Creating a Universal Crisis Language
And taking back control of the narrative
On last week's episode, I interviewed John Gowdy, ecological economist and author of Ultrasocial: The Evolution of Human Nature and the Quest for a Sustainable Future. John joined me to discuss what we can learn from studying ants, colonies, and their social organizations, how it was the agricultural revolution where we all went wrong in terms of social and political inequality, and how increasing social complexity directly correlates to a decrease in individual complexity. The more complex we are socially, the simpler we are individually.
My interview with John left me thinking about narrative and framing—can we use agriculture and food system collapse as a way of communicating the climate crisis as a global crisis? Our treatment of the climate crisis is to silo each part as a separate system: greenhouse gas warming, ecological collapse, economic inequality, energy shortages. John’s focus on food systems, and pin-pointing the agricultural revolution as the historical crossroads where we collectively chose the wrong path, gives us an equally definitive future moment to marvel at in horror: at three or four degrees warming the planet will no longer support agriculture.
Towards the end of the episode John says the food systems will have inevitably changed in a few hundred years time and there will be huge potential for a better quality of life for the remaining human beings because, he says, we will live in smaller societies which are not held together by our capacity for mass agriculture. Life will be better for those who exist—but many will not, in part due to the inability to make food.
If the agricultural revolution was the moment we all went wrong, perhaps highlighting agricultural collapse as the emblem of our global crisis, both warning sign and book-end, gives a concrete outcome for us to work against. And it’s already happening in the world—droughts in Kenya for the third year running have left farmers with herds of decimated cattle and unable to grow crops.
Food is such a primal necessity we could even reframe it as our energy supply. The food we eat in the West is no doubt a luxury; we feast every day of the week. But when you get down to the bones of calories in, calories out, we are talking about our body’s energy supply in the same way we talk about fossil fuels and renewables. How are we going to meet the demands of 8 billion bodies?
Currently, we fuel our agricultural system, marking us the only creature on the planet which uses more energy to produce our food supply than we get from consuming it. It costs 10 calories to produce 1 calorie of food by industrial agriculture, which is madness. We’re throwing fuel away on the order of ten to one.
Fuel still remains this abstract concept that we think of as powering machines, and of course people believe we can live without machines (perhaps that explains the lack of urgency about the energy transition). However, billions would die in a matter of months if our global economy were to run out of fuel. We do need our machines, we do need our energy supply, and our agricultural systems provide a fantastic example of what fuel is to every part of the global economy—from our bodies and food to our homes and heating—and what we cannot live without.
My former guest Jason Bradford talks about this need to transform our food systems, to simplify them, so that people can learn how to feed themselves because he genuinely believes these increasingly complex systems of agriculture are going to fail.
So let's not just talk about societal collapse. Let's not just talk about ecological collapse and ecosystems. Let's talk about when agriculture is going to fail and what that's going to look like, because it will affect every single human being on the planet.
There’s equally so much interesting language in agriculture and food production we could use in climate crisis messaging. John explains throughout the episode that society’s become increasingly complex thanks to the surplus of agriculture, that’s how populations boom and become self-propagating: more access to more resources increases the availability of surplus.
It let me thinking about the redistribution of food surplus and the language used around wealth hoarding and redistribution—wouldn’t it be interesting if we reframed billionaire’s wealth as collective surplus? It’s not their wealth, it’s collective wealth. It’s economic surplus. There are so many cultural connotations to the individual’s right to wealth in a capitalist economy, but the whole point of surplus is no one individual has the right to it—the surplus belongs to the community, and it is the very existence of that surplus as communal wealth which enables the survival of the collective and the individual within it.
Perhaps we need to find a simplified, coded language with which we can then speak about everything, whether it's energy, GDP, food, access to education, access to basic services. I mentioned the complexity of the climate crisis driving, in part, our inability to manage it. But another layer of complexity is equally the atomisation of its nature as a systems problem into separate parts, thus negating any attempts to reform it. Equally, the language we use to discuss those parts is different, ensuring a certain complexity which most people don’t have the time to learn and therefore engage with. This then atomises our experts into different silos, and prevents the very necessary interdisciplinary crossover for understanding that system.
Imagine if we had a universal language of crisis? And could we ground it in the language of food systems, our primal energy source which marks the beginning of our societal organisation and will equally mark the end of complexity?
Surplus instead of wealth. Yield instead of GDP. Harvest—the harvesting of resources and minerals and materials, even if it happens on the other side of the world, companies must take responsibility for their harvest. Profit would also be yield, what they get from their harvest. And then surplus redistributed back into the collective.
This is a very brief riffing on a theme, but perhaps coded language that can be applied to every part of the climate crisis to thus communicate its systemic nature, and to map seemingly-disparate sectors onto one another, would enable everybody’s understanding of the situation we find ourselves in.
Food for thought.
Planet: Critical investigates why the world is in crisis—and what to do about it.