Food & Water featured

The wholeness of the world

September 13, 2023

It’s time to turn my attention to a blog cycle fully focused around my recent book Saying NO to a Farm Free Future, after dallying with various preambles and tangents in recent posts. I don’t plan to turn it into quite the marathon that the cycle around my previous book became, but a few posts to fill out some of the material in Saying NO seems worthwhile.

But let’s start slow, with nothing more than a few thoughts on the epigraph on page ix of the book, some words I chose from Mikhail Bakhtin:

The people do not exclude themselves from the wholeness of the world. They, too, are incomplete, they also die and are revived and renewed.

I wrote a post recently about Bakhtin’s amazing book Rabelais and His World, from which the quotation is taken. That post is probably useful background to what I’m going to say here. Anyway, let me parse out Bakhtin’s sentences and explain why I think they complement the criticisms of food system techno-fixes I make in my book.

The people do not exclude themselves from the wholeness of the world

Bakhtin’s immediate point bears on his theme of medieval carnivals. He says that carnival laughter wasn’t directed only outward at others but was also turned on itself – the people do not exclude themselves from the absurdity of the world they mock.

I find this apposite to my critique of ecomodernism in a different, but perhaps related, sense. Ecomodernists want to separate people from everyday ecological implication in the wider world of organic being as far as possible, purportedly for the benefit of both (high-energy urbanism, not low-energy ruralism; land sparing, not land sharing; synthetic biology, not mixed farming etc.) But I don’t think this separation is possible. And, to the extent that it is, I don’t think it will bring the benefits touted for it. On the contrary, I think it’s likely to promote further alienation and ecocide. Ultimately, humans aren’t going to protect the rest of creation from their own actions by excluding themselves from it.

Sticking closer to Bakhtin’s original, I think there’s a conceit at the root of ecomodernist techno-fixing that humans are the authors of our fate, the subjects and not the objects of history, the orchestrators of the experiment and not its hapless subjects, prescient and dignified sages rather than clueless and pratfalling clowns. This view accords godlike powers to humanity that set it above the everyday dramas of the natural world. But in my opinion the dignified sage is only ever a pratfall away from the clueless clown. Ecomodernist conceits are best answered with the laughter of the carnival that does not exclude itself from the wholeness of the world.

…They, too, are incomplete

We humans are base, fleshly creatures who too easily fail to perceive the limits of our understanding. We need to keep remembering to take ourselves down a peg or two. Hence the antipathy of the carnival spirit to high-ups lording it over people and solemnly intoning the fixed dogmas by which they believe their superiority is assured (these high-ups, by the way, can easily be progressive modernists insisting on forms of collectivism and equality as higher truths).

In relation to modernism – ecomodernism’s parent ideology, as I argue in Chapter 6 of my book – I think this means getting over our modern selves a bit, their tendency to the smug supposition that everything about past societies was terrible, their conviction of their own clear-sightedness, their sense of modern knowledge impelling us onwards and upwards towards a better future. Humans so easily get trapped within specific cultural frameworks, with their limited dreams of liberation that can readily turn nightmarish. As per Eric’s comment under my last post, it’s time to question the modernist notion that moving from agrarian ruralism to a cash-fuelled urbanism is a step up the ladder of the universe. The people, too, are incomplete.

In relation to ecomodernist takes on the food system, my fear is that claims to complete and superior knowledge will be used to discriminate against and dispossess small-scale, local and indigenous farmers on the basis of tendentious evidence concerning climate impacts, wildlife impacts and efficiency. Indeed, it’s already happening. Against this solemn self-superiority of completed knowledge, I propose a carnivalesque inversion. Drub these catchpoles! (Figuratively, of course).

On these points, I must again commend Maren Morgan’s critique of Monbiot’s Regenesis in her essay The Quantitative Cosmology, which addresses the deep history of the claim “I’m right, and my data prove it!” – a claim that’s probably been even more useful than raw might in modern times to those in power. Bakhtin’s emphasis on the dialogic nature of knowledge is also informative here. Knowledge is an endless conversation that’s always open to new twists and reversals, never a monologue of authoritative truth. So it’s not like the dialectics favoured by the Marxists (another solemnly self-legitimating claim to higher truth), nor like any number of policy recommendations supposedly based in what ‘the science says’. My point is not that ‘the science’ is wrong, usually. It’s just that science and policy are largely incommensurate, and always incomplete.

…They also die and are revived and renewed.

Our fleshly bodies grow old, decay and die. Out of decrepitude springs new life. Modern culture recognises this intellectually, as a fact of nature. But by God do we fight against it culturally and spiritually. We celebrate the increased longevity of modern lives, with little thought given to what exactly we’re celebrating. We try to micromanage out of existence every potential harm except critical ones that get in the way of managerialism itself, like wholesome food and a liveable climate. We talk glibly about the need to rewild ourselves if we’re to rewild nature. But actually we duck this challenge, striving mightily to avoid making ourselves vulnerable protagonists in the ecological dance of life and death, to avoid the uncertainty and contingency of wildness.

…which is okay, up to a point. Inevitably, every organism tries to stack the odds in its favour to the best of its abilities. It’s just that humans have got really good at it (albeit that the odds favour some humans a lot more than others), to a point of such unconscious self-domestication and all-too-obvious ecological destruction that some people genuinely believe it’s better to replace the messy, open, dirty, multispecies bioreactor of the cow’s stomach that gives us meat and milk with an aseptic, closed, single-species, stainless steel bioreactor that gives us ‘energy-dense food’.

Now, bioreactor-formed ‘energy-dense food’ might conceivably be a better bet for preserving wild creatures than modern, de-peopled arable agriculture based on the profligate leakage of biocidal agrochemicals across the planetary skin (or at least it could be if it didn’t depend on biocidal electricity generation), but if your fondest hopes for rewilding lie in the proliferation of aseptic steel bioreactors rather than peopled local agricultures whose protagonists get endless dirty feedback from the ecology of which they form a part, then I believe you’ve trapped yourself within an impossibly contradictory ideology that simultaneously over-elevates humans above other organisms in its claims to godlike control and debases them in its claims about humanity’s scourging of nature. Please give me what Monbiot calls ‘bucolic fairytales’ or ‘neo-peasant bullshit’ and what I call agrarian localism, agrarian populism or a small farm future over this sad dualism.

An ecomodernist fear of death seems to lurk behind all this. One example I mentioned recently  is Monbiot’s strictures against woodstoves, whose health impacts he compares unfavourably to fossil fuels. The blank celebration of human longevity and the proliferating cargo mentalities of the present historical moment – longtermism, accelerationism, transhumanism, fully automated luxury communism and so forth – all speak to a modernist cultural malaise that betrays its own senility, a desperate clinging on to the outward signs of life. I think we need a better embrace of death as a means toward renewal.

For Bakhtin’s carnival participants, renewal was a joyous human victory over a threatening nature that their superiors tried to use as an instrument of social control. All human life in some sense has to define itself against nature, but modern culture does it badly. It’s time for a different dialogue. It’s time for us to die and be revived and renewed.

Maybe the ecomodernist fear of death arises precisely from the urban alienation it insists is necessary from the grubby business of making a livelihood out of the earth. To anyone who farms or gardens, death and renewal are obvious realities – sometimes painful and unpleasant, but necessary. As with natural ecosystems, they involve a plethora of different organisms, wild and domesticated (including the farmer) interacting in ways that might look like a beautiful symphony to a disinterested observer standing outside it all, but whose individual parts can be brutal. To the extent that many people now live in ignorance of these realities or even presume to have transcended them, I think we’ve come to pathologise death in a way that itself has become pathological.

I wrote recently about the need for a deep cultural transformation to overcome these pathologies, prompting one of my socialist antagonists to remark that this had finally proved my exit from the fold and the error of my ways. There are many people on the left with whom I remain friendly, but I accept this excommunication. I don’t have much to say to anyone who thinks the present meta-crisis can be solved simply with new tech, more collectivism and fairer economic distribution, important as all those things can be. I’ve traced in recent posts some aspects of contemporary class conflict, but this is boiling up into a cultural conflict which will divide people from the same families and communities. Its closest analogues perhaps are religious and civil wars of the past.

I hope it won’t become a real war, but I fear it might. When I write stuff along the lines of this post, I find it resonates with many of my correspondents but some dismiss it as waffle or gobbledygook, before reiterating their commitment to an engineered human progress that they claim will deliver more instrumental control over the world, and longer, more easeful human lives. To me, this is the real gobbledygook. And I doubt these two alternative gobbledygooks can coexist peacefully for long.

Finally, it only occurred to me as I sat down to write this post that my epigraph was appropriate given Bakhtin’s concern for carnival (=putting away flesh or meat) alongside Monbiot’s concern to banish livestock farming of every kind. Carnival and Lent. The calendrical rituals of our medieval forebears suggest they knew perhaps better than some of us today that – for meat as for many other things – there is a time to indulge, and a time to abstain.

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: carnival, ecomodernism, small farm future