An alternative agriculturist’s guide to science

To begin, just a heads up on a couple of new things on the site. First, I’ve posted on the My Book page advanced comments about my forthcoming book that have come in from a number of interesting thinkers. It’s nice to get such positive notices. Currently, I’m pretty busy gearing up for the book launch on 15 October (21 October in the USA) and I’ll be devoting some blog posts to the book thereafter.

Also, an interesting comment has come in concerning my house rules on the About page, to which I replied here. I don’t promise to debate my rules with all comers, but I think the issues in this instance are thought-provoking, so I (cautiously) welcome further comments.

And now to work with a few thoughts on science and alternative agriculture, inspired partly by this article and partly by the themes explored in Chapter 16 of my book (“From religion to science (and back)”). I’m not going to engage systematically with either source, but instead just use them as points of departure for a few remarks concerning the need as I see it for many of us in the alternative agriculture movement to develop a more nuanced approach to science.

Let me start by invoking a distinction I made some time ago between what I call ‘science’ and ‘SCIENCE’. Lowercase ‘science’ is the everyday, generally unglamorous work that scientists do in laboratories, field study sites and the like, where they use carefully-formulated techniques to tease out the relationships between entities in the biophysical world. A vital aspect of ‘science’ in this sense is that the people engaged in it – almost uniquely in human discourse – have developed rigorous procedures for conceding when they’ve got things wrong and the evidence doesn’t support their contentions. Science involves rigorously self-critical scrutiny. There are arguments about the wider philosophical commitments involved in doing science of this sort, but for my part I have very little quarrel with ‘science’ as I’ve described it here – if you want to figure out what’s going on in the biophysical world, it’s pretty much the only game in town.

By the way, you don’t really need to be a scientist to do science. A lot of growers and farmers do ‘scientific’ experiments all the time. Being amateurs, farmers usually lack both the resources and the expertise to do science of sufficient rigour to meet the quality criteria necessary to contribute to the professional scientific record, but we can still usefully inform our practice with some rudimentary knowledge of scientific methods and a healthy dose of self-critical scepticism.

It’s this self-critical scepticism that’s missing from the other kind of science, which I call uppercase SCIENCE. SCIENCE is a political claim that the human world should be organized in a particular way on the basis of ‘scientific principles’ or what ‘the science’ tells us to do, or other formulations of that sort (some people call this scientism). It’s in play when, for example, someone counterposes ‘scientific’ agriculture (good) with peasant agriculture (bad). SCIENCE isn’t really about science and can claim little or no warrant from the work that scientists do. Sometimes advocates of SCIENCE are scientists (who, after all, are only human) but its loudest advocates are often non-scientists wishing to invest their beliefs with a patina of authority.

Indeed, SCIENCE has a strong hold on our imaginations because science has been spectacularly successful in comprehending and intervening in the biophysical world. So it’s not surprising people want to warrant their social or political beliefs in its name. But you might as well claim a warrant from God, for whom in fact SCIENCE is a modern substitute. The reason that science has been so successful is precisely because it isn’t SCIENCE.

It would be easy to detail the many ways in which scientific work has too easily become a stooge of large-scale, corporate-dominated SCIENTIFIC agriculture in the modern world, and on these points I largely agree with the article I linked above. But I’d like to look at the flipside of this in alternative agriculture, which I’d argue stalks this passage in the same piece:

It is ironic that would-be scientists insist on seeing new discoveries and work printed in peer-review literature because they really have no understanding what they are asking. Pioneers have no peers and certainly no peer publications to publish their work. When Bruno suggested that the earth revolved around the sun, he was put to death by his peers. Galileo was threatened with torture by his peers for suggesting the same thing.  …. Peer review is actually political review, designed to determine whether the work alienates the monopoly…Are non-astronauts peers of astronauts? Are non-presidents peers of presidents? Are non-pioneers peers of pioneers? I say. No. Pioneers have no peers except other pioneers. The emphasis on peer review should be secondary to results in the field. It is in the field that farmers, gardeners, and landscape “doctors” are either made or broken.

The only part of this passage I really agree with is the last sentence. Like shopkeepers, farmers have no fundamental need for scientific evaluation of their practice because the criteria for judging results in the field (or the shop) rest in their own hands. Unlike the work that scientists do that absolutely requires external validation (let’s call it peer review), the only validation a gardener or a farmer really needs is their own – “this works for me” (hence the usefulness of farmers being their own scientists to check as best they can that it does actually work for them).

So why might farmers seek scientific evaluation of their practice? Undoubtedly, often for a number of good reasons, but also sometimes I think for a less good one – they want it validated by something with a powerful social cachet. The problem is, as soon as they look to science for validation of their practice rather than as a means for self-critical engagement with it, they’re doing SCIENCE, not science. And, all too often, such SCIENCE works as a thoroughly unscientific social status claim – follow what I do and don’t question it, because my work has been proven to be SCIENTIFIC.

I’ll concede that there’s quite a lot of this SCIENCE in the world of professional science, though the institutional practice of science as self-critical inquiry usually ferrets it out in the end. But what I want to warn against here is the dangers of succumbing to the siren song of SCIENCE in the world of alternative agriculture. I’m not going to name names or give specific examples. I’ve done it in the past, and I don’t want to rake over old antagonisms again. Instead, I offer this five-point checklist that I hope might help alternative agriculturists avoid the temptations of doing SCIENCE rather than science. And, just to be clear, yes I need to learn from it myself.

  1. Welcome nay-sayers. Nay-saying is why science has achieved so much. You think outcome x results from practice y? Great, but perhaps you’re wrong and somebody who’s questioning you might put you on a better track. There’s no need to be browbeaten off your chosen path by nay-sayers, but every reason to listen and maybe learn from them instead of simply nay-saying their nay-saying. Nay-saying can be beautiful!
  2. A complex, real-world practice like farming or gardening involves innumerable variables that are extremely difficult, costly and time-consuming to tie down scientifically. And there are places where science can’t really go, at least not yet. So it’s OK to farm by hunches and intuitive results. A lack of scientific warrant for your practice doesn’t necessarily mean it has no virtue. But it might mean it has less virtue than you thought, and it’s as well to be alive to that.
  3. Farming can be context-specific. Person A seeking farm outcome B in place C might hit upon some novel and elegant solution D which they believe should be practiced more widely. However, if person E seeking farm outcome B or similar in place G implements solution D on the basis of a superficial applicability, there’s a good chance it won’t work out so well. In these circumstances, it’s tempting for person A or their followers to fault person E, but that’s probably not the first place to look in order to understand where things went wrong.
  4. Please don’t, just don’t, compare yourself to Galileo and berate others for ignoring your peerless originality. It’s true that the institutional structures of scientific validation are conservative, and a downside of this is that false negatives do occur, with the odd Galileo slipping through the net and failing to get the hearing they deserve. Regrettably, though, there are many, many more people who consider themselves to be latter-day Galileos but, um – how can I put this delicately? – actually aren’t, and an upside of scientific discourse is that it filters out most of these false Galileos and saves the rest of us a lot of time.
  5. To put this another way, there’s an enormous danger of hubris in considering oneself a pioneer whose only peers are other pioneers. If you consider yourself to be pioneering new ways of farming or gardening, I’d suggest that your peers are neither other pioneers nor scientists but ordinary, common or garden farmers and gardeners like me, along with innovators of the past who slowly worked out the tried-and-tested methods we’ve inherited. If you’re truly onto something that they can’t appreciate, well, too bad for them. The world will probably catch up eventually – as when the Vatican finally admitted that Galileo was right in, er, 1992. So I’d urge you to do your pioneering with humility and a measure of self-doubt, using the scepticism of others to inform further reflection and improvement. If you can do this, then, truly, you’re a scientist, whether or not you have the PhD to prove it. And this is a rare and precious thing. SCIENTISTS, on the other hand, are ten a penny.

Finally, despite directing my comments here towards alternative agriculture, let me concede that they apply all the more forcefully to mainstream agricultural discourse and its numerous idols of the moment – vertical farming, industrial eco-gloop and so on. False Galileos are everywhere.

Outside the hive

Richard Powers’ The Overstory is a big novel of ideas about humans and the natural world that will keep me thinking long after turning the final page. Here I just want to pick up on one among many of its themes and offer a few brief reflections on it, perhaps as the final curtain to the present trio of posts on collapse.

In response to an episode of (male) violence between strangers, followed by a linked episode of (male) domestic violence, Powers puts this thought into the mind of one of his protagonists: “Humankind is deeply ill. The species won’t last long. It was an aberrant experiment. Soon the world will be returned to the healthy intelligences, the collective ones. Colonies and hives.”

Reviewing the book in The Guardian, Benjamin Markovits wrote “It’s hard not to feel that something slightly antihuman has crept into the philosophy”. Maybe the quotation above is a case in point (and there’s much else in the book that one could use to prosecute Markovits’ view).

But I’d like to press a different line of reasoning. Is humankind deeply ill? I’m not sure that’s so when we think about our species as an aggregate of its individuals. Certainly, there are some ill or alienated people among us who cause a lot of damage. But maybe that’s true of other species. In one study of a seagull colony, almost one in four chicks were eaten by adult birds, the majority by just four individual gulls – one of whom ate his own offspring while allowing a chick he’d stolen and brought back to his nest to survive. Seabird colonies seem rather like human slums, with the majority flocking together because that’s what they need to do to get by, but thereby making themselves vulnerable to predatory violence.

Maybe we’ll get somewhere different if we think about illness at the collective level. The constant refrain of cultural critics down the ages is that present society has lapsed into a sick, decadent or fallen state. And the pushback is often something along the lines of Markovits – that this is an anti-human, or misanthropic or elitist position that maligns the ordinary struggles of everyday people. This kind of trick is often pulled by ‘eco-modernists’ and other peddlers of business-as-usual porn – that theirs is the pro-human position, while any wider cultural critique is mere nihilism or misanthropy. However, the point of cultural critique isn’t to wallow in nihilism, but to diagnose the source of the malaise in order to improve the human condition. So, for me, to talk of humanity’s deep illness isn’t necessarily anti-human. I read the line in Powers’ novel as an invitation to human improvement. And an urgent one, as earth systems collapse around us, threatening our own wellbeing and that of other species.

Yet when I think about how to overcome that human illness and the perturbation in earth systems that it’s causing, I come to a different endpoint to Powers’ character on the matter of healthy intelligences. Because it strikes me that the malaise lies precisely in the way that we have made ourselves over into a hive culture.

The collective intelligence of humanity is that of the social ape, not the hive insect. Maybe the life history that most fits us to thrive is creating our livelihoods as competent, generalist individuals working within small collectivities – families, bands, settlements. Those in turn may be part of larger culture areas, with shared languages and cosmologies and their own inherent ideological tensions, but the arrow of life’s activities is directed at the local specifics of wresting a personal livelihood alongside others in the community.

Yet when I think about modern life, the metaphor of the hive of social insects presents itself. I don’t want to over-press it, because clearly there are differences and the mechanisms aren’t the same. But we’ve created a world with a ruling caste of queens and drones who determine the parameters of our hive, and a multitude of dependent workers who enact it, who are unable to exist independently of it, but who derive small individual benefit from it beyond the fact they no longer have the capacity to exist outside it. Among the social insects, and particularly among the worker majority, that patterning so far as we know seems to create no tension because, genetically and biologically, that’s what they’re built to act out. But it’s not entirely what humans are built to act out, and it strikes me that a lot of our illness (metaphorical and probably actual) – so much frustrated desire, so much ressentiment – may stem from this mismatch between what we’re built to do and what we actually do. Inasmuch as humankind is ill, maybe it’s because we’ve tried to fit ourselves into a collective intelligence, into a hive mind, where we scarcely belong.

Perhaps this too is why so much of the wider biological world has become ill as a result of the human hive. Powers recognizes this elsewhere in his novel: “That’s the scary thing about men: get a few together with some simple machines, and they’ll move the world.” When I lived for a time in the rainforests of British Columbia I was struck by how much of their old growth extent had been levelled by people with fairly rudimentary technologies by today’s standards – manual saws, winches, logging roads – long before the industrialized destruction of chainsaws, forwarders and feller-bunchers had been invented. The secret of that destruction was human social organization, not technological development, and the secret of the social organization was preventing people from making a competent personal livelihood in their own backyards. The militarized, masculine, hive discipline of the logging camp and its analogues is a not a healthy intelligence for humankind.

Again, the pushback against such views always addresses the benefits that humankind has brought to itself through its vast collective organization – modern health and wealth, the plethora of consumer goods on which our contemporary culture dotes, and all the rest of it. But I think we need to stop looking at ourselves in the mirror of the past and liking what we see so much, instead addressing the dramatically dangerous trade-offs that our modern hive intelligence poses for us in the here and now. More importantly, I think we need to address the possibility that a world of human autonomy outside the hive might suit us better.

I was struck by this when I read Maarten Boudry’s response to the critique of his anti-localism article that I published in my last post. Boudry wrote,

“Now of course you can try to satisfy consumer demand in radically different ways (e.g. artificial meat), but you can’t just IGNORE the demand. I get the distinct impression that, in @csmaje’s ideal future, we won’t be able to choose what to eat, nor where to live.”

It surprises me to read such dismissiveness about a supposed future where “we won’t be able to choose what to eat, nor where to live” when so few of “us” in the present world have such choices. But, more importantly, Boudry seems to be assuming that consumer demand is something that just bubbles up sui generis, with economic systems arising to meet it and thereby making “us” happy. I struggle to see this as much more than a delusion from a limited vantage point within the capitalist hive – one that insists we must admire only the intricate architecture within, rather than looking at the bigger world outside, and its universe of different possibilities.

In my forthcoming book, I provide a somewhat less admiring appraisal of the capitalist hive, and an alternative narrative about the search for human self-possession and autonomy that might make us seek a different habitat from choice as much as necessity. So I reject Boudry’s implication that I seek to coerce people into my ‘utopia’ (oh well, at least he didn’t mention the Khmer Rouge). I think people can easily find fulfilling localisms for themselves, given the opportunity. Nor, I suspect, will consumer demand lead in the future quite where Boudry thinks. The two main businesses in which I have some involvement – a small, local market garden and a small campsite – have been inundated with customers since the Covid-19 outbreak as a result of the fracturing of the larger economic structures it caused. In the short-term, that fracturing may or may not diminish, but in the long-term I think it will prove the merest tremor to the changes that are afoot. ‘Consumer demand’ will follow.

For these reasons, I think I absolutely can ignore consumer demand in its present incarnation. Instead, let me herald producer demand. Let everyone occupy their 1.6 acre share of global farmland, then raise as much (non-artificial) livestock for meat as they possibly can, should they wish. It’ll turn out to furnish them with much less meat than the average North American or Western European currently eats, but the living animals will do a lot of other useful work on the farm. And I’m not sure the producers will be significantly less happy than the average consumer in today’s world. The difficulty is the transition from today’s consumerism to that future producerism, not the lure of the producerist endpoint.

The journalist Rafael Behr writes in a different (but related context):

“People are perfectly able to understand the concept of a painful trade-off because they occur in life all the time. All but the most privileged minority are forced to choose between what they want and what they can afford. All but the most selfish among us understands the need sometimes to suppress selfish impulses in favour of duty towards others. There are only a few who find that concept challenging.”

I might go further and argue that accepting painful trade-offs can make us happy, and part of our contemporary illness is in supposing otherwise – often at the behest of the few who think that selfish impulses lead to collective benefit (there’s a whole sub-theme here on virtue versus vice as the motive force of collective intelligence that we could pursue through intellectual history from Bernard Mandeville to E.O. Wilson – but let’s leave that for another day).

Boudry calls future producerist visions of the future such as mine a ‘pipedream’. He’s probably right. As I see it, every positive vision of the future now is more or less a pipedream, certainly including his notion that we should “retreat to a smaller area and “decouple” from the landscape, so that we can give as much land as possible back to nature”. All I’ll say here is that there are increasing numbers of people who have started to look outside the hive and find pipedreams like mine more appealing than pipedreams like Boudry’s. This is just as well, because I think the future is more likely to look like my pipedream than his.

Well, perhaps I’ll say just one more thing. There’s a gender dimension to this discussion that I haven’t highlighted, but I think is interesting. The violence investing the moments of Richard Powers’ novel was male, and so perhaps is the violence that’s invested the construction of our contemporary human hive. Powers’ ‘healthy, collective intelligences’ of colonies and hives, on the other hand… Well, it’s only a thought.

A small farm future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collapse: a helpful guide for the perplexed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of them cups her ear.

“Nah, can’t hear anything,” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

An environmentalist apologises…

Various half-written blog posts litter the Small Farm Future office, but let’s go with the news cycle and address the kerfuffle surrounding an old acquaintance of this site, Michael Shellenberger, who’s just published a new book, Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All. If nothing else, it’ll help prepare the way for my next couple of posts.

More than the book, the kerfuffle has surrounded an article heralding it that Mike published in Forbes in which he reportedly said “I feel an obligation to apologize for how badly we environmentalists have misled the public” and “I would like to formally apologize for the climate scare we created over the last 30 years.” I say ‘reportedly’ because Forbes pulled the article on the grounds that it violated their editorial guidelines around self-promotion, so I only have reports from such bastions of unmotivated journalism as this one to go on, though I daresay the article’s out there somewhere for those who care to look. Ah, here it is. No, wait. Oh, here.

Probably the most important keywords for unlocking Mike’s approach to be culled from my opening paragraphs are ‘kerfuffle’, ‘environmentalist’ and ‘self-promotion’ for reasons I’ll come to, and that are captured in this fine post from some time ago by David Roberts that I found only recently. In that article, Roberts explains why it’s so easy to end up feeling sullied when you try to push back against the use and abuse of evidence by Shellenberger and other luminaries of his ‘ecomodernist’ project. A few things clicked into place for me when I read Roberts’ article. And yet here I am, riding the douchecanoe again…

Luckily, Sam Bliss has donned his overalls and boldly set himself to the push back task in this excellent thread on Twitter, which points up some of the numerous rhetorical sleights of environmental complacency in the ecomodernist armoury fully displayed in Mike’s piece – the untruths, half-truths, and over-confident predictions, the truths that are misleading because of their lack of context and the banalities that have no meaning at all like “wood fuel is far worse for people and wildlife than fossil fuels”. Sam’s takedown is based on Mike’s promo piece – he comments “if Shellenberger’s bullets were meant to spark our interest in the book, it worked on me. I am curious to see how he defends such indefensible statements!”

Well, likewise, I guess. Just as soon as I can get hold of a used copy. Meanwhile, even some of Mike’s erstwhile associates seem to be dissociating themselves from him as a result of those indefensible statements. Mike says that his ‘facts’ might sound like climate denialism, “But that just shows the power of climate alarmism”. A parallel that springs to mind is how a lot of the things Donald Trump says sound like racism, while others argue that just shows the power of liberal political correctness. To me they sound racist because, well, they are quite racist – though usually sufficiently ambiguous to be arguable.

Arguable. Now there’s a word. With Shellenberger as with Trump, you get the sense that there’s a deliberate strategy to get people arguing. Not debating big issues. Just arguing. Both men love to pick fights with whoever they can. Hell, Mike even picked a fight with me. In both cases, I think it’s partly because they like getting attention. In fact, as David Roberts pointed out in the post I linked above, in this world of media attention peddling, Shellenberger and his Breakthrough Institute co-founder Ted Nordhaus made their renegade environmentalist shtick a winning publicity strategy:

nothing, but nothing, draws media interest like liberals bashing liberals. They enjoy conservatives punching hippies. They dig centrists punching hippies. But they looove ex-hippies punching hippies. A pair of greenies bravely exposing the corruption and dumbassery of all the other greenies? Crack rock.

One of the problems with this strategy, you’d think, is that it’s time limited. You can only punch hippies for so long before people realise that you’re not actually a hippy, even if you once were. Unfortunately, ‘environmentalist’ is a much more protean label than ‘hippy’. We all care about the environment, right? We all like walking in the woods. Nobody wants polar bears to die out. And so on.

So the argument becomes one about the means of achieving these widely shared goals of a liveable climate, wild biodiversity and so on. Perhaps it’s then worth looking at how one’s messaging is received and interpreted. Here are a few below-the-line comments from the Breitbart report on Mike’s apology:

“Confirmation that climate change is a massive fraud-and-fail scheme. Shows just how far the leftists will go to gain control and power”

“I want my 11 years of carbon tax back.. I want earnings seized from Al Gore, David Suzuki, Greenpeace, WWF, Climate Action.. All the thieving Greenie bastards, who have driven the up cost of Everything for the past decades.. Jail the crooks.”

“Great scam for Globalist [sic] while it lasted”

“I hope millions go to Greta’s twitter page with links to the article. Make that snot-nosed twit squirm…”

“Man sets house on fire and finally admits his guilt. Too late mate the buildings just a big pile of rubble now”

 

So, on the basis of the narratives that Mike is feeding, it seems to me a stretch for him to claim he’s an environmentalist (if he ever was), or that he’s not (to use his own vocabulary) a climate change denier. And yet his fellow travellers still won’t accept him.

With Donald Trump, you get the feeling that, as well as feeding the ego, all the sound and fury of his words is designed to create smokescreens that enable other things to get done behind the scenes. You wonder whether it’s the same with Mike Shellenberger, but it’s harder to figure out what those things might be. There are those who argue that he’s a nuclear industry shill, something on which I couldn’t possibly comment – though if he is, it seems a bit strange for him to be downplaying climate change so egregiously. My hunch is that the main hidden interest that Mike Shellenberger is promoting is…Mike Shellenberger. Every age throws up unscrupulous hucksters who cash in on other people’s fears and gullibility. The interesting questions revolve not so much around the motivations of the huckster as the social conditions and cultural tensions that make their huckstering possible. This is something I hope to address in my next post.

Thinkers of integrity do change their minds – the sign of the huckster is when they signal their change of mind with portentous apologies, self-publicising recantations and public curation of their good-guy credentials (“At 23 I raised money for Guatemalan women’s cooperatives”). Sadly, there’s all too much of this among renegade environmentalists, and there’s all too much of it in Mike’s oeuvre. Maybe an upside of his latest turn is that it seems like a defensive response to surging public concern about climate change that ill suits the technocratic, light-touch-on-the-tiller position where he’s planted his flag. He says he felt compelled to speak out when, last year, “things spiraled out of control” – in other words, when public concern about climate change finally started rising to meet the levels of threat it poses. Thank goodness for that spiral. But with Apocalypse Never riding high in the bestseller lists, I fear it may still be one that proves too long and winding.

So I want to close by addressing Mike’s apology on behalf of environmentalists. Normal social conventions are such that you really can’t apologise on behalf of other people without their consent, especially when you have no allegiance to them. Mike apologising on behalf of all environmentalists for climate alarmism is a bit like me apologising on behalf of all Minneapolis police officers for brutality. It might be welcome in some quarters, but I just can’t do it without the consent of my fellow officers – especially when I am not, in fact, a Minneapolis police officer.

But while normal social conventions forbid apologising on behalf of unknown others without their consent, they don’t forbid apologising to unknown others. So I’d like to offer this apology on behalf of all of myself to present and future generations:

When I came to appreciate the course the civilization I was a part of was taking and the consequences it would have for future generations in relation to climate change and other critical problems, I tried to do a few things to help change its course. I apologise that I wasn’t clever enough, courageous enough, wily enough, media savvy enough, wise enough, dedicated enough or hardworking enough to have done more and to have made enough of a difference. I apologise for my part in a civilization that made Apocalypse Never a bestseller. I hope that you will have both the capacity inherited from my generation and a fortitude of your own to learn from my failings, and to build a better civilization over the ashes of mine.

Why oil didn’t save the whales – and why it matters

A widely aired talking point among those who believe that new technological developments are the key to solving our environmental problems is that “oil saved the whales”. In this view, the emergence of petroleum products in the mid-19th century undercut the price of whale oil, prompting the decline of the whaling industry and thus reprieve for the giants of the deep from being hunted to extinction. But “oil saved the whales” isn’t usually a claim about the past so much as one about the future: the seemingly intractable problems of resource over-exploitation that trouble us today will be solved by new technologies, just as the over-exploitation of whales was solved in the past.

It’s a cute argument. But unfortunately its historical claims are blatantly false – and this calls into question its claims for the future. Far from saving the whales, it was oil that nearly obliterated them, and may yet still do so. The real lessons to be drawn from the history of whaling are more interesting and more complex than the oil salvation narrative. By laying them out here, I hope I might help draw attention to better means for tackling present problems than the one suggested by the oil salvation story.

But let’s first delve briefly into some facts and figures to explore that story. I’m hoping to do this in more depth at some point, but for present purposes we can get quite a long way just by looking at this single graph of the global sperm whale catch from 1800-1980 derived from a paper by Merrill Gosho and colleagues1 (the figures are given as ten-year aggregates).

In the first half of the 19th century the sperm whale was the premier species sought by whalers, mostly US-based, for its oil – much of it used in lamps. What gets the oil-salvationists excited is the dip you see in the graph around 1850, which was around the time that kerosene lamp-oil became available – an innovation that this oil salvation narrative personalizes in the name of Abraham Gesner, who formed the Kerosene Gaslight Company in 1850. Whether the dip really was caused just by the advent of kerosene is debatable. There were various other factors in play, including the depletion of sperm whales in existing whaling grounds. But it seems plausible that kerosene did play some role.

The real problem for the oil salvation narrative comes when you cast your eyes rightwards along the graph at the 20th century sperm whale catch. If we start in 1950, a century after Gesner’s supposedly game-changing invention, over 8,000 sperm whales were taken that year, more than three times as many as in 1850. In fact, more sperm whales were taken in the single decade of the 1950s than in the entire heyday of the sperm whale industry from 1800-1850.

It gets worse if we look at other whale species. Barely any of the fast and elusive rorqual species like blue whales were taken before the late 19th century, because traditional whaling technology wasn’t up to catching them. But in the years around World War I the number of blues taken, mostly in the Antarctic, was around 6,000 per year, and with the invention of the factory ship this leapt to nearly 30,000 blues in 1930-1. One reason the sperm whale catch accelerated in the 1950s was because there were few blues left to catch.

So that, in a nutshell, is why oil didn’t save the whales. It was the modern, industrialized whaling of the 20th century potentiated by fossil oil that truly put whales into danger.

But let’s turn to what we can learn from humanity’s whaling misadventures, which I would itemize as follows.

Technology doesn’t just ‘move forwards’, it cascades. You can take a particular moment or context – the lamp oil market in 1850, for example – and stake a claim for the ecological benefits of a new product like kerosene. But to provide an adequate account of technological impact, you need to trace the ramifications forward in all their cascading complexity. In the case before us, this would involve the deadly impact on whales of fossil-fuelled whaling technologies after 1850, later technological developments such as the invention of margarine and hydrogenation techniques that stimulated a new demand for whale oil in the 20th century, the falling price of whale oil that made it competitive with other oils once again with the rise of labour-cutting mechanization and more efficient processing, new demands for baleen and other whale products, and so on. Any new technology, including kerosene, isn’t a one-shot intervention into a small slice of history like a specific lamp oil market. It cascades across the totality of human history and natural history.

In fact, technology doesn’t ‘move forwards’ at all, nor ‘backwards’ – it just moves. Kerosene might have been an environmental boon for whales in 1850. In its best-known present use as aviation fuel, it’s an environmental disaster in terms of climate change, which may not turn out too well for whales in the long run – or for us. In fact, the development of liquid fossil fuels in the later 19th century, of which kerosene was one strand, didn’t turn out too well for whales even in the short run. ‘Oil saved the whales’ is an untestable claim that the future will turn out well, based on a questionable claim that the past turned out well. It amounts to saying no more than ‘somebody’s bound to think of something’. I’d suggest it’s better to focus on the problems of the present, using the means that are presently available to us.

Low impact technologies can be high impact. Until the mid-19th century, the whaling industry used the same ‘sustainable’ methods as aboriginal whalers from time immemorial: sail, oar, harpoon, lance. And yet because of the social organization of the industry and the clever deployment of sustainable technology in the form of transoceanic sailing ships, it had a global impact on whale depletion. Industries using low impact technologies aren’t necessarily low impact industries.

Capitalism sucks. By which I mean, following the previous point, organising industries in capitalist ways often results in sucking ever more non-renewable resources from the world. The graph above suggests as much. Fossil oil didn’t replace whale oil, it enabled whale oil to be added to an expanding repertoire of resource drawdown. The same is true of renewable energy technologies today. The problem can only really be addressed by changing the nature of the economy, not by changing the means through which it sucks.

Ecological systems have inertia… Although forty years have passed without much large-scale commercial whaling (and many more years than that in the case of some species), recovery of stocks has been glacially slow. I’m hoping to examine this in greater detail, but as I understand it only with one species – the gray – have numbers yet returned to anything like their pre-whaling levels. No doubt this partly has to do with other and ongoing human-induced problems in the oceans (whales entangled with fishing nets, for example) but the nature of whales as stress tolerator or K-selected species means they can’t cope well with a perturbation like large-scale whaling, and they recover from it only slowly or perhaps not at all. A good deal of the biota is similar, suggesting that disturbance events can have negative effects long into the future after they’ve ended – worth noting, perhaps, for many other dimensions of human action upon the world besides whaling.

…and so do economic systems. A firm principle of the oil salvation narrative is that human inventiveness brings forth new and superior alternatives to old and ecocidal ones, like kerosene for whale oil, and that market forces then swiftly do the work of ecological transition. But, leaving aside kerosene’s own ecocidal effects (Point 2), the history of whaling really doesn’t fit this narrative well. Substitutes for almost every whale product existed long before commercial whaling was banned in 1982, 130 years after Mr Gesner’s marvellous invention. The truth is that market forces don’t swiftly do the work of ecological transition, for numerous reasons – sunk costs, industry resistance, political leverage, wider geopolitics to name a few. Cue TED talk: “Oil didn’t save the whales, and market forces aren’t going to solve climate change.”

Social systems cascade too. The oil salvation narrative settles on the singularity that commercial whaling was banned only because superior substitutes for whale products had been found. But in the real world, political decisions usually result from many factors, often with a fair slice of contingency thrown in. The existence of substitutes was no doubt one factor. Other factors included the declining whale catch, possible extinction arising from over-exploitation, and the rise of animal rights philosophies, environmentalist lobbying and direct action against whaling. Global geopolitics too. From my reading of the jockeying at the IWC and the endless foot-dragging of the whaling nations prior to the moratorium, it takes a very reductive worldview to discount all these other factors and impute the moratorium solely to technological substitution.

Activism matters. And on that basis, I’d say that activism matters. It’s impossible to say how much it was the mobilisation of organisations like Greenpeace and changing public attitudes towards the relentless hunting of large mammals that resulted in the moratorium and how much it resulted from other more technocratic factors. But it seems clear to me that without impassioned (and media savvy) public activism the moratorium would have been less likely. So if you want to right a wrong, you could try to invent something that you hope market forces will take up and tip things in your preferred direction. Or you could protest more directly – for example by standing in a small boat between a whale and a gunner’s grenade. To me, it’s a rash theorist who claims to know for sure that Abraham Gesner is more deserving of a vote of thanks from the whales than, say, Paul Watson.

The tragedy of the commons is a thing. As I’ve argued before on here and examine in more detail in my book, the debate about commons is stuck in a rut – Hardin versus Ostrom gets us started, but now we need to move on. In less than a century, humanity reduced blue whales to about 4% of their pre-whaling numbers. You could call this a tragedy of the commons, or – if you prefer – you could call it a tragedy of failing to create a commons, although there was still a common law of the sea in operation during the years of unrelenting, fossil-fuelled whaling. Whatever terminology you favour, the fact is that people don’t always succeed in preventing open access, private property or state regimes from over-exploiting resources and wild creatures.

When going uphill, change down a gear. The oil salvation narrative is part of the wider one in mainstream economics that human ingenuity along with price signals will enable us to do more, to do it better and to do it faster unto eternity. No doubt this seemed plausible during much of the 20th century. But as the fossil fuelled bonanza hustled the human omnibus ever faster downhill, it made little difference to us whether we made sustainable use of whale products or not. And today it seems clearer that the downslope won’t last forever. There’s a good chance we’ll hit a steep energy upslope soon enough, and a climate change upslope before that, and at these points we’d be well advised – like any sensible driver – not to keep piling on full throttle in top gear in the hope it’ll get us to the top of the hill. Instead we need to slow down, change down a gear and trim the vehicle to the realities of the landscape. Oil didn’t save the whales. A low carbon, cheap energy revolution isn’t just around the corner. Slow down. Look out of the window. It’s a beautiful world out there.

 

Note

  1. Gosho, Merrill, et al. 1984. ‘The Sperm Whale.’ Marine Fisheries Review 46: 54–64.

 

Some questions concerning violence

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

Death Zones

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

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

The State and the People

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

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

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

Social Distancing

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

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

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

Unmet needs

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

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

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

History

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

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

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

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

Covid-19 economics: beyond austerity and debt-finance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wang Xiuying writes,

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

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

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

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

Shaohua Zhan writes:

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

Thus,

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

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

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

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

Note

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

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.