Florence, Texas

First, a quick bit of housekeeping. I think my RSS feed has stopped working, but I want to check with anyone who might subscribe to this blog by that route. If you’d be so good as to send me a message via the Contact Form to that effect I’d be grateful – you could just put a message in the subject line saying ‘Feed working’ or ‘Feed not working’. Many thanks. Alternative ways of keeping updated about the blog are via Facebook or by following me on Twitter. What a virtual world I live in. It’ll all end in tears – you read it here first. But in the meantime, I’m about to establish yet another way of keeping up with Small Farm Future in the form of a monthly digest of blogs and other publications from the Smajian stable. If you want to be sure of keeping abreast of the Small Farm Future world, drop me a line via the Contact Form and I’ll put you on the list.

Right, now down to business. I’d like to raise a standard in this post for two doctrines that I think speak to our troubled times. I’ve discussed them both before, but it occurs to me that perhaps I haven’t brought them together systematically enough or thought about them conjointly with enough clarity. This is a preliminary effort to do so, which as it happens also bears on some of the debates emerging out of a few of my recent posts. The doctrines I have in mind are civic republicanism (that’s the Florence part of my title) and agrarian populism (the Texas part). Let me explain…

It’s a commonplace of anti-establishment politics nowadays to oppose globalisation and neoliberalism – and even to oppose ‘liberalism’ without the ‘neo’, as in critiques of the machinations of the much-derided ‘liberal elites’. I’m pretty much signed up to this agenda, but I’m not signed up to invoking in place of global neoliberalism some kind of communitarian localist alternative that’s assumed to be a superior pre-political ‘natural’ community – clan, tribe, nation, ethnic group, ‘the local community’ and so on. This is for three reasons.

First, such identities usually turn out to be much less ‘natural’ than their proponents like to claim. They rarely reach back to some pre-political, essential or unproblematic claim on people’s emotions and loyalties. Instead they emerge from other – usually quite recent – processes of political claim-making. As Immanuel Wallerstein put it “first the boundaries, then the passions”.

Second, these identity claims can be dangerously exclusive, not only towards the claims made by other peoples outside the group, but also towards alternative claims made by people within it – I get an inkling of this when I see people who argue for greater parliamentary oversight of Britain’s farcical Brexit negotiations denounced as “enemies of the people”. While the existing global neoliberal order is dangerously exclusive too, I don’t see the virtue in exchanging one kind of dangerous exclusivity for another.

Third, while the manufactured contemporary neo/liberal political community is certainly problematic, that doesn’t mean it’s necessary to give up on the notion of any kind of manufactured political community. Indeed, I’d argue that all political communities have to be manufactured, and the sooner we give up the notion of ‘natural’, pre-political communities and their virtues the better. The ‘recovering environmentalist’ Paul Kingsnorth pushes a bald dichotomy between ‘globalism’ on the one hand and what he calls “people’s deep, old attachment to tribe, place and identity” on the other. Not so fast, sir. Can there not be a constructed, political, deliberative kind of particularistic moral community that we don’t just assume into existence on the basis of its ‘depth’ or ‘antiquity’?

Enter civic republicanism. It’s a political tradition with roots in the classical world that was given its modern shape by the much-maligned Niccolò Machiavelli of Florence (hence the ‘Florence’ of my title) and arguably last had real political traction during the early years of the US republic in the thought of people like Thomas Jefferson. It lost politically to the ‘modern’ doctrines of liberalism and socialism, but now that those doctrines seem to have run their course, bequeathing the world numerous problems in their wake, civic republicanism has enjoyed a mini-revival, albeit so far mostly just in the writing of political philosophers rather than in much real-world politics.

A thumbnail definition of civic republicanism would be that it’s a form of politics founded on interdependent, individual citizens, who form a political community by deliberating and forging common goods or ‘values’ as the basis of living politically together. In this respect, it’s different from,

(a) libertarianism, which is focused on individual rights, not common goods

(b) liberalism, which is focused on defining political practice not political outcomes

(c) socialism, which focuses on class-based restitution of inequality (and ideology)

(d) communitarianism, which (like Kingsnorth) focuses on a ‘natural’, pre-political basis for the polity

I think all of these traditions have something to commend them (communitarianism is the one that impresses me the least), but a version of civic republicanism seems to me best fitted to creating viable post-global, post-capitalist, ecologically-sustainable societies.

I’ll try to lay out in more detail what such a version might look like in a future post. I guess for now I’d just say that I share the high value placed by liberalism and libertarianism on individual rights and freedom (contrast it with arbitrary legal process and a coercive political economy), but I don’t think those principles always supervene over common goods (eg. the freedom to erode away your farm soil in pursuit of short-term profit). And I share with socialism an understanding of the corrosive nature of unchecked private wealth which often has a class structuring, but without the confidence of socialism that class rather than citizenship can act as the motor of restitution, or that equality rather than justice represents a preferred end-state. I also share with parts of the socialist tradition the idea that values are shaped collectively and systematically – that is to say that we’re shaped by ideology. But I’m not sure that there’s such a thing as ‘scientific socialism’ which escapes ideological blinkers.

In a recent post I invoked libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick’s ‘framework for utopias’ as a way of thinking about a sustainable post-capitalist future, to a mixed reception. I suppose I was unconsciously motivated by a civic republican impulse to suggest that if you take individual rights seriously, you can’t have untrammelled freedom unless you make the implausible assumption that individual freedom inevitably promotes collective freedom, ie. common goods or agreed common values (much of the ‘New Optimist’ school of thought – Steven Pinker, the ecomodernists etc. – seems to me like so many attempts to shore up this assumption…implausibly.) Since we can’t all choose our ideal utopia and go to live there, I think Nozick’s framework pushes us towards a civic republican need to determine common goods deliberatively. With hindsight, I think some of the ensuing discussion (including my own) about individualism, independence and collectivism under that post would have benefitted from a civic republican lens, and a sharper focus on ideology.

One of the problems with civic republicanism is that it’s hard to create and maintain a community of citizens in the face of other political forms. The present global capitalist order, undergirded by libertarianism/liberalism, generates vast wealth for the few which is partly coopted (increasingly badly) by states and used to buy off enough of the many to keep the lid on the system. Socialist alternatives have typically involved claims originating among the many for a bigger piece of the pie, usually based on well-founded class ressentiment and often accompanied by a utopian belief that this class project will somehow result in universal benefit for all. As the class basis for the socialisms of the 19th and 20th centuries has frayed, many contemporary socialisms seem to have narrowed into a kind of cargo cult version of capitalism, of relations over essences, until we reach the final materialist essence of the ‘fully automated luxury communism’ variety, in its more sophisticated (Kate Raworth, Paul Mason, Nick Srnicek) or less sophisticated (Leigh Phillips) forms. Historically, civic republicanism has often been the preserve of small-scale, tightly-organised and quite militaristic societies, defending their common goods from the barbarians at the gate. I fear that it may operate like that in the future too, against any number of capitalist, socialist or nativist ‘barbarians’, but one can always hope.

I’ve recently come across an excellent essay by Eric Freyfogle, a sympathetic critique of Wendell Berry’s thought which, among other things, emphasises his debt to and his divergences from civic republicanism. One of Freyfogle’s points, which bears on my recent post about personal behaviour and ecological damage, is that Berry strongly emphasises individual morality and individual culpability in the aggregate for our contemporary ecological bads. For Freyfogle, Berry’s approach “largely blames the individual for problems that are far bigger than the individual. It increases the level of guilt in a way that can detract attention from the larger failures of collective responsibility”.

Freyfogle goes on to make the argument that as a citizen I might support government action that penalises or disincentivises profligate fossil-fuel use, while as an individual I might continue to avail myself of the opportunities afforded by cheap fossil fuels – a situation in which I think many of us, most certainly me, find ourselves today. A typical response is to think that our individual behaviour reveals our ‘true’ character, revealing our citizenship activism as mere hypocrisy. Certainly this seems to be Berry’s view. Freyfogle demurs from it, on the grounds that it overemphasises the importance of individual choices made in isolation as both the true mirror of our character and the most significant domain for political change. As I suggested in my ‘Be the change’ post, and others suggested in the discussion, it may be a good idea to de-emphasise this religious dimension of ecological action as personal morality and to place more emphasis on our actions as interdependent political citizens in defining common goods. Civic republicanism offers one means of doing so.

Shifting focus somewhat now, I’ve long argued for a version of agrarian populism or left agrarian populism as a key to future sustainable societies. An important intellectual ancestor in this respect is Alexander Chayanov, a Russian economist of peasant farming who was murdered in Stalin’s gulag and whose ideas keep getting murdered by later generations of Marxists. Jan Douwe van der Ploeg’s Peasants and the Art of Farming: A Chayanovian Manifesto is a brilliant (if unfortunately rather turgidly written) reconstruction of Chayanov’s thought for the present age – other writers like James Scott, Paul Richards and Eric Wolf have also freshened up Chayanovian perspectives in more recent times. There have also been numerous agrarian populist political movements around the world, probably the best known in ‘western’/Anglo-US consciousness being the Farmers’ Alliance and the People’s Party that briefly rose to prominence in the late 19th century USA out of its Texan heartlands (hence the ‘Texas’ of my title).

I’ve spent time pondering whether these older agrarian populist movements have much to teach us today about a politics for modern times. The answer proffered by US historians has varied according to intellectual fashion and the prevailing political winds – from Frederick Jackson Turner’s ‘No’ (1890s) to John D. Hicks ‘Yes’ (1930s) to Richard Hofstadter’s ‘No’ (1950s) to Lawrence Goodwyn’s ‘Yes’ (1970s) to Charles Postel’s ‘Not much’ (2000s). I feel inclined to side with Postel…but also with Ploeg. I think we need to recuperate the economics of the family or peasant farm, and the Chayanovian tradition can help us with that. But to achieve it politically, I think past agrarian populist movements are of limited use. For Postel, US agrarian populism was less far removed than is often supposed from the liberal politics that supplanted it, whereas for Freyfogle “the Populists rose and fell because their moral dreams lacked any means of accomplishment”. Civic republicanism offers a stronger political frame to hang an agrarian populist economics from, but I think is also caught on the horns of that dilemma.

Meanwhile, populism has now taken on a very different cast in western politics with the election of Donald Trump, the UK’s Brexit vote and the rise of far-right populist parties across Europe. These events have prompted many anguished liberal disavowals of the ‘populist threat’ recently, such as in books by Yascha Mount and William Galston that are skewered by Thomas Frank in an interesting recent review. For Frank – as for many other commentators, like John Michael Greer – the rise of US populism stems from the abandonment of ordinary working people by the political class, and particularly by ‘the left’ and the Democratic Party. “Reduced to its essentials” says Frank “populism is America’s way of expressing class antagonism….Anyone can be the voice of those who work, and when one party renounces its claim the other can easily pick it up”. A problem he diagnoses in much current liberal antipathy to contemporary populism is complete ignorance of past populist traditions and why they arose.

A great advantage of Frank over someone like Greer is that he isn’t taken in by Trump’s populist posturing:

“The right name for Trump’s politics is “demagoguery” or “pseudo-populism”. By lumping him together with the genuine reform tradition of populism, we do that tradition a violent disservice.”

I’d go so far as to say that we do that tradition a disservice even by calling Trump a pseudo-populist. Sure, he borrows a few scraps of rhetoric from the populist rulebook like economic protectionism, but with none of the accompanying vision and intent. I suppose there is an identifiable right-wing populism which he recycles in his rhetoric – anti-immigrant, anti-liberal, anti-intellectual, nationalist/nativist, and rhetorically supportive of working people, or at least working men. It’s a shame that it goes by the same name as the reformist tradition Frank identifies, because the two have little in common.

In the UK, the Brexit campaign lacked even Trump’s thin veneer of populist reformism. It was sustained largely by elixirs of neoliberalism and haughty isolationism. I’ll confess that my reaction here at Small Farm Future to the Brexit and Trump results perhaps borrowed a little from the horrified liberal zeitgeist. It invited accusations that I wasn’t a proper populist, which suits me fine because I doubt I’m a ‘proper’ anything. But Frank’s intervention encourages me to think that in part it was the reaction of a horrified populist seeing the tradition hijacked – and watching commentators like Greer turn into apologists for the hijacking.

There’s also perhaps some transatlantic confusion here. As far as I’m able to discern from my distant vantage point, it does seem that in the US many conservatives have finally decided that they don’t much like capitalism and globalisation. Good for them. What I think they can’t then do is pull a Greer and pin all the evils of capitalism, the market and globalisation on the left/Democrats as if the right/Republicans are unsullied by the same associations. But this whole political iteration doesn’t work in the UK where the right/Conservatives remain wedded to neoliberalism, albeit with a few nationalistic twists, while the left/Labour attempts to extricate itself from Blairite neoliberal globalism and articulate a social democratic vision grounded in national sovereignty. Both parties are mired in what strike me as irresolvable contradictions, though it seems to me that Labour has more potential to emerge out of them with something akin to US-style reformist-populism.

If and when it does, I think it’ll be plunged immediately into the kind of contradictions faced by civic republicanism – how to create an engaged citizenry, how to defend the republic from disintegrative alternative forces, how to define agreement around common goods. But at least these are problems worth wrestling with. By contrast, how to make America great again is not a problem worth wrestling with.

For my part, I think I need to wrestle some more with the overlaps and contradictions between the various traditions I’ve identified here as a possible base for sustainable future societies: civic republicanism, agrarian populism, the individual rights focus of libertarianism and probably the justice and ideology focus of leftism, broadly conceived. I’d also like to acknowledge the importance, noted by Kingsnorth, of attachment to place, but without making it the basis of competitive or exclusionary political identity. So for me the siren songs of nationalism, nativism, communitarianism and Trumpian demagoguery, as well as neoliberalism, are all part of the problems that must be overcome.

166 thoughts on “Florence, Texas

  1. The RSS feed is working for me. Might as well delurk at the same time–I’m a fairly recent reader from Sweden. I appreciate your posts! Although reading all the comments takes a bit more time than I usually have. (I am a mathematician, active in a grassroots union, and active in an environmental organization working with forest issues in Sweden. And generally interested in how the world works and how I can participate in making it better.)

    • Thanks Elin, and welcome. Sorry it took me a while to approve your comment. The workings of the Small Farm Future office are a labyrinthine mystery, whose secrets few can know… Good luck with your work…

  2. Thanks for the references – always nice to get links to “further reading”. Especially looking forward to the Freyfogle piece.

    Is it time for a quibble? This one likely doesn’t quibble with your philosophy so much as your choice of words, but:
    By contrast, how to make America great again is not a problem worth wrestling with.

    And I don’t want to follow onto the ‘Trumpian’ usage of that particular soundbite (which I would imagine is where you’re headed). But with the level of political discord getting so ugly that people’s behavior toward one another is sinking ridiculously low it makes me pine for a time when folks here in “America” could be civil in their arguments about how we should govern ourselves. So in a very real sense I believe making America great again IS a problem worth wrestling with. Just not for the sloganeering and the corrupting of the political narrative. Sound bites and eyes to the electronics (for FOMO) just doesn’t get the job done. And class baiting, name calling, impatience, etc. just fuels the fires. So I would seek to make America great again… but my goal is a different sort of greatness.

  3. I’m with Kingsnorth. Isn’t all human political activity simply an extrapolation of the territoriality found throughout the animal world? Kingsnorth’s view that “people’s deep, old attachment to tribe, place and identity” is powerful and primary is not necessarily based on ‘antiquity’, but on the fact that the most important things in our lives, food, water and physical security have always been associated with a particular place for a particular group of people. Give a new group a new place with all the essentials and they’re going to get attached to it very quickly.

    The variety and complexity in the ways people organize themselves politically is greatly dependent on the number and size of the places that have been bound together through sharing of basic resources and defense. So if you want to talk about political options, you first have to decide how big a ‘place’ is involved and that overall size depends on how easily resources and defenders are moved around. Right now we can easily move anything anywhere on the surface of the earth, hence the rise of global markets and global political entities in all their complicated ‘glory’.

    Zero in on how much energy will be available to any group of people in the future and you will have a pretty good idea of how big and complex their society can become. Then you can talk about the political options available and sort through the ones that are most desirable or most likely to prevail. Good examples of all our future options are found through history, but I think that everything after the beginning of the industrial revolution can be ruled out immediately.

    I personally think that with the end of industrial civilization, everyone’s world will shrink to a much smaller area than they think is probable now. If I am right, political options will be very much more limited than they are with whole nations or continents in play. Really small places will likely have some version of tribal collectivism, but I think a polity will have to be fairly large to include civic republicanism, agrarian populism or libertarianism, much less socialism or neoliberalism. Maybe there will be enough energy to manage more complicated political groupings but probably not.

    Since I’m on the more extreme end of the doomer-prepper spectrum, I think about how I and the people within an hour’s walk of my farm could organize ourselves into a cohesive and independent ‘tribe’ if necessary, preferably in advance of doom. Land parcels are small but adequate for subsistence in this area, so there are about 150 households involved. Any suggestions?

  4. I second Clem’s thanks for the Freyfogle essay on Berry’s thought. It’s very well written and especially astute in evaluating the need for a dynamic connection between individual virtue and collective political power.

    But that connection will not be as relevant in a future without destructive global forces as it is now. Those forces are at their peak, but not for much longer. The damage they can still do is considerable even though they will eventually be self limiting. Survivors of all that damage will live in a world that has been, and will be, crippled in many ways, but when the dust has settled the importance of sound individual judgement and virtue will regain its long lost prominence in community affairs. Perhaps civic republicanism will play a role after all, but on a greatly diminished stage.

  5. The goals and practices of civic republicanism are appealing, and using them as a framework for mapping out a small farm future looks like a good call to me. In particular the idea that individual freedom should be defined as freedom from domination, rather than freedom from the interference of others, looks like a nice way of grasping the individualist/collectivist nettle, as people would be free to engage in collectivist projects in the public sphere secure in the knowledge that their individual right to claim an active role in those projects, as a member of that public, was assured.

    I also appreciate the difficulties involved in creating a society in which active participation in public politics is essential. At the grassroots level it will certainly involve a lot more coming together than people are used to. The citizens’ conventions advocated by some in the civic republican sphere are perhaps an interesting foretaste of this.

    I wonder whether those promoting civic republicanism will end up looking much like socialists, especially as socialism is such a broad church today. Freedom from domination will mean tackling the economic domination prevalent in a class-based capitalist society. Perhaps that’s what you meant when talking about the possible positive future of the Labour party – assuming that that part of it focusing on grassroots democracy and community activism can steer clear of the nonsense of Fully Automated Luxury Communism. The Labour party is also currently a very urban institution, and translating some of these new possibilities into rural contexts is another challenge, one worth taking on I think.

    In some ways your four alternative political traditions are different in kind, and perhaps not directly comparable. Socialism and libertarianism are both concerned with consciously creating political society, and so are most easily compared with each other and with civic republicanism – perhaps the first two are two halves of a dialectic that is effectively sublimated by the third.

    Liberalism is, as you say, more concerned with process. It doesn’t really have its own vision of society – though maybe I’m just too disillusioned by the kind of technocratic management it seems to represent to be able to see it!

    Communitarianism seems positively dangerous, not only for the reasons you give, but because it seems to deny its own political nature. I think Joe’s right to suggest that if you give ‘a new group a new place with all the essentials … they’re going to get attached to it very quickly’, but that surely is an emergent phenomenon, post-political or at least part of the political conversation. It cannot be seen as some kind of pre-political given. In any case, politics is the art of belonging, so I can’t really see what ‘pre-political’ would even mean.

    I also think Joe’s right about the geographical scale of our worlds shrinking in the future, but that will surely mean more politics, not less. Only in mass society can politics become a kind of separate sphere that engages only a small portion of the population. As horizons shrink so politics expands. Those who want to dominate will be a lot closer to home, and engagement with a politics that wants to ensure freedom from such domination may well look more like a necessity.

    Incidentally, there’s a real crux in the implications of a republican society, defending individual public rights, overlapping a family-based farming regime. This issue has come up before, and will do again – how can we ensure that peasant households, as productive economic units, don’t become little bastions of intra-familial domination?

  6. Thanks for the comments:

    Clem – your definition of ‘greatness’ is a generous one, but you’re calling for generosity and who am I to quibble with that finest of virtues? Good luck!

    Joe – although you say you’re with Kingsnorth, I detect a core of civic republicanism in your comment which I hope I can work with. You focus largely on the practicalities of how people in a small community might come together as a group of individual householders/homesteaders in order to better deliver material wellbeing and safety – which sounds to me like a civic republican charter through and through. Kingsnorth tends to invoke tribe, place, ethnie etc. as unproblematic organic wholes which gainsay internal conflict. I don’t think that’s how it works – and I’m not sure you do either. On that note, I like the etymology of the word ‘rival’ from the Latin ‘rivalis’ – people who use the same stream or river. So there’s my suggestion – sort out your 150 household republic, multiply globally about 13 million times…problem sorted! Where we disagree is in your idea that human politics is an extrapolation of animal territoriality – in many ways, civic republicanism is about the negation of mere territoriality, although defence of place can be a part of it. I agree with you that attachment to place doesn’t have to rest on antiquity, but that’s exactly what Kingsnorth is arguing – he stresses the importance of attachments to place and tribe that are ‘deep’ and ‘old’. I think he’s making a big mistake.

    Andrew – yes, I agree. The historical trajectory of ‘left’ and ‘right’ is becoming increasingly unfathomable. Many leftists now sound almost indistinguishable from Matt Ridley or Milton Friedman (like Leigh Phillips…though there’s a bit of Stalin in there too in his case), while civic republicanism and/or agrarian populism which come with conservative associations are now starting to sound increasingly radical and redistributive. Your point about intra-familial domination is also a good one, and something I’ve been pondering a bit without making any great progress. I guess I’d say it’s potentially less problematic in a civic republic than in a patrimonial status order, where the importance of family ‘name’ looms large. Individual rights, including the right (and the possibility) to go somewhere else and do something different are worth hanging on to for this reason…shades of Nozick?

    • You resurrect Nozick here, following your well laid out description of his early effort Anarchy, State, and Utopia earlier in the month. But have you looked at any of his later efforts? I’m thinking here of The Nature of Rationality, or his final: Invariances (2001). I’ve not read either, but a review I did peruse (of the former) suggests Bob did a bit of reconsidering after writing ASU.

      And if memory serves – there was a bit of commentarial exchange between us concerning whose utopia might be the better, from which you jumped to the conclusion that yours would be best 🙂

      I now ponder whether I should have so easily let that pass. Perhaps I should have dug in, grabbed my thesaurus, and opened a vein to spew all sort of invective in your general direction. I mean, I am after all an American of the 21st Century. Such an outburst might now seem my birthright. If you can’t beat them, join them – right?

      Just kidding. America, like the rest of the planet, could use a little greatness. And luck should have nothing to do with it. [btw, the review of TNoR is titled Evolution in Action, see:
      When I saw the title Evolution in Action, I had to bite. Plant Breeder’s Dilemma.

      • Ah, apologies. I meant to say that my one would be the best for me.

        Thanks for the heads up on Nozick’s later work. I’ll follow your link. I don’t have a huge interest in his overall intellectual project, but I do find his framework for utopias thought-provoking in terms of my small farm future thinking – for reasons that I’ve tried and, I fear, failed adequately to explain on here, perhaps because they’re not yet quite clear enough in my mind.

    • Chris, regarding Kingsnorth…. I like to distinguish between the world we want and the world we are going to get. Far too many people spend far too much time fantasizing about impossibilities instead of planning for the world we are going to get.

      Of course, one of the reasons I love your thinking is that you are examining ideas and practices that are within or close to possibilities of the world we are going to get.

      I think Kingsnorth has been explicit that tribalism is not something that he wants, but it is something that is quite likely part of the world we are going to get.

      I agree with that analysis, and would like to support the aspects of tribalism that are beneficial and weaken the aspects that are harmful.

      • Thanks for that Ruben. I appreciate your position, though I’d say that everybody engages in political myth-making, and I’m not sure of the wisdom of accepting other people’s mythologies on the grounds that it’s what we’ll get.

        No doubt Kingsnorth has said that, and I think you could just about put that spin on the piece of his I linked, but he doesn’t make it easy to do so – he’s far too quick in my opinion to make a totalising distinction between ‘globalism’ and ‘nationalism’ and to recuperate the latter at the expense of the former.

        While I agree that it’s wise to plan for what we get and not what we want politically, I think there are some elisions here that I’d dispute:

        – ‘tribalism’ needs careful definition. I’m not convinced that it’s what we’ll get. And even if it is, I think it’s worth opposing…depending on how it’s defined.

        – results like Trump’s election or the Brexit vote are not necessarily examples of ‘tribalism’ and don’t necessarily represent some more authentic kind of politics than their alternatives – which is Kingsnorth’s mistake, I think.

        – in terms of ‘what we’ll get’ I think the promises of Trump and the Brexiteers are quite delusional – we certainly won’t get what they think they can deliver. That could be just the wake-up call we need. Or it could prompt further delusions, and/or a slide into avoidable conflicts.

        • Yes, I think Trump is a few generations before what we will get.

          What I mean is:

          We have extracted the easily accessible fossil fuels, therefore we will get less fossil fuels in the future.

          We are in ecological overshoot, therefore we will get fewer humans in the future.

          We have exploited raw resources and have no prospects for large scale renewables, therefore we will get a low-energy future–and that means we will have less material and energy to build more renewables.

          We have exceeded the atmospheric capacity to absorb our waste, so we are going to get a less stable climate.

          All of these things make it highly likely we are going to get a future that is much more local, and in which many more people *must* engage in agriculture.

          I think all these things are heading us towards much smaller and more intimate social groupings, and so that is where I see tribalism coming in. I don’t mean it in any Trumpian sense, I just mean our social structures will have more features shared with tribes.

          So I think we are going to get a local, agrarian, tribal future… but does it have to be authoritarian? Is that what we will get? I hope not–I am rooting for Neo-peasant Wessex.

          • So I think we are going to get a local, agrarian, tribal future… but does it have to be authoritarian?

            I think your prediction is absolutely correct and your question will be answered with a wide variety of social structures that will emerge during a period of rapid social evolution after the coming bottleneck.

            For me, the big question is whether we can influence the kind of “local, agrarian, tribal” society we will get in the future by some method of advance preparation now, while a wide variety of modern-civilization tools are still available, like the internet and blogs. Can we use these tools to come up with an actual plan of action?

          • I don’t know about actual plan of action, Joe. But that is what my wife and I are trying to do, through our writing and work and public lives engaged with these issues.

          • I guess I’d say that a plan of action is always going to be the victim of unforeseen circumstances, but inasmuch as Ruben’s presentiments are right – which they probably are – I’d say the task is to identify political resources and leverage points that can help deliver better rather than worse outcomes. If by ‘tribal’ we just mean smaller-scale, lower energy etc. then fine, but I think the word has various connotations of implicit, pre-political collectivism, nepotism and might is right that would prompt worse outcomes so I’d prefer to avoid it. And I think Kingsnorth more or less explicitly identifies the Trump and Brexit votes with a more authentic kind of localist politics, even if he disavows some of what that entails. I don’t think he’s sufficiently aware of the way that the populist and nationalist ideas they mobilise are themselves the product of modern and non-localist political ideologies.

    • Oof. The blur of word definitions here is making me really tired.

      I will defer to Chris’ gut feel for the sources of his countryman Kingsnorth’s post-environmentalist sentiments, but my inclination, along with Joe Clarkson, is to agree with Kingsnorth’s analysis, and here is why.

      Organized environmentalism in the US, as manifested by large non-profit corporations (Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, etc) is dead, and it was a suicide. Or maybe just heart failure.

      They meant well, at least at the beginning. I know some back-to-the-land hippies, and some of them continue to mean well. However, all of them have discovered that water is heavy, property taxes are expensive, and that it is not possible to sell to the American public a social program that contains even the slightest hint of poverty. Even if the reason for poverty is freedom. Especially so, maybe. What is certain is that nobody is interested in having less money for the benefit of some non-human species or scenic vista. (Except for some token nut-cases on the fringe).

      So the idealists retreated to their rural redoubts and crappy jobs, while the ambitious pragmatists merged with the System in the hopes of amending some legislation, all while having a lifestyle much like their opposing lobbyists.

      We all know this history, I didn’t need to repeat it. But what I do want to point out is the abuse being given to the word ‘tribalism’.

      Trump voters are not a ‘tribe’, any more than Cleveland Cavaliers fans or Mazda Miata owners. In Paul Kingsnorth’s Guardian article you linked, he talks about the Lakota (& allies) fighting the Trumpists over the DAPL pipeline. Which side is the ‘tribe’ we are talking about? Certainly not the Trump forces. Maybe neither side. And I even know some Trump voters who are against the pipeline. It is complicated.

      But I don’t think this is what Kingsnorth was talking about, quite. He is talking about the social structure that comes from the people living in a place and loving that place. Which, as you say, is much more difficult to grow anew than it was to keep maintained before it was destroyed by my not so distant ancestors.

      So I agree with you that structure is needed to foster that growth. But mostly what is needed is the living organism to do the growing. Where are the masses of people who long for a place to love (and are aware of that longing)?

      Where are the masses of people who see it in their best interest to put the best interest of their watershed before personal gain? And to commit to that love of place in such a way that it sustains until the generations of their descendants that they will never meet? I don’t recall meeting anyone here in America who fits that description.

      • Thanks for that Eric. Maybe I’m deluding myself, but I see a lot of people who are interested in a different kind of world in various ways and who aren’t necessarily motivated by having more money. However, people generally take the path of least resistance and ultimately it’s hard for enough people to do otherwise. That’s where Freyfogle’s critique of Berry has some bite, because I don’t think this is ultimately so much about people’s individual moral failings. I agree with you that living in a place, loving it and working it are critical. My problem with Kingsnorth’s article is that I think he’s too ready to make attachment to place the basis for politics rather than its context, and too ready to accord the nationalism articulated in right-wing populism the status of an authentic place-based politics.

        • Perhaps scale is a significant aspect of the context for place affiliation. I think Eric has hit on some very fine analyses of the 2018 situation here Stateside. I might quibble that there are, scattered here and there are a few brave souls who could qualify for the citizen type he describes in his last paragraph. And see Jody’s comment for example.

          I would like to use the notion of watershed as the take off point for this comment… there are several significant watersheds in the State of Ohio, and my occupation carries me to three in particular. One, the Maumee, has been in the national news (perhaps global news) with regard to algal blooms in Lake Erie and the ruining of the drinking water resource for Toledo, OH a couple summers back. I know a handful of farmers in this watershed personally, and it is quite a mixed lot. Most are genuinely sensitive to what is happening and their own particular roles in the matter. But there are still others who, even in the face of undeniable evidence of phosphorus as a significant contributor to the problem will hold out that so long as they obey the letter of the law there is nothing more they can do if they want to remain on the land. And in one case I’m aware of – this concern (affording to remain on the land) may well be justified. Should his local township step up to assist? What about the county? The State? A multi-state (include Canada, and it becomes international) regional sort of organization? This latter actually exists for the Lake Erie basin. And some progress is being made, but there are projections that another bloom may be in the offing for summer ’18. One farm of 400 acres in the watershed isn’t going to make or break the whole… but at the same time, one blog comment isn’t going to matter in the abyss either.

          At the township level, at the neighbor across the fence level, at the local coffee shop level, at the local church level… these are the places where our challenged farmer(s) might be approached to lend a hand.

          Other watersheds here, such as the Scioto River Watershed where I live and farm, has some similar issues, but they pale by comparison in the attention they attract. Perhaps having a neighbor (the Maumee) getting all the heat allows this. There are significant zoning regulations to assist in SRW, and the geography here is different enough to matter. And I don’t happen (by chance) to know anyone caught in a dire situation in this particular watershed – though I do imagine some exist.

          I think it was Joe who made a point about a future community being about the size someone could walk across in a day. And I like the notion. To add to the scale I’m talking about here, the SRW would encompass more than a dozen communities. Communities downstream have a greater reliance on behaviors from folk upstream than the other way around. It’s not an impossible situation, but the degree of difficulty should not be ignored.

          For Earth Day last month I wrote a bit about the Darby Creek(s) on my blog. These – the Big and the Little Darby – are part of the SRW and they drain an area that could be considered a walkable community (if you are quite fit). The Darby watershed has some good news to share, and one might hope they can keep up. Like Jody, I hope my own contribution can matter. [link to the piece I just mentioned: https://gulliverspulse.wordpress.com/2018/04/22/earth-day-2018-what-side-are-you-on/ ]

      • Hello! I’m here. Exactly as you say. Living in a place I call home. Loving the woods. Getting to know the storm water runoff. Attuning myself to what is. Growing food. Living in an earth berm home. Solar PV energy. Teaching my children to love this place called home. Wishing I had more neighbors like us.

    • I don’t know an awful lot about it but I’d like to find out more. Many of the distributists’ ideas clearly fit with mine and also with civic republicanism – but I’m a bit nervous about the weight they accord to tradition, religious authority etc. I understand there’s some interesting more contemporary Catholic social thought too…another line of enquiry to follow…

  7. Hey Chris,

    thanks for this, yet another, good piece casting more light on populism and its history.
    On another note, did you see the piece on the most recent research on meat & animal products, covered by Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/31/avoiding-meat-and-dairy-is-single-biggest-way-to-reduce-your-impact-on-earth

    This one get plenty or praises from other scientists and at the same time the language used is more combative and more generalizing. One example here:
    “Converting grass into [meat] is like converting coal to energy. It comes with an immense cost in emissions,” Poore said.

    While I 100% agree that current meat & dairy consumption will have to go down (especially in the OECD countries) I find this trend of lumping all types of agricultural production together pretty worrying – I really think that unless advocates of small farming get their act together, we may soon see smth like a general meat tax, which would result in only biggest producers being able to stay on the market. As there is big money flowing now into the lab-meat industry (Gates et al) this is essentially making a market space for them.

    I know you wrote about it in the past – I just thought about sharing it with you as I guess the trend described above (which I think would be supported by the Breakthrough Institute and the like) is really shift a gear.


    • Thanks for that. Yes, perhaps I’ll write something about this again – I agree that the public debate on livestock is of quite poor quality. I’m interested in your feeling that the debate is shifting in gear. I’d be interested to hear any other opinions.

      • “shifting a gear” – I’m trying to follow the debate on this topic and the key change in the language – from statements of substantial necessity of meat & dairy reduction to the one above (grass=coal). Also, I know of substantially increased investments in the lab-meat sector, which must be connected with lobby efforts to increase the price of animal products (I’m a campaigner with 15 years of experience and have seen this pattern previously).
        I guess what is badly needed is a scientific study checking all key criteria (from emissions to biodiversity) which would compare e.g. intensive rotational grazing on marginal lands vs industrial grain production. Then such a study would need to be promoted properly to make an impact.
        In the meantime even personal, anecdotal evidence is something which could help (if presented in organized format, such as articles or TV series).
        Finally, maybe this menace of hyper-industrial agriculture will make more of mainstream farmers raising animals see the need to change, and presto – otherwise they may soon become pictured as similar to miners – outdated and in need to phase out completely. I’m curious what would be your take on this last supposition.

          • Donning one’s tinned foil hat, one might be tempted to recognize an even longer trend cycle here, one repeatedly mentioned in Stephen J. Pyne’s ‘Vestal Fire’:

            Grass being the domain of unruly herding folk, playing with fire in more than one sense, at least in the eyes of the state/the urban elites.

            The alternative to open land (again in more than one sense), then as now, is enclosure and reforestation, now conveniently running under the banner of “rewilding”.
            In tandem with industrial arable, it might shape things into one possible landscape of the future – the Anti-Peasant Republic:

            Wood plantations expanding to coincide with the anticipated oligopoly regarding domestic fuels, factory farms providing the gruel for the lower classes while the wooded demesne provides abundant meat for the new boss (who’s the same as the old boss).

  8. May I suggest that humble Pragmatism must be considered. I will give a few examples:

    In the US, a Supreme Court decision early in the 20th Century held that children were NOT property. They were citizens entrusted to their parents who had the obligation to raise good citizens. Which included sending them to school. The case was brought in Kentucky, where some parents wanted to put 10 year old children to work in the coal mines, in defiance of state and federal laws. Their legal defense was that the children were property, which is protected by the Constitution.

    This case can become the basis of a broad based platform of the rights of children, but the US court system doesn’t work that way. Instead, individual cases are decided, and then the case can be used to argue similar cases. And so the principles MAY get extended, but may also be construed narrowly for decades or centuries. The principles may also get eroded.

    And example of erosion is a Common Law principle which held during the early years of the United States. If someone owned property, but did not use it, a squatter could settle there and, after a period of time, came to own the property. Thus, George Washington owned a huge amount of land in the western part of Virginia, which he never saw and never used except for speculation. He engaged in court cases to try to clear the ‘white trash’ Scots-Irish settlers. The original principle is now completely forgotten…money rules the roost.

    The case of airborne pollutants may be instructive. When Farmer A sprays an herbicide or pesticide (perhaps from an airplane), there is likely to be drift onto the land of Farmers B, C, and D. Is Farmer A liable for damages? Under Common Law, the answer is ‘Yes’. But I am pretty sure that the US courts have watered down the liability so as to make it inconsequential.

    Another example is the fact that the diet of a pregnant woman has a profound impact on the future prospects of her unborn child. For a discussion, see:

    And so we have something like the coal mining children case. Is a pregnant woman responsible for the development of her unborn child to their full potential? Specifically, is she required to eat a diet which is favorable to such full potential?

    A modern ‘liberal’ will likely argue that society bears the cost if the child does not reach its potential. Items like schooling and health care and the criminal system and unemployment benefits are all negatively affected if the child fails to thrive. Identity Politics adherents (think Hillary Clinton) will likely argue that the woman should be allowed to eat a ‘socially relevant’ diet. Conservatives, with their deep distrust of government, will insist that The Cattlemen’s Association have a veto on any dietary prescriptions. The end result of the Identity Politics or Conservative position is that nothing much gets done. It’s similar to the smoking quandary. The US has cut smoking rather drastically. But it didn’t happen in grand gestures. It was more like pecking away at the problem over decades.

    I agree with Joe Clarkson that we can’t make any sweeping generalizations until we understand the mechanisms of production. For example, Wendell Berry in one of his stories relates that two neighboring farmers liked to get together to hoe their crops. The facts of the matter are that rows needed to be hoed, that the social contact was good for the two men, that they liked and respected each other, and so the modest investment in walking to the other farm was repaid many times over. Even when there was not close social fraternization, cooperation can evolve organically. The pre-Civil War records of a local historical farm still exist. The white owners ‘traded work’ with a family of free blacks who lived adjacent. The two families did not ‘trust’ each other…they kept careful records to make sure nobody was being cheated. But no money changed hands. On the other hand, if we have a globalized system, any talk of such partnerships with unknown farmers on the other side of the world is just delusional.

    Tribalism is a slippery issue. Amish farmers have a reputation of staying with their own kind…which leads to distrust and dislike among the Gentiles. But small organic farmers who live close to each other may form a certain sort of ‘tribe’, and do things like tool sharing libraries. For example, each farmer may own their own walk-behind tractor, and the co-op may own a full-size tractor for occasional use. There is certainly no expectation that the co-op ‘tribe’ will share outside the group who put up the money to buy the common assets.

    Don Stewart

    • From the Oxford dictionary…

      tribe: A social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader.

      So far so good; sounds like civic republicans could fit right in. But then in the Oxford explanation of usage….

      In historical contexts the word tribe is broadly accepted (the area was inhabited by Slavic tribes), but in contemporary contexts it is problematic when used to refer to a community living within a traditional society. It is strongly associated with past attitudes of white colonialists towards so-called primitive or uncivilized peoples living in remote undeveloped places. For this reason it is generally preferable to use alternative terms such as community or people.

      Then there are a lot of colloquial uses that simply refer to a subset of a larger group.

      I think the word is perfectly appropriate to small, cohesive communities of interdependent agrarian peasants, or even a collection of such communities. Since such communities will devolve from large states that speak a common language, they will all likely speak the same language, at least for a while. Territorial control will likely be the characteristic that separates one tribe from another.

      I think I would be lucky to become a member of a tribe. Other options, like slave or serf, don’t have the same sense of group independence and mutual support. However, even though becoming a serf has little allure, becoming dead has even less.

      • Actions often come before words. Thus, how we act towards each other comes before what we say to each other. Sometimes we come across a who needs help. We help. They thank us. We feel comradely. Life is good. Social exchange occurs when people come across situations where others need help. What goes around come around. I think this is how life actually works. We tend to help others and others tend to help us.

        • “We tend to help others and others tend to help us.”

          I think that’s a good basis to start from, and it’s often true even in kin-based societies (see below) where people don’t necessarily go looking for trouble.

          Most people are good-willed, but they don’t often fix their goodwill in the places it needs to be fixed if Ruben’s scenario manifests. So that’s the task before us. Fortunately I have a blog post on this issue coming up shortly. Job done.

      • I think the problem with ‘tribal’ language is the implication that the society it labels has sort of ossified – it has set boundaries, insiders are clearly separated from outsiders, and works through recognisable stable ‘customs’. Lines of communication and authority within it have congealed around certain primary relationships, often defined by gender, religion and/or blood ties.

        This might not accurately describe societies today described as ‘tribal’, but it certainly seems to be the way the term is used a lot of the time. Witness the way we talk about political ‘tribes’ in our own society, set in their ways and built around certain prominent individuals – not ‘real’ tribes but even so.

        We certainly need to emphasize the virtues of ‘small, cohesive communities of interdependent agrarian peasants’, but unlike the common image of tribes, they need to be open communities, in which deliberation is open to all members. They’ll be flexible, and they’ll probably reconfigure themselves to varying extents, according to the concerns of their members, on a fairly regular basis.

        I think the word ‘community’ is better here – it better captures the possibilities of overlapping interest groups, intersecting, nested formations, and seems less prescriptive about the nature of mechanisms of government involved. A more neutral, flexible term.

        In contrast, ‘tribe’ seems to carry a lot of baggage, probably with colonial roots, as the dictionary suggests – part of a long-superceded evolutionary view of society.

      • A comment I wrote before seeing Andrew’s, which is maybe complementary:

        Joe, I don’t want to get into pure semantics so if ‘tribe’ works for you, that’s great. But I guess the underlying issue that interests me is to ask if the word ‘tribe’ is doing some kind of work that ‘community’, ‘society’, ‘state’, ‘people’ or ‘polity’ doesn’t do. What leaps out at me from your dictionary definition is the ‘families’ and ‘blood ties’ bit. So in a classic kin-ordered ‘tribal’ society you’d be expected to support your kinswoman/kinsman against non-kin no matter what, and you’d be personally identified with the actions of your kinsfolk, hence blood feuds etc. Modern nationalisms invoke that logic – ‘my country right or wrong’, ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ etc. and when we talk about ‘tribal politics’ nowadays we mean unquestioning support for a party because it’s ‘our’ party, not because we necessarily agree with its policies. Civic republicanism sets itself explicitly against ‘tribalism’ of that sort – we deliberate over laws and agree to abide by them, and they apply impartially to everyone in our society. A key focus of civic republican politics is preventing corruption of the law in favour of partisan interests. If we share language, culture, history, economic practice etc. with other people in our polity, then it’s usually easier to deliberate and agree the politics. But we still need to do the politics. Where I think Kingsnorth and many others err is in assuming that the ‘tribe’, or whatever you want to call it, is some kind of authentic natural community that inherently does some or all of the politicking for us. For me, a love of and a commitment to place is a key requirement for a sustainable society. But it’s not the ground of political agreement.

        • The only reason why I would suggest using the word ‘tribe’ or some other word different from ‘community’, ‘society’, ‘state’, ‘people’ or ‘polity’, is that these latter words are familiar to everyone and have their place everywhere in modern life. If not ‘tribe’, some other word must be found to describe a future community that would be shockingly alien to those living in developed countries now. Its small size, lack of frequent communication with the larger world, utter dependence on the land and what a small group of people can wring from it are all circumstances that would astound anyone now living in London or any other city. ‘Gang’ might do, but it has a distinctly urban flavor.

          I would also point out that any kind of rural place-based community is going to see kinship relationships become closer and closer over time, just because there won’t be a lot of opportunity for new ‘blood’ to join the group.

          • Increasing levels of inbreeding in small communities will indeed be a matter to wrestle with. Small religious communities such as the Amish already wrestle with this. It needn’t be the case if care is taken keeping genealogical records and enforcing some sort of inter-community (or non-kin) mating structure; but failure to do so will weaken those communities that don’t.

          • I agree that a low energy future may well be shockingly alien to many. But there can still be a ‘larger world’ for agrarian peasant communities, it just won’t be as extended as it is today.

            I don’t think future communities should be envisioned as closely circumscribed and cut off. There’s no reason why regular large assemblies can’t bring people together from across larger regions, or even that some form of attenuated government shouldn’t operate at ‘national’ scales. This sort of thing happened in the early middle ages. The Romans governed from Pictland to Petra for centuries without a drop of oil.

            I think it’s another disadvantage of the ‘tribal’ idea to consider small communities as isolated cells, rather than as knots in a broader web.

          • Andrew,

            I agree that larger communities are possible or even probable given enough time, but I am also aware of situations, as in the New Guinea highlands, where hundreds of communities were isolated enough from each other for very long periods, long enough to develop equal numbers of totally distinct languages. Separation doesn’t automatically evolve into integration.

            The reason why I think surviving population groups in developed countries will be rather small is that current populations are now so large, so complex and supported by such long, high energy supply chains, that failure of civilization will be like popping a bubble; the bubble will disappear and only widely scattered little droplets will be left.

            If there were already numerous groups like the Amish everywhere, then they could easily adapt to the crash and possibly continue communicating with each other. But those kinds of communities are really rather rare and far apart.

            It’s too bad that modern political leaders cannot comprehend the fact that the failure of modernity is even possible, much less likely. If they realized how horrific such a failure would be, one would think they would be doing everything they could to create backup systems to keep things from going into free-fall. They are doing nothing.

            In places like the US, preparation for the most obvious civilization-ender, nuclear war, is given no chance of happening. The US abandoned all civil defense programs decades ago, so it’s not likely to even consider prepping for a low energy future or the failure of the global market economy.

            It’s this total lack of prudent preparation that will make successor societies so small and disconnected. Once failure starts accelerating, once the bubble pops, I don’t see how it’s going to be slowed down until every bit of modernity we are used to now is gone, not forever perhaps, but for a very long time.

            This is a very pessimistic view and one which many smart people dispute. But the recursive nature of modern civilization (you have to have modern civilization to maintain a modern civilization) means that enough maintenance failure could lead to a tipping point that would be irreversible and total.

            I’m pretty sure we’ll find out what will actually happen in the next few decades at the longest. The soonest it could happen would be in thirty minutes or so.

          • ‘The soonest it could happen would be in thirty minutes or so.’

            I feel lucky to have enjoyed a whole hour since you posted!

            Thanks for your response. We definitely sit on different places on the pessimism scale, though I’d never entirely rule out the kind of catastrophe you describe. Where you see the need to build up larger communities ove time after the fall, I see them as a product of a less cataclysmic descent, established at the same time, as part of the same process, as the building of neo-peasant communities. The difference obviously depends on which of us has the better talent for prophecy!

            The New Guinea Highlands situation is fascinating, though surely pretty exceptional. Still, something I’ll be pondering for a while…

          • Andrew,

            As you may have guessed, thirty minutes is the typical flight time of an ICBM.

        • Chris, we both may be suffering from motivated reading, but I don’t get the sense from Kingsnorth that he thinks tribalism will fix things.

          But tribalism will bring different things to the table than our current—in my case—sea to sea to sea political arrangement brings.

          And some of the things that will be brought to the table will be very much appreciated, while other aspects will chafe. Again, I don’t advocate for tribalism, I just think it is likely what many of us will get, and so we should think about that.

          I also think the thing tribe brings that the other descriptors you gave do not is a limited sense of scale. Your words are all unlimited–UN Agenda 21! But tribe is definitely bounded by place, often by a limited number of families, and often has a historical sense of one’s role, none of which are the case with today’s unlimited political structures.

          I say unlimited, but that is only theoretical, since in fact we see the failures of our political structures all around us.

          But I live in BC, which is largely unceded occupied territory covered by very few treaties. There are 200 First Nations and 34 distinct First Nations languages. So, tribe has a very concrete and present meaning for me.

          • Thanks for that Ruben – a thought-provoking comment to which I’ve replied at the bottom of the whole thread.

        • I’m not thrilled about the prospect, but I expect that instead of sinking rapidly, the “Titanic” will be kept afloat (just barely) after an imposition of martial law. The bloated military forces could effectively control the country’s major stockpiles of food and energy, eventually taking control over most of the domestic production and distribution of food and energy. Maintaining their control would naturally be a top priority when they decide how to distribute the food and energy. As such, the ‘collapse’ process could be more protracted than envisioned.

          ‘Tribe’ implies, to me, more autonomy than ‘neo-peasant community’. While ‘neo-peasant communities’ could conceivably succeed under the domination of martial law (depending on how they ‘do the politics’), tribes might resist and effectively be eradicated. I imagine that the autonomous tribes that survive will probably exist under the radar in pockets of land deemed ‘useless’.

          A current example of tribes under the imposition of martial law:

          ‘Proclamation No. 216 is the 2017 proclamation of martial law and suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in the whole of Mindanao, issued by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on May 23, 2017…’

          ”Lumads, or the non-Muslim indigenous peoples of Mindanao, have been vocally against the imposition of martial rule due to the past experience of martial law during the Marcos dictatorship. After 3 months since the imposition of martial rule, numerous human rights violations were recorded by independent human rights organizations. Among these violations caused by the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police were the bombing of Lumad schools, the food blockade against Lumad communities which forced Lumads to go hungry and move away from their ancestral lands, the capturing of ancestral lands from indigenous Lumads, the killing of suspected Lumads who are reportedly part of the NPA despite no concrete investigation, the censorship of various media outlets in Lumad communities, and the killing of numerous Lumad leaders, which has led to a blow in Lumad morale. Since the declaration of martial law in Mindanao, there was a heightened presence of government security forces which discouraged Lumad children from going to schools. Linking Lumad schools to communist rebels, President Rodrigo Duterte in a public speech threatened to bomb the schools which he says are promoting “subversion” and communism ideology.’


  9. The Science of Emotion Making and Thoughts About Governance
    (or lack thereof)


    Lisa Feldman Barrett is currently a leading researcher in the field of Emotions. In the article, she describes the cognitive efforts which go into the decision (usually subconscious) to make an emotion. This sounds to me like Pragmatism in action.

    Now, any human brain can get into terrible patterns, which will lead to dysfunctional emotions and bad outcomes. Just hang around a couple going through a divorce and you will gather abundant evidence on that front. The Darwinian solution is to eliminate the carriers of the terrible patterns…a solution we don’t like to talk about in polite society. In keeping with the current flock of dystopian entertainment, I should also mention that the biological solution seems to be autophagy….during times of food stress the body digests its own damaged tissues, which are then rebuilt as shiny new additions once food becomes plentiful again. So…cannibalism, anyone? (Before I get angry response, that is a joke.)

    I do submit that any political solution, involving written laws and ways of distributing the fruits of capitalistic enterprises, must take into account the way the human brain actually makes emotions. And we will probably settle on some sort of Pragmatism.

    Don Stewart

  10. When thinking about social and political organization I often wonder if it isn’t more of a dance that goes on between the needs of the individual and the needs of community. It seems to me we all go through a sort of balancing act; times when we pull back and focus on our individual needs, times when we extend our self and participate in the needs of our community of family and friends. Certainly access to the resources we need to live plays a role in this. I suspect that humans have always juggled personal survival needs with family or group needs. And when we can’t juggle them successfully this leads to feelings of stress such as when we can’t please our friends or when our needs are not met. Society may find it increasingly difficult to be generous towards others when resources become further limited. Although interestingly stories of hurricane damaged Puerto Rico seems to suggest that when resources became limited people helped each other more not less. Curious.

    With respect to group size, I wonder if humans have a sort of natural number of people we can really know well. Sort of like our natural body space, it’s our social comfort zone. I think the number might fall between 25 and 100. I wonder if perhaps this places a natural limits the size of “tribe” or groups that form? Chris in your studies of Anthropology did you ever come across anything that might suggest this? I think when we exceed this number we feel that our relationships become superficial. We don’t truly trust other members of the group when the group gets too large. Perhaps it’s because we can’t really spend enough time getting to know each other.

    And lastly, I wonder if anti-globalization or anti-neoliberalism sentiment might not be missing the real culprit, global finance. I’ve always enjoyed living in a university town because of the open cosmopolitan attitudes. Education seems to open our minds in positive ways. I don’t think it’s the liberal belief that we are all one family of humanity and should be treated accordingly that is the real issue. In other words, I don’t think open markets and world trade is the flaw. I think predatory finance, excessive debt obligations, and the confiscation of public goods by those in finance are the flaws.
    I’ve been reading “Killing the Host” by Michael Hudson who describes the predatory nature of finance and how they use debt to concentrate wealth in their hands not the public. I think perhaps finance preys on our willingness to take on debt, and when that debt cannot be paid it leads to impoverishment and servitude. Governments promote growth in order to pay off debt. Debt fueled growth is our problem not necessarily global trade. Hudson also talks about the addictive nature of wealth concentration. I think there are some individuals for whom there is no amount of accumulated money that is ever enough and such people fall victim to the allure of investment gambling.
    Perhaps most of the negative results of neoliberalism may be because we hate being taken advantage of. And it is the finance industry that is taking advantage of everyone! The common virtue that Civic Republicanism strives to uphold is perhaps recognition that people in power tend to behave badly and society must have ways of controlling this.

      • Thank you Joe, I did find it interesting. I wonder if our Dunbar number has changed with the explosion of internet access and social media? If there is a “cognitive limit to the number of people” we can know and this limit relates to brain size, is our knowing of people different through the internet compared to in person?
        The article mentions the Dunbar number “also includes past colleagues, such as high school friends, with whom a person would want to reacquaint himself or herself if they met again.” My high school graduation class had 56 people, 35 of us had been together since kindergarten. Compare that with my sons who graduated with 450 other people, most of whom they didn’t know, and none that had been with them since kindergarten.
        I’ve often thought that about the nurture vs nature arguement. Having known many people I grew up with from childhood into adulthood was a good way of understanding how our life’s choices turn out in the long run (although I must some of us have been very lucky!). And as we become elders I can see that we eventually age into people that resemble our parents so genetics definitely affect outcome.
        I’m not sure if cerebral size or perhaps neural networks affect the Dunbar number. What happens to people on the Autism spectrum that makes socializing so difficult? And why are some people so good at being sociable while others are just plain hard to get along with? I think there must be much more to this than brain size.

    • Judy, can one have relationships with people who don’t do things?
      If people are able to describe to me a thing they’re doing, a non-traumatic bond is formed between us.
      Most cannot do that. They describe nothing tangible, only pools of emotional fluids shloshing back and forth in their brains.

      What does life in a modern city consist of if all people do, even when they’re DOING things (with their hands) leads to nothing more than some facade of their house/their life receiving a coat of makeup?

      And what kind of support are we to expect from people who have a full schedule of holding patterns for a life?

      How do we best explain that a ‘world made by hand’ is full of what looks like emergencies from the outside, but entirely non-traumatic from a peasant’s point of view?

      Who explains to them that there’s merit in replacing the sequence of isolated/isolating traumatic incidents that passes for a life these days with the dangers faced collectively by a community/tribe?

      (You don’t have to answer any of these questions ofcourse 🙂 )

      • Michael,
        It can be difficult finding relation points with others if we have nothing in common. The usual question “What do you do?” often forms the first bridge. I agree, doing things with our hands (usually called “hobbies”) makes for good conversation. I also think intellectual conversations can be enjoyable when people have lively open minds.

        I’m not so pessimistic about those living in a large city. I don’t think it necessarily mean that people can’t live a “peasant” life. Converting vacant lots or roof tops into gardens offers opportunity to grow fresh food. Apartment buildings can become a localized place for a community/tribe. Many neighborhoods or streets have small market and shops where people get to know each other as regular customers. I would imagine resources from the countryside will flow into city markets perhaps as it used to do in ancient times.
        I think it is hard to predict what forms of lifestyle and social dynamics will arrive in the future and I’m sure it will vary with location. I think the more open minded we approach our situation the more opportunities will be found.

        I don’t know how to explain to people living constantly on a treadmill what it means to slow down and enjoy life more. My husband and I enjoy a simpler lifestyle, working together at home. It’s surprising how nice life can be with less stress. I no longer think of what I do (gardening, canning, cooking, running a business) as changing the world. The solar panels are just something I mow around. It’s just the way we live. Why others don’t live this way? I guess because they haven’t realized the advantages! I’m happy living my life, getting on with my daily and seasonal routines.

  11. Tribes?

    I used the word ‘tribe’ because that has entered the popular lexicon in the US and probably other places. For example, we speak of ‘moral tribes’ and scientists study how conservative morals differ from liberal morals.

    However, if the word ‘tribe’ denotes something insular and resistant to change, perhaps Etienne Wenger’s coinage of ‘communities of practice’ may appeal. The community is seen as a living organism, which implies that every part of it is involved in creating the other parts. Just as the liver is involved in creating not only the lungs but also the entire human, the village blacksmith is involved in growing the food, just as the food enables the blacksmith to function. (See discussion in Section 14.5 of The Systems View of Life.)

    Since any living system is a complex system involving nonlinear feedback loops, the system is unstable. When the environment changes significantly, the community will experience either chaos or will evolve a different organization. Capra and Luisi claim that living systems can only be disturbed, not redesigned. Or, more accurately, that IF some expert designer is hired, the actual living system will quickly become something that the expert did not anticipate.

    From Wendell Berry’s perspective, a perfectly good ‘community of practice’ on the Kentucky River has been destroyed by modernity. He wishes that, instead, the ‘community of practice’ had adapted to some of the external changes forced upon them, but should not have descended into the chaos they currently experience.

    Globalization is based on the notion that communities of practice may be fine within rigid limits (e.g., exactly how to assemble a smart phone with a minutely specified set of performance criteria), they can be replaced by consumer capitalism in terms of meaning. That is, the meaning that Berry and perhaps others found in the ‘community of practice’ which once existed on the Kentucky River does not only not need to exist, it is just sand in the gears of global consumerism.

    Don Stewart

  12. Thanks for the additional comments. I’m a bit short of time to answer any of them properly, but just a couple of remarks.

    Andrew beat me to it again on the size of post-capitalist society point. 11th century England had a population of around 3 million but pretty much the same political boundaries as today. Andrew mentions the Roman Empire…then there were the Mongols, who controlled lands from China to Europe. For sure, most people pretty much stayed where they born, but they were incorporated into much larger polities. The trouble is, neither the Normans, the Romans nor the Mongols really excite me as political models for the future. Hence my search for something more appealing, which turned up…Machiavelli!

    A lot of interesting points in Jody’s post which I can’t really address now – I agree that there may be a worthwhile distinction between globalisation and financialisation, though under the capitalist star I think the one leads inexorably to the other. I’m not sure about defining natural limits of group size…it depends on what the group is doing…and groups are almost always connected up in various ways. But it’s something that’d be good to talk some more about.

    Clem’s points on watershed management are interesting. Again, not enough time but I guess I’d be supportive of ‘self-systemic’ watershed management. However, I think it’s always going to be undermined by the fatal combination of cheap fossil energy and capitalist value extraction. We tend to blame farmers for the nitrates and phosphates in the lakes, but I don’t really think we should, even the ones who are callously indifferent. I guess it’s become a mantra of mine that a country gets the farmers it deserves.

    Ah well, much to think about and discuss for the future. Thanks everyone.

  13. I’ve been thinking about this general topic lately. Just happened to recently read a post collapse novel with the typical story arc, but central to the novel is the eternal question of balancing personal and group needs and wants. I’m also currently trying to figure out some deeper connection and mutual aid arrangements with our rural neighbors.

    I don’t have a strong background in the social sciences like Chris and others, but have read a bit. I need to catch up by reading some studies of past cultures and lessons learned. I’ve read Diamond’s stuff, but think other perspectives always helps me get some balance. Any suggestions?

    I think studying past eras before the fossil carbon pulse sheds some light, but behavior is so complex and so easy to jar from “stable” conditions, that I think we are destined to forever struggle to minimize the dark side of human behavior. Even if the model Chris is proposing works at one level, how does one plan for when the next warlord, pirate, or 21st century Genghis come knocking?

    Game theory, John Calhoun’s behavioral sinks, the implications of Dunbar’s number, all point to a future where where we will be quite challenged to create and maintain societal structures that one would want to inhabit.

    Even post petroleum, agriculture will enable complex societies, with all the emergent behaviors seen in the past. There seems to be a hard wired tendency for humans to eventually centralize power, for good or (often) bad. The U.S. founding fathers tried to create a system that diffused power to avoid autocracy/plutocracy , but that has been failing for a while now.

    I’m not one to just throw up my hands, so I applaud your effort here to ferret out a path forward, and will continue to try to help create a least bad future.

      • Michael – I have read a bit of Diamond’s writing. Not uniformly impressed, but that’s not important here. What I really liked about your link to the Sahlins interview:

        Moreover, this kinship is not biological. There are many ways besides birth that societies have developed notions of mutual being, Sahlins says. For example, in the highlands of New Guinea, strangers can become your kin by eating from the land where your ancestors are buried. The food raised on that land is in effect the transubstantiation of the ancestors. Accordingly, people who eat from it share ancestral being. In the local conception, they are as much kin to each other as people who have the same parents.

        I have moved a handful of times in my life and anywhere I’ve lived for more than a few years I noticed the place posses in its local folk a certain shared a certain bond associated with the place. Where deep friendships developed with members of the locals I also noticed a deeper personal bond to the place myself. Even though I can see this phenomena in retrospect, I would never have associated it with kinship – likely because as a geneticist my training around the biology of kin relationships has rather specific boundaries. Adoption, for instance, even as a magnificent example of human cooperation and servitude exists outside the realm of ‘kin’ in a strict Mendelian context. So Sahlins’ thoughts here really impressed. Thanks!

        • De nada. I’m between dwellings at the moment, and I can’t even begin to describe the filthy soddin’ state I’ve been in for weeks, much of which disappeared after I’d merely smiled and said hello to a few of my new neighbours.
          What remains is a anger of somehow having to feel connected to two different places at the same time, at least for a short while. I find that entirely unnatural.

          (Also, in the Ahead Of The Curve department: The singular to phenomena is phenomenon.)

      • I’m aware of some of the commentary around Diamond’s work, but had not seen that one. Thanks for the link.

        What makes us tick? So many theories, so much projection, miscommunication, lost historical records, poor and agenda driven science, data that is hard to categorize or quantify, it’s no wonder we are one of the biggest puzzles in our known universe.

    • In that article, Steven Gey points out that objections to civil republicanism (on the basis of its effects on civil liberties) have led to yet another flavor of republicanism, “liberal republicanism.”

      From the reference mentioned in Gey’s Note 3:

      ‘Liberal republicanism is characterized by commitments to four central principles. These principles are related to one another; each republican commitment serves to inform and define the others. All of the principles derive from the republican understanding of individual and political freedom. All of them provide distinctive ways of controlling and limiting governmental power.

      ‘The first principle is deliberation in politics, made possible by what is sometimes described as “civic virtue.”‘ In the deliberative process, private interests are relevant inputs into politics; but they are not taken as prepolitical and exogenous and are instead the object of critical scrutiny.

      ‘The second principle is the equality of political actors, embodied in a desire to eliminate sharp disparities in political participation or influence among individuals or social groups. Economic equality may, but need not, accompany political equality; in this sense, as in others, the political process has a degree of autonomy from the private sphere.

      ‘The third principle is universalism, exemplified by the notion of a common good, and made possible by “practical reason.” The republican commitment to universalism, or agreement as a regulative ideal, takes the form of a belief in the possibility of settling at least some normative disputes with substantively right answers.

      ‘The fourth and final principle is citizenship, manifesting itself in broadly guaranteed rights of participation. Those rights are designed both to control representative behavior and to afford an opportunity to exercise and inculcate certain political virtues. Citizenship often occurs in nominally private spheres, but its primary importance is in governmental processes.’


    • One of Gey’s big objections to civic republicanism is the attempt to apply it’s quasi-democratic process to a large, plural polity. In his view, civic republicanism cares too little for the losing factions in a large democratic society. He seems to think that it might be appropriate for a smaller pre-modern society, but not for modern nation-states with large populations. He says,

      “Unfortunately, these small, cloistered, homogeneous communities have become largely irrelevant to discussions of the political theory that should govern the modern nation-state. It should be said that the modern civic republicans recognize the impossibility of replicating the old republican community. But it should also be said that modern civic republicans are still drawn to the old republican model of town-meeting direct democracy. This explains the repeated references in modern civic republican literature to “self-government” and “dialogue.” Unfortunately, by trying to recreate a modern version of the old model of direct democracy, the modern civic republicans end up preserving the bad things about the classical civic republican community-its conformism, inhospitality to dissent, and antidemocratic deference to some unassailable collective ideal such as “civic virtue”-while failing to recapture the old system’s one real advantage-its homey, personal, face-to-face means of identifying and achieving common goals.”

      This passage points out that my first impression of civic republicanism being appropriate to larger societies was incorrect. It’s method of decision making and governance is more suited to a very small community, one where unbridled factionalism or do-your-own-thing independence would be difficult to accommodate and still maintain enough cohesiveness to keep everyone fed and protected.

      A society that is operated on civic republican principles is the ultimate nanny-state, a somewhat larger version of a large multi-generational family, where the elders decide by consensus what is good for everyone after long and spirited discussion among themselves.

  14. Thanks (as always) for a thought-provoking post, Chris, and thanks to all of the commenters (as always) for the interesting conversation that has followed. I don’t have anything of substance to add to that conversation, but I do have few links to share to essays/articles that you (and others) might find to be of interest. All touch on issues that you raised above:

    A Vacuum at the Center: How a demagogue resembles a typhoon, and why it matters to the future of the republic

    Democracy Without the People: What if populism is not the problem, but the solution?

    Liberalism After Liberalism: The civic republican tradition and its lost treasure

  15. Thanks for the further comments and the links on civic republicanism. More reading to follow up!

    In relation to Steve’s comment I agree on the limitations of past models and also on the sobering prospects of a post-capitalist politics – it does feel like I’m clutching at straws sometimes, though as any good farmer will tell you, straw is fine stuff and not to be discounted. On the point about warlords or marauders overcoming a civic republican state I plan to write some more on that topic soon, but it’s worth mentioning that this has been a major concern of civic republican politics historically, which has placed a lot of emphasis on military service, civilian militias etc. Maybe you could say that the 2nd amendment to the US constitution has a civic republican basis – and what a lot of suffering and bloodshed it’s saved down the years! Warlordism is basically a manifestation of charismatic kingship, its foot soldiers are mercenaries or desperadoes with little enduring allegiance. I wouldn’t bet against republican citizens fighting on home terrain for a state they believe in and have a hand in organising emerging victorious as often as not. Historical lessons…the US defeating Britain? Vietnam defeating the US?

    Jody, thanks for the Gey paper. I’ll have to read it properly. First impressions are that he makes some good points, but I think he mis-specifies the issues around individualism and minorities. CR does not enforce a single notion of ‘the good life’ or ‘the common good’ – it’s about defining the minimalist basis of what is in everyone’s interest to agree as the common political goods of the society. In that sense, I disagree with Joe that it’s the ‘ultimate nanny state’. On the contrary, one criticism of it (from feminists, for example) is that it’s too indifferent to private suffering or oppression. I think there are some counter-arguments to that within the CR tradition – perhaps I’ll try to write some more on this in the future. But I’m not looking to defend some historically ‘pure’ essence of civic republicanism – and there are interesting ‘hybrids’ of CR with liberal thought, for example in the thinking of Charles Taylor.

    Generally, I think CR works best in small-scale polities. But it sounds like most of us here are signed up to that future possibility… Joe raises the interesting example of highland New Guinea societies. I think these are rather exceptional cases, and even then are part of larger scale cultural/political flows. I’m not yet convinced of the significance of the Dunbar number for doing politics.

    Michael, you do have a way with words when you get going… I see where you’re coming from…perhaps along similar lines to Eric’s points…maybe David Graeber’s book on ‘bullshit jobs’ is relevant to the discussion. But you also attest to the power of connection, and practice, which I think are strong…

    Well, thanks for all the thought-provoking contributions. I feel a need to come back to this again. But right now I have to go and ted some hay so I can feed my livestock this winter. Livestock…another darned topic to discuss…

    PS. I’ve found Iseult Honohan’s book entitled, er, ‘Civic Republicanism’ a good working through of the issues around civic republicanism. I mention it only because you’d never guess from the title.

  16. I found Gey’s ideas of some interest as a counter point but I don’t agree with all of his thinking. I do agree with the idea of virtue. Most of my life I’ve believed in a common good, loved to visit wild places and felt a deep need to protect natural environments. Now as I watch the American government hand out tax cuts to the wealthy and natural resources to energy companies, eliminate environmental and financial protection at the expense of the majority of its citizens, I’ve become more cynical about government by and for the people. I no longer believe that belonging to a group will mean that I can change how others act as individuals or as a society.

    I think most people would agree that we want to be heard by others, so the idea of group dialogue seems relevant. We don’t want to be told what to do, how to live, etc. We don’t want to be cheated or lied to. We want to live well with others. Thus civic virtue seems a good basis for a political foundation. These ideas are probably social needs that evolved along with our human species. But as much as humans need a society of others, we also have specific survival needs as individuals, or small groups of population.

    I think Garrett Hardin made good points about the dangers of human overpopulation and human tendency to ignore ecological limits to resources and pollution sinks. He questioned the sharing of commons when it meant overpopulation and over-exploitation (or overshoot). Neoliberalism ignored these warnings. “We can have it all!” became the mantra for global economy. “Lift the masses out of poverty through economic growth!”

    Many writers have pointed out that life and society will be very different when the fossil fuel binge western civilization has been built upon ends. And most of us reading this blog see the twilight of the fossil fueled industrial civilization we have been raised in. Our economic choices (individually or collectively) now that resources have become constrained, pollution sinks full, and population density too high are naturally going to be limited. How do we chose what is best when faced with a rock and hard place? I agree with many of Joe Clarkson’s comments on these issues.

    In crystallography there is a continuum that describes crystal formation; long range order vs glass. When given sufficient time and supply of needed elements crystals can grow large and beautifully elaborate (much as our civilization has done). But with little time and less supplies, glass forms. Glass has no long range order. It solidifies the chaos that exists in the moment that molten rock cools. It forms rapidly but it can dissolve rapidly. I think this analogy may well describe human social forms over the next 50 to 100 years.

    I don’t see any particular political system able to form long range order as environmental problems continue to emerge. Governments will not have the resources to provide aid to its citizens, and citizens will not have resources to support government structures. Predators will stalk the land and most of them will be human. So can we replace our larger forms of government, with smaller ones? How will we organize ourselves as groups? I suspect short-term needs will decide what we share and how we cooperate with others. As individuals, families, and communities face emergency situations such as drought, food insecurity, medical emergencies, weather disasters, resource and energy disruptions, etc. people will do whatever they can with whatever they have. Sharing or cooperating may be a luxury when it means you or your family won’t survive.

    It’s great to discuss intellectual ideas such as how we as a society could achieve better political outcomes. But for those of us living in the US under the Trump era I have lost a great deal of confidence that Americans can do much to improve our political system. I think its only a matter of time before the current administration gets our country in even deeper trouble. I don’t see large groups of people finding consensus on who gets access to dwindling resources, or who gets their home rebuilt after a storm. In our country it has been decided by a small minority who gets to confiscate the wealth, and who loses out. This will continue until the banks fail once again and the 1% find that digital wealth is really very ephemeral. Maybe cryptocurrency will take over for the dollar! Wishful thinking!

    I believe the best we can do is to secure the physical resources we need in a place where we have some chance of maintaining control of them. For example we can find a shelter we can heat with wood, access to wood, hand tools to cut wood, a garden plot and seeds, tools to garden, pots and pans, jars to preserve food, a supply of fresh, clean water, durable goods that are not powered by electricity or gas…you get the idea. And once we find and secure our shelter a person or family could start to live building up their tool using skills and techniques to live a rather simple modest life; free from credit, mass consumption, and the hopefully the job treadmill. I believe anyone can learn to be frugal, to spend less than one earns, to save and invest savings in self-sufficiency. Changing our lifestyle makes us more resilient in the face of change. I don’t think we have the time necessary to make or carry out long term political goals. Like our climate, the rate of change is increasing and civilization has entered the age of chaos.

    • Whenever I read ‘civic virtue’, I remember J.G.A. Pocock’s 700 page attempt to explain how for philosophers and polemicists of the past that phrase was to form the basis of all that was well in a state.

      And then you add ‘We don’t want to be cheated or lied to’ adding that such emotions should inform civic virtue.

      And then I think about the political debate in the US at this very moment.

      And once again remember Pocock and the desperation which led those ancient thinkers to state that SOMETHING must be called upon as first principle, forever preventing the slide into degeneration.

      And my (our?) hunch is that if we are to participate in this age-old discussion, we should perhaps be going beyond what Defoe et al were basing virtue on (land ownership per se), drawing from sources of legitimacy neither feudal nor ultraliberal.

      Being within the pale means being fair game.
      Notjing will allow us to jump back out again, unless what is beyond the pale has already been mapped out as a small farm landscape.

    • Here we come full circle to the tension I set up in the original post between different kinds of ‘populism’. And I agree that what you’re foreseeing is quite likely – the slow grinding away of nationalist-capitalist legitimacy, and its ability to exert hegemony, though probably not before numerous nationalisms and nativisms and authoritarianisms have spread their toxins. These are the conditions in which what I called in an earlier post ‘supersedure states’ might form in the interstices of zombie capitalist nation states – and I think civic republican procedures would serve their populaces of peasants well. The most obvious alternative where the remit of the nation-state no longer runs are warlord states, as mentioned above – which once routinised might look something like feudalism or a tributary mode of production. Some of these wolves are already circling…

      Or the Democrats might win the next election and then everything will be OK, right?

      • Chris,
        Politically I’m a moderate, independent so I’m not naive enough to think a Democratic win would somehow put our country on track. It might help reign in Trump but I’m not even sure of that. His behavior seems completely uncontrollable. Watching the news I often feel as though our country has gone down the proverbial rabbit hole. We hear comments and read tweets from our president and can’t believe he gets away with this behavior. Yet no one seems to be able to stop it. I don’t know how we pull back from this. Maybe this is exactly what collapse looks like. You wake up one day and nothing is as it was. People keep trying to pretend the world is the same but it never will be.

  17. I agree with much of what Jody says. A few additional points, from my perspective.
    *I recently took some relatives to visit Wiliamsburg and Jamestown and also up to Monticello (Jefferson’s home). The tours are quite informative, and NOT what you might have experienced as a school child. In Williamsburg, in the old Capitol building, about 75 of us were ushered into a room with a big table and chairs. Each of us was given a card as we entered. The select few who got the right cards were allowed to sit at the table and pretend to deliberate the future of Virginia. The great majority were left looking on. None of those sitting were women or black or brown. Yet the subject for debate was George Mason’s paper declaring that ‘all men are created equal’.

    Several times in Williamsburg, we were treated to very good actors portraying Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s words of independence and equality can still stir the soul. Yet, at Monticello, we toured the physical place that Jefferson built (and went deeply into debt), and we see that it was actually built and maintained by slaves. My sister commented that Jefferson was not considerate of his own family. Nobody knows exactly what the relationship was between Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson.

    We do know that Jefferson bought the Louisiana Purchase in order to provide ‘lebensraum’ for small white farmers…and maybe plantation owners. He saw the Native Americans as an impediment to be removed. Jefferson was smart enough to see that his idea of a Peasant Republic in the US would not fly unless there was plenty of new land open in the West.

    *Last evening I watched some smart people discuss Frank Capra’s movies, especially those made immediately after WWII which laid out his vision of what America wanted to be. (It’s on the FilmStruck site.) Yet the commenters noted that Capra’s vision had both a bright side and a dark side. On the one hand, he had faith in the common man. But he also feared the common man turned into a mob. While he did find cinematic ways to end his pictures, he never really provided any persuasive idea about how to solve the dilemma. Capra was investigated, but never charged, by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
    *Capra and Luisis end their book on The Systems View of Life with a quote from Vaclav Havel:
    ‘The kind of hope that I often think about….I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation….Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.’

    *I was carrying Ward Farnsworth’s book The Practicing Stoic yesterday and a woman asked me to find her a good quotation. I came up with this one from Seneca:
    ‘Two things we must therefore root out: fear of distress in the future and the memory of distress in the past. The one concerns me no longer. The other concerns me not yet.’

    I do not take Senecas words as implying that we should not learn from the past nor attempt to anticipate the future. Merely that living today is the only thing you can actually do. As Jody says, getting your household in order may be the best thing you can do today.

    The other quote that I quickly came up with is a close second:
    ‘If you wish to make Pythocles rich, do not add to his store of money, but subtract from his desires.’

    Proverbs famously indicate that two conflicting actions are needed:
    A stitch in time saves nine
    Haste makes waste.

    Both are true, depending on the circumstances.

    My conclusion, which nobody seems to like, is to simply embrace Pragmatism. I think it is the least likely to get us into a quagmire.

    Don Stewart

    • I’m not quite sure what you mean by ‘pragmatism’ – are we talking Dewey, James and Peirce, or maybe something simpler like Voltaire’s ‘cultivate your own garden’. I’m reasonably sympathetic to the latter, but there are some times in history when circumstances force people to nail their political colours to the mast, and I think those times may be nigh – they already are for many people. It’s as well to think about the colours ahead of time.

      I’m not much of a one for philosophy, but stoicism does strike me as a rich tradition that’s apposite to our times.

      On Jefferson, historians down the years have rehearsed every possible position on the implications of his joint roles as civic republican and slaveholder. I guess I’d just say that the civic republican tradition is bigger than Jefferson, so for those who want to discount his republican thought on the grounds of his slaveholding, that’s fine – it’s not the same as discounting republicanism. I would say, though, that the contemporaneous European powers, with their mix of liberalism, conservatism and radical democracy, were also slaveholding powers. It’s not civic republicanism alone that’s tarnished by slaveholding. Probably the only western political tradition that emerges unscathed from that association is communism – but it has other skeletons in its closet.

    • Don,
      I looked up the definition of pragmatism just to make sure I understood its meaning.
      1. character or conduct that emphasizes practicality.
      2. a philosophical movement or system having various forms, but generally stressing practical consequences as constituting the essential criterion in determining meaning, truth, or value.

      I agree with you that people will likely find actions that yield practical results will tend to be repeated.
      And I enjoyed your pontification on the meaning of flow. The book A systems view of life gave me a wonderful view of the many layers of complexity there are to this thing we call “life”.

  18. Chris
    Rather than try to pin down some historical definition of Pragmatism, I will say that, to my mind, the best modern thinking comes from, first, the engineer and physicist Adrian Bejan:

    ‘Human life is an immense vasculature of interwoven flows, all driven by an assembly of converters of fuel and food into weight moved over a distance. The net effect of human life is the more intense rearrangement of the global landscape–more intense than it would be in the absence of human life.

    Are we all going with this flow? O course we are, and we do it every chance we get.’ (From The Physics of Life)

    The second modern thinker I would reference is Dan Siegel, the psychiatrist. Dan points out that health is achieved when we achieve the flow state (that Bejan describes for physical substances) in terms of our mind. Neither rigid nor chaotic.

    Bejan notes that we are aware of some of the factors pushing us in the directions we choose, but not nearly all of them.

    Which leads me to suggest that cultivating awareness of the physical and mental forces and doing what seems to be the right thing (as suggested by Havel) is about as good as we are going to get. Trying to decide which rigid system of organization to adopt is likely counter-productive. As Bejan repeatedly emphasizes, the evolution on which life depends requires freedom of movement. If there is a single political organizing theme, it should probably be freedom with accountability.

    Don Stewart

    • I don’t see what I’m saying as an attempt to decide on adopting a rigid system of organisation…I see it more in terms of finding some contexts within which people can do what seems to be the right thing as you put it. And civic republicanism is a promising one. In the future I think that a lot more people are going to have to do politics – have to do a LOT of politics – in some different ways to what we’ve been accustomed to in recent times, and the civic republican tradition provides some good resources for doing so.

  19. Don, Jody, I found your comments thought-provoking. There’s much there that seems sensible to me, but I do think the tone of both comments returns to the discussion on this site recently about the benefits of individual vs systemic change.

    Getting one’s house in order, living each day pragmatically, are all well and good, but won’t do much for the rest of society. There seems to be a world-weariness in promoting that way forward that despairs of trying to play any part in a larger scale project. It is of course, easier in the moment to control your own behaviour than it control someone else’s, but there’s also a ruthlessly individualistic aspect to this view – like following Adam Smith’s directive to seek one’s own interest, but without any faith in any kind of invisible hand.

    Many on this site are halfway or more to being neo-peasants already, but the transformations for many others in our broken society would be just as hard, if not harder, than getting involved in a larger political project aimed at systemic change. It’s all very well assuming that circumstances will force them to learn quickly or perish in a resource-constrained future, but that’s hardly the kindest view on offer.

    If virtue is to be considered a kind of personal moral quality (and I don’t actually think it should be), then there is surely a moral case for attempting to change society, rather than putting one’s own future flourishing first. But I think the virtue of civic republicanism might well be more about a simple willingness to play one’s part in a political process larger than oneself, rather than measuring oneself against certain specific forms of behaviour considered ideal. Ideally, of course, that political process will be more thoroughly accountable and democratic than anything existing in our own societies right now, and much more so than anything Thomas Jefferson ever dreamed of!

    • Many on this site are halfway or more to being neo-peasants already, but the transformations for many others in our broken society would be just as hard, if not harder, than getting involved in a larger political project aimed at systemic change.

      It is almost a lifetime’s work to get into a position of becoming an agrarian peasant, so I agree that it will be almost impossible for more than a tiny percentage of a modern population to manage it. But what if it is too late for “systemic change”?. Even if there were a “larger political project” that resulted in a universal commitment to systemic change, it might be harder to make that change actually happen than come to the decision that change is needed.

      So let us consider the prospect that systemic change will actually happen. First, the political will to make the change must come from somewhere, presumably a grass-roots movement. There is no indication whatsoever that anything like that will happen. In the US the exact reverse is happening. Second, if we consider that a decision has been made to reconfigure modern civilization to a low-energy, low resource consumption and environmentally benign society, how would such a thing actually happen. Are cities to be abandoned? Industrial agriculture? Fossil fuels?

      Yes, it will probably be far too hard for the vast majority to even get the option to become agrarian peasants individually, but it would probably be even harder for them to get there collectively, given the political and physical barriers against radical changes to the status quo.

      In such a situation, there is only one real possibility for survival; make the decision to leave the city and prepare for a life without money and modernity very, very soon. Even better would be to have made that step years ago. Such a step is not a panacea; it just raises the odds of survival from zero to perhaps the low double digit range (I’m ever the optimist).

      Except perhaps for the captain, there is no shame in taking to the lifeboats when a ship is sinking and certain to disappear below the waves. Is that “ruthlessly individualistic” behavior, or just common sense? Why would you encourage anyone to stay aboard rather than abandon ship? I think one of the major benefits of SFF is its exploration of the best ways of getting people into the boats and cooperatively rowing away together.

      • Joe,
        I love your realism and pragmatism. While others speak to our dreams of what might be you always bring the conversation back to what is. I appreciate that.

    • Andrew,
      “…there is surely a moral case for attempting to change society, rather than putting one’s own future flourishing first.”

      I do continue to do things that I believe benefits society, but like Don I’m fairly pragmatic (i.e. practical minded). Every neopeasant (farmer) will spend the majority of their time working on their farm. Everyday chores will demand attention. So it is with me. Much of my day is filled with home and work chores. I don’t think this makes me unsympathetic or ignorant of the needs of society. It just means that I have work to do and take a certain amount of pleasure in doing it.
      But let me ask you a question. What types of specific actions do you personally take that you believe plays a role in changing the larger society in which you live?

  20. Andrew
    I hesitate to get into political engineering. But perhaps this thought will help clarify certain things. I said that people need maximum freedom to adapt, but also accountability. In my corporate years, I figured out that when it came to law, what corporations wanted was not deregulation, but shielding from damage claims. Physicians, for example, may kill somebody, but if they follow Standard of Practice, they cannot be successfully sued. As I indicated earlier, a farmer who sprays a noxious chemical on his field which drifts over to his neighbors field has considerable protection in terms of damages. A fossil fuel company can continue to sell polluting fuels and actually get subsidies, not harm judgements in courts.

    Now lets think about harms (torts). Some of them are very local in nature. If I do not obey traffic laws and hit your car, then I am liable for the damages. The government which needs to deal with that is very local. Probably, as a practical matter, a state (to keep from balkanizing the laws). When it gets to global warming gasses or ocean pollution, then the government needs to be the United Nations. And the penalties should be either taxes on the pollution or fines with jail terms. If the issue is river and lake water pollution, then a watershed government is called for.

    If we try to set up traditional ‘survey line’ governments, then the governments won’t be aimed at the real issues except by accident.

    There are other issues that governments need to address, such as fire safety and family law and education which all have their own peculiarities. We would have to look at each one to determine what sort of government could deal most effectively with what really needs to be done…while leaving citizens as much flexibility as possible.

    In terms of economic regulation, I suggest that the nation state is obsolete. The world is now run, predominately, by global corporations. Those global corporations should be regulated by a global government, such as the United Nations. But I should put ‘regulation’ in quotation marks, because I think the regulation should usually be torts or taxes….not volumes describing permissible behaviors which shield the corporations from the tort process. In other words, back to English Common Law.

    If we can rationalize government, then the citizens are free to find ways to cooperate to create the sort of local community they want to live in. Part of the current program of most governments is to prevent the citizens from having any real power. And scholarly studies indicate that the citizens don’t have any power. And, as Frank Capra knew, democracy has tremendous promise and also tremendous peril.

    Don Stewart

    • Don,
      I nominate you President of the World. Not only because you understand the details as well as the big picture, but also because you would never want the job. That is the perfect description of the kind of leaders our world needs.

  21. Andrew
    Against my better judgment, I am also going to pontificate on ‘what is flowing’.

    Bejan’s Constructal Law states that everything from plumes of smoke to electrical currents to rivers to dogs fetching sticks thrown into a lake to humans walking across a landscape to Federal Express networks evolve in the direction of minimum-friction flow.

    Now, let’s suppose our goal is to move in the direction of Peasant Republics. Then, if we want to take people willingly rather than at the point of a gun, we have to define what it is we want to flow and also make that flow sensible to most people.

    If you ask a Food Company what is flowing in their business, they would say:
    ‘Palatability, which is enabled by clever combinations of sugars, salt, and fat. Measured by dopamine hits.’
    Good luck with a Peasants Republic in that sort of atmosphere.

    So the challenge to Peasant’s Republics, in my view, is to change what is flowing and to make people aware of the flow. The loftiest goal I can think of is:
    ‘Nutritious food which supports health for both the environment and the person eating the food, with distribution designed to pose as little environmental burden as possible.’
    I won’t dwell on the problems we might have as we tried to change the character of ‘what is flowing’. You can imagine all the challenges as well as I can.

    Don Stewart

  22. Joe, I don’t mean to suggest that people shouldn’t transform themselves into neo-peasants if they feel able to do so, but I also think that promoting systemic change should be part of that project. We just don’t know if it’s too late or not, but worrying about that doesn’t really change anything – there’s just no way to know, so we might as well act as if we can succeed.

    ‘I think one of the major benefits of SFF is its exploration of the best ways of getting people into the boats and cooperatively rowing away together.’

    I agree entirely with this – we should try to cooperatively ensure that everyone gets into a boat.

    Jody, I probably shouldn’t have written the sentence that you quote, because it implies that acting politically should be seen as a personal moral virtue – something we can judge each other by, and that’s specifically not what I intended. I’m answer to your question, I don’t do anything! That’s why I’m here though – I want to work out what I can do, or rather, what we can do.

    The whole thing’s extremely challenging – which I think is Don’s point! So what shall we do? Do we need ultimstely to promote regional agrarian conventions? Try to open a larger conversation? How can we go about doing that? Let’s actually have this conversation, rather than worry about whether or not it’s worth having!

  23. Thanks again for the comments.

    Jody, my ‘Democrat’ jibe was just a silly joke. It wasn’t aimed at you, though it looks like it was on re-reading. Apologies – it was too late in the evening for me to be attempting intelligent commentary…

    Otherwise, thanks for the various different positions being charted. I think we’re all agreed that any kind of transition towards a sensible and sustainable post-capitalist politics is prodigiously difficult at best. I agree with Don that the nation-state has become economically obsolete, but it’s still the container of contemporary politics, and that’s problematic at a number of levels – which is why I’m unimpressed by Kingsnorth’s view that the Trump and Brexit votes represent some kind of opening towards a more authentic and enduring politics. I’m not sure about the idea of a world government enforcing regulation though – contrast the UN and the WTO. I think we need to break down the global economy into a more plural affair. Meanwhile I see that Mr Trump has nodded through the merger of Bayer and Monsanto…

    • The merger of Bayer and Monsanto reminds of something that happened last week. A young man newly relocated to my community from Texas came into Soilmaker to purchase a soil for a raised bed vegetable garden he and his wife were starting. I asked what brought him to Indiana and he said jobs; he works for Monsanto and his wife for Tate and Lyle, a company that makes food ingredients.
      That struck me as very ironic. Here is a young man and woman who believe growing fresh food is important yet they work for companies that promote industrial agriculture and processed food manufacturing. Perhaps this is how change starts. It happens from the inside and works it’s way outwards. I found some measure of hope in this.
      I agree with you Don, that people who learn to grow and cook fresh food are doing the most for their health and the environment.

  24. Apologies to those commenters whose thoughts on the above were lurking in the comments pending folder. Now approved…

  25. See Rob Hopkins interview with Robert Macfarlane today:

    Robert is one of the most fascinating people to follow on Twitter, and he had recently tweeted a quote by Rebecca Solnit where she said, “the destruction of the Earth is due in part to a failure of the imagination, or to its eclipse by systems of accounting that can’t count what matters.”

    If you compare my statement about what is flowing according to a food company, and what I think needs to flow in terms of Regenerative Agriculture (or a Peasant’s Republic, or whatever you want to call it), you will immediately see the connection to what Rebecca tweeted and Robert re-tweeted. If we do not measure and respond to the good things that CAN result from the growing and cooking and eating of real food, then it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have. We’re just moving deck chairs on the Titanic.

    One other thought, triggered by Macfarlane’s book on the words we are rapidly losing. Lisa Feldman Barrett has shown that the more words we have for emotions, the better we can maneuver with our emotions. The more words for emotions, the more emotionally mature we become. The same is probably true of food. My food co-op hired a checker who was black and could not recognize collard greens. Somehow, she has gotten completely divorced from her heritage. She would doubtless recognize two dozen different types of potato chip. Which is not a good sign for the Peasants Republic.

    Don Stewart

    • “If we do not measure and respond to the good things that CAN result from the growing and cooking and eating of real food, then it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have. We’re just moving deck chairs on the Titanic.”

      To press your metaphor, I think most of us here would broadly agree that current global politics amounts to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic – though we may differ on how many lifeboats there are and where exactly they’re located. I’d like to think we could all agree it’s a good idea to identify where the lifeboats are and ensure that they’re in good working order, and I consider this post and this blog in general to be an attempt to do that, though I recognise that other people may think my efforts are ineffectual and wish to do it differently.

      To press the metaphor even further – 32% of the people aboard the Titanic survived, while the available lifeboats could have accommodated 53% of them. Survival of 1st class passengers was 61%, standard class 42% and third class 24%. Survival of women was 75% and men 20%. Food for thought.


      • I agree Chris, knowing where the lifeboats are located is of utmost importance. Perhaps we need to back up a step and define when “lifeboats” are. I think a “life boat” is securing access to the resources needed for survival in the event that our situation tanks. Shelter, water, food, and energy pretty much in that order describes the lifeboats. So I agree with Don that “the growing and cooking and eating of real food” is of utmost importance. Our ability to secure fresh food (I would also add preserve dried foods such as beans and grains in a deep pantry), and cook that food is probably a lifeboat we all need to find and secure. It is not only essential for survival it is also essential for our health. A sick or diseased person is not likely to survive long if food and medicine are limited.

        • The lifeboat I’d add to your list is sociality, and therefore politics. For human beings, it’s not an optional extra. Least of all in a world of 7.6 billion people facing numerous crises. A lack of good politics will compromise access to the other life-giving resources you mention. I genuinely think the story of sociality behind those Titanic survival figures I gave is worth very careful consideration.

          • Yes, I agree that sociality is indeed an important ‘lifeboat’. Among other benefits, sociality can counter a descent into martial law. We are probably only ‘nine meals away’ from martial law, and anarchy or civic republicanism may not have much of a chance then.

            An example that comes to mind is the Greek ‘potato revolution’. In a collapsing economy with high prices in the supermarkets, direct sales were arranged with local farmers, who got higher prices than they would otherwise get from the middlemen. Municipalities eventually organized the sales and distributions. These municipal governments were presumably serving the common good, not beholden to the special interests of the supermarket owners and middlemen.

            In an earlier comment, Joe asked for suggestions on how he ‘and the people within an hour’s walk of my farm could organize ourselves into a cohesive and independent ‘tribe’ if necessary, preferably in advance of doom.’ Working with neighbors on a collective supply of food could be a good start. I’ve been involved with ‘food buying clubs’ in several places I’ve lived, where we organized and placed combined orders of food at wholesale prices. The distributors would make regular deliveries to us along with the local supermarkets they supplied. On delivery days, volunteers would take delivery from the truck at a central location and split up the goods among the various households who would stop by later that day to pick up their orders. Besides saving money, it’s a good way to get to know people in the immediate community and gain experience working with them on shared goals and shared benefits.

      • Survival of women was 75% and men 20%. Food for thought.

        I think that at the time of the Titanic sinking there was still an intuitive awareness by most people of the importance of the Net Reproductive Rate (NRR), which is the number of surviving daughters that a woman will bear in her lifetime. This is a far more important number for species survival than total reproductive rate or total fertility rate (TFR)

        If a situation arises when high death rates are likely, it is far more important to save the lives of women than men, since women are the foundation of future generations. Perhaps that’s why it was “Women and children first!” during the sinking. We moderns live in a world of low birth rates and low death rates, so we don’t pay much attention to anything but the TFR. I fear that will change soon.

        • It’s an interesting issue. I’d purvey a more cultural argument, along the lines of Bertrand Russell’s ‘the superior virtue of the oppressed’ http://www.philquin.com/blog/2015/8/30/bertrand-russells-the-superior-virtue-of-the-oppressed

          Russell argues that oppressed groups are often invested ideologically with all sorts of lofty virtues, which tend to disappear as soon as they achieve parity. Hence ‘women and children first’ is now just ‘children first’. Female reproduction tends to be tightly controlled in male-dominated societies, and isn’t articulated in terms of total group fertility. Sons are preferred to daughters etc.

          Still, you could be right.

          When I lived on a Canadian island there was a weekly dangerous cargo ferry sailing from which all civilian passengers were banned. When I went down to Baja California the dangerous cargo ferry banned only women.

          • What a wonderful and clever essay by Russell! Thank you for the link.

            You may be right that women were just invested with a ‘bloom’ of ‘native virtue’ worth saving only when they were oppressed, but I wonder what kind of ‘oppression’ leads the oppressor to favor his own death over the oppressed.

            There has certainly been a long history of patriarchal domination of women, but I wonder if modern men and women, with their more complete emancipation from the patriarchy, would agree to a purely random selection of candidates for the lifeboats, or whether the men would still offer the women first chance? I think most men would still make the offer. I don’t think it’s just “children first”. Would a husband and wife stand on deck and agree to flip a coin to see who survives? I think not.

            In matters of life or death, it may be that an unconscious but powerful realization that women are far more biologically important to the species than men manifests itself in an unwritten rule that women are to be saved before men. The assertion that it might be just an artifact of men’s oppression of women and has now almost disappeared seems unconvincing to me. I think something deeper is going on.

          • Well, that surely is the vehicle to get the SFF revolution going in no time – we are powerless, saintly clouds of dust rise with our every step; our unfair advantage is a mighty one!
            We’ll have our nations carved up into virtuous smallholdings in no time, without even having to touch the dirty rod of the political flagpole, and when critical mass is reached and fall from grace begins, we’ll remain rigid and won’t be giving an inch.

            (I think I got carried away a little by all those Victorian methaphormoses…)

          • Joe, you could be right. I’ve heard older women say how disregarded they feel socially compared to when they were younger. But is this because of a biological recognition of their post-reproductive status, or because a still-patriarchal culture emphasises youthful female attractiveness? A bivariate analysis of Titanic mortality by age and gender is called for! Not that it would answer the question…

          • Have women jumped the shark in our countries?
            If by ‘older’ you mean women who are still of working-age, you may have a cohort that’s lost the ‘innocence of youth’ as per Russell and not yet gained what may be the only sort of tangible connectedness and authority they’ll ever experience in an urban setting – being retired and taking care of their grandchildren.

            Striving for the privilege of being pure because they’re attractive, and then only coming back to a role of holding their family together once they can no longer strive for recognition in gender-neutral work surroundings is, shall we say, not the ideal place from which to complain about lack of attention.

            (This is not meant to accuse any woman of course.)

  26. Don,
    I agree with the idea of “freedom with accountability”. That sums up very well my own political and social beliefs. And I agree that the only way to truly find freedom is to cultivate awareness.

    Accountability (or responsibility) could be simply understood as the path that leads to maturity. A parent provides rules for their children, structure and security, a safe environment that allows a child to explore and learn. Eventually children develop the maturity to decide for themselves. A parent needs to let go of parental authority over their children or their children will not become fully adult. A mature adult is free to act and to be accountable for their actions.

    I grew up in a small agricultural community where freedom and accountability was expected. People had strong work ethic and honesty. Everyone expected to reap the rewards of their own effort. The community frowned upon anyone who was lazy or tried to live off others. It was a serious mistake to lie or cheat others. I assume these attitudes came from our Scandinavian immigrant heritage.

    I think our community was very pragmatic with a relatively strong tolerance for trying unusual methods or ideas. If people tried something new and it worked, well and good. If it didn’t work out, that was OK too because now we knew. There was a certain amount of laughter but not outright ridicule. I often heard people say “Well at least he tried!” Maybe some of this attitude was developed because as immigrants people started from scratch and built a life. They learned from their mistakes. No one in the community was allowed to starve, but if you tried something and didn’t harvest a good crop it may mean lean times until the next growing season. There was an attitude that encouraged inventiveness but you were responsible for the consequences if the outcome wasn’t what you hoped. I think this attitude made people and our community strong and resilient.

    In the process of trial and error humans explore and find what works best. This is what evolution means. A safety net is fine for children while they are learning, but too much of a safety net stifles their ability to mature. It may not be possible to scale these ideas up to a global community but certainly they apply in small local groups. And it doesn’t mean that liars and cheats should be allowed to get away with the ill gotten goods!

    The difficulty I have with political policies enacted by people who believe they know what is right and get to decide for everyone else is that it takes away our freedom to choose. The difficulty I have with groups who believe they must step in confiscate resources (through taxation) to provide for people who don’t have enough (through welfare programs) is that they are not allowing people to mature into productive adults. “Give a man a fish he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish he eats for lifetime.” I don’t believe in legislating morality or redistributing accountability. Both are a form of “nanny” state.

    To my thinking government isn’t about being in charge, controlling how others live, or being the parents to society. I am a firm believer in self-government. A government serves a body of people who chose to be governed. Leaders serve the group by good example, they do not rule it. And knowing human nature and power trips, groups have to make sure they can control leaders who lose sight of that.

    Self government by people is formed when a group of people come together and discuss how to get along and to work together as a group. There are many social benefits accrued from working together that an individual could not accomplish. An Amish barn raising comes to mind. Building bridges and other social infrastructure. Firefighters. Hospitals. Schools. Virtue is best described as the behaviors members of the group believe are the most appropriate. Virtues are formed from our morals and ethics. But each member of the group has freedom and accountability to chose for themselves and to reap the rewards or consequences. Each member is expected to act like a responsible adult.

    I think perhaps this is the tension you are referring to Chris? The shifting roles and responsibilities of the group and the individual. When do we bow to the group and when do we stand on our own. When do we punish members of the group for inappropriate behavior? I would say it is an ever changing flow that is highly dependent on available resources.


    • Jody, the kind of farm political economy you describe sounds like it operated along implicit civic republican lines. I guess it was the kind of society that the US agrarian populists tried, and failed, to defend – one of the difficulties I mentioned above, but also something that raises the stakes for identifying civic republicanism more explicitly as a political rallying point. An issue I’ve tried to highlight is that CR isn’t about minutely regulating people’s conduct, it’s about defining the things we need to reach agreement on in order to deliver collective benefit, while otherwise leaving people to get on with providing for themselves. The key point is that it doesn’t just assume there’ll be agreement on the basis of kin, local, ethnic or other allegiances.

      I’d just add that CR seeks to avoid extremes of wealth, not because equality is regarded as a good in itself but because large inequalities are regarded as a source for the corruption of politics, which I’d say is amply borne out in contemporary times. But inequities do tend to get locked in down the generations, and are then often justified by the wealthier in terms of their hard work etc. A degree of restitution is compatible with CR. For me it’s also compatible with human empathy, even if people’s poverty results from bad choices rather than bad luck. And also with collective self-interest – a society with marginalised pariah groups is making a rod to beat its own back.

      All of these things are potentially easier to achieve in smaller-scale smallholder societies, but such societies are also potentially more prone to landlordism, scapegoatism etc.

      • Chris,
        I agree that it is easier to achieve the things you ascribe to CR in smaller-scale smallholder societies. Which brings us back to the idea of how many people we can actually know.
        I am reminded of a conversation from the movie Crocodile Dundee. It had to do with seeing a psychologist for sharing your problems.

        Sue Charlton: “People go to a psychiatrist to talk about their problems. She just needed to unload them. You know, bring them out in the open.

        Michael J. “Crocodile” Dundee: Hasn’t she got any mates?

        Sue Charlton: You’re right. I guess we could all use more mates. I suppose you don’t have any shrinks at Walkabout Creek.

        Michael J. “Crocodile” Dundee: Nah – – back there, if you got a problem, you tell Wally. And he tells everyone in town… brings it out in the open… no more problem.”

        Inequality, restitution, self-interest, good luck, bad choices…all these issues seem to be less of a problem in smaller groups because people tend to actually be better behaved when their “mates” know them well. I think the problem with all political action is the distance from others that creates abstract issues politicians try to solve with public policy that over-generalizes.

        • Inequality, restitution, self-interest, good luck, bad choices…all these issues seem to be less of a problem in smaller groups because people tend to actually be better behaved when their “mates” know them well. I think the problem with all political action is the distance from others that creates abstract issues politicians try to solve with public policy that over-generalizes.

          Amen. And “All politics is local” as Tip O’Neal would offer. The flip side of this is the shield of anonymity that allows poor behavior to flourish. Accountability. Transparency. These can be made to work at larger community scales, but the difficulty it seems to me arises with the cost of operation at larger scale. A negative economy of scale as it were. Just as many hands make light work – many eyes have their own contribution (indeed herd animals especially seem to have evolved a behavior favoring group size for predator detection being spread among many). And at some point trade offs occur – too many cooks… etc. Instead of a Free Trade Zone, perhaps we seek a Tradeoff Free Zone 🙂

          • It’d be a more guarded amen from me. It certainly is the way things can work in smaller-scale communities compared to the violence and anomie of the city…but then again you can also have violent landlordism, enforced subordination (caste violence, for example) and intra/inter familial strife in small-scale agrarian societies where people have nowhere to run and are a long way from any niceties about individual human rights.

          • Interesting thoughts from the Small Farm guy. And I’ll not dispute that the issues you raise do happen. My next questions then are: Is one safer in a small community compared to a large one (say, crimes per capita type statistics), and does civic republicanism have anything to offer over other forms of self governing in such situations?

          • I’d say that it depends on the community. My guess would be that arbitrary violence is commoner in urban settings, but in certain rural settings violence finds people who step out of line…and it’s easier to organise against that kind of violence in the town than in the country.

            Civic republicanism is rather a non-starter in a society organised strongly by caste or landlordism, because the basic requirements of citizenship aren’t met.

  27. Adrian Bejan a Pragmatist?
    Quotes from pages 9 and 11 of The Physics of Life:

    When the flowing entities are free to change, they turn to the right, and then to the left, and to the right again, to find the better way of flowing.

    The live system has flow, organization, freedom to change and evolution. Once present, these features distinguish the alive from the dead.

    The Physics of Life explores how freedom is the most basic and most overlooked property of nature, and of thermodynamics for that matter. Freedom means the ability of a flow configuration to change, morph, evolve, spread, and retreat. This is the property that makes natural organization possible. Without freedom to change, organization and evolution cannot happen.

    To improve a design while loading it with constraints disguised as good ideas is nonsense.

    Don Stewart

  28. Don,
    I often wonder if the realization that life can only be lived in the “now” is something that few people actually understand. The quest for solutions to life’s problems often takes the form of understanding the past (learning from history) or into the future (changing the trajectory of society) that most often cannot be acted upon. It’s a dilemma for sure. That is why I love the Chinese saying “Pray to God, and row away from the rocks!” To me this means, believe what you may but act today.

    • Jody
      As I creep up on fourscore years, it seems to get easier to choose what it is I want to do today. When my wife and I were young and buried in work and commuting and 2am feedings and colic and washing dirty diapers, the focus was definitely on ‘tomorrow’ (as in the Annie song). And, amazingly, the colic went away and the baby was sleeping through the night and everything began to fall into place.

      Now we are old. I think both of us realize that most people die between the ages of 80 and 85. So we don’t have a lot to look forward to in the distant future, but not much to fear either. It just is what it is. Given those facts, what is it you think you ought to do today, and what is stopping you?


      • Don,
        Next year I will be threescore years and I expect I’ll be lucky to add another 25 odd years. Even though I’m younger than you I don’t worry for the future or fear the changes. Perhaps having raised our children to adulthood it is ingrained biologically that we relax.
        I try to spend my time fully. I don’t think about things I ought to do, but rather what I’m able to do. Each week has its normal list of things to do such as housework, gardening, taking care of our three dogs. I’m not yet retired but Soilmaker is open seasonally so half the year work has its demands.
        I have long practiced mindfulness and I no longer think of today’s chores as I “ought” to do but rather try to be present with what I am doing. I’ve recently begun the practice of intermittent fasting (5-2 Sundays and Wednesdays) to lose weight and heal metabolic disorder before I develop Type II diabetes. This has been a major change and requires willpower. My point is that I’m a firm believer in doing what I decide to do. So the only thing stopping me is me until I decide otherwise!

        • Jody
          You might also like to check out Valter Longo’s 5 Day Fasting-Mimicking Diet. He has demonstrated lots of systemic metabolic changes.

          Don Stewart

          • Also, the metabolic changes precede the full achievement of weight loss goals. One way to think of it is that screwed up metabolism is responsible for the weight. But the metabolism can be repaired somewhat independently of weight.

            Don Stewart

          • Don,
            I have checked out Valter’s longo’s fasting-mimicking diet. I’ve been doing lots of reading on this topic including metabolic dysfunction and weight. So far my understanding can be summarized as:
            -sugar-rich foods spike our blood sugar
            -eventually insulin resistance becomes the start of metabolic disorder.
            -insulin resistance reduces energy taken up by muscle tissue (thus making us tired) and more effective at storing excess sugar in fat cells, thus producing both fatigue and weight gain.
            -As long as insulin levels in the blood remain high don’t lose weight by restricting calories we lose weight by reducing insulin.
            -fasting is the only way to reduce insulin in the blood and turn the metabolism into fat burning.
            So far the process is working.

      • Don,
        I think the serenity prayer is an appropriate way of viewing action.
        God grant me
        the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
        the courage to change the things I can,
        and the wisdom to know the difference.

        • Jody
          Small endorsement of the Fasting Mimicking Diet. My wife and I were doing it in ‘homemade’ style: 4 pounds of non-starchy veggies per day plus about 70 grams of nuts. It worked. Metabolic markers all got better and we lost some weight. The thyroid problems I had developed when I was worried about the fate of the world got better.

          Then we hit a plateau. Perhaps I was getting tired of measuring. At any rate, we decided to order the Pro-Lon boxes. You get this pretty small box with not much volume of food (not at all like 4 pounds of non-starchy veggies). You eat exactly what is in the box on exactly the day specified and you don’t eat anything else. A mix of solid food and dried soups that you reconstitute.

          We are on the 5th day now, so I don’t have any new metabolic measures. Probably get some in a couple of weeks. Wife losing a pound a day, I’m losing half a pound a day.

          Three points:
          *The most effective medical intervention for metabolic disorders is gastric bypass surgery. You are forced to eat small amounts. Maybe the physically small amount in the Pro-Lon boxes mimics the gastric bypass?
          *The Meal Replacement practice is the most effective means of dieting. All the decisions are already made. You go on about your life and don’t try to think.
          *Longo has the evidence that the body ‘resets’ due to the perceived shortage of food. There is a complex reaction involving both autophagy (you disassemble and digest parts of your own body) and activation of more stem cells (to rebuild. So you are, in effect, getting younger as damaged tissues and cells are destroyed and replaced with new growth.

          Longo does not think that 5/2 plan accomplishes the goal of activating the bodies natural process for regeneration after a famine.

          I’d say do what you are doing so long as it works. If it stops working, think about Longo.


          • Don,
            Fasting can reduce the incidence of obesity, heart disease, and cancer. Fasting was probably natural for our ancestors who didn’t always find food everyday. During a fast our body works to repair itself. And fasting also reduces the amount of food we consume. Not eating two days a week has reduced our grocery bill significantly!
            My plan is to stay healthy and active, avoid disease, doctors and the pharmaceutical industry as much as possible.

  29. A response to Ruben’s very thought-provoking comment above at https://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/2018/05/florence-texas/#comment-140557

    In terms of tribes and boundedness, I think it’s easy to get overly-focused on trying to define precise external limits, which is doomed to failure. Who says there are 200 First Nations and 34 languages in BC? Mightn’t there be 33 or 35 languages, 199 or 201 tribes? Many of the languages are described as Salish. Who are the Salish? To my mind it’s like asking what are the precise boundaries of an ecosystem, or how many castes there are in India. There is no answer. Likewise with the question posed on this thread about what the right number of people is for a functioning republic. Unless we get into the situation Joe foretells of tiny isolated pockets of people surrounded by huge swathes of unpeopled land then I think it’s wiser to attend to the ambiguity of boundaries than to invest in their singularity.

    In relation to limited or unlimited language around political structures, I’m resistant to Ruben’s characterisation on both sides of the duality. Civic republicanism isn’t a universalist doctrine in the same way that liberalism is – it’s about defining the common goods for *this* political community, which aren’t necessarily the same as for other communities. It’s not necessary for a political community to consciously espouse a universal civic republican tradition (Aristotle, Cicero, Machiavelli, Jefferson etc.) in order to fit the bill. For me it works as an etic category to describe political communities that agree to deliberate on common goods – this could certainly encompass many ‘tribes’. I align myself with it because I don’t think there’s any kind of organic political community where I live that makes it possible to circumvent active deliberation…and I’m not sure such communities exist anywhere, except by ideological processes of exclusion.

    Ruben says a tribe is definitely bounded by place, but in what ways does its place bind its politics? Place conditions the kind of lives we lead and can lead in numerous ways, but I don’t see that place itself usually conditions the common goods defined in political communities intrinsically. There might be a distinctively Salish or Klahoose way of doing politics but how much of it can you read off from the characteristics of the place where the Salish or the Klahoose live? I’d draw an analogy with language: Salish is agglutinative whereas English isn’t, but this isn’t conditioned by the distinctive natures of the places where those languages emerged.

    There is currently a more or less singular global political economy which I think I’m in agreement with many people here needs breaking down into smaller units. But how we define those smaller units and the relations between them is important, and I don’t think the notion of a bounded tribe with a kind of organic, pre-political communitarian ethos is a good one for informing the process. In this respect I think Kingsnorth falls for the myth-making that the populist right is currently engaging in – eg. European nations as both independent cultural entities and bastions of Christendom fighting the barbarians at the gate, and opposing ‘globalism’ in favour of ‘nationalism’: see, for example, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/06/steve-bannon-far-right-radicalise-europe-trump

    So I dispute a hard duality of ‘limited’ vs ‘unlimited’ politics. It’s a bit like the dualistic thinking I often encounter in farming discussions, where any criticism of labour-shedding, high tech industrial agriculture is assumed to be advocacy for going ‘back’ to subsistence farming with hand tools. There are, at the moment, other possible choices.

    On the matter of the politics we want and the politics we’ll get, I accept that the politics I want probably isn’t what I’ll get. I don’t think that’s a good argument for not articulating the politics I want. If I fail to articulate it, the chances I’ll get it are lower. I concede, though, that an element of realism is useful. This is why I don’t hold out for a global capitalism that lifts everyone out of poverty and overcomes all resource constraints. But not all the alternatives to that are appealing, and I do try to hold out for ones that appeal to me more.

    • Chris,
      Thanks for the Guardian link about Steve Bannon’s escapades in Europe. More mulling will be needed on that from this perch.

      But “from this perch” is what I’d like to explore for a moment in this space. I agree with your assessment that Ruben’s comment is “very thought-provoking”. I’m not sure whether he intended his citing of the First Nations statistics for BC to be held as absolute values (no +/- consideration). I do imagine he likens the large representation of First Nations folk and the unceded nature of some of the territory to serve as an example of alternative human occupation. But I’m not inside Ruben’s head, so he’ll need to verify.

      To the “from this perch” – as I’m not in BC. I am currently in a peri-urban place in the US. I’ve been in other US places; some, such as Nebraska, have First Nations communities of scale, and also smallish immigrant communities that after more than 150 years still harbor some flavor of their original roots. On this latter I’m thinking of communities of Scandinavian, Czech, German’s from Russia… etc. The resistance to the ‘melting pot’ at a larger scale (read State, region, whole country) fascinates me. Jody has written above about her own experience in such a community.

      But let me get back to the ‘tribe’ language – and let me pick on Wilber, NE for a moment. Wilber is a VERY Czech community. I doubt the locals would welcome the notion of their being called a ‘tribe’… but more for the confusion with First Nations usage, not because other aspects of tribal relations are not appropriate. If you meet someone in say Lincoln, NE and this person mentions they’re from Wilber, you would be forgiven making the assumption the person is of Czech decent. Indeed even within the city of Lincoln there is a strong concentration of Czechs in a particular neighborhood (or at least was when I lived among them over 20 years ago).

      Why the resistance to the melting pot? Family (in the strictly kin sense) may be a piece, but I think there’s more than just kin involved here. Place – bordered, mapped, (“walled” if you will) needn’t be strictly proscribed, but place is still a important feature of the community. I think we’re in agreement here. Custom and language are important as well in community (tribal) existence.

      The fixation on the word tribe may be putting up walls in this thread. Can someone leave a particular location (as I have more than once) and still be a member of a community at the former location? A member of the tribe? For First Nations folk tribe membership certainly follows from one geography to another. In a real sense I consider myself a member of several different communities – some by kin membership, some by place of residence, and some by kindred fealty… choosing to participate such as in an online community of small farm futurists.

      At least this is how I see it from this perch.

      [btw, I liked that you linked the Ruben comment… threading is difficult sometimes]

      • Thanks Clem. Yes I think maybe the word ‘tribe’ is causing some problems. But the crux of the issue for me is that, yes, custom, language, love of place and so on are the stuff of daily life, but in what ways do they enter the politics of place? Shared knowledge and understanding for sure, but as Joe implied early on in this thread when people get down to politics they’ll be talking about practical things, albeit through specific cultural framings: water access, land access, inheritance, defence and so on. The answers will be different in different places for various reasons, but the issues and processes are quite generic. There isn’t some ‘tribal’ answer to these questions that’s qualitatively different from the political process that I’ve been driving at.

        In terms of tribes and numbers, Ernest Gellner has a famous diagram in his book ‘Nations & Nationalism’ of pre-modern social structures, encompassing a small horizontally stratified elite class and the majority of ordinary folk who are as it were vertically divided from each other by place. Perhaps we might say that in pre-modern Europe these vertically divided communities were ‘tribes’ – they spoke a little differently from one another and did things a little differently. European kin structures and historical land attachments were maybe a little shallower than in many places, and they were cross-cut to some extent with larger identities, like the church, so we don’t think of these spatial communities as ‘tribes’. But there are cross-cutting identities in BC tribes and languages too, so I think it’s necessary to attend to the ambiguity of boundaries and not only to the idea of strong differentiation by place.

    • I may have an answer to how ‘custom, language, love of place and so on’ enter the politics of place.

      Your customs and language, etc, are how you get along with your neighbors. Your neighbors, the real ones, are the people who live nearby, and aren’t leaving. You must meet them at a social plane that all of you can communicate on, and such things tend to evolve and differentiate with time. Emphasis on the ‘not leaving’ part.

      To answer Clem’s question, yes, you are a member of those communities that you bonded with before you left. But once you move away you quickly become a ghost to that community, then start to fade.

      I think this is why I have trouble with the use of the word ‘tribe’ here in 21st century USA. Because I can’t think of another (common) word for the group of local people with whom you procure your living from your habitat, and without whom, if you were excluded or wandered off, you would be much less likely to survive.
      None of that makes any sense in the modern world, but still I have a feeling that our deep psyche (or whatever that thing is) really desires the sense of contribution and dependence and belonging that comes with.
      Thus ‘tribalism’ as lifestyle accessory.

      • Yes, shared, implicit knowledge can take you a long way. But not far enough, I think. Hence the need I keep insisting on for doing politics and not thinking that it’ll just get done for us by shared community values. Perhaps I should turn this issue on its head and ask, given a local community of one’s choice, what aspects of civic republicanism AREN’T appropriate to it.

        Writing as a non-local, not-leaving denizen of the town where I live, I guess I’d raise a minor query about the benefits of staying put. I agree that there’s far too much churn in the present world, but an openness to new ideas and new people needn’t be all bad. A reader sent me this interesting article a while back:


        And a bit off topic, but here’s this from Marc Brazeau – who invariably turns out neat, succinct little articles with which I utterly disagree:


        I’m planning to write more on this at some point. Thoughts anyone?

        • Fascinating articles. At the risk of coming over all Marxist, the issue seems to me to be capitalism pure and simple. The key motive for Brazeau’s Hamiltonian big farmers is profitability, and so from their perspective (and Brazeau’s, it would seem) it makes sense to ‘consolidate’, ride the wave of productivity increases based on new tech. Get rich.

          This comes up against his small farmers, who get more out of their farming than just watching the bottom line increase. Echoes here of the kind of affective connection to place highlighted by some commentators above. But I don’t think this is simply a conflict between big capitalist farmers and doughty yeomen.

          Seems to me that the conflict is inside the heads of the small farmers. They are, after all, commodity farmers. In today’s society they would find it difficult to be otherwise. But that means that somewhere in amongst all the things that drive them is the hope that they will get lucky and cross the ‘tipping point’ of profitability. And capitalist society will make sure they hold on to that, however hopeless it might seem.

          So they’re stuck, unable to focus solely on being good capitalist farmers, and in that game only the most ruthless succeed, but also unable to give up their relationships with their lands. We all know how stupid short term productivity increases based on technology and massive chemical use will turn out to be, but shouting about that looks like a job for Cassandra. This feels to me like a parable (or a tragedy) about the insidious grip of a desire for profitability. Contra Brazeau, we need to separate it completely from working the land.

          • Maybe I’m being a little mean to my countrymen, but actually I’m not even seeing the tragedy for Mssrs. Myhre andComstock from the WSJ article that Brazeau quotes. American boys like toys such as diesel trucks and skid-steers and combines. It’s a free country and if they want to work three jobs to keep Caterpillar and Kubota in business, as well as produce some food on the side, maybe not the worst thing in the world? Seems a bit condescending of M. Brazeau and WSJ to bemoan the wretched lot of small (capitalist) farmers Myhre and Comstock.

          • Perhaps we should throw affective attachment to machines into the mix. Still tragic, but perhaps in a different sense!

            The whole thing seems pretty dysfunctional. For whatever complex of reasons, these people are maintaining a capitalist relation to the land – growing commodities for sale – but without chasing the capitalist dream. They’re currently free to do it, but I’m not sure that equates with a ‘free country’, at least not in a positive sense. Locking land into the commodity-producing economy denies any concept of it as a public good.

          • Have to agree with Michelle on the point of choices made by those in Brazeau’s piece. Working ‘off farm’ is in a sense just the flip side of having a ‘regular’ job and working ‘off site’ on a farm for whatever reason. But the relative commitment of time can vary all over the place. Farmer A might drive a school bus for ‘off farm’ which may amount to 4 hours per day (two a.m., two p.m.) and this is only for the school year. In this case the farm is still the major time commitment. Farmer B works a factory shift assembling cars and farms on weekends and during vacations from the factory. The latter sets the farm as a secondary activity.

            Farm toys (to continue with Michelle’s usage) can be extremely expensive… but only if you have to have the latest and greatest. A well maintained piece of kit from a decade or two ago can achieve some of the same ends at a much friendlier price point. Tradeoffs. What is your time worth? What ancillary benefit do you derive from farming?

          • Interesting – so we have Andrew, Michelle and Clem in the corner for Marx or Hamilton or Brazeau and Jody in the corner for Chayanov or Jefferson. I’m with Chayanov and Jefferson on this one. I think Brazeau gets this wrong (as usual)…this is not fundamentally about technology. But I’m way off topic here, so I’ll just have to cue up another blog post. Any further thoughts are grist to my (peasant-powered) mill.

          • For the record, I don’t want to be in the same corner as Brazeau and Hamilton – happy to cohabit with Michelle and Clem though!

            I agree technology is not the fundamental issue, but so far as it effects the capitalist’s nose for profitability, I don’t think it’s insignificant. I look forward to the post on this…

            To return to CR, I imagine that the general uses to which land is put will be one of the more important issues to be deliberated in public fora.

        • The Cristian Science Monitor piece about the peanut farmer bothered me. The issues raised needn’t be laid solely at the feet of agricultural evolution. Technological advances displace workers all across the spectrum. The choice between working for an hourly wage vs. working for a salary is likewise not an issue unique to the ag industry. And I would really like to see the calculation showing how the farm hand on salary could have earned a million dollars if he’d been paid by the hour instead (and what he was actually paid is not indicated for comparison). That salaried workers can be abused is wrong… ag or otherwise.

          Picking through a garbage heap for materials to resell is not the first thing one might aspire to. Finding someone who does this to supplement disability income from the government does make for an interesting story. But this type of tragedy occurs throughout society. Commodity ag is just one more industrial activity that has evolved and produced winners and losers.

          Our hunter gather ancestors would have had winners and losers among their cohort. I realize this is a cold and unsympathetic assessment… but my point is not that we as a people need to be cold and unsympathetic (quite the reverse)… but that ag needn’t be singled out as a whipping boy for technological advances.

          If and when these technologies are no longer feasible due to fossil fuel depletion, or temperature increase, or whatever other phenomenon then the glut of workers will be resolved. Until such time as we can no longer swap technology for human hands the displaced farm workers – like displaced factory workers – need to move on. Helping all displaced workers is an important activity for everyone.

          • Now Chris, this is how wars start! 🙂 Just because I refuse to concern-troll American farmers doesn’t mean I’m down with Brazeau or Hamilton! There’s a whole lot of dysfunctional dumbness happening in high civilization from top to bottom, the hard part is finding any bits that aren’t dysfunctional.

          • Until such time as we can no longer swap technology for human hands

            I don’t want to get into the chicken-egg argument about which part of technology-capitalism being the driving force in replacing human muscle with machines, but this process has been going on for centuries. As you point out, it can only continue as long as energy is available to support the industrial equipment and inputs needed to replace labor and on-site methods of maintaining soil fertility.

            Hamilton won. For Jefferson’s vision to have prevailed would have required everyone to forego the advantages of fossil fuels and keep all production based on organic resources.

            But since the Hamilton win will prove to be a Pyrrhic victory, how can the process be reversed before the energy runs out and we are forced to become an organic society once again? Must we wait for the economic disintegration of capitalist industrial agriculture to even start the process? Perhaps, but if we do, returning people to the land will be very, very difficult.

          • Well, I don’t want to start any wars… On reflection, I’ll admit that to imply some of you good people were lining up behind Mr Brazeau was a bit incendiary. No offence intended. Corrections accepted, blog post pending.

        • So what doing politics is occurring as against discussions about politics? Echo chamber value signalling is – I think we would all agree – not much use wherever it occurs. Listing different approaches tried in various cultures is a useful aspect of this blog. I’ve certainly learnt a lot here. But Ted Trainer’s point (in the essay on Resilience mentioned elsewhere in the comments on this post ) about what political structure to aim for is a good one IMO.

          What political structure can deliver outcomes of social equity and sustainability? And what elements would be required from the available tech stack going all the way back to fire and lumps o’ wood?

          I’m meeting with a bunch of social impact investors later today. We’ll have an interesting chat about investment in various community energy related initiatives. What would be useful to someone like me is some workup of political etc frameworks that might encourage and sustain these initiatives.

  30. Tribe (of the Native American kind)
    It should not shock anyone that Native Americans have had and are still having a hard time adjusting to the modern world. Here is a recent obituary:

    ‘A traditional Ponca tribal funeral ceremony will begin with a noon feast at the Ponca Tribal Center in White Eagle on Sunday, June 3, 2018, with Pastor Bruce Johnson of the Ponca Nazarene Church officiating. Following the ceremony, Henry will be laid to rest at the Ponca Tribal Cemetery northwest of White Eagle. Arrangements are under the direction of Trout Funeral Home Crematory.

    Henry was born on May 24, 1991, to Anacleto Vicento-Castillo and Jennie Rose Collins in Ponca City. Henry was a descendant of the Sun Dance Priest George Giveswater, a Chief descendant of Ponca Tribal Chief Big Elk, as well as the Ponca singers and drum makers.

    Ponca City and White Eagle provided a background where Henry embraced the ways of the Ponca Tribe. Recognizing his ancestral heritage, Henry became involved in the traditions of the Ponca, participating in a number of Sweat Ceremonies, and was growing skilled in bead work. Naturally, as a part of his observance of these traditions, Henry’s family was of great importance to him and he loved spending quality time with them. When Henry needed to express himself, he would do so by writing poetry. Henry loved music and listened intently to the lyrical perspectives of the songs playing.’

    The obituary comments that he died ‘tragically’. But how does a 27 year old die? Well, he was stabbed to death in a motel room. There were 4 people in the room. One of them pulled a big knife. 1 person was wounded and this young man was killed. The other two fled in an automobile, ran into a truck on the freeway, and were arrested.

    Probably the police have figured it out by now, but these things drop from the news.

    My conclusion, after seeing way too many of these obituaries, is that all the trappings of tribal life are simply not enough. Nor is the trappings of tribal life plus working in the casino.

    250 years ago each of these tribes was defined first and foremost by the way they made their living. Some followed the buffalo and some were mostly farmers and some were mixed farming and hunting. The tribal rituals were important, but they were an adjunct to the 95 percent of the time spent dealing with life. Today, too much tribalism has been reduced to the 5 percent we can call ritual, while the 95 percent floats in the cloud of a globalism the tribesmen don’t seem to flourish in.

    Don Stewart

  31. Wow! Is this some record for comments? They keep on going, and so much discussion!

    I need to take a day off, just to process all this.

    • I think we have about another 100 to go to beat the all time record. So keep ’em coming. Not that Small Farm Future wishes to endorse mere quantitative growth…

  32. Regarding working to jobs to stay on a farm and love of machines

    Having grown up in rural America I understand the desire to stay on the farm. I can’t say I understand the attraction to living in a big city, but I know many people who love it. Perhaps it’s a matter of what feels like home.
    I also think there is something about farming that goes deeper than producing a commodity; somewhat like the difference between just working at a job and loving what you do for a career. Perhaps the reason some people choose to work two jobs is because it’s worth doing so if it means staying on the farm.

    And after operating large front end loaders for 20 years I can say it isn’t only boys that enjoy big diesel machines! Researchers have found that some people who operate equipment develop body awareness that extends outwards and includes the machine. The machine literally becomes an extension of our body. It is more than eye to hand coordination. The machine becomes an extension of me. Operating a new machine is always frustrating because it takes time to find that coordination. It’s like trying to use the hand you don’t normally use to do a task you normally don’t think about while your doing it. For example try brushing your teeth with the non-dominant hand. (Which is actually a good exercise to do if you want to maintain neuroplasticity!)

    I think humans develop a pleasure in mastering the use of tools, even machines. I also think part of the pleasure of being a farmer or rancher is our connection to the land, animals, and even the crops we grow. Farming and hunting bring out skills that are as old as humanity itself. And there is a deeply satisfying connection we feel when we do these things. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to live without big diesel machines. I’m only saying I understand why farm boys might work two jobs if it means staying on the land they love.

    • Nicely put.

      The ‘use of tools’ thought opens another avenue I think merits some attention. And not simply the use of tools (and mastery of the same) but also the attitude to invent tools or to invent new approaches to solve problems in front of us. Sometimes there are tools that might serve, but we seek an even faster, or more elegant solution.

      Political organization has tools – charters, constitutions, treaties, and so forth. Voting systems are not all alike (first past the post, electoral college, etc). Revolution, coup d’état, war… violent political changes we might try to avoid (tools best left in the box). So with the natural human tendency to appreciate tools, to fashion new ones, there should always be room for experimenting. It’s what we do.

      • Unless ‘tool’ starts meaning something pure and, in a way, final. Then every tool is only worth something if it ends a practice once and for all, no human involvement (aside from administration) necessary ever again.

        I’ve had young children say that to me; they couldn’t be bothered to do what was asked of them (manual work) because what was really needed was the right tool to END THIS (which they volunteered to search for right away).

        The dimension of THIS being genuinely scary to them I think, as it should be in a world full of WHAT ELSE (IS THERE).

  33. Chris

    I do have some procedural suggestions as you pursue Civic Republicanism in your town.

    These suggestions are a mongrel mix of stuff I learned in the corporate world with some stuff I learned from Dan Siegel and some stuff I learned from a couple of Buddhists.

    In the corporate world, I learned how to do meetings. Meetings are only appropriate if you feel some pain, don’t know exactly what is causing the pain, and also don’t know how to resolve the pain. If all those conditions are present, then we need to get together and talk and reason and bring facts to the table. The meeting begins with a statement of the pain being felt (e.g., we are not filling orders promptly). Then people are encouraged to offer reasons WHY we are not filling orders promptly. These are identifications of weaknesses. (This is all green light.) A scribe writes it all down on easel paper which is pinned up around the room. Once all the negatives are on the table, it’s time for a coffee break.

    Back in the room. The next subject is the identification of strengths. People need to get the negatives off their chest before they can think about the positives. The positives will be a much shorter list. The leader has to give it time to develop. Then another break, possibly for lunch.

    Back in the room the boss and the facilitator have winnowed stuff down into a coherent story on some easel paper. Look around the room for agreement that the condensed statement actually captures the group’s feelings and thoughts. Next is discussion of how to offset or fix the weaknesses, while building on the strengths. This goes on for a while. There may be some voting.

    Finally, the boss senses some sort of consensus and gives the group his interpretation of what needs to be done. Some of it may involve task forces to look at specific problems….which are now pretty well defined. If it works, everyone has a pretty coherent idea of what the program is, what remaining issues need further work and who is going to do that work, etc.

    As an example of someone trying to do this type of work in a vacuum, I submit Ted Trainer’s essay today:

    Ted thinks that the Transition Town and EcoVillage movements are generating some considerable activity, but it isn’t going to solve the real problems. If you take Ted’s essay, you can fit it into my easel paper method outlined above. A big difference is that there is no boss. When I was the boss, I was responsible for making something work. There isn’t anybody responsible for dealing with the issues Ted outlines.

    The second lesson is from Dan Siegel. Dan has developed a method of doing Mindfulness (Presence) that involves scanning oneself, one sensation at a time. He starts with the five senses: hearing, seeing, touching, tasting, smelling. Then moves on to Interoception (a big issue…gut microbes have a lot to do with mood). Then to Mental phenomena such as emotions, thoughts, beliefs, attitudes. Finally, connections to other humans and the wide world. Dan has tried this method with 10,000 people. He has a book coming out in August. The results are that people get much less concerned about their selfish issues and much more concerned about their relationships. What Dan is doing is an example of the Embodied Mind in action.

    I was in a doctor’s office and picked up the Summer 2018 issue of Tricycle, a Buddhist magazine. Peter Doodinin has an interesting article on passive versus active mindfulness. Peter thinks that the modern incarnation of ‘just observe the mind’ is not what the Buddha had in mind. I’ll say that that what Peter thinks is a lot closer to the procedure I outlined above. It’s all about actions that make a difference (which is the same thing Trainer is saying).

    So let’s try to tie some loose ends together. I suggest:
    *Do Siegel’s exercise. If we aren’t stable in our own embodied mind, we aren’t going to be as productive as we should be.
    *But also extend the exercise, Trainer like, to, for example, the following relationships:
    …..Business and Blog
    …..Regular business partners
    …..Other citizens
    …..Local businesses
    …..Local organizations
    …..Local government
    …..Remote governments, organizations, and businesses

    The family is your business only. But the rest of the list could benefit from the sort of analysis I described at the beginning. You will have a better list with more ideas about how to fix whatever is wrong and build on things that are good if you can gather a group to talk about it.

    Inevitably, there is going to be a whole lot more than you can fix tomorrow or this year or maybe in your lifetime. So priorities become key. I’d suggest a healthy dollop of Pragmatism…but you do your own thing.

    Don Stewart

  34. That article by Ted Trainer (just published today) covers a lot of ground that was discussed here in recent posts and comments. Such as, ‘the global situation requires massive system changes”, and local action is not enough.

    Part of what he calls for is ‘transition to a basic social pattern involving mostly small, highly self sufficient and self governing and collectivist communities that maximise use of local resources to meet local needs’. The self governing part, at this scale, is where it seems that Chris is advocating the application of Civic Republicanism, but I’m wondering how a transition to CR is envisioned by Chris. Would it involve its own political party at some point? And/or would it involve some early adopters somewhere who ‘be the change’ they want to see?

    Related to the ‘be the change’ discussion, Trainer writes, ‘The task for us here and now is to try to increase the numbers who will be able to lead the way to the sane option when breakdown begins to make it obvious that the old system is no longer going to provide for them.’

    He later elaborates, ‘…establishment of various aspects of the required alternative, i.e., those that can be set up now within the old system… can have important educational effects, in spreading awareness of the feasibility and attractiveness of alternative ways, and more importantly of introducing a radically alternative world view. They can demonstrate lifestyles, values, systems and ways of proceeding that contradict the old competitive, individualistic, wealth and greed-obsessed culture. When the serious breakdowns and depression impact and increasing numbers are unemployed etc. hopefully people will be realize they can to come across to the new ways we are establishing in their neighbourhoods and towns, and quickly increase the numbers and scale.’

    The very next line is: ‘But this localism [is] far from enough.’ Trainer says it will also require the ‘determination of ordinary citizens to take collective control’, coming up with ways to address the town’s problems. Changes at the town level will eventually put pressure on the higher levels of government to ‘restructure the national economy’. He says this restructuring is doable, giving the example of how wartime governments ‘suddenly find that they must go heavily “socialist”, regulating, subsidizing, banning, relocating, rationing, phasing out whole industries and setting up new ones…’

    The wartime example seems apt, but the influence that the towns will have on the national government may be overstated. I fear that a protracted state of martial law is more likely, with associated decisions involving less representation of local interests.

  35. To respond to David’s comment at https://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/2018/05/florence-texas/#comment-140720 and to Steve L’s immediately above:

    David, politics is communication aimed at shaping human relationships. There is politics occurring right here on this web page. You might argue that it’s inconsequential. I’d agree, but so is almost everything that most individuals do, including investing in community energy initiatives (energy-related carbon emissions globally climbed 1.4% to 32.5 gigatonnes in 2017). I guess people put their efforts into things that seem important to them.

    Some individuals have more consequential impacts than others. I suspect that when Donald Trump’s presidency is done, its negative environmental consequences will far outweigh any of the positive actions that David or I consider ourselves to have achieved. If the kind of politics Trump engages in becomes entrenched and generalised, then I’d suggest that putting a lot of effort into community renewable energy or sustainable farming initiatives might be the wrong focus and might indeed be described as echo chamber value signalling. I think constructing a duality with globalism on one side and nationalism/localism/place on the other and then construing Donald Trump as somehow representative of the latter helps to entrench and generalise his politics. So I wrote a blog post about it. Writing blog posts is one of the things I do. Small-scale farming and cooperative land investment work are other things I do. Which are most important? I don’t know.

    But I don’t think I could have been much clearer in arguing that civic republicanism and agrarian populism are vehicles that may be able to deliver social equity and sustainability.

    However, to engage with Steve’s points now, it’s not possible of course just to pull down a political economy from the shelf and set it on its way to delivering fairness and sustainability, because we confront deeply established structures of an alternative, existing political economy. How to move from one to the other? I don’t know – I don’t think anyone does. I think we’re all flailing around at the start of an interregnum between a dying capitalist global economy and whatever comes next, which probably won’t be another singular global political economy. In terms of how civic republicanism might manifest in the future, I’d broadly agree with Steve that retrenched command and control capitalist states will very likely emerge in core areas, which seems to be happening already. The real dynamism I see emerging would be in what I’ve written about elsewhere as ‘supersedure states’ around the margins of the core states. Possibly, this dynamism could take over the centres as their capitalist core states slowly disintegrate – but not, I think, if they’re based on some notion of ethnic, national or tribal identity. Which is why I think civic republican traditions might be useful in forging politically vibrant post-capitalist successor states. Which is why I wrote the blog post… Maybe my time would have been better spent sowing another row of beans. I don’t know.

    In relation to the overlap between my ‘being the change’ post and Ted’s transition town critique and his “important educational effects, in spreading awareness of the feasibility and attractiveness of alternative ways…demonstrating lifestyles” etc – well, I don’t entirely disagree. But it would be easy, for example, for me to define myself along those lines as someone who “is” the change – quitting a well-paid professional job for farm work, turning a scruffy bit of pasture into a productive holding, leading a reasonably low impact lifestyle by modern British standards etc. However, I think the reason that few people do this sort of thing is not because of a lack of models for it but because of socioeconomic structures that systemically militate against it. Since those structures ultimately arise from people’s symbolic manipulations of the social and natural world sustained by communication (eg. defining property relations, fiscal relations etc.) I think a more profound way of instituting change might be to write and talk critically of existing structures and their alternatives rather than ‘being the change’…which perhaps is not incompatible with what Ted is saying. Different people can weave different parts of the tapestry.

    To summarise the above in one short sentence: I reject any firm distinction between ‘talking’ and ‘doing’.

    • Thanks for the further clarifications, Chris. I appreciate the food for thought that you are providing us.

      ‘Different people can weave different parts of the tapestry’, indeed.
      I would add that one person can work on weaving more than one part of the tapestry. It doesn’t have to be an either/or choice of what’s thought to be the most important part of the design.

  36. Notes on Peasant Republics and Don Stewart (who is not even a footnote to history)

    Somehow I missed this excellent essay by Christine Jones a year ago. It is the most succinct, well-thought out statement of what farming needs to be about that I have read.


    I will note one sentence to illustrate some of the problems with Ag School science:

    ‘The sequestration of most significance is that which occurs below 30 cm (12).’

    I have heard Ag School soil scientists complain that some farmers are looking at carbon in the top 12 inches (which is approximately 30cm) rather than the ‘approved and agreed upon’ level of the top 6 inches. To extend the notion of soil carbon down to meters must drive these guys crazy….and demonstrate their total disconnection from reality. You can now understand why Christine repeatedly credits farmers with the progress which is being made, and NOT the Ag School bureaucracy.

    On a similar note, I heard the head of a Veterinary School talking about funding. He said: ‘I swore I would never take drug company money to support my grad students. I lied. There is no alternative source of funding.’

    I recommended, above, a particular process for deciding how to allocate one’s time. As I see it, there are two current alternatives for me (nearing 80 years, not quite bendable enough to do stoop labor anymore on a real farm with kids in their early 20s…not rich but with a little bit of money to contribute to NGOs.)

    One: Work like hell to institute the kind of democracy that Putin is imposing on Russia:
    (may still be behind a paywall. The gist of it is that Putin is dragging the entire governmental bureaucracy into direct responsibility, assigned in a live broadcast, for a lot of things they probably don’t want to do.)

    Two: Tend my eighth of an acre in accordance with Christine Jones precepts. Maximize photosynthesis and carbon sequestration and optimize food production. In a hostile environment, where few of the neighbors understand or give a damn.

    I sincerely hope that some people in the ‘democratic West’, which is entirely under the control of the Money Men, will decide to take on the same battle as Putin. But its not for me, at this stage of my life. I’ll tend my few square feet and outsmart or out-fight the neighbors. And learn as I go about ‘light farming’.

    Don Stewart

  37. I should have added:

    Adrian Bejan recently gave an overview of recent developments in Engineering and Physics at Villanova (appropriate because of their NCAA dominance of basketball in the US and Bejan’s connection to basketball in his native Rumania). He said:
    ‘I don’t fear science…fear scientists’

    Don Stewart

  38. A whisper in my ear has suggested perhaps an overly strident tone to some of my responses under this post. If that’s the case, please accept my apologies. It’s not my intention to get heated with anyone who’s commenting on here, and I genuinely appreciate the effort that people take to comment, which makes doing the blog worthwhile. Pressure of work is possibly taking its toll…plus I think sometimes there are inevitable misinterpretations of intent or irony on both sides that occurs with online communication. In any case, thanks once again for your comments.

  39. Since Chris hasn’t yet posted his next script, I will post my comment (on Resilience.org to the Trainer piece. https://www.resilience.org/stories/2018-06-07/the-transition-towns-movement-going-where/

    “The goal should be to develop settlements that enable a sustainable and just world…” What would this world look like? Would justice mean that all resources would be distributed evenly? Who decides how resources will be distributed? How many refugee families displaced by climate change can you fit in your home? How much resources have you available to share with them? Who decides what work must be done and who does it? Will you share decision making with refugees or will they be a different class of citizen? What if their health is poor and they aren’t able to do physical labor? What if the food available is insufficient and sharing means all of you will starve? How will you protect against the neighbors who decide to just steal your food? History is filled with examples of what happens when civilizations fail so we know these are relevant questions.

    Our climate is no longer stable and we do not have sufficient resources to sustain human population at its current levels. Therefore, human population will decline. If people are unwilling to see the problems clearly or unable to do anything to help themselves before it’s too late, what can anyone do for them? Very few people are changing their lifestyle; becoming frugal hard working families with the tools and skills needed to survive. Perhaps such families can become examples that others follow. But I’ve thought that for more than five years and I don’t see it happening. Most people don’t agree and won’t agree until it’s too late.

    Climate change and social upheaval is making it increasingly difficult to secure the resources communities need. National politics are failing in the US. I believe it’s far too late to fight for some “massive transformation of systems far beyond the town borders; the elimination of the growth economy, the phasing out of most heavy industry, radical restructuring of national economies, global de-growth, etc.” That transformation is going to happen with or without our cooperation.

    As earth’s climate continues to change sustainable settlements will not be possible in many of the heavily populated places on earth. In places where droughts, heat, flooding, storms, and civil unrest make it impossible to grow food or secure fresh water and shelter, people are becoming desperate and trying to migrate. The next decade is likely to see that number increase. And the possibility of a some madman using nuclear weapons is increasing. So we’re back to my first question, how many refugee families can you fit in your home or settlement? Will you be “just” when your life depends on the few resources you’ve managed to secure?

    • Those are interesting questions. I’d say there are two main categories of climate change refugee who may show up on our rural agrarian doorsteps – people from the poor countries of the global south whose countries have been rendered more or less uninhabitable by climate change, and urban people from our own countries whose lives have been laid low by the same.

      I think we’re much more likely to encounter people of the second sort – partly because our governments are busy trying to stop poor global migrants, and partly because even if they weren’t that kind of migration is a big undertaking at which relatively few would succeed.

      But if such a migrant did show up, chances are they’d be isolated and friendless and we would call the shots. Assuming broad retention of existing political structures (or even assuming otherwise), it’s easy then to foresee a society of landlordism with us as petty manorial seigneurs lording it over our refugee workers. In a different and more unlikely scenario, the refugees might come organised and with attitude. I suspect all of us debating here who own a bit of rural land are in the top few percent of global wealth, a wealth that in large part is predicated on prodigious historical and contemporary economic extraction from the so-called ‘under-developed’ countries through the medium of fossil capital. The refugees might say, ‘you people have destroyed our country and our lives – now move over and give us land’. I wouldn’t have good ethical arguments to rebut them. I think the governments of North America and Western Europe would go to war to prevent that outcome – effectively, they already have. It’s a war they’ll easily win against, say, Haiti, Guatemala or probably any country in Africa. But it’s worth watching other countries – China, Russia, Brazil, India, Indonesia for example – and thinking about how the future might unfold.

      If a luckless urbanite of equivalent prior wealth from my own country blew in, it would be easy for me to say ‘I saw the writing on the wall years ago – why didn’t you?’ There’d be some justice to the charge, but I see a parallel with structural poverty. There are always a few people who rise up from a violent and impoverished start in life to achieve magnificent things, but most don’t, and can’t. The fact that a few succeed doesn’t mean that it’s possible for all to do so. Likewise, I’d hope to treat my unwelcome urban guest with a bit of humility – there but for the grace of God go I. In truth, the likelihood is that the same kind of landlordism would prevail. But I think some human empathy is in order.

      If we now play with some variables of state power, my guess is that if food security bites governments will start micro-managing farm production, as they did in Britain in World War II – emphasising grain over grass, claiming more wild land for farming etc. But in some situations their political reach might wane – the supersedure states that I’ve discussed. That’s the most interesting scenario that I’d like to think about, and hope to write some more about in the future.

      But, yes, how many refugees could I accommodate on my 18 acres? Well, of course that depends on many things, and I’m not going to plump for a number – though I’ve already done quite a lot of number crunching around this in my ‘peasant’s republic of Wessex’ series. I’ve long wanted to share my holding with another 2, 3 maybe 4 households, raise pigs on food waste, spread humanure over the crops etc. All illegal under current rules and regulations. Frankly, it would piss me off no end if at some future point the government stepped in and enforced such moves under ecological pressure when it should be encouraging people to self-organise along those lines right now. But if it did I’d go along with it because ultimately it would be the right thing to do.

      If you examine the picture of my holding above you’ll see a lot of grass. I’m a bit loth to dispense with it (and the soil beneath is not great for cultivation), but if my holding was under pressure to increase its food output, there’s quite a lot of potential there – all it needs is a bit less livestock and a few more human hands…which sound like they may be on their way. This brings us to Maciej’s points about livestock above, and I hope to write some more about that soon.

      As to Jody’s question “Will you be “just” when your life depends on the few resources you’ve managed to secure?” I think the answer is that it’s doubtful. But as Thomas Hobbes understood, a war of all against all is not a situation that benefits many, and is therefore best avoided. All the more reason to try to build in more justice now.

      • Chris,
        I think you described things pretty much how I would expect them unfold. You also added in the moral and ethical dilemmas that color your thinking on these issues, with a realistic conclusion that it might be difficult to be “just”. Our morals and ethics are what make up our civic virtue (or lack thereof).
        The thing I admire about any person who chooses to be a small farmer is that they are used to hard work. I tend to think small “peasant” farmers will not likely become an elite type of landlord living in wealth while working others as serfs. More likely the owner of the land will call the shots if for no other reason than they were there first, but also because they have experience. But this will only continue as long as they make good decisions and the group is able to secure the food and resources needed. If a leader has poor judgement the group will likely overthrow them for someone else.
        I wish you luck in finding 3 or 4 families with which to share your holding. My husband and I are hoping our adult children stay in our community so we can support one another.

      • All the more reason to try to build in more justice now.

        Justice now would be great, but there will be a huge disconnect between now and any agrarian future; justice may well be lost in that chasm. It’s going to take a lot of hard work and preparation to have even a chance at creating a means of preserving justice in the circumstances Jody foresees.

        Jody’s inquiries are typical ‘prepper’ questions and scenarios that I think about frequently. One can read any number of sites that pretend to offer advice about how to deal with the potential of a Hobbesian future (mostly more guns and MREs), but most of them leave out the one important factor that SFF has zeroed in on, political organization.

        People develop cooperative political structures to solve common problems. There will be a very large number of increasingly dire problems facing us and it would be prudent for local populations to prepare for the disappearance of the larger, over-arching political structures of today. How to actually do that preparation is an unanswered question. One of the key tools that will be needed no matter what they do will be the ability to communicate with each other.

        We take instant communication for granted, but instant communication is likely to fail for a number of reasons. I am reminded of one of the final scenes in the movie “Witness”, wherein the character played by Harrison Ford is finally captured at gunpoint by the main villain at an Amish farm. Ford is saved only because the household had an emergency communication system that was used by the young boy to call all the neighbors to the rescue (no one had telephones). It was a brass bell in the front yard. Every family had one, it could be heard for miles and everyone knew it was only used in great distress and that their urgent cooperation was needed. All the neighbors came to help and justice was preserved. So even before we consider how we are going to organize politically, we need to determine how political intercourse can be maintained and what kind of communication system will be used, particularly emergency communication.

        One of my speculations is to use HAM radio. Radio is a ‘modern’ technology and the handheld or portable radios that one can purchase now cannot be produced by an agrarian group, but if they had them now, they would last for many decades if cared for properly. Our local Community Emergency Response Team will soon be getting some handheld radios for use during hurricanes and other natural disasters, but perhaps we should fund a few dozen or more such devices for distribution to surrounding families when existing 911 systems are defunct? Any thoughts on how post-modern Civic Republican peasants are going to communicate with each other?

        • Smoke signals. Running messengers. Pony express. All tried and true. Not particularly wide bandwidth, so care in messaging will be needed. Perhaps texting and 140 character limits will train a generation or more how to be succinct.

          But I suspect there are many lost arts and knowledge areas that will need to come back around. Being able to forecast the weather is quite important in the work I do. I’ve gotten too used to pulling a cell phone from my pocket to check the radar on the progress of a coming storm – and perhaps too often relying on the technology more than long honed senses about the likelihood of a near-term downpour. Knowing the signs animals are giving about the impending weather is another life hack going to seed. I trust such knowledge will come back once those in need have no other means to distill it.

          HAM radio might be too technical way out into the distant reaches of the dystopian future many predict – but because the power requirement is very modest, and the electronic needs (components, even the training to operate) are not extreme. So to my way of imagining a slow descent HAM could be a very useful tool.

          • but because the power requirement is very modest, and the electronic needs (components, even the training to operate) are not extreme – the relatively simple nature of radio could be a blessing.

            Sorry – too quick to the ‘Post’ button

  40. Joe,
    I always think back to how my father and the men in the community behaved. They came back from WW2 and joined service organizations, like the Optimists, Shriners, Masons. And spent the rest of their lives in service to their communities. Those organizations are pretty much dead, now. But, that spirit, gets to the heart of what is needed to maintain civic ties. Left or right in politics, neither is much interested in the day to day boring work of being part of a community. Me either. And, that is a shame. Because no amount of theorizing about an ideal community is a substitute for rolling up your sleeves and working with your neighbors. So, I’m not too sanguine about the future. But, I appreciate you asking and the thread of your comments.

    • Because no amount of theorizing about an ideal community is a substitute for rolling up your sleeves and working with your neighbors.

      So true! But even though many of the major service organizations you mention are now out of favor, where I live I have seen numerous ad hoc volunteer groups form and fade away over the last few decades and there is a lot of good work still being done.

      Our community is very rural, with the closest town having about 2,300 people, so I see the same people volunteering over and over again to operate sports leagues, community associations, charity events, local amenity projects ( the swimming pool, ball fields, youth center, music festivals, etc) and take on local political and environmental issues.

      I see all of these groups and have participated in the creation and operation of many of them, so I have little concern for the base level of civic-mindedness in my community, but I am still flummoxed by the prospect of getting people together to prepare for what’s coming.

      I know that when it comes it will bring out far more good in people than bad, but that knowledge only partly compensates for the dread I feel about how poorly prepared we are now and the urgency I feel for us to really get our act together as a community while we can still do so many things that will be tough to do later.

      I read about Transition groups, but I don’t really see any big changes coming out of them. Maybe just getting together to talk and theorize is helpful, but I am still waiting for an example of a project that sets an adequate standard for community preparation. Most of what I have seen is in the too-little-too-late category.

      • I wonder, Joe, if something like the Grange has a place in our rural “transition”? Then again, you can’t really reinvent civic participation whole cloth. All of these organizations sprang out of older forms of engagement. Whatever comes next, if we are lucky, will be because of some residual good will. Which means, pick your existing community wisely.

  41. Since I’ve already been told off for grouchy responses, perhaps it’s best for me to assume that Brian’s “no amount of theorizing about an ideal community is a substitute for rolling up your sleeves and working with your neighbors” isn’t aimed at my efforts in the blog post above. But for the record, I disagree with the way you’ve set this one up, Brian. First, because I think people are generally quite good at rolling up their sleeves and working with their neighbours and/or civic engagement generally, and this doesn’t present too many novel difficulties. What does present novel difficulties is creating feasible systems of local self-government in a post-global/post-capitalist future. I think this is heavily under-theorised at present, and we need to theorise it more. But, with all due respect to commenters above, the point of my post and of civic republicanism isn’t to speculate about the ideal community, it’s to create workable ones. People like Machiavelli weren’t trying to create impossible utopias, they were trying to solve practical political problems of their age – keeping the republic together against external threats and internal corruption. I think the idea that thinking about all this stuff is somehow idealistic, academic, not real work, not real politics is very much mistaken.

    There are indeed local civic organisations to build on. But I don’t see them as uniformly benign. The masons for example seem to me to be about exclusion and defining in groups as much as any broader civic goals. And then there are outfits like the Ku Klux Klan. For me, it’s really critical to define genuinely civic participation in order to avoid these kind of outcomes. This is where I think Kingsnorth errs in his globalism vs nationalism distinction.

    Joe’s question about how people would communicate in a future post-global civic republic is an interesting one. To answer indirectly, one of the arguments about the benefits of urban living both in the pre-industrial past and in poor countries today is that it enables the poor to better communicate and organise politically. Rural workers under the thumb of landlord power are really up against it in that respect – eg. the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Something that makes a difference is a public sphere of political debate. Eg. the difference between the first and last stages of the Highland Clearances was mainly that ‘public opinion’ had been invented in the interim, and it swung against arbitrary landlord power. Its constituents were meeting places (coffee houses, clubs etc.), mass circulation newspapers (and therefore journalism), mass literacy and the rise of the idea of a kind of bourgeois respectability. For these reasons, I think it’s incredibly important to maintain literacy, debate and a public sphere – which is why I don’t really accept David’s distinction between doing politics and talking about politics. So in a sense I think the social technology of the public sphere is more important than the physical technology of how people actually do communicate. But as to the latter…well, I’m not sure. I’d put a high value on paper and printing presses. Ham radios. Public meetings. I’m open to ideas.

    Meanwhile, I’d be interested to know what the prepper community’s view on guns and ammunition is. I guess a simple gun can be kept going a long time, and maybe ammunition can be fabricated. But it doesn’t seem to me like it would be an easy thing to knock out in a local smithy…

    • Just a quick note about guns and ammo…Guns that are used only occasionally and kept properly (dry and oiled) will last into the next century. Heavy use for hunting will tend to degrade them due to frequent exposure to dirt and water, but even then they can last for decades if good care is taken to keep them clean and dry whenever possible. I have rifles and shotguns that have been rarely used since I inherited them from my father in the mid 1980s. They were more than twenty years old when I got them and are still in perfect condition. I recently loaned out a shotgun that hadn’t been fired in 30 years and it worked perfectly.

      Ammo should last for decades if kept in moderate temperatures and perfectly dry. An ammo can with desiccant is a good idea. Ammo that travels outside the storage container won’t last nearly as long due to incidental exposure to moisture.

      I don’t re-load, so I have no idea how long primers and bulk powder keep, but it should be for many decades if kept in perfectly sealed containers.

      Guns pre-date the industrial revolution by several centuries. They will probably be manufactured, if only by hand-crafted methods, for as long as people are around. On the other hand, the long bow and the cross bow are powerful weapons. So is the atlatl. Guns, bows and spears will probably be around far longer than modern civilization.

      • Gun powder is not particularly high tech. Making fresh supplies should be within the tech feasible long into the future. Primers and finely machined casings are another issue. But as Joe indicates, even hand crafted weapons are deadly and likely to be around so long as we want them. Our knack for killing preceded our knack for farming.

    • Chris,
      I totally agree with you that “it’s incredibly important to maintain literacy, debate and a public sphere”. I would also add numeracy to that list. I encounter many people whose handwriting is somewhere near third grade standards in my opinion. I see many young people (18-28) who only use block printing. In talking with people I often hear them say they never read books, don’t own paper books, or even enjoy reading books. Whereas I bring a book to read when I do someplace and know I will be waiting, I often see most other people scrolling on their phone. And few people sitting in a waiting area ever talk to strangers. Conversations seem in short supply. The internet has taken over our public and private spheres. How many families come home and go their separate ways to surf on the internet.

    • You can build 16th century firearms with 16th century technology. This is simple stuff that with our current knowledge base could be learnt reasonably quickly by a competent artisan. And while modern smokeless powders and more advanced propellants are hard to manufacture it probably won’t surprise anyone to hear that IMO this is unlikely to be necessary other than in the “oooh-it’s-going-to-be-awful” fantasies unfortunately all too common on this site and others where apocalypterati gather to use advanced technology in the form of the Internet, PC’s and software while sitting well-fed and safe in warm, comfortable houses to indulge in what I regard as pointless speculation as to how those features of modern life will disappear because of unproven and to date groundless scenarios like Peak Oil.

      There. That feels better.

      I have to go meet a VC to discuss commercialising some energytech I’ve developed but I’ll try to get some time over the next few days to have a look at what Chris has said about my comments re doing politics vs talking.

      • To refer to Peak Oil as groundless indicates that you aren’t very well informed. To label commenters on this site as “apocalypterati” is ill mannered and rude and makes me wonder what brings you to this site. In my well educated and fairly well informed opinion the people who share dialogue on this site are fairly intelligent, mostly articulate, and generally considerate of others ideas even when we disagree. With the exception of your last comment.

        If you have a point to make that is in disagreement with the idea that we need to reduce fossil fuel consumption and the impacts such changes will have on the global economy, perhaps you could articulate it and hopefully also provide references from which you draw the conclusion that Peak Oil is groundless.

  42. Chris,
    “People like Machiavelli weren’t trying to create impossible utopias, they were trying to solve practical political problems of their age – keeping the republic together against external threats and internal corruption.”
    When you put it that way I agree, people will try to solve practical political problems.
    If collapse were to occur more slowly (as I believe it currently is) then I see the value in discussing smaller, local Republics. For example as larger Federal government fails, state and local government will become more important. But if collapse occurred catastrophically I imagine actions would be prioritized based on immediate needs or threats. In that circumstance I see very small groups holding discussions and deciding on a course of action fairly quickly.

    Our current morals and ethics will likely continue to shape our “politics”. I think more liberal minded people who believe that all resources should be shared equally are more likely to establish group sharing schemes. If a person is more conservative and believes people earn the right to resources (through hard work, thrift, good judgement not through inheritance) they may look at who currently lives on the land and thus has the right to control it. I doubt the absentee landlord will be given much consideration unless she shows up with well armed soldiers to take possession of the land.

    Joe, regarding communication and protection. I think Ham radios are an excellent idea, so one should start buying them now and learn to use them.
    Chris, I think most preppers think a good supply of guns (pistols and riffles) along with adequate reloading supplies a good idea. Also, the tools and skills to repair guns can keep them going for a long time but the right type of gun powder for reloading is extremely difficult to manufacture. The next logical tool would be axes, knives, and saws with with one can make bows and arrows for hunting and protection. Lots more skill in using them though.

    When my husband and I started thinking about collapse almost a decade ago the first thing we did was to make lists of all the things we thought we might need. Then we began assembling the supplies while finding the right location for our home. At first it was easy to become a pack rat, but eventually we figured out how to manage our supplies. For example a deep pantry; enough canned and dried goods to last for at least six months or more and the seeds, jars and canning equipment to make more. We continue to cook and eat from our pantry and never allow food supplies to become too old. Dried legumes are one of our favorite ingredients for cooking healthy food.

    The other thing I thought of was producing something for barter. I decided that growing and using herbs for both cooking, medicine, and brewing would be my best choice as it fit within my hobbies and interests. So I collected and read many, many books and have became pretty knowledgeable about herbs and edible wild plants. I continue to experiment with their uses. Mathew Woods is my favorite herbalist writer.
    Interestingly I have found that over time I no longer see what we are doing as being “preppers” but rather as being normal. Our lifestyle is about consuming less energy and resources, while enjoying simplicity. That is why I rarely talk about prepping and instead talk about lifestyle changes.

    I find ways of sharing my thinking even with some of my business customers. For those who are buying soil for raised beds I discuss things like season extension, growing herbs, edible weeds, canning or dehydrating, etc. Now and then a few of people see between the lines and say “It’s always best to be prepared because one never knows what might happen.” and then I know we’re thinking along the same lines. I’d say that conservative minded people tend to take these ideas more seriously than liberals, which may be why gun ownership and illegal immigration may be of concern to many of them.

  43. Talking of firearms, that was a fine salvo, David! However, while the majority of people contributing to this site are no doubt well fed and comfortable, the same unfortunately can’t be said for billions of other people in the world today. And, leaving aside peak oil, there are quite a number of entirely proven and well-grounded change scenarios we currently face: climate change, biodiversity loss, drought and storm, soil loss, global debt, inequality, economic stagnation and political crisis. I’m personally fairly agnostic about how it’ll all turn out, though I think much of it already is quite awful for a lot of people – there’s no “it’s going to be” involved. It seems likely that the opportunity to keep average temperature increase below 2 celsius has already been missed – so probably a lot more awfulness to come, especially for people in low latitude countries. My guess is that those of us in the higher latitude countries more responsible for climate change will batten down our hatches and continue with our comfortable lifestyles for some time to come. But I’m not quite sure why leading a comfortable lifestyle disqualifies us from thinking about the less comfortable lifestyles that others experience now, and more will undoubtedly experience in the future.

    Anyway, just as a steer – I’m happy to host different shades of opinion here about the issues that really matter and I’m not too shy about expressing my own views on the same – I’m a bit less enthusiastic about hosting arguments over exactly how apocalyptic or not the future is likely to be.

    On the guns issue, while of course it’s true that they predated the industrial revolution I wonder what proportion of preindustrial populations had access to one prior to their mass manufacture in the 19th century? My feeling is that it may be easy to over-estimate their likely availability in a possible post mass-industry future, perhaps because culturally we tend to (somewhat inappropriately) associate them with notions of freedom and independence – much as we do with that arch lackey of agro-industry, the cowboy.

    • Chris,
      A more diplomatic response than mine, good job!
      I would also like to expand a bit on your point about temperature change and effects…”It seems likely that the opportunity to keep average temperature increase below 2 celsius has already been missed…”
      Current average global temperature increase for both land and ocean is currently about 1 degrees C, but with respect to weather events such as storm intensification and droughts for example, it isn’t the average temperature rise but the temperature anomalies that are important.
      Looking at March 2018 average global temperature anomalies
      https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/global/201803 we see almost a 10 degree C departure from average based on 1981-2010 base period. Some parts of the earth saw temperatures more than 5 degree C higher than historic records. Every weather related disaster is a consequence of rapid and dramatic localized changes in temperature. Atmospheric warming induced climate change isn’t a smooth transition to a warmer earth, it is a climate destabilizing, chaotic weather, energy intensifying atmospheric phenomena that is wreaking havoc around the world.

  44. For an insight into human behaviour living off the natural capital of the rural Appalachians in the last century, John Rice Irwin’s Alex Stewart: Portrait of a Pioneer offers a compelling, often hilarious oral history filled with talk of craft, graft, rabid dogs, dentistry at home, moonshine and guns. I recoil from talk of use of firearms in a future ailing world, yet when one opens today’s paper to news of ‘ecological apocalypse’ in Britain, one worries where our frenetic business as usual is leading us, ponders how best to personally reign one’s impact in, and marvels at just how clear the ill omens need to be. I’m reminded of Steve Martin in The Man With Two Brains for the kind of self delusion we are all capable of hoodwinking ourselves with.

  45. Jody et al – David is a long-term contributor to this site and I respect his opinions, but I’ve got to say that the ‘apocalypterati’ jibe (somewhat like Leigh Phillips’ ‘collapse porn addicts’) does seem to me rather misplaced at present. In Australia, the most recent figures for carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from energy are 43% above 1990 levels, in the USA 7%, in China 310%, in India 246% and globally 55%. Globally, we’re using the same proportion of energy from fossil fuels now (about 80%) as we were 30 years ago when climate change first rose to prominence – but we’re using more fossil fuel. David, I’m sure you’re doing some great stuff with your energy tech commercialisation, but ultimately it’s not really working is it? That, at any rate, was the conclusion I came to after spending a few years trying to grow food in a more sustainable way, and I started writing this blog as a way of trying to comprehend for myself why my efforts were so insignificant and what kind of forces were acting against them.

    Ah well, no doubt the future will make fools of us all – but regrettably at this point in history I think we have to be concerned about it. One thing we surely know from a study of the past, however, is that history will certainly make a fool of anyone who thinks things will carry on much as in the present, or inevitably get better.

    I get the sense that David thinks there’s something hypocritical or distasteful about people who are wealthy in global terms thinking that their wealth may not rest on firm foundations. But I don’t quite understand what that something is. It’s been a common fear among the wealthy through history, and often enough the fear has proved better founded than the wealth.

    • Well said. I certainly fear for the disappearance of my affluence and take precautions accordingly.

      I was not the one who brought up the subject of guns, but I don’t recoil from it. Guns have always been a part of farm country, needed for slaughtering livestock, killing predators, and also putting the occasional bit of ‘bush meat’ in the stew pot. Guns are a powerful tool; I recoil only from the improper use of those tools, since they can cause a lot of damage if misused.

      Talk of guns as tools of defense against other people is certainly distasteful. Too many people revel in such talk, but whether that kind of consideration will need to be addressed in the future is not crazy talk, any more than considering how 7.6 billion people are going to continue to eat is beyond the pale. Some people recoil from the prospect of castrating livestock, but sometimes it has to be done. Often, a careful consideration of the distasteful is the only responsible thing to do. The question is whether we have that responsibility now.

      If those of us already on small farms didn’t have to worry about what could happen when those who have not moved onto a small farm realize that they need to do so right away, we needn’t have to consider defense at all. We could just mind our own business, fine tune our food raising skills and nutrient cycling procedures and thoroughly enjoy our good fortune.

      That said, first things first; there aren’t enough small farms to go around. Perhaps if we solve that problem first, we can then continue on to the subject of how to defend them properly. Those of us who already have small farms have already considered defense at least a little bit, but until we have a lot more people on a lot more farms, I think discussion of defending them, while interesting, is putting the cart before the horse. I would suggest leaving it until much later.

      • My tuppenceworth there is that, agreed, it’s distasteful talking about armed defence of property and wealth. At present our governments – in the US, the UK and Australia – are doing a pretty good job of defending our wealth on our behalf. Personally I’d like to see a world of much more evenly distributed material wealth, which would mean someone like me having less of it – but giving up my computer isn’t going to hasten that world into existence. Finding ways to form different kinds of polities might, eventually. I’d hope that the loss of my computer would then be compensated by the gain of a more satisfying and sustainable kind of society.

        There certainly aren’t enough small farms to go around right now, but if you divided up the big farms into smaller ones there might be.

        Defending my farm isn’t an option and doesn’t really enter my head. Politics is the only way I see.

        But there are a lot less guns in the UK than in the US – pretty much the only civilians who have them are farmers, and probably not too many of them…

        But John Christopher’s ‘The Death of Grass’ sticks in my mind, not least in terms of the difficulties of defending a farm…

        • Again on the upside, defending a small farm should be easier than doing the same for a larger outfit, be it with man’s best friends or whatever.

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