“Out of the Frying Pan”: The Economist on peasants and climate change”

Pedro Rafael González Chavajay, a Tz’utuhil-Maya from San Pedro la Laguna. Used with permission from him and Artemaya.

Jim Handy

As summer winds down I have been slowly catching up on reading avoided while happily engaged elsewhere. This includes back copies of The Economist. As always reading The Economist prompts an appreciation for their insightful reporting on some issues and their tone-deaf, ahistorical and simply wrong accounts on others.

The July 1st, 2023 edition had a briefing entitled “Out of the Frying Pan” filed from Cairo, Chattogram (Bangladesh), and Niamey (Niger). In this story the author (anonymous as is the practice in the paper) appropriately warned that peasants in some of the poorest areas of the world are likely to suffer the worst consequences from climate change. As global warming intensifies and their lands and livelihoods suffer, they will make up a significant portion of the millions of climate refugees. Already, The Economist notes, rural livelihoods have been made more precarious by conflicts created or exaggerated by climate change.[1]

But it is exactly here that the author finds a silver lining. The author suggests, “Climate change may jolt some into making a decision (to migrate) that would long have been in their interest anyway.” If climate change accelerates rural to urban migration and induces more peasants and small farmers to give up their land more quickly, the paper predicts, “they will probably find better work, health care and schools. They may also start having smaller families.” The task of feeding the world, including new migrants to urban areas, will need to “rely on bigger, more capital-intensive farms.”

In making such an argument, the paper is at least reliably consistent. Since its birth in 1843, the paper has unfailingly championed large, capital-intensive farming and counselled that small farmers and peasants be forced to abandon the countryside and flee to the cities as the natural (and beneficial) consequence. In the second edition of the paper in September 1843 the paper celebrated the fact that the “science of agriculture” was replacing the “art of husbandry” in the English countryside and in the process modern farmers employing capital were “breaking up the hard clods of ignorance, sloth and indifference.” [2] From that point, the paper steadfastly argued that the most pressing problem in English agriculture was “how can capital be attracted to the soil?”[3]

The paper has also been consistent in its prescriptions for the bulk of the rural population. Small, peasant farmers were inescapably inefficient and impoverished, their “wasteful and retrograde misapplication of human labour” could never be preferred to the productivity of rural labourers “under the supervision of a capitalist”. [4] The paper, thus, opposed any measures meant to provide the rural poor of England with land and celebrated the fact that changes to agriculture had forced many from the countryside and into the cities breaking down the “parochial and patriarchal barriers which made each spot of land a gaol, though a home for a particular portion of the community, and the same progress will cause them to be entirely removed.” [5]

The Economist’s prescriptions for the rural poor in England were, of course, entirely misguided, designed not to provide the poor with what they most desired—as Arthur Young (generally considered to be one of the most knowledgeable writers on English agriculture in the late 18th and early 19th centuries) commented in the early 1800s, “Nothing could be clearer than the vast importance which all these poor people scattered as they are through many counties…attach to the object of possessing land, though no more than to set a cottage on.” [6]—but rather to clear the way for capital, provide a pool of labourers completely dependent on wages, and guard against the myth of unchecked population increase. The result was a century of real falling wages, increased poverty, and—as The Economist wished—widescale migration to England’s industrializing cities. The paper in the mid-19th century was as mistakenly sanguine about the improvement in life prospects entailed in such migration as is the author in The Economist in 2023; though in the mid-19th century urban jobs included a modest increase in wages over the depressed ones in the countryside, such migration also led to a dramatic reduction in life expectancy, increased malnutrition, and horrendous working conditions.[7]

The author of the “Out of the frying pan” briefly reiterates many of the same arguments in dramatically altered circumstances. Climate change, by making peasant farming increasingly perilous will accelerate urbanisation. Such a process will mean not only that farming in the devastated countryside can be left in the hands of more efficient owners with capital, but those lucky enough to find employment in the city will earn more money and greater access to public services: health care and schools especially. Like the paper’s myopic vision of early 19th century English industrial cities, most of this is, of course, wishful thinking. There are few formal jobs in such cities and, in most, public services are seldom available.

Moreover, just as it did in the early 19th century, The Economist in 2023 employs a particularly jaundiced and uninformed view of peasant farming. In the 18th and 19th centuries in England, despite the much-ballyhooed accomplishments of ‘improved’ or ‘high’ agriculture in the hands of capitalist farmers, thoughtful observers made it clear that small farmers were much more productive than large farmers, if productivity was measured in relation to the returns from the scarcest commodity: land. Commentator after commentator, with somewhat closer association to the countryside than those viewing the English countryside from the paper’s home on the Strand in London, described both the remarkable productivity gained from those with secure access to small acreages and the often fulfilling lives they crafted for themselves when they enjoyed such security.[8]

The author of this piece dismisses any idea of peasant or small farmer productivity, though the evidence for their productive use of the scarce factors of production abound.[9] And, like The Economist a century and a half ago, the author glosses over peasants’ expressed desires to stay on the land and keep connections to their villages and locales. The briefing starts with the story of a Niger farmer from a particularly devastated rural landscape expressing satisfaction with the move to Niamey where there is work, though they need to keep their cows on the outskirts of the city and beg for vegetable scraps from households to feed the cows. But in the story, others clearly yearned for a return to their land and communities. Presumably for these people their rural household was much more “home” than “gaol”.

Almost a half century ago, Michael Lipton outlined an ‘urban bias’ in both development policy and government spending in what were then described as Less Developed Countries. He argued that if one were truly interested in reducing poverty, the focus should shift to providing more government services to rural areas and supporting peasants and small farmers.[10] In the half century since, there has been little evidence of such a shift. Indeed, the author of The Economist’s piece argues that forcing peasants (and others) from the countryside to the city would be beneficial partly because it would give them access to public services not available in the countryside: schools and health care primarily. How much more beneficial would it have been if Lipton’s prescriptions were followed and those services were made available to people where they live, in the countryside?

And, unlike small farmers engaged in careful agroecology practices, large-scale capital- intensive farming contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. It seems particularly perverse for a briefing on climate change to celebrate the elimination of the first and the expansion of the second.  Not to mention the rather obvious fact that to embrace what the author advocates, violates the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas, adopted by the Human Rights Council of the UN in 2018.

Instead of yet again counselling that peasants and small farmers see the light and abandon their quixotic desires to stay on the land and in their communities, appropriate policy in the face of climate change would not simply assume they, and millions like them, will benefit from a move to the city. Rather such policy would support peasant agriculture and work to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, rather than welcome it as a prompt to hasten an inevitable (and beneficial) forced migration.

Jim Handy is a professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan and author of Apostles of Inequality: Rural Poverty, Political Economy, and the Economist, 1760-1860 (Toronto, 2022) and Tiny Engines of Abundance: A History of Peasant Productivity and Repression (Winnipeg, 2022).


[1] The Economist, 448:9353 (July 1, 2023) 14-18.

[2] “Scientific Agriculture for Farmers” 1:2 (Sept. 9, 1843) 27.

[3] “Agriculture: Land; its Uses and Abuses” 4:150 (July 11, 1846) 893-894.

[4] “French Husbandry” 9:420 (Sept. 13, 1851) 1012-1013

[5] “Scarcity of Labour” The Economist 13:628 (Sept. 8, 1855) 979-980.

[6] Young, An Inquiry into the Propriety of Applying Wastes to the Better Maintenance and Support of the Poor (London, 1801) 11.

[7] For the classic works see Sr. James Kay Shuttleworth The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes Employed in Cotton Manufacture in Manchester (London, 1832) and Friederich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (Moscow, 1972).  More recent accounts include Richard Fleischman, Conditions of Life Among the Cotton Workers of Southern Lancashire (New York, 1985) and Robert Woods, The Demography of Victorian England and Wales (Cambridge, 2000).

[8] For a fuller discussion see Jim Handy, Apostles of Inequality: Rural Poverty, Political Economy, and the Economist, 1760-1860 (Toronto, 2022).

[9] See Jim Handy Tiny Engines of Abundance: A History of Peasant Productivity and Repression (Winnipeg, 2022).

[10] Michael Lipton, Why Poor People Stay Poor—Urban Bias in World Development (London, 1977).

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