Sustainable Education and Prefiguration in a Couple of Acres: The Pomona College Natural Farm

Published online 6 July 2007.

Sustainability is nowhere to be found, and so we appear to be groping in the dark when looking for it.  One of the ways in which we can proceed to build knowledge about sustainability, however, is in the community garden.  A conceptual guide to the idea of sustainability is located in the concept of prefiguration (as described by Joel Kovel in his book The Enemy of Nature), which describes the sense in which social institutions point to the possibility of a global, ecologically sustainable, society.  Community gardens have important prefigurative qualities, too.  The bulk of this diary, then, will be about one such community garden, one located on the campus of a college: the Pomona College Natural Farm.  The Pomona College Natural Farm will be presented as a place where sustainability, both in social and ecological terms, can be studied.  Its conclusion will attempt to speculate about the significance of the Farm and of community gardens as “prefigurations.”

Part One: Sustainability and Prefiguration

One of the themes that has connected my previous diaries here on is that of a “global, ecologically sustainable society.”  The creation of a future, global, ecologically sustainable society, as I’ve said before, is of paramount importance.  As John Dryzek says in his (1987) book Rational Ecology:

 The preservation and enhancement of the material and ecological basis of society is necessary not only for the function of societal forms such as economically, socially, legally, and politically rational structures, but also for action in pursuit of any value in the long term. (58)

But what is sustainable, and what would a sustainable society look like?  It’s easy to look outside one’s window and see a world of people who think only for today, and to presume, then, that nothing is sustainable.  They’ve corrupted the word itself: Josee Johnston’s essay “Who Cares about the Commons” suggests that “sustainability has come to imply corporate profits as much as ‘saving the earth.’” (1)

Now, of course, when we talk about sustainability here, we are not talking about sustainable profits, but about saving the Earth.  But the “sustainable profits” definition points to another definition of “sustainability” – sustainability means doing what we’re doing in a way that will allow us to do it for longer (before the eventual collapse).  In this sense, sustaining our practices means prolonging their demise for as long as possible.

Well, that idea of “sustainability” won’t do.  So when we look around to see what’s sustainable, we can be forgiven for drawing blanks.  Transportation?  We’ll burn the world’s oil up, and then what?  Housing? How high do housing prices have to go before nobody can afford it?  Human society?  Can the world really support this number of people indefinitely, never mind that human population is still increasing?  Architecture?  Our houses are designed to waste.  Economics?  How sustainable is dollar hegemony?  Politics?  How can our politics be sustainable when it puts into power buffoons like George W. Bush?

Now, the US is a well-educated nation, judging from the sheer number of universities, colleges, community colleges, and public schools it has.  So certainly, one might presume, we Americans have the knowledge base to deal with our sustainability problem.  But are we really that devoted to learning?

And, more specifically, do we have a sustainable education, or at least an education pointed toward sustainability?  The short answer is: no.  Our educational systems are designed to manufacture diplomas and degrees without purpose, in a knowledge-centered “production for production’s sake” that mimics Marx’s criticism of the capitalist system as a whole.  Our public schools are tied to the test-score-production regimes of the hated No Child Left Behind Act, and our universities are caught up in the “credentials race” described in David F. Labaree’s How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning.  The essence of this credentials race is described therein as follows:

When students at all levels see education through the lens of social mobility, they (the students) quickly conclude that what matters most is not the knowledge they attain in school but the credentials they acquire there.  Grades, credits, and degrees – these become the objects to be pursued.  The end result is to reify the formal markers of education and displace the substantive content.  Students learn to do what it takes to acquire the necessary credentials, a process that may involve learning some of the subject matter (at least whatever is likely to be on the next test) but also may not.  After all, if exchange value is key, then it makes sense to work at acquiring the maximum number of markers for the minimum investment of time, money, and intellectual energy.  (32)

So you can see the sort of market-based pandering, the Benthamite calculations of pain and pleasure, that academic life has become for many students.  This way of life has been dutifully recorded in ethnographic studies such as Rebekah Nathan’s My Freshman Year and Michael Moffitt’s Coming of Age in New Jersey.  If this is what the universities of America are promoting, then they need to be promoting something else.

At the very top of our university systems is the academic production process that Professor Ben Agger calls “Academic Writing as Real Estate.”  I have already discussed this in detail in my diary on Richard Rorty.  Agger’s argument is summarized in a sentence given on p. 123: “Where tenure is the prize, academic writing is governed by the same market logic as mass-market publishing or entertainment.”  At any rate, this, too, typifies the dilemma of educational sustainability: How do we re-orient our educational institutions to learning and away from systems of “academic production” governed by “market logic”?

We might conclude, pessimistically, that our academic institutions are as blind as the rest of our society to this one, necessary goal, that of a “global, ecologically sustainable, society.”  We want “sustainability” without really practicing sustainable practices.  We could argue that the goal of “sustainability” has become confused by defining the word “sustainability” as “prolonging our current, unsustainable practices so that they might last longer (before the inevitable collapse).”

But we can still find out what a sustainable society would look like, and we can still “get there.”  One major way of understanding how to get there is through a concept elaborated by Joel Kovel in his book The Enemy of Nature: prefiguration.  For Kovel, prefiguration is a quality one can find in everything.  More precisely, prefiguration is the degree to which an institution, human construct, or social entity points to the potential for a future, global, ecologically sustainable, society.

Now, just as certain practices are “more sustainable” than others, so, also, certain institutions, human constructs, and social entities are more “prefigurative” than others.  To find prefiguration, then, one must be able to see how something points to this desired, stable future.  In The Enemy of Nature, Kovel suggests that communal and democratic institutions are especially “prefigurative,” because in them he sees the possibility of a “free association of producers”:

A free association implies the fullest extension of democracy, with a public sphere and public ownership that is genuinely collective and in which each person makes a difference. (199)

With the ideal of a “free association of producers,” Kovel asserts the primacy of the concept of “use-value,” in which people use things to directly satisfy their needs, ahead of the concept of “exchange-value,” in which people participate as cogs in enormous political-economic machines (the “market,” the “state”).  But, to a certain extent, we should also be looking for prefiguration in physical institutions, for social get-togethers that approximate the “free association of producers” have to take place in particular physical spaces.  As an example of a prefigurative physical space, I would like to suggest a type of physical space I have suggested in previous diaries: the community garden.

One of the primary advantages of community gardens is that they are attempts to overcome the dichotomy of city and countryside.  The city, as Paul Prew points out in his essay The Twenty-First Century World Ecosystem, is a center of accumulation, and so it tends to suck the life out of the zones of extraction, which include the farms.  However, the community garden uses the extractive powers of the city to put resources back into the land, for the sake of producing sustainable food sources within urban communities.

Another good thing about community gardens is that they can be attached to urban educational institutions.  As opposed to farms, which are typically some ways out in the countryside, urban community gardens are convenient sites for whole communities to learn about the ecology of crop-growing: agroecology.  A community garden, then, offers a prefiguration of the “sustainable education” which we will need to have if we are ever to reach a “global, ecologically sustainable, society.”

Part Two: The Farm

For the remainder of this diary, I would like to present (via web photo, stored on Photobucket) an example of a community garden as established on the site of a prominent college, the Pomona College Natural Farm.

Now, the Pomona College Natural Farm, like all human institutions, has a history and a political economy – so I would like to lay out, for you the readers, a short history of the Farm, as it is called here.

The Farm was begun in 1998 by a group of students who wished to grow their own vegetables, on a plot of land owned by Pomona College but historically used as a waste dump amidst a grove of protected California live oak trees.  Many of the students who participated in the creation of the Farm also participated in the anti-WTO protests in Seattle in 1999.

The Farm was a self-organizing anarchist space which students built upon the land for the pleasure of having a space on campus in which food plants grew.  This lasted from the outset until some time in 2002 I think, when the campus administration was somehow informed as to its presence.  At first, the administration of Pomona College tried to circumscribe life at the Farm with rules as to who could do what, without really participating in the Farm itself.  Later, students and alumni of Pomona College established connections with Pomona College faculty to make the Farm into a place where classes could meet and which had academic “cachet” as part of the official purpose of the College.  Students persuaded alumni of Pomona College (such as made rather large yearly donations to the College itself) to pressure the College into incorporating the Farm into its long-term plans for the use of the chunk of land which the Farm occupied.  Students wrote senior theses on the Farm, its history, its status as a community garden, its history, and its politics.

Today, classes are held at the Farm, faculty sponsors visit it often, and students, alumni, and community members are involved in its maintenance.

This is the dome in the middle of the Pomona College Natural Farm.  This is the students’ second attempt at dome-building on the Pomona College campus: the first dome experiment was torn down by the administration’s hired hands after the Pomona administration decided that any dome on its property would need a City permit.  Both domes were cob domes, made from sandbags reinforced by concrete; much less resource-intensive than pure concrete.  This dome is much larger than the one that was originally built in a quick, impromptu fashion.  It will eventually be used as a classroom when work on it is finished.  (I make no promises about the eventual date when this will happen.)

When designing rock sculptures around the Dome, a student of Pomona College designed this “love seat” sign, and other students designed the seat itself.

The large structure in the middle of this picture is a trellis meant to hold three Armenian cucumber plants planted earlier this spring.  I think one of them has died, however.

A large portion of the Farm has been devoted to arboriculture, and I took this picture at the end of June.  Nectarine season was, and is, in full swing as of the time of this writing.  This tree has an interesting history, though, because the sheer quantity of fruit it was growing made its branches collapse several times.  It’s important to thin peaches and nectarines if the tree branches aren’t strong enough to support the fruit they are growing.

These are several prominent amaranth bushes: amaranth, for those who do not know, is a rather nutritious grain that can be harvested from the flowers you see in this photograph.  When these flowers turn brown, harvesters shake them onto tarps or blankets, and a black grain shakes out.  This grain can be boiled and served with dinner or as a breakfast cereal.

Before the Farm was a “regulated” institution, it was regularly visited by a wandering landscape architect who built kiva pits and cob ovens among other things.  One of each was built upon the Farm; neither of these survives to the present day.  He did, however, build this found-object terraced garden, which exists apart from the Farm on Pomona College land.  This is the only work of his which remains on Pomona college land.

This is an outdoor classroom under construction, on the site where the wandering landscape architect put down a kiva pit (now covered over).  Juan Araya, an agroecologist who also teaches at Cal Poly, Pomona and who comes from Costa Rica, will finish construction on the classroom space by adjusting the poles just right and attaching a cloth roof.  The floor will eventually be made of dried mud.

This is the Farm adjunct.  Rather recently, the College allowed this land to be part of the Farm (after students had used it for Farm plantings since the outset).  Juan Araya farms this land.  Last Fall Juan grew very large numbers of Serrano and jalapeno chiles on this land.  I’m hoping to convince Juan that some of this land can be devoted to Armenian cucumbers.

Geordie Schuurman, who was one of the original creators of the Farm, says that the extensive peach, nectarine and plum orchard on the Farm adjunct (in the area behind this photo) was created just as the College was planning a putting green on the land where students planted the peaches.

These fruit are sapotes, hanging from a sapote tree.  The Farm is the site of all types of trees and plants which count as “exotic” in southern California, of which this is one.  Sapotes have an interesting, unforgettable taste which lingers in the mouth for quite some time; I won’t bother to describe it here.

This picture, taken in funky late-afternoon light, serves to illustrate the diversity of crops growing at the Farm: you have zucchini, squash, corn, tomatoes, amaranth, nectarines, peaches, and California poppies.  In the background is a space under the California oaks where Farmers have deposited piles of mulch, and then beyond that is a curling field that some alumnus donated money to Pomona College to have built.

Conclusion: The Farm as Prefiguration and Physical Space

The Farm puts out a meaningful amount of food – but largely it exists as an academic experiment in farming rather than as an organized community garden because it is on the Pomona College campus itself.  (The adjunct, arranged by Juan Araya as an individual plot, is more like an organized community garden than the original plot of the Farm.  But it exists as a production space, even though the distribution of its output is so far not being organized in any capitalist manner.  Nobody pays for Farm produce.)

Food production under conditions of American capitalist agriculture is typically biased in favor of economically viable, large corporate businesses.  Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma explains concisely how the distribution scheme of American corporate agriculture favors large businesses.  Community gardens, however, can be spaces where food production is studied in public, in search of a better, more empowering way for publics which are now dependent upon “the market” for daily subsistence.  In many places community gardens exist in tandem with Food Not Bombs agencies, about which I will have another diary later.

Community garden projects like this can bring communities together as signs of education about sustainability.  Clearly the survival of the Pomona College Natural Farm required a lot of good old-fashioned direct action in order to maintain it, though.  This diary is a proposal to create community gardens, and not a business proposal.  If community gardening were to spread throughout urban Earth, a lot more direct action, and a lot more guerrilla gardening, will have to take place.  We will need a Food Not Lawns initiative.  And we will need to operate the resultant gardens, farms, and small spaces for mustard greens as institutions of education about real sustainability.  There is no political class or set of financial institutions lining up to make this happen.  It will just have to.


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