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The wholeness of the word: ‘Regenesis’ as myth, Part I

September 25, 2023

It’s been nearly three months since Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future was published, with its critique of George Monbiot’s book Regenesis and its alternative arguments for agrarian localism. The responses that have come my way so far have run the gamut from ‘brilliant’ to ‘nauseatingly silly’, while happily erring more towards the former.

Meanwhile, as I feared, proponents of the bacterial foods advocated by Monbiot have been busy trying to mobilise public investment in it (see, for example, here and here). This is a surefire way of veiling the basic energetic implausibility of the approach for as long as possible. It’s not that private corporations behave with greater financial probity. Nor is there anything especially unusual about joint private-public finance (though try telling that to an online critic of mine who took my arguments about the perils of the government-to-corporate investment pipeline in the food system as some kind of Marxist paranoia on my part). It is, after all, the business of governments to invest in what they consider beneficial for their citizenries. I just wish they more often exercised better judgment about what’s beneficial, rather than swallowing the messaging of corporations and their breathless media boosters.

Anyway, turning back to my book, I’ve not yet had any pushback of substance on its key arguments about food energetics, urbanism, agrarian ecologies, mixed farming and modernist culture. I know of one largely negative review by Jeremy Williams (remarks on it from the Small Farm Future commentariat can be found herehere and here). I’ll pick up on a few of Jeremy’s criticisms in the second part of this two-part post. Suffice for now to reiterate that I don’t think I’ve yet had any pushbacks of substance in relation to the key arguments in Saying NO.

To my mind, the most telling criticism so far has been a case of friendly fire from a correspondent who wrote (paraphrasing) ‘the main problem with your book is that you treat Monbiot’s as if it’s somehow coherent. Regenesis gave me whiplash multiple times as it jumped from stories to numbers without addressing the necessary social implications’.

I find these remarks helpful in appreciating why Monbiot’s book has been so discombobulating to many of us in the food sovereignty and agroecology fold (it sounds like he’s pro agroecology and food sovereignty … but then it sounds like he isn’t … and indeed he doesn’t spell out the social implications of the various positions he takes, which seem antithetical to it). Likewise, I find the remarks helpful in reckoning with the main criticism my book (or at least its title) has faced – namely, that nobody, including Monbiot, is advocating for a farm-free future.

On the contrary, I believe that despite surface evidence to the contrary, that is basically what he’s advocating, in keeping with core ecomodernist tenets. In this two-part post, I’ll try to explain how this works – and why it matters. To do so, we need to talk about myth.

Regenesis as myth

In everyday language, when we say that something’s ‘a myth’ we mean that it’s untrue. But when we focus upon the foundational myths of a culture or civilization – its own deep narratives about itself – often we rightly consider them to be true in a higher sense. Whether somebody called Prometheus really stole fire from the gods, gave it to humanity and was punished for his trouble matters less than the higher truths encoded in the story about such things as the human relationship to nature.

But higher truths can be elliptical and ambiguous. This is a signature of religious texts. At its best, we might say there’s an openness, complexity, and ambiguity in these texts which reflect the openness, complexity and ambiguity of the real world. At its worst, the ambiguity is such that the text or the myth can mean more or less whatever anyone wants it to mean, which scarcely helps to clarify choices and values.

I think a good deal of Monbiot’s Regenesis takes the form of a contemporary cultural myth (the title is surely a clue). The lack of coherence identified in it by my critic is a reflection of its mythic ambiguities (at best) or (at worst) perhaps just of its author’s eagerness to be all things to all people, or at least to all the people he wishes. So yes, it’s easy to find passages in the book that speak positively about some kinds of farming. It’s also easy to find passages in it that speak negatively about all kinds of farming. You could spend a lot of time highlighting specific parts to claim a particular interpretation – for example like this fellow here, and this one too. Perhaps this is to miss the essential ambiguity of the Regenesis myth that allows it to be whatever you want it to be. But I think there’s also a deeper structure to the myth that’s important to notice.

Regenesis takes the form of a hero’s quest. It begins with a protagonist who’s enraptured by the complex micro-life of the soil and nature’s web of righteous connection that it exemplifies. He then outlines in harrowing detail the many ways in which human relationships with nature – particularly in the case of farming – have departed and fallen from this ideal. Devastatingly so when it comes to climate change and species extinction.

Seeking redress for these failings, the protagonist visits various good people who are trying to develop better farming practices to overcome the problems with business-as-usual agriculture. His choices here are somewhat questionable, and – to speak bluntly – heavily slanted towards a handful of white guys in southern England. But that’s an issue I won’t pursue here, perhaps conveniently so given that I count myself among this over-represented minority. Anyway, in relation to the structure of the myth, these men figure as valiant tryers whose efforts are ultimately doomed to failure – with the possible exception of the Land Institute’s research into perennial grains and Iain Tolhurst’s horticultural operation, to which I will return in my follow-up essay. Perhaps agriculture can be reformed a little in some positive ways, the story seems to say, but it remains sunk in sin.

Still, sinful agriculturalists are really just a foil for the revelation that comes in Chapter 7 of Regenesis, entitled ‘Farmfree’. Here, Monbiot makes the case for synthesising food from microbial biomass – a ‘counter-agricultural revolution’ that spells ‘the end of most farming’. In one of his newspaper articles, he wrote “I watched scientists turning water into food”. In Regenesis he describes the process as “a gift to the world, which arrives just as we need it most” (p.209). There’s an almost biblical sense of miracle, salvation and revelation in play.

The next and final major chapter of Monbiot’s book calls for an awakening. Foolish humans, scales over their eyes, have been seduced by dreamy ideals of the agrarian life. Instead, they should ask tough, factual questions about it that would reveal its limitations and point the way towards farmfree microbial redemption.

At the end of the chapter, Monbiot writes,

It is time to create a new, rich, productive and, ideally, organic agriculture, no longer dependent on livestock, growing food that is cheap, healthy and available to everyone. It is time to develop a new and revolutionary cuisine, based on farmfree food …. We can now contemplate the end of most farming, the most destructive force ever to have been unleashed by humans (pp.230-1)

…which offers a certain mythic ambiguity in invoking both a farmed and a farmfree future – though, it seems clear from the quotation, mostly the latter (puzzlingly, Monbiot’s other mentions of organic agriculture in his book are largely negative). Yet it also offers a certain mythic redemption in projecting a future food system where all of humanity is rich, healthy and well-fed, while treading lightly on the Earth.

Redemption, contradiction and the ecomodernist doom flip

Indeed, the core mythic concern of Regenesis, rather like its Biblical namesake, is redemption. This is a common theme in myth. The world is imperfect, complex, chaotic and violent. People, likewise, are imperfect, complex, disorderly and sinful. This needs to be set right, and the myth gives a key as to how.

Premodern thought often did so by projecting a resolution between the divine and the worldly via the redeeming power of a godly king or a kingly god. Monbiot effects a typical (eco)modernist update to this narrative of redemption. No more gods and kings – instead, science, technology, rationalism and progress do the redeeming.

This ecomodernist redemption narrative works better as narrative – a story – than as real-world material practice. Monbiot’s book begins with a doomy litany of all the ways humans are presently screwing the world – most of them arising through the recent techno-fixes of previous generations. But then we get the gift of a new technological redemption just when we need it. As detailed in my own book, there are just so many technical and socioeconomic question marks over microbial protein manufacture, but hard questioning of it isn’t on Monbiot’s agenda. Instead, his text transfigures it into the stuff of salvation.

This is the ecomodernist doom flip. In the first part of his book, Monbiot takes us to rock bottom in his accounting of impending climate catastrophe and agricultural ecocide. But then he offers redemption in the form of farm-free food. The doom is not only defrayed, but transformed into something magnificent – “We can envisage the beginning of a new era …. We can resolve the greatest dilemma with which we have ever been confronted, and feed the world without devouring the planet” (p.231).

There’s no need to invoke a new era. We have always been able to feed the world without devouring the planet via existing low-energy forms of agrarian localism. But to do it farm-free through microbial biomass while preserving all the accoutrements of modern, high-energy, urban lifestyles does require something new – a new energy economy, in the form of the near-immediate availability of low-carbon energy at levels of abundance an order of magnitude or more beyond present capabilities.

Monbiot doesn’t explain where this energy economy is going to come from. If it’s imminent, there’s little reason to fear climate catastrophe. Wild creatures would have great reason to fear their own catastrophe in this situation, arising from humanity’s endless energy voracity. But on our own account we humans could lighten up. The story has a happy ending. The doom is flipped. There’s a narrative structure to Monbiot’s book that seems crafted in this way. The doom was always going to be flipped – so why the doominess in the first place? Perhaps only to set up a mythic resolution to a contradiction needed by the narrative – the problem of climate change and wildlife loss caused by the modern urban-industrial economy. This is resolved by an impending new era of farm-free food, along with some putatively new farming techniques, so that the modern urban-industrial economy with its patterns of settlement, material production, ethics and intellectual norms can proceed in continuity with the present and near past. Prometheus is set free, and the existing cultural order is redeemed and confirmed.

But if abundant low-carbon energy doesn’t immediately materialise, or if it’s used to grow the human economy and its footprint, then Monbiot’s farmfree solutionism offers no solutions to real present predicaments. Those predicaments arose because of past technological solutions to problems we didn’t fundamentally have. The predicament of Regenesis, on the other hand, is that it offers non-solutions to problems we do really have. Or at least it offers only mythical solutions, storybook solutions – science, technology, rationality, progress as ideas, as a redemptive divine, not as plausible technology directed towards renewable human societies, and not as a different ethical or intellectual framework able to comprehend the mess that past technological solutions to non-problems and the cultural myths undergirding them have got us into.

Monbiot and other ecomodernists basically offer a path towards redemption via an ideally farm-free human dematerialisation from nature and the elimination of human impacts upon it, which paradoxically involves massive materiality in the form of high levels of generated low carbon electrical energy and the high material flows associated with it. The problem as I see it is not the urge for redemption, but this path of conjoint dematerialisation/materialisation the ecomodernists have chosen. I’ll say more about it in my next post.

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, ecomodernism, small farm future