The Three Causes of Global Ecocide

April 6, 2020

In a recent post I questioned the well-known formula: Human Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology. But I don’t question that humans now have a severe impact on earth systems. So if not PAT, then what? Here I’m going to lay out some other factors that I suggest underlie our impact and our present predicament in a more fundamental sense than the PAT variables. They’re also three in number – but I’m going to present them as a historical narrative, not a mathematical formula.

The first (and historically prior) cause of global ecocide, I suggest, is large-scale grain agriculture. It’s come in many variants, but the typical package – worked out long ago – involves a cereal and a grain legume for human and livestock feed, and a domestic animal (usually a ruminant, especially cattle) for transport, traction, fat, food, fibre and fertility management.

Nowadays, we often criticize this package in its modern form of ‘industrialized agriculture’ for its negative effects on the biosphere – soil erosion, water pollution, GHG emissions and so on. Indeed, these are all big problems. But the point I want to emphasize is not these potential failures of large-scale grain agriculture so much as its spectacular success in feeding humans in their multitudes. Under my aforementioned post, we were talking about the problem of ‘over-population’ and the ecological tendency for organisms (including humans) to multiply in response to energetic possibilities. So perhaps here’s our modern environmental tragedy in an ear of grain. The heavy energy and protein punch packed by a grain field enables humans to multiply. Not only that, but grain agriculture also allows many among the human multitudes it supports to devote themselves to things other than wresting a thin living from an unforgiving earth. And, as it turns out, a favored pursuit among these other things is wrecking the biosphere. It’s in what grain potentiates so easily that its real tragedy is revealed.

Wait, though. Potentiates, maybe – but is it inevitable? Not according to James Scott in his much-admired recent book Against The Grain. Neither according to Jennifer Pournelle in a short but scintillating review of Scott’s book, sympathetic but critical – six pages of coruscating thought that I’ve read four times without yet even beginning to plumb their depths. Between them, Scott and Pournelle point out that sedentism predated agriculture, grain domestication predated the rise of large-scale states and agricultures by several millennia – and that the earliest states weren’t grain states but forest or wetland garden states1. Can we say that grain farming inevitably led to modern ecocide, that people were fated to follow its high-energy path? No, I don’t think so. But Scott makes a plausible case for affinities between cereal agriculture and expansionary, centralized states. Today we’re living with that affinity – maybe dying with it too.

Is there another way? Yes. We could grow annual grains in “sparsely distributed garden-sized patches” with “limited negative impact”. So say authors from the Land Institute in Kansas, who are trying to develop perennial grain crops. Or at least said. When I published an article questioning their work, they seemed to row back from this point – asserting in essence that using annual crops almost always compromises the soil. Such ideas have percolated in more coarsened forms into the thought of permaculture ultras who disparage annual cropping of any kind – like Mark Shepard, who bizarrely claims that “Every human society from the temperate zone to the tropics that has relied on annuals to feed itself, is now gone”2.

Ah well, there’s a lot to be said for experimenting with perennial cropping systems – so long as one avoids hyperbole of this kind that too often seems to accompany it. Meanwhile, I’d suggest that those of us who grow annual grains in sparsely distributed garden-sized patches should carry on. There are too many of us to feed by throwing caution to the wind and investing in speculative chestnut-and-wild-garlic wheezes. I doubt we’d be despoiling the planet quite so successfully if it wasn’t for annual grains, but they’re not the fundamental problem.

What, then, is? Candidate number two, which came to the party much later than annual grains, is capitalism. There are many ways to define capitalism, but here I’ll offer one that borrows heavily from Wolfgang Streeck3: capitalism is a way of organizing societies where social wellbeing is secured largely as an unintended side-effect of competitive profit maximization in pursuit of capital accumulation. Hence, economies that brook no limit that anyone might wish to place upon them. Hence, too, economies that are constantly looking to expand. For an early capitalist country like England, only so much expansion was possible by trying to squeeze more out of domestic agriculture or manufacturing – ‘capitalism in one country’ is scarcely possible, and in fact capitalism has always been primarily about global trading networks.

One innovation this involved was raising credit in stupendous quantities through mechanisms like joint stock companies. The potential rewards of fitting out a transcontinental merchant fleet were high, but so were the risks, and the delay in cashing out. Humans have long dealt in symbolic economic thought (“I’ll sow these seeds now, then at the end of the season I’ll be able to sell the crop and use the money to buy a new wagon”) but the logic of capital was a kind of event horizon for symbolic thought that completely outstripped anything grounding it in local biophysical realities.

Also, a big part of the reason why global trade was so much more lucrative for capitalists than local trade was that if the lucre wasn’t actual lucre extracted from metal mines it was raised on the back of ill-rewarded labour elsewhere – in other words, capitalism has gone hand in hand with colonialism. The modern pro-capitalist argument is that the increase of capital benefits everyone, even if it benefits some more than others – ‘a rising tide floats all boats’. But – to press the metaphor – capital accumulation also works by scuppering many of the smaller boats, preventing their rise. In these circumstances, the smaller boats sometimes try to organize and collectively build a dry dock. Building such a dry dock is now an urgent global necessity.

So is capitalism, raised on the back of cheap grain farming, the true culprit in our global ecocidal tragedy? I’d argue yes, pretty much. The event horizon of its accumulative urge gives the modern economy its endless, earth systems-busting motion. If capitalism in one country was never possible, it’s now becoming apparent that capitalism on one planet is no longer possible, as the ecological footprinters have demonstrated – hence the growing enthusiasm for asteroid-mining, space colonization and other such tomfoolery.

But the story’s incomplete as it stands. Capitalism invites anti-capitalism. Colonialism invites anti-colonialism. It’s unlikely the European seaborne capitalist empires would have persisted long-term in the face of local opposition. Indeed, think only Thomas Jefferson, Touissant Louverture, Simón Bolívar. True, the capitalist worm was already in many of these buds – for example, the cotton capitalism of the US south versus the industrial capitalism of the north, with Jefferson’s small farm republic a mere daydream. Even so, ultimately it seems possible that the capitalist imperative would have exhausted itself in its expansionary efforts, prompting its own political negation, then reaching political equilibrium, and therefore dying.

The fact that this hasn’t yet (quite) happened is surely down to our third culprit – fossil fuels. On the one hand, immense world-transforming energetic power. On the other, immense world-transforming pollution. Also, heavily non-random distribution in the Earth’s crust, and usually major technical obstacles to extracting them. The result of all this, in a nutshell, was an enormous boost to the already-dominant capitalist countries who were able to corner the windfall and make the whole world over in their desired image. That doesn’t mean history stopped. The last few decades have seen the balance of global economic power shift somewhat towards Asia, China in particular – possibly the herald of epochal change, possibly not. And of course, China’s rise is also fossil-fuelled.

In fact, it was in China that fossil fuels were first used industrially – to smelt iron, starting some 2,000 years ago. But it’s only in the last century or so that fossil fuel combustion has come to haunt us ecocidally. Hence, just as the adoption of grain and sedentism long predated their use by expansionary centralized states that weaponized them as ecocidal agents, so did the adoption of fossil fuels long predate their use by still more expansionary capitalist states that likewise weaponized them. Humanity wasn’t necessarily fated to undermine the conditions of its own flourishing by the profligate combustion of fossil fuels. Capitalist humanity perhaps was.

Once again, proponents of fossil-fuelled capitalism point out the ‘rising tide’ of universal human benefit brought by cheap energy and compounding capital – without, I think, attending enough to the disbenefits that it’s also brought along the way. But perhaps more salient is a look towards the future than the past. For the capitalist economy to persist, it needs to grow – a ballpark figure for ‘healthy’ capitalist growth is 3% per annum. For earth systems to persist in anything like the form that our societies have developed to cope with, we need to stop combusting fossil fuels – minimally to net zero by 2070. Projecting 3% global economic growth to 2070 suggests that the economy by that date will have to be more than four times larger than the world economy of 2018, and it’ll have to find these extra three worlds of economic activity while reducing fossil fuel use from today’s almost 12 billion tonnes of oil equivalent used annually worldwide to zero. Nobody has yet explained to me convincingly, or even sketchily, how this can possibly happen. Which is probably why world leaders talk piously about carbon-cutting, but don’t actually do it. Not until viruses do it for them, at any rate.

So if I were to write an equation concerning humanity’s planetary impact, I’d write it in the form of the historical narrative above and not a mathematical identity. But if my hand was forced into equation mongering, I’d write an equation thus:

Human Ecological Impact = Grain Farming + Capitalism + Fossil Fuels

Historical counterfactuals are only parlour games, but there are things to be learned from games. So I’d suggest we can read this equation forwards historically. Without grain farming, we wouldn’t have capitalism or significant fossil fuel use. Most of us (and that would be many fewer than our current 7.7 billion) would probably be forest gardeners, perhaps accommodating ourselves to the numerous, Lilliputian statelets proliferating across the world, or more likely trying to dodge them.

With grain farming but without capitalism, most of us would probably be living in large commercial kingdoms under the thumb of centralized states, and we’d mostly be jostling to find poorly-paid work on farms, or in domestic service, or in the military – who would probably not be short of engagements.

With the full set of grain farming and capitalism and fossil fuels, most of us are jostling to find poorly-paid non-farm work, some of us have a wealth and global reach almost beyond the imagining of premodern peoples (but perhaps not quite: think Adam, think Prometheus), most of us are pretty poor, and earth systems are starting to collapse around us.

What if we read the equation historically backwards? It’s clear we need to ditch the fossil fuels before we’re overwhelmed by our own impacts. I somehow doubt we will, but hope springs eternal. If we do, then that will most likely take care of capitalism too, and good riddance to it – but it probably won’t disappear gracefully unless we attend vigorously to what comes after. For me, the best scenario for what comes after would involve something akin to the non-capitalist commercial kingdoms I mentioned above, but judiciously leavened with the best of the ancient and the best of the modern. From the ancient (and I mean really ancient), I propose semi-autonomous, small-scale forest gardening combining a judicious mix of perennial and annual plants, including grains in sparsely distributed garden-sized patches. From the not quite so ancient I propose a mostly civic republican politics of recognition – which I think is compatible with a more modern sense of individual human rights and due process that might just help see us through the travails to come with a minimum of bloodshed. From the modern also, I propose whatever life-enhancing technologies we’re able to carry with us – and agree upon – from the present. The difficulty, perhaps, is in agreeing on what ‘able to’ means, and in fully accounting for its costs.

It’s often assumed that ‘capitalism’ has given us modern marvels like clean water, heart triple bypass surgery or the joys (?) of online communication – a point that’s used to berate anti-capitalists for their supposed hypocrisy or primitivism. Actually, the relationship between capitalism and technology is much murkier. But it’s true that capitalism generates large economic surpluses, some of which have been devoted to life-enhancing inventions. In a post-fossil-fuelled, post-carbon future, generating economic surplus is likely to be challenging, so we’ll want to be careful what we do with it. In such a world, low carbon, labour-intensive work would be emphasized – so a world of small-scale farmers, market-stall holders, teachers, doctors and other health workers, social carers, and craftspeople. I’d argue that the most important task before us right now for lowering our impact – including lowering the impact of our choices on later generations – is to be midwives for delivering that world as quickly and as smoothly as possible. Reducing work opportunities for actual midwives seems to me rather less important.


  1. James Scott. 2017. Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. Yale University Press; Jennifer Pournelle. 2019. “Fields, gardens and staple states,” Journal of Peasant Studies 46, 4: 878-84.
  2. See variously: Lee DeHaan et al. 2007. “Perennial grains,” in Sara Scherr and Jeffrey McNeely (Eds) Farming with Nature: The Science and Practice of Ecoagriculture, Island Press; Timothy Crews and Lee DeHaan. 2015. “The strong perennial vision: a response”. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems 39, 5: 500-515. Chris Smaje. 2015. “The strong perennial vision: a critical review,” Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems 39, 5: 471-99; Shepard, Mark. 2013. Restoration Agriculture: Real-World Permaculture for Farmers. Acres USA.
  3. Wolfgang Streeck. 2016. How Will Capitalism End? Verso.


Teaser photo credit: By User:Steinsky – Own work, CC BY-SA 1.0

Chris Smaje

After studying then teaching and researching in social science and policy, I became a small-scale commercial veg grower in 2007. Nowadays, when I’m not writing about the need to design low-impact local food systems before they’re foisted on us by default, I spend my time as an aspiring woodsman, stockman, gardener and peasant on the small farm I help to run in Somerset, southwest England Though smallholding, small-scale farming, peasant farming, agrarianism – call it what you will – has had many epitaphs written for it over the years, I think it’s the most likely way for humanity to see itself through the numerous crises we currently face in both the Global North and South. In my writing and blogging I attempt to explain why. The posts are sometimes practical but mostly political, as I try to wrestle with how to make the world a more welcoming place for the smallholder. Chris is the author of A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth, and most recently, Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future: The Case for an Ecological Food System and Against Manufactured Foods.

Tags: Building resilient food and farming systems, capitalism, ecocide, fossil fuel consumption, grain farming, powering down