Good news on consumption: people don’t trash the planet just because they get richer

Press release from my latest paper written with Tomáš Kostelecký, and Petr Jehlíčka


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Pleasures of the Czech table, Tereza Černá

A paper published today in Geoforum finds that Central and Eastern European societies point to how we can make some parts of our food system more sustainable. ‘Quietly Does It: Questioning assumptions about class, sustainability and consumption’ shows that despite the middle classes of Poland and the Czech Republic getting considerably richer over the last twenty years they still want to find the time to grow and share home produced food.

The standout statistic is that around 40% of all social classes – urban and rural – in Poland and the Czech Republic grow up to 40% of their own fruit and vegetables. Crucially, they aren’t doing this to ‘save the planet’ but rather because they enjoy it, they trust it and they like to share stuff. Hidden in these facts lies a gemstone for discussions of sustainability: people don’t necessarily trash the planet just because they get richer.

The paper notes that officials in the region often consider these practices to be happening ‘in the wrong place and the wrong time’. These growers aren’t following the script in terms of western expectations of patterns of development. And this is a lesson that could be of far wider significance as the middle class grows across the Global South. So, it turns out that sometimes, progress towards sustainability is more like gardening than rocket science.

The article is freely available until the end of January from:

After that time a pre-publication draft can be downloaded from

Contact: Prof. Joe Smith, Dept of Geography, The Open University,

00447879056481 /

@citizenjoesmith /

Cite as:

Smith, Joe, Tomáš Kostelecký, and Petr Jehlíčka (2015) Quietly Does It: Questioning assumptions about class, sustainability and consumption, Geoforum 67 223–232

A five minute audioslide summary of the paper is also available.

One of the team, OU geographer Petr Jehlíčka, presented a keynote based on the paper in Prague this July working to the title: The Invisible Gardener: Why Key Sustainability Lessons from the East are Being Ignored.

Some quotes from the paper:

‘Our exploration of what we frame as the practice of ‘quiet sustainability’ amongst middle classes in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) is intended as more than a modest correction: we believe it helps to nurture a more accurate, and in some senses more optimistic, account of how progress can be achieved towards more sustainable societies. It poses an important question: need it be assumed that periods of rapid economic development, and the related expansion of middle classes, in emerging economies necessarily follow a Western pattern of development, with (attendant) high levels of consumption?’ (223)

There is evidence of entrenched views about the relations between class, development and consumption that inform policy directions, but also underpin pessimism about achieving more sustainable human inhabitation of Planet Earth. This framing in terms of a class–sustainability–consumption conundrum ensures that any discussion of economic development is tightly bundled with hazards that reach far across time and space. It is assumed that climate change, biodiversity loss and resource depletion are all intensified’ (223)

We want to note that the simple pleasures and virtues of food self-provisioning and sharing beyond any reference to market techniques or logics have gone on under the noses of one of the most assertive and fast paced insertions of a market economy, and attendant development of a middle class, that the world has ever seen. (224)

‘The ‘wrong’ time, the ‘wrong’ people and the ‘wrong’ place’: Prior to our research the main explanations in the policy and research literature for high levels of FSP are that these are ‘survival strategies of the poor’. It had been assumed that the emergent middle classes would fall into line with their western cousins and pursue primarily supermarket-supplied food provision. The most attentive listener at any of our presentations of this work consulted for Tesco…

‘(T)hese practices matter not because they represent an alternative economic system, but rather a significant (in terms of both environmental and social sustainability) parallel system to whatever the political-economic frame of the time is – be it state socialism or market capitalism. As such it offers an interesting comment not just on discourses of sustainability, but also of resilience.’ (227)

‘Our research demonstrates that a significant proportion of the middle classes of Poland and the Czech Republic have behaved in an ‘unexpected’ way. Despite the increasing wealth and diversification of leisure opportunities for the rapidly expanded middle class of CEE many of them continue to grow and share a sizeable proportion of their own food, and tend to do so in an environmentally beneficial manner.’ (230)

‘These emergent middle classes are demonstrating that the everyday lives of people who have achieved what, only a few years earlier, would have been considered unimaginably high levels of mobility, security and choice relative to their own and/or their parents generations’ prior experience, continue to want to grow, eat and share their own food. As our discussion of class in post-socialist CEE showed, the postwar experience of state socialism means that the middle classes in this region are in an important sense newly-formed. But while many of their new life experiences of, for example, leisure, travel, work and shopping, are part and parcel of an identity that ‘fits’ with what social scientists and marketing analysts anticipated, the dogged commitment of a significant minority to FSP qualifies western assumptions about the course of development.’ (231)

‘we have found that it is in the relationships around the nurturing and sharing of produce and skills as much as in the getting and consuming of food that the significance of these practices lies, both for the practitioners and the world beyond.’ (231)

‘…attention should be given to virtuous and ‘civil’ behaviour that doesn’t set out to be considered as such.’ (231)

‘The middle-class food self-provisioners of post-socialist CEE have been defying the expectations of government officials, marketeers and researchers. Roughly forty per cent of them are producing roughly forty percent of some types of their own food (e.g. potatoes; soft fruit; eggs). These consumption practices are happening ‘in the wrong time and the wrong place’. In terms of assumptions about economic development, class formation, and anticipated behaviours, they are being practised by the ‘wrong people’ (that is, by all social classes, by urban and rural, and across all age groups). From the point of view of the architects of post- socialist transition the fact that the middle classes continue to grow their own food almost has the status of deviance.’ (231)

‘Far from being a ‘survival strategy of the poor’ FSP helps practitioners to nourish and represent their own identity, and to tend to their family and friendship relationships and networks. The environmental benefits are rarely considered explicitly by the practitioners of FSP, though they are tangible. Scaled across all developed societies, and supported by some appropriate parallel policies (e.g. surrounding land use and transport planning, access to and rights over land for growing and the support for access to skills and tools) Poland and the Czech Republic show how FSP can make a significant contribution to food security, public health and social cohesion. These practices generally result in reduced resource consumption and pollution. While they are linked to frugality and thrift (Crang and Hughes, 2014), they are not necessarily related to virtues of necessity but rather of abundance, enjoyment and exuberance – or, in short, of the ‘good life’. The food self-provisioners of post-socialist CEE have sustained a linked set of values, practices and purposes that carry environmental and social benefits. These continue outside the market, beyond the state, and with almost no reference to the formal institutions of civil society. This quiet sustainability is equitable, impactful and carries multiple benefits, while requiring no state or market interventions.

The case demands that the research and policy communities take more notice of these quietly significant aspects of everyday life, and invites consideration of what might be achieved by paying more attention to the everyday practice of quiet sustainability. This requires sensitive attention to people’s experience of pleasure, sharing, challenge and the demonstration of skill in a range of fields. This opens up possibilities for nurturing sustainability in new ways in some key areas of environmental impact such as how we get access to what we need and want (transport), how we dress (consumption) and how we make our homes comfortable (energy). It also helps support a sense that sustainability is not so much a future state to be achieved as a strand of lived experience that already exists in the past and present.’ (231)

Quotes and references from previous articles coming out of this research project:

One of the first findings was that

(m)ainstream political discourses both within these countries and the EU have tended to see the trajectory of CEE countries as fixed – locked into a linear temporal and developmental trajectory towards a Western neo-liberal modernity. This modernity rests on comforting assumptions about the symbiotic relationship between democracy, economic development and the expansion of a prosperous electorate (figured as middle class). (Smith and Jehlíčka (2007) 395)

We concluded that

‘(t)hese biographies demonstrate self-determination that is beyond the reach of a narrow account of a transition to a prefigured Western economic and cultural form. These everyday food practices either revise, or are independent of, Western-style corporatized food systems. They… assert a food culture, politics and hence economy that is more than purely capitalist-economic, other than ‘transitional’; one that is diverse and open to change’. (Smith and Jehlíčka (2007) 408)

It was important to test our hypothesis that the dominant explanation of food self-provisioning was faulty. We found that:

‘far from being a coping strategy of the poor, food self-provisioning in the post-socialist context can be a multifaceted activity for which its practitioners (who are quite evenly spread across income groups with the poor slightly underrepresented) have a diversity of reasons for participating in this practice, with hobby/recreation being the most important one.’ (Jehlíčka, Kostelecky ́ and Smith (2012), 221)

We coined the term ‘quiet sustainability’ to try to put a name to something subtle but important that both economists and ‘alternative food networks’ researchers seemed to be missing:

‘The quiet sustainability of Europe’s food self-provisioners, and the extensive networks of sharing that spur from their work is not a programme to be implemented, a future ambition for society or an exceptional contrast to the norm. Rather it is a quiet but purposeful parallel to the market economy of food. It inhabits family and friendship, work and neighbourhood net- works, rather than seeking to challenge or mimic economic institutions. This may go some way towards explaining why FSP in CEE has received so little attention from those scholars and activists who seek examples of sustainable food politics and ethics that do not ‘contribute to the production of neoliberal subjectivities’ (Guthman, 2008, 1181)’. (Smith and Jehlíčka, (2013), 155)

‘(t)he value, power and reach of these practices seem to lie precisely in the fact that they allow parallel and overlapping narratives about families, networks, competencies and relations with nature. They are not a replacement or an alternative to the mar- ket economy of food, or a response to its environmental or social failings, but rather a vivid demonstration that that is only part of life.’ Smith and Jehlíčka, (2013), 155)

References for previous publications related to this project:

Jehlička P., A. Tickle (2004) Environmental implications of Eastern enlargement: the end of progressive EU environmental policy? Environmental Politics, 13 (1), pp. 77–95

Jehlička P., T. Kostelecký, J. Smith (2008) Food self-provisioning in Czechia – beyond coping strategy of the poor: a response to Alber and Kohler’s ‘Informal Food Production in the Enlarged European Union’, Social Indicators Research (2012)

Jehlička P. and J. Smith (2011) An Unsustainable State: Contrasting Food Practices and State Policies in the Czech Republic. Geoforum 42 (3) pp. 362–372 doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2011.01.005

Jehlička P. and J. Smith (2011) An unsustainable state: contrasting food practices and state policies in the Czech Republic, Geoforum, 42 (3)), pp. 362–372

Jehlička P. and J. Smith (2012) Shelf Life: Food and Sustainability after Socialism.” In R. Tyszczuk, J. Smith, N. Clark and M. Butcher Atlas: Geography, Architecture and Change in an Interdependent World, pp. 56-63 (London: Black Dog Publishing)

Smith J. and P. Jehlička (2007) Stories around Food, Politics and Change in Poland and the Czech Republic. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 32 (3) pp. 395–410 DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2007.00258.x

Smith J. and P. Jehlička (2013) Quiet sustainability: fertile lessons from Europe’s productive gardeners, J. Rural Stud., 32 (2013), pp. 148–157


See the articles themselves for full acknowledgements of funding and research assistance.

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