Nobody can tell what the future holds, but it’s a fair bet that global economic output won’t grow sixfold over the next 50 years as it has done over the last 50. Nor is it likely that fossil fuel use will triple like it has done over the same period. In fact, it seems clear that we’ll probably have to make do with less energy globally and with virtually no fossil fuels at all (currently, 85% of global energy consumption is fossil-fuel based) – and even then climate change will force major changes to the world we know.

Various technologies and practices have been touted to buy us out of these changes – electric vehicles, veganism, tree-planting, zero tillage, nuclear power or renewables – but none of them currently seem equal to the task, especially in a stagnant economy. We need to get to zero carbon, or better, negative emissions, in order to stop dangerous climate change. Stalled economic growth within the existing economy generates under-employment and people will need other ways of creating livelihoods.

The ramifications of all this to our current way of life in general and the food and farming sector in particular are profound, as I document in my book A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity and a Shared Earth. In the future, employment opportunities will probably cluster in low-carbon, labour-intensive sectors – among which farming will loom large.

Fortunately, most parts of the world can draw from local traditions of low-energy, labour-intensive mixed farming that optimise the relationships between cropland, grassland and woodland. In Britain, for example, that could be ley farming involving rotations between grassland and cropland with fertility helped along by ruminant grazing. These traditions can help us to rise to this challenge – not traditions to be slavishly followed, but ones to inspire the social renewal that will be needed as we face the challenges of climate change, economic and ecological crisis, and the renewal of agriculture and rural culture generally that these challenges will necessarily involve.

But inevitably a transition like this faces several obstacles. The first is the complex knot of land, labour, fuel and other input prices together with farm output prices floating on both local and global markets in ways that push farmers towards large-scale, labour-light, ecologically quite uniform, petrochemical solutions to land use questions. This in turn prompts over-reliance on a handful of commodity crops, primarily cereals, of which wheat looms largest in the UK. We’ve become boxed into what I call the ‘arable corner’ of these high energy, high protein, highly mechanizable and highly processable super-crops, along with arable-dependent livestock produced solely for meat, rather than ones with a more integral role in the human ecology of the mixed farm – for example, pigs’ eating spent crops for feed.

With the advent of synthetic fertilisers about a century ago, the mixed farm ecology has given way to more specialised, high-output forms of farming with fossil-fuelled inputs that break the ecological scaling of the farm to its local context. Synthetic fertiliser use imposes significant upstream and downstream environmental costs, but usually it’s not the major driver of greenhouse gas emissions or biodiversity loss in itself and I’m not necessarily suggesting it should be abandoned (I do, however, think that it could be abandoned in more labour-intensive agrarian situations).

But fertiliser does play its part in the delocalised economy of global commodity crop flows for which the world’s current high levels of (fossil) energy use are the enabler. There’s also an issue of fertiliser equity globally, whereby richer farmers overuse it for marginal productivity gains at high environmental cost, whereas its unaffordability for poor farmers is another piece in the poverty jigsaw. These patterns underlie a geography of labour-intensive export agriculture in poorer parts of the world that can undercut the provision of more diverse and labour-absorbing forms of production in the richer ones, but also rural labour flight in the poorer parts that increases global reliance on breadbasket regions, mostly in semi-arid continental areas at high risk from climate change. And climate change is also the major factor likely to prompt large-scale migration from lower latitude to higher latitude places, and from urban to rural areas.

It’s not hard to imagine the kind of problems this could cause, but there are possibilities for solving them in densely settled zones of smallholding that are oriented to their local ecological base, tightly managing the balance between cropland, grassland and woodland. It won’t be easy, but it may be easier than technocratic attempts to keep juggling all the balls of climate change, climate refugee-ism, soil loss, biodiversity loss, water scarcity and the decline in per capita energy availability to keep meeting consumer demand in its present form.

One obstacle to this kind of solution is that it invites charges of rural romanticism, of wanting to ‘turn the clock back’ to an idealised view of a peasant past that in reality involved backbreaking work and brutal social hierarchies. Yet burying the unfortunate dualism of progress vs backwardness, is a necessary interment if we’re to create a plausible and sustainable agrarian future. It’s true that low-energy farm societies often involve hard work, even if it’s leavened with cooperation, simple machinery, the labour of livestock or an appreciation that bending your back on a farm can be better than alienating your mind in an office. Even so, with the limited energy budget likely to be available in the future, we need to start a debate about how to prioritise its use. I’d suggest that farming should stake a major claim – but sustainable farming will still involve a more peopled and diverse rural landscape, which may be no bad thing.

So – assume a future of climate turbulence, heavy population pressure on farmland, reduced energy, reduced capital and reduced government ability to draw resources even as basic as staple foodstuffs from elsewhere. In these circumstances it’s not impossible in theory for Britain to feed itself abundantly. The trick will be in working out how to do so in practice, in ways that generate renewable wellbeing for all. And that debate has to start now.

The following excerpt is from Chris Smaje’s book A Small Farm Future (Chelsea Green Publishing, October 2020) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.

Modern thinkers have coined numerous terms for the way we now live to distinguish it from the past: the affluent society, the effluent society, industrial society, post-industrial society, Industria, consumer society, postmodern society, the information society, the virtual society. These all capture something significant about our times, but they too easily allow us to forget that in fact our modern societies are agrarian societies, just like almost all other human societies over the past few thousand years. Humanity today relies heavily on just three crops – wheat, rice and maize – all of which had been domesticated by about 7000 BCE and which are still mostly grown using techniques whose basic outlines would be instantly recognisable to any ancient farmer. Despite the recent hype over industrially cultured nutrients, the future we face is probably a farm future.

Computers nowadays have millions of times more processing power than the ones available just 50 years ago, whereas average global wheat yields are less than nine times higher than those achieved in the Roman Empire. In dimensions that matter most to our continued existence, we’re less distant from our ancient counterparts than we sometimes think. And the agricultural improvements that we’ve achieved since those times have often come through processes that draw down on non-renewable sources of energy, soil and water while imperilling climate and ecological stability.

Whether individually we farm or not, almost all of us ultimately are farming people. In fact, there are more farmers in the world today by formal definition – somewhere between 1.5 and 2 billion – than at almost any point in history. There are good farmers and bad farmers. The best ones learn to produce what’s needed with a minimum of effort, without compromising the possibilities of their successors doing the same or losing sight of their obligations as members of communities. It’s about time we started trying to tell the story of our world from their perspective – not a story of how we transcended agriculture, because we never did, but of how we might transfigure it, and ourselves in the process, to deal with the problems we now face.

This is a story I try to tell in this book. It’s not particularly my story. Although I started by talking about my farm, I’m not going to say much else about it in the book. For one thing, I don’t think I have much to teach other people about how to farm, nor do the precise techniques that are used from place to place seem the most important focus of attention. But I am a farmer, and so are you if you grow any of your own food or fibre or would like to increase your community’s capacity for self-provisioning.

It’s the importance of this local self-provisioning that turns a farm future into a small farm future. I’m not suggesting there’s no place in the future for any larger farms, or that large-scale farmers are always the bad guys. In itself, small isn’t necessarily beautiful and I won’t be proposing any cutoff points by acreage to define the small farm in this book. But I’ll be emphasising some broad differentiating features that will be justified in greater detail as the discussion unfolds: small farms play a key role in creating local autonomies from global flows of capital; they involve a degree of self-provisioning at the individual, household or local level; they employ labour-intensive techniques applied more often by family or household labourers than salaried workers; they adjust their activities to sustain the ecological base in their locality that underpins their productivity; and they tend to operate in a de-commodifying (but not necessarily un-commodified) way compared to large farms.

‘Local’ or ‘locality’ looms large in many of those features, perhaps merely displacing the need to define the ‘small’ into a need to define the ‘local’. Again, on this point I refuse hard and fast delineations. The local isn’t a matter of prior definition but emerges out of how autonomies and self-provisioning are achieved in practice. One thing I can say for sure, though, is that the small farm future I’m describing isn’t the same as a green consumerism future, where shoppers with lives much like the ones most people lead in rich countries today buy their food in stores like the ones they shop in today, except that the food is more local, more sustainable, more organic or whatever – and where, like today, people spend time fruitlessly arguing about whether local really is more sustainable. Instead it’ll be a future where you or your descendants are trying to figure out how to furnish your needs from your locality, probably by furnishing many of them for yourself, because you have few other choices.

For some, that may sound too dystopian, apocalyptic or declinist. There certainly may be some dystopian or apocalyptic futures awaiting us unless we play our present hand of cards with skill. But a small farm future only represents a decline from the large farm present if you consider the latter to be a lofty civilisational summit to which humanity has laboriously climbed. That’s a view I resist. If we play our cards well, the small farm future I describe here could make for a much more congenial life for most of the world’s people than the one they experience today. But we do need to play them well. This is a time in history to be open to a fundamental rethink of how we organise ourselves globally. Too much of our present futurology aims to double down on existing technical and social logics, and dismiss radical alternatives out of hand. At the same time, there’s a good deal of received wisdom in the alternative agriculture and alternative economics movements that could use more critical scrutiny.

I don’t claim to have fully achieved that rethink here, or to have produced a thoroughly worked out alternative. The idea of a small farm future is so marginal and ill-developed within contemporary thought that at present merely laying out its broad outlines is a daunting enough task. So I offer this book as a kind of critical introduction, a way of starting to organise thinking about what a widespread turn to agrarian localism might look like. This seems worth doing because even though the idea of a small farm future is currently marginal to mainstream thought, it’s probably the best future now available for most of humanity, and we don’t seem to be discussing the implications of that nearly seriously enough.