A Retrospective on the Prospect of a Small Farm Future

I have been a fan of Chris Smaje’s blog A Small Farm Future for a while, and it has changed the way I think about what I do for a living and what we are all doing for our livings.  Smaje’s eclectic but thoughtful posts, and the lively commentary that ensues, provide all the geeky pleasures of a graduate seminar run by a fair-minded yet passionate professor.  Or even more accurately, all of the geeky pleasures of a beer-fueled conversation with a deep-resumed group of agrarian thinkers from around the world.  

I had just finished reading Smaje’s excellent new book A Small Farm Future, when a friend handed me James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency (2005), a book Iʻd read sometime earlier. A Small Farm Future can stand on its own in its stated purpose of “making a case for a small farm future,” which I think it does, as much as one can make the case for anything so perpendicular to the precepts of modernity, but the accidental collision of the two books was too serendipitous to ignore. 2005 seems like a long time ago, a kind of happy childhood at this point. But there were plenty of storms on the horizon then. I also used to check into Kunstlerʻs blog fairly regularly, that is until his sharp-edged wit turned poisonous and his followers hateful. A lot of that kind of thing happened to “the best minds of my generation” in the US in the last few years, sadly.  

Although the connection between the two books and two writers may be indirect, Kunstlerʻs book is inarguably a previous effort in the same general project of highlighting the biophysical limits of the planet and the deleterious effects of fossil-fuel enabled consumer culture on the future prospects of all life forms on the planet.  It is interesting to look at the difference between the two books.  Kunstlerʻs book focuses on coming to grips with the implications of “peak oil” and energy descent.  In Smajeʻs book, energy is just one of ten interlocking crises with which we are faced. Both books look to highly localized “small farm” food production as the response with the highest likelihood of “a future.”  For Kunstler this outlook seems to have engendered a roiling angst that eventually consumed all air and light.  

For Smaje, in striking contrast, there is a sliver of a chance that the unfolding of a small farm future preserves and perhaps even advances the civilizational project of better, more equitable outcomes for more members of a society, rather than a descent and unleashing of the worst human impulses. That sliver is, perhaps, the endless delusion of the eternal optimists, but it is a sliver that empowers the best in us.   Yes, one must be an optimist to see any hope of threading the needle of our converging crises, and yet optimism is a necessary tonic for a sober realism –  for grappling with, rather than running from, the overwhelming return of externalized costs of production. The optimism, or perhaps we can call it courage,  required to work for a collective future is not about indulging in hopeful fantasies of “luxury communism” but rather about empowering a clear-eyed appraisal of what must be attempted in order to preserve the necessary lineaments of civilization. 

One of the key questions that Smaje seeks to (begin to) answer then is: “can we build congenial modern societies on an ecologically sustainable local agrarian base?”  He sees his book as, in his modest way, “a critical introduction” to organize thinking about an agrarian-grounded future and no more.  And it is not denigrating Smajeʻs book to agree with him that his book is the merest beginning of a sketch, so vast are the issues that his question raises.  It is however a most necessary sketch, a serious and useful act of constructing a framework for responding to converging crises, as well as historic inequalities.  

There is so much to talk about that it really painful to pick out a few things.  One thing that I would like to simply assert, in light of recent responses to the book, is that there is nothing inherently patriarchal about the small farm future that Smaje envisions, and that those readers who insist that there is and that Smaje is complicit in promoting patriarchy, are not getting the point – Smaje is talking about the future and not the small farms of the past.  It is an uneasy movement, admittedly, that underlies the assertion of a small farm future, both calling upon the example of the past to assert that small farms are even possible as a social design while at the same time disowning the patriarchal, hierarchical and other blatantly unpleasant bits.

It is something of a rhetorical trap, quite honestly, but perhaps a necessary trap that we all fall into when we invoke the indigenous social arrangements of the past, whether of medieval Europe or of Amazonian tribes, in order to assert that other ways of living are possible. Smaje both does and does not fall into this trap when discussing the medieval European tradition of Carnival to discuss the critical question of religion in a small farm future.  On the one hand invoking the spiritual resources still available in the indigenous past of European society, just as I might invoke the indigenous spiritual resources of native Hawaiʻian culture, gives us Moderns, who are so deprived at this point of localized models of meaning, a small wedge in the wall of alienation.  On the other hand, such invocations tend to muddy the point that what we are talking about is the future with all its troubles and not a nostalgia for a simpler past whose hidden costs are so easy to forget.

What are the rituals by which we will celebrate the social connections of a small farm future without invoking nostalgia for oppressive hierarchy?  What principles or beings of local community or ecology will we wish to recognize or celebrate? What will we wish to make sacred with feast days and/or the dedication of flowers?  The principles of Resilience or the critical function of the Dung Beetle? Or perhaps, more generally, the flourishing of Small Farming as the most vital element of society. 

10 Replies to “A Retrospective on the Prospect of a Small Farm Future”

  1. Nicely done.

    all of the geeky pleasures of a beer-fueled conversation with a deep-resumed group of agrarian thinkers from around the world.

    Easily the best clause I’ve read this week. And apt as well.

    Toward the last you’ve pondered the rituals… and my crystal ball is no clearer than any other, but I’d imagine those of the future will continue to celebrate weddings and new births, the arrival of Spring in higher latitudes (does Spring hold any special place so near the Equator??). Harvest season seems to warrant a bit of attention – again though, if the prospect of harsh Winter is off the table then this may be less important. Other rituals could include coming-of-age recognitions. And perhaps we might do well to invent new rituals… celebrating the anniversaries of cleaned up watersheds or rehabilitated habitats once scarred by careless wasting.

    But it needn’t swallow all our attention to gaze into the future. We have plenty around us calling for our attention in the present. What do we have to hand that needs to be preserved? Not only the relics of the past, and the indigenous ways of our predecessors… but our own realizations, our own life ways in this moment. Someday our descendants may reflect on their own situation – and to them we will be among the predecessors.

    Where you said:
    On the other hand, such invocations tend to muddy the point that what we are talking about is the future with all its troubles and not a nostalgia for a simpler past whose hidden costs are so easy to forget..

    This is a great point. What hidden costs do we need to shine a light upon so that the future ‘we’ will have a chance? What can we be about on a daily basis right now to lay the ground work for a splendid future? If we can take care of each other without crippling the world around us, then I think the size of the future’s farms will take care of itself.

      1. And yes, Spring is not really a thing here in the tropics. However you can keep Winter. And what is one without the other?
        We have our own more subtle modulations of the seasons, such as the blooming of poinsettias, both domestic and wild, right now…

        1. Yes, Spring does benefit from the trials and tribulations of a preceding brutal Winter.

          I’ve lived through a handful of difficult winters, and have noticed how much less difficult they seem if one is properly prepared. And there is much to be said for community preparedness and the benefits of neighborly assistance. Blizzards on the High Plains can be deadly, but the long term residents there have a manner of taking the difficulty in stride.

          Snow covered landscapes can strike a pretty image. But the verdant greening up in the Spring is much more to my liking.

  2. Thanks for your generous comments, Michelle – much appreciated.

    I must try to visit your blog more often … but I find it hard to get away when I have my own one to look after. It’s a bit like trying to visit other people’s farms!

    Hopefully, I can discuss with you in more detail your points about how we discuss past, present and future when I reach that part of my book in my blog cycle about it. As I see it, we need to abandon linear historical conceptions and associated dualities like simple/complex or progress/nostalgia and consider what can be learned from agrarian societies of the past as well as the present without particularly championing any such society. Perhaps I could have done that better in the book.

    Anyway, prior to that discussion, season’s greetings!

    1. Thanks Chris I agree completely with your comments in regard to our model of history (and time itself?) Throwing down the world historical gauntlet to Hegel and Marx?

      I look forward to discussing further in the new year!

  3. I am just experiencing a similar juxtaposition of book narratives. I finished Chris’ book a couple weeks ago, and am just finishing E.O.Wilson’s “The Social Conquest of Earth”. ( a book I recommend)

    Chris points us at a possibly attainable future that is a not dystopian, and I certainly hope comes to pass.

    Wilson describes the human journey from a slow tasty primate on the veldt to a eusocial super organism that is extremely successful due to the combination of genetic traits acquired along the way. He explains how our ability to cooperate and empathize ( those in our tribe particularly) is a powerful competitive advantage, and encouraged group success that was passed on in our genes.

    However, this balances against the personal drives, so we are forever in a tug of war between or better and worse angels.

    As human groups became much larger than Dunbar’s number, and complex overlapping “tribes” have occurred, things are a bit out of control compared to our hunter gatherer past.

    Knowing of this hard wired struggle between selfish and altruistic behaviors, and the way it is playing out when there are billions of us, most disconnected from nature, it will be very difficult for wise choices to prevail.

    1. Thanks for the book recommendation, Steve. I’m pretty sure that Chris will like to be mentioned in the same sentence with E.O. Wilson. He is a fantastic thinker, although when the chips are down I am on Team Margulis.

Comments are closed.