The Rebirth of the Commons

TheCommonsSo, in case you missed this from a week ago, here’s a link to a NYT article about the “Elders of the Organic Movement” who met for a week-long conference at Esalen in California in January. When I joined the organic movement, first in Maine in the ’70’s and then in California in the ’80’s, it was not long after these pioneers had broken ground for a food and farming revolution that has become a global phenomenon. They were still young, idealistic and extremely energetic. The participants in this conference of Elders, looking back at their accomplishments, raised fundamental questions which we really need to start answering and, more importantly, doing something about. Questions like: Does the National Organic Program (the set of rules which organic farmers must follow) need to be torn up and re-written in order to prohibit abuses such as “clamshelled tomatoes,” or “thousands of acres of single crops?” Don’t you think part of organic agriculture is to package organic produce in ways that are respectful of the earth? Don’t you think blocks of mono-crops don’t have a place in the organic movement?

There are so many more abuses the current rules turn a blind eye towards. When the USDA took over organic certification, they clipped the wings of the organic movement turning organics from a mindset into a merchandising niche. And now that it’s a $31 billion industry (that’s U.S. organic production), is there any chance that the organic consumer– for whom the movement was created in the first place and who still imagines organic agriculture as the clean, pastoral right livelihood it was intended to be and not a profit-hungry, industrial behemoth– is there any chance the organic customer base can counter the well-funded organic trade group lobbyists in order to haul the organic movement down out of the stratosphere and back to earth as a useful tool for simplifying and sustaining food production, making it so we Earthlings can have a future with healthy children and a food system that doesn’t consume more calories in production than it produces in food? I doubt it. Don’t get me wrong: If it’s really true that those millions of acres of farmland (and related water systems, surrounding eco-systems, farmworkers, etc.) that are represented by that $31 billion figure have been spared chemical fertilizers and pesticides and have some soil-building programs in place, that’s not something to dismiss out of hand. But organic agriculture arose from a moral responsibility to the Earth, its inhabitants and our future generations. It originated as a whole-system alternative to the extractive and toxic agriculture which unfortunately is still the dominant form today.

Organic incorporated lifestyle. It considered downstream consequences. It was all about renewable energy sources. It embraced Voluntary Simplicity. Organic agriculture as practiced by the big boys in the industry today is not a wholistic alternative that takes into account social equity, quality of life and working conditions for farmworkers, carbon footprint reduction, land reform, food access and so on. It has gone astray.

The dream of the Elders of the Organic Movement is not dead, but its presence within the official organic program is like a candle in the wind. It’s time to bring that little flame back inside. Place it in our hearts and know that there is a food and agriculture revolution that is very much alive and needs a new cadre of change makers to take it to its next level. It’s going to involve decentralizing food production and making vigorous efforts to revitalize local food systems. It’s going to mean making people who control present day food production very uncomfortable, for there is no force greater than a mobilized citizenry and our answers will not fit neatly into their old paradigm.

It’s happening already. It’s happening all over. Let’s keep it moving. It’s the burgeoning, global Permaculture community. It’s the non-GMO movement. It’s the anti-corporate shift towards local control and local self-determination. It’s the Food Sovereignty movement (in its international form and its nascent domestic form).

It’s the huge wave of young people wanting to farm (not acknowledged in the NYT article) who have seen the ugly, alienating results of two centuries of capitalist rat race and what it has done to people’s lives and to the environment. They have discovered that working the soil and producing safe, clean and nutritious sustenance for their neighbors is a calling to their basic humanity and resonates with what they know to be good. They visualize villages, towns and cities dotted with farms and gardens of all sizes that are growing families and kindling local economies with a robust exchange of local food, goods and services. They see a day very soon when productive farmland is freed from the death sentence of real estate speculation and pried from the clutches of private ownership; a day when land is made available, rent-free, for those who would steward it, green it, cultivate it, raise farm families on it and feed their neighbors with it. I’m talking about the rebirth of the commons where every square foot of arable land and every soul who is called to its tending will be revered as a national monument and a public resource. All of society will share the responsibility of maintaining these treasures. This will not be given to us, but it is ours to reclaim.

I’m not going to stop beating this drum. I’m hearing the rhythm being taken up all over. The walls are going to come down and we are going to see a different future. People are going to take back control of that one thing that defines us at our most basic level: The food that sustains us.

Who will we count as among us? Who is ready to take up the cause?

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