I thought I was finished writing about my dispute with George Monbiot over the global food system and its future. Monbiot’s book Regenesis provoked my own book-length response, Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future. But a recent reading of Naomi Klein’s book Doppelganger opens new perspectives on it, which I explore in this essay.[1] And then I hope I really will be done.

Klein’s book, like mine, takes the unusual step of directing much of its energy against another specific author. But, also like mine, it does so with wider aims in mind. Her central theme is the way she’s routinely confused online with another Naomi–Naomi Wolf. In Klein’s telling of it, Wolf–high-profile liberal-feminist, public intellectual and author of a celebrated book, The Beauty Myth–effected an apparently bizarre change of political gears in the light of COVID and its vaccine controversies, embracing various conspiracy theories and right-wing libertarian ideals to the extent that she became a recurrent star guest on alt-right powerhouse Steven Bannon’s War Room podcast.

Given Klein’s orthodox left-wing positioning around COVID, climate change and collective politics, cue much confusion from Klein and Wolf’s respective admirers and detractors at the weird political mashups arising from getting the two of them mixed up. Cue also a fascinating book from Klein, which I found quite brilliant in places, that weaves some deep meditations around modern politics, society, and online culture out of her problems with ‘Other Naomi.’

One strength of her book is that she often avoids the easy route of merely deploring Wolf’s fall from ‘correct’ progressive positions into right-wing, conspiracist ‘error’ (although not quite often enough, as I’ll argue below). Instead, she places the trajectories of the two Naomis on more ambiguous terrain, a world of mirrors, doubles, and alternatives to the stable self, which she explores with reference to the cultural idea of the doppelganger–not just an impostor or fraudulent impersonator, but in some sense another version of the self: “doppelganger stories are never only about them; they are always also about us …. the doppelganger acts as an unwelcome kind of mirror, showing the protagonist a vain and venal version of themselves.”[2]

The story of me and George Monbiot is different from the story of Klein and Wolf in several obvious ways (not the least of them being that the other three are much more prominent writers than me, and nobody’s likely to get Monbiot and me mixed up). Still, as I read her book, I kept finding uncanny resonances between her ‘Naomi problem’ and my ‘George problem.’[3]

I think it’s worth exploring these because they bear on important wider trends in contemporary society and politics. It strikes me that all of us–the two Naomis, George and me–are seeking a way out of present problems with the liberal or leftwing politics of our formative years. I believe some of those exits are more plausible than others, but whatever the case we seem to have entered a period in history when hard political boundaries of old are melting and changing shape. Old allies and familiar nostrums have lost their lustre, while new bridges start to form.

This essay is a preliminary personal attempt to navigate some of this disconcerting terrain. It doesn’t probe too analytically into existing political architectures, like the distinction between ‘left’ and ‘right.’ But in some ways this is a key dualism that seems to be breaking down, or even mirroring its previous form, with a left that was once suspicious of centralized states and private corporations increasingly cleaving to state-corporate alliances as a preferred political model, while ideas of ‘the people’ as a radical force acting against a self-aggrandizing capitalist state that once characterized the left increasingly animating the right. Enter the era of doppelganger politics.

‘Where thinking once lived…’

A starting point: Klein discusses the way that “politics increasingly feels like a mirror world” where people act “as members of groups playing yin to the other’s yang … binaries where thinking once lived.” She suggests the right now uses the language originally coined on the left of being ‘othered,’ quoting Steven Bannon from his War Room podcast “Never again will they be able to other you, disappear you … That’s what the Chinese Communist Party did, that’s what the Bolsheviks did, that’s what the Nazis did.”

I wrote Saying NO… because I thought certain ecomodernist positions on farming and the food system, Monbiot’s in particular, were empirically wrong and politically problematic, and I wanted to explain why within the normal parameters of informed debate, that place where ‘thinking lives’ in Klein’s phrase. In case the term ‘ecomodernism’ is unfamiliar, I usually define it in terms of four key commitments to:

  1. a predominantly urban world, like our present one
  2. a world supported by cheap and abundant low-carbon energy (nuclear and/or renewables, which ecomodernists believe can quickly and fully replace the work done by fossil fuels in the present economy, minimising climate impacts and the deurbanization and other social disruption that would occur in a low-energy world)
  3. high-tech bioengineering in the food system (genetic engineering, synthetic biology, manufactured microbial food etc.)
  4. lowering the land footprint of agriculture through these technologies, which ecomodernists believe will make more space for nature

The ‘modernism’ aspect is another way to think about it, as I’ll discuss shortly.

Monbiot has espoused all four of the elements I’ve outlined. At root, his vision preserves the present structure of an urban, high-energy world and assumes that energy use can be both decarbonised and amplified to produce electrically-energised food from microbial sources in low land-footprint factories in what he calls an emerging “Counter-Agricultural Revolution” involving “the beginning of the end of most agriculture.”[4] He disavows the ecomodernist label, defining ecomodernism as “a movement that treats green technology as a substitute for political and economic change.” Nevertheless, as I’ll also discuss shortly, I think this summarises his position pretty well.

I argue, by contrast, that we probably can’t decarbonise the energy system at existing levels of energy use, let alone increase energy use to the levels required to manufacture food. If we’re to avoid the ravages of climate change, nature loss, and other drivers of social breakdown, we will need to inhabit a less urban and more agrarian world. I don’t argue this because it’s a world I especially want to see but because it’s a world I think we or our descendants inevitably will see. However, with luck and skill, it’s a world where people may be able to create congenial local livelihoods and autonomy–a world of place, limits, and liberty, to invoke Front Porch Republic’s strapline. I argue at length in Saying NO… that such positive possibilities are much less likely in Monbiot’s ecomodernist vision.

You can get a sense of how Monbiot chose to handle my critique just from the title of his rather hyperbolic rejoinder: “The cruel fantasies of well-fed people: the astonishing story of how a movement’s quest for rural simplicity drifted into a formula for mass death.” With shades of Steven Bannon, he writes:

Chris’s long-standing plan–to move the people to the food, rather than the food to the people–is a further instance of the Great Cruelty of the past two centuries. The Great Cruelty is common to colonialism, capitalism, communism, Nazism, neoliberalism and all the other conquering and interconnected forces that have dominated thought and action during this period. It can be summarised as follows: People are counters, to be moved in their millions, as interests or ideology dictate, across the board game called Planet Earth.

And more in that vein, a lot of which struck me as a case of Klein’s yin vs. yang rather than a place where much thinking was living. I’ve addressed the wrongheadedness of some of this critique elsewhere. Defending my position from Monbiot’s barbs isn’t my focus here. But I–and others too–had likewise drawn links between Monbiot’s own positions and colonialism, capitalism, and neoliberalism (while stopping well short of communist comparisons, let alone Nazi ones). If I’m to take Monbiot’s accusations as more than mudslinging, then there seems to be a mirroring going on, with both of us seeing similarly cruel outcomes in the other’s positions. Perhaps this exemplifies Klein’s view that when reality starts doubling, something important is being denied.[5] This essay is largely about trying to uncover what that thing is.

After Monbiot published his essay various big beasts of the techno-utopian space like Rutger Bregman, Mark Lynas, and Hannah Ritchie enthusiastically endorsed it. Maarten Boudry, co-author with ecomodernist Hidde Boersma of an article I’d critiqued, wrote, “Chris struck me as way better informed than most of our critics, but judging from Monbiot’s review, the position of his book is pretty insane.” The editor of a journal to whom I wrote seeking a reply to the “Cruel fantasises…” piece that they’d reprinted made it plain that they regarded Monbiot’s voice as authoritative and me as the unreliable interloper. All small beer compared to many a literary feud, but it did leave me with the impression that silencing the upstart was the name of the game. In this version of the story, it seems, I was the doppelganger, the impostor, the venal one.

I confess I was a bit shocked by the tone of Monbiot’s response and unimpressed by the tack he’d chosen to take. Still, I suppose you could say I invited it by writing a book that targeted his writing. So I did my best (my best arguably not being very good) to shrug it off. If you choose to poke the bear…

But now that I’ve read Klein’s book, it strikes me that there’s something more interesting going on. While Monbiot positions me as a considerably more sinister figure than Naomi Klein’s ‘other Naomi’–even accusing me of writing a “bible” for a movement cruelly devoted to mass death–in this world of mirrors I can’t help seeing a degeneration of the same sort in his own writing. It’s jarringly underlined by his use of the same communist/Nazi framing that Bannon employs. And, just as Klein accuses Bannon of being a conspiracist and using inauthentic ‘power to the people’ rhetoric to cover the traces of the existing powerholders, so, I believe, does Monbiot, who dresses up a logic of expropriation and enclosure in the mantle of feeding the people and saving nature, all the while recuperating existing structures of power.

Monbiot’s recent writings on the food system are also alarmingly taken up by conspiracy theorising. As with almost every issue, a good deal of the evidence around agriculture is uncertain, complex, and sometimes contradictory, and there’s considerable leeway for differences of opinion that can be aired constructively in the space ‘where thinking lives.’ But Monbiot’s recent tendency has been to infer dark motives in those with whom he disagrees, particularly around the issue of livestock, while soft-pedalling criticisms about some of his own associations.[6]

This is one of several reasons why I’ve now stopped taking Monbiot’s views on food and farming seriously. What’s interesting about them, which Klein’s book helps unlock, is their wider implications for the state of contemporary political culture. Klein says she’s adopted as her mantra a line from Philip Roth’s doppelganger novel Operation Shylock, in which a narrator named Philip Roth runs into trouble with a lookalike impersonator also named Philip Roth: “It’s too ridiculous to take seriously, and too serious to be ridiculous.” The phrase aptly encapsulates how I feel about a lot of contemporary politics, and political discussion, not least Monbiot’s “Cruel fantasies…” essay. Perhaps this present essay errs in taking such writings more seriously than they merit, but perhaps again their impact is too serious to be ridiculous.

Another phrase of Roth’s that Klein deploys freely in her text is pipikism, “the antitragic force that inconsequencializes everything–farcicalizes everything, trivializes everything, superficializes everything.”[7] There are quite a few terms like this in the air nowadays that try to map the boundaries of authentic communication. Good faith versus bad faith. Straw man versus steel man. “Just vibes.” Greta Thunberg’s “blah blah blah.” Sealioning. Pipikism. They can be useful, but they easily get emptied of critical integrity and become just another insult to be hurled at our antagonists. “Sealioning” has worked for me, and pipikism might be another keeper, but only if we recognize that pipiking isn’t a sin uniquely committed by our political enemies. It’s a risk we all run in these topsy-turvy times.

Some political genealogies

Modern life rests on many shadowlands that we find ways not to see–destroyed ecosystems, exploited labour, colonial genocides, land expropriations of the past and present, ghost acres, climate change and the ‘storms of our grandchildren,’ ecological holocausts like the Canadian tar sands, social holocausts like the destruction of indigenous people’s lifeways.

Historically, leftwing political thought more than most has tried to shine a light onto those shadowlands and the ways we’re able not to see them. Karl Marx is an important ancestor in showing there’s an underlying logic to how all this works, and how it goes unseen via various ideological blinkers that we don unknowingly. The ‘critique of ideology,’ as it’s sometimes called in social science, that he and other thinkers developed tries to see through the veil of society’s everyday self-rationalisation to grasp what’s really going on.

I still think there are ideological tricks worked by capitalism that Marxist thinking can help elucidate, but I’m pretty distant from Marxism for two main reasons. First, Marxism has been fatally compromised by the scientistic pretension that its own analyses represent the truth, while all else is bourgeois or mystical error–an error of its own with a lot of blood on its hands which was persistently and persuasively criticised in late twentieth-century social philosophy.

Second, it’s been compromised by the notion that modern wage labourers constitute a revolutionary class that can overthrow capitalism and install a benevolent form of collective society overseen by a bureaucratic socialist state. I do still think that ordinary people at the sharp end of society necessarily have a good vantage point to see how its shadowlands work, a sharp end that encompasses not only wage labourers but also peasants, farmers, small business proprietors, refugees, homeless people, and many others. I think the Marxists are right that these vantage points sometimes coalesce into forms of class identity, class alliance, and political action. But Marxism’s radical collectivism, scientism, and orientation to revolutionary redemption look to me like a dead letter of nineteenth- and twentieth-century modernist politics best left where it fell.

The politics of those centuries persists in the widespread if waning view that capitalism and communism are polar opposites, so that if you’re anti-capitalist you’re probably a communist. Yet the common grounding of both capitalism and communism in technocratic, corporate (whether state or private sector) mass society is becoming more apparent. From this recognition, populist and conservative thought has started articulating its own critiques of capitalist ideology based in the experience of ordinary people, communities, and traditions.

This puts some noses out of joint on the left. You get a sense of that in Klein, along the lines that the left did its critique of capitalism first, and better, so more conservative critiques are somehow fake. The left didn’t do it first–if anything, populist and communitarian worker activism predates modern socialism. And while there are persuasive aspects of the left’s critique of ideology–namely, a structural understanding of how capitalist profit-seeking destroys nature and local human communities–it’s complemented by populist, conservative, and communitarian strands of thinking that fill out the character and meaningfulness of those communities. In the doppelganger politics of present times, it strikes me that more conservative approbations of ordinary lives can sometimes be less fake than many leftist ones where approbation of ordinary lives is conditional upon them fitting into a grander preconceived political plan.

To bring this back to my George problem, one of the curious things about Monbiot’s recent writings on the food system–unlike some of his earlier writing–is that he’s pretty much dropped any structural critique of capitalist profit-making within which to place his well-founded objections to the way that modern livestock agriculture operates (he concentrates overwhelmingly on the overproduction of livestock, and not on the deeper problem of agricultural overproduction in general, especially of arable cereals and grain legumes, based on the structural factors of cheap fossil energy and the globalization of capital seeking absolute advantage).[8] Instead, he essentially just showcases various food production techniques, especially super high-tech ones that rely on high-energy and capital-intensive industrial infrastructures, as ways to techno-fix our way out of present food system problems.

Klein offers more in the way of traditional structural critique. But she also pulls some punches. She deflates that conspiracy-tinged and potentially anti-Semitic bogeyman of the populist right, the ‘globalist’, but she has curiously little to say about globalisation–again in contrast to her other writings–as the context for emerging populisms.

I’ll say more about populism shortly, but the most recent phase in the globalisation of capital associated with governments across the political spectrum has surely provided fertile ground for populisms worldwide–not least in the wealthy countries, as the profit-scouring that was previously concentrated in their shadowlands elsewhere has ramped up within their own rural and working-class communities (increasingly, in all communities). While leftwing writers of my generation in these countries often seem nostalgic for a kind of pre-1980s golden age before the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan grabbed the reins of the welfare-capitalist state, the truth is the capitalist worm was always in the bud long before these leaders worked their mischief. There is no equilibrium point for societies built on productivity increases, abundant energy, and mass consumption. Ultimately, the shadowlands of such societies are always going to expand to encompass the whole world, and popular/populist local counter-politics are going to arise that will not be beholden to classical socialist approaches wedded to the bureaucratic state.

In obsessing over who controls Westminster, Washington, D.C., or other power centres, while hoping that green growth techno-fixes will enable them to spread the love from the centre of the nation-state, this kind of traditional leftwing politics has become scarcely distinguishable from the self-justifications of advanced capitalism. It creates opportunities for populisms of one kind and another to organise around the numerous local resistances arising from the economic globalisation that parties of both the mainstream left and right are unwilling to confront.

Klein’s book ends with a stirring and somewhat populist appeal to local togetherness that I endorse, but one that I find slightly vague. I like to think she’s on a similar journey to mine, grounded in what was originally a leftwing structural critique of capitalism and its shadowlands but moving away from the fantasy solutions of the techno-fix, agricultural ‘improvement’ or class revolution towards complex local populisms of material livelihood. I believe these ultimately point to agrarian localism–a small farm future–and probably to forms of civic republican, communitarian, and distributist politics which are in tension with one another but that just don’t fit the old left-right dichotomy. If she steps further into this politics, it might turn Klein into a different Naomi, not a Naomi Wolf but definitely a Naomi more vulnerable to wild accusations of cruelty or insanity from capitalists, ecomodernists, and the orthodox left. She’s already accustomed to getting flak.

Truths and numbers

Meanwhile, there have been some strange doublings, or doubling backs, occurring among writers associated with the left. One of them is the way that strong notions of scientific truth have returned with a vengeance into social visions for the future, just when it seemed that ideas like ‘scientific socialism’ had thankfully been put to rest.

It’s understandable at one level. After all the pipiking around COVID and climate change and the ‘post-truth’ shenanigans of the Trump presidency, there’s a need to assert that some things are happening and objectively knowable via scientific analysis regardless of anybody’s wishful thinking to the contrary. It may be true that pandemics and greenhouse gas emissions give central governments excuses to flex their authoritarian muscles. This doesn’t mean that pandemics and greenhouse gas emissions aren’t real.

Where this gets harder is in navigating complex questions of human ecology and society. Monbiot makes strong claims that his takes on the food system have a hard numerical and scientific grounding, and that this makes him an enemy of many food and farming writers, influencers, and filmmakers: “any form of quantification is as welcome in this arena as a tambourine in a Bach sonata.”

That’s scarcely true, but the problem isn’t really quantification so much as how one frames and uses numbers. For example, Monbiot points to modern levels of urbanism to suggest that food must be grown far from where most people live for “simple mathematical reasons,” dismissing without evidence arguments that this is unlikely to be possible in the future.[9] Urbanism in any case isn’t a matter of simple maths but of complex history and politics, based on a lot of cruel dispossession, and the cruelties will be compounded if we don’t realize that it may not be sustainable. For sure, there’s a need to discuss how to move humanely from the heavily urbanised present to a more rural future. That discussion can only start after it’s acknowledged that ruralisation is less a cruel fantasy than a clear future possibility—and perhaps a future necessity.

But there are cruelties on the other side of this line. In Saying NO… I cautioned that Monbiot’s mathematical rationality can be placed within a long tradition of often pseudo-scientific rationalization and ‘improvement’ of agriculture that has usually benefitted central governments, colonial powers, wealthy industrialists, landowners, and middlemen, while taking a cruel toll on ordinary farmers and communities. He scorns this charge in his “Cruel fantasies…” piece, but in my view that essay provides further corroboration of my point, bringing out what was more implicit in Regenesis: a neo-Malthusian view about the need for more food production, more economic connectivity, and higher yields to combat human hunger of the kind long associated with justifications for colonialism and corporate industrial agriculture, and an ignorance about the relationship between hunger and agricultural yield increase. There’s a vast historical literature on how this has played out, and Monbiot should wise up to it. Behind all the improvement and progress Monbiot celebrates lie shadowlands of destroyed ecosystems and communities.

Monbiot also runs into more straightforward number troubles in Regenesis around figures that he’s got wrong, or at least interpreted wrong. Well, it’s easy to make mistakes, although I do believe that his mistake about the energetic cost of food from bacterial biomass – the centrepiece of his book – rules it out as a feasible mass food strategy. But anyone who lays claim to the mantle of science must be scrupulously open about the source of their data and must be prepared to see their analysis proved false. Alas, this can’t be said of Monbiot with his stonewalling about his data source and his incorrect claim that manufactured bacterial protein consumes 16.7 kWh of electrical energy per kg.[10] At one point, he claimed that his 16.7 figure and my low-end estimate of around 65 kWh/kg were both right. That’s a pretty post-truth position to adopt for someone committed to mathematical exactitude.

This is but one example of Monbiot’s pipiking in his writing, and it too easily bamboozles the reader into thinking his positions have emerged unmotivated from empirical enquiry. It’s more sophisticated than the pipiking that Klein detects in, say, Steven Bannon’s podcasts. But it’s still pipiking, and I think Klein is mistaken to imagine that only online conspiracy influencers engage in what she calls a “doppelganger of investigative journalism” where they copy its stylistic conventions while ducking its quality control measures. It seems to be a temptation to which even actual investigative journalists succumb.

There’s nothing wrong with journalists staking an outspoken position, but when they frame it in terms of scholarly enquiry while disregarding the basic quality control measures of such enquiry it opens the door to (more) unscrupulous influencers who will happily barge through. In the Bach sonata of food system analysis, I hear Monbiot’s own tambourine of discredited quantification rattling annoyingly over the lilt of the music, and yes, to be honest, it doesn’t sound that great.

Modernism and the fear of death

What lies behind pipiking of this sort? I think Klein puts her finger on it almost incidentally in her account of her son ‘T.’ and his autism.

Initially pleased to be able to enroll T. in a carefully designed school programme for autistic kids in New Jersey, Klein describes her misgivings about the battery of tests the kids were subjected to, which seemed to be less about meeting their individual needs than demonstrating improvement in test scores, feeding into school rankings and thence into property taxes and school funding. “So much of my family’s experience with disability has been a conflict with the mindsets that seek to name, cure and control.”

Later, her family moved to a rural area in Canada and T. attended a local school. Klein’s fears for the outcome happily proved unfounded “for a simple reason: there is very little pushing, measuring, or testing,” leading to “what all kids deserve: acceptance.”[11]

She goes on to bemoan the “achievement arms race” that well-off liberal parents build around childhood. But she’s even more critical of the achievement orientation in the wellness and personal-branding culture that she associates with the COVID scepticism of the alt-right:

Every step counted. Every sleep measured. Every meal “clean.” And it is this context that has prepared the ground for a redux of the 1930s fascist/New Age alliance. The very idea that humans can and should be “optimized” lends itself to a fascistic worldview.[12]

I see some strange doublings here that mirror my issues with the ecomodernists. The obsession with naming, counting, controlling, rationalising. The urge to increase yields, cut land takes and ‘cleanse’ farming, especially livestock farming. The Malthusian achievement arms race ostensibly derives from good environmental reasons, but it ultimately draws from a colonialist history of optimizing and ‘improving’ people off the land in favour of higher-input approaches less grounded in local ecologies of place and more oriented to globalized supply chains sucking as much surplus as they can from wherever they can, with counterproductive results.

To measure and optimize is sensible within bounds, but this measuring and optimizing fetish can indeed be fascistic. It can also be socialistic or communistic. Above all it’s authoritarian–and modernist in its sense of a break with the bad old ways and its ever-improving arrow towards the future delivered in an ideologically sealed package labelled ‘science’ or ‘quantification’ that’s supposedly beyond critique.[13]

Monbiot charges me with a modernist ‘great cruelty,’ but this is where the mirroring is. His explicit scorn for low-input agroecology, traditional practices, and local knowledges, however hedged with occasional ambivalence, is congruent with the modernist cruelties of enclosure, expropriation, ‘scientific improvement,’ and colonialism. I identify instead with intellectual traditions that depart from this authoritarian modernist arrow. They’re quite diverse, and I won’t delve into them here, but I’ll take a cue from the likes of Eugene McCarraher, who argues that the reconstruction of this modernist or ‘Enlightenment’ project has to go all the way down to its ontological roots[14]. And from the likes of the splendidly heterodox Marxist thinker, Anthony Galluzzo, who argues that,

“Warm stream” Marxism and a normative radical politics that posits a moral economy as regulative ideal are what remains relevant now. The past, forgotten traditions, traditions of the vanquished, reimagined are how we get to the future. No more disastrous hyper-modernist year zeros.

Such year zeros are what Monbiot invokes when he heralds “the beginning of the end of most agriculture” and its replacement with manufactured food.

Modernists (and that includes ecomodernists) seem capable of seeing only nostalgia in the arguments of their critics–hence the endless, tiresome pejoratives: ‘bucolic,’ ‘romantic,’ ‘medieval,’ ‘rural idyll,’ and so on. Actually, there is no desire to return to the past here. But nor is there a fear of it. And fear is what I think prompts such insults from the ecomodernists. Fear of the past, or more specifically fear of failing to transcend it, because in a disenchanted modernist world where individual death is final and absolute, societal progress becomes a kind of afterlife.

Klein touches on this in quoting James Baldwin on the fears that a white man projected onto a black man like Baldwin: “it was something he didn’t want to see. And you know what that was? It was ultimately, yes, his own death. Or call it trouble. Trouble is an excellent metaphor for death.”[15]

Death. Trouble. I think there’s a terrible anxiety among the typically rich and socially powerful people drawn to ecomodernism, people who are used to rising smoothly up social rankings and getting their own way. The fear is that ultimately the little quantum of power and control they have will count for nothing in the face of their death, or in the face of the trouble threatening to tear down the certainties of the present world they know and comfortably move in. It’s something they don’t want to see and don’t like to hear being mentioned.

In this connection, while Monbiot defines me as someone who hates cities, the truth is that I just don’t think present levels of urbanism will be sustainable in the future–but I do confess an antipathy toward intellectual positions that muddle these two things up and that play to the complacent worldviews held by many urban, progressive, professional people who cannot bear the idea that a societal turn toward ruralism and agrarianism may be necessary, especially if it involves themselves, and are determined to dismiss it as mere romanticism. Hence the characteristic mythic structure of ecomodernist books like Monbiot’s–what I’ve called the ecomodernist doom flip–which runs as follows: there’s trouble in the world to be sure, but, see, with this science and technology, with this optimisation and improvement, it can be surmounted and the existing structure of our world, its cities, its high-energy lifeways, its vast material flows, its boundless consumption, can be redeemed. So actually we’re fine–as you were.

I don’t believe in this myth. I think a better bet is to face the trouble. Doing so won’t always turn out well, but I think overall the chances are better than to pin one’s hopes on ecomodernist mythologies, and there may even be something like what T. experienced in his rural school–community, acceptance, a letting go of the illusion of control.

Still, that’s easy for me to say living in the countryside close to a lovely little English town (Monbiot lives in another lovely little town quite nearby), far away from the shadowlands that make its smooth routines possible.

Klein writes that we urgently need to build a world without shadowlands.[16] Quite so–and here we come to the divide between ecomodernism and agrarian populism. Ecomodernism imagines that world as pretty much like the lovely modern towns where Monbiot and I live, available worldwide to all, by dematerialising food production and human life in general on a current of endless clean energy, clean meat, and compounding capital. Agrarian populism imagines it as a world of constrained local material production, which involves a lot of hard change–fundamentally, political change. I don’t think that will be easy. But, unlike ecomodernist visions, it does at least seem to me to be within the bounds of possibility.

Diagonalism and its doubles

Klein identifies a problem with ‘diagonalism’ in contemporary politics, whereby self-identified ‘progressives’ (a rather problematic term)–claiming political homelessness due to the betrayal of original ideals–associate with right-wing actors or positions of one kind or another around a ‘beyond left and right’ framing. Her main example is the Wolf-Bannon double act, and their shared positions around COVID, sovereign citizenship, and so on. Klein seems to view this as at best a self-deluding and more likely cynical effort to blur the real distinctions between left-wing and right-wing politics.

I don’t dispute that both self-delusion and cynicism come into play, especially among conspiracist, right-wing edgelords. But there’s a danger that focusing on such extremist figures distracts from the genuine political changes afoot that do divide erstwhile allies and potentially align former antagonists across old lines of left and right. A left that engaged less with the threat of a Steven Bannon and more with the ideas of a Patrick Deneen might be in better shape to combat the former.

There are also various mirrored versions of the diagonalism Klein diagnoses. Apparently right-wing populists sometimes sound remarkably left-wing in their egalitarian, anti-authoritarian, and pro-working-class framings. And apparent socialists sometimes sound remarkably capitalist in their advocacy for top-down, technocratic, and ultimately corporate solutionism. Leigh Phillips and Michael Rozworski’s People’s Republic of Walmart: How the World’s Biggest Corporations Are Laying the Foundations for Socialism gives a flavour. So does Monbiot’s Regenesis and his subsequent writings on food, with his Malthusian framings of productivity/scarcity and his amplifying of corporate and ecomodernist talking points supplied by the likes of the Good Food Institute and the RePlanet/WePlanet organisation with which he’s associated, with its dreams of a 90 percent urban world.

For sure, Monbiot still writes as fiercely as anyone about the evils of corporate power and right-wing governments, but if your approach to the food system inherently favours corporate monopoly and disfavours small-scale, low-input, peopled agrarian localism, I believe that fierce rhetoric is ultimately empty. Monbiot’s enthusiasm for low food prices and his seeming inability to grasp how they connect with hunger, poverty, neoliberalism, and economic globalisation indicate the limits of his political vision.[17] Railing at the excesses of plutocrats and their governmental enablers no doubt fuels a sense of righteous anger, but there’s no fire in Monbiot’s belly for a materially and culturally different political economy, only one that’s fairer and better regulated. His politics are welfare-capitalist and his food systems analysis rests on a series of more or less implausible techno-fixes seemingly aimed as a defence against fundamental social change. This is why I think his arguments fit his own definition of ecomodernism: “a movement that treats green technology as a substitute for political and economic change.”

I won’t dwell at length on analysing this curious hybrid of corporate-friendly leftist ecomodernism. Briefly, I think it arises out of the shared modernism of capitalism and contemporary socialism, with their commitments to mass progress and historical improvement. Once the belief on the left in a redeeming proletarian revolution came to its overdue death, the path was clear for a belief in redeeming technology delivered to a mass society by corporate innovation, provided the politics from the centre, or the top, are styled in a palatably progressive way. Both these versions of modernism are top-down, middle-class led, and essentially hostile to grassroots local autonomy. The wellbeing of ordinary people is something that has to be orchestrated from the centre, via the correct politics and expert knowledges, not something people can cultivate themselves.

Hence the diagonalism of present politics. On one side, top-down, state-centred, and technocratic visions among progressives, ecomodernists, and neoliberals start connecting up. On the other, visions of local grassroots sufficiency among various strands of anarchism, libertarian leftism, civic republicanism, distributism, agrarian populism, and conservatism likewise connect despite their remaining, sometimes sharp, differences. These political currents aren’t that new and have been long anticipated by writers like Christopher Lasch and Alasdair MacIntyre. But perhaps we’re moving into times when they’re beginning to have on-the-ground political force, to the bemusement of the mainstream left. I believe the chances are high that future re-ruralisations will occur in many parts of the world, involving new kinds of populist class alliances unanticipated by Marxism that will pit agrarian localists of various kinds against the power of state technocracy. If so, people like me, Monbiot, Klein, and Wolf will, despite our somewhat similar political starting points, probably end up on different sides of it.

No doubt Klein is right about the dangers of alliances like Wolf-Bannon, but I believe alliances like Monbiot-RePlanet are also highly problematic. These are dangerous times. There is a real threat of far right (and communist) authoritarianisms coopting the emerging politics (“climate behemoth and climate Mao’ as one book puts it).[18] I think that threat is amplified if we hold fast to the lines of old political boundaries and stereotypes. Yet this is what I believe Monbiot does implicitly in Regenesis but more explicitly in some of his subsequent writings. An article about current farmer protests in Europe starts with the reasonable proposition that they’re being exploited by the far right but increasingly drifts into identifying European agrarianism as inherently tainted by racism and fascism, invoking pioneering figures like Rudolf Steiner and Rolf Gardiner–the usual suspects employed by urbane contemporary leftists in Europe to draw their readers’ eye to something rotten that lurks behind the veil of organic farming and agrarian holism.

It’s not that such figures should escape criticism, but if we’re going to go looking for the tarnished roots of modern ideas in early twentieth century thought, there’s surely a need for even-handedness. Why not mention the fascist-leaning Italian futurists as a rebuke to contemporary ecomodernist visions of high-tech, urban modernity? Why not invoke the brilliant mathematician, committed socialist, and dedicated racist and eugenicist, Karl Pearson–who pretty much founded the discipline of social statistics, wrote The Moral Basis of Socialism, and also extolled the virtues of the ‘Aryan race’ and the need for war with ‘inferior races’–as a cautionary tale for those who would seek to quantify and compare human progress? Why not draw out the links between both capitalist and communist contempt for ‘petit bourgeois’ politics and the resulting enormous suffering, hunger, and/or displacement meted out to rural and small-town people in the high modernist politics of the twentieth century?

It’s reasonable to sound warnings about the dangerous far-right politics that’s attaching itself to farmers’ and other populist movements, but if the aim is only to reaffirm the virtues of standard ‘progressive’ positions that cleave increasingly to technocratic corporate-government alliances, the warnings will probably go unheeded and a larger goal is missed. Monbiot could do worse than looking at his own agrarian writings to understand why farming politics so easily gets disconnected from a mainstream progressive agenda. Instead of concluding that farmers in Europe are irredeemably prone to right-wing or far-right politics, progressives might ask themselves what it is about their own narratives and messaging that fails to attract enough people from agrarian and rural communities. Ultimately, though, in the face of the global meta-crisis I think the larger goal must be to build grassroots populisms that can support robust and diverse local agrarian communities.

Beyond doomerism

Discussing her climate change activism, Klein describes a trajectory familiar to many of us. It starts with the idea that things are getting bad and will soon be worse, but also with the belief that it’s not too late to turn the corner if only we can organise urgent and radical action to overturn familiar assumptions.

Then comes the ‘actually, it is too late’ moment: “I had run out of halfway-credible pathways away from disaster to offer. I no longer saw how we could avoid the social and ecological outcomes that so many of us most fear.”[19]

Indeed–how many more ‘decade zeros’ can we invoke, how many more years can we keep pausing the doomsday clock just before midnight, how many more incantations of ‘not too late’ can we proclaim? In a swipe aimed at me, Monbiot wrote, “Our aim should be not to use societal collapse as a tool to shape the world to our tastes, but to seek to avert societal collapse.” I agree with this, but I think this is really a swipe at his own doppelganger, whose truth he’s desperate not to hear. What if we cannot now avert societal collapse? Shouldn’t we even be considering the least bad options from there?

Klein sticks her neck out even further than I do: “The known world is crumbling. That’s okay. It was an edifice stitched together with denial and disavowal… It needed to crash. Now, in the rubble, we can make something more reliable, more worthy of our trust, more able to survive the coming shocks.”[20] Presumably this falls foul of Monbiot’s strictures about not using collapse as a tool. I also fear for the difficulties of building something more worthy from the rubble, and I’m not convinced that collapse is ‘okay.’ Nevertheless, Klein’s appraisal of the real challenges ahead seems more plausible than Monbiot’s.

Unfortunately, it’s almost an axiom of contemporary climate and political reportage that redemption must arrive from offstage, a bit like the happy ending of a dramatic novel that puts its protagonists through the wringer before all is ultimately resolved. In the end, nature and civilization were saved by renewable energy and manufactured food. In the end, the fascists didn’t get elected, and the government stepped up. This seems to me more like a mythic resolution of societal business-as-usual that works on the pages of a book than a sensible appraisal of present real-world circumstances.

In Saying NO… I posit an alternative: “Our modernist mindset too easily leads us to the comfortable notion that ‘they’–the government, the scientists, whoever–are going to save us with the latest whizz-bang techno-fix. They’re not. Nobody is coming to save us.”

Klein says almost the same thing in Doppelganger: “no one is coming to save us but us.”[21]

Both of us go on to suggest that building grassroots solidarities is now the best way to go. This isn’t a case of the despairing ‘doomerism’ that mainstream writers fear will prompt complicity and apathy. I mean, how fares their alternative, Project Non-Apathy, which tries to prompt radical and urgent action by soft-pedalling the disintegrative forces acting on contemporary society? Ultimately, collapse (which is being driven by many components in addition to climate change) isn’t some abrupt and singular event horizon beyond which all is darkness. It’s a whole bunch of different biophysical and social processes operating in different ways on different timescales in different places. I think we’ll achieve better outcomes if we create a new politics and new alliances that bend with these processes rather than vainly trying to stave them off with old nostrums and happy endings.


Wherever we pin our political colours, troubling doppelgangers await. It’s reasonable to worry that the turn to agrarian localism I endorse could deliver the worst-case scenario of fascist governance, starvation, and ecocide. It’s reasonable to worry that the entrenchment of corporate mass society, ecomodernist urbanism, rewilding, and manufactured food that Monbiot endorses could also deliver the worst-case scenario of fascist governance, starvation, and ecocide. As I see it, his vision is more likely to lead to that outcome than mine.

It would have been nice to have been able to debate such issues calmly with him in the ‘space where thinking once lived,’ but alas that wasn’t to be. In his “Cruel fantasies…” piece and in his evasiveness over his empirical mistakes, I think he’s become his own doppelganger, that unwelcome mirror of which Klein speaks, showing a vain and venal version of himself.

But I daresay I should bring Klein’s world of mirrors to bear on my own shortcomings. Although I don’t regret writing Saying NO…–pointing out the empirical errors and political dangers of ecomodernism felt worthwhile and necessary to me, and still does–nevertheless I fear that I’m prone to defining myself too much in relation to people and positions with which I disagree. This is always likely to invite its own negation and call forth doppelgangers who might not have taken such solid shape had my writing engaged more with its own positive visions and been more elliptical about its enemies.

Like Klein, I no longer have any halfway credible paths away from disaster to offer. I don’t think Monbiot does either–his casting about for something, anything, to cling to strikes me as a desperate act of denial. But embracing the fact that terrible changes are coming which are substantially out of anybody’s control clarifies the positive things you can do. These are numerous and energising, but I believe they cluster mostly around agrarianism, localism, and community wellbeing, and it is on this good work that I wish to focus in future writing.


  1. George Monbiot. 2022. Regenesis. Allen Lane; Chris Smaje. 2023. Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future. Chelsea Green; Naomi Klein. 2023. Doppelganger. Penguin.
  2. Klein, Doppelganger p.188, p.10
  3. In addition to my book, Dougald Hine and Ed Gillespie’s podcast ‘We need to talk about George’ gives a good sense of what the ‘George problem’ is – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LmokUaxX8c&ab_channel=DougaldHine
  4. Monbiot, Regenesis p.210, p.187
  5. Klein, Doppelganger p.9
  6. See, for example, Monbiot’s letter to The Land Magazinehttps://www.thelandmagazine.org.uk/articles/precision-and-prohibition; and, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/dec/14/livestock-farming-soy-soyboy; see also Mike Hannis’s critique of RePlanet/WePlanet in The Land Magazine op cit; and see Monbiot’s evasive references to RePlanet as a ‘Dutch website’ with which he had nothing to do, despite fronting the Reboot Food campaign it led, appearing prominently on its homepage: https://www.monbiot.com/2023/10/04/the-cruel-fantasies-of-well-fed-people/; https://www.rebootfood.org/.
  7. Klein, Doppelganger p.144
  8. Harriet Friedman provides a trenchant critique of Regenesis on these grounds from a leftwing perspective: New Left Review, 138, pp.160-8.
  9. See Jim Thomas’s essay ‘George and the food system dragon’ for a critique of his evidence around this: https://gmwatch.org/en/106-news/latest-news/20310/
  10. Monbiot, Regenesis p.190
  11. Klein, Doppelganger p.216
  12. Klein, Doppelganger p.187
  13. I discuss this in more detail in Chapter 6 of Saying NO…
  14. Eugene McCarraher. 2019. The Enchantments of Mammon. Harvard, p.675
  15. Klein, Doppelganger p.322
  16. Klein, Doppelganger p.327
  17. I discuss this further in essays linked here and here.
  18. Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann. 2020. Climate Leviathan. Verso.
  19. Klein, Doppelganger p.321
  20. Klein, p.342
  21. Smaje, Saying NO… p.158; Klein, p.154.

Image Credit: Charles Lewis Fussell, “The old Mill” (1901) via Picryl

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  1. I’m currently reading Wolf’s Facing the Beast, her recent book narrating the shift in her thinking away from textus receptus left-liberalism initiated by the Covid crisis. While I find certain aspects of her thought and story quite problematic, she does describe a rather different version of things than what one gets from Klein, which makes me skeptical of the latter’s take. After all, she’s the one, not Wolf, who’s concerned about protecting/preserving her left-liberal bona fides from tainting by association of her doppelganger’s “unacceptable” views.

  2. There is no equilibrium point for societies built on productivity increases, abundant energy, and mass consumption.

    Amen and amen.

    But embracing the fact that terrible changes are coming which are substantially out of anybody’s control clarifies the positive things you can do. These are numerous and energising, but I believe they cluster mostly around agrarianism, localism, and community wellbeing, and it is on this good work that I wish to focus in future writing.

    I am very glad to read this.

  3. Monbiot is the one courting a formula for human disaster. I am friends with Naomi Wolf (she has endorsed my book, Small Farm Republic) and admire her chutzpah. But if you think Marxism offers hope, you are deceived (I recommend another personal friend, James Lindsay). The extinguishment of individual rights in the name of climate salvation leads to the Stalinist/Maoist starvation of billions. I am struck that Wendel Berry’s warnings against technomysticism are so widely ignored (ecomodernist mythologies), as well as his severe critique of “rewilding.” The Amish are the only group in Western society approaching true liberty and self-reliance: earth reliance. The cities are already becoming vast, dehumanizing tombs.

    • And also “Hi Chris!” — If you ever visit the Northeast I hope we can meet in person. I still reference points of your book, Small Farm Future, to others. I also strongly recommend Ryszard Legutko’s book “The Demon in Democracy,” which explains the dramatic difference between today’s neoliberalism and classical liberalism. Naomi (Wolf) is fleeing the former — even I as a so-called “conservative” still embrace those individual rights that once served as the cornerstone of liberty — free speech, equality (MLK) not soul-crushing inequity, tolerance for the other. Those are the opposite of the toxic hatred now spewed by the Left. Division and hate will likely topple us into a new barbarism. In my studied view, the God of Christ is our only hope. And that is a truly magnificent hope — He already won. Hate the sin, not the sinner.

  4. Great writing, I particularly enjoyed the prism of Klein’s book to trap the ersatz arguments employed by Monbiot.
    Again, I would say the experience and just plain bone tiredness gained from actually working the land gives depth to your working through the dissolution of left/right shibboleths (seemingly a little lost on some of the readers here), and your first book and blog certainly captures a clear vision of the alternative life way you are proposing. Still time for more!

  5. Thanks for the comments – appreciated. Also, hello John! To be clear, no I don’t see hope for the future politically in Marxism, just a few useful tools amidst the detritus for historical understanding, and a bit of compost to add to the garden. I understand fears among conservatives about left-wing authoritarianism. Hopefully, conservatives also understand fears of right-wing authoritarianism, and there’s scope for alliances around anti-authoritarian politics.


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