I’m going to take some breaks from my neo-peasant analysis and start weaving in a few other stories. I think they’ll help to build the bigger picture. And I feel like some time off from Excel spreadsheets. So to start with, in this post I’m going to describe my recent weekend among two strange tribes.
The first tribe I visited was holed up for three days at Bristol University, where it was holding a pow-wow called ‘Radical Technology Revisited’. The backstory here involves an influential and eponymous book, published exactly forty years ago in 1976, by a group of countercultural techies gathered around the Centre for Alternative Technology in North Wales. A fine opportunity, then, for a retrospective on the concerns set out in the book, and the way the world looks now.
Perhaps you can already imagine the demographic of the conference, but let me underline it by noting that Rob Hopkins (b.1968) was invited as a discussant to represent ‘the voice of youth’. I thought he did a good job, and he celebrated the assembled authors for influencing (slightly) younger activists of his and my generation and for not, as he put it, going down the ‘Stewart Brand route’ of ecomodernism as they grew older. It was nicely judged praise, and I’d echo the respect he offered to CAT authors like Peter Harper, whose lively iconoclasm is a refreshing voice in the green movement. But in relation to the Stewart Brand route, after listening to a few of the presentations I’ve got to say that, by God, it’s a close-run thing.
In the transport session, for example, those of us who live in the countryside were invited to raise our hands, and were then ritually humiliated for our carbon-intensive sins. In other sessions, the impetus towards rural self-reliance in the original book was recanted as an ‘Arcadian vision’, while Tara Garnett of the Food Climate Research Network, though setting out clearly some of the tensions around the idea of local food, also opted for the pejorative language of idylls, romance and nostalgia in her characterization of the green and local food movements. In the food session, Martin Ince confidently proclaimed the certainty that nobody actually wants to engage in labour-intensive small-scale farming.
I’ve written before about these ubiquitous, ahistorical and apolitical stereotypes, but permit me to twist the stick once again. If, over several centuries, you remove ordinary people from access to productive land; if you arrange agriculture to produce a small number of commodity crops for distant markets using exotic inputs rather than serving its locality; if you allow food prices and land prices to get so out of kilter that almost nobody can afford to farm, that only rich people can afford to live in the countryside, and that poor farmers globally need to search for paid work wherever the pull of the global economy takes them; and if you impose a car-based infrastructure on the countryside while systematically stripping it of services and public transport, then, yes, it’s probably fair to say that it’s greener to live in the city and that few want to be small-scale farmers. But there’s no reason to accept all that as given. After two centuries of relentless urbanist propaganda, we’ve almost lost even the very language with which we might plausibly set out radical ruralist alternatives. And so people reach for the easy pejoratives of ‘Arcadia’, ‘rural idylls’, ‘romanticism’, ‘nostalgia’ and so on. Meanwhile, the ecological footprint of cities like London exerts an ever-increasing chokehold across the globe, while urbanites congratulate themselves on their ethical ways, and urban dysfunctions proliferate. When can we start talking of urban idylls?
After the conference, I read historian Peter Linebaugh’s pamphlet Ned Ludd & Queen Mab: Machine-Breaking, Romanticism, and the Several Commons of 1811-12, which was kindly given to me as a gift by Aaron Vansintjan of Uneven Earth. And then I started reading Eric Wolf’s classic Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. Despite the undeniable pull of capitalism’s ‘if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em’ logic, I think critics, journalists and intellectuals have a responsibility to remember the working people – including small-scale farmers – who have also flatly contested it, sometimes at the cost of their lives. Historically, there have been very many of them.
Still, there were a few complicating voices at the conference. Herbert Girardet was one of them, undermining the whole urban idyll argument with the simple, subversive observation that the newly urbanizing masses of India and China increase their carbon footprints by a factor of 4 or 5 over their rural counterparts when they move to the city. He also noted the pull of urbanization in the route out of poverty it offered. To my mind, these comments were about as clear an incitement to think about low-impact rural development as a global strategy as it’s possible to have. But that would involve a truly radical politics and, sad to say, that wasn’t the flavour of this conference. For the most part, it was about as radical as an editorial in The Times. My sense was of a bunch of guys (and indeed they were mostly male) who emerged from their flirtation with 1960s counterculture and the back-to-the-landism of the time into vaguely progressive mainstream careers which have instilled in them the sense of authority to dismiss radical politics as naïve or parochial – words that recurred throughout the conference. Ah well, they’ve probably done more good with the urban car clubs and housing estates they’ve designed than I have by growing a few tons of silly vegetables.
By the end of the first day I was thoroughly riled by what I was hearing, betraying my anger in a comment from the floor that probably made me sound like an idiot. I’m not quite sure why the proceedings got so under my skin. I guess I’m just another imperfect human being, one who’s heard the urban idyll trotted out a few too many times, and one with an aversion to the overconfident authoritativeness affected by people (men, usually) at professional conferences. I guess I’d hoped for something a bit more…radical. Still, I do agree with Peter Harper’s comment that radical green thinkers need to do some maths to flesh out their visions. So we’ll be heading back to neo-peasant Wessex soon…
But meanwhile there was a whole different shout going on down in Devon – Dark Mountain’s annual get together, where I’d been asked to speak to the theme of ‘Land literacy and farming on the edge of extinction’. It was quite a change of scene – more women, more young people, more radicalism. I don’t know how fully signed up I am to Dark Mountain’s manifesto, but I like the fact that the Dark Mountain project at least questions conventional narratives of progress and civilisation in a world of consumption, and confronts the possibility that mere optimism may not be enough to sort our problems. I like the fact too that Dark Mountain is looking for some different stories to tell.
I shared the platform with Cate Chapman (Ecological Land Co-op) and Molly Campbell (a US-based indigenous food activist). Our story in a nutshell was this: me – there’s no single, correct narrative of ‘land literacy’ or farming, there are no silver bullets, and we can neither overcome nature nor merely mimic it in our farming practice, but we need more people in agriculture, more work, and to do that we need to challenge large-scale landownership; Cate – the Ecological Land Co-op is one practical model for how we can go about getting more people into agriculture; Molly – there are traditional food knowledges that are in danger of being commodified just as their bearers are in danger of being obliterated. I thought the session went OK, and covered about as much as was possible in an hour or so, but afterwards someone told me she’d disliked our presentations, and so had everyone else in the audience she’d talked to. “There are lots of people singing in the green valley”, she told me, adding that we’d failed to address the role of art in achieving agrarian change. I didn’t have too much of a response at the time. I’d pretty much had my fill of conferences for the weekend. I had some business to attend to in Wales, and a side-trip planned to Snowdonia, where I often go to give my soul respite. And my soul certainly needed some respite. I made my excuses and left.
The next day I hiked alone into Cwm Llafar – one of the less frequented valleys in one of the less frequented parts of the national park. No one else was there, and no one knew that I was there either, which suited me just fine. The last time I’d been here was thirty years ago, in winter, when I climbed an ice route that weaved up the formidable cliff of Ysgolion Duon at the valley’s head. I must have been a different person then. The route looked terrifying. I’d climbed it with my Chacal ice axes, state-of-the-art technology in the 1980s but, now on permanent loan to my impecunious son, objects of ridicule in his university climbing club for their laughable antiquity. Modern axes are superior, lighter, with clever convexities in shaft and pick. That, I think, is radical technology. That, I think, is progress.
From the head of Cwm Llafar, a steep path breaks right past rocks smoothed by a curtain of gently slipping water to flank the cliff of Llech Ddu up into the subsidiary valley of Cwmglas Bach. Approaching the path, I startled a group of wild Carneddau horses. They cantered away from me, but as they climbed the hillside, a foal detached itself from the group and came galloping back, straight at me. It broke to my right just before it reached me, and then circled curiously. Probably born this year in this same remote valley, it occurred to me that it may never have seen a human being before. I slowly reached out a hand towards it, but it snorted and then wheeled away. Somehow, that encounter quenched my desire to climb my chosen route. I followed the pull of the path for a while, lost it several times and slowed to take in my surroundings, then found the path again and pressed on. Eventually, I located my ridge and started up it.
The climbing was easy, but the rock was greasy, and the route steepened into a forbidding veil of mist. I became uncomfortably aware of the yawning cliff beneath my feet, and the fact that no one knew I was there started to seem less comforting. A dark mountain indeed, with two stories of the future playing in my head. One placed me contentedly in the pub that evening, quietly satisfied with another route well climbed. The other placed my lifeless body at the foot of Llech Ddu with only the horses for company until someone eventually found it. In an anti-Cortesian move, I left my rucksack at the base of a tower on the misty ridge, ensuring that I’d have to turn back at some point. And soon enough I did, leaving the summit for another day and spending a reflective hour exploring these two green valleys where I was all alone.
No, there aren’t nearly enough people singing in the green valley. And if all they’re doing is singing in it, then I’m not for them but for the people who are growing their food. Stories count for little in themselves. What matters is their material consequences. To me, the role of art in peopling the green valley lies somewhere between the minimal and the non-existent. And the same probably goes for radical technology.
A weekend among two foreign tribes, then, followed by a little time to myself. And then I was happy to get back to the farm. On the track our cat had cornered a mouse, and was toying with it, rather unenthusiastically. Knowing I was watching, perhaps she thought I might give her some food and save her the trouble. But every time the mouse tried to scamper away it triggered her predatory instinct, and she went after it. Then the mouse would turn, drawing itself up to its full height (which wasn’t much), and fronting up to its tormentor. For her part, the cat seemed unnerved by its bravery, batting at it only half-heartedly. Eventually the mouse managed to sidle away. The cat trotted off, cultivating an air of dignity. And I went in to the warmth of my hearthside, my family, my tribe.