Last week, peak oil analyst Stuart Staniford wrote an essay on the Oildrum critiquing the relocalization movement which has arisen in response to the threat of peak oil. In a nutshell, Staniford argues that relocalizers—who Staniford rather derisively calls “reversalists”—are incorrect in their belief that imminent declines in oil availability will cause modern industrial agriculture to become untenable, requiring large numbers of people to relocalize and return to rural communities.

On the contrary, Stanford argues, high oil prices have, so far, benefited rather than harmed industrial producers. Given the importance of food, he says, even higher oil prices would imply that industrial producers will simply be able to outbid the urban poor for fuel indefinitely. He then accuses “reversalists” of “wishful thinking” and “nostalgia for the past,” and concludes by saying that “urbanites worried about their future should not be looking to buy or rent a smallholding as a solution to their problems—industrial farmers are extremely efficient, and there is no way to compete with them except by becoming one.”

The post produced one of the longest and most interesting discussion threads on the Oildrum to date, as well as a thoughtful response by Sharon Astyk, a small farmer who is a chief advocate for the relocalization movement (Astyk’s writings put forward a persuasive case for widespread rerualization as a necessary response to peak oil and climate change. Dmitry Orlov and Jeff Vail responded as well, criticizing Staniford for linear extrapolations and confusing correlation with causation, respectively.)

The specifics of the argument aside, to me the most interesting thing about the debate was how it highlighted the way certain deeply embedded tacit ideas inform so much of modern thinking. In particular, several comments in the thread referred to the “nostalgic” or “aesthetic” nature of the relocalization movement, as if those supposed sentiments alone were enough to disqualify it from serious consideration. Astyk herself refers to James Howard Kunstler’s anti-modernist bent and death-of-suburbia predictions as “as much aesthetic, and tied to a larger critique of modernist cultural movements, as they are practical”—the implication being that the intellectual attempt to bracket out so-called “aesthetic” concerns is valid, scientific and appropriate. Taken for granted in this approach is the notion that the “aesthetic” and the “practical” exist in separate, non-overlapping spheres; and we know which is more important.

It would be hard to overstate how deeply this bias runs. Ours is profoundly utilitarian age. And yet, if the concept of peak oil proves anything, it’s that this most “utilitarian” civilization in history is paradoxically one of the most blind. How can we, who are so practical and scientific, have failed to notice that we were careening toward the edge of this cliff? And is it possible that our conditioned insensitivity to so-called “aesthetic” concerns is, in fact, a big part of the problem?

Critiques of mechanistic reductionism were common in the early part of the 20th century, in the works of existentialists of every stripe as well as those of philosophers like Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead and Lewis Mumford. Later, a number of quantum physicists also questioned the mechanistic view of the world, perhaps most prominently David Bohm. Nobel prize winning biologist George Wald suggested the universe itself must in some way be programmed for life, “that the stuff of which physical reality is composed is mind-stuff.”

But the idea that aesthetic concerns might be a clue to the functionality of a system is an uncommon perspective in the present age, to say the least. We are all, for the most part, living amidst a functional belief system in which matter is inert and the activity of nature is viewed mechanically; and which therefore, by default, relegates value—aesthetic or otherwise—to a secondary and wholly subjective role. You can say that American suburbia is ugly, but that’s just your opinion, isn’t it?

One notable exception to this paradigm is found in the work of the great architect Christopher Alexander. In his recent four-volume synthesis, The Nature of Order, Alexander explains the significance and troublesome implications of the mechanistic fallacy. “Strictly speaking, the facts of physics and astrophysics do not imply that the universe is meaningless. But the way these facts are presently drawn . . . does suggest—even strongly imply—that the world is meaningless,” he writes.

“During the last three hundred years we have succeeded in building up an astonishing view of reality. This is a picture in which the parts of the world are to be viewed through mathematical models or mechanisms . . . We have a level of control of our physical destiny that would have astonished our ancestors in virtually any past period of human history . . . All in all we have succeeded in building successful models of the matter in the universe and its behavior, in a way that is wonderful and powerful. It is a collective achievement of an order incomparable with almost any previous human achievement . . . .

And yet, there is something wrong! . . . In order to create this effective scientific world-picture we had to use a device: the intellectual device of treating entities in nature as if they were inert, as if they were lumps of geometric substance, without feeling, without life—in effect, merely mechanical elements in a larger machine.

According to Alexander, numerous tacit assumptions follow from this world-view including: the belief that what is true is only the body of facts which can be represented as lifeless mechanisms; that matters of value are subjective; that matter is inert, “blindly following laws of combination and transformation”; that art has “no deep importance in they physical scheme of things . . . and “the intuition that something profound is happening in a great work of art is, in scientific terms, meaningless.”

But none of these tacit assumptions is true, says Alexander. The universe is not inert but full of “life”—a word which transcends its biological meaning and can be applied to the crashing of ocean surf, the stark subliminity of a mountain range, or the heart-rending beauty of a great work of art. Furthermore, the “life” of any particular scene or moment is for Alexander a function not of subjective states of mind, but of objective, geometric structures which interlock to create a “wholeness”.

Present day conventional wisdom responds to such statements as hopelessly sentimental and unscientific, but according to Alexander, they can be empirically verified. Remarkably, he claims to show that when asked properly, human beings are able to distinguish relative degrees of “life” and “wholeness” (in an urban scene or work or art, for example) with a very surprising degree of consistency—across class, age and culture.

Alexander lists an approximate fifteen geometric qualities which work together to create wholeness and life. Those properties are universally present in nature and natural transformations. They are virtually universal in the architecture and urban forms of pre-modern cultures. However, they are notoriously absent in our world of sleek glass skyscrapers, six-lane highways and mega-malls.

What this argument would seem to imply is that the realm of “feeling”—of which the categories of aesthetics and nostalgia are a part—is not secondary, but central, a matter of life and death, a subject which has to do with the deepest existential questions about a society. The brutal ugliness of so much of modern society—and the alienation, depression and psychopathologies it provokes—is not accidental but a result of worldview which treats all of nature and human beings as machines, and all questions of “value” as superficial gloss.

To put in another way, if the vast majority of people agree when asked that a strip-mall is “lifeless” (whereas an old-fashioned town or village is full of life), it seems fair to ask what the practical implications of that perception are. The depressing ugliness of the modern world is usually defended as a necessary result of progress. Strip-malls are seen as in some way more functional than a locally owned corner shop in a traditional, walkable neighborhood.

But while the strip-mall may be more functional in some ways for some people (the economy of scale gained by a mass chain) it is, in myriad other ways, profoundly dysfunctional. In a world of strip-malls it is no longer possible to walk a block for a loaf of bread; public space is destroyed; the chain-stores of which strip malls are composed siphon money from the local economy; etc. Not to mention the destruction of pubic space, the health problems of obesity, the dangers of accidents, and the pointless depletion of finite resources and the destabilization of the climate—all of which comes from a auto-dependent society of which the strip-mall/box store/parking lot world is an integral part. Is it possible that the perceived ugliness of this world is more than just coincidental with its non-functionality?

Alexander’s colleague, the mathematician Nikos Salingaros, makes a strong case that this is so. In his book A Theory of Architecture he shows how modern architecture and urban planning has destroyed the “fractal hierarchy” which is present in nature and traditional building. “Fractals define a scaling hierarchy that is complex at every level of magnification,” he writes. By eliminating the smaller, human scale, modernist architecture in particular creates both an aesthetic and a practical problem simultaneously; in fact, the two issues are inseparable.

Many critics, Salingaros tells us, have recoiled at the ugliness of arch modernist Le Corbusier’s destructive architecture and urban plans. But, he writes, the plans’ “fundamental fault is not an aesthetic poverty so much as a structural poverty: a lack of organized complexity, a toxic disconnectedness.” Salingaros ends by calling for a “newly adaptive architecture of connectivity,” as a way to restore human habitats.

What does this all have to do with the question of industrial agriculture and the future? Well, for one thing, it is hard to imagine anything organized on a less human scale than industrial agriculture, whose toxic effects are easily visible not only in objective measurements of human health and environmental degradation, but in “aesthetic” reactions to everything from the tastelessness of supermarket produce to the visceral disgust we feel when we learn the details of industrial scale meat production.

The modernist architects of the early 20th century sold themselves and their designs to the world as harbingers of “progress” and “science.” By implication, those nostalgic sentimentalists who opposed their work on aesthetic grounds were anti-progress and anti-science. But as Salingaros, Alexander and others have shown, the architectural norms of hulking glass and soulless concrete plazas were neither scientific nor progressive; they were totemic. To a certain extent the modularity and geometric banality of modern architects served the needs of 20th century mass-industrialization, but even there, one wonders to what degree those benefits were exaggerated by propaganda and power of abstraction and ideology rather than real efficiencies of scale.

Isn’t the same thing true of industrial agriculture? Numerous studies have shown that on a total output basis, small-scale organic farming is at least as productive as its industrial counterpart, and as organizations like SPIN farming illustrate, it can be profitable even on land covering less than an acre. And as Sharon Astyk points out, this is in a system which disadvantages small farmers in both the developed and the developing world (through a relative lack of subsidy in the former and burden of taxation in the latter). Staniford’s analysis notwithstanding, it seems at least plausible that the putative benefits of industrial agriculture are a bit oversold.

None of this answers the question of what will happen to agriculture when world oil production really begins to decline. But maybe the question should be turned around. Given that industrial agriculture and suburban sprawl are based on scales which are so unnatural in both organic and human terms—so disconnected, so structurally compromised—maybe the proper question should be, how is something so dysfunctional sustained? So far the answer has been: with massive financial capital, huge expenditures of energy, and sheer force of will. What will happen when at least two of those three forces start to dry up? Maybe we should look to aesthetics to give as a clue.