workers’ gardens

The following is an excerpt from Pamphlet No. 1, A Winding Path to Workers’ Gardens/Un camino de bobina a jardines de trabajadores, beginning at page 105, in the part of the pamphlet that is a socialized technical report on nutrient scarcity and soil:

Workers' Garden 1921 NYT Article

Contrary to the assumption in the 1921 French version of workers’ gardens, which was adopted by the conservative right wing national Bloc government, sometimes no profit may be yielded yet significant material benefits may be realized by desperate people living now or in the future. Many cannot afford to purchase sufficient nourishing food. But with some version of workers’ gardens, they might be able to become somewhat less dependent upon expensive food commodities and supplement their diets with nutritious produce from small productive plots, container gardens, or fruit trees.

I want to state plainly at the outset that I have come to believe, both as a soil scientist and as a socialist, that, where climate and other natural conditions will permit it, workers’ gardens in some form need to be made available to everyone. Workers’ gardens at the very least would allow humans living in crowded settings to produce some good and needed food, and to provide some mutual aid in society’s restoration of its lost nutrient balance. The demand for workers’ gardens could easily be part of, and not undercut, the broader demand for justice.

This technical report is focused on nutrient scarcity in relation to soil, not on the physical scarcity of soil per se, much less on social problems per se. I am primarily trying to give the reader the plain substance in terms of soil chemistry. I point out major problems with nutrient scarcity and soil that must be dealt with by humanity over time. I even say in general terms what has to happen. However, the precise forms of solutions to the nutrient scarcity problems will need to be more fully developed over time and to be appropriate for each place in the best possible manner.

Nonetheless, I do feel comfortable stating that, for reasons that include, but are not limited to, soil chemistry, all places where people live, including packed urban areas, should provide proximately-located spaces for all humans to participate in growing at least some of their own food. This should be a central organizing principal for urban planners, and existing communities should be retrofitted to meet this need as much as possible. The forms for workers’ gardens need to be democratically-determined and should vary from place to place.

In most suburban settings the workers’ gardens would be perfectly fine in the private yards of the suburban occupants. This would make a much better use of precious terrain than decorative plants. In that case, the societal cooperation rendered might simply be indirect: by living partly off the food “grid,” expenditures of energy and agribusiness inputs could be lessened, water could be conserved, and nutrients could be recycled locally. However, it could be direct too: to sustainably grow a surplus of food in sterile suburbia and then share the surplus could be a compassionate thing to do and a quiet act of solidarity.

In many places, it would be hard to find the space for workers’ gardens. Not everyone around the world has a yard that could be converted into a suburban mini-farm. Needless to say, many in the developing world live in terribly crowded, unhygienic, and unsafe circumstances. Even in the first world, many live in crowded apartments and other complexes surrounded by concrete, asphalt, barbed wire, and broken glass, and in some slums having yards, crime makes it dangerous to work in the yard or play outside. In many urban areas workers’ gardens would have to be located on rooftops.

The vital social policy is that where climate and other natural conditions will permit it, a right of access to at least some soil and sun for safely growing food should be recognized as a fundamental human right held by everyone. To the extent this recommendation is based on soil science, this is not gratuitous advice. Workers’ gardens make sense in terms of soil science, as I will develop in this report.

However, the benefits are unlikely to be limited to yields of food and helping with the problem of nutrient scarcity in our soil. While I will present my line of reasoning in this report as a clear-eyed soil scientist focused on soil chemistry, I am also admittedly motivated as a socialist even beyond a socialist’s need to be concerned with food supplies and nutrient scarcity in relation to soil.

Workers’ gardens could have side benefits of somewhat revitalizing and humanizing otherwise alienating urban spaces. Benefits could be experienced in terms of “the workers’ health and family life.” Workers’ gardens could become a focal point for mutual aid. In unsafe slum areas, hopefully security could at least be provided at workers’ gardens so that every child would have one place outside under the sky that was wholesome and peaceful. While this may not make a single capitalist any money, it is the right thing to do, in some form, democratically-determined, for all people.

I do not at all believe that workers’ gardens will be a panacea. They will not solve all or even most of the nutrient scarcity issues humanity will face. They certainly will not bring about a pastoral utopia on a planet with a projected nine billion people, many of whom have been forced off the farm into horrible circumstances and are unlikely to return, having lost the farm to neoliberal trade agreement-driven food-import dependency, large-scale industrial agriculture aggregation, land grabs, or global warming-related droughts.

By themselves they will not rejuvenate the blighted urban landscape. In many slums their short-term benefits might be trivial in comparison to the serious and immediate problems with which people must live on a daily basis. They will not end alienation and make Opalocka where my mother was raised a safe and nurturing place to grow up. Only good jobs for everyone needing work, which will not result under market capitalism, along with other supportive measures I cannot fully identify might do that.

Finally, as a socialist I would not want to overlook the potential dialectical and liberating values of the people forcing the capitalists to recognize that this is “our” soil. Neocolonialism and capitalism, which have directly or indirectly driven the poor people of the world off the land, should not be allowed to own and exploit all of the land capable of supporting life. The commons should be revitalized, with workers’ gardens as one needed increment of economic justice, sustainability, and socialized food production.

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