Topic: CommunityThe Rural Idyll?

Are you a climate tech acolyte or an energy maximalist? A climate urbanist or an eco-globalist? Eirini Sampson takes a deep dive into forms of ‘neo-pastoral’ environmentalism that advocate returning to rural livelihoods – finding a controversial and fragmented community. Edited by Jackson Howarth.

By Eirini Sampson

Recently, some of the greener corners of the web have been abuzz with talk about neo-pastoralism. But who are the neo-pastoralists, and what do they want? In literal terms, neo-pastoralism obviously refers to a new form of the pastoral – 'relating to rural livelihood’. The term was first coined in 2003 by Andrew McMurry in his book Environmental Renaissance: Emerson, Thoreau & the Systems of Nature – where he writes that while the traditional pastoral ideal is foreclosed, a neo-pastoral appeal is rising in contemporary America.

Nadia Asparouhova’s recent taxonomy of climate tribes argues that modern neo-pastoralists believe that the world is changing for the worse. With that in mind, they aim to move forward with practical, positive visions – often embodied in a return to a primitive lifestyle – despite the challenges. According to Asparouhova, neo-pastoralists generally believe self-reliance is more important than coordinating with others, and prioritise protecting themselves and their loved ones.
It’s worth bearing in mind that neo-pastoralist practices (‘neo’ being used in relative terms here) have been recorded throughout history. These included movements triggered by the Industrial Revolution, the Vietnam War and more – indicating a need that goes beyond the environment and closer to that of detaching from a society that is moving way too fast.

Today, examples of neo-pastoral lifestyles can be seen in religious sects such as the Amish whose traditional agricultural practices have been labelled by some as sustainable. (Despite this, Amish communities are often climate sceptical, putting forward a human-centred approach to the value of ecosystems.) In the 20th century, neo-pastoralist ideas also emerged during the hippie and other related ‘alternative living’ movements – which have often involved a withdrawal from contemporary society. In early 1900s Germany, the Lebensreform movement emphasised the harm that anthropocentrism and industrialisation caused on nature and the goodness of returning to the old ways. Earlier examples include English Romanticism and Henry David Thoreau’s transcendentalism. Adaptations of Thoreau’s early ideas around survival in the face of violence can be seen in dominant modern day neo-pastoralist strands.

One such contemporary neo-Pastoralist group is Doomer Optimism – an organisation that claims to be dedicated to discovering regenerative paths forward. Nonetheless, little about Doomer Optimism and the people involved in this organisation is founded on ecological principles and the goodness of nature. Doomer Optimism and its supporters focus on ‘survival’. According to Jason Snyder – the co-founder of Doomer Optimism – neo-pastoralism is about discernment with regards to technology (i.e. regenerative finance, passive insulation, cosmo-local tech and more). He argues that the neo-pastoralist space predicts a multi-decade process of the breakdown of current life systems and the building of new ones. Rebuking Asparouhova, Snyder points out that neo-pastoralists are not entirely anti-urbanists, and while they hold some agrarian sensibility, most envision better urbanism and urban food systems rather than the complete return to labelled ‘primitive’ lifestyles. Proponents of this prominent neo-pastoralism strand take an anthropocentric stance on the value of ecosystem services and instead advocate for a critical stance on the importance of technology in our livelihoods – as Jason Snyder suggests.

Doomer Optimism is also a podcast. One of their episodes features a neo-pastoralist called Tucker Max who lives in a ranch in Texas with his wife and 5 children, aiming to build an immediate community. According to his 2021 article, he started believing in Doomer Optimism as a result of the 6 January Capitol attack, COVID-19 and the ‘death of the American republic.’

The deeper you dive into Neo-pastoralism, the clearer it becomes that the movement is dominated by a very specific, typically American-based demographic, led by white men. A lot of the related discourse has been dominated by whiteness and privilege, as those who participate are often able to reject the status quo because they come from affluent backgrounds and can afford to become land-owners, for example.

Equally problematic is the encouragement of a binary division between male and female-led activities in these households. Instead, we see activities that are historically associated with women – such as knitting and sewing – re-surfacing as alternatives to unsustainable practices with little encouragement for other genders to join. In other words, very few neo-pastoralist ideals involve systemic change in our current value systems and often push back progression on social matters, by gendering household roles.

What’s more, the move to land ownership in the context of rejecting a capitalist status quo also conjures other social issues, including a tendency among neo-pastoralist communities to move from affluent nations to those that are less well off (from the USA to Latin American countries, for example). In Costa Rica, for example, neo-pastoralists have driven up property prices for locals as they buy arable land that is often abandoned after a few years. These strands also often ignore the myriad ‘pastoralist’ or ‘semi-pastoralist’ Indigenous Communities (from Imuhaɣ herders in North Africa, to Dukha sheep farmers in Mongolia) that straddle the Earth. Members of many Indigenous Groups have developed valuable Traditional Environmental Knowledge, and many have long advocated a sustainable ‘return to nature’, yet their existence is often overlooked, and where their knowledge is drawn on, it is often appropriated.

Based on these criticisms, neo-pastoralists would surely do better to focus on community-based action and regenerative practices which in their essence embody systemic change. There are, fortunately, other neo-pastoralist manifestations – with competing strands of thought running through the wider movement – indicating a spectrum of priorities and a range of ideals. Just as the hippy movement tended to focus more on the ‘goodness of nature’ and deconstructing (some) social norms, an alternative interpretation of neo-pastoralism might be found in the contemporary permaculture movement. This movement attempts to design and develop sustainable communities that work harmoniously with natural ecosystems to resolve social and environmental problems. Permaculture appears more likely to focus on what movements like the Doomer Optimists strands lack – social change and a critique of Western political economy.

The potential impacts of wider neo-pastoralist practices on the environment, therefore, vary and are dependent on the interpretation of guiding values and ideals. Smaller-scale, self-sufficient regenerative practices are an important part of sustainability discourse. Nonetheless, doing so while perpetuating social issues, such as a binary division of labour, rural gentrification, appropriation, and a withdrawal from wider climate politics, risks doing more harm than good.

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