Robbing the Soil, 2: ‘Systematic theft of communal property’

Robbing the Soil, 2: ‘Systematic theft of communal property’

This article originally appeared in Climate & Capitalism. It is part 2 of a series, read part 1 here.
Featured image: Tenants harvest the landlord’s grain

“The expropriation of the mass of the people from the soil forms the basis of the capitalist mode of production.” (Karl Marx)

by Ian Angus

“The ground of the parish is gotten up into a few men’s hands, yea sometimes into the tenure of one or two or three, whereby the rest are compelled either to be hired servants unto the other or else to beg their bread in misery from door to door.” (William Harrison, 1577)[1]

In 1549, tens of thousands of English peasants fought — and thousands died — to halt and reverse the spread of capitalist farming that was destroying their way of life. The largest action, known as Kett’s Rebellion, has been called “the greatest practical utopian project of Tudor England and the greatest anticapitalist rising in English history.”[2]

On July 6, peasants from Wymondham, a market town in Norfolk, set out across country to tear down hedges and fences that divided formerly common land into private farms and pastures. By the time they reached Norwich, the second-largest city in England, they had been joined by farmers, farmworkers and artisans from many other towns and villages. On July 12, as many as 16,000 rebels set up camp on Mousehold Heath, near the city. They established a governing council with representatives from each community, requisitioned food and other supplies from nearby landowners, and drew up a list of demands addressed to the king.

Over the next six weeks, they twice invaded and captured Norwich, repeatedly rejected Royal pardons on the grounds that they had done nothing wrong, and defeated a force of 1,500 men sent from London to suppress them. They held out until late August, when they were attacked by some 4,000 professional soldiers, mostly German and Italian mercenaries, who were ordered by the Duke of Warwick to “take the company of rebels which they saw, not for men, but for brute beasts imbued with all cruelty.”[3] Over 3,500 rebels were massacred, and their leaders were tortured and beheaded.

The Norwich uprising is the best documented and lasted longest, but what contemporaries called the Rebellions of Commonwealth involved camps, petitions and mass assemblies in at least 25 counties, showing “unmistakable signs of coordination and planning right across lowland England.”[4] The best surviving statement of their objectives is the 29 articles adopted at Mousehold Heath. They were listed in no particular order, but, as historian Andy Wood writes, “a strong logic underlay them.”

“The demands drawn up at the Mousehold camp articulated a desire to limit the power of the gentry, exclude them from the world of the village, constrain rapid economic change, prevent the over-exploitation of communal resources, and remodel the values of the clergy. … Lords were to be excluded from common land and prevented from dealing in land. The Crown was asked to take over some of the powers exercised by lords, and to act as a neutral arbiter between lord and commoner. Rents were to be fixed at their 1485 level. In the most evocative phrase of the Norfolk complaints, the rebels required that the servile bondmen who still performed humiliating services upon the estates of the Duchy of Lancaster and the former estates of the Duke of Norfolk be freed: ‘We pray that all bonde men may be made Free, for god made all Free with his precious blode sheddyng’.”[5]

The scope and power of the rebellions of 1549 demonstrate, as nothing else can, the devastating impact of capitalism on the lives of the people who worked the land in early modern England. The radical changes known to history by the innocuous label enclosure peaked in two long waves: during the rise of agrarian capitalism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and during the consolidation of agrarian capitalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth.

This article discusses the sixteenth century origins of what Marx called “the systematic theft of communal property.”[6]

Sheep devour people

In part one we saw that organized resistance and reduced population allowed English peasants to win lower rents and greater freedom in the 1400s. But they didn’t win every fight — rather than cutting rents and easing conditions to attract tenants, some landlords forcibly evicted their smaller tenants and leased larger farms, at increased rents, to well-off farmers or commercial sheep graziers. Caring for sheep required far less labor than growing grain, and the growing Flemish cloth industry was eager to buy English wool.

Local populations declined as a result, and many villages disappeared entirely. As Sir Thomas More famously wrote in 1516, sheep had “become so greedy and fierce that they devour human beings themselves. They devastate and depopulate fields, houses and towns.”[7]

For more than a century, enclosure and depopulation — the words were almost always used together — were major social and political concerns for England’s rulers. As early as 1483, Edward V’s Lord Chancellor, John Russell, criticized “enclosures and emparking … [for] driving away of tenants and letting down of tenantries.”[8] In the same decade, the priest and historian John Rous condemned enclosure and depopulation, and identified 62 villages and hamlets within 12 miles of his home in Warwickshire that were “either destroyed or shrunken,” because “lovers or inducers of avarice” had “ignominiously and violently driven out the inhabitants.” He called for “justice under heavy penalties” against the landlords responsible.[9]

Thirty years later, Henry VIII’s advisor Sir Thomas More condemned the same activity, in more detail.

“The tenants are ejected; and some are stripped of their belongings by trickery or brute force, or, wearied by constant harassment, are driven to sell them. One way or another, these wretched people — men, women, husbands, wives, orphans, widows, parents with little children and entire families (poor but numerous, since farming requires many hands) — are forced to move out. They leave the only homes familiar to them, and can find no place to go. Since they must have at once without waiting for a proper buyer, they sell for a pittance all their household goods, which would not bring much in any case. When that little money is gone (and it’s soon spent in wandering from place to place), what finally remains for them but to steal, and so be hanged — justly, no doubt — or to wander and beg? And yet if they go tramping, they are jailed as idle vagrants. They would be glad to work, but they can find no one who will hire them. There is no need for farm labor, in which they have been trained, when there is no land left to be planted. One herdsman or shepherd can look after a flock of beasts large enough to stock an area at used to require many hands to make it grow crops.”[10]

Many accounts of the destruction of commons-based agriculture assume that that enclosure simply meant the consolidation of open-field strips into compact farms, and planting hedges or building fences to demark the now-private property. In fact, as the great social historian R.H. Tawney pointed out in his classic study of The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century, in medieval and early modern England the word enclosure “covered many different kinds of action and has a somewhat delusive appearance of simplicity.”[11] Enclosure might refer to farmers trading strips of manor land to create more compact farms, or to a landlord unilaterally adding common land to his demesne, or to the violent expulsion of an entire village from land their families had worked for centuries.

Even in the middle ages, tenant farmers had traded or combined strips of land for local or personal reasons. That was called enclosure, but the spatial rearrangement of property as such didn’t affect common rights or alter the local economy.[12] In the sixteenth century, opponents of enclosure were careful to exempt such activity from criticism. For example, the commissioners appointed to investigate illegal enclosure in 1549 received this instruction:

“You shall enquire what towns, villages, and hamlets have been decayed and laid down by enclosures into pastures, within the shire contained in your instructions …

“But first, to declare unto you what is meant by the word enclosure. It is not taken where a man encloses and hedges his own proper ground, where no man has commons, for such enclosure is very beneficial to the commonwealth; it is a cause of great increase of wood: but it is meant thereby, when any man has taken away and enclosed any other men’s commons, or has pulled down houses of husbandry, and converted the lands from tillage to pasture. This is the meaning of this word, and so we pray you to remember it.”[13]

As R.H. Tawney wrote, “What damaged the smaller tenants, and produced the popular revolts against enclosure, was not merely enclosing, but enclosing accompanied by either eviction and conversion to pasture, or by the monopolizing of common rights. … It is over the absorption of commons and the eviction of tenants that agrarian warfare — the expression is not too modern or too strong — is waged in the sixteenth century.”[14]

An unsuccessful crusade

Tudor Monarchs
Henry VII 1485–1509
Henry VIII 1509–1547
Edward VI 1547–1553
Mary I 1553–1558
Elizabeth I 1558–1603

The Tudor monarchs who ruled England from 1485 to 1603 were unable to halt the destruction of the commons and the spread of agrarian capitalism, but they didn’t fail for lack of trying. A general Act Against Pulling Down of Towns was enacted in 1489, just four years after Henry VII came to power. Declaring that “in some towns two hundred persons were occupied and lived by their lawful labours [but] now two or three herdsmen work there and the rest are fallen in idleness,”[15] the Act forbade conversion of farms of 20 acres or more to pasture, and ordered landlords to maintain the existing houses and buildings on all such farms.

Further anti-enclosure laws were enacted in 1515, 1516, 1517, 1519, 1526, 1534, 1536, 1548, 1552, 1555, 1563, 1589, 1593, and 1597. In the same period, commissions were repeatedly appointed to investigate and punish violators of those laws. The fact that so many anti-enclosure laws were enacted shows that while the Tudor government wanted to prevent depopulating enclosure, it was consistently unable to do so. From the beginning, landlords simply disobeyed the laws. The first Commission of Enquiry, appointed in 1517 by Henry VIII’s chief advisor Thomas Wolsey, identified 1,361 illegal enclosures that occurred after the 1489 Act was passed.[16] Undoubtedly more were hidden from the investigators, and even more were omitted because landlords successfully argued that they were formally legal.[17]

The central government had multiple reasons for opposing depopulating enclosure. Paternalist feudal ideology played a role — those whose wealth and position depended on the labor of the poor were supposed to protect the poor in return. More practically, England had no standing army, so the king’s wars were fought by peasant soldiers assembled and led by the nobility, but evicted tenants would not be available to fight. At the most basic level, fewer people working the land meant less money collected in taxes and tithes. And, as we’ll discuss in Part Three, enclosures caused social unrest, which the Tudors were determined to prevent.

Important as those issues were, for a growing number of landlords they were outweighed by their desire to maintain their income in a time of unprecedented inflation, driven by debasement of the currency and the influx of plundered new world silver. “During the price revolution of the period 1500-1640, in which agricultural prices rose by over 600 per cent, the only way for landlords to protect their income was to introduce new forms of tenure and rent and to invest in production for the market.”[18]

Smaller gentry and well-off tenant farmers did the same, in many cases more quickly than the large landlords. The changes they made shifted income from small farmers and farmworkers to capitalist farmers, and deepened class divisions in the countryside.

“Throughout the sixteenth century the number of smaller lessees shrank, while large leaseholding, for which accumulated capital was a prerequisite, became increasingly important. The sixteenth century also saw the rise of the capitalist lessee who was prepared to invest capital in land and stock. The increasing divergence of agricultural prices and wages resulted in a ‘profit inflation’ for capitalist farmers prepared and able to respond to market trends and who hired agricultural labor.”[19]

As we’ve seen, the Tudor government repeatedly outlawed enclosures that removed tenant farmers from the land. The laws failed because enforcement depended on justices of the peace, typically local gentry who, even if they weren’t enclosers themselves, wouldn’t betray neighbors and friends who were. Occasional Commissions of Enquiry were more effective — and so were hated by landlords — but their orders to remove enclosures and reinstate former tenants were rarely obeyed, and fines could be treated as a cost of doing business.

From monks to investors

The Tudors didn’t just fail to halt the advance of capitalist agriculture, they unintentionally gave it a major boost. As Marx wrote, “the process of forcible expropriation of the people received a new and terrible impulse in the sixteenth century from the Reformation, and the consequent colossal spoliation of church property.”[20]

Between 1536 and 1541, seeking to reform religious practice and increase royal income, Henry VIII and his chief minister Thomas Cromwell disbanded nearly 900 monasteries and related institutions, retired their occupants, and confiscated their lands and income.

This was no small matter — together, the monasteries’ estates comprised between a quarter and a third of all cultivated land in England and Wales. If he had kept it, the existing rents and tithes would have tripled the king’s annual income. But in 1543 Henry, a small-country king who wanted to be a European emperor, launched a pointless and very expensive war against Scotland and France, and paid for it by selling off the properties he had just acquired. When Henry died in 1547, only a third of the confiscated monastery property remained in royal hands; almost all that remained was sold later in the century, to finance Elizabeth’s wars with Spain.[21]

The sale of so much land in a short time transformed the land market and reshaped classes. As Christopher Hill writes, “In the century and a quarter after 1530, more land was bought and sold in England than ever before.”

“There was relatively cheap land to be bought by anyone who had capital to invest and social aspirations to satisfy…. By 1600 gentlemen, new and old, owned a far greater proportion of the land of England than in 1530 — to the disadvantage of crown, aristocracy and peasantry alike.

“Those who acquired land in significant quantity became gentlemen, if they were not such already … Gentlemen leased land — from the king, from bishops, from deans and chapters, from Oxford and Cambridge colleges — often in order to sub-let at a profit. Leases and reversions sometimes lay two deep. It was a form of investment…. The smaller gentry gained where big landlords lost, gained as tenants what others lost as lords.”[22]

As early as 1515, there were complaints that farmland was being acquired by men not from the traditional landowning classes — “merchant adventurers, clothmakers, goldsmiths, butchers, tanners and other artificers who held sometimes ten to sixteen farms apiece.”[23] When monastery land came available, owning or leasing multiple farms, known as engrossing, became even more attractive to urban businessmen with capital to spare. Some no doubt just wanted the prestige of a country estate, but others, used to profiting from their investments, moved to impose shorter leases and higher rents, and to make private profit from common land.

A popular ballad of the time expressed the change concisely:

“We have shut away all cloisters,
But still we keep extortioners.
We have taken their land for their abuse,
But we have converted them to a worse use.”[24]

Hysterical exaggeration?

Early in the 1900s, conservative economist E.F. Gay — later the first president of the Harvard Business School — wrote that 16th century accounts of enclosure were wildly exaggerated. Under the influence of “contemporary hysterics” and “the excited sixteenth century imagination,” a small number of depopulating enclosures were “magnified into a menacing social evil, a national calamity responsible for dearth and distress, and calling for drastic legislative remedy.” Popular opposition reflected not widespread hardship, but “the ignorance and hide-bound conservatism of the English peasant,” who combined “sturdy, admirable qualities with a large admixture of suspicion, cunning and deceit.” [25]

Gay argued that the reports produced by two major commissions to investigate enclosures show that the percentage of enclosed land in the counties investigated was just 1.72% in 1517 and 2.46% in 1607. Those small numbers “warn against exaggeration of the actual extent of the movement, against an uncritical acceptance of the contemporary estimate both of the greatness and the evil of the first century and a half of the ‘Agrarian Revolution.’”[26]

Ever since, Gay’s argument has been accepted and repeated by right-wing historians eager to debunk anything resembling a materialist, class-struggle analysis of capitalism. The most prominent was Cambridge University professor Sir Geoffrey Elton, whose bestselling book England Under the Tudors dismissed critics of enclosure as “moralists and amateur economists” for whom landlords were convenient scapegoats. Despite the complaints of such “false prophets,” enclosers were just good businessmen who “succeeded in sharing the advantages which the inflation offered to the enterprising and lucky.” And even then, “the whole amount of enclosure was astonishingly small.”[27]

The claim that enclosure was an imaginary problem is improbable, to say the least. R.H. Tawney’s 1912 response to Gay applies with full force to Elton and his conservative co-thinkers.

“To suppose that contemporaries were mistaken as to the general nature of the movement is to accuse them of an imbecility which is really incredible. Governments do not go out of their way to offend powerful classes out of mere lightheartedness, nor do large bodies of men revolt because they have mistaken a ploughed field for a sheep pasture.”[28]

The reports that Gay analyzed were important, but far from complete. They didn’t cover the whole country (only six counties in 1607), and their information came from local “jurors” who were easily intimidated by their landlords. Despite the dedication of the commissioners, it is virtually certain that their reports understated the number and extent of illegal enclosures.

And, as Tawney pointed out, enclosure as a percentage of all land doesn’t tell us much about its economic and social impact — the real issue is how much farmed land was enclosed.

In 1979, John Martin reanalysed Gay’s figures for the most intensely farmed areas of England, the ten Midlands counties where 80% of all enclosures took place. He concluded that in those counties over a fifth of cultivated land had been enclosed by 1607, and that in two counties enclosure exceeded 40%. Contrary to Elton’s claim, those are not “astonishingly small” figures — they support Martin’s conclusion that “the enclosure movement must have had a fundamental impact upon the agrarian organization of the Midlands peasantry in this period.” [29]

It’s important to bear in mind that enclosure, as narrowly defined by Tudor legislation and Inquiry commissions, was only part of the restructuring that was transforming rural life. W.G, Hoskins emphasizes that in The Age of Plunder:

“The importance of engrossing of farms by bigger men was possibly a greater social problem than the much more noisy controversy over enclosures, if only because it was more general. The enclosure problem was largely confined to the Midlands … but the engrossing of farms was going on all the time all over the country.”[30]

George Yerby elaborates.

“Enclosure was one manifestation of a broader and less formal development that was working in exactly the same direction. The essential basis of the change, and of the new economic balance, was the consolidation of larger individual farms, and this could take place with or without the technical enclosure of the fields. This also serves to underline the force of commercialization as the leading trend in changes in the use and occupation of the land during this period, for the achievement of a substantial marketable surplus was the incentive to consolidate, and it did not always require the considerable expense of hedging.”[31]

More large farms meant fewer small farms, and more people who had no choice but to work for others. The twin transformations of primitive accumulation — stolen land becoming capital and landless producers becoming wage workers — were well underway.


[1] William Harrison, The Description of England: The Classic Contemporary Account of Tudor Social Life, ed. Georges Edelen (Folger Shakespeare Library, 1994), 217.

[2] Jim Holstun, “Utopia Pre-Empted: Ketts Rebellion, Commoning, and the Hysterical Sublime,” Historical Materialism 16, no. 3 (2008), 5.

[3] Quoted in Martin Empson, Kill All the Gentlemen: Class Struggle and Change in the English Countryside (Bookmarks Publications, 2018), 162.

[4] Diarmaid MacCulloch and Anthony Fletcher, Tudor Rebellions, 6th ed. (Routledge, 2016), 70.

[5] Andy Wood, Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England (Palgrave, 2002), 66-7.

[6] Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, (Penguin Books, 1976), 886.

[7] Thomas More, Utopia, trans. Robert M. Adams, ed. George M. Logan, 3rd ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2016), 19.

[8] A. R. Myers, ed., English Historical Documents, 1327-1485, vol. 4 (Routledge, 1996), 1031. “Emparking” meant converting farmland into private forests or parks, where landlords could hunt.

[9] Ibid., 1029.

[10] More, Utopia, 19-20.

[11] R. H. Tawney, The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (Lector House, 2021 [1912]), 7.

[12] Tawney, Agrarian Problem, 110.

[13] R. H. Tawney and E. E. Power, eds., Tudor Economic Documents, Vol. 1. (Longmans, Green, 1924), 39, 41. Spelling modernized.

[14] Tawney, Agrarian Problem, 124, 175.

[15] Quoted in M. W. Beresford, “The Lost Villages of Medieval England,” The Geographical Journal 117, no. 2 (June 1951), 132. Spelling modernized.

[16] Spencer Dimmock, “Expropriation and the Political Origins of Agrarian Capitalism in England,” in Case Studies in the Origins of Capitalism, ed. Xavier Lafrance and Charles Post (Palgrave MacMillan, 2019), 52.

[17] The Statute of Merton, enacted in 1235, allowed landlords to take possession of and enclose common land, so long as sufficient remained to meet customary tenants’ rights. In the 1500s that long-disused law provided a loophole for enclosing landlords who defined “sufficient” as narrowly as possible.

[18] Martin, Feudalism to Capitalism, 131.

[19] Martin, Feudalism to Capitalism, 133.

[20] Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, 883.

[21] Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (Verso, 1979), 124-5.

[22] Christopher Hill, Reformation to Industrial Revolution: A Social and Economic History of Britain, 1530-1780 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1967), 47-8.

[23] Joan Thirsk, “Enclosing and Engrossing, 1500-1640,” in Agricultural Change: Policy and Practice 1500-1750, ed. Joan Thirsk (Cambridge University Press, 1990), 69.

[24] Quoted in Thomas Edward Scruton, Commons and Common Fields (Batoche Books, 2003 [1887]), 73.

[25] Edwin F. Gay, “Inclosures in England in the Sixteenth Century,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 17, no. 4 (August 1903), 576-97; “The Inclosure Movement in England,” Publications of the American Economic Association 6, no. 2 (May 1905), 146-159.

[26] Edwin F. Gay, “The Midland Revolt and the Inquisitions of Depopulation of 1607,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 18 (1904), 234, 237.

[27] G. R. Elton, England under the Tudors (Methuen, 1962), 78-80.

[28] Tawney, Agrarian Problem, 166.

[29] John E. Martin, Feudalism to Capitalism: Peasant and Landlord in English Agrarian Development (Macmillan Press, 1986), 132-38.

[30] W. G. Hoskins, The Age of Plunder: The England of Henry VIII 1500-1547, Kindle ed. (Sapere Books, 2020 [1976]), loc. 1256.

[31] George Yerby, The Economic Causes of the English Civil War (Routledge, 2020), 48.

Robbing the Soil, 1: Commons and classes before capitalism

Robbing the Soil, 1: Commons and classes before capitalism

This article originally appeared in Climate & Capitalism.
Featured image: Harvesting grain in the 1400s

Editor’s note: We are no Marxists, but we find it important to look at history from the perspective of the usual people, the peasants, and the poor, since liberal historians tend to follow the narrative of endless progress and neglect all the violence and injustice this “progress” was and is based on. Garrett Hardin’s annoying but very influential essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” is a good example, and we are thankful to the author for debunking it.

“All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil.” (Karl Marx)

Articles in this series:

Commons and classes before capitalism
‘Systematic theft of communal property’
Against Enclosure: The Commonwealth Men
Dispossessed: Origins of the Working Class
Against Enclosure: The Commoners Fight Back

by Ian Angus

To live, humans must eat, and more than 90% of our food comes directly or indirectly from soil. As philosopher Wendell Berry says, “The soil is the great connector of lives…. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”[1]

Preventing soil degradation and preserving soil fertility ought to be a global priority, but it isn’t. According to the United Nations, a third of the world’s land is now severely degraded, and we lose 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil every year. More than 1.3 billion people depend on food from degraded or degrading agricultural land.[2] Even in the richest countries, almost all food production depends on massive applications of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that further degrade the soil and poison the environment.

In Karl Marx’s words, “a rational agriculture is incompatible with the capitalist system.”[3] To understand why that is, we need to understand how capitalist agriculture emerged from a very different system.


For almost all of human history, almost all of us lived and worked on the land. Today, most of us live in cities.

It is hard to overstate how radical that change is, or how quickly it happened. Two hundred years ago, 90% of the world’s population was rural. Britain became the world’s first majority-urban country in 1851. As recently as 1960, two-thirds of the world’s people still lived in rural areas. Now it’s less than half, and only half of those are farmers.

Between the decline of feudalism and the rise of industrial capitalism, rural society was transformed by the complex of processes that are collectively known as enclosure. The separation of most people from the land, and the concentration of land ownership in the hands of a tiny minority, were revolutionary changes in the ways that humans lived and work. It happened in different ways and at different times in different parts of the world, and is still going on today.

Our starting point is England, where what Marx labelled “so-called primitive accumulation” first occurred.

Common Fields, Common Rights

In medieval and early-modern England, most people were poor, but they were also self-provisioning — they obtained their essential needs directly from the land, which was a common resource, not private property as we understand the concept.

No one actually knows when or how English common farming systems began. Most likely they were brought to England by Anglo-Saxon settlers after Roman rule ended. What we know for sure is that common field agriculture was widespread, in various forms, when English feudalism was at its peak in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

The land itself was held by landlords, directly or indirectly from the king. A minor gentry family might hold and live on just one manor — roughly equivalent to a township — while a top aristocrat, bishop or monastery could hold dozens. The people who actually worked the land, often including a mix of unfree serfs and free peasants, paid rent and other fees in labor, produce or (later) cash, and had, in addition to the use of arable land, a variety of legal and traditional rights to use the manor’s resources, such as  grazing animals on common pasture, gathering firewood, berries and nuts in the manor forest, and collecting (gleaning) grain that remained in the fields after harvest.

“Common rights were managed, divided, and redivided by the communities. These rights were predicated on maintaining relations and activities that contributed to the collective reproduction. No feudal lord had rights to the land exclusive of such customary rights of the commoners. Nor did they have the right to seize or engross the common fields as their own domain.”[4]

Field systems varied a great deal, but usually a manor or township included both the landlord’s farm (demesne) and land that was farmed by tenants who had life-long rights to use it. Most accounts only discuss open field systems, in which each tenant cultivated multiple strips of land that were scattered through the arable fields so no one family had all the best soil, but there were other arrangements. In parts of southwestern England and Scotland, for example, farms on common arable land were often compact, not in strips, and were periodically redistributed among members of the commons community. This was called runrig; a similar arrangement in Ireland was called rundale.

Most manors also had shared pasture for feeding cattle, sheep and other animals, and in some cases forest, wetlands and waterways.

Though cooperative, these were not communities of equals. Originally, all of the holdings may have been about the same size but in time considerable economic differentiation took place.[5] A few well-to-do tenants held land that produced enough to sell in local markets; others (probably a majority in most villages) had enough land to sustain their families with a small surplus in good years; others with much less land probably worked part-time for their better-off neighbors or for the landlord. “We can see this stratification right across the English counties in Domesday Book of 1086, where at least one-third of the peasant population were smallholders. By the end of the thirteenth century this proportion, in parts of southeastern England, was over a half.”[6]

As Marxist historian Rodney Hilton explains, the economic differences among medieval peasants were not yet class differences. “Poor smallholders and richer peasants were, in spite of the differences in their incomes, still part of the same social group, with a similar style of life, and differed from one to the other in the abundance rather than the quality of their possessions.”[7] It wasn’t until after the dissolution of feudalism in the fifteenth century that a layer of capitalist farmers developed.


If we were to believe an influential article published in 1968, commons-based agriculture ought to have disappeared shortly after it was born. In “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin argued that commoners would inevitably overuse resources, causing ecological collapse. In particular, in order to maximize his income, “each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons,” until overgrazing destroys the pasture, and it supports no animals at all. “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”[8]

Since its publication in 1968, Hardin’s account has been widely adopted by academics and policy makers, and used to justify stealing indigenous peoples’ lands, privatizing health care and other social services, giving corporations ‘tradable permits’ to pollute the air and water, and more. Remarkably, few of those who have accepted Hardin’s views as authoritative notice that he provided no evidence to support his sweeping conclusions. He claimed that “tragedy” was inevitable, but he didn’t show that it had happened even once.[9]

Scholars who have actually studied commons-based agriculture have drawn very different conclusions. “What existed in fact was not a ‘tragedy of the commons’ but rather a triumph: that for hundreds of years — and perhaps thousands, although written records do not exist to prove the longer era — land was managed successfully by communities.”[10]

The most important account of how common-field agriculture in England actually worked is Jeanette Neeson’s award-winning book, Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820. Her study of surviving manorial records from the 1700s showed that the common-field villagers, who met two or three times a year to decide matters of common interest, were fully aware of the need to regulate the metabolism between livestock, crops and soil.

“The effective regulation of common pasture was as significant for productivity levels as the introduction of fodder crops and the turning of tilled land back to pasture, perhaps more significant. Careful control allowed livestock numbers to grow, and, with them, the production of manure. … Field orders make it very clear that common-field villagers tried both to maintain the value of common of pasture and also to feed the land.”[11]

Village meetings selected “juries” of experienced farmers to investigate problems, and introduce permanent or temporary by-laws. Particular attention was paid to “stints” — limits on the number of animals allowed on the pasture, waste, and other common land. “Introducing a stint protected the common by ensuring that it remained large enough to accommodate the number of beasts the tenants were entitled to. It also protected lesser commoners from the commercial activities of graziers and butchers.”[12]

Juries also set rules for moving sheep around to ensure even distribution of manure, and organized the planting of turnips and other fodder plants in fallow fields, so that more animals could be fed and more manure produced. The jury in one of the manors that Neeson studied allowed tenants to pasture additional sheep if they sowed clover on their arable land — long before scientists discovered nitrogen and nitrogen-fixing, these farmers knew that clover enriched the soil.[13]

And, given present-day concerns about the spread of disease in large animal feeding facilities, it is instructive to learn that eighteenth century commoners adopted regulations to isolate sick animals, stop hogs from fouling horse ponds, and prevent outside horses and cows from mixing with the villagers’ herds. There were also strict controls on when bulls and rams could enter the commons for breeding, and juries “carefully regulated or forbade entry to the commons of inferior animals capable of inseminating sheep, cows or horses.”[14]

Neeson concludes, “the common-field system was an effective, flexible and proven way to organize village agriculture. The common pastures were well governed, the value of a common right was well maintained.”[15]

Commons-based agriculture survived for centuries precisely because it was organized and managed democratically by people who were intimately involved with the land, the crops and the community. Although it was not an egalitarian society, in some ways it prefigured what Karl Marx, referring to a socialist future, described as “the associated producers, govern[ing] the human metabolism with nature in a rational way.”[16]

Class Struggles

That’s not to say that agrarian society was tension free. There were almost constant struggles over how the wealth that peasants produced was distributed in the social hierarchy. The nobility and other landlords sought higher rents, lower taxes and limits on the king’s powers, while peasants resisted landlord encroachments on their rights, and fought for lower rents. Most such conflicts were resolved by negotiation or appeals to courts, but some led to pitched battles, as they did in 1215 when the barons forced King John to sign Magna Carta, and in 1381 when thousands of peasants marched on London to demand an end to serfdom and the execution of unpopular officials.

Historians have long debated the causes of feudalism’s decline: I won’t attempt to resolve or even summarize those complex discussions here.[17] Suffice it to say that by the early 1400s in England, the feudal aristocracy was much weakened. Peasant resistance had effectively ended hereditary serfdom and forced landlords to replace labor-service with fixed rents, while leaving common field agriculture and many common rights in place. Marx described the 1400s and early 1500s, when peasants in England were winning greater freedom and lower rents, as “a golden age for labor in the process of becoming emancipated.”[18]

But that was also a period when longstanding economic divisions within the peasantry were increasing. W.G. Hoskins described the process in his classic history of life in a Midland village.

“During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries there emerged at Wigston what may be called a peasant aristocracy, or, if this is too strong a phrase as yet, a class of capitalist peasants who owned substantially larger farms and capital resources than the general run of village farmers. This process was going on all over the Midlands during these years …”[19]

Capitalist peasants were a small minority. Agricultural historian Mark Overton estimates that “in the early sixteenth century, around 80 per cent of farmers were only growing enough food for the needs of their family household.” Of the remaining 20%, only a few were actual capitalists who employed laborers and accumulated ever more land and wealth. Nevertheless, by the 1500s two very different approaches to the land co-existed in many commons communities.

“The attitudes and behavior of farmers producing exclusively for their own needs were very different from those farmers trying to make a profit. They valued their produce in terms of what use it was to them rather than for its value for exchange in the market. … Larger, profit orientated, farmers were still constrained by soils and climate, and by local customs and traditions, but also had an eye to the market as to which crop and livestock combinations would make them most money.”[20]

As we’ll see, that division eventually led to the overthrow of the commons.

Primitive Accumulation

For Marx, the key to understanding the long transition from agrarian feudalism to industrial capitalism was “the process which divorces the worker from the ownership of the conditions of his own labor,” which itself involved “two transformations … the social means of subsistence and production are turned into capital, and the immediate producers are turned into wage-laborers.”[21]

“Nature does not produce on the one hand owners of money or commodities, and on the other hand men possessing nothing but their own labor-power. This relation has no basis in natural history, nor does it have a social basis common to all periods of human history. It is clearly the result of a past historical development, the product of many economic revolutions, of the extinction of a whole series of older formations of social production.”[22]

A decade before Capital was published, Marx summarized that historical development in an early draft.

“It is … precisely in the development of landed property that the gradual victory and formation of capital can be studied. … The history of landed property, which would demonstrate the gradual transformation of the feudal landlord into the landowner, of the hereditary, semi-tributary and often unfree tenant for life into the modern farmer, and of the resident serfs, bondsmen and villeins who belonged to the property into agricultural day laborers, would indeed be the history of the formation of modern capital.”[23]

In Section VIII of Capital Volume 1, titled “The So-Called Primitive Accumulation of Capital,” he expanded that paragraph into a powerful and moving account of the historical process by which the dispossession of peasants created the working class, while the land they had worked for millennia became the capitalist wealth that exploited them. It is the most explicitly historical part of Capital, and by far the most readable. No one before Marx had researched the subject so thoroughly — Harry Magdoff once commented that on re-reading it, he was immediately impressed by the depth of Marx’s scholarship, by “the amount of sheer digging, hard work, and enormous energy in the accumulated facts that show up in his sentences.”[24]

Since Marx wrote Capital, historians have published a vast amount of research on the history of English agriculture and land tenure — so much that a few decades ago, it was fashionable for academic historians to claim that Marx got it all wrong, that the privatization of common land was a beneficial process for all concerned. That view has little support today. Of course it would be very surprising if subsequent research didn’t contradict Marx in some ways, but while his account requires some modification, especially in regard to regional differences and the tempo of change, Marx’s history and analysis of the commons remains essential reading.[25]


The next installments in this series will discuss how, in two great waves of social change, landlords and capitalist farmers “conquered the field for capitalist agriculture, incorporated the soil into capital, and created for the urban industries the necessary supplies of free and rightless proletarians.”[26]

To be continued ….

[1] Wendell Berry, Wendell Berry: Essays 1969-1990, ed. Jack Shoemaker (Library of America, 2019), 317.


[3] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. David Fernbach, vol. 3, (Penguin Books, 1981), 216

[4] John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Hannah Holleman, “Marx and the Commons,” Social Research (Spring 2021), 2-3.

[5] See “Reasons for Inequality Among Medieval Peasants,” in Rodney Hilton, Class Conflict and the Crisis of Feudalism: Essays in Medieval Social History (Hambledon Press, 1985), 139-151.

[6] Rodney Hilton, Bond Men Made Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381 (Routledge, 2003 [1973]), 32.

[7] Rodney Hilton, Bond Men Made Free, 34.

[8] Garrett Hardin, The Tragedy of the CommonsScience, December 13, 1968.

[9] Ian Angus, The Myth of the Tragedy of the CommonsClimate & Capitalism, August 25, 2008; Ian Angus, Once Again: ‘The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons’Climate & Capitalism, November 3, 2008.

[10] Susan Jane Buck Cox, No Tragedy of the CommonsEnvironmental Ethics 7, no. 1 (1985), 60.

[11] J. M. Neeson, Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820 (Cambridge University Press, 1993), 113.

[12] J. M. Neeson, Commoners, 117.

[13] J. M. Neeson, Commoners, 118-20.

[14] J. M. Neeson, Commoners, 132.

[15] J. M. Neeson, Commoners, 157.

[16] Karl Marx, Capital Volume 3, trans. David Fernbach, (Penguin Books, 1981), 959.

[17] For an insightful summary and critique of the major positions in those debates, see Henry Heller, The Birth of Capitalism: A Twenty-First Century Perspective (Pluto Press, 2011).

[18] Karl Marx, Grundrissetrans. Martin Nicolaus (Penguin Books, 1973), 510.

[19] W. G. Hoskins, The Midland Peasant: The Economic and Social History of a Leicestershire Village (Macmillan., 1965), 141.

[20] Mark Overton, Agricultural Revolution in England: The Transformation of the Agrarian Economy, 1500-1850 (Cambridge University Press, 1996), 8, 21.

[21] Karl Marx, Capital Volume, 1, 874.

[22] Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1, 273.

[23] Karl Marx, Grundrisse, 252-3.

[24] Harry Magdoff, “Primitive Accumulation and Imperialism,” Monthly Review (October 2013), 14.

[25] “The So-Called Primitive Accumulation” — Chapters 26 through 33 of Capital Volume 1 — can be read on the Marxist Internet Archive, beginning here. The somewhat better translation by Ben Fowkes occupies pages 873 to 940 of the Penguin edition.

[26] Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1895.

Beavers are back: here’s what this might mean for the UK’s wild spaces

Beavers are back: here’s what this might mean for the UK’s wild spaces

This article originally appeared in The Conversation.

Editor’s note: “That repair should be the main goal of the environmental movement. Unlike the Neverland of the Tilters’ solutions, we have the technology for prairie and forest restoration, and we know how to use it. And the grasses will be happy to do most of the work for us.”
“To actively repair the planet requires understanding the damage. The necessary repair—the return of forests, prairies, and wetlands—could happen over a reasonable fifty to one hundred years if we were to voluntarily reduce our numbers.”
Deep Green Resistance

The Eurasian beaver, once a common sight across Europe, had disappeared almost entirely by the end of the 16th century thanks to hunting and river modification for agriculture and engineering.

But beavers are making a comeback across the UK and several other countries. They have already been released into the wild in Scotland and within enclosed river sections in England. Now expanding the wild release of beavers across England is on the cards.

Ecosystem recovery, increased biodiversity, flood protection and improved water quality are some of the upsides of having beavers around. But reintroducing wild animals to the landscape is always going to involve trial and error, and it’s vital to understand the possible consequences – both good and bad.

The beaver is a gifted environmental engineer, able to create its own ecological niche – matching itself perfectly to its environment – by building dams. These dams are made from materials the beaver can carry or float – typically wood, stones and mud, but also fence posts, crops from nearby fields, satellite dishes and old kids’ toys.

The dam creates a peaceful, watery home for beaver families to sleep, eat and avoid predators. And the effects of dam building ripple outwards, with the potential to transform entire ecosystems.

Our review of beaver impacts considers evidence from across Europe and North America, where wild beaver populations have been expanding since around the 1950s.

Our review of beaver impacts considers evidence from across Europe and North America, where wild beaver populations have been expanding since around the 1950s.


There is clear evidence that beaver dams increase water storage in river landscapes through creating more ponds and wetlands, as well as raising groundwater levels. This could help rivers – and their inhabitants – handle ever more common weather extremes like floods and droughts.

If you observe beaver dams in the wild, water often comes very close to the top of their dams, suggesting they might not be much help in a flood. Nonetheless, some studies are finding that beaver dams can reduce flood peaks, likely because they divert water onto floodplains and slow downstream flow. However, we don’t know whether beaver dams reliably reduce floods of different sizes, and it would be unwise to assume they’re always capable of protecting downstream structures.

The good news is that it seems all the extra water dams store could help supplement rivers during dry periods and act as critical refuges for fish, amphibians, insects and birds during droughts.


Beaver dams increase the time it takes for things carried by rivers to move downstream. In some cases, this can help slow the spread of pollutants like nitrates and phosphates, commonly used in fertilisers, which can harm fish and damage water quality.

Beavers’ impact on phosphates is unclear, with just as many studies finding phosphorus concentrations increasing downstream of beaver dams as those finding a decrease or no change. But beavers seem especially skilled at removing nitrate: a welcome skill, since high concentrations of nitrates in drinking water could endanger infant health.

Recovering diversity

All that water storage means beavers create a wonderful mosaic of still-, slow- and fast-moving watery habitats. In particular, they increase the biodiversity of river valleys, for example helping macro-invertebrates like worms and snails – key to healthy food chains – to thrive.

Beavers’ departure can leave anything from fens or peatlands to wet floodplain forests to drier grassland meadows developing in their wake. This gives beavers an important role in rewilding efforts.

But nuance is key here. Evidence of beaver dam impacts on fish populations and river valley vegetation, for example, is very mixed. Because they are such great agents of disturbance, beavers promote plants that germinate quickly, like woody shrubs and grasses.

While this can reduce forest cover and help some invasive plants, given time it can also help create valleys with a far richer mosaic of plant life. So although beaver presence is likely to bring benefits, more research is needed to get clearer on precisely how beavers change ecosystems.

Net zero carbon

Beavers are great at trapping carbon by storing organic matter like plant detritus in slow-flowing ponds. However, this also means beaver ponds can be sources of greenhouse gases, like CO₂ and methane, that contribute to the greenhouse effect. This led one author to wonder “whether the beaver is aware the greenhouse effect will reduce demand for fur coats”.

Can beavers still be helpful in achieving net zero carbon? The short-term answer is probably yes, since more carbon seems to be trapped than released by beaver activities.

However, long-term outcomes are less clear, since the amount of carbon that beavers keep in the ground depends on how willing they are to hang around in a river valley – and how willing we are to let them. A clearer understanding of where beavers fit within the carbon cycle of river systems is needed if we are to make best use of their carbon capture skills.


Beavers are reentering landscapes under human dominance, the same thing that originally drove them from vast swathes of European river systems.

In the UK, this means they’ll lack natural predators and may be in competition with cows and sheep for food: possibly resulting in unsteady wild population trajectories.

Although good data on long-term beaver activity is available from Sweden, Norway and Switzerland, our different climate and landscapes mean it’s hard to make a straightforward comparison.

Beavers’ use in rewilding can be incredibly cost-effective, as dam construction and the biodiversity benefits that flow from it is done largely for free. But we need to be tolerant of uncertainty in where and when they choose to do their work.

Working with wild animals – who probably don’t share our priorities – is always an unpredictable process. The expansion of beavers into the wild has a bright future so long as we can manage expectations of people who own and use beaver-inhabited land.

‘Long Overdue’: EPA Bans All Food Uses of Neurotoxic Pesticide Chlorpyrifos

‘Long Overdue’: EPA Bans All Food Uses of Neurotoxic Pesticide Chlorpyrifos

This article originally appeared in Common Dreams.

“Finally, our fields are made safer for farmworkers and our fruits and vegetables are safer for our children.”

“However, there is no excuse for manufacturing these substances, let alone deliberately releasing them into the environment.”
Max Wilbert

By Jessica Corbett

Public health experts and labor rights advocates celebrated Wednesday after the Biden administration announced that it “will stop the use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos on all food to better protect human health, particularly that of children and farmworkers,” following decades of demands for government intervention spurred by safety concerns.

“Years of backtracking put the health of countless children and farmworkers at risk by negligently and intentionally overlooking the harms of a terrible pesticide.”
—Anne Katten, CRLA Foundation

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its final rule on chlorpyrifos days before a court-ordered deadline stemming from legal action by advocacy groups that have long sought a ban on the pesticide, which is tied to permanent brain damage in children.

“We welcome EPA’s long overdue decision to cancel this neurotoxic insecticide,” said Bill Freese, science director at the Center for Food Safety, in a statement. “Since farmworkers, pregnant people, and young children are especially vulnerable to harm from exposure to chlorpyrifos, a cancellation of this dangerous product was the only choice.”

Pesticide Action Network executive director Kristin Schafer said that the agency “has released a plan that aligns with what scientists have known for decades: Chlorpyrifos is much too dangerous to be using, and its continued use has put children, farmworkers, and rural communities at risk.”

Teresa Romero, president of United Farm Workers, also welcomed the news.

“Today, we celebrate this huge victory alongside the men and women who harvest our food, who have waited too long for a ban on this pesticide,” Romero said. “We are relieved that farmworkers and their families will no longer have to worry about the myriad of ways this pesticide could impact their lives.”

Although fears of the harms to children led the EPA to end household use of chlorpyrifos two decades ago, as a recent report from the public interest law firm Earthjustice showed, the pesticide and other organophosphates are still widely applied to crops across the United States.

As The New York Times reports:

In an unusual move, the new chlorpyrifos policy will not be put in place via the standard regulatory process, under which the EPA first publishes a draft rule, then takes public comment before publishing a final rule. Rather, in compliance with the court order, which noted that the science linking chlorpyrifos to brain damage is over a decade old, the rule will be published in final form, without a draft or public comment period.

Michal Freedhoff, the EPA assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution prevention, told the Times that the “very unusual” court directive “speaks to the impatience and the frustration that the courts and environmental groups and farmworkers have with the agency.”

“The court basically said, ‘Enough is enough'” Freedhoff said. “Either tell us that it’s safe, and show your work, and if you can’t, then revoke all tolerances.”
In a statement, EPA Administrator Michael Regan recognized frustration with the agency’s inaction—particularly under former President Donald Trump—up until the new rule’s release.

“Today EPA is taking an overdue step to protect public health. Ending the use of chlorpyrifos on food will help to ensure children, farmworkers, and all people are protected from the potentially dangerous consequences of this pesticide,” Regan said. “After the delays and denials of the prior administration, EPA will follow the science and put health and safety first.”

The agency’s statement acknowledged the rule aligns with moves by other policymakers, noting that “a number of other countries, including the European Union and Canada, and some states including California, Hawaii, New York, Maryland, and Oregon have taken similar action to restrict the use of this pesticide on food.”

While applauding the EPA rule, advocates also emphasized decades of delays.

“We are relieved that the EPA has finally put an end to the use of chlorpyrifos. Years of backtracking put the health of countless children and farmworkers at risk by negligently and intentionally overlooking the harms of a terrible pesticide,” said Anne Katten, Pesticide and Work Safety Project director at the CRLA Foundation. “Finally, our fields are made safer for farmworkers and our fruits and vegetables are safer for our children.”

Advocates of outlawing chlorpyrifos also urged the EPA to take action on additional uses of this pesticide as well as other harmful organophosphate pesticides.

Under President Joe Biden, the agency “is finally reversing one of many horrific Trump administration actions that prioritized pesticide industry profits over our health and environment,” said Jason Davidson, senior food and agriculture campaigner with Friends of the Earth. “But the EPA must now finish the job and follow sound science by banning all uses of chlorpyrifos.”

Patti Goldman, the Earthjustice attorney who has been leading the chlorpyrifos litigation, declared that “it took far too long, but children will no longer be eating food tainted with a pesticide that causes intellectual learning disabilities.”

“Chlorpyrifos will finally be out of our fruits and vegetables,” she said. “But chlorpyrifos is just one of dozens of organophosphate pesticides in our fields that can harm children’s development. EPA must ban all organophosphates from food.”

Glyphosate’s Toxic Legacy Exposed: Why This Weedkiller Should Be Banned

Glyphosate’s Toxic Legacy Exposed: Why This Weedkiller Should Be Banned

Editor’s note: As radical environmentalists, we can not understand how any culture can be so stupid to put poison on their own food. The widespread application of herbicides, pesticides and all kinds of poisonous chemicals to our holy mother earth’s surface as an attempt to control weed and insect “pests” is just another expression of this culture’s deep disconnection and hatred of all life.

The following excerpt is from Toxic Legacy: How the Weedkiller Glyphosate Is Destroying Our Health and the Environment by Stephanie Seneff, PhD (Chelsea Green Publishing, July 2021). It is reprinted with permission from the publisher and has been adapted for the web.
Source: Chelsea Green Publishing via Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute

When it comes to Monsanto’s controversial herbicide, both the mainstream scientific community and our regulatory establishments have failed us.

By Stephanie Seneff

In September 2012, I attended a nutrition conference where Dr. Don Huber from Purdue University was speaking on the topic of “glyphosate.” Glyphosate is the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup. While glyphosate isn’t a household name, everyone has heard of Roundup. Drive across the United States and you’ll see vast fields marked with crop labels that say “Roundup Ready.” Monsanto, the Missouri-based company that was Roundup’s original manufacturer, was acquired by the Germany-based company Bayer in 2018 as part of its crop science division. Monsanto has touted glyphosate as remarkably safe because its main mechanism of toxicity affects a metabolic pathway in plant cells that human cells don’t possess. This is what—presumably—makes glyphosate so effective in killing plants, while—in theory, at least—leaving humans and other animals unscathed.

But as Dr. Huber pointed out to a rapt audience that day, human cells might not possess the shikimate pathway but almost all of our gut microbes do. They use the shikimate pathway, a central biological pathway in their metabolism, to synthesize tryptophan, tyrosine, and phenylalanine, three of the twenty coding amino acids that make up the proteins of our body. Precisely because human cells do not possess the shikimate pathway, we rely on our gut microbiota, along with diet, to provide these essential amino acids for us.

Perhaps even more significantly, gut microbes play an essential role in many aspects of human health. When glyphosate harms these microbes, they not only lose their ability to make these essential amino acids for the host, but they also become impaired in their ability to help us in all the other ways they normally support our health. Beneficial microbes are more sensitive to glyphosate, and this causes pathogens to thrive. We know, for example, that gut dysbiosis is associated with depression and other mental disorders. Alterations in the distribution of microbes can cause immune dysregulation and autoimmune disease. Parkinson’s disease is strongly linked to a proinflammatory gut microbiome. As has become clear from the remarkable research conducted on the human microbiome in the past decade or so, happy gut bacteria are essential to our health, including in ways that researchers have yet to fully understand. It’s worth remembering that Roundup hit the market—and was declared safe—before much of this groundbreaking research on the human microbiome was ever conducted.

Dr. Huber also explained that glyphosate is a chelator, a small molecule that binds tightly to metal ions. In plant physiology, glyphosate’s chelation disrupts a plant’s uptake of essential minerals from the soil, including zinc, copper, manganese, magnesium, cobalt, and iron. Studies have shown that plants exposed to glyphosate take up much smaller amounts of these critical minerals into their tissues. When we eat foods derived from these nutrient-deficient plants, we become nutrient deficient, as well.

Glyphosate also interferes with the symbiotic relationship between plant roots and soil bacteria. Surrounding the roots of a plant is a soil zone called the rhizosphere that is teeming with bacteria, fungi, and other organisms. Glyphosate kills the organisms living in the rhizosphere, which then interferes with a plant’s nitrogen uptake, as well as the uptake of many different minerals. This interference further translates into mineral deficiencies in our foods. Glyphosate also causes exposed plants to be more vulnerable to fungal diseases. And fungal diseases can lead to contamination of our foods with mycotoxins produced by pathogenic fungi.

I came away from Dr. Huber’s lecture convinced that I needed to learn a lot more about glyphosate.

Fable for Tomorrow

Both of my parents grew up on family farms in small towns in southern Missouri. The area is now an environmental and economic wasteland, because large agrochemical farming has forced most small farmers into bankruptcy. As a child, I visited my grandparents on their farms, gathering eggs from the chicken coop, marveling over the cows and their calves in the fields, and helping with the fruit stand where my dad’s parents sold apples and peaches. When I was 13, my grandfather was discovered dead on his tractor, with a split-open bag of DDT by his side.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Americans were told that herbicides and insecticides, such as DDT, were safe. DDT is an organochloride first used by the military during World War II to control body lice, bubonic plague, malaria, and typhus. While DDT was effective at preventing malaria, the environmental consequences of its use were devastating, especially as people began using it more and more, in broader and broader applications, for pest control.

I read Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962, shortly after it was published. A marine biologist by training, Carson condemned the chemical industry for its irresponsible disinformation campaign. She painted a grim picture of no birds singing in the spring. She called it a “fable for tomorrow,” a phrase that haunts me to this day. Silent Spring explores in detail how DDT and other chemicals were poisoning wildlife—from earthworms in the soil to juvenile salmon in the rivers and oceans. Carson’s book had a profound effect on me and helped me understand my grandfather’s untimely and unexpected death.

Around the same time, I also learned about the thalidomide disaster. Thalidomide, manufactured by a German pharmaceutical company, was prescribed to pregnant women to help with morning sickness and difficulty sleeping. It was aggressively marketed and advertised as safe. But thousands of children whose mothers took thalidomide during pregnancy were born with birth defects, including missing arms and legs. Studying the photographs of these deformed and unhappy children in a magazine, I realized that sometimes the products that purport to improve our lives can have major adverse effects—and that the companies that sell them cannot necessarily be trusted to tell us the whole truth about the risks their products pose.

The United States avoided this disaster, which devastated the lives of at least 10,000 children in Europe, because of a brave scientist named Frances Oldham Kelsey. Dr. Kelsey was a Canadian-born reviewer for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, responsible for approving or rejecting the application for a license to distribute the drug in the United States. Although she faced enormous pressure, and although thalidomide was already approved for use in Canada, Great Britain, and Germany, Dr. Kelsey rejected the application after she determined that there was insufficient evidence that it was safe to use during pregnancy. At the time, I was young, optimistic, and patriotic. I remember thinking how lucky I was to live in the United States, a country that protected its citizens from such a catastrophe.

Hiding in Plain Sight

In the 1950s, in the small town in coastal Connecticut where I grew up, living treasures were everywhere: ladybugs, dragonflies, butterflies, bumblebees, grasshoppers, lightning bugs, giant beetles we called pinching bugs, toads, and dozens of chittering playful squirrels. Praying mantises were a rare delight, but fireflies could be counted on in the evening, along with bats overhead as the shadows grew. Today I live outside Boston, in a place that has a similar climate to the Connecticut town where I spent my childhood. Yet it’s rare to see wildlife on our suburban street. An occasional squirrel, and one or two butterflies in the spring. No longer do we have to clean the windshield of all the dead bugs that accumulate on a summer’s day. Children, of course, don’t realize what they’re missing out on. This change appears to have happened slowly enough that almost nobody has noticed.

Yet, there’s no question that something devastating is going on, even if it’s difficult to name it precisely. The rate of species going extinct today is hundreds or even thousands of times faster than it has been during the past tens of millions of years. Environmental scientists warn that we have already entered the sixth mass extinction. Human health is also suffering. Over the past few decades an alarming rise in many chronic diseases across the globe has occurred, especially in countries that adopt a Western-style diet based on industrialized agriculture. Many of these diseases have an autoimmune component. They include Alzheimer’s disease, autism, celiac disease, diabetes, encephalitis, inflammatory bowel disease, and obesity.

Something terrible seems to be affecting every living thing on the planet—the insects, the animals, and the health of human beings, including children. Something hiding in plain sight. While we can’t reduce all environmental and health problems to one insidious thing, I believe there is a common denominator. That common denominator is glyphosate.

This problem is too important to ignore. My goal is to convince anyone who eats, anyone who has children, and anyone who cares about the health of humans and the planet that we need to look much more closely and much more carefully at the impact of glyphosate on and beyond the food supply. Both the scientific community and our regulatory establishments have failed us. It is time to shine light onto the shadows—to convince the world about glyphosate’s diabolical mechanism of toxicity and give ourselves the tools we need to understand how glyphosate harms us and what we can do to protect ourselves and our families.

Stephanie Seneff is a senior research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. She has a bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in food and nutrition, and a master’s degree, an engineer’s degree, and a PhD in electrical engineering and computer science, all from MIT. She has authored more than three dozen peer-reviewed journal papers on topics relating human disease to nutritional deficiencies and toxic exposures. She has focused specifically on the herbicide glyphosate and the mineral sulfur. Dr. Seneff is the author of Toxic Legacy.

Earth tipping points could destabilize each other in domino effect: Study

Earth tipping points could destabilize each other in domino effect: Study

This article originally appeared in Mongabay.

  • A new risk analysis has found that the tipping points of five of Earth’s subsystems — the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, the Greenland Ice Sheet, the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the Amazon rainforest — could interact with each other in a destabilizing manner.
  • It suggests that these changes could occur even before temperatures reach 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels, which is the upper limit of the Paris Agreement.
  • The interactions between the different tipping elements could also lower critical temperature thresholds, essentially allowing tipping cascades to occur earlier than expected, according to the research.
  • Experts not involved in the study say the findings are a significant contribution to the field, but do not adequately address the timescales over which these changes could occur.

by Elizabeth Claire Alberts

When the first tile in a line of dominoes tips forward, it affects everything in front of it. One after another, lined-up dominoes knock into each other and topple. This is essentially what could happen to ice sheets, ocean currents and even the Amazon biome if critical tipping points are crossed, according to a new risk analysis. The destabilization of one element could impact the others, creating a domino effect of drastic changes that could move the Earth into an unfamiliar state — one potentially dangerous to the future of humanity and nature as we know it.

The study, published this month in Earth System Dynamics, examines the interactions between five subsystems that are known to have vital thresholds, or tipping points, that could trigger irreversible changes. They include the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, the Greenland Ice Sheet, the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the Amazon Rainforest.

Scientists believe the AMOC could reach its critical threshold when warming temperatures weaken the current enough to substantially slow it, halt it, or redirect it, which could plunge parts of the northern hemisphere into a period of record cold, even as global warming continues elsewhere. Likewise, the Antarctic ice sheet may reach its irreversible threshold when warming temperatures trigger a state of constant ice loss, which could ultimately result in a 4-meter (13-foot) rise in global sea levels over the coming centuries. In fact, it’s suggested that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet may have already passed its critical threshold, and that ice loss is unstoppable now.

Interactions between climate tipping elements and their roles in tipping cascades. Image by Wunderling et al.

These individual tipping points are largely being driven by human-caused climate change, which is considered to be one of nine planetary boundaries — scientifically identified limits on change to vital Earth systems that currently regulate and sustain life. Overshooting those boundaries could lead to new natural paradigms catastrophic for humanity. Climate change has its own threshold of 350 parts per million (ppm) of CO2, which is the amount that scientists say the atmosphere can safely hold, but this threshold was already passed in 1988. In 2021, CO2 exceeded 417 ppm, which is 50% higher than pre-industrial levels.

To conduct this new study, the research team used a conceptual modeling process to analyze the interactions between these five Earth subsystems. What they found was that more than a third of these elements showed “tipping cascades” even before temperatures reached 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, which is the upper limit of the 2015 Paris climate agreement. At present, almost no nation on Earth is on target to meet its Paris carbon reduction goals.

Significantly, the study also found that the interactions between the tipping elements could lower critical temperature thresholds, essentially allowing tipping cascades to occur earlier than anticipated. Additionally, the researchers found that the Greenland Ice Sheet would function as an initiator of tipping cascades, while the AMOC would act as a transmitter that would push further changes, including dieback of the Amazon. Most of these tipping elements have been projected to have a destabilizing effect on each other, with the exception of the weakening of the AMOC, which could actually make the North Atlantic region colder and help stabilize the Greenland Ice Sheet.

Canoe in the Zacambu river, Peru. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.
Canoe in the Zacambu river, Peru. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

“We found that the overall interactions tend to make [things] worse, so to say, and tend to be destabilizing,” lead author Nico Wunderling, a scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, told Mongabay.

He said that the findings suggest that we already face significant risk, but that the study does not necessarily provide a forecast.

“We have made a risk analysis,” Wunderling said. “This is not a prediction, but it’s more like, ‘OK, if we have this warming, then we might face an increasing risk of tipping cascades.’”

Tim Lenton, a professor of climate change and Earth system science at the University of Exeter, U.K., and co-author of a similar study on tipping points, says the new paper is a “useful addition to the assessment of climate tipping point interactions.”

“The important takeaway message from this study is that the cascading causal interactions between four different climate tipping elements lower the ‘safe’ temperature level at which the risk of triggering tipping points is minimized,” Lenton told Mongabay in an email. “In fact the study suggests that below 2C of global warming (above pre-industrial) — i.e. in the Paris agreement target range — there could still be a significant risk of triggering cascading climate tipping points.”

However, Lenton says the study does not unpack the timescale in which these tipping cascades would occur, focusing more on their consequences.

Iceberg off Antarctica. Image by Mongabay.

“In the case of ice sheet collapse this can take many centuries,” he said. “Hence the results should be viewed as ‘commitments’ to potentially irreversible changes and cascades that we may be making soon, but will leave as a grim legacy to future generations to feel their full impact.”

Juan Rocha, an ecologist at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, says the findings of the study affirm previous hypotheses about how “the tipping of one system can affect the likelihood of others in a self-amplifying way,” although he also notes its oversight of evaluating timescales.

“The Amazon is likely to tip way earlier than AMOC or Greenland,” Rocha told Mongabay. “Future work needs to take into account the diversity and uncertainty of the feedbacks at play for each tipping element to really understand how likely [it] is that one system can tip the other.”

Rocha says he’s pleased the authors undertook this study and hopes others continue to build on this research.

“I would like to extend an invitation to the authors and the scientific community to keep working on these important questions,” he said. “There is a lot of work to do, a lot that we do not know, and our models can only get us so far. Understanding how different systems of the Earth … are connected is fundamental to avoid the risk of domino effects, but also to empower people to act on time, identify leverage points and understand the extent of action or lack of it.”


Cai, Y., Lenton, T. M., & Lontzek, T. S. (2016). Risk of multiple interacting tipping points should encourage rapid CO2 emission reduction. Nature Climate Change, 6(5), 520-525. doi:10.1038/nclimate2964

Wunderling, N., Donges, J. F., Kurths, J., & Winkelmann, R. (2020). Interacting tipping elements increase risk of climate domino effects under global warming. Earth System Dynamics, 12, 601-619. doi:10.5194/esd-12-601-2021

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.