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The dead zone: why intensive agriculture is failing us, and ruining the planet

Mark Cocker discovers the shocking damage caused by modern food production in Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were by Philip Lymbery

The “dead zone” that supplies the title of this highly informed, utterly compelling book is an area of seabed off the Louisiana coast. Philip Lymbery explains that it is caused by a monthly discharge of roughly 112,000 tonnes of fertiliser that is carried down by river systems draining North America’s vast agricultural zones of genet­ically modified corn and soya. The pollutants deplete almost all of the oxygen in parts of the seabed, so the fish and other marine organisms are either killed or driven out.

The worst of the dead zones is the size of the states of Rhode Island and Connecticut combined, and the collapse of the ecosystem, though temporary, is inflicting great damage on American fisheries. It is also replicated in 40 such areas around the US. Worldwide, there are now 400 of them and they are doubling in number every decade.

According to Lymbery, the root cause of the problem is our increasingly globalised system of intensive agriculture. The “Green Revolution”, which has done so much to meet the needs of humanity’s spiralling population – from three billion in the 1960s to more than seven billion today – is predicated on an unsustainable exploitation of water, soil and natural ecosystems. But worst of all in this modern regime is the intensive system of meat production.

As you might expect from a man who is the chief executive of the campaign group Compassion in World Farming, Lymbery explores the consequences for animal welfare. Typical is our abuse of humanity’s most precious bird, the barnyard chicken. Most of the 60 billion reared annually are on a life cycle from egg to table of about eight weeks, during which they have as much living space as an A4 page. High numbers of them are infected with bugs such as campylobacter or salmonella, the latter at a rate up to ten times higher than among free-range fowl.

Animal welfare is a significant subplot, but this book’s primary theme is the consequences of such production methods for the rest of life on Earth. Despite the name, intensive agriculture is astonishingly inefficient. Converting grain or soya to meat protein wastes about two-thirds of the total food value of the original harvest. Beef is the worst, with a conversion rate of 3 per cent. It takes an arable area equivalent to the size of the entire EU to produce feed for the world’s livestock and this, if used more wisely, could yield food for another four billion people. In short, we are growing the wrong things in the wrong way for the wrong purpose.

Like all authors trying to convey large ecological truths, Lymbery has to cast his net widely and follow the chain of consequences across continents. In a chapter entitled “Elephant”, for instance, he explores how the margarine, shampoo and pork chops at your local supermarket are implicated in the loss of Sumatra’s rainforest, one of the most biodiverse areas on Earth. All of these household products require palm oil or palm kernel meal, which is used to feed livestock and even farmed fish. The EU imports half of the global harvest of palm meal, and demand for it is expected to treble by 2050. As the palm plantations expand to meet this demand, so we cause the loss of more Indonesian rainforest and drive the Sumatran elephant, just 2,500 of which are now left, to extinction.

Although Lymbery’s narrative threads are subtle and replete with powerful evidence, he is sometimes unable to explain the process by which people can confront, let alone overcome, the alliance of vested political interests and drug and chemical multinationals that is at the heart of this unsustainable regime. To give one small example, UK soils are in a parlous condition because of our five-decade addiction to chemical additives. Some of the richest peatlands in the Fens are being lost at a rate of two centimetres a year. Lymbery describes a ­Cambridgeshire farm that was test-drilled 200 times to assess its worm population. Not a single worm could be found. It sounds comic, but it should horrify us. Since Darwin, we have known of the invaluable role of earthworms in soil health. Yet when the EU put forward a directive on soil conservation, the UK, along with the governments of four other countries and supported by the National Farmers’ Union, campaigned for eight years to kill off the proposal.

Lymbery may not specify the exact political model that will allow us to challenge this madness, but he does a superb job of equipping us with the hard facts. No author can do more.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition

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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist