In the nearly 50 years since the Park Slope Food Co-op Brooklyn opened, it has become both legendary and taken-for-granted. People seem to forget that its success was based on heroic struggle and lots of difficult internal commoning. Many outsiders see a gilded precinct of New York City filled with affluent professionals, not realizing that the Co-op arose from within a funky neighborhood of ordinary people who wanted high-quality, affordable, responsibly produced groceries. And indeed, most of its members are still ordinary, middle-class New Yorkers.
A lengthy piece in The New Yorker magazine (November 25 issue) captures the complicated and colorful history of the Co-op magnificently. “The Grocery Store Where Produce Meets Politics,” by Alexandra Schwartz, dives deeply into the inner life of the Co-op and the people who both venerate it and condescend to it. The Park Slope Food Co-op is a landmark achievement of what can be achieved through commoning in a co-operative organizational structure.
The Co-op's most salient achievement may be its sheer scale. It has more than 17,000 members and annual sales revenues of $58.3 million. Yet it is still run as a participatory, democratically managed operation whose members actively care about eco-friendly agriculture and socially minded practices.
Unlike many co-ops that regard themselves as quasi-corporations competing in the market, perhaps with a nod to social concern, the Park Slope Food Co-op remains unabashedly committed to functioning as a commons. It is a self-help collective, as one of its leaders put it, not a do-gooder project.
In her early encounters with the Co-op, journalist Alexandra Schwartz found it “to be claustrophobically crowded, illogically organized, and almost absurdly inconvenient. In other words, it was love at first sight. Suddenly, on my editorial assistant’s salary, I was eating like an editor-in-chief.” The Co-op is not a sleek, modernist Whole Foods store with precious upscale touches. It’s a place where you can get fantastically fresh local produce, inexpensive cheese, and high-quality expeller-pressed cooking oils. Prices are generally 15% to 50% less than those of a conventional grocery store.
As readers may have noticed, I have not been blogging much in recent months. That's because I've been completing a new book with my colleague Silke Helfrich that has been consuming most of my time. (More about that soon.) Fortunately, only a month or so is left before we finish the manuscript! At that point I expect to resume blogging on a more regular schedule.Thanks for your patience!
In the meantime, I have been getting out and about a bit. On September 29, I delivered a keynote talk at the Prairie Festival in Salina, Kansas, hosted by The Land Institute. The annual festival, now 40 years old, brings together several hundred progressives from around the country concerned about agriculture, food, land, and social change.
The Land Institute, founded by a hero of mine, Wes Jackson, is a leading independent agricultural research center. Its plant breeders and ecologists have an ambitious mission: to develop "an agriculture system that mimics natural systems in order to produce ample food and reduce or eliminate the negative impacts of industrial agriculture."
One of the most impressive achievements of the Land Institute is its development of a perennial wheat called Kernza, which could radically reduce the ecological impact of conventional agriculture. The Institute is also developing a range of other crops using the principles of "perennial polyculture," which relies on complementary, mutually supportive crops in the same field.
The event's main events were held in a large, open barn that felt unusual warm and intimate despite the chilly weather that day. A print version of my remarks are below; a video can be seen here. (My talk starts at the timemark 41:00 and goes through 1:22.)
In the burgeoning genre of books focused on building a new and benign world order – a challenge variously known as the “new economy,” “Great Transition,” and the “Great Turning” among other terms) – John Thackara’s new book stands out. How to Thrive in the Next Economy: Designing Tomorrow’s World Today is low-key and sensible, practically minded and solidly researched. Written in an amiable, personal voice, the book is persuasive and inspirational. I can only say: Chase it down and read it!
It’s a shame that so many brave books that imagine a post-capitalist world surrender to grandiose theorizing and moral exhortation. It’s an occupational hazard in a field that is understandably wants to identify the metaphysical and historical roots of our pathological modern times. But critique is one thing; the creative construction of a new world is another.
That’s why I found Thackara’s book so refreshing. This British design expert, a resident of southwest France, wants to see what the design and operation of an ecologically sustainable future really looks like, close-up. He is also thoughtful enough to provide some depth perspective, following his own motto, “To do things differently, we need to see things differently.”
How to Thrive in the Next Economy seeks to answer the question, “Is there no escape from an economy that devours nature in the name of endless growth?” The short answer is Yes! There is an escape. As Thackara shows us, there are scores of brilliant working examples around the world that demonstrate how to meet our needs in more responsible, fair and enlivening ways.
He takes us by the hand to survey a wide variety of exemplary models-in-progress. We are introduced to scientists and farmers who are discovering how to heal the soil by treating it as a living system. We meet urbanists who are re-thinking the hydrology of cities, moving away from high-entropy engineered solutions like reservoirs and sewers, to smaller, localized solutions like wetlands, rain gardens, ponds and worm colonies. Other bioregionalists are attempting to de-pave cities and bring permaculture, gardens, “pollinator pathways” and informal food systems into cities.
Amazingly, it is sometimes a criminal act to retrieve food that has been thrown away. Often it is simply seen as culturally inappropriate or embarrassing. But when an estimated $165 billion worth of food gets thrown away in the U.S. every year, surely it’s time to change our attitudes about food waste.
That was the point behind Rob Greenfield's cross-country bicycle trip this fall. To call attention to the amount of food that is wasted, the San Diego activist spent months on the road, surviving entirely on food that he pulled out of dumpsters behind grocery stores and pharmacies.
Typically Greenfield would arrive in town on his bicycle and start to rummage through dumpsters. He usually emerged with perfectly good food – bunches of bananas, apples, boxes of unopened crackers and cookies, packs of soda, bottles of iced tea, and a smorgasbord of other perfectly edible food. Then he would take a photo of the haul of "waste."
In a trip that took him to some 300 dumpsters, Greenfield estimates that he recovered over $10,000 worth of food and fed well over 500 people. On his website, Greenfield posted many photos of his dumpster harvests.
Greenfield said, “I’ve learned that I can roll up in nearly any city across America and collect enough food to feed hundreds of people in a matter of one night. The only thing that limited me was the size of the vehicle I had to transport it. My experience shows me that grocery store dumpsters are being filled to the brim with perfectly good food every day in nearly every city across America, all while children at school are too hungry to concentrate on their studies." About 50 million of 317 million Americans are food insecure, he notes.
Currently, less than 3% of the food that Americans eat is grown within 100 to 200 miles of where they live. And many people in poorer neighborhoods simply do not have ready access to affordable local produce.
A fascinating new project, the Food Commons, aspires to radically change this reality. It seeks to reinvent the entire “value-chain” of food production and distribution through a series of regional experiments to invent local food economies as commons.
By owning many elements of a local food system infrastructure – farms, distribution, retail and more – but operating them as a trust governed by stakeholders, the Food Commons believes it can be economically practical to build a new type of food system that is labor-friendly, ecologically responsible, hospitable to a variety of small enterprises, and able to grow high-quality food for local consumption.
Food Commons explains its orientation to the world by quoting economist Herman Daly:
“If economics is reconceived in the service of community, it will begin with a concern for agriculture and specifically for the production of food. This is because a healthy community will be a relatively self-sufficient one. A community’s complete dependency on outsiders for its mere survival weakens it….The most fundamental requirement for survival is food. Hence, how and where food is grown is foundational to an economics for community.”
Food Commons is a nonprofit project that was officially begun in 2010 by Larry Yee and James Cochran. Yee is a former academic with the University of California Cooperative Extension who has been involved in sustainable agriculture for years. Cochran is the founder and president of Swanton Berry Farms, a mid-scale organic farming enterprise near Santa Cruz, California.
What would the world look like if we began to re-conceptualize food as a commons? Jose Luis Vivero Pol of the Centre for Philosophy of Law at Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium has done just that in a recent essay, “Food as a Commons: Reframing the Narrative of the Food System.”
The piece is impressive for daring to imagine how the world’s estimated 668 million hungry people might eat, and how all of us would become healthier, if we treated more elements of the food production and distribution system as commons. Instead of managing food as a private good that can only be produced and allocated through markets, re-conceptualizing food as a commons helps us imagine “a more sustainable, fairer and farmer-centered food system,” writes Vivero Pol.
One reason that the commons reframing is so useful is that it helps us see the ubiquity of enclosures in the food system. We can begin to see the galloping privatization of farmland, water, energy and seeds. We can see the concentration of various food sectors and the higher prices and loss of consumer sovereignty that comes from oligopoly control.
Enclosure is snatching shared resources from us and preventing us from managing them to maximize access and good nutrition. This is often known these days as “resource grabbing,” as companies and national governments race to seize as many abundant, cheap natural resources as they can on an international scale. This is one reason for the many pernicious enclosures of land commons in Africa and Latin America in recent years. There is a huge exodus from traditional and indigenous lands as China, Saudi Arabia, Korea, hedge funds and others buy up natural resources. These enclosures are moving us “from diversity to uniformity, from complexity to homoegeneity, and from richness to impoverishment,” writes Vivero Pol.
Raj Patel has been tracking the pathologies of the global food system for many years. An activist and academic who teaches at the UC Berkeley Center for African Studies, Patel has just published a second, updated edition of his 2008 book, Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System.
The problem with the food system is not that we don't produce enough calories to eradicate hunger, Patel notes. It's that the food system has its own priorities of institutional consolidation and profit, which means that more than 1 billion people in the world are malnourished and 2 billion are overweight – which is worse than when the first edition of Patel's book came out.
Patel has also been a serious student of the commons. His 2010 book, The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape the Market Society and Redefine Democracy, is a lucid overview of the fallaciious premises of market economics and its dismal performance. He also goes on at length about the ability of the commons paradigm to help ameliorate food sovereignty, environmental sustainability and social justice.
Recommended reading is a recent interview with Patel at Stir, the vigorous, commons-oriented British political journal founded by Jonathan Gordon-Farleigh. (Incidentally, Stir is in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to pay for a print run of a book collecting some of its best articles.)
Here are a few excerpts from Stir’s interview with Patel:
On genetically modified crops & climate change: “We have an increasing amount of evidence to suggest that agro-ecological farming systems will be able to feed the world in the future. The GM advocates are saying, “What about drought-resistance and climate-change-ready crops?” That seems to be nonsense! To have a crop that is climate-change-ready is ludicrous because change is precisely change — it is so many different things. It could be new pests, rains coming at the wrong time; it could be too much rain, or too much heat. It is impossible to have a single crop that is ready for those possible changes. We’ve already seen the limits of that because Monsanto has a product called ‘Drought Guard’ — a genetically-modified crop that performs no better than any conventional crop in resisting anything but a mild drought. The problem with this is that climate change isn’t about mild anything but extreme weather events.”
Every day all sorts of fascinating, commons-relevant stories flow through my computer. I thought I'd showcase a few of the more notable ones.
Silent Protocol Wars
Radical Philosophy, a UK journal, has a fascinating essay, “A Tale of Two Worlds,” by Nicolás Mendoza, about the “silent protocol wars” that websites like WikiLeaks, 4Chan and the Anonymous hackers are embroiled in with nation-states. The “de-localized collaborative community” is arguably the biggest social innovation of the Internet. It is the source of what Mendoza calls a “rogue episteme” – alternative, sometimes-subversive ways of seeing and engaging with the world. But will these alternative networked communities be made technically impossible if they continue to challenge the authority and control of the nation-state? Recent provocations by WikiLeaks (the US Embassy Cables leak) and Anonymous' retaliatory acts raise the question. The implications for the civic sovereignty of citizens elsewhere around the world is huge.
“There is no remote corner of the Internet not dependent on protocols,” Laura DeNardis insists. What DeNardis stresses is the ultimate preponderance of the technical over the social protocol. Lessig inaugurated this line of thinking when he famously stated “Code is Law.” But protocol runs deeper than software: if code is law then protocol is the constitution. This is why, as long as attention is diverted toward anything spectacular (like tactical and superficial DdoS [denial of service] attacks), governments can start the demolition of the protocols that grant the possibility of autonomy to the network. In reaction to the release of the US Embassy Cables [by WikiLeaks], the UN called for the creation of a group that would end the current multi-stakeholder nature of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) to give the last word on Internet control to the governments of the world.
Governments, of course, want to assure their own capacity to conduct surveillance, censorship and control. The question is whether the autonomous communities as embodied by WikiLeaks and Anonymous (who act as a vanguard for the larger, less politicized set of Internet users) can survive the protocol wars. “This is where the war stands to be won,” writes Mendoza: “in the building of autonomous structures of all sorts (structures that bypass and outcompete existing ones) on top of other new structures until the entire old world is unnecessary.”
A new British publication, Stir, short for Stir to Action, has released its second issue as editor Jonathan Gordon-Farleigh bravely tries to give voice to a new kind of post-liberal, globally aware activist readership. True to its name, Stir features a number of provocative articles and invigorating interviews with iconoclasts. If we're lucky, this venture from the edge may actually help assemble a "constituency of unrealistic pragmatists," in the words of George McKay, author of a wonderful piece on on “radical gardening.”
In an interview with author Mckenzie Wark, we learn some of the lessons that the Situationists may have for contemporary political and cultural activism. The Situationist International “was an extremely marginal avant-garde movement that was formed in 1957 and then dissolved itself in 1972,” Wark noted, describing his new book, The Beach Beneath the Street. “Why the hell would anybody be interested in this tiny marginal activity? The footprint the Situationists left in political aesthetic culture is vastly greater than their actual numbers. As their leading light, Guy Debord, said ‘all you need is a few trustworthy comrades’.”
That’s a great premise for any movement: a few trustworthy comrades with the imagination and daring to challenge the narcoleptic conformism of our times. Even some of the most active activists that I know are half-asleep because they have so internalized the prevailing political paradigm and cultural norms.