A Small Farm FutureA Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth By Chris Smaje
Chelsea Green Publishing
October 2020

The book is a valuable contribution to thinking about the situation we are in and the path to a sustainable future. I want to reinforce some aspects and extend some others.

I think the case for Chris’s vision is stronger than he presents, both with respect to the need to scrap the present system and the viability of the general alternative he discusses. The early section on factors contributing to the current global crisis could have been more strident about the grossly unsustainable and unjust nature of the present consumer-capitalist system. He notes here and there (especially p. 257) that it might not be possible for it to save itself. I have argued at length that it is now incapable of doing that and we are in for a descent into a time of mega troubles that at least will drain this swamp although it might finish us off entirely.  The hope has to be that we go into a Goldilocks depression, not too savage as to destroy the capacity to build the new but severe enough to jolt people into realising that the current system has to be scrapped and that there is a much better way. (TSW: Transition theory.)

That way is of course a small farm future although its focal point must be the small town rather than the small farm. It must be primarily about small highly self-sufficient and self-governing local communities running their local economies in largely collectivist ways. Chris says a couple of times that he does not think there is one ideal kind of society (e.g., p. 81, and on p. 208, “There isn’t any single optimal settlement pattern for humanity.”)

I would argue strongly that there is, and that there is no choice about this, and that we will be driven to it whether we like it or not.  Of course there could be considerable diversity within the general model I argue for, (e.g., some small cities), but my claim is that the only way the resource and ecological impacts can be reduced to sustainable levels is if most of us eventually shift to small towns drawing most of the resources they need for frugal abundance from nearby landscapes. Again I disagree with Chris’s view that a viable alternative won’t be simple. (p. 81.); in my view the basic principles and arrangements it must have are relatively few and simple, and easily established if that’s what we want to do.

And in fact I disagree with his view that , “The truth is  that no utopia is going to be everyone’s cup of tea.”  87. I believe that it is not that difficult to envisage a Small Town Future that everyone would experience as pretty good. The goal of course includes provision for learning and adjusting as we go, developing better ways of making decisions, settling disagreements, making sure everyone enjoys a high quality of life.

Here is an indication of why I am prepared to be so dogmatic about this. Firstly, even most good green people do not grasp just how grossly unsustainable consumer-capitalist society is. There is a powerful numerical case that if by 2050 all the world’s people had risen to live as we in rich countries would then be living, given 3% p.a. growth, then resource and environmental impacts would be around 10 times their present levels, and approaching 20 times the levels the World Wildlife Fund  estimates would be sustainable. (2019.) The belief that this will be made possible by technical advances which will “decouple” GDP growth from resource demand is contradicted by a massive literature.  (Chris notes this, p. 84, but could make more fuss about it; it’s the standard rationale trotted out for resisting degrowth.) Thus there is no option but to accept that there must be massive degrowth down to per capita resource levels that are around one-tenth or less of present rich world levels. There is only one way to do this while ensuring a good quality of life for all. It cannot be done unless we abandon the present commitment to energy-intensive, industrialised, urbanised, globalised, travel and trade and tourism ridden, complex, financialised, growth and market obsessed extractivist systems… and above all the obsession with affluent lifestyles.

Our study of egg supply (Trainer, Malik and Lenzen, 2019) shows why simpler lifestyles and systems are the only way. We analysed the resource and energy costs of the typical supermarket supply path and those of supply via backyard and co-operative poultry keeping. The former path involves vast global networks involving fishing fleets, trucks and ships, fertilizer factories, agribusiness feed production, soil depletion and damage, poultry feed factories, chemicals factories, logistics, personnel departments, insurance and advertising and marketing industries, packaging waste, bored workers, car travel to the supermarkets, “waste” removal industries getting rid of poultry manure that cannot go to the soils which produced the food, computers and expensive personnel with degrees sitting at computers.

But the local path involves hardly any of this. We found that its costs per egg was around 1-2% of the supermarket egg.

And in addition consider the benefits of the local way, such as enabling the chickens to get much of their feed from free ranging in the orchards and gardens cleaning up pests, the occasional meat for the kitchen and feathers for pillows, and manures that go by bucket to methane digesters and compost heaps thus eliminating the need for artificial fertilizers.

This is an example of the way many of the things we would need for a good life in a sustainable society would (have to) be provided. That is, from small local firms and farms using local inputs, much voluntary labour, and simple technologies. The machinery and infrastructures are at the level of buckets, shovels, hand tools, and mud brick chicken sheds, the labour is free and largely spontaneous or rostered and might better be classified as community-bonding leisure activity. Much of our clothing, preserves, footwear, furniture, housing, repairs, and maintenance of public facilities, including parks and roads, could be organised in similar ways, especially using community working bees.

Only in local communities can there be the smallness of scale, proximity and collective organisation that enables these dramatic reductions in inputs and impacts. (Chris notes the importance of proximity, p. 165.)

Chris’s small farms are of course a crucial element in this vision. There’s not much that’s more important than food and his numbers show that a local supply system could easily provide for us. In fact I think his analysis is significantly too pessimistic, partly because he (wisely) makes very cautious assumptions.  I came to more optimistic conclusions in my study of how my local outer-Sydney suburb could be restructured (Remaking settlements, Trainer 2019.) Some things I explored which Chris doesn’t include were the digging up of many little-used roads, turning petrol stations into community workshops, and converting other space there to gardens, orchards, woodlots etc. There could be a fishing industry based on small tanks, recycling some of the food “wastes”. If Chris had included these, his dependence on fishermen could have been reduced. I could have added roof top gardening and multi-cropping. I assumed a major contribution from intensive home gardening and commons (as Chris does) and community committees and working bees (which Chris doesn’t include.)

I found that per capita food consumption might largely be provided from within the existing suburb, with relatively small amounts of gain and dairy imported, mainly from nearby small farms.  Chris draws attention to the importance of local rough lands, for instance for grazing, timber, honey and firewood; including this element would have improved my conclusions.

Neither Chris nor I attempted to estimate the savings these practices would make to the national economy; virtually no transport, fertilizer, waste removal, packaging, marketing etc costs for food supply, with many knock-on savings , such as fewer truck collisions, less road repair, fuel use, soil damage…

The small farm is obviously a crucial element in this vision but my focus centres on the town, with small farms and firms as components of it.  This widens the discussion a great deal, to centre on the notion of a highly self-sufficient economy under the control of the town as distinct from determined by “market forces” and the whims of capital, and to include the thoroughly participatory form of town government without which this vision is not viable. Town assemblies, referenda, committees and working bees would do the thinking, planning, debating and deciding on what is to be done. And their supreme principle would (have to be) what is best for the town…because all would realise that their good food and windmills and leisure-rich environment and community support networks would not work well unless there was a high level of concern for the public good.

It is absolutely essential that the small communities take deliberate collective responsibility for determining their own fate. Chris at times gives the impression that the transition will somehow arise as the crises deepen and some start to resort to local ways out of necessity, and that individual initiative will be the causal factor, e.g., when people opt one by one to get into small farming.  I see the supremely important factor as communities coming to realise that they must get together to take control over their situation, to work out procedures for analysing their problems, what the town needs, what co-ops and committees and study groups need to be set up, and then to collectively get stuck into doing these things. This involves assisting private ventures the town needs, the small bakery and shoe repair and clothing recycling firms, but more important is setting up the publicly owned and run cooperative operations. If there are unemployed and homeless people, then organise ways of enabling them to build humble mud brick housing, and set up a town unemployment elimination agency, etc.  This is identifying the things that the profit-driven-economy neglects and creating a needs-driven-economy to get them done. A marvellous example is seen in the Catalan Integral Cooperative involving thousands of people in vital activities, with fierce opposition to letting the state or the market play any role.

This alternative way is no threat to high tech medicine, universities, professional training, and socially-useful R and D. Most of us could be artisan craftspeople (as Chris sees) and hobby-producers and Jacks-of-all-trades needing to work for money only a couple of days a week. (Good to see Chris questioning the mindlessness of valuing “hard work”, just what capitalism wants you to do.) But we’d still need (some) experts and specialists, and this is easily provided for by retaining a high-tech sector with its training requirements. It would be far smaller than at present, as would be the industrial sector which provides the towns with the few basic items they need, such as some light steel, plastics, cement, railway equipment. So I disagree strongly with Chris when he says “I doubt …that a small scale farmer society would have the capacity to produce the computer on which I am writing these words.” (p. 202.) Again I think this shows that the focus of our thinking should not be the small farm but the sustainable form of settlement, and that would be about small towns surrounded by small farms all within regional economies containing things like fridge and radio factories, all within national economies containing (a few) big industries such as steel and cement and poly-pipe and a good railway system. There’s no problem in providing for very high-tech medical facilities and R and D etc. in socially desirable areas. (In my view IT has a negligible role to play. It’s obviously valuable in those fields, and maybe for keeping the farm records, but more or less irrelevant for entertainment purposes; plenty to do around the town and farm, and the leisure committee organises lots of events.) For detailed discussions of The Simpler Way see TSW: The Alternative Society, and TSW: The Way It could Be.)

So I see Chris as having elaborated on the farm sector within the kind of society that we must go to if we are to achieve a sustainable and just world. His work reinforces the claim that the local vision is not just viable but the only way to save the planet, and indeed would be a liberation from the consumer-capitalist trap.  The quality of life in communities of the kind being advocated is higher than national averages. (Lockyer 2017, Grinde, 2017.)

I also think Chris is too pessimistic regarding the difficulties a small future might involve. These include males dominating within the family farm, securing land for small farms, tribalism and prejudice arising within small communities, the rise of a Kulak class of rich farmers, and the emergence of local big men (pp. 169, 253.). On these issues and others within the book Chris proceeds as if the new ways are to be introduced into present society and culture.  But as I see it they will be established in the very different conditions generated by the deterioration of consumer-capitalist society, and these will sweep away the problems Chris foresees. If we are lucky, if it’s a Goldilocks depression, and if enough of us see the sense of localism, then there will be a very strong incentive to make towns work well…because if they don’t we will be very sorry.  This will see the end of a culture driven by individualistic, competitive acquisitiveness.  It will focus minds wonderfully on the crucial importance of responsible citizens cooperating to do what is best for everyone in the town. People will realise that their welfare will not depend on their individual property or monetary wealth or status or charisma or power, but on whether or not their town thrives. They will know that their quality of life depends on how well they maintain their biological, physical and social machinery, meaning that if it looks like a big man or a Kulak class is starting to emerge then conscientious and vigilant citizens will take the necessary steps via the constant informal discussion, the committees and town assemblies. They would have the sense to deal with problems in nice win-win ways that minimise discontent and maintain town cohesion and morale.  The situation will also mean that landlords going bankrupt as global agribusiness systems fail will be eager to sell or lease land to small farmers. And it will mean that women’s place will be seen to be in the kitchen …right beside the men.

As Murray Bookchin stressed, these conditions require and produce responsible and sensible citizens. When people have to make the decisions that determine their collective welfare they realise they must think carefully and consider the perspective of the other and the public good. Bookchin noted the educative force of participatory democracy. Thus I don’t share the worry Chris expresses about whether a small farm future might endanger democracy. The vision I have sketched above cannot function without thoroughly participatory (not representative) democracy, and it reinforces it constantly.

He is also surely correct in thinking that the situation will sweep away lots of petty concerns, along with the mess of trivial preoccupations stupefying the consumer mind today, the obsession with celebrities, movies, IT, status, thrills and jet-away leisure. The thriving town landscape will be full of interesting friends, activities, experts, working bees, committee work, hobbies.

Chris rightly sees that as difficulties intensify the power and role of the state and centralised agencies will fade. (p 242.)  In the early stages the state will surely side with the capitalist class and its lackeys because they only way governments know how to “get the economy going again” is by assisting business. They will increasingly neglect the regions and the precariat and this will increase our freedom to do our own thing. As I see it, late in the revolution this will lead to transfer of power to the grassroots, via the town assemblies, leaving the state as a servant which provides what the towns need. (For details see TSW: Transition theory.)

Chris also makes the crucial but insufficiently recognised point that what is required is an immense change in culture. There is no possibility of achieving a good society if most people remain obsessed with the competitive, individualistic pursuit of property and affluence. This is largely due to the insecurity capitalist society inflicts on us but it is so deeply entrenched that only the coming debacle can get them to give it up. Chris recognises the high probability that the task is too big and collapse is around the corner (e.g., p. 81) but he doesn’t go into the way it will enable our revolution, if we are undeservedly lucky.

I think Chris is right about some core aspects of the transition process and the issue of strategy, but much more could be said in this area. Yes, change in the direction of a radically new kind of society can only emerge via a period of severe crisis, which will have a good chance of leading to fascism and/or warlords. (p. 226.) My firm view is that this society is incapable of solving its problems through rational discussion and existing institutions such as parliaments (… argued at length in TSW: Transition theory.) So I don’t think he is right to hold out some hope that political leaders might implement sensible green agendas (p. 231.) He realises it is much less likely “…that the governments of the world will collectively engineer a wrenching change of course to the capitalist juggernaut…”

Just by the way, how indeed are we going to get rid of the juggernaut?  Socialists have been wearing themselves out on this task for a couple of centuries, with little to show for it.  No problem. Capitalism is well into the process of getting rid of itself. As Marx foresaw, its built-in contradictions are leading it to self-destruct, especially through generating the levels of inequality which are reducing demand and stacking up an enormous debt bubble, and through the resulting fury of the increasing numbers it dumps into precariousness and exclusion. This is not to say that the process or the outcome will be pleasant.

As I see the chance of transition to where I want us to go is quite unlikely, but if we do make it will by small towns taking control of their fate, driven by necessity as the global situation deteriorates.  This will generate powerful demands on state and national governments to redirect policies and priorities to providing the things small towns and regions need, and in time this will lead to grass roots control of (greatly reduced) national government. Large numbers of people aware that their very survival depends on their local economies getting crucial basic inputs are going to force central agencies to enable this. (One key element is organising so that each town can produce a few of the items all towns need but can’t produce for themselves, such as fridges, to export into regional and national economies.) It seems plausible to me that this could quickly lead to government by the grass roots, via processes of federation and subsidiarity. For instance delegates from towns go to the big central meetings to thrash out possibilities, but take the proposals back down to town assemblies where the actual decisions are made.

This scenario sets up my main disagreement with Chris.  In a throwaway comment he says of his hoped-for transition path, “Unlike anarchism, it doesn’t believe that the people are inherently better off without any form of state.” ( p. 267.)  Firstly there is a wild variety of things that go under the label Anarchism but the one I am for does assume a kind of state. There are many things that will need central monitoring and coordination by experts and bureaucracies, such as railway and communications systems. What matters is where the power to control these lies, and the alternative sketched above insists that this can and must be at the grassroots level. Thus it enshrines the core Anarchist principle, avoidance of domination, via thoroughly participatory decision making. The Simpler Way is an Eco-Anarchist vision, not an Eco-socialist vision. (The difference is not trivial; see Eco-Socialism is not the Answer.)

And the other major thing the Anarchists get right is what they call “prefiguring”. What is most important for us to try to do here and now is to set up aspects of the alternative way, primarily as educational devices which help people in the mainstream to see that there are workable and attractive alternatives and to see the kinds of things they can do in their neighbourhoods. (For a detailed case see my article “Socialism is not the answer — It is Anarchism.”)

These differences in view over some points do not detract from the fact that Chris’s book has made a great contribution to getting these issues on the agenda, and especially for providing such a strong case for the feasibility of local small farm food supply.

Grinde, B., et al., (2017), “The Quality of life in intentional communities”, Social Indicators Research, March.

Lockyer, J., (2017),  “Community, commons, and De-growth at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage”, Political Ecology, 24, 519-542.

Trainer, T., A. Malik and M. Lenzen, (2019), “A Comparison Between the Monetary, Resource and Energy Costs of the Conventional Industrial Supply Path and the “Simpler Way” Path for the Supply of Eggs”,  BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality, September.

World Wildlife Fund, (2019), The Living Planet Report, World Wildlife Fund and London Zoological Society, http://assets.panda.org/downloads/living_planet_report_2019.pdf

Photo: Hut with vegetable garden, Enga Province, Western Highlands, Papua New Guinea. By gailhampshire via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hut_with_vegetable_garden_(48889647148).jpg