Telling new stories: from eco-modernism to eco-populism

My last two posts have pretty much brought me to the end of two themes that have loomed large in my recent writing: a political critique of ‘eco-modernism’ and an ecological critique of perennial grain breeding programmes. Time perhaps for a few brief reflections on where that work has taken me, and where to go next.

One thing to notice is that both themes involve critique rather than construction. Perhaps it’s easier to knock down someone else’s narrative than to build a convincing one of your own. So now I want to spend more time building an alternative narrative, which I would summarise as follows: we can best secure equitable and sustainable human livelihoods in the future by building local food economies inspired by (though not slavishly mimetic of) the traditional, small-scale, mixed, labour-intensive, energy-light, peasant farming systems involving appropriate mixtures of locally-adapted annual and perennial herbaceous and woody crops with livestock that have long been practiced in most parts of the world.

I’ll try to expand on that summary in forthcoming posts. Here I’ll just offer a few linking threads from the aforementioned critiques I’ve recently written to the alternative narrative I want to provide.

I previously coined the term ‘eco-panglossianism’ to characterize the ‘ecomodernists’, because the refrain of Dr Pangloss from Voltaire’s Candide “all for the best in this best of all possible worlds” pretty much seems to encapsulate their philosophy. Graham Strouts has castigated me for the sneering tone of the term, and though to be accused of sneering by Graham, one of the more abrasive members of the eco-panglossian tribe, is a case of the pot calling the kettle black, I suppose he’s right that it is a bit sneery, however apt it may be. The trouble is, until now I’ve not come across another suitable term – certainly not ‘eco-pragmatist’ or ‘eco-realist’, concepts that I don’t believe the eco-panglossians can justly appropriate for their own private use. Happily, the problem is now solved – ‘eco-modernist’ I can live with. For, as I argue in my Dark Mountain piece, the eco-modernists share a lot with the literary modernists who were strutting their stuff more than a century ago – a conception of present times as radically different from all that has gone before; an enthusiasm for cities in general, slums in particular, and a preference for trumpeting fancy new technologies rather than engaging in sober economic analysis; a narcissistic sense of breaking the mould and heralding a new dawn, which then becomes a conservative orthodoxy of its own. The ‘eco-modernists’ seem blissfully unaware of what ‘modernism’ means in the arts and social sciences. In those spheres, modernism is long dead, as indeed is postmodernism. They could learn a lot if they pondered the birth, life, and death of modernism as an intellectual movement. Meanwhile, yes, I’m happy to go with ‘ecomodernism’, so long as it’s OK for me to use the scare quotes without courting the accusation of a residual sneeriness?

Both the ‘ecomodernists’ and the perennial grain breeders (the latter with their promise to ‘end 10,000 years of conflict between humanity and nature’) have something of a weakness for magic bullet technologies that are supposedly going to end our troubles. I’m sceptical. That doesn’t mean I’m anti-technological, but I do dislike the kind of modernist political discourse that’s built up around science and technology in recent times, which tends to substitute an almost millenarian belief in future scientific breakthroughs to solve human problems for political and economic analysis. Perhaps this explains Tom Merchant’s angry resignation from my blog – to him, I think, it’s so obvious that humanity’s techne has already secured a future supply of almost limitless clean energy and health benefits just waiting to be rolled out to the masses, that any argument to the contrary can be dismissed as pessimistic or indeed disingenuous. But for me, the relationship between science, technology and economic ‘development’ in human history is pretty complex – there isn’t a simple historical identity between science and progress. Moreover, as I believe I showed in my Dark Mountain piece, and in previous analyses on this blog, globally we’ve become ever more reliant on fossil fuels and have scarcely even begun to chart serious alternative energy paths. If the political discourse around, say, nuclear power was along the lines of “we’ve got a painful energy transition ahead of us and some tricky issues to solve around agricultural sustainability and biodiversity, and for that reason we may need to start investing more heavily in nuclear power” I think I’d find it easier to go along with it. Instead, as in the Ecomodernist Manifesto, nuclear power is proffered as some kind of trump card, a divine providence, a ticket to a ‘great Anthropocene’. Job done. And these self-styled ‘rationalists’ want folks to believe that they’ve shed religious affectations about a heavenly afterlife?

Well, I guess I’m a bit of a modernist at heart too. Probably like the majority of people in present times – and unlike many who lived in the past – I believe in social progress, in the possibility and indeed the desirability of changing the way we organise things so as to make life better for us and our descendants in the future. Perhaps ironically, though, I think we’ll make more progress in achieving progress if we abandon the idea of progress. In other words, rather than committing ourselves to the relentless and ultimately rather abstract ratcheting implied by our metrics of growth, development, material wellbeing and so on, I believe we’d be better off asking what it is that we fundamentally want to achieve as individuals and societies. Of course, there’s no single answer, but when we do that honestly, many of the arguments about the ‘backwardness’ of peasant farming and the like start to fall away.

The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Too often, I’ve found myself drawn to debate the ‘efficiency’ of peasant agriculture vis-à-vis modern industrial agriculture. It’s a debate worth having, and an outcome in favour of industrial agriculture is by no means guaranteed, but the framing of the question is wrong. Ultimately, the case for peasant agriculture isn’t decided by policymakers in lofty halls of governmental power on the basis of its relative efficiency. One reason (though only one) why there are still millions, indeed billions, of peasants in the world today is because it’s a life worth living, and people have fought hard to defend it. It’s not an easy life, to be sure, but a good deal of its hardship stems from its susceptibility to the predations of other people living off the back of it, including the coffee-quaffing proponents of global commodity markets. The ‘ecomodernist’ line boils down to the argument that people shouldn’t be peasants because they’re easily exploited. It’s akin to the argument that women shouldn’t go out alone at night because they’re easily raped. In both cases, the onus of responsibility is shifted from perpetrator to victim: if peasants are easily exploited, then why not seek to overcome the exploitation rather than cheerleading their defeat?

A familiar ecomodernist response is that only by moving into wage labour in a capitalist economy based on high levels of energy use is it possible for the rural poor to lift themselves out of poverty. That’s certainly been the main anti-poverty strategy in recent times but it hasn’t worked, or at least it’s worked only for a lucky few in certain favoured circumstances. In the main, rural peasant poverty has merely given way to urban waged (or unwaged) poverty, while fossil energy use has spiralled upwards imperilling rich and poor alike (OK, poor more than rich, to be honest).

We need a different approach. And therefore, I’d argue, we need some new stories about why a recharged peasant agriculture makes sense as a response to the problems of our times. Those stories need to be specific, because ultimately there’s no such thing as ‘the peasantry’ – there are only rural, small-scale farmers, who are usually engaged in various kinds of struggle with bigger economic actors in order to realise their goals. But some have been more successful in those struggles than others, and there are certain common patterns in the kind of struggles they fight, so there’s room for generalization too. Brian Miller wrote a nice blog post recently about the peasantry in his neck of the woods, in the southeastern USA, which emphasized both what these American agrarians were for and what they were contending against. Quite a lot of my writing on this blog has been about what I’m against and this, I think, is a necessary part of the story. But I’d also like to start placing a bit more emphasis on what peasant agricultures can be for, and thence what a globally recharged peasant agriculture might look like. That involves drawing on the legacy of leftwing agrarian populism – an interesting project, I think, in these times of leftwing retreat and dangerous populist demagogues. It also involves refusing to be pigeonholed as romantic, elitist or ignorant about the plight of the poor. Eden, remember, is a myth that belongs more to the modernists than it does to the anti-modernists or the non-modernists.

I’ve often broached the issue of agrarian populism on this blog, but rarely confronted it directly. So maybe the time is now. Or at least soon. An important part of peasant life, which intellectuals and politicos can easily forget, is farming as an actual (and quite difficult) practice. So I’m planning a couple of more practical posts before swinging back towards the general themes of populism, property and the future of civilization as we know it. I’m also planning to complete the Welsh 3000s with Spudboy in the coming week for the second and, I hope, final time in my life, while also starting work on a major writing project, so please forgive me if the blog posts get a bit less frequent for a while.

4 thoughts on “Telling new stories: from eco-modernism to eco-populism

  1. Be careful on the slopes, we needn’t lose an agrarian populist to a misplaced footfall. Maybe his being crushed by a toppling round bale, a horny bull or a reversing muck spreader… but not an inadvertent toppling on a 3000 ft Welsh hillside.

    Over the weekend here on this side of the pond another generation was introduced to a romantic agrarian hillside in Tennessee. She warmed to it slowly, but I think the experience will stay with her long enough so an agrarian narrative might someday find in her a receptive heart. [Many thanks to Brian and Cindy for hosting 🙂 ]

    • Chris,
      I anxiously await the next series of posts. You straddle an interesting line in your interests in science, philosophy and history. I hosted Clem this past weekend who made a comment based on my library. A comment that reminded me that our orientations are often based on education or base interests. His in science, mine in history.
      We touched on the left agrarian culture previously and I’m glad to that you are returning to it. Will Kropotkin, the Bulgarian Greens, or the Distributists make an appearance?
      PS Glad you could appreciate the Neolithic Fort piece!

  2. Glad to hear the connections are buzzing in the Small Farm Future diaspora (USA chapter). I hope to be able to visit you gentlemen over there myself one of these fine days. Thanks for your concern, Clem – yes, one false step on the Crib Goch pinnacles and the whole future of global agriculture could take a different course. Or maybe not. Currently a dodgy back and a dodgy weather forecast are holding back our plans, though to be honest both a sound back in a middle aged farmer and decent weather in Snowdonia are as rare as hen’s teeth, or Labour Prime Ministers.

    Brian, having had the mixed blessing of being taught anthropology by probably the last generation of fully signed-up academic Marxists, when it comes to Russian radicals I’m more schooled in Preobrazhensky than Chayanov, let alone Kropotkin. But yes I’m hoping to broaden my horizons in the directions you mention…and a few others besides. I hope to debate it with you here soon!

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