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B2. Social Ecology

Grace Gershuny on the evolution of the organic food movement

Institute for Social Ecology - Fri, 11/02/2018 - 10:41

Learning from History, Going on From Here 

(originally published on Grace’s blog, Organic Revolutionary)

The world has changed considerably in the forty years since I attended my first NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association) Conference–then also billed as a “celebration of rural life.” So too has the organization, which has gone from a marginal little group of idealists and back-to-the-landers to a credible, even venerable institution that has influenced and educated several generations of ardent organic advocates—including this one.

Although I had proposed a workshop on “Climate/Food Justice,” I was asked to do a talk about our history, in keeping with the conference theme of “Honoring Our Roots, Tending Our Future.” The most recent issue of NOFA’s esteemed quarterly publication, The Natural Farmer, featured a thoughtful and well-crafted NOFA history piece by Editor Jack Kittredge with some extensive quotes from Organic Revolutionary. Maybe my long-time NOFA colleagues, many of whom have been vociferous critics of the USDA National Organic Program, have begun to listen to what I have to say.

I made the three-hour trek to Hampshire College in Amherst, MA on August 10th with a mixture of anticipation and dread.



I was looking forward to seeing old friends, though I knew that the “old guard” is no longer much in evidence at these conferences. I was saddened by the recent death of Bill Duesing, who was a fixture of the organization since before he pulled together the CT-NOFA chapter. Katherine DiMatteo, former executive director of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), hosted me overnight, and it was a joy to catch up with her activities for the Sustainable Food Trade Association.

This conference is always a wonderful opportunity to learn something new and different. I was able to attend only one workshop other than the one I was presenting, and chose to listen to Bill MacKentley, founder of St. Lawrence Nurseries on the subject of the fourth phase of water.  Bill’s fascinating and information dense presentation motivated me to learn more about the unique ways in which water is structured, and why this is critical for all living organisms. According to Bill, this understanding might even explain the effectiveness of Biodynamic preparations and Homeopathy. How, I wonder, might it also be used to design biologically activated water-based production systems that can be just as healthful as those based in soil?

Native American seed keeper Rowen White shared her wisdom at Friday evening’s keynote program, and on Saturday Food First’s Eric Holt-Gimenez spoke about his latest book, A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism. In their own ways, each of them stressed the importance of working together for a common vision of planetary healing and social justice, across differing perspectives and opinions. Diversity of viewpoints, besides being more interesting and challenging, helps us form broader based movements than are possible if we only preach to the choir. Both of course knew that’s what they were doing.

Running into former students is always a special treat too, and I encountered two of them just as I was making my escape on Saturday before the dreaded “debate.” Ben Grosscup was a young student in the Institute for Social Ecology (ISE) Summer Program in the early 2000’s, and has recently served as coordinator for the NOFA Summer Conference. Now his work is devoted to supporting activists with song through the People’s Music Network.

As I was talking with Ben, Johanna Mirenda showed up, and we decided to meet for dinner on our way home. Jo worked as Technical Director for the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) from her home in Vermont while pursuing her MA in Sustainable Food Systems at Green Mountain College, where I taught the on-line course in Theory & Practice of Sustainable Agriculture. I was thrilled to learn that she has now joined OTA as Farm Policy Director, and we talked about working to bridge the age-old chasm between the “grassroots and the suits” through our common involvement in the Vermont Healthy Soils Coalition.


The feeling of dread I brought with me centered on the NOFA “debate” scheduled for Saturday evening…though why anyone would choose that activity rather than music and fun is beyond me. While the central question it posed of “Where do we go from here?” is an important one, the general lack of contrasting views about the definition of “here” leaves something to be desired—thus my use of quotes around the word “debate.”

Paraphrasing some of the statements made by the four “current thought leader” panelists in this program, the starting assumption was that the USDA Organic label has lost its meaning, has been corrupted by industry influence, and is weak at best or fraudulent at worst. Nobody who might disagree with such assumptions was invited. I have not seen a report on the outcome, or whether there was an audience vote on the three choices given in the program — whether USDA Organic is “fraudulent,” “inadequate,” or “worth supporting.”

Arriving in time for dinner on Friday evening I sat down by myself, curious to see who might come talk to me. The first person to sit down at my table was a young woman who was also wearing a “presenters” badge. Her workshop topic about fungi and soil fertility is a subject dear to my heart. I offered a brief explanation of my presentation on organic history and suggested that I had some concerns about the “debate” scheduled for Saturday.

Our conversation began with her statement, made with some certitude, that the USDA Organic program was totally corrupt and untrustworthy. I pressed her for evidence of this claim and received vague suggestions about the corporate connections of those in charge, referring to the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board). I explained that the NOSB is strictly advisory and not in charge of setting or enforcing standards; career civil service employees who are bound by strict conflict of interest requirements are actually the ones in charge of these activities. I used to be one of them.

She offered another general statement about the terrible corruption of the current administration in Washington (no argument there), referring to Scott Pruitt, disgraced former EPA Chief, as an illustration. I pointed out that even the Secretary of Agriculture was hardly involved in managing the National Organic Program, and that the recent USDA decision to pull a final regulation on animal welfare was not one made by National Organic Program staff—who had worked for years to develop and finalize this rule that the organic community supported. Unconvinced, the woman got up to leave, and I invited her to engage further, handing her a book flyer with my workshop schedule on it. “No thank you,” she said, dropping the paper on the table as she departed.

Meanwhile, another woman who had joined the table was eavesdropping on this conversation and exchanged knowing looks with me as the first woman got up to leave. “I’ll take that,” she said, picking up the rejected flyer and smiling at me. She was among the handful who attended my workshop the next morning and engaged the conversation with well-informed questions. See the section below for a key message from my presentation.

Finding even a few people who “get it” gives me some hope for the world. But I continue to be concerned about the divisiveness of ongoing attacks on the integrity of the organic label from within. It has become commonplace to hear, even from knowledgeable consumers, concerns that the organic label doesn’t have much meaning anymore, and may not be much different than the cheaper conventional corporate fare.

Beyond sowing consumer confusion, such attacks feed the real opposition to “real organic” coming from the likes of Henry Miller, a right-wing commentator in The Wall Street Journal.  While it is important to be critical and demand accountability, attacks on the trustworthiness of the whole program provide cover and ammunition to the forces of agribusiness as usual to do things like withdraw regulations that have been vetted and supported by the organic community.

The real threat to organic integrity, as I see it, is the impulse to play fast and loose with the truth in order to win. Personal attacks, the blame game, and propagandistic half truths are rightly discredited when used by politicians. Why, then, are so many organic leaders imitating such tactics? The increasing polarization of public rhetoric, which tends to represent any substantive disagreement as a contest between “good” and “evil,” is the scariest thing about our current socio-political moment. Knowing that the political roots of the organic project are not necessarily so socially progressive, we must be careful to avoid the trap of seeking to “make organic great again.”

Graphic from A Brief Overview of the History and Philosophy of Organic Agriculture by George Kuepper

A Brief History of Organic

My presentation emphasized the checkered political history of the organic movement, which became a fertile seedbed for the diverse food movements that come out of it.  My message was that, while they may differ in emphasis and degrees of holistic vision, as well as having some strong disagreements about political alignment, advocates of each of the variations on the organic concept that have emerged post-1970 are all working towards similar visions of a new paradigm for agriculture and the food system.

One of the little known facts of organic history is its roots in fascist ideology and colonialism. As noted in Chapter 1 of Organic Revolutionary, the connection of the early organic movement to fascist sympathizers is chronicled by Philip Conford in The Origins of the Organic Movement. Here is how I explain it:

Among the more persistent myths of the current organic scene is the notion that the modern organic movement sprang from a strictly left-progressive political philosophy. While partially true, it is a mistake to believe that the political left has any claim to ownership of the organic project, or that organic agriculture (or any green technology, for that matter) is inherently politically correct. Rather, the thinking that shaped the organic vision can be traced to both left-wing and right-wing ideologies, and it is apparently the right wing that informed the first consciously organic advocates in Europe. As laid out in excruciating detail by Conford, many of the founders of the Soil Association, with the exception of a few like Sir Albert Howard, were avowed fascists who supported Hitler and Mussolini before these dictators became enemies of the British state.

Steiner’s followers in Europe, primarily Germany and Austria, were similarly not all repulsed by the Nazi embrace. Anthroposophy, the spiritual credo founded by Steiner and the basis for his agricultural instructions, “had a powerful practical influence on the so-called ‘green wing’ of German fascism,” according to Social Ecologist Peter Staudenmaier. It was largely, he suggests, through biodynamic agriculture that this influence occurred. The well-known Nazi slogan, “Blood and Soil,” was the rallying cry of this green wing, which held that “environmental purity was inseparable from racial purity.”

It should go without saying (but still must be said) that none of this means that practitioners of Biodynamic agriculture or avowed Anthroposophists are really fascists at heart. As acknowledged by Staudenmaier and consistent with my own experience, most of those who today espouse Biodynamics, and certainly those who practice its methods without endorsing its religious aspects, tend to be politically liberal, open-minded, and compassionate folks.

But I cannot help but shudder at the common emphasis on purity amongst some organic true believers. The enthusiasm of some of the right-wing organic crowd in the US for Biodynamics and its array of mysterious cosmic forces can give one pause as well. We would all do well to acknowledge our ambiguous and not always high-minded histories.

The USDA Organic label is now widely recognized as a credible, third party verified marketing claim. It is a big mistake to present valuable concepts such as “agroecology” and “regenerative agriculture” in opposition to “organic”. In saying that “you can’t dismantle capitalism with a marketing plan,” I suggest that we can and must go “beyond” organic to get at the root causes of our interconnected social, environmental, and health crises. But we need not disparage our roots or each other—weakening the power of the organic label to raise public awareness about those problems—in the process.

The post Grace Gershuny on the evolution of the organic food movement appeared first on Institute for Social Ecology.

Categories: B2. Social Ecology

Peoples’ Tribunal on Fracking & Climate Change

Institute for Social Ecology - Sun, 10/14/2018 - 07:00

The historic Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal Session on Human Rights, Fracking, and Climate Change took place on May 14th – 18th, co-hosted by the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word.  The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal (PPT or Tribunal) is a highly respected international forum that grew from the Russell-Sartre Tribunal to investigate whether breaches of human rights norms occurred during the Vietnam War.  Based in Rome, Italy, the Tribunal was constituted in November 1966, and was conducted in two sessions in 1967, in Stockholm, Sweden and Roskilde Denmark. Since then it has conducted a series of high-profile hearings to determine whether human rights standards were abridged in Bhopal, Chernobyl, and other sites worldwide. The Tribunal’s most recent session was on Myanmar’s (Burma’s) crimes against the Rohingya and Kachin refugees.

The PPT is built around an international network of experts, social actors and scholars from several countries of Europe, South America, Asia and Africa, recognized for their independence and competence. For the first time in its nearly 40-year history, this session of the PPT had an international focus, was hosted completely online, and included arguments about the rights of Nature in addition to the rights of people. Among the participants were Institute for Social Ecology board member Brian Tokar, Honor the Earth founder Winona LaDuke, founder Bill McKibben,and former industry insider, Dr. Anthony Ingraffea.

You can watch ISE board member Brian Tokar’s testimony herealong with comments by other participants in the recent campaign to halt a new fracked gas pipeline in Vermont, recorded at Geprags Park in Hinesburg, VT on May Day 2018.

Amicus briefs were submitted by attorneys and others representing nongovernmental organizations, including 350 Vermont, Food and Water Watch Europe, Freshwater Accountability Project, the Center for Human Rights and the Environment, Coalition to Protect New York, and Environmental Defenders Office. A team of human rights attorneys also presented live and prerecorded witness testimony and reports from preliminary tribunals held in areas where fracking is used in oil and gas extraction.

After examining evidence and hearing testimony, judges selected by the impartial PPT were asked to provide an advisory opinion on four central questions:

1. Under what circumstances do fracking and other unconventional oil and gas extraction techniques breach human rights protected by international law as a matter of treaty or custom?

2. Under what circumstances do fracking and other unconventional oil and gas extraction techniques warrant the issuance of either provisional measures, a judgment enjoining further activity, remediation relief or damages for causing environmental harm? 3. What is the extent of responsibility and liability of States and non-State actors for violations of human rights and for environmental and climate harm caused by these oil and gas extraction techniques?

4. What is the extent of responsibility and liability of States and non-State actors, both legal and moral, for violations of the rights of nature related to environmental and climate harm caused by these unconventional oil and gas extraction techniques?

The judges issued an interim opinion on June 6th, with a final advisory opinion expected to be out later this fall.

“The dictates of public conscience can become a recognized source of law and a tribunal emanating directly from the conscience of the people reflects an idea that is bound to grow. It is claimed that institutions derive their power from the people, but actually these two have moved further and further apart and only a major public initiative can try to build a bridge between the people and power”
-Lelio Basso (a founder of the PPT)

For more information, contact Attorney Vanessa Brown,

The post Peoples’ Tribunal on Fracking & Climate Change appeared first on Institute for Social Ecology.

Categories: B2. Social Ecology

The Utopian Democracy of the Alberta Farm Movement, by Steven R.D. Henderson

Institute for Social Ecology - Tue, 10/09/2018 - 07:00

Passing through the countryside of the Prairie West, it is easy to find oneself awestruck. Rolling fields covered in wheat stretch out as far as the eye can see, while the sky reaches to meet the horizon as great billowing clouds sail upon it. Taken in at once, it brings forth a feeling of enormity—of freedom. Amidst these endless fields exists the town of Vulcan. As you enter the town it is impossible to miss the iconic replica of the USS Enterprise, lifted off the ground by a pedestal. Nearby, an outlet for the United Farmers of Alberta serves the needs of this Prairie town. It is here in Vulcan that historic fact meets science fiction—past meets future—held together by a shared dream of utopia.

For the pioneers of Western Canada—the last, best West—the settling of this land was infused with utopian idealism. For them the West was the Promised Land: the land of milk and honey. It was with this vision in their minds that hundreds of thousands of immigrants flocked to the Canadian West, believing that it was a land where a real, viable utopia could be created. Broadly speaking, the unique form of utopianism found in Western Canada assumed three forms.[1] The first was that of a fecund, Edenic paradise—that of a vision of a land of abundance and of commune with nature. The second form was that of the West as a perfect society where only the virtuous would reside. This image is typical of the social gospellers, who believed that the West was destined to be a New Jerusalem or the Kingdom of God on Earth. The last form was a secular utopia: that of the West as a tabula rasa—a blank slate—a place of new beginnings. All three of these visions of utopia were present in the Alberta farm movement, which reached its apex in the United Farmers of Alberta.

The United Farmers of Alberta

            While throughout this essay I plan to discuss certain elements of the farm movement which I find admirable, there are other aspects that must be categorically rejected as having no place in a future free society. To name only the most obvious, this includes the role of the Alberta farm movement in colonisation and its attendant racism. Likewise, the movement’s embrace of eugenics with its zoological denigration of our humanity. Yet the purpose of revisiting this history is not to nostalgically pine for a lost traditional Alberta farmer, but rather to illuminate the aspects of this history which can reinvigorate our utopian dreams in the present. A further discussion of the parochial aspects of the farm movement, while necessary, is outside of the scope of this short essay and will be explored in the future.

            On January 14th, 1909, the convention of the Alberta Farmer’s Association took place at the Mechanics’ Hall in Edmonton. With the announcement of the amalgamation of the Alberta Farmer’s Association and the Society of Equity the hall erupted with a chorus of “For They Are Jolly Good Fellows”, and three hearty cheers filled the air. The United Farmers of Alberta was born. None of the delegates at the founding meeting of the UFA could have imagined the future that the new organisation would cultivate—that the UFA would be one of the greatest grassroots democratic movements in Canadian history, and one of the most successful farm movements in North American history. They could not have predicted that in the coming decade UFA membership would grow into the tens of thousands; that the organisation would spawn a great co-operative movement culminating in the creation of the Wheat Pool; that it would be responsible for important achievements in women’s rights; and would be responsible for immutably changing the political culture of Alberta, forming a permanent populist bias that lingers to the present. Nor could they have predicted that the UFA would form a majority provincial government and ignite a populist wave—a Prairie fire—that would burn across the provinces from West to East.

Although the UFA would form government at the provincial level and be involved at the national level, it would be a mistake to look at the movement as merely a provincial or national one. Within the UFA these levels of government were understood only as two arenas of organisation. The creative, radical, and oppositional energies of the UFA found other outlets as well. One was the Wheat Pool, with its parallel structure based on delegate democracy. The other was, as Roger Epp tells us, “the entire range of local institutions—municipal councils and school boards, mutual telephone companies, creamery and other co-operatives—that constituted the fabric of self-directed community affairs in which democratic politics was an experiential reality.” Unbeknownst to many, the Alberta farm movement was in this regard intensely municipalist, reminiscent of New England town meetings. If the Greeks of ancient Athens had their ekklesia, and the New Englanders had their town meetings, it can be said that the pioneers of the Prairie West had their schoolhouse meetings. Roger Epp continues:

Agrarian populism in Alberta had inherited two contradictory impulses from the American experience: on one hand, towards technocratic, honest, business-like government; on the other, towards local autonomy and direct democracy in a Jeffersonian vein. Within the UFA, it was an open question whether the aims of the farmers’ movement were to be carried out primarily at a local, as opposed to a provincial or national, level. Certainly there was a level of office-holding and participation in rural Alberta reminiscent of ancient Athens. There was also a fairly sophisticated understanding, regularly promoted in The UFA newspaper, that local schoolhouses and halls were also the “schoolhouses of democracy”’ that it was important to “develop the mentality, public spirit, and power of self-expression of every member,” through debates, courses, and readings; and that agrarian self-defence against economic predators and a distant, indifferent national government would be, at the same time, an “object lesson in true democracy.” […] Numerous instances of local political and economic initiatives particularly in the 1920s bear out the claim that Alberta farm people, even in the midst of hardship, had developed the collective capacity and self-confidence necessary for democratic self-government.[2]

Indeed, the UFA was a truly democratic organisation. While the schoolhouse or hall may have been the loci of the political realm of the Western frontier, the bedrock of UFA democracy was its delegate system.[3] Inheriting its structure from its predecessors, the early UFA consisted of its locals, a central office, an executive, and a board of directors. It was however the rank and file of the UFA that set the organisation’s agenda. Such decision making was done through the convention, which was attended by delegates sent by the locals. Most locals would discuss resolutions to come before the convention and instruct their delegates how to vote, assuming they would exercise some discretion based on convention debate. Direct democracy had reached a degree of sophistication in the Prairie West that even today we can admire.

            The history shared by the Prairie West with classical Athens and the New Englanders is more rich that merely a shared history of direct democracy. Like the yeomen of Athens and the New Englanders, for the pioneers of the Prairie West, agriculture was viewed as an inherently moral activity.  The Athenian ideal of the farmer citizen was one which was considered to be materially independent, so as to be an autonomous participant in political decision making and whose interests were not dependent on the exogenous influence of the market. In Athens and again in New England, we see this association of the yeoman farmer with independence and virtue. As for the particular form it assumed with the Prairie West, Bradford J. Rennie explains:

            Not only was farming the source of all wealth, but it was the wellspring of happiness and virtue. Tregillus preached that farming was “the most natural and healthful life we can live”; moreover, farmers were “not subject to the temptation to rob and ruin their fellows, as in so many other lines of endeavour, for in agriculture integrity and absolute honesty must be observed. Here was the Jeffersonian ideal of the honest, contented yeoman—the moral fabric of the nation—tilling an Edenic paradise.[4]

Rennie’s statement regarding the yeomanry and the moral fabric of the nation notwithstanding, to emphasise the role of Canadian nationalism on the western frontier would be a mistake. Despite the presence of romantic nationalism within UFA publications and from its leaders, nationalism on the Western frontier was far from an established fact. Rather, as noted by Steve Hewitt, it was the experience of war that served in the social construction of a Canadian identity.[5] Of particular importance to this process was wartime propaganda. In the recent film Shameless Propaganda, produced by Canada’s National Film Board, director Robert Lower succinctly states the relevance of wartime propaganda to Canadian nation-building—even up to World War Two—when he says, “… The real story of the [NFB’s] early years, the real story this film tells, is not about convincing us to die for our country. But rather, convincing us we had a country worth dying for.”[6] This statement holds true for earlier wartime propaganda efforts as well.

Speaking more broadly than just the Prairie West, Lower explains that in 1940, the term “Canadian” was attached to 11 million people, strung out along 6,000 kilometres of railway, with only CBC radio to connect them. The meaning of “Canadian” depended very much where you got off the train. Many still considered themselves British—sons and daughters of the empire. Those who had arrived from France and had been here long before Wolfe’s invasion had a different idea. Others were “Canadian” only by colonisation and conquest. But for many more, it was a break with the past and a leap of faith into something new: a utopian vision of a blank slate—a tabula rasa.

The moral character of this utopia has, to a certain extent, been previously stressed. But more than just an Edenic paradise, the UFA/UFWA members saw themselves as a city on the hill and a beacon of virtue amidst darkness, pointing the way to the Promised Land—not unlike the New England pilgrims. This moral vision of the “good society” was infused with the social gospel overtones of the era. Of particular relevance to this within the UFA was the dialectical philosophy of Henry Wise Wood. It would be a mistake however to label Wood as a “great man” who imposed his philosophy on the farm movement. His doctrines reflected movement assumptions and an already existing movement culture. His theory was not purely his own; he was as much a preacher of already existing ideas as he was a prophet of new ones.

A type of social gospel theology, the basis of Wood’s philosophy was that history progressed through a dialectic between the two “social laws” of competition and co-operation. Competition “acted” to force a “reaction” of the formation of larger co-operative units which competed at higher levels themselves, and in turn prompted the creation of greater co-operative units for competitive use. In Wood’s view, it was in this way that competition for survival and trade drove the earliest people to form family groups, family groups to form tribes, tribes to form nations, and nations to form allied units.

A particular influence on Wood’s mind was the experience of World War One. To Wood, “Germany and her allies represented the greatest co-operative national unit of strength the world had ever seen […] built by co-operation, but built for competitive purposes.” In Wood’s view, international competition had become so dangerous that higher levels of military efficiency could destroy the world and thus were unthinkable: competition was forcing nations to pursue co-operation. However, peace would be impossible until international trade competition (in Wood’s view the cause of the war) was eliminated. More specifically, Wood viewed the economic and political control of nations by plutocracy as responsible for the recent wars.

Wood warned that social, economic, and military advancement had been so rapid that if the people did not organise to oppose plutocracy civilisation would veer off the path of progress into a quagmire of warfare and autocratic rule. His stark warnings not withstanding, he never doubted that the people would succeed: he believed they would respond to the competitive force of plutocracy with nature’s call to “group government”. In Wood’s view, once the people had developed their intelligence and citizenship skills to the highest degree, they would federate their economic groups into a co-operative and democratic force, meeting plutocracy in an apocalyptic conflict. Wood prophesised that this conflict would be that of one between “… democracy and plutocracy, between civilization and barbarism, between man and money, between co-operation and competition, between God and Mammon.” The result would be peace, as well as a just and democratic order. That is, the kingdom of heaven on earth. Rennie details the importance of co-operation to Wood’s philosophy:

Wood loathed the individualistic struggle-for-existence ethic. He criticized Darwin, Huxley, and Haeckel for failing to discern that humanity must ‘throw off this animal spirit’ and develop a co-operative spirit. ‘Science tells us that the law of the survival of the fittest is the true primary animal law,’ Wood conceded, ‘but only the fool will tell us that it is the true ultimate social law.’ Here Wood echoes evolutionists such as Henry Drummond and Kropotkin, who, like him, saw group co-operation — between families, tribes, nations, and classes — as integral to survival and progress.[7]

            There’s certainly much that we can criticise in Wood’s philosophy. However a critique of his philosophy or rigorous exploration of its differences from other evolutionary thinkers is outside of the scope of this essay. What I want to draw attention to here is that Wood’s philosophy was firmly in the same evolutionist tradition as Kropotkin, a major pioneering figure in Communalist thought, as both viewed mutual aid as a key factor of evolution.

Recontextualising Prairie Visions of Utopia

The economics of the future are somewhat different. You see, money doesn’t exist in the 24th century… The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity. – Capt. Jean-Luc Picard

Today, as forest fires stain the wide, clear blue skies of the West like a scene from the dystopian film Bladerunner, we’re reminded of our place as a part of the natural world and of looming ecological crisis. It is precisely because of the extent of the crises that we currently face that we cannot afford to abandon utopian thinking. I believe the political philosophy most suited to continuing this history of utopianism in Western Canada is that of Communalism. Developed by Murray Bookchin, Communalism is a utopian, directly democratic philosophy that seeks to reharmonise the relationship of humanity to the natural world. It reflects important elements of our local history and addresses the root causes of the ecological crisis we face today.

The dreams of a democratic society still exists amongst Canadians, evident in the spread of movements like Occupy with their message of grassroots participation and reclaiming public space. Communalism’s political vision of confederal municipalities evokes the schoolhouse democracy of the pioneers of the Prairie West. In this politics, city government is organised from the grassroots up, through directly democratic neighbourhood assemblies. Communalists are not merely municipalists, but confederal municipalists. By this, I do not mean “confederation” in the same sense as the “confederation” of Canada, whereby the nation-state uses a variety of intermediaries like provincial governments to create the illusion of local control. Rather, by confederation I mean something more reminiscent of indigenous confederacies. In the context of the Prairie West, a local example of this would be the history of the Blackfoot Confederacy.

This means a network of councils where delegates are elected from their local assemblies to administer policies decided at the base, yet are strictly mandated, recallable, and responsible to the assemblies who select them. Echoing the directly democratic practices of the pioneers such as their use of delegation and local indigenous histories of confederalism to scale up across large distances, Communalism resonates with the most democratic parts of our history.

Of course, it may be argued that most people do not have the ability to regularly be involved in democratic assemblies in their neighbourhoods due to the need to work to provide for themselves and their families. Undeniably these material facts of life must be acknowledged. But far from maintaining the status quo with regards to our present economic organisation, Communalism proposes the democratic abolition of our market society and in its place the municipalisation of economic production. This means bringing all productive enterprise under the purview of municipal assemblies and providing for all on the basis of “from each according to his or her ability, to each according to his or her need”. The enormous growth of productive forces has rendered the age-old question of material scarcity moot, if only these capacities were employed rationally and ecologically for social rather than private ends. The image of the materially independent yeoman farmer of the Western frontier perhaps brings to mind notions of post-scarcity, where all have the freedom to engage in politics and what brings joy into their lives—a utopian vision that suggests the world of science fiction embodied by Star Trek.

Of course, a Communalist society would not only be a democratic utopia, but also an ethical one. The pioneers of the Prairie West saw the land as the place where a perfect society where only the virtuous would reside, and this vision found theoretical sophistication in the dialectical philosophy of Henry Wise Wood. Somewhat similarly though with important differences, the ethical underpinnings of Communalism are also its dialectical philosophy: that of dialectical naturalism. A holistic philosophy, dialectical naturalism conceptualises relationships within and between ecological and social communities in terms of the mutualistic interdependence of the parts of the whole. Understood in this context, Communalism views the relationship between nature and human society as a dialectical continuum of natural and social evolution, one that ought to reflect an ethic of complementarity or mutualism—an ethical vision pioneered in the works of Kropotkin and echoed by Wood’s philosophy and the farm movement culture in the Prairie West.

Communalism presents a vision of a world where ecological crises have been resolved, domination in human society has been replaced by democracy and mutualism, and where an ethic of complementarity guides our interaction with nature. Indeed, it is a vision wherein humanity has become nature rendered self-conscious and embodies its creativity. Such a vision does not constitute an “end of history” but rather a new beginning: of an ecosocial history and a renaissance of our most utopian aspirations. A world free from domination and without ecological crises awaits at the horizon, if we are willing to fight for it.


  1. The Prairie West as Promised Land. R. Douglas Francis & Chris Kitzan. “Introduction”, pg. X-XII
  2. The Prairie Agrarian Movement Revisited: Centenary Symposium on the Foundation of the Territorial Grain Growers Association. Murray Knuttila & Bob Stirling. “The Agrarian Movement in Alberta”, pg. 140-1.
  3. The Rise of Agrarian Democracy: The United Farm Women of Alberta, 1909-1921. Bradford James Rennie. Pg. 56.
  4. The Prairie West as Promised Land. R. Douglas Francis & Chris Kitzan. Bradford J. Rennie. “The Utopianism of the Alberta Farm Movement”, pg. 246.
  5. The Prairie West as Promised Land. R. Douglas Francis & Chris Kitzan. Steve Hewitt. “Policing the Promised Land: The RCMP and Negative Nation Building in Alberta and Saskatchewan in the Interwar Period”, pg. 314-5.
  6. Shameless Propaganda. Robert Lower. (2:28)
  7. The Rise of Agrarian Democracy: The United Farm Women of Alberta, 1909-1921. Bradford James Rennie. Pg. 212.

The post The Utopian Democracy of the Alberta Farm Movement, by Steven R.D. Henderson appeared first on Institute for Social Ecology.

Categories: B2. Social Ecology