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Thinking About (Growing) Food

Flourishing greens growing at the Alemany Farm in San Francisco.

Food is all the rage these days. Whether it’s an “Underground Market” full of local jams, candies, and homemade sauces, or a new restaurant featuring locally acquired organic food on its menu, a benefit “Feast” featuring a famous vegan chef, or even a political discussion about the food industry, there’s a huge public hunger for it.

…everything old is new again. The resurgent interest in local foods and home-scale preservation—from canning, jamming, freezing, brewing, fermenting, and otherwise experimenting with food—is happening coast to coast. Taking up the pot and the pan, the cheesecloth and strainer, the canning jar and the wine bottle, homesteaders are beginning to reweave the web of culture lost in the toxic downdrift of the industrial food supply. Food preservation is hooked into all the values of homesteading—self-sufficiency, community resilience, DIY for fun and pleasure—a reminder that food is not something that’s done for us, but something that we do with one another. Remaking our relationship to food is one of the central homesteading pleasures and practices, a radical act that can go a long way toward growing into our role as producers rather than consumers. —From “Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living” by Rachel Kaplan with K. Ruby Blume, Skyhorse Publishing, New York: 2011

Artichokes soaking up the sun in the Potrero Hill Community Garden, with Mt. Tamalpais and the Golden Gate Bridge visible across San Francisco in the background.

Just yesterday I received by email newsletters from the Slow Food organization (“Slow Food vs. Fast Food” plus news items about this year’s stunted corn crop, the rise of urban farms, food safety in China, and the Farmers’ Market explosion) and Food Democracy Now (soliciting opinions on Obama’s Farm policy, a piece about GMOs and Organics—Coexistence or Contamination?, antitrust and fair market livestock rules, Food Stamp usage increase). On any given day one can find dozens of articles on food politics, agricultural ecology, food and climate change, food and energy, as well as the usual coverage of new restaurants, markets, and products. What seemed fresh and lively a mere five or six years ago is today’s tidal wave, drowning critical engagement in a wide river of noise and marketing. It’s almost as though our obsession with food is marching in lockstep with our expanding waist-lines, as we engorge ourselves with more than we can digest.

The Street Food Festival, August 20, from my window overlooking Folsom Street.

We just had a huge “Street Food Festival” outside the front of our house that filled Folsom from 22nd to 26th Street, sponsored by La Cocina, a neighboring nonprofit dedicated to incubating small food entrepreneurs into full-fledged businesses. (One of their better known success stories is Chac Mool, a food truck selling excellent Mayan dishes that has the only permit to park and sell food in Dolores Park.) It seems that all the efforts that have been germinating for the past few years to bring food to the front of our consciousness have been both successful and are at the same time notably failing too. More »

Fraud and Corruption: The DNA of Business

Many of us watched the financial meltdown that happened in 2008 and continues its repercussions to the present idiotic debate on deficits and debt (as though it were all the public workers and poor people of the country who had massively looted the public treasury, rather than Halliburton and Goldman Sachs!) with various reactions from amusement, horror, schadenfreude, to excited anticipation. The future stretching ahead of us bodes ill, though, and while we should work towards a revolt that challenges/rejects the austerity agenda, until such a rebellion starts, life is going to keep getting harder for more and more people. Unemployment is soaring (which would be fine if it didn’t mean an abject lack of resources as a result) and the frontal assault by the ultra-rich on the social safety net is going strong. Tepid Democratic defenses that involve pre-emptively agreeing to entirely wrong-headed frames of reference only accelerate social disintegration.

I have been reading a lot lately, finally finding time to finish a few books that have been beckoning me. I read David McNally’s brilliant “Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance”, a book that I can’t recommend highly enough. I also managed to plow through all 517 pages of “Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America” by Richard White, also a fantastic history that I highly recommend. Taken together they reinforce each other across time and space. Both look at periods of about a quarter century in which capitalism radically reorganized economies and enclosed vast geographies and human cultures into new market relations simultaneously—one in the latter part of the 19th century, the other about a century later.

Railroaded covers the rise of the railroads from what I’d like to say is a “Processed World” perspective. That is to say, rather than the triumphalist, Darwinist narrative of the rise of the corporation as a victory of efficiency and intelligence, and the railroads as the most compelling example of the corporate form in the 19th century, Richard White looks at the venality, stupidity, and corruption that were the deep foundation of the expansion of railroads across North America (including Mexico and Canada, which as he shows, was driven by the same logic and even many of the same men and investment syndicates). Rather than presenting the Union Pacific or Southern Pacific as these all-powerful organizations that earned the nickname “Octopus” (in SP’s case) these were inefficient, badly built, poorly maintained, largely unnecessary, and extremely destructive industrial companies. White unmasks the internal workings of these railroad corporations in all their glorious ineptitude, showing how the owners were back-biting, small-minded men (including especially Leland Stanford, the namesake of White’s university employer!) who knew nothing about railroads, and probably even less about managing businesses, but in many cases (Collis Huntington, Jay Gould, William Villard) were extremely good at buying and bullying the politicians they needed to get the public monies their grand schemes required.

The railroads were laughably unprofitable for the thousands of British and German and New England investors who were fleeced again and again by the slick salesmen of western railroads, who pointed to the federal guarantees and long-term bonds they issued as proof of their solvency. But the owners of railroads made their fortunes by building elaborate interlocking corporate structures, full of holding companies, junk bonds, insecure securities, and the whole panoply of chimerical financial instruments we’ve come to know so well in the last decade of derivatives, collateralized debt swaps, etc. When their business empires began to totter, they’d run to their bought-and-paid-for senators and congressman in Washington D.C. to get new appropriations, rollovers of old debts, new authorizations for long-term bonds guaranteed by the U.S. government, and for a time, they’d continue the shell game that made them personally rich while bankrupting dozens of railroads by the early 1890s. As White puts it, “Railroads caromed across the continent, creating systems that in toto made no rational sense but that could yield vast personal fortunes through construction, speculation, and financial manipulation.”

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Carnage and Cynicism

Woke up yesterday to a glorious sunny, warm day, unusual for San Francisco in the summer, and after a cold fog last night, it’s beautiful again today. In the news yesterday I read a cyclist was killed by an SUV jockeying for position on a Los Angeles street, and in downtown SF a woman cyclist was run over (she died today) by a truck after she turned left in front of it. The dull routinization of slaughter that our transit choices depend on…

A few days ago SF police shot a guy ten times when he ran away from them after apparently evading his $2 bus fare in Bayview (there are conflicting claims about whether or not he was armed and whether or not he shot at the police, and now the police are claiming he shot himself!). Two nights ago a spirited anti-cop demo went roaring through the streets, leading to 35 arrests and a smattering of property damage. Some people produced a flyer (art below). I loved the banner in front of the march: “You can’t shoot all of us: Fuck the Police!” It is a deep insult to the social fabric of our daily lives that people are getting murdered by police for any reason, let alone something as petty as avoiding a bus fare.

This is a flyer distributed at the march July 20 in San Francisco.

I’m reminded of Peter Linebaugh’s magisterial “The London Hanged,” an incredible book in which he profiles several hundred individuals who were hung (by the neck) at Tyburn Gate in London between the mid-1600s and mid-1700s, the vast majority for stealing rather small amounts of “property” (often food). As Linebaugh shows, this was the time in capitalist and British history when the basic idea of the inviolability of property rights was being established, and it took a good deal of state-sanctioned murder to reinforce that new logic. Could it be that we’re living through an analogous process in which refusing to pay for small things like bus rides, or even petty shoplifting, is going to face much more severe punishment, even random death?

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