Scarcity and the Suburban Back Yard

Empty grocery store shelves

As COVID-19 spread across the United States this past spring, and stay at home orders were put in place to contain the spread of the coronavirus, hoarding became the new inconvenient norm. People flocked to stores to buy as many supplies as they could. Hand sanitizer, antibacterial wipes, toilet paper, paper towels, bleach, and face masks were the first to disappear. The main food staples for the long term, like beans, rice, and canned goods, also quickly became scarce. Then flour and yeast were hard to find. When businesses started to control the hoarding by limiting quantities, clerks and owners became the new enemies of entitlement, even while they were trying to maintain supplies for their regular customers. Suddenly, a “food supply chain” became visible and a significant source of concern—and community-supported agriculture memberships doubled and seed orders became backlogged.

Supply chain issues and pandemic panic-buying left many suburban grocery store shelves empty. Photo from rawpixel.

Food shortages, meat plant shutdowns, and empty grocery shelves not only exposed the fragility of the food supply chain but also revealed its links to the exploitative, carbon-intensive, and extractive processes of factory farming and industrial agriculture. In addition, that precarity became inextricably linked to the supply chain’s inherent invisibility. Consumers can’t easily see where their food comes from because of geographical distance or because factory farms keep their exploitation and violence well hidden. In response, consumers were moved to explore local food sources, identifying spaces in their back yards like CSAs, farmers markets, or in the raised beds and container gardens that were assembled.

Another problem, however, exacerbated the supply chain breakdown: hoarding. Empty shelves are a problem that those who live in the ex- and suburbs don’t regularly have to face. Neighbors bought, in the name of safety and security, as much as they could, creating commodity deserts at the likes of Whole Foods and Target. Suddenly our back yards became spaces where consumerism, industrial agriculture, individualism, class, and exploitation collided to reveal their roles in food security and health.

The suburban back yard was originally imagined by the British colonist John Smith in his depiction of the American Dream in Description of New England (1616). In this book he describes a bourgeois paradise where the ideal life is the result of individual effort, self-determination, and private property, and where happiness is sought through the pleasing work of gardening and hunting. It links the dream of self-sufficiency to local environments and proposes a kind of gated community to ensure safety and maintain British identity. However, the permanent settlements Smith promotes, in which self-sufficiency is tied to local flora, fauna, and fertile soil, were at odds with Britain’s desire for colonial commodities such as furs and fish. Bourgeois life in the 17th century, while rooted in this fantasy of self-sufficiency and abundance, conflicted with the transatlantic demands of an expanding British empire and the plantation economies that sustained it.

While many of the facets of a food supply chain involve extraction and exploitation, perhaps the central feature is scarcity.

From their earliest incarnation, plantations established multiple and unevenly experienced time zones. Colonists established permanent settlements in order to live the bourgeois dream. They also colonized to extract short-term profit for transatlantic trade. Moreover, these aims were impossible without the forced removals and genocide of enslaved laborers and the Indigenous peoples whose land use practices and ways of life were being rapidly and violently unraveled.

When middle-and upper-class consumers in the 21st century confronted empty grocery stores shelves, they found themselves caught in a similar contradiction: the colonial mythology of self-sufficiency that inspires crisis-time hoarding in the first place exposes ongoing reliance on an often-invisible global supply chain that has its roots in plantation slavery and the genocidal and cultural erasure of Native and Indigenous peoples. The space of one’s own “back yard” becomes suddenly filled with multiple places and multiple—often conflicting—time zones.

Not long after Smith articulated the American Dream for the British empire, the island that would become the empire’s most important sugar plantation was colonized. In 1627 Barbados’s first colonizers arrived, and after failed attempts at profiting from tobacco and cotton, sugar cane became the main crop in the 1640’s, and with it the population of enslaved Africans skyrocketed. Richard Ligon’s True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados, published in 1657, documents the years he spent on the island from 1647-1650, which were a turning point in Barbados’s history when it was on its way to being the most profitable sugar producer in all the British colonies combined.

“A topographicall Description and Admesurement of the YLAND of BARBADOS in the West INDYAES: With the Mrs. Names of the Severall plantacons,” engraving. In Richard Ligon, A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados. London, 1657. Courtesy of the British Library.

Because Ligon’s stay on Barbados coincided with the island’s rapid transition to a sugar economy, he registers its rapidly shifting environmental, cultural, and commercial changes by creating a visual mashup of land use across multiple time frames. The map that he provides in the History actually has two authors because it’s a revision of an earlier map drawn by Captain John Swan, who surveyed the island in 1638. Ligon used Swan’s map and simply added to it by placing figures of domesticated animals in the interior of the island where the roads on the map do not yet reach. In doing so he anticipates the island’s success as a sugar producer through the process of deforestation and settlement. In fact, the narrative of Ligon’s History discusses how dense and impassible the forests are, that planters are still living in huts, and that among the domesticated animals, only asinegoes (small donkeys) are capable of crossing or working in Barbados’s densely wooded gullies. However, his history also includes architectural plans for “ingenios” (sugar works), thereby projecting the centralized plantation system onto a space not yet able to accommodate a mass-scale agricultural operation.

The mashup of time frames reflected on the map is made more dynamic by the fact that in 1661, when Felix Spoeri sailed to Barbados on a vessel bringing fifty-two horses, he noted that “they have no livestock other than what is brought unto this island.”1 Indeed, in order to participate in the Atlantic economy, planters on Barbados needed to create a system in order to successfully produce, process, and distribute the commodity of sugar, and a certain link in that supply chain proved difficult to achieve. Planters needed horses and cattle to transport crops and run the sugar mills, but livestock illnesses were chronic, and they relied on constant importation from New England and Virginia. However, supplies were never enough to meet demand. Planters even tried importing camels, which could carry the most weight but inevitably starved because of poor diet. Only the population of asinegoes, from the Azores, was able to be maintained, and while they couldn’t carry anywhere near the weight that horses, cattle, or camels could, they were able to handle the island’s densely forested and hilly terrain.

 Shipping Sugar, Antigua. From William Clark’s Ten views in the island of Antigua. London, 1823. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Ligon’s narrative and map perform a kind of representational violence in depicting Barbados’s future as a profitable—and deforested—sugar island. In addition, colonists’ insistence on the continual importation of cattle, despite their inability to survive on Barbados, enforces what Rob Nixon describes in Slow Violence: Environmentalism of the Poor as the temporal perspectives aligned with either wealth or poverty. These perspectives constitute a clash “between the short-termers who arrive (with their official landscape maps) to extract, despoil, and depart and the long-termers who must live inside the ecological aftermath.” In effect, Ligon imposes a time zone on Barbados’s history that stakes a claim for how to “sustain, regenerate, exhaust, or obliterate the landscape as resource,” and his projection of a centralized plantation system onto Barbados in both the map and text in his History calculates who lives in which time zone.

Imposing these time zones on Barbados, however, meant that planters were cultivating monocrops in their own back yards and essentially creating food deserts in an effort to manufacture sugar. These are Anna Tsing’s “blasted landscapes” that translate Smith’s fantasy of local back yard bounty and self-sufficiency into the context of empire where back yards become the “edges of capitalist discipline, scalability, and abandoned resources plantation.” Plantation history demonstrates that while many of the facets of a food supply chain involve extraction and exploitation, perhaps the central feature or cultural logic of it is scarcity. And we don’t have to look very far to locate that scarcity in our 21st century suburban back yards, which feature lawn monocrops that serve as cherished symbols of private property but are emptied of their fertility. As Carole Shammus notes, contemporary agribusiness mirrors the plantation’s scale of production in its use of overseers, the mobility of capital and labor, and in its dedication to world markets. Therefore, instead of growing our own lettuce we depend, as Andrew Nikiforuk shows, on an energy intensive supply chain for our dinner salad. In other words, if we recognize that we live in what Kris Manjapra calls the “Plantation Complex,” we must rethink the time zones of our own back yards.

Recent hoarding during COVID-19 has revealed multiple facets of plantation history obscured by the slow violence of our food supply chain.

To what extent does Rob Nixon’s concept of “slow violence” apply to the ongoing “ecological aftermath” of plantation history? Certainly, the violence of plantation histories is ongoing and located across time and space. This violence is also not viewed as violence because the exploitation, extraction, and logic of scarcity built into the food supply chain has been rendered invisible to the consumer. Yet, these are forms of violence that are not necessarily out of sight in the way that Nixon describes. Industrial agriculture surrounds us, but we [suburban shoppers] are predisposed to romanticizing farmers and farming, so it’s hard to see the problems of industrial agriculture as anything but amber waves of grain.

Within the food supply chain’s violent histories of dispossession and slavery, however, are stories and acts of resilience. Black and Indigenous farmers and seed keepers have cultivated centuries of resistance to the plantation’s demands for submission and erasure, and these stories and methods of organizing are necessary models for achieving food justice and food sovereignty. There are ways of reading and seeing the (ongoing) aftermaths of the plantation complex that identify how the rules of a system that profits from exploitation and extraction have been rejected. As Katherine McKittrick argues, these ways of seeing offer a “mode of being human that, while often cast out from official history, is not victimized and dispossessed and wholly alien to the land.”

Recent hoarding caused by COVID-19 has revealed multiple facets of plantation history obscured by the slow violence of our food supply chain. As Andrew Nikiforuk demonstrates, while the forms of energy for food production may have shifted over the centuries from human sources to fossil fuels, the capitalist geography of the plantation system is remarkably the same. Yet, the histories of violence carried into the future by this food supply chain are also not so distant and not so invisible. Modes of human life intertwined with non-violent and reciprocal relationships to the land are right in front of our noses and adjacent to plantation inheritances. These ecologies are proximate in history and on the land.

Pokagon Band of Potawatomi land on the left. Crop field on the right. Dowagiac, Michigan, 2019. Photo by Andrea Knutson.

The back yard bounty that Smith promoted for permanent settlements has morphed into a monoculture of its own. Lawns are a reflection of the ways we’ve maintained, even cherished, slow violence in our back yards. Like colonial planters we live on self-imposed food deserts and buy lettuce that is grown 1500 miles away. The plantation complex enforces a logic of scarcity, is indeed structured on scarcity, and the irony of experiencing stay-at-home orders has meant that the historical violence and scarcity of our food supply chain manifested on the shelves of our local Targets and Whole Foods. The distance between the salad we want for dinner and the place where the lettuce is grown was suddenly revealed. But in fact we maintain, and even cultivate, that scarcity and slow violence just outside our doorstep.

Privilege, however, means that the time zone associated with the slow violence of the plantation complex would erupt only temporarily in a suburb. Even as the number of deaths from COVID-19 continues to rise (having topped 180,000 in the United States at the time of this essay’s publication) the momentary experience for the privileged of empty shelves is over. The fantasy of abundance, however, has been exposed for the slow violence of scarcity that lurks underneath.

Thank you to Shiloh Kiona Maples, Rosebud Bear Schneider, Carmen Malis King, and Alyx Cadotte for your leadership through the Sacred Roots program at American Indian Health and Family Services in Detroit and beyond. Thank you, especially, for inviting me to the 2019 Great Lakes Intertribal Food Summit, where I learned about the power of ancestral foodways and food sovereignty.

Featured image: Empty grocery store shelves in Toronto, Canada. Photo by Michael Swan, March 15, 2020. Image from Flickr.

Andrea Knutson is an Associate Professor of early and 19th century American literature at Oakland University. Contact.

  1. Qtd. in Larry Gragg, Englishmen Transplanted: The English Colonization of Barbados 1627-1660 (New York: Oxford UP, 2003), 24.