Outside the hive

Richard Powers’ The Overstory is a big novel of ideas about humans and the natural world that will keep me thinking long after turning the final page. Here I just want to pick up on one among many of its themes and offer a few brief reflections on it, perhaps as the final curtain to the present trio of posts on collapse.

In response to an episode of (male) violence between strangers, followed by a linked episode of (male) domestic violence, Powers puts this thought into the mind of one of his protagonists: “Humankind is deeply ill. The species won’t last long. It was an aberrant experiment. Soon the world will be returned to the healthy intelligences, the collective ones. Colonies and hives.”

Reviewing the book in The Guardian, Benjamin Markovits wrote “It’s hard not to feel that something slightly antihuman has crept into the philosophy”. Maybe the quotation above is a case in point (and there’s much else in the book that one could use to prosecute Markovits’ view).

But I’d like to press a different line of reasoning. Is humankind deeply ill? I’m not sure that’s so when we think about our species as an aggregate of its individuals. Certainly, there are some ill or alienated people among us who cause a lot of damage. But maybe that’s true of other species. In one study of a seagull colony, almost one in four chicks were eaten by adult birds, the majority by just four individual gulls – one of whom ate his own offspring while allowing a chick he’d stolen and brought back to his nest to survive. Seabird colonies seem rather like human slums, with the majority flocking together because that’s what they need to do to get by, but thereby making themselves vulnerable to predatory violence.

Maybe we’ll get somewhere different if we think about illness at the collective level. The constant refrain of cultural critics down the ages is that present society has lapsed into a sick, decadent or fallen state. And the pushback is often something along the lines of Markovits – that this is an anti-human, or misanthropic or elitist position that maligns the ordinary struggles of everyday people. This kind of trick is often pulled by ‘eco-modernists’ and other peddlers of business-as-usual porn – that theirs is the pro-human position, while any wider cultural critique is mere nihilism or misanthropy. However, the point of cultural critique isn’t to wallow in nihilism, but to diagnose the source of the malaise in order to improve the human condition. So, for me, to talk of humanity’s deep illness isn’t necessarily anti-human. I read the line in Powers’ novel as an invitation to human improvement. And an urgent one, as earth systems collapse around us, threatening our own wellbeing and that of other species.

Yet when I think about how to overcome that human illness and the perturbation in earth systems that it’s causing, I come to a different endpoint to Powers’ character on the matter of healthy intelligences. Because it strikes me that the malaise lies precisely in the way that we have made ourselves over into a hive culture.

The collective intelligence of humanity is that of the social ape, not the hive insect. Maybe the life history that most fits us to thrive is creating our livelihoods as competent, generalist individuals working within small collectivities – families, bands, settlements. Those in turn may be part of larger culture areas, with shared languages and cosmologies and their own inherent ideological tensions, but the arrow of life’s activities is directed at the local specifics of wresting a personal livelihood alongside others in the community.

Yet when I think about modern life, the metaphor of the hive of social insects presents itself. I don’t want to over-press it, because clearly there are differences and the mechanisms aren’t the same. But we’ve created a world with a ruling caste of queens and drones who determine the parameters of our hive, and a multitude of dependent workers who enact it, who are unable to exist independently of it, but who derive small individual benefit from it beyond the fact they no longer have the capacity to exist outside it. Among the social insects, and particularly among the worker majority, that patterning so far as we know seems to create no tension because, genetically and biologically, that’s what they’re built to act out. But it’s not entirely what humans are built to act out, and it strikes me that a lot of our illness (metaphorical and probably actual) – so much frustrated desire, so much ressentiment – may stem from this mismatch between what we’re built to do and what we actually do. Inasmuch as humankind is ill, maybe it’s because we’ve tried to fit ourselves into a collective intelligence, into a hive mind, where we scarcely belong.

Perhaps this too is why so much of the wider biological world has become ill as a result of the human hive. Powers recognizes this elsewhere in his novel: “That’s the scary thing about men: get a few together with some simple machines, and they’ll move the world.” When I lived for a time in the rainforests of British Columbia I was struck by how much of their old growth extent had been levelled by people with fairly rudimentary technologies by today’s standards – manual saws, winches, logging roads – long before the industrialized destruction of chainsaws, forwarders and feller-bunchers had been invented. The secret of that destruction was human social organization, not technological development, and the secret of the social organization was preventing people from making a competent personal livelihood in their own backyards. The militarized, masculine, hive discipline of the logging camp and its analogues is a not a healthy intelligence for humankind.

Again, the pushback against such views always addresses the benefits that humankind has brought to itself through its vast collective organization – modern health and wealth, the plethora of consumer goods on which our contemporary culture dotes, and all the rest of it. But I think we need to stop looking at ourselves in the mirror of the past and liking what we see so much, instead addressing the dramatically dangerous trade-offs that our modern hive intelligence poses for us in the here and now. More importantly, I think we need to address the possibility that a world of human autonomy outside the hive might suit us better.

I was struck by this when I read Maarten Boudry’s response to the critique of his anti-localism article that I published in my last post. Boudry wrote,

“Now of course you can try to satisfy consumer demand in radically different ways (e.g. artificial meat), but you can’t just IGNORE the demand. I get the distinct impression that, in @csmaje’s ideal future, we won’t be able to choose what to eat, nor where to live.”

It surprises me to read such dismissiveness about a supposed future where “we won’t be able to choose what to eat, nor where to live” when so few of “us” in the present world have such choices. But, more importantly, Boudry seems to be assuming that consumer demand is something that just bubbles up sui generis, with economic systems arising to meet it and thereby making “us” happy. I struggle to see this as much more than a delusion from a limited vantage point within the capitalist hive – one that insists we must admire only the intricate architecture within, rather than looking at the bigger world outside, and its universe of different possibilities.

In my forthcoming book, I provide a somewhat less admiring appraisal of the capitalist hive, and an alternative narrative about the search for human self-possession and autonomy that might make us seek a different habitat from choice as much as necessity. So I reject Boudry’s implication that I seek to coerce people into my ‘utopia’ (oh well, at least he didn’t mention the Khmer Rouge). I think people can easily find fulfilling localisms for themselves, given the opportunity. Nor, I suspect, will consumer demand lead in the future quite where Boudry thinks. The two main businesses in which I have some involvement – a small, local market garden and a small campsite – have been inundated with customers since the Covid-19 outbreak as a result of the fracturing of the larger economic structures it caused. In the short-term, that fracturing may or may not diminish, but in the long-term I think it will prove the merest tremor to the changes that are afoot. ‘Consumer demand’ will follow.

For these reasons, I think I absolutely can ignore consumer demand in its present incarnation. Instead, let me herald producer demand. Let everyone occupy their 1.6 acre share of global farmland, then raise as much (non-artificial) livestock for meat as they possibly can, should they wish. It’ll turn out to furnish them with much less meat than the average North American or Western European currently eats, but the living animals will do a lot of other useful work on the farm. And I’m not sure the producers will be significantly less happy than the average consumer in today’s world. The difficulty is the transition from today’s consumerism to that future producerism, not the lure of the producerist endpoint.

The journalist Rafael Behr writes in a different (but related context):

“People are perfectly able to understand the concept of a painful trade-off because they occur in life all the time. All but the most privileged minority are forced to choose between what they want and what they can afford. All but the most selfish among us understands the need sometimes to suppress selfish impulses in favour of duty towards others. There are only a few who find that concept challenging.”

I might go further and argue that accepting painful trade-offs can make us happy, and part of our contemporary illness is in supposing otherwise – often at the behest of the few who think that selfish impulses lead to collective benefit (there’s a whole sub-theme here on virtue versus vice as the motive force of collective intelligence that we could pursue through intellectual history from Bernard Mandeville to E.O. Wilson – but let’s leave that for another day).

Boudry calls future producerist visions of the future such as mine a ‘pipedream’. He’s probably right. As I see it, every positive vision of the future now is more or less a pipedream, certainly including his notion that we should “retreat to a smaller area and “decouple” from the landscape, so that we can give as much land as possible back to nature”. All I’ll say here is that there are increasing numbers of people who have started to look outside the hive and find pipedreams like mine more appealing than pipedreams like Boudry’s. This is just as well, because I think the future is more likely to look like my pipedream than his.

Well, perhaps I’ll say just one more thing. There’s a gender dimension to this discussion that I haven’t highlighted, but I think is interesting. The violence investing the moments of Richard Powers’ novel was male, and so perhaps is the violence that’s invested the construction of our contemporary human hive. Powers’ ‘healthy, collective intelligences’ of colonies and hives, on the other hand… Well, it’s only a thought.

44 thoughts on “Outside the hive

  1. When you say the arrow of life’s activities is directed at the local specifics of wresting a personal livelihood alongside others in the community. … although the language is very different, the thrust is very similar to David Fleming. (Or at least any difference is of no significance to me as regards what I take from it …)

    Also … “demand”. It’s a tricksy word. Economists use it as a technical term – yet it also has an everyday meaning with a strong emotional force. The two words are almost never distinguished – and “demand” is constantly used as a rhetorical sleight. When strawberries first become available year-round in supermarkets, (a very long time ago), yes I bought them (only once because they were pretty tasteless). That purchase was a teeny part of “consumer demand”. But in list of “things I’d demand to make my life better”, strawberries in December feature absolutely nowhere – I certainly was no “demanding” them.

    [ok, getting my comments in before the rush]

  2. Advertising
    Thats my pet peeve , trying to sell people things they dont want for more than it is ever worth , mobile phones that we managed without for centuries are now derigeur , ( dont have one dont need one ) .
    Running faster toward distruction egged on by new shiny things that have little use and end up in landfill .
    The nuclear family used to be the center of the human world for centuries now it just stands in the way of earning money to buy more shiny things , kids are a incumberance standing in the way of spending MY money on what I want , handing down your geenes to the next generation no longer matters just shiny tat and adding to the bottom line of your corporate employers .
    Humans are like social insects but with far fewer numbers , the extended family used to be the way people lived reaching out to around two hundred people so i am told, a tribe , you knew and trusted but you cant sell junk to a tribe only individuals so the tribe must be denergrated and so distroyed .

  3. Well thought, Chris.

    One of the things that I love about living with honeybees is precisely that they are so totally not human. It is impossible to anthropomorphize them—if you are paying attention.

  4. A little off topic, but I couldn’t help thinking about the herculean task you have set for yourself in attempting to nudge society in the face of a constant barrage of objection from people like Boudry:

    When the concept “this is the best of all possible worlds” came up in a college philosophy class, the importance of Leibniz’s phrase was dismissed by most of us as just another affirmation of determinism. Since this is the only possible world, the end result of a myriad of causes and effects that include all of the interactions of the living and non-living world, it can’t help but be the best world (and worst for that matter).

    But most people act as though they have free will and, even though I know better, I join in and always act as though I have at least a little agency. Sometimes the illusion is so powerful, as when dramatic life changes are decided upon and then come to fruition, that I even believe it.

    On the other hand, since the unfolding of human events is so often contrary to common sense and even a modest bit of good judgement, it must be that most everyone actually is “ill” or at least a helpless captive of forces beyond their control. Why else would we continue doing so many stupid things? Is it really impossible to persuade people that we denizens of the “capitalist hive” are really screwing things up big time?

    I guess this is just a long-winded way of saying, “Keep up the good work, Chris”. If even a handful of people take your vision to heart and make even tentative steps toward creating a more sustainable society, your efforts will not have been in vain. Modernists/capitalists, like Ronald Reagan and Maarten Boudry, always hold out that “shining city on a hill” to tempt us. I like your vision of “a misty little farm in a valley” much better. I think more people will, too, as time goes on.

  5. I don’t think of humanity as ill, but rather as maladapted for the environment which we have created.

    Back during the great oxygenation event, cyanobacteria started a new craze. Anaerobes were rather put out by these upstarts cranking out that nasty poisonous oxygen. The ecosystem was put in turmoil, and many organisms died. The reindeer on St. Matthews Island had evolved in conjunction with predators, and so in this new environment, there was no balance, so their population crashed. There are other other examples of invasive species or step changes in organism evolution that disrupted temporary equilibriums ( things are never static).

    I often fault our current troubles on fossil fuels, and it’s true that they have been a huge multiplier, but as you point out, we were plenty disruptive even before that. Our tool making, collaborating, and knowledge sharing are the magic potion that has caused us to change from a simple tropical primate to a global ecosystem disrupter. This combination has disconnected us from normal feedback loops and we now are in an environment where we are our own greatest threat.

    While there are packs, and herds, and pods of other mammals, humans have taken cooperative behavior to another level, but a hive of generalists is a new thing that is maybe very early in its evolution, or may well be a dead end strategy.

    Some sci fi stories have been written about a future when humans are no longer generalists, but part of a hive mind, with specific roles like ants in an ant colony.

    I haven’t read as much E.O. Wilson as I should, but I wonder what the earliest ants were like before they became a super organism?

    Maybe we are a struggling protomammalhivemind , and will have a very interesting future, well beyond the small farm near future. ( naked mole rats are eusocial, but we have big brains, so not the same).

    to wax philosophically, de Chardin’s noosphere might even be at work.
    In the mean time, what a mess we’ve made………

  6. Boudry says demand can’t be ignored, but demand can certainly be stimulated by marketing and advertising, and inflated with artificially low prices resulting from externalized costs, subsidies, and legislation which favors certain producers.

    “Consumer demand” is such an important aspect of the hive culture, and members of the hive are regularly manipulated by social media, corporate media, and politicians. Living “outside the hive” may be difficult for some to imagine (including Boudry), since it runs counter to the 24/7/365 programming.

  7. Thanks Chris.

    I can think of almost nothing more depressing than a Huge Slum Future.

    People who propose to “decouple” from the landscape seem to promote the idea that those dense urbanites will be happy and rich.

    Doesn’t population density correlate with wealth inequality? Have none of these people actually been on the streets of New York City?

    It is well to remember that capitalism is a powerful tool, like a chainsaw, that was invented by humans for a particular purpose: the amassing of monetary wealth. It has been remarkably effective to that end.

    I can’t remember where I read this, but I believe it is true: “Wealth is poverty with the signs reversed.”
    That is, for any one person to be rich – which is always a relative measure – they must accumulate more than the mean. They must make some other people poor.

    So we should recognize “the few who think that selfish impulses lead to collective benefit” for what they are; simpletons.
    However I don’t believe that the majority of people who say things like “Greed is good” truly believe it. I think they just say that so they can grab more stuff.

    I like your distinction between the Hive and the Band of social apes. Which also maps to egalitarianism. And I think that this is an effective way of describing the ‘illness’ among we social apes.
    We have all heard stories about ordinary people working together when disaster strikes and the authorities cannot help. This, I believe is our true humanity. You say “painful trade-offs can make us happy, and part of our contemporary illness is in supposing otherwise”. Or put another way, working together for the common benefit makes us happy, and working alone to maximize our own personal wealth is a symptom of a disease that will make us miserable.

    So while heralding producer demand, can we imagine a society of producers who work together, not feeling the need to work harder than to supply the needs of themselves and their neighbors? Your Small Farm Future, with cottage industries. Where then are the consumers? What are their demands?

    It sounds like a nicer pipe dream than the (present & future?) high tech & hierarchy. Which, as you say, most of us no longer have the capacity to exist outside of.

    But as I noticed today, riding my bike around the pleasant city that I live in, what is the use of living in a city if we are prevented by plagues from interacting with strangers in any meaningful way? We might as well live dispersed on the land in our small family units, and get together occasionally with our neighbors to socialize and trade produce and labor.

  8. The hive is beyond my grasp for now, so I love the solitary bees more…
    Stimulating as ever, Chris. Complicated! A few discombobulated thoughts in a stolen moment. The internet may be a kind of hive mind yet I feel uncomfortably uncanny firing off my neurons within it. I must be a self-conscious ape after all.
    It’ll be interesting to read what James Lovelock makes of our species’ increasing urbanisation in his forthcoming book. Much as I enjoy his ideas, I don’t share his belief that human populations are evolving toward something closely resembling insect colonies, or that if we are, it’ll be good for us. But maybe all step changes and evolutionary transitions (if that’s what’s occurring) are necessarily awkward and fraught?
    Bees – with or without beekeeper people – do the natural world a service. Swarms of people generally tend to do the natural world a disservice – including imperilling bees, which we’ll find most uncomfortable to live without.
    Convincing people they have the capacity to exist outside the hive seems to require from them a greater leap of faith than blindly believing in multifarious ecomodernist promises to come. Could be there’s a collective wisdom in this that I personally don’t get. I’ve known scores of worker drones who appear mentally healthier than solitary souls who struggle to find their place among scores of worker drones in seemingly rude health. Both camps generally need to tap in from time to time to a brief altered reality through a ‘Health Giving Stimulant’ like Guinness or, more often these days in steroidal cities, something much stronger.
    I agree with Chris it may well best ‘fit us to thrive’ in smaller collectives, yet I shudder at the word thrive, suspicious that this knee-jerk drive can get us deeper into trouble, having no end. How to be content to survive? Or maybe this is what Chris envisages as ‘thriving within limits’. The closer I get to what is often prefixed with “merely” surviving, the more I feel I’m thriving – because of my delusional autonomy, perhaps.
    Accumulation, even through no fault of our own other than sleepwalking through this hyper-capitalist moment we’re born into, comes at a suffocating price. I rephrase the ecomodernist mantra – retreat to a small area (no more than 1.6 acres, less if you can manage it?) and couple with the landscape (it’s so much more intricately beyond us than the architecture of the human hive). And yet… degrowth pairs individual sobriety with societal dépense (I take that to mean its reach through expenditure). Live simply so others can simply live is all well and good, but as the (hoped for) creation of, and jostling for, our supposed little lifeboats increases, I guess we ultimately all go down with the ship. I’ll have to make friends with that thought. Meanwhile, I keep solitary bee-ing.

    • depends where that 1 1/2acres are , day temps are around 100 to 110 degrees here with nights in the 80 ‘s not much grows in that , ocra and black eye peas stand it but mellons are burned off so are tomatoes .
      the usda recomend one cow calf pair to twenty acres , or five goats / sheep .
      depends where the twenty acres are !

      • Parts of France were reaching 110f (42C) last week. I’ve read a handy rule of thumb advising 500kg of beastie per hectare (2.5 acres) of land. Looks like we might be bulking up the calories with a lot of eggs, then.

      • At least you don’t have to heat your house and a black plastic pipe is enough to heat water! Every place has advantages. But yeah, maybe Chris’ 1.6 acres is an average figure. Guess we’ll have to read his book. Or wait for an explanatory comment. 😉

        • I think the figure was the global agricultural land divided among the global population – ie a few acres per family. As for not having to heat the house, true, though an increasing number will want to use energy to cool it. The bunker idea looks rosier by the day.

  9. It is self-evident that you have to sell stuff in order to be successful in the market place, but there is a giant leap from that to the claim that consumers are in charge of the development. We can be quite certain that no consumers were there asking farmers to laze their food with chemicals or manufacturers to dilute their prefab foods with water.
    Even on the side of “good” things, such as organic food it is a myth that it was consumer driven. In Sweden it was initially driven by farmers and by engaged citizens pressurizing shops and politicians to take it up. Then for a while it was the darling of food manufacturers and supermarkets as it presented opportunities to increased margins, Now we see the same with vegan products….

    • We can be quite certain that no consumers were there asking farmers to laze their food with chemicals”
      Nope they want cheap food , there is around a 20% price difrence between organic and comercial food , people will not pay the diffrence .
      I picked two busshels of black eye peas last evening , as a guess 20% were damaged by insects , eaten by grasshoppers , thats ok its for my family use and i accept the loss but people will not buy chewed on produce , i sow more than i need to allow for losses i have the acarage to do that , in a postage stamp garden that you have to rely on you cant stand the loss without going hungry .

  10. Chris, your description of the male violence in the episode of The Overstory and questioning if humanity was ill reminded me of John Calhoun’s 1960’s experiments studying population density in communities of rats and mice. As population density increased the males began to fight, wouldn’t leave the females alone, and social hierarchy broke down. The dominant male could no longer protect a “harem” of mothers and they stopped caring for their young. Eventually the population began to die out and even as density declined the young adults, who had not been raised properly by their mothers, were unable to reestablish normal social behavior.

    Calhoun’s experiments were used as a cautionary tale of human over population. “Calhoun’s experiments, which started with rats in an outdoor pen moved on to mice at the National Institute of Mental Health during the early 1960s, were interpreted at the time as evidence of what could happen in an overpopulated world. The unusual behaviors he observed he dubbed “behavioral sinks.”” https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/how-mouse-utopias-1960s-led-grim-predictions-humans-180954423/

    Interestingly Calhoun’s first experiment was conducted in an outdoor 1/4 acre pen with Norweign white rats and had a very different outcome from his indoor experiments. He placed six pregnant females in the pen to start the population and sized the enclosure to hold 5,000 rats. He provided ample food, water, and nesting materials and controlled predators expecting population to continue growing. Interestingly the rat population reached 150 and stopped increasing. In the absence of predators population was kept lower because of higher infant mortality rate. He never understood why infant mortality rates increased other than mothers ‘culled’ their young (which is a very interesting finding in and of itself).

    In the indoor experiment the mice did overpopulate and social order broke down. It is difficult to find the exact details of his methodology but I wonder if Calhoun included antibiotics in their drinking water, which was commonly done in animal studies to controll disease. Today we know more about what happens when animals receive low doses of antibiotics and the effect on gut microbes. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5006193/pdf/pyw020.pdf “Key findings show that the microbiota is necessary for normal stress responsivity, anxiety-like behaviors, sociability, and cognition. Furthermore, the microbiota maintains central nervous system homeostasis by regulating immune function and blood brain barrier integrity. Studies have also found that the gut microbiota influences neurotransmitter, synaptic, and neurotrophic signalling systems and neurogenesis.”

    I wonder if the outcome in Calhoun’s indoor experiments (where mice became violent, stressed, and social order broke down) weren’t perhaps impacted by loss of healthy microbial population in their environment and in their gut? The outdoor rat population were living much as they normally would building tunnels and mounds in the soil, thus exposed to normal microbial population. They had plentiful food and could have over populated but they didn’t. I think animal behavior is far more influenced by microbes than we realize.

    Perhaps when human population is concentrated in urban areas where access to soil, forests, lakes, etc… is limited, when our diet is composed of overly processed food, our microbiome is negatively impacted. When we over use of antibiotics is leads to gut dysbiosis. All of these factors negatively impact our ability to deal with stress and our social behavior reflects the imbalance.

    Perhaps ecologists have the right idea, that a healthy population needs an environment with the necessary carrying capacity that provides us with access to high quality fresh food, clean air and water, and secure habitat. It also depends on the efficient removal of pollution. When any of these conditions are absent, particularly the loss of healthy microbial populations, animals lose their ability to act appropriately and social order also declines. Perhaps this is why smaller rural communities have a better than average ability to provide these conditions.

  11. Thanks Chris, “hive intelligence” and “producer-ism” are interesting concepts to run through a U.S. right/left political lens, with the right firmly against “hive intelligence” (socialism!) in favor of a lone wolf-corporate raider-mighty hunter intelligence (?) instead. I think? Although hive intelligence is ok if it is part of the traditional pacified small-town US landscape – church and family hives, for instance.
    Producer-ism is even more interesting as it really escapes that toxic politics, by being beyond the horizon of both. I like it a lot as a wedge to keep the walls of the right/left from closing in, and for conceptualizing a point of view that is radically distinct, as well as drawing on elements of both the right (autonomy, self-reliance for instance) and the left (social equity). I’m stealing producer-ism! 😉

  12. MIchellle’s comment about small-town US landscapes, with “family hives”, reminded me of the references to a “Small Farm Future” appearing in a USDA study published in 1975.

    “Alternative Futures for U.S. Agriculture” looks at three scenarios: a Supply Management Future, a Maximum Efficiency Future, and a Small Farm Future.

    In the Small Farm Future scenario, “family labor” accounts for 93% of the total farm labor in the projection for 2010 (with the remaining 7% being “hired labor”). In the Maximum Efficiency scenario, family labor amounts to only 38% of the total farm labor in 2010.

    Some highlights:

    “A constrained Small Farm Future, representing the results of policies and programs designed to preserve what might be viewed as a maximum feasible number of farms— a future strongly advocated by those who remain convinced that a large number of small farms preserves social, political, and moral values far outweighing the values of any possible loss in technical efficiency. Each of these futures is projected forward in time to the period when the U.S. population reaches 300 million—approximately the year 2010 for calculating purposes. For each future, the scenarios identify the differences in the key economic and social variables that seem to be of most concern to those engaged in the policy debates…”

    “The Small Farm Future is the most labor intensive, but by the year 2010 employs only about 300,000 more persons than the Maximum Efficiency Future. The principal difference, however, is in the ratio of hired labor to family labor, with the majority of labor in the Maximum Efficiency Future being hired and the majority of labor in the other two being the operator and his family.”

    “The Small Farm Future is most likely to diminish the outflow of population from rural areas and to result in the highest level of economic activity in small rural towns.”

    “The differences between the three futures in per capita consumer food costs are not as great as might be expected. By the year 2010 direct consumer food costs are expected to be only 8 percent of consumer’s dependable personal incomes under all three futures.”

    From the Preface:
    “The technological revolution in U.S. agriculture following World War II generated fundamental structural changes in the farm production system. The dramatic decline in the number of farms, accompanied by a rapid increase in the size of farms, has had far-reaching impacts on the social and political dimensions of rural America, as well as on the economics of food and fiber production.

    “As the pace of change quickened, there were many who viewed with dismay this rapid transformation of the traditional small family-farm system with its (real or imagined) social and moral virtues. Others took a more optimistic view , observing that family-owned and operated farms remained the basic form of agricultural production even though the total number of farms declined and the family farm itself grew in size.

    “For many years the debate was confined to those closely associated with farming. The rapidly growing urban population, and its political representatives, were indifferent to the claims of the agricultural fundamentalists for the superior moral virtue of small-sized family farms. Given the choice, the Nation implicitly favored the economic advantages to consumers of a technological-intensive agriculture in preference to the ephemeral moral qualities of a labor-intensive dispersed farm system.

    “By the 1960’s, the second-order consequences of the agricultural revolution began to be felt in urban as well as rural communities. Large numbers of low-skilled and poorly educated farm laborers, displaced by rapidly-spreading mechanization, migrated to urban areas in search of often non-existent jobs. The heavy accumulations of persistent pesticides in soil and water exacted an increasingly noticeable toll on wildlife, and was perceived as a danger to human health.

    “The quality of many farm commodities, biologically reengineered to survive mechanical harvesting and transportation, seemed to be declining. More people are less certain now that the economic advantages of the technological revolution clearly outweigh the multiplying disadvantages.

    “So the debate spreads and intensifies. What kind of agriculture should we have? Dr. Don Paarlberg says “we can have any kind of agriculture we want.” But how is the Nation to know what kind of agriculture it should want?”

    Alternative Futures for U.S. Agriculture
    USDA, 1975

  13. Interesting that while social, political and moral issues were considered, sustainability was not mentioned by the study as an attribute of a small farm future. The world had already experienced the first oil shock by the time of publication in 1975. Perhaps that experience had yet to influence the contemporary view of resource availability as being virtually unlimited. On the other hand, Limits to Growth had been published three years earlier.

    How different life would be if almost all farms were still family farms. If farm numbers had followed population trends since the farms peak in 1935 there would now be 16.25 million farms in the US, each averaging about 62 acres. Now there are about 2 million farms averaging 444 acres. Farm population would be around 80 million instead of the actual 3 million.


    Another good snapshot of farm trends in the US:


  14. A few thoughts in defense of postage-stamp gardens.
    Bad weather can be ruinous whatever the acreage, and it is a challenge. Even our village’s food-bearing trees suffered bark damage down to the cambium layer through abrasion by big hailstones, leaving them compromised.
    But the smaller the cabbage patch, the more heightened the awareness. Practically, it’s possible to mulch, for example, whereas getting the biomass and compost for larger acreages might be out of the question.
    Gary Nabhan’s Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land lists various arid-adapted practices: Mexican beans feature heavily, but strategies including catching runoff, succulent-edged terracing, irrigating via clay pots in situ, reducing heat stress through shading trees (another overstory?), increasing humus levels in soil, intercropping quick-maturing varieties in polycultures, seed-saving from arid-adapted landraces and getting other local growers involved all feature. But yes, the brutal heatwaves and the special effects cloud-tank stormy skies are killer. Heck, it even reached 100F in the Arctic this year.

  15. Apologies for my silence since posting. I had to spend a couple of days offline, unexpectedly. The horror.

    As ever, a magnificent collage of perpsectives among the comments that I can’t do justice to in reply. And much to agree with among them. So I’ll just pick up on a few specifics that particularly caught my eye.

    – Yes, I believe I am increasingly resembling a latter-day David Fleming, despite my initial coolness towards some of his positions.

    – Big Slum Future as a counterpoint to Small Farm Future works for me. The ecomodernists have a romantic vision of urbanism as the sunlit epitome of human wellbeing, but it never really looks like that on the ground. Rural romanticism is problematic too, but is given much shorter shrift nowadays, allowing the romanticism of the urban to thrive. There’s a chapter in my book ‘The Country and the City’ that examines these issues.

    – Of consumerism and thriving. Much of interest here from Eric and Simon. This is probably getting repetitive already, but there’s a chapter in my book (‘From religion to science (and back)’) where I work through some of these issues and discuss why consumerism might not be as insurmountable an obstacle to low impact agrarianism as we sometimes think, and how we might ‘thrive’ renewably.

    – Acreages. Yes, 1.6 acres is the current global average farmland per capita. Simplistic, but thought-provoking. Of course, in some places you’ll need more and in others less. And indeed there are other issues affecting farmability, chief among them water. To put it bluntly, there are a lot of people across the US west who ought to be very careful what they say about the evils of migration simply out of self-interest, quite apart from loftier moral considerations.

    – Microbiome. Thank you, Jody. This seems to be an emerging area of attention. I’d be interested in any further comments…

    – Hive politics. I understand the political terrain that Michelle is charting in the right’s association between hives and the left. As someone inclined to left libertarianism (or left libertarian agrarian populist civic republicanism, to be precise) I’d argue that overcoming a left/right hive/autonomy homology is a key battle to be won, rather than the present battles where people violently assert their libertarian autonomist right not to wear a mask and then … go to the mall to buy the exact same 57 varieties of crap as everyone else. Then Michelle gets right to the heart of it when she talks about “the traditional pacified small-town US landscape – church and family hives”. This is where my overlaps and dissonances with David Fleming start revving up. Inevitably, there’s a book chapter here – ‘Households, families and beyond’ – which is probably the part of the book where I feel most torn. I’ll be interested in reactions to it.

    – The USDA small farm study. I wish I’d been onto this earlier (a way of saying, reluctantly, that there isn’t in fact a book chapter on this). Thanks Steve. I must take a look.

    • Chris,
      If you have time I recommend this video lecture by Walter Jehne on restoring the soil carbon sponge. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=123y7jDdbfY It may have been someone on your blog that first brought this lecture to my attention. What he is describing is the simple process of increasing carbon in soil and all the benefits that unfold. Of course adding carbon to soil also requires a healthy microbial population.
      I often think of what I do making compost as being a farmer… of microbes. I provide them with food and water, give them the right conditions to thrive and they create soil in which plants thrive. Once the soil food web is thriving the insects, birds, amphibians, and reptiles thrive. When I stopped applying lawn chemicals, added compost to the flower and garden beds, and mulch every year…it’s amazing how much life returns. Nature begins to heal itself. I also think working in soil, caring for plants and animals, improves our mental state.
      This is why I believe that small diversified farms dotting the landscape, supporting rural communities that thrive with small businesses is the best solution I can think for humanity.

  16. I find the idea of ‘hive politics’ thought-provoking here. I take from this that to be in the hive is to submit collectively to the ritualised demands of the community. Coercing people into the hive is thus a strategy of control employed by those who stand outside it, a kind of metaphor for the de-politicised ‘economic’ space created by capitalists to enforce their own ideology.

    Of course there are other possible hives, and I think the idea of ‘family’ hives in particular might be usefully considered equally sinister. Breaking free from whatever hives one has been forced into places one in political space of one kind or another, and it’s an interesting question as to whether the employment of hives becomes increasingly prevalent as the scale of political structures increases. We’re all interested in ‘planned’ economies of one kind or another here, but who gets to do the planning, and whether such planning can actually be done democratically in larger groups, remain open questions. It’s easy to conceive of a capitalist ‘mass hive’ in our modern world, but it’s also worth keeping an eye out for smaller hives maintained within more economically dispersed societies, such as patriarchal families.

    Not sure these thoughts are really going anywhere, but perhaps you might consider boosting the popularity of a small farm future by developing a Neo-peasant movie, The Hive, starring Keanu Reeves…

      • Not so fast. Didn’t David Lynch make a feature film using little other than a smartphone?
        I can see lots of flickering lightbulbs, sinisterly-lit pitchforks and people thriving renewably.
        Seriously though, I like the ‘thriving renewably’ idea. Try prefixing that with “merely” – it just doesn’t work.

  17. Interesting post —
    Thanks for writing this, Chris. I’ve been concerned about the frequent current comparisons of humans to bees and ants for some time. This is essentially, as you say, a collectivist view of humanity. The consequences are that humans tend to get reduced to fit into rigid social roles (‘castes’ at worst.) Aldous Huxley wrote about exactly this problem in his non-fiction companion to Brave New World (Brave New World Revisited). He saw it as a consequence of overpopulation and over organisation. IMO, technology plays a crucial role here. Smartphones and intense connectivity have produced conditions to accelerate a culture-wide and mostly unconscious move to collectivism, where individual needs are sublimated to the needs of often aggressively antagonistic tribes. New forms of Maoism thrive in these conditions and humans deeper needs remain unmet. This is why, like Huxley and yourself, I tend towards decentralism as a solution. With modifications, I’d like to live in the kind of society he depicts in Island….

  18. Whether we make a movie (and I’m with Simon here… geeky intellectuals can make movies too) or we move off onto islands in isolation… we all remain on one planet, in one biosphere… eventually the consequences of some severity travel planet wide. Take a fish bowl… one is either a fish on the inside or an observer on the outside. The fish have an immediate bias concerning how to deal with their situation, if/when things go sideways… An observer has the luxury to walk away. The only observers here might be Martians, the rest of us are inside the bowl.

    Violent volcanism and enormous asteroid strikes have the potential to reign us all in. The consequences of other “sideways” moves, those we inflict upon ourselves, are the things we can prevent, avoid, or delay. And we’re still learning about the consequences of our actions. Enormous fires burning in the US West – made worse because we’ve tried to intervene in the natural fire cycles… looks pretty dumb in the rear view mirror. Acid rain. Love Canal. Chernobyl. Not our finest moments.

    Matt observes:
    Smartphones and intense connectivity have produced conditions to accelerate a culture-wide and mostly unconscious move to collectivism

    But rather than assigning agency to an electronic device (“produced”) – I’d argue the acceleration in culture-wide (even planet-wide) moves are ‘facilitated’ by our gadgets. We still have to own our missteps and mistakes.

    Using a smartphone, I’ve made a few movies. Nothing headed for Cannes unfortunately. They’re really just curiosities for this old gray curmudgeon fascinated with another bauble of modern tech. But this advance in tech can increase the room in which our imaginations wander. If all the geeky intellectuals with smartphones made some micro movies of their small farm… and they sewed them together… who knows? Nothing ventured…

    • If all the geeky intellectuals with smartphones made some micro movies of their small farm….

      Sorry, we already know. Just search for “small farm” on YouTube and you’ll get a chance to watch 64,500,000 micro movies. YouTube will even stitch them together for you, or at least play them one after another ad infinitum.

  19. Couple of links that might be of interest to anyone weighing up photovoltaics.
    Sunflare.com claim the ‘greenest’ product – a flexible, stick-on photovoltaic they say uses 80 per cent less energy in manufacture (if true this may largely be down to using no glass cover or aluminium frame).
    More interesting is the jump in efficiency promised by using perovskite:

  20. Thanks for the further comments. I’m a little distracted with other things just at the moment but I’ll be back here soon, I hope. Meanwhile, links to your small farm movies are gratefully received.

  21. A dehiving culture- Acknowledging the above, how does one step out of the hive? Humans transmit culture from generation to generation, and if the culture is short sighted, or “sick”, but very successful in the short term use of resources it will continue until it can’t. And it will choke out any alternative culture. The last few hunter gatherer cultures are quickly disappearing, thought they want to be left alone.

    Maybe now I better understand why all the “hippie communes” and attempts to return to the garden of the sixties and seventies, were not successful. Seeing and creating an alternate culture is one thing, making one that will transmit and continue in the next generation is another.

    Even now, better understanding the oncoming corrective, small farms or other ways of dialing it back face powerful obstacles of economic dominance.

    I think Chris’ project of transitioning to a small farm future will be less about sustainable food growing techniques but rather how to build and sustain a culture that can withstand the pervasive pressure to conform to the status quo. (and yet survive the economic matrix they must still deal with).

    Monks in their monasteries preserved their culture for hundreds of years of dark ages turmoil through deep belief in the rightness of their religion/culture. What might we learn from that?

    • with the monks there was no where else to go , as a hardscrabble farmer there will n
      be no mobile phones and maybe no net , the costs will be too high . convincing kids this is the new normal while some they know hang on to technology ,it will be a doozy trying to keep them ” down on the farm “.

    • The transmission of culture is the easy part. If the culture that children grow up in provides for their needs and prepares them to be functional adults, they will generally perpetuate the culture rather than leave it.

      The Amish culture is an example of one that does what it needs to do to keep itself going. Even though every young person has the opportunity to leave (is even encouraged to leave) and live in the “English” world for a while, enough of them return to maintain their culture.

      The hard part is creating a new culture in the middle of an old one. A group of parents attempting the creation process are going to have to be very careful to keep their kids separate from the dominate surrounding culture as much as possible, at least until adulthood. If the dominate culture will not allow sufficient separation (child protective services removes the children for their own “protection”) then establishing a new culture will be impossible.

      Even established cultures will be destroyed if the kids are taken away. There were many causes of the destruction of Native American cultures, but child removal programs were surely a significant cause.

      My view is that people are going to have to become small farmers in the midst of the hive. They need to prepare as much as possible for the eventual creation of a new culture while still participating in the “sick” surrounding culture, which, as you note, “will continue until it can’t”. Once that dominate culture can’t go on, a new culture will create itself. There will be no other choice.

      But we still need to keep in mind that there are plenty of small farm cultures out there in the Global South that are still fairly independent of the modern industrial hive. They will have a much easier time making the transition than we small farm hive-dwellers will.

      • Look at the beginings of “free state provided education ” it begins in germany , to provide basic non thinking compliant drones for the prussian military , outside the box thinking was / is banned .

    • Monastic cultures changed quite dramatically across the medieval period, even if the Christian principles they promoted remained similar. I think it’s important to separate the idea of culture from the vision of the world people seek to bring into being through it – Heaven might remain fairly stable, but here on Earth things tend to change pretty regularly.

      I think the kind of human hive Chris describes represents a highly ritualised form of culture – not necessarily in a religious sense, but in that many people conform to an expected way of doing things without thinking too much about it, because they do it everyday, or at least regularly, like a ritual. For example, in our western societies many are in the grip of the 9 to 5 life, and political life is focused on a kind of ritualised engagement with mass voting and the arcane processes that define government procedures.

      Escaping this hive means developing cultures that are less ritualised, and therefore more open to changes wrought by those acting within them. Ironically, whilst a small farm future can provide the continuing vision, this means that it’s not really possible to design a specific culture that will persist forever, because such a culture would require considerable ritualised hive-like elements.

      Any society needs ritualised elements – we need ways of understanding each other, communicating and deciding things collectively, which don’t change every day. But they need to be more flexible, far less all-encompassing, than at present. Chris might well point to the small farm pragmatism and civic republicanism that he has raised in other posts, which always sound very promising to me.

      But whatever new cultures we institute, I think it will require many of us to be more locally ‘political‘ than we are used to or are currently comfortable with, so that we don’t sink back into ritualised hives, or become hamstrung by them.

      • Humans tend to be creatures of habit. It probably has something to do with our neural networks. Once pathways form they tend to be preferred because we don’t have to “think” about what we are going to do with incoming information. The more habitual our behavior the more our brains assign incoming information to sub-conscious processing. Only something that stands out strongly will be bumped up to our conscious mind for evaluation. When we travel or encounter novel situations more of the information our senses perceive must be processed consciously. This can be very fatiguing, especially if the decision making centers of our brain are impaired.

        I think of culture as the sum total of a population’s interactions. In this regard we do sort of resemble a hive of activity if one looked at social movement from some distance. If we zoom in and look at an individual, we can see that our interactions depend on our brain’s ability to process information. This in turn depends on our bodies hormonal balances, which in turn have been shown to depend on diet and gut microbial populations.

    • Joe pointed out that “there are plenty of small farm cultures out there in the Global South that are still fairly independent of the modern industrial hive.”

      This brings to mind the possibility of a variety of small farm cultures, not just one predominant type, which arise within the Global North. This could be implied in Andrew’s “whatever new cultures [plural] we institute…”

  22. Thanks for the interesting further comments – especially to John for further clarifications. Other commitments are preventing me from commenting further just now, but I hope to respond soon, maybe tomorrow.

    • In case it wasn’t noticed, the comment from John Letts was made to the previous post (A small farm future), not this post (Outside the hive).

    • Thanks for that clarification Steve!

      Too much juggling at the moment, so I’m going to be offline for a week. Thanks for the fascinating threads above which regrettably I can’t respond to just now.

      But hopefully back with a new blog post late next week.

      • i tbought this amusing
        Through history, Dark Age man relies on his own arms for protection. He travels as little as possible. He trusts no stranger. He has no state service for aid. He fears disease, eats no food not his own, and does not ever sleep far from home. And he prefers only those of this tribe. In other words, whether 900 b.c. or a.d. 900 or 2020, he is a Californian.

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