The Great Agricultural Re-settlement, or the Next Chapter of the Fall

Here’s my own picture.
I am a farmer and that is where my world begins. What is an agriculture? I say it is a culture of cities, towns and villages, bridges, roads, canals, harbours – of trades’ people and the trades, which have been created by the specialised cultivation of fields. The industrial revolution was a revolution within agriculture – germinated by fossil fuels, so that today, nearly every culture on Earth is an agriculture. The farmer has a lot on her shoulders, because the greatest towering city, and all its goings-on, is utterly dependant on her crops – although in my Utopian picture, trades and pleasures of every kind bear their own egalitarian apportionment of the weight, so that the labours of fields gain new springs to their steps.
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Farms disrupt natural systems. The more husbandries imitate and integrate with natural systems, so the less they disrupt – but still they will disrupt to some degree. Good husbandry reflects our simple minds more than the complexities of nature. Nevertheless, it imitates, as best it can, the cyclic behaviours of organisms. The highest crop yield will be achieved by the closest integration. “You never enjoy the world aright, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars”, meditated Thomas Traherne in the Seventeenth Century. To which the farmer pragmatically adds – and shod with soil fauna, shaded with green leaves, watered by clear springs and fed by the lives we’ve fed in return.
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I must note that true yield is output minus input – massive inputs massively reduce true yield, so that organic methods out-yield all others.
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So, in attempting to do the best we can, we choose the least worst farming techniques. This is important to keep our humility and gratitude intact. It is also an important part of discussions on climate change. There have been outrageous claims of carbon sequestration (so-called negative emissions) by a variety of farming techniques, such as grasslands, or organically-managed lands – or regularly-felled woodland, or coppice. But the most these can achieve is a balance and that balance, given the flawed nature of all human practitioners is unlikely. As weather grows more unpredictable, as climate change accelerates, so that balance will become still more unlikely.
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Yet, we must grow food and timber. That is the dispensation – hunter-gatherers don’t need the dispensation, but we agriculturalists do. Claiming the dispensation, is a heavy responsibility. We should call on it to the smallest degree we can. Some organic lobby groups claim that converting a lifeless cereal prairie to organic techniques will sequester tons of carbon as soil fauna returns. It is an arrogant claim and arrogance is a problem. It is true that soil life will return – redressing a critical harm – but only to an optimum point, when the farmer can only do her best to maintain that near enough balance. Organic, biodynamic, or perma-cultural methods do a fraction of the harm that so-called industrial techniques cause, but still, they disrupt natural systems – still, they create harm. Agriculture had disrupted for thousands of years before artificial fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides existed, but the atmospheric/terrestrial balance remained unaffected. Some ancient cultures have carelessly mined their own good soils to the point where all that would grow were a few twisted olive trees… (That’s another tale of the pillage of empire)
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We gratefully accept the linear gift of sunlight to heal the wounds in our flawed agricultural cycles. We can claim the food/timber dispensation and continue without guilt as we’ve done for several thousand years, but we cannot claim to be reversing climate change We can only claim to be doing less to cause climate change than some others.
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To end our contribution to climate change we must stop burning both fossil mass and living mass (biofuels) and also leave as much as we can of Earth, untouched by agriculture. Climate has been changed by fire. We can heal it only by quenching the fire. Personal sequestration claims, presented to excuse personal fire are despicable. They do real harm. I know of an organic grower who claimed his (enclosed) carbon-rich soils pardoned his twice-annual holiday flights. Pshaw! Such self-help nonsense can be found in popular, monk-pardoner carbon footprint calculators. It was also delusively applied to the convenient projections of the Paris Accord.
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The dispensation for farming is the growing of food. There is no dispensation for fire. Energy opulent ways of life will destroy themselves. Even an imagined and perfectly balanced farming system with a thriving soil fauna will do nothing in itself to mitigate climate change. It will have minimised its agricultural disruption as a contribution to climate change, but it cannot go further – towards negative emissions. We must remove the cause – we must end the burning – for cultivation, processing, transport, electricity generation and heat.
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If you are a farmer or woodsman, would you be happy to shoulder those so-called negative emissions, which are the foundation of the Paris Agreement? That’s what’s expected of us – are you confident enough to accept them, when considering the happiness of your children?
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Perhaps you boast the sequestration power of extensive grasslands? Are you sure? Who told you so? Was it a lobby group for pasture-fed beef, or an organic, consumer lifestyle magazine?
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Farmers and lumberjacks are supposed to recognise bullshit when they see it. The bullshit is everywhere – from green sources too. This is urgent. There is very little time.

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The catalyst of climate change could ferment a new agricultural revolution as we leave those many millions of years of sequestered photosynthesis to lie quietly in their strata. Negative emissions? – there they are. Leave them to sleep. Instead, we can re-learn our parts in nature – a curious, inspiring, daunting, sobering, intoxicating, fearful, delightful, difficult, liberating and hopefully possible journey. Perhaps rage at what we’ve done, combined with humility at what we must do, may propel our first and diffident steps.
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Those first steps are not into the Garden. We remain outside in the Fall. Our steps imprint. Only our hunter/gatherer cousins can walk lightly enough to stay in that original home. All great religions and philosophies in both time and space narrate stories of the Fall and evolve codes to manage the journey – because, it seems, we are never quite at home. Agriculture is never quite at home.
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Although our great agricultural resettlement can only come about by a mass personal change of all we personages, nevertheless we are social beings and need a vision of the greater moral of how and why we change. It is useful to have Utopia as a measure. Of course, in turn, Utopia must have nature as its measure. The flaw in Utopia is myself. What’s more – Utopia is not the garden – It is the best of all settlements of the Fall. As we head towards the Utopian (unattainable) landfall, natural truths will be revealed by our natural mistakes – without the mistakes, we don’t find the truths, or the new methods. In that respect, I can consider my naturally-flawed nature to be useful. We learn because of our flaws.
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Humility is also useful. “Ne never had the apple – the apple taken been – ne never would our lady – have been heaven’s queen – so blessed be the time – the apple taken was – therefor may we sing – Deo gracias.”, people sang as they danced in the Fourteenth Century. Yes. People danced to religious songs then. They were called carols… Of course, we could compose a dancing song for many aspects of the Fall – of passages from the ease of hunter/gathering to the labours of fields. We yearn for life in the Garden. Since that cannot be, we do our best.
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Natural truth will partially escape both myself and my Agricultural Utopia – that’s why scientific hypotheses are always wrong – overturned by new hypotheses. Today’s accepted and peer-reviewed hypotheses will also be wrong. They will have emerged by cracks in our perception that allow new light in. They remain useful and they remain flawed. Deeper commons – inherited moral truths are unchanged from pre-history. The rule of return is one. We cannot take from the soil which feeds us without feeding it in return. Deeper, both inherited and bequeathed commons contain contracts with nature as well as social contracts.
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That’s why as a farmer I can take the sequestration claims of this or that research paper with a pinch of salt. I am outside the Garden. I am in Agriculture and its commons and I struggle to maintain something like a balance. I know it daily. I see it in the deepening or paling green of my crops – the colours reveal the intensity – the rise and fall of the flow of life. They often reveal the flaws in my husbandry.
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There is no perfect agriculture.
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No agriculture – no food, or timber system can achieve “negative emissions”.
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To pull back from catastrophic climate change we must remove the cause – we must remove fire from our culture. The linear gift of sunlight heals some cracks in agricultural cycles, but it can do no more – the flaws are intrinsic to practitioners – to me.

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We love fires. We must quench them. It’s a very tall order, but nevertheless, here ends the industrial revolution. Machines replaced people. Now people can replace machines. That looks arduous, but it also looks liberating. Growers can take it to their hearts.

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3 Responses to The Great Agricultural Re-settlement, or the Next Chapter of the Fall

  1. Joshua Msika says:

    So how do your Utopians heat their homes and cook their food?

    Hunter-gatherers have been using fire since before we were sapiens. Surely it’s the burning of fossil fuels that you object to. The burning of biomass is ultimately self-correcting: the more you burn now, the less you can burn in the future. Negative feedbacks kick in.

    But I guess there are better ways to burn: pyrolysis produces heat while retaining much of the carbon. See Ed Revill’s biochar-producing rocket stoves. I think you and he have much in common. http://www.soil-carbon-regeneration.co.uk/

    There are also ways of extracting heat from compost piles. Jean Pain was one of the first (in modern times) but others have come after, not least in Vermont and surrounding areas: http://www.countrymanpress.com/category/home-garden/book/57352fdef5eca3e87e220c3f

    I dream of converting a room of my house into a “bio-digester”, or basically an internal compost pile. I would fill it in autumn with wood, straw and other biomass, leave it to compost over the winter, radiating heat into the rest of the house, and then empty it in spring to fertilise my growing beds…

    Liked by 1 person

    • bryncocyn says:

      Yes – It’s very difficult. Fermentation happens whatever we do. It will still be an essential part of cycles (if climate is kind enough) after homo sapiens is gone. Gathering either the gases or the generated heat in various ways aerobic or anaerobic is quite plainly a proper thing to do. Gathering gases, or heat seems attractively just a step from hunter/gatherer gathering!

      Yes I suppose we do burn the biomass from (as ’twere) beneath our own feet, so it is self-correcting in that regard. However, I think we also burn lost photosynthesis – & all our boats. Fossil fuel at least spares life to continue live, breathe and generate more life.

      Disruption by food crops should set the limits of our disruption.

      Don’t forget that biomass is food mass, oxygen mass…

      Wild burning of fossil fuel has quite plainly caused climate change and the burning began, as you say, when (in UK) just about the last possible biomass had been burnt. Landscapes in the Seventeenth Century were utterly bare – far fewer trees than today. That self-regulation of biomass would, without coal, have self regulated the so-called civilisation, which depended on it.

      I don’t know how we’ll manage. We can’t conjure a passivhaus for everyone out of thin air and renewable electricity generation for heat calls on an already limited supply.

      We love fire. Elites, like hunter/gatherers can still burn their scented ash logs, but the rest of us, interested in justice, our neighbours and a common future must agree to a severe rationing.

      I think I may have a deep seated prejudice against bio char, perhaps because of certain practitioners. I’ll sit myself down quietly and think again.

      After all, what’s ahead is either utter chaos, or an epic adventure. We learn as we travel and I think we must choose what today seems impossible. I don’t like utter chaos. Also with regards to emissions from every kind of non-gaseous burning – biofuel, or fossil fuel, we’ve run out of time.

      Like

      • Joshua Msika says:

        Sometimes I wonder whether from the point of view of the mass of Bio, whether burning fossil fuels is a good thing. This carbon, the essential building block for all life, was locked underground, removed from the dance of life and sequestered into still, black pools. It is now joyfully spurting out of the ground into the atmosphere, melting the icecaps that have held the circumpolar regions back and ushering in a warmer, wetter and ultimately more potentially fertile global climate. From the atmosphere, it can be photosynthesised back into living matter

        Sure, it creates a bit of chaos, and it might wipe out human civilisation, but in the long term, the future mass of bio in the climate-changed world of 10,000 AD will surely exceed that of the Holocene.

        Heresy? Probably. I’m starting to sound a lot like the Daily Mail, talking about tropical holidays on North English beaches. I guess that the difference is that I’m talking of millenial timescales.

        Like

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