The banality of the Anthropocene

25 05 2017

It is often said that the biggest mistake humanity ever made was move from hunting-gathering to agriculture. This is easy to say with 20/20 hindsight and 10,000 plus years after the fact, but in my opinion, the biggest mistake we ever made was adopt fossil fuels, and misuse them. There’s no doubt fossil fuels have brought us many improvements, but I find it difficult to not wonder whether the advantages actually outweigh the disadvantages…….

Combine the two, and we have industrial farming. Now there was a major mistake. This insightful article from the Resillience website discusses this at length, and I recommend sharing it widely. Wherever you see written ‘Iowa’, insert wherever you live, because it’s appropriate for almost anywhere on the globe these days…. enjoy.

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Heather Anne Swanson

Heather Swanson

I want to propose an Anthropocene territorialization and a subject-making project in which anthropologists might want to engage. The territory of which I write is a place called Iowa.

There are plenty of troubling things about the Anthropocene. But to my mind, one of its most troubling dimensions is the sheer number of people it fails to trouble.

For many living in precarious situations, the Anthropocene is already life-altering, life-threatening, and even deadly. It comes in the form of a massive flood or a rising tide that takes their homes away. Or as an oil well that poisons the river on which they depend.

But for others, especially the white and middle-class of the global North, the Anthropocene is so banal that they do not even notice it. It is the green front lawn, the strip-mall parking lot, the drainage ditch where only bullfrog tadpoles remain.

Iowa lies at the heart of this banal Anthropocene. The Anthropocene, here, is wholesome. It is the cornfield and the industrial pig farm. It is the 4-H county fair and eating hot dogs on the Fourth of July. It is precisely this banality, this routinized everydayness (see Arendt 1963), that makes the Iowa Anthropocene so terrifying.

I write of Iowa not from the outside, but from a place of connection. I, too, am Iowa. Without it, I would not be where I am. My mother and father were born and raised in Iowa, and its mid-twentieth-century agricultural modernization and postwar dreams for better futures propelled their upward mobility. It allowed them to get off the farm and become the first people in their families to go to college. Iowa’s industrial agriculture and its surpluses thus made my own scholarly career possible.

Indeed, we are all implicated in Iowa. We are all entangled with the everyday violences of industrial agriculture and nationalist projects in a way that substituting an organic latte for the hot dog or shopping at Whole Foods won’t solve. We cannot make ourselves clean. The urbanized coasts are made possible by the production of the heartland. New York is standing on Iowa (cf. Moore 2010).

How is it that Americans, especially white middle-class ones, learn not to notice such entanglements, to not be affected? How do we learn not to see the damage around us?

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Barn along Highway 1, south of Fairfield, Iowa. Photo by Ken K.

Iowa is objectively one of the most ruined landscapes in the United States, but its ruination garners surprisingly little notice. Less than 0.1 percent of the tallgrass prairie that once covered much of the state remains. You’ve seen the Anthropocene J-curves: the rise of atmospheric CO2, human population growth, and dammed rivers, to name a few (Steffen et al. 2015). The decline in Iowa prairie makes a reverse J. Between 1830 and 1910, Iowa lost a whopping 97 percent of its prairie acreage. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. The reorientation of Iowa’s landscape toward capitalist agricultural production has resulted in the obliteration of worlds that once occupied it. The American Indians who carefully tended the prairie through burning and bison management have been forced out of the state. Nearly every acre has been privatized. Today Iowa ranks forty-ninth out of the fifty U.S. states in public land holdings.Ninety-nine percent of its marshes are gone. The level of its main aquifer has dropped by as much as three hundred feet since the nineteenth century, largely due to the extraction of irrigation water. Water quality is a mess, too. Between 2010 and 2015 more than sixty Iowa cities and towns had high nitrate levels in drinking water due to the leaching and run-off of agricultural fertilizers. And those same fertilizers wash down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, where they have created an aquatic dead zone the size of Connecticut.

Few people, either within or beyond Iowa, notice the profundity of these changes. When my uncle, a farmer in northeast Iowa, gazes out at his cornfields, he does not see the annihilation of the prairie, the loss of the bison, or the displacement of American Indian communities. He does not notice the contamination of groundwater, even though he had to redig his well a few years ago due to bacterial seepage from a nearby pig farm. He simply shrugs off such things and wonders what the crop prices will be next year.

Blindness proliferates: when my uncle becomes blind to the violence of his own corn, he becomes blind to others in neighboring farmhouses, in the neighboring towns, in neighboring states. He cannot see Standing Rock, and he cannot see why Black Lives Matter might matter to him.

It isn’t exactly his fault that he doesn’t notice. White middle-class American subjectivities are predicated on not noticing. They are predicated on structural blindness: on a refusal to acknowledge the histories we inherit. As Deborah Bird Rose (2004) has shown in the case of Australian settler colonialism, dreaming of futures requires blindness to the past.

Michel Foucault’s work reminds us that the discourses that shape our subjectivities are not just words; they are also the bricks of the prison, the institutional form of the clinic (see Hirst 1995). But we have failed to see that they are also the monocrop cornfield. Iowa’s landscape infrastructure produces us and the Anthropocene. The cornfield is an assemblage that brings the so-called common good of progress and nationalist growth into being. It produces grain futures markets and cheap hamburgers. How can we better see its terrors and erasures?

One of these terrors is that there are countless Iowas beyond Iowa. I currently live in Denmark, where I am a member of a research project called Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA). One of my colleagues, Nathalia Brichet, uses the term “mild apocalypse” to draw attention to the normalized degradation of Danish landscapes. In the midst of Denmark’s rolling fields and highly managed forests, the Anthropocene continues to be stubbornly hard to see.

Donna Haraway has called for curiosity as both scholarly method and political practice, as an antidote to these learned blindnesses. In her book When Species Meet (Haraway 2008), she becomes curious about who and what she touches when she reaches out to pet her dog. That curiosity becomes a radical practice of tracing and inheriting histories, such as the dog-herding practices of livestock-based Australian colonization efforts and the making of purebred dogs. But in a world of structural blindness, such kinds of curiosity do not come naturally. They must be cultivated. But how? How, in the words of Joseph Dumit (2014), do we wake up to connections?

Can we imagine corollaries to Bible study meetings or consciousness-raising groups in which people would be encouraged to trace the histories of the landscapes they inhabit, a process that might draw them into new ways of seeing themselves and their worlds? I imagine such practices as a multispecies analogue to Foucauldian genealogy (see Foucault 1970). Might exploring the genealogies of Iowa cornfields, for example, denaturalize them and counter the power of their banality? Might they enable Iowans and all of us to become more curious about the conditions of our own subjectivities and, in turn, how we might transform the landscapes with which they are entangled? This is the important work of making curiosity more common, of troubling the Anthropocene.

References

Arendt, Hannah. 1963. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Viking Press.

Dumit, Joseph. 2014. “Writing the Implosion: Teaching the World One Thing at a Time.” Cultural Anthropology 29, no. 2: 344–62.

Foucault, Michel. 1970. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Pantheon. Originally published in 1966.

Haraway, Donna. 2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Hirst, Paul. 1995. “Foucault and Architecture.” In Michel Foucault: Critical Assessments, Volume 4, edited by Barry Smart, 350–71. New York: Routledge.

Moore, Jason W. 2010. “‘Amsterdam is Standing on Norway’ Part One: The Alchemy of Capital, Empire, and Nature in the Diaspora of Silver, 1545–1648.” Journal of Agrarian Change 10, no. 1: 33–68.

Rose, Deborah Bird. 2004. Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonization. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press.

Steffen, Will, Wendy Broadgate, Lisa Deutsch, Owen Gaffney, and Cornelia Ludwig. 2015. “The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration.” Anthropocene Review 2, no. 1: 81–98.





Ugo Bardi on the end of cars…..

25 05 2017

The Coming Seneca Cliff of the Automotive Industry: the Converging Effect of Disruptive Technologies and Social Factors

This graph shows the projected demise of individual car ownership in the US, according to “RethinkX”. That will lead to the demise of the automotive industry as we know it since a much smaller number of cars will be needed. If this is not a Seneca collapse, what is? 



Decades of work in research and development taught me this:

Innovation does not solve problems, it creates them. 

Which I could call “the Golden Rule of Technological Innovation.” There are so many cases of this law at work that it is hard for me to decide where I should start from. Just think of nuclear energy; do you understand what I mean? So, I am always amazed at the naive faith of some people who think that more technology will save us from the trouble created by technology (the most common mistake people make is not to learn from mistakes).

That doesn’t mean that technological research is useless; not at all. R&D can normally generate small but useful improvements to existing processes, which is what it is meant to do. But when you deal with breakthroughs, well, it is another kettle of dynamite sticks; so to say. Most claimed breakthroughs turn out to be scams (cold fusion is a good example) but not all of them. And that leads to the second rule of technological innovation:

Successful innovations are always highly disruptive

You probably know the story of the Polish cavalry charging against the German tanks during WWII. It never happened, but the phrase “fighting tanks with horses” is a good metaphor for what technological breakthroughs can do. Some innovations impose themselves, literally, by marching over the dead bodies of their opponents. Even without such extremes, when an innovation becomes a marker of social success, it can diffuse extremely fast. Do you remember the role of status symbol that cell phones played in the 1990s?

Cars are an especially good example of how social factors can affect and amplify the effects of innovation. I discussed in a previous post on Cassandra’s Legacy how cars became the prime marker of social status in the West in the 1950s, becoming the bloated and inefficient objects we know today. They had a remarkable effect on society, creating the gigantic suburbs of today’s cities where life without a personal car is nearly impossible.

But the great wheel of technological innovation keeps turning and it is soon going to make individual cars as obsolete as would be wearing coats made of home-tanned bear skins. It is, again, the combination of technological innovation and socioeconomic factors creating a disruptive effect. For one thing, private car ownership is rapidly becoming too expensive for the poor. At the same time, the combination of global position systems (GPS), smartphones, and autonomous driving technologies makes possible a kind of “transportation on demand” or “transportation as a service” (TAAS) that was unthinkable just a decade ago. Electric cars are especially suitable (although not critically necessary) for this kind of transportation. In this scheme, all you need to do to get a transportation service is to push a button on your smartphone and the vehicle you requested will silently glide in front of you to take you wherever you want. (*)

The combination of these factors is likely to generate an unstoppable and disruptive social phenomenon. Owning a car will be increasingly seen as passé, whereas using the latest TAAS gadgetry will be seen as cool. People will scramble to get rid of their obsolete, clumsy, and unfashionable cars and move to TAAS. Then, TAAS can also play the role of social filter: with the ongoing trends of increasing social inequality, the poor will be able to use it only occasionally or not at all. The rich, instead, will use it to show that they can and that they have access to credit. Some TAAS services will be exclusive, just as some hotels and resorts are. Some rich people may still own cars as a hobby, but that wouldn’t change the trend.

To have some idea of what a TAAS-based world can be, you might read Hemingway’s “Movable Feast”, a story set in Paris in the 1920s. There, Hemingway describes how the rich Americans in Paris wouldn’t normally even dream of owning a car (**). Why should they have, while when they could simply ride the local taxis at a price that, for them, was a trifle? It was an early form of TAAS. Most of the Frenchmen living in Paris couldn’t afford that kind of easygoing life and that established an effective social barrier between the haves and the have-nots.

As usual, of course, the future is difficult to predict. But something that we can say about the future is that when changes occur, they occur fast. In this case, the end result of the development of individual TAAS will be the rapid collapse of the automotive industry as we know it: a much smaller number of vehicles will be needed and they won’t need to be of the kind that the present automotive industry can produce. This phenomenon has been correctly described by “RethinkX,” even though still within a paradigm of growth. In practice, the transition is likely to be even more rapid and brutal than what the RethinkX team propose. For the automotive industry, there applies the metaphor of “fighting tanks with horses.”

The demise of the automotive industry is an example of what I called the “Seneca Effect.” When some technology or way of life becomes obsolete and unsustainable, it tends to collapse very fast. Look at the data for the world production of motor vehicles, below (image from Wikipedia). We are getting close to producing a hundred million of them per year. If the trend continues, during the next ten years we’ll have produced a further billion of them. Can you really imagine that it would be possible? There is a Seneca Cliff waiting for the automotive industry.

(*) If the trend of increasing inequality continues, autonomous driven cars are not necessary. Human drivers would be inexpensive enough for the minority of rich people who can afford to hire them.

(**) Scott Fitzgerald, the author of “The Great Gatsby” is reported to have owned a car while living in France, but that was mainly an eccentricity.





On Biochar

23 05 2017

Last weekend, as the threat of looming downpours for much of Tasmania was forecast, I went to a biochar workshop organised by the Huon Producers’ Network, and I reckon it was the best thirty five bucks I ever spent……. I’ve read quite a bit on the matter, and have always been fascinated by Terra Preta. Having cut down some fifty trees to make way and building material for our new house, I’m not exactly short of biomass to get rid of…. I had four huge piles of the stuff, and unfortunately, sometimes even the best laid plans have to yield to reality and two of them have been burned to make way for ‘development’ on the Fanny Farm. Each time I burned the piles, I got the guilts knowing all that resource was going to waste and contributing to climate change, but having inadvertently put several tonnes of wood in the wrong place (designing my patch is an evolutionary process) and having no quick means of moving them, I just put a match to it. At least, the ash went on the current market garden patch……Image result for biochar kiln

I had some expectations of what I was going to be shown, but they were all thrown out the window…. I had been expecting to see kilns such as the one at right which are all enclosed for the purpose of starving the fire of Oxygen so as to pyrolise the wood and make charcoal. My friend Bruce in Queensland has been making charcoal this way for thirty years to satisfy his blacksmithing habit (and those of many others I might add), and he has this down to a fine art. But it appears there’s a revolution underway…..

The presenter on the day was Frank Strie, who thirty years ago emigrated from Germany with his whole family to Tasmania. “We started to plant lots of different fruit trees” Frank says on his website, “such as Cherries, Apricots, Peaches, Plums, Prunes and various apple and pear trees. And of course, we wanted to grow our own vegetables. Also, about 20 years ago we established a Hazelnut Orchard, which covers nearly one third of the property.” It’s all organic of course, and he sounds like he’s pretty good mates with Peter Cundall, Tassie’s gardening guru…… See his Terra Preta website.

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“The baby”

The fact that he brought three kilns on a trailer and the back of a ute all the way from Launceston just shows how versatile and portable his gear is.

The new kilns are open topped, and most interestingly, funnel shaped. They make the process faster – like maybe half the time or better – and allow for activation of the charcoal (which is what turns it into biochar) all in one go. Being able to just tip the finished product onto the ground instead of laboriously shoveling it out of the kiln looks good to this old man with a bad back as well.

Andrew, a local also known as Stretch – and so tall he can’t fit in photos – was also there to ably assist Frank; he’d organised20170520_121304 lots of firewood and stacked it in piles of graded sizes along with cardboard and kindling. We actually got three kilns started; from a smallish one designed for hobby gardeners, to something that will make a cubic metre at a time (and double up as a BBQ!) to the farm sized device I could probably use but can’t afford….. though there is now talk of buying one as a community resource which is a darn good idea!

The idea of the funnel shape is that as the air outside is heated, it rises up the sides, and when it reaches the lip, a vortex effect is created causing the air to be sucked into the kiln speeding up the burn. The ‘big one’ even comes with a skirt that acts as a venturi, speeding up the air as it is squeezed between the kiln and skirt at the lip of the kiln. The effect was clearly visible, though nigh impossible to catch in a still photo.

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The ‘smothering’ effect is created by simply adding more and more firewood to the pile. Before combustion is complete, the fire is quenched (with water on this particular day, but normally a liquid fertiliser would be used) from the bottom up. The bottom of the kiln is plumbed to a pipe which can be used for both removing excess liquid, or adding it under pressure from an IBC on, say, the back of a ute. On the day, Frank used a garden hose, because we could not do what he normally does because of where we were….

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On the day, the kiln was not filled to capacity due to location and time constraints, but you can clearly see the results. The big kiln even comes with a winch to tip the biochar out for easy work, and if it wasn’t for the fact I’m far too busy house building and counting my remaining pennies, I would buy one tomorrow,

To learn more about biochar, here is an interesting link supplied by Frank that anyone keen on this process would find enlightening. I think this is definitely the way of the future, a bright light among all the rubbish we see every day about renewable energy and electric cars. This has the potential to sequester huge amounts of Carbon, and even more importantly, prepare farm soil for the post oil era looming on the horizon.





The EVERYTHING bubble…..

21 05 2017

I’m no financial guru.  Since studying Nicole Foss’ and Chris Martenson’s work, I have a reasonable understanding of how the economy works, enough to know it’s completely unsustainable and will eventually crash. I’m only interested in when it crashes because I worry it will all turn to dust before our new house is finished, and that could make my life difficult…. so I have to rely on proper gurus. I’d never heard of Mike Maloney until I heard him interviewed by Chris Martenson in a podcast, and my gut feeling is that he knows what he’s talking about.

We don’t have stocks and shares or gold and silver, because I believe that the real investment needed is farm land, and a shelter that doesn’t need to be connected to the rest of a collapsing world, which is why I don’t really follow all this stuff. But this turned up in my newsfeed, and it’s rattled me a bit……  so glad I’ve started building! it might even be time to pull money out of the bank and stash it under the mattress….

This is lifted from srsroccoreport.com, and I hope it’s useful to someone following this humble blog……

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The U.S. economy and markets are now the BIGGEST BUBBLES in history.  In 2000, we experienced  the Tech Bubble.  In 2008, we suffered both a Stock Market and Housing Bubble.  However, today… we are in the “EVERYTHING BUBBLE.”

This is an excellent video presentation by Mike Maloney at GoldSilver.com.  Mike puts together some of the best quality videos in the precious metals industry.  This one is a MUST SEE.  If you are frustrated with the performance of gold and silver since 2012, this video shows just how insane the markets have become.

In the video, Mike provides charts showing how the economic and market indicators are peaking, even much higher than what took place in 2008.  For example, Mike shows a chart on “Margin debt” in the stock market and how it is the highest ever:

The indicators and charts in Mike’s video presentation provides evidence that the market is now one GIANT BUBBLE ready to POP.  While the insanity could continue a bit longer, the indicators are now a BLINKING RED LIGHT that something is seriously wrong.

I highly recommend my readers to watch this video and please feel free to share it with others who are still gambling in the broader markets.  Maybe it might WAKE THEM UP before it’s too late.

You can also find this video presentation here: THE EVERYTHING BUBBLE: Code Red





Is eating no meat actually doing more harm than good?

18 05 2017

I spend more time on the internet arguing wih vegetarians/vegans than any other group of people……  I so wish they would get off their high horses and start supporting farmers who do the right thing…. and that goes for all you meat eaters out there who buy meat from supermarkets….  STOP IT!!

This opinion piece was originally published by Farmdrop on 4th May 2017.


The younger generation are positively redefining the way we see ourselves in relation to food and the environment.

I grew up in the late 1960s and so I consider myself a bit of a hippy. That decade marked a fundamental mind-set shift in the way people saw themselves in relation to the world. At the time, it was difficult to pinpoint where these ideas came from; many of them simply seemed to come through intuition.

I mention this because, for the first time since the late 1960s, I feel like another shift in consciousness is occurring among the younger generation, particularly amongst so called ‘millennials’.

There is a new field of scientific study called epigenetics which shows that all living organisms constantly interact with their external environment and that these influences can prompt changes in gene expression which can be passed down through the generations. Plants, for example, have epigenetic responses to the environment they grow in, as a result of which a plant may have a subtle difference in its genotype from its parents. Even more interestingly, certain epigenetic traits can stay dormant for several generations, only to find full expression at a later time.

So I suspect that the changing shift in consciousness towards food production and sustainability may actually be partly epigenetic. Perhaps the radical energy of the 1960s is now finding expression among millennials, albeit in a slightly different way.

For these reasons, as an organic farmer of almost 45 years, I have never been more optimistic about the future of farming. However, I am growing increasingly concerned about the large number of people turning to diets that may not necessarily be either healthy or sustainable.

If we are to move to a genuinely sustainable food system, then I think we all need to become much better informed about the sustainability or otherwise of different food systems. Only then we will be better placed to challenge the huge amounts of misinformation on so-called sustainable diets which are encouraging people to avoid all meats and animal products, despite the reality that in many (if not most climates and regions) it is difficult to farm in a truly sustainable way without livestock.

What is the problem with food and farming?

It has become a cliché but it’s true: supermarket food is not cheap and comes at a heavy price. The industrial application of nitrogen fertiliser has contaminated our water systems and atmosphere with dangerous nitrates; the subsidised production of fructose corn syrup has driven an increase in obesity and diabetes; and the excessive use of antibiotics in animals has caused a resistance to these drugs amongst humans.

The real problem is that none of the costs of all this damage is charged to the people who use it and, on the other hand, the positive effects of sustainable farming are not supported.

The current policy framework supports a dishonest economic food pricing system, as a result of which, the best business case is for farmers to grow using industrial methods and for retailers to buy the commodity products from industrial farms, process the hell out of them, package them so the consumer knows nothing about their backstory and then make a profit by turning that around.

So we need new incentives and disincentives, which ensure that the polluter pays and those who farm in a truly sustainable way are better rewarded for the benefits they deliver.

But what are the most sustainable farming methods?

There is no doubt that agriculture and farming is one of the most significant contributor towards climate change. Cutting back on the biggest pollutant (man-made fossil fuels) is very important but to actually reverse climate change – take CO2 out of the atmosphere – then we need to change the way we farm, particularly in relation to the way we look after the soil.

This is because organic matter in the soil is a store of carbon, thereby mitigating harmful emissions in the atmosphere. Britain’s soils store around 10 billion tonnes of carbon, which is more than total annual global emissions of carbon dioxide. Moreover, high levels of organic matter are also the basis for soil fertility, releasing nutrients for healthy plant growth and ultimately food. In other words, the amount of organic matter present in the soil is essential, both for combating climate change and ultimately improving our health.

The problem is that industrial farming methods have depleted organic matter in the soils. In the East of England, around 84% of the land’s carbon rich soil has been lost and continues to disappear at a rate of 1 to 2cm per year. That represents an enormous amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere.

Sustainable food systems are therefore about much more than simply avoiding nasty chemicals and antibiotics, they are about building organic matter in the soil through crop rotation and mixed farming practices.

It is possible for farmers to reduce the emissions from agriculture by re-introducing rotations in the way they use their land – introducing a grass and clover phase that builds soil organic matter, which is then grazed by ruminant animals on rotation, who fertilise the soil further, and results in an ability to grow healthy crops.

According to the International Panel on Climate Change, it is estimated that 89% of all agricultural emissions can be mitigated by improving carbon levels in the soil.

How can you have the most healthy and sustainable diet?

Everyone, at least in principle, wants to eat a healthy and sustainable diet, but we are all very confused about how to do it. If you asked 10 people what the most sustainable and healthy way to eat was then you would probably get 10 different answers. A few might say vegetarian or vegan (the numbers eating a vegan diet has increased by 360% in the last decade) but I think that a large scale switch towards vegetarianism may not necessarily be compatible with sustainability.

In my opinion, many people have been led astray by bad science. The tools used by scientific researchers in the past, and whose published papers have prompted changes in people’s diets, were not based on sound science. It was said that red meat and animal fats should be avoided, both because they are unhealthy and because ruminant animals (cows and sheep) are largely responsible for harmful methane emissions.

But it turns out that neither of those positions are necessarily true.

The study that prompted Governments in Britain and the United States to recommend people to reduce their intake of fats was not based on solid evidence. It is this study that encouraged the food industry to replace fats with added sugars, and we are only now understanding the damage these do to our health.

And the studies that recommended a reduction in red meat consumption on grounds of reducing its environmental impact only look at certain factors in isolation rather than the whole food system. Land-use is often considered as bad in all instances, even though raising livestock is sometimes the only productive land use option available. In roughly two thirds of the UK’s agricultural land area is grass and the only way we can turn that into a good soil that stores carbon and grows healthy crops is to have ruminant animals grazing on a rotation system to fertilise the ground.

These flawed assumptions have had significant consequences for the way people eat. Beef production has halved since the 1980s and the consumption of lamb, arguably the most sustainable grass-fed meat for the land, has plummeted. While new evidence is now showing that animals fats are good for our health and cattle grazed in the right way can actually reduce carbon emissions by creating fertile soils.

Where do we go from here?

My message is simple: a healthy diet should work backwards from the most sustainable way to farm, and that ideally means eating the foods produced by mixed farms using crop rotations which include a fertility building phase, usually of grass and clover grazed by cows and sheep, but also pastured pigs and poultry.

Industrial farming has been an extractive industry. We have dined out on the natural capital of the soil that previous generations have laid down for us. We need to fix that because the environment in which a plant or animal is produced goes a long way to determine its nutrient value when consumed by humans.





How Do You Degrow an Economy, Without Causing Chaos?

16 05 2017

An article written by a Facebook friend of mine, Jonathan Rutherford, who is Coordinator of the New International Bookshop and a ‘Simpler Way’ activist. Originally published at the Resillience website.  The real challenge for those in charge is not ‘jobs and growth’, it is how to best manage the looming contraction……

‘Houston, we have a problem’. On the one hand, there is growing acceptance among environmentally conscious people that rich nations and affluent regions of the global economy must dramatically reduce overall resource and energy consumption levels – that is, undergo a process of ‘degrowth’ – if humanity is to bring about a sustainable world order. On the other hand, we have a growth economy that cannot go two steps in this direction without causing huge economic and social problems.

If you doubt the first part of this statement (i.e. the need for ‘degrowth’), consider just one metric – the material footprint (MF) indicator. This measures consumption of all natural resources (biomass, fossil fuels, metal ores and minerals) extracted from the environment. Humanity’s current MF is about 70 billion tonnes – a figure that has more than trebled since the 1970s. As we know, already this rate of consumption is generating waste, pollution and land-use change that are driving environmental problems such as global warming and species extinction. But now consider the fact that the per capita rich nation (i.e OECD) MF is about 30 tonnes. If the 9+ billion humans expected to be living on earth by 2050 rose to this level, we would need 270 billion tonnes per annum – that is, four times the present rate, which is unsustainable. Using similar figures in the 1990s Friedrich Schmidt Bleek estimated that rich nations need to make ‘factor 10’ reductions in overall resource use (renewable and non-renewable), if we are to move down to a globally fair share and at sustainable levels. And that estimate, it should be noted, does not factor in the likely increase in MF that, recent history suggests, will inevitably result from the continuous pursuit of economic growth by all nations, included the wealthiest.

Many people hope that we can make ‘factor 10’ reductions via technological advance and efficiency gains alone, without having to make cut overall rates of production, consumption (i.e. GDP). But, as argued in a recent peer reviewed article by Giorgos Kallis there are strong reasons to think that this will not be viable. Few want to admit it, but the kind of radical reductions we need to make will require GDP contraction i.e. de-growth.

But if we in the rich world need to degrow the economy, as it appears we do, how is that done without causing utter social chaos and breakdown?  The problem was recently illustrated in a series of articles run by the ABC. The first article highlighted the trend among some young Australians to adopt relatively frugal lifestyles of reduced income expenditure and increased savings. A follow up article, however, asked: what would happen to the economy if everyone did this? The answers were revealing, and implicitly revealed fundamental flaws in our existing economic system.

The article cited data which suggest every year Australians spend $955 billion on all forms of consumption. Of this about $416 billion (44%) is made up items such as ‘food, clothing, housing, utilities, health, transport, insurance’ which the article defined as ‘necessities’ (note: one, of course, may question whether i.e. all clothes consumption are truly ‘necessities’!). The other $523 billion was made up what the article defined as discretionary items. Economist, Saul Eslake pointed out that, even if we exclude from this discretionary figure the $100+ billion worth of imported goods & services, if  all Australian households ceased all the remaining discretionary spending, GDP would be immediately reduced by 25 per cent. But, as Eslake pointed out, the impact on the economy would eventually be far greater than this, due to knock-on effects. The reduced spending, for example, would result in firm bankruptcy and thus laid off workers which, in turn, would further reduce aggregate demand in a cycle of downward depression familiar to students of economic history.

But while all this is entirely correct, reducing societal consumption – degrowing the economy – need not necessarily result in chaotic economic breakdown, as the ABC article implicitly assumed. This is indeed an inevitable outcome within our present economic system, but possibly not others.

Our present system – both in Australia and now most of the world – is, of course, the capitalist market economy. This 500-year-old system has certain defining features that mark it out as unique compared to other economic systems humans have devised.  It is a system in which a) most (if not all) the major means of production are privately (these days corporately) owned by a small minority of the population; and b) where the fundamental economic problems (what, how, and for whom to produce) are solved “automatically”, through the price mechanism, rather than through conscious social decisions.

Importantly, for this discussion, the system is characterised by a growth compulsion. Due to competition, all firms – particularly large shareholder firms – are under constant pressure to invest in new techniques, methods of production and products, to improve competitiveness and their sales figures. If they fail to do this, they not only risk profits margins but also eventually being taken-over by other firms, or made bankrupt. Since no firm wants to perish, and since all must expand if they want to continue to exist, a general growth compulsion arises, not just for individual firms, but for the macro economy as whole. So, while almost everyone wants growth, it is also true that the system needs growth for its basic functioning.

In fact, the system cannot possibly tolerate even a slow-down in the rate of growth, let alone a contraction. Richard Smith points out that even when capitalism approaches a ‘steady state’ of zero GDP growth, such as what happened in the USA in the wake of the GFC, the outcome for society at large is ugly. The situation is characterised by “capital destruction, mass unemployment, devastated communities, growing poverty, foreclosures, homelessness and environmental considerations shunted aside in the all-out effort to restore growth.” Obviously, nobody wants this, including advocates of degrowth.

What then would be required to contract the economy, in an orderly and fair way? The influential ‘Steady-State’ theorist Herman Daly argues that we can do so, while retaining a basically capitalist system, on the condition that the state steps in to play a far more active regulatory role than at present. Among other policy suggestions, Daly proposes that the state impose escalating resource depletion quotes, that can be traded in a market, while retaining private enterprise and the market system.

An emerging school of eco-socialists argue, however, that this will not work. Saral Sarkar points out three flaws with Daly’s plan.

“1) The contraction of the economies of the world must occur in an orderly way. Otherwise there will be unbearable breakdowns of whole societies. An orderly contraction can only take place in a planned economy, not in a capitalist market economy. 2) Only a socialist political order can achieve, by means of egalitarian distribution of the costs and benefits, a broad acceptance of the necessary contraction, 3) Only in a planned socialist economy can the problem of unemployment be solved, which would otherwise become more and more acute in a contracting economy. To this end, a planned economy can consciously use labor-intensive technologies and methods, which, in addition, result in less use of resources.” (Sarkar, 2012, 325)

Let me just briefly elaborate on the first reason given by Sarkar (for greater detail see Sarkar 1999) – the idea that contracting the economy within a capitalist market system would result in chaotic breakdown. Sarkar points out that the famed ‘efficiency’ of the market system only works well (if at all) when there is a buyers’ market, leading to strong competition between suppliers to meet customer demand. But in a contractionary scenario, most markets would be ‘suppliers’ markets, as there would be, in general, a shortage of supply relative to demand. This would mean even poorly run, high cost firms would be able to survive. And, as with any market economy, you would still have a situation where increasingly scarce resources were tended to be allocated to meeting the money backed demands of the already wealthy, rather than to meeting the vital needs for all – a recipe for social chaos in a context of heightened scarcity.

For these reasons, and as unfashionable as it is today, Sarkar argues that a socialist economic framework will be necessary if we are to contract the economy in an orderly, peaceful and socially just way. This would involve a process in which the state nationalises and/or shuts down most large-scale firms in the economy and actively plans the process of contraction via mechanisms such as quantitative controls, price controls, a quota system etc. But what about smaller firms and co-ops, operating at the local level? Here, it is plausible that a quasi-market economy – albeit operating within a very different no-growth culture and firmly under social control –  would be viable. Another eco-socialist Richard Smith elaborates:

“In arguing for large-scale industrial planning, I’m not saying that we should nationalize family farms, farmers’ markets, artisans, groceries, bakeries, local restaurants, repair shops, workers’ cooperatives, and so on. Small producers aren’t destroying the world. But large-scale corporations are. If we want to save the planet, the corporations would have to be nationalized, socialized, and completely reorganized. Many will need to be closed down, others scaled back, others repurposed. But I don’t see any reason why small-scale, local, independent producers cannot carry on more or less as they are, within the framework of a larger planned economy.”

Eventually the goal will be to move to a situation in which most (if not all) people live and work within highly localised economies, using local resources to meet local needs. As Ted Trainer argues, this is not optional if we want to reduce our ecological footprint to sustainable one planet levels that all can share. Gladly, there is a case that the quality of life could be very high within such communities.

But herein lies a problem for the eco-socialist, and wider degrowth movement. Trainer points out that these new local communities will not work well unless they are based on the active participation and cooperation of most, if not all, ordinary citizens in the locality. This will be necessary to ensure that all are provided for and the economy works within local eco-system limits. Active and inclusive participation by all (or at least most), Trainer argues, is ‘the crucial prerequisite… that will be needed if ordinary citizens are to eventually run highly self-sufficient local communities well.’ Widespread civic participation and cooperation simply cannot be imposed ‘top-down’ via states, even if they wanted to. In any case, Trainer argues, only if movements for localism and simpler living emerge first, is there any chance of building the eventual political will that will make a process of societal degrowth at the national and global levels possible.

For this reason, we ‘Simpler Way’ advocates tend to see the eco-socialist state directed process described above as ‘only’ a final, albeit necessary, step in a long multi phased transition towards sustainability. The first (and hardest) phase of the revolution happens when ordinary citizens, not states or corporations, take it upon themselves to start building today, even in small ways, the new self-reliant economies in the towns and suburbs where they live.

Having said that, the above sets a parallel challenge for participants within existing localist movements such as Transition Towns, eco-village, permaculture, simpler living etc. For it is equally true that we will not make a successful transition to sustainability – and the new local communities and economies will not function well – unless participants within these movements become aware of, and begin advocating for, the eventual need for an orderly process of ‘de-growth’ – a process that, for reasons mentioned briefly above, is only likely to go well within an eco-socialist framework. Ultimately, unless both these local and national-global processors occur, will not make a successful transition to a sustainable society.

Of course, today, across the world we are miles away from the necessary political and cultural awareness needed for such a transition. It is likely that the coming oil crunch and global financial contraction will aid our cause and encourage more people to see the sense in localism and de-growth – but, until then, activists must doggedly go on raising awareness wherever they can. Even if it does not feel like it, every conversation counts!

Reference:

Saral Sarkar, Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism? – A Critical Analysis of Humanity’s Fundamental Choices. London: Zed Books. 1999.





Playing with gloop

14 05 2017

I’m often asked – and I often ask myself – why do I own three utes?  Well dear reader, I just worked it out! At very short notice, I got a text message from Matt next door that Steve could start cutting the trenches that have to be the foundations for our house’s slab on Friday afternoon, and Saturday norning if necessary to finish the job. Typically for Tasmania, the weather forecast went from fine weather to calamitous……. thunderstorms and minor flooding for the North of the island was predicted, and this fortunately did not eventuate, but as luck would have it, we in the South ended up copping some.

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Ready for action

Because the trenches are too far from the embankment where I want the earth moved to, it would all need to be moved with a vehicle, so I hunted around for a small tip truck, and found one, but as usual, the locals let me down again. I sometimes wonder how they stay in business…..

 

So I set up all three utes like a train, and lined Caleb to come back, hopefully with a mate, to do all the hard yakka. The mate could not make it on the day, so the pair of us worked our arses off, shoveling and 20170512_135641shoving and shuttling utes around trying to keep up with the digger. Which we largely managed to achieve…… but as luck would have it, as soon as the first ute (the 4WD one) was loaded and ready for moving, it refused to start. Luckily it has a very strong battery, and I actually managed to reverse it, with a ton of mud on the back, with the starter motor, to get it out of the way and reverse another ute in its place…. not a great start.

20170513_083021Amazingly – and very fortunately it eventually turned out – the 4WD started first kick a couple of hours later, just as the rain started….. I say fortunately, because 2WD utes don’t do gloop…!

Eventually, having finished the main trench down the front wall, we called it a day. Overnight, we got just over 6mm of rain, and in the morning, the site was really starting to look like quagmire, and the clay was getting heavier and stickier, making it largely impossible to shovel by hand. With only one ute able to get up the hill with a load (yes, it started again!), slip sliding all the way to the unloading site, it was decided that it would be more efficient, and certainly easier on us with the shovels, for Steve to move the excavator up the hill and scrape all the clay with the mud bucket off the tray….  Aah, the power of fossil fuels!20170513_091727

It was eventually all done, though where the lateral trenches came out through the edge of the main one, so sticky was the clay that a lot of earth came off the corners. The odd rock didn’t help either, and everywhere excess dirt is removed, more concrete will have to replace it, costing both me and the environment. Some things just can’t be helped, one has to deal with the situation at hand….20170513_100748

Caleb and I even had to stand in the trench to lift, mostly by hand, large clumps of sticky clay into Steve’s bucket so it could be lifted on the back of the ute and moved uphill. Let me tell you, I really look forward to the day this stage is over!

To put into perspective how bloody sticky the gloop was, I’ll leave you with a shot of the 4WD’s foot well that I will have fun cleaning up one day…. I even found the rubber pad off the brake pedal in the grass later, where it had obviously been so stuck to my boot, I pulled it off the metal pedal to get out the car! Pure luck it came off my boot right where I stepped off……20170513_110907

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