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Community gardens can help restore democratic values in France

Philosopher, writer and gardener Joëlle Zask shares her vision of a fairer, greener future where politics and ecology are inseparable

Joëlle Zask, community gardens in Lyon

Joëlle Zask thinks ecology works in harmony with democracy in a ‘jardin partagé’; shared gardens in Lyon Pic: Gilles Gerbaud

Philosopher Joëlle Zask has spent the last decade writing about participatory democracy and ecology, arguing that both need to be interconnected in order to help society move forward. 

Here she speaks about the importance of shared gardens (community gardens) and public spaces in helping to restore democratic values. 

What functions have shared gardens performed throughout history?

It is the most common form of harvest. Communal lands have been given to families or villagers since the dawn of time. 

Shared gardens bind the community and individual responsibility together. This is not like a kolkhoze when the farmer becomes a proletarian. 

This is more like a gardening activity and there are charters and conventions ruling such activity.

France used to have plenty of shared gardens in the Landes, the Ariège or the Provence département or near towns such as Amiens or around Paris, but most were destroyed by urban expansion. 

This resulted in France having fewer shared gardens than Germany, Switzerland or the Netherlands, for example.

Do shared gardens start with the idea of giving a greener look to the concrete of the urban environment?

The essence of the shared garden is not to ‘greenify’ land, since they existed both in the countryside and in cities. 

There were large shared gardens spread over several hectares, such as in the Russian mir (a form of cooperative farming). 

This was one of former American president Thomas Jefferson’s ideas by the way – he distributed four acres of land to any immigrants who came to America in an effort to help families grow their own food and survive. 

This could be compared to the establishment of a minimum wage. 

This is not the welfare state but I believe this is democracy in action. 

There were community gardens everywhere in the 70’s in the United States. 

During the time of the Soviet Union, some patches of land met 100% of the people’s needs in fresh organic food. This has enormous value. 

Have the shared gardens become part of an environment that helps to develop democratic values?

I believe so, yes. It is clear that ecology works in harmony with democracy here. 

In a shared-garden patch, people have to follow rules and cannot do as they please. They adjust to the soil and to others. 

They cannot spray pesticides with little regard for the surrounding community. 

This is the school of democracy and ecology, since people often abide by the law enacted within the charters, and experience coexistence with other ways of living. 

He who does not harvest is excluded, since it is obligatory.

Coexistence is rooted in shared gardens. They are independent but interconnected.

In La démocratie aux champs (Democracy within the fields, not translated, 2016), you wrote that democracy was born within farms. While democracies are currently being challenged, do you think that the fields will help to bolster their values again?

I think that agriculture is an easy way to participate in bolstering democratic values since it is both accessible and ecological. Everyone is welcomed in the garden. 

The relationship with nature is more practical and convincing for a lot of people. 

Gardening is a more complete and convenient activity than art or culture for instance. 

There is no ‘return to mother earth’, so to speak, since we have never left it. 

But cities now drive to become self-sufficient in renewable energies and food to stop their self-destruction. 

Contrary to popular belief, family-sized and traditional crops still feed 70% of the world population, while industrial farming is mostly restricted to non-food crops like tobacco, cotton, gas or cattle feed. 

Gardening is not only a bobo activity or an indication of gentrification. It is more serious than that. 

Shared gardens still have a long way to go. 

When did people come up with the idea that democracy and ecology could not work together?

The opposition happened between Thomas Jefferson and the French physiocrats, the fathers of economic liberalism. 

Jefferson’s is a self-sufficient dietary ideal while physiocrats only concentrate on economic productivity and the wealth of nations with goods such as tobacco or cotton, two crops that destroy soils as well as people. 

This nurtured injustice and prompted slavery. 

These are two opposite visions of democracy. One focuses on independence while the other focuses on abundance and exploitation, including of people. 

Nowadays, society is a lot about comfort. People are encouraged to consume by companies selling the resources they need in order to maintain their comfort. 

They see ecology as a punitive experience that would hinder their normal life. 

Ecology is often depicted as a non-political tool that prioritises things over human beings, often by excluding people from being consulted through authoritarian behaviours. 

In Ecologie et démocratie (Ecology and democracy, not translated, 2022), you write about the wishful alliance between democracy and ecology. How would that manifest itself?

It means creating stable environments into which other species will be integrated. The aim is to encourage integration and acceptance. 

The former was built from the suppression of differences with people often destroying environments. 

This is particularly clear when you look at public spaces in which destruction is the most common occurrence of change. This is a very brutal behaviour that denies history. 

Building on what has already been is a democratic behaviour. 

People will slowly embrace this by developing new forms or uses, which will eventually create new liberties. Democracy is to human relationship what ecology is to the natural world. 

You wrote that we need to politicise ecology and ecologise politics. What do you mean by that?

It means that these concepts walk hand in hand. An undemocratic policy cannot be ecological, and vice versa. 

Every authoritarian, despotic or absolutist regime relies on a unitarian ideal that does not accept reality. 

The outside world is seen as an obstacle instead of a partner. This is what authoritarianism is all about. This cannot be characterised as ecological.

What is unfolding in Russia with Putin is a prime example of that mentality. 

His ideas are organised around the concept of a Great Russia, the sphere of Russia’s geographic influence, in which there are no holds barred to make it happen. 

On the other hand, every environmental action that does not take plurality into account cannot be characterised as democratic, since every action must accept coexistence with other forms of life, whether that is animals or plants. 

When building a garden, I have to take into account everything, from plants, climate, quality of the soil, the people surrounding the area, their desires, the dietary means, or even my own personal aesthetic etc. 

The more contributing factors there are, the longer the garden will remain.

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