so we’d both best get tilling, then. Or no-tilling. As you wish.

Notes

  1. R. Nozick. 1974. Anarchy, State and Utopia. Blackwell.
  2. Ibid. pp.310-11.
  3. Ibid. p.311.
  4. Ibid. p.312
  5. A. Smith. 1776. An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Book I, Chapter II.
  6. J. Hickel. 2017. The Divide. Heinemann.

An eco-futurist miscellany

More on organic farming, trade-offs, energy futures and small-farm definitions in this post. Veritably, it’s your one stop shop for a pick ‘n’ mix of eco-futurism…partly because indeed I have a few addendums to report on recent posts, and partly because despite my flippant recent remarks, I’m a bit too busy on the farm and on other things just now to put together a properly structured post.

So, first on organic farming, reflecting back on my previous post, I fear that despite my criticisms of the ecomodernists and their ‘land sparing’ agenda, I still accepted at face value a little too much of their lofty San Francisco research institute view of the world in it. My mistake was to concede without demur the claim that organic farming has lower yields and a greater land take for leys. Leafing through Peter Rosset and Miguel Altieri’s new book1, plus re-reading a paper by Catherine Badgley and co-authors2 (one of whom is Jahi Chappell, a valued contributor to this site) reminds me that organic yields are typically lower than conventional ones in wealthy countries but higher in poor countries.

The way I’d gloss this finding is that in rich countries ‘conventional’ farming is usually a high input – high output undertaking with per acre yields approaching yield potential, whereas in poor countries much ‘conventional’ farming is undertaken by poor people on small plots who can’t afford expensive inputs like fertiliser. So it’s usually a low input – low output undertaking. The introduction of various ‘organic’ and agroecological techniques – leguminous cover cropping, multi-cropping, mulching etc. – helps increase yields, so in these countries ‘organic’ farming (broadly conceived) helps move farmers toward low input – higher output systems. The two citations above provide numerous examples.

Given that a good deal of farming globally is of this conventional low input – low output kind in poor countries, I think the Blaustein-Rejto and Blomqvist article I was critiquing in my last post erred in not reckoning with this fact. And so did I. Mea culpa. I suspect it changes considerably the global picture they were trying to paint. Unless of course you take the view that poor farmers ought to get out of farming altogether and leave it to the big boys with the NPK…which pretty much does seem to be the Breakthrough Institute line. It’s not one I happen to agree with. But that’s another story.

Another line of enquiry on this point was raised in Joshua Msika’s comment that small farms produce the bulk of the world’s food. I mentioned in reply that a figure of 70-80% of the world’s food is often cited as the contribution of small and family farms, but the origins of the figure were ‘obscure’. I did a bit more digging around on this issue (mostly in the folder on my hard drive named ‘Small farm productivity’ – sometimes I marvel that my meticulous organisation is exceeded only by my forgetfulness) and found such figures in this report from the UN’S Food and Agriculture Organisation, and this one from the ETC Group. This report from GRAIN also weighs in on the issue.

Bear in mind, though, that a family farm isn’t necessarily that small by global standards. And that much of the food produced isn’t traded – so I think my original argument stands. Gunnar Rundgren made the interesting point that these figures may no longer hold true with the economic rise of India and China, where most of the world’s small farms have been located. Though working my way through Jan Douwe Van Der Ploeg’s Peasants and the Art of Farming3 as I currently am, I note that he talks of a ‘return’ to small family farms in China and Southeast Asia. Just as one line of enquiry closes, another one opens up… (By the way, Gunnar – your book is now near the top of my ‘to read’ pile…sorry I’ve been so slow).

Finally on the question of organic farming, here’s a shout out from Small Farm Future to the organic movement. There are plenty of people gunning for it in the world of conventional farming – as exemplified by the Breakthrough Institute article. And there are plenty of people gunning for it in the world of alternative or regenerative agriculture too. For sure, it’s not above criticism on numerous fronts. But the organic movement was talking about cover cropping, biodiversity and the importance of healthy soil and soil life – which pretty much everyone now agrees is important, even if they disagree on how to achieve it and how to balance the trade-offs involved – decades before most of us jumped onto those bandwagons. A little bit of credit where it’s due seems in order.

Ah, trade-offs – an interesting issue discussed by Andy and David under my last post. Above, I mentioned low input – low output farming and high input high – output farming. Wouldn’t we all love to practice low input – high output farming? Well, as Andy and David suggested, like many too-good-to-be-true, everyone’s-a-winner schemes, such systems are proclaimed often enough in print but are harder to find on the ground. Thomas Sowell’s adage “there are no ‘solutions’, only trade-offs” has a lot of force to it. Is he overstating his case? Possibly. But I think win-win situations indeed are harder to find than we often suppose.

In biological/agronomic contexts I was influenced on this point by Ford Denison’s book Darwinian Agriculture4 – Denison argued, convincingly I think, that it’s unlikely we’ll find simple win-win agricultural improvements that have been missed by millions of years of natural selection (and, I might add, thousands of years of human selection). Which is not to say that no improvements are possible. Wild grasses will never greatly improve their harvest index until they form a parliament and agree a long stalk non-proliferation treaty. But humans have done that job for them, for certain wild grasses at any rate, turning them from wild grasses to domesticates like wheat in the process, but it’s not a win-win…still less a win-win-win (ie. an improvement for all humans, all grasses, and all other organisms). There have been numerous downsides to the agricultural revolution.

I was musing about this point after being alerted to this paper by Snapp et al, which cites my own paper ‘The strong perennial vision’ with an implicit criticism, as follows: “Opportunity costs associated with the low grain yield relative to the high harvest index of annual crops are one of the most persistent critiques of perennial crops (Smaje, 2015). Agronomic evaluation of perennial analogues of annual wheat and rye suggest a substantial yield penalty….This is not surprising as, to date, minimal investments have been made in breeding perennial forms of annual crop species.”

Well, I’d rather be cited critically than not at all…but, hang on a minute, isn’t there a direction of causality issue here? As I see it, there isn’t a yield penalty because there’s been minimal breeding investment. There’s been minimal breeding investment because there’s a yield penalty, for reasons that are pretty hard-wired ecologically, and eminently understandable: as detailed in my paper, there’s a strong trade-off between longevity and harvest index, so the chances of producing a perennial grain as high yielding as annual grains is low. Farmers through the ages didn’t choose annual grains for productivity over perennials out of some random caprice but because they didn’t want to waste their time. In their response to my original paper5, the Land Institute picked me off on a few minor points and raised the valid issue of genetic load, but avoided the core issue of ecological rather than energetic trade-offs. That’s not to say that there isn’t a role for lower-yielding perennial grains (I have no problems with the weak rather than the strong perennial vision), but for those seeking a trade-off free substitution of annual for perennial agriculture…well, I’d advise packing a sleeping bag, because I think your journey will prove a lengthy one.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying, yup, there are no ‘solutions’, only trade-offs. One up to Sowell.

But what about win-wins in the social rather than the natural world? Quite simply, I find it hard to imagine any real-world policy that everybody in the world would universally think was a good idea. So too did Vilfredo Pareto, one of the founding fathers of Sowell’s discipline, economics, so he decided to give up without even trying. Economists define Pareto optimality as a situation in which nobody can be made better off without making someone worse off – an equilibrium point of maximum efficiency. No doubt it’s a comfort to those allocated next to nothing by the global economy to know that at least by Pareto’s lights the economy is an ‘efficient’ one. Pareto did more than most to take the ‘political’ out of political economy and help to birth a pseudo-scientific ‘economics’ with which the world has been saddled ever since. The (temporary?) eclipse of socialism, and even social democracy, with their theories of inherent class conflicts that vitiate any inherent win-win solutions to social trade-offs, has pushed us into a technocratic and solutionist world where issues like poverty and climate change are seen as technical matters of policy-making – but the incoherence of this view and the long-term troubles they’re storing up seem ever more apparent, as is nicely illustrated by Jason Hickel’s book The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions that I’m also working my way through at the moment. Hickel does a fine demolition job on the World Bank’s development indicators that I’ve been happily crunching numbers on in recent weeks, arguing that its claims about global poverty reduction that have become common coin nowadays are spurious. More on this soon, perhaps. Inasmuch as a good deal of the debate on my website of late has revolved around the slogan ‘it’s the soil, stupid’ I propose to move on to the contention that ‘it’s the politics, stupid’.

Anyway, Small Farm Future says embrace inherent conflict. Embrace trade-offs. Two up to Sowell.

Moving on to energy, I’ve been catching up with Chris Goodall’s carbon commentary blog. This passage caught my eye:

“Difficult not to be disappointed by the latest IEA figures on energy use. A decline in the rate of improvement in efficiency meant that global energy use rose 2.1% last year, twice the rate of 2017. Although renewables grew faster than any other energy source, they only provided about one quarter of the increase in overall demand. Oil use expanded, principally because of an increase in the sales of bigger cars, and coal burning increased, mostly for electricity generation. Coal use had fallen in the previous two years. Most tellingly of all, fossil fuels still provide 81% of global energy, a figure similar to the level of 3 decades ago.”

I was briefly tempted by Goodall’s book The Switch to entertain the notion of an emerging post-carbon energy revolution in the form of photovoltaics, but here perhaps he strikes a more realistic tone? On the other hand, David wrote under my last post about a once in a century paradigm shift currently occurring with renewables. I’m a mere amateur in these matters, but I’m interested in tracking the debate. Certainly, renewables are growing (I’m seeing lots of exponential-looking graphs about newly installed year-on-year renewables capacity in publications like the New Scientist, but I can’t quite shake off the feeling that an awful lot more of not very much is still not very much). If there’s a revolution occurring it’s not yet making it into gross global energy statistics. A few weeks back I noted Vaclav Smil’s marvellously fence-sitting observation of “two contradictory expectations concerning the energy basis of modern society: chronic conservatism (lack of imagination?) regarding the power of technical innovation, set against repeatedly exaggerated claims made on behalf of new energy sources”. Which side to jump?

And finally I’ve had various interesting communications about my post on the small farm as a ‘self-systemic’ entity – some positive, some negative. Thanks to everyone who’s contributed, even if I was less gracious than I might have been in response to some of the more negative comments. I think I failed to convey clearly enough exactly what I wanted to in that post. So I’m going to have another go at defining the small farm soon…when I get a break from the farming. In the meantime my working definition of a small-scale farmer is someone who’s too busy farming to write blog posts about how to define the small farm.

Notes

 1. Rosset, P. & Altieri, M. 2017. Agroecology: Science and Politics. Fernwood Publishing.

2. Badgley, C. et al. 2007. Organic agriculture and the global food supply. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. 22, 2: 86-108.

3. Van Der Ploeg, Jan Douwe. 2013. Peasants and the Art of Farming. Fernwood Publishing.

4. Denison, F. 2012. Darwinian Agriculture. Princeton UP.

5. Crews, T. et al. 2015. The strong perennial vision: a response. Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems 39: 500-15.

Nitrogen wars

In a change to my published programme, I thought I’d engage with a couple of posts on nitrogen recently emerging from the Breakthrough Institute. In fact the issue is quite relevant to my last post, and to the next scheduled one. For more on the regenerative agriculture issue I’ve recently discussed, I’m following the debate over Andy McGuire’s recent blog post with interest. Meanwhile, for more on ecomodernism of the Breakthrough Institute variety, Aaron Vansintjan has just published this nice little critique. Doubtless we’ll take a spin around both these issues here at SFF again in the future.

Anyway, having directed some scepticism of late towards various aspects of the alternative farming movement that I consider myself to be a part of, perhaps it’s time I twisted the other way.  So here I want to take a critical look at the Breakthrough Institute’s line on the necessity of synthetic nitrogen in world agriculture, which is laid out in its agronomic aspects in this post by Dan Blaustein-Rejto and Linus Blomqvist (henceforth B&B), and in its historical aspects in this one by Marc Brazeau.

To begin, let me say that I’m not implacably opposed to the use of synthetic fertiliser in every situation, and I don’t think that a 100% organic agriculture globally is necessarily desirable or perhaps currently feasible. However, I think the narrative presented in the two BI posts is misleading. As is often the case, the sticking points lie not so much in what the posts say as in what they don’t say. I know Christmas is a long way off, but I’m going to lay this out in terms of the ghost of nitrogen past, the ghost of nitrogen present and the ghost of nitrogen future.

The ghost of nitrogen past

Marc Brazeau’s piece reminds us that, prior to the invention of the Haber-Bosch process for ammonia synthesis at the start of the 20th century, countries went to war to secure nitrogen for their farmers. He focuses on the international conflicts of the 19th century over the guano islands off South America, with their vast concentrations of richly nitrogenous seabird faeces.

It’s a nice piece in its own terms, but there’s a bigger historical story it omits. Brazeau broaches it, but doesn’t develop it, in this passage,

“The full lower 48 [US states, in the 1850s] was available for cultivation, and yet soil fertility was already a challenge. US agriculture is currently tasked with feeding 325 million citizens while exporting $150 billion worth of food. But in the 1850s, with just 25 million citizens to feed and hundreds of millions of acres of some of the most fertile soil in the world, on farms where manure-producing cattle, hogs, and poultry were well-integrated with crop production, US presidents were promising to get tough on guano prices and US business interests were verging on war in the Caribbean over fertilizer.”

For their part, B&B note that:

“During the 19th century, the populations of the United States and Europe were growing at an unprecedented pace — the U.S. population increased tenfold and Britain’s more than tripled…To raise farm productivity, these imperial powers started to import nitrogen-rich guano.”

What’s going on here? Well, the key surely lies in B&B’s phrase “these imperial powers” and in the spectacular US population increase, which wasn’t just a baby boom. In 1803, after defeat in Haiti, Napoleon gave up on his ambitions for an American empire and sold a fair old whack of that lower 48 to the US (another large tranche was subtracted from Mexico in 1848). The US spent much of the succeeding century progressively divesting the original inhabitants of their access to it and during that process, multitudes of European-origin settlers moved in – witting or unwitting foot soldiers of their government’s imperial ambitions. As historian Geoff Cunfer puts it, these pioneers “may have devoted most of their land, time, and energy to subsistence activities out of necessity” but they were “aggressively committed to…commercial cash-crop agriculture as fully and as soon as possible”1, because of their intimate connection to the global imperial nexus via their own government’s global ambitions.

Meanwhile in Europe, after Napoleon’s defeat Britain emerged as the dominant imperial and industrial power of the 19th century. With the abolition of its Corn Laws in 1846, cheap grain from North America (and, increasingly, other places with continental grasslands whose original inhabitants were also violently displaced in favour of export-oriented grain agriculture such as Australia and Central Asia) started flooding into industrialising Britain. The British agricultural workforce dwindled, and the British farmers who managed to survive the resulting agricultural crisis started favouring higher value, non-staple crops2.

All of which is to suggest that the search for cheap nitrogen in countries like Germany, the USA and Britain from the 19th century wasn’t just some inherent truth about the nature of farming and population increase, as the casual reader might surmise from the BI posts. Rather, it was the product of aggressively expansionist imperial-industrial ambitions, fuelled by fears among industrialising powers that lack of food autonomy made them vulnerable to enemies. If that point needs underscoring, perhaps Haber’s other main claim to chemical fame as the overseer of Germany’s successful chemical weapons programme during World War I might help to dramatize it.

Brazeau implicitly accepts this imperialist-expansionist aspect to the politics of agricultural nitrogen, but turns it into a world-historical truism:

“the Roman Empire was largely defined by imperial expansion, in search of fresh sources of nitrogen. They found it in the form of soil which had not yet been exhausted. The whole Mediterranean basin became tasked with feeding the city-state at the heart of the empire. All this is to say that this is not an industrial agriculture problem; clearly, it’s been a central obstacle of civilization for thousands of years. If the problem of nitrogen scarcity could be solved by cover crops and manure, it would have been solved long ago.”

But I think the direction of causality is wrong here, and so is the conclusion. Imperial expansionism sometimes involves a search for cheaper farm inputs, but the search for cheaper farm inputs is not usually the cause of imperial expansionism. And for a long time, in many parts of the world whose polities were not expanding aggressively, the problem of nitrogen scarcity was solved perfectly well by cover crops and manure.

The ghost of nitrogen present

But that was then and this is now. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the past, the fact is there are now 7.6 billion of us living on an ecologically fragile planet who somehow need to eat. The case set out by B&B in favour of synthetic fertiliser and against organic methods is, as they confess, the well-worn one that the lower average yields and higher average land-take of organic farming militates against it as a sustainable solution for contemporary food production.

Again, what strikes me about this argument is the things that aren’t said – four things in particular.

Thing #1. The idea that, as much as possible, we should aim to use less rather than more land for human crops surely commands wide agreement. So suppose you come to the issue afresh and take a look at global agricultural land use. You’d find that by far the largest proportion of the food that people eat is grown on arable land, which constitutes 29% of all agricultural land globally. You’d also find that about a third of this arable land was used to grow livestock fodder. You’d find that a small proportion of food comes from permanent crops, occupying 3% of all agricultural land. You’d find that the remaining 67% of farmland comprises permanent grassland, which produces a very small proportion of the food eaten globally in the form of meat – possibly no more than about 4%3. And you’d find that just over 1% of all this agricultural area was devoted to (formally) organic farming. If you did this, I think you’d probably conclude that the easiest way to reduce the global agricultural land take would be to reduce the amount of permanent pasture, followed by the amount of arable cropland devoted to livestock fodder, in view of the trophic inefficiencies involved. You might also wonder why B&B don’t mention this at all, and why they’re so exercised about the putative inefficiencies of the minuscule organic farming sector rather than the inefficiencies of the enormous livestock sector4.

Thing #2: Another idea that seems to command wide agreement is that it’s good to ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ with nitrogen fertiliser, as with many other things. Fertiliser has major upstream (energy) costs and downstream (pollution) costs, so using as little as possible surely makes sense. In their post, B&B go through various options for improving crop fertilisation through such things as better management of cover crops, manure and food waste. They don’t give an overall figure for how much synthetic fertiliser could be saved, but totting up their numbers it looks to me like it might be as much as 80% – though maybe I’ve got that wrong. Even if it’s much less, that’s surely a good place to start for improving agricultural efficiency, rather than targeting organic farming. If the answer to the question ‘how much land should we use for agriculture?’ is ‘as little as possible’, the answer to the question ‘how much organic farming should there be?’ is surely ‘as much as possible’. We live in a world of awkward trade-offs.

Thing #3: labour is a missing variable in the BI posts, but it’s lurking in their shadows. B&B state that traditionally farmers reserved between 25-50% of their land for (not directly edible) N-fixing legumes. These figures seem to trace back to Vaclav Smil’s fascinating book Enriching the Earth5. Smil states therein that traditional Chinese agriculture never devoted more than 10% of cropland to green manures, while in parts of England the corresponding figure was 13% up to 1740 and 27% by 1836. In his definitive contemporary guide to organic farming Nicholas Lampkin argues for a minimum ley of 35%6. What accounts for this apparent historical decrease in the efficiency of organic fertilisation? Probably a number of things (including yield increase), but I suspect one of them is declining labour availability and increasing mechanisation. In contexts of low food insecurity, low labour availability and high mechanisation, it’s just easier for organic farmers to build fertility with long leys. But there are other options – as in labour-intensive Chinese or historical European agriculture, with their finer-combed local recycling of nutrients. Personally, I think more labour-intensive and local agricultures are the right way for agriculture to develop. I accept that other people may disagree. I don’t accept that current levels or trends in agricultural labour inputs should be assumed to be inherently the right ones.

Thing #4:  B&B write, “organic farms typically have 20% lower yields than conventional farms, requiring more land to produce a given amount of food. This means less land for wildlife habitats or other purposes”. But hold on – that’s only true if you assume that farms themselves aren’t wildlife habitats, that wildlife is indifferent to the habitats afforded by organic and conventional farms, that the possibilities for wildlife to move between habitats across farmland is unaffected by farming styles, that increased production or per hectare yields is always desirable, that ‘other purposes’ are more important than organic farming…and many other things besides. All of these points are at least debatable. I keep going back to this excellent brief critique of the so-called ‘land sparing’ argument by ecologist Joern Fischer, which to my mind effectively skewers the misplaced certainties of B&B’s one liner. As Fischer’s analysis suggests, while producing as much crop as possible from as small an area as possible using synthetic fertiliser certainly can be an appropriate goal in some situations, it’s an oversimplification to imply that the greater land-take of organic farming inherently limits its claims to environmental benefit7.

The ghost of nitrogen future

What would a future world that dispensed with synthetic fertiliser look like? Scarily profligate, according to B&B. They write: “Since synthetic fertilizer provides nearly 60% of current nitrogen for producing crops, eliminating it without making any other changes would require far more farmland to fix enough nitrogen to maintain production….The world would need to more than double the amount of cropland.”

The italicisation is B&B’s, not mine. Note its nervousness. Isn’t it a little bizarre to assume there would be an international drive so radical as to make global agriculture entirely organic but without making any other changes? In truth, ‘without making any other changes’ seems to be the leitmotif of the Breakthrough Institute’s entire programme, which amounts to the view that people in rich countries can carry on living as they do, people in poor countries will soon be able to live in the same way, and with a bit of high-tech magic it can all be achieved while lessening humanity’s overall environmental impact.

Well, it’s a view – a fanciful one in my opinion, and not one that I’d like to see manifested even if it were possible. But I’d note that it is just a view – one of many different visions about what a good life and a good future might entail. Trying to realise it is a choice that’s open to us. Other choices are also available. What I dislike about the BI posts is the way they implicitly lead the reader to conclude that a synthetic nitrogen future is inevitable and scientifically foreordained, rather than a choice we can make – one with consequences for better and worse, as with all choices.

The alternatives? Well, if we want to talk about inefficient agricultures, the vastly inefficient production of meat (disproportionately consumed by the world’s richer people) is an obvious place to start. I’m not a vegan and I think there’s a place for livestock on the farm and a place for permanent pasture in global landscapes – indeed, I’ve argued the case for it strongly in the past. But the scale of the global livestock industry doesn’t have to be taken as a given. As Fischer suggests, it isn’t incumbent upon humanity to meet every economic demand that arises. After all, the UN has a special rapporteur on the human right to food – it doesn’t have one on the human right to meat. Of course, it’s not fair that only the rich should get easy access to meat. There are various ways to proceed from that point: maintaining or increasing meat production levels is only one of them.

Smaller-scale, more labour-intensive agricultures geared to better nutrient cycling would be another alternative starting place. I won’t rehearse all the arguments here about depeasantisation, urbanisation and livelihoods, not to mention carbon and energy futures, but a large commercial farm that uses synthetic nitrogen and other relatively expensive inputs isn’t intrinsically better than a smallholding that doesn’t. I think it’s time we laid aside the expansionary and ultimately imperialist mindset that insists otherwise, and settled down a bit. If the US reined in some of that $150 billionsworth of food exports that Brazeau mentions (which it’s ‘tasked’ with only really through its own self-interested economic agenda), less input-intensive and more labour-intensive agricultural approaches may become a little more feasible again worldwide, and could bring many benefits. Moving towards less aggressively expansionist economic ideologies in general certainly seems worth pondering as a route for humanity’s future. You might take a different view – but it would be good if we could at least agree that we’re talking about different views, not the inescapable truths that the BI posts seem to suggest.

Just to crank a few numbers of my own around these issues, I looked at FAO data on current global production of barley, cassava, maize, millet, plantains, potatoes, rice, sorghum, soybeans, sugar, sweet potato, taro, wheat and yams (my calculations are here if anyone would like to probe or critique them). This list probably encompasses most of the world’s major energy-rich crops (oil crops excepted), but scarcely even begins to capture total agricultural productivity. Totting up the total calories produced from them and then dividing that figure by the total calories needed by a 7.6 billion strong humanity at 2250 kcal per day, I find there’s a 43% surfeit over human calorific need from those crops alone. If we then correct the production figure downwards by the 20% that B&B say is the typical organic yield penalty, include a generous 35% organic ley and make a few adjustments for existing organic production and livestock products from the ley, we find that organic production can probably meet around 90% of total human calorific needs just from those 14 crops at existing levels of land-take. That’s just a ballpark, back-of-envelope calculation, but it suggests to me that this ‘organic agriculture can’t feed the world’ trope is a bit overblown. I’m not too bothered about whether it can or not – but I think we’d be better off debating the subjective content of our visions rather than writing them in ways that seek to buttress their historical inevitability or objective truth.

 Notes

 1. Cunfer, Geoff. 2005. On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, p.99.

2. Thirsk, Joan. 1997. Alternative Agriculture: A History. Oxford UP.

3. A ballpark figure I’ve come up with from FAO data, based on all the cattle, sheep, goat and horse meat produced globally (so possibly an overestimate?)

4. Data in this paragraph from http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/QL; http://orgprints.org/32677/19/Willer-2018-global-data-biofach.pdf; http://www.fao.org/animal-production/en/

5. Smil, Vaclav. 2001. Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production. MIT Press.

6. Lampkin, Nicholas. 1990. Organic Farming. Farming Press, p.150.

7. Actually, Blomqvist has written a longer piece on this specific issue here, which is quite interesting – but not to my mind ultimately convincing that the ‘land sparing’ concept is robust to the kind of criticisms levelled by Fischer.