A small farm future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Covid-19 economics: beyond austerity and debt-finance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wang Xiuying writes,

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

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

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

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

Shaohua Zhan writes:

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


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

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

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

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


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

From energy transition to energy reduction

With the wholesale price for US crude oil famously, if briefly, turning negative recently, and – slightly less famously – with commenters in a thread under my last post suggesting that it’s technically straightforward to transition the existing energy system largely to renewables, it feels the time is right to address some post-lockdown and post-carbon energy realities. Let me state my three-part thesis upfront:

  1. It is not going to be easy technically or in any other way to transition the existing energy system to a low carbon one
  2. This means there will be profound changes in human societies over the coming decades
  3. It serves no sound purpose to dismiss the implications of (1) and (2) as ‘apocalyptic’

A recent paper published in Nature Climate Change and reported here seems corroboratory of my thesis in concluding that “merely adding new technologies is unlikely to bring the climate challenge under control, unless we also deliver behavioural, cultural and economic transformations” and that “technological promises allow those benefitting from the continued exploitation of fossil fuels and the comfortable lifestyles it enables to justify those practices to themselves”.

But let’s get going with a few facts and figures. Cautious estimates like those of the IPCC suggest that we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by about half within a decade and to net zero by 2050 if we’re to avoid global average temperature increases in excess of 2oC over preindustrial levels at century’s end, at which point the consequences of global heating are likely to be severely detrimental to human wellbeing (and the wellbeing of many other organisms).

GHG emissions are mostly caused by the combustion of fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal), so a key necessity for climate change mitigation is to transition the global energy economy out of fossil fuels. And the fact is, this hasn’t yet begun to happen. Globally in 1965, we consumed energy to the tune of 3,485 million tonnes of oil equivalent (TOE) from fossil fuels. By 2018 that figure had leapt to over 11,700 million TOE. And we can’t blame all this on population increase. In 1965, global fossil fuel use was 1.05 TOE per capita, whereas in 2018 it was 1.55.

These figures show that, far from a transition out of fossil fuels, our use of them has been amplifying. True, our use of lower carbon energy sources has increased at a faster rate than fossil fuels, to the extent that in 2018 the proportion of global energy consumption contributed by fossil fuels was ‘only’ 85%, whereas in 1965 it was 94%. But since we need to be sharply reducing fossil fuel use rather than increasing it, as at present, this is cold comfort. And most of the low carbon energy sources we’ve added since 1965 have been high-cost nuclear and hydroelectric projects with questionable environmental implications and limited potential for roll-out beyond a handful of countries. Only 4% of current global energy consumption comes from sources other than nuclear, hydro or fossil fuels.

This picture is set to change dramatically in the short-term with the Covid-19 crisis. Plummeting energy demand has hit the fossil energy sector disproportionately, which I’d suggest is partly because fossil fuels disproportionately service the non-electricity sector, and partly because once renewable capacity is installed the sun, wind and water that powers it cost nothing. But it would be misleading to conclude that the Covid-19 crisis is fostering an energy transition. If and when normal activity returns, so will fossil fuel use. Some people are saying that the fossil energy downturn we’re currently seeing due to Covid-19 could become the new normal. To me, that seems fanciful unless the new normal also encompasses the end of economic growth, the end of urbanization and the end of intensifying global economic linkage – and even then it may not be enough to reduce GHG emissions adequately. I’ll touch on those issues some more below, and in my next post, I hope. In the meantime, I’d suggest the present short-run decline in fossil energy use does not a renewable energy transition make.

Maybe not, the argument sometimes goes, but why look downheartedly backwards at how the energy economy has unfolded up to now when, Covid-19 or not, there are reasons to look optimistically forwards towards an impending energy transition? I guess I’d find it easier to endorse this view if there was actually any evidence that one is underway – though bearing in mind that we probably need to cut emissions in half within ten years, it’s quite possible that an energy transition that starts today is still going to be too late. I’m also mindful of Professor McLaren’s view in the Nature Climate Change article I mentioned: all this heralding of game-changing technologies that are just around the corner may amount to little more than greenwashing of current high energy lifestyles.

But let’s try to get a bit more of a handle on the energy transition that’s needed. Take a look at this table:


Year – 2018 GDP/capita (US$) Fossil energy consumption (TOE per capita) % Energy consumption from fossil fuels
USA 62,790 5.94 84
Australia 57,400 5.33 92
Canada 46,230 6.04 65
UK 42,940 2.29 79
Malaysia 11,370 2.97 94
China 9,770 2.00 85
South Africa 6,370 2.01 96
Indonesia 3,890 0.67 96
Vietnam 2,570 0.71 79
India 2,010 0.55 92
Bangladesh 1,700 0.22 99
World 11,310 1.55 85

Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019 and World Development Indicators

Most of the heralding for an energy transition I encounter comes in the form of small-to-medium scale investment in new electricity capacity in rich countries, where for a whole host of reasons the smart investment money undoubtedly is in renewables. And don’t get me wrong – I largely welcome such moves. I’ve even moved there myself, with my farm’s electricity, space, water-heating and (shortly) some of its transport running off renewables. But to make a convincing argument that we’re on the brink of a sustainable energy transition, small-scale electricity investment in rich countries is irrelevant. Instead, you need to put yourself in the shoes of the government in South Africa, or Bangladesh, or Indonesia, or various other global powerhouses of economic growth and industrialization shown in the table above, and then explain how they’re going to junk most of their energy sectors over the next decade or two and substitute the same level of energy capacity from low carbon sources. You need to explain how they’ll prematurely decommission their fossil energy infrastructures and create new ones affordably with per capita GDPs somewhere between about a sixth and a fortieth of US levels. And you need to explain why they’d be willing to sign up to this transition, when much richer countries are using proportionately far more fossil energy while failing to transition themselves.

There are levels and levels here that make the prospects for such a transition profoundly slim. Close connections between governments and the fossil energy industry varying from institutional inertia through to outright graft rightly gain attention from environmentalists, but are only the most superficial problem – though, even so, we seem to keep electing governments like the Trump administration or the Conservatives in the UK with absurdly pro-fossil fuel policies. The global inequities I mentioned that make it unlikely poorer countries will transition is another major problem. But even with the will, the sheer difficulty of transitioning an entire national and international economy and its infrastructure is formidable. If you’re looking to install a few megawatts of new electricity capacity, renewables may well be the cheapest route. It doesn’t follow that junking our global 11.7 billion TOE fossil energy capacity in favour of renewables is likewise cheaper.

We easily fall into the trap of saying that the obstacles to transition are ‘only’ political, and not technical. We might just as well say that the feasibility of transitioning is ‘only’ technical, but not practical – because not political. But I’m not even sure that a transition is technically feasible. Take solar electricity generation, which is widely touted as the best renewable option. To cut fossil fuel use by half globally in the next decade in favour of solar electricity, we’d have to increase global consumption of the latter from present levels forty-four fold in those ten years. To be persuaded that such a transition is even technically possible, I’d need to see some kind of plausibly costed manufacturing, siting and implementation plan, not generalities about how we’re on the brink of an energy revolution, or about how the marginal cost of installing small new renewable capacity is lower than for fossil fuels.

Likewise, to make a plausible case that a business-as-usual global economy can be sustained by renewables, it’s necessary to show not that it’s possible to smelt iron or manufacture fertilizer with renewable energy (it is) but that it’s possible to produce the 1.3 billion tonnes of steel or 120 million tonnes of N fertilizer manufactured annually at something like present prices, along with the numerous other products that currently make the (human) world go round as it does.

Of course, there’s a logical flaw in my statement above that to cut fossil fuels by half we’d need to install an equivalent amount of solar capacity. Instead, we could cut fossil fuels by half and not replace them with anything. Once we start thinking in terms of decreasing energy use, a new world of possibilities opens up. This, far more than any low carbon energy source du jour, is surely the real game changer.

So, looking again at the table above, let’s forget the 6.0 TOE of fossil energy used by each Canadian resident, or the 2.3 used by each UK one, or the 2.0 by each Chinese one or the 1.55 used by the ‘average’ citizen of the world. Let’s aim for something lower – very much lower, in the case of some countries. Can we achieve it just through efficiency savings? If so, please show me how. Because really I think the debate we need to be having, which is badly overdue, is what kind of different world a low energy world would look like. What kind of farming would we have? What kind of industry? What kind of health and social care? What kind of settlement patterns?

I’m not going to get into that here. I’ve written about it before, I’ve written about it in my forthcoming book, and hopefully I’ll write about it again. My view is that if we play a skillful hand, that kind of world could be more congenial for more people than the present one. And of course, the technical difficulties of using less energy are slighter than those of replacing fossil energy with renewables. The political difficulties remain profound. So that’s where we need to concentrate most of our efforts, not in dreaming up implausible scenarios for how to replace 11.7 billion TOE fossil fuel consumption with low carbon alternatives. The political difficulties of energy descent are much lessened globally if the small number of rich and powerful countries that use way above their share of fossil fuels become demonstrably committed to rapid energy descent. Which puts considerable onus politically on those of us who live in such countries.

Regrettably, I’m doubtful that we’ll actually see such an energy descent. I daresay there’ll be some fiddling around the edges, which might put us a bit lower than the 3.7-4.8oC heating over preindustrial temperatures by century’s end that we’re currently headed towards, but I’m not convinced it’ll be by enough to avoid apocalyptic outcomes. And I’d suggest that anyone who scorns the word ‘apocalyptic’ to describe 3.7-4.8oC heating probably isn’t paying attention.

But supposing we do achieve adequate energy descent. Doubtless there’ll be those who’ll consider the resulting world of labour-intensive horticulture, localized economies, ruralization and deindustrialization apocalyptic, or some variant of those other shopworn standbys – romantic, nostalgic or primitivist. But in all honesty I think it’s these folks who are living in the past. This is the world we now need to work towards, and to make as congenial as we can. It’s not a world with no industry or no machinery. Techno-utopians tend to pose dualities of the form if not a John Deere X9, then a stone sickle. This isn’t the choice we face. But we do face hard choices, and they won’t get easier if we waste time heralding the latest save-our-ass technology and deriding those working towards an adequately low energy future for their apocalypticism.

Earlier, I said that I largely welcome efforts to transition into renewables. I also said that we need to put most of our efforts into the politics of that transition, and to initiate an overdue debate about the kind of lower energy worlds we might create. Here’s why. Inasmuch as those working directly on implementing low carbon energy technologies pull in the same direction as those working politically to create more equitable, lower energy societies, then we gain strength from each other and make a fair and sustainable world more likely. Inasmuch as those working directly on implementing low carbon energy technologies prioritize replacing the existing fossil energy infrastructure with an equivalent low carbon one, then our efforts will probably be mutually undermining. My request to those working in the renewable energy industry is to ask themselves before undertaking any new project: “Will this help people to live a lower energy lifestyle than they previously did?” – which, regrettably, is not something we can say of the low carbon energy installed globally to date. If they can’t answer yes to the question, I’d request they dump the project and seek another one. It’s urgent.

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.



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.


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.


  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.


  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.


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.