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.

New deals, old bottles

I’ve just come across an interesting article on Resilience.org skewering the old ecomodernist fable that the discovery of oil saved the whales from extinction. Funnily enough I wrote a blog post making much the same argument four years ago, which I think I’m right in saying is the only post I’ve written that received precisely zero comments. The perils of being ahead of one’s time… Well, no matter, let us press boldly on with a new post…which I fear may be my second one to attract no comments, since pressure of work on the farm and in the study has led me to grievous neglect of this website.

So, New Left Review has recently been running a series of articles on the environment and left politics, and I thought I’d comment briefly on a few points arising from them – not least in relation to Troy Vettese’s article ‘To Freeze the Thames’, which follows on neatly from my previous ‘half-earth’ post1.

Let me begin by saying that we leftists do often struggle with the issue of the environment. One member of our tribe recently told me proudly on Twitter that the left was ‘against nature’ (yes, really), and it’s true that historically we’ve had a bit of a thing about trying to keep the messy world of the natural, the organic and the rural at arm’s length through various ruses like economic growth, industrial development, tractor production and occasionally even the odd bout of peasant-slaying. So as you can imagine, I had to submit myself to several years of therapy before feeling able to commit to writing a blog called ‘Small Farm Future’. And I still own a tractor. Hell, some things are sacred.

Anyway, the point of all this is to start off with a thumbs-up for Vettese – while the neo-Bolshevik wing of left-green writing drifts towards self-parody in its demands for air conditioning as a human right, Vettese’s program of organic vegan eco-austerity and ‘natural geo-engineering’ strikes a more authentic note for me. Nevertheless, I have some problems with it…though also with Robert Pollin’s ‘green new deal’ and anti-degrowth response to Vettese (and others) in the latest issue of the journal2. So here’s a brief precis of the issues as I see them.

Vettese thinks we should plant trees to mitigate climate change. A lot of them. On the basis of a paper by Sonntag and colleagues in Geophysical Research Letters3, he suggests that if 800 million hectares of land were reforested globally, the carbon thus sequestered would reduce atmospheric CO2 to the low 300s ppm, a feat of ‘natural geoengineering’ far wiser than the various madcap high-tech schemes currently mooted, putting CO2 concentration into a “safer range”. The 800 million hectares would mostly be carved out of current agricultural land. For Vettese, “agriculture is by far the most profligate sector of the economy in its greenhouse gas emissions and land-take” (p.82) – particularly in terms of livestock production. So he proposes to find his forest land by ‘euthanizing the carnivore’ (a paraphrase of Keynes on landlords). No more ruminant meat or milk, and no more arable crops for livestock fodder. But Vettese also has roads and urban sprawl in his sights – not so much because of their emissions (“energy efficiency means that carbon pollution from cars is not as great as one might have expected”) but because of land scarcity. Land scarcity is Vettese’s big thing: “It is land scarcity, rather than rare natural resources, that is the ultimate limit to economic growth” (p.66).

Scarcity, schmarcity says Robert Pollin in the succeeding issue. Invoking the authority of Harvard physics professor Mara Prentiss’s ‘rigorous account’, he argues that the US could meet its entire energy consumption needs through solar energy alone while utilizing no more than – and possibly much less than – 0.8% of its total land area for photovoltaics. Other countries like Germany and the UK with higher population densities and lower insolation face somewhat more challenging tasks, having to ramp up their energy efficiency and devote a bit more land, but still only about 3%, to photovoltaics. And that’s pretty much the alpha and omega of Pollin’s intervention. In his view, if we quickly decarbonize the world’s energy supply, then we can continue growing GDP and global incomes – whereas degrowth scenarios would slash incomes, prompting an economic depression that would make social welfare and environmental protection improbable.

Working through these analyses, starting with Vettese, to my inexpert eye his inferences from the Sonntag paper seem sound. But even assuming the political will I’d question how easy it would be to forest large swathes of the world currently used for rangeland, which weren’t necessarily forested in the first place (there’s a side issue here about premodern human forest clearance which, again, Vettese disposes in favor of his scheme rather questionably, essentially via a single reference). Moreover, the Sonntag paper suggests that, in the absence of other mitigation efforts, the temperature reduction caused by the forestation would only be about 0.27K – so yes, “safer” in terms of climate change, but not necessarily “safe” (incidentally Sonntag says that only a minor fraction of the carbon sequestration would occur in the soil, which further makes me question the soil sequestration claims of the regenerative agriculture brigade I’ve previously discussed).

There are also problems with nutrient limitation to forestation that Sonntag explicitly omits from his analysis, but others have raised as an issue4. I can’t claim to be able to model forestation effects with the sophistication of Sonntag, but I do wonder about it. FAO data suggest that the mitigation provided by the world’s existing forest cover of about 4 billion hectares amounts to only about 5% of current emissions, so on the basis of those figures if forest cover doubled (a much greater forestation than proposed by Vettese) and all direct agricultural GHG emissions ceased but emissions otherwise remained the same, then global emissions would still be occurring at about 80% of current levels.

In fact, this is the biggest problem I have with Vettese’s analysis. Cars and other fossil fuel-burning technology may emit “less than one might have expected” but it depends on what “one expected” – this is an extraordinarily weak claim on which to build a whole mitigation approach. FAO data suggest that about 50% of global emissions come from the energy sector, 14% from transport and 7% from industry, with only about 11% coming from agriculture and another 11% from land use change (though some of the energy, transport and industry emissions are agriculture and food system related). Agricultural methane emissions largely associated with livestock only account for 6% of total emissions (leaving aside methane-GHG equivalence issues) and agricultural nitrous oxide emissions only partly associated with livestock account for 5% of total emissions. I get the sense that Vettese’s veganism may be the tail that’s wagging his climate mitigation dog – maybe another example of what Simon Fairlie calls the “mendacious rhetoric about cows causing more global warming than cars”5.

Still, I’m not fundamentally opposed to Vettese’s vision of an organic, vegetable-oriented agriculture. He says almost nothing about the geography of his proposals but I’m guessing that an eco-austere world of minimal fossil fuels and mostly vegan organic agriculture would also have to be a mostly rural world of distributed human populations. I don’t have too much of a problem with that, but in such a world organic smallholders would have to build fallows and leys into their cropping for fertility reasons and efficiency would be enhanced if they included some livestock to graze them and perhaps some pigs or poultry too to clean up wastes and do a little work around the holding (ground preparation, manuring, pest control etc.) In temperate climes particularly, their fat as well as their meat would certainly be a welcome and possibly a necessary addition to the diet.

But if Pollin is right this is all a huge overreaction. Just decarbonize the power supply, mostly through photovoltaics, then we can get back to economic growth as usual, and leftists can get back to the safe territory of their long-running battle with rightists about the just distribution of the spoils. I’d like to believe him, and I agree that switching away from fossil fuels towards photovoltaics as rapidly as we can right now is a good idea. But in the face of the world’s numerous intersecting social, political, economic and biophysical crises which have been voluminously discussed on this site over the years, I don’t think a rapidly decarbonized energy system, or even a wider ‘green new deal’ associated with it, is adequate to the task of renewal.

I took a look at the Prentiss book referenced by Pollin6. Table 11 on p.153 seems to be the critical one on which Pollin bases his claims. I can’t claim Prentiss’s exalted credentials as a physicist, but I was surprised at how un-“rigorous” the table seemed – no dates, no sources and somewhat slapdash in its use of units. But anyway, assuming the data she presents are sound, the basic claim seems to be that PV panels in the USA can on average capture 40 watts per square meter – ‘on average’ presumably meaning that this figure adjusts for summer and winter, night and day. That’s a lot more than the panels on my roof capture, though to be fair I live on a (usually) rain-soaked island at a more northerly latitude than the great majority of the US population. I do wonder a little about where Alaska fits into this picture, since it constitutes about 18% of US land area and is even more northerly than my location, but anyway taking Prentiss’s data as given suggests by my calculations that each of the USA’s 300 plus million residents would require something like 150 square meters of PV panels to furnish current energy consumption (and here we’re just talking about domestic energy consumption, not energy embodied in imported artifacts).

Pollin’s point is that, contra Vettese, this 150m2 when it’s aggregated up isn’t a large proportion of the USA’s land, and he’s right about that. But when you pace it out – 12.2 meters by 12.2 meters for every single resident in the world’s third most populous country – it does seem to me a large amount of material and engineering infrastructure, not to mention a huge social transition towards a completely electrified energy system. Pollin’s notion that it’s achievable worldwide without major perturbation in the global economy seems optimistic at best. For sure, anything humanity does to tackle the issues it currently faces is going to have to be huge. Pollin’s critique of the degrowthers for ducking current energy and carbon imperatives in favor of a more generalized approach to economic downscaling is perhaps well taken, but I can’t help thinking his analysis involves a complacency of its own.

Pollin says that a good ethical case can be made for high-income people and high-income countries to reduce their emissions to the same level as low-income people and countries, but that there’s no chance this will happen and “we do not have the luxury to waste time on huge global efforts fighting for unattainable goals” (p.21). The problem as I see it is that the same applies to his own prescription. While the world’s political structuring hinges on nation-states with vastly different levels of economic and military power jockeying with each other out of short-term economic self-interest with only the most reluctant (and dwindling) concessions to multilateral concord, then the idea of a rapid decarbonization in the USA – one of the most powerful of such nation-states – out of some wider ecological perspective seems remote. Likewise, the idea that other countries will prioritize decarbonization in meek acceptance of the fact that the US and other wealthy countries won’t play ball with their per capita emissions. Frankly, the idea of a rapid switch out of fossil fuels in a country enjoying a second fossil fuel bonanza in fracked natural gas – a country in which so many chafed under a center-right president widely regarded as some kind of communist, and then elected a successor who doesn’t think climate change is happening and wishes to invest in coal – seems highly unattainable to me. Mind you, politics has become so capricious and unpredictable these days that I wouldn’t entirely bet against some green new dealer making it to the White House in 2020. But if I had to put up some money, I’d still bet against it. Meanwhile, for his part Vettese also has a penchant for unattainable goals, in this case a venerable leftist one: “A solution to global environmental crises requires the humbling of the global bourgeoisie, the richest several hundred million” (pp.85-6). No doubt, but I’m not seeing how that will take shape in the present global political landscape.

Of course, it’s easy to pull down other people’s castles in the air without suggesting more plausible alternatives. Sadly all I have to offer is this: the time for climate change mitigation that will prevent major future climate perturbations is probably more or less over, and what we’re faced with is climate change adaptation. I think that process will be grim, but I also think that ultimately it will probably spell the end of the contemporary nation-state, the world system of states, and the global capitalist economy, and for some people at least that may prompt some more positive outcomes – perhaps along the lines of the world imagined by Vettese. I’m aware that some commenters on this site find such views repulsively negative, but I don’t see it that way. I’m looking for the most positive outcomes I can find out of the most realistic socio-political trajectories I perceive. More on that soon, I hope.

Notes

  1. Vettese, T. 2018. To freeze the Thames: Natural geo-engineering and biodiversity. New Left Review 111: 63-86.
  2. Pollin, R. 2018.De-growth vs a green new deal. New Left Review 112: 5-25.
  3. Sonntag, S. et al. 2016. Reforestation in a high-CO2 world—Higher mitigation potential than expected, lower adaptation potential than hoped for. Geophysical Research Letters 43: 6546-6553.
  4. Kracher, D. 2017. Nitrogen-Related Constraints of Carbon Uptake by Large-Scale Forest Expansion: Simulation Study for Climate Change and Management Scenarios. Earth’s Future 5: 1102-1118.
  5. Fairlie, S. 2010. Meat. Permanent Publications, p.184.
  6. Prentiss, M. 2015. Energy Revolution: The Physics and the Promise of Efficient Technology. Harvard Univ Press.

Half-earth, half-baked?

Firstly, apologies for failing to respond to some of the comments at the end of my previous post. For some reason I’ve stopped getting email alerts of new comments. The Small Farm Future technical team are on the case, but frankly they’re a pretty useless bunch so expect delays. Meanwhile, if your comments are stuck in moderation or not getting the attention from me that you feel they deserve maybe let me know via the contact form and I’ll action someone on the team to look into it.

Anyway, onward. I’ve been writing in my book draft lately about the role of livestock in a small farm future, which has led me by a somewhat circuitous but probably fairly obvious route to reading Harvard biologist and conservationist E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth (W.W. Norton, 2016), in which he argues that we should leave half our planet’s surface as “inviolable reserves” for nature.

I found it an interesting and informative, if also somewhat vague and rambling, little book (still, if I succeed in publishing a book that’s no more rambling than Wilson’s when I’m 87 I’ll be happy). One of Wilson’s key points is that we’re not yet even close to knowing all the species with which we share the biosphere, let alone knowing how they fit into wider sets of ecological relationships. Therefore, from numerous perspectives but not least human self-preservation, he argues that it’s not a good idea to wantonly let species go extinct. Yet this, sadly, is what’s currently happening by the hand of humanity, with an extinction rate now around a thousand times higher than before the spread of humans around the world. This amounts to a sixth mass planetary extinction, which will rival over a few human generations what the last one, the Chicxulub asteroid impact that ultimately did for the dinosaurs, achieved on one bad day – but in geological terms, the time difference is slight.

Wilson deploys his biological expertise to great effect throughout the book in a running battle with Anthropocene theorists, “novel ecosystem” enthusiasts and outriders of the ‘ecomodernist’ Breakthrough Institute like Emma Marris and Erle Ellis who’ve likewise detained me on this website over the years. The basic message of the Anthropocenites to threatened species and to the people who wish to defend them runs something like ‘this is a human planet now – so deal with it, or get out the way’. In practical terms, they raise the valid point that in an ever-changing and stochastic biota there’s never a baseline point of ‘balance’ to which conservationism can aim its restorative efforts. To which Wilson makes the nice rejoinder that this is a problem that should be formulated as a scientific challenge, not an excuse for throwing up our hands and singing que será será.

But then, in the penultimate chapter, he lets it all run through his fingers. Take this passage:

“The [human ecological footprint] will not stay the same. The footprint will evolve, not to claim more and more space, as you might at first suppose, but less. The reason lies in the evolution of the free market system, and the way it is increasingly shaped by high technology….Just as natural selection drives organic evolution by competition among genes to produce more copies of themselves per unit cost in the next generation, raising benefit-to-cost of production drives the evolution of the economy. Almost all of the competition in a free market…raises the average quality of life. Teleconferencing, online purchases and trade, e-book personal libraries, access on the Internet to all literature and scientific data, online diagnosis and medical practice, food production per hectare sharply raised by indoor vertical gardens with LED lighting, genetically engineered crops and microorganisms…” (p.191)

Enough already, Edward…we get your point. After nineteen chapters of amiable good sense, Wilson suddenly goes full ecomodernist, as if some devilish Breakthrough Institute hacker finally figured out how to make him stop his anti-Anthropocene agitating by messing with his neurons like a cordyceps fungus attacking one of his beloved ants.

I won’t dwell here on how wrongheaded all this is – regular readers and commenters on this blog are well appraised of the counter-arguments. I don’t even dispute that there are some aspects of emerging high technology that might help us mitigate some of our present predicaments. But, my dear professor, the ‘evolution’ of the ‘free market system’ is not among them – rather, it’s the ‘free market system’ (or, more precisely, corporate capitalism – which isn’t really the same thing at all, but is the beast that Wilson is implicitly invoking) that has biodiversity in its deathly grip.

Wilson is pretty vague about what a ‘half-earth’ devoted to inviolable nature would actually look like, though he tells us that it needn’t involve dividing off the planet into large pieces the size of continents or nation-states, and earlier on in the book he demurs from the idea that ‘wilderness’ necessarily implies a lack of human residents. He favors a lower human population, but says nothing about urban vis-à-vis rural residence or the nature of the agriculture necessary to support a half-earth world (other than his half-baked half-earth of vertical farming and LED lights). His simple point really is that the number of species going extinct usually varies by something like the fourth root of the area available to them, so if we make half the planet available to wild species we should retain about 85% of them. Of course, things are more complicated than that in reality, but maybe it’s not such a bad place to start – especially if we proceed by trying to ensure that existing wildernesses and centers of biodiversity are protected first.

A quick look at the FAO’s global land use statistics reveals that in fact only about 37% of the planet’s land area is devoted to agriculture, with about 4% devoted to cities, roads and other artificial surfaces. So by those lights Wilson’s half-earth ambitions are already achieved – though it’s doubtless fair to say that we humans have appropriated the nicest territory for our agriculture (about a third of nature’s 60% share is glaciated or barren land). Still, perhaps when Wilson says we should leave half the earth as “inviolable reserves” he means really inviolable – so no chemical pollution of any kind, and perhaps no climate change either, creeping in from the human side of the planet. If that’s so, then the ‘half-earth’ idea is a little misleading because it draws attention to land take, when it should really be drawing attention to human practices like GHG emissions and nitrate pollution (another reason to question the ‘land sparing’ critique of organic farming).

Maybe instead of a half-earth we need a quarter-earth – which would be easily achieved by cutting back on rangeland and arable crops grown as livestock fodder (nearly 70% of global agricultural land is permanent meadow or pasture – yet another inconvenient truth for the land sparers, who illogically obsess over the 1% of organically-farmed land). But I think what we really need is a no GHG emissions and a no pollution earth. How to achieve that? Well, I’m open to ideas but here’s my half-earth halfpenny’s worth: stop fishing in the open ocean, stop extracting fossil fuels, stop making synthetic fertilizer (except as a stopgap measure via special government derogation). Decide on the total human land-take, which gives a global per capita acreage. Then divide it up equally between the people of the world for carbon-free homesteading. Those who prefer not to avail themselves of this generous offer and continue working in the city would be entitled to do so with the proviso that they forfeit, say, 50% of their earnings on top of tax, split between practical conservation, farmer support, agroecological research funds and mitigation of the environmental bads caused by the commercial-industrial farming that their old-falutin city-slicking ways would probably bring forth.

I’ll admit that it needs working up a bit more – a few details to fill in, some implementation issues to address. Perhaps you can help me in that task. My starter for ten is that this system won’t emerge by the ‘evolution’ of a free market system increasingly shaped by high technology. Wilson might have realized this, if only he’d consulted an economist biologist…

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

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

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

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

Change

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

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

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

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

‘Development’ and the global peasant-family farm

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

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

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

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

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

Wealth and the transition out of agriculture

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

A small farm utopia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

Nitrogen wars

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

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

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

The ghost of nitrogen past

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

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

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

For their part, B&B note that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ghost of nitrogen present

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ghost of nitrogen future

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Energy prospects: little to Smil about?

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

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

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

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

 1. Peak oil

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

2. Fossil fuel

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

3. Energy transitions

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

4. Nuclear power

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

5. Cities

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

6. Agricultural involution

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

7. Materiality and social status

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

Campesino a campesino: a trip to Nicaragua

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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