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First the doom, then the optimism: a Small Farm Future reader poll special

May 15, 2023

The impending publication of my book Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future, along with … y’know … the need for me to say yes to my non-farm-free present, is beginning to impose itself upon my time, so I may have to hold off on new blog content here for two or three weeks. Rest assured that I’ll be getting back to Bakhtin and his implications for contemporary politics soon. I’m also in the process of upgrading this site – more on that soon too.

In other news, there’s a possibility that I might travel to the US of A in the autumn fall for various book and agrarian localism related reasons that have come my way. But I’m not sure whether I should, having basically sworn off flying in recent times. In the last twenty years, I’ve been on three long-haul and three short-haul flights – which I’d guess is less than many, but more than most of humanity. And so we come to Small Farm Future’s first ever reader’s poll. Please indicate which of these statements most closely resembles your thoughts about my possible trip:

A: One UK-US round trip is neither here nor there when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, and your trip may be positively beneficial in spreading the word about agrarian localism.

B: These things are a personal choice, and it’s not for me to judge.

C: These things are a personal choice, and it’s not for me to judge. But…

D: You talk the talk, but you don’t walk the walk, you self-entitled arse.

If I do decide to go, I’ll probably be working my way from the northeast to the northwest of the country over the period of roughly late September to early November. I’m not planning to stray too far south of the Canadian border – hell, everyone needs a Plan B. So probably no further south than the latitude of Wyoming’s southern border. To readers who reside within this sacred geography, any suggestions as to where I might go to talk with others about a small farm future, marvel at the scenery or find a bed for the night would be most welcome.

As part of my book publicity, I’m going to be recording a podcast this week with Ashley Colby and Jason Snyder, lynchpins of the excellent Doomer Optimist group, although it’s not going to be broadcast for a while. So I thought by way of signing off here for a couple of weeks I might say a few words about doom, and optimism, refracted through the very interesting podcast Jason did recently with Gregory Landua and Daniel Schmachtenberger.

‘Doomer’ is one of those dismissive epithets, a bit like ‘woke’, that’s used to negate an entire range of positionings and possibilities and place them beyond the bounds of acceptable opinion. So I like the way the doomer optimists oxymoronically rehabilitate it by placing it alongside ‘optimism’. In my opinion, far too much contemporary discourse around food, nature, energy, climate and society finds more underhand ways to exploit the tension between these two terms. Often, it normalises the status quo by rendering the positions of its critics as both too doomy and not doomy enough.

The way this typically works is that somebody says something like – just to pick an entirely random example – ‘our food system is wrecking the climate and destroying wildlife’. They itemize in ghoulish detail all the horrific things going on in the global food system. But then, just when you’re sunk and vulnerable in your existential despair – hey presto! – they bring you back to the present with some amazing high-tech solution that rescues civilization-as-we-know it in all its glorious dysfunctionality. An example might be … ooh, I don’t know … just a wild flight of fancy here … something like a clever way of manufacturing food from bacteria in factories that purportedly rescues the urban capitalist behemoth from its own destructive forces. Never mind that it’s clearly not going to work. If you raise any objections, they hit you with the accusation that you’re too doomy – ‘well, at least I’m trying to do something constructive here, instead of just moaning that we’re screwed’. Or with the accusation that you’re too optimistic – ‘have you any idea of the sh*tstorm that’s upon us? We need radical action NOW, and I’m the man with the plan’.

(Sidenote: it does usually seem to be men who play this rhetorical trick. And it is a rhetorical trick. I’ve seen it used so many times to defuse any radical rethinking of the status quo.)

So I want to suggest that before you embrace your inner optimist (which you should), you need to embrace your inner doomer. No really. You need to go deep, deep down into the doomiest doom and feel flattened by its truculent power. This is not a self-indulgence. It’s essential. There will not be a clean energy system to rival what we’ve become used to with fossil fuels. There will not be new forms of food production that will create easy global food abundance while saving wildlife. There will not be some fast cultural enlightenment in humanity enabling us to easily create a global commons and avoid resource wars and endless free riding on other people’s misery. Now, given all that, go and be as optimistic as possible. There are reasons to be. Especially if you get started on the work of reconstruction, while still carrying the doom within.

This is probably going to sound critical in a way I don’t intend it to be – or not much – but the pod with Daniel, Gregory and Jason struck me as a very high-level version of this doom-optimism paso doble that ultimately recuperates the status quo (though I’m not sure that Jason was really on board with it). I learned a lot from it, and I don’t question the intellectual honesty of the protagonists. There were no rhetorical tricks here – just honest, smart, engaged conversation. I particularly liked the way the conversation focused on social technologies to meet the present poly-crisis – property rights, commons, economic instruments – rather than the usual unconvincing techno-fixes (despite a brief but alarming wobble into implausible energy tech).

At the root of it, Daniel’s basic argument seems to be that we can’t meet our problems by going low-tech and local, because then we lose to those who stay high-tech and connected, and nothing then is gained. I think that’s largely true, but the problem as I see it is that there’s no way of staying in the game with the high-tech, connected folks without getting co-opted and feeding the disease. That option’s days are numbered, and if we haven’t built a distributed localism it leaves us without a Plan B when it crashes. Which it will. And you need the Canada option of a Plan B, right? My Plan B is no hey presto. It’s a numbers game. Slowly try to build a second, low-tech, distributed world within and around the edges of the mainstream world. It’s hard, and most of us will probably fail. The possibility that not everyone will fail is where I find some optimism. And out of that not-complete-failure lies the opportunity to rebuild.

The conversation on the pod struck me as quite ‘American’ in the sense that it was what you might expect smart people to say who can see the way the wind is blowing but are still a bit too caught up in the locus of control that comes with being a mover and shaker within what’s still the world’s most powerful country and it’s only superpower, even if the limits of those powers are ever more painfully apparent. It’s been at least seventy years since the UK had the remotest claim to such powers, but the severance note still doesn’t seem to have reached into our political culture, even though we’re now beginning to fall pretty fast (y’know – Brexit, hubris, failing social contract). So, a word of advice from an old country to a newer one – you guys may be in for a long descent. Rock bottom is still a looong way down, before you can start climbing again up the other side.

Even so, I think we’re beyond the time when anyone can seize the controls of the crazy plane we’re on. Descent is now inevitable and we’re better off trying to figure out the most feasible crash landings. Actually, that’s not such an appealing metaphor in view of my plans outlined above. So let’s move on.

One point that was made in the podcast is that trade of essential items, specialization and the division of labour is a good way of building solidary relationships between people to avoid conflict. This is basically Adam Smith’s origin myth of capitalist society, but I’d argue on the contrary that trade is a terrible way of trying to build solidary relationships, and usually a short route to war and colonialism. Maybe this is where the superpower blinkers come in – it was claimed in the pod that the post-war global trade system reflected a collective ‘never again’ mentality of avoiding war through developing trade. I’d say it was more a case of ‘never again, but on our own terms’ from the USA, which was always going to end in tears. At critical postwar junctures, the US and its allies (including the UK) have placed the ‘on our own terms’ above the ‘never again’ and I believe the payback is now largely out of our hands.

As I see it, a better way of avoiding conflict is minimising long-distance trade dependence while building shared cultural symbols over large territories and long historic time (an idea also developed by thinkers such as the two Davids, and  Mikhail Bakhtin). There are no shortcuts, and there will be plenty of obstacles. My optimism lies in thinking that it’s worth embarking on that route, and it’s worth attending to some of the things that throw us off course – things like the way we think about ‘doom’ and ‘optimism’, the way we dismiss low-tech and low-energy systems as antiquated, as if antiquity was a vice, the whole language of ‘regression’, returning to the stone age and so forth that’s routinely applied to low tech and local routes, and that found its way into the podcast. Happily, everyone on it seemed to agree that attending to the local and to local food production is worthwhile. Which is a good place to start, although the starting down it now feels way, way too late. Still, the best time to plant a tree and all that…

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, low tech, small farm future