The elephant in the room is capitalism. Maybe.
I’d been hoping to pay another visit to the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, but red tape has been holding me up at the border so it’ll have to wait probably for another couple of weeks. Instead, I thought I’d offer a few top-of-the-head thoughts on Felicity Lawrence’s recent article about agricultural pesticide use in The Guardian – or, more specifically, on some of the under-the-line responses it prompted.
Whenever someone writes an online article about virtually any aspect of the environmental challenges facing humanity, you can pretty much guarantee that underneath it somebody is going to write a comment that closely approximates to this: “The real issue here is human over-population. It’s the elephant in the room that trendy green thinkers don’t want to talk about.” In distant second place you’ll usually find a similar comment about meat eating. And, even less commonly, one about the flying or other carbon-intensive sins of said trendy green thinkers.
These comments doubtless emanate respectively from the childless, the vegan, and the foot-powered, and represent the pharisaical human tendency to elevate whatever behaviours we engage in that we feel are especially praiseworthy to a kind of touchstone status by which we can judge others less virtuous than ourselves. Hovering in the background of such thought is the ever present charge of hypocrisy, as in this recent tweet aimed at George Monbiot’s opposition to fossil fuel extraction: “Hey @GeorgeMonbiot – You PERSONALLY give up all items made or sustained by fossil fuels first, then we’ll talk.”
David Fleming nails this way of thinking especially well when he writes,
“Though my lifestyle may be regrettable, that does not mean that my arguments are wrong; on the contrary, it could mean that I am acutely aware of values that are better than the ones I achieve myself. If I lived an impeccable life, I could be lost in admiration for myself as an ethical ideal; failings may keep me modest and raise my sights”1
But, more importantly, all the obsessive finger-pointing about individual behaviours neglects the systemic logic which provides their ground. This was Marx’s insight in his critique of the utopian socialists – capitalism isn’t an especially nasty system because capitalists are especially nasty people. Therefore, building some nice factories with pleasant managers won’t solve the problem. The problem is that individual people ultimately have little choice but to respond to the behavioural drivers dictated by the logic of the (capitalist) system – and these drivers, investing a million innocent little decisions, have nasty consequences.
That brings me to my main point: when it comes to pesticide use in farming – actually, when it comes to a lot of things – if we want to talk about ‘the elephant in the room’, it isn’t human population. It’s capitalism.
Consider this thought experiment. Suppose that, magically, human population halved overnight. I guess the consequences would depend a bit on exactly who it was that disappeared, but maybe not so much in the end. Imagine, for example, that it was the poorest 50% of the world’s population. The effect on greenhouse gas emissions would be slight, but the effect on the food system in the rich countries would probably be pretty significant. In the short term, there’d be no more cheap labour furnishing all the labour-intensive items that we currently outsource – the fruit and vegetables, the flowers, the prawns, the coffee and so on. But the basic agricultural economics of high labour costs and low fuel costs in the rich countries would remain. Pesticide regimens are basically labour-saving technologies in a situation of low energy costs. I can’t see them changing much in the event of a population cataclysm among the world’s poor. Indeed, with the onus now falling on the rich countries to provide their own labour-intensive food commodities in a high labour cost situation, the impetus would be for further mechanisation and probably an intensification of pesticide-dependent farming in order to keep the fruit and veg flowing.
Now imagine that the disappearances mainly affected the world’s richest. The short-term effect on greenhouse gas emissions would be dramatically positive. Longer-term, though, the cataclysm would further impel the economic trajectory that’s already underway, a shifting centre of economic gravity from the north and west to the south and east. The labour-energy balance in these populous southern/eastern countries would shift further towards present rich country norms, prompting labour flight from agriculture and greater pressures towards mechanisation (and pesticisation). The acute labour shortage in the depopulated rich countries would push in the same direction.
So my feeling is that if pesticide-dependent farming is the problem then, no, the elephant in the room is not the size of the human population – it’s the relative value of human and mechanical labour. Since there’s a more-or-less fixed limit to the productivity of the former, but not so much in case of the latter, then the developmental pressure is always to substitute the latter for the former. But only in situations where capital increase is the fundamental bottom line. Marx again: in a non-capitalist market society, money acts mostly just as a medium of exchange. If you make pots and I grow vegetables, it’s convenient for me to buy your pots and for you to buy my vegetables through the intermediary of money. Vegetables become money become pots, commodities become money become commodities, or C → M → C, in Marx’s terms.
With capitalism, though, money is invested in order to produce a commodity, which is sold for money: M → C → M. But if the value of the first M is the same as the second, there’s not much point going to the trouble of turning the first M into C, only to get the same M back again. The logic of the process is really M → C → M’, where M’ > M. And there in a nutshell is the massive transformative power of capitalism: once you unleash the pure logic of M’ > M, anything that stands in its way will ultimately be crushed. That’s why in the average arable field, you’re only likely to see the occasional farmworker driving a massive spraying rig, and not dozens of thoughtful polycultural agroecologists.
For the purposes of this post, I’m remaining agnostic about the pros and cons of modern pesticide regimens. There are those who like to argue that there’s nothing to worry about – mostly by stressing that pesticide levels fall within the range deemed safe by government bodies and by impugning the credentials or agenda of anyone who says otherwise. Presumably, unless they’re shareholders in agrochemical companies, even these folks would agree that it’s not an active virtue to spray our crops with pesticides. But whatever the rights or wrongs of doing it, the crops are going to stay sprayed so long as we make M’ > M the primary logic impelling our economic system.
Coming back to my thought experiment, barring an unprecedentedly massive genocide or natural disaster, that kind of population decrease clearly isn’t going to happen. For sure, there’s a good case for nudging humanity towards lower numbers by using the various small policy levers available. But human population dynamics are a path-dependent and highly complex system which can’t easily be manipulated by wishing things were different. It’s not an ‘elephant in the room’ that, once identified, is easily resolved.
By that logic, you could say the same of capitalism. I think Marx was definitely onto something with his C → M → Cs and his M → C→ Ms, but it now seems pretty clear that some magic solution to the world’s problems is not going to fall from the sky simply through the overthrow of capitalism. Complex problems require complex solutions. There is no elephant in the room. Or else maybe there are many.
Still, I don’t think the shortage of elephants takes us right back to square one. We’ve learned a couple of useful things along the way here. The first is that humans experience the brute facts of nature through the conditioning grid of our culture. That doesn’t mean there’s some kind of law that human culture always overcomes the challenges of the natural world – often enough it manifestly hasn’t. But human culture always mediates those challenges. Which is why I’m pretty sure that whatever shape the problem of human population might have, it doesn’t resemble an elephant.
The second useful thing is that, however complex our problems are, there may be particular pressure points within our cultural mediation of the world where it’s really worth focusing political attention if we want to change things. I think the hard logic of M’ > M is probably one of them.
- Fleming, D. 2016. Lean Logic, p.5.