Making Biochar

4 02 2018

Having attended a biochar workshop last year, and literally having tons of left over wood from cutting all those trees for the house build to burn, I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to arrive to make some biochar as an additional improvement to the market garden. Now I have three able bodied youngsters, keen to learn this technique, we finally got stuck in……

Last thursday at the Geeveston Feast, I again ran into Clayton who visited me and my building project many moons ago, a designer and draftsman in the concepts of eco houses himself; Geeveston is full of interesting people…. He too is a great fan of biochar, and was in fact at the abovementioned workshop….  we got talking, and he said he’d got hold of a an old hopper that he’s been using as a kiln, but because it’s made of much thinner steel than the kilns Frank Strie showed us in Huonville, he told me it wouldn’t last long, and was therefore experimenting with making it in situ. After all, the Amazonian Indians who invented the stuff never had steel, and they managed OK, so I decided to have a go….

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Digging the trench, unloading wood from the ute

 

As the ground in the second half of the market garden was well worked, having had the rotary hoe over it three times to mix the compost, sheep poo, crusher dust and dolomite, the lads had no difficulty digging. We started with a cone shaped hole in which wood scraps left over from the moving of the chicken house were burned. I had watering cans full of overstrength Seasol at the ready to quench the embers and charcoal. Once quenched, the fire was buried with the soil dug out of the hole. It all went smoothly, with charcoal taking maybe 45 minutes to be created. The rest of the wood though were larger and longer branches, and Facundo from Argentina suggested digging a trench next rather than a hole.

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I thought it was a good idea, so we filled up the back of the 4WD with branches and moved them the 100 metres to the chosen area.

 

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Charcoal

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Quenching with fertiliser

Everyone likes a fire, and this lot was no different…! The trench was easily six times bigger, and the flames were too, but the wood being so dry, it burned very cleanly and soon enough we had a trench full of charcoal. The rest, as you can see was soon enough achieved, and my valiant band of charcoal makers are keen to get stuck in and finish off the big pile of trash I have to get rid of.

Will it work? Watch this space is all I can say…..

UPDATE

By day three, we were getting bolder and bolder, and decided to start digging trenches that went the whole width of the market garden, improving on the amount of time rquired to move all the sticks etc…. the weather has been mightily good to us, so we made the most  of it, and the pile of wood that was in the way of building a new fence to finally allow a new zone for a few heads of cattle has been cleared up. All that’s left to do for that particular project is to somehow convince Pete to come back and finish the sawmilling! The machine’s only been here for almost two years after all…

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Hopium at its best…..

16 01 2018

I have a lot of fun on Farcebook…… and you come across some really interesting people.  Because I wrote a long reply to a certain person who will remain nameless, I thought I’d turn it into a post for you guys to read. I know you’ll have a laugh too..

It all started with someone posting this article about what Australia will look like in 2049. Why 2049 you ask?  You tell me….  anyway, you can guess already, I was hardly going to agree with anything it said..!

Initially, someone wrote “The part of this alleged “futuristic” vision that infuriates me the most is the food aspect. They flippantly claim that households of the future will be fed nutrient-rich food from indoor greenhouses. Now take a close look at the artist’s impression of said greenhouse and tell me how much nutrient-rich food you can see growing in there. These people have never contemplated the land requirements of our nutrition.

It also completely neglects the plight of low-income people by painting a vision that only the richest few % might be able to afford. I guess everyone else will be working on degraded farmland growing food to make up for the nutritional deficiency left by the rich peoples’ indoor greenhouses…”

So far so good….  who could disagree? I replied “TOTALLY agree…… without fossil fuels, it is IMPOSSIBLE to feed the world as we do now. Most land is marginal and only capable of grazing animals. Those futuristic “visions” can only happen with fossil fuels. In fact, ‘this world’ we currently take for granted is 100% only here thanks to fossil fuels, and yet the masses are rising to abandon them, not realising their lives are literally at stake…

And yet they must go….. because our lives are at stake.

Talk about a rock and a hard place…….

Yes, civilisation’s conundrum again.

But then this guy came back with a link and…: “There is a group in the US called “Ecology Action” that has attempted to find the minimum possible land area to grow a nutritionally complete diet without fossil fuels (all hard yakka). Growing a fairly small set of ingredients for a simple (but balanced) vegan diet, coupled with their extremely labour-intensive (but very high-yielding) farming technique, they claim to deliver a full diet for one person on circa 400 square metres. This seems to assume a favourable climate and does not explicitly consider the sustainability of the irrigation applied.
http://www.growbiointensive.org/grow_main.html
Researchers (Schramski et al 2011) have further optimised the diet – coming up with an even shorter list of ingredients! – and got it down to about 100 square metres per person, with one full-time farmer working without fossil fuels theoretically able to grow enough food to feed 4-5 individuals.

This gives me a reason to hope that a post-industrial world could survive on some sort of subsistence basis, even with 10 billion people, and modest technology (either animal power or biofuel-powered rotary tillers) might improve the farmer-to-consumer ratio, but such a world would look a lot more like a present-day developing country and a lot less like the technotopia envisioned in the article.”

You can imagine what the 10 billion people remark did to my usual lack of humour…. I replied “”This gives me a reason to hope that a post-industrial world could survive on some sort of subsistence basis, even with 10 billion people”

Hahahahahah that made me laugh…… I have discussions over this all the time, and 99% of people cannot even conceive of moving to the land let alone getting dirt under their fingernails…

Half the population is obese and has no idea what a day’s work really is. They have neither the skills nor the knowledge.

And fossil fuel free? Right……… I’ve been doing this for over fifteen years now, and am currently working on my second project. I’m setting up a market garden 25m x 18m using permaculture principles, witht the long term vision of using mainly chickens and compost to fertilise it. And I couldn’t do it without the help of wwoofers either… or fossil fuels.

It’s ‘sort of half done’, I’m currently working on the second half, even before the first half is fully productive. The first half has cost me at least $3000 in fencing and amendments. And that’s not even counting the fact that most of the soil came from an excavation I did to build an eco house on, but if you add half that cost to it, add another $2000…… and who knows how much diesel fuel…. must be a couple of hundred litres by now.

Then there are the ten trips to the compost supplier….. I used to get compost 25km away, but there’s been some fuckup over the way that supplier worked, and now I have a 130km return trip to Hobart to get my 1300kg. Four so far. 520km and 60L of petrol and eight hours of travelling….. then there’s umpteen bags of sheep shit, and lime and dolomite, the seaweed fertiliser that came from godknowswhere…. oh did I mention you need a ute?  In the meantime, I put a couple of acres of improved pasture (that came with the farm) under a few sheep, and for $350, I have a year’s supply of meat. Beats the hell out of all that gardening for value and effort, let me tell you…….

I can tell you from experience that it takes YEARS to turn crap soil into good soil. My last project took me that long, but I’m running out of years, and this time I’m speeding the process up with money and fossil fuels before it’s too late….. because my dear Jimmy, we don’t have ten years left….. in fact, we may have only FIVE….. the oil industry is as good as bankrupt, and without the master resource we call oil, not a lot is going to happen…….

We will NEVER have 10 billion here on Earth (thank bloody goodness…), in fact, a big famine is coming, because we have dug ourselves into a great big hole called Fossil Fueled Civilisation.

I hope you know how to grow food. Or take one of their workshops, QUICK!





Post collapse, just what will we eat…..?

21 11 2017

Further to my post where I explained how Australia’s poor soils are largely incapable of growing much more than meat, this article landed in my news feed…

Here’s a list of what Australian farmers produce:

  • Each year, on average each Australian farmer feeds 600 people.
  • Agriculture powers 1.6 million Australian jobs.
  • Australian farmers manage 48 per cent of the nation’s landmass.
  • Cattle, wheat and whole milk are our top three commodities by value.
  • More than 99% of Australia’s agricultural businesses are Australian owned.
  • Out of the $58.1 billion worth of food and fibre Australian farmers produced in 2015-16 77 per cent ($44.8 billion) was exported. 
  • 6.8 million hectares of agricultural land has been set aside by Australian farmers for conservation and protection purposes.
  • Australian farmers are among the most self-sufficient in the world, with government support for Australian farms representing just 1% of farming income. In Norway it is 62%, Korea 49%, China 21%, European Union 19% and United States 9%.

Farm facts by commodity

  • In total, Australian beef cattle farmers produce 2.5 million tonnes of beef and veal each year. Australians eat an average 26kg of beef per person, per year. 
  • Australians consume an average of 45.3kg of chicken meat per person, per year. This not only cements chicken’s position as Australian consumers’ favourite meat, but also makes Australia one of the largest consumers of chicken meat in the world!
  • In a normal year, Australia’s cotton growers produce enough cotton to clothe 500 million people.
  • Australia produces about 3 per cent of the world’s cotton but is the fifth largest exporter, behind the USA, India, Brazil, Uzbekistan.
  • Australian dairy farmers produce 9,539 million litres of whole milk per year with the farmgate value of milk production being $4.3 billion.
  • On average, each Australian eats 3.08kg of dried fruit per year. Total Australian dried fruit exports in 2015–16 totalled 5,000 tonnes and was valued at $19.4 million.
  • The Australian forestry, logging and wood manufacturing industry employs 64,300 in the forest products industry. At the end of 2010, 13,067 million tonnes of carbon was held in Australia’s forests and harvested wood products in service and in landfill. Almost all this carbon 12,841 million tonnes – 98% was stored in living forest.
  • Australia’s grains industry accounts for more than 170,000 jobs across Australia from farm to export dock. About 65% of Australia’s grain is exported, including up to 90% of that grown per annum in Western Australia and South Australia.
  • Australians consumed more than 27kg of pig meat per person in 2015–16; ranked second behind poultry.  The Australian pig herd is free from many serious viral and bacterial diseases afflicting other pork producing countries.
  •  In 2016–17 there were 772 farmers who harvested rice, a significant increase on the 347 growers from the year prior. Australian rice growers use 50% less water to grow one kilo of rice than the world average.
  • Australia is the world’s largest exporter of sheepmeat, and is the world’s third largest producer of lamb and mutton. In 2016–17, Australians, on average, ate 9.5 kg of mutton and lamb per person.
  • The sugar industry directly employs some 16,000 people. The world’s principal sugar exporters in 2015–16 were Brazil, Thailand, Australia and India.
  • Wool production for 2016–17 is forecast to increase by 4.3%, to 339 million kilograms (greasy) from the estimated 2015–16 production period. The increase is largely the result of excellent seasonal conditions in many areas resulting in higher fleece weights.

So, I ask you, WHERE do our fruit and veggies come from?

We may export 77% of what we produce, but it’s all meat, dairy, grains, and wool or cotton……  the money earned therefrom pays for the importation of fruit and veggies not farmed here. In a post oil crash, most of that stuff we export will no longer be made, because it all utterly depends on fertilisers and tractors and harvesters……. If we can’t afford to import non meat/dairy food, will we all turn into carnivores…?

These are serious questions to ponder…..

The mobile butcher came this afternoon, and cut up our two sheep, which are now in the freezer.  We won’t be starving, that’s for sure!

If you are vegan, you might also like (or not..!) to read this… https://qz.com/1131428/if-the-entire-us-went-vegan-itd-be-a-public-health-disaster/





Self sufficiency, comes at a price……

14 11 2017

IF you are one of my vegan friends, turn away, don’t read this…..  this morning, our two wethers met their fate and will be in our freezer next week.

I originally bought them 14 months ago with two young ewes, which have now both lambed, thanks to 20171104_184005Matt my neighbor who kindly allowed me to have them serviced by his ram. It’s a cooperative thing, all his Wilties are now on our orchard, gorging on luscious grass now going ballistic. We’ve had copious rain, and yesterday, today, and tomorrow, it’s hotter here than in Brisbane…. and the grass loves it! Normal Tasmanian weather will resume tomorrow afternoon!

As I have mentioned here before, our farm’s land capability, as it is officially known, is class 4 which is perfect for pastures, and therefore grazing animals. We are also lucky that our pastures have actually been improved by previous owners, and it’s great animal fattening land. We are not exactly making the most of it yet, because fully one third of our property is yet to have more animals eating our grass….. most likely, Matt’s cows will be put to the test soon!

20171114_091836We can’t eat grass, but the sheep can, and it’s a simple process to convert grass into protein for human consumption. The hard part is always the killing, which I do not enjoy, until the delicious result is on the table. And believe me, this is by far the best way to get high quality meat. The two wethers have had a great, if admittedly short life, and were never mistreated, right up til the very end……..

When the time came, one bullet is all it took, they never knew what happened…… stress20171114_092600 free meat means no adrenaline in the system, makes for better meat, and you can’t do it more humanely. The mobile butchers were efficient beyond belief, they were only here for forty minutes, and both carcasses were in their mobile cold room ready for cutting up later, all in that short time.  It actually took me longer to dispose of the leftovers, now composting for future use in the market garden. NOTHING is wasted…… this is how sustainable agriculture is done,

With the state of our soils in Tasmania and virtually everywhere else in Australia, incapable as they are of growing high energy food like grain and vegetables without loads of fossil energy inputs, I believe that in a post crash era we will be eating even more meat than we are currently…. and in any case, I’m sure we’ll be eating a lot less of everything, period…..





AGA Saga MkII well underway…….

7 11 2017

My latest AGA Saga (the first one in Qld and the wood conversion story are actually the top rating blog entries on DTM, getting 3 to 12 hits very single day….) began when I won the jackpot by finding a four oven model in the Adelaide Hills. Every AGA I had laid eyes on before this looked pretty sad from the outside, but was usually in pretty good order internally. This one was the complete opposite……

When I picked it up, it had been pulled apart by a secret society of AGA engineers member, for all its flaws to be displayed. The most obvious was the ginormous crack in the outer barrel almost certainly caused by some imbecile wrapping a copper pipe around it to make hot water; the shock of applying cold water to near red hot cast iron was simply too much for the brittle material, it must have gone with a loud bang……

The internet is a wonderful thing, however, and over the years I’ve made friends with other AGA officionados, swapping ideas and titbits that have at times I’m sure come in handy. So when Geoff contacted me, he put a whole new slant on the internet coming to the rescue…..

Geoff isn’t going to convert his AGA to wood, no, he’s going to run it on solar PV! Now we all know what I think of using electricity to make heat, let alone solar electricity, but Geoff is one of those clever guys who does things differently, like you know who, and he just might pull it off. Watch this space…… On the strength of our online discussions, Geoff even started a facebook group for anyone interested in the old stoves.

Because Geoff’s AGA will not be needing ‘a fire’, he has no use for all the bits that are relevant to said fire…. so he offered me his outer barrel for a price that was more than competitive with that of my usual UK source of parts. And besides, because it only needed to cross Bass Strait rather than come half way ’round the world, I would not have to pay the eye watering shipping fees either.

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Great packing job (bubble wrap removed), it all arrived in perfect condition

I then wondered if if he could also part with the exhaust channel that bolts to the outer barrel, and runs atop the top oven, on its way to the manifold (the bit I replaced in Qld) and the flue. When he sent me a photo of the one he had, I was blown away….. it looked brand new! Yep, I’ll have that too…… and I have to add, I had not realised just how bad mine was until I put the two together side by side. The mating flanges on both parts were very badly corroded/eroded.

Along with the new steel manifold my

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New steel manifold made in one piece instead of the three cast original parts.

mate Pete welded together for me in Geeveston, the entire exhaust system will be as good as new. The old one was all warped, and corroded/eroded just like the rest of the flueways… I opted to not put a vent pipe in this one, I think it keeps the flue too cold causing some of the gumming up problems I encountered in Qld….. the vent pipe was missing from the parts I picked up anyway, maybe it was removed at the time this stove was wood converted.

I paid Geoff to pack it all up on a cut down pallet so that Tasfreight could easily handle the parts with a forklift (it was actually one of their requirements), and he even threw in a couple of tie down straps, which I’m sure I will make use of in the future. Thank you Geoff, you’re a champ!

Spot the difference……..!

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In retrospect, I now realize how lucky I was getting this barrel and flueway. For starters, I had put the barrel in for repairs at the local engineering store. Welding it back into shape would have been a hell of a job, because the entire casting would have had to be heated to several hundred degrees first, and there would have been little chance of getting the machined surfaces top and bottom parrallel. Secondly, whilst the exhaust port’s machined surface was not as bad as that of the flueway, I would never in a million years have achieved a satisfactory seal between the two, and it may have cost me as much as what this current exercise cost me….. and there was no guarantee the weld would even hold….

In typical Tasmanian fashion, the engineers put it in the too hard basket, and saved my bacon it now turns out….. some things are just meant to happen.

The next big step with this project will be designing and manufacturing a wetback for the big stove. AGA never made one for reasons I can’t fathom, I’m sure it’s doable, and anyone wanting to do this too will soon enough have access to the open source information I gladly supply.

Now all I need is a house and kitchen to move all the bits into so I can put the big and heavy jigsaw puzzle back together…..





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.