A small farm future

My book A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth is now hurtling on its final trajectory to land on Planet Earth mid-October. To herald the impending event, I’ve set up this new page on the site, which will track the book’s earthly existence, and I’ve posted the new banner above to give a flavour. I have an advance copy in my hands – my thanks to the folks at Chelsea Green for turning my splurge of Word files into such a work of art. For the impatient, there are links on my page for pre-ordering a copy.

Talking of Planet Earth, a recent article by Hidde Boersma and Maarten Boudry (henceforth BB) entitled “Local Farming Can’t Save The Planet” has come to my attention. Since I argue at length in my book that, on the contrary, small-scale, locally-oriented farming is probably the only thing that can ‘save the planet’, or at least that can deliver a reasonably congenial life to the majority of the world’s people with minimum impact on wider biological and earth systems, I think it’s worth taking a look at BB’s arguments. Many of these nicely prefigure some major themes in my book, so it seems appropriate to engage with them here.

But before I do, a quick word on grounding assumptions is in order. If you assume that in the coming decades the effects of climate change will be manageable without major socio-economic dislocation, that the global energy economy will transition quickly to low carbon forms without major reductions in supply, that the availability of various other resources such as phosphorus, water and soil will likewise remain basically as at present, and that global inequalities and political instabilities will also fail to wreak any major changes to national and international governance, then I concede that the case for building economic localisms based around small-scale farming is weaker than if you assume otherwise. BB proceed implicitly with those assumptions, which in my view are an implausible extrapolation of current global trends. A good deal of my case for a small farm future is based on a different extrapolation. But let’s keep that in the background for now, and look more closely at BB’s arguments.

They begin their pushback against local food by saying that organic farming is 20-30% less efficient than conventional farming and is “a form of luxury consumption for well off westerners who can afford it”. By less efficient, I assume they mean per acre crop yields are 20-30% lower, which is generally true – at least in the rich countries. There are arguments that this yield gap can be closed, and arguments that it can’t, which I’ll reserve for another day. The biggest problem is that organic farming as it’s presently practiced isn’t the same as “local and small-scale” farming. BB assert that the latter is just as inefficient as organic farming, without citing any supporting evidence. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that small-scale farming in poor countries is more productive in yield per acre than larger farms (the so-called inverse productivity relationship). And there’s also evidence that organic or organic-ish techniques can be more productive than non-organic ones in certain situations, especially in poor countries.

There’s a complex underlying story to all this which I won’t try to unpick in any detail here. But it simply isn’t true that small-scale, local farming is always less land-efficient than ‘conventional’ farming. Nor is yield per acre the only worthwhile measure of efficiency in farming. Among the numerous other ones, the social efficiency of capital and labour deployment are also relevant. The cheapness of energy and the cheapness of capital in the rich countries create a misleading sense of scale efficiency.

A curious aspect of homing in on organics as an inefficient form of farming for the affluent, as BB and many other ‘conventional’ farming advocates do, is that there’s a vastly more inefficient form of farming for the affluent that they ignore – livestock. According to one recent study, the land use efficiency of producing protein from suckler beef is about 3,500% less than from peas (I have some problems with this kind of comparison, but I don’t dispute the fundamental trophic realities underlying it). So if we really want to talk about inefficient land use geared to furnishing the affluent, why don’t we focus first on the land devoted to livestock farming (proportion of total global agricultural land-take: >70%) rather than that devoted to organics (proportion of total global agricultural land-take: 1%)? A suspicion lurks that it might be because criticizing conventional livestock farming doesn’t fit so well with a preconceived ‘alternative farming can’t feed the world’ narrative. In my book, I provide analyses to suggest that alternative farming probably can feed the world – especially if we eat less meat (but not necessarily no meat). Continuing to feed the world is less certain if we carry on with ‘conventional’ farming, extensive meat production and other trappings of the high-energy economy.

A big difference between organic and ‘conventional’ farming is that the latter uses industrially synthesized nitrogenous fertilizer and mined phosphates. I don’t personally take a fundamentalist line against the use of these fertilizers in all circumstances, though it seems to me unwise to suppose that they’ll remain as cheap and abundant in the future as at present. But if we’re talking about the efficiency (in several senses of the term) of the global food and farming system, it’s worth thinking about where those fertilizers would be best deployed. My suggestion would be mostly among poor, small-scale ‘local’ farmers in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America and not so much in the over-nitrified wastelands of rich-country agricultures. The fact that this scarcely happens ought to prompt some questions about the supposed efficiency of the ‘conventional’ global food system. As should the fact that the 20-30% yield advantage of ‘conventional’ vis-à-vis organic farming is bought with an awful lot of fossil energy to manufacture fertilizers and pesticides.

Next in their article, BB say that “not every region has the right soil and climate for growing food” and they cite research that found only 28% of the global population at most could source their staple food requirements from within a radius of 100km. Now, the fact is that more or less every region does have the right soil and climate for growing food of some kind, but it’s true that the present geographical distribution of the world’s population isn’t conducive for many people to source their food locally. If everyone living in London, for example, immediately had to meet their staple food needs from within 100km, they’d starve in short order.

Here we come to the grounding assumptions I mentioned earlier. For some, that fact suggests that localism won’t be a plausible way of providing food in the future. For others, it suggests that living in London won’t be a plausible way of life in the future. Generally, people seek out places with the best economic opportunities. Throughout the 20th century those places were often urban, not least because of fossil fuel-enabled state policies that directly or indirectly promoted an unprecedented mass urbanization and a de-localization of agricultural production. This was a profound change to the deeper historical reality that the best economic opportunities are mostly in the places where it’s easiest to grow food and fibre. A mass ruralization in the 21st century and beyond in keeping with that deeper reality seems likely. Unfortunately, de-urbanization will probably be harder to achieve than urbanization. All the more reason to start now and find ways of settling people on small-scale holdings oriented to self-reliance and local production.

As an aside, the food writer Jay Rayner takes a similar line on this point to BB:

What matters is not where food is produced but how. The example I always give is of potatoes. In the right soil you will get 20 tons an acre; in the wrong soil you will get 16 tons. So, in the latter, you will need 20% more land or shed loads of carbon inputs to get the same outcome, even if it happens to be closer to you.

There are numerous unexamined assumptions in this passage, leading us from the fact that, other things being equal, some soils can produce more potatoes than others, to the implicit conclusion that it’s a good idea for people to buy potatoes from places with the best soils for growing them.

I examine these assumptions critically in my book, and I won’t spell them out here. But when BB say that “farming locally often means farming on less suitable soils”, they miss the point that that isn’t the case if you arrange your farming to suit the soil, and if you arrange your settlement patterns to suit the farming. Reverting this long-established geographical reality will likely be the major political challenge of the near future.

And that, I think, remains true notwithstanding BB’s argument that “even if you could grow all your food locally, it might still be more efficient to import it from another continent. That’s what economists call “comparative advantage.”” Here, BB rather mischaracterise comparative advantage, which is an almost obsolete concept in the modern global economy. It refers to situations where specifically local investors unable to invest elsewhere get the best financial returns when they support local trades that earn the highest returns to capital, regardless of how competitive they are globally. Basically, the concept of comparative advantage highlights the best ways of making money within the constraints of an international economy that no longer exists. Which is why if you want to make money nowadays you’re probably better off investing in wheat futures rather than in growing wheat, even if you live somewhere with the best wheat-growing soils.

But in the actual future to come rather than its present Wall Street version, you might well be better off growing wheat locally instead of investing your hard-won money in far-flung parts of the world in the expectation that more money will return to you. And that will probably require you to be living in a rural area, where there’s some room for you to do it.

The next major part of BB’s argument is a long exposition of the so-called ‘land sparing’ argument in favour of intensive agriculture for biodiversity reasons – in other words, the view that concentrating farming in intensive, nature-unfriendly ways on as small a land area as possible and thereby leaving more land for wilderness has greater conservation benefits than more nature-friendly but more extensive farming. Here, I’m just going to skate over a complex area with a few brief points.

First, BB simply assume that small-scale, local farming is less intensive than larger-scale farming aimed at more distant markets – but this isn’t necessarily true, as we know from the inverse productivity relationship. This renders moot a lot of their argumentation around the land sparing benefits of non-locally oriented farming, because it doesn’t necessarily spare more land than local farming.

Second, if you’re going to compare specific farming practices that are more or less land intensive, such as synthetic fertilizer based ‘conventional’ agriculture with organic agriculture, you need to include full lifecycle impacts. The smaller land take of synthetic fertilizer-based agriculture may (arguably) be a conservation plus. Not so the climate-forcing effects of fertilizer manufacture nor the eutrophication of watercourses from fertilizer runoff. And farm systems that incentivize farmers to maximize yields have cascading effects that aren’t necessarily beneficial for biodiversity – even at a basic local level such as the various slurry and diesel spillages recently in my own local watershed.

Third, as BB themselves concede, possible land sparing benefits are easily offset by rebound effects. If, for example, you shrink the amount of land needed to meet the demand for rice, then the freed land becomes available for meeting new demands – producing coffee, tropical fruits or golf courses perhaps. BB say that zoning restrictions are therefore needed to protect spared land, and note – rather spuriously – that land ‘marked as protected’ has increased in recent years. But if the wealth-generating and poverty-eradicating potential of the global capitalist economy championed by its advocates manifests, how will this play out long-term? Will the rising middle-class in poorer countries vote to forgo their coffee, fruit and golf in favour of nature reserves? Is that what the electorates in the rich countries have done? The alternative is a hard road that modern humanity may ultimately only travel out of necessity, but it’s one that I think we need to embark on, and it’s among the strongest arguments for local farming. People need to spread out across the landscape and, like other organisms, skim the flows that its ecological base can provide renewably. We need to learn how to do this by living it locally. For this and various other reasons, many ecologists argue that the sparing-sharing framework is a false dichotomy.

BB then turn to health issues, arguing against the view that the modern food system makes us sick on the grounds that we shouldn’t conflate processing with production: “It’s ultra-processed foods that are linked to obesity and cardiovascular disease, not the crops as such”. No doubt this is true, but it’s a fine distinction given that 70% of the world’s cropland is devoted to just nine crops, chosen largely because these are indeed the crops most amenable to ultra-processing.

Health-wise, BB also weigh in on Covid-19, arguing that “Enclosed, controlled systems with high levels of biosecurity minimize the risks of viral outbreaks. By contrast, on… small farms…the risk of novel species-jumping diseases is significantly greater.” I’ll leave until another time the complexities that make this a half-truth at best, pausing only to note that the world we live in isn’t some controlled experiment with two separate economies or worldviews – local/extensive and global/intensive – running side by side. Large farms and small farms in their present form are part of the same global political economy, with a singular risk profile that easily turns novel zoonoses into global human pandemics.

Finally, BB argue that “the declining cost of food associated with globalization and intensification has been an unmixed blessing for humanity” adding “the notion that cheapness is bad in and of itself reflects an elitist reflex that is offensive to the global majority … telling less well-off folks that they should just buy more expensive food is the policy equivalent of telling the sans-culottes to eat cake instead of bread.”

Indeed, that would be so … except that I can’t think of a single advocate for agrarian localism who actually does take the view that less well-off folks “should just buy more expensive food” (perhaps it’s no accident that the copious hyperlinks to supporting literature that pepper BB’s text dry up in this paragraph). Instead, we localistas emphasize the linkages in the global economy that enable it to furnish food at rock-bottom prices (achieved partly, it must be said, by relying on government subsidies and the poorly-paid labour of the numerous ‘less well-off folks’ who toil in the global food system), while simultaneously scouring economic rent from the global poor in the form of property prices, welfare charges, immigration policy, investment policy, labour policy and numerous other tactics.

Contrary to BB, I’d argue that declining food commodity prices in fact have been an extremely mixed blessing (indeed, more of an unmixed curse) to the global poor, by undercutting their capacities for local food autonomy and exposing them to the fluctuations of global commodity markets in which they have no comparative advantage at all. So, yes, food prices should be higher, but only as a necessary part of a wider rebalancing of land, labour, energy, capital, carbon and welfare that mitigates against the present extreme concentration of wealth and income in the hands of the global wealthy, and its destructive effects on the biosphere.

That, in a nutshell, is why I argue local farming can ‘save the planet’. But if you’re looking for more than a nutshell, the fully-referenced, feature-length version will be along soon.

Collapse: a helpful guide for the perplexed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of them cups her ear.

“Nah, can’t hear anything,” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

Some questions concerning violence

I’d been planning to write a post about violence – political, personal and virtual – when I’d finished working through the copyedit of my book, and as I emerge blinking into the light I see that it’s suddenly rather topical. There’s little I can say about George Floyd’s killing and the events arising from it that somebody somewhere hasn’t already said better than I could, but I tried to write a post that started with those events and steered its way to the more specific concerns of this blog with agrarian and social futures. Somehow, though, I don’t think what I wrote hit the right notes. Instead, I’m just going to offer a few questions that recent events have prompted for me. If anyone would care to essay an answer to any of them, I’d appreciate it. Perhaps I can then circle around to this again with a more considered post at some point in the future.

Death Zones

The philosopher Étienne Balibar has written that the human world increasingly divides into “life zones” and “death zones”. As climate change, resource crisis and growing economic inequality begin to bite, it seems likely that the death zones will grow, along with border tensions between the zones of life and death. I’d argue that, for numerous reasons, affirming the wellbeing of people in the death zones is critical for bequeathing a planet that’s habitable for humanity in the long term. Black Lives Matter has illuminated the fact that there are death zones right in the heart of wealthy, democratic countries like the US and Britain that many white people like me who live right alongside them scarcely notice. Yet already this has prompted widespread pushback of the #AllLivesMatter variety. The outcome of this tussle seems to me of the utmost importance.

Questions: Can our politics embrace and defuse the systemic violence of racism in our midst right now? If not, what chances for embracing and defusing the systemic violence involved in the growing death zones of the future?

The State and the People

Around the time of his 2016 election, a lot of people – me included – spilled ink worrying about whether Donald Trump was a fascist. Plenty on the right dismissed this as left-wing hyperventilating, while certain historians of the left got to work itemizing all the ways in which Trump 2016 was different from Mussolini 1922. In certain respects, all that now seems by the by to me, because I’ve now seen enough of Trump’s administration to be able to characterize it sui generis – a systemically racist, authoritarian, state-capitalist form of big government that’s anxious to use paramilitary or even straightforwardly military force against its own citizenry.

But since it’s hard to fathom the politics of another country (indeed, I can barely fathom the politics of my local town council) my question to those more grounded in US politics is this –

Question: how is the government and police response to Black Lives Matter playing out among the various factions of the US right in light of the fact that the Trumpling of states’ rights and freedom of citizen assembly surely offends some of its most sacred causes?

Social Distancing

Let me anticipate an answer. My guess is that some people will oppose state authoritarianism in general terms or as it applies to their own freedom of manoeuvre, but not when it’s applied to ‘terrorists’, ‘looters’, ‘Marxists’, ‘anarchists’ or ‘antifa’.

Now seems a good time for all of us to consider the distancing and objectifying language of this kind we often use to characterize political antagonists. I was once taken to task on this site by one commenter, no longer active here, for likening Trump’s politics to fascism. Fair enough, probably. Yet this commenter’s own unreflective use of ‘antifa’ as a way of diminishing political actions they disliked was surely just as wayward. My feeling is that, while social distancing might be a good way to minimize the misery of COVID-19, the social distancing of political labelling probably isn’t a good way to minimize the misery of human conflict escalation.

Question: Is it possible to operate without the use of distancing political labels?

Unmet needs

Marshall Rosenberg wrote that that “Every criticism, judgment, diagnosis, and expression of anger is the tragic expression of an unmet need”. Having immersed myself recently in some of his writings while doing a non-violent communication course, I’ve become more inclined to try to attune myself to such unmet needs in myself and others. Here at Small Farm Future I serve up plenty of criticism, judgment and diagnosis – and, regrettably, even the odd flash of anger sometimes. I don’t think Rosenberg was opposing the kind of political criticism and diagnosis that’s normal service on this site so much as the kind that’s moralistically directed at individuals or groups as a way of creating distance rather than empathy. But the one can easily run into the other, and I know I’m guilty of that.

Rosenberg spent a lot of time seeking to transform conflicts into more positive interactions, even in intractable political situations such as Israel/Palestine. I think such work is going to be vital in the future if we’re to bequeath a habitable world to our descendants.

Questions: Does Rosenberg’s framework resonate with others who read this blog? If so, what can I do at Small Farm Future to be better at meeting needs and transforming conflict?

History

Here in Britain, a prominent aspect of the Black Lives Matter protests has involved the toppling or defacement of various statues of historical figures associated with slavery or racism, and far right mobilization to, er, defend them – including Prime Minister Boris Johnson fulminating against those who would “rewrite the past”. Leaving Johnson’s own rewritings aside, I can’t really see statues as anything other than acts of political performance art that always incite a performative response – whether it’s hushed reverence or daubed graffiti. Edward Colston’s bronze has excited rather fewer defenders than Winston Churchill’s – perhaps because while Britain’s status as a major slave-trading power isn’t part of its present national self-consciousness, its status as an allied power that defeated Hitler’s Germany certainly is (OK, ‘helped to defeat’, but there seem to be curiously few memorials to Roosevelt, Stalin and other allied notables in Britain).

Statue-toppling and statue-defending too easily distract from the deeper political engagements that are necessary, and the politics of the crowd can get scary, but the battle of the statues does very palpably raise a historical question.

Question: What kind of past does our political community wish to cultivate and project into the political present in order to meet present challenges, such as trying to keep the planet habitable for humanity?

My answer would be not the one represented by Colston, nor the one represented by Churchill. But I’m interested in other answers to this question, and all the others.

Covid-19 economics: beyond austerity and debt-finance

Talk has already turned to how we’ll deal with the almighty economic blowback impending from the Covid-19 pandemic. The nearest parallel is the financial crisis of 2008 – a story of unregulated market failure that here in the UK the Conservative government somehow succeeded in turning into a story of state failure in the form of the allegedly spendthrift Labour government preceding them. This enabled it to follow low-spending, deficit-cutting austerity policies that, it’s widely acknowledged, only prolonged the economic pain – though it did have the desired effect from the government’s perspective of most hurting the people it cared least about, and generally weakening public institutions to which it was ideologically opposed.

Justifications for austerity are often informed by the so-called ‘household analogy’ that a country’s finances are just like those of an individual, debt-averse household – the idea that ex-Prime Minister Theresa May had in mind when she said “there is no magic money tree” to increase frozen public sector wages. This time around, plenty of commentators are warning against the siren song of austerity and the ‘economically illiterate’ household analogy as a response to the forthcoming economic crisis. But there are plenty on the right still trying to sing it. If they succeed once again in pinning the economic storms to come on lazy employees and install another round of austerity, I think I’ll give up whatever vestigial faith I still have in electoral politics.

But the anti-austerity view is interesting, no? If it’s right, then it seems that maybe there is a magic money tree after all, which will surely solve a lot of our problems. In this view, debt is nothing to be feared, but is merely another tool sovereign nations can use to oil the wheels of economic action. Economic historian Adam Tooze, whose magnum opus on the 2008 crash was reviewed on this site a while back by Michelle Galimba, unpicks the threads of this argument in this short and interesting essay. Tooze argues that, beyond the household analogy, the circular logic of a sovereign national citizenry as both its own creditor and its own debtor is “an illusion achieved by removing the real politics of debt – which are about class, not nationality”. So part of the tussle over debt is about who proportionately bears the brunt of government income-raising efforts. Generally, policies over the past forty years in the rich countries have benefitted (wealthy) rentiers such as property-owners, investors and shareholders over (low paid) employees and unemployees. They’ve also benefitted the financial sector over productive economic sectors – currently in the UK only about £1 in every £10 lent by the banks goes to non-financial firms, according to Josh Ryan-Collins (co-author of the must-read Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing).

Another part of Tooze’s argument bears on central banks like the US Federal Reserve, which defang debt by creating money, lowering interest rates and managing inflation. By thus removing government IOUs from private portfolios and putting them on the central bank’s balance sheet debts become “literally claims by the public on itself”.

A national economy that works in this way indeed seems very different to the economics of an indebted individual household beleaguered by hungry creditors. But Tooze mentions in passing national economies that are like this – namely those of “impoverished and desperate” countries dependent on foreign creditors who will lend only in strong international currencies like US$. The idea that a country like Burundi, for example, could pay its way out of an economic downturn by increasing its debt and repackaging it as an asset doesn’t really work.

This has several significant implications. For one thing, we tend to think of the vast sums accrued in the financial sectors of the rich countries as somehow sui generis, unconnected to poverty elsewhere. But, as argued by people like Cédric Durand in his book Fictitious Capital (or Intan Suwandi in her Value Chains), there’s a causal chain in this money-grubbing that can be traced back to the real, productive economy in the form of poorly-paid industrial labour in the Global South, particularly in ‘workshop of the world’ Asian countries like China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam. In yet poorer countries – many in sub-Saharan Africa, like Burundi – there’s little chance of creating even such subordinate industrial infrastructures, resulting in extreme rural and slum precarity.

So maybe we can resurrect the household analogy for national economies after all, simply by adding a little extra nuance. Poor-country economies are like poor households, subject to endless economic disciplining, scrutiny and moralising the moment they make economic claims upon richer creditors beyond their present means, and yet providing the foundation for the wealth of those richer creditors. Rich-country economies are like richer, middle-class households, mortgaged up to their eyeballs and buying easy credit from all takers without a whiff of moral censure.

This indebtedness of the rich works very well so long as there’s confidence in the wider economy that they’ll stay rich, and therefore that their debt will remain a useable asset – so long, in other words, that enough people believe in the magic of the money tree. It’s easy to believe the magic if the economy is growing and property prices are rising, or if the household earners are still pulling big salaries. It gets harder if those things are no longer true – and one thing we learned during the last financial crisis with its sub-prime mortgages and credit default swaps is that it’s all too easy for our human credulity to get away from us, allowing us to believe we can financialize our way out of bad debt. But once enough people stop believing in the magic of the money tree, things start falling apart.

Under my last post, Joe Clarkson wrote “How long will others accept money that the fed creates out of thin air? I think the answer is a long, long time.” I agree. The USA isn’t going to turn into Burundi tomorrow. Or the day after. But if you take a long historical perspective, I think that long, long time might turn out to be shorter than a lot of people expect. The extreme financialization of the rich countries isn’t economically sustainable. You can convince people that you’re wealthy by saying that you’re wealthy and behaving like you’re wealthy for a while – even more so if you have the institutional power to keep leveraging wealth created by others – but in our present world of stagnant incomes and sluggish growth ultimately reality catches up with you. The magic money tree turns out to be just another tree.

Likewise, inasmuch as the genuine wealth of the rich countries accrues by extracting much of it from the industrializing poorer ones, there’s a limited historical window before the latter find ways of keeping the wealth at home. One way of extending that window is by affecting lofty civilizational aspirations and a kind of noblesse oblige that makes economic power seem culturally attractive. This is something that the USA achieved historically with its democratic, anti-colonial revolution and its ‘American dream’, a veneer that still renders centrist commentators nostalgic about the “democratic and rights-based push” of US power in the face of today’s “authoritarian pull exerted by China”. As I see it, any such veneer started cracking with the Vietnam war and pretty much expired with the presidency of George W. Bush, rallying only half-heartedly under Barack Obama, and has now been buried for good with Donald Trump.

Wang Xiuying writes,

Liberal sentiment in China is at a low ebb. The pro-democracy cause has been weakened drastically since Trump took office. How do you defend a system that gives power to a celebrity with no knowledge of international relations who filed for corporate bankruptcy half a dozen times? Trump’s early attempts to wave away the threat of the virus looked dangerously short-sighted to people here; his bid for an America-only vaccine grotesque. As racist attacks against Chinese-Americans have surged in the US, along with the virus, it has become impossible to argue for a Western model of freedom and democracy.

Beyond the charmed precincts of western self-regard, I suspect people in many countries now fear China’s ‘authoritarian pull’ less than they fear the ‘democratic push’ of the USA.

All in all, it seems likely that turbulent times lie ahead – not only for the poor households of the world (real and metaphorical) but also for the (real and metaphorical) rich ones that are trying to keep up appearances in the straitened circumstances of the present. The USA (and its pint-sized outrider, Britain) are still thundering their importance in the world and the virtues of their economic models. But fewer people are listening.

Meanwhile, something interesting seems to be afoot in China. Its post-1978 modernization was built on the back of rural entrepreneurialism, but state policy since the 1990s has largely favoured urbanization and urban industrial development at the expense of the countryside – the familiar western model of economic development prescribed for post-war ‘developing’ countries by economists like Arthur Lewis.

Shaohua Zhan writes:

Lewis’s model was premised on the assumption that urban areas would provide livelihoods for rural labourers displaced by the industrialization of capitalist agriculture. This may have been the case for early-industrializing economies, but it was never a reality for the majority of countries in the Global South, where jobs in the city were poorly paid and often too scarce to absorb the total amount of excess labour, forcing peasants into the informal sector where they eked out a living in urban slums. Since the late 1970s, the model has ceased to apply even to developed countries. As neoliberal reforms led to the gradual replacement of secure jobs in the formal economy with precarious work in the informal sector, unemployment and under-employment surged, giving rise to social polarization and a swelling underclass

Thus,

By pushing for the financialization of rural land, the consolidation of farms and urban expansion, both state and capital intended to extract maximum surplus from China’s land and sustain high rates of economic growth. However, this mode of development has proved unable to provide secure livelihoods for the majority. Rising urban precarity has lent credence to those advocating for the protection of small-holder farming.

Sure enough, in 2017 the Chinese Government rowed back on its urban bias and introduced a policy of ‘Rural Revitalization’, while a 2018 government report remarked that a large rural population would continue to be a “basic reality in China”1.

Where this blog leads, the governments of the world are apt to follow…

OK, so I accept that Chinese policy isn’t (yet) fully in line with the vision for a small farm future I articulate here. Nevertheless, as we contemplate the global economic landscape in the wake of the pandemic, I’d suggest it’s wise to avoid both the ‘poor household’ economic analogy of austerity and the ‘rich household’ economic analogy of quantitative easing and endlessly deferred debt. Instead, another household analogy presents itself – household responsibility. So to the question ‘how will humanity’s collective household pay for Covid-19?’ my answer is neither to squeeze the poor, nor to squeeze the future by closing your eyes and believing in the magic of the money tree. Instead, I’d suggest you look out your old spade and hoe from the back of the garden shed. There’s work to be done.

Note

  1. Shaohua Zhan. 2020. “The land question in 21st century China.” New Left Review, 122: 115-33.

Of scarcity and scale

Let me begin with a quick heads-up on my forthcoming book. It’s been somewhat delayed in the editing, but Covid-19 permitting it’s now slated for publication at the end of October. So please be sure to keep some cash in your piggy bank for the tail-end of the year…

One reason the book was delayed in the editing is because the initial draft grew a little unwieldy and I’ve had to spend time paring it down. There’s just so much to say about smallness, farming and the future! Some of my edits are destined to languish forever on the cutting room floor, perhaps rightly so, but there are a few sections I think deserve to see the light of day. So I’m aiming to publish them here on the blog as a kind of ‘best of the rest’ selection – or, to a put a more positive spin on it, as background reading that fills out in greater detail some of the book’s balder and briefer assertions and analyses.

This post is the first of these selections, lightly edited to fit into the blog format, involving some reflections on farm scale, yield and income. Right now, however, I’m in the thick of the final book edit, so please forgive me if my replies to any comments are more peremptory than normal.

oOo

For numerous reasons, I’ve long argued for a small farm future, where a large proportion of the population work as small-scale agricultural proprietors producing food both for themselves (a crucial point, as I’ll emphasize below) and for market sale. But it has to be said that historically the lot of the small proprietor often hasn’t been a happy one.

Optimal in theory, sub-optimal in practice – in his book Agricultural Revolution in England1, Mark Overton includes an interesting table that enables us to probe this issue. The table presents data from two pre-industrial English grain farms, which are hypothetical but presumably grounded in Professor Overton’s experience as a prominent agricultural historian – a large farm of 100 acres and a small farm of 10 acres:

Farm Productivities
Column

1

 

2

 

3

 

4

 

5

 

6

 

7

 

8

 

9

 

10

Row Harvest ratio to normal Acres Yield (bushels/acre) Gross output Seed On farm consumption Net output Price (d/bushel) Total income Income/labor unit
Large farm
1 1.5 100 15 1500 250 50 1200 4 4800 4800
2 1.2 100 12 1200 250 50 900 6.6 5940 5940
3 1 100 10 1000 250 50 700 10 7000 7000
4 0.8 100 8 800 250 50 500 16.9 8450 8450
5 0.5 100 5 500 250 50 200 55.3 11060 11060
Small farm
6 1.5 10 15 150 25 50 75 4 300 300
7 1.2 10 12 120 25 50 45 6.6 297 297
8 1 10 10 100 25 50 25 10 250 250
9 0.8 10 8 80 25 50 5 16.9 84.5 84.5
10 0.5 10 5 50 25 50 -25 55.3 -1382.5 -1382.5

 

In Rows 1-5 Overton gives some input/output figures for the large farm under various assumptions of good, normal and poor harvest. In an agricultural economy that’s largely self-sufficient in staples locally or nationally, demand for grain is price inelastic (ie. it stays fairly constant regardless of price, because everybody needs to eat). Because of this inelasticity, in times of dearth the price of grain shoots up disproportionately to the fall in output, meaning that the large farm gets more income in bad harvest years than good ones (compare Row 1, Column 9 with Row 5, Column 9).

The outcome isn’t so happy for the small farmer, shown in Rows 6-10. In the poorest harvest years, s/he produces less grain than s/he needs to consume (Row 10, Column 7), and has to buy in extra grain to eat at the inflated scarcity price, therefore making a net loss (Row 10, Column 9). Too many seasons like that and the farm goes under, forcing the farmer to find some other employment – if they can.

But Overton makes a key and rather hidden assumption. Before it sells any grain the farm household first has to meet its own need for sustenance, which is the same year by year for a given household size regardless of the harvest. Overton allows for this in Column 6, but he makes it the same for both the 100 and 10 acre farms. So the same number of farmworkers in both cases (and the same yields per acre) but on the large farm the same number of workers are applied to an area ten times the size of the small farm, and therefore have ten times the labour productivity.

That’s a reasonable (in fact, conservative) picture of what tends to happen when small-scale farmers with hand tools or draft teams confront large-scale ones with all the paraphernalia of modern fossil-fuelled industrial agriculture. The labour productivity of the latter is vastly greater, and since labour is a major cost driver, this pushes poor small-scale farmers out of staple crop production and into commodity crop or non-farm employment markets where they’re subject to wider market forces, usually to their disadvantage. This is why calls in the rich countries to improve labour-shedding technologies, increase yields and lower the price of food in order to ‘feed the world’ in fact are more likely to starve it.

But I’m not sure Overton’s labour productivity figures present a reasonable picture of preindustrial English agriculture, or situations generally where the large-scale farm has no technology or labour-productivity advantage. Suppose we recalculate Overton’s table assuming that each acre of farmland requires the same amount of human labour applied to it. It then looks like this:

Farm productivities scaled to labor productivity
Column

1

 

2

 

3

 

4

 

5

 

6

 

7

 

8

 

9

 

10

Row Harvest ratio to normal Acres Yield (bushels/acre) Gross output Seed On farm consumption Net Output Price (d/bushel) Total income Income/labor unit
1 1.5 100 15 1500 250 500 750 4 3000 300
2 1.2 100 12 1200 250 500 450 6.6 2970 297
3 1 100 10 1000 250 500 250 10 2500 250
4 0.8 100 8 800 250 500 50 16.9 845 84.5
5 0.5 100 5 500 250 500 -250 55.3 -13825 -1382.5
Small farm
6 1.5 10 15 150 25 50 75 4 300 300
7 1.2 10 12 120 25 50 45 6.6 297 297
8 1 10 10 100 25 50 25 10 250 250
9 0.8 10 8 80 25 50 5 16.9 84.5 84.5
10 0.5 10 5 50 25 50 -25 55.3 -1382.5 -1382.5

 

By equalizing the labour productivities in Column 6, the advantage of the large farm has disappeared. Like the small farm, its income turns negative in the poorest harvest years, and its financial returns per unit of labour are exactly the same. In fact, in preindustrial England and in many other places historically the evidence suggests that, if anything, there are diseconomies of large scale in terms of output per acre, so the small farm may be advantageously placed.

There are four points I’d like to draw out from this little exercise by way of conclusion.

First, there isn’t some natural economic law that favours large over small economic units. Only in specific social and technical circumstances is this likely to be the case.

Second, one such case has been global agricultural mechanization over the past century or so. If like units of labour earn more or less the same per hour whatever they do, and if there are no diseconomies of increased scale in relation to labour-shedding agricultural mechanization, then small farms producing grain by hand or small machine will be disadvantaged relative to larger farms that are terraformed to the requirements of large machines employing equivalent labour. What seems much less clear to me is that this will continue to be true into the future. In the coming years we’re probably going to have to find low carbon employment for people in their multitudes. In this situation, labour productivity will probably be less important than carbon intensity and gainful employment – and the small farm may be better fitted to that end.

Third, a talking point in mainstream agricultural economics is that ‘free’ markets rather than household or community self-reliance are a better safeguard against hunger. Sometimes that can be true. The exorbitant prices for grain apparent in Column 8 as the yields in Column 3 decline might have been smoothed out with imports of cheaper grain from other parts of the world experiencing grain surpluses.

But there are several grounds for caution here. There’s the problem of dumping I mentioned above, with long-term negative effects on the local economy. There’s the issue that while cheaper grain imported from elsewhere may be welcome when harvests are poor, the exporters are usually price-seekers, not humanitarians. The cheaper grain may not be cheap enough to fully relieve distress – distress arising largely from local social arrangements which wider market dynamics aren’t geared to mitigating. Indeed, speculation on financialized global markets is a driver of food price increases, not a wider market solution to local distress. Finally, in the climate and water-challenged world that’s now upon us, it’s unwise to assume that cheap grain at steady prices will be readily available on the global market. The places that produce most of the grain surpluses are among the ones that are most climate and water challenged – and, as we’ve seen recently, when push comes to shove administrations prioritize production for domestic use, at least for those among their populations they wish to court.

Fourth and finally, inasmuch as farms of any scale might be economically threatened by poor harvests, it seems to me that Overton’s analysis points to two remedies. The first is that the farm household should place a high priority on producing for its own needs in a resilient, pessimal manner so that the net output figures in Column 7 are unlikely ever to turn negative, even in bad years, as a matter of ecological management. The second is that the farm household should aim to be part of a wider community and economy of farm households whose political guardians offer them support so that in bad years the figures in Column 7 don’t turn negative as a matter of political fiat. I think both of these remedies will be necessary in a sustainable and resilient small farm future.

Generally, the point I want to stress is that the bad outcome for the small farmer of the kind highlighted by Overton doesn’t arise from some intrinsic disadvantage of small scale, but from relative labor productivities in the existing globalized capitalist market – which isn’t the only way or necessarily the most sensible way of organizing food production and social wellbeing.

Reference

  1. Mark Overton. 1996. Agricultural Revolution in England: The Transformation of the Agrarian Economy 1500-1850. Cambridge University Press.

 

For whom the bell tolls: a Small Farm Future COVID-19 special

Since nobody seems to be talking about anything except COVID-19 at the moment I thought I’d join the crowd and, in a change to my published program, write a blog post about the pandemic.

Of course, there’s a lot to be said for the Jürgen Klopp gambit of refusing to talk about things you know nothing about, but I propose to take the opposite tack on the grounds that (1) while indeed I know very little about anything, as the proud owner of a 25 year-old master’s degree in health planning with a quarter-helping of epidemiology in the mix, I humbly submit that I’m at least as well qualified to talk about it as most of the other blowhards who’ve been weighing in online; (2) the outbreak bears directly on many themes of relevance to this blog, and; (3) if the blogosphere was designed only for the dissemination of expert knowledge, it would be a very different beast to its present shape. Possibly a better one, but that’s another story.

So, without further ado, here are Small Farm Future’s five take home (and stay there) messages concerning COVID-19.

1. What if we only ate food from local farms? This was the title of a recent post of mine, in which I critiqued TV botanist James Wong’s view that in this scenario, we’d starve. I argued in that post that if we continue to romanticize global trade we’d be more likely to starve, sooner or later. And now, all of a sudden, sooner seems more of a possibility than later as the precariousness of long global supply chains in the face of even minor system perturbations begins to bite.

True, COVID-19 isn’t directly a food crisis – though it may turn into one if the rather elderly cohort of people still foolishly involved in the underpaid business of growing food for humanity succumbs disproportionately to the virus, or if our much-vaunted ‘just in time’ automated supply chains turn out to be less automated and not quite as in time as we thought. Perhaps the proof of the pudding is in the eating – and on that front our small market garden has been inundated with new customer enquiries in the last week from people who’ve clearly come to a view that local supply mightn’t be such a bad way to go right now.

Good news for us, I guess, except where I live – and where most people live in the rich world – we’re not remotely capable of meeting current food or other needs renewably from local supply at present, in large measure because we’ve resolutely championed the ‘efficiency’ of global supply chains and enthusiastically undermined local land-based skills and infrastructures. Meanwhile, most of us live crowded together in vast cities which can only be kept healthy by large inputs of (fossil) energy – maybe we can ‘self-isolate’ briefly in these circumstances, but not long-term. For numerous reasons long expounded on this blog, long-term we need to create predominantly rural societies that are geared to renewably skimming their local ecological bases. Maybe COVID-19 might prove the shot across the bows we need in this respect?

Like many long-term advocates of such localization I’ve had to put up with a certain amount of scorn over the years for my errant views. I don’t want to peddle too much reverse scorn right now, and I want to do what I can personally to help see us all through this crisis. But I’m hoping that COVID-19 might encourage some folks to be a little more open-minded about small farm localism in the future. What if we only ate food from local farms? Maybe James Wong might now consider amending his tweet thus: “We’d starve – it’s as simple as that. So let’s see what we can do to rebuild local agricultures.”

2. Follow the money. After the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease, the government introduced strict containment legislation that outlawed feeding livestock anything that had been in a kitchen, however it was treated, apparently on the grounds of potential contamination from imported food bearing the infection. A more reasonable and energy-efficient policy would surely have been to accept the low possibility of infection by this route, promote good biosecurity and contain local outbreaks (which would be easier with local foodsheds and farm infrastructures). I can’t help feeling that this didn’t happen because the more stringent policy created financial benefits for large-scale meat exporters, fodder producers, middlemen and tax collectors, while the main losers were small-scale farmers with no political voice.

Then with COVID-19 the government’s initial response was the exact opposite – it’s going to be endemic, so let’s not overdo containment and isolation, but build herd immunity through letting the infection run its course. The problem with this is that it meant a lot more people would probably die, and that health services would be overwhelmed. When this became apparent, the government dramatically changed tack and adopted drastic containment – but probably not soon enough to avoid deaths that seem preventable had they been more willing to learn from other countries. Herd immunity is hard to sell to the herd when it means a significant proportion of its loved ones will die. And whereas small farmers don’t have much political voice (livestock even less), the human herd does still have some call on political decision-making.

While the government chose the opposite strategy in the two cases, the common thread is that both were the options that least disturbed the economy’s capital-accumulating dynamo, despite the negative human impacts – minor in the former case, probably major in the second. Of course, these decisions are difficult, and a smooth-running global economy is itself a human benefit – though to some people far more than others. Ultimately, though, what seems to have happened in this crisis is, to put it crudely, that human society has trumped the human economy. I think the consequences could be profound, and I hope people will notice this and try to work it through.

***Addendum: farming minister George Eustice has just warned that “buying more than you need means others may be left without”, neatly encapsulating a universal truth that goes curiously unrecognized in orthodox economic theory and in the standard case for the superiority of the capitalist political economy undergirded by private market solutions. Eustice’s easy distinction between needs and wants as something that’s apparently self-evident is worth cutting out and keeping for when the orthodoxy has regained the confidence to reassert itself ***

3. OK, boomer – our problems are structural. Coincidentally, just as the discussion under my last post on population highlighted the point that a considerable part of our ‘over-population’ problem stems not from the fact that too many babies are being born but from the fact that people are living to much older ages, here comes a disease that disproportionately fells the elderly. At the same time, as William Davies has elegantly argued, trends in employment and property prices in the rich countries have effectively created a class divide between entitled older generations and disinherited younger ones. Generationally, compared to a fiftysomething like me, I’d say people coming into adulthood today have a rougher time of it than I did (yes, I know the world is supposed to be getting better and better all the time, but that’s another chart-topper I’ve never been able to dance to).

I’ve seen a bit of online schadenfreude at the plight of the elderly with respect to COVID-19 – not especially pretty, yet maybe understandable in small doses in the light of these generational inequalities. Clearly, though, moving wealth down the generations a little sooner than it might otherwise have happened doesn’t materially alter the nature of our class divisions. Which underscores another point I took some pains to make in my previous post – we badly need to stop thinking about the problems we face as aggregates of our individual decisions and behaviours, and think about emergent system structures instead. Our ecological problems won’t be inherently eased by a smaller population. Our economic problems won’t be inherently eased by old, rich people dying sooner. And so on. Please.

4. Will the real tough-talking politicians stand up? In recent years, global politics has thrown up a series of divisive, showboating, self-aggrandizing politicians who talk tough to camera – Donald Trump and Boris Johnson to name but two. To me they seem like media constructions who lack the moral fibre to deserve to be called ‘tough’. Real toughness involves telling citizens hard truths they may not want to hear, but empathically, organizational ability and shouldering responsibility rather than trying to offload blame onto ‘Chinese viruses’ and the like. But maybe that’s just me. If figures like Trump and Johnson manage to bluster their way through a crisis like this with their popularity intact, I think it’ll be time for me to give up and tend my own garden … well, I hope to tend it either way, but you know what I mean. But maybe a silver lining of COVID-19 might be that the tangible physical crisis prompts a rethink among electorates about the kind of people we want leading us, and the kind of issues we need them to confront.

5. No wo/man is an island. This is a time when I think we’d do well to remember John Donne’s ageless wisdom: “No man is an island, entire of itself … Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

But how we best enact this is more open to question. Inevitably, many of us will see in COVID-19 the mirror of our preferred politics – as in those right-wing commentators pointing to the empty supermarket shelves and economic misery as exemplary warnings of what would happen under socialist or green regimes, while ignoring that, actually, they’ve happened under right-wing, capitalist ones. But I’m no exception. I think the crisis underscores that old saw of green politics – ‘think global, act local’. The first part is maybe easier – no more talk of ‘Chinese viruses’ – but the acting locally raises intriguing issues. In times of crisis, especially in urban situations, a lot of the usual individualist concerns drop away and people create ingenious new commons to get by, ‘paradises built in hell’ in the resonant phrase of Rebecca Solnit. But I’d argue the longer and larger task is to dwell less on this transient commoning and focus instead on building the conditions in which people can create their own livelihoods renewably and locally as individuals-in-communities. So we need a sense of subsidiarity from the global to the local and thence to the household and the individual. More on that shortly…

Well, more on that shortly, I hope. If I don’t make it through the epidemic, let me just say that it’s been a pleasure writing this blog over the years and interacting with its readers. Santé!

The population problem problem

A while ago I wrote a post probing critically at the idea that human population levels were at the root of our contemporary environmental problems. It prompted various critical responses in turn, including this one from Alan Ware and Dave Gardner of World Population Balance that’s only just come to my attention. They published it so long ago that I suppose the moment to engage with it has probably passed, except that it’s helped me clarify a few thoughts – as has a recent article by Meehan Crist in the London Review of Books1. Since the issues involved are still very much with us, it seems worth wading into the population question once again, this time through the lens of the critique levelled by Ware and Gardner (henceforth WG) at my original post.

I mischievously titled that original post “Population – what’s the problem?”, not necessarily to suggest that population isn’t a problem but to question what kind of problem it is. On this score, WG have no doubts – for them, it’s an “existential problem”. They proceed to substantiate this, as do many analysts on the topic, mostly by asserting very emphatically that it is a problem, sometimes invoking the emphatic assertions of others, especially those most respected of others, ‘scientists’. These scientists include the World scientists’ warning to humanity and other works co-authored by Eileen Crist. Seems like you need to be called Crist to weigh in on this debate.

Ah well, I almost qualify – and for my part, notwithstanding all these assertions, I’d say that inasmuch as population is a problem it seems to me a secondary problem that’s derivative of other, deeper ones. But perhaps what’s of most interest here is not who’s right or wrong so much as how we frame the issues. You can frame them in such a way as to suggest that population indeed is the fundamental problem, or you can frame them otherwise. These different framings invoke different understandings of how the world operates and point to different policy or political conclusions. I think that WG’s approach, like most approaches that frame ‘over-population’ as the fundamental problem, points to policies that will have little impact on the resource depletion, species extinction, poverty and climate change issues they (and I) care about, and to a fanciful and troubling politics. Of course, this itself is a framing that others will no doubt question – but at least then we get closer to the issues dividing us.

One of WG’s main points of substance is that choosing not to have a child is, in a ‘developed’ country, the most effective way of reducing one’s carbon emissions. Citing a study from Lund University, they say that this is over seven times more effective than various other ‘green’ measures (like not flying) combined. That study draws on an earlier one2 which, if I understand it correctly (and it’s possible I don’t), assumes that carbon emissions will be fixed in the future at 2005 levels – the two studies then effectively attribute proportionately to parents in a generation G1 all these fixed-rate future emissions generated by all subsequent generations G1+n in an exponential decay function.

Well, no doubt there’s a logic to doing that. After all, if nobody had any children, then human impacts on earth systems would soon cease, so indeed all future impacts in some sense are attributable to parents. Following that logic, it’s hardly surprising that the choice to have a child weighs heavily on an individual’s impact in the study results. But to me, it’s a strange logic. Though it’s no doubt intended to inform decision-making at the margin in any given generation, to avoid multiple counting it surely must assume that the emissions and by implication wider behaviours of all G1+n generations are zero, according them no responsibility of their own, but only their parents or grand+ parents for birthing them or their forebears.

Conceptually, this approach rests on a strong methodological individualism – everything that happens must be regarded as only the sum of individual choices. Historically, it’s anachronistic, because it’s clear that if humanity is still around in a century or two then one way or another it won’t be burning significant fossil fuels, causing further major species declines and so forth. And spiritually and philosophically, the approach seems like a kind of inverted original sin whose logic surely terminates in the notion that humans should seek voluntary extinction through non-procreation to avoid the weight of later generations’ trespasses. The Lund authors note that none of the school textbooks they consulted mentioned having fewer children as a way to reduce emissions – a good thing in my opinion, since confusing the fact that a person has impacts with the idea that a person is an impact has potentially disastrous political consequences.

Let me propose another approach, which I think is suggested in the graph below. This plots global population, energy use, CO2 emissions, and real GDP year on year from 1972-2014 as ratios relative to the base year of 1971 (I calculated this from the World Development Indicators, which only have complete data for these four variables from 1971-2014).

The graph shows the three other variables of interest rising relatively faster than population. GDP shows the greatest relative increase – more than energy use or emissions, possibly suggestive of the decreasing energy intensity of the economy (‘relative decoupling’), or of the increasing dematerialization of our modern, fictitious money economy. But both energy and emissions are still rising in absolute terms, faster than population. The kink in 2008-9 of course indicates the economic crisis of those years, which was immediately reflected in lower energy use and lower emissions, but unsurprisingly was not reflected in a lower population.

I think the graph is prima facie evidence that there’s a dynamic of growth in our modern global society which is not fundamentally driven by, or necessarily responsive to, population growth. And given that it’s generally reckoned we need to reduce emissions to net zero by around 2070 to avoid catastrophic climate change, I’d also suggest that seeking population reduction isn’t the priority place to look. Not that we shouldn’t look there at all, as WG mistakenly accuse me of saying, just that it’s not the priority place to look. A similar point is made in a paper by Corey Bradshaw and Barry Brook, who state “over the next century at least, our largest and most immediate gains in sustainability will necessarily come from reductions in per capita consumption, whereas the benefits of fertility reduction will improve humanity’s prospects cumulatively over the long term.”3

Bradshaw and Brook’s fingering of consumption gets closer to the issue, but I’d suggest the real force that underlies the growth dynamic depicted in the graph and that overdrives population increase – the force I’m tempted to call the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about – is the global capitalist economy, as I mentioned in my original post. Increased per capita carbon emissions and energy use above population increase are the material trace of a capitalist growth dynamic.

If those energy and carbon trend lines were just the dependent outcome of consumer choice summed across our human billions, as WG suppose, there’d be a better case for emphasizing fertility reduction. But there’s a systemic logic to capital increase that goes beyond individual consumption decisions. In a capitalist system, capital needs to grow – that GDP line pretty much has to follow the course it does, and the emissions and energy lines pretty much have to trail after it.

Therefore, I question the notion that reduced fertility equates to reduced impact. It feels right, because if you choose not to have a child then, very tangibly, you’re aware of the food that this non-person is not eating, the journeys and flights they’re not making and so on. Yet the capitalist economy still has to grow. It’ll just have to find another way of doing it than monetizing your non-child – and it does.

I think WG effectively admit this when they write “The UN estimates that by 2050 we’ll have to increase food production 60% over 2009 levels in order to meet the demands of our swelling population.” They don’t give a citation, but I assume this is a variant of the ‘70% food increase by 2050’ factoid that’s been doing the rounds for years. Since even the highest projections of global population increase over the 2009-2050 period suggest it’ll be less than 60%, you could be forgiven for wondering where these 60% or 70% figures come from. The truth is they’re pretty misleading. All the same, in the unlikely event that the global capitalist economy is still happily growing by 2050 (at which point it’ll have to be over twice the size of today’s global economy), it’s possible that humanity indeed will be ‘demanding’ 60-70% more food by value than in 2009, because the ability of all that extra global wealth to command the production of beef, salmon, prawns, tuna, coffee, wine, palm oil and so on will be prodigious. One study has estimated that the highest additional demand for land globally by 2030 breaks down reasonably evenly between cropland, industrial forestry, biofuel production, grazing, urban expansion and land degradation4. A good deal of that, I’d suggest, is driven less by ‘the demands of our swelling population’ and more by the demands of our economy to swell.

WG’s position on all this strikes me as inadequate. They write:

“We’ve so far NOT demonstrated a willingness to consume less and reject the worship of economic growth in the interest of stabilizing the climate or preventing further destruction of ecosystems. This doesn’t mean we should give up on this solution. But it also doesn’t mean we should ignore a solution we HAVE demonstrated a willingness to do — choosing smaller families.”

No, we shouldn’t ignore it. But if my framing above is correct, then only directly rejecting boundary-busting economic growth can do the heavy work of lowering humanity’s ecological impact. Choosing smaller families doesn’t cut it. And here, I think it’s necessary to probe further into the ‘we’ that WG say are unwilling to consume less. It’s inherent to the nature of the growth-seeking capitalist economy to co-opt or destroy other, non-growth forms of economic organization, whether this takes the form of planning laws, property prices, land expropriations or the Bay of Pigs invasion. Uneven development is also inherent to the growth economy – it requires poor people and poor countries, even if it holds out the promise of making them a little less poor. The result of all this is that few of us have any option but to participate in the capitalist growth economy. And if we have to participate, who wouldn’t choose if they could to be a beef-eating wine drinker rather than a rice-eating helot? WG invoke a story of ourselves as consumers, wanting more stuff. And, sure, if that’s the only route to provisioning ourselves that the political economy allows, it’s not surprising that ‘we’ mostly want to be as prosperous a consumer as it’s possible to be. But this doesn’t begin to tell the story of what human lives are about or where our willingness might take us.

In the longer run, as Bradshaw and Brook quoted above suggest, there’s certainly a case for promoting reduced fertility. However, I’m doubtful it will culminate in this cornucopia that WG conjure up: “An average family size of one-child per couple for 100 years could lead to what some experts posit as a sustainable population of around 2 billion people living at a European standard of living.” No society has yet managed a modern European standard of living without (1) a vast and unsustainable fossil-fuelled energy economy, and (2) a history of colonial expropriation and neocolonial labour exploitation to the disbenefit of other non-European people living at lower standards of living. This positing of the experts surely belongs in the realms of idle speculation.

One of the ironies of the whole overheated population debate is that actually there’s not much disagreement on the policy practicalities – it’s widely accepted that everyone should be able to have voluntary control of their own fertility. But that’s already pretty much the reality in the rich, low-fertility countries that are largely driving the ecocidal global economy. Where these interventions are most needed is in poor, high-fertility countries that largely aren’t driving it – though it’s further complicated by poverty traps that encourage high fertility. In these contexts, WG’s world of just two billion people, living extravagantly consumerist lives of the modern European variety, and promoted by an organization that claims “overpopulation” is the root cause of poverty, all starts sounding slightly creepy to me. As Meehan Crist puts it:

“Listen closely to rights-based strategies to reduce carbon emissions through increased access to contraception and family planning. These strategies almost always involve black and brown women in developing countries having fewer babies. There is, of course, an unmet need for reproductive care and birth control in these countries, but we should be deeply sceptical of climate solutions that place the burden of solving the problem on women’s bodies, particularly the bodies of poor black and brown women, while demanding very little of those who actually caused the problem.”

Indeed, solving the global problems caused by humanity – and mostly by a small subset of it – is more than a numbers game. Which is why I see little merit in WG’s question to me – “Is he arguing for us to stabilize our population at today’s totally unsustainable level of 7.6 billion?” There’s no cutoff point or carrying capacity at which human numbers suddenly become ‘sustainable’. There are people, there are impacts, and there’s a relation between the two, which is fuzzy at best. It’s unlikely that the human population would have reached 7.6 billion in the absence of a modern global civilization that strains the planetary capacity to sustain it, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that a population of 7.6 billion is inherently ‘unsustainable’. It depends what we’re trying to sustain. If, as I’ve long argued here, it’s small farm societies of widely shared land access oriented to skimming their local ecological base, then we could sustain a lot more people than seems likely under present extremes of global wealth and poverty. Undoubtedly, we’d be in a better position if the population were smaller – particularly the population of the richer countries. Undoubtedly, voluntary fertility reduction is in principle a good idea. But it’s not a high-impact way of reducing humanity’s high impact, and it potentially leads us into political mischief if we claim that it does.

Meehan Crist points out in her article the enthusiastic embrace of carbon footprinting by the fossil fuel companies. While lobbying hard to keep extracting, and dragging their feet over climate science, the narrative that environmental impact is a matter of individual lifestyle choice in which we all need to do our bit suits them well, helping them to duck their own responsibilities. Ultimately, though, the responsibility rests at the level of an economic system which encourages this phoniness. Even so, as well as the phoniness, I feel the force of that personal responsibility narrative. As – full disclosure – a parent of four, I’ve long wrestled with my personal culpability in this area, and the many others in which as a wealthy westerner I impact the biosphere. Maybe someone reading this will conclude I’m irredeemable, and this post mere self-justification. Yet before I was a parent I was an anthropologist, and like most of my tribe I find the idea of emergent systems, not methodological individualism, a better fit with how the world works. So while as individuals, as consumers, as parents or as non-parents, we agonize and sermonize over our own and others’ lifestyle choices, the oil companies will keep lobbying, and the GDP and emissions lines will keep tracking upwards until we reach a point of reckoning when the size of the human population or how many children anyone has will be the last of our concerns.

 

Notes

1. Meehan Crist. 2020. ‘Is it OK to have a child?’ London Review of Books. 5 March.

2. Paul Murtaugh and Michael Schlax. 2009. ‘Reproduction and the carbon legacies of individuals’. Global Environmental Change 19: 14-20.

3. Corey Bradshaw and Barry Brook. 2015. ‘Reply to O’Neill et al and O’Sullivan: Fertility reduction will help, but only in the long-term’. PNAS 112, 6: E508-9. (My thanks to Jahi Chappell for this one).

4. Eric Lambin and Patrick Meyfroidt. 2011. ‘Global land use change, economic globalization and the looming land scarcity’. PNAS 108, 9: 3465-72.

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.