14 February 2011

Cabbage Panic

I have mentioned that I am participating in a local 'food group.' The intent of this group is to answer an Insane Question created by the structural nature of this moment: How can we eat the food that grows immediately where we live? Where I am currently living we are blessed with an abundance of food. It seems to be a water subsidy, but even this is not currently as extreme as many places on the planet. There is a great amount of unharvested, uneaten food growing all around us. There are also people in this exact same area who have no food or are malnourished. We are considering that together.

In that spirit I proposed a "Cabbage Day" during which people would come together and make sauerkraut, kimchee to celebrate the abundance of the crop. It is cabbage season. Many people are of course already doing this. My intent has to do with the 'container' as much as with the cabbage. I am also interested in this as a cyclic event with various crops in season.

At present if pressed, I would say that 'cabbage day' is not likely to happen. I am suspending this opinion, since I am by no means the most reliable source for such a determination. I have some idea what it would take to 'make' it happen. I have successfully managed quite a few projects of much greater scale and complexity. If the project were simply X number of jars of processed cabbage, I am clear how that could happen, for instance. This is not the primary project for me, but rather a by-product of the primary project. The primary project, for me, has to do with social fabric and self-organization. Even from this point of view, I have a clear idea of what 'needs' to happen from within a certain model of things. I wish to tell a story about some of that.

The dilemma is that I am not willing to create a cabbage day using what I feel to be the same dynamics that lead us to having to ask the Insane Question. One obvious answer to the insanity of such a question is to grow your own food. This is necessary but insufficient, in my view.

Let me frame the experiment as I understand it. People come together to celebrate a local abundance of food and enact an alternative distribution of that food. This is done in a way that is itself organic and emergent. It is neither contextually commercial nor charitable. It is a natural exchange within an existing, lived, social fabric that is meaningfully coupled with the immediate environment (seasons, crops, processing, distribution, etc.). It is intergenerational. It involves teaching and learning together. It is celebratory. It creates immediate distribution of surplus cabbage (in this case), a social fabric in which that is natural, and a container in which this can become a simple cyclic phenomena. I know. All very luxurious to think about. Just get the cabbage done. This is a reflection on what I understand as capacity building. The primary capacity is not the preserving of cabbage. That is in fact already happening.

Let me tell a personalized story of what could now happen. I panic about the imagined day not happening in some imagined way. I have suggested that it could happen and so I now feel it is is necessary for it to happen. Further, I attach a host of assertions and necessity to my own assertion of necessity, perhaps having to do with the Insane Question we are trying to answer. It is not that none of this is true, but my relationship to it becomes one of asserted necessity, taken as a given. Inside of this is of course the personal embarrassment of considering alternative ways of bringing things about and then just not having a cabbage day. Oh the shame. The failure. The guilt. People decide (rightly) that I am a fool. More importantly it is evidence that the way we have been organizing is the only way to do that and so reinforces that tendency. The imagined people who would receive the imagined sauerkraut will not receive it. There is a sudden sense of scarcity about kimchee and sauerkraut that is now a problem. It is an emergency and crisis. The great kimchee disaster of 2011. I apply overt and covert force and manipulation. I actively objectify people, cabbage and process. It is just cabbage, and done in a good cause, so it does not seem violent, even though it is fundamentally a structure of violence. (For just a moment, let yourself imagine that all this is not about cabbage, but about the planetary condition of collapse.)

Personally I panic, in no great part due to the all the personal loss involved in the infamous cabbage disaster. Perhaps, I act heroically to bring about a heroic response in the face of the now evident cabbage emergency. I am capable of this and simply 'cut through' anything in the way. I am proficient in all sorts of 'breakthrough' process. I inspire others to act heroically. (Perhaps you feel inspired to do something while reading this, even if it takes the form of letting me know all the things I am clearly doing wrong? I will accept all such inspired action and suggestions, I confess.) I authentically and strategically seek to manipulate others based on that heroic frame and all the moral implications associated with it (as I have just done). I engage a rhetoric about service, justice, making a difference and commitment, etc.. Success or failure now does not matter. We will have been heroic in any case. We will celebrate our heroism in either case. In the case of failure, their will be forces to blame. (I have a list if you are interested.) I am only just scratching the surface here of what I think happens. I recognize that I am distorting and deleting many things in the process.

I know this story seems silly and totally misses the very real aspects of addressing the dilemmas associated with the very real, albeit insane, question. However, in this very same food group and other local 'change' efforts a similar dynamic has taken place previously, perhaps even cyclically, and continues to take place. It is not identical, it is similar. I cannot speak to anyone else's sense of panic, or loss of face, or any of those things I am suggesting about myself, such as I am. I would not make that assertion, and do not even feel it is necessarily true about some particular person. What I can say is that different efforts to address the Insane Question have resulted in a centralized heroic effort at some cost to the heroes and surrounding structure. In many cases this has been institutionalized as a way of doing things. This even has the effect of keeping in place the enacted reality that generates the Insane Question in the first place. This is simply not 'sustainable.' It is part of the context that generates the Insane Question and has us treat it as if it were not only sane, but self evident. It looks sustainable and the coping mechanism of celebrating heroism is something that helps keep that in place. Such heroism is a kind of consolidation of all the non-sustainable aspects of the system. To everyone else in the system it still looks sustainable. The heroes themselves may have an appetite for it as some proxy to feeling useful, loved and seen to be so. The heroes themselves may also, at the same time, be acting from an authentic and deeply held context of service and this may be the only way they have of responding, from within that context, in that moment.

It is an interesting side note that many of the least safe industrial assets on the planet have a very successful culture of heroism. This is true for many of the least 'ethical' corporate trading cultures as well. It is not that the heroism is 'bad' and therefore we should now punish and shame all heroic effort. The confusion lies elsewhere in my view. It is a confusion between emergence and emergency. We act as if in a state of emergency in a way that actively prevents emergence. We do this on-goingly and habitually, often in areas where what is at stake is some aspect of our own self gratification. It is another example of the confusion between literal and metaphorical survival. It is another effect of the shift to an asserted necessity as seen in the Republic. The root sense of emerge has to do with something coming forth from a liquid. That something is not an expected or predictable something. When is this emergence and when an emergency?

Today, I am sitting with all the arising tendency to enact the paradigm leading to the Insane Question itself and suspending that. I wish I were doing more, but I am not. I will keep you posted on whether this unfolds as emergence or emergency. I know. Cabbage day. Edge of the seat stuff.


  1. i have a really good kimchee recipe

  2. the real heroes are those who grate the cabbage

  3. roger, i'm thinking about how this general story applies to what we are attempting to do in the education initiative. thanks for this post. and lisa, thank you for making me smile.