On renunciation

Grant me the treasure of sublime poverty: permit the distinctive sign of our order to be that it does not possess anything of its own beneath the sun, for the glory of your name, and that it have no other patrimony than begging.

St Francis of Assisi

I’m writing these words on the first day of Lent, which is supposed to be a period of renunciation, at any rate for Christians. Other religions have their equivalents, of course; Islam has Ramadan, orthodox Jews impose various restrictions on themselves during Shabbat, not to mention the austerities practiced by the devotees of various Eastern deities. The Christian calendar used to be studded with fast-days; again, Judaism has a similar tradition.

It’s hard to think of any practice more contrary to the spirit of industrial civilisation. After all, are we not supposed to think of ourselves primarily as consumers? If we stop consuming, we are often told, the whole structure of our civilisation will come tumbling down.

Well, here’s the news, in case you haven’t been paying attention: the whole structure of our civilisation will be tumbling down in the not-so-distant future. Not, perhaps, in your lifetime, and perhaps not even in your childrens’ lifetime, but very much within the foreseeable future. And at that point, being able to do without things will very much be a superpower.

In the Christian tradition, at least, the classic monastic vows call for poverty, chastity and obedience. All of those are different forms of renunciation, with poverty taking the first place. (This rhetorical strategy is not always successful: we only now honour the third of the more recent triad “reduce, reuse, recycle,” perhaps because only the third is conducive to setting up a profitable industry. I’m pretty sure nobody is making much money out of poverty or chastity, or even – directly- from obedience.) Even chastity is a means to the end of reducing one’s involvement in the material world: if you don’t have kids, there’s much less onus on you to get and spend.

St Francis of Assisi is of course the poster child for this strain of thought within the Christian tradition. His canonisation in 1228 was controversial even at the time – plenty of people would have been more comfortable had he been declared a heretic – and in the main Christianity has steadily diverged from that ideal. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Christendom has largely been geographically co-extensive with the world that has mostly benefited from financial capitalism and industrialisation. It’s also probably not a coincidence that the life of St Francis, himself from a wealthy mercantile background, coincided with the first stirrings of merchant banking – and the rest, as they say, is history.

The thing about voluntary poverty, as distinct from the involuntary sort, is that it leaves a surplus that can be used for some other purpose than gratifying wants. In the case of the European monastic tradition, this allowed for the survival and transmission of classical literature and philosophy, Greek in the east, Latin in the west, which fed directly into the Renaissance. But Buddhist and Taoist monasteries have also performed a similar service in the Orient. There aren’t many rampaging barbarian warlords who are interested in nicking your manuscript of Sophocles.

There is also the point that your mendicant friar or sadhu or fakir is a walking opportunity for the average person to impoverish themselves, at least a little, by making a voluntary donation. Everyone involved in such a transaction acknowledges the value of something other, something higher, if only temporarily.

Moreover, someone who can renounce a thing, even if temporarily, whether it be alcohol, tobacco, or Cadbury’s Creme Eggs, has established a degree of independence, and, to that extent, freedom. We all recognise the distinction between the person who can enjoy a glass or two on the one hand and the hopeless alcoholic on the other. The first is free to choose; the second is enslaved.

We live in a culture that would like us all to become alcoholics, either literally or metaphorically. It is for each of us to resist as best we can, because the hangover is going to be catastrophic. And the easiest path is simply to choose something other, something higher, whatever that is for you. It could be as simple as going for a walk in the spring rain.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On spring

Nothing is so beautiful as spring.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

A short one this week, just a reminder that I’m still alive; just as spring is a reminder that the natural world is still alive, despite the best efforts of industrial civilisation to kill it off. This is the vernal equinox, the turning-point when the days become longer than the nights. This is the time that seemed an eternity away six months ago, and which will fade in its turn.

Life goes on. This is a trite saying, but it contains an important truth. Life got through the Great Dying and several other extinction events that were at least as destructive as anything H. sapiens is likely to throw at it. Life adapts. We build motorways, and song-birds get louder. You might notice that this spring, if you’re lucky.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism at the moment, by no means limited to the things that get onto the front page of the newspaper or to the top of your news feed. Worse things can happen than a fall in the value of banking shares, and at least some of those things pretty certainly will. Nevertheless it’s hard not to feel cheerful when you hear a blackbird sing, even with the M25 in the background.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On living in the moment

Sometimes it doesn’t matter that there was any time before this time. Sometimes it doesn’t matter that it’s night or day or now or then. Sometimes where you are is enough. It’s not that time stops or that it hasn’t started. This is time. You are here.

Jeanette Winterson, The Gap of Time

Once upon a time, our ancestors lived almost entirely in the moment. The evidence for this is simply the fact that they had descendants, and thus you and I are alive today. The early hominids who were too busy thinking beautiful thoughts to notice the leopard in that tree over there tended not to last very long. Darwinism in action, you might say.

Of course, the “almost entirely” bit is the interesting part. In his magisterial book The Master and his Emissary (Yale University Press. 2019), Iain McGilchrist writes at length about the two modes which the human brain has for understanding the world: a highly structured ‘close-up’ view, mostly associated with the left hemisphere, and a broader ‘big-picture’ view, involving the whole brain but largely driven by the right hemisphere.

In order to achieve the ‘close-up’ view we need to discard a lot of information. In much the same way that a map omits details of the territory it depicts, we adopt mental models that abstract away a lot of the world’s complexity. Which parts we abstract away, of course, will depend on what we are trying to do: maps made for different purposes will show different things. A road atlas will give you quite a different view of London than a map of the Underground system, for example, and a map showing average rainfall in England will be different again.

You can get quite a long way by looking at the world close up, and I’m not just talking about inscribing the Lord’s Prayer onto a grain of rice, The scientific method, in its purest form, is an example of this approach. “Controlling a variable” in an experiment is really a means of making that variable go away. Ideally, you want to be studying only one thing at a time. This is why well-conducted clinical trials of drugs are so expensive (and hence why they tend not to be well-conducted in practice); you need to control for lots of variables – age, sex, ethnic group, and of course the placebo effect. Only when you have eliminated all the possible confounding factors can you be confident that drug X has effect Y, and also doesn’t kill more than Z% of patients.

As the saying goes, all models are wrong but some models are useful. Newton’s laws of motion are “wrong” according to our current notions of physics, but they’re good enough to put men on the moon. The map of the London Underground will reliably steer you from Knightsbridge to King’s Cross, although it won’t show you your height above sea level, or any water-courses smaller than the Thames. And if all you care about is getting from Knightsbridge to King’s Cross that’s fine. What that map is not, however, is a complete representation of London as it actually is. No map could be. That’s the point.

The industrial world is very much built around these abstractions. A sign of this is how obsessed we all are with statistics. Government spokespersons are forever releasing mounds of them, on everything from juvenile crime to foreign trade to the cost of living. There’s something fitting in the fact that our latest and greatest artificial intelligence systems are statistically-based, which is why, for example, chat-bots trained on social media posts turn out to be rude and bigoted. (Who knew there were lots of rude and bigoted posts on social media? Thanks, science!)

Another example of this tendency is our increasing reliance on technology to mediate our experience of the world. Many people seem to be unable to believe they are seeing something unless they are filming it on their phone. Viewing the film of it afterwards, and/or posting on the Internet, is somehow more real to them than the thing itself. A sane society would consider this to be pathological.

I wonder how such people will cope when the “cloud” where they fondly imagine all this stuff is stored forever goes away – as it will, because the ethereal-sounding “cloud” is in reality a very earthly set of date-centres, which use an awful lot of valuable raw materials and electricity, and at some point it will be decided that those raw materials and electricity would be better used for something else. Future historians will no doubt consider this another Dark Age, for much the same reason as the previous one was so called, namely that not much got written down.

Furthermore, as McGilchrist points out, systematically throwing away the bulk of the available information is likely to bite you in a tender part of your anatomy. That leopard from the first paragraph might not be required for your model of the world, but you could easily find out the hard way that perhaps it should have been. It is pretty obvious that our inability to see the bigger picture is at least in part responsible for the fact that the bigger picture is currently looking so bad.

Take carbon emissions. If a nation decides to offshore the bulk of its industrial production to China and/or the Third World, as many of the industrialised western nations have, then it can claim to have lowered its carbon emissions. But from the atmosphere’s point of view, it is completely immaterial whether a given molecule of CO2 was emitted in Belgium or Bangladesh, Wuhan or Washington. The physical effect will be the same.

But the average Joe filling up his SUV isn’t thinking about that. We’re all making decisions, all the time, based on what we see immediately in front of us. I don’t personally know the twelve-year-old girl on the other side of the world who made these trainers. What I can see is the price-tag.

And we’re always trying to simplify the world to the point where we can understand it. If you live in a city of ten million people, probably the best you can do is to put almost all of them into one stereotyped box or another. In doing so, of course, you essentially stop treating them as if they were people. As with all abstractions, it gets between us and our own lives. Life is a set of interactions with the world or it is nothing.

The provocative subtitle of E.F. Schumacher‘s classic book Small is Beautiful is: “A Study of Economics As If People Mattered.” Industrial civilisation has reached the point, which was perhaps inevitable, where people don’t matter. They can’t matter. There are just too many of the blighters. You can treat them as data-points and feed them into a statistical model, and that will give you some results, which may or may not correspond to reality.

Chances are, though, that that statistical model doesn’t allow for leopards.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On the return of the peasant

The most dramatic and far-reaching social change of the second half of [the twentieth] century, and one that cuts us off forever from the world of the past, is the death of the peasantry.

Eric Hobsbawm

I fear I must disagree with the late Professor Hobsbawm. The death of the peasantry has been much exaggerated, and indeed I think we will see a veritable peasant renaissance in the coming decades. I also think this might be good news, which may surprise some people.

After all, in industrial society we generally regard the name “peasant” as a term of abuse. This is not a new thing, of course; the word “pagan” means much the same thing, as does “villain.” (The people in the picture above were villeins, which is where the word villain comes from.) Peasants are the people at the bottom of the heap. In mediaeval Europe – which is the time and place we generally think of when we heard the word peasant – rich people distinguished themselves by keeping their skin milk-white, thereby demonstrating that they didn’t spend much time out of doors.

But what, after all, is a peasant? I would offer this definition: a peasant is a small farmer, at or slightly above subsistence level, involved in a rural community. Many, many such people are alive today, and as Hobsbawm suggests, they have been numerous since the advent of agriculture back in the Neolithic. Historically, they have been the basis of all civilised societies from Sumer onwards, because civilised people live in cities, and cities are fed by farmers. Which, until quite recently, meant peasants.

Now such a broad definition includes a broad swathe of lived experience. There have certainly been times and places where being a peasant sucked. Serfs, for example, were peasants who were treated as, in effect, property, in as much as they were tied to a certain piece of land, and if the land changes hands so did the serfs farming it.

On the other hand, there’s something to be said about being able to provide for yourself and your family. It can give you a fair degree of de facto independence. If you are part of a community of any size, you also have a fair bit of resilience, including the ability to do some basic division of labour. A very large proportion of humanity has lived this way for the last few millennia. It works.

We don’t hear much about this when we learn about history, because frankly it’s not that exciting. Then again, would you really want to live through the more exciting bits of history? There was plenty of excitement around the career of Genghis Khan, for instance, but you wouldn’t want to have your head cut off, even it formed part of a jolly spectacular pyramid outside the smoking ruins of Samarkand.

Dull history is generally far more pleasant living. Yes, there’s a sameness about milking cows, but you also end up with milk, butter, cheese and yoghurt, all of which are things worth having. The man in the big house may want a proportion of your stuff, but unless he’s an idiot – and I grant you there’s no guarantee of that – he won’t take more than you can afford. The average feudal lord was probably not all that rich compared to his tenants. Yes, there were some very rich lords, but they were the exception; and they tended to live interesting lives, and I’ve already explained the drawbacks to that.

There is, of course, quite a lot to being a peasant. It’s not just farming. A peasant household will generally need to produce, clean and mend its own clothing; provide for its own cooking and heating; take care of its own health; do its own building work; know how to process and store food, in the absence of things like refrigeration. Your neighbours may help out with some of this, but freeloading is not an option in a village context.

However, one thing this way of life definitely has going for it is resilience. A book was published over a century ago by an American agronomist about the farming methods of peasants in various parts of the Far East, with the title Farmers of Forty Centuries, and that title was by no means hyperbole. Moreover, the peasant lifestyle ticks a lot of boxes greenies like me are keen on:

  • you will have to live from local resources, because you probably won’t have the money to import much – importantly, this includes energy;
  • you are likely to have access to fresh locally-produced food and know pretty much everything there is to know about its provenance;
  • you will be careful about any pollution you cause, because you’ll have to live with the consequences yourself;
  • you will much less vulnerable to infectious disease than the people who live in cities – before the advent of modern sanitation, most cities historically relied on immigration from the countryside to maintain their population for this very reason, and as public health services break down this pattern in likely to re-emerge;
  • you will acquire many practical skills and have a more varied working life in consequence;
  • more generally, you will develop an enhanced awareness of nature and natural processes compared to “civilised” living;
  • you may also find that you have more say over your own affairs than you do now, because you will be less dependent on “the system” for your everyday needs.

It is on this basis that I predict a peasant renaissance. Not that peasants ever really went away. You’ll find plenty of them in what we are pleased to call “the developing world,” although more and more of them are being driven off the land so that they can work in clothing sweatshops. That’s not a model that can be sustained forever, and probably not for much longer as the world begins to fragment again and people in the rich nations realise that they have more important needs than cheap trainers.

There is already what one might call a peasant consciousness. Consider, for example, the international organisation Via Campesina which exists to represent the peasant point of view. Relevant also is Chris Smaje’s interesting book A Small Farm Future, whose title says it all. (You can read my review here.) But of course there is a long tradition of this sort of thinking, going back at least as far as William Cobbett’s Cottage Economy (1821).

Should you too, dear reader, consider joining the revolution? Access to land is the issue for most of us. But you can learn a lot of skills even in your back garden or allotment, and it’s not a bad idea to start that learning process while you have the luxury of screwing up without starving to death. Ideally, find people who are already doing these things and learn from them. It also won’t do you any harm to acquire some books – actual dead tree ones – and a few decent tools, while these things are still easy to get.

Maybe one day your grandchildren will thank you for it.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On the vision for a New England

Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

President John F. Kennedy (attr.)

I am, as I believe I have mentioned before, a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or at least that’s what it says on my passport. That country has a government, which apparently represents the will of the population by the miracle of representative democracy, despite the fact that the neither the current Prime Minister (Rishi Sunak, at the time of writing) nor his predecessor has actually won a general election. To judge from that government’s legislative programme, however, the British people would prefer to live in Indonesia.

Why else, after all, would the government discard wholesale the legislation protecting workers’ rights? Why else would it seek to prevent commerce between the British and their closest neighbours? Apparently the royal road to universal prosperity is to give twelve-year-old girls the opportunity to work twelve-hour days making trainers for a few coppers per hour, unencumbered by all that tedious red tape and bureaucracy which used to drag us all down so terribly. How inspiring.

Environmental safeguards are also going into the skip, of course. After all, what has the natural world ever done for us? Rivers are nothing more than a handy conduit for the disposal of noxious wastes, forests a mere obstacle to development, occupying land that could more profitably be turned into desirable executive residences.

Let’s relive the glory days of John Major and his clarion call to return to Victorian values, when we were sending kids up chimneys and the age of consent was thirteen. Hell, let’s repeal the Factory Acts while we’re at it. If GDP goes up, that has to be good, right? A rising tide lifts all boats. Stands to reason.


Well, maybe. There is a saying that an economist is someone who has his head in the oven and his feet in the fridge and declares that he’s fine on average. It could be that this kind of rising tide mostly favours yachts. If you have shares in Nike (other manufacturers of sweatshop-produced trainers are available) than maybe it’s great news that you can also make money in Sheffield or Barrow-in-Furness or Middlesbrough or Nottingham. There are certainly people who make out like bandits from all this stuff and maybe, dear reader, you are one of them, although I doubt it.

Is this just NIMBYism on my part? Not at all. The fact is, I don’t even want Indonesia to have to be Indonesia. It sucks to be someone else’s colony; there are better ways to live, and I’d like that for Indonesia as much as I’d like it for the UK or anywhere else. You may say it’s karma for Britain to undergo the fate we inflicted on so much of the world in the past, but as I’ve pointed out before, two wrongs don’t make a right.

(Yes, I know it’s fashionable these days to claim that wrongs are the raw material from which all moral claims are forged, but that’s another conversation.)

An economy is supposed to be a system which allocates goods and services so that, by and large, people get what they need. The current system only meets that definition if you equate “people” with “rich people.” But then, as the Bible clearly states:

For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath.

Mark 4:25

There’s also a bit involving a camel and the eye of a needle, but I think we can all agree to take that metaphorically.

No, the more I think about it, the clearer it becomes that the UK government is merely implementing the eternal will of God the Market, and we lesser beings should shut up and be grateful. After all, what do I know? It’s not like I’m a merchant banker.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

Book review: Limits to Growth

Who could have predicted the climate crisis?

Emmanuel Macron, President of the French Republic, 31.12.2022

This is a review of a deeply unfashionable book. It was published a little over half a century ago, which is certainly inconvenient for those who, like M. Macron, would like to suggest that these issues are a recent development. Its conclusions have moreover been confirmed repeatedly by subsequent studies. It represents, indeed, an inconvenient set of truths.

Limits to Growth was the result of a research project originally sponsored by an organisation called the Club of Rome. I should make it clear that I hold no brief for the Club of Rome; as far as I can see, it belongs to the large category of bodies whose shtick is, essentially, “Here is an existential crisis! Just give us absolute power and we will sort it out!” I am not suggesting for a moment that giving absolute power to the Club of Rome will sort this out – and the same goes for the World Economic Forum, Bill Gates, Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

But Limits to Growth is a genuine achievement. It came from a marriage between the first stirrings of systems theory and computer modelling (courtesy of MIT). Systems theory is another unfashionable thing these days, because it suggests amongst other things that we might not actually be able to achieve the kind of total mastery of complex systems that we would like – including systems like the global climate, the global ecosystem, and other things which we seem to need in order to live, inconveniently enough.

Limits to Growth does not actually contain any predictions. What it contains is scenarios. If you do X, you will get Y. This would be comforting, were it not for the fact that follow-up studies have shown that having done X, we are indeed getting Y. This is pretty impressive, given what computer modelling was able to do fifty-odd years ago.

Of course it necessarily paints with a pretty broad brush-stroke. You won’t find here specific figures about tractor production in Yakutsk or the electrification of the Donets basin. But you will see here prefigured the general shape of the last fifty years.

Interestingly, the climate crisis which has come as such a shock to M. Macron (despite the 1896 paper by the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius and numerous subsequent studies) does not even figure in the Limits to Growth outside of the broad rubric of “pollution” – that is, stuff that industrial civilisation puts into the environment which is inimical to life. It turns out, to the astonishment of absolutely nobody – except M. Macron, and perhaps a few other “leaders of the free world” – that shitting on your own doorstop is not the brightest idea.

Of course, Limits to Growth was published more than ten minutes ago and doesn’t have its own TikTok channel, so we can all safely ignore it. I’m sure they’ll think of something.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On activism

Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.

John Stuart Mill

And yet what, as Lenin asked a very long time ago, is to be done?

Lenin has been dead for almost a century, of course, but while I wouldn’t claim to be a disciple of his it’s still a pretty good question. There’s one popular answer to it, however, that is definitely wrong. I’m talking about what currently goes under the name of activism.

It takes a couple of forms. One, probably the more popular, occurs entirely in the strange pretend-world of the Internet, and is sometimes referred to – with appropriate derision – as clicktivism. By this I mean the signing of online petitions (and, in the interests of full disclosure, I confess to having signed a few myself) but also self-important declarations on social media concerning the issue du jour. If it has a #hashtag, it’s clicktivism.

The second is the more physical manifestation of demonstrations, marches, happenings, and all the other nonsense that used to be big in the 1960s. It’s possible that some impression was made by the Million Man March. Nobody gave a toss about the million people who reportedly demonstrated against the second Iraq war; the UK went ahead and joined in anyway. In any case, it’s easy enough for governments to criminalise such activities, and it’s already happened in the UK, and doubtless elsewhere.

Why am I claiming these things are useless? Because they trivialise what is at stake. It is a trivialisation of what is at stake to imagine that “I went on a march, therefore I have stuck it to the Man.” It is infinitely more of a trivialisation of what is at stake to imagine that “I clicked on a button, therefore I have stuck it to the Man.” The Man doesn’t care. The Man would only care if what you did posed some sort of threat to his activities.

Governments require the consent of the governed in order to operate. Notice that I said consent, not enthusiasm. Few regimes have been able to count on much in the way of enthusiasm, apart from a few relatively brief episodes. You just need to make being governed seem tolerable.

That consent can be obtained in a variety of ways. Brute force is one way, although it’s hard to sustain for any length of time. Offering people some sort of vision of the greater good is more sustainable. That vision can be religious, ideological, economic, or some combination of the above. Another approach, which can be combined with a positive vision, is a negative vision of the alternative: hence the endless denigration of the “barbarian” or “savage” which is the appalling fate of those who fail to avail themselves of the manifold benefits of civilisation.

The word “barbarian”, incidentally, comes to us from the Greeks, for whom it simply meant “people who don’t speak Greek.” You may wish to consider on which side of that line you fall, dear reader. But I digress.

The real threat to governments – all governments, of whatever stripe – is ordinary people deciding to go their own way: to live in communities of their own choosing, making their own rules, providing for themselves, and owing nothing to self-proclaimed outside authorities. That doesn’t look like a riot in the streets. It certainly doesn’t look like a poll on Twitter. It can be – indeed it needs to be – a slow and gradual shift, something that happens under the radar, a change in the relationship between one family and their neighbours, a guerilla garden here, an informal quid pro quo there, conversations in informal spaces, an untold litany of tiny changes that add up to something profound.

This, in the end, is how empires fall. What, after all, is a Dark Age but an immense lacuna in the tax records? Those at the margins ease themselves out of the spotlight of official notice; gradually the margins enlarge, until the centre is eclipsed altogether. With any luck, the new set of thugs who take over the palace will take a generation or three to get around to us.

The revolution, as Gil Scott-Heron observed many years ago, will not be televised. Neither will it be notarised; or live-streamed; or otherwise taken notice of by the authorities. (Oh, what a Kafka-esque phrase “the authorities” is!) But it will occur, as it must. It may take a generation, or more than one, but occur it must, if people are to continue living on this planet.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On knowing your place

Home’s where you go when you run out of homes.

John le Carré, The Honourable Schoolboy

In British usage, at least, telling someone they should know their place is (or used to be) a rebuke. It meant knowing their place in the class hierarchy – with the not very subtle subtext that their place was a good deal lower than they supposed. In the words of the well-known hymn:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

Cecil Frances Alexander, “All Things Bright and Beautiful”

But that is not what I want to talk about in this essay. What I want to talk about is what the title says, knowing your place.

For most people in the industrialised world, this presents a problem. After all, many if not most of us don’t really have a place. For years I have struggled with the answer to the simple question: “Where are you from?” Am I really from anywhere? There’s the place I was born, which I haven’t visited for the thick end of twenty years; am I from there? There’s the place where I live now, but it seems utterly fraudulent to pretend that I’m from here; it’s too obviously not the case. There are the many places I have lived in between those two times, but I am certainly not from any of them.

So I am effectively from nowhere. There are many, many other people in the same boat. It is considered normal in our society to move around a good deal. You are born in place A, you go to university in place B, get a job at C, another in D, maybe you even emigrate to E… That’s just a career. It’s not even a particularly middle-class thing; think of the Cornish miners who went to Mexico, to take a random example.

What we easily forget is that this is quite counter to the human experience for the vast majority of our existence. I’m not just talking about agricultural societies either. Of course, if you have a farm you’re going to stay on it, but there’s a lot of nonsense said (and taught) about “sedentary” versus “nomadic” lifestyles, with the implication that before the Neolithic revolution and the widespread adoption of agriculture people used to wander about aimlessly. Nothing could be further from the truth.

If you’re going to live as a hunter-gatherer, as everyone did for most of human (pre)history and some people still do, you are heavily dependent on local knowledge, and I cannot stress that word “local” enough. You need to know what food plants grow where, and at what season you can harvest them. You need to know what game animals live where, and at what season you should hunt them and at what other seasons you should leave them alone. You need to know the spots where the edible fungi grow, and when you can expect to see them, and which ones look edible but aren’t. Any or all of these things may be different in the next valley along, and the further you go from your patch the less useful your local knowledge is likely to be.

Obviously people did make those transitions, but it took a while. Maybe you can venture into the next valley, and maybe it will work out. If it does, once you’ve figured out how to live in this valley, maybe you can try the next one. And so on. But you wouldn’t really do it if you didn’t have to. It’s difficult and also dangerous. Remember, we’re talking about access to food and water. Without those things, you and your family will die. This isn’t just about idle curiousity.

Living as a farmer is really a more confined version of the same thing. You are still dependent on the outputs of a particular area of land; it’s typically a much smaller area, but you have a bit more control over it. It is, however, a lot more work, and because you are dependent on a smaller set of foodstuffs it’s also more precarious. The archaeological evidence overwhelmingly suggests that farmers were less well-nourished and less healthy than their forebears. Controversy rages about why people adopted that lifestyle, but it certainly wasn’t because it made life easier.

But one effect of farming is that it creates a deeper attachment to that smaller area. Farms tend to be de facto inherited, even when the farmers are technically tenants:

There have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort.

Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm

This has a number of effects. For one thing, the farmer has a commitment to the long-term well-being of his land. There is a saying that you plant a walnut tree for your grandchildren. Certainly, given that a walnut tree can easily have a productive life of three hundred years, you personally are not going to see most of the walnuts from a tree you plant today. If modern financial analysts had anything to do with it, walnuts would probably be extinct. Thankfully, they are not.

Secondly, the farmer has an intimate knowledge of his land. Let me here introduce a technical term from the ancient art of shepherding. (Sheep are thought the be one of the first domesticated animals, so it’s an art we’ve had quite a few millennia to perfect.) I speak here of the hefted flock.

Now sheep are mostly left to fend for themselves. Yes, they’re brought in for lambing, and even then some of the hardier breeds can cope well enough without human intervention. But the key is letting the same flock graze the same land over multiple generations. Of course it isn’t the same flock exactly: sheep are born, sheep die; it’s the old philosophical chestnut about the ship of Theseus, or, if you prefer, Trigger’s broom. But you know what I mean.

It turns out that sheep, like people, can hand down traditional knowledge. Sheep that know these particular hills will do well here. They know where the good grazing is, they know the sheltered places to give birth, in short they have the same sort of knowledge as the human hunter-gatherer does, but in a more sheep-oriented way. Sheep brought in from elsewhere will need to figure it all out, and in the short term will do less well. (In the long term, of course, they will have become sheep that know these particular hills, which is where we came in.) A flock that knows a particular patch of land is said to be hefted to that land.

I don’t think this is something that is unique to sheep. I think people need it too, or at least can derive huge benefit from it. Many of the ills we see today are due to the fact that the decisions which call them into being are all too often taken by someone on the other side of the world who presses a button, possibly while eating breakfast and reading a newspaper article about something completely unrelated. It would never occur to such a person to plant a walnut tree, which will just show up as a liability in next quarter’s figures.

Imagine instead a world in which the person making the decisions about a place actually lives in that place and knows that their children and grandchildren will also live in that place. This is the positive aspect of the NIMBY syndrome: if enough people don’t want a thing in their back yard, it won’t happen in anyone’s back yard, and frankly this is probably a good thing. After all, why should anyone have to send their kids to school next to a toxic waste dump? Come to that, why should there even be toxic waste in the first place? People who complain about NIMBYism are really saying that the NIMBYists ought to know their place, and not in the good sense.

Of course this goes against the prevailing ethic, which is that cosmopolitanism is the thing. This works pretty well for rich people who would prefer their tax affairs to be conducted in Bermuda and wish to be able to move their business to whichever place has the lowest wages and the fewest workers’ rights. It doesn’t work quite so well for the rest of us. And it won’t work at all when globalisation grinds to halt, dependent as it is on cheap transportation and compliant governments.

Wherever you live, I urge you to get hefted to your place. Learn how you can live there: the basics, of course – nutritious food, potable water, breathable air, a liveable community – but how you can live well. And if you can’t live there, for heaven’s sake find somewhere that you can, while you still have that luxury. Time is short.

For what it’s worth, I’ve taken my own advice. It isn’t necessarily the easiest path, but in the longer run – and I’m allowing here for grandchildren who haven’t even been considered, let alone conceived – it seems to me the best. Your mileage may, of course, vary.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On renewable energy

There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

I originally wrote this essay a few weeks ago, but it’s now something of a companion piece to last week’s post on false hope, particularly as that relates to nuclear fusion. Because a lot of the false hope that people attach to fusion power is often attached to renewables, and many of the same issues apply.

People have been using the power of the wind and of running water to do useful stuff for a very long time. Sails have been in use for millennia, windmills go back at least as far as 9th-century Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, while the water-wheel may have been known to the ancient Greeks as well as to the Chinese of the same era. Now that people are finally noticing that we can’t go on relying on fossil fuels, renewable energy is all the rage.

This is perfectly sensible, as far as it goes. It will not, however, go as far as we tend to think. Due to the catastrophic failure of our collective imagination, which I’ve already discussed in a previous post, the only kind of future we can envisage is one that is just like the present, only with all the fossil-fuel energy replaced by renewables. This future is easy to imagine. It is also not going to happen.

Electric cars are of course a thing. Indeed they have been a thing for a surprisingly long time, predating the internal combustion engine. What we don’t have, though, is a practicable electric truck, and as far as I know nobody is even working on an electric tractor (apparently John Deere have actually denied it) or an electric cargo-ship. There have been heroic efforts to develop electric aircraft, but you are never going to have batteries offering the same energy density as aviation fuel.

Even if we knew how to build all these things, we probably don’t have the raw materials to manufacture them in the quantities needed, not to mention the enormous infrastructure of charging points. And charging-points aren’t much use unless you can generate the actual electricity for them, and that’s going to be a big issue if your power-grid is based on renewables.

The fundamental reason for this is that renewable energy sources, unlike fossil fuels, are intermittent. That is to say, you can’t rely on solar or wind-generated electricity being available at the time you need to use it. This is an issue, because demand for electricity fluctuates quite dramatically.

Moreover, wind and water power derive from the climate, which is to say they are affected by the weather. There are simply times when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. Even hydro-electric power can be disrupted by drought, as the Chinese and Americans are discovering at the moment. This isn’t an issue so long as renewables are merely supplementing the fossil-fuelled grid, because a gas-fired power station can merrily run 24/7 so long as it has gas. When renewables are it, though, you have a problem.

The existing power grids across the industrialised world were not designed to cope with intermittency. This is hardly surprising. But it turns out that building such a grid is extremely difficult, because we have no good way of efficiently storing large amounts of electricity, which is what you need to be able to do.

This is not to say that renewables are useless. They don’t solve the problem of powering a nationwide power grid, but we used to get along well enough without having such a thing. They can work well for small-scale local power generation, which also avoids the loss of electricity in transmission (around 6% for the US national grid). Back in the 1970s, when at least some people were prepared to assign some value to small-scale local solutions, a lot of useful work was done in this area. We could do worse than to revisit some of that.

Renewables can work even better to provide direct mechanical energy to do useful stuff, as they always used to do. This is far more energy-efficient, because the process of turning that raw mechanical energy into electricity and then back into useful energy again itself uses energy.

Imagine a cargo-ship that is powered by renewables. You could half-fill the thing with electric motors and batteries, cover the deck in solar panels, and have masts with wind-turbines on them. Alternatively, you could just put sails on the darn thing. That’s how global trade was powered through most of human history. It’s well-understood technology, although of course attempts to revive it have to involve computer-controlled sails, because it’s a well-known fact that nothing can be any good unless computers are involved.

Again, imagine a factory powered entirely by renewables. You could do what was done on the early days of the Industrial Revolution, and use water-power directly to drive the machinery. Indeed, steam-engines were quite a hard sell in those days, because coal costs money and the flow of a river doesn’t. This does mean you can’t just build a factory wherever you want, and it does put a hard limit on the number you can have, but where it works, it works pretty well.

All of this talk of limits and restrictions is of course rank heresy. We’re still committed to infinite growth on a finite planet, and we’re still going to face-plant until we finally grasp that it can’t be done. (It would still be a terrible idea even if it could be done, but that’s another conversation.) But we shouldn’t discard renewables just because they won’t fulfill our impossible fantasies. A hammer is still a useful tool, even if you can’t darn your socks with it.

In any case, soon enough we won’t need to imagine a world in which electricity supplies are intermittent: that will we be the world we inhabit. Thinking about alternatives now strikes me as a sensible use of time; certainly more sensible than trying to make a battery-powered aeroplane.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.