Household farming and the F word

In my last couple of posts I made the case that, whether we like it or not, there’s a good chance the future for a lot of people is going to involve small-scale farming geared primarily to provisioning their own household. It seems a necessary step from there to say something about the composition of these small farm households, which I did in Chapter 12 of my book A Small Farm Future and with some further, somewhat modified, thoughts about it in this more recent article. Here I’ll provide a brief synopsis.

My starting point is that I really don’t care how people choose to organize their households, either now or in a small farm future. Given the challenges we presently face, I think it’s necessary for us to project forward and think about how to arrange congenial, low-energy, low-capital, job-rich small farm futures. When I do that I find it hard to escape the conclusion that there are going to be a lot of households oriented to self-limiting need satisfaction, but I see no need to take a strong view about their exact composition. This could and probably will encompass smaller or larger intentional communities, religious communities, groups of friends, restricted or larger family groupings and couples – gay, straight or whatever else. I’ve taken it upon myself to project a small farm future, not to produce some social blueprint of appropriate living arrangements as determined by myself.

Nevertheless, when we look at societies of the past and present, certain patterns of relationships and certain kinds of social tensions within households are discernible, and it seems to me worth forearming ourselves with this knowledge as we contemplate a small farm future. Here are some of those patterns and tensions:

  • Households comprising many disparate individuals as voluntary joiners. Actually, this is not a common form historically, though it seems to be held as an ideal in certain quarters today. One of the problems with it is that such households easily disintegrate (easy come, easy go) unless a great deal of attention is paid to maintaining intra-household relationships, which is costly in time. I’ll say more about this a couple of posts down the line.
  • Large collective households of individuals united by religious commitment. These are somewhat less likely to disintegrate. They often have a hierarchical structure creating barriers to dissolution.
  • Large kin-based collectivities which place strong emphasis on the importance of family ‘name’, ancestors, inheritance and/or control of property. These are likely to be intolerant of individual members who transgress these boundaries, with the burden of this falling disproportionately on women.
  • Small, kin-based household units, often comprising no more than an adult female and male and their related children. These are found quite commonly worldwide throughout history, and are not merely some modern ‘bourgeois’ invention. Nevertheless, there’s much variation around this form, both within and between societies, and it’s invariably linked to wider kin structures.
  • In situations where people work together or live together, and yet more in situations where people live and work together, there is potential for repression and violence – economic, emotional, physical or sexual. There is also potential for deep, enriching connection. The potential for repression and violence can operate across many different human dimensions. Gender is a critically important one.
  • Generational succession – the handing on of skills, entitlements and capital endowments such as land – is another critically important issue that household organization ultimately must address itself to.

In my book and my subsequent article I trace a few of the implications of these points. I made something of a distinction in the book between kin and non-kin households, but I’ve come to question its usefulness. In his book What Kinship Is…And Is Not, Marshall Sahlins (that man again…) distances culturally-defined kinship from notions of biological relatedness, emphasizing that kinsfolk are people who participate intrinsically in each other’s existence. Usually there are radiating webs or skeins of kinship that organize local social space into a grid of relatedness and mutuality. So ultimately – and especially in local, low-capital, small farm societies – I suspect community, household, farmstead and kin relations will substantially intersect. If they don’t already do so, people will invent new kin metaphors pushing in that direction. Your kin are the people you live and work with. The people you live and work with are your kin. Perhaps it’s no accident that people in those stable religious communities I mentioned earlier commonly refer to other members as ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’, or sometimes as ‘mothers’ and ‘fathers’.

My basic argument is that, like it or not, substantially kin-based household farming societies will probably emerge in the future, and in situations with limited capital and energy, it will be harder for their members to escape them, which makes the potential for repression and violence within them graver. So I’ve devoted some discussion in my writing to how to mitigate that unhappy outcome. I’m not going to go over that ground again here, though I will say a bit more about some aspects of it in an upcoming post. In any case, we’ve already touched on the issues quite a bit in recent discussions on this blog. As mentioned therein, probably the key to mitigating oppressive household situations is making it both acceptable and possible for people to quit such situations and choose to join other households. But this isn’t so easy to arrange in local agrarian societies lacking the abundance of capital and institutional flexibility of urban-modernist society – which makes it all the more important to focus on the issue. Suffice to say that my writing has not magically solved the problems of household violence, gender oppression or patriarchy. And nor has anyone else’s. But there have been many mobilizations and activisms in numerous societies over time that have changed the name of the game, and the challenge will be to build on them in the future.

It would be interesting to debate these issues constructively, but few reviewers of my book have engaged with this gender and kinship aspect of it. The exception is Alex Heffron and Kai Heron’s dismayingly doctrinaire Marxist critique, where they represent my position as pro-patriarchal – by some distance the most absurd of several travesties of my actual arguments they offer. I have no interest in working through their misconceptions, but some interest in the wider politics of their position and its contraries which I discuss a little in my article in The Land. Basically, I think there’s an overinvestment on the political right in a particular conception of ‘the’ family as a patriarchal and heteronormative ideal which seriously underrepresents the diversity of what ‘families’ are, and an almost mirror image underinvestment on the political left that reduces kin relations to the deprecated category of ‘the’ patriarchal family, which also seriously underrepresents what ‘families’ are.

To dwell for a moment on this latter point, kin relations seem to be the social structure that dares not speak its name within certain sections of the left. On his Twitter page, the first word Alex Heffron uses to describe himself is ‘father’. And on social media, I’ve been told, his operation has been described as a ‘family farm’. And yet his review seems to disavow any kin dimension to agrarian politics. I don’t understand this chameleonic shuffling of social and political contexts – a key identifier in one moment, a dangerous irrelevance in another. Other leftist writers I’ve read recently aren’t quite so stark, but nevertheless invoke family relations quite unproblematically in unguarded moments while turning up the scorn when their analytic guns are loaded. Meanwhile, elements of the avant-garde left herald the demise of all constraints of biological sex, gender identification or any human relationships troublesome to individual self-creation.

While I appreciate the desire here to escape conservative narratives that arrogate to themselves the right to determine what ‘the’ family is, I think the inability to treat extant kin relations as an enduringly serious aspect of social organization that demands positive analysis rather than simple censure will increasingly render much of this kind of thinking irrelevant to the political challenges of present times. Modernist society in both its capitalist and communist guises made strenuous efforts to destroy or abolish kin-based social organization during the 20th century when the odds were stacked more in its favour, and signally failed. I think it’s better now to acknowledge that kin relations sensu Sahlins are here to stay – indeed perhaps to amplify – and work to mitigate their downsides, without neglecting their benefits. I’ll say more about that work of mitigation in a forthcoming post.

66 thoughts on “Household farming and the F word

  1. “I think there’s an overinvestment on the political right in a particular conception of ‘the’ family as a patriarchal and heteronormative ideal which seriously underrepresents the diversity of what ‘families’ are, and an almost mirror image underinvestment on the political left that reduces kin relations to the deprecated category of ‘the’ patriarchal family, which also seriously underrepresents what ‘families’ are.”

    I think this evaluation is correct.

    In my own life I have found two concepts useful: one is that of chosen family/chosen household. I have a spouse and I have a housemate, and while my relationship with my spouse differs from that with our housemate, and the arrangements with our housemate are in some ways much more open-ended (nobody has made any vows), the reality is that in everyday life, we are functionally a family, or at least a household.

    Another model I have found useful is to think of certain significant friendships as being something like kinship in terms of the commitment to one another’s wellbeing that is undertaken. In these days of electronic communication, close geographic proximity is not as necessary for this as it once was (though I am here thinking of a dear friend who lives roughly forty miles away; I haven’t seen her since before first lockdown and I miss her desperately). I suppose that whether widespread household alliances (based in friendships like this, or taking other forms) will be possible in a small farm future rather depends on how our communications infrastructure works out.

    I feel as if the communication changes that came with cheap paper and the moveable type printing press hadn’t really settled in when we got broadcast radio and television, and the effects of those hadn’t settled in when we got telephony and then internet. People do still live in places, of course. I may be able to order groceries or seeds online but I can’t eat them or sow them until they are delivered, and I certainly understand that in a low-energy future that delivery will become much, much more expensive so I will have to go local. (Though with adequate-but-slow transport and postal networks, catalogue selling is still an option for some goods — this was a big deal in colonial North America). The energy demand of e.g. data centres is also substantial, and the industry needed to make and maintain communications equipment (mobile phones, masts, computers, radio towers, whatever) is non-trivial. But I wonder if the cost of moving information around digitally will remain comparatively low next to the cost of moving stuff around, such that we have relatively fast communications but much slower transport of goods; and if so, how might that impact kinship dynamics, household alliances, local communities and wider politics?

    • But I wonder if the cost of moving information around digitally will remain comparatively low next to the cost of moving stuff around, such that we have relatively fast communications but much slower transport of goods

      Modern communications systems and goods movement are bound tightly together, probably inextricably. Digital communications is totally dependent on modernity, with its long and complicated supply chains and specialized workers. And digital communications is so important to the function of modern industrial economies that any significant loss of that capability will rapidly end modernity. It is extremely unlikely that a small farm future will have any form of digital communications.

      Since it will be also be very “non-trivial” to go back to analog systems of electrical communication like the telephone or telegraph, the end of modernity will be accompanied by the survival of just the simplest methods of communication, face to face conversations and the exchange of written letters with those who are beyond walking distance. There may be periods when even letter writing will be problematic, but since transport of letters can be extremely low-tech I expect that postal services will be recreated quickly, especially at the local level.

      A small farm future will mean a radically reduced world of human contact. The number of people small farmers will interact with in their entire life might not fill a small village. This smaller world will certainly have a huge impact on kinship dynamics.

      • Even if (perhaps especially if) digital communication does collapse, I think information will continue to be valuable in and of itself. My understanding is that one of the ways the church held power for so long in Europe was by providing the educated clerks necessary for much other activity. It’s extremely tangential to Chris’s post on family structures, but I do wonder how that might play out — either in a rapid collapse scenario, or in a more managed decline/degrowth situation. It may be that changes in communications have even greater impact than changes in the ability to move goods and people around quickly over long distances.

        Perhaps I should learn semaphore…

      • Hi Joe.

        I agree. A Small Farm Future world would be very small. Most communication would be face to face. There may be a postal service, but that suggests a “State” of some kind for it to run smoothly.

        This shrinking of worlds would also effect the decemination of ideas.

        As I suggested in an earlier post, this could lead to the end of science and the return of superstition. (There are plenty of folks out there now, who would rather believe in conspiracy theories than science. The modern day version of superstition).

        I think the impact of no more oil is massive. We take for granted now that we can all communicate ideas on this blog, but in a SFF this will no longer be the case. The first generation born into a SFF will have a very different world view than we do. They may not know what is going on in the other end of the country, never mind the other side of the world.

        This small world experience could lead to small world thinking.

        • If there is going to be some form of energy inputs in a SFF (renewables) but much reduced from today’s levels, what would be the things/activities that should be prioritized?

          In a SFF who is going to decommission all those nuclear reactors???!!!

          • In reply to your postscript:

            Gathering and distribution of clean water and promotion of safe excreta recycling would be my priorities. Then would come production of devices (mostly metals fabricating equipment for smithies) that would make wood cutting and processing easier. Wood will be the primary energy source and a cross-cut saw is a huge energy multiplier compared with an ax.

            I suspect that neither nuclear reactors nor nuclear warheads will be decommissioned. The warheads won’t be much of a problem if they just deteriorate in place and aren’t detonated, but the reactors (especially the cooling pools and even the dry casks) will be a continuous source of radiation for eons. We’ll just have to live with it.

            I agree entirely with your main comment, except perhaps for the neccessity of a state for letter delivery. I think informal and irregular transportation of letters might be possible, although a regular postal service would certainly require some form of governmental organization.

        • All that may be true, but sending an e-mail still takes vastly less actual energy than posting a physical letter does. It seems to me that digital communications might be seen as worth saving, if we’re in a position to make those decisions.

          I know in some parts of Africa people have “feature phones” (like some of the more robust early Nokia hardware, with basic mobile internet and sometimes WiFi capability). They last for years, take miniscule amounts of power compared to a smartphone or laptop, and people do things like put internet access on a mobile “library bus” sort of thing and visit places every week or two. Keep the internet hardware and use some horses or oxen to pull the bus, and there will still be some digital communication. That is only one of several plausible situations in which moving things and people gets more expensive and moving data is still possible.

          Would a scenario like that be anything like the connectivity that we in the West are accustomed to? No, of course not; and like everything else, it will be expensive. But a surprising amount of communications tech *can* be cobbled together from scrap. Even if there are no big data centres, things like Bluetooth or WiFi mesh networks can give some connectivity, and if you can send a letter it might easily be cheaper to move a USB stick than a printed encyclopedia. The hardware to read a USB stick will probably be around for a while too, though as with all of these things, not forever.

          I’m not personally going to try very hard to cobble together an alternative digital network, simply because that isn’t where my skills lie. I’m also not going to count on the telecoms industry existing in the form it does today. I can imagine situations where digital communication might stop completely, and this might happen suddenly or in a more piecemeal way. I can also easily imagine some form of digital communication continuing. I’m very wary of assuming that all technology will suddenly revert to a pre-modern state in a low energy, labour-intensive future.

          But my question is really: how might differences in communications impact kinship and wider allegiances? I’m not sure this can be answered within blog comments even for modernity, let alone the future; but saying “there won’t be any digital communication” doesn’t really answer the question.

          My own expectation is that familial households of some kind will be the norm, but that some kind of faster-than-sending-a-letter communication technology might enable allegiances and association over much greater distances than would otherwise be the case.

          • Hi Kathryn.

            For me, it’s the infrastructure issue that makes me think that digital communication wil not continue.

            Replacing of faulty parts. The manufacture of those new parts require huge energy inputs. From mining the raw materials out of the ground, shipping them around the globe and turning them into electronic components. All these things have oil at their core. Sure, there will be a bit of “cannibalising’ of existing parts from old kit, but this will only last for a short while. Where are the energy inputs going to come from to run the mobile/internet going to come from.

            I agree with Chris in SFF, that there isn’t going to be a “techno fix” which will render all “tech” totally useless.

  2. I think you are right to observe that kin relations are an enduring aspect of social organization, but I would suggest that there is more than an accidental reason for the tension between notions of “The Family” and the left’s concern with overcoming patriarchy and traditional sexual norms (i.e. I don’t think the conflict is ginned up exclusively by the ridiculous ‘culture wars’ of the Religious Right). Leaving aside all religious and cultural norms, there is still a huge biological/natural reality to confront: where do children come from, who feeds them, and who educates them?

    Children contradict the sensibilities of liberalism because, unlike “autonomous” adults, they cannot make voluntary contracts, sell their labor, and form an electoral social contract (this article has a great discussion on this topic: They have to be raised by a pre-existing “natural” (rather than voluntary) society. This forces the philosophical question of what this/these pre-existing natural societies should be, and what they ought to do. History and imagination only provide us with so many possibilities: traditionally, it seems that either a) children are raised by biological parents, b) children are raised in common by a (very small) clan/tribe/community/commune, or c) children are assigned ‘parents’ by a (generally larger) political authority of some kind, as suggested by Plato. If (c) is prescribed as normative, then it’s possible patriarchy could be culled, but it would rob a lot of autonomy from small farm households and require a quite centralized state. If (b) is normative, then the culture around gender would vary widely between the communes, with a lot of potential harm to members if the principles of the community are not well-formed. If (c) is normative, then there is the historic tendency towards patriarchy.

    Industrial society has, of course, introduced the possibility of children who are sold or assigned via surrogacy (cf. “Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family” advocating just this arrangement) or, soon enough, of children factory-gestated in artificial wombs (“Brave New World” style) for our ecomodernist friends deadset against the ‘domus’…

    • Great comment.

      I think (a) and (b) are far more likely than (c).

      Assigning a child to parents to other than the biological mother and father would only make sense if there were far fewer children than adults. If normal agrarian ratios of children to adults were operative then every adult would need to parent children and I don’t see why it would make sense to assign children to adults at random rather than just let the new mother nurse her child. If “bad parents” were to be left out of the parenting process, “good parents” would soon be overwhelmed by extremely large families.

      I have lived in a village where (b) was a large part of the child rearing process, but the many children who didn’t live with their mother usually lived with grandparents or some other biological kin. In this village the culture around gender was pretty conventional except that, due to widespread promiscuity, land tenure was matrilineal. There was little concern about who the actual father of any child might be as it was often impossible to know. Other aspects of land control and chiefly hierarchy were patriarchal.

    • How do you think the existence of relatively reliable and safe contraception impacts this?

      (I am not convinced that copper IUDs are going away even in a low energy future.)

  3. There is a old saying
    Blood is thicker than water .
    Covid has proved this many times ,the unvaccinated are banned or made very unwelcome in some churches , some have fallen apart , this is a very hairy subject but it shows how society reacts to a threat when under some stress . It is making people reorganize their contact with people they thought were friends and fellow travelers in life . Families have mostly stuck together , other groups have collapsed into bickering and outright hatred .

    • It’s not just the time it takes for soil to regenerate, it’s also how long it takes, and the costly lost seasons that result from farmers here in the U.S. that have to relearn farming without herbicides and pesticides.

      Integrated pest management, better crop rotation, cover and trap crops, restarting the plant animal nutrient cycle, etc… take time to get better at, and this is one of the big obstacles for why more farmers here have not taken the jump to organic agriculture. The U.S. has been importing organic grains from India and Eastern Europe for cripe sakes.

  4. It seems that family-based households, and family farming, are the historical default, the simplest arrangements to deal with reproduction and subsistence. Family farming is the base situation upon which improvements can be made (under the right circumstances).

    We are currently in the UN’s “Decade of Family Farming” (2019-2028).

    “There are more than 600M farms in the world.”
    “More than 90% of farms are run by an individual or a family who rely primarily on family labor.”
    “Family farms occupy around 70-80% of farmland worldwide.”
    “Family farms produce more than 80% of the food in the world.”

    And last, but not least, a reflection of the inequalities in societies:
    “Women hold only 15% of farmland, while they provide almost 50% of farm labor.”

    • Thanks for this Steve –

      While I can’t speak for the rest of the world, I would argue that at least here in the States the ownership of land has to be more balanced than 15%. My farm is really ‘our’ farm as my wife and I hold it in joint tenancy. The farm my wife grew up on is held solely by her mother (father deceased). Farmland held by widows is a major sector here… and even many (most?) married couples hold their land assets jointly. It would be wrong to assume that all married couples have 50-50 land holdings of course – some inherited properties may have trusts or other arrangements limiting spousal “ownership”, and other arrangements are possible.

      The USDA and other entities interested in our farm do send correspondence to me, and it is very common to assume that a farmer here in the States is a male (also white and over 50)… but as far as land ownership is concerned this is a very poor approximation of where title is held.

  5. Slightly off-topic perhaps in that I’m possibly not being visionary enough, nevertheless…
    It’s always heartening to read that 70-80 per cent of the world’s farmland is a family farm, and yes maybe I’m not forecasting far enough into the future, but certainly currently there is the concerning trend of the C word – corporations – buying up farmland and other large plots of land in the UK, US and elsewhere to plant trees for carbon credits to offset emissions to sustain businesses.
    With the high average age of farmers generally – in the UK it stands at 59 – and, in the UK again, various Govt. ‘incentives’, with subsidies being phased out over seven years following Brexit, to retire from farming, it would take a good egg not to just take the money and run, particularly as corporations appear willing to outprice all bidders if needs must.
    Simon Fairlie covers the ground well in his recent Land article entitled Greed and It’s Offsets, available online, and similarly yesterday’s Monbiot column in The Guardian details a community housing project in Devon, and the invidious ways big business can muscle in.
    Considering your involvement in Landworkers’ Alliance, Chris, are there any failsafe ways at present that farmers or landwoners could hand on farmland as farmland in perpetuity, or are carbon offsetting-tree planting schemes, by anyone, a kind of loophole here, and therefore a(nother) potential hurdle to family farming of the kind you envisage?

    • I don’t think this off topic at all…

      Corporations are not the only land grabbers to be concerned with either. There are lots of folks interested in living in the country with no intention of farming the land. Raising horses, building a McMansion, flaunting their wealth. These are mostly Peri-urban spots as well, which in many cases would easily support vege production for the nearby urban demographic.

      In the UK there may already be zoning and other land protection mechanisms that limit this sort of farmland dislocation… and there is a bit of this in the US, but not enough IMHO.

      Buying up land to plant trees for carbon offsets doesn’t bother me yet – we still have enough productive land to produce the food needed. But there will be a reckoning at some point – one where highly productive arable lands are being bid beyond what food production can pay for (in a spot market). Though I’m not an economist, it seems to me the market for food at that point will turn to a question of relative values – eating or buying carbon offsets. Not eating gets attention in a matter of days… carbon offsets weigh in further down the line on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It is a fact that corporations don’t need to buy food – they don’t eat. But they do eventually have to answer to a public of folks who are eaters.

      There are market forces now moving toward paying current farmers to work their lands in such a fashion as to sequester carbon and earn credits for the effort. There are many questions going forward, and a pretty good primmer for the subject is here:

      Panacea? Well – not likely a total answer, but a hopeful move in a favorable direction.

      “But these are fossil fuel gobbling farmers”, I hear someone complain… my reply – ok, for now. But that too will change as the noose tightens. Eating is a habit we cannot break. Cell phones and laptops – not being edible – will have a tough time competing with the last bean in the can.

      • There are lots of folks interested in living in the country with no intention of farming the land. Raising horses, building a McMansion, flaunting their wealth.

        My neighborhood is just like that, but these folks are really allies of the small farm future. The land is broken up into smaller parcels more appropriate to subsistence farming. The land is protected and fallowed by lawns and horse pastures (where I live even the gentry plant a lot of fruit trees, too). The McMansions will be able to house numerous families (perhaps one per room) which, together with outbuildings like multi-car garages and stables, will become de facto village centers.

        All in all, the gentrification of farmland is probably better than using it for conventional monocropping or trees for carbon sequestration. Food supplies to cities may suffer in the short term, but cities are a dead end anyway. The sooner they are abandoned, the better, and those who leave will be delighted to take over a small gentrified estate and grow their own food. It will be much better than living in a tent.

        • PS: The coordinates for my house are 20.026001, -155.431727. Google Maps will show what my neighborhood is like.

          Because we are Americans and own land in Hawaii, we are all automatically very wealthy, but I don’t think there is a lot of “flaunting” going on. Most houses are of average suburban size and construction. There are a few “McMansions”, but not many. Most of those are in the resort areas on the leeward side of the island.

      • Cell phones and laptops also last a lot longer than beans do. (Though even now the price of a cheap mobile phone would buy a pretty substantial supply of beans.) The thing with cell phones and laptops is that the energy to manufacture and transport them is much, much less than the energy used to heat homes and move food around (including but not limited to tins of beans). Chris writes of self-provisioning in terms of food, fuel and fibre — if we can do that without relying on carbon offsets, I think we may have a lot more wiggle room for other uses of energy.

        (I wonder whether nut trees can count as carbon offsets.)

        • While hickory is great for tool handles, walnut is very valuable timber – looks great on the dash of a Bentley!
          I’m self-provisioning in what I’ll modestly term external wall insulation at the moment, basically creating a huge bug hotel along the coldest wall of the house (which used to big two pigstys, until we came along and converted it into one great big one!). The carpenter bees and similar bugs apparently like some kind of suitable cavity about 16cm long, so that’s the thickness determined. I grew rather too many parsnip seeds this year, and the long hollow stems will form the main ingredient, all cut to length. I’ll mix some other materials in there too – old building blocks, pieces of lumber with various-sized holes drilled into them, old brush heads, maybe even some actual styrofoam – ants love that stuff!) Whether we get any ‘guests’ or not is by-the-by (you can purchase ‘bee bricks’, they actually won an award, but I’m at the stage where purchasing anything has lost its allure). Solitary bees prefer making homes fairly high up, so maybe just a few of the top bunks will get occupied. Who knows? It’s fun and I figure if my kids come away feeling they can make their own building insulation, job done. Next up: slippers of felted cat fur:)

          • I’ll confess I did purchase a bee brick for my spouse’s birthday. I like your external insulation plans. If we end up with a second allotment (which I am hopeful about) I have similar plans for the shed.

  6. Thanks for the comments & apologies for my non-response. There are some really great points above that I’m itching to address, but unfortunately I have a situation IRL that’s taking up a lot of my time & emotional resources just now so I may be offline for a week or two. Feel free to continue the debate. Hoping to be back on here soon.

    • Take care and take your time. I know climate change leads to some rather volatile weather but I do suspect that the comments will still be here in a few weeks.

    • IRL ? I had to look that up. I’m guessing that fall is coming in pretty fast and there are a million things that need to be wrapped up before the weather turns. We have been busy picking, packing, and delivering tomatoes, peppers and eggplant.

      I have tomatoes in jars but now I need to make some time to put up a several batches of salsa. And cut a few cords of wood. Quality of life is an important consideration too.

      Get your work done so you will be able to sit by the fire and blog this winter. we get it. We’ll be here.

  7. Having been divorced and watched the ups and downs of the relationships around me, one point that springs to mind is about land tenure.

    Chris I know advocates owner occupation, BUT if land and homes are rented, while it clearly creates its own issues surely it will make it less difficult for individuals to leave difficult situations or other household members/partners to have to much power over them.

    • I think Chris advocates for security of tenure, which may be a bit different than ownership. I do worry about Ricardian rent situations with rented land or housing.

      However, you’re absolutely right that ownership can present problems when household relationships break down. One reason that I won’t be inheriting a large house in a small Canadian city with enough space in the front yard for considerable edible landscaping and an old crabapple in the back is that, well, when my father and stepmum divorced, neither of them could afford to buy the other out of the house.

      Meanwhile, my spouse and I rent at well below market rates, but the cost is still more than we would pay in a mortgage. If he were to leave me or even simply to become unable to earn an income, I would seriously struggle to make rent. And at the end of our working lives we won’t have a house that we own to live in.

      So, I’m not sure the fluidity of renting solves the problem of economic imbalance leading to a power imbalance within a family. Possibly the problem in both cases is the very high cost of housing/land compared to everything else, but I don’t see that particular cycle of Ricardian rent-seeking getting much better anytime soon, and I think the coming hike in food and energy prices will throw a lot more households into a kind of poverty that we aren’t really prepared for as a society.

  8. I agree that there isn’t a technological fix that will let us continue to use fossil fuels or some other energy source for the majority of our basic needs — food, fuel, fibre. Simply put, we are going to have to use human or animal labour instead, and that also means sourcing most of these basic provisions much more locally.

    I don’t accept that this situation guarantees that all “tech” will become useless. It’s possible, sure, but… really not guaranteed. An awful lot of goods that are currently mass-produced could be made artisanally instead, and this does apply to consumer electronics. What seems more likely to me than no “tech” is a situation where consumer electronics are more expensive, less disposable, and less widespread.

    I still think that in a scenario where we do have telephony or internet, or even a scenario where only the rich have access to it (or an equivalent), there will be knock-on effects in terms of relationships.

    • An awful lot of goods that are currently mass-produced could be made artisanally instead, and this does apply to consumer electronics.

      I’m going to disagree with you on this one. There is just about nothing in consumer electronics that can be artisinally crafted except perhaps a wooden box to hold the electronics.

      I remember building a vacuum tube radio receiver in high school in the mid-1960’s, where I fabricated a sheet metal base, wired up all the components with copper wire and solder and got it to work. There was little about that pre-semiconductor device that could be artisanlly constructed either: not the vaccum tubes or their sockets, the potentiometers, the capacitors or the switches. Even the copper wire and the solder would be difficult to fabricate by hand.

      More importantly, all of the test equipment needed to work on even basic electronics is even harder to put together, things like volt and amp meters, oscilloscopes and such.

      It would be hard enough just to build a basic power source, such as a primary cell or a small DC generator, much less the electronics it could power. It took a large lab and lots of people for Edison to produce a light bulb, which is just about as simple an electric device as possible.

      Present day consumer electronics can last a long time if they are well cared for. Cell phones, radios, stereo equipment and the like can last for a couple of decades or so, but they all need a functioning power grid to operate. Try charging a cell phone battery without mains electricity for the charger. Trying to take a bank of three D-cells, opening the case and connecting them directly to the cellphone battery is likely to fry something without precise current control.

      Modern communication, whether digital or even analog (as in the days of tube radios and analog telephones) require a fairly complex backup of energy supply, typically from the electical grid, to operate. All of it is built upon a foundation of a reliable supply of electricity.

      So, if you have a functional electrical grid to give you that reliable supply of electricity, you have a modern civilization, with all the stuff that goes with it. Without a functional electrical grid you have all the possibilities found prior to September 4, 1882, when the world’s first grid was turned on in lower Manhattan. Check out the technology of the mid-19th century to see what the optimum possibilities are like.

      It’s probably possible to craft-build the elements of a telegraph system, but even something that simple needs the backing of an industrial system that can produce long lengths of uninsulated copper wire and glass insulators. Then you still need to fabricate some kind of power source to run the telegraph, most likely voltaic piles.

      Modern electronics and electrical appliances are just all-or-nothing kinds of systems. Remove one key aspect of those systems, like their electrical supply, and the whole system functionally disappears.

      It’s hard for people to conceive of a world where stuff they have seen and used all their lives can’t function, but virtually all modern equipment depends upon the continued function of modern civilization to operate. Once key elements of modernity break down (like the electrical grid) we’re instantly back to what we can do with the tools we power with our hands and our muscles. If that sounds terrifyingly dramatic, it really will be.

      • Hi Joe.

        I agree. The complex systems that get us to the point where we can send an email, search the internet or make a call on a mobile phone are very vulnerable.
        In a SFF, all it would take is a ice storm to bring the power lines down and that would be that.

        I can’t see artisans being able to create a micro processor never mind a transistor or capacitor.
        There is lots of existing kit that parts may be scavenged to keep thing going but for how long? In 100 years time will any of it still be serviceable? I have my doubts.

        As you say, remove one element and the whole system comes crashing down. The implications are truly terrifying.

        • Yup , over 500 container ships waiting to unload in China , 250 and climbing in the USA , shortage of bulk coal carriers to Europe , Russian gas supplies kinda screwed , and the international transport union say we are close to a collapse in international transportation . We watch bemused at the UK gas / petrol stations out of gas , though our local grocery stores are in a bad way , bacon in January was $3 / pound now it’s $7 , burger king has run out of potatoes , no top quality meat , just old cow full of grissle , for some reason there is no pencils or school writing pads . I watched a Karen having a melt down over no potato chips / crisps in English , people are beginning to get angry , I have decided to stay home well away from the angry dystopian mess DFW metroplex is becoming .today I talked to a local truck driver that has been waiting in Maine four days to load canned fish ,taking them two days to can enough to load one truck warehouses are empty .
          Chris’s small farm future should have started years ago , it’s on the edge of getting nasty !

  9. Hi Kathryn.

    I can’t see printed circuit boards being produced. The machinery to make them would be difficult to maintain. The plastics involved would also be hard to substitute. The mining of the raw materials from all over the world.
    Then there is the power distribution network to power it all. The maintenance of all this would be a huge undertaking.

    I’m not sure that the internet would be a top priority, if there was a small amount of energy that can be invested into an activity. It’s a great way to share ideas but it won’t necessarily put food on the table. ( We can all share our thoughts on this blog. All the comments are really interesting and help me form ideas and develope the way I think, but non if this puts food on the table)
    The energy inputs may be better placed to provide clean water and sanitation.

    A world without tech would be a much “smaller” world in terms of people’s understand, experience, outlook and thinking. Most interactions will be face to face and people will not move around so easily. Most people’s lives will revolve around a twenty mile radius of where they live. Their world view will be very localised. News from the wider world will be rumour and hearsay. Superstition may replace science.

    As I have said before, I think within a couple of generations, people will no longer able to read or write. The effort required to teach a child to read will not be worth the benefits unless a ruling class evolves. They may be reading and writing as remote communication is a vital part of social control.

    • I think the idea that most people will give up reading and writing within a couple of generations is rather far-fetched, and I’ve explained why before.

      I see batteries (and the small scale solar panels, water mills or windmills to charge them) as likely a bigger limitation than circuit boards, if we’re talking about digital communications. But then, I know people who do small electronics repair for a living. No, they don’t do that outside of a pre-existing infrastructure… but do you know how much e-waste there is already? I’m not convinced mining new metals for small devices is necessary at all. I could see electronics recycling filling the gap for quite a while there. The plastic is harder to recycle, but again, not impossible to do.

      I don’t think communications takes anywhere near the amount of power that food, heating, building and transport do, which is why I think some kind of digital communications might be viable. Digital telecoms as we currently know it does require large-scale infrastructure (mobile phone masts, satellites and the like); but the hardware already exists for something more distributed, which could also be more resilient (at least, above a certain population density — but in a small farm future that could look like many small villages rather than handfuls of enormous cities.)

      All of this, admittedly, is much easier to organise if you already have worldwide digital communications, and certainly events are possible that would be major setbacks (e.g. a sufficiently strong coronal mass ejection could fry quite a lot of electronics at once). So, again, I don’t think it’s wise to rely on having the kind of communication we have now. But that was never my question.

      Realistically, if you believe a ruling class would still be reading and writing in order to maintain social control, why on earth do you think they won’t burn some coal in order to keep sending e-mails for the same purposes?

      • Well living out here I can inform you that house sized solar is a TOTAL pain in the ass I know people with it , the weekly task of keeping it going is a huge timewaster , batteries need regular looking after even the gell type and a thunder storm can kill the system stone dead , refrigeration is the only reason to have it , oil lamps a re far less trouble , as for reading by their own numbers half the kids leaving school at 18 have the reading ability of a 8 year old . Cell phones rely on the grid staying up , Europe is looking at blackouts this winter, no grid no phone plus the added problem of all car production slowly being closed down because of lack of computer chips phones will be next ( there are warnings of shortages of electronics for next Christmas ) the supply chain of just about everything is slowly failing from empty shelves in shops to entire industries closing down for lack of parts / fuel .

        • I have a solar off-grid system that is very maintenance free. I need to clean the algae off the PV modules about once a year. I have plenty of modules, so the generator runs very little (a few hours a year). The biggest hassle is sanding the rust off the generator crank, fan, and alternator pulleys before using the generator or the rusty pulleys eat up the fan belt.

          My lithium ion batteries are expensive, but zero maintenance. At the depth of discharge I am using mine, they should have a 20 year life, at least.

          That said, nothing in my system can be rebuilt without parts from industrial civilization. I have plenty of spare parts, but I expect the maximum after-civilization life of the system will be around thirty years even with those.

          Fortunately, that time span is far longer than my life expectancy. The people who occupy this little farm after I am dead may very well have to do without electricity, but they could still live here OK.

          We have plenty of water, plenty of firewood and plenty of garden and pasture for a population of about ten people. The modern buildings here now will gradually decay, but they should last for many decades. After that, it’s back to the thatch huts and cook houses that were common here a couple of hundred years ago. I’ve lived that way before and it’s very doable.

          All of the people on my county road (twenty five homesteads) are in the same situation, all off grid with solar. Like my wife and I, most of them are elderly and will bequeath their land and homes to a younger generation soon. If not our own children, some group of young people will be able to make good use of these little farms.

          I wish them luck.

          • With a generator (assuming yours is fossil fueled??) and plenty of firewood – couldn’t you go to steam power for the generator?

            A steam boiler is not exactly an artisanal build, but it isn’t a Saturn V rocket either. Steam engine tractors worked the larger larger fields in the countryside my Grandfather lived in. Many of the smaller fields were still worked with mule teams until the mid 1920s when mass produced gasoline tractors made it into their world… but a steam driven tractor could be maintained by a local black smith (my Great grandfather on the other side of the family). These contraptions are quite dangerous in the wrong hands – but then a modern auto with all the safety kit we can muster will not prevent life taking accidents in some situations – so the safety element is relative.

            Lumber mill, threshing machine, hay baling, all driven by a steam engine. A community with a top notch smith, experienced steam hand, cobbler, spinners (cotton in our family’s case… but linen, wool, etc), teamsters, carpenters, and so forth… there was no electricity in my Grandfather’s community until he was in his mid-30s.

            They taught their children to read and write (two languages in many cases – as the elderly hadn’t learned to speak English). Life expectancy wasn’t like today’s (two of my father’s siblings died as infants) but many of their generation did live into their 80s. It can be done.

          • Clem,

            Yes, wood fired steam is very plausible for a low-tech future, and there will be plenty of metal materials from salvage for blacksmiths and small shops to work with. Steam powered machinery, old style water wheels and even wind turbines can provide motive power for a low level of industrial processes.

            I still remember what looked like centuries-old remains of walls that were used to concentrate wind for a vertical windmill just outside of Herat Afghanistan. It was probably used for grinding grains.

            All these kinds of energy conversion equipment are simpler than electric motors when you factor in the grid that must power them. I think only very small grids powered by hydro will have a chance of keeping electricity around for the long term. Wood fired steam generation might do the same, but only in places with lots of wood available (I’m still doubtful about that, but we’ll see).

            I have thought about steam for personal use, but I doubt I will go down that road. I am still using some diesel from four drums that were bought in anticipation of Y2K. Old as I am, a lifetime supply of diesel would be a lot easier to acquire and maintain than a steam engine (diesel can used after being stored for decades if care is taken to filter it before use).

            I certainly agree that steam can be done and that agriculture can thrive in a steam powered world, but I think steam will either require a lot of deliberate planning in advance (unlikely) or have to wait until the dust settles and people learn to slowly build up appropriate technologies again.

      • Hi Kathryn.

        “Realistically, if you believe a ruling class would still be reading and writing in order to maintain social control, why on earth do you think they won’t burn some coal in order to keep sending e-mails for the same purposes?”

        I think the ruling class will keep burning fossil fuels to keep the system up an running. That is exactly what they are doing right now. They know that there is no energy alternative to fossil fuels and what the implications are. That’s why we keep on the trajectory we are on. There is no alternative that can maintain the status quo.

        I’m sure the military has a totally separate communications network and the oil reserves to power it. This will last longer than the public infrastructure, but even this will stop eventually when the reserves of oil run out and the spare parts are all used up.

        “I think the idea that most people will give up reading and writing within a couple of generations is rather far-fetched, and I’ve explained why before”

        This idea was in a Sci Fi, post-apocalyptic book I read a long time ago and has stuck with me ever since. In a post modernity world (in the book it was a global pandemic no less!) the author argued that the generations born after the “event” will be leading very different lives to our own. The skills they require to survive will involve interacting with their environment and all consuming in terms of time. Reading and writing will require lost of time and dedication that will distract from the day to day reality of procuring enough food, shelter, warmth etc and for no discernable advantage. What are people going to learn from reading books that is going to help them to meet their needs?
        The make-up of the society will also shift. Those best able to secure food will gain the most status. (Whether through good farming or violence) Reading will not be seen as adding status because it won’t increase the chances of survival.

        In the book the change was sudden and absolute. We may see a more gradual decline and so reading/writing may stick around for a while yet, but by the time modernity has completely broken down, literacy will come under pressure. It could be lost in just one generation if the pressure to survive a too strong.

        (Just been made aware of the collapse at the end of the late bronze age. All the great cities of the Mediterranean and near East were abandoned in a 30 year period. When it happens, it can be quick)

        It’s hard to imagine this being the case as reading/writing is a fundamental skill but in a SFF I’m not so sure it will be.

        This is why I fear that science will die and superstition will prevail (as it did in the book)

        There is no limit to human’s abilities to imagine things that don’t actually exist.
        As Yuval Noah Harari writes in Sapiens. It’s our greatest achievement but it comes with down-sides. Science and superstition.

        • Hi John,

          I draw a distinction between “low energy” and “no access to technology” that you don’t seem to be drawing here. I do believe we need a low-energy future, but I don’t think the technological consequences of this will necessarily be a simple step backward. Scarcity and primitivism are not the same thing.

          As for writing, I certainly use this in my own record-keeping, both when I am growing my food and when I am preserving it. It would be much more difficult to do things like plant breeding if I didn’t keep good records, and in some cases much more dangerous to preserve my food without referring to recipes. There is a pretty direct link between that kind of documentation and survival, so your theory that reading doesn’t increase the chances of survival seems strange to me.

          You might also be interested to read a bit about the actual working hours of pre-industrial labourers, which were… considerably less than many people work today. (For a brief overview see ). Of course, the challenges of climate catastrophe may well mean that much more labour than that is necessary for subsistence. There are certainly some people today who are homesteading and providing a large part of their household’s nutritional needs in their spare time after working a conventional full-time job, though I would argue that such people are probably lucky in terms of the quality of their land and their access to soil amendments, so not everyone will be able to do this. Nevertheless, the picture of scrambling for subsistence every waking moment isn’t one that is sustainable, and it seems unlikely to me that everyone everywhere will need to do this.

          Science fiction is great for imagining possible futures! And I’m certainly not saying that a sudden and drastic change in available technology is impossible or unimaginable: quite the opposite. But I don’t think it is a sure thing in the same way that the requirement for a low energy future is, and I think it is an error to conflate the two. There’s a lot of sci-fi with plausible pathways that don’t involve reverting to primitivism. I wonder if SF with a low energy but high communication society is out there, too — that might be more pertinent to my original question than your extrapolation from one book set somewhere else.

          • Hi Kathryn.

            I’m not sure that there is a distinction between “low energy” and ” no access to technology”. I can’t see how the ” low energy” is going to be created? I’m guessing this
            energy is going to be electric or used to create electricity? All the kit required to create electricity today has very high energy inputs in its creation. (even renewables, batteries etc) “Low energy” electricity generation has never been achieved. With low energy inputs, all that may be achieved is the creation of the kit to create the energy in the first place and not much else.

            I’m not saying that reading doesn’t help with ones chances of survival in a SFF. Specially if you can already read. But learning to read/write is a labour intensive activity and the benefits may not be worth the effort when there will be lots of pressures on people switching to a SFF.
            If the pressures were too great and people stopped seeing the benefits of reading, then all the knowledge of modernity would be lost. It is a very fragile thing.
            Having no language or modern science is not necessarily primitive.
            The Incas created a very complex society without writing, the wheel or metallurgy. They use quipu to record data. The first know written language, Sumarian, was created for “bookkeeping”. People will create clever ways of recording data, but that doesn’t mean they will be able to read Shakespeare.

            I’m not sure the time that pre-industrial labourers had is comparable to those transitioning to a SFF. Pre- industrial labourers were born into a relatively stable, tried and tested economic system. People transitioning to a SFF will be on a very steep learning curve during a time of great social upheaval. The time for leisure or learning to read might be in short supply. There will be many jobs that will need doing/learning!!!!!

            The homesteaders of today are cheating. They are doing it in a fossil fuel world.

    • I was born into ” a much smaller world ” “it was a much kinder more sociable place than now , with far fewer restrictions ,people actually talked to each other , if it went away tomorrow I would shrug and carry on but unraveling the high tech and regrouping supply chains would mean the demise of many people in the West .
      The problems of the world did not enter our thoughts we had enough of our own to deal with , kinda like po dunk Texas is now , we watch the BS news ( that’s Fox news CNN is laughed at if switched on by mistake , luckily NPR don’t make it out here )then get on with life , 4H is far more important than the blather coming from politicians .

  10. Its interesting to read about the Lucas Freelight, a very basic wind generator & (Lead Acid) battery system designed to run a few lights in a farmhouse.

    I have run the electrics on SS Freshspring as a stoker/watchkeeper in the early 80’s

    Its a Robey steam engine driving a 10kw 110V dynamo, about as basic as you can get BUT I am sure still some pretty ‘high tech’ bits in it such as insulation

    • What is the expected life of the boiler ? Most smallish industrial boilers are condemned by the inspectors at around ten years and have to be re tubed .

    • As a one time sawmill owner-operator, I was fascinated by the steam powered mill. My mill was powered by a VW engine so I got to use all the slabs and off-cuts to heat my house. As usual, there were benefits to using fossil fuels for mechanical power.

      I did have one old-timey piece of milling equipment; my four-side planer was manufactured in the 1860’s. I changed the flat belt pulleys to v-belt drive and used the planer for many years.

      One thing that I was curious about in the video that relates perfectly to the subject of this post by Chris is the social dynamics of the farm “family”. I saw numerous male and female adult residents, but no children at all. I wondered about the relationships.

      I also wonder how they organize their intentional community around land tenure, work duties, living and sleeping arrangements (I saw that there are at least a few separate homes for residents), and monetary support? How much do they actually support the farm by selling lumber to the general public? How much of their finances comes from soliciting donations? Their Tinkers Bubble website has few details that I could find.

      The whole Woodlanders film library looks very interesting. It’s quite the international project. Thanks for the link.

  11. Earlier in this comment thread Joe Clarkson and I discussed the value (or cost) of spreading home development into Peri-urban settings. He makes a fair case for the potential future value of some of the McMansion type dwellings popping up on the landscape.

    Like many matters of contention there are nuance and context to consider. One of my biggest pet peeves in the realm of city folk moving to the countryside are attempts by newbies to dictate how longer term rural folk are allowed to make their living. I’m thinking here of the city mouse who moves next door to a farm raising swine and then complaining of the smell. Duh.

    On the flip side of this is the not-so-ignorant city mouse who moves to the country to find herself next to a farm operation that is indifferent to nature – polluting streams with effluent and just being a lousy steward. True, this latter mouse didn’t do her homework before jumping in… but nuance can also suggest a situation where the neighbor farmer was in compliance with environmental regulations but later failed to stay in compliance. Lousy neighbors come in all stripes.

    There are legal means to test the difficulties in these matters, but it would be helpful if folks could find ways to ameliorate their challenges before it becomes necessary to escalate to tort.

    A group here in the States that has long espoused agricultural land saving (or sparing if you like that term better)… the American Farmland Trust:

    Theirs is a wide ranging remit and one can easily spend many hours going through some of their online world. They are also quite keen to hold out their hand for donations, so be forewarned – if you should decide to provide them with your email address to get the newsletter… you may eventually tire of the money grubbing. But that aside, there are many interesting projects they are involved in.

    • Thanks for the link, Clem. I confess I’ve only spent some minutes on the American Farmland Trust website but theirs looks like the kind of organisation I had in mind. I don’t know of an equivalent body for ensuring agricultural conservation in the UK or elsewhere, for that matter. Farms I’ve read about that have explored this avenue, from memory, seem to have taken a DIY approach with regard the legal aspects, often joining forces with Wildlife Trusts, forming Community Interest Companies and suchlike. I may be overlooking something that’s in plain sight – planning laws do protect greenbelt land from, in scare quotes, ‘the developers’, but the impermeability of this alters from time to time.

      • Your mentioning the Wildlife trusts reminded me of the Nature Conservancy:

        – not necessarily farmland preservation (in fact NC can be swallowing farmland in some situations) but the philosophy of preservation is at their root. NC has really deep pockets.

    • In the UK (England and Wales, at least), farm owners can use “restrictive covenants” to ensure that the land isn’t developed in the future. Such covenants, when added to the Land Register, “run with land and are enforceable against whoever owns the land at the time.”

      The Use of Conservation Easements in the European Union

      “This report is an initiative of the European Private Land Conservation Network (ELCN).”

      “Land trusts in the USA now protect more land through conservation easements than through all other private land conservation tools combined. However, easements are not yet as widely used in the EU as they are in the USA, although in the most EU member states no explicit legal obstacle exists for the use of conservation easements.”

      Chapter 5.25. Case study: England and Wales (United Kingdom)

      “Restrictive Covenant: a promise by one person to another, (such as a buyer of land and a seller) not to do certain things with land/property. It binds the land and not an individual person and therefore “runs with the land”. This means that the covenant continues even when the buyer sells the land on to another person.”

      “Negative Covenants: are covenants to not do a particular thing, for example “Not to make any alterations or additions” or “Not to use the property otherwise than as a private dwelling house”. Negative covenants run with land and are enforceable against whoever owns the land at the time.”

  12. Pointers…
    So here’s another to chew on. From the Journal ‘Food Security’; published earlier this month:
    The Future of Farming: Who Will produce our food?
    (and thanks to the Springer folks for making this open access)

    This is a review primarily from the folks at Wageningen in the Netherlands. Africa gets most of the attention, and the US almost none… but that isn’t particularly relevant. There are many places where these authors cover ground we’ve marched through here. There are some other matters we may wish to cuss and discuss housed in this paper.

    The only glaring weakness I could spot from a ten minute glance – they don’t cite the significant work of an English sociologist, blogger, and sometime small farmer we all know. Maybe next time?

      • Me too – at a very swift glance it seemed to take the ‘how on Earth will we feed the burgeoning population (without more technology)?’ tack but I didn’t see anything about food waste and addressing distribution problems. I will have to wade back in to see how wrong I could be…
        Meanwhile, I just chanced across this and thought it an idea that might appeal to some of the toilers who read SFF, particularly those on sloping sites – it’s an electric-motorised wheelbarrow wheel:

  13. Apologies for missing so much of the debates above for reasons outlined in my next post. I will try to circle around to some of these points again in future posts, but won’t try to play catch up right now.

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