Thursday, March 5, 2009

Rudy: A Historical Political Regional Economy of Agriculture: California's Imperial Valley

Through a case study of the Imperial Valley of Southern California, the article seeks to model an interdisciplinary approach focusing on the interconnectedness of historical, political, social, ecological, community-related, and ideological states of being designed to take into account all of the various contributing factors promoting degradation of the environment and the social consequences thereof.

This idea seems to be nigh unto impossibly expansive, but the article manages, through admitted oversimplification of complex power struggles and extensive annotation, to give a brief overview of the processes involved in society's negotiation with its natural, social, and communal environment. This last concept (5, elaborated in note 9) is perhaps the single most important point to take away from the article, and summarizes the angle that it is suggesting that the field of environmental sociology should take, rather than simply talking about the social aspects of the environmental movement or gathering opinion surveys (4)

As we have heard argued and applied throughout the course (not surprisingly, considering the author), the article makes the case that the "environment", as a term, is not to be constrained to the "natural/scientific" world in which we live. It also includes the "physiological/psychological" personal world, as well as the "cultural/infrastructural" world that comprises our social environment and intellectual and cultural heritage. We live in all of these worlds, and here it is argued that they are NOT separate, isolated entities, but rather three parts of the same whole, presented as the preferred, inclusive sociological definition of the word "environment". Assuming we have all read the article, the example of the Imperial Valley need not be elaborated in great detail here, but let us agree that it presents a compelling instance of capitalist production "externalizing", or shrugging off, its costs into all three sectors of the environment in a process called a "through-put", which refers specifically to end results of production "which are not produced or reproduced as commodities" (6).

The capitalist agricultural production of the Imperial Valley externalizes costs to the natural environment in many ways, including the fundamental alteration of the water table to support agriculture in a desert, thereby destroying the original ecology of the region, the release of large amounts of pesticides into the water that has been diverted to the area, making it untenable for the fish and bird populations that have been introduced, etc. These are the costs of this kind of production that we are all familiar with. However, capitalist production also externalizes costs to the other two parts of the environment, the parts that are not traditionally associated with environmentalism:

The personal, or psychological/physiological environment consists of individuals, and their personal quality of life. The case study discusses the costs to the people of the area, including the exploitation of Mexican farm workers, the extreme racial inequality, and the increasing accumulation of resources into fewer and fewer hands at the expense of the majority of the population, as evidenced by increasing unemployment and inadequate financial, educational, and health resources for individuals in the area.

The communal, or cultural/institutional environment includes the system of production and the government's interaction with it, as well as community organization and composition. The government subsidies, funding for infrastructure, such as drainage development, the Hoover Dam, and the All-American Canal, and continual ignorance of flagrant violations of federal land-use law which all require public resources to create and maintain are obviously part of the costs that have been shrugged off onto this part of the environment. Also to be included here is the driving off of well-educated young people that represent a vital community resource by the unilateral economic development, and the extractive nature of businesses taking advantage of incentives provided by local government to build in the community, while either bringing employees in from elsewhere or paying very low wages to the local employees that they do use, and also extracting wealth due to the export of revenue to the national or international headquarters.

The crux of this entire system, of course, is to show how all of these conditions are not separate occurrences or trends, but part of the same system of capitalist extraction. The fact, presented at the end of the article, that the greatest efforts to reform each of these three areas of the environment coincided in time is a vital one to the moment of realization that occurs upon absorption of the material. The natural, personal, and communal worlds are shown to be vitally interconnected, and mutually degraded by the accumulation of capital. Thus, accepting the argument of the article, and I do, environmental discourse cannot discuss nature as if it is somehow outside of or above our lives and our institutions, but must address it as it truly exists in the real world: part of the same set of manifold conditions in which we and our society exist, all three mutually affected by the destructive mining of capital.

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