Perhaps incorrectly, or even arrogantly, I’m anticipating that my soon-to-be-published book Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future might elicit pushback from those unconvinced by its arguments for agrarian localism.
If it does, obviously that’s fine. It’s a polemical sort of book, so counterargument is only to be expected. But my hope is for thoughtful, engaged counterargument that’s worth discussing, and not the kind of dumbass dismissals of agrarian localism that are all too common (I’ve already seen a couple online in relation to my book, even though it’s not yet published).
Now, I’ve been writing about this topic for quite a while, and I apologise if what you read below sounds jaded or exasperated. But I thought it might be useful to collect together in one place the five main dumbass arguments that I won’t engage with and explain why I won’t engage with them. Mainly it’s because (1) they’re dumbass arguments, and (2) I’ve engaged with them so many times before. But I’ll try to give a flavour in this post as to why I don’t think they’re worth engaging with.
In subsequent posts, I aim to home in on some more worthwhile points of contention.
I should probably preface the below by stating, in case this isn’t clear, that I’m not projecting an agrarian localist future because I think it’s a nice lifestyle option that everyone should follow for fun. I’m projecting it because I don’t think we have a lot of freaking choice, and the realistic alternatives are worse. Basically, a small farm future is probably the least worst future available, and the sooner we wise up to that, the less worse it might be.
And now for the dumbassery.
For some reason, it seems to be commonly thought that an agrarian localist future where a lot of people are involved in making a livelihood from their local ecological base will involve mass starvation.
People pressing this view rarely provide any evidence to support it – the closest they come in a UK context is the observation that the country has been a net food importer for 200 years. Which is true – but it reflects political choices, not ecological limits.
Still, I get that there are genuine worries about future hunger. So here’s a plan to allay the risk. Let’s concentrate the majority of people worldwide together on tiny land areas in densely-populated cities. Let’s establish elaborate and fragile long-distance supply chains based on non-renewable and polluting fossil energy to import from afar the food, water, energy and other materials that these tightly-packed urban multitudes need to stay alive, and to remove their wastes and dump them elsewhere. Let’s incorporate every farming area into a global economy that pushes them to produce their most advantageous agricultural product to sell into global commodity markets at the cheapest possible price regardless of long-term sustainability. Let’s particularly focus global production around a few grain crops which can be readily mechanized, processed and transported, and let’s concentrate their cultivation in a handful of semi-arid continental breadbasket regions at great risk of climate-induced crop declines or failure. Let’s mine the non-renewable minerals like phosphates needed to sustain our crops from the handful of places in the world where they’re easily extracted, and then after use dump most of them with our sewage where they can’t be recovered. Let’s also try to use scarce and precious generated electricity to energise microbial food production to feed the city multitudes, using vastly complicated and largely non-renewable manufactured industrial plant assembled via the same fragile, fossil-fuel dependent global supply chains that are otherwise servicing our cities. Let’s monetize every possible aspect of society and try to maximize monetary returns to the point where inequalities within and between countries and the increasingly desperate search for economic growth foment geopolitical meltdown.
Let’s do all that, and then ridicule arguments for agrarian localism on the grounds that distributed human populations involved in nutrient-cycling local agricultures might suffer hunger.
However you look at the future, the risk of food scarcity is real. Humanity faces grave problems, to which nobody has easy answers. But the notion that existing economic and agricultural trends are obviously the best means to allay them is not as obvious as many people seem to think. And virtue signalling one’s position in this debate by imputing mass death to other positions isn’t a good look.
Did somebody say distributed human populations with many people involved in food production? What, you mean like the Khmer Rouge?
No, not like the Khmer bloody Rouge. How is this a serious argument? Take some perfectly common historical practice like agrarian labour intensification and dismiss it with reference to the most extreme, pathological and violent context for it you can think of. A lot of people like to ride horses. Not all of them are Genghis Khan.
Let’s play out this talking point in relation to some possible future conversations:
S/he 1: “Honey, the price of fruit and veg in the shops is just getting silly. Why don’t we dig up the lawn and make a veg plot instead?”
S/he 2: “What, like the Khmer Rouge?”
S/he 1: “No.”
Friend 1: “I’ve heard the council are planning to sell that derelict lot down the road to a housing developer. I think we should try to put together a neighbourhood bid for it and set up a community garden instead.”
Friend 2: “What, like the Khmer Rouge?”
Friend 1: “No.”
Farmer: “Honey, we just can’t afford the diesel and pesticides to keep cropping the big field the way we’ve always done. And there are a lot of people in the village now who are desperate for a bit of land to grow food on. Maybe we could figure out a way to set up allotments and smallholdings with them?”
Farmer’s husband: “What, like the Khmer Rouge?”
Civil servant: “Madam President, the economy is in ruins, people are queuing around the block for food and fuel, social tensions are boiling over, and this land-for-all movement is getting out of hand. We’ve got to ramp up the ideology that urbanism, non-farm employment and the growth of capital is the only correct way. And shoot anyone who tries to leave the city.“
President: “What, like the Khmer Rouge?”
Civil servant: “Well, sort of, yes.”
To suggest that more people in the future might be involved directly in furnishing their food invites the argument that this would involve ‘turning the clock back’ to some previous age – the 19th century, or the Middle Ages, or the Neolithic, or the Paleolithic, or whatever.
Now, there is a worthwhile debate to be had about what a society with more people producing their material livelihood renewably from their local ecological base would look like, what kind of problems it would face and so on. But in addressing those problems it doesn’t help to look at them through a normative and spatial conception of historical time – the notion that we must move ‘forwards’ and not ‘back’ in order to ‘progress’ and not be ‘backward’ and so on and so on and so on and so on, and God I’m so tired of this argument (see A Small Farm Future, Chapter 2).
Every society in every historical moment faces problems and has choices. If a contemporary society chooses to address a problem by adopting approaches that look a bit more like a society of the past, so what? Why are we so culturally immature as to consider that in itself to be a problem?
George Monbiot says that we need to jettison our ‘Neolithic’ food production methods. For sure, there are problems with the present food system that need to be changed, but what work is the word ‘Neolithic’ doing here? Do we need to jettison ‘Neolithic’ transport technologies by no longer using wheels? Or ‘Paleolithic’ industrial technologies by no longer using sharpened blades? There are newer technologies around for these things – jet engines and laser beams, for example. Invariably, they use more energy than the old ones and are unnecessary for most day-to-day needs. Maybe there’s a lesson there.
A point I make in my new book is that past societies were often pretty good at figuring out social institutions that enabled them to live within ecological and material limits locally. Hopefully, present societies will be ‘advanced’ enough to learn from them.
People sometimes dismiss vegan objections to livestock farming along the lines of “well, you would say that, you’re a vegan” – to which a reasonable response is “No, I’m a vegan because of my objections to livestock farming”.
I’ve encountered people dismissing my defence of farming on the grounds that I would say that, because I’m a farmer (an honorific I’m not sure I fully deserve). Well, likewise, I’m a (small-scale) farmer because I became convinced that what’s needed in the future is more small-scale farming.
I think these kinds of arguments are an ad hominem time-waste in both directions, and I’m not going to engage in them.
But I’ll just add that there are a lot of different kinds of farmer, and there are different industry and corporate interests in the food sector too. It’s important to disentangle them as carefully as one can.
The Guardian and its writers seem to have adopted the line that defending pretty much any form of livestock farming involves pushing an industry narrative. However, there are agribusiness interests that are perfectly happy pushing anti-livestock narratives – for them, it’s a case of heads I win, tails you lose – and I believe that some of The Guardian’s writers have been thoroughly suckered by corporate anti-livestock narratives.
Farmer’s narratives about what they’re doing and why may be more important than industry narratives. These farmer’s narratives are many and various, but they also overlap in complex ways. George Monbiot claims to be pro-peasant, but is also dead against what he calls neo-peasant bullshit. This distinction between good peasants and bad neo-peasants cries out for some critical analysis, and I aim to say more about it in due course. Maybe that makes me a voice of the peasant industry. If so, believe me, there’s not a lot of reward in it.
If you summarily dismiss agrarian localism as a ‘bucolic idyll’ it suggests to me that you’re very ignorant about it, and probably that you’re entertaining an idyll of your own involving abundant low carbon energy. I’m not going to debate this with you individually online, because life’s too short. But I’ll happily enter into a dialogue with you in another way – so feel free to read my books A Small Farm Future or Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future, available from all bookselling outlets.
Jibes about bucolic idylls are to be expected from randomers on the internet, but not so much from eminent journalists who’ve written books about the food and farming system. So it’s disappointing to see George Monbiot playing this game. Instead of absorbing the thought of, say, Glenn Davis Stone or Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, what he gives us by way of evidence for the dangerous idealism of the case for agrarian localism is a magazine article about King Charles. Not good enough.
Almost nobody uses the phrase ‘bucolic idyll’ unironically. But there’s one exception I can think of – on page 68 of Regenesis, Monbiot writes: “I have met people who have moved to the countryside in pursuit of the bucolic idyll, only to find themselves immersed in fear and loathing” due to conflict with farming communities.
There’s a lot to unpack there, and maybe I’ll try to do it in a future post. Meanwhile, I’ll just suggest that idylls invest everybody’s thinking. Many who scorn bucolic idylls seem to be heavily invested in other idylls of the techno or urban variety. Maybe to get to a worthwhile debate, we need to identify the reasons and passions behind these different idylls, rather than just mocking them.
And talking of bucolic idylls, I hope my Twitter profile picture of me wielding my scythe sets up the necessary resonances. I wrote an essay nearly eight years ago called “On the iconography of my scythe” which I think stands up pretty well for my present purposes. The only really troubling thing about re-reading it is the fact that, eight years ago, I was promising to stop wasting my time debating with ecomodernists. I don’t seem to have succeeded…
This post originally appeared on Chris Smaje’s Small Farm Future website.