A competitive, capitalist system is the backbone of American economic policy. It is viewed as the most effective way to inspire further development and innovation, which in turn benefits consumers and the greater society.
However, common misconceptions of smallholders describe them as altruistic, but fragile egalitarian societies who are under threat of becoming relegated to impoverished wage laborers under such a system. On the other hand, promoting self-sufficient smallholder agriculture is viewed as anti-capitalist and ultimately futile. The unquestioned interpretation of economies of scale within agricultural systems presumes that productivity and lower costs is “a function of farm size, and the smallholder was therefore held to be inefficient and expensive” (Netting, 326). However, with little start-up capital requirements and cheap or free inputs in the form of composting, manuring, and recycling of other farm by-products, smallholder enterprises can achieve relatively high returns on their land. Therefore, once subsistence demands are fulfilled, surpluses can be sold on the market and smallholders are often willing and able to increase production in order to participate in a market economy. Their strategies and diversified operations in both crop, livestock, and off-farm and on-farm production enables them to flexibly adapt to price fluctuations, work opportunities, and market demands that would otherwise endanger more rigid forms of enterprises. In addition, smallholder farmers are known to weigh the cost and benefits of specific practices and determine which is the most productive course to take. For instance, the Kofyar of Africa intensified their agricultural production in return for money to purchase products that couldn’t be made or produced on the farm, such as motorcycles and clothing.
That is not to say that smallholder farm enterprises enjoy equality and can not fail. They are, in fact, “engaged in a ceaseless struggle to reach a better fit between their limited land, labor, and capital resources” and different households may display a competitive advantage over others. This dynamic, however, occurs within smallholder communities regardless of the presence of a capitalist market system. Nevertheless, the characteristic scarcity of land resources means that smallholders enthusiastically integrate into market economies when given the opportunity to engage in profitable wage labor in order to improve their smallholding enterprise. Therefore, competition for access to limited resources and diversification of production both on and off the family farm are practices that are already well-adapted to a market economy. Rather than being outmoded traditionalists or profit-seeking maximizers, smallholders’ prudent, conscientious management skills are oriented towards resilience and survival. That being said, complete self-sufficiency is more often than not an unrealizable fantasy that runs counter to risk-averse smallholder, households.
The American Context:
Review of Relevant Literature:
Economic Growth and the Environment
By Theodore Panayotou
The perceived relationship between economic growth and environmental quality has important implications for a country’s economic development policies. Competing theories of whether the environment is negatively impacted at a degree parallel to economic growth, inversely to economic growth, or at a shifting rate that increases and then decreases according to an economic threshold each imply very different policy approaches.
Panayatou examines the third hypothetical relationship, known as the Economic Kuznets Curve (EKC), which argues that economic growth and environmental quality share an inverted, U-shaped relationship. A number of studies testing for different pollutants are explored and compared with one another. Panayatou finds a wide range of variability depending on the particular pollutant being examined. He argues that income-environment relationships may be influenced by the presence or absence of policy interventions.
Panayatou also states that it’s important to consider the temporal nature of development and the effect that may have on the income-environment relationship. According to the EKC, both a low-income country that is perpetually underdeveloped and a country experiencing rapid development can have irreversible consequences to the quality of local environments.
Panayatou briefly mentions introducing other factors, such as “the scale of economic activity,” “the composition or structure of economic activity,” and “the effect of income on the demand and supply of pollution abatement efforts” (321). However, it is unclear whether he is calling for replacing or improving the EKC model.
An Ethnography of Global Connection
By Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing
Tsing furthers our understanding of how and why popular assumptions still persist even within academia today. In Smallholders, Householders, Robert Netting discusses the many misconceptions regarding both small-scale intensive agriculturalists around the world, as well as the inevitable result of their interaction with market economies. Netting’s work is in a way a collection of case studies that demonstrates how global powers perceive of practices of smallholder households, how smallholder households persist even with the introduction of market economies, and how, ultimately, Western society can and should learn from them.
The advent of issues at the global level has served as an impetus that has connected a broad and diverse range of people from around the world through global movements. According to Tsing, these cultural interactions are consistently producing new and unpredictable cultural forms between different cultures. However, she argues that popular assumptions regarding the domination of simpler societies by imperial powers, followed by their inevitable integration into a global culture are inadequate in explaining the complexity of these interactions. In fact, Tsing contends that every culture is “shaped and transformed in long histories of regional-to-global networks of power, trade, and meaning.” She points out that it has been more difficult, however, to argue that this dynamic works in both directions in the interactions between the powerful and the less powerful. In order to confront this challenge, Tsing proposes a new theoretical foundation that will more readily accept the unpredictable nature of the shared spaces of global interactions. In order to do so, she employs the concept of friction, which she describes as the “awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference” that she believes ultimately shapes all human cultures. Extending the metaphor, Tsing also notes how roads facilitate travel while limiting choice, corresponding to the historical trajectories of cross-cultural interactions. Furthermore, she explains that friction in a more literal sense is disruptive and can lead to unexpected consequences in the objectives and trajectories of global powers. By utilizing the concept of friction as a theoretical framework for studying global interactions, Tsing argues that these encounters can be studied as “sticky engagements” operating in the real world rather than as predictable truths and outcomes. While Tsings’ argument of the relevance of the metaphorical concept of friction is convincing to me, the small chapter, “An Ethnography of Global Connection,” gives short shrift to real-world examples that demonstrate how the concept can be applied. However, I believe it does exactly what it intends to do, which is to promote friction as a theoretical framework for analyzing and understanding global interactions across different cultures.
The Environment as Geopolitical Threat
Reading Robert Kaplan’s “Coming Anarchy”
By Simon Dalby
Dalby’s critique of Kaplan’s argument identifying the environment as security threat serves to ground any discussion of self-sustainability practices within wider international contexts. His discussion on the role of international relations provides valuable insights towards identifying the interconnectedness and implications within the local environment and social order.
Dalby’s article serves as a critical review of Robert Kaplan’s article, “Coming Anarchy.” In Kaplan’s article, the environment is identified as a grave security threat, a concern growing in popularity and which has significant implications for geopolitical discourses and subsequent policy direction. Dalby points out that Kaplan’s arguments tend to ignore the interconnectedness of broader social, economic and political process that underpin much of the local violence, poverty, and environmental degradation that persists within underdeveloped countries. Nevertheless, the assumptions are widely shared amongst policymaking circles of developed countries and are shifting attention away from humanitarian efforts towards policies of national security and isolationism. In order to understand the argument that is causing this shift, Dalby analyzes Robert Kaplan’s popular cover story from the February 1994 issue of Atlantic Monthly magazine. In it, Dalby finds an argument that blames environmental stresses for widespread social collapse. The magazine reinforces this theme with images of war, disease, crime, and overpopulation in third world countries and suggests of similar potential dangers spilling into developed countries. To Dalby, the presence of consumer advertisements provides an ironic contrast, which implies that the issue, while global, is divided across clear lines between the developed and the underdeveloped worlds. While these contrasts exist throughout Kaplan’s article, Dalby argues that the legacies of the colonial past as well as the roles of broader economic and political processes are completely left out of the discussion. Instead, the focus shifts away from international relations in order to discuss ethnic violence and environmental degradation in isolation. Dalby, however, doesn’t elaborate the extent to which international policies shape the local problems that are discussed by Kaplan. As such, alternative policy arrangements are not put forward or discussed.
The Growth of World Urbanism
By Charles Redman
The archaeological record can demonstrate the growth and decline of great civilizations in the past and offer opportunities to evaluate the problems and develop solutions to resolve similar issues faced today. At the same time, the archaeological record is incomplete and gathering all the relevant data is difficult or impossible. Charles Redman examines several recent archaeological projects of past civilizations in Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica, as well as the Hohokam culture of North America as useful case studies into human-environment interactions of the past. He found that in all three civilizations population growth, agricultural innovation, urbanization, social organization, and political centralization were key factors in both their growth and decline.
As these societies found innovative ways to operate within their environments and develop both economically and socially, the very processes began to transform the human-environment interaction. While systems grew progressively more complex, short term political interests and economic growth began to play a key role in decision-making processes. The rise of elites meant their needs took precedence over the rest of society and the adaptability to potential threats was significantly reduced. However, growth amongst human populations is argued to be a dynamic variable that is responsive to a number of factors that support its growth, stability and decline. Technology is identified as one of the influential factors to population growth, enhancing the productivity of a local environment and supporting population growth.
Redman, however, does not explore alternative theories of the growth and decline of past civilizations that provide plausible explanations of the same phenomenon. He also doesn’t sufficiently point out that several arguments at least partially hypothesized due to the incomplete archaeological record of the societies.