An alternative agriculturist’s guide to science

To begin, just a heads up on a couple of new things on the site. First, I’ve posted on the My Book page advanced comments about my forthcoming book that have come in from a number of interesting thinkers. It’s nice to get such positive notices. Currently, I’m pretty busy gearing up for the book launch on 15 October (21 October in the USA) and I’ll be devoting some blog posts to the book thereafter.

Also, an interesting comment has come in concerning my house rules on the About page, to which I replied here. I don’t promise to debate my rules with all comers, but I think the issues in this instance are thought-provoking, so I (cautiously) welcome further comments.

And now to work with a few thoughts on science and alternative agriculture, inspired partly by this article and partly by the themes explored in Chapter 16 of my book (“From religion to science (and back)”). I’m not going to engage systematically with either source, but instead just use them as points of departure for a few remarks concerning the need as I see it for many of us in the alternative agriculture movement to develop a more nuanced approach to science.

Let me start by invoking a distinction I made some time ago between what I call ‘science’ and ‘SCIENCE’. Lowercase ‘science’ is the everyday, generally unglamorous work that scientists do in laboratories, field study sites and the like, where they use carefully-formulated techniques to tease out the relationships between entities in the biophysical world. A vital aspect of ‘science’ in this sense is that the people engaged in it – almost uniquely in human discourse – have developed rigorous procedures for conceding when they’ve got things wrong and the evidence doesn’t support their contentions. Science involves rigorously self-critical scrutiny. There are arguments about the wider philosophical commitments involved in doing science of this sort, but for my part I have very little quarrel with ‘science’ as I’ve described it here – if you want to figure out what’s going on in the biophysical world, it’s pretty much the only game in town.

By the way, you don’t really need to be a scientist to do science. A lot of growers and farmers do ‘scientific’ experiments all the time. Being amateurs, farmers usually lack both the resources and the expertise to do science of sufficient rigour to meet the quality criteria necessary to contribute to the professional scientific record, but we can still usefully inform our practice with some rudimentary knowledge of scientific methods and a healthy dose of self-critical scepticism.

It’s this self-critical scepticism that’s missing from the other kind of science, which I call uppercase SCIENCE. SCIENCE is a political claim that the human world should be organized in a particular way on the basis of ‘scientific principles’ or what ‘the science’ tells us to do, or other formulations of that sort (some people call this scientism). It’s in play when, for example, someone counterposes ‘scientific’ agriculture (good) with peasant agriculture (bad). SCIENCE isn’t really about science and can claim little or no warrant from the work that scientists do. Sometimes advocates of SCIENCE are scientists (who, after all, are only human) but its loudest advocates are often non-scientists wishing to invest their beliefs with a patina of authority.

Indeed, SCIENCE has a strong hold on our imaginations because science has been spectacularly successful in comprehending and intervening in the biophysical world. So it’s not surprising people want to warrant their social or political beliefs in its name. But you might as well claim a warrant from God, for whom in fact SCIENCE is a modern substitute. The reason that science has been so successful is precisely because it isn’t SCIENCE.

It would be easy to detail the many ways in which scientific work has too easily become a stooge of large-scale, corporate-dominated SCIENTIFIC agriculture in the modern world, and on these points I largely agree with the article I linked above. But I’d like to look at the flipside of this in alternative agriculture, which I’d argue stalks this passage in the same piece:

It is ironic that would-be scientists insist on seeing new discoveries and work printed in peer-review literature because they really have no understanding what they are asking. Pioneers have no peers and certainly no peer publications to publish their work. When Bruno suggested that the earth revolved around the sun, he was put to death by his peers. Galileo was threatened with torture by his peers for suggesting the same thing.  …. Peer review is actually political review, designed to determine whether the work alienates the monopoly…Are non-astronauts peers of astronauts? Are non-presidents peers of presidents? Are non-pioneers peers of pioneers? I say. No. Pioneers have no peers except other pioneers. The emphasis on peer review should be secondary to results in the field. It is in the field that farmers, gardeners, and landscape “doctors” are either made or broken.

The only part of this passage I really agree with is the last sentence. Like shopkeepers, farmers have no fundamental need for scientific evaluation of their practice because the criteria for judging results in the field (or the shop) rest in their own hands. Unlike the work that scientists do that absolutely requires external validation (let’s call it peer review), the only validation a gardener or a farmer really needs is their own – “this works for me” (hence the usefulness of farmers being their own scientists to check as best they can that it does actually work for them).

So why might farmers seek scientific evaluation of their practice? Undoubtedly, often for a number of good reasons, but also sometimes I think for a less good one – they want it validated by something with a powerful social cachet. The problem is, as soon as they look to science for validation of their practice rather than as a means for self-critical engagement with it, they’re doing SCIENCE, not science. And, all too often, such SCIENCE works as a thoroughly unscientific social status claim – follow what I do and don’t question it, because my work has been proven to be SCIENTIFIC.

I’ll concede that there’s quite a lot of this SCIENCE in the world of professional science, though the institutional practice of science as self-critical inquiry usually ferrets it out in the end. But what I want to warn against here is the dangers of succumbing to the siren song of SCIENCE in the world of alternative agriculture. I’m not going to name names or give specific examples. I’ve done it in the past, and I don’t want to rake over old antagonisms again. Instead, I offer this five-point checklist that I hope might help alternative agriculturists avoid the temptations of doing SCIENCE rather than science. And, just to be clear, yes I need to learn from it myself.

  1. Welcome nay-sayers. Nay-saying is why science has achieved so much. You think outcome x results from practice y? Great, but perhaps you’re wrong and somebody who’s questioning you might put you on a better track. There’s no need to be browbeaten off your chosen path by nay-sayers, but every reason to listen and maybe learn from them instead of simply nay-saying their nay-saying. Nay-saying can be beautiful!
  2. A complex, real-world practice like farming or gardening involves innumerable variables that are extremely difficult, costly and time-consuming to tie down scientifically. And there are places where science can’t really go, at least not yet. So it’s OK to farm by hunches and intuitive results. A lack of scientific warrant for your practice doesn’t necessarily mean it has no virtue. But it might mean it has less virtue than you thought, and it’s as well to be alive to that.
  3. Farming can be context-specific. Person A seeking farm outcome B in place C might hit upon some novel and elegant solution D which they believe should be practiced more widely. However, if person E seeking farm outcome B or similar in place G implements solution D on the basis of a superficial applicability, there’s a good chance it won’t work out so well. In these circumstances, it’s tempting for person A or their followers to fault person E, but that’s probably not the first place to look in order to understand where things went wrong.
  4. Please don’t, just don’t, compare yourself to Galileo and berate others for ignoring your peerless originality. It’s true that the institutional structures of scientific validation are conservative, and a downside of this is that false negatives do occur, with the odd Galileo slipping through the net and failing to get the hearing they deserve. Regrettably, though, there are many, many more people who consider themselves to be latter-day Galileos but, um – how can I put this delicately? – actually aren’t, and an upside of scientific discourse is that it filters out most of these false Galileos and saves the rest of us a lot of time.
  5. To put this another way, there’s an enormous danger of hubris in considering oneself a pioneer whose only peers are other pioneers. If you consider yourself to be pioneering new ways of farming or gardening, I’d suggest that your peers are neither other pioneers nor scientists but ordinary, common or garden farmers and gardeners like me, along with innovators of the past who slowly worked out the tried-and-tested methods we’ve inherited. If you’re truly onto something that they can’t appreciate, well, too bad for them. The world will probably catch up eventually – as when the Vatican finally admitted that Galileo was right in, er, 1992. So I’d urge you to do your pioneering with humility and a measure of self-doubt, using the scepticism of others to inform further reflection and improvement. If you can do this, then, truly, you’re a scientist, whether or not you have the PhD to prove it. And this is a rare and precious thing. SCIENTISTS, on the other hand, are ten a penny.

Finally, despite directing my comments here towards alternative agriculture, let me concede that they apply all the more forcefully to mainstream agricultural discourse and its numerous idols of the moment – vertical farming, industrial eco-gloop and so on. False Galileos are everywhere.

Outside the hive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of them cups her ear.

“Nah, can’t hear anything,” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. E.g.;;;; This Is Not A Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook, Penguin, 2019; David Wallace-Wells The Uninhabitable Earth, Penguin, 2019.
  2. E.g. Michael Shellenberger Apocalypse Never, Harper 2020.
  3. E.g. Leigh Phillips Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn Addicts, Zero, 2015.
  4. Hugh Brody The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers and the Shaping of the World. North Point, 2000.
  5. Joseph Tainter. The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press, 1988.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


Thinking on a small farm…

Apologies that this blog has become essentially dormant of late. I’d hoped to keep it ticking over while I wrote my book manuscript and perhaps try out some of my ideas for the book on it – as with my previous post – but the reality is I’m not finding the time to write both a book and a blog while simultaneously trying to lead an actual biological existence not confined to a 15 x 9 inch screen. Hopefully I’m in endgame with the book manuscript and this blog will spring into life again in the autumn. Meanwhile, I’m happy to keep this little corner of the internet pulsing by bringing you another book review from a valued contributor to Small Farm Future, Clem Weidenbenner. It sounds like the book Clem’s reviewing is one I ought to read as I try to thread the argument of my own book through mountains of vehemently-held and conflicting opinions. Sadly I’m now in book overload, both in the reading and the writing of them, so it’ll have to wait awhile. But my thanks to Clem for this rendering of its core:

Thinking on a Small Farm

Our benevolent host has long advocated for small farms and in many postings here at SFF has offered political approaches as means to empower them – or at the very least to not actively stand in their path.  And the community of commenters here at SFF have also shared thoughts and interests along these lines.  Brexit, Populism and the ascent of Trump, negative features of colonialism, causes and fallout from the financial crisis a decade ago – these subjects fascinate and invigorate lively debate here at SFF and among society at large.  When matters as these stir up emotion and enflame the passions of disputants the level of discourse may descend to levels of counterproductive infighting.  What course might we adopt to steer away from trash talk, insult, and invective?  How might we share and discuss disagreements with a view to find common ground, or if not common ground at least some level of common understanding?

Alan Jacobs offers some thoughts on these questions.  In his book How to Think1, Dr. Jacobs takes a stab at what we, as a society, might attempt on behalf of thinking, thinking together, and respecting our fellow thinkers.  The hubris of the title aside, Alan’s effort here is a modest attempt to call for listening as much as for thinking.  Engaged listening.  Reflection.  Community participation in the act of thinking.

At 156 pages, this text is decidedly shorter than Adam Tooze’s Crashed (reviewed here at SFF back in March by Michelle Galimba).  For those familiar with Dr. Jacobs very capable writing style this book will not disappoint.  He flows from one point to the next.  He outlines examples and offers footnotes for those wishing to dig further into the subjects at hand.  He does make a nod to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow2 (which one might consider a book about ‘How We Think’) – but I wish he’d developed the contrast between his and Kahneman’s efforts a bit more.  For instance, one might retitle Jacob’s book ‘How We Should Think’.

Alan explicitly moves thinking from the singular effort of an individual to the collective effort of a group.  Almost a ‘We think therefore we are’ to riff on Descartes.  Well, not exactly – for in How to Think Dr. Jacobs does get to offering advice on how to participate in collective thinking; how to cultivate habits that prevent bad behavior while participating in collective thinking.  This may be the strongest asset for the effort.  And in terms of Thinking on a Small Farm, for the community where local agricultural pursuits can survive and prosper, there is plenty here to take hold of and mull over.

I do have a quibble (hard to believe, right?).  In making a point about an idea offered by Scott Alexander, Jacobs writes the following sentence, “Since Alexander wrote that initial post, an article has appeared based on research that confirms his hypothesis.”  (page 73).  I’d have preferred he use ‘supports his hypothesis’ instead.  If we’re going to think together and think with a scientific method, we might want to test hypotheses – toss them if they deserve being tossed and accept them so long as data to hand support their being accepted.  ‘Confirms a hypothesis’ goes too far.

In a sentence – Nice little book, brief, engaging, and valuable.

  1. Jacobs, A. 2017. How to Think. Currency.
  2. Kahneman, D. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Other titles one might take a look at:

Forni, P. M. 2011. The Thinking Life.  St Martin’s Press [also a smallish tome, more focused on civility, a bit preachy – but quick and full of tasty bits]

Levitin, D. J. 2016. A Field Guide to Lies. Dutton. [twice the size of the former, good introduction to critical thinking, timely help in discovering the misdirections or mistakes offered by others]



The vaishya gambit

I have some good news and some bad news. The good news, at least for anyone who’s drawn to read this little Small Farm Future corner of the internet, is that I’ve just signed a contract with the publishers Chelsea Green to write a book, provisionally entitled Small Farm Future (sometimes I surprise even myself with my creative originality…) So you’ll soon be able to gorge yourself on a book-length version of my bloggerly musings. The bad news is that, starting now and for the next year or so, I’m going to have to prioritize the book-writing over the blog-writing. But I’m reluctant to abandon the blog altogether, so my plan is to write shorter, more knockabout pieces (if that’s even possible…) and most likely to turn the blog for the time being into something like a journal of the book writing process – not to give too much of my pearly wisdom away ahead of time, but perhaps to share a few of the knottier issues I’m working on as I go along, in the hope that I’ll get some comments back that will help me unravel them, as I’ve often found in the past.

So welcome, then, to Small Farm Future Mk II – my journal of a book year. But left hanging from my last post is the issue of transactional strategies in pre-capitalist, capitalist and potentially post-capitalist societies that I promised to address. Well, let me get the new style rolling with an experimental crack at dispatching the issue in a briefer, more rough-and-ready and much less thought-through way than I’d have previously entertained.

Most pre-modern societies found a place for asceticism (what I previously called the brahmanic or vaishya strategies) as a social and status role – conveniently, you might say, since there was less stuff to go around. Nevertheless, it was a potential route to high status – monasticism, anchorism etc.

In contemporary capitalist society the ascetic role has more or less disappeared, except perhaps for a few pariah groups who re-enchant lowliness and difference (Rastafari among working class Jamaican men, for example). But the possibilities for the rajanya or kingly role of ‘maximal’ transacting – being a tribute-taker and benefice-giver has greatly expanded in capitalist society. As customers, as citizens with rights and money, we like to throw our weight around. The customer is king, quite literally.

OK, not quite literally. In the Weberian terms introduced in my last post, status is a relatively non-expansible resource. Hence the innumerable ways people wishing to stake high status claims deploy to keep the hoi polloi and their vulgar wealth outside the castle. And hence perhaps some of the dissatisfactions of the consumerist lifestyle, which for all its sparkling wonders never quite delivers the satisfactions it seems to promise.

Unfortunately, I feel I now have to return to the vexed issue of personal environmental action, much as I’d prefer not to. So…you can give up on various rajanya activities (meat-eating, flying abroad etc.) because it’s the right thing to do environmentally, but it doesn’t make much difference to global outcomes because most other people are deeply entrenched in the dominant rajanya strategy, often to the extent that they consider your behavior irrational and, rightly or wrongly, maybe even a questionably brahmanical form of self-promoting status aggrandizement. This is written deeply into our contemporary religion – by which I mean economic theory – which holds that autarky is bad while trade and the trafficking of money is good.

Of course, it may turn out that through your self-denial you stole a march on all those idiots along the lines of John Michael Greer’s ‘collapse now to avoid the rush’ scenario, in which case you can allow yourself full gloating rights. But then your cover is truly blown…and in any case vaishya self-denial is more useful in that instance than self-denial of the brahmanical sort, because it’s only the former that puts bread on the table.

So, my feeling is that it’s too much to ask of most people to make individual ascetic decisions in a society that actively disincentivizes them and provides no cultural mechanisms for validating them as a collective practice. It’s a lot easier, for example, not to eat pork because that is deeply what your people do and are (including those you eat with) than because you disapprove of the intensive livestock industry and wish more people agreed with you.

The easiest way to imagine this changing is through force of circumstance. Thriftiness becomes a value because it has to in situations of economic constraint or environmental distress. But it’s interesting to conjecture about how that would normalize itself as collective cultural practice – partly because it may help us prepare for the inevitable and ease the process.

I raised the specter of ‘feudalism’ in my previous post, and many dystopian visions of the future likewise dwell on some kind of neo-feudalism as the destiny of a post-capitalist or post-fossil fuel future. There’s a political structure to historic feudalism that seems to me quite possible in the future – weakened successor states trying to fill the shell of a declining larger world-system through a kind of regional strongman politics. But the economic structure – a means of controlling labor in a land-abundant, labor-scarce world – doesn’t fit. The most likely scenario is the reverse – a land-scarce, labor-abundant (and politically-fragmented) world where if past history is anything to go by the economic model of choice would most likely be intensive self-worked smallholdings.

There’s a kind of smallholder-householder mentality, still with us to a degree, that has elements of the vaishya style. You fix things up yourself with your own resources, you only sell when the price is right, you avoid showy material forms of status display and so forth. These can be a form of status display themselves, but they can also become a kind of unconscious practice. They’re easier to achieve as a self-employed rural landowner than as a salaried urban dweller. The satisfactions of developing a smallholding – building its structures, creating its fields, planting and tending its woods and gardens – are more physically tangible and socially autonomous than the satisfactions usually available to the urban salaried dweller. You don’t need to invest in some spuriously autonomist notion of yourself as the lonely monarch of your one-acre kingdom in order to tap the make do and mend sensibilities of the vaishya style and find some fulfilment in it.

It may seem that there’s not much difference in practice between personal ethics to “do your bit for the environment” and the kind of collective vaishya style I’m proposing. But I’d argue to the contrary. How to encapsulate it? A practice of political economy rather than a critique of political economy? A style of practice rather than a practice of style? A collective intervention?

This vaishya style is typically dismissed by leftists as a right-wing, petty bourgeois, Poujadist mentality. It certainly can be, but I think the left would do better to start reimagining it as a building block for solidary post-capitalist societies. Otherwise the techno-grandiloquence and the crypto-capitalisms or crypto-Bolshevisms offered by the likes of Nick Srnicek, Leigh Phillips or Xi Jinping are pretty much all the left has to reckon with, which will leave it as the perpetual bridesmaid to capitalism-as-usual. The left as Nick Clegg to a David Cameron political economy. And we know how that turned out.

But where’s the structural basis for this vaishya practice to become an accepted way of being, a social norm, a class? Well, there’s the question. My feeling is that you don’t need to subscribe to an especially apocalyptic view of the future to think that the current multilateral global political order will unravel (it already is – with chronically stagnant growth, rising inequality and rising debt hustling it along its way). In those circumstances I think countries will start looking to shore up agricultural productivity and regional economic development, or else their declining command over their non-core regions will foster it by default (as per my analysis of what I’ve called the supersedure state).

So there’s that. But for various reasons I don’t find it especially persuasive that the world will smoothly reinvent itself as a network of sustainable smallholder republics in this way. On current trends, it seems more likely we’ll pass through a period of grand superpower tussling and delusional nationalist posturing with its scapegoating of immigrants and minorities and its writing-on-the-wall denialism, a politics of farragoes and chumps, a world in which Carl Schmitt’s politics of friend and enemy might emerge triumphant – but for a few islands, perhaps, of Machiavellian republicanism of the kind I outlined in an earlier post. Lord preserve us from a world of small-scale farmers presented as the ‘real people’ of the country.

But although I deplore the turn to rightwing populism in contemporary western politics, it’s perhaps revealing of the lie that was always at the heart of its liberalism. Schmitt was always lurking behind the Rawlsian veil of liberal internationalism underwritten by US power. Democracy, freedom, markets…and then Donald Trump bellowing the deeper verity – “America first!”

So ironically, perhaps the only chance for a truly liberal politics of friends and not enemies now lies in reconstructing a vaishya localism. But perhaps I’m being too pessimistic…?

Population: what’s the problem?

Apologies for the clickbait-y title. My question isn’t a rhetorical one intended to suggest that human population levels aren’t a problem. I don’t doubt they are. But it seems to me much less clear than a lot of people seem to think exactly what kind of problem they are, and what – if anything – could or should be done about it, which is what I want to aim at in this post. I raised these issues in my last post of 2017, which prompted some lively debate. But neither the post itself nor the comments under it quite nailed the issue for me, so here goes with another attempt.

1. Of proximal and underlying causation

In a recent article by the evergreen George Monbiot bemoaning plastic pollution in the oceans, the first comment under the line had this to say: “Two answers – population control and capitalism control – but no takers…not even George!”

It strikes me that this response is spot on…and also entirely misses the point. It’s spot on because although plastic pollution in the oceans is an immediate problem, it has deeper underlying causes which are summarily encapsulated by the words ‘population’ and ‘capitalism’ about as well as by any others. I think it’s a bit unfair to accuse George of not being a ‘taker’, since part of the point of his article was to suggest that self-fuelling economic growth – ‘capitalism’ by another name – is intrinsically destructive of the environment. Still, it’s surely true that without large global populations subject to the forces of capitalist commodification, the problem of plastic in the ocean would be very much less severe than it presently is.

But what is the ‘answer’ to the problem of plastic pollution, now that it’s there? Is it really population control and capitalism control? Suppose when the governments of the world met to negotiate the Montreal Protocol they’d said “the immediate problem of the ozone hole is caused by CFCs in aerosol propellants, but the underlying problem is population and capitalism. Therefore, rather than banning CFCs we propose to adopt a more holistic approach and exhort each member country to foster population control and work towards economic alternatives to capitalism”? Luckily, they didn’t, and the ozone hole is now a lot smaller than it otherwise would have been as a result.

Doubtless population and capitalism remain underlying problems, investing other issues – such as plastics in the ocean. Again, though, are population control or capitalism control the best means we have of addressing these other issues right now? Apparently, about 90% of ocean plastic pollution arises from just ten river systems in Asia and Africa, basically as a result of inadequate waste management systems and a lack of public consciousness about waste disposal in these rapidly industrialising places1. The most efficient remedy would seem to be targeting investment in waste management systems in the relevant places. It’s not a radical strategy aimed at the underlying generative factors, but it’s probably the most effective strategy aimed at the actual problem. Generally, I’m in favour of approaches that tackle the underlying nature of a problem, but sometimes it’s possible to overcomplicate things. The main problem with plastics in the ocean is plastics in the ocean.

It’s not an either/or thing, of course. Alongside strategies to reduce plastic pollution, strategies to reduce population and transcend capitalism also have their place. However, when someone like George writes an article identifying a particular issue such as this and gets the population/capitalism brush-off in response, I can’t help feeling that this is a way of relegating the problem from serious policy attention in the here and now. It would be a good thing if human population was lower than it is. But it isn’t, and it strikes me that very few of our contemporary problems are best tackled by prioritising population control as the main policy response. Certainly not plastics in the ocean.

2. Theories and causes

Nevertheless, it seems clear that high levels of human population lurk somewhere behind the numerous environmental crises of our age. But exactly how to elucidate the relationship between population and environmental impact is less obvious. In my previous post I critiqued ecological economist Herman Daly for a simplistic take on this (Daly is a fine thinker, but his subtlety seems to desert him on population matters). In a recent article, Daly said,

“Environmental impact is the product of the number of people times per capita resource use. In other words, you have two numbers multiplied by each other – which one is more important? If you hold one constant and let the other vary, you are still multiplying. It makes no sense to me to say that only one number matters”2

But, as I mentioned in my previous post, I just can’t see how Daly’s logic escapes a tautology that becomes obvious when you write his words down as an equation:

(1) Impact = Per Capita Impact x Population


(2) Impact = (Impact ÷ Population) x Population

The fact that total impact varies in direct proportion with population when it’s written as a function of impact per population is a mathematical truism, but it doesn’t tell us whether population actually does affect impact in the real world. The same is true of the I = PAT formula that’s also often invoked to characterise the relationship between impact and population. These mathematical formulae are merely a priori assertions, not empirical findings of real-world relations.

Let me take this example. In the 1960s the global whaling fleet was catching about 25,000 fin whales annually. We could take the fin whale catch as one indicator of environmental impact. Global human population was about 3.5 billion at the time, so the per capita impact of fin whale hunting was about one whale per 140,000 people. Population back then was increasing globally by about 2% per annum. So was the fin whale catch increasing by about 2% as well? No. Only a handful of nations were involved in whaling, and catch levels were determined by various factors that had little to do with global population. You just can’t write a meaningful, predictive per capita impact x population equation in this instance.You need to fit a theory to the data, not data to a theory.

Doubtless there are other issues where population level does have a more direct and independent effect – greenhouse gas emissions, for example. But we know that individual-level emissions vary between people by a factor of at least 2,000 according to life choices and circumstances, so if we’re going to insist on writing an environmental impact equation with population level as an independent variable in it, it’s going to have to be something of the form:

(3) I = p∑iv

Where I = total impact, p = total population, i = per capita impact and v is a variable factor representing these individual differences in emission levels.

The fact is, you just can’t infer from such a formula that I is going to vary directly with p.

Perhaps this is all an over-elaborate way of making the familiar point that what matters most isn’t population level itself, it’s what populations do – burning fossil fuels, clearing forests, dropping plastic in rivers and so on. Some populations do a lot more of those things than others. So generally speaking, v seems to me a more important variable to focus policy attention around than p.

3. Fertility decline

And this is particularly true because while the population debate rages on, meanwhile – unnoticed by many – global fertility is crashing at a historically unprecedented rate, as indicated in the graph below, which shows fertility rates worldwide and for the world’s five most populous countries over the last 55 years.

Source: World Development Indicators –

Those who say there’s inadequate attention to population control might do well to ponder the implications of this graph. In just fifty years, global fertility has more than halved, from an average 5.07 live births per woman in 1964 to 2.45 in 2015. In three of the five most populous countries of the world, fertility rates are considerably below replacement rate – and in fact this is true in about half the countries of the entire world. I would have thought that the trend shown in this graph would be widely celebrated by the anti-population lobby, but it scarcely seems to get a mention. True, population itself rather than population growth rate or fertility rate is continuing to rise for the time being as a result of the time lag between present fertility and its manifestation in future birth rates – there’s not much that can be done about that, short of mass murder or enforced childlessness. Fertility rates have to drop first before population level does, just as a car has to stop accelerating before it can start slowing. But for those who say that not enough is being done to reduce population, I wonder what realistic policy measures they believe could have been implemented over the last fifty years that could have improved on this 50% fertility decline.

It’s worth noting that not many countries apart from China have implemented explicit population control policies, and if you look at the graph you’ll see that the point at which China introduced its one child policy (1979) came after its steepest fertility decline. So it seems that on this one, the people of the world have voted with their feet…or maybe with other parts of their anatomy…and done the policymakers’ work for them. Certainly, it would have been hard to implement official population control policies globally as effective as this gigantic act of self-implementation, and perhaps unwise too – many countries are going to face significant social problems in the coming century as a result of this demographic collapse, however welcome it may be for other reasons3.

Of course, the demographic collapse doesn’t mean that our environmental and resource problems are going to magically sort themselves out. Which is another reason why the ‘problem’ isn’t really ‘population’…‘capitalism’ gets a bit closer to the mark, perhaps. The billions of people who live on just a few dollars a day certainly do have an environmental impact, but it’s really not them who are driving the drastically negative impacts in the contemporary world. However, I’d guess that the majority of them would love to live as impactful a life as the average European or North American if only they could. In that sense, globally reducing fertility rates aren’t necessarily much to celebrate.

But maybe with global population set to decline in the future, there’s less need to panic about increasing crop yields, ‘sparing’ land, intensifying agriculture and all the other components of high tech solutionism that are routinely trotted out in relation to rising human numbers and pressure on earth systems. Maybe the idea of settling in to our existing local places for the long haul at historically very high, but soon to be declining, numbers might prompt some more sober thinking about the possibilities of a more sustainable, steady-state kind of agriculture.

The reasons for the astonishing fertility decline don’t seem completely clear, but are largely to do with the demographic transition (declining birth rates following declining death rates) and ‘modernization’, generally speaking. So inasmuch as the line I take on this website is generally opposed to ‘modernization’, perhaps it’s worth musing on the implications of a small farm future for fertility rates or future population levels.

Against the notion that peasant farmers always have high fertility, the evidence suggests that in situations where population pressure on land is a limiting factor (which could well be the case for a lower energy, small farm future in a country like Britain), people attempt to keep their fertility levels low4. But high fertility can look like a good idea if you have no means of supporting yourself in old age and/or you or your children are unlikely to be able to attain a secure livelihood. So if I were responsible for social policy in a resource-constrained country of small farmers in the future, I think I’d prioritise primary health care for mothers and infants, social care for the elderly, and educational/job creating opportunities for young people. Doubtless this would pose many challenges, but on the upside they’re all people-intensive rather than energy or capital intensive projects, and that’s where the true wealth of human societies lies.

I’m in no position myself to lecture anyone about the evils of human fertility but here’s a final thought: there’s something quite odd historically about societies that deem having children to be a bad or irresponsible choice on the grounds of environmental impact, without attending more directly to the nature of the impacts themselves. I have no idea how that’ll pan out, since there are so few historical precedents. My guess is that while other countries will try to ape the high-consumption low-fertility western style, not many will succeed and in the longer term that high consumption low fertility style will go the same way as other weird religious cults of the kind that emphasise celibacy and service to some jealous and demanding god. People will get old, the freezers containing the corpses of the transhumanists will run out of juice, the trinkets will lose their lustre, and ultimately our societies will be replaced by ones that are better able to farm and function at sustainable levels of energy use by attending more to v and not so much to p in equation (3) above.


  1. Schmidt, Christian et al. 2017. Export of plastic debris by rivers into the sea. Environmental Science & Technology. 51, 21: 12246-53.
  2. Daly, Herman. 2018. Ecologies of scale. New Left Review. 109: 81-104. p.93
  3. Morgan, Philip. 2003. Is low fertility a 21st century crisis? Demography. 40, 4: 589-603.
  4. Netting, Robert. 1993. Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Intensive, Sustainable Agriculture. Stanford UP.

A small farm utopia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Doughnut economics

I didn’t intend to break my ‘History of the world’ cycle again, but the good folks of Dark Mountain have just published my review of Kate Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a Twenty-First Century Economist. And since I’m feeling stretched a bit thin between the blogosphere and the farm, I feel the need to curate the hell out of everything I write…So I’m appending my review below (which, as if to prove my foregoing point, attentive readers of this blog may notice borrows a few sentences from an earlier blog post here). Back to the history of the world next time.

There was a bit of toing and froing with drafts of this review, which my editors felt was overly negative in tone. That bothered me a little, because I’d wanted to convey the considerable merits of Raworth’s book in my review as well as my doubts about it. Suddenly, a self-image opened up for me that I’d not much scrutinised in myself previously despite a few past scrapes, in which I figured as just another windy old nay-saying online opinionater, or perhaps the “two-bit greentard” I was once accused of being. Meanwhile, Marc Brazeau keeps sniping at me on Twitter for misrepresenting his views in this recent post, but is so caught up in the process issues around how he thinks I should have checked what I was going to say with him ahead of time that he still hasn’t actually said what the problem is. Ah well, one truth is that you can’t please everybody. And another one for me is that the world seems so replete with bad choices and impossible trade-offs too glibly resolved in contemporary thinking that maybe a bit more windy nay-saying is exactly what we need. I’d certainly apply that critique to some of my own writing as much as to Raworth’s. And I’d definitely, definitely apply it to Brazeau, from what I’ve seen of his ideas. But, memo to self, perhaps I need to stay politer while I’m about it, and be more willing to apply it to myself.

Anyway, enough of this navel-gazing. Here’s the review (expurgated version).


Book review:
Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist 
(Random House, 2017)
by Kate Raworth

I doubt many people would have betted that this year’s hot new concept for a healthy economy would be that bad food staple, the doughnut. But with the publication of Kate Raworth’s book, it’s come to pass. The idea of the ‘doughnut’ is that there is (1) a lower social limit for human flourishing, beneath which welfare is limited by shortfalls in such things as food, education and housing, and (2) an outer ecological limit for human flourishing, beyond which welfare is limited by overshoot in such things as climate change, ocean acidification and nitrogen and phosphorous loading. These two limits constitute respectively the inner and outer rings of the ‘doughnut’, the sweet spot within which humanity must try to remain. I have to confess I’m not greatly moved by the metaphor, which doesn’t seem to go much beyond the truth that individually people can have too little, and collectively they can take too much. And too much of what – is there really a conceptual equivalence between taking too much water or fossil energy, and taking too much health, as Raworth’s ‘doughnut’ diagram (p.51) seems to imply? Whatever the case, she hangs a lot of sensible and lucid analysis off the concept in a genuinely thought-provoking, if for me ultimately unsatisfactory, book.

In the first part of the book Raworth dissects orthodox economic theory, showing how it frames the world in questionable but powerful and largely hidden ways that buttress right-wing, ‘free’ market politics, while silencing other modes of thinking. She places a lot of emphasis on the way that our stories and pictures condition how we see the world, and generally puts this to good use in deconstructing the ideology of mainstream economics – for example in the notorious ‘circular flow’ diagram of Paul Samuelson, founding father of modern economics, which depicted the economy as a kind of frictionless and endless flow of value through society, like water through a closed plumbing system. This ignores the open character of the energetic and biotic systems, with their sources and sinks, to which human economies are mere accessories. Doubtless Raworth’s view that we now need to tell different stories, and draw different pictures, resonates with the Dark Mountain Project.

Raworth characterises the old story of economics as one that unconditionally celebrates markets, business, finance and trade, deprecates the state and ignores households, commons, society, the earth and power. In the new story that she wants to tell, those elements that were ignored or deprecated in the old story are brought centre stage, and old elements like markets, finance and trade are put in service of wider human flourishing, rather than assumed to be unconditionally beneficial.

If that sounds obvious or trite, Raworth nevertheless does a good job of tracing the implications in some depth, using clear, jargon-free language aimed at the non-specialist, but without sacrificing an impressive level of subtlety. It’s refreshing that she talks about power, the systematic inequalities in human/human and human/non-human relationships, something that she rightly says is generally missing in mainstream economics. But unfortunately her description of it lacks depth, and doesn’t go much further than the observation that the wealthy get to shape the economy’s rules in their favour. OK, but who are the wealthy, and how were they able to accumulate their wealth? I get the sense that Raworth operates in a rarefied world of NGO and policymaker high-ups, whose inevitably bird’s-eye and reformist view of the world inflects her book’s gentle equity talk, its judicious commitment to levelling the playing field and its pervasive emphasis on ‘design’ as the solution to contemporary problems (her 21st century economics is, for example, “distributive by design” and “regenerative by design”).

The problem, however, is not that the present global political economy is badly ‘designed’. On the contrary, it’s extremely well designed, locking the majority of the world’s population into specific political relationships which have worked because they’ve convinced sufficient numbers of the relevant people that they have a stake in the status quo. But like every past political economy, the present one will only endure for so long, until a complex of internal and external factors forces radical change – not least in the identity of the ‘relevant people’ who are invested in the status quo. In the present global political economy, the consumers and business leaders of western Europe and North America have had disproportionate ‘relevance’. But it seems likely that in the political economies to come, their relevance will wane – and this will not be a process of ‘design’ but of messy conflict, violence, compromise, happenstance and political calculation.

For sure, the economic story that Raworth wants to tell is a good one to try to feed into this febrile mix. But I don’t think it’ll have much traction without a richer analysis of how politics and power happens. My feeling is that Raworth pulls her punches in analysing the mechanics of power because otherwise she would undermine the basic premise from which her book proceeds – that political problems get solved in smoothly reformist ways by designers thinking (or storytelling, or drawing) at a whole-system level. It’s an appealing view, perhaps especially to high-level policymakers. But I’m not sure it’s a very convincing one. Maybe there’s some truth in the notion that our stories create our realities. But it’s also true that we only find the stories we want to tell out of the realities messily created in the glacial grind of human history.

In recounting her alternative economic story, Raworth freely borrows from preceding heterodox economists like Herman Daly, Tim Jackson and Ha-Joon Chang. I’m not sure she adds a great deal to what they’ve already said. So I was a bit surprised to be told on page 44 that her key concept of ‘the doughnut’ is a “radically new compass for guiding humanity” derived from “cutting-edge Earth-system science”. There’s a danger here of the ‘radically new’ story succumbing to one of the pathologies of the old, and insisting over-stridently on its novelty and originality – this year’s must-have concept, rather than just another iteration in the long-established idea of sufficiency. Ah well, there’s nothing wrong with re-presenting old ideas anew if it freshens them up for another generation of readers. But Raworth says little that Herman Daly didn’t say, and say better (if a little more technically), in his 1977 classic Steady-State Economics. In that book, Daly distinguished between the three concepts of ‘service’ (human flourishing, the final benefit of economic activity), ‘throughput’ (the entropic physical flow of resources, particularly non-renewable resources) and ‘stock’ (all the things that are moved in the economy). Perhaps Raworth’s ‘doughnut’ concept is more memorable, but it’s less precise, and it doesn’t much help elucidate the point that some things deliver more service per stock than others.

The spirit of Daly nevertheless invests the later part Raworth’s book, where she lucidly examines questions of economic growth. Advocates for the ability of the contemporary global capitalist economy to generalise wealth while mitigating environmental impacts through technical innovation make much of the evidence for the ‘decoupling’ of economic growth from resource use in the ‘developed’ economies. A good deal of this decoupling turns out to be only relative – in other words, we’re using less resources than we used to in order to deliver a given amount of product (though not necessarily ‘service’ in Daly’s terms), but economic growth is such that we’re still using more resources overall. In some cases, there does appear to be a level of absolute decoupling, ie. a lower total amount of resource use. But Raworth usefully points out that what’s really needed is sufficient absolute decoupling – that is, enough absolute decoupling to bring throughputs back within the safe bounds of her doughnut, which some analysts suggest could, for example, amount to emissions reductions in the ‘developed countries’ of around 10% per annum – vastly greater than is currently being achieved. It seems likely that the ‘developed’ economies can only reduce their resource use at too high an absolute level to stay inside the doughnut. Meanwhile, the only working model available to ‘developing’ economies is to increase their absolute resource use. Raworth succinctly spells out the resulting paradox: “No country has ever ended human deprivation without a growing economy. And no country has ever ended ecological degradation with one”.

Time, then, for another story? Well yes, but what Raworth offers is mostly just a set of stories-in-the-plural of people doing various positive things. I don’t mean to belittle them. Many of them are genuinely inspiring and uplifting, such as the case of Malawian William Kamkwamba, whose home-made wind turbines brought power to his local community. But Raworth fails to put them into a systemic framework that turns them into a story, rather than simply a collection of stories – a story of how the systemic structuring of contemporary economies and polities can be systemically restructured into something better. And inasmuch as she does have a wider framework, it’s quite a problematic one – based on the notion of both the commons and the state as helpmates to human flourishing. Her text is sprinkled with references to things like ‘the knowledge commons’, ‘the collaborative commons’ and ‘the creative commons’, but this doesn’t amount to much more than a technical-sounding gloss to the notion that people sometimes share things. Well, sure they do. And sometimes they don’t. Raworth refers to the work of Elinor Ostrom, who looked carefully at various commons as defined collective usage agreements, but she doesn’t seem to have taken on board Ostrom’s point that commons sometimes work, sometimes don’t and are only sometimes (quite rarely) the best solution to resource husbandry questions. In Raworth’s treatment, there’s a slippage from commons as ‘defined collective usage agreement’ to commons as ‘free stuff, freely shared’. Take this passage:

The triumph of the commons is certainly evident in the digital commons, which are fast turning into one of the most dynamic arenas of the global economy. It is a transformation made possible, argues the economic analyst Jeremy Rifkin, by the ongoing convergence of networks for digital communications, renewable energy and 3D printing, creating what he has called ‘the collaborative commons’….Once the solar panels, computer networks and 3D printers are in place, the cost of producing one extra joule of energy, one extra download, one extra 3D printed component, is close to nothing, leading Rifkin to dub it ‘the zero-marginal-cost revolution’. The result is that a growing range of products and services can be produced abundantly, nearly for free, unleashing potential such as open-source design, free online education, and distributed manufacturing (pp.83-4)

One issue that goes unexamined here is the extent to which this highly technological commons, with its solar panels, computer networks and 3D printers, is sustainable in the light of the need for a sufficiently decoupled global economy discussed above. Another is that Raworth confuses the marginal costs of circulation, which indeed in the digital age have now sometimes diminished towards zero, and the costs of creative production, which aren’t necessarily much different than pre- ‘digital commons’ times. It takes as much hard thought and hard work to put together a good curriculum, a good political essay, a good poem or a good tractor design as it ever did. But once it’s put together, it can now be distributed almost costlessly around the world, potentially to an audience of billions. The zero-marginal-cost-revolution, if there is one, is a revolution of circulation, not production. No doubt it’s a fine thing, but it’s worth considering its major beneficiaries. Those who control the circulation are in a position to effortlessly siphon off wealth, whereas those who control the production aren’t – which is why Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are a lot richer than any political essayist, poet or tractor designer, delivering a ‘collaborative commons’ based on privately owned, and possibly ‘enclosed’, means of circulation. Meanwhile, much of what really matters to people as physical, biological beings – such as staple foodstuffs and bulky construction materials – doesn’t enjoy zero marginal costs of circulation, and isn’t usually best produced via commons.

Perhaps Raworth’s wider point isn’t so much about commons in the technical sense of common-pool resource use agreements. Rather, it’s a plea to create economies geared to delivering collective human benefit and to abandon the discredited old notion that the pursuit of individual self-interest somehow delivers collective benefit through the magic of the market – a magic that, if it was ever operative, now seems to be wearing off, fooling only a diminishing band of neoliberal fundamentalists. Raworth isn’t the first person, surveying the global political economy, to think “No, not this”, but then to flounder at the question of “But, then what?”, and indeed she makes a better stab than most at answering that question. However, a more comprehensive analysis is needed of the way that economic and political power works and the complex functioning of the modern state. As it is, her prescriptions involve a rather hopeful, voluntaristic and top-down rhetoric that seems destined to go unfulfilled. Her over-emphasis on ‘design’ rather than politics discussed above is one example of this. Another is the need she identifies to “bring on the partner state” to support commons and local economic regeneration, without analysing why contemporary polities so rarely do this. It surely isn’t just a matter of them choosing the wrong story.

Maybe part of the problem is our fateful modern conviction that the stories we tell have to be upbeat and optimistic – a conviction Raworth endorses, insisting on the need to see a “glass-half-full” future (p.286). It strikes me that this may be more indicative of our problems than the solutions to them. If only we could lay aside the quintessentially capitalist trope of ‘optimism’ that sends us scurrying here and there after positive stories as a kind of pick ‘n’ mix while ignoring inconvenient negativities and acknowledge that we now face potentially insurmountable ‘wicked problems’ that need to be reckoned with rather than ‘solved’, it might be easier to harbour genuine hopes for the future. Raworth herself writes that history has repeatedly demonstrated an association between economic crisis and the rise of xenophobia, intolerance and fascism (p.277). Why insist on a glass-half-full view of the future in the light of this repeated fact? It’s surely preferable to present a sober and systematic unpicking of the mechanics of political power and economic provisioning that can clarify alternative endpoints, than to regale the reader with upbeat stories of how things may just turn out well. At its best, Raworth’s book does some good unpicking. But it still leaves us a long way from home.

The tyranny of the ‘collaborative commons’

Busy times for me on and off the farm at the moment, but it feels like it’s time for another post. I’ll soon be returning to the Peasants Republic of Wessex by way of recounting the history of the world, but I’m not quite ready for that yet. Meanwhile, I seem to be in the business of knocking out little critical vignettes on various writers, having offered up Peter Frase and Michael Le Page in my last two posts. Two more to come, I think, before turning to other matters – on this occasion Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist1. I’m currently writing a full-scale review of the book to appear elsewhere. Here, I’m going to focus in specifically on the issue of ‘commons’ that Raworth raises in various parts of her book. I’ve written about it several times before on this blog, since I find myself much less enthusiastic about commons than most of my greenish-leftish-progressive-anti-capitalist fellow travellers. Ach, I’m a peasant populist at heart, and peasants have a canny sense of when a commons is a good idea and when it isn’t. Anyway, I’m not going to summarise exactly what Raworth says about commons, I’m just going to offer you the following six postulates about them prompted by my reading of her book.

  1. All forms of production are ‘collective’ – but that doesn’t make them a commons.

There are four main ways through which people organise their provisioning – households, private markets, governments and commons. Each have characteristic strengths and weaknesses, and are likely to be more or less appropriate in different situations. In order to succeed, all four of them rely upon collective arrangements between people to organise provisioning. A strong case can be made that the contemporary global economy is excessively focused on private markets to the detriment of collective human flourishing. But that’s not at all the same thing as arguing that provisioning should be organised in the form of commons.

  1. It’s easy to overstate the extent to which both the natural world and human history can be characterized as commons. And it’s unnecessary.

All organisms live interactively with others upon which they depend as part of wider communities. But in the natural world, their actions are rarely motivated by a concern for the wellbeing of the community and its resource bases as a whole – there are rarely agreed collective appropriation rules in nature. There frequently are collective appropriation rules in human societies, and often enough there are conflicts over them. It would be fair to say that in various times and places over the course of human history collective appropriation rights have sometimes been extinguished, to the detriment of some of the people involved and to the advantage of others. But I don’t think it would be fair to say that the history of most places, such as England, can be told substantially in terms of an ‘enclosure of the commons’ in which private appropriation by the aristocracy replaced collective appropriation by the populace. Additionally, there are various contemporary conflicts around the use of seeds, organisms and genes, and a strong case can be made in these instances that the privatisation of usage rights is a bad idea. It may even make sense to call this privatisation an ‘enclosure of the commons’. But the rights and wrongs of these conflicts are best framed in their own contemporary terms, rather than seeing them as analogous to medieval conflicts over agricultural land use or the way that organisms behave in ecosystems – except in such a broad and general sense as to be more or less meaningless.

  1. Agricultural commons work best for relatively low value, extensive, non-excludable situations with high labour costs of capital improvement, and the same is probably true of other commons.

The original meaning of a ‘common’ was an agricultural resource shared by a specific community in accordance with defined usage rules – and they typically arose in the kinds of situation described in the previous sentence. If you wanted to grow some onions for your table, it’s unlikely that you’d form a commons for the purpose – unless you had a taste for wasting a lot of your time trying to forge agreements in frustrating public meetings. Whereas if you wanted to collect firewood from your local woods, you might well feel it was worth the effort to work with others to create a commons so as to be sure there’d be some more firewood next year. Nowadays when we talk of commons we usually mean something more virtual – Raworth’s text is sprinkled with references to things like ‘the knowledge commons’, ‘the collaborative commons’ and ‘the creative commons’. An oft-cited example of such things is open source computer software. I can see how this particular example might fit with the typical characteristics of an agricultural commons within a community of software developers whose main livelihood is already secured (probably on the basis of paying a pittance for the food they eat) and who find more benefit from freely sharing bits of code they’re working on around their community than from trying to develop it on their own and then charging for it. But it’s a slippery slope, and once we start using terms like ‘the collaborative commons’ as a grander-sounding way to say ‘people sharing things’, the concept of the commons starts to lose useful meaning. It’s a given that people sometimes share things and sometimes don’t. We need to attend carefully to the circumstances in which they do or don’t, or in which they should or shouldn’t. Arguments with the logic of commons = sharing = good just aren’t careful enough.

  1. Production and circulation are different things.

I think the slippage I’ve just referred to from commons qua ‘defined collective usage agreement’ to commons qua ‘free stuff, freely shared’ matters quite a lot. To explain why I first need to introduce a distinction between production and circulation, which I’ll do via a quotation from Raworth:

“The triumph of the commons is certainly evident in the digital commons, which are fast turning into one of the most dynamic arenas of the global economy. It is a transformation made possible, argues the economic analyst Jeremy Rifkin, by the ongoing convergence of networks for digital communications, renewable energy and 3D printing, creating what he has called ‘the collaborative commons’….Once the solar panels, computer networks and 3D printers are in place, the cost of producing one extra joule of energy, one extra download, one extra 3D printed component, is close to nothing, leading Rifkin to dub it ‘the zero-marginal-cost revolution’. The result is that a growing range of products and services can be produced abundantly, nearly for free, unleashing potential such as open-source design, free online education, and distributed manufacturing”2

The confusion as I see it here is that, yes, the marginal costs of circulation are now nearly zero, but the actual costs of production aren’t necessarily much different from pre-internet or even pre-book times. It takes as much hard thought and hard work to put together a good course, a good political essay, a good poem or a good tractor design as it ever did. But once it’s put together, it can now be distributed almost costlessly around the world, potentially to an audience of billions. The zero-marginal-cost-revolution, if there is one, is a revolution of circulation, not production.

  1. Poorly-framed concepts of the commons punish creativity.

Well, no doubt this revolution is a fine thing. But follow the money. Those who control the circulation are in a position to effortlessly siphon off wealth, whereas those who control the production aren’t – which is why Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are a lot richer than any political essayist, poet or tractor designer. I don’t especially have a problem with that, except inasmuch as their private wealth derives from the ‘enclosure’ of appropriation rights from publicly-generated means of circulation. Which is surely an irony – a ‘collaborative commons’ based on privately owned, and possibly ‘enclosed’, means of circulation. But what I do have a problem with is the belittling of creativity or content-creation implicit in this whole ‘collaborative commons’ mindset. The way I see it, almost everybody has some kind of creativity – with words, or music, or materials, or ideas. The private market we use so pervasively to organise our lives is over-supplied with this torrent of human creativity, meaning it’s darned difficult to turn a buck from it. Fine, nobody was born deserving a favour from the world. But to my mind all this talk of ‘collaborative commons’ or ‘knowledge commons’ or Stewart Brand’s much quoted shibboleth that ‘ideas want to be free’ basically mystifies the hard work of production and gives the appropriation of circulation an easy ride. I wrote about this previously in relation to the debate between Josef Davies-Coates and Toby Hemenway concerning the former’s free circulation of the latter’s book, where the prevailing idea on the ‘knowledge commons’ side of the debate seemed to be that nobody really has any original ideas so they shouldn’t expect to make any money out of repackaging collective human wisdom.

OK, but we all have to eat – typically by either paying for someone to repackage collective human wisdom on the farm and grow food for us, or by doing it ourselves. And conversely we’re perfectly at liberty not to consume somebody else’s repackaged human wisdom on the “don’t use, don’t pay” principle, whether it comes in the form of poetry, political essays or a bag of corn chips. Those who want to push hard for a ‘collaborative commons’ with minimal rights of private creative appropriation need to explain how people would create their livelihoods in such a society. To be fair, Raworth does have the makings of an answer on this front, even if it’s the same one as most other writers in this leftish, technophile tradition – universal basic income. But she doesn’t really flesh out what that would end up looking like politically – less so, say, than Peter Frase, whose work I reviewed recently. My bet is that the most likely political endpoints for that would either be an economically insecure, moribund and dreary modernist authoritarianism (which we seem well on our way to achieving), or else a neo-peasant society in which we devote most of our creativity to providing our own food, clothes and shelter, with the occasional bonus of our music, stories, crafts or knowledge freely given to people we care about in our families and wider communities. I much prefer the latter outcome to the former, so if I have to nail my colours to the ‘collaborative commons’ mast I guess my rallying cry will be “Collaborative commons, universal basic income and two acres for all!” More on that anon.

  1. Commons aren’t always the best way of organising provision.

I can’t help feeling that a lot of the people who wax most lyrical about the benefits of the “collaborative commons” are probably salaried employees of large-scale public or private sector institutions who are less aware than they might be of exactly who is bearing the costs of the collaboration – or else perhaps a self-employed consultant able to charge out their time quite handsomely to the same. If so, a stint as a self-employed farmer providing basic food for themselves or selling it to a local community may prove eye-opening. I also can’t help feeling that a lot of the people who wax most lyrical about Elinor Ostrom’s book Governing the Commons as proving the superiority of the commons as a mode of provisioning probably haven’t actually read it. Fair play, it’s pretty dry stuff – I must admit that I skimmed over the odd page or two myself on the ins and outs of municipal water litigation in California. But Ostrom doesn’t argue that a commons – agricultural, digital, creative, knowledge, collaborative or whatever else – is necessarily the best way of organising things. Nor, I think, should anyone else.


Well, there you have it – a few top of the head thoughts I’ve skimmed off from the collective human genius, and repackaged right here. I’ll attempt to work it up into something a bit more rigorous in due course. Thanks for reading this far. I appreciate it. And now I better go and tend to my garden. Donate button is top right.


  1. Kate Raworth (2017). Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. London: Random House.
  1. Ibid. pp.83-4.