Episode #166 Living in a Post-Carbon, Post-Capital, Post Urban world – with Chris Smaje, author of A Small Farm Future
What does our post-carbon, post urban, post-industrial future look like and how do we get there in ways that allow the current and future generations of life on this planet to flourish?
Chris Smaje is a social scientist by training and a small-scale farmer by occupation. For the past 19 years, he has co-worked a small farm in Somerset, in southwest England. Previously, he was a university-based social scientist, working in the Department of Sociology at the University of Surry and the Dept of Anthropology at Goldsmith’s College. His focus was aspects of social policy, social identities and the environment. Since switching focus to the practice and politics of agro-ecology, he’s written for various publications, such as The Land, Dark Mountain and Permaculture Magazine, as well as academic journals such as Agroecology and Sustainable Food systems. He blogs at Small Farm Futures and has previously been a director of the Ecological Land Co-op.
His latest book, A Small Farm Future, forms the basis of this conversation – in it, he lays out Ten Crises of our times, which, put together, create the Wicked Problem of this moment in history. From there, the remaining three parts of the book explore the ways in which rural localism can offer a way for humanity to see itself through the numerous crises we currently face both in the richer and poorer countries.
In the podcast, we take the book as our starting point (really, you should read it) and look less at the why, of rural localism and more at the ways it might happen and how it might work. We delve into the ways humanity has organised in the past (with deep passing references to Graeber and Wengrow’s brilliant book, The Dawn of Everything) and how we might self-organise in the future. We look at the future of energy, at our conceptions of prosperity, the ways small farms can feed the world – and the absolute insanity of the ‘precision fermentation’ model of feeding eight billion people while enabling them to flourish free of corporate capture.
Manda: This week I have the great joy of speaking with someone who’s been a hero of mine since my Schumacher days, one of the most articulate activists of our time and a proponent of regenerative small farms. So lots of boxes to tick. Chris Smadje started off his professional life as an academic. He worked at the University of Surrey and then in the Department of Anthropology at Goldsmiths College. His focus then was aspects of social policy, social identities and the environment. And then 17 years ago, he gave up academia to walk the talk and became a farmer. And now he co farms a fairly small acreage in Somerset, which for those of you outside the UK, is in the nice Southwest, almost the middle of the south of England. Chris writes the Small Farm Futures blog, which is one of those on my absolute must read lists. And then in 2020, to my great delight, Chelsea Green published his book, A Small Farm Future, which forms the basis of this conversation. In it, he lays out the ten crises of our times, which, when we put them together, create what we’re calling the wicked problem of this moment in history. That’s not a phrase we made up. That’s one that’s in general use. From there, the remaining three quarters of the book explore the ways in which rural localism can offer a way for humanity to see itself through the crisis that we face, in both the global north and the global South.
Manda: So I genuinely think that if you’re interested in these fields at all, you’re going to want to read Chris’s book, and we’re taking that as the starting point of the podcast, rather than looking at what did you write, Tell us about the book. So we’re looking less at the why we need rural localism, because that’s all in the book. And more at the ways of how it might happen, how it might work, how it might feel like when we get there. Along the way, we delve fairly deeply into the ways humanity has organised in the past, and we absolutely do reference Graeber and Wengroes The Dawn of Everything, which is, as you’ll know, if you listen to any of these podcasts, one of the big light bulb books of the last few years for me. Chris has read it too. So we’re able to look at some of the findings of that and then apply them, not to how we lived in the past, but to recognising that we were able to self-organize in the past and therefore we can do it in the future. Which is of course the entire premise of this podcast. So with great delight, people of the podcast, please do welcome Chris Smadje, author of A Small Farm Future.
Manda: So Chris Smadje, superhero for a long time, I am extremely grateful for you coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast. Good morning and how is it in your beautiful farm?
Chris: Good morning. Yeah, well, great to be here. It’s very nice. Weather’s looking good. So I’m good to go.
Manda: Good. Thank you. If it’s anything like here, it’s feeling like April out there, which is lovely, except it’s not April and we’re not used to it. It did feel like January last week, it was definitely very cold. So I had a podcast question that I was asking everybody, and we’re into the second month of the New year and I’ve already abandoned it, because I think there is so much that we could be talking about on small farm futures that I don’t need the conversation lead in. We might ask it at the end. Instead, we’re at episode 165, I think. So we have a basic premise of the current system is broken and we need to move forward. And reading your book for the second time, I made a list of everything that we’re at the end of. And what I’ve got is we’re at a post carbon, post growth, which is to say post capitalist. Post industrial and reading your book, realising that probably means post urban. And certainly Simon Michaud would agree with that. A lot of the things that I’m exploring are saying that the big cities of today are over.
Manda: I would like to delve into that a little bit because we had cities for the last 10,000 years that didn’t run on carbon. Where are we going to be living is a big question. I think your whole concept of political economy and the way our current politics works is really interesting. And I would say our current democratic system is not democratic and needs to end. So we’re at a kind of post current democratic system place, and in all of that, we’re also at a post-industrial place. Given all of those are over and you can question any of them. The next question is, so where are we going? What does it look like and feel like and how do we get there? And I completely get I’ve been asking those questions for the past four years, and so far everyone has said that’s really complicated, we don’t really know. But it feels increasingly urgent that we at least begin to explore what might be possible and that your book definitely does that. So over to you. Where are we going? How do we get there?
Chris: Tough questions to answer, but yeah, thanks for asking them. And, you know, in some ways, I think, you know, the real thing is the realisation that that’s where we’re at. You know, I sometimes feel that I’m sort of talking to a lot of people through a kind of a screen, you know. Where so often people are making these assumptions that the kind of high energy, high capital, urban, consumerist world that we’re familiar with, you know, has a few problems, but we can sort of tweak it in this way or that way and then, you know, we’re good to go again. So, you know, calling time on that is a big deal. And I think, I guess where we go is I think there’s going to be more and more perturbations to all that. More and more systems in crisis, things falling apart, things that people expect to work not working. And that kind of throws people back onto, you know, having to make good themselves locally. And I guess my vision could be regarded as being pessimistic or, you know, sort of raising these troubling issues. But I do have faith in people’s ability to come together and get things done and sort things out if they’re given the local autonomy to do that.
Chris: And, you know, we can look at any number of examples from history. So my feeling is when people realise that nobody is coming to help you, that the government isn’t coming to help you; the help is you and your household and your community. You know, I think a lot can devolve from that and to some extent it’s about land again, it’s about accessing land and producing the things that we need. You know, I focus on farming. Food and farming are pretty key, so it’s about learning to develop a kind of local food economy and ecology again. And, you know, that’s difficult to do from where we’re at. The key thing, I think, is to realise that that’s what we need to do, and then things politically can start developing out of that. But I think the first thing is the realisation, the realising all those posts that you mentioned, you know, it’s kind of realising that that’s where we’re at. And we can’t really revive the old system. We have to create a new one which is not going to be based on high levels of energy and high levels of economic resource. You know, the resource is ourselves and our localities basically.
Manda: Brilliant. Thank you. And Nate Hagan on his fascinating Great Simplification podcast quite frequently says degrowth is what we should do and post growth is where we’ll get to if we don’t.
Manda: And post growth probably not that much fun if we haven’t planned with the de-growth. So could you and I make a best case scenario together of, let’s say everybody gets it, a miracle happens and everybody gets it. I’m not expecting our existing government; they will be at the very end of the line of the people who get it, and they may still be the people kind of trying to nail their colours to the mast of infinite economic growth and fossil fuel, everything. So let’s put them to one side. My thesis is that we have government by consent and we can remove that consent. We can do what they did in Taiwan and fork the government. And we could set up a different system and ignore the old one if we chose to. My absolute core belief is that it has to be done peacefully, but that that’s not impossible if we have enough people with us. So let’s make some core assumptions, which is we have enough people with us. We just need a concept of how to structure this small farm future that you consider in the book, and what lives around it. Is this a thought experiment that you’ve done? Maybe we could take ourselves ten, 15 years, maybe 20 years to the future with the assumption that everyone is on board. And we’ve created enough of a consensus around core values to carry the changes that we need. What would we build? Is that a thought experiment that we could do in real time?
Chris: It’s an interesting question. I mean, in the book Small Farm Future, I suppose I focus a little bit more on trying to think about how could that sort of consensus, how could that people being on board and us emerge out of where we presently are? So I talk about this idea, I talk about the supersedure state. So, you know, I kind of feel as you were saying, I think a lot of governments are going to hang on pretty tightly to where they are. So it’s like people innovating around the edge. I haven’t kind of drawn out in a great deal of detail what I think that innovation around the edge will be, partly because I think I’m not too worried about it in the sense that, you know, I think there’s so many models where people can do good things. And I didn’t really want to sketch too much of a sort of future utopia. You know, I just wanted to engage in sort of where we might be going kind of out of the present situation. But I mean, we will have to develop new institutions, new ways of thinking about land relationships, politics, spirituality and so on. So yeah, I was sort of a little bit more engaged in the, you know, how we embark on that road rather than the destination, as it were.
Manda: Okay. And that’s fair. I don’t want utopias either. My entire focus at the moment is on what we’re calling thrutopias. We, Rupert Read said we could use his phrase, which is how do we get from here to there? But my feeling is if we don’t have a concept of what ‘there’ is, we won’t get there because we go to where we can imagine. And it needs not to be a utopia in the sense… My concept of utopias is there’s always a gap, something deus ex machina happens and everybody is in this slightly different future, which is basically what I was proposing to you. Where everybody gets it and we’re all moving. So let’s take the step back, because I think it feels to me now that it is imperative that we begin to make the changes that you’re discussing. And therefore people need to know what they are. So first thing I want you to do is explain about supersedure state, because that was really interesting. The kind of differences in how bees do things and then how we could do it differently. And then, so if we’re heading for the future that we want, we need to start where we are. And what I’m really interested in for the people listening to the podcast, is that they have a concept of the steps that we need to take. That actual grounded, granular, boots on the ground, what can I go out and do this afternoon, having listened to this? That will begin to to edge us, micro tome by micro tome, tiny, tiny steps towards where we need to go. So it feels to me that your book is really full of actual, practical, down to earth concepts. And I think I’m asking questions that are leading us to things that are more overarching concepts. How do we get to the granularity of actually what needs to happen? Assuming that everybody listening is on board, but we’re lacking direction, how would you give us the directions, potential multiple directions in which different people could begin to move?
Chris: Right. Well, I mean, I think we need to ground ourselves in our local ecologies. You know, I’m thinking of Aldo Leopold, who famously said that humans are plane members and citizens of the biotic community. And we’ve got very used to being part of this kind of dematerialised, distantiated world of global consumerism and sort of high energy products. So the first thing is to ground ourselves in our local ecologies. Think about where our food comes from. I suppose another thing is we spend so much of our time in an electronic virtual world. Think of yourself as an animal. You know, you’re an organism like the birds and the insects and the plants and the trees. So, you know, ground yourself in those birds, insects, plants and trees, you know, where where are they getting their subsistence from? Where are you getting your subsistence from? And obviously, if you, if you live in the countryside, if you’re a gardener or a farmer, you know, that leads to a certain set of questions and answers. If you’re living in a in an apartment in a city, the answers are different. But then that starts to prompt questions about food systems, ecologies, politics. And that’s, I think, where we start. You know, start to think of yourself in an ecosystem that has to renew and sustain itself. That’s there for the long haul. And the reality is a lot of our human ecosystems don’t really sustain and renew themselves and aren’t there for the long haul. But, you know, sort of just getting your hands dirty, as it were, as a creature within an ecosystem, maybe then prompts some questions about, well, what do I need to do? And what does my community need to do to to improve that? Because that’s where we’re headed long term, whether we like it or not.
Manda: So we have two separate sets of ideas there. It’s the people who have access to land and some of those might be in a city, but most of them are going to be at least in the suburbs and probably more rural, who can begin to create food networks around where they live. And we could we could delve into regenerative farming. I always love delving into that. That’s an avenue we could go. But I’m also interested in: we now live in a world where most people live in cities, and it seems to me that those are highly carbon dependent, fossil fuel dependent, and that this is not a long term solution. Have you thought through this? This is probably not your field, because you’re a farmer and everything that you write is about farming. But how do we feed the cities? Or do we move everybody out to rural spaces and what are the political implications of that and how do we overcome them?
Chris: Right. Well, there’s no easy way of saying it, but yeah we do move people out of the cities. You know, the degree of urbanisation we have in the present world as I see it, is just completely propped up by high carbon. You know, it’s a recent manifestation of a fossil fuelled world. I mean, I’m not saying there will be no cities in the future, but I just can’t see a way of feeding and energising cities at the level of urbanisation that we presently have. I mean, obviously we can have a sort of detailed conversation about energy futures and so on that lot of this sort of stuff boils down to. But that’s the reality. You know, historically people always go where it’s..people always seek prosperity, basically. And in recent times that has been urban largely. But you know, through most of human history, it hasn’t been. And I think long term, we’re going to be seeing people moving to the most productive lands, either that or to cities that kind of control those productive lands. So, yeah, the longer term future is rural and that obviously leads to difficult political questions. And, you know, there’s no kind of single answer. You know, everywhere is going to be different.
Chris: Everywhere has its particular history of access or lack of access to land and sort of political tensions. I mean, my general approach that I talk about in the book, it’s a word that’s widely misused nowadays, but I talk about populism in the sense of a politics for the people. You know, too much of our politics is about, you know, this idea, this kind of single idea, whether it’s sort of nationalism or class struggle or market solutions. You know, we have too many of these kind of single big ideas that is going to solve all our problems. And the reality of populism is that, you know, there is no one single idea. It’s kind of, you know, it’s a big mess and jumble of people trying to figure things out. And that’s what we need to try and generate, because otherwise, you know, it is a recipe for real conflict, real violence, real struggle, over access to resources and land. So, yeah, that’s the way I see it going. You know, trying to pre figure good access to local resources in a way that doesn’t just promote conflict between pre-existing groups.
Manda: There are going to be a multitude of options around the world and we can only really answer the ones in our locality. But if we were to shrink our concept to the UK, possibly even to England, I speak as a Scot who desperately hopes for Scottish independence quite soon and I think the Scottish Government has some really quite radical ideas around this. They’re already opening up the crofting and you know, the idea of the in buy being your bit and the common land. And we could talk a lot about how to reconfigure commons so that the tragedy of the commons is not a thing, that might be quite interesting. The things that arose from what you were just saying that really struck me as quite interesting spark points, and we can decide which ones to go to. Are: what is the future of energy? So I again am quite taken by Simon Michaud, who’s doing a lot of work on material flows and energy flows, who reckons that we have a 19 terawatt rolling global use of energy. At any given time we’re using 19 terawatts globally and that we need to get five, basically, to have anything approaching sustainability. And those five need not be coming from fossil fuel sources. And that there’s a huge disparity; the people in the what we now loosely call the global north, North America, European countries, are using around – It depends; the figures that you’ve got in your book are different sets of units – the ones that I took on board are 15 to 16000 kilowatt hours per annum in the global north. Yemen was 69, the Gaza Strip was 0.1. So there was a four orders of magnitude difference depending on how you got your energy source and whether another country was actually cutting it off.
Manda: And therefore that getting to a five gigawatts rolling is going to be a different move, depending on where we are. We can’t all drop by the same amount. And I wonder what a five gigawatt world feels like. Terawatt world, sorry, feels like. So that’s one thing. How are how are the energy flows going to be? The second thing that really jumped out was you said everybody seeks prosperity. And I’m wondering, have you read the Dawn of Everything? Graeber and Wengrow, which came out since Small Farm Future. So it strikes me, reading that, which really reconfigured, you know if I’d read that before I wrote the Boudica books, they would be really different. And one of the really fascinating things – this is an aside – but that in the UK we took up farming for a few generations in pre Roman times and then abandoned it and went back to foraging hazelnuts from the forest. Which leads me to believe that farming was quite hard and or there were a few bad harvests, and foraging hazelnuts was really easy, partly because there were no grey squirrels and lots of hazelnuts one assumes. And then we went back to farming again. That seeking prosperity revolves around how we define prosperity, because the Wendat who we call the Huron and James Fenimore Cooper made very famous, lived in what they defined as cities. I don’t know what they looked like, but let’s assume large sets of people who didn’t have the hierarchies or the poverty that the Wendat found when they went to France. And they self-organized in ways that I’m assuming they felt were prosperous, but were on a completely different prosperity scale from the Wendigo type culture that came in and destroyed them.
Manda: How do we step back into that alternative sense of prosperity? So I’ve really got two sets of questions: One is energy futures. How do we get to an energy future that actually works in a way that doesn’t leave lots of people destitute? And the other question is how do we get to a sense of prosperity that actually works, without leaving a lot of people destitute? And I think the two are linked up because our addiction to fossil fuel has shifted our sense of what prosperity means. One last point before you start, which is I go back, because partly because I wrote the Boudica Books; my sense of capitalism is that it arrived in Britain with the Romans. They brought money. They brought this idea that a man owned, you know, women are owned by their fathers and then their husbands. And they brought the destruction of tribal living. And this concept that we know the price of everything and the value of nothing. So I would trace here, back to how could we get back to the tribal living that happened before the Romans came, as it being a potential model of a completely regenerative culture. But we need not to go back. We need to go forward. We’re not ever heading backwards. That doesn’t work. How can we move forward into something that has that level of cohesion in a way that leaves people feeling alive?
Chris: Right. Wow. There’s a lot of big, big questions there. And I agree with you, they’re all absolutely linked. I mean, one one way to link the energy with the prosperity question is sort of exactly as we were just talking about. If we’re in a lower energy world, then you have to start looking to your local landscape to produce food and fibre, potentially energies and heat and so on. And that in a way, a lot of the problems that we presently have with farming, to do with livestock and over fertilisation and all the rest of it, you know, these all arise from just having this surfeit of external energy coming into the local agro ecosystem. So we need to think about prosperity, I totally agree with what you’re saying, in a different way. It’s not about money, you know. It’s not about your personal command of other people or other organisms or the world. It’s about what what makes you feel kind of spiritually enriched, ultimately and personally nourished. Food and spirit kind of goes together, really, so that they’re totally linked in that way. And then, yeah, I mean, it’s interesting. I don’t know an awful lot about Roman history and so on, but what you were saying rings true to me in terms of that kind of coloniser model of sort of generating abstract money, wealth, symbolic wealth. That as a coloniser, you know, you come in and reorganise everything in order to be able to extract and own. And so it’s kind of thinking about that in a different way.
Chris: And yeah, I mean it’s interesting when you look at the way people organised. You were talking about tribal living. In fact I wrote a review of Graeber and Wengrow’s book, I thought it was a great book. I mean, I think there is there’s always that tension, I guess, in history between the colonisers and the extractors. You know, that tendency towards symbolic excess, which I think is very much one dimension of the human being, the human experience, versus that more grounded, you know, sort of building local institutions relating to your local environment, you know, relating to other people. I mean, the way I often frame it is autonomy and community. You know, that people are skilled livelihood creators. And if you look back at British history, you know, there’s a lot of evidence of kind of small households with what you might call private plots but set within larger collective organisation. And yeah, so then connecting it to the last part of your question that, you know, it’s a real problem that we have with this kind of modernist concept of progress. That, you know, it’s about we can’t go back, we can’t turn the clock back.
Chris: I mean, for sure that’s true. But part of the problem is that when we think about small scale farming, small farm societies, the models that we sort of have in our mind are always this kind of, you know, it’s not entirely false, this idea of a grim hand-to-mouth existence in the past. But we tend to sort of make it into this big modern metaphor of progress, that we’ve you know, we’ve put all that beside us, thank goodness. You know, now we’re living in cities, we’ve got all this energy and so on. And I think we just need to let go of that whole sort of spatial way of thinking about sort of progress forward or upwards into the future. You know, it’s not about trying to recreate some idealised image of the past. It’s just the fact that people in the past lived in lower energy societies, figured out some of the ways in which they could generate food. I mean, it’s really fascinating. I think that you touched on that idea of commons. It’s really fascinating the way that nowadays we tend to attach on to technological ways of solving problems and limits. But very often if you look historically, people solve these problems not technologically but through social organisation and not by not by doing away with the problem, but by learning to live with it. You know, how can we graze our livestock in a way that feeds the whole community, you know? Et cetera, etc., etc..
Chris: So I think, you know, we can learn from all these past low energy, pre-modern cultures, not in this kind of attempt to sort of be like them or to vaunt them as somehow superior than us. But just because they, you know, they faced issues that we are now facing. And they came up with some solutions which were not always high tech, high energy solutions. They were local ecological solutions. And it’s that mindset that I think we need to keep cultivating. You know, how do I solve this as a local ecological problem? And how do I seek prosperity? How do I seek wealth within my community, with other people, not in a kind of colonial way? I mean, I think all of the ways you framed that I think were brilliant. You know, the Romans energy and time element. And, you know, food again is at the heart of that. Once you don’t have cheap, easy energy, you know, you need to start relating to the landscape in a different way. And like you say, we forget the implicit work that fossil energy does. You know, like a modern tractor is 200 horsepower. So that’s essentially…hang on, what is it? It’s like a person can sustain a power output of about 0.1 of a horsepower. So Yeah.
Manda: So that’s 2000 people.
Chris: Yeah, basically. Yeah. So that touches on to your point about people taking up farming and then abandoning it. You know, like cropland, arable farming, if you don’t have a tractor to do it for you is tremendously hard work. Whereas livestock herding or foraging or tree crops is less hard work. So I think where we are in the world with the number of people that need feeding, for sure we need gardens and small farms, we need cropland. But really the focus is as little as possible and as much grazing and sort of tree crop, perennial crop stuff as we can get away with.
Manda: Brilliant. Thank you. Again, lots of directions we could go in. I’m remembering Graeber and Wengrow. Many things struck me in that book, it was one of my absolute light bulb books. But they were discussing the three freedoms that they felt applied to the indigenous cultures that they were able to infer from. And as an aside, one of the things that really struck me in the book, was them quoting I think Benjamin Franklin, but one of the great white men of the U.S. Who was deeply disturbed by the fact that whenever somebody had been extracted from the tribal culture into the white culture, either tribal people who’d been basically kidnapped or white people who’d been ‘rescued’, they always tried to get back. From, you know, the civilisation which was prosperous and had guns and bibles and railroads and all the things that obviously everybody would want. And they didn’t. They wanted to go back. And when asked, they always said ‘because there is no fear’. And that they were in this place where you didn’t have to get up in the morning and go to a job where somebody shouted at you, you just got on with your life. That was one of the things I think that really struck me, again with the conversations between the Wendat and the Jesuits, was the guy going, ‘Nobody tells me what to do’. And yet they have completely functional cities, because they’ve learned how to communicate with each other in ways that we’re not hierarchical.
Manda: So the three freedoms were the freedom to just leave, get up and leave. There’s freedom to disagree and the freedom to create a new social structure. And that seems to me that if we were to apply them here, we would need a different political structure. So I’d like to move to talking about politics with you. But one of the things that really struck me in your book, was the awareness that in the past within our – if I’m extending extending capitalism for 2000 years, which is still a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of 300,000 years of modern human existence, as opposed to Palaeolithic existence in different forms. So Homo sapiens, 300,000 years. A part of Homo sapiens, not even all of it. We didn’t colonise the Australia’s for quite a long time. We didn’t colonise all of the Americas. There were people living perfectly happily, not in a capitalist system. When we begin to impose that, then we begin to create political strictures that tell people how to behave. And as a and not heterosexual, not man, growing up even in the late 20th century, in a tiny little village with the twitching net curtains, it was not fun.
Manda: And I do not ever want to go back to other people having the power to tell me who I am and who I could be. But I’m also very aware that two centuries ago, as a not heterosexual, not Christian, not man, I’d have been dead quite early in a very nasty way because that was completely unacceptable. It wasn’t the nobody tells me what to do of the indigenous tribes. So in our moving back to rural localism. What interests me is how do we create the culture of what was essentially a kind of libertarian communism, as far as I can tell. But it functioned because everybody supported everybody else. And I am really curious in how do we create the political structures that get us there? And you strike me as the kind of person who’s thought about this quite deeply and might get us there. So that’s one option.
Manda: And if you think, no, actually I don’t really want to talk about that; then I would really like to look at How do we feed the world without intensive agriculture? Which is a whole separate avenue. So you get to pick, Chris, Which way would you like to go?
Chris: Well, they’re both interesting questions. There was something you said about Graeber. What was your original lead in to Graeber? Sorry.
Manda: The three freedoms.
Chris: The three freedoms and the people wanting to go back. Yeah. I want to pick up on the autonomy point there. And I think there’s a kind of a degree of what someone on my blog called learned helplessness in modern society. Where it’s almost like we don’t want that autonomy. We don’t want to sort of have the responsibility of creating a livelihood, because we’re fearful, because we’re sort of scared of that reality. So that’s something that I think we need to transcend.
Manda: So politically, if we wanted to move towards the Graeber and Wengrow kind of living, where nobody tells us what to do and yet we have a fully functional society. Quite a complex society. As opposed to my terror of the indigenous peasant societies of our witch burning past. Leaving aside that the historicity of that is not necessarily accurate. It was still, there were certain ways to behave and if you stepped outside them, you were in deep, deep trouble. And speaking as someone who would have wanted to step outside of pretty much all of them, I don’t want to go back to that. So how do we create communities where the people driven by the need to control don’t get to hold the control.
Chris: Right. I mean, it’s an interesting and really difficult one. And it is something that worries me. I mean, you mentioned the kind of curtain twitching that can go on in a small rural community. I mean, I think there is that part of human life to some extent. Some of the most nasty manifestations of that, I think, historically are when you have a kind of centralising power, whether it’s religious or political, that is trying to extend its reach into daily life. I mean, things like the Inquisition and so on. You know, you can frame it as religious intolerance, but actually it was a kind of state religious project to infiltrate daily life. And my feeling is that maybe the most positive spin on this is that in the future, I think, there’s going to be a lot of scepticism about the state. If you think of news stories today, say, about the collapse of the NHS. I mean, you know, what do we expect of the government? We’re paying our taxes. We expect the government to lay on some services. It can’t even do that. You know, why should I take it seriously? That then creates some space to self generate from the bottom up, different institutions. There is a danger there because there’s definitely that part of humanity; there’s a danger of patriarchy, there’s a danger of various forms of domination and control.
Chris: But, you know, there’s also that history that Graeber Wengrow talk about, where people find their way out of that. And it can take time, it can take generations, it can take unpleasant conflict, but people can do it. And it’s kind of interesting, I think, because we’re sort talking about collapse. That the history of previous collapses generally are written by the people who had the most to lose in the collapse. You know, they were basically the sort of literate men saying, oh, God, this is awful, everything’s falling apart. But often the ordinary people were like great, collapse. You know, I’m not having to pay so many taxes. I’m not being screwed by, you know, and people sort of figure out a meaningful local life. I don’t mean to paint too rosy a portrait of it, because I think you’re absolutely right; there’s always that sort of power and desire to dominate other people, always potentially in play. I suppose what I would say is we need to stop thinking that somehow the government or centralised power is going to protect us from that. I mean, I think increasingly it won’t. Increasingly we’re going to see forms of essentially fascist authoritarian government that’s trying to demonise certain people. You know, we’re seeing it already. The whole narrative around migration would be a case in point in the UK and globally today. People get demonised. You know, governments hang on to power by that kind of inquisitorial process of infiltrating themselves in daily life and trying to control the narrative.
Chris: So I think there’s a lot of potential for people to get out of that. Getting out of it doesn’t necessarily mean that there won’t be other forms of local power plays going on. But, I think the lesson of big history is that people can innovate their way out of that. You know, it doesn’t always happen and it’s not always easy. But I would certainly pin my colours to that kind of autonomy and sort of liberatory approach. Exactly those three freedoms that you mentioned. I think it’s so important for it to be possible for people to walk away from a situation and to go somewhere else, be somebody different. That, I hope is something that that can be achieved. And, you know, I’m thinking of a book like Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell. It’s really interesting, her stuff about when people are faced with these disasters, you know, they tend to come together and innovate and work with each other. Often working with people that they might not have done in normal life. And it’s usually the kind of top down power that gets in the way of that. Obviously, a disaster is an unusual situation that doesn’t last forever, so the real challenge is how do we utilise that? But there are resources within the human condition to do that. And that’s what I think we need to amplify.
Manda: Excellent. Okay, so politics is my one of my many obsessions. But I am talking to a number of other people on other podcasts about that. So let’s fork away. Forking being my favourite concept at the moment; taking an idea and just splitting it up. And let’s fork away to how we feed people. Really the core of your book, Small Farm Futures, it says it in the title. But there is still a lot of conversation in the world around allocation of land and then what we do with the land. And again, there are extremes from the regenerative farming movement, of which I am definitely a supporter; which says we can feed people in in proper ways with good nutrient dense food. I’m just reading What Your Food Ate; How to Heal our Land and Reclaim Our Health, which is fantastic. And I discovered that Singing Frogs Farm, which is nine acres of which two and a half acres, is down to vegetables and the rest is just wildlife and ponds. They make a hundred thousand dollars per acre on their regenerative, no till, no chemicals, land. The local organic areas make at most 10 to 20 thousand dollars per acre. So we need to change the economic system. That’s a given and how many dollars is utterly irrelevant. But the capacity to feed people regenerative really seems to me huge, and is in total opposition to the eco modernist, techno modern: we just need a vat in every village providing the gloop to feed people and then we can just rewild everything and it’ll all be fine. Which strikes me as frankly insane. But you’re the guest, you can answer any of those. How are we going to feed the people of the world in a small farm future?
Chris: Right. Well, I suppose my starting gambit would be that it’s not as difficult as people might think. I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s not easy, but it’s not as difficult as you might think. In the sense that I think we have this narrative that very high tech, modern farming has solved all these problems. And if we go back to a kind of lower energy input, lower tech farming, it’ll be harder. I mean, it’s not that hard to produce food to feed yourself. What’s hard is to erect this sort of massive modern society on that base, you know, with having a really small number of people doing it and surplus generation. Going back to your point about the Romans, basically. So there’s interesting studies, it’s a whole complex field, but there’s the so called inverse productivity relationship. With small peasant farms in the global south, where actually in terms of per acre output, small scale, low input peasant farming can be more productive, if you measure it in terms of wealth or calories or nutrition or productivity per water input. Modern agriculture is great at producing a lot of food without much labour input on the farm, but it’s not necessarily that great at anything else. It’s not necessarily that great at per acre productivity, which is why it tends to spread out into places where it probably shouldn’t be spreading out to. I mean, obviously we’ve got the issue of urbanism that we talked about earlier; when you’ve got so many people concentrated into a city, obviously it would be hard for the people of London to feed themselves just from the area of London.
Chris: But if you spread people out more generally into productive landscapes, it’s not that hard to feed yourself. The average person spends very little time feeding themselves, other than a trip to the supermarket. So you have to spend more time, that becomes part of your life, that becomes part of your livelihood. And that goes back to the conversation we were having about autonomy and freedom and prosperity. You know, how do we measure those things? For some people producing your own food. Certainly for me, having a garden I’m less autonomous than I’d like to be, I guess, but that certainly is meaningful to me, to produce food. There are questions about an awful lot of nitrogenous fertiliser sloshing around in the world that increases yields. It also creates all sorts of terribly negative ecological impacts. Can we do without it? There’s arguments either way. You mentioned the gloop in in vats. I mean, that’s a whole other front that’s opened up in these discussions recently, that I’ve been doing some writing about at the moment, actually. And what’s for sure is that there’s not going to be a Gloop factory in every village. It’s going to be another top down kind of corporate biotech solution, which we don’t really need.
Chris: There’s all sorts of complexities to it, but my argument is that it’s a kind of non solution to a non problem. What we need to be doing is rethinking prosperity, rethinking livelihoods, rethinking human geographies. And so basically feeding ourselves is not that hard. And in fact, if you look at the global diet, we’ve got this kind of industrialised agriculture that really hones in on a very small number of crops: wheat, rice, maize, soy, the four big crops globally. And obviously you can process them. And there’s some oil crops in there as well, slightly lesser land area. And those crops are great in and of themselves, I mean I love bread and pastry and so on, but we’ve got far too much of that and not nearly enough of fresh fruit and vegetables. And then you get into this whole kind of class debate. People say, oh, it’s middle class, lovely wanting to eat fruit and veg. I mean, it’s like a real scandal of the modern world that fresh fruit and veg is almost like this kind of luxury middle class feed! You know, That’s what we evolved to eat. We need to be eating fresh whole foods and we can do that. That can be generalised. We can have societies in which pretty much everybody is taking care of providing that for themselves and for their communities. So yeah, it’s not hard to feed ourselves, we just need to think about it in a different way.
Manda: Brilliant. So much again in that. A non solution to a non problem. I’d really like to dive into that a little bit further, because it feels to me that this is at the crux of really different world views of how we could progress forward. So what I kind of knew, but I’m learning in much more detail from What Your Food Ate, is the extent to which things like nitrogenous fertiliser and the concept that you alter the PH of the land ( you chuck lime on if it’s too acidic, basically), You do potassium and phosphorus and nitrogen, and then everything grows. What we were creating was plants that are being fed empty calories. And then they create people who are being fed empty calories, because the micronutrients and the bio flavonoids and all of the things that we didn’t know existed 150 years ago when we started turning oil into food, are actually really important. So the wave of type two diabetes around the planet, of people who are being fed endless empty calories that don’t actually contain what they need; so they’re in one sense starving to death while in the other sense becoming obese. And we’re doing that because we’re creating crops that are in themselves kind of big and fat and lacking in essential nutrients. And that this bizarre idea that we’re going to create factory food, gloop, to feed people; and it will somehow provide all their nutrients and that they’ll like this. And that we’ve also somehow miraculously managed to create an energy out that somehow will be more than the energy in. Which is, as far as I can tell, a perpetual motion machine. Because the energy comes from somewhere.
Manda: And I read something on Twitter the other day. I backed out of that thread because it was so distressing. Of going, Oh, don’t worry, we’ll only run the factories when the sun is shining, so we’ll be using renewable power. You’re actually just going off the edge of insanity, because if we’re going from 19 terawatts to five terawatts, and you’re suggesting we use a serious percentage of those five terawatts to create food, when we could be using sunlight and grass. Are you out of your tiny minds? Sorry. That’s my rant. I’m sure you have a slightly less ranty and more educated bit on that, but could we look at the non solution to the non problem? And give people a little bit more granular stuff around yes, we can feed ourselves. Because I think this is going to become one of the big conversations that we need to be holding.
Chris: Well, there’s a long history of essentially government corporate attempts to take hold of the food system, and to present it as a solution to problems that people didn’t necessarily have. I mean, the Green Revolution would be a great example of that, where it’s presented as kind of feeding the starving. But, you know, there was never really a problem of hunger that was caused by lack of enough rice or wheat. It’s always a kind of political distributional problem. And the result of that was very sort of fertiliser and pesticide dependent crops that benefited richer farmers to the detriment of poorer farmers. And there’s a great book I read recently, by a guy called Glen Davis Stone called The Agricultural Dilemma. And he talks about that historically, going right back to the 19th century, the people that first figured out the plant nutrition requirements and the need for nitrogen and how from the early days, a kind of revolving door between basic scientific research and corporations and governments worried about food security and conflict with other governments. And so it all kind of gets wrapped up in that. And the result very often is to just take from ordinary people the ability to produce some good basic food locally, which is not that hard to do.
Chris: But yeah, in terms of manufactured food, you know, this new idea of having kind of steel bioreactors that produce bacterially produced protein rich food. I’ve been looking into it a bit lately and doing some writing, that hopefully will see the light of day soon. But yeah, to my mind energetically, it doesn’t add up for exactly the reasons that you were saying. If you think that we’re going to have limitless low carbon electrical energy in the future, then possibly. And the advantage of it is that you can produce food on a small amount of land. So there are some people articulating that around issues about wildlife benefits, rewilding and so on. But yeah, energetically it doesn’t stack up, like you say. You know, free sunlight versus generated energy. Thinking about your five terawatt world, you know, it doesn’t stack up.
Chris: And it doesn’t stack up in terms of the political economy of it. In the sense that, although the food sector has been very corporatized and industrialised, it hasn’t been corporatized as successfully, say, as the manufacturing sector. I mean, if you buy a car nowadays,there’s basically no car industry in the UK. Or if you buy a computer. These are kind of globally concentrated industries. The food industry is very corporatized, but you only have to walk around your neighbourhood or walk around the countryside; you see people’s back gardens, you see allotments, you see small farms; the kind of small farms you mentioned earlier. There’s a lot of productivity still within local hands. If you industrialise that, basically you then get onto a kind of conveyor towards manufacturing concentration. There are not going to be small little gloop factories in every village. That’s not how the industrial farm sector works. So I think there’s quite a lot of kind of corporate messaging around that, about it being a solution to ecological crisis and solution to food crisis. And that’s not where the narrative is really coming from at all. It comes back to your Graeber and Wengrow. It comes back to autonomy, to freedom, you know, to not having that capacity taken away from us by the false assurances of people. Who’s who’s benefiting from this? Is always a question worth asking.
Manda: Yes. Cui bono, definitely. Yeah. Because even if the Gloop Factory were somehow owned in common by the people in the village, I don’t think the material flows stack up. I’m getting quite interested in how much actual stuff there is in the world and how we transport it around, and what we do with what’s left, and the need for carbon to both produce it and transport it. And then we’re basically back to not having that stuff. And if we’ve got all of our food dependent on the steel vat in the centre of the village, what happens when it breaks and there’s no more steel vats? It’s bonkers, frankly.
Chris: Yeah, that’s another another aspect. You know, we are very dependent on these very precarious global supply chains. Any kind of manufacturing process is not a great idea, to use an agricultural metaphor, to put all our eggs in one basket. I mean, quite an interesting parallel, really, the root nodules of a legume like a pea or a bean plant that’s a bioreactor. And then you think about a stainless steel bioreactor. Which one is more renewable? Which one is easier to control locally? There’s just no comparison basically.
Manda: Yeah. And the whole of the soil is a bioreactor. The whole of Elaine Ingham’s work of, you know, the fungi are the ones that mine; they go down and they get the molybdenum. It doesn’t matter if we’re told we haven’t got enough manganese in our soil. If we get the biome right, the fungi will get the manganese in a form that the plants need and it will be there to eat. I think some of the figures in this book, the What Your Food Ate; so the iron content of broccoli now is like 3% of what it was a hundred years ago. It’s insane.
Chris: Yeah, I think some of those figures are interesting. And again, there’s an element of this kind of progress narrative and this hubris that we as humans can control this, better than being part of the local ecology can. So that we then are taking the responsibility on, if we’re producing, manufacturing food. And the manufactured food it’s the same, really, even with farmed food, when we rely too much on a narrow range of crops at the behest of industrial processes. You know, we are assuming the responsibility of the whole ecology, the whole biota, to get all those kind of micronutrient balances and all the rest of it right. And I don’t think we really know enough and we’re not really clever enough and we don’t have enough resource to really get that right for everybody, as compared to just being a part of a more diverse local biota. I mean, I’m not saying that that necessarily answers every problem, but kind of letting go of that dream of industrial control, I think, is quite important in terms of having a more nourishment and trusting to the ecology a little bit more, including the human ecology.
Manda: Yes. And human creativity and the human capacity. Once we all set our values, realise that we’ve got common values, and then that we can. Believing that we can, and not looking at the past and seeing the ways that we couldn’t, I think, feels to me really important, particularly with politics. But that’s a whole separate conversation. One of my students used to always have a footer at the foot of the email saying ‘the people who are saying it can’t be done should not get in the way of the people who are making it happen’. And that seems to me to be quite core to what we’re doing.
Manda: So we are definitely heading to the end here. And I’m just going to ask you the question that I was going to ask at the beginning because it feels like a good way to end; of what makes your heart sing right now and where does it take you? As an ending. So include anything you want to say to people. Go.
Chris: I suppose what makes my heart sing is being on my farm and being part of this bigger ecology. So many people don’t have that opportunity to experience. And just, you know, there’s the sort of argument that people and wildlife don’t mix. But you know, there’s more people on my land than there used to be before we came here, and there’s also more wildlife. And just being part of that and seeing it doing its thing and just learning in all sorts of little ways that I couldn’t even necessarily explain, or put into words. Just being part of that bigger story. I find that incredibly uplifting and and energising.
Manda: Fantastic. Yes, I would agree with you. If I could spend every day at the vegetable garden, not that I know what I’m doing at all, but I’m learning. It just is.. There’s something so fulfilling about planting a bean seed. And then nine months later, having bean stew, it’s amazing. It’s just miraculous every time. It’s like having lambs born and you go, Oh, new life. They’re gorgeous. Yeah. All right. Thank you, Chris. It’s been really exciting and interesting. And it does feel to me that we’re right at the the edge of the thought processes. But if we don’t think to those edges, we won’t get there. And definitely, I would encourage people to read your book because it explains not only why we need to get there, but also what the edges are and how to think through them. So I hope we have in some way managed to articulate that and take it a step further during the podcast. Thank you so much for coming on.
Chris: Thanks very much, Manda. It’s been a pleasure.
Manda: So that’s it for another week. Huge thanks to Chris for everything that he’s doing and for his capacity to think broadly and to apply the thinking in so many different directions and with such generosity of spirit. I am well aware that I can get quite cross with quite a lot of people, and my capacity to look at things in an even handed way is probably not as good as it could be. And one of the many, many striking features of Chris’s book is his ability to look at both sides of any argument with really clear, critical thinking. Even if you’re not interested in farming and the future of how we could live, which would surprise me if you weren’t. But even if you’re not, simply as an example of sane, critical thinking, his book is well worth a read. So there will be a link in the show notes and I completely recommend that you read it.
Manda: So as ever, we’ll be back next week with another conversation. And in the meantime, enormous thanks to Caro C for rescuing the sound yet again and for the music at the head and foot. Thanks to Faith Tilleray for the website and the conversations that absolutely keep us flowing and for helping us to sort out the extraordinary new range of grant proposals on the smallholding. Which seem, as far as I can tell, to be designed explicitly to run small farmers out of business, so that the oligarchs can use the money that’s sitting in the offshore accounts to buy the land. This is not good. I’m not entirely sure how we stop it, but changing the entire political economy seems like a good first move. That apart, huge thanks to Anne Thomas for the transcripts. And as ever, enormous thanks to all of you for listening. We absolutely would not be here without you. And much as I love the five stars in our review and am now aware that it’s not just good for our egos, though it is good for our egos; and if you have time, five stars and a review seems to be a really good thing. But passing this on: finding the people who care, finding the people who want to be at the leading edge of change and who frankly get that we are now heading for a post carbon, post urban, post capital, post growth, post industrial future and we need to be planning for it. Find those people and please send them the link. It’s the best thing we can do now. Is to gather those who get it and begin to thinking of all the ways forward. So that’s it for this week. See you next week. Thank you and goodbye.
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