Inheriting the Grid #2

Our scale determines our goals.

At the recent international meeting of the Peoples Global Action (PGA) alternative globalization network in Haridwar (India), there was an explicit call for pga-affiliated groups to literally map themselves on the globe. Articulating the scale of its own organization and the various relationships to local contexts across the globe, the amorphous pga can better understand its own makeup, shape and potential impact.1 Being aware of the scale on which our work takes place, and the scale at which we hope to intervene, is essential in evaluating our impact, and in reexamining what’s at stake in our struggles and our praxis. Our goals determine our scale.

We cannot talk about Chicago if we don’t talk about scale.

There are more FBI agents working on political corruption in Chicago than in any other city in the country. The hired truck, city hiring, and minority contracting scandals combined to make 2005 a year of internal combustion for Mayor Daley’s machine(2). What does this mean for those of us doing political organizing here—should we reorient our work towards a regime change in the 2007 elections? Would a change in leadership have material impact that would positively change the majority of residents’ lives? We can look to the legacy of the late Mayor Harold Washington, who signifies the only real challenge to the Daley family Political machine in the last 60 years. It has been well documented(3) that Washington’s work was hampered greatly by the entrenchment of local Politics in a machine of someone else’s making. This requires people to consider closely: if we are going to actually implement large-scale change, to what extent can it be accomplished without utilizing some of the pre-existing infrastructure?

The scale of many practices encountered in these pages is so small. Small scale can have its advantages: flexibility, low budget, intimacy of process for participants. But within the context of a city of 9 million residents (metro area), with a total area of nearly 400 miles, vast suburbs, a Loop-centric transit system(4), and intense racial and social segregation, how can we imagine doing anything as a city or at a city-wide, trans-local scale? And in a moment of such political crossroads, at what scale will the most effective political and cultural work occur?
Sarah Lewison reflects on the challenges of working on a citywide scale in “Driving around with Ken Dunn”. Her day-in-the-life notes reveal the serious obstacles to initiating recycling and urban agriculture projects with a commitment to social justice, such as competing with for-profit waste management firms that are more “efficient” according to their economies of scale. It certainly causes us to wonder what would happen to these grassroots infrastructural efforts if they had more efficiency standards demanded of them. Efficiency is clearly the key component of municipal infrastructure, but if we were trying to imagine an activist or critical infrastructure, wouldn’t it need to leave room for the ethical motivations driving our activism in the first place?

Rachel Carlson published her famous book about pesticides, Silent Spring, in 1962, at a time when “ecology” had currency only within the field of biology. Today, the term carries broader recognition and significance within social, political, and economic discourse. In Chicago, Mayor Daley has taken to “greening” the city through the development of more parks, support for agriculture projects, and throwing around as much green language as he can get his hands on. Clearly, “sustainability” has become a useful buzzword for politicians, CEOs, and developers to signify social and environmental awareness. Sometimes the cultural and political value of “green” practices bears positive results, and sometimes it can be read as corporate “green washing”—suggesting that the language of greenness can easily be used to conceal or obscure more problematic issues and practices.

In the pages of this issue, we meet organizers like Ladonna Redmond from the Institute for Community Resource Development and Michael Bancroft of Chi-Town Chefs, who would like to see more sensitivity paid to the language of our food-related initiatives. Too often, buzzwords like sustainability ignore the most precarious members of society who both need and desire community and personal health. As suggested by Brian Holmes’ Neoliberal Appetites, it is actually the logic of the free market economy that allows some members of society to purchase their local/sustainable/organic/free-range individual health in exchange for turning a blind eye to the structural inequalities of the two-tiered food system.

As Nancy Thomas and Daniel Block point out, we do not have to look far to see severely limited access to healthy and affordable foods in this city. We also do not have to look far to see environmental catastrophe, such as the hazardous industrial emissions that are impacting the health of Chicagoland citizens from Pilsen all the way down to Robbins, IL.

The urgency of considering community health in relation to rural/urban environments and food systems will require a more precise language that acknowledges race, class, and the political-economic shifts that are constantly reorganizing space and power and are so often ignored by the language of greenness. This issue starts develop some of that language, providing useful definitions and plenty of references for further research throughout the pages.

The functioning of food systems cannot be adequately explored without acknowledging the paramount issue of scale—in economic, geographic, and productive terms.

Agriculture makes up about 1% of the US’s gross domestic product (GDP), yet it was the subject that caused the most tension at recent World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings in Hong Kong. The focus of the discussions was agricultural subsidies to farmers in the US and EU and the state of food sovereignty for developing countries. In this issue, we focus on food systems in Chicago, and explore vital efforts underway that are redefining the food infrastructure of the city. While certainly not comprehensive, there is an exciting constellation of activities ranging from the informal to the highly institutional that are taking on the challenges of production, distribution, and consumption of food in Chicago. Claire Pentecost’s introduction to the food section explains that the enormous scale of the major player food retailers is the primary factor allowing them to set the norms for labor, trade, environment and technology in the food industry. Their scale determines their dominance.

Agriculture has suffered similar consolidation. On one extreme, you have the most heinous industrial farms pumping out commodity crops like corn and soy that are barely edible and have more value in the abstract “futures” commodity market than in our shopping carts. On the other, you have organic urban growers operating at such small scales that they cannot get their products included in the distribution channels linked with convenience stores and markets in their own neighborhood. In their 1977 book, Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity, Frances Moore Lappe & Joseph Collins tried to debunk myths about scale in agriculture by addressing questions like, “Isn’t the backwardness of small farmers to blame?; Why don’t small farmers produce more?; Isn’t bigger better?” In 2004, Christopher Cook uses his book Diet for a Dead Planet: How the Food Industry is Killing Us to update what was started in Food First, and to describe how the food industry pressured farmers to “Get Big or Get Out.”

In Chicago there is a wealth of food related activism, education and plain hard labor going on that is pointing towards local alternatives to the agricultural and market consolidation described above. In late January, the Genetic Engineering Action Network (GEAN) hosted a large meeting at DePaul University in order to begin the mobilizing their protest of the biotechnology industry at McCormick Place in April. And on February 10, 2006, right before this issue goes to print, the first annual Chicago Food Policy Summit will take place at the Chicago Cultural Center. Both of these first-time events will raise the topic of sustainable local food systems to wider audiences. Through direct action as well as policy work, we’re on our way to better understanding the distinctions between the small-scale experiments—which help us imagine alternative dynamics of food production, distribution, and consumption—and those that can effect system-wide change, forever transforming the way Chicagoans get our food.

As for AREA, after two issues and nearly one year, there are a mere 10,000 copies floating around the city. The daily circulation for the Tribune’s RedEye is 94,000. We have no ambition to compete with the stacks of unread RedEyes that litter the streets and subways every day. AREA is still finding and creating our readership. area is still beginning; it is more about research than about result and it will probably stay in that open-ended space for the duration of its existence. Our hope is that by working through difficult questions, critically framing important local topics, and continuously interacting with relevant and radical practices in the city, area will feed its activist research(5) back to those whose practices inspire and challenge us.

References:

1. http://www.nadir.org/nadir/initiativ/agp/conference2005/summary.htm/

2. On January 24, 2006 former city councilman turned UIC professor Dick Simpson released a study entitled Chicago City Council’s New Found Independence. Simpson’s study describes the increasing pattern of dissent among council members who are taking stands against the policies put forth by Mayor Daley.

3. William J. Grimshaw (1992) Bitter Fruit: Black Politics and the Chicago Machine 1931-1991.

4. A Transit system that recently denied the Citgo subsidy offer to help low-income transit riders— see No Discounted Transit for Oil By Aaron Sarver on http://www.inthesetimes.com/

5. Inspired by the non-academic activist and artistic research of international groups like Colectivo Situaciones (Buenos Aires), Precarious a la Derive (Madrid) What How and for Whom? (Zagreb), Euromovements.info, Platform (London), and Center for Urban Pedagogy (NYC).