Farming, caves and capitalism

Dirk Campbell
   Dirk Campbell
 

The funny and perceptive series Simon Evans Goes to Market is currently being repeated on Radio 4. In the programme on grain, Jim Rogers, American commodities investor, says 'Over the last ten years or so the world has consumed more than it has produced, and when you consume more than you produce, the supply has to come from somewhere. So we've been whittling down our inventories, our stocks, so that now inventories of agricultural products are near historic lows. Agriculture has been such a horrible business for thirty years that we're now running out of farmers. Nobody wants to be a farmer. In America the average age of farmers is 58, in Japan it's 66, in Canada it's the oldest in recorded history, in Australia it's 58 – nobody wants to be a farmer. In America more people study public relations than study agriculture.'

This is staggering. We are all completely dependent on food but nobody wants to produce it? Rogers quips that when supplies of food run out, farmers will be driving about in Lamborghinis and stock market traders will be learning to drive tractors. But the underlying picture is more complex and more serious than that. It is largely to do with the exploitation of the poor by the rich.

One of my favourite Sufi stories is the one about the two dervishes (a lot of them are about dervishes, but anyway): Two dervishes were travelling together. One was weak and thin and ate very little, and the other ate a lot and was large and strong. Arriving in a certain city they were arrested on suspicion of being spies, and put into a sealed cell. After two weeks the authorities decided they were innocent, but when they opened the cell, to their astonishment the strong fat dervish was dead whereas the thin weak dervish was alive and well. A wise man commented, 'This is not so strange as it might appear. One was a voracious eater, and his body could not withstand deprivation, so he died. The other one, who was used to getting by on little, survived.'

This story is from Saadi's Gulistan (Rose Garden) which was written 800 years ago, but the precepts in it are generally applicable. I think it's fairly safe to say that if our society should be subject to sudden and unexpected deprivation, those who habitually make do with little will be better able to endure than those who rely on ready availability of supply.

More recently than Saadi, my grandfather (who was sufficiently well-known at the time to have a book of his reminiscences commissioned) wrote, in 1928: 'People say you can't put the clock back. But why not? When the clock is too fast we can and do put it back. Cattle can't put the clock back, but man, one might have thought, would have some choice.' He was a fervent traditionalist and hated cars, but he was prescient, I think.

The current version of 'you can't put the clock back' is 'we can't go back to living in caves'. This statement is often trotted out as if self-evident – but I doubt whether it is ever properly examined. If we carry on as we are, those of us that survive could very well end up living in caves. A cave is a good place to be if you need protection from extreme weather events (torrential rain, hurricane force winds, searing heat) and marauding gangs. You could even grow food in the front area, assuming the entrance is big enough, because a cave is not subject to soil erosion. Refugees from war-torn, desertified or otherwise uninhabitable places, without anywhere to live, would certainly appreciate a decent cave right now.

Living in a cave
Early man lived in caves such as this one on the Indonesian island of Flores, where the bones of a diminutive hominid species was recently unearthed. The interior of a cave is not subject to soil erosion; that's why they are perfect sites for palaeo-archaeology – you can discover who was living there 100,000 years ago!

The 1972 Limits to Growth report predicted resource depletion, which we are now beginning to feel the effects of. It did not predict Brexit and Trump, which are sideshows in comparison, but it could have. When people start feeling the pinch, they look for someone to blame – immigrants, mostly, or minorities. They don't tend to look for the underlying factors. Hordes of people are coming here and we don't want them here. But why are they coming? Do they really want to have to come? Of course not! They'd rather be living happily at home. But they can't. So what could we do to help them, so that their lives are improved and they can stay where they are?

Not much in reality. Rich countries depend on global capitalism in order to stay rich. Capitalism depends on social inequality (a fact spotted by Marx 150 years ago). Standard business regulation guarantees that; it makes directors legally responsible for maximising profit and returns to shareholders. We may salve our consciences with foreign aid, military support, invasions and so on, which make things worse at least as often as they make them better; but the fact remains that strong fat societies must exploit poor weak societies in order to stay strong and fat. Until the time comes when resources run out – for everyone. Then we will see where the chips fall.

Dirk Campbell, Transition Town Lewes.