This is a revision of an earlier essay I published on DailyKos.com, in preparation for its republication in the Environmental Analysis journal (and perhaps elsewhere). Its major premise is as follows:
Sustainability is nowhere to be found, and so we appear to be groping in the dark when looking for it. One of the ways in which we can proceed to build knowledge about sustainability, however, is in the community garden. A conceptual guide to the idea of sustainability is located in the concept of prefiguration (as described by Joel Kovel in his book The Enemy of Nature), which describes the sense in which social institutions point to the possibility of a global, ecologically sustainable, society. Community gardens have important prefigurative qualities, too. The bulk of this diary, then, will be about one such community garden, one located on the campus of a college: the Pomona College Natural Farm. The Pomona College Natural Farm will be presented as a place where sustainability, both in social and ecological terms, can be studied. Its conclusion will attempt to speculate about the significance of the Farm and of community gardens as “prefigurations.”
Part One: The Farm
The Pomona College Natural Farm is an example of a community garden existing on the grounds of a college; what makes it especially interesting is its relationship to the goal of “sustainability,” expressed meaningfully in terms of a global, ecologically sustainable society.
Now, “sustainability” has many definitions, and many dimensions; these will be explored in detail in the second part of this essay. First I will discuss how the community garden on a college campus has a unique role to play in promoting “sustainability”; second, I will suggest a theory of “prefiguration” which will allow us to assign importance to certain “more sustainable” aspects of everyday life without losing sight of ultimate goals; and, finally, I will address the importance of the Farm as a place where people can promote social change through prefiguration.
The Pomona College Natural Farm, like all human institutions, has a history and a political economy – so I would like to lay out, for you the readers, a short history of the Farm, as it is called here.
The Farm was begun in 1998 by a group of students who wished to grow their own vegetables, on a plot of land owned by Pomona College but historically used as a waste dump amidst a grove of protected California live oak trees. Many of the students who participated in the creation of the Farm also participated in the anti-WTO protests in Seattle in 1999.
The Farm was a self-organizing anarchist space which students built upon the land for the pleasure of having a space on campus in which food plants grew. This lasted from the outset until some time in 2002 I think, when the campus administration was somehow informed as to its presence. At first, the administration of Pomona College tried to circumscribe life at the Farm with rules as to who could do what, without really participating in the Farm itself. Later, students and alumni of Pomona College established connections with Pomona College faculty to make the Farm into a place where classes could meet and which had academic “cachet” as part of the official purpose of the College. Students persuaded alumni of Pomona College (such as made rather large yearly donations to the College itself) to pressure the College into incorporating the Farm into its long-term plans for the use of the chunk of land which the Farm occupied. Students wrote senior theses on the Farm, its history, its status as a community garden, its history, and its politics. Kovel talks about how the potentials of the future are “interstitial” — they will come from within cracks in the structures of the present. The Farm was built as a development of this “interstitial” potential. In short, the Farm came about (from within an otherwise integral part of capitalist life, Pomona College) through separate, uncoordinated acts.
In fact, there have been so many acts of planting at the Farm that the original area of the Farm is, today, largely a fruit orchard, with its growing space occupied with avocado, peach, nectarine, plum, apricot, apple, loquat, sapote, blood orange, and other fruit trees. There is indeed also a good amount of space in the Farm for public celebration, for the massive cob dome which arises from the center of the original Farm area, and for small vegetable plantings. But Farm arboriculture has grown significantly.
Today, classes are held at the Farm, faculty sponsors visit it often, and students, alumni, and community members are involved in its maintenance. The institution which once merely occupied its land (land originally donated to Pomona College with the aim of preserving the oak trees arising from its surface) has recognized its importance, somewhat.
Community gardens such as the Pomona College Natural Farm are more, however, than places to grow food. They serve as places where ideas about sustainability can be on display, and where people can be students of sustainability. Neither community gardens nor colleges are, in themselves, “sustainable institutions” (as I will point out later in this essay). However, colleges (like learning institutions in general at this point in history) tend to promote “learning for adaptation,” which is a sort of processing that leaves students with enhanced social status but without the ability to co-direct the society-as-a-whole as it moves forward into an uncertain mass future.
Conversely, community gardens, in themselves, do not directly function as agents of “sustainability” because real sustainability is the measure of how thoroughly the society-as-a-whole (and not just the community garden within its bounds) is attentive to ecosystemic integrity. For community gardens to be agents of “sustainability,” they need to be sites of “sustainable learning.” Sustainable learning will have to mean both ecological learning and education in social organization. Generally, however, sustainable learning will in each case mean that learners can observe their surroundings to discover practices which would be part of a sustainable society. This type of observation depends on a quality which, following Joel Kovel, I will call “prefiguration.” We shall see, below, how the Pomona College Natural Farm qualifies as a site of “prefiguration.”
This is the dome in the middle of the Pomona College Natural Farm. This is the students’ second attempt at dome-building on the Pomona College campus: the first dome experiment was torn down by the administration’s hired hands after the Pomona administration decided that any dome on its property would need a City permit. Both domes were cob domes, made from sandbags reinforced by concrete; much less resource-intensive than pure concrete. This dome is much larger than the one that was originally built in a quick, impromptu fashion. It will eventually be used as a classroom when work on it is finished. (I make no promises about the eventual date when this will happen. The “do it yourself” ethic that pushes things forward at the Farm today makes it somewhat of a hobby for those who must make a living within the System.) Eventually the dome will be used as a classroom space.
When designing rock sculptures around the Dome, Allison Comet designed this “love seat” sign, and other students designed the seat itself. If the Farm is to attract caring participants, it must have a robust variety of social functions, e.g. “love.”
The large structure in the middle of this picture is a trellis meant to hold three Armenian cucumber plants planted earlier this spring. Growing activities on the Farm produce real food, but at this point serve mainly to help participants learn about growing food. From this year’s Armenian cucumber crop I learned that Armenian cucumbers are fragile (and are vulnerable to spider mites and fungi), need to be planted early (in spring or early summer) even in southern California, and require plenty of sunlight and water. Next year everything will be in the ground by the end of May.
As I’ve said above, a large portion of the Farm has been devoted to arboriculture, and I took this picture at the end of June. Nectarine season was, and is, in full swing as of the time of this writing. This tree has an interesting history, though, because the sheer quantity of fruit it was growing made its branches collapse several times. It’s important to thin peaches and nectarines if the tree branches aren’t strong enough to support the fruit they are growing. This tree suffered several branch-losses in earlier years before the Farm community recognized it as a pruning responsibility. Otherwise, an advantage of arboriculture is its reliance upon stable, regularly-producing sources of food; trees.
These are several prominent amaranth bushes: amaranth, for those who do not know, is a rather nutritious grain that can be harvested from the flowers you see in this photograph. When these flowers turn brown, harvesters shake them onto tarps or blankets, and a black grain shakes out. This grain can be boiled and served with dinner or as a breakfast cereal. The Farm community has (to my knowledge) yet to do a concerted amaranth harvest.
Before the Farm was a “regulated” institution, it was regularly visited by a wandering landscape architect who built kiva pits and cob ovens among other things. One of each was built upon the Farm; neither of these survives to the present day. He did, however, build this found-object terraced garden, which exists apart from the Farm on Pomona College land. This is the only work of his which remains on Pomona college land.
This is an outdoor classroom under construction, on the site where the wandering landscape architect put down a kiva pit (now covered over). Juan Araya, an agroecologist who also teaches at Cal Poly, Pomona and who comes from Costa Rica, will finish construction on the classroom space by adjusting the poles just right and attaching a cloth roof. The floor will eventually be made of dried mud.
This is the Farm adjunct. It isn’t contiguous with the original Farm site; the two sites are separated by a grassy sports field. Rather recently, the College allowed this land to be part of the Farm (after students had used it for Farm plantings since the outset). Juan Araya farms this land. Last Fall Juan grew very large numbers of Serrano and jalapeño chiles on this land. This summer it grew a small number of Armenian cucumbers. This winter it will grow carrots, lettuce, and strawberries, and I will attempt to spread mustard greens throughout the Farm areas.
Geordie Schuurman, one of the original creators of the Farm, says that the extensive peach, nectarine and plum orchard on the Farm adjunct (in the area behind this photo) was created just as the College was planning a putting green on the land where students planted the peaches.
These fruit are sapotes, hanging from a sapote tree. The Farm is the site of all types of trees and plants which count as “exotic” in southern California, of which this is one. Sapotes have an interesting, unforgettable taste which lingers in the mouth for quite some time; I won’t bother to describe it here.
This picture, taken in funky late-afternoon light, serves to illustrate the diversity of crops growing at the Farm: here one can see zucchini, squash, corn, tomatoes, amaranth, nectarines, peaches, and California poppies. In the background is a space under the California oaks where Farmers have deposited piles of mulch, and then beyond that is a curling field that some alumnus donated money to Pomona College to have built.
At the beginning of Fall semester ’07 the Farm was short of compost, as student participation had been quite low during the summer months. So Michael Keenan and I brought in ten tons of compost from Vons, from money the campus allotted for the Farm. This isn’t, of course, any prefiguration of sustainability; but, rather, an ad hoc move seen as necessary to keep the Farm going in light of uneven community involvement.
The Farm, of course, has a space for donated compost — the less reliable ingredient, of course, is people to actually do the composting. Pomona College’s “Coop Fountain,” among other places, donates compost to the Farm.
Certainly one way to bring community involvement to the Farm is to hold parties there. This is one such party, held at the beginning of November 2007. Farm parties typically combine live music, food, art, and plantings (see below).
Part Two: Sustainability and Prefiguration
The primary goal of rational advocates of “sustainability” is that of a “global, ecologically sustainable society.” Sustainability must be an aspect of planetary social and ecological reality, taken as a whole, if it is to be real. People commonly talk about “sustainable businesses” or “sustainable organizations,” but when they do that they are really talking about something else. So the creation of a future, global, ecologically sustainable society, as I’ve said before, is of paramount importance. As John Dryzek says in his (1987) book Rational Ecology:
The preservation and enhancement of the material and ecological basis of society is necessary not only for the function of societal forms such as economically, socially, legally, and politically rational structures, but also for action in pursuit of any value in the long term. (58)
Simply put: if, in the long run, we are to pursue any values at all, we will have to attend to ecological sustainability.
But what is sustainable, and what would a sustainable society look like? Casual use of the word “sustainability” would imagine it to be divided up into a cornucopia of strategies for “being green.” O’Riordan (1985) describes the task of defining “sustainability” as “exploration into a tangled conceptual jungle where watchful eyes lurk at every bend.” There are dozens of different definitions of “sustainability,” though many of the ecological definitions have in common the act of caring for the ecological balance in such a way as not to diminish ecological integrity for future generations.
By a strict reckoning of the word “sustainability,” however, it’s easy to look outside one’s window and see a world of people who think and live for today, and to presume, then, that nothing is sustainable, and all is evanescent. We have no ongoing, aggregate relationship with the environment. The word “sustainability” has been corrupted: Josee Johnston’s essay “Who Cares about the Commons” complains that “sustainability has come to imply corporate profits as much as ‘saving the earth.'” (1)
Now when we talk about sustainability in the ecological sense, we are not talking about sustainable profits, but about keeping some sort of robust natural environment, with an adequate variety of living species of life and a set of ecological balances, which we might call ecosystemic integrity. Ecosystemic integrity has been effectively defined as follows:
An ecosystem has integrity if it retains its complexity and capacity for self-organization (arguably its health) and sufficient diversity, within its structures and functions, to maintain the ecosystem’s self-organizing complexity through time. (http://www.fs.fed.us…)
So, here, saving ecosystemic integrity means “saving the earth” in terms of saving something on the Earth, specifically its ecological complexity. How that is done is not really definable without involving ourselves in a thicket of ecological specifics. But that’s precisely the point: if we wish to understand whether an activity is ecologically sustainable, we must know the environment well.
The assumption behind the term “ecosystem integrity” is that an ecosystem that is sufficiently complex will be robust, and therefore sustainable. It will be able to adapt to changing circumstances. But the “sustainable profits” definition points to another definition of “sustainability” – sustainability by the profits standard means doing what we’re doing in a way that will allow us to do it for longer (before we can’t do it anymore). In judging definitions of “sustainability,” we will want to take care to observe if the priority built into the definition in question is that of “doing what we’re doing,” or of an attention to the robustness of the natural environment. Sustainability in the first sense is a concern that is typically “tacked onto” other priorities, such as profit, which are accepted as given. In this sense, sustaining our practices means prolonging the moment of their eventual demise for as long as possible.
It’s easy to see, though, how such a definition of “sustainability” won’t preserve ecological integrity for future generations, and thus won’t be very sustainable. Built into such a definition is an inattention to ecosystemic integrity. The pursuit of profit often runs afoul of ecosystemic integrity (much as, say, mountaintop removal involves losses of environmental complexity if pursued vigorously enough). Trying to do something “environmental” about it after the damage has been done can only be so effective.
By the same token, environmentally heedless strategies in any field of endeavor can only be “sustainable” for so long, and we can only correct for their environmental inattention (whether we conceptualize the environment socially, politically, biologically, or otherwise) to a limited extent. We can see how this plays out in a great number of ways, for our society is (as a whole) environmentally heedless. Our systemic activities are pursuable only so far, as an examination of each area of endeavor will show. Transportation? Our transportation systems will burn the world’s oil up, and then what? Housing? Our society’s provision of housing is economically dependent upon the expansion of home equity. But how high do housing prices have to go before nobody can afford it? Human society? Can the world really support this number of people indefinitely, never mind that human population is still increasing? Architecture? Our houses are designed to waste energy and water. Economics? How sustainable is an economy in which the United States government generates endless amounts of debt, imperiling the value of its Dollar? Politics? How can our political system be sustainable when the reigning doctrine of the current regime that drives it, neoliberalism, implies disbelief in the idea of the “public interest” that underwrites representational democracy?
All of these examples point to the problematic nature of “sustainability” conceived as “continuing to do what we’re doing.” In each example, the problem is with what we’re doing: we could be doing something else. Finding ecological sustainability, then, is a matter of learning how to pursue life beginning with an adequate attention to ecosystem integrity. We might oppose this version of finding sustainability to the other version, which only means “doing what we’re doing” in a way such that we can do it for longer, or do more of it.
The question of how sustainable ecologies and human societies adapt to change is a question of rates of change. As Teresa Brennan points out in Globalization and its Terrors, the currently-reigning social system is appropriating the natural world at a rate faster than its own rates of regeneration. How to slow down the social system so that it consumes less, and at a slower rate, is thus a principal problem for advocates of sustainability.
Now, the US is a well-educated nation, judging from the sheer number of universities, colleges, community colleges, and public schools it has. So certainly, one might presume, we Americans have the knowledge base to deal with our sustainability problem, thus to solve it. But are we really that devoted to learning?
And, more pointedly, do we have a sustainable educational system? Does the system focus on the problem of how to make civilization last longer, in the way described above? The short answer is: no. Our educational systems are designed to manufacture diplomas and degrees without purpose, in educational “production for production’s sake.” The system empowers students to occupy enhanced strata within the employment market, without motivating necessary social change. Our public schools are tied to the test-score-production regimes of the No Child Left Behind Act, and our universities are caught up in the “credentials race” described in David F. Labaree’s How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning. The essence of this credentials race is described therein as follows:
When students at all levels see education through the lens of social mobility, they (the students) quickly conclude that what matters most is not the knowledge they attain in school but the credentials they acquire there. Grades, credits, and degrees – these become the objects to be pursued. The end result is to reify the formal markers of education and displace the substantive content. Students learn to do what it takes to acquire the necessary credentials, a process that may involve learning some of the subject matter (at least whatever is likely to be on the next test) but also may not. After all, if exchange value is key, then it makes sense to work at acquiring the maximum number of markers for the minimum investment of time, money, and intellectual energy. (32)
It’s easy for learners to be caught up in market-based pandering, given the pressures to succeed and the increased costs of college. The consequent devaluation of “school learning” in college life has been dutifully recorded in ethnographic studies such as Rebekah Nathan’s My Freshman Year and Michael Moffitt’s Coming of Age in New Jersey. Go to college because it’s fun; get a degree for social advancement.
At the very top of our university systems is the academic production process that Professor Ben Agger calls “Academic Writing as Real Estate.” Agger’s argument is summarized in a sentence given on p. 123: “Where tenure is the prize, academic writing is governed by the same market logic as mass-market publishing or entertainment.” At any rate, this, too, typifies the dilemma of educational sustainability: How do we re-orient our educational institutions to learning and away from systems of “academic production” governed by “market logic”?
To bring this back to my discussion of “definitions of sustainability” — education has, like all else, become a matter of the preservation of “doing what we’re doing” until we can’t do it any longer. We “get educated” so we can have fun pursuing the “college lifestyle,” and to advance our careers. In the end, we’ll be college graduates, with all the benefits that accrue. But we don’t get the sort of learning that would place human activities in synch with ecosystem integrity.
We might conclude, pessimistically, that our academic institutions are as blind as the rest of our society to this one, necessary goal, that of a “global, ecologically sustainable, society.” We want “sustainability” without really adjusting our practices. Though even if our practices were mindful of ecosystem integrity, this would not in itself lead to a sustainable society, as the problem of sustainability is one of changing the social system as a whole.
But alternative practices can still show us what a sustainable society would look like, and we can still “get there.” The concept of “prefiguration,” elaborated by Joel Kovel in his book The Enemy of Nature, can help us understand how to “get there.” For Kovel, prefiguration is a quality one can find in practices, objects, or institutions. Specifically, Kovel defines “prefiguration” as “the potential of the given to contain the lineaments of what is to be” (218). Prefigurative qualities are qualities that hint at the future, now. In anticipation of a sustainable society, we can look for prefiguration in the degree to which an institution, human construct, or social entity points to the potential for a future, global, ecologically sustainable, society.
Of course, if prefiguration is to work, aspects of the present society must work toward the anticipated future. The question of a global, ecologically sustainable society is not one of whether it will happen; but of how. Will the world arrive at sustainable life by disaster, by design, or by a combination of both? Positive prefiguration hints at the possibility that a sustainable society can be designed.
Now, to be honest about “sustainability,” it’s a category to be applied to entire societies, in a wholistic way. Either a whole society is sustainable, or it isn’t. Aspects of a society may change, but sustainability is the measure of whether the whole society sticks around, or doesn’t. But “prefiguration” is a quality that can be applied to individual aspects of a society. In The Enemy of Nature, Kovel suggests that communal and democratic institutions are especially “prefigurative,” because in them he sees the possibility of a “free association of producers” that will be necessary if we are to share the rights and responsibilities of a sustainable society:
A free association implies the fullest extension of democracy, with a public sphere and public ownership that is genuinely collective and in which each person makes a difference. (199)
With the ideal of a “free association of producers,” Kovel asserts the primacy of the concept of “use-value,” in which people use things to directly satisfy their needs, ahead of the concept of “exchange-value,” in which people produce in order to meet an accounting-ledger “bottom line,” without regard to direct expressions of human need. But, to a certain extent, we should also be looking for prefiguration in physical institutions, for social get-together places and institutions that approximate the “free association of producers.” As an example of a prefigurative physical space, I would like to suggest a type of physical space I have suggested in previous diaries: the (collegiate) community garden.
One of the primary advantages of community gardens is that they are attempts to overcome the dichotomy of city and countryside. The city, as Paul Prew points out in his essay The Twenty-First Century World Ecosystem, is a center of accumulation, and so it tends to suck the life out of the zones of extraction, which include the farms. However, the community garden uses the extractive powers of the city to put resources back into the land, for the sake of producing sustainable food sources within urban communities. In such a way, the slower rhythms of rural life are re-introduced into hectic urban settings.
Another good thing about community gardens is that they can be attached to urban educational institutions. As opposed to farms, which are typically some ways out in the countryside, urban community gardens are convenient sites for whole communities to learn about the ecology of crop-growing: agroecology. A community garden, then, offers a prefiguration of the “sustainable education” which we will need to have if we are ever to reach a global, ecologically sustainable, society.
Conclusion: The Farm as Prefiguration and Physical Space
Now, neither the Farm, nor community gardens in general, will save our society’s problems with sustainability. Nor will such institutions prefigure everything that needs to be prefigured. But community gardens do offer urban residents places from which to reconnect with rural thinking, but from a more socially-conscious standpoint.
The Farm puts out a meaningful amount of food – but largely it exists as an academic experiment in farming rather than as an organized community garden because it is on the Pomona College campus itself. (The adjunct, arranged by Juan Araya as an individual plot, is more like an organized community garden than the original plot of the Farm. But it exists as a production space, even though the distribution of its output is so far not being organized in any capitalist manner. Nobody pays for Farm produce.)
Food production under conditions of American capitalist agriculture typically sets out economic privileges for large corporate businesses. Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma explains concisely how the distribution scheme of American corporate agriculture favors large businesses. Community gardens, however, can be spaces where food production is studied in public, in search of a better, more empowering way for publics which are now dependent upon “the market” for daily subsistence. In many places community gardens exist in tandem with Food Not Bombs agencies, which also combine DIY (do-it-yourself) action with socially-meaningful goals (feeding the hungry) and ecosystemically-meaningful goals (recycling “unmarketable” food).
Of course, the Farm is a significant distance from being an “association of free producers.” There is not much that is “communal” about the Farm in any organized way. But in taking advantage of DIY labor, the Farm allows for a public (as opposed to a private) space for “free production” in Kovel’s terms.
Community garden projects like this can bring communities together as signs of education about sustainability, as well.
Clearly the survival of the Pomona College Natural Farm required a lot of good old-fashioned direct action in order to maintain it, though. This essay serves as a proposal to create more community gardens, and not as a business proposal. If community gardening were to spread throughout urban Earth, a lot more direct action, and a lot more guerrilla gardening, will have to take place. We will need a Food Not Lawns initiative, to replace our grass-growing habits with better plant activities. And we will need to operate the resultant gardens, farms, and small spaces for mustard greens as institutions of education about real sustainability. There is no political class or set of financial institutions lining up to make this happen. It will just have to come together from within the cracks in the current social set-up.
Agger, Ben. “Academic Writing as Real Estate.” The Decline of Discourse. New York: Taylor and Francis, 1990. 122-147.
Dryzek, John. Rational Ecology. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1987.
Iverson, Dave, and Zane Cornett. “A Definition of Sustainability for Ecosystem Management.” Eco-Watch 7/20/94.
Johnston, Josee. “Who Cares About The Commons?” Capitalism Nature Socialism 16:4 (December 2003): 1-42.
Kovel, Joel. The Enemy of Nature. New York: Zed, 2004.
Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. New York: Penguin, 2006.