Long live the weeds: Time to break our global systems?
My friend Jaipreet once wrote in a poem, “Long live the weeds.” In isolation it is an odd line. Why would you want the weeds to live? It is a line that stays in my head. It resonates. It resonates in practical sense as I have spent the past few weeks of lockdown in a feeble attempt to cultivate my garden. It resonates emotionally too though, it got me questioning – what are weeds?
Give me a moment here, as it is not as obvious as it sounds. Turns out the dictionary definition of a weed is: ‘A wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants.’ There is nothing that inherently makes a weed ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’, other than its wildness and it being in a place it is not wanted. All that differentiates a weed from a flower is where it is and whether the owner of the land wants it there.
It does not take much of a leap to take the weed analogy and apply it to our world. The flowers are the people we covet. They are the people we want in our space – the desirable ones, the beautiful ones, the ones with privilege and power. Often these flowers come dressed in the entrenched tropes of being a certain gender, class, race, ethnicity or sexuality. The flowers are to be admired, nurtured and invested in. Anyone who has been gardening in lockdown will know to get anywhere you have to spend time and money in encouraging the flowers to bloom in your garden.
The weeds, on the other-hand, are not wanted. Sometimes they may look just as beautiful as the flowers – but we didn’t choose them to be in our garden. In our world the weeds are the undesirables, the outcasts. The weeds are those we’d rather did not exist because they threaten the cultivated systems of our gardens. If we were to let the weeds thrive some of the flowers would be compromised.
Weeds are resourceful though, they are strong. Weeds find light and manage to push and persist and survive in even the most inhospitable of environments. In the human world the weeds are the ones who manage to create enterprise out of trash, who are able to feed their family even as climate change ravishes their livelihoods. The weeds find the light and grow in the cracks.
COVID-19 has exacerbated inequalities. It has taken the already hard earth and the challenging terrain and made it five times as difficult to survive in, let alone thrive in. Racial inequality has had a spotlight shone on it during this crisis with BAME communities suffering the most in so-called ‘developed countries’. Poverty has been amplified and is taking on new forms. In the Global North food banks have moved from being an occasional life-line for some to being an essential service. In the Global South food prices rise and a lack of access to water and sanitation has become a critical problem in helping stop the spread of Coronavirus.
This pandemic has made it very clear who the world considers flowers, and who are considered to be weeds. The structures that keep the poor invisible have been uncloaked. And we are now left with a choice. After this crisis ends, as eventually it will, do we simply slip back into the system and allow that veil to cover the inequity of our global systems? Or do we instead boldly shout out, “long live the weeds!” We have an opportunity here to completely rearrange the flower bed, to shift soil and to nurture those who have so long been left on the margins of society.