Uh oh. As much as I hate to disagree with the very smart (and fellow Doublethink contributor) Baylen Linnekin, this time I have to. Reacting to the suggestion that American agriculture could adopt more of the techniques of the deindustrialized, urban farming that took root in Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Union, he writes:
Heavens to Mao no! No, no no!
As an urban farmer in America–I think my 625 sq. ft. or so plot qualifies me, over my dead body will or should any “program” force us to de-industrialize and become a nation of urban farmers. Small businesspeople, of which farmers are a subset, indeed form part of the backbone of our economy. But so too do the researchers, investment bankers, universities, professional sports teams, and corporations.
Every society strives to emerge from subsistence farming. The principal struggle of man over the millennia has been to move from the forest to the farm to the cities–and not so we can farm some more.
Yikes. I mean, I agree completely that the idea of forcing the adoption of an Americanized version of the organopónicos would be misguided, but … yikes.
In the first place, while it may be true that realizing the forest-to-farm-to-city trajectory has been man‘s “principal struggle”, it does not follow that that describes the implicit desire of all men: the existence of grumpy farmers like Wendell Berry and Joel Salatin proves the exception. Obviously it would be foolish to try to make people earn their living by working the earth, but this does not show that there will not be a significant number who will decide that they want to do just that.
Secondly, just as it’s important not to overromanticize subsistence farming or be unreasonably negative about city life, it’s at least equally essential not to overstate the delights of the urban bottom line. Potato famine? Yeah, that sucked. But so can welfare, and food stamps, and 60-hour weeks at McDonald’s, and the felt lack of open space, and not being able to find decent produce at prices you can afford to pay. The idea that there might be a place in the urban economy for people – indeed, even people without an immediate inclination to go in for field work over office life – to till the soil, and indeed to enjoy such work more than the usual daily grind, should not be dismissed out of hand.
Thirdly, a rise in urban gardening is something that we’re already seeing, and not just in the form of programs for wayward youths and strange vacations for restless yuppies. And it’s not just a pastime, either: it’s very possible to make money from the fruits of a backyard or a vacant lot, and to the extent that people find such work more (intrinsically or financially) rewarding than other forms of labor, my very rudimentary grasp of economics and decision theory suggests that it’s the kind of thing they are going to want to go in for, even in the absence of external measures encouraging them to do so.
Fourthly and finally, and perhaps most crucially, Cuba’s own move away from industrialized sugar cane production and toward sustainable (in the technical sense) and urban agriculture was first and foremost a response to a particular set of economic realities – the sudden absence of petroleum and trading partners that followed the fall of the Soviet Union – that left them pretty much oil-less and forced them to find a way to grow food for themselves. Obviously – unless you believe the peak oil folks, anyway – the U.S. isn’t going to be facing anything like this in the very near future, but if fuel prices continue to rise or even stay just as high as they are, culinary microeconomies that are less dependent on transnational shipping are going to seem pretty attractive. And so this suggests, once again, that it may be the vagaries of the market, rather than statist do-goodings, that lead this kind of agriculture to take root.
It’s of course very likely that the American version of urban farming is very often going to be both more technologically sophisticated and far less monolithic than the Cuban one, but it’s still a mistake to think that urban agriculture has a place only in Maoist fantasies. The trajectory of the human spirit can be surprisingly non-linear.
[UPDATE: A commenter on the original post says something similar.]