Agriculture Returns to the Center of Economic Life

Apocalypse, Teenagers

It’s both tragic and hilarious that young people have been swindled into thinking their vocational future lies in some corporate nirvana of magic techno-innovation (complete with ‘free trade” latte breaks).

I’m convinced that reality will steer many of them to careers on the farm in one role or another:  yeoman, peasant, manager, or serf.  This will come as an awful shock. In the great re-set that follows the long emergency, farming will come back much closer to the center of economic life, even in the nations that now think they have attained escape velocity from the toils of history.

It takes either a lot of effort or a lot of energy to put food on the table. In our time, food became so ubiquitously present in daily life the one had to make an effort to avoid buying snacks at the gas station, or the chemist’s check-out line. The supermarket shelves groan with a stupefying variety of treats engineered out of corn, one way or another, so that a new epidemic of metabolic syndrome turns whole populations into legions of overfed clowns.

The era of cheap food is coming to an end with cheap oil and cheap capital. By the way, in the supposedly advanced mode of food production, capital is at least as important an “input” for the agri-business equation as oil and gas based pesticides, fertilizers, and transport fuels. Capital scarcities will drive the necessary reformation of land allocation because we simply aren’t going to be able to operate farms on the scale now seen in places like Iowa. Alas, the whole question of property ownership is traditionally behind political revolutions in human history. So, as we move toward scarcity of every kind, expect big fights about who gets ownership of productive land.

When the dust from those arguments settles, so to speak, we will have to imagine new (or revived) ownership arrangements. I can very easily see a return to something resembling feudalism, in the sense that desperate people will sell their allegiance to someone who will feed, clothe, and shelter them, especially in the absence of today’s social “safety nets.” In the event, a republic of independent yeoman will seem a most desirable outcome, as once was the case in a shining era of the United States, but we maybe astonished to discover how special that was.

It will be hard to let go of the techno-narcissistic fantasy of an ever more glittering science-fiction future – which I’m convinced is a mirage – but it is possible to see that a way of life centered on farming would not be such a terrible thing. In any case, the mandates of reality are driving us in that direction and we would benefit by getting comfortable with it.