Extinction Rebellion: four more (unconvincing) criticisms.

Here’s the companion piece to my previous post on the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement, with some thoughts on four further criticisms.

1. XR is too white and middle class.

The arguments from the political right I’ve seen on this point from journalists and on discussion boards where I probably shouldn’t have been lurking seem like mere sneering to me and don’t require a serious response. A general precis would be something like “perhaps it’s true that climate change is an existential threat to humanity, but then again these protestors like to eat funny foreign food that ordinary British people don’t much care for, so we can ignore them”. Yeah, whatever.

The arguments from the left require a more elaborate analysis. The two main ones are, first, that XR hasn’t done enough to attract and engage with working-class and minority communities and, second, that its strategy of arrestable civil disobedience is difficult for minority ethnic people to embrace or identify with in view of the discriminatory criminal justice system.

On the first point, again, I’m barely involved in any XR organizing and I can’t speak for the movement – one that in any case has a pretty flat and leaderless structure, making it hard to demand that it implements policy from on high. But I’d concur on the basis of my individual experience that white, middle class people like me are somewhat over-represented in XR’s demographic relative to the UK as a whole. I therefore find the argument plausible that it needs to do more to reach out to a wider base.

In that respect, XR is no different from just about every other major institution and political organization in Britain. That doesn’t mean the issue can be dismissed with a complacent shrug, but the extent to which leftist analyses of XR single it out for its white, middle classness strikes me as odd in this broader context. Take the Guardian newspaper, Britain’s bastion of respectable, left-of-centre media commentary, which proclaims across its website that “As the climate crisis escalatesthe Guardian will not stay quiet. This is our pledge: we will continue to give global heating, wildlife extinction and pollution the urgent attention and prominence they demand. The Guardian recognises the climate emergency as the defining issue of our times”.

Well then, with XR here we have the most prominent and radical grassroots political mobilization in the UK for a generation specifically geared to this defining issue and yet the paper’s opinion pages have almost without exception been lukewarm in their approach to it and have endlessly recycled the critique of white middle classness, such as here, here, here, here and here. There are many other critiques along similar lines in other ‘progressive’ media outlets. The critique itself is valid but its ubiquity suggests to me that XR is touching a nerve on the left about something that runs deeper in its soul.

I’ll elaborate on that in a moment after addressing the second point. Of course it’s true that it’s easier for – let us say – a middle-aged, white, middle-class woman to face arrest with equanimity than, say, a young, black, working class man (though, let’s be clear, there’s no requirement for XR members to get arrested). But an additional reason for the equanimity – one that leftist commentators have surprisingly missed in view of their movement’s history – is that XR’s protest is collective, building strength through solidarity. At the point of arrest, for example, XR’s legal observers establish who’s getting arrested and where they’re being taken. In the holding cages and cells of the police stations almost everyone is an XR protestor, which usually creates an engaged and supportive atmosphere with climate change looming large in discussions between activists and the police. And XR teams wait in the police stations to give support to arrestees when they’re released. Nobody seems to be talking about this politicization of custodial space, but to me it seems probably as crucial as personal identity to the different experiences of XR protestors and people of colour to the structural discriminations of the criminal justice system.

I think middle class XR activism has wrongfooted sections of the left because of the latter’s deep historical bias that authentic political critique can only come from the most structurally oppressed social groups – a bias it’s high time the left abandoned as a bad Hegelian legacy, rather than engaging in a rearguard defence of it by sniping at middle class activists for their privilege. Yes, it’s important to be aware of that privilege – and indeed to turn it to good social use, for example by engaging in forms of climate activism that people with other class or ethnic identities might judge too risky. But no, the existence of the privilege doesn’t intrinsically negate the activism. For its part, The Guardian has rightly called out the divisive language of the “real people of the country” used by the right in its messaging around Brexit. And yet, along with large sections of the left, it happily plays the same game when it comes to XR.

It may also be worth homing in a little more sharply on exactly which middle class people turned out for XR. The ones most in evidence to me as I moved around the protests were teachers, social workers, doctors, health workers, engineers, scientists, researchers, architects, craftspeople and creative types, along with a few farmers – people who seemed committed at some level to work that creates wider public good. Less in evidence were middle-class bankers, hedge fund managers, company directors, media celebrities, tabloid journalists and generally people who consider wealth creation to be a public good in itself. In the years to come, I suspect the willingness to create in-kind public good will come to be seen as a greater political virtue than the economic standing (middle-class, working-class) accorded by a crumbling capitalist economy. Therefore, however empty, gestural or silly it is for middle-class protestors to get themselves locked up for their climate activism, to me it’s come to seem less empty, gestural or silly than middle class non-protestors pursuing paths of personal nest-feathering.

Incidentally, since first drafting this piece, I came across Nafeez Ahmed’s critique of XR, which bears mostly on its questionable racial politics and, in his words, its ‘flawed social science’. He makes some good points, and has probed some of the issues more deeply than me, but I find a good deal of his argument problematic. I think he makes too much of past civil rights and anti-colonial struggles as somehow exemplary of what civil disobedience is and must be – essentially a claim for equal treatment of a stigmatized group made to political authority – whereas climate change raises wholly different and new issues. True, XR’s messaging is itself sometimes a little crass about what ‘the social science says’, but so too is Ahmed. I’ve argued here before against the idea of formulating policy on the basis of what ‘the science says’ and – much as I hate to diss my own tribe – that’s also true with bells on when it comes to what ‘the social science says’. Ahmed is right that climate change activism has to operate society-wide, though he seems to miss the point that protesting in central London is fundamentally about engaging existing political authority, not specifically about engaging London’s diverse population – and he leaves some questions hanging about the nature of and responsibilities for such engagement. There’s much food for thought in his article, but not quite enough to overcome my sense that what leftist animus against XR’s class character reveals most of all is its own political limitations.

2. XR’s ‘beyond politics’ stance is untenable. Solutions to climate change are inherently political, and must involve an anti-capitalist commitment to degrowth.

I agree with the second sentence, but not so much with the first – which I think puts the cart before the horse, and demands of XR activists some kind of tribal pre-commitment of political allegiance. I think leftists should have more confidence in their own politics. XR’s three demands are for the government to:

  1. ‘Tell the truth’ and communicate the urgency of climate action.
  2. ‘Act now’ to reduce emissions to net zero by 2025.
  3. Go ‘beyond politics’ by forming a citizen’s assembly to lead government on climate justice.

It seems to me that plausible attempts to implement those demands and their underlying analyses and programs would by necessity push politics towards degrowth and non-capitalist frameworks – though not necessarily ones that exactly mirror existing mainstream leftist positions. But I can’t see the virtue of insisting on some headline commitment to the ‘correct’ analysis upfront, especially since XR’s key job is to build a groundswell of support for appropriate climate action and usher people into that process.

In saying that, I don’t mean to suggest that the general public’s politics will simply line up with those of me and other leftists as inherently the ‘right’ ones if only they work through the necessary processes. I share the fear of ‘avocado’ politics (a brown or fascist politics beneath a green veneer) raised by commenters under my last post. So I think it’s important to keep emphasizing inclusivity and a common human fate in climate politics, and to keep the political discussions alive around climate change and its broader linkages with capitalist development, social injustice and the travails of the global south. But the larger point is that XR has opened up a new space of mass public reflection on climate politics which points to the poor future prospects of the present political economy. It’s less clear that its role is to prejudge exactly how to fill that space. XR has taken the horse to the water. The onus is now on us collectively as citizenries to do the drinking. If XR prejudges that process, my fear is that it’ll negate the work of recruitment that it’s so successfully charted to date.

Generally, my thinking on climate change has moved towards a pretty deep social adaptationism – social in the sense that I’m not really interested in thinking about individual prepping for an apocalypse, but about what kind of new social institutions people can forge to help them collectively deal with the grave challenges of our age. I struggle to see how those new social institutions won’t be ones geared around viable agrarian localism, and in that context while the new politics will be non-capitalist and non-growth oriented much traditional leftism will fall by the wayside. If we’re lucky, XR will help provide the tent within which we can hammer out the new politics. I don’t think we can expect more of it right now.

3. We need technological innovation to defeat climate change, not disruptive protests.

This mantra was repeated by Matthew Lesh in the Daily Telegraph, channelling the claims of Bjorn Lomborg from the same paper earlier in the year that we need to invest in R&D to ensure that carbon-free energy sources can be brought to market in the future.

Maybe if Lomborg and his ilk hadn’t spent the last twenty years scorning the idea of a climate emergency then by now we’d actually have some kind of carbon-free energy technology to ‘defeat’ climate change, though I think even that view short-changes the economic drivers of climate breakdown. In any case, no such technology is presently available, and currently we’re combusting more fossil fuel than ever before, while just 15% of all global primary energy comes from non-fossil sources. Some people still hang onto the idea that those of us in the global north will be able to retain our present high-energy lifestyle without causing climate breakdown with a snap of our technological fingers, but if that was ever possible in the past the fact is we’ve now run out of time for it.

Far too much discussion of climate change is taken up with a focus on technological mitigation, at the expense of discussing social causation (back to that issue of capitalism and growth) and social adaptation. I daresay that new technological developments may permit a little mitigation. I also daresay that it won’t be enough to prevent the need for deep social adaptation, and it’s this latter that now seems to me the only thing worth substantial political attention. If it takes disruptive protests to gain it, so be it.

4. XR is a millenarian death cult.

You’d think nobody would take such a claim seriously, but it’s become a minor mantra of the apoplectic plutocratic class, seemingly traceable to Spiked magazine and an article by its editor Brendan O’Neill who argues that XR should be ‘ridiculed out of existence’.

For those unaware of the underlying history, Spiked started life as Living Marxism – a magazine associated with Britain’s Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party – and then through some strange vicissitudes transmogrified into an allegedly Koch-funded mouthpiece of extreme rightwing libertarian opinion-mongering. Which is surely ironic, since it’s hard to think of millenarian death cults in modern times to match the havoc wreaked both by Trotsky-style revolutionary communism and its dreams of a future purified by the redeeming violence of the proletariat, and by market libertarianism and its dreams of a future purified by the redeeming violence of capitalist markets and their cargo cults. So what really needs ridiculing out of existence is ex-Trotskyist market libertarian publications lecturing anybody about millenarian death cults. Not once in O’Neill’s article does he reference the threats posed by climate change that these particular death cults have done so much to foment. His arguments are beyond parody really, but Nish Kumar does a pretty good job of parodying them anyway if you’re interested.

Nah, there’s nothing deathly or millenarian about the XR activists I know. They’re just ‘ordinary’, flawed, caring (middle-class) people like me, full of love and zest for life, and really, really scared about the deathly devastation that climate change threatens to wreak upon the world and the life they hold dear, unless governments act radically and immediately.

Extinction Rebellion: Four Criticisms (and why they’re unconvincing)

The issue of climate change activism and the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement has caused me a good deal of intellectual and emotional soul-searching. A journey that began last year with a large helping of scepticism on my part took me last Friday to a cell in Sutton Police Station, where I whiled away several hours. I’m not going to tell that story here, but my enforced idleness at least gave me the opportunity to reflect on the various criticisms of XR that have been doing the rounds of the media, formal and social, during its actions over the last couple of weeks and why I’ve now come to find these criticisms unconvincing.

So below I bring you a sceptic’s guide to XR scepticism, in a two-part post that’ll be continued next time. In this first one I focus on issues that strike me as requiring a genuine, substantive response and/or that I wrestled with myself in embracing the movement. In the next one, I discuss objections that seem more like flummery to me (“XR is too white and middle-class”, “XR is a millenarian death cult”, “technical innovation will save us” etc.) but nevertheless tell us interesting things about our times.

I’ve chased down a few references and datasets to inform this post after regaining my freedom and internet connectivity (same thing, right?), but I’m dashing this out kind of free-form while I can still remember my thoughts without explicitly linking to many sources for these criticisms. They’re not hard to find online for anyone who cares to look.

Here we go, then – XR defended, Part I, in relation to four common objections.

1. With their nylon tents, smartphones, coach rides to London and so forth, XR activists demonstrably participate in the fossil fuel economy and are therefore hypocritical.

This is one I wrestled with personally longer than I should have. But it would only be true if the point of our demonstrations was to showcase our lifestyles as exemplary beacons for others to follow. What we’re actually saying is that climate change poses a massive collective problem to which we as individuals certainly contribute, but that can only be satisfactorily addressed right now if our most powerful collective institutions at present – namely our governments – treat climate change with appropriate urgency and radicalism.

Maybe it helps to invoke the language of addiction. If an alcoholic tells you they desperately want to quit drinking because of its damaging consequences, and then you see them knocking back the vino, you don’t accuse them of hypocrisy. The analogous role of government presently is to say “alcoholism is a very serious problem and we’re bringing through some truly radical policies to tackle it. Possibly next year. Or the one after. In the meantime, would you care for a glass of wine?” We need to get ourselves off fossil fuels – and we need governments to make it easier for us, not harder.

I’m not convinced that governments are capable of doing so. But I think it’s worth at least spending a few days of the year raising one’s voice alongside others to remind them that they really should.

I wonder if the argument about hypocrisy pulls so strongly because humans have a finely-tuned urge to push back against even the most minutely articulated suggestion of social superiority, which is no doubt evolutionarily functional in face-to-face settings (though regrettably not functional enough to prevent the emergence of monarchies, empires and capitalist world systems). It too easily leads us astray in our modern, vast, mediated societies when we read structural critique as mere personal self-aggrandizement. But if climate change activists need to get over any personal self-satisfaction – and I think XR does a good job in emphasizing the importance of this – then so do their critics. Would you rather be looking at the wreckage of a dying civilization and feeling good about yourself for at least not putting on airs and graces, or might you heed the warning of people who, like you, are contributing to the problem but are at least trying to sound a warning bell and chart another course?

And if you’re still not convinced, maybe this meme might help.

2. The protestors’ demands are cruel and absurd: they’d result in old people dying/poor countries unable to develop/us all living in the stone age.

The XR demand relevant to this is for the government to act now to reduce Britain’s emissions to net zero by 2025. It’s quite a stretch to get from there to the kind of claims in the sentence above, but I’ll try to unpack this a little.

If the government went for net zero by simply mothballing all fossil fuel infrastructure immediately, ceasing to airfreight medicines and so on then yes more old people would probably die. But instead it could aim towards net zero while attempting to mitigate social harm, especially to the most vulnerable people. If it did that, the people who’d experience the largest decline in their fortunes wouldn’t be vulnerable old people but fossil fuel companies and other corporate players. And, well, y’know, most of those planes in the sky aren’t up there carrying medicines… I can’t help feeling that the rush within the right-wing media to identify vulnerable groups who’d suffer from decarbonization is something of a smokescreen to deflect attention from the non-vulnerable groups who’d suffer from it more.

When it comes to poor countries being able to develop, I’d agree that it would be good for the poorest ones to be able to do so – even at the cost of higher emissions. For example, compare Burundi (GDP per capita: US$245; CO2 emissions per capita: 0.04 tonnes) with the UK ($41,125; 6.5 tonnes). However you distribute that average $245 around in Burundi, most people are going to be really poor, so the case for increasing it is strong. But here’s the thing: ‘development’ accrues mostly to the people or the countries who can gain the largest returns on investment, and this in turn depends on who has the most money to invest in the first place, as I showed in more detail here. Meanwhile, there’s a net financial drain from the poor countries to the rich countries. If rich countries like the UK junked their fossil fuel infrastructure and contracted their economies, it would increase the welfare of poorer countries while decreasing global emissions.

There’s also another facet to the issue of ‘development’, but I’ll come on to that under my next heading.

Finally on this point, would decarbonization and economic contraction revert us to the stone age, or at least to premodern living standards? To me, continuing on the present ‘business as usual’ pathway that could take us close to 5oC of warming by 2100 seems more likely to result in a future stone age than degrowth and decarbonization. But, as voluminously argued on this site over the years, a move towards more egalitarian, low energy, labour-intensive, local agrarian economies is more likely to increase welfare and living standards globally than decrease it.

3. Britain is a world leader in decarbonization with a tiny contribution to global emissions. Why aren’t the protestors targeting China or India instead?

It could perhaps be plausibly argued that Britain is a world leader in decarbonization, but what this mostly goes to show is how crap world leadership on decarbonization has been. In 1960, global CO2 emissions averaged 3.1 tonnes per capita, while by 2014 they’d reached 5.0 tonnes (the absolute increase, of course, has been much higher). The corresponding figures for Britain are 11.15 and 6.5 – a good improvement, but 6.5 tonnes per capita is still well above the global average and not good enough. Indeed, on current performance Britain is set to miss the carbon budgets that its own government has set itself for the mid-2020s and beyond. So on the basis of those figures alone, I’d argue there are plenty of reasons for us in Britain to protest to our government about inaction over climate change.

One reason that Britain’s emissions have declined quite impressively is that we no longer have a large, energy-hungry heavy industry and manufacturing sector, a baton that’s now been passed to other countries – China in particular. So the Chinese figure of 7.5 tonnes of CO2 per capita (still way below the US figure of 16.5 tonnes) needs to be interpreted in that light – a good proportion of China’s emissions arise in service of imports demanded from wealthy countries like Britain (India, by the way, emits 1.7 tonnes per capita, and is also a net exporter).

How big a proportion? According to this analysis CO2 emissions embodied in trade constitute -16% of Chinese emissions and +37% of UK emissions – so if we correct the figures I gave above accordingly (is that methodologically sound? I think so…) the Chinese emissions turn out at 6.3 tonnes per capita and the UK ones at 8.9 tonnes – another reason, I’d argue, for us in Britain not to get too uppity about Chinese emissions. If you throw in a proportion of the emissions embodied in all the local infrastructure to deliver those exports (roads, factories, ports etc.) then those figures would look even worse.

But whether the Chinese figures turn out higher than Britain’s or not, there’s a wider point to be made. If the poor countries of the world really ‘develop’ and attain something like the levels of wealth currently enjoyed by a country like Britain (though frankly this is fanciful within the present structuring of the global economy), then they’re probably going to have to do it along the lines that China did – with relatively cheap, low tech and dirty industrial infrastructures (concrete, coal etc.) So currently, the only path to ‘development’ on offer through the mainstream economy is one that leads to earth systems breakdown. We need to construe alternative futures – and as I’ve argued on this site and in my forthcoming book, the most plausible one I can see is a small farm future of local agrarian autonomies that nourish their ecological base.

Another dimension to the issue arises from the fact that carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels tend to accumulate long-term in the atmosphere, acting as a growing stock that forces temperatures ever upwards. Therefore, any carbon dioxide that we choose not to emit, in however small an amount, helps towards mitigating climate change. This also means that although many different things can happen to a given CO2 molecule, most of the ones emitted from fossil fuel combustion in humanity’s recent industrial past are effectively still up there, doing their climate forcing work.

On that front, this dataset again provides interesting information on historic, cumulative CO2 emissions. As recently as 1920, Britain was responsible for a quarter of all global cumulative emissions. That figure has now sunk to 4.9% – though that’s still quite a bit higher than its current annual contribution of 1.1%. Only four countries have higher cumulative emissions – the USA (way out in front at 25%), China (13%), Russia (6%) and Germany (6%). If you adjust the figures for each of these five countries by current population size then Britain comes second only to the USA, and not by much. Given that there’s a fixed budget of only about 14 years-worth of current global annual emissions to retain a 50-50 chance of staying within 1.5oC of global warming, one interpretation of these figures is that Britain has already had more than its fair share of fun with CO2, and now it’s time to step back gracefully – ideally by reaching net zero emissions in 2025 as XR demands – and cede space to countries like Burundi.

You’ll note that quite a lot of the figures I’ve used above are on a per capita basis. That seems fair to me. Each person has to take some responsibility for their own local emissions, rather than pinning the blame generically on other countries – and, as I’ve shown above, British emissions are pretty bad and worse than they first appear from current production-based emission figures when various corrections are introduced. Still, it’s true that whatever Britain does about its emissions, the consequences will be dwarfed by what China or India do because they’re much bigger countries.

But there are, finally, three lines of argument that suggest to me this has little bearing on the case for UK citizens to direct climate activism at the UK government.

First, since – as I indicated above – emissions are a cumulative stock, not a transient flow, then any CO2 that we’re able to avoid emitting has positive consequences for climate change mitigation. It really doesn’t matter that Britain is a small, insignificant country in terms of current global emissions – whatever we can abate is a help (incidentally, it’s funny how the sort of commentators who say that Britain is a small, insignificant country when it comes to climate change say exactly the opposite when it comes to Brexit…)

Second, since Britain was one of the first industrial/emitting powers, has one of the world’s largest economies and has emissions per capita that are still 30% higher than the global average, it’s hardly likely that bigger, poorer, ‘developing’ countries will commit seriously to climate change mitigation if we simply point the finger at them and don’t take radical steps to reduce our own emissions. Therefore we need to pressurize our government to do more.

Third and last, though it began in Britain, XR is an international movement, with people lobbying their governments in many countries. Usually, it’s easier for citizens to influence their own government than foreign governments, who have no formal or de facto accountability to them. A hundred British protestors blockading Waterloo Bridge is disproportionately more influential than a hundred British protestors blockading the Chinese Embassy – or Tiananmen Square for that matter. And to those enthusiasts for capitalism and freedom who say XR activists should be lobbying against climate change in Tiananmen Square, I say you should be lobbying for freedom there, so let’s go together – but you first.

4. How does stopping ordinary Londoners going about their business and the police from focusing on real crime help advance the cause of climate change mitigation?

This is a favourite of angry, right-wing radio talk show hosts and – though I must confess it’s one that I’ve struggled with too – ultimately I think they answer their own question. It does so in some measure by getting self-important blowhards in the media to talk about climate change and thus to raise it in public consciousness in ways that simply wouldn’t happen with legal demonstrations that would get precisely zero media coverage in comparison with Brexit, the royal family or the football results.

Most members of the public I encountered in the course of the protests were either enthusiastically or cautiously supportive of XR, and only a few abusively opposed – a number of the latter looking quite well to do, rather than ‘ordinary’. As I stood lined up against a wall with my fellow arrestees behind a phalanx of police officers, one kind passerby stopped and thanked each one of us personally for what we were doing. Almost every activist I’ve spoken with has similar stories about the high levels of public support they’ve met, sometimes from unlikely quarters like arresting police officers or city bankers. I think there’s more support for XR than a casual reading of the daily press might suggest.

As to the use of police resources, it’s up to the police and the government to decide what they want to devote their resources to. As the climate and other crises deepen, governments are going to have to spend an increasing proportion of their resources on the ‘intermediate economy’ that furnishes the final products – spending more of their income just on figuratively keeping the roads open. On that score, maybe they should thank XR for giving them a taste of things to come and letting them get some practice in.

In the midst of the latest rounds of protests, the Metropolitan Police issued a Section 14 order that enabled them to arrest any group of three or more identifiable XR activists assembling anywhere in London. Regardless of the underlying issue that’s being protested, I think a lot of people found the wider political implications of that troubling, just as a lot of people found the wider political implications of the government closing down parliament in order to get its way over Brexit troubling. It seems likely to me that the way many of the political, economic and ecological crises of our age will manifest is in increasingly divisive and authoritarian forms of governance – of which these perhaps are early signs. I think this needs resisting, and I think XR is helping to shape that resistance.

 

Note: Except where otherwise stated, all data reported above are derived from the World Bank’s World Development Indicator dataset, 2014 data (the latest year for which it provides emissions data).

Extinction Rebellion, David Blunkett and Me

I briefly mentioned the Extinction Rebellion climate change protest in my last post. In this one I want to describe what some of my misgivings about it were and how I’ve now laid them aside and embraced the movement, thanks to a few dark nights of the soul and a little helping hand over the line from former British Home Secretary, David Blunkett. The issues bear directly on many wider themes of this blog, so it seems appropriate to lay them out here.

A key demand of Extinction Rebellion (XR) is for the British government to act now and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025. My main ground of skepticism on this was that for some time now I’ve been of the view that the British government, and most other governments, is so inextricably bound into a model of carbon-intensive capital accumulation that ‘demanding’ anything of it that requires deep systemic change to that model is a waste of time. Better to try to work around it by building autonomies from it and new political structures at a local level as best one can. Besides, if Britain did achieve net zero emissions by 2025, what would that involve? Well, though our farm falls far short of achieving post-carbon perfection, it would involve a national farmscape very different from the present and much more like the localized, mixed, labor-intensive kind of farming we practice. Better just to get on with the farming, then, I thought, and with related activism such as the case I try to make for small-scale farming in my writing.

Other reservations included a sense that my own lifestyle and life choices have been less than perfect environmentally – let he who is free of sin cast the first stone, and all that. Plus I wasn’t sure that disrupting ordinary people going about their business was the best way of spreading the climate change message, especially since I’m a stereotypically diffident Englishman who hates getting in other people’s way and making an exhibition of myself.

So what’s changed in my thinking? In some ways, not much. I still think that the government is inextricably bound into a model of carbon-intensive capital accumulation that makes it virtually certain Britain won’t have decarbonized by 2025. I still think that building local political autonomies via local food and farming work is a key activity. And I think I’ll be a stereotypically diffident Englishman till the day I die. What’s changed for me is the extraordinary success of the protests in gaining national attention and getting people thinking about climate change, and the high levels of public support they achieved despite the radically disruptive tactics.

The BBC ran an explainer article. Are XR’s demands realistic? No, according to some of the experts it quoted. We’ll have to radically cut back on flying, meat and dairy consumption, ditch gas boilers, and build scores of thousands of new wind turbines if we’re to continue consuming energy as we currently do with net zero emissions. Of course, we or our descendants will have to cut back on a lot of things too if we fail to slash emissions and usher in a world of climate breakdown – civilization possibly being one of them. So here’s a thing – to achieve zero emissions by 2025 we may actually have to use less energy. Well, it’s a thought. Not one articulated in the BBC article. Not yet. But we’re inching closer – thanks to XR, closer than we’d ever be if it was mainly obscure bloggers like me talking about a low-energy future.

But how did XR raise the profile of climate change so successfully? By mass civil disobedience involving the blocking of London thoroughfares and bridges by people who were willing to get arrested for the privilege. If they’d protested legally without obstructing anyone or anything, it wouldn’t even have been a footnote in the news. Two of the 1000+ people arrested were my wife and son (yep, I have children, I’m afraid … and yet I still think the government should take action against climate change). So I followed events in London with a keener interest than I otherwise might.

While they were in London, I spent the week at home on the farm, helping to keep it ticking over, being a parent to my daughter, spending long hours at the computer working on the draft of my book where I try to make the best case I can for a low-carbon, low-energy small farm future, keeping going with endless cups of coffee (I drink coffee too …  Give me a break – it’s organic, fair trade, bird-friendly … OK, OK, I’ll think about it …), and following the news.

One news item I read was David Blunkett’s article in the Daily Mail ‘Why hasn’t the full force of the law been used against these eco anarchists who fill me with contempt?’ “Sorry,” began Baron Blunkett, “but I don’t need any lectures from any Johnny-come-lately on the urgent need to tackle climate change. Eleven years ago I was one of 600 MPs who voted to pass the Climate Change Act, committing Britain to slash carbon emissions by 80% on 1990 levels by 2050.” After roundly condemning the tactics of the “anarchists – for that is what Extinction Rebellion are” and opining that “unlawful protest in a democracy ultimately achieves nothing” Blunkett wrapped up by saying “It fills me with contempt to hear the protesters ‘apologising’ to the public for causing disruption.”

Well, it’s great of course that Baron Blunkett voted for the Climate Change Act eleven years ago. But bear in mind that a fair-sized chunk of the CO2 we put into the atmosphere every year stays there for centuries, adding to the CO2 of emissions past in its climate-forcing work. Bear in mind too that despite the undeniably valuable work on climate change by innumerable people who Blunkett praises for their law-abiding ways, global greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel use are rising year on year. The climate change responsibilities of a wealthy, early-industrializing colonial power like Britain, now a largely post-industrial one that’s burned through most of its own carbon, is a topic that perhaps I’ll examine more thoroughly in another post. But I think there’s a case for suggesting they go beyond the Climate Change Act and other official decarbonization efforts currently underway.

The evening my wife came home from the protest, for the first time in years I cried. I cried because the protests triggered pent-up emotions about things far too personal to mention in this post, and not much relevant to it anyway. Maybe I also cried because I was strung-out on too much writing and coffee (organic, bird-friendly). But I think I also cried because I’d looked at myself and realized that my judgments about XR had been wrong, that I should have been in London with the protestors that week, and that while I could have been less supportive of my wife’s choice about where to invest her time, I could have been more supportive too. Like a lot of people, a lot of women in particular, she’s given so much of herself over the years to making good things happen for other people – including raising our children to be decent, thoughtful citizens. So when I see that my son and my wife believe in something so much that they’re willing to get arrested for it for the first time in their respectively young and not-so-young lives (sorry, darling), I think I need to pay attention. It’s surely worth everyone’s while reflecting on their actions from time to time with a dose of self-criticism. Did I get that right? Could I have done that better? There are plenty of times when my personal answer to those questions is ‘no’ and ‘yes’, and this was one of them. But if I were to nominate a single category of people who could most use a dose of humble self-reflection along those lines, frontline politicians in rich countries who’ve had the opportunity to take action on climate change over the last thirty years or so would be right up there on my list. Baron Blunkett, I’m glad you voted for the Climate Change Act. It wasn’t enough. Not by a mile. That’s why we need XR.

So the next time XR stage a climate change action, there’s a good chance I’ll be there. I don’t expect my presence will make much difference to the low probability that Britain will be carbon neutral by 2025. I want to be there anyway. And I’m fair game for anyone who wants to say I’m a hypocrite for even being there in view of my other actions and inactions over climate. One of XR’s principles is to avoid blaming and shaming “We live in a toxic system, but no one individual is to blame”. The whole issue of personal environmental action is a troubling one that I’ve written about in the past. Before permitting myself to attend an XR action my aim will not be an impossible sense of perfect moral purity. But it will be to think a bit harder about the things I do and the things I don’t do and take some modest steps to address them. What’s really needed, though, is non-modest steps from the government that make it easier for people to address them collectively rather than individually.

If I’m at a future protest, I just want to put on record now that I’m not an ‘eco-anarchist’ (surely, surely we can get beyond the notion that civil disobedience is the same as ‘anarchism’, which itself is a complex and multi-faceted political tradition). As long-term readers of this blog will know, I’m a left-republican agrarian populist – and I’ll happily write a piece for the Daily Mail or the BBC explaining what that is and how it relates to climate change (all proceeds to go to XR. Please get in touch via the Contact Form). Granted, if the Daily Mail starts publishing articles on left-republican agrarian populism it’ll be a sign that XR’s goals are almost in the bag. Well, hope springs eternal. But I daresay neither anarchism nor left-republican agrarian populism exhaust the spectrum of political views within XR.

If I’m at a future protest, I’d want to be cautious of falling prey to ‘protest romance’ or to treating arrest as a badge of honor. But the truth is a relatively small number of dedicated protestors made relatively large waves by politely stretching Britain’s largest police force to the limit, and I’ve noticed the implications of that for future political change. Already there are calls to toughen up policing and stop protestors from occupying urban areas. If that happens, we’ll be moving towards the world I wrote about here where the militarized policing of international borders that criminalizes climate change refugees from abroad begins to connect up with the internal repression of dissent against the carbon-intensive status quo in the rich countries. Firm resistance will be needed to stop such a drift into political authoritarianism in the face of climate breakdown. XR gives me some hope that the reserves of resistance are there. And if I’m asked whether our hard-pressed police officers don’t have better things to do than spending time clogging up their cells with thousands of peaceful demonstrators, I’ll say “yes, they bloody do”.

If it comes to it, I’ll have to screw up every ounce of my courage (and there aren’t too many ounces of it to go around) to put myself in line to be arrested or to engage with hostile members of the public held up by the protests. But I’ll apologize politely for disrupting their day, because it’s not something I want to do and because, well, I’m a stereotypically diffident Englishman. But I’m not so diffident that I can’t match David Blunkett’s contempt with a contempt of my own for his epic levels of self-importance and complacency. Thank you, Baron Blunkett, for helping to turn me into a climate change activist.

The International Day of Peasant’s Struggle – some notes from the farm

A happy International Day of Peasant’s Struggle to you. Talking of which, I’m still struggling away trying to write my book about peasants while the rest of the farm crew are up in London protesting about government inaction on climate change, which means I’m having to do a bit of proper work as well for a change – all reasons why this blog is wallowing in the doldrums at the moment.

So here are just a few nuggets to keep it ticking over for the time being. I’m hoping normal service will resume in the autumn.

In the book draft, I’d been penning a few critical thoughts concerning Emma Marris’s take on ‘post-wilderness’. Then I went out to do some farm chores, one of which was removing old shreds of plastic mulch littering the place. Under almost every one, I found a nest of ants mightily pissed off at the disturbance and the consequent need to move their precious eggs. Post-wilderness. What to make of it all, I can’t say.

Prior to the post-wilderness section, I crafted some thoughts on future energy scenarios, which prompted me to finally read this paper by Victor Court that Joe and Clem linked on here a while ago. My thanks to them for doing so, it’s a real cracker – not least because it connects up various issues of interest to me, including the matter of perennial crops in the context of r and K selection. An excerpt from the paper:

“the [principle of maximum entropy production (MEP)] provides the explicit criteria linking selection at the individual level with emergent and directional properties at higher levels of organization such as communities and ecosystems … there are three different MEP selection pressures at work during the development of an ecosystem. The first maximizes the rate at which entropy production increases through successional time, which, initially at least, is achieved via rapid colonization of species with fast individual/population growth rates called ‘r-selected species.’ The second selection component of MEP is for maximum sustained entropy production during maturity. This is achieved via maximizing biomass and structural complexity, which necessarily involves longer-lived, larger, slower-growing organisms named ‘K-selected species.’ The third selection component is for stress-tolerating species extending the effective mature phase and postponing retrogression of the ecosystem. Thus, given the existence of ecological disturbance in the landscape, the MEP theory leads to the prediction that there should be long-term co-existence of r- and K-selected species, a directional transition from r- to K-selected species during succession, and increasing predominance of K-selected species in ecosystems with longer disturbance return times.”

To my mind, this is suggestive of the hard trade-offs I hypothesized between productivity and longevity in temperate perennial grain crops and the unpromising options for artificial selection to create a win-win across those dimensions. Maybe it’s also suggestive of (1) an energetic basis to that elusive idea, an emergent property of ecosystems, which ecologists I’ve debated with on here like Ford Denison and Andy McGuire treat with great skepticism, and (2) a similar dynamic in human societies and civilizations when a new and abundant source of energy is tapped – from the high energy throughput, high entropy ‘r’ phase to the low energy throughput lower entropy ‘K’ stage. In that respect, perhaps we can expect a small farm future that will resemble aspects of the small farm past, unless and until it’s disturbed by the discovery or creation of new energetic stocks.

Meanwhile, I’m currently reading David Montgomery’s book Growing A Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life. I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of anyone who’s read it.

I’m also continuing to ponder my comment policy in the light of recent discussions on this site here and here, and also in the light of events in the wider world – especially the mass murder of people in New Zealand on the grounds that they were Muslim, by a murderer who invoked some of the same Islamophobic tropes that I’ve tolerated up to now on this site. Then again, he also invoked various environmentalist tropes, prompting some people (not in good faith, IMO) to identify him with an eco-terrorism of limits and boundaries. If anyone feels they have insights in these murky waters I’m (probably) interested to hear them…

Moving on, the blog post I’d most like to write at the moment but don’t have time to do properly is one about commons, and in particular the need to go beyond an Ostrom vs Hardin duality. I’ve recently seen a few posts and tweets suggesting that it’s wrong to even mention Hardin on the grounds of his racism, eugenicism and general wrongheadedness (hmmm, back to the comments policy issue…) But a true grasp of Ostrom’s work and that of other analysts of common pool resource regimes surely involves appreciating that successful CPRs are successful precisely inasmuch as they recognize the dangers of a Hardin-style tragedy and take well-crafted steps to avoid it. Trying to erase Hardin from polite discussion is about as sure a way of realizing his presentiments as I can imagine. More on that at some point soon, I hope.

Finally, our friend Adam Tooze – star of the this recent post guest-written by Michelle Galimba – has penned an interesting article in the LRB essentially arguing that Trump’s USA is gearing up for a gloves-off superpower showdown with China that constitutes a break with the narrative of globalization since the 1990s, but not with the longer-term reality of a US-led world political order, to which the globalization model now stands as a threat. What has ended, according to Tooze, is any claim on the part of the US that it has a wider, benevolent political model to share with the world. Or as some old TV celeb has-been recently put it, “From this day forward it’s going to be only America first, America first”. Hey, I think Professor Tooze must have been reading Small Farm Future.

 

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.