A small farm utopia

When I made a case for a small farm future somewhere or other a while back, I got a tweeted reply “Your utopia is my dystopia”.

I found this slightly odd since the case I try to make for small-scale farming isn’t that it’s the best of all possible worlds – more like the best of a bad job given the circumstances we face. Though to be fair I do tend to emphasise some of the positives of small farm societies and some of the negatives of the big farm society we currently live in, if only to try to even up the score a little from our present tendencies towards urban romanticism. I’d acknowledge that the genre of back-to-the-land ruralism is shot through with utopian elements, and it doesn’t always work out for those who try it. But sometimes it does. Maybe one reason working a small farm retains its romantic appeal is because working outdoors on your own account to furnish for your material needs is quite a plausible way of becoming a fulfilled human being.

But in a wider sense, I think the whole language of ‘utopia’ is problematic. Every political philosophy with a vision for the future is utopian in the sense that it propounds some kind of idealised narrative of the better world it seeks. And there are surely few philosophies as utopian as contemporary capitalism, with its disingenuous belief in market exchange as the guarantor of prosperity, liberty and prudence. So there’s a case for claiming back ‘utopia’ from its pejorative connotations. In this post, however, I want to take a different tack and make the case that small-scale (or what I’ve called self-systemic) farming furnishes a kind of necessary material logic for a plausible utopia. Perhaps it’s an exercise in l’esprit de l’escalier, so that the next time someone tells me a small farm future is their dystopia, I’m better placed to find out how their own particular utopia will manage to avoid it.

My starting point is an influential book, Anarchy, State and Utopia, by the libertarian political philosopher, the late Robert Nozick1. In it, among other things, Nozick tries to derive the process of utopia-construction from first principles. His method is to provide a long list of impressively diverse famous people from history and challenge his readers to describe the society that would best suit all of them to live in.

“Would it be agricultural or urban? Of great material luxury or of austerity with basic needs satisfied? What would relations between the sexes be like?”2

And so on. By this route, Nozick leads us to his apparently inevitable conclusion: “The idea that there is one best composite answer to all of these questions, one best society for everyone to live in, seems to me to be an incredible one”3. For Nozick, this commends a view of utopia not as a single society which can somehow optimise the impossible differences between individuals, but as the possibility for people to form their own utopias:

“Utopia is a framework for utopias, a place where people are at liberty to join together voluntarily to pursue and attempt to realize their own vision of the good life in the ideal community but where no one can impose his own utopian vision upon others.”4

Despite the passing mention of agriculture in the passage cited above, Nozick never really broaches in his discussion the material basis of these utopian lives. So when he talks about utopias that may be agricultural or urban, he neglects the fact that people living in an urban utopia would most likely have to import food and other necessities from people living in a rural one – and, in a utopia, the rural people may not wish to export their products. I can imagine plenty of people signing up to rural utopias in which they undertake to provide food and other necessities for themselves. But ones where they grow food and then have to sell it on fluctuating global commodity markets over which they have no control in order to earn money in the hope that they’ll be able to use it to buy what they need via other fluctuating commodity markets? Not so much.

Contemporary society has come up with two conceptual workarounds to this problem – neither of which ‘work around’ it quite well enough, in my opinion. The first is the idea of the gain from market trade, as elaborated by a line of thinkers including Adam Smith and Friedrich von Hayek. As Smith put it in a famous passage from The Wealth of Nations (1776):

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages.”5

However, in market exchange these ‘advantages’ are inevitably pecuniary, and it’s an assumption rather than a fact that pecuniary advantage rather than, say, autonomy, self-possession or leisure is a more fundamental human motivator. Indeed, an important part of the history of modernity has been about instilling in the populace a sense of pecuniary advantage as paramount via various carrots and sticks. And while the ramification of market exchange globally has certainly created a lot of pecuniary wealth, given that about half the people of the world today subsist on less than US$5 a day in purchasing power equivalents6, the outcome hardly seems utopian.

The other workaround is the broadly ecomodernist one that supposes all the hard work to sustain the material basis of life will increasingly be done by machines and robots, turning the people of the world into leisured Eloi free to pursue whatever dramas they wish. At which point I’m inclined to reach for the ‘Your utopia is my dystopia’ retweet button. In any case, on numerous economic, ecological, energetic and political grounds, I doubt this will come to pass.

Let us instead re-run Nozick’s ‘framework for utopias’ without assuming that a given individual or community can expect another one to furnish its needs, or that it can do so itself through costless mechanics. I think this considerably narrows the universe of possible utopias. In practice, it’s likely that some people would wish to farm while others wouldn’t, establishing the possibility of mutually beneficial trade. But note the powerful position of a farmer or other necessity-provider in that situation, and the incentive towards self-reliance for every individual or community in view of the risks of external dependency. Implicitly, it seems to me that Nozick’s framework for utopias would generate something like a self-systemic, small farm future.

You could argue, I suppose, that Nozick’s wranglings with utopia just go to show the incoherence of libertarian philosophy, with its absurd notion of sovereign individuals freely contracting in or out of societies or utopias. I’m quite sympathetic to that view – for example, Nozick’s notion of taxation being equivalent to slavery leaves me cold. A truly independent person would be dead within a few hours of birth, and everything else about what it is to be human ramifies outwards to those around us, those before us, and those after us.

Even so, some societies are more individualistic than others. Individualistic and collectivist societies each generate their own particular miseries and compensations to the people comprising them. Western society, though, places a lot of store on individualism. The notion that an individual can be whatever they want to be is rarely true in practice, and would seem absurd in more collectivist cultures, but it runs deep in ours – and I for one am not especially in favour of trying to change it. I am in favour of honestly exploring its logic, though. And on that note, I certainly agree with Nozick that the fewer opportunities there are for some people to impose their utopian visions on others the better. I also agree that – going back to the individualist core of his framework for utopias – you should be able to be whatever you want to be. So it’s probably wise to work up a small plot and grow some potatoes while you’re about it.

So there you have it – philosophical proof at last for the virtues of a small farm future. I’ve occasionally been accused of a kind of Maoist or Khmer Rougeist peasant purism, but that’s never been my intention. However, I can see the force behind Nozick’s framework for utopias. Everyone has some notion of how society ought to be organised in the future, but there’s no reason why your utopia should impinge on mine or vice versa, right? OK, so we’d both best get tilling, then. Or no-tilling. As you wish.


  1. R. Nozick. 1974. Anarchy, State and Utopia. Blackwell.
  2. Ibid. pp.310-11.
  3. Ibid. p.311.
  4. Ibid. p.312
  5. A. Smith. 1776. An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Book I, Chapter II.
  6. J. Hickel. 2017. The Divide. Heinemann.

51 thoughts on “A small farm utopia

  1. Bravo, Chris! Double bravo! Really I am quite speechless. This is a powerful and useful piece of thinking.
    I’ll come back later with more thoughts but just want to let it reverberate.

  2. Some utopias require a lot of job specialization and therefore a lot of energy to produce the material surplus to support their social complexity. The two utopias lowest on the the energy-required spectrum are subsistence agriculture and hunting-gathering.

    Since living by hunting and gathering requires a notion of land tenure and a kind of wild and abundant natural environment that is now so rare as to have almost disappeared, subsistence agriculture is the only low-energy choice that can exist (barely) within a global market economy and a modern state-oriented political system.

    And since subsistence farming will always be a plausible way to make a living no matter the energy level of society, it also has the virtue of persistent possibility. The small farm utopia will always be available for those who choose it.

    But when other choices fade away, that availability will become a necessity for more and more people. At some point, agrarian peasantry will cease to be a utopian choice and will be regarded simply as the way nearly everyone is forced to live. If utopia depends on the luxury of choice, our small farm future will become a dystopia for everyone who fondly remembers the vanished possibility of doing something not involving farming. Unlucky them.

  3. This story can be seen as tragic or triumphant, depending on one’s vision of “utopia”:

    “[For centuries, up until the 1980s,] agriculture in Bumthang [District in Bhutan] involved extensive grazing of yak and cattle, and the cultivation of dozens of local varieties of buckwheat, barley, wheat, and other grains and vegetables (e.g., radishes, turnips, etc.) through a productive and sustainable farming system known locally as pangshing. Pangshing is a form of swidden or shifting cultivation that involves 2–3 years of cultivation followed by 6–20 years of a primarily grass fallow that agricultural researchers have concluded was the best and/or only approach for the Bhutanese highland farmer to obtain a crop under the given conditions without outside P or N inputs…

    “[They transitioned] to intensive monocropping of potatoes utilizing fertili­zers and tractors [by] 2011… [Up until the] 1980s they secured all of their annual household food needs (i.e., primary grain staples and sec­ondary greens and vegetables) from fields they cultivated, while they now reported purchasing all or most of their household foods from income earned through selling potatoes. Lastly, the staple food …has changed from locally grown grains (i.e., buckwheat, barley, and wheat) to purchased rice imported from India. These agricultural changes occurred in just a few decades.”

    Agricultural Change in Bumthang, Bhutan: Market Opportunities, Government Policies, and Climate Change
    Society and Natural Resources, 0:1–15 © 2013 Taylor & Francis Group

    • Interesting article about recent changes in Bumthang, thanks for the link. It seems that ‘development’ policies, from the building of roads financed by Japan to the banning of swidden rotations at the urging of the UNFAO were the main drivers in the conversion. These pressures are common all over the world.

      This article by Survival discusses these same threats to indigenous groups around the world.


  4. This is why I am here, Chris. A Small Farm Future has the advantage of perhaps (climate-willing) being possible.

    The amount of time I have spent arguing with lunkheads who, when falling from an enormous height, reject the analysis of impending splat as “dreary pessimism” boggles my mind.

    I sometimes joke I am a “reality consultant”. I wanted to be a designer, making lovely heirloom goods to enrich everyone’s lives, whether they be rich or poor.

    But when you spend enough time with reality, a small farmer looks much more possible.

  5. I agree, Joe, that it’s biophysical reality that is going to call the shots in the end.
    Any further discussion is more or less frivolous. But having frivolous discussions even after realizing the futility of such seems to be all of our mutual weakness here in the SFF clubhouse. I like that phrase of yours: “the virtue of persistent possibility.” Not letting that possibility fade entirely and actually putting a philosophical foundation under it is a rare and serious sort of frivolity IMHO.
    The choice makes the utopia, it seems Nozick is saying. That is all well and good, our host points out, but if your chosen utopia is butt-ignorant of or dishonest about biophysical reality – perhaps as a political expedient – then it won’t turn out well even if it is chosen and quite nice while it lasts. And most of us spend at least part of our lives negotiating and navigating just such a deranged utopia, which wants to present itself as the Only Way That Works. It really, really isn’t but it’s what we’re used to.
    That chasm between the choice of utopia and the non-choice of conforming to biophysical reality is where we keep getting lost. Which side of the chasm one has an affinity for seems like a very rough way of looking at the politics of the Left and the Right. But neither side of the chasm is any good. Abandoning ourselves to either is a dereliction of our duty as (supposedly) conscious beings who Need to Figure This Out.

    • To look backwards in culture
      and forward in agriculture
      that is the way
      of the present-day
      twin Angelus Novus
      the peasant farmer

  6. Thanks for the comments. Crikey, Michelle – you build me up with a ‘double bravo’ and then knock me down with accusations of frivolity! I don’t think any discussion beyond biophysical reality is frivolous, because biophysical reality manifests in numerous different possible ways that are conditioned by social reality. One surely only has to look at the many different social worlds built by people in the past who shared similar energetic constraints – the character of a society is under-determined by the fact that it’s a ‘subsistence’ society.

    At present, the category of ‘subsistence farmer producing most of their physical needs from a small plot’ is filled by a lot of people who are among the poorest in the world and who have few options, and by a few people who are among the richest in the world with many options. I see this post as a way of trying to work through some of the implications of that paradox. When biophysical reality bites, much will depend on how it’s filtered socially – it seems important to me to seek the best possible outcomes in ways that relate plausibly to existing culture-histories.

    Right, now that’s off my chest and my feathers are back in place I’ll take Michelle’s ‘rare and serious form of frivolity’ as a compliment… [friendly emoticon here]

    Thanks for the Bhutan example, Steve. And that from the home of ‘gross national happiness’! There are many good critiques of ‘development’ thinking – I’ve just finished reading Jason Hickel’s ‘The Divide’, which is excellent, albeit angering…

    And here’s to reality consultants, backwards looking angel peasants (thanks for that illuminating reference, Michael) and – why not? – to unlucky utopians.

    • because biophysical reality manifests in numerous different possible ways that are conditioned by social reality.

      Hmmmm. I suppose that is one way to look upon it. But it does bother me. And I’m not yet sure how I want to describe its disagreeableness.

      Perhaps it comes down to training (and or/perspective). Your experience in social science, mine in biological science. My first reaction is to view the biophysical reality as the ground rule, the basis. It will not negotiate. On top of this then I see us, as social critters, making our way through with various tactics and strategies taken up in response to the biophysical reality. We can negotiate amongst ourselves – creating winners and losers, OR helping each other, OR going down various different paths (seeking our various Utopias). But regardless of our choice(s), we negotiate with ourselves, and ultimately follow the rules of nature.

      Now you do lay out that the manifestations of nature are “conditioned” by our agency. So perhaps my view of conditioning is too expansive. We don’t get to choose which elements we employ for various purposes. Physics and biology have put boundaries in place. We certainly do use our social senses and our curiosity to ferret out the rules and to make the best with what is to hand. But if I want to grow my carrots in my back pocket while spending the day deep in a cave (my Utopia) it likely won’t go well.

      This quibble needn’t bench the overall argument. I do like the notion there can exist many different utopias. Context. And I do suppose there is quite a bit about the biological limitations of us and of our social networks that put parameters around how utopias might be found. Perspectives and Tradeoffs. With such in tow, we’ll muddle through.

      I should also add kudos for the Bhutan Ag. ref Steve linked. There is likely more going on there than a cursory peek reveals.

      • Clem, I don’t dispute that biophysical realities constrain human action. If I did, I’d probably be working for the Breakthrough Institute, where I daresay I’d be earning a lot more money than I do as a biophysically-constrained veg grower. So I have no problem with your carrots-in-the-cave example. However, consider two villages (or societies, if you will), both biophysically constrained in their carrot-growing activities in much the same way. One of them makes carrots central to its complex calendrical rituals, appointing a carrot king and carrot queen each year and venerating people with carrot-coloured hair. The other one…well, it just grows carrots. My point really is just that what people do with the biophysical constraints they face isn’t totally determined by the constraints. There are lots of examples of this. Earthquakes are a physical reality. The death toll from them isn’t just a physical reality. Etc.

        When I wrote that “biophysical reality manifests in numerous different possible ways that are conditioned by social reality” I didn’t particularly mean that social reality conditions biophysical reality…I was thinking more of carrot or earthquake type examples. But social reality CAN condition biophysical reality. We could say that climate change is a biophysical reality. But people have been burning fossil fuels for about 2000 years, while fossil-fuel related climate change has only recently started to become a problem. The biophysical character of fossil fuels hasn’t changed in the course of that time, but something else has – something social. We’re now faced with the consequences of that social agency in the form of climate change. Climate change is a biophysical reality. But what people can do about it, who it affects and in what ways aren’t entirely or even mainly biophysical…

        • I wasn’t too far from your spot on the map until you suggested that niche construction and consequent habitat modifications are somehow an affront to the biophysical realities we face. And if I read it correctly you then proceed to back away from a ‘we did this’ argument to ‘there is nothing we can now do about it’ suggestion. My question then becomes – which is it? Can we condition biophysical reality, or not?

          I’m on the ‘not’ side – but please appreciate that ‘not’ changing biophysics does not mean we can’t modify the environment (our habitat). We surely can and obviously have…. within the boundaries of physics, chemistry, and biology. Further, I would argue that still within these boundaries we can rejigger our approach and come back to some sort of agreeable habitat structure. Regeneration if you will. And even if some make outsized claims (which I’ll side with you on) there are positive elements there and good efforts may pin down more accurate sized claims (and thus strategies).

          You said:
          My point really is just that what people do with the biophysical constraints they face isn’t totally determined by the constraints
          And I agree – indeed I like this expansion on the earlier sentence quite a bit. Likely a strong part of why I was hesitant at first to even quibble. Different strokes for different folks. But in all cases – how we deal with the constraints doesn’t change the constraints… it just changes outcomes for us.

          Fossil fuel burning has always been a matter of oxidizing reduced forms of carbon with a tremendous release of energy. Still is. That it also releases highly oxidized carbon which then acts as a greenhouse gas has also always been the case. The unintended consequences of our actions, an undesirable habitat modification, don’t mean we’ve somehow broken the laws of nature. We’ve simply been convicted by them.

          The carrot communities are cute… and I wonder if the Irish have anything to suggest on the matter?

          • Yes, agreed – humans can’t alter the laws of nature. But we (along with other organisms) can alter the way they manifest. Eg. we can’t change evolution, but we can change evolutionary outcomes.

            Not sure I agree with ‘how we deal with the constraints doesn’t alter the constraints’. I guess it depends on what constraints we’re talking about. Agreed, we can’t change the basic chemistry of fuel combustion – but we could radically reduce our use of fossil fuels, or we could search desperately for more of them and we would experience the constraints of fuel combustion quite differently as a result of those choices.

            I don’t think I backed away from ‘we did this’ to ‘there’s nothing we can now do’ but if you’d care to lay this out for me more fully I’ll respond…or else we could return to utopias?

        • But there’s also materiality when it comes to consider biophysical impacts. Burning a bit of sea coal was lost in the weeds as a biophysical change driver. When it became an issue was when the volume of fossils combusted started to cause significant impacts like ocean acidification and anthropogenic climate change.

          What we could have done as a species is allow targeted use of fossils to stay within acceptable biophysical impact limits – and wouldn’t that have been fun defining those acceptable limits – while facilitating some technological development to take us beyond the need to burn coal, oil and gas. Instead we had a free-for-all where fossils were in many uses wasted.

          What I find interesting is what would you need for a society to have that kind of vision and control of stupid human behaviour. I think the Swedes, Finns and parts of Germany and Austria are having a crack at taking steps along this route.

          • Yes, interesting questions – touching on how we got into a world of material-intensive mass consumerism, and how we might get out of it – an international fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty? Any other suggestions?

    • Chris, I first heard about the Angelus more than 20 years ago and was thinking about it recently, when the latest Paul Kingsnorth article mentioned it as well and provided the inspiration for inventing the Twin Angelus (Janus with wings?).
      Looking back is probably best done in a melancholic way (I’m attempting to move into my own cinema to be able to do justice to ce qui etait donner a voir), and going forward (in time), the wind blowing into my face is both to be welcomed and easily dealt with – in an agroecologically sound landscape mosaic.
      Neither despair nor progress, but adaequate occupations whichever way one looks.

  7. More about small farm utopian visions and Bhutan:

    “Thanks to Swiss cooperation, potato production has firmly taken root in Bhutan and enables many families living at altitude to better manage their economic life… [Farmers now have solar panels for nighttime lighting and charging their mobile phones…] The potato variety “Désirée”, of Dutch origin, was introduced by the Swiss. It has been particularly well received by local farmers and now accounts for 70% of Bhutanese production…

    “It is the existence of the large Indian market, which is a long road trip, which provides a fantastic outlet for Bhutanese producers. They are more and more numerous at the market thanks to the extension of the road network to the most remote villages… [The source of income has helped reduce the problem of rural exodus from the villages]…

    “A phone call interrupts the meal. After a brief conversation with her husband Dawa, Sangay relayed the good news to her family: their potato crop sold very well at the Phuntsholing auction on the Indian border. Dawa announces that export prices are still high (the equivalent of 46 centimes/kg). But they will soon collapse (about 4 centimes/kg) when Indian crops flood the market…

    Five centuries in fifty years
    “More than a symbol of successful technical cooperation, the journey of this family of mountain peasants is a good example of Bhutan’s rapid transformation. This country will have taken fifty years to realize what Europe has achieved over five centuries: to move from a feudal-type society to a market economy and democracy. Admittedly, the standard of living is still very low in this small country of the Himalayas, and even more in the valley of Phobjikha. But the population has great confidence in the future and in its government, which advocates a policy based on an essential value: Gross National Happiness.”

    (translated online from the following article)
    Succès suisse au Bhoutan 
    Natalie et Olivier Brunner-Patthey
    Vie paysanne
    15 Mars 2012 

  8. I’m a little dissatisfied with this one – I was nodding enthusiastically most of the way through, but I don’t think the finale really did it for me.

    My problem is that I would, as you suggest, argue for the incoherence of Nozick’s libertarian framework, but unlike you I wouldn’t nonetheless see where it takes us – I don’t think there’s any logic there worth following. You’ve quite a few caveats in that penultimate paragraph, but ultimately you seem to leave Nozick’s philosophy intact excepting the necessity to take some sort of account of what folks above have styled ‘biophysical constraints’.

    I can sense the attraction of a utopia defined primarily by keeping open possibilities for personal utopia formation, or ‘be what you want to be’. But for me it implies the deification of ‘choice’ so common in contemporary society, which is ultimately a symptom of capitalism, rooted in that restless and unquenchable desire for the next commodified thing. What is actually so great about wanting to choose whatever kind of world you would most desire to live in and then chasing it (providing it doesn’t intersect with anybody else’s personal paradise of course)? Of course, actually being in such a world is not the point- it’s the chasing that matters. Where’s the next utopia and how can I get there?

    The brute fact of the matter is that there are always social constraints as much as biophysical ones. That’s not to suggest they’re not malleable, just that they’re always there in one form or another at any given place and time (I feel the urge to add a Clemian ‘context’ here). It’s not actually possible to keep open a social blank slate at all times, as I think would be required by Novick’s utopia – not, ironically, without massive social engineering. It’s all very well insisting that our utopian dreamer give a thought to the needs of physical subsistence, but they will also have to deal with social subsistence too – that’s a human fact, and it’s going to constrain the range of possible utopias, depending on social context.

    I don’t want to suggest tha utopian dreaming isn’t necessary and productive, only that it will never take place in a society specifically designed for utopian dreaming. I sympathise with the fear of imposing one’s own utopian visions on other people, but I think it actually abrogates the responsibilities of utopian thinking to insist that it need not apply to anyone but oneself. The social frame is always as important as the ecological one, and perhaps a better solution would be to insist on collaborative dreaming. Individualism is context-specific, and that context, capitalism, is on the way out (though taking its time about it). People will need to collaborate, to act collectively, make and remake their social world day by day. It’s disingenuous to suggest that we can retain our individualist habits just as long as we apply that individualism to our physical subsistence too. I’m already convinced of the need for a small farm future, but not by that route.

    Perhaps the best utopian future would be a world in which people barely felt the need for personal utopian dreaming, because they were living fulfilling lives in their communities.

    • I feel an urge to reply… having never seen my name adapted in such a fashion. Flattered on the one hand, socially suspect on the other.

      Name recognition aside, in seeing your points here I wonder how you feel about the present venue – our back and forth here at SFF and what keyboard dreaming with a social network cast far and wide might offer. We have some common ideas/concerns (and some points of contention), but exist in widely disparate geographies. Community in a WWW sense, but not at all in a specific place.

      You leave with:
      Perhaps the best utopian future would be a world in which people barely felt the need for personal utopian dreaming, because they were living fulfilling lives in their communities.

      From which my favorite piece is the fulfilling lives being lived… for me – knowing how much is enough, not chasing the next flashing light or newest bauble – this is a human character trait could serve us all very nicely.

      • Not too suspect I hope – I mean only that I think you’ve been highlighting a key point.

        I certainly agree with your last sentiment, utopian as it is. I also take your point about our community here – ironic perhaps that we spend time here, fulfilling time, dreaming of a world in which community like this does not have an obvious place.

    • Andrew, I think you’re constructing a questionable homology:

      Individualism/collectivism :: Capitalism/post-capitalism

      All societies are collective, pretty much by definition. But some (collectively) place more emphasis on individual choice and agency than others. This doesn’t necessarily make them capitalist. In fact, I’d argue that capitalism as such is quite a collectivist ideology, particularly in its contemporary guise. And that the concept of individualism you isolate – a kind of restless seeking after novelty in consumer society – doesn’t exhaust the meaning of the term.

      The anthropologist Hugh Brody discusses a journey he took with two Inuit hunters in which, as a result of various mishaps, they ended up a long way from any kind of help, and with no food. His two companions disagreed about the best course of action and so, amicably, went their separate ways in order to seek salvation as they saw best. I would call that ‘individualism’ of a high order. But I wouldn’t call it capitalism. Perhaps the tale better captures what I was driving at in my theme above of ‘be what you want to be…but don’t expect other people to provide your food while you’re about it’. Not so much restlessly trying on different costumes, but steady self-possession.

      You write:

      “People will need to collaborate, to act collectively, make and remake their social world day by day. It’s disingenuous to suggest that we can retain our individualist habits just as long as we apply that individualism to our physical subsistence too.”

      I agree with the first sentence, but it’s kind of a truism. I don’t much agree with the notion that contemporary capitalist society has got too ‘individualist’ and we can solve its problems by being more ‘collectivist’, for example by forming commons – on which I’ve written critically before. At the same time, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with certain formulations along the lines that we need to find better collective solutions for a post-capitalist world than are readily found within capitalist ideologies – but I find a lot of encomiums to collectivism in current ‘alternative’ thinking quite vapid.

      In relation to your second sentence, I’m not arguing that we can simply ‘retain’ individualist habits in the form that I think you’re using the term as a correlate of contemporary capitalism. But I nevertheless think certain kinds of ‘individualism’ present in existing cultures have promise for grounding sustainable post-capitalist orders – more promise, at any rate, than certain kinds of ‘collectivism’, like the one underlying the Paris climate agreement, for example.

      Like you, I don’t have an awful lot of time for some of the philosophical underpinnings of Nozick’s libertarianism. But I nevertheless think that his framework for utopias captures a way of construing what it is to be human that has great cultural weight and ‘length’, and which can’t be shrugged off as easily as you suppose. And, if you push a little at its logic, I think it offers some surprising potential for post-capitalist and/or sustainable orders. I don’t see the necessity of taking Nozick’s utopia as some different physical place inhabited by different people where one has to go to pursue one’s dreams. I see it more as a means to thinking about the end you conclude with: the possibility of living a fulfilling life within a wider community.

      • Thanks for your response Chris. I certainly didn’t intend to equate individualism solely with capitalism – although granted I didn’t talk about it in any other context! I also take your point about capitalism as a collective ideology, in so far as it currently requires considerable collaboration among the ranks of the powerful to ensure the rest of the world plays ball.

        Are you also alluding to the way that a person’s physical subsistence in capitalist society is spread across a whole series of relations contracted with others, mediated by money? That might be considered a collective phenomenon, and would contrast with the kind of individualism that you promote, in which a person is much closer to being solely responsible for their physical subsistence.

        I’d still argue that capitalism is an individualising (or atomising) ideology in the kind of Smithian sense you describe in the post – people might depend on contracts with others, but they are encouraged to form them only through consideration of rational self-interest (and I think this works hand-in-hand with desire for the commodity form that I mentioned earlier – a desire for acquisition for acquisition’s sake, personal gratification above all else). Obviously, I can’t equate that individualism with your sense of it, but I wonder if your individualism avoids self-interested relationships only by avoiding most relationships.

        Your example from Brody struck me not so much for the ‘steady self-possession’ of the two Inuit hunters, though I appreciate the characterisation, but for the fact that they were only prompted to enact that self-possession once they had reached severe biophysical limits – no food, and crucially, a long way from any other kind of help. Though life will always include such drastic moments, in some places and times more than others, they can’t be accepted as normal, or the basis for a productive vision of society.

        I know you’re not averse to collective solutions where useful or necessary – you’ve said as much, and I’ve agreed with your criticism of the worst excesses of ‘commons’ rhetoric (though perhaps not to the same degree). There is probably room in the Novickian utopia for mutually agreed collaboration. But what bothers me is that it’s only a side-effect of the core utopian premise, which is based on the sovereignty of the individual. My own feeling is that the fundamentally collaborative nature of humanity (as you say, a truism) is missing here.

        The idea that a person might be ‘collectively-possessed’ (not a term with legs!) rather than self-possessed need not be a bad thing, even (or especially) in a small farm future, and need not be the first step on the road to fascism. The cultural theorist Jeremy Gilbert recently explored a theory of ‘solidarity’ as something involving a ‘mutual becoming’; groups unified by specific purposes can form through a collective approach to shared interests but without suppressing differences. I think there’s something in this – I don’t want to argue that collectivism of whatever stripe is always good, but I do think that we need a utopian vision that recognises the positive possibilities of collective dependencies.

        • Dear Andrew and Chris, What I got out of Chris’ post is the third possibility – to be environmentally-possessed is the key and so often overlooked necessity. We are always getting so caught up in these purely human questions. If we are not possessed by the place – the biophysical reality – as well as the people/community then we are always going to be banging away at these dichotomies. Not that being possessed by place is going to save us – salvation is not on offer, as you Brits say, I think – but at least we’ll have made some progress on not being so darn clueless. 🙂

          • Yes, I like this take. So…people collaborate with each other politically, and in doing so they inevitably mobilise ideal scenarios about their goals as people and as groups of people. If in doing so they were to ask which people and which organisms are providing their food and other necessities, and why they’re providing them, it may help them find solutions that indeed are less darned clueless…

        • Andrew, I agree with your view of Smithian capitalism as an atomising ideology, but I think its impetus is structural, not grounded in individual acquisitive desire. David Graeber talks about the ‘communism of everyday life’ within contemporary capitalist society, emphasising how much of our everyday interactions are based on responsive collaboration rather than calculating self-interest. And anthropologists like Danny Miller emphasise the way that shopping and other apparently acquisitive behaviours also have a large solidary component – I’ve written critically but I hope sympathetically about this here: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1469540513488406. Granted, contemporary capitalist society has deified self-interest and commodified hitherto unimagined realms of human experience, but would you really say that most of your day-to-day interactions with other people proceed from pure self-interest? That’s not how I experience my (capitalist) world.

          On the Inuit, I think the self-possession is pervasive and chronic – the example I gave merely demonstrated it in extremis. Obviously, it’s not that they don’t collaborate as part of a society, but there’s also a strong sense of individual sovereignty. I don’t see ‘social collaboration’ and ‘individual sovereignty’ as incompatible. I do have problems with Nozick’s radically asocial concept of individual sovereignty, but I find it possible to dispense with that and take his framework for utopias into the more interesting terrain of individual sovereignty in a relational, collective world.

          As with my recent post on the ‘self-systemic’ I fear that these terms like ‘self’ and ‘individual’ carry too much baggage, leading people to dismiss them as being somehow antithetical to collaboration, collectivity, sharing etc. Maybe I need to find other terms to avoid laying these false trails, but I feel some rehabilitation of these words is in order because they capture things that are important. And will be important in the kind of future that we’re all portending here. And can’t be effaced by simply talking about the collaborative nature of humanity, or the need to collaborate more in the future. It’s not that I disagree about the importance of collaboration…but I think it rather misses the point I’m driving at. Come to think of it, the very word ‘collaboration’ implies the coming together of separate entities. What are these separate entities?

          • I’m in total agreement with your first paragraph. Fundamentally we are grounded by connection, and the atomising effects of capitalism are structural impositions on that. That was sort of my point, and I never meant to imply the opposite, though I do think self-interested acquisitiveness can manifest as a kind of psychological pathology within capitalist society and so form at least part of one’s experience of it – though never entirely.

            I think you’re right about the difficulties attached to notions of self and individual, given the legacy of liberal individualism – indeed, this feels like part 2 of the discussion we had recently about defining ‘self’. Perhaps theirehabilitation of the term is necessary, as you say, but the baggage is pretty heavy!

            I’m happy to stand back and see where this goes now, especially in the light of Michelle’s comment above and your response to it. Perhaps the human condition is always to seek some kind of individuation within an inescapable condition of ‘bio-social possession’ (a search for utopia?). Notions of the sovereign individual represent a rather extreme version of this which acts to obscure any kind of awareness of our biological and social roots, but there are no doubt many other paths towards individuation, or self-realization, which involve very different conceptions of the self, and which do not reject those connections.

          • “…, but I wonder if your individualism avoids self-interested relationships only by avoiding most relationships.”

            “…that they were only prompted to enact that self-possession once they had reached severe biophysical limits…”

            “…groups unified by specific purposes can form through a collective approach to shared interests but without suppressing differences.”

            If I look at these descriptions from the perspective of a peasant farmer, I see several immanent guiding principles of my place and role.
            The contradictions between individualism and collectivism dissolve this side of the fence, so long as there is a mosaic of fences in ‘place’.

  9. A deconstructionist interpretation of “utopia” would be “no place.” I don’t think Moore had that in mind, though, and the vernacular rules.

    Regarding individualist versus collectivist, I very firmly believe that individualism is a direct result of high energy availability.

    Prior to the exploitation of fossil sunlight, humans were almost exclusively in tribes, clans, villages, etc., and lived collaboratively. I’m not saying everything was perfect; the point is that individualism was probably rare. And banishment from the collective generally meant death.

    Then came coal.The social unit devolved from the clan to the extended family, with three generations often sharing a house or apartment, while the men went off to factory jobs. If you got fired, it might take some effort, but you could generally find another job; you could be banished without dying.

    Enter petroleum. The social unit devolves once again to the individual. We go to PTA on Wednesdays, bowling on Thursdays, dancing on Fridays — each with a different group of friends. The people we work with are different than the people we play with are different than the people we live with. We have serial relationships and blended families. Banishment from a group means you simply spend more time with another group. Social situations actively compete for our attention and time.

    And just why is this so? Ecologists know something sociologists don’t: low-energy environments favour cooperation, while high-energy environments favour competition. It seems counter-intuitive, but in an equatorial biome, you might have a half-dozen raptors fighting over dozens of prey species, whereas in an alpine or arctic biome, you might have a couple raptors chasing a half-dozen small scurrying creatures — and even there, they “cooperate” by temporally “splitting up” their quarry, with the Red Tailed Hawk hunting by day, and the Snowy Owl hunting by night.

    Now comes the spectre of the depletion of non-renewable resources, specifically oil. I expect the social unit to start heading back the other way. When the economic system collapses, pensions will go bust, and we will once again take our elders into our families. As jobs go away and groceries become more dear, we will once again breed our slave labour agricultural force and pension plan. And even that won’t be enough, and we’ll have to collaborate with neighbours to get critical jobs done. The village shall return.

    So, avoid the rush! Collaborate now, before you are forced to by circumstances beyond your control!

    • Jan, if we’re going to construe ‘individualism’ and ‘collectivism’ as you do in your comment, then I think we’ll just have to agree that all societies are collaborative and collectivist, period. Then what you’re really suggesting is that as energy availability increases the scale of the collectivity increases, giving ordinary people more scope for spatial and possibly social mobility. Certainly, I find it hard to see the vast corporate institutions and global multilateral agreements of the present world as the products of anything other than highly (albeit unequally) collaborative and collectivist societies.

      No doubt there’s a grain of truth in your historical account, but the realities were much more complex and fine-grained than a story of pre-modern collaboration supplanted by modern individualism. Just as an example, Alan Macfarlane argues in his book ‘The Origins of English Individualism’ that England lacked the collective forms of peasant organisation typical of Eastern Europe, with much more nucleated and private-property oriented socioeconomic organisation stretching right back into the middle ages. I’m not saying he’s necessarily right in every detail, but it’s this cultural sense of individualism (independent of energy availability) that I think needs elucidating. I’m sympathetic to the idea of low-energy future agrarian societies, and I agree that they would inevitably involve more collective organisation of local economic space than applies in contemporary capitalist society. But, in the sense I’m deploying it here, that doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t be ‘individualist’. Indeed, in important respects I see a more fully self-provisioning household as potentially more individualist than it’s generally possible for modern consumers to be.

      • if we’re going to construe ‘individualism’ and ‘collectivism’ as you do in your comment, then I think we’ll just have to agree that all societies are collaborative and collectivist, period.

        I don’t think you understand what I was saying.

        Of course all societies have a measure of collaboration and collectivism. But don’t you agree there is a huge difference in the nature of clan or tribe collectivism and modern corporate collectivism?

        I like how Diana Leafe Christian (Creating a Life Together) puts it about ecovillages: Your working life is there. Your recreation is there. Your friends are there. Your family is there.

        Would you rather I used different words to contrast that with the somewhat schizophrenic collection of associations and acquaintances that the citizens of modern industrial nations have?

        I recall my longest job: six years in a high-tech firm. I worked across from the same person for four of those years, and saw them in meetings, cafeteria, etc. the rest of the time. When I left, that person brought her guitar and sang a nice farewell song.

        Could you imagine living in a small village for eight years, and not knowing that a person you had daily contact with was a musician?

        So back at ‘cha: if you object to my construing these terms as I did, what words would you give them?

      • as energy availability increases the scale of the collectivity increases

        This is an important point. Also important, and I think relevant to Jan’s point, is that as the scale increases the number of discrete sub-collectivities also increase and interact with each other. Since an individual is only awake so many hours in a day, the average number of minutes spent with any other individual tends to decline as the number of interactions between collective groups increase. Many interactions become so brief that they become interactions between anonymities.

        People who change residency from a small town to a big city get to experience this effect right away. For the person who is sick and tired of the same ol’ faces, this can be exhilarating and ‘liberating’.

        Others will be lonely for more substantive human contact than the “serial relationships” Jan mentions, those found by interacting with and being part of many collective groups. While many people continue to have intimate core relationships with family and co-workers, it is only in a high energy society that it is possible for a single person to live for long periods without any substantive interaction with other people at all.

        The choice of living in the big city depends on enough surplus being produced for the city to exist in the first place (the relationship between energy and scale). Hence Jan’s point about the effect of the energy revolution on social interaction. I don’t know whether it is true that high-energy societies have more competitive interactions than low-energy societies, though I think it might be, but it is certainly true that they are likely to be more fleeting and less intimate. This is one way of describing a society that has become more centered on the individual.

        On the other hand, I take your point that even though a person may live as a solitary individual in a high energy society, their dependency on the collective efforts of everyone else is nearly total, so I think it is important to distinguish between “individualism” and “independence” and also to be clear whether “independence” is in the sense of being self-sufficient of physical necessities (with or without money) or some other meaning. This is why I certainly agree with you that “a more fully self-provisioning household (i)s potentially more individualist” (independent?), even though the interactions between members of the household would be intensely and intimately collective.

        I think we have to be very clear when we use words like “collective” vs “individual”, “independent” vs “dependent” to sort out the many meanings those words can convey, some of which may oppose each other depending on whether the context is psychological, political or physical. Try deciding the truth of the assertion, “He’s a man of independent means”, without knowing the context.

        • Thanks for the clarifying thoughts, Joe. Words can be slippery things!

          I’m reminded of someone arguing against my (well, not really my) assertion that complexity is a function of energy. They were arguing that 1,000 acres of wheat was “simpler” than 50 separate, independent, 20 acre farms.

          But each of those 20 acre farms could stand nearly alone, while the “simple” 1,000 acre monoculture could not exist without the transportation system, the chemical fertilizer and pesticide industry, the financial system, industrialized education and communications, on and on, with untold hidden layers of complexity propping up that which appears deceptively simple.

          I’m not making this stuff up, although there may be some original synthesis in brining together the ideas of many others. Claude Shannon taught us about the relationship between energy, information content, and complexity. Howard Odum took this mathematical, information-theory concept and applied it rigorously to ecology. And Buzz Holling, Joe Tainter, et. al. taught us the ultimate end of excess complexity.

          Words are slippery things. I still think it is fair to say people have become much more individualistic, at least on the surface, with high energy availability. That’s not to say Chris is wrong in asserting that peasant farmers in England had less of a collective tradition than those of Eastern Europe, but I’d still hazard that they were more collective than modern humans.

          It does come down to semantics, and perhaps “individual” and “collective” are poor choices. I like what Ivan Illich calls “conviviality” — the art of living together. It better describes what I’m trying to say here than “collective,” which begs, “Well, the Borg acted collectively in Star Trek,” yet that situation would hardly be what most people would consider “communal,” to throw yet another related term out there. 🙂

          People in the past, living in tribes, clans, and small villages, were indeed “convivial,” which Illich insists we must return to. Chris might argue that these social units were also “independent,” but they were so only by the actions of people living together, not some hidden global network of unknown others.

          It is this notion of hidden dependence on unknown others that I see as an artifact of high energy availability, not their anonymous collective actions, and I apologize for not coming up with the right nouns to make that point.

          • Perhaps we should brush up on our social complexity theory and our computational sociology so we can get a better handle on these issues.

  10. Andrew, Joe, Jan, Michelle (and others)

    Thanks for these comments which I’ve found informative – a nice little debate brewing up, which as Andrew says in some ways is another iteration of my ‘self-systemic’ post and I feel the need to chip away at it some more in future posts. But some brief observations for now.

    I find Jan’s example of the 1,000 acre wheat field instructive. I would say that yes it’s simpler at the agronomic level of the field itself, and probably at the level of the farming economics, but also that yes it’s more complex at the level of the human and technical relationships sustaining it (well, actually not necessarily more ‘complex’, but certainly more manifold or ramified). If it’s split into 50×20 acre peasant farms, then yes part of the story is that these farms will probably be more ‘independent’ in Joe’s sense, but I’d argue they’ll probably also be more ‘individualist’ in the sense of this passage from Alexander Chayanov:

    “The individuality of the direct producer, his creative energy, the particularities of his farm and the quality of his fields, mean that the individual farm will always deviate from the average type. Curiosity and the search for novel solutions characterize all farmers. Consequently, all farms are in a kinetic condition; they are permanently changing due to the widely spread experiments, searches and creative trials.”

    While that may also be true of the 1,000 acre wheat farmer, I think the room for it is lessened by the external dependencies on input and output markets.

    Clearly, a world comprised mostly of small peasant farmers would require a good deal of collective organisation at the local level, especially if it wasn’t one coopted by landlord power. Figuring out how to progress that collective organisation in small farm societies of the future is certainly an important consideration. But I don’t see it as the only important issue – and I’m resistant to the idea of conflating it with a gemeinschaft/gesesellschaft duality in which the former is approbated and the latter deprecated, thereby collapsing the problem of a small farm future into the simple issue of learning how to live more collaboratively, collectively or communally (and assuming that this is intrinsically better).

    So to answer Jan’s question – don’t you agree there is a huge difference in the nature of clan or tribe collectivism and modern corporate collectivism? – I’d say yes I do, but I’m interested in construing peasant or small farm futures, not clan or tribe futures and they’re not necessarily the same thing. In relation to Jan’s example of the musical work colleague, I don’t see it as intrinsic to capitalist mass society that people are alienated from the lives of those who they come into close relationships with. Maybe it’s a bit more likely, though local secrets and tensions in small agrarian societies can be surprisingly numerous. Nor do I think a gemeinschaft world is intrinsically good in itself. As Joe points out, in such a world interactions between members of the household [and to some extent between different nearby households] would be intensely and intimately collective, but ‘collective’ isn’t the same as ‘equal’ or ‘promoting individual flourishing’. This turns the spotlight onto issues of gender, age and class differentiation, where I would say that numerous past and present small agrarian societies don’t provide inspiring examples to follow.

  11. This turns the spotlight onto issues of gender, age and class differentiation, where I would say that numerous past and present small agrarian societies don’t provide inspiring examples to follow.

    I are indeed many examples of small agrarian societies that have social structures that would make many of us cringe, but let’s not forget that they did manage to at least one inspiring thing- they produced enough food to survive.

    The evolutionary dance between social variation and selection has produced a wide variety of survivors, some attractive to us moderns and some not, but they managed to accommodate one of the biggest selective pressures there is, the desire to eat. And since the alternative is so ‘deadening’, people can tolerate a lot if they have food.

    • Hear hear to that – one reason among many why I try to avoid joining in with the chorus of how dreadful past societies were. Nevertheless, I think it’s also worth keeping a rein on the notion that their forms of sociality were uniformly superior to contemporary ones, and provide unproblematic models for how to reshape society in a small farm future.

    • After reading the zadforever post and others, it is hard for me to determine whether this case has that much to do with agrarian peasantry. I wonder how much of the food they eat is actually grown in the ZAD and whether there is much of a permanent population there. It appears that some people are long-term residents, but also that there is a large revolving cohort of visitors who bring in resources and certainly moral support.

      Squatting on ‘vacant’ land will certainly become much more common as industrial civilization winds down and more and more people leave cities that offer little but hunger and violence. But it’s hard to see the ZAD folks as being trailblazers when their motivation seems to be more anti-state politics and art than pro-horticulture.

      On the other hand, their tribalism is very congruent with small agrarian communities past and present. And there seems to be some food being produced. ZAD may not be a realistic model for our small farm future, but at least some characteristics of the ZAD are harbingers of things to come.

      • I’d agree with most of that Joe. Certainly not a model for a small farm future, but I think their importance lies in disrupting the present in a way that asks many if the right kinds of questions, and tries to live out some answers to them. Harbingers in a self-conscious sense.

        In particular, they seem to want to explore both the need for independence from capitalist society and the possibilities of various collective approaches to a kind of rural life.

      • It appears that some people are long-term residents, but also that there is a large revolving cohort of visitors who bring in resources and certainly moral support.

        This is a continuing crisis in intentional community; people don’t stick around because they don’t have to.

        Another controversial thing I think about high-energy societies is the notion of choice. In the clan, tribe, or village, your choices were limited. But “choice” is not the same as “happiness.”

        Happiness expert Dan Gilbert of MIT has shown that, indeed, choice can be contrary to happiness. And it is deeply wired in our brain. In a brilliant experiment involving patients without the ability to form long-term memories, he showed that people who thought they had a choice between owning two photographs were less happy with their photograph than those who were “stuck with” just one of them. And the mental patients did not even remember that they owned the photograph in question!

        I think the biggest challenge that neo-peasantry faces is that it is a “choice.” This keeps people from trying it (“someday, I’d like to”), and it keeps people from sticking to it when the going gets tough. I think it will not become popular until it is forced upon a large segment of the population.

        Chris, you could certainly pack it all in and go back to academia tomorrow, if you chose, right? How does this perceived ability to “choose” effect your commitment to peasantry?

        I could see it going either way. The perception of choice could increase one’s commitment; the lack of choice could foster resentment.

        Personally, I follow Gilbert’s advice and try to eliminate choice is my life. Regarding simple living, voluntary poverty, or neo-peasantry, people sometimes say they admire how I’ve “stuck with it” through the years. I reply that, yea, you might say “I’m stuck with it.” 🙂

        • Some interesting issues there about choice. I think my chances of getting an academic job again now are not much more than zero, but one area where I’m lucky I think is that I can be quite choosy about what I produce and what I sell – not a luxury most farmers have, but certainly a part of the peasant experience historically. I very much agree with you about the illusions of ‘consumer choice’, the benefits of which are much overstated nowadays. But on the other hand, people who have no choice about the circumstances of their farming or consuming – serfs, company store consumers etc. – often aren’t in a happy position. I prefer the middle way.

          Thinking about it, my main purpose in raising Nozick’s writing on utopias wasn’t to make a play for the benefits of choosing one’s preferred utopia but to suggest that so much of the way the world works rests on some people’s choices coming at the expense of other people’s compulsion. If you really push at the logic of everyone getting to choose their own utopia without coercing others, I think you’d get something that looks like a small farm future. Which maybe in a sense comes round full circle to meet your point – if we choose what to do without coercing others, a lot of us will be forced to be small-scale farmers. But, as you say, it’s not necessarily such a bad compulsion to be under.

  12. The ZAD folks are terrific – perhaps a bit melodramatic but hey they’re French = and what beautiful country, it is a crime to want to turn it into an airport. Thanks for the link, Andrew! In my own corner of the world we have our own tradition of being completely unreasonable about resisting various kinds of “progress” projects being proposed by outside entities.
    Also, Andrew, your comments about there being various ways of construing selves in relation was clarifying and helpful in this discussion in which I feel Chris is trying to reclaim certain possibilities that have been lost in the current politics of Left and Right. Certain possibilities of being grounded without being a fascist, to put it bluntly. One would like to speak to the guys (and girls perhaps) in the ZAD who are driving those tractors!

  13. The Basics of Utopia

    Utopia is not Heaven. Utopia is the best we can do given the realities of our situation. And the basic requirement is that we are able to access energy. In our cells, energy is produced by mitochondria, a bacteria which formed a symbiotic relationship with our cells several billion years ago. In our environment, energy is produced by plants and their symbionts (especially bacteria and fungi) when they photosynthesize, and the sun when it warms the Earth.

    But what about ‘the best we can do’? In Utopia plants are maximizing photosynthesis and our mitochondria are functioning efficiently, with intact DNA. The plants will contain significant amounts of fats and will be exuding 60 to 70 percent of their sugars to feed their symbionts in the soil and to build soil organic matter. In our cells we will not be suffering from degenerative diseases, and we humans will be able to thrive.

    Utopia is the subject of two scientific works (although they never use the word ‘Utopia’. Antonio Damasio wrote an entire book, The Strange Order of Things, expounding the theory of the search for homeostasis….which can be thought of as ‘thriving’. Every living creature seeks homeostasis. Adrian Bejan, a physicist and engineer, proposed the Constructal Law after listening to an unsatisfying explanation by Ilya Prigogene of dissipative systems far from thermodynamic equilibrium. Bejan extends the broadly interpreted notion of homeostasis to all the patterns we see in Nature, from river systems to fluid flows.

    But Utopias do not grow on trees, we usually have to do some work to get to them. First, I’ll briefly touch on the issue of cellular health. It turns out that the ancient notion of Hormesis is undergoing a renaissance. We now understand that we cannot live even a day without the bacteria that live on and in our bodies. Smart people now know better than to use antibacterial soaps. Smart people now know that it is good for children to have dogs, and even to pick up childhood diseases. We know that periodic fasting is good for us. The Neoliberal Consensus that EVERYTHING CAN COME UP ROSES is in scientific decline, even if it is still ascendant in the marketplace. In fact, we now know that the intemperate pursuit of constant ease and pleasure is instrumental in creating the current epidemic of chronic disease. For example, humans need to sweat. There are two ways to do it: buy a sauna or work in your garden on a hot day. One way is favored by Neoliberalism and the other by Science and long experience.

    Turning now to photosynthesis and plants. The best short summary that I know about is:

    John Kempf explains why perennial polycultures (including animal pastures) are the Utopian way to soil health and thus plant health. You will note the requirement for fungal dominance. We CAN use bacterially dominated soils which result from industrial agriculture, but they are hard work or ecologically destructive and definitely not Utopia. I would just add the footnote that David Johnson has done remarkable work extending fungal dominance to annual crops.

    Perhaps a short note on polycultures and diversity. It has been long observed that diversity, from polycultures to gut bacteria, are associated with health. I hypothesize that the reason is that wild plants and wild humans are capable of assembling the parts required for their own operation and reproduction. (Domesticated plants and humans later.) There is usually more than one way to skin a cat. And wild plants and wild humans can choose and select from a diversity of resources to achieve optimal (Utopian) functioning. Domestication almost always invokes a reduction or curtailment of the ability to assemble and reproduce oneself. Arguably, humans have got themselves into a cup-de-sac where they cannot survive without fossil fuels, for example. And industrial agriculture breeds plants which are incapable of surviving in the wild, and perhaps dangerously dependent on industrial chemicals.

    It would take the Encyclopedia Brittanica to flesh out all the ramifications of the preceding paragraphs. For example, volumes have been written on improving water management beyond what unaided Nature can accomplish….and without water there is no Utopia. But I hope this overview is helpful.

    Don Stewart
    PS I am agnostic on the issue of small farms versus large farms. Either can be fungally dominant polycultures. But it seems to me that a fossil fuel decline will severely impact transportation, which will favor homesteads as opposed to large commercial farms.

  14. Maybe I was wrong….

    Charles Hugh Smith, in Berkeley, CA, has posted something interesting and relevant to those who think about Peasants Republics. It’s behind a paywall for his subscribers, so you’ll have to trust me.

    Above, I opined that a crucial ingredient in a thriving Peasant Republic would be a system of agriculture producing abundant by-products of photosynthesis. I then said that such a system might belong to a large commercial farm, or to a small farm.

    Charles was at the recent Peak Prosperity conference in Sonoma, CA, and conversed with Dave Fairtex and a blogger who goes by the name of MemeMonkey. Fairtex pointed out that about 20 percent of the population gets a strong reward signal when they are able to cheat or steal, and another 20 percent gets a strong reward signal when they detect cheating and stealing. In a ‘small is beautiful’ economy, there is a balance, and cheating and stealing tend not to get out of control. But let everything get centralized into enormous governments and corporations and cheating and stealing go unpunished, MemeMonkey points out. As Nassim Taleb has lamented, the leadership has no skin in the game when it comes to ethical behavior.

    Also in Charles weekly roundup for his subscribers, you can find Jaron Lanier’s lament over ‘what went wrong’ with the internet:

    If you follow the thinking of Fairtex, MemeMonkey, and Lanier, then the very structure of bigness and centralization is bound to fail due to cheating and stealing. Perhaps those working on a Peasants Republic can think productively along these lines.

    Don Stewart

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