Hostile cities, engineering localism and other delusions of urban agriculture.


Talk given at the Critical Legal Conference, Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Stockholm, 15/09/12.

Hostile cities, engineering localism and other delusions of urban agriculture.

A plaque of Anna Lindhagen, Fjällgatan, Stockholm. The text reads: “We need more justice and beauty in the world, greater organization and justice in the workplace. Only that is worth striving for.” Photo: indie2k

I should stress at the outset that this is very much a work in progress, so I very much look forward to hearing your criticisms and any questions you might have about my research.

Let me begin, then, with a story. It’s said that during his short visit to Stockholm in 1917, Lenin was given a tour of an allotment farm project by the social democratic councillor Anna Lindhagen. Lindhagen was the co-founder of the Stockholm’s Farm Allotment Society, the first of its kind in the city.

During his tour of the allotments, the story goes, Lenin became irate and reproached Lindhagen. Workers should not poke about in the soil, he told her, but devote themselves to the coming proletarian revolution. For Lenin, the urban agricultural project into which Lindhagen had invested her energies was nothing but a symptom of false class consciousness.

Although rather interesting, the tale is most likely apocryphal. I have yet to find proof that Lenin ever met Lindhagen during his short stay here in Stockholm, half a year before the October Revolution. Nevertheless, I claim that the tale is significant for the way it captures a tension between revolutionary Left and democratic Green.

Although a social democrat, Lindhagen lived in a time before environmental philosophy had been transformed into a political ideology in it’s own right. Were she alive today, Lindhagen might very well have found that membership to a Green party was more suited to her philosophical temperament. Those, like Lenin, who think utopia must be fought for will find no common ground with those who, like Lindhagen, believe it will arrive as a matter of democratic course. In this sense, the story turns out to be more about the tension between revolutionary Left and meliorist Green.

We tend to think that class struggle and environmentalism are natural bedfellows. Whilst it is doubtless true that both outlooks emerge from a similar impulse – the impulse to challenge the prevailing ‘wisdom’ responsible for mankind’s present predicament – it is unclear whether these problems should, or even can, be tackled together. What we tend to ignore is that there are entirely distinct philosophical underpinnings to each view.

Of these, many practical gulfs separate the politics of Left from Green – their economic views, for example, differing attitudes towards human history and tradition, contrasting understandings of man’s place in society, the place of class, production and growth, etc. Furthermore, both outlooks are host to many contrasting and mutually contradictory accounts of the human condition and the metaphysical constitution of persons. Nevertheless, there is much to recommend a synthesis between Green and Left, especially given the urgency economic inequality and climate change.

Much of my recent research has been an attempt to determine whether these tensions between revolutionary Left and meliorist Green, captured in the tale of Lenin’s hatred of allotments, and observable in many recent urban agricultural movements, have something to do with their contrasting view of cities – what cities are, what they are for, how mankind came to inhabit them and the type of future they have come to represent.

I have chosen to focus upon the urban dimension of Green-Left tensions for three reasons. Firstly, I’m interested in understanding why Green-Left political coalitions have thus far failed to get off the ground (the hasty dissolution of Sweden’s Red-Greens (De rödgröna) only a few years after their formation is one recent example amongst many). After all, politics is an inherently urban affair, as testified to by the etymology of the word ‘politics’ – from the Greek ‘polis’, meaning ‘city’ or ‘city-state’. There are few more appropriate entrances into understanding political tensions of any sort than the judicial disputations which urban life seems uniquely able to generate. Secondly, finding a genuine centre ground between these two camps requires that the more common ideological bugbears I have already mentioned be sidestepped. Helpfully, views about what cities are and what they are for are rarely at the forefront of debates between these camps, although they are implicit in them. Lastly, and most significantly, the urban dimension of Green-Left tensions is significant simply because the majority of mankind now live in cities.

I’ll now talk a little about this last point and then conclude by examining a widespread delusion about localism and contemporary urban agriculture, with special attention to the case of post-communist Cuba.

How do we know that most of the world’s population lives in cities? A study by the EU’s Joint Research Centre in 2009 concluded that 95% of the world’s population currently live on just 10% of habitable land, land which is undergoing rapid urban sprawl.(1) In the UK, for example, 92.2% of the population are set to live in cities by 2030.(2)

An astonishing fact, you might think, until we realize that even in 1950 a full 79% of the British population already lived in cities. With rural employment opportunities shrinking as EU-wide agricultural subsidies become financially untenable, many will have little choice but to move into cities to find work. As James Lovelock, originator of  the Gaian world view, told audiences at a recent festiva of ideasl: “Like it or not we are all moving into cities.”(3)

The first thing to say about the differing views of cities is that there is a widespread mistrust of them in both Left and Green political camps. Whilst Marxists view cities as the site at which the peasantry were enslaved by the capitalist class, for example, Greens tend to view mankind as only passingly suited to urban life, especially the Anglo-American metropolises and Asian mega-cities of recent decades. As the engines of industrial capitalism, so the Green sentiment runs, cities are inherently unsustainable. But in reality, cities are an energy efficient form of human settlement. The combination of a large number of shared walls in both commercial and residential property and the proximity of markets to living quarters means that city dwellers require substantially less energy for heating and transportation than their rural counterparts. A 2009 study by the International Institute for Energy and Development found that those who live in cities have significantly smaller carbon footprints than those who do not. And the more concentrated a population centre is, the greater the environmental saving. The carbon footprint of the average Londoner, for example, is around half that of the UK average. So contrary to the common impression, cities can be Green.

Still, there are ample problems facing a largely urbanized world. Food security being one of the more pressing concerns. With the mounting despoliation of the natural world which runaway climate effects will soon begin triggering, for example, global crop yields are predicated to decrease, potentially sparking food riots far worse than the ones we saw in Egypt, Cameroon and Haiti in 2008.

At this point, many Greens argue that the solution is greater localism. If only we produced goods closer to the point of their consumption, they say, free from the pernicious interference of companies whose speculation distorts their price and sows the conditions for global crisis, human flourishing can be safeguarded from the corrupting influence of global markets and/or out of control macroeconomic forces. Greater localism would result in less fossil fuel consumed in the transportation of goods, thus yielding a more sustainable society, insulated from crude oil price fluctuations. Naturally, cities will be the site for greater localism, as most of mankind now live in them.

But there is a problem. Defenders of this view assume that a state of greater localism is a political end in itself, a state which lies squarely in the power of central government to deliver using well-crafted policies. Largely the function of Enlightenment values, many today retain a keen faith in the power of liberal democracies. We assume that all that is required for social change is to think through our problems rationally, arrive at solutions, present them to our politicians and legislators and they will evaluate them objectively and if they are real solutions a law will be passed and all will be well.(4)

Although in many respects a model of urban sustainability, the case of Cuba demonstrates that such enlightenment faith is nothing but an elaborate delusion. In 2002, 90 percent of all fresh produce in Havana came from urban agriculture.(5) By the following year, more than 200,000 Cubans were working in the expanding urban agriculture sector. At present, around 200 gardens in Havana supply the majority of residents’ fruit and vegetables. Approximately half of Havana’s land area is given over to urban agriculture.(6) All of this means that Cuba burns substantially less fossil fuels in food transportation per unit capita than many other developed nations.

Hopeful that Cuba’s successes can be emulated, the journalist and author David Tracey asks: “If they can do it [in] Cuba, why not elsewhere, including here?” But Cuba succeeded in constructing a largely sustainable urban agriculture in such a short space of time because its citizens had few other options available. But far from being the result of well-crafted policies that delivered on their promises, Cuba’s urban agricultural success was the result of an unforeseen series of economic shocks that swept through the world after the fall of the Soviet Union, leaving a trail of ecological catastrophes and environmental despoliation in its wake.(7) Up until 1989, Cuba was heavily dependant upon Russian oil and fertilizer subsidies to sustain its domestic agriculture. The sudden fall of Soviet communism brought Cuba’s entire agricultural economy crashing down.

Without the economic shocks unleashed upon Cuba in the wake of the dissolution of Soviet Communism, and with malnourishment a real prospect as food became scarce, Cubans had no choice but to take up urban agriculture. As one manager of a large Havana farm told Tracey: “We had no alternative. For political reasons, we had to do it first.” It was either farm or starve.

Thus, what the case of Cuba demonstrates is that it is simply not in the power of our institutions to deliver us into the world which Greens wish to see. For that, we will need to resort to other means. The truth that many Greens refuse to confront is that if urban sustainability is to become a reality, revolutionary means must utilized. As Andy Wightman, a prominent campaigner for land reform in Scotland, suggests: “[Real] social change happens in revolutionary moments.”(8) Market shocks must be manufactured and the protection which liberal democracies afford to vested interests disbanded. For starters, a synthesis between Green and Left requires that both abandon their meliorist tendencies. What is needed, in other words, are Green revolutionaries working in collaboration with a Left shorn of the discredited orthodoxies of social democracy. Lenin would be turning in his mausoleum.