Food & Water featured

New worlds to build

October 23, 2023

George Monbiot recently came out swinging for me in his article ‘The cruel fantasies of well-fed people’, concerning my book Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future. Since that book in large part is a rejoinder to his own volume, Regenesis, I can hardly blame him for aiming a few blows. I just wish they hadn’t been quite so low.

Ideally, I’d have liked him to have given his readers a better idea of what my book really says, instead of flinging around wild accusations about Nazism, mass death and the like. But I guess it’s an achievement for a writer with a much smaller platform than him to have so obviously touched a nerve. Perhaps it suggests I got something right?

One thing I did get right is my critique of George’s energy figures for the manufactured bacterial food approach he espouses, but notably failed to mention in his essay. I finally wrested his source from him after a lot of foot-dragging on his part, and I believe I’ve now shown conclusively that the figure he cites in Regenesis of 16.7kWh/kg bacterial protein is wrong. The true figure is about four times higher, at least. I’ll spare the nerdy details (outlined further here), but basically I’ve shown what a lot of people always suspected – making food from bacteria using electricity in factories isn’t going to cut it as a mass global food strategy.

Human feedlots

This matters because George wants to retain the world’s existing highly urbanized global settlement patterns, while leaving more room for nature, and cutting fossil fuels at the same time. I’m up for all that too, largely. But the things we want in life aren’t necessarily the things we get. George gives no indication of how urban demands for energy, food, water, materials and waste management can be met renewably in the long term. Bacterial food was the closest he came in his book to a cunning plan. It wasn’t much of one to start with, and it now turns out to be even less convincing.

It’s for reasons like this that I’ve argued the future of humanity is probably going to be largely rural. It’s not because I hate cities. George works himself up into a fine moral outrage at my description of cities as ‘human feedlots’. This coinage isn’t particularly original on my part, and it doesn’t imply condemnation of city dwellers any more than opposition to livestock feedlots is directed at the animals themselves. The analogy is biophysical. Cities, like feedlots, need to import food, water and other materials from afar, and they need to export or process their wastes. That requires high levels of energy and political stability. If the supply of either is disrupted, the inhabitants are in trouble. And that, I believe, is increasingly going to be the case.

Let’s go back to the energy costs of bacterial food. They’re so high because the process is energised by generated electricity rather than plain sunlight. Therein lies a hint as to why I think humanity’s future will probably be mostly rural, just as pre-fossil fuelled humanity’s past was. The energy from the sun is diffuse, so in the absence of a cheap energy bonanza like fossil fuels, people also need to spread out to capture it adequately and generate a livelihood. The ruralizing tyrant that George shakes his fist at in his essay isn’t so much me as the sun, which refuses to order its affairs for the benefit of modern urban humanity.

So George can rage all he likes at me for my supposedly cruel ideological fantasies of ruralism. It won’t make a jot of difference to the non-ideological reality of where the sunshine falls. I have no desire to force people to do anything or move anywhere against their will. But ultimately people go of their own accord when they can get away from misery and death and towards wellbeing and life. George’s essay is a bad case of shooting the messenger.

This is why I find the endless barbs about nostalgia, turning the clock back, bucolic idylls and what have you so much chaff. Whatever the downsides of premodern societies, they generally knew how to make a local livelihood, and they handed on a liveable world to their descendants. Present generations don’t seem to be doing a brilliant job on those fronts. Is it too much to ask that we get over ourselves just a bit and imagine we might be able to learn something from peoples who’ve figured out how to live low energy local lives?

I don’t think ruralization will be easy. I’ve discussed in my books the kind of class conflicts over access to land that are likely to arise in the future, and how people might try to create as best they can congenial and renewable small farm societies out of such conflicts. At the same time, it would be wrong to tell it only as a story of unrelenting difficulty. People in rural areas hollowed out by cruel histories of urbanisation often welcome newcomers willing to build their lives there. Here are the grounds for serious discussion about the future of energy, food, land and local politics that some people – still too few – are beginning to have. The more that present thought leaders ridicule even the very idea of ruralization, the greater the difficulties will be when it happens anyway.

The new enclosures

As some discussions start, others end. The new politics involves a slow unravelling of old left-right distinctions. Technocratic welfare capitalism of the kind George now favours has become mainstream on the erstwhile radical left, while the more embryonic politics of agrarian localism draws from ideas like civic republicanism and distributism which don’t easily fit familiar modern categories. Constructive discussion across this emerging divide is getting harder.

George’s response to my book is a case in point. If that’s all he’s willing to make of my analysis, then I don’t know how to move the conversation on. Meanwhile, the new politics of enclosure that George has come to espouse is turning into real, hard-edged political conflict on the ground, and I do know where I stand on that.

Politics of enclosure? Take a look at George’s essay, where he unwittingly makes the coming conflict plain. He says he doesn’t want to see any depopulation of the countryside, but he also says this:

Discussing his own, proudly low-yield production of wheat and potatoes, Chris states:

“there’s no point labouring for next to nothing on someone else’s behalf when you’ve already grown enough to eat for yourself.”

This is why farmers who do not share his worldview pursue higher yields: these yields make it economically worthwhile to produce staple foods that can be sold to other people. We should thank our lucky stars for such people.

If he’d read more carefully, he might have noticed that in the relevant part of my book (pp.75-6), I focus on prices and costs, not yields. I say nothing about the yields on our holding. Even if the per hectare (or, more aptly in our case, per square metre) yields we achieved were double those of large commercial farms, it wouldn’t be worth selling our wheat or potatoes on the open market, because of the low price relative to the scale of production – which is set by world market conditions.

So when George says that farmers who don’t share my worldview pursue higher yields, he isn’t specifying the real logic of their practice. They might pursue higher yields – and when they do, they almost invariably do it by applying more inputs like fertiliser and pesticides, which bring their own problems. People love Jack and the Beanstalk stories about unearned increase, but unfortunately there’s no golden goose in real life (not even in energy-guzzling bacterial bioreactors).

No, what the larger-scale commercial farmers who George is thanking are really pursuing, and have no option but to pursue in the modern global food system, is higher profit margins. There are many ways to attempt this – for example, increasing farm scale, increasing mechanization and fossil energy use, cutting jobs, increasing water use, increasing the use of ecocidal agrochemicals, grubbing out hedgerows and natural features of the landscape, finding new and more productive areas to establish agricultural land (and ejecting anyone living there who’s less profit-oriented). When George thanks yield-chasing farmers, what he’s really celebrating are the processes of agricultural ecocide, enclosure and human impoverishment in the modern food system that he rightly criticises in Regenesis.

This is the contradictory logic of his position. And this is how the new enclosures will pan out, just as the old ones did, when people with political power confuse ‘efficiency’ with market connection and cost, and don’t really care about who’s living on the land or why.

Perhaps I should add that I did, for a couple of years, grow potatoes commercially using my small tractor. But it was hard to compete on price with people growing them using bigger tractors in bigger fields, scaled to the size of the machinery. How odd to find myself arguing with George Monbiot against the trend towards mechanised gigantism on the land. Or off it – in the unlikely event that the ‘farm-free’ bacterial food he advocates takes off, the monopolistic tendencies would be greater still.

To put this another way, enclosure and the drive to accumulation have led to a global economy producing too much of the wrong kinds of crops at too low a price and producing too much poverty afflicting too many people who can’t afford to eat well, if at all. Producing even more of the wrong kinds of crops at even lower prices won’t solve either of these two problems.

So I daresay it’s true George doesn’t want to see any depopulation of the countryside. But he doesn’t notice how his politics means that what he wants probably isn’t what he’ll get. That will suit other political players, who are all too happy to depopulate the countryside for their own self-serving reasons.

The return of the peasant

Still, the fact remains that small-scale farmers in their multitudes have clung to their holdings through the tumultuous politics of enclosure in modern times, and kept feeding their households and communities via local markets. The demise of the peasant has long been heralded, but it’s never arrived. If we’re to make it through the present meta-crisis, I believe it’ll be necessary to rebuild food systems around such dogged efforts. George positions me as a kind of dilettante, ‘well fed’, gentleman smallholder. No doubt I’m an easy target in that respect. But his scorn for what he’s called ‘neo-peasant bullshit’ can’t be separated as easily as he thinks from scorning ‘peasant bullshit’. Which isn’t quite such a good look, nor such a good historical punt.

Shortly before my book was published, I wrote an article called Five bad arguments against agrarian localism, predicting the kind of clichéd pushbacks it might get and saying that I wouldn’t engage with their silliness. Of these arguments, George’s essay scored an impressive 80 per cent. The only one that merits further scrutiny, if we drop the ‘mass death’ stuff for which he provides no real justification, is how to feed people (urban or rural) securely in the future.

Here, George makes the evidence-free assumption that agrarian localism isn’t up to the job. He used to be more nuanced. It’s an important debate, but there’s no reason to assume that transitioning toward ruralism and agrarian localism will cause more hunger than persevering with mass urbanism in these times of profound biophysical and geopolitical change.

The opposite seems more likely. Nobody knows whether a food system of whatever kind will be able to feed the world’s people long-term in the future, but a rich research literature descending from the likes of Ester Boserup has shown that small-scale, low input, local food systems can be enormously productive of diverse food on a per hectare basis over long periods. By contrast, there’s little evidence to suggest that today’s high-input global food commodity chains have equivalent historical resilience.

Mysteries and passions

George’s essay raises numerous other points of contention. I’ll just mention one, concerning what I called in my book the ‘mysteries and passions’ of human culture. Here, George descends to rank falsehood in attributing to me the view that getting enough food is secondary to these passions, something I’ve certainly never said. But he presses on regardless: “I would say that having enough food is pretty damn primary. In any hierarchy of human needs it features close to the top”.

I feel no obligation to defend words I haven’t spoken, but it’s interesting to see where George’s arguments take him here – implicitly invoking the ‘hierarchy of needs’ associated with Abraham Maslow, a man who wrote that ideally the adage should be true that what’s good for General Motors is good for the United States, and what’s good for the United States is good for the world.

The ‘hierarchy of needs’ sounds plausible, but it’s not how any society ever actually constitutes itself – ‘first let’s organise food production to maximise yields and keep prices down, then we’ll sort out the music, religion, kin relations and all that stuff’. Food is important, it keeps us alive, but it’s not always more important than culture. The limiting case here is the fact that people are sometimes prepared to die for their commitments to cultural meaning, much to the bemusement of the kind of utilitarian ideologues who imagine consumers will happily eat bacterial protein as an alternative to meat once the former’s superior land use efficiency has been properly explained.

Food is a vital human need, whereas the hierarchy of needs that George invokes is a specific artefact of modern culture, reflecting our weird fetishism of the economic bottom line. Ironically, this has made food harder to come by for many people in modern times. Perhaps I’ll write elsewhere about George’s neo-Malthusian views on tackling hunger by growing more food and lowering its price. It’s a strategy that’s rarely worked because it misspecifies the problem.

George’s thinking on this point reflects the death spiral of modernist culture and its techno-solutionism: if only we could produce more food, more clean energy, more lithium batteries, more green hydrogen, more working capital, more whatever, then our problems at last will be over. I don’t think they will be, for various reasons – not least the fact that our problems, fundamentally, are cultural and spiritual, not technical. They’re problems about the need for a certain kind of more, and for the bottom line thinking that drives it.

In a tweet about the response to his critical essay about me, George writes “The overwhelming message has been “thank goodness this nonsense has been called out.”” Funnily enough, that’s also the overwhelming message that’s come back to me regarding my criticisms of his own thinking. Is there scope for debate across these echo chambers? I don’t know. By the rules of Godwin’s Law concerning Nazi comparisons in online argument, the debate has already concluded in my favour. In any case, I’m not sure there’s much to be gained by two old men angrily trying to best each other in the face of their shared impotence to solve the world’s problems. If there’s real regenesis, it’s happening elsewhere.

Indeed, I have faith in the ability of ordinary people to improvise the relationships that can see them through their day-to-day if they’re given half a chance. If there are ‘solutions’ to the meta-crisis, I think that’s where they’ll come from, not from magic foods pioneered by biotech companies with generous public funding, heralded by journalists looking for ways to save the world. There’s real work of transformative adaptation to do to rise to present challenges – unsung, grassroots and local. It’s time to forget fantasy narratives like Regenesis, and to forget conspiracy-tinged theories about shadowy environmentalist movements with formulas for mass death. It’s time to get on with building new local worlds.

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.