Friday, 1 August 2014

We Are What We Eat

Ludwig Feuerbach, the 19th century radical thinker, is probably best known for his aphorism about our essence being the food we consume. But when one reflects on the social phenomenon known as ‘Incredible Edible Todmorden’, his philosophy that true fulfilment is ultimately to be found through the interactions of mutually caring people, is even more pertinent.

In Todmorden, a town with a population of about 15,000 in the north of England, this vision of the good life is very much an everyday aspiration. No one reading Incredible! Plant Veg, Grow a Revolution: the story of Incredible Edible Todmorden (by Pam Warhurst and Joanna Dobson, Troubador: 2014) can fail to be impressed by how the seemingly simple idea of encouraging people to grow edible plants on public land around the town would mushroom into a pervasive culture of healthy living and community cooperation.

The ‘Incredible’ book can be read at two levels – both equally important. First of all, it is a handy guide to cultivating vibrant community spirit through the growing and sharing of food. Instead of filling public areas with pyracantha and grasses, or lamenting the lack of allotments for individuals to use, why not plant fruit and herbs in communal space? For anyone interested in doing just that, the authors are more than happy to share their recipes – for everything from what to grow, how to cook, to finding volunteers and drafting a constitution for a community group.

In case you wonder how shared growing on public land could happen with neither top-down control nor privatisation, there is the practical example of a council granting license for people to use public land to grow food – thus building trust and enabling people to improve things for themselves and their communities.

Far from suggesting that merely tapping into people’s innate niceness and everything would then work out spontaneously, this book constantly reminds us that it takes hard work, persistence, and an unwavering willingness to learn to make things happen.

At a second level, this book is an inspirational tale of how social change can happen when people reclaim their common resources. Given the increasing interest in the politics of the commons, the story of what has been happening in Todmorden – and now spreading to other parts of the world – demonstrates vividly the role of accessible practices in steering society towards the ethos of sharing and cooperation.

The tireless and imaginative ways the pioneers in Todmorden engaged with schools, adult learners, pubs and restaurants, local farmers, the police and fire services, offenders on community service, and numerous other groups and organisations show how an alternative mind-set can be nurtured. And with a different set of dispositions, people are more ready than ever to come up with new collaborations to support healthy eating, community enterprise, sustainable farming, environmental improvements, and countless other positive outcomes most public policy makers can only dream of.

The most important outcome of all is the realisation that communities do not have to succumb to the ideology of greed or surrender to the clutches of despair. Cooperation can and does offer a better future.


Jane Crow said...

Hi Henry,
I always enjoy your blogs as there's plenty of food for thought. Delighted you've covered a place very close to my heart, as well as location - nearby Todmorden and the Incredible Edible project. Although not directly involved in the project myself, I very much embrace the ethos of sharing, co-operation and community. I think of it as a blueprint for a sustainable future.

There's a stubborn strength to the people of these Pennine towns that seems to have created the conditions for such projects to grow and thrive. The local market people in Tod have fought several battles to stop new supermarkets being built. Their commitment keeps their customers inspired to do their bit and keep buying local produce whenever possible. There's a great sign in the cheese stall: `By buying from us you are helping to keep 23 other independent businesses in business'.

Buying direct from local farmers and stall holders means we eat well, use considerably less of the earth's resources and makes us more conscious of our impact as consumers both on a local as well as international level.

We now grow our own organic fruit and veg too, partly inspired by the Edible project. Not an easy job building a kitchen garden out of barren acid soil! But the reward of seeing the teeming micro-life of the healthy soil you've helped create and nurture is a wake up call for the dangers of factory farms and the incoming threat of GMO, pesticides and their effects on wildlife.

As the earth's resources dwindle, it becomes more obvious that capitalism is not fit for purpose and needs to be replaced by a co-operative ethos that leaves no one behind. I see projects like Incredible Edible as important Political Activism in this too. :-)

Henry Benedict Tam said...

Thanks Jane,
I couldn't agree with you more. Political activism needs the imaginative nourishment of projects like Incredible Edible to engage an ever growing number of people to support the alternative socio-economic arrangements we need. Must be satisfying to be able to grow your own organic food too.