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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New deals, old bottles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

An eco-futurist miscellany

More on organic farming, trade-offs, energy futures and small-farm definitions in this post. Veritably, it’s your one stop shop for a pick ‘n’ mix of eco-futurism…partly because indeed I have a few addendums to report on recent posts, and partly because despite my flippant recent remarks, I’m a bit too busy on the farm and on other things just now to put together a properly structured post.

So, first on organic farming, reflecting back on my previous post, I fear that despite my criticisms of the ecomodernists and their ‘land sparing’ agenda, I still accepted at face value a little too much of their lofty San Francisco research institute view of the world in it. My mistake was to concede without demur the claim that organic farming has lower yields and a greater land take for leys. Leafing through Peter Rosset and Miguel Altieri’s new book1, plus re-reading a paper by Catherine Badgley and co-authors2 (one of whom is Jahi Chappell, a valued contributor to this site) reminds me that organic yields are typically lower than conventional ones in wealthy countries but higher in poor countries.

The way I’d gloss this finding is that in rich countries ‘conventional’ farming is usually a high input – high output undertaking with per acre yields approaching yield potential, whereas in poor countries much ‘conventional’ farming is undertaken by poor people on small plots who can’t afford expensive inputs like fertiliser. So it’s usually a low input – low output undertaking. The introduction of various ‘organic’ and agroecological techniques – leguminous cover cropping, multi-cropping, mulching etc. – helps increase yields, so in these countries ‘organic’ farming (broadly conceived) helps move farmers toward low input – higher output systems. The two citations above provide numerous examples.

Given that a good deal of farming globally is of this conventional low input – low output kind in poor countries, I think the Blaustein-Rejto and Blomqvist article I was critiquing in my last post erred in not reckoning with this fact. And so did I. Mea culpa. I suspect it changes considerably the global picture they were trying to paint. Unless of course you take the view that poor farmers ought to get out of farming altogether and leave it to the big boys with the NPK…which pretty much does seem to be the Breakthrough Institute line. It’s not one I happen to agree with. But that’s another story.

Another line of enquiry on this point was raised in Joshua Msika’s comment that small farms produce the bulk of the world’s food. I mentioned in reply that a figure of 70-80% of the world’s food is often cited as the contribution of small and family farms, but the origins of the figure were ‘obscure’. I did a bit more digging around on this issue (mostly in the folder on my hard drive named ‘Small farm productivity’ – sometimes I marvel that my meticulous organisation is exceeded only by my forgetfulness) and found such figures in this report from the UN’S Food and Agriculture Organisation, and this one from the ETC Group. This report from GRAIN also weighs in on the issue.

Bear in mind, though, that a family farm isn’t necessarily that small by global standards. And that much of the food produced isn’t traded – so I think my original argument stands. Gunnar Rundgren made the interesting point that these figures may no longer hold true with the economic rise of India and China, where most of the world’s small farms have been located. Though working my way through Jan Douwe Van Der Ploeg’s Peasants and the Art of Farming3 as I currently am, I note that he talks of a ‘return’ to small family farms in China and Southeast Asia. Just as one line of enquiry closes, another one opens up… (By the way, Gunnar – your book is now near the top of my ‘to read’ pile…sorry I’ve been so slow).

Finally on the question of organic farming, here’s a shout out from Small Farm Future to the organic movement. There are plenty of people gunning for it in the world of conventional farming – as exemplified by the Breakthrough Institute article. And there are plenty of people gunning for it in the world of alternative or regenerative agriculture too. For sure, it’s not above criticism on numerous fronts. But the organic movement was talking about cover cropping, biodiversity and the importance of healthy soil and soil life – which pretty much everyone now agrees is important, even if they disagree on how to achieve it and how to balance the trade-offs involved – decades before most of us jumped onto those bandwagons. A little bit of credit where it’s due seems in order.

Ah, trade-offs – an interesting issue discussed by Andy and David under my last post. Above, I mentioned low input – low output farming and high input high – output farming. Wouldn’t we all love to practice low input – high output farming? Well, as Andy and David suggested, like many too-good-to-be-true, everyone’s-a-winner schemes, such systems are proclaimed often enough in print but are harder to find on the ground. Thomas Sowell’s adage “there are no ‘solutions’, only trade-offs” has a lot of force to it. Is he overstating his case? Possibly. But I think win-win situations indeed are harder to find than we often suppose.

In biological/agronomic contexts I was influenced on this point by Ford Denison’s book Darwinian Agriculture4 – Denison argued, convincingly I think, that it’s unlikely we’ll find simple win-win agricultural improvements that have been missed by millions of years of natural selection (and, I might add, thousands of years of human selection). Which is not to say that no improvements are possible. Wild grasses will never greatly improve their harvest index until they form a parliament and agree a long stalk non-proliferation treaty. But humans have done that job for them, for certain wild grasses at any rate, turning them from wild grasses to domesticates like wheat in the process, but it’s not a win-win…still less a win-win-win (ie. an improvement for all humans, all grasses, and all other organisms). There have been numerous downsides to the agricultural revolution.

I was musing about this point after being alerted to this paper by Snapp et al, which cites my own paper ‘The strong perennial vision’ with an implicit criticism, as follows: “Opportunity costs associated with the low grain yield relative to the high harvest index of annual crops are one of the most persistent critiques of perennial crops (Smaje, 2015). Agronomic evaluation of perennial analogues of annual wheat and rye suggest a substantial yield penalty….This is not surprising as, to date, minimal investments have been made in breeding perennial forms of annual crop species.”

Well, I’d rather be cited critically than not at all…but, hang on a minute, isn’t there a direction of causality issue here? As I see it, there isn’t a yield penalty because there’s been minimal breeding investment. There’s been minimal breeding investment because there’s a yield penalty, for reasons that are pretty hard-wired ecologically, and eminently understandable: as detailed in my paper, there’s a strong trade-off between longevity and harvest index, so the chances of producing a perennial grain as high yielding as annual grains is low. Farmers through the ages didn’t choose annual grains for productivity over perennials out of some random caprice but because they didn’t want to waste their time. In their response to my original paper5, the Land Institute picked me off on a few minor points and raised the valid issue of genetic load, but avoided the core issue of ecological rather than energetic trade-offs. That’s not to say that there isn’t a role for lower-yielding perennial grains (I have no problems with the weak rather than the strong perennial vision), but for those seeking a trade-off free substitution of annual for perennial agriculture…well, I’d advise packing a sleeping bag, because I think your journey will prove a lengthy one.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying, yup, there are no ‘solutions’, only trade-offs. One up to Sowell.

But what about win-wins in the social rather than the natural world? Quite simply, I find it hard to imagine any real-world policy that everybody in the world would universally think was a good idea. So too did Vilfredo Pareto, one of the founding fathers of Sowell’s discipline, economics, so he decided to give up without even trying. Economists define Pareto optimality as a situation in which nobody can be made better off without making someone worse off – an equilibrium point of maximum efficiency. No doubt it’s a comfort to those allocated next to nothing by the global economy to know that at least by Pareto’s lights the economy is an ‘efficient’ one. Pareto did more than most to take the ‘political’ out of political economy and help to birth a pseudo-scientific ‘economics’ with which the world has been saddled ever since. The (temporary?) eclipse of socialism, and even social democracy, with their theories of inherent class conflicts that vitiate any inherent win-win solutions to social trade-offs, has pushed us into a technocratic and solutionist world where issues like poverty and climate change are seen as technical matters of policy-making – but the incoherence of this view and the long-term troubles they’re storing up seem ever more apparent, as is nicely illustrated by Jason Hickel’s book The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions that I’m also working my way through at the moment. Hickel does a fine demolition job on the World Bank’s development indicators that I’ve been happily crunching numbers on in recent weeks, arguing that its claims about global poverty reduction that have become common coin nowadays are spurious. More on this soon, perhaps. Inasmuch as a good deal of the debate on my website of late has revolved around the slogan ‘it’s the soil, stupid’ I propose to move on to the contention that ‘it’s the politics, stupid’.

Anyway, Small Farm Future says embrace inherent conflict. Embrace trade-offs. Two up to Sowell.

Moving on to energy, I’ve been catching up with Chris Goodall’s carbon commentary blog. This passage caught my eye:

“Difficult not to be disappointed by the latest IEA figures on energy use. A decline in the rate of improvement in efficiency meant that global energy use rose 2.1% last year, twice the rate of 2017. Although renewables grew faster than any other energy source, they only provided about one quarter of the increase in overall demand. Oil use expanded, principally because of an increase in the sales of bigger cars, and coal burning increased, mostly for electricity generation. Coal use had fallen in the previous two years. Most tellingly of all, fossil fuels still provide 81% of global energy, a figure similar to the level of 3 decades ago.”

I was briefly tempted by Goodall’s book The Switch to entertain the notion of an emerging post-carbon energy revolution in the form of photovoltaics, but here perhaps he strikes a more realistic tone? On the other hand, David wrote under my last post about a once in a century paradigm shift currently occurring with renewables. I’m a mere amateur in these matters, but I’m interested in tracking the debate. Certainly, renewables are growing (I’m seeing lots of exponential-looking graphs about newly installed year-on-year renewables capacity in publications like the New Scientist, but I can’t quite shake off the feeling that an awful lot more of not very much is still not very much). If there’s a revolution occurring it’s not yet making it into gross global energy statistics. A few weeks back I noted Vaclav Smil’s marvellously fence-sitting observation of “two contradictory expectations concerning the energy basis of modern society: chronic conservatism (lack of imagination?) regarding the power of technical innovation, set against repeatedly exaggerated claims made on behalf of new energy sources”. Which side to jump?

And finally I’ve had various interesting communications about my post on the small farm as a ‘self-systemic’ entity – some positive, some negative. Thanks to everyone who’s contributed, even if I was less gracious than I might have been in response to some of the more negative comments. I think I failed to convey clearly enough exactly what I wanted to in that post. So I’m going to have another go at defining the small farm soon…when I get a break from the farming. In the meantime my working definition of a small-scale farmer is someone who’s too busy farming to write blog posts about how to define the small farm.

Notes

 1. Rosset, P. & Altieri, M. 2017. Agroecology: Science and Politics. Fernwood Publishing.

2. Badgley, C. et al. 2007. Organic agriculture and the global food supply. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. 22, 2: 86-108.

3. Van Der Ploeg, Jan Douwe. 2013. Peasants and the Art of Farming. Fernwood Publishing.

4. Denison, F. 2012. Darwinian Agriculture. Princeton UP.

5. Crews, T. et al. 2015. The strong perennial vision: a response. Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems 39: 500-15.

Energy prospects: little to Smil about?

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

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

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

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

 1. Peak oil

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

2. Fossil fuel

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

3. Energy transitions

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

4. Nuclear power

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

5. Cities

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

6. Agricultural involution

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

7. Materiality and social status

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

Three acres and a cow

My title comes from a 19th century English song, which includes this verse…

If all the land in England was divided up quite fair / There would be work for everyone to earn an honest share / Well some have thousand acre farms which they have got somehow / But I’ll be satisfied to get three acres and a cow

…but more immediately, it comes from a great evening of folksong and storytelling I heard recently in which Robin Grey and Katherine Hallewell told – well, not quite the history of the world in 10½ blog posts so much as the history of the fight for access to land by ordinary people in Britain in 11 lovely folk songs. If you get a chance to see the show, I’d thoroughly recommend it (and for those in my neck of the woods, it’s returning to Frome on 10 March). It’s not quite as comprehensive as my recent historithon here at Small Farm Future, but it’s a darned sight more tuneful.

The main aim of this post, though, isn’t to talk about the show so much as to pick up on a couple of themes hanging over from various previous posts and post cycles. In particular, I want to address a point that Ruben made in a comment concerning the need for a sustainable post-capitalist society to produce an agrarian surplus in order to fund a division of labour and thus a viably diverse social order. I want to marry it with what I called my 99/1 test (in which a food-farm system is defined as sustainable if it can persist with 99% of food sourced from within 10 miles of any given retail point and with fossil energy use set at 1% of the current level). Clem suggested a 90/10 test might be more apposite, so I propose to (roughly) split the difference and apply a 95/5 test – though actually in the analysis here I’m going to ignore retail provenance altogether, implicitly assuming that it’s 100% local.

In later posts, I’ll discuss the sociological aspects of what such low energy post-capitalist farm societies might look like. But here I want to revisit my Peasant’s Republic of Wessex analysis and consider what such a society might look like out in the fields. Somewhat like three acres and a cow, as it turns out. Or at least three acres and a quarter of a cow.

I’ve identified two sources for current levels of in-field fossil energy use in British farming. This one reckons it at 17 litres of diesel per hectare per year, and this one at 127 litres – a rather alarming discrepancy. Ah well, let’s take the mean (72 litres) and then reduce it by 95%. That gives us about 3.6 litres of diesel to grow our crops each year on a nominal hectare. I’m going to assume two people working full-time year-round producing a basic range of crops appropriate to the southwest English climate to feed themselves and anyone else they can, given those diesel and labour parameters. And I’m going to assume they’ll be growing organically (no sneaky additional energy embodied in fertiliser). On that basis, what I’d probably do is grow a grass/clover ley which I’d till in with a small 2-wheel tractor and grow potatoes as my main staple crop (in reality I might grow some wheat as well, but my personal experiments with small-scale wheat growing haven’t amounted to much, and I don’t have good local yield figures for such systems). I know tillage isn’t exactly the flavour of the month at the moment and I’ll be talking more about that in my upcoming post on carbon farming, but my feeling is that in a super-low energy situation it’s probably the optimum solution to the equation of land, labour and yield. If you think you could do as well with a no till system, then fine – you can use your diesel for something else…such as hauling around all the compost you’ll most likely be making.

Anyway, so much for the tillage. The rest of my production would be done with hand (or foot) tools (I’m ignoring energy embodied in small tools, and the various bits of agri-plastic I’d undoubtedly be blagging for mulch). Plus whatever animal or human help I could muster. Note that my focus here is on producing a healthy subsistence, and not on high value leafy crops as is the present lot of most small-scale market growers.

OK, maybe I’m pushing the limits here but on that basis I think I could probably cultivate about a quarter of an acre (0.11ha) of potatoes as part of a seven course field rotation with a two year ley. I’d also grow a garden with six 20m beds, including one ley. I’d have a small fruit orchard of a little under 0.1ha, with some grazing beneath the trees. I’d have a 300m2 strawberry patch, a few bee hives, and a few hens. I’d also grow some mushrooms on logs. If that was pretty much the extent of my holding I wouldn’t have enough grazing for a dairy cow, but my orchard and leys would be enough for a quarter of a house cow so I’d share one (and the associated calf meat) with three other farmers. In practice, I’d probably grow a somewhat more diverse mixture of things (rather than, say, 300m2 of pure strawberries), but I think the above will do as an illustrative example.

So there we have it. That little lot should keep me and my beloved busy enough over a year.

If I plug all that into my Peasant’s Republic of Wessex spreadsheet, which has been sitting around looking reproachfully idle on my desktop for many months now, then we get the following expected average yields: about 2 tonnes of potatoes, 4 tonnes of cabbages, 0.2 tonnes of drying beans, 4 tonnes of carrots, 4 tonnes of squash, generally around 100kg of various garden vegetables, 0.5 tonnes of apples, 0.2 tonnes of strawberries, 67kg of hazels, 1250 eggs, 800 litres of milk, 70kg of beef, 10kg of chicken and game, and 25kg of honey. Perhaps a little too much to expect of two people with minimal fossil fuel inputs in an organic system, but I think possibly doable in a well-established and well-managed system. Comments welcome.

Adding up the total land take of the setup I described above turns out a figure of 0.92 hectares (2.3 acres). So if you added some space for a house, outbuildings, tracks, hedges and perhaps a bit of woodland, you’d be close to Robin and Katherine’s 3 acre figure, though sadly you’d only have quarter of a cow.

Setting those productivity figures against recommended yearly intakes across my five chosen nutritional indicators (energy, protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Magnesium and Iron) the surplus productivity of my two farmworkers varies across the indicators – the surplus is highest for Vitamin A, where they produce enough for the adequate nourishment of 209 souls, and lowest for energy, where they produce enough only for just over 11 people (11.5).

So taking that lowest figure of 11 per hectare as the productive limit of this system and assuming that all arable land is cultivated in this way we find that the system could feed 91% of the current population of the southwest and 75% of the current population of England as a whole. If we extend it into all the farmland currently down to permanent pasture (but not rough grazing) we could feed 310% of the current southwest population and 147% of the whole England population. This excludes the extra potential productivity from rough grazing, domestic gardens and other currently non-agricultural green spaces. In other words, feeding the country in this way is a doddle. The reason it meets nutritional requirements so comfortably in comparison to my previous ‘Peasants’ Republic of Wessex’ exercise is because in the latter case I went with a livestock-heavy system based on the existing balance of grassland and cropland, whereas here I’ve gone for a more George Monbiot-friendly system with minimal livestock. Though, unlike George’s preferred approach to meat, at least my livestock have legs – or one leg, anyway. To be honest, I think the kind of setup I’m describing here would be more likely to occur in low energy future scenarios than the livestock-heavy approach I previously took, though there’d still be a lot of room around the edges of it for domestic poultry, neighbourhood pig clubs etc. There’d probably need to be, since there’s not otherwise much usable fat or oil in this three acres diet. And rather than courting controversy as I did last time around by trying to produce a non-fossil fuel full energy budget for such a society, I’m drawn to the simplicity of this one. Assume 5% of current energy use across all sectors and go figure…

But I’d like to make a couple of brief remarks on how I’d go figure it. Farmers, like everyone else, generally take the easiest option available under the constraints they face. In situations where land is plentiful but labour is constrained (labour constraint being effectively the same as energy constraint) the easy option is meat-heavy pastoralism. In situations where land is constrained but labour is plentiful, the easy option is grain-heavy arable. In situations where both land and labour are constrained, as here, the easiest option would probably look something like what I’ve just described – a meat-light mixed cropping approach with as little arable as you can get away with, which would probably be a lot more than you’d ideally like.

Vaclav Smil writes that no country with an annual energy consumption under 5 GJ/person can guarantee the basic necessities of life to everyone, whereas some societies oriented to egalitarian resource distribution can provide for an adequate life at around 40-50 GJ/person1. If the UK’s total energy consumption was decreased by 95% it would put us at around 4.5 GJ/person.

The 95/5 test would seem to suggest a wicked, twisted road ahead. Maybe it’s too stringent? I’m somewhat agnostic about the shape of humanity’s energy future, but it never hurts to plan conservatively…

In terms of the farming population, two people feeding 11.5 people would give us 17% of the population directly working in farming, but if we calculate it on the basis of present labour norms with those aged <18 or >65 excluded from the labour force, the figure is about 31% in farming. If such a situation came to pass in practice I think we could relax the 18-65 active labourer definition a little, so perhaps we could assume farmers would constitute about 25% of the population – similar to current levels in countries like Iran, Ecuador, Tunisia and Uzbekistan. The current level in the UK is about 2%, though this isn’t really a comparable figure because we export a lot of the responsibility for producing our food to farmers in other countries. Still, if we decided that we should produce all our food in this way, we’d have to start shifting about 23 people out of every 100 from their current employment into farming. Any suggestions as to which job sectors the Ministry of Agricultural Redeployment in the Peasants’ Republic should concentrate on will be gratefully received.

Incidentally, I shall be on internet detox over the weekend so no further comments or responses from me until next week.

Notes

  1. Vaclav Smil. 2017. Energy and Civilization: A History. MIT Press, p.358ff.

The hypocrisy of environmentalists and the need for economic growth

Environmentalists are hypocrites, right? They condemn all sorts of behaviours like driving cars or taking plane flights in which they themselves indulge, and they want to deny poor people the right to the same luxuries by saying that the economic growth which promises to widen access to such luxuries is unsustainable.

These, frankly, are pretty dumbass criticisms, but environmentalism probably isn’t going to get far until it can somehow transcend them, and they get aired every day – not only by ignorant pub bores, but often by extremely smart people. I didn’t plan to write this post, but in the last week I’ve come across these familiar criticisms by two such smarties – the late Professor Hans Rosling, in this entertaining TED talk from 2010, and global inequality expert Professor Branko Milanovic in his brilliant, but somewhat flawed, recent book Global Inequality1, which I’ve just finished reading. Perhaps we could also throw in the Angry Chef from my previous post, who writes along similar lines that “The irony of people questioning what science has done for us whilst typing on a computer, connected to the internet via a fibre optic cable, should not be lost”. I want to address these criticisms partly because they fit neatly into the present narrative arc of this blog. But also because, rather than just trying to absolve myself as a guilty environmentalist, I want to try to turn that familiar critique on its head and go somewhere more useful with it.

The first part of the critique – the hypocrisy of personal complicity with environmental ‘bads’ – is the easiest to combat. Taking the Angry Chef’s example of computers, back in the 1980s I completed an entire university degree without once looking at a computer, whereas today I’d struggle to get through a single day without doing so. That’s not because I’ve changed, but because the world has. Of course, I could choose to take a stand and not use a computer, or a car, or aeroplanes. There’ve been times in my life when I’ve done exactly that. I passed my driving test in 1983, but didn’t actually own a car until 2007 (ironically, when I started running my ‘sustainable’ farming business). At various times and for varying durations I’ve similarly taken stands on flying, meat-eating, TV ownership etc. What difference has it made to the future of the world? Virtually none. Here we have the exact opposite of the free rider problem – let’s call it the oppressed pedestrian problem. In a ubiquitously motorised society, weigh up the personal costs of not driving against the benefits it delivers to the world at large, throw in the question of how much personal complicity affects the truth that motor vehicles are environmentally problematic, and go figure. The problem is structural, not individual. Nowadays I try to respect people who choose to avoid environmentally-negative behaviours, refrain from criticising people who don’t, and focus as best I can on what seems to me more important – the larger social structures that enable or constrain these choices.

Perhaps it’s harder to combat the second part of the critique, as articulated by Hans Rosling in his talk about the lack of access to washing machines among the majority of the world’s people – and more specifically, the majority of the world’s women. Surely, Rosling suggests, environmentalists who have access to one can’t without hypocrisy wish to deny the same access to all the world’s people? Actually it’s not so hard to combat this accusation. Do I use a washing machine? Yes. Do I wish to deny use of a washing machine to the 5 billion people in the world who don’t have access to one? No.

See, that was pretty easy. I do entertain a few caveats about Rosling’s position – the element of technological determinism involved in supposing that gender inequality is overcome by machines, the impact of the collective contexts in which people do or don’t have access to any particular technology, and the over-simplified connections he makes between labour-saving machinery, education and improved income. But, no, I think it would be great if everyone had access to a washing machine. I also think it would be great if nobody was threatened by climate change. There’s certainly a trade-off there, and I’m not persuaded by Rosling’s fond hopes for a decarbonised energy supply that can fund rich-country levels of energy use globally. But that’s another issue. For me, the main problem is that I doubt many of those billions actually will have access to a washing machine any time soon, if ever. So if it’s right to advocate for a better life for the world’s poor – and I think it is – then we need to start thinking afresh about how to do so. I want to broach that in the remainder of this post, perhaps in a rather roundabout way, by reviewing aspects of Branko Milanovic’s book.

If I had to nominate one single graph to make sense of the present human world, I think it would be the plot of relative gain in real per capita income by global income level over the last thirty years presented by Milanovic on page 11 of his book – the so-called ‘reclining S’ or ‘elephant’ graph, on account of its resemblance to said beast (you can see a version of it here). Essentially, the graph highlights four categories of people who could be termed the paired ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ from the neoliberal globalisation of the economy in recent history2. These are, first, the very richest people in the world, who’ve increased their income by nearly 70% over this period (Milanovic shows that, within this group, there’s a sub-set of super-rich ‘global plutocrats’ who’ve done even better). The second category of winners, who’ve done even better in relative terms, is what Milanovic calls the “emerging global middle class” – essentially the increasingly well-off middle-to-high earners in middle income countries experiencing fast economic growth. In practice, virtually all of these people live in China or a handful of other Asian countries. The losers are, first, the very poorest people in the world, who’ve increased their income by less than 20% (arguably it might not have increased much in the absence of globalisation, though I strongly suspect fiscal deregulation hasn’t helped their cause). And second, the poorer people in the high income countries, who while still earning more than the ‘emerging global middle class’ haven’t increased their income at all over the last 30 years, and so have fallen very much further behind the richer people in their home countries. It’s worth bearing in mind that these are relative rather than absolute figures, so they underemphasise the degree of wealth concentration that’s occurred over the period: someone on $1 a day who doubles their income has $1 a day more, while someone on $1,000 a day who doubles their income has $1,000 a day more. Indeed, 44% of the absolute income gain over the last 30 years has gone to the richest 5% of people3.

The elephant graph suggests that the world may be a slightly less unequal place than it was 30 years ago (the global Gini coefficient was 72.2 in 1988 and 70.5 in 2008) – although since inequality was at an all-time high in 1988, another way of saying this, Milanovic cautions, is that “global inequality today is at almost the highest point ever in history”4. This small reduction is almost entirely due to the rise of a hitherto ‘missing’ middle class in a handful of Asian countries such as China – which of course means that inequality within these countries has grown.

Here we have the well-known ‘Kuznets curve’, proposed by the economist Simon Kuznets in the 1950s. A country typified by ‘subsistence’ peasant agriculture will have a relatively egalitarian income distribution, but most people will be poor. As a country ‘develops’ by switching to industry, average income increases, but so does inequality. Eventually, however, inequality starts declining through worker organisation, trade unionism, state welfarism and the like. The Kuznets curve seemed to describe pretty well what happened in early-industrialising regions like Western Europe and North America until the 1980s, but the rising inequality indicated in the ‘elephant’ graph since then confounds it. Milanovic talks – not entirely convincingly, to my mind – of Kuznets ‘waves’, whereby countries like China are now going through their first Kuznets curve, while countries like the UK and the USA have started riding a second Kuznets curve. Milanovic discusses various reasons why inequality is now rising and may decline again in the future in these ‘second curve’ countries, though he doesn’t persuade me that this will necessarily happen, and I’m not sure he even persuades himself. It may be better to ditch the Kuznets hypothesis and all the talk of ‘curves’ and ‘waves’ altogether, and instead contemplate the possibility of chronic future inequality.

But let me try to apply the rather abstract results of the elephant graph to some questions of recent history and social policy. Going back to our old friends from 2016, the Brexit and Trump votes, it’s easy to see from the graph why there might have been a level of disillusionment among working-class voters in the UK and the USA about the consequences of globalisation that propelled them towards those particular ‘anti-global’ choices. Lectures about the damage those choices might wreak upon national prosperity probably didn’t wear too well with people who haven’t seen much of the prosperity come their way (obviously voting choices were a lot more complex than that, but I think that assertion is defensible – at least it puts me in the crowded company of many other wise-after-the-event commentators5).

However, the graph also suggests that looming over the shoulders of the relatively poor people in the rich countries are the relatively rich people in the poor countries (who are still poorer in absolute terms than the former, though they’re catching up). The notion that a Trump administration or Britain’s merry band of Brexiteers have either the will or the capacity to reverse the ebb of economic power away from the declining middle and working classes of the west and towards the rising middle classes of Asia seems, for numerous reasons, fanciful.

One thing that emerges strongly from Milanovic’s analysis, though he doesn’t place much emphasis on it, is how geopolitically concentrated the rise of the ‘global middle class’ is, being restricted to a handful of (admittedly very populous) Asian countries. In other words, it looks like the core-periphery structure of the global economy as described historically by world systems theorists like Immanuel Wallerstein is being replicated. What we’re seeing is less the rise of a ‘global’ middle class as the handing on of an economic leadership baton from the west to southern/eastern Asia, with other regions such as Africa and Latin America remaining more or less peripheral. Milanovic shows that prior to around 1820 what mattered most to a person’s economic life chances was their class, regardless of their nationality: it paid to be ‘well-born’, wherever you were actually born. But since then, location has mattered more than class. So for example almost anyone born in Britain is likely to have better economic life chances than almost anyone born in Zambia. There is, as Milanovic puts it, a ‘citizenship premium’ which advantages or disadvantages you largely on the basis of what passport you’re entitled to hold.

Going back to the Trump and Brexit results, one issue that loomed large in those campaigns was immigration – in the Brexit campaign, for example, around the issue of migrants from poorer East European countries undercutting the economic chances of the struggling British working class. “It’s not racist to talk about immigration” was the mantra du jour.

Well, no it’s not. But one of the things I admire most about Milanovic’s book is the clear-eyed way in which he does talk about it, and the way that in so doing he confronts the great unmentionable of economics – that is, the hypocrisy of supporting the free flow of capital around the world without supporting the free flow of labour.

Now, I got a certain amount of stick on this site around this issue a while back, for example being accused of ‘xenophobia’ for, among other things, my lack of enthusiasm for rigorous immigration control. No, me neither. But anyway, I’m completely with Milanovic on this one. Poorer people in richer countries can make a sound ethical argument for a fairer national distribution of income. Poorer people in poorer countries can make a sound ethical argument for a fairer international distribution of income – but if that’s not going to happen, which seems likely, then they can make a sound ethical argument in favour of migrating somewhere they can earn more. If people in richer countries think migration of that sort is unacceptable, then how can it be acceptable for the (relative) ‘have nots’ in a given rich country to expect redistribution from the ‘haves’?

I can’t see an ethical answer to that question. And indeed the only affirmative answers I’ve seen to it are pretty avowedly non-ethical and implicitly nationalist: it’s OK for poor people in rich countries to expect a better deal from their richer co-nationals, but not OK for poor people in poor countries to expect a better deal from richer foreigners. Situations of ubiquitous economic growth tend to keep such questions at bay, because things don’t seem so bad if everyone is getting richer, even if some are a lot richer than others. But in a likely future of chronically low and maldistributed growth, these distributional conflicts are only going to sharpen. Arguments against global migration from poor to rich countries are ultimately winner takes all or might is right arguments. Such arguments have an obvious appeal to the currently mighty (in which category, globally, almost everyone in a country like the UK fits), but they tend to lose their lustre if the mighty should fall (in which category, looking at Milanovic’s analysis, the UK might well fit in the future). Be careful what you wish for (Milanovic has some ‘compromise’ suggestions for dealing with global migration which strike me as quite sensible – perhaps I’ll look at these in more detail another time).

No doubt the ethical notion that people should cede current riches to the less well-off seems ludicrously idealistic, although it’s a commonplace nowadays to consider other ethical systems, such as those of foraging nomads, where the idea that you should take the lion’s share for yourself and let others go hungry simply because you can is absolute anathema – a sensible strategy, the anthropologists tell us, in uncertain times when you never know who’ll next be sated and who’ll be hungry. Perhaps that’s worth pondering as we confront an uncertain collective global future. As ever, ‘idealism’ is contextual – to me, the ‘obvious’ strategy proposed by my critics of clamping down on new or recent migrants is only obvious in the context of a certain modern mindset that’s best transcended.

Still, that mindset is deeply grounded in our politics, which has rarely been about ethics, except perhaps occasionally in recent times with the thinnest veneer of liberal internationalism. Generally, it’s been about power. I can’t see the rich world willingly giving up its advantages – so I suspect it will yield them slowly and unwillingly. I foresee a future of intense distributional conflict and quite probably war. If that happens, I hope those who’ve justified the current turn of western politics on distributional grounds (like John Michael Greer…) will keep quiet rather than trying to find non-distributional arguments to justify the status quo ante.

Are there any alternatives to this grim scenario? Well, possibly – but Milanovic isn’t much help in locating them. Despite his economic heterodoxy, he returns to the mainstream fold on the question of economic growth, ridiculing the idea of degrowth as a hypocritical fancy of rich westerners and arguing – albeit with the historical evidence in his favour – that economic growth is much the most powerful tool yet found for improving the lives of ordinary people in poor countries. He adds,

““Deglobalization” with a return to the “local” is impossible because it would do away with the division of labor, a key factor of economic growth. Surely, those who argue for localism do not wish to propose a major drop in living standards or a Khmer Rouge solution to inequality”6

Well, speaking personally I’d say certainly not the latter but possibly the former – especially if the drop in living standards falls mainly on the current rich, as Milanovic himself prescribes. One of the problems with his analysis is the rather crude way he contrasts industrial societies with pre-industrial ones as ‘subsistence’ societies, and uses fiscal income interchangeably with ‘living standards’. I don’t want to succumb to too starry-eyed a version of pre-industrial society, but the pre-industrial Britain of the 18th century, for example, was not a ‘subsistence society’ and there are some things that money can’t buy – indeed, there are some things that the pervasive marketization prompted by rising national incomes may jeopardise. This was true in early 17th century northeast England, for example, which experienced the last clearly documented famine in the country – one that afflicted not ‘subsistence’ peasants, but commercial livestock farmers suffering a market crash that made them too poor to afford grain7. Similar pressures afflict poor cash-crop farmers today8. I’m not altogether against the idea of the rural poor quitting peasant farming for something that pays better, but it’s a risky business. Despite the blandishments of ecomodernists and well-paid university professors, the fact is that many of the rural poor keep a foot in subsistence production as a risk-insurance strategy. I don’t think you have to side with the Khmer Rouge to argue that it sometimes ‘pays’ not to seek higher incomes above all else.

Milanovic nicely points out how bad social scientists, including economists, have been at predicting the future, serially succumbing to the fateful temptation to project short-run current trends as long-term structures. But let me put my cards on the table – I think it would be a good idea if people in the rich countries had lower living standards, and people in the poor countries had higher ones. I can’t exactly see how this will happen on the basis of current economic realities, but I’ll conjure with a scenario where those current realities are breaking down.

This involves chronic economic stagnation and debt in western countries of the kind analysed by political economists like Wolfgang Streeck9, the continuing leakage of economic power to Asia and the curveball (or perhaps googly, to use a more Anglocentric metaphor) of climate change and energy crisis renting the fabric of the global economy. In those circumstances, I think a lot of rural peasant cultivators globally will suffer, but so will a lot of urban merchant bankers in the west, and the balance may tip away from the latter and towards the former a little – perhaps to the extent that being a rural peasant cultivator in a country like England starts to seem less crazy than it presently does.

Let me run with that scenario a little further. Suppose that a post-Brexit Britain manages to control its borders, experiences the huge economic slump that obviously awaits it and, in a moment of clarity, sees that its problems aren’t fundamentally the fault of immigrants, the EU, or the Chinese, and that the solutions aren’t to be found in humbling itself before an uncaring global economy. Milanovic writes,

“An interesting question to ask is what might happen if the growth rate decelerated and fell to zero, and the economy became stagnant, but at a much higher level of income than in stagnant preindustrial economies. It is not inconceivable that Kuznets cycles would continue to take place against the background of an unchanging mean income, producing a picture similar to the one we have for pre-industrial economies”10

…which is one of wildly gyrating inequality in response to exogenous shocks. But a conceivable alternative might be what’s termed a ‘high level equilibrium trap’ which I’ll be looking at in future posts – a stable, efficient, dynamic but stagnant economy in which the primary asset is human labour. Managed well, I think this could be the best kind of economy for steering our way equitably, sustainably and resiliently through the future shocks awaiting us. ‘Managing it well’ would involve an attentiveness to resilience rather than to economic growth, an opposition to extremes of wealth accumulation, and a focus on sustainable, labour-intensive local industries. Like peasant farming, for example. I’m not sure it’s an especially likely future outcome. But it’s a possible one, and it’s better than most of the alternatives, which seem to me to cluster around the two possibilities of ecomodernist fantasy-land or internecine nationalist-mercantilist conflict.

But let me round off by returning to Professor Rosling and his washing machines. As I’ve said, the good professor was right that nobody who has access to a washing machine really ought to lecture those who don’t about what consumer items they can or can’t have. But I doubt for all that that what Rosling calls ‘the washing line’ – the level of income at which people can afford a washing machine – is going to encompass a great many more of the world’s people than it presently does, or that the global energy supply will be able to decarbonise at anything like the levels which would be required to greatly lower the washing line while avoiding runaway climate change. I also doubt that the benefits of the washing machine he outlines that accrued to the lucky earlier generations of technology-adopters such as his mother in Sweden – an education instead of hard domestic work, bringing rising income within reach – is going to work the same way for would-be washing machine owners of the future. There are just too many well-educated people chasing too few jobs in an increasingly dysfunctional and stagnant economy. As Milanovic puts it, the difference in skills and abilities between high and low earners in the future is likely to be increasingly small – the main difference being chance and family background11, not washing machines and education.

Another way of putting all this is that economic growth, education and technological development as means of improving the human lot are old stories that are probably going to work less well in the future. Like the ‘science’ discussed in my last post, they’re not bad things in themselves, but if people pin inordinate hopes on them as vehicles for future human betterment I think, increasingly, they’ll be disappointed. Environmentalists have been saying these things for years. However many washing machines or plane flights they personally enjoy, that doesn’t make them wrong. It’s time we started thinking structurally, and stopped shooting the messenger.

Notes

  1. Branko Milanovic. 2016. Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization. Harvard University Press.
  1. Though there are some difficulties of interpretation here, highlighted in this critique by Caroline Freund which I only came across as I prepared to publish this post. I’ll have to think about this some more – there are aspects of her argument I don’t find convincing, but some of her points are quite telling.
  1. Milanovic, p.24.
  1. Milanovic, p.253.
  1. Though, once again, the Freund critique puts a different spin on the figures, reverting us to another familiar response to the Brexit and Trump results – an inexplicable desire for economic self-harm, which in some ways is quite encouraging for my general thesis here.
  1. Milanovic, p.192.
  1. Mark Overton. 1996. Agricultural Revolution in England. Cambridge University Press, p.141.
  1. Peter Robbins. 2003. Stolen Fruit: The Tropical Commodities Disaster. Zed.
  1. Wolfgang Streeck. 2016. How Will Capitalism End? Verso.
  1. Milanovic, p.58.
  1. Milanovic, p.215.

Lean Logic

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

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

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

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

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

oOo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

Energy in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex

I think it’s about time I paid my next visit to the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex. But first, news of another publication from the Small Farm Future stable – a piece entitled ‘Why Britain should protect and cherish its small farms’ published by the insurance arm of everybody’s favourite farming union, the NFU. When asked why the tone of the article was more moderate than that usually to be found here on this website, Small Farm Future CEO Chris Smaje replied, “Because NFU Mutual pay better than the punters on this blog. Though, since you mention it, the donate button is…oh, you know where it is. Next question.”

Anyway, let’s get back to Wessex. On my previous voyages there, I’ve learned that the republic’s population – some 20% higher than the region’s current one – can provide for their food and fibre needs using organic methods and tractive agricultural energy from home-grown biogas. Which is quite something, I think. But agricultural energy is the easy bit. Can the republic provide sustainably and indigenously for its wider energy needs?

To answer that question, it’s necessary to define both what sustainable energy production might look like and what the population’s energy needs are. On the first point, I guess I’d say that it really ought to be a low carbon source, which pretty much rules out any kind of fossil fuel. Ideally it would also have to be locally available and at a cost appropriate to a substantially agrarian society, but I’ll come on to that soon. It’s possible of course that by the time the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex comes into being circa 2039 there’ll be a whole new generation of hitherto unheard of clean energy technologies available. But I don’t think we can count on it. As a starting point, then, I propose to look at how much energy we can produce locally from existing renewable technologies.

To address the issue of how much energy we need – well, no doubt we could debate that endlessly. Let’s start by looking at how much energy we use currently – and the answer is 2.85 kW per person directly consumed in the UK (and, I shall assume, in its Wessex subdivision). Or, to put it another way, something like a domestic washing machine rattling away on its full power usage day and night,  year-round for each and every one of us.

Can renewables realistically furnish us with that level of energy? I think there’s a clear answer to that: no. We often get excited about the possibilities for generating electricity with renewables and perhaps with other low-carbon technologies like nuclear, but we tend to forget that electricity only constitutes about 10% of our total energy use. Currently, fossil fuels power a good chunk of our electricity production and the vast bulk of all our other energy usage. I think it’s realistic to replace existing non-renewable electricity generation with renewables. I don’t think it’s realistic to replace the entire energy economy with them, barring some major technological breakthroughs.

So if we’re going to have a hope of a sustainably-powered Wessex we’re going to have to make some energy cutbacks. Let’s take a look at where the energy is used currently in the UK and see where we might wield the knife.

This is displayed in the pie chart below. The largest component of our energy use is transport, of which the largest component is domestic transport (at 20% of total energy usage), with 9% devoted to air travel. So there’s the easiest initial hit – I can’t really see much of a role for aircraft in the Peasant’s Republic, except perhaps for a few scientific and meteorological drones and the odd air show to remind us of more profligate times, so I think we can lop 9% off our total usage straightaway. It’ll be a fillip for the tall ships industry that used to thrive here in the west country.

Energy use

 

 

Personal domestic transport looms large amongst the rest of the transport energy use. I think we can trim that pretty savagely. Farmers are never that keen to leave the farm anyway, and we can try to beef up rail and bus services a little. So let’s reduce car journeys by 80%. Now we’re getting somewhere. Or perhaps in fact we’re not getting anywhere much. But maybe if electric cars catch on, the 80% reduction in energy won’t have to correspond to quite such a dramatic fall in actual journeys.

A lot of commercial transport energy is devoted to transporting food, which will be locally available in the republic, so I think we can make some savings there. It’s often said that long-distance commercial transport has a low energy cost, which is true and is reflected in the figures here. But it’s still higher than if you don’t transport food long distance at all, so I’d suggest that some savings can be made. Besides which all sorts of frivolous items get freighted around these days. Hell, there’s no time for all of that on the farm. So I propose that we can cut commercial transport energy by at least 30%.

The next hungriest energy user is people’s homes, which command 29% of total usage – mostly in the form of space and water heating. My proposal is that we can reduce this by about 60% – firstly by investing properly in retrofitting insulation for older properties, secondly by using more efficient combined heat and power stations for energy supply (which lend themselves well to renewable feedstocks) and thirdly by using pricing structures and general exhortation to encourage people to conserve hot water, turn the thermostat down and just put a bloody jumper on if they’re cold. Investing more in solar hot water systems may also be a good idea.

We now come to industry, which uses about 17% of total energy. At 23,600 ktoe nationally, this is only about 40% of the industrial energy the country used in 1970. The improvement partly comes from the fact that industry now produces about 17% more product per unit of energy input than it did fifty years ago, but mostly from the fact that Britain no longer has a significant mining, steel, car or shipbuilding industry as it did in 1970, and so now effectively imports a good deal of energy in the form of industrial products bought from abroad. On the other hand, in 1970 Britain’s heavy industry was to some extent an export industry, and given the agrarian nature of the People’s Republic of Wessex (many fewer fancy cars, remember) the need for 1970s levels of industrial production is debatable. So it’s difficult to determine an appropriate figure for industrial energy use. My proposal is to leave it exactly at its present value.

To give an idea of what that might look like, I’ve plucked some figures for the energy embodied in various materials from the internet and constructed the following table to indicate the sort of material resources that an abstemious farm household might use. The table shows, for example, that a four person household might have five tonnes of wood in their farmhouse and associated buildings, which they’d expect to last for 25 years. And so on down the list, including a 2 tonne tractor to furnish their own needs and that of forty-odd customers for 40 years (my own tractor has another three years to go before celebrating its 40th birthday), and a car or small van shared between two households (which, as it turns out, has by far the heaviest energy take). Perhaps some of these materials could be recycled at the end of their expected life, but I haven’t taken that into account.

Table: Lifetime embodied energy costs

  Emb. energy (MJkg-1) Mass (kg) Users Expected life (yrs) Energy use per person per year (MJ)
Wood 2.3 5,000 4 25 115
Plastic 13.8 10 1 1 138
Glass 32.3 50 4 25 16
Steel (tractor) 55.30 2,000 50 40 55
Steel (car) 55.30 1,300 8 12 749
Total         1,074

At about 1,100 MJ per capita, the direct usage figures assumed in the table for the Wessex population constitute about 7% of the total industrial energy budget I’ve construed of 23,600 ktoe allocated out on a per capita basis (apologies for jumbling up the units – I blame my data sources). Obviously, the industrial energy budget also needs to supply various intermediate goods, including the replacement of stock, and public goods as well. Is the 93% margin here sufficient to cover that? I’m not sure – I’d be interested in other views. I think it probably is. Indeed, perhaps these figures suggest the industrial energy budget could be trimmed a little. On the other hand, maybe we should allow our household a bit more plastic, a few more trinkets…my vote as an organic grower would be for extra Enviromesh.

The final component of the total energy budget is services, constituting 14% of total energy. A mere 6% of this services component is devoted to agriculture, which just goes to show how relatively energy-light providing food is. The other main components are retail (19%), warehousing, hotel/catering, and education (all 13%). I’m figuring we can make a few savings on the shops, warehouses and hotels – so I propose to reduce the services budget by 25% overall.

If we trim energy use in the manner I’ve described above, we can reduce per capita energy use in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex by a little more than half its present value – down to around 1.3 kW per capita.

Now that we’ve got energy demand down to something halfway sensible let’s look at what methods of generation are available and see if we can meet it.

To start with, we have about 700,000 hectares of woodland that could be managed for fuelwood in Wessex, comprising the woodland areas on the neo-peasant holdings, woodland edges on field boundaries and non-farm woodland. Assuming a sustainable yield of 3 tonnes of fuelwood per hectare per year, that gives us just under 50 GJ of fuel energy per hectare – or about 8% of our total energy requirement. Some way to go!

Well, we can throw in the biogas from silage anaerobic digestion that I looked at in a previous post – that gives us another 6%, and every little helps.

Looking at current sources of renewable energy provision in the UK there are a few other relatively minor sources we can add – biogas from human sewage, energy from waste combustion (which I’ll assume will be half its present value, as I think there’ll be less waste in Wessex), geothermal heat (too expensive, I’d think, to significantly expand on present values in Wessex), and wave/hydro energy, which I’m assuming we could at least double (see further comments below). Adding all that together, we get another 4% of our total requirement.

Turning to wind energy, the UK is well provided with wind although it currently only furnishes about 3% of our total energy use. This is partly because of government foot-dragging, but also because of the huge dominance of fossil fuels in the overall energy mix mentioned above. I’m not convinced that the massive expenditures and engineering feats required of offshore wind installations will be feasible in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex (there are no major offshore wind installations in the southwest at present), but onshore wind is another matter and is now relatively cheap. I think it should be possible to expand onshore wind tenfold in Wessex from the current per capita level for England (a lesser figure than the UK as a whole, which is inflated by high levels of wind energy in Scotland) – in which case we could furnish about 17% of the energy requirement from wind.

Totalling what we’ve got so far takes us to just 36% of our (already greatly trimmed down) energy requirement. At this point my hands get clammy and an insurgent thought pops into my head: “Oh my God – the ecomodernists are right. Renewables are a delusion! We need to go nuclear.” Well, let’s at least look at a nuclear option. After all, the current government has, in its wisdom, chosen to build a huge new nuclear power station in the heart of Wessex, not forty miles upwind of where I now sit. Hinkley C is projected to produce 3.2 GW of power at a minimum cost of £30 billion all in. If it’s built, I doubt we Wessexers will be able to keep all that energy to ourselves, so let’s allocate it out to the UK population on a per capita basis. And if we do that we’ll add, as a maximum, the grand total of 4% to meeting our energy requirement.

I guess you could argue that nuclear isn’t as limited by space and natural energy input considerations as other low carbon forms of supply, but at £10 billion+ per gigawatt – plus decommissioning costs and various other downsides – I’m really not sure how well this stacks up. You could argue that after the capacity-building exercise of Hinkley, future installations will be cheaper. Or, after watching EDF scrambling around and potentially bankrupting itself in its bid to build Hinkley, you could argue that in the context of a chronically sluggish UK economy, Hinkley probably won’t get built, and even if it is there won’t be any more Hinkleys after that. Phew! The ecomodernists are wrong after all – we greentards can rest easy.

Another grand option would be a tidal barrage across the River Severn. Going the full monty on this could furnish about 10% of our energy requirements. But it’d be another massive and prohibitively expensive engineering project. The Severn is a handy and scandalously underused bit of local topography for energy generation, and I’m sure there’d be scope for getting something from it with more modest schemes (as very conservatively projected above), but perhaps – like the government – we should leave big tidal projects on the back burner for now.

The other main way to go, as mentioned in an earlier post, is photovoltaic electricity. Suppose we put 15m2 of PV panels on the roofs of Wessex’s 3.15 million-odd households (the panels wouldn’t necessarily have to go on every roof – perhaps we can just imagine 15 m2 x 3.15 million = 4725 hectares of panels on brownfield sites generally). Assuming a yearly energy input of 5.4 Wm-2 that would give us about 30% of our energy needs. Well, we’re beginning to get somewhere now, but we’ve still only met 66% of our needs. Maybe we could meet the rest of them by putting PV on farmland. We’d need about 54,000 ha, which we could take from our permanent pasture. We could run sheep on the solar farms, rather than dairy cows. I’ve seen it claimed that 95% of the grass on a solar farm is still accessible for grazing, but since photons can’t simultaneously energise both panels and grass, we’ll surely have to reduce the productivity of the grazing. I’ve been unable to find a figure for how much, but I guess there’s going to be a fair bit of incident and reflected light on the grass at different times of the day. So could we say 50%? On that basis, we can still feed Wessex’s population just about adequately and meet our energy target. It’s quite a PV dominated solution, with about 2.5% of Wessex’s land surface covered with panels (you could, I suppose, put them out at sea as Miles King suggests for a solar-hydrogen solution – though since the main enemy of PV panels is water, I’m not sure if this is such a great idea).

Of course, there’s an energetic cost to manufacturing and replacing panels – as indeed there is to all the other forms of generation. Assuming an embodied energy of 4070 MJm-2 and a working life of 30 years, we’ll need to devote 8% of the energy allocated to industry to panel manufacture. Sounds doable?

Well, there you have it. It looks to me like the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex might just about be able to get by with a tight but tolerable per capita energy availability. There’s probably too much reliance on PV in the model I’ve outlined above in view of problems like intermittency. I think this can be overstated, and there are various evening-out technologies in the pipeline – but in the meantime, it’s probably best if we Wessexers aim to do our smelting and welding in the summer. Countries that, unlike Britain, aren’t stuck in a permanent swirl of cloud somewhere not far from the North Pole may find the PV approach more congenial.

There are other possibilities like crop biofuels. The issue here is competition with food crops (and lower per hectare energy output) – possibly remediable with such emerging technologies as algal biodiesel. Ultimately there are a set of rather complex tradeoffs between energy descent measures, energy cost per joule, energy productivity per unit area, embodied energy costs and various specifics such as engineering complexity, decommissioning costs etc. It looks to me like they might be resolvable – just – through a mix of solar, wind and tidal energy with some biofuels thrown in and strong downward pressure on usage. What seems to me more likely in practice is that the government will persist with a high energy route of fossil fuel and nuclear with a smattering of renewables until it runs out of road. Well, never let it be said that Small Farm Future wasn’t here pointing it towards the path of righteousness…

Feeding Wessex without fossil fuels

The last time we were in Wessex, I showed that its denizens circa 2039 could probably feed themselves quite comfortably using organic farming methods with 20% of the population concentrating largely on neo-peasant subsistence farming using 40% of existing lowland farmland, and the remaining 80% of the population fed by larger-scale, more cereal staple oriented farming from the remaining 60% of the farmland, plus a bit of upland grazing.

However, as it stands that scenario does depend on a fossil energy-intensive ‘business as usual’ approach on the large-scale farms. It seems worth pondering an alternative, zero fossil energy scenario. Here we begin to exceed even my own generous comfort zone for idle speculation about the future – if there’s no fossil fuel use in Wessex farming in 2039 (or beyond), what might be the social and economic correlates? Probably not one with 80% of the population still happily residing in towns and working as video game programmers, conservatory salesmen or whatever.

Still, I don’t propose to worry about that too much in this post. For now, let’s just consider the farming side of it, and see if we can find another way to power the food production for 80% of Wessex’s population.

That immediately plunges us into a speculative debate about the shape of the future energy mix which could go on until…well, 2039. So here I’m going to curtail it brutally by making the following doubtless highly debatable assumptions. I’m going to assume that there won’t be enough renewably generated electricity to power electric, fuel cell or electro-synthesised hydrocarbon tractors. I’m going to assume that none of the magic, much-touted next-generation or generation-after sources of limitless clean power such as thorium or nuclear fusion have come through. And I’m going to assume that wood methanol isn’t a viable source of agricultural energy, as a couple of people have suggested to me that it might be. The way I read the runes on that one is as follows:

You get about 27 litres of methanol from a tonne of wood, and you get about 3 tonnes of wood from a hectare of managed woodland, so you get about 80l of methanol from a hectare of woodland. Methanol has about half the energy density of diesel. You need about 100l of diesel (so 200l of methanol) to farm a hectare of arable land each year. I’ll assume you need about a quarter of that to farm a hectare of permanent grass, minimally, about as much again to manage the rest of the production and transport economy around food. That works out at about 1.2 million hectares of managed woodland to service 1.8 million hectares of farmland, which would exceed the land area of Wessex by nearly a third (while also neglecting the energy needs of the woodland management). Methanol can be made from other carbon-rich waste, but it seems to me a stretch to think it could be a major agricultural energy source unless anyone can provide some radically more promising figures.

Another suggestion I received was to put aside my West Country obsession with cows and make methane instead of milk from the grass via anaerobic digestion. Now, I’ve always regarded these straight-to-methane schemes as a dastardly vegan plot to deny me the froth I so badly need on my morning cappuccino, but after crunching a few numbers I’ve got to admit that the plan has something to commend it. In fact, the numbers seem to stack up so spectacularly well that I feel I must have made a terrible error somewhere, so let me run through my arithmetic in some detail with the hope that someone can either corroborate it or else point out the error of my ways.

Let’s start by calculating how much energy we need to run our Wessex food system. I’m going to assume that we need 100 litres of diesel per hectare on the farm for arable operations, and 25 litres for grassland management. Then to fuel the entire food economy from farm to fork, I’m going to assume we need another 200 litres of diesel equivalent per hectare (for both arable and grassland) – an assumption loosely based on the emissions scenarios in Tara Garnett’s Cooking Up A Storm. Diesel has an energy content of 38.6 MJl-1. So if we take our 166,000 ha of cropped arable at 300 l/ha diesel and our 795,000 ha of permanent grassland and arable ley at 225 l/ha and multiply that sum by 38.6 MJ we get a total energy requirement of about 8.8 billion MJ (or 8.8 PJ if you prefer).

On the supply side I’m assuming 20 tonnes of fresh silage per hectare1 (or 5.5 tonnes dry matter), grown organically (average conventional yields are more than double that), and 160m3 of biogas per tonne of silage2, with an energy content of about 22 MJ/m3 – so that works out at about 68,000 MJ/ha. If we take a quarter of our permanent pasture – some 223,000 ha – and set it aside for silage as biogas feedstock, that’ll give us 15.1 PJ of energy, which is nearly double our energy requirement. As I understand it, methane-powered tractors are already a reality at engine efficiencies similar or above those of conventional diesel, and though the biogas coming out of the digester needs a bit of refining, the process efficiency is quite high. Embodied energy of plant construction seems to turn out at around 10% of total energy output3, so the overall energy costs seem manageable.

Obviously we need to re-run our food productivity figures in the light of taking out a quarter of the permanent pasture (hopefully rotating cows over it and returning some or all of the digestate to it will keep the silage production sustainable). But since this part of the farm system otherwise produces relatively low-output grass-fed cows, the overall loss of productivity may not be too severe. And so it proves – removing 25% of the permanent pasture for biogas drops the supply/demand ratio for food energy from 1.07 to 0.99, with all the other nutritional ratios remaining >1. An energy ratio of 0.99 is doubtless a bit too close for comfort, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to find an extra bit of productivity. The lazy way would be to plough some more permanent pasture for wheat – about 22,000 ha or 3% of the total permanent pasture diverted to wheat would restore food energy productivity to the 7% surfeit we were experiencing with fossil diesel (call it 6% to make provision for a ley). But there would be other more elegant, if more labour intensive, ways of doing it. And remember that I’m making a lot of conservative assumptions about yields.

Originally I’d been thinking in terms of biodiesel from oilseed rape as the way we’d have to go in a fossil-fuel free Wessex. That method produces almost, but not quite, as much fuel energy per hectare as biogas from organic silage, but only by devoting a big chunk of precious cropland to the oil crop. And the rape would have to be grown conventionally, using synthetic fertiliser and pesticides, with additional energetic and environmental implications. An advantage of rape is that the meal or press cake from the oil extraction process yields a high energy livestock feed, which partially compensates for the loss of cropland. But rape just doesn’t seem to me to stack up as well as biogas – particularly since it looks like I can keep enough cows to get my cappuccino in the morning and still have fuel to start up the tractor. Another advantage of anaerobic digestion and biodiesel over the photovoltaics we were discussing in my last post is that the basic engineering technologies in both cases seem simpler, which perhaps gives them a better chance of making it through the climacteric as per the previous discussion.

Well, there you have it. As I’ve said many times before, I’m not trying to suggest in this exercise that it would a simple or even a likely thing for a future Wessex to feed itself, especially if it were as energy-constrained as the one I’ve been discussing here. I don’t want to come over all ecomodernist (not that ecomodernists have much time for such down home energy technologies as anaerobic digestion). But my proposition for discussion is that it may be a possible thing.

Notes

  1. See, for example, the Organic Farm Management Handbook, or this.
  1. http://www.biogas-info.co.uk/about/feedstocks/
  1. http://opus.bath.ac.uk/22984/1/UnivBath_PhD_2010_W_Mezzullo.pdf

Waiting for the climacteric: or, the return of the greentard

I left the issue of the agricultural energy supply for the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex hanging at the end of my last post. So, in keeping with the infuriating elliptical style favoured on this blog, I propose not to address it in this one. Instead, I want to broach some wider energy-related issues with the help of two acquaintances of this site, before narrowing the scope to agricultural energy in a future post.

The first acquaintance is, sadly, dead, yet so ebullient that his thought is setting tongues a-wagging in environmental circles even now. I refer to the late David Fleming, whose book Lean Logic has recently been published thanks to the excellent editorship of Shaun Chamberlin, and is garnering all sorts of critical plaudits1. There’s a lot of finely crafted stuff in the book, though I must admit that I’m not quite as wowed by Fleming’s thought as many others are. I have a review of the book coming out in the new year so I won’t dwell on all that now. Instead, I just want to mention Fleming’s approach to the concept of the climacteric.

Fleming defines a climacteric as “a stage in the life of a system in which it is especially exposed to a profound change in health or fortune” and goes on to predict an imminent global climacteric in the years between 2010 (the year he died) and 2040, comprising “deep deficits in energy, water and food, along with climate change, a shrinking land area as the seas rise, and heat, drought and storm affecting the land that remains. There is also the prospect of acidic oceans which neither provide food nor remove carbon; ecologies degraded by introduced plants and animals; the failure of keystone species such as bees and plankton; and the depletion of minerals”2.

Phew, well that’s quite a list – though nothing that most of us haven’t heard before, and endlessly debated across the whole spectrum of doom-mongering and boom-mongering. What interests me about it for present purposes is the rather quietist inferences Fleming draws from the concept of the climacteric towards contemporary socio-economic activism. “There is no case for dismantling the market,” he writes, “that will be done for us, all too soon”3. And again, “The task….is not about wrestling with the controls of economics to force it in the direction of degrowth, but about getting ready for the moment when the coming climacteric does the heavy work of degrowth for us”4.

Is this way of thinking the declinist mirror to those great 20th century progressive narratives of capitalism and communism which believed in unstoppable, positive climacterics delivered by human agency – whether through free markets or proletarian revolutions – which would inevitably deliver human betterment? If so, I suspect it may prove equally problematic. For one thing, it relies on a finely balanced quantum of crisis: too little, and the status quo ante is soon restored in elite interests until we lurch into the next crisis; too much, and all bets are off as to how humanity fares, or if it even survives as a species. For another thing, how will this balance be achieved? The work that Fleming says will be done for us seems to involve no human mechanisms, no politics, no history, by which humans might act upon the climacteric. This gives the concept a rather religious, millenarian feel – of attending to the end days, when human betterment may come. Through the ages a lot of prophets have thus gathered a flock and instructed them to await a new dawn. They haven’t always been wrong. But they usually have been, and personally I’m not much inclined to throw in my lot with them.

So suppose – just suppose – that humanity found, right now, a source of clean energy of an appropriate magnitude, which enabled us to avert at this eleventh hour the worst consequences of climate change, and to continue on the merry way of our present high energy, growth-oriented global economy. In such circumstances, the sting would be drawn from many features of Fleming’s climacteric. Would it then be a case of ‘job done’ for green politics, another end of history in which humanity could at last settle down and enjoy the fruits of a green capitalism for all? I don’t think so. I think the underlying problems of the capitalist growth model would remain – the deep and intrinsic inequality, the environmental degradations that continued to leak from our actions, the spiritual vacuity. Which is not to say that finding an abundant source of clean energy right now would necessarily be a bad thing.

There are those, of course, who are confident that the search is already over. And that brings us to our second familiar personage. I have to admit that since my jousting with him in the early days of this website, I haven’t been keeping up lately with the-world-according-to-Graham-Strouts. ‘Greentard’ (= ‘green retard’, I think) was one of the kinder, and funnier, insults he tossed my way as I learned, too slowly, that slipstreaming in someone else’s personal furies is bad for the soul. But I have to admit that I did take a peek at one of his recent blog posts, in which he invokes the authority of David MacKay, author of Sustainable Energy: Without The Hot Air – another book by a recently deceased author treated to a wide adulation that I can’t fully share. Strouts, like all good ecomodernists, considers the answer to the energy problem to be nuclear power, dismissing renewables as a ‘delusion’. To underscore the futility of renewable energy vis-à-vis nuclear, Strouts cites a table from MacKay’s book indicating the low power per unit land/water area of various renewable energy technologies by comparison with fossil or nuclear energy in the UK. And he includes a strapline quotation from MacKay “I’m not pro-nuclear, just pro-arithmetic”.

Let me digress briefly at this point to explain my misgivings about MacKay’s book. On pp.17-18, MacKay makes two important statements about the approach he takes in it: first, that it’s about physical limits to sustainable energy, not current economic feasibility; and second, that there’s a difference between ‘factual assertions’ and ‘ethical assertions’ and that his book is about facts, not ethics. On the first point, I’d assert (factually? ethically?) that a book which looks only at physical and not economic limits, while no doubt informative, is at best of limited use in making policy decisions about a society’s energy options. Thus, the table on power per unit area that Strouts reproduces conveys absolutely no useful information in itself about energy choices. And on the second point – well, the fact/value distinction can be useful, but it tends to be rather overplayed by ecomodernists and other technophiles lacking a sense that the way people live is always and inevitably cultural and ideological. Before we ask factual questions about energy options we need to ask another factual question, to which there can be no merely factual answer: how much energy is enough?

A further problem arises with MacKay’s fact/value distinction. The number of facts that are potentially relevant to a given issue is almost unlimited, so as MacKay sat down to write his tome he inevitably had to choose which facts he was going to assert and which ones he wasn’t. What was the basis on which he did that? A ‘factual’ one? I don’t think so. In his chapter on nuclear power, for example, he states that “nuclear power’s price is dominated by the cost of power-station construction and decommissioning”5, but he provides virtually no information on what these costs are which might help the reader decide on the viability of nuclear energy. He goes on to describe the amount of high-level nuclear waste in the UK in terms of the number of Olympic swimming pools it occupies (a fact). He continues, “the volumes are so small, I feel nuclear waste is only a minor worry”6 (not a fact). And then we have the “I’m not trying to be pro-nuclear. I’m just pro-arithmetic” line – which is also very far from anything resembling a factual assertion. The problem I have here is that when a distinguished scientist sets out their stall by saying that they’ll be dealing in factual, not ethical, assertions, it’s easy to get swept up in this rhetorical trick and be led to believe that ‘the science’ tells us to adopt a particular course of action which the presentation of the data leads us to. But the fact is, it’s impossible to avoid ethical assertions. Much as the ecomodernists with their religious faith in scientism wish to believe otherwise, ‘the science’ never tells us to do anything.

Still, I’m not necessarily against nuclear power on principle as a potential part of the energy mix. I’m just against ecomodernists relentlessly favouring it on the basis of the tendentious use of spurious facts, as in Strouts’ post. Meanwhile, in another corner of the blogosphere there are others also arguing that the search for the magical source of clean energy is over – but for them the source isn’t nuclear, it’s photovoltaics.

Chris Goodall’s book The Switch is a good summary of the case from the PV corner7. One advantage of Goodall over MacKay (other than an extra seven years of hindsight) is that he’s an economist, so he tends to think in terms of £/kWh, which is ultimately the key driver of energy choices. Another advantage is that he thinks in terms of how much energy we should be using – 3kW per person by 2035 (fact!). He’s a bit sketchier than I’d like on some of the technical details, though pretty well informed for all that. But another big advantage is that he takes a global perspective. Being a cloudy country a long way north, Britain is one of the worst places in the world for generating PV energy. However, the ‘average’ person in the world lives less than half the distance from the equator than us benighted Brits. The scepticism about PV expressed by MacKay (and Strouts) may have some force in the UK, but it’s less plausible in most of the rest of the world.

By Goodall’s calculations, the UK would need about 16% of its land area to be covered with PV panels to provide for all our energy needs. Before we dismiss that as an impossibly profligate use of our scenic landscapes, it’s worth bearing in mind that we currently devote 75% of our entire land area to agriculture, a lot of it ryegrass and cereal monocultures, while still failing to feed ourselves by a distance, even though we could if we wanted. Still, it’s no doubt fanciful to suppose that we could or should cover that much of the country in PV panels. Whether that means it’s a good idea to build the Hinkley C nuclear power station to generate about 7% of the UK’s electricity at a build cost in excess of £20 billion, and then pay £92.50 per MWh for the next 35 years is less clear. The Intergenerational Foundation has argued that a PV solution would cost about £40 billion less than Hinkley C overall. For my part, I’d want to ask whether the UK might better spend some of the money earmarked for Hinkley C on trimming 7% from our energy demand. But I fear that the government has tied its hands through its agreements with French and Chinese energy companies (there’s a whole ironic backstory here about Britain’s inability to undertake its own energy projects, and its post-Brexit inability to flex its negotiating muscles, but I’ll pass over it here).

Whatever the ‘pro-arithmetic’ theoretical case for nuclear power, the economic case is looking increasingly thin vis-à-vis PV in most parts of the world, possibly even in Britain. But I’m not sure the nuclearphiles in government or among the serried ranks of the ecomodernists are really that interested in the economics of it. I think for political and ideological reasons that have little to do with arithmetic they’re drawn to mega-projects, the white heat of high technology, big grids and generating installations that require centralised control, and potentially dangerous technologies like nuclear that require lots of regulation, security apparatus and the like.

The advantages of PV are that it’s modular, dispersed, not grid reliant, and increasingly cheap. As Goodall shows in his book, there are numerous outstanding problems with it if it’s to become the global energy supplier of choice, but also numerous emerging solutions to them which could well hold greater promise than the solutions offered by the nuclear industry. In the end, I think it’s likely that globally PV will predominate over other energy technologies despite its unpalatability to politicians and opinion-formers through the fact-based arithmetic of £/KWh. But that’s not the main point I want to make. The main point I want to make is the thought experiment I mentioned above. Suppose that humanity solves the clean energy conundrum one way or another: Will that solution automatically solve the other environmental crises we face? And will it automatically generate equitable societies dedicated to human health and wellbeing?

No, I just can’t see it. But what I can see is the glimmer of a possibility – no more than that – that serious investment in clean energy (PV, mostly) might give us something of a reprieve from the worst of Fleming’s climacteric. And if it does, given that such a small proportion of current global energy use relates to electric power generation where most of the promising renewable technologies are clustered, I’d hope that we’d have to make do with a lot less energy per capita in the wealthier countries than we presently do, otherwise I can’t easily see how we’d create the kind of localised, low energy societies that seem necessary for human flourishing. But in contrast to Fleming, I don’t think any of this will be ‘done for us’. If we want to avoid the worst consequences of his climacteric and if we want to build decent, equitable, abundant societies, we’ll need to do the heavy work ourselves. For me, there’s no waiting for the climacteric – we have to fight for what we want, starting now.

References

  1. Fleming, D. 2016. Lean Logic: A Dictionary For The Future & How To Survive It, Chelsea Green.
  1. Ibid. p.43.
  1. Ibid. p.103.
  1. Ibid. p.189.
  1. MacKay, D. 2009. Sustainable Energy – Without The Hot Air, UIT Cambridge, p.165.
  1. Ibid. p.170.
  1. Goodall, C. 2016. The Switch: How Solar, Storage & New Tech Means Cheap Power For All, Profile.