From WILL PARRISH
The most exciting aspect of Mendocino County’s civic life is the popularity of efforts geared toward creating a more ecologically-sane, human-scale economic system. These activities commonly fall under the rubric of “economic localization.” The basic idea is that people living in a given geographic area should produce what they use for themselves, rather than depend on purely self-interested corporations and wealthy absentee land owners to furnish these things for them.
In recent years, Mendocino County’s far-flung assortment of activities that are consciously geared toward achieving this end has been growing in breadth and depth. The majority of efforts by localization activists encompass the areas of food cultivation and distribution (e.g., locally owned organic farms and farmers’ markets), transportation (e.g., Cars Are Evil), energy production (e.g., solar panel installations at private residences), and education about the tenuous state of the global economy.
One strong measure of California North Coast’s emergence as a national localization hub is the regional prevalence of sharing organic, open-pollinated heirloom seeds and seed saving. Heirloom seeds are those handed down by families and tribes over generations.
Earlier this month, I participated in annual seed exchanges in both Boonville and Laytonville, which gatherings featured a broad assortment of seeds that local people cultivated in their organic gardens, ranging from Zapatista Blue Corn to chili peppers from Sri Lanka. At the Anderson Valley Seed and Scion Exchange, more than 200 people were on hand.
These events were part of a far larger regional trend. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Old Town Petaluma was founded about a dozen years ago. In its first year, it had about 200 customers. This past year, the company printed 250,000 copies of its mail-order seed catalogue, having quickly run out on a print run of 150,000 the year before. The catalogue is 120 glossy pages brimming with information on the varieties and origins of seeds for sale.
The company’s owner, Jere Gittle, decided to relocate his company to its present outpost, from its original home of Mansfield, Missouri, because more than half of his customers lived within a 200-mile radius of Sonoma County’s second largest city.
One indication of the localization movement’s vitality is that groups such as Willits Economic Localization, Greater Ukiah Localization Project, and Coast Economic Localization Links have formed, which seek to coordinate existing efforts in these areas and foster new ones. Out of these groups have grown local affiliates of an international movement called Transition Towns, which seeks to gird local civic and economic infrastructures against the dislocations that will be wrought by Peak Oil and global warming.
There is a positive cultural dimension to all of this. For example, to the extent that younger people make the conscious choice to live in Mendocino County, for reasons other than the opportunity to grow wealthy off the marijuana trade, it is very often because of their desire to participate in the localization activities and the culture surrounding them. The coordinator of the community garden at the Integrated Services Center in Willits, located off of East Commercial St., for instance, is an energetic young man who moved there from Colorado primarily because of his desire to be part of a more vibrant local food movement.
The most promising aspect of the “economic localization” movement is that it implicitly recognizes that the dominant economic system is extremely destructive of both people and the natural environment. Two billion people are seriously or chronically malnourished because they are forced to rely on global capitalism for the production and distribution of their food. Roughly 120 species will go extinct today, as they did yesterday, and as they will tomorrow, almost solely as a consequence of the insane economic system that masquerades as a progressive solution to precisely the problems it has created.
To the extent that the economic localization movement posits a solution to these things, it is usually under mantras like “Live Simple, That Others May Simply Live.” It overwhelmingly puts forward individualistic lifestyle choices as solutions to problems that are rooted in bigger social structures, thereby taking the main pillars of the present economic order — such as concentrated land ownership, or the existence of private property as a moral and legal construct at all – entirely for granted. While acknowledging the various wonderful attributes of the economic localization movement, it is clearly worth asking if its approach is commensurate to the scale of the problems it claims to be addressing.
This past Saturday, February 19th, I was fortunate to attend a lecture in Caspar by the author, activist, and public intellectual Raj Patel, who has written absolutely the best book currently in print about the global food system: a New York Times best-seller called Stuffed and Starved. The lecture was part of a weekend conference sponsored by The Mendocino Institute, brainchild of labor historian and Fort Bragg resident Cal Winslow. Among the main supporters of the project are the anarchist and social historian Iain Boal and forest restoration ecologist Will Russell.
Nearly 200 people crammed into the Caspar Community Center to hear Patel’s energetic presentation on the theme of “food sovereignty” – a distinct idea, Patel clearly explained, from that of “food localization.”
“Food sovereignty” is a term coined by members of Via Campesina in 1996 to refer to a policy framework advocated by farmers, peasants, pastoralists, fisherfolk, indigenous peoples, women, rural youth and environmental organizations whereby they claim the right to define their own food, agriculture, livestock and fisheries systems, in contrast to having food largely subject to international market forces. The realization of this aim necessarily entails free access to enough land to grow the food themselves.
Here in Mendocino County, more than four decades on from the Back to the Land movement, and with the sorts of problems the localization groups seek to address – Peak Oil and climate change – becoming ever more pressing, somewhere on the order of 99 percent of food consumed by Mendocino County residents was grown somewhere else. Most prime agricultural land is used in the production of a pair of non-essential, non-food crops – ganja and high-end booze – that are grown almost entirely for export.
“You discredit yourself if you put forward the notion that the land is destined to remain covered by nothing more than cannabis and wine-grapes,” Patel said, in a response to an audience comment about how hopeless the application of his ideas seems in Mendocino County. He acknowledged that the idea of land occupations taking place in Northern California, such as have recently occurred in countries throughout the world to demand agrarian reform, may seem like a cruel joke now given present political conditions. However, people’s sense of what is possible tends not actually to be aligned with what actually is (as the present uprisings in the Middle East, much less in Wisconsin, make clear).
While Patel’s remarks were stridently anti-capitalist, they were compelling enough to elicit a standing ovation from many of those in attendance. I will be featuring an interview with Patel here and in the pages of the Anderson Valley Advertiser in the coming weeks.
One of the further highlights of the Mendocino Institute conference was a panel entitled “Mendocino Latinos.” One of the panelists, a local Latina woman in her 30s, recalled the demonstrations for immigration reform on May 1st, 2006, which saw hundreds of thousands of demonstrators clog the streets of major American cities that day.
In Fort Bragg, an historically large march took place that spanned roughly 10 city blocks. Most participants, of course, were Latinos who were on a one-day strike from their jobs. The participants were mainly part of the Mendocino Coast tourist economy’s underclass and the migrant labor pools that tend the vines of Anderson Valley Wine Country. The day after the protest, this nascent social movement was crushed by local bosses, who fired many of the workers who participated.
It’s a safe bet that many of those who were thus discarded by the local autocrats know far more about what food sustainability looks like than your typical Mendocino County food localization activist. According to a 2004 Carnegie Endowment study, over six million farmers and members of farming families in Mexico alone entered the migration stream as a direct result of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). A great many of them are now to be found working under grueling conditions and at peasant wages in Wine Country.
The collective lesson of Raj Patel’s presentation and the Mendocino Latinos panel is clear. As long as the dominant economic system continues to succeed in rendering the economic underclass of this region economically exploited and politically isolated, food localization will remain a distant dream. Organized labor is invariably a necessary pillar of any movement for political transformation, particularly on the scale that’s needed. The most pressing way forward is to challenge the very existence of landed gentries, such as that which persists right here in Mendocino County — a group that includes people like, to name only one obvious example, billionaire wine mogul Jess Jackson.
Will Parrish can be reached at wparrish[a]riseup.net.