In whose hands?
I am not by nature a joiner. I became a member of the Green Party in the UK mainly to spite Phil Woolas after he made some more than usually daft comments about non-EU immigrants. That the Green Party did exceptionally well in the last general election and seems, to me, to offer the only credible way out of the global recession were pleasing perks of membership, but otherwise I didn’t appreciate being told to toe the party line on a few issues, sugar pill-based quackery homeopathy being one of them. I suppose that I don’t particularly enjoy being told what to think. This is why I’m in academia which is, as a friend put it, the last refuge of the sociopathic.
It’s partly for this reason that I’m fascinated by groups of people who set out, purposefully, to create alternative communities away from mainstream society: people who base these experiments in new living on complex rules for behaviour and thought. It’s something I would never do, and I am curious as to why others find it so attractive. I wrote my MA thesis about the first boarding school for the daughters of the Cape Colony’s Dutch-Afrikaner middle classes in the nineteenth century. This institution was a secluded, strictly evangelical retreat from colonial society for the pupils who lived there, many of whom complained that they found it difficult to return to the habits and routines of normal family life. Mission stations run by societies like the Moravian Brotherhood were similar. There, at places like Genadendal and Elim, residents were required to adhere to strict rules regarding work, dress, and speech.
The best known of these retreats were Robert Owen’s utopian socialist communities in the United States during the 1820s. The first of these, New Harmony, lasted only a few years. But there have been hundreds of similar examples, most of them unsuccessful. It seems that nearly every generation of reformers has a fringe which believes that the best way to reform society is to leave it, and construct a new way of living on its fringes. There are elements of this in the recent Dark Mountain Project founded by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine. They argue that the best way to prepare for a post-peak oil world and catastrophic climate change is to retreat, and to learn how to live sustainably and self-sufficiently away from society.
One of the most striking features of these experiments is the primacy they give to food. The cultivation of crops and, less frequently, the care of animals (and it’s interesting, although not surprising, how many alternative communities were vegetarian) were central to life in these societies. Not only was this importance due to practical reasons – before the beginning of the twentieth century, at least, it would have been too expensive to buy in adequate food supplies in rural areas – but for symbolic ones: ‘pure’ food produced by hardworking and hardthinking workers was bound to be better than that grown by exploited wage labourers.
I’ve recently finished reading This Life is in Your Hands, Melissa Coleman’s gripping memoir of her early childhood on the homestead established by her father, Eliot Coleman, a man believed by many to be the father of the modern organic movement in the United States. In 1968, Eliot and is wife Sue packed their belongings into a VW van and travelled to rural Maine – five hours from Boston, and three from Portland – to a plot of land on which they intended to build a homestead and grow enough vegetables and fruit for their own consumption. They had been inspired by the experiences of an older generation of ‘homesteaders’, Helen and Scott Nearing. Indeed, the idea of modern homesteading – living entirely self-sufficiently – was popularised by the Nearings’ book Living the Good Life: How to Live Simply and Sanely in a Troubled World (1954) in which they described a lifestyle in which was independent from the economy; healthy; and completely ethical. It was a life sustained by work done by their own hands.
The Colemans bought their land from the Nearings, and, using Living the Good Life as their Bible, set about living in accordance to the rules established by the Nearings. Eliot built their wooden cabin himself; they lived without electricity and running water; they cultivated most of their food themselves; and they bought as little as possible from the local shopkeepers. However idyllic this life may have appeared, it was precarious and dependent on backbreaking labour:
That my parents had chosen this lifestyle over an easier one wouldn’t matter in the moment when the goats had eaten the spring lettuce, there was nothing left in the root cellar, the drinking water was muddy with runoff, and there was no money under the couch for gas to get to town – not to mention that Jeep’s registration had expired, and we had no savings account, trust fund, or health insurance policy, no house in town to fall back on.
They soon realised that complete self-sufficiency was impossible. The Nearings, for all their status as homesteading gurus, bought in a range of luxuries, and the Colemans had to purchase oats and other grains, yeast, seeds, bacteria for making yogurt, and vitamin B supplements for their diet. And the absolute seclusion they enjoyed during their first year or two of homesteading – when Melissa was born – came to an abrupt end as a result of an article in the Washington Post by a sympathetic journalist, and Eliot’s ambitions to spread the gospel about organic gardening. He was already selling the surplus from their garden, and believed that organic methods offered an alternative to the new farming orthodoxy espoused by Nixon’s Secretary for Agriculture, Earl Butz, who advised farmers to plant maize ‘from fence row to fence row’.
Eliot’s increasing renown, his ever longer absences to study and lecture, as well as the numbers of enthusiastic students who came to work on the garden in the summer – often in the nude – put strain on the Colemans’ marriage. And it’s here that one of the main problems of these alternative communities becomes especially apparent. For all their desire not to replicate the power structures of mainstream society, they invariably do. Women continue to undertake the burden of domestic labour. Eliot Coleman worked unbelievably hard – to the extent that he developed hyperthyroidism as a result of stress and exhaustion – but, as a contemporary article on homesteading makes the point, he did the ‘fun’ bit: the growing. When he finished his work in the garden at night, he could rest. Sue, though, was responsible for keeping house and doing laundry without soap, detergent, or appliances. She ground their own flour, made yogurt, sewed and mended their clothes, and bottled, canned, and preserved food to see them through the winter. She had three daughters under the age of seven to care for. Oh, and she ran their vegetable stall too. Her work – invisible and largely unappreciated – was unremitting.
Michelle Nijhuis suggests that one of the reasons why women find homesteading so difficult is because of the absence of labour saving devices like washing machines and vacuum cleaners: without them, otherwise easy chores become difficult, time consuming, and very, very boring. But I’m not so sure about this argument. (Although who am I to disagree? I wouldn’t touch homesteading with a bargepole and she’s a paid-up member of the movement.)
Much of This Life is in Your Hands reminds me of John Matteson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning double biography of Louisa May and Bronson Alcott, Eden’s Outcasts (2007). Louisa May is now best remembered as the author of Little Women (1868), but during the mid-nineteenth century her father, Bronson, was a well-known and controversial educationalist and philosopher with strong links to the Transcendentalists. He also experimented with living away from society and, like the Colemans, his and his family’s time at Fruitlands, a commune in Massachusetts, ended in disaster. Established in 1843, Fruitlands lasted slightly more than a year, and Bronson was largely responsible for this: he and his small group acolytes planted the fields too late, ran out of money, and constructed a set of rules which actively hindered work on the farm. All animal products and labour were banned, and the members spent as much time raising funds and discussing whether or not they should drink coffee, as they did actually working the land.
Indeed, most of the work was done by Abba Alcott, Bronson’s long-suffering wife. She cared for their four young daughters, cooked, sewed, cleaned, chopped wood, and washed laundry. This was not an unusual lot for a women in nineteenth-century America, but it was made worse by their poverty, and wilful refusal to use ‘luxuries’ – warm clothes, hot water, a greater range of foodstuffs – which would have made the work any easier or, at least, more interesting. And, of course, the point of the commune was that it was meant to be wholly egalitarian. In the end, Abba did the same work – in possibly worse conditions – as women living in nearby Concord.
Towards the end of her memoir, Melissa Coleman describes her mother’s mental breakdown after the drowning of Melissa’s little sister, Heidi. But she makes it clear that this was the trigger for something which had long been developing:
Just that morning the gardens were bustling as usual with apprentices and customers and vegetables needing to be picked. It was a humid-hot day, a Saturday near the end of July. Baby Clara was strapped to Mama’s back in Heidi’s old sling, sleeping mouth-open as Mama cooked lunch, skin glowing and tan from summer. Skates was coming to visit, and Mama needed time to clean the house, to hide from her mother-in-law the chaos her life had become: Bess and Papa having breakfast together that morning, mud tracked in from the gardens, piles of laundry to be washed by hand, Heidi and I running around the small kitchen pulling each other’s hair and screaming.
In a recent post for Grist, Tom Laskawy makes the point that the longer hours worked by Americans – and I think that this is true elsewhere as well – have been sustained by the greater availability of cheap food – food which is not necessarily nutritionally sound, nor ethically produced. On the other hand, appliances and a greater variety of food available at affordable prices in supermarkets have facilitated women’s greater entry to the workplace in greater numbers. We know, nonetheless, that this is part of a food system which is entirely unsustainable.
So what do we do? I certainly don’t want a retreat into homesteading. I suggest that we take another look at the ways in which we work: both at home and outside it. There is a significant body of work which suggests that a reduction in the numbers of hours we work would not only be good for our and the planet’s wellbeing, but also for the economy. If we had more time to cook and to grow our own food – although within reason – we would have the beginnings of a more stable food system. Importantly, most of the labour performed in the home is still by women and, clearly, men need to share more of it. The burden of ensuring a shift to more sustainable lifestyles cannot be women’s responsibility alone.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
This term a colleague and I are teaching a course on the 1960s to our third-year students (who are uniformly lovely – henceforth I shall only teach third-year students, Head of Department-willing). I’ve spent the past two lectures on the counter-cuisine, a movement located mainly in California from around 1966 onwards. Aside from the loonier fringes represented by the Diggers and some members of the back-to-the-land movement, the most durable remnant of the food counterculture was the co-operative movement. Over five thousand buying clubs and co-operative groceries were established between 1969 and 1979. Warren Belasco explains:
One woman, who was a member of the West Concord Food and Friendship Co-Op remembers:
One of the things which struck me as I wrote these lectures was how similar the present food revolution – whatever that may be – is to the counter-cuisine: as the Diggers distributed free food at Golden Gate Park in 1966, using food discarded by supermarkets, so organisations like This is Rubbish raise awareness about food waste by ‘skipping’ – collecting fresh produce past its sell-by date and then serving it in free feasts. The amazing People’s Supermarket provides an alternative to supermarkets by being run along co-operative lines.
As the co-operatives of the 1960s went out of their way to support local producers – as Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse (founded in 1971) bases its menus on what local organic farmers are harvesting – so now eating ‘locally’ is seen as one of the best ways of eating responsibly and sustainably. ‘Locavorism’ offers an alternative to a globalised, industrialised food system which stocks supermarkets with strawberries – flown halfway across the world – in the middle of winter.
But our food supply has been globalised since at least the beginning of the twentieth century. Already in the 1870s, improvements in transportation meant that Canadian and American wheat fed Europe during one of the worst harvest failures of that century. But the excitement many felt during the twentieth century at the prospect of relatively cheap pineapples and papaya grown abroad and flown and shipped to Western supermarkets, has been replaced by a deep concern about the environmental cost of unseasonal eating, and the power of Big Food.
There is another reason to think twice about food shipped in from abroad: its political cost.
I’ve just finished reading Nicholas Shaxon’s eye-poppingly good Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World (2011). He argues that tax havens – which the International Monetary Fund estimates to hold more than a third of the world’s GDP on their balance sheets – have fundamentally undermined the world’s economic system. Not only has the legitimate, on-shore financial system become progressively deregulated to compete with offshore – helping to cause the 2008 crash – but tax avoidance keeps poor nations reliant on aid. He explains:
So far, so obvious. But then it becomes more interesting:
What are the implications of this? Most importantly, our banana multinational has managed to avoid paying the Honduran government – or indeed any government – any tax.
In 2006, the world’s three biggest banana companies, Del Monte, Dole, and Chiquita, paid only $235,000 tax between them – despite combined profits of nearly $750 million.
I’m sure that Shaxon chose deliberately to use Honduras as an example. Until 1970, Chiquita was known as the United Fruit Company. Fans of One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez might have inkling about the United Fruit Company’s murky past:
The coming of the Americans – all of them employees of an unnamed banana company – is the cause of the ‘events that would deal Macondo its fatal blow’, chief of which is a massacre of striking workers. The employees of the banana company decide to down tools because of low pay and their appalling working conditions – something justified by the ‘mournful lawyers’ of the banana company on the grounds that
Caught in this ‘hermeneutical delirium’, the striking workers are at the mercy of the banana company and the army, sent to quell their action. The strike ends with a massacre in the town square, when soldiers turn their automatic weapons on an unarmed crowd.
This is a description of a real event, the massacre de las bananeras – the banana massacre – in Ciénaga, Colombia, on 6 December 1928. Garcia Marquez’s ‘banana company’ was the United Fruit Company, which hired labour only through local agents to avoid having to comply with Colombia’s labour laws. When Colombian workers demanded better conditions and formalised contracts, their strike became the biggest in Colombian history, and came to an end when the Colombian army opened fire on peaceful protestors in Ciénaga.
The term ‘banana republic’ was coined by O. Henry in his anthology Cabbages and Kings (1904) in his account of his brief stay in Honduras – on the run from an embezzling charge – to describe a country run for the profit of a small elite of politicians and businessmen. The business in question was the United Fruit Company – and the term could be used to describe most of the Latin American countries in which United Fruit operated.
Founded in 1909, United Fruit emerged as the largest North American banana importer during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Its success was due partly to its strategy of manipulating governments into allowing it to pursue its interests, mainly by excluding all other opposition. It created monopolies by paying local producers higher prices than its competitors – and then dropped these prices to well below acceptable levels once the rivals had left the market, often impoverishing its suppliers.
When United Fruit began cultivating its own plantations during the 1930s, it did so across Latin America. If one of its divisions succumbed to Panama disease (Fusarium cubens), the company simply abandoned it – and those workers – and destroyed all the infrastructure which would have allowed other companies to begin farming there again once the plants were rid of the fungus.
To top this, the company was not averse to manipulating governments through bribery and intimidation, and sponsoring the odd coup d’état. United Fruit lobbied hard for the CIA-backed coup in Guatemala in 1954, when the left-leaning Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán – who had expropriated land claimed by the company – was replaced by the rightwinger Carlos Castillo Armas.
As Pablo Neruda wrote in his poem ‘La United Fruit Co.’ (1950):
It seems that Chiquita still engages in questionable practises, other than doing its best not to pay tax. An investigation into Chiquita’s business dealings in Latin America during the late nineties alleged that the company bribed officials, used dangerous pesticides, employed its workers in appalling conditions, and illegally maintained a monopoly on banana production.
In 2003, Chiquita admitted to paying $1.7 million to the paramilitary group the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), which has been listed as a terrorist organisation by the US State Department. The company also allegedly provided AK-47s to the group. Chiquita said that the payments were to protect its workers, but the Colombian authorities reject this, arguing that they were meant to allow Chiquita to continue producing bananas and to discourage labour unrest. It’s difficult to believe Chiquita’s claims as it becomes clear that nearly all of the victims of the AUC were Colombian workers.
So what are earnest locavores to do? They could stop buying bananas altogether, along with other imported produce. I have mixed feelings about this. I really like being able to support farmers in Kenya. We know that the distance that food travels between producer and plate is not necessarily linked to its impact on the environment: a ready meal made in a local factory may have a bigger carbon footprint than string beans grown in Tanzania. Another alternative would be to buy certified, Fair Trade products.
But, even so, Fair Trade can have only a limited impact. The problem with Fair Trade is that it asks consumers – those at the end of the food chain – to make the choices which will change a whole food system. This, particularly during a recession, is absolutely impossible. For real change to happen, we need a fundamental reform of both political and economic systems:
Which is why, oddly, getting Chiquita to pay its taxes is the first step in creating a better and fairer food system.
Sources cited here:
Warren Belasco, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).
Warren Belasco, Review of Storefront Revolution: Food Co-ops and the Counterculture by Craig Cox, The Journal of American History, vol. 82, no. 2 (Sep., 1995), pp. 853-854.
Marcelo Bucheli, ‘Enforcing Business Contracts in South America: The United Fruit Company and Colombian Banana Planters in the Twentieth Century,’ The Business History Review, vol. 78, no. 2 (Summer, 2004), pp. 181-212.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, trans. Gregory Rabassa (London: Penguin,  1973).
Mark Moberg, ‘Crown Colony as Banana Republic: The United Fruit Company in British Honduras, 1900-1920,’ Journal of Latin American Studies, vol. 28, no. 2 (May, 1996), pp. 357-381.
Nicholas Shaxon, Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World, revised ed. (London: Vintage, 2012).
Anthony Ashbolt, ‘From Haight-Ashbury to Soulful Socialism: Culture and Politics in the Movement,’ AJAS, vol. 1, no. 3 (July 1982), pp. 28-38.
Warren Belasco, Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took on the Food Industry, 1966-1988, revised ed. (London: Cornell University Press, 2007).
Andrew Kirk, ‘Appropriating Technology: The Whole Earth Catalog and Counterculture Environmental Politics,’ Environmental History, vol. 6, no. 3 (Jul., 2001), pp. 374-394.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.