On the Iconography of my Scythe

September 21, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

In his interesting historical study of small farmers in Namiquipa, Mexico, Daniel Nugent mentions a 1926 meeting between local farmers and state bureaucrats seeking their assent to form an ejido (communal landholding)1. For reasons I won’t go into here, the farmers were generally opposed to the idea. They were also inured to the prejudices of local elites and officials who tended to see them as ignorant, lazy peasants. When the time came for signing the papers to form the ejido most of them refused, some of them claiming that they’d forgotten how to sign their names. They had their reasons, but they knew that nothing they could do or say would overturn the ‘ignorant peasant’ stereotype. Claiming to be unable to write was their way of acting up to the stereotype sarcastically – debate was pointless, but at least they could have a bit of quiet fun at their interlocutors’ expense.

Image RemovedI’ve been thinking about that anecdote in my recent engagements over ‘ecomodernism’ – particularly in the context of my Twitter photograph, which depicts me wearing an old leather sunhat and wielding my scythe. My God, I thought, here I am, spending ages writing serious intellectual engagements with ‘ecomodernist’ ideology and rebutting spurious charges of romanticism, primitivism and so forth in the case against it – and then the first thing anyone looking at my Twitter account sees is me and that darned scythe. Romantic! Primitivist! My first thought was to replace the photo – and quickly – with something more appropriate, perhaps dusting down my old suit and getting Mrs Spudman to take a snap of me, smart as anything, tugging contemplatively at my beard as I unravel yet another knotty intellectual problem in the world of agroecology.

Well, I didn’t quite get around to doing that – but I did find the time to write a detailed response to Mike Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute’s objections to my critique of ‘ecomodernism’. Where I agree with the ‘ecomodernists’ is a shared commitment to lessening the burden of global poverty and to lessening the burden that humans place upon the rest of the biota. I disagree with them fairly fundamentally on the best means for achieving those goals, but I’d like to think there’s scope for debating, in detail, how we’ve come to our different positions. Then a pingback on the Dark Mountain website led me to Graham Strouts’ latest post, in which (at least by implication) my analysis of the Ecomodernist Manifesto and my response to Shellenberger is rendered as nothing more than eco-romanticism or even eco-fascism.

That’s when the story of the Namiquipan farmers sprung to mind. Just as there was nothing they could do or say to contest the stereotype of the ignorant peasant, to religious dogmatists of the ‘ecomodernist’ persuasion there is nothing I and other critics can do or say to persuade them that dissent from their stance can be anything other than romanticism, fascism or whatever other vacuous pejorative they want to hurl at us. I did post a comment on Graham’s website suggesting that readers might like to see for themselves what I actually wrote rather than relying on Graham’s version of it, but curiously this didn’t find its way onto his site. So much for rational debate. The lesson I’ve been too-slowly learning is that engagement with the ideologically sealed world of the ‘ecomodernists’ is a waste of time. So I’ve decided to stick with my scythe photo. One of the joys of being a small-scale mixed farmer is that we turn our hand to many things in the course of our work without any one of them being dominant, so although I do employ more mechanized mowing technology on my holding the scythe is as good as anything for representing what I do. As I’ve shown elsewhere, it’s an efficient and highly versatile tool in its context. If it seems old-fashioned and redolent of false romanticism for a bygone rural past, that speaks more to the inefficiencies of modern thinking than to the inefficiencies of past practice. And since there’s nothing I can do to rebut charges of romanticism from those who want to make them, like the putatively illiterate Namiquipans, I’ll stick (sarcastically) to my scythe. Why our contemporary culture has such acute sensitivity to romanticizations of the rural and agrarian while affecting complete indifference to romanticizations of the urban and technological is something I don’t really understand, but I don’t propose to worry about it too much in future.

Still, in an ideal world it would be good to have a dialogue with ‘ecomodernists’ of moderate persuasion. In the corner of the universe I inhabit it’s quite easy to think of ‘intensive farming’ (a complex term) as bad, urbanization as unfortunate, nuclear power as wrong and GMOs an abomination on the basis of various under-examined assumptions, so I think it’s no bad thing that the ‘ecomodernists’ are here to make the case for them. The trouble is, for all the talk of science, evidence, rationalism and the like, the case they make tends towards the superficial. Take Strouts’s comments on agricultural intensification “It is not rocket science…-if we can grow food more intensively, producing more from the same amount of land, then we need to use less land for farming which could release more of it for wild nature- hence sparing nature”. Had Sir Isaac Newton’s scientific thinking been of this calibre, what might he have said when the apocryphal apple struck his head? Probably something like “When apples detach from trees they obviously fall to the ground – it’s not rocket science”, hence delaying the development of actual rocket science by a generation, though at least sparing his contemporaries the overuse of this appalling cliché. But what he actually did was ask specific, probing questions that transcended ‘common sense’ – a concept that always needs to be deployed with extreme caution in science.

Likewise, it may appear obvious that it’s better environmentally to concentrate food production on as small a global acreage as possible through the use of high tech modern farming methods, but that view rests on several contestable assumptions which I mentioned in my previous post, namely that:

  1. high tech modern farming methods actually do produce more food per hectare than more traditional, labour intensive methods
  2. biodiversity is better enhanced by preserving slightly larger areas of wilderness which are cut off from each other by intensively farmed areas through which wildlife passage is more restricted, than by preserving slightly smaller areas of wilderness which are linked by more extensively farmed areas through which wildlife passage is less restricted
  3. the following equation holds true, and is indeed empirically testable: gross biodiversity (by some relevant metric) in more wilderness + less (and less wildlife-friendly) intensive farms > gross biodiversity in (less) wilderness + more (and more wildlife-friendly) farms
  4. these relationships will be preserved long-term in the event that the ‘ecomodernist’ strategy of ‘agricultural intensification’ and poverty reduction through urbanisation successfully increases and equalizes global wealth, without the wilderness so preserved succumbing to the pressures placed upon it by this increased global wealth.

As I pointed out in my previous post, there are reasonable scientific grounds for questioning all of these assumptions, and it’s in subjecting the assumptions to rigorous scientific testing that the real science, and the real debate, begins. It seems to me pretty unlikely that ‘the science’ will end up favouring a blanket worldwide strategy of either ‘ecomodernist’-style ‘agricultural intensification’ or agroecological-style so-called ‘extensification’ because the one ‘common sense’ generalization I think one can safely make of scientific research is that its answers are complex, context-dependent and provisional.

That, at any rate, is the kind of debate I’d like to be able to have with the ‘ecomodernists’. I’m sure I’d learn something. The kind of response I’ve actually received, though, doesn’t persuade me that, for all their talk of science, ‘ecomodernists’ of this ilk actually possess much in the way of scientific credentials. But I haven’t altogether given up hope that there might be some people out there who, while identifying with the ‘ecomodernist’ taste for ‘modernization’, are nevertheless capable of seeing that there may be some other worthwhile ways to organise life, and some complexities in the science that admit to a scintilla of debate. So my ‘ecomodernist challenge’ to anyone prepared to take it is to subject my two recent essays on ecomodernism to constructive criticism of their specific contentions (for example, my points about farming style and biodiversity above) rather than blanket dismissal by recourse to one-word pejoratives. I’d like to think that hardline ‘ecomodernists’ like Strouts or Shellenberger might take up the challenge, but I’m not holding my breath. I think there’s a nasty, anti-peasant, encloser ideology lurking within their putative concern for the rural poor, which can only be kept hidden by avoiding detailed debate and sticking to a techno-utopian script of nuclear power, GMOs etc which is sketched only in the broadest possible terms. In the absence of such a debate, I think I can best respond to the blandishments of the ‘ecomodernists’ with the silent humour of my scythe. And perhaps also longer-term by trying to articulate an egalitarian, internationalist agrarian populism fit for present times.

Daniel Nugent wrote “There is an empiricist argument against the proposition that the peasantry is doomed, namely that after all these years they just won’t go away. It is also possible, however, to make a positive argument, the ideological argument that they refuse to go away. Their persistence is an example of a development and formation parallel in space and time, if not oriented toward the same ends, to that of the state”2.

Nugent’s emphasis on the state is salutary, because any type of contemporary politics has to develop an ideological position with respect to it. Shellenberger wrote that his ecomodernist program isn’t neoliberal because it identifies a role for the state, suggesting a grave misunderstanding of the contemporary relationship between market economics and state-building. The ‘ecomodernists’ seem to believe – probably sincerely, but I think misguidedly, and in the face of much evidence to the contrary – that ever-greater incorporation into this grand statist politics will bring ever greater benefits to all the world’s people. Those of us who think otherwise need to articulate a different vision of a post-capitalist state. As one commenter on my essay sagely wrote “Rebutting bullshit is fun, but we got work to do”. Quite so. So now I need to go and mow the grass, and I also need to develop an agrarian populist theory of late capitalist state transformation. Bottom line: this post is another memo to self: get to work, Chris, get to work, by scythe or by keyboard, get yourself to work…


  1. Nugent, D. (1993) Spent Cartridges of Revolution: An Anthropological History of Namiquipa, Chihuahua, University of Chicago Press, p.98.
  1. Ibid. p.165.

Chris Smaje

After studying then teaching and researching in social science and policy, I became a small-scale commercial veg grower in 2007. Nowadays, when I’m not writing about the need to design low-impact local food systems before they’re foisted on us by default, I spend my time as an aspiring woodsman, stockman, gardener and peasant on the small farm I help to run in Somerset, southwest England Though smallholding, small-scale farming, peasant farming, agrarianism – call it what you will – has had many epitaphs written for it over the years, I think it’s the most likely way for humanity to see itself through the numerous crises we currently face in both the Global North and South. In my writing and blogging I attempt to explain why. The posts are sometimes practical but mostly political, as I try to wrestle with how to make the world a more welcoming place for the smallholder. Chris is the author of A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth, and most recently, Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future: The Case for an Ecological Food System and Against Manufactured Foods.

Tags: agroecology, ecomodernism