George Monbiot and friends are wrong: techno-utopianism won’t save us
George Monbiot has joined a campaign called ‘Reboot Food’, working with a group called ‘RePlanet’ – ‘ecomodernists’ (see below) / techno-utopians who would like to see governments remove their support for organic food and deregulate the GM industry, as well as producing bacteria-based food in giant factories (‘precision-fermentation’), and getting rid of smallholdings.
A war is looming between decentralisers / localisers and pro-corporate centralisers / intensifiers. I really hope George isn’t going to choose the wrong side – he’s been a hero of mine for years. But unfortunately, it looks like he is.
George – ecomodernists are capitalists. Please don’t say you’re becoming a capitalist. I’ve loved you since reading ‘Captive State’ in 2000. Don’t break my heart.
Here’s a report on the GM Watch website.
The philosophy of RePlanet and their fellow travellers is something called ‘ecomodernism’. Ecomodernists want to see a future of giant cities, surrounded by giant industrial farms with genetially-modified crops, pesticides and chemical fertilisers, nuclear power plants and maximum GDP growth. RePlanet speaks in defence of Bayer, Monsanto and glyphosate pesticides.
This is a pro-corporate agenda that will concentrate wealth more than it already is, helping maintain the status quo that has been so damaging to nature, communities, democracy and human well-being.
Mark Lynas and corporate capitalism
One of the founders of RePlanet is Mark Lynas, co-author of the Ecomodernist Manifesto.
He supports fracking.
Although he is no climate change denier, he strongly criticises the environment movement for its opposition to endless GDP growth. Surprise, surprise.
Lynas is funded to promote GM food by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Mark Lynas thinks that corporate capitalism can solve climate change – that’s like burning your house down to keep warm.
GM crops and the ‘food shortage’
Ecomodernism and GM are not about feeding the world, but concentrating wealth in the corporate sector more than it already is, and to establish corporate control over as much of our food as possible.
It’s wrong to equate anti-GM with anti-science. I’m actually very pro-science, but GM is not about ending hunger, it’s about making corporations richer. Using technology to increase yields always costs more, and has a bigger environmental impact. The lowest impact, and the kind of farming that employs the most people, and provides a barrier against hunger (because they can produce their own food) is small-scale organic food production for local markets. But corporations don’t want this kind of agriculture – they can’t control it or make money from it.
There’s no food shortage. There’s enough food for everyone – it’s just that some people don’t have money to buy it or the land to grow it. That’s an economic / political problem, not a scientific / technical one, and therefore GM crops or precision-fermentation won’t solve it.
We don’t need GM to ‘feed the world’.
Small farms are the (only) future for agriculture
Smallholders produce a third of the world’s food on a quarter of the agricultural land. So extrapolate. And family farms up to 100ha (the average uk farm is 85ha) produce 80% of the world’s food. Source: Our World in Data.
And small farms produce higher yields per acre than industrial ag.
If smallholders and farming families could get their hands on land currently occupied by industrial ag. and large landowners, they could feed the world easily, without destroying soil or concentrating wealth in the corporate sector.
The problem is, they can’t get their hands on it because of corporate / billionaire land grabs, and states that enforce land ownerships laws that owe their legitimacy to historical acts of violence, namely conquest and enclosure.
More on small farms from Chris Smaje and Simon Fairlie.
My review of ‘A Small Farm Future’.
And finally, the ecomodernists support endless GDP growth – the real killer of the biosphere.
It’s not a complicated argument. Countries with the largest GDP do the most damage to nature. GDP growth can’t be ‘immaterial’. If GDP goes up, so does spending power (or it wasn’t really GDP growth). There’s no mechanism to ring-fence the increase in spending power so that it’s not spent on material things. As we can’t have endless growth in the production of material things, we can’t have endless GDP growth either.
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1Matthew Slater November 20th, 2022
Dave I’m a bit uncomfortable with the way you are drawing associations between people, organisations and ideologies here.
I agree that ecomodernism is flawed, and that capitalism is always seeking to infiltrate green narratives.
I also accept that some roadmaps to ecosystemic viability may indicate some unexpected policies, for example considering that urban life is much more energy efficient than rural life.
But it is not fair to draw a line from Monbiot, to reboot food to RePlanet to ecomodernism and then to hold Monbiot to account for Lynas’ advocacy for fracking. Is this article about Monbiot or Lynas? We all have to make compromises the moment we put our ideals into action.
We know Monbiot is pessimistic about society’s ability to adapt – this is why he reluctantly advocates for nuclear power, and it could be that the same line of thinking has led him towards hi-tech foods. But let’s engage him on what he actually says.
2Dave Darby November 21st, 2022
Matthew – that’s a fair comment. I guess I was focusing on the techno-utopianism rather than Monbiot specifically (hence ‘Monbiot and friends’). I hear too many times (from good people) that tech will save us, or worse, that we need growth to generate the funds to solve the environmental crisis.
By capitalist logic, it’s a bad idea to grow your own food, build your own home from natural materials, adopt a craft skill, become a smallholder, walk or cycle rather than drive – because they don’t contribute to GDP growth. Low-impact living and capitalism (and hence ecomodernism) just don’t mix.
The problem is, many people assume that you’re a communist if you oppose capitalism. But there are tools / ideas emerging that will allow us to build the commons economy without debt, and sidestep capitalist institutions (as you well know). I’m committed to bringing those ideas to the right people.
3Daniel Demmel November 21st, 2022
I’m definitely against industrial agriculture and its high energy and chemical inputs, but at the same time the countryside is emptying out, very few people want to do backbreaking farm work. For small holdings to scale up, there would need to be some pretty radical reforms to make it more desirable than city life, but the chances of that happening against the interests of large land owners is unfortunately pretty slim. Also, GM could be applied to create more climate resilient, more nutritious, etc crops, it’s just not what corporations want, but there could be a model of government or philanthropic money spent on patent free / open source crops. Again, highly unlikely, but not impossible.
4Dave Darby November 23rd, 2022
Do you have any evidence to back up the claim that very few people want to farm? I’d say it’s more to do with the fact that capitalism puts up huge barriers to entry to farming – especially small farming.
1. the Ecological Land Co-op have a waiting list for their smallholdings, and when they make a new plot available, they have a huge response.
2. It’s not ‘backbreaking work’. Small tractors exist.
3. Historically, small farmers had to be forced off their land (via the enclosures in the UK, via colonial land appropriation and the Green Revolution in India and elsewhere), so that they were forced to move to urban slums to become factory fodder.
4. Geographically, even today, in the face of corporate and plutocratic land grabs, small farmers comprise the largest component of the global workforce – 20% of it.
5. In an ideal world, I’d be a smallholder, and so would many people I’ve talked with about it. Anecdotal I know, but it’s not an unusual position. Even without farm machinery, many people would prefer farm work to soul-destroying corporate work, in PR, finance, marketing, warehousing, delivery or telesales.
6. The reason that most of them don’t become small farmers is prohibitive land prices. But it doesn’t have to be that way – the state doesn’t have to uphold feudal titles on land acquired using violence; and it doesn’t have to allow land grabs. The fact that it does illustrates the interests that the state is intended to serve (and has always served).
7. Even if people could afford the land, the planning system makes it virtually impossible for them to build a home.
8. UK farm subsidies start at 5 hectares, as does the right to put up agricultural buildings without planning permission. Nothing for small farmers.
9. Via Campesina represent millions of peasant smallholders around the world. I’m sure they’d have something to say about the suggestion that their members don’t actually want to be farmers.
(also, GM is for corporate profit, not ‘feeding the world’. There is no food shortage.)
5Ann Beirne November 24th, 2022
Totally agree with you!
Any old excuse to bring in GM foodstuff under the radar, the removal of land from homesteaders in the states is already happening, by underhand means of course, the American government don’t want them growing their own healthy food as it takes money away from the dangerous ideas the corporations want to make billions of pounds from and sod the health of the people and land of course like sheep Britain follows Americas lead every time. I am totally surprised that George Monbiot would nail his colours to this mast, I have never agreed with his nuclear power stance as I don’t agree with it anyway not when we have green answers to our power problems, It is after all an intrinsically dangerous power source with no safe way of getting rid of the toxic waste that is produced in its operation.
We really need to fight this but my personal, view is that the totally brainwashed public of this country will not stand up and fight for future generations lives, so why would they do anything to prevent this happening either. It is a sad truth that most people would rather keep doing the same old, same old rather than alter anything in their lives to help save this planet for their own future let alone for others. I did hope with the advent of covid people would realise that we would have to change the way we lived and bring back, the fighting spirit which kept this country going through two world wars, but sadly people seem to be more selfish, uncaring and totally compassionless. I know however not all people are like this but the ones like Lili and people like XR who are despite the threat of being imprisoned on trumped up terrorism charges are willing to fight on, me being one of them. Our land must be saved for future organic farming and as a permaculture gardener I can only see this as the saviour of our food crops because we shouldn’t be importing any food at all and that goes for gas and electricity too, This country must become totally self sufficient. or under the jackboot of a right wing government
6Mike Eaton November 27th, 2022
Ann and Dave – I totally agree with you, as for your final sentance Ann, I think we are fast approaching that time already – if not nearly there – these days I’m afraid each time we have any form of election I wonder why we bother – nobody elected will ever comply with their promises if they get voted in – they ALL blindly follow the same path!
As the this so called capitalist way forward – there is nothing wrong with “capitalism, as long as it is CONTROLLED PROPERLY. But having said that the form of the so called Ecomodernists is taking capitalism forward the wrong way – ask a the average Ecomodernist what is wrong with the world today and if he doesn’t point to himself [note no mention of women yet – I don’t think women are that stupid – whoohoo whoops] then to my mind he is lying.
7Wesley December 19th, 2022
I read George Monbiot’s column in The Guardian about fermentation as a food option and thought it sounded really positive. I then got your email newsletter which lead me to this article and decided it wasn’t worth researching further. However, he’s just answered some questions in this article:
I’d be intrigued to hear your thoughts?
8Dave Darby December 21st, 2022
Wesley – don’t just go on what I say – keep researching!
Coincidentally (as I’m writing a new topic intro on credit clearing) I’m re-reading George’s 2002 book – The Age of Consent, particularly about Keynes’ attempts to form a global clearing union at the Bretton Woods meeting in 1944. I have been influenced by him for years. But that Q&A didn’t answer my fears:
1. rewilding and pushing people into cities and definitely away from smallholdings means that humanity will be more and more distant from nature in our everyday lives – a big mistake I think. You don’t protect what you don’t love.
2. It’s not about keeping animals per se, but about scale and how you keep them. A few sheep under orchard trees, a few chickens scratching around a smallholding, a few pigs in the woods – doable as long as we massively reduce our meat consumption (there I agree with him). We’ve removed all the wild herds of herbivores in Europe and N America (and their predators), so there’s room for a small number of animals on mixed smallholdings, providing income, manure and pest control.
3. Agriculture would need to be reorganised – stop producing animal feed for factory farms, reduce dedicated pasture land etc. – but not annihilated.
4. Agree re perennial crops.
5. ‘Wherever possible, technology should be open-source and community-run.’ – I guess I was imagining giant factories owned by Cargill and Unlilever. It’s dangerous to have our entire food supply in the hands of so few. But this changes my position as to the technology itself. I’d be happy for it to be part of a community-owned / commons mix, but I don’t see the need to demonise local, organic smallholders.
6. He says that local farms can’t feed the world, but I guess he means that although small farms can, they can’t all be local to the giant cities in which we all live. There is so much research out there to show that small farms can easily feed the world\; https://www.tni.org/en/article/un-only-small-farmers-and-agroecology-can-feed-the-world, including, back in the day, George: https://www.monbiot.com/2008/06/10/small-is-bountiful/. Just search for ‘can small farms feed the world’.
7. I believe that some level of collapse will be experienced by the wealthy countries this century (it’s already well under way for most of the world), and the giving up of animal husbandry, as well as hunting and fishing skills would be a grave mistake.
8. ‘and the organisms or genes are not patented’ – not sure how he thinks we’d achieve that, or make sure the tech was open-sourced.
9. I just don’t see how we can keep this out of the hands of the corporate world, whereas I can with family farms. Family farms produce 80% of the world’s food – https://ourworldindata.org/smallholder-food-production.
10. The move towards factory-produced food, genetic engineering and nuclear power will mean more wealth and power concentrated in the corporate sector (I’m not seeing how this could be avoided, and he doesn’t really address it in his book), which will increase their influence in the political process, which will ensure that the chase for endless GDP growth will continue – and it’s this that’s at the root of our looming environmental disaster.
9Dave Darby December 22nd, 2022
Most people, certainly in the west, and more and more in Asia, are so dependent on technology that they wouldn’t be able to survive for more than a few days without it. we’re moving towards an age of genetic manipulation, AI and reproductive technology, requiring high-tech for things that have been done naturally for millennia, like producing food, having babies or obtaining water. This, in an age of dwindling resources, nuclear weapons proliferation, toxification, antibiotic resistance, biodiversity and biomass loss and plummeting human sperm count (all caused by the use of technology) if there’s a crash (which looks more likely each year).
10Dave Darby December 22nd, 2022
The more we try to force temporary technological solutions, which cause more techno-problems for an even bigger population, when the big crash comes, our own extinction will be much more likely than if we move closer to nature rather than further away, reduce our reliance on technology, and under no circumstances try to remove organic smallholdings and animal husbandry and hunting, and destroy the skills they require.
11Dave Darby December 22nd, 2022
Matthew (just spotted this): “urban life is much more energy efficient than rural life”
I don’t accept this. It depends what kind of urban life and what kind of rural life. Almost everyone I met in London was either helping build capitalism or mopping up after it. There’s no room for primary production – food, fibres, timber, crafts, because there’s no hinterland. I guess you’re talking about transport (anything else?), and the fact that everyone in the sticks needs a car when in the city you can do without one. But small towns are a different matter. I live in one, but don’t have a car or fly. I can (and do) get all my food (apart from a few frills) from the town’s hinterland, whereas in cities, absolutely everything people need has to be transported in, from a long distance. Cities supercharge capitalism, and their inhabitants consume more than rural / small towners. And of course, cities require trillions of tonnes of concrete and steel. I don’t buy the ‘green cities’ argument.