08 March 2005

Urbanists and agrarians together: time for dialogue?

A few weeks ago my tonge-in-cheek reference to young neocalvinists as "neo-calves" prompted a comment that, since neocalvinists tend to be urbanists, a bovine metaphor might not be appreciated. But is this a fair characterization of the neocalvinist position? Do neocalvinists invariably fall into the urbanist camp in opposition to agrarians? My part-time colleague and co-conspirator, Gideon Strauss, has repeatedly advocated a new urbanism focussing on the health and well-being of our urban centres. Yet it might be more accurate to observe that the neocalvinist vision, with which I have been associated for thirty years, is one which celebrates the balanced and proportionate development of society, including its urban and rural communities. I myself understand the pull of the large city, having lived for two years in Toronto in the late 1970s and having grown up near the fabled "windy city" of Chicago, with its magnificent waterfront, famed architecture and world-class museums.

At the same time it would hardly be right to downplay the significant role played by our small towns and farming communities, without which no society could survive. Two organizations here in Canada, rooted in the neocalvinist vision, have taken up the responsibility for caring for the earth and cultivating an awareness of the farmer's calling to fulfil that part of the cultural mandate known as agriculture. The first of these is the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, led by Elbert van Donkersgoed. The second of these used to be known as the Christian Farmers Federation of Alberta, but in 1992 changed its name to Earthkeeping: Food and Agriculture in Christian Perspective. (I was unable to locate a website for this group.) Both have their origins in the neocalvinist movement, as indicated in this historical essay by John L. Paterson, "Institutional Organization, Stewardship, and Religious Resistance to Modern Agricultural Trends: The Christian Farmers’ Movement in the Netherlands and in Canada."

A disporportionate emphasis on either urbanism or agrarianism at the other's expense does so at the risk of failing to recognize the normative complementarity between urban and agrarian communities. The principal issue, as I see it, is how to achieve the proper balance. Over the past century the proportion of the population engaged in agriculture as a livelihood has steadily diminished in most western countries. Is this a good or bad thing? Is it a consequence of normative differentiation or has it dangerously deprived us of the human virtues that accompany hard physical labour and a life close to the soil? What of the steady encroachment of the city on the countryside, poignantly illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton in her classic children's book, The Little House? Is this an inevitable development or ought there to be efforts to guarantee green spaces in perpetuity for the benefit of future generations?

These are the issues we need to grapple with. Too easily identifying ourselves as either urbanists or agrarians would seem to prejudice the discussion before it has even started.

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