October 23, 2008

Meltdown Message for City Folk: Get Green Or Go Hungry

I just got back from an early morning harvesting trek in Harlem and Morningside Heights, bringing home a couple of pounds of ginkgo seeds, or ginkgo kernels to be more exact.

I was turned on to these little pistachio-looking treats years ago by my friend Iz, who recommends toasting and eating four or five of the innermost nutmeats a day—far better than the health food store ginkgo preparations which are made from the leaves of the gingko tree, says she. Better for what? Memory, it seems, though it’s kinda hard to tell how well they work since most years I forget to go collect some before the late autumn season is over.

Another friend, Chip, provides a different reason to lay in a stash. When his wife Kim’s mother visits the States—the family is Malaysian of Chinese origin—she can’t believe that people just leave this delicacy lying around on the lawns and sidewalks. She collects bagsful and uses them as the base for tasty soups.

One reason you may never have considered a ginkgo seed-based dish is that the soft outer part of the seed (often called the fruit although that’s not botanically correct), stanks! In fact, gentrification is making the ginkgo scarcer in Manhattan even though their dense foliage, long leaf season, longevity and general hardiness makes them a splendid street tree. But the yupwardly mobile object to the occasional autumnal whiff of ginkgo seeds and demand that the city cut them down and replace them with cloned male ginkgos, which don’t bear seeds, or something “nicer.”

Well, gingko seeds don’t stink half as bad as the economy these days, and I felt a little rush of righteousness as I was out harvesting. The fact is that in a depression, the reliance of US cities on food supplies from far across the country and around the world is going to become a real pinch point.

We have to start thinking more seriously about urban agriculture (and about building real human to human ties between city consumers and family farmers) as this crisis deepens.

It comes as no surprise to me that Robert Biel, whose prescient 2000 book The New Imperialism (summary review here) exposed some of the contradictions in global capitalism before they started ripping the world asunder, is ahead of the curve on this front too. The following video introduces an organized effort to create a model of permaculture, intensive agriculture, in a block of flats (projects, we call ‘em here) in the South London neighborhood Brixton.

It is clear even to some bourgeois economists that any hope the capitalist system has of recovery from the growing depression we are in will require a newer, “greener” system of accumulation, different from both post-Great Depression Keynesianism and the last three decades of neo-liberal market worship. This is an early look at one first step from the side of the working class, not the think tanks of capital.

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