It is September 19, 2019, in the waning days of summer. I am eating a banana in New York City.
It is a Chiquita banana, organic, from Ecuador. I got it for 20 cents at Trader Joe’s.
I don’t usually think about where my bananas come from. Mostly I just eat them, sliced, with peanut butter, the way I’ve done since I was little kid. But today I’m remembering a story that geographer David Harvey likes to tell about bitter orange marmalade.
Specifically, jam manufacturers in 1840s Manchester were not happy that, due to growing cycles, they ran out of fresh fruit to process in December. Until the growing season picked back up in the spring, their factories had to lie dormant – that is to say, no profits for three whole months. But then they got the idea of processing inedible bitter oranges, the kind that grow in Spain in January and February, to keep their factories humming during winter. The only wrinkle with their plan that was that the marmalade they made during those months was as bitter as the oranges themselves. But rather than let public taste dictate production, the manufacturers proceeded to cultivate a taste for bitter marmalade among Manchester factoryworkers. It’s a taste that has continued among English tea-drinkers to this day. (David Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital, Vol. 2, pp 390-391)
So, I’m eating a banana—a fruit which has no business being in New York in the waning days of summer, or any other time of year—and thinking about English jam manufacturing in the 1840s.
I’m thinking, too, of American agribusiness in the 2010s, and the myriad of ways that capitalism runs roughshod over natural rhythms in the name of endless growth: the rhythms of the seasons, and also the rhythms of the human body. The bodies, for instance, of the workers who were paid a pittance to harvest the banana I’m now delectating. And how their exploited labor has been converted into the money that paid for the steel and stone and glass that makes up these skyscrapers that surround me in my Manhattan apartment, at the financial capital of the U.S. Empire.
Which leads me to consider the fact that the U.S. Empire has destabilized Latin American governments for decades, partially to enrich Chiquita’s predecessor the U.S. Fruit Company and other firms who profit off the backs of Latin American workers. And how decades of this destabilization are largely to blame for the refugee crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. And how the pollution from the fossil fuels used in transportation of Latin American produce are contributing to the global climate crisis.
And then I’m thinking about the burning Amazon, where indigenous Amazonians are being smoked out of their ancestral lands to make way for mining and soybeans and cattle. And how President Bolsonaro’s proto-fascist government is actively supporting that process of dispossession and destruction.
And I’m thinking about how delicious this organic banana is.
Bananas are my favorite fruit. Always have been.
So: I’m eating a banana, in New York, in the waning days of summer, and I’m thinking about capitalism, and exploitation, and ecocide, and the global refugee crisis, while I read this week’s lectionary texts, from the Prophet Amos and the Gospel according to Luke.
I’m thinking about how human oppression and ecological devastation have been connected since time immemorial, going right back to the days of ancient Israel:
Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat." The HOLY ONE has sworn by the pride of Jacob: surely I will never forget any of their deeds. (Amos 8:4-7)
Because you see, wealthy landowners in Amos’s time ran roughshod over natural cycles, too, and over spiritual practices like Shabbat that modeled a different kind of economy. They appropriated the land to themselves and ground their laborers into the ground. They weighted the scales in their favor and allied themselves with the forces of Empire, in order to protect what they had stolen from the workers and from the earth.
And I’m hearing Jesus’ words echoing around in my head like spare change, or like the rattling of chains that have bound me and too many other beneficiaries of Empire for too long: “You cannot serve both God and wealth.” (Luke 16:13)
And I’m wondering what our world would look like if we served Divinity instead of wealth. If we cared for Creation instead of torturing it for gain. If workers and the land had rights equal to those of corporations. If we kept Sabbath as it was meant to be kept: a radical, divinely-inspired rejection of the soul- and body-destroying logic of Empire and Ego. (Deuteronomy 5:12-15) If we lived, as our indigenous relatives have been trying to tell us for centuries, with the Earth rather than on it.
I’m wondering how our lives might change. How the lives of those Latinx workers might change. How my life might change. Whether I’d be able to eat 20-cent organic bananas in New York City in the waning days of summer.
I’m thinking, too, about the Global Climate Strike, which is happening tomorrow right here in New York and in hundreds of cities around the world. Millions of people will be walking out of their schools and workplaces, shutting down cities, disrupting business as usual, to send a message to the U.N. Climate Change Summit in New York: inaction is not an option.
I’m thinking about how countries and communities around the world are already phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to 100% renewable energy. In the first half of 2018, Germany produced enough renewable energy to power every home in the country for the entire year. They’re not alone in this kind of commitment.
And I’m thinking: “We can do this.” If we’re willing to act now.
We can do this… if we’re willing to confront those powers—human, structural, spiritual—that trample on the needy and bring ruin to the poor and to the land itself. We can do this, if we’re willing to look within ourselves and change. Really change: our systems, our diets, our consumption habits, our production cycles, our politics, our economics, our churches and masjids and sanghas, our lives. We can do this, if we can down tools, and walk away from the spirit-crushing factory of bitter avarice, and serve a different Master. If we can serve Gaia, and God, and one another.
I finish the banana. And I have this feeling that world I grew up in is passing away, and something new is about to emerge, if we’re willing to act like it, and dream like it, and live like it.
And I wonder whether this will be the last banana I ever eat.
…and you know, I’m okay with that.