I built a permaculture garden once in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. I had to dig the swales with a pickaxe.
That’s what it was like building the local food movement between 1995 and 2005. Swinging all my weight into a slope which yielded crumbs and shallow haven for my seeds.
Then, suddenly, in 2008, the movement took pop culture. We were winning.
Then my beloved Brown Cow Yogurt was being sold in WalMart.
This was the pinprick which sent me to a decade’s slumber from which no ardent allies could awaken me.
All that I cared about had surrendered to the enemy.
I knew why.
There was a political economy deficit. For years I’d been working with the Biodiesel Boys. John Long and his inspired crew were biking around Fort Collins Colorado collecting buckets of used fryer oil from restaurants. Then they’d get together on Friday afternoon in the backyard of the local hippie bar and demonstrate how to make biodiesel. A few years later, they came to sleep on the floor of my house in Los Angeles in a flurry of excitement that Shell and other mainstream players would for the first time participate in a biodiesel conference because “then we won’t have wars for oil.” This naïve fantasy is typical of the visionary founders of sustainable companies, who believe that innovation can vanquish imperialism.
With a 20% growth rate, by 2003 80% of organic products were owned by Dole (purveyer of toxic bananas and violent working conditions), tobacco and junk food companies were investing heavily, and supermarkets were advertising “local produce”.
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Every once in a while, I would open my eyes. I saw professorships in the Political Economy of Food – the discipline I had desperately, faithfully resuscitated for 14 years, encouraged only by the agricultural students who realized their agriculture books were written by pesticide companies and the social science and humanities students who “wanted to do something meaningful”.
I didn’t see a role in the abruptly coopted context. I was used to being the avant-garde. I didn’t see a useful place to join. I surrendered the victory, and others profited. I closed my eyes.
No prince arrived, but the drug wanes. Awakened by the gentle tugging of Toby, John Foran, and Baru, I consider the world, and my absence from it. There are many reasons why, many personal, some truly political.
Now I stir, trying to remember who I was before this peregrination through loss and art, grasping for the sense of responsibility and compassion which used to be my constitution.
I blame the men whose collective disrespect finally wore me down so I would just nod and agree to whatever they said.
I blame Europe, who squanders her riches. How can I feel compassion for people who have culture, security, education, and a viable Left, who yet give shelter to fast food, supermarkets, and pharmaceutical companies?
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The Biodiesel Boys and the owners of Brown Cow believed that making alternatives available at large scale will change the system. No. The root of this system IS scale.
As Helena Norberg-Hodge taught us, “capitalism and communism were the same: they both extracted from the periphery.” (Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thompson brought this perspective to a first-world perspective in their excellent book, The Subsistence Perspective.)
Meanwhile, the European Left is still pursuing the concept of delivering modernized quality of life to the masses: Affordable (but tasteless and nutritionless) food and what Toby calls “toxic healthcare”. I’m not interested.
The “alternative” system has been talked about for a long time. First made famous by Schumacher’s 1973 Small is Beautiful and Elgin’s Voluntary Simplicity, reinvigorated by the International Forum on Globalization in the 1990s and the “Slow” movements of the early 2000s, the idea is that products and policy should be produced and distributed on the smallest possible scale. This, indeed, is anarcho-syndicalism. Milk and related products should be highly local. Bicycle factories less so. Public health is one of the few things that truly requires a global system.
Grain production is a medium-scale thing, most efficiently done with some mechanization by independent farmers on a piece of land of the size they can know intimately, using grains developed for the local ecology. (See Vandana Shiva, The Violence of the Green Revolution and Marty Strange, Family Farming, the most important two books ever written about farm economy and ecology.) Bread production on the other hand, ought to be highly local. It’s better fresh and making it is is meaningful work. There is no justification for large-scale or mechanized production of bread.
Cucumbers ought to be grown at the scale of bread.
Indeed vegetables and fruits could and should be grown in mixed-crop gardens, not farms with fragile monocultures and harvest waste. Existing green, open, and rooftop space is sufficient for most cities’ consumption needs, vastly reducing wasteful transportation and providing plentiful good work.
Oils and most preserved and processed foods require only simple machinery and would be better produced at neighborhood scale, providing higher quality, more diversity, far less waste, and more good work.
Meat must be grown at the scale in which each animal is integrated into a farming system. We cannot save the world with vegetarianism. Farms without animals cannot sustain their soil sustainably. “If it doesn’t walk off the farm, you’re selling your soil.”
Ethical markets are organized at a scale in which the food can be cared for fully. That includes caring for the farmers and producers, caring for information and story about the food, and caring about the experience of the customer. Food should not be handled in a degraded situation, and no person should be degraded in the process of producing life.
Supermarkets are the headquarters of evil in the food system. They are criminals who seduce and betray both farmers and consumers with their veneer of omniscient efficiency and choice, behind which they ruthlessly expand their margin at the cost of quality, farm finances, working conditions, and value to the consumer.
Smaller-scale markets provide better experiences for customers and better jobs for workers. With a less ravenous margin, they can pay more to the farmer.
Neither food nor health nor water should be used as a weapons of war or mechanisms of profit for investors.
I do not accept the Left’s acquiescence to scale. As Peter Waterman so strikingly charged early in the anti-globalization years. “The socialist left has no more advanced concept of liberation than a job in a Volvo plant in the 1970s.” Here in Germany, the Leftists inanely eat low quality food and shop in ALDI in solidarity with the working classes, rather than standing forth for a vision of daily life (including consumption!) liberated from the degradations of capitalism. (I think there was a moment for this, documented by Melucci in Nomads of the Present.)
The U.S. people-of-color led Community Food Security movement of the early 1990s, later codified by Vía Campesina as “food sovereignty“, insists that people have a right not only to some minimum necessity of “food” (produced in ways that are out of their control), but to determine the scale, ecology, and ethics of the production of their food, which additionally should be nutritious, cultural, and delicious.
My political/spiritual mentor Mel King said “The missionaries claimed to love the people. But if they loved the people, they couldn’t have lived in the big house.” If I believe that food is a fundamental dimension of humanity and pleasure, I cannot ethically accept that anyone else should live with less. That is my motivation for liberation: that we live in a context which can be simply measured by the quality of food the people eat.
The longstanding grassroots version of the sustainability movement focused on ecological farming as the source for principles of social sustainability, best systematized by Bill Mollison’s “Permaculture” a method for innovation and design of production and living systems, with the first principle always being “earth care”.
To be an ecological society we have to stop the whole habit of living despite nature. We cannot fetishize machines and convenience. We cannot accept that people should live a life in which they don’t “have time” to know and bring context to their food by conversing with the vendors in small shops, to then eat at a social pace, to cook. Expand this analysis, to wit: We cannot insist upon “business as usual” in any weather. If we want to (learn how to) live in an ecology, we could start practicing by aligning our mood and activities with the weather.
We must take our pleasure and inspiration in seasonality and ecological particularity, from the diversity and personality which is ecologically-scaled production and markets.