Imagine a future where humans live entirely in cities in an attempt to minimize their impact on the natural world. Meat is made in factories and grazing is a thing of the past.
This is not a world Chris Smaje wants to live in. The writer, farmer, and social scientist doesn’t believe that humans need to take themselves out of the natural world to protect it, and he argues for agrarian localism over ecomodernism in his latest book, Saying No to a Farm-Free Future.
Ecomodernists believe that it is possible to protect nature and lessen the environmental impact of human development primarily through technological advances. This is achieved by shifting our development away from the natural world. Agrarian localists like Smaje argue that we can’t separate people from nature, and instead we should focus on reducing our impact by working more directly with our local environments: farming at a smaller scale, incorporating rewilding principles into our farming practices, and relying more on human power than internal combustion.
“Plenty of people are figuring out farming that works for them locally in most parts of the world; there’s an Indigenous tradition of land use that we can build on.”
The book is, at the core, a rebuttal to George Monbiot’s book, Regenesis: Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet. But it’s also much more than that. After his public response to Monbiot’s book elicited a response from readers, Smaje saw an opportunity to write about the role of farming, grazing, and rural places in an increasingly unstable and unpredictable future.
Smaje is a passionate and wryly funny writer. About his initial reluctance to wade into the debate he writes, “There’s something to be said for not . . . ‘paddeling the douchecanoe’ by rising to the bait of ecomodernist provocations . . . Once the veil is removed, what’s left is . . . well, basically just shrill activism and hippy dreaming with a high-tech gloss.”
The book advocates for doing less and doing it more thoughtfully at a time when humanity’s biggest challenges are often being addressed using more tech, more capital, and more emphasis on the role of cities. Smaje champions a future where more people return to rural areas and emphasizes small farms’ role in supporting local economies, healthy environments, and stronger relationships between people and animals.
He writes: “Our societies must turn to low-energy, low-capital, low-carbon agroecological approaches geared to meeting local needs primarily from local land, air and water. . . . Agriculture at its best can do this.”
Civil Eats spoke with Smaje recently to discuss his book, the role of farms in the future, and his view of humans as a keystone species.
While reading your book, I had this image of you sitting down and reading George Monbiot’s book and then furiously typing into the night.
I connected with George in 2015 after the Ecomodernist Manifesto was published. I wrote a critique of it that he read and was very enthusiastic about. He wrote an article in The Guardian critiquing ecomodernism. He mentioned my article, so he gave a boost to my writing, which I appreciated at the time. But gradually, he’s drifted into a position indistinguishable from ecomodernism.
He has been pretty much the only journalist with a mainstream media platform who has been a radical, progressive, green voice, so it matters what he says. He hasn’t written much about food and farming in recent years; this was his big food book. And it’s very, very problematic. I wrote a review on my blog and got into a Twitter argument with him about it. My publisher picked up on that, and almost before I knew it, I had signed a book contract.
I want to move on to making a case for agrarian localism and not be Mr. Anti-George Monbiot, but one of the issues is his book emphasizes how much [his case for lab-cultured meat] is grounded in the science and the data and a lot of people who don’t have the background or the time tend to read a book like that and say, “Oh, look it’s got 500 references in the back, it must be true.” I wanted to write something well-referenced and make a counter-argument. I think there are a lot of problems with his arguments; the energetic aspects of single-cell protein-manufactured foods are quite problematic.
The ecomodernist position emphasizes big-picture, top-down solutions. You’re countering that with what we can do at a much smaller level, fighting against monoculture, advocating for small places, and finding community food solutions. It’s much more challenging to do that on a large scale. Where are people doing this well, and how do we replicate it?
It’s a tricky question. There are loads of people doing it right; the problem is the politics and economics around it that make it so difficult for people to access land and spend time producing food locally.
“We’re overproducing cheap arable grains because it’s so easy to make them extend into landscapes where we probably shouldn’t be farming.”
Plenty of people are figuring out farming that works for them locally in most parts of the world; there’s an Indigenous tradition of land use that we can build on.
Can you talk about agrarian localism?
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Author: Nhatt Nichols