Guest Post: Pandemic diary: mutual aid for food justice, and organising slowly

How do we get through this pandemic? It feels like we’ve entered a period of protracted and overlapping crises, if we weren’t there already. Do we leap into action (as if we weren’t leaping before)? I’m trying to take something from disability justice into what I do: slowness.

I think my approach to organising is often led by the need to feel useful. I take on quick jobs, things I know I can do effectively. I’m desperate not to feel like things are failing. But failing is the core of learning, adapting, growing. Failing has its place in the ecology of organising. Slowness is acting with purpose and mindfulness, slowness is cultivation.

For a long time I’ve taken it as a given that I lead from the back. I lead by doing the groundwork that allows other people to come to the front. I think there’s value in leadership that cultivates leadership in others. But ego death means more than just submitting yourself to the will and needs of others, it also means accepting what function you can have.

Sometimes leadership is imaginative – it’s the work of finding paths through to the next clearing in the woods. The phase shift, the emergent property. This is essential work right now. We have a vigorous blossoming of mutual aid and self-organisation. Where does that energy go once the second lockdown comes – when it’s clear that this isn’t going to be fixed by Christmas? Does it go into charities, or nihilism? Mutual aid and self-actualisation are, I would argue, essential for us to build an ecologically just world. 

How do we build sustainable organisations of mutuality? How do we make reciprocity the norm? Partly by recognising, and coming to terms with, the normality of disaster. We are now in a period of protracted and overlapping crisis, where systems can decompose and recompose with dramatic speed and in unpredictable ways. The offer from the centre – to return things back to normal – is an offer whose concrete value is roughly equivalent to VR reboots of 90s videogame franchises. That ‘normality’ – the dogmatic loyalty to perpetual growth, a plastic future that shrouded the constant and violent expropriation needed to maintain it – was the same organism as this crisis, merely a different expression. 

I didn’t want to put my loved ones in danger, both of whom have respiratory issues, so I volunteered at Kindling Trust, in the open air. We are helping to prepare beds and weed around crops, food that will go out in Veg Boxes. I feel like I’m doing soil restoration. Not at the right speed, not challenging the state and fossil capital in the way that’s needed, but just some fingers in the ground. From a distance, I’ve been remotely organising with the National Food Service, trying to help make the network deliver value and strength beyond the sum of its parts. 

I think that food systems are key sites of crisis organising. Food is where we feel the tempo of dependence perhaps most regularly. The relationship we have with the land, the soil, the microfauna, the pollinators, gets hidden at the checkout. The relationship with growers, pickers and work, gets lost on the plate. Our relationships with community, a social need for eating together, gets lost when we have no time, when the dictates of wage labour reduce eating to a calorific input.

Even when things look so difficult, we can work to de-commodify food. Make access to nutritious, tasty, ecologically just food a right not a privilege. We can make a cultural shift away from valuing our time in terms of the things we buy to manage feelings of loneliness – to valuing our time by the relationships we cultivate with others over plates of food, or while weeding in urban farms. Imagine how it would feel to have that regular relationship with land and place. Imagine having the right to eat, knowing that you could give what you could give. Imagine canteens for social eating in every neighbourhood, with mushroom growing farms in the back room. Imagine cooperatively and community owned farms in most urban and semi-urban areas, cultivated by a combination of unionised workers and members with a stake in the food being grown, the soil being fed.

Read the histories of most struggles against oppression and enclosure, and you find some kind of solidarity economy. Many people have already lived their apocalypses. Sometimes they won, and sometimes they didn’t. Keeping people surviving was often the key struggle but then, arguably, the organisational work of mutual aid needed to do that created structures and practices that were in themselves successes. Medication swaps, cooperative farms, care collectives – these are the mycelial mats that allow dramatic shoots of struggle to emerge. When those shoots are cut down, or collapse under their own weight, those mutualistic networks recycle some of the energy back into the ecosystem. Cultivating strong networks of mutual aid, building our green new deal from the grassroots up, is not counterposed to challenging the power of fossil capital. It’s essential work, much like restoring soil health. Without it, we just take, from ourselves and from others, and the soil we need to keep growing just erodes.

The author is Sølvi Naja – Part-time stepmum, amateur climate justice organiser, trade unionist with Unite NW389. I’m really motivated by finding socially just ways to change our food systems in a way that meets the challenge of the climate emergency.

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