Outside the hive

Richard Powers’ The Overstory is a big novel of ideas about humans and the natural world that will keep me thinking long after turning the final page. Here I just want to pick up on one among many of its themes and offer a few brief reflections on it, perhaps as the final curtain to the present trio of posts on collapse.

In response to an episode of (male) violence between strangers, followed by a linked episode of (male) domestic violence, Powers puts this thought into the mind of one of his protagonists: “Humankind is deeply ill. The species won’t last long. It was an aberrant experiment. Soon the world will be returned to the healthy intelligences, the collective ones. Colonies and hives.”

Reviewing the book in The Guardian, Benjamin Markovits wrote “It’s hard not to feel that something slightly antihuman has crept into the philosophy”. Maybe the quotation above is a case in point (and there’s much else in the book that one could use to prosecute Markovits’ view).

But I’d like to press a different line of reasoning. Is humankind deeply ill? I’m not sure that’s so when we think about our species as an aggregate of its individuals. Certainly, there are some ill or alienated people among us who cause a lot of damage. But maybe that’s true of other species. In one study of a seagull colony, almost one in four chicks were eaten by adult birds, the majority by just four individual gulls – one of whom ate his own offspring while allowing a chick he’d stolen and brought back to his nest to survive. Seabird colonies seem rather like human slums, with the majority flocking together because that’s what they need to do to get by, but thereby making themselves vulnerable to predatory violence.

Maybe we’ll get somewhere different if we think about illness at the collective level. The constant refrain of cultural critics down the ages is that present society has lapsed into a sick, decadent or fallen state. And the pushback is often something along the lines of Markovits – that this is an anti-human, or misanthropic or elitist position that maligns the ordinary struggles of everyday people. This kind of trick is often pulled by ‘eco-modernists’ and other peddlers of business-as-usual porn – that theirs is the pro-human position, while any wider cultural critique is mere nihilism or misanthropy. However, the point of cultural critique isn’t to wallow in nihilism, but to diagnose the source of the malaise in order to improve the human condition. So, for me, to talk of humanity’s deep illness isn’t necessarily anti-human. I read the line in Powers’ novel as an invitation to human improvement. And an urgent one, as earth systems collapse around us, threatening our own wellbeing and that of other species.

Yet when I think about how to overcome that human illness and the perturbation in earth systems that it’s causing, I come to a different endpoint to Powers’ character on the matter of healthy intelligences. Because it strikes me that the malaise lies precisely in the way that we have made ourselves over into a hive culture.

The collective intelligence of humanity is that of the social ape, not the hive insect. Maybe the life history that most fits us to thrive is creating our livelihoods as competent, generalist individuals working within small collectivities – families, bands, settlements. Those in turn may be part of larger culture areas, with shared languages and cosmologies and their own inherent ideological tensions, but the arrow of life’s activities is directed at the local specifics of wresting a personal livelihood alongside others in the community.

Yet when I think about modern life, the metaphor of the hive of social insects presents itself. I don’t want to over-press it, because clearly there are differences and the mechanisms aren’t the same. But we’ve created a world with a ruling caste of queens and drones who determine the parameters of our hive, and a multitude of dependent workers who enact it, who are unable to exist independently of it, but who derive small individual benefit from it beyond the fact they no longer have the capacity to exist outside it. Among the social insects, and particularly among the worker majority, that patterning so far as we know seems to create no tension because, genetically and biologically, that’s what they’re built to act out. But it’s not entirely what humans are built to act out, and it strikes me that a lot of our illness (metaphorical and probably actual) – so much frustrated desire, so much ressentiment – may stem from this mismatch between what we’re built to do and what we actually do. Inasmuch as humankind is ill, maybe it’s because we’ve tried to fit ourselves into a collective intelligence, into a hive mind, where we scarcely belong.

Perhaps this too is why so much of the wider biological world has become ill as a result of the human hive. Powers recognizes this elsewhere in his novel: “That’s the scary thing about men: get a few together with some simple machines, and they’ll move the world.” When I lived for a time in the rainforests of British Columbia I was struck by how much of their old growth extent had been levelled by people with fairly rudimentary technologies by today’s standards – manual saws, winches, logging roads – long before the industrialized destruction of chainsaws, forwarders and feller-bunchers had been invented. The secret of that destruction was human social organization, not technological development, and the secret of the social organization was preventing people from making a competent personal livelihood in their own backyards. The militarized, masculine, hive discipline of the logging camp and its analogues is a not a healthy intelligence for humankind.

Again, the pushback against such views always addresses the benefits that humankind has brought to itself through its vast collective organization – modern health and wealth, the plethora of consumer goods on which our contemporary culture dotes, and all the rest of it. But I think we need to stop looking at ourselves in the mirror of the past and liking what we see so much, instead addressing the dramatically dangerous trade-offs that our modern hive intelligence poses for us in the here and now. More importantly, I think we need to address the possibility that a world of human autonomy outside the hive might suit us better.

I was struck by this when I read Maarten Boudry’s response to the critique of his anti-localism article that I published in my last post. Boudry wrote,

“Now of course you can try to satisfy consumer demand in radically different ways (e.g. artificial meat), but you can’t just IGNORE the demand. I get the distinct impression that, in @csmaje’s ideal future, we won’t be able to choose what to eat, nor where to live.”

It surprises me to read such dismissiveness about a supposed future where “we won’t be able to choose what to eat, nor where to live” when so few of “us” in the present world have such choices. But, more importantly, Boudry seems to be assuming that consumer demand is something that just bubbles up sui generis, with economic systems arising to meet it and thereby making “us” happy. I struggle to see this as much more than a delusion from a limited vantage point within the capitalist hive – one that insists we must admire only the intricate architecture within, rather than looking at the bigger world outside, and its universe of different possibilities.

In my forthcoming book, I provide a somewhat less admiring appraisal of the capitalist hive, and an alternative narrative about the search for human self-possession and autonomy that might make us seek a different habitat from choice as much as necessity. So I reject Boudry’s implication that I seek to coerce people into my ‘utopia’ (oh well, at least he didn’t mention the Khmer Rouge). I think people can easily find fulfilling localisms for themselves, given the opportunity. Nor, I suspect, will consumer demand lead in the future quite where Boudry thinks. The two main businesses in which I have some involvement – a small, local market garden and a small campsite – have been inundated with customers since the Covid-19 outbreak as a result of the fracturing of the larger economic structures it caused. In the short-term, that fracturing may or may not diminish, but in the long-term I think it will prove the merest tremor to the changes that are afoot. ‘Consumer demand’ will follow.

For these reasons, I think I absolutely can ignore consumer demand in its present incarnation. Instead, let me herald producer demand. Let everyone occupy their 1.6 acre share of global farmland, then raise as much (non-artificial) livestock for meat as they possibly can, should they wish. It’ll turn out to furnish them with much less meat than the average North American or Western European currently eats, but the living animals will do a lot of other useful work on the farm. And I’m not sure the producers will be significantly less happy than the average consumer in today’s world. The difficulty is the transition from today’s consumerism to that future producerism, not the lure of the producerist endpoint.

The journalist Rafael Behr writes in a different (but related context):

“People are perfectly able to understand the concept of a painful trade-off because they occur in life all the time. All but the most privileged minority are forced to choose between what they want and what they can afford. All but the most selfish among us understands the need sometimes to suppress selfish impulses in favour of duty towards others. There are only a few who find that concept challenging.”

I might go further and argue that accepting painful trade-offs can make us happy, and part of our contemporary illness is in supposing otherwise – often at the behest of the few who think that selfish impulses lead to collective benefit (there’s a whole sub-theme here on virtue versus vice as the motive force of collective intelligence that we could pursue through intellectual history from Bernard Mandeville to E.O. Wilson – but let’s leave that for another day).

Boudry calls future producerist visions of the future such as mine a ‘pipedream’. He’s probably right. As I see it, every positive vision of the future now is more or less a pipedream, certainly including his notion that we should “retreat to a smaller area and “decouple” from the landscape, so that we can give as much land as possible back to nature”. All I’ll say here is that there are increasing numbers of people who have started to look outside the hive and find pipedreams like mine more appealing than pipedreams like Boudry’s. This is just as well, because I think the future is more likely to look like my pipedream than his.

Well, perhaps I’ll say just one more thing. There’s a gender dimension to this discussion that I haven’t highlighted, but I think is interesting. The violence investing the moments of Richard Powers’ novel was male, and so perhaps is the violence that’s invested the construction of our contemporary human hive. Powers’ ‘healthy, collective intelligences’ of colonies and hives, on the other hand… Well, it’s only a thought.

Business-as-usual porn – or, We need to talk about collapse

I think we need to talk openly and calmly about the possibility of societal or civilizational collapse arising from humanity’s present predicaments. And that’s mostly what I want to pursue in this post – not so much what the likelihood or the underlying mechanisms of collapse might be, but the idea that it would be useful if, as a society, we could talk about it.

Maybe that’s happening in one sense. The noises offstage from scientists, multilateral agencies, social critics and political activists about the possibility of collapse are getting louder1. Inevitably, so is the pushback from those arguing that this is so much overheated rhetoric, and everything’s just fine2. My sense is that there’s far greater empirical weight behind the former than the latter position, but it’s the latter one that seems to dominate public discourse. There’s precious little public and media attention to the rather big news that the way we live may soon be ending. Indeed, people who say such things are generally relegated from serious debate, and sometimes accused of peddling ‘collapse porn’ with their mawkish tales of impending doom3. It’s a curious phrase. Inasmuch as pornography presents people with something that they guiltily want to see, but in unrealistic and idealized ways that hide the reality of the relationships involved and erode their integrity, perhaps we should rather be talking about ‘business as usual porn’.

I’m not too sure why business as usual porn is so widespread, but I think possibly it’s because of an unfortunate fusion between two aspects of modern life. First, a sense that the vast technological reach of contemporary societies armours us against the malign contingencies of the world, and second an elaborate and urbanized division of labour that denies most people even the remotest capacity to care for themselves in the face of those contingencies. The result at best is a cheerful fatalism – “there’s nothing I can do about it, so I might as well enjoy myself” – and at worst a kind of Stockholm syndrome in which we celebrate our armoured urbanism, latch onto every sign of its vitality and dismiss any counternarrative out of hand.

In his lovely book about foraging and hunting peoples, Hugh Brody describes a very different situation among the Inuit hunters with whom he lived4. Every journey across the ice was rimed with potential danger, which was freely acknowledged. The Inuit were well aware of the malign contingencies of the world over which they had little ultimate control – a situation that made them neither fearful, nor selfish, nor angry, nor sad, but in some sense alive within a culture that had to deal with it. And they had many skills for dealing with what came their way, as hunters, builders, navigators, craftspeople and so on. My sense is that they didn’t spend much time debating whether they were optimistic or pessimistic about their uncertain future, nor in honouring leaders who cheekily mocked ‘project fear’ and lambasted ‘doomsters and gloomsters’. Instead, they carefully assessed the dangers ahead that they perceived, prepared themselves as best they could to mitigate them, but were open to the inscrutable workings of uncontrollable contingency.

My feeling is that we could do with channelling a bit of that mentality in our now-challenged world. Perhaps one of the differences between our predicaments today and those of the Inuit is that our problems are fundamentally collective. Often, in non-modern foraging or farming societies centralization and bureaucratization has been a risk-pooling venture by people with other options up their sleeve (I’m borrowing here from archaeologist of premodern societal collapse, Joseph Tainter5). When the going gets rough for the state superstructure, people readily abandon it and pursue a more dispersed and self-reliant life – perhaps something akin to the kind of life lived by the Inuit hunters described by Brody. One of the problems we face today is that, for most of us, it’s not so easy to walk away and lead a more self-reliant life. We lack the space, the skills and the political warrant to do so. These are all genuinely difficult problems, but perhaps as big a problem is that we also lack the cultural language to do so. We’ve become so wedded to urbanism, economic growth, high tech (or, in fact, high energy) solutionism and narratives of historical progress that a turn to self-reliance seems undesirable, impossible, laughable – what someone I was debating with recently called a ‘neopeasant fantasy’.

I guess I’ll continue that debate, wearily. It seems to be a thing I do. And I haven’t given up on it entirely – if I can help break down the resistance to an alternative cultural narrative in a few minds, then I guess that’s something. But I want to imagine myself metaphorically out on the ice with Inuit hunters as Hugh Brody was, with no food, no game in evidence, and many days journey from safety, with only a tired dog team, my knowledge of the terrain, my hunting skills and my fortitude in my favour.

Of course, in reality I’m not out on the ice but on a small farm near the edge of a small town in a small country that’s thoroughly imbued with the culture of global capitalism. I can try to imagine a cultural awakening fit for my time and place, but to write it down on the page will make it thinner and more fugitive than it needs to be in practice. The words I’d write on the page would probably include things like autonomy, self-reliance, community, land, skill, care, craft, work, health, nature, play, creation, love and argument. You can write those words for most cultures. But I think they’ll soon mean different things in our culture than they do now. The trick is going to be building out quickly from the place where we now are, creating culture in practice, but letting go of a lot that we now take for granted, or insist upon. We need to build a new culture that’s calmly open and alive to the possibilities and dangers of the present and the journey ahead, not angrily insistent upon the virtues of the path that took us to where we now stand.

So I don’t think it’s worth spending too much time debating on paper (or online) the detailed shape and content of that new culture. I think it’s better to shape it in practice, by doing what we can as peacemakers, storytellers, educators, healers or agents of the practical arts to breathe local life into it. But I do think it’s worth spending time debating the political and historical circumstances in which that shaping can take off and propagate. And that’s why the inability to countenance collapse in mainstream discussion, our obsession with business as usual porn, is frustrating. Because we need to talk about collapse. I’m not saying that everybody needs to agree it’s inevitably going to happen. But I think it would be good if there was wider acceptance in mainstream discussions that, on the basis of the evidence before us, it’s a reasonable possibility to reckon with. In fact, if our culture were able to countenance this and take it in its stride, I’d probably downgrade my estimation of its likelihood.

I’d liken my position to a tourist on a river rowboat, supping at the bar and enjoying the scenery as we float along. There’s a distant roar, and on the horizon I see a smudge of spray. The current has started running faster and grown sinuous. Coming up quickly on the far bank there’s a placid creek.

“Gosh, seems like there’s quite a waterfall ahead,” I say to my fellow passengers.

One of them cups her ear.

“Nah, can’t hear anything,” she says.

“I really don’t think so,” another replies, “The captain wouldn’t put us into that kind of peril.”

“Don’t be such a killjoy,” says a third. “Carpe diem is my motto. I’m enjoying my drink. We all die in the end anyway.”

“We’ll be fine,” says another. “Somebody’s soon going to figure out how to make some wings and fit them to the boat. If there’s a waterfall, we’ll just fly over it.”

“All the same”, I say, “if we all get down onto the deck quickly and help the oarsmen we might just be able to row into that creek – then we’re sure to be in safer waters.”

“Are you serious?” says another passenger. “I didn’t pay for this holiday just to go back to doing a load of backbreaking work.”

But, privately unsettled by my words, the passengers seek reassurance. “Don’t worry. I know his sort of alarmist very well”, says Captain Shellenberger, nodding in my direction, “and I’d like to apologise on his behalf. Just look how beautiful the river is right here. And it’s even better up ahead. Now, who wants another drink?”

I’m not really down with Ted Kaczynski’s ship of fools, but despite the captain’s words I’m pretty sure we’re in for a rude awakening. Unfortunately, with everyone on board so deeply into their business as usual porn there’s not much I can do about it. And what I don’t know as the curtain of spray approaches is whether we’re just going to bump down and lurch uncomfortably around in the rapids for a while, or whether we’re going to fly over a precipice and be dashed on the rocks hundreds of feet below.

A reviewer of John Michael Greer’s latest offering writes that many people today succumb to an “odd fallacy” that collapse will be fast, when we know from past social collapses that they’re usually slow. In this view, intimations of fast collapse are another version of business as usual porn, because they suggest there’s nothing to be done. We’re screwed – might as well just have another drink.

I understand the concept of slow collapse. Charlemagne was crowned emperor of Rome in 800AD, long after anything that truly resembled the Roman empire had ceased to exist, and Byzantines were still calling themselves ‘Romans’ around that time. I daresay people might still be calling themselves ‘American’ or ‘English’ in centuries hence. But Charlemagne and the Byzantines didn’t have to contend with rapid global temperature and sea level rises whose expected upper bounds are at the kind of levels we know caused mass extinctions in the geological past – slow extinctions no doubt, as measured by human years, but also not ones enmeshed in the fragile interdependencies of complex civilization. Even then, it’s worth considering what collapse might look like as it happens – not necessarily a Mad Max world of anarchic violence, maybe a slow unravelling of political order and economic wellbeing of the kind that already seems underway. And even if future climate disruptions prove only modest, there are numerous other political, economic and biophysical crises looming that suggest change to business as usual is imminent, however much the status quo gratifies some of us.

When I wrote something similar a few years back, one of the captain’s crew responded along the lines that “you can almost hear Smaje wringing his hands with his fears about the future”. But I’m not frightened. We need to jettison these dualities of optimism and pessimism, hope and fear. Optimism to hang onto a world where half the population live in rank poverty? No thanks. I think we need to cultivate something of the insouciance about a rapid change of circumstances of the Inuit, or of those premodern citizenries described by Tainter, who shrugged and walked away.

So where I think I need to be is out on the ice, my belly empty and my eyes open, attentive for prey. By that I don’t mean that personally I’m fully prepped up for the contingencies of a Mad Max world, nor that my hands are unsullied by any traffic with the capitalist present. I mean that I want to be outside the tent, surveying the terrain, not inside it telling tall tales about the rich hunting grounds we’re sure to find just as soon as we step outside.

To return to my other metaphor, I think there’s a good chance that when the boat slips over the edge, it’s going to be worse than just bumpy. To me, that’s not an inducement to have another drink, but one to quit the bar, get down on the deck and start rowing. To do that, though, we first need to kick the porn habit and start talking, properly, about collapse.

References

  1. E.g. https://voiceofaction.org/collapse-of-civilisation-is-the-most-likely-outcome-top-climate-scientists/; https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/8xwygg/the-collapse-of-civilisation-may-have-already-begun; https://gar.undrr.org/sites/default/files/chapter/2019-06/chapter_2.pdf; http://lifeworth.com/deepadaptation.pdf; This Is Not A Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook, Penguin, 2019; David Wallace-Wells The Uninhabitable Earth, Penguin, 2019.
  2. E.g. Michael Shellenberger Apocalypse Never, Harper 2020.
  3. E.g. Leigh Phillips Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn Addicts, Zero, 2015.
  4. Hugh Brody The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers and the Shaping of the World. North Point, 2000.
  5. Joseph Tainter. The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press, 1988.

An environmentalist apologises…

Various half-written blog posts litter the Small Farm Future office, but let’s go with the news cycle and address the kerfuffle surrounding an old acquaintance of this site, Michael Shellenberger, who’s just published a new book, Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All. If nothing else, it’ll help prepare the way for my next couple of posts.

More than the book, the kerfuffle has surrounded an article heralding it that Mike published in Forbes in which he reportedly said “I feel an obligation to apologize for how badly we environmentalists have misled the public” and “I would like to formally apologize for the climate scare we created over the last 30 years.” I say ‘reportedly’ because Forbes pulled the article on the grounds that it violated their editorial guidelines around self-promotion, so I only have reports from such bastions of unmotivated journalism as this one to go on, though I daresay the article’s out there somewhere for those who care to look. Ah, here it is. No, wait. Oh, here.

Probably the most important keywords for unlocking Mike’s approach to be culled from my opening paragraphs are ‘kerfuffle’, ‘environmentalist’ and ‘self-promotion’ for reasons I’ll come to, and that are captured in this fine post from some time ago by David Roberts that I found only recently. In that article, Roberts explains why it’s so easy to end up feeling sullied when you try to push back against the use and abuse of evidence by Shellenberger and other luminaries of his ‘ecomodernist’ project. A few things clicked into place for me when I read Roberts’ article. And yet here I am, riding the douchecanoe again…

Luckily, Sam Bliss has donned his overalls and boldly set himself to the push back task in this excellent thread on Twitter, which points up some of the numerous rhetorical sleights of environmental complacency in the ecomodernist armoury fully displayed in Mike’s piece – the untruths, half-truths, and over-confident predictions, the truths that are misleading because of their lack of context and the banalities that have no meaning at all like “wood fuel is far worse for people and wildlife than fossil fuels”. Sam’s takedown is based on Mike’s promo piece – he comments “if Shellenberger’s bullets were meant to spark our interest in the book, it worked on me. I am curious to see how he defends such indefensible statements!”

Well, likewise, I guess. Just as soon as I can get hold of a used copy. Meanwhile, even some of Mike’s erstwhile associates seem to be dissociating themselves from him as a result of those indefensible statements. Mike says that his ‘facts’ might sound like climate denialism, “But that just shows the power of climate alarmism”. A parallel that springs to mind is how a lot of the things Donald Trump says sound like racism, while others argue that just shows the power of liberal political correctness. To me they sound racist because, well, they are quite racist – though usually sufficiently ambiguous to be arguable.

Arguable. Now there’s a word. With Shellenberger as with Trump, you get the sense that there’s a deliberate strategy to get people arguing. Not debating big issues. Just arguing. Both men love to pick fights with whoever they can. Hell, Mike even picked a fight with me. In both cases, I think it’s partly because they like getting attention. In fact, as David Roberts pointed out in the post I linked above, in this world of media attention peddling, Shellenberger and his Breakthrough Institute co-founder Ted Nordhaus made their renegade environmentalist shtick a winning publicity strategy:

nothing, but nothing, draws media interest like liberals bashing liberals. They enjoy conservatives punching hippies. They dig centrists punching hippies. But they looove ex-hippies punching hippies. A pair of greenies bravely exposing the corruption and dumbassery of all the other greenies? Crack rock.

One of the problems with this strategy, you’d think, is that it’s time limited. You can only punch hippies for so long before people realise that you’re not actually a hippy, even if you once were. Unfortunately, ‘environmentalist’ is a much more protean label than ‘hippy’. We all care about the environment, right? We all like walking in the woods. Nobody wants polar bears to die out. And so on.

So the argument becomes one about the means of achieving these widely shared goals of a liveable climate, wild biodiversity and so on. Perhaps it’s then worth looking at how one’s messaging is received and interpreted. Here are a few below-the-line comments from the Breitbart report on Mike’s apology:

“Confirmation that climate change is a massive fraud-and-fail scheme. Shows just how far the leftists will go to gain control and power”

“I want my 11 years of carbon tax back.. I want earnings seized from Al Gore, David Suzuki, Greenpeace, WWF, Climate Action.. All the thieving Greenie bastards, who have driven the up cost of Everything for the past decades.. Jail the crooks.”

“Great scam for Globalist [sic] while it lasted”

“I hope millions go to Greta’s twitter page with links to the article. Make that snot-nosed twit squirm…”

“Man sets house on fire and finally admits his guilt. Too late mate the buildings just a big pile of rubble now”

 

So, on the basis of the narratives that Mike is feeding, it seems to me a stretch for him to claim he’s an environmentalist (if he ever was), or that he’s not (to use his own vocabulary) a climate change denier. And yet his fellow travellers still won’t accept him.

With Donald Trump, you get the feeling that, as well as feeding the ego, all the sound and fury of his words is designed to create smokescreens that enable other things to get done behind the scenes. You wonder whether it’s the same with Mike Shellenberger, but it’s harder to figure out what those things might be. There are those who argue that he’s a nuclear industry shill, something on which I couldn’t possibly comment – though if he is, it seems a bit strange for him to be downplaying climate change so egregiously. My hunch is that the main hidden interest that Mike Shellenberger is promoting is…Mike Shellenberger. Every age throws up unscrupulous hucksters who cash in on other people’s fears and gullibility. The interesting questions revolve not so much around the motivations of the huckster as the social conditions and cultural tensions that make their huckstering possible. This is something I hope to address in my next post.

Thinkers of integrity do change their minds – the sign of the huckster is when they signal their change of mind with portentous apologies, self-publicising recantations and public curation of their good-guy credentials (“At 23 I raised money for Guatemalan women’s cooperatives”). Sadly, there’s all too much of this among renegade environmentalists, and there’s all too much of it in Mike’s oeuvre. Maybe an upside of his latest turn is that it seems like a defensive response to surging public concern about climate change that ill suits the technocratic, light-touch-on-the-tiller position where he’s planted his flag. He says he felt compelled to speak out when, last year, “things spiraled out of control” – in other words, when public concern about climate change finally started rising to meet the levels of threat it poses. Thank goodness for that spiral. But with Apocalypse Never riding high in the bestseller lists, I fear it may still be one that proves too long and winding.

So I want to close by addressing Mike’s apology on behalf of environmentalists. Normal social conventions are such that you really can’t apologise on behalf of other people without their consent, especially when you have no allegiance to them. Mike apologising on behalf of all environmentalists for climate alarmism is a bit like me apologising on behalf of all Minneapolis police officers for brutality. It might be welcome in some quarters, but I just can’t do it without the consent of my fellow officers – especially when I am not, in fact, a Minneapolis police officer.

But while normal social conventions forbid apologising on behalf of unknown others without their consent, they don’t forbid apologising to unknown others. So I’d like to offer this apology on behalf of all of myself to present and future generations:

When I came to appreciate the course the civilization I was a part of was taking and the consequences it would have for future generations in relation to climate change and other critical problems, I tried to do a few things to help change its course. I apologise that I wasn’t clever enough, courageous enough, wily enough, media savvy enough, wise enough, dedicated enough or hardworking enough to have done more and to have made enough of a difference. I apologise for my part in a civilization that made Apocalypse Never a bestseller. I hope that you will have both the capacity inherited from my generation and a fortitude of your own to learn from my failings, and to build a better civilization over the ashes of mine.

Why oil didn’t save the whales – and why it matters

A widely aired talking point among those who believe that new technological developments are the key to solving our environmental problems is that “oil saved the whales”. In this view, the emergence of petroleum products in the mid-19th century undercut the price of whale oil, prompting the decline of the whaling industry and thus reprieve for the giants of the deep from being hunted to extinction. But “oil saved the whales” isn’t usually a claim about the past so much as one about the future: the seemingly intractable problems of resource over-exploitation that trouble us today will be solved by new technologies, just as the over-exploitation of whales was solved in the past.

It’s a cute argument. But unfortunately its historical claims are blatantly false – and this calls into question its claims for the future. Far from saving the whales, it was oil that nearly obliterated them, and may yet still do so. The real lessons to be drawn from the history of whaling are more interesting and more complex than the oil salvation narrative. By laying them out here, I hope I might help draw attention to better means for tackling present problems than the one suggested by the oil salvation story.

But let’s first delve briefly into some facts and figures to explore that story. I’m hoping to do this in more depth at some point, but for present purposes we can get quite a long way just by looking at this single graph of the global sperm whale catch from 1800-1980 derived from a paper by Merrill Gosho and colleagues1 (the figures are given as ten-year aggregates).

In the first half of the 19th century the sperm whale was the premier species sought by whalers, mostly US-based, for its oil – much of it used in lamps. What gets the oil-salvationists excited is the dip you see in the graph around 1850, which was around the time that kerosene lamp-oil became available – an innovation that this oil salvation narrative personalizes in the name of Abraham Gesner, who formed the Kerosene Gaslight Company in 1850. Whether the dip really was caused just by the advent of kerosene is debatable. There were various other factors in play, including the depletion of sperm whales in existing whaling grounds. But it seems plausible that kerosene did play some role.

The real problem for the oil salvation narrative comes when you cast your eyes rightwards along the graph at the 20th century sperm whale catch. If we start in 1950, a century after Gesner’s supposedly game-changing invention, over 8,000 sperm whales were taken that year, more than three times as many as in 1850. In fact, more sperm whales were taken in the single decade of the 1950s than in the entire heyday of the sperm whale industry from 1800-1850.

It gets worse if we look at other whale species. Barely any of the fast and elusive rorqual species like blue whales were taken before the late 19th century, because traditional whaling technology wasn’t up to catching them. But in the years around World War I the number of blues taken, mostly in the Antarctic, was around 6,000 per year, and with the invention of the factory ship this leapt to nearly 30,000 blues in 1930-1. One reason the sperm whale catch accelerated in the 1950s was because there were few blues left to catch.

So that, in a nutshell, is why oil didn’t save the whales. It was the modern, industrialized whaling of the 20th century potentiated by fossil oil that truly put whales into danger.

But let’s turn to what we can learn from humanity’s whaling misadventures, which I would itemize as follows.

Technology doesn’t just ‘move forwards’, it cascades. You can take a particular moment or context – the lamp oil market in 1850, for example – and stake a claim for the ecological benefits of a new product like kerosene. But to provide an adequate account of technological impact, you need to trace the ramifications forward in all their cascading complexity. In the case before us, this would involve the deadly impact on whales of fossil-fuelled whaling technologies after 1850, later technological developments such as the invention of margarine and hydrogenation techniques that stimulated a new demand for whale oil in the 20th century, the falling price of whale oil that made it competitive with other oils once again with the rise of labour-cutting mechanization and more efficient processing, new demands for baleen and other whale products, and so on. Any new technology, including kerosene, isn’t a one-shot intervention into a small slice of history like a specific lamp oil market. It cascades across the totality of human history and natural history.

In fact, technology doesn’t ‘move forwards’ at all, nor ‘backwards’ – it just moves. Kerosene might have been an environmental boon for whales in 1850. In its best-known present use as aviation fuel, it’s an environmental disaster in terms of climate change, which may not turn out too well for whales in the long run – or for us. In fact, the development of liquid fossil fuels in the later 19th century, of which kerosene was one strand, didn’t turn out too well for whales even in the short run. ‘Oil saved the whales’ is an untestable claim that the future will turn out well, based on a questionable claim that the past turned out well. It amounts to saying no more than ‘somebody’s bound to think of something’. I’d suggest it’s better to focus on the problems of the present, using the means that are presently available to us.

Low impact technologies can be high impact. Until the mid-19th century, the whaling industry used the same ‘sustainable’ methods as aboriginal whalers from time immemorial: sail, oar, harpoon, lance. And yet because of the social organization of the industry and the clever deployment of sustainable technology in the form of transoceanic sailing ships, it had a global impact on whale depletion. Industries using low impact technologies aren’t necessarily low impact industries.

Capitalism sucks. By which I mean, following the previous point, organising industries in capitalist ways often results in sucking ever more non-renewable resources from the world. The graph above suggests as much. Fossil oil didn’t replace whale oil, it enabled whale oil to be added to an expanding repertoire of resource drawdown. The same is true of renewable energy technologies today. The problem can only really be addressed by changing the nature of the economy, not by changing the means through which it sucks.

Ecological systems have inertia… Although forty years have passed without much large-scale commercial whaling (and many more years than that in the case of some species), recovery of stocks has been glacially slow. I’m hoping to examine this in greater detail, but as I understand it only with one species – the gray – have numbers yet returned to anything like their pre-whaling levels. No doubt this partly has to do with other and ongoing human-induced problems in the oceans (whales entangled with fishing nets, for example) but the nature of whales as stress tolerator or K-selected species means they can’t cope well with a perturbation like large-scale whaling, and they recover from it only slowly or perhaps not at all. A good deal of the biota is similar, suggesting that disturbance events can have negative effects long into the future after they’ve ended – worth noting, perhaps, for many other dimensions of human action upon the world besides whaling.

…and so do economic systems. A firm principle of the oil salvation narrative is that human inventiveness brings forth new and superior alternatives to old and ecocidal ones, like kerosene for whale oil, and that market forces then swiftly do the work of ecological transition. But, leaving aside kerosene’s own ecocidal effects (Point 2), the history of whaling really doesn’t fit this narrative well. Substitutes for almost every whale product existed long before commercial whaling was banned in 1982, 130 years after Mr Gesner’s marvellous invention. The truth is that market forces don’t swiftly do the work of ecological transition, for numerous reasons – sunk costs, industry resistance, political leverage, wider geopolitics to name a few. Cue TED talk: “Oil didn’t save the whales, and market forces aren’t going to solve climate change.”

Social systems cascade too. The oil salvation narrative settles on the singularity that commercial whaling was banned only because superior substitutes for whale products had been found. But in the real world, political decisions usually result from many factors, often with a fair slice of contingency thrown in. The existence of substitutes was no doubt one factor. Other factors included the declining whale catch, possible extinction arising from over-exploitation, and the rise of animal rights philosophies, environmentalist lobbying and direct action against whaling. Global geopolitics too. From my reading of the jockeying at the IWC and the endless foot-dragging of the whaling nations prior to the moratorium, it takes a very reductive worldview to discount all these other factors and impute the moratorium solely to technological substitution.

Activism matters. And on that basis, I’d say that activism matters. It’s impossible to say how much it was the mobilisation of organisations like Greenpeace and changing public attitudes towards the relentless hunting of large mammals that resulted in the moratorium and how much it resulted from other more technocratic factors. But it seems clear to me that without impassioned (and media savvy) public activism the moratorium would have been less likely. So if you want to right a wrong, you could try to invent something that you hope market forces will take up and tip things in your preferred direction. Or you could protest more directly – for example by standing in a small boat between a whale and a gunner’s grenade. To me, it’s a rash theorist who claims to know for sure that Abraham Gesner is more deserving of a vote of thanks from the whales than, say, Paul Watson.

The tragedy of the commons is a thing. As I’ve argued before on here and examine in more detail in my book, the debate about commons is stuck in a rut – Hardin versus Ostrom gets us started, but now we need to move on. In less than a century, humanity reduced blue whales to about 4% of their pre-whaling numbers. You could call this a tragedy of the commons, or – if you prefer – you could call it a tragedy of failing to create a commons, although there was still a common law of the sea in operation during the years of unrelenting, fossil-fuelled whaling. Whatever terminology you favour, the fact is that people don’t always succeed in preventing open access, private property or state regimes from over-exploiting resources and wild creatures.

When going uphill, change down a gear. The oil salvation narrative is part of the wider one in mainstream economics that human ingenuity along with price signals will enable us to do more, to do it better and to do it faster unto eternity. No doubt this seemed plausible during much of the 20th century. But as the fossil fuelled bonanza hustled the human omnibus ever faster downhill, it made little difference to us whether we made sustainable use of whale products or not. And today it seems clearer that the downslope won’t last forever. There’s a good chance we’ll hit a steep energy upslope soon enough, and a climate change upslope before that, and at these points we’d be well advised – like any sensible driver – not to keep piling on full throttle in top gear in the hope it’ll get us to the top of the hill. Instead we need to slow down, change down a gear and trim the vehicle to the realities of the landscape. Oil didn’t save the whales. A low carbon, cheap energy revolution isn’t just around the corner. Slow down. Look out of the window. It’s a beautiful world out there.

 

Note

  1. Gosho, Merrill, et al. 1984. ‘The Sperm Whale.’ Marine Fisheries Review 46: 54–64.

 

After the Anthropocene: notes from a distempered winter

Most of my outdoor this work this winter has involved felling in quantity the European ash trees on our farm. Another species stricken by a new pathogen, one seemingly far more deadly to it than the SARS-CoV-2 virus currently afflicting humanity. In this case it’s the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus that’s killing somewhere between 70 and 90% of ash trees across Europe.

I’m not especially sentimental about trees, and the task hasn’t felt unduly sorrowful. If we survive our own affliction, we’ll make use of the felled wood and replant with a wider mix of younger trees, improving the vitality of our woodland. Even so, the loss of the ash troubles me. And, as I fell them, there’s cause to wonder at these silent creatures we planted just sixteen years ago, when our own children were young, now dwarfing my height and weight many times over. In winter especially, they seem hardly alive. They make no complaint intelligible to human senses as the chain bites into them. Yet beneath the smooth sheen of their bark there are life processes of immense complexity, not too unlike the ones in my own body, that I’m bringing to an end.

I doubt I’ll ever be an expert woodsman, but this winter I’ve felt comfortable with the chainsaw in my hands – no longer a novice tiptoeing nervously around the machine’s raw danger, but holding it close and feeling relaxed. It sounds absurd to call chainsawing meditative, but that’s how I felt about it – devoting my mind to the tangible facts of gravity, planning my cuts, judging the tree’s fall line, attuning myself to the minute physics of compression and tension in the fallen tree as I sliced and diced its tissue, feeling my sweat and the acrid exhaust as the residue of real work, and taking small pleasure in a modest competence. At this point in my life, modest competence is about as much as I can hope for from my jack-of-all-trades smallholding career.

The chainsaw is almost a cliché of industrial society’s brutal onslaught against nature, yet that onslaught has now reached the stage where a person toting a chainsaw in the woods is far too quaint and human-scaled a proposition for commercial forestry to turn a profit. Nowadays, giant forwarders and feller bunchers that topple trees like ninepins in remote upland plantations are the only realistic business model. But I suspect those days will pass, and a time will come again when we’ll keep our trees close by, and our saws and axes will be tools of considerate husbandry.

As I work in the woods I notice small signs of self-willed nature that we never included in our planting plan. Elder, birch and even walnut sprouts where we planted only ash. Grey squirrels – that indomitable American import – scamper overhead, building their dreys. Wrens and long-tailed tits flit among the brash piles. Moss encircles the ash trunks. A spider, perfectly camouflaged against a trunk, crouches motionless until I unwittingly brush it and it scuttles away. Most of this would be flattened by someone operating a feller buncher without them even noticing.

And then of course there’s the Hymenoscyphus that’s sickening the ash – no small sign, this – most likely the outcome of too much human trafficking across the bounds of biogeography, much like our own troubles with SARS-CoV-2. In these northerly latitudes we have so few tree species, I feel we can’t afford to lose these ash. We have few tree species, and just one great ape. I mourn their losses too, for – as I said in my last post – they are me.

But what a strange world we apes have made for ourselves! A perennial issue for the small farmer is how to adjust to the dictates of bureaucracy – too big in scale to easily adopt the below-the-radar stance of the private householder, too small in scale for many of the one-size-fits-all regulations to make sense. My intended operations on the ash brought me just within the lower limits of the need for a felling licence, so I decided to apply for one – but when it emerged that a rare species of horseshoe bat was roosting in the semi-natural woodlands near our site my application was held, pending a full ecological assessment before I was allowed to touch a tree.

There are some ironies here. The reason the bats are rare is because most of our native woodlands have been razed for agriculture. But while there’s no requirement for farmers to restore any woodland on their fields for bats or other reasons – in fact, under existing regulations, there’s a large disincentive – those of us who take it upon themselves to create more mixed habitats anyway chafe under restrictions arising from this wider neglect.

Eventually, our licence came through. We were told that, if managed carefully, our proposals wouldn’t disadvantage the bats and may even bring them benefits. I’d like to take a lesson from this respectfully back to the person who wrote on this website some years ago that our new woodland planting was of ‘no ecological value’. I think I can now safely demur, with a paper trail from the Forestry Commission as my evidence, for it seems our woodland planting has ecological value vis-à-vis horseshoe bats, at least. But what is ‘ecological value’? And who gets to quantify it? Horseshoe bats? Ash? Hymenoscyphus fraxineus?

Meanwhile, around the same time as our little local horseshoe bat issue was going on it’s possible that, in another part of the world, another species of horseshoe bat was harbouring a virus that jumped over to humans and started laying waste to many of us. It’s started laying waste, too, to many of the established social arrangements through which we’ve come to think of ourselves as creatures quite above the cut and thrust of the ordinary biology affecting other organisms. Workplaces. Salaries. Airlines. Capital. Well-stocked supermarkets.

Where this story ends it’s far too soon to tell, of course. Some say that with Covid-19 nature is sending us a message. I guess that’s true, though I’d add that nature has always been sending us messages, every second, every day. Many of them we don’t need to notice, while some of them we probably should notice when we don’t. Some of them are small and some – like Covid-19 – are big.

I’d also add that while nature may be sending us a message, there are numerous ways we could answer it – and nature doesn’t much care which answer we choose. So my guess is that everyone will find ways to interpret the pandemic as somehow confirmatory of their pre-existing philosophies. For my part, I’m hoping that we’ll hear a little less in the future about the Anthropocene – the notion that humans now condition earth systems so deeply and so one-sidedly to our advantage as a species that we can name a geological era after ourselves. Because what it’s felt like to me this winter as I’ve worked within the woodland is that I’m not a master of my world but a dweller in the land, acting on it according to my designs and being acted on by other organisms according to theirs, whether it’s ash or elder, horseshoe bats or Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, Forestry Commission bureaucrats or a tiny package of invisible RNA that may yet fell me before the year is out as surely as I’ve felled my ash.

Equally, I expect Anthropocene aficionados and enthusiasts for ecomodernism will double down, concluding from the pandemic that humanity needs to further escape its animal constraints – perhaps initially by developing a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 (I’d be with them on that) but ultimately by escaping our embodied, earthbound existence and trafficking with the gods among the byways of the universe (not so much).

I’ve learned there’s little point in arguing with these dreamers, but I hope the pandemic might make a few folks otherwise apt to fall for their siren song pause and take stock. Humans are mighty architects of nature for sure, but so are other organisms – and maybe we’d do better to find a seat at the table alongside them, rather than scorning their presence. In the longer term, I think it might help us find that seat if one message we take from Covid-19 is along the lines of Rob Wallace’s writings on agribusiness and the political economy of disease that people were discussing under my last post – writings that point, I think, to a small farm future.

Ultimately, the song of nature is call and response. It’s a collective game of gambits and counter-gambits that doesn’t have much truck with uppity soloists. So while I half agree with this website’s go-to agronomist Andy McGuire that there’s scarcely such a thing as a ‘balance of nature’, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we humans have no need to seek our own kinds of balance. Maybe chainsaws but not forwarders. Maybe vaccines but not spaceships.

My fallen ash trees now lie piled up in the woodland rides. Soon I plan to cut them, split them and stack them in the woodshed. Some warmth to see me through another winter, I hope, with another set of challenges. More songs, more stories.

Of chancers and last-chancers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy holidays – but not TOO happy, please

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ciao Mao?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The great convergence?

Apologies that I’ve been so silent of late on this blog. I’m afraid my book-writing chores are consuming almost all my desk-time at the moment and posts will probably continue to be sporadic at best until my submission deadline in the autumn. But let me at least bring you a sneak preview of some graphs I’m planning to present in the book (…and a couple that I’m not … thanks are due to my editor Brianne at Chelsea Green for allowing me to let the cat out of the bag). I’d be interested to hear any comments on my interpretations of the data I present below.

First, some context. I’ve long expressed my skepticism on this blog for various types of business-as-usual solutionism that suggest the numerous problems we face in the world are fixable within existing political and economic paradigms, usually through some kind of high-tech whizzbangery associated with the capitalist political economy, a broad current of thought sometimes known as ‘neo-optimism’. I don’t necessarily think all neo-optimist whizz-bangs are intrinsically a waste of time, but we need a Plan B … and this, I think, is a small farm future, which I suspect may well become Plan A. What would stop it from becoming Plan A is if someone could convincingly demonstrate that (a) the existing capitalist political economy is clearly the best bet for improving general human wellbeing, and (b) it can do so long-term in a planetarily sustainable way. Neither of these are easy to prove or disprove, especially (b) as it involves projecting into the future. I’m not going to address (b) here – perhaps I’ll try to answer it in a future post (Spoiler: … my guess is that the answer is a two-letter word beginning with ‘n’). But I’d like to say a little about (a).

A staple of neo-optimist fare is that we no longer live in a binary world of rich and poor countries – “the west and the rest”. Hans Rosling calls this binary view a “mega misconception” that belies the catch-up that’s been occurring in recent decades. “Poor developing countries no longer exist as a distinct group…” Rosling says, “there is no gap…This is not controversial. These facts are not up for discussion” and so on1. Along similar lines, Steven Pinker writes “Industrial capitalism launched the Great Escape from universal poverty in the 19th century and is rescuing the rest of humankind in a Great Convergence in the 21st2.

There are many ways of trying to prove or disprove such statements. Saying they’re not up for discussion is a neat one, because it exempts you from any dialogue about the limitations of your analysis and whether you’ve cherry-picked your examples. But let me discuss these assertions anyway – I’m going to put it to you that Rosling and Pinker are wrong.

Exhibit A in my argument is a plot of Gross Domestic Product per capita. Now, I know that GDP is widely and rightly criticized as a measure of human wellbeing (I’ll look at a different measure of wellbeing in a moment), but it’s not so shabby as a measure of the formal economic output that the industrial capitalism of which Pinker speaks excels. So if a Great Convergence is occurring within humanity in the 21st century fueled by industrial capitalism I think it would be reasonable to expect to see it in GDP per capita at the country level. What I’ve done in Exhibit A is take GDP per capita (in constant 2010 US$) for every country in the world from World Bank data and ranked them from highest (which, as it happens, is Luxembourg at $191,587) to lowest (Burundi, $219). Then I aggregated them into five groups on the basis of this ranking and calculated the average GDP per capita for each group for every year between 1960 and 2016 (the full time-range available in the World Bank data), weighted by the population sizes of each country in the group. So that’s what you’re seeing in the graph.

Exhibit A:

I struggle to reconcile this graph with Rosling’s pronouncement of the death of the gap and Pinker’s pronouncement of a ‘great convergence’. Each of the five groups has improved its GDP per capita, and Groups 2, 3 and 4 show some evidence of a climbing rate in recent years. But it seems to me that the most compelling story told by the graph is how much Group 1 has pulled away from the others. In 1960 the ratio between Groups 1 and 5 was 30. In 2016, it was 55. The ratios between Group 1 and Groups 2-4 over the same timeframe have narrowed, but the differences have greatly increased. I often commit what Rosling calls the ‘mega misconception’ of talking in binary terms about ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ countries. This graph makes me feel justified in doing so.

Rosling cautions in his book against the way that averages can mislead us, so lest Exhibit A leaves you in doubt I present Exhibit B which shows the full ranked distributions of GDP per capita for every country in 1985 and 2016 (the 2016 data in the red stretches out rightwards because there were more countries and less missing data in 2016 than in the blue 1985 line). Again, the picture seems pretty clear to me – a long shallow slope suggestive of lots of countries with similarly low GDP per capita, then a steep uptick on the right for a small number of countries with very high per capita GDPs. Maybe it’s reasonable to talk of ‘middle income’ countries in the light of Exhibit B. But I think talking in binary terms of ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ countries is eminently justifiable on the basis of these figures too. Perhaps it’s worth noting that of the forty countries in Group 1 all but six of them are either West European ones or postcolonial inheritors of a West European legacy (like the USA and Australia) – the six exceptions are Qatar, Singapore, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Brunei, which have their own historical stories to tell.

Exhibit B:

 

I’d suggest that there are usually different stories one can weave around data, and it surprises me that the likes of Rosling and Pinker who are supposedly expert data analysts don’t make more concessions to this. Is there a fitfulness to their factfulness?

So much for GDP. Let’s move on to life expectancy – a more direct measure of human wellbeing, albeit still of a rather crude and basic kind. In Exhibit C, I present population-weighted average life expectancy at birth for the same five groups defined in Exhibit A from 1960 to 2017. Here, there does seem to be some evidence of convergence – in 1960, average life expectancy for Group 5 was 42 whereas for Group 1 it was 70. By 2017 the corresponding figures were 65 and 81.

Exhibit C:

What to make of this convergence in life expectancy set against the non-convergence of GDP? Since GDP is a reasonable measure of industrial capitalist output I’d venture the hypothesis, pace Pinker, that whatever’s causing the convergence in life expectancy probably isn’t industrial capitalism. But let’s probe a little more at the life expectancy data.

Mothers and babies. A common misconception about life expectancy is that it tells us the age when most people die. In fact, life expectancy at birth averages out death over the life course – and people are much more likely to die in infancy or, for women, in childbirth than at other times in the life course up until old age. The deaths of these young and relatively young people (infants and mothers) pulls overall life expectancy radically downwards, so relatively small improvements in infant or maternal mortality can have relatively big effects on life expectancy. It’s harder to improve life expectancy at the old age end of the life course, and it gets progressively harder to improve infant mortality the lower it is, as is demonstrated by the flattening slope of the curves in Exhibit D which presents infant mortality rates from 1960-2017 for the five groups. Therefore the convergence in life expectancy shown in Exhibit C is to some degree an artefact of the fact that infant mortality was already quite low in the richer countries in 1960.

Exhibit D:

China. The most striking improvement in life expectancy shown in Exhibit B occurred in Group 3 in the 1960s, and this largely reflects the influence of China in view of its huge population. This was the China of Chairman Mao and his Cultural Revolution – which hardly seems a good advert for Pinker’s view that the convergence results from ‘industrial capitalism’. But maybe there are some complexities here. The improvements in China came hard on the heels of Mao’s disastrous ‘Great Leap Forward’ which was the cause of probably the biggest famine in human history, so the thought occurs that the 1960s uptick could be a kind of rebound from the famine. However, this paper at least seems to suggest otherwise – infant mortality in China crashed during the 1950s, spiked during the Great Leap famine (though without reaching pre-1950s levels) and then further crashed in the 1960s. Lynn White has argued that the roots of China’s recent economic miracle lie ‘bottom up’ in the chaos of the 1960s in the context of the Cultural Revolution and the aftermath of the Great Leap when the lack of political control from the center enabled rural people to engage in economic development that was later coopted by the state and is now often presented top-down in terms of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms3. In that rather special sense, perhaps it would be possible to assimilate the Chinese data to Pinker’s claim that the convergence results from ‘industrial capitalism’. But I think that would be quite generous to Pinker. I’d be inclined to say instead that “rural self-reliance launched a great escape from poverty in China”.

What’s the cause of declining infant mortality? Having trawled around various academic papers on this subject the tentative answer that I’ve come to turns out to be the same as the answer to most things – it’s complicated. Relevant factors seem to be things like access to basic primary health care, vaccination and mother’s education. I’d welcome further input on this. Possibly, one could argue that such factors have been delivered by ‘industrial capitalism’, if not in the relevant countries themselves then at least in the accumulation of global surplus that enables multilateral agencies, NGOs and other such organizations to intervene. But I think this would be tendentious without further substantiation, and it would require a good deal of detailed analysis that tracked the historic flows of resources into and (mostly) out of the poorer countries with high infant mortality. As I’ve written about in more detail elsewhere, the history of capitalism and ‘modernization’ generally seems to involve processes of huge immiseration that then prompt counter-movements and efforts towards humanitarian mitigation – to chalk these up as the positive achievements of capitalism is provocative, to say the least. Basically, capitalist societies are ones that entrust general social wellbeing to a small number of capital owners who compete to maximize their profits with fairly minimal restrictions on what they’re entitled to do with them. Industrial capitalist societies are ones where the competition is focused around manufacturing rather than, say, speculative finance as is now the case in many of the Group 1 countries (here I’m paraphrasing some of Wolfgang Streeck’s definitions4). Nothing much to write home about in all that about converging life expectancies… In fact, if we’re going to talk about a ‘great convergence’ in the 21st century we probably also need to talk about the ‘great divergence’ of the 19th century diagnosed in a 2001 book of that name by historian Kenneth Pomeranz.

The inefficiency of capitalism. In 1960 world GDP was $11.3 trillion in constant 2010 US$, while in 2017 it was $80.3 trillion – so in less than 60 years the global economy has grown to fit more than seven world economies of 1960 within itself. In per capita terms the corresponding figure is an almost threefold rise from $3,700 to $10,700. Infant mortality rates in 1960 averaged 28.4 deaths per 1,000 live births in the Group 1 countries and 174.3 in the Group 5 ones, whereas by 2017 the gap had narrowed to 4.0 in the Group 1 countries and 45.7 in the Group 5 ones – a welcome convergence, certainly, but a “great” convergence, in view of the fact that the global economy is more than seven times bigger? I’m not so sure. Going back to my original question, if we have to grow the global economy seven times over in order to move from 146 excess infant deaths between Groups 1 and 5 to 42 excess deaths, I’d question the view that industrial capitalism is the best bet for improving human wellbeing – especially when it’s not even clear that the convergence results from capitalism as such.

I’d welcome any comments.

Notes

  1. Rosling, H. 2018. Factfulness. Sceptre. p.22, 28.
  2. Pinker, S. 2018. Enlightenment Now. Penguin. p.364.
  3. White, L. 2018. Rural Roots of Reform Before China’s Conservative Change. Routledge.
  4. Streeck, W. 2016. How Will Capitalism End? Verso.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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