A lot of people nowadays earn good money conjuring with numbers and data models to prove that the dominant technological trends in contemporary society are the only way forward.
Meanwhile, farmers – who usually earn much less – keep producing food and fibre, while trying to deal with the challenges that the human and natural worlds present them with. If humanity successfully weathers the existential crisis it’s created for itself and its fellow species, my punt is that the success will come from people devoting less attention to cunning quantified plans to techno-fix the world, and more of their time to producing food from the local soils that make them who they are.
This is a clear alternative option to ecomodernist techno-fixes and food system ‘reboots’. Politically, I call it agrarian localism. Ecologically, I call it being a good keystone species. It may succeed in overcoming present challenges, or it may not. There are no inexorable logics. But I think it’s our best shot.
The agrarian part is the easiest to specify. Our societies must turn to low-energy, low-capital, low-carbon agroecological approaches geared to meeting local needs primarily from local land, air and water. Ecological economists argue that societies need to invest in job-rich, low-carbon sectors that deliver human service (and non-human service).1 Agriculture at its best can do this. It’s critical to foster agricultures of this kind.
There are ecologically sophisticated historical traditions of food and fibre production prior to the emergence of high-energy global modernism in most places, and those traditions are the first port of call for inspiring renewable local agricultures of the future.
These will usually involve a heavy component of mixed farming with default livestock, as discussed in my recent book Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future. In some places they’ll involve pastoralism, aquaculture or elements of foraging, but rarely specialist arable farming. There are ecologically sophisticated historical traditions of food and fibre production prior to the emergence of high-energy global modernism in most places, and those traditions are the first port of call for inspiring renewable local agricultures of the future – the emphasis being on inspiration, not exact replication.
These agricultures don’t ignore new possibilities for increasing yields or lowering costs of production where these are locally appropriate, but nor do they prioritise them at the expense of producing congenial and renewable local livelihoods. An important aspect of local congeniality and renewability is self-limitation. Avoiding overproduction, excessive wealth and capital accumulation, excessive social inequalities, excessive substitution of external energy and material inputs and so on is what makes these societies congenial, renewable and of relatively low ecological impact. With modernist blinkers on, we tend to think that imposing limits on our desires like this is a recipe for misery. The opposite is truer. Poverty and hunger create misery. Autonomies forged by individuals, households and communities prevent poverty and hunger, and create engagement. Happily, an increasing number of thinkers are calling out the spoilt-child modernism of present times and, often building on premodern traditions of thought that had a better grasp of living well within limits, are beginning to articulate contemporary versions of these traditions.
In some places, mostly in the global South, there are agrarian localist traditions, small-scale farmers, peasants or practitioners of third agriculture who have more or less weathered much of what modernism has thrown at them and are still there, exemplifying the kind of approach that will be needed more widely. Glenn Davis Stone, for example, discusses the case of the Kofyar in Nigeria, who have developed a resilient and productive low-energy, high-population density agriculture, which originally emerged as a creative response to military vulnerability and slave raiding.
In other places, even in heartlands of the Global North, such as Italy and England, there are processes of repeasantisation, where commercial farmers step off the productivity treadmill and the global race to the bottom it involves and orient themselves instead to more autonomous local agricultures geared to local needs.2 But I don’t want to overemphasise this. In most places, people are going to have to invent agrarian localisms anew.
Other familiar aspects of our modern material environment are harder to sustain without the prodigious levels of energy and capital we now take for granted – steel, concrete, plastic, asphalt and so on. Reducing our throughput of these materials would bring many blessings, but it’s hard to argue it wouldn’t bring many challenges too. Those challenges are lessened, but certainly not eliminated, with the more distributed rural residence that agrarian localism demands. Societies would have to prioritise the production and use of these materials with their limited capital and energy availabilities.
Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future by Chris Smaje (Chelsea Green Publishing, £14.99) is out now.