City of the dead, part two

I’ve written quite a bit on this blog over the years about urbanism, ruralism and the case for deurbanization – the theme of Chapter 15 of A Small Farm Future where this blog cycle has currently lighted. To be honest, I get a bit exasperated about urbanism. It’s not because I’m against city living as such. In an ideal world, I’d like it if everyone could live wherever they damn well pleased and do whatever they wanted.

But we don’t live in an ideal world, and it seems to me that climate, energy, water and waste realities are going to propel a lot of people out of urban living in the coming years. True, city dwellers usually count for more politically than their rural counterparts (voters for US senators may beg to differ), and this is just one of the reasons why it’s likely that governments will strive to keep the urban show on the road for as long as possible. But ultimately you can’t argue with energetic and ecological realities. I fear that if we keep on trying to, things could get ugly, perhaps in cities most of all. So there may be some real cities of the dead in future years, in considerably less enthralling ways than the one I described in my previous post. To avoid such outcomes, there’s a need to get on the case right now and ease the transition to ruralism.

But we’re not doing that for several reasons. For several bad reasons, which is what exasperates me. Here, I’ll outline very briefly five bad reasons why the world is not deurbanizing at it should.

First, it suits economic and political elites to keep as many people as possible corralled in towns, landless and insecurely salaried or unsalaried and ripe for the extraction of economic rent (the rural van dwellers I mentioned in my last post are pioneering refuseniks to this dismal process). But these elites comprise only a small minority. The wonder is that so many people happily embrace the servitude offered them. To a degree the embrace has been rational – governments have kept themselves in business with an urban promise of jam today and more jam tomorrow. But as it gets increasingly hard for them to honour the promise, land in the countryside starts looking like better security than a job in the city. This has profound implications.

Second, the ubiquitously humanized and high-tech environment of the city seems to have bred a kind of magical mindset that human ingenuity can preserve cities and all their conveniences. One critical review of my book said that I offered little succour to the urban masses in the face of contemporary crises. That’s because there’s little I can give. And nor, I think, can anyone else who’s both honest and free of magical delusions. I’d love to wave a wand over, say, Dhaka or (less so) London or Miami and command the waters not to rise and the taps to run, the sockets to thrum with energy and the wastes to disappear forever. But no such wand exists. As suggested in my previous post and others of greater vintage, human habitation is scarcely possible where there’s too little freshwater, or too much seawater, or too much accumulated waste, and not enough cheap energy to manage them. This increasingly will be the reality of much of the world’s urban infrastructure. Rather than invoking magical solutions to future urban problems, I think it’s better to see the writing on the wall and act accordingly.

Third, contemporary culture has acquired an anti-rural cast. It runs so deep that even a mild argument for deurbanization is often treated as if it’s cheerleading for a holocaust. Several times in the past when I’ve made such arguments people have responded in all seriousness with ‘ruralization – what, like the Khmer Rouge?’ To which the answer is no, not like the Khmer Rouge. Does it really need stating that the Khmer Rouge did not exhaust all possible forms of deurbanization? As I see it, people in the future are going to have reason enough to get out of cities on their own account if they can, without anybody holding a gun to their heads.

I suppose, to give this argument the greatest credence it deserves, there’s been something of an affinity between rural self-reliance and crazy authoritarian regimes – North Korea, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and maybe more complex cases like Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or even de Valera’s Ireland. However, the direction of causality is not usually from rural self-reliance to crazy autocracy, but generally the other way around. If you make yourself a pariah to the wider international community, then rural self-reliance starts to matter. Still, ‘the international community’ is largely just a euphemism for the narrow economic elites I mentioned earlier, and the true face of its great game politics is beginning to reveal itself in the light of events like the war in Ukraine. In the future, it seems likely that crazy autocracies will feature less heavily among the countries pursuing rural self-reliance, while countries displaying prudent rationality will figure more prominently.

Anyway, I have no wish to replace mindless anti-ruralism with a mindless anti-urbanism. But I would like urban folks to appreciate how their consumption and waste footprint extends into the countryside and, due to the fiscal-political power of cities, turns it over to service their needs. If you expect that kind of service from rural people and places, it’s worth asking how you’re serving them in return.

Fourth is the mistaken belief that city living is less ecologically impactful than its rural counterpart. It’s true that a high-energy modern lifestyle lived in the city is usually less impactful than a high-energy modern lifestyle lived in the country, at least when income is held constant, due to economies of scale. But that’s not the relevant comparison, because a high energy modern lifestyle will soon be a thing of the past. A low energy lifestyle is much more congenial in the countryside than in the city. If you don’t believe me, take a job as a nightsoil collector.

Part of the problem is the way that rural life has been warped by abundant cheap fossil energy and the associated car culture. As I related in my previous post, villages that once sported numerous shops and services now have none, and their inhabitants have to drive elsewhere to get them. We need to rejuvenate the economic life of countrysides laid waste by the car.

The mistaken belief in the efficiency of the city parallels the mistaken belief in the irrelevance of local food on the grounds that the carbon cost of transporting food long-distance is low. These low costs are an average per unit cost or a marginal cost. Instead, consider the total cost of feeding cities through long-distance trade. Large, export-oriented and probably monocultural agribusiness establishes to the exclusion of more diverse local livelihood-making in advantageous places for a given product. Transporting the product then relies on a vast network of roads, container trucks, warehouses, offices, ports, gigantic ships, freezers and megastores. With no option but to build these things the incentive is to produce in gargantuan volumes to keep unit costs low.

But in a fossil fuel free local agrarian economy, you don’t need all this. You may choose to raise pasture-fed livestock or tomatoes in heated tunnels (the usual suspects in the case against low impact local food), but you need to produce a lot of other things from the locality too and you can’t afford to be profligate with land or energy. So there probably won’t be an awful lot of high carbon meat or tomatoes. Now let’s calculate the carbon cost of local food.

Finally, there’s an anti-agrarian and purportedly anti-elitist version of the anti-rural ideology, along the lines that nobody wants to farm any more, and/or that it’s all very well for rich westerners to hanker after a homestead, but poor people in the Global South want to get the hell out and move to urban slums where they can achieve a better quality of life. My contrary take is, on the first point, that there are a lot of people worldwide who do want to farm. I meet them all the time, and the main problem they face is the systemic obstacles that keep them relatively poor and landless. The village with its Porsches and Mercedes, the rape fields with their glyphosate rigs, the laybys with their converted vans and buses that I described in my previous post are telling us something about this. It’s not that poor people don’t want to live and work in the countryside. It’s that rich people don’t want them there – except in places where their poorly remunerated labour is required.

Mercifully, the ‘soulful slum’ argument doesn’t seem to be quite as prevalent now as it was ten years ago when it was popularized, with minimal evidence, by the likes of Stewart Brand. I mentioned Brand’s thesis the other day to my son, who’s currently in Bangladesh researching labour and climate migration. He’d been telling me about informants lamenting their need to migrate to town for seasonal work in brick fields rather than staying home to grow rice. When I told him about Brand’s upwardly mobile slum argument he asked me where Brand had done his fieldwork. ‘Dunno,’ I said. ‘San Francisco, I think’. He laughed. Nobody wants to farm any more is a contextless, threadbare nostrum. People do, however, want agency in their work, whether they’re farming or doing something else. The bigger economic story in my opinion is not urban/rural or industrial/agrarian but agency/domination, and this latter transects the other dualities.

If global governments were alive to the nature of the climate, energy and water emergencies upon us, they’d be frantically busy planning how to sensibly and humanely repopulate the countryside and depopulate the cities, how to reform access to land fairly, how to give people skills in renewable horticulture, construction and forestry, and a thousand other things. Sadly they’re not. So currently we have to build from a low base, telling stories about why ruralization is even worth considering (a symptom of the malaise: the spellchecker on my computer is happy with the word ‘urbanization’ but not ‘ruralization’).

Part of that building work requires us to distance ourselves from numerous problematic idealizations of the rural, from Sir Philip Sidney to Pol Pot, which I do in the first part of Chapter 15. To be honest, I’m heartily sick of doing it and we’d be a darn sight closer to tackling contemporary humanity’s numerous present problems if a general anti-ruralism (as opposed to the ruralism for the rich mentioned above) wasn’t so deeply entrenched. I at least try to even up the balance a little in Chapter 15 by distancing myself also from the various problematic idealizations of the urban that disfigure our present age, but attract much less notice.

I’ve now written enough variants on the theme of ‘we mustn’t romanticize the rural … or the urban’ to last a lifetime (especially since there’s nothing wrong with being ‘Romantic’ as such). No doubt there will be those who will scorn the rural or the case for ruralization as bucolic fantasy while believing their analysis to be somehow original or deep-thinking until the cows come home, or more to the point until the waters lap at their thresholds and their taps run dry. So in future, I aim to write more specifically when I can about making ruralization a reality. Ultimately, though, I don’t think it’ll happen in an orderly way. So another task is to get a handle on the more disruptive routes it might take. Hopefully, I’ll get to that soon.

85 thoughts on “City of the dead, part two

  1. All well said! One point that deserves further discussion: what will the small-farm-future-supplied cities of the the future look like, and how should they function ideally? I entirely agree that we need to re-reruralize and shrink cities, but there will still need to be cities, and they will tend to function as the political and religious centers of their (hopefully distributist) agrarian surroundings. How these cities can be extensions of, and not competitors with, ecologically sound land-based society is an essential question for the politics of distributism.

    • I think we can, at least a little, look at what cities have been like throughout history to get some idea. Fossil fuels are a relatively recent development, compared to cities.

      I also think there’s a significant difference between cities that have been around for hundreds of years, long before car culture, and those which have done most of their expansion in the last century or so. London is really a series of villages and market towns that eventually ran together, and if you take away the cars and the sewage treatment and the electricity, I think it would revert to that fairly quickly; many people here still hold onto strong regional identities. This isn’t something I observed in the Canadian cities I’ve lived in, which are all smaller, newer (at least in terms of permanent structures and roads), and entirely car-dependent, at least for now.

      When I visited my mother in Stratford, Ontario, I was struck — as I often am when I visit North America — by how large the properties there are, including plenty of outdoor space, mostly laid to lawn. I think that these cities with vast suburbs could actually do rather well in a small farm future, because it’s at least theoretically feasible to grow a substantial portion of your own food. That’s a lot harder in London, even out in Zone 3.

      I’m inclined to think that there isn’t one answer to “what will the small-farm-future supplied cities of the future look like?” because there isn’t one answer to where we are travelling from to get there; and while there is an element of “if I were going there, I wouldn’t start from here” about it all, well, here I am, ahead of the curve because I do not have a car, and behind it because without a car I can’t easily relocate to somewhere more rural. (Not that it would be easy, necessarily, even with a car; but without, it’s extremely daunting.)

      Cities do have a tendency to function as political and religious centres; but is this an inherent aspect of cities, or a side effect of their function as centres for trade? If the latter, would answering the question “what will trade look like in a small farm future?” tell us more about what cities may be like?

  2. Part of the problem is the way that rural life has been warped by abundant cheap fossil energy and the associated car culture. ….We need to rejuvenate the economic life of countrysides laid waste by the car.

    oh golly yes. “Laid Waste” sounds a bit like like where I grew up.

    I have attempted to re-ruralize myself, but failed – although I did manage to get myself from a big city (London) to a considerably smaller one (Bristol) – so the issue of “small city future” is of interest (not suggerting you write about it though!)

  3. Does anyone feel like there’s an ego trip linked to urbanism? Not estate urbanism, but professional- job in media, rooftop bar, going to the theatre urbanism. The vibe I get from the odd discussion is that offices and meetings and performance reviews make people feel important. It’s the centralised attention of working for a large company that other people have heard of.
    Entrepreneurial spirit, which I think is more closely aligned with the small farmer mentality, except it again wants a bigger ego payoff, is basically crushed out of the city by ridiculous rents. The city has a lot of people seeking proximity to power, glamour. It’s jarring because it’s so consumerist, but also I find it so rooted in trauma, a deep need for external validation. Anonymity that feels rooted in self-doubt, fragility that can’t weather a network of interdependence and deep relationship, with all the good and the tough that that would bring.
    The professional city class, who in my experience are the defenders of urbanity, not the estate villagers, need healing. They defend the city because it offers an escape from doing the hardwork to confront the myths of ‘progress’ ‘merit’ and the ‘deserving rich’.

    • There may well be a tendency for the urban set to look down upon the rural… but even within the rural there are strains of ego embellishment, and of ‘keeping up with the Jones’. Some of the ability to show off one’s excess wealth will likely wane in a SFF as the pressure to cooperate mounts.

      The color of the farm equipment will matter less once ‘rust’ becomes the dominant shade.

  4. Very well put, Chris. It’s been obvious for so long that cities have no future in a world without fossil fuels that it’s been surprising for an equally long time that absolutely nothing is being done to prepare for their demise.

    I think at the core of the mystery behind our failure to engage in our obvious need to de-urbanize in the face of the impending, inevitable, failure of the urban paradigm, is historical and structural lock-in. Once the longstanding equilibrium between the small population of city dwellers and the vast majority of rural ag workers was disturbed by the mechanization of agriculture and the availability of ‘free’ energy from fossil fuels, urbanization was the only real possibility. If machines produce all the food, people must live in cities.

    And once the vast majority of people live in cities, it is energetically and economically far easier to maintain that status than to deliberately reverse the process. We are locked-in to keeping everyone in cities because of the immediate cost of abandoning them and building the gigantic amount of rural infrastructure required house and support any significant percentage of the urban population after their move to the country.

    The psychological lock-in that Alice describes makes the politics of reversing urbanization almost impossible, but even if everyone in the city, including the urban elites, suddenly clamored to become small farmers, the physical constraints are overwhelming. Politics is constrained by thermodynamics. Modern countries just don’t have the energy wherewithal to move people out of cities and into the country.

    The simple fact is that modern cities are traps that have been baited with fossil fuels. As far as I can see, nothing is coming along to pry the trap open and let people escape. As the fossil fuel age winds down, the end result for modern cities will be mass unemployment, then mass hunger, and eventually mass death. It’s saddens me to say it, but a small farm future awaits only a lucky few . The rest are trapped in the city and won’t get out alive.

    • I agree with Chris and Sean that cities must shrink and re-ruralisation must happen, but “cities have no future without fossil fuels” seems pretty extreme considering that cities existed for thousands of years before fossil fuels came along.

      Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s likely to get pretty grim. But I don’t think an absolutist position is realistic, on either side of the rural vs urban dichotomy.

      • Point taken. I should have used the same qualifier I used later in my comment. I should have said “modern cities” or perhaps “existing cities”.

        Another question is whether anyone would really want to live in a city like pre-modern London, where infant and child mortality was at least twice the rate in the countryside.

        “English towns and cities appear to have been particularly lethal in the century 1650-1750, and larger urban centres functioned as ‘demographic sinks’ in this period. Burials exceeded baptisms every year, and where agespecific mortality rates have been estimated these indicate very high levels of mortality amongst infants and young children (with infant mortality rates of 250 – 450 per thousand births), consistent with a demographic regime that was dependent on in-migration to avoid population demise .”

        https://www.geog.cam.ac.uk/research/projects/migrationmortalitymedicalisation/pdf2.pdf

        And up until around 1500, London was more like what we think of as a large town, with a population of around 40,000. Early London and modern London have almost nothing in common except the word “city”, but you’re certainly correct that “cities” can exist without fossil fuels.

        • But cheap energy didn’t come until well after 1500, so: what else was driving the expansion of London and other cities? And will that magically go away when the energy gets expensive again?

          I do think of somewhere with even 30k inhabitants as a city, rather than a large town. Maybe that’s just because I’m a stubblejumpin’ Saskatchewan girl at heart…

  5. There is a cliche’ about broad based resourcefulness: That he or she is a Jack-of-all-trades, and a master of none. In my rural based youth this was seldom a slight or even meant as disparagement. The person to whom this was pointed was often someone to emulate, or at the very least befriend as a resource for trying times.

    Elitism tends the other direction. Being a master of something, anything, is seen as preferable. And though I will not argue that we need no master or elite specialists… I would ponder whether we might do well with fewer and encourage more folks to aspire after a broad based took kit for their station in life.

  6. “People do, however, want agency in their work, whether they’re farming or doing something else. The bigger economic story in my opinion is not urban/rural or industrial/agrarian but agency/domination, and this latter transects the other dualities.”

    I could not agree more. Although might the need for agency be not just an economic story but more broadly about human nature.

    Cantril wrote an overlooked (in my opinion) piece on universal human concerns. I have a list (in my words) of the eleven universal needs that Cantril extracted. Individually, they are not astonishing. Perhaps that is why they are easily overlooked, or taken as so obvious as to be unworthy of direct attention?

    (1) Survival – able to meet basic needs.
    (2) Home base – having secure, safe place to return to, recognized by others as yours, a place where we can safely plan and carry out plans.
    (3) Order, predictability – want currently acquired knowledge to be of use in the future.
    (4) Enrich, grow, challenge – want new experiences and opportunities, the satisfaction of becoming ever more proficient.
    (5) Hopeful – reason to hope that the world we encounter will match our vision of it.
    (6) Make choices – ability to make choices that may lead to things desired.
    (7) Freedom to try new things – able to choose what we pursue, who we are as individuals.
    (8) Identity and integrity – wanting to feel sense of personal identity, self-constancy.
    (9) Worthwhileness and meaning – wants to know we are valued by others, a sense that we are needed.
    (10) Value, belief system – want a coherent belief system to which one can commit.
    (11) Fairness, hope, security – hope that society will allow us the chance to fulfill aspirations.

    What always strikes me when I present Cantril’s work (as an introduction to universal intrinsic motives) is how they outline the conditions under which human agency can emerge and thrive. Slowly remove enough of those conditions and agency becomes increasingly difficult. Ignoring their importance to human well-being is one way to allow them to slowly be removed.

    Source: Cantril, H. (1966) The pattern of human concerns (Chapter 16). The Human Design. Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, N.J.

    Available at: Kaplan and Kaplan, Humanscape: Environments for People. (pp. 94-102), https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/handle/2027.42/148515.

    Kaplan and Kaplan provided a brief introduction to Cantril’s work: “This paper was written in the context of a multinational survey of people’s satisfactions and concerns. The book reporting the results of this huge undertaking deals with various comparisons between different groups of people – between wealthy and poor nations, between people living under different forms of government, and the like. The final chapter in Cantril’s book, the one included here, is composed of leftovers, of those results that did not vary from one nation to the other. They are, if you will, universals. They are not particularly well organized, and they seem to overlap one another to varying degrees. In fact, the reader may find it instructive to see if they can be recast in a more systematic fashion. Nonetheless, the portrait they provide of the human condition is profound and moving. Here is an organism admirable and sad at the same time, an organism both heroic and pathetic, and an organism deeply concerned with recognition, with comprehension, with prediction – in short, with information. Thus, this paper makes two contributions of particular significance. It provides fresh evidence for the importance of information to our species. And, looked at the other way, it shows how rich and varied are the human concerns that have direct links in one way or another to information. It is surprising how many of Cantril’s points speak to the importance of the quest to make sense – to understand one’s world, one’s circumstance, and one’s self.”

    • Maslow’s heirarchy of needs is another form of recasting Cantril’s human concerns in “a more systematic fashion” (which actually predates Cantril). The listing of Maslow’s heirarchy below is from SimplyPsychology.org:

      1. Biological and physiological needs – air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep, etc.

      2. Safety needs – protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear.

      3. Love and belongingness needs – friendship, intimacy, trust, and acceptance, receiving and giving affection and love. Affiliating, being part of a group (family, friends, work).

      4. Esteem needs – which Maslow classified into two categories: (i) esteem for oneself (dignity, achievement, mastery, independence) and (ii) the need to be accepted and valued by others (e.g., status, prestige).

      5. Cognitive needs – knowledge and understanding, curiosity, exploration, need for meaning and predictability.

      6. Aesthetic needs – appreciation and search for beauty, balance, form, etc.

      7. Self-actualization needs – realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences. A desire “to become everything one is capable of becoming”(Maslow, 1987, p. 64).

      8. Transcendence needs – A person is motivated by values which transcend beyond the personal self (e.g., mystical experiences and certain experiences with nature, aesthetic experiences, sexual experiences, service to others, the pursuit of science, religious faith, etc.).

      • Agreed Joe. The only change I’d suggest is to eliminate the notion that Maslow’s framework is a hierarchy. Despite the face validity of a hierarchy, Victor Frankl’s work suggested a plurality of simultaneous needs. His initial work from WW2 inverted the hierarchy, an idea that does tend to confuse people. But he made a convincing case for a purpose-in-life as being fundamental to survival in “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Max-Neef’s fundamental human needs theory is another excellent frame.

        It’s also fascinating to realize that the Blackfoot people may have been the source of Maslow’s framework. (https://www.buffalosfire.com/the-blackfoot-origins-of-maslows-hierarchy-of-needs/).

        I do appreciate that Cantril’s data was very close to the lived experiences of the participants in his study. As the Kaplans suggested, it was a somewhat messy list. But that also means it wasn’t being fit within any prior frame of the researcher. Maslow’s list also documents the central role that information plays in human effectiveness, something that isn’t quite so vivid in the other frameworks. The Kaplans went on to develop the “Supportive Environments for Effectiveness (SEE)” framework (https://redirect.org/) which is an information-based model of the conditions that bring out the best in people despite their being in difficult environmental circumstances. I like that framework for its specific recommendations for interventions to help folks.

        But for us here, I think important issues are that, whichever framework is used, there are conditions that permit fulfillment of the needs and such fulfillment (or at least a partial fulfillment) is a precondition to the agency notion Chris wrote about. I’m trying to work out whether a low-input agrarian localism is, perhaps unexpectedly, MORE likely to provide for those conditions (e.g., provisioning security, genuine sense of being needed, recognition of proficiency, chance to explore, intrinsic satisfaction).

        That last item, intrinsic satisfaction, links nicely with Chris’s post from last November (11-5-21): “There’s a second and related advantage that I don’t think is talked about nearly enough nowadays, although it’s a familiar theme on this blog. This is the personal satisfaction of competently furnishing one’s own livelihood through skilled farming, gardening, foraging and craft skills. It’s possible to overdo this point and succumb to questionable ideologies of the rugged individualist sort. But so many people in the world today lack the opportunity, knowledge and skill to provide even the most basic perquisites of daily life, and I believe this is a silent pathology that eats at contemporary society.”

  7. So many good points excellently stated here!

    Some of these points reinforce my ever increasing sense that whether we are in England or the USA (I’m in the latter), or most anywhere in the so-called “developed world,” what we now call “politics” (which I call “conventional politics”) will not serve us at all. And by “us” I mean ordinary, everyday people … and the other lowly creatures, most of which are not human, with whom we share a planet. When was the last time governments have been proactive toward the needs of ecosystems, the biosphere, or the not so well to do?

    This observation is why I’m spending some of my time and words lately trying to imagine alternatives to “conventional politics,” by which I mean the politics of, by and for “the state,” which has always been in the hands not of the lowly but of the well to do. I’m even trying to re-imagine a revolutionary form of politics which is non-violent and non-insurrectionary, but which is still effective. For I would not put very many of my eggs in the conventional basket. And insurrection and violence would not only be ineffective, it would be a bloody useless mess and a disaster.

    • This is an interesting reply. I am a reluctant and accidental activist much in Chris’ mode, and I have found that conventional political and economic discourse does not serve normal people nor does it provide a sound foundation for the society we need to build. Hence my slow (it occurred over a period of nearly a decade) entry into revolutionary politics of the sort embraced by Green Christians, the Christian Climate Action Network and DRs for Extinction. Although I do understand that these can themselves lend towards failures of leadership, for instance I’m concerned about the increasingly messianic tendencies of a certain founder of XR, I do believe that with them we are at least not taking a pamphlet to a gunfight

  8. Well Chris perhaps it suits the government’s to keep people in cities , they are far easier to subjugate made more reliant than country people , out here in the boonies we have our own wells , our own septic system , no trash collection so you refuse plastic bags and compost what is compostable , plastics you take to the dump and are charged by weight to get rid of it , the only thing we really import is electricity , which is very nice but only got here in 1966 .( Lots of wind pumps still working ) There is living memory of how to be / deal without electricity .
    Cities are controllable right up to the point of mass riots , watching Germany makes me wonder if the government wants riots / fighting in the streets to cut the numbers of inhabitants , Holland is the same. If I lived in any European city I would be trying to get out now before the latest energy crunch makes it impossible .

  9. Another stumbling block in any return to small farming may well be the difficulty of transitioning away from conventional agriculture. It appears that the soil microbiome can adapt to years of monoculture and synthetic fertilizer, but the adaptations may make it harder to recreate organic soil fertility.

    https://phys.org/news/2022-06-crops-soil-decades-corn.html?utm_source=ActiveCampaign&utm_medium=email&utm_content=%5BRuminations+vol++42%5D+People+Cannot+Be+Separated+from+Land&utm_campaign=Savory+Monthly+Newsletter++-+June+2022+%28Copy%29

    • Thanks for that link Joe. The study discussed covered only two years on a system that took over 35 years to construct. There are some very interesting take-aways though – that the archaea are more sensitive to applied N, and how some biochemical pathways that are dependent on communities (rather than the presence of one or two individual species) can be pushed out of balance (over a pretty long timeline).

      Long term continuous corn – over thirty years for instance – is difficult to describe as ‘conventional’ agriculture. A long term rotation of only corn and soy is more like it. With long term yield trends still managing to increase over time there is less concern for conventional ag’s abilities in the near term.

      Cover crops get a mixed review in the link shared here. That they may not be a magic bullet is sort of beside the point. Using practices that help is better than doing nothing.

      • Yes, everything that helps move toward soil fertility from on-farm inputs is better than nothing, but the study does indicate that it might take at least a few years to create sustainable soil fertility after long-term application of synthetic fertilizers and monoculture.

        Since people can’t take a few years off from eating, several years of advance preparation would likely be required before large tracts of conventional farmland could be turned over to smallholder subsistence farmers. This might well require a multi-year reduction in overall food production while the transition takes place.

        Of course, most of the land used for growing animal feed would be the first place to start. This would require rationing of meats, either by price or coupon, but although it would be politically difficult it would not be physically impossible.

        However, this kind of land conversion would be the easy part (but only if started well before dire necessity). Building the small farm houses, wells, barns, fencing, stables and woodlots would take a lot more resource diversion from current uses. As surplus energy supplies diminish, the ability to divert resources to preparing small farms will also diminish and allow ever smaller numbers of people to leave the city.

        Since we haven’t even started this kind of process yet, I think that little can actually be done in comparison with the magnitude of the task. The vast majority of people will just be stuck where they are now, in the city.

        • I think we have started this kind of process – at least to a certain degree.

          The number of organic grain farmers is increasing in recent years. And the number of organic grain acres are increasing even faster (longer term growers expanding the acres they have under organic conditions). I also want to make sure it is obvious I’m referring to grain (broadacre) production and not horticulture (hort has had very good levels of organic production for a longer time).

          The use of cover crops is also increasing – perhaps faster than the increase in organic acres.

          Here in the more heavily populated eastern US there are all sorts of landscape restrictions for nitrogen fertilizer use. This is primarily driven by water course issues (read Chesapeake Bay watershed, Lake Erie watershed, etc). The Mississippi has long been an issue – and some progress has been made, but not so much as in areas where large populations of relatively wealthy (and thus politically powerful) folk derive drinking water and seafood resources.

          I have to have a license to apply nitrogen here in Ohio. To get the license one has to attend classes concerning the proper application and other stewardship matters.

          I should also offer that there are vast acres of productive farm lands registered in the various CRP programs with the USDA. These acres are not cropped, but are planted to diverse mixes of plants that serve many different purposes.

          I agree that more needs to be done, but I am hopeful that with all the starts indicated here the degree of difficulty transitioning to an SFF will not be too onerous (at least from a land sustainability perspective). Access to land and political issues bother me more.

    • I found that it took about four years of cover cropping and compost for the soil to come back to life after years (~35?) of continuous corn production. It was remarkable and surprising to see.

      On hopeful note, it may also be possible to inoculate the worn out soil with microbes from organic garden soil. I have not tried it on a field scale but recommend it to people digging up established lawn for a garden. As long as the various bugs have something to eat they should survive.

      Most telling of the condition of conventional ag is when they miss a corner of a corn or bean field when applying fertilizer. The plants are always smaller and yellow. There is no residual fertility.

      • It took seven to eight years of mini-rotation horticulture on our half acre plot before we noticed soil exhaustion using a completely organic planting system. We are now allowing it to go fallow for two or three years, before reapplying horse manure for a year or so. Also we are probably going to have to adapt to the local effects of climate change. Because the amount of annual rainfall has increased, the water table has risen and part of the area looks like it may be underwater part of the year. Not surprised, given that it was originally low-level bog. So we’re moving crop production to fields with better drainage for the next few years, and I’m very interested in trying out permaculture technology there

  10. Thanks Chris, always eager to read your thoughts on ruralization! Spot on about “the bigger economic story in my opinion is not urban/rural or industrial/agrarian but agency/domination, and this latter transects the other dualities.”

    Rather than harping on about a rural/urban dichotomy, it makes much more sense to think of a spectrum in livelihoods. Most of us are very much in between being a tech worker living in a pod eating paste, and being a rugged back-to-the-lander spinning our own wool and subsisting on our homegrown potatoes. To my continued chagrin, I am a salaried keyboard monkey in the city, but I do try to eat a reasonable amount of potatoes from my garden!

    Unfortunately, taking a vicious mortgage to buy even a moderate rural property does not sound like a path to agency and resilience. Nor would getting too dependent on the immediate success of farm tasks that I’m not skilled enough to do efficiently. So despite my bucolic fantasies, I’m skeptical that de-urbanization is exclusively or even frequently going to take the immediate form of masses of people going out to buy farms.

    I don’t have a copy handy, but I recall in your book at one point where you were saying the small ‘farm’ future might be more horticultural than agricultural. Not sure how you feel about ‘urban homesteading’, and fair enough, but I do wonder if coming conditions will sometimes encourage something more like a dispersed urbanism than ruralization, (as Kathryn suggests above) Maybe I’m trying to have it both ways, but they say diversity is the key to resilience and having both a bit of land and a salaried job seems sensible enough for the domestic economy if both are available. Now just to find time for weeding after working at the office all day. And it really would be better if the job was more supportive of local economies.

    That being said, I don’t know how far the conversation on settlement pattern can go without thinking about security concerns. As the big federal states teeter, history suggests you may need to limit the wealth around you, or tightly defend it. So maybe that’s a mark against my dispersed urbanism in the long run.

    On a different note, I’m suspicious that my tomatoes are actually the only garden crop making a practical difference in my household budget, what with ‘fresh’ supermarket tomatoes running $3 Canadian each and them being my kids’ go-to veggie. But then, I’m not running heaters either and the tomato plants aren’t loving our cool summer this year, so we’ll see 😉

    • The trick to getting your garden to make a dent in your food budget is two-fold, I think:

      1) Grow things you actually eat, preferably higher-value things (bagged salad is expensive, so are berries and, as you’ve found, tomatoes; onions and carrots are cheap and kindof a pain in the neck to grow if you don’t want allium leaf miner, carrot root fly, etc etc)

      2) Change what you eat to suit what actually grows there.

      For me, another aspect of this is figuring out which perennials require the least care; rhubarb is a bigger part of my diet than it was. I also do a fair amount of urban foraging — to the point that last summer we didn’t buy plums or apples, and this summer is looking like it will be similar (only with more of the apples coming from the allotment, which had none last year due to a badly-timed frost).

      I don’t know where in Canada you are, but there’s a Youtube channel called “Canadian Permaculture Legacy” which has a guy in Ontario doing a sort of permaculture orchard with peaches, honeyberries, strawberries, wine cap mushrooms, and so on.

      I like the idea of there not being a rural vs urban dichotomy as such; however I do think Chris’s point that urban areas currently import huge amounts of their sustenance in ways that won’t be sustainable in the absence of cheap energy is correct. I am stuck (some would say I choose to be stuck) in the city, so my approach to this is to see how much of my own sustenance I can produce locally. It’s much less than would be the case if I had a large suburban house on a 1/8 acre plot. It isn’t nothing, and if everyone in London grew at least something, it would make a difference.

    • I’m interested….how far away from farmland are you? I live in a typical 3 bed semi in Salford, but am fortunately close to Chat Moss, which used to be devoted exclusively to farms that fed the market towns in the Salford area. Our solution was to form a CSA on one of the farms there, so we are looking to tackle these problems as a community effort. Would you be able to do the same?

  11. “…how to reform access to land fairly”

    This is a huge factor. Achieving widespread ruralization may require significant land reform, perhaps with some similarities to the Homestead Acts in the US (free or low-cost land made available to settlers). A political mess, I imagine.

  12. I agree with you and Sean that cities must shrink (the current population of London will be absolutely untenable without cheap energy) and at least some ruralisation must happen.

    Do we have any examples from history of where this has taken place, preferably without violent force? What do they tell us about how we might proceed?

    I think a universal basic income, coupled with rent controls (otherwise UBI is just going straight to landlords the same way Housing Benefit does), could contribute to reversing the trend of urbanisation. So many of us live in cities because this is where our livelihood is, and the transition from “mostly dependent on paid work” to “mostly dependent on the garden” is not an easy one to make. But I have given up on UBI being something that might be implemented in a way that doesn’t line landlords’ pocketses; I don’t expect this to gain any useful traction at all. The closest thing we had to it in the UK, Child Benefit, is now much more constrained than it was.

    What do I expect? Not catastrophic failure of everything at once, mostly. Which isn’t to say “catastrophic failure of everything at once” is completely off the cards; but it’s difficult to mitigate against that at all. I mean, yes, London could join Doggerland in being submerged below rapidly rising sea levels, but while that affects where I might choose to move to in future, it doesn’t actually make it any easier to move now, and there’s very little I can do about it while I’m here; failure of the Thames Barrier is coming someday, but I’m personally more likely to be affected by displacement of people from lower elevations in London than to be flooded out myself. Within my own borough there are some flood mitigations being installed in the form of rain gardens after flooding in lower-lying areas last summer. It won’t solve the problem of what to do in a really big rain, but it will help with the moderately big ones.

    Mostly, I expect rent and fuel and food to keep getting more expensive, and isolated, regional critical failures of infrastructure to get more frequent. I mean, critical failures of water and electricity are not great to think about, but I do actually own enough water treatment tablets to keep my household hydrated while we build something that will make rainwater safe, and similarly my food preservation strategy is more nuanced and resilient than “chuck everything into the chest freezer”. These kinds of critical failures are a bigger problem for something like the soup kitchen at church, which could find itself needing to provide for quite a few more people. But that already only runs on charitable funding — the congregation is far too small to support the number of people who need help on our own — and I daresay if you find yourself in a position where you need to provide drinking water for as many people in your local community as possible, having access to the labour of people you already have a relationship with is not a bad thing.

  13. Thanks, some really great comments here and lots of interesting lines of enquiry to follow up. Alas, I’m short on time to respond, so just a few brief comments.

    Nice tension set up by Sean & Kathryn concerning cities as political/religious centres and as trade centres. I’d argue that many premodern cities were the former and not the latter, but the two have combined historically in more recent times. Shades of my recent warrior/merchant post – wherein I’m inclined to renege shamelessly and pronounce myself in favour of the political/religious and not the merchant city. Hence, small cities not on waterborne trade routes, depending on service from their immediately surrounding countryside, and providing political and spiritual service in return. To get from where we are now to that would require something special politically, so I’m rooting for James’s project.

    Great comment from Alice. Rings absolutely true in my experience. The extent to which people seek proximity to status (current political events in London are kind of interesting in that respect) and the hidden trauma it involves. Though indeed as Clem says, it’s not confined to cities – but cities do embody it.

    I agree with Joe on the problems with urbanist lock-in – and the more ecological sizing of most premodern cities. Re Evan & Martin, there’s a collective action problem here in making the countryside more attractive by rescuing it from its destruction by the forces of modern urbanism. Funny how many Covid stories there are of people moving to ‘the’ country and then heading back citywards, without linking the pathology of the modern countryside to the pathology of the modern city.

    I don’t know if the vicious rural mortgages Evan mentions are any better in the city, but indeed the access to affordable land issue, mentioned also by Steve, looms large. It seems to me likely that while cities and suburbs do offer opportunities and growing space, city services will dwindle in many places and richer folks will move out as the taps, toilets and sockets start to fade. Then land is cheap, but security is problematic. I think we discussed the famous example of Detroit here before, but I can’t remember the upshot.

    The issue then will be who else is heading to the countryside, and whether they can wrest land from its present incumbents and rich incomers. We’ll get onto that anon. But Texas sure looks challenging, Diogenes.

    There may be space enough to grow food in some low density towns and suburbs, especially once some people have moved out. But not enough space I think at most current densities. At some point there may be a degree of equalization between emptying cities and repopulating countrysides, but there are many other variables. But yes definitely a big shout out from me for horticulture, broadly conceived.

    Thanks Raymond & Joe for the illuminating discussion of agency. I agree it’s almost the most important thing – shades of Primo Levi’s ‘the drowned and the saved’ in Auschwitz? Thanks also for reminding me what I wrote about this previously – I sometimes forget!

    • One of my hobbies, pre-pandemic, was singing in visiting choirs at cathedrals around the country.

      Almost all of the cathedrals I’ve sung in are in what I would recognise as historic market towns, which is what made me think about whether trade or religious/political power came first. There are, of course, loads of historic market towns without cathedrals, but that doesn’t necessarily mean trade “came first” as they will often have a minster or abbey or similar, and many of what are now cathedrals started out as minsters or abbeys.

      I suspect that even with high energy and transport costs, trade was still related to power, and that how trade works in a small farm future will have a huge influence on what cities look like — and also what more rural areas look like. Perhaps that’s just stating the obvious.

  14. Yes, good post and post-post conversation.

    I have the idea that as cities grew up, then distribution of wealth became an issue, and some of the people who managed that distribution became what we now call ‘priesthood’. That is, religion and ‘markets’ having a common origin, at least as regards settled communities. I have no evidence to cite to back up this idea, except that a small but noticeable portion of the Torah is taken up with deciding who gets what resources and the means for doing so.

    As for the affordability of land, as Diogenes says, the trick is to go somewhere the well-connected don’t want to be. Texas is too much for me, but there’s lots of acreage in Kansas that very few people are interested in. Travel an hour (in certain directions) from the cute little college town where I live and the prices drop to 1/3. You only need to be willing to live where the weather is terrible for a large portion of the year. And not be picky about your social life.

    As for Kathryn’s growing …” preferably higher-value things”, yes it’s a real problem. I often wonder about this when I’m in the grocery store: the dollar to calorie ratio. Bagged greens and berries are way to one end of that scale. I’ve been too lazy to do a systematic study, but we all recognize the caloric value of dry pasta, grains and beans. The ‘staples’ tend to be at the other end of the caloric value scale.

    It happens that I’m currently doing the exact opposite of Kathryn’s advice, with my hand wheat harvest. So far we have 1/8 acre all cut and 60% threshed and winnowed. I estimate we will get about 16 bushels per acre, or about 120 pounds, and that it will require about 2/3 hours per pound. Terrible yield all around.
    And really sweaty at the beginning of July.
    All this for an amount of grain that I could drive to the local elevator and buy for $20.

    I haven’t figured out why I’m doing this exactly, but nobody else is, so there’s an opportunity, right?

    Link to a photo of the pedal powered thresher:

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/19957900@N03/52198900126/in/dateposted/

    • Hey Eric! I’ve been tinkering as well, and I see the reason being to get through the learning curve while we still have a somewhat stable food system as backup. I get a little better each year, and at some point, I’ll decide if the net energy is good enough, but for now, just learning and improving self provisioning of any sort is good use of time. For serious food self reliance, it’s all about the calories. http://viridviews.blogspot.com/2020/07/

      I’ve since changed to a different and better threshing drum, but it’s still slow.

      This year, we planted heirloom flint corn, but messed up and hadn’t labeled the seed from which year, and the seed was too old ( and maybe not stored properly?). Terrible germination, and a mistake that could be deadly in the muscle powered future.

    • Thanks for the photo, Eric!

      I mean, I’m also growing some wheat — on a far smaller scale to yours, but entirely as an experiment to see what I can learn.

      Spuds are also to the higher end of the caloric value ratio, but I am growing lots of them because they don’t require too much work and because they are very tasty and because it’s a way for the allotments to actually provide us some calories for a significant part of the year. Also because if I’m going to have to dig anyway to get some of the bindweed roots out of the new plot, I’m bloody well going to have something to eat to show for it.

      I think the expensive stuff — leaves and berries — will get more expensive as transport and packaging become more expensive. They’re already expensive because they don’t keep and they don’t transport well. I’m not sure what this does for small horticulturalists, for whom salad greens are currently an important cash crop.

      But another thing about berries and leaves is that they tend to be extremely nutrient dense per calorie. I am in a better physical position to weather a temporary calorie deficit than a severely reduced intake of vitamin C or folate. I suspect this is true for most of us in the rich west. Most of my stored starchy food is calorie dense and nutrient poor, though. Vitamin D is also a big issue at my latitude, but harder to grow; I know some mushrooms make it in response to sunlight but I’m not sure if the wine cap mushrooms I grow at the allotment are among those, or how stable it would be if I dried said mushrooms for winter use.

      Carol Deppe suggests five main crops for gardeners working toward food resilience: maize, legumes, squash, spuds and ducks (for the eggs). Within each of the plant categories she includes significant diversity: so instead of just beans you’d grow three or four bean species (French beans, fava beans, runners, and maybe something like tepary beans or soya beans depending on your conditions) and some peas of various types, instead of just sweetcorn you’d grow that plus flint and dent corns; squash includes Cucurbita maxima as well as C. pepo and C. moschata, and both summer and winter varieties. That way if you have crummy weather you’re still likely to get something you can eat.

      I think this isn’t a bad place to start. In a shorter growing season I might swap winter wheat for maize, and parsnips or swedes for squash, or I might just do what I do now and start the squashes and corn off somewhere warm before planting them out.

    • 2/3 hours labor per pound is a fantastic energy return on energy invested! Consider that basil metabolic rate plus moderately hard work for that 2/3 hour cost you at most 200-300 kcalorie. The pound of wheat is about 1400-1500 kcalorie in food value for a 5-7 times energy return on energy invested. If all you ate was the wheat you grew, you would only have to work a couple of hours a day to supply all your calories. I know that there are other costs involved in getting the wheat calories into your body and growing wheat can’t be done every day, but your production method is definitely sustainable from an energy balance standpoint.

      Buying 120 lbs of wheat for $20 only shows how powerful the effect of fossil fuel powered mechanization is in reducing labor costs. Considering the energy return, however, there are many calories of fossil fuel burned for every calorie of wheat harvested. The energy return on investment is quite negative. And this negative return on food production is the foundation of modern civilization. When we can’t keep pouring energy into food production (and everything else) modern civilization will end. You could still be growing wheat.

      • Looking at your machine for me thinking , perhaps a 50 gallon barrel and beaters something like the old thrashing drum , the old steam powered thrashing box beaters ran the length of the drum , yours look like flails . ( sorry but I use a non green weed eater ( strimmer in UK) to thrash grains / beans , put it in a 50 gallon oil drum and stir with the weed eater )
        I grow elbon it is also fall planted / overwintering grain , the return is not that good but it also kills root nematodes , which is a real bonus !!!, Texas is infested with them , elbon followed by black eye peas and you can plant beans or any of the potato ,tomato crops with little damage .

      • The cooking will add significantly to the energy invested, I expect; but then, a lot of other foods also require cooking. Certainly the comparison to industrial monoculture farmed wheat is favourable.

        How does wheat compare to apples in this respect? Potatoes?

        • I think the return on hand labor energy invested in most staple starches is very positive; that’s why they are staples. This includes root crops, like potatoes, sweet potatoes, taro, cassava, yams and most of the grains. I’m not sure, but most beans are probably very high in energy return on investment. Bananas / plantains are offer a tremendous return for little labor. They are also great because the edible portion doesn’t come into contact with the soil. An eco-village on the other side of the island puts their toilet wastes directly on bananas, albeit after several months of storage in drums to let possible pathogens die off.

          Apples and other fruits are likely to be very high return, but it’s hard to make a diet out of fruits. Avocados are easy to grow and very high in calories. If dogs can access the fallen fruit, avocados are almost an invasive species. I’ve had to cut them down constantly to keep them from dominating the landscape. I know that many other tree crops, like nuts and olives are also great returns on investment. It is truly a fabulous return when the nuts are wild and abundant.

          Pature raised meats are also good. I figure my wife and I get three pounds of ground lamb per hour of labor. This is after initial fencing labor. Since lamb is about 1300 calories per pound it’s a very good energy return on investment. It’s easy to see why pastoralism has always been around as a food production strategy. I expect that the collection of milk and blood is also a tremendous return in addition to meat. Meat has storage issues, though. I cheat by having an electric freezer.

          Note that a lot of the foods I’ve mentioned are from tropical and subtropical locations. I think it is probably much easier to get a high return on labor in the tropics than in temperate climates, but proving it would require a very detailed analysis of caloric return per hour worked for many different kinds of food. Perhaps such an analysis has already been done and is out there somewhere in a publication or book.

          • If it’s always warm enough to grow things, do you need much storage? I don’t know what the “hungry gap” looks like in the tropics…

          • Aloha e Kathryn,

            Storage is required only when very perishable foods like meat and fish are harvested / processed on an individual family basis. When we were in the Peace Corps, the Marshallese people would share out big fish catches between many families. Staples, like breadfruit, coconut and bananas were mostly harvested on a family basis (extended family). These kinds of foods are usually available all year round or much of the year. Breadfruit was sometimes stored by fermenting and burying. It tasted terrible that way (to me) but it would provide a lot of calories.

            A lot of tropical staples can also be “stored” in the ground and harvested when needed, so above-ground storage is not absolutely required in the tropics, but it still comes in handy, especially over time frames that are somewhat longer than the “shelf-life” of the food. Fish and meat can be dried, for example which helps them last much longer without refrigeration. Salting is another option.

            Once, while traveling in Malaysia back in the 70s, I saw a butchered water buffalo being distributed among the members of an entire village (or at least many, many families). I don’t know if spices actually preserve food, but the amount of chili put on that water buffalo meat should have preserved it for centuries.

  15. Some very rich veins being mined here, in both the post and the comments

    Re the political/religious vs trade centre, in northwest Europe (all I’m really qualified to comment on) both were important in the emergence in the medieval period of the kind of settlement we’re now happy to call towns. Some grew around religious foci, like cathedrals and monasteries that might date as far back as the third or fourth centuries. Others were founded as trading centres that subsequently gained religious centres, especially in the tenth and eleventh centuries – the role of trade as a generator of tolls and fines for the pockets of the founders is important here. Many of these places had amorphous ‘public’ functions as places of assembly that encouraged their use as locations for the machineries of local and national governance.

    When we consider the ‘towns’ of the future we really need to think about what kinds of function we see as usefully persistent. Trade? Public assembly (for all sorts of reasons)? Religion? Some of those functions might need forms of permanent concentrated settlement (such as the divisions of labour conducive to artisanal production) while others are perhaps equally possible in periodic assemblies in places otherwise scarcely inhabited (markets, religious and public gatherings). The future may well hold an interesting diversification of forms of settlement and assembly that fragment the various roles and functions we now ascribe to towns. Even that much lauded sense of freedom and possibility promised by the modern urban experience might be replaced by new customs of travel and experimentation practiced within more diverse landscapes and rhythms of settlement.

    • Market towns .
      There are thousands across the UK and the weekly market powered the town , they were reasonably small but had everything needed right up to the supermarket revolution , in the middle ages they provided things that could not be bought locally the there were few of them , today they are dying as mass produced junk from anywhere in the world , in the sixties and seventies near everything was local from horse tack to spade handles , animals were bought and slaughtered by local butchers , ( There was twelve of them in leek staffs ) everything you needed as a smallholder was available on market day , there resurgence is almost guaranteed in a energy hungry world , it was done before it can be done again .

      • “Fork handles! Four candles a pound!”
        Some of my earliest memories are of the English market square – noisy stalls shifting greens and broccoli cheek by jowl with others flogging finest China – and the local cattle market. Lots of bawling around a meditative centre watching a cow take a piss or drop a load. These are formative aural and olfactory memories for me. The same square today pales in comparison, a raggle-taggle of tat and traders trying to make a living against all odds. Farmers’ markets keep some of the dream alive today.

  16. First time commenting here, I’ve been following this blog for a few years, and don’t usually have anything to add (but have learnt much). Just thought that in the context of deurbanization I should give a shout out to David Holmgren’s book Retrosuburbia
    https://retrosuburbia.com/, which has thought through some of the options/scenarios available for the suburbs in a degrowth future. As an “inner city” urbanite myself, I found it heartening, but the situation in Hobart, Tasmania is hardly representative of the global picture.

  17. Thanks for the further comments, and apologies for my silence. A bit under the cosh with farm work and desk work atm. Hopefully I’ll spring into life with a new post in a week or two.

    Meanwhile thanks for commenting Nathan – the second person recently to recommend Retrosuburbia so I will certainly take a look. And thanks of course for the other comments.

    Finally, a question, especially if you’ve read my book ‘A Small Farm Future’ or are old timers on this blog. Supposing – just supposing! – I wrote another non-fiction book (we’ll leave the novel aside for the moment). Possibly a complement or follow on to ‘A Small Farm Future’ or possibly something different, albeit consonant with the overall themes of this blog. If you have any thoughts about what you’d like to see in it – either general focus/structure or more specific topics, I’d be interested to hear them…

    • I think there is no need for any further justification for a small farm future and descriptions of that future are interesting, but the transition between our present urbanized industrialism and our future small-scale agrarianism is shrouded in difficulty and mystery. An exploration of strategies for and examples of re-ruralization would be very valuable. Things that might work without any governmental support would be very good to know (if they exist).

      Also, small farms are still disappearing all over the world. Perhaps equally important is an exploration of strategies for keeping as many existing small farms as possible. We need to keep what we have and then radically expand small farm numbers. But how to do it? A good working title, Creating a Small Farm Future.

        • Well, the WEF is attempting to ‘disappear’ them … I hope the farmers manage to assert their legal rights and resist. Courts in large parts of the USA are still working … the judges haven’t been ‘bought’.

          Igor Chudov is one of the people who has kept me sane since the ‘COVID con’ began. Well, that’s what I call it. To those who aren’t aware of the deception going on, sorry. but I suggest you read blogs like his and indeed those of scientists and doctors galore, also websites like the World Council for Health, HART (UK), etc.

          The main debate to some people seems to be whether the ‘great reset’ will happen at all, before it gets overtaken by ‘the great simplification’. (Latter is the name of Nate Hagens’ website.)

          Clearly, there’s little point in hooking up everybody and everything to the internet, if the electricity supply keeps going on and off.

    • I am quite fond of the book “A Pattern Language” (mentioned by Raymond). Its many insights and examples of goodness helped me to think more like an experienced architect when I designed my home. It’s not a dry “how-to” book, and there are no steps to follow. It’s more like a collection of explanations about how certain features or arrangements (on many levels) are good and make sense. I read and re-read the book over the course of a year, trying to absorb its wisdom, before acquiring some land and starting to work on a design.

      I like Joe’s idea about “Creating a Small Farm Future” since it could be groundbreaking and hugely beneficial, and it would help fill a gap in the existing literature. Perhaps part (or all) of the book could be similar to “A Pattern Language” in pointing out how certain features or arrangements (on many levels) could make sense. After absorbing the insights within the book, the reader (whether she is an aspiring homesteader or a township planner) should be able to think more like an experienced small farmer, potentially helping them with their work ahead.

      • I like this idea a lot, Steve! And I agree — Joe is right that the “how do we get there from here?” question is fraught, both in terms of creating new small farms, and keeping the existing ones.

        I would be interested in things like how to navigate the tension between, say, stacked functions (for efficiency) and redundancy (for resilience). For example, I grow a Bean Cave on the back patio, which gives me fresh beans hanging down from a gazebo right by the kitchen door, and gives shade to that part of the garden, keeping the house marginally cooler; but those are not my only beans, and the cooling is just one aspect of a wider strategy. Which is a good thing, because this year I went away for three weeks in May (which I am not going to do again if I can help it, there is just too much that is time-sensitive in the garden in May!) and my beans are only just coming into production now and certainly haven’t covered the gazebo yet. The bindweed is having a good go from the other side, which I’m not ecstatic about, but I will leave it be until after the coming heat wave, because any shade is good.

        Something else that might be interesting is in how to disentangle one’s life from overly-financialised capital. One thing that frequently annoys me in London is that if I want to, say, meet a friend, there is almost no indoor space where we can meet and sit and talk unless we also buy something (coffee usually), and the bulk of the cost of that usually goes not to pay the wages of the person who made it, but to a landlord or bank. Something I’ve been doing for a while is trying not to let my social life be dependent on spending money (including for transport). It’s definitely easier now than it used to be, thanks to the pandemic resetting my social life baseline to zero. That’s a drastic way to make a tradition, but are there some areas where “cut a thing out and only add in replacements that work in a small farm future” might be sensible, and others where it wouldn’t?

        Chris, I’ll mull this over some more and hopefully add more thoughts when I’m not desperately in need of a cold bath and a sleep!

        • A drastic way to make a *transition*. It was late and I was tired.

          I am still tired, but here are some more ideas that are bouncing around the inside of my head:

          We can’t have a detailed, paint-by-numbers blueprint for creating a small farm future because context is so variable, but I think it might be possible to say more about strategies. So maybe Strategies for Creating a Small Farm Future.

          There are probably a hundred books on how to set up a homestead or smallholding, most of which assume that you have money to throw at the problem of moving to the countryside, and a car you can fill with fossil fuels to do so, and a nice village somewhere that still has a shop and a pub and no flooding problems, and postal or parcel delivery for anything you don’t want to drive to town to buy. I don’t think you should write that book, or even a book on how to homestead, really; and honestly I’m not seriously worried that you will try. But I think you definitely shouldn’t, partly because there are so many already, partly because it would only be applicable to your context. And lastly, because at least to me, seeing “experts” make their living from “how to leave the rat race and live on a small farm” material rather than from the farming itself makes me think, “aha, these people also can’t get by with the farming alone, they have to monetize it as aspiration porn just to make ends meet.” It’s a big issue in the music world, too. Which of course doesn’t mean the material itself is useless — I have learned a lot just from watching allotment Youtube videos (the latest: instead of purchasing mushroom spawn and trying to get it to “take” in an outdoor substrate, purchasing colonised, ready-to-fruit mushroom blocks, fruiting them a couple of times, and disposing of the “waste” block material by burying it in… an appropriate outdoor substrate), and sharing information on how to farm in various places in the world is certainly important. But if that were your vocation, then I can’t help feeling your blog would be much more about the nitty-gritty of lettuces and much less about the social and political context of small farming. Like others here, I always enjoy your descriptions of practical aspects of your life, but I think part of this enjoyment comes from your reflections on their context.

          While Joe would probably say (and is mostly correct I think) that even a small hobby farm with diesel and petrol tools is going to be useful to *someone* in future, I think that the majority of people who buy and read the “how to homestead” books, and probably a percentage of people who do actually buy a rural property and move there, are really looking for a sort of suburban-plus lifestyle, and don’t necessarily grasp all the higher-order changes in strategy that you do touch on in your book or have been discussed in comments here.

          Off the top of my head, some of these are:
          1] tapping into local resource flows, distributed over a wider area, rather than relying on centralised resources
          2] prioritising local markets, both because of the energy issues with transporting perishable goods long distances, and because of the community building this can result in
          3] oh, hey, it’s almost impossible to do this without getting involved in local governance, so pick something and get stuck in (I am involved in governance at my church, whereas at the allotment I’m “just” a tenant and leave the committee meetings to people who have the time and patience), and expect this to be messy and frustrating as well as rewarding.
          3] something about the real value of producing food or fuel or fibre (my homegrown potatoes or the bicycle built by the local bike shop are worth more to me than the money I save by not buying potatoes in the shops or buy getting an off-the-shelf, non-artisanal bicycle — why? And are there instances where mass-produced or standardised goods are of benefit? What are these, and how do we keep doing mass production of, say, medical PPE, or screwdrivers, or (God help us) plastic agricultural netting?)
          4] some of the principles of Catholic social teaching/distributism, including subsidiarity, solidarity, and the common good — each of which could be unpacked quite a bit

          I’m sure there are more, what have I missed out?

          I’m thinking also of the permaculture principles; these seem like a good start, but a quick perusal to refresh my memory doesn’t show me anything about choosing local resources (though there is a heavy emphasis on renewables, which *ought* to trend local).

          Additionally — regardless of context, are there any actions individuals can take which are very high impact, and so at least worth considering? I’ve certainly discussed here before how driving a car is one of my firm boundaries; if something requires me to drive a car, I’m not going to do it. The marginal cost of driving a car for someone who already has one is probably pretty low, though it’s still better not to drive; the impact of me learning to drive and then owning a car, or even renting one occasionally, would be far higher. For someone else, it might make sense for that boundary to be “only eat meat if it comes from within 100 miles of home” or “own exactly twenty pieces of clothing and mend them until they are unmendable before replacing any item” or similar. None of these practices will change the world alone, and I am cautious of promoting any sort of purity narrative, but they are an interesting exercise in mindfulness of our place in the world, and I do think that some kind of weakening of the current system will need to occur in order to move to a more convivial society.

          I think there is a huge challenge in answering “how do we get there from here?” without making some assumptions about what “here” means which… may not age well. So I think there is also value in articulating “there” in such a way that a range of actions could take us closer to or further from it; it’s an orientation or a process, rather than a one-and-done change.

          I’m a lousy politician and so my own emphasis is on individual and household actions, and it may be that these form the bulk of changes (especially in a supersedure state situation); but I also wonder whether a guide to strategic policy might be helpful, especially for those who do engage in politics at local or national level.

          Moving on to a different tangent from a different post — I’ve linked before to Low Tech Magazine and people have asked for various resource directories and so on. So, I also wonder whether (perhaps as an appendix? or perhaps on this or another website?) it might be fun to compile a list of potential technologies for a small farm future — things like the pedal-powered thresher (essentially a bunch of flails inside a drum) that keeps coming up in conversation, or a solar dehydrator, or a saqiya, or how to make biochar, or a millstone, or a diy bike trailer, or a guide to seed saving. Not all of these would be applicable to every context, of course, but many of them would be useful to many people.

          In a totally different tangent, I am toying with the idea of reading your book with a church book group of some sort. I haven’t actually talked to the vicar about this yet or tried to figure out if anyone would be interested or thought much about how it would work; our two parishes are part of an eco-church scheme and people do care about the environment, but I genuinely don’t know if your book is pitched at a level we could use in that way. Anyway, perhaps if you wanted to take a completely different direction in another work of non-fiction, it might be in the form of a workbook that community groups could use to discuss the various strategies/issues/principles. Doing this without watering things down could be dicey.

          (As you can see, I have lots of ideas as long as I don’t have to write the book.)

          • people who do actually buy a rural property and move there, are really looking for a sort of suburban-plus lifestyle, and don’t necessarily grasp all the higher-order changes in strategy that you do .
            Dead right there !

    • I recently came across a mention of the book Field Work: What Land Does to People & What People Do to Land, by Bella Bathurst.
      A quick Google tells us it’s “A beautiful hybrid of social history, memoir and nature writing, Field Work manages to bring an entire world out of the shadows.”
      I firmly believe, in taking a similar tack, Chris, you could write about life on a small farm in today’s West Country and you’d do it justice for what you’d breathe into it.
      I’m not so sure the English-speaking world needs another ‘how to get there from here’ book that might take several months to write (the hour is late), during which time the world becomes an entirely different place, possibly unrecognisable even from the world’s worst Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book it sometimes seems like today.
      In many ways, A Small Farm Future made a good fist of charting a sensible way ahead, the distillation of all you’d been turning over in your mind for many years. Cut and edited for brevity, it’s strong stuff. I’ve read it once, and will keep sipping at it now and again, like a shot of pálinka. As for your blog posts, I look forward to them more like a quenching, cool quaff of health-giving ale to enjoy in one draught. I could drink a case of it. You should write what you enjoy writing…
      It could centre around life on a small farm, but wouldn’t have to. I’d imagine there are countless stories from your decades farming, swiftly though they may have passed, of reinventing yourself as the veg box peasant; brushes with Wessex’s planning dept.; the labour pains of setting up a community allotment AND a campsite in your own back garden; the early pond irrigation experiment that didn’t quite come off, with uncomfortable repercussions through the years (could be some kind of motif); sticking with water, the original interior guttering that I believe you pioneered; what Vallis means in Vallis Veg; to get even more Alan Partridge-like: your best veg box ever, and your worst veg box ever; recruitment of staff and the characters you’ve had the good fortune to run into over the years; reflections on the Oxford Real Farming Conferences, headway made by the Ecological Land Co-op, the Eco-farm project and the like…
      To recruit another brain, I asked my daughter, 9, what she’d be interested in reading about from a small farmer in England. As a practical lass, straight off the bat she asked what animals you keep, how many and how you use them for cooking, the diseases you’ve helped them overcome, what you consider the best milk, and how to trim the hooves of a mammoth donkey.
      Considering your niche position as a voice within an equally niche sector, you could maybe pepper any future manuscript with the best heckles and put-downs you’ve dealt with. Your own beautiful hybrid could even be a brush with fiction, as I’d imagine it wise for at least some names to be changed to protect the innocent. Then publish and be damned!
      Seriously, all the best with it.

      • A sort of James Herriot of horticulture, perhaps? I would certainly read that. And it might do more to introduce people to the possibilities of a small farm future than something more prescriptive. I’ll admit, neither of the two people I’ve given Small Farm Future to have read all of it (my spouse and my father-in-law); whereas I was captivated from the start.

        I want to find out more about the interior guttering…

        • Yes, Herriot did come to mind when I was thinking of the kind of writing about country life that has proved popular, entertaining and inspirational. I’m now also thinking BBC spin-off series, but who the hell would play the Smaje character?

          • Richard Dreyfuss? Is he still alive? (Not to seem unkind I am picturing Dreyfuss circa Close Encounters of the Third Kind – the manic energy, seeing what very few others can see).

  18. Half-baked notion on focus of a non-fiction book: I’ve always been drawn to well-written, gentle, procedural books formatted like “A Pattern Language.”

    Perhaps: “A pattern language for low-input agrarian localism.”

    The pattern language idea is from Christopher Alexander who in 1977 “gave away” design and planning insights by highlight the behavioral and psychological interactions in urban and architectural design. Pattern languages consist of a series of patterns that identify a specific element, situation, or challenge of a built environment; and, offer suggested tips and solutions to address it. Often, patterns are interrelated.

    The key is that patterns are not answers (i.e., NOT the best, the one, the only) but suggested starting points. They can be mixed and matched to get a wide variety of outcomes. None are necessary, and even a bunch of them is never sufficient, but they may be useful to get things started. They spark creativity not replace it with a set of rules.

    A pattern language is a great example of “small experiments” which is the suggestion that, when faced with uncertainty as to how to proceed, we should try a bunch of things, at a small scale, right soon now. (Kaplan (1996) The Small Experiment: Achieving more with less. In Nasar & Brown, Public and Private Places. Environmental Design Research Association.)

    A student of mine just created a pattern language for creating a “FARM STOP” (example at http://www.argusfarmstop.com) which we define as, “year-round markets and grocery stores that support a local provisioning economy made up of small farms through a consignment-based business model that ensures local farmers get real value for their products.”

    (1) Pattern Language at: localizationpapers.org/wp-content/documents/Barr,%20K.%20(2022)%20How%20to%20Start%20a%20Farm%20Stop.pdf

    (2) Study of Farm Stops at: localizationpapers.org/wp-content/documents/Barr,%20K.%20(2022)%20Farm%20Stops%20Report.pdf

    I’ve got a small group working on a pattern language for neighborhood resilience when faced with extreme events. Our draft is much too rough to share widely but an email may get you our embarrassing effort-to-date.

  19. I’ll second ( or third or…..) the idea of exploring the dilemma of getting from here to there. The path will vary of course, depending on local conditions, but in general, the biggest obstacle is land access. Every square inch of the U.S. is spoken for, be it private, commercial, or government ownership.

    Combined with the generational and urban/rural wealth disparities, creating thousands of new, small farms from the carcasses of vast mono crop holdings without vast sums of cash is a quandary.

    There some small, nascent efforts here like this one:
    https://www.youngfarmers.org

    But the inertia and financial challenges are huge. In our area, I see a lot of old farmsteads in the area where the cropland is partitioned off and sold to bigger farms, and the house is then turned in to an air BnB/tourist housing for cash flow. The trend is still heading the wrong way.
    https://www.wpr.org/wisconsin-has-fewer-dairy-farms-so-how-are-they-producing-more-milk

    The number of cows is about the same, but number of farms has plummeted. Milk production is actually up, with the amped up genetics of the Holstein breed. And of course, the great majority of these are not on pasture.

    Sigh…….

    • the biggest obstacle is land access

      Indeed.

      Perhaps the second biggest obstacle is the dependency of cities on mechanized agriculture. Even if there were a real desire to promote some form of agriculture other than large mechanized farms, how would we ensure that city folk were happy with their food supply. After all, cities are where the votes are and cheap food is always a vote getter.

      Corporate ownership of very large farms is nicely compatible with mechanized agriculture and mechanized flows of farm inputs and outputs. That’s why farming has drifted toward corporate ownership for decades. I can’t imagine how that’s going to change.

      It seems to me that not much can be done to change the “get big or get out” paradigm until it is decided that urban populations need to be moved to the country. The only thing I can see that might prompt such a policy would be the inability to keep food flowing into cities due to lack of energy or fertilizer inputs to mechanized agriculture. But if the choice becomes starve in the city or move to the country and fend for yourself, that choice will come far too late to enable a successful transition, one that allows people who do move to the country to actually survive as subsistence farmers. If hunger is what drives people out of cities, they aren’t going to be able to do much with land that has been in mechanized conventional agriculture for decades.

      The one hopeful wildcard in the deck is the possiblity that organic or regenerative agriculture succeeds in outcompeting conventional agriculture within our current mechanized ag context. If that were to happen, soil fertility could improve enough that people who later descend on vacant farmland out of a dire necessity to grow their own food might actually have a chance to succeed. But the only way that regenerative ag can compete in the global market is if synthetic inputs become too expensive to compete with biologically derived soil fertility. But if that happens mechanization will be at risk also. Conventional ag might simply fail before regenerative ag has a chance to take its place. If that happens there is not much to be done.

      Let’s hope that we still have time to see the ag methods competition play out in favor of living soil. Perhaps the first big effort should not be to get access to land for people, but rather access to land for microbial life. Let the people come later after there is healthy soil to work with.

      • There are market oriented approaches wherein some of the more sustainable approaches (organic, regenerative, cover crops, etc) earn more income than the traditional BIG Ag. (on a per acre basis).

        Carbon credits to farmers for using covers and for reduced tillage (these are rather new and the jury is still out for how well this will work). But premiums for organic foods are real and have been around long enough to spur increases at the rural level.

        Agree with Joe that once fuel prices become a catastrophic hindrance then things will have to change, and the change will be most ugly. Organic (as a market driver) will only work so long as some consumers are wealthy enough to afford the premium. On the silver lining side… if enough organic farms are supported on the descent there will be far more farmers with experience and a better infrastructure in place… so the change may be less onerous.

        A point to mull over as we try to discern a potential future transition is proximity of good land to major centers of population. Here I’m thinking of two fronts. One: Play a city like Chicago against New York and all the very densely populated east coast. The Chicago metro sits along side some of the most productive prairie soils on the planet. The Boston to Philadelphia crowd are not close to such bountiful agrarian resources. I have to imagine that Londoners will find themselves more like the latter than the former. Two: Transportation infrastructure will continue to be vital… so places where non fossil fuel resources exist will fare better.

        • The Essex and Lea Valley market gardens did once benefit from proximity to London markets; that was with a much lower population in London, of course, but the towpath along the river Lea still exists, and locks don’t stop working without electricity either. I think the Grand Union canal is still navigable, too. We’re rather short of donkeys to do the towing. In terms of more international trade, Docklands is mostly housing rather than docks these days.

          Honestly I sometimes feel like we could do so much better than we are simply by banning long-distance car/lorry transport, forcing us to re-open closed train lines and rehabilitate abandoned transport waterways. Of course the reality is never so simple as banning something, and some of the now-defunct waterways are probably excellent wildlife habitat when we aren’t pumping them full of sewage; what I actually mean is more along the lines of “cars were a mistake and if I could go back and change things so that they never came into common use, I would.” (I know, cars were not our only mistake. But still.)

          • oh yes. The car was a boon that has turned into a bane.

            (is the manuifacture of t-shirt slogans a worthwhile craft? Hmmm. perhaps not …)

  20. My suggestion would be a book about the nuts and bolts of small farms after fossil fuels are very expensive or scarce. There could be chapters on harvesting your own grain, animals, saving seeds, tillage, soil fertility, weed management, food preservation, etc. And one on building community for extra credit.

    Actually it is a daunting to think about what would be needed. Let’s say that concrete isn’t available anymore. Metal tools, pumped water, mechanical refrigeration ?

  21. Thanks for all these fascinating comments on the focus for another book. I’ll divulge more in due course. There’s merit in all the suggestions. I think I’m probably not the best person to write the book Greg is suggesting – a more likely contender for that might be (checks blog archive) … Greg!

    Some version of the how to get there from here suggested by Joe and others does commend itself … although as Simon says, there may be dangers of built in obsolescence. Example: I’m hunkering by my computer this afternoon because of the heatwave outside, which some are predicting will break the 40C barrier in Britain for the first time. Anyone would think the climate is changing or something… But that can’t be true, otherwise surely the government would be doing something about it, rather than offering us another rerun of the ‘Who wants to be prime minister’ show…

    Simon’s suggestion of a farm memoir is appealing, despite his worryingly good recall of the various disasters I’ve reported on this site (physical and virtual) over the years. I definitely want to write something along those lines, although I feel the need to mull over it a while longer yet. In the meantime, just to explain the interior guttering, when we first moved onto the site we lived in a static caravan with a crack in the roof. We dealt with this in the medium term with a tarpaulin, but in the short term with a length of gutter pipe beneath the ceiling that drained into a bucket on the sideboard – believed to be the first example of guttering in the interior style known in England. I dismantled the static and sold it for scrap before English Heritage got wind of this innovation and slapped listed building status on it…

  22. Pingback: From regenesis to re-exodus: of George Monbiot, mathematical modernism and the case for agrarian localism - Resilience

  23. Pingback: Of George Monbiot, Mathematical Modernism And The Case For Agrarian Localism| Countercurrents – Earth Soldier

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *