Goldilocks in the Highlands: some notes on scaling resilience

A recent visit to the Scottish Highlands prompted some thoughts on several favoured themes of mine: the resilience or otherwise of local economies grounded in small-scale agricultural production, problems of migration as featured in a recent post, and questions concerning ‘modernization’ and economic development. So let’s take a brief tour around the Highlands and their history to help muse on the topic of a small farm future.

Perhaps the first thing a southerner notices on the long drive north is the narrowing of the roads and the thinning of the population. In many of the Highland glens there’s little but shooting estates and a few, very extensively raised sheep. But you don’t need to be much of an expert on Scottish history to know that these places were once more heavily peopled by poor, small-scale, subsistence-oriented tenant farmers, who left the land in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – sometimes willingly, sometimes not, in the process known as the Highland clearances.

It wasn’t as if the life of the poor Highland tenant was a bundle of laughs. As in the better known case of Ireland, when the potato harvest failed the small tenantry suffered, or starved. With population rising in the 18th century and relatively little in the way of industry the region fell into what clearance historian Eric Richards calls a ‘Malthusian trap’1. High wool prices and low land prices in the Highlands relative to the rest of Britain enticed commercial sheep farmers from the south willing to pay higher rents for exclusive, enclosed land than the small tenantry could possibly afford from their mostly subsistence farming. Thus was their fate sealed.

The idea of ‘clearing’ an inefficient peasantry to make way for more efficient large-scale farming has a long pedigree and lot of modern resonance. But a 21st century perspective on farming in the Highlands surely complicates that line of reasoning. After the (usually) self-supporting small tenants came the capitalist sheep farmers, but after wool prices collapsed in the mid-19th century came…not much. For all that we hear about the huge technological strides made by modern agriculture, it seems likely that upland agriculture in the Highlands is producing less now than in the days of the pre-clearance tenantry. Developments in agriculture since the clearances are certainly impressive, but it’s easy to forget how little they’ve overcome the basic dictates of soil and climate which still make the Highlands marginal for arable agriculture.

The small Highland tenantry made arable agriculture work there because they had few other options, which underscores another easily forgotten point – human labour is a farm input like few others for increasing productivity. Doubtless not many of us today would wish for the life of an 18th century Highland tenant, but it’s hard to gainsay what labour can achieve – worth bearing in mind when people say things like “organic farming can’t feed the world”, while invariably assuming existing levels of per hectare labour input.

Another aspect of this is something that I suspect is quite widespread in the larger historical contest of capital and peasantry. Whenever land farmed by primarily subsistence cultivators becomes attractive to primarily commercial farmers, the latter will generally gain control of it sooner or later because of the rents they can afford. So in mixed subsistence-commercial economies (that is, in virtually every peasant economy in the modern world), chances are the peasants have worse land – another point worth bearing in mind when farm productivities are compared.

In view of all of this it’s necessary, I think, to specify ‘efficiency’ very carefully when we compare peasant with commercial agriculture. Richards writes

“The old peasant agriculture was not only palpably less competitive, it was equally a waste of the region’s resources and could not even provide the people themselves with a decent secure livelihood” (p.409)

Yet a few pages later he says,

“more remarkable than the persistence of famine was the sheer survival of so many people in such difficult circumstances: it was tribute to the food value (per pound, per acre, and per man-hour) of the potato, and also to the observable fortitude and communal resilience of the people themselves” (p.416)

On the face of it, these two comments seem rather contradictory. But perhaps they’re not – the peasant agriculture was certainly less fiscally competitive than capitalist sheep farming. In terms of generating income to pay their landlords’ rent, a contemporary noted that the peasant system of farming

“cannot furnish them with the means of paying him one fourth, and in some situations not more than a tenth of the value of his land….and all must be scraped up among the poor, meagre tenants, in twos and threes of silly lambs, hens and pounds of butter” (Richards, p.144)

So it’s easy to understand why the landlords preferred the tenancy of a single large-scale commercial sheep farmer than multiple peasant tenancies. But were the peasants really ‘wasting’ the region’s resources? Only if you consider regional resources not in terms of what food and other produce the land can provide but in terms of what money it can generate, and this indeed was precisely the change in attitude that the clearances were signalling. If you think in terms of the productivity of the land, then I suspect the silly lambs and hens would have it.

In order to consider land resources in purely fiscal terms, it was necessary for the Highlands to be more closely linked to a wider economy, and again this was the larger economic story of the clearances. On the landlord side, the English broke the independence of Highland lords from the wider sweep of the British economy after the Battle of Culloden in 1746 (I say ‘the English’ rather than ‘we English’ because most of my ancestors were still on their way to the metropole from Scotland and Eastern Europe at the time – another migrant story). Economic integration brought money into the Highlands from English industrialists, Scottish colonial adventurers in India, the commercial sheep farmers of northern England and, later on, the world’s super-rich like Andrew Carnegie, seeking picturesque sporting estates.

On the tenant side, a mixed agriculture of cattle and subsistence cropping produced cattle exports in return for supplementary grain, at a much lower level of capitalisation than the sheep farmers furnished. And when the inevitable happened and the mixed cattle/arable lost out to sheep, British integration with its colonies provided destinations for the exiting small tenantry in places as far flung as Nova Scotia and Australia. It also provided destinations as near flung as the Highland coastline, where many landlords attempted to resettle their upland tenants in the guise of commercial fishermen or proletarian labourers in other industrial ventures. But these attempts to industrialise the Highlands very rarely worked. As Richards notes, “In the long run there were secular trends in the British economy which operated against industrial development in peripheral regions” (p.193).

Scaling resilience

The apparently contradictory notion that the Highland peasantry was both resilient and insecure reflects different ways of scaling resilience. I’d venture to say that, as individuals, the people of a Highland peasant hamlet were probably more resilient than most of us today could dream of, partly because of their practical skills and partly because of their expectations of life. But, as a society, their way of life wasn’t very resilient – they were too close to the margins of subsistence, too under-capitalised, too poorly connected to other, less local resources that might have enabled them to ride out the consequences of a poor harvest.

The result of greater economic integration, however, wasn’t an improvement in their resilience but their elimination – in other words, the familiar course of ‘agricultural improvement’ in which peasantries are replaced by more fiscally productive, but probably less nutritionally productive, methods of farming. According to agricultural improver ideology, because the new farming system and the erstwhile peasants it’s replaced are better linked to a wider and more capitalised economy everyone benefits, including the erstwhile peasants, who are able to find better paid jobs elsewhere in the economy. That was certainly one part of the story of the clearances – especially for those who left the Highlands for the south, or for Canada or Australia.

But Richards states that it took five generations before the reduced population remaining in the Highlands enjoyed better living standards, and not usually through any particular benevolence on the part of the ‘improvers’. How do we scale that at the level of the individual life? Further, he documents the fierce struggles against clearance put up by many among the Highland peasantry. Projecting such struggles forward into the present day when exactly the same arguments for agricultural ‘improvement’ are made, I’d say that it takes a certain level of city-dwelling privilege forgetful of the tribulations of dispossession to be able to romanticise the hard road to economic improvement, or to assume that the uncertain path of proletarianization is one that peasants always willingly embrace2. And in a present day context, it’s also worth bearing in mind that the opportunities for ‘improvement’ available to the dispossessed peasants essentially involved emigrating to relatively unpopulated areas in distant parts of the world where the indigenous inhabitants themselves were in the process of being ‘cleared’.

In 1886, the Crofters’ Holdings Act finally gave security of tenure to many of the remaining small farmers, partly as a result of an emerging public sphere of national communications of the kind Benedict Anderson identified as crucial to the development of nationalism in his influential book Imagined Communities. The public, it turned out, was more sympathetic to the small farmers than it was to the engrossing landowners, to the extent that a mythology of Highland ‘genocide’ has built up around the whole episode down to the present. Richards and other modern historians are properly circumspect about feeding this mythology, but sometimes veer into the contestable territory of improver ideology, as when Richards criticises the Crofters’ Act as a “vindication of the peasant mentality” which fossilised a small farm landscape, entrenched the power of a conservative minority over a progressive majority, and “failed to establish the conditions for economic progress for the crofters” (pp.386-7). While sympathetic to the plight of the peasantry, Richards concludes,

“The critics of Highlands landlords still generally fail to give substance to their denunciations by specifying plausible alternatives for the region in the age of the clearances” (p.418)

Goldilocks in the Highlands

Far be it from me, with no expertise in Highlands history, to propose I can meet that challenge. But I’d like to have a go, not so much as a specific claim about what could have happened in the Highlands in the 19th century, but as a more general claim about alternatives to the standard narrative of ‘agricultural improvement’.

Let me broach the issues by reiterating the point I made above: the problem for the peasantry prior to the clearances was that they weren’t well enough connected to a wider economy to avoid privation, whereas their problem during the clearances was that they’d become too well connected to a wider economy to avoid dispossession. So might there have been a ‘Goldilocks’ level of economic integration – not too little, and not too much, but just the right amount that could have permitted the persistence of a more prosperous peasantry? That may now be an academic question in the case of the Highland clearances, but I don’t think it is in the context of agrarian questions in the contemporary world. For people like me who are sceptical of claims that large commercial farms are necessarily better than small peasant farms on the grounds of either agricultural productivity or social equality, these issues are very much alive. Especially when there are no longer ‘blanks’ on the map to migrate to, and where economic marginalization is now a global experience. Or, to paraphrase Richards, in the long run there were secular trends in the global economy which operated against industrial development in peripheral regions (which is just about everywhere).

My initial response to the question of a Goldilocks economy is ‘no’. It’s not about the relative geography of economic integration, it’s about class and inequality. Discussing the even more dramatically polarised situation in 19th century Ireland, Richards writes “short of making the land over to the people (which may have been an answer), it is difficult to imagine exactly what a landlord should have done” (p.76).

So in Ireland, making the land over to the people may have been an answer, which reveals the landlord perspective written into the way that Richards construes the Scottish situation. I’m not sure how much of the available cultivable land the peasantry had, but talk of a Malthusian trap seems moot until you know the balance of landlord/tenant holdings. Of course, the landlords were never going to voluntarily extinguish themselves as a class in this way (though eventually they were pretty much extinguished anyway). So in this sense after 1746 they formed a class alliance with wider British landed and capitalist interests against the local small tenantry, who had virtually no legal redress against landlord power. But supposing instead they’d formed an alliance with the tenantry, reformed the structure of landownership, kept most of the non-local capital out and redeployed the existing capital across the farm sector on the basis of a kind of progressive Highland agrarian nationalism. I’m thinking of the sort that would go easy on the tartan and Walter Scott kitsch, and focus more on defending a path of local economic development.

As in the example of the Crofters’ Act, such a development would undoubtedly have reduced the net fiscal returns to landownership, invoked the fury of outside capitalist investors with their eye on the region and prompted the kind of difficult local conflicts between small farm conservatism and the ‘improver’ urge to engross that Richards alludes to. For all these reasons, it’s easy to see why such autonomist economic programmes so rarely succeed. And I acknowledge that in a place like the Highlands even that may not have been enough to solve the problem of the peasantry and capitalise it adequately. But I think it may have been, provided people were prepared to share in solidarity a way of life that was more frugal, but better grounded in the enduring potentialities of the region than the rackety booms and busts prompted by outside money. In less geographically challenging regions, the opportunities are greater.

In that sense, I think the Crofting Act in its broad essentials was probably spot on. And I think we could do with some parallel legislation the world over today, instead of sending capital – and to a lesser extent, people – on all sorts of crazy adventures around the world in the search to maximise returns, at considerable net cost to human wellbeing and ecological sustainability. To do so, I think we probably do need some Goldilocks thinking, because it’s not the way that big, continent-wide states conduct themselves. Scotland’s independence referendum was perhaps an early salvo in the Goldilocks war to come.

We also need class alliances. The landlord-peasant conjunction of 19th century Scotland has long passed into history, but perhaps there’s scope for the contemporary middle and working classes to unite regionally around their declining fortunes in opposition to the rising and internationalising fortunes of the super-rich, as in the Occupy movement’s “we are the 99%” slogan – another tussle that may only be getting started. I can see that kind of alliance going in two broad directions – a defensive and deluded populism seeking riches out of techno-fantasies, boom-time nostalgia and scapegoatism, or a regionalist but non-chauvinist agrarian populism grounded soberly in the capacities of the land and the people living on it to create an enduring sustenance. I aim to back the latter.


  1. Most of the historical information here is derived from Richards, E. (2013) The Highland Clearances, Birlinn. I’ve also consulted Wightman, A. (2010) The Poor Had No Lawyers, Birlinn; and, Davidson, N. (2004) “The Scottish Path to Capitalist Agriculture 2: The Capitalist Offensive (1747–1815)” Journal of Agrarian Change, 4, 4: 411–460.
  1. OK, so this is a playful reverse paraphrase of Leigh Phillips Austerity Ecology, Zero Books, p.252. I think the often fierce historic resistance to enclosure and proletarianization by peasantries rebukes the lazy generalization so often found within agricultural improver ideologies (such as ecomodernism) that peasant farmers always want to quit.

40 thoughts on “Goldilocks in the Highlands: some notes on scaling resilience

  1. First let me dispense one quibble – that there are no longer any ‘blanks’ on the map to migrate to. I will agree there are fewer, and the ‘Goldilocks desirability’ of those remaining may well be decreasing at an even more rapid pace than the spaces themselves… but some spaces still exist. Now this quibble is not to suggest we go merrily forth and conquer what still remains… this may happen anyway. Better perhaps is to expand our Goldilockian value system to include the broader nature (other species, habitats, natural resources) so that as we contest among ourselves for future resources we don’t continue to marginalize and inadvertently eliminate our non-human fellow travelers. I sense a larger field of agreement between us in this regard.

    An area of scholarship I’ve a better grip on than the human history you’ve so brilliantly outlined here is evolution and the ecological influences upon species distribution and change. And it might be overly simplistic of me, but the change in the Highlands human populations seems similar to aspects of migration, carrying capacity, adaptation, and ultimately survival of the fittest. Invasive species biology (and we Homo sapiens are about as invasive a species as the planet knows) is full of stories of other critters and plants coming and going in various geographies. Strategies and tactics are deployed by the various fauna and flora until Nature as arbiter decides (and the deciding is continuous and ongoing) who will inhabit and what resources they will have. Those on the short side of a conflict either move on, fall back to an acceptable presence, or die off altogether. Other outcomes are possible if sufficient time exists for genetic modifications to manifest so that another round of conflict can be entertained.

    The value of agricultural improvement that I so often comment on here might be laid along side a political pursuit of some ‘Goldilockian’ future engagement with not just our fellow man, but indeed all our fellow travelers and the resource base we are all forced to share by the limitations of the planet.

    I find “techno-fantasy” a troubling expression. I’ll will agree there are too many following a techno dream of the future with little or no appreciation of how such might be achieved and the cost/benefit if we even attempt them. But I see real value in having the dream, the fantasy as it were, so that alternatives are tried, real data and analyses subsequently brought to bear. The whole of your phrasing is more palatable – that we shouldn’t pursue a deluded enriching with our technological potentials. Better perhaps that technology be deployed with less hubris and more political will to serve as better stewards of the resources at hand.

    • Interesting comments. There are some underlying issues here about change, stochasticity etc where there are undoubtedly parallels between evolutionary/ecological change and economic change. While I stand by my phrase ‘grounded in the capacities of the land’, it’s also true that those capacities aren’t fixed and there’s a need for a certain flexibility in the system – which was perhaps Phillips’ point about the Crofters’ Act. I’m not sure I have a well worked answer to that except in terms of scepticism about the excessive short-termism and profit-seeking of much economic change. At the same time, inasmuch as this post is a hidden sideswipe at the ecomodernists (again!) I’d say that any parallels with ecological/evolutionary change shouldn’t really be part of their argument. Their whole point is that humans are wholly different from the rest of the biota because we’re authors of our destiny (Malthus may have influenced Darwin, but when it comes to humans he got it laughably wrong, in their view…) In which case, they really can’t just shrug their shoulders at the vagaries of economic systems which jettison people when they become surplus to elite interests. But that’s not to say there aren’t some interesting intellectual parallels between ecological and economic systems nonetheless.

      And talking of the ecomodernists, yes I agree that ‘techno-fantasist’ is perhaps too one-sided and pejorative a term, and I’ll try not to use it in future. I think I’ve spent too much time recently locked in ecomodernist battles where the kind of arguments I’m trying to develop are dismissed as primitivist, romantic or whatever, so the temptation to hit back is too great… But I think I’m basically in agreement with you. I’m not opposed to the idea that technological developments are needed to help tackle the problems we face. I AM opposed to the idea that the problems we face can be tackled by technological developments.

      • It’s always curious to wonder to what degree we should be sensitive in using terms that reify a particular viewpoint at the expense of nuance, when there are, of course, people and groups who do fit the bill for the term. Or indeed, ideologies that are adequately described.

        I’m talking about techno-fantasism of course. I don’t see any particular problem with the term because there is indeed a techno-fantasy at the heart of much of our popular culture–and indeed, it is a fantasy I once shared. What can Star Trek be thought of other than High Techno-Fantasy, where humans have improved themselves and their lots in life, not through political compromises, struggle, and sociopolitical reorganization pre-figuring the quasi-utopia they present–but rather, because technology has solved problems of want and weal, and so, freed from having to worry about it, humans became better people?

        I think there is conclusively a slice of people in the world who seek technical solutions to our problems *instead of* or *to the exclusion of* considering the hard work of actual sociopolitical struggle and change. As someone who very much relies on a body of theory that can be called “new institutionalism”, I very much believe, based on my read of the evidence, that we cannot achieve much progress without reordering the rules, norms, and values (“institutions”) of our current societies. I believe the evidence clearly indicates that the potential of institutional change is greater than the potential pay-off of technical change, though luckily it is not actually either/or. But I reject the kind of relativism that says “well they’re all equally important” (though I agree they are dialectically entwined and so not necessarily easily separated). If we want to be somewhat quantitative about it, *social change does appear to be more important than technical change*. (E.g. very strong evidence on reducing child stunting/hunger – – where productivity increases are less than 20% responsible.)

        If we think about medicine and public health–while innovations like antibiotics and treatments for deadly diseases have been of astronomical benefit, said benefits have usually only be realized when social movements/pressure and sociopolitical reorganization has allowed access to these benefits to be widespread. And when we think about some of the biggest leaps in human dignity, civil rights, desegregation, national independence, suffrage, and rights for women rank highly up there–though if their relative benefit is quantifiable, it has not yet been done.

        In short, I think the idea that technology “solves” problems in the abstract IS a fantasy. Technology itself does not solve problems; its application *may*. The existence of HIV treatment is important, but without mechanisms of access, its importance becomes trivial. Meanwhile, simple improvements to water quality, agriculture, nutrition, and medical access are capable of vast improvements on quality of life based on current technology. Can new technology lower the cost of delivery, and therefore improve things further, faster, or better? Yes. But who has decided on the “costs” of delivery, versus (say) the costs of non-action or restricted distribution? Every avoidable death costs society, but because we don’t pay for it directly and as individuals, that cost becomes obscured to markets and so it can appear perfectly “efficient” for a technology to be accessible to a very few.

        Sorry, that wasn’t “in short.” In short, for truth: (a) I agree with Chris, that technology can help solve things, but is rarely if ever “THE” solution to things; (b) I think there is an ideology that claims technologies ARE “THE” solutions to many problems, and this ideology could rightly be called techno-fantasy; (c) the existence of less-extreme, far more nuanced (and therefore accurate) points of view does not mean that techno-fantastists do not exist, are not influential, or should not be called out. Does it?

        • Ok, lets have a go at precisely what is meant by “called out” in your summary.

          I’ve no quarrel with what I sense is the thrust of your argument. Where I think you and might be taking sides is in the approach to the conversation with others whose larger views contrast more markedly with ours. I’m not arguing that technofix advocates don’t exist or even that their rhetoric isn’t abrasive. And I’m with you in considering many ecomodernists are quite influential. My point above (and I think Chris followed my meaning) was that the term might be somewhat polarizing. We might want to consider our thinking nuanced and right headed, but if we “call out” the other side will we make any progress persuading them?

          I do appreciate Chris’ frustration with being bludgeoned by crass and unthinking opponents. Fighting fire with fire seems only natural. My thinking comes from a sideline observer in this particular instance and even though his opponents are in some measure mine as well I haven’t been directly attacked and so my counsel would be to take a softer line. [and for the regulars who have seen my rants and are wondering if it is really me… well, ok, on many occasions I have been even more guilty of this].

          • Ah! I see what you are saying (and what Chris does seem to have understood).

            I suppose I think it depends on the audience. I don’t think techno-fantasy is so polarizing as to make it impossible, or even that difficult, to have reasonable conversations with people who don’t already agree. Part of the key is that, of course, almost no one will consider themselves a techno-fantasist. So I think the term can be useful–and the label perhaps as well–when used in the abstract. To be honest, anyone I think I might level it at as a direct “accusation” wasn’t likely to be swayed anyway. In terms of perhaps the “silent majority”, I don’t think it is so dismissive as to turn “them” off. But I could be wrong.

            I guess at bottom, I consider it a useful classification, and I can see it being generative of useful conversations in terms of provoking people towards defining their own terms. I might say to someone, “that sounds a bit like a techno-fantasy,” and they might respond, “Well, no because…”

            Anyway. Often comes down to audience. I don’t imagine that Erle Ellis would decline to speak to me if I accused him of techno-fantasy (he compared my ideas to the Great Leap Forward, ffs) but I might not use the term at all with someone more mild-mannered.

            Perhaps it comes off more roughly in the English lexicon?

        • But the existence of technology may lead to societal changes that facilitate its adoption. The development of HIV treatments has certainly encouraged various groups within society to agitate for increased availability of these treatments. If PV and modern wind turbines weren’t available there would have been much less pressure for their wide-scale adoption and much of the debate around the broader adoption of renewables would be even less useful than it it is.

          I confess to getting a bit tired of many of the analyses from the social sciences around technology adoption. I think the social sciences have a very valuable role to play on analysing why technologies that are clearly beneficial when assessed by many sustainability criteria have happened in some developed nations but not in others – cost-effective energy efficiency would be a good example – and identifying realistic initiatives that would encourage faster, broader adoption.

          Saying that for this to occur requires major societal change sounds like pushing a barrow to me. I don’t see how it helps get anything done now.

          • I’m afraid I don’t get the reference to pushing a barrow; not a U.S.-ism, I think.

            But if we’re talking about being “tired”, I tire of an emphasis on technology, when agitation is clearly at least equally necessary. I agree that we won’t get anywhere trying to point to one or the other as “the” answer, but by the same token, I do feel like it may be useful and important to compare relatively emphases or courses of action.

            In my particular area of study, food security & sustainability, it is quite clear that the most important factors are women’s equality, parity in girls & boys education, access to clean water, and improved sanitation (

            Can technology help us deliver those? Well, I’d so it’s relatively useful in clean water, somewhat useful in improved sanitation (because the improvements necessary are by and large very simple, but not sufficiently funded), somewhat of an unknown with regards to education (education innovations don’t necessarily have predictable effects), and probably largely besides the point with women’s political equality (one can imagine ways it is tied to technology, but certainly it is first and foremost social). (See for example Bina Agarwal’s work: .)

            You may agree or disagree, but I believe there is ample evidence from social science that technological change that does not change social relations (relative levels of power) evinces very limited improvements on human life, particularly for those already on the marginalized end. At the same time, social relations have changed many times without (immediate) technical change (suffrage, end of apartheid, end of Jim Crow).

            In short, we have to either say that the social and technological are hopelessly entwined and no priorities can be set between them as they’re apples interbreeding with oranges, or that we can tease out relative opportunities/importance at various points. I think the evidence is quite compelling that fighting institutional structures that hinder or push against improving the lot of many marginalized people is the largest area of opportunity, and indeed necessary for the largest advances we will need.

            And the thing is, of course–and this will maybe sound a little condescending, and I don’t wish it to be–by definition, those who study how societies change tend to be social scientists. Those involved in technology tend to have spent less time deeply analyzing it from multiple perspectives (e.g. not just the influence of technology, usually as seen by “just so” stories). So for some (I don’t know you david, so this is not directed at you) the argument, if you break it down, becomes:
            1) The way to solve social problem X is through technological innovation Z;
            2) The way I know this is because problem X is caused by Y, and innovation Z addresses Y;
            3) I know Z is more efficient/effective to solve X than social change because I technically understand Y, and social change is difficult and takes a long time (based on my informal assessment), so;
            4) I am basing my solution of social problem X on a technical understanding of Y, and feel that my expertise in this makes my judgment on social change and social problem X sufficient without further study about social change, and in fact superior to the judgment of those who focus on social change.

            This is a caricature of course, but it is nonetheless something I’ve heard in its less formal form many times. Dismissal of social science/scientists/we know that this technique will help–>my gut feeling and informal deductions should be rated more rigorous than the study and results of social scientists who specialize in this area, because I don’t like/understand their arguments, and assume they are irrelevant or impractical.

            Or as Jesse Ribot says:
            “One of the two fabulous external reviewers for this contribution asked ‘how far can a climate process be expected to go in correcting all past wrongs’ and ‘must all climate researchers also be responsible for analyzing all underlying social issues’. My answer is that any environmental intervention can go very far, and ‘yes’ this is our responsibility. Without being aware of the past, as in all areas of endeavour, climate researchers are likely to reproduce and deepen past wrongs. Hence, a grasp of the past or serious partnership with vulnerability analysts is not optional. This reviewer continued, ‘The kinds of institutions, processes and forums that could enable the fundamental changes you call for do not yet exist’, and asked ‘What can your paper contribute to helping us imagine them into being?’ They do exist in some places at some times for some people. This essay is part of imagining them into broader being. ‘Society is positively transformed by showing, through criticism, what most needs changing and in which particular ways’ (Peet and Hartwick 1990, 282). If we, as analysts or activists, insist on requiring that all interventions enable democracy, and we insist this demand be enforced, we may help force the hand of practice – by mobilizing liability, sanction or exposure and shame. I do not want to act or be in a world that does not try. Democracy is an ongoing struggle. It is not a state to be arrived at. It will come and go in degrees. Trying is the struggle that produces emancipatory moments – however ephemeral they may be. The fleeting joy and creativity of freedom seem worth it.” (

          • David, Jahi & others…thanks (again) for this debate…nothing in particular to add at this stage but it’s good, thought-provoking stuff. I guess my own social science proclivities will be clear from this blog, but I much appreciate the contributions on here from the more technically-oriented

        • I like “techno-fantasy” because it is accurate. People can take offense at anything. What is more important is having terms that are hard hitting and succinct. This is a cultural battle, it is a battle for the planet, and fussing about people possible/potential offense seems to me misguided.

          I do support language that is kind, but I see nothing unkind about labeling accurately.

  2. I’ve been thinking along these lines recently on self-sufficing cultures. And I was working on a post entitled “Rural Lives Matter”, but never got around to finishing it. That improver mentality by the urban progressives seems eerily familiar to any casual student of Appalachia. Take one reasonably contented peasant community, find a more profitable use for their land (sheep or coal), forcibly dispossess most of them, introduce the cash economy to the rest and spend another century improving the off-spring and mocking or romanticizing the shadow of what remains. Brilliant!

    • “Rural Lives Matter”… brilliant. T-shirts are coming, and press kits, posters, lapel pins… you are a genius. Hyperbole? Maybe just a little. But I do like the short and to the point nature of it.

      I’ve not been a big fan of the social media frenzy for sound bites and 140 character debate; but RLM resonates.

      Is there any way I might encourage you to finish a well reasoned and insightful post on the topic. You know you’re capable. I’ll offer to assist if that doesn’t offend your sensibilities.

      All lives matter, and I don’t think it necessary to place Rural lives contextually in contrast to Black lives by hopping on the coattails of the BLM message. Perhaps the approach might be along the lines of a rising tide raises all boats.

        • What? Me move from quibbling?? How so? I volunteered to help (or at least that was my intent). I’d really like to see something along the lines suggested – that Rural Lives Matter. That you started something like this and have yet to finish leaves me wondering if your correspondent at Resilience might have accurately assessed you as a slacker [this is me poking the bear]… when what I really expect is that you have so many other worthy projects in the pipeline and a farm to run and an off farm career to keep up with. Dude, me quibbling should be the least of your worries.

          • 🙂 Thanks, Clem. I am still working on it. My problem, unlike Chris, is condensing down to a one page post. Now that, my friend, is poking the bear.

          • Damned right it’s poking the bear. Why limit yourself to 1 page when you can say so much more with 2 or, even better, with 20? What I really crave is for some rich peasant farmer to act as my benefactor, allowing me to spend years in the British library and thereby producing a richly researched tome running to several thousand pages called ‘Der Bauernhof’ or some such – after which millions of small farm activists will call themselves ‘Smajeists’ and institute political systems that thoroughly traduce my legacy. Well, maybe I don’t crave that last part so much. Anyway, if you’d like a foretaste, take a look at my ‘From growth economics to home economics’ article on on Monday. And if you wouldn’t like a foretaste, I’d recommend following the lyrical – and, more importantly, succinct – offerings by some guy called the South Roane agrarian. I could go on. But I don’t think I will. Not right now, anyway.

          • Der Bauernhof… we want the movie rights. Subtitles in English. If shot on location I would volunteer that I can speak a little German, have a scythe and pitchfork; I might fit as an extra.

            Smajeists indeed! Even Karl is now jealous.

  3. Something I wrote in an other context, but seems to apply (mostly) here:

    “While I absolutely agree we need to continue and improve our use of science as a (cooperative) tool, recent results show that scientists maybe need to not “butt out” but DO need to take much more modest and humble approaches to our attempts to help:
    “We argue that professionalisation and the privileged role of ‘expert’ knowledge hampered forest decentralisation. Based on our findings, we join other authors of this special issue in calling for less technically and bureaucratically demanding ways of forest management and planning to allow local communities to fully take over ownership and control of forest resources and to relieve state and non-state actors of cumbersome and overburdening development requirements” (

    “Note that national food availability does not feature near the top of the priorities for accelerating undernutrition reductions in either South Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa. This does not reduce the importance of maintaining adequate food supplies, including food production, but simply acknowledges that the scope for it to reduce stunting prevalences is lower than that of the priority underlying determinants we have identified. Just maintaining food supplies is going to require an enormous collective effort in the coming years, so reducing investment in agriculture is not recommended.” (

    “The upshot of the statistical analysis is that while the Green Revolution seems to be somewhat associated with the ratio of the rural population below the poverty line at a point in time, there seems to be no association between the Green Revolution and the important issues of poverty-reduction. This is the case whether or not the population factor is held constant. The GR technology and the population factor… seem to have no statistical relation with poverty reduction (at the state level in India). Poverty reduction has taken place both with and without technological advancement. And persistence of poverty characterizes both technological advancement and the lack of it… In addition, I argue, the very fact that the state could NOT rely on the Green Revolution for poverty-reduction and thus started a ‘direct attack’ on poverty through these policies (Das, 1998a) is an indirect indicator of the limited impact of the GR.” ( (Chris, I would be interested on your take on Das’s analysis, given your stats chops.)

    We need to do something different, using, as you say, science as tool. But science used as a tool to specifically help the most marginalized is indeed not going back to a romantic past, as science rarely has been a tool used WITH or BY the marginalized rather than “at” them. So in this way, I think the resistance voiced is right on—if science is the tool, the peoples and communities must be in charge. And I view it our job to convince, and show, our fellow world citizens where, when, and how science is appropriately used as a tool to help and to prove that scientists are a reliable ally. I feel it is we scientists who must prove our commitment, reliability, and utility to them (and indeed prove that we are part of a “we” and that we are able to step away from there being a “them”). If there is a lack of understanding of the value and application of appropriate tools, I believe the fault lies with us, not with ‘them.'”

  4. Dear Chris
    Under your subtitle of “Scaling resilience” you state that the highland peasantry “were too close to the margins of subsistence, too under-capitalized,”-” to ride out the consequences of a poor harvest.” Yes, I have missed out part of your sentence, but I want to concentrate on the “under-capitalized” part and ask the question why? I contend that it was the very tenant-landlord relationship that was toxic to capital formation by the peasantry. What capital could a highland peasant keep if he was evicted from his tenancy? His livestock, which were limited by the poor conditions, and whatever he could put on the back of a cart, again limited. For the peasant to invest his labour in improving the land, buildings, plant and woods was a high risk for a slow long term gain in such a poor environment. So what did the Highland peasantry invest their limited surplus resources in? The answer is themselves as the Scottish highlands have been exporting population for centuries. In genetic terms this has been very successful, as 40% of British colonial migrants to Canada, New Zealand, and Australia were of Scottish ancestry with a high proportion from the highlands, and large numbers also went to America, South Africa, England and London (there were many regiments of Scots raised in London in the Great War). These are remarkable numbers as England’s population has always be far larger than Scotland’s. To get back to capital formation, neither was it in the landlord’s interest to invest capital in such poor land, as he could get much higher returns elsewhere. Rather his interest was in squeezing the peasantry for what he could get out of them, which in turn reinforced the peasantries aversion to invest in capital formation, and took away what little they did have. That age and this did not consider that kind of economic relationship good. Enclosure and sheep farming must have looked like a god send to the landlords class, as they could now invest profitably in their own land as a modern economic business with prosperous middleclass tenants, and no longer have the stain of extracting money from the poorest in society. The fact that it failed and left the highlands deserted today is one of the ironies of history and modernism.

    What are the alternatives? Have you seen the Swiss Alps, they look very different from Scottish Highlands, mainly because they have lots of people! The historical differences are that the Swiss got rid of their big Landlord class in the 14th century in their fight for independence from the Austrian Archdukes, plus a tradition of very locally focused communal government. The Swiss Alps are as difficult an environment as the Scottish highlands, but the Swiss peasantry have security of tenure, either as private property, or communal rights which has enabled them to invest in the slow long term building of physical Capital such a difficult environment demands. This has enabled the diversified economic development of today. Scotland today is making tentative steps in this direction with a few collective buy outs of large estates by local communities, which combine communal governance, private property, and retention of profits for reinvestment locally. The communal element is important as it puts a brake on the most commercially successful from crowding out the rest, reducing economic diversity.

    To reiterate, in a poor environment a tenant –landlord relationship is toxic, as for neither side is capital investment logical, rather stripping what can be taken is the logic, with the resultant poverty of people and environment.

    Philip Hardy

    • Thanks for that Philip – yes I pretty much agree with you, and I don’t see your comments as contradictory to my argument. I didn’t say why the peasants were under-capitalised, and I agree with you that a large part of it was what you call the toxic nature of the landlord-tenant relationship. All I’m saying is that it probably would have helped if the tenants could have been a bit more capitalised, on which point I think we agree.

      Your comparison with Switzerland is interesting in various ways. I’ll have to look into it some more. I’m sure you’re right that the different character of tenure in the two countries is significant, but at first blush I’m not convinced that the biogeography is quite identical – my sense is that the soils, grazing and climate in the Highlands are in general more challenging.

      • Thanks Philip – interesting points.

        Without digging into the relative challenges presented by the biogeography of the Swiss Alps vs. the Scottish Highlands I’m not immediately persuaded that they should be identical for many aspects of Phil’s comparison to merit some consideration. But beyond his points here I am currently scratching my head about the wisdom of making comparisons between regions and using whatever metric(s) one has to then make some statistical analysis. I’m going here because of a comment Jahi made above concerning a paper by Das. In that paper there are some correlations and a regression analysis. Das avoids the correlation implying causality trap, but unless I’m missing it he doesn’t develop a rationale for his regression analysis which sets the variables up in a manner that argues for causation (thus I’m thinking the regression begins to look like a correlation were the coefficient is squared… just do the math(s) ).

        BTW, I really liked the sentence you used in the Statistics Views piece about the relative care of discussing such calculations: “(or in sloppier parlance is ‘explained’ by)”.

    • Another interesting development along these lines in Scotland is the reforestation process underway in some areas. Some parts of what are currently regarded as iconic Scottish landscapes were covered in trees before deforestation for various reasons. But the current reforestation is raising some interesting debates about which species to plant and their purpose. Previous plantings were often broad-scale monoculture exotic conifers aimed at commodity timber production. Some recent plantings are smaller in scale, comprising mixed species including broadleaf trees. And while objectives such as biodiversity and habitat are in the mix, local timber production and small-scale bioenergy are also considered.

      One issue for reforestation in Scotland that touches on the recent rewilding discussion on these pages is how to manage deer. As there are no major natural predators such as wolves, deer populations can climb rapidly. Population management is possible through hunting but other factors may limit this as a control mechanism. Deer are very hard on young trees. They can completely prevent any regeneration whether natural or human. Exclusion with deer fencing is extremely expensive. There are several species of introduced deer in Victoria. They have bred up to the point where for all but one species there are now no limits on numbers taken on private property with a year round season. (The more protected species is under threat in its natural habitat overseas so the feral population in Victoria is a significant “wild” population.)

      So one argument for the limited reintroduction of wolves in Scotland is deer control. But how to do this without affecting sheep farmers is something of a challenge.

      • Yes, deer, nightmare…if only humans could teach them the wisdom of not destroying the resources on which they depend!

        I have a friend heading up to the Highlands soon tasked with pretending to be a wolf. That’d be one way to save the sheep…unless she gets too invested in the role…

  5. What especially caught my eye is this: “a regionalist but non-chauvinist agrarian populism grounded soberly in the capacities of the land and the people living on it to create an enduring sustenance”. Yes, and yes. Basically, we are looking at “nationalism” but a bit different, not only unified by language, history and culture, but also by the relationship to the land nurtured in that area. Bioregion is another term, less laden with historical baggage. Not that I mind much of the historical baggage, mind you — in central Europe, nationhood was hard won against germanization from the west, and russification from the east, and this historical victory is celebrated, not abhored.

    And reflecting on the historical baggage… how much of the opprobrium directed at nationalism comes from modernity, and it’s near goose stepping insistence on the anonymous, anomie-inflicting mishmash of cultures (and culturelessness) so beloved by cosmopolitans, i.e. urban folk? If we are serious about localism, then we have to grapple with defending local cultures against the onslaught of those who do not value them and seek to dilute, marginalize and control them.

    • Yes, very interesting & tricky issues. I see nationalism essentially as a product of modernity – an attempt to re-enchant culture in the context of exactly the anonymity and anomie you describe. So yes maybe bioregion – but then that raises some other tricky issues. There’s a need to re-energize (and defend) the local without falling into nativism and other kinds of negative entrenchment. I need to think about this some more.

      • Googled “nativism.”
        1) the policy of protecting the interests of native-born or established inhabitants against those of immigrants.
        “a deep vein of xenophobia and nativism”
        2) a return to or emphasis on traditional or local customs, in opposition to outside influences.

        Sounds like another term the PC crowd would fling. It’s good to protect the indigenous, except when it’s not (when the indigenous are white Europeans). Shades of Orwell’s doublespeak?

        • I’d like to add that the process of “national rebirth” began in the Czech lands in late 18th century, as support for the language and culture of peasants, essentially. The urban dwellers were, at that time, profoundly germanized, as was the artistocracy. The small groups of linguists and quaint cultural artifact collectors were not even daring to hope there could be a revival; they were the object of ridicule and anger when they began to make inroads. The Czech word for “nation” really means “native people”. Is it modern? I tend to agree… but my mind does not have anything to contrast it with. How did the earlier Europeans handle it? Perhaps they handled it via genuine regional cultures, with costumes, dialects, and customs all their own. Sometimes, even laws, depending on how much clout they had.

          The mirror issue here is the “traditional modern” contempt for “tribalism.” Except, when it comes to !Kung or whoever the Machine is flushing out of the Amazon.

          • Thanks Vera – I’d probably best hold fire on this until I write something in more detail on it (…but not too much detail, eh Brian?) Actually, I have a (fairly detailed…) piece coming out on on Monday that touches on this. To my mind, the issues are relatively straightforward where there’s an extant ‘tribal’ or ‘peasant’ culture…though even there it can be tricky in practice deciding what an extant tribal or peasant culture actually is (Alcida Ramos wrote a nice article called ‘the hyperreal Indian’ about this). But it gets harder where you need to (re)create such a culture, and how you deal with the migration of people and money in these circumstances. More on this to come…

  6. Dear Bear,
    I have nothing but admiration for your abilities to hold forth. And to go further out on a limb, let me state for the record that I both enjoy and am educated by the experience of reading them. Is that enough honey from the hive to soothe Beorn?

    Dear Chris,
    Like your totem, I’ve noticed your farming hibernation seems to work in reverse to your writing hibernation.

    • Thank you, Brian – yes that’s plenty of honey. I’m quite a sleepy bear most of the time anyway, and not easily poked except in jest. We’re having the warmest winter ever here so far, so I somehow haven’t got into winter farm job mode. I’m going to have to hibernate the quantity of writing soon though…

  7. Thought I’d add some of my recent experience to this thread as I spent a week at the start of November taking part in a conservation week up in Scotland with the charity Trees for Life. TfL was set up to “rewild” the Highlands, and has gained a lot of publicity in the last couple of years after being championed by George Monbiot in his book Feral. (Sounds like that friend of yours Chris is taking part in their Project Wolf next year?) Anyway I spent the train ride up from Edinburgh to Inverness sitting with the convener of the Rural Affairs, Climate Change & Environment committee – some committee eh? Of course we got talking about why I was going the Highlands, rewilding, politics, the natural world and our place in it.

    I don’t know why I was surprised really but certainly the SNP’s approach to the Highlands and development seems to be focused on getting more people back to the area at any cost, doing things in the same way we’re doing them in the rest of the country. So no agrarian populism, more “sexy socialism” as I believe Mr Salmond called it. We had an interesting conversation, agreeing that perhaps the kind of eco-tourism I was engaged in would be a “growth” area and would have more of a role to play in the Highlands in the future. Although he didn’t seem keen on large scale rewilding or the introduction of large predators, certainly no wolves, so it’ll be people posing as them for the foreseeable!

    It certainly framed in my mind a lot of what you write about Chris. I think, or certainly hope that there will be a debate about how growth is framed in the coming years, including who or what it should benefit. Hopefully ideas around degrowth, regrowth or whatever you want to call it are coming more into the mainstream now. Although the land of milk and honey is there to be fought over and in the case of Scotland I do worry that as it’s now a one party state a certain element of groupthink is creeping in, but that’s probably a comment for a different thread. Interesting times ahead anyway – Keep up the good work Chris, this blog and your various writing’s top drawer!

  8. Hi, I’m not sure if commenting on old posts is useful, but I was browsing through your old missives and couldn’t help myself, for two reasons. Firstly, I’m currently reading “Clanship to Crofters’ War” by TM Devine, an excellent history of changing Highland culture; and secondly because there are some passages in your post which stand out as very poor statements in an otherwise excellent piece. For example:
    “But, as a society, their way of life wasn’t very resilient – they were too close to the margins of subsistence, too under-capitalised, too poorly connected to other, less local resources that might have enabled them to ride out the consequences of a poor harvest.”
    At face value this sentence plays into a theme which you so often rail against, that peasant societies are always and necessarily un-resilient (a notion which makes me deeply angry). This seems like an excellent example of what you explored in a more recent post: that there is an elephant in the room. If you had tacked on to the end “because of the many pressures of a growing capitalism” then I could get behind it.
    One of the great aspects of Devine’s book is that he delves right back into late medieval history to understand how the upheaval of the 18th and 19th centuries came to be. He shows that the State had been systematically trying to break the Gaelic communities of Scotland for many hundreds of years, and that the famous Clearance period was part of a much longer process of undermining the cultural strength of a people. To look at Highland communities immediately prior to the Clearances and judge their resilience to be the baseline for that geography and climate is, I think, incorrect.
    My chosen test for the resilience of agriculture in a certain place is to look at its longevity and its pressures. Whilst I know very little of the history of Scotland, I know enough to tell that Highland peasant agriculture operated for many hundreds of years, even a few thousand, in the face of cattle-snatching, inter-clan warfare and the like. Mixed farming had clearly developed a whole load of neat techniques in order to overcome the challenges of the climate. That sounds fairly resilient to me, but I would love to learn more about the details.
    To sum up: thank you for talking about this in your usual very intelligent manner; please in the future heed your own advice about elephants.

    • Thanks for that, Hywel. My first inclination was to say yep, fair point, but after re-reading the piece above my second inclination is to say…well, yep, it’s still a fair point, but it’s also one that I make explicitly myself in the original post, where I link the ‘unresilient’ situation of the Highland tenantry to processes of capital formation. I suppose on reflection it was questionable to call the tenantry a ‘society’ in the sentence you’ve picked out, since that does tend to erase the larger economic relationships. No doubt there’s scope for debating exactly how autonomous and resilient a Highland peasant society was or could be, and I think you’re right to point to the longer history suggesting a resilience that I somewhat undersold in that comment. Still, the bigger question I was trying to pose for a contemporary agrarian populism is how to resolve the tension between autonomous, stable and poor versus networked, unstable and richer, and I still think that’s critical. So…well…I guess I could see my way to mumbling a mild apology for probably understating the resilience of the Highland peasantry, but since an analysis of capitalist development in the Highlands permeates the whole piece I would protest that I’m seeing the elephant very clearly here…

      Anyway, thanks for commenting, always welcome, and for the Devine reference – sounds interesting…

  9. Thanks for replying and points taken. I am very aware that you are aware of the context of capitalism in all that you write about, which is why I and many others keep on coming back. I look forward to more exploration of that tension you describe and how it plays out in the P. R. of Wessex.

  10. Pingback: From Growth Economics to Home Economics: Towards a Peasant Socialism - Resilience

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