I saw a post over at OpenLeft by Natasha Chart (one of my favorites there) that I want to highlight, because I think that piece, and one I read in the New Yorker (a profile of Whole Foods CEO John Mackey), are important for understanding the different potential routes the green economy might take. Because this revolutionary economic shift can either correct or codify the problems of the old system, it’s essential that we identify what we think are that system’s features and flaws. This discussion will focus on the urban and organic agriculture subcommunities of the larger environmental movement. Proceed below the flip:
In A Cult Of Individualism That’s Destroying The Planet, Chart profiles John Hantz, who has been attracting a great deal of interest from a CNN profile of his work. The story goes like this:
With a net worth of more than $100 million, he’s one of the richest men left in Detroit — one of the very few in his demographic who stayed put when others were fleeing to Grosse Pointe and Bloomfield Hills. Not long ago, while commuting, he stumbled on a big idea that might help save his dying city.
Every weekday Hantz pulls his Volvo SUV out of the gated driveway of his compound and drives half an hour to his office in Southfield, a northern suburb on the far side of Eight Mile Road. His route takes him through a desolate, postindustrial cityscape — the kind of scene that is shockingly common in Detroit.
Along the way he passes vacant buildings, abandoned homes, and a whole lot of empty land. In some stretches he sees more pheasants than people. “Every year I tell myself it’s going to get better,” says Hantz, bright-eyed, with smooth cheeks and a little boy’s carefully combed haircut, “and every year it doesn’t.”
Then one day about a year and a half ago, Hantz had a revelation. “We need scarcity,” he thought to himself as he drove past block after unoccupied block. “We can’t create opportunities, but we can create scarcity.” And that, he says one afternoon in his living room between puffs on an expensive cigar, “is how I got onto this idea of the farm.”
Yes, a farm. A large-scale, for-profit agricultural enterprise, wholly contained within the city limits of Detroit. Hantz thinks farming could do his city a lot of good: restore big chunks of tax-delinquent, resource-draining urban blight to pastoral productivity; provide decent jobs with benefits; supply local markets and restaurants with fresh produce; attract tourists from all over the world; and — most important of all — stimulate development around the edges as the local land market tilts from stultifying abundance to something more like scarcity and investors move in. Hantz is willing to commit $30 million to the project. He’ll start with a pilot program this spring involving up to 50 acres on Detroit’s east side. “Out of the gates,” he says, “it’ll be the largest urban farm in the world.”
Word, I dig. I think urban agriculture is a fantastic idea, and I’ve got high hopes for it in Cleveland as well. It’s got the potential to be really transformative for the Midwest, with Milwaukee and Chicago already doing a bunch on the non-profit side of things, with amazing programs that do ex-offender reentry and community development through urban ag. So groovy.
But hold on:
This is a lot to hang on Hantz. Most of what he knows about agriculture he’s picked up over the past 18 months from the experts he’s consulting at Michigan State and the Kellogg Foundation. Then there’s the fact that many of his fellow citizens are openly rooting against him. Since word leaked of his scheme last spring, he has been criticized by community activists, who call the plan a land grab. Opponents have also raised questions about the run-ins he’s had with regulators at Hantz Financial…
Some of Hantz’s biggest skeptics, ironically, are the same people who’ve been working to transform Detroit into a laboratory for urban farming for years, albeit on a much smaller scale. The nonprofit Detroit Agriculture Network counts nearly 900 urban gardens within the city limits. That’s a twofold increase in two years, and it places Detroit at the forefront of a vibrant national movement to grow more food locally and lessen the nation’s dependence on Big Ag.
None of those gardens is very big (average size: 0.25 acre), and they don’t generate a lot of cash (most don’t even try), but otherwise they’re great: as antidotes to urban blight; sources of healthy, affordable food in a city that, incredibly, has no chain supermarkets; providers of meaningful, if generally unpaid, work to the chronically unemployed; and beacons around which disintegrating communities can begin to regather themselves.
That actually sounds a lot like what Hantz envisions his farms to be in the for-profit arena. But he doesn’t have many fans among the community gardeners, who feel that Hantz is using his money and connections to capitalize on their pioneering work. “I’m concerned about the corporate takeover of the urban agriculture movement in Detroit,” says Malik Yakini, a charter school principal and founder of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, which operates D-Town Farm on Detroit’s west side. “At this point the key players with him seem to be all white men in a city that’s at least 82% black.”
Hantz, meanwhile, has no patience for what he calls “fear-based” criticism. He has a hard time concealing his contempt for the nonprofit sector generally. (“Someone must pay taxes,” he sniffs.) He also flatly rejects the idea that he’s orchestrating some kind of underhanded land grab. In fact, Hantz says that he welcomes others who might want to start their own farms in the city. “Viability and sustainability to me are all that matters,” he says.
And yet Hantz is fully aware of the potentially historic scope of what he is proposing. After all, he’s talking about accumulating hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of acres inside a major American city. And it’s clear that he views Hantz Farms as his legacy. Already he’s told his 21-year-old daughter, Lauren, his only heir, that if she wants to own the land one day, she has to promise him she’ll never sell it. “This is like buying a penthouse in New York in 1940,” Hantz says. “No one should be able to afford to do this ever again.”
That might seem like an overly optimistic view of Detroit’s future. But allow Hantz to dream a little.
Ahem. Let me put it this way. I have no interest in Avatar environmentalism. This idea of John Hantz as a ‘savior’ for Detroit is deeply paternalistic, authoritarian, and unsustainable. Rather than listen to the community activists who have been working on location for years, he takes the advice of Michigan State and Kellogg foundation experts over 18 months. His leadership team seems to be largely unrepresentative of the community he would be profiting from. He explicitly plans for his succession, and ‘invites competitors’ to start their own farms (how magnanimous, I’ll tell the rest of the ‘has $30 million lying around’ community that he invites them to join him). This is not respecting place. This is not avoiding the waste of valuable human resources. This is not cultivation and augmentation of what’s there. This is clearcutting a rainforest of people to put in a palm oil plantation.
Let me be perfectly clear- I am not opposed to for-profits, capitalism, ingenuity, and the whole shebangabang. My work with Hard Hatted Women focuses around establishing a for-profit mechanism to get our mission accomplished in a financially and socially sustainable fashion. I dig making money. Just look:
What I do not dig is making money through the extractive, ‘entrepreneur-as-hero’ model, in which lone geniuses bestow their brilliance on society, and how dare society put fetters on said hero? As Natasha points out, there’s another for-profit plan in the works being taken on by one of my favorite greenies, Majora Carter, who’s great (really great). Let’s see how she’s handling this situation:
Carter visited Detroit recently to talk up her plan to create a worker-owned urban agriculture cooperative venture. By pooling the efforts of numerous small growers in Detroit, it would attempt to grow big enough to generate real profits and a return for investors. But it would be run by local community growers themselves.
That seems to fit midway between Detroit’s hundreds of tiny, volunteer garden plots and the big, mechanized, for-profit farm that businessman John Hantz proposed earlier this year.
And as a worker-owned co-op, Carter’s venture might not ruffle the feathers of the nonprofit community that for the most part opposes Hantz’s for-profit proposal.
Carter said commercializing what is now largely a nonprofit volunteer operation is the best way to help poor Detroiters.
“We’re trying to create new models for economic empowerment,” she said. “It’s has to be commercialized and capitalized to the point where you can start showing a profit fairly soon.
“Ultimately, our goal is that these are investable models and that we will be able to find the capital to do this simply because we are going to be able to show that there’s money in this, that there is a return on investment if we do it right.”
Or, as Majora tweets: “Agree w/John Hantz, farming *is* a way to “save” #Detroit http://bit.ly/7e1WHQ & the emphasis must be on people & JOBS” Precisely, or let the people of Detroit ‘save’ themselves.
It’s entirely possible that Hantz’ plan could provide jobs, which would do a whole lot of good. But there’s a difference between a job and empowerment, independence and control (those things Conservatives love touting when it’s for themselves). Dependence and lack of control are the essence of what’s happened throughout the Midwest. Plant/investor comes in, people get jobs, community prospers, outside elite-directed forces cause plants to close, town dies. There’s def a place for investors, but how can their investments be leveraged democratically?
I am all about green business, but I’m also about economic democracy as opposed to authoritarianism, and I don’t see how we’re gonna get green right any other way. To rephrase Majora Carter, if we’d had polluting facilities in rich communities (and poor communities had the resources to fight them when they bring no benefits), we’d have had this renewables thing figured out a long time ago.
John Mackey, the co-founder and chief executive of Whole Foods Market, refers to the company as his child—not just his creation but the thing on earth whose difficulties or downfall it pains him most to contemplate. He also sees himself as a “daddy” to his fifty-four thousand employees…
Whole Foods routinely ranks high on those lists of companies that are the best to work for. The health and retirement benefits are relatively generous. Mackey regards his blend of paternalism and sovereignty as a recipe for proper governance, an expression of both compassion and creativity. This view is not shared by unions, which have complained that Mackey prevents unionization among his employees…
It sometimes sounds as if he believed that, if every company had him at the helm, there would be no need for unions or health-care reform, and that therefore every company should have someone like him, and that therefore there should be no unions or health-care reform. In other words, because he runs a business a certain way, others will, can, and should, and so the safeguards that have evolved over the generations to protect against human venality—against, say, greedy, bullying bosses—are no longer necessary…
His belief in the power of the individual is such that blame falls on individuals, too. In his view, it tends to be the fault of the unhealthy or fat person that he or she is unhealthy or fat. People just need to eat better. He told me, “If I could, I would wave a magic wand so that Americans ate better, because the diseases that are killing us—heart disease, cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s—these diseases have a high correlation with diet. And that is something that most people do not understand.”
It matters less to him that our food system, for a dozen reasons, as Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, and many others have chronicled, has been rigged to deliver unhealthy food at artificially low cost to a misguided public. People have the power and the means to choose rice and beans over Big Macs, and when they fail to do so they bring ruin on themselves, and on everyone else.
Ah, if only we could all be like John Mackey, there wouldn’t be any problems, because John Mackey understands things the rest of us are having trouble with. Thank you so much John Mackey for letting me know that mad burgers are bad for me. Because most people smoke because no one told them it was unhealthy (it had nothing to do with that psychological assault via ad campaign). And food deserts don’t exist.
Observe again that Mackey is by all accounts a benevolent CEO, with good intentions. He does after all provide relatively good wages to his workers (though his supply chain is debatable). If only John Mackey was the CEO of every company, then things would be alright. But the world doesn’t work like that, and frankly, why should John’s workers have to trust that their “daddy” will always be looking out for them? Why can’t they get a say in this thing they create, Whole Foods? Why can’t they have the ability to look out for themselves and negotiate with the management to create terms that fit their needs as well as the company’s? Because John knows their needs better than they do.
The old economy brought prosperity and good livelihoods to countless communities (me chief among them). I’m not going to pretend it didn’t. But it also brought misery, devastation, and a lack of control to many others. Do we want to repeat that with the new economy? Does injustice inevitably accompany progress?
Or, as Van Jones (le swoon) put it at Power Shift ’09:
“Greening this economy is not just a technological challenge or a political challenge or a legislative challenge or a business challenge, it’s a moral challenge. And only your generation is diverse enough, loving enough, connected enough, determined enough to meet the true moral challenge that we face, which is this: We have to create a green economy, that’s true, that’s true. But we have to create a green economy that Dr. King would be proud of. We have to create a green economy that includes everybody, that has a place in it for everybody. That’s why we say Green For All. And you have the ability and the power to do that. But the challenge is, will you settle for eco-apartheid?…
This is deeper than a solar panel. I want you to have a clean energy revolution, that’s beautiful. But I’m gonna tell you the truth about it. If you stop there, if all you do is have a clean energy revolution, you wouldn’t have done anything. And I’m gonna tell you why.
If all we do is take out the dirty power system, the dirty power generation in the system, and replace it with some clean stuff, put a solar panel on top of this system, but we don’t deal with how we are consuming water, don’t deal with how we’re treating our other sister and brother species, we don’t deal with toxins, we don’t deal with the way we treat each other, if that’s not a part of this movement, let me tell you what you’ll have, this is all you’ll have: you’ll have solar powered bulldozers, solar powered buzz-saws, and biofuel bombers, and we’ll be fighting wars over lithium for the batteries instead of oil for the engines, and we’ll still have a dead planet!
This movement is deeper than a solar panel! Don’t stop there! No, we’re gonna change the whole system, we’re gonna change the whole thing, we’re not gonna put a new battery in a broken system, we want a new system.”
See the original:
I refuse to accept the false dichotomy presented by those who lack imagination and will, that says that our only choices are abject poverty and development at the expense of others, who lack a say in their own futures. Such a dichotomy breeds a fatalism that plays right into their hands. I don’t buy it.