Some 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.

Chapter 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 Best:

Food 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.

Back 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, self-transcending.

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:

My 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, with wings.
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 Whopper ™.
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 Atlantic.
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?"

What is 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?

I'd 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 betray us.

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 nature!"

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.

Manhattan. Painted Skimmer.

Manhattan. Blue Dasher.

Manhattan. Eastern Pondhawk.

Manhattan. Calico Pennant.

Manhattan. Twelve-spotted skimmer.

Manhattan. Green Darner.

Manhattan. Ebony Jewelwing.

Manhattan. Eastern Amberwing.

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 forest?

The key to the answer is excellently articulated in this paragraph from a recent article published by plant-breeder Stan Cox on AlterNet:

Humans 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 natural resources.
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.

When 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:

"In 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.

To quote 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.

New 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. Ew.

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 York.

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 that spawn.

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 poison.

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:

[Humans] 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 smaller families.

In simpler, 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:

The 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."

Define 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.

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.

That 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.

See you next month,
Dave Rosane

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:

"There's 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 the south.
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 worldwide.
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?
Ellis Island."

back to Urban Nature Journal Archive

home - about us - programs - urban nature journal - join - newsroom - shop - faq

Website design by Milton Glaser, Inc. 2004

New York Arts. New York Charitable Foundation. Central Park Project. New York Artists. Christo and Jeanne-Claude. NYC Arts. Urban Ecology and New York, New York Economic Development. NNYN. Ted Kheel. Support New York Arts. Protect New York Environment. New York Artists. Buy Art Prints. New York City Economy. Manhattan Arts. Manhattan Society. Gates Project Central Park. Nurture New York Nature. NNYN.

Top Google Searches March 2005


nicole dehuff


star wars trailer


allison krauss whiskey lullaby


chris ledoux


ncaa brackets


tara reid


shannon elizabeth




harry potter


mario vazquez