Monday, 13 December 2010

The Importance of Social Class Analysis for Sustainability: Reflections on 'The 'Garden' By Jessica Paddock

Below is a short piece written by Jesssica Paddock from the Cardiff School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University and relates to our sciSCREENing of The Garden in November.

This documentary – ‘The Garden’ - judiciously follows the journey embarked upon by a community of farmers in South Central Los Angeles as they battle notices of eviction issued by the city council on behalf of a powerful developer. The land from which these community gardeners face eviction - ‘loaned’ to the community in order to grow food in what otherwise could be described as a ‘food desert’ - served to enable the community to access fresh and healthy food as well as empowering the predominantly Latino community to exert some control over their means of subsistence in a neighbourhood suffering the consequences of the riots of 1992, also known as the ‘Rodney King Uprising’.

As well as conveying the frustration and despair of these community gardeners as they engage in the necessary legal processes by which to delay and hopefully to prohibit eventual eviction from the land - on the grounds of the illegality of the ‘back room deals’ made between the city council and the landowner – ‘The Garden’ carries the viewer along with the farmers’ heartbreaking journey towards their final eviction, where small and major victories are marred by a spiteful verdict issued on behalf of the landowner.

Despite raising the seemingly impossible sum of sixteen million dollars with the help of celebrity endorsement from actresses and rock bands to eminent politicians at community fund-raisers, these community gardeners were refused the right to purchase the land, despite substantial financial gains to be made on behalf of the landowner. In closing the documentary, a statement made by this powerful developer and landowner is presented via a voiceover as the camera spans across the land vacated by the gardeners that remained untouched by the developer. This statement reads ‘It’s not about money, I don’t like these people, I don’t like their cause’.

Such a distressing ending to the documentary is testament to one theme that has been of particular interest to me throughout my studies; class. The theme of class occurs throughout the documentary as it charts the battle waged by the city council against the plight of urban farmers seeking to preserve their way of life in a devastated neighbourhood of Los Angeles. This theme emerges as clear boundaries demarcate those with the cultural, social and economic capital necessary to fight legal battles that require organisation within the legitimate legal structures - resources held in abundance by lawyers, the city council, and the landowner who provided a contrast to the gardeners, who felt they were initially ill equipped to engage with legal processes. For example, the language of the law and the necessity to speak in English at first inspired little confidence from many of these gardeners. Despite minor – and some major - victories won throughout the legal battle, boundaries were drawn and distinctions were made between the different ways of life that resonate with those often made within the context of ‘alternative’ food consumption here in the UK. In my research, such distinctions of class around issues of food consumption were encountered whilst undertaking qualitative and quantitative research that sought to explore the relationship between social class and the potential success of a sustainable development agenda.

In the UK we have seen a growing number of consumers shopping for food in settings alternative to the conventional retail outlets such as the supermarkets. However, in my research I have sought to understand who shops in such settings and for what reasons, or, more specifically, I have sought to explore the settings of alternative food consumption in relation to whether or not these settings embody any relation to class. Were these spaces of food consumption serving any function that could be seen as reproducing relations of class inequality?

For example, in ‘The Garden’, the community gardeners appear to represent a number of points of departure from discourses that circulate the topics of food consumption and the working classes in the UK. The gardeners of South Central Los Angeles were actively engaged in producing their own food, and through this labour, presented themselves as capable working class social subjects. However, in the UK, the working classes are often - through the lens of popular media texts as well as via data collected in my research – represented as incapable and inactive social subjects, disengaged from the land, from food, and from manual labour.

In light of such disparities it is worth pointing out here that the South Central gardeners had been stripped of a central resource - the land itself - that seemed to enable the enactment of a capable and active self and community. Here in the UK, the loss of the working class labourer is mourned, and their perceived rejection of menial work in the service sector and in traditional working class jobs i.e. producing food, is vilified as evidence of the ‘laziness’ of the working classes who are perceived to have ‘lost their roots’. So, when taking into account these two apparently divergent stories of a connected working class community on the one hand, and a ‘disengaged’ and ‘disconnected’ working class social subject on the other, can we deny the importance of social class analysis in exploring possible avenues towards sustainability?

How, then, in light of such dynamics, can the absence of working class people from settings that engage with alternative forms of food production and consumption be theorised? Moreover, are current approaches to ‘alternative’ food production and consumption sensitive to the politics of class in both a structural as well as cultural sense? To what extent do current practices of sustainable and alternative food production and consumption reflect an agenda that embodies the values and practices of only some classes and not others? These are but a few of the issues explored in my doctoral research.

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