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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: Sustainability and Prefiguration

One of the themes that has connected my previous diaries here on is that of a "global, ecologically sustainable society."  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)

But what is sustainable, and what would a sustainable society look like?  It’s easy to look outside one’s window and see a world of people who think only for today, and to presume, then, that nothing is sustainable.  They’ve corrupted the word itself: Josee Johnston’s essay "Who Cares about the Commons" suggests that "sustainability has come to imply corporate profits as much as ‘saving the earth.’" (1)

Now, of course, when we talk about sustainability here, we are not talking about sustainable profits, but about saving the Earth.  But the "sustainable profits" definition points to another definition of "sustainability" – sustainability means doing what we’re doing in a way that will allow us to do it for longer (before the eventual collapse).  In this sense, sustaining our practices means prolonging their demise for as long as possible.

Well, that idea of "sustainability" won’t do.  So when we look around to see what’s sustainable, we can be forgiven for drawing blanks.  Transportation?  We’ll burn the world’s oil up, and then what?  Housing? 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.  Economics?  How sustainable is dollar hegemony?  Politics?  How can our politics be sustainable when it puts into power buffoons like George W. Bush?

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.  But are we really that devoted to learning?  

And, more specifically, do we have a sustainable education, or at least an education pointed toward sustainability?  The short answer is: no.  Our educational systems are designed to manufacture diplomas and degrees without purpose, in a knowledge-centered "production for production’s sake" that mimics Marx’s criticism of the capitalist system as a whole.  Our public schools are tied to the test-score-production regimes of the hated 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)

So you can see the sort of market-based pandering, the Benthamite calculations of pain and pleasure, that academic life has become for many students.  This way of 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.  If this is what the universities of America are promoting, then they need to be promoting something else.

At the very top of our university systems is the academic production process that Professor Ben Agger calls "Academic Writing as Real Estate."  I have already discussed this in detail in my diary on Richard Rorty.  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"?

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 practicing sustainable practices.  We could argue that the goal of "sustainability" has become confused by defining the word "sustainability" as "prolonging our current, unsustainable practices so that they might last longer (before the inevitable collapse)."  

But we can still find out what a sustainable society would look like, and we can still "get there."  One major way of understanding how to get there is through a concept elaborated by Joel Kovel in his book The Enemy of Nature: prefiguration.  For Kovel, prefiguration is a quality one can find in everything.  More precisely, prefiguration is the degree to which an institution, human construct, or social entity points to the potential for a future, global, ecologically sustainable, society.  

Now, just as certain practices are "more sustainable" than others, so, also, certain institutions, human constructs, and social entities are more "prefigurative" than others.  To find prefiguration, then, one must be able to see how something points to this desired, stable future.  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":

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 participate as cogs in enormous political-economic machines (the "market," the "state").  But, to a certain extent, we should also be looking for prefiguration in physical institutions, for social get-togethers that approximate the "free association of producers" have to take place in particular physical spaces.  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 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.

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."

Part Two: The Farm

For the remainder of this diary, I would like to present (via web photo, stored on Photobucket) an example of a community garden as established on the site of a prominent college, the Pomona College Natural Farm.

Now, 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.

Today, classes are held at the Farm, faculty sponsors visit it often, and students, alumni, and community members are involved in its maintenance.

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.)

When designing rock sculptures around the Dome, a student of Pomona College designed this "love seat" sign, and other students designed the seat itself.

The large structure in the middle of this picture is a trellis meant to hold three Armenian cucumber plants planted earlier this spring.  I think one of them has died, however.  

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.

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.

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.  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 jalapeno chiles on this land.  I’m hoping to convince Juan that some of this land can be devoted to Armenian cucumbers.

Geordie Schuurman, who was 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: you have 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.

Conclusion: The Farm as Prefiguration and Physical Space

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 is typically biased in favor of economically viable, 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, about which I will have another diary later.

Community garden projects like this can bring communities together as signs of education about sustainability.  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 diary is a proposal to create community gardens, and not 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.  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.

Originally posted to Cassiodorus on Fri Jul 06, 2007 at 01:05 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  This is really interesting. (3+ / 0-)

    The photos are amazing.  I would make them a bit smaller - but I loved them.

    This really is a very interesting project.  Thanks for posting the diary on dkos.

    Have you read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle?  I thought it was pretty insightful - it really changed the way I thought about food.

    •  Haven't read the new Kingsolver (2+ / 0-)

      I'm glad you liked the photos...

      "I don't recall." -- Ronald Reagan

      by Cassiodorus on Fri Jul 06, 2007 at 01:31:50 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  It is so sad how our culture (2+ / 0-)

        doesn't know how to farm anymore - I know I don't, and my great-grandparents were farmers (as I am sure most folks were of that generation).  But it really is becoming a necessity - what with all the issues we are having with genetic modification, toxic chemicals entering the food supply, and unnatural ways of feeding/treating animals.

        I've always been partial to organic labeling, but just now have figured out that "certified organic by quality assurance international" can mean that the food may have come from China (after discovering this myself on a package of Whole Foods 365 Organic frozen broccoli - where it was printed with "product of China", I have become very particular about the organic products I buy.  So, I have ventured on to the Farmers' Market, and to a pick your own organic farm close by.

        I think you would like the Kingsolver book - she grows her own food for her family for a whole year - uses organic methods, raises turkeys and chickens, and only buys from local farms.

        At any rate - sorry to be so long winded, but I think your diary is not only fabulous, but very timely.  There's more to learn about our food supply than one might initially think - it is just creepy out there.

  •  Couple things ... (2+ / 0-)
    1.  Very interesting to read and think about. Learned, thank you.
    1.  How much 'common space' should be devoted to common, community food production is something that will, it seems to me, be ever more discussed in the coming years. Yet, the "norm" strongly remains the manicured and over-chemicaled grass.
    1.  Echo point about photos -- welcome them but they are too large. (Check FAQs about editing photo size although you probably can do this at Photobucket as well.)
    1.  There are a few gaps/sentence fragments. For example:  "Both domes were cob domes, made from ..."  Okay, what are they made from?

    Time to go reread parts.

    Blogging regularly at Ecotality Blog for a Sustainable Future.

    by A Siegel on Fri Jul 06, 2007 at 03:27:49 AM PDT

    •  OK... (2+ / 0-)
      1.  This is clearly a short version of my argument.  It has to get out, but it's long, so compromises have to be made.
      1.  Grass is the British imperialist model of landscaping.  It surely isn't native to southern California, where I live and where Pomona College is.  As for "common space," there is so little of it in our urban regions, and so much of it is dominated by ignorant city councils, that I envision some of it eventually being seized by angry communities in despair at the complete juggernaut civilization has become.  Spread edible weeds through the cracks in the concrete!
      1.  I shrunk the photos to 640 x 480.  Not enough?  I have no idea what the cucumber would look like if I went smaller.
      1.  I corrected the fragment, thank you for noticing.  The Farm is a lab for sustainability in many ways: there is a solar panel, there is community composting (I need a better photo shot of that one), and there will eventually be a composting toilet.

      "I don't recall." -- Ronald Reagan

      by Cassiodorus on Fri Jul 06, 2007 at 07:47:11 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Good diary (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Cassiodorus, means are the ends

    These are really important topics and I think in years to come, more and more people will pay attention to the details of sustainability.

    I have become interested in dirt recently.  I think our soil is in deplorable shape.  We put so much crap into it (chemical fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, etc.) it is a miracle that anything grows.

    The UC Santa Cruz farm is 25 acres planted with a mind-numbing variety of fruits and veggies.  I think they are even doing a little wheat now.  The thing that they stress is the "sanctity of the soil".

    We ought to be taking composting much more seriously than we do.  When we put organic waste into the garbage, it decomposes anaerobically and releases methane gas.

    Many communities have a methane mining system at their landfill, but some of the decomposition will occur long after the miners have lost interest.

    Methane is 62 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2 (according to the IPCC).  If we compost instead of landfill, we can regenerate our soil instead of heating our planet.

    I trust that the Pomona Farm is an aggressive composter with thermiphelic decomposition and possibly worms.  It looks like a fun place and I wish them all the best.

  •  Community Gardens (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Prefiguration through ad hoc gardens on school property has been around for a long, long time.  People's Park in Berkeley was all about this and eventually destroyed by the police on behalf of the UC Berkeley authorities, resulting in one of the worst riots of "Berkeley in the Sixties."  Down the coast, at UCSB in Isla Vista, there was Perfect Park, another appropriated community garden.  A few years later, at UC Santa Cruz began the Fruition Program, planting food-producing trees and bushes on public access lands.

    In the backwash of the Sixties, in the Seventies, some of the energy that had been concentrated against the Vietnam War focused now on community gardens, food coops, and local agriculture.  It seems to me that those efforts brought about the deepest changes hippie culture wrought on American society, especially with the revival of farmers' markets.

    Now Alice Waters, the famous chef, and others are promoting schoolyard gardens across the USA.  It's a good idea.

    I also think it's a good idea to do demos of working solar devices at the nearly 4400 farmers' markets [so ABC News said tonight] across the country from now until the end of the growing season.  That's another form of prefiguration which slides over into direct action if you let it.

    Cal Poly Pomona were building a sustainable dorm and classrooms about a decade ago.  I wonder how that's going.

    Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

    by gmoke on Fri Jul 06, 2007 at 09:43:23 PM PDT

    •  Cal Poly Pomona -- (0+ / 0-)

      is Pomona College's source of obsession with "legitimate academic farming."  I presume that's where the faculty located Juan Araya, or maybe he located them...

      "I don't recall." -- Ronald Reagan

      by Cassiodorus on Sat Jul 07, 2007 at 12:43:04 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  People's Park -- (0+ / 0-)

      is an excellent (historical) example of community action, though I'd like to know to what extent it currently serves as a sign of how we could have a global, ecologically sustainable, society...

      "I don't recall." -- Ronald Reagan

      by Cassiodorus on Sat Jul 07, 2007 at 01:15:20 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  You Can Fix All the World's Problems in a Garden (0+ / 0-)

        "You can solve them all in a garden. You can solve all your pollution problems and all your supply line needs in a garden. And most people actually today don't actually know that and that makes most people insecure."

        More at

        Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

        by gmoke on Sat Jul 07, 2007 at 10:44:34 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Suggestion: Also harvest the acorns (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    growing all around the garden. California has abundant oaks, which provided the staple food of most native groups before the Spanish arrived.

    I have always wondered why such a plentiful, cheap, and nourishing resource was ignored. I process and eat some acorns every Fall, here in Northern California.

    Great diary! Thanks very much. My daughter is applying to Harvey Mudd, and if she goes there, I'll definitely stop in at the garden.

    College kids just have so much energy, don't they?

    •  And since I'm dreaming: How about one of (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      those smart kids coming up with some kind of acorn huller? That would really speed things up!

      •  Don't know -- (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        means are the ends

        the trees are legally protected, don't know if that includes the acorns too...

        "I don't recall." -- Ronald Reagan

        by Cassiodorus on Sat Jul 07, 2007 at 12:47:34 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Good question. Although there are so many (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          oaks all over California, that it is relatively easy, IMHO, to find a tree or two worth of acorns to harvest somewhere nearby anywhere. In a good year, that is enough for a person for a year! Last year though, poorly timed heavy rains wiped out most of the acorn crop, and the animals went fairly hungry.

          In a year of heavy acorn production, a few pounds of acorns would probably not make much difference, though. That would be enough for college kids to experiment with, and also still leave more than enough for wildlife and to supply new oak seedlings. This is just MHO, anyway. But of course, stay within the law!

          Again, thanks for a wonderful diary.

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