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

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

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

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

Change

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

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

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

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

‘Development’ and the global peasant-family farm

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

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

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

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

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

Wealth and the transition out of agriculture

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

A small farm utopia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

Nitrogen wars

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

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

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

The ghost of nitrogen past

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

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

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

For their part, B&B note that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ghost of nitrogen present

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ghost of nitrogen future

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Campesino a campesino: a trip to Nicaragua

As I’ve mentioned, I recently visited Nicaragua as part of a research project on ‘Transitions to agro-ecological food systems’ that I’ve been involved with, conducted by the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex. The research involved working with agro-ecological farmers in the UK, Senegal and Nicaragua, and the trip brought together some of the farmers and researchers from each country. In this post, I thought I’d offer a few informal reflections on the research, and the Nicaragua trip.

In each country, the researchers took a kind of ‘citizen’s jury’ approach to the project, getting the farmers to map their experiences of the food system and then to define specific issues that they wanted to research further in order to ease the desired transition to an agro-ecological food system, followed by a workshop with ‘change agents’ – people with some capacity to help realise these changes. At the Nicaragua meeting, we came together and discussed the similarities and differences between the three countries in the focus of our deliberations and the ways forward. Here are some of the issues that came up:

Seeds: maintaining local farmer control of seed production and markets (and fighting the encroachment of transgenic crops) was a major theme both in Nicaragua and Senegal, but wasn’t much discussed in the UK. There certainly are concerns around seeds in the UK – quite similar ones to the concerns in the other two countries – but few farmers or growers here take responsibility any longer for their own seed production. There are those who argue that this is a good thing – plant breeding is a highly specialist business, and farmers benefit from leaving it to the experts and sticking to their own skill set. One problem here is that what suits the ‘business’ of plant breeding doesn’t necessarily suit the business of being a local agroecological farmer. There’s much to be said for farmers and plant breeders working in concert, but the structure of the agricultural industry often puts them at loggerheads. On that note, I enjoyed meeting actual farmers from relatively low income countries who told me point blank that they wanted to retain control over local seed production and didn’t want GM crops. No doubt there are other shades of opinion in their countries, but I’ve been told more than once by other privileged westerners/northerners that GM crops are an unquestionable boon to the world’s poorer places and that my scepticism about them merely indicates my white, western/northern privilege (or, in the words of one especially apoplectic ecomodernist, that my ideology was akin to stealing wheelchairs from Bangladeshi children), so it’s good to know that my views are shared by others less white and geopolitically privileged than me. In truth, I already knew it – any claim that a particular kind of plant-breeding technology must be inherently pro-poor is obviously bogus. Still, you can’t beat hearing a story straight from the root, rather than one filtered through layers of researcherly foliage.

An additional problem with giving up seed-saving is that it’s another small step on the journey that alienates farmers from the wide suite of skills they need to fully inhabit the land. I for one am a little envious of other countries who haven’t yet taken that step.

Traditional cuisine: finding ways to encourage people to eat traditional, locally-grown foods rather than processed foods heavy in global commodity crops was a theme in all three countries – though again it emerged least strongly in the UK. Teaching cookery skills and sponsoring local restaurants were avenues that were being explored. In the UK, one project has involved doctors prescribing fresh vegetables for low income patients on poor diets, with local authorities paying small-scale local producers to provide the food – a use of public money with a reportedly good social return on investment.

Markets: ‘the market’ is one of those words that conflates things which ought to be separated. In each of the three countries, albeit in different ways, the farmers wanted to strengthen ‘the market’ in the sense of local venues where buyers and sellers come together physically for the exchange of things they need. In order to do this, we agreed that we needed less of ‘the market’ in the sense of a non-physical, globalised abstraction in which a minority of people launch money in order to receive more of it in return. Though, saying that, there can also be problems with local markets – especially when their control falls into the hands of a few. The best solution is for the majority of people to have access to land, the ultimate source of the values able to come to market… Perhaps I should qualify that statement by way of a quotation from IDS big cheese Ian Scoones, whose interesting if rather turgidly academic book Sustainable Livelihoods and Rural Development: Agrarian Change & Peasant Studies I’m reading at the moment:

“The real world is of course more complex than the usual default policy debate constructed around a set of simple dichotomies – large versus small, external versus local, food production versus cash crops, backward versus modern” (p.59)

Indeed, a case can be made along these lines for allowing markets to be complemented by ‘the market’, but as Scoones himself points out ‘the market’ is supported by a “strong coalition of investors, private sector agribusiness players, national governments and local elites” whose “expert-accredited narrative” (ibid.) has much more influence over economic reality than the food sovereignty agenda we were articulating in Nicaragua. Therefore I’m happy to line up with my fellows in the marketing discussion group at the meeting (pictured) and press for the food sovereignty agenda. Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world…

Land: access to land for agro-ecological farming was a big issue in the UK, less of a concern in other countries. I’ve probably harped on about it often enough on this blog to keep it brief here. The UK farmers put some emphasis on the role of the planning system in relation to private land purchases, because this is an easy hit for improving the situation without having to introduce any major political or economic changes. Issues around farm tenancies and publicly owned farmland were also highlighted in the UK. In Nicaragua, the government programme that provides women with a plot of land sufficient for personal needs, together with some household livestock, excited some interest…particularly among a few of the women from the other countries who suddenly expressed a hitherto latent enthusiasm for emigrating to Nicaragua. Which brings us to…

Female empowerment: I heard some conflicting views about gender oppression (and thence the need for the aforementioned programme) in Nicaragua. While we were travelling around the country I saw a few placards in communities stating “Aquí respetamos a las mujeres”, which kind of implies that maybe there are folks allí que no respetan a las mujeres. Not that the UK is innocent of gender oppression. Certainly, gender issues loom large in what I’ll tentatively term “sustainable development”. Which reminds me…I need to round off my ‘return of the peasant’ blog cycle with a look at gender soon.

Commodification & self-reliance: another issue in relation to making markets more functional is reducing their levels of commodification – ‘commodities’ in the sense of traded objects entirely torn from their local contexts of production. In Senegal, this manifests in peanut farming, which is environmentally destructive and makes growers dependent on global commodity prices. The common refrain is that such commodity crops are the route to wealth which, through specialisation and the magic of ‘the market’, enables farmers to buy themselves out of the kind of miserable subsistence existence associated with mixed cropping of local food crops, where they can barely scratch a living from the unforgiving earth. Each of the three countries had their own local manifestations of this ideology, and each country’s farmers also had distinctive counter-narratives insisting that it ain’t necessarily so.

Subsidies: I mentioned the attraction to female farmers of moving to Nicaragua, but some of the farmers from the other countries kinda liked the sound of moving to the UK to harvest some of the EU farm subsidies they’d heard about. So we from the UK had to explain the realities of the system: in a few years of stressy bureaucratic wrangling, I managed to wrest no more than a thousand quid or so out of HM’s government, before it decided to stop small-scale farmers from claiming altogether. Meanwhile, and talking of HM, the queen netted a cool half a million a year from the scheme. Oh well, I guess she needs it more than me. But, more important than the inequities between small and large-scale landowners farmers in affluent countries is the way that US and EU subsidies punish farmers in less affluent countries – such as the anti-competitive $1 billion or so going to US peanut farmers, to pick an aforementioned crop. So, to get a little technical, here’s a brief primer on the clean economic logic of free markets: the greatest net benefit results when countries remove protectionist measures and compete on equal terms in liberalised global markets, except when the most powerful countries decide not to.

There are also, of course, the numerous implicit subsidies associated with fossil fuel use and other nasty economic externalities – a general experience common to all three countries, albeit with some differences of detail.

Farmer networks and change agents: there are more small-scale and agroecological farmers in Nicaragua and Senegal than the UK, with richer interactions between them and the organs of government, and more powerful small-farmer organisations such as (talking of peasants, as we were under my last post) Nicaragua’s Programa campesino a campesino. In the UK, I think it would be fair to say that – despite the researchers’ best efforts – we struggled to get any ‘change agents’ to talk to us who had significant power to change the status quo. This seemed to be less true of Nicaragua and Senegal, though that’s not to say that the life of the small-scale agroecological farmer in those countries is all plain sailing. Perhaps one of the reasons it was hard to engage policymakers in the UK is that they’re all so busy trying to work out what the hell is going to happen to UK farming after Brexit. And here it’s fascinating to note that Michael Gove, arch Brextremist and now head honcho at DEFRA, is giving the keynote speech at the forthcoming Oxford Real Farming Conference – unless he accidentally booked himself into the wrong conference. I’ll be reporting back with interest on what he has to say.

At the end of the trip we paid a visit to the 10 acre holding of one of the Nicaraguan participants, where I took this picture of citrus fruits growing under the shade of a coconut palm, hard by the cassava, yams and coffee bushes. Here, where the sun shines and the rain falls copiously, my strictures against perennial staple cropping are no longer operative. Perhaps I’ll see if I can persuade La Brassicata to move there and get herself on the waiting list for a holding, where I can skivvy for her in the tropical warmth. Oh, alas, ‘tis but a dream – so now I must leave you to schlep out into the snow and empty our compost toilet.

But not without first offering my thanks to Elise Wach, Santi Ripoll, Clare Ferguson and Jorge Irán Vásquez Zeledón for their work on the project and the trip, and to everyone else involved in it for making is so interesting.

Back to the future

Last week I succumbed to a bad habit of mine that I’ve been trying to put behind me – leaving snarky comments on ecomodernist websites. I won’t dwell too much here on the ins and outs of the issues, or on ecomodernism itself – hell, there’s a whole page of this site devoted to that, even if it’s not very up-to-date. In this post, I’d just like to extract a few kernels from the issue that are relevant to my next cycle of posts. But first let me venture a working definition of the creed for anyone who’s lived thus far in blessed innocence of it: ecomodernism typically combines overenthusiasm for a handful of technologies as putative solutions to contemporary problems (typically nuclear power and GM crops), underenthusiasm for any social orders other than capitalist modernity, a fetishisation of both humanity and nature as surpassing splendours each in their separate spheres, questionable evidence-selection to support the preceding points, and high disdain for those who take a different view.

The question I want to address in this post is why I get so easily riled whenever I encounter professions of this faith. Well, I guess I got off to a bad start: my first experience of it was a brush with the absurdly apoplectic Graham Strouts, and then the only marginally slicker Mike Shellenberger. I’d acknowledge that there are less strident voices within the movement who genuinely think it represents humanity’s best remaining shot at escaping the dangers encircling us. And since all the remaining shots available to us seem pretty long ones to me, if the ecomodernists could only concede the likely length of those odds I wouldn’t so much begrudge them their schemes. But – other than being the unfortunate possessor of a bilious personality, perhaps the likeliest explanation for my ire – I’d submit three general reasons as to why ecomodernism gets under my skin.

The first is that I think it suffers from an intellectual phoniness. Not deliberately in most cases, I’m sure. But it reminds me of my time in academia. It reminds me of the kind of student, competent but coasting, who produces an overconfident seminar paper. It’s not that they haven’t done the reading and marshalled some evidence – though not quite as much as they think. It’s not that they haven’t put it together into some kind of logical framework that they genuinely think best fits the data – though not quite as neatly as they suppose. It’s that they haven’t fully inhabited the task. They’ve looked the world in the face, flinched, and written a Powerpoint presentation with a set of facts and bullet points instead. It reminds me, also, of the kind of academic colleague who’s charming and persuasive, who has a good story to tell, who hangs out with the right crowd, who churns out a large quantity of mediocre work which won’t endure but which serves their near-term purposes pretty well. It contrasts with the people who pursue the path of scholarship – meticulous, self-critical and questing after truths, rather than just a tale to tell. I think everyone who does intellectual work should aspire to work of the latter sort, and worry that their actual work doesn’t measure up, worry that it succumbs to the worldly temptations of the former, of being a merely ‘successful’ intellectual. I don’t think ecomodernism worries about this nearly enough to be convincing.

And when it comes to telling stories, ecomodernism has a great one to tell. People really want to hear and believe in it – which means it’s rife with the potential for mischief-making. Essentially, it tells us that there’s nothing wrong with the way that we in the ‘developed’ countries now live – all that’s needed is for us to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation (which can be achieved relatively easily with some technological fixes) and for us to ensure that global resources are better shared among all the people of the world. And along the way it delivers a pleasingly counterintuitive message: some of the things environmentalists have traditionally told us were bad – like nuclear power, GM crops, pesticides, and the expropriation of peasantries – are actually pretty good, and some of the things they’ve traditionally told us were good – like organic farming and photovoltaic or wind energy – are generally pretty bad. It’s not hard to see why this story is so appealing to many people of goodwill living in the overdeveloped countries. All the more reason for its proponents to be sure of the line that they’re spinning and to welcome dissenting voices if they aspire to be scholars rather than spiritual preceptors.

And yet this is so often not the case. I’d better restrict myself to just one small example from one of the articles that triggered my ire recently, Emma Marris’s Can we love nature and let it go?, which involves so much tendentious reasoning in among the odd telling point that I’ll be chasing my tail for page upon page if I fully engage with her arguments. The article makes the familiar pitch for decoupling human consumption from resource drawdown. In Marris’s words, “we must reduce our per-capita and cumulative human footprint”, an appealing goal because “it does not pit the planet’s poor people against its endangered species” and it involves “no grand sacrifices”. And, Marris says, decoupling has already begun: “It took around 25 percent less “material input” to produce a unit of GDP in 2002 as compared with 1980.”

Not much to object to there in principle. No facts I’d seek to dispute. The problem is the ecomodernist story Marris builds around it, because I see a wholly different one lurking in her text – I’ll briefly try to draw it out, with the caveat that I’m doing it in a back-of-the-envelope way to illustrate a point. I’m not offering polished scholarship.

So, taking Marris’s relative decoupling point (she doesn’t distinguish between relative and absolute decoupling), it’s true that there’s been some improved efficiency in resource use. World Bank data, for example, show that between 1980 and 2000 (roughly the timeframe chosen by Marris to exemplify this point) global carbon dioxide emissions per unit of energy used declined by about 5%. They did then climb back up so that by 2015 they exactly matched those of 1980, which kind of makes me wonder if Marris’s timeframe was deliberately cherry-picked, but let’s leave that aside. The more significant point is that from 1980 to 2000 actual emissions increased by 27%, and actual gross world product increased by 300%. If we extend the timeframe from 1980 to 2013 (the last year figures are available from the World Bank dataset) then actual emissions increased by 84% and gross world product by 589%.

I’ve played with these figures to construe various future scenarios, but I ran out of time and enthusiasm to put them into any kind of presentable numerical framework. However, I think I’m on firm ground in saying that if we want to achieve some modicum of global equity by 2050 while giving ourselves a shot at keeping climate change under 2oC by following the kind of ecomodernist ‘decoupling’ and ‘no grand sacrifice’ scenario presented by Marris then we’ll probably have to find at least another world’s worth of economic activity in the next thirty years, adding another $80 trillion at a minimum to the existing gross world product of $80 trillion, and we’ll have to do that while decreasing carbon dioxide emissions year on year from now on at a little more than the rate we’ve been increasing them ever since 1980. In other words, Marris’s figures for relative decoupling between 1980 and 2002 don’t even begin to capture the magnitude of that task. Now, I acknowledge that her article is primarily about sparing land for nature rather than climate change as such (though it’s doubtful how much ‘nature’ will survive a rapidly warming world). And, sure, we can project the emergence of trend-breaking new technologies (nuclear power being an ecomodernist favourite, of course). But I’m not seeing evidence that takes these decoupling conjectures out of the realm of wishful thinking. Frankly, it amazes me that someone can invoke data suggesting a modicum of relative decoupling as any kind of harbinger of an adequately reduced cumulative human footprint in a world of ‘no grand sacrifices’ without conceding any plausibility to bleaker visions. This is the phoniness of which I speak. And there’s a lot of it about – philosopher Julian Baggini was at it only last week in this Guardian article.

So let me state as clearly as I can the implications of the story I see written in the margins of the ecomodernist decoupling tale: it will be impossible to avert dangerous global climate change unless the current association between greenhouse gas emissions and economic growth is reversed immediately, an event whose likelihood is not suggested by any current evidence. If the solution to global poverty is sought through economic growth in the absence of fast absolute decoupling, then emissions will greatly increase, hastening the onset of dangerous climate change and threatening any anti-poverty gains.

So it seems to me we face a situation in which both absolute greenhouse gas emissions and major global disparities in wealth need to be reduced rapidly, and the familiar tools for achieving this of technological innovation and economic growth simply aren’t up to the task. In these circumstances, I think we need at the very least to start considering some radically different ways of being – including the possibility of people in the richer countries living and farming more like people in the poorer countries. It’s no longer a question of trying “to squeeze more out of less” as Marris puts it – something that in any case we’ve signally failed to do (at best, we’ve squeezed even more out of more). I think it’s now a question of trying “to do different with different”. In fact, ‘doing different with different’ should always be a question – the ecomodernist notion that capitalist modernity is some kind of summit of human achievement (Anthony Warner: “By pretty much any measure you can think of, the golden age is now”) is an ethnocentric fancy. And this is the second reason why ecomodernism makes me angry – its complete ideological closure to doing different with different, which results from a crude and unexamined commitment to the ideology of the modern: for ‘progress’, against ‘romanticism’. Frankly, it annoys me that people trying to articulate agrarian populist approaches to intractable problems of poverty and environmental degradation have to waste so much time engaged in rearguard defences around these points – “No, I don’t think that peasants are all happy in their simple poverty, that we should ‘go back’ to living a simple, preindustrial life” and so on and so on. Worse, under the star of ecomodernism this debate quickly turns into an argument for biotechnology as intrinsically pro-poor – Bt cotton, glyphosate etc. as saviours of the poor. There’s a whole other side to that argument, but it’s a place I’m reluctant to go for fear of contributing to the unedifying spectacle of rich westerners arguing with other rich westerners about which of them is the true champion of the poor. We need to get over ourselves here, and debate how to overcome the scourge of poverty with openness. Moral high country blocks the view.

The third reason for my anger is the David v Goliath nature of the battle. I don’t know anything about the funding of the ecomodernist firmament, but it’s a slick old business, with its thinktanks, TED talks, manifestos and briefings telling politicians, business leaders and the general public pretty much what they want to hear. Contrast that with the mere handful of academics, grassroots groups and lone wolf bloggers like me putting the case for agrarian populism and it feels like a losing battle.

A couple of years ago my critique of the Ecomodernist Manifesto, got a modicum of wider notice and briefly drew me into a minor flurry of online debate, including a comment I left on Ben Heard’s website in response to his statement that the ecomodernists were open to challenging debate. I linked to a couple of my articles in which that debate was joined – to which Heard responded “At a smidge under 5,000 and 5,500 words respectively, I fear you may be writing to yourself rather than an audience. Looks like some interesting discussion therein and if you seriously expect people to read it please, re-cut them with a whole lot more discipline in the writing.”

I only discovered this comment recently. At one level, the hypocrisy of it kind of amused me – my critique was pretty much the same length as the Manifesto, which Mr Heard happily read. Nobody is obliged to read anything, but I’m not sure you can conscionably call for a debate and then duck out of it by retrospectively imposing editorial conditions on your interlocutors. But ultimately, yes, I guess I am pretty much writing to myself, and though I feel honoured to have acquired a small online readership, no doubt my loquaciousness and lack of editorial professionalism limits my reach. Most of the time, that doesn’t bother me. I’ve long been fully resigned to the fact that my words and deeds count for nothing in the world (OK, I’m lying: let me say instead that I’ve recently become partially resigned to it…) I now just want to do the best thinking and writing I can within the limits of my capacities and circumstances. But then I get to thinking that ecomodernism is making the world just that little bit worse, making the solutions to its problems just that little bit more intractable, entrenching those habits of thought and deed which in the end will have to be disinterred and reconfigured that much more laboriously. And that makes me think that I ought to sharpen up my act, follow Mr Heard’s advice and try to make myself as slick as an ecomodernist. Perhaps I should form my own institute – the Breakdown Institute? Well, if anyone wants to give me a steer on this, I’m all ears. And if nobody responds, then I’ll readily embrace the truth of Mr Heard’s words and follow my heart – which I think is to write as I please, for myself, for trying to understand the world as I see it, trying as best I can to be a scholar and not a phony, and (let me admonish myself) focusing on an effort to do good work for its own sake rather than wasting time practicing the arts of rhetorical war in the battle over ecomodernism…

…which is just as well, because next up is my ‘History of the world in ten and a half blog posts’ – an essay considerably longer than the ones that so exasperated the ever-so-busy Mr Heard. Well, I’m pretty sure that ecomodernism lacks persuasive answers to our problems, so I think I need to look elsewhere, at my own pace. And the place to start looking is human history, in case it can turn up anything more promising. I’ll readily admit that past history is a poor guide to the future. Unfortunately it’s the only one we’ve got.

Marris argues that the good thing about her decoupling approach is that it doesn’t rely on “a sudden and unprecedented improvement in our moral character”. An interesting point – did the proliferation of our contemporary environmental problems stem from a sudden and unprecedented degeneration in that character? I don’t think so. So maybe that suggests we might be able to learn some useful things for the future by looking at the past – which is not, of course, a very ecomodernist sort of thing to say. It ought to be.

Of bad science and bad SCIENCE: the angry farmer meets the angry chef

The plaudits seem to be piling up for Bad Science and the Truth about Healthy Eating1 by Anthony Warner, better known as ‘The Angry Chef’ for his foul-mouthed assaults on the pseudoscientific pretensions of the alternative health and diet industry. Well, my advocacy for alternative farming has never really been strongly grounded in nutritional considerations, and to be honest I find a lot of the book a pretty convincing takedown of some of the wilder shores of contemporary food faddism. So perhaps I’d be best off focusing on other things. But there are things that trouble me about Mr Angry’s line of argument, which bear on the general themes of this blog, so I’m going to conclude my recent series of critical book reviews with a look at his opus. Because you see, for someone who’s so angry about bad science, there’s a remarkable quantity of bad science in the book. The reason, I think, is because Mr A is less interested in science than in SCIENCE, and the result of this is…bad.

I’ll explain the difference between lowercase science and uppercase SCIENCE towards the end of this essay. But first I want to home in on the chapter of Mr Angry’s book in which he most reveals his penchant for bad science – Chapter 7 in Part II of the book called “When science goes wrong”, which focuses on the Paleo diet.

The Paleo diet idea in brief is that human diets changed radically after the widespread global adoption of agriculture starting around 10,000 years ago. This involved the substitution of energy dense foods based on cereals (and, later, also sugar) for the less carb-heavy fare to which our species and its antecedents had previously been accustomed. According to Paleo diet proponents, the high-energy input and low-exercise output regimen of modern life is associated with many of the chronic diseases of later life that plague us today, because a mere 10,000 years or less of agricultural lifeways has been insufficient for full evolutionary adaptation. There are numerous additional complexities to the Paleo diet idea which are set out in Loren Cordain’s eponymous book2, but that, I think, will have to suffice as a thumbnail sketch.

Trying to sort the chaff from the grain in Mr Angry’s attempted refutation of the Paleo hypothesis, if that’s not an inappropriate metaphor, I hope it’s fair to summarise it by way of the following six points:

  1. The Paleo hypothesis misunderstands evolution, since it assumes that evolution creates “one perfect being at a single point in time and then chug[s] along unaltered as the world changes around it”3. The truth is that “evolution doesn’t stop” – which Mr A supports with reference to the post-agricultural emergence of lactose tolerance.
  1. There were many different Palaeolithic peoples who ate widely different diets, so it’s impossible to determine what ‘the’ Paleo diet should be.
  1. Palaeolithic peoples did, in fact, consume carbohydrates.
  1. The Paleo hypothesis is sexist: its contemporary proponents tend to be men, and their “hypothesised Palaeolithic lifestyle” involving relatively high levels of meat consumption is “likely to appeal to a certain retrograde misogyny – the muscular male hunter bravely wrestling bears, while the women tend the children and pick a few berries”.
  1. The Paleo hypothesis romanticises the Palaeolithic period, a point that Mr Angry makes by various characterisations of it such as this: “As a species, we did all of our evolving in the golden age, when men were men and women wore bikinis made of mammoth fur”.
  1. The Paleo hypothesis involves a dangerous refusal of expert knowledge, because despite the fact that there’s a grain of truth to some of it and that it has a few academic advocates “in accepting the misunderstanding of science that underlies it there is a real danger of abandoning the tenets of reason. Once you reject the voices of real experts in favour of charismatic advocates with a prettier story, you leave yourself open to packs of pseudoscience wolves.”

What to make of all this? First, I’d draw a distinction between points 1-3, which are at least potentially good scientific objections to the Paleo hypothesis, and points 4-6 which are bad scientific objections – in fact, they’re not ‘scientific’ at all. Points 4 and 5 are ad hominem criticisms of contemporary people who espouse the Paleo hypothesis. I have no idea if they’re well-grounded and I don’t really care, because to use the kind of language favoured by Mr A himself, if it’s true that pre-agricultural diets are better for human health then, scientifically speaking, it doesn’t matter a flying f*** what views people espousing such diets take on matters of gender or history.

Point 6 is not so much an unscientific objection to the Paleo hypothesis as an anti-scientific one. For, as Mr A is at pains to emphasise throughout his text, the modus operandi of science, the whole reason for its spectacular success, is that it doesn’t satisfy itself with the ‘expert’ opinions of people in authority, but relentlessly questions received wisdom. For sure, if you want to take an intellectual shortcut on a scientific matter you’re probably better off asking for the opinions of someone who has some relevant scientific qualifications than those of someone who doesn’t. But science proceeds by way of empirical hypothesis-testing, not expert opinion-making, and the glory of it is that ultimately it stands or falls irrespective of anybody’s opinions. The criticisms voiced by the experts Mr Angry cites seem to take aim more generically at the idea of ‘a Paleo diet’ rather than any specific hypothesis underlying it. In any case, his contention that the Paleo hypothesis is rejected by all the experts apart from “a few academic advocates to give it some validity” is rather tendentious. There seems to be a reasonable body of writing in peer-reviewed journals that is broadly supportive4.

So I think we can reject points 4-6 as bad scientific objections to the Paleo hypothesis. Kind of weird to find such bad science in a book critiquing bad science, huh? Well, I think Mr A has his reasons, and I’ll come on to that soon.

But first let’s look more closely at the possibly more plausible points 1-3. Mr Angry is on firm ground in arguing that evolution doesn’t create perfect creatures at particular points in time and then stops. That certainly would be a misunderstanding of evolution. But, so far as I can discern, it’s not what proponents of the Paleo hypothesis actually think. Mr A doesn’t provide any references to support his characterisation of the evolutionary theory behind the Paleo hypothesis, which strikes me as intellectually sloppy. I think I’m detecting the sweet, dry aroma of straw, shaped into human form.

I’ll come back to evolutionary theory in a moment but, just to pick up on points 2 and 3, here is where we may be getting somewhere. If it turns out that Palaeolithic diets were typically as rich in carbohydrates as contemporary ones (and perhaps more to the point, as rich in simple carbohydrates) then that really would throw a spanner into the Paleo hypothesis. Here, Mr A does cite a paper, which argues that starchy foods were important in the pre-agricultural diet5. But so far as I can tell it doesn’t argue that carbohydrates or simple carbohydrates formed as significant a proportion of the diet as they do today – indeed, other research papers suggest the opposite6. Mr A himself mentions that among adults in the contemporary UK 12.1% of their dietary energy comes from added sugar, and for 11-18 year olds the figure is what he calls a “a genuinely shocking” 15.6%. It’s clearly true that Palaeolithic diets were quite varied and that Palaeolithic people would have sought out sources of carbohydrate when they could. But how many of them regularly consumed sucrose or simple carbohydrates more generally at the kind of levels reported by Mr A for the contemporary UK? My guess would be few, if any. And if that’s so, then there’s surely a prima facie case for the plausibility of the Paleo hypothesis.

Let me now briefly try to reconstruct the rudiments of a plausible Paleo diet hypothesis which is robust to the kind of objections raised by Mr Angry. First, I don’t think it’s scientifically controversial to say that there are widely consumed foodstuffs today that have potentially anti-nutritional or morbid properties as well as nutritional ones – soy, rape (canola), wheat and sugar spring to mind. There are ways of trying to minimise these properties – plant-breeding, preparation methods and dietary diversity among them. But I think it’s plausible to suggest that consumption of the crops I’ve mentioned – all huge global commodity crops – is likely to be higher than in pre-agricultural diets7.

Second, let us consider the nature of disease and exposure to risk factors associated with it. In some cases, diseases and disease-causing agents are experienced as binaries: you either have malaria or you don’t, you were either exposed to asbestos or you weren’t. But in many cases exposure is a continuous variable – for example, high blood pressure is associated with various health problems, but blood pressure is distributed continuously within populations. The point at which we define someone as suffering from the disease of hypertension is essentially arbitrary8. I hypothesise that the same may be true for the negative effects of foodstuffs like sucrose and gluten. Some people are highly susceptible and may display various morbid symptoms at low exposures, while others will be utterly impervious. The rest of us will be strung out along the continuum between these two poles. We won’t, for example, experience morbid symptoms simply by eating a few slices of bread, but if we eat a lot of bread over many years it’s possible that some of us eventually will experience morbid symptoms as a result. So, for example, the notion criticised by Mr Angry that no amount of sugar consumption is safe may be overly alarmist, but isn’t necessarily without scientific foundation. And one of the findings of preventive medicine is that population health is improved more radically if exposure to the risk factor is reduced by a little bit across the whole population than by a lot only among those most susceptible to it9. So even if in some cases (like coeliac disease, for example) there’s a genetic aetiology which isn’t simply distributed continuously, there may still be a case for taking a ‘less is better’ approach.

Third, let us consider the nature of evolution. Organisms, including humans, are born with characteristics substantially inherited from their parents which have usually developed over the evolutionary long haul because they conferred adaptive abilities to cope with the kind of environments the species in question experienced. Often, the kind of environment an organism experiences is similar to that experienced by its parents and ancestors, but sometimes environments change. In these circumstances, stronger selective pressures act upon the inherent variability within the species, favouring those organisms with characteristics that are better suited to the new environment. But, in the short-run at least, natural selection is a blunt instrument, acting only upon relative reproductive success. Therefore, if an organism experiences an environmental change that reduces its adaptive fitness in the post-reproductive phase of its life the selective effect will be slighter (though not, as discussed on this blog a while back, zero). And even in the case of stronger selective pressures, it can take a long time for natural selection to ‘catch up’ with the environmental change by progressively eliminating less adaptive characteristics in the population.

Fourth, let us consider the nature of the historical human diet. I’d hypothesise that it’s evolutionarily adaptive for humans to like and favour nutrient-rich foods such as sugar and other carbohydrates, fat, meat and other protein-heavy food. But in the hunter-gatherer situations that have typified the greatest proportion of our species and its antecedents’ time on earth, these foods were usually relatively hard to come by10. Mr Angry states with appropriate caution that we don’t really know in detail what our Palaeolithic forebears ate, and – as I’ve mentioned – he cites a research paper that suggests carbohydrate was an important part of our diet before agriculture, but doesn’t suggest how important. He also states that “even the evil grains were widely consumed for much of [the Palaeolithic period]”. This time he provides no supportive evidence for this statement, but there are research papers that suggest otherwise11.

One other little notion I’d like to throw into the mix here is the finding that rates of diabetes in societies consuming modern ‘western’ diets seem to be much higher than those of hunter-gatherer societies and others following ‘ancestral’ diets, but rates among people who’ve switched from an ‘ancestral’ diet to a modern western one may be higher still12.

OK, let me try to parlay all that into the Angry Farmer’s own personal Paleo hypothesis, which goes something like this: most ancestral human populations were adapted to diets lower in gluten-containing wheat, sugar and other simple carbohydrates than is typical of the modern western diet. Exposure to higher levels of these foodstuffs in the contemporary western diet is causally associated with various chronic diseases of later life such as diabetes and heart disease. Evolution hasn’t ‘stopped’ with the invention of agriculture – there is likely to be a selective effect favouring people who are less susceptible to such chronic diseases. But the effect is likely to be relatively weak and has not yet had time to eliminate the negative consequences of a cereal and carbohydrate-rich diet. Therefore, to reduce the risk of these disease outcomes it may be prudent for people to reduce their carbohydrate and wheat consumption. Lactose tolerance is another post-agricultural evolutionary adaptation – and one where the selective effect is likely to be stronger than in the case of gluten or carbohydrate tolerance because it confers the ability for whole populations to exploit new pastoralist niches that would be harder to occupy for lactose intolerant people. The weaker selective effect of post-reproductive chronic illness is inoperative in this case. Lactose tolerance is, however, just about the only clearly identified post-agricultural dietary adaptation. As Katharine Milton argues, “We know of few specific genetic adaptations to diet in our species”13. And even lactose tolerance isn’t that widespread across the human species.

Of course, I haven’t proved the Paleo hypothesis here. But I like to think I’ve established that it has a basic scientific plausibility that’s robust to Mr Angry’s objections. Note that it doesn’t depend on any notion that the Palaeolithic was some kind of ‘golden age’, or on a view that evolution creates one perfect being at a single point in time which is then impervious to change. It may turn out to be empirically wrong. But, for his part, Mr Angry furnishes no evidence to suggest that it is.

So why does he go to such lengths to ridicule it, employing such exemplarily bad science along the way? I think it’s because he’s less interested in critiquing bad science per se than in purveying a broader cultural argument. The milder form of this argument is that we shouldn’t get too hung up on our food choices or use them as status symbols. The essential message is: everything in moderation, enjoy life as you go, inject a bit of rationality into your thought and don’t point the finger of blame too much at yourself or other people. My feeling is that humans aren’t that good at rationality and incline quite naturally to symbolic thought, especially with culturally powerful things like food, and to games of status and blame. So I think Mr A has quite a battle on his hands to realise his vision – maybe that’s why he’s so angry. Sir, the angry farmer feels your pain. As a supporter of various lost causes myself, I’m not inclined to be too critical of this mild form of the argument, which strikes me as quite sensible.

But as the book wears on, the argument turns into something much more strident, totalising and, ultimately, pretty weird. Here are a few quotations:

“It is not enough to tackle dietary myths in isolation, attacking each one with competing evidence-based messages. In order to sell sensible, truthful messages, scientific truth itself needs to be made into an idea that sticks”

“To question science is to ignore everything it has done for man, to overlook the astounding progress of the last few hundred years”

“Processed convenience food has set women free, and every time we criticize convenience choices, we are showing our desire to drag women’s bodies and minds away from the workplace and back into the kitchen”

“I will always decry anyone who makes wild insinuations” …. “every society that has ever existed would eagerly swap their lives with someone living in the developed world today”

Here, ‘science’ as a form of rational, critical inquiry is turning into something else – a cultural or ideological proposition that contemporary ‘developed’ society is uniquely desirable and liberatory as a result of the inherent truthfulness of its science, which is now reconfigured in the argument as a unified repository of the good, something that must not be criticised for fear of falling into error. In other words, ‘science’ in this strand of Mr Angry’s presentation has assumed the mantle of religion or the revealed truth of God’s word. My shorthand term for this way of thinking about science is an uppercase SCIENCE, and it has precious little to do with science as a form of critical inquiry. Others refer to it as the ideology of scientism.

And this is all eerily familiar, no? The vaunting of contemporary ‘developed’ society against the inferiority of all other human societies. The religious style of elevating a particular truth claim – SCIENCE – over the putatively inferior, superstitious and relativist claims of its critics. The invocation of an oppressed category of people – in Mr Angry’s case, usually women – as uniquely liberated by the superior qualities of the culture in question, thereby positioning its critics as pariahs, in this case as misogynists. Oh, we’ve been here before – whether it’s diet, golden rice, nuclear power, urbanisation, ‘scientific agriculture’, or simply ‘progress’, the ideology of ecomodernism spreads its slimy tentacles ever wider. It always stakes a claim to speak up for the oppressed, for decency, and for progress, and against false idols like romanticism and relativism. And it’s always struck me as essentially religious in form – never more clearly than in Mr Angry’s exposition. Consider his comment:

“Poor dietary choices do not occur when people are driven by hedonistic pleasure, they occur when people eat without thought, and that will never happen if we engage with and truly love the food we eat”.

To me, this counter-Puritanism looks indistinguishable from the kind of unscientific mumbo-jumbo that Mr Angry spends so much time trying to debunk in his book. You could just as easily, and just as incorrectly, say that you’ll never get lung cancer if you smoke for hedonistic pleasure and truly love the tobacco you puff. As in Raj Patel’s fine book Stuffed and Starved, I think the truth is that we’ve ‘scientifically’ engineered our way to a global diet in which too many people get too much ‘feast food’ (typically the poorer people in the richer countries) and too many people get too little food at all (typically the poorer people in the poorer countries).

Ah well, I like to think I’ve written enough about ecomodernism in the past and have acquired a sufficiently like-minded and discerning readership on this blog not to labour the point of what, to use one of Mr A’s own favoured words, utter dumbfuckery his claims about hedonistic eating or the trans-historical desirability of contemporary ‘developed’ society are. So I’d just like to conclude with a few further thoughts about ‘science’.

At one point in his book, Mr Angry quotes from a speech by John F. Kennedy about the US moon programme in which the president said “space science, like nuclear science and all technology has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man”. And yet there is no sense of this same ambivalence, of cultural contradictions and trade-offs, of paths closed off as new ones open up, in his own thinking about science, which he’s content to describe simply as “the greatest force for progress that there has ever been”. Well, off the top of my head, here are five great anti-‘progressive’ forces in the contemporary world which have all emerged as a result of the progress of science:

  • anthropogenic climate change
  • thermonuclear weapons
  • accelerated biodiversity loss
  • eutrophication of rivers and oceans
  • loss of antibiotic efficacy through prophylactic agricultural use

My guess is that all of them have the potential to imperil human lives at a level orders of magnitude beyond that caused by Gwyneth Paltrow’s half-arsed dietary advice or the Gerson therapy and other dodgy ideas of the kind excoriated by Mr Angry, precisely because of the efficacy of the scientific method in combination with the vastly transformative nature of the capitalist economy. And if one had to choose the single greatest threat to humanity in contemporary society caused by the refusal to heed scientific opinion, it would surely have to be climate change, something that Mr Angry doesn’t mention once. And, seriously, which science-denier is the greater threat – Ms. Paltrow or JFK’s unsurpassably idiotic successor in current occupation of the White House? Ah well, I suppose just because we face major existential threats as a result of our science, there’s no reason to avoid writing books about the minor existential threats we face as a result of our non-science. But I don’t think these should be built up into a closed ideological defence of SCIENCE as an ideology of modernity and inherent progress. Despite the rather toxic debate we’ve got into recently concerning the status of experts in the wake of Michael Gove and Charlie Gard, this doesn’t seem a great historical moment to be extolling scientific progress, the cult of the expert and ‘development’ as virtues. In fact, I think books like Mr Angry’s are part of the problem. Which makes me kind of…angry.

Notes

  1. The Angry Chef. 2017. Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating. OneWorld.
  1. Cordain, Loren. 2002. The Paleo Diet. John Wiley & Sons.
  1. The Angry Chef, op cit. I read the book on an e-reader and regrettably I have no idea how to give page references.
  1. eg. Kuipers, Remko et al. 2012. A multidisciplinary reconstruction of Palaeolithic nutrition that holds promise for the prevention and treatment of diseases of civilisation. Nutrition Research Reviews 25: 96-129; Lieberman, Leslie. 2003. Dietary, evolutionary and modernizing influences on the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes. Annual Review of Nutrition 23: 345-77; Lindeberg, Staffan. 2012. Paleolithic diets as a model for prevention and treatment of western disease. American Journal of Human Biology 24: 110-5; Milton, Katharine. 2000. Hunter-gatherer diets – a different perspective. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 71, 3: 665-7.
  1. Hardy, Karen et al. 2015. The importance of dietary carbohydrate in human evolution. The Quarterly Review of Biology. 90, 3: 251-68.
  1. Milton, op cit.
  1. Savard, Manon et al. The role of wild grasses in subsistence and sedentism. World Archaeology 38, 2: 179-96.
  1. Rose, Geoffrey. 1993. The Strategy of Preventive Medicine. Oxford University Press.
  1. Ibid.
  1. Milton, op cit.
  1. Savard et al, op cit.
  1. Zimmet, Paul. 1992. Challenges in diabetes epidemiology – from west to the rest. Diabetes Care 15, 2: 232-52.
  1. Milton, op cit.

Of holism, particularism and photosynthesis

I’ve been hoping to get back to my Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, albeit by a roundabout route, but it’s busy days on the farm at the moment so it’ll have to wait. Instead let me offer a few scattered thoughts to follow on from the discussion last time of RoboBees, nature vs humanity and Clem’s enthusiasm for photosynthesis – thoughts prompted by an article in the New Scientist that I recently read under the misapprehension that it was hot off the press, only to find after drafting this post that it was published nearly three years ago (but still, I think, a propos). Never let it be said that Small Farm Future isn’t bang up with the latest science…

Anyway, where I want to go in this piece ultimately is some mildly philosophical thoughts on nature and farming, and on holism and reductionism, and the links between these two dualities – thoughts with some upbeat implications for a small farm future. But first I’m going to have to take you through another ecomodernist vale of tears. So for those of a nervous disposition – be warned.

My starting point is that trusty old ecomodernist standard that photosynthesis – the process at the foundation of complex life on earth by which plants convert solar energy and carbon dioxide into the chemical building blocks of their tissues – is chemically inefficient and can be improved by human bioengineering. I’ve heard this point made quite often without further elaboration in the ecomodernist circles that I eavesdrop into from time to time, and my instinct has always been to dismiss it as a typical example of ecomodernist hubris.

But in the New Scientist piece I mentioned, Michael Le Page gives a slightly more detailed overview than usual of the issue, and reports on research that he says has “taken a huge step forward” in engineering improved photosynthesis by inserting a faster-photosynthesising version of the key RuBisCo enzyme from a cyanobacterium into a tobacco plant1. From here, Le Page leaps to the favoured productivist ideology of the ecomodernists, arguing “This seems like great news in a world where demand for food, biofuels and plant materials like cotton continue to increase, and where global warming will have an ever greater impact on crop production. More productive plants mean greater yields”. Then, he makes another huge leap of logic…but I’ll come to that in a moment.

I’m not a biologist so I’m going to frame the issue to the best of my limited abilities and put out a call to anyone better grounded in this than me to put me right if my reasoning is flawed. So, as I understand it, the chloroplasts in plant cells where photosynthesis occurs derive originally from free-living cyanobacteria, as Le Page describes. At some stage in the evolutionary past (though not, I think, ‘a billion years ago’ as Le Page claims) some such cyanobacteria were incorporated into the cell architecture of ancestral plant species. They’ve retained some, but not all, of their original DNA independently of the plant’s, but the plant cells see to it that they live in a cossetted, beneficial environment (they know which side their bread is buttered) and the result is that chloroplasts turn over and mutate at a slower rate than free-living cyanobacteria, which are more subject to direct evolutionary selection pressure. My guess is that this is what Le Page is driving at when he says that the “enslaved cyanobacteria” of plants have had “little scope to evolve” and are therefore less well adapted to today’s relatively carbon dioxide impoverished environment than free-living cyanobacteria which “have been able to evolve unfettered”.

But it’s not as though plants haven’t innovated evolutionarily in photosynthetic matters. As Le Page himself points out, plants have evolved the more efficient C4 photosynthetic pathway – in fact, this has evolved independently at least 31 times within various plant genera, mostly in the warmer climates where the C4 pathway works best. So why have plants been able to evolve more efficient forms of photosynthesis but not the super-efficient ones of the cyanobacteria? I don’t know, but my guess would be it’s not because the ‘enslavement’ of their cyanobacteria makes them evolutionarily unadventurous (which strikes me as the misguided application of a human metaphor to the natural world). Even if mutation in chloroplasts turns over more slowly than in cyanobacteria, plants have been around a very long time and, other things being equal, the advantages of more efficient photosynthesis are such that just a few mutations along these lines across the whole history of the plant kingdom would quickly propagate itself. So my guess is that ‘other things’ aren’t equal. Or to put it another way, plants are not reducible to their chloroplasts – there are numerous forces acting on the whole plant which it has to deal with as a complete organism in its environment. And these doubtless create trade-offs for the plant between photosynthetic efficiency and other desired characteristics – maybe drought tolerance and speed of growth?

If that’s so, it still doesn’t mean in itself that it’s necessarily a bad idea to engineer more photosynthetically efficient plants. But it suggests that the resulting plants may not be so well adapted to other aspects of their environment. And this, in a nutshell, is the tragedy of agriculture. For example, wild cereals would never naturally evolve the characteristics bred into them to suit human purposes – namely, short stems to ensure that as much of their photosynthate as possible goes to the desired seed, and non-shattering rachis to ensure that as many of the seeds as possible go into the desired grain harvester. Put such a plant into a wild grassland and it would be instantly outcompeted by tall-stemmed, shattering varieties – which is why farmers have to spend their days ploughing, weeding, spraying and so forth. My feeling is that Le Page’s “supercrops” with their “turbocharged photosynthesis” will only be “super” when they’re cossetted in the field or garden – just like other genetic monstrosities such as the bread wheats that humans have created down the ages.

If I’m right it may be a blessing, because Le Page thinks otherwise – in his view, these supercrops may outcompete wild plants, and the inference he draws is that we should not only let them do so but actively promote this outcome, in his words by “upgrading many wild plants too”. His rationale for the ‘upgrade’ of crop plants is the familiar ‘land sparing’ argument: in his words, “boosting agricultural yield to feed more people with less land”. And his rationale for the wild upgrade is this: “Wild animals need to eat too, and we’re not leaving much for them. An ecosystem based on superplants would support more life overall”.

Well, that suggestion leaves me as outraged as the next right-thinking greenie, but I want to focus my attention on the logical structure of this argument, which I find curious. At issue is an old debate in ecology as to whether the assemblages of organisms we call ecosystems have some emergent higher-order structure – whether the ecosystem is, as it were, a ‘superorganism’ – or whether it’s a more random, dynamic and competitive order with no equilibrium state or baseline by which we can say ‘Ah, here’s a proper ecosystem – intact and in balance’. The current orthodoxy in ecology, as I understand it, inclines towards the latter view, as elaborated for non-specialist audiences by the likes of Andy McGuire and in Emma Marris’s book Rambunctious Garden2.

Marris’s book has a cover endorsement from ecomodernist granddaddy Stewart Brand, and I suppose it’s not hard to see why. If there’s no stable ecological baseline, no ‘right’ ecosystem, against which to judge human fiddling with the rest of the biota, then there can be no objection in biological principle to any kind of bioengineering or plant ‘upgrade’ that somebody might deem worth a shot. But that argument cuts both ways. By the same token, there can be no objection in biological principle to filling the countryside or even the national parks with peasant farmers pursuing a putatively less ‘efficient’ form of ‘land sharing’ agriculture. The relatively efficiencies of high-tech commercial agriculture and low-tech peasant agriculture are difficult to determine, and it’s by no means a given that the former outscores the latter. But the beauty of the ‘random ecosystem’ argument is that it doesn’t matter. If it were true that the natural world was a thing of delicate balance entirely outwith human affairs that was apt to collapse in a heap at the hint of human presence, then I could see the logic of the ecomodernist position, at least theoretically – get people into cities well away from ‘nature’, grow food in the most efficient, lowest land-take manner possible, go vegan etc. In practice, I don’t think this is a good idea because for numerous reasons I think human environmental impacts in the long-term and possibly even the short-term will be greater, not lesser, if we go down this route. But theoretically at least, it’s a position that might make sense. If, on the other hand, we accept that humans are a part of the natural world and will inevitably affect it, just as all other organisms do, then the logic of ‘sparing’ land for nature becomes harder to discern. Of course, humans affect nature disproportionately to our numbers (or perhaps a better measure would be to our biomass), so whether we’re ‘sparing’ or ‘sharing’ it’s surely a good idea for us to attend to our impacts on the natural world – but there’s nothing written in the book of nature that tells us what those impacts should be. So there’s no ecological rationale for Le Page’s plan to ‘upgrade’ wild plants so that wild animals have more to eat.

Maybe what’s going on here is another set of contradictions around another dualistic debate – holism versus reductionism. We face some big, broad problems in the world – like how to feed humanity sustainably. Meanwhile, the scientific method has been spectacularly successful at understanding the world not so much in a big, broad holistic way, but in small, particular, reductionist ways. The problem with ecomodernism as I see it is that it makes the characteristically ‘modernist’ category error of trying to resolve the duality by addressing the general from the particular, by solving big, broad problems using small, reductionist means. I’d like to propose the opposite approach, of trying to solve small, particular problems by big, broad means. Take any person in the world – what are the main problems they have to solve as an individual to live well? How about food, clothes, shelter and conviviality? And what are the main factors obstructing them? I don’t think the photosynthetic inefficiency of the eukaryotic cell tops the list.

When I published my critique of the Ecomodernist Manifesto somebody tweeted a response along the lines of “Not beyond the wit of humanity to solve our problems. Maybe beyond the wit of @csmaje.” Well, it certainly is beyond my wit to solve humanity’s problems, and I’m inclined to think that it’s also beyond humanity’s collective wit to solve its collective problems. But then again I don’t have to solve humanity’s problems, and nor does anyone else. Solving my individual problems concerning food, clothes, shelter and conviviality stretches my wit quite enough, but at least it seems potentially achievable. So my contention for debate is this: IF WE COULD ONLY STOP TRYING TO SOLVE THE PROBLEMS OF THE ‘WORLD’ AND FOCUS ON OUR OWN DANGED PROBLEMS, THEN THE WORLD WOULD BE A LESS PROBLEMATIC PLACE.

Let me be clear: I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t care about other people or other beings; I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t work collectively with others; I’m not arguing that private vice equals public virtue, along the lines of Adam Smith. One of the ironies of the Smithian position is that it takes a strong, universalist body like a centralised state to break down local connections sufficiently to enforce the pursuit of ‘private’ self-interest. I’m just arguing that specific problems addressed holistically at the local level may prove more tractable than general problems addressed specifically at the global level. All of those terms are up for debate, but my starter for ten would be that small-scale, local, ‘land-sharing’ agroecological farming based on tried and tested materials and methods will do a better job of feeding the world and the rest of the biota too than Le Page’s superplant upgrade. And I say that in full awareness that there are various major global crises underway, including mass extinction. I agree with Le Page that “we are way, way past the point where we can preserve Earth the way it was before we came to the fore”. I just don’t think particularistic solutions to holistic problems of the kind he offers will best overcome them.

In his book Darwinian Agriculture – my go-to text for sensible scepticism about the wilder claims of both biotechnology and ‘alternative’ agriculture – ecologist Ford Denison reports that the claim to be able to engineer improved photosynthesis has been around for about forty years and is not likely to be realised “anytime soon”3. After discovering that the cyanobacteria ‘upgrade’ of tobacco wasn’t exactly the latest news, I spent a bit of time searching the web for an update on this breakthrough – not so diligently that I can be sure of this, but I failed to turn up anything published within the last year or two to suggest that the ‘upgrade’ was closer to reality. Could this be yet another one of those fabled ecomodernist technologies, like nuclear fusion, destined to recede ever onwards into the almost theres of the future? If you can bring me any further news of this particular hereafter, I’d be happy to hear it…

Notes

  1. Michael Le Page. 2014. Turbocharge our plants. New Scientist. 224, 2989: 26-7.
  1. Emma Marris. 2011. Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. Bloomsbury.
  1. Ford Denison. 2012. Darwinian Agriculture: How Understanding Evolution Can Improve Agriculture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lean Logic

The much-delayed Issue 21 of The Land Magazine has just been published – how did we cope with the waiting? If you search diligently through its pages, you’ll find a review in it by me of David Fleming’s fascinating book, Lean Logic1. Below I’m reproducing a longer version of the review than the one that appears in the magazine.

It may be worth just sketching the back story of the review. Fleming died in 2010 leaving his manuscript incomplete, and it was left to Shaun Chamberlin to pick up the gauntlet and see the work through to final publication – which he did with great aplomb and, I’m sure, no little legwork. Shaun kindly suggested to The Land’s editors that I might be worthy to review the book, and so it was that towards the end of last year the weighty tome landed in my mailbox.

Working my way through the book, I was enormously impressed with much of it, but also troubled by some of it, mostly for reasons that have cropped up recently on this website in debates over populism, nationalism and suchlike. I wrote a perhaps overly bad-tempered review draft, but felt a little embarrassed about it since it was Shaun himself who’d put the book my way. So with some trepidation I sent it to him for discussion. He proved splendidly broad-minded about it, and we had an interesting email exchange about David’s ideas in the course of which Shaun helped me to improve the review greatly from my first effort. Shaun pointed out that we can often agree with 90% of what someone says, yet focus on the 10% where we disagree, and I probably have to plead guilty of that here. I guess all I’d add is that I’ve found that dissonant 10% very informative in trying to think through the left agrarian populist project I’m generally engaged in on this blog…and I’m not sure David needs further plaudits from me in relation to the other 90%. But I hope I’ve managed to convey at least a measure of my admiration for his thinking in my review.

Version II of the review that I submitted to The Land was a rather sprawling effort, and I was asked to cut it by about a quarter. Then as the publication date loomed I was asked to cut it by another quarter – doubtless the real quality material had started rolling into the editorial office by that point… Well, no complaints from me – I have endless respect for Gill and Simon’s editorial nous. But though there’s something to be said for brevity, the result is that over the last few months I’ve produced four different versions of the review and I’ve had to cut out various bits that I’d have preferred to keep in.

So what I’m offering you below is kind of a Lean Logic Review – the Director’s Cut, which combines what I hope are the best features of all the various versions into the definitive text. I hope you enjoy it, because boy have I sweated over each and every one of the 2,000-odd words below.

oOo

The late David Fleming was a maverick economist who left his imprint across British environmentalism from the Green Party to the Transition movement by way of the New Economics Foundation. In Lean Logic, he presents a lifetime’s thinking on how humanity might deal with a coming ‘climacteric’ – an interlocking crisis of climate, energy, water, food and other resources. The master concept is leanness, which Fleming unfurls against the grain of our taken-for-granted approach to the contemporary capitalist economy by reincorporating ‘the economy’ as politics, and ultimately as culture – one culture among many. Thus, from the impressive but dysfunctional culture of contemporary capitalism, Fleming tries to discern the shape that lean cultures of a post-climacteric future might take – diverse, locally-specific, spiritually-oriented, and dedicated to human livelihood as self-creation rather than self-aggrandisement. He pursues the twists and turns of these issues in dictionary format across a sprawling, and decidedly unlean, 672 pages – not always in directions that I personally find persuasive, but always with integrity, thoughtfulness and a dash of humour. It’s an impressive achievement.

The easiest way I can engage with the book in a short review is by identifying four overarching threads. The first is the logic of argument, the rhetorical means by which people try to persuade others of their views – perhaps a subsidiary theme to the book’s larger concerns, but pertinent nonetheless. Advocates for radical alternatives to the status quo commonly find their views marginalised by all manner of rhetorical trickery which excludes them from the narrow centre ground of ‘serious’ opinion. Fleming is at his best in skewering such tactics in a series of brief, aphoristic entries which allow his mordant humour full rein.

The second thread is the use of systems theory to illuminate the worlds that both natural selection and human cultures have built in the past and might build in the future. I’m slightly sceptical about the usefulness of turning such disparate phenomena as animal bodies, transport networks, groups of conspecific organisms, the human economy, ecosystems and the internet into mere exemplars of ‘system’, and Fleming doesn’t always convince me that the systems he discusses (like Gaia, the Earth itself as system) are really ‘systems’, but his writing is invariably stimulating, especially when he turns to human social systems. A case in point is his clever analysis of the way that the increasing complexity in modern society rests on the increasing simplification of roles in its constituent individuals and communities. This makes it more resilient in its current capacity to prevent system shocks, but less resilient in its ability to recover from them.

Fleming’s third thread is devoted to the economics of resilience in the context of the climacteric. There’s some exemplary analysis here, not least in his characterizations of the ‘taut’ – but not ‘lean’ – contemporary capitalist economy and the way its growth ingests the natural capital it depends on, rather than subsisting sustainably from its flow. He contrasts this with more resilient societies historically that have limited or destroyed growth capital so as to preserve the natural resources on which life depends, often through practices that strike the modern mind as inefficient or frivolous. But he also shows how difficult it is to achieve resilience of this kind once the capitalist genie is out of the bottle: in capitalist societies, degrowth too readily means stagnation, recession and unemployment.

So far, so good. But, for me, Fleming’s thought becomes more problematic when he outlines how the ‘lean’ societies of the future might overcome the problems bequeathed by the present. His economic thought, for example, hinges on a strong contrast between market economies and ‘gift’ economies, where the exchange of things builds trust or solidarity in a concentric pattern emanating outwards from households and neighbourhoods. The problem here is partly an over-general definition of ‘market economy’: there have been many kinds of market economy historically, with vastly different consequences. But it’s also that the non-market exchange of things can build status inequality just as much as solidarity, as with patron-client and caste systems. The hankering to transcend impersonal market relations with socially-embedded exchange is understandable, but social embeddedness isn’t always positive. Fleming appreciates this, noting that “all gifts have strings attached” (p.178) and arguing that the market economy “supports a more egalitarian society than any other large-scale state has been capable of” (p.305). But I think he underestimates its importance, preferring to focus on the possibilities for building harmony rather than hierarchy through non-market exchange. The fundamental problem is not, however, the primacy of market over gift relations but the human will to power, which can happily inhabit both forms.

I’m not sure how troubling status inequality is to Fleming’s project, though, because the politics of Lean Logic are essentially conservative. There’s certainly an upside to this: while the mainstream politics of both left and right have dallied fatefully with market liberalism, it’s mostly been left to conservative thinkers of the kind that Fleming approvingly invokes – Edmund Burke, T.S. Eliot, Michael Oakeshott, Roger Scruton, Alasdair MacIntyre – to think seriously about community and tradition. Conservative thinking at its best – and much of Fleming’s writing fits this bill – helps us in the difficult task of living well in real-life communities. Perhaps it represents a kind of rugged individualism, in Fleming’s words “of being intuitively sure of who you are” (p.206) and able to deal with conflicts and setbacks without abdicating them to a levelling higher authority.

Amen to that. But the trouble with conservatism is that while it deals well with the random conflicts of life, it has less to say when those conflicts become systemic. For example, Fleming identifies the household – an economy rife with pure, unconditional giving – as a potential model for his preferred non-monetary gift society. But he scarcely mentions gender throughout the book, and doesn’t notice there’s a particular half of the population that disproportionately bears the cost of this unconditional giving. Indeed, he’s rather dismissive of systemic social identities like gender or class as politically significant, and dismissive of equality as an ethical end, arguing that equality is only a cipher for what really matters – community and social capital. There are grounds for arguing precisely the opposite.

When Fleming turns in his fourth thread to questions of culture, the conservatism becomes more problematic. Even here, much of what he writes is dazzlingly good. He has the anthropologist’s knack of making our contemporary culture seem strange, and the mystifying practices of other times and places seem perfectly sensible – as in his excellent analysis of medieval carnival, which showcases his fine judgment of the proper contexts for acting rationally, or spiritually, or playfully. I find his view persuasive that we get this wrong in contemporary western culture – and in this sense, whatever one’s views about a future climacteric, Fleming’s work stands up independently as cultural criticism.

But the concept of culture he finally arrives at in service of a future lean society seems the opposite of that outlined by the influential Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin, whose book2 on carnival Fleming cites. For Bakhtin, carnival exemplifies a ‘dialogic imagination’, forever open to new meanings, messy clashes of diverse people and ideas, contests over authority in which nobody has the last word. Fleming, by contrast, seems to be seeking some kind of single authentic note to ground culture as shared history and destiny. He frames this appealingly in a memorable phrase: “the story of you and the people you know, set in the place you know” (p.199). But it’s all too easy to invert the formulation and define culture by exclusion against the people and places you don’t know. That isn’t Fleming’s intention. Indeed, he warns against overemphasizing place-based identity: “gypsies and ships’ captains are not necessarily prevented from discovering their identity – but their place is the road, or the sea” (p.206). Yet to me this is an inadequate gloss for what happens to the placeless when culture is strongly defined around place.

There are many such stigmatised and often involuntary ‘wanderers’ in the modern world, and I fear a rigid application of Fleming’s ideas would further marginalise them. His intention is otherwise: to replace the rootless nomadism of contemporary capitalist culture with a world of “strong, distinctive local cultures, sharing mutual respect” (p.321). But here I’m with Bakhtin: cultural boundaries are never fixed enough to define separate, distinct, cultures-in-the-plural unambiguously, and ideas of culture and community are always essentially fictions – indeed, the idea of the nation as a fictive community-writ-large of ‘people you know’ only really arose with the emergence of capitalist mass society from the eighteenth century. Fleming approvingly cites Roger Scruton falling into this nationalist trap, construing ‘culture’ as a fictive shared history defined essentially through the exclusion of outsiders (pp.84-5). This is immediately followed with another approving citation, this time from Wendell Berry, which sounds similar in its weighting of the local but actually grounds culture in shared work on the land, not exclusive history. I wish he’d ditched Scruton and developed the implications of Berry, because in seeking a basis for the post-capitalist societies of the climacteric and lighting on the culture of the nation rather than the work on the farm, I fear he’s backing the wrong horse.

What I wouldn’t dispute is the importance of finding an alternative to the present economic path of neoliberal globalisation, and I think Fleming is right to seek it in the local. Given the contemporary decline of public confidence in large-scale state institutions, his preference for what he calls ‘local wisdom’ over top-down government intervention is hardly controversial. But there are dangers. Much as I like Fleming’s sunny discussion of the “fusion of insult and endearment” associated with “love of the place you live in and the play-potential with places which have the misfortune of being somewhere else” (p.303) the local can be much more vicious and divided than that. I’m thinking, for example, of rape in rural India as a high caste strategy to silence low caste dissent in places far away from any rational niceties about the inviolability of the individual or her body3. Or, less traumatically, an experience that perhaps I’ve shared with other readers of The Land: despite our localist or anarchist leanings, a gratitude towards planning inspectors, those functionaries of the rational-bureaucratic state, who decide in favour of our low impact smallholdings against the ‘local wisdom’ of district councillors and residents who wish to prevent them. Indeed, ever since the emerging centralised states of the late medieval or early modern period gradually started defining a sphere of entitled citizenship against the arbitrary privilege of the seigneurial manor, while at the same time reorienting local economies upwards to the larger ends of the state, I don’t think there’s been a single or a simple story to tell about the encroachment of state power into the sphere of the local in western Europe, and this is paralleled in other parts of the world. Fleming knows this, mentioning the “darker side” of localities (p.68). But, as with his approach to non-market exchange, he tends to gloss over it in favour of more positive interpretations.

Still, it would be wrong to pigeonhole Fleming with the happy multitudes of eco-futurologists who regard anything other than determined optimism about humanity’s prospects as an act of bad faith.  It’s plain from his writing that he doesn’t consider a convivial, lean society of the climacteric to be a foregone conclusion. His entry on ‘unlean’ societies is something of a missed opportunity, detouring into a long exposition of Karl Wittfogel’s discredited ‘Oriental Despotism’ hypothesis concerning the ecological causes of repressive autocracy, and his thought sometimes skirts the same deterministic territory. But ultimately he succeeds in going somewhere more useful – to an insistence on political agency rather than technological solutions to ecological problems, on thinking anew about the relationship between local autonomy and state power, and on robustly defending democracy.

Perhaps there’s an issue with the book along similar lines to one that’s emerged from time to time in comments on this blog. To what extent should we focus our politics on the future we’d like to see, or on the future we think we’ll get? Only Miss World contestants and religious millenarians like the ecomodernists are wont to construe a future of peace, prosperity and technology for all as the political telos of the present – leading them, depending on their other attributes, to enter beauty contests, work as analysts at the Breakthrough Institute or write furious blogs about the infidels blocking the stairway to heaven. But it’s not always clear to me whether Fleming is saying ‘this is the world we’re going to get, so you’d better get used to it’ or ‘this is the world we’re going to get, and here’s how we’ll make the best of it’ or ‘this is the world we’re going to get – delightful, isn’t it?’, perhaps a generic problem for all of us who fix our sights beyond the political short-term. I guess for me an is doesn’t make an ought.

Still, whatever one thinks of his answers, Fleming consistently asks good questions, with a combination of wit and mature wisdom that often makes his writing soar. The book’s intriguing illustrations and excellent production, for which congratulations are surely due to editor Shaun Chamberlin and the publishers, enhance the effect. For all my misgivings about it, it would have been a shame had Fleming’s death robbed us of his illuminating thought.

Notes

  1. Fleming, David (2016). Lean Logic: A Dictionary For The Future And How To Survive It, (Ed. Shaun Chamberlin) White River Junction: Chelsea Green.
  1. Bakhtin, Mikhail (1984). Rabelais and His World, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  1. Desai, Manali (2016). Gendered violence in India. New Left Review, 99: 67-83.

Population and development: more on Malthus

I’m going to follow up on my previous post and turn this into a Malthusian two-parter. Let me begin by offering you an exclusive behind-the-scenes peek into the intellectual ferment that is the Small Farm Future office. After publishing our post on Malthus last week the SFF team have been reading Chris Wickham’s doorstopper of a book Framing The Early Middle Ages, which makes reference to the late Danish economist Ester Boserup’s influential 1965 book The Conditions of Agricultural Growth, and specifically to Boserup’s ‘anti-Malthusian’ arguments. We’d read Boserup’s book a couple of years back and made a few notes on it, but failed to incorporate it properly into our thinking. Wickham’s reference to it fired off connections not only to our arguments about Malthus but also to neo-populist economic theory (in which category we can perhaps place the anthropologist Paul Richards’ gentle critique of Boserup), and to the concepts of agricultural involution and to low level and high level equilibrium traps which we’re currently wrestling with as part of a small side project in which we aim to bring you the history of the world in just four blog posts1. Well, maybe four and a half.

OK, let me drop the first person plural, the joke’s gone far enough. And let me also apologise for subjecting readers of this blog to the painful creaking of my thinking-out-loud gears as I try to get to grips with all of this stuff. The apology would be all the more heartfelt if I was actually employed to do this, rather than spending precious weekends trying to make sense of the world and committing my half-formed ideas to cyberspace, but there you go – I’m just grateful that there are people who feel it worth their while to respond. One of whom is Andrew, whose view of Malthusianism as a ‘dark fairy tale that should never be allowed to occur in reality’ is interesting food for thought.

Anyway, that’s a perhaps unnecessarily long preamble to say that here I’m going to offer some preliminary and disjointed thoughts on Boserup’s anti-Malthusianism, followed by some further thoughts on escaping Andrew’s dark Malthusian fairy tale.

The Malthus-Boserup contretemps hinges on how we construe the relationship between agricultural productivity and population growth. As Boserup sees it, Malthusians consider population growth to be determined by the level of agricultural productivity or technology, whereas in her view the causality runs in the other direction: population growth creates subsistence pressures that stimulate increased agricultural productivity. One of the major dimensions of agricultural productivity that she emphasises is labour: “I have reached the conclusion,” she writes, “that in many cases the output from a given area of land responds far more generously to an additional input of labour than assumed by neo-Malthusian authors”2. And much of her book demonstrates the point with various examples of the way that in non-industrial farming systems additional labour inputs into such things as irrigation, tillage and fertility management results in higher yields per unit area. The same applies to industrial farming systems, though here a good deal of the additional labour is mechanical, bringing problems of its own that I won’t address here.

I think Boserup is right about the spectacularly productive character of human labour – it’s something I’ve remarked on previously on this blog, and something that’s emerged implicitly from my ‘Peasant’s Republic of Wessex’ exercise, which has shown how relatively easy it is to feed large populations through labour-intensive methods even with conservative productivity assumptions. But while it’s true that population growth may prompt agricultural intensification, it doesn’t follow that this provides an adequate historical account of agricultural ‘development’ through history, or that population growth is a final, causal factor (this, essentially, is Richards’ critique of Boserup: she doesn’t provide a historical account to show that population growth is a consistent historical prime mover). But if we do entertain Boserup’s analysis as a historical theory, then it’s a curious concept of ‘development’. Why would a society produce more offspring than it can comfortably feed and then devote itself to disagreeable extra labour in order to make good the shortfall? After all, historically the peasant way has usually been to choose extra leisure over extra work whenever possible – much to the chagrin of would-be ‘agricultural improvers’ – and to restrict fertility accordingly, albeit through methods that tend to strike the modern mind as sad at best and utterly wicked at worst. Wickham shows that this was pretty much the strategy adopted by peasants in early medieval Europe when they could get away with it – which was usually when there wasn’t a strong, centralised state around to organise their labour according to its own designs. Perhaps I’m missing something, but Wickham’s enthusiasm for Boserup’s account as a historical theory baffles me for this reason, when his own work underlines the importance of the state, of centralised polities, in agricultural development. The significance of the state is something I’m planning to write about in more detail soon. For me, all this raises two related questions worth posing to assorted Boserupians, eco-modernists and techno-fixers assembled under the anti-Malthusian banner labelled ‘technical development’: who are the winners and who are the losers of any given ‘development’, and who’s doing the hard work in the society so ‘developed’? A third question might be: even granted an association between population growth and technical development, is it always so tight that the former never overruns the latter, creating a short-term Malthusian crisis?

Anyway, my feeling is that the contrast between the ‘neo-Malthusians’ and Boserup’s ‘anti-Malthusianism’ is overdrawn. I agree that there are many ways of staving off the dark fairy tale of an impending Malthusian crisis, of which labour intensification is a key one usefully highlighted by Boserup. But that scarcely refutes the basic Malthusian problems I discussed in my last post of resource pressures creating generalised stress which may be ‘referred’ elsewhere – onto other people, or onto other organisms. And it doesn’t establish any kind of historical truth that Malthus’s dark tale will always stay in the realms of fiction. After all, Boserup’s tale of ‘development’ through labour intensification is a pretty dark one itself.

Take my Londinium projections from a few posts back. Now imagine this scenario in Londinium a few years hence, which seems to me a possibility at least:

  • declining crop yields as a result of climate change
  • increasing energy prices
  • a global economic depression prompted by the unhappy confluence of public and private debt, stagnant growth and increasing social inequality
  • the steady withdrawal of basic agricultural commodities from global markets as governments prioritise national food security

A sensible government in those circumstances would probably develop a national food and farming policy with a heavy emphasis on cereal cropping. Let’s say it managed to furnish you with just about enough bread to keep the hunger pangs at bay. If you wanted anything much else to eat, you’d be sowing vegetable seeds in domestic gardens, training vines up walls, collaborating in community orchard ventures, joining neighbourhood pig clubs, and dreaming up as many plans for creative agricultural intensification in domestic spaces as you possibly could. Would you say you were experiencing a Malthusian crisis or going through a phase of Boserupian intensification? My friend, you’d be too busy gardening to care.

Anyway, let us suppose that we’re in such a situation, and the future portents are only looking worse. What are the available options? There are four main strategies, three of which are routinely discussed within the Malthusian framework, while the fourth – the most promising one, in my opinion – rarely is. Let me briefly summarize them.

1. The technical fix. This is pretty much Plan A, B, C and Z for most of the world’s governments and would-be governments. Not enough food? Figure out how to raise yields. Too much greenhouse gas? Figure out how to sequester carbon, deflect sunlight, or whatever. Malthus is vanquished by scientific progress. The problem with this is that you can’t guarantee you’ll come up with a fix in time. And even if you do, new solutions beget new problems and rebound effects, so you may just be kicking the can down the road until it turns into an even bigger and more intractable problem later on. Usually, technical fixes are only proximal engineering solutions to underlying social problems – and those problems remain. I still think it can be a good idea to pursue technical solutions. I don’t think it’s a good idea to pursue them as the main, still less the only, strategy to overcoming resource crises.

2. Embracing the fight. Alternatively, you can just embrace the gathering crisis and prepare to fight for your piece of the much-contested pie. But it’s a high-risk strategy. A lot of people seem to harbour the notion that they’ll be one of the ones to come out on top – kind of like the way that most people seem to think they’re a better than average driver. But in an all-out, civilization-shredding Malthusian crisis all bets are off. Thomas Hobbes famously wrote that in a ‘state of warre’ life was ‘nasty, brutish and short’, which is often interpreted as a historical argument for the progress of refined civilisation over rude barbarism. I’d interpret him to be saying rather that, absent some kind of non-violent proliferation treaty between people (in other words, absent politics), and we’re basically all losers. I’m sympathetic to the preppers and doomers who learn how to grow potatoes or handle a gun, partly because I can’t think of any reasons why it’s ever a bad idea to know how to provide for yourself, and mainly because I think the more people there are who understand the difficulties and compromises involved in self-provisioning, the closer we’ll be to a sustainable agrarian society. But ultimately almost no one can subsist alone, and all else is politics. The ones who know how to cultivate political alliances will do better than the ones who know how to cultivate potatoes – which will be a line of argument I’ll pursue more fully in Wessex and Londinium Part II.

3. Migration. The basic problem in a Malthusian crisis is that there are too many people in the denominator, so one of the easier fixes is for some of them to go somewhere else. This becomes increasingly hard to do as the ‘somewhere elses’ get filled up. The ‘Old World’ solved not a few of its problems in the short term by exporting a lot of its people to the ‘New World’, but it seems unlikely there are more New Worlds to be discovered (with the exception of outer space, a recurrent modernist dream which – a bit like nuclear fusion – has remained constantly unrealised to date). It’s possible that existing ‘worlds’ could be more densely settled by people using more land-intensive techniques (vegan smallholders on what was once extensive pasture, for example, as in my last-but-one post), or an otherwise Boserupian response to the Malthusian crisis. Doubtless there’s scope for migratory recolonizations of this sort, given the political will. But the problem here is a bit like the problem with the technical fix – without specific efforts to trim human lifeways so they fit extant ecological possibilities, migration or migratory intensification only delays the Malthusian moment. In his sad but lovely book about the encounter between farming and foraging peoples, The Other Side of Eden, Hugh Brody argues that, historically, farming societies have been the truly nomadic ones, forever parlaying their agrarian surpluses into surpluses of people, who ultimately must then seek their livelihood in new lands. When those lands have included foraging peoples, the results have usually been genocidal for the latter. In more recent times, importing service has had greater stress than exporting people, but the feeling remains that modern civilisation has been offloading the negative consequences of its actions onto other people or other organisms in ways that can ultimately only postpone rather than transcend its own reckoning with resource constraint.

4. Sub-critical juggling. Well, I know this is my hobbyhorse at the moment, but I think this way of thinking just doesn’t get its due. The logic of it goes roughly like this: no, humanity hasn’t yet transcended the Malthusian manacles of population excess relative to resource base and probably never will, but we potentially have some smart tricks up our sleeve to keep the old parson at bay so long as we avoid complacency. For starters, there are some techno-fixes that might be worth a try – typically of the humble common or garden variety (perhaps quite literally, eg. participatory plant breeding programmes) rather than the grandly revolutionary (eg. nuclear fusion). Then there’s the Boserupian turn to more labour and land intensive forms of agriculture, an approach sometimes pejoratively labelled by scholars as ‘involutionary’ (paradigmatically by the late Clifford Geertz3) but one which I suspect will prove a more enduring solution than ‘revolutionary’ modernist-industrial agriculture (more on this soon). A managed agricultural involution would be one strand of that larger effort alluded to above of trimming human lifeways to extant ecological possibilities, which in a sub-critical juggle scenario would also unfurl in arenas of consumption other than food. Finally, there’s the possibility that as the Malthusian shipwreck approaches, we avoid a Hobbesian rush to the lifeboats, a ‘warre of all against all’ under the cry of ‘everyone for themselves’, which risks killing a lot of people unnecessarily in the crush, and we do so by equalising chances and building collective sensibilities. Is it likely that human societies will adopt this sub-critical juggling approach? Well, perhaps not very – though I’d submit that it’s by far the most promising approach to avoid an unpleasant encounter with Malthus’s ghost. But it is a possible approach, and is not without its historical precedents. How so? Well, that will have to wait until we turn to Wessex and Londinium, Part II.

Notes

1. The books referred to in this paragraph are: Wickham, C. (2005) Framing the Early Middle Ages, Oxford; Boserup, E. (1965) The Conditions of Agricultural Growth, London; Richards, P. (1985) Indigenous Agricultural Revolution, London. On ‘agricultural involution’: Geertz, C. (1963) Agricultural Involution, Berkeley. On high level equilibrium traps, among others: Arrighi, G. (2007) Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century, London.

2. Boserup, op cit. p.14.

3. Geertz, op cit.