Around May Day there is always a good deal of attention to the question of labor, which is a great thing. As part of all these events last night we saw the documentary Dolores about Dolores Huerta and all the transformative activities she has done -- primarily her co-founding of the National Farmworkers Association (later the UFW) and their early struggles. It is a powerful and necessary movie which I will not try to summarize. I would strongly recommend finding where it is showing and watch it if you can.
Two things really struck me from the movie as I was thinking about our own work around Eat Your Sidewalk: (1) that it was, as she says it “the poorest of the poor who made us aware of how toxic our food is… while environmentalists were mostly concerned with Redwoods elsewhere…” (I am remembering it as best I can), and (2) that “everything begins in organizing house by house, street by street right where you are”.
I’m going to come back to these two points shortly. First I want to turn to the question of labor and labor under oppressive conditions. Today this condition encompasses pretty much all humans, as an ever smaller and smaller percentage of us control the conditions and outcomes of our collective labor. This oppression of laborers extends far beyond humans. Just considering one key area of daily life: food — we can see that pretty much everything we eat is made under conditions that are oppressive to all concerned. This means the plants, soil, insects, animals (including humans) involved in these industrial food producing ecosystems are laboring under disastrous conditions.
Our endless fields of verdant wheat, polished supermarkets stacked with organic packages, butcher's shelves, and green lawns all reflect this. The conditions that chickens lay eggs, that bees pollinate, that plants grow, and that farm workers harvest under are almost all universally terrible.
But why stress that labor extends beyond humans? Does this not trivialize humans and their work by equating them with the work of mere insects? This is a valid concern not to be ignored, but it is not human labor alone that makes this world. Without the continuous labor of fungi and worms we would have no topsoil — and without that we would have very little. Our ecological crisis is a labor crisis. The struggles of labor under our current economic conditions are not exclusively human, and the human dimensions of these struggles cannot be properly addressed without addressing the working conditions of other creatures. This May Day we need to be mindful of the conditions under which all living things labor — and we need to recognize the outcomes of this labor: our current world.
Our current reality — our economics, politics and social systems actively make and remake this world: plants, insects, humans, bacteria and their, our, entangled ecosystemic realities. Our world has produced our world — nothing is left untouched. What is critical to understand in all of this is that economics was never an abstract system for harnessing human labor that sat on top of another independent system called Nature. Our systems are systems for transforming and producing bodies and ecosystems across all scales. The total world we live in is an outcome of these forces. Today there is simply no way to divide Nature from the human world (and as we investigate at length in the Eat Your Sidewalk Cookbook there never was).
Our historical “two world model” of reality allows us to continue to think that we can deal with environmental questions separate from labor questions rests upon a flawed concept of Nature. It is a concept that sees Nature as place in which creatures adapt to independent environmental niches, and once they have done so, where they maintain this tight connection until an outside intervention (humans) disturbs it. But, to be alive is not simply to adapt to a pre-existing niche, or be in balance with an existing condition — it is always and everywhere the labor of co-making and co-evolving an environment (the niche). All creatures are environment co-producers. Worms are not merely adapting to soil — their labor is co-making it. This means that our models of environmentalism that are concerned primarily with limits (leave nature alone) miss the critically active, transformative labor dynamic between creatures and their making of environments. This means that all models that see the world divided between Nature and Culture, or humans and non-humans fail to recognize the totally entangled universal logic of labor. As Michael Pollen so wonderfully made clear in The Botany of Desire plants are using us as we use them. Bacteria shape us and we shape them. Their is no neat dividing line between worlds, species, or even individual creatures — we are all mutually laboring on co-shaping each other and the very conditions of life. This also means to exclusively or independently focus on human working conditions is to miss what systematic role our complex entanglements with other creatures are actually doing, and have been doing for a very long time.
The fully entangled labor to make and to remake ecosystems is what defines all life. If this is correct then ecology cannot be first and foremost about limiting and separating humans from the world (keeping human labor inside a limited realm). As we move beyond the "do less harm" paradigm to change things we need to work directly at these entangled levels of multi-species environmental co-making.
There is no exclusively human realm, all our activities are ecological and involve the question of labor collaboration across and with multiple species and systems. The question is no should we work this way -- we are always working this way -- the question is how to do it differently. This need for new forms of collaborations brings me back to Dolores Huetra’s two points about needing to begin with the plants in our fields, and about needing to organize house by house, block by block. We need to continue to go block by block and house by house and organize. But this organizing is one that needs to extend far beyond our human realm, and in doing so we are in no way denying or replace human struggles for justice — rather we need to see these as the very same struggle. How we grow the grapes (co-shape an ecosystem) is as critical for both humans and non-humans as how we treat humans. We need to organize ourselves with the soil beneath our sidewalks, and the weeds in our streets, with the insects in our houses, the fungi in our air, the bacteria in our bodies, the humans that tend these creatures and all of us who labor. Organizing can be thought of as another word for ecosystem co-shaping.
If we can see our struggles as being about multi-species organizing, we can then begin to develop new bottom-up ways and conditions of laboring to co-shape new ecosystems and cosmologies.
The hard part is, even if you see this that this form of labor struggle and organizing has value, where to begin and then how to continue? How do we work with weeds, bacteria and humans to organize new ecosystems? How do we develop cosmologies beyond the ones that we all habitually enact?
These are the questions that run through the entirety of the Eat Your Sidewalk Cookbook. Which is to say — we too, at one time, had no idea what any of this meant beyond our first tentative conceptual hunches (not that we have it all figured out now -- not by a long shot!). The cookbook documents roughly a one year period of SPURSE’s growth: 2011-2012. It was a transformative year for us. This was the year that we really came to understand what it meant in very concrete terms to develop a multi-species ecosystem co-shaping practice.
We did not come to this on our own: we went to Alaska to speculate with and learn directly from Iñupiat and other Alaskan friends and colleagues (this occupies Chapter One of the book — a chapter in which we collaboratively experiment with ways of stepping outside of our Nature+Culture cosmology). This experience led us to develop a practice of urban foraging as a technique for producing interdependencies (Chapter Two lays out the ideas, techniques and adventures involved in learning this). Doing this led us to think with weeds and to re-imagine the concept of “common” and “the commons” (the struggle with the ideas of the commons, and our rethinking of these led into the idea of “a multi-species commons” which takes up the middle chapters of the book. A "multi-species commons" is perhaps our most critical addition to the recipe books of eating and ecology). At each and every step of telling this story we try to lay out clear recipes (we understand recipes to be: speculative techniques for organizing a multi-species collaborations). For us the seemingly simple recipes for working/laboring with fungi, bacteria and weeds to make wine are also cosmological in scope and intimately connect to new modes of being alive. This direct laboring that begins with a weed always connects to ecosystem shaping that then connects back into the world of weeds. The book never leaves the world of bent over backs, dirty knees and other critters collaborating with us towards a shared world of intra-dependent joys and pleasures.
With this said, we want to put our money where our ideas are: for the month of May when you buy the Eat Your Sidewalk Cookbook we will include the total package: both of our posters (Tools to Make Tools + Eat Your Sidewalk) and the Code Book for the price of the cookbook: $40.00 (we have already unofficially been doing this all along). Just select the cookbook alone and we will include the whole kit.
So yes, we are making a very real call for all the laborers of the world to unite and work towards new worlds. We wish to unite with the realization that human emancipation from our current forms of oppression is only possible through the forming of multiple differing multi-species collaborations.
Our revolutions are always organizational and ecological, they are always multi-species and always cosmological — grounded in the vast, teeming and alive world of entangled labor and pleasure.
Have an exceptionally entangled and pleasurably labor intensive May Day from all of us at SPURSE.