To find my resting place

So many lines of enquiry left open from recent posts, and so many other things calling me away from my true vocation, which (obviously) is churning out these blog posts… Ah well, patience, patience – we’ll come to them all in the end, I hope. It’s like good old-fashioned British public services – it’s free, so you’ll just have to wait in line and accept what you’re given…

…which on this occasion is a somewhat unfinished post that’s been sitting in the pending tray for quite some time. But I’m going to publish it now in its naked state so I can polish off some other jobs – and if you read it, at least you’ll get a glimpse of what it’s like down in the Small Farm Future engine room. The post follows on quite naturally from the last – indeed, perhaps I risk the accusation that I’m over-labouring the same point, even down to picking over the same article by Paul Kingsnorth. If so, apologies in advance – we’ll move on to something different next time.

My broad theme is nationalism, identity, immigration and the places we call home (the title, incidentally, is from a Burning Spear song that I used to listen to a lot. It seems vaguely relevant).

I thought I’d start with a brief bit of my own (migrant) family history by telling the tales of my four grandparents, which I hope will help me illustrate a few points.

My mother’s father was a Yorkshire coalminer who fought in the trenches in World War I, and despite these two risky enterprises lived to a ripe old age. His grandfather had migrated to the South Yorkshire coalfields from Aberdeenshire. His grandfather’s grandfather, born in 1799, ran a smallholding in that part of Scotland and so far as I know was my last direct ancestor whose work life was devoted to farming.

My mother’s mother was the daughter of a Yorkshire miner, some of whose family had migrated there from the coalfields of South Wales. He was killed in a pit explosion along with most of the other men on his shift not long after she was born, and in those pre-welfare state days her mother struggled mightily to raise her four children alone, along with many of the other women of the village widowed by the mine. My grandmother said that if it hadn’t been for the help of the Salvation Army she fears her family would have been destitute.

My father’s father moved from factory work in northwest England to London, where he eventually became a teacher and lay Baptist preacher. Some of his ancestors were East European Jews who had moved to the Netherlands, taken citizenship there (the Netherlands being the first European country to grant citizenship to Jews in 1819) and then migrated to Britain, changing their surname from Smaaje-Halevi to Smaje in the charmingly naïve belief that English speakers would find ‘Smaje’ any easier to pronounce. I think the Judaism pretty much disappeared with the migration and the name change. One of the Smajes married a woman from Somerset, where I now live.

My father’s mother was born to Protestants in Northern Ireland (whose ancestors were no doubt of Scottish or English origin), moving to London after marrying my grandfather. My father grew up in London and my mother met him there after moving from Yorkshire to work in London. When my brother and I were born my parents moved out of London to somewhere they could afford a house, and I grew up in a semi-rural village about thirty miles outside London. After some years of living in London myself, I now live in northeast Somerset, about a hundred miles from where I grew up.

There are five points I’d like to make by way of – I hope not unreasonable – generalisation from that potted family history.

First, I reckon my pedigree as a true blue southern Englishman is probably about as good as most other people of my tribe – which is to say, not very good at all.

Second, in England (and Scotland) probably more than most countries it’s a pretty long time since many people have been working rural land. For those of us who seek a small farm future here, we will not find its workforce by looking among the current stock of farming folk.

Third, as my grandmother’s mother found out, living in a small village among known neighbours doesn’t necessarily make the vicissitudes of life easy to negotiate. The kindness of strangers – in this case, the Salvation Army – can be a boon.

Fourth, people tend to move to where there are opportunities for work. The potential paths are many, but the ones my forebears took are scarcely surprising – from East Europe to the Netherlands, and Britain. From Scotland and Wales to England. From Yorkshire to London. From periphery to core, as historical sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein likes to put it.

And finally, even though I’ve spent almost all my life living in southern England there isn’t a single patch of earth in this whole wide world where somebody doesn’t have a better claim than me to truly be a local. Maybe that applies to my daughter too, who was born here in Frome. My guess is that it probably applies to the majority of the world’s people.

Seeking what he calls a benevolent green nationalism, in a recent article Paul Kingsnorth had this to say:

“It must be 20 years since I read the autobiography of the late travel writer Norman Lewis, The World, The World, but the last sentence stays with me. Wandering the hills of India, Lewis is asked by a puzzled local why he spends his life travelling instead of staying at home. What is he looking for? “I am looking for the people who have always been there,” replies Lewis, “and belong to the places where they live. The others I do not wish to see.”

That sentence has stayed with me too, because it makes Lewis sound like a total arse – partly because if you spend all your time travelling in search of the authentically rooted it seems to me that you’re kind of missing the point, and partly because of the alt-modern sensibility underlying Lewis’s contempt for the unrooted people – the global majority, wandering mongrels like me and my ancestors, the herd, the untermensch, the plastic people, the unreal people, rootless cosmopolitans. These are some of the names I’ve heard.

We sorely need in the world today some stronger ways of relating people more authentically to place, but for me any doctrine that “does not wish to see” the unemplaced multitudes is a non-starter, and a potentially dangerous one at that. One of the dangers is that after a couple of centuries of state-nationalist propaganda, we’ve become far too ready to connect a love of place or the comforting rhythms of the local to the designs of our emphatically non-local polities.

For example, when asked why he’d volunteered to fight in World War I, the writer Edward Thomas famously scooped up a handful of English soil and said “Literally, for this”. I’d be more sympathetic if he’d said “Figuratively, for this” and then provided some kind of rationale that linked his affinity for the decayed humic residues of the various organisms he was holding in his hand – whose distribution in few cases is limited to England alone – with the machinations of the British imperial government in its contest with Austria-Hungary and other jostling political powers of the world system. But no, the trick of nationalism is to leave such things unsaid, inciting our minds to make strange connections between the local things and people we love and abstract entities like England, empire or state.

Unlike Thomas, my grandfather wasn’t a poet or an author. He was a soldier, a miner and a gardener who rented his allotment and his house. Apparently, he never spoke about the war. I wonder if he would have endorsed Thomas’s sentiments – I believe that many enlisted men did. Or would he have endorsed this alternatively earthy metaphor from the Ed Pickford/Dick Gaughan Worker’s Song:

But when the sky darkens and the prospect is war/ Who’s given a gun and then pushed to the fore / And expected to die for the land of our birth / When we’ve never owned one handful of earth?


Humans are an inherently migratory, patch-disturbing, neophilic species. It’s a fair bet that even among the people “who have always been there”, most of them haven’t been there for all that long, and have lived as they do now for less time still. As discussed on this site recently, even the individuals who are most genetically remote from each other on earth share a common ancestor who lived no more than a few thousand years ago. We’re also an inherently self-conscious species. One of the best reasons I can think of for the need for us to relate more authentically to our local places is that if we don’t there’s a fair chance we’ll soon be screwed, so it makes sense for us to reckon with that fact and act accordingly…

…And one of the best ways to relate more authentically to our local places is to produce our livelihoods from them with a minimum of exotic energy imports. My feeling is that people who are able, self-consciously, to do this are more likely to have a rich sense of emplacement and inherent self-worth that’s uncomplicated by local pride, still less by any kind of “my country, right or wrong” abstract nationalism. Where they live is special and is also nothing special. Exotic people, the foreign-born, are welcome to find a place alongside the local-born if they’re playing the same livelihood game. Perhaps more than welcome – they may bring some new knowledges. As Joe Clarkson observed on this site a while back, trustworthiness in such a society is something that can be earned on the basis of being a provider of food or other materials. Little else really matters.

The state, the political centre, has both nothing and everything to do with this. It has nothing to do with it inasmuch as it has no call on people’s emotional attachments to the places that they live, and to the people that live there. If you wouldn’t lay down your life for an abstraction like the EU, why would you lay it down for an abstraction like England? For your family, for your farm, for your ‘community’…well…

It has everything to do with the state inasmuch as, absenting total civilizational breakdown, the kind of locality society I’m describing can only be delivered by a state that’s centralised at some level and is constituted as the servant of such a society, rather than one that constitutes itself as its master, drawing local legitimacy upwards to its own purposes. Fat chance of that, you might say, and I’d have to concede the scale of the task. But at least it specifies where the work has to be done and the nature of what’s involved. In the wake of Trump and Brexit, I’ve seen too many liberals and leftists rapidly backtracking on their former commitments to multiculturalism, multinationalism, multilateralism, cosmopolitanism and other such standard fare of the left in the hope they can keep the wolves at bay by throwing them some tasty sacrificial morsels from their new-found communitarianism. I think it’s the wrong strategy. The shifting norms won’t keep the wolves at bay, but merely encourage them.

Many nomadic foraging cultures have learned from bitter experience that individual egos need to be kept in check for the greater good of the band as a whole. So a hunter returning to camp never brags about his kill for fear of social reprisal. “Terrible hunting today,” he might say, “Just couldn’t seem to aim straight. All I got was a couple of stringy morsels I’ve left by the fire.” Whereupon the rest of the group rushes to the fire, knowing they’re in for a huge feast. For the hunter’s meat, I’d submit our modern nations. Don’t heft your soil in your hand and use it as a metonym for England. Heft it and say instead well this soil is poor stuff – worse, I’m sure, than the fine soils of your country – but it’s the soil I know best. Maybe there’ll come a time when you’ll feel you have to fight for that poor soil of home. But if that happens, I think you’ll be able to narrate a better logic for your fight than Edward Thomas could for his. Soil is no excuse to go looking for a fight.

I suspect that the imaginary attachment between soil and nation-state affected by the likes of Thomas comes more readily to us modern arrivistes, the people that Norman Lewis does not wish to see. People generally seek emotional attachment to something bigger than their own horizons, and over the last couple of centuries a lot of work has been put into making the nation-state seem the obvious choice to people living sub/urban lives where the groundedness of a productive soil or a known community is missing. It’s possible to overstate this case. Local farming isn’t the only way to have an authentic relationship with the universe, local farmers aren’t necessarily immune from the siren song of nationalism, and not everyone who lives in the city mourns its implicit alienation.

Still, I think there’s a stronger truth to it than will be found rummaging around in the wardrobe of the nation-state to find some benevolent green nationalist clothing. Nationalism is too self-consciously constructed and too wrapped up in the legitimation of centralised political power to proffer benevolence. It’s better to serve the soil and its organisms than it is to serve “this sceptred isle…this England” (interesting that Shakespeare should have put those words into John of Gaunt’s mouth in a play about a changing world where medieval honour is usurped by scheming and statecraft). There are numerous ways to serve the soil that have no connection with political power, and that are available to everyone, whether they’ve “always been there” or not. In fact, if you haven’t “always been there” probably the major way you can start belonging to the place where you live is to start serving its soil. Most likely, that’s how the people who’ve always been there pulled it off when they first arrived.

“How long have you been here?” is a question freighted with well-known political dangers that we seem to be courting once again in the contemporary world. In a local farm society “Would you like to join us for lunch?” is a safer (if not entirely innocent) way of playing status games. But what I’ve said here operates mostly at the level of individuals and communities. I see no role for nationalism, benevolent green or otherwise among them. But I haven’t said anything about immigration and the larger interactions of states and civilisations. Ah well, there’s always the next post. Or more likely one of the ones after that.

80 thoughts on “To find my resting place

  1. Soil is no excuse to go looking for a fight.

    Perhaps. But little else seems to compete for the right. If the soil represents your life’s work (or at least the most recent efforts at grubbing an existence from the Earth) – then forestalling its being taken seems worth a bit of trouble to me. And shy of being taken, being spoiled might also qualify to gain one’s attention and raise the hackles in the direction of defending it.

    Levels of sentimentality seem to vary from one person to the next in my experience. One sentimental soul might view the soil worked over long years by her kin as something more than humus and the means to raise tomorrow’s supper, whereas another might kick up a dry patch and suggest “It’s only dirt”. Remember man that thou art dust, and unto dust…

    From another angle though I can see some of the considerations of Wendell Berry’s What Are People For in what you’ve just provided us.

    I should also pass along a hat tip for your mention of Freyfogle in a previous post. His most recent long form effort: A Good That Transcends: How US Culture Undermines Environmental Reform looks to be an excellent effort based on the little time I’ve spent with it thus far.

    • Oops, it seems the Eric Freyfogle work I listed above is NOT the most recent from his keyboard. He has another since (both from 2017): Our Oldest Task: Making Sense of Our Place in Nature

      Appears Eric might be in league with Vaclav Smil for productivity in print. The ‘in tray’ will never go empty…

  2. … probably the major way you can start belonging to the place where you live is to start serving its soil.

    I can personally attest to the truth of this. May family moved to a rural part of Hawaii in 1986, but since we were not born here, we will never be “local”. This despite the fact that Hawaii is peopled mostly by descendants of immigrants, is famously multi-ethnic and as a result has an astonishing variety of cuisines and celebrations of cultural traditions. These attributes are a big part of what makes living here so rewarding.

    Even though I speak only ‘standard’ English and am a mainland haole, my long-term residence on a small place that grows more than just lawn leads to a certain amount of respect from those who find out about it, even from those who don’t know me well. It also helps to have a bit of humble respect for the traditions and people who have been here for many generations, in other words not being an asshole.

    I would also add that I think the phrase I quoted from your post should say “… personally serving the soil.” Those who arrive in a place with enough money to buy a large estate and then hire people to operate and maintain it will get some respect for being rich, but not nearly as much as someone who builds their own house, installs their own fences, plants their own trees and gardens and mows their own lawn, someone who demonstrates skills and a work ethic that almost everyone in the neighborhood would see as evidence of good character.

    I think that someone who takes over a bit of land and makes sure that it functions as a productive small-holding for many years will always have a head start in being seen as an asset to the community. As you say, there are other ways of living an authentic life, but none are quite so well grounded as farming a small piece of land.

  3. I just recently finished an excellent book, Energy and the English Industrial Revolution by E.A. Wrigley. I don’t remember where I saw it referenced, but if it was by someone here on SFF, thank you.

    There were at least two surprising revelations in the book. One was the distinction he saw between modernity and industrialism. His primary example of a modern, yet pre-industrial state was 17th century Netherlands. An example of an industrial state that did not need modernity to industrialize was the Soviet Union. The ability to have a modern, yet organically powered society bodes well for the possibility of more tolerable modern political structures even as the energy for industrialism fades away.

    Another surprise was the ability of English agriculture to increase output sufficiently to feed a rapidly growing population, especially in the 18th century, all without any increase in the rural population. The main reason was that coal displaced wood as the primary source of heat for both residential and industrial purposes. This freed up large acreages of woodland that could be converted to arable uses, one of which was an expansion of acreage for oats to feed animals Draft animals greatly augmented human labor and allowed for increased production of food without any increase in farm labor. There were also considerable improvements in farm technique, many of which were imported from the continent.

    Wrigley’s book is very well done, especially his analyses of the limitations of organic societies and how energy from coal allowed England to grow its population without degrading living standards. I recommend it heartily.

    • Joe, I am a bit surprised by that claim of freeing up woodlands for agriculture. In my understandning most of England was “deforested” already at the time of the Doomsday book?

      • It’s more complicated than my one paragraph implies. Arable acreage increased by 1.5 million acres between 1600 and 1800, but cropped acres/year increased even faster, due to improvements in crop rotation and legume planting rather than extensive fallowing.

        According to the Domesday Book records England was 15% wooded in 1086 which stayed the same until the plague reduced the population in the 1300s. Forest area then spread again somewhat due to reduced population pressure. By the mid-1800s the forest area was down to 5%.

        I may have overestimated the impact on woodland acreage in reading Wrigley’s account of how wood fuel use plummeted during coal’s rise. Perhpas more important were improved techniques of maintaining fertility. I will re-read the sections on English agriculture to see what proportion of the increase in calories produced came from acreage expansion and what came from improved methods. I may have mis-remembered his emphasis. In any case, it is a great book.

      • Rackham has done a lot of work on how deforestation worked in the UK. Pretty much all existing UK woodland was managed for various purposes including hunting, firewood, timber and charcoal. The wood that pays is the wood that stays!

  4. I’ve seen too many liberals and leftists rapidly backtracking on their former commitments to multiculturalism, multinationalism, multilateralism, cosmopolitanism and other such standard fare of the left in the hope they can keep the wolves at bay by throwing them some tasty sacrificial morsels from their new-found communitarianism.

    I think “multiculturalism, multinationalism, multilateralism, cosmopolitanism” boils down to simple tolerance and empathy for people in all walks of life, even those quite alien to one’s own.

    “Communitarianism” (localism?) is the recognition that even though self-identification with a community (sometimes derided as provincialism) has faded somewhat with the frenetic movement of people in decades past, it must return as the predominate social organizing principle in a low-energy future.

    Can multiculturalism and small, economic core communities coexist? I think they can, but the stranger that wanders in to a new community (or flees danger elsewhere) is going to have to do most of the adapting. That stranger can only hope that living conditions in his new community are affluent enough that the locals can afford to be somewhat relaxed about his presence.

    A large group of strangers that descends on a community is going to have a tougher time obtaining multicultural tolerance. It’s easier to invite a stranger in for lunch if it doesn’t mean going hungry yourself. A group of strangers….?

    But today, most developed countries are rich enough that even sizable groups of strangers pose no real threat to native affluence. People in the US are not going to starve because of Latin American in-migration. The same goes for Europe because of middle eastern or African migrants.

    If rejection of migrants is not really due to basic economic factors, it must be based on one of the -isms that the rejecting locals can’t tolerate. Either that or simple greed; “no one shall share even an iota of what I have”. Such intolerance deserves to be called out for what it is, bigoted disdain and fear of the ‘other’. It used to be that bigotry was seen as a character defect. It seems that now it is being celebrated as a political organizing principle in the US and Europe.

    Unfortunately, the world will soon see a confluence of two trends, increasing migration of large numbers of people fleeing war or destitution, and decreasing living standards in developed nations as resource limits to growth squeezes economies.

    Tolerance is a character trait that takes experience and determination to cultivate in one’s self. It can disappear all too easily under conditions of stress. I fear that eventually even the most tolerant people (like the Greeks) will lose their empathy for the plight of migrants.

    What we will see then will be bigotry on a massive scale, even in places like North America and Europe where people have made considerable progress against it. It’s too bad, but increasing bigotry and prejudice might only be small harbingers of the great sadness to come.

    • Interesting Joe… from where you leave off in your quote of Chris I’ll pick up:
      I think it’s the wrong strategy. The shifting norms won’t keep the wolves at bay, but merely encourage them.

      Of course Chris might be right, but I actually think a concession or two (particularly of a most extreme opposite view) can help the matter. In our simplistic two party system (not constitutionally a 2 party – but effectively) there is a constant tug-of-war for the middle, the independent voters. Pull too hard in one direction and the center may recoil and pull back. So while Trump’s core might be encouraged and seek to make hay… there will likely be enough centrist thinking folk to stop them taking things too far. The midterms are closing on us rapidly. There is talk of a blue wave. But there is a certain degree of ‘blood in the water’ and sharks get frenzied when that happens. Social media has come under a microscope, Trump and camp now have a record to defend; I don’t think these matters add up to a complete reversal, but I imagine some left leaning changes are in the works.

      More interesting to me is whether any degree of pushback to the present direction of matters will end up being of much service. Net neutrality here in the U.S. has just been scrapped (at least for now). ‘Dark money’ still enjoys first amendment rights, and facts are nothing more than the opinions one side holds in opposition to the other’s opinions. And guns, well – like Simon famously offered, on guns, I recoil.

      But at the level of the smaller community, the immediate surroundings, the folks I can meet face-to-face, these nationwide issues pale in significance. We want to know how much longer it will be before the highway is repaired? Is the school succeeding in educating our children, if not why not? Why did it cost so much to install that signal at the end of Demorest Road? One might abstractly view these local matters through a lens of some cultural form or another. But Washington isn’t going to make much of a play in these matters. And the state capital will only make a bit larger play. The county, the school district, the township, the guy up the road, the neighbor’s daughter-in-law who serves on council… these are the polities who will have the answers. Trump is a distraction.

  5. “To serve the soil” – yes, a thousand times yes. On the one hand it seems a rather simple-minded thing to speak of, but really -imho- it turns politics on its head. We can barely glimpse the outlines of how to serve the soil whether individually or collectively, and so any attempts to stake out ideological territory seems a bit absurd at this point. How can anyone be righter than anyone else, when we are all as infants in this, this turning our gaze to the soil, to life, as if it were a brand new thing we have never seen before?

  6. Hear, hear Michelle! And Chris, one of the greatest disappointments of recent posts is that I seem to agree with almost everything said in them – as someone trained in an academic environment, my knee-jerk need to criticise has almost nothing to fasten onto! So instead, I’ll offer a little expansion to what I think is your critique of the ‘local’ person.

    Anther ‘abstract entity’ that needs to be called out for what it is is whatever shade of past worthiness attaches to people whose parents or more distant ancestors lived in the same place. For a start, as the number of our ancestors doubles every generation further into the past we go, it’s only likely to apply to a fraction of the local’s ancestors anyway (as your own family history demonstrates nicely).

    But more to the point, nobody can say they have been anywhere for generations, unless talking in terms of the convention that one generation is about 25 to 30 years. The longest anyone can have been anywhere is the length of the their own life to date. As logic goes, it’s unassailable.

    Of course, the implication of the rooted local is that they possess some kind of metaphysical legacy that links them to their ancestors in the same place. Culturally, it’s likely that people living in any given place for some time will do some things in the same way as people in the same place did some time ago. But it’s not a strait jacket, culture is far more malleable than that, and in any case, unchangingness is not some kind of shibboleth of culture that needs to be protected. And every person has to learn those elements of cultural ‘inheritance’ during the space of their own life – it’s about education, which will also involve learning any number of new things too.

    Far more likely is that claims to localness will be made to protect existing political and economic rights, such as claims to inherit land. I see this as a particular problem in the UK, where, as you say, existing farmers will have to give way to a very different way of doing things in the future if we are to see a small farm future. Claims to a louder voice based on pre-existing ‘stewardship’ of the countryside will have to be challenged. I don’t think it necessary to be contrary or antagonist for the sake of it (academic background notwithstanding), but giving respect to those with a ‘longer’ or more ‘traditional’ claim on the land is a form of deference that bypasses the collective deliberation of those currently living in a particular place, all of whom have a stake in it and should therefore have a voice in what happens to it.

  7. Thanks for those various interesting comments. Only time for some brief responses.

    Clem – agreed on the case for defending the soil you’ve worked if you have to. But I don’t think that’s really where Thomas was coming from. As you say, people exhibit varying degrees of sentimentality. A bit of sentimentality can be no bad thing, but I guess the thrust of this piece was to say be careful what you attach your sentimentality to – some things deserve it more than others. I also agree with you on the need for political compromise and the disconnect between local and national politics. In some ways I see this as confirmatory of my arguments about the way that centralised states problematically seek local legitimacy. My view is not that there should be no compromise between contending political positions or self-critique within them, but that abandoning core tenets because the political winds are blowing against them is not a good idea. Conservatism has perhaps been better generally at sticking to its convictions than leftism/liberalism and I think it’s a lesson worth pondering.

    Joe – I think examples of non-industrial modernism are interesting. The Netherlands, though, was a globally expansive commercial empire so I wouldn’t want to hold it up too high as an alternative exemplar. The English ‘agricultural revolution’ of the 18th century is more interesting, exactly as you say for the way it raised yields and productivity with limited technological or energetic breakthroughs. I haven’t read Wrigley but I’ve read writers like Mark Overton on the agricultural revolution and Oliver Rackham on woodlands – my sense is that wooded areas in England did take a bit of a hit in the 18th century, but as Gunnar said were already at quite a low ebb…and to some extent what was there was preserved because of ongoing industrial uses. I’d like to look into this a little more, but my sense is that indeed it was the arable innovations rather than increased arable area at the expense of woodland that was key. Your comments about strangers and settled communities raise a lot of interesting issues about the implications of social transformation towards more localised agrarian communities that are in the offing one way or another. Some issues to think about there. As per my last post, though, I’d reserve the label ‘communitarian’ for a kind of politics, problematic in my opinion, that assumes some kind of implicit or ‘pre-political’ compact exists simply by virtue of living in a given (purportedly ‘organic’) community.

    Andrew – well said. Apologies that I’m not serving you up enough to sate your contrarianism (now that’s a trait I know so well…) Still, I’m sure that’ll change… As with Joe, I think you put your finger on a key dilemma – how to honour tradition and localism without reifying or over-elevating it. Inasmuch as I’ve experienced prejudice in the place I now live as an incomer it’s struck me as a largely spurious claim to personal status rather than any more noble defence of a way of life (lookin’ at you Mr R…)

    Michelle – another nice dilemma there…how to stake the ideological territory that allows us to serve the soil…

  8. I’d like to bring up one more point about localism. It has almost always been very common that control of land involved a lot of violence. I think that many who participated in that violent conquest agreed with the “To the victor go the spoils” principle as an expression of natural justice. If possession of land could not be successfully defended, it wasn’t deserved.

    Now imagine that you are descended from a group that had members who fought and died over possession of land. It shouldn’t be hard, since most of us are. I surmise that part of your cultural heritage is a glorification of the sacrifices your ancestors made to give you a place to call home. “This soil was watered with the blood of patriots” and all that.

    As Andrew nicely pointed out, the belief of “the rooted local is that they possess some kind of metaphysical legacy that links them to their ancestors in the same place.” If people are taught over and over that their legacy includes great personal sacrifice in the face of great danger, even unto death, it’s not hard to see how those ‘roots’ might go very deep indeed.

    • The Jordan Valley, Golan Heights, West Bank and surrounding parts are a modern day testament to such a long standing nexus. So it’s not just that folks have died for their land in the past – but are quite willing to continue dying for it still.

    • It’s an interesting point. Modern nationalisms make a great play on historic victories or defeats as emblematic of the nation, but the ideology isn’t limited to modernity: lineage societies, for example, typically emphasise the exploits of semi-mythical founding ancestors. Clearly, there are no hard and fast boundaries between mythical and actual claims to territory based on such events, and often both are combined as in Clem’s examples. But it’s possible for people individually and societies collectively to choose different orientations towards history. In Europe, for example, the importance of historical memory in constituting the nation seems high in the Balkans (as in Churchill’s marvellous phrase that the Balkans “produces more history than it can consume”), moderate in Britain (World War II and the myth that Britain ‘stood alone’ still looms large in the national imaginary) and lower in most other western European countries. Generally I favour placing a low value on historical memory and emphasising procedures for agreeing rational resource distribution in the here and now – including truth and reconciliation type processes to detoxify recent historical memory. That’s different from responding to real contemporary threat. I see communitarianism as resistant to rational resource distribution and, in its nationalist forms, as attempting to re-enchant history for contemporary political claims-making.

      • Yes, and not only that, “historical memory” is often a distraction from what is actually important. We seem so easily caught up in arguing over whether Ishmael or Isaac was the true first son of Abraham that we ignore the fact that we will ruin everything if we let our goat herds get too large.

        I am starting to get the idea that the most destructive aspect of arguing about who owns the land, and maybe even about how to distribute land’s productive capacity, is that it diverts our attention from the primal importance of the life of the soil.

        Salting the fields of Carthage was much more of a crime than the killing of the Carthaginians, and an ethos that fails to recognize that will continue producing our current results.

  9. “I am looking for the people who have always been there,” replies Lewis, “and belong to the places where they live.” This phrase along with the tittle of this piece “To find my resting place” makes me think of ‘home’. We all live someplace but I don’t think everyone feels the place where they live is where they belong.

    It seems that Lewis was saying there is a difference between “belonging” to the place you live vs the place you live belonging to you. This is also what I think it means to “serve the soil” (soil being another word for home).

    I don’t know what it is that makes home a resting place or not, but I think our sense of belonging there is important. Home is where we rest, set aside the day’s burdens, unwind as they say. The stability and security of this place, the presence of food and sustenance, the absence of battles and tension…all these attributes of home are important for our health and happiness. Home also becomes an important part of our identity, which is why we are willing to defend it.
    When we feel a sense of belonging to the land, the farm, the house, our tent in the woods…whatever form our environment takes…we feel a need to care for it. I think it is natural to value those who care for their home. Joe, you described value in “someone who builds their own house, installs their own fences, plants their own trees and gardens and mows their own lawn, someone who demonstrates skills and a work ethic that almost everyone in the neighborhood would see as evidence of good character.” I feel the same way. People who come to place and feel a sense of belonging work to create a place called home. The person who buys an estate and hires people to do the work isn’t creating a home so much as buying a home. And in my experience the pride in owning a home doesn’t satisfy the deeper need that belonging and caring for our home does.

    When my son was a teenager he came home from school one day and remarked that he loved coming home at the end of the day. It caught me by surprise because I didn’t realize that he understood. But I felt the same way. Perhaps my sense of home developed from my own childhood. I was very close to my grandmother and I always felt good when I visited her home. There was something about it that was warm and welcoming. I knew that wanted to create that same feeling in my home one day.

    I’ve always felt that way about the place I live (even when it was an apartment I rented.) Friends would visit and say “I love your home, it’s feel so homey.” What makes it homey isn’t any particular way of decorating. It’s what you feel because it’s what I feel. “Here is where I belong. Here is home. Here is where my roots are planted.” It might be our garden, our farm, our house, our community. Wherever we call home, we love and embrace it. “Home is where the heart is!”

    To love a place like that, even temporarily, is to belong to it. All of us are travelers through life. We take none of our possessions with us when we die. Caring for the place we live is where we belong. It’s the best we can do. We don’t own it. It isn’t ours to despoil. As the camper’s motto says “leave it better than we found it” is a good way to live. That and remembering that we share this home with many others who belong as much as we do.

  10. I’ve been thinking about this idea of serving the soil.

    On the one hand, it’s a great way of envisioning the kind of change in perspective needed to steer us away from the short-termist folly of capitalist agriculture, degrading the soil in the name of maximizing productivity at cheapest cost. It implies that the soil is made up of living organisms, which we might attempt to understand and provide for, and when localized it acknowledges that every place is different.

    On the other hand, the soil has no need of service. Even the degraded soils of modernity would develop and change according to natural imperatives if we left them alone – it’s just they wouldn’t then necessarily be particularly useful for supporting human life. We actually want certain specific kinds of ecology supported by our soils. So serving the soil really implies serving our own needs as well, but in a more mutually beneficial relationship.

    This is all pretty obvious, but in the context of this post it’s also obvious that ‘serving the soil’ could become another claim to the land by one group over another, because as Michelle says there is no one right way to serve, and the ‘best’ ways are not necessarily readily apparent. The interests of the soil could become as instrumentally ambiguous as the ‘national interest’ is in current politics.

    So it really all comes back to the kind of inclusive deliberative local politics that you’re promoting here. Serving the soil can only really be a constant working out of the best relationship between the needs of the local community and the needs of its soils, which will change over time, on both sides of the equation.

    At base, we need the soil but it doesn’t need us – we are only one of many organisms caught in its matrix, albeit a pretty influential one when we choose to be. We might hope to create flourishing homes for ourselves upon it, but the soil couldn’t care less. It doesn’t have desires the way humans do. ‘Belonging to the land’ is a statement of our essential dependency, and we would do well to remember it and to avoid the idea that the land belongs to us, but there is also a risk of reifying the relationship, of instrumentalising it, and the real point surely is that the land could just as easily do without us altogether.

    • I think you have just made a strong case against farming and for deriving human sustenance from hunting and gathering (or perhaps from pastoralism, its close cousin). Just leave the soil alone as much as possible, take what is needed for food, clothing and shelter from what the soil naturally creates on its own and migrate frequently to prevent too much impact on a particular patch.

      Hunting and gathering or pastoralism still have the political complication of territorial competition with other people, but just think of all the complications avoided when we don’t dig into the soil to make it grow a particular plant.

      Perhaps Chris could change the name of his site to Hunting and Grazing Grounds Future?

      • Oh dear, I didn’t mean to make such a case, and I’m not sure the new name is as snappy as the old one!

        When I said the soil could just as well do without us, I didn’t mean to imply that it should. I meant to explore how a sense of belonging based on ‘serving the soil’ might become a claim on that soil, and how it probably shouldn’t. I was, however, sort of thinking out loud, so sorry if it wasn’t particularly clear…

        The hunting and gathering example is an interesting one. The kind of perspective cultivated by that lifestyle must take in several different ecologies and their interrelation on a regional scale. A related sense of belonging might be more accepting of sharing resources with other organisms, including other humans, more flexible, more easily reconfigured, rather than doubling down on a static relation to a particular patch. A sort of ecological multiculturalism. Or am I romanticising?

        • Yes, you are romanticising.

          Our species is in population overshoot, and “sharing resources with other organisms, including other humans” fundamentally opposes the current entrenched regime of global wealth concentration at all costs.

          Still, without a little romanticising, I can’t see getting out of bed every morning.

        • I got what you were saying Andrew and I thought it was pretty compelling. Who cares for which soil and how? Certainly a political question.

          Even in my experience, I have acquired compost, manure, cardboard, straw, coffee grounds, sea shells and all kinds of other biomass in order to feed “my” soil, thus depriving other soils of the potential carbon and nutrients… In addition, through property rights, I claim to have the sole right to care for “my” soil, thus restricting the opportunity of others to do the same.

          In short, because of my privileged position, with access to soil and the means and skills to care for it, I can demonstrate my good citizenship, while others without those opportunities can be criticised.

  11. Andrew,
    “Serving the soil can only really be a constant working out of the best relationship between the needs of the local community and the needs of its soils, which will change over time, on both sides of the equation.”

    The needs of the soil are that difficult to meet. My undergraduate degree is in Earth Science and my Master’s degree is in Soil Science. I learned how rocks disintegrate and soil forms from the action of rain and plants. My professors told us that it takes thousands of years to make fertile topsoil. We were told that once lost we can never recover it. Frightening prospect indeed! And although this may be true for the millions of acres of industrially farmed cropland, it is not true of small landholders.
    For the last 20 years I have been making compost and blending it with natural, depleted topsoil. I can make fertile topsoil in 3 to 5 years. Fertile soil is an environment where microbes, fungi, worms, and arthropods thrive. What they need to thrive is organic matter. If we want food to eat, we need to conserve our topsoil and the life that lives in it.

    Conserving (or serving if you want) the soil and the microbes that are so important for the health of soil isn’t difficult. There are really only a few things we need to do:

    1. Avoid using toxic chemicals that kill or harm life in the soil. Some fertilizers acidify the soil and harm fungi. Most pesticides and herbicides kill more than the target you intend.
    2. Keep the soil covered to protect it from rain drop impact, moisture loss, and solar heat gain. This can be accomplished with live plants or mulch. The benefit of using organic matter for mulch is that as it provides food for microbes. Organic mulch is things like grass, leaves, ground up tree limbs, hay, straw, etc.
    3. Prevent erosion of soil by wind and water. Slow down water that runs off the surface by keeping rills and gully formation in check. Plant trees and hedges for wind breaks.
    4. Don’t over graze pastures.

    The only issue a community needs to resolve is how it will develop land for urban uses. My PhD is in Civil Engineering. It is really quite simple to design urban environments to better serve both the built and the natural environment. We’ve known how to do this since the mid 20th century.

    • Thanks Jody, I take your points. I had in mind the shifting agricultural uses to which communities might want to put the land in their care, the attention to detail required to work with different soil types and microclimates, and the kind of shifting climatic conditions generated by global warming. I guess these may or may not be matters of nuance depending on specific local conditions.

      • Andrew,
        Someone who works the same patch of land is more likely to understand the nuances you write about and to attend to the needs of that land. You are correct that rotating crops, grazing patterns, and fallowing fields all require attention to detail. But in order to understand the detail it requires a familiarity with the land you farm. I don’t see this as the responsibility of the community unless it is some form of commons shared by the community.
        Unlike Chris my grandparents and great grandparents were farmers, woodsmen, hunters and trappers so my connection to land is perhaps more recent. I grew up hearing many family stories of the farm, hunting, trapping in wild country.
        My brother and son moved to Montana to be close to land where they can hunt, fish, and trap.
        I lived for the first seven years of my life on my grandparents farm. I walked through the buildings lovingly cared for by my grandfather, who unfortunately died from pneumonia at the age of 58. I often wonder if he had lived until he was 75 or 80 what I would have learned from him. Perhaps I would have taken over the family farm when he retired. Sometimes I feel like farming is in my blood. The connection to the land you walk. Noticing where it stays wet, where it dries the quickest. What plants grow where. The direction of wind in summer and winter, the afternoon shade (or as you put it micro-climates).
        This awareness may not be something that can be taught, only experienced. And it can only be experienced by people who spend their days working the land.

        • Jody,

          I don’t mean to undermine such awareness or connection. None of my recent ancestors were farmers, and nor am I, but I don’t doubt the reality of the emergence of such feeling when working the land, and really I envy you for it.

          But Chris’s post was about the hijacking of such feeling by nationalist polities for their own ends, and my own train of thought in comments above has to been to worry about a similar hijacking at more local scales. Considering we all here believe that societies in the future need to work at more local scales, I think this is worth exploring.

          Given the localization of politics promoted on this site, I think it likely that future communities will need to concern themselves with the nuances of land usage much more than is now the case. Of course, there will always be those who are more involved with farming on an everyday basis than others, and whose knowledge and awareness will be correspondingly deeper. But the very idea of a more equalised access to landed resources (whatever form that ultimately takes) implies a more equalised investment of feeling and belonging in the local landscape (which, again, might take many forms).

          In my reply to Joe I had begun to wonder whether cultivating a broader, more regional feeling for the variety of local landscapes might discourage a tendency to get overly possessive about a particular patch. A sense of belonging that is rooted in multiple soils, multiple communities, less cellular. Burt the whole thing starts to get rather impressionistic without the details of a kind of future case study to attach it to.

          Another way of seeing this would be to recognise the importance of individual connections to very local landscapes, but also to insist upon their transience, something you put rather nicely earlier when talking about us being ‘travelers through life’, surely a metaphor a hunter-gatherer would understand!

          • Andrew,
            Yes, politics can be messy and complicated. But having grown up in a small farming community I have my doubts about Nationalism or regionalism becoming a problem in small farming communities. Sure, there will be local politics and local rivalries, but in small communities life is much simpler and more practical than at the national level.

            I could be wrong but I imagine that as population centers shift to more rural areas where people can grow food, I think we will see less value placed on national and global politics. Each community will work out their mutual arrangements as situations demand, but perhaps this is what you were driving at. So are we back to morals again?

            One of the reasons I have faith that small agricultural communities will do better politically is because in small communities people know their neighbors, often depend on each other, and over a lifetime share each others joys and sorrows. It’s much harder to put people you’ve known through good times and bad into a box labeled this party or that.

            Perhaps this is why I’m less concerned about “the hijacking of such feeling by nationalist polities for their own ends.” (if by such feeling you meant attachment to land or a way of life.) I also believe that farming tends to ground people, when they feel a sense of belonging to the land they work they are more secure.
            Nationalism is a form of ideology much as religion can be. Doesn’t nationalism tend to arise when people are insecure and troubled, searching for security? Isn’t it easier to attract followers from groups of people who are lost, searching for answers than people who have already found answers?

          • Andrew,
            “I think it likely that future communities will need to concern themselves with the nuances of land usage much more than is now the case.”
            On that point, I very much agree with you. I think most people live lives that are very distant from where our resources come: soil, prairies, woods, rivers, lakes, and sea (i.e. natural environments.) People shop for food, clothing, and shelter instead of utilizing what grows. That disconnect results in fatal ignorance of why we need to protect and conserve soil, woods, prairie, lakes, rivers, and oceans.
            We definitely need greater awareness of what nature provides and how to coexist with it in ways that allow life to renew.

    • For what my opinion is worth I’d agree with Jody’s 3-5 years for building topsoil depth using compost. That’s what we’ve found. The problem is the quantity of compost required to do this over an extensive area. Louis Bromfield had a crack but my memory is that he was using fodder hay as well as manure. Fodder hay is an expensive soil conditioner/builder.

      Re Jody’s comments about designing urban environments to fit with human needs as against developers, I’d see this as part of the technology stack used to develop societies featuring social equity and sustainability. There’s been some great work done on what makes a successful village and how to use these learnings in larger population centres. These lessons are pretty much ignored in rapidly growing western cities as they interfere with developer income. Privatise the profits and socialise the losses!

      And now to take the hound to puppy obedience lessons. She was supposed to get her first gundog training session today but the weather was so awful it was cancelled.

      • And while probably most people reading this blog would agree that the world is in a bit of a mess and how to fix things before we cook the planet etc is a challenge, I can attest that being in a room with a load of over-excited puppies and their owners watching young dogs being absolutely adorable and very entertaining as they master 15cm high jumps, and the difficulties of how to sit, stay, heel etc is a bit of a hoot and very effective in putting a smile on the dial.

      • David,
        Yes I agree, making enough compost can be difficult and expensive and it will not be easy to replenish soil degraded by industrial farming. Small farms located within 15-20 miles of small to mid-sized cities (pop. 10,000 to 100,000) may have access to clean biosolids (no heavy metals) and yardwaste from the city. I think farms less than 20 acres can manage organics better. Once farms diversify (crops, vegetables, and livestock) there will be more opportunity to better manage organic matter on the farm.
        Something few people think of is weeds. Weeds are a very effective form of fast growing organics. I imagine this was one of the advantages of fallowing fields. You reduce the weed seed bank in the soil by allowing them to germinate and when you cut and plowed the weeds under they acted much as a green manure. And perennial weeds can be kept in check by allowing pigs to root in the field in the fall when plants put their sugar into the roots. Lessons unfortunately big industrial farmers have forgotten.

        I also agree with your comment about privatizing profits and socializing costs. History is full of examples where trusting populations allow themselves to be duped by that perennial population of people who want something for nothing and believe its alright to steal it from others hard work. Today we call them investment bankers.

          • I disagree with your conclusion that “carbon should be built not dumped”, not because I don’t see the value of microbes but because I think the term “dumped” is a rather dismissive term for the benefits of covering the soil surface with organic mulch.
            Organic mulch not only provides food for microbes but even more importantly it reduces soil moisture evaporation, increases infiltration of precipitation, and reduces soil temperature fluctuations in the top 6-12 inches where microbes are most active. Temperature and moisture are typically the dominant controls on microbial process rates.

            I don’t disagree that microbial action is the principle mechanism by which plant-based compounds are converted into SOM. But I think this research is heading in the wrong direction. I see parallels in this research to what is happening in human microbiome research. Scientists are being funded to conduct research that will hopefully lead to the development of products the pharmaceutical and medical industries can sell at high profitability. Rather than just encouraging people to change how they eat (i.e. more fresh, whole food and fiber, less meat, and less sugar and processed food in their diet) they want us to keep eating as we are and then buy supplemental formulations to “improve our health outcomes”. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just eat better?
            I have my doubts that soil microbial products will improve soil OM sequestration better than simpler, less expensive, old fashioned farm practices such as cover crops, manuring, fallowing fields, and using better tillage practices (smaller equipment and timing of tillage for example.)
            People have tried to sell me products to spray on my compost piles to enhance microbial breakdown of organic matter. I can’t see the value in spending money on products when good management practices can accomplish high quality compost.

          • I think the gist of the paper was that feeding the relevant microbes with plant matter builds SOM. Which is what farmers have been doing for the last 10k years using pre-industrial farnming techniques.

            I enthusiastically trench compost and spread plant matter on top of fields in our 1000mm+ rainfall area as well as standard composting. Something of a family tradition in this area; my brother was at one point managing composting of one of the biggest piles of manure on the planet. Up to 5000 tonnes with some great photos of very specialised equipment.

            In my experience it is very easy to get healthier soil quickly using organic techniques in a reasonably high rainfall area with sufficient additions of organic material. The challenge is sourcing the organic material.

            Slightly more controversial is whether bringing in material from off-farm can spread pathogens. I think Chris uses arborist waste as one source of off-farm material. Because we’re growing trees on land that’s been flogged for grazing since it was cleared 100 years or so ago, I’ve been a bit concerned about the system ability to cope with introduced pathogens in a concentrated form as in arborist waste from diseased trees. Your hardcore organic exponents opine that once you have the thundering micro-herd well and truly established the rich mix of biota will handle any pathogen bolus. I’d like to see some trials and numbers.

          • Jody, what I called dumping is the extractive process of using fossil fuels to mechanically convert and spread large amounts of volatile carbon onto soils which are perfectly capable to grow that same amount carbon (and more) in a much more stable form themselves if managed properly.
            I fail to see how the process of growing plants which enable the soil life to grow the carbon could be hijacked; the people doing the compost extract spraying (if one chooses to do that) have videos on how to build everything yourself from scratch.

          • Michael,
            Can you clarify for me what you see as the best method(s) for improving soil? You seem to be saying that you don’t believe large diesel fueled equipment should be used to grind up fresh organic matter, compost it, and spread it on land. If so, what do you suggest communities do with all the hundreds of tons of yard waste, farm waste, and biosolids currently generated? I agree that at some point communities won’t have the heavy equipment and fuel to collect and process these materials. But in the meantime I don’t like seeing them put in landfills or dumped in ravines.
            Volatile carbon is constantly being added to the surface of land wherever plants are growing, so mulching seems to me to be similar to natural ecosystems.

            David, I don’t think there are many insects or microbes that easily survive a hot pile of freshly made mulch. So I’m less concerned about ground up infected trees being used to make mulch as long as the pile gets nice and hot. The research is absent because there are few companies to pay for it. It’s difficult to afford the monitoring to answer this question. Only compost companies that get paid to handle biosolids can afford to do the extensive monitoring for pathogens required.

          • Michael,
            The excessive profit motive can hijack anything. What I was referring to was research paid to develop microbial products as opposed to basic research to help us understand the simplest more cost effective way of managing organic residue and soil improvement. For example, Equipment companies telling compost companies they need to turn compost more frequently when static pile composting can be just as effective if not better. Doctors telling patients they need prescription drugs instead of telling them how to change their lifestyle. Food companies telling you processed food with nutrition additives is just as good for you as plain, whole foods. Banks telling customers they should borrow money with variable interest rates knowing that if interest rates rise they will be unable to afford the payments. Planned obsolescence in manufacturing.
            Anything can be hijacked if it will be profitable for the seller. And far too many companies have become predatory. Maybe we see more of this in the US than in other developed countries.

          • You’re right, Jody – the amount of waste currently generated is indeed very large, and if its removal – or fertilization of one’s fields – is the aim, I haven’t got a problem with that.
            What I question is the necessity of using these materials as carbon sources, because the management of crop fields should be self-sufficient in both C and N; in both cases the life in the soil should provide for it and prepare the farm for a future when energetic limits on cargo traffic will mean that raw minerals will still be affordable (in many cases probably spread by herbivores having access to free choice minerals), but little else.

          • Michael,
            I agree that careful management of organics and nutrients is the ultimate goal. And few small farmers can afford to buy costly inputs. I believe that imports to small farms will be mainly what can be carried to the farm by non-fossil fueled means, which means not very far. I can see such things as the local city’s food waste, night soil, animal manure, leaves, ashes, and bone meal making their way out to the surrounding farms, maybe seaweed and guano can be transported by sailing ships, trains, and river boats from farther away. Anything that contains N-P-K-S-Fe-Ca-Mg and other micronutrients will be valuable.
            Growing and harvesting nutritious food mines the soil no matter how carefully we do it. So feeding people and livestock depletes the soil and some inputs will be needed.

  12. One of the nice things about a blog is that other people can think through the ideas that you put out, saving you a lot of time. So thanks for that, Andrew. I agree with you…except maybe to add that although the soil doesn’t need us to serve it, we need to serve the soil for our purposes – and thinking about it in that way may help us to avoid some of the more nakedly political appropriations of soil-as-political-metaphor rather than farming-soil-as-practice. However, I agree with you that the notion of ‘serving the soil’ could easily be appropriated for political mischief, so I wouldn’t want to formulate it as a political claim, only as a political anti-claim. I agree that the deliberative politics is key.

    I find Joe’s case for the advantages of foraging pretty much unarguable, apart from the fact that there are way too many people in the world for it to be remotely feasible. Therefore I’m sticking with small farm future…by which I mean most of us are going to have to figure out how to stay put in a place, create meaningful lives there and ‘serve’ its soil so its soil serves us – sounds like Jody has a head start there on many people. Nice thinking – I just wish our contemporary culture accorded homeliness in all its many senses a higher value than it usually does.

    • Word Origin and History for homeliness
      n. mid-14c., from homely + -ness. Originally “meekness, gentleness,” also “familiarity, intimacy; friendliness;” sense degenerated by c.1400 to “want of refinement in manners, coarseness; presumptuousness.”

      So what happened by 1400 that made people see homeliness as want of refinement? Do you think this had anything to do with the Plantagenet rule, 1154–1485 and the rise of the aristocracy in England and France?
      Americans are known for valuing middle class virtues, but whenever income inequality skews towards the rich we see frugality and thriftiness lose its value. A good reason to prevent wealth concentration!

    • It might be a British vs American English thing, but in the US “homeliness” means the aspect of being ugly or plain, whereas the aspect of being “homey” or like a cozy home or cottage would be “hominess” or “homeyness”. One wouldn’t want to confuse the two when describing someone’s residence.

      More importantly, I know that there is not enough room in the world for 7.6 billion hunter-gatherers, and I doubt that there is even enough room for the same number of small farmers, but Andrew’s comment encapsulated the main reason why there were many paleolithic groups that resisted converting to agriculture for a long time; it takes a lot of work and knowledge to start messing around with soil to grow food and doing so creates an immediate and powerful dependency. It’s hard to go back.

      I’ve read that there has never been as broad a leisure class as those who made their living by roving and hunting/gathering. Leisure, freedom and close companionship are hard to beat. Hunter/gatherers had it all. Too bad we screwed up and started planting the soil to grow food. Now we’re stuck with it.

  13. When all the world was green(er)… The oft-cited four-hour working day of hunter-gatherers may never lose its appeal, but Didn’t We Almost Have It All might be their apt anthem if Ted Kaczynski’s overview and critique of the related literature is anything to go by:

    I agree that now is a good to settle down and to thoroughly implicate yourself in a small field if possible. My own experience of doing so has brought home to me the insanity of rising of a morning to then have to motor elsewhere to spend the working days. That’s not to knock those who do, simply to underline that, wherever you live and feel that your allegiances lie (national or otherwise), a simpler, less polluting routine is better all round if you can manage it. I’ll stick my neck out no further, it’s Sunday after all – time for a bit of Burning Spear (once the neighbour kills the noise of his motorised backpack sprayer. Or is it his rotavator? Strimmer maybe?).

    • It was an interesting read, but man, what a long essay by Kaczynski! He must have plenty of spare time. 🙂

      Based on his review, farming doesn’t seem quite so bad in comparison with hunting-gathering. That’s good, because almost no one has the hunter-gatherer option anyway.

      • A speed reader, I presume! But yes, and I was surprised he’s still being published. Obviously no editor. As for the hunter-gatherer option, the sweet-spot of wild land availabilty/population density that makes it feasible is fast disappearing in the rear-view mirror today, leaving only the faint HG pining still within us. Ah well, time for another snatch of Burning Spear:)

    • Thanks for sharing this, Simon. As much as I enjoy gardening, it’s a lot of work and brings with it no small number of frustrations. That leads me, on occasion, to romanticize what life must have been like for pre-agricultural peoples (as my wife knows all too well since she’s the one that has to listen to my musings and monologues). I’ve only just begun Kaczynski’s piece, but it’s already proving to be a good reminder of what, technically, I know but all to frequently elide. As he notes, “picking berries is monotonous if you spend many hours at it.” Yes, indeed, although just 30 minutes of it proves to be rather monotonous for me. Still, the blueberries and gooseberries that I just finished eating were well worth the effort.

      • Agreed. I find these tedious tasks are less so when shared with others – shelling peas with great grandfather, for instance – and adopting a comfortable posture from the outset is a good idea. The mind might then slip into a kind of pleasant zen-like trance if you’re lucky.

        • Well said. Your words bring to my mind my own experiences helping my father and grandfather with farm chores (bailing hay, in particular), Wendell Berry’s thoughts on the rhythms and satifactions of what might seem, from the outside, tedious farm tasks (particular when undertaken with others), and Gary Snyder’s observation that even something so mundane as washing dishes can be a pleasant experience if you approch it with the right frame of mind.

          • I live in a small, aging rural community, and the older folk do everything together here: shelling walnuts for hours on end, planting potatoes, shucking beans, plucking a chicken with the grandchild. It’s a way of life that had largely just passed in the region I grew up in; just the other week my mother reminded me of something she’d remembered from her own childhood, which was the week off school to help the local farmer with potato picking. Valuable experiences, even if they only speak to you in hindsight. I’m all for the timeless work.

          • My mother’s generation had on-demand school “holidays” when the potato beetle population demanded urgent removal.
            I’m simply glad I find huge enjoyment in what others call tedious and boring tasks; scything, picking berries etc.

    • I think that Ted Kaczynski has some hard-earned and useful information, but it is well to remember who he is. He has always been an intellectual, and has what appears to be a deep deficit of social feeling. He is also in prison.

      It seems to me that this causes him to discount the great pleasure most of us get from doing mindless tasks in company of our friends. Maybe it is just this that is the difference between ‘tedious’ and ‘fulfilling’.

  14. Regarding hunting and gathering I think this may play a larger role. While it’s true that woods can be over hunted and lakes over fished, and it’s probably true that there isn’t enough wildlife area for current urban population centers to suddenly convert to hunting and gathering (even if they had the tools and skills); I’d like to propose a different scenario for the transition to a lifestyle that includes hunting and gathering.
    I think I’m correct in saying that hunters and gatherers ate a diet that mainly consisted of plants (75%) and occasional meat (25%) mainly small animals. So what we are talking about is gathering plants most of the time and trapping or shooting small animals. Several years ago I became interested in sources of wild food. I had been studying herbs and their uses, I had stopped using lawn chemicals to control weeds, and I noticed many interesting types of wild plants growing in my gardens and lawn. So I wondered if I could eat them or use them as native herbs. Interestingly, yes, many are edible and useful as medicine.

    I live at the edge of my community, seeing hundreds of acres of farmland cultivated each year with gigantic farm equipment. If one walks along the edge of these fields the corn and soybeans look green and healthy, but the soil is hard, compacted, cracked, and reduced in organic matter. (Really farmers in my state are mainly farming subsoil). The only thing keeping the crops growing is the abundance of chemical fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides the farmer sprays on genetically modified crops that can tolerate this treatment. What will happen when farmers can no longer afford the debt on gigantic equipment or the cost of planting these crops? I believe much of the land will go unplanted.
    I imagine that there will be a transition period in which farms in bankruptcy in the US and elsewhere without industrial equipment, chemicals, and GMO crops it will be extremely difficult to cultivate and grow crops on this land. As anyone who has lived near such land can attest, weeds (including trees) will volunteer within the first season and quickly over grow the land. Weedy overgrowth provides habitat for wildlife (rabbits, deer, skunks, groundhogs, mice, hawks, etc.) and their populations rapidly increases. Anyone with some skill at foraging for wild edible plants, with a 22 riffle will probably find food.
    And you won’t need to travel far. Imagine what your lawn will look like when you have to mow it by hand and can’t afford chemicals even if they were available? Perhaps even in our yard and local parks people will forage for plants and the occasional small animal for the stew pot.
    This transition will likely be occurring at the same time that the lack of medical intervention, infant mortality, hard physical work, and climate change reduces our population significantly. So maybe a future of hunting and gathering isn’t as unimaginable as most people think.

  15. Thanks for the various interesting comments. Quick replies to a few points:

    Foraging: Yes, there’s no doubt that the hunter-gatherer life isn’t necessarily leisurely or easy…not sure Mr Kaczynski’s input is needed to inform us on this point. However, foraging does tend to do a better job of looking after the soil.

    Smallholders & nationalism: I’m inclined to agree with Jody, but as per recent discussions I think it’s important not to be complacent about the need to keep doing politics and to avoid arbitrarily exclusive styles. Mitrany in ‘Marx against the Peasant’ argues that East European peasants were generally unimpressed by fascism, whereas Tom Brass in ‘The Agrarian Myth’ argues the opposite…though Brass is a Marxist who’s against peasants, so a pinch of salt is required there. I’m interested in any examples people can furnish of how small farm societies either resisted or succumbed to nationalist or nativist ideologies.

    Soil microbes: again I’m with Jody. There seems to be an anti-compost bandwagon gathering speed at the moment. More on that soon, I think.

    Farm upbringing: I agree that a family background in farming can give you a head-start, but I want to sound a note of caution about over-stressing it. I’d say that whoever you are and however early you start, learning to be a good farmer is a lifelong challenge. Some people with urban backgrounds and no farming in their blood prove to be adept and thoughtful farmers. Some people born into it prove to be incurious and farm by rote. The paths and pitfalls are many.

    Tedious work: nicely said by Ernie and Simon. Presumably a lot of people nowadays enjoy tedious modern office work because it’s more sociable than tedious modern farm work. But there is another way…

    Homeliness vs homeyness: thanks for the clarification, Joe. Another example of US/British English – divided by a common language…

    • Chris and Jody,

      First, apologies to Jody, I missed the relevant reply to me above in the comment stream, and have only just read it.

      ‘I imagine that as population centers shift to more rural areas where people can grow food, I think we will see less value placed on national and global politics.’

      We certainly agree on this, but when we move to look at the smaller-scale politics of future rural communities it’s not really nationalist ideologies that I’ve been concerned about in the comments above. Whether or not such communities have historically been more or less liable to support such ideologies presumably varies with a host of other factors – given that there have been many different kinds of peasantries, differently connected to the broader politics of their regions and nations, I don’t suppose there’s a one-size-fits-all answer. Other considerations, such as age structures, might be just as important. Is political enthusiasm for new ideologies more likely among the young? Are the older generations generally more conservative? Does it therefore matter that, in family farms, the heirs don’t formally take over until relatively late in life when their parents are too old to carry on? All questions that, again, are probably too general, and require more complex answers.

      But my concern above was not really nationalism but some other kind of -ism that is probably actually more prevalent at smaller scales and among face-to-face communities, in which notions about age, gender, land ownership, relative ‘closeness’ to the land act to promote the privilege of some over others, and work against the more equal kind of politics promoted, for example, by civic republicanism. I’m tempted to risk a neologism and wrap all this up as ‘customism’, as the upholding of ‘custom’ is often how this has manifest historically, at least in England (and probably much of the rest of Europe). Achieving ‘consensus’ around local customs was often the attractive stated aim of many historical rural communities, but the processes by which this occurred often cemented the hegemony of one set of usually richer neighbours over their less fortunate fellows, of men over women, and of the older over the younger.

      I therefore agree with Chris that explicitly doing politics at a local level is fundamentally important. Notions of good neighbourhood are also very important, and of course we’ll rely on a less formal human kindness in many community relations. But inequities of power and influence between neighbours may well be more insidious precisely because of the greater depth and complexity of the relationships between them.

      • Chris and Andrew,
        I can certainly see the value in small communities working to achieve and maintain political and economic fairness. Perhaps I’ve been living in communities with universities so long I’ve grown accustomed to being around people who value education and tend to be more open-minded. But I take your point about how small rural communities can become exclusive, often ruled by those with the wealth or land ownership or some type of ‘ism (religion often being one type).
        Local customs seem like a natural phenomenon, people tend to follow routines and assume its the “right” way of doing something. But I am reminded of the story about baking ham.
        A group of women gathered to cook the annual church dinner. As they watched each other working in the kitchen several noticed that a woman cut the butt (part of the leg shank) off the ham before putting it in the pan to bake. They asked her why she did this. She replied “I don’t know. My mother always did.”
        When she got home she called her mother and asked why she used to cut the butt off the ham. Her mother replied “I don’t know your grandmother always did.” Fortunately grandmother was still alive and when asked why she cut the butt off the ham she replied “Because my roasting pan was too short”.
        Sometimes customs and beliefs go unquestioned even when their usefulness may be long past. So it’s good to question our thinking, which I believe tends to occur as people explore new places and meet new people. It also occurs when we read books well into adulthood. Small rural communities may find it difficult to maintain a school and library, so perhaps we need to think about how we maintain this aspect of civilization.

      • Good point. I think ‘customism’ is to some extent unavoidable in a small farm society and it has its upsides as I suspect many people commenting here would agree – but I also agree with you that it has downsides. For me, an ideal scenario would honour the reproduction of local farm cultures but would create entry and exit routes for people wanting to join the farming life from non-farm origins and people wanting to quit it from farming origins – and it would do its politics with a modernist-rationalist element rather than with the more patrimonial or patron-client approach typical of historic small farm societies. More on this soon. Also, I’m just reading Robert Netting’s brilliant (though not that recent) book ‘Smallholders, Householders’ at the moment, which furnishes numerous detailed examples of the dilemmas of small farm society.

        • Chris,
          Small farms are going to need lots of labor! So being open to the idea of people entering the community with no experience but a willingness to work hard, is a good idea. Internships currently serve that function and allow people to learn from those more experienced.
          It would also be important to cultivate care for the aging population of the community. At some point resources will make it necessary to care for elders at home rather than in nursing homes. Shouldering and sharing that burden could be an important part of community effort.

      • Thanks both. Jody, I think you’re absolutely right bout the value of education, open-mindedness and remembering to question things (though working in a university I suppose I would say that!) – and this all feeds nicely into Chris’ ‘modernist-rationalist’ politics.

        Chris, I suppose the great thing about a neologism is that you can define it how you like. So, just as ‘nationalism’ is less about administering something like the NHS around a national framework, and more about appeals to nationhood for some exclusivist political purpose, I hereby suggest that ‘customism’ is more about appealing to custom for exclusionary reasons, and less about the value of structuring aspects of local life around customs of one form or another. The important point is that customs can be challenged when deemed appropriate by any member of the community.

        Indeed, I wonder if ‘honouring local farm culture’ is something best done by giving its different elements the explicit endorsement of approval within inclusive deliberative assemblies. Or even by the ‘honourable retirement’ of some customs after such deliberation has deemed them no longer fit for purpose.

  16. Chris,
    “Robert Netting’s brilliant (though not that recent) book ‘Smallholders, Householders”. Thanks for the book recommendation. I perused the intro on Amazon and liked what I saw so placed an order. I found this statement very interesting.

    …no one knows the answers accurately until you do the numbers. Moreover, unlike norms or ethical principles or aesthetic judgments, quantitative measures of behavior are not part of people’s collective consciousness. Though individuals can and assuredly do make economic decisions about market exchanges, stored food, and labor expenditures, they generally do so without bookkeeping and exact calculations. They have little way of estimating changes in social behavior at the group level; indeed, there may be a vested interest in asserting a somewhat spurious cultural continuity and the strength of tradition. Statistical representation of decline in fallow, an increase in age-specific female fertility, or a process of polarization in household incomes is not information that is available for people to apprehend or incorporate into their stock of cultural meanings. But these trends and changing relationships affect systems of farming, labor, and landholding, and they can be analyzed by the observer using the quantitative methods of practical reason.” Netting, pp. 5-6.
    Isn’t that the truth! Numeracy is as valuable as literacy. Far too often people prefer to remain ignorant of the real count, whether it’s calories, energy use, or climate change. Although I suffered through two years of calculus I can’t say I retained much and to me most mathematics are a foreign language! But I do love the basics of simply measuring things, collecting and analyzing data. It’s amazing what we can learn.

  17. Chris wrote, “I’m interested in any examples people can furnish of how small farm societies either resisted or succumbed to nationalist or nativist ideologies.” The example of rural America in the 1890s and early 1900s might be of interest.

    ‘With the passage of the Emergency Quota Act in May 1921 the era of open immigration to the United States came to an abrupt end. The American policy of virtually unrestricted European immigration was transformed, almost overnight, to a quota system that would last, virtually unchanged, until 1965…’

    ‘Because the story of immigration restriction is a legislative one, its main players will be representatives, senators, and presidents. But behind the legislative tale are the shifting interests of various groups…’

    ‘…There is also an important fourth group — rural America, consisting of Yankee farmers as well as agriculturalists having foreign roots. With one important exception, native-born rural America was firmly in the anti-immigrant camp from the very beginning of this story, and their anti-immigrant sentiment goes back to earlier times. This group was one of the major forces that put the issue on the table in the 1890s, and they remained solidly in the anti camp throughout. What shifts did occur in rural America from 1890 to 1920 were a retreat from an open immigration stance among older immigrant groups, such as Germans and Scandinavians in the upper midwestern areas, not a change of heart among the native born. The South provides the exception among rural native-born Americans. Much of the South was in the pro-immigrant camp in the 1890s. But by the early 1900s the South had become a block solidly against unrestricted immigration…’

    The Political Economy of Immigration Restriction in the United States, 1890 to 1921, by Claudia Goldin, 1994

    This made me curious about the average size of farms in the United States in the 1890s, so I checked the census data, and for 1890 the average size was 137 acres, not as small as I expected.

  18. On the topic of doing rather than talking I think this guy has some interesting ideas:

    Decentralising the means of production – ah, what heady joy repeating that phrase so popular in my youth and now so rarely heard – would appear to potentially facilitate various objectives in sustainability and social equity. And it promotes judicious selection from the available technology stack as against a future akin to the scene from Monty Python with “Some loovly mook over ‘ere.” And note that those under-rated philosophers had a titled twit riding past embodying a significant concentration of political and economic power. Great.

    Desktop printing is on the nose with the apocalypterati with some justification although it is incredibly useful in some situations. But desktop manufacturing encompasses a lot more than desktop printing.

    There’s a whole literature about how local economies built solutions in developed nations during the depression and WWII. Local currencies, barter, relocalised manufacturing etc The demand for food, services and goods was still there; it was the clunky economic system that was broken.

    IMO a useful guide to what could be.

  19. Thanks for the further comments. A few responses:

    Yes, it’s easy to romanticise ancient hunter-gatherer lifestyles (or gatherer-hunter lifestyles as my archaeology professor preferred it, from a feminist perspective). It’s also easy to romanticise modern urban lifestyles. But it’s certainly worth trying to understand hunter-gatherer ways of looking at the world, and learning from them. Tim Ingold’s book ‘The Perception of the Environment’ certainly gave me much food for thought on that front.

    Andrew’s point on the possibility of customs being challenged by any member of the community is an interesting one. I sign up to it, of course, on the basis of what I’ve been saying in recent posts, but I think there’s a difficulty inasmuch as the building blocks of small farm societies are, for numerous interesting reasons, almost always families, and families rarely operate like this.

    Interesting comment from Joshua. I’m interested in views on private property. If my ownership of my property prevents someone else from owning any property at all, then there’s some clear potential for inequity there. But if it doesn’t?

    And likewise interesting comment from Eric on population overshoot. But how do we define it? Overshoot relative to what?

    Thanks to Steve for the 1890s US example. Where does it fit in the spectrum? The Brexit mantra in the UK over the last couple of years, for example, has been “it’s not racist to talk about immigration”. Maybe not – though a lot of the talk about immigration certainly has been racist in practice. Still, I can imagine a farmer’s party being opposed to liberal immigration policy without buying into ethnic nationalism. Any thoughts?

    And talking of talking, thanks for those links David – very interesting. I guess I’d say that much depends on where different people think the crunch points lie in constructing just and sustainable future societies. If you think the problem is in how to create cooperative workshops or farm enterprises, you might put your energies there and dismiss more abstract discussions about political structures and political identities as so much hot air. But for my part, I think figuring out the local work structure is the easy part. The difficult part is in figuring out the wider political structures and identities (or accounting for their absence), because without that discussions of local autonomy lack any enabling context. For that reason, in this blog I’m putting most of my energy into the wider context. True, it’s just talking. Politics is mostly just talking. But I’m stumped for a different way of doing it.

    So, how to farm is the easy part…but not THAT easy. I took Michael to be critiquing the application of compost, but I see his point about the work that’s behind it…I also see Jody’s point. The dependence of my market garden’s fertility strategy on fossil fuels, for example, doesn’t bother me too much, because so long as we’re living in a society that expects to buy lettuces at 50p a pop it’s what’s going to happen. But it bothers me when farming styles that work like this as detritivores of capitalism’s excrement are billed as somehow its successor. All I’d say is that it’ll be a lot easier for me to transition out of fossil fuel dependence with my farming style than it will be for most of the farmers farming the fields around me.

    I also (pretty much) agree with Michael on C and N autonomy…but I’m not so sure about most of the other elements necessary for plant growth, a question that was batted around on this site a few weeks ago.

  20. Chris asked, ‘…the 1890s US example. Where does it fit in the spectrum? The Brexit mantra in the UK over the last couple of years, for example, has been “it’s not racist to talk about immigration”. Maybe not – though a lot of the talk about immigration certainly has been racist in practice. Still, I can imagine a farmer’s party being opposed to liberal immigration policy without buying into ethnic nationalism. Any thoughts?’

    Judging by some reports from 1901 (cited below), it looks like a mixed bag concerning farmers and their desires about immigration. Whether further immigration is welcomed (or not) by farmers evidently depends on local factors, the most obvious being availability of labor, but some preferences are nonetheless expressed regarding ‘the better class” of immigrants and ‘the right sort’ of foreigners.

    Some related snippets from the 1901 book, supposedly representing the the attitudes of farmers of various states:

    ‘There are good opportunities for immigrants in this State; farmers gladly welcome them. Germans are found to be the best farmers. They are especially successful in the use of intensive methods…’

    Went Virginia
    ‘In all of the counties heard from (too few and scattering to represent the State as a whole) there are almost no foreign farmers or farm laborers, no desire is expressed for their coming, and there are said to be no opportunities for English speaking immigrants.’

    ‘Farmers favor the influx of the right kind of foreigners into the State. Foreign farmers on the whole are more successful than the natives, owing to skill in intensive methods. Germans are found most effective as farmers and farm laborers…’

    ‘There are capital opportunities for immigrants, and farmers favor their incoming. Germans are the most effective farmers, surpassing the native born, owing to their use of intensive methods…’

    ‘There are better opportunities for immigrants than ever before. Farmers do not oppose the influx of foreigners. As general farmers or farm laborers, Germans are more effective. For truck gardening, Italians seem to take the lead. Foreign farmers, by their thrift economy and use of intensive methods, succeed in many cases where the native born fail.’

    New Hampshire
    ‘Representative farmers heard from do not generally encourage the incoming of foreign immigrants. Where Swedes and Poles are employed however they seem to be liked…’

    ‘Farmers as a class would not favor the further influx of foreigners into the State…’

    ‘There are greater opportunities for immigrants than in past years… Farmers favor the coming in of the better class of foreigners…’

    ‘Most of the Irish of the second generation are farming for themselves or have gone into other employment so that Italians Swedes and Poles are coming in to perform field labor. The Swedes and Poles and better class of Italians are satisfactory. Farmers do not object to the incoming of foreigners of the right sort…’

    New Jersey
    ‘Germans and Danes are said to be the best farm laborers. Hungarians and Italians are also employed… Farmers would not object to the incoming of a good class of immigrants…’

    ‘Opportunities for foreign immigrants are good as agricultural labor is very scarce. Farmers would favor further immigration… The sugar beet industry gives good opportunity for foreign laborers, Germans, Poles, and Russians are found most effective as laborers in the sugar beet fields…’

    ‘There are good opportunities for immigrants but farmers as a class would oppose a further influx of foreigners. Germans are found most effective as farmers…’

    North Dakota
    ‘Population in this State is still very sparse,affording good opportunity for new settlers. Farmers would decidedly favor the incoming of foreign immigrants…’

    ‘There are good opportunities for immigrants, and farmers would make them welcome. The nationalities found most effective in farming are Germans, Bohemians, Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes. The success of foreign farmers, as a rule, is greater than that of the native born, owing to their lower standard of life and greater thrift. The State encourages immigration through publication of information regarding the resources of the State…’

    Reports of the Industrial Commission on Immigration, Volume 15, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1901

    (Some of the statements in this government publication from 1901 would be considered quite offensive today.)

  21. I guess what I’ve been working towards – and reading Chris’s blog had been a great help in this regard – is a better understanding of how the nexus between sustainability, politics, economies and technology works. My understanding is better than it was 5 years ago but I suspect remarkably lacking compared to folks who specialise in that study. I don’t think progress on these topics can be made without having a crack at doing something and I’m quite convinced that the technologies deployed will have a strong impact on what can be done. But obviously discussion about what structures have existed, what were their good points, what didn’t work etc is required to identify what is achievable and what is important.

    If I had time I’d like to work this up although again I suspect this topic has been hammered in academia.

    I’ve just been at an interesting meeting with a bunch of investors who are interested in holistic sustainability solutions. They’ve picked up on some work I’ve done as being of interest in that regard. I don’t think the issue is lack of technology, the need for unicorn horn or unobtainium. I think what we need is templates for social/organisational/economic/political structures and the tech level they could use. And running trials to see what works and what doesn’t. But that’s my two bob’s worth. Whether it’s helpful or not I dunno.

    • ‘I’ve just been at an interesting meeting with a bunch of investors…’

      Okay, I’ll take the bait (third time’s a charm).

      Investors, by definition, are trying to take more out (from a project, or a community) than they put in. Investment income is, by definition, unearned income. Investments in technological ‘solutions’ sounds like more of the same kind of thinking that created the problems. The ‘small farm future” that I envision involves farmers who earn their income, and who put back in (to the soil, to the community) what they take out.

      • “Investors, by definition, are trying to take more out (from a project, or a community) than they put in.”

        It may seem like that in the current system, Steve, but that’s because the current system defines money and ownership rights in ways which put control over essential resources into the hands of a minority. In a healthier system there would still be cycles of surplus and shortfall that people would want to balance, and there would still be pioneers wanting to try things – things which might fail – for which they need more resources than they currently have themselves.

        Of course, in a healthy system there’d need to be fair allocation of land rights, and the medium of exchange would have to lose value if it was taken out of circulation by private holders. But as long as nobody had the power to hold essential resources hostage, ‘investors’ would just be people looking for a way to time-shift taking out what they’ve put in, being prepared to risk losing it in exchange for a share in someone else’s venture.

        In the current system, there are obviously a lot of people who do try to take out more than their fair share but, personally, I see no reason to presume that everybody with spare funds is like that.

    • I agree with Steve. I’ve been reading “Killing the Host” by Michael Hudson and I’m beginning to understand much clearer how the financial sector damages economic activity by raking off unearned income, concentrating wealth in the hands of a few. Debt is the main reason that governments continue to promote economic growth at any cost.
      As wealth concentrates in fewer hands this small percentage of people use their money to infiltrate government in order to deregulate, reduce tax on themselves, and force the majority into austerity where people have no hope of paying off their debt. A middle class will still have some who are better off than others but the gap between rich and poor is much narrower.
      I was born into a middle class family, and I learned the value of hard work, saving money, and frugality. Many of my generation were able to work our way through college and find good paying jobs. Those who continued to spend less than they earned and save money were able to pay off home mortgages and save for their children’s college. But the message of the 80’s and 90’s was all about easy credit, borrow and we can “have it all now”. Far too many families fall into the trap of debt, and the outcome has been the loss of a middle class.
      I don’t think young people today can do what we did. Jobs pay too little and cost of living is too high. I agree David, that there is a “stack” of technology that could help us in the transition towards a more sustainable future. For example, investing in LED’s, insulation, better windows and doors reduces home energy costs allowing someone to reduce costs and invest in solar or wind energy. Buying renewable energy secures several decades of energy for your home and reduces dependence on utility companies. Retirement on a fixed income isn’t as bad when utility costs are already paid. Combine that with growing a bit of fresh food, eating mostly vegetarian, staying healthy and avoiding chronic disease, suddenly we can live well on very little income. Doing so also reduces our dependence on industrial agriculture, food manufacturing, and healthcare industries.
      I think a “small farm future” will mean that everyone needs to get used to hard physical work and living frugal, simpler lives. But the only way to get there is stay out of debt as much as possible and to measure wealth and success differently.

      • Steve and Jody make good points – but I guess I line up a bit closer to Malcolm’s thought… there are various types of ‘investors’ populating our world. Not all are out to reap what other’s sow.

        I imagine the funds I’ve spent to purchase and operate my small farm as an investment. I could just as easily have purchased shares in some multi-national business with a view to use proceeds to feather a retirement nest. Acknowledging there are risks in either approach, and the notion I have at least some familiarity with the ins and outs of farming in the American midwest, I elected to go with the land.

        Now I will readily admit that I’m not farming for the mere pleasure of saying so… and I try to manage the land for both near term return and long term productivity. So I am buying crop insurance, carefully employing herbicides and fertilizers, keeping as much cover on the soil as practical, and paying attention to market conditions to purchase inputs and market production. In essence, this is a business with taxes and reporting to local and national agencies with the authority to expect such. It is an investment of capital, time and effort. It is also a collaboration with Mother Nature. If rains come in a timely manner, if the deer don’t eat too much, and if the market doesn’t smite me then I can sell the production for more than the cost going into it.

        The fact that I have both a working input and a capital input seems a bit worth noting for our discussion, but I would also lay out a similar argument if my only input were from the capital side of the equation. The capital I have to make this investment was from savings accrued over time (frugality with wages).

        Like so much of what we lay out in the conversation here, I expect context has something to offer when ‘investor’ is used to indicate a person’s role in an operation.

        • ‘I imagine the funds I’ve spent to purchase and operate my small farm as an investment.’

          I have no qualms about this type of investment, essentially self-investment. Jody mentions other examples such as investing in LED light bulbs and solar energy for one’s home. The returns on such investments aren’t sent elsewhere. And I favor public banks and credit unions instead of privately owned banks for similar reasons.

          ‘The capital I have to make this investment was from savings accrued over time (frugality with wages).’
          Kudos for earning your capital and avoiding debt.

          • Oops… if I insinuated that I made the whole purchase with savings I messed up. My stake in the capital end of it is the down payment and an equity stake sufficient to attract a loan to finance the remainder. On the matter of credit/public banks/credit unions I am conflicted. In principal I’m very much on your side Steve, but one of my brother’s makes a living as a banker. In his world, much as in other walks of life, there are wolves, sheep and shepherds. He aspires to help borrowers and savers both and as such I see him in the role of shepherd. But wolves will eat shepherds as quickly as the sheep if given half a chance. So commercial banking is not for the feint of heart.

            Debt finance fascinates me on a different level. As a biologist by training I come to capital markets more as a sheep than anything (though with a sibling to offer me advice). My wife and I have borrowed over our lifetimes, and as the children of survivors of the Great Depression we paid attention to lessons passed from them. We kept borrowing levels modest and I think we’ve benefited from it.

            I do like the term you use: ‘self-investment’. I think of education along the same lines. Once you’ve completed a compulsory level of education and you come to point where further study can be expensive (in either tuition and/or opportunity cost) then the “investment” becomes fairly stark. But of all the investments I’ve taken on, family and education stand right at the top.

        • Clem,
          Let’s back up a second to define the word invest.
          Webster’s dictionary: invest (transitive verb)
          1 : to commit (money) in order to earn a financial return; 2 : to make use of for future benefits or advantages [she invested her time wisely]

          I think you and I were both using the second definition. To save for the purchase of your farm, or to install energy saving devices to reduce living expenses would qualify as future benefits.
          Financial investors fall under the first definition, and I don’t mean to imply that everyone who is a financial investor is predatory. However, many investment bankers and venture capitalists are increasingly moving in that direction.
          I would define predatory lending as providing a loan knowing the recipient is unlikely to be able to afford repayment. The only reason this happens is because investment companies are bundling bad loans into derivative “products” they sell and letting someone else take the loss when the loans fail.

          • Oh I’m fine with your definitions of invest. But I’m not investing in the farm for the sole sake of sense #2. I do in fact hope to make some profit that might be considered a financial return (sense #1). Further, I think it a tad unrealistic to farm with no expectation of some financial return when the stars align for it.

            I’m not suggesting a financial return is my main goal, but am suggesting that a long string of financial losses is at least a hint that I might better spend my time at some other endeavor. I agree you and I are not too far apart on matters of concern for the land, for the warmth felt by culturing plants (and animals) for our benefit and the benefit of the wider world. So sense #2 is the more significant in my value assessment.

            And I also agree with the distaste you describe for the predatory nature of some folks involved in capitalist wealth accretion. The wolves described above. These leeches may argue they add liquidity to the markets. And at some level of Machiavellian behavior there are arguments in their favor. But I’ll retreat entirely to the second sense of ‘invest’ all by itself before I can get my head around deliberately taking from someone who doesn’t realize what they’re into.

            But on the matter of seeking a financial return – for me (not a trained accountant by any stretch) there is a suite of ‘returns’ I realize through the farm investment. There is a spot in my heart that truly enjoys being on the land – outside in the natural world. Now one can argue a farm is not ‘the natural world’ – which I’ll not debate at this point, but I’m much more at peace standing in a field than in a museum or a theater. Having a field of my own is even more appealing. So there is one source of value for me. Earning sufficient income to cover direct costs of production as well as principal and interest payments on a loan adds value (through increase in equity as the loan is paid off). Nurturing the land so that future crop production can trend higher (not ‘mining’ the soil for short term advantage) is also a means to realize some additional value.

            Participating in the commercial realm forces me to appreciate more than the biology of producing my own food. We talk about political futures here at SFF, and I think this is a good thing. But until the future arrives we need to live in the present. With Trump and Brexit…. with wolves and with caring fellow travelers. There is a certain undeniable cache that follows on to making a positive financial return from your efforts.

            So in sum I think we’re coming at this in a fairly similar manner. But I won’t shy from the notion that one of the measures of value accrued from farming a small patch is production of a financial return to capital in the sense of definition #1.

          • ‘But I won’t shy from the notion that one of the measures of value accrued from farming a small patch is production of a financial return to capital…’

            I’m not objecting to that notion, as long as the financial returns stay within the immediate family or community, instead of being taken away by outside investors. Family members will presumably be less demanding than the venture capitalists who structure their deals to take away at least 8 times the money they put into a startup company.

          • Thanks for this little debate, which I’ve followed with interest. Not much to add, except to agree with the position that’s been generally staked out here – it’s best to orient towards the second definition, and put some bounds around the abstraction of money as capital.

          • Clem,
            I’m not talking about the average person of modest means and the type of personal saving and investing you are doing. A lifetime of hard work, thrift, and saving allows a person to invest for their future. What I’m referring to is a difference between reasonable return on investment and excessive (or predatory) return. I think there is such a thing as too much profit especially when unsuspecting people are hurt in the process.
            If a person wants to be greedy that is their business, but if that person’s greed is helped by unfair trading practices, removing regulations to protect the public, or outright deception then society needs to stand up and condemn such behavior.
            If people want to invest their money in risky ventures that is their business. But they stand the risk of losing their money and public funds should not bail them out. I object to bond holders and shareholders who demand full repayment of debt made on risky investments (such as derivatives based on subprime mortgages). The fact that investment companies lied about their safety is criminal and those responsible should have been jailed. Loans made to Greece were not very wise, yet none of the creditors have been willing to take ‘hair cuts’ on them, instead the Banks have forced the country into austerity and is confiscating public resources. If you make a loan and the borrower is unable to pay, you lose your money. That is why risky investments carry higher rates of return.
            What I see happening is the wolves taking over our government regulatory agencies, Central Banks, and other positions in control of public funds. The US government no longer protects citizens from unscrupulous investors. I hope that at least some investors have good enough morals and ethics to do the right thing even when our current US administration is using government for personal gain.

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