The new Back to the Land generation
Town & Country Planning, November 2009
I ran two workshops on the future of money at the Bristol Schumacher lectures last month, once a quiet affair for true believers, now packed with nearly 500 enthusiasts for a new kind of economics.
It rather took me aback. We radicals are used to getting double figures at our workshops, if we’re lucky. Yet I suddenly found myself talking to 150, squeezed into the debating chamber at Bristol City Council.
I’m not sure what that means about the zeitgeist, but something is happening – and it has localism, or a version of it, right at the heart.
But the main peculiarity I took away from the day happened just before I slipped away to get home. A particularly attractive girl in her mid-twenties took me aside and asked my advice. She wanted to start a goat farm.
I don’t think I helped much. But it struck me afterwards that we have, for the first time since the 1890s, a new generation who interpret their radicalism in terms of digging and growing things.
Not since the followers of John Ruskin, William Morris and Edward Carpenter headed off into the countryside, sometimes disastrously, to grow and make things, have we seen this kind of agrarian radicalism in the UK.
Go to any green event these days, and you will be surrounded by projects to dig and grow, to make bread, to put wasted land to use, to learn bee-keeping in the cities, to sell organic produce, and heaven knows what else. Most of it has a strong virtual element. See for example the Project Dirt website to get a flavour.
There always was a bit of this at alternative events – a whiff of the 1970s, a battered old copy of the Self-Sufficiency Handbook on the shelves – but the past twelve months has put it somehow centre stage.
Even before the recession, which would otherwise have explained it, the sale of vegetable seeds overtook the sale of flower seeds for the first time since Dig for Victory.
The allotments suddenly have long waiting lists. I know councillors in Lambeth and Camden who are struggling to shift the local government machine to help people on council estates start growing their own food – which is a much better use of all those acres of compacted earth and tarmac, if you ask me.
As I say, something is going on.
What has all this got to do with localism? Well, if you mean decentralising power to locally elected bodies, then almost nothing.
It is partly a revolution demanding authenticity, if such a thing is possible. It is a revolt against what is packaged, spun, marketed and mass-produced. It is a small skirmish in the battle against what some people regard as their manipulation by the food industry.
None of that has much to do with localism either, though it often seems to go hand in hand psychologically.
People who struggle against fake food often tend to be in favour of a new localisation, though – at first sight – this isn’t a necessary connection. You might expect them to be centralisers, demanding powerful new legislation, and probably some of them are. I just don’t meet them very often.
Yet, on the other hand, this is also very much about localism. It is part of a reaction, not against centralised political power, but against centralised economic power. These are people who are growing things because they want to oppose food and retail monopolies.
They are growing their own – or at least dreaming of doing so – because they want the option of healthy food, which hasn’t been trucked to Italy and back just to be packaged. But also because they want to be independent of Tesco culture.
Many of them, possibly even most of them, are probably more like me. I like the idea of growing things myself a good deal better than actually growing them, but in way that doesn’t matter.
The point is that there is a generation of political activists, quite a narrow one to be sure, which is throwing its weight behind a new political idea. In fifteen years or so, they will be running local authorities and government departments.
If we’re not under water by then, and they have retained some of the idealism of their youth, they may have the chance to do something quite powerful about it. I rather hope they do, but then I’m a romantic.
Either way, there is a new idea emerging from all this: economic localism, and it has a kind of logic behind it.