Food & Water

From religion to science, and back

September 7, 2022

Time to move on in this blog cycle about my book A Small Farm Future,with a post about the last chapter in Part III – Chapter 16, ‘From religion to science (and back)’. If, however, you’re bored of reading what I have to say about a small farm future, you can listen to what I have to say about it instead. A couple of interviews have recently landed here and here, although one of them was recorded quite some time ago. A change is as good as a rest, they say.

Anyway, back to Chapter 16 for those inclined to read on. The arguments in this chapter are quite intricate and I’m not going to summarize them here. But I’ll try to provide a few pointers.

I’ll begin with an observation I often make – it’s likely the future facing most of humanity will be a small farm future, whether we like it or not. This is because it’s hard to see climate, energy, water, soil and socioeconomic drivers ultimately pointing any other way. Certainly, not everything about such a future is appealing, especially for those of us accustomed to sitting high in the distribution of global wealth and other resources. So I willingly concede there are reasons not to like the idea of a small farm future. But there are also reasons to like it, and the inability of so many people nowadays to appreciate this speaks to the very problems in contemporary culture that are driving us haplessly to that outcome. The inability relates in part to ways of thinking about science, religion, ideology and status, and these are the subjects of Chapter 16.

Here’s a typical modern story we tell ourselves about these issues:

“In the past, people were subject to traditional forms of political and religious authority. They had little knowledge of science, and therefore little instrumental control of their environment, so they suffered. They subscribed to various superstitions and religious dogmas. But the secular revolution of modern thought swept away traditional authority, replacing it with modern popular democracy that at last put ordinary people in charge of politics. It also replaced religious and superstitious thinking with a scientific understanding of the natural world that gave humanity much more instrumental control over it and hence a better standard of living. The challenge now is to further develop scientific and technical knowledge to solve the problems of the present age, and to spread greater wellbeing to all humanity and, hopefully, to other organisms too.”

In my opinion, this narrative is wrong in almost every important detail. I’ve written at some length on this blog (and more summarily in Chapter 16 and elsewhere in my book) about why that is, and I won’t repeat that here. The main point I want to make for now is that the secular revolution of modern thought did not sweep away traditional political and religious frameworks. It merely transformed them, sometimes in ways that have proved less intellectually sophisticated and more socially pathological than the originals. It brings to mind William Davies’s comment that I mentioned in my previous post:

“The claim that modern societies are constantly on the threshold of some great change that will liberate them from the past turns out itself to be a historical relic, forged in a particular time and place, that continues to constrain our sense of chronology.”

One aspect of this constraint is a tendency to think that our modern world of mass consumer goods is just a natural consequence of the inherent human desire for ease and comfort. Even so uncompromisng a critic of modernist culture as Paul Kingsnorth embraces this view in his fine recent essay, ‘Life versus the machine’:

“humans like ease, material comfort, entertainment, and conformity, and they do not like anyone who threatens to take these things away.”

That may hold true as a general nostrum, but I think it falls short as an explanation of how humanity has got into its present predicaments. Which is just as well, because otherwise we’d be even more lost in the darkness of an irredeemable human nature than I believe is the case. An alternative line of argument I pursue in Chapter 16 is that our present world of mass commodities has less to do with ease and comfort than with a fruitless pursuit of particular kinds of social status that, if they weren’t pathological at their inception, have long since become so. I fear that we’re trapped pretty deeply in this dysfunctional status game. But the good news is that it’s a cultural affliction, and human cultures can change.

So I disagree with widely-aired views of the sort that contemporary capitalist society is about the pursuit of comfort, ease or happiness, or that people aren’t prepared to ‘sacrifice’ for the sake of future generations or a livable planet. I’m not convinced the contemporary pursuit of happiness actually makes many people happy, and there are numerous ways in which people are manifestly prepared to sacrifice a lot, including their own lives, for their cultural goals. (Maybe it’s worth mentioning in this connection that the literal meaning of sacrifice is to ‘make sacred’). The real issue is how we construct those goals and cue our responses to them.

There are many dimensions to this. One of them relates to that point about happiness: the secular revolt of the modern rejected older ideas that one’s life should be moulded around collective virtues, replacing it often enough with strongly individualist notions of liberty or happiness, which paradoxically seem to have made people less happy, and perhaps less free. Another dimension relates to abundance. While the capitalist world of goods furnishes many things to a previously unimaginable degree, it also creates scarcities in things that were once more abundant, and threatens potentially catastrophic material scarcities in the longer term.

I explore these issues in Chapter 16 via a distinction between ascetic and libidinous forms of being or status. All societies, including modern capitalist ones, invoke these two forms. When people describe the (libidinous) ease and comfort of modern society, they too easily forget not only the misery of the many people toiling away to provide it for the fortunate minority, but also the extent to which most people even in that fortunate minority themselves are entrapped in an ascetic logic of labour discipline and productivity increase.

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To wrest renewable livelihoods and a livable planet from this disorder, I think it’s necessary to come up with different ways of construing status. In Chapter 16, reprising a post I wrote about this a while ago, I suggest that most premodern agrarian societies invoked a small set of distinctive social personalities, who each have a different status or exchange strategy. In most basic outline, these are religious ascetics who receive almost nothing from others and give away what they have, warriors who both give to and take from others, independent householders who neither give nor take, dependents who take but don’t give and various categories of outlaw and monster beyond everyday society.

No doubt there’s a lot more that needs saying about this to make it come alive in respect of present global issues, but I don’t think I’m going to say it here – unless it emerges in the comments and discussion. Some of the necessary context is in my book chapter. And maybe I’ll say more in a future post. I certainly think status strategies and social personae are an important key to understanding present problems. In Chapter 16, I argue that the putative independent householder of modern mass consumerism is often implicitly represented heroically as a kind of warrior who gives and receives, but in truth is more of a dependent who receives but does not give. What’s needed to create renewable livelihoods long-term is many more in the way of genuine householders, in other words relatively autonomous self-provisioning farmers, who typically neither give nor take, but engage in more balanced everyday modalities of the ascetic and the libidinous, of fasting and feasting, of work and play, than we manage in contemporary consumer society.

Another aspect of this I examine in Chapter 16 is science, which I suggest is a modern iteration of an older ascetic value – a practice of self-critical humility and status abnegation in pursuit of transcendent knowledge. Unfortunately, this day-to-day practice of science has been turned into a modern ideology of scientism, which is more or less the opposite – a hubristic metaphysics of human progress that does little except offer empty celebration of our godlike mastery, and find new ways of enriching the few at long-term ecological expense.

No doubt this perversion of science into scientism has its premodern parallels in the perversion of spiritual enquiry into the worldly status rankings sometimes associated with churches, state religious cults and the like. I doubt the contemporary state religious cult of scientism will end well. Like most state cults, I suspect it will collapse alongside the contemporary political institutions enabling it. I just hope that science will survive the collapse of scientism.

It’s tempting to call for a reformation of the worldly church of scientism, but no doubt the historical resonances are wrong. In terms of religious parallels, the Reformation of the Catholic Church did not put an end to worldly status rankings or state religious cults, and an interesting aspect of the Catholic Church is that although it was a state religious cult, it was never only that, and it has a more expansive aspect that could never be entirely captured by the state. Perhaps that’s true of most churches and religions. Of science too. The challenge is to unleash these spirits of enquiry and autonomy from the realm of blank collective control which, nowadays, is bound up in state-backed corporatism and narratives of human progress.

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: religion, religion of progress, scientism, small farm future