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Bundanon Day 2: Town and Country

Although it was a frosty morning, the very pregnant lady in the team desperately needed to go lap swimming. So the agenda for the morning of day 2 was to get up, have breakfast, scrape the ice off the car and go into town to Bomaderry pool. After a good swim and a gourmet snack at a local café, we returned to our humble digs in the country for an afternoon of reading, discussion, billy tea and oranges.

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One of the ideas we want to explore while here in the bush is the middle-class fantasy of fleeing the city for the good life in the country–the “sea” or “tree” change. Such a fantasy is sometimes combined with the desire to set up a small hobby farm. The other idea we wanted to think through beside the desire to flee, is the desire to stay and farm in the city and, in particular, farm the suburbs. In this regard, we think suburban agriculture as not an oxymoron, but rather a strategy for having it both ways: the suburban block of land emulates some kind of rural ideal on a small scale, but those living in the suburbs remain proximate to the city. There is much more to think and read on this point. Andrea Gaynor’s book Harvest of the Suburbs: An Environmental History of Growing Food in Australia (Perth: UWA Press, 2006) would be particularly pertinent, but we didn’t bring a copy of this book down. For now, Brendan Gleeson’s short GRIFFITH Review essay “Backyard Gardens” will supplement our thinking on the matter. He argues that in contrast to the idea that suburbs are inherently anti-environmental, the suburbs “beckon a new, comprehensive makeover which will make them fit for food production”, which is kind of what we are trying to achieve with the Farm.

But also, on a potentially much larger scale, Nick, Kirsten & Ashar from Milkwood Farm have just relocated from their rural setting of Mudgee to the ‘burbs of Kiama to enact such a suburban makeover and to push their extraordinary permacultural project further and into contact with many more people; as Kirsten put it on her fantastic blog, to “build on (their) experience (at Milkwood) to catalyse communities, individuals and food systems into action”. We are really looking forward to hearing the next installment of their story.

We are also interested in fictional stories and how they link into the broader themes we want to explore. So, going on a foggy memory of the story and a seemingly relevant title, Jen had it in her head that the fable “Town Mouse and Country Mouse” could be a useful hook into a story about urban and rural agriculture, but when she read over several versions, from Aesop to Horace and Beatrix Potter, she found that the general jist of the story is kinda dry: town mice are rich and country mice are poor, and both mice are more-or-less content in their respective lives. The story didn’t have an interesting commentary on relationships between town and country, but made mild social observations about the different characters of townspeople versus country folk. However, she did stumble upon a Romanian version in which the town mouse covets the life of the field mouse. In this version, there is no return to normal life after reciprocal town/country experiences. Rather, in the Romanian tale, the town mouse preys upon the field mouse’s naivety: town mouse encourages field mouse to liase with a cat. The cat kills field mouse and the town mouse steals all of her belongings. Jen also came across the Norwegian tale in which the country mouse gets drunk, and this neat 1926 silent animation, Le Rat des Villes, et le Rat des Champs, which is fun watching. But the Romanian version has the most scandal and intrigue and potentially could say something interesting about the town/country divide in this context.

In contrast to these reflections on relatively recent aspects of the town/country split, Mazoyer and Roudart begin their sweeping 500-page study A History of World Agriculture: from the Neolithic Age to the Current Crisis with the creation of the biosphere itself.

As foreshadowed in yesterday’s post, the distinguished French agricultural thinkers see their project as addressing the ‘crisis’ in agriculture from a historical materialist standpoint and outlining solutions based on the “theory of agricultural systems” that they elaborate in the pages of this volume. The ‘crisis’, as they see it, is comprised of (but not limited to):

  • the persistence of mass malnutrition despite exponentially -increasing global agricultural productivity
  • environmental destruction due to agricultural activity
  • depletion of natural resources to support agriculture
  • the deepening and contradictory impoverishment of small farmers, particularly in developing countries and
  • the use of advanced technology to further sequester the riches of the natural world in the hands of private interests (GMOs, for example).

The authors argue that, despite the enhanced productivity of the current system, we cannot use the same methods to solve the crisis. Increased mechanisation of agriculture in developing countries, for example, would result in an overall decline in prices and the ruination of those small farmers, who are the majority and too poor to afford the expensive equipment and fuel involved. These people would then likely join the masses of slum-dwellers in the growing cities of the Global South (see also Mike Davis, Planet of Slums).

This infernal logic is not surprising when viewed within the wider context of generalised worldwide capitalist crisis; such perverse outcomes are common in market economics, as has been particularly demonstrated in the wake of the post-2008 global financial crisis. For mainstream observers, some of these problems can be addressed by increased education, food aid and so on. While necessary, such measures are replete with pitfalls and are in the end completely insufficient to address the problem.

The authors see the crisis as a logical consequence of the unjust distribution of wealth and resources and the price pressures set by venal international trade agreements. Systematic problems require systematic solutions, but the system involved in this case is the largest and most enduring endeavour in human history. Its story is that of human biological, societal and cultural evolution, and ecological impacts on a planetary scale. So it is that Mazoyer and Roudart set out to understand the conditions that gave rise to agriculture and the settlement and cultivation of virtually the entire globe by Homo sapiens sapiens.

The ancestors of today’s urban agglomerations were, in general, areas in which a substantial level of predatory activity (including hunting, gathering, foraging of wild species) gave way to the cultivation and breeding of domesticated species about 10,000 years ago. In this period, developments in technique particularly around stone toolmaking—the Neolithic revolution—enabled and necessitated expansion of human settlements and the saw vast changes in the extent and quality of social differentiation, not to mention innumerable associated cultural impacts in housing, furniture, art, family structure, language and so on. The first ‘towns’ in what is today the Middle East were characterised by their residents’ relationship to the food production process. In a sense there was no ‘country’ that stood in contrast to the pockets of human settlement where agricultural development was rapidly occurring.

Leaping back, then, to the Country Mouse’s visit to his/her cousin in the town: the urban centre is now a place almost entirely divorced from the primary process of food production (with the exception of technical activities such as food packing, ‘food science’, farm equipment manufacturing, chemical manufacturing and finance) and is a net consumer of products from the countryside. The relationship between the two is best characterised by what John Bellamy Foster has termed (paraphrasing Marx) the metabolic rift. This general term refers to capitalism’s tendency toward an alienated relationship with the natural world.

More specifically, this can be seen in the town/country divide, where farmers grow food that is shipped to the city, but whose nutrients are never returned to the soil. This implies a long-term depletion of soil fertility, made possible by the long-distance transport necessitated by pushing farms farther from urban centres. Likewise the local urban ecosystem (such as it is) is threatened by an overabundance of human waste. These conditions led to the intense putrefaction of the River Thames in Marx’s time, and the consequent depletion of England’s soils to the point that French battlefields were dug up and shipped to England after the Napoleonic Wars (see Foster, Marx’s Ecology, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000, 163). It is no surprise that some versions of the Tale of Two Mice end with the Country Mouse being hornswaggled and dispatched by her clever city cousin.

OK, so obviously our innocent little question about the Town and the Country is a topic as deep and rich as an Iowa cornfield. Mazoyer and Roudart have taken the first steps down the path toward their theory of agricultural systems, and will surely be tracing out the roots of the metabolic rift along the way. There will be much more to say about them, and Raymond Williams, the two mice, and the future of humanity in blog posts to come.

Also, there are lots and lots of kangaroo here as well. We shouldn’t forget the poor kangaroo, even if they aren’t as exciting as wombats. We are also pleased to be in their company. And the cows. And birds.

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