Editors’ note: This piece is part of the Discards, Diverse Economies, and Degrowth forum.

Lights blink erratically in the dimly-lit loading dock in seeming counterbeat to the spasmodic eruptions of a nearby jackhammer. My skin tingles, eyes itch, nostrils feel thick with fiberglass dust. I almost trip over a rusty accelerator as a tangle of plastic-coated electrical wiring ensnares my ankle. We are in a small space which serves as a vestibule to the loading dock. It is piled high with scrap metal, a narrow path cutting through the middle to an enormous dumpster. It is dark. Gnarls and tangles of wire and metal, aquariums and carburetors, cages, shelves, and file cabinets mingle in tenuous heaps, surrounding us. In a fire-line of four we pass flattened ducting along from the freight elevator to the dumpster, tossing it into the far end as level as possible. A particularly ungainly piece catches on a snag of gnarled steel shelving and the precarious pile shifts ominously; a wordless threat of avalanche. I think I smell smoked pork. Is this farming in the 21st century?

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The preceding anecdote is extracted from my memory of working on ‘deconstruction’ duty as a volunteer at The Plant, an industrial building of some ninety-four thousand square feet tucked into the heart of South Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. Formerly a pork-processing facility named Peer Foods which operated twenty-four hours a day for eighty-two years to tirelessly supply America with a plentiful stream of bacon, it is now in the process of metamorphosing into a net-zero energy vertical farm wherein multiple experiments are carried out vis-à-vis the decentralization and ‘depetrolization’ of the food supply, zero waste food production, and the revaluation of the deindustrialized urban landscape.The erstwhile meatpacking plant, which is located adjacent to Chicago’s long defunct Union Stockyards, articulates its mission as “promot[ing] closed-loop food production and sustainable economic development through education and research.”[1] The facility, which produces mushrooms, vegetables, bread, kombucha, tilapia, shrimp, and (soon) beer, employs a steady flow of volunteer labor in its endeavor to develop a replicable model for “what truly sustainable food production and economic development looks like by growing and producing food inside a repurposed industrial building.”[2]

Photograph: Ingrid Elísabet Feeney

The Diverse Economies framework (see Gibson-Graham 1996, 2006, 2008; Burke & Shear, 2014) adopts a performativist view of scholarship-activism, arguing that a truly transformative political ecology must include not only critiques of oppressive and destructive capitalist socio-ecological relations, but also careful studies of existing experiments in non-capitalism. The Plant’s project provides an excellent opportunity for Diverse Economies research. Both its innovative organizational structure and its reliance on volunteer labor reveal it to be an unusual chimera of economic practices including community economy, social economy, and social enterprise (see Gibson-Graham, 2008) which at once attempts to transcend capitalism and yet exists within and alongside it. A scholarly focus on such projects can engender hope rather than despair as we reveal and discursively construct the global economy as a porous and diverse set of individuated practices rather than an immovable Leviathan of inexorable structural logic.

Design by Matt Bergstrom (used with permission).

Design by Matt Bergstrom (used with permission).

 

Hope is as essential a source of fuel for the Plant’s project as electricity or methane biogas, finding an outlet in the abundance of labor required to transform the building and maintain the farms. As volunteer Planters, hapless environmentalists seeking a conduit for their energies produce themselves as effectual change-makers through an engagement with grittily material labour (e.g., demolishing a wall with a sledgehammer, jackhammering concrete flooring, shoveling rocks, scrubbing fish excreta, tilling a raised bed for planting). While the nature of this work (hard, physical) discourages some, others come back precisely for repeated doses of that peculiar drug, unalienated labour. ‘I just love being able to use my hands’! is a frequent, breathless admission among devoted volunteers.

Photograph: Rachel Sweenie of Plant Chicago

Photograph: Rachel Sweenie of Plant Chicago

 

Students, accountants, and paralegals abandon their desks on a weekly basis to get their hands dirty and contribute in a tangible way to a project that is seen as an ongoing materialization of positive socio-environmental change.

Planters see the key to ecological sustainability in ‘closing the loop’ by using what would normally be considered waste from one production process as inputs in another.

The businesses selected as tenants in the building are chosen according to their compatibility with the closed loop model. For example, a brewery was in the plans from the beginning since brewing beer is an extremely waste intensive process, but produces waste that can easily be diverted from landfills into new production processes. Spent grains from the brewing process will be used along with duckweed and larvae as fish food in The Plant’s aquaponics farms and pressed into briquettes to fuel the ovens in the bakery.

 

Photograph: Rachel Sweenie of Plant Chicago

Photograph: Rachel Sweenie of Plant Chicago

 

All organic waste from the building’s production processes will be put into an anaerobic digester[3] where an industrious constellation of bacteria will break it down into a solid, a liquid, and a gas. The solid and liquid will be used as fertilizer on The Plant’s farms, while the gas will be used to power the building.

Not only do the farms and other business in The Plant operate synergistically in a closed-loop model, but Planters think of the transformation of building itself as ‘closing a waste loop’. While the Peer Foods building was sold as a so-called ‘strip and rip’, The Plant’s founder purchased the structure with preservation in mind. Accordingly, over ninety percent of the original materials are being used in the building’s transformation. Most of the spaces in the building are reconstructed from other elements of the former structure, with the walls being— as Planters are wont to say— ‘tetris’d together from junk’. The stainless steel from Peer Foods’ meat smokers, for example, have been remolded into doorframes and tables. Piles of foam from the insulated freezer-walls of Peer Foods sit around the building, waiting to be reintegrated into one of The Plant’s experimental spaces.

Photograph: Rachel Sweenie of Plant Chicago

Photograph: Rachel Sweenie of Plant Chicago

 

This same insulation is used as a growing substrate in Plant Chicago’s experimental aquaponics farm, which has been constructed with the intention of demonstrating that aquaponics can be done entirely with salvaged materials.

The tilapia and bacteria (bacteria comprise the active components of the biofilters) live in plastic tanks which used to hold the filling for knock-off Pop-Tarts, and aquaponics interns hold bi-monthly workshops instructing how to do things like germinate sprouts in discarded plastic dish bins.

Photograph: Rachel Sweenie of Plant Chicago

Photograph: Rachel Sweenie of Plant Chicago

 

Photograph: Rachel Sweenie of Plant Chicago

Photograph: Rachel Sweenie of Plant Chicago

 

Otherwise unutilizable demolition debris is used to construct hugelkultur mounds which, raising serpentine and undulate about a meter above ground level, sequester carbon, reduce the need for irrigation, and increase yields in the outdoor farm.

By tinkering with rubbish and promoting the preservation, rather than demolition, of industrial buildings, Planters combat the devaluation of the deindustrialized landscapes of Back of the Yards. The discarded spatial apparatus of industrial capital has become, in cities like Detroit and Chicago, a collection of forgotten wounds on a landscape ravaged by the violence of a regime of flexible accumulation.

Photograph: Ingrid Elísabet Feeney

Photograph: Ingrid Elísabet Feeney

 

The hegemonic ethos of disposability (Hawkins, 2006), rooted in systemic devaluation, extends beyond plastic bags and throwaway flatware. Whole communities, too, are laid to waste by the relentlessly devaluing logic of creative destruction. The Plant’s project resists such devaluation. By not tearing down the building, or trying to erase the traces of its industrial past which are communicated through the persistence of its materiality, Planters revalue the landscape by imbuing it with their labor and hopeful imaginations.

By seeking to point the way towards a different space, towards the space of a different (social) life and of a different mode of production, this project straddles the breach between science and utopia, reality and ideality, conceived and lived (Lefebvre, 1991: 60).

Photograph: Ingrid Elísabet Feeney

Photograph: Ingrid Elísabet Feeney

 

The Plant is more than a building, and more than a farm; it is a spatial practice that, in its project of imagining a new way of being with waste, departs radically from the current status quo of production and consumption, and one that aspires to be a germ cell, a replicable model, a node for the diffusion of information and technologies that revolutionize human productive activity.

At the very least, it is a promising experiment. The industrial agricultural model, which, in a way, began in the Stockyards, “essentially insures that your food is marinated in crude oil before you eat it” (McKibben, cited in Lappe 2010:3). It has transformed “what was once a solar economy into one saturated in oil, to the point where, on average, ten calories of fossil fuel are consumed for every one calorie of food energy produced, without considering transportation or the fuel used to cook the food once it gets to the household” (Mikulak, 2013:34). Yet once that extremely energy-intensive food is produced, forty percent of it is wasted, rotting in landfills. On a rapidly warming planet, it seems like common sense to experiment with ways of using food waste, rather than petrol, to fuel food production. And on a planet burgeoning with the waste of creative destruction, on which the infinite plenitude of natural resources becomes an increasingly implausible fantasy, creative preservation seems like a pretty good idea too.

 

Notes

[1] http://www.plantchicago.com

[2] http://www.plantchicago.com

[3] Initial construction on the digester was funded by a 1.5 million dollar EPA grant which has, in the end, proved insufficient. Until another million dollars can be raised, the machine remains unfinished, about seventy-five percent constructed.

 

References

Burke B and B Shear 2014 Introduction: Engaged Scholarship for Non-capitalist Political Ecologies.Journal of Political Ecology 21: 127-44.

Gibson-Graham JK 1996 The End of Capitalism (as We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Gibson-Graham JK 2006 A Postcapitalist Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Gibson-Graham JK 2008 Diverse Economies: Performative Practices for `Other Worlds’ Progress in Human Geography 32(5): 613-32.

Hawkins G 2006 The Ethics of Waste: How We Relate to Rubbish. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Lappé A 2010 Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do about It. New York: Bloomsbury.

Lefebvre H 1991 The Production of Space. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Mikulak M 2013 The Politics of the Pantry: Stories, Food, and Social Change. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press.

 

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Ingrid Feeney is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California Santa Barbara.