The Environment – The Home
“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Too often, we think of ourselves as separate from nature and assume that we have the ability to transcend it but, continually, new discoveries suggest that human history has been decided by evolutionary factors out of our control and the present is not exempt from this reality. Or as George Carlin suggested, the desire to save all sorts of species and the planet is just another example of civilization’s arrogance, and we are not as special as we think. “The planet has been through a lot worse than us… Hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages. And we think some plastic bags and some aluminium cans are going to make a difference. The planet isn’t going anywhere, we are! And we won’t leave much of a trace either – thank God for that –, maybe a little Styrofoam. The planet will be here and we’ll be long gone – just another failed mutation. Just another closed-end biological mistake. An evolutionary cul-de-sac. The planet will shake us off like a bad case of fleas, a surface nuisance… The planet will be here for a long, long, long time after we’re gone and it will heal itself, it will cleanse itself because that’s what it does. It’s a self correcting system – the air and the water will recover, the Earth will be renewed. And if it is true that plastic is not degradable, well the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm – the Earth plus plastic. The Earth doesn’t share our prejudice towards plastic – plastic came out of the Earth. The Earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason that the Earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place – it wanted plastic for itself, didn’t know how to make it and needed us. It could be the answer to the age old philosophical question ‘Why are we here?’ Plastic, assholes!”
“Above, far above the prejudices and passions of men soar the laws of nature. Eternal and immutable, they are the expression of the creative power; they represent what is, what must be, what otherwise could not be. Man can come to understand them: he is incapable of changing them.” – Vilfredo Pareto
Today, economics is a misunderstood concept. Politicians have twisted it, mainstream academia has tortured it, mainstream media has totalled it. Anytime you hear the word economics from mainstream institutions, just assume lies and disinformation are heading your way. Ignore all of it – and most people already do.
As discussed in mathematician David Orrell’s book, Economyths, orthodox economics is a theory, or rather an ideology designed by the rich and for the rich, and with virtually no scientific basis. What follows from this is the logical suggestion that “having a training in economics is actually a liability when it comes to reliable economic analysis.”
Orrell explains: “many of the new ideas that are revitalising economics come from diverse areas such as complexity, network theory, psychology and systems biology – far outside the standard economics curriculum. When a field is in as poor a state as economics, being an outsider is a distinct advantage because it allows you to analyse the problems without having to justify previous theories that you were exposed to early in your career and feel compelled to defend.”
As with any other subject which touches on the truths of this world, huge effort is made by those in power to pervert, suppress or re-align the information produced, researched and consumed on that subject, as well as there being an internal re-alignment produced from normal people trying not to step too hard on the toes of power.
It is rather obvious that economics as taught today is virtually a total write-off. So let’s start again. I do not claim to know or understand how the entire economy functions – that’s the first mistake so-called economic experts make – it is far too complex. But I intend here to make sure we have down some fundamental principles and key pieces of information without which humanity will only perpetuate its collective misunderstanding of this vast subject.
Orrell identifies the basis of where economics is going wrong and presents some reasoned conclusions: “The whole idea of a fundamental law given by a simple equation is applicable only to certain specialised cases such as gravity.” “There are no fixed laws – only general fuzzy principles that can be roughly captured by rules of thumb but rarely conforming to neat mathematical equations.”
He suggests that, since the traditional reductionist approach doesn’t work, the alternative lies with the work of complexity scientists, who develop computer models which may be used in the future to explain markets, economies and weather patterns. The problem with this though, is one of finite time. There may well be good, important work going on in this new branch of science. But ultimately if we are talking about systems incorporating an inordinate number of factors which produce trends then, as we see from weather forecasts, no amount of modelling is going to make predictions 100% accurate.
Basing our decisions on laws and models developed by science will always be worse than trusting in our own common sense, logic and intuition unless we spend entire lifetimes on them. The one program which can best put together numerous inputs, factors and simple mathematical laws for everyday issues and come out with a good prediction is the human mind. There simply isn’t enough time or money in the world to employ a scientist to develop a program for every facet of our lives. We cannot ask someone to produce a model to tell us at what price we should market our goods; or when exactly we should look round to keep an eye on our child on the climbing frame; or to show the best method of interaction with a new social group. These decisions are and will always be based on individual and group knowledge and experience and applied through common sense because that is what our minds are for, and doing it another way is bound to be less efficient. This is not to mention the class divisions and corruption inevitably created by handing authority over predictions and decisions to a small group, and leading to the iron law of oligarchy coming to fruition as usual (more on that later).
Of course, Orrell isn’t suggesting that computer models be used in every facet of everyday life, but my feeling is that after a certain amount of complexity, a system is best processed and understood by the organic mind. It is difficult to draw a boundary between systems which could be better processed by computers through several mathematical equations and models, and systems which could be better processed by the human mind through knowledge based common sense and intuition but clearly subjects such as economics, local markets and weather forecasting are proven to be better understood by human or animal processing, specifically where local knowledge and experience are applied. Nonetheless, a systems approach to economics is a great development as the subject is so complex.
So why, if we are talking about economics, is this chapter named ‘environment.’ Well, as Satish Kumar points out in his little anecdote from a TEDx talk , any study of economics without first having some ecological understanding is simply farcical. It should not be forgotten that the word ‘economy’ contains the word ‘eco’ although most of the Western world seems to have been convinced that this must be an optical illusion – or a double think. Let’s return to the Greek: Economy – management of the home; Ecology – knowledge of the home. Try to manage that which you have no knowledge of and you’ll not do very well, so it is unsurprising that professional economists don’t do very well when the institutions teaching them don’t include any ecological training in their curriculum.
I would also suggest that to truly know something, you must practice the management of it. Whilst I don’t have much respect for academia in general, at least mathematicians do sums, physicists conduct experiments, literary experts read literature and biologists dissect organisms. But economists? – they just write and philosophise. Practicing economics would mean doing normal everyday jobs. None of this is to say that there hasn’t been great economic thought produced through the history of civilization – but it is rare and made into something unnecessarily complicated.
The reason we all find it so difficult to understand the economy is because the economic reality we live in is so complex (not the same as complicated). How many different specialised jobs are there? – probably not far off one for every billionth person on Earth. How many trades take place daily over the world? And how many of us can say we know where everything we consume comes from and where everything we produce goes? It is an impossibility for we, who live in this globalised economy, to understand it. Our home is a vast one, and it can only be managed, though inefficiently, by our collective intelligence, yet understood by none of us.
There are those however, who do know every job, every trade and every product which passes through their world. It is those who aren’t part of the complex globalised economy – the self-sufficient farmers, the tribal hunter-gatherers, the practicing indigenous people of the Earth who truly understand the real subject of economics. They can observe their entire economy and therefore have a much more complete understanding of the process. So to grasp the fundamental economic principles, we must look to the simpler indigenous ways of life.
Our parlance often makes people associate the word stupid with the word simple and the word clever with the word complex, but this is the opposite of the truth. Systems, economic or otherwise, which are more complex are inevitably more stupid since more complexity just increases the number of factors that can go wrong. Simple economies are much cleverer because anyone with a brain wants to keep the number of factors which may go wrong down to a minimum. It is ok to design more intricacy and complexity into a system over time, as indigenous people have been doing over thousands of years, as long as you have the capacity to know and understand that system. But if you haven’t the mental capacity to understand the entirety of a system, it is idiotic to stick with such a system.
It is the indigenous peoples of the world who are campaigning hardest to protect the Earth and in Bolivia, with an indigenous majority, a law to protect Mother Earth has been passed, because these people do not see the environment and the economy as separate. It should hardly surprise us that the people living closest to nature understand life better than the rest of us – just like people who have grown up in the city understand its cycles and processes better than people who move in from the country.
There are so many factors involved in every task and every environment, be it human or natural factors, that it is only possible for the human mind to adapt to each whilst experiencing each. We learn so much faster when we are exposed to the task or environment we are learning about. This is why an aboriginal hunter gatherer will always have a better chance in the Australian bush than someone who has studied aboriginal hunter gathering all their life in textbooks – even a Ray Mears type, with practical experience in other hunter gatherer environments. The nuances of each situation must be understood to tackle that situation most effectively – prescriptive means of decision making cannot compete with this approach. This may otherwise be called common sense or just normal human thinking
As pleasant as it may sound to revere the indigenous people of Bolivia, Colombia, Australia and elsewhere for their noble values, and they should most certainly be listened to, ultimately they are no different to the rest of us. Their attitudes towards the Earth are better because they have greater experience of how the Earth works, just as their attitude towards humanity is better because they have a greater understanding of more natural human communities than Western urbanites. These people are the world’s expert economists. They understand how the Earth’s resources can be applied to the human world better than Milton Friedman or any Nobel prize winner.
Economics is the basic laws of science – laws of physics, laws of biology, laws of chemistry, laws of psychology, laws of sociology, laws of neuroscience etc – applied to the human world via the Earth’s resources. It is the law of the home as a continuation of the laws of nature. What is conveniently forgotten by the ‘civilized’ people is that you cannot keep a home without interacting with nature – to provide food, water, energy and building materials. Economics cannot be separated from natural processes if economies are to survive and indeed if humanity is to survive in any meaningful sense. Economies may be able to exploit nature sustainably but they cannot plunder nature (which includes homo sapiens) if they wish to prosper for all and for the long term.
As was said by a Nasa Indian in Colombia, when gold miners were looking to go digging using poisonous mercury on Indian land: “How do you expect to create employment by poisoning the Earth”. It is a link that the West continuously fails to understand, let alone tackle. And if it isn’t understood, the economy, along with its users, will cease to exist. If there is no home, there is no home to be managed. The Indians, having politely asked the miners to go away and realising the miners were armed, took direct action in the spirit of non-violent resistance and set fire to the miner’s machinery – a sensible decision in the business of household management.
I think I have made it clear that I value the economic understanding of indigenous peoples above that of people, and particularly leaders, in the propagandised West. But believing that the economic principles of pre-agricultural societies are more sensible than the economic principles of agricultural societies is not the same as romanticising one culture over another. It is just a fact that the development of agriculture put human society out of sync with the laws of nature, and an increasingly agricultural society is also an increasingly unsustainable one, mainly because people lose touch with their environment and so fail to understand how to manage their own home.
The Gayanashagowa – the Great Binding Law of the Iroquois constitution – stresses quite clearly the importance of sustainability and why the Iroquois must think of the welfare of the unborn of the future nation. This is commonly seen as the philosophy “think seven generations” and is extremely relevant to good horticultural practice. It is no surprise that inspiring philosophies like this emanate from cultures which have had a strong horticultural backbone. A well managed garden will naturally sway one’s thinking toward sustainability because in a good garden the results of recycling are quick to be realised and responding to feedback is an everyday task rather than something disconnected from one’s life.
The thought that we must strike a balance between the needs of nature and the needs of humans, or prefer one over the other, is embedded deeply in our culture. But it is a false and delusional mindset. It comes from the laws of energy conservation – one of the fundamentals of science which, as discussed by Rupert Sheldrake in the Science Delusion, pervades our society in every manner.  The idea that an economy or an ecosystem could grow as the result of a positive feedback loop seems as alien to us as the idea of a perpetual motion machine. But the former is proven, and although it can be explained within the laws of energy conservation, the suggestion is still contrary to our cultural doctrines.
What goes up must come down; what goes around comes around; every action has an equal and opposite reaction; things turn out right in the end. In the physical world, or at least that part which is relevant to our lives, these laws are proven scientifically, but it is not only the subjects of dark matter and black holes where Einstein’s reality and the universe’s reality may contradict each other.
When we come to the world of human society, these laws completely collapse. We all know that this world is not a balanced place. Those who go up, stay up and those who go down, stay down. The rich do not get their comeuppance nor do the poor find their salvation. Revolutions do not rebalance good and evil. Perpetual motion machines have not been invented but systems of perpetual suffering have been. None of these obvious truths contradict the physical laws of energy conservation because that has to do with atoms and mechanics and not the suffering of individual organisms (suffering is not measurable by mathematics). But the problem is that our culture has managed to paint everything in this world as if observing the laws of energy conservation, and not just physical realities.
Most people – whether liberal or conservative, religious or atheistic, scientific or spiritual (none of these are necessarily opposites by the way – they are simply dualistic or cognitive dissonance traps) – seem to have an outlook on the world which centres around the idea that human society is cyclical in its fairness and will or does even itself out. For some individuals, depending on their persuasion, presumably the world goes through bad periods and good periods of varying lengths (war-peace/conservative government-liberal government/boom-bust/freedom-tyranny), whilst others feel like the world has been getting progressively worse since the 2008 crash/the 70’s/the enlightenment/Christ/the advent of agriculture, and a revolution of sorts is around the corner when justice will prevail. This is all despite the ultimate desired result as being a world of perpetual peace on Earth, which is hardly equilibrium. So even though people look at the world as a place where some sort of balance is being or will be struck between good and evil, everybody still thinks that good will, once established, proceed to dominate forever.
Of course it is right to believe in this last point, but by getting rid of the belief in cyclical equilibriums in society, rather than just hoping that it might be possible, you can realise that a harmonious, though not perfect, world is a concrete option which does not contradict the laws of human nature in any way. The psychological difference between knowing that something is possible and hoping that something is possible is quite huge because the world of peace and justice becomes not a question of if but of when.
To ignore positive feedback and negative feedback, virtuous cycles and vicious cycles is to ignore economic reality, yet the laws of energy conservation, drilled into us from an early age, lead us to assume that these phenomena don’t exist in the real world. The demographic transition model, taught to children in geography class is a real example of a virtuous circle, and perhaps that is one reason why we never really get to grips with economic theory – the other being the fact that not even basic economics is taught in schools.
The rather simple solution to the seemingly conflicting theories of energy conservation and feedback loops is that not all systems are in equilibrium. Separate systems can balance each other out without having any internal balance. Because ultimately there are no separate systems, just one system: the universe; or for real life purposes, the Earth. And to our knowledge, before Rupert Sheldrake or the inventor of a perpetual motion machine proves differently, the Earth at least must be in more or less overall equilibrium. As long as all positive feedback loops are balanced by negative feedback loops, it doesn’t matter what happens within those loops. And after all, not all of these loops are energy systems anyway. Many of the virtuous/vicious cycles – at least those with a primarily social context – could be merely human labels with no bearing on physical energy. So positive feedback is perfectly explicable mathematically, yet we find it so difficult to exclude the assumption of balance and equilibrium from even the smallest systems and think along the lines of feedback loops since we have been trained away from this pattern of thought.
Land, Labour, Capital
“Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence.” – Malcolm X
The supposed superiority of civilization is a constant theme in economic thought, more so today than ever despite the apparent social progress of equality and political correctness in the West. But delve into John Pilger’s analysis of the continued plight of Australian aborigines, and you will realise that the attitude of those in power has not changed one bit. They simply use politically correct language and talk about social equality whilst perpetuating the established discriminatory economic policies.  Aboriginal people are not discriminated against because of their race, but because they refuse to adopt or adhere to the Western economic religion and its unfair outcomes.
Even Adam Smith casts aside the wisdom of tribal people. He begins ‘The Wealth of Nations’ by patronising the so-called “savage nations of hunters and fishers.” “Their (the more opulent nations) lands are in general better cultivated, and having more labour and expense bestowed upon them, produce more in proportion to the extent of the natural fertility of the ground.” This has been disproven by biological and ecological evidence – the harder humans work the land in an agricultural manner, the less productive it will in fact become.
The classical liberal economic theory produced by the renaissance began with Thomas Hobbes, followed by John Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau and David Hume. Though he started in the right place – the ‘state of nature’, as penned in Leviathan – Hobbes, like Smith and most of the others, looked down his nose at indigenous people themselves.
The rare useful economic and political thought coming from the civilized world tends to come from those who have taken some of their understanding from indigenous economies. Though many of those scholars have not been critical of the progress of civilization, I don’t see it as coincidence that they were influenced by a perspective on the world which can come only from thinking about how humans evolved to live in the first place. The famed 14th century Muslim economist and historian Ibn Khaldun spent time with a Berber tribe whilst writing The Muqaddimah – arguably the first attempt to synthesise all the sciences.
And Henry George, surely the most important economist you haven’t heard of (for good reason, and we’ll come to that later too), recognised that he needed to start his analysis, in his great text Progress and Poverty, from where humans started their journey – the uncivilised world.
Perhaps the most well known reference to Henry George is the board game Monopoly, originally called ‘The Landlords Game,’ and devised by a Georgist follower Elizabeth Maggie Phillips to teach people about George’s economic theories. The best introduction to Georgist economics I can think of is a passage I never forgot from childhood. Growing up in the mainstream globalised West, there aren’t many opportunities to hear aboriginal wisdom, and that’s probably why the aboriginal movie Crocodile Dundee was alluring. Mick ‘Crocodile’ Dundee is asked by the New York based female reporter he later woos, what he thinks of the Aboriginal claims to the land (Australian outback): “Well, you see, Aborigines don’t own the land. They belong to it. It’s like their mother. See those rocks? Been standing there for 600 million years. Still be there when you and I are gone. So arguing over who owns them is like two fleas arguing over who owns the dog they live on.”
If you want one book to properly understand real economics and political economy, there is none other than Progress and Poverty. And I do believe George achieves his intent: “What I have done in this book is to unite the truth perceived by Smith and Ricardo (classical economists) with the truth perceived by Proudhon and Lassalle (socialist reformers). I have shown that laissez faire – in its full, true meaning – opens the way for us to realize the noble dreams of socialism.”
Henry George points out that the key misunderstanding in mainstream economics – whether neoliberal or socialist – is that only labour and capital are considered when in fact it is LAND, LABOUR and CAPITAL, in that order, which are the three factors of production (I will use the phrase ‘the commons’ instead of land as that is more relevant to today). If an economic system is about human activity, then it must have an ethical basis because every human society in history has conformed to ethical standards. The purpose of economics – why we manage the home – must be to fulfil human needs and genuine desires. And it is basic motherhood and apple pie stuff to conclude that the land (perhaps better thought of as location or resources in modern parlance) or anything gifted to us by nature, god or our collective ancestry, belongs to everyone equally, and the rights to the commons cannot be monopolized by a few individuals. Yet the economic system we live in starts with the quite bizarre, unnatural and obviously unfair concept of private ownership of the commons. If land/resources/locations are enclosed and monopolized, the inevitable result is both progress and poverty – it divides people into haves and have-nots before they even enter into competition. It would be like starting a soccer match with 11 people on one side and 2 on the other. Clearly nothing of note can be read into the result. And yet that is where mainstream economic analysis begins. The two players could be Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, but they have been beaten 35 – 0, therefore they must be bad at football! Ridiculous analysis of course, but this is what public intellectuals referred to as ‘economists’ essentially conclude.
No matter how much competition you would like to see in the economic system, you must first ensure there is a level playing field. That is essentially what Henry George is pointing out and the only reason the civilized world fails to see this is because of the constant, enveloping indoctrination and propaganda put out by the media, government, corporations and educational establishments controlled by those very monopolists. Monopolies are really the key to the unequal distribution of wealth and George simply proposed methods to prevent their formation and perpetuation.
It is said that Georgism lies in the ‘radical centre’ of the political spectrum. The left don’t like it because it encourages the concept of free markets and the right doesn’t like it because it discourages the concept of property. Both these critiques are based on misinterpretations of George’s proper understanding of ‘free markets’ and ‘property.’ If we apply John Stuart Mill’s proper definition of liberty, then a truly free market is a market in which there are no limitations to what can be traded until what is being traded has or will hurt others, and monopolising the commons clearly hurts others because people depend on the commons for their survival, particularly in a world where there is now definitively no unclaimed land. Private property is that which a person has earned legitimately through their labour and only God or Mother Nature laboured to provide land. A house can be private property because the owner laboured or traded their labour to build it. But the land, the air and water around the house, the rocks beneath the house, the electromagnetic spectrum and the government built road and rail connections nearby are not private property – they are common property. George completely blows apart the very concept of a political spectrum through the re-application of quite obvious and simple indigenous wisdom.
There is a mythological piece of propaganda known as the ‘tragedy of the commons’ which serves to try to convince people that private ownership of land is acceptable. Believing in the ‘tragedy of the commons’ is akin to believing that humans are both stupid and unable to communicate and co-operate. Since humans evolved successfully to live in social groups with common ownership of land, it is ridiculous to suggest that people naturally get themselves into a situation where resources are depleted from common ownership.
The commons are what is provided by nature, God, ancestral or voluntary endeavour and they belong to no private individual but to everybody equally. Labour is what only humans provide and only the input of labour can turn the commons into capital. Labour is owned only by the individual. Humans must have the freedom to choose how they direct their labour. Capital is that which is legitimately private property. What was once the commons has had appropriate human labour of some form injected into it to add real value, without having hurt any human of today or tomorrow – that is real capital and it can be owned by those labourers to use, exchange or give away as they wish.
Any four year-old understands the concepts of the commons, labour and capital intuitively, even when what would appear on paper as the most complex of cases presents itself. Let’s say a grandparent gives their grandchild a toy to take home; the child is then questioned by the parents as to how they acquired the toy, answers ‘Granny gave it to me’ and is, subject to grandparental conformation, allowed to keep it. The toy was the capital of the grandparent and was gifted to the child so the child takes legitimate ownership. Now suppose the child took a toy from their grandparent without asking – a whole different set of results would follow because there was no permission given by the owner of the capital. And now imagine the voluntarily given toy was instead an unhealthy sweet. The parent will intervene and may confiscate the item to cries of ‘no Mummy, mine!’ – a legitimate complaint. But the parent also has capital in the form of their child’s health and wellbeing and this can take precedence over the rights of the child to their sweet. This decision may require some diplomatic or authoritarian negotiation, possibly to settle that the child may have the sweet at a later date. And then what if the parent consumed the sweet themselves, so breaking the agreement? That we can all understand exactly what the right answers are in webs of interactions as complex as this shows that, deep down, we are all Georgists and indigenous thinkers. There are obviously grey areas and overlaps. There are no easy to read lines in the sand when it comes to determining what is commons, labour or capital but we shouldn’t be looking for lines and prescriptive definitions. We have been indoctrinated into thinking about wealth in the most absurd and false terms by so-called experts when the correct assessments of justice and injustice, economic or otherwise, are what they have always been – a matter of common sense.
True prophets, dissidents and social reformers have always talked about economic rights, not only political and judicial rights, and always with a strong focus on access to land, or ‘the commons’ and the monopolisation of those factors of production. Even whole religions have, for millennia, chosen to avoid focusing on the economic truths pointed out by Henry George, despite having been founded on those truths. Jesus was well aware that ‘it’s the economy stupid!’
In a lecture called Jesus: Why He Had To Die, the Georgist economist Fred Harrison lays out some of the often overlooked truths that Jesus was so passionate about preaching and argues that speaking this economic truth to power was the reason he was killed. In Mark 12 and 13, Jesus talks about the economics of land and rent via the parable of the vineyard, followed by the famous “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Other than to skilfully avoid being incriminated, Jesus is eluding to the fact that the land itself is God’s gift to all mankind whilst the coinage is the creation of Caesar’s and he is entitled to it – but not entitled to all the wealth claimed by that currency – the income from rent comes from the land and belongs to God, who wishes to gift it to the whole community.
And in Islam, the prophet Muhammad focused greatly on the scourge of monopoly in the markets of Medina. Some edicts were that: “No one hoards but the traitors (i.e. the sinners).” [Abu Da’ud, No. 2990]; Keeping the commodities of general use in possession and not supplying them in the market for the sake of increasing the price is prohibited [Ahmed-Bin-Hanbal: 19802]; Trying to buy commodities before they reach market is prohibited because market will decide the price [Muslim: 1517]. Adam Smith similarly observed: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”
All the great wisdom commonly sidelined in our own civilized culture comes from the same general economic ideas as those of Henry George. What comes very easily to prophets, and to indigenous people because of their real-time experience of the workings of a full, cyclical economy, has been thought over and written down in a much more complex and convoluted way by numerous philosophers and economists, and none of it is as complete as George’s understanding. Instead, those enlightenment thinkers built their work up gradually over the course of a whole century. This made it susceptible to misunderstanding and misrepresentation since ideas are less digestible when they have been accumulated by many minds with changing language and culture over time – the old camel by committee problem.
And so when Thomas Jefferson’s inherent biases (owning plantations) were applied to his drafting of the declaration of independence, that rather woolly public understanding of the basic ethics underlying economics meant he wasn’t pulled up when changing John Locke’s ‘life, liberty and estate’ into ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ 
Indeed the great renaissance men and classical liberals, like those of the Lunar Society of Birmingham who are applauded for kick-starting Britain and the world’s industrial revolution, based their fortunes on the enclosure and monopolisation of the commons. In a disparagingly elitist and biased manner, Matthew Boulton admitted as much: “I speak from experience; I founded my manufactory upon one of the most barren commons in England, where there existed but a few miserable huts filled with idle beggarly people, who by the help of the common land and a little thieving made shift to live without working. The scene is now entirely changed. I have employed a thousand men, women and children, in my aforesaid manufactory, for nearly thirty years past.” And thus do free people become turned into wage slaves whilst the environment suffers too. All the wealth accumulated in the soil, the water, the plants, the animals, the living standards and ecological knowledge of the people gets turned over into money and so we say the industrial revolution generated wealth. It did not generate wealth, it transferred wealth into money, so making it more measurable and more easily centralized and capitalized.
The gradual enclosure of the commons by those elites backed by the power of the state in Britain over the course of the last 500 years or so is what has enslaved the people, industrialised the world and poisoned it. At times in civilized human history, the common people have for a time, or to some extent reclaimed from elites the power that is rightfully theirs by securing some economic rights. This history is always untold but it is particularly significant in Britain. Whilst the Magna Carter (Great Charter) secured some political and judicial rights for commoners, less well known is the Charter of the Forest, penned two years later in 1217, which sought to secure economic rights by protecting the commons. But it wasn’t successful and despite the particularly long, and again untold, history of peasant revolt in Britain, the commoners today have less access to common resources than ever before. Until the original injustice of commons enclosure is resolved and access to land is a right given to all equally, civilization, globalization and inequality created by elites will continue to destroy the commoner human and the Earth by dividing them and conquering them both.
Steve Fraser’s The Age Of Acquiescence is billed as a sort of sequel to Mark Twain’s 1873 works The Gilded Age: A Tale Of Today, the inference being that we are today living through the second gilded age. The similarities are striking between the period of around 1870 – 1900 in the U.S. and the global Neoliberal period today. These are both times characterised by conspicuous displays of wealth, crony capitalism, extreme inequality and incredible political corruption. The thing which really stands out in these particularly decadent societies is that it becomes obvious poverty doesn’t simply live alongside great wealth. Poverty is in fact being actively created by great wealth. In the first gilded age, when people began to realise this, led by the likes of Henry George’s analysis in Progress and Poverty, the shocking injustice caused them to rise up in rebellion in many varied and fascinating ways. The difference in today’s gilded age is the lack of any well directed protest movement around the issue of inequality because the fact that poverty is created by progress from the monopolisation of common resources is not realised even amongst political activists.
The reverberations of the protests out of the first gilded age in America shaped the 20th century to a great degree. Out of an industrial environment, the struggle by two generations of the broad labour movements on both sides of the Atlantic managed to secure the first social safety nets in the form of welfare-states, followed by ‘Keynesian social democracy’ and what Fraser calls ‘civilised capitalism’ (not the same as my definition of ‘civilized’). This ‘responsible state capitalism’ approach, perhaps best represented by the Clement Attlee Labour Party government in the UK after the Second World War in the United Kingdom, remains popular amongst large sections of the general public and its erosion during this second gilded age of neo-liberalism is greatly bemoaned. But was ‘benign’ industrial state capitalism ever really what the working classes of the industrial age intended? Or were they actually trying to restore traditional rural ways of life just as much as they were trying to make their new urban lives more tolerable?
Unfortunately, the securing of the welfare states was more of a consolation prize than the goal the working classes were seeking. In Britain, Lloyd George’s People’s Budget was rejected in unison by the entrenched landowning interests in the House of Lords, in the process breaking the Lord’s constitutional protocol of not being allowed to oppose monetary bills, and enraging the public. The Budget originally included a poorly drafted version of land taxes but despite an impassioned speech by Lloyd George in Limehouse, East London, explaining the moral rationale behind land taxes, they had dropped out of the British legal and economic systems and out of the public consciousness by the 1920’s.
The peers eventually backed down and the 1911 Act of Parliament finally gave the elected House of Commons supremacy over the House of Lords, but their work was done. Partly aided by the ineptitude of Lloyd George’s Liberal Party, the elite had succeeded in dampening down public angst over inequality by dolling out the chicken feed which is social security, rather than addressing the real solutions to poverty, as explained by Henry George.    
As this second gilded age comes to its flash points, such as when the so-called ‘generation rent’ in Britain finally realise that the total un-affordability of housing and their indebtedness has turned them into neo-serfs, Henry George and the solution of land value taxes must once again be popularised. If it isn’t, the next round of chicken feed will be poisonous anyway.
Consumption and Production
“Any difficulty providing for an increasing population arises not from the laws of nature, but from social maladjustments. These are what condemn people to want in the midst of wealth.” – Henry George
In ‘Gaia: Medicine for an Ailing Planet,’ James Lovelock attempts to diagnose the Earth’s problems and possible solutions by viewing them as a physician might. His analogy of the presence of humans is to compare them to a ‘pathogenic micro-organism’ infecting the Earth: “As in human diseases, there are four possible outcomes: destruction of the invading disease organisms; chronic infection; destruction of the host; or symbiosis – a lasting relationship of mutual benefit to the host and invader. If micro-organisms were sentient, they would realize that in the long term their future lay in working to attain the fourth state.” Fortunate then, that we are sentient and that we know how to live in symbiosis with the Earth.
Lovelock is correct in his assertion that “at our present numbers and present way of living, they [pollutions] are insupportable. If unchecked, they will kill a great many of us and other species, and change the planet irreversibly.” He is also correct to say that it is our tribal background which has allowed this disease to spread. Sadly, like all subscribers to Malthusian economics, Lovelock fails to think enough about that second proviso – our present way of living. Nor does he realise that this human microorganism is not an individual, but is made up of many smaller micro-microorganisms which are themselves infected with a disease – psychopaths. These diseased micro-microorganisms have long been a part of the microorganism itself and have always caused irritation, but it is only in the last 12,000 years – when the microorganism entered a new environment – that they became actively destructive. This second disease is the root cause of the first disease, changing the behaviour of the microorganism, as parasites tend to do, and directing its host away from the symbiotic relationship it once had – and is more than capable of achieving again – with the larger host. As physicians should know, there is no point in trying to cure what is not understood.
The human is not a parasitic species and thinking of us as such, however well meaning the intentions may be, will not solve the problems which afflict the Earth – it will only expand the problems by allowing us to be pulled further down the psychopathic rabbit hole. The fourth state of which Lovelock speaks – symbioses – has been achieved for the majority of our species’ existence. We must concentrate on clearing ourselves of infection before we can possibly attempt to cure the Earth. Once we cure ourselves, symbioses will return as it is the natural state between human and Earth. To cure our disease is to cure the Earth’s.
To better come to terms with the interactions between humans and their environment, we must – as Henry George did – reject the economic doctrines of Thomas Malthus which pervade our civilized culture. Malthus’ apocalyptic warnings on population have consistently been proven wide of the mark. After, for example, claiming that China had a 60% higher population than its food resources could support in his 1798 works An Essay on the Principles of Population, China continued with its constant 2% per year growth rate, producing a non-starving population of 417 million by 1851 according to modern Western demographers.
The idea that the world’s human population level presents a problem to either humanity or the Earth is a fallacy of presumption. First, this theory contains a presumption that the Earth’s resources are finite, which is practically correct for anyone who is not a flat-earther (although meteorites and comets have technically added slightly to these resources). Second, it contains a presumption that humans need to use the Earth’s resources to live, which is correct. But third, it assumes that much of those resources cannot be re-used or recycled, which is incorrect. It assumes that unused waste is an economic inevitability when it is not.
Many well meaning people – environmental activists, humanists and seemingly pleasant public intellectuals like David Attenborough, a patron of the Population Matters think tank – feel strongly that we have overpopulated the planet and that we must become more responsible and humanely stabilise our population. But they have failed to ask the question: “Are we using the Earth’s resources in the most efficient way possible.” And the answer to this question is not simply no, it is a resounding nowhere near!
A great piece in the Guardian by comedian and activist Robert Newman reveals some of the unspoken truths that you would rarely find in a major newspaper’s environment pages. It was in response to a piece on David Attenborough, in which he said some pretty horrifying things, sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. There is the fact that the UN reported total fertility worldwide falling from an average of 4.5 children per woman in 1970-1975 to 2.6 children per woman in 2005-2010. Then there are the writings of the likes of H.G. Wells, W.B. Yeats, Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence from the first half of the 20th century, who wanted sterilisation and extermination of large numbers of people, supposedly to solve the homelessness crisis. Social housing was the solution to that problem, forced through by public pressure. And now we have a food problem, so the intellectuals come to the same conclusion, albeit toned down. But Newman says it right: “The problem is not that that there are too many people on too little land, but that there are too few people owning too much of it.”
The economist Paul Romer reckons that human material existence is limited by ideas, not stuff. “Every generation has perceived the limits to growth that finite resources and undesirable side effects would pose if no new recipes or ideas were discovered. And every generation has underestimated the potential for finding new recipes and ideas. We consistently fail to grasp how many ideas remain to be discovered. Possibilities do not add up. They multiply.”
Julian L. Simon’s work covers Malthusian fallacies very well. Following on from Ibn Khaldun and Esther Boserup’s theories (‘necessity is the mother of invention’), Simon was the economist who famously won a bet with Paul R. Ehrlich – the imbecilic neo-Malthusian author of The Population Bomb – on the predicted prices of various commodities. But the real point he was making was that humans, on average and as shown over the course of history, generally tend to produce more than they consume – subsistence grows faster than population.
Khaldun pointed out that this applies in civilized societies, though I would suggest it is more reliably observed in indigenous societies: “When civilization (population) increases, the available labour again increases. In turn, luxury again increases in correspondence with the increasing profit, and the customs and needs of luxury increase. Crafts are created to obtain luxury products. The value realized from them increases, and, as a result, profits are again multiplied in the town. Production there is thriving even more than before. And so it goes with the second and third increase. All the additional labour serves luxury and wealth, in contrast to the original labour that served the necessity of life.”
Simon rightly points out in The Ultimate Resource that, in any economically meaningful sense, the supply of natural resources is not finite. Whilst a rule is of finite length (12in/30cm), there are an unlimited (the word infinite can be misleading) number of points within than length. That said, his colleagues and successors from the Chicago school of Economics (many of whom, including Milton Friedman, were influential in justifying the economic policies of the Bush presidencies and the neo-liberal revolution in general) need to consider that his work does not support an irresponsible globalised trade system because of how that system fails to reliably consider externalities/pollution or recycle waste effectively.
Simon goes over the reasons for Malthus’ prediction failures. Essentially, Malthus and all the population doom-mongers fail to take into account some basic factors which allow more resource use. These are: recycling of resources; discovery of untapped resources; discovery or inventions of substitute products; and inventions and innovations which increase the ability to extract resources.
“It is all-important to recognize that discoveries of improved methods and of substitute products are not just luck. They happen in response to scarcity (an increase in cost). Scarcity and technological advance are not two unrelated competitors in a race; rather, each influences the other.” “There is no physical or economic reason why human resourcefulness and enterprise cannot forever continue to respond to impending shortages and existing problems with new expedients that, after an adjustment period, leave us better off than before the problem arose.”
It has long been posited by Malthusians that famine and starvation are consequences of population growth. But there has never been such a thing as a naturally induced famine – famines are always the result of political de-stabilisation and interference. “The economist Amartya Sen has shown that they [famines and shortages] can almost always be traced to short-lived conditions or to political and military upheavals that prevent food from reaching the people who need it.”
The reason farming is so backward is not because farmers are backward. The majority of farmers, like the majority of people, have more than enough brain cells to innovate their land use systems from their own imaginations. The trouble has always been that they have never been incentivised to do so due to their lack of true liberty.
The Irish famines occurred when the peasantry were driven into dire poverty by the British colonial government. Oliver Cromwell’s parliamentarians kept them in a repressed state aided by the massacres at Drogheda and Wexford and other sieges during the Irish Confederate Wars of 1641-1653. Once they had defeated the confederates, the parliamentarians then confiscated land from Irish Catholics as a punishment for rebellion.
A common response to adversity, as Julian Simon’s work explores, is to grow your population to increase economic output. However, if that economy is not resilient and is built on one or a few products, disaster will ensue. And it did in the 1840’s. The Irish peasants had to lease their plots of land by the year, therefore leaving no incentive to improve the land. Had the land been improved, the landlord could have siphoned off the extra profits by raising the rent the following year – or evict the peasants if they failed to comply. It forced the Irish to rely on the potato (a plant that didn’t take too little or too much out of the soil as well as providing a perfect nutritionally balanced diet when combined with butter – so actually a very intelligent choice if you are forced into such a situation) right into the 20th century. Obviously the British government ignored the Irish people and John Stuart Mill’s suggestions for alleviating Irish poverty, and the Great Famine was the inevitable result of their disastrous land use policies. 
Practically all agricultural disasters are caused by unresponsive, backward and tyrannical government policies and government control and conquest is the only reason agriculturalists have not managed to evolve and distribute more efficient food production methods in the past 10,000 years. Though even those crop failures needn’t have resulted in the tragedy of one million deaths since products like maize and beef were still doing fine (in fact 1847 saw a record maize crop) on the best quality Irish soil – they were just shipped to England in the midst of a people starving. It was in fact genocide, though the point about over-reliance on one crop still stands since the Irish people were not designated to be part of the maize or cattle market economy.
Henry George quotes a chaplain of the East India company from 1796: “When we reflect upon the great fertility of Hindostan, it is amazing to consider the frequency of famine. It is evidently not owing to any sterility of soil or climate; the evil must be traced to some political cause, and it requires but little penetration to discover it in the avarice and extortion of the various governments. The great spur to industry, that of security, is taken away. Hence no man raises more grain than is barely sufficient for himself, and the first unfavourable season produces a famine.”
Chairman Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ in the late 1950’s killed anything up to 45 million people and perhaps is the starkest warning against the dangers of central planning. It saw the Chinese Communist government interfere with the ordinary and everyday dealings of the Chinese people because even the cleverest of bureaucrats in an office somewhere are not and will never be capable of matching the collective intelligence of millions of people making billions of common sense based, interacting and evolving economic decisions. Though Mao conducted the great leap forward through coercion, terror and systematic violence, even a benign government (if such a thing could exist) cannot be allowed to interfere with directing the food supply because of the shortcomings of central planning and the food shortages, corruption and famines bound to result from it.
Left to their own devices and not interfered with by tyrants in one form or another, people all around the world will find ways to survive, grow their population, grow their wealth, grow their standard of life and sustain their environment, and perhaps even increase the biomass and biodiversity of their environment to boot. If you believe the pool of resources is limited this will not make logical sense, but resources are not limited, especially not when the ingenuity of humans is involved – humans being the ‘Ultimate Resource’ Julian Simon refers to. Recycling, new discoveries and inventions of substitute products, and inventions and innovations which increase economic efficiency see to it that, from a mathematical point of view the economy is not limited but can grow, at a certain speed at least, every year forever (if recycling is missing, it won’t last forever, but can last for a certain period of time – equating to the lifespan of the civilization in question).
China has managed to sustain a civilization and its soils for 4000 years through reliance on the sensible peasant practice humanure spreading. In Dirt: The erosion of civilisations, David Montgomery explains how the Chinese deliberately stuffed themselves full of rice in order to “reinvest their stock of natural capital” to replenish the soil. 
There are however, some limits when it comes to economic growth. They are rooted not in the maths, but in human nature. Whilst the potential for sustained economic growth is there for indigenous societies who are connected to nature and receive constant environmental feedback which forces them to take care of their environment, this is not so true for civilized societies. In civilized societies, consumption and production are separated and people cannot get to grips with their much more complex environment, especially since they are silo-ized in their different labour specializations. The result is that common sense, such as the importance of recycling – barely even necessary in an indigenous society since all waste is understood to be economically useful in some way – is often lost amongst the people in a civilization. The hierarchies created by agriculture mean decisions and policies are made by those at the top which are hostile to the general interests of the public. This affects the extent to which: recycling is seen as important in cultures; new discoveries are made; new products are invented and shared; and innovations of labour saving methods are found and allowed to exist. You can read up on Nicola Tesla if you want to get a gauge on how much technology has been suppressed by powerful monopolists.
These are, to my mind, the reasons why Jevon’s paradox exists. This is the observed fact that when technological progress increases the efficiency with which a resource is used (reducing the amount necessary for any one use), the rate of consumption of that resource rises because of increasing demand. We know that in the 20th century especially, industrialist elites have used marketing to artificially increase demand for their goods, thereby increasing consumption. The real economics of consumption to fulfill genuine needs and genuine wants may tell a different story. I strongly suspect that Jevons paradox does not exist in the same manner when it comes to indigenous societies and that when consumption increases in indigenous societies, production and recycling increase even more. So, when we consider the effects of human nature over time, the question as to whether growth can be unlimited has two basic answers: No in a centralized agricultural system; Yes in a decentralized production system adhering to indigenous economic principles.
The book 10 Billion by Stephen Emmott covers the topic of population which we are all very familiar with by now. It talks of many of the same things we hear from David Attenborough documentaries and eye-popping stats detailed in school geography textbooks: ‘it takes 3000 litres of water to produce a burger, 9000 litres of water to produce a chicken, 9000 litres of water to produce a set of cotton pyjamas and four litres of water to produce a one litre plastic bottle of water; simply to feed ourselves in the next 40 years, we will need to produce more food than the entire agricultural output of the past 10,000 years combined; to meet the demand for energy by the end of the century, we will need to build, roughly speaking, something like – 1,800 of the world’s largest dams, or 23,000 nuclear power stations, 14mn wind turbines, 36bn solar panels, or just keep going with predominantly oil, coal and gas and build the 36,000 new power stations that means we will need.’
All these statistics are correct but they have not been communicated properly. Water used in the production of these things is not lost and gone forever but recycled back into the hydrosphere, so the only issue with using this water is whether, at the end of the production process, that water is polluted or not and whether it is appropriately recycled. The problem is not that it takes 3,000 litres of water to produce a burger, but that the cow’s urine often fails to be recycled back to whence it came because of inefficient industrial agriculture.
Emmott concludes that he thinks the human species is ‘fucked’ – and he is obviously right. He is right to assume that: ‘We currently have no known means of being able to feed 10 billion of us at our current rate of consumption and with our current agricultural system.’ So it is a choice between: 1. Reducing the number of mouths to feed; 2. reducing our consumption and; 3. moving away from the current agricultural system. The fact of the matter is, though, that option 3 is the only serious option because it is the most politically feasible and will make the other two options obsolete. Yet Emmott’s focus is on option 1 – population. Not only does he questionably estimate that 10 Billion is the least the population will reach by the end of the century, he also fails to suggest possible solutions. Apart from contributing to the spread of that familiar old feeling of hopelessness (which has a negative impact on trying to get anything done) and giving elite eugenicists an excuse, it is also very misleading to paint population as a primary problem.
One of the worst assumptions to make about tackling climate change and other environmental hot topics – not least because it propagates the feeling of hopelessness – is the idea that some decisions that need to be taken to implement significant changes will be very unpopular. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is true that some of the decisions that have been and probably will be taken are certain to be unpopular, but those particular decisions are and will be part of the attempts to achieve options 1 or 2 rather than any attempt to achieve option 3. If implementing changes in an attempt to achieve option 3 were ever to be unpopular, that would either be because those changes were not being carried out correctly or because of intense propaganda.  
It shouldn’t be surprising that, whilst Emmott’s intentions are probably perfectly humanitarian and he is simply a useful idiot, he works in Microsoft’s Computational Science Laboratory in Cambridge. His focus and conclusions seem to bear a remarkable consistency with the agenda of Bill Gates, his employer. That is not necessarily to say that either of these gentlemen’s agendas are nefarious, but that Stephen Emmott is, like most scientists working today, totally compromised. It would therefore be wise to steer clear of these conclusions, or at least take them with a pinch of salt, when we think about tackling the biggest issues humanity faces regardless of what the conclusions actually are. As any good detective knows – follow the money!
It is a strange kind of humanitarian who buys shares in Monsanto and models his philanthropy on that of the Rockefeller family. Bill Gates obsession with population and vaccines is, in fact, quite alarming. But whatever the agenda of William Henry Gates III, it is certainly not an agenda which seeks peace and freedom for all mankind. Those ‘conspiracy theorists’ will tell you it’s because he’s into eugenics like his Bilderberger friends and that can’t be ruled out. Remember that billionaires are, by definition, probably very bad people and I shall expand further on that in the next chapter.
Humans, having evolved essentially as a keystone species, are net producers, not net consumers as Malthus thought. In fact all species must produce more than they consume if their environment is to sustain the next generation. A real definition of sustainable is given by Bill Mollison, the co-founder of the permaculture movement: “Any system which, over its life time, produces enough to have created and maintained itself.” Even predators and parasites do this by filling niches which engineer a more efficient cycling of nutrients in their ecosystems. And in energy terms, there is no distinction between predator and prey, carnivore and herbivore. As Mollison points out, “All plants are carnivores – they’ll eat you in the end.”
Life on Earth started around 3.5 billion years ago, and the biomass contained by life on Earth has, with peaks and troughs, generally increased greatly since then – once the Earth was barren rock and then it became chocked full of life. How is that explainable if the organisms which existed through that time consumed more biomass than they produced – not possible! Life is a unique force in the universe because it is essentially anti-entropic (negentropic) – entropy being the tendency for energy to dissipate and become disordered. Nature is disordered only in appearance to our biased Western minds. In terms of energy, nature is ordered and the continued evolution of life has made it increasingly so.
An interesting example of the negentropy of life comes since the re-introduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park in 1995. It has produced what is known as a trophic cascade, where the presence of this apex predator has had an impact on almost every species in the ecosystem – a positive one in terms of the overall ecosystem health. Wolf kills feed ravens, wolverines, bald eagles, golden eagles, grizzly bears, black bears, jays, magpies, martens and coyotes. The presence of wolves has managed to push cougars back to their natural mountainside territory, suppress the coyote population and in turn led to a rise in foxes and a change in the populations of small rodents, hares and young deer. This has had an impact on the balance of the plant communities also and so even the fungi and microbes are affected. Most significantly, the wolves have managed to keep down the elk population so that willows, aspens and cottonwoods have increased around the edges of heavily timbered areas and along river banks, because of the changes in the elk’s behaviour. Because the elk have had to browse more widely, the willow stands that beavers rely on have increased. And of course the rising population of beavers (being the great permaculturalists they are) has effects on the local water courses. Their dams “even out the seasonal pulses of runoff; store water for recharging the water table; and provide cold, shaded water for fish.” The dams also counter erosion and create “new pond and marsh habitats for moose, otters, mink, wading birds, waterfowl, fish, amphibians and more.” A more evolved ecological system is a more negentropic one because of the increased niches which up the intricacy and efficiency of the system.    
Khaldun again, seven centuries ago, sees this: “One should then look at the world of creation. It started out from the minerals and progressed, in an ingenious, gradual manner, to plants and animals. The last stage of minerals is connected with the first stage of plants, such as herbs and seedless plants. The last stage of plants, such as palms and vines, is connected with the first stage of animals, such as snails and shellfish which have only the power of touch. The word ‘connection’ with regard to these created things means that the last stage of each group is fully prepared to become the first stage of the next group. The animal world then widens, its species become numerous, and, in a gradual process of creation, it finally leads to man, who is able to think and to reflect. The higher stage of man is reached from the world of the monkeys, in which both sagacity and perception are found, but which has not reached the stage of actual reflection and thinking. At this point we come to the first stage of man after (the world of monkeys).” In nature, the old capitalism versus communism dialectic was put to bed long ago. Competition and co-operation both exist and interact in all sorts of ways. Plants and animals have symbiotic relationships all over the place whilst they simultaneously compete against each other for survival.
Humans are not the pinnacle of evolution since it has no intrinsic direction but we are one of its newest models and we exist because evolution chose us to. The human brain marks the maximum level of complexity that has, to our current knowledge, ever existed in the universe. We are a species capable of an extraordinarily high level of net production in our more natural state, but we are also capable of an extraordinarily high level of net consumption when we find ourselves far removed from the ecosystems we evolved to exist within. But history shows – or just the fact that we have, existing, a population of 7 billion shows – that on average and over the course of time, humans have still produced more than they have consumed since agriculture and civilization started up, in spite of the fact that many people have been removed from nature during that time and in spite of elite interference. Good management of the home requires good knowledge of the home – when this happens, human are the ultimate in negentropy.
Though our crazy economy disincentivizes sensible negentropic practices, Ben Law, the permaculturalist made famous by Channel4’s Grand Designs program, points out a traditional rural practice in temperate areas which shows the symbiosis between humans and the rest of the natural world: “Coppicing is one of the few landscapes in which humans are an integrated part of the ecosystem and where taking resources from the landscape produces positive by-products. Each area that has been coppiced allows in the sunlight that helps wildflowers thrive, which in turn provide food to caterpillars and fills the woods with summer butterflies. If we remove the human element, the woods return to high forest, the varied patchwork disappears, the wildflowers recede with the shade, and there is no food for the caterpillars and butterflies. This remarkable ecosystem is dependent on the coppice worker, cutting his or her annual quota of poles from which to make a living.”
Patrick Whitefield expands on the sustainability of timber forests: “It is surprising how many people still come up with the old canard that woods were destroyed by industry. Far from destroying the woods, industrial demand saved them. Cutting down trees does not destroy a wood. Coppice woods have survived thousands of years of regular cutting, and pine can regenerate from seed. Woods are destroyed by grubbing them up for another purpose, usually agriculture, or by grazing them constantly at an intensity that prevents regeneration. The coppices of the charcoal age had an economic value so their owners had every incentive to keep them as woodland. The proof of this lies in the modern landscape: those areas that had the biggest charcoal-fired industries are now the areas with the most surviving woodland. Argyll, the Lake District, the Forest of Dean and the Weald are all examples. Iron masters didn’t change to coke because there was a shortage of wood but because coke was cheaper.”
In the Khasi and Jaintia regions of Northeastern India, on the upper courses of a patchwork of Himalayan rivers and streams, there is an ancient craft of making bridges from the roots of trees. “In order to make a rubber tree’s roots grow in the right direction – say, over a river – the Khasis use betel nut trunks, sliced down the middle and hollowed out, to create root-guidance systems. The thin, tender roots of the rubber tree, prevented from fanning out by the betel nut trunks, grow straight out. When they reach the other side of the river, they’re allowed to take root in the soil. Given enough time, a sturdy, living bridge is produced.” The bridges take 10 or 15 years to create, can be as long as 100 feet and are far too strong to be damaged by floods.
But depite the ability of humans to live sustainably with nature, societies and civilizations, do collapse. So why? For the same reason famines happen – political interference. It is always the elites, having accumulated so much power, deciding not to implement, allow or even be discussed the new ideas that are thought up. The elites end up starving in the end as well, but they don’t really think logically like that.
It is this suppression of information and technology by the elite which will see this society/civilization collapse just like all the others. We’ve all heard the rumours about the water-powered car, whose patent was bought and trashed by the oil and automotive industries, and we know that in their last meeting, the Bilderbergers had planned to increase the limitations and regulations placed on the internet and 3-D printers – and they are again succeeding in their plans, despite even the Snowden revelations.
A lot of health and environmental minded people may be concerned, as I am, about the potential impacts of technological progress in agriculture or mining and so on. But remember – permaculture is an idea too and our civilization has got to the point where it can document and spread the wisdom of tribal peoples – the political suppression of this knowledge is the only reason people around the world haven’t already been practicing new economic systems based upon it.
“You can drive nature out of the door with a pithfork, but she will always come back through the window with a vengeance.” – Charles Horace Mayo.
So why don’t we start to work on Stephen Emmott’s option number 3 – current agricultural food production is simply unsustainable, whichever perspective you take on it. Rebecca Hoskins’ documentary ‘a farm for the future’ sums this up perfectly whilst Toby Hemenway has written and lectured extensively on how industrial agriculture and civilisation don’t make much economic sense.   
Jared Diamond concludes in his epic and groundbreaking anthropological work ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ that Eurasian civilizations became the most ‘successful’ or most conquering societies/economies because agriculture had spread there from the Fertile Crescent and that was where the world’s most easily domesticatable animals and carbohydrate rich plants were found. There was no superior thinking on the part of the people of Mesopotamia and consequently Europe, just a set of ‘goldilocks’ conditions accidentally laid down by nature to create an all-conquering, ever transmogrifying civilization. Just as there are chaotically formed goldilocks conditions for every single step in the history of the universe.
As Bill Mollison puts it when asked how we should solve humanity’s problems: “If we don’t stop agriculture, then we’re all dead” (referring largely to monocultures – modern agriculture is designed not for producing food, but for producing money) When humans began to farm in an agricultural sense (agriculture = field growing), we didn’t do it because it was thought to be an improvement or a breakthrough. People knew it was a less efficient way to cycle nutrients than the naturally created ecosystems – one need only to compare the soils to realise that. Large scale agriculture may only have started 12,000 years ago, but it is not a particularly incredible breakthrough. Agriculture is a very modern phenomenon and created the conditions for our civilization to come about. Modern Homo Sapiens have lived as foragers or horticulturalists for 95% of our existence, though it might be better to attribute the last 5% to the ‘Homo Insapien’.
Diamond best explains why the first people moved (whether voluntarily or out of necessity) from hunter-gathering to agriculture: “Among wild plant and animal species, only a small minority are edible to humans or worth hunting or gathering.” Everything else is either “indigestible (like bark), poisonous (monarch butterflies and death-cap mushrooms), low in nutritional value (jellyfish), tedious to prepare (very small nuts), difficult to gather (larvae of most insects), or dangerous to hunt (rhinoceroses).”
“By selecting and growing those few species of plants and animals that we can eat, so that they constitute 90% rather than 0.1% of the biomass on an acre of land, we obtain far more edible calories per acre.” It means that between 10 and 100 times the amount of people can be sustained by the same area of land. Essentially, we are replacing the natural ecosystem, which provides niches for many hundreds or thousands of species per ecological setting, with a system (sometimes sustainable, sometimes not – depending on agricultural scale) which provides niches for only humans and our few plants and animals.
Agriculture does produce more edible human food per acre of land than the hunter gatherer lifestyle. And producing high yielding, high calorie foods such as grains encouraged reproduction due both to the feeling of security provided by that first surplus and the fact that grains can be moulded into baby food, so children can be weaned earlier. But agriculture also requires more labour, and the work needed to produce each calorie of food is in fact higher than even the simplest hunter gatherer lifestyle. The natural ecosystems are many times more productive, but with agriculture only the stuff useful to humans is grown – that is the reason it produces more edible food, yet it produces less in terms of overall energy output. Ever since we left our hunter gatherer mode of life, humans have been trying to perfect the agricultural system and have forgotten that nature has a much better grasp on how to convert the Sun’s energy into chemical energy which can then be used by organisms.
Agriculture has been the age of the very unwise man. It is fair to assume humans have always tried out agriculture here and there when it suited, but up until 12,000 years ago, all of those societies had realised through the process of trial and error what an unnecessary pursuit agriculture was when there was enough of the natural habitat for its resources to go around. Why exactly agriculture started is unclear. That it appeared in half a dozen or so sites below 40 degrees latitude, but outside of equatorial and temperate environments, independently and within a few thousand years cannot be coincidental and suggests climate related factors rather than any ‘human advancement’. It may be the case that agricultural practices have cropped up throughout human existence but up until the period 12,000BP-4,000BP (before present) rainfall in the regions inhabited by humans had never been predictable enough to allow for agriculture to start up fully. This is essentially the theory proposed by Peter Richardson, Robert Boyd and Robert Bettinger in a Society for American Archaeology paper. They argue that by mathematical analysis, agriculture was inevitable in the Holocene, whereas the Pleistocene ice age conditions – dry weather and low atmospheric CO2 levels – had made it impossible. It has been suggested that climatic conditions can favour a certain size of family and therefore a certain kind of food production system. Agriculture never appeared in the Amazonian, European or Tasmanian rainforest cultures, while it did appear in the subtropics.
It seems strange that only in the last 12,000 years did the conditions arise for humans to convert to agriculture, considering we were anatomically modern 200,000 years ago. You would have expected to find some evidence that at least one group of humans somewhere in the world, at some point in the previous 188,000 years, had conditions imposed upon them which led them towards civilization. Why only coming out of the last ice age, were the conditions suited to this change? Why did this change not occur coming into the previous interglacial around 130,000 years ago, when the temperature rose at a very similar rate and stabilised at around the same point as we have seen in the last 12,000 years? Why did we begin sowing seeds and domesticating animals simultaneously in several places around the world almost immediately after coming out of the last glacial period?
It is certainly true that the further back you go, the harder the evidence is to uncover. But an agricultural civilization would surely not be hard to spot compared with such discoveries as the evidence for fire-stick farming in the Australian bush and cave paintings dating at 30,000BP; cave paintings in the Basque country around 40,00BP; evidence for homo erectus’ use of fire at 1 millionBP; tool use by homo habilis in Africa beyond 2.5 million years; and the footprints of ancient hominids at 3.5 million years ago at Laetoli. Unless archaeologists have been incredibly unlucky, it is probably safe to assume that no civilization came about for the rest of those 200,000 years.
There are a range of factors which may help to explain our seemingly belated agricultural conversion. We were, up until just the last 30,000 years, in competition with other hominids – homo erectus briefly, homo neanderthalis, the denisovans and homo floresiensis. So no doubt that lessened the chances, to some extent, of creating a civilization when exiting the last glacial maximum around 130,000 years ago. More significantly, homo sapiens only migrated out of Africa for the first time around 100,000 years ago, during the extensive glacial period which would have seen very different habitats to what we see today in Africa and the Levant.
And then there is the issue of Toba. Many scientists are suggesting that the point at which homo-sapiens were whittled down to just a few thousand individuals, and where we can all trace our last common ancestor to – 75,000BP – saw a marked change in the human brain, producing a new species almost. The eruption of the supervolcano on the island of Toba, Indonesia at this time caused a mini-extinction event and homo sapiens were almost a part of it, but a few psychologically anomalous people clung on, as is the way with post extinction-event evolution. There was the homo sapien pre-Toba and the homo sapien post-Toba, and perhaps only post-Toba people were capable of later producing agriculture and civilization, just as they were seemingly the only ones capable of works of art. It is at this juncture then, that we may say human socio-cultural evolution really started it’s great, exponential acceleration.
The major environmental changes at the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary and the accompanying influx of new species, including humans, caused the extinctions of many of the mega-fauna of the steppe and creatures from all the different ecosystems of the Northern continents. Whether the reason they didn’t survive was down to humans entering their habitat or climate change is debated. In his recent, excessively marketed book Sapiens: A brief history of humankind, Yuval Noah Harari – a student of the Jared Diamond school of anthropology – argues that the first significant impact homo sapiens had on the Earth’s ecosystems was their move into Australia and the ensuing extinction of 90% of the continent’s mega-fauna. Harari classes this as an ecological disaster.
Yet a very prominent study suggest that most of the species Harari refers to went extinct before humans arrived, because of climate change. Associate Professor Stephen Wroe, from the University of New South Wales, the lead author of the study said: “There has never been any direct evidence of humans preying on extinct mega-fauna in Sahul (the former continent of Australia, New Guinea and Tasmania when lower sea levels meant the three were joined), or even of a tool-kit that was appropriate for big-game hunting.”His study says there is only firm evidence for about 8 to 14 mega-fauna species still existing when Aboriginal Australians arrived. About 50 species are absent from the fossil record of the past 130,000 years. “It is now increasingly clear that the disappearance of the mega-fauna of Sahul took place over tens, if not hundreds, of millennia under the influence of inexorable, albeit erratic, climatic deterioration.” 
Quite why human influx and climate change are seen as two separate things, I am not sure, but again it must lie in the propensity for civilized people to view humans and nature as separate. We know that when the North and South American continents collided, Saber-toothed cats spread into South America, outcompeting and causing the extinction of the previously dominant giant birds who were that continent’s top predators. This is seen just as nature, but when humans are involved in such processes, they apparently need to be blamed. Human beings, remember, are just another species – not superior or inferior to any others. And perhaps the very fact that those two options – environmental change and human influence – often remain suggests that Homo sapiens, for the vast majority of their history, including their agricultural history, have rarely been able to break free of their own environmental constraints, and the two factors discussed are usually simultaneous.
In fact it took until just 4500 years ago – through the palaeo-eskimo cultures – when humans managed to conquer the arctic tundra and it would make sense to assume that this was due to population and competition pressures in the more habitable regions of the world. It could almost be said that alternatives to the traditional hunter-gatherer modes of life are forced upon people by environmental (including human) pressures. When the !Kung people of the Kalahari desert were asked why they don’t farm, they replied “Why should we farm when there are so many Mongongo nuts?” And similar opinions from tribal people can be read on the many pages of Survival International’s website – essentially ‘We know what farming is thank you very much, we just don’t want to engage in it.’ Farming is seen as a misguided step, not a step forwards.
Whatever the reasons, the end of the last ice age clearly created conditions in some areas – perhaps marked by subtropical or humid biomes with predictable water sources and rich soils – where agriculture could first be experimented with, and then realised as a viable, even if not particularly efficient, method of gathering the sun’s energy for meeting human needs among larger populations. And so began the transition to civilization.
Looking at all the agricultural centres of origin around the world shows remarkable similarities in their climates and environments. The Fertile Crescent, being based around some of the world’s largest river basins, was home to numerous annual plants and easily domesticable animals when agriculture first started there. Similarly, the granary of China, the Yangtze River basin, has a subtropical climate, whilst the fertile valleys of Mesoamerica were home to a number of easily domesticable plants and animals. The Eastern agricultural complex in America was first started in the humid climate of the fertile middle Mississippi valley and the humid subtropical coastlands of Ecuador and Peru are the original agricultural centres in South America, as well as the fertile, climatically stable basin of Lake Titicaca. A study of mixed farming systems in sub-Saharan Africa by the International Livestock Research Institute shows it is only the humid zones where crops do not fail, and presumably these are the areas where cereal cultivation started in Africa, making them the agricultural centres of origin on the continent. A popular ecological school of thought also asserts that “the first large-scale societies tended to arise where geography provided a wide range of altitudes and topographies within a short distance”  This ties in with the concept of ‘edge’ from permaculture. The edge effect, also called the ecotone, describes how there is to be found greater ecological diversity, nutrients and abundance where adjacent ecosystems overlap and interact with each other. The more elements coalescing at this transition zone, the more ecological activity is likely to be found.  It makes sense then, that the precise agricultural centres of origin were probably focused around these kinds of areas – perhaps where there is a mountain range, a stream, a river basin or estuary, a lake, a geological fault line, a forest, a savannah and a human tribe all within close proximity to one another. The accumulation of nutrients in such a zone would perhaps have provided the natural capital for the creation of nutrient hungry fields.
Interestingly, Easter Island shows many similar climatic conditions to all the known centres of origin. It has a subtropical climate and experiences year round rainfall. The gardener of a French Navy explorer declared that “three days’ work a year” would be enough to support the population. The island is so fertile, it was inevitably going to be turned to agricultural practice. And surely the fact that the Polynesians who settled there had not practiced agriculture in their previous settlements shows quite clearly that agricultural civilization must be a result of conditions above ingenuity.
The Norte Chico civilization is believed to be the origin of agriculture in South America and it is the one which breaks the mould. Though the coast of Peru lies on a subtropical latitude, its climate has little similarity with those of the other centres of origin, being so arid thanks to a double rain shadow. The theory of a maritime foundation –fishing from the extremely productive Pacific South American coastal waters – for the Andean civilization seems almost a necessity if Norte Chico was indeed the centre of origin around 5000 years ago. The area is simply too dry for anything other than small scale cultivation around the small localised river valleys.
The potato is said to have originated around the Peru/Bolivia border near the Tambopata National reserve where humid, mountainous conditions with various ecosystems provided the sort of conditions compatible with the beginnings of agriculture 4000 to 5000 years ago and it is widely believed that separate civilizations to those on the coast sprung from within the Andes.
The humid, wet, eastern slopes of ‘Sierra Madre de Oaxaca’ in southern Mexico may be a likely runner for the title of the agricultural centre of origin in Mesoamerica possibly 7000 years ago. The evolution of maize is a hotly contested subject but some of the oldest specimens were found in the Tehuacan valley and all the great civilizations of Mesoamerica were built on this extraordinary crop.
The borderlands between Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran, on the slopes of numerous mountain ranges and in the immediate vicinity of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers are thought to be the areas of original agricultural experimentation in Mesopotamia. Around 10,000BP, the uniquely perfect conditions chaotically laid down for agricultural expansion have created our civilization today.
The humid, subtropical regions of Ningxia, Henan and Shaanxi provinces around the Yellow and Yangtze river basins were the roots of Chinese civilization, based on the farming of millet and rice from around 9000BP.
Africa saw agriculture develop through the domestication of sorghum and cattle in the Sahel and around the wetter edges of the Ethiopian highlands around 7000 years ago, prior to the drying of the climate in the whole Saharan region.
The New Guinea highland’s warm, wet weather allowed agriculture to develop in a rather more limited fashion due to the lack of easily domesticable plants around 9000BP in the Kuk swamp area.
Civilization itself may develop just down river, as it were, from the centres of origin themselves. The Bengal, being made up of the deltaic sediments from the Ganges-Brahmaputra and placed right on the edge of the tropics, was another area where civilization, through extensive agricultural practice, cropped up. Though it was not an agricultural centre of origin, when it was consumed into the Mughul and later the French and British Empires (via their respective East India Companies), the conquerors were incredibly impressed by its wealth. The Moghuls called the region ‘Paradise of the Nations’ whilst the British remarked that its cities were richer than London. Of course the imperialists proceeded to plunder the area and six years after the British East India Company gained taxation rights to Bengal the 1770 famine occurred, resulting in 10 million deaths. Droughts and floods have always happened in the region, but the knowledge of the local people to deal with them was ignored by the policies of the company who continued to violently increase taxes on their subjects. The company’s policies were the direct cause of the starvations in Bengal and this is one of the earlier examples of corporations committing genocide in order to increase profits. For millions of years, the Himalaya have given the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta its eroded sediment and rich nutrients and so, on occasion has the ocean via cyclone flooding. So if you can crack agriculture here, the surpluses are considerable, and it is these pure nutrient sinks where you are likely to find large scale agriculture and civilization really kick into gear.
Diamond asks whether – where food production depended on the arrival of founder crops from elsewhere – it was local hunter-gatherers who adopted founder crops from neighbouring farming peoples, or whether it was invading farmers, displacing local hunter gatherers (by killing, imposing, out-breeding or outnumbering), who brought founder crops with them? He suggests that in Egypt, Atlantic Europe, Cape South Africa, the Native U.S. Southwest, the former happened. And in California, the US Pacific Northwest, the Argentine Pampas, Australia and Siberia, the latter was the case. And there are surely many more occasions in which both happened.
Science and history is very clear that the meteoric rise of agriculture produced a worse state of life for humans, a process only partially reversed – for some – since the discovery of fossil fuels. Life expectancy dropped considerably and diseases became far more common as people and animals started living in closer proximity. Where do chicken pox, small pox, bird flu, swine flu, measles and mumps come from? – domesticated animals. People became shorter and more degenerative diseases, such as arthritis, are frequently observed in the bones of agriculturalists as they have to spend endless hours beating grain or millet. And agriculturalists produced larger families not only because of the first surplus but also because they needed more labour to gather their crops. The hunter gatherer in a good climate needs to spend only three hours a week to gather enough food to sustain himself and works for only three or four hours a day which means they have far more free time and culture than agriculturalists. Under an agricultural system, when the rains don’t come, famine is the result, and famines have been observed throughout agricultural history – as I have covered this is only due to elite interference and coercion, but elites are themselves a result of the agricultural system.
How then, did agriculture spread across the world? It is certainly nothing to do with a superior method. The rise of agriculture in areas where the climatic conditions allow for it to sustain itself, for a few generations at least, is understandable. It has been the colonising spread of agriculture to all corners of the globe that has been disastrous. Tribal hunter-gatherer people appear to understand that there are major drawbacks to agriculture, as per the Kung!’s response to why they don’t farm. We in the West have not yet grasped that agriculture is usually a very poor use of the land. Agricultural methods may only have spread only through genes as agriculture inevitably produces conquest. This is an obvious result of it being unsustainable. A growing population means a need for more food, meaning a need for more land and because you have more people, conquest is easier. But what happens when all the land is conquered?
Civilization has only been possible through agriculture but the assumption that civilization is civilized, as Ghandi hinted at, is mythical. The definition of the word civilized and the fact that it is derived from the word civil is possibly the most harmful propaganda of all, whether intentional or not.
Ownership is a major doctrine in agriculture. Nobody can live off just grain or just corn or just carrots (not for long anyway). Humans need a balanced diet. If you have a polyculture, you can get all you need within your own range (independence). If you have a monoculture, you must gather all your crops and trade most of it for various other foods harvested from other monocultures some distance away (dependence). And someone needs to control the storage and the transportation of all these foods. Thus trade begins. Eventually, because of natural self interest (“I’ve had a bumper crop of potatoes, he’s had a poor few years with his carrots but I’ll not even up the money – why should I?, he should have planted potatoes, I’ll trade for more land instead”) and specialization (“I’m quite good at making ploughs, maybe the farmers will give me a share of their crops in return for a good plough”), this division of labour leads to separate classes based on differing fortunes and monopolies founded on theft or luck and the manipulation of the means of exchange (money) are inevitable. Yes, it gets a bit more complex than that over 10,000 years but the pattern is pretty simple. Agriculture is civilization. Civilization is agriculture.
Because agriculturalists live together in single communities, eventually creating cities, they have less culture. Monoculture equals mono culture. It is true though that the advances of science and technology have been enabled by the centralized capital of agricultural societies. Labour is divided; classes are divided. And some of those classes have been able to dedicate their time to science while others slave away. And because we now have 22 billion slaves working for us in the form of fossil fuels, technological and scientific advancement is as heightened as ever.
Whilst crude oil, as a driver of modern agriculture, unfortunately has replacements (renewably created electrical energy and shale gas) waiting in the wings once we pass the point of peak oil, we have not yet found a way of negating what is called peak phosphorus – estimated to occur in 2030. Phosphorus has no synthetic alternative so far and yet it is vital to the food cycle. Phosphorus can be easily recycled in natural and permaculture systems like all other ecologically important nutrients, but its price has been surging upwards exponentially such is its importance as an agricultural fertiliser. Without phosphates, the yield of wheat has been shown to more than halve.
In the 19th century, phosphate for agricultural fertilizer was sourced from collecting guano in huge quantities off islands with large seabird colonies. The trade was mostly based just off the desert coast of Peru and was so lucrative that Pacific wars were fought over it. The United States, in 1856, passed the Guano Islands Act which meant any U.S. citizen who discovered deposits of guano on an unclaimed island, gained exclusive rights to that resource. Today phosphorus is sourced from rock phosphate, which is rare, and some predict that we will see the emergence of a select group of ‘phosphate superpowers’ to rival the OPEC nations. Phosphorus has also been touted as a potential replacement for uranium in the nuclear power industry – piling more pressure on this increasingly depleted resource.
Industry is turning its attention to lower grade ores just as it is in the fossil fuel industry with fracking, and having to use washing processes to extract the valuable resource. At some point, alternative sources of phosphorus are going to have to be sought. And the phosphorus cycle is such that the largest deposits found, outside of continental rock deposits, are on the sea floor – and not exactly concentrated. Future extraction and recycling of this resource are likely to be either untenable, highly expensive or involve very ecologically disruptive techniques.
Biologist Mohammed Hijri suggests using Mycorrhizal fungi within the industrial agricultural system as a more direct solution to peak phosphorus But the most sensible way solve this problem is to close the loop and recycle phosphorus from source. This means using our waste on the land since urine is how phosphorous is secreted by humans. But in an pathologically intensive agricultural system, not only are people put off by this, but their masters are scared of allowing them the independence to piss in their own gardens for fear that it may encourage them to actually think. Also, since agricultural land is disconnected from people, large infrastructure projects will be needed to move the human waste, and those infrastructure projects will no doubt create other pollution problems and be poorly designed due to the inevitable failures involved in the central planning of such projects. Essentially, sticking to an agricultural system is going to continue to cost us fortunes in infrastructure spending whilst creating one problem after another in terms of pollution.
The same trend as we see with all resources is beginning to take shape for phosphorus. First a resource isn’t needed; then agricultural wastage sparks some demand for the replenishment of a resource; then demand overtakes supply; then supply declines; then less ecologically compatible replacements are found; then their demand overtakes supply; then supply declines; then less ecologically sound methods of extraction are used; and the process continues in the same vein; until, I predict, it becomes more profitable to return to more ecologically compatible sources. But running alongside these trends are two other trends: those of increasing ecological destruction and declining human health. So at the point our economy starts functioning with more ecological rationalism, in what kind of shape are we and our environment going to be in?   
Of course we cannot feed our population by just letting nature get on with it and eating the few ripe berries it offers us, even if we did want to return to that way of life. That is the hunter gatherer lifestyle, and could sustain only a fraction of the Earths current population. But we cannot continue with agriculture either because environmental degradation will soon render it not just uneconomical but impossible. In large scale mechanised agriculture, we currently use 10 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of food. Some of the traditional agricultural heartlands of the world, such as Greece and Mesopotamia, are now so degraded after thousands of years of intense agriculture that their natural state now is a barren, featureless desert where it was forested before. And the industrial revolution and green revolution have served only to speed up the process of land degradation. There are dead fields of dried up, salted earth in many of the poor regions first touched by the green revolution after an intense build up of petrochemicals. And when you see a tractor in Britain ploughing up a field with seagulls flocking behind it, the inefficiency of this system becomes so obvious.
There is an alternative answer to the question of food production. We can learn the lessons of nature and realise the greater productive potential of a thriving natural ecosystem as tailored for humans. This is permaculture or agroecology – horticultural based systems of farming which don’t involve huge fields, ploughing, pesticides or fertilisers degrading the land; but instead encouraging nature to produce for humans. This isn’t like some traditional organic farming, which is pretty pointless as all that does is to use different or less technology but the same methods as traditional agriculture. In the UK, forest gardening basically means starting with a forest – as that is the natural state of the land – and replacing bushes which produce inedible berries with edible ones. It should encourage succession, mixed crops and limited weeding. Clearly, tailoring a whole horticultural ecosystem is more complex than that, but the general idea is to nudge nature’s ecosystems into producing what we want, rather than clearing it away in order to build our own human-systems which obviously create more waste due to being relatively un-evolved.
Much of the Amazon shows evidence of human horticultural intervention to produce more edible food than would occur naturally. As Charles C. Mann writes in his epic 1491: The Americas before Columbus: “Archaeologists have discovered that relatively high population densities were quite common everywhere in the Amazonian lowlands at around 1000 A.D. These Amazonians had practiced agroforestry which sustained their dense collections of villages.” That this wasn’t realised when explorers first travelled through Amazonia sums up how in tune with nature humans can be. There have been many horticultural societies in world history, such as the Woodland period societies of the Eastern United States and the Kumeyaay of Southern California. Some of these societies have indeed done a share of corn field farming, but often their main interest was essentially forest gardening of sorts. These societies have all been very sustainable, lasting thousands of years – until their self destruction by agriculture (civilization) or their conquest by civilization (agriculture).
Since the Amazon has such a huge impact on the world’s weather and climate it is easy to assume that only the force of nature could be responsible for its vast brilliance. But the Amazon is no ‘last pristine wilderness.’ It has in fact been shaped by human hands to a degree far beyond what we are told by mainstream education and media. Any people living in the Amazon are supposed to be simple, primitive survivors – more benign creatures of the wild than landscape sculptors.
Mann talks of how so much of what we consider to be wild is in fact artificial. The rich , black, artificial terra preta soils are not only evidence that humans have been inhabiting the Amazon basin in great numbers for several thousand years, but also that humans have been shaping the place in perhaps unexpected ways. These soils are full of pottery, organic refuse and also charcoal – basically a compost heap. But the charcoal comes from what is known as ‘slash and char.’ Amazonian farmers would burn areas of forest at a low temperature and mix the charcoal into the soil. Not only does this sequester carbon, but it allowed the Amazonians to practice a kind of small scale agriculture which was much more sustainable and grow specific crops to go along with the fruits of their forest gardening.
In 1848 Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution, described in great detail the distribution and habits of the many species he found in the Amazon, where he spent four years exploring around the Rio Negro and Rio Vaupes. He expressed a keen interest in one particular plant – the Palm (Leopoldinia piassaba). Wallace was so fascinated with these trees that he in fact devoted a small book to them – Palm Trees of the Amazon and Their Uses: “Everywhere too rise the graceful Palms, the true denizens of the tropics, of which they are the most striking and characteristic feature. In the districts where I visited they were everywhere abundant and I soon became interested in them, from their great variety and beauty of form and the many uses to which they are applied.”
Is it just pure coincidence that a plant useful to humans in just about every way imaginable is described thus by a superb observational naturalist?: “The distribution of this tree is very peculiar. It grows in swampy or partially flooded lands and the banks of the black-water river. It is first found on the river Padauari, a tributary of the Rio Negro. The Piassaba is found from near the mouth to more than a hundred miles up, where it ceases…” “It is thus entirely restricted to a district of about 300 miles from North to South and an equal distance from East to West. I am enabled to so exactly mark out its range from having resided more than two years in various parts of the Rio Negro, among people whose principle occupation consisted in obtaining the fibrous covering of this tree and from whom no locality for it can have remained undiscovered, assisted as they are by the Indians, whose home is the forest, and who are almost as well acquainted with its trackless depth as we are with the well-beaten roads of our own island.” So are we really to believe that, having innovatively found every possible use for this Palm tree, the people of the Rio Negro did not realise that a plant such as this may be reproduced where they wanted it by use of its seed or cuttings?
The Amazonian soils are not viable for agricultural use since all the energy in the rainforest system is kept above ground. Nutrients are either washed away by the continuous rainfall or, under hot and moist conditions, are very quickly extracted from plant and animal waste by reducers, and put straight back into the vegetation. So whilst an enormous amount of energy and nutrients are kept in flux in the ecosystem, the soils are never enriched. When the vegetation is felled, all the energy is also felled, making large scale agriculture impossible.
Terra Preta soils are considered the most fertile in the world and are the best example of ‘landesque capital’ – proving humans can actually improve on nature. These soils can also be stable and productive for hundreds of years. The Kuikuro tribe in the southern Amazon continue to make Terra Preta today. They put all their organic waste at the rear of their village where the soil turns black after a few years, providing prime growing conditions. This soil can eventually be utilised for low intensity gardening and therein lies the possibility of town/village complexes – though not industrial civilizations – built, literally, on the land capital invested by previous generations. This may well have been what happened if we are to trust the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana’s accounts of cities along the banks of the Amazon, which correspond with Terra Preta sites. 
James Bruges, in his report ‘The Biochar debate’ suggests that, with no apparent evidence of interruption or layering in the excavations, the Amazonian civilisations – by practicing horticulture and using some sustainable growing techniques like biochar farming – had not been subject to the sort of economic collapses and wars that the great near Eastern and European civilizations of Greece, Rome, North Africa and Mesopotamia had experienced. Instead, the Amazonians had been a continuous ‘civilization’ (if they can be accurately classified as such) and unlike Egypt and China, they had not been reliant on river silt fertilization in a subtropical climate.
In Science magazine, Professor Michael Heckenberger from the University of Florida writes of his and his colleagues’ study of the Xingu region of the Amazon (a black earth ‘midden’/Terra Preta hotspot) where archaeologists have uncovered what amounts to a garden city which looks to have had an economy with a crossed system of horticulture and agriculture. Humans flourished in the Xingu between around 1500 years ago and 400 years ago, judging by the 28 settlement sites observed by Heckenberger. The population estimate is 50,000 for an area of 20,000 square kilometres, meaning the area was by no means urbanised or even utilised particularly efficiently for food production.
There is certainly more of a similarity to European agricultural systems, as Heckenberger observes: “If we look at your average medieval town or your average Greek polis, most are about the scale of those we find in this part of the Amazon. Only the ones we find are much more complicated in terms of their planning.” Around a larger central town, smaller villages were organised into so-called ‘galactic clusters, consisting of a number of ‘mother’ and ‘daughter’ settlements. Each village contained a central plaza – perhaps used as a marketplace, area of political assembly or cemetery, or all three. They were surrounded by palisade walls and ditches, whilst streets were aligned north-west—south-east, north–south and north-east—south-west. There were cross-country roads running through farmed areas around the villages and some smaller, unfortified settlements were present here. So it seems that even in the more unlikely places, the beginnings of serious food production have been fostered, though slower adoption and less dense developments must surely enable more political stability.
The archaeological and anthropological debate is more a question of to what degree Amazonian people selected plants for breeding. This has more to do with their lifestyle choices than their observational skills. Have they created a food forest intentionally or unintentionally? Perhaps they have been highly selective and deliberate in their propagation of useful plants or perhaps they have been quite laissez faire – simply discarding edible and useful plants and seeds as they go along and leaving nature to do the work, eventually creating a forest unusually rich in edible and useful plants – just as many indigenous people spread some seed from their favourite plants when they defecate.
There is much debate and conjecture over the exact dates of the different periods of the native cultures of North Eastern America, but what is obvious is that there appears to have been, over the last 5000 thousand years, a transition between hunter gathering societies with a penchant for creating hunting grounds by burning forest, and small scale agricultural societies reliant on maize and beans of Mesoamerican origin. That transition may have taken place gradually or rapidly, but the factors leading to it certainly accumulated over a long period and came from widespread sources.
The only agricultural societies in aboriginal Canada are said to have been located around the lowlands of the St. Lawrence River and the lower Great Lakes. These societies were, it would seem, not wealthy enough to create a civilization capable of dominating neighbours though they did have a denser population. The rest of the Iroquois populations lived sedentary lives in villages and existed by hunting, fishing, foraging and gardening. The spread of agriculture in Native American times seems to have spread quite gradually from the South through the Archaic (5000BC – 1000BC), Woodland (1000BC – 1000AD) and Terminal Woodland (1000AD – historical era) periods.
By the Terminal Woodland Period the typical agricultural explosion started to take place as far North as the St Lawrence River valley as newly selected strains of corn became adapted to cooler climates. Warfare and conquest became ever more frequent and there is evidence of cannibalism between warring groups of Huron, St Lawrence Iroquois, Erie, Petun, Mohawk, Algonquin and others. It appears that although developments in the efficacy of food production took place, like the introduction of beans and squash and with them the potential for Milpa fields (the traditional complementary ‘three sisters’ of food production in the Americas – Maize, Beans and Squash.) The warring groups continued in their population expansion and conquest, though this did not occur everywhere on the Eastern seaboard of North America.
A failure to heed nature’s warnings of the dangers of agriculture resulted in the wiping out of entire cultures, such as the St. Lawrence Iroquois – it is believed, through warfare with the Mohawk as well as European problems – by the mid 1500’s. It comes as little surprise that the Frenchman Jacques Cartier’s accounts of Iroquois landscapes described vast fields of corn just prior to the demise of this group.
Perhaps the slow adoption of agriculture through the Archaic and Woodland period’s, and indeed the complete lack of adoption in some areas, points to an unwillingness to change amongst the Iroquois, which would not be surprising since that is the general human attitude. If these cultures were desperate for a ‘better life’, you would expect a quick adoption of agriculture everywhere, but without conquest, those horticulturalist groups did not change their ways much other than perhaps by incorporating those new useful strains, such as maize and squashes, into their gardens.
The evidence suggests that people began to settle into a sedentary way of life in Eastern North America before they began cultivating plants to any significant degree. If this is the case, then innovations in food production techniques and a widening of the diet and must be the cause of such changes and it would appear that a genuine gradual permaculture revolution was taking place in North Eastern America at this time. There is indeed evidence that new kinds of containers and vessels were developed for storing and cooking food from 5000BC onwards. In Boston, weirs were used to trap fish as the tide receded over a 1500 year period. In Moundbuilders, George Milner describes pottery-making as making very gradual and irregular progress between its first known appearance at around 2500BC until beyond 1000BC when it became common across all the populated areas of the Eastern half of the continent, marking out the beginning of the Early Woodland Period. There are also sites made up of densely clustered nut trees, berry bushes and concentrated resources of edible plants and small animals which Milner suggests had attracted people to camp near. More likely is that those areas were deliberately created by savvy gardeners. Many sites dating to the Archaic period contain rich soils – no doubt of similar human origin to the Terra Preta of Amazonia.
Afforded lots of free time, as people in the modern anthropogenic Amazon seem to be, one may not feel any need to further increase that free time for future generations by putting extra effort into selecting and cultivating more and more useful plants. But presented with a truly virgin forest with sparsely scattered useful plants as the first South Americans 15,000 plus years ago may well have been, one may make more concerted efforts to increase the economic productivity of the forest for oneself and one’s descendents.
Mann concludes that most of the America’s wilderness areas have been shaped by humans for thousands of years – sometimes through agroforestry, sometimes basic agriculture, sometimes by fire-controlled game management (‘slash and burn’ – similar to fire-stick farming), sometimes by terracing and often by a mix of all of these. What the new body of evidence surrounding the Amazon suggests is that: “Faced with an ecological problem (how to get human food from the Amazon), Amazonian Indians fixed it. They were in the midst of terra-forming the Amazon when Columbus showed up and ruined everything.” Mann also talks of the critical reception the new discoveries of Native American societies have got from ‘environmentalists.’ These are the environmentalists like George Monbiot, who seem to believe that the best things humans can do for the planet is go extinct. The idea that humans can and have successfully and sustainably managed ecosystems, tailored to their own needs, does not sit well with this mentality.
Even in Britain, hunter-gatherers regularly burned forest land in order to attract game which could be hunted. A recent BBC Horizon documentary, The First Britons, laid out the evidence showing that the kinds of lives our ancestors in Northern Europe lived before civilization was far richer and more complex than the traditional envisioning of a “simple, hand to mouth existence.” It seems that before the conquest of agriculture, people all around the world were slowly terra-forming a permaculture landscape into being.
And it seems agriculture, in Northern Europe at least, must have spread by conquest or coercion of some sort. It was discovered that early adopters of agriculture living on the Shetland Islands 5000 years ago were dying off in large numbers, including many children, every few years. Their teeth showed evidence that just before they died, they were eating exclusively shellfish. This clearly shows that their agriculture failed due to disease or natural disaster and so they had to revert to hunter-gathering to try to survive. But why would anyone get into this cycle where some of their children might die off every few years? Why take such a high risk strategy? – it would be insufferable. The only explanation is that these people were at some point either coerced to practice agriculture, or were somehow robbed of their ancestor’s cumulatively acquired body of knowledge on the environment. If agriculture was peacefully and wilfully adopted, it would subsequently have been given up come the very first failure. Agriculture was not quickly adopted because it was a good idea – it was never common sense. It was imposed on people.
Few large scale agriculturalists today use any methods other than the oil fertilisation of their expansive fields due to corporate pressure but whilst monocrops are never sustainable, it is possible to have sustainable agriculture through crop rotation and companion planting. The Milpa fields of the Oaxaca are a good example of a tweaked agricultural system which has proved to be sustainable with just a few elements – chiefly maize and wild beans. The Indians in southern Mexico and Guatemala have managed to use these excellent companion plants for four thousand years without degrading the land. The beans fix nitrogen needed by the maize plants whilst they use the maize plants to climb. The two crops also provide humans with a perfectly balanced diet. Squashes, avocados and chillies are also grown if they can manage to balance the diets of both the land and the people. The main rule though, is that the more diverse a food production system is, the more efficient it is and the more sustainable it is because of the symbiotic connections that are formed.
The tiny island of Anuta in the Solomon islands is one of the most densely populated places on Earth. Its society and system of food production must be one of the best ways to study the nature of humanity. Here, being in tune with nature is an essential daily business and not just a long term necessity. Over 200 people live self sufficiently and sustainably on a plot of land just 0.37 square kilometres. They do use the sea though and the lack of variety in land plants and animals available to the islanders, as with all remote islands, has been a major barrier to achieving a more dense population due to the resulting relative dearth of symbiotic relationships and ecosystem connections. It is likely that the first Anutan settlers had some knowledge of agriculture – indeed, population growth and conquest was probably the reason for them moving in the first place – but it would have taken them no time at all to realise that grubbing up a whole tiny island was equivalent to suicide. Were the Anutans to have at their disposal a wider range of edibles to develop a more efficient permaculture system, they may be able to support many more than just 200 or so people. Even so, scaled up, this equates to a population of around 130 million in the United Kingdom – a country which, despite a huge diversity of available plants and animals, currently can’t self-sustain even half of that number because of insane agricultural policies.
In his critique of Paul R. Ehrlich, Anne H. Ehrlich and John P. Holdren’s book Ecoscience, Webster Tarpley, the Larouche movement historian goes over some of the background of global neoliberalism and, says that whilst at a 1974 World Food Conference in Rome (from which he was expelled for ruffling the feathers of the UN establishment) a Soviet representative in fact claimed that if, in Tarpley’s words, you made the existing, off the shelf technology available to everybody, there would be no problem with having 35 billion people on the Earth. And this is presumably with at best a limited knowledge of alternative food production techniques. But the dominant elite eugenicist line at the conference, espoused by Kissinger, was that the development of third world countries had to be stopped to prevent their competition for natural resources.
Once designed and developed, a maximum yield forest garden may be able to support up to 10 people per acre in a temperate zone. This is twice as much as conventional agriculture, which needs fossil fuel in addition anyway. Extrapolating that means Britain could sustain 56 million mouths using just one tenth of its land. Extrapolate that further, you will find that we can produce enough food for the whole world’s 7 billion population in an area of land the size of the Democratic Republic of Congo. And the ‘Path to Freedom’ urban homestead in Pasadena, California produces around 3 tonnes of food (3 people’s worth) per year on just 1/10 of an acre. This is in stark contrast to predictions of the Earth’s current bioproductive capacity under agriculture, calculated by William Rees of the University of British Colombia. By the average UK resident’s current lifestyle and with the world’s current methods of food production, the Earth can sustain around 2.5 billion people and 15 billion by the average Indian residents lifestyle. These varying figures show clearly that it is how we live, not how many of us there are that decides the Earth’s carrying capacity. Presumably this means that the Earth can sustain only a few tens of thousands of people with Bill Gates’ lifestyle, so no wonder he believes the world is overpopulated – he can’t face the fact that he is the problem. Am I suggesting that Westerners should adopt the lifestyle of some of the most poverty stricken people in the world? Not at all – quality of life and mode of life are very separate things. True poverty and true wealth are not to be measured in monetary terms and, to my mind, some of the wealthiest people in the world are people living a completely self-sufficient lifestyle, with no money, producing no waste, and probably having an ecological footprint even lower than an Indian street kid and many times lower than a middle class Westerner – yet they are much happier than either. And most middle class Westerners dream of leaving their daily grind of wage slavery and escaping off the grid anyhow. So if Westerners really want to reduce their ecological footprint, they are not to feel guilty and accept that they need to make sacrifices as Bill Gates would have them believe; they are to feel cheated and strive for more wealth – real wealth, not materialism.
Why, if it can be sustainable, profitable and provide food security, is agroecology not being pursued nationwide in the UK or any other developed country? It took Arthur Hollins a lifetime to convert his Shropshire farm from a dead piece of land to a thriving agroecosystem – fields of multi-species grassland which never gets ploughed and never gets muddy and cows which don’t need to be moved to the barn for winter. The two quad bikes are, if anything, a bit of a luxury. But he was one man who gained the knowledge off his own back in the pre-internet age. It is possible to turn degraded farmland into a productive permaculture system within a couple of decades. To create a full forest garden complete with mature trees would take not much longer. The yields will always be dependent on the design and it is simply a case of allotting time to convert to agroforestry. And time, as we know, is not something to be considered by politicians. Why would a politician invest in or encourage anything which won’t get them re-elected in four years time, even if the benefits will be enormous in decades to come? Because they might care? As I will discuss, politicians don’t care – they don’t exist to care – it isn’t part of their job description.
Yes, individuals can take it upon themselves to change their methods of food production and consumption and I would encourage everyone to try to create their own permaculture system or at least embrace growing your own – 40% of fruit and vegetables consumed during the war in the UK were grown in people’s gardens. It is widely accepted in the UK that, despite there being less money around during the rationing and ‘dig for victory gardens’ of the Second World War, people felt much healthier and more community spirited – the reason this true wealth is discouraged the rest of the time by governments is because the wealth of happiness cannot be centralized like monetary wealth.
The real reason as to why permaculture is not being pursued as a method of food production (the department of agriculture is a brainwashing title – food production is what we are after) is I fear, like everything else, down to the workings of the entrenched elite-controlled economic system. Forest gardening for example does not lend itself to large scale profits and the creation of massive wealth because it does not produce the centralised surplus, labour division and hierarchy of agriculture. Big corporations are not interested in anything other than profit – that is obvious. Apart from the fact that any surplus is returned in a forest garden, in an area of land used to produce a huge variety of foods the production line process becomes far more difficult. No one machine can harvest all this food and then sort it and store it and transport it as is the case with a field of wheat and the combine harvester. A robot to do all those different tasks efficiently and effectively is a long way off. But there is one entity that can serve all those functions – humans. Corporations don’t like employing humans though, certainly not if they have to be paid. Slavery was the original method of major wealth production, but now those 22 billion virtual slaves in the form of fossil fuels can exponentially increase the wealth of the already wealthy (note that the abolition of slavery and the industrial revolution in the British Empire tie in nicely.) It is not about humans needing rights and shelter and the rest of it. Machines need plenty of maintenance also. It simply boils down to the fact that if it is economical to use 10 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of human food, then combine harvesters are at least 10 times cheaper than human workers – not because they are more efficient but because they are powered by a fuel we can use without doing any work. The work was done millions of years ago, and it is now used at the rate of 7 years worth of stored sunlight per day.
Permaculture is about decentralising wealth and providing community independence so if permaculture systems become the norm, corporations and even governments will cease to exist. Since it is such a great threat to them, corporations and governments will use all the accumulated capital they need to prevent the spread of permaculture, suppressing both the implementation and the education of it.
Permaculture is the best route to the moneyless society Mark Boyle hopes for in his book The Moneyless Manifesto because money is a key component of any agricultural society. As a connection-reducing medium, as Boyle calls it, money allows the surplus’ of agricultural production to be stored, transported and exchanged and therefore disassociates us with what we consume.
This area of disconnect can then be exploited by those who wish to do evil because we can’t see our own economy. In Boyle’s words: “Apart from its widely ignored psychological, emotional, spiritual and physical effects on us personally, money also has the added consequence of allowing us to be protected from the abuses and massacres that occur at every level of the supply chain of the products we consume, and all the social and ecological problems associated with that.”
When going moneyless, Boyle describes how a different outlook to life formed: “Art was integrated into every aspect of my life, from what I grew to what I created. Life became Art. Work became leisure. There was no segmentation of my life.” Money is at the heart of that separation between work and play which tribal people, from the beginning of humanity to today, have never had to experience – their life is just their life.
Our socio-cultural evolution – working to the same principles as biological evolution, only speeded up – has brought us, at an exponentially quicker rate, to where we are today. Along the way though – because our social evolution has been so fast – the environments we have been discovering and exploiting have sometimes not had the requisite time to feed back to us the results of some of our activities before we have moved on to pastures new. In many, in fact most settings, humans have found a genuinely sustainable ecological niche to exploit.
North American Indian fire-stick farmers, North American Indian horticulturalists, Amazonian slash and char farmers, Amazonian horticulturalists, Eskimo hunters, forest based hunter gatherers, pastoral nomads, savannah and desert based hunter gatherers, small fishing communities and modern permaculturalists all practice sustainable economics. And every time a human group has practiced unsustainable economics, their environment has fed back to them, resulting in the wiping out of that particular group and of their technologies and techniques – or what we may now call their mis-information.
Save for initial migrations onto new continents, the only group of humans we have record of as having practiced unsustainable economics are ourselves – the agriculturalists. The reason our unsustainable economics survives is the same as that which some scientists put forward as to why the Earth may be the only home to ‘intelligent’ life in the universe – we are the only ones alive to ponder the question in the first place. Our culture is the dominant culture and we rarely look beyond it for answers, which is why the dominant culture remains. Its dominance has nothing to do with its survival. Once our environment has had the requisite time to feed back to us, the agriculturalists will be gone and our inappropriate technologies and mis-information discarded.
J.B. Priestly, irritated by food snobbery said “There is a decent area somewhere between boiled carrots and Beluga caviar; sour plonk and Chateaux Lafite, where we can take care of our gullets and our bellies without worshipping them.” This quote, which I took from a BBC Rick Stein program, sums up the attitude of the late TV chef and food revolutionary Keith Floyd, famous for his slow cooked ‘peasant’ dishes. Floyd was a deeply passionate advocate of simple, local, rustic food and a way of life in accordance with it. It may seem, on the surface, somewhat of a contradiction that he was at the same time incredibly extravagant. But his extravagance never seemed unattainable – he practiced and preached a standard of life which many in certain rural regions of Europe and North America are still able to enjoy, and have enjoyed for many years. It is not an unsustainable or economically unfeasible standard of living to aspire too, in fact it is the least we should aspire to.
There is certainly something to be said for excellent small scale agricultural produce such as that associated with the villages and smaller co-operatives of rural France and Italy, and represented by the Slow Food movement. But there is no reason why these types of prized food cultures cannot be recreated and in fact bettered in a more diverse permaculture system. A different attitude needs to develop when it comes to meat and carbohydrate production but that does not mean bringing to an end to traditional ways of life and cuisine enjoyed by many in Western Europe and North America. The people who enjoy this way of life are entitled to it and their conservatism is to be admired. Perhaps some of the agricultural methods could be lower impact, but these people are not part of the problem and they are not the people to pick a fight with, rather many aspects of their agricultural lives, techniques and innovations are to be learned from and not thrown aside as the corporate mono-cultures should be.
In fact the philosophy of the Slow Food movement has the potential to transform the way we look at political ideology. Slow Food brings together conservatism and progressivism in a way no specifically politically minded organisation ever can and straddles the interests of both the have’s and the have not’s. It is the antithesis of globalisation and the antithesis of the elite agenda. Casting aside influences of propaganda, all homo sapiens should aspire to this way of life, and deep down everybody does. The agreeability of the Slow Food movement is created by its down to Earth nature, both literally and metaphorically and the fact that it urges a better quality of life for all.
A demand that people be able to take their time over quality, local food incorporates the demand that people have enough free time to prepare food, the demand that food be produced by the most natural and most ecologically sensible means and the demand that economies be organised locally. So some simple, logical demands, if acted upon, can produce a revolution without ever having to involve political rhetoric.
Variety within a small area is an essential ingredient in any ecosystem and therefore in any economy. Localism and an even spread of wealth produces the most varied ecosystems and most productive economies. Globalisation and a disparate spread of wealth produces the least varied ecosystems and least efficient economies. Globalisation results in a negative feedback loop whilst localisation produces a positive feedback loop.
Adam Smith wrongly remarked: “The improvement of the dexterity of the workman necessarily increases the quantity of the work he can perform; the division of labour, by reducing every man’s business to some one simple operation, and by making this operation the sole employment of his life, necessarily increases very much the dexterity of the workman.” This is probably true under conditions of pure slavery but we know that today, with more human rights and a superior understanding of the psychological effects of this sort of work and their accompanying negative impact upon productivity, this theory is rendered non-applicable to human beings, though perhaps applicable to robots.
Human evolution and human nature disproves Smith’s theories on the division of labour. Humans are omnivores by diet and generalists by mode of life, so it cannot be the case that specialisation makes them more productive. It is just that in an agricultural system there is no alternative to specialisation. And so in the sense of agricultural (false) economics, Smith is correct that specialisation is more efficient – but it is not more efficient when we begin to start thinking outside of that bubble of civilization.
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