On privilege in food sustainability movements

I’m pretty new to this and I’m learning a lot as I go and meet others like myself who have discovered the freedom in food sovereignty. It’s a complicated thing too – it is a process, and a lot of us are going to learn as we go. So I’m pretty sure I’m going to be updating with more thoughts about this as I go. Here are some preliminary thoughts:

In 2014-15 when I was completing my master’s, I was hearing my partner explain permaculture with the passion of someone who has just found a piece of this life calling. I understood the importance of what he was saying even if I couldn’t speak to the details of permaculture design or of exactly what was wrong with the current systems. I could speak to the big picture, but not the details, and it was infuriating when I’d speak to the TRUTH I could feel, that we have to be growing more of our own food, that that was the KEY to ecological and social justice. The key to much of our depression. The key to the epidemic of related conditions that noone talks about: diabetes, heart disease, morbid obesity, cancer. The key to the epidemic of addiction. The key to my own happiness. The key to finding purpose in a world whose sole purpose is MORE MONEY MORE STUFF. Growing our own food.

“The problem is the solution” is a permaculture maxim. It stands to reason that if industrial agriculture is our problem, we can find our solution in food systems.

I said as much in my classes. My professors were very good at leading us back to the large systemic causes of things, but terrible at discussing real possible solutions. We got stuck in the “these are the people you may be leaving out” phase, instead of ever making progress. The thing is, permaculture doesn’t have to leave anybody out. It already has plenty of ideas and solutions for community justice, gardening for the wheelchair bound, gardening for arthritis, and so on. Furthermore, it simply allows for more time for community and it is a community of people that you need if you have a sick child, if you aren’t typically able-bodied, if you’re dying. It allows for more support and more freedom.

And constantly the pushback would be “well, you can only do this because you’re privileged. Not everybody can up and move. Not everybody can buy land.”. Of course that is all true. I’m extremely privileged. Every day I notice new privileges. Just today I was thinking of the travel I did as a middle-class white child. My passports, yes multiple, could take me across ‘borders’. Were accepted by governments all around the world. Because my country is one that makes the rules.

And not everyone can (or needs to) move to practise permaculture. Urban permaculture has answers for everyone. People living in the forest practise permaculture. Permaculturists are greening the desert, all over the world. They’re remediating environments. Using fungi to break down heavy metal pollutants. Permaculture is a kind of superpower that everyone can learn.

And not everyone can (or needs to) buy land. Permaculturists grow gardens in public places; take back parks; squat on crown land; sidewalk garden.

And those of us who have the privilege are the ones doing the worst damage. It’s the food we buy. The bottled water we can afford. It’s the clothes we buy and the way we get around. It’s the travel. We consume and consume and consume. Which means that we are responsible for the majority of the clean up.

It is precisely those of us who are most privileged who are obligated to give up as many of our privileges as we possibly can.

bell hooks points out that most women active in the Western feminist movement are unwilling to face the reality that capitalism is a system that “depends on the exploitation of underclass groups for its survival”, particularly true “when they, as individuals, gain economic self-sufficiency within the existing structure. They are reluctant, even unwilling, to acknowledge that supporting capitalist patriarchy…would not end the economic exploitation of underclass groups. These women fear the loss of their material privilege” (108).

I can’t stop being white, but I can end my material privilege by living more simply and making my own stuff (or supporting my local food and clothing and building sheds!). I can also stop supporting the racist systems in place that, in order to grow OUR food, kick people off their land who have lived off the land by passing down the traditional ecological knowledge of their people from generation to generation. I can stop supporting those same systems that then police people in the city or in the countries they are forced to migrate to.

I can END my financial support of the companies I choose to invest in; the companies that fund pipelines instead of water fuelled cars or GMOs instead of psilocybins. Whatever. If you are worried that permaculture is a privileged people’s lifestyle, look at it this way. Permaculture is for the privileged, because it’s the only way we can GIVE up our privilege. (And for those who have the least, because its they who are forced into growing their own food, building their own buildings, creating their own communities and turning to restorative justice as a means to find ANY justice at all in a system that is skewed against them.

Permaculture is the only way to even the playing field. It’s sustainable. And it gets our corporations out of the backyards of the people around the world who’ve been defending the land and protecting the water all along, and lets them continue to do the only thing it makes sense to do on earth:

Live happily within the earth’s means.

This is why it’s SO vital that permaculture not be capitalized and turned into the means for my generation and class (children of the middle-class) to stay white and privileged. For us, that means that when we “have land” (that is ours on paper) it will be a safe place for anyone who needs it, paying special attention to formerly incarcerated, Indigenous Turtle Islanders and people of colour, and life-bearers and children of all of the above.

This is the dream, or one small part of it. That’s all for now.


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