Saving the World with Che, Mao, and Carrots

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In 2050, when there are 9 billion people living mainly in cities, it's not entirely clear how we'll feed everyone. Industrial agriculture, with its dependency on vast tracts of land, deep cheap water, and endless fossil fuels, won't be able to help—we just don't have the resources to farm for 9 billion in the future the way we now farm for 7 billion.

A group of 400 scientists who've been bending their minds to this question recently announced their findings, and their answer looks very different from the way we eat today. The International Agricultural Assessment on Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, headed by Bob Watson, the former World Bank chief science officer and now chief scientific advisor at the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, came up with some surprising anti-establishment ideas. The committee suggested that in order to feed the world, we'll need local agriculture, ecologies that build soil fertility and maintain ecosystem balances without chemicals, and a much more intimate geographical connection with our food.

It's a fine manifesto, and important to anyone concerned about the future of food and our planet. But if this is where we need to go, we're faced with the question of how to get there, and what it's going to be like along the way. A field of answers to this perennial question is to be found in the delightful On Guerrilla Gardening, by Richard Reynolds (Bloomsbury).

Reynolds is well placed to talk about guerrilla gardening, being comrade #001 (in the language of the book, he's Richard 001) in a movement that now has thousands of regular recruits from California to Cape Town. With actions that range from pranks to serious attempts to Feed the People, guerrilla gardeners are a worldwide phenomenon, and one with a serious agenda for social change, to which Reynolds' book is a thoughtful guide.

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What all attempts at guerrilla gardening have in common is a deep challenge to property rights. If the gardening isn't illicit, if it isn't on someone else's land without his permission, then it isn't guerrilla—it's just gardening. Reynolds understands the history behind the idea of changing relationships to land. He quotes Che Guevara's observation that "it is tractor and tank at the same time breaking down the walls of the great estate ... and creating new social relations in the ownership of land."

Reynold's book is salted with aphorisms from Mao and Che, but the real eminence grise is Gerrard Winstanley, the True Leveller or, to use the more appropriate shorthand, Winstanley the Digger, the original guerrilla gardener. A Christian radical during the English Civil War, Winstanley held private property in vocal contempt. The 1649-1650 organisation, occupation, and cultivation of common land in Surrey with which he is most famously associated was ultimately undone by the authorities, but the spirit of the Diggers lives on, and Reynolds's coming-to-terms with Winstanley is one of the reasons to read On Guerrilla Gardening.

When I talked to Reynolds a couple of years ago, his main complaint was that "Winstanley made too much noise" and ended up alienating potential allies. Winstanley chose to speechify, rather than to sow. Reynolds sees the need for less political grandstanding, and more potted guile. Which is why his book is styled as a manual, full of sensible, practiced advice. If you're stopped by the authorities, for instance, try saying that the community wants to make the place nicer, and you're a volunteer. It's hard for people to stop that.

In addition to tactical insights, Reynolds also offers strategic advice, particularly about which common land to shoot for. In language that, at least half jokingly, summons the authority of a general at war, he says, "My recommendation is to focus your attack on neglected land. This is a tangible enemy, and an adversary against which you are more likely to win support." Part of the reason for the support is that, on neglected land, improvements will swiftly be noticed. A more beautiful and productive bit of green space is a victory for the movement and, pragmatically, nothing succeeds like success.

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Raj Patel is a British-born American writer, activist, and academic. He has worked for the World Bank and WTO and been tear-gassed on four continents protesting against them. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved and The Value of Nothing. More

Raj Patel is a British-born American writer, activist, and academic. He has worked for the World Bank and WTO and been tear-gassed on four continents protesting against them. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved and The Value of Nothing. He’s currently a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for African Studies, an Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a fellow at The Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First. He is currently an IATP Food and Community Fellow. He has testified about the causes of the global food crisis to the US House Financial Services Committee and is an Advisor to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

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