We occupy human environments that are overlapped by numerous social, moral, and political systems. Some of these interlock while it’s unclear how exactly others relate to one another. The more theoretically minded among us—and the more ideology-craving parts within us—tend to reach for rather all-encompassing frameworks to help us make sense of what creates social and environmental ills. We look around ourselves and see nutritious food shortages, ecological exploitation, social injustices, atomization, political radicalization, and tyranny. And depending on our ideological proclivities, we use divergent language as tools for identifying their sources, in hopes of then addressing these identified problems—using terms like socialism, capitalism, fascism, or liberalism, to name a few.
Abstractions or idealized conceptions like these have important roles to play, but how helpful are they in bringing about social change? What if instead of leading out with political ideology or philosophical theorizing, we focused our efforts on meeting needs as they present themselves? What would happen if instead of organizing with an eye toward finding like-minded individuals that share our same dogmas and creeds, we targeted concrete problems that we face within particular places or communities?
Jeffrey Howard speaks with Ashley Colby, a sociologist and author of Subsistence Agriculture in the United States: Reconnecting to Work, Nature, and Community (2020). She earned her PhD focusing on environmental sociology from Washington State University in 2018. She is currently pursuing research projects based in Uruguay, where she has recently founded Rizoma Field School for experiential learning in the area of sustainability and agroecology. She is a new member of the Executive Board of the Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative (SCORAI) based in North America.
Colby spotlights subsistence food producers in the United States, uncovering how “practitioner networks” empower community members with different ideological and political commitments to come together and solve local problems. She believes that our current mass agricultural system—a central element of what she frequently refers to as “industrial capitalism”—is not only in crisis but moving toward gradual collapse. Drawing from original ethnographic studies and her own experience as a subsistence food producer, she explores some of the more promising alternatives to the current system, or “shadow structures,” as she calls them.
She takes on the misconception that subsistence farming only happens in rural areas and in the Global South, highlighting food producers and chicken keepers in the Chicago area. She further expresses optimism that as industrial farming, consumerism, and global supply chains continue to push beyond their ecological and moral limits, that permaculture and subsistence agriculture will serve as the fruitful nexus for what is becoming the next collection of social and political systems that will enable communities to thrive beyond the twenty-first century.
Despite Colby’s optimism, how feasible or desirable are these movements away from mass-scale agriculture? How much meaningful change can happen when political activists take this more practical approach to problems rather than leading out with theoretical frameworks? What role does polemical theorizing have in bringing about social change?
Subsistence Agriculture in the United States: Reconnecting to Work, Nature, and Community by Ashley Colby (2020)
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