Industrial Harvest

The landscape and abstraction

In his book Nature’s Metropolis, William Cronon paints a fascinating picture of the ecological evolution of the metropolitan Chicago region and its hinterlands.  The real story in the book is, to me, the abstraction of the landscape, and the role that technology coupled with “the market” plays in that process, applying unrelenting (if sometimes indirect) pressure to consolidate, standardize and increase consistency.  In the case of Chicago, the use of railroads and grain elevators combined with the Board of Trade (now the Mercantile Exchange) serving as a consolidated forum market exchange, grain evolved from a food product with a distinct origin and identity, to a more generic commodity, and finally to a complete abstraction altogether.  People on both sides of the equation – the growing side and the eating side – become ever-distanced from the process of growing food and its purpose, to feed and nourish, and are now commonly known as “producers” and “consumers.” 

The story that Cronon tells is this:  Before the mid-1800s, grain was primarily transported from farms (the Western hinterlands) to market (to Chicago or other cities such as St. Louis or New Orleans) via waterways.  Grain was packaged in sacks – this was the easiest way to make multiple transfers from farm wagon to barge to waterfront to barge, and allowed farmers and buyers to identify and track their sack of grain from its origin to its terminus. 

Once railroads and grain elevators came into common use in Chicago, the sack became obsolete and the need to know the grain’s origin was subsumed by the desire to maximize elevator profits.  Rail cars were ill suited to sack transportation.  Keeping individual lots of grain in the elevator was inconvenient for elevator operators, and took up extra elevator space that could otherwise be used for storage. 

The Chicago Board of Trade established a grading system for agricultural commodities (e.g. “Soft Red Winter Wheat No. 1”) that made individual quality and pedigree obsolete, but allowed buyers and sellers to purchase grain sight unseen, and take delivery from the elevator by merely producing a receipt, as one would collect a deposit from a bank.  This abstraction allowed the emergence of futures markets and speculation – where a buyer could purchase a unit of grain for delivery by a certain date, on the assumption that the price would rise in the meantime and the buyer could make a profit.  Because futures contracts could be paid in cash instead of grain, a large volume of trading did not have anything to do with the actual exchange of grain. 

At the beginning of this process:  individuation, and an identity that clung to a sack of grain throughout a long chain of transactions.  At the other end:  pure abstraction, so much so that in many transactions no product is actually changing hands. 

All of this took place in the 1860s-1870s.  Abstraction of the landscape was in the air.  On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Claude Monet was beginning his controversial forays into impressionism.  A little over a century later, Monet’s abstractions seem timid and we’re not only dealing with abstract farm products, but abstract farms. Small farms have been gobbled up – consolidated into huge factory-like operations or consumed by sprawl. 

The Chicago Mercantile Exchange is also going through some changes of its own.  In 2008, many of the trading floors were consolidated and merged with the ones at the Chicago Board of Trade.  With the advent of electronic trading, the old ‘open outcry’ (pit) trading system has fallen by the wayside.  To review, we now have abstract people selling abstract “products” from abstract places to other abstract people, and often no physical stuff even changies hands.  We’re even talking abstract money – the end result of a trade is now just numbers in somebody’s bank account. 

Modified from posts on Democracy Guest List Dec. 3 and 4 2008.


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