How do urban planners bring that same sort of renaissance to the communities that are not rich? How do we bring the urban renewal into communities that struggle to make ends meet?
My answer is agriculture, but it is not the only answer. Urban agriculture – and the aggressive conversion of abandoned and dilapidated properties into arable farm space – not only suggests an answer to the urban decay into something less dangerous and more useful to the folks who remain, but also creates an instant industry where entrepeneurs can work land and seek out markets for the excess produce that is not eaten directly. It could create a meaningful alternative for the children of the poor who have only to choose between risking prison or joining the military for any escape from their poverty-stricken situations. Improving food security and health in these communities, as well, would also mean a reduction in missed school days. Healthy food means healthy kids. Sick kids miss school. The leading predictor of a potential drop-out is days of school missed. Protecting the health and promoting the health of children helps promote their education, and, as a result, the future potential of their whole lives being unlocked with opportunities.
The cultural barrier, of course, is that farming is hard work; farming is menial work; farming is what the white people dragged all those non-white folks around to do because it was just too hard for us to do. Agriculture, at a certain level, is an exploitive action that requires a huge amount of labor to generate the excess that passes along to the folks who do not need to work that hard to get by.
This is a barrier that will take a long time to break down, and one of the most important barriers to break down is the cultural barrier of white farming, itself, that refuses to see the humanity of the workforce as anything but a hindrance to good business practices. Farmers assume because they are paying their workers well, that is enough. Providing water, perhaps a place to sleep, all these things, are simply not enough. We must never stop trying to create a more humane system for our agricultural work force. If we wouldn’t want ourselves or our kids or our grandkids out there, hunched over the strawberry patch on a hot summer day with a bandanna and a jacket against the insects and wind-blown pesticides and chemical fertilizers, then we must find a different way, because everybody is somebody’s child, grandchild, and best beloved. Until the system is built upon respect for all workers, and a constant quest for equitable systems beyond just dollar payment becomes the norm, no one would want to abandon the office for the fields, and even standing on a street corner slinging drugs would be seen as a better alternative to hard work sunrise to sunset, such dehydration-inducing, cancer-causing, back-breaking work. Ultimately, everyone should participate in the life of the soil, and in agriculture. But no one should if it means dying young with complications of dehydration creating liver failure, and the various chemicals and pesticides encouraging cancer cells, and the back so used up that it creates disability.
Farming is only as hard as we make it. The most amazing thing is no one ever thinks that maybe the system needs to change. OFten, even the folks who notice it discuss how the economics are what they are, and no one is willing to be brave enough to change the economics. Ultimately, we are eating ourselves to death. Our system of agriculture, created by freemarket economics, is destroying the world and our fellow man. The cost of destroying others is figured into the payments made by the farmers. The cost of destroying the land will be borne by future generations, and it makes little difference over the course of the forty or so years any single farmer will be working his or her land. Over the course of 80 years, though, the constant desecration of soil life and microbial life and irrigation practices creates a cascading system of failures that threaten to destroy us all as a species. The cheap strawberries we buy at the store every spring have a hidden cost that we don’t pay today. It’s like the thing that financial advisers tell us about buying clothes and household goods: Buying cheap clothes will mean replacing them constantly, so buy quality things that will last and try to maintain them even if it looks more expensive today.
I read an article about strawberry pickers in the fields of California, and the backbreaking labor therein. The white farmer looked out at his fields and stated with certainty that only illegal immigrants would be willing to work hard enough to excel as a picker of strawberries. He said this with such moral and economic certainty, that I wanted to reach through the newspaper and grab him by the lapels and shout: “Than maybe there’s something wrong with the fields, themselves, that you’ve made such work like this for people! Maybe you are the one who has to change.”
In our own backyards, we have consumed the empty farmlands, expanding upon the dead ground around the city, where developers buy up cheap land near urban centers that used to be farms, because the ground is dead and the next generation of farmers have all moved off the farm, to other pursuits. THis is where our suburban tracks are built. These empty farms and old landfills that used to surround our urban centers have become empties out wastelands, because our food is being grown so far away, and shipped so far. We plant our castles on the deserted ground. We mark our fences, and our driveways, and hire policemen to stalk the streets against the urban flood.
And, we shop in stores where we can find anything we desire, nearly year round. Anything that isn’t available 24/7 is being developed so it can be available 24/7. The availability issue means more land is torn up and turned into farm country, farther from the city, where drones fly overhead and “farmers” who live miles away, where their kids can go to nice, suburban schools, manage workers with levels of science and research that are both very impressive and very depressing. I am not going to wax mythological about the sadness of the loss of the family farm. I am not depressed that science is involved. I am depressed at how science is being used.
The crops are vessels for our needs, and not independent, living organisms. By treating these living things as commodities, we aren’t using science to increase our respect for the crop. We are using science to exploit the crop, and use it up in full.
The recent GMO debate, to me, often misses the point. We have a system of agriculture so destructive to the very crops we propose to be cultivating that we must extricate and replace the very DNA of the crop, itself, annihilating a living organism at the genetic level and replacing it with this other, new thing. It will continue until the next build-up of tolerances, and then the cycle repeats of annihilation after annihilation until very little is left of our crops and ourselves that came from the soil and the wilderness and the aeons of time before us.
Speeding up the evolutionary process is dangerous because the process is by definition one of death. There is no way to know what the long-term effects of any new crop will be because crops dont stop breeding when we are done with them. They crops with Wild species. The super weeds continue on, as well, spreading into the wild. What changes we make Wil tumble forward into an unknown future where the changes can never be undone. In this, and for this, the wise elders who respect the land and the earth cry out about the dangerous changes wrought, by men who only see the danger of what can be proven in a laboratory. Safe to eat is not the same as safe for tge seventh generation of man. The number of unknowns is too great.
And, if we imagine our cities differently, and design them around different goals and dreams, and reshape this public imaginarium we call suburban sprawl, we would not need to commodity so many living things.