The population problem problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes

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

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

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

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

What if we only ate food from local farms?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

oOo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The great convergence?

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

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

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

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

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

Exhibit A:

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

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

Exhibit B:

 

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

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

Exhibit C:

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

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

Exhibit D:

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

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

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

I’d welcome any comments.

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some theses on property, immigration, society and culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

On property

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

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

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

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

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

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

On borders

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

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

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

On society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Culture

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

On Implementation

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

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

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

Notes

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

China’s urban villages – an interview with David Bandurski

My nose is well and truly to the grindstone with book writing at the moment, so unfortunately I’m not finding much time for blogging. But here as promised is the interview I did with David Bandurski, author of Dragons in Diamond Village: Tales of Resistance from Urbanizing China (Melville House, 2016) on which my previous post was based. I reproduce the interview below without further comment – it raises some interesting issues and further questions, I think, which hopefully I can develop in the future. Meanwhile, I’d thoroughly recommend David’s book. My thanks to David for finding the time to respond to my questions.

Next up will be the post I promised on migration and property rights – but I fear it’ll be a while a-coming while the book-writing is burning my fingers. Adios.

oOo

CS: There’s a standard historical narrative of economic development with which we’re familiar in the west, essentially of peasant farmers quitting agriculture for industrial wage labour in the city and thereby building all-round prosperity. The same narrative is often applied to contemporary China – depeasantisation, urbanisation, rising prosperity – but your book suggests the underlying reality is more complex. Could you say a little about how much you think events in China conform to or belie the standard urbanisation narrative?

DB: In the standard urbanization narrative as you’ve just described it, the role of the human being is central. But one of the distinguishing features of what has been called “urbanization” in a Chinese context is that the role of the human being is minimized against the backdrop of a larger-than-life vision of the urban. A kind of urban mythology of the city as a place of dynamism and ultimately prosperity. You can see this readily in the propaganda around the city, which emphasizes the modern fabric of the city—the skyscrapers, the monuments, the high-speed rail.

At one point in the book, I talk about how on one trip to countryside in Henan I saw how the mosaic scenes outside rural homes had been changed from scenes of nature to scenes of the megacity dominated by an expressway in diminishing perspective running through the center, luxury cars whishing past montages of architecture from Shanghai and Beijing. The caption was always: “Road to Prosperity.” But there were never people in those scenes, any more than in the government’s urban propaganda.

Even this urbanization has brought prosperity for much of China’s urban population. Yes, they have found industrial jobs in the city, and they have grown wealthier. But in an important sense, tens of millions of these rural migrants have never actually entered and settled in the city. This is because their political identity is as “rural” people, a product of a household registration system that still, to this day, categorizes them on the basis of their home towns, and denies them benefits like education and healthcare in the cities that are their new homes. The people themselves have not urbanized. And this is not just by choice.

CS: Historical studies of rural China have often emphasised the resilience of peasant smallholding in the face of dynastic turmoil – and more recently in the face of the Maoist experiment with collectivism. In your book you describe rural land and people as “the blazing fire in the furnace” of China’s recent ascent – do you see ongoing possibilities for small-scale farming in China’s future, or will it be consumed in that furnace?

DB: The energy unleashed by the rural population is not at all about small-scale farming, in fact. One of the most basic things to understand about China’s so-called rural population is its clear and increasing remoteness from agricultural life. The vast majority are not farmers at all. Even one, two and now even three generations back they are not farmers. They have little or probably in most cases no agricultural knowledge.

But their political status, by virtue of a registration system that ties them to a rural hometown, perpetuates their ruralness. This has real implications in terms of the cost of their industrial labor. Consider that when a labor force is constantly mobile, uprooted, unmoored, it is cheapened. Cities benefit from the labor force, but they don’t need to provide affordable housing for families, or schooling for children. The rural migrants themselves bear these costs, economic and social. Consider, for example, the phenomenon of “left-behind children,” those who stay back in the village to attend school while their parents are off in the city working. The families are broken apart because no way is offered for the children to attend school in the city, at least affordably. There are schools that have opened for migrant children, but these are often unofficial schools in semi-urban areas, very often in urban villages. They are substandard and the parents still must pay.

So when I talk about the “blazing fire in the furnace,” I’m really talking about the way that rural people, and rural land too, have been consumed to advance China’s development.

As for small-scale farming, this is certainly not envisioned as the way forward in China. President Xi recently made a visit to China’s northeast and was pictured in propaganda photos walking through the wheat fields—propaganda very reminiscent of China’s Maoist past. But behind him was a fleet of modern harvesters. So technology and large-scale farming are where China is undoubtedly heading.

CS: Following on from that question, a strong commitment to place, ancestral land and perhaps to farm livelihoods among ordinary people in China emerges from your book, but also the ‘cultural iconography of the home town’ as a convenient fiction supporting the unjust status quo of the household registration system and the ‘Chinese dream’ of party-led economic development. If land rights activism were to successfully wrest more political power and wealth from the state and its clients to the benefit of ordinary people, how do you think things would play out in terms of those various attachments to place and development?

DB: I mentioned earlier that there is very little identification with farming anymore. And when you consider that “rural” people have no such identification going back now two and even three generations, you can see the nature of the problem as fundamentally a political one. I remember one mother in an urban village outside Beijing showing me photos of a trip the family had made to their hometown in Henan. He was a few years old at the time, born in Beijing, and this had been his first trip back. But she said to me: “Just like city kids, he doesn’t know about the countryside.” Something like that. So this idea was deeply engrained in the mother, who herself had been a left-behind child, that her son was somehow not of the city despite the fact that he had known nothing else. They live on the margins, in fact, and even the center of Beijing was a strange and alien place.

I think it is inevitable that the identification with place will fade for children like this. I’m not sure his children will have any deep connection to rural Henan. And many people who have managed to put down roots in cities like Beijing or Shanghai, who have urban registration because they’ve gotten college degrees or bought property, still have connections to rural hometowns, usually more than one. These identities are fluid, in fact. But it is still in the interest of the state to perpetuate the idea of connection to the rural place—primarily because it hasn’t resolved the thorny issue of the registration system.

In my book, though, I am writing a great deal about the sense of identity that the local residents of urban villages in the city have about these places. Their situation is actually very different from that of a lot of rural migrant workers. Unlike the villages in the countryside that have been emptied for much of the year of their populations, these villages have maintained their local populations, and they have in many cases safeguarded their traditions, like the dragon boat races. These are a source of community. And when the very divisive issue of their collective rural land comes into the picture—when, for example, the city government wants to requisition it for commercial development—this sense of community can be a real rallying point for activism.

CS: There are many moving stories in your book of courageous rights activists from different backgrounds coming together and supporting each other. How unified do you consider this movement to be in China across urban/rural, regional and any other relevant dimensions?

DB: I must say I am not very optimistic about the prospects for land rights activism becoming a real political force in China. The situation has even changed dramatically since around 2013. Under Xi Jinping, there is very little space at all for activists to come together. This is exactly what the leadership fear, and it has a lot of tools at its disposal to ensure that isolated movements—within one village, for example—do not achieve scale. It was quite incredible to note around 2011 and 2012 how village land movements across Guangzhou and south China, and even beyond, were linking in various ways, including through social media. You don’t see this in the same way anymore. And this is part of the larger story about the direction China is heading politically.

CS: I found your analysis of the urban villages absolutely fascinating. Two questions on this:

(a) You talk about “a second, deeply rural city” within the urban villages of Guangzhou. Could you say a little more about what you mean by this, and how it manifests?

DB: Yes. I’m talking about the urban villages themselves, which are pockets of rural land—meaning land designated as collective and held by village collectives—in and around China’s cities. In China, while all land technically belongs to the state, there are two types of land ownership: state and collective. State land can be development for urban infrastructure, while collective land is subject to more restrictions. In any case, that’s the simple version.

In many cases, the arable collective land around villages on the outskirts of the city is first expropriated by the city for development, meaning that it is re-zoned, parcel by parcel, as state land and then built up. The original residential area of the village, however, is left alone. And then something fascinating happens. As the village becomes part of this more vibrant urban ecosystem, the local villagers recognize the economic benefit of their position, and they build up their own tenement housing atop their family allotments of collective residential land. So instead of one or two-story family homes, they have four to five-story buildings that they can then rent out to newcomers entering the city. These are generally rural migrant workers. So then the urban village becomes a dynamic space with a kind of double-identity rural population—those local villagers “farming property,” as the above process is called, and very attached to the village community; and those outsiders who find in the city a familiar and affordable rural foothold in the city.

(b) Many of the stories in your book concern the plight of local urban villagers in the face of regeneration, but a casual reader might think that it’s a lesser plight than that of impermanent rural migrants. Do you have any thoughts on this, and more generally on how urban/rural class relations are changing in contemporary China?

DB: This is a really complicated issue, in fact, and is subject to its own mythologies and misunderstandings. Reporting on Xian Village, right in the center of Guangzhou, I would often hear sort of average office workers or taxi drivers disparage the villagers for their selfishness and greediness. The village stood as a near ruin, and eyesore, even though it was home to still to tens of thousands of rural migrants. And people would say: “You know, those villagers are all millionaires.” What they meant was that the land was worth a great deal of money, and much of its land had been requisitioned by the state for what everyone assumed were enormous sums. On top of this, the local urban villagers could draw income from their rental properties. So what were they complaining about? Why were they marching? Why were they causing trouble?

The reality in many cases is that these villages were constantly subjected to predatory actions by the city government, and in many cases city officials and police were working closely with corrupt village leaders. Even if they fared better than the rural migrant workers who were their tenants, these villagers could be cheated out of their shares of land appropriation fees, and if these raised questions about this could be terrorized by local police, officials and hired thugs. In Xian Village, when it came time to demolish the rental properties, the villagers’ primary source of livelihood, there was no transparency whatsoever about this. The villagers were asked to sign contracts that no one in their right mind would sign, subjugating their personal interests to the greater good to the city (which really meant the corrupt village leader and his allies at the city level).

I never understood the need to minimize the suffering of urban villagers by pretending they were sultans in comparison to struggling migrants. But you often heard this. And I think this arises in part from the political stigmatization of self-interest, which is confused with greed. You can see this stigmatization, again, in the very contract the villagers of Xian Village were asked to sign. I talk about that contract in the book.

CS: You mention in your book the importance of rural smallholdings as a hedge against the uncertainty of urban wage labour for rural migrant labourers. I’ve also read of opposition to reform of the household registration system among such labourers for fear that it will break that important link. Do you have any thoughts (1) on the relative quantitative importance of smallholder farming in the contemporary economy, and (2) on sensible reform measures for the household registration system?

DB: Yes, I think many migrant workers do think of hometown land, including housing plots, as a hedge against uncertainty. But this is because their position in the industrialized economy, and in the city, is so precarious by design. This land isn’t a hedge in the real sense that any sustainable income could probably be derived from it, but only in the sense that it might enable subsistence as the most basic level. In the absence of real and substantive reform that can be explained to rural migrants, I think the fear of change will persist. They see a real risk that they could be deprived of their land without being given commensurate protections, like access to healthcare, pensions and such regardless of geography.

As I said earlier, I don’t think smallholder farming is regarded by anyone as having a viable place in the contemporary economy—though I’m certainly not the expert in this area. In 2013, a reform program promised to promote commercially viable larger-scale agriculture, which would mean consolidation of small plots into bigger farms. Reforms would also make the land in the countryside not being used for agriculture more marketable, like land in the city. So it would be easier to develop. There was also talk of ending the registration, or hukou, system. But these things are easier said than done. Implementation will be a long and testy process.

CS: Finally, I found your book a real page-turner despite its potentially dry subject matter, partly because of the stories of individual people that you capture so beautifully. I was wondering if you have any more recent news about any of them – what became of Lu Suigeng, and of rights defenders like Huang Minpeng and He Jieling?

I’m sorry to say that Lu Suigeng, the former village chief of Xian Village, is still whereabouts unknown, and probably enjoying life under an alias of some sort in a sumptuous residence on Australia’s Gold Coast.

Huang Minpeng is still finding meaning and purpose in a kind of buzzing fly existence as a conscientious protester. The last time I saw him, he showed me a small journal he kept of his complaint calls to the city help hotline. It was filled with entry after entry, all roughly the same, chronicling the phone calls he made on a daily basis to lodge official complaints over his own land case, and over other cases in which he came involved. He told me he understood that the process was fruitless, but that he could drive the authorities to distraction, forcing them constantly to log his complaints, and to issue responses. With all the obsessiveness of a field researcher, he saw it as a kind of documentation of the futility and callousness of the system.

Of cages and hedges

Comments are back on after my return from a brief and computer-less sojourn in the Scottish Highlands. Computer-less, but TV-enabled (the opposite to my usual life on the farm), enabling me to watch endless programs about homesteading in Alaska and, when the mood took me, to keep up with the UK’s fast-developing, eminently predictable and wholly avoidable constitutional crisis over Brexit.

For those with better things to do than following the machinations in Westminster, here’s a quick summary of how Conservative MPs have recently voted.

  • No confidence in Theresa May’s leadership of the party: 117 out of 317
  • No confidence in Theresa May’s Brexit deal with the EU: 118 out of 317
  • Confidence in Theresa May’s government: 317 out of 317

No, me neither. Meanwhile, Small Farm Future has been engaging in arcane voting procedures of its own in relation to the heated issue of which topic to post on next. And the winner (by a crushing margin) is…the unexpurgated version my article ‘Of cages and hedges’ which has recently appeared in The Land Magazine (Issue 24, pp.56-7, since you asked).

After this post, I’ll post my interview with David Bandurski – author of the book Dragons in Diamond Village, on which my article in The Land was based. Then there’ll be radio silence for a while so I can focus on writing my own book. After that I’ll write a post on property, immigration and boundaries. And that’s a promise.

But first, here’s ‘Of Cages and Hedges’:

oOo

The lessons of China’s tumultuous history demand attention from those of us who advocate for more localized, land-based economies as part of the solution to global problems. The only civilization to survive more-or-less intact from antiquity to the present, much of its history was characterized by a relatively stable compact between a property-owning peasantry and an imperial bureaucracy the envy of peasants in other lands[i]. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century ‘modernisation’ sharpened the conflict between social classes, culminating in Mao’s communist revolution and its enforced ‘iron rice bowl’ of rigidly-policed peasant equality and sufficiency. According to political scientist Lynn White, the disasters of Maoist economic policy and political intriguing in the 1950s and 60s created substantial local autonomy – and, more than the top-down reforms of the post-Mao regime, this autonomy fostered a peasant-led, bottom-up economic dynamism that laid the foundations for China’s emergence in recent years as a major global capitalist power[ii].

Land-workers and food sovereignty activists won’t need much convincing that, given the chance, peasants and rural people can create abundant and thriving local economies. But other aspects of China’s rise are more troubling to that narrative. Chen Yun famously described China’s post-Mao economy as a ‘birdcage’, in which the free-flying and prosperity-generating bird of capitalism was kept to its proper bounds by a socialist cage. But the reality is that in modern China the bird has long since flown the cage. This comes as no surprise to Marxists, who’ve always suspected that peasants are really just capitalists or landless wage-workers in disguise. But for agrarian thinkers who want to retain a notion of thriving but stable, non-capitalist rural economies, we somehow need to come up with a better cage.

Another troubling issue is revealed by a look at global farming statistics. Worldwide since 1990, there’s been a decline of 240 million people reported as employed in farming. But looking country-by-country, there’s been an outflow of 448 million people from farming – the majority (311 million) from China, where the proportion of people working in agriculture has declined from 55% in 1991 to 18% in 2017. That implies that there’s been an increase in farm employment elsewhere, and indeed there are 84 countries with a net increase in the number of people in farming totalling 208 million people. The majority of these (161 million) are in sub-Saharan Africa, partly reflecting the strong population growth in that region but also reflecting its poverty[iii]. It’s hard to preach an enticing vision for the peasant way when the majority of people entering it are the poorest on earth, and the majority of people exiting it live in a country that’s hurtling along a capitalist path of self-enrichment.

But a closer look at that capitalist path reveals a more complex story of ‘enrichment’, albeit one that’s familiar in its main details from capitalist paths of enrichment in other times and places. After the rural dynamism mentioned above got the ball rolling, China’s rise as a global economic power was based on export manufacturing industries built on the back of cheap migrant labour from the countryside to urbanizing-industrializing areas. One reason for its cheapness has been China’s household registration system, whereby rural migrants remain classified by their places of origin and are denied access to the superior health, educational, social and fiscal services available to city residents, thereby personally bearing much of the social costs of the industrialization founded in their labour[iv].

More recently, as with other maturing capitalist powers, there’s been a significant shift in Chinese wealth-creation out of industrialization and into financialization – particularly in relation to urban real estate. David Bandurski’s fine book Dragons in Diamond Village traces how this works, mostly via the engaging stories of individual people fighting the corrupt web of city officials, party leaders, village heads and police officers[v]. A distinctive feature of this in urbanizing China that Bandurski analyses in detail is the violent pressure that falls on collectively-held village land as it’s swallowed up by urbanization. These ‘urban villages’ have typically become crowded residential city neighbourhoods housing poor rural migrant labourers – slums in other words – with the original villagers acting as petty landlords under predatory pressure to relinquish their rights to village land and even to their own houses for the purposes of property development or gentrification, with the proceeds pocketed higher up the political food chain.

The plight of the urban villagers may seem a lesser one than that of the rural migrant labour force, and indeed in an interview with me David Bandurski explained that other urban-dwellers were often dismissive of their resistance to state enclosure, assuming that they were doing nicely out of their property rights. But he emphasized the predatory power of the state forces ranged against them, adding “I never understood the need to minimize the suffering of urban villagers by pretending they were sultans in comparison to struggling migrants. But you often heard this. And I think this arises in part from the political stigmatization of self-interest, which is confused with greed.”[vi]

This self-interest/greed nexus is an interesting feature that emerges from the analysis of Chinese capitalism by Bandurski and others. Capitalist development in the west has drawn on powerful but largely fallacious theories that individual self-interest, or even greed, fosters collective wellbeing, stretching right back to Adam Smith’s discussion of the invisible hand of the market in his Wealth of Nations published in 1776. Western capitalist mythology still celebrates the ideology of the little guy, the individual entrepreneur with the great idea, despite the dominance of the actual economy by vast corporate-monopoly enterprises. Bandurski writes contrastingly of China:

“one of the distinguishing features of what has been called “urbanization” in a Chinese context is that the role of the human being is minimized against the backdrop of a larger-than-life vision of the urban. A kind of urban mythology of the city as a place of dynamism and ultimately prosperity. You can see this readily in the propaganda around the city, which emphasizes the modern fabric of the city—the skyscrapers, the monuments, the high-speed rail…on one trip to countryside in Henan I saw how the mosaic scenes outside rural homes had been changed from scenes of nature to scenes of the megacity dominated by an expressway in diminishing perspective running through the center, luxury cars whishing past montages of architecture from Shanghai and Beijing. The caption was always: “Road to Prosperity.” But there were never people in those scenes, any more than in the government’s urban propaganda.”[vii]

Who knows how this will all turn out – but if economist Minqi Li’s analysis is correct, the probable answer is not well. At present, the combination of rising if poorly distributed incomes and the growing authoritarianism of the Xi Jinping regime is keeping the lid on social unrest in China. Bandurski pronounces himself “not very optimistic about the prospects for land rights activism becoming a real political force in China”. Longer-term, though, Li argues that at some point this century China’s dependence on fast economic growth through the terms of trade with its export partners along with its dependence on a prodigious fossil-energy use that’s neither economically nor ecologically sustainable will prompt a major crisis – political, economic and environmental – that will reverberate across China and the rest of the world and probably destroy much of what many people now take for granted about the modern world system[viii].

For westerners like me who’ve grown up in the alternative farming movement, it’s the older pre-revolutionary China that’s loomed largest in our thinking. Books like F.H. King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries emphasized the long-term sustainability of China’s labour-intensive, horticultural civilization, influencing western ecological movements like permaculture[ix]. In permaculture circles I’ve heard the adage repeated more than once that “the Chinese have forgotten more about gardening than the rest of the world ever knew”. But sadly it seems that their forgetting may now have matched our ignorance. In David Bandurski’s uncompromising words:

“One of the most basic things to understand about China’s so-called rural population is its clear and increasing remoteness from agricultural life. The vast majority are not farmers at all. Even one, two and now even three generations back they are not farmers. They have little or probably in most cases no agricultural knowledge.”[x]

It’s hard to derive an optimistic message from the familiar stories here of hard-won agricultural knowledge easily lost, enrichment by enclosure, economic maldistribution, short-term money-making at the cost of long-term crisis, and the elusiveness of a gilded rather than an iron cage to contain the spirits of the market. But China still has more people in farming than most industrialized countries, and a history of wrenching social transformation that may yet surprise the world again. David Bandurski mentions that many among China’s rural-industrial workforce still consider the family smallholding as a hedge against economic insecurity, while adding that, “This land isn’t a hedge in the real sense that any sustainable income could probably be derived from it, but only in the sense that it might enable subsistence at the most basic level.”[xi] The challenge as I see it is that the world at large urgently needs to improve its hedges – which may not sound like the right conclusion in view of what we know about the enclosure of the commons, though personally I’m convinced that well-hedged (in every sense) private smallholdings of the kind pioneered long ago in China can still offer one of the more persuasive roadmaps out of the present morass.

 

[i] Eric Wolf. 1969. Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. Harper & Row.

[ii] Lynn White. 2018. Rural Roots of Reform Before China’s Conservative Change. Routledge.

[iii] Figures in this paragraph calculated from World Development Indicators: http://databank.worldbank.org/data/reports.aspx?source=world-development-indicators

[iv] Hsiao-Hung Pai. 2013. Scattered Sand: The Story of China’s Rural Migrants. Verso.

[v] David Bandurski. 2016. Dragons in Diamond Village: Tales of Resistance from Urbanizing China. Melville House.

[vi] David Bandurski, personal communication.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Minqi Li. 2016. China and the 21st Century Crisis. Pluto.

[ix] F.H. King. 1911. Farmers of Forty Centuries: Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan. Rodale.

[x] Bandurski, personal communication.

[xi] Ibid.

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