Where the story takes us

Pervasive, multi-faceted crisis and a cultural inability to deal with it: I’ve now said what I want to say in this cycle of posts about Chapters 1 and 2 of my book A Small Farm Future, and I’m ready to move onto Chapter 3. But first let’s take a breather. If there’s anything in the first two chapters you’d like me to further explain or justify, let me know (preferably by commenting at www.smallfarmfuture.org.uk where I’ll be sure to see the comment).

While we’re dawdling here, maybe I’ll say something about stories. On page 54 of my book, I discuss the idea of ‘symbolic goods’, which bears on how human actions arise out of the stories we tell ourselves about the way the world is – or, as Clifford Geertz famously put it, “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun”1. So we’re motivated by stories, and there are different stories we can tell about the same reality. Ultimately, though, factors independent of our stories condition their outcome whether we like it or not, and if we don’t find good ways of incorporating them into the narrative, then eventually the story will crumble.

Chapters 1 and 2 of my book tell a story about how our current modern global civilization has got itself into a mess by disregarding some such factors that complicate its tale of endless self-improvement. In writing them, I drew on a lot of research and evidence that I think make my own story quite robust. Nobody has yet convinced me that the story of these chapters is substantially wrong in its main details (there are some minor points I might now recast), though certainly there are other webs of significance that could be spun, and it’s not impossible I could be convinced that another story is more plausible. Which is why I’m dawdling at this crossroads into Chapter 3, waiting for another storyteller to come along and take me somewhere different…

While I wait, I’d like to mention three, perhaps four, other stories that have come to my attention lately.

The first relates to climate change, and has been spun around a recently published scientific paper suggesting that a stabilization of the Earth’s climate would occur much quicker than previously thought if human-caused greenhouse gas emissions cease2. Not my area of expertise, of course, but my sense of this paper is that it bore quite a lot of other news about the effects of current human emissions which was far from positive. However, the most prominent discussions of it among climate scientists that came to my attention on social media built a story from the climate stabilisation point to ridicule ‘end of civilisation’ doomsters for not keeping up with the science, positioning them alongside climate change deniers for imperilling concerted climate action.

There are two aspects of story-telling that interest me in this. The first is people’s meta-concern with the character of their story as a status claim in its own right, which is ubiquitous in discussions of climate change. My story is optimistic, pragmatic or science-based whereas your story is doomy climate porn or is tantamount to denialism because it lacks hope. No doubt there’s something to be said for addressing the wider effects of our stories on other people, but in my view those concerned about climate change spend too much precious time pointing fingers at other concerned people based on the supposed superior impact of their narrative. Enough. Call things as you see them, take action accordingly, be prepared to discuss and be prepared to be wrong. But don’t waste time plumping the meta-efficacy of your chosen narrative.

The second aspect is that while a few political leaders have stated their commitment to achieving net zero, the fact is we’re not even remotely on a path to achieving it, and new coal mines and fossil power stations are merrily sprouting up around the world. So to take the finding that ‘if we reach net zero, then the climate stabilizes’ as a way to lambast climate pessimism puts a heavier loading on the ‘if’ in that sentence than any real-world trend can bear. There’s a danger here of telling ourselves a nice story, whose protective armour allows us to dismiss other, darker stories when the armour isn’t real.

The second story I want to mention has gradually been taking shape in my mind of late as an identifiable narrative trend. It goes roughly like this: “The old-fashioned practices of industrial agriculture certainly did contribute to many of our contemporary problems, but innovative new forms of skills-intensive and tech-intensive smart agriculture mean that farmers can now feed the world sustainably while removing carbon from the atmosphere and making a lot of money too.” I propose to call this the “smart farming story”. And I don’t believe in it.

There are various entry points into the fallacies of the smart farming story, many of which I’ve covered on this blog over the years. I won’t pursue them here, except to say that if your farming makes you a lot of money then I’m pretty sure it won’t be helping solve our contemporary problems. I’m also pretty sure the money-making won’t last long. I’d propose this alternative: “Don’t worry too much about feeding the world or cutting carbon with your farming. Just try to do what you can to help your area grow as much food and fibre as possible to meet its local needs using whatever techniques you like, provided they use little fossil fuel and make little money”.

The final story or stories is something I was tracking a bit more avidly back in 2016 with the votes in the UK for Brexit and in the US for Donald Trump. In early 2021 both have reached a denouement, though perhaps not an ending, with a whimper in the former case and a bang in the second. The Brexit story involves two versions of neoliberalism, one based inside the EU and the other outside it, the latter mis-sold to the public as a story of nationalist assertion. The touted economic benefits for the people are unsurprisingly failing to materialise, though perhaps some will be happy that our fish are now British. For the rest of us, I’d suggest, the story now has to be about trying to create real popular localism out of the absurdities of Brexit, not a race to the bottom that will benefit only a few.

Regarding Trump, I doubt there’s much I can say that others haven’t already said better. The answer to the problems of our times may not be Biden-Harris, but it most certainly isn’t Trump and … that other guy. In keeping with my overall theme for this post, let me just say that I was struck by how very strange was the web of significance that so many of Trump’s insurrectionists in Washington DC had spun for themselves. People who believed themselves to be a part of a revolution were surprised that they were pepper sprayed by the police, or banned from flying home? What happened was serious, but the story that a lot of the protagonists seemed to have built around themselves was fundamentally unserious, as if they were mere actors in a TV show.

To generalize from this to my wider theme, I see this unseriousness, this TV show mentality, everywhere in our contemporary stories about ourselves – from the way we talk about climate change (it’s bad, but not so bad that it’s really going to change our world, ‘if’ we reach net zero), to the way we talk about smart farming (it’s good, so good that it can save our world and make us loads of money too), and even to the way we try to topple governments (it’s wild, it’s patriotic, and then we can fly home for the weekend).

We need some different stories.

Notes

  1. Clifford Geertz. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures, p.5.
  2. Chen Zhou et al. 2021. Greater committed warming after accounting for the pattern effect. Nature Climate Change.

Going nuclear

After the furies of engaging with fantasy reviews of my book in my last post, let’s get back to something safe and uncontroversial – nuclear power. Here, I continue with my theme from this post about energy futures, particularly the notion that we can transition from our present high energy, high carbon civilization to a future high energy, low carbon one based around nuclear power.

On page 31 of my book, I present a version of Figure 1 below, which shows global primary energy consumption since 1965 by energy source. It suggests that there’s been no transition out of fossil fuels up to now. True, we’re using a lot more low-carbon energy now than we were in 1965 – over 1,900 million more tonnes of oil equivalent in 2018, in fact. But we’re also using a lot more fossil energy too – over 8,000 million tonnes more over the same period. So at the moment, low-carbon energy is merely adding to our growing total use of energy, rather than substituting for the fossil energy component of it. On pp.31-3 of my book I discuss why this is so.

Figure 1: Global energy consumption by fuel type, 195-2018 (million tonnes of oil equivalent)

Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019

But of course what’s happened up to now isn’t a secure guide to the future. It’s possible that we soon will begin transitioning to a high energy, low carbon civilization and those climbing fossil fuel quantities in Fig 1 will drop away.

To probe that possibility we need to address a few somewhat technical points. First, most sources of low carbon energy furnish us with electricity, so a high-energy, low-carbon society would have to be largely an electrically powered one. An advantage of low carbon electrical energy is that it’s efficient in its final use, whereas something like a diesel engine or a coal-powered turbine wastes a lot of energy as heat. Therefore, in order to retain the level of final energy usage implied by the fossil energy shown in Figure 1 while replacing it with low carbon electricity, it wouldn’t be necessary to match the levels of total fossil energy consumption shown in the figure, which exceed low carbon consumption by a factor of more than 5. In his paper that I mentioned in my earlier post, Tom Biegler estimates that a more appropriate factor for Australia is a (“conservative”) 2.4 – which could perhaps be generalized globally given that the proportion of electrical energy to total energy consumption is about the same in each case.

When I put together the version of Figure 1 above that appears on page 31 of the book, I hadn’t pondered this point as much as I probably should have done – but I don’t think it matters for the purposes of a retrospective/historical presentation. The graph shows as a matter of historical fact that low-carbon energy has added to rather than substituted for fossil energy consumption, and this is worth knowing. But if we try to project into the future it does matter, because – as stated above – we may not need to use as much low carbon electrical energy in the future as the fossil energy we use now in order to get the same work done.

I used the uncertain “may not” in the previous sentence because there’s another side to the coin. There are some industrial processes like fertiliser and steel manufacture that are less energy intensive when using fossil fuels than electricity. Creating the higher capacity global electrical infrastructure that would be necessary for a fully electrified global energy system, including the end products like electric cars, will also require an enormous upfront energy outlay, as Joe Clarkson pointed out under my earlier post. So exactly how this might play out is debatable.

Anyhow, Figure 2 shows the low carbon electricity (nuclear or renewables, but excluding hydro) that’s been generated year on year from 1965 to 2018, with three projections for how it will have to increase if the global energy economy is to abandon fossil fuels by 2050.

Figure 2: Low carbon electricity generation and projections, 1965-2050 (TWh)

Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019

The blue line indicates the necessary increase if existing global final energy use turned exclusively to low carbon electricity, based on Dr Biegler’s conservative factor of 2.4, while ignoring the factors pushing energy use higher that I just mentioned – therefore underestimating the true challenge. But this leaves untouched the differences in energy use between richer and poorer countries, making this scenario implausible. Poorer countries are unlikely to invest massively in a low carbon energy transition without remedy to the gulf between rich and poor country levels of energy use – especially the energy-hungry poorer countries that are now the world’s industrial powerhouses, and that currently are heavily dependent upon fossil fuels.

The orange line adjusts for this by ‘levelling up’ to show the increased low carbon generation that would be required if every country in the world used energy at the same per capita level as Australia, on which Dr Biegler’s calculations are based – and why shouldn’t they?

Finally, the grey line shows the necessary increase if governments globally adopt the radical energy-cutting measures that a recent paper argued were feasible while retaining a decent life for citizens (though the paper professed uncertainty about how these cuts could be practically achieved).

Nobody can tell how the future will unfold, but my sense of things is that we will not see anything like the steep gradients in the blue and orange lines occurring in practice. The grey line is slightly more feasible, but is still a big leap – and would require rapid energy-cutting measures that are currently not occurring. And of course, for each passing year that new low-carbon generation falls behind the curve, the gradients just get steeper.

To my mind, the graph underscores a point made by Kevin Anderson: people have their silver bullet technologies of choice, but “you cannot build your way out with bits of shiny kit” – and that applies to both nuclear and renewable energy. So where does that leave us? Possibly with a more vernacular than literal interpretation of the phrase that it’s “time to go nuclear”. In other words, it’s time to accept that we need to drastically cut our energy usage in the rich countries, starting right now, and take our efforts to create a renewable economy up to a whole new level of urgency, throwing the kitchen sink (to mix my metaphors with another piece of high tech kit) at energy reduction. This would undoubtedly have to involve the richer countries helping the poorer ones to decarbonize, essentially by gifting them low carbon electricity capacity, which would also have the happy result of creating a more even global economic playing field.

It’s possible that’ll happen, but I can’t quite see it. It seems more likely that the pace of decarbonization will pick up a bit in the coming years, albeit with actual achievements failing to match spoken commitments. Probably, the worst case climate change scenarios for the century’s end will be avoided, accompanied by much thinktanking along the way about how a 3oC world really isn’t so bad – as seems to be the direction that the new look, more serious, post-Michael Shellenberger Breakthrough Institute is headed.

Then perhaps we reach a crunch point in the rich world – carbon taxes begin to bite, people have to hunker down more locally and grow more of their own food while welcoming newcomers from places where the hunkering hasn’t worked out, at the same time probably watching their tax dollars heading off in a desperate bid to reconcile the economic status quo with climate stability by building low carbon infrastructures in the poorer countries while seeing the likes of Jeff Bezos get ever richer, with economy-shredding climate shocks becoming ever more frequent. My hope is that they’ll find a way through that into a more equitable, more local, lower carbon world. But I couldn’t honestly say that it’s my expectation.

Turning the clock forward

The next stop in my tour through my book A Small Farm Future is Part I, which begins with a long chapter outlining ten crises that one way or another seem set in the coming years to thoroughly upend the world we’ve known.

As I see it, these crises are such that for good or ill a small farm future awaits many of us or our descendants. So after Chapter 1, the rest of the book is basically about how people might try to accentuate the good and mitigate the ills of this likely future – a difficult journey, with no guaranteed endpoint.

I’m not going to reprise what I say in Chapter 1 here on the blog, much of which in any case will be familiar to readers here. But in this and the next few posts I’d like to extend and further explain my thinking around some key points from this chapter, and also cast forward to Chapter 2 where I try to put the implications of our present crises into a wider political context.

I was a bit horrified to discover that a couple of readers assumed I’d placed the ten crises (starting with ‘Population’ and ending with ‘Culture’) in order of importance. The truth is that the ordering is somewhat random, based on ease of exposition, but generally trends from immediate or ‘proximal’ issues like climate change towards what I see as the deeper underlying ones in our politics, economics and culture. More importantly, I see all these crises as complexly interlinked, and scarcely amenable to simple, one-shot, technical solutions.

Still, we live in a world that’s complexly interlinked through the medium of cheap and abundant energy. Therefore it’s unsurprising, if ironic, that mainstream discussion of our present crises often emphasizes simplistic (albeit technically complex), one-shot solutions, primarily in relation to energy. It seems worth saying a little more about this, building on my analysis in Crisis #3 of Chapter 1 (pp.28-36), to address both the complexities and simplicities of energy.

My starting point is this article featuring Zion Lights, once a spokeswoman for Extinction Rebellion (XR) but now decamped to Mike Shellenberger’s pro-nuclear lobby group, in which she critiques XR for “peddling the notion that the solution to the climate crisis was to turn the clock back to a simpler time”.

I’ve said it before on this blog, but I guess it just has to be repeated again and again – few people in the environmental movement genuinely want to ‘turn the clock back’ to the past, and there was no point in the past that ever really was a ‘simpler time’. There are, however, quite a number of people around nowadays who apparently want to ‘turn the clock forward to a simpler time’ by imagining there are straightforward, one-shot solutions to our present problems like nuclear power or renewables that will make them simply disappear so we can get back to business as usual. Given the likely failure of such solutions, the point of looking at the past is not to recreate it but to try to learn what we can from people who of necessity lived in lower energy societies, because we’ll probably be inhabiting one ourselves soon enough.

But will energy options like nuclear power really fail to deliver the goods? Not long after reading the Zion Lights article I got involved in a Twitter exchange (yes, I know) with various nuclear enthusiasts – the sort where the condescending putdowns make you curse the day social media was invented, but where you keep going because you’re learning something, even though you end up feeling kind of dirty. Suffice to say that if some of these guys were put in charge of making the PR case for nuclear power, we can be certain it won’t happen.

One of the participants asked me to provide rational objections to nuclear power, and presented some “actual data from 2060” to show how nuclear could feasibly replace fossil fuels (a pie chart of energy projections provided by the Chinese government, as it happens) but quit the debate after I suggested that, er, actual data from 2060 doesn’t yet exist. Another participant – Dr Tom Biegler – linked to this paper he’d written about energy futures in Australia and suggested I read it. I’ve now done that and am ready to lay out my rational case against turning the clock forward to a simpler time when nuclear energy has solved our problems. It’s a sevenfold one, as follows:

1. The major resource and biophysical crises we face today on Earth, and many of the cultural and political ones, are ultimately traceable to humanity’s worldwide investment in powerful, strongly centralized, capital-accumulating political states. I’m doubtful that any satisfactory long-term solutions will be found without radically dissipating that capital and political energy. But nuclear power absolutely relies upon and justifies powerful, strongly centralized, capital-accumulating political states. Therefore I see it as incompatible with sustainable human culture.

2. Current nuclear technologies produce small but significant quantities of high-level waste which, as I understand it, remains dangerous for generations and has not yet been rendered safe – largely because it’s too expensive. It seems likely that it will be even more expensive for future societies, and probably beyond their technical capacities. Dr Biegler writes of the need to combat “deep-seated anti-nuclear sentiment” in relation to issues including waste disposal. The best way of combating this ‘sentiment’ is surely to solve the issue giving rise to it. In the meantime it seems to me quite rational not to further invest in technologies until their products can be made safe for future generations.

3. If we could swap out all fossil fuelled energy for nuclear-powered electricity, we would still be facing numerous resource crises concerning water, nitrogen, phosphorus, metals and soil, along with political and economic crises. One response to that might be to say that at least with abundant nuclear energy we’d have one less crisis on our hands. But it’s surely reasonable (rational, even?) to suggest that the very multiplicity of these crises is telling us that our problems aren’t fundamentally about energy, and nor are the solutions.

4. Talking of water, nuclear power stations such as the gigantic Hinkley C now under construction not too far from my home are often located next to the ocean because of their need for abundant water. But given the uncertainties about future climate change and sea level rise, it might be rational not to do this.

5. There are only about 30 countries worldwide generating nuclear power, mostly rich ones with extensive electricity infrastructures. Electrifying and transitioning most of the other countries to nuclear power within the next few decades is, to say the least, unlikely, and in any case would raise numerous further problems. The climate impact of feasible nuclear transitions therefore seems likely to be slight.

6. Bringing together the previous points, I do not trust a society that commits itself so insouciantly to capital-accumulating state centralism, to leaving dangerous waste as a legacy for future generations to deal with, to meeting systemic crisis with piecemeal solutionism, and to policies that benefit the few and not the many. Is my mistrust rational? I think so, but others might say it’s merely emotional or spiritual. If so, then I guess I’m for mere emotions and spirituality, and against rationality.

7. But, against such spiritual arguments, I’ve heard people make the case for nuclear power through the analogy of a physician treating a critically ill patient: however spiritually misguided the patient was in their lifestyle choices that led to the illness now killing them, the physician’s job is to try to keep them alive using whatever technologies are available. By analogy, nuclear power may save the life of our present civilization, however decadent it is. We can worry about its spiritual improvement later. As I see it, though, the patient may still be showing a few vital signs, but in truth they’re beyond salvation and the physician shouldn’t waste scarce time, money and material resources in heroic but fruitless attempts to save the unsavable. It would be better to devote them to more promising ends, such as founding a renewable culture. In this view, nuclear power is what Duncan McLaren nicely calls a “technology of prevarication”.

But is the patient really unsavable? That’s a tricky one, and will only be answerable with the benefit of hindsight. Nevertheless, Dr Biegler provides some numerical analyses in his report that give us a little purchase on the issue. I’ll discuss them in my next post.

Beyond authenticity: the politics of agrarian localism, Part 2

This post continues with my theses on class, identity, protest, violence and the politics of agrarian localism begun in the previous one. For a definition of terms and acronyms used below, and reference to the people and articles it engages with, see the previous post. Comments welcome!

17. I’ll now turn to the success or otherwise of XR and other climate and social justice campaigns. Ruben suggests the addition of less carbon to the atmosphere is the appropriate criterion to judge climate activism. I think this is very stringent, but not unreasonable. It’s harder to come up with such a singular metric in the case of social justice but perhaps less dollars added to global GDP and to the total income and wealth of the world’s richest people might serve. By these measures, all climate and social justice activism has so far failed. Violent and nonviolent. Middle-class and working-class. White, black, indigenous. Global North and Global South. Governmental, NGO and civic. All of it. There have been many small victories against climate change and capitalism, but no large ones. Perhaps a worthy inference from this is to stop looking for who has epistemic or ontological privilege at protesting climate change and social justice and to frame the question differently.

18. Nevertheless, it’s true that people with OP are, deliberately or otherwise, offloading the consequences of climate change onto people with less of it – women, people of colour, indigenous people, working-class people, the Global South. These people indeed are in the forefront of climate activism in places like Standing Rock and are generating protests and activism which I think other people ought to support and from which they can learn.

19. …but inasmuch as it’s eminently likely that climate change and other crises will prompt widespread social collapse, the fact is that almost everyone will then be in the forefront of climate change activism, even if their activism amounts to no more than trying to save their own skins. Climate change activism is not as good a candidate for OCP-led activism as, say, patriarchy or racism. Indeed, maybe it’s even a candidate for OP-led activism, along the lines that Michelle (jestingly) suggested here a while back – rich white people ought to step up and take responsibility for dealing with their own crap.

20. Whatever the case, unlike Peter I don’t see violent activism in trying to block fossil fuel infrastructure as intrinsically superior to nonviolent activism in, say, trying to block MPs getting into parliament. To my mind, Peter’s view of the activism that’s needed to mitigate climate change is naïve (“climate change is made up of thousands of individual mega-projects like the ones those folks [at Standing Rock and Le ZAD] actually stopped”). This neglects the emergent properties of the political economy which manifest ultimately in Ruben’s outcome measure – more carbon added to the atmosphere, year after year. For this reason, I see the wider implications of the activism of both XR and Standing Rock/Le ZAD as quite similar, and mostly about political spectacle. I’ve got no particular problem with those who prefer violent Standing Rock type activism to nonviolent XR type activism. But I think spending time explaining why the former is superior to the latter is, as Bruce suggested, a waste of time. (Incidentally, I must confess my ignorance about the Standing Rock action, but this account of it gives me a different sense of its success, accommodation with extant power and violence than Peter’s).

21. I will try to push a little more at the idea of the emergent political economy and ontological privilege. As I see it, the extra-human world – the universe, the Earth – enjoys a hard (but not absolute…) ontological privilege over humanity. To anthropomorphize, it doesn’t care if we suffer or die, and it has lots of ways of making us suffer and die. Human culture – its farming, its textiles, its buildings, its medicine and so on – is a form of human OCP articulated against the OP of the extra-human world. And I’m grateful for it. But ultimately I don’t think humanity will be able to overturn this extra-human OP. We need to embrace our lack of privilege with respect to it. People often dismiss this view as ‘Malthusian’, but they’re mistaken. They haven’t done the reading.

22. I espouse a left-wing libertarianism in which all people can enjoy the capability of producing a fulfilling personal livelihood through acting on an ultimately constraining extra-human world, articulating an OCP shared empathically with other people against the world’s immoveable OP.

23. In my view, the best way of mediating this difficult trade-off between the OP of the world and humanity’s OCP, and the best way of organizing social justice in the near future, is by building small farm societies oriented towards local self-provisioning. Here are some of the things that such societies will need if they’re to prosper: the rule of law, widespread access to affordable property including farmland with agreed boundaries, widespread opportunities to generate a personal livelihood, a public sphere of political debate, ‘household responsibility’. Some of these things exist in practice or in theory in contemporary capitalist societies, but they will have to assume different forms in a just small farm future, and will need to be fought for through political activism. I see XR as a vehicle for developing that activism. But it draws me into some difficult judgments. What laws am I willing to break when I believe in the rule of law (although this just got easier now that the British government has itself chosen to deliberately break the law)? What property am I willing to violate when I am a property owner, and am not opposed in principle to private property? These difficulties don’t present themselves to people who believe in a redeeming political violence associated with AOCP.

24. Many people influenced by Marxism and notions of AOCP are apt to dismiss these attributes of small farm societies as ‘bourgeois’ or ‘petty bourgeois’. And they are apt to dismiss the kind of squeamishness I just expressed about the bounds of my activism as indicative of my own bourgeois status. When they do this, they relegate my politics to a mere outcome of my class position. As I see it, the world is more complex than this and its politics isn’t simply reducible to class or OP/OCP conflicts.

25. Concepts like ‘bourgeois’ and ‘petit bourgeois’ have no stable meaning, and statements like ‘advocacy for small-scale family farming involves a petit bourgeois worldview’ have no sociological purchase outside specific historical contexts. The same is true of almost all the phrases we deploy to make sociological sense of the world (men, white, middle-class, family, society) but some of them are so well grounded in our everyday experience of the social world that they seem quite unproblematic. This makes them especially treacherous.

26. But suppose the established order is overthrown, and the bourgeois brutes are killed along with concepts like law, property and family in some huge act of redeeming violence. How will the victors organize successful agrarian societies that put food on the table and manage the ecological base renewably? To speak plainly, I think they won’t have a clue. On past form, I think they will resort to meaningless slogans like ‘the common ownership of the means of production’ and ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ and then they will screw the hell out of people who do have a clue such as any remaining family farmers or peasantries unfortunate enough to fall within their jurisdiction. And they will screw the ecological base too. Then eventually, after much needless suffering and unrealizable efforts at political redemption, out of this chaos will emerge family farming, mixed private and common property regimes and household responsibility, because this is how you organize a sustainable human ecology against the OP of the non-human world. (See what I just did there: epistemic warranting is everywhere!)

27. So my proposal is to short-circuit these empty spaces of terror, fallacious concepts of AOCP and romantic views of political violence by working to create a socially just small farm future. To achieve this, I think it will be necessary to have a rich, pervasive, republican politicization of everyday life and livelihood that few of us in the contemporary world, regardless of our OP or lack of it, are currently prepared for or have much epistemic privilege in. In its local organizing, I see XR as one of the most promising developments in the political landscape of contemporary Britain that might be a vehicle for that kind of political mobilization. I don’t necessarily think it’s all that promising – just more promising than most of the other things around. Flatpack Democracy 2021 is another promising one.

28. In other words, I think it’s necessary to develop a civic republican politics of community. This politics does not try to erase or discount the social importance of human differentiations – gender, class, race etc. – into some comfortable notion of unconflicted communitas. It acknowledges OP. But it doesn’t consider the social world and political action to be essentially reducible to them.

29. The fact that few people and few communities globally have the skills, mindset and infrastructure to bring about a small farm future easily is an enormous obstacle. But it does have a silver lining – there’s no politics of authenticity, no AOCP, by which responsibility for creating functional agrarian societies can be abdicated to some category of ‘real people’ that our political theology invests with the capacity to bring about the necessary change. The real person is you, and whoever else is living in your neighbourhood. The necessary change is creating a material livelihood from the place where you live, without expecting help from elsewhere. Or moving where you can make a livelihood, and hoping that the people already living there aren’t too invested in a ‘real people’ narrative of their own that excludes you. (In Western Europe and North America there are troubling race and class dimensions to this, because the rural areas where urban people will be moving are usually whiter and richer than urban ones).

30. Joe writes that political protest is futile, and I basically agree. I don’t think XR will have much or any effect on the government’s policies about climate change. The main reason I think XR protests are worth doing anyway is inasmuch as they feed into Points 27 and 28. And, if I could make so bold, I think Joe is interested in these possibilities too on the basis of his long participation on this site and what seems to me an interest on his part in trying to find some kind of politics that will make the hard, climate-induced landings our societies are about to experience softer. His awareness of his OP is an important positive in this respect, I think.

31. Ruben writes “Did your arrest change anything? How difficult it was is not the measure of the impact”. I think this is true as measured by the criteria raised in points 17 and 30. It didn’t reduce carbon emissions, and it didn’t change government policy. I don’t think it’s necessarily true as measured by the criteria raised in points 10, 20 and 28. My arrest and my (admittedly fairly low level) of general participation in XR may have contributed in however small a way to XR’s journey of political self-education and its construction of political spectacle, and it certainly contributed to my own personal journey in learning how to overcome some of my resistances to participating in a republican politics of community. On such minimal margins do we construct our personal political choices.

32. Joshua raises the issue of middle-class buying power as political activism – something that I’ve long been torn over. I agree that there’s agency here, and that downshifting is a good idea. But while I have no problem with individuals focusing on one or the other form of activism, they’re not mutually exclusive. And ultimately, I think this succumbs to the same problem as Peter’s argument about Standing Rock – climate change isn’t made up of millions of individual consumption decisions, and folks can’t stop it by making millions of different ones. It’s made of millions of profit-seeking decisions that are written into the institutional structure of the societies we live in. That structure needs changing. And nobody knows how to do it, whatever their OP.

33. Bruce mentions Antarctica’s Thwaites glacier, which is collapsing, while the Home Secretary ponders new curbs on ‘eco-fanatics’. We haven’t yet got to the stage identified by Joe of environmental activists being quietly disappeared into the carceral system, or worse. But that could be where the discourse is drifting – Section 14s being used to pre-emptively stop protest, increasingly repressive policing, lengthy prison sentences mooted for XR protestors, the idea floated that this group of concerned climate scientists, doctors, teachers, farmers, grandparents and young people worried for their future is a ‘criminal organization’. You could be forgiven for thinking that, far from being coopted by the state, XR’s activities might actually be troubling it! Meanwhile many right-wing voices bay for more state violence to be used against XR protestors. But rather than address this fateful drift of ecological breakdown and political repression, there are those on the left who prefer to exhume the corpse of 19th century political theory in order to find XR wanting for its inauthenticity. As I see it, there’s fanaticism from all corners, but less from XR than from most – including from left-wing critics too wrapped up in nostalgic narratives of redemption through class violence.

Collapse: a helpful guide for the perplexed

My previous post about so-called ‘collapse porn’ arguably demands a sequel (it should probably have been a prequel) on the definition and nature of collapse. That’s what I’ll try to do here – first with some brief definitional comments, then with a bit of context on collapse literature, and finally with some remarks for discussion on the possible causes of future social collapse.

Though it sort of undermines the purpose of this post, I’ve got to start by saying that trying to define collapse seems to me somewhat futile, in much the same way as trying to define a ‘small farm’ or of fixing and reifying any complex human construct. Maybe collapse is only truly meaningful with long historical hindsight. In my previous post, I mentioned Charlemagne, crowned emperor of Rome more than 300 years after the continuous line of Western Roman emperors had ceased. And Rome’s legacy persists in numerous ways today, more than a millennium after Charlemagne. Yet nobody would say the Roman Empire remains. How, precisely, can we define and date its end? Maybe that’s less to the point than the fact that it clearly ended.

Archaeologist Joseph Tainter, whose book The Collapse of Complex Societies I mentioned in my previous post, uses this working definition: “A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity” (p.4). Inevitably, that poses further definitional questions – what do we mean by ‘rapid’, what do we mean by ‘significant loss’ and what do we mean by ‘sociopolitical complexity’? Spurious quantification or pernickety refinement seems unlikely to illuminate these points, but perhaps it’s worth devoting a few words to ‘sociopolitical complexity’.

I’m not convinced the socio-politics that put Donald Trump in the White House or Boris Johnson in No.10 are any more complex than those that the average member of a hunter-gatherer band has had to negotiate on a daily basis down the ages – indeed, they’re probably rather less complex. But unlike such band members, Trump and Johnson nominally lead polities that thoroughly penetrate and organise the lives of many millions of people, and that involve a highly specialised and urbanised division of labour supported by the availability of cheap fossil fuels. My feeling is that some or many parts of the world will soon be in for a dose of Tainter-style collapse, with ‘rapid’ (ie. over no more than a few decades, following Tainter) and ‘significant’ loss of sociopolitical complexity, in the sense that the political centres presided over by the likes of Trump and Johnson won’t be able to organise social life across their territories to the extent they presently do, nor sustain their present specialised divisions of labour.

That, in a nutshell, is what I mean by collapse.

Now, the idea that governments like Boris Johnson’s won’t be able to sustain their geographical reach or economic specialization, thus precipitating collapse, isn’t something I intrinsically fear. In fact, I welcome it. A major reason why historical collapses are usually painted in bleak colours is because their histories are written by elites who lose most from them – by the Johnsons, shall we say, and not by the Smajes and other Pinocchio-mangling lesser folk. Historically, such underlings have often welcomed collapse. The problem is that with rapid collapse, there’s a chance that political actors worse even than Johnson, hard though that may be to imagine, may step into power. And that’s a major reason why, as per my last post, I think we should attend to the sound of the distant waterfall as the ship of state floats down the river.

I won’t attempt anything but a cursory description of the literature analysing potential collapse, though I’d be interested to hear other people’s suggestions for worthy contributions to it. Inevitably, that literature varies from the learned to the loopy. One of the cornerstones of collapse literature in modern times has been the Limits to Growth report emerging from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and first published in 1972. Despite its academic pedigree, critics have long sought to position the report as more loopy than learned, but with increasing difficulty over the years as actual trends have pretty much tracked the ones modelled by the LTG authors (see this, for example, or this). Meanwhile, various new currents of thinking have emerged around energy, climate and economic futures that take forward the ‘business as usual is not an option’ package of LTG.

A recent iteration of these debates has been prompted by Jem Bendell’s paper ‘Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy’. Bendell, a social scientist, begins his paper with an overview of findings in climate science, from which he infers the likelihood of a ‘near-term collapse in society’. Inevitably, critics have piled on various aspects of Bendell’s intervention, often citing celebrated climate scientist Michael Mann’s views on the matter. Mann described Bendell’s paper as a “perfect storm of misguidedness and wrongheadedness” in comments to Nafeez Ahmed, and then weighed in on Ahmed’s own interesting intervention as “unhelpful doomist messaging premised on poor understanding of climate science”.

I’m not fundamentally invested in Bendell or Ahmed being right, but I’m interested in the framing by Mann and those who invoke him. Mann’s understanding of climate science is surely superior to Bendell or Ahmed’s, but the focus of his comment is on ‘unhelpful doomist messaging’, which is in the realms of politics and psychology, not climate science. ‘Unhelpful’ to whom? Who should the messaging be ‘helping’, and why? What political project is compromised by ‘doomism’? And what if ‘doomist messaging’ turns out to galvanise public opinion in favour of more radical climate action?

I’d suggest that Mann’s scientific expertise lends no greater weight to his opinions on these points than to the opinions of many others, perhaps even less weight than the opinions of social scientists like Bendell and Ahmed. Actually, a sad truth of social science is that – far more than climate science – it’s really not very good at predicting anything. So while this means that the likes of Bendell probably aren’t on firm ground when they infer inevitable near-term social collapse, it also means that the likes of Mann probably aren’t on firm ground when they infer the opposite.

Talking of firm ground, research involving another celebrated climate scientist – James Hansen – suggests that sea levels may rise by as much as several metres within a century or so. With a doubling of atmospheric CO2 from its preindustrial 280ppm, average global temperature is probably set to rise, according to recent research, by 2.6-3.9 Celsius. Given the fine-tuned ‘sociopolitical complexity’ and fragile interdependencies of our modern civilization, can anyone in good faith rule out the possibility of social collapse in such circumstances? Some years ago, James Woolsey wrote that it would take an “extraordinary effort” for any country to “look beyond its own salvation” in scenarios like this. What’s interesting here is more the commenter than the comment, since Woolsey is an ex-director of the CIA, an organisation with a better track record than most at social science prediction. Doubtless this is largely because it has more power than most social scientists to turn its predictions into reality. Perhaps a presentiment of collapse is when even CIA experts throw up their hands at impending realities they can’t game their way out of.

For my part, I lack Woolsey’s crystal ball, but I’ll wrap up with a few comments for discussion on why I think it’s eminently possible that we may indeed be facing a near-term collapse in society, which I present briefly under six headings:

Economic: The present global economy is based on a model of growth that generates proportionate returns on investment. Over the last fifty years the total world economic product has grown on average by about 7% annually in real terms, standing in 2019 at about 85 trillion in constant 2010 US$. If you project that growth forwards over the next 50 years, by my calculations the global economy in 2070 will be over 30 times bigger than the present one. It seems to me pretty clear that that’s not going to happen, so the course of the global economy in the near future will be different from its course in the near past. Perhaps, looking back, future historians will describe that changed course as a collapse.

Political: In modern times, blatant inequality – more than rank poverty – fuels political turbulence. Inequalities have been getting more blatant, while politics in many parts of the world have been getting more turbulent, with the rise of various so-called populist movements, authoritarian figureheads, renewal movements and state failures. There’s a chance of declining political legitimacy and a resulting weaker reach of state power. Perhaps this could manifest in a rapid, significant loss of the established level of sociopolitical complexity. In other words, present political trends may prompt collapse.

Energetic: as I recently discussed, our present society is overwhelmingly and increasingly reliant on fossil fuels: average fossil fuel consumption per capita globally is over 1.5 tonnes of oil equivalent, and this constitutes 85% of our energy use. We need to transition out of fossil fuels, firstly (and very urgently) because they’re the main contributor to global heating, and secondly because they’re not renewable. But no transition is yet underway, and it’s hard to see how to achieve one that furnishes over 1.5 TOE per capita, especially at something similar to present energy prices. Therefore, it seems likely that in the future per capita energy availabilities will decline, along with the highly specialised and urbanised division of labour that goes with them. This could involve a rapid, significant loss of established levels of sociopolitical complexity. You know where I’m going with this, right…?

Climate: alternatively, and perhaps more likely, we might carry on relying on fossil fuels, burning our way towards 3 or 4 degrees of global heating. In this scenario, we’re talking about large sea level rises, multiple breadbasket failures, mass climate-fuelled migration, greater fire risks, greater flood risks, greater storm risks and various other related scenarios. Governments may be able to retain their territorial reach, their political legitimacy, and their ability to organise political space so as to retain established levels of sociopolitical complexity as they wrestle with these profoundly challenging issues. Then again, they may not…

Nuclear: the mutually assured nuclear destruction of the Cold War, along with its proxy conflicts, have given way in the 21st century to situations exemplified by US foreign policy in Iran, North Korea and the disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq. Nuclear proliferation is clearly in an individual state’s interest as a bulwark against US military power. But globally it makes nuclear conflict more likely. Meanwhile, the disposal problem for high-level nuclear waste has been endlessly kicked down the road, seemingly because it’s too expensive even for wealthy modern states to deal with. Imagine how difficult it might be for non-wealthy states of the future wrestling with a plethora of other problems. I’m not exactly sure what the association between modern nuclear civilization and collapse might be. But I suspect it could prove quite strong.

Infectious disease pandemic: Well, we’re in one now. But unless we’re afflicted with something as or more infectious than Covid-19 and considerably more lethal, I can’t see this as an agent of collapse in and of itself. Not even the Black Death achieved that, with its vastly higher mortality. Indeed, it was arguably a source of social renewal. Then again, the Black Death afflicted societies that didn’t have a highly urbanised and specialised division of labour, and where a large portion of the population produced their own subsistence. I doubt modern societies would be so resilient in the face of such a pandemic, which may indeed cause a rapid and significant loss of sociopolitical complexity in them.

But probably the main way in which a pandemic may work as an agent of collapse – indeed, the main way in which all of the factors mentioned above might – would be as one part of a multifactorial story. Economic decline plus political disorder plus failed energy transition plus global heating plus new health challenges (let’s not even mention nuclear issues) might easily, to borrow Michael Mann’s phrase, create a perfect storm prompting sociopolitical collapse. To rule this possibility out of our reckonings about the future seems to me a case of futurological cherry-picking or selective messaging that I can only describe as…unhelpful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of them cups her ear.

“Nah, can’t hear anything,” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

An environmentalist apologises…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

From energy transition to energy reduction

With the wholesale price for US crude oil famously, if briefly, turning negative recently, and – slightly less famously – with commenters in a thread under my last post suggesting that it’s technically straightforward to transition the existing energy system largely to renewables, it feels the time is right to address some post-lockdown and post-carbon energy realities. Let me state my three-part thesis upfront:

  1. It is not going to be easy technically or in any other way to transition the existing energy system to a low carbon one
  2. This means there will be profound changes in human societies over the coming decades
  3. It serves no sound purpose to dismiss the implications of (1) and (2) as ‘apocalyptic’

A recent paper published in Nature Climate Change and reported here seems corroboratory of my thesis in concluding that “merely adding new technologies is unlikely to bring the climate challenge under control, unless we also deliver behavioural, cultural and economic transformations” and that “technological promises allow those benefitting from the continued exploitation of fossil fuels and the comfortable lifestyles it enables to justify those practices to themselves”.

But let’s get going with a few facts and figures. Cautious estimates like those of the IPCC suggest that we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by about half within a decade and to net zero by 2050 if we’re to avoid global average temperature increases in excess of 2oC over preindustrial levels at century’s end, at which point the consequences of global heating are likely to be severely detrimental to human wellbeing (and the wellbeing of many other organisms).

GHG emissions are mostly caused by the combustion of fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal), so a key necessity for climate change mitigation is to transition the global energy economy out of fossil fuels. And the fact is, this hasn’t yet begun to happen. Globally in 1965, we consumed energy to the tune of 3,485 million tonnes of oil equivalent (TOE) from fossil fuels. By 2018 that figure had leapt to over 11,700 million TOE. And we can’t blame all this on population increase. In 1965, global fossil fuel use was 1.05 TOE per capita, whereas in 2018 it was 1.55.

These figures show that, far from a transition out of fossil fuels, our use of them has been amplifying. True, our use of lower carbon energy sources has increased at a faster rate than fossil fuels, to the extent that in 2018 the proportion of global energy consumption contributed by fossil fuels was ‘only’ 85%, whereas in 1965 it was 94%. But since we need to be sharply reducing fossil fuel use rather than increasing it, as at present, this is cold comfort. And most of the low carbon energy sources we’ve added since 1965 have been high-cost nuclear and hydroelectric projects with questionable environmental implications and limited potential for roll-out beyond a handful of countries. Only 4% of current global energy consumption comes from sources other than nuclear, hydro or fossil fuels.

This picture is set to change dramatically in the short-term with the Covid-19 crisis. Plummeting energy demand has hit the fossil energy sector disproportionately, which I’d suggest is partly because fossil fuels disproportionately service the non-electricity sector, and partly because once renewable capacity is installed the sun, wind and water that powers it cost nothing. But it would be misleading to conclude that the Covid-19 crisis is fostering an energy transition. If and when normal activity returns, so will fossil fuel use. Some people are saying that the fossil energy downturn we’re currently seeing due to Covid-19 could become the new normal. To me, that seems fanciful unless the new normal also encompasses the end of economic growth, the end of urbanization and the end of intensifying global economic linkage – and even then it may not be enough to reduce GHG emissions adequately. I’ll touch on those issues some more below, and in my next post, I hope. In the meantime, I’d suggest the present short-run decline in fossil energy use does not a renewable energy transition make.

Maybe not, the argument sometimes goes, but why look downheartedly backwards at how the energy economy has unfolded up to now when, Covid-19 or not, there are reasons to look optimistically forwards towards an impending energy transition? I guess I’d find it easier to endorse this view if there was actually any evidence that one is underway – though bearing in mind that we probably need to cut emissions in half within ten years, it’s quite possible that an energy transition that starts today is still going to be too late. I’m also mindful of Professor McLaren’s view in the Nature Climate Change article I mentioned: all this heralding of game-changing technologies that are just around the corner may amount to little more than greenwashing of current high energy lifestyles.

But let’s try to get a bit more of a handle on the energy transition that’s needed. Take a look at this table:

 

Year – 2018 GDP/capita (US$) Fossil energy consumption (TOE per capita) % Energy consumption from fossil fuels
USA 62,790 5.94 84
Australia 57,400 5.33 92
Canada 46,230 6.04 65
UK 42,940 2.29 79
Malaysia 11,370 2.97 94
China 9,770 2.00 85
South Africa 6,370 2.01 96
Indonesia 3,890 0.67 96
Vietnam 2,570 0.71 79
India 2,010 0.55 92
Bangladesh 1,700 0.22 99
World 11,310 1.55 85

Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019 and World Development Indicators

Most of the heralding for an energy transition I encounter comes in the form of small-to-medium scale investment in new electricity capacity in rich countries, where for a whole host of reasons the smart investment money undoubtedly is in renewables. And don’t get me wrong – I largely welcome such moves. I’ve even moved there myself, with my farm’s electricity, space, water-heating and (shortly) some of its transport running off renewables. But to make a convincing argument that we’re on the brink of a sustainable energy transition, small-scale electricity investment in rich countries is irrelevant. Instead, you need to put yourself in the shoes of the government in South Africa, or Bangladesh, or Indonesia, or various other global powerhouses of economic growth and industrialization shown in the table above, and then explain how they’re going to junk most of their energy sectors over the next decade or two and substitute the same level of energy capacity from low carbon sources. You need to explain how they’ll prematurely decommission their fossil energy infrastructures and create new ones affordably with per capita GDPs somewhere between about a sixth and a fortieth of US levels. And you need to explain why they’d be willing to sign up to this transition, when much richer countries are using proportionately far more fossil energy while failing to transition themselves.

There are levels and levels here that make the prospects for such a transition profoundly slim. Close connections between governments and the fossil energy industry varying from institutional inertia through to outright graft rightly gain attention from environmentalists, but are only the most superficial problem – though, even so, we seem to keep electing governments like the Trump administration or the Conservatives in the UK with absurdly pro-fossil fuel policies. The global inequities I mentioned that make it unlikely poorer countries will transition is another major problem. But even with the will, the sheer difficulty of transitioning an entire national and international economy and its infrastructure is formidable. If you’re looking to install a few megawatts of new electricity capacity, renewables may well be the cheapest route. It doesn’t follow that junking our global 11.7 billion TOE fossil energy capacity in favour of renewables is likewise cheaper.

We easily fall into the trap of saying that the obstacles to transition are ‘only’ political, and not technical. We might just as well say that the feasibility of transitioning is ‘only’ technical, but not practical – because not political. But I’m not even sure that a transition is technically feasible. Take solar electricity generation, which is widely touted as the best renewable option. To cut fossil fuel use by half globally in the next decade in favour of solar electricity, we’d have to increase global consumption of the latter from present levels forty-four fold in those ten years. To be persuaded that such a transition is even technically possible, I’d need to see some kind of plausibly costed manufacturing, siting and implementation plan, not generalities about how we’re on the brink of an energy revolution, or about how the marginal cost of installing small new renewable capacity is lower than for fossil fuels.

Likewise, to make a plausible case that a business-as-usual global economy can be sustained by renewables, it’s necessary to show not that it’s possible to smelt iron or manufacture fertilizer with renewable energy (it is) but that it’s possible to produce the 1.3 billion tonnes of steel or 120 million tonnes of N fertilizer manufactured annually at something like present prices, along with the numerous other products that currently make the (human) world go round as it does.

Of course, there’s a logical flaw in my statement above that to cut fossil fuels by half we’d need to install an equivalent amount of solar capacity. Instead, we could cut fossil fuels by half and not replace them with anything. Once we start thinking in terms of decreasing energy use, a new world of possibilities opens up. This, far more than any low carbon energy source du jour, is surely the real game changer.

So, looking again at the table above, let’s forget the 6.0 TOE of fossil energy used by each Canadian resident, or the 2.3 used by each UK one, or the 2.0 by each Chinese one or the 1.55 used by the ‘average’ citizen of the world. Let’s aim for something lower – very much lower, in the case of some countries. Can we achieve it just through efficiency savings? If so, please show me how. Because really I think the debate we need to be having, which is badly overdue, is what kind of different world a low energy world would look like. What kind of farming would we have? What kind of industry? What kind of health and social care? What kind of settlement patterns?

I’m not going to get into that here. I’ve written about it before, I’ve written about it in my forthcoming book, and hopefully I’ll write about it again. My view is that if we play a skillful hand, that kind of world could be more congenial for more people than the present one. And of course, the technical difficulties of using less energy are slighter than those of replacing fossil energy with renewables. The political difficulties remain profound. So that’s where we need to concentrate most of our efforts, not in dreaming up implausible scenarios for how to replace 11.7 billion TOE fossil fuel consumption with low carbon alternatives. The political difficulties of energy descent are much lessened globally if the small number of rich and powerful countries that use way above their share of fossil fuels become demonstrably committed to rapid energy descent. Which puts considerable onus politically on those of us who live in such countries.

Regrettably, I’m doubtful that we’ll actually see such an energy descent. I daresay there’ll be some fiddling around the edges, which might put us a bit lower than the 3.7-4.8oC heating over preindustrial temperatures by century’s end that we’re currently headed towards, but I’m not convinced it’ll be by enough to avoid apocalyptic outcomes. And I’d suggest that anyone who scorns the word ‘apocalyptic’ to describe 3.7-4.8oC heating probably isn’t paying attention.

But supposing we do achieve adequate energy descent. Doubtless there’ll be those who’ll consider the resulting world of labour-intensive horticulture, localized economies, ruralization and deindustrialization apocalyptic, or some variant of those other shopworn standbys – romantic, nostalgic or primitivist. But in all honesty I think it’s these folks who are living in the past. This is the world we now need to work towards, and to make as congenial as we can. It’s not a world with no industry or no machinery. Techno-utopians tend to pose dualities of the form if not a John Deere X9, then a stone sickle. This isn’t the choice we face. But we do face hard choices, and they won’t get easier if we waste time heralding the latest save-our-ass technology and deriding those working towards an adequately low energy future for their apocalypticism.

Earlier, I said that I largely welcome efforts to transition into renewables. I also said that we need to put most of our efforts into the politics of that transition, and to initiate an overdue debate about the kind of lower energy worlds we might create. Here’s why. Inasmuch as those working directly on implementing low carbon energy technologies pull in the same direction as those working politically to create more equitable, lower energy societies, then we gain strength from each other and make a fair and sustainable world more likely. Inasmuch as those working directly on implementing low carbon energy technologies prioritize replacing the existing fossil energy infrastructure with an equivalent low carbon one, then our efforts will probably be mutually undermining. My request to those working in the renewable energy industry is to ask themselves before undertaking any new project: “Will this help people to live a lower energy lifestyle than they previously did?” – which, regrettably, is not something we can say of the low carbon energy installed globally to date. If they can’t answer yes to the question, I’d request they dump the project and seek another one. It’s urgent.

The three causes of global ecocide

In a recent post I questioned the well-known formula: Human Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology. But I don’t question that humans now have a severe impact on earth systems. So if not PAT, then what? Here I’m going to lay out some other factors that I suggest underlie our impact and our present predicament in a more fundamental sense than the PAT variables. They’re also three in number – but I’m going to present them as a historical narrative, not a mathematical formula.

The first (and historically prior) cause of global ecocide, I suggest, is large-scale grain agriculture. It’s come in many variants, but the typical package – worked out long ago – involves a cereal and a grain legume for human and livestock feed, and a domestic animal (usually a ruminant, especially cattle) for transport, traction, fat, food, fibre and fertility management.

Nowadays, we often criticize this package in its modern form of ‘industrialized agriculture’ for its negative effects on the biosphere – soil erosion, water pollution, GHG emissions and so on. Indeed, these are all big problems. But the point I want to emphasize is not these potential failures of large-scale grain agriculture so much as its spectacular success in feeding humans in their multitudes. Under my aforementioned post, we were talking about the problem of ‘over-population’ and the ecological tendency for organisms (including humans) to multiply in response to energetic possibilities. So perhaps here’s our modern environmental tragedy in an ear of grain. The heavy energy and protein punch packed by a grain field enables humans to multiply. Not only that, but grain agriculture also allows many among the human multitudes it supports to devote themselves to things other than wresting a thin living from an unforgiving earth. And, as it turns out, a favored pursuit among these other things is wrecking the biosphere. It’s in what grain potentiates so easily that its real tragedy is revealed.

Wait, though. Potentiates, maybe – but is it inevitable? Not according to James Scott in his much-admired recent book Against The Grain. Neither according to Jennifer Pournelle in a short but scintillating review of Scott’s book, sympathetic but critical – six pages of coruscating thought that I’ve read four times without yet even beginning to plumb their depths. Between them, Scott and Pournelle point out that sedentism predated agriculture, grain domestication predated the rise of large-scale states and agricultures by several millennia – and that the earliest states weren’t grain states but forest or wetland garden states1. Can we say that grain farming inevitably led to modern ecocide, that people were fated to follow its high-energy path? No, I don’t think so. But Scott makes a plausible case for affinities between cereal agriculture and expansionary, centralized states. Today we’re living with that affinity – maybe dying with it too.

Is there another way? Yes. We could grow annual grains in “sparsely distributed garden-sized patches” with “limited negative impact”. So say authors from the Land Institute in Kansas, who are trying to develop perennial grain crops. Or at least said. When I published an article questioning their work, they seemed to row back from this point – asserting in essence that using annual crops almost always compromises the soil. Such ideas have percolated in more coarsened forms into the thought of permaculture ultras who disparage annual cropping of any kind – like Mark Shepard, who bizarrely claims that “Every human society from the temperate zone to the tropics that has relied on annuals to feed itself, is now gone”2.

Ah well, there’s a lot to be said for experimenting with perennial cropping systems – so long as one avoids hyperbole of this kind that too often seems to accompany it. Meanwhile, I’d suggest that those of us who grow annual grains in sparsely distributed garden-sized patches should carry on. There are too many of us to feed by throwing caution to the wind and investing in speculative chestnut-and-wild-garlic wheezes. I doubt we’d be despoiling the planet quite so successfully if it wasn’t for annual grains, but they’re not the fundamental problem.

What, then, is? Candidate number two, which came to the party much later than annual grains, is capitalism. There are many ways to define capitalism, but here I’ll offer one that borrows heavily from Wolfgang Streeck3: capitalism is a way of organizing societies where social wellbeing is secured largely as an unintended side-effect of competitive profit maximization in pursuit of capital accumulation. Hence, economies that brook no limit that anyone might wish to place upon them. Hence, too, economies that are constantly looking to expand. For an early capitalist country like England, only so much expansion was possible by trying to squeeze more out of domestic agriculture or manufacturing – ‘capitalism in one country’ is scarcely possible, and in fact capitalism has always been primarily about global trading networks.

One innovation this involved was raising credit in stupendous quantities through mechanisms like joint stock companies. The potential rewards of fitting out a transcontinental merchant fleet were high, but so were the risks, and the delay in cashing out. Humans have long dealt in symbolic economic thought (“I’ll sow these seeds now, then at the end of the season I’ll be able to sell the crop and use the money to buy a new wagon”) but the logic of capital was a kind of event horizon for symbolic thought that completely outstripped anything grounding it in local biophysical realities.

Also, a big part of the reason why global trade was so much more lucrative for capitalists than local trade was that if the lucre wasn’t actual lucre extracted from metal mines it was raised on the back of ill-rewarded labour elsewhere – in other words, capitalism has gone hand in hand with colonialism. The modern pro-capitalist argument is that the increase of capital benefits everyone, even if it benefits some more than others – ‘a rising tide floats all boats’. But – to press the metaphor – capital accumulation also works by scuppering many of the smaller boats, preventing their rise. In these circumstances, the smaller boats sometimes try to organize and collectively build a dry dock. Building such a dry dock is now an urgent global necessity.

So is capitalism, raised on the back of cheap grain farming, the true culprit in our global ecocidal tragedy? I’d argue yes, pretty much. The event horizon of its accumulative urge gives the modern economy its endless, earth systems-busting motion. If capitalism in one country was never possible, it’s now becoming apparent that capitalism on one planet is no longer possible, as the ecological footprinters have demonstrated – hence the growing enthusiasm for asteroid-mining, space colonization and other such tomfoolery.

But the story’s incomplete as it stands. Capitalism invites anti-capitalism. Colonialism invites anti-colonialism. It’s unlikely the European seaborne capitalist empires would have persisted long-term in the face of local opposition. Indeed, think only Thomas Jefferson, Touissant Louverture, Simón Bolívar. True, the capitalist worm was already in many of these buds – for example, the cotton capitalism of the US south versus the industrial capitalism of the north, with Jefferson’s small farm republic a mere daydream. Even so, ultimately it seems possible that the capitalist imperative would have exhausted itself in its expansionary efforts, prompting its own political negation, then reaching political equilibrium, and therefore dying.

The fact that this hasn’t yet (quite) happened is surely down to our third culprit – fossil fuels. On the one hand, immense world-transforming energetic power. On the other, immense world-transforming pollution. Also, heavily non-random distribution in the Earth’s crust, and usually major technical obstacles to extracting them. The result of all this, in a nutshell, was an enormous boost to the already-dominant capitalist countries who were able to corner the windfall and make the whole world over in their desired image. That doesn’t mean history stopped. The last few decades have seen the balance of global economic power shift somewhat towards Asia, China in particular – possibly the herald of epochal change, possibly not. And of course, China’s rise is also fossil-fuelled.

In fact, it was in China that fossil fuels were first used industrially – to smelt iron, starting some 2,000 years ago. But it’s only in the last century or so that fossil fuel combustion has come to haunt us ecocidally. Hence, just as the adoption of grain and sedentism long predated their use by expansionary centralized states that weaponized them as ecocidal agents, so did the adoption of fossil fuels long predate their use by still more expansionary capitalist states that likewise weaponized them. Humanity wasn’t necessarily fated to undermine the conditions of its own flourishing by the profligate combustion of fossil fuels. Capitalist humanity perhaps was.

Once again, proponents of fossil-fuelled capitalism point out the ‘rising tide’ of universal human benefit brought by cheap energy and compounding capital – without, I think, attending enough to the disbenefits that it’s also brought along the way. But perhaps more salient is a look towards the future than the past. For the capitalist economy to persist, it needs to grow – a ballpark figure for ‘healthy’ capitalist growth is 3% per annum. For earth systems to persist in anything like the form that our societies have developed to cope with, we need to stop combusting fossil fuels – minimally to net zero by 2070. Projecting 3% global economic growth to 2070 suggests that the economy by that date will have to be more than four times larger than the world economy of 2018, and it’ll have to find these extra three worlds of economic activity while reducing fossil fuel use from today’s almost 12 billion tonnes of oil equivalent used annually worldwide to zero. Nobody has yet explained to me convincingly, or even sketchily, how this can possibly happen. Which is probably why world leaders talk piously about carbon-cutting, but don’t actually do it. Not until viruses do it for them, at any rate.

So if I were to write an equation concerning humanity’s planetary impact, I’d write it in the form of the historical narrative above and not a mathematical identity. But if my hand was forced into equation mongering, I’d write an equation thus:

Human Ecological Impact = Grain Farming + Capitalism + Fossil Fuels

Historical counterfactuals are only parlour games, but there are things to be learned from games. So I’d suggest we can read this equation forwards historically. Without grain farming, we wouldn’t have capitalism or significant fossil fuel use. Most of us (and that would be many fewer than our current 7.7 billion) would probably be forest gardeners, perhaps accommodating ourselves to the numerous, Lilliputian statelets proliferating across the world, or more likely trying to dodge them.

With grain farming but without capitalism, most of us would probably be living in large commercial kingdoms under the thumb of centralized states, and we’d mostly be jostling to find poorly-paid work on farms, or in domestic service, or in the military – who would probably not be short of engagements.

With the full set of grain farming and capitalism and fossil fuels, most of us are jostling to find poorly-paid non-farm work, some of us have a wealth and global reach almost beyond the imagining of premodern peoples (but perhaps not quite: think Adam, think Prometheus), most of us are pretty poor, and earth systems are starting to collapse around us.

What if we read the equation historically backwards? It’s clear we need to ditch the fossil fuels before we’re overwhelmed by our own impacts. I somehow doubt we will, but hope springs eternal. If we do, then that will most likely take care of capitalism too, and good riddance to it – but it probably won’t disappear gracefully unless we attend vigorously to what comes after. For me, the best scenario for what comes after would involve something akin to the non-capitalist commercial kingdoms I mentioned above, but judiciously leavened with the best of the ancient and the best of the modern. From the ancient (and I mean really ancient), I propose semi-autonomous, small-scale forest gardening combining a judicious mix of perennial and annual plants, including grains in sparsely distributed garden-sized patches. From the not quite so ancient I propose a mostly civic republican politics of recognition – which I think is compatible with a more modern sense of individual human rights and due process that might just help see us through the travails to come with a minimum of bloodshed. From the modern also, I propose whatever life-enhancing technologies we’re able to carry with us – and agree upon – from the present. The difficulty, perhaps, is in agreeing on what ‘able to’ means, and in fully accounting for its costs.

It’s often assumed that ‘capitalism’ has given us modern marvels like clean water, heart triple bypass surgery or the joys (?) of online communication – a point that’s used to berate anti-capitalists for their supposed hypocrisy or primitivism. Actually, the relationship between capitalism and technology is much murkier. But it’s true that capitalism generates large economic surpluses, some of which have been devoted to life-enhancing inventions. In a post-fossil-fuelled, post-carbon future, generating economic surplus is likely to be challenging, so we’ll want to be careful what we do with it. In such a world, low carbon, labour-intensive work would be emphasized – so a world of small-scale farmers, market-stall holders, teachers, doctors and other health workers, social carers, and craftspeople. I’d argue that the most important task before us right now for lowering our impact – including lowering the impact of our choices on later generations – is to be midwives for delivering that world as quickly and as smoothly as possible. Reducing work opportunities for actual midwives seems to me rather less important.

Notes

  1. James Scott. 2017. Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. Yale University Press; Jennifer Pournelle. 2019. “Fields, gardens and staple states,” Journal of Peasant Studies 46, 4: 878-84.
  2. See variously: Lee DeHaan et al. 2007. “Perennial grains,” in Sara Scherr and Jeffrey McNeely (Eds) Farming with Nature: The Science and Practice of Ecoagriculture, Island Press; Timothy Crews and Lee DeHaan. 2015. “The strong perennial vision: a response”. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems 39, 5: 500-515. Chris Smaje. 2015. “The strong perennial vision: a critical review,” Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems 39, 5: 471-99; Shepard, Mark. 2013. Restoration Agriculture: Real-World Permaculture for Farmers. Acres USA.
  3. Wolfgang Streeck. 2016. How Will Capitalism End? Verso.

What if we only ate food from local farms?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

oOo

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

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

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