‘Nobody will ever starve in Molise’ (local informant during the COVID-19 pandemic, 2021)


ural southern Italy is known to the world as the land of one-euro houses, half empty villages, decades of outmigration across the globe, a slower way of life, and often derogatorily referred to as backwards. Yet despite so many people having left southern Italy over the past century and a half, these rural spaces are far from empty. As in other rural European spaces, such as the hinterland of Portugal, abandoned land and villages, as well as low-cost housing and living have also created opportunities. In recent years, new people – from both other Italian regions and outside of Italy – have started to move to these remote rural areas, often seeking a different, more sustainable, and ‘simpler’ way of life. Additionally, a host of small but strong communities persist, and their members hold on to many of their customs, traditional ways of life, and self-sustaining practices. This essay looks at a region in southern Italy, the Trigno river valley straddling Abruzzo and Molise, and the rural living being (re)created there within these diverse communities of newcomers, and the locals who have either stayed in or returned to this region. In engaging with these rural lifestyles, we seek to explore their potential for (re)imagining ‘Western modernity’ and its multiple, interconnected crises (see introduction to Special Issue). We suggest that what we can find in these often-dismissed rural spaces are both overt as well as more subtle, and therefore ‘quiet’ rejections of the capitalist ways of life often imposed upon people and communities throughout much of the ‘Western’ world (and beyond), and they’re increasingly challenging and unsustainable conditions of building and maintaining lives.

Amongst the diverse rural lifestyles we find in this region, we thus focus on one particular aspect, namely what we identify as everyday practices of quiet food sovereignty (see Visser et al. 2015) and quiet sustainability (see Smith and Jehlička 2013). Drawing and expanding upon the concept of everyday resistance (Lewellen 2001; Scott 1985; Vinthagen and Johansson 2013), we suggest these practices represent a quiet form of everyday resistance to the lifestyles and value systems promoted and implied as necessary by capitalist Western modernity. These first two concepts, quiet food sovereignty and quiet sustainability, stem from recent empirical research in post-socialist contexts, while everyday resistance is a moniker which originates with James Scott’s (1985) work in highland southeast Asia. This concept has been used to show how instead of attacking systems through formal organizing or revolution, people revert to “routine resistance” to undermine those systems of power and oppression  by focusing rather on singular people or situations (Vinthagen and Johansson 2013), “stak[ing] out limited spheres of control within broader formal structures,” while often operating “behind a façade of deference and conformity” (Lewellen 2001: 118-119). While understandings of everyday resistance usually include some degree of overt political expression, by combining the three concepts we seek to emphasize the implicit, and less overt and outspoken food sovereignty, sustainability, and hence quiet everyday resistance practices enacted by people. These are often not seen or identified as such – neither by those practicing them nor by the research and policy community (Smith and Jehlička 2013: 149). Hence, their importance for both food security and more resilient, sustainable forms of living – as well as the broader transformative potential of such proactive life choices – has remained underestimated.

Below, we present two examples of quiet resistance practices frequently found in this part of the southern Italian region. We have collected our empirical material over extended periods of time we have spent living, building a life, and becoming part of the local community in one town in this region since 2020, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. During our time there, we collected in-depth auto-ethnographic data consisting of participant observation, qualitative interviews, and video material. We have anonymized the names of our informants.

Quiet Food Sovereignty

Maria and Nicola are a couple in their 70s who left this town to work abroad in the 1960s and returned home 35 years later. They now engage in a variety of regionally typical homesteading practices passed down from previous generations. They have a vegetable garden, which is Maria’s passion, where she grows tomatoes, beans, zucchini, and peppers, amongst others. Nicola has a passion for foraging. He enjoys going into the woods to collect wild asparagus and mushrooms. They also make their own olive oil, prepare the pomodori and salsa (jarred tomatoes and tomato sauce), dry figs, peppers, and oregano; and make homemade salami and liquors. Beyond what they make themselves, Maria and Nicola engage in the local gifting economy, exchanging various homemade goods with people in the community. For example, they do not have chickens, but get eggs from a friend in town.

Preparing the pomodori (jarred tomatoes) for the winter (photo credit: T. Weldon)

Although Maria and Nicola’s food practices closely resemble the principles of food sovereignty and that movement’s goals (Edelman et al. 2014) they are not steeped in those debates nor would speak of themselves in such terms. Their food practices can hence be seen as a rather implicit, quiet form of food sovereignty. Quiet sovereignty is a muted, diffuse form of food sovereignty, which “does not challenge the overall food system directly through its produce, claims, or ideas, but focuses on individual economic benefits and ecological production for personal health, as well as a culturally appropriate form of sociality, generated by the exchange of self-produced food” (Visser et al. 2015: 525). These values become apparent in the smile of contentment Maria has on her face when showing us their storage room packed with bottles and cans for the winter. “I like this,” she told us, “because we’re eating well. If I go and buy the tomato sauce in the shop, I don’t know what is inside. When I make it myself, I know what was put inside! And it makes me happy because I eat what I made myself.”

In addition to the desire to know what went into their food and the health benefits of making their own food, core to Maria and Nicola’s food practices is a sense of fulfillment they find in self-provisioning and a passion for the higher quality of life they feel they can obtain through these practices. This contentment does not only stem from their immediate outcome or benefit. Rather, these practices are considered valuable in and by themselves. This becomes clear when Nicola speaks about the love and patience he has for olive trees. He once waited 25 years for a tree he planted to bear fruits, but still never cut it down, and even now he is still planting new trees – even if he might never be there to harvest them. He says he is doing this for his children and that he will plant new trees until the very end.

Olive orchard in the region of Molise (photo credit: T. Weldon)

Quiet Sustainability

While Maria and Nicola’s food practices are emblematic throughout the region, Jack and Jackie’s practices are more focused on (re)construction. Jack and Jackie, a British couple in their late 50s, bought an old stone farmhouse surrounded by half a hectare of land and fifty olive trees. Over the past years, they have renovated the house step by step – mostly by themselves – which allowed them to do things both more economically and enjoyably. They started with the outdoor areas, built a terrace with concrete steps and foundations, planted fruit trees, and set up a Mediterranean garden full of succulents and local plants. It was important to them to reuse as many of the existing materials as possible, and keep the historical things they found in the house so they ‘stayed there’. For example, they did not want to keep the open fireplace in the house, so they moved it outside to use as an emblematic part of a wall they built.

Similarly to Maria and Nicola, it would not occur to Jack and Jackie to frame what they are doing as sustainability practices or resistance. Hence, also here the term ‘quiet’ seems appropriate, drawing on what Smith and Jehlička (2013: 155) identify as quiet sustainability: “practices that result in beneficial environmental or social outcomes, that do not relate directly or indirectly to market transactions, and that are not represented by the practitioners as relating directly to environmental or sustainability goals.” These practices include the various cultures of sharing, repairing, gifting, and favors Jack and Jackie partake in, as well as their everyday practices that have low environmental impacts, but are not explicitly pursued to that end. As with quiet food sovereignty, quiet sustainability does not have an overt political agenda or particular program to be implemented nor does it include a future ambition for society – yet still sees its practitioners (to some extent) purposefully separate themselves from the constraints of we see as the capitalist economy.

This latter component is specifically present within Jack and Jackie’s case. Building their new life in rural southern Italy has been a way for them to distance themselves from the UK and the lifestyle they felt they had to pursue to survive within that economy. Over the years, Jack felt the UK had become “more and more busy, more and more rude, more and more expensive, and more and more difficult to retire in.” Retiring early to Molise allowed them to find peace and quiet living in the countryside, and to have “more quality time together,” now that Jack didn’t have to work six days a week, and then retreated into his workshop on the seventh to recover from the stress of the other six. After they moved to Italy and had spent so much time together, Jack told us with a big laugh, they realized that “we actually really like each other!” Jack also added that he did this for his late brother, who’s passing made him reconsider his priorities in life and led him to “retire early – basically before I die.”

Quiet everyday resistance?

Neither couple presented here relates how they live to large concepts such as sustainability, food sovereignty, or political resistance – nor speak of themselves as a vocal or conscious part of any movement or as resisting capitalism. Yet, many of their practices clearly resemble the principles that are guiding food sovereignty and sustainability movements around the world. Everyday resistance generally involves a degree of political consciousness or the deliberate identification of one’s actions as political, and often of purposefully resisting something, someone, or some system of power or oppression. Drawing on this ethnographic material, we seek to expand the notion of everyday resistance to include these ‘quiet’ forms of political action which the practitioners themselves do not consciously see, or frame, as political. As we have shown, our informants do not overtly use these practices to resist or reject larger structures or ‘the system.’ However, by enacting these practices they nevertheless both pursue and find internal peace and fulfillment – as well as some semblance of autonomy from the aforementioned systems – even while not explicitly choosing to be, or seeing themselves as, fighting against the economic and political world surrounding them. Instead, in their eyes they ‘apolitically’ retreat into their garden, DIY projects, and communities of foraging, sharing, and gifting to insulate themselves from those very politics and economics they do not want to be a part of. To those enacting these practices, they are not political – in fact, they would claim to be decidedly apolitical. Yet, in practice, these acts have clear political ramifications. Thus, we suggest these lifestyles form a quiet everyday resistance which evolves slowly and naturally within people’s lives; not necessarily out of inherent need or desperation, nor in overt response or reaction to the political and economic situations surrounding them; but rather simply as an evolving expression of their own preferences, quietly implemented as they live their lives.


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Timothy D. Weldon holds a PhD in anthropology from Rutgers University and is a lecturer at Münster University.

Sarah Ruth Sippel is a professor of economic geography and globalization studies at Münster University.