Justice, Farms and Victory Gardens
(Note: This wasn't quite the talk I gave at the actual conference. The marvellous Peter Bane preceeded me and covered much of my material, so I ad libbed a little. But a good bit of it was derived from this paper, including my now sort-of-famous call for 100 million new farmers in the US. I'm presently at work on a book on this subject with co-author Aaron Newton.)
I admit, I hadn’t paid much attention to the great Spinach Crisis of aught-six. My family grows enough greens that we rarely purchase them, and I can’t recall the last time I bought something that came encased in a plastic bag. We were visiting a local farmer’s market, and when a friend offered to take us out to eat, we went. And I ordered a spinach salad, only to be drawn up by the look of horror on my waitress’s face. She informed me that no spinach could be had anywhere in the country, and that it was a big problem for them – all the entrees involving spinach, or pesto or other bagged greens were unavailable. I told her she must be mistaken – we’d just been next door at the farmer’s market, and the Mennonite farmers one stall down had had at least fifty beautiful bunches of spinach. I asked her why the restaurant didn’t just buy its spinach next door. And again, a look of horror crossed her face (I was starting to feel rather bad for mentioning it), and she said, “Oh no, we’ve never done that. We’d have to wash it, and how would we know it wasn’t contaminated?”
If there’s a better encapsulation of ignorance we face when addressing food issues, I don’t know what it is. Or perhaps I do – a recent secretary of Agriculture was quoted as saying, “The central challenge of the new century may be the production and distribution of food.” Now that’s the sort of thing that government officials do say, and perhaps I ought not hold them too responsible for saying dumb things written by committees of junior staffers, but it is worth some attention because of the phenomenal combination of ignorance and hubris required to imply that there has ever been a single moment in human history when the production and distribution of food has not been the central challenge.
It is only because of cheap energy and our own willful ignorance that we can believe that there’s a substitute for “making sure people are fed” as the most urgent and common project in human existence. So if we’re just noticing right now, that growing food and distributing it fairly and safely is one of the big deals of the coming decades, we should be looking at ourselves and wondering how we got to a place where this is a surprise. How did we forget something so basic? How is it that a woman whose whole profession is feeding people has come to believe that “picked 10 days ago by an virtually enslaved migrant worker from a salinated, irrigated, eroding field fertilized with polymers in a place with no water of its own, gassed with nitrogen and packed in an oil wrapper” translates as “clean, fresh and wholesome?” The ecoli is essentially just a condiment on a package of vegetation that has passed off toxins and damage in a whole host of arenas before arriving at your door.
I’m 34, and I’m just vaguely old enough to remember when “encased in plastic” was not a recommendation for vegetables. When my grandmother was a child, no one would have expected to see spinach dishes on the menu in August and February as well as April and October. Only 50 years ago, ¼ of the American people farmed. 150 years ago, farmers dramatically outnumbered non-farmers. And in the years immediately before the industrial revolution, it took 6 farming households to support one single doctor, teacher, lawyer or artist and her household. Right now, farmers are less than 2% of the population in America – so is it any surprise that even in a small community, surrounded by farmland, the owner the restaurant knows so little about the world of food production that she isn’t aware of the bounty right next to her. Nor should it be any surprise that the industrial agricultural system, held together by spit, baling wire and the last few bodies left on the land is falling apart.
We shouldn’t simply be amused by this – we should be terrified. Because I can think of no more certain way to ensure we will go hungry than to be as ignorant as we are of the role of food and agriculture in our lives. If peak oil is our wake-up call, the thing that makes us shake in our boots and wake up at night with visions of our families dying of starvation, again, I’d say it is about time. Because this willful ignorance of ours has extended to ignorance of how our lives impact others. None of us can speak with any integrity of a “die-off” as though it is some hypothetical thing that might happen someday in the future. It is happening right now among the poor of the world, where 24,000 people a day are dying of hunger-related causes. Many of them are hungry because we in the first world extract 38 billion dollars of wealth per year from the most impoverished countries in the world to feed our appetites for food and energy, because we’ve replaced indigenous, traditional agricultures with industrial production and our own cheap grain, because we’ve pushed people off land and commodified their common resources. They die daily because of us and the way we eat and live. So if we’re waking up now in the smallest possible way to the fact that food matters, that soil and water matter, and that the system we‘ve created for feeding ourselves has to go NOW, we should be asking ourselves how it is that it took so long, and why we only changed things when it was our own necks on the line.
All which is just a way of saying that gardening and farming is not and should not be just a means of protecting our interests and ensuring a more comfortable peak downslope for ourselves and our loved ones, although, of course, it does that too. In fact, creating a new agricultural model and implementing it is both a moral imperative and an absolute necessity. A lot of those of us with lots of education and environmental consciousness have been kidding ourselves, believing that if we just buy the organic apples we’re doing something to make the world a better place, believing that we can consume our way out of the problem by buying the right things. But we cannot buy our way out of peak oil – all of us need to take more responsibility than that. Through most of human history, a minimum of one fourth of the population has been farmers, and many more than that have been engaged in personal food production. The only way to ensure food security is to replace the disastrous industrial model with one in which many of us are farmers on one scale or another. Michael Pollan points out, that when we try to grow food organically or sustainably on an industrial scale, what we end up with is at best a very-marginally-less apocalyptic industrial agriculture, with equal or expanded problems caused by maltreatment of both workers and animals, insecurity in the food supply and total dependency on huge quantities of oil. The only possible humane, just way of eating requires many, perhaps even most of us, to take a significant hand in food production. And to do so, we will need 100 million new farmers in the US, and at least a billion worldwide.
Small scale agriculture is, in fact, at least a partial solution to many of our most intractable problems. For example, David Holmgren points out that a realistically achievable rise in humus in soils around the world would sequester an enormous quantity of carbon, reducing total carbon build-up in ways that could potentially be comparable to getting rid of a large portion of the world‘s auto fleet. For most Americans, the single act that would reduce their fossil fuel consumption, carbon output and ecological footprint the most is not to buy a more efficient car, but to cease buying supermarket food. And small scale, sustainable agriculture can produce outputs of dramatically more food and fuel than industrial agriculture can. If we move away from the large farm model, we may be able to feed the world, despite declining fertility and rising costs for fossil fuel inputs.
Now I know this talk is supposed to be about “large scale gardening” but I keep speaking of farming. That’s because there’s an untenanted space between the word “gardener” and the word “farmer” that needs to be addressed. A gardener is usually someone who grows things for their pleasure, from the sheer joy of it. When we talk about farmers, we usually mean someone with a profession is growing food on a large scale. But somewhere in between them is the idea we need to grasp with language – that there could be someone who grows a lot of food to eat, but still takes pleasure in the act, who may sell food, but whose work cannot be traded on the commodities market.
Or perhaps we don’t need a new word, because we have one. In nearly every nation in the world small scale or subsistence agricultural producers are called “farmers“. In English, the word derives from the word for “earth,” as in “firmament” or “terra firma,” but it also shares its origin with the word “form” to mean “to shapes or creators.” . It occurs to me that right now, we need to become a nation of people who see themselves as creators rather than conquerors or consumers, people who see our central work as the maintenance and sustenance of the earth and human cultures. So I’d like to propose to you that for the purposes of this talk, we think of all our exercises in food production as a kind of farming. In fact, I’d be thrilled if you’d go on thinking of yourself as a farmer after we’re done here, because I think that habit of thought could be a powerful one for most of us.
Because it isn’t such an outrageous leap to imagine yourself as a farmer. It turns out that only in our highly commodified culture, which values only large scale agriculture at all, and even that not much, is a farmer defined as a big man with a big tractor who grows a thousand acres of corn and votes republican. In fact, he’s not a he at all – the average farmer, worldwide is a woman. Even in the US, the only really fast growing segment of agriculture is that of independent women farmers. The average farmer in the world is a non-white woman, farming 4 ½ acres, growing 15 different crops on them. They own no tractor and do most of their labor by hand, and their household has at least one outside source of income (that last part is the only thing that is true of most professional farmers as well – 70% of them must either hold a second job or have a spouse work outside the home to support themselves). And the average farmer world wide doesn’t look all that different from what American farmers used to look like. Because the average first settlers in the US farmed only 7 acres, and by the time that Thomas Jefferson was rhapsodizing about the democratic possibilities of a nation of farmers, the average farmer only had 10 acres.
What we are talking about, then, is a return to human norms, in which many people are involved in a subsistence economy, producing most of what they need, with enough to create a small outside income for the things they cannot grow or barter for. Now subsistence, however, does not mean “struggling along in terrible poverty and suffering” – it means self-sufficiency, having enough. A subsistence economy does not require eternal growth, or expansionist political and military policies. It does not have dramatic differences between rich and poor. Its wealth lies in communal resources – the aid of neighbors, the pleasure of community, social and cultural wealth and a strong identification with one‘s local community. And thus, the community, rather than external programs provide support for those who can no longer support themselves. And, at the same time, those who participate in the subsistence economy have a measure of autonomy unknown to us who are so terribly dependent upon outside resources and political and economic forces we can’t control.
If we were to begin thinking of ourselves as Farmers whose primary goal was our own basic self-sufficiency, the security of our neighbors and independence from those forces that demean and limit us, we might one day wake up to a new kind of globalization in which those who reject capitalist “development,” those who have had it inflicted unwillingly and disastrously upon them, and those who are now recognizing that the cost of development is too high might be unified in their aims. Were we to see ourselves as like and united with peasant farmers and the poor everywhere, we might cease trying to view our world from the lofty perspective of privelege, and begin to see the view from below, in which subsistence is not poverty or shame, but wealth and a kind of security unknown to most of us.
If we are to define ourselves as farmers, we need to erase some of the baggage that comes with that word. First of all, we have to stop imagining that growing our food is so physically demanding that it can only be undertaken by the young and healthy.
My family has grown an enormous amount of food mostly with our own muscles, and I have run our CSA well into late pregnancy. I know many elderly people and people with disabilities who garden – my own great aunt announced to me at a visit a few years ago that she (at 94) had “finally had to give up the big garden and go down to just growing thirty or forty tomato plants.”
We have been taught to see agriculture as intolerably arduous, when in fact, on a small scale it is merely a good workout. If it were as arduous as most people believe, I suspect I’d be considerably, umm, more svelte than I am at present. In many pre-industrial agricultural societies, people had considerably more leisure than we do. In pre-conquest Britain, for example, the average peasant worked only 174 days per year. It says something about the bill of goods we’ve been sold in by growth capitalism that many of us have fewer days off and less free time than 11th century serfs.
And we need to rid ourselves of the assumption that mechanization is necessary for farms of an acre or two. When you raise children, you can do terrible damage to their capacity for self-sufficiency by always following them around and sparing them any struggle or inconvenience, telling them that things are “too hard” and being right there to ease their labors. The same thing is true with most labor saving devices – in many cases, their very proximity convinces us that we cannot do without them, that our lives without tractors and tillers must be unendurably exhausting. But although machines have their place, not only can we not afford to choose them as a first option, but we harm our own sense of competence and ability to know what our bodies can accomplish. The shovel and the hoe are ancient tools, and much can be accomplished with them.
Equally urgently, we need to stop conceiving of the farmer as a white person, living in a largely or wholly white community. Some of our cultural nostalgia for agriculture is, I think, a fantasy of a world of perfect whiteness. But, in fact, our nation of farmers was built on the blood and sweat of slaves, and now our nation of consumers lives upon the produce of mistreated Latino farm workers. While African Americans have been productive small farmers for many generations, they are losing their land and livelihood at a much higher rate than farmers in general. We can assume that as poverty rises and hunger haunts us, African Americans will, as usual, be the first and most deeply harmed. To build sustainable, local food systems that serve African American communities will be a task of the utmost urgency, and the members of those communities are the only ones who can tell us what they need and how best to get it. We need to stop sending young African Americans to war and to prison, and give them access to the land, knowledge and power they have every right to. Nor can we afford to mistreat and disdain the people who mostly grow our food right now. We call them migrant workers, or farm workers, instead of their proper name – farmers, as though the person who owns the land has done the essential work of farming simply by owning it, while these unskilled “workers” have merely planted the seeds, weeded the ground, watered, fertilized, tended and harvested the food we eat. What we deem our “immigration problem” would look very different if we realized that the greatest wealth of agricultural knowledge and skill in our nation is in the bodies of those we loathe as “illegals.”
The other exploited group whose needs have to be addressed are present-day industrial farmers. That may seem like a counter-intuitive point, but we as a nation have done more harm to ourselves by the destruction of our existing agricultural communities than we can possibly imagine. Wendell Berry points out that what we’ve done to our rural communities over the last 100 years is a form of colonialism. Colonialism, as we all know, is the subjugation of a people for the purpose of extracting their wealth from them. And the very first project of colonialism, as Edward Said points out, is to devalue everything the colonized person knows and believes, and to replace it with the culture of the colonizer, so that when you debase and humiliate and destroy the colonized person, rape his land and take its riches, they’ll believe you are doing it for their own good. Could there be a better way of describing what has happened to millions of farmers over the last 100 years? They’ve been told they were hicks and rednecks, that their profound knowledge of their craft and their place was less valuable than professionalized knowledge coming out of agricultural colleges and cities, and their children were encouraged to have contempt for their parents‘s knowledge and to leave for the cities as soon as possible. We told the children of farmers that what people in cities had was knowledge, and what they had was ignorance. Their forests were logged, their minerals mined, their soil stripped, their economies destroyed, families broken apart and towns converted into bedroom suburbs.
And if you don’t think the people who grew out of farming communities all over the country are mad as hell about it, and want to strike back at the people who disdained them and took away their sense of place, of competence, and their culture, look at the last two elections, the deep division between the places where farmers are and the places where they mostly are not. Farmers are not inherently political conservative, nor are they fools – in the 1920s, Kansas and Oklahoma were hotbeds of Marxism and labor radicalism. But we stripped farmers of what they had and what they knew, and left them willing to give over power to anyone who seemed to showed them the respect they so deeply deserve.
The average professional farmer is 63 years old. 71% of all farmers say they wouldn’t want their children to be farmers, and most of them aren‘t. One of the reasons our best agricultural land is being steadily transformed into housing is that the children of farmers do not want the land except for its potential marketable wealth. For the sake of short term wealth, we let 200 years of painstakingly created knowledge, skill and craft that enabled farmers of past generations to live in the closest thing to sustainability we‘ve ever created in this country and ensured that it would be lost. We told farmers to “get big or get out,” that diversification was a mistake, that small farms can’t feed the world, that machines were better than animals, that knowing the whole world shallowly was better than knowing one place profoundly. And we were wrong on every single count, and the old farmers were right. It turns out that diversified small farms of about 4 acres have an output 200-2000 times greater than large industrial farms. While traditional polyculture farms may produce less of anyone thing (called yield by our economy) they produce much, much more output which includes the sum of all the food, fiber and fertility they generate . In fact, diversified small farms and the nearly lost knowledge of old farmers may be the only hope we have of continuing to feed the world. But we’ve wasted so much for so long – it should shock us realize that the grey Kansas dustbowl farm where Dorothy walked the pigpen fence in The Wizard of Oz is now as mythical and lost a place as Oz is.
If we’re to avoid the worst prices of our ignorance, we must act now, and stop today buying supermarket food and start growing it for ourselves and our neighbors. We must grow food simply so we can cease to be consumers and subjects and become citizens again. Consumers are subjects so much in the habit of obeying the directives of corporations, so deeply that they cannot escape their artificially created sense of need, and thus lack the rage or the outrage to engage in dissent. They are so absorbed into their system of subjection that they simply cannot conceive of a world without their economic rulers. And lest we mock them, lest we imagine that we who are here today are better than the masses who believe in corporate power, let’s not kid ourselves. Because most of us are hanging on to our jobs, our cars, our appliances for dear life, terrified of the day that it all turns off. Mostly we’re all waiting for the disaster to come and decide for us, so that we don’t have to take the tremendous risk of stepping out of the economy that enslaves us.
If we are to give up subjection and return to being citizens, rather than consumers, the first step tis simply to recognize, that as Paine put it, "A french bastard landing with an armed banditti and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a paltry rascally original – It certainly hath no divinity in it." There is no divinity in the industrial economy. No divinity in growth capitalism. The invisible hand is not the hand of G-d, it is a load of crap. Markets are not better than people at making choices about how to live – they are infinitely worse at it – short sighted, inhumane, and unjust. “Planning” is not a dirty word, all attempts at the eqitable distribution of wealth does not lead inevitably to Stalinism and the callow rich do not have their wealth because of virtue. When we shake off our fear, and our habit of acceptance, we can find our sense of outrage again, and choose better for ourselves. In fact, we have no choice. Because 100 million people growing food is a revolution, whether we plan it or not.
Now how do we, as they say where I‘m from in Massachusetts, “get theah from heah?” How do we get 50 or 100 million new farmers? How do we feed everyone, and find land, water, nutrients and the will to do the work? I cannot fully answer that question – some of it must be explored in practice, but I do have some suggestions about direction.
Before I tell you the ideas I think might actually work, I did want to note that I asked a friend of mine recently to give me her ideas about how we might encourage a lot of people to take up the project of agriculture. She’s my neighbor and while not entirely a peak oil skeptic, she’s certainly a little dubious about my obsession, although very nice about it. And her very first suggestion, as is normal in our society, was tax incentives. And that makes sense, because we live in a culture that presumes that when you have some disagreeable task you’d like people to undertake, that you should pay them to do it. We talked about various schemes for economic incentives, but most of them were either insufficiently persuasive or required massive new beaurocracies to keep people from committing fraud. And then my neighbor said, “well, could you let the free market do it for you, by in some way removing taxes or raising the value of what they grow?” And suddenly, I knew how to get at least 100 million new farmers. All we have to do is to announce, that, subject to verification of course, all farmers can put up to 1/10 of their sustainably farmed agricultural land, up to, say, 10 acres, in marijuana production and sell it on the free market. And poof – we’ll have 100 million new volunteer farmers tomorrow! And we’ll all be much more relaxed about peak oil. Unfortunately, there’s just one hitch…
I realized, however, as I thought about it, that my neighbor’s basic premise was wrong, that farming is neither so unpleasant that we have to pay people to do it, nor is bribery the best way to encourage people to change their lives. This has been tested amply by paying children to get good grades in school. The simple fact is that children who are rewarded with cash for studying actually do worse, especially in the long term, than those who are not. But more importantly, the reward itself becomes the focus of the child’s work, rather than the satisfaction of learning, the pleasure of doing something that matters or the simple joy of getting things right. We’ve learned that children are happier and better off if they do their work because they enjoy it, or because they want to achieve some goal, or simply because doing things well is more fun than doing them badly. So how is it that we’ve forgotten that rule for ourselves.
We tend to think of Americans as unwilling to sacrifice, unwilling to act for ethical reasons, unwilling to do hard things because they are the right thing to do. But that’s too simple. Little as I approve of American militarism, I was awed by the sheer number of people who were willing to enlist, fight and die for what they perceived as their country’s protection after 9/11. And every weekend, two hundred million Americans and more go to churches and synagogues and mosques and look for ways to live ethically, rather than conveniently. Many of the things they asked to do are very difficult in both personal and economic ways. Millions of American environmentalists try and reduce their impact and emissions because they believe it is the right thing to do – despite considerable hardship and inconvenience. We do not lack a willingness to do the right thing – instead, what we lack is a unified understanding of what is right, and a collective energy to work in unison towards a single set of goals. But that can change – in fact, it is changing. For the first time the environmental movement, conservative Christians and justice movements are all headed in the same direction, due to shared concern about global warming. There is every hope and every reason to believe that those movements could be brought together to transform our culture, assuming we can find a mutual respect and understanding of one another. That alliance has the possibility to reach many people with a single message – that small scale farming is the most urgent work we can do, and also the most pleasurable.
The American Dream is a phrase so trite and misused as to be meaningless in most contexts, but not, perhaps in this one. Because the original American dream was simply this – land, autonomy, peace and plenty. What was suburbia, but a failed means of stripping the agriculture and labor away from the dream of a small green space? We teach our children about the farm from birth – one of the very first things most children learn about the world is that cows say moo. The dream of the farm, the real farm, not the suburban fake, is so deeply ingrained in us that it would not be hard to bring it back. So many people tell me that they’d love to do what I do – and they can, not in some distant place, but where they are now, with a hen and a tomato and a hoe. It was, after all, a garden we were cast out of.
So if we can conceive of a way to persuade people to transform their bit of land into a farm, the next thing we need is land on which to farm. It is not necessary to own it, although most of us are, at least for now, probably safest and most secure in traditional ownership relationships. But I think it is important to remember that Bush’s ownership society and even Jefferson’s agricultural democracy are really covert ways of conceiving private ownership as the root source of power. Such a model excludes those without easy access to wealth, and imagines that our legal connection, rather than our stewardship is the most important thing about our relationship to land.
Many people farm on rented land, in community gardens, in the backyards of houses owned by landlords or families, and many more could. Public greenspace and corporate lawns might become locations for the landless to farm upon. And many more people could live together, combining resources, than do at present.
My husband and I own our 27 acres because we shared housing our entire adult lives – we saved for our first down payment by living in a graduate student apartment with five people in 900 square feet, a situation that was deeply enjoyable for all of us, and that I would duplicate again in a heartbeat, children and all. When we bought our home, we bought it jointly with my husband’s grandparents who could no longer live independently. We helped care for them and got the pleasure of their support and assistance in our farming ventures. My husband’s grandmother had been a refugee from the Nazis, and said that she’d always dreamed of owning a farm – something impossible for a Jew in Germany in the 1930s. She made it possible for us, just as we made it possible for them to avoid institutional care and live among their family at the end of their lives. Many other people could join with family and friends to share land if they chose, and there are millions of seniors in the US who want nothing more than to remain in their own homes for their whole lives, and to see that home bloom and flourish.
Landlessness is set to be a major source of political and social conflict both in America and all over the world. If urban centers no longer are sources of wealth, how long before the poor recognize that all true wealth is, in fact, biological, and that land, not money, is where security lies. All over the world, enormous tracts of land are held by corporations, governments and private owners, and in many places in the world where economic disparities are greatest, the poor are trying now, through civil disobedience and violence, to claim some access to land themselves.
In America, however, we may actually have a potential solution to the problem – and in true permaculture fashion, the problem may be the solution. We’ve all seen The End of Suburbia and read James Kunstler’s indictment of suburbia and its excesses. And both those sources rightly blame the car-based alienation of the suburban model for both our absurd overuse of fossil fuels and the culture of consumption. We have subdivided our best farmland, put enormous, ugly houses on it, and used it to grow lawns. In many cases, large cities like New York may become insupportable precisely because the agricultural land that feeds them has been lost to the expansion of the evil burbs.
But in our foolishness may lie hope, at least in some places. As production drops steadily on salinated and stripped fields in California and Iowa, and almost 50% of the world’s arable land is now classed as seriously degraded, we may yet compensate for some of that by wisely but intensively growing our food on suburban lots, replacing lawns with gardens and decorative trees with fruit trees. Big cities that have sprawled over their land base will almost certainly have to derive their food from the suburbs around them – from many, many plots of 1/3 or ¼ acre, rather than farm fields. Kunstler’s analysis has suburbia becoming slums as those who can afford to move towards greener, more sustainable pastures. But economies may arise in suburbia where we never expected them – the suburbs may become the bread baskets of the cities, able to grow most of their own food and a little extra. Ten thousand houses, each with a little extra, adds up to something tremendous. In fact, many cities could grow much more of their food than they do – and many cities worldwide already produce a great deal of what they eat. When I was in Singapore in the mid-1990s small farmers grew more than ½ of the vegetables eaten within the city limits.
In Kenya, the Association for Better Land Husbandry has worked with communities all over the country to help people grow more food, in less space, with virtually no purchased inputs. Kenya’s soils are heavily eroded and low in fertility from centuries of overgrazing and mismanagement. The people who were being aided here had so little that the purchase of a single tree or dozen seeds was often beyond them. But the techniques of adding organic matter, cover cropping, the use of human and animal manures and water efficiency were taught by volunteers all over the country. Someone would go to a community and teach a few people, who in turn taught their neighbors. In six years, in these communities the percentage of people free from hunger and self sufficient in staple foods rose by more than 50%.
If we choose to concentrate wholly on the short term danger of hunger, we will find ourselves mining the fertility we’ve built up on our suburban lots, and simply putting off our crisis for a few years. We must incorporate fertility building into its long-term strategies. That means that we must return what we take off of the land, and rejuvenate what we’ve already destroyed. Among other things, that means we’re going to have to stop treating our own humanure as waste, and start composting it and putting it back on our gardens. For suburban and rural families, this will be as simple as building simple composting toilets at home. For urban dwellers, we’re going to need new infrastructure, and a new psychology about human bodily fluids, because we cannot afford to waste fertility the way we do. Even in the smallest apartment, you can pee in a bucket, dilute it and pour it on your houseplants and the plants on your balcony.
We can never again have continuous corn, or continuous anything on any ground – doing so is theft from future generations. Even in small home plots, we’ll need to allow land to grow cover crops, or mulch crops. As a maximum, only 2/3 of our land should be in most annual vegetable crops. The rest rest will need to be in perennial crops, trees, pastures and cover crops. Despite the temptation to take just a little more out of the land, always for the best and most urgent of reasons, we must resist, and live in balance. We'll need to reinstitute fallow time for our ground as well, no matter how urgently we could use what it produces.
We’re going to have to learn new ways to eat as well – to learn to eat and enjoy the staple foods that make the most sense in our particular areas and cultures. Any revolution in agriculture is doomed to failure if it isn’t eagerly taken into our kitchens. Here in the Midwest, the staple starch will probably always be corn and wheat. But where I live in the cold, rocky, rainy Northeast, that means potatoes along with seasonally produced milk from dairy animals on land suited only for pasture. In the southwest, the traditional corn and beans will have to reign supreme. And for G-d’s sake, we’re going to have to give up growing rice and other irrigated crops in southern California – in fact, we’re going to have to give up growing a lot of things in California and get comfortable with our own personal, permanent 100 mile diets.
Human beings are very nervous about changes in their food cultures. So all of this is going to have to come with educational support, with a community of people who can teach others how to cook and enjoy staple foods, and make that cooking enjoyable and exciting, rather than onerous. Communities will need be mobilized in the ways they were during World War I and II, where those who did not go to war worked together to provide compensatory services – and besides teaching others how to garden and cook and eat good food, we are likely to find that the social benefits are enormous. Because none of this can be done without neighbors talking to neighbors, bartering, sharing work and seed and ideas, and people organizing in ways we have not in a very long time. While I don’t want to minimize the potential hardships of peak oil we are likely to find a considerable amount of joy in this new conectedness we depend upon.
There will be much less animal protein in the post-peak diet, although many of us will not be total vegetarians – animals are simply too useful in polyculture.
Some land will be better suited to grazing than any other form of agricultural production, and scraps and garden wastes may yet be best utilized by small numbers of hens or rabbits, while taking advantage of their food, fiber and manure outputs. Larger farms may require animal traction. Farms are complex ecologies, and in fact, we may find that we cannot afford not to have animals. Animals in small moveable pens can provide tillage – fertilizing and scratching up ground until it is ready for planting. Geese and ducks can provide weed control as well as meat and eggs. We will need to change suburban and urban laws to permit small livestock in every neighborhood.
This is an awful lot of change, and for many of us, the next question must be “how do we do it when the current administration is so hell-bent on leading us to destruction?” It is essential to recognize that change does not have to come from the top down. In the end, there are damned few leaders in history who have led people anywhere. Mostly, people have to point in the right direction and our so-called-leaders get out of breath trying to keep up. It would be nice if they’d help us along, but it is not essential. If enough of us stand up and take up the mantle of creating new food economies and cease buying from supermarkets, whoever presently runs our government will begin to work with us (and, of course, take all the credit for leading us there).
I think it is almost certainly true that we have the resources, the power, the skills to stave off a disaster. So many of the speakers at this conference have described ways in which we might optimize our remaining resources, while we voluntarily reduced our population to levels that would not require fossil fuels. We have the power to feed ourselves even in a future of resource depletion if we are willing to do the work of creating a subsistence economy.
What we have lacked, I think, is ultimately the faith that our own small actions can make it come true. We look around us and see waste everywhere, encouraged by the short-sighted, imperialist and just plain evil policies of our government, and enacted by those who live blindly. And we think “I don’t see anyone volunteering to make radical change – and I don’t know what would happen to our economy if we did. Maybe we’re better off just trying to keep things the same, inequities or no inequities, die off or no die off, because the alternative just has so many unknowns, and there’s so little momentum. Maybe my primary interest should be in preserving my own family” This is terrifying stuff. I don’t think anyone here knows just what will happen if you can’t trade corn futures on the stock exchange, or what the world’s economy will look like if the industrial model goes offline. We have guesses, but no proof. Even most of the people I know who believe in peak oil feel desperately isolated, and become somewhat cynical about human nature, believing that people are simply too complacent or too frightened to make radical change. We see our neighbor’s SUV and think the whole thing is hopeless, no matter what we do. But that’s a trap and an error in thinking, one that is encouraged by those who do not want citizens to start seeing themselves as powerful.
In essence, everything that is good and valuable in the last 300 years of our human history has been a repeating narrative in which people who were powerless, enslaved, colonized, impoverished and desperate stood up and said, no more, and overthrew the people who colonized and enslaved them. Every one of those movements started out with a small number of angry and frightened people who saw the need for transformation and risked, as someone once said, their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. Folks, this is just growing food! Every one of us is more privileged, better educated, more powerful and in every way better prepared to change the world than thousands of people who already did it. How can we possibly do less than they, when the stakes are so high? So please go home and plant your gardens.
- Retrofitting the suburbs for sustainability by David Holmgren
- Is Sustainable Agriculture an Oxymoron? by Toby Hemenway (on the benefits of garden agriculture)
- 50 Million Farmers by Richard Heinberg (inspired in part by Sharon's actual Community Solutions 2006 conference presentation)
- 50 Million? 100 Million? 200 Bazillion? How Many Farmers Do We Need to Change the World? by Sharon Astyk over at her Casaubon's Book blog.
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