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The Ecological Aesthetics of Food Production at Arcosanti

I have spent the last few days with Karin working on a paper for André Viljoen and Katrin Bohm’s conference AESOP 2ND EUROPEAN SUSTAINABLE FOOD PLANNING, which will be hosted by University of Brighton later this month. I have posted our paper abstract below.

 

Paulo Soleri in Arcosanti greenhouse picking food, May 2010 (by author)

 

The Ecological Aesthetics of Food Production at Arcosanti

Jon Goodbun and Karin Jaschke

In this paper we will explore ‘paradigms and strategies for urban and rural planning and design’, and ‘definitions of sustainable metropolitan agricultural systems’, using as a case study the recently revived plans for food production at Arcosanti. We will use new and previously unpublished on-site interviews and documents to discuss these developments, as well as reflecting upon Paulo Soleri’s distinctive methods of ‘scenario building, visioning and public engagement’. In discussing these matters, we will draw upon a somewhat forgotten 1970 paper by Gregory Bateson – Restructuring the Ecology of a Great City – arguing that following Bateson, we must not think of food systems as solely energy and material flows – progressive though this would be. Rather, food ecologies are as much to do with communication and information flows, and can only be properly grasped through what Bateson described as an ecological aesthetics.

The complex challenges faced by the historical and ongoing development of Arcosanti reflect contradictions within the urban food movement more broadly. Whilst much of the recent discourse around urban food production assumes that any such developments will necessarily be based in grassroots, socially progressive ‘grow your own’ and ‘transition town’ type initiatives, facilitated by designed organisational systems (planning) of one kind or another, this will not necessarily be the case. Indeed, one can presume that if there is any sense to urban food production at all, then the normal forces of capital accumulation will soon get to work. Indeed, many of the more recent proposals that are emerging within the architectural imaginary are precisely of this form, for example the vertical farms which by definition require significant capital investment, and are no doubt based upon private ownership of production.(1)

In fact, whilst generally seen as a critical of the forces of capitalism, the progressive character of the transition town type model is itself by no means uncontested. There are important reasons to be suspicious of the ideology that can be found lurking not far beneath the surface of many ‘return to localism’ movements. For example, in a recent article Andy Fenwick has argued that the Transition Town type strategies entail, from one kind of Marxist perspective at least, multiple problems including: a confused appeal to a mythical past, exporting unemployment to developing countries, reliance upon local currencies acting as local trade barriers, and cheap labour.(2) More importantly, these movements can easily be accused of false consciousness – that is to say, giving the appearance of radical change, whilst actually diverting energy away from confronting the real and fundamental source of environmental and economic crisis: capitalism itself.

Nonetheless, the ‘metabolic rift’ described by Marx has never been so alarming, and the need for a radical cultural re-conceptualisation of our food systems would seem to be undeniable. Transition culture can rightly claim that the very real instability of capitalism in the contemporary period, and the very real possibility of near future resource wars, and/or a collapse in global trade, demands a robustness to food production that only local knowledge and production networks can provide.

We will explore how these broader socio-economic contradictions might be reflected in the experimental setting of Arcosanti, and suggest how a conception of ecological aesthetics might help make visible the multiple levels of consciousness – both radical and false – that all of these experiments necessarily project.

(1) See for example http://www.verticalfarm.com/. In Detroit, as has been well documented, grassroots initiatives (see for example http://www.urbanfarming.org/) are being challenged by larger scale commercial propositions (http://www.hantzfarmsdetroit.com/). There is an emerging distinction, between urban farming proposals that stage and experiment with new social forms and new relations to nature, and those that are simply vehicles for private capital investment and profit.
(2) See Andy Femwick, ‘Transitional Communities – a dead end for the environment’ in Socialist Appeal, accessed from http://www.marxist.com/transitional-communities-dead-end-environment.htm
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