What if we only ate food from local farms?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

oOo

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

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

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

Down the toilet…

Still mired as I am in book editing, I’m not finding the time to engage with this blog as I wish. Hopefully, that’ll change soon. But I feel the need to make a brief appearance here today to mark Britain’s exit from the European Union – and, not unconnectedly, to talk about toilets.

Moves have been afoot for a ‘Big Ben bong’ at midnight tonight to celebrate our ‘independence’ from the EU, with a crowdfunder to expedite the repair and refurbishment of the clock in time for the big moment. I always thought a bong was something for smoking intoxicating substances in cafés – which is kind of appropriate, because a lot of people probably won’t have much else to do but sit around and take their mind off things once Brexonomics bites. But the appeal didn’t raise enough money, and permission to ring the bell was refused by the Houses of Parliament anyway. Somehow I can’t help seeing this as an omen for Brexit: the icon of British sovereignty is broken and in need of repairs, not enough people care enough to pay for them, and in any case the repairs are stymied by bureaucratic nay-saying of the kind we were supposed to have overcome by leaving the EU.

This is always the way with nationalism. The unities and resolutions it asserts never quite work, because the underlying story is always more complicated. Fintan O’Toole – whose acerbic Brexit commentaries have consistently hit the nail on the head for me – puts it like this:

“There is no doubt that Brexit has worked in the way that nationalist movements try to – it has united people across great divides of social class and geography in the name of a transcendent identity …. But the problem is that this unity of national purpose functions within a nation that does not actually exist: non-metropolitan England and parts of English-speaking Wales. And it is purchased at the very high price of creating much deeper divisions between England-without-London and the rest of the British-Irish archipelago.”

The opportunity in this is that it could ultimately weaken Westminster’s grip on the country – most strongly at first in Scotland and Ireland, but eventually in England and Wales too. Once the scent of secession is in the nostrils, there’s no telling where it might end – possibly in those parts of pro-Brexit, non-metropolitan England having to take full responsibility for their own wellbeing. I’m not sure that’s what they were voting for, but in the long run it may well be what people are going to have to do across the world in the face of our numerous economic and environmental problems. So … Brexit … hell yeah, why not? Let’s start practicing. The Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, here we come.

Actually, I don’t think Brexit is a secession so much as what I’ve called elsewhere a supersedure. Britain has left ‘Europe’ but is still part of it, just as the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex would still be part of a larger polity. So, much as I’d have preferred to avoid the numerous absurdities of Brexit, I think it’ll prove an interesting experiment in what’s to come. Not least because the EU has long been an exclusive club to which other countries have desperately sought entry. I think we’re about to find out why.

What’s to come agriculturally looks like the ending of per acre subsidies for landowners, with public money paid only for delivering ‘ecosystem services’. Which is great, except that since there’s no commitment to national food self-reliance, we’re also set for agricultural trade deals on probably disadvantageous terms – certainly for the average farmer. Expect more farm closures, lots of nature-friendly rewilding at home, and cheap, nature-unfriendly food from abroad … while we can still pay for it.

Still, who cares? We’re sitting pretty on our farm. The outlook for UK veg growers is good, we’re not reliant on subsidies, and we’ve already made considerable strides towards supersedure. For example, our compost toilets save us from wasting water or fertility that we can furnish ourselves, ultimately saving us money that we probably soon won’t have as the rest of the world carves up lonely and vulnerable little Britain. It started with voting for Brexit. It’ll end with townsfolk spreading over the countryside and carefully composting their shit. Welcome to my world. Well, there are worse ways to live. At least when I look down the toilet I know that, however feeble my other accomplishments, I’ve made some kind of solid contribution.

But never let it be said that here at Vallis Veg we hoard our riches at the expense of others. The wisdom of our accumulated compost toilet experience is now available to you in our online course, where you’ll be safe in the hands of our resident toilet expert, my dear wife Cordelia. It’s her show and not mine, but if you look very closely you may just catch a glimpse of some of my dodgy plumbing. The good news is, you get the first seven minutes – in which Cordelia explains how to supersede yourself just a little bit from the capitalist system – absolutely free. And the rest for a mere £45 …which I guarantee we won’t spend on bongs, of any description.

Let us eat Brexit

Unfortunately I was too busy to pen an election blogpost prior to the event, but on the upside at least this makes foretelling the result easier – I predict a thumping majority for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party, putting an end to ten years of thin majorities and scrabbling coalitions in British politics.

OK, so I admit that hindsight makes prediction quite a bit easier, but even now a lot of us are still scratching our heads trying to work out what the hell just happened. Ideally, I’d like to avoid adding my voice to the welter of wise-after-the-event opinion-mongering that claims to know exactly what the Labour Party got wrong, and write instead on the implications for my main themes of sustainable localism and agrarianism. But in order to achieve the latter, I think I do need to indulge in a little of the former…

Labour’s erstwhile top brass have blamed the result on their ambiguous stance on Brexit, compared to Johnson’s simplistic ‘let’s get Brexit done’ messaging. Some Labour activists outside the Corbyn faction have called this ‘mendacious nonsense’ and blamed the unpopularity of the leader himself. There’s no denying Corbyn’s low public esteem, but it’s worth further pondering this analysis.

First, it’s not actually an analysis – further steps are needed to explain how voters proceed from personal dislike of Corbyn (“There’s something about his mannerisms” in the words of one Labour-turned-Conservative voter in a depressed, post-industrial erstwhile Labour town) to voting instead for Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (Eton and Oxford), whose congenital disdain for such places and people couldn’t be plainer. But if that’s all there is to it, then at least we can all go home, stop devoting any attention to actual politics, plug in the TV and just give Kelvin and Oti the keys to No.10.

Personally, I think Brexit did have a lot to do with the result – as indeed even the “something about his mannerisms” voter maintained, and as is suggested by the correlations between leave-voting areas in 2016 and Johnson-voting ones in 2019. However, this too requires further analysis. What kind of Brexit Johnson will ‘get done’ remains unclear, but it’s pretty clear that it won’t ‘get done’ on 31 January, and when it’s ‘done’ the situation of struggling voters in Britain’s post-industrial towns will almost certainly be worse. I can’t help feeling that what we were voting for wasn’t any actual Brexit that Johnson has either the power or desire to deliver, but Brexit as a kind of ideal that’s slipped its real-world moorings – Brexit as a dream of autonomy and control regained in an uncertain world, Brexit as analgesic, Brexit as totem. A case of let them eat Brexit.

This is fantastic news for those of us who have other potentially unpalatable political truths to deliver, such as my own conviction that we need to develop a labour-intensive, small farm-based economic localism to see us through our present crises. Forget the agonised political analysis and the enormous difficulties of realizing it. Just give it a vague and upbeat moniker – ‘the transformation’, perhaps – find a useful idiot to promote it in a mainstream party, and talk constantly about how it’ll enable us to take back control. Job done.

Oh, who am I kidding – that’s not how it’d play, is it? What the Conservatives have pulled off is just another variant of a classic right-wing populist heist: deliver some jam-tomorrow message cloaked in nationalist garb aimed at the ‘majority’ working class while demonizing enemies within and without like socialists, immigrants and gypsies, and propagate the message aggressively through the good offices of deep-pocketed patrons and a compliant press run by the same, who are the only people likely to reap any substantial benefit from the result.

Populism of this kind has been one of the more successful politics of modern times (witness the USA, India, Brazil, the Philippines, Hungary, Poland etc.), so there are reasons to think it could be the long-term making of the Conservative Party. But there are also reasons to think otherwise. The government’s hybrid new constituency of well-to-do little Englanders and alienated Brexit ex-Labour voters would be a hard one to hold together long-term even for a popular, able and wily Conservative politician – and I don’t think Johnson is any of those things. After the referendum I wrote that Johnson was largely responsible for packaging up a fantasy Brexit for mass consumption and now needed to be given the leeway to try to deliver the real one. After three years of faff, that hour is now upon us. Honestly, I could have written the same post last week – it wouldn’t have lost much for contemporary relevance.

I’m not sure this will pan out well for Johnson. It seems likely that Britain’s already hollow economy will be further carved out by the EU and the USA on his watch, and it may not be easy to pin the blame on them, particularly the USA, long-term. Likewise the integrity of the UK itself – including the irony that Corbyn’s sympathies for Irish republicanism seem to have strengthened Johnson’s hand, while the latter’s Brexit may well do more for Irish reunification than Sinn Féin ever could. Johnson fancies himself as a Churchill figure, but as he-who-can-no-longer-be-named once said, history repeats itself – the first time as tragedy the second time as farce. Maybe Brexit is Johnson’s World War, and it’ll be followed by an Atlee.

But what kind of Atlee? I think it would be a huge mistake if the Labour Party tacked rightwards as a result of this election. Centrism scarcely got a thumbs up from voters (look what happened to the Lib Dems … or to Dominic Grieve) and the Tories are always likely to be better at muscular nationalist populism than the Labour Party. Also, peering through the absurdities of Britain’s first-past-the-post and multi-national politics, the fact is that Corbyn got a higher proportion of the vote in this election than any Labour leader not called Tony Blair since Neil Kinnock in 1992, and in the 2017 election under his leadership a higher proportion than anyone since Harold Wilson in 1970 – despite levels of media vilification far beyond those that even Kinnock endured. That’s not to say Labour doesn’t need a different approach and a different leader. But I don’t think the lesson of this election is that it needs a more centrist one.

As various commentators have suggested, the Labour Party’s malaise has deep historic roots that long pre-date Corbyn’s tenure, relating to the demise of the organized industrial working-class and its forms of community-building and self-education. What’s now needed to create an electable left populism is longer-term community-building of another kind, promoting locally shared spaces and resources, environmental care and economic autonomy that tries to build bridges among whoever’s locally in place. That strategy is also the one that’s needed to build a sustainable small farm future. So for me it’s clear at least where to focus political energy.

The short-term consequences of Johnson’s victory for farming and the countryside seem grim. Although many farmers seemingly voted Conservative, they’re a small constituency of no electoral importance to the party, especially now it’s shorn of its more patrician elements in favour of the radical right. It’s extremely unlikely that the financial support farmers will get post-Brexit will match the largesse of the EU – I think many will go to the wall as a consequence, the countryside will be carved up by market forces, and Britain’s food system will be forced open by its new trading situation, becoming more import-dependent. The hope has to be that, in this vast churn of farm property sales and rural destruction to come, the necessity for building local economic autonomies and ecological conservationism will become more obvious, along with the opportunities to do so.

Ciao Mao?

Apologies for my recent silence on here, not least in relation to the interesting comments at the end of my last post to which I couldn’t find the time to reply. No sooner had I revived this blog from my long book-writing layoff than I was laid low again with various urgent tasks – including a return to the book manuscript for an editorial overhaul. These tasks are ongoing so I fear I may have to disappear again for a while, but I hope more briefly than the last hiatus. And perhaps I’ll show up for a couple of interim posts. After all, another Brexit-fuelled election beckons – and where would British politics be without the next instalment of the widely-celebrated Small Farm Future miniseries: Which-of-these-darned-idiots-do-I-have-to-vote-for-this-time?

But let me sign off with a brief train of thought. Just as I was getting to grips with Julia Lovell’s fascinating book Maoism: A Global History who should appear in my Twitter feed the other day but an old adversary of Small Farm Future, Leigh Phillips, agitating against agrarian labour intensification on the grounds that it was a policy pursued by the genocidal Maoist regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia. That’s right, folks: in Leigh-world, if Pol Pot adopted agrarian labour intensification, then it follows that those who advocate agrarian labour intensification must support the politics of Pol Pot. By this logic, Leigh’s huge enthusiasm for nuclear power surely reveals itself as mere advocacy for the Gulag…

The only reason I mention this flummery is because it strikes me that the exact opposite thesis is probably more worthy of attention: unless we adopt agrarian labour intensification, the chances of a resurgent Maoism are amplified.

Let me try to put a little flesh on those bones…

Maoism is a virtually incomprehensible political doctrine in the west, and in any case has come to seem a dead letter with the eclipse or collapse of almost all the world’s significant Maoist regimes. But let’s not be too hasty with the obituaries. As with most political ‘isms’ the exact parameters of Maoism are ever fluid and hard to specify precisely, which is why these isms keep reinventing themselves, often in unexpected places. In the case of Maoism, wherever there are poor rural populations who perceive themselves to be oppressed by colonial or neocolonial power and are ready to contest it with violence, then the grounds for it are prepared.

There are a lot of places like that in the world today, and Maoism is far from a dead letter in many of them. There are set to be more such places in the future, with rural poverty and ever more nakedly coercive neocolonial power set to be augmented. So I wouldn’t bet against future Maoist insurgencies… Indeed, more sophisticated thinkers than Phillips such as his Verso stablemates Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann in their Climate Leviathan raise the spectre of future ‘Climate Mao’ regimes arising on the back of climate crisis and other perturbations in global politics, to which such regimes have ready-made answers…

…ready-made, but pretty unappealing – at least I can agree with Phillips on that. So for those of us who’d rather not see a return of Maoism, what is to be done? You get a sense of Phillips’ answer from the subtitle of his first book – “A defence of growth, progress, industry and stuff”. Via a shopworn reading of Karl Marx on the necessity of capitalism prior to socialism, Phillips cheerleads the present global capitalist economy as the precursor to socialist prosperity for all. Probably, he and his chums at the Breakthrough Institute genuinely believe this shtick, though their strident scorn for anyone who questions if it’ll really turn out so well does make me wonder if they protest a little too much. Radical-sounding but business-as-usual and corporate-friendly plays well to many galleries.

Yet if it doesn’t turn out so well, then the conditions for Climate Mao are ramped up another notch. We know these plotlines – further global inequality, further rural immiseration, further Ricardian landlordism and rentier capitalism, further climate breakdown, further political militarization. And, for reasons copiously discussed on this site over the years, there are plenty of reasons to think it won’t turn out so well.

An alternative, also copiously discussed on this site, is a more local, non-growth oriented, sustainable, agrarian and – yes – more labour-intensive (creating more green, low-carbon jobs is a good thing, right?) human ecology. The consequences would be globally redistributive and effectively anti-colonial, taking a lot of the heat out of the preconditions for Maoist insurgency. And possibly some of the heat out of the atmosphere too.

To put it another way, if you’d prefer to avoid harsh dystopias of involuntary rural simplicity in the future of the Pol Pot variety, then there’s a good case for working up some gentle utopias of voluntary rural simplicity right now, and trying to implement them. Inevitably, they’ll involve more people spending more time working in the garden. For many us, that isn’t such an appalling prospect, so long as there isn’t somebody alongside us there holding a gun to our heads on the lookout for incorrect thought. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much what it feels like metaphorically when you engage with Mr Phillips…

Finally, a housekeeping point. I’m happy to receive individual communications via the Contact Form on matters of particular or private interest, with replies at my discretion. But if you’d like to debate or contest something I’ve said in a blog post and get a reply from me, please post it as a public comment on my Small Farm Future site, and I’ll do my best. Thank you. And ciao for now.

Extinction Rebellion: four more (unconvincing) criticisms.

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

1. XR is too white and middle class.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. XR is a millenarian death cult.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The great convergence?

Apologies that I’ve been so silent of late on this blog. I’m afraid my book-writing chores are consuming almost all my desk-time at the moment and posts will probably continue to be sporadic at best until my submission deadline in the autumn. But let me at least bring you a sneak preview of some graphs I’m planning to present in the book (…and a couple that I’m not … thanks are due to my editor Brianne at Chelsea Green for allowing me to let the cat out of the bag). I’d be interested to hear any comments on my interpretations of the data I present below.

First, some context. I’ve long expressed my skepticism on this blog for various types of business-as-usual solutionism that suggest the numerous problems we face in the world are fixable within existing political and economic paradigms, usually through some kind of high-tech whizzbangery associated with the capitalist political economy, a broad current of thought sometimes known as ‘neo-optimism’. I don’t necessarily think all neo-optimist whizz-bangs are intrinsically a waste of time, but we need a Plan B … and this, I think, is a small farm future, which I suspect may well become Plan A. What would stop it from becoming Plan A is if someone could convincingly demonstrate that (a) the existing capitalist political economy is clearly the best bet for improving general human wellbeing, and (b) it can do so long-term in a planetarily sustainable way. Neither of these are easy to prove or disprove, especially (b) as it involves projecting into the future. I’m not going to address (b) here – perhaps I’ll try to answer it in a future post (Spoiler: … my guess is that the answer is a two-letter word beginning with ‘n’). But I’d like to say a little about (a).

A staple of neo-optimist fare is that we no longer live in a binary world of rich and poor countries – “the west and the rest”. Hans Rosling calls this binary view a “mega misconception” that belies the catch-up that’s been occurring in recent decades. “Poor developing countries no longer exist as a distinct group…” Rosling says, “there is no gap…This is not controversial. These facts are not up for discussion” and so on1. Along similar lines, Steven Pinker writes “Industrial capitalism launched the Great Escape from universal poverty in the 19th century and is rescuing the rest of humankind in a Great Convergence in the 21st2.

There are many ways of trying to prove or disprove such statements. Saying they’re not up for discussion is a neat one, because it exempts you from any dialogue about the limitations of your analysis and whether you’ve cherry-picked your examples. But let me discuss these assertions anyway – I’m going to put it to you that Rosling and Pinker are wrong.

Exhibit A in my argument is a plot of Gross Domestic Product per capita. Now, I know that GDP is widely and rightly criticized as a measure of human wellbeing (I’ll look at a different measure of wellbeing in a moment), but it’s not so shabby as a measure of the formal economic output that the industrial capitalism of which Pinker speaks excels. So if a Great Convergence is occurring within humanity in the 21st century fueled by industrial capitalism I think it would be reasonable to expect to see it in GDP per capita at the country level. What I’ve done in Exhibit A is take GDP per capita (in constant 2010 US$) for every country in the world from World Bank data and ranked them from highest (which, as it happens, is Luxembourg at $191,587) to lowest (Burundi, $219). Then I aggregated them into five groups on the basis of this ranking and calculated the average GDP per capita for each group for every year between 1960 and 2016 (the full time-range available in the World Bank data), weighted by the population sizes of each country in the group. So that’s what you’re seeing in the graph.

Exhibit A:

I struggle to reconcile this graph with Rosling’s pronouncement of the death of the gap and Pinker’s pronouncement of a ‘great convergence’. Each of the five groups has improved its GDP per capita, and Groups 2, 3 and 4 show some evidence of a climbing rate in recent years. But it seems to me that the most compelling story told by the graph is how much Group 1 has pulled away from the others. In 1960 the ratio between Groups 1 and 5 was 30. In 2016, it was 55. The ratios between Group 1 and Groups 2-4 over the same timeframe have narrowed, but the differences have greatly increased. I often commit what Rosling calls the ‘mega misconception’ of talking in binary terms about ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ countries. This graph makes me feel justified in doing so.

Rosling cautions in his book against the way that averages can mislead us, so lest Exhibit A leaves you in doubt I present Exhibit B which shows the full ranked distributions of GDP per capita for every country in 1985 and 2016 (the 2016 data in the red stretches out rightwards because there were more countries and less missing data in 2016 than in the blue 1985 line). Again, the picture seems pretty clear to me – a long shallow slope suggestive of lots of countries with similarly low GDP per capita, then a steep uptick on the right for a small number of countries with very high per capita GDPs. Maybe it’s reasonable to talk of ‘middle income’ countries in the light of Exhibit B. But I think talking in binary terms of ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ countries is eminently justifiable on the basis of these figures too. Perhaps it’s worth noting that of the forty countries in Group 1 all but six of them are either West European ones or postcolonial inheritors of a West European legacy (like the USA and Australia) – the six exceptions are Qatar, Singapore, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Brunei, which have their own historical stories to tell.

Exhibit B:

 

I’d suggest that there are usually different stories one can weave around data, and it surprises me that the likes of Rosling and Pinker who are supposedly expert data analysts don’t make more concessions to this. Is there a fitfulness to their factfulness?

So much for GDP. Let’s move on to life expectancy – a more direct measure of human wellbeing, albeit still of a rather crude and basic kind. In Exhibit C, I present population-weighted average life expectancy at birth for the same five groups defined in Exhibit A from 1960 to 2017. Here, there does seem to be some evidence of convergence – in 1960, average life expectancy for Group 5 was 42 whereas for Group 1 it was 70. By 2017 the corresponding figures were 65 and 81.

Exhibit C:

What to make of this convergence in life expectancy set against the non-convergence of GDP? Since GDP is a reasonable measure of industrial capitalist output I’d venture the hypothesis, pace Pinker, that whatever’s causing the convergence in life expectancy probably isn’t industrial capitalism. But let’s probe a little more at the life expectancy data.

Mothers and babies. A common misconception about life expectancy is that it tells us the age when most people die. In fact, life expectancy at birth averages out death over the life course – and people are much more likely to die in infancy or, for women, in childbirth than at other times in the life course up until old age. The deaths of these young and relatively young people (infants and mothers) pulls overall life expectancy radically downwards, so relatively small improvements in infant or maternal mortality can have relatively big effects on life expectancy. It’s harder to improve life expectancy at the old age end of the life course, and it gets progressively harder to improve infant mortality the lower it is, as is demonstrated by the flattening slope of the curves in Exhibit D which presents infant mortality rates from 1960-2017 for the five groups. Therefore the convergence in life expectancy shown in Exhibit C is to some degree an artefact of the fact that infant mortality was already quite low in the richer countries in 1960.

Exhibit D:

China. The most striking improvement in life expectancy shown in Exhibit B occurred in Group 3 in the 1960s, and this largely reflects the influence of China in view of its huge population. This was the China of Chairman Mao and his Cultural Revolution – which hardly seems a good advert for Pinker’s view that the convergence results from ‘industrial capitalism’. But maybe there are some complexities here. The improvements in China came hard on the heels of Mao’s disastrous ‘Great Leap Forward’ which was the cause of probably the biggest famine in human history, so the thought occurs that the 1960s uptick could be a kind of rebound from the famine. However, this paper at least seems to suggest otherwise – infant mortality in China crashed during the 1950s, spiked during the Great Leap famine (though without reaching pre-1950s levels) and then further crashed in the 1960s. Lynn White has argued that the roots of China’s recent economic miracle lie ‘bottom up’ in the chaos of the 1960s in the context of the Cultural Revolution and the aftermath of the Great Leap when the lack of political control from the center enabled rural people to engage in economic development that was later coopted by the state and is now often presented top-down in terms of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms3. In that rather special sense, perhaps it would be possible to assimilate the Chinese data to Pinker’s claim that the convergence results from ‘industrial capitalism’. But I think that would be quite generous to Pinker. I’d be inclined to say instead that “rural self-reliance launched a great escape from poverty in China”.

What’s the cause of declining infant mortality? Having trawled around various academic papers on this subject the tentative answer that I’ve come to turns out to be the same as the answer to most things – it’s complicated. Relevant factors seem to be things like access to basic primary health care, vaccination and mother’s education. I’d welcome further input on this. Possibly, one could argue that such factors have been delivered by ‘industrial capitalism’, if not in the relevant countries themselves then at least in the accumulation of global surplus that enables multilateral agencies, NGOs and other such organizations to intervene. But I think this would be tendentious without further substantiation, and it would require a good deal of detailed analysis that tracked the historic flows of resources into and (mostly) out of the poorer countries with high infant mortality. As I’ve written about in more detail elsewhere, the history of capitalism and ‘modernization’ generally seems to involve processes of huge immiseration that then prompt counter-movements and efforts towards humanitarian mitigation – to chalk these up as the positive achievements of capitalism is provocative, to say the least. Basically, capitalist societies are ones that entrust general social wellbeing to a small number of capital owners who compete to maximize their profits with fairly minimal restrictions on what they’re entitled to do with them. Industrial capitalist societies are ones where the competition is focused around manufacturing rather than, say, speculative finance as is now the case in many of the Group 1 countries (here I’m paraphrasing some of Wolfgang Streeck’s definitions4). Nothing much to write home about in all that about converging life expectancies… In fact, if we’re going to talk about a ‘great convergence’ in the 21st century we probably also need to talk about the ‘great divergence’ of the 19th century diagnosed in a 2001 book of that name by historian Kenneth Pomeranz.

The inefficiency of capitalism. In 1960 world GDP was $11.3 trillion in constant 2010 US$, while in 2017 it was $80.3 trillion – so in less than 60 years the global economy has grown to fit more than seven world economies of 1960 within itself. In per capita terms the corresponding figure is an almost threefold rise from $3,700 to $10,700. Infant mortality rates in 1960 averaged 28.4 deaths per 1,000 live births in the Group 1 countries and 174.3 in the Group 5 ones, whereas by 2017 the gap had narrowed to 4.0 in the Group 1 countries and 45.7 in the Group 5 ones – a welcome convergence, certainly, but a “great” convergence, in view of the fact that the global economy is more than seven times bigger? I’m not so sure. Going back to my original question, if we have to grow the global economy seven times over in order to move from 146 excess infant deaths between Groups 1 and 5 to 42 excess deaths, I’d question the view that industrial capitalism is the best bet for improving human wellbeing – especially when it’s not even clear that the convergence results from capitalism as such.

I’d welcome any comments.

Notes

  1. Rosling, H. 2018. Factfulness. Sceptre. p.22, 28.
  2. Pinker, S. 2018. Enlightenment Now. Penguin. p.364.
  3. White, L. 2018. Rural Roots of Reform Before China’s Conservative Change. Routledge.
  4. Streeck, W. 2016. How Will Capitalism End? Verso.

Destiny delayed

29 March 2019 – a famous day in British history. Why? Well, er…dammit, I can’t quite remember – just seems like an ordinary day, to be honest. Possibly, though I don’t like to brag, it’s because today’s the day when I finished the complete first draft of my book manuscript – surely a date to rank with the finest in our nation’s history? But I’ve got a funny feeling that’s not it. Aha, got it, by Jove! Today’s the day when Britain throws off the shackles of its vassalage to the European Union and strikes out alone – a sovereign and independent nation once again.

Except we haven’t. At their summit, EU heads of government allowed us to eke out another fortnight to try to come up with even the semblance of an idea as to how to exit in such a way that the country doesn’t crumple in a heap. It’s all a far cry from newspaper headlines of two years ago like ‘Give us a fair deal or you’ll be crushed’. Watching the Brexit process unfold was initially like a slow-motion train crash where you could pretty much predict the damage that would occur as it screeched along the rails, but now it’s gone fully off-piste and keeps careering into things you scarcely expected were in danger. Where it ends, there’s no telling.

I’d been planning to write a kind of comedy Brexit guide for the perplexed, but it just feels too ghoulish – like laughing at people as they go down in a sinking ship, even if it was their own choice to scuttle it. Besides, where to begin and where to end? The breakdown of the two major parties, an election that didn’t go well for anybody, a zombie government repeatedly bashing its head against the wall, constitutional crisis, a paralyzed parliament bereft of party discipline, trouble in Scotland, big trouble in Ireland, economic hemorrhaging, ferry companies with no ferries, senior politicians advocating an Anglo-Spanish war, other senior politicians resigning after gaining parliamentary assent for their own policies, junior politicians making creepy requests for information on academic teaching concerning Europe or suggesting that expressions of support for the EU are treasonous – a word that has suddenly returned to the political vocabulary on both sides of the divide, though on one side more than the other. A conspicuous absence of any real notion about what the exact benefits of Brexit might be. And an issue costing so much political time and money that other, more important, issues are in abeyance.

Nope, it’s all too much for me. So let me just home in on a few points of particular interest to this blog.

#1: An implicit and sometimes explicit question that often invests my writings here at Small Farm Future is whether the present structuring of the global political economy has much chance of enduring into the future given the various looming crises we face globally and locally. My general feeling is no, though I’ve annoyed people over time on here for my ‘no’ being either too firm or not firm enough. Well, I now submit Brexit as a kind of pilot study to suggest the implausibility of ‘yes’. A small dollop of undigested nationalism combined with a side-twist of haughty neoliberalism to dramatize the difference between the haves and have-nots has been enough to plunge the state in one of the richest countries in the world into a full-on political crisis. What hope of avoiding deeper crisis when larger economic, biophysical and political issues confront us? True, the government has handled Brexit with astonishing incompetence from start to finish. Higher caliber politicians wouldn’t have got us into this impasse. But these are the people we elected. I don’t think it’s safe to assume that bigger crises will call forth wiser heads.

#2: Brexit has been a textbook case for the way rightwing populism (RWP) operates. It’s wholly different to the forms of agrarian or left populism I’ve advocated on this blog, to the extent that the shared moniker is misleading. Here’s the page from the RWP rulebook: organize plebiscites that invite the assent of voters to a very general question (“Should the United Kingdom leave the European Union?”). Mount a mendacious publicity campaign, funded if possible with money of dubious provenance from abroad, to promote the preferred RWP choice. Then, if the electorate opts for said choice by a narrow margin that splits it more or less 50-50, pronounce that the result is “the will of the people” and dogmatically pursue an extremist interpretation of it in the teeth of any kind of wider debate or compromise. When you combine the probable future crises mentioned in #1 with the divisiveness and ill-will generated by #2, the prospects for devising a politics equal to the impending crises we face seem slight.

#3: A point I’ve often made on this site is that the global economy is structured unfairly to the benefit of a small group of wealthy countries. To a considerable extent this now works through complex forms of organizational capital and technocratic global governance. The Brexit process has laid this bare. The Brexiteers have fulminated against bureaucracy and technocracy in favor of national sovereignty, but it’s increasingly clear that ‘national sovereignty’ can’t deliver the kind of economic goods to which we in Britain, even the poorest of us, have been accustomed. I don’t think this bothers some of the main Brexiteers, because what they want is a low-regulation business environment based on low-paid and precarious labor. But I think it ought to bother the rest of us. A particular aspect of this dynamic has been the far greater power wielded by the EU acting as a united bloc against the UK, including the way it’s protected the interests of Ireland which historically has been bullied by the greater might of Britain. When you step outside your friendship group, the world can be a cold place.

#4: Since about half the EU budget is spent on agriculture, Brexit is clearly going to have a big impact on issues at the heart of this blog, but it’s too soon to say what they’ll be. As an economic power bloc the EU, like the US, is a malign force in global agriculture, but a UK exit in the absence of plans for sustainable national food security is unlikely to bring much benefit nationally or internationally. The Common Agricultural Policy will be mourned by few, but despite its manifest failings it seems probable that British farmers will be economically worse off after its demise, prompting a further hemorrhage of small and medium-scale farmers from the industry. Despite Michael Gove at DEFRA clothing himself in a new suit of green, it also seems probable that Brexit Britain will open itself up and align itself regulatorily with the USA. “Chlorinated chicken” is already a phrase in the public consciousness. We ain’t seen nothing yet. And before anyone waxes too lyrical about the impediments thrown up by CAP to the small farmer, it’s worth remembering that successive British governments have consistently used what discretionary powers they have under it to bolster large-scale commodity farming at the expense of small-scale, locally-oriented food sovereignty.

oOo

But let me try to work up a positive scenario out of this Farage farrago. The EU has its own problems – in the Eurozone, between east and west, between north and south. The fact that Britain was mercifully free of most of these makes Brexit all the more idiotic, but the problems aren’t going to go away with our departure. The fear – and probably for me the main reason to stay in – is that without the EU, Europe will descend into a poisonous broth of nationalist conflict, a place it’s been before that didn’t turn out too well. But it’s possible that the sheer haplessness of the nationalist mythologizing around Brexit and the collapse of the Tories as a united party of government will inoculate us against it in the UK for some time to come.

The weakened economy and damaged credibility of central government may also prompt greater local and regional self-organization of the kind we sorely need to see us through in the future. Perhaps even the outlines of what elsewhere I’ve called the supersedure state may begin to emerge. So when combined with probable future food and energy crisis, there’s a chance that we may yet wrest the phoenix of an outward-looking small farm future from the ashes of Brexit. But the stakes are high, and the obstacles many.

Trans-continental Hustle, Or An Admittedly Anecdotal Review of Adam Tooze’s Crashed

Today I’m happy to bring you a rare guest post in the form of a review of historian Adam Tooze’s magnum opus, Crashed penned by Michelle Galimba, rancher and valued commenter here at Small Farm Future. Tooze’s book has been sitting in my in-tray for some time, but thanks to Michelle I can now let it linger there a while longer. Meanwhile, there may be another service interruption on this blog while I toil over my own opus, but I’m hoping to present some further ruminations on property and commons emerging out of my last post and my current book draft, perhaps in a couple of weeks’ time. For now, it’s over to Michelle – my thanks to her for letting me publish her review.

Adam Tooze. 2018. Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World. Allen Lane.

I have a friend who, in the fall of 2008, was working on a real estate development project that was funded through Lehman Brothers.  One day he was jubilant at having made some money off what turned out to be Lehman’s “dead cat bounce,” and another day not long after, on September 15, he was deeply depressed when his project went up in flames, along with so much of Wall Street. Lehman’s bankruptcy ended the stream of easy credit for such marginal real estate projects. “Well”, I said to him that day, as he lamented his ill fortune, “you still have all your limbs and youʻre in no danger of starving to death, so it’s not so bad!” In the ranch business, neither personal safety nor making payroll are things I take for granted. My friend scorned such peasant consolations; heʻd been living high in the glow of success that hot money bestows.  He tried, for a couple of years, to put another funding deal together with increasingly sketchy potential partners, but in the end the property was foreclosed upon and sold at auction to another real estate investment company. I strongly disapproved of my friend’s development plans – converting agricultural land into residential agricultural “estates” – so the Great Recession had the silver lining of throwing some sand in the gears of the growth machine, at least for my corner of the world.

I’ve never really understood what happened in 2008, and I suppose that is what motivated me to take up Adam Toozeʻs Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World. Iʻm not predisposed to thinking about economics, except as it relates to the practical matter of running the ranch.  I never took an economics course in college and what books I’ve read have been along the lines of Economics for Dummies.  I regretted my ignorance in reading Crashed – although Tooze explains each piece of financial machinery that plays a role in the train-wreck, the book nevertheless made heavy demands on whatever shreds of economic lore I’ve picked up along the way.  Expect to wade through many a sentence as this: “Because the collateral that was preferred by the triparty repo markets was Treasurys, in the spring of 2008 the Fed instituted another program, the Term Securities Lending Facility, under which it lent out top-rated US Treasurys on twenty-eight day terms in exchange for a variety of mortgage-backed securities, including private label.”

Although Crashed  primarily traces the financial crisis in the US and Europe during the period 2006-2018, Tooze brackets his tale of Euro-American financial implosions by sketching the “financial balance of terror” between China and the US and delineating how dangerous this ‘balance’ is.  The Great Recession and the Euro-zone sovereign debt showdowns that followed, for all their drama, were the “wrong crisis” – merely a preliminary sideshow set off by bad acting investment banks, rather than the potential Crash which still lies waiting in the financial and trade imbalances between China and other “emerging markets” on the one hand, and the “advanced economies” of Europe and the US on the other.

It is within the brackets of this larger problem that the Great Recession happened. It is a sobering thought.

I’ve read Crashed through once, and I may very well do so again.  Despite its weighty subject and imposing heft, it is an engrossing page-turner, and just about any of those nearly 700 pages is food for much pondering.  Tooze is a master narrator who can engage the reader in  “the grand sweep of global economic imbalances” and the dramatic moments of high-stakes decision-making, as well as deploy the quote juste and the well-deserved smack-down: “In the course of the crisis, the GOP had shown itself to be less a party of government than a political vehicle through which conservative, white Americans expressed their alarm at the earthquakes shaking their world.”  If anything Tooze’s narrative skills hurry one along too quickly (though I’m not complaining) in a dramatic rush of money, power, and political calculation as these morph and metastasize between North America to Europe and back again.

I could go on for quite a bit about Crashed, if my own local dramas about small animal slaughter capacity and agricultural water rights weren’t eating into my writing time, but to be very brief, (one of) Tooze’s overarching theses is that politics creates economics, which, though verging on the obvious, cannot be said often enough, especially among Americans. We don’t have to acquiesce to the neoliberal economic ideology that passes for common sense and hard-headed realism even as its inadequacy for organizing a functional, healthy society is crystal clear. The financial foolishness that led to the crises of the last ten years was enabled by a political-economic worldview whose orthodoxy could use some hard questioning. Tooze’s book, by getting into “the black box” of the Crash and showing how “ the economics of the financial system” worked clarifies how profoundly self-serving and short-sighted the “innovations” of the financial elite are, and how little they deserve the deference and even adulation they still too often receive.

Another key argument is that, contrary to a perception much encouraged by the financial industry and governments on both sides of the Atlantic, the banks that binged most irresponsibly on the American sub-prime mortgage market and who were therefore most desperately in need of American dollar liquidity from the various American bailout facilities (TARP, TAF, currency swap lines, etc.) had their headquarters in Europe.  Tooze argues that it was the American’s “bazooka” response, rather than the European “austerity” approach to the sovereign debt crises in Greece, Ireland, and Spain that was most effective in terms of quick recovery.   But whether the American approach will truly be ‘effective’ in the long term and big picture is an open question. The cost in political capital for Obama and the Democrats was considerable, spawning the Tea Party backlash, and leading to our current political nightmare.  Yes, the financial system got back on its feet, but did we corrupt our political institutions in the process and spawn a debilitating and vicious culture war to boot?

Crashed perhaps focuses a bit too much on the political personalities tasked with responding to the Euro-zone crises (although this is one of its strengths as well), and never mentions the part that depleting resources/environmental constraints played in these crises – as we run out of natural resources to devour, generating the returns to which we have grown accustomed requires the thin-air financial ‘innovations’ that led to the Crash.  Also, the book could use another run through by a diligent proof-reader, but I’m almost literally nit-picking there.  It is a great read – insightful, thought-provoking, challenging, entertaining even – and I’ll not look at the business section of the newspaper the same again.

The ironic thing is that what saved my friend after his Lehman-funded real estate deal went belly-up were the very small farmers that would have been displaced by his “estates.”  He eventually re-invented himself as a specialty coffee broker, and now makes his money consolidating and marketing the product of those same small coffee farmers, generally Filipino or Hispanic immigrants, highly capable people but with limited command of business English, to the high-end coffee market.  This global market access creates the niche product pricing (several times what a Columbian or Guatemalan farmer gets) that supports a modest first-world lifestyle for the farmers: it keeps them in trucks and fertilizer and they have some money left over to bet on the illegal cock-fights that happen nearly every weekend in a remote corner of someoneʻs orchard.

I have to wonder if the high-flyers of Wall Street and the City of London may all someday have to re-invent themselves as my friend did.  Will the gigantic bubble of speculative finance that was not dealt with but rather enabled by years of QE lead to the Mother of all Crashes in the near future? Will the Mother of all Crashes lead to a more grounded, less leveraged way of living for more people?  Hard to say.

Some theses on property, immigration, society and culture

In this post, as promised, I’m going to address the following accusation that Vera made of me in a comment late last year:

“One issue you’ve ducked time and again is this: does your locked front door offend your libertarian spirit? Do local laws that prevent squatters taking over your farm offend it as well? And if it happens not to be offended then, then why is it offended by equally firm boundaries of larger units humans organize?”

Elsewhere, Vera wrote “Millions of impoverished international migrants can be a force that can sink a region or a culture, or a whole slew of cultures or even a whole continentful of them, depending. Ask the American Indians.” And in response to my comment that poor international migrants were not the main threat to a smallholder republic she opined: “Maybe the people of Calais and surrounding areas would be able to provide another view. Not of the armchair kind…I vote for leaving the PC talking points aside, and dealing with the real issue. Effective boundaries.”

Along similar lines, except courteously, Jody wrote a longer comment from which the following excerpts hopefully give a flavor:

“I think immigrants seeking asylum should be welcome as long as they contribute and they follow our rules and customs. But what about people who move to my country and have no ability to contribute? What if they require social welfare or medical assistance to support them?….Should we welcome immigrants if they are unable to contribute to the needs of our society?….I’m liberal enough to welcome the freedom of exchange in ideas and culture but conservative enough to not want social disintegration.”

I don’t consider these to be issues I’ve ducked at all, but let me try once again to define my position on them. I’m afraid that my book-writing labors are pretty all-consuming at the moment, so I only have time here to lay down some brief theses before most likely relapsing into silence again for a while (though I have an exciting guest post coming up). The book contains a more in-depth analysis on these points.

On property

#1 I’m broadly supportive of private property rights for householders (including smallholder-householders) in the small farm future I’d like to see. This is for various reasons that I won’t dwell on here, but maybe I’ll just quote this from Robert Netting “Where land is a scarce good that can be made to yield continuously and reliably over the long term by intensive methods, rights approximating those of private ownership will develop”1. I think a good deal of future farming will involve intensive husbandry on scarce land…so why fight the inevitable?

#2 But what exactly is private property? Essentially, it’s an exclusive claim invested in a specific rights-holder to derive one or more benefits from something – in the case before us, land. The ‘one or more’ point is important. Private property usually involves a bundle of rights. My purchase of my farmland in Somerset in 2003 gave me the right to raise and sell off animals and crops from it, to engage in certain types of hunting (but not others) on it, to extract minerals in certain ways (but not others) from it, to abstract water from it (but only in certain ways and up to a certain point), to erect certain kinds of buildings but not others (such as a dwelling) on it, to apply nitrogenous fertilizer to it (but only up to a certain level) and so on.

#3 And what exactly is a private property right? It’s a relation between people in respect of a thing. In this case, that relation places a duty on other people to respect my exclusive claims over my property (for example by not stealing my livestock or placing their own upon it without my permission). It also places a duty on me to respect other people’s claims on my property, for example by not building a dwelling on it or not shooting people who happen to walk across it.

#4 By saying that I support private property rights I implicitly accept that I can enforce my rights against people who infringe them. No doubt we can argue about what such enforcement might reasonably entail, but the principle of enforcement is clear enough. Therefore, my answer to Vera’s second question – do I oppose local laws against squatting on my land – is ‘no’.

#5 Equally, in supporting private property rights and the local laws governing them I implicitly accept that others can enforce their rights in respect of my property. To generalize from that point and the preceding one, I suggest that private property rights are founded in the collective agreement of a political community. No other interpretation makes as much sense to me. Private property is not a natural or sacred right that precedes the living community within which it’s exercised, nor is it founded in my capacity to defend my property through violence, or based in any particular actions I take in respect of my property (other than ones I may have agreed when I assumed the right).

#6 Therefore, I hold my property in trust in relation to the political community that confers my rights of ownership. If the political community decides to change the terms of my rights, I may disagree with its decision but I don’t think I have good grounds for disagreeing with the principle of it deciding. Generally, I think it’s a bad idea for polities to go chopping and changing property rights, since it breeds uncertainty and resentment. But sometimes it may be necessary. It may be necessary in particular because property tends to concentrate over time in fewer and fewer hands. The people that Vera calls squatters may consider themselves rebels unfairly impoverished by property-owning monopolists and thus fighting against unjust laws. I think it behoves property-owners to consider the wider distribution of social benefits in their polity and to take care that it doesn’t grow too unequal – both from considerations of justice and from self-interest, lest the political community dissolves in violence to the benefit of the ‘squatters’ against the property-owners. Note that this possibility of ultimate violence is not the same as saying that property intrinsically begins in violence, even if it sometimes does.

On borders

#7 On to Vera’s third question, which essentially is if I’m not offended by the bounds of private property rights then why am I offended by the bounds of international borders which likewise constrain people’s rights in respect of land? The first point to make is that these two kinds of borders aren’t the same thing. The money that I paid for my land bought me an exclusive right to engage in certain kinds of activity on it. A polity that confers citizenship on an immigrant from elsewhere (or a locally-born resident who reaches the age of full citizenship rights) doesn’t confer on them an exclusive right to do anything – merely a general right to reside within its jurisdiction and to create a life and (usually) a livelihood there consonant with its laws.

#8 Still, I readily recognize the right of a polity to restrict immigration from beyond its borders if its activities don’t impinge in any significant way on the sending polities. Therefore, my answer to Vera’s third question is that I’m not intrinsically opposed to any kind of border control in any situation. But with this caveat: a polity that closes its borders to migrants shouldn’t expect other polities to receive its emigrants, or its investments, or its trade goods or any other interferences in its interests against their wellbeing if it wishes them to honour its border policies.

#9 It seems plain to me that the USA (and the UK, among other countries) fall foul of these caveats. It and the other rich countries have systematically interfered in the economies of other countries to their own benefit, deliberately dismantled health care and welfare policies in other countries in the name of supposedly efficient market restructuring through ransoming those countries’ access to global finance, engaged in geopolitical ‘great games’ that have displaced and immiserated people en masse, and disproportionately produced the greenhouse gas emissions that prompt climate refugeeism (Jason Hickel’s book The Divide is a good overview of these processes). The rich countries will try to prevent reaping the harvest of this immiseration they’ve inflicted on poorer countries by policing borders to keep out people from the latter. Those people – including ones in need of welfare services – will try to outwit them. My sympathies are with those people, until the rich countries stop fomenting the conditions that impel them to migrate. Here’s where I see the most direct parallel between property boundaries and national borders – if you want people to respect the boundaries that you construct, then it’s a good idea not to dump too much on people the other side of your boundary.

On society

#10 Still, whatever the rights and wrongs of international migration, maybe Vera and Jody are right to worry about its possibly ‘disintegrative’ effects. Then again, maybe they’re not. I’ve never concealed the fact that I think the present structure of the global political economy is unjust and unsustainable, so if it disintegrates that may be no bad thing. As I outlined in this blog post, I don’t think mass international migration is the ideal way of bringing sustainable small farm societies into being around the world, but it may be the best realistic shot we have at it. Ultimately, almost everyone in the world today is a lost child of ‘modernization’. A small farm future will require a lot more people living in the countryside and farming small plots than is the case in the rich countries today. I don’t think it necessarily matters hugely where they moved from. It ain’t where you’re from, it’s how you farm…

#11 Granted, it’s a worry how we’ll all feed ourselves in the future. On that score, the fewer people there are in any given area, the better it’ll be…at least for the people in that area. But anyone who deploys that observation as an argument against immigrants for local sustainability should, in my opinion, acknowledge these three things.

  1. ‘Sustainability’ – ie. avoiding ‘disintegration’ – in this instance is basically an argument for sustaining the high-income, high-emissions status quo. That may seem like a good idea to some folks (it doesn’t to me), but it’s probably just kicking the can down the road to future crisis.
  2. It’s also basically an argument from self-interest – ‘me first for the lifeboat, and screw you’. I think people who make the argument need to own that. They need to be able to look a climate change or other kind of refugee in the eye and say “I don’t want you in my country because it suits me to exclude you. I consider my existing lifestyle which I believe you threaten more important than your wellbeing, and since I have a powerful government at my back I win and you lose”.
  3. Projections for the number of climate change refugees in the coming century vary from about 200 million to 1 billion. That’s a lot of people. The places that want to exclude them will need a massive military mobilization to keep them out that will dwarf the $20 billion the US is currently spending on border enforcement. Such a mobilization will probably have ‘disintegrative’ effects of its own on civil society in the excluding country – political polarization, budgets skewed away from human services to military expenditure, gated communities, martial law (see various analyses along these lines in Todd Miller’s book, Storming the Wall2). It will lead to ‘astronomical’ popular anger against the excluding countries among the excluded (, p.117). And it probably won’t succeed ultimately in excluding them.

#12 Therefore it’s hard to know where self-interest ultimately lies. Identifying yourself with a polity that uses everything in its power, including deadly force, to exclude certain kinds of people may not go well for you if the polity ultimately fails to exclude those people, which is probable. Conversely, failing to identify yourself with such a polity may not go well for you if its politics trend increasingly towards extremist isolationism and nativism, which is also probable. Choices, choices. What tips it for me is that I’d like to prevent extremist isolationism and nativism from taking hold. Also, I consider justice a serious matter, not a “PC talking point”. And I think the justice case for accommodating climate refugees and others immiserated by the global political economy is strong.

#13 Consider this also – when Jody writes “Should we welcome immigrants if they are unable to contribute to the needs of our society?” what are the grounds for being so confident around that ‘our’? As the aforementioned Todd Miller points out, a couple of generations back the main climate refugees in the USA were US citizens fleeing the Dustbowl, who were met with indifference, violence and semi-militarized internal borders by other US citizens. What’s the betting that won’t happen again in the face of droughts, supercharged hurricanes and the like? What line does an enthusiast for self-interested migrant control take when they stop being one of the ‘we’ and become one of the ‘them’, even in their own country?

#14 I’ve long identified with forms of populist politics, but I’ve been accused of not being a proper populist on the grounds of not identifying with nationalism and anti-immigration policies. True, I’m not that kind of populist. I’m the kind of populist who thinks that for the most part the people who control the organs of the centralized state and articulate notions of the nation in defence of it aren’t motivated by concern for ordinary people within or without state borders. Think about the Dustbowl. Or the 2008 crash. Or Jacob Rees-Mogg. THEY DON’T CARE ABOUT YOU.

#15 And this, I think, will be the great political conflict of the 21st century. Do you identify with the nation (which is basically just the centralized modernist-capitalist state with its prettiest dress on), or do you identify with the people? How that plays out will determine a lot of things. For my part, I think Vera’s ‘effective boundaries’ will come at a financial, biological and moral cost to people on both sides of those boundaries which is unpayable and will indeed sink whole continents.

#16 Those who identify with the nation typically demonize people from other nations, or even from their own nation, when it suits centralized power. The Dustbowl migrants were dismissed by the LAPD Deputy Chief as a “flood of criminals”. Vera implies, I think, that the several thousand residents of ‘The Jungle’ migrant camp were a threat to local residents in nearby Calais, and that this somehow constitutes evidence for the dangers of allowing global migration. Well, I never went to The Jungle, though I know people who did and returned unscathed. I’ve also had a hand in employing on our farm refugees who spent time at that camp. They were not remotely threatening, and have now found steady employment locally. My reading of the evidence leads me to the view that the camp’s residents were more threatened than threatening, but I daresay penniless, desperate and demonized people confined at borders sometimes do bad stuff: don’t, however, mistake the contingent threats and degradations of the border for the inherent threats and degradations of the people who are waiting at it. As Kapka Kassabova documents at length in her book on the communist and post-communist borderlands of Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, the people who benefit most from borders are usually the governments that invest in them, while they bring endless trouble for the people that live around them, permanently or temporarily3.

#17 The food production modelling I’ve undertaken in things like my ‘Peasant’s Republic of Wessex’ series suggests to me that there are large margins available for sustainable food production relative to current populations. True, climate change and other hazards put a question mark around that longer-term. But that doesn’t seem to be the main motivating factor behind Vera and Jody’s misgivings. Jody seems mostly concerned about funding burdens and migrants not pulling their weight – but the funding burden runs from the countries of origin to the countries of destination, which is what’s impelling the migration in the first place, and migrant selection effects are such that migrants on average invariably pull their weight more than sedants. Vera’s concerns seem to be actuated more by a metaphysical belief in the general importance of boundaries that I don’t share. I’m not saying there’s never a case for boundaries or limits. On the contrary. But just because there’s a case for boundaries in general doesn’t mean that there’s a case for any given one – as I see it, the case is always specific, and almost always contestable, since social boundaries are usually organized to suit some people’s interests against other people’s interests, however much the first group try to naturalize or universalize their case. Or to put it another way, the case for limits has its limits.

On Culture

#18 It’s not ‘culture’ that’s sunk by migration. Culture is inherently hybrid and syncretic. But the people who are the bearers of culture can be sunk if they’re defined out of the political community. That’s what largely happened to Native Americans, eventually. It’s what may happen to climate refugees and other kinds of refugees who are criminalized and demonized on their migrant journeys. Frankly, I think Vera’s parallel between Native Americans threatened by European migrants and contemporary Americans threatened by migrants gets it exactly upside down – the threat runs from the rich destination countries to the impoverished international migrants. But ultimately I think the culture of the rich countries will have to change – less capitalist-culture, less fossil-fuel-culture, more agri-culture. As I said before, the best practical hope I see for that, tenuous though it is, is through disturbances caused proximally by large-scale migration and fundamentally by the insolvable contradictions of the global capitalist economy.

On Implementation

#19 But for those who want to chart another path, I’d suggest ditching high-income urban life and extravagant fossil fuel use immediately in favour of rural subsistence farming. Such societies would be less attractive destinations for migrants and may even stave off the global environmental bads that are impelling mass migration. Win-win. A world of such societies would look more like the one I construed at the start of Thesis #8 where I suggested that they could legitimately erect barriers to people’s freedom of movement. The irony is that I don’t think they’d have to, because in such a world not many people would feel the necessity of moving far from where they originated. I recall one commentator on Resilience.org sneering that my projected ‘Peasant’s Republic’ would require a big wall to be built around it. But on the contrary, it seems to be the capitalist republics and not the peasant ones that are most in need of their ‘big, beautiful walls’.

#20 What a land reform would look like in the USA or the UK that could deliver a small farm future out of present patterns of migration and sedentism is a debate for another day. It would be unprecedented in its geopolitics, but not in its basic structure. Michael Lipton’s book Land Reform in Developing Countries: Property Rights and Property Wrongs4 lays out in exhaustive detail the various policy instruments that have been tried, often successfully – some more appealing than others. I suggest that it should be reissued, retitled Land Reform in Countries, debated publicly to identify the most appealing policies from place to place, and these should then be implemented before some of the less appealing ones get implemented by default.

#21 But in all honesty I think Vera’s vision for the future will likely hold more sway than mine. There’ll be lots of people ‘defending their culture’, lots of sacrifices by the many for the ‘good of the nation’ whose benefits will curiously accrue mainly to the few, lots more death and misery in the borderlands, lots more political polarization and lots more gated communities at various geographic levels that may become as oppressive to the people within them as without. I think a great deal of this is avoidable, and a great deal of it will stem from essentially self-fulfilling prophecies about the need for ‘effective boundaries’ against threats from without. So I plan to do what I can from my armchair, from my keyboard, from my farm, from my politics and from my humanity to work towards different outcomes. Sadly, I fear that probably won’t be anything like enough.

Notes

  1. R. Netting. 1993. Smallholders, Householders. Stanford UP, p.158.
  2. T. Miller. 2017. Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration and Homeland Security. City Lights.
  3. K. Kassabova. 2018. Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe. Granta.
  4. M. Lipton. 2009. Land Reform in Developing Countries: Property Rights and Property Wrongs. Routledge.