Episode 27: Patrick Crouch
Patrick Crouch is the Program Manager at the Earthworks Urban Farm in Detroit, Michigan. The farm is a project of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen and is the only certified organic farm in the city.
Agriculture’s urban history is an early theme in our conversation, as is the need to make food a human right rather than a market commodity. We also discuss how the structure of modern civilization, from our urban planning to our economy, encourages us to value people solely for their productive capacity.
Like Wes Jackson, Patrick walks between two ideological poles we have seen in this project (yes, I am making sweeping generalizations). His outlook is at once physicalist, secular, and scientific, but he is unimpressed by scientific utopianism. At the same time, while he encourages communing with the world and appreciating its intangible qualities, he rejects biocentrism as impossible and argues that one can find other life intrinsically valuable without spirituality.
As always, Micah and I discuss and we discuss incompletely. We need to post a glossary on here so we can parse the difference between spirituality and arational beliefs.
Artwork by Eleanor Davis.
As the automotive sector continues to downsize and the downtown area of Detroit empties out and falls into impoverishment and disrepair, this side of the Ambassador Bridge sometimes hears rumour of Detroit possibly being reborn as an agriculture city. Since so much of that particular part of the city is just too derelict to repair, it’s not hard for us Windsorites to imagine so many lots of abandoned houses being torn down and cultivated anew.
Sadly, ever since the security increase on the border, the amount of Canadian traffic going into Detroit has really gone down. Nobody wants to deal with the paranoid hassle that checkout customs has become, especially since Canadians require a passport now. Ever since then, I stopped looking at Detroit as another part of the city I lived in, and just a collection of object skyscrapers on the horizon that I don’t have any connection to. It’s like half of the city was just invalidated, overnight. As a result, these rumours only remain rumours, and we on the other side of the river simply have no idea if it is really happening or not.
There was a big subject I kept expecting to come up in this conversation that didn’t: the tragedy of the commons. Crouch set out a sense of The Commons as a source of the Good. And there was an implicit assumption that this is necessarily aligned with positive environmental outcomes, even if Crouch is anthro- instead of bio-centric. However, it seems to me that one big question Crouch didn’t answer is: what system do you put in place to steward the commons? Before Enclosure the commons was protected by relatively absolutist, oppressive forms of local social organization: either top-down monarchy or mechanisms of social cohesion that achieved their stability by being extremely unfriendly to outsiders. Enclosure is associated with lots of problems, but it also the basis for most systems of social organization that achieve something like a balance between individual and group rights. You might almost say that trying to find a balance between Enclosure and The Commons is the basis for most political thinking post, say, the year 1000. I’d love to hear more explicitly about the political system that Crouch imagines operating in a world without Enclosure.
Thinking about this: it also strikes me that there are some interesting overlaps here between Crouch and thinkers like Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation who posits that the reproducibility of digital tools obviates the need for private ownership, or, further, actually makes it toxic. Via its more moderate branch of Open Source Software, the movement Stallman founded has made a pretty gigantic impact on the contemporary economy and the way a lot of modern digital engineers imagine and engage in their work. I wonder if we could find some parallel or lesson from the digital world that would work in Crocuh’s agricultural one.
It seems like this question of the commons puts us back on the individual/collective seesaw that’s been beneath many of the conversations I’ve recorded. As for implementing a system to balance it–the question of government, essentially–I wish I’d followed that up more. Every time I sit down to edit one of these episodes I’m frustrated by the sheer number of seemingly-obvious questions I didn’t pursue, though I occasionally avoid questions if it seems like they will take over the whole conversation and displace something else I want to pursue.
Exploring the commons through open source is a great suggestion. I wanted to talk to Lawrence Lessig about open source for this project but it was going to be six months before I could get an interview with him. Stallman only popped up on my radar as I was leaving the Northeast. But I will try to bring open source into The Conversation before it’s done.
Depending on where you are geographically, there are a ton of smart people you could bring in to talk about the philosophy of open source. If you’re going to be in or near the bay area, I’d highly recommend Tim O’Reilly. Tim is the technical publisher who coined the terms “Open Source” and “Web 2.0”. He’s a powerful communicator about the ideas behind open source and lately has been thinking a lot about how to bring them into existing large institutions such as government in order to transform them for the greater good.