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Thought I should pass along these excellent articles on commodities speculation and food prices. Thankfully, this issue seems to be gaining more and more traction as of late.
The Egyptian Tinderbox: How Banks and Investors are Starving the Third World, by Ellen Brown, truthout, Feb 2011
How Goldman Sachs gambled on starving the worlds’ poor – and won, from Johann Hari (the Independent), July 2010
There’s also a few groups out there doing some organizing around these issues. This is one of the most comprehensive sites I’ve seen so far – including a fledgling divestment campaign to educate institutional investors on the dubious ethics (and financial pitfalls) of commodities index funds.
As part of the financial reform bill passed last summer, the CFTC recently proposed position limits for commodities (as well as some other rules; see a factsheet here and a Q&A here; prepare to glaze over). The agency is currently taking public comment on those rules, if we can only figure out what to comment on and what to say before April. I have yet to see a specific critique of what sort of changes might be warranted, seems like folks might still be figuring that out. If you have any guidance on this or links that would help, post it in the comments…
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Last night I had the pleasure of attending FIS 101 at Oakton Community College, otherwise known as Introduction to Commodities & Futures Trading. Russ Rsezsutko has taught Intro to Commodities for the last 15 years, and when I met him at the Roots & Culture “We are all Beginners” reception, he told me I could drop in on his class. Born and raised in Back of the Yards, Russ is classic Chicago, and fully embodies the trader personality – he’s a live wire, pacing around the room while lecturing a mile a minute in one of the best Chicago accents I’ve heard so far. He’s been a broker for over 3 decades, and the experience shows. This was the first class, so we went over the history of growing, buying and selling commodities and their evolution from straight cash transactions to forward contracts to futures contracts. I also learned the difference between speculation and gambling – yep, there is a difference.
All of this made me super excited for tonight’s “Commodities 101” session at Mess Hall, because Russ is one of the speakers. He’s going to give a whirlwind introduction to futures (if this means he has to talk faster to cover it all in 15 minutes, watch out!) and then we’ll launch into questions.
Russ’s counterpart on the panel is Paul Maggio, a senior VP at Newedge, a large international brokerage firm. If Russ is “old school”, then Paul is “new school,” although he’s been working in futures for nearly as long as Russ has. When I met Paul, I was surprised at how calm, soft spoken and downright mellow he was. It’ll be a study in contrasts and, if the conversations I’ve had with these guys is any indication, a fascinating discussion.
SO, one more time: Mess Hall, 6932 N. Glenwood (red line Morse stop, then 1/2 block south), 7-9 pm. Be there! Afterwards, your assimilation of this knowledge will be tested, should you choose, in the form of a PIT tournament.
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Starting this week, Mess Hall, an experimental cultural center in Rogers Park, is handing the reins over to me for two weeks of Industrial Harvest-related programming that YOU, interested reader, should attend. Since I started this project, people have been asking me about solutions and alternatives to our current commodity / staple crop system. As we transition into a new season and the concluding half of the Industrial Harvest, I wanted to begin to look at solutions. All of the events will be very interactive discussions with fascinating panelists and experts, and I’m hoping we can use them to think together about these systems, how they serve us, and what we can do to change and shape them into the future (I’ll also be camping out in MH several days a week, hanging out and giving out flour, so you can also just drop by during these “office hours”).
Paradoxically, the last few days have found me both a little homesick and extra appreciative of my new (temporary) home in Chicago. Even though it’s not yet sunny there, I miss my Seattle family. But folks here in Chicago, and especially my housemate, have been wonderfully welcoming. We’ve taken on about a bazillion small projects related to food, many of them things which have included the collection of berries, the collection of herbs, the collection of flowers, the collection of a chair in the alley, making mayonnaise, making kombucha, planting a community garden plot, playing “Pit” after our inaugural dinner party (check these folks out, too – but turn the volume down on your computer first!), finding a modern version of “Pit” in the thrift store, and the making of lots and lots of bread products…
This bread, a test of the all-purpose (white, unbleached) flour, was unattractive but very tasty. Since the artisan bread baking class with George DePasquale I’ve had more successes than failures. A little light reading for the summer. The vintage scale is a recent purchase.
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I’m pleased to announce that Industrial Harvest will be part of the ‘Women in Grains’ show in Reedsburg, WI in, curated by Cathi Buzide and produced by the Worm Farm Institute. The show will open on July 14 and be up till August 1. We’re planning some Industrial Harvest-related events as part of the show – giving away flour to local food banks and in CSA boxes, and through Worm Farm’s “Roadside Culture Stands”. As always, stay tuned for more details as they emerge…
Posted By: Ben, a.k.a. HINTERHEARTH
These first couple posts might seem somewhat inappropriate in their lack of wheat-related content, but, after staying up many nights mulling it over, I realized that they were necessary as introductions to the astoundingly broad historical context of this familiar foodstuff, and so to its contemporary relevance to conversations of sustainability and social change. So with the hope that said introductions are interesting, and with the promise that I will indeed blog on wheat extensively in posts to come, I begin.
In any analysis that is as wide-ranging as I dream of this project being, it is especially important to be up front about our assumptions. As specific people having specific experiences within specific cultural contexts, it is unwise to imagine ourselves capable of espousing a view that is objective or unbiased in any absolute sense. This is not to imply some flaccid relativism in which it is hopeless to make any attempt to inform and guide our behavior. There exists plenty of room, and plenty more need, for a sort of relative objectivity, within which we do our very best to pay mind to the dynamic tension between such polar notions as subjective and objective, relative and absolute. This in-between space is where real life happens, and as real live people, the ideas we shape must be concrete enough to act by, but flexible enough to re-examine. In our writing and our framing of further discussions, we will necessarily make some broad assumptions, not in an attempt to assert their incontrovertible truth, but to suggest their relevance to a workable understanding of the world we live in.
The most basic assumption underlying this work we are beginning has to do with the relationship between humans and the environment in which and from which they live. It deals, both initially and finally, with but one general pattern of interaction between people and their surroundings. We may use any number of descriptors for this pattern; industrial/post-industrial, global-capitalist, First World, modern/post-modern, Western civilized, fossil-fueled, and so on (to say nothing, at the moment, of patriarchy or euro-centricity). On the scale of our history as a species, it is very recently emerged and revolutionary in its break from many of the paradigms that were central to all previous modes of human living. Of the most interest is a shift from dependence on what can be described as “current” solar energy (sunlight recently embodied in the tissues of plants and animals, or as usable currents in the atmospheric cycles and patterns of water and wind) to “fossil” forms of solar energy (sunlight trapped through photosynthesis millions (oil) to hundreds of millions (coal) of years ago, and preserved and concentrated through geologic processes. Natural gas fits here too). These fuel sources don’t by any means account for all of the energy used by this society, but their unique qualities, particularly those of oil, have contributed to many of its distinctive features, and present us with some of the most immediately troublesome consequences of extensive use.
In seeking the broadest and most appropriate general consensus from which to begin, we align ourselves with the diverse critiques calling into serious question the sustainability of this form, based both on its dependence upon nonrenewable resources, and the widespread degradation and destabilization of crucial natural systems that have accompanied its spread, which, in all likelihood, will amplify into the future. We also recognize, and stress, that resource renewability and ecological integrity, though tremendously important, are not by any means the only measures of the sustainability of a society. Social justice in all its dimensions is a topic that deserves at least as much consideration, and not as a separate issue to be considered alongside environmental concerns. As I’ll explore in my next post, the ways in which human beings relate to each other are inextricably connected to the ways in which they relate to the non-human world.
Initially, however, we’ll frame our assumptions in the expansion upon those general environmental themes: We assume that if the current patterns of industrialized society continue, then at some point, either the nonrenewable energies or the basic ecological functions on which it depends will be sufficiently depleted or degraded as to imperil billions of lives, if not the entirety of humanity. Though it doesn’t do justice to the localized complexities of this situation, there are some initial advantages to an outlook that is so decidedly abstract and global in scope.
The foundations of modern scientific thought that make such a vast and powerful viewpoint possible, that enable individual human beings to recognize the thread of relatedness that connects their day to day activities with processes that affect the fate of the entire planet and the lives of future generations, have been laid within the unfolding of the very civilizational forms that we are calling into question. Any serious inquiry into alternative paths requires an examination that presses beyond a superficial understanding of our crisis of civilization and challenges the deep-held assumptions and societal patterns that have marked its progression. It is on these grounds that we hope for this project to take root; in a simultaneous reckoning and rediscovery through which we confront the legacy of human destruction and domination with one hand, and embrace with the other the rich possibilities for cooperation and sustainability with which that legacy has been intertwined throughout our history and into the present.
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First the week of eating in, now this. We haven’t really been snowed in at all here in Seattle (not to gloat – our weather issues are of the liquid water variety), and the winners look tough to beat – but I still would have loved to take part in the snowpocalypse bread baking challenge.