Food & Water featured

Food ecomodernism and the emptying of politics, Part I

July 9, 2024

There’ve been two seismic events in British public life in the last couple of weeks. One was the general election. The other, of course, was the publication anniversary of my book Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future. The latter has received strangely little attention compared to the former, so this post is mostly about redressing that balance. But a few opening remarks about the election seem in order, especially insofar as it illustrates some of the themes of Saying NO…

I have to confess I didn’t pay much attention to the election campaign, having concluded long ago that mainstream party politics isn’t where it’s at in terms of the real political questions of our times. But I did get drawn into the drama of the result and ended up staying up all night to watch it.

I suppose it was partly the guilty pleasure of witnessing the uber-wealthy Rishi Sunak’s premiership die in the kind of bare and functional community sports hall he’d never otherwise dream of frequenting, while having to rub shoulders with novelty candidates like Count Binface (a man dressed as a dustbin – 308 votes) and Sir Archibald Stanton of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party (99 votes). Talking of monsters, it was also the guilty pleasure of seeing some rather less amusing monsters of our political system’s own recent creation such as Liz Truss and Jacob Rees-Mogg meet their political end, at least for now.

But what also visibly died in this election, which is ultimately more interesting, is the idea that mainstream politics retains any capacity to offer bold, attractive and deliverable narratives about the future that capture the public imagination. This is the usual mantra about what political parties need to do to get elected, but instead the Labour Party opted to say as little as possible. Provided they didn’t actively put their foot in it during the campaign, the Labour leadership’s reasoning seemed to go, then the spoils would be theirs. And so it proved, yielding the curious feeling of a government that narrowly squeaked its way to an electoral landslide, largely on the basis that whatever it was, at least it wasn’t the previous government. To watch a huge mauling being handed out with a feather duster felt a bit wrong, but weirdly compelling.

According to one mainstream narrative, the election proved that parties of both the left and right need to pivot to the centre ground to achieve the holy grail of ‘electability’. I think that’s mistaken. Instead, what we’re now beginning to see is that there’s no longer any ‘ground’. The notion that there are distinctive suites of choices and definite solutions to contemporary problems that politicians and technocrats can implement to put us on the road to a brighter future is dying. So long as mainstream politics continues to deny its death, I think we’ll see volatile voting patterns. We’ll also see more political monsters – probably worse ones – emerging to replace the likes of Truss and Rees-Mogg.

All this parallels the arguments of my Saying NO… book in its critique of ecomodernism, a doctrine that involves similar delusions of continuity – a bright vision of a route to a future much like a more perfected version of the present, based on techno-fixes and preservation of the existing economic architecture of state and corporate monopoly. I honestly think the sooner we abandon this kind of thinking and embrace more humble political ambitions grounded in finding least-worst local pathways through intractable contemporary problems the less bad the actual future will turn out to be.

The election has opened the door a tiny bit further onto this alternative politics, but it remains mostly in the shadows. I’d venture to say the same about Saying NO… In its own small way, it raised a bit more awareness about the vapidities of ecomodernist approaches to the food system, but the main targets of my critique didn’t provide much opening for debate, and generally did a good job of using their considerable media muscle to keep the door closed with a ‘There Is No Alternative’ narrative (you can follow some of the twists and turns of this here).

I believe they’re wrong. There is an alternative, but I’ve now achieved about as much as I can by banging my head against the closed door of ecomodernist debate, and it’s time to move on.

Well, almost time to move on. There have been a few new developments and new publications bearing on the issues raised in Saying NO… since it was published. Some new critics and criticisms of the book have also emerged. So, given the anniversary, I’m going to indulge myself with just a little more commentary about the book and its critics. That’s going to involve this retrospective post, split into two parts, followed by a couple of posts that take a deeper dive into two specific issues relating to the book. And then I’ll open the gate onto the new pastures I’ve promised.

One of the new critics I mentioned is Joel Scott-Halkes, of WePlanet, an organisation I criticised in my book under its previous name of RePlanet. On a Tuesday night in June, after a long day building a new hayloft and cutting firewood (unlike politicians, farmers and foresters appreciate the wisdom of preparing for lean times ahead), my ears started burning as my name came up in a talk Joel gave at the Kairos Club in London.

Actually, the most interesting thing in Joel’s talk was the part where he seemed to row back from endorsing manufactured microbial food – hitherto the acme of recent ecomodernist aspiration in the food system – partly for the reasons of corporate monopolization that I critiqued in Saying NO… Microbial food is a corporate/tech-bro dream that I believe has suckered a lot of environmentalists through its pro-nature rhetoric. I’m glad people seem to be waking up to what it’s really about, which isn’t conserving nature.

The part about me in Joel’s talk related to the (contested) claim I mentioned in my book (pp.29-30) that 70 (or 80) percent of food globally comes from small farms. In his reply, Joel said that I was a “bit of a nutter” (albeit “in the nicest way possible” – thank you, sir), opining that while this small farm production point is true, most small-scale farmers have “awful, awful lives”, hate being farmers, and would love not to be. He added that I’m an academic and implied that my farming is something of a hobby, which doesn’t provide a model of what small-scale farming is really like. Proposals for getting from where we are now – with less than 1 percent of people in Britain working as farmers – to a situation where we’re all farmers would involve, he said, some kind of forced redistribution to the countryside, which, according to Joel, is “bonkers”.

Well, I certainly agree that forced redistribution of urban populations to the countryside would be bonkers. I suspect that Joel may not have actually read my book, or spoken much to small-scale farmers around the world and informed himself about their different situations. Still, the ‘miserable life of the small farmer’ is an argument I often encounter, and I’ll say a little more about it shortly. But all in good time. There are seven dimensions of critique in respect of Saying NO… I’m going to discuss in this post and the next one, and it’ll have to wait its turn.

1. Ad hominem, ad agricola

Joel’s remark that my academic status compromises my claims about farming finds its counterpoint among other critics who’ve said that my status as a farmer compromises my claims to scholarship. It’s a fine line to tread when you raise your head above the parapet, it seems.

There’s been quite a lot of this kind of ad hominem in critical responses to the book – I’m an academic, or I’m a farmer, or I’m well fed, or I’m only a sociologist, or whatever. Ultimately what matters is whether what I say stands up to scrutiny.

For the record, I’ve received no salary from any academic organisation (or any other kind of organisation, for that matter) for the past seventeen years. For five years I was a full-time commercial veg grower. These days, when I’m not writing I’m basically a smallholder and general handyman on the farm. I don’t think I’ve ever promoted my farming as exemplary, because it’s too constrained by wider structural forces. I spend a lot of time talking and writing about those forces nowadays, because unless we do something about them – quickly – I think they’re going to bite us on the arse.

But sometimes I wonder why ecomodernist antagonists are so keen to knock my farming practice. When all the talking is done, at least I’ve grown a bit of food for my household and community.

Anyway, call me a hobby farmer if you like. It’s one of the three normative categories of farmer shared across various business-as-usual agrarian narratives, including ecomodernism: hobby farmer (bad), subsistence farmer (bad), proper farmer (good – or at least better). In my experience, a lot of proper farmers are actually hobby farmers, and sometimes near enough subsistence farmers, because the structural constraints on farmers of all kinds are so intense that most of them do it either as a side hustle or an act of desperation. The growth-oriented global political economy is apt to make a hobbyist at best of anyone who tries to step outside it. That goes for writers and analysts too.

Nevertheless, I do identify as a farmer in the sense that I have a basic orientation to making a livelihood (not necessarily a monetary one) from a patch of local land. However compromised my efforts in respect of this are, I think I ‘get’ what’s involved in it in a way many food system commentators really don’t. Ecomodernist narratives about climate, food, livestock, trees, wildness and so on often seem to me to err precisely in that they’re not local and livelihood based, but global and policy based.

2. Energy and its futures

One part of my book that’s received no plausible criticism is my claim that protein powder produced by hydrogen-oxidising bacteria involves an energy use of at least 65 kWh per kg protein – much higher than the 17 kWh per kg figure widely circulating in the pro-microbial food literature. As one commenter on X nicely put it, my work in this area has undergone a “thorough peer review” in the sense that it’s been out in the public domain and has not been shot down. At a time when we’re largely failing to decarbonise global electricity generation, and when we need low-carbon electricity for numerous other things, the idea of replacing free, zero-carbon sunlight as the direct energy source for our food in favour of costly generated electricity seems … well, bonkers.

All the same, one of the main pushbacks I’ve received in respect of the book concerns energy – not that I was wrong about the energetic cost of microbial food, but that I was wrong about the impending transition to such an abundance of renewable energy that my energy-based objections to microbial food will become irrelevant.

I concede my discussion of energy futures in the book was limited (but, hey, at least I had an analysis of energy futures unlike some manufactured food proponents!) I’ll try to make amends for that in an upcoming post (I made a preliminary attempt, drawing some further criticisms, here).

Overall, I think the four main problems I raised with a projected future transition to abundant renewable energy (viz. energy trap, hard-to-abate sectors, mineral bottlenecks and time pressures) remain genuine problems. And there are other problems I didn’t mention. More on that anon.

3. Ruralisation and small farms

Perhaps it was a strategic error on my part to mention the likelihood of ruralisation and a future turn to agrarianism in Saying NO…. The suggestion that the breakneck global urbanization of the last few decades may not be set in stone for all time seems to provoke outrage among many people. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen. I’ll say a bit more about that possible future in my next post. For now, I’ll focus on the present and the ‘awful, awful’ lot of the small farmer I mentioned earlier in relation to Joel Scott-Halkes’s remarks.

First, while I do believe there’s a lot we can learn from small-scale farmers of the past and present, neither I nor any other advocate of agrarian localism I know are fundamentally committed to existing models of small farm society. The main purpose of the ‘80%’ type statistics I mentioned earlier is that they suggest it may be feasible to feed ourselves with low impact local methods. People are too often unaware of the vast and ecocidal overproduction associated with contemporary global agriculture – most importantly of arable crops, and secondarily of livestock. Small, local, low-impact farms can be adequately productive of more nutritious and more diverse crops.

I’ve done some back of the envelope calculations in both my books to show how my own country could feed itself in this way. This has invited a few criticisms, but little of substance that leads me to recant that claim yet (note: saying “just Google it” doesn’t amount to a critique of substance). Given Britain’s high population density and level of urbanisation, if I’m wrong … well, that will only underline how distressing the deurbanization to come might be.

But let me now move directly to Joel Scott-Halkes ‘awful, awful’ lives claim. I don’t dispute that many small-scale farmers do have awful lives, although given that there are well over a billion such farmers worldwide, I think Joel’s remark is … shall we say … something of an over-generalization, redolent of the ‘as everyone knows…’ shibboleths that suck too much air out of contemporary agrarian debate. Instead of breezy generalisations we’d do better to build a more nuanced picture of what affects small farmers, preferably by listening to what they have to say rather than by dismissing their credentials or assimilating them as pawns to a preconceived narrative.

I’m a bit too deep into my farm hobby to do too much face-to-face listening of that kind myself outside my local area, but my son Jake is currently in Bangladesh in the early stages of PhD research into climate, labour and population displacement. Many of the small farmers he’s been talking to there supplement their meagre farming income with seasonal labour migration, or else have lost their farms entirely due to high-modernist infrastructure projects like the construction of embankments that have made their land saline and infertile. Most of these displaced small-scale farmers work as labourers in urban brickyards where, as far as I can see, life is also awful. As I argued in a recent post the Dick Whittington narrative around urbanisation/industrialisation that quitting the farm and moving to the city puts people on the road to easy street isn’t always true. It belies the fact that many among the global poor have awful, awful lives in both their rural and urban manifestations.

I exchanged emails with Jake about Joel’s critique. This is what he wrote:

In my and other people’s experience people describe a desire to farm when displaced to urban areas in lots of different contexts (e.g. Ayeb-Karlsson 2020). There is a growing literature which highlights this in different ways. What people identify as the horror of agrarian lives is often related to the political economy of agrarian life and not the reality of it as a way of living. Dispossessions (debt, land grabbing etc), introduction into the global market (market fluctuations), poor investment in appropriate and resilient technology and all the other f***eries of our time affect farmers more than most. However, they continue to want to farm. A useful way of framing it is challenging the idea that an easier life awaits them in urban areas, pointing to brick kiln work, construction, and international migration, with money from these often reinvested in buying agricultural land and inputs. Equally, often people’s reluctance to do agricultural work is connected to the power structures of agrarian life. In some cases peasant farmers find ways to withdraw labour from rich agrarian employers. This isn’t necessarily that they don’t want to farm. Just that they don’t want to farm for someone else.

So … it’s complicated. As I said, I’ve been out of academia for a while, and I’m not quite sure what Jake’s term “f***eries” means – maybe it’s a bit of social science jargon referring to the strange modern belief that basing a global economic system on the search for profit by the rich is a good way of directing benefits to the poor.

Two other important phrases in Jake’s commentary are ‘political economy’ and ‘global’ or ‘international’ (global market/international migration). As far as I can see from Joel’s presentation, he doesn’t really grasp how the global political economy works – for example in the way that the ‘awful, awful’ lives of many poor small farmers and ex-farmers in the Global South are directly linked to the paltry numbers of people working in agriculture in Global North countries like Britain.

To redress the inequities fuelled by the subsidised and mechanized arable agricultures of the Global North and the immiseration of labour-intensive farmworkers in the Global South I do not suggest that everyone in Britain should be forced to become a small-scale farmer. But I think we should stop deluding ourselves with the notion that being a farmer makes you poor, and its implied corollary that quitting farming makes you rich. It’s not the farming, it’s the politics. Ecomodernism is inherently depoliticising in this way. Political economy goes missing in its problematic emphasis on cheap food, new technologies and the ‘mathematical reality’ of urbanism.

Talking of maths and urbanism, another dimension of critique that’s come my way recently from Cameron Roberts is the greater network efficiency of cities in delivering services, as in the familiar view that it’s easier to live a low-ecological impact life in the city than in the countryside. That may be true in contemporary Britain or other rich countries, but I don’t think it’s inherently true in general. I’ll develop that point in another post. For now, I’ll just say that it’s important to distinguish between efficiency and cost – something that bedevils the whole debate on food futures.

That’s probably enough words for one blog post, so I’ll stop there for now, and pick up the other four categories of critique in my next post.

Current Reading

Jane Jacobs Dark Age Ahead

Anna Jones The Divide

Peter Kropotkin Fields, Factories and Workshops Tomorrow

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.