At work in the ruins…

February 28, 2023

Time to fire up my blogging machine again – but let me know if you think the small farm future bot that Clem’s being trialling does a better job than me. If so, I’ll be able to save myself some time, close this site down and devote myself to another worthy enterprise that no doubt will also soon be obliterated by the march of the robots. At least until they run out of gas.

But for the time being I’ll press on with a few news items and a roadmap for this blog’s short-term future.

So, all being well my new book is due to be published at the end of June. And I haven’t even finished blogging my way through the old one. At least that gives me a deadline, because I don’t want to be juggling with two at the same time on here. So the main order of business for the next couple of months is to work my way fairly quickly through Part IV of A Small Farm Future – the political bit about how we make it happen and all that stuff.

Watch this space for more info on the new book.

On other matters, vegetables are making it into the UK news, or at least the lack of them is – apparently caused by a combination of the unseasonably low temperatures in Spain, where this country in its wisdom chooses to source so much of its supply, and high energy prices dissuading UK growers from producing heated tunnel crops. A double whammy, then, for that familiar stock-in-trade of the anti-localism argument so heart-sinkingly familiar to local UK growers: it’s better to import tomatoes from Spain than to grow them in heated tunnels in the UK. People who say this don’t have much clue as to what localism really involves, but maybe the present imbroglio might be the wakeup call they need. Localist Futures 101 – you don’t get to import tomatoes from Spain OR grow them in heated tunnels in the UK. Next.

Actually, not quite next – there’s more. While the weather has genuinely hampered Mediterranean growers, it seems that other European countries are doing OK with their veg supplies. So what additional factors are in play? Well, it’s hotly debated among experts and I’ll leave them to it, but basically the finger of suspicion points to over-extended, non-resilient supply chains, excessively low prices and Brexit. I’ve always thought that a long-term positive of Brexit might be a dawning realization that if you want to eat food locally you probably need to produce it locally, for the most part. What a fine thing it would be if we could learn that lesson through the minor privation of not being able to buy tomatoes in February. But I fear it’s going to take a graver crisis than that before the lesson hits home. And by then…

Next is an item that’s scarcely making it into the UK news – a crackdown on climate protestors, with one protestor jailed just for mentioning climate change in court as a reason for his actions, and many others spending months in jail on remand or for minor offences, with others heavily curfewed by electronic tags. I think the powers that be have played this pretty well in terms of their own self-serving agenda. When the protests were making waves and gaining press attention they treated protestors with kid gloves (slightly rough kid gloves in my case, but still kid gloves in the grand scheme of things), opted not to use many of the legal options already available to them to limit protest and claimed they needed to bring in new legislation to do so, which they duly did. Then, with public attention dwindling and a pliant media looking elsewhere (elements of the media that didn’t look elsewhere getting arrested alongside the protestors), they’ve come down hard on those still willing to protest.

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So, maybe a couple of straws in the wind in these items for how things might pan out – the shops emptying of food, and, if you’re minded to object, the jails filling with demonstrators. At least you get fed in jail, I guess. Though on the basis of my limited experience of His Majesty’s menus, I wouldn’t get too excited about that.

Talking of straw, a shout out here to Ernie Clothier, who’s sold me more than a bale or two over the last twenty years but sadly has recently shut up shop – a farm supply store of the old school, the like of which we won’t see again … unless … well, maybe unless we see a small farm future again. Enjoy your retirement, Ernie.

And finally to the title of my piece, a nod to Dougald Hine – co-founder of the Dark Mountain project and occasional contributor to this site. Congratulations to him on his new book of that title, which I’d thoroughly recommend – a sensible and intellectually subtle piece of thinking for present times.

There are two standout themes from his book that I’ll mention. First, a nicely drawn discussion of the weird cultural malaise that makes it impossible to have serious public discussions about the consequences of climate change, energy crisis and so on. I’ve felt this keenly in discussing my own book, where people seem at once both accepting of but also completely oblivious to the far-reaching implications of the changes now upon us. Kind of along the lines that, yes, it’s quite likely humanity will soon be extinct, but at the same time absolutely unacceptable that you can’t buy tomatoes in the supermarkets at this time of year. Dougald discusses this interestingly in ways that defy my abilities to summarize, but he touches on various themes I’ve written about here, and some that I haven’t but I’m glad he has. I’ve found his writing helpful in transcending the unilluminating doomer vs optimist framing, his title being a case in point – not despairing doomism, but a call to work. However, to work effectively you need to take a look around and adjust yourself to the nature of the landscape you’re working in.

Anyway, appropriately enough I’ll be joining Dougald on the Doomer Optimism podcast along with Ashley Colby and Jason Snyder soon. Not exactly sure when it’ll go live, but it might be of interest to some here, and his book certainly will be.

The other big theme in Dougald’s book is science, and the way scientific knowledge has become bound up with the energy-hungry, planet and community-chewing authoritarian aspects of progressive modernist ideology in such a way that scientific knowledge becomes part of the ideology – ‘following the science’ – armouring it against critiques that can then be dismissed for their mysticism, lack of rigour and so on. Scientism rather than science. And also the way that climate change in particular so easily gets framed through this as a scientific problem, rather than the essentially cultural or spiritual problem that it fundamentally is. Which in the face of crude ‘pro’ vs ‘anti’ science framings poses difficulties for those of us who are not anti-science, but are anti-scientism.

I’ve written about some of these themes in the past, but I found Dougald’s book balm to a weary soul in steering his own path through them, in refuting the charge of ‘doomism’ and finding ways to be at work in the ruins. For disclosure’s sake, I should probably mention that he has some kind words to say in his book about a certain other book concerning farms on the not too large side, but of course my recommendation stems from loftier motives than that.

Anyway, talking of that certain other book, in my next few posts it’s time to turn to its final section.

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,... Read more.

Tags: Building resilient food and farming systems, small farm future