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#188 Exploding the Myth of a Farm Free Future (and fake meat!) with Chris Smaje

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How do we make the case for a fully ecological farming system, that can feed all of us, while restoring the bio-sphere and providing affordable, nutritious food. How can we become a good keystone species – and what does that mean? This second episode with Chris Smaje, explores his new book, Saying No to a Farm Free Future: The Case for an Ecological Food System and against Manufactured Foods – Out Now!

Chris was last a guest on the podcast in the spring of this year (2023), in episode 166, in which we explored his book A Small Farm Future– what it meant, how he came to write it, and what a Small Farm Future might look and feel like. At the time, we veered toward the topic of the Eco-Modernist manifesto and in particular their concept that ‘Precision Fermentation’ is necessary to feed the world’s population – and would enable us to dispense with farming, which they regard as the author of all the world’s ills. Chris said then that he was writing something that would address this more directly and suggested he come back when it was ready.

And now his new book is ready, and he has come back to talk about it. The book absolutely does what it says on the tin, and does it well. Chris has a background in academia and his capacity for critical thinking shines through the text as he examines the good and the bad of the Eco-Modernist agenda, and in particular the new kid on the Eco-Modernist block, George Monbiot and his latest tract, Regenesis. He really dives deeply into the assertions that are made, takes them apart and shows the (many) places where they don’t stack up.

At the end, he makes a heartfelt, grounded, and I think rather beautiful plea for us to rediscover our human place as a good keystone species, instead of feeling we have to wall ourselves up in concrete boxes eating manufactured food.

In Conversation

Manda: Hey, people. Welcome to Accidental Gods, to the podcast where we still believe that another world is possible and that if we all work together, there is time to create the future that we would be proud to leave to the generations that come after us. I am Manda Scott, your host in this journey into possibility. And today it’s my great pleasure to welcome Chris Smaje back to the podcast. When we last spoke in the spring in episode 166, we explored his book, A Small Farm Future, what it meant, how he came to write it, and what a small farm future might actually look and feel like. And while we were talking, we veered tangentially onto the topic of the ecomodernist agenda and in particular, their embrace of precision fermentation as a means of feeding the world’s population – largely, as far as I can tell, so that they can dispense with farming, which they don’t like, and so they can make a lot of money out of selling us protein brewed in a stainless steel VAT.

Chris said then that he was writing something that would address this more directly, and he suggested he come back when it was ready. And now it is ready. And he has come back to talk about his new book, Saying No to a Farm Free Future: The Case for an Ecological Food System, and Against Manufactured Food. I was extremely glad to get an advanced reading copy and to read it through several times. It’s brilliant. I love this book. It does exactly what it says on the tin, and it does it well. Chris has a background in academia, and his capacity for critical thinking shines through all of his writing on his blog, in his previous books, and in this one. And what he does with this is he examines the good and the bad of the ecomodernist agenda, and in particular the new kid on the ecomodernist block: George Monbiot, and his latest tract, Regenesis.

Because Regenesis isn’t all complete nonsense. The taking apart of industrial farming is really very good, and Chris is much kinder than I tend to be at giving credit where credit is due. And then he uses his critical thinking, and he really dives deeply into the assertions that are made by all of the ecomodernists, and particular in Regenesis. He takes them apart. He looks at the numbers, and he shows the rather large number of places where they really don’t stack up. He looks at the alternatives. He looks at how we might live not in an ecomodernist world. And at the end he makes a heartfelt, grounded, and I think rather beautiful plea for us to rediscover our human place as a good keystone species, instead of feeling we have to wall ourselves up in urban jungles, in concrete boxes, eating manufactured food grown in stainless steel vats. You can tell I don’t think this is a good thing.

So this was a meeting of minds and hearts, and I really enjoyed it. And I hope you do too. People of the podcast, please welcome Chris Smaje, author of Saying No to a Farm Free Future. Chris, welcome back to the Accidental Gods podcast. It’s a delight to speak to you again, and to have a copy of your new book in my hand. It’ll be out shortly after this goes live. So it’s called Saying No to a Farm Free Future. Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re saying no to, how it arose, and then how you came to write a book that explains an alternative viewpoint?

Chris: Right. Well, yeah, very nice to be on the podcast again, Manda. So the book, it arose really as a critique of a movement known as Ecomodernism, and specifically one of the latest books in that genre to talk about the food system: George Monbiot’s book, Regenesis. So in a nutshell, the idea of ecomodernism is that, you know, we’re the inheritors of the legacy of modernism, which where we’re talking about a modern, high energy, high capital urban existence. You know, the sort of familiar story of economic growth and development that was, I guess originated in Europe and foisted on the rest of the world in one way or another.

And obviously, that’s led to all sorts of problems. You know, climate change, economic problems, biodiversity loss, you know, wherever you look, really, there’s a kind of problem caused by this kind of high energy, high capital, urban way of life. And the ecomodernists, it’s a sort of accelerationist where we’ve backed ourselves into this corner. And the only way out is up or, the only way is to further accentuate all those trends, but to try and do it in a way that solves the problems that are being created.

So typically, you know, I think there’s kind of four key elements to ecomodernism. One is energy transition. We need to have a lot of energy, but it can’t be fossil fuels. Historically, it tends to be very much a pro-nuclear mode of thinking. I mean, you know, maybe renewables, low carbon energy, but nevertheless high energy input. It tends to focus on biotech in the food system. So, you know, a lot of the original stuff was around GMOs. And now, of course, we’re talking about so-called precision fermentation and, you know, manufactured food. So a lot of my new book is basically critiquing the arguments around the latest biotech elements. The third thing is urbanism. You know, the figure that’s often bandied around is that now the planet is more urban than rural, more people living in towns and cities than the countryside. And so the argument is that that’s a kind of baked in trend: we are a city species now, and we have to embrace that. And I guess kind of related to that is a focus on rewilding. You know, that human activities are causing devastation to wildlife and nature., and the best thing we can do is extricate humanity from wild places, you know, live in cities, minimise our impact and let nature do its own thing. So yeah, that’s the kind of basic ecomodernist package.

Manda: So before we look into that proposal specifically looking at food production, land use and the things that you are specifically interested in, can we take a slightly wider look at ecomodernism? Because it feels like it’s been generated by people who live in cities, have no connection to anything that lives outside of a concrete box, probably grew up playing computer games, and as Simon Michaux has said a lot on this podcast, are completely untethered to any kind of logistical reality. And yet they seem not to be necessarily stupid people. Some of them write as if they are incredibly bright. And I haven’t unpacked this in great depth, and I think you have. Do you have a sense of the world that they are trying to build? Are they genuinely wanting us all to live in concrete boxes with VR headsets on, existing in the metaverse, and eating everything that’s been produced in stainless steel vats? And if they are, what is humanity when we do that? What is their vision for humanity? Or is it just that they hate humanity so much they want to corral us all into small spaces, and then the rest of the world will be free of of the kind of plague of Homo Sapiens?

Chris: Well, there’s a lot of things wrapped up in that question. I mean, I would say, conversely, a lot of them argue that they love humanity, and that it’s the traditional greens that hate humanity and want to get rid of urban civilisation and all the rest of it. But what what I would say is, I mean, they are very smart, a lot of these people. But one of the problems with being smart is that you can use your smartness in different ways. You can accept certain parameters and then drill down deeply within those parameters without seeing the bigger picture. And I think there is a lack of seeing the bigger picture, except in as much as I think some of them would argue: look, we’re so deep in the mire, we’ve got to do things so quickly, that the only way out is more of the same. But
that’s where I think they’re making a really catastrophic error.

But I think it’s interesting the way you frame it, in terms of urban dystopia. You know, my feeling is that there’s a kind of utopian aspect which is sort of like living on a campus in a lovely city like Seattle, say, where they happened to be living many years ago. I mean, you can have a nice life there. You know, there’s some lovely buildings. You can be on the university campus thinking great thoughts. And then you can sort of hike off into the mountains and enjoy nature as a kind of as a spectator. And so I think that is the utopia they want for humanity. But I think the reality is more as you say, there’s a kind of dystopian direction it’s going to go in, which is cheap, manufactured food for the poor, you know, corralling people. It’s going to be, it’s kind of a logic of enclosure for the remaining rural population. I mean, maybe we can come on to that in more detail because there are some interesting complexities there. But I think it’s very much that kind of policy-wonkery solving problems top down, somebody sat at their computer solving the problems of the world for everybody else. And, you know, we’ve talked before about philanthrocapitalism. You know, it’s very much the sort of Bill Gates mentality that: leave it to really smart, rich, clever people like me. And, you know, I’ve got all the solutions, and everyone needs to just listen to me because I’m smart, and I’ve got financial backing. And I think, yeah, that is a really, really deep problem with it. It is implicitly or explicitly a kind of form of colonialism, and a sort of top down solutionism which is going to be foisted on people in really quite problematic ways.

Manda: Yes, I love the word solutionism. It also seems to me that it completely blinkers itself to all of the externalities except for carbon. There’s this, you know, we’ve got to produce energy. We’ve got to have exactly the same amount of energy however we produce it. It’s magical thinking of technology that doesn’t exist yet, and we’re going to solve this one problem that we have perceived and hyped. And we can argue whether it’s true or not later that livestock are bad because methane. And having got our heads around that and decided that a plant based diet is the answer, without looking at any of the externalities of the plant based diet, we’re then going to fix that one problem, and everything else will then be fine. And there’s no systemic thinking there. There’s not even the slightest bit of let’s look at the whole picture, which just seems very, very strange until you begin to drill down, I think, into ‘follow the money’, as ever. And, you know, a man is not going to see the issues with his stance if his income depends on his not seeing it – or indeed, a whole group of people. But let’s take a step in, then, towards the food and farming that is the basis of George Monbiot’s book Regenesis, and then is largely the basis of your book Saying No to a Farm Free Future.

Manda: Because farming is your thing. Small Farm Futures is your blog, and it’s what you’re really focussed on. And so let’s hone in on your specific topic and your field of expertise, which is farming in food systems and rural life, because I think you and I both value that. I know if someone herded me into a city, it would be like putting a tiger into a cage. I would pace for a while and then I would just sit down and die. I couldn’t do it. And I’m completely aware that some people love living in cities and that’s completely fine. But the idea that they’re going to pristine wilderness by herding us all into boxes just leaves me extremely unwell.

So let’s look in more detail at the food and farming system, which is your field, and which is also the basis of Monbiot’s Regenesis. And if you could explain a little bit what we believe the proposal to be, other than my meta analysis of gloop and stainless steel tanks, which doesn’t sound appetising, and probably isn’t what they have in mind. And then let’s look more deeply at what the alternatives might be. First of all, why it doesn’t work in your view, and then how we could do things better, that would solve not only the problem they’ve identified, but the broader problems.

Chris: Okay. So a big focus of the Regenesis book and of this kind of new drive in ecomodernism is so-called precision fermentation, which I think is a bit of a PR term. I try and avoid using it. I use the term manufactured food, which is a bit more vague. But the technique essentially…

Manda: That’s exactly what it is. Because precision fermentation does sound very shiny 21st century… you know, it’s got that sense of gene splicing, and it’s technological, so it must be good. And fermentation: everybody knows fermentation is good!

Chris: I think there’s an element of kind of scienciness plus wholesomeness is a sort of winning formula. But yeah, I mean, the basic method is to take a bacterium that originated in the soil. It’s a hydrogen oxidising bacterium that lives on the margins of anaerobic and anaerobic environment in the soil. So you basically feed it hydrogen, which it oxidises and grows. And so basically the manufactured food technique is to grow this bacterial culture in a stainless steel bioreactor, and you end up with a big load of bacterial biomass, which is very high in protein and that is the basis of the food manufacture. Now we can talk about the the rights and wrongs of that – sorry. Yes?

Manda: No, no, it’s fine. I just wanted to ask about what are the inputs, because I listened to a Nate Hagens podcast a little while ago with somebody who sounded like he knew what he was talking about, saying there are no seven colours of hydrogen. All hydrogen is black. And that means all hydrogen has a huge energy cost, and some of it also has an emissions cost. So if I’ve understood, we take our little friendly bacterium, we feed it hydrogen and oxygen from the air, I guess, and and then it multiplies itself. And then we eat it, because it’s going to taste nice. And  let’s look at actually…

Chris: That’s exactly right. Yeah. I mean, it’s not necessarily that friendly a bacterium. So that’s one set of issues, you know, I’m not a kind of nutritional expert, but yeah, it’s high in nucleic acids and endotoxins. And so there’s a lot of questions about how you get to the final product, but that’s….

Manda: What are the outflows?

Chris: Leaving that aside…

Manda: So you have a potential feedstock that is hugely energy intensive, and then you might have toxic outflows. Yay.

Chris: Yeah. I mean, toxic to humans, anyway. So, you know, that’s something that has to be addressed. And arguably…

Manda: We’ll just put them into the sea. I mean, everything goes in the sea eventually.

Manda: The other day I read about Microplastics at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, it’s terrifying.

Chris: Oh, right.  Yeah, yeah. But I think the key point is the one you made about the hydrogen, so you have to feed it hydrogen. The reason why a lot of ecomodernists are excited about this is because potentially it has less land-take than traditional forms of farming, which is maybe something we can talk about. You know, farming uses sunlight. Sunlight is a free zero carbon input, but it’s diffuse. And therefore, that’s why most people have lived rurally through history, because we have to spread out in order to harness the sun. So, you know, the advantage of this technique from that kind of ecomodernist ‘let’s all live in cities and let’s leave nature alone’ viewpoint is that we can produce food on a lower land area. The problem with it is that you have to feed these bioreactors a bunch of stuff. And as you said, the most important thing is hydrogen. Where do you get the hydrogen from? 99% of hydrogen nowadays comes from fossil fuels. You know, if we’re pushing this as a kind of environmentally friendly technique, it can’t come from fossil fuels. It has to come basically by electrolysing water. In order to do that, you need a lot of electricity. So where do we get low carbon electricity from? Well, we can get it from nuclear power, we can get it from renewables.

Manda: From th sun! This amazing diffuse power source.

Chris: Well yeah, that’s exactly right. You know, if you look at a plant and its leaves, or you look at solar panels, and I talk about solar panels quite a bit in the book, because I think solar electricity is emerging as the most promising form of renewable electricity. But it’s quite land intensive in itself. You know, you need a lot of panels. Now, you need less panels than than if we were growing this protein through traditional farming methods. But obviously the panels, you know, it’s a hugely high tech industrial process that takes a lot of energy itself and produces ultimately a lot of junk that has to be recycled. But the key point, it does depend a lot on your view about energy futures. I know there are some people who kind of think we’re on the cusp of this revolution where we’re going to be producing all this cheap, renewable energy. But you have to bear in mind that with this so-called precision fermentation, what we’re going to have to do is decarbonise all of the existing energy systems. So all of the industry, all of the transport, all of the manufacturing. And then on top of that, instead of using the sun to energise farming, we’re going to have to be using additional electricity to produce all this food.

 

Chris: I try and crunch the numbers as best I can. And it’s hard actually, because there’s a lot of articles boosting this whole technique that don’t really talk about the energy. You have to do quite a bit of detective work to get behind the energy figures. But yeah, you know, to my mind, it’s basically a non-starter energetically. I mean, if we were going to feed all the protein or still more, if we’re trying to feed all the calories to people, we would have to use kind of orders of magnitude more electricity than we than we have available presently. So I think it’s a it’s a non-starter on energetic grounds. And that’s not really been figured into to the debate. And obviously, there’s this huge pressure on all industries to decarbonise. There are industries like steelmaking, for example, where there’s not very many options to decarbonise steelmaking other than using electricity, sort of high, high voltage kind of arc production of steel, for example.

Whereas with farming or food production, there is another option: using the sun. So my argument is if we’ve got this zero carbon source of energy that we can use in a key industry, namely food production, we should be using it. Because we’re going to have a big enough job decarbonising the rest of it without overloading it with another high energy use. So anyway, that’s my little energy rant over. I think there was another part to your question.

Manda: Let’s carry on with where we’re going, because I was very struck in your book by your analysis of the numbers. And I think quoting numbers is something that we could get into. But I don’t think – people need to read the book for the detail. But it seemed to me that the basic maths that had been done on the energy return over energy invested, say of these proteins and whatever else they want us to eat from the vats, was basically fundamentally wrong.

So first of all, it was going to take a lot more energy to produce than they had allowed for. And there was this bizarre idea, exactly as you said, that we’re going to have some kind of infinite energy source such that we’ll be very happy to put huge amounts of energy, it was something like 25% of the current energy production, into producing our food, when in every future world I can look forward to, as in I have the capacity to look forward to, we’re going to massively reduce our energy consumption.

And then the only bit that makes sense is remembering that there are little tiny solar panels called stalks of grass out there on the hills, that are absorbing sun all of the time. And then we have these four-footed converters that turn cellulose that we can’t digest into things that we can. And we can give them a really good life. And, the soil can be restored and regenerated while they’re doing it. And that seems to be one of the big things that the ecomodernists are missing, with their desperate attempt to reduce land surface area.

Manda: Because Regenesis starts with a very good analysis of why industrial farming is an extraordinarily bad idea on every possible metric, from animal welfare – it’s truly obscene to – the idea that you keep cattle on concrete, and then you throw soy that you’ve grown in Brazil at them, and you walk past and you spray them, you know, you drive past in a great big truck and you spray them with water every 20 minutes because otherwise they die, because they’re out in the sun in Nevada, and then you feed them antibiotics because otherwise they’re going to die anyway. And then we’re eating food that has got completely the wrong – say, omega three, omega six balance amongst lots of other things, is full of antibiotics and growth hormones, and we wonder why we’re all very sick.

I’m half way through reading Metabolical by Robert Lustig, which is just – I thought I understood about nutrition, and now I’m realising I don’t. And his absolute bottom line is ‘eat real food’ and industrially farmed food is not real food. I think we don’t take that on board, and its externalities. The huge runoff of nitrates, the huge off-gassing of nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, which is a massive greenhouse gas. So all of the reasons why industrial farming is bad are true. But regenerative farming isn’t all of those things, and it seems that Monbiot has gone okay, industrial farming bad = all farming bad. And you have other ways of looking at farming. You’ve got your three categories of farming. Do you want to talk us into why those might not be bad?

Chris: Yeah, I mean, maybe we should just go straight into the agroecological or regenerative approach. Or maybe another context that, you know, the industrial approach I think is essentially, you can cite lots of figures about how terrible modern agriculture is, but it’s kind of hard to distinguish it partly from the larger economy and what drives people to do as they do. I mean, you know, there’s a lot of finger pointing at farmers, but, you know, farmers are essentially responding to the larger economic drivers. So there’s a lot of criticisms of the farm system that are actually really criticisms of our society generally.

But also farming, you know, is very much a derivative of the fossil energy system. So you mentioned the production of synthetic fertiliser, is a key one. The whole global supply chain and the transport and traction technologies behind modern farming, and the agrochemicals. So, one part of the ecomodernist critique of of existing farming is that it’s catastrophic for nature, which is correct. That doesn’t necessarily have to apply to farming in general. I mean, it is good to leave as much as we can of areas unfarmed, although that kind of has issues as well because you know, it it depends what happens with the unfarmed areas, and what we’re expecting to get out of that.

Chris: But the real onslaught on nature is partly climate change driven by the fossil energy system, and also the extraction of people from the food and farming system, which we’ve gone for all of these labour-sparing technologies, which ultimately are ecocidal technologies. You know, agrochemicals. You can have a huge field with one person in a tractor managing it with synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. It produces cheap food. And that leads into another aspect of this, is that we’ve got this kind of overproduction of essentially grains, you know, cereals and grain legumes that the whole global modern food system is based on that, and they can be produced cheaply in money terms. But as you say, there’s all these externalities that include the onslaught on nature, but also the loss of human communities from farming, you know, the urbanisation.

And going back to that earlier part of our conversation, the urbanisation is, we’re basically talking about slum dwelling. It’s not that ‘university campus in Seattle’ way of life. So yeah, we need to thoroughly change that. But it’s the overproduction of cheap grains, cereals and grain legumes and that leads to agricultural expansion. So there’s a kind of cheapness underlying the whole global farming system. So then farmers or agribusinesses will do whatever they can do to add value. So that might be pouring these grains down the throats of livestock, or increasingly these days producing biofuels, which is a complete disaster in all sorts of ways, and expanding the agricultural land-take in order to try and keep your head above water in the kind of economic arms race.

So we need to think about it in a completely different way. And the way we need to think about it is communities: small communities feeding themselves. Now, that does have nature impacts potentially, but there’s all sorts of ways in which we can bring nature back into our farmed landscape: much more diverse cropping, and cropping for human needs. Partly it’s a feedback mechanism thing. Particularly if you don’t have cheap energy available, you can’t just take a big tractor and lay waste to the whole landscape. You’re basically in this, you are an ecological protagonist like all the other creatures, trying to produce your food. But when you’ve produced enough food, you stop, Yyou don’t try and produce more and cheaper, and flood global markets. And you have to be smart about the way you do it. You khave to start thinking in terms of dealing with pests by having wild predators of the pests, by building in diversity, and all of that feeds through into a more nature-friendly and more land-sharing agriculture.

Chris: And I think one of the problems with the modernist take is essentially, I think Monbiot says somewhere in his book, the problem with intensive agriculture is not the adjective, it’s the noun. I mean, he’s basically just given up on agriculture in general. And I would say, the word intensive has many meanings, and can mislead. But I would say the problem with our agriculture is the adjective: fossil fuelled, industrial, capitalist-driven, whatever the adjectives you want to apply there, it is the modern model of agriculture that is fundamentally problematic. And, you know, it’s not only agriculture, it’s other aspects: road-building, urbanisation, light pollution in terms of insects, and so on. Agriculture is definitely up there. But yeah, the key point is that what’s bad about it is that it’s fossil fuelled, so it’s become a kind of a subsidiary of Fossil Fuel Inc, and that’s the problem. And it’s that economic drive to overproduction that is so problematic. My second rant now over.

Manda: No, no, no. But it’s good. I can’t remember if it was on your blog or somewhere else, but somebody referred to the two types of capitalism that we are intertwined with: carbon capitalism and nitrogen capitalism, and that our farming system is nitrogen capitalism. We are just basically going to give the boys some very big toys to drive around in, and then they can destroy the soil by spraying it with whatever we give them. And again, I think it was in your book, somebody talking about regenerative farming said: yield is vanity, profit is sanity. And I hadn’t really got my head around the extent to which the average industrial farmer might have a turnover of, let’s say, half £1 million a year. But of that, half £1 million, 95% is going to the agribusiness companies. And so their actual income at the end of the year, they’re working for less than the minimum wage. But because the money is flowing through the bank, and because the numbers look big, and because when they meet up it’s all about, ‘Well, how many tonnes per hectare did you get?’ they’re not realising that fundamentally they’re working very long hours, very hard, to keep Monsanto in business.

And part of it seems to me, how they get away with that is that we all, to an extent, internalise the idea that the only way to feed the world is this industrial agriculture, that we will not ‘feed the world’. There are poor starving people somewhere else, but not here, who need to be fed by us using our industrial techniques. And what I really got from your book was the extent to which that myth is not true. Do you want to talk us through a little bit about how other forms of non-industrial agriculture work in other parts of the world, where you don’t see fields of 100 hectares with a single tractor trundling up and down them all day?

Chris: Yeah, I can try and do that. And perhaps, you know, just to build on what you were just saying there, one of the problems is that that notion that we need industrial agriculture to feed people has been really iniquitous. I mean, it’s actually the other way around, that so much poverty and hunger has been caused by this pursuit of cheap grains thathave all sorts of negative consequences. And as you say, a lot of the the farmers, you know, the wealthier farmers, the more mechanised farmers in the richer countries, or richer farmers, you know, nobody is really making much money out of agriculture. You know, they’re pretty leveraged. But there’s this kind of global race to the bottom where more and more production, we flood the market with cheap food commodities that pushesother farmers, poorer farmers out of business or pushes them into, you know, basically everyone gets pushed into specialisation. And that’s an element of the  ecomodernist critique that then becomes problematic, for example, in the UK there’sproduction of sheep in the uplands, and debates about whether that’s a good thing or not. But the trouble is, every region gets forced into monocropping essentially the one or the handful of products that it has some type of comparative advantage over in the global market. And what we need is for communities wherever they are, and obviously everywhere is different, everywhere has its own climate and and history and topography. You know, what we need is for people to be feeding themselves, to be solving these big global problems that are ultimately going to be solved at the local level by people feeding themselves, and furnishing their livelihoods.

Chris: So that’s what we need to get into, not this kind of global race to the bottom ofwhatever the cheapest way of producing food is. So an example here, I’m living on this little holding with my wife and a bunch of other people in Somerset, and we produce vegetables, is our main thing. But we have a little bit of livestock, not much, and we have a lot of trees, which have all sorts of functions and also have a mind of their own. We planted a bunch of trees, and then nature takes over and says, Oh, actually Chris, you shouldn’t have planted those trees there. I’m going to do something else, you know? So it’s like that’s part of what wildness is, I think. It’s the antithesis of ecomodernism. It’s like not trying to control all the variables and trying to solve everything. It’s actually being a protagonist in a world that you’re not completely in control of. But obviously, you do want to control it to a degree. You want to produce food. And the UK, historically we have imported a lot of fruit and vegetables in recent years because it’s labour intensive basically, and modern farming labour is dear, fossil energy is cheap.

Chris: And so anything that you can do with fossil energy in rich countries, we’ve tended to go down that route, and then either import cheap labour, or import products of cheap labour. So what we do here is grow vegetables and produce our own subsistence as much as we can on the site. And that brings nature in, and it brings people into the site. And those two things are not contradictory. I mean, it’s true that if you want to have tigers and wolves and such like, you do need some big wild spaces in the world, but that can be fostered by not over-producing these cheap grains, by people actually producing the food that they need, you know, good wholefood, locally. Because then that has huge implications for social transformation.

And I think that’s where we get stuck into the ecomodernist narrative. It’s like the idea of decarbonising, the idea of people having access to small areas of land to produce their food. Then Monbiot, in some of his recent articles, has talked about a bucolic idyll. I mean that’s just the wrong way of thinking about it. It’s not about some romantic idea of going back to the past. It’s about solving our livelihood problems from the ground up. But it does require letting go of that modernist mindset that urban, more energy, more mechanisation, more technology, is inherently good.

Chris: So, yeah, ppeople are figuring this out in all sorts of ways locally. I think that’s one of the problems with this whole debate, is that with our short term modern media mindset, we want people to come on and say, Yeah, I’ve got the answer and it’s this: it’s precision fermentation, or it’s nuclear energy, or whatever it is. There isn’t one answer. There are lots of answers. There are going to be different places and different people. And so we need to somehow foster a culture of that kind of pluralism, and that kind of bottom-up creating livelihoods, and not necessarily solving problems. I talk about this a bit in the book. There are ways that we can address problems socially as well as technologically. And we can’t always solve problems, but we can learn to live with them in various ways. That’s what you do as a farmer every day. Sometimes producing higher yield is good, but often that can come at a cost. And it’s about a complex set of trade-offs that you’re wrestling with all the time, not some simple solution and not some simple drive to high yield or low cost or whatever it might be. So that, in a nutshell, is how I would answer that.

Manda: Yes. And it opens so many avenues to go down because yet again, we get to the idea that this is a systemic issue, that it’s being driven by economics of growth. I don’t hear any de-growth narrative in any of the modernist tracts. If it’s there and someone listening is an ecomodernist, please tell me about it. But it does seem to be predicated on still producing as much stuff as possible from the smallest possible area. And you wrote in the book, the idea in a nutshell is that to reduce the impact of farming on wildlife, the two main options are either to reduce the area that’s farmed – and I would say that’s obviously there – let’s build a precision fermentation plant and leave the farms and replace it with wildlife habitat, which is land-sparing – or else to make farmed areas themselves more wildlife-friendly, which is land-sharing. And you say best of all, of course, would be to do both at the same time. And you go on to say there are ways to spare land other than increasing yields, and increasing yields doesn’t necessarily spare land. And I wonder how we see, you and I, a future 20, 30, 40 years from now where the ecomodernist way hasn’t worked because it can’t work, because there isn’t enough stuff. Per Simon Michaux, the material flows are not going to allow for precision fermentation vats in every village, or building cities up to being five, six, seven times the size they are now and herding everybody in. We just can’t do that because the stuff isn’t there. If the land sharing and sparing altogether comes about,what you’re calling the Small Farm Future, how do we encourage more people back to the land, and what does it look like if we do? What are we wearing, what are we eating, how are we living, that doesn’t feel like we’ve just switched off the 21st century clock and gone back to medieval Europe?

Chris: Right. Well, it’s a tricky one. I mean, whichever vision of the future one espouses these days, I think there’s a rough road ahead. As I was just saying, there are no simple solutions. I think the way that it plays out at its best is, and I can see various sort of utopian and dystopian outcomes with all scenarios. But already, I think a lot of farmers, for exactly the reason that you were just mentioning, they’re so leveraged, you know, they’re so… there’s so many inputs. And the prices that they get are so poor that a lot of farmers are already stepping off that input intensive treadmill, and trying to engage  on a more human scale, more locally, more directly with customers, and so on.

And meanwhile, a lot of people, a lot of non-farmers are getting interested in food, wanting to grow fruit and veg in their gardens, wanting to have an allotment, getting involved in community gardens, and gardening our spaces. And I think that is the trend that we have to build on. A lot of farmers are getting into stacking enterprises on their farms that are bringing more people back. So rather than saying I’ve got to have bigger fields, bigger tractor, get rid of the hedges, try and win at that game of overproduction that ultimately, as we were saying, they’re never going to win at.

Chris: So it’s more a case of downscaling, bringing other people in. I know a lot of other small market growers like us, who have got some land on an existing larger farm. I mean, obviously where that gets tricky is long term, I think the politics of land ownership, or access to land, that is something I think is the debate that we really need to be having now, is how can people access land in a secure way that gives them the ability to produce food locally for themselves in local feedback mechanisms? And the politics of that, I think are going to be tough in a lot of places. But potentially, if you have people who are pressing for access to land and we’ve got a situation where chemical inputs are becoming manifestly more problematic – you know, higher prices – a lot of farmers are looking for ways to have better succession on their land, and to have more people involved. So there is the potential for a kind of virtuous circle of people, cost of living crisis, price of food in the shops going up, trying to think about being an ecological protagonist locally, trying to develop a complex, wise food system locally.

Chris: If we can find ways to come together and get access to local food and local production and see ourselves as part of the process, then I think there are possibilities. But there’s no two ways about it. It’s potentially, it’s going to be difficult and it’s going to involve conflict. But the same is true, you know, of the sort of eco modernist. Yeah, absolutely. And my fear is that the ecomodernist dystopia is going to be like, well, we need to preserve nature so we need to get people out of the countryside. That’s how a lot of urbanisation has been fostered historically, is essentially give people no option but to be in the city. And then you’re dependent on all these processes of high energy input, controlling to the Nth degree the lives that people lead. And I don’t think that’s going to work long term.

So we’ve got to move, I think, towards smaller scale, more localised systems of livelihood production in which people are protagonists within that, and are part of the ecological feedback mechanisms. And that ultimately involves a politics of access to land, which we haven’t really had in this country for many years, because we have been so sold on this kind of urban high capital, high energy route. But that’s going to change whether we like it or not, I think.

Manda: Yes, let’s look at that. Because reading your previous book and reading around it, the whole of the enclosures, not just in Scotland, but the herding of people into urban areas in England, seemed to me a very deliberate process by the holders of capital to make people dependent on the jobs that they wanted them to do. Because if they stayed in the country, they were basically self-sufficient, and they could say no to being made to work in a mill and losing their arms, or whatever else. Or as somebody once said, what they were offered was coming out of the country where it’s dirty, wet and cold. You can live in this nice clean city (slum) and you and your children, your grandchildren, your great grandchildren for 7 or 8 generations, are going to die horribly of typhoid. But by the eighth generation, they’ll have internal plumbing and central heating. Yay! And that was not the greatest offer in the world. And now we have the ecomodernist idea, which seems to have amongst its many, many other glitches, the uberglitch that somehow we, the people, are going to retain some kind of control over the food that we’re eating, and it’s not going to all be in the hands of the capitalists who currently control the industrial food system. And quite how Monbiot or anybody else thinks we’re going to wrestle that back is a great mystery. And reading Robert Lustig, he says 93% of Americans currently have metabolic disease, which is to say their mitochondria don’t work. There are babies being born obese, being born with mitochondria that don’t work, and getting fatty liver syndrome, which used to be the purview of the alcoholics in their 60s.

Manda: And they’re getting it now as children because of a food system that offers people cheap and addictive processed food that is killing them. So either this is a very slow technique to get rid of humanity, possibly – but I would have thought if you really wanted to get rid of humanity, there are faster ways. Or it’s just people who do not give anything at all, just looking to make money. And they’re going to continue to do that. You know, Bill Gates has said he thinks he’s going to make an awful lot of money out of processed proteins. And guess who is funding The Guardian, and a lot of the Ecomodernist movement? Follow the money. So let’s look at the politics of access to land, because one of the other things that I heard recently, someone who said – we’re going to have to go to Chatham House rules here, because I can’t say who told me this, but they had been in conversation with ‘the Minister’, who I assumed to be the current Minister of Agriculture, who said they would be really happy with 40% churn in the farming industry. And that’s not small farmers going out of business and other small farmers buying their land. That’s small farmers going out of business and friends of the current government buying their land, and turning it into whatever it is they want to turn it into. 40%.

Chris: I think there’s a huge naivete in all of this and in the kind of urban argument that, somehow we’re going to be wealthy enough, and we’re going to have enough energy at our command, to keep this whole show on the road. This is one of the things that really concerns me about ecomodernism globally, to use an appropriate agricultural metaphor, it’s putting all our eggs in one basket. If you think of these huge cities globally, Mumbai or Mexico City, there’s a huge amount of energy to service them, to get the water, to get the food, to get all the materials in, and then to process all the wastes. Now, if you think that we’re going to have this kind of abundant clean energy future, maybe you can entertain that notion. But I think the reality is, I mean, you talked about nitrogen capitalism earlier. That was exactly howthat first phase of urbanisation happened. Prior to that, a nice book by Carolyn Steel, Hungry City, where prior to the modern period, you didn’t really have big cities apart from the odd colonial one like Rome or then somewhere like London, because you needed to service them from their hinterlands. The modern mega cities, you can’t do that.

Chris: And so anyone living in those kind of cities, they’re really investing in the notion that there’s going to be this smooth, highly energy intensive flow of goods in and wastes out. And that’s not going to work energetically and materially, and also, geopolitically. If you look at the the global centres, you look at all the issues now with Russia and Ukraine say, and Ukraine as a global breadbasket. It’s an incredibly high risk game to think that we can concentrate all these people in these cities and continue servicing them. And there is an ambiguity there in the ecomodernist approach, I think, where they say, people like me have got it all wrong: they’re not arguing for urbanisation, or at least not forced urbanisation. Like all they want is for people to stop farming in damaging ways, and we can rewild, and there’ll be lots of work involved in looking after hedges and wetlands and so on. And I think that’s naive. It was the same argument with the enclosures in Britain: there’ll be lots of work building hedges and fences. And there was – for a few years. And then, you know…

Manda: We all go off to Canada, because we can.

Chris: Exactly. And then we’re looking at huge underemployment, or unemployment, in the countryside. And I think it’ll be the same thing. I also think there’s a naivete in the Monbiot approach to manufactured food where he views it as kind of like a local cottage industry, with every town or village having its little manufactured food plant. And I think this is an important point where if you look at manufacturing industry globally, it is inherently monopolistic. A hundred years ago there was, I think there’s a figure, something like 300 different makes of car in France alone, that were all manufactured in these little local garages. There’s not even 300 makes of car globally now. There’s a huge industrial tendency towards monopolisation, driven by energy and manufacturing economies of scale…

Manda:  Accumulation of capital.

Chris: And the accumulation of capital. Exactly. So capital seeks the best returns on capital, and it will be the same with manufactured food. And the point that the Ecomodernists make is, well, the food system is already highly corporatized and concentrated. And that’s true, but much less so than the manufacturing system, because it’s harder to turn food production and land ownership into a corporate manufacturing style monopoly. You can’t really just have one factory somewhere producing fruit and vegetables say, but you can have one…

Manda: One person owns all the land.

Chris: Well, yeah, but there’s all sorts of reasons why there has been a tendency towards land concentration and corporatisation in the food system. But there’s all sorts of countervailing tendencies, in a way that isn’t really the case with manufacturing industry. So, okay, there’s not just one car factory, but, you know, how many car factories are there globally? And this is a real danger, I think, with the manufactured food idea is that in principle you can say, oh, well, we need to fight open source and  keep it local. But how successful has that fight been in every other dimension of manufacturing industry? Whereas with land access, you know, it is also an unequal fight. I’m not trying to suggest that there’s easy access to land and local food, but much less so. If you look around any area, there’s gardens, allotments, small farms, people producing food in all sorts of ways. And that’s what we need to amplify: that political fight to have access to produce local food. It’s much easier to build that on essentially ecological food production than it is on industrial food manufacture.

Manda: I want to move to ecological food production in keystone species in a second, but I’m still really interested in how you see the politics of access to land playing out. Because current government, happy with 40% churn which is to say, essentially, land moving up the capital ladder. I can’t imagine any other government of any other colour likely to be elected in the UK in the near future changing that, and much as I would like a different political system, I don’t know that we’ve got a huge amount of time to create one. How do you see us regaining our access to our land?

I would love it if every village had a zone around it of, I don’t know, ten miles where everybody within that zone had access to the land. And then villages would grow, and people would farm the land. One hopes. Some of them would turn them into motorbike rallying areas. But quite soon that wouldn’t happen, because we’re going to run out of oil. How would we sensibly regain access to land? And to what extent do you think we would begin to move towards a model of cities ex-urbanising? People coming out of the cities to villages because they want to work the land? It seems to me, given the possibility, a lot of people actually enjoy growing stuff.

Chris: Yeah, well, I don’t want to sound overly optimistic and sort of present this as something that’s going to be easy, but I will try and give my most optimistic version of it, which is kind of along the lines that you said. I mean, the old idea of the green belt was exactly as you said, for towns and villages to have green land around them that could produce food. And it’s sort of become this, oh, let’s keep people out of the countryside and not have people living there. You know, we need to get out of that mindset of people living in the countryside being inherently a bad thing. I think that will happen, partly because, as you said, the accumulative nature of the global economy, the fact that more and more people, you know, the old idea of having a career that you would get gradually more prosperous and your children would be richer than you were. And we’re all on this kind of upwards trajectory.

That doesn’t wash anymore. You know, young people are under no illusions that they’re going to have this lucrative career. So I think they are quite key in terms of: can’t buy land, can’t buy a house, can’t get a steady job. But I want to have some kind of meaningful existence. Likewise, cost of living crisis, from a top down government perspective, keeping affordable food in the shops I think is going to get harder and harder. So I think in one way or another, and hopefully it will be in a positive, manageable way, there will be people moving out of cities looking to – ultimately it’s going to happen because it has to happen. As I said earlier, because sunlight is diffuse, we have to be diffuse. And the quicker we can cotton onto that, the better. But the way I can see it potentially working is there’s a lot of farmers who are struggling to make things work within the existing system. There will be a lot of people locally within rural and agricultural areas wanting land, wanting to produce food. The ideal is that if those people can come together and create a politics of land access, then the problem is not that we don’t have enough land, it’s that we don’t do the right things on it, and don’t have the right people on it. You could, of course, get into some kind of landlordist situation, in which the existing owners of land are like, Great, you want a bit of land? Well, fine. Show me the colour of your money.

Chris: That’s where the class politics have to come in. We have to have what some anthropologists call a moral economy of food production and access to land. Exactly how the tenure arrangements work out, whether we’re talking about commons or individual ownership or renting arrangements, we can get into that level of detail maybe another day. But the key thing is that there is access to land, that there is a moral economy in which people have access to land. But I think that’s only going to come from bottom-up grassroots pressure, of people making the case: we need land. Other countries, obviously it’s much more of a living issue. Like in Brazil, for example, the landless workers movement. There’s a lot of peasant movements globally where the whole idea of preserving peasant agriculture and having access to land is very much more alive politically than it has been in rich countries like the UK or the US or Western Europe. But ultimately I think it’s going to be the same battle.

Manda: And do you think – sticking to Western Europe, or at least and North America, the Westernised, highly industrial world, I’m not seeing a lot of ground-up political pressure actually working. The political class seems to be immune to any attempt to sway them from above. Do you think it’ll, do you think that’s breaking down fast enough that we’ll be able to create that?

Chris: Okay. So now time for my dystopia. I mean, my fear is no. And what we’re going to have is a real, potentially a kind of ultra-nationalist, sort of like we are in this global emergency. We need to keep our end up in this fight with all these other countries.

Manda: Let’s not go there. I regret asking this question already.

Chris: That’s why it’s so important to get this message out. I think it’s so important to critique the ecomodernist approach. Because I think the ecomodernist approach, it sort of well-meaning. It’s kind of like, let’s try and make a nice lifestyle, let’s try and deal with all these environmental problems and make a nice urban lifestyle as available to as many people as possible. But there is a dystopian undercurrent which is essentially: do what you’re told, let the policymakers figure this out. And given that they won’t be able to, where do we go from there? I think somewhere not particularly appealing. And that’s why local food systems, local agroecology, local access to land. I’m not saying it’s easy, but that’s where we have to go, I think.

Manda: Okay. So in our last few minutes, I want to read a little bit of your book. ‘We’re unlikely to succeed in rewilding farmed landscapes if we don’t start rewilding ourselves, not through idle contemplation of nature, but through generating our livelihoods judiciously from our local ecological base’ which is what you’ve been saying all the way along.

But you talk towards the end of your book about becoming a ‘good keystone species’. And given that we’ve glitched over the dystopia bit, the idea of becoming a good keystone species seems to me potentially transformative. Because it acknowledges we are a keystone species, which I think the almost white supremacist colonialism of the ecomodernists really seems to glitch over. I am reminded a lot of my discovery that Ansel Adams, who was one of my childhood heroes when I was really into photography, but every single one of his beautiful, beautiful pictures had the unfortunate people who actually lived on the landscape pushed just out of shot.

And it seems that we ignore the fact that most of North America, the Amazon, the places that we think of as pristine wild wilderness, partly because Ansel Adams’ pictures and others like it, were being managed by the people who lived there. They weren’t pristine wild. They were part, humans were part of the landscape as a keystone species. So your idea that what we need in the modern world is not to step back into medieval farming, but to become a good conscious, self-conscious keystone species, strikes me as being a key narrative going forward. So can you tell us more about how you came to that, what it means for you, and how you see it playing out?

Chris: Right. Well, I mean, it’s funny. A keystone species in ecological parlance just means one that has a disproportionate impact on its environment. There’s obviously debates about what it all means. But if you think about an animal like an elephant or a beaver, they’re kind of habitat engineers. And obviously there’s this whole narrative about reintroducing beavers to Britain and people are like, it’s great: watershed management, it creates wetlands, it manages floods, it brings in other species. But humans are also habitat engineers. And yet we don’t seem to be a good keystone species.

It’s like great people coming in and building cities and industrial farms, you know, that’s not so good. So, I guess my question in that part of the book is, I think humans, we can’t help but be a keystone species. You know, we have a kind of outsized impact. But can we be a good keystone species like the beaver, and not some some sort of cataclysmic force on nature? And part of that is kind of what you were alluding to. I think there has been this notion, maybe we don’t want to get too into the depths of it, but the history of ecology was very much this idea of a climax ecological state that if nature is left alone in any particular place, you tend to get a certain type of flora and fauna.

Chris: So here where I am in southern England, that would be deciduous woodland, for example. But a ewer idea is that there’s always disturbance. It may be that if things are left to their own devices, it would tend to something or other, but things never are left to their own devices. There are always agents of disturbance, and keystone species are one key aspect of that. So grazing herbivores, you don’t necessarily get forest succession, because you have elephants or deer or whatever it might be, that have other ideas.

Fire is another big one. Not a big issue in Britain, although perhaps increasingly so. But in a lot of parts of the world, fire very much controls the kind of flora that you get. And as you were alluding to, a lot of indigenous peoples worldwide have used fire regimes to create certain kinds of habitats. And my argument is basically, if we do that well, if you engineer the habitat, well, then a lot of good.. that can produce what we want, food and other items, but also be positive for nature.

Chris: Disturbance regimens are not intrinsically bad for natural – I mean, they might be bad for some creatures, but they’re good for other ones. And so there’s the whole sort of balance. But the problem is that we have too much energy available in the system, and we have too many human symbolic systems of which capital, I think, is the key one. So we have all sorts of ways of kind of uber-disturbance. It’s not kind of tweaking the local ecosystem to the benefit of the humans that happen to live there, that has some wildlife impacts but is also beneficial to other wildlife. It’s kind of making over the whole world in the image of a of a kind of modern Western consumer. And that’s not being a good keystone species. That is using energy and using capital badly. And the problem that I hint at in that part of the book is that both in nature and in human systems, colonialism is basically parasitising somebody else’s ecology and drawing all of that resource from them to the colonial core. And that ultimately is what modernism is. That’s why ecomodernism doesn’t work, because modernism doesn’t work because it’s based on….

Manda: The problem is with the noun, not the adjective.

Chris: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. It doesn’t work because it’s a high energy, high capital extractive system. Whereas if you’re a keystone species acting as a local protagonist within a wider ecology that you are in some sense… Aldo Leopold, pioneering ecologist, has that wonderful phrase, ‘a plain member and citizen of the biotic community’. If we think of ourselves in that way, which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t farm, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t hunt necessarily or kill animals or plants or cut down trees. It’s where we draw the lines. It’s how we draw that into a renewable ecology is the key thing. And that’s where I think we need to go with the keystone species idea.

Manda: And what seems to me the big question that comes out of this is where do we draw our value system and our aims and goals in being a keystone species? Because we assume.. I read today that a dung beetle is a keystone species. It’s not planning the impact that it has. It’s just being a dung beetle. What we’ve discovered by just being people is that while we’re just being people for whom the accumulation of capital is our end goal, we’re destroying everything around us. We’re not being a good keystone species. I would draw my values, aims and goals from spiritual practice. But that’s not for everybody. How would you help people to draw aims, goals and values of being a good keystone species? What would you suggest that they do in order to consciously be keystone species?

Chris: Well, I think you’re exactly right to draw it back to spiritual values. And I thinkagain, with this modernism term, that’s been part of the problem. The whole notion of the Enlightenment is a sort of idea that everybody before us was unenlightened. And now we’ve seen the light. And what is modernism? What is enlightenment? It’s basically more capital, more energy, more, more, more, more. More growth, you know? And we need to find an ethic of limits and of incorporation into a wider system. And there are spiritual practices. I think we do need to, I mean, I talk a little bit at the very end of the book about distributism that emerged from Catholic social teaching. I’m not saying that that’s the only or the right way to go necessarily, but it’s interesting that it draws from a kind of pre-modern tradition of which all great religions and basically all enduring people have a kind of spiritual orientation to what we are, and who we are, and what our place in the world is. And I think a great problem with where we are now is that we are the children of an ideology that is essentially scorned that and focussed on growth, essentially. Growth of capital, of energy, of humanity. I don’t see there to be any… there isn’t a kind of ecomodernist style solution where it’s like, don’t worry everybody, I’ve got the answer. Here it is. Here’s your spirituality for you, just unscrew the cap and there it is. I think this is a long term….

Manda: Or switch on the app, these days.

Chris: Yes, switch on the app. Yeah sorry, already I’m showing how behind the times I am. Yeah. It’s a long-term cultural process. I’ve read Tyson Yunkaporta, an Australian Aboriginal thinker. Sand Talk is really good in just showing the length of time, that this is a long term cultural project that we need to be part of. But where I would start with it is just that acknowledgement of as you say, a spiritual practice about limits, and also a material practice about livelihood creation. So it’s like: I am going to try and produce food, or key myself into where I get my food and the other material aspects of my life. I’m going to try and take an interest in that, in a way that is aware of limits, and is aware of the consequences of it, and aware of the ecology that it’s part of.

I mean, we’re starting from a low base and we don’t have much time before some of this stuff just explodes in our faces. But at least to start is somewhere. So to be aware of that kind of spiritual context, to be aware that we need to build this long term, you know, we need to figure out access to land. We need to figure out producing food and other material requisites as part of a renewable ecology. We just need to be engaging with this. And the culture will come long term. And all we can do is as individuals and as communities is try and feed into that process as constructively as we can.

Manda: Oh, that felt like a really good place to end. I’ve got so many more questions. Okay. We’re not going to end just yet. So what I’m hearing from you is that inculcating a land based spirituality is a long term project. We don’t have much time. I’m wondering, is it your experience – and I don’t know, have you had people who were more urban coming to work with you, and do they find a sense of a land based spirituality? It doesn’t have to have a focus even. It can be a kind of agnostic, atheist, land based spirituality, but just being with the Land. Does that give them a more systemic view? I’ve got three S’s written down here, which is Systems, Spiritual and Service. That sense that once you are spending every day with your hands in the soil, and being aware of when it rains, and of what the water does on the land. Does that help a sense of a systems thinking that then begins to bring us more spiritual, and then creates that sense…

I have a vision of moving beyond Universal Basic Income to Universal Basic Services, and of course one of the absolute core Universal Basic Services is access to good, actually nutritious, not poisonous food. And that being part of that service becomes part of our aims, goals and values in life. So that was quite a broad question. But are you finding that if people come on to the Land that they find a connection to the Land?

Chris: Yes, I think so. And I think the more that you are… it’s difficult if you’ve got someone who just comes for a day or two and it’s like, oh, nice trees, what a nice sunny day. The real work is if you’re living and breathing it long term, and being part of the cycles. But it’s funny, this whole sort of notion of bucolic idylls. I think there is a positive side that we should emphasise. I sort of try and avoid that because I think, you know, there’s so much more hard graft kind of stuff in why we need to embrace being a good keystone species that isn’t about some kind of up in the air sort of idyll.

But nevertheless, when I was younger for a year or two, I had an office job in London. And nobody ever asked if they could come free and sit next to me on my desk in an open plan office, whereas so many people want to come and work the land. And I think we need to embrace that and acknowledge that,there is something, that bucolic is not necessarily bad, but there’s a lot of hard graft and a lot of thinking. And also being aware, I think, of the fossil fuel basis of modern societies.

Chris: So it’s very easy to reach for a fossil fuel solution, you know, whether that’s using a machine or using some kind of chemical product. But as soon as you’re aware that you’re doing that, it immediately kind of keys you into ecological thinking. I mean, the other thing that stuck in my mind very much there is we have a Forest School on our land, with qualified Forest School teachers who bring kids in from local schools and often, kids who are struggling in the mainstream educational system. And one thing they do is, is something like picking up – I remember one of them telling me that sometimes you can give some of these kids who’ve never really participated, you know, never really engage with nature at all, give them a woodlouse and put it in their hand. And just seeing this other creature with its autonomous existence is absolutely gobsmacking for these kids. And I think it’s keying into that wonder, and keying into that sense of…

I talk in the book about autonomy and community. I think it’s important to be able to see ourselves as autonomous protagonists and take care of ourselves, but to be aware that inherently we are part of a human community and also a much wider non-human community. And yeah, there’s there’s endless ways that we can key into that. But I think being in nature, and particularly, not just this idle contemplation of going for a nice walk, like your Ansel Adams example is a great one – not to screen other people out, or the indigenous dwellers out, and wonder at the mountains, but actually to think, okay, how would I get food in this environment? How do I create a livelihood that doesn’t destroy this environment? is really important. And I think even if the starting place is some herbs on your windowsill, or some veg in your front garden, or an allotment, there’s endless ways we can start making ourselves a part of that. Given the challenges we face and the time frame, it is daunting. But that’s where we start. I really do believe so.

Manda: Brilliant. Okay. That does feel like a good place to end. Not that I don’t have a lot more questions, but we’ll come back for a third time at some point in the future. Maybe when you’ve written your next book, because you seem very prolific. Super-impressed that you managed to farm and write at the same time. So, Chris, is there any last words that you wanted to say or was that a good place for you to end also?

Chris: I’m pretty happy with that, yeah. Unless there’s any particular burning questions that I didn’t answer.

Manda: No, I think we covered quite a lot of ground, and I think it was really fantastic and useful. In that case, thank you very much for coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast.

Chris: Thank you. It’s a pleasure.

Manda: And that is it for another week. Enormous thanks to Chris for taking the time to write this book. It was originally going to be a blog, or a pamphlet, in the kind of 18th century tradition of a few words on why Mr. Monbiot is completely wrong. And instead, it turned into this very beautiful, incisive, thoughtful look at why Mr. Monbiot is entirely wrong, but also how we could live that is better. I really don’t want to live in concrete boxes with headsets on, cruising a metaverse while my body turns into a blob fed with yet another product of the industrial food system, every single product of which has so far made us very, very sick.

There is no processed food that is good to eat, and quite why anybody thinks that growing protein in a vat, and missing out all of the other things that we have evolved to need, is going to be a good thing? This is beyond me. It can’t be. It’s a logical fallacy, as well as being spiritually, utterly destructive. So thank you to Chris for delving into Monbiot’s book in ways that I could not, because it just does too many bad things to my blood pressure, and for having the critical thinking skills to lay out not only where the logical fallacies are, but also how we could be different, and how we could be systemically different.

Manda: Because I hope was clear in our conversation: this is not a single issue problem. We are in the middle of a polycrisis, and fixing one tiny part, because it happens to fit the agenda of people who think they’re going to make a lot of money from selling us manufactured proteins, is not the answer and can never be. We need to start thinking critically and systemically. And if we can begin to think as a good keystone species, then I think we could have a way forward. It feels good to me.

So have a read of Chris’s book. It’s out early July. You can pre-order it now. I will put the links to the paperback version, the e-book version and the audio version read by Chris in the show notes. Head there. Order it now. That is your homework for this week, people. And before we go, Chris and I will be at the Marches Real Food and Farming Conference at Linley Hall in Shropshire on the 15th of September, probably discussing some of the things that we covered in this podcast.

But more likely, I think we’ll just be talking about regenerative farming, and how and why it works, and what a small farm future could look like. So if you’re in the West Midlands of the UK around the second weekend of September, we would love to see you there. That’s our public service announcement over, and we will be back next week as ever, with another conversation.

Manda: Huge thanks to Alan Lowles of Airtight Studios in Manchester for the sound production. To Caro C for the music at the head and foot. To Faith Tillery for setting up our YouTube channel with huge amounts of work. Faith has moved all of the audios to videos, not videos of me, you will be glad to know, because that would be a deeply unpleasant experience. But stills, with an interesting little circle that does weebly things as people talk. It’s lovely to look at, and I gather a lot of people listen to podcasts on YouTube, so you can do that.

I will put a link in the show notes, although there is also now a link on all of the pages that have been transferred over, so you can go and catch up on past podcasts on YouTube if that’s a thing. Who knows? Anyway, we’re trying. Beyond that, thanks to Ann Thomas and Gill Coombs for the transcripts. I’ve lost track of who’s doing what this week. And as always, thank you to you for listening. And if you know of anybody else who wants to know how and why becoming a good keystone species could be the future of humanity, then please do send them this link. And that’s it for now. See you next week. Thank you and goodbye.

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