Once someone accepts the significant human contribution to climate change, there are two possible options. The first option is to assume that things are too far gone so that exercising restraint is pointless. Based on this defeatist thinking we should either ride out the coming storm, hoping for the best, or accept that human extinction would be the best thing for the planet. The second option for those who recognize that the current form of human civilization is damaging the environment is to do something about it. What that something should be, however, is the subject of fierce debate.
Chris Smaje’s book, Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future: The Case for an Ecological Food System and Against Manufactured Foods has one clear solution in mind for climate change. He argues people should return to small-scale farming, incorporating ecologically sensitive methods to minimize the real impact of the human population. Unstated in the lengthy title, his primary opponent in the debate is George Monbiot whose 2022 book, Regenesis: Feeding the World without Devouring the Planet makes a case for urbanization, rewilding farmland, and manufacturing meat substitutes in a laboratory.
Though they have the same overall goal of mitigating climate change, the distance between Smaje and Monbiot is immense, especially as it is described in Saying NO to a Far-Free Future. At root, their proposed solutions reflect a vastly different understanding of humanity.
Mark Twain is famous for his disdain of statistics. This debate shows why. The cases for urbanization and agrarianism both rely on statistics. A significant portion of Smaje’s book is spent undermining ecomodernist interpretation of statistics or, in some cases, showing exactly what those statistics would mean in reality.
For example, a suggestion by RePlanet, an organization that Monbiot has been closely aligned with, calls for 90% of the human population to move into high-density urban settings to permit the rewilding of agricultural and suburban land. This would require moving more than two billion people from their current homes into currently non-existent high-rise apartments. Smaje rightly points out the breathtaking political power this would take and the social costs of such a relocation.
Even if a move toward intensive urbanization were possible, it is questionable whether it would achieve the desired outcome. As Smaje notes, the carbon footprint of many rural citizens, especially those in more traditional cultures, is significantly smaller than that of city dwellers (53). The projected benefit of urbanization is dependent on additional social and economic shifts that would have to be simultaneously orchestrated. Many of the statistical arguments ecomodernists make are projections based on best-case scenarios.
The optimism of Regenesis’s proposals is one of Smaje’s major targets through his book. Significantly, he believes that scalable manufacture of protein sources is unsupported by the current technology and unlikely in the future. One of Monbiot’s key arguments is that flatulent cows should be replaced by “precision fermentation”—that is, by making meat substitutes in vats populated by genetically engineered bacteria.
As Smaje argues, Mobiot’s case is “built on the questionable idea that consumers will happily embrace meat substitutes if they look and taste like meat” (97). We’re currently witnessing a refusal to make even modest lifestyle adjustments because of status signaling and consumer preference. Expecting people to replace their ribeye with even a well-presented byproduct of bacteria will be a tough sell no matter how loudly people shout about impending doom.
Moreover, it isn’t clear that lab-cultured meat substitutes are even viable. Smaje argues there are “endotoxins and high concentrations of nucleic acids with potentially harmful effects on human health” in the meat substitutes (35). Furthermore, even if technological solutions are found to that obstacle, he argues that Monbiot’s assumptions about energy consumption are much too optimistic (36–41). As a result, even if we can overcome the all the existing challenges, a synthetic meat future may not resolve the problem it set out to solve.
The most compelling argument Smaje makes, however, is not his statistical rebuttal or his skepticism about technological development. Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future is fundamentally an argument for “agrarian localism: a turn to low-energy input, job-rich, diverse and predominately local self-provisioning of food, fibre and other material requisites of life, and accompanying forms of politics that don’t really fit within the contemporary left-right framings” (1). His argument is for a human-scale approach to farming and human existence.
The ecomodernist approach of Regenesis relies on a mechanistic understanding of humanity. The presumption is that humans are merely fleshy machines that can adapt to flourish in any environment as long as their basic material needs are met. That doesn’t match with most people’s experience of life.
For example, urbanization would require most people to become office professionals to make a living. Smaje argues, “Office work suits some people perfectly well, but Monbiot gives no space to the profound disillusionment that many have felt in the face of modern bureaucratisation, urbanisation, and industrialisation” (127). Furthermore, urbanization will undoubtedly result in more renters and fewer property owners. Smaje notes, “If the choice is between living in the city at the mercy of monopoly landlords and food corporations, or living a more self-determined indigenous life in the countryside, it seems likely the world could experience a surprisingly sudden surge in the numbers of ‘indigenous’ people” (120). In other words, people are unlikely to accept lifestyles that further alienate them from nature.
Moving back toward a localized, agrarian way of life would encourage human flourishing because it restores “a sense of everyday implications in the sacred,” which has been significantly undermined by modernity (141). Monbiot’s proposal is a headlong dive further into disenchantment and distance from nature. Smaje makes the case that the opposite approach is more likely to move humanity toward lifestyles that treat nature well.
Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future makes a solid case for agrarianism, which falls in line with the arguments of Gene Logsdon, Wendell Berry, and others sympathetic to the Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front. The opponent, in this case, is not status-quo agribusiness, but a similar technocratic model wearing new clothes.
Though the case is well made, this book is best read by those familiar with Regenesis. That book has been widely publicized and deserved response, but the nature of Smaje’s argument as focused polemic against Monbiot’s book limits the audience to a subset of Regenesis readers. Therefore, this book is more likely to reach the already converted than to convince a new audience.
Resistance to what Smaje calls ecomodernism is necessary. Due to sunk costs, it’s tempting to hasten down the road of modernization we’ve been traveling to find safety from an impending storm. But if we realize there is no shelter at our proposed destination, it would be much better to turn around now and run back toward the farmhouse we left behind.
NOTE: This review originally incorrectly identified Monbiot as the source of the 90% urbanization proposal. The error was on the part of the review author.
Image credit: “Farmer with A Pitchfork” by Winslow Homer via Wikimedia Commons