The Green Revolution: Raj Patel, Author, Activist, Economist

By lambert strether of Corrente.

This is a super presentation by Ray Patel for Michael Pollan’s class at Berkeley, Edible Education 103. The presentation and the question period together come to about an hour, so don’t listen to Morning Edition — if you ever did or even still do — listen to this! Patel starts at 7:20, after Pollan handles administrivia and does an introduction.

There are plenty of charts, but I really enjoy the anecdote on northern Malawi at 43:54 — too long for me to transcribe, so I’ll quote Patel’s closing line:

What makes it really sail is not just the democracy, but the joy which comes through people cooking together as equals and eating together as equals.

Bon apetit!

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Timothy Gawne

    Pardon me.

    The notion that we can breed like rodents, and somehow have decent lives no matter how many billions of us there are is, simply, a lie.

    You know, for many decades a lot of scary smart people at NASA have tried to figure out how to get people to live under restricted conditions (like the space station, or nuclear submarines) without spending a fortune in artificial energy-intensive technological regimens. They have failed. (If you think that you are smarter than they are give them a call, they’d love to hear about your solution).

    When the population density is low, we can chill out and just plant seeds and collect the harvest. When the population density is high you MUST have chemical fertilizers, and forced irrigation, etc.etc.

    I challenge any so-called ‘green’ environmentalist to support themselves and their families on an acre of land with no fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, etc. Good luck! Until you can prove to us that you can do this, no fair complaining to the rest of us.

    1. different clue

      Since I don’t have computer audio access, I am not able to hear this webcast. So I don’t know what within it might have gotten you so upset. Perhaps it appears to buy into the false choice between petrochemical agriculture and zero-inputs agriculture?

      Actually there is an escape hatch from the false choice worth exploring. And that escape hatch is . . . the once-and-future Mainstream Agronomy which existed and was being pursued at the Land Grant Universities and elsewhere until the early 1950s when black tarry floods of petrochemical company grant money buried it under a Cone of Silence. Those methods and the academic papers (and other publications and demonstrations) which explained them and detailed them and laid them all out . . . were discovered and rescued and saved and re-publicised by Charles Walters Jr. with his paper Acres USA, which was founded for that very purpose in 1972 I think. And it has been serving that purpose from then till now. Here is a link to their little online sampler of articles in case others, even if not yourself; care to read them.

      And here is a link to how to get a free issue of their news magazineletter for people who want to see if it interests them enough to make them want to subscribe.

      (I know we have been warned against offering offline links as a substitute for online argument in a comment. But how shall one synopsize the net output of millions of words into one blogthread paragraph? To show my sincerity, I will offer a few buzzwords and buzznames that Acres USA led me to over the years . . . Cation Exchange Capacity/Percent Base Saturation, brix, soil food web, paramagnetism, soil colloid, William Albrecht, Neal Kinsey, Garry Zimmer, Lee Fryer, Phillip Callahan, Joel Salatin, Carey Reams, Dan Skow, Bargyla Rateaver, Jerry Brunetti, Hugh Lovell, and on and on and on.)

      And yes, Acres USA features many people and places to do with Permaculture as well. Mark Shephard was one of their featured presenters at the conference I went to just earlier this December. They’ll mention ANYthing of genuine value. They’re not “proud”.

      So gas and diesel fuel to run the people-feeding farmtools and implements will stay important. But petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides will be more demonstrably irrelevant with every new recruit to “ecologically correct” high-profit agriculture in its various forms.

      1. JEHR

        As a teenager I worked on a mixed farm of 160 acres in central Alberta for more than a year (1953). It was a self-sustaining farm and had a small herd of milking cows and steers for meat, a small herd of pigs, some chickens (and sometimes turkeys), a couple of horses to help with the labour, harvesting activities and for hauling wood for fuel.

        The cows provided the manure for the vegetable garden; the horses provided the power for plowing the garden and for bringing in the hay and/or crop of barley, etc. The animals reproduced and any extra animals were sold for money or exchanged for other food. It was a simple life without electricity or running water in the house.

        Money gradually became more important as it was needed for buying clothing and trucks, for example. Eventually, someone had to work outside the farm to make enough money for other needs and for an improved standard of living.

        For hundreds of years small farmers subsisted on this cycle that did not use pesticides or herbicides, only good husbanding of the soil and lots of hard work!

        1. different clue

          Charles Walters (and others) at Acres USA used to write extensively about how Forced Parity Pricing for farm production forced non-farm society to pay farmers enough for farm production that farmers could then afford to buy clothes, trucks, etc. from non-farm society.

          In our own day, if there are enough non-farm-society people who will freely choose to pay a Functional Parity Price for high quality nutri-dense product, farmers provably growing that product will be able to sell their high quality nutri-dense product for a high price. Are there enough non-farm-society people willing to pay that price to allow Shinola producers of a Shinola product to make a Shinola living? Meanwhile, Shit producers of Shit production will make a Shit living going forward, I guess.
          And non-farm people who are only prepared to pay a Shit price will likely get the Shit product they deserve.

        2. different clue

          Quite a few of the people who attend Acres USA conferences are from Prairie Canada. Another bunch are from Ontario. So you wouldn’t feel lonely there if you decided to attend such a conference.

    2. bdy

      Chemical fertilizer and forced irrigation = water shortage, ecosystemic imbalance and other mounting negative externalities.

      Looking for sustainable alternatives is a no-brainer. Attacking the development of balanced methodologies with false equivalencies (a space station is not a planet, a submarine is not a field) makes about as much sense as feeding trolls.


    3. don

      Anything to do with sustainability raises the question of course about sustaining what, and for what purpose. And this can’t be addressed without also looking at human overpopulation. This remains one of the most taboo issues and most often never gets addressed.

      The flip side of this issue of over human population is the sustainability of biological systems, the biodiversity of species other than humans. And with it wild nature to sustain biological evolution. This too is to some extent taboo, at least among many.

      Taking into consideration that we are living in a time of a mass extinction event, one might think that we’d all be concerned about loss of biodiversity and the ever growing loss of wild nature, with biological evolution turning to devolution.

      1. different clue

        That certainly makes sense. If Timothy Gawne would have stopped there, he would have found substantial long-term agreement on this thread.

        1. different clue

          Now a big part of “overpopulation” is “overconsumption” on the part of some groups of people. Perhaps we should think in terms of “human consumption units” to sharpen up our thinking.

        1. different clue

          And each child must grow up to consume only “so much stuff”. How much is “not yet too much”? Is that a fair question?

    4. Crazy Horse


      Actually the reality is somewhat different than you portray.

      Agreed that sustained exponential growth of human population is not only mathematically impossible but will preclude any possibility of a satisfactory life for humans and the species that share the ecosystem with us.

      That said, high density food production that does not depend upon mainlining fossil fuel energy into the system is not only possible but proven. Did you fail to notice the annual production figures for the styles of farming described by Michael Pollan at about the 1hr. point in his lecture?

      I can describe a specific system that can in fact sustain a family of four from one acre of land in almost any temperate climate. The key features are:

      1- 5,000 sq. ft of passive solar greenhouses.
      2- Aquaponic fish/plant culture.
      3- Duckweed/algae cultivation for fish food.
      4- Small PV solar panel array to provide the net energy balance for water circulation.
      5- Chicken & rabbit farming on the remaining 1/2 acre of land.
      6- A zero net energy earth sheltered passive solar house.

      A system like this is basically a biological solar energy collector deriving almost all of its net energy inputs from the sun. It is not entirely self sustaining, but a few truckloads of manure waste from the local dairy farm will close the cycle as the duckweed uses it for fertilizer and in turn filters out the feed lot poisons contained in dairy waste. Add to that the product from your composting toilet and the chickens and rabbits, and you are very close to a zero net energy food production system for your family that uses less than 10% of the water of conventional agriculture and eliminates food transportation costs.

    5. Paul Tioxon

      I challenge useless idiots like you to tend yr stamp collection or whatever and leave the rest us alone. The alternatives have been around for decades. People who walk out of the capitalist system have been building alternatives since capitalism reared its ugly head hundreds of years ago. Here is a small sample of the working alternative institutions that use Ecology as their basis for the emerging social system. Arcosanti:

    6. MRW

      That’s one of the benefits of increased CO2 since 1990. Global crop yields are up by 30%, saving the lives of approximately 500,000 people who would have otherwise died of hunger.

      Further, increased CO2 reduces the need for water, another benefit.

      Why is it that the only people who know this are horticulturists and marijuana growers. And Vendana Shiva:

      Why should I care about CO2? Outdoor carbon dioxide concentrations (400-600 ppm in spring/summer) are constantly being replenished by billions upon billions of plants, animals, and microorganisms. In the greenhouse or indoor growing area, plants are isolated and using CO2 in large amounts. Levels of CO2 can drastically drop below 400 ppm, which causes slow photosynthesis and growth. Low CO2 levels fool your plants into thinking it’s fall or winter. Your plants will become stressed and will quickly stop growing. It is important for your growing area to maintain CO2 concentrations of at least 400 ppm. Increasing CO2 levels above 400 ppm promotes faster growth and sturdier, hardier plants. Higher CO2 levels of 1000 to 1500 ppm increases photosynthesis dramatically. The faster the photosynthesis the faster water and nutrients are transformed into sugars and plant solids which result in higher yields of crops, fruit, or flowers. Having CO2 equipment in your growing area gives you a definite advantage and should be among the serious grower’s tools.

      1. different clue

        Thats true indoors, where you can control everything else to put the greater CO2 levels to use.

        Outdoors? Not so much. If the rising CO2 degrades the climate to where other factors change to the detriment of plantlife, the higher CO2 levels don’t help the detrimented plant life.

        For example, last year’s drought in the midcontinent US shorted plants of water so badly that they couldn’t take up the higher CO2 levels. The 2-years-ago summer drought in historic heartland Russia helped a lot of crops burn up in brush fires and crop fires. The CO2 did those crops no good at all. Here in Michigan, our freakish 90 degree-plus heatwave in March sucked millions of fruit trees into premature blossom. A normal late March killfrost killed all the blossoms off the trees. Cherry-dependent food industries had to scramble to get cherries from Poland and etc. The CO2 did the cherry trees no good at all.

      1. Aquifer

        Yeah – Thanx – I kept advancing through the video, waiting for Raj to show and he never did …

        I am a fan of Patel, though i haven’t read all his stuff – i thought his book “The Value of Nothing” was quite good ….

    1. TimR

      Well it’s not a total loss… Before I gave up on it, I learned that students are now required to buy “iClickers” in order to be marked present in class ($40 new, $30 used, $14 to rent.) And they have to log on somewhere and register their iClicker to get it working. Great. Tech makes everything better! Hooray!

      I was always pretty skeptical of school, but in retrospect I don’t think I was nearly skeptical enough. I wish I’d had the savvy to separate myself from it much sooner. Looking in from the outside I think I see more clearly what a fraud and a farce it generally is, even when the teacher has impressive credentials like Pollan.

  2. Tyzao

    To set a date before March 31, 2013 for a national referendum on repealing the Second Amendment of the USA Constitution.

    please consider signing the petition — and sharing with others

    1. different clue

      Will that referrendum also be about forcing the Dept. of Homeland Security disgorge their 500 million hollow-point anti-personnel rounds? Rounds clearly meant for use against US civilians because the Dept. of Homeland Security does not operate anywhere overseas but rather strictly and only within Der Heimland?

      1. Tyzao

        We need to start by eradicating the idea that every American has the “right to bear arms.” Surely other questions will follow. The responsibility to protect should rest with national, regional and local law enforcement and military personnel.

        I believe you are inferring that somehow, homeland security is going to burst into your home and invade your property at any given moment. First of all, unless you are David Koresh, I think the idea is pretty ridiculous, and secondly, even if the Department of Homeland Security did make such a far-fetched decision, do you really think you would have any chance standing up against them?

        1. different clue

          Leave “protection” up to the “civil and military authorities”? Who were the “civil” authorities ( i.e. the police) protecting during their violent suppression of the OWS marches and camp-ins in and around Zucotti Park and elsewhere? The marchers and the campers? Really? Reeeaaallly? Is that what you think?
          You pretend to believe that I infer that Homeland Security is planning to violently home-invade my little co-op dwelling unit because you want to draw attention away from my actual inference that Homeland Security ( 500 million hollowpoint rounds?) and other organs of State Violence are preparing to meet mass demonstrations or mass uprisings with Mass Force. Which is what you knew right from the start was what I was really inferring even as you were pretending otherwise.
          Best of luck advancing your argument that mere citizens have no right to personal or collective defense against the Repression Forces of the Class Enemy Occupation State. Its a good way to divert the discussion away from sensible meantime measures to regulate gun ownership in proximity to violent crazy people . . . the sort of discussion going on at Riverdaughter’s The Confluence blog just lately.

          Oh, and . . . since Hate Speech also leads to violence, you might want to show your non-hipocrisy by seeking a repeal of the First Ammendment along with your repeal of the Second Ammendment. People would at least respect you for being consistent.

  3. J Sterling

    The big question is, what happens after the green revolution? India had a green revolution fifty years ago; there were 400 million people, and many of them were starving. Thanks to the green revolution, fifty years later India now has 1200 million people, and many of them are starving.

    Green revolutions turn out to be like Chinese take-out: you feel full at first, but fifty years later you’re hungry again.

    1. different clue

      And the underground aquifers which force-fed the forced-irrigation at the heart of “green revolution” are depleted to zero . . . which is itself happening in the Green Revolution heartlands (Punjab and etc.) of India.

      1.2 billion people, all dressed up and nowhere to go, no food to eat, and no more water left to grow more food with.
      But India DOES have atom bombs and ballistic missiles, so India will be able to get food from SOMEwhere . . . as long as there is any food left SOMEwhere to get.

        1. different clue

          Did that affect Rajasthan and Punjab and etc. too? I had thought that was a problem in Bangladesh. And I thought I remembered reading/hearing that the relevant authorities recommended pulling up the hi-arsenic subsurface water because that was cheaper than de-polluting or pollution-preventing the abudant surface water of high-rainfall Bangladesh.

  4. DiSc

    Some people point at population growth as a cause of our problems. That is only very partially true. There is no correlation between population density and pollution or resource depletion.

    Take Italy and the Netherlands: they have the same per-capita ecological footprint, except that the former is a backward country people emigrate from, and the latter is one of the wealthiest countries in Europe.

    Or the USA and China: in aggregate, they emit about the same CO2. Except that China has 5 times as many inhabitants and is the world factory, and the USA is an industrial desert.

    It is not about how many people leave in a place, it is about how they live. This planet can easily support more people, overpopulation is just an excuse for refusing to change one’s habits.

    1. J Sterling

      Density is not an issue: quantity is.

      How does habit change make a 1% per annum population increase irrelevant? Suppose we all take a 1% cut in our “habits” every year: when does that stop, and how?

      I suggest it stops when the population stops growing, so why not stop growing now? I see no reason to become 1% poorer every year so someone can have babies, when the baby-making is going to have to stop one day anyway.

    2. different clue

      You are partially correct as I myself noted further upthread. I thank you for your agreement with my contention that the problem is the number of humans times the consumption per human . . . which I suggested could be measured in human consumption units . . . once we can agree on what a basic human consumption unit is.

      Perhaps a human consumption unit should be defined as the amount of matter-energy resources a poor rural Bangladeshi consumes. That would be One Basic Human Consumption Unit. I suppose that measured in those terms, an average American would take up 50 or so Basic Human Consumption Units? Or, to make a more graceful acronym . . . Basic Consumption Units (BCUs)?

      So . . one Bangladeshi costs 1 BCU and one American costs 50 BCUs or something like that.

      1. J Sterling

        That would make it okay to be poor, and I’m not okay with people being poor. To say “I’m going to have eight children… but they’ll be wretchedly poor children!” does not make me jump for joy.

        I want richer people, which means I’m looking for an increase in median consumption units per person, not a decrease. (actually I want wealthier people, rather than more consuming ones particularly. We should all have more good land, more house space, more nearby nature resources etc.)

        1. different clue

          Well then, you will need less people overall so that the consumption can be spread over less people. Also, wildly overconsumptive people will have to consume less anyway if wildly underconsumptive people are to have a chance to consume more.

          Nature doesn’t care what we want anyway. Nature is one tough mother.

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