Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: news you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental justice, radical municipalism, new politics, political theory, and resources for action and education.
We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.
We’re back! After a much-needed summer break, we’re going to share all noteworthy articles we read during September and October. Themes this time include global land struggles, food justice (including spicy takes on veganism and lab-grown meat), effective communication for environmental justice, degrowth, and re-readings of history, to name a few. Enjoy.
A small note that the articles linked in this newsletter do not represent the views of Uneven Earth. When reading, please keep in mind that we don’t have capacity to do further research on the authors or publishers!
Imagination, transformed. “As a movement who cares about climate justice and justice overall, we need to better leverage the power of culture because culture is what transforms the imagination—culture shows us what’s possible. And we can do that by including artists and culture makers in our organizing work.”
World War II ended more than half a century ago. Yet stumbling upon unexploded bombs in Germany is still a frequent occurrence. Of the roughly quarter million bombs that did not explode during the war, thousands are still buried underground all over Germany. One of these left-over bombs self-ignited recently in Limburg’s countryside. The blast of the 250kg explosive occurred in a field of barley in the middle of the night and was large enough to dig a crater 10 metres wide and 4 metres deep.
This accident is a welcome occasion to revisit the concept of slow violence coined by Rob Nixon. He describes this phenomenon as ‘a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.’ This concept reminds us that violence is not always what we expect it to be, explosive and sensationally visible but can be incremental and generate unpredictable outcomes across spatial and temporal scales.
The buried past exploding in the present is a haunting metaphor for the bombing of the future through endless environmental exploitation.
One may ponder whether the detonation of a decade-long silent bomb is a powerful metaphor for the slow violence of time compression and space destruction. Whereas past bombs remain deadly decades after they were dropped, current techniques of industrial agriculture function like a buried bomb, threatening a sustainable future. When these ‘climate bombs’ explode, it could mean the annihilation of life itself on the planet. In this way we can see the past, present, and future colliding in explosive fury. In Germany, just as Allied bombing raids (from above) failed to detonate instantly, industrial agriculture (down below) will continue to distribute persistent pollutants into the future, eventually detonating beyond the spatial and temporal boundaries of the land. The entanglement of weapons of mass destruction and weapons of mass production ultimately compresses time and space into a forever impending catastrophe. In a strange inversion on the horizon of temporality, we could be reaching a point in history when the buried past exploding in the present serves as a haunting metaphor for the bombing of the future through endless environmental exploitation.
Historical entanglements of war, agriculture and climate change
When contemplating the detonation of a WW2 bomb in a German field, one is struck by the disorienting compression of history, in which war pollution caused by a 20th Century conflict returns to haunt the peaceful lives of 21st Century farmers. From a temporal perspective one generation of pilots’ aerial bombing time travels to reach another generation of peacetime farmers, blurring the temporal lines between war and peace. The legacy of warfare in peacetime extends far beyond the traumatic legacy imprinted on the social fabric and reaches the material foundations of welfare itself. From a spatial perspective, the explosive legacy of Allied strategic bombing over Germany parallels another type of aerial campaign, involving the heavy spraying of chemical fertilizers to improve agricultural yields. Just as war remnants explode upon industrial agricultural production today, fumigating raids have been systematically bombing crops since the inter-war years with pesticides and nitrogen-enriched fertilizers. One such toxic legacy that radically transformed the industry was developed by German scientist Haber-Bosch, whose process to produce ammonia was as critical in the manufacturing of plant fertilizers as it was in developing the Zyklon B poison gas used during the Holocaust. In a parallel twist, the development of chemical insecticide presently used for industrial-scale agricultural production is thus intimately related to transformations in chemical warfare designed for genocide.
Transfers between war and agriculture operated at both the technological and the ideological level. The co-production of techniques of agricultural and military control blurred the boundaries between insects and humans, friend and foe, domestic pest control in peacetime, and enemy annihilation in wartime. For instance, the development of chlorinated gases during WW1 demonstrated the insecticidal properties of certain organochloride compounds. After the conflict, the chemical industry, profiting greatly from war, promoted the conversion of its offensive poison gas arsenal to pesticide application. The same planes, which had spread poison gas over enemy lines, were used to spread herbicides, strengthening the alliance between the military and the budding post-war mechanization of agri-business. After WW2, Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, commonly known as the chlorinated aromatic hydrocarbon DDT, emerged from the technical imaginary of modern warfare, while warfare legacies like nerve gases emerged from agricultural processes to protect crops from pests. Paralyzing gases, such as Sarin, demonstrated a similar effect on humans as on insects. After WW2, retired bomber pilots would indiscriminately shower the countryside with millions of tons of poisonous pesticides. Chemical warfare was successively waged as much on the battleground as on food crops, fuelling a reciprocated sociotechnical imaginary involving both the sanitization of food and the synthetization of war. The blurring of boundaries between war and peace was most apparent during the Cold War, when defoliants like Agent Orange, developed from agricultural herbicides, were sprayed on Communist enemies in South East Asia. In this case, the mutagenic effects on human populations persisted for decades later.
The co-production of techniques of agricultural and military control blurred the boundaries between insects and humans, friend and foe, domestic pest control in peacetime, and enemy annihilation in wartime.
A remnant WW2 bomb, which randomly exploded in Germany’s countryside in 2019, symbolizes the indistinction between techniques of military destruction and techniques of industrial agricultural production, both predicated on eradication campaigns. Just as mass warfare indiscriminately kills soldiers and civilians alike, modern farming methods contribute to indiscriminate bombing of not only pests, but fragile and diverse ecosystems. Nitrogen fertilizers increase agricultural yields, yet accentuate global warming and pollute water-tables, rivers and estuaries with excessive nitrates. Whereas 3% of the human population perished in WW2, a recent study shows that over 40% of insect population have gone extinct through the intensive use of pesticides developed by the same war machines. Here, the warplane and aerial pesticide-spraying aircraft emblematically collide and violently explode in a dustbowl of ecological disaster.
At the risk of taking a shortcut, could military explosives have been detonated by the long-term effects of industrial chemicals? While the explosive devices used in war have an almost-guaranteed immediate effect upon impact, fertilizers and pesticides have gradually contaminated and decimated the biological diversity of landscapes over the span of a century. What is truly remarkable is that the incessant application of chemical fertilizers may well have been the powder keg responsible for the recent ignition of the rusty WW2 bomb in the German countryside. Recent reports suggest, idle undetonated bombs are triggered by heatwaves, which are in turn exacerbated by climate change, in large part due to industrial agriculture. Climate disruption and the recurrence of seasonal heatwaves have been amplified as a result of the compound effect of methane emissions from agriculture and of the heavy use of nitrogen-based fertilizers releasing nitrous oxide emissions. In turn, climate shocks like drought and heat waves exert enormous pressure on surface and ground-water levels. The entanglement of buried bombs and climate change intersects across the European countryside, illustrating feedback loops between war, industrial agriculture, climate change, and food insecurity.
Military and climate disruptions mirror each other in what seems to be an endless feedback loop of fire and fury.
When buried bombs of the past detonate inside the boundaries of our present era, they parallel public concerns with the current ecological crisis. Increasingly frequent heatwaves and changing weather patterns are harming crop yields and raising concerns around animal welfare, indicating that climate shocks, such as drought threaten food production. European firefighters are now fighting a strange war on two fronts: a climate war with a firehose against wildfires and a war against explosive remnants of WW2, using battle tanks to shield themselves from the blaze.
Analysts have recently drawn comparisons between WW2 and the climate crisis, claiming ‘global warming has heated the oceans by the equivalent of one atomic bomb explosion per second for the past 150 years.’ Further analogies between modern warfare and the climate crisis can be drawn from the emergency drop by a Swedish Air Force fighter jet of a 500-pound precision laser-guided bomb near a fire approaching a military firing range. Donald Trump made the uncanny quip recently of dropping nukes to stop increasingly killer hurricanes. Such extreme examples show how the perpetuation of war and climate change are undeniably linked. Since its carbonbootprint contributes to the greenhouse effect, the military fuels the very fire it attempts to extinguish, one bomb at a time. What the news headlines from Europe confirm is that military and climate disruptions mirror each other in what seems to be an endless feedback loop of fire and fury.
Fumigating the future
On the other side of Germany, in a strange coincidence, another event was taking place around the time of the WW2 bomb detonation in relating the past and future to the present state of environmental degradation. A surprise attack and partial occupation of a coal mine was organized by the environmentalist group End of the line in the Rhineland region. The occupation of the mine was motivated by its disapproval with the utility company RWE and their plan to cut down an old growth forest to make way for the enlargement of the mine. Such plans for expansion, protestors claim, would turn the Rhine district into one of the largest CO2 emitters in Europe.
This time, the strategic site was not occupied by the Allied armies against the abrupt violence unleashed by a world conflict, but by peaceful climate activists protesting against the slow violence of mining expansions. By sundown, the police launched teargas to dislodge the activists out of the coal mine. Police literally fumigated the climate protesters in the same way farmers fumigate insects.
The strange, or maybe timely coincidence, of both events on German soil: the detonation of a WW2 bomb, and the surprise occupation of a coal mining crater by an army of green activists, highlights the overlapping toxic legacies of successive historical periods. While the first reveals how old war contamination may unpredictably creep out of the past, the second anticipates a massive climate shock looming in the future.
In the same way that the legacy of WW2 bombing occasionally haunts the present, we are still haunted by one of the oldest and dirtiest resources of capitalism’s historical trajectory: coal. Why is that so? The history of energy usage is not one of transitions, but rather of successive additions of new sources of primary energy. Indeed, world energy markets never fully transitioned from coal to petroleum; similarly, it is highly improbable that a transition will entirely take place from petroleum to renewable energy.
Police literally fumigated the climate protesters in the same way farmers fumigate insects.
Fossil fuel extraction and pollution is the legacy of the past taking effect in the present and locking-in possibilities for future decades to come. The Earth’s atmosphere is already damaged by the 1,500 billion tons of carbon dioxide emitted by the coal economy. In a similar way in which war remnants caused by a 20th Century conflict impacts the lives of 21st Century farmers, 18th Century models of energy production are still operational in the 21st Century, with all their damaging effects across time and space. The hard divisions in the destruction of life between past and present and an always improving future is merely an illusion from this view.
Tragedy or farce?
To summarize, the ignition of bombs and the expansion of mines suddenly converged in the past months to illustrate a legacy of slow accumulative violence, transcending space and time in the German countryside. What does such an entanglement reveal about our era? The contemporary moment of social and environmental emergency synchronizes weapons of mass destruction with weapons of mass production.The synchronization of warfare and welfare has provoked, on the one hand, the destruction of geographic space, resulting in the displacement and contamination of human communities and natural habitat. On the other hand, their synchronization has meant the compression of time available for the Earth to regenerate from exploitation.
Bombs of the past haunt our present, while bombs of the present inevitably preordain our future. The real catastrophe, as German philosopher Walter Benjamin claimed, is not some isolated apocalyptic event but rather the perpetuation of the continuous flow of the logic of capital and its wake of destruction across time and space. The accidental detonation of a WW2 bomb interrupted only the routine of a farmer, whereas a perpetual fossil-fueled war predicated on capital accumulation is waged daily against the regenerative capacities of the Earth, threatening a sixth mass extinction.
The contemporary moment of social and environmental emergency synchronizes weapons of mass destruction with weapons of mass production.
Hegel claimed that history is cyclical and repeats itself. Marx added that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. As reflected in this piece we may add, in a strange succession of events, history is compressing time and eroding space, by accelerating the rate at which farce and tragedy repeat themselves simultaneously. The tragedy lies in the annulment of future life potentials by military planes and mining cranes; the farce is the destruction by the military and industry of the material conditions of their own reproduction. The tragedy is also in the fumigation of farms by industrial agriculture, while the farce is a regressive state-sanctioned police force fumigating activists who attempt to protect the very conditions for the maintenance of life on Earth.
Tina Beigi is an environmental engineer who is currently pursuing a PhD in Ecological Economics at McGill university.
Michael Picard is a research fellow at the Institute for Global Law & Policy of the Harvard Law School and teaches International Law at Sherbrooke University.
The authors would like to thank Vijay Kolinjivadi and Elliot Blomqvist for their precious editorial feedback on preliminary drafts. The usual caveat applies.
When Aymara people in South-America look ahead they are facing the past. Literally. Researchers who investigated Aymara language and gestures have established that, unlike all the studied cultures and languages of the world, they refer to the past by gesturing ahead, while the future is situated behind oneself. The example of the Aymara indigenous people, when reflecting on how history can be useful for activists participating in socio-environmental conflicts, challenges our preconditioned views. We can put history into the foreground, not just as the background or the context of present events but as a central resource for the present and the future.
“All history is contemporary history”—Benedetto Croce.
But it is not only that we all write and research within the context of our own time. It is also that the stories and narrations that we unveil impact us now. They can affect how we look at the past—but especially, when it involves social movements, they can also shape how we look at the present and at the future, at what is conceived as possible and impossible today and tomorrow.
As the Zapatistas claim, it is necessary to “open a crack” in history. On January 1st 1994, the very same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force, the Zapatistas launched their revolt in the mountains of Southeast Mexico. From their very First Declaration, they emphasised they were the result of 500 years of resistance to colonialism.
A crack also disrupts the idea of unidirectional, non-linear history, opening a loophole that challenges views of what is in front of us and what in our backs. Once the past is reclaimed, the door to reclaim the future swings open.
One of the expressions of such resistance is precisely their critique of how history has been written. A history that tells the story of the elites just makes the present state of things seem natural, leaves aside the subalterns and silences their past. Against this type of historical appropriation, Zapatistas claim the need to “open a crack”– to write the history of the exploited. A crack that also disrupts the idea of unidirectional, non-linear history, opening a loophole that challenges views of what is in front of us and what in our backs. A crack that permits us to look to the past ahead—like the Aymara—as memories of the alternative non-disposable future. Once the past is reclaimed, the door to reclaim the future swings open.
Reclaiming silenced pasts is a task to be done both in the archives and the streets, both in libraries and mountains, listening to stories and reading dusty records. It can be about how a revolution was silenced and obliterated from history, as shown in the work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot on the late 18th century in Haiti. And also about how dictatorships try to wipe out the memory and heritage of those who opposed them. When, like in Spain, elites have succeeded to remain in power for decades, the stories of disappeared workers and activists and their emancipatory projects frustrated by a 40-year long dictatorship risk being left aside and silenced forever.
The Case of the Segle XX building in Barceloneta
In December 2013, residents of La Barceloneta (Barcelona, Spain) announced a demonstration to reclaim the empty building of the El Segle XX (“The Twentieth Century”) cooperative for its public use. El Segle XX had been founded in 1901, but after years of decline during the Francoist dictatorship, the cooperative was dissolved in the late 1980s and the building was later abandoned.
The importance of several cooperatives—El Segle XX among them—as spaces of socialization, consumption, and culture since the late Nineteenth century soon emerged as a central aspect of the residents’ memories.
At least since 2008, the neighbourhood association La Òstia began collecting information about the history of the neighbourhood and interviewing veteran residents. The importance of several cooperatives—El Segle XX among them—as spaces of socialization, consumption, and culture since the late Nineteenth century soon emerged as a central aspect of the residents’ memories. Later, the Barceloneta Cooperative Memory Research Group (Grup de Recerca de la Memòria Cooperativa de la Barceloneta) continued the work of the association by diving into archives, recording interviews, organising guided tours, and other activities.Similar projects in other neighbourhoods of the city, such as Sants or Poblenou, supported by the cooperative La Ciutat Invisible, greatly contributed to the impulse of the project.
Barceloneta is historically a working-class neighbourhood with low salaries and few public and social facilities, but is now under high touristic pressure. And so the use of the El Segle XX building became a symbolic claim to the municipality.
Since the last decades of the nineteenth century, as part of a wider international movement, cooperatives grew in importance in Barcelona. In Catalonia, cooperatives had their heyday during the democratic period of the Second Republic (1931-1939) when thousands of families became members. Very often, they had their own theatres, bars, and shops. Consumption cooperatives allowed the avoidance of intermediaries between consumers and producers and thus brought urban space closer to the surrounding agricultural environment that fed it.
However, following the military coup that unleashed the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and with the victory of Franco over the Republicans, cooperatives never regained the activity hey had had before. In fact, during the conflict, Barcelona was on the Republican side and Barceloneta was bombed so heavily that it had to be evacuated. El Segle XX was hit by Fascist bombings and reduced to ashes. Although the building was rebuilt after the war, its activity languished during the dictatorship, and most cooperatives were dissolved and their buildings sold. After the cooperative slowly dissolved, the El Segle XX building passed to private hands in the 1990s.
Although the land on which the building is built was categorised by the City Council as a public facility, rumours of private commercial projects for the building started circulating. Already feeling increased pressure from gentrification and tourism, residents were getting uneasy.
In the final days of 2013, two weeks before a scheduled demonstration, an apparently fortuitous fire damaged part of the building. This event fostered a united front of the associations and residents of the quarter, and just a few weeks later, more than 30 organisations signed a statement asking the District to either expropriate or buy the Segle XX building. They also demanded a transparent investigation of the fire and the legal state of the building property, as well as the commitment of the City Council to keep the building categorized as a public facility.
Recording memories, collecting scans of old pictures and newspapers, finding old records or mapping places that have disappeared, residents have found a way to narrate their own story.
At the end of the demonstration in front of the El Segle XX building, several residents intervened by emphasising the historical role of the cooperative in Barceloneta. The march ended with two posters plastered on the wall of the building. One vindicated the historical memory of cooperativism with a quote from 1899; the other was a blank poster to be filled by participants with their ideas for the future uses of the space, under the title “What do we want for El Segle XX?” (“Què volem per al Segle XX?”). In the same fashion, the website of the Barceloneta Cooperative Memory Research Group, whose members had an active role in the march, stated clearly their views on the uses of the memory of cooperativism:
“More than an exercise of historical memory, it comes to us as a memory of the future: the practices of cooperation give us a powerful tool to face a present of cutbacks in social services and to build a shared future”.
Unearthing stories of the past, reconnecting struggles for the future
In a rapidly changing barri (neighbourhood), with growing pressure from luxury tourism stimulating higher rents and pushing former residents out, associations have resorted to historical research to enhance their struggles. Recording memories, collecting scans of old pictures and newspapers, finding old records or mapping places that have disappeared, residents have found a way to narrate their own story.
As highlighted by activist researcher Emma Alari, participatory mapping has been an essential tool in the neighbourhood’s struggles. Maps were used by Barceloneta’s residents to display the different threats suffered by the neighbourhood. The collaboration with mapping activists Iconoclasistas, who illustrated the dangers faced by the neighbourhood by creating a map for the residents, is a good example of this.
But mapping can also be a historical project. By mapping both long- and recently-disappeared places in “Geografia Esborrada de la Barceloneta” (“Barceloneta’s Deleted Geography”), residents not only narrate their history but configure an emotional geography of the barri, which binds together the stories of squatted houses already demolished with the story of buildings like El Segle XX or the Escola del Mar, a wood-constructed school on the seaside, which was burnt by Fascist bombings during the Spanish Civil War.
Such stories are disseminated by walking and talking together with residents (on organised guided tours), and through making audio recordings available online. These stories weave new connections between the past, the present, and the imagined futures. The guided tours in particular provide chances for interaction between those researching the history of the neighbourhood and their inhabitants, confronting and enriching each other’s stories. Residents’ relations to the space are connected with historical research about its uses by past social movements.
After years of actions and campaigns in the neighbourhood, the Barcelona City Council has finally committed to starting the process of expropriation of the El Segle XX building to give it back to the barri. The struggle, however, is far from over. As the recuperation of the building is close to becoming a reality, the neighbourhood association/assembly is designing its own project for the uses of the building through a grassroots process. In a major open meeting in the square, residents wrote their ideas for the future uses of the cooperative building on several large-size copies of the 1939 project drawings to rebuild the cooperative after the war, which had been located in the archives.
Nostalgia, often dismissed as over-romanticization, can also be an emotion connected to transformation and even revolution. Past experiences are opportunities for reinvention, possibilities for alliances across time.
This wasn’t just a practical way to collect all the ideas for the different floors of the building and a reminder of the building’s past. It was also a symbolic gesture: the maps of the project to rebuild El Segle XX after the Fascist bombings and the occupation of Barcelona in 1939 were recycled 76 years later to discuss an alternative future with the barri’s residents. The past can be a resource for imagining alternative futures—in a very material way.
While some would see a gloomy and nostalgic flavour in this struggle, activists explicitly state that they don’t intend to idealise, nor to romanticise, a return to a static lost past. They want to learn lessons about past experiences tried and failed, understand past hopes for imagined futures, explore the daily life and the problems of the neighbourhood in the past and its connections to today. Michael Löwy has suggested that Walter Benjamin used “nostalgia for the past as a revolutionary method for the critique of the present”. Nostalgia, often dismissed as over-romanticization, can also be an emotion connected to transformation and even revolution. Past experiences are opportunities for reinvention, possibilities for alliances across time. Stories like the one told by the El Segle XX building can be, as Italian authors Wu Ming and Vitaliano Ravagli have asserted, “axes of war to be unearthed”.
Santiago Gorostiza is a PhD candidate trained both as an Environmental Scientist and as a Historian. He investigates socioenvironmental conflicts during the Spanish Civil War and the Francoist dictatorship. His research interests include urban geography, the environmental history of war and the role of historical research in political ecology.
Recently Richard Wilk, an anthropologist at Indiana University and director of their Food Studies program, was studying 19th century newspaper advertisements and cargo records of sailing ships in Belize—a major source of mahogany at the time. Wilk noticed that advertisements of luxury products—liqueurs, expensive fabrics, pickled oysters, and champagne—weren’t just targeted to the rich.
Those employed to cut down the lumber in the bush would often, when they received their pay and came back to port, blow all of their money on festivities and luxury products. Wilk calls this the ‘binge economy’: men who work in extractive industries, surviving on cheap rations designed to last long voyages, go on binges with their ‘mates’ whenever they get paid off.
The development of the binge economy, according to Wilk, is an extreme example of how colonialism brought about a change in both the food system and inter-personal relationships. On the one hand, a system based on preservatives, industrialized food processing, and rationing could support a large standing army without relying on pillaging. This system of rations was then extended to support a navy, and eventually a proletariat class sent to the New World, Africa and Asia to extract resources.
On the other hand, this change in how people eat food was also extremely gendered. Food systems in Western Europe were initially based on complex relationships of reciprocity and redistribution, where every member of the rural household contributed in some way to ensure an adequate diet through hunting, farming, or foraging.
But the privatization of common lands through measures like the enclosure movement that saw its greatest increase in the 18th century also caused the erosion of the availability of subsistence-based food. When land no longer became accessible to hunt or farm, masses of pauperized peasants filled the cities, uprooted from the social structuxre that previously sustained them. This led to a large surplus of labor, leading countless indebted European men to board ships, cross the ocean, and eventually work in extractive labor projects or on ships.
With the erosion of household structures and the advent of an increasingly industrialized and processed food system, these men were forced to take care of their own needs and rely on cheap and easy-to-prepare food.
Wilk’s work challenges two common arguments in today’s environmental and food movements. First, we often hear that our traditional food systems are increasingly becoming eroded. While this may be true, Wilk’s research, along with a growing field exploring the history of today’s food system, illustrates how the industrial-military food system has been a cornerstone of many traditional food systems.
Second, the idea that globalization has recently caused an unprecedented proliferation of luxury and exotic food products, allowing even lower-class Westerners to access foods originally reserved for the rich. In fact, Wilk’s research suggests that the proletariat has had access to rare luxury products from around the world for a much longer time than we often imagine. As a result we need to consider, not just the distance our food travels, but how a kind of ‘binge economy’ has been institutionalized.
In this interview, Wilk gives us a glimpse of how ‘binge economies’ can still define our lives today, and the kind of social delinking that continues to make this possible.
I read your article about the food system in extractive economies. You start the article putting it in context, saying that for people who are now working on food issues, we often hear this idea that we are erasing traditional food cultures, seasonal food cultures, but that actually if you look at the history of the food system, that argument goes way, way back.
Here’s one example. Native Americans have frybread [bannock]. No Indian festivity is complete if you don’t have frybread. It is traditional. That’s just basically taking a pork ration and rendering the fat and then taking your flour ration making dough with it and frying it. If you look into it, it’s the same food that was used to feed Native Americans when they were driven off their lands and could no longer get their own subsistence.
I think in some ways the global division of labor would not have been possible if we didn’t have cheap food. Because cheap food, as we know, enables a lot of other things. For one thing, it frees up money for people to spend on other things, but also it makes it possible to squeeze wage labor much harder than they ever had before. This idea of ‘ration’ became a substitute for a whole food system, a large complex network of different kinds of food where all kinds of collaboration and cooperation was involved. And instead they take the unit of collaboration, the household–often formed around a marriage–and they split it.
The only thing that makes it possible to send a man out to the new world, or to go whaling, is cheap rations. And at the same time women are flooding into the labor market and everybody is hiring them as maids… it becomes the great age of servitude. By commercializing the things that people have traditionally gotten from households and families and making them into commodities, it was possible to turn the proletariat into a new kind of market.
Now, rations make standing armies and large navies possible. It turns an army from a horde of people looting and raping through the countryside, stripping everything of food into a more disciplined group of people who are being fed by the military.
Once you’ve got cheap protein and cheap calories down, it’s possible to send men on board of ships for much longer periods of time.
What was life like for these early extractive workers?
If you’re on a work gang, or engaged in any kind of extractive industry–logging, mining, whaling, and things that are kind of like extractive industries like herding sheep and cattle on large open parts of the countryside–all of those things are men being self-sufficient, subsisting on a ration of food that doesn’t really require any elaborate cooking. And the work is inherently dangerous, and always badly paid, usually at the end of a season or a voyage.
This new food system also made people sick, which led to a huge industry making patent medicines. You know, if you think of any service that is provided by the household system, by the collaboration of men, women, children, and all the members of the household, you can see in this era, single men learning to do those sorts of things. Sailors and loggers are all learning to sew; some of them are even knitting. They washed their own clothes. They sometimes made their own clothes.
What else do you get from being in a family? You get companionship, you get sex. There’s a lot of disagreement of how much these men were having sex with each other, and amongst historians it’s kind of a volatile issue, because the absence of evidence can never give you evidence for abstinence. They get their companionship from their buddies on board the ship, and they form a very tight male grouping.
Today if you look at gangs, if you look at drinking cultures, there’s still a lot of extractive industries out there, a lot of mining and fishing. What you see is that the qualities and characteristics of masculine binge culture are still there. I think what we’ve done is kind of made it into a stage of life. In your late teens and early twenties, nobody’s expecting you to be particularly hard-working, and if you go out and binge on the weekends, you’re kind of excused. But then you’re supposed to grow up and become responsible.
Could you talk a bit about how these binge economies informed relationships between genders?
I think there’s a degree to which these binge economies nurture a kind of combative and competitive relationship between men and women. I saw this really clearly in urban Belize, where women are always trying to get men to support them, and men are always trying to get more sex while shirking their responsibility for children. So you’ve got this kind of game that goes on, which you also saw amongst loggers and miners when they were in town. When I was younger I hung around with a lot of Belizean men who talk about women in a hostile way. They have something we want, but they’re going to make me pay for it. And women say horrible things about men as well. That is not to say there are no functioning marriages and households in Belize, but infidelity is common too.
How do you think an extractive culture causes that kind of relationship to happen?
It tears people apart and makes them compete. I’m not so sure it’s just the extractive industries that cause that to happen. You see it in a very exaggerated way in extractive industries, but I think you see something similar amongst young people who are single. In the sense that they don’t belong to a household and there’s no obligatory relationship, there’s no contract. These are called “implicit contracts” … it’s an unspoken agreement that if you’re living with somebody, you’re going to be collaborating. It turns out that much of our life is guided by these implicit contracts. You raise kids, you send them through college, and then if you become destitute you expect them to help take care of you. And if you’re living without those kinds of contracts, itmakes you to do things in a very different way.
You don’t have to save money, why would you save money? The thing about extractive workers is that they did have relationships but mostly with other men, and they did not put their money together. You’d call that person your ‘mate.’ Which is interesting. And ‘mates’ would often stick together for their whole lives. Because they needed somebody they could count on and somebody they could trust. The lack of obligation helps people form binge cultures.
We were discussing the gendered nature of binge economies. How is our current food system gendered and how does that have reflections from the past food system?
At one level you have men and women often eating completely different diets. At a more global level, fast food and convenience foods mean you really don’t need a family in order to have a comfortable life. Personal independence shortens your time horizon so you’re not thinking so much about keeping your family going into the future.
If you have no reason to invest, why not spend it freely or run up debts on your credit card? If you think about how many Americans have no personal savings, it’s astounding 76% of the adults in the country don’t have anything in the bank for retirement. That’s really weird. It’s what I call a grasshopper logic rather than an ant logic. The ants are industrious and denying their immediate pleasures for the sake of the future.
Something I found interesting in your article was that you said that, on the one hand, people were reliant on these basic goods, like staples, that you can easily transport, at the same time you have these luxury food goods that also were developed and sold to the very same class that was extracting them across the world.
It’s kind of ironic.
So you have these luxury goods that are also made to be able to transport all across the world. It seems incredibly similar to what we have now. There’s this term, ‘food miles’, that people are using now to signify how the food we eat is more and more reliant on a global transportation system. But it seems at the same time that carrying exotic products on ships has always been a product of the extractive industry, except now we have even better technology to preserve those luxury products. It also seems to go against this idea that with the increase of globalization ‘everyone’ can now have these luxury goods… your work suggest that the proletarian class, especially the extractivist workers, has always been consuming these rare luxury products.
That’s such an interesting connection I had not made. The production of luxury goods was often done by those same extractive workers and slaves. The old money spent their money on giant houses; they were amassing durable things that were going to gain value over time. Whereas people with limited money often spend it on luxuries that have a short lifetime – what some call “populuxe” goods. They’re left with no value after they consume things.
When you look at the bills of lading for sailing ships, they’re carrying these rough fabrics, generic rums, barrels of flour and salted meat. They’re also carrying delicacies in little jars, liqueurs from all over Europe, and fortified wines, like Port. All over Europe there’s the beginnings of a popular luxury trade. They were bringing in processed foods like olives, salted tongue, cornichons. It wasn’t just the local elite that was consuming this. In Belize, when the mahogany workers who just came in from working in the bush got paid, luxuries meant a great deal to them. This is a point that I’m constantly having to make to people. People think that poor people don’t, or shouldn’t, buy expensive things. And the thing is that if you’re poor, luxury is much more meaningful than if you’re rich. If you’re rich, you have luxury all the time. It’s poor people who have to work and scrimp and save to have a big steak dinner. For those people it really means something to have a fancy meal.
During the gold rush merchants would haul these wagons full of ice imported from Alaska, oysters from the Pacific Northwest, champagne from France, and they’d carry it up the Sierra because if you struck gold you were going to take all your buddies and have champagne and oysters, and food cooked by a real French chef.
We’re still working for luxuries, everybody’s still in debt of one kind or another. It’s not so much that you have a single employer who is exploiting you. It’s much more diffuse than that. And that means that it’s hard to figure out who’s screwing you.
How do you see the food system that was developed in colonialism reflected today? And how has it changed since then?
Something that I’ve been looking at in the last couple of years is that extractive industries had a tendency to destroy resources. They killed almost all the whales. Sometimes a whole industry would grow based on something like herring, but then the herring would disappear or move somewhere else. At the other end, because of fashion tastes are changing all the time. People who were hunting for alligators to make alligator-skin bags might be out of work 10 years later because tastes changed in Paris.
It’s similar now, but it’s just become more spatially dispersed and complicated. We’re still working for luxuries, everybody’s still in debt of one kind or another. It’s not so much that you have a single employer who is exploiting you. It’s much more diffuse than that. And that means that it’s hard to figure out who’s screwing you. If you seek to go behind the brand and find out where things are really made, it’s really hard to find information.
Richard Wilk is the director of the Food Studies Program in the Indiana University Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on consumer culture, past and present; gender; households; and the food culture in Belize. He has written over 140 papers and book chapters, demonstrating his ability to deftly weave together varying and complex issues—such as energy use, mass media, and local food movements—in a lucid, careful, and engaging manner.
Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change in Barcelona, Spain. He is co-editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization and degrowth, and long bicycle rides.