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Urban Homesteading

Call me a day late and a dollar short.  Or maybe behind-the-times with respect to Facebook.  But I completely missed the posting blitz where Facebook fans used the "urban homesteading" term as many times as they possibly could in a single day.  In fact, I learned about the posting blitz via our Transition U.S. newsletter, which, when I opened my email, at first shocked me with the brazenly open use of the term.

I'd heard about the urban homesteading controversy itself, of course.  Much of it is unfolding in my own hometown, the greater L.A. area. 

The backstory

To bring you up to speed, the Dervaes family of Pasadena, CA family went and trademarked the term "urban homesteading" (along with a few other choice phrases).  Then the family sent strongly-worded attorney letters to people all over the internet who were using the "urban homesteading" term, demanding that people use a different term. 

The thing is, the term "urban homesteading" is a term that has been in widespread common use since at least the 1970s.  One internet source linked to a Sept 1980 Mother Earth article of that era which used it.  The Mother Earth article refers to a HUD document of that era which was apparently entitled "Urban Homesteading Fact Sheet," thus the term had attained sufficiently widespread enough recognition to be used by the government.  The term is used in documents from the University of California at Davis. 

But the clincher was a search of Google Ngrams which revealed use of the term in books from the 1800s, well before Jules Dervaes, the family patriarch, was born.  (Central Law Journal, 1801, Volume 33, Page 290.  Texas Supreme Court, 1867, Volume 285, Page 282).  In other words, it was entirely inappropriate for the family to seek to trademark the term "urban homesteading."

A few of the far-reaching effects of this attempt to "mark turf" on the term urban homesteading included:

Notices were ... sent to individual bloggers, a library, a Denver-based community, and others, including to the authors of a book called The Urban Homestead, published before the trademark was even granted, and to Facebook, which instantly pulled down at least four pages, without regard for the validity of the claim. (source)

Erik Knutzen, a Los Angeles area urban homesteader, author, and blogger, got caught in the crossfire.  Erik is a lively and sarcastic speaker and has been the featured speaker at several delightful Transition Los Angeles events in the past.  His book, The Urban Homestead, is a really cool handbook of urban homesteading skills, with particular appropriateness to powerdown here in the big city.  Amidst the trademark dispute, Erik's publisher can't publicize the book.

The fur gets flying

Good summaries of all the action (under a great title, too) include "How to destroy your business and goodwill in one easy step" at Season in the Soil.

Because of the Facebook action -- takedowns without justification -- Electronic Frontier Foundation got involved and snapped back their own strongly-worded letter to the Dervaes family.  Electronic Frontier Foundation calls themselves the "first line of defense" when our freedoms in the networked world come under attack.

Facebook fans launched a "Take back urban homesteading" event, which apparently gained 3500 "Likes" within 24 hours.  It's now well past 5800 fans.

Enraged articles appeared in many places including blogs for the newspaper for Orange County, CA.

Meanwhile the Dervaes family blog wailed pitifully, "stop the hoax!" as if the bloggers had created this mess.  To date, the Dervaes family hasn't backed down from their misguided assertions.

More summaries:

Two part post on Agrariana

Summary at EFF

Doing our part

When I read the headline article in the Transition US newsletter, I knew we at Transition LA could not sit idly by.  Thus we have cooked up an event, A Celebration of Urban Homesteading*, designed to both feature urban homesteading and to draw attention to the ridiculousness of this trademarking fiasco.  On March 24, Erik Knutzen will talk about seecrit compost, worm towers, monster squash in the parkway, chickens and bees: urban homesteading* in the age of the Internet.

In all our publicity, we're including links to the trademark controversy.  We're claiming *fair use of a commonly used word or term and barging forward with our mission.  We hope that our event can capitalize on the brief media blip of the trademarking controversy, get more people considering the ideas of urban homesteading, and simultaneously raise awareness of what we're doing in the Transition movement.

What Dervaes missed

Pasadena is a little over 8.5 miles from my neighborhood, and I am no stranger to it.  Up until the controversy, I had read the Dervaes blog for years, even commented on it a few times.  I have visited their Pasadena site at least twice over the years and attended one of their events.

The Dervaes family's approach has thus far emphasized individual preparedness.  In recent years it is true that they did begin to offer classes and do more tabling events, but they never seem to have "gotten" the big AHA! of the Transition movement.  The Transition movement's Cheerful Disclaimer summarizes it so well:

What we are convinced of is this:

    * If we wait for the governments, it'll be too little, too late

    * If we act as individuals, it'll be too little

    * But if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.

Overwhelmingly, the Transition approach is community-oriented.  And there is good reason why.

I have written many times about our understanding, here at Transition Los Angeles, that particularly within such a massive metropolitan area, our success can only be measured by the degree to which we have prepared the entire area.  It's foolhardy, in the midst of 11 million people, to presume that by going solo and building up your individual gardens and rain barrels and solar panels, you've made your individual family safe.  In the case of a shock to the system ($150 per barrel oil, perhaps?), what do you suppose your 11 million unprepared neighbors are going to do? 

Nope.  Our security and survival amidst such a concentration of population is completely dependent upon building our communities -- raising awareness, growing post-petroleum preparedeness, and building local interconnections and networks.

It is ironic that the Dervaes' homestead project originated long ago in a desire to access GMO-free food.  Now they have become, in effect, the GMO of the L.A. Green Scene.  They are attempting to patent the "seed," so that no one else is allowed to touch it without paying royalties.  Just like Monsanto, they are sic-ing their attorneys on people who are working publicly in good faith to do the right thing.  (For goodness sake, they even sent an attorney letter to a public library!) 

Like Monsanto, they are attempting to patent what is essentially part of the "germoplasm" of The Great Turning.  They are attempting to claim certain long-standing knowledge -- knowledge that, up until a mere 60 or so years ago, was known to all as the basic stuffs of living -- and call it their own invention.  These are the tactics of corporate agribusiness -- the very thing the Dervaes family once purported to be blazing a "Path to Freedom" from!

Why this is so important

Within the Transition movement we understand that time is of the essence.  Even the cautious and conservative U.S. Department of Energy puts peak oil at 2012 -- NEXT YEAR -- and our population is far from prepared. 

We need ideas like urban homesteading to be in widespread circulation and practice, and we need it now.  The whole trademark fiasco is like blasting Roundup onto rich organic soils that were just starting to bear harvest -- it sears the growth of healthy, life-promoting progress.

In the words of Erik Knutzen's co-author Kelly Coyne:

"Erik and I strongly believe that this movement must be open-source and accessible to all.  Once upon a time we would have learned homesteading skills at our mother's knee, but now we have to teach each other, share what we know, and help each other along. Generosity of spirit is an essential characteristic of the 'modern homesteader'—and I see this spirit everywhere we go." (source)

Here at Transition Los Angeles we couldn't agree more.  That is why on March 24 we'll be hosting A Celebration of Urban Homesteading.  If you're in the area, come join us!

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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