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.


  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.


  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.


 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.


 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;;

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.

In praise of stupid: for a self-systemic farming

I’ve been blogging for over six years under this ‘Small Farm Future’ moniker, without devoting much effort to defining what a ‘small farm’ actually is. So I thought I’d try to make at least some minor amends on that score in this post. Strangely, I think the results bear on recent discussions here, including the one under my last post on regenerative agriculture.

The standard response to the question ‘how small is a small farm?’ is the same as the standard response to most questions – it depends. A small peri-urban market garden may be a fraction of an acre, whereas a small upland livestock operation may be hundreds or even thousands of acres. So a quantitative definition in terms of land area doesn’t get us far. The same of course holds true for defining large farms. Blank quantification doesn’t elucidate the essential difference between ‘small’ and ‘large’.

Perhaps we get closer to the crux if we say that a small farm is one that serves its local community. A small farm is not one that sells its produce into national or international commodity markets, but one that usually sells directly to local customers. I think this definition is serviceable, but it obscures some details that need highlighting. Most ‘local communities’ in wealthy countries – and, in fact, generally in the world today – are not fundamentally organised with respect to local space and resources. In this sense, a small farm serving its local community is anomalous. Further, because of the non-localism of local economic space, many of the inputs used in small farms are necessarily not that local. The result is that most of us who produce food for local sale have to compromise in various ways, and expect our customers to understand the nature of these compromises sufficiently to keep buying from us rather than simply going to the supermarket. That’s not impossible, but it’s not easy, and it goes some way to explaining why there aren’t many small farms, and why a lot of the ones that do start up go out of business. Michelle’s fascinating account on this site of operating a ranching operation in Hawaii at local and not-so-local retail levels nicely illustrates the kind of dilemmas that arise.

Maybe another way of broaching these issues is to say that a small farm is one that doesn’t grow staple cereal crops for sale. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that the history of modern global civilization is keyed fundamentally to the story of how the world’s immense semi-arid continental grasslands were transformed through colonial violence in Old World and New from human ecologies of foraging and pastoralism to ones of (increasingly mechanised) cereal production1. The resultant vast global flows of cheap grain have successively undermined smaller-scale and more localised agricultures – first in the colonial heartlands (eg. the English agricultural crisis of the 1880s), then in the grain-producing grasslands themselves (eg. with the substantial demise of independent rural farm communities in the US mid-west, starting in the 1920s and 30s) and finally with the demise of peasant grain production and increasing import dependence throughout most of the postcolonial world from the 1960s as a result of international grain trading and food dumping2. To a considerable degree, global grain prices drive the price of almost everything else, and small farms serving local markets can’t compete with them, at least within the narrow framing of the contemporary economy. In other words, small farms have to be ‘niche’ to survive…and are therefore fairly irrelevant to the global food system.

For numerous reasons that I’ve set out on this blog over the years, I think this global food system (and therefore global civilisation writ large) is increasingly beset by crises that it will probably be unable to resolve through its existing structures. I also think that the small farm is the most likely saviour from these crises – but a ‘post-global’ or ‘post-industrial’ small farm won’t look much like the small farms of the present, and it may not look much like the small farms of the past either.

But that’s for the future. For now, the definition of the small farm that I most want to work with is the idea of it as a ‘self-systemic’ entity. Let me try to explain. Generally, I don’t favour technological solutionism in the face of the world’s problems, because I think it usually bequeaths at least as many problems as it solves and in fact is exemplary of the kind of super-scaled terraforming that’s precisely what got us into the mess we’re in in the first place. This would apply, for example, to mitigating climate change by installing vast mirrors in space or seeding the oceans with iron filings. It also applies to much agricultural scheming – from ‘conventional’ approaches such as precision farming, agri-chemical no till, vertical farming, hydroponics etc. to ‘alternative’ ones such as organics, mob-stocking, perennial grain cropping and regenerative agriculture.

Generally, I’m reasonably sympathetic to ‘holistic’ ideas about the common thread between good farming, good food, good health and good earth stewardship, though these connections are often tied up too neatly for my taste in much advocacy for various alternative farming techniques. The claims for the benefits of these techniques often outrun the evidence for them, and I’m uncomfortable with the way that they’re so often presented as a complete system which people in general ought to follow in order to solve humanity’s problems – indeed, that they’d be stupid not to. Stupidity has long been imputed by the advocates of progress and agricultural ‘improvement’ to small farmers practicing self-systemic agriculture historically3. It’s not hard now to find contrary examples of alternative agriculture enthusiasts returning fire to ‘conventional’ agriculture. I daresay I’ve erred myself in this respect.

Well, call me stupid but I now want out of this megalomaniac solutionism. So I’m tempted to define the small farm as ‘anti-systemic’. The small farm is a farm which is not run on principles like feeding the world, solving climate change, cutting costs or prices, increasing market share, impressing neighbours or peers, beating out the competition, maximising yield or saving the planet. It’s a place whose farmers are trying to provision themselves with the resources to hand, not build a ‘system’ to proselytise and ramify. But of course farming is intrinsically ‘systemic’ – it involves numerous deliberate procedures and input-output loops that you learn from other people, mess around with and apply or modify to the best of your ability. So I’ve gone with the notion of ‘self-systemic’ – the small farm is a farm system that purports no more than furnishing the self.

This raises more questions than it answers, but I think they’re the right kind of questions. One set of questions proceeds from the notion of the ‘self’, because nobody is just a ‘self’. How am I connected to other people? What is my ‘community’? What duties do I have in respect of it, and it to me? What duties do I have to people who are not in my ‘community’? To my descendants, or my ancestors? Another set of questions proceeds from the notion of the resources ‘to hand’. What lands, soils, water, air, energies, plants, germplasm and minerals can be said to be ‘to hand’? And what legacies in respect of them does my farming leave?

There’s nothing massively original in what I’m saying, but I think we easily forget its import. The permaculture movement, for example, has been good at posing these first principle questions – what are the resources of this land and this community? But permaculture design often reverts to systemic shibboleths – no till, perennial plantings, space stacking etc. One of the last comments of the late, lamented permaculturist Patrick Whitefield on this blog was this:

The longer I practice permaculture…the more I’m convinced that dogma and off-the-peg solutions don’t help at all. Every situation is unique. Every piece of land is unique and so are the people who work it. It behoves us to choose the unique solution that will work best in each situation….Having a favourite theory and pushing that above all others is no help to anyone.

Actually, the comment was aimed critically at me, but it’s one I wholly agree with…and much of my critical writing within the alternative agriculture movement has really been an attempt to articulate it. By contrast, not only our entire civilization but also most of the alternatives and critiques of it within and without agriculture proceed too easily from the notion that every piece of land and every person is not unique, but assimilable to wider truths. And of course, all of us and all places are participants in wider relationships that aren’t just self-generated. To me, that contradiction is at the heart of contemporary dilemmas – agricultural, political, environmental, spiritual. And I’d like to place the self-systemic small farm at the heart of them.

Schumacher wrote that ‘small is beautiful’ (though apparently he hated the title). Beckerman countered that ‘small is stupid’. Contemporary complacency over climate change is characterised as ‘The Age of Stupid’. Keith Hart writes that agriculture bears a political weight beyond its economic importance because rural imagery shapes the modern idea of the nation as resistant to modernism under the slogan “stop the world, I want to get off”4 – the characteristic slogan of a superficial anti-romanticism.

I’d like to define the small farm as something that’s richly and knowingly indifferent to all these stupidities and counter-stupidities, and to the worldliness, anti-worldliness or other-worldliness that the slogan invoked by Hart is trying to fix and anatomize. It’s hard to attain such a complex indifference – but I think it’s worth a try.


  1. See, for example: W. Cronon. 1991. Nature’s Metropolis. Norton; R. Netz. 2004. Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity. Wesleyan UP; D. Moon. 2013. The Plough That Broke The Steppes. Oxford UP.
  2. M. Mazoyer & L. Roudart. 2006. A History of World Agriculture. Earthscan.
  3. Examples are provided by J. Handy. 2009. Almost idiotic wretchedness: a long history of blaming peasants. Journal of Peasant Studies. 36, 2: 325-44.
  4. K. Hart. 2004. ‘The political economy of food in an unequal world’ in M. Lien and B. Nerlich (eds) The Politics of Food, Berg.

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

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

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

Defining regenerative agriculture and carbon farming

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Regen-Ag protects and builds soil

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

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

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

  1. Regen-Ag provides adequate crop nutrients

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

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

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

  1. Regen-Ag produces high yields

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Regen-Ag earns greater rewards for farmers

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

  1. Regen-Ag can improve human health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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  1. David Johnson
  2. Eg.
  3. Eg.
  4. Eg.; for a discussion of this among British farmers, see 
  6. V. Smil. 2017. Energy and Civilization, MIT Press, p.308; V. Smil. 2001. Enriching the Earth. MIT Press.
  7. David Johnson
  8. Disclosure: I once vehemently and obtusely sought to deny this point in an online discussion with an Australian scientist whose name now escapes me. Sorry, sir – I was wrong.
  9. E. Ingham. 2015. Presentation at Canadian Organic Growers’ Conference, Toronto, Feb 2015.
  12. David Johnson
  13. Gail FullerJ. Baker et al. 2007. Tillage and soil carbon sequestration – what do we really know? Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment. 118: 1-5; Z. Luo et al. 2010. Can no tillage stimulate carbon sequestration in agricultural soils? Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment. 139: 224-231.
  14. P. Rochette. 2008. No-till only increases N2O emissions in poorly-aerated soils. Soil & Tillage Research. 101, 1-2: 97-100.
  15. S. Singh. 2009. Climate Change and Crops; DEFRA (2007). The effects of reduced tillage practices and organic material additions on the carbon content of arable soils.
  16. IPCC; CGIAR; Singh, Ibid.
  17. S. Fairlie. 2010. Meat. Permanent Publications; Rafter Sass Ferguson.
  18. George Monbiot; D. Briske et al.
  19. M. Fan et al. 2008. Evidence of decreasing mineral density in wheat grain over the last 160 years. Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology. 22, 4: 315-24; F. Denison. 2010. Darwinian Agriculture. Princeton UP.
  20.’m not sure which country’s rates Jones is referring to. I’m most familiar with UK data, so I’ve used that – I doubt the conclusions I draw here would be radically different if data were used from other ‘developed’ countries.
  22. A. Jemal et al

Energy prospects: little to Smil about?

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

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

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

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

 1. Peak oil

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

2. Fossil fuel

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

3. Energy transitions

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

4. Nuclear power

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

5. Cities

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

6. Agricultural involution

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

7. Materiality and social status

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

From info-tech to post-capitalism?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History crash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Three acres and a cow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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