Industrial Agriculture and The Myth of Progress


One of my personal heroes is a bard named Barry Patterson. A blue-eyed Geordie with a magnificent grey beard and a mean turn of phrase, Barry is an animist, a poet, a drummer and a piper, a Green Man in every sense, and he is very wise. He often says to me “Jonathan, you know people always talk about the Mabinogion, the Tales of Ancient Eire, and fairy tales, and call them myths. They are not myths. They are stories. If you read Joseph Campbell, Claude Levi-Strauss, they explain that myths are uniquely powerful, in a way that not all stories are – they define our ideas, our hopes, our choices: and so, they define the way our world works. Does the Mabinogion do that? Does the Tain? No. Our myths are different now. Nationalism, Freedom, Romance, The Market – most of all the Market – these are the myths according to which the modern world is run.”

Barry is, of course, quite right. These things do not have a life apart from those who believe in them – they exist only and because we say they do. They are, to use the parlance of my discipline “social constructs”: to quote Clifford Geertz, they are “webs of significance that [man] himself has spun”. This doesn’t stop them from being immensely powerful or important, of course, but we must remember that their continued existence is not natural, or necessary either.

The first and hardest step, though, is spotting these myths. Their power and pervasiveness is their cover; the fact that we rely on them so completely makes them invisible, as through their supposed obviousness they become the intellectual furniture of the societies in which we live. And the fact that these myths are so hard to spot, makes them very useful for those in power – as the Marxist Antonio Gramsci explained, the rich use their influence to promote their ideas amongst the wider population. The rich create stories to suit only their purposes, before making them into myths shared by everyone. By controlling what is “common sense” in society as a whole, the rich keep society under tight control. It is this process, Gramsci points out, that prevented the otherwise inevitable collapse of capitalist societies, and stalled revolutions throughout the 20th century – the rich ensure the intellectual furniture upon which we all sit blocks all available exits. We see this same process active in society today. When a radical challenge to fossil capitalism is considered – involving rapid cuts in carbon emissions, the redistribution of wealth, a debt jubilee, or any alternative to growth-based economics – the myths forged by the capitalist elite are used by the rest of society to defend the status quo.

One such myth is the Myth of Progress. It states that human history unfolds in something approaching a long, upward curve – with quality of life, technological sophistication, tolerance, and global harmony gradually increasing over time. Superficially, it seems quite convincing – if we compare the clean streets of present-day uptown Amsterdam, to the squalor of the Medieval city, it certainly looks as though progress has been made. Some public intellectuals, such as Steven Pinker, and Niall Ferguson, propound this view with tremendous verve, extolling the virtues of modern Western civilization while neglecting its many failings. Although there are problems all over the planet, they say, these are being dealt with and, if we just stay the course, the system we have now will solve them. Tweaks may be needed, but the fundamentals are settled. We just need to keep calm, and carry on.

This view of the past – known as the Whig Theory of History – is not given any credence by academic historians. Technological, social, moral, and emotional progress is not inevitable, nor is “progress” in each of these areas easy to define. As Ronald Wright persuasively argues, this myth tirelessly simplifies the messy complexity that underpins our present state; the pain and suffering that got us here, and the patchiness of our achievements. Furthermore, implicit in Myth of Progress is a kind of complacency – it is “we” who are the most advanced, out of all humanity – who that “we” is, always depends upon who is doing the talking. This risks inviting in a kind of hubris – it is short step to go from claiming to be the best so far, to claiming to be the best possible. It’s not so very hard to move from a Whiggish confidence in continual, unimpeded progress, to claiming – as political scientist Francis Fukuyama once did – that neoliberal democracy represents the end of history. But despite all the problems with this myth, people still believe it. Indeed, it suits the rich to tell us this – how can we oppose their beneficent rule, if we’ve never had it so good?

Of course, few people today – after the financial crisis, the many catastrophic threats of climate change, the swing towards the populist right – would claim that progress is inevitable, or that Western civilisation is the best of all possible worlds, or that Neoliberalism represents the peak of what we can achieve. The Myth of Progress has been unmasked as mere sophistry. Although this process is frightening and there are very real dangers tied to recent events: what has happened also represents an opportunity to shift the common sense of our society, and look again at the very nuts and bolts of how our world works.

Let’s consider the example of food production. True, growing food using modern, industrial-scale agriculture of the kind made possible by the “Green Revolution” has increased the mass of food grown around the world, so that production has outstripped demand for many years. And globalising the food market has increased choice, and makes seasonal produce available all year round. However, what is becoming increasingly apparent is that prioritising raw productivity in this way doesn’t actually take into account other, vital considerations – not just the continued health of the soil and our waters, but also the nutrient content and health benefits of the food being produced. In some cases, a combination of declining soil fertility and the selection of high-volume, fast-growing varieties over slower-growing, more nutritious alternatives has meant that the concentration of micronutrients in fresh produce has declined dramatically. According to an article published in the British Food Journal, in 20 vegetables the average calcium content had declined 19%, iron by 22%, potassium by 14% (8) since the 1930s, while other research suggests similar declines – from 5% to 40% of vitamins and proteins in fresh produce (9). There are reports of even more dramatic declines – of up to 90% – in certain cases; such Iron in Watercress (10) and Vitamin A in oranges.

Now, considering this, it seems that the shift in the past 100 years isn’t so positive. We might be growing more, but the food we’re growing is less nourishing, and the way we’re growing it is destroying the planet. If we are to protect our soils, and truly maintain a healthy population of billions of people, the key isn’t producing more food, but better food. And by this standard, global agriculture has actually gone backward since the 1930s.

Now, many of the big reasons why older, healthier varieties – tastier, more nutritious, more resilient to pests – fell out of favour was that they required careful tending, took longer to grow, were tricky to harvest mechanically, or they had a very short self-life. The number of varieties in use has gone down significantly as well. This represents a very significant risk on its own, as it means the gene pool of vital crop species is now becoming dangerously narrow – simply because everyone is using KWS Siskin wheat or Resistafly carrots. The reason why so many regional varieties or landraces have been abandoned and are now endangered is not because of their inherent value; but simply because it is more profitable for industrial producers – and seed suppliers – to limit cultivation to a small number of fast-growing, good-looking varieties; sacrificing taste, nourishment, and genetic diversity in the process.

If we care about the nourishment we get from what we eat, rather than the mere amount of stuff we consume, the current food producing regimen is not feeding the world very well. It creates vast surpluses of a small number of plant varieties that are low in nutrients, dependent on artificial fertilisers and pesticides, deplete soil and ruin agricultural productivity. So much for progress.

If we revived older crop varieties – that grow more slowly, can’t be transported long distances, but are more nutritious, tastier food – and integrated them into a highly localised, high-tech food-production system, with every city carpeted and covered with food forests and gardens, we’d be well on our way. Certain crops would still need to be grown in the countryside, but rather than ship grain from Russia all the way to San Francisco merely because it’s cheaper, we’d keep supply chains short as possible to reduce emissions, and use a varieties of crops best suited to their local climate and the nutritional needs to the local population

Crucially, this would bring people back to the soil. The “Green Revolution” has been so profitable, because it has increased agricultural outputs while reducing the number of people working the land, thus reducing the labour costs for agricultural businesses. Those who once worked the land have been corralled into cities, where they have joined the ranks of the urban poor – in the developed world, these people end up engaged in mindless, bullshit jobs; in the developing world, they slave away in factories, as in China, or struggle to scrape a living until the tension boils over, as it has in Syria. If we turned our cities into places where food was grown, new jobs would be created that produced healthy food and supported local economies, and everyone would feel, and actually be closer to the cycles of life and growth that sustain our lives – rather than believing falsely that vegetables materialise on supermarket shelves. People need to take up the fork and trowel, and return to doing what we’ve done since the Natufians: growing things.


Developing a more localised, nutrient-rich agricultural system would also help in another way – it would combat climate change. While I was at COP21, I listened to a fascinating talk on soil health. Mechanised agriculture and the use of pesticides has stripped the soil of organic matter – causing massive degradation of fertile land globally. Soils without organic matter hold less water, contain less nutrients, and are more easily eroded – something I witnessed first hand during my fieldwork, where I visited conventional farms in Norfolk whose fields were little more than dust. Raping the land in this way not only creates dependency upon artificial fertilisers, but releases vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. If we were to restore the organic matter in the world’s soils by a tiny amount year on year – 0.4% – this would halt the annual increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, while reducing fertiliser use and safeguarding agricultural productivity. Despite the fact that soil health was left out of the COP21 agreement, the French government has committed to improving its soils in line with these proposals.

The fact is, in Britain, we’ve been here before. During WWII, the pressure of German raids on Allied merchant shipping meant that food security became a major issue. So the government encouraged people to grow their own food under the “Dig for Victory” campaign. Although this took place under rationing, the direct intervention by the government in managing the diet of its citizens, and encouraging home-grown produce actually improved public health during the period. The problem was that it created an association in the hearts and minds of the British public between self-sufficiency, and all the hardship of war, and the interference of the state. So as soon as the war was over, people abandoned all the good habits they had acquired, and embraced the orgiastic mass-consumption that was imported to the UK by the Ad-men of the 1950s. “Dig for Victory”, as a top-down initiative unmoored from broader political and economic reform was doomed to fail. So to successfully restore our soils, we must also restore society. Nonetheless, the “Dig for Victory” campaign indicates that it is possible to place agriculture at the heart of everyday life, even for urban people, and to put the welfare of people at the heart of agriculture.

The collapse of the Myth of Progress allows us to reconsider many old certainties. For some of us, this collapse happened long before 2016 – we lost our faith in the myths of capital either through education, or through bitter personal experience, or both. But in the wake of Brexit, Trump’s election, and many other crises, it has become necessary to reconsider some of our most accepted views about the world – and look for better ones.

As Pagans, myths and stories are our bread and butter. Many people in the West are crying out for new, better stories to make sense of their lives, and to shed light on how we might move forward, into an uncertain future. In such an environment, our traditions are, therefore, necessarily political. But the stories we cast into society cannot be mere fabrications; the failure of the Myth of Progress should ward us off such abstractions. Our stories must be rooted in the Land itself, in its moods and matter. Tending the soils; making them full of life again; is but one practical step pregnant with narrative potential.

As for how that potential should manifest; I leave that to you.

Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.

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20 thoughts on “Industrial Agriculture and The Myth of Progress

  1. Great, well-written and covers very important topics. Is there any way you might consider using a different word than “raping”? I understand the accuracy of the metaphor, however it took me right out of following your thoughts. I would like to share this, but there are people in my groups who would also find that word off-putting.


  2. An excellent piece. I wonder what proportion of agricultural output goes into junk food manufacturing. I’m always appalled at the supermarket aisles of crisps and other salty “snacks” made from wheat and maize and potatoes, leave alone the issue of sugar. (With respect for your liking for brownies). Huge profit margins on such “foods ” gained from imperilling health.


  3. Regarding the avoidance of the word rape (not even metaphorically accurate here) how about impoverish or denature? Even starve since we are talking about the wilful deprivation of nutrients.


    1. Not that old canard. This is a quality article – notwithstanding the observation over the use of certain emotive words.
      FYI, there is no, repeat NO, need to reduce population. We have more than enough food to feed all, NOW, and very well, thank you. The problems are mostly connected to distribution, consumption, waste and man(un)kind’s inherent greed. These are the (uncomfortable for many) issues we need to confront (in ourselves too) which underlie the hungry and the obese in OUR world, and the damaged planet. Read this


      1. I agree with you entirely jet4oliver. This idea – that population growth is inevitable without intervention, and a major risk to the planet and society – was the pet theory of Thomas Malthus, who was writing at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. I find it curious that so many people are quite happy to invoke a 200 year old piece of social theory as simple fact, when they would not do the same about a natural scientific theory of comparable antiquity. Like natural science, social theory has become quite a bit more sophisticated since Malthus.

        Though Malthusian crises do happen occasionally, they aren’t inevitable. If you want to know if one is coming, you need to look at the relevant facts about the society concerned. Today, population growth is actually slowing, because people are becoming more educated, and child mortality is decreasing. It’s likely that the human population will stabilise before it reaches 10 billion, and start to slowly decline from there. There are many communities around the planet – such as in Germany and Japan – where people are reproducing at levels below the replacement rate.

        The problem our world has is not too many people; but too many “rich” people. Being “rich” here, does not mean having hot and cold running water; internet access; modern medicine; a varied diet; and leisure time – being “rich” means having mountains of packaging; air conditioning so you can wear your suit to an office job in a tropical climate; growing lawns in the desert; built-in obsolescence and binge-eating. The same principles I apply to agriculture here – designing with natural processes in mind, to support those processes – can and must be applied to every aspect of human nature. Capitalism stands in the way of this – it is the problem, not over population.


      2. Of course there is a need to reduce the population which is increasing at the rate of 200,000 EVERY DAY. We only have this planet, there is nowhere else to go. When I was young the population was half what it is now and life was much more pleasant.


  4. Nice essay. I live in a rural area with many small organic food producers (beef, orchard fruit truck vegetables and the like) and they are surprisingly very conservative politically. I’m not sure they believe in the myth of capitalist progress, but they sure hate the state telling them where they can situate their piles of manure, or allow their livestock to graze. The unfortunate fact of crony capitalism is that big operators like Smithfield, Tyson, and Monsanto get around regulators but small folks can’t, and they hate the government for


    1. Great comment! I found much the same in my fieldsite – farmers really struggled to meet the bureaucratic requirements of regulators, and resented the interference. They (like your guys, it seems) attribute this interference to “the state”, when really it’s a bureaucratic regime that includes both large public and private organisations.

      Interestingly, many of the farmers I spoke to were highly insistent that they were “businessmen”, despite the fact that pretty much every aspect of their operations was dictated to them by external actors. The price of they could get for their produce and the cost of packaging was set by distribution agents (acting on behalf of big supermarkets), the cost of their inputs, and the choice of seed varieties etc. was chosen by big agribusinesses, and most of their operations and land management practices were strictly regulated by the state. So despite how they imagine themselves as freewheeling entrepreneurs, they’re really closer to an uber driver or deliveroo person – an employee spun out by their de-facto employer, to reduce their rights.

      By encouraging small farmers to consider themselves as “businessmen”, the discourse also serves to protect the current, unfair system – right wing political parties are able to position themselves as “pro-business”, and offer to cut taxes and regulation. Because they see themselves as “businessmen”, small farmers lap this up, despite the fact that the cuts and regulatory cuts benefit their larger, more aggressive, corporate competitors far more. Also, cutting taxes and paperwork tends to lead to a proliferation of the latter, as reducing public expenditure is often accompanied by an increase in auditing – which creates more paperwork. Typical petit bourgeoisie stuff.


  5. Thanks for sharing this. I’d agree that for most people the stories in the Mabinogion are just stories because they don’t live by them. As Mary Midgeley says, myths are what we live by. Whilst the myths of progress has fallen out of favour, unfortunately the metanarrative of capitalism is still pretty dominant and we’ve yet to entice people away with better myths. I do believe we could live by some of the stories/myths in the Mabinogion, but they’d need a lot of de-Christianising and bringing into relationship with modernity and respectful non-exploitative ways of relating to the land and its human and non-human inhabitants. There’s a challenge!


    1. Thanks Lorna! I quite agree – like you, I’d love to see the stories that have come to us from our ancestors become true myths again, and I relish the challenge of accomplishing this.

      Could I come up to your end soon to chat about this more? I find myself quite inspired!


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