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John Seymour was a leading pioneer of self-sufficiency. His ideas can today be felt in the post-growth ...
2021-11-15 09:00:00

Dismantling Capitalism
The Life of John Seymour

Drawing from the archives
Dismantling Capitalism
Dismantling Capitalism

Both the history of anti-capitalism and agriculture are long and multi-faceted. They were brought together by John Seymour – a man known as the ‘father of self-sufficiency’.

Read in 10 minutes

To leave the city and one’s dead-end job, which Leviathan feeds on, move to the countryside, and live off the land – such a vision, when transformed into reality by inexperienced people, often caused great disillusionment. In 1976, however, British enthusiasts of this idea found necessary guidance in John Seymour’s The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency, which sold millions of copies. Even though this book hasn’t led to far-reaching changes, it still remains a useful guide to sustainable living. Seymour was a writer, activist and ecologist who authored 41 books, but it was thanks to this particular one that he earned his name as a visionary of self-sufficiency and opponent of the culture of excess, with its detrimental impact on the environment.

Although Seymour came from a well-off, bourgeois family, as a child he was exposed to communal living. After his parents divorced, he moved with his mother from London to the small seaside town Frinton-on-Sea. He could see there that the life of his less affluent neighbours, fishermen and farmers was organized through close collaboration. Seymour’s childhood fascination with country life affected his future decisions: he left schools that were supposed to prepare him for high-profile jobs and transferred to Wye College in Kent, which he never graduated from. At the age of 20, he went to Africa.

African ways of life

While travelling across southern Africa, he had various jobs. He worked as a farmhand, sheep farm manager, and skipper on a fishing boat sailing along the Skeleton Coast. In Northern Rhodesia (today’s Zambia), he also worked in a copper mine and for the veterinary service. His most formative experience was, however, his meeting with bushmen, who lived in a challenging, semi-arid climate. Seymour was impressed with how efficient their economy was and, years later, he recounted his observations about their traditional way of life: “The one thing I remember about the villages of Zambia is I never came to a village that wasn’t prosperous, I never saw a hungry person, I never saw a person who seemed to me to be poor. [...] I never heard of unemployment. The reason why there was no unemployment was – there was no employment. Nobody was employed. There were no jobs. Nobody wanted a job. Why the devil do you want a job if you’ve got everything you need?” This encounter with the Indigenous people of Zambia largely influenced his views.

When World War II broke out, Seymour had to enlist in the Kenya Regiment and was posted to the King’s African Rifles. He fought against Italian troops in the Abyssinian Campaign in Ethiopia and was then posted to Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka). There, he underwent special training, which prepared him for fighting in the jungle, and afterwards went to Burma. To Seymour, the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki came as a shock. He considered the use of the atomic bomb an act of cowardice and never accepted this inhumane decision.

He grew even more disillusioned upon his return to England. Working for the War Agricultural Executive Committee in Suffolk, he monitored changes in agriculture, which included transitioning to monoculture farming and replacing small farms with large, profit-oriented ones. Eventually, he quit his job in the public sector and became a journalist. He wrote articles and books, and broadcasted on the BBC, where he discussed his travels and shared ideas for a better life. He also talked about self-sufficiency and criticized the departure from small-scale farming and the growing dependence on fossil fuels.

Collective success

John’s wife, Sally, illustrated The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency and had a significant impact on its success. She came from a London-based family of artists. Her father, Frank Medworth, was an acclaimed artist and lecturer, who published popular books on animal and figure drawing. While still a student, Sally illustrated her first book, which was commended in the 1951 Australian Book of the Year Awards.

When she returned to Great Britain, she took up artistic pottery. She married John in 1954. They lived on a boat, sailing through dense English waterways. Their experience was recorded in their first book, Sailing Through England (1956), written by John and illustrated by Sally. Their subsequent book, The Fat of the Land (1961), on the other hand, was about their life on a small, two-hectare farm that they leased in the Suffolk countryside. There, they put the principles of self-sufficiency into practice. In times when most Brits who remembered the post-war crisis enjoyed opportunities offered by the emerging consumerist culture, the Seymours lived modestly by the labour of their own hands.

When their family started to grow, they moved to Fachongle Isaf in West Wales. They lived together in their new farmhouse with three daughters, whom John collectively called ‘Janeannekate’. However, it wasn’t always easy. John didn’t have a head for business and even though his book became a bestseller, his family was struggling financially. Thankfully, Sally’s common sense and resourcefulness helped to overcome these difficulties – when they were running out of money, she would sell her pottery.

Vision and praxis

After the Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency came out, the situation on the Seymours’ farm became complicated as a growing number of self-sufficiency enthusiasts began to show up at their door. The Seymours would host them and offer training for sustainable living on the farm. Volunteers put in work, but this wasn’t enough to support them all. John loved company and as long as he could celebrate the end of a busy day with a drink, he didn’t worry about the budget. Since he was a spender, he quickly ran out of the money earned from royalties. This lack of financial stability caused frequent conflicts with Sally. As a consequence, in the late 1980s the Seymours divorced.

Sally moved to Australia, where she lived in a clay house and tested her character in the harsh environment. After the divorce, Sally and John continued to collaborate and remained friends. Sally supported her ex-husband until his last days.

John reckoned that the idea of self-sufficiency could be more easily implemented in communities that are larger than a single family. Back in the 1970s, he built a community in Ireland called The Centre for Living. Yet it didn’t withstand the test of time. As Anne, the Seymours’ daughter, explains: “My father was a lousy businessman. There were about 20 people there and he meant to charge them but forgot. He needed to write to fund it, but he couldn’t delegate.”

Despite the challenges of putting the principles of sustainable living into practice, the book on self-sufficiency did its job – it changed the lives of many readers. Since John was a self-learner with many years of experience, he understood the potential traps that beginners could fall into. His book introduced readers to both the challenges and opportunities integral to farm life, offering tutorials on how to breed cattle and pigs, produce cider and cheese, grow vegetables and build enclosures for goats. At the end of the day, however, everything was in the readers’ hands. “I met some people who claimed that my father ruined their life,” said Anne during the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the book publication. Still, some people made it. Throughout the groovy 1960s and 1970s, a lot of agrarian communes were established, with some still operating – one fine example is Laurieston Hall in Scotland. When its members moved there, inspired by Seymour’s book, it had five hectares of land. Today, 40 years later, it has 55.

Activist friends

“We wanted to move away from a greed-driven economic system.” This is how John explained his desire to create a movement that would develop an alternative way of living, different than the one promoted by industrialized society. The relations he developed with other activists and the values they all shared makes it possible to place him within the long and rich lineage of ‘small life’ advocates. Doubtlessly, the movement against wrongly-understood progress has an intellectual grounding, but its representatives are best described as activists. As John’s friend and spiritual brother Ernst Friedrich Schumacher wrote: “To talk about the future is useful only if it leads to action now.” His ground-breaking essay collection, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered – published at the same time as Seymour’s bestseller – offered a theoretical scaffolding for the philosophy of economics, which both environmentalists and opponents of consumerism would rely on. In his book, Schumacher voiced a critique of the idea of limitless growth, fuelled by overexploitation of natural resources. He pointed out the mistakes made by the Western world when providing (non)developmental support for poor countries. He also developed a vision of economics that considers the wellbeing of people rather than the dictate of numbers and powerful institutions.

The last postulate strongly echoes the ideas of Austrian economist Leopold Kohr, who influenced both Seymour and Schumacher. As a war correspondent in the Spanish Civil War (during which he befriended George Orwell), he observed how administrative structures of the state were replaced with small, grassroots municipal structures and communes. The Catalan revolution shaped Kohr’s anarchist philosophy, which opposed “the cult of bigness” and promoted a return to “the human scale” in economy and social structures, enabled by local governments and small communities.

Seymour also kept in touch with anarchist clergyman John Papworth, a colourful figure and founder of the British magazine Resurgence, which published the works of Kohr and Schumacher. Papworth was imprisoned for anti-nuclear protests, alongside the philosopher Bertrand Russell. He considered small communities to be an answer to the nuclear threat since, as he reckoned, close ties within micro-societies would put an end to military conflicts, discouraging people from sacrificing their life in the name of grand, abstract ideas. Papworth also organized a sit-in protest on the famous crossing near Abbey Road. His placard said: “Give up cars, switch to buses and trains.” When asked at the police station if he wanted to see the local vicar, he said: “This is me.”

Like Seymour, Papworth was a socially-mobile person – he felt equally well when protesting in the streets or advising Kenneth Kunda, the president of Zambia, who built a socialist government in the former colony. In 1973, Papworth, who was putting his principles into practice in Africa, was replaced as the editor of Resurgence by the former Jain monk Satish Kumar, whose life story and personality were no less interesting. Having left the beggars’ sect, he was inspired by the teachings of Gandhi and the separatist movement of India. He supported economic self-sufficiency (swadeshi) and the land reform movement (bhoodan), which postulated a voluntary donating of land to the poor. Bhoodan required the beneficiary to cultivate land for his own needs. Here, autarchy – understood as economic self-sufficiency – meets agrarianism, the movement for which the cultivation of land is the fundamental principle organizing social life. All the above-mentioned ideas, which have their roots in different parts of the world, shaped the thinking of sustainable living advocates and are still relevant today. Environmentally-committed Schumacher College in Devon, England, founded by Satish Kumar, still educates students in the spirit of self-sufficiency.

Dusk in the field

Even as an aged man, John Seymour continued to implement Schumacher’s idea of activism. His actions were not limited to educating society about self-sufficiency. At the age of 85, together with six other people, he was brought to court, after being charged with the destruction of genetically-modified beetroot crops through an increased dose of Monsanto herbicides. Despite his old age, he enjoyed his life and spread his ideas on ecology and social commitment by producing television films, writing books (two per year, on average), and running milking trainings. He spent the evenings on his Irish farm singing and dancing to accordion music.

Seymour spent the final years of his inspiring, long life on a farm in Pembrokeshire in Wales, where he moved together with his daughter and grandchildren. As his friend and co-author of their documentaries Herbert Girardet wrote in his eulogy: “[…] he was composing rhyming poems, filled with wry humour. They were his last defence against what he considered the Era of Destruction.” Shortly after his 90th birthday, Seymour confessed: “I’ve done enough. I want to die.”

Less than a week later, he was buried in the field, cocooned in a handmade blanket. His family is still living on the Pantry Fields farm, which can be supported through Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) – an organization established by Sue Coppard. This initiative, which entails working on organic farms in exchange for free accommodation, can be also considered part of a worldwide movement whose father was Seymour. Last year, thanks to WWOOF, a couple I know moved from Paris to the south of France. It was they who introduced me to Seymour’s book, which, in turn, inspired this article.

Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is a global community that connects volunteers and farmers who run ecological farms and follow the idea of sustainable development. Its main goals include promoting the idea of living in harmony with nature, cultural exchange and education about fair economy and planet-friendly food production. Established in 1971 in the UK, the network brings together hundreds of thousands of people and can be found in over 130 countries.


Translated from the Polish by Joanna Mąkowska

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Dominika Bok

A few years ago, she reoriented her interests towards fields and meadows; she transitioned from culture to nature. In the past, she described herself as an ethnographer, journalist, archivist and cultural animator. Today, she thinks of herself as an embroider, herbalist, certified farmer and amateur mystic. She dreads to think what the future holds.