Population wrapped up: a response to Jane O’Sullivan

And so we come to Small Farm Future’s final blog post of 2018. Time for some seasonal goodwill and an offer of peace to all? Nah, time to settle old scores – in this case my debate with Jane O’Sullivan about population and poverty that’s been rumbling along on this site over the latter part of the year. I was advised by one commenter to let the debate lie, which is probably wise, but this commentary from Dr O’Sullivan has been sitting unanswered for a while and I think a response is in order – if for no other reason than the underlying issues are of wider interest. But let me not neglect the seasonal spirit altogether. I’d like to have devoted more time to this issue, and perhaps to have reflected further on population issues more generally but with this fairly brief response only to a few of Dr O’Sullivan’s specific points I propose to wrap things up on the population front from the Small Farm Future end.

So in what follows, I’m going to highlight some of Dr O’Sullivan’s contentions from the comment linked above (her comments in italics and quotation marks), and then respond briefly to them.

  1. “Population growth in agrarian communities is a driver of impoverishment”

It’s hard to disagree that that’s sometimes so. But it’s worth noting that it’s a very different, and much milder claim, than Dr O’Sullivan’s earlier one that “population growth is the main driver of impoverishment in high-fertility countries”. Where we would probably continue to disagree is the extent to which population growth is an exogenous driver of poverty.

  1. “You [ie. Chris] say “why, when it comes to discussing pressure on agricultural land in Africa, does [lowering fertility] always figure so insistently in the discussion”. For anyone with much exposure to the literature on food security, I think it would be very hard to claim that. It very rarely features at all.”

…which is surely an implicit admission on Dr O’Sullivan’s part that her position is out of kilter with the consensus of expert scholarship, despite her failure to acknowledge clearly that other scholars take a different view. Of course, sometimes the lonely voice in the wilderness turns out to be ahead of the curve. But not usually. For my part, I wasn’t referring to the scholarly literature on food security so much as lay discussions in the media and the blogosphere, where “population” is widely invoked to explain poverty and environmental pressures, largely as an alternative to any political engagement with issues of structural inequality and rich country environmental impacts – issues that are also conspicuously missing from Dr O’Sullivan’s analyses.

  1. “migration….solves nothing at the source, while transferring the problem elsewhere.”

This is often true, but not invariably so.

  1. “When I looked into it, I was quite stunned how consistent the data are, relating the extent to which fertility had fallen, and the rate at which per capita incomes were growing. The evidence was very strong, that it was not economic advance that drove fertility down, but that lower population growth enabled economic advance.”

And yet all the evidence Dr O’Sullivan cites seems to be based on aggregate and cross-sectional data, which is inherently suspect methodologically and can never constitute ‘very strong’ evidence for anything. At best one could claim that it’s ‘slightly suggestive’ and then seek proper corroboration with longitudinal microdata. Case unproven. And plenty of alternative interpretations.

  1. “But if you can show that your claim, that outflows of capital better explain the pace of development or lack of it, I’d be very interested to see that data. Until then, I stand by my claim, that population growth is the major underlying driver of impoverishment in high-fertility countries.”

Ah, we’re back to the strong claim, with all its politically dubious and victim-blaming implications. I think here it’s a case of “No, you first”. It’s not me who wishes to argue that population growth is the main driver of impoverishment, and I don’t consider the onus is on me to disprove it – a responsible scholar would be aware of how politically explosive this claim is, and be sure to have eliminated all other possible explanations before emphasizing population growth as a dominant (and exogenous) factor. Jason Hickel (The Divide, 2017: p.227) presents data, for example, showing that in most years after 2000 the net resource transfers out of Africa were in excess of US$30 billion, and in some years in excess of US$120 billion1 (much greater than pre-2000 transfers, to offer an alternative post hoc explanation to Dr O’Sullivan’s FP program decline thesis). And that’s only a small part of the larger political-economic story. I think a scholar who expects their claim that population growth is the main driver of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa to be taken seriously ought to have a better answer on matters of political economy than this evasiveness.

  1. “adding more people into the job market when it is already oversupplied with labour reduces everyone’s prospects – the children from large families and small families alike. Smaller families will have a greater chance of giving their children a relative advantage, such as through education or inheritance, but they would be even better off if all families were small.”

I’d agree with the first sentence (other things being equal), but not the second sentence – there’s quite a lot of evidence in the development literature that larger family size can be a rational anti-poverty strategy for families. But as Dr O’Sullivan hints at here, it’s kind of a prisoner’s dilemma situation in which it would be beneficial if everyone reduced their fertility but not in anyone’s individual interests to do so. So, in relation to the earlier debate, while it’s certainly a good idea to try to help reduce unwanted pregnancies, there’s a structural problem here that goes beyond individualist solutions. By the way, this ‘fertility trap’ is just one of sixteen poverty traps identified by global poverty expert Stephen Smith in his 2005 book Ending Global Poverty. Smith doesn’t presume to rank these sixteen traps or argue that high fertility is the most important. In fact, directly contrary to Dr O’Sullivan, Smith argues that high fertility is not the underlying cause of poverty but a result of it.

  1. “You [ie. Chris] say “I suggested that another possible explanation was artefactual – essentially, it’s easier to reduce fertility when people are having a lot of children than it is when fertility approaches two or less children.” The evidence for the role of family planning programs is much more nuanced than the counter-argument you provide. The UN’s model for projecting the “medium fertility” path is essentially based on the average relationship between level of fertility and its rate of decline, across all countries over the past half-century. So the fact that the decline slows down at lower fertility rates is built into that. But the UN’s model failed to anticipate this slowdown. What we saw was several countries in mid-transition, with fertility rates between 4 and 2.2, stopping or reversing the decline. Even where a slow decline continued, it was often more attributable to urbanisation (symptomatic of rural overpopulation, rather than urban opportunity), with rural areas showing a stall or rebound. As I argued, your regional aggregations included countries that used family planning programs effectively and those that didn’t. Those that didn’t obviously didn’t experience the slowdown as a result of slackening those efforts. So it’s highly unsurprising that the highest-fertility countries are showing more fertility decline recently. They have been the focus of the efforts that international agencies put toward family planning. But these programs are not as effective as the earlier national voluntary programs, because they focus mainly on access to contraception, not on motivating people to have small families.”

Most of this strikes me as obfuscation. Dr O’Sullivan argued that the fertility decline has tailed off recently, and I showed that most of this tailing off has been in low, not high, fertility countries. The UN’s modelling is irrelevant to our point of contention, and without getting too much into the details of transition and urbanization I’m not persuaded that Dr O’Sullivan provides any evidence here to refute an artefactual explanation or to support the effect of FP programs. There seems to be some slippage from the model of reality to the reality of the model going on here. As I’ve said before, what’s needed to start clarifying this issue is a clear specification of which countries or places have had effective family planning programs and which ones haven’t. In the meantime, I’m not seeing anything in Dr O’Sullivan’s words that refutes an artefactual explanation as a plausible generalized fit to the data.

  1. I emphasised local environmental impacts, because that is overwhelmingly what affects both poor people and biodiversity to date. The constant brush-off of such impacts in favour of a myopic focus on climate change is not serving their interests.”

I’d agree that local environmental impacts are important and that poor people can sometimes have negative local impacts disproportionate to their numbers (while continuing to insist that it’s not their numbers that are causing their poverty). I don’t agree that local environmental impacts are overwhelmingly what affects poor people and biodiversity. Nor do I agree that a focus on climate change is ‘myopic’ or does not serve the interests of the poor. Indeed, I’d argue that not to focus on climate change right now is a worse ‘myopia’ both from the perspective of the poor and everyone else.

  1. minimising further population growth could make a very big difference to climate change outcomes, particularly though its impact on land use change. To say this is not to diminish the role of transitioning developed country systems and behaviours. All approaches work in synergy.”

Agreed – depending on what Dr O’Sullivan means by ‘minimising’ – but it’s good to be clear about relative impacts. Suppose, just as an example, that the thirty richest countries in the world reduced their emissions from fossil fuel combustion and land use change associated with their global agricultural footprint to the same level as that of the thirty poorest. I’m presuming we could all agree that this would make an even bigger difference to climate change outcomes over the next century than if the thirty poorest countries reduced their fertility to the same level as the thirty richest?

  1. It is a false, “straw man” argument, that helping poor people to stem impoverishment and build resilience against climate change by reducing population growth is somehow a rouse (sic) to distract from developed country behaviours. This is nonsense that is very damaging for the world’s poor, particularly women and girls, who are being denied the services they need and the opportunities they can only have when they can control their own childbearing.”

Agreed – and I don’t think I’ve made that argument. Though the common argument that the main problem we face in the world is overpopulation does tend to distract from developed country behaviours.

  1. So, on your discussion point: “Reducing fertility in high-fertility countries is not an especially important priority for tackling climate change” I would say that it is so ill-defined to be of no substantive value….What do you mean by “especially”, “important” and “priority”?

I think it’s worth asking this question: “What one single action would do most to reduce the impact of climate change?” And for me the answer unquestionably is to stop burning fossil fuels. If managed appropriately this would probably also do a lot for reducing poverty, and fertility. In practice of course one can take more than one single action, so I’d be supportive of efforts to reduce population growth – but not in the absence of efforts to reduce fossil fuel use, which quite frankly are minimal in global terms currently. I accept that it’s hard to define or quantify what one means by ‘especially important priority’, though Dr O’Sullivan uses much the same vague language in her own writing – but what stands out for me from her writing is a (qualitative) sense that she places a high priority on reducing population in poor countries, a high priority on maintaining wealth in rich countries, and a low priority on what she calls the “myopic focus on climate change”. By any plausible definition of “priority” I’d say that in my view those are the wrong ones.

oOo

And that’s it from me for 2018. Thanks to everyone who’s read and commented on this blog – not least Dr O’Sullivan. I’ll be back at some point in 2019 with more nuggets from the Small Farm Future goldmine. But probably not for a little while – I’m supposed to be writing a book, darn it.

Happy holidays.

Beyond borders

My stance on international migration has probably earned me more criticism in recent times than just about anything else. At one extreme, I was taken to task by a commentator on here a couple of years ago for not endorsing the ‘obvious’ point that Britain should deport people on a ‘last in, first out’ basis until the population more closely approximated a plausible long-term carrying capacity. At the other extreme, when I said in a talk I gave recently that international migration was ‘an issue’, I was taken to task by an audience member for implicitly accepting the framing of immigration by the political right – so in this view, immigration is only ‘an issue’ if one chooses to define it as such. And at the middle extreme, I was also taken to task here recently in the context of my criticisms of Jane O’Sullivan’s dubious take on population, poverty and immigration for failing to offer policy proposals for limiting immigration that matched O’Sullivan’s ‘pragmatism’ (not the word I’d choose…)

International migration, then, is controversial every which way you choose to look at it. So let me take a deep breath and try to define a pragmatism of my own around the issue (or the ‘issue’, if you prefer). Pressure of other work has prevented me from working this up quite as fully as I’d like – please accept my apologies.

My starting position is that I don’t particularly welcome large-scale global migration as a good thing in itself. I welcome small-scale migration, because a little bit of churn, some cross-fertilization of people’s minds (and bodies) strikes me as a good tonic for humanity. And I dislike guards, high wire fences, passports, visas and all the paraphernalia of border control – partly because it offends the libertarian part of my soul that thinks people should be able to go more or less where they please, partly because these border control dynamics are the sharp end of what Kapka Kassabova calls “the countless ways in which nationalism doesn’t work” in her superb evocation of the Balkan borderlands (once geared to containing people within Eastern Europe, now geared to keeping people out of it)1, and partly because I find the misery inflicted around borders unconscionable at a simple human level . But ultimately I don’t regard large-scale human movement as an especially positive thing in itself. I’d prefer to see a world where almost everyone can choose to go where they please, and where most people choose to stay more or less where they’re from. So I’d endorse what Jahi Chappell called in a comment on this site ‘the human right not to have to migrate’. Why shouldn’t every place where anyone comes from be, for them, the best place in the world to be?

But meanwhile in the real world about 257 million people globally live in a country other than the one of their birth. Does that constitute ‘large-scale’ migration? Well, at about 3% of the entire global population it’s not as large as some folks would have you believe, but it’s still a lot of people – and of course the distribution of these migrants globally isn’t uniform. At around 50 million, the USA has the largest number of international migrants by a distance. My country, the UK, comes in sixth with about 9 million. Contrast that with, say, Vietnam – a mere 76,000 migrants, or 0.1% of its population. The graph below shows international migrants as a percentage of the total population for the world’s countries ranked by GDP per capita from lowest GDP at the left of the x-axis to highest GDP at the right.

% International migrants by country ranked by GDP per capita

Source: World Development Indicators and UN International Migration Report3

The graph shows pretty clearly that migrants tend to go to the economically wealthy countries. Here’s where the politics kicks in. If you think that the wealthy countries

(a) have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps

(b) suffer economically as a result of international in-migration

(c) have something called an ‘indigenous population’ which is unproblematically identifiable and bears superior civic rights over migrants

then chances are you’ll not be keen on international migration. But if, like me, you think that the wealth of the rich countries is bought to a considerable extent through the poverty of the poorer ones, or that the crises of war, famine and militarized global resource extraction that impel migration are compounded by global power politics dominated by the rich countries, then the case for migration from poor to rich countries is harder to gainsay, regardless of its other implications. Perhaps I’d add in passing that those of us who try to make the case for small-scale farming are inured to the counter-arguments that ‘nobody wants to farm any more’ and that peasants have ‘voted with their feet’ by moving from the impoverished countryside to the more remunerative cities. Neither of these assertions are entirely true, but it’s funny how this ‘voting with their feet’ line of argument seems to dry up at the border, when those people who were extolled for ‘voting with their feet’ in their search for a better life in the richer city are suddenly demonized when they ‘vote with their feet’ by seeking a better life in a richer country.

Anyway, my preferred political solution to the ‘issue’ of international migration would start through rigorous control of global capital flows, so that the ability of capital to create value is largely restricted to where it’s generated. This would incentivize capital to serve the creation of sustainable local livelihoods, and remove at a stroke a large part of the incentives for migration from poor to rich countries, because the difference between them would narrow – which is not, of course, the outcome that those wanting to sustain ‘our’ quality of life in the rich countries seek, but it’s the more ethical outcome, and ultimately the more sustainable one.

But it’s not going to happen, is it? There’s no internationalism in the politics of the rich countries, no political force impelling us to limit our depredations on other countries, on the biosphere and ultimately on ourselves except self-serving fantasies that the poor countries will be able to ‘develop’ in the future just as the rich ones did in the past (but more sustainably). Until there is, I’d express my views on international migration at a human level in this blessing to those on the lowest rung of the migrant ladder, the undocumented: may you be invisible to every border guard, slip through every obstacle placed in your way, find a safe, warm berth in every truck or ship you try to stow away in, reach the place that you seek and achieve the life you dream of.

But, human empathy aside, I spy some wider political possibilities in emerging patterns of global migration. Let me broach them with reference to the conservative political and legal theorist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), who I mentioned briefly in a recent post. Schmitt permanently disgraced himself by allying with the Nazis but has nevertheless remained influential among thinkers of various political stripes. Famously, he defined the political as the realm of pure sovereign decision (the law doesn’t define or circumscribe the sovereign – the sovereign defines the law) which is articulated against an enemy and around a political community of friendship.

A vast amount of political energy has been expended around the world in the past couple of centuries in trying to make the physical borders of any number of sovereign states coterminous with a concept of ‘the nation’ as an organic community of friendship. This nationalist invention of the nation has been enormously successful, but as per Kassabova mentioned above, it can never completely succeed – the binary of the border always masks ambivalences. For his part, Schmitt didn’t claim an inherent equivalence between his concept of ‘friendship’ and national identity. So let me offer you a narrative of how global migration might play out in the future through a Schmittian lens.

Take, for example, the migrant caravan that’s been so exercising President Trump, which has been impelled among other things by the effects of climate change in Central America. At present, the USA will find it easy to repulse the migrants from its borders and to demonize them as undesirables. But there will be more caravans in the future – in the USA, in Europe, in anywhere offering an obvious portal away from danger and poverty and towards the possibility of greater wellbeing.

Chances are, some of these future caravans will be better armed than present ones, and will come with a well-developed theory about the sources of their troubles which is likely to make them mightily pissed off with the rich countries they’re trying to enter. They will bring their own sovereignty with them, they will not be impressed by immigration control policies and it is not foreordained that they will lose all their skirmishes at the border. Over the next thirty years, 140 million people may be forced to migrate as a result of climate change, and many millions more may decide to ‘vote with their feet’ in search of a better life no matter that rich westerners dismiss them as mere ‘economic migrants’.

So it seems likely that those who want to keep migrants out of the wealthy countries are going to have their hands full in the years to come trying to stop the dam from bursting. Currently, this brigade has powerful political friends in the form of wealthy, faux-populist politicians like Donald Trump and Britain’s merry band of Tory Brexiteers for whom immigrants are a convenient scapegoat for the spiraling inequalities of their own economic policies. They’re happy to ramp up the rhetoric of the national community of ‘friends’ on this side of the border holding the line against the ‘enemies’ pressing in from the other. If they’re smart, they’ll back this up with redistributive policies that put some money where their mouths are and provide tangible support for the ‘hard-working families’ that they seek to co-opt into this discourse of nationalist ‘friendship’. This may buy them some time, but it’ll be difficult to do because global capital demands its returns, and economic power is ebbing from them. If they don’t redress inequality, I suspect the fiction of national friendship will unravel. As the contradictions multiply, the rhetoric will no doubt amplify into increasingly militaristic, grievance-laden and ultra-nationalist doctrines about a people’s destiny and the enemies of the nation, including ‘enemies within’ who aren’t signed up to the program. Well, nationalism fools a lot of people, but following Lincoln’s “you can’t fool all of the people all of the time” dictum, I’d like to think that this ultra-nationalism – whose harbingers we’ve already seen in outline from the likes of Trump and the Brexiteers – may not sway enough of the people, and will in any case offer such an unattractive vision of social life that the ‘friends’ within may start to wonder if they wouldn’t be better off jumping ship in favor of the ‘enemy’ barbarians at the gate, who they may have more in common with.

All of this will probably be compounded by political change in the countries of the ‘semi-periphery’, especially ones on the doorstep of the core countries, like Mexico and Turkey. Currently, these semi-peripheral countries have a stake in cosying up to the core as a way of improving their own economic status, but in the world to come the current pretense that ‘developing’ countries can become ‘developed’ will be exhausted. Who knows what turbulent politics and desperate allegiances may arise in these Manichean circumstances? What seems clear is that Jane O’Sullivan’s view that keeping migrants out of rich countries like Australia in order to preserve ‘our’ quality of life may not be a wise long-term bet. If you follow her line, throw in your lot with the nationalists, and then find yourself on the wrong side of the ensuing (literal or figurative) war then a Schmittian fate might await you – you have become the enemy of the new sovereign power. Of course, you may find yourself with the nationalists on the winning side, which is fine for you if you can bear to live in the country they’ll create and don’t overly care about those outside your tent. Either way, there’s no hiding place and no second guessing the outcome. And the stakes are bigger than sustaining ‘our’ quality of life, both personally and collectively. So I won’t enter the lists of the debate as to whether international migration is a net positive or negative under current economic realities, because I think it’s irrelevant to the socioeconomic realities that will soon be upon us, and it’s sure as hell irrelevant to the migrants.

Over the longer pulse of human history it seems clear to me that we need to create societies more strongly grounded in sustainable local economic potentialities, with less liquid capital held as a bet against the future. One way this might occur is with the kind of anti-nationalist alliances with incoming migrants I mentioned above, where established local populations make ‘friends’ with incoming migrants against the ‘enemy’ of extractive elite state actors who are giving little back – probably in circumstances like the ‘supersedure state’ that I’ve discussed elsewhere, where the provision of state services is in retreat and people are making politics up as they go along using political traditions like civic republicanism, the more so under the impress of new arrivals who further scramble existing property relations and help build the impetus for local self-reliance. Am I being naïve? Of course I am – in many places, this kind of situation will be a recipe for naked conflict, and the chances that capitalist meltdown alongside an uptick in migrant flows won’t lead to bloodshed anywhere seem minimal. That remains true whatever immigration policies rich countries now enact. But, as historically with Kassabova’s Balkan borderlands, the periodic reassembly of peoples and political economies does sometimes occur and create new political constellations. These are the moments when Schmitt’s realm of sovereignty goes soft and malleable – a time to forge new friendships and sever ties with old state actors whose friendly mask has slipped.

In these circumstances, people who find ways of sharing the possibilities and the skills for creating local livelihoods will bring more to the table than people who want to defend their local culture against incomers (culture is inherently fluid in any case – once you feel the need to ‘defend’ it, you’ve almost certainly lost the battle, or are hiding an economic agenda that has little to do with ‘culture’ as such). This is why in relation to recent discussions of Norman Tebbit’s ‘cricket test’ I’d frame the responsibility of migrants not in terms of some ineffable cultural criteria or oath of loyalty but a more republican sensibility, laid out by Iseult Honohan, of “a declared and evident intention to remain living in the country. Immigrants should make the attempt to adapt to their adopted country, not so much because they are ‘last in’, but because they need to make their future together with other citizens, rather than just coexist with them”2.

In the kind of world I’m describing, the way to make a future together will be to build a resilient economy together – to grow food and fiber, to make shelter, to build institutions. This will involve common material practice – an easier basis to make common cause with others than some reified notion of one’s ‘culture’. And this also must be the answer to the objection that immigrants will create too much pressure on local resources. In most places, labor is still the key resource that brings forth the capacity to provide for ourselves.

Presently, ‘centrist heavyweights’ among politicians seem to be falling over themselves to endorse the anti-immigrant line of the right-populists in order to regain influence, since they lack any political analysis of the global forces behind inequality and migration. Much the same goes for those thinkers and writers who lack a political analysis of the global forces behind poverty, population growth and international migration. I think these positionings will be blown away by the more radical political dynamics that are impending. Perhaps it says something when the best centrist soundbite comes from Emmanuel Macron: “Nationalism is inherently treasonous. In saying ‘our interests first, and forget the others’, we lose the most important part of the nation: its moral values.”

Notes

  1. Kassabova, K. 2017. Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe. Granta, p.139.
  2. Honohan, I. 2002. Civic Republicanism. Routledge, p.287.
  3. http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/publications/migrationreport/docs/MigrationReport2017_Highlights.pdf

Debating population, poverty and development

Last week, Small Farm Future chalked up yet another first – the first vehement critique of one of our posts by a working academic with apparent expertise in the matter at hand. The post was this one about global population and its entailments that I published in June, and the critique came from Dr Jane O’Sullivan of the University of Queensland in Australia (our exchange is linked below).

I’d precis the main substance of Dr O’Sullivan’s critique as follows: my post failed to consider the importance of top-down government or expert-led population control policies (broadly conceived) in reducing global fertility (ie. births per woman) over the last 50 years, and failed to consider the implications of the recent slowdown in the decline of the fertility rate and its causes. If that was all that Dr O’Sullivan had said, it would have been easy for me to concede these points (especially if she’d made them politely). I don’t think the concession greatly alters the main points I was making in that post, though perhaps it does a little. But in the course of our ill-tempered exchange (I’m sure the fault was partly mine…though not, I think, entirely) Dr O’Sullivan also unleashed quite a barrage of assertions that in my opinion varied from the somewhat questionable to the downright misleading, along I’ll admit with the occasional useful nugget. I should probably give myself more time to reflect on the issues, but some of them are highly relevant to the wider themes of this blog, and I think are less clear-cut than Dr O’Sullivan supposes. So I thought I’d write a quick, work-in-progress kind of response now to present the issues as I see them, in the hope that other commenters may bring some wider illumination.

Here, then, are just a handful of the many issues arising out of the exchange, each one wrapped up with a point for discussion. The exchange itself can be found lurking at the bottom of my offending post, but is also linked at the end of this one for convenience.

The relationship between human fertility and poverty.

Dr O’Sullivan wrote that “population growth is the main driver of impoverishment and local environmental damage in high-fertility countries”. Focusing for now just on the impoverishment side of things, I think this claim is empirically wrong and could well be politically disastrous.

Let’s take for illustration the ten countries with the highest fertility rates in the world, all but one of which are African (in fact, all but nine of the fifty highest-fertility countries are African). According to the World Bank’s World Development Indicators the top ten are Niger (with a current average fertility rate of 7.2 births per woman), Somalia (6.3), Democratic Republic of Congo (6.1), Mali (6.1), Chad (5.9), Burundi (5.7), Angola (5.7), Uganda (5.6), Nigeria (5.5) and Timor-Leste (5.5).

An elementary knowledge of the recent and longer-term history of these countries and their regions would surely call into question the claim that population growth is the main driver of their impoverishment. I guess I could accept Dr O’Sullivan’s claim if it was rephrased thus:

“Leaving aside the net annual outflow of billions of dollars from sub-Saharan Africa to the rest of the world (see eg. Jason Hickel The Divide), and leaving aside also the fact that large parts of it are comprised not by ‘developing countries’ but by areas largely excluded from the distribution of global surplus to the extent that they’ve become politically dominated by violent non-state or quasi-state actors (see eg. Mark Duffield Global Governance and the New Wars), then there is some evidence to suggest an association between impoverishment and population growth caused by high fertility.”

But after reading through Dr O’Sullivan’s linked paper, I’m not convinced that that evidence is quite as strong as she claims. A lot of the evidence she discusses is based on country-level data suggestive of GDP growth postdating fertility decline. There are some problems with this aggregate-level post hoc ergo propter hoc argument as a justification for reducing individual fertility as an anti-poverty strategy. If one wants to argue that high fertility is the main driver of impoverishment within these countries then it’s necessary to show that, on average, a resident individual who has x children experiences greater poverty over their total lifecourse than another individual starting at an identical socioeconomic level who has <x children. And then it’s necessary to show that this effect is more powerful than other ones, such as the financial and resource drain from these countries and the effect of their political structuring.

Dr O’Sullivan does cite a review paper1 discussing research that may be suggestive at least of the first part of this, though its conclusions are expressed more cautiously than hers. But overall I think there are some problems of causal inference in parts of her paper. A problem I have with much ‘development’ research of this kind is its reification of the country as a unit of analysis, as if the world comprises a level playing field of nation-states each at a better or worse point of possibility on some universal ‘development’ trajectory. There doesn’t seem to be much sense of the uneven geopolitics of a world economic system and the implications of that for the wealth and poverty of nations.

But what troubles me most about Dr O’Sullivan’s assertion that population growth is the main driver of impoverishment in high-fertility countries is how that statement might play out in a world where isolationist and nativist voices are rising to political prominence in the wealthier countries. So let me rephrase her assertion once again, this time as it might be interpreted through the beady gaze of the US president, perhaps the best-known of those voices:

“People who live in shithole countries are poor because they have too many babies – so why should we do anything to help them?”

I appreciate that that’s absolutely not what Dr O’Sullivan is saying, but I think it might well be what a lot of people would choose to hear – and as I tried to suggest, there are a lot of pernicious opinions abroad concerning the responsibility of the poor in general and of poor Africans in particular for their own misfortunes, which would gladly assimilate arguments from intellectually respectable sources that fertility is the main driver of poverty. Dr O’Sullivan rebuffed my attempts to discuss this with her as “ad hominem attacks”. So be it. I acknowledge that unwanted pregnancies are a major issue in high-fertility countries, while for her part Dr O’Sullivan says she never denied there were “other factors at play”, but if one links fertility to poverty with no reference to the geopolitical structuring of global poverty – especially in the present political climate – I’m not sure that caveat cuts it. The consequence of proposing that the best way to tackle poverty is through population control policies might well be a further reduction in population control policies. I don’t like to get involved in arguments with other wealthy westerners about who’s the better champion of the global poor, but I do find it a little hard to swallow the charge of irresponsible writing from someone who draws the links between high fertility and poverty so complacently.

Discussion point: population growth is not the main driver of impoverishment in high-fertility countries.

Population, environmental damage and climate change.

It’s undoubtedly true that, as Dr O’Sullivan suggested, population growth is a driver of local environmental damage wherever it occurs. Well, it’s undoubtedly usually true. But she seems curiously anxious in her writing to emphasize the environmental damage (including greenhouse gas emissions) associated with high-fertility, low-income countries and to de-emphasize the damage caused by the low-fertility, high-income countries – even to the extent of making the spurious argument that lifestyles in the latter countries haven’t got more resource or emissions intensive in recent decades.

The main point I want to make here is not so much about which countries bear most responsibility for global environmental ills. The real problem as I see it is that we only really have one model of development and prosperity – the model that the low-fertility, high-income countries have followed – and if every other country follows it, it’ll be ruinous. Actually, it’s not possible for every country to follow it for economic as well as ecological reasons. But to the extent that that’s what’s on offer, it’s still ruinous. And it does have to be said that the offer has largely been orchestrated out of Washington DC, and to a lesser extent Beijing and Brussels, in service of those jurisdictions’ interests. So while there’s much to be said for population control, I think the notion that population control is the most important precursor to economic development and environmental protection is problematic. Perhaps one issue lurking behind my debate with Dr O’Sullivan is that we have pretty different ideas about what will ultimately count as ‘sustainable development’.

But I do also want to make the point that it is the low-fertility, high-income countries that bear most responsibility for global environmental ills – most especially greenhouse gas emissions, which are important not only in their direct effects but as an index of the wider environmental bads associated with the economies that disproportionately produce them. Dr O’Sullivan writes that “apart from climate change, most of the drastically negative impacts (on deforestation, soil erosion, biodiversity loss, fertiliser run-off, plastics in the ocean, overfishing, destruction of wetlands, draining of aquifers etc) is not happening in or in the name of the most industrialised countries.” I guess I’d argue firstly that a lot of all that is happening “in the name of” industrialized countries (my point in the previous paragraph)…besides which, things like plastic, synthetic fertilizer, modern fishing fleets etc. surely are inherently ‘industrialised’. Maybe more importantly, at our present point in what Dr O’Sullivan calls “the human project” her “apart from climate change” is a pretty big exemption – somewhat akin to me saying that apart from drinking a daily bottle of whisky I’m teetotal.

The graph below shows the carbon dioxide emissions produced in Australia over the last fifty-odd years in blue and the emissions produced in aggregate by the nine African countries previously mentioned with the highest fertility in red. I think it’s quite revealing – in 2014, Australia’s 23.5 million people produced almost two-and-a-half times more carbon dioxide emissions in total between them than the 389 million people living in the nine highest fertility African countries (we’re talking total, absolute emissions here, not per capita ones). True, Australia’s emissions have dropped a little recently – possibly only by displacing them elsewhere? But I trust nobody’s going to tell me I haven’t properly attended to this decline…

 

Last week while Dr O’Sullivan and I were debating, the Australian deputy prime minister Michael McCormack responded to the IPCC’s latest impassioned report on the climate change emergency by saying that the Australian government would not change its policy and reduce coal production “just because somebody might suggest that some sort of report is the way we need to follow and everything that we should do”.

I’d like to suggest that if Australians voted out Mr McCormack and replaced him with a serious politician who paid attention to the IPCC it would be a far more effective form of environmental damage-limitation than pursuing policies to limit population growth in, say, Nigeria. Let me try to quantify that statement. Please forgive me if I’ve got this calculation badly wrong, but by my reckoning in 2016 Australia produced 500 million tonnes of coal, which translates roughly into a billion tonnes of CO2. It’s predicted to increase that production by 1.1% annually over the next few years. A paper cited by Dr O’Sullivan2 suggests, I think, that by the year 2100 Nigeria could reduce its emissions from 2005 levels by 35% if it pursued population policies that put it on the low variant of the UN’s fertility projections. In 2005, Nigeria’s emissions were a little over a hundred million tonnes of CO2, so if it reduced these by 35% that would mean its emissions in 2100 would be about 37 million tonnes less – which is 4% of the emissions from Australia’s current annual coal production, or an amount that would be canceled out in less than three years just by the 1.1% annual increase in production. On current measures of per capita emissions, one extra Australian adds CO2 equivalent to that of about 41 extra people from the high-fertility African countries (probably an underestimate). At those levels, the 5.5 million extra Australians predicted by the UN medium fertility population variant in 2030 over 2012 will be responsible for more emissions than the 230 million extra people predicted for the nine highest-fertility African countries.

Dr O’Sullivan argues in her paper that access to voluntary family planning and birth control in the least-developed countries in order to minimize population growth is ‘low-hanging fruit’ in terms of climate change adaptation and mitigation (though the relationship between ‘birth control’ access and fertility seems quite debatable). But what constitutes ‘low-hanging fruit’ is a matter of political choice as well as technical feasibility. Promoting people’s ability to control their fertility needs no wider justification, but it’s not clear to me from what vantage point the extension of this ability into the least developed countries constitutes lower-hanging fruit for climate change mitigation than, say, reducing Australian coal production by a few percent.

Discussion point: Reducing fertility in high-fertility countries is not an especially important priority for tackling climate change.

Family planning programs and the fertility decline slowdown.

Dr O’Sullivan asserts that the slowdown in the global fertility decline is caused by less investment since the 1990s in voluntary family planning programs. She mentions a few countries where lower FP investment was followed by stagnating decline or rising fertility, but I’m not sure that she provides convincing evidence that this is the main reason for the slowdown that shows up in the overall global figures. I suggested that another possible explanation was artefactual – essentially, it’s easier to reduce fertility when people are having a lot of children than it is when fertility approaches two or less children.

I did a bit of analysis on the World Development Indicator dataset that I think is at least broadly suggestive that this may be so. First, taking the nine highest fertility African countries mentioned above, it turns out that their fertility decline hasn’t slowed but increased since the 1990s and in fact this is also true on average for the fifty countries in the world with the highest current fertility rates – albeit more true for the ones at the top of that distribution than the bottom, which further lends prima facie support to the artefactual explanation. The overall average for these countries was a fertility decline of 0.85 births between 1983 and 1999 and 1.06 births between 2000 and 2016. But looking at the fifty countries with the lowest current fertility, the 1983-99 decline was 0.69 births whereas the 2000-16 decline was only 0.06. So it seems that it may be the low rather than the high fertility countries driving the overall decline, as you’d expect from the artefactual explanation. I don’t know how plausible this explanation is, but on the face of it I’m not sure it’s less plausible than the notion that the global slowdown in fertility decline that’s occurred (except, apparently, in the high-fertility countries) stems mostly from less FP funding.

In global absolute terms, I’m guessing China is significant – its fertility rate bottomed at just under 1.5 births per woman in 1999 and has since risen to over 1.6, which in view of its population size is probably a lot of extra people. Presumably this is because of the relaxation of its population control policies, which in a sense might confirm Dr O’Sullivan’s line of argument – though since she emphasizes voluntary population control I’m not sure how far to concede this point… Certainly, before leaping to the conclusion that the slowdown is a FP policy failure it seems to me necessary to address artefactual possibilities, as well as other possible factors (growing inequality and civil conflict maybe?)

More generally, it seems to me difficult to isolate the effects of FP programs on global fertility as completely independent, exogenous effects that can be separated from wider governmental and civil society structures and from the agency of target populations. Writers like Banerjee and Duflo3 emphasize the complexity of family planning interventions, the independent agency of the poor and the complex links to fertility quite cautiously. One of their points – much along the lines of Jan Steinman’s comment – is that children are often a pension plan, and will most likely keep being produced in quantity so long as alternatives relying on more money remain unavailable. So while I’d acknowledge that I should have taken FP programs more seriously than I did in my original post, I think the issues are more complex than Dr O’Sullivan seems prepared to entertain.

Incidentally, the ten countries that have experienced the largest drop in their fertility rates since 2000 are Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Yemen, Nepal, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Djibouti, Guatemala, Lao and Timor-Leste. And of the ten highest fertility countries mentioned above, six of them come into the top quarter of the global draw in terms of post-2000 fertility decline, and all of them in the top half. I think there’s food there for some alternative theories of fertility decline than a singular emphasis on FP programs. Civil conflict seems to be a missing variable in much of the discussion about fertility.

Discussion point: to what extent is it possible to argue on the basis of available evidence that formal FP programs have been the main cause of the fertility decline?

Population and farm fertility

In her response to me, Dr O’Sullivan wrote “With too many people, low-impact mixed farming is no longer an option. Nitrogen fertilizer becomes essential”. I didn’t pick up on this point in debating with her because it didn’t seem important to the main lines of argument, but it’s important to the overall concerns of this blog and I think her statement is wrong. Presumably she’s referring to synthetic fertilizer, which is not fundamentally a land-sparing input but a labor-sparing (and energy-absorbing…and often a watercourse-polluting) one. Lynn White, for example, whose book I mentioned in my previous post, makes the point that the advent of synthetic fertilizer in quantity in Chinese agriculture from the 1980s scarcely increased crop yields, but it released a lot of agricultural labor for industrial activities. Population density in itself is not a major driver of the shift from ‘low-impact’ farming to synthetic fertilizer farming. My prediction is that with rising population, rising energy costs and stalling economic growth over the coming decades we’ll see a decline in synthetic fertilizer use and an increase in labor-intensive mixed farming.

Discussion point: With ‘too many’ people, rising energy prices and falling economic growth, low-impact mixed farming is likely to become the dominant form of agriculture in the future.

Population and land availability

If population increases, then other things being equal the amount of agricultural land available per capita will decrease. Historically, the main ways people have responded to that dynamic are:

  1. clearing more wildland for agriculture (not a good idea in our present world)
  2. lowering their fertility
  3. intensifying agricultural production (more labor per hectare, less meat etc.)
  4. importing food from elsewhere
  5. migrating

My country, Britain, comes reasonably low down the list of countries ranked by agricultural land area per capita (127th out of 209 countries, at 0.3ha per person). Historically, it’s followed all five of the procedures above. In the past, (5) has been one of its main strategies – one reason why there are now so many white folks in countries like the USA and Australia. Nowadays, (4) is one of its main strategies. Despite the pressure on land, there’s little talk about (2) in UK policy circles (though elsewhere in Europe, where fertility is lower than the UK, there are converse policy worries about demographic decline). Interestingly, many of the highest fertility African countries are quite high up in the top half of the list, with a lot of agricultural land available per capita – though I daresay one shouldn’t infer too much from that. Right up there in third place is Australia, with 15ha of agricultural land per person.

A question that nags at me is why, when it comes to discussing pressure on agricultural land in Africa, does point (2) always figure so insistently in the discussion? Not that (2) is a bad idea at all – but why do we hear so much less about, say, (5) – perhaps by establishing a migration program from Burundi to Australia, for example? I think it would be interesting to discuss why (2) seems to be regarded as ‘lower-hanging fruit’ for a country like Burundi than (5), and why (4) seems to be so favored in the UK.

Discussion point: what is the best way of ordering priorities among the five responses to decreased per capita farmland availability listed above? Does it vary from country to country, and if so on what grounds?

Resource availability per capita

Dr O’Sullivan writes that there is a “mathematical simplicity of population growth reducing natural resources per capita”. However, this point has been explicitly disputed from at least the 19th century down to the 21st by a long line of land economists, anthropologists and rural sociologists. This remains true whatever Dr O’Sullivan’s opinions are on Henry George’s religious views. I’m not saying that all these thinkers are correct in all their analyses. But my contention is this:

Discussion point: the relationship between population growth and available natural resources per capita is not mathematically simple (depending, I suppose, on how you define a ‘natural resource’…and also how you define ‘simplicity’).

Absolute and relative measures

There was quite a lot of toing and froing around absolute versus relative measures of this and that in my debate with Dr O’Sullivan. Some of her presentations of evidence strike me as pretty misleading, whereas others are potentially illuminating. I’m still not sure whether the relative increase in absolute population growth since 2000 is one of the illuminating ones or not. I’d be interested in any other views. As mentioned above, it seems quite likely that events in China are a major driver for this – and if so it may be the per capita environmental impacts rather than population numbers which are the ‘lowest-hanging fruit’ in this instance.

Discussion point: what can we infer from the relative increase in absolute population increase since 2000?

The right and the wrong of it

Dr O’Sullivan wrote of me “You argued that fertility was declining without any interventions to promote it, and that it would soon cause population to peak and decline, and that we could not effectively do more to influence it, and that we didn’t need to. I am arguing that these are demonstrably false positions.” Perhaps this sounds like sophistry, but I’m not sure that claims about the future, about the efficacy of something that we’re not actually doing and about normative priorities can be ‘demonstrably false’. Still, in the light of our exchange I’d certainly accept that I pressed those positions further than is warranted. I suppose eating some humble pie once in a while is a risk I must take in return for tossing my worthless opinions so vaingloriously into cyberspace on a regular basis. What makes it harder to do is Dr O’Sullivan’s charmlessly one-dimensional focus: firstly on only one part of my argument, secondly and more importantly on what seems quite a questionable take on population, development and the environment, and thirdly and more importantly still on some of her own highly problematic statements that lead us into other worlds of trouble.

Discussion point: “Over the last fifty years, fertility has crashed at a historically unprecedented rate, though it’s been a bit less unprecedented at the end of that time period than at the beginning (except in high-fertility countries where the decline has not leveled off) – and I should have addressed that”.

oOo

The exchange that Dr O’Sullivan and I had (with a few contributions from others – thank you) can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Notes

  1. Sinding, S. 2009. Population, poverty and economic development. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 364, 3023–3030.
  2. Casey, G. & Galor, O. 2017. Is faster economic growth compatible with reductions in carbon emissions? The role of diminished population growth. Environ.Res.Lett. 12 014003
  3. Banerjee, A. & Duflo, E. 2011. Poor Economics. Penguin.

Three deprivation narratives

I’ve been reading Lynn T. White’s book Rural Roots of Reform Before China’s Conservative Change (Routledge, 2018). I couldn’t honestly recommend it as a light bedtime read, but it’s absolutely fascinating nonetheless. Here I just want to reflect on the case of a rural migrant mentioned by White thus:

“A twenty-five-year-old legal migrant from Henan to Suzhou explained in 1994 why he was so much more productive on the delta: “We used to spend three months doing farm work, one month celebrating the Spring Festival, and eight months in idle time every year.” Now he was a restaurant waiter, working fourteen hours each day, seven days a week – but receiving 400 yuan (about US$50 a month, which was four times his previous Henan wage). When asked whether he thought he was working too hard, he replied with great eloquence….“No, it is better than sitting idly by watching people in cities getting rich. The conditions here are not bad at all. Color TV, electric heating, free meals – these are great. What I like most here is that I can take a shower every day. I was not able to take a bath during the entire winter at home. It would be too cold to do so in the river.” (p.354)

This example poses some potentially awkward questions for those like me who advocate for a small farm future – for more Henan and less Suzhou, so to speak. Could I look this man in the eye and tell him that he should have stayed on the farm? My answer to that, emphatically, is no.

But I think the implications of what he said are worth pondering. The first reason he gave for leaving the farm draws from a relative deprivation narrative – why molder away in rural poverty while city people make so much more money? The last reason he gave draws from an absolute deprivation narrative – back home, he couldn’t even take a shower during the winter!

This individual story fits easily into the dominant narrative of our times – people naturally seek prosperity, and when the opportunity arises will therefore move from countryside to city, and also from poorer countries to richer ones in search of it. Good luck to them – so long as the national and international economies are structured the way they are, I have zero sympathy for the anti-immigration rhetoric of right-wing populism, and little sympathy for left-populist peasant romanticism either.

But if you aggregate this one man’s journey across the global billions, urban and rural, who share his impoverished starting point, I can’t see this strategy of wealth-through-urbanization-and-economic-growth working. For one thing, while the global economy is certainly capable of lifting millions of people out of poverty in some places – China foremost among them – I don’t think it’s structurally or physically capable of doing it adequately everywhere. If, like me, you number among the top few hundred million in global wealth then that may not concern you much. Possibly it doesn’t concern a man like the Henan waiter either. And much as I’d like to think that such persistent inequalities would prompt the poor into political action to achieve a fairer distribution of the world’s resources, the fact is this only happens in historically unusual circumstances, as occurred in early 20th century China.

If economist Minqi Li, whose book China and the 21st Century Crisis (Pluto, 2016) I’m currently ploughing my way through (it’s another bedtime no-no, I’m afraid), is to be believed, these circumstances are also likely to occur in the mid-21st century, and will probably result in the end of the global capitalist order. Let me throw in another China book while I’m at it – David Bandurski’s Dragons in Diamond Village: Tales of Resistance in Urbanizing China (Melville House, 2016) – a much better candidate for bedtime reading, which shows vividly why somebody like this waiter may get richer in the city but will always be watching other people get richer still. Having corresponded recently with David (more on that anon), he pronounces himself pessimistic about the opportunities for resistance in Xi’s China. Time will tell.

Quite apart from the limited economic capacity of the global political economy to lift adequate numbers of people out of poverty, the other side of it is the limited environmental and energetic capacities to do so. If you aggregate the single migrant journey from Henan to Suzhou I’ve described here among all those similarly lacking in the food, shelter, comfort and entertainment that many of us take for granted, the consequences will quite simply be environmentally catastrophic and untenable long-term unless you buy into ecomodernist fantasies that it’s all manageable through nuclear power, GM crops and the like. So here we come to a third deprivation narrative – contemporary people pursuing eminently justifiable and personally rational goals deprive others, most especially future generations, of the opportunity to do likewise.

The only way I see out of this morass is to detoxify the first and third of these deprivation narratives while focusing relentlessly on the second. I’d like to think that it should be possible for everyone in the world to have safe and comfortable shelter (including access to tolerably warm bathing water) and an adequate diet (I’m not so sure about the color TV…or the free meals: isn’t there a capitalist story doing the rounds that the latter are a myth?) But to achieve that sustainably so that future generations don’t go without I think we’re going to have to let go of the relative deprivation story, the “people in cities getting rich”, by sharing the wealth around much more fairly.

Well, it’s a plan – and it’s been tried before, notably in China by one Mao Zedong. The aforementioned Minqi Li seems to be among the cohort that’s reevaluating Maoism positively, for example analyzing Mao’s Cultural Revolution as an attempt to “save the revolution” through “the dictatorship of the proletariat” (p.18). Personally, I struggle to justify the enormous destructiveness, misery and cruelty of it in those terms, when it seemed to be at least as much about saving the power of Mao Zedong through the dictatorship of Mao Zedong. I find Lynn White’s analysis more interesting – in his view, the disasters of Mao’s Great Leap Forward followed soon after by the power vacuum created by the Cultural Revolution fostered considerable local economic autonomy in China from the 1960s, and it was this bottom-up economic dynamism rather than the top-down reforms of the post-Mao government that laid the foundation for the country’s transformation into today’s huge industrial-capitalist power (I do find Li’s prognosis for how that transformation is likely to end in tears quite convincing, however).

So no, I’m not too keen on Maoist solutions to economic inequality. My preference is for agrarian populist solutions to it – which essentially means getting more people into farming and paying them better for it. Low economic returns to agriculture have often been a historical fact, but they’re not intrinsically an economic one. Still, the questions remain – is such a populist solution likely to occur, and how could it happen? My answers to that are ‘no’ and ‘with great difficulty’, but it’s the only solution that strikes me as likely to be successful long-term, so the long march back to Henan-with-hot-showers is the one I want to devote my thinking to. White and Li’s books have helped me to see that a little more clearly, though still through a glass darkly. I’ll try to elucidate it more in future posts.

Magic economics

When your car is malfunctioning and you take it to a mechanic, you hope that they’ll diagnose the problem and give you some repair suggestions and costings. You don’t expect them to discourse lengthily on the wider transport system or on government priorities vis-à-vis roads and other infrastructure. It’s not their job.

I’d like to suggest that economists should likewise be seen as the mechanics of the political economy. I’m interested in their opinions on the pros and cons of different policy instruments for achieving desired political and social goals, using the technical skills developed in their discipline. I’m not interested in their opinions about what political and social goals are desirable – matters on which I don’t consider them to have more legitimate authority than anyone else.

I mention this in the context of a tweet from Branko Milanovic, an expert on the economics of global inequality (whose work was previously discussed on Small Farm Future here), in which he attempted to ridicule the ‘doughnut economics’ thinking of heterodox economist Kate Raworth, and by implication the wider tradition of alternative, degrowth-oriented economics.

Milanovic tweeted “Here is a list of some things that Doughnut economists could advocate if they seriously believed that the planet is in danger and that world GDP must not increase and yet abject global poverty must be reduced

Reduce work week to 2 days

Increase highest marginal tax rates to 80%

Double indirect taxes on all polluting goods

Triple the price of oil

Double subsidies to all renewable sources of energy

Sell (very expensive) meat only two days a week

Ban cheap airplane companies and double the price of air flights

Introduce a £1000 tax for all travel by car & airplanes outside the UK

Introduce UBI of say £200 per person per week

Define the goal of halving GDP and real incomes by 50% in 10 years

He added: “Then they should create a movement that would try, through political action, to implement these measures and find out how much support they get from rich countries’ populations.”

Well now, I’ve already documented my own issues with Raworth’s economics, but writing as someone who does seriously believe that human wellbeing (if not ‘the planet’) is in danger, that it’s probably not a great idea for world GDP to increase, and that abject poverty must be reduced, those suggestions all make a lot of sense to me. However, I’m not a fully paid up member of the economics tribe, so I’d be interested to hear the analyses of Milanovic and other economists concerning the detailed implications of these policy measures, which I’m sure could help sharpen the debate over how to improve equity, wellbeing and sustainability. I’m not, however, much interested in the fact that Professor Milanovic considers these measures absurd.

I’d like to reformulate Milanovic’s approach along the lines suggested by Raworth of being ‘agnostic’ about economic growth. So let’s take the last of his suggestions. Instead of defining the goal of halving GDP and real incomes by 50% in 10 years, I’d like to define the goal of halving (or, better, quartering) greenhouse gas emissions in 10 years, while reducing economic inequality to a global Gini value of, say, 30 over the same period. I’m happy for this to be done with any high-tech whizz-bangery Professor Milanovic cares to choose, so long as we hit our 10-year targets – though to my mind this implies it would have to be technologies that are available to roll out at scale right now, so vague talk about the future possibilities of thorium or fusion reactors, or emerging CCS technologies and suchlike won’t cut it. If it can be done while increasing GDP, then great. I struggle to see how that would be possible, but I’m open to suggestions from economists toiling down in the garage of the global political economy as to how they might pull it off. I’m not, however, open to suggestions from economists that the goals I’m proposing are inappropriate, since the grounds of these goals are not economic and therefore fall outside their disciplinary ambit.

Economists do like to weigh in on normative issues of this kind nonetheless – and here is where, for me, they cease being potentially useful mechanics and start to become priests, magicians or quacks. Still, the nature of the dogma, the magic or the quackery is interesting for what it reveals about contemporary ideology, so let us probe it a little further.

The first level of magical thinking is the one purveyed in Milanovic’s afterthought: people won’t vote for ‘degrowth’ policies, or at least people in rich countries whose votes count most for the way the world works won’t vote for them – so the idea is dismissed as absurd. However, if we make the uncontroversial assumption that human wellbeing really is seriously threatened by the existing structure of the global economy, then where is the absurdity? Not with the degrowth, but with the politics. Much as I acknowledge that the unenlightened short-term self-interest of a rich minority of the world’s population does create genuine obstacles for implementing a more sustainable political economy, the real force of Milanovic’s point here is surely a push to rethink the politics. I plan to write some more on this soon, but I’m unimpressed by the notion that current voter support is some kind of litmus test for policy plausibility. The fact that contemporary politicians are still playing petty power games and trying to buy off voters with absurd, undeliverable promises is an indictment of our current political maturity and an index of the difficult path ahead. It’s not an argument against degrowth.

Various other levels of magical thinking were amply demonstrated by respondents to Milanovic’s tweet on the thread linked above. One is the basically ecomodernist notion that economic growth and prosperity are necessary in order to create the surplus needed to invest in environment-saving technologies – in the words of the Tweeter ‘Econartist’, “Invest in renewable and nuclear tech big time, decommission coal, electrify the transport system, explore the myriad of proposed geoengineering solutions – anyone who tells you this can’t be done or that it’s too expensive is a charlatan”. Well, call me a charlatan but the problem here is that there’s no compelling evidence that ongoing global economic growth funds reduced emissions or other environmental positives…though doubtless we’ll soon be seeing projections on the imminent downturn of the environmental Kuznets ‘wave’. You get the sense that there may just be a stray vowel somewhere near the start of ‘Econartist’s’ Twitter handle.

Another strand of magic invoked by Econartist is the notion that exogenous environmental constraint on human action is some kind of Malthusian fallacy. Malthus-as-bogeyman is widely invoked nowadays – usually to purvey the tautological argument that since Malthus posited exogenous (or even just actual) environmental constraint on human action, and since as-we-all-know Malthus was wrong (and had nasty politics to boot), then clearly any argument that invokes environmental constraint on human action is Malthusian, and therefore wrong.

Luckily I find that in my day job as a grower it’s possible for me to say things like “The weather’s been poor this year – I expect we’ll get a lower crop yield” without being dismissed by my fellow growers for my Malthusianism. But when you’re far away from directly experienced environmental constraint – like on Twitter, for example, or in the average university – it’s easy to invoke Malthus-as-bogeyman and/or the magic of human ingenuity to banish the danger of the natural world intruding on one’s anthropocentric reveries. This debate from a while back here on Small Farm Future convinced me that if we want to insist on invoking Malthus-as-bogeyman then we need a carefully circumscribed definition of Malthusianism. Following Andrew in that debate, I’d suggest that it should be the notion that the uncontrollable passions of the lower orders result in an excess of population over available resources. To extend an anti-Malthusianism further than that strays into the kind of magical thinking that assumes a priori that human ingenuity inevitably banishes all non-human constraint. It clearly doesn’t…and furthermore it fortunately doesn’t need to (which is why I find Tom X Hart’s recent tweet to me that “the left is anti-nature” a depressing sign of the needless techno-mythologism into which too much of the left has sunk).

Finally, the issue that the growth folks never seem to confront is where it ends – and this is where the numbers themselves start to get magical. In 1967 global GDP was 16.1 trillion at constant 2010 US$, and in 2017 it was 80.08 trillion. Current average global economic growth averages about 2.3% per annum, which is pretty much the minimum necessary to avoid recession in the existing capitalist world economy. Projecting that forward over the next 50 years suggests a global GDP in 2067 of about 255 trillion, a global economy about 16 times the size of the 1967 one (the data are here). Where’s all that economic activity going to come from? In view of the lack of absolute decoupling between economic growth and environmental degradation, what environmental effects would that kind of economy have? No wonder the growth thinkers are getting so enthralled by space travel – more magic.

I suspect the main reason we’ve become so enamoured of economic growth is that it’s the only way of addressing the growing scandal of global inequality without fundamental political change. It doesn’t address global inequality very well, since most of the additional income created by economic growth goes to the already well off (for example, as Milanovic documents in his book Global Inequality, 44% of the increase in income between 1988 and 2008 went to the richest 5% of people). This inequality is systemic, as recognised long ago by ecological economics pioneer Herman Daly in his Steady-State Economics:

“We are addicted to growth because we are addicted to large inequalities in income and wealth. What about the poor? Let them eat growth! Better yet, let them feed on the hope of eating growth in the future! We have been growing for some time, and we still have poverty. It should be obvious that what grows is the reinvested surplus, and the benefits of growth go to the owners of the surplus who are not poor” (pp.103-4)

But the neat thing about the ideology of growth is that it’s easily deployed to dismiss the ‘elitism’ of its alternatives, along the lines that while most growth-induced income increases indeed go to the already well-off, nobody can conscionably oppose the small gains that go to the poor. So, for example, there were about 118 million fewer people earning less than $1.90 per day in 2013 than in 2012 – who can oppose that trend, even if the very rich were rewarded disproportionately more?

Certainly, this is a line that Milanovic spins, as here:

“One can hardly overestimate [the importance of economic growth] in poorer countries as a means of making the lives of ordinary people better. The disparagement of growth that surfaces from time to time comes mostly from rich people in rich countries who believe they can dispense with more economic growth. But these people are either deluding themselves or are hypocritical.” (Global Inequality, p.232)

…a point Milanovic proceeds to substantiate with several fairly specious arguments, including references to the secessionist and isolationist waves convulsing the politics of the west. Here, his arguments have already been overtaken by events, since – if we assume that people voted on the basis of rational calculation – support for the likes of Trump and Brexit must have involved a preference for political autonomy over economic increase.

But, more importantly, with such arguments Milanovic and the cadres of growth-promoters stray from the domain of their economic expertise into wider realms of political opinion where they have no firmer technical grounding for their views than anyone else. So I return to my original challenge. I’d like to see a world with a minimal drawdown of fossil fuels and other polluting and unsustainable resources, and much reduced inequalities in wealth and income. How to achieve that politically poses tricky questions that economists have no particular expertise to answer. How to achieve it economically is an arena where they can doubtless contribute. Milanovic’s list above strikes me, speaking as a non-expert, as a pretty good suite of economic policies for starting down the road to sustainability and equity. What I’d really like to see from him and other economists is in-depth analysis of the various pros and cons of each policy for delivering the world I and many other critics of economic-growth-at-all-costs would like to see. His thorough derision of all those policies holds no particular interest for me over that of any other online opinion-monger, with which the market is currently quite saturated, and the price therefore low.

Talkin’ bout a revolution: a response to the Breakthrough Institute

The Breakthrough Institute have published a response to my critical commentary on a recent post of theirs. Here I continue the debate, because I think it might clarify some worthwhile issues. I’d like to thank Dan Blaustein-Rejto and Kenton De Kirby (henceforth B&D) for engaging constructively with me – a welcome improvement on what’s come my way from some previous Breakthrough folk.

Broadly, the issue between us is our different visions of agrarian, and therefore human, futures. I stress more people working on more small farms and a degree of deurbanisation, they stress increases in farm scale, a continued agrarian-urban transition out of agriculture and an emphasis on yield increase. On some points, I’d suggest our differences are not as great as B&D suppose: for example, I’m not necessarily for small farms and against yield increases or the use of synthetic fertiliser in all eventualities. But we’ll come to that.

I’m going to structure my response under three headings: change, ‘development’ and wealth.

Change

B&D suggest that my vision involves revolutionary change that would have to reverse robust global trends, and therefore isn’t feasible. My first response to that is to ask what makes a trend ‘robust’ and irreversible. Suppose, for example, that global trade rulings force countries with large populations of poor farmers to open their markets to rich-country agricultural commodities and to abandon food price controls and social welfare provision. We’d surely expect life to get tougher for the poor farmers and for them to seek other sources of income in place of or in addition to their dwindling farm income. Well, that’s pretty much what’s happened over recent decades. You could say that it’s a ‘robust trend’. But it’s a robust trend that’s resulted from policy decisions – and other policy decisions are possible.

There are other trends much more robust than the ones I’m lobbying to reverse that attract less fatalism than B&D apply to agrarian transitions. For example, the sexual harassment of women by men has a long historical pedigree, but nobody seems to be arguing against the #MeToo movement on the grounds that predatory male sexuality is a ‘robust trend’. To invoke a trend as an argument against a policy proposal risks turning an ‘is’ into an ‘ought’. Doubtless it could be argued that #MeToo has a greater chance of reversing male sexual aggression than a neo-peasant movement has of reversing current global agrarian and economic trends. It would be interesting to see such an argument laid out, because I think it could be quite revealing of where the obstacles lie. Meanwhile, I’d say ‘low chance of success’ is not the same as ‘bad idea’.

I want to push further at that last point. The word ‘revolutionary’ has numerous connotations, not all of which I embrace, but I’m happy to accept that my stance involves a commitment to ‘revolutionary’ change in some sense of the term. Our present epoch is revolutionary through and through, so I’m not sure describing a proposed change as ‘revolutionary’ really counts against it. Proponents of mainstream agriculture happily talk about the ‘green revolution’, while other analysts describe the early 20th century mechanisation of farming in the wealthy countries as ‘the second agricultural revolution of modern times’1. The 20th century was garlanded with political revolutions, many of them with small-scale farmers at their heart. But the capitalist global economy has been the most revolutionary force of all. It’s constantly made and remade the world with a success that I think stems less from the over-emphasised fact that it’s what everyone wants, as B&D imply, than from the fact that its unparalleled powers of wealth creation have been locked in by mutually-dependent political and business elites, with limited payback to the majority of the world’s people.

The truth is that any plausible vision for a prosperous and sustainable future from here on will have to be revolutionary. For example, let’s review the implications of B&D’s solid trend towards agricultural transition and their business-as-usual approach to the global economy in its present form. Assuming current global economic growth of 2.5% per annum (and anything less over a prolonged period would surely imply economic crisis within current economic parameters), in fifty years’ time the global economy will have to be producing additional economic activity well over double the entire present global output. It will have to do so after reducing fossil energy use pretty much to zero (currently about 80% of global energy use is fossil fuel based) in order to stave off drastic climate change. And if it’s going to deliver increased prosperity for the half of the humanity who currently live off about US$5 a day or less, it’ll have to do a vastly better redistributive job than it’s done over the last 20 years, when the lowest-earning half of the world’s people only received around 10% of the income increase over the period2. That all sounds pretty revolutionary to me.

‘Development’ and the global peasant-family farm

B&D impute to me the belief that small-scale farming has great inherent value, but that’s not really true. I don’t, for the most part, argue for small-scale farming as a valuable end in itself. I argue for it largely because it seems to me the most feasible way of delivering sustainable prosperity (or ‘development’) to the world’s people in the future. In saying that, I agree with B&D that my vision is very revolutionary and not very feasible. However, I think it’s less revolutionary and more feasible than theirs.

The idea of a future based on peasant farming may seem far-fetched, but I want to offer a brief sketch to suggest why it could be less far-fetched than it may seem at first. Consider two farms. One comprises an acre or so, and is farmed by a poor family in a poor country who use it to grow mostly subsistence crops. The other comprises several hundred acres, and is farmed by a family who are not poor by global standards and who live in a rich country, using numerous high-tech inputs like tractors to grow mostly commodity crops. The two farms look very different. The first might be described as a ‘peasant’ farm, whereas the second most likely wouldn’t be. But they both have the same ‘peasant-like’ structure vis-à-vis the wider economy. They both use mostly family labour, which is rewarded not by an hourly wage but by a share of the farm’s output. And they both involve capital investments (buildings, land, livestock, equipment and human knowledge) which isn’t valued in terms of the opportunity cost of the returns to its annual investment, but in terms of its contribution to the long-term productivity of the farm, including its potential productivity after the death of its present incumbents and on into the future incumbency of their descendants.

Contrast that with the simpler economics of a fully capitalist farm. Labour and capital are just costs on the debit side of the equation. Profit is realised output less costs, year by year. If costs exceed profit, or even if they don’t but the difference imposes sufficient opportunity costs to capital investment then the farm soon closes and the released capital is invested elsewhere. That’s not the case with the peasant or the family farm in the same situation. Its circumstances are dire, but it’s not looking to maximise returns on immediate investment, so the chances are it’ll survive.

At root, I think it will prove more feasible to create a prosperous and sustainable future by adopting policies that make life easier for existing peasant and family farmers of this sort than by adopting policies that make life harder for them, and easier for capitalist farmers. This is for numerous reasons that I won’t go into here – though I have done over the years on this blog, and am happy to discuss in more detail should anyone wish…some of the reasons in any case are probably quite obvious just from my brief description. In broadest outline, I think an agrarian future based on support for these kinds of farms will take a lot of damaging hot capital out of the global economy, do a better job of reproducing the biophysical means for continued human flourishing and do a better job, too, of spreading fairly such prosperity as can be sustainably created. However, supporting both such kinds of farms would involve ensuring that the second type doesn’t undermine the first.

Commenting on my ideas, B&D state that “with less international agricultural trade, countries would have to either convert more land to farming to make up for the drop in food, or people would have to deal with higher prices, change their food consumption, or go hungry more often.” That may be so if all I was suggesting was limiting international food trade alone, but I’m arguing for something rather more ‘revolutionary’ than that – broadly, for an agrarian economy that widens opportunities to take up small-scale farming and narrows opportunities to gain economic rent from land.

Wealth and the transition out of agriculture

The revolution that B&D prefer is another iteration of the one that today’s rich countries passed through, which they summarise as follows:

“Historically, the agrarian transition of people moving from rural farming communities to urban centers has greatly improved people’s lives. As urbanization occurs, incomes rise, access to healthcare increases, and population growth slows, among other beneficial changes in social outcomes.”

All that has been true – well, kind of eventually true – for the citizens of some countries, albeit usually at the expense of people elsewhere. But I think there’s a failure of imagination here to suppose that what worked for, say, Britain in the 19th century will inevitably work for, say, Niger in the 21st…and also to suppose that such transitions mark a once and for all arrival at prosperity. Prosperity increase is not exactly a zero-sum game, but it more closely approximates to it in a world dedicated to maximising net present value through frictionless financial movement. The idea that, in such a world, Niger will achieve prosperity by urbanising like Britain did 200 years ago neglects the pyramid-scheme resemblances of the present global economy: the benefits of agrarian transition accrue largely to those who undertake it first. Or perhaps, over time, to those who undertake it best. So to my mind, on that note the lesson of China’s current transition (one that was achieved in some measure by investing in peasant agriculture) is not that other parts of the world should try to follow its example, but that they should try to build as much economic resilience as possible out of local resources.

Contrary to B&D’s global agrarian transition, then, I’d argue that putting one’s trust in an economic model explicitly geared to maximising short-run fiscal returns on investment, with other benefits essentially epiphenomenal, is a very high risk way of seeking to improve people’s lives globally today. And not a very effective one either: relative to the generation of wealth, it hasn’t so far been conspicuously successful at distributing it.

B&D imply that people inherently prefer urban over rural life, and that various other aspects of the global farmscape result from the free exercise of choice. I’d suggest instead that people inherently prefer prosperity, and will seek it where they can find it – and that the shape of the global farmscape results mostly from the free exercise of choice by the rich, not by the poor. Whatever the case, despite all the pressures to shed labour from agriculture there are still more than 1.2 billion farmers in the world at a minimum estimate – over 16% of the global population. Supporting their desire for prosperity while keeping them in farming seems to me a wiser overall strategy than willing them into cities and assuming that short-run capital intensive farming will more successfully fill the vacuum they leave.

A couple of final points on yield. Within the parameters of the non-capitalist family farm (whether rich or poor) described above, in some circumstances it may be an excellent idea to increase per hectare yields through any number of different means, and I have no particular problem with that. I do have a problem, though, with the idea that improving per hectare yields is a fundamental desideratum for agriculture globally, regardless of any other considerations. And on the matter of yield improvement, I mentioned above the ‘second agricultural revolution of modern times’. The first one occurred in the 18th century in countries like Britain, arguably as much or more through the spread of ideas about better ways to farm than through increased energy or other high-tech inputs – what today we might call an ‘agroecological revolution’. It may be wise to devote more thought to innovations of that sort than to the idea that greater yields only arise as increased returns to land input by means of other costly inputs. I’m all for breakthroughs, but we often have too impoverished a notion of what technological ‘breakthroughs’ look like, let alone breakthroughs in a more general sense.

Notes

  1. M. Mazoyer and L. Roudart. 2006. A History of World Agriculture. Earthscan.
  2. B. Milanovic. 2016. Global Inequality. Harvard UP.

The broken glass: some thoughts on ‘Population 10 Billion’

Danny Dorling’s book Population 10 Billion1 has been sitting in the in-tray of the Small Farm Future review department (along with a whole load of other books) for a couple of years now. I’ve been on their case about it, but until now I’ve had nothing from those slackers. Maybe I should introduce performance related pay… On which note, just a shout out for this blog’s seasonal appeal for funds, Wikipedia-style: “if every reader of Small Farm Future donated, er, about £1,000 annually, I could devote myself to it full-time and turn out the reviews a lot faster.” Or maybe I should make a pact with the devil and run ads. What d’ya think? Meantime, donate button is on the right.

Anyway, I have now read Dorling’s book and I want to share a few thoughts about it. They’re not in the form of a comprehensive warts-and-all review – rather, I want to highlight five themes of interest to me that anticipate some future posts, on which I think Dorling has thought-provoking things to say. And here they are:

1. Possibilism and the broken glass

Dorling defines himself as a ‘practical possibilist’ in his orientation to the future, arguing that we need more “stories that sit between those who say that all will be fine, and those who claim that we are doomed” (p.6).

It’s a good opening gambit, except that I think almost everyone occupies this ‘possibilist’ middle ground. Let’s call those who think ‘all will be fine’ in the future the optimists or utopians, and let’s call those who think that all of us are doomed no matter what we do from here the pessimists or dystopians. That leaves a very wide spectrum of opinion between those two poles. And yet we spend way too much time playing status games about our chosen positions on the continuum, castigating others for their excessive optimism or pessimism. I daresay I’ve been guilty of this myself at times. Enough of it. What really matters is debating the underlying models or visions, not sorting out the pecking order of who’s most appropriately optimistic or pessimistic.

For that reason, I’d like to suggest retiring the metaphor of the half empty or half full glass. Besides, why does it always have to be half empty or full? Suppose it was a quarter full, or three-quarters empty? Would we still be debating whether we were full or empty kind of people, or would we get busy trying to do something useful?

Another problem is that, for me at least, the human world seems a pretty dysfunctional place even in the absence of issues like climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss etc. Suppose someone waved a magic ecomodernist wand and vanquished all our environmental problems so that the world could settle into its existing social, political and economic arrangements for the long haul. For me, this would be a profoundly depressing prospect. All that misery, unfairness and anomie! So no, I don’t look at the potential salvation of contemporary civilisation as something to feel ‘optimistic’ about

—CRASH—

Did you just hear the sound of a glass breaking? Me too. But was it a half-full or a half-empty one? Let me tell you this. I – don’t – care.

2. Population growth

Anyway, forget all that. When it comes to population, Dorling says the glass is half-full. Despite all the fears of a spiralling human population swamping the planet, he points out that fertility is falling almost everywhere, often rapidly. Human numbers are still set to rise for some time because of the demographic lags involved, but possibly as early as 2075 (p.38) an absolute decline in human population may start on the basis of current demographic trends without the need to invoke future collapses and catastrophes – the four horsemen, Dorling says, may already have paid their visit.

What interests me most about Dorling’s line of argument here is not the human numbers involved or their likely impact, but the historical demographics of it. Human numbers began to surge around 1850, and stopped surging around 1970. This is the context in which all of us alive today have been formed, but it’s historically unprecedented and it doesn’t look set to continue in the future. Dorling cautions that we need to stop seeing our recent past as some kind of stable norm from which to predict the future. His discussion of why this recent anomaly occurred is interesting, if a bit vague – issues such as the long-term consequences of Europe’s conquest of the Americas, the fossil fuel dividend, the rise of capitalism and concomitantly rising inequality. His discussion of how it’s coming to an end is also frustratingly vague at times – and, dare I say it, over-optimistic – but also interesting in its focus on improving public health, improving social rights, particularly for women, and migration. Let’s just hold those thoughts for a moment…

3. Population and Consumption

Dorling is entertainingly severe on the school of thought that puts population levels and consumption levels jointly in the dock for our present environmental ills. My own illustrative example of his point comes from the following passage, where Herman Daly – rightly feted as a pioneer of ecological or steady-state economics – is taking another writer, Mark Sagoff, to task for asserting that pollution results not from our numbers, but from our lifestyles and rate of consumption:

“The false denial of cause a in order more forcefully to assert cause b is faulty as logic and tiresome as rhetoric. It becomes ludicrous when the effect is caused by multiplying a and b together”2

OK, but what are a and b here? If a x b is total resource use (or pollution) and b is total population, then a must be per capita resource use, which is the same as total resource use divided by total population. So another way of writing Daly’s ‘causal’ equation of a and b is:

Total Resource Use = (Total Resource Use / Population) x Population

So I think Dorling, and Sagoff, are right. Population cancels out. The problem is resource use.

But that’s not quite the end of the story. The conceptual problem surely arises because both rising population and rising resource use are joint determined consequences of a deeper underlying historical trend – which, for shorthand, I’d call capitalism. Call it commercialisation, globalisation or marketization if you prefer. Barring some unprecedented catastrophe, there are going to be a lot of us on the planet for generations to come, and the reason we got to be here is basically because of capitalism/commercialisation etc. But population and resource use are ultimately autonomous variables. So can we maintain our high (if soon to be decreasing) human populations under a different economic regimen with a lower total resource use?

Dorling thinks so and, to his credit, although he occasionally veers towards ecomodernist terrain he’s clear that the answer doesn’t lie in some high tech solutionism which would have 8-10 billion people in the future consuming at US levels without environmental cost. “We who consume most have to consume less”, he writes (p.20). He talks – over-optimistically, in my opinion – about how the ‘developed’ western countries have already reached ‘peak stuff’, but I find his general line of argument interesting. Global population is set to decline, the conditions that prompted its enormous recent surge are no longer operative, and people are tentatively moving into a phase of more dematerialised consumption.

I doubt that on current trends these factors will be enough to stave off some major shocks. But I think they’re complementary in interesting ways to the neo-agrarian or neo-peasant agenda I promote on this blog. One of the main reasons people oppose a small farm or ‘peasant’ future is because the recent peasant past has been pretty grim. That’s partly because governments have deliberately made it so, but we’re emerging from a world of high rural fertility and high rural poverty into a new world of lower fertility based on more health and social rights, a degree of dematerialisation among the wealthiest but also a powerful need for the wealthiest to consume less. To my mind, this points to the need for a new kind of global peasantism based on relatively labour-intensive but relatively low fertility and socially entitled peasant households engaged in high nature value, reasonably remunerated (in cash to some extent, but more importantly in kind) local farming. I’m not saying that it’ll be easily achieved, but it does help identify some big social trends that peasant and agrarian activists can hitch their wagons to, and it puts some clear water between what a peasantism of the future might look like and what some of the peasantisms of the past looked like. Certainly, we can learn from the latter, but reading Dorling underlines for me a point I’ve tried to make before – a small farm future doesn’t necessarily have to look exactly like a small farm past.

However, in order to hang on to the benefits of a low fertility, steady state society we need to retain peace, order and social rights, particularly women’s rights. In other words, we need to retain the kind of liberal public sphere that – another point I’ve made before – various cheerleaders for a post-liberal politics within and without the environmental movement are enthusiastically trying to dismantle at the moment.

Bottom line: more or less whatever happens we’re set to have unprecedentedly high populations for a long time to come, a population level arising from a high consumption capitalist society. But it’s possible that in future there may be a lower consumption, non-capitalist, high population society. Let’s get on it.

4. Migration

I’m planning to write another post about migration soon, but to anticipate a few points by way of Dorling’s analysis, he points out that while much of our attention in the ‘developed’ countries on migration issues focuses on the international movement from poor countries to rich countries, the movement of poor people between poor rural hinterlands and their nearest large cities is and will be of vastly greater demographic importance.

Still, if we do just focus on international migration, Dorling suggests that poor migrants go to where wealth is concentrated, because wealth creates secondary employment markets to service it (note that this isn’t the same as saying that wealth ‘trickles down’ to the poor). Poor migrants from high fertility countries also tend to quickly assume the fertility patterns of the host society – so if global population reduction is a goal, then increased international migration from poor (and typically high fertility) countries to richer, lower fertility countries is a good way to achieve it. But if a rich society does want to reduce in-migration of people from poorer countries, a good way to achieve it is by reducing its inequalities in wealth.

Another issue is the bulging elderly population in many ‘developed’ societies as fertility crashes in the younger generations – an arguably one-off social problem which can be tackled by in-migration of young workers from poorer countries to balance temporary fertility/mortality disparities, which is often the way migration functions.

So some things to chew on there, which I’ll come back to in a later post. But where I’m generally going to go with this is probably fairly obvious – the best and most humane way of reducing in-migration in a ‘developed’ society isn’t by trying to ban it. “When migrants come,” Dorling writes, “times are generally good” (p.256). There are, perhaps, some additional complexities here, but Dorling has a point. After all, there seems to be no clamour in London to stop people migrating there from, say, Cumbria on the grounds that they’ll take jobs from Londoners. That’s not how the job market works. But if we turned to a society structured like neo-peasant Wessex, the migration picture would undoubtedly start to look different.

5. Cities

Dorling’s writing on cities seems a bit conflicted, but let me quote this:

“the worst of poverty is now found in cities, places where people can have literally nothing, not even a scrap of land. It is, perhaps, surprising we do not fear the city and our current demographic transition more” (p.202)

And also this, from Vaclav Smil’s recent book,

“another great uncertainty is the long-term viability of urban living….large parts of many of the world’s largest cities remain epitomes of violence, drug addiction, homelessness, child abandonment, prostitution and squalid living…Cities have been always renewed by migration from villages – but what will happen to the already mostly urban civilization once the villages virtually disappear while the social structure of cities continues to disintegrate?”3

Again, I hope to write more about this soon, and I’d want to question an over-simple ‘city vs. village’ dichotomy, but after spending years wading through endless, skin-deep eco-modernist paeans to the redeeming power of the slum, I find it refreshing to see some popular-academic writings telling a different story.

oOo

And that pretty much wraps up Small Farm Future for 2017. I haven’t made as much progress as I’d have liked in getting to the politics of an agrarian populist society, but I did at least get some groundwork done in outlining what such a society might look like productively and in getting a lot of global history off my chest as a kind of background to the politics. Thanks to those hardy souls who’ve ploughed through all that output. And thanks more generally to everyone who’s read and commented on this site – it’s appreciated. Hopefully, 2018 will provide opportunities to move things on. Though I do have a few side projects to attend to as well, such as building a house. Ah well, it’s good to keep busy. So happy festivities to everyone, whichever way you care to take them, and hopefully we’ll meet here again sometime in January.

Notes

  1. Dorling, D. 2013. Population 10 Billion: The Coming Demographic Crisis and How to Survive It. Constable.
  2. Daly, H. 1998. ‘Reply to Mark Sagoff’s “Carrying capacity and ecological economics”’ in Crocker, D. and Linden, T. eds. Ethics of Consumption. Rowman & Littlefield, p.55.
  3. Smil, V. 2017. Energy and Civilization: A History. MIT Press, p.437.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Doughnut economics

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

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

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

oOo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts

About a year ago I started publishing on this site various projections for how the future population of southwest England where I live might be able to feed itself substantially on the basis of small-scale, relatively self-reliant ‘peasant’ farming – convincing myself, if no one else, in the process that such a ‘Peasant’s Republic of Wessex’ might be feasible. The notion that a small farm future of this sort may occur and may even be desirable and worth striving for is, I confess, hardly a mainstream political position. And yet it’s one that I’ve come to, for reasons that I’ve documented here over the years. Essentially, I think that humanity faces a series of interlocking ecological, economic, political, cultural and social crises that, if they’re resolvable at all, are most resolvable through a turn to small-scale, predominantly self-reliant farming. Actually, I see this way of life less as a ‘solution’ to modern ‘problems’ as a non-modern way of being that’s intrinsically less problematic. But I’m anxious to avoid easy dualities – not everything about modernity is necessarily bad, and not everything in a turn to small farm agrarianism would necessarily be good. I’ll say more about that in due course.

The main difficulties in achieving a turn to small-scale agrarianism are not agricultural, but social and political. So I now want to turn my attention away from issues of farm scale and structure towards these socio-political issues. As I started thinking about them, I found myself constantly drawn to history and to what the past may be able to teach us about the possible course of a small farm future. I’m still not really sure whether it does have much to teach us. I said above that a small farm future would be non-modern, but that’s not the same as pre-modern: a non-modern small farm future needn’t necessarily much resemble a pre-modern small farm past. Nevertheless, since the past is the main guide we have to the future, it seems like a good place to start. Originally I planned to write a blog post that was to be sardonically entitled ‘The history of the world in 10½ paragraphs’ (with apologies to Julian Barnes) in which I was going to lay out a few broad historical themes before moving on to examining the socio-political shape of my future Peasant’s Republic. But the task kept growing – there has, after all, been quite a lot of history. Almost before I knew it, it had turned into ‘The history of the world in 10½ blog posts’ – still, of course, without going much further than laying out a few broad themes. So this is what I’m now publishing. The entire c.27,000 word essay is now available from the Publications page of my website, but I’m also going to publish it in hopefully more digestible week-by-week blog-post size instalments over the next couple of months.

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It’s probably worth devoting just a few sentences to explaining what this exercise is about and what it isn’t. It’s surely obvious that nobody can really write a ‘history of the world’, however many words or years they devote to it. So I haven’t even tried. What I have tried to do is lay out the main patterns and structures of the past as I see them that I think we have to reckon with today if we’re to wrest a comfortable and sustainable future (which I think will have to be largely a small farm future) from the troubled present. This involves tracing political and economic relationships over large parts of the globe, which partly justifies my title. But I’ve made no attempt to trace human history even-handedly across all times and places. I’m open to comments and criticisms of things I’ve omitted, but if they’re of the form ‘your analysis is wholly lacking in an account of the struggle for self-determination in Mozambique’ my response will be a rather uninterested ‘yep, you got me there’. Challenges to my rendering of the larger structures I discuss will gain more of my interest.

My focus here is mostly on the way that local societies, local farms, local human ecologies, get incorporated into bigger political and economic structures – and conversely how they de-incorporate or resist that process. In general I think de-incorporation is a good idea, and is probably going to happen anyway whether it’s a good idea or not. But I don’t think any kind of de-incorporation or local autarky is necessarily desirable, nor do I think large political structures are necessarily undesirable. For me, the relationship between the state and local human ecologies is problematic precisely because it admits to no easy answers. On reflection, I fear that I haven’t justified here as clearly as I should have done why small-scale or ‘peasant’ farming is so important, but perhaps it’ll be easier to do that in another post in the light of the historical analysis provided here.

Another thing I say little about here, even though it’s the overarching context for the whole essay, is the set of ‘environmental’ problems humanity currently faces in relation to ecological degradation, climate change, energy futures and so on (I’ve written about them fairly extensively elsewhere on this website). This is essentially because I don’t think issues of energy and environment have generally been the fundamental movers of human history in the past (which is not to say they haven’t been important). I suspect they may be prime movers of human history in the future, and one of the problems humanity now faces is learning to acknowledge this novel fact. Joe Clarkson drew my attention to Fred Cottrell’s interesting book Energy and Society, which I might have incorporated more fully here if I’d come across it earlier. Energy capture certainly provides one worthwhile frame on which to hang an account of human history. So perhaps does crop development. These aren’t the frames I’ve chosen here, but that’s not to say that they (along with other aspects of ecological constraint) aren’t crucial factors now facing us. The truth is quite the opposite.

As I wrote the essay, I tried to keep in mind the hope that people other than me might read it, but as per my last post in many ways it’s a rather personal odyssey through my intellectual history, and also a kind of aide memoire for issues I’d like to come back to in the future, so the essay involves a certain amount of personal wrestling with historical issues where I feel the need to work out a position. Which is another way of asking forgiveness for what I fear may seem like various weird digressions in the text. I’ve fretted over this essay, perhaps a little too much, and probably re-edited, cut and pasted it too many times for its own good, so if there are any parts of it that make you think ‘Oh for goodness sake, cut this out and just get on with it’, I’d be interested to hear. If, on the other hand, you feel that way about the entire essay, then there’s no need to contact me – but sorry for wasting your time. For the time-pressed, let me broadcast upfront the main issues I’ve extracted from my historical analysis which I think we need to juggle with in figuring out a just and sustainable small farm future:

  • A human tendency towards both status ranking and equality
  • A tendency for modes of human organisation to ‘leapfrog’ each other through time
  • A tendency for new forms of centralised political organisation to elicit secondary versions around them
  • A difficult balance between under- and over-development of the division of labour
  • An ambiguity within the centralised state as both predator and benefactor
  • Class distinctions in both city and countryside with which central state actors can ally or organise against
  • Religious or spiritual traditions that cleave either towards or against extant political power
  • The (slender) possibilities for more-or-less autarkic agrarian production in the interstices of centralised political power
  • The possibilities for cooperation as well as conflict within a class or caste stratified agrarian society
  • The enabling effect on agrarian society of alternative ways of life (urbanism, or the public sphere, for example)
  • The numerous geopolitical forms of state power, which are not limited to the nation-state
  • The difficulties of distinguishing sharply between lord and peasant, or between landowner, tenant and labourer
  • The significance of militarised or demilitarised frontiers for economic development
  • The core-periphery geographic structuring of the economy in one or more ‘world systems’
  • The possibilities for stable income/population equilibria (‘high level equilibrium traps’) that limit ‘unnatural’ expansion or technological hyper-development
  • The tendency for economic ‘cores’ to export the responsibility for less remunerative agrarian activities to the ‘periphery’
  • The tendency for extractive ecological linkages from core to periphery
  • The tendency to find ‘reconstituted peasantries’ where centralised polities fail
  • The differentiated nature of peasantries, and the unequal power relations within them
  • The inherent (and growing) tendency towards crisis in the capitalist economy
  • The tendency for capitalist economies to virtualise money, leading to instability
  • The multiple stories we tell ourselves about the nature of the modern – as development, as regress, as the coming-to-history of ‘a people’, as possibility, as despair
  • The tendency for people to avoid overt politics if they can, and seek a quiet life
  • The tendency for virtually all forms of economic production (‘peasant’, capitalist, communist etc.) under the modernist shadow of capitalism to tend towards or revert to capitalist production
  • The need to develop a political economy that’s not based on compound economic growth and the associated drawdown of non-renewable resources
  • The need to learn open-mindedly from the past and to acknowledge that historically people sometimes may have found some better solutions to their problems than we’re currently finding for ourselves – but without extolling the special virtues of those times or wishing ourselves back to them, so much as using them to build what Kropotkin called “an absolutely new fact” for ourselves.

If you require any further justification for those points…well, you’ll just have to read my next 10½ blog posts…

In relation to notes and referencing, at the risk of demonstrating my utter unoriginality I decided to reference the essay fairly comprehensively so that I can use it easily as a resource for future writing. I’m publishing the entire essay along with notes and bibliography on the Publications page of the website, and then chopping it up into weekly blog posts with footnotes (but not references) at the end of each post. If you want to chase up a reference, you’ll find it in the bibliography at the end of the full essay on the publications page.

I hope the essay might find some interested readers. I’ve certainly found it interesting to write. The key historical figures in it, ones who lurk forever at the interface between the local human ecologies and larger political-economic structures discussed here, are peasantries – endlessly pitied, exploited, romanticised, derided, expropriated or written off, but unquestionably still here. The essay is dedicated, in more ways than one, to them – though not, I hope, uncritically.

Right, let’s get started…

1. Origins

In the beginning, there was a Miocene ape – the common ancestor of our genus Homo and our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees and gorillas.

…well, that’s probably enough for one blog post. We’ll pick up the thread again next week. But if you can’t wait that long to find out what happens next, you know where to look.

The hypocrisy of environmentalists and the need for economic growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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