Defending agrarian anarchy

I can scarcely believe agrarian anarchy needs defending from anybody, much less me. After all, this close-to-nature, close-to-our-neighbors approach was the Jeffersonian ideal for the United States, as evidenced by Monticello and the occasional one-liner from Thomas Jefferson:

The result of our experiment will be, that man may be trusted to govern themselves without a master.

I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.

When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.

Jefferson did not call himself an anarchist, but his words and ideals indicate he strongly supported the rights and role of individuals, as well as a small government that minimally oversaw the citizenry. The Greco-Latin roots suggest the absence of a ruler, which seems like a good idea to me.

Like Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau idealized an agricultural society that was close to nature. Thoreau was a staunch defender of agrarian anarchy, and he focused even more closely on the individual than did Jefferson: “That government is best which governs not at all; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.” To my knowledge, no state governments believe we’ve yet reached that point.

Fast forward to the late twentieth century, and we find several other philosophers defending agrarian anarchy. Perhaps the best known examples are radical thinkers Wendell Berry, Noam Chomsky (linguist, philosopher), and Howard Zinn (recently deceased historian). But the clearest voice for agrarian anarchy came from iconoclastic Tucson writer Edward Abbey in the years before he died in 1989:

Anarchism is not a romantic fable but the hardheaded realization, based on five thousand years of experience, that we cannot entrust the management of our lives to kings, priests, politicians, generals, and county commissioners.

Anarchism is founded on the observation that since few men are wise enough to rule themselves, even fewer are wise enough to rule others.

A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.

In my dreams, industrialized nations are headed for agrarian anarchy. Many countries have been there for years and can show us the way, if only we allow them. If a region never acquired ready access to cheap fossil fuels, agrarian anarchy was an obvious approach. How else but a strong sense of self-reliance and dependence on neighbors to grow and distribute all food locally? How else but reliance on those same traits to secure the water supply, and protect it from insults? How else to develop a human community dominated by mutual respect and mutual trust? Contrary to our current set of living arrangements, no currency is needed: barter fills the bill.

For all these reasons, I’m less than thrilled with the United States as a place to mitigate in place and particularly impressed with many countries in central and South America. Belize remains my first choice, for reasons including English as the official language and a long history of multiculturalism (including neither a majority race nor a majority culture). Electricity is spotty at best, most people harvest rainwater and use hand-dug wells, and food is brought into every town every day. Big government is largely absent, and the notions of Big Ag, Big Ad, and Big Pharma are laughable.

Mind you, I’m not recommending Belize or any other central American country for anybody younger than my half-century of years. I suspect climate chaos will make equatorial regions particularly uncomfortable within a decade. Mitigating in place seems dicey at best but if you’re willing to pull up stakes and head for the poles, central American might well serve as an intermediate step on the way to a reasonably long life.

There are many disadvantages associated with a sedentary life. We don’t know how soon, nor how quickly, climate chaos makes any particular place uninhabitable for humans. Ditto for environmental collapse. But if you’ve considered these factors and concluded you’d prefer mitigating in place to hitting the road, I suggest thinking outside national boundaries.


This essay is permalinked at Island Breath.

Comments 106

  • With thanks to our own Kathy Cumbee for her contribution, a new essay has been posted here.

  • Victor, compost pile for your potato vines I think would be the expert advice. They can carry disease. Same for tomato vines and possibly peppers – same family. In fact growing next year’s potatoes from this year’s crop is a risk after a few years – potatoes are clones and thus don’t have much genetic variation. Thus the market for seed potatoes that are supposed to be certified disease free. Of course sweet potatoes are a whole different breed of plant so I think they could be worked into the ground.

    For the future a selection of potatoes from those grown by indigenous people might be best. Unfortunately many of the hardy varieties are small and take more time to process. Okios has this little purple one ECOS Purple Potato — Solanum tuberosum Ecos

    I’ve stopped growing potatoes – too much digging for my knees, but I grew this a while and a few come up on their own every year.

  • Kathy

    Many thanks for the response. It is interesting that you suggest purchasing seed potatoes every year. I was hoping that I could use a few from this year’s crop to seed next year….or have I missed something?

  • Victor, probably you can. I bought potatoes from a mail order company one year – reds, yellows etc and mentioned using them for next year’s potatoes – they recommended only doing that for a few years, then starting over with new seed potatoes. I saved the small potatoes for seed and they did OK but after several years the yield went down. But there may have been other reasons. Maybe someone else will comment on this subject. What I read mostly says to get certified seed potatoes, but obviously we won’t be able to do that post crash and obviously the natives in So America didn’t (but they had several hundred varieties). But we know what happened to the Irish.

    Here is a discussion on Garden Web about the subject

  • kathy, thanx for the link to marie mason. i enjoyed reading all about her and the stuff on her website, and have just composed a letter to send her.

  • Victor you can use potatoes from this year for next year we do it all the time. We had to buy some this year because of the cold and wet that showed up and rotted them in the ground. The only other time we had to buy them was the year of the blight. We were able to save alot of the potatoes, but we didn’t want to put them in the ground the following year fearing a repeat. If you do have blight burn the plants don’t compost them. Ours usually start developing roots in February. This may change this year with a proper root cellar. Up until now we put the potatoes in pots in the greenhouse. Usually get alot of little potatoes around the middle of may which go in the window sill until they start growing, and then outside with them. This year was the first time with yams and sweet potatoes. Different process. If you are interested stick on the new thread.

    Thanks Kathy on the mayapple info.