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James Rebanks on the Shepherd's Life

Mon Jul 03 2023
James ReebanksSheep farmingHistoryWorkTechnologyEthicsBusinessCooperationConservation
  1. James Reebanks, author and sheep farmer
  2. Belonging to a long chain of history
  3. Lack of respect for deep knowledge
  4. Economic struggles and joy of farming
  5. The future of work and the value of meaningfulness
  6. Ethics, community, and the impact of technology
  7. Individual choices and the economics of farming
  8. Ethics and trust in business
  9. Cooperation, collaboration, and the sheep farming industry
  10. Breeding elite genetics and conservation efforts
  11. The ethics of rewilding and nature conservation

James Reebanks, author and sheep farmer, discusses his books 'The Shepherd's Life' and 'English Pastoral'. He reflects on his family's long history in the Lake District of England, their struggles as small farmers, and the significance of belonging to a long chain of history. Reebanks explores the challenges and joys of farming, the value of meaningful work, the impact of technology on farming and society, the importance of ethics and trust in business, and the cooperative nature of the sheep farming industry. He also delves into the breeding of elite genetics in sheep and the ethical considerations of rewilding and nature conservation.

James Reebanks, author and sheep farmer

00:03 - 07:10

  • Reebanks' family has been in the Lake District of England for at least 600 years
  • His family history as small farmers involved periods of poverty and occasional involvement in fighting or riots
  • Reebanks continues the work of his ancestors as a sheep farmer on the same land
  • The flock of sheep he tends to is at least a thousand years old, with Viking genetics
  • Reebanks finds humility in realizing his insignificance compared to the long chain of people who came before him
  • He believes that modern thinking often focuses too much on individual happiness and utility
  • Both Reebanks and podcast host Russ Roberts reflect on their own place in a long chain of history

Belonging to a long chain of history

06:43 - 14:00

  • The industrial revolution caused many people to lose their connection to a place
  • There was pressure for rural individuals to leave and pursue self-development elsewhere
  • The author's grandfather, a small farmer, was not seen as significant by the outside world
  • Being respected and seen as significant can come from being rich, famous, powerful, wise, or virtuous
  • The author's grandfather was wise and virtuous but not rich or famous
  • In his small social circle, the grandfather was deeply respected

Lack of respect for deep knowledge

13:30 - 20:37

  • The rest of the world did not respect the deep knowledge that the speaker's grandfather had because it wasn't valued by Oxford.
  • The speaker's father and grandfather, who were farmers, were highly respected in their community despite not having a global following on social media.
  • If you're not in books, films, or radio, you don't exist in the modern mind.
  • Immigrant writers often write to fight back against colonial mentalities and classism.
  • Many people feel marginalized by the educated classes, which has driven populism and political change.
  • Home is a rare and important connection for many people, but it may be less significant for Americans compared to other cultures.
  • Being a sheep farmer comes with both good and bad days. It involves responsibility for life and death situations.

Economic struggles and joy of farming

20:18 - 27:02

  • Farmers often feel the economic struggles personally, as their farms are an extension of their identity.
  • The economics of farming can be crushing and frustrating, making it feel like the profession is stacked against them.
  • Farming is physically demanding, with long hours in extreme weather conditions.
  • The cold and wet winters can be particularly challenging for farmers.
  • Despite the challenges, farmers find joy and elation in the highs of their work, such as surviving a tough winter or witnessing beautiful sunny days.
  • The contrast between the lows and highs of farming creates a unique experience.
  • The author's son has developed a love for farming after experiencing lambing season firsthand.
  • It may be difficult to convince him to pursue other career paths due to his passion for farming.

The future of work and the value of meaningfulness

26:40 - 34:17

  • Some people have a deep sense of meaning and fulfillment from their work.
  • There is a debate about the future of work, with concerns about automation and mass unemployment.
  • Economists view work as a trade-off for obtaining material possessions.
  • However, many non-economists believe that work provides a sense of meaning in life.
  • Work was ruined by the industrial revolution and economists who focused on efficiency rather than meaningfulness.
  • The fear is that technology will take away people's sense of purpose and leave them bitter and exploited.
  • In the speaker's community, physical work is highly valued and seen as meaningful.
  • The speaker would be willing to sabotage technology if it threatened people's work and sense of purpose.
  • For the speaker's family, work was not just about earning money but also about being part of a community and helping others.
  • Their father saw all important work as needing to get done, regardless of monetary compensation.

Ethics, community, and the impact of technology

33:48 - 41:04

  • Money didn't matter to the speaker's father, as long as the work got done and everyone helped each other.
  • The speaker's family had strong ethics against watching others work or having servants do their work.
  • They believed in egalitarianism and everyone participating in the work.
  • The speaker believes that economists are not responsible for the Industrial Revolution, but they understand its impact on creating wealth and a higher standard of living.
  • The speaker acknowledges that technology has brought progress but also believes that we have lost some essential aspects of life, such as a sense of belonging and purpose.
  • The Amish communities have conscious discussions about adopting new technologies based on their impact on the community.
  • The speaker suggests that we should have more conversations about the potential negative consequences of technology and be willing to say no to certain advancements to avoid disasters and inequalities.

Individual choices and the economics of farming

40:36 - 47:58

  • The speaker believes that individuals and communities should have the privilege of deciding to limit or restrict certain technologies.
  • There is a range of actions individuals can take, from using smartphones 24/7 to having a technological Sabbath or putting phones away during meals.
  • The speaker prefers preaching to the individual and family rather than having the government decide on technology use.
  • The speaker's second book, English Pastoral, discusses what happened to farming after World War II and how progressive change and belief in all technologies being good had negative ecological consequences.
  • Efficiency in combines led to disastrous ecological consequences due to wasted grain no longer being available for birds and insects.
  • The speaker used to believe in neoliberal economics but now sees its flaws when it comes to farming and the environment.
  • There needs to be a new paradigm for thinking about the economics of farming that considers making good practices pay.
  • In the Middle East, negotiation is more common than fixed prices, and repeat encounters with neighbors require balancing respect and not being taken advantage of.

Ethics and trust in business

47:34 - 54:30

  • In the world of business, it's important to maintain strong ethics and not take advantage of others.
  • Doing business in a close-knit community means you have to live with the person you're doing business with for a long time.
  • Having a good reputation is crucial in this kind of community.
  • There are rules and expectations when it comes to doing business, such as not screwing people over or exploiting them.
  • Maintaining a sense of community and trust is important for everyone's benefit.
  • Repeated dealings and restraining exploitation help build trust within the community.
  • Even though there may be rivalries and feuds, people still come together in times of need to support each other.
  • Contributing to building a better world around you is seen as one of the most important things a person can do.

Cooperation, collaboration, and the sheep farming industry

54:08 - 1:01:16

  • Work is important for building a better world with partners, family, community, and country.
  • Cooperation and collaboration are key to fixing the mess in the world.
  • In sheep farming, when a lamb dies or its mother dies during delivery, the skin of the dead lamb is used to trick another mother into accepting it as her own.
  • Big farms produce breeding sheep for other farms and use males for meat. Sheep may move between different farms depending on grass availability.
  • There is an ancient trading relationship among farmers where sheep are bought and sold at auction marts.
  • Wool is becoming worthless due to synthetic fibers, but some entrepreneurs are creating value-added products like tweed from wool.
  • Specialization in breeding specific types of sheep allows for improvement in wool production, meat quality, and aesthetic style.

Breeding elite genetics and conservation efforts

1:00:48 - 1:08:08

  • Specializing in breeding elite genetics of sheep called Tufts
  • Different types of wool from various regions
  • Advocating for the use of more natural fibers
  • Conflicted views on the rewilding movement and land sparing theory
  • Challenges in persuading people to adopt progressive practices on their land
  • Not all farming is bad for nature, conservation grazing can be beneficial
  • Ethical considerations in reintroducing animals like wolves

The ethics of rewilding and nature conservation

1:07:51 - 1:13:53

  • The ethics of reintroducing animals, such as wolves, in modern Britain is complex and requires careful navigation.
  • Rewilding initiatives should involve conversations with the people living in the landscapes being changed.
  • British national parks are cultural landscapes shaped by human activity, not wilderness areas.
  • There is a need for genuine wilderness areas in every country, but it is not the starting point for conservation efforts.
  • Restoring and improving the 75% of farmland in Britain is crucial for nature conservation.
  • Talks about nature restoration and rewilding must be accompanied by regulations and trade policies that support these initiatives.
  • Consideration must be given to the impact on people and what society is willing to pay for wilderness conservation.