Friday, December 30, 2016

A Seasoning of Goodwill (2016)

The Pathfinders Column from the December 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

Rather than festive, people are getting restive. In the western world post-Brexit and Trump - and doesn't that sound like a comedy duo, like Cannon and Ball or Hinge and Bracket? - liberals have lately sensed a gut-wrenching lurch towards lunacy.

But look on the bright side. People are talking about politics again because it's not boring anymore. Even kids in school are doing it. Ok, they're talking about it in a bad way, because they're appalled by the bare-faced dishonesty of it all, but at least they're engaged.

So now is when we should be stepping up our own efforts to popularise the socialist revolution. And we should do it in a way that acknowledges, in the aftermath of Brexit and Trump, that whatever intellectual debate is taking place on the surface it is the deep and visceral fears underneath that we really need to address.

Crime in socialism is a big fear we should discuss, and the breakdown of social order. But even deeper than that is the fear of famine.

Why famine? To take the UK as a local example, with apologies to overseas readers, a non-socialist will certainly ask why, in a world where money and trade have just been abolished, foreign farmers will agree to donate food, and foreign drivers transport it to ports, and foreign sailors ship it across to us, using vast amounts of polluting marine diesel also donated for our benefit? And if they don’t do all that, then given the high density of population in these islands, won't we face immediate famine?

Well, let's find out, using some basic assumptions and back-of-the-envelope calculations.

A little enquiry among farming types will turn up an oft-cited piece of country wisdom, which is that you can feed a family of four on an acre of land, more or less, give or take. How big is an acre? Well, not very big, in fact just 220 by 22 yards. If you allow 4 people per acre, this gives you 988 people per square kilometre. So if you find the maximum cultivable or productive area of a given country, and multiply that by 988, you can get an approximation of the maximum sustainable population (MSP) of that country.

The maximum cultivable area of the UK - meaning land good for annual crops like wheat or permanent crops like fruit trees - is just 23 percent of total land area, or around 56,600km². This might not sound like much, however when you times this by 988, you get an MSP of 55,924,752. This is rather more impressive, though still shy of the current UK population estimate of 65 million.

However we have not included pasture land, currently used for dairy and beef cattle, sheep and goats. The main thing wrong with this land, from an arable point of view, is that it's not flat enough for tractors and combine harvesters. Given that pastured beef consumes around 20 times the energy it produces (grain-fed beef is around 40:1, see here), it could make sense to convert this pasture to intensive allotments which would yield on average 20 times more food. If you include this land, the total farmable land area goes from 23 percent to 75 percent.

Even this does not include woodland, which constitutes 11 percent of the remainder, and which could in theory be turned to good account using well-established 'wild farming' techniques like permaculture and forest gardens. Most of what's left is lakes (ok for fishing), parks, golf courses and mountains. Urban development, cities, roads, buildings etc only account for about 4 percent.

So if push came to shove, the tiny islands of Britain could convert 86 percent of their land to agriculture. On a land area of 241,590km2 this gives a theoretical MSP of 238,631,640.

But that's nearer the population of the USA than of Britain! So now it's time to question the assumptions. First, could an acre really feed 4 people, year in, year out? Farmers in Britain with smallholdings say they can be generally self-sufficient on vegetables using around an acre, but there is a limit to what you can grow in the British climate, and soil quality, light, drainage and other variables will also affect yield. And you also need to let land lie fallow or else exhaust it or drench it in polluting nitrate fertilizers, so it would be wise to slash that figure in half.

But even so, and even allowing some meat farming so people can still enjoy the odd burger or sausage butty, it's hard to see how there's any obvious danger of famine. Rather than being a basket case, socialist Britain might even be a net exporter.

Currently the UK produces about 75 percent of its food and imports the rest. But it imports things you can't easily grow here, mostly Mediterranean fruit and veg, coffee, rubber and wine, and exports things the world enjoys, mainly whisky. Imports come from around 28 countries, and the government view is that the more sources you have the better, since your supply is less likely to be interrupted.

But this may not hold when socialism is first established, because global priorities may be more concerned with feeding starving people elsewhere than providing Brits with their morning orange juice and cappuccinos. And though it may be cheaper in capitalism to ship tomatoes from Spain than grow them in UK greenhouses, the same economics may not hold in a non-market moneyless economy. In short, though socialism will be global, it will be smart for people to produce as much as possible locally without relying on fleets of container ships.

And what if, despite all this, people in these islands can't meet their food needs, as many will fear? Here's the thing about famine – it is largely a capitalist phenomenon, not just economically but also demographically. If in socialism a place can't support a population, there is nothing to stop the population moving somewhere else. A similar MSP calculation gives Ireland a potential to feed 2.5 times its current population, while the USA could feed its people 5 times over on arable land alone, without considering the much vaster cattle regions. The same story is true pretty much everywhere – go check it and see. People don't take up much space at all. It's capitalism – and the rich - that engulf resources and create misery. So next time someone looks fearful about socialism, have patience, and work through the figures with them. They'll soon realise that a socialist diet will be a lot better than just boiled spuds seasoned with goodwill.