In this post, I aim to pick up where I left off last time with my review of George Monbiot’s Regenesis, mostly in reference to its theme of urbanism (there’s also a bit of housekeeping and an apology at the end).
But first, since it’s kind of a propos, some brief remarks on the trip I took last week, which involved me bicycling from Frome to Chepstow and back, among other things for an enjoyable in-conversation session with eco-philosopher and activist Rupert Read at the Green Gathering (a recording of most of it is here).
Much of the southern part of my route followed leafy cycle tracks repurposed from disused railways, flanked by large arable fields. Then a ride through central Bristol, swerving to miss a strung-out drug user sprawling on the track, took me onto another leafy cycleway through the Avon Gorge – once a place of heavy industry and shipping, but now far too small for the modern incarnations of those trades.
I crossed the Avon on a bridge I shared with the M5 – the first of several motorways entwining my route. These roads feel calm enough when you’re inside a car, but coming suddenly upon them on my bicycle I was shocked every time by the volume of traffic, its furious speed and sound, and the concrete-intensive brutalism of all this inter-city hurry. A sign by the Prince of Wales Bridge later in my trip reported that 25 million vehicles cross it annually. That’s a lot of kinetic energy to pack into three miles of road.
There were Samaritans telephones on all the major bridges I crossed, with their melancholy signage – “Whatever you’re going through, you don’t have to face it alone”. Back by the Avon, the suburb on the other side of the M5 bridge seemed dilapidated. I swerved around Nos canisters, rode through underpasses scattered with fly-tipped garbage and emblazoned with sinister graffiti and then weaved my way through a giant industrial zone of landfill sites, warehousing, sewage works, construction sites and massive wind turbines.
So, a journey from bosky rural byways that don’t quite conceal their industrial cradling, through mostly salubrious city centres and then rougher suburbs housing their workaday servitors, to the new industrial zones that potentiate them, accompanied by the ever-present roar of vehicles and people moving at speed to sustain it all. And gangs, drugs, loneliness amidst multitudes and suicide. Of course, this is only one way of representing what George Monbiot calls the given distribution of the world’s population, but I dearly wish he and others would question its given-ness a little more sceptically, and weren’t so darned pleased about what they see. During my ride, even in the leafy rural parts, it sometimes felt as if the whole fabric of this corner of southwest England was a kind of dysfunctional, ecocidal, industrial machine, sustained by its rushing human functionaries, with only a thin green veneer here and there concealing it.
Anyway, back to George’s book. So far as I know, he hasn’t seriously engaged with critiques of it from the intellectually more thoughtful end of the spectrum, preferring to post online some of the more fetid threats he’s received, which elicit no small number of ‘Go get ‘em, George’ replies from supporters displaying considerable disdain for rural and agrarian life.
And so another skin-deep culture war, benefitting nobody, judders into life. The case for ruralism over urbanism as I see it is simply that the dynamics of climate, energy, water, soil and political economy are going to propel multitudes of people to the world’s farmable regions sooner or later. The question we should really be addressing globally, though regrettably we’re not, is how to manage that process in the most humane and least disruptive way.
One of the best criticisms of my argument for this agrarian localist future that came my way in the wake of my Regenesis review was that it would be energetically costly to establish it. This, I think, is true. But it’s also true of every other proposal to put humanity on a surer long-term footing. The great advantage of agrarian localism is that once its basic structures are established, its recurrent energy costs can be low. Whereas schemes to preserve the urban-industrial status quo invariably have high recurrent energy costs. This certainly applies to George Monbiot’s farm free future, as Steve showed in his calculations under my previous post.
It’s obvious, really, that a proposal to replace sprawling farmland spaces using free solar radiation to energize production with highly concentrated industrial spaces using electricity transformed from other energy inputs by other human industries probably isn’t going to stack up well energetically. George’s vision of manufactured food, like many other ecomodernist schemes, assumes there will be abundant and cheap clean energy at humanity’s command in the future.
It seems to me more likely that concentrated energy will be scarce and pricey compared to the fossil fuelled bonanza experienced by present generations, and it will make no sense to waste it producing food when free solar energy metabolized by plants can do the job. The diffuseness of this solar energy will be a driving force of human biogeography in the future. Today’s world is one of urban concentration built on a legacy of mining energetic stocks. Tomorrow’s will be mostly one of rural de-concentration oriented to skimming renewable energetic flows.
Presently, there is no broad-based politics geared to this emerging reality, certainly in the richer parts of the world with the longest histories of stock-mining and capital-concentration such as southern England. We’re still stuck with the exhausted legacies of modernist politics, with their emphasis on market signals, nationalist symbols or class struggle as the key to redemption. All of these fix their eyes too firmly on capital cities, government machineries, political centralization and hurried inter-city journeys to build the economy. All of them take as a given the centrifugal relationship between countryside and city that I discuss in Chapter 15 of my book, where the countryside works as a basically inferior servitor to the city, albeit dotted with pleasant islands of retreat for the wealthy who’ve made their money in the latter.
As I’ve already said, I think ‘simple energetics’ or simple biogeography are going to redistribute populations away from urban areas and towards rural ones in the future. In England, the countryside will no longer be largely the preserve of the rich. Like it or not, people of many kinds will go to it to seek prosperity. This creates the potential for people to forge local agrarian autonomies and genuinely agroecological culture. But that’s not a done deal just because of the maths of a more populated countryside. It’s possible that cities and their elites will retain their centrifugal pull.
To prevent that happening requires politics of a kind we don’t yet have – a politics where cities serve the countryside and its inhabitants at least as much as they’re served by them. I indicate this diagrammatically on page 210 of A Small Farm Future (Figure 15.1) and discuss it in the last part of Chapter 15 in terms of rural disruptors to the centrifugal pull of the city – disruptors that build local political and economic autonomy, that extricate themselves as far as possible, which means not totally, from long-distance trade and geopolitically-centred bureaucratic rule.
Since, as I’ve said, there isn’t a mass politics around this at present, I’m currently quite supportive of many kinds of initiative where people put themselves in the disruptor role. I’m supportive of rich people buying houses in the country with big gardens, growing their own vegetables and joining community organisations. I’m supportive of impoverished van dwellers parking up in laybys and trying to minimize their housing costs. I’m supportive of farm shops, independent town councils, guerilla gardening, allotment associations, people buying small plots of farmland or woodland and living in caravans on them while they start market gardens or charcoal businesses, people occupying (considerately) disused or misused land, people trespassing on aristocratic estates to (sustainably) pick edible mushrooms, wealthy smallholders, impoverished peasants, wily farmers and so on and so on.
Eventually, all of this will have to coalesce into a new politics of local autonomy and access to land, which I think will have to be a populist politics of alliance. We’ll get onto that in more detail when I move to discussing the final part of my book in this blog cycle. But just as George’s gloop factories require a substrate or a feedstock in order to ferment their new kinds of food, so we require a substrate or a feedstock in order to ferment new kinds of agrarian localist politics. It’s from the low base of our present politics and of people trying to get by in the countryside that we need to start creating it.
There are genuine grounds to worry that the outcomes of this local political brokerage won’t always be congenial. Perhaps they’re balanced by the equally genuine grounds to worry that centralized national politics no longer offers that certainty either. The liberal-democratic firmament of late 20th century politics has almost gone now. It seems likely that, locally, nationally or globally, nobody will be coming to save us – unless there’s some other iteration of the centralized state that I’ve not foreseen to safeguard against the potential tyranny of localism, without becoming a tyranny itself?
Even so, I think it’s worth taking seriously the downsides of a new politics geared around rural disruptors. At the session I did with Rupert Read, somebody raised the issue of the conformism of rural society and the greater possibilities for finding one’s tribe in urban settings, particularly for people with spiritualities, sexualities or other traits at variance with majority assumptions in conservative countrysides. That’s sometimes been true in the past, though it remains a story of the future that’s yet to be written. But instead of further belabouring my take on this point, I’d be interested to see what other people make of it in the comments below (note that to be sure of getting my attention, comments should be posted under the relevant post at Small Farm Future and not at other sites where this post may be syndicated). I’ll try to formulate some further thoughts in the light of anything that comes back to me.
Finally, and talking of posting comments, I recently noticed there were a few comments that had been sitting in the moderation queue undetected by me – some from long established commenters, and one from a new commenter. Please accept my apologies for the oversight. If you do post a comment that doesn’t appear, feel free to nudge me about it via the Contact Form. On the rare occasions when I actively choose not to publish a comment it will be for a reason, and I will contact you to explain what that reason is. So if you post a comment that doesn’t appear and you don’t hear from me, it’s best to assume simple incompetence on my part and act accordingly (it’s probably best to assume simple incompetence on my part in a wide variety of other circumstances, but let us not digress at this late stage in the post). Also, finally, if you include more than one hyperlink in a comment it will automatically be held for moderation as an anti-spam measure. So reference judiciously…