Voting with their feet: some questions for the experts

Jahi Chappell recently copied me into an interesting Twitter exchange with Erle Ellis of the Breakthrough Institute (and one of the signatories of the Ecomodernist Manifesto, which I’ve criticised in various posts1) about the global exit from small-scale farming. His tweet also elicited responses from Haroon Akram-Lodhi, professor of international development at Trent University and co-editor of the excellent Peasants and Globalization, and from Rachel Bezner Kerr, a development sociologist at Cornell.

Ellis wrote ‘Opportunities of smallholder agriculture are so limited- people moving to cities are voting with their feet’. Akram-Lodhi appeared to agree: ‘People leave smallholder farming because it does not offer a livelihood. If it did, fewer would’, while Bezner Kerr argued ‘Current policies support industrial large-scale farms so yes, many farmers give up, but can change!’, a point echoed by Jahi in his responses.

As an advocate of small-scale farming in both rich and poor countries to help address our multiple problems, I’m in Jahi’s camp on this one. But I’m under no illusions about what life is like generally for poor small-scale farmers around the world. It’s hard to disagree with Ellis that the opportunities for small-scale agriculture are limited, so if people are ‘voting with their feet’ it’s hardly surprising. Still, there are various aspects of the ‘voting with their feet’ narrative that I’d question. I’m not an expert in these matters, but since Jahi’s tweet referenced a number of people who most likely are, I’ve framed these doubts in terms of five questions to the experts. I sincerely hope somebody who knows about these things might take the trouble to reply – I’ll be very grateful if they do, because these are questions I’ve long wondered about.

Before the questions, a few facts and figures. As shown in the graph below derived from the World Bank’s world development indicators2, in 1966 only 36% of the world’s 3.4 billion people lived in urban areas, whereas in 2014 53% of the world’s 7.3 billion did so. So, as has been widely remarked, we’ve moved from a majority-rural to a majority-urban world, the crossover occurring in 2007-8. But as the graph also shows there are more people living in the countryside now than ever before. In fact, the current rural population of 3.4 billion is about as many people as lived in the whole world in 1966. Still, there’s no doubting the growing importance of the urban: there are 2.7 billion more people living in urban areas now than in 1966.

Urban-rural residence

 

 

 

Now to the questions…

 

Question 1: How many foot-voters are there?

So the urban population has grown by nearly 3 billion over the last 50 years. But how many of these people actually fall into Ellis’s category of ex-rural foot voters? To answer that, we’d firstly need to rule out everyone actually born in urban areas through natural increase who therefore had no vote to make, a number that I’d imagine has increased considerably over the past few decades. I think we’d probably also need to rule out people who have stayed put in a countryside that has urbanised around them – a significant development in China, I believe, where (along with India) the sheer number of people drives a lot of the global demographic statistics. These folks may love their newly urbanised countryside or they may loathe it, but either way I’m not sure we can simply say they’ve ‘voted with their feet’. Then there are people who’ve moved to urban areas through compulsion – forced out by dam projects, land grabs, nature reserves and the like. If they ‘voted’ then there was only one tick-box on their ballot paper. And there are a lot of people living temporarily in urban areas while retaining a footing in the countryside – either short-term, maybe seasonal, work in the city before heading home to the family farm, or long-term urban residence with a view to returning to farm when they’re older and richer. These people may be ‘voting with their feet’ in some respects, but not in others. They’re hedging their bets with complex, mixed strategies of economic activity. How do they figure in the urbanisation statistics, and how do we count their vote? Despite all of the above, there are doubtless still a lot of erstwhile small farmers around today who at some point in their lives have said ‘screw this’, quit farming, and moved permanently to the town. What I’d like to know is, how many?

 

Question 2: Where do the foot-voters go?

I’d also like to know where the foot-voters go. People often seem to think in terms of migration to mega-cities like Mumbai, Manila or Lima, but most people don’t live in these places. In fact, presently only 22% of the world’s population lives in cities of more than a million people2. As I understand it, the definition of ‘urban’ used in the urban/rural definition is a settlement of 10,000 people or more. So how many of the foot-voters are going to small towns near their former rural homes, and what are the implications of this for the kind of livelihoods they seek?

 

Question 3: How do the foot-voters fare?

Presumably the foot-voters must have a strong sense that a permanent move to the town will make them enduringly better off. After all, to completely abandon a footing on the land, however precarious, is to deny themselves a potential source of income. My feeling is that there’s a lot of bet-hedging and rural-urban to-and-froing going on that’s obscured in the ‘foot voting’ narrative. And I suspect that a good many of the full-on foot-voting farm-abandoners are relatively well off folk who’ve got something lined up for themselves in the town. But I’d be grateful if someone could confirm or disprove this line of thinking by pointing me to some good research evidence.

I’d also be grateful if someone could point me to some good evidence on social mobility in large city slums. It seems to be a heinous crime these days to romanticise rural or peasant lives, and yet we do it so insouciantly with regard to the urban. In his book Whole Earth Discipline, Stewart Brand writes “let no one romanticise what the slum conditions are…but the squatter cities are vibrant…everyone is working hard and everyone is moving up” which strikes me as about as romantic an appraisal of life in a slum as it’s possible to write. But are they ‘moving up’? Where’s the evidence? Brand provides none. You’d expect Gordon Conway – eminent hunger expert and author of One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed The World? – to do a better job of marshalling some decent evidence one way or another. But what he actually does in that book is recount the plot of a novel in order to make the claim that permanent rural-urban migration is a route out of poverty. I came across a study of rural-origin rickshaw-pullers in Dhaka that suggests otherwise3, and another one of Bangalore slum residents suggesting likewise4. But I’d like to gain a better sense of the evidence overall. The foot-voters presumably hope for greater income and maybe for upward social mobility. To what extent are their hopes realised?

I’d imagine some methodological difficulties present themselves in answering that question. It seems commonplace nowadays to define poverty in terms of metrics like ‘$1 per day’. But I’m not entirely sure how these metrics are constructed. I believe the majority of the ‘<$1 per day’ poor are rural residents, but if by ‘a dollar’ we mean hard cash in hand I suspect that urban residents may need more hard cash crossing their palms in order to maintain a given standard of living than their rural counterparts. Any comments?

I’d guess that many of the foot-voters judge their options more realistically than the rather Dick Whittington-esque, rags-to-riches implication of the foot-voting narrative. It’s not that they leave the farm because they think they’ll ‘move up’ in the city. It’s that they think they’ll be slightly less dirt-poor in the town than on the farm, which is probably true…

 

Question 4: Why do the foot-voters still exist?

Foot-voting creates an image of individuals making individual decisions, but surely there are wider systemic forces involved? Presumably, foot-voting occurs mostly when there is strong economic growth creating good urban employment opportunities, the urbanization and the foot-voting being consequences of the growth and not prime movers of it. And in places where there isn’t strong economic growth, well then… But maybe someone could point me to the evidence…

If I’m right, then the curious thing is that there’s been prodigious global economic growth for centuries and yet there are still millions of small farmers in the countryside, apparently ready to ‘vote with their feet’. Perhaps there’s a problem here with the ‘foot voting’ narrative in its voluntarism and finalism. Is it simply a matter of small farmers uniformly now deciding that they’d like to quit farming and move to the city, thus soon bringing down the final curtain on small-scale farming? Well, Aesop was writing about the town mouse and the country mouse over 2000 years ago and it seems we’re still playing out that narrative. Have small-scale farmers been “left behind by modernity”, to quote Erle Ellis’s Breakthrough Institute colleague Mike Shellenberger, so that they need to move to the city where they can catch a bit of modernity for themselves? The truth is, almost everywhere, rural labour has long been thoroughly organised by the dictates of the global economy. So I suspect that people in the countryside who feel ‘left behind’ and who want to ‘vote with their feet’ may find themselves working against the grain of an economic system that pretty much wants them where they are and may not do a very good job of accommodating them off the farm – unless times are good and, for now at any rate, it needs their labour in the city. I did a quick analysis of World Bank data for just eight (admittedly quite populous) countries5 and found that they had a total of nearly 400 million rural people living below the national poverty line. Do the world’s cities have enough room to accommodate people who might ‘vote with their feet’ in those kinds of numbers?

Perhaps. Maybe the foot-voters are also foot-soldiers in a global agrarian transition, which is going to see ‘developed’-country levels of agricultural employment (low) and ‘developed’-country levels of urbanisation and GDP per capita (high) spread worldwide? I somehow doubt it, but I’d be interested in other people’s views.

 

Question 5: What about the but(t)-voters?

Let me put it another way. Over the past two or three hundred years globally there’s been a succession of enclosures, clearances, land grabs, migrations, forced proletarianizations, green revolutions, structural adjustment programmes and goodness knows what else, all with the aim or the result of getting people out of small scale farming. And yet there are more people living in the countryside now than ever before and still million upon million of poor small-scale farmers. So what is to be done about all of these people who seem to be voting with their butts, or voting “but…”, or wanting to vote with their feet but lacking the opportunity to do so? The dominant idea seems to be another helping of the same medicine – more proletarianization, more land grabs, a ‘doubly green revolution’ and so on. An alternative might be to accept that the world’s economy is structurally incapable of absorbing the entire global population into the ranks of the prosperously waged, and to focus instead on making life just a little bit easier for those impoverished small-scale farmers that Mike Shellenberger says have been ‘left behind’. So my final question for the experts is what policy changes do you think could be made to even up the ballot paper a little and make life easier for the millions of people who remain small-scale farmers?

Erle Ellis is widely quoted as an enthusiast for the concept of the Anthropocene – emphasizing the geological scale upon which humans have altered planet Earth. If I understand his arguments correctly, he says that we don’t face natural limits because humanity has the ability to change the parameters of the ‘natural’. And yet here he is, apparently saying that people are leaving the small farm as if there’s nothing that can be done about it, as if it’s some kind of implacable force of nature. I don’t buy it.

 

Notes

  1. http://dark-mountain.net/blog/dark-thoughts-on-ecomodernism-2/; http://www.resilience.org/stories/2015-09-10/ecomodernism-a-response-to-my-critics
  1. http://databank.worldbank.org/data/reports.aspx?source=world-development-indicators#
  1. Begum, S. and Sen, B. (2005) ‘Pulling rickshaws in the city of Dhaka: a way out of poverty?’Environment and Urbanization, 17, 2: 11-25.
  1. Krishna, A. (2013) ‘Stuck in place: investigating social mobility in 14 Bangalore slums’ The Journal of Development Studies, 49, 7: 1010-28.
  1. China, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and South Africa. See http://databank.worldbank.org/data/reports.aspx?source=world-development-indicators#

 

14 thoughts on “Voting with their feet: some questions for the experts

  1. A problem with the leaving the farms argument is, as you say the rural population has actually grown, even while available land and sunlight for rural livelihoods are a relatively fixed quantity. Fossil fuel availability to support urban living modes has simultaneously grown enormously, especially in the developing world. Some demographic shift has to show up, but not necessarily connected with people wanting to leave. Its actually amazing that so many peoole manage to stay.

  2. There is also the fact that this is almost exclusively a one-way street. We know from experience (similar in some ways to yours, Chris) how incredibly expensive it is for a modern urbanite to revert to the dirt-poor life of their peasant ancestors. Don’t know how one would even begin to quantify it, but how many of those (or their offspring) who voted with their feet would like to move back but find they have chosen a path of no return? How many born-and-bred urbanites would readily swap their precarious wage-slavery for a rural poverty in which they could at least feed themselves, but will never have the means to do so?

  3. Yes, good points above. I wouldn’t say that you absolutely have to be wealthy to get into farming of one kind or another here in the UK, but it’s certainly a big help and a high risk game if you’re not. Still, I reckon there must be a good number of bored Londoners who could easily sell their house, buy a few rural acres, set up a hardscrabble small farm enterprise, and spend years fighting the planners while earning a pittance. I mean, why wouldn’t you? The key really is government policy – if the governments of the world had any interest in fostering localised agrarian economies they could make it happen in short order.

  4. Question 1 is the key question, and is spot on. A large number of “foot-voter” are in fact forced out, particularly in China where the New York Times ran a great series on ghost cities, creations for evicted peasants so that land can be consolidated. So a great deal of urbanization is forced, especially in Asia. My key point is that because small-scale farmers face a cost-price squeeze, they have a great deal of difficulty competing with subsidized products from industrial agriculture. The answer then for small-scale farmers is to overcome the cost-price squeeze, which means protection from imports, which means an alternative global trading system. This is laid out in my last article, in Third World Quarterly. Finally, on the vibrancy of slums, Katherine Boo’s book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, is excellent.

    • Thanks for commenting. That makes sense – of course, from a small farmer perspective the big issue there is the subsidization of industrial agriculture, which doesn’t generally get the attention that it really should. An alternative global trading system sounds just the thing, but tricky to engineer, so I’ll take a look at your TWQ article with interest. I’ve read Boo’s book, which I agree is excellent, though what I took from it wasn’t so much that slums are vibrant, as that (some) of the people who live in slums are vibrant – generally speaking in spite of the fact that they’re living there rather than because of it… Though I accept that it’s probably easier for some people at least to find more outlets for their vibrancy in slums than in certain kinds of rural situation where it’s easier for local power-brokers to repress it altogether.

  5. Have to agree with Haroon – the first question is pretty significant and likely the toughest to get a handle on. The current migration/refugee crises we are witnessing globally are more complex than a ‘shove-them-off-the-land’ narrative can encompass. I earlier blogged about these mass human movements at:

    https://gulliverspulse.wordpress.com/2015/09/10/diaspora-du-jour/

    Now following events in Paris the threats of terrorism are making movements more complex all the while muddying motivations and modulating exactly how many ‘tick-boxes’ are available on ballots.

    Apart from all that I can offer one data point. I know an old gray curmudgeon who left a farm upbringing to study agriculture and spend a life doing ag. research. He is presently attempting to reverse the move away from the farm, and if successful will have left the survey with no net change. Sorry.

  6. Hello Chris
    People moving to the city is an old story, witness the tale of Dick Whittington. What is different today? In the past people moving to the city was a way to remove surplus population as cities usually had higher death rates than birth rates, so their was certainly an opportunity pull. As has been have pointed out rural populations have also significantly increased since the 1950s, so a lot of people are NOT moving to the city, while urban populations have ballooned. Is city growth due to rural to urban migration? Well yes some of it is, but most of the growth of cities has been internal as sanitation and public health measures have enabled a positive birth over death rate since the mid 1850s. British censuses recorded a remarkably stable rural population for England from 1801 to 1901, but the population of Britain went from 10 million to 40 million! There is a strong urban myth that cities grow because people move to them, which is reinforced for urbanites due to their own greater propensity to move themselves. In reality the major reason cities grow is that people are born there. Industrial agriculture forcing the peasants off the land and into the cities? Well yes, some. But to feed big cities efficient transportation is required, which favours the production of bulk agricultural commodities suited to the bulk transportation available; canals, railways, motorways. To politicians and corporations cheap industrial food looks like the answer to keeping big cities fed and docile, while the small scale peasant farmer does not fit the bulk transportation system that keeps cities fed. Its a bit of a chicken and egg situation. Is industrial agriculture driving the growth of cities by forcing people off the land? Or is internal Urban growth driving industrial agriculture which is driving the peasants to the city?

    Regards

    Philip Hardy

    • Yes, good points. There are interesting historical ‘chicken and egg’ issues about the origins of ‘surplus labour’ for industrial development – but I’m not sure it’s wise to think as many seem to do that getting people out of agriculture anyhow we can is a good way of building prosperity.

  7. Interesting conversation, i moved from Amsterdam to a rural area, living on a houseboat because a house was too expensive and now in a real rural area near the Pyrenees, i following this kind of trends since the end of the 80th. 1 ha in Holland cost up to 80.000 euro , in the south west of france between 3 and 6.000 euro. Very implied in telework, where you can choose where to live and still work (self) employed , we had the same discussions , will people move to rual areas if the have a free choice?
    We came in that time to the conclusion that there is distinction between city people and ” rural” oriented people, although young parents may choose a temporarly rural environment. Netherlandis a big city area with some “big parcs ” and even ceated ” wilderness” and very intensive agriculture and because of that the most polluted land in europe, we see a trend that city people are starting small farms, because they are sick if the current lifestyle. A biodynamic school i offering now parttime courses for non farmers http://www.warmonderhof.nl. What we are doing is not meanstream and not food for marketing oriented publicers.

  8. Some long-delayed comments.

    First, Chris, thanks for this post, I think the questions you pose and the way that you pose them are immensely helpful!

    Second, I think part of my response to the original “voting” idea that Ellis referred to (though he’s hardly the first) would be from a meeting I attended in Mexico earlier this year (http://www.iatp.org/blog/201509/globalizing-resistance-resilience-and-hope-through-agroecology). At the meeting, some of the 100 or so food producers present expressed a right that has rarely been enunciated, but should perhaps start taking a greater and greater place in our conversations and considerations: The Right to not HAVE to Migrate.

    To make a maybe polemical comparison, refugees from Syria are clearly voting with their feet–and their lives–as are, for example, many of the immigrants from Latin America into the United States. Yet, certainly in the case of a majority of the Syrians, and likely in the case of most Latin American immigrants, if given their deepest preferences, would it not likely be (a) to stay in their place of origin, BUT (b) for that place to be peaceful, safe, stable, and sufficiently prosperous to at least live away from the margins?

    If we grant that this is likely true, then the question becomes a question of how intractable a situation is. While the tragedies in Syria continue, I think practically everyone hopes that stability and peace will be restored, and that in the long term, the world and Syria should strive for a peaceful, free, and prosperous Syria. We do not, by and large, think of repressive regime or war as the inevitable and permanent state of any given country.

    So why assume poverty and marginalization, and even things like lack of infrastructure and opportunity, are the permanent state of rural areas? There is a long-established trend of people moving to cities. (Though we also need, to be reasonable, to remember that urban is not defined the way we often THINK of urban: most definitions are something like >1000 or >2500 inhabitants in a given community: http://unstats.un.org/unsd/demographic/sconcerns/densurb/Defintion_of%20Urban.pdf).

    Thus, a recent point I made in an advisory document to the FAO:

    “Key Point 4: The Right to Not Have to Migrate

    At a recent agroecology meeting in Mexico City, a powerful statement was made about the vision of peasant farmers and their supporters: one of the most under-recognized and under-appreciated rights of farmers is the right to not have to migrate. There have been many statements about the worldwide trend of urbanization, and the continuing exiting of rural areas by (former) farmers and laborers. Yet the vision of many farmers is clearly neither to leave their farms, nor to continue to in conditions of marginality. Rather, the vision is quite clearly one of maintaining, remaking, and supporting countrysides such that farmers, farm laborers, and all rural residents can have decent, secure livelihoods. This is the clear implication of food sovereignty , and clear in the demands of the International Peasants’ Movement La Via Campesina (which has 35 member organizations in 15 countries in Asia), as well as the many other signatories of the 2007 and 2015 Nyeleni Declarations.

    Further, when we consider the concomitant benefits that can be seen from improved economic margins for farmers and—the evidence increasingly indicates—higher food prices, the possibilities and importance of rural livelihoods become both more apparent and more socio-politically possible. That is: recent studies show that higher food prices, when they contribute to increased farmer incomes, likely contribute to reducing both rural and urban poverty, although “safety nets” to maintain the food security of food-insecure populations are necessary in the (typically one to five year) adjustment period.

    The reality, necessity, and possibility of supporting improved, dignified, and food sovereign livelihoods for all food and agricultural producers is further fortified when we consider the immense, but currently un- or under-compensated externalities in the agricultural system. Estimates of these externalities range into the trillions of U.S. dollars in agriculture alone, and a recent report by the FAO concluded that natural capital costs of crop and livestock systems may reach 130 to 170 percent of their total production value . The nature of externalities is that they are real costs borne by society, and without addressing them through internalization or other regulation, the costs are not reflected in prices and markets do not produce proper or efficient results. The fact that we are indirectly, but assuredly, paying costs that may reach nearly twice the production value of our agriculture and food products means that there ought to be ample potential to boost income and support sustainable livelihoods for farmers, farm laborers, pastoralists, and fisherfolk by properly compensating agroecological practices (and eventually penalizing less-sustainable practices). It is important to note that this aligns with the research: the 2015 FAO report on natural capital found improvements in climate change mitigation, reduced land-use change and water consumption, air and water pollution from holistic grazing, SRI, and organic farming, which is additionally in line with recent results by Sandhu et al. (2015).”

    In order to fulfill what is possible, I think ONE key element is

    “Key Point 5: Recognizing and reinforcing existing voices

    Many of the observations and recommendations we present here have also been supported and demanded by civil society around the world. In particularly, the 2007 Nyeleni Declaration of the Forum for Food Sovereignty, and the 2015 Nyeleni Declaration of the International Forum for Agroecology united hundreds of delegates of groups of small-scale food producers and consumers, including peasants, indigenous peoples, communities, hunters and gatherers, family farmers, rural workers, herders and pastoralists, fisherfolk and urban people, from countries around the world, to support the autonomy, rights, sovereignty, gender equality, and sustainable livelihoods of all food and agricultural producers, as well as eaters. These declarations documenting the needs, struggles, and demands of these groups are invaluable and should be at the heart—along with rights-based principles of responsible agricultural investment which include the right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent—of continued conversations about agroecology, climate change, sustainability, food security and resilience.”

  9. Additionally, if I may be so boorish as to quote myself yet again, this excerpt from a book chapter I wrote recently expands on some these ideas:

    “LVC (La Via Campesina) is a proponent of defensible lifespaces (after Friedmann 1992, in Desmarais 2007: 67-68). Concisely stated, a defensible lifespace is a physical and social space enabling a family to make a living and to exert a degree of autonomy over their own conditions. Autonomy here is not meant in the narrow sense of being completely self-provisioning (a common misapprehension of the demands of the Localization and Peasant movements), but rather is related to the ability to influence and change material conditions and social structures. In practical terms, this implies the ability to make a dignified and sustainable living as a peasant—as opposed to, for instance, escaping poverty by leaving one’s community to make a go of it in the city. Defensibility would mean that, rather than the ability to leave poor rural circumstances, peasants and peasant communities have the ability to change the sociocultural and physical infrastructures creating and maintaining endemic hardships.

    Unconstrained international trade places the control necessary for this physically and socioculturally outside the reach of individual communities—the loci of control of local prices and supply are moved from within a community, region, or country into the hands of the supposed “invisible hand”. Or beyond—the formulation of Empire elaborates on how cycles of planning and control, the ability to enter and exit the market, what a farmer produces and how, all become constrained within Empire, forming a “visible hand” (van der Ploeg 2008: 252; cf. Araghi 2008’s “visible foot”). The “hands” of the market, visible or invisible, move sites of control from individual communities and into the stock exchanges and boardrooms of the Minority World. Any given community must now push to enact change in a marketplace influenced by millions of their compatriots around the world, besides the (from the point of view of the Majority World farmer) completely unaccountable decisions of executives and foreign governments —though this is a continuing, not new, trend (Davis 2002, McMichael 2009). The results are food products tailored for their suitability for mass and elite markets, rather than to the desires or needs of individual communities; food systems and agriculture influenced not by the civic conversation Patel referred to, but rather characterized by food products’ durability and consistency. Under the continuous influence of “imperial” socioeconomic powers, food markets are increasingly supplied by a very small range of crops and animals, forming raw materials for a wide array of “fabricated flavors” (Weis 2007: 16). This corresponds to huge amounts of food waste due to pesky crops or animals that do not come out perfectly each time, no matter how much we narrow their genetic stock, and perfectly edible food that is thrown away because it does not meet cosmetic standards (van der Ploeg 2008, Stuart 2009). Thus, a system is created where non-productive energy must be spent disposing of usable but “off-spec” food, while energy is simultaneously spent to increase control and return to industrial specifications. This additionally decreases the sustainability of the food system, as control and uniformity of a heterogeneous world requires significant and continuously growing inputs of energy (Tainter 1988), and is in opposition to the idiosyncrasy, variety, and thus adaptability and stability of peasant farming systems (Di Falco and Perrings 2003, Edelman 2005, Jarvis et al. 2011). Social traditions, diversity, and culture are also lost: “subsistence customs and traditional social relations [are replaced] with contracts, the market, and uniform laws,” (Scott 1976: 189, in Edelman 2005).

    LVC and the ideals of food sovereignty seek to ground decisions about food and agriculture in institutions at lower socioeconomic and biophysical scales (e.g., national, regional, and local). In this, they attempt to restore communities’ ability to guarantee values and rights, to preserve cultural diversity, to acknowledge and support the vital role of small farmers in preserving genetic and cultural diversity and in producing much of the world’s food (Jarvis et al. 2008, Martínez-Torres and Rosset 2010).

    ***The commonly raised counterpoint to these positions is that the peasant lifestyle is losing its defensibility because of its inefficiency. One might in fact argue that defensibility is an indulgence—surely not every sector or way of life can demand the ability to keep existing. The lifespace defensibility of, say, criminals or quacks is of little moment and actively undesirable to society. In fact, one might reasonably hope that ways of life taking more from society than they give back will lack the power to demand defensibility and subsidization.”

    Chris, and many others, have written a lot on the possible/likely ways small-holder agriculture likely gives “back” more than it takes–that is, small(er)-scale production is defensible for ecological, social, and economic reasons, where it does not guarantee improved outcomes for many things we value, but is part of enabling them.

    To carp on my shared irritation with much/most of the ecomodernist agenda, even if one does not hold with the movement around food sovereignty at large, ecomodernism is largely silent on the underlying issues food sovereignty is posed to address (democracy, voice, power, inequality, participation):
    “…inherent in the concept of food sovereignty is a call for open, democratic discussions of values. True food sovereignty would generate processes involving the citizens and communities of any given area capable of determining the priorities and shape of the food system:
    “[Food sovereignty takes direct aim at] a one-size-fits-all approach to agriculture, as opposed to the context specific results generated by democratic deliberation. By leaving the venues of subnational engagement open… La Vía Campesina calls for new political spaces to be filled with argument… a call for people to figure out for themselves what they want the right to food to mean in their communities, bearing in mind the community’s needs, climate, geography, food preferences, social mix, and history… We will know if the promise of food sovereignty has been realized when we see explicit discussions of gender politics and food production,” (Patel 2007: 91; emphasis added).”

    If ecomodernists took equality seriously, I would argue that “There is no reason that such discussions could not also involve debate over the value of peasant identity and peasants’ rights to a given society; negotiating between peasants’ rights and priorities and those of other citizens will be a delicate and interesting process. Another difficult element—the right venues and scales for these democratic discussions—may find its solution in a useful tautology implied by food sovereignty: decisions and food systems should be localized as far as is possible and effective, but no further. LVC’s multi-scale and polycentric democratic traditions will also help them in navigating this difficulty, if the democratic processes they seek do become as commonplace as they hope.
    LVC’s priorities around participatory democracy also align with several converging bodies of academic literature. Researchers of collective action and common property management have pointed out that local communities and civil society—not formally of “the market” or “the state”—can create and maintain socially and ecologically sustainable resource use regimes (Ostrom 1990, Poteete et al. 2010). Localization and autonomy is also supported by current research on the potential of participatory and deliberative democratic forms (Prugh et al. 2000, Herbick and Isham 2010), and the possible social and environmental benefits of localized systems (Feenstra 1997, Pretty 2001, and De Young and Princen 2012, though localization is not without critique: Tregear 2011). All of these literatures point to the possibility of new sovereignties and subjectivites.”

    Autonomy, sovereignty, power, subjectivity, voice–all issues I believe firmly we need to deal with, and problems that are obscured by the ridiculously simplified narrative of “voting with [their] feet.” We customarily view votes made under extreme duress, where there are not viable or true alternatives, as being philosophically invalid representations of freedom of choice or democracy. I don’t see what the “sham elections” represented by rural-urban migration have to set them meaningfully apart from any other rigged electoral game. When you have a sham election, you change the electoral system. You don’t (or oughtn’t) shrug and accept the results as the will of the people.

    • Jahi:
      Boorish or no, there is some worthy intel here. I won’t take any space here right now to quibble or take on anything I’m not in agreement with… my purpose for the moment is to draw attention to some specifics of your chapter and the broader book it comes out of.

      Anyone wanting to know more about Jahi’s arguments above and thus wanting to follow up with references he mentions can get at some of them for free. Jahi is sole author for Chapter 29 (pgs 717-738) in The Oxford Handbook of Food, Politics, and Society; edited by Ronald Herring, 2015. Other authors in this effort include Robert Paarlberg and Ian Scoones.

      Tis not an inexpensive book to acquire – well over $100 USD at this point in time. So if you want to get at some of the references for less than the full price of admission you can take a look at the ‘inside’. I just googled “defensible lifespaces” and a link for the book (indeed Jahi’s chapter) popped up.

      If Santa can be persuaded, I may have a run at several of the chapters here. If not… 🙁 (one misery of peasant life)

    • Thanks for those comments Jahi – your input is much appreciated. Your points about Syria and sham ballots are very much to the point – I hadn’t really thought of it like that before. ‘The right to not have to migrate’ is spot on. Proletarianization or penury is not a vote!

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