Beyond rescue ecomodernism: the case for agrarian localism restated

August 16, 2022

I’d been planning to move on from my present focus on ruralism and urbanism, but since George Monbiot briefly broke cover to launch some fusillades at me on Twitter last week I’m going to ruminate a bit more on the issue in the light of his intervention. I mostly want to focus on the bigger issues that our little war of words raises, rather than the war itself. But a brief personal backstory seems relevant1.

I’ve long argued that the likeliest long-term future for humanity in the face of climate, energy, water, soil and political-economic realities will involve a turn to low-energy, small-scale agrarianism geared to local material needs. This future could be quite congenial or incredibly grim, depending on how it manifests. In my opinion, the sooner humanity takes active steps to manifest it positively rather than ignoring it so it happens by default the more congenial it’s likely to be. I’ve been writing about this in books, articles and – for more than 10 years now – on this blog, which is called Small Farm Future. I haven’t exactly been hiding the nature of my arguments.

When I wrote a critique of the Ecomodernist Manifesto in 2015, George enthusiastically embraced it and wrote an article in The Guardian taking on the ecomodernists at the Breakthrough Institute. Among other things, his article made the case for small-scale local agrarianism and invoked the inverse farm size-productivity relationship as a land-sparing argument for it, which in my opinion was a worthwhile avenue to explore. As I mentioned in a recent post, he also endorsed Simon Fairlie’s case for low-energy agrarian localism.

In the years since, he’s drifted ever closer to an anti-agrarian, anti-rural, pro-urban, high-energy, techno-fix ecomodernism, and his recent book about the food system, Regenesis, is a logical culmination of that. Last week he called the case for a small farm future associated with the likes of me and Fairlie “the most self-indulgent proposal I’ve ever seen”. I’m not too sure why he thinks it’s self-indulgent, but there we are. Presumably, he must feel his own erstwhile embrace of local agrarianism was a self-indulgent mistake and he’s now called himself to order with his case for high-energy urban-industrial society.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with people changing their minds. But Monbiot hasn’t to my knowledge fully explained why he now repudiates low-energy agrarian localism. His occasional comments about it in Regenesis amount to little more than caricature, and the ‘self-indulgent’ remark is scarcely clarifying. Since he won’t debate further with me, I can only conjecture what’s going on. I surely must have touched a nerve to get such an aggressive response, and I wonder what’s behind that. In his Twitter comments, Monbiot wrote of me,

when we face real, existential crises that demand urgent attention, you want instead to engineer the biggest human relocation in history …. I’ve tried to address two great and real predicaments as empirically as possible. You propose pointlessly to turn the planet’s productive surface into a giant suburb, while making no attempt to count the environmental costs. Meaning: even you don’t take your vision seriously

Well, it’s true that I refuse to get into environmental cost accounting within his own frame of reference, because if you ask silly questions of the form “Globally, is farming good or bad for nature?” you’re going to get silly answers, however ‘empirical’ they are. Meaning, in other words, that I can’t really take his vision seriously. As to mine – well, I don’t hold out an awful lot of hope that most people in the future will experience a congenial small farm future. But I do think such a future is more likely in the long term, more worth aiming for, and more conducive to the wellbeing of humans and wildlife than the implausible techno-fix he favours. I aim to do some environmental cost accounting on that latter point, on my own terms, in due course.

I’ll say a little more about a small farm future later in this post, and explain why my proposal is not, in fact, “pointlessly to turn the planet’s productive surface into a giant suburb”. It’ll require a certain amount of self-restraint on my part to explain patiently, in the face of such low blows from a celebrated writer, why a small farm future is so very obviously different from a giant suburb future. But I’ll try.

Meanwhile, I’m still puzzling over Monbiot’s silent conversion to ecomodernism. As I’ve said elsewhere, the most generous spin I can put on it is that perhaps he thinks present predicaments are too big and too urgent for us to be messing around with proposals for ruralization, low energy agrarian localism and other such orientations to long-term cultural change.

OK, I get that. Peter Harper has said much the same to me, using the metaphor of a patient in cardiac arrest who at that moment needs their doctor to get to work with the defibrillator rather than pausing to lecture about long-term eating or smoking habits. It’s not a bad metaphor – although there’s a counter-argument I learned when I did a master’s degree in health policy long ago. Many of my fellow students were doctors from Global South countries who were utterly disillusioned by their work in patching people up day after day while the wider forces that made them ill in the first place only seemed to lengthen the queue for treatment. They were doing the degree because they wanted to get out of firefighting mode and gain a wider view of the forces underlying the sickness they were treating in the hope they could make more effective systemic interventions.

Our modern culture is good at heroic, high-tech mitigation of specific and immediate acute problems. It’s not very good at long-term, low-tech cultural adaptation that mitigates against these specific and immediate acute problems from arising. Rescue ecomodernism may be all well and good, but as well as rescuing people it needs to stop the flow of people needing rescue. In my view, anyone who plays the rescue ecomodernism card needs to provide a damn good account of how to step off the rescue treadmill and start building long-term, low-tech adaptation.

Monbiot doesn’t do that in his book, and nor do any of the other ecomodernists I’ve read. Instead, they basically deny that long-term, low-tech adaptation is necessary by embracing a sense of endless upward progress in humanity’s ability to deal with acute problems. In doing so, they draw on the mother myth of modernism, the notion that there is some inexorable force driving humanity to improvement, as a magician draws a rabbit from a hat. This myth has various specific manifestations: technological salvation, market discipline, nationalist progress, government dirigisme, class struggle. Monbiot’s Regenesis invokes most of them, explicitly or otherwise.

I acknowledge that all these forces do move societies. But I reject the notion that they move them forward or upward. In my view, historical metaphors of spatial progress in the passage of history are invariably problematic. One respondent to my Twitter engagement with Monbiot wrote “if you think you can unwind the industrial revolution and subsequent urbanisation then you are truly insane. We cannot and will not ever go back to being a rural, agrarian society living off the local land”. But who said anything about ‘unwinding’ or ‘going back’? And we never stopped being an agrarian society living off ‘local land’. It’s just that few of us now know where that local land is. We ought to.

Given the present world historical moment of profound crisis that the modernist myth of progress has generated and cannot tackle, it surprises me how powerfully it still animates almost all mainstream responses to the crisis. Well, we humans do like to retreat to our old familiar stories. In a fine recent essay, sociologist William Davies complains that “sociology was from the outset over-invested in a lofty vision of modernity, which can in retrospect appear deeply parochial”. Part of this lofty vision is the “claim that modern societies are constantly on the threshold of some great change that will liberate them from the past”, a claim that “turns out itself to be a historical relic, forged in a particular time and place, that continues to constrain our sense of chronology”. Instead of a lofty vision of modernity, Davies offers the grubbier mechanics of imperialism and imperial rivalry as a historical constant predating, animating and most likely outlasting modernity2.

I don’t think the failing applies only to sociology. You can fit the entire corpus of ecomodernism, including Monbiot’s Regenesis, into that parochial modernist sense of liberation from the past. Part of it is a disdain for agrarianism and for farmers and farming, especially low-input, locally oriented ones, who are implicitly identified with a deprecated past. It’s a theme that Monbiot shares with other modernist critics of mine like Kai Heron and Alex Heffron.

This is relevant to Monbiot’s commitment to the notion that modern urbanism is a ‘mathematical reality’ and his ‘biggest relocation in human history’ and ‘giant suburb’ remarks. It’s as if human history has passed through a ratchet or a non-return valve that makes ruralization impossible, whatever food, energy, water or socio-political circumstances might otherwise recommend it. But no such mechanism exists, except in the parochial modernist mind.

When it comes to big relocations, I guess this must be why the ecomodernists say nothing about the enormous relocations involved in the urbanisations of recent times, driven by cheap energy, labour coercion, capitalist growthism, and lofty modernist hubris. This now leaves humanity with one almighty problem of unsustainable biogeography, which I’d argue is very much a ‘real, existential crisis’, and not just maths.

As to Monbiot’s ‘giant suburb’ remark, a suburb is basically a place where rich people go to enjoy their wealth in energetically and spatially profligate and inefficient ways. It’s therefore the antithesis of a smallholder society where people make local livelihoods in energetically and spatially efficient and frugal ways, while attending to the biophysical sustainability of their environs because they’re intimately engaged with it in the course of making their daily living. To me, this is anything but pointless.

In fact, it seems to me more likely that Monbiot’s own vision will devolve to suburban giantism. In Regenesis he paints a picture of urban societies disconnected from an encompassing natural ecology and unconstrained by energetic or economic limits, freeing them to ramify their urban form endlessly. It seems likely to me that such atomized and denatured high-energy industrial societies would bust through planetary boundaries even quicker than our present ones with their tenuous remaining links to ecological constraint.

I concede that the probably inevitable global ruralizations to come do pose enormous challenges. But I can’t help feeling they may actually be less challenging that the realization of Monbiot’s vision. For one thing, given that about 40% of the global population is currently rural, presumably George is going to want to relocate most of those people to the cities to make more room as he sees it for nature – just when city infrastructures are straining with climate change and energy, water and materials scarcities. A lot of that 40% are well-established, and in some cases well-armed, country dwellers who won’t wish to play along. So emptying the countryside won’t be easy.

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Deurbanization, on the other hand, runs more with the grain of human desires as city infrastructures flounder. And with the grain of creating a human ecology that’s renewable in the long term because it embeds livelihood-making in the cycles of the natural world, skimming its flows rather than mining its stocks, as would be necessary in a high-energy urban world. In many cases it may not even involve huge relocations, just a reorientation of small towns and cities to more populated hinterlands. What’s certain is that in the future people will move whenever they can towards prosperity, as they have in the past. And it seems probable that in the long-term prosperity will generally be found where people can grow food and fibre locally. As Jason Bradford puts it, ‘the future is rural’3.

Anyway, that’s the ground where I stand: convinced of the need for ruralization and an orderly turn to agrarian localism so that it doesn’t happen by default in a disorderly way; unconvinced by varieties of modernist magic that believe in inevitable or inexorable forms of progress, particularly towards high-energy urban futures; puzzled as to how to deal with what Monbiot rightly calls ‘real, existential crises that demand urgent attention’, but doubtful that the magic modernism he invokes can do so, and determined to face the reality of those crises without such comfort blankets.

I probably haven’t done as great a job here of skirting my war of words with George as I’d have liked. Oh well, I tried – you should have seen the first draft 🙂 I need to give a shout out here to Rupert Read for seeking common ground between us. Maybe that’s still possible. I don’t think I can align with George’s political sociology, but I could potentially align with his industrial food approach as an exercise in rescue ecomodernism. If rural folk weren’t pressed into being subordinate servitors to the city, primarily as food producers, there might be more room for them to serve humanity better by starting to develop renewable local agrarianisms. As discussed in my book A Small Farm Future, in truth I think this is more likely to happen as a result of declining urban-industrial power – of declining imperial power, as per William Davies – when people of necessity start building autonomies in the margins of declining empire. This also just might spare some land for the non-human organisms that Monbiot rightly wants to protect. I suspect post-imperialism will prove more truly ecological than eco-modernism. But I don’t think it’ll be easy.

The practical feasibility of Monbiot’s rescue ecomodernism depends on energy futures and the energetics of industrial food production. Whether it successfully protects wild organisms depends on various sociological and ecological factors. To be honest, I’m sceptical on both fronts but I haven’t yet looked in detail at these more technical aspects of his analysis, largely because I’ve wanted to focus on what I think is the probably more important issue of its questionable sociology. But I hope to look at these other two aspects in due course.


  1. You can follow most of the argument in this thread, and the comments below it: https://twitter.com/GreenRupertRead/status/1556926255387365377
  2. William Davies. 2022. Destination unknown. London Review of Books. Vol 44, No 11 (9 June).
  3. Jason Bradford. 2019. The Future is Rural. Post-Carbon Institute. Thanks to Andrew Sargent and Sean Domencic for comments informing this paragraph.

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, small farm future