Monday, May 16, 2022

Landskap - a model for the future?

The Swedish word landskap can mean the same as the English landscape. It was also the word for the old counties of Sweden, administrative units that go back some thousand years. In the landskap people determined the laws and took decisions in the yearly thing. We find the same suffix -skap in words like äktenskap (marriage), vänskap (friendship), gemenskap (community), grannskap (neighborhood), medborgarskap (citizenship) and vetenskap (science, what we know). It is related to the old English ship as it is used for friendship. It signifies that what we have in common.


Av Hermann A.M. Mucke - Eget arbete, Public Domain,

Land is also another word for nature. Landskap, therefore, is the nature we have together, where we live. The word express that we are part of the landscape and that the landscape is part of us. The ”us” in the landskap are the people living there, not the people owning property or mines there or a distant state claiming dominion. A landskap has certain properties and it is limited in geographic area and people are part of it. In living landscapes the divide between nature and culture is therefore meaningless.

The whole notion of landskap is in contradiction with the modern capitalist society in many, many ways. Profiteering and inequality are not only unfortunate by-products of capitalism but essential parts of it. But equally problematic, or even more so, is the rift between man and nature and between producer and consumer. They are not only separated in person but also in place, so that one person in one place commands resources in a totally different location and that one person in one place consumes stuff produced by someone else in another location. All this is mediated by a currency that makes all things interchangeable and therefore also deprived of meaning - money. In addition, the separation both in place and in context means that ecological cycles are broken. e.g. the humanure can’t be circulated back to the land from which the food came from or livestock manure is accumulating in feed importing countries while soils are mined in food exporting countries. In a rather similar way social cohesion is also broken. Of course, the even bigger cycle of carbon in the biosphere is disturbed even more through the extraction of fossil fuels, also an integral component of the capitalist market economy

Conscientious consumers try to avoid cookies made from palm oil, mobile phones with conflict minerals or t-shirts made by semi-slaves in distant countries. But in the end, the only way to be a responsible consumer in a global capitalist society is to opt out of it as much as possible. And here the concept of landskap comes in handy.

Obviously, the post-viking age of landskap was no ideal world as power structures and power cultures prevented people from drawing the full benefits. Feudal societies were also often shaped around a landscape. It is clear that things will not be all rosy as soon we organize us according to landscapes. In the end, there will probably never exist a society that has no flaws. Nevertheless, the landskap-society has a good foundation for a socially and ecologically sustainable society where there is a direct relation between man and nature and between man and fellow humans. A landscape approach to our future society provides a frame for us to be grounded, rooted or terrestrial

Some may see the promotion of localization as just one more expression of growing nationalism. But there is no reason at all to see it that way. To develop a local community is something very different than the nationalist project. While it is important to dissociate from xenophobia I believe we also need to realize that there is some value in the care for the local and close. Similarly, there are also values developed with individualism and globalization which we should honor and care for. Even markets and money may have some role to play in a localized world. The difference would be that they (again) becomes tools for accomplishments rather than radical monopolies that dictates life and death.


Read also: Towards a landscape diet and communal landscape management

This post is part of a series of post inspired by our forthcoming book, The hippos of Pablo Escobar. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Being nature

We (my wife Ann-Helen and I) just finished (well almost), the manuscript of a book on man and nature titled The hippos of Pablo Escobar. It is of course an almost impossible topic to write about. Despite being the foundation of ”natural science” there is no definition or common agreement about what nature is. It is ironical that one of the most prestigious scientific journals is named Nature.

Nevertheless we cover a lot of ground in the book and address issues and questions such as:

What is wilderness, and is it a meaningful category?

Why do we make so many categories of animals, wild, tame, invasive, feral and why are Pablo Escobar’s hippos causing conflict?

Can we even talk about human individuals in a meaningful way when we are totally dependent on other organisms (the concept of holobionts) as well as, human society (the superorganism)?

Is there virtue in de-extinction and rewilding?

A forest harvester, photo Gunnar Rundgren

We apply an ecological lens to the role of humans in the Earth system and show how the energy metabolism of the average human now equals a 10 ton King Kong. Meanwhile we also apply an economic lens in our narrative of the development of forestry and agriculture. The combination of ecological conditions and economic conditions have huge explanatory power.

In the last part of the book we discuss the various tools and policies that are used or proposed for management of our role in nature/our use of nature, such as:

The rights of nature (legal concepts)

Is nature protection, such as protected areas and species protection, working well, and what are the criteria for assessment of that? (conservation concepts)

Local nature stewardship (governance concepts)

Paying for ecosystem services, climate compensation and Polluter Pay Principle (market concepts)

A deeper relationship in/with nature (philosophical concepts)

Working in nature (being nature)

Bossa and Bosse in restored grasslands on our farm, photo: Gunnar Rundgren

In a few coming posts I will raise some of the topics of the book. First out: Should we withdraw from nature or live in it?

These days many people seem to have the opinion that Man is a plague on earth and that the only chance nature (or humans or both?) has is to withdraw from nature, leave it alone, possibly after we first restored it. This is echoed in demands for rewilding and half earth (i.e. that half of the planet should be set aside for nature). Another versions of this perspective is a call for further urbanization or even space colonization. The pursuit of lab grown food is also an expression of this perspective. The ultimate withdrawal is of course transhumanism, where we also leave our bodies behind. The same people may not necessarily embrace all of these.

While there are merits (and also a number of pitfalls) in rewilding and protected areas we believe we should pay more attention to the used landscape and how to integrate other species and ecosystem functions in the farmscape, managed forests as well as urban and peri-urban green areas. Space colonization, lab foods and continued urbanization are just delusions and diversions as the ecological foot print of cities, labs and space travel is enormous. No matter how green the city is it draws on the resources of the countryside and large cities are ecological sewage pools where all sorts of resources are concentrated and wasted. Because they are constructed by the logic of a globalized capitalism they can’t be integrated in local ecosystems, they can just draw on its resources.

While many people seem to believe that withdrawal from nature is a method to save nature, it just amplifies the separation which is at the core of the current environmental disaster.  Just because you are not fishing, logging or farming yourself, it doesn’t mean that fish, land or forests are saved. The main result of withdrawal is an even deeper ecological illiteracy.

Instead of seeking, in vain, to separate humans and their society even more from nature, we believe that humans should re-embed its society in the natural world. Instead of seeking independence and individual “freedom” we should embrace our dependency of other organisms and ecosystems. The best way to do that is that many more people are actively participating in the management of the anthropogenic biomes which already dominate the planet.

Even though our record in many regards is abysmal, humans are not ecological villains by definition. Even farming, which today is the scapegoat for all ills and called  the worst mistake humans ever made, is not necessarily harmful for the environment.  We tend to look at the failure of many civilizations caused by erosion or other bad farming practices. But most civilizations for which we have records were authoritarian and centralized where peasants had to overexploit their lands to pay taxes, tithes or rents as well as supplying the cities with charcoal or timber. Farms were also short in labor because the state or lords conscripted men to the army, to build temples or pyramids and women to be servants. The current industrial farming system shaped by capitalist markets is another example how harmful agriculture can be.

Instead of only looking to those failures we should be inspired human settlements and cultures which have been sustainably for centuries, even millennia. Many indigenous people practiced sustainable farming or livestock husbandry in immense variation adapted to local conditions. But also traditional farming systems have in many places of the world been surprisingly stable and able to adjust to changes in climate, embrace new crops and methods, for example the Asian production systems described by King in Farmers of forty centuries, or the forest gardens of many tropical countries. Semi-natural grasslands have been sustainably managed for thousands of years in Scandinavia and elsewhere and are in addition incredibly bio-diverse landscapes.

Modern farmers, foresters and fishermen are often criticized by conservationists and environmentalists, for many good reasons. But how they farm, log or fish is a product of our society, and it is not fair to blame them for doing what was expected by them and encouraged by the government, food industries and supermarket (don’t tell me consumers asked for it though!). One can’t expect them to do a lot better as long as they are producing commodities for a market which just appreciate the lowest price. Meanwhile they are the ecological engineers, the environmental managers, of the anthropogenic biomes and it is essential that they are motivated to change, not primarily through increasingly tougher environmental regulations, but by re-defining their role and rewarding nature stewardship.

Other local people than the land owners should also to a much larger extent have a say in how “their” nature is being managed. One of the best ways is to engage more people in those activities that link us to nature. From logging to cooking. When Robin Wall Kimmerer is asked what one thing she would recommend to restore relationship between land and people, her answer is almost always, “plant a garden”.

“Something essential happens in a vegetable garden. It’s a place where if you can’t say ‘I love you’ out loud, you can say it in seeds. And the land will reciprocate, in beans” (from Braiding Sweetgrass)

The abstract scientific knowledge of nature and ecology obviously have merits, but real understanding of nature will also always need direct relationships between humans and nature. The sustainable and gainful interaction between humans and the rest of the living world will not be created on a drawing board but rather be developed by people being grounded, being terrestrial, being nature. To get your hands dirty is even good for your health.  

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Why we will never run out of work

As little as our desires will ever be satisfied in a capitalist economy, the demand for work will never cease. They are both intrinsically linked to the same phenomenon: a society built on the expansion of capital.

“If you think about the economy, it is — the foundation of the economy is labor. Capital equipment is distilled labor. So what happens if you don’t actually have a labor shortage? I’m not sure what an economy even means at that point, said Elon Musk when he presented the fourth quarter earnings of 2021 and told media that Tesla’s attention now would be the development of a humanoid robot. I am no certainly no muskist, on the contrary. He probably wanted to sidetrack those wondering where the Cybertruck and budget Teslas are. And I think he is wrong in his assumption that robots would eliminate labor shortage. But his question what a capitalist economy would even mean if robots were endless in supply is to the point.

But why do we work in the first place?

In the outskirts of the Russian city of Vladimir, the excavation of a 30 000 year old grave revealed two children which were placed head-to-head. They were adorned with elaborate goods including more than 10,000 mammoth ivory beads, more than 20 armbands, about 300 pierced fox teeth and 16 ivory mammoth spears. One estimate is that it would have taken 10 000 hours to produce the beads alone. Did those making this consider that all that effort to be work, leisure or artistry? I guess they wouldn’t even understand the question or that we would understand their response.

It is presently well established that foraging societies (hunter and gatherers) could satisfy their basic needs by working rather few hours and they still had an energy surplus. This was a result of their skills in making tools, cooking that allowed them to utilize foods more efficiently and their social organization. In Work: A History of How We Spend our Time, anthropologist James Suzman, explains the adornments of the grave in Vladimir with the energy surplus of their economy. This energy surplus has to be spent one way or the other. To become obese is certainly not a winning strategy for a mobile hunter or a marathon walking gatherer. Instead people spent their energy on gossiping, developing mythologies, language and art as well as ritual (rarely fatal) combats with neighbors. So humans are bound to work, to spend energy as a result of her efficient capturing of resources.

Work as a distinct category of occupation develops with settlement, agriculture and hierarchies. Agriculture, especially in very seasonal climates requires planning over years, storage of food, feed and seeds. An even bigger step was the introduction of salaried work, which is strongly linked to the emergence of cities, money and market as well as a more unequal and hierarchical society. Those agrarian civilizations could capture a much bigger share of the solar energy from a given area compared to foragers. But they also needed to work harder. Not only did farmers have to work more than foragers for their own food needs, they also had to produce surpluses for a growing number of professionals, rulers, priests and servants in the city. The increased work enabled by increasing energy resources was also channeled into the construction of palaces, temples and other monuments. According to Suzman, war was also a way both to spend energy, protect the energy resources or increase them. While agrarian civilizations had access to more energy they were also threatened by failed harvests, natural disasters and attacks from competing civilizations. This induced them to prepare for scarcity e.g. by having central granaries for food storage. 

Susan Mkandawire tends her plot in Kasisi, Zambia, Phota Richard Mulonga


The next huge step in the development of work was the industrial revolution, which turned the majority of the populations into paid workers. The industrial revolution was largely driven by the increased use of fossil fuels, first coal, later oil and gas. With machinery driven by fossil fuels, one person could produce a lot more than before, but still they worked as much or even more than before.* Suzman’s theory of surplus energy as a driver of the restless occupation of humans doesn’t really explain why this to such a large extent is directed towards paid work and less to leisure activities, rituals or art. Why doesn’t anybody spend years of their lives adorning their children’s graves? For an understanding of that we need to match the increase of energy resources with the emergence of capitalism. Here I leave Suzman’s narrative.

Even if it is called the industrial revolution its biggest accomplishment was a revolution of the productivity in agriculture. One might believe that the greatest changes in in farming was the introduction of new methods and fertilizers and pesticides. But the impact of mechanization dwarfs those other innovations. The increase in labor productivity in grain farming is mind-boggling. In the 18th century it took an average farm worker in Sweden 30 days to cut, dry and thresh one ton of grain such as oats, rye, barley or wheat. Today a normal combine harvester do that job in less than five minutes, and the latest John Deere X9 1100 combine have a capacity of up to 100 tons of wheat per hour. Of course this dramatic increase of productivity is the result of the use of fossil fuels. A full time agriculture worker in the US uses energy equal to around 70 barrels of oil per year, and a lot more in highly mechanized grain production.

One would assume that this enormous increase of productivity in agriculture would lead to a dramatic decrease in hours worked. But most people that were made redundant in agriculture went to factories or services where they worked even longer hour. As populations increased in parallel with the industrial revolution the total hours worked increased tremendously because the work that was to be done increased simultaneously in a magic way. The mass unemployment that has been feared with each new wave of industrialization and automation has so far not materialized, on the contrary. There is actually a positive correlation (don’t ask me to clarify causation though) between use of energy per capita and employment; countries with high energy usage are countries with have high levels of employment and they are also wealthy countries. The whole industrial epoch is characterized by increased use of energy and other natural resources, increased work as well as increased consumption. In that sense Musk is wrong to assume that manual labor will be made redundant by robots.

Simultaneously, capital also increases at a rapid rate. The link between capital and labor was clarified by John Stuart Mill already: “capital is the accumulated product of past labor destined for the production of future wealth”. Which is basically what both Musk and Marx say. Capital can increase through the extraction of more surplus value per work hour or by increasing the number of hours worked. The use of machines driven by external energy sources, primarily fossil fuels, made it more convenient to increase productivity per hour worked than to increase hours worked even more. To overwork people is mostly inefficient even from a pure exploitative perspective.*

But while production per worker can increase tremendously, the capacity of material consumption has limits and so do natural resources. There are limits to how much food we can consume and how many technological gadgets we want to buy. In addition, the more productive a sector becomes and the more “mature” a market is, the less it will generate any profit (again, look at farming). Capital, therefore, constantly need new arenas for its growth, which after all is an imperative in a capitalist market economy. Business becomes more complex in a globalized world and companies need lawyers, interpreters, asset managers, tax consultants, spin doctors and all sorts of paper pushers. The service sector grows and jobs are created for private occupations formerly mostly being not salaried work. Things like health care and education expands dramatically, whether they are privatized or not. Every stage of consumption and leisure are exploited. Even unemployment can become a lucrative business for unemployment insurers, employment agencies, job coaches and CV stylists. It is this mechanism that Musk misses and that his robots in no way will change.

Our wants will never be satisfied in a capitalist economy, and the demand for work will never cease. They are both prerequisites for and results of the expansion of capital.



* In the early phase of the industrial revolution working hours were long, probably longer, and certainly harder, than in the agrarian society proceeding it. Through the activities of trade unions and political movements working hours have been reduced substantially throughout the last centuries, but the last fifty years little has happened in the advanced economies

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

To waste or to waist

The metabolic food waste – what is eaten over and above what we need – is of the same order of magnitude as consumer food waste in western countries. And it is driven by the same forces that drive food waste before the mouth.

Sometimes I eat the leftover in the pot in order to avoid food waste, But does it really reduce waste? I recently mapped the carbon cycle of the Swedish food and agriculture system from farm to fork. Well, even before farm and after the fork, the research includes farm inputs (manure and other organic inputs as well as bought-in feed) as well as sewage. To see the total flow is a useful tool for increased understanding the system. The report and data is available here, in Swedish only.  

One of the many interesting results was that the metabolic food waste, overeating, is as big as what is normally called food waste at the consumer level. Expressed in energy terms, which is a lot more relevant than weight, the amount of food supplied to Swedish consumers amount to 3,200 kcal per person and day. Based on estimates of real consumption, calculations based on human metabolism and sewage data as well as calculations based on the weight of the population I come to the conclusion that approximately 2,600 kcal are actually eaten. This means that food waste before-the-mouth corresponds to 600 kcal, 19% of the supplied quantity. Notably, not all of that is actually edible in the normal sense as it includes coffee grounds, peels of fruits and vegetables, bone as well as excess frying fat. 

What's in your fridge, photo: Gunnar Rundgren & Ann-helen Meyer von Bremen

The average nutritional need is maximum 2,100 kcal. This means that 500 kcal, or 16% per person and day is simply overconsumption contributing to expanding waists. On a global scale calculations by Elisabetta Toti and colleagues, published in Frontiers in nutrition 2019, estimate that 140.7 million tons of food is overeaten of which almost half is consumed in Europe, North America and Oceania. Of course this waste has the double effect of both increasing obesity and environmental burden of food.

Is the consumer then to blame? Not really. Of course, we can always blame persons and individuals for all ills in the world, if they didn’t do this or that the world would be a better place. But we need to realize that the role of the consumer in a market economy is – to consume, to buy. All actors in the food system do their outmost to maximize sales. It starts at the farm level where there is massive overproduction of grains and soy which has to be sold one way or the other, as processed food, as corn glycose syrup, as animal feed (which is in turn converted to chicken, pork, milk or beef) or as biofuel. Food industries and supermarkets have certainly no incentives to reduce their sales, on the contrary. A recent analysis of the supermarkets in Great Britain by professor Lisa Jack concludes that:  

”left us with a food system characterised by over-purchasing, over-eating, over-production and waste. Food is transferred to store cupboards in consumers’ homes and then left unused; empty calories are stored in our bodies; and edible food often ends up in bins.”

Supermarkets, governments and well-intended civil society organizations talk about nudging the consumers to waste less food. But food waste and obesity share the same root cause, a food system where (in particular ultraprocessed junk) food is too cheap and where all parties are herding the end consumers towards buying more and eating more.

At the heart of both the environmental crisis and the obesity crisis is the capitalist market economy. It is the definition of capitalism that capital is multiplied. This is accomplished by ever increasing production. And all that is produced ultimately need to be consumed. After all, not only food is overconsumed, most goods and services are overconsumed, be it clothes, mobile phones, cars or holiday trips. Putting the burden or blame on consumers is a cover to conceal the workings of capitalism and an ideological narrative by neo-liberal apologists.