It wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that we are always in an age of crisis. Whether this entails more apocalyptic tendencies or more tempered framings, crisis seems to be a constant companion throughout human history. At present, crises abound regarding climate change, exploitation of land, and soil degradation. We’re seeing major cracks in political economies, many of which stem from misguided cultural paradigms.
With an industrialized global economy based on fossil fuels and an ethos that disregards limits, we find ourselves in an unsustainable present, with what is becoming an increasingly likely catastrophic future. Most people agree that we can’t continue along the same trajectory we’re currently on. Yet, many attempts to forestall the further collapse of prevailing systems appear insufficient for the tasks at hand.
What will it take to shift toward more egalitarian and low-carbon societies? Is it possible for global supply chains to be ecologically sustainable and ethically justifiable? What negative impacts do global and industrialized political economies have regarding personal autonomy, spiritual fulfillment, community connectedness, and ecological conviviality? When should we practice skepticism toward centralized and tech-optimist solutions to our many crises?
Jeffrey Howard speaks with Chris Smaje, a farmer and social scientist that has coworked a small farm in southwest England for more than 15 years. In his new book, A Small Farm Future (2020), he argues that societies built around local economies, self-provisioning, agricultural diversity, and commoning of certain ecological resources are our best shot for creating a sustainable future—in terms of the ecological, nutritional, and psychosocial.
In this small farm future, Smaje doesn’t imply that there will be no place for large farms or industrialization. Similarly, he doesn’t propose this vision as a panacea for all our problems nor as a utopia looking backward toward a romanticized past. There will be trade-offs. Difficult ones. He offers a melioristic way forward, believing that ecological and moral limits are going to force our hand, compelling us to consider more radical alternatives than the status quo allows.
A Small Farm Future advances a surprising amount of optimism despite how much dominant systems are not only showing signs of significant breakdown—made more pronounced by the COVID pandemic—but suggesting their likely collapse. Whether or not the types of collapse Smaje discusses actually happen in the ways he anticipates, he believes that the earth’s population will be better off if we shift toward small-holding property ownership, oriented around place-based communities and local economies.
Several questions worth contemplating. In what ways does scaling up systems make us less able to deal with crises effectively? What advantages do permaculture and regenerative agriculture have over large-scale, monocultural approaches? What are some politically feasible ways to make land access more egalitarian? And what trade-offs might we have to make in moving toward a small farm future?
Degrowth by Giorgos Kallis (2018)
Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care by Giorgos Kallis (2019)
Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World by Jason Hickel (2021)
Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on Land by Leah Penniman (2018)
Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Intensive, Sustainable Agriculture by Robert McC. Netting (1993)
Peasants and the Art of Farming by Jan Douwe van der Ploeg (2013)
Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James Scott (2017)
Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia by Steven Stoll (2017)
A Small Farm Future blog by Chris Smaje