Ten years of small farm future

I wouldn’t normally be straining myself to get a post out on New Year’s Day, but (checks archive) blow me if today isn’t the tenth anniversary of this blog’s inception. Three hundred and fifty blog posts. Ten thousand comments. It’s quite some wordage. Has it all been worth it? I couldn’t possibly say, but I hope the landmark is enough for me to be forgiven the self-indulgence of a short trip down memory lane.

When I started the blog I was four years into my tenure as the main grower for Vallis Veg, the small local veg box scheme that I’d started with my wife (along with two other people working on the retail side). And I was four years past the last rites on my academic career. In the early years of the box scheme we sent out a printed newsletter to our customers with the boxes every week in which I sublimated my writing aspirations with reflections on the state of the world from my vantage point behind the wheel hoe. When we switched our website over to WordPress and my friend Steve suggested I might write a blog instead of a printed newsletter, smallfarmfuture.org.uk (or, at least, its forerunner) was born.

At the outset, I’d intended the blog essentially to be a replacement for my customer newsletters, but it quickly took on the form of a wider attempt to consider the ecology and the politics of a contemporary human culture and agriculture that, as I saw it, had gone seriously awry. In those early years, I was interested in debating different agricultural systems – especially now that I was working on them in real life rather than absorbing the secondhand wisdom of various alternative agriculture gurus. I also wanted to better understand why it was so difficult to make small businesses geared around renewable local agriculture work. At the same time, and relatedly, we were locked in a battle with our local council to be able to live on the land we farmed. Quite a lot hung on the outcome, in terms of whether my decision to quit a steady, well-paid job would turn out to have been a stroke of insane genius, or merely insane.

Around that time, I read Stewart Brand’s book Whole Earth Discipline and picked up the vibe of other renegades like Mark Lynas and Mike Shellenberger as they recanted a broadly left-wing, anti-capitalist environmentalism in favour of the kind of ‘green growth’ mainstream sustainability narrative that’s now common coin (at least Brand and Lynas only trumpeted their conversions once – Shellenberger does it with monotonous regularity, though I’m not sure he was ever really in the left-green camp he now repudiates). I found this ‘eco-modernist’ position, as it’s now rather problematically called, unconvincing and superficial, so I started engaging with it on my blog.

These early emphases have now faded somewhat. I’m still interested in farming methods, but I’ve come to the view that the main problem is not how people farm but how people organize themselves economically and politically, and if we get these latter right then the former will pretty much sort itself out in the long term. I’ve also become less interested in commercial agriculture and more interested in non-commercial horticulture, smallholding or homesteading, where online resources are already legion. Plus I’ve found that practical discussions seem too often to degenerate into the “you don’t want to do it like that” space, typically without the discussant troubling themselves enough to find out exactly how and why you are doing ‘it’ like ‘that’. So practical homesteading matters are likely to remain at most an occasional sub-theme here.

As to eco-modernism, my critique of The Eco-Modernist Manifesto co-authored by Brand, Lynas, Shellenberger and others considerably increased my readership, but my interest in engaging with it and indeed in engaging with most of the shouty, finger-pointy argumentation that passes for public intellectual debate these days around eco-modernism and much else besides has considerably decreased. I don’t think it gets us closer to solving contemporary problems, so I’ve tried as best I can (without complete success) to take my writing in different directions. Happily, enough people have found it illuminating for it to seem worth persevering with.

Talking of solving problems, one issue of concern to me on this blog has been our over-easy recourse to solutionist thinking in modern society. This applies of course to mainstream technocratic solutionism of the kind that considers our energy problems soluble via nuclear power, or our food system problems soluble via GM crops or industrially manufactured eco-gloop or whatever. But it also applies in the alternative farming or economics worlds. One part of this blog has involved articulating a scepticism towards off-the-peg ‘alternative’ solutions, whether technological or social. Although I might now frame it a bit differently, I was pleased on this front to get my critical review of perennial grain cropping into a peer-reviewed scholarly journal, somewhat prompted by an unpleasant exchange with an especially combative permaculturist. This was one of three peer-reviewed articles on farming and environmental issues I’ve published since quitting academia for the independent scholar’s garret. I doubt there will be any more.

Then came 2016, the year of the Trump and Brexit votes, widely heralded in certain over-excitable circles as much needed body blows to the complacent liberal capitalist global order. I didn’t think they were. Or, if they were, they weren’t very good ones. Perhaps I spent too much time on the blog dwelling on the politics around this, in particular on how fascist it was. To which the answer has turned out to be certainly a bit. It’s easy to dismiss such events as just the surface fizz of media politics, irrelevant to the deeper beats of nature, climate and energy that are the real drivers of contemporary human affairs and that are more deserving of attention. But as those beats get more disturbed, so does the politics – and ultimately it’ll probably be the politics, that is to say our organizational responses to biophysical crises, more than the crises themselves that will do for many of us.

Anyway, I guess the result of 2016 was to redouble my efforts to find an ‘alternative’ alternative politics and economics to both mainstream orthodoxies and the sham insurgencies of that year. This has been the main focus of the blog since then. It’s not a case of finding the right political economy, cueing the drumroll and then summoning it to save a grateful world. No doubt there will be more Trumps, Farages and Putins, and more neo-Bolshevik aspirants to the crown of world government burnished by the technocratic left. But there may be opportunities for deeper and more plausible forms of grassroots renewal on small farms and in small towns around the margins of this ossified megalo-politics, and my hope is that this blog has contributed in however small a way to clarifying those opportunities.

I wrote a couple of blog cycles in relation to that project. One on the Peasants’ Republic of Wessex where I looked at possibilities for local production of food and fibre in my region, and another on the History of the World in 10½ blog posts where I tried to put the politics into a larger context. Both of these, and many other strands from this blog, fed into my book, A Small Farm Future, published by Chelsea Green in 2020, which has been one tangible product of the blog that’s now out there making its way in the world.

I like to think that acquiring a smattering of scientific and political knowledge from an orthodox mainstream education has protected me from certain excesses typical of the dissenting autodidactic blogger, though perhaps hasn’t immunised me completely. In particular, a background in traditional left-wing and Marxist analysis has helped shape my worldview in ways that I still consider positive, but I find much of the analyses emerging from those traditions today too stuck in the ossified megalo-politics I mentioned to address current issues convincingly.

To my mind, this megalo-politics, and the orthodox educational canon associated with it, hasn’t kept its eye on the ball in relation to the politics appropriate to the current moment, and has badly erred by marginalizing, silencing and ridiculing other traditions and ideas more grounded in immediate material livelihood, the local and the sensory – such ideas and movements, for example, as agrarian populism, Romanticism and distributism. I’ve found myself sort of inventing an alternative political economy for myself along these lines, only to find that I was tapping into rich traditions of thought paralleling my own that previously I’d only dimly been aware of, or didn’t take seriously enough, because orthodox political thought didn’t take them seriously enough.

I’d long sought escape from Marxism and traditional leftism without quite finding a home elsewhere. Looking back on it, I think my book and this blog signal that uncertainty. But I’m now clearer about how to ground an alternative political economy and I hope I can develop that in the future. The stinker of a review my book got from a couple of Marxist bros stung me at the time, not least in its rank unfairness, but now seems almost like a necessary rite of passage into a less totalizing and more engaged worldview. Part of that involves an increasing interest not so much in arguing what the right politics are, but in how to deal with arguing over what the right politics are.

A few years back I wrote a sardonic post about how neither of my career choices – farmer and writer – were wise picks for turning coin, and I light-heartedly added a Donate button to the website to underline the point. It came as a pleasant surprise a couple of months later when somebody actually dug into their pocket and contributed. Since then there’s been a small trickle of donations to the site for which I am most grateful.

I get plenty of requests to place pre-written content for money or to monetize the site through advertising, which so far I’ve resisted (to be fair, most of them are probably just spam). Since I published my book, the contributions have dwindled. So I thought I might just mention that the book hasn’t exactly made me rich. In fact, one of the few jobs I’ve done that’s paid a worse hourly rate than writing this blog is writing my book. The truth is, I’m a very lucky human being and I don’t – at the moment anyway – need people’s cash to keep the wolf from the door. Undoubtedly there are people much more needful of your money than me. But if you’ve found any of my writing over the last ten years helpful or informative in any way, maybe you’ll consider a small donation so that I can at least scrape together a few coins and buy a bottle of something bubbly to celebrate ten years of smallfarmfuture.org.uk.

As to the future, who knows? I have a blog cycle about my book to finish, various other themes to share and a farm and burgeoning farm community to contribute to. Plus a growing anxiety about where humanity is headed. But definitely some good memories from a decade of engaging with other humans on this blog. Many thanks for the comments and debates here, from which I’ve learned a great deal.

42 thoughts on “Ten years of small farm future

  1. Congrats on the anniversary! Ten years is quite the accomplishment. As I read this piece I recalled those shifts in focus. You are always an interesting read. Thanks for sharing your thoughts over the years with us, Chris.

  2. Chris,,
    congratulations for what you have achieved, on my occasional trips to the Vallis Veg farm the richness of the growth compared to the surrounding fields is quite something, the blog ditto.

    As you rightly point out its creating the situation in which people/agriculture/whatever thrives rather than how they thrive is what is important

  3. Chris,
    Yes, I’ll pile on the congratulations too.

    Your blog and commenting community are really quite remarkable, especially when compared to the swamp that is the majority of rest of the internet.

    And I applaud your stepping out into that ‘neither left-nor-right’ of political/economic ideas, ” inventing an alternative political economy” as you say.
    To my mind, the fact that it doesn’t readily make sense, and doesn’t have a name that you can easily plunk onto it, tells me that you are probably doing the right thing. Doing a new or original thing, anyway.

    Thanks.

  4. Congratulations Chris! This is a substantial milestone indeed. I am excited every time you post, and I am grateful for your labours.

    In fact, I have a suggestion for a new direction, but explaining it is a bit circuitous…

    There is a movie called Moo Man, about a British dairyman who sells raw milk. It shows how challenging that is as a business, and it shows how he loves his herd.

    It is completely wholesome, and when I am feeling anxious about the world, or jittery because we just watched, say, a Russian Pandemic Zombie series (we did not finish that), I often say I wish there was a 24 hour Moo Man channel.

    Have you heard of CottageCore? It is a neostalgic movement that is just as charming and problematic as it sounds.

    Anyhow, I think you could shift to a… Lifestyle Blog!!

    Then, whenever I am feeling sad I can just nip over to SFF for the 24 hour PeasantCore channel, and relax into your ruminations about the Peasant Republic.

    The web marketers will be all over you! Glossy ads for billhooks and cider presses, organic cotton peasant-style underclothes…

    I guess I may not be a sufficient market to support your jetset lifestyle, but I do look forward to sitting down with each post. Thanks again for your sharing your thoughts, and I wish you and Cordelia a safe, healthy and fruitful year, and send my best to my comrades here in the peanut gallery.

  5. Happy anniversary!

    I do value the practical encouragement I find here, but I also understand why it remains a sub-theme. For me the challenge is in fleshing out ideas that I can endorse (or at least tolerate) in theory, and also apply in some practical form in my own life.

    If I wanted only theory (or even ideology), well, there are lots of places I can find that online. There are also, as you point out, many how-to resources for people who want to do roughly what I do (a combination of allotment horticulture and urban foraging resulting in a sort of distributed smallholding, if you like — though I do lack livestock, sigh), without looking too hard at the wider connections. The synthesis between these, alongside the recognition that each context is unique, is something I don’t find in many other places; and I especially appreciate the “you could try this/that” rather than “the only way to do X is Y” attitude of many other commenters here.

    Regarding economics and governance: do you think we can “get this right” in a top-down way that enables local flourishing and decent economic tradeoffs for most households? Or do you think good governance models are an emergent phenomenon, which will come out of enough people practising a localist economic method — whether out of necessity or conviction? Or something else, perhaps in between or completely different?

    Here’s to whatever the coming years bring. I’d love to drop by with a bottle of something when I’m next out your way (it’ll be a while).

  6. Thanks for the comments, congratulations … and donations!

    Nice to get your local input John, and a sense from you that I do at some level at least try to practice what I preach. I don’t always feel so sure myself!

    Thanks Eric for your take on my originality – I hadn’t really thought of it like that, but there’s definitely a way that mainstream positions (whether capitalism or left/right politics) make alternatives hard to defend, define or even imagine.

    Ruben, believe me I’d love to be a plausible cottagecore lifestyle influencer, but I fear I’d flunk the entrance exams. I haven’t followed the whole thing that much – still, while appeals to lifestyle easily suck the marrow out of any attempt to do anything authentically, I’d rather see people romanticizing cottagecore than, say, Tesla. One thing I would like to do is write a bit more about our farm, not so much the farming technicalities as the human and nature stories around it and its links with the local community and wider world. So I’m considering that and would be interested in any feedback.

    While I’m not minded to write an awful lot about smallholding practicalities myself, I’m very happy to host comments from people about what they’re doing, as Kathryn among others often does – particularly when it’s related to wider political or economic thinking. So please don’t let my comments above dissuade anyone from keeping it real with their own farming stories here.

    On economics and governance, I see small farm futures emerging out of a mixture of conviction and necessity – but mostly necessity – as other ways of generating a livelihood become increasingly implausible and the impotence of present governance models increasingly obvious. But forewarned is forearmed, so I think there’s a lot to be said for learning from existing political models and experiences as the necessity begins to bite – particularly if we can avoid easy utopianisms and home in on the tensions and difficulties that must be confronted.

    Thanks also to Brian, Steve and Joe for your long term support of this blog. Morning tea and SFF is a nice image – maybe I can be a lifestyle influencer after all!

  7. Congratulations. Chris! Although it’s been a while since I’ve joined the conversation, I’m still reading (and very much enjoying) your posts and the lively discussions that they engender. Small Farm Future remains my favorite spot on the internet, and I can’t imagine that changing.

    One thing I would like to do is write a bit more about our farm, not so much the farming technicalities as the human and nature stories around it and its links with the local community and wider world.

    This sounds like a really nice idea, so here’s one big thumbs up. It brings to mind Michael Viney’s A Year’s Turning, a lovely book that I heartily recommend if you haven’t already read it.

  8. Still more congrats from the peanut gallery. This is a fine corner of the blogosphere to mosey into, with our without a cup of tea.

    A few great ideas for future conversations already outlined above. And with the collection of capable minds among the many commenters here I’m looking forward to the continuing discussions.

    350 posts is quite an accomplishment in its own right – that they stimulated 10K comments is something more.

    Happy New Year to all, and to the next 10 years, 350 posts, and another 10K comments. 🙂

  9. From … https://www.faninitiative.net/collapse/the-tragedy-of-the-sapient/

    “Or, to use another metaphor: if we know that the ship is going down, then human survival depends not on its course or speed but the quantity and quality of its lifeboats. A design of these has to begin as soon as possible at international, national and local levels, even though those recognizing the need for them are astonishingly few right now.”

    A lot of the last ten years has been about justifying the need for lifeboats and proving that small farms are a good choice for them. Despite the siren song of ecomodernists, I think the verdict has come in that a small farm (and a small farm community) is still the best choice for surviving the sinking of HMS Modernity.

    But creating and preserving small farms and small farm communities is still very hard. Please consider exploring how to best maximize the number of small farms, especially for people who don’t have a lot of money with which to buy land, how they can be preserved in the face of problems like aging owners (like me) and market and policy forces that continue to work against the existence of small farms.

    To extend the metaphor perhaps a little too far, I see a future SFF as being not so much about “lifeboat” design, since we all know that one of the best lifeboats is a small farm (and there is a great deal of information already out there about what to do on a small farm), but rather being about how to carve the best lifeboat-shipyard out of modern society.

  10. Congratulations. That is a lot of writing, and as one who tries to write a bit, a lot of dedication and work.

  11. For ten years I’d say that’s quite an arc, and can only echo the congrats posted so far, particularly Ernie’s (I’ll check out the Viney book – at first glance it sounds very similar to John Lewis-Stempel’s Meadowland, which I enjoyed). Which ever direction you and your writing take, if you feel the old nod in the heart, go for it – you do a fine job.

  12. Congratulations Chris, a great achievement! This blog is truly something special – I’ve learnt a great deal here, both from you and other commenters, and your work is fundamementally important.

    Here’s to many more years to come!

  13. Thanks for the further positive comments, suggestions and donations – they’re really very much appreciated.

    I will think about the comments for future writing directions and report in due course – certainly various fertile areas to explore there, and crossovers with my own thinking. In the shorter term, I have a couple of blog posts to release soon somewhat tangential to my present lengthy blog cycle about my book, which I will then aim to finish. After that, well … who knows?

  14. This is tangential to the present post, but fits well with the overarching thrust of SFF:

    http://www.mafg.net/NewsDetail.aspx?NewsID=9495 (2-3 min read)

    This concerns the future of the meat industry in the US… it is part 5 of a series. We’ve banged on capitalism quite a bit here, and the big C gets a share of the blame here. But failure to enforce anti-monopolistic law comes in for some share here as well. The piece points to several other articles also available on-line for those wishing to dive a bit deeper.

    There are other ways to obtain meat (short of raising your own)… and if interest exists I can point to a few available here in the states.

    • I get most of my meat in a subscription box or from a traditional butcher. I’m sure there are similar issues in the UK with the big supermarkets messing things up.

      And yes, capitalism without measures to prevent monopoly will develop into monopoly, and cause all sorts of problems. I don’t have a citation to hand but I’m pretty sure Adam Smith had something to say about that phenomenon.

      • How about “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” Wealth of Nations, I.x

      • Scale becomes a significant issue as well. ‘Too big to fail’ is bantered about as though we have to be watching large enterprise(s) carefully and prevent their undoing lest larger problems manifest.

        Economies of scale have been discussed here in the past – and along side a human tendency to look out for #1 there will often be expansion where opportunities facilitate. Small enterprises then, whether farms or other, offer some respite.

        So not merely enforcing anti-monopolistic policy, but also encouraging some upper bound to power (where enough is enough) seems a road worthy of mapping for our future.

        Progressive taxation has a history to explore in this regard.

        Anyone?

        • Some of what we are sold as economies of scale are really economies of externality, either in terms of energy used in production or in terms of transport. It would be interesting to explore to what degree inequality and involuntary unemployment are correlated with this.

          I think the necessity of human-scale, animal-energy production and transport could, but is not guaranteed to, change the balance of power considerably. I am concerned about the possibility of rent-seeking structures becoming even more dominant.

          I am in some respects an old-fashioned left-wing tax-and-spend social democrat and I am generally in favour of progressive taxation of income. I do wonder whether a flat-rate tax coupled with a (tax-free) universal basic income might be simpler and offer fewer loopholes and perverse incentives, but I’m not sure how to get there from here in supersedure state situations, and I’m very aware that UBI without rent controls will mostly benefit landlords (see what happened with housing benefit in the UK). Taxation of capital seems even more difficult. If someone holds forty acres and can live off of it fairly comfortably but has little financial income, should her tax be lower than that of her neighbour with half an acre who has to send her children out to work in exchange for food in addition to doing paid work? Why? (And if said children are working for the woman who has 40 acres, does that count as a form of taxation? Charity? Feudalism?)

          My other big question around this is about to what degree labourers have power when the option of using oil instead goes away. Again, where unemployment is high we are told a story of there being too many people or not enough work; but take away cheap energy and transport, and the demand for labour should go way up. In an ideal world that demand would be for labour in regenerative (or otherwise ecosystem friendly, habitat-building) agriculture; I don’t know what the upper limit is for the carrying capacity of the earth but it’s surely lower now (what with soil degradation, big weather events, pollution, miles and miles of paved parking, etc) than it could be, and I can envision significant labour oriented toward changing this. At that point perhaps carrying capacity is not so much about “how much land to support X number of people?” but more about “how much space and (ultimately solar) energy is required to do nutrient and water cycling for X number of people?” and it is here that I think economies of scale, and the resulting balance of power, could turn out to be very different than we expect. Not so very different from what we saw before industrialisation, but I maintain that the seeds of industrialisation were already present in a world with printing presses and movable type, and I don’t think those changes are going away anytime soon.

          Longer-term I suspect that when humans opt for slavery and other extractive or externality-heavy processes, then even without fossil fuels we will still end up in some kind of ecological overshoot situation. At least if our survival is mostly based on local production, this will be more immediately obvious and affect a smaller proportion of the population at once. Again, getting to there from here is non-trivial, and if climate and contagion take care of this for us (as looks increasingly likely) then things could get very hard indeed.

          • At least if our survival is mostly based on local production, this will be more immediately obvious and affect a smaller proportion of the population at once.

            I agree completely. Even if some “local production” based societies use methods that are problamatic on a long term basis, it would take a very unusual circumstance for hundreds of localized societies all over the world to simultaneously collapse from self-induced environmental degradation. Resilience and redundancy are very important benefits of separated, low-energy, low-technology societies. They have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, a longevity that looks very unlikely for modern societies.

            And consider the dangers of the opposite extreme, an ecomodernist utopia where everyone lives in one city (for optimum efficiency), half the world is wilderness and the other half is farmed by robots. Even assuming that an energy source could be found to power “fully automated luxury communism” (FALC) sustainably, there are a number of things that could provoke a rapid and complete collapse: loss of communications with the robots or within the supply chain system for even a short time; political strife within the single society; a loss of electric power might easily become permanent if a black start becomes difficult; concentrated industrial agriculture would be more succeptible to disease; a fast-moving and very fatal pandemic. The FALC folks can claim that there are preventative measures for all of these points of failure, but, if everyone on earth is a member of a single globalized society, humanity has put all of its eggs in one basket, regardless of how that basket is constructed and maintained. Doing so greatly increases extinction risk.

            Of course, if that society uses energy sources that are depleting and also destroy the climate, it just makes everything worse. The rich world of the Global North has long been galloping toward that worst case scenario of too much interconnectedness combined with a really bad energy system. It is fortunate that poor countries of the Global South are isolated enough from the modern economy that they could probably carry on even if the Global North implodes, but it would be helpful if the rich world collapses sooner rather than later so as to leave a more benign climate for the future. We moderns have just about mucked everything up for everyone.

            I am optimistic that the inevitable collapse of modernity will come soon and save the climate for the long term, but, like you, worried that things could get very very hard in the process (even without the really bad stuff like nuclear war or dozens of Fukushima-style meltdowns). The only thing to do is create small farms and cross our fingers.

          • Yep agree with Kathryn & Joe here. The visibility of ecological effects locally within local economies is an important point that I’ve also emphasized – not necessarily a solution in itself, but at least a starting point.

            I’m maybe not quite as optimistic as Joe about the advantages of the Global South – exploitive integration into the global economy exacerbates the problems in many respects, even if a lower energy lifestyle has its advantages.

          • Chris mentioned the “exploitive integration into the global economy”, which made me wonder about which countries were least integrated.

            There is a Global Connectedness Index which “tracks the depth and breadth of international trade, capital, information, and people flows. It draws upon 3+ million data points to examine globalization worldwide, by region, and across 169 countries.”

            This index ranks 169 countries from most to least connected. Below are the 50 least connected countries at the bottom of the list for 2019:

            169 Burundi
            168 Guinea-Bissau
            167 Yemen
            166 Zimbabwe
            165 Democratic Republic of the Congo
            164 Kiribati
            163 Afghanistan
            162 Uganda
            161 Timor-Leste
            160 Benin
            159 Sudan
            158 Rwanda
            157 Tajikistan
            156 Mali
            155 Malawi
            154 Botswana
            153 Angola
            152 Burkina Faso
            151 Eswatini
            150 Tanzania (United Republic of)
            149 Niger
            148 Vanuatu
            147 Gambia
            146 Lao People’s Democratic Republic
            145 Nepal
            144 Iran (Islamic Republic of)
            143 Guinea
            142 Paraguay
            141 Cabo Verde
            140 Uzbekistan
            139 Samoa
            138 Kyrgyzstan
            137 Dominica
            136 Haiti
            135 Bangladesh
            134 Bolivia (Plurinational State of)
            133 Kenya
            132 Mauritania
            131 Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of)
            130 Algeria
            129 Ethiopia
            128 Zambia
            127 Guatemala
            126 Pakistan
            125 Myanmar
            124 St. Vincent and the Grenadines
            123 Senegal
            122 Liberia
            121 St. Kitts and Nevis
            120 Cameroon

            https://www.dhl.com/global-en/spotlight/globalization/global-connectedness-index.html

          • I’d push back a bit against Chris’ notion that interconnectedness may doom the Global South as well. I think Joe’s analysis is supported IF the Global North does implode… the implosion likely releasing the South from many of the interconnected relationships.

            For a model I’d offer the relationship between England and North America circa 1770. His Majesty’s economy was suffering, too much going on beyond his control, and a then colonized and extract suffering entity got fed up and threw off the sovereign. There were continental helpers for the colonists, but the British had their own mercenaries – so while this is not an exact replica of what we have in place today, it has some parallels.

            On Chris’ side of this test there are some places in the Global South which have suffered tremendously from extractive practices, but most of the extraction is mineral and fossil fuel material that a simpler agrarian life style needn’t employ.

            In the balance then, I think Joe’s analysis a bit stronger on this particular concept of a potential future.

          • The difference between the US at the dawn of its independence and the situation now is that postcolonial freedom enabled the US to be its own player at the start of the agrarian-industrial developments that ultimately led to our present high energy, urbanized world. Whereas many countries in the global south now are already high energy & urbanized, and will have to follow a descent path just like the Global North, except without many of the latter’s advantages – all those megalopolises with their poverty and violence wracked slums, only now without the energetic and monetary flows that make life in them livable or tolerable. Still, all that said I agree there are aspects of life in many Global South countries that probably make them better pre-adapted to the necessary descent path than here in the Global North – the counterpoint being that climate effects and poverty may make things harder.

            Steve’s list makes for interesting reading in this regard. A lot of the least connected countries are ones that have been torn by war or civil strife, but some (Iran, Venezuela, Zimbabwe … Haiti?) are ones that arguably have themselves chosen to tread their own more autonomous path, and have often been punished by the wider international comunity for it. Food for thought in opting for autonomy … but it may soon no longer be so optional.

          • Chris said:
            the counterpoint being that climate effects and poverty may make things harder.

            Will agree that climate effects may make things harder, but not that poverty will… already poor – already adapted. Like the person who might prefer a cool climate to a very warm one who suggests, “I can put on more clothes to stay warm, but I can only get so naked to stay cool”…

          • Well, yes and no. Poverty does involve some pre-adaptations but also militates against others. Modern, especially urban, poverty is different from ecologically adapted rural simplicity. And structural factors are in play too – I mean, I don’t want to get all ecomodernist, but there are reasons why earthquakes kill a lot more people in Haiti or Nepal than in the USA or Japan. Still, I don’t see this as a major point of disagreement, more a matter of emphasis.

          • I don’t think there is a country on the planet that hasn’t got fossil fuels deeply embedded in its economy.

  15. Thanks to a Brian Miller suggestion … Front Porch Republic highlighted another piece about the meat industry in the US (Brian is a fellow commenter here):

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/us-policy/2022/01/03/white-house-beef-supply/

    This piece covers some of the Biden admin’s response to over consolidation in the meat packing sector here. There is some balance in the piece, and further sources for the dutiful rabbit hole explorer. Meat inspection (at slaughter) is an issue that is only tangentially addressed in this piece, but one can dream that as bureaucrats sink their teeth into this matter there might be coincident improvement on that front as well.

    While not a big fan of the sound bite myself, this from the linked piece:

    “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism. It’s exploitation,” Biden said at a White House event

  16. Not trying to redirect the conversation, but here’s a link about a project to consider different aspects of reforming the food retail system here in the States:

    https://law.yale.edu/isp/events/reforming-americas-food-retail-markets#overlay-context=isp/events/technologies-deception

    This particular link is an event invite… but it is full of links to other material and does provide an overview of some issues they plan to cover. Plenty to chew on.

  17. Congrats on your anniversary Chris and belated happy new year wishes. Thanks again for your insights and wisdom over the years…. Yes, I said wisdom lol!
    My resolution will be to post more often on here & not tag and then drag you into pointless online warmongering on Twitter. Fun as it is though…
    Reckon I might last a month or so at the latter, nevermind!
    All the best for 2022.

    • Thank you Ian. Nobody to blame but myself for getting drawn into Twitter wars. Sometimes I feel like the guy who just wants a quiet drink, but always chooses the roughest bar in town and then gets surprised when someone picks a fight 🙂

      I do learn things from Twitter, but yes I much prefer discussions here on the blog so I hope to hear from you again here soon

  18. As far as fully automated luxury communism is concerned, I have some sympathy for the ideas. I can certainly imagine a solarpunk sort of future, not completely centralised as Joe’s example, but with a mixture of small cities, towns of all sizes, and villages. But it’s hard to imagine our machines and robots ever getting more efficient than trees are, or squashes, or potatoes. An orchard or food forest or whatever isn’t fully automated, but perhaps it’s fair to say it is automated in all the ways that will count when we no longer have cheap energy. I think the ecomodernist, techno-utopian vision is predicated on a real lack of understanding of just how much energy is involved in manufacturing and labour.

    That said (and I’ve said it enough before now so will keep this short), I think it’s an equal mistake to assume that technology in the future will be limited to what existed at some arbitrary pre-modern point in history. Availability will shift, emphasis and usefulness will shift, but even if every computer stopped working tomorrow we would have more written (on paper!) knowledge available to us than has ever been available before. I’m not suggesting that the existence of books will lead to fully automated luxury communism, because I don’t think it will. But I myself own books on foraging, preserving, building shelters, needlework, sewing, brewing, gardening, music theory, music history, liturgy, theology, tying knots, bicycle maintenance… and others I know have similar libraries, according to their interests. That’s got to count for something.

    • You did say that rather distinctly… and I heartily agree that there is so much more accumulated knowledge and wisdom that has come down to us over time. And while books and other records are very significant, it also helps to appreciate the extent knowledge base within the living cohort. Ancient societies would have had their elders, their medicine folk, and their keepers of the oral history… and we have these today as well (and likely a much greater proportion of the population).

      Pair this with our ability to innovate and find solutions for problems we still don’t realize we have and I think there is plenty of space for a doomer optimism.

      Now I need to go back and reread Chris’ contribution on the Doomer Optimism site…

      • Oh, absolutely. The first thing I do when I run into trouble with something electrical is ask my housemate, who has somewhat more knowledge than I do and a great deal more experience with putting the magic smoke back into broken gadgets of one sort or another. I also have a bicycle friend, and a sewing friend, and so on. A lot of people have used their leisure under the current arrangements to learn and practice, entirely for fun, more useful skills than I can probably even think of. And these are the same people who come up with innovative solutions for one sort of problem or another.

      • Yes, agreed on accumulated knowledge and on not ‘going back’. But one key issue will be energy availability – so much present luxury depends less on the accumulation of knowledge and more on the abundance of cheap energy, which can’t be guaranteed in the future. Another key issue is the notion of ‘luxury’ – so many of these FALC visions strike me as dreary, alienated and kind of antiseptic. So there’s a wider social context they neglect about the nature of a congenial life.

        • I agree re: cheap energy. It’s going away. I’m just glad that some of the cheap energy of the past few centuries has gone into libraries instead of cars.

          Some of the communities I spend time in online advocate playfully and enthusiastically for Fully Automated Luxury Gay Communism, and I can assure you that the visions they hope for, while unrealistic in energy terms, are anything but dreary or antiseptic. Meanwhile, I have certainly heard smallholding, homesteading and adjacent small farm pathways described as “knit your own lentils,” a sort of hair shirt asceticism for the sake of it. I know that this is not the whole story, and I know from my own experience that physical labour can be meaningful and delightful in itself, but different people will of course find delight in different choices.

          I think my own hope is that we can combine the best of both worlds: technology like Trombe walls and other passive solar heating (and cooling!), decent natural insulation, bicycles (and assorted machinery that can be attached and pedal powered), windmills to pump water or grind grain, solar cookers, pressure canning preservation methods (alongside more traditional fermenting, dehydrating etc) and probably a bunch of technologies I haven’t even thought of mean we don’t have to be as uncomfortable as our small farm ancestor peasants might have been while we get most of our food and fuel locally.

          Further, I suspect this synthesis of localism and technology (which doesn’t mean computers, a writing quill and ink and parchment are all technology too) could be about more than comfort. Climate instability will make local provisioning harder, and while crop diversification is one excellent response to this, we may find ourselves needing to lean more on our stored food than is strictly ideal. We may find that we have enough firewood to cook but not to heat our homes, at which point passive solar (even in rainy Britain) becomes all the more important (though traditional thermal mass ovens are also good). We may find ourselves needing to drain a field, at which point a windmill that can pump water (mechanically, no electricity required) is a very useful thing to have. We may find building up the carbon in our soil is best done not with traditionally local crops but with hemp (which I wish I could grow at the allotment for this purpose, but sadly isn’t legal); we may find non-native plants like black locust to be excellent for coppicing or biochar (I don’t know if it’s any good for this or not).

          We probably can’t afford to throw out the technology baby with the cheap energy bathwater.

          • Thanks Kathryn, agree on the need for lateral thinking about technology and that there’s room for different visions. But I feel the need to double down on FALC. I don’t doubt that there are probably some engaging FALCish or solarpunk visions, but IMO each word of the FALC nexus comes with a heavy historical weight of antisepsis and/or drear, so if there are visions that evade this I’d see it as an achievement in spite of rather than because of this political commitment. But I could probably be persuaded otherwise 🙂

          • I think my best persuasion that FALC is worth bearing in mind and taking seriously as a vision (even if impractical) is that most of the people I know who strongly advocate for it are disabled artists. I think they are quite mistaken about the energy balance stuff, but I don’t think they are mistaken that the current system is terrible for them and for the workers exploited so they can survive. I also agree that a system with universal access to basic needs (and indeed luxury — and what some people term luxury can be pretty essential in the world today, depending on your disabilities…) without exploitation of workers would be a great system in which to make art. Bear in mind that I am including people in this who make amazing art, but daren’t try to make a career of it because of the threat of losing the (already insufficient) benefits that they survive on.

            So I entertain the vision as unrealistic but joyous, rather than dreary or antiseptic. There will always be human needs that cannot be met by automation, and these wouldn’t go away if the automation of meeting other needs turned out to be possible after all.

            I should add that I don’t believe in FALC as a *mandated* automation of meeting such needs, and it isn’t my understanding that the proponents I know would mandate automation either. Not being allowed to grow my own food, for no reason other than that I feel like it, would be dreary indeed!

            It’s entirely possible that the people I know who advocate FALC are unrepresentative, of course. But my impression of it is very much not about living in the pod and eating the bugs, and very much more about universal access to the means of survival so that nobody has to choose between starvation and exploitation (either of their own labour, or someone else’s). Gone is the necessity of working in a sweat shop; gone is the necessity of buying sweatshop-produced clothing because you can’t make (or mend) your own or afford the stuff that isn’t made in a sweat shop.

            A small farm future also would do away with such evils, at least to the extent that your sweat shop isn’t available locally so you’d better find another way to clothe yourself. It certainly has the potential to be rather dire for anyone unable to do physical labour, though things wouldn’t necessarily work out to be horrible. I’ve written before about the ways we might meet, within the constraints of expensive energy, the needs of profoundly dependent people, while also respecting their autonomy and dignity. In my view this is not something we do very well in our current system, either.

            I can’t endorse a vision that would manage this but is practically entirely unworkable, and that’s basically what I think FALC is. Maybe if we had another three hundred years of cheap energy we could get there technologically and also socially. As things stand, we aren’t going to get that far. But I do see in it the germ of something we ought to take seriously about autonomy and dignity.

            Perhaps some of the less labour-intensive permaculture visions are similar in intent. There’s nothing more fully automated than a tree that grows food and fuel for you. You and I know well that this isn’t a zero labour proposition, of course. What if the work becomes a pleasure, as we also know it can? If the work of, say, a chestnut harvest becomes a sustainable way of life that all in a community participate in to the extent that they can and all benefit from to some degree regardless of the exact nature of their individual contributions? I think we then maybe we end up with something like Naturally Optimised Artisanal Communitarianism. I’d probably go for that if I knew we could get there from here.

  19. I know I’m late here and that you might not even see this, but wanted to add to the congratulations. Even if I don’t usually comment, I’ve been reading every post for years now, and this blog is one of my favorite corners of the internet. Along with John Michael Greer, I think you’re by far the best of the “deep green/doomer/whatever you want to call it” bloggers, and I really appreciate your always level-headed perspective backed up by solid scholarship and knowledge.

    As a bonus, it also makes your blog (and book!) an easier recommendation to more mainstream-oriented folk, since it’s much harder to write off someone with actual academic credentials and a real farm, rather than, say, a self-styled druid and occultist.

    In any case, thank you so much for the years of insightful posts, and all the best for the future!

    • Thank you, Kim. That’s a very touching appreciation … as have been several of the others above. It’s heartening when I hear my writing has an appreciative audience!

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