a Judo trick to germinate the seedlings of a free culture
Seed balls, simply put, are a method for distributing seeds by encasing them in
a mixture of clay and compost. This protects the seeds by preventing them from
drying out in the sun, getting eaten by birds, or from blowing away. (www.heavypetal.ca/archives/2007/03/a_brief_history_of_the_seed_ba.html)/p>
used in the old times by the Japanese and also by Native Americans,
the tradition was revived by do-nothing-farming agronomist, Masanobu
to put his farming theory in simplified terms, he claims that nature
grows food all by itself – therefore anything we do to intervene is redundant
and even harmful.
a seed, he would say, is a mechanism ‘designed’ to germinate and grow.
so why, do you ask, would he need to repackage them into little balls? in the
following pages, i would like to present a logical structure that repeats itself
in activist practices that are recently gaining prominence.
i will take these musings across disciplines from agronomy (natural agriculture) through education (libertarian education or unschooling) to cultural production (the copyleft movement). i could continue and extend the argument to other disciplines such as alternative medicines and some martial arts, but i’ll spare you..
at the end, i will go into why i feel there is a need and an interest in
charting these micro-methodologies of social, psychological, ecological and
cultural transformation, and more specifically why these practices are taking
us into realms previously considered to be occupied strictly by individualist
so you’re with me on this silly intellectual exercise, let me spell out what
to look for in all the following examples:
all are practices based on a belief in a kind of regenerative creativity that
is innate. at the same time, all use control, the very thing they criticize or
believe we can do without, to create a form of protection for this regenerative
creativity to be able to germinate in a hostile environment.
this is cross-disciplinary activist technology.
theoretically plants are made to grow and regenerate as nature is a
system of infinite wealth, an ever-present metaphor to battle the logic of
scarcity. the richness and diversity of the soil with all its rotty worminess is
enough insurance that we will be well fed for eternities to come. there is no
real reason to mess with it. according to Fukuoka, it took him 40 years to
learn what not to do.
and yet this vision of nature is an idealized one. if you scatter seeds
around just any random plot of land, they will most likely be eaten by some
bird before they get to germinate, and even if they do germinate, it is
unlikely they will find the aforementioned rotty worminess in which to
this is what Masanobu Fukuoka has to say about Europe:
I traveled around Europe. It seemed to me that Europe was very nice and beautiful,
with lots of nature preserved. But three feet under the surface I felt desert slowly
coming in. I kept wondering why. I realized it was the mistake they made in
agriculture. The beginning of the mistake is from growing meat for the king and wine for the church. (from Gree ning The Dese rt, an interview with Masanoba Fukuoka,
in other words, for the soil to live up to it’s fertile potential, mono-cultures
have to stop and an era of soil restoration has to begin.
if this is true for land affected by industrialized agriculture, it is doubly
true for decaying city lots. in the seventies, artist Liz Christy with her group
Green Guerrillas experimented with what she called “seed grenades.” they
…Christmas ornaments and water balloons packed with seeds, compost and
water. As the spheres burst, they scattered seeds, along with the resources they
needed to germinate. (Green Guerrillas : New York City ’s Community Gardens, Steve Brooks, www.ecotippingpoints.org/ETP-Stories/indepth/newyorkgarden.html)
these guerrilla gardening experiments, greening the abandoned lots
of the Lower East Side, soon led to the creation of the Bowery Houston
Community Farm Garden, one of New York’s first community gardens.
permaculture, natural farming and guerrilla gardening are rapidly
gaining popularity with a whole new generation of activist communities.
it has been endlessly discussed that in the wake of what was called the
anti-globalization movement, after experiencing the adrenaline of mass
mobilizations, many activists retreated to local practices, focusing on the
generation of sustainable infrastructure. Even though these methodologies
for infrastructure-building have been around for a while, they seem to be
under a current spotlight.
ecologists claim that we should be immensely happy because
regeneration and infinite diversity is a built-in mechanism in plants, which
means that we will never be either hungry nor bored. but this paradise of free
food and endless variation is being suffocated by the environment we humans
have created: where fecund diversity should be so easy, we instead find dead
concrete, lead residues and kilometers after kilometers of genetically modified
soy. that’s where we decide to intervene. although as eternal optimists we
believe there should be no need for agriculture of any kind (i am obviously
exaggerating my point here for comic effect), we use an intervention, a technology
(seed balls), to open a breach in an environment completely taken over
by another (mono-cultures, fertilizers, pesticides, urban decay) in order for
germination to take place. this breach is a sphere shaped cocoon, protected
from the arid boredom and the competitiveness, so prominent lately in our
we see that a belief in the productive, creative and regenerative core of
nature is bracketed by a thin protective layer of intervention or control.
throwing a seed ball into a vacant lot is political because it infiltrates the
dominant culture and has the potential to transform it and grow from its
center (and grow and grow).
We compare children to seeds. You can give a seed the best conditions for it to
convert into a healthy beautiful and strong plant or a tree (good soil, light and
necessary water…) but you can’t direct or program it’s growing process.
The seed contains the potential for it to unfold harmonically if the conditions
permit it. For that to be possible, liberty is indispensable. It’s the same with
children. They contain within them the know-how and the internal impulse that
allows them to fully develop. (www.moixaina.org/ translation from Catalan –A.K.)
Moixaina is an association of mothers, fathers and educators, working and
developing games with kids from 2 to 6 years of age, with the active collaboration of
parents. the children choose and decide what they want to do without being
dictated to by adults. the classroom can be the forest, the garden or the
beach. it is one of numerous examples of experimental education collectives in
the Barcelona area who take pedagogical movements such as unschooling as
Unschoolers commonly believe that curiosity is innate and that children want to
learn that which is necessary for them to become competent adults.
Many unschoolers also believe that opportunities for valuable hands-on,
community based, spontaneous, and real-world experiences are missed when
educational opportunities are largely limited to those which can occur physically
inside of a school building. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unschooling)
John Holt, one of the main advocates of unschooling, puts it this way:
Since we can’t know what knowledge will be most needed in the future, it is
senseless to try to teach it in advance. Instead, we should try to turn out people
who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn
whatever needs to be learned.
he also adds: Education…now seems to me perhaps the most authoritarian and
dangerous of all the social inventions of mankind. It is the deepest foundation of the
modern slave state, in which most people feel themselves to be nothing but producers,
consumers, spectators, and ‘fans,’ driven more and more, in all parts of their lives,
by greed, envy, and fear. My concern is not to improve ‘education’ but to do away with it, to end the ugly and anti-human business of people-shaping and to allow and help people to shape themselves.
but while unschooling is usually associated with home-schooling,
experiments such as Moixaina are collective efforts, run in collaboration with
parents, a parent-assemblea being the decision-making body. many of these
projects are really nothing more than a group of parents who got together to
respond to the challenge of education collectively.
Moixaina’s list of inspirations is long, among them are: Rebeca and
Mauricio Wild, founders of the Pestalozzi school in Ecuador, Jean Jacques
Rousseau, Maria Montessori, Ivan Illich, Everett Reimer, A.S.Neill, John
Dewey, Jean Piaget, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Edgar Morin, and Acouturier.
experimental education has a long tradition in Catalonia and the libertarian
pedagogy is heavily associated with the anarchist movement of the late 19th
and early 20th century. pedagogue Francesco Ferrer i Guardia was seminal
in popularizing a non-authoritative education that rejected the use of
punishment and reward. Ferrer i Guardia, founder of the Escuela Moderna,
paid with his life for this experiment.
La Pinya is a school held in a squatted house on the outskirts of Barcelona.
a high percent of parents involved are activists, some of which live in squats
around the city. with kids ranging from ages 3 to 9, it is self-organized by
the parents who meet together with the educators to decide on the course the
school will take and to resolve the problems and conflicts that arise. the
group that decides the curriculum meets every day in the morning. it is the
assamblea formed by the children attending, where each one explains the
activities she or he is going to engage in during the day.
Pinya in Catalan means pinecone. The expression ‘fer pinya’ means to
stick together and help each other out. it is also a structure used in ‘castellets’,
a traditional Catalan human-castle, where people have to literally create a
strong base-structure in order not to fall and hurt themselves.
schools such as La Pinya are spaces full of learning possibilities.
sometimes divided into thematic corners, the rooms contain the information,
in the form of books, games and materials, for the kid to play with and
discover. obviously a kid simply left to its own devices outside of such a
structure would encounter a whole different set of information. our cultural
landscape is mainly made out of opportunities to get hypnotized by
consumerism. therefore an intellectually nutritious environment is important
for this kind of project to work.
just like the seed balls, projects such as Moixaina and La Pinya, use a
format they oppose (school) to create a protected space where liberty can do
it’s thing. a fertile cocoon, artificially created to nurture curiosity and play,
which are the makings of real learning.
the world of ideas and creative expression is a pool of sharks.
say you are walking around and a tune starts playing in your head.
maybe it’s something you heard somewhere, maybe you just made it up as
you went along.
you might not know it, but that tune that’s playing in your head is most
probably owned by someone, even though you never really asked to listen to it
in the first place, even if it’s ‘Happy Birthday To You’. if you happened to come
up with a musical sequence never before to exist, you should be careful at the
moment you get ready to hum it out loud. the first one to register ownership
has the rights. ownership isn’t only important in case you want to make
money off of your humming. the owner of your tune can silence your song.
a world where all colors, tunes, phrases and images are owned by
someone is a world that makes life impossible for cultural production. culture
needs it’s own thriving ecosystem, full of ever-changing information,
available to use and re-interpret.
from the collage to the remixed song, the world is full of endless
examples of culture being a conversation that thrives on copying and reappropriating.
the foreclosure of our head-space can in no way be said to be in defense of
creativity. creativity is defended by sharing it, as goes the slogan of Compartir Es
Bueno (Sharing is Good) a network of anti-copyright activists in Spain. and
here is the crux of it: human creativity is as endless and regenerative as the
aforementioned seed. humans will be making music and art even if they
never see a dime from it. what can and will damage our capacity to invent
and create is the drying up of this fertile ecosystem of free-flowing ideas, the
fencing-in of mental activity to harness every last inkling of an idea for the
production of value (I’m talking about the quantifiable kind).
the flow of ideas is being stopped on every corner by the checkpoints and roadblocks of an ever more desperate ‘creative class’ in need of original ideas to survive financially. the drying up of the diversity of certain sectors of
cultural production (the Hollywood film industry is a good example) is happening
at the same time as western societies reach ‘peak noise’. so we have a
situation where more and more culture is being produced ‘professionally’
and immediately becoming the private property of someone, usually a firm
specializing in ‘content’ and owned by a big corporation.
we need a living bubbling cultural and intellectual commons. but how do
you protect a commons from getting privatized. in a situation where even
a traditional type of Indian rice can be patented by a private company (www.
biotech-info.net/basmati_rice.html). how can you expect a body of information not
owned by anyone to stay available for use, copy and transformation by its
Copyleft is a play on the word copyright and describes the practice of using copyright
law to remove restrictions on distributing copies and modified versions of a work for
others and requiring that the same freedoms be preserved in modified versions….
In general, copyright law allows an author to prohibit others from reproducing,
adapting, or distributing copies of the author’s work. In contrast, an author may,
through a copyleft licensing scheme, give every person who receives a copy of a
work permission to reproduce, adapt or distribute the work as long as any resulting
copies or adaptations are also bound by the same copyleft licensing scheme.
once again things aren’t what they seem. what is formally defined as
‘control’, as part of a repressive system (copyright law) is being used to protect
a burgeoning commons from being privatized. or, to quote famous words: all
before i conclude i would like to make a more general point.
now, apart from this ‘seed-ball’ logical structure I described, what do all
these practices have in common?
for one thing, they are all gaining prominence with activists (although
not exclusively with activists). within the activist community we can say that
it shows an interest in infrastructure building and in personal and collective
well-being. but they are not likely to be included in the packages of services
provided by our government. they are considered ‘alternative’, and their
attitudes could be said to be ‘holistic’, close to being included in that vast but
foggy definition of new-age.
it is important to take a moment to discuss the brain-drain from the new
left to the new age which occurred in the early 70s.
Andrew Kopkind described it like this: Ideologies based on mechanistic
analyses of power and history may not be wrong, but they are seen to be external to
the lives of many whom they once moved, and irrelevant, too, to long-untended needs
for peace of body, soul or mind.
But anyone who looks around can see the force behind the spiritual, religious and
existential cults that have developed in the spaces where political organizations are
usually found. Gurus, swamis, roshis, dervishes, gods and therapists are building
impressive movements and extensive institutions while the traditional left sects contract
in size and influence. (from MYSTIC POLITICS Refugees from the New Left by Andrew
i feel that, undoubtedly on a much smaller scale, we are at a similar moment.
ten years after the outburst of the series of mass mobilizations referred to as
the anti-globalization movements, we find many people have dedicated this
past decade to life-consuming activist projects. critical of the purely symbolic
role of protest, but also having had a go at more quotidian, small scale activism,
the issue of personal well-being is once again very present. to state it more
bluntly: i find myself trying to understand how come so many punk activists
I know have spent the last couple of years seriously studying Chinese medicine.
others are simply burned out and it seems like they realized that well-being
is easier taken care of individually by joining the mainstream middle-class.
the question is not how to avoid this brain-drain, lamenting the
‘recession’ in activism, but how to integrate this shift, accepting it as serious
criticism, while taking-on these practices as tools for the construction of
more grounded and more consequential action.
i see only two possibilities: either sustainable living infrastructures are
integrated into the daily practice of politics, or social movements are going
to suffer yet another brain drain.
this whole line of inquiry has a lot to do with the ‘micro-politics’ vs. ‘macrorevolutionary-
theory’ kind of debate. Brian Holmes challenges us to embark
on the project of articulating the exact science of our unbound dreams.
we cannot ignore the scathing criticisms against macro-theories and the
disastrous results that came from applying modern scientific method through
ideology onto unsuspecting reality.
the question that should be asked is the following: what are the relationships
weaved these days between activists and the natural, social and cultural world,
and what are the resulting technologies? certainly they are not ones that
accept unflinchingly the hegemony of a science eager to make generalization
and in a rush to capitalize on them.
the sciences of contemporary social movements are different. they are the
ever growing sum of many practices, the places they intersect and also their
internal contradictions, which make a new-old kind of science. the common
values of these sciences can sum up to articulate a methodology. the more cases
we describe, the more practical experience we have, the more intuitive and
exact our science becomes.
this is an additive process, assembling bit by bit our local practices
tentatively articulating common threads and methodologies they all share.
the intellectual exercise I present here is just an example of the kind of
mapping that i would like to see happen. it should happen because of the
danger of the brains of social movements being drained to the individualist
feel-good industry, and also because of the feel good industry having done
some useful research for us, that we can put our hands on and apply to create
real transformational collective projects.
I am not proposing a new hegemonical imperative to replace the old. In
terms of theoretical practice I would like to see wild hybrid experiments
ignoring previous categories such as political science, new-age, ‘hippy’ and
‘punk’. say we apply the 12 principles of permaculture to the way we see
inner-city neighborhoods in transformation. or look at direct-action through
the lens of the Grinberg Method (burn the dumpster, now observe your body
posture, how do you feel?)
the other option is for the arrogant and patronizing attitude of an ideology that is not grounded in practice reproducing the very relationships that we are working so hard to avoid, in pedagogy, agronomy and culture, just to mention a few examples.