Going someplace: in praise of utopias

An article in last week’s New Scientist makes interesting reading for those of us in the agroecology movement (James Mitchell Crow, ‘Down on the robofarm’ NS 2888, pp42-5). The problem is how in the future can we grow more crops for more people in a more sustainable and more labour-friendly way, and the answer is…use robots. In fact, we’re already quite a way down this route with so-called ‘precision farming’, which is no doubt a great improvement on the ‘imprecision farming’ that preceded it, but I suspect that anyone with an agroecological bent reading the article would be struck by the fact that the main benefits touted for the new robotic technology – essentially higher productivities per unit input – can already be delivered by human farmers at a lower energetic cost. The scientists say they’re still some years away from robotic vision-recognition systems that can differentiate weeds from crop plants, something that human farmers nailed several thousand years ago…

A lot of these techno-fixer solutions invite us to marvel at the technology, but what’s really being sold are economic and social ideas. The New Scientist article is fairly explicit that the issues are at root about getting people off the land and into the cities – for their own benefit, it suggests. Whether that’s actually a good idea seems to me a more important arena of debate than the potential fuel, water or herbicide savings of the next generation of big agri toys (which, after all, still use more fuel, water and herbicide than the average small-scale farmer). But that’s not something I’m going to address in this post. What struck me most reading the article was its techno-utopianism – its vision of a future world in which current problems have been banished by technological solutions, not social or economic ones. The article telegraphed (or should that be tweeted?) its techno-utopianism through its illustrations – no photos of actual farming; instead, cartoon drawings of cute robotic farm machines (though it was good to see that the only human figure portrayed in the graphics had a wheelbarrow to hand – maybe there are some technologies that are destined to stay with us).

Now, utopianism gets a pretty bad press but personally I don’t have much against it. All worldviews depend on some idealised notion of the good life, which will almost certainly prove unrealisable in practice. I think it’s worth everyone setting out their utopias, their most cherished future visions, as clearly as possible so that each of us can reflect on the full implications of what we’re striving for. The problem is that some of these utopias get more airplay than others. Had somebody written an article extolling the exquisite ecological adaptations of any number of tribal agriculturalists from around the world – adaptations that modern science is only now starting to unravel – and suggested the need to reform the global economy, get more people back onto the land, and start figuring out truly ecologically adaptive agricultures, I suspect their words of wisdom would have ended up on a very sharp spike somewhere in the New Scientist’s editorial office. Our culture is still smitten with a techno-optimism that to me seems just, well, so last century. The visions of small farm futurists, permaculturists, agroecologists, bioregionalists, peasant populists and the like are dismissed for their utopian fantasy, their misplaced nostalgia, their primitivism or whatever, while utopian techno-futurism gets off scot-free. I say let’s give utopian thinking free rein, but let’s call it when we see it – and let’s not let the techno-fixers off the hook by passing off their social utopias as a neutral agenda of technical progress.

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