Summer—Fall 2008

Summer—Fall 2008


What has been a commonplace of ecology is now often said of the “global economy” too: everything in the world market is connected with everything else. The rapid decline in house prices in Baltimore can drive up the price of eggs in China. China strikes oil, and the price at the pump decreases; global warming follows, causing a hurricane, and (to reverse the proverb) a butterfly stops flapping somewhere over the Chesapeake Bay. On the one hand, the mass media, the mouthpiece of the singular Economy, describe the economy as something mechanical: it has “cycles,” it “grows,” it “shrinks,” and change in one part puts “pressure” on another. On the other hand, they present it to us as possessing intentions and emotions: it “calculates” and “predicts”; it is “happy” or “sad.” In any case, the picture drawn is one of a system that governs itself, regardless of circumstance or what any one of us might want from life.

It is curious, however, that as a system, the Economy never seems to be in balance, and, when portrayed as a consciousness, it seems to be bipolar and never content. These states of crisis contrast with what we have learned about most ecological systems. Rather, it appears to grow (“good”) or shrink (“bad”), when it does not seem to be undergoing some massive internal or (as is increasingly clear) externalized catastrophe. Indeed, one of the troublesome terms and concepts in discussion of the Economy as an all-inclusive system is that of “externality”—the unfortunate butterfly mentioned above, for example. At the same time, such rhetorical shorthand as “the market thinks …” reduces discussion of both human intentions and the appearance of commodities in the market to one of superficial differences, as distinct from one of different motives and practices.

The recent “food crisis” (and the related “fuel crisis”) illustrates well the ridiculousness of talking about the Economy with ecological turns of the phrase. Yes, there are, roughly speaking, “mechanical” effects, although not unconnected with human intervention. Global warming, for example, is driving the growing number of extreme environmental events, including the devastating floods in the Mississippi Valley last June. These floods destroyed millions of acres of wheat, corn, and soybeans—a few, hybridized species that are grown extensively as single crops, or “mono-crops.” Last June there was no margin of time left to replant these summer crops, nor were there alternatives not so susceptible to flooding.

So is mono-cropping in this way necessary? To begin to answer this question, we should consider how what is commonly thought of as “agriculture” these days has little or nothing to do with cultivation as it has been understood for millennia—nurturing innate tendencies of living things under certain conditions—let alone with crop gene and species diversification to buffer against disaster, or further cultivating sustainable human relationships with self-sustaining environmental systems. Instead, mono-cropping represents an effort to bring agriculture in line with the demands of industrial production, particularly capitalist: each plant is regarded as a little machine whose efficient output of consumable material must constantly be improved, and whose individual products (beans, kernels, etc.) must be identical to each other for all intents and purposes, so that monetary value and patent rights can be attached to them.

Furthermore, the extensive planting of such crops aims at increasing marginal surplus—translating into capital and profit—rather than being satisfied with the normal abundance of traditional sustainable agriculture. And, just as in the housing–credit crisis this year (see Indypendent Reader 7, Winter 2008), the profits are privatized, while the negative impact of risk is made a problem for society in general. It matters not that such “staple” crops are being diverted for processing into “green” fuels, packaging, and bio-fabrics; commodity diversification through further industrial processes does not change the fact of unsustainable industrialized agriculture.

As such the Global Economy is unsustainable and unjust. Yet “sustainability” has become a buzzword among politicians and businesspersons, and “environmental justice” is not far behind in overuse. In the present Indypendent Reader, our contributors have tried to keep these terms meaningful by illustrating local efforts toward solving economic and ecological problems, and providing a framework for thinking about them. Farooq examines Baltimore City’s new Office of Sustainability and interviews Dave O’Leary of the Sierra Club on the same. Petr interviews two representatives of Baltimore land trust projects. Hufnagel considers the question of whether “green industries” are really as economically and ecologically sound as their name suggests. Jones and Imhof explore Baltimore’s neighborhood food gardens. Finally, Hoeschele offers some perspective on long-term strategies for preventing “environmental justice” from being co-opted by the powers that be. As always, we hope this issue inspires you, perhaps literally, to try to build a new society on the vacant lots of the old.

—Michael Lane, for the editorial group