Book review: A Small Farm Future

A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity and a Shared Earth by Chris Smaje, Chelsea Green Publishing (2020), ISBN: 9781603589024

The virtual ink was scarcely dry on my forthcoming post on food when this book came into my hands. I should confess that this is only the second book I have ever pre-ordered, having followed the eponymous blog for some time. You may infer from this that my expectations of it were high. I was not disappointed.

It would perhaps be extravagant to claim that Chris Smaje is Britain’s answer to Wendell Berry, but like Berry he withdrew from a career in academia (he was Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Surrey) to become a small farmer. He has been farming for 20 years, so his seriousness cannot be doubted. He knows whereof he writes, as Wendell Berry does, lending the writings of both men a rare authority.

This is not just a book about farms and farming, although it does discuss those subjects. It is an attempt to provide a positive vision of a possible future society, and this is certainly something we desperately need. The sub-title makes clear the general outlines of what Smaje has in mind. Perhaps ambitiously, he sets himself the task of answering these questions:

What if the route out of widespread farming towards urban-industrial prosperity that today’s rich countries followed is no longer feasible for millions of poor people in ‘developing’ countries? What if that urban-industrial life in fact becomes increasingly unfeasible even in the rich countries in the face of various political, economic and ecological crises? How might the future of humanity then unfold?

p. 3

Smaje discusses some of these crises in a long first chapter, “Ten Crises”, which on its own would be worth the price of admission. One of the strengths of his analysis is that he recognises that the problems we collectively face are made intractable not merely by their intrinsic technical difficulty – which would be quite enough to cope with – but by deep-rooted political and cultural structures. Radical change is required along a number of different axes simultaneously.

The basic argument of the book is that degrowth is inevitable, and I am inclined to agree. The key questions raised by this are: what might such a future look like? And how might we get there? Also: will we like it when we get it?

Part II of the book addresses head-on the key question “Can Alternative Agriculture Feed Us?” (Chapter 9). Smaje comes at this from an ecological perspective but also a practical one. He presents a case-study for the UK – reasonably enough, given that’s what he knows – for 2050, assuming conservative levels of yield and a substantially higher population, and is able to answer the question affirmatively. This is at least reassuring for those of us who live there, and gives some basis for optimism for everyone else.

But Smaje realises that there are deeper issues at play here. This is not an argument that all will be well if everyone does (insert action here), despite the fact that hell is likelier to freeze over. (We’ve all had quite enough of this kind of tripe from climate scientists.) He is under no illusions about the capacity of our current political arrangements to bring about the changes that need to occur:

… it… seems unlikely that existing states will be able to deliver a small farm future, or else rescue the present global order from the crises enveloping it. This is partly because the depth and speed of these crises isn’t prompting the degree of radical rethinking that’s needed to overcome them. It’s also because the very structure of the modern state is part of the problem….

p. 231

The same goes for our economic arrangements. In the UK, most people get most of their food from the big supermarkets. Those supermarkets aren’t there to ensure that their customers get the best food (when one takes ecological and nutritional factors into consideration), nor are they there to foster British agriculture. They are there to make money for their shareholders, which they do very well. Considering that they constitute an oligopoly, it would be surprising if they didn’t. But in a small farm society, people would get their food from a combination of their own production and local suppliers, with whom they would deal face to face. There isn’t much for the shareholders in this, which is why it will be resisted.

There is also a deeply-ingrained cultural narrative which exalts the “progressive” urban life above the “backward” peasantry. Smaje is, with some reservations, pro-peasant. As he writes:

…we need to lay aside romantic views of how small-scale, face-to-face, self-reliant small farm communities operate. We also need to lay aside romantic views of how modern, large-scale, market-oriented, urbanised societies operate, and the directions in which they’re heading.

p. 166

He also acknowledges that his optimistic vision is not inevitable, and that if it arrives the road there is unlikely to be smooth. Given that top-down change is vanishingly unlikely, Smaje envisages it as mostly bottom-up, through what he calls “the supersedure state” (p. 235). This is his term for whatever regional or local power-base emerges as central state power declines, as he argues it inevitably must in the face of multiple crises. He does acknowledge, however, that “[t]he outcomes of such political crises will be uncertain and possibly ugly…” (p. 233).

It is here that perhaps I diverge a little from Smaje, perhaps because I am simply less optimistic. I wonder if, understandably, he is skating over the ugly parts of this transition. He is even prepared to countenance the notion that “modern civilisation is transcending violence” (p. 240), to which I can only say, paraphrasing Gandhi, that modern civilisation would be a very good idea. But the reality is, as he says, that nobody knows at this point. There’s some reason for optimism, which is perhaps enough. I certainly hope he’s right.

This is not to accuse Smaje of starry-eyed unworldliness. On the contrary, he is pragmatic, as indeed befits a farmer. He does not claim to have a one-size-fits-all solution to all the world’s ills. As he says:

Confident programmes are a tic of modernist politics in its taste for single keys that explain the forward march of history, whether it’s the profit motive, democratic freedom, the inevitable march of science and Enlightenment ideals, or class struggle. Since I don’t subscribe to single keys, forward marches or inevitablity, the politics I’ve outlined is vaguer and less certain of success.

p. 255

If more political thinkers worked in this vein, the quality of public discourse would be vastly improved.

This is a lucidly-written, well-researched and cogently-argued book. Its subject-matter demands that it be wide-ranging, and it is; a brief review such as this can scarcely hope to do it justice. I rarely say this, but I would like it to have been longer. I’m thinking particularly of Chapter 16, “From Religion to Science (and Back)”, which could be a book in itself. If Smaje were to write it, I’d certainly want to read it.

On the back cover, Richard Heinberg is quoted as saying: “Every young person should read this book.” I would go further: everyone under the age of 100 should read this book. To put it another way, I would recommend it to anyone looking for an appealing and practicable vision of the future, at a time when most of those available are one but not the other. Let me give his final paragraph in full:

It’s true of course that we’re facing some vast and pressing global problems, but one of the main reasons that they’re so vast and pressing is that we’ve been unable to think outside the frameworks that continue to generate them, so we keep amplifying them. Humanity is now sailing in dangerous waters. In this book, I’ve tried to chart what now seems to me to be our safest course, though without illusions about the difficulties of following it and the chances of success. I think it involves rejecting grand solutionism and creating local autonomies as best we can that may just see us through into a new phase of history, with its own contradictions and difficulties. We need to prefigure it by thinking, and farming, for the long haul. It begins when you start raising chickens.

Comments are welcome, but I pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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