What drives Leith Community Crops in Pots? What we stand for can be inferred from the story of our foundation and our charitable purposes (see under the heading ‘Object’ on our OSCR page.

It boils down to expressing our concern for people and the planet (more precisely, the wellbeing of the biosphere) through improving the food system.

It follows from this that connecting children with nature is of cardinal importance to us. (See our Nature Play and Edible Schoolyards pages for more about our work in this regard.)

The heart of Leith Community Crops in Pots can also be expressed as the promotion of:

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Responsible global citizens vs. consumers

We aim to promote responsible global citizenship rather than consumerism. What do these terms imply?

When people are asked to consider an issue as consumers, they do not think the same way as when asked to respond as responsible global citizens. For example, people asked to select the best electricity company, as consumers, might go for the one which charges them the least money for their electricity (the cheapest in a purely monetary sense).

When asked to make the same choice as responsible global citizens, people will likely take into account the way the electricity company treats its employees and whether the electricity comes from renewable resources. That might not be the cheapest supplier in monetary terms, but it would probably be the one with the least harmful impact on people and the biosphere, and so the one offering the best value for money when all things are considered.

The term ‘consumer’ can devalue and disempower those it labels. It can promote a relatively passive and selfish (individualistic) attitude: ‘accept the dominant economic paradigm and play by its rules’.

In such a mindset, status comes from material possessions, and competitive or conspicuous consumption is the norm. This helps the short-term profits of corporations but it is madness on a planet with finite resources, approaching the climate change tipping point.

Canadian psychology professor and addictions expert, Bruce K. Alexander (famous for his ‘rat park’ experiment, which Stuart McMillen has beautifully illustrated), argues that the biggest cause of harmful addictions (be they behavioural, such as gambling or shopaholism, or chemical, such as opiate addiction) is not the individual activities or substances to which people become addicted, but what he calls ‘psychosocial dislocation’, and that the biggest cause of this is ‘hypercapitalism’.

Put differently, Alexander believes that the breakdown of the community (isolation, loneliness, the loss of meaningful connection/sense of belonging) is the main driver of many harmful behaviours and that the main driver of this is the dominant economic system (which some would identify as ‘neoliberalism’). He writes:

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 ‘Ultimately, changing the vicious cycle that underlies addiction – and many other interrelated social problems – will require large-scale social change. In fact, it will require nothing less than reshaping world society to defang the vicious cycle that is depicted by the historical view.

[…]

‘Controlling addiction, and the other interrelated problems, in this context will be the work of generations. It will be carried out partly by people working together to help other people recover from addiction by finding a place in their community. More immediately, bringing addiction under control depends on the success of a great variety of social and environmental movements that seek to reduce societal fragmentation in diverse ways. None of these movements can offer a short-term solution. However, they can offer both the possibility of success and the opportunity for enhancing our own belonging, identity, meaning, and purpose. It is hard for me to imagine a better project for the remaining years of my own.

‘This line of thought was unthinkable to all but a very few people when I began my career in the study of addiction almost a half-century ago. Still today, it remains unthinkable in the vast institutions of wealth and power that rule the world at this point, as well as the mainstream media and the national governments that faithfully serve them. This is a change that must flow upwards from the bottom of the hierarchy of power and wealth.

This process is underway, although its success is by no means guaranteed. Will you join in? You will not have to look very far in your own locality to find local organizations with potentially broad impact of the sort I am describing. They provide the best hope of the world solving its addiction problems – and many other crucial, interrelated problems – and they need your help.

We like to think that we are one of the organisations to which Professor Alexander refers. We strive to build community and combat isolation while addressing local and global environmental issues, notably climate change and loss of biodiversity. Our urban croft concept is an excellent illustration of our work in this regard.

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Intrinsic vs. extrinsic values

Following on from the above, another way to describe the effects of the terms ‘consumer’ and ‘responsible global citizen’ on the way people think would be to say that people in a consumer mindset tend to focus on extrinsic values (e.g. individual wealth and status) whereas global citizens tend to focus on intrinsic values (e.g. concern for others and the environment).

According to Common Cause for Nature (highly recommended reading), environmental charities are inherently centred on intrinsic values, and should frame issues in such a way as to appeal to intrinsic values, not extrinsic ones.

There are at least two reasons for this. One is because not doing so damages a charity’s perceived integrity and therefore credibility and ability to influence people. A second reason is illustrated by an anecdote heard at an event on global issues hosted a few years ago by Global Justice Now:

A forest remnant was surrounded by a monoculture commodity crop [coffee?]. The indigenous people had preserved the pocket of biodiversity because it was sacred to them, i.e. it had spiritual/religious significance. Well-meaning environmental campaigners told them that the bees (and presumably other pollinators) harboured by the forest had an economic value as they boosted the yield of the crop. In time, this became the main reason for preserving the forest, the people losing their spiritual/religious rationale.

Unfortunately, the price of the commodity plummeted and it was replaced by a more profitable wind-pollinated one [probably maize]. Because the people had come to understand that the main/only value of the forest was economic – to harbour pollinating insects whose only value, in turn, was boosting the yield of the insect-pollinated crop (note that they had not even necessarily been told this in so many words) – the land on which the forest grew was now more valuable to them as fields on which to grow the wind-pollinated crop. The forest remnant was destroyed.

(It is possible to imagine an embellishment of this story, in which the destruction of the sacred forest led to a drying up of the streams which allowed the agriculture in the first place.)

There are several lessons in this anecdote:

  • It underlines the danger of undervaluing/disrespecting/losing traditional customs and beliefs. Their teleology is neglected at our peril, i.e. what may appear to be primitive superstition (e.g. the preservation of sacred groves, exogamy linked to a system of totems…) may actually serve a highly practical purpose (i.e. having survival value) and have persisted largely for that reason.
  • It flags the danger of short-term financial considerations taking precedence over others. Just because something environmentally good is cheaper now, and therefore it might seem sensible to try to persuade people to adopt it on the basis of saving money, it won’t necessarily always be cheaper. If it becomes the more expensive option, how can you then convincingly persuade people to support it when you previously argued that they should modify their behaviour on the basis of price?
  • It demonstrates the risk of over-reliance on the international commodities market. (Monoculture cash crops sold into this market are not a dependable source of income.)
  • Related to the last two points, it also illustrates the danger of appealing to people on the basis of extrinsic values (in this case money) as opposed to intrinsic ones (in this case spiritual ones) – of framing things in terms of extrinsic values – as this can result in intrinsic values being supplanted by extrinsic ones, rendering people deaf/blind to appeals on the basis of the former: ‘No, I won’t donate to your campaign to clean up the neighbourhood because I need to save up for a flashy car to compete with my neighbour.’

As a footnote to this section, precisely defining our values is an ongoing exercise and we hope to post more on this topic in due course!

Food sovereignty

The above anecdote leads on nicely to the six principles (or pillars) of food sovereignty, which are also at the heart of Leith Community Crops in Pots, and inform our work in Malawi. Visit the Global Justice Movement website to learn more about this very important topic.