societies take pride in converting poison into food. Industrial
agriculture does just the opposite, give or take a few thousand
food-miles per carrot. So get down and local and to your
greenroofs: your children will be (healthy and unpoisoned)
farmers! Image © Val Druguet.
11: Raccoon soup and Apple Juice
Musings on the political ecology of food
This year I'll be growing food. Corn, squash, beans primarily.
I'll throw in a few tomatoes for color, basil for taste,
and radishes for the sake of radicalism. I will not regiment
these plants, I will not plant them in rows. I'll mix 'em
up, toss the seeds into the winds of chaos that blow through
my discreet part of the universe. I will not use gas-based
fertilizers, I'll use cow manure and whatever other shit
I can lay my hands on, maybe some peat from the bottom of
a nearby beaver bog. Nor will I use any petro-chemical pesticides,
nor engines, nor rototillers. I will rely exclusively on
the energy of the sun, my solar carrying capacity. I'll
be doing what's been done for millennia in Central America,
the practice of Milpa, the most sustainable and ecologically
sane of all agricultural practices ever, and probably humanity's
greatest invention, or should I say realization, the capacity,
in David Korten's words, to 'augment nature's largesse through
active participation in its regenerative processes'.
I won't call it farming, because farming has more to do
nowadays with killing what plants you don't want to grow
than growing what you want to grow. In fact, modern meat-and-potato
farming has more to do with re-creating disaster, since
most of our food comes, ecologically speaking, from three
post-disaster colonizing annuals: wheat, corn and rice.
When we plow a field we're actually recreating a flood,
a landslide. When we plow the entire country, we re-create
a natural disaster on an industrial scale.
In a former life I worked and lived with the Ye'kuana tribe
in Venezuela; they take great pride in being able to convert
a poisonous plant, Manioc, into food, by a process of rinsing
and cooking and which provides for 80% of their diet. They
grow the tubers in round slash-and-burn gardens, have round
hairdos and live in round huts. Our societies, by contrast,
seem to take great pride in using technology to turn food
into poison, and to incidentally stuff people who live within
the confines of strict Cartesian geography with bad, malnutritious
food forced to grow within the confines of strict Cartesian
geometry. Another symptom of how we confuse food with poison
in the West might be how the pesticide industry, created
with leftover mustard gas from world war 1, now spearheaded
by Monsanto, has bought up and taken over the seed industry
in the past half-century. Notice, too, how our industrial
agriculture has poisoned the soil, our water, not to mention
ourselves. Today there are 1 billion obese people on the
planet. That's officially as many as there are starving.
Obese people, it is true, are easier to control. They do
not revolt as easily. Instead, they are poisoned. Slowly.
Here, a supporting quote from activist and author Billie
security is the process of balancing the supply and
demand of food. We don't know for certain if we are
truly food secure until we know when we are not. The
diabetes epidemic is an example of us believing we have
enough food, and then finding out that the food quality
is so poor it makes us sick. Obesity is easier for our
society and culture to sustain than hunger, because
obesity is less socially disruptive than hunger. So
for the time being, we live with obesity as a solution
to food security. That is we feed the poorest among
us cheap food filled with empty calories to maintain
social order, then we pay the true price of their food
with our healthcare dollars.
to my plan for a garden. For Milpa. This is no hobby. It
is a radical act, and bear with me as I explain why. It
took me four years to come to the realization that food
was everything; four years of living in Midtown Manhattan,
New York city, as a matter of fact, and that I should grow
some myself. Perhaps because I was a million miles away
from where my food was coming from. Four intense years studying
our urban environment, helped, so did the simple extrapolation,
the observation that the very nature of our society, our
policies, our belief and value systems, our relationship
to life on earth, i.e. : the ecology of our civilization,
had everything to do with food.
Why food? Isn't that just like, what we eat?
Food is a beautiful word for energy and matter, which, when
you think about it, makes food a very powerful thing. It
is for food that we invented fire (if you don't believe
me try surviving on live termites) and combustion, and eventually,
the machine; for food that we invented our first weapons
and tools. Because of food that we stumbled upon agriculture,
too, which if I remember correctly, deals almost entirely
with food. Then we organized agriculture, and the peasantry,
and called it monoculture, and built cities for command
and control of the food-producing populace. Then we built
standing armies, too, to defend our fields of wheat, corn,
potatoes, cows, and rice. And then we invaded other's peoples
lands, to secure things like gold or oil and slaves and
various currencies with which to secure buying power, political
power, the power to secure even more food, i.e.: energy
and matter. Yes, food is a very powerful thing indeed. As
a French friend once told me, when you make food you make
love, and if I remember correctly the man was an excellent
cook. I'll always wonder what the ladies said.
Food is the fuel of life. Come to think of it, shag that
metaphor; life is not a machine, despite our current belief
that we should grow corn for cars. The world around us is
not a clock, it's a network, a giant bubble of systemics,
a can of worms. Biological systems are self-referential
and biologically free, i.e.: they don't need a key and a
transmission, they're self-sustaining, self-replicating,
Perhaps I should illustrate my point more accurately with
a half-decent story, a small rewind, in the form of an excerpt
of a manuscript I recently submitted for a book on why nature
matters to New Yorkers. It relates my ultimate life-changing,
paradigm-shifting, wake-up call experience, fours years
ago in Central Park:
nature? Is an urban raccoon eating a hamburger wild or domesticated?
What about wild tuna? In a sandwich? Is food natural? What
is wilderness? Civilization? All social constructs, deconstructed,
melted away in a vat of raccoon potage. Thank you New York.
I came to the city viewing the world, like most of us, in
simple polarizing terms, nature versus humanity, culture versus
biology. A universe divided into parts. Made up of neat segments.
A clock! In my mind, and others' I'm sure, Nature and City
formed an oxymoron. They were opposites in conflict, similar
to duos the likes of 'the humanities versus the sciences',
'the mind versus the body', 'waste versus food', 'us versus
them'. Humans were not, could not, be part of nature, at least
in its purest form. Did such a thing even exist?
first spring in Manhattan I spent bird-watching my brains
out in Central Park, mostly in the 'north end' area,
up the Great Hill, around the Pool, down through the
Loch and into the Ravine, what Olmstead designed as
the 'Adirondacks' of this great public space. Most of
it is woodland or meadow; all of it is 'planned', none
of it 'wild'. Surreally manicured within the concrete,
over-raked, over-fertilized-an economic and ecological
sink. A puddle of green, assimilated by the grid.
The American Dream? Dream on.
In the wee hours of the morning (5:30-ish), male prostitutes
(and their clients), and birders are the people you
usually first bump into. Then come the dog owners, the
joggers, the families. The cops and the gardeners. The
occasional turkey, the rare coyote.
One particular morning I will carry to my grave. I had
been in the park three hours already, since the crack
of dawn, and a warm breeze had New Yorkers giddy-faced
and flushed. Bugs were buzzing and birds everywhere
were bubbling over with song and testosterone. I was
ecstatic, on a 'warbler' high. Spring migration was
peaking, big time. The vegetation was teeming with high-strung,
feathered dinosaurs, migrating north from South America,
stopping here to feast and refuel, many of them on freshly
hatched inchworms. My eyeballs were drunk with the likes
of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Scarlet Tanagers - usual
fare for Central Park on a good day in May. There were
Indigo Buntings, too; a perfect day, really. The sun
was shining, the pin oaks and tulip trees glowed lime
green, the sky was blue. But what had me really happy
(in the Constitutional sense) was my warbler count:
more than 20 species, including Blackburnian, Cerulean,
Golden-winged, Blue-winged, Chestnut-sided-Miro paintings,
Too bad I had to leave the Park, for a meeting in Mid-town.
I was exiting on a path lined with benches, on the north
side of the Pool. To my left, just ahead, two women
were seated, each with two young children at their sides.
The kids were bouncing with enthusiasm. The two working-class
moms, one Hispanic, a Salma Hayek look-alike, and one
Asian, were waving to me, smiling profusely, gesticulating.
They wanted me to slow down and to look upwards, up
behind my right shoulder. I did. Whoa! Male raccoon.
Old, raggedy, sick-looking, male raccoon. Hunched up
in the fork of a tree.
My first Central Park raccoon. I love raccoons.
I inched my way over to the bench, said hello to the
women, introduced myself, then sat down beside them.
Smiles all around. They explained what was going on
in broken English. They had been watching the animal
for minutes, waiting for the old geezer to climb down.
At the base of the tree was a public waste can and he
had been sizing it up with his beady, glazed-over eyes.
We waited. So did the raccoon. At last he climbed down,
head first. The four kids went bananas. The raccoon
took his time. He arrived at the base of the garbage
bin, climbed up its side, laboriously, and then disappeared
inside. We heard rummaging. The kids held their breath.
He emerged, holding a paper bag from Burger King. Junk
food (how surprising). Screams of excitement all around.
The Latino lady clapped her hands; the Asian woman said
something to her kids.
The old raccoon climbed back out of the garbage can,
sat at the base of the tree and, facing us, proceeded
to adroitly unpack and throw back half of a leftover
Bursts of laughter, all around.
Rewind. Here we have a very white naturalist of European
descent (me), two beautiful young mothers from foreign
lands and their kids, all awash on the shores of springtime
glee, brought together by one very native and very adaptable
American animal salvaging the worst food known to man
from a waste can cloaked in derived petrochemicals in
the most contrived slice of nature this side of the
Exit Miro, enter Hieronymus Bosch.
And welcome, by the way, to the Nature of New York.
Icing on the cake? As we laughed with the raccoon (Gary
Larson said never laugh 'at' a wild animal, they can't
tell the difference, especially African buffalo and
grizzly bears), a heavily-powdered, horse-faced lady
in high heels and slacks and a small designer purse
hurried by. Country of origin: Upper East Side. She
jumped at the sight of the raccoon, then without stopping,
spouted out some confused advice about "not letting
the kids get too close to the animal, they might get
rabies or West Nile or the bird flu even".
The Latino mom, to my right, sighed and then shouted
after the woman, ''The kids are fine!" She looked at
me and shrugged in exasperation. "Cogno! These white
people, they spend waaaaay too much time in libraries!"
The raccoon finished up and climbed back into his tree.
He started to clean his coat, like a cat. I turned to
the Asian woman, who was looking at the raccoon. She
noticed me, smiled, and then timidly inquired, pointing
at the animal, "Can you eat in soup?"
been indoctrinated. My worldview, the narrative I belonged
to, was that of a spreadsheet - animals in one column, us
in another. The West dictates that nature can be protected
by putting a fence around it, put in a preserve - and wolves
too, by putting a fence around them, a sort of outdoor zoo,
disconnected from the world. Accordingly, my initial view
of the urban environment was one of parks and migratory
birds; not how we, as a species, might fit into the landscape,
with our buildings, our streets, our sewers, our supermarkets.
The raccoon soup incident was my deflowering of sorts; it
changed my mind, my eye-sight, my behavior even, the same
way good therapy can reveal denial. It was a leap in consciousness
and maturity. To paraphrase Blake, I was beginning to see
the world as it is: infinite.
I had overlooked the obvious. New York City, the dysfunctional
entity that it is, and the world it fed upon, were part
of an unfathomable gray zone of trophic ties and food chains
and interconnections and causalities and nonlinear feedback
loops and overlapping fuzzy categories in which humans and
their industrial revolution and their surprising capacity
for culture and the past 5000 years of Empire were deeply
rooted. And yet, this web of life, to which we belong, with
which we are one, we have imposed and enforced artificial
barriers upon it. We've invented species. Campbell's soup.
Rows of corn. The Manhattan Grid. Gated communities.
How long before we act with the planet? In sync with complexity
and chaos? With creativity? Life is governed by processes
and flux, subtlety and nuance, pulsing with energy flows
and cycles of matter, colored it is true by thought and
language and cognition and symbol, yet too complex for us
to ever completely understand. Our world may be grounded
in tangible, physical phenomena; it will forever be fleeting
in its explosive potential for emerging properties, and
gestalt, from which we will forever be hidden.
Today, when I utter the words 'ecology' and 'nature' and
'environment' I no longer refer to wild species and wilderness,
but to the relationships that define us, the relationships
between humans of a civilization, between civilizations,
between civilizations and the earth, and most importantly
perhaps, the relationship between us and our food, and ultimately
between us and the cosmos, its solar energy and embodied
matter, the heterotrophs and autotrophs, and what we catalogue
as either wild or domesticated - and how in turn these classifications
Nature is also what we eat. The species we consume. The
biodiversity we need to survive. The ecosystems we depend
on. In fewer words, the enduring connection to the planet
and the universe from which we all emerge. If we can't save
wolves by putting fences around them, then maybe we can
save them by changing the way we live, the nature of our
relationship to our surroundings, our environment. Namely,
by the way we fit into the aforementioned can of worms,
the way we eat and more importantly perhaps, by the way
we grow and tend to our food - the cosmos within us.
Our cities, our machines, our propaganda systems, these
are the devices and symptoms of our ecology. They are our
ecology. Just as our culture is our biology, our built environment
and our toys and sound bites and our systems of agriculture
define and embody and help influence the evolution of our
relationship to the universe, our home. Ecology, the study
of relationships, from the Greek Oikos, meaning household.
Ecology, the home study. The mother of all bigger pictures.
Such a simple idea, that we are part of nature, and that
our planet is our only home and family, is a radical thought
in this stubbornly modernist and religious country, it borders
on heresy; I needed support, intellectual allies. Luckily
I found authors, the likes of Cronan, Merchant, and this
quote from David Suzuki, "We are the environment, there
is no distinction (…) just a big blob of water with enough
organic thickener added so we don't dribble away on the
floor." Forgive me, for I use it ad nauseam.
On the opposite end of the cultural spectrum, the following
quote from a student of mine: "No way! Food ain't part of
Why exactly do we overlook food? Or view it so dimly? In
addition to what Michael Pollan has recently pointed out,
that food in America is more synonymous with guilt and sin
than with pleasure and love, cultural historians and anthropologists
have revealed a stunning aspect of our collective psychology;
in our fright of death and all things mortal and earthly
we have waged a war in the west and in America in particular
against all things gravity-prone and earthly: things like
soil, dirt (just look at the connotation of those words!),
work, peasants, women, wilderness, fertility … when you
think about it, a war on life itself!
Who's responsible? I think testosterone might have something
to do with it. 5000 years of patriarchal rule, of monoliths,
monotheisms and monoculture, and its current apex, the US
of A, also help. In our vain efforts to transcend death
and control the forces of life and create ethereal realms
for the spirit (and virtual financial transactions) we have
managed to achieve just the opposite; we have subjugating
life's potential and we have created a globalized culture
of death. Not us, as individuals per se, but as a collective.
For more on that subject, I recommend a quick read of seed
activist Vandana Shiva's work. Unless you agree with Maggie
Thatcher that society does not exist and disagree
with Mary Douglas that institutions have minds, in which
case, forget it.
But perhaps the biggest and simplest schizophrenia of our
society can be seen, not only in the way we disconnect our
spiritual or intellectual aspirations with our more basic
ones, such as food and waste, and our work from our play,
and our profit from our non profit, and our GDP from our
shadow economy, or our cities from our nature, but in the
economic disparity reflected in our current dietary trends.
Today there is much talk and practice and use of Arugula
and such organic goodies at our local and expensive farmers
markets. For the 20% . The elite and the managerial class.
Then there's Dunkin' Donuts and MacDonald's, whose highest
density per capita of storefronts is on the island of Manhattan
- for everyone else. The same societal crack follows the
divide, between stock ownership or estate ownership (a reality
enshrined in every aspect and institution of our country
by the Constitution), and the deeper, perhaps truer soul
of this country - the indebted, the modern day indentured.
On one hand, the rights of property and capital and the
enclosure of the commons, on the other, the eviscerated
and rundown rural heart of America. Scallions on one side,
corn syrup on the other.
Quick parenthesis: life on earth is primordially female,
in that it is self-producing, self-replicating, self-dividing.
It is primordially parthenogenic. Male-ness is a recent
evolutionary add-on, a means of enhancing genetic variability
and viability. In our case, it's taken over, colonized and
parasitized and the earth and women and the poor in one
sweep. For further dialogue on this subject, read the Chalice
and the Blade, by Riane Eisler. Or visit the vernal pools
of Upstate New York, and the Blue-spotted salamander in
March, when male and females congregate to mate in spring.
Three distinct populations of the salamander have evolved
here. There is one pool where all three can be found. On
one end of the sexual spectrum, you have a population of
parthenogenic females. On the other a population of traditional
heterosexual salamanders and in the middle, a population
of females who rely on males for just one thing; their sperm
acts as an enzyme that triggers parthenogenesis in the female.
These males have no offspring. What function do they fulfill?
That of an audience?
Close the parenthesis. The divide between nature and society
has not completely disappeared from my over-simplifying,
male simian mind (additional proof I guess, that I am part
of nature); just it's taken on a new terminology and reflects
a new conceptual canvas. I see the world as divided on one
hand into functional, autopoietic and productive systems,
female-leaning, like living cells, organs, organisms, ecosystems
- or Milpa plantations!; and on the other, mechanized, industrial,
monolithic, Allopoietic, dysfunctional and high entropy,
male-leaning systems - like cities, like militarism and
empire, like centralized industrial agriculture, like western
civilization, like neoliberal economies the likes of which
have depleted fresh water aquifers on the planet, eviscerated
the oceans, damned the rivers, shaved the earth of its forests,
mummified its wetlands and poisoned the atmosphere and domesticated
and exploited billions of people; but worse perhaps, cut
and castrated the processes that entertain the web of life.
Life on the planet is mostly about energy flows and cycles
of matter. As one of Life's most recent products, we have
managed to stop many of these processes from happening.
Take detritus. Waste as food. Cow manure is dumped into
rivers because its cheaper to make and deliver industrial
fertilizer than it is to transport the manure from the feedlot
to the cornfield. Result: the Mississippi and the Golf of
Mexico are dying a slow death of Eutrophication and anoxia.
Before dying, the great epistemological breaker-of-balls
Ernst Mayr questioned the adaptive value of higher intelligence.
He was referring to humans. He reminded us we're only one
in 50 billion species having existed on the planet and that
we have only been around as a speaking species for 100 000
years. He pointed out that the history of life on earth
contradicts the claim that it is better 'to be smart than
to be stupid'. He took the biological success of beetles
and bacteria, as an example. They are vastly more successful
in terms of survival than we are and yet never invented
the Cell-phone or the atom bomb.
I'm digressing; back to the subject of food. After my raccoon
soup episode, I decided to step back and see NYC at a different
scale, say from an imaginary space capsule. Today I see
this big apex of modern civilization as a fat and bloated
squirrel. So my first question, as a naturalist, was: where
does the squirrel get its nuts? What is its place in the
The key to the answer is excellently articulated in this
paragraph from a recent article published by plant-breeder
Stan Cox on AlterNet:
are unlike other animal species in that we have access
to vast amounts of energy from sources other than food.
Only one percent of the energy consumed by the average
American comes from simply digesting what we eat. The
other 99 percent is used in the many other activities,
including agriculture, that burn fossil fuels and deplete
It is as if our bodies were connected by invisible wires
and hoses to a global resource-supply network. Based
on those metabolic formulas, it has been calculated
that over a 24-hour period, the average American consumes
as much energy as would a 66,000-pound primate not living
on that network.
you hear the words 'climate change' or 'global warming',
read 'industrial metabolism.' In New York City, we basically
have two metabolisms, the biological (our food, our water)
and the industrial (the food of our machines). From an ecological
perspective we are bionic; the cities and its machines (and
the same would apply to our cities' spoiled offspring the
suburbs) are extensions of our own bodies. Together we form
the bloated squirrel.
Another characteristic of this half-flesh, half-steel and
plastic, million dollar irate rodent is that it distributes.
It creates food miles. It brings its nuts in from 1500 miles
away on average. Then it throws its waste into the global
atmosphere and oceans or the garbage can (read 'landfill
in Pennsylvania'). Worse, its two metabolisms are meshed.
10 calories of fossil are today needed to make one calorie
of food. And a lot of that is distribution. As any ecologist
(there are too few, alas) will tell you, quite matter of
factly in fact, the main reason our industrial metabolism
is ecologically dysfunctional and that climate change is
happening is that cheap and deregulating fossil fuel economies
destroy life instead of creating it (duh). I.e.; Because
it distributes. Because ecosystems, as phenomenally productive
communities and networks of living organisms DO NOT DISTRIBUTE;
they are place-based, localized phenomena, by definition.
The consumers live in amongst the producers, and the decomposers
too. All is rooted in community.
Our cities, as monsters of consumption and want, are not
rooted in community. At all. They feed off of the entire
planet. They are extractive, colonial, exploitative, imperial.
Needles to say, they resort to brute force, on a regular
base, at home in NYC, say against bicycle riders, or by
sending its own poor to murder other poor people in poorer
countries. My favorite example, the one I share with my
students is that of simple bottle of Dole Apple juice and
all that it entails economically and politically and philosophically.
Take this other excerpt from my chapter on New York's Nature:
urban ecology Guru Tjeerd Deelstra 'Today, we - us humans-
don't really live in a civilization, but in a mobilization
- of natural resources, people and products.' Everything is
on the move.
our 'happiness of pursuit', our western societies have
succeeded in creating a quasi-ethereal existence for
ourselves. Not only are we ecologically detached from
the place we live in, so too are the things we make
and sling around the planet. The captains of Industry
tell us that 'production has been globally integrated'.
Fragmented might be a better word. Pulverized. How about
'Atomized'. Consumer goods no longer come from somewhere,
they come from everywhere. Or nowhere. Shoes, toothpaste,
teddy bears, they're the sum of raw materials flowing
out of the planet's pores, from multiple locations,
pre-assembled in as many countries; they get the finishing
touches in others. One single object such as a computer
can involve the entire planet. Take a bottle of Dole
Apple Juice. Read the label: "Contains apple concentrate
from Germany, Austria, Italy, Hungary, Argentina, Chile,
China, Turkey, Brazil…and the United States."
Now Dole, the biggest single producer and marketer of
fruit, has offices all over the world, does business
in more than 90 countries, which means that phone calls
and emails (human thoughts) emanating from as many different
office buildings around the world and relying on apple
groves in as many disparate localities, 'manage' the
production of just one bottle of apple juice that can
then be distributed anywhere-to New York City or to
Beijing or to the South Pole. Regardless. Origin and
destination are now irrelevant.
There's been a lot of talk of the end of History. Welcome
now to the end of Geography.
York City, our beloved and bloated squirrel, is a prime
example of the phenomena, since, as many thinkers have noted,
it is not so much a place as it is an idea, an idea through
which everything moves, or moves to. Indian food comes to
Jackson Heights. Ethiopian to Staten Island. Chinese to
Downtown. Moussaka to Astoria. Think of the following idea:
in summer New York smells like the world met to cook in
the same kitchen. For me the most eloquent example of this
New York ecology of food is a Noshwalk with food guide Myra
Alperson. My wife and I went on a tour with her through
Bensonhurst in Brooklyn last summer. In a few hours, we
sampled snacks from 10 countries and in ten different languages
(and as many renditions of English). Myra has a book out
on the subject and she dedicates it quite appropriately
to the people and history of New York who have made the
City such a 'delicious place to live in'.
Unfortunately the taste of the Big Apple comes at a huge
ecological cost. The Ecological footprint of our squirrel,
or in simpler English the amount of land needed to support
New York City's metabolism is closer to the size of the
Empire State than to that of the City's own boundaries,
meaning that Gotham is in deep Ecological deficit. Running
up the scale, the same applies to the Nation as a whole.
We export our carrying capacity to the rest of the planet.
We owe the rest of the globe the usurpation of its riches,
of its capacity to grow and distribute food, to bring us
matter and energy.
"As a species, to quote Richard Manning in 'The Oil we eat',
we use up 40% of the planets primary productivity. More
than two thirds of humanity's cut () results from agriculture,
two thirds of which in turn consists of three plants: rice,
wheat, and corn."
Who said food wasn't relevant? Another way of stating the
obvious is that agribusiness is the oldest and most powerful
industry (and lobby) on earth, all the more so for being,
as we've seen, meshed with our consumption of oil, for which
we need the military industrial complex to secure supplies.
When we fight for the control of oil, we fight for (bad)
food. Iraq, Mesopotamia (where organized agriculture and
cities were created). The circle is complete!
There's more ironic still: in our subconscious efforts to
build a superior and eternal civilization, a city in the
clouds full of immortal citizens, basically to distance
ourselves from fallen nature and petty land and wild wilderness
and dirty soil we have never become so dependant on them.
Eat that Homo sapiens ! The same might apply to food; in
our subconscious efforts to overlook it, we have never been
so addicted to it. We are the cheesecake nation, after all.
Thus, ecology has joined the ranks of Astronomy, evolution
and psychology, teaching us as much about ourselves as the
universe around us, what we chose to ignore and to bury,
what we chose to believe or to deny. Freud famously said
that humanity had suffered three great wounds, first with
Copernicus, the realization that we were not the center
of the universe, second with Darwin, that we descended from
warring chimps, third with ol Sigmund himself, that we largely
unaware of what we do or say. Welcome to the fourth; with
ecological footprint analysis, we learn that we are in fact
one with the world around us. Inseparable. And that growth
as we know it is synonymous with suicide. Or, if you agree
with David Suzuki and that 'we are the environment', growth
as synonymous with autophagy, the art of eating oneself.
Let's talk some more about immigration. A student once pointed
out to me how immigrants probably enlarged New York's footprint
by importing all the ethnic foods once they'd established
themselves here. Yes and No. People do come to this town
with their own recipes and meanings and cultures of food;
they also come with growing techniques. They meet in community
gardens where diversity of plants meets with diversity of
origin. They meet by the thousands to fish on the shores
and from the bridges of New York City, too. When you look
at the skyline, the composite image of skyscrapers, jet
planes, fisherman and community gardeners, you can actually
see all stages of human history. The Neolithic, the hunter-gatherer,
the industrial. All of our species current geography and
anthropology too. All of space time, as a matter of fact,
sucked into this all encapsulating black hole we call New
These human histories, their relationships to food, the
food that defines their cultures, their economies, remind
us that rooted in the word agriculture lies the word culture.
The saying goes, we are what we eat. I disagree. We are
'how we get what we eat'. Change how and where you get your
food and you will change everything about your life. Bill
McKibben recently realized that the entire social fabric
of his life changed the day he switched to local agriculture.
He met more people and made more friends.
Feeling atomized? Cut off? Check your diet.
The most obvious point-prover is the grid of Manhattan,
designed at the onset of the industrial revolution, at the
onset of industrial agriculture. We live in rows. We grow
our food in rows. Such is the nature of the machine.
Anthropologists have long noticed how we classify and organize
the world as a projection of our own societal organization.
As an example, my Ye'kuana friends see and speak of the
world in terms of relationship and kinship, since they themselves
view their culture in terms of brotherhood, cousinhood,
motherhood etc. A bird species is never isolated in its
existence, as a species per se; it is described as cousin
to so and so, or brother in law of such and such another
bird species. Similarly, social ecologist Murray Bookchin
once observed that we probably started domesticating each
other before we domesticated our food and before domesticating
the wilderness around us. Accordingly, we probably started
viewing ourselves as superior to nature only after considering
some of us as superior to others.
In the beginning was the Class, and then came bad food for
the lowest among them.
Not so coincidentally, immigrants with a wealth of culture
and background are quick to impoverish when they come to
New York. All studies concur: people arrive healthy and
non-violent, thin and fit. Full of guts and hopes of glory.
Most don't speak English, which might even be their best
protection. Within one generation, obesity, asthma, diabetes,
stress levels, heart-disease and criminal 'behavior' not
only set in, they skyrocket. As one comedian on the Letterman
show recently mused, "It's the English language that's killing
us." Perhaps the guy was referring (unwittingly?) to advertising,
the power and lure of junk food, and the intrinsic decadence
of the 'throw-away' society.
Ed Abbey claimed that violence defined America. What do
the statistics say? More Americans have fallen to domestic
violence than have died in foreign wars, ten million in
the 20th century alone. Homicide, rape, robbery. According
to the NY Times: "375,350 by firearms, and the rest were
due to other means, including beating, strangling, stabbing
and cutting, drowning, poisoning, burning and axing."
The doctors I know tell me how the erosion of immigrant
health correlates with local geography. Most immigrants
are poor, and poor people live in low rent neighborhoods.
No Whole Foods in sight, just Dunkin' Donuts and MacDonald's.
Low rent neighborhoods adjoin places like airports and the
Cross-Bronx Expressway, as well as Con Edison plants and
waste transfer hubs. Giant food depots. Places with diesel
engines that idle, jet engines that spew. Cancer clusters
Gandhi said there is nothing more violent than poverty.
Abbey also said that growth for the sake of growth is the
ideology of a cancer cell. More than immigration, perhaps
it is devolution that defines New York. Or perhaps it is
If you're looking for another rationalization for explaining
planetary ecocide, anthropogenic that is, think again of
the Manhattan grid. Use it in conversation. It is here as
a mirror, dare we look at it, to help us understand, explain
and perhaps escape our current suicidal fate - perhaps its
only redeeming quality. You can quote me on that. Tell the
world that "Life on earth survives in all functionality
by creating what ecologists call resilience by redundancy,
many species duplicating many processes within the system.
That's why wilderness looks like a wild mess - because it
is. An extremely untidy interweaving of curves and fractals
where no circle nor straight line can exist. Such complexity
buffers against entropy. It is a remarkably efficient user
- and saver- of energy. On the other hand, planet-wide industry
backed by hyper centralized economies of scale are non-local
by definition; they promote what's called economic efficiency;
in lieu of a promotion of redundancies, an elimination thereof;
read the annihilation of ecological resilience and 'sustainability'.
The tenet of modernity itself. To quote my favorite writer
of the moment, Howard Kunstler, 'efficiency is the straightest
path to hell'."
Remember the 66 pound gorilla factoid? Here's another nugget
from Stan Cox:
obey a general biological law: The greater the energy
consumption by individual animals of a species, the
fewer offspring they will produce and raise.
From little monkeys to big apes to prehistoric humans
to subsistence farmers to commuters in their SUVs, increases
in energy consumption lead to smaller families. (For
you math fans, the decline in fertility is proportional
to the cube root of per-animal energy consumption.)
A blue whale needs a much bigger vascular system and
a lot more energy than does a rabbit to deliver nutrients
and oxygen throughout its body. An American toddler,
in turn, is hooked up to a support system that dwarfs
that of the blue whale: a planet-wide industrial infrastructure.
We humans have the unique ability to extend our "energy
networks" far beyond our physical bodies. As we've drawn
upon greater quantities of fossil fuels and other resources,
we have built societies in which people have education,
contraceptives and pension plans, all of which encourage
crass economic terms, more money earned is more money spent,
on family, on children. The more products consumed, the
more waste created. In the developing world its cheaper
to have 9 kids than to have 2 in the West. That's why we
have fewer kids up North. Cox, continuing:
overpopulation. Is it a reaction to poverty? How is poverty
created? What qualifies as poverty? The Ye'kuana are poor
the minute they leave their villages to live in the outskirts
of Caracas. They trade in the wealth of the rainforest for
the misery of the slums. Why do they leave their villages?
They are attracted to development.
people of rich nations might like to believe that high
consumption has thereby freed them from the laws of
nature. () Of course, in biology, no mathematical relationship
is absolute. Looking at those nations that deviate from
the overall trend can be as instructive as studying
those that follow it. Cuba, when compared with Central
America and the larger nations of the Caribbean, has
similar per capita energy consumption but only half
the birth rate. Cuba's lower rate of population increase
is generally attributed to its high degree of economic
equality, a rarity in Latin America."
On a recent schmooze fest in Manhattan, I had the luxury of
sitting at an expensive table surrounded by influential people
and listening to E.O. Wilson give an acceptance speech for
a prize he'd just won for his work as an environmentalist.
He mumbled something about the future of our species and our
fate and that of biodiversity on the planet being as of now
in the hands of women if they 'had fewer, more quality children'.
Now, if I follow Cox's argument, either Wilson is expecting
every human being to consume as much energy as a 66000 pound
gorilla, which would gobble up the planet's resources overnight
(not very good for an award winning environmentalist) or that
we should create zero-wealth disparity be socially engineering
a Stalin-esque overhaul of society the likes of Cuban communism.
Hmm. Maybe Wilson was just thinking what many 90 year olds
from Alabama do think, that it's a woman's responsibility
to clean up after a man's mess.
Luckily there's a third way, here. Economic equality exists
all around us; it exists in nature (not ours, but in the functional
one, in raw wilderness). It exists as local, place based communities
called ecosystems. We can achieve that if we decide, choose,
have the wherewithal to re-immerse ourselves, re-insinuate
ourselves into ecosystems and their ecological processes.
Should we chose to be truly productive, that is, by living
in amongst the producers; or, as producers, by living in and
amongst the consumers. The fruits? Entropy would decrease.
Resource productivity would increase. Waste would become food.
Disparity would decrease, as an immediate, mathematical consequence.
In New York, in the exurbs, from coast to coast and pole to
pole, our children would be farmers, too. Basically, the human
species would come home.
is why I am going home, to my native Vermont, this summer,
to plant a garden and to live there, in amongst my Milpa
and the army of raccoons that will undoubtedly show up to
eat my corn at Harvest. I'll make sure they get some of
my home grown apple juice, too. Every Eden has an apple
tree, including my backyard in the Green mountains.
Ps.: Let me leave you with this other excerpt from my forthcoming
book with John Waldman, not that I'm self-promoting here
but because Bill Bryson once strongly recommended to writers
that they recycle. I heed his intuitively ecological advice:
been a lot of hype recently about the greatest migration
on earth, the largest one in human history, the mass
migration of hundreds of millions of people from country
to city, worldwide. Is this voluntary? Do people across
the globe just wake up in the morning, and after reading
the morning paper and guzzling down the requisite mug
of bean, say, "Honey, let's move to the city!"
Let's look at the situation from the perspective of
Today's gospel of Free Trade is that indebted countries
concentrate on producing a few special goods for export
in order to generate foreign exchange, in order to reimburse
northern investors. Rural people and their land are
auctioned off by their own governments and sold to the
global commodity market, which means converting their
once diverse hills and plains for the production of
mono-cultured, industrial cash crops, which in turn
leads to the depletion of natural resources (diversion
of fresh water, dried up river beds, soil erosion) and
forced migration of large numbers of traditional farmers
from their communities. Either their environment has
been plundered by this new economy, or they can no longer
compete: often both reasons apply. Those that don't
commit suicide head for town.
Cities aren't growing, per se, they're harvesting the
world's agrarian crisis, harboring a world wide exodus
of peasants who technically qualify as both economic
and environmental refugees. They number 5,000 a day
They end-up in barrios, favelas, ranchitos. Today, that's
nearly one billion people, one out of every 7 people
on the planet. Living in a slum. Surviving. Scavenging
on the periphery of sanity : personal service, sexual
service, begging, crime.
Some of them come straight to New York.
Beyond having just an ecological footprint, our cities
have a policy shadow, and the two conflate each other.
To think otherwise would be to merely corroborate the
built-in Cartesian divide between mind and body; the
all pragmatic body and its physical impact on the world,
and the evanescent spirit, which knows no earthly consequences.
Know your history, your natural history - there have
been precedents. When Dewitt Clinton pushed ahead with
the construction of the Eerie Canal, at the onset of
New York's Industrial Revolution, he had the support
of a host of clever, forward-thinking financiers. By
slicing a new river through bedrock he cut a shortcut
to the Great Plains: exporting wheat to Europe would
now be cheaper via New York than via the Mississippi
and New Orleans. Wheat prices crashed in the Old World,
putting Central European wheat farmers out of work.
Where did they go?
to Urban Nature Journal Archive