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Red Vegans against Green Peasants

ECOLOGIES | Essays  }

Max Ajl, Rob Wallace / October 16, 2021
Calls to end animal agriculture and rewild much of the world are calls for the intensification of the exploitation of the rural by the urban, and the dispossession of peasants, small farmers, herders and nomads. 6036 words / 24 min read

Image: Emir Uslu


The following is an edited excerpt from an essay Max Ajl and Rob Wallace authored for Wallace’s recent book, Dead Epidemiologists: On the Origins of COVID-19 (Monthly Review Press). It now also includes a paragraph from Max Ajl’s new book A People’s Green New Deal (Pluto Books).

Sometimes imitation is less than flattery.

Recent work on the likely origins of the COVID-19 pandemic traces how the interactions across confined animal feeding operations, declining livestock diversity, fading forests, and expanding trade and travel produced a petri dish of explosive new diseases. Out of this combination, one virus after another now easily jumps from animal populations to humans.

In the light of these viral incubators — also acknowledged as huge biological emitters of CO2 and methane, rampant deforesters, horrific engines of suffering for the living beings enclosed in industrial animal camps — a number of evangelical vegans, from Jonathan Safran Foer on the center-right to a few on the putative left, have leapt through an expectant opening to argue for the end of food animal production in its totality.

As easily as a virus breaches the species barrier, some of these thinkers and activists have urged us to jump to the conclusion — as documentarian and activist Astra Taylor, environmental historian Troy Vettese, and political scientist Jan Dutkiewicz did in an April 2020 Guardian op-ed — that “Individually, we must stop eating animal products. Collectively, we must transform the global food system and work toward ending animal agriculture and rewilding much of the world.”

Alongside its impacts upon anthropogenic global warming, global meat was already an easy target. It’s a synecdoche for effete gluttony, an emblem of a global class divide, an easy piece of fat — and protein — to trim from the consumption baskets of wealthier nations. It’s a neat entrée, if you’ll excuse the bon mots, through which to merge individual ethical consumption and world ecology.

Such dislocations merge into a pithy command: No, Taylor and colleagues demand, don’t eat meat. The team suggests we plough “public-directed investment” into “both plant-based meat alternatives and cellular agriculture,” or lab meat, a product which so far exists primarily amongst venture capitalists, a few labs, and red-washed ad copy lauding it as a socialist wonder food from Keynesian Green New Deal cookshops.

Through such dictates, key questions are greased over, restricting, as sociologist Andy Murray describes, the very discourse lab meat proponents claim they wish to open up. Who is this “we,” for one, and even, what is meat? Veganism and animal rights, to which one needn’t object as ethoses on their face, are reflexively deployed here to conflate objects and processes.

There is no thing, meat, that has uniformly negative ecological, social, or epidemiological consequences. Meat only has in common that it comes from living creatures, and animals, just like people, can only be fundamentally understood in relation to the material environments within which they live, are loved and cared for, or maltreated and abused, and, in the case of most food animals, killed.

The question of “Should we eat meat,” therefore, appears very different amongst different sets of “we” and the different relations “we” have with such animals.

There are millions who are likely to bridle at, or whose lives would be simply upturned and devastated by, enforced upon commands that they simply cease meat production and consumption.Tunisian camel herders in the semi-arid steppes of the Jerid who rely on herding for day-to-day survival, or Bedouins in the northern Gaza Strip, have not been consulted about how they feel about an order from the Global North — in this case direct from Vettese and Dutkiewicz’s Harvard — to stop eating meat or engaging in the meat trade. Nor, in the other direction, have these researchers asked if such meat is substantively identical to the confined feedlots they rightly condemn.

Tunisian camel herders in the Jerid who rely on herding for day-to-day survival, or Bedouins in the Gaza Strip, have not been consulted about how they feel about an order from the Global North to stop eating meat.

At a minimum, we know that ceasing meat production and consumption would require a massive political intervention in those countries. We know that isn’t what the authors intend, heaven forfend. But we also know that intention, the cloister of psychologists, does not get us very far. What are the predictable consequences of castigating the socio-ecologies of much of the Third World as not up to snuff? The Guardian, where Taylor and colleagues published, has rarely historically shied from advocating for neocolonial assaults on the Global South.

Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer, who our red vegans praise to an unusual degree in other forums, articulates a more essential dismissal, finding few Africans “at a level of discussion that [he is] interested in.”

Ignoring Africans and Arabs seems to be the order of the day. Indeed, beyond this particular colosseum — our animal rightists rooting for the lion to devour its brown sacrificials — it would not be the first time that declensionist narratives of “environmental degradation,” “resurrecting the granary of Rome,” or “making the desert bloom” have been used to justify the extirpation and violation of the rights of African and Arab peoples in the peripheries of the world system.

Such a “civilising” impulse is found in parallel in the One Health approach, which, connecting wildlife, livestock, and human health, warmly speaks of “the creation of a healthy and sustainable reconnected future for our planet.” Indeed, many a leftist outlet — Sonia Shah interviewed on Democracy Now!, for instance — platforms such cant in COVID’s wake.

In actuality, One Health recapitulates colonial medicine, blaming local Indigenous and smallholders for outbreaks and refusing to incorporate social determinants of epizootic spillover. In much the same way, a red veganism of the North carries its own burden of green histories, among them antebellum slaveholders aiming for “ecological” plantations and closing the cotton cycle by forcing slaves to eat cottonseed oil.

Animal Meat for the Environment

Perhaps more important, there is no reason to think meat production in and of itself need have negative ecological impacts. In fact, it can be part of ecological restoration and a keystone of pastoral livelihoods across sweeping swathes of the world — North and South.

In the most general sense, the science of animal-based warming Armageddon appears increasingly science fiction. Even if human-bred ungulates were removed, other large animals would probably fill in their niche, producing a similar methane cycle even alongside that added by the monstrous production of industrial livestock. Indeed, because herbivores have long roamed over grasslands in the U.S. and worldwide, it is odd that their burping and flatulence and manure should suddenly be the sign of human-made carnivorous devilry.

The great meat purge almost certainly starts from the wrong baseline, asserting that the “natural” state is a dreamland ecology without herbivores, when in fact those estimating baseline methane emissions should start from the historical level of methane emissions from herbivores and termites. Before the colonial invasion, the level of methane emissions from bison, elk, and deer was around 86 percent of present-day emissions from “farmed ruminants” in the United States.

Furthermore, new methods of measuring gases are putting the anti-meat crusade on uncertain footing. Methane, unlike carbon dioxide, is a short-lived gas. Even small reductions in annual animal-sourced methane based on small year-on-year herd shrinkage would shortly lead to reductions in methane’s overall global warming effect.

Alternate agroecologies are well-founded in their specific benefits. We know from the work of the geographer-veterinarian Diana Davis with the Aarib in southern Morocco that these pastoralists are expert managers of their animals and the range alike, and that banning grazing has in fact harmed the health of the rangeland, where animals and people alike flourish in non-equilibrium dynamics. The best way to use these “highly variable arid environments is to amplify and facilitate pastoralists’ mobility and to strengthen common property systems”, building up on the lifeways and knowledge systems of the herders themselves.

We know from the work of sociologist Ricardo Jacobs in South Africa that urban slum dwellers live a dual life, as urban workers and as herders and livestock-keepers. Such work is part-and-parcel of their daily social reproduction. Elsewhere, the Gwich’in of Alaska subsist off caribou, and across the Sahel, millions of pastoralists survive off the production and sale of animals and meat, for their own consumption or tied into petty-commodity production.

On what grounds should researchers from the North demand the cessation of these activities and their replacement with lab meat?

Or, to take a fourth example, we could consider the buffalo of North America, which had long had a symbiotic relationship with the short grasslands of the Great Plains. In such ecosystems, as natural resources conservationist Brady Allred and colleagues put it buffalo were the “keystone herbivores within the Great Plains, sharing complex landscapes with other herbivores and predators for nearly 10,000 years.” Their constant feeding and grinding of manure, seed, and spare herbaceous matter underfoot historically ensured the ecological biodiversity of that environment and was the cause of the boggling richness of the black soil of the Plains.

As the Plains were “settled” by epochal primitive accumulation, the capitalist political ecology of the settlers displaced that of the Plains Indians, setting the stage for massive population destruction and colonial genocide. Later, the wheat planted on those fields was sold on world markets to undercut Third World agricultural systems, or fed to fatten up animals, all to the great profit of private corporations and farmers in the United States.

While wheat and other commodities of the Green Revolution perhaps paradoxically have led to starvation, hunger, ecological wreckage, and the loss of peasant knowledge across the Third World, in what we might think would be an obvious symmetry, we hear no calls for banning cereal farming in its totality. Instead, researchers increasingly advocate restoring to the Great Plains the buffalo or other large herbivores and livestock that are capable of mimicking the grazing patterns of those extirpated animals.

A herd of examples stampedes to the horizon, but the point on that front is clear enough. Banning global animal agriculture as Taylor and her colleagues recommended means banning animal agriculture in this world, and not the world of online debates, which means, we should be clear, banning all the actual instances where people are engaged in animal agriculture. What should happen to the many millions of people whose modes of life are considered inappropriate?

These are not the no-brainers their advocates presume. Compulsory veganism and lab meat — the latter endorsed by prominent social democrat Green New Dealers, among them sociologist Daniel Aldana Cohen, recently hired at Berkeley — consents to the brute confiscation and erasure of peasant and pastoral particularisms in the name of “universal” ideals: rewilding Earth upon the bones of supposedly atavistic peoples poor and brown.

Elsewhere, Vettese advocates intervening in the global South and blithely demands wholesale adaptation of capitalist technology in the name of a socialist Half-Earth, for which half of the planet would be scraped clean of humanity for rewilding.

In a piece for The Bullet, Vettese orders that it “must be from pasture that an eco-austere world will derive the land needed” for tree planting in the name of “natural geo-engineering,” a line of development recognizably recapitulating colonial values, devaluations, and pathological externalizations now also — weird that — suddenly found in intergovernmental plans for “30 by 30”. The Kunming round of the Aichi Targets would “protect” 30% of the land and sea in 30 years, displacing an estimated 300 million people, including many of the very Indigenous who research has repeatedly shown are best capable of protecting these lands.

Vettese even misconstrues the specifics of Eden. Rampant “afforestation” sidesteps what in actuality the Yale Environment 360 article Vettese cites in his piece explores as a diverse array of natural carbon sequestration strategies that don’t resort to the age-old colonial strategy of planting trees.

In fact, in Ethiopia, the model country for tree planting’s carbon absorption, non-native eucalyptus have caused tremendous damage to soil nutrients and water tables. Across Africa, conservation scientist Jose Soto-Shoender and colleagues show, tree cover concusses biodiversity, as savanna wildebeests have the odd trait of failing to flourish in the forests gamed out in a Harvard office.

In Ethiopia, the model country for tree planting’s carbon absorption, non-native eucalyptus have caused tremendous damage to soil nutrients and water tables.

Adding trees reduces fires, but fires have beneficial ecosystemic functions: they burn off the vegetation that casts shade over the ground-level of the landscape. In that way, regular burns actually produce the grass upon which animals eat. Planting nice green trees hither and yon may end up killing all the antelope — quite an outcome for our colonial vegans.

In other artificial forest zones, including across forty-three sites a Cambridge team investigated, streams and rivers have dried up and shrunk, precisely what is forecast to occur under global warming. Given the feedbacks involved, do we wish to adopt a political ecology that helps accelerate the present change in climate?

Where Capital Meats Tech

The lab meat Taylor and company call for isn’t a good idea even on its own biogeological grounds. It requires a massive amount of energy, and given that most agree that we need to reduce, not increase, Northern energy consumption, it makes little sense we would adopt a method of making food that depends exclusively on electricity. Initial studies show that making it low- or zero-carbon would require a misnamed clean energy, with at best less-dirty energy dependent upon mining nuclear and non-nuclear metals also producing pollutants and the impetus for land grabbing.

Such meat also requires feedstock, the complex broth in which it grows. Presently, some are made using, of all things, foetal cow’s blood, obtained from slaughtered pregnant cows. So much for vegetarianism and animal welfare.

Most lab meat also requires massive bioreactor containers made of plastic, which would need to number in the tens of millions to supply a similar amount of meat as people currently consume. Plastic, of course, is another material- and energy-intensive material. More expensive than cow’s blood is an unlabeled witch’s brew of glucose, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals from industrial monocrop inputs. Again, not very energy-efficient and serving only as the next dumping grounds for many of the very inputs industrial meat now absorbs.

Finally, the technology reinforces relations of production to which blood-red vegans declare they object, depending entirely upon venture capital angel investors, who see in the “innovation” a path to a new generation in massive profits.

Here, again, we see a recurring feature, where “technology” is imagined as a neutral set of gewgaws, rather than summoned into being, as Marx described, in a specific form, by specific people, for a specific set of purposes. Under capitalism, tech also arrives with a specific set of material needs, which are made possible only out of artificially depressed prices, including environmentally unequal exchange, just another way to loot anyone only peripherally connected to centers of capital, from the Global South to rural sacrifice zones in the U.S. and Europe. All in the name of progress.

We see a recurring feature, where “technology” is imagined as a neutral set of gewgaws, rather than summoned into being, as Marx described in a specific form, by specific people, for a specific set of purposes.

We suggest instead taking the lead from the international movement for food sovereignty, which is organized under the umbrella of La Via Campesina, as close to a Fifth International as exists in our world today. LVC took its cue from, among others, those who wrote the Wilderswil Declaration on Livestock Diversity:

We will continue to further develop alternative research approaches and technologies that allow us to be autonomous and put control of genetic resources and livestock breeding in the hands of livestock keepers and other small-scale producers. And we will organize ourselves to conserve rare breeds. We are committed to fighting for our lands, territories and grazing pastures, our migratory routes, including trans-boundary routes. We will build alliances with other social movements with similar aims and continue to build international solidarity. We will fight for the rights of livestock keepers which include the right to land, water, veterinary and other services, culture, education and training, access to local markets, access to information and decision making, that are all essential for truly sustainable livestock production systems. We are committed to finding ways of sharing access to land and other resources with pastoralists, indigenous peoples, small farmers and other food producers according to equitable, but controlled, access.

Livestock are more than thirsty meat bags and poultry more than an egg a day. For smallholders, animals are multifunctional, with a kaleidoscope of ecological and economic contributions. They are stores of capital for communities that do not have easy access to banking systems. They are modes of transport. They work on fields and make possible labor that is backbreaking and tortuous. They eat forage from marginal and unplantable fields, and essentially work as protein farms with miraculous efficiency, gathering up photosynthetic energy converted to cellulose and turning it into meat. Amusingly, we do not need artificial — and unidimensional — meat incubators, since nature and the longue durée of human cultivation have provided the real deal for us.

Animals also poop, and manure directly enriches soil, restoring its nitrogen balance, providing a haven for soil organic matter, and generally producing beautifully rich and fertile soil perfect for farming. All without extracting almost the entirety of smallholder income for multinational chemical fertilizers — and other inputs — as occurs across so-called developed countries.

For this reason, actual peasants — mysteriously absent from the Guardian piece — have made very clear that they do not accept the termination of animal agriculture or compulsory veganism. Their demands are simple and direct, as in the resounding words of the Latin American Coordination of Rural Organizations (CLOC), a branch of La Via Campesina. CLOC calls for “the promotion of peasant and indigenous family agriculture; a concept that encompasses all family-based agricultural activities, such as the way agriculture, livestock, forestry, fishing, aquaculture and grazing are organized, managed and operated by a family, and which depends on family labor.”

Such a more-than-human community — extending beyond the family unit to broader landscapes — seems a much better option for the greater majority of the world than an Amtrak corridor–limited notion of ethics and appetites.

Nor are such proposals limited to the Global South. In the North, planned intensive rotations could sharply increase the Great Plains stocking capacity, at the same time, with buffalo or livestock or both, increasing the quantity of animal per hectare and the quantity of carbon stocked away in the soil. Indeed, there are serious claims, starting with environmental biologist Andrew Gordon’s team in the 1990s, that meat in the long run could become carbon-negative, with knock-on effects that include increasing the capacity of the soil to retain water and its resilience in the face of the already present downpours of a warming world.

Smaller integrated farms are not merely a Southern peasant politic on the periphery. Apparently unbeknownst to our half-earthers, such agriculture represents the core of a vibrant Northern food movement, wherein food sovereignty, indivisible from healthy soils, is undergoing a new renaissance, even in the face of agribusiness domination.

Here is a form of “natural geo-engineering” that we should get behind. Whether this would make meat more or less expensive, more or less available, we do not know, but when taking the perilous step of sketching out the cookshops of the future, the task at hand is to collaborate with the sustainable practices direct producers engage and to stick to non-negotiable demands such as unalienated production, ecological literacy, and egalitarianism.

We need to avoid issuing blueprints for another world from the faculty dining club.

True Socialism©

There is no shortage of such strange interventions. Rather than building up a programmatic post-COVID economics based on the living demands of movements in struggle, where, from the Philippines to Brazil, there are tightly disciplined mass rural movements calling for, among other things, agrarian reform and agroecology, Simon Fraser University political economist Geoff Mann speaks past such movements. Note the pattern.

Mann’s Viewpoint Magazine piece touches on agriculture as an afterthought, symptomatic of a broader anti-movement politics organized no farther than the bourgeois revolt around nutrition and food alteration Michael Pollan helped launch. Mann advocates a new “experimental, adaptable and bold patchwork” that consists of “socialising” the food system. How, then, ought it to be socialised?

It’s indeed a serious topic affecting billions of people on producer and consumer ends, meriting detailed consideration and immersion in the demands of social movements, radical states, and cutting-edge science. Yet, the brief document to which Mann links is an odd patrician diatribe against food sovereignty by Syracuse University geography professor Matt Huber. The piece recycles wholly discredited arguments about who feeds the world, with empiricist solecisms centered around how agroecology or food sovereignty cannot feed the 71 percent of the labor force not engaged in agricultural work or the 55 percent currently living in cities. In true positivist fashion, for Huber, such numbers are to speak for themselves.

A historical empiricism suggests otherwise. Such labor force statistics only count the employed, not the people who rely on relatively small or subsistence production. And in many African cities, urban agriculture goes well beyond “trendy” urban gardens Huber smirks at, which means those 55 percent include, if one can believe it, some farmers.

Nor do such numbers reflect those who rely on agriculture for overall social reproduction in one way or another, or the human reproduction of the environment, work, as we learn from feminist political economists Lyn Ossome and Archana Prasad, that falls on women in the Third World. Although, we admit relieved, Ossome and Prasad do not meet the Peter Singer criterion of the ethnicity of appropriate scholarship.

Overall, there are 500 million small farms of less than two hectares globally, together feeding half the world. Massive redistribution of land and social power would increase the amount of food produced by smaller farmers, going a long way towards eliminating rural hunger. If smaller farmers gained control of all of the world’s farmland, they could, in fact, produce food for everyone else in the world too.

Since they would represent an expansive set rather than a decimated labor reserve, such small farmers would be in a better position to negotiate a fair return for their labor when agricultural goods exchange for non-agricultural goods. Their larger population and greater autonomy are interwoven into the urban working class’s welfare and well-being. In Guatemala, in the most recent agricultural census, the largest farms, from 45.2 to 9000 hectares, comprise two percent of farms but 57 percent of farmland. A sudden shift in ownership structure might indeed mean that the 71 percent of the labor force cited by Huber might well decrease were poor people in the Third World to find adequate access to land.

Such interventions do not mean the end of global supply lines, but they would require a shift in distribution of labor regimes, including, perhaps, modest contributions to agricultural production by any and all healthy enough to contribute, including university professors. To anticipate a point to which we will return, we fully defend sovereign and ecologically-appropriate industrialisation.

For now, however, we are talking farming here. If we must take the time to emphasize what we thought were obvious distinctions between natural and industrial economies here, it’s because our urbane vegans, consciously or not, have conflated them as a matter of first principle.

Other societies aren’t so easily confused, connecting land, peasants, and the working class as a matter of course. In Brazil, the Landless Workers’ Movement’s agroecological farms provide low-cost food to the urban poor, until recently through state-assisted hunger reduction programs including Zero Hunger and municipal cafeterias as in Belo Horizonte, a city of 2.5 million people, models for the world ways of healing the social and ecological metabolic rifts between city and countryside.

The only actual programmatic statement in Huber’s piece argues against living wages for farm workers and parity prices for farmers: “Some might argue that we should make farm work more rewarding and higher paid, but I would argue a truly socialist approach would be to ensure the most dangerous and physically exhausting forms of toil should be automated,” a demand which no actual movement of struggling farmers we know of advocates.

This isn’t True Socialism, but technocracy. More intensive and “efficient” agriculture, the argument runs, should promote automation of all “physically exhausting forms of toil” as, among other interventions, a defence against the next pandemic. The demand converges upon those of the techno-capitalist Breakthrough Institute. In its own pandemic plan, the Institute regurgitates the long-debunked land sparing argument of preserving nature by clearing out Indigenous and smallholder groups in favor of more intensive and “efficient” production on land used for agriculture. Whatever the difference in their political chirality, the two positions mirror each other on land, labour, and, in the pandemic, lung infection.

Huber asks which “automated technologies can be repurposed to create agroecological growing systems…This means a debate based not on either industrial or smallholder agroecological production, but probably a combination of both.” One is left perplexed as to how Mann and Huber — marking themselves out of their depths — intend to impose agroecological growing systems upon fundamentally incompatible industrial production. Industrial farming as we know it requires exhaustive capital inputs operating at economies of scale and monopolistic spatial fixes — land grabbing — that leave no room for alternate paradigms however blue the skies are in Big Food commercials or cute the child actors hugging the piglets.

Capitalism’s production ratchet has long been recognised in both heterodox and mainstream economics. One pesticide requires another. One fertiliser another. Even livestock’s very ontogeny is on an industrial schedule.

In the other direction, mechanisation isn’t a deal-breaker in agroecology. The question of the degree of cultural adaptation that doesn’t disconnect farming from its roots in regenerative nature and community control — with harvesters, for instance — is a topic upon which La Via Campesina is agnostic, leaving it up to farmers themselves! In short, there is an array of possible food futures under agroecology across which communities can choose in place-appropriate combinations. To paraphrase the Zapatista Declaración de la Selva Lacandona: Queremos un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos. We want a world where there are many worlds.

Huber, in contrast, writes as if his objections to such farmer autonomy are a matter of personal survival. The possibility farmers might choose to refuse him is a palpable panic — as if farmers aren’t interested in feeding people! — recapitulating the two U.S. business parties’ strategy in imposing divide-and-conquer upon rural and urban America. Huber pays homage to the economies of scale, bourgeois central planning, and capitalism’s sunk costs — tying relations of production to forces of production — that will sufficiently discipline agricultural producers and secure his larder. The tenured Kautskyist gone full Stalinist caricature, leaving, as his Jacobin stablemates champion, chicken sandwiches for the plebs.

Left Aporophobia

The irony is that the next steps out of the agroeconomic traps that helped select for COVID-19, H5N2, Ebola, and other outbreaks require making for a near-opposite heading. Not more of the same.

Governmental intervention and regional planning are critical for helping agricultural communities emerging free from zones of agribusiness sacrifice, but decision-making in the spirit of the Zapatista principle of mandar obedeciendo (leadership from below) calls for those who best know how to grow food on this, the landscape they know so well, to help reinternalise a cycle of caring for the land generation-to-generation.

The resulting virtuous cycles of regional food production — felt through land and labour alike — can be found all the way up through the geological scales and, as the International Panel on Sustainable Food Systems describe, the periurban food systems we all share:

Wide-reaching shifts in social and economic relations also emerge as key components of agroecological transition. The Declaration of the International Forum on Agroecology states that “families, communities, collectives, organizations, and movements are the fertile soil in which agroecology flourishes. Solidarity between peoples, between rural and urban populations, is a critical ingredient.

Summarising a burgeoning literature, IPES-Food offers a program by which to rewire our food system for all. There are multiple examples of communities worldwide connecting ecological agriculture with urban markets, some operating at scales of millions of farmers and consumers. Political agroecologist Jahi Chappell describes how the aforementioned Belo Horizonte built a municipal food program that guaranteed a subsidised market of thousands in town for hinterland farmers, who could now afford agroecological and organic practices that protected local forests.

To think that Huber, trafficking in the cheap divides of rural vs. urban and arguing food production has nothing to do with transportation, calls himself a geographer. And if he insists on continuing to identifying himself so — along the way erroneously citing agrarian sociologist Farshad Araghi in favor of depopulating the countryside rather than for appropriate repeasantisation — it would be at best as a dishonest representative of a proud discipline.

Across even competing schools of agrarian studies, it’s been long understood that for any movement on this front, we need to support farming communities’ efforts to decide upon ecologically and socially sustainable levels of appropriate technology and mechanisation. Letting technological momenta lead the way placed us in our present quandary to begin with.

Given our present race against climatic time, a capitalist clean tech would make decarbonization harder, not easier. Mining, smelting, and working metals and other inputs needed for automated machines under that model would increase global energy use and the environmental destruction we are ostensibly aiming to avoid. Why on Earth would anyone on the left advocate for gratuitous energy-powered industrialisation when every serious climate model makes clear that a conversion to renewables will be easier if we reduce total energy use?

Why would anyone on the left advocate for gratuitous energy-powered industrialisation? A better possibility is figuring out the means by which people might more willingly embrace the manual labour done by the human body.

A better possibility is figuring out the means by which people might more willingly embrace the manual labour done by the human body, that brilliant machine for converting plant calories to mechanical energy, alongside whatever automation farmers wish. Labour for labour, not for capital. Would that mean in the short term, double, triple, or ten times the minimum wage? More time off and benefits for field laborers? More input into operational decisions? Rotated duties? We should all be for it!

Even now the examples are legion. And they extend far beyond the constrained imaginarium of wages and benefits. With the support of the Mexican government, Zapotec Indians developed a certified-sustainable, community-controlled forestry. Plain pine is sold to the state government, and finished goods, including furniture, are produced in an on-site factory. The Oaxaca cooperative, still a work in progress, plows a third of its profits back into the business, a third into forest preservation, and the rest into its workers and the local community, including pensions, a credit union, and housing for its children studying at university.

In contrast, what do we find at the end of the line of Mann and Huber’s citations, nested Russian doll-style and giving the professors plausible deniability, or, much more likely, signaling a simple lack of concern about the real-world consequences of the programmatic politics they espouse from their offices? Nothing other than a propaganda piece for GMOs that prominently features plant geneticist Pamela Ronald, tied through more threads to chemical industry front groups such as the Cornell Alliance for Science.

Now, the “gotcha!” would be to wonder how Viewpoint magazine, where Mann’s piece was published, and which has published rigorous anti-Eurocentric work, came to launder the views of capitalist agribusiness and the chemical industry. But that wouldn’t take us far, since we find the same position arrayed across Vettesse, Taylor, and a loft party’s worth of humanist kindred spirits acting as an unpaid sales force redwashing ecomodernist interventions.

In Marx and Engels’s names, Huber offers us that nothing is wrong with the present system save who runs it: “The goal of socialism is to take already existing socialized labor systems and socialize the control and benefits.” Marx and ecosocialists around the world vehemently disagreed. Labour — its machines and ergonomics already capitalist impositions in relations of production — isn’t the only source of wealth. We have to take care of Earth too.

So placing monoculture plantations into worker control, as Huber demands, is neither the “ecological planning” he proposes on the one hand, nor, however necessary in the short term, a sufficient enough step in stopping pathogens from emerging out of the global circuits of production that the geographer weirdly also champions.

But such a fancy waves through proudly anti-rural cranks such as Doug Henwood. The self-styled Left Business Observer, sounding like Donald Trump hawking hydroxychloroquine, posted Cornell Alliance for Science propaganda on his Facebook page about a “little-explored alternative” of delivering a COVID vaccine through genetically modified tomatoes. There’s many a reason why it’s “little-explored” — how, ironically enough, to assure standardised dosage? — but from Monsanto to the Yankee left, such ill-vetted, capital-led scientism runs express up the Northeast’s coastline.

The problem is a more general one, beyond this particular terroir. Why are so many figures on the bien pensant Anglophone left adopting anti-ecological politics that advocate technologies that are as inseparable from their funders as the looms were from the mill owners in the age of the Luddites? Why are these positions serially platformed by allegedly critical podia time and again, even as their logics are symmetrical to those underlying efforts that forced meatpackers back to COVID-infested processing plants, where all that labor is “saved”?

Why are so many figures on the bien pensant Anglophone left adopting anti-ecological politics that advocate technologies that are as inseparable from their funders as the looms were from the mill owners in the age of the Luddites?

Clearly the interminable omissions, missing much of humanity, embody a refusal to center the voices of the actually existing ecological and anti-systemic movements in core and periphery alike. Soul Fire Farms, Savanna Institute, and the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance are rendered invisible stateside, as much as the more discomfiting and openly anti-imperialist La Via Campesina, which expresses solidarity with crucial fortresses for humanity’s struggle for a better future such as Venezuela, Cuba, and Bolivia.

Compare such calculated disappearances with the Minnesota Farmers Union’s efforts last year to breach the rural-urban divide in the other direction:

You’ve no doubt heard about the killing of George Floyd this week by a Minneapolis police officer. This horrific act and ensuing protests and property destruction have been hard to process, not just for those living and working in the Twin Cities Metro, but all Minnesotans and Americans. There’s a lot to reckon with and soul-searching to do to ensure that, at an absolute minimum, nothing like this ever happens again. We have to do more than say that we condemn it, which we do. This comes on top of a deadly pandemic that has disproportionately harmed people of color, including in agriculture and food sectors. As always, we are here as a community, ready to listen to whatever is on your minds and hearts. Do not relegate this to simply an urban issue. We can’t go back to the previous “normal” post-COVID–this makes it even clearer why. We call on our public officials to fight back against all injustices they can, and for everyone to reflect on why injustice persists.

The difference couldn’t be starker. The political acuity to see us forward out of dangers social, climatic, and pandemic is apparently to be found far afield of our best-compensated public intellectuals who, perhaps not coincidently, are also upholding the technocratic and Eurocentric logics of the system that brought about the pandemic.

New Socialist £5 and above subscribers can get 35% off Max Ajl’s People’s Green New Deal, and any other books from our comrades at Pluto Press.


Authors:

Max Ajl (@ajl_max)

Max Ajl is an agrarian sociologist presently at Wageningen University, studying agronomic thought and Arab dependency theory. He is author of A People’s Green New Deal.


Rob Wallace (@FarmingPathogen)

Rob Wallace is an evolutionary epidemiologist at the Agroecology and Rural Economics Research Corps and co-author of Dead Epidemiologists: On the Origins of COVID-19. He has consulted with the Food and Agriculture Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.