Perspective: The Growing Impact of Agri-Dystopia

April 1, 2014 10:13 PM
We might have been telling our story nonstop, but apparently not many were buying it. One of the more important and least understood reasons is how current dystopian views of the future bleed iJohn Phipps, a farmer from Chrisman, Ill., is the TV host of "U.S. Farm Report." Contact him at For local station listings, log on to ag—hence my term, "agri-dystopia."
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Dystopia is best understood as the opposite of utopia. Familiar utopian visions include the New Harmony settlement in Indiana or Star Trek—but definitely not Star Wars. These pictures of the future are optimistic about progress on many fronts—economic, scientific, political, etc. Dystopian visions are mirror images of pessimism: Hunger Games, Preppers, etc. The genres of dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature are some of the fastest growing.

Popular themes of dystopian thought are everywhere. The resurgence of superheroes in movies and comic books suggests doubt in the ability of ordinary people to control the world. Only a [super]hero can save us, it seems. The declining trust in institutions from government to medicine is more pronounced in younger generations. These are not wild-eyed innocents coming into adulthood—they are skeptics with low expectations. 

Science and education are often the enemies. As Sheldon pointed out on "The Big Bang Theory," "It’s odd how many supervillains have advanced degrees." Tech­nology has pushed us beyond a culture we can intuitively grasp. Complex issues such as big data, cloning and GMOs exhaust the benefit of the doubt for science as a good thing. 

The economy, despite any evidence to the contrary, is loudly labeled as bleak for political advantage. Vast wealth inequality reinforces a powerful suspicion the world is unjust. Closer to home, Big Ag is unattractive to those who have clung to an agrarian ideal as an anchor of understandable living. 

In the job market, entry jobs are nearly static jobs, and there aren’t many of them. Salaries for the median earner have flat-lined. Casualties of career stagnation are present at every family gathering and social event.

Culture Shift. Despite Facebook (or because of it), sociologists now warn that loneliness is epidemic. It is no small wonder that attachment to companion animals has reached startling intensity. To tackle the impact of such cultural trends, read something such as "Under the Empyrean Sky" by Chuck Wendig. Amazon recommended this book to me as science fiction. From the Amazon review: "Corn is king in the Heartland ... It’s the only crop the Empyrean government allows the people of the Heartland to grow—and the genetically modified strain is so aggressive that it takes everything the Heartlanders have to control it."

The actual prose would make any farmer gasp in horror—and not just from the ludicrous plot. Perhaps we need to consider the possibility that industrial farms have drifted in public perception from being part of the solution to part of the problem. Even to many in our own ranks, there is growing uneasiness that a handful of winners will displace a majority of producers.

We have been in similar situations before. Some of us remember the doomsday culture of the Cold War. Children of the Great Recession carry similar permanent biases against commercialization. But the answer for farmers might not be to change their minds. Did your grandfather ever change his mind about borrowing money? 

What we forget is how powerful those fears were in setting our values. The more prudent actions for agriculture are to understand that "optics" are 90% of opinion, that understanding consumer fears is different from debunking them, and any step we can take to lower our dependence on public sympathy is crucial to survival.

John Phipps, a farmer from Chrisman, Ill., is the TV host of "U.S. Farm Report." Contact him at For local station listings, log on to


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