What if we only ate food from local farms?

“We would die from starvation. It’s that simple.” Or so TV botanist James Wong recently tweeted in response to the title question, taken from a BBC feature. In this post I’m going to make the case that we wouldn’t, that it isn’t simple, and that in fact our chances of starving are probably higher – albeit in some quite unsimple ways – if we don’t start eating more food from local farms.

A good many of the comments under James’s tweet rehearsed various misconceptions about local food, so in a change to my intended programme I feel the need to put another side to the story in this post. If what I write here whets your appetite, so to speak, I cover these points in more detail in my forthcoming book, A Small Farm Future.

So…to answer the opening question, it’s necessary for some definitions – who is ‘we’, and what exactly does ‘local’ mean? Many of the commenters under James’s tweet took the question to mean ‘what if we, the inhabitants of Britain, only ate food that was grown in the country?’ which seems a reasonable starting point. If ‘we’, so defined, had to do this tomorrow, we’d probably struggle. But to me, the larger question is could we do it if we wanted to, given time to prepare?

Various commenters invoked the lessons of history in support of James’s assertion, correctly pointing out that Britain hasn’t been self-sufficient in food for two centuries. But what this tells us is that self-reliance hasn’t been a priority of national food policy over that period, not that it’s impossible. This raises the interesting question of why that’s so and whether it might change in the future, points I’ll come to shortly. First, though, it’s worth asking whether Britain could conceivably feed itself if it so wished.

Under current conditions, the answer seems to me a pretty clear yes. In 2018, the UK grew 13.5 million tonnes of wheat and 3.2 million tonnes of potatoes for human consumption on an area that amounted to about 31% of its arable land and 10% of its total farmland. Those two crops alone provide more than enough protein to meet the daily recommended amount for all of Britain’s 66.4 million people over a whole year, and about 85% of recommended calorific intake. It would be easy enough to meet the remaining 15% from crops on the rest of the farmland, or by expanding wheat and potato production a little.

We can make more stringent assumptions and still attain self-sufficiency. Suppose we grew wheat and potatoes organically without high-energy fertilizer inputs. If we assume rock-bottom-of-the-range organic wheat yields of 2.5 tonnes per hectare and organic potato yields of 20 tonnes per hectare (the corresponding figures for conventional crops currently are about 8 t/ha and 45 t/ha respectively) then we could meet the UK population’s total energy and protein needs even with these low yields on just 75% of the country’s current arable farmland area.

A diet comprising solely wheat and potatoes might sound grim, but bear in mind we’re feeding the entire population’s macronutrient needs from them on less than 20% of the country’s land area even assuming super-low yields. That gives a lot of space – all those pastures, orchards, gardens, allotments, city farms and all the rest of it – to lively up our diet with more variety. However hard it might be for us to shift to food self-reliance, the reason isn’t agricultural carrying capacity.

Commenters under James’s tweet raised various other objections to the possibility of British food self-reliance, but they mostly seemed to me exercises in whataboutery that missed their target. For example:

What about the war – Britain wasn’t even food self-reliant in the 1940s when the pressure was on and the incentive for it was sky-high. The main pressure that was on during the war was to win it. Improving national food self-reliance was an important but subsidiary goal to that overriding objective. With a vast amount of resource and labour devoted directly or indirectly to fighting, it’s hardly surprising that we failed to achieve food self-sufficiency.

What about the winter, when food is scarce? Seasons are pretty predictable, at least for now. So if you’re not importing food you can plan ahead. With modern refrigeration and other highfaluting, energy-intensive methods this is a doddle. Even without it, our forebears have bequeathed us numerous cunning techniques: canning, salting, smoking, clamping, drying, pickling and … remember Lent? … fasting. If all else fails, we can even grow Hungry Gap kale.

What about staples like oranges and coffee – we simply can’t grow them here. True. But they’re not staples. I’d sure miss coffee though. Next.

What about the Irish potato famine – national food self-reliance didn’t work out too well there! There’s a long answer to this, and a short answer. The short answer is that famines are rarely just about an absolute lack of food, and invariably involve questions of social entitlement – a view famously articulated by Amartya Sen in his book Poverty and Famines. When a famine strikes, look first at what’s going on socially and politically, not at the Malthusian equation of crop yields and mouths to feed.

OK, but what about major crop failures and poor seasons – you can’t always provide for your needs locally in the face of these fluctuations. Farming systems oriented to self-reliance build in resilience to crop failure, and most of them can survive a year or two of bad harvests pretty easily, except in situations like 1840s Ireland when people are forced into monocropping on tiny plots. But it’s true that markets for non-local food can sometimes be a boon in times of dearth. A couple of points to bear in mind here, though. First, money can buy you food, but only if you have money, so again we need to look at social entitlements. And second, if it’s not too obvious to say it, money doesn’t actually create food, so it’s unwise to assume that access to the former guarantees access to the latter. True, money can incentivize people to create food and sell it, but only under certain circumstances and in the face of various constraints. The more that we attend to securing our food needs locally under our own power, the less vulnerable we are to these circumstances and constraints outside our control.

oOo

Some further thoughts to close on these issues of food supply and money. Going back to the objection that Britain hasn’t been food self-reliant for two centuries, the missing piece in this puzzle is money. In the 19th century, Britain could buy grain more cheaply from abroad than it could produce it at home … and it had plenty of money, because all those people who weren’t farming were toiling in factories. But with transport and communications being what they were back then, we grew most of our own fruit and vegetables. Nowadays, the situation is reversed. We’re more or less self-sufficient in grain, but import a large proportion of our fruit and vegetables – essentially because grain is more fuel-intensive to grow whereas fruit and veg are more labour-intensive, and the relative prices of fuel and labour in Britain currently favour the former. Britain’s lack of food self-reliance over the last couple of centuries has a lot to do with price signals, and nothing much to do with ecological carrying capacity.

But things can change. Most countries are net importers of energy. Most of the world’s bread-basket regions are threatened by climate change and water scarcity. We need to stop using fossil fuels. While small, wealthy countries can at present pick and choose where to obtain their food on global markets, there is not – to paraphrase a former British prime minister – a magic global food surplus tree that will keep on providing for everybody so long as we water it with money. We’re so often enjoined nowadays not to romanticize the ability of peasant societies and local agricultures to achieve self-reliance. I think we’d be better off not romanticizing the ability of market trade to continue buying us out of food self-reliance. But if we do keep romanticizing global food trade, I think we’re far more likely to starve, sooner or later. This is for a number of reasons, including the fact that relying on a global food commodity system that responds to short-term price signals (driven mostly by cheap fossil fuel prices) and not long-term biophysical signals like a heating climate incentivizes practices that damage agroecosystems and earth systems. Meanwhile, cheap global food commodities already undermine local agricultures in places where people lack the economic opportunities to buy themselves out of hunger – more starvation.

So, if you’re rich enough to think about these things, I’d commend the opening question as a handy personal resilience health-checker. Are there farms and gardens within walking distance of where you live that can provide for all your food needs, and those of all the other local residents? More to the point if you’re not yourself a farmer or a grower, are there people within walking distance of where you live who are likely to be willing to provide for your food needs in future scenarios of energy, climate or economic turbulence? If not, perhaps you might start buying more from local farms in order to help stimulate the better local supply that you need, or even better become a local farmer yourself. Or move to where your answer to that question could conceivably be ‘yes’. It seems likely that in the coming decades a lot of people will be on the move, looking for places that can service their food needs in a climate-challenged and energy-constrained world. Might as well get going now…

Down the toilet…

Still mired as I am in book editing, I’m not finding the time to engage with this blog as I wish. Hopefully, that’ll change soon. But I feel the need to make a brief appearance here today to mark Britain’s exit from the European Union – and, not unconnectedly, to talk about toilets.

Moves have been afoot for a ‘Big Ben bong’ at midnight tonight to celebrate our ‘independence’ from the EU, with a crowdfunder to expedite the repair and refurbishment of the clock in time for the big moment. I always thought a bong was something for smoking intoxicating substances in cafés – which is kind of appropriate, because a lot of people probably won’t have much else to do but sit around and take their mind off things once Brexonomics bites. But the appeal didn’t raise enough money, and permission to ring the bell was refused by the Houses of Parliament anyway. Somehow I can’t help seeing this as an omen for Brexit: the icon of British sovereignty is broken and in need of repairs, not enough people care enough to pay for them, and in any case the repairs are stymied by bureaucratic nay-saying of the kind we were supposed to have overcome by leaving the EU.

This is always the way with nationalism. The unities and resolutions it asserts never quite work, because the underlying story is always more complicated. Fintan O’Toole – whose acerbic Brexit commentaries have consistently hit the nail on the head for me – puts it like this:

“There is no doubt that Brexit has worked in the way that nationalist movements try to – it has united people across great divides of social class and geography in the name of a transcendent identity …. But the problem is that this unity of national purpose functions within a nation that does not actually exist: non-metropolitan England and parts of English-speaking Wales. And it is purchased at the very high price of creating much deeper divisions between England-without-London and the rest of the British-Irish archipelago.”

The opportunity in this is that it could ultimately weaken Westminster’s grip on the country – most strongly at first in Scotland and Ireland, but eventually in England and Wales too. Once the scent of secession is in the nostrils, there’s no telling where it might end – possibly in those parts of pro-Brexit, non-metropolitan England having to take full responsibility for their own wellbeing. I’m not sure that’s what they were voting for, but in the long run it may well be what people are going to have to do across the world in the face of our numerous economic and environmental problems. So … Brexit … hell yeah, why not? Let’s start practicing. The Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, here we come.

Actually, I don’t think Brexit is a secession so much as what I’ve called elsewhere a supersedure. Britain has left ‘Europe’ but is still part of it, just as the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex would still be part of a larger polity. So, much as I’d have preferred to avoid the numerous absurdities of Brexit, I think it’ll prove an interesting experiment in what’s to come. Not least because the EU has long been an exclusive club to which other countries have desperately sought entry. I think we’re about to find out why.

What’s to come agriculturally looks like the ending of per acre subsidies for landowners, with public money paid only for delivering ‘ecosystem services’. Which is great, except that since there’s no commitment to national food self-reliance, we’re also set for agricultural trade deals on probably disadvantageous terms – certainly for the average farmer. Expect more farm closures, lots of nature-friendly rewilding at home, and cheap, nature-unfriendly food from abroad … while we can still pay for it.

Still, who cares? We’re sitting pretty on our farm. The outlook for UK veg growers is good, we’re not reliant on subsidies, and we’ve already made considerable strides towards supersedure. For example, our compost toilets save us from wasting water or fertility that we can furnish ourselves, ultimately saving us money that we probably soon won’t have as the rest of the world carves up lonely and vulnerable little Britain. It started with voting for Brexit. It’ll end with townsfolk spreading over the countryside and carefully composting their shit. Welcome to my world. Well, there are worse ways to live. At least when I look down the toilet I know that, however feeble my other accomplishments, I’ve made some kind of solid contribution.

But never let it be said that here at Vallis Veg we hoard our riches at the expense of others. The wisdom of our accumulated compost toilet experience is now available to you in our online course, where you’ll be safe in the hands of our resident toilet expert, my dear wife Cordelia. It’s her show and not mine, but if you look very closely you may just catch a glimpse of some of my dodgy plumbing. The good news is, you get the first seven minutes – in which Cordelia explains how to supersede yourself just a little bit from the capitalist system – absolutely free. And the rest for a mere £45 …which I guarantee we won’t spend on bongs, of any description.

Of chancers and last-chancers

Time for me to arise from my book-editing duties and offer belated new year wishes from Small Farm Future. Already, it’s been a year of reversals. The year when the USA finally stopped just chasing after rogue states and actually became one. The year when the UK decided its best option for economic renewal was to ape Singapore – forgetting not only that Singapore achieved economic renewal by aping Britain, but also unfortunately that Singapore aping Britain has a brighter look about it than Britain aping Singapore aping Britain. It’s also the year when the British police classified Extinction Rebellion as an extremist organization and urged state employees to exercise vigilance in the face of people “speaking in strong or emotive terms about environmental issues like climate change”. Truly, the lunatics are running the asylum.

Another reversal, though perhaps not so unexpected, is that it’s the year in which the celebrated campaigner and journalist George Monbiot seems to have finally gone full ecomodernist, embracing the case for humanity to abandon farming and embrace lab-grown, ‘farm-free’ food.

I posted on this a while back in response to an early shot across the bows from George about the direction he was travelling. The discussion under that post was one of the most erudite, informed and wide-ranging ones there’s ever been on my site, most likely because I played little part in it. So I don’t plan to cover the same ground. As I’ve often said about George in the past, since he’s just about the only radical left-green voice widely heard in the British media, I try not to get too infuriated when he takes positions with which I disagree. But jeepers, it’s getting harder. This post is probably my last throw of that particular dice.

I’ll skip the technicalities of George’s surely unproven case that farm-free food stacks up on energetic or health grounds, something that prompted a fascinating discussion under my previous post. I’ll skip too making the case for the ‘extensive farming’ that George casually dismisses as being worse than intensive farming on the basis of a paper from the ur-ecomodernists of the Breakthrough Institute, who only a few years ago he was criticizing for their criticisms of extensive farming. Though I must say in passing that it’s not a great look to found an argument for junking the entire historic basis of human provisioning on the authority of a hardly disinterested paper which draws its data from another paper which draws its data from a handful of LCAs of current practices with only a couple of data points seemingly aligning with the anti-extensive view.

The more troubling issue for me is the implicit convergence of George’s position towards forms of what some have bluntly labelled ecofascism. Again, he was vigorously and rightly contesting such views only recently when Steven Pinker mischaracterized the environmental movement for being “laced with misanthropy”, indulging in “ghoulish fantasies of a depopulated planet” and “Nazi-like comparisons of human beings to vermin”. There are too many issues to unpick here. I guess right now I just want to say two things. First, historically, getting people out of farming has rarely ended well for the ex-farmers, and there are more farmers in the world than any other single job. And second, making people mere spectators of the natural world is unlikely to do either people or the natural world a long-term favour. George’s plan for sparing nature is self-defeating.

But what I really want to explore is why George has ended up where he has, and to do that I’d like to offer the following nature spotters’ guide to the ecomodernists, which my recent research has established come in four distinct sub-species.

The Old Timers: long ago, in more innocent days, talking up the capacity to find market and high-tech solutions to emerging environmental problems was no doubt an alternative view to the countercultural zeal of Schumacher et al that was worth making. So let us bear no grudges against the likes of Julian Simon or Wilfred Beckerman. But, guys, what a monster you spawned…

The Rogue Males: Sometimes people get on a train of thought that takes them way beyond their anticipated destination. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s good to stay fresh and skeptically enquiring. But it’s also easy to succumb to your own sales patter or hero narrative. This is a particular danger for smart, charismatic males as they age. Take a bow, Stewart Brand.

The Chancers: the bread-and-butter ecomodernists of today are polemicists for capitalism-as-usual and high-tech solutionism who increasingly clearly are flogging a dead horse. They often get accused of being industry shills, a matter on which I couldn’t comment. Maybe it’s more likely that they’re shilling for their own industry, which is writing benedictory books about how everything will be fine and we just all need to carry on doing what we’re doing. Their work is occasionally illuminating but one-sided to the point of dishonesty, as is usually revealed by the fatuous insults they direct at their critics: Marxist, Luddite, primitivist, romantic etc. In my experience, it can be scary when faced with a herd of such chancers braying these words at you – but in truth they’re flighty beasts who can easily be dispatched by shouting “absolute decoupling” very loudly.

The Last-Chancers: the gentlest members of the ecomodernist bestiary, these are people who have looked long and hard at the future to which we’re hurtling and got very, very scared. They’ve spent a lot of time trying to warn us about this wolf at our door, only to find that not only do we treat their prophecies with indifference but we’ve actually welcomed the wolf in and installed him in the White House and No.10. Understandably, they’ve now given up on prophecies and politics and are desperately clutching at whatever darned thing they think might just conceivably save us in the last chance saloon we now inhabit – nuclear power, lab-grown eco-gloop or whatever.

My theory is that George has become a last-chancer, perhaps with a dash of rogue male thrown in. I sympathize, but I don’t think it’ll work. It certainly won’t work without a detailed plan of how you transcend the moment of ecomodernist salvation and institute a steadier state ecological economy in its aftermath, which the last-chancers don’t seem to do – perhaps because it would have the self-undermining result of drawing them back into politics.

So, however improbable, it seems to me that the only things that will save us are two of the oldest human trades: farming and politics. I plan to keep nailing my colours to those masts.

But I do have a Plan B if George’s vision succeeds. In that eventuality, I’m going to slip the fence of his urban dystopia with my sheep, find a pleasant grassy spot somewhere, and make my living as a mammal and a farmer, surrounded by other wild creatures.

Meanwhile, at some point soon I might have to withdraw my props for George and attach them to someone like Vaclav Smil – an energy analyst who seems to be travelling in the opposite direction, from fossil fueled eco-scepticism to a more somber take on humanity’s future, including our invariably misplaced enthusiasm for sunrise technologies to save us from bad politics and bad culture.

Happy holidays – but not TOO happy, please

And so another year of blog posts comes to an end. It’s been a rather sparse one, I fear, with a mere sixteen posts, as compared to my usual output in the 30s and 40s. Well, I have been writing a book – and regrettably I’m still deep in that process, a tale that perhaps I’ll tell another day. So the lean patch is set to continue into next year. But there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

Which brings me to my holiday message. Perusing the small section of current affairs titles in my small-town independent bookshop the other day, I came across a plethora of light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel books: Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism and Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists – all bearing the canonical ecomodernist glad tidings that we’ve never had it so good, and things are only going to get better. What’s with this strange publishing phenomenon? I wouldn’t mind seeing the odd such volume on the shelves as a counterweight to the general doominess of our times, but this doominess scarcely seems to have made it into mass non-fiction. On the face of it, the way these kind of books are cornering the market in popular futurology would make you think that after years of misery we’re on the brink of a golden age.

The face of it isn’t the right place to look, though. Human orneriness being what it is, well-grounded presentiments that the good times are about to end seem to have spawned a thriving market for latter-day prophets to reassure us otherwise. And where there’s a market for people’s hopes, there’s sure to be a crowded field of hucksters ready to tell them what they want to hear – spirit mediums or Harvard psychology professors, hearing voices from beyond the grave or divining future plenty from graphed data (on this latter point, Jessica Riskin has recently published one of the better critiques of Steven Pinker’s screed, in which she emphasizes Enlightenment as self-critique – an uncomfortable message that doubtless we’d all do well to heed. A bonus of her analysis is that she’s one of the few people writing about the Enlightenment these days who actually knows something about the Enlightenment).

Perhaps part of the problem here is our modern emphasis on the importance of that fleeting emotion, happiness. So often nowadays, we’re told that people want upbeat narratives and happy endings, not doom and gloom. Which of course is what ecomodernism provides in spades. There’s a double irony here, since the notion that people want upbeat narratives seems to be something of a modernist affliction, and one that we’d probably be happier without. When we spend too much time or money pursuing ease and simple self-gratification, happiness often eludes us. If, on the other hand, we accept that we won’t always be happy and instead dedicate ourselves to working with other people on difficult long-term projects that motivate us for reasons beyond individual happiness and with uncertain chances of success, then often enough something like happiness bubbles surprisingly upwards out of our actions and interactions.

Ultimately, I’m not sure that people really do just want happy stories or anaesthetics like ecomodernism. But I accept that we do all have a tendency to avoid self-criticism, making us easy prey for those ready to reassure us that modern life does no harm, when it very clearly does. And a tendency to submit to powerful myths that are not easily overturned, such as our modern myths of progress.

Ah well, trying to overturn them and tell a different story is a difficult long-term project to which I’ve dedicated myself. And in doing so I’ve gained a certain amount of happiness along the way, not least through engaging with other people on similar journeys through this blog. But let’s face it, happiness can only get one so far – there are few convincing substitutes for cold, hard cash. And since I’ve dedicated myself so wholeheartedly this year to writing, I’ve come up a bit short in the latter department. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by Mrs Small Farm Future, who’s expecting a bit more small farming and a bit less futuring from me next year.

So you know what I’m going to say. The ‘Donate’ button is top right. I’ll readily admit that I haven’t showered you with bloggerly riches of late, but I’m hoping that the bookshops will be selling at least one volume next year that twists the stick in a different direction to the ecomodernists – if only I can keep up with my lonely literary discipline. To paraphrase Wikipedia – if all my readers in their impressive multitudes were to donate just £2, I’d be able to… I’d be able to… I’d be able to afford the bus fare to my next XR demo, possibly with enough left over to part-fund the trip that would doubtless result to the magistrate’s court. So please dig deep.

Whether you donate or not, I hope to see you here again in the new year, as soon as my other duties permit. In the meantime I wish you happy holidays. Though not, of course, too happy – there are more important things to be getting on with.

Let us eat Brexit

Unfortunately I was too busy to pen an election blogpost prior to the event, but on the upside at least this makes foretelling the result easier – I predict a thumping majority for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party, putting an end to ten years of thin majorities and scrabbling coalitions in British politics.

OK, so I admit that hindsight makes prediction quite a bit easier, but even now a lot of us are still scratching our heads trying to work out what the hell just happened. Ideally, I’d like to avoid adding my voice to the welter of wise-after-the-event opinion-mongering that claims to know exactly what the Labour Party got wrong, and write instead on the implications for my main themes of sustainable localism and agrarianism. But in order to achieve the latter, I think I do need to indulge in a little of the former…

Labour’s erstwhile top brass have blamed the result on their ambiguous stance on Brexit, compared to Johnson’s simplistic ‘let’s get Brexit done’ messaging. Some Labour activists outside the Corbyn faction have called this ‘mendacious nonsense’ and blamed the unpopularity of the leader himself. There’s no denying Corbyn’s low public esteem, but it’s worth further pondering this analysis.

First, it’s not actually an analysis – further steps are needed to explain how voters proceed from personal dislike of Corbyn (“There’s something about his mannerisms” in the words of one Labour-turned-Conservative voter in a depressed, post-industrial erstwhile Labour town) to voting instead for Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (Eton and Oxford), whose congenital disdain for such places and people couldn’t be plainer. But if that’s all there is to it, then at least we can all go home, stop devoting any attention to actual politics, plug in the TV and just give Kelvin and Oti the keys to No.10.

Personally, I think Brexit did have a lot to do with the result – as indeed even the “something about his mannerisms” voter maintained, and as is suggested by the correlations between leave-voting areas in 2016 and Johnson-voting ones in 2019. However, this too requires further analysis. What kind of Brexit Johnson will ‘get done’ remains unclear, but it’s pretty clear that it won’t ‘get done’ on 31 January, and when it’s ‘done’ the situation of struggling voters in Britain’s post-industrial towns will almost certainly be worse. I can’t help feeling that what we were voting for wasn’t any actual Brexit that Johnson has either the power or desire to deliver, but Brexit as a kind of ideal that’s slipped its real-world moorings – Brexit as a dream of autonomy and control regained in an uncertain world, Brexit as analgesic, Brexit as totem. A case of let them eat Brexit.

This is fantastic news for those of us who have other potentially unpalatable political truths to deliver, such as my own conviction that we need to develop a labour-intensive, small farm-based economic localism to see us through our present crises. Forget the agonised political analysis and the enormous difficulties of realizing it. Just give it a vague and upbeat moniker – ‘the transformation’, perhaps – find a useful idiot to promote it in a mainstream party, and talk constantly about how it’ll enable us to take back control. Job done.

Oh, who am I kidding – that’s not how it’d play, is it? What the Conservatives have pulled off is just another variant of a classic right-wing populist heist: deliver some jam-tomorrow message cloaked in nationalist garb aimed at the ‘majority’ working class while demonizing enemies within and without like socialists, immigrants and gypsies, and propagate the message aggressively through the good offices of deep-pocketed patrons and a compliant press run by the same, who are the only people likely to reap any substantial benefit from the result.

Populism of this kind has been one of the more successful politics of modern times (witness the USA, India, Brazil, the Philippines, Hungary, Poland etc.), so there are reasons to think it could be the long-term making of the Conservative Party. But there are also reasons to think otherwise. The government’s hybrid new constituency of well-to-do little Englanders and alienated Brexit ex-Labour voters would be a hard one to hold together long-term even for a popular, able and wily Conservative politician – and I don’t think Johnson is any of those things. After the referendum I wrote that Johnson was largely responsible for packaging up a fantasy Brexit for mass consumption and now needed to be given the leeway to try to deliver the real one. After three years of faff, that hour is now upon us. Honestly, I could have written the same post last week – it wouldn’t have lost much for contemporary relevance.

I’m not sure this will pan out well for Johnson. It seems likely that Britain’s already hollow economy will be further carved out by the EU and the USA on his watch, and it may not be easy to pin the blame on them, particularly the USA, long-term. Likewise the integrity of the UK itself – including the irony that Corbyn’s sympathies for Irish republicanism seem to have strengthened Johnson’s hand, while the latter’s Brexit may well do more for Irish reunification than Sinn Féin ever could. Johnson fancies himself as a Churchill figure, but as he-who-can-no-longer-be-named once said, history repeats itself – the first time as tragedy the second time as farce. Maybe Brexit is Johnson’s World War, and it’ll be followed by an Atlee.

But what kind of Atlee? I think it would be a huge mistake if the Labour Party tacked rightwards as a result of this election. Centrism scarcely got a thumbs up from voters (look what happened to the Lib Dems … or to Dominic Grieve) and the Tories are always likely to be better at muscular nationalist populism than the Labour Party. Also, peering through the absurdities of Britain’s first-past-the-post and multi-national politics, the fact is that Corbyn got a higher proportion of the vote in this election than any Labour leader not called Tony Blair since Neil Kinnock in 1992, and in the 2017 election under his leadership a higher proportion than anyone since Harold Wilson in 1970 – despite levels of media vilification far beyond those that even Kinnock endured. That’s not to say Labour doesn’t need a different approach and a different leader. But I don’t think the lesson of this election is that it needs a more centrist one.

As various commentators have suggested, the Labour Party’s malaise has deep historic roots that long pre-date Corbyn’s tenure, relating to the demise of the organized industrial working-class and its forms of community-building and self-education. What’s now needed to create an electable left populism is longer-term community-building of another kind, promoting locally shared spaces and resources, environmental care and economic autonomy that tries to build bridges among whoever’s locally in place. That strategy is also the one that’s needed to build a sustainable small farm future. So for me it’s clear at least where to focus political energy.

The short-term consequences of Johnson’s victory for farming and the countryside seem grim. Although many farmers seemingly voted Conservative, they’re a small constituency of no electoral importance to the party, especially now it’s shorn of its more patrician elements in favour of the radical right. It’s extremely unlikely that the financial support farmers will get post-Brexit will match the largesse of the EU – I think many will go to the wall as a consequence, the countryside will be carved up by market forces, and Britain’s food system will be forced open by its new trading situation, becoming more import-dependent. The hope has to be that, in this vast churn of farm property sales and rural destruction to come, the necessity for building local economic autonomies and ecological conservationism will become more obvious, along with the opportunities to do so.

Ciao Mao?

Apologies for my recent silence on here, not least in relation to the interesting comments at the end of my last post to which I couldn’t find the time to reply. No sooner had I revived this blog from my long book-writing layoff than I was laid low again with various urgent tasks – including a return to the book manuscript for an editorial overhaul. These tasks are ongoing so I fear I may have to disappear again for a while, but I hope more briefly than the last hiatus. And perhaps I’ll show up for a couple of interim posts. After all, another Brexit-fuelled election beckons – and where would British politics be without the next instalment of the widely-celebrated Small Farm Future miniseries: Which-of-these-darned-idiots-do-I-have-to-vote-for-this-time?

But let me sign off with a brief train of thought. Just as I was getting to grips with Julia Lovell’s fascinating book Maoism: A Global History who should appear in my Twitter feed the other day but an old adversary of Small Farm Future, Leigh Phillips, agitating against agrarian labour intensification on the grounds that it was a policy pursued by the genocidal Maoist regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia. That’s right, folks: in Leigh-world, if Pol Pot adopted agrarian labour intensification, then it follows that those who advocate agrarian labour intensification must support the politics of Pol Pot. By this logic, Leigh’s huge enthusiasm for nuclear power surely reveals itself as mere advocacy for the Gulag…

The only reason I mention this flummery is because it strikes me that the exact opposite thesis is probably more worthy of attention: unless we adopt agrarian labour intensification, the chances of a resurgent Maoism are amplified.

Let me try to put a little flesh on those bones…

Maoism is a virtually incomprehensible political doctrine in the west, and in any case has come to seem a dead letter with the eclipse or collapse of almost all the world’s significant Maoist regimes. But let’s not be too hasty with the obituaries. As with most political ‘isms’ the exact parameters of Maoism are ever fluid and hard to specify precisely, which is why these isms keep reinventing themselves, often in unexpected places. In the case of Maoism, wherever there are poor rural populations who perceive themselves to be oppressed by colonial or neocolonial power and are ready to contest it with violence, then the grounds for it are prepared.

There are a lot of places like that in the world today, and Maoism is far from a dead letter in many of them. There are set to be more such places in the future, with rural poverty and ever more nakedly coercive neocolonial power set to be augmented. So I wouldn’t bet against future Maoist insurgencies… Indeed, more sophisticated thinkers than Phillips such as his Verso stablemates Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann in their Climate Leviathan raise the spectre of future ‘Climate Mao’ regimes arising on the back of climate crisis and other perturbations in global politics, to which such regimes have ready-made answers…

…ready-made, but pretty unappealing – at least I can agree with Phillips on that. So for those of us who’d rather not see a return of Maoism, what is to be done? You get a sense of Phillips’ answer from the subtitle of his first book – “A defence of growth, progress, industry and stuff”. Via a shopworn reading of Karl Marx on the necessity of capitalism prior to socialism, Phillips cheerleads the present global capitalist economy as the precursor to socialist prosperity for all. Probably, he and his chums at the Breakthrough Institute genuinely believe this shtick, though their strident scorn for anyone who questions if it’ll really turn out so well does make me wonder if they protest a little too much. Radical-sounding but business-as-usual and corporate-friendly plays well to many galleries.

Yet if it doesn’t turn out so well, then the conditions for Climate Mao are ramped up another notch. We know these plotlines – further global inequality, further rural immiseration, further Ricardian landlordism and rentier capitalism, further climate breakdown, further political militarization. And, for reasons copiously discussed on this site over the years, there are plenty of reasons to think it won’t turn out so well.

An alternative, also copiously discussed on this site, is a more local, non-growth oriented, sustainable, agrarian and – yes – more labour-intensive (creating more green, low-carbon jobs is a good thing, right?) human ecology. The consequences would be globally redistributive and effectively anti-colonial, taking a lot of the heat out of the preconditions for Maoist insurgency. And possibly some of the heat out of the atmosphere too.

To put it another way, if you’d prefer to avoid harsh dystopias of involuntary rural simplicity in the future of the Pol Pot variety, then there’s a good case for working up some gentle utopias of voluntary rural simplicity right now, and trying to implement them. Inevitably, they’ll involve more people spending more time working in the garden. For many us, that isn’t such an appalling prospect, so long as there isn’t somebody alongside us there holding a gun to our heads on the lookout for incorrect thought. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much what it feels like metaphorically when you engage with Mr Phillips…

Finally, a housekeeping point. I’m happy to receive individual communications via the Contact Form on matters of particular or private interest, with replies at my discretion. But if you’d like to debate or contest something I’ve said in a blog post and get a reply from me, please post it as a public comment on my Small Farm Future site, and I’ll do my best. Thank you. And ciao for now.

Extinction Rebellion: four more (unconvincing) criticisms.

Here’s the companion piece to my previous post on the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement, with some thoughts on four further criticisms.

1. XR is too white and middle class.

The arguments from the political right I’ve seen on this point from journalists and on discussion boards where I probably shouldn’t have been lurking seem like mere sneering to me and don’t require a serious response. A general precis would be something like “perhaps it’s true that climate change is an existential threat to humanity, but then again these protestors like to eat funny foreign food that ordinary British people don’t much care for, so we can ignore them”. Yeah, whatever.

The arguments from the left require a more elaborate analysis. The two main ones are, first, that XR hasn’t done enough to attract and engage with working-class and minority communities and, second, that its strategy of arrestable civil disobedience is difficult for minority ethnic people to embrace or identify with in view of the discriminatory criminal justice system.

On the first point, again, I’m barely involved in any XR organizing and I can’t speak for the movement – one that in any case has a pretty flat and leaderless structure, making it hard to demand that it implements policy from on high. But I’d concur on the basis of my individual experience that white, middle class people like me are somewhat over-represented in XR’s demographic relative to the UK as a whole. I therefore find the argument plausible that it needs to do more to reach out to a wider base.

In that respect, XR is no different from just about every other major institution and political organization in Britain. That doesn’t mean the issue can be dismissed with a complacent shrug, but the extent to which leftist analyses of XR single it out for its white, middle classness strikes me as odd in this broader context. Take the Guardian newspaper, Britain’s bastion of respectable, left-of-centre media commentary, which proclaims across its website that “As the climate crisis escalatesthe Guardian will not stay quiet. This is our pledge: we will continue to give global heating, wildlife extinction and pollution the urgent attention and prominence they demand. The Guardian recognises the climate emergency as the defining issue of our times”.

Well then, with XR here we have the most prominent and radical grassroots political mobilization in the UK for a generation specifically geared to this defining issue and yet the paper’s opinion pages have almost without exception been lukewarm in their approach to it and have endlessly recycled the critique of white middle classness, such as here, here, here, here and here. There are many other critiques along similar lines in other ‘progressive’ media outlets. The critique itself is valid but its ubiquity suggests to me that XR is touching a nerve on the left about something that runs deeper in its soul.

I’ll elaborate on that in a moment after addressing the second point. Of course it’s true that it’s easier for – let us say – a middle-aged, white, middle-class woman to face arrest with equanimity than, say, a young, black, working class man (though, let’s be clear, there’s no requirement for XR members to get arrested). But an additional reason for the equanimity – one that leftist commentators have surprisingly missed in view of their movement’s history – is that XR’s protest is collective, building strength through solidarity. At the point of arrest, for example, XR’s legal observers establish who’s getting arrested and where they’re being taken. In the holding cages and cells of the police stations almost everyone is an XR protestor, which usually creates an engaged and supportive atmosphere with climate change looming large in discussions between activists and the police. And XR teams wait in the police stations to give support to arrestees when they’re released. Nobody seems to be talking about this politicization of custodial space, but to me it seems probably as crucial as personal identity to the different experiences of XR protestors and people of colour to the structural discriminations of the criminal justice system.

I think middle class XR activism has wrongfooted sections of the left because of the latter’s deep historical bias that authentic political critique can only come from the most structurally oppressed social groups – a bias it’s high time the left abandoned as a bad Hegelian legacy, rather than engaging in a rearguard defence of it by sniping at middle class activists for their privilege. Yes, it’s important to be aware of that privilege – and indeed to turn it to good social use, for example by engaging in forms of climate activism that people with other class or ethnic identities might judge too risky. But no, the existence of the privilege doesn’t intrinsically negate the activism. For its part, The Guardian has rightly called out the divisive language of the “real people of the country” used by the right in its messaging around Brexit. And yet, along with large sections of the left, it happily plays the same game when it comes to XR.

It may also be worth homing in a little more sharply on exactly which middle class people turned out for XR. The ones most in evidence to me as I moved around the protests were teachers, social workers, doctors, health workers, engineers, scientists, researchers, architects, craftspeople and creative types, along with a few farmers – people who seemed committed at some level to work that creates wider public good. Less in evidence were middle-class bankers, hedge fund managers, company directors, media celebrities, tabloid journalists and generally people who consider wealth creation to be a public good in itself. In the years to come, I suspect the willingness to create in-kind public good will come to be seen as a greater political virtue than the economic standing (middle-class, working-class) accorded by a crumbling capitalist economy. Therefore, however empty, gestural or silly it is for middle-class protestors to get themselves locked up for their climate activism, to me it’s come to seem less empty, gestural or silly than middle class non-protestors pursuing paths of personal nest-feathering.

Incidentally, since first drafting this piece, I came across Nafeez Ahmed’s critique of XR, which bears mostly on its questionable racial politics and, in his words, its ‘flawed social science’. He makes some good points, and has probed some of the issues more deeply than me, but I find a good deal of his argument problematic. I think he makes too much of past civil rights and anti-colonial struggles as somehow exemplary of what civil disobedience is and must be – essentially a claim for equal treatment of a stigmatized group made to political authority – whereas climate change raises wholly different and new issues. True, XR’s messaging is itself sometimes a little crass about what ‘the social science says’, but so too is Ahmed. I’ve argued here before against the idea of formulating policy on the basis of what ‘the science says’ and – much as I hate to diss my own tribe – that’s also true with bells on when it comes to what ‘the social science says’. Ahmed is right that climate change activism has to operate society-wide, though he seems to miss the point that protesting in central London is fundamentally about engaging existing political authority, not specifically about engaging London’s diverse population – and he leaves some questions hanging about the nature of and responsibilities for such engagement. There’s much food for thought in his article, but not quite enough to overcome my sense that what leftist animus against XR’s class character reveals most of all is its own political limitations.

2. XR’s ‘beyond politics’ stance is untenable. Solutions to climate change are inherently political, and must involve an anti-capitalist commitment to degrowth.

I agree with the second sentence, but not so much with the first – which I think puts the cart before the horse, and demands of XR activists some kind of tribal pre-commitment of political allegiance. I think leftists should have more confidence in their own politics. XR’s three demands are for the government to:

  1. ‘Tell the truth’ and communicate the urgency of climate action.
  2. ‘Act now’ to reduce emissions to net zero by 2025.
  3. Go ‘beyond politics’ by forming a citizen’s assembly to lead government on climate justice.

It seems to me that plausible attempts to implement those demands and their underlying analyses and programs would by necessity push politics towards degrowth and non-capitalist frameworks – though not necessarily ones that exactly mirror existing mainstream leftist positions. But I can’t see the virtue of insisting on some headline commitment to the ‘correct’ analysis upfront, especially since XR’s key job is to build a groundswell of support for appropriate climate action and usher people into that process.

In saying that, I don’t mean to suggest that the general public’s politics will simply line up with those of me and other leftists as inherently the ‘right’ ones if only they work through the necessary processes. I share the fear of ‘avocado’ politics (a brown or fascist politics beneath a green veneer) raised by commenters under my last post. So I think it’s important to keep emphasizing inclusivity and a common human fate in climate politics, and to keep the political discussions alive around climate change and its broader linkages with capitalist development, social injustice and the travails of the global south. But the larger point is that XR has opened up a new space of mass public reflection on climate politics which points to the poor future prospects of the present political economy. It’s less clear that its role is to prejudge exactly how to fill that space. XR has taken the horse to the water. The onus is now on us collectively as citizenries to do the drinking. If XR prejudges that process, my fear is that it’ll negate the work of recruitment that it’s so successfully charted to date.

Generally, my thinking on climate change has moved towards a pretty deep social adaptationism – social in the sense that I’m not really interested in thinking about individual prepping for an apocalypse, but about what kind of new social institutions people can forge to help them collectively deal with the grave challenges of our age. I struggle to see how those new social institutions won’t be ones geared around viable agrarian localism, and in that context while the new politics will be non-capitalist and non-growth oriented much traditional leftism will fall by the wayside. If we’re lucky, XR will help provide the tent within which we can hammer out the new politics. I don’t think we can expect more of it right now.

3. We need technological innovation to defeat climate change, not disruptive protests.

This mantra was repeated by Matthew Lesh in the Daily Telegraph, channelling the claims of Bjorn Lomborg from the same paper earlier in the year that we need to invest in R&D to ensure that carbon-free energy sources can be brought to market in the future.

Maybe if Lomborg and his ilk hadn’t spent the last twenty years scorning the idea of a climate emergency then by now we’d actually have some kind of carbon-free energy technology to ‘defeat’ climate change, though I think even that view short-changes the economic drivers of climate breakdown. In any case, no such technology is presently available, and currently we’re combusting more fossil fuel than ever before, while just 15% of all global primary energy comes from non-fossil sources. Some people still hang onto the idea that those of us in the global north will be able to retain our present high-energy lifestyle without causing climate breakdown with a snap of our technological fingers, but if that was ever possible in the past the fact is we’ve now run out of time for it.

Far too much discussion of climate change is taken up with a focus on technological mitigation, at the expense of discussing social causation (back to that issue of capitalism and growth) and social adaptation. I daresay that new technological developments may permit a little mitigation. I also daresay that it won’t be enough to prevent the need for deep social adaptation, and it’s this latter that now seems to me the only thing worth substantial political attention. If it takes disruptive protests to gain it, so be it.

4. XR is a millenarian death cult.

You’d think nobody would take such a claim seriously, but it’s become a minor mantra of the apoplectic plutocratic class, seemingly traceable to Spiked magazine and an article by its editor Brendan O’Neill who argues that XR should be ‘ridiculed out of existence’.

For those unaware of the underlying history, Spiked started life as Living Marxism – a magazine associated with Britain’s Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party – and then through some strange vicissitudes transmogrified into an allegedly Koch-funded mouthpiece of extreme rightwing libertarian opinion-mongering. Which is surely ironic, since it’s hard to think of millenarian death cults in modern times to match the havoc wreaked both by Trotsky-style revolutionary communism and its dreams of a future purified by the redeeming violence of the proletariat, and by market libertarianism and its dreams of a future purified by the redeeming violence of capitalist markets and their cargo cults. So what really needs ridiculing out of existence is ex-Trotskyist market libertarian publications lecturing anybody about millenarian death cults. Not once in O’Neill’s article does he reference the threats posed by climate change that these particular death cults have done so much to foment. His arguments are beyond parody really, but Nish Kumar does a pretty good job of parodying them anyway if you’re interested.

Nah, there’s nothing deathly or millenarian about the XR activists I know. They’re just ‘ordinary’, flawed, caring (middle-class) people like me, full of love and zest for life, and really, really scared about the deathly devastation that climate change threatens to wreak upon the world and the life they hold dear, unless governments act radically and immediately.

Extinction Rebellion: Four Criticisms (and why they’re unconvincing)

The issue of climate change activism and the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement has caused me a good deal of intellectual and emotional soul-searching. A journey that began last year with a large helping of scepticism on my part took me last Friday to a cell in Sutton Police Station, where I whiled away several hours. I’m not going to tell that story here, but my enforced idleness at least gave me the opportunity to reflect on the various criticisms of XR that have been doing the rounds of the media, formal and social, during its actions over the last couple of weeks and why I’ve now come to find these criticisms unconvincing.

So below I bring you a sceptic’s guide to XR scepticism, in a two-part post that’ll be continued next time. In this first one I focus on issues that strike me as requiring a genuine, substantive response and/or that I wrestled with myself in embracing the movement. In the next one, I discuss objections that seem more like flummery to me (“XR is too white and middle-class”, “XR is a millenarian death cult”, “technical innovation will save us” etc.) but nevertheless tell us interesting things about our times.

I’ve chased down a few references and datasets to inform this post after regaining my freedom and internet connectivity (same thing, right?), but I’m dashing this out kind of free-form while I can still remember my thoughts without explicitly linking to many sources for these criticisms. They’re not hard to find online for anyone who cares to look.

Here we go, then – XR defended, Part I, in relation to four common objections.

1. With their nylon tents, smartphones, coach rides to London and so forth, XR activists demonstrably participate in the fossil fuel economy and are therefore hypocritical.

This is one I wrestled with personally longer than I should have. But it would only be true if the point of our demonstrations was to showcase our lifestyles as exemplary beacons for others to follow. What we’re actually saying is that climate change poses a massive collective problem to which we as individuals certainly contribute, but that can only be satisfactorily addressed right now if our most powerful collective institutions at present – namely our governments – treat climate change with appropriate urgency and radicalism.

Maybe it helps to invoke the language of addiction. If an alcoholic tells you they desperately want to quit drinking because of its damaging consequences, and then you see them knocking back the vino, you don’t accuse them of hypocrisy. The analogous role of government presently is to say “alcoholism is a very serious problem and we’re bringing through some truly radical policies to tackle it. Possibly next year. Or the one after. In the meantime, would you care for a glass of wine?” We need to get ourselves off fossil fuels – and we need governments to make it easier for us, not harder.

I’m not convinced that governments are capable of doing so. But I think it’s worth at least spending a few days of the year raising one’s voice alongside others to remind them that they really should.

I wonder if the argument about hypocrisy pulls so strongly because humans have a finely-tuned urge to push back against even the most minutely articulated suggestion of social superiority, which is no doubt evolutionarily functional in face-to-face settings (though regrettably not functional enough to prevent the emergence of monarchies, empires and capitalist world systems). It too easily leads us astray in our modern, vast, mediated societies when we read structural critique as mere personal self-aggrandizement. But if climate change activists need to get over any personal self-satisfaction – and I think XR does a good job in emphasizing the importance of this – then so do their critics. Would you rather be looking at the wreckage of a dying civilization and feeling good about yourself for at least not putting on airs and graces, or might you heed the warning of people who, like you, are contributing to the problem but are at least trying to sound a warning bell and chart another course?

And if you’re still not convinced, maybe this meme might help.

2. The protestors’ demands are cruel and absurd: they’d result in old people dying/poor countries unable to develop/us all living in the stone age.

The XR demand relevant to this is for the government to act now to reduce Britain’s emissions to net zero by 2025. It’s quite a stretch to get from there to the kind of claims in the sentence above, but I’ll try to unpack this a little.

If the government went for net zero by simply mothballing all fossil fuel infrastructure immediately, ceasing to airfreight medicines and so on then yes more old people would probably die. But instead it could aim towards net zero while attempting to mitigate social harm, especially to the most vulnerable people. If it did that, the people who’d experience the largest decline in their fortunes wouldn’t be vulnerable old people but fossil fuel companies and other corporate players. And, well, y’know, most of those planes in the sky aren’t up there carrying medicines… I can’t help feeling that the rush within the right-wing media to identify vulnerable groups who’d suffer from decarbonization is something of a smokescreen to deflect attention from the non-vulnerable groups who’d suffer from it more.

When it comes to poor countries being able to develop, I’d agree that it would be good for the poorest ones to be able to do so – even at the cost of higher emissions. For example, compare Burundi (GDP per capita: US$245; CO2 emissions per capita: 0.04 tonnes) with the UK ($41,125; 6.5 tonnes). However you distribute that average $245 around in Burundi, most people are going to be really poor, so the case for increasing it is strong. But here’s the thing: ‘development’ accrues mostly to the people or the countries who can gain the largest returns on investment, and this in turn depends on who has the most money to invest in the first place, as I showed in more detail here. Meanwhile, there’s a net financial drain from the poor countries to the rich countries. If rich countries like the UK junked their fossil fuel infrastructure and contracted their economies, it would increase the welfare of poorer countries while decreasing global emissions.

There’s also another facet to the issue of ‘development’, but I’ll come on to that under my next heading.

Finally on this point, would decarbonization and economic contraction revert us to the stone age, or at least to premodern living standards? To me, continuing on the present ‘business as usual’ pathway that could take us close to 5oC of warming by 2100 seems more likely to result in a future stone age than degrowth and decarbonization. But, as voluminously argued on this site over the years, a move towards more egalitarian, low energy, labour-intensive, local agrarian economies is more likely to increase welfare and living standards globally than decrease it.

3. Britain is a world leader in decarbonization with a tiny contribution to global emissions. Why aren’t the protestors targeting China or India instead?

It could perhaps be plausibly argued that Britain is a world leader in decarbonization, but what this mostly goes to show is how crap world leadership on decarbonization has been. In 1960, global CO2 emissions averaged 3.1 tonnes per capita, while by 2014 they’d reached 5.0 tonnes (the absolute increase, of course, has been much higher). The corresponding figures for Britain are 11.15 and 6.5 – a good improvement, but 6.5 tonnes per capita is still well above the global average and not good enough. Indeed, on current performance Britain is set to miss the carbon budgets that its own government has set itself for the mid-2020s and beyond. So on the basis of those figures alone, I’d argue there are plenty of reasons for us in Britain to protest to our government about inaction over climate change.

One reason that Britain’s emissions have declined quite impressively is that we no longer have a large, energy-hungry heavy industry and manufacturing sector, a baton that’s now been passed to other countries – China in particular. So the Chinese figure of 7.5 tonnes of CO2 per capita (still way below the US figure of 16.5 tonnes) needs to be interpreted in that light – a good proportion of China’s emissions arise in service of imports demanded from wealthy countries like Britain (India, by the way, emits 1.7 tonnes per capita, and is also a net exporter).

How big a proportion? According to this analysis CO2 emissions embodied in trade constitute -16% of Chinese emissions and +37% of UK emissions – so if we correct the figures I gave above accordingly (is that methodologically sound? I think so…) the Chinese emissions turn out at 6.3 tonnes per capita and the UK ones at 8.9 tonnes – another reason, I’d argue, for us in Britain not to get too uppity about Chinese emissions. If you throw in a proportion of the emissions embodied in all the local infrastructure to deliver those exports (roads, factories, ports etc.) then those figures would look even worse.

But whether the Chinese figures turn out higher than Britain’s or not, there’s a wider point to be made. If the poor countries of the world really ‘develop’ and attain something like the levels of wealth currently enjoyed by a country like Britain (though frankly this is fanciful within the present structuring of the global economy), then they’re probably going to have to do it along the lines that China did – with relatively cheap, low tech and dirty industrial infrastructures (concrete, coal etc.) So currently, the only path to ‘development’ on offer through the mainstream economy is one that leads to earth systems breakdown. We need to construe alternative futures – and as I’ve argued on this site and in my forthcoming book, the most plausible one I can see is a small farm future of local agrarian autonomies that nourish their ecological base.

Another dimension to the issue arises from the fact that carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels tend to accumulate long-term in the atmosphere, acting as a growing stock that forces temperatures ever upwards. Therefore, any carbon dioxide that we choose not to emit, in however small an amount, helps towards mitigating climate change. This also means that although many different things can happen to a given CO2 molecule, most of the ones emitted from fossil fuel combustion in humanity’s recent industrial past are effectively still up there, doing their climate forcing work.

On that front, this dataset again provides interesting information on historic, cumulative CO2 emissions. As recently as 1920, Britain was responsible for a quarter of all global cumulative emissions. That figure has now sunk to 4.9% – though that’s still quite a bit higher than its current annual contribution of 1.1%. Only four countries have higher cumulative emissions – the USA (way out in front at 25%), China (13%), Russia (6%) and Germany (6%). If you adjust the figures for each of these five countries by current population size then Britain comes second only to the USA, and not by much. Given that there’s a fixed budget of only about 14 years-worth of current global annual emissions to retain a 50-50 chance of staying within 1.5oC of global warming, one interpretation of these figures is that Britain has already had more than its fair share of fun with CO2, and now it’s time to step back gracefully – ideally by reaching net zero emissions in 2025 as XR demands – and cede space to countries like Burundi.

You’ll note that quite a lot of the figures I’ve used above are on a per capita basis. That seems fair to me. Each person has to take some responsibility for their own local emissions, rather than pinning the blame generically on other countries – and, as I’ve shown above, British emissions are pretty bad and worse than they first appear from current production-based emission figures when various corrections are introduced. Still, it’s true that whatever Britain does about its emissions, the consequences will be dwarfed by what China or India do because they’re much bigger countries.

But there are, finally, three lines of argument that suggest to me this has little bearing on the case for UK citizens to direct climate activism at the UK government.

First, since – as I indicated above – emissions are a cumulative stock, not a transient flow, then any CO2 that we’re able to avoid emitting has positive consequences for climate change mitigation. It really doesn’t matter that Britain is a small, insignificant country in terms of current global emissions – whatever we can abate is a help (incidentally, it’s funny how the sort of commentators who say that Britain is a small, insignificant country when it comes to climate change say exactly the opposite when it comes to Brexit…)

Second, since Britain was one of the first industrial/emitting powers, has one of the world’s largest economies and has emissions per capita that are still 30% higher than the global average, it’s hardly likely that bigger, poorer, ‘developing’ countries will commit seriously to climate change mitigation if we simply point the finger at them and don’t take radical steps to reduce our own emissions. Therefore we need to pressurize our government to do more.

Third and last, though it began in Britain, XR is an international movement, with people lobbying their governments in many countries. Usually, it’s easier for citizens to influence their own government than foreign governments, who have no formal or de facto accountability to them. A hundred British protestors blockading Waterloo Bridge is disproportionately more influential than a hundred British protestors blockading the Chinese Embassy – or Tiananmen Square for that matter. And to those enthusiasts for capitalism and freedom who say XR activists should be lobbying against climate change in Tiananmen Square, I say you should be lobbying for freedom there, so let’s go together – but you first.

4. How does stopping ordinary Londoners going about their business and the police from focusing on real crime help advance the cause of climate change mitigation?

This is a favourite of angry, right-wing radio talk show hosts and – though I must confess it’s one that I’ve struggled with too – ultimately I think they answer their own question. It does so in some measure by getting self-important blowhards in the media to talk about climate change and thus to raise it in public consciousness in ways that simply wouldn’t happen with legal demonstrations that would get precisely zero media coverage in comparison with Brexit, the royal family or the football results.

Most members of the public I encountered in the course of the protests were either enthusiastically or cautiously supportive of XR, and only a few abusively opposed – a number of the latter looking quite well to do, rather than ‘ordinary’. As I stood lined up against a wall with my fellow arrestees behind a phalanx of police officers, one kind passerby stopped and thanked each one of us personally for what we were doing. Almost every activist I’ve spoken with has similar stories about the high levels of public support they’ve met, sometimes from unlikely quarters like arresting police officers or city bankers. I think there’s more support for XR than a casual reading of the daily press might suggest.

As to the use of police resources, it’s up to the police and the government to decide what they want to devote their resources to. As the climate and other crises deepen, governments are going to have to spend an increasing proportion of their resources on the ‘intermediate economy’ that furnishes the final products – spending more of their income just on figuratively keeping the roads open. On that score, maybe they should thank XR for giving them a taste of things to come and letting them get some practice in.

In the midst of the latest rounds of protests, the Metropolitan Police issued a Section 14 order that enabled them to arrest any group of three or more identifiable XR activists assembling anywhere in London. Regardless of the underlying issue that’s being protested, I think a lot of people found the wider political implications of that troubling, just as a lot of people found the wider political implications of the government closing down parliament in order to get its way over Brexit troubling. It seems likely to me that the way many of the political, economic and ecological crises of our age will manifest is in increasingly divisive and authoritarian forms of governance – of which these perhaps are early signs. I think this needs resisting, and I think XR is helping to shape that resistance.

 

Note: Except where otherwise stated, all data reported above are derived from the World Bank’s World Development Indicator dataset, 2014 data (the latest year for which it provides emissions data).

The case for planting trees

So many possibilities to choose from as a subject for my first new blog post since May, now that I’m free of book-writing duties… Maybe a report from my time last week at the Extinction Rebellion protests in London (and at the City of London Magistrate’s Court watching my dear wife being committed for trial)? Or the ongoing, pointless debacle of Brexit and its oh-so-predictable descent into constitutional crisis and incipient authoritarianism. But that’s all quite raw and I need something gentler to ease my way back into the blogosphere, so I think I’ll talk instead about trees – and in particular about the case for planting them vis-à-vis allowing natural woodland generation, as discussed by George Monbiot in a recent article.

I’ve made something of a habit in recent years of writing blog posts criticizing various positions of George’s so let me begin by stating once again that this isn’t because I think his writing is especially wrongheaded but on the contrary because he’s virtually the only mainstream journalist in the UK who consistently focuses on issues that really matter with a depth that merits critical discussion. And in fact there’s not much that I disagree with in his article. But I’d like to elaborate on a few points.

In his article, George decries

“conservation woodlands” that look nothing like ecological restoration and everything like commercial forestry: the ground blasted with glyphosate (a herbicide that kills everything), trees planted in straight rows, in plastic tree guards attached with cable ties to treated posts. It looks hideous, it takes decades to begin to resemble a natural forest and, in remote parts of the nation, it is often the primary cause of plastic litter.

He argues instead for natural regeneration of woodland, and suggests that government woodland grants should be devoted primarily to funding it rather than to tree-planting initiatives. In this, he’s on message with a strong current of thinking in the permaculture world – don’t plant, regenerate!

Now, if I was an environmentally-minded person in possession of a parcel of land and with no other particular objectives for it I’d probably go along with the natural generation advice. But I’d like to raise a couple of broad issues that complicate things.

First up, having planted seven acres of woodland myself fifteen years ago I’m here to tell you that it needn’t be quite as awful as George suggests. Here, for example, is a photo of part of our plantation taken about ten years ago in George’s ‘looks hideous’ phase, plastic tree guards and all, looking down upon a part of our establishing market garden.

And here’s a photo taken from the same viewpoint two weeks ago.

Bearing in mind that most of the trees in the picture are notoriously slow-growing hornbeams, I’d suggest that our plantation isn’t doing too badly in ‘resembling’ a natural forest, and maybe ‘a decade’ rather than ‘decades’ is a more accurate timeframe to hold in mind for the process.

I removed the plastic tree guards visible in the first picture, reused some of them for other plantings, gave some of them to other people, got some of them back and reused them again, then finally put most of them in a skip a couple of years ago. They definitely come with an environmental price tag, but there are ways of reducing it. And they do a job which still has to be done with natural regeneration. Yes, brambles and blackthorn may protect establishing trees from deer, rabbits, voles, sheep and suchlike – but not always very effectively or quickly.

Here’s a shot of our woodshed from a couple of weeks ago, with a fraction of the thinnings I’ve cut from our plantation getting readied for use. We’re now producing winter heating and hot water for two buildings from our plantation, with enough left over for some modest income from firewood. Meanwhile, we’re getting numerous other benefits from the woodland – not least in terms of wildlife. The trees and the herbaceous layer beneath them have become a favoured haunt for numerous birds, insects, mammals and even reptiles in marked contrast to the arable field you can see at the bottom right of the aerial shot of our farm heading this website.

Therefore, to anyone who’s contemplating planting trees on a piece of land because they have specific goals for it, as we did – wind protection, privacy, nitrogen fixation, firewood and timber, amenity value, fruit and nuts, even wildlife habitat or carbon sequestration at a stretch – I say don’t be put off by the permaculture purists who insist on natural regeneration. Go for it.

Another aspect of permaculture purism concerning trees is the notion that they’re a low value land use best avoided on decent agricultural land and relegated to the furthest reaches of one’s property or, at landscape scale, to far off wastelands. It’s interesting in the light of that to look at Johann Heinrich von Thünen’s The Isolated State (1826), which was based on a careful geographical analysis of the costs and benefits of zoning different crops in a substantially pre fossil-fuel agrarian economy where land transport costs were high, and so were urban demands for firewood and construction timber. In that context, von Thünen placed the woodland zone serving his hypothetical settlement close to it, second only to gardens and dairies, while placing production of grain and meat further out from the settlement. Having basically hand logged a proportion of my timber and hand harvested my grain over the years I can attest to his wisdom. Another case for ignoring received wisdom: put the woodland close to home.

A final and rather unhappy thought on the case for tree planting. Where I live the main pioneer tree that you see regenerating everywhere is ash, which is currently being hammered by ash dieback disease with mortalities reportedly between 70 and 90%. More generally, the trajectory of climate change is such that trees regenerating now may not prosper some years hence. Though I usually subscribe to the doctrine that ‘nature knows best’ when it comes to organizing wild biodiversity, human fiddling has now taken us into realms where there may be a case for a bit more forward planning (i.e. further fiddling) on our part. Don’t worry, I’m not turning full ecomodernist and claiming that we now need to bioengineer the entire world. But I do think there’s a case at the margin for some thoughtful human tree planting in service of present objectives with an eye on the future. It probably adds to the biodiversity…

Turning just briefly to the second broad issue, I also have some reservations over George’s enthusiasm for government grants to fund natural woodland generation. In fact, though I’m far from a free market ultra I have some reservations about government grants for most things because I think the potential for perverse incentives is high and they prompt questions about the market or social/policy failures that underlie the need for the grant-making. For his part, George has campaigned tirelessly and for the most part persuasively against the implicit grant of EU agricultural subsidies that reward landowners simply for owning land. Grants that reward landowners for simply owning land and allowing trees to grow on it strike me as only a small notch further up this scale, so his advocacy for it surprises me a little.

A further issue is monitoring and compliance. Under the old Woodland Grant Scheme the Forestry Commission took no interest in the plantings they funded after ten years – but at least they ensured that grant-holders had first gone to the trouble of establishing a viable plantation, and it’s unlikely that anyone who’d done that would uproot all their hard work a decade later. With natural generation, on the other hand, a decade of nature’s work can easily be undone in a few minutes with a flail mower. Who would monitor this? For how long? With what sanctions? And at what cost?

I’d prefer to go von Thünen’s way. An old saying has it that “the wood that pays is the wood that stays” – what we need to do is figure out how to start developing a woodland estate that ‘pays’ us by serving long-term human needs in an age of climate change and energy descent. These needs include wildlife and natural biodiversity but aren’t restricted to them. This seems to me preferable to spending precious public money now on paying landowners to let their land run wild for a few years before other priorities doubtless insinuate themselves. To do so, I’d place more emphasis on wider social change than on grant-making.

A chirrup for October

Well, it’s been a while since this blog has been graced with any new content. I’d hoped to keep it ticking over while I wrote my book manuscript but the reality was that I just didn’t have the capacity. I’d expected the book writing to be hard work, but I naïvely underestimated quite how draining it would be – not only mentally, but also physically and emotionally in surprising ways.

Anyway, as of Monday the completed manuscript is with the publisher so I thought I’d send out a chirrup into my familiar little corner of cyberspace. The question is, is anyone still out there to hear it? If so, I have a few new blog posts in the offing. But they may unspool slowly, as I need to get out of my garret for a while.

On the upside, there’ll hopefully be a feature-length instalment of Small Farm Future (or something…the title is tba) to look forward to next year…

Do feel free to chirrup back if you’re reading. I’ve missed the SFF community…

Chris