Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | November 1, 2011

Reaction to Patrick Kerans’ “A Pessimist’s Hope: Food and the Ecological Crisis”

I was drawn first to the book launch and then to the book by
its title: “A Pessimist’s Hope: Food and the Ecological Crisis”. I have long
understood how pessimism and hope can coexist and, since I’ve been feeling
increasingly pessimistic about our future due to the ecological crisis, and yet
recently decided to become a father, I was interested in finding out where hope
might be located. Also, anything to do with food, and I’m in.

The author, Patrick Kerans, didn’t disappoint. He drew
together a broad range of fact and philosophy to fashion a strong argument in
favour of hope. It is an impressive work, and Ottawa is lucky to have such a
thinker (and an activist) in its midst. I’ll first briefly lay out his
argument, and then, since disagreement is such fertile ground for discussion, I’ll
talk about a how I disagree with the main premise of his pessimism (and yet am
still a pessimist for other reasons).

Kerans argues that it is the related Western focuses on
economic growth and reductive science that is at the root of the present
ecological crisis, most sharply characterized by climate change. He sees these
ideas as being so entrenched and fundamental to the power structure of modern Western
civilization that he sees little likelihood that they will change in time to
stop catastrophic climate change. Hence his pessimism. Yet, in the second half
of the book, he argues for a vision of hope that unlocks the potential of
communities to create improbable futures. He says hope is about people coming together
to discuss and resist, and that, if we care about the future of life on this
planet, we have an obligation to hope, no matter what the odds. We no longer
have the “luxury of despair”.

While I agree wholeheartedly with his vision of hope, I
disagree with the premise of his pessimism. Kerans believes that in order to
deal with the climate crisis, we must first radically overhaul our society –
jettisoning economic growth as a priority. He says that while the energy
question might be solved by green energy technology (which is the transition
usually discussed in the context of climate change), allowing our society to
continue down the path of endless economic growth, when you look at the food
system, which contributes up to 57% of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, you
realize that the changes required are so radical that it means a paradigm shift
for Western culture. Food is not often discussed in the context of climate
change, yet Kerans focuses on food because of the seemingly intractable
problems it presents to the status quo of our society. This, then, forms the
basis of his pessimism.

However, he never goes into much detail about what exactly
needs to change about our food system, merely stating several times that they
are massive and radical. I know some things about this issue, so I’ll attempt
to think this through, and see if the changes really do require a complete
revolution in our thinking. I’m sure I’ll miss a few things, but I feel this is
a pretty complete list. So, as I understand it, here’s the major ways in which our
food system contributes to climate change:

Energy use for tractors, greenhouses, transport,
refrigeration, processing.

Chemical fertilizer use. Nitrous oxide, a potent
greenhouse gas, is released when artificial nitrogen fertilizers are applied to

Methane from cows’ intestines and animal manure

Deforestation and loss of soil organic matter.
The latter effect happens when soil is tilled and the organic matter in the
soil is exposed to oxygen, causing it to decompose and release CO2.

So, how might we deal with each
of the food system’s contributors to climate change? #1 is really about energy,
and as such is amenable to a technological solution. Technology is what our
society does best, and I believe that we should have no problem generating all
the energy we need from sources that don’t put carbon or other greenhouse
gasses into the atmosphere. On both sides of the environmental debate, too much
is made of our dependence on oil; a cursory look around reveals that this
planet is awash in energy, in the form of sunlight, wind, geologic heat, tides.
We already have the technology to harness and store this energy efficiently –
all that is lacking is investment at the scale needed. Furthermore, massive
amounts of energy could be saved if we paid even a little more attention to
conservation and efficiency. If you don’t believe me, check out the research (here
and here)
pointing to this same conclusion. It’s simply a technical question of changing
our energy system – a big change, to be sure, but far from paradigm shifting. The
belief in an energy scarce future seems to me to perhaps stem from the same
scarcity mindset that Kerans correctly states is a product of capitalism.
Resource depletion is not our major problem – as the peak oilists and others
believe – rather it is the unravelling of ecological balance.

#2 presents a bigger challenge,
because its solution implies a wholesale shift to organic agriculture. Kerans
points to studies that show that organic agriculture would be 8% less
productive than current chemical-based agriculture. We can live with that. We
already waste tons of food, and people in industrialized countries suffer
numerous diseases from over-eating. People aren’t hungry or malnourished
because we can’t grow enough food to keep everyone healthy (the lie perpetrated
by Monsanto and other corporations looking for justification for increased use
of GMOs and other high-tech food productivity “solutions” that are really about
corporate control), people are food insecure because they lack the money to buy
sufficient food. In other words, “feeding the world” is a problem of wealth
distribution, not food production. Yet our society is predicated on avoiding
tricky questions of economic equality by finding technological fixes that
increase productivity. But you can only push the productivity of a natural
system like agriculture so far before it breaks, and our technological quick
fix has reached a dead end when it comes to food production. What the 8% figure
is telling us is that we have already overreached ourselves in agriculture, and
to be sustainable we must be less productive. However, through ensuring access
for all to healthy food (perhaps by decommodifying it), and by wasting less, we
should have no problem feeding the world – even as population increases.

However, there will be sacrifices.
What Kerans doesn’t state, and what I am unsure about, is how the reduced productivity
of organic agriculture is being measured: per acre, per worker, per inputs?
Also, does the 8% figure take into account the land needed to generate the
fertility to sustain organic agriculture? Remember, the last time that humanity
survived off of a fully organic agriculture, the population was a fraction of what
it is now. How much land would be needed to feed seven billion (and rising)
people organically? I think it’s possible, but we’re going to have to eat a lot
less meat. Now don’t get me wrong, I do not believe that all meat is inherently
unsustainable; I know that some meat can help a food system be more
sustainable, in fact. But currently a huge portion of our croplands are devoted
to growing fodder (mostly soy and corn) for animals. In any kind of organic
future I can envision, much of that land will need to be devoted to restoring
the fertility of the soil, through leaving it fallow, or growing green manures
or compost crops. Furthermore, without chemical fertility it would probably no
longer make economic sense to feed cows grain, meaning a return to grass-fed
beef, and a lot more land devoted to pasture for our cattle. Taken together, it
implies a rise in the price of food in general, and in meat in particular.
Again, a significant change, but not paradigm upturning.

#3 follows the same lines as #2.
Cows produce more methane when fed corn, so feed them grass instead, and maybe
have less of them. Manure can be pretty easily managed better, capturing the
methane it releases, and actually burning that to generate some energy. End
result: more expensive meat, and people consequentially eating less of it.

The solution to #4 is to protect
forests. Easier said than done, to be sure, especially in a culture that feels
the need to constantly expand its economy. But despite the growth economy, many
countries have successfully protected large areas of their forests. The
benefits of forests (especially for flood control in a warmer future more prone
to heavy rainstorms) are simply so great that even the most growth-focussed
governments can’t completely ignore them. We need to increase awareness of
these benefits and strengthen legislation protecting forests. As for soil
organic matter, reduced tillage helps, organic agriculture is even better, and
perennial agriculture is the best of all. In fact, some forms of perennial pasture
management (involving, yes, the much maligned cow) hold the promise of
sequestering large amounts of carbon in the ground in a very short time – a one-shot
deal of taking carbon from the air and restoring it to the soil that might end
up buying us the time we need to make the changes necessary to stop climate

So, to sum up, the main actions
necessary to halt climate change are:

Switch from fossil fuel based energy generation
to clean sources like wind, solar, and geothermal. Increase conservation and
efficiencies. This may very well end up providing even cheaper energy than oil

Switch to organic agriculture (and pay more for
food, particularly meat).

Switch to grass-fed beef, and capture the
methane from compost and manure (also resulting in more expensive meat)

Halt and, in some cases, reverse deforestation
and loss of soil carbon.

While these are big changes, I would
argue that taken together they do not imply a radical change of direction for
our civilization. Our societal pillars of science, technology, capitalism, and
economic growth should be able to soldier on despite these alterations. So I
believe that Kerans is mistaken in thinking that radical change is a
prerequisite to tackling climate change.

Let me be clear: I do agree that
radical change is necessary if our
society is going to be sustainable in the longer term, say, the next 200 years.
Climate change is only the first major ecological crisis that our society’s approach
of command and control over its environment has produced; more crises will
follow, as our collective actions increasingly shred the intricate fabric of
ecosystem interconnectivity and throw those systems dangerously out of balance.
We do need to change. We do need to redefine progress from material economic
growth to human well-being. But we also need to give ourselves a future where
we’ll be around long enough to have a chance of changing, and that means
dealing effectively with the climate tipping out of balance immediately. There
is no time left for a radical overhaul of society’s fundamental worldview, but
there is, just barely, perhaps, still enough time to stop climate catastrophe.

If we believe that we can’t deal
with climate change without first transforming the roots of our society, or
that oil is irreplaceable, or that sustainability will require great sacrifice –
as many environmentalists do – we are in a way playing into the oil
corporations’ hands. They are the ones who tell us that to transform is too
difficult, and they profit from the status quo. Much better to believe that a
future with a stable climate is not all that hard to achieve. I believe there
are good grounds to believe such a premise, and there is cause for hope in that.

However, I still consider myself
a pessimist, like Kerans, because I have not observed us making even these
lesser changes in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus about the
seriousness of the climate problem. I am a pessimist because governments have
done little or nothing to reverse the build-up of greenhouse gasses since
Kyoto, and many climate scientists believe we are already past the point of no
return. I do have hope, for all the good reasons Kerans outlines, but I have no
optimism. So while I differ from Kerans in the source of my pessimism, we both
arrive at the same bleak outlook.

I should say that at least Kerans’
outlook offers an explanation for the inaction of governments – that the
changes required are simply too great. My belief that the changes required are
not so drastic offers no corresponding explanation for the apathy of
governments. Perhaps I am naive, but I can’t believe that society’s leadership
is either sufficiently ignorant or malevolent to ignore the climate crisis. I
am left, therefore, with only bewilderment at their failure to take the actions
necessary to preserve a liveable world for ourselves and our children. In the
US, I can understand how the oil lobby has so clouded the issue with propaganda
that a significant block of the population entertains serious doubts about the
seriousness of the issue, thus blocking political action. But most other places
in the world are less deluded. I am left with no good explanation for the
biggest failure of leadership in the history of humanity.

While both Kerans and I are
pessimistic, I think that the basis of my pessimism – that world leaders have
done little to halt climate change and I don’t know why because the changes
required are not too radical – offers a bit more hope than Kerans’ – that the societal
changes required to halt climate change are too radical. My premise offers the
hope that we don’t have to reverse the momentum of hundreds of years of
societal evolution in a few short years to forestall disastrous climate change.
That is a project for the longer term. It also offers a window of opportunity
to try to identify what the blockages are to climate policy reform, and to move
past them.

Kerans is an astute observer of
society, and his book gets to the root of how we must change in order to keep
living well on this planet. My only disagreement is that we don’t need to
change radically to deal with climate change. In fact, we can’t change as
radically as he advocates in the short time we have to deal with this crisis. As
Kerans is well aware, societies can only change slowly, at a generational rate.
We must keep the transformation to a sustainable society moving forward as
rapidly as possible, but there is just no way that this job will be done before
the world is an uninhabitable desert, if it is a precondition to success.
Fortunately, the climate crisis is eminently solvable within our current

Postscript: A Possible Future

I know divination is a fool’s
game, but I can’t resist positing the broad strokes of a possible scenario for
how things with climate change might work out. This is about the most hopeful
scenario I can imagine.

Economic growth in the developed
countries has basically been moribund since the 1970’s. It has continued on
paper only, through debt – both the financial kind, and by running down our
natural capital. The neo-liberal project was the (temporarily successful)
attempt to continue economic growth by aggressively bringing more and more of
life into the market economy, where it is counted, and externalizing more and
more of the costs, where they are not counted. In fact, by nearly any measure
other than GDP, progress has halted or gone into reverse in the rich countries
since the 1970’s. We are now, with the economic woes buffeting the world since
2007, running up against the limits of even this false form of growth. More and
more must be sacrificed to appease the god of economic growth. Already people
are revolting against what is demanded of them.

First, the Greeks will vote down
the conditional bail-out from the EU, and Greece will default on its debt. Next
will follow other severely indebted Eurozone countries: Italy, Spain, Ireland.
The EU will collapse. In between the panic, some will pause to savour the irony
that the so-called cradle of civilization will bring it all down in the end.

The US will experience its Second
Great Depression (in fact, it’s already begun – but it will be named). The US
will go the way of the USSR – a massive implosion of power, breakaway states,
etc. It will be worse than the USSR because of the greater wealth and greater
inequality. Also, the Russians have always been pessimists, so weren’t all that
surprised when their empire crumbled. The optimistic Americans, on the other
hand, will suffer both materially and philosophically. It won’t be pretty. Hopefully, Canada will manage to avoid
being sucked down into the US’s death spiral, although Canadians will suffer

The net effect of all this will
be the effective end of globalization, and a considerable shrinkage of the
world economy. While this will cause great hardship, there will be some bright
spots: namely, a severe reduction in the amount of new CO2 and other greenhouse
gasses entering the atmosphere.

However, the load of greenhouse
gasses already in the air will be enough to trigger positive feedback loops. The
climate will start changing faster than anyone predicted, with tipping points
changing everything in just a year’s time. Massive storms will buffet the
tropics, making many areas virtually uninhabitable. Sea levels will start to
inundate coastal cities. Droughts and famine will send millions of people on
the move, desperate to find food and shelter. By this point, it will finally become
very clear to everyone that the climate is tipping out of control, and that
that’s very bad news.

Emergency geoengineering
solutions will be rolled out. Our first inclination will be for massive
technological solutions, such as machines that sieve CO2 from the air and
sequester it underground, or deploying materials into the upper atmosphere to
reflect incoming sunlight back out into space. But, again, hopefully, our reduced economic ability will lead us to look
towards less high-tech solutions, such as biochar or mob grazing.

This intervention will pull us
back from the brink, after which we’ll make the changes necessary to stabilize
the climate, and, having had a healthy dose of what the planet can dish up if
we ignore its physical laws, we’ll move forward with more respect for the
forces of nature and commitment to live with them, rather than fight against

The End.



  1. I am impressed with the care you put into your reply to my book. Rarely have I been treated with such respect.

    Where we differ, i think, is that I was focussing much more on agriculture in the global South, where intensive organic methods would bring huge increases.

    That we in the industrialized North consume far more than our share of the earth’s resources seems to me evident. To consume less – given our relentless drive for more – strikes me as a major cultural transformation.

    Keep in mind that at the present 85 percent of people still live on the produce of farms of less than 2 hectares.

    But who knows how it will all work out?

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