City of the dead, part two

July 11, 2022

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.

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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.

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: agrarian localism, Building resilient food and farming systems, ruralization, small farm future