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Putting the lawn back, eating more industrial food and other adventures from the counterintuitive edge of sustainability

My friend Alice hosted an urban permaculture class at her house a few years ago. She lives in an brownstone in a downtown neighborhood of Albany with her husband and two young kids, and the occasional housemate. Two permaculture design teachers and a host of enthusiastic students came together to create several designs for how she might optimize resource use and productivity at her home. She and her family chose one of the plans, and set to work on a number of inside and outside projects, including transforming her small, sunny backyard into an urban garden, full of food producing plants.

This sounds like a basic, but classic urban garden story, right, and it should be followed by how happy this made her family. Instead, it turned out that all these energetic designers who happily imagined arbors and gardens, set to the project of restoring contaminated soil and optimizing production, in fact missed something really critical. Swept along with enthusiasm and with the implicit assumption that permaculture design is really mostly about food, my friend Alice and her husband missed it to - until the gardens were in place, at great expense of effort.

What they'd missed with this - that ultimately her tiny backyard wasn't primarily a food-producing space. Her son and daughter, still too young to play safely on the urban streets needed the lawn more than they needed a food producing garden. With most of the space allotted to food production, her children were constantly bouncing balls and trampling delicate plants. They tried to stay in the space allotted to them, but it became obvious from moment one that none of the designers had really designed for a family with kids.

So, in an irony that I think is worth telling, my friend Alice, as part of her design project, put back her lawn. She ripped out kale and tomato plants, reseeded it with grass seed and restricted her food production to a much smaller marginal area. For all that we talk of food-not-lawns (Lord knows, the world is full of unnecessarily vast lawns both public and private not presently being used for the good of any playing children, I think this in no way undermines the basic idea that large chunks of our national lawn would be better as almost anything else), in fact, what Alice and her family needed was lawn-not-food.

Alice is not the only person I know who, in the name of making their lives work better have found themselves doing something counter-intuitive - in fact, so have we. Every once in a while, I run workshops and tours of my family's food storage, and in recent years, I've been opening the doors and showing people something I never thought would be there - a fairly large quantity of industrial canned goods.

Why does a woman famous for preserving anything and everything and growing her own have shelves full of canned meats and turnip greens? Well, in the last couple of years, sustainability has included adding more industrial foodstuffs into our diet, believe it or not. It started when our friend Jay, always a low-key freegan (read "dumpster diver") lost his job. His partner Andy still had one, so Jay decided that until another job came along, he'd take over the household economy. They live in an urban area, so instead of foraging for berries (actually he does that too, there are a surprising number of fruit trees and bushes going unharvested in Albany) Jay went from being an occasional trash-picker to making it a serious hobby.

If you are grossed out by the idea of this, you probably shouldn't be - behind many businesses are dumpsters not filled with rotting garbage but with food and goods with small imperfections that in no way undermine their basic quality. Imagine crates of peaches, removed because a few top ones have brown spots, boxes of bread not sold that day from expensive bakeries (and no, not lying the dumpster but carefully crated and bagged). Consider pieces of usable lumber just tossed in the trash, or packages of clothes or boxes of shoes tossed because the outer box got damp.

Jay and Andy started out cautiously, but began to realize how much was being thrown away. Their clothes came from the Target dumpster - Andy got 25 pairs of jeans in his size one day, thrown out for no discernable reason. They began to eat expensive gourmet baked goods daily, and Jay preserved the produce he found. They built up a sizeable pantry based on discarded canned goods - not bulging botulism cans, but a can with a label tear or a whole case of clam chowder discarded because the box bottom had broken.

They found themselves with more than they could use, and began sharing it out. They first offered us packages of pull-ups in my youngest son's size (at the time he wasn't toilet trained), then canned vegetables and meats that no one was really interested in eating, which we fed to the dogs mixed with rice and a few other ingredients. Andy hates spicy food, and one day Jay came by with a vast quantity of whole pickled jalapenos and a couple of loaves of spiced pear bread, still sealed and utterly fresh, and we became a stop on Jay's distribution rounds, which include friends, family, the local shelter, etc... We have animals that will eat food not especially appealing to people, and are also a welcome site for things Jay and Andy consider too weird or spicy to eat. And yes, we do eat them - after years of never opening a can, I make salads out of canned beans and put canned hominy in my corn bread. We give some of what they give us away still further.

I believe that consuming food and using goods that would otherwise fill landfills is an unadulterated good - and so a new portion of our sustainable food system has become the consumption of industrial goods. We do draw the line pretty firmly at the gross - when Jay finds Twinkies they go somewhere else, and even the dogs won't eat canned peas ;-), but we have had a modest addition to our diet of non-local food.

I use these two examples because I think they are good ways to describe the range of possible places that reducing your impact can take you. Adapting-in-Place, Rioting for Austerity, making your life more resilient and reducing your consumption aren't one-size-fits-all activities, and determining what is truly sustainable is never going to involve plugging in formulas. There are some generalities that one can articulate, and some broad principles we can apply, but the answer isn't simple.

A few years ago I appeared on a panel in New York City with Jim Kunstler and Colin Beavan (aka No Impact Man), and Colin, in his talk, said that there are three things you can do to reduce your impact on the world that have the greatest impact. Don't have a tv, don't eat meat and don't own a car. I laughed, because I have/do all three of those. I do own a tv (although we have no tv reception and use it only for watching DVDs), which provides an occasional pleasurable movie night for my husband and I (no theaters out here) or a video for my kids. A car is a necessity - in fact, we recently bought a very large, not terribly efficient vehicle to meet the dual needs of an expanded household with foster children and also expand our ability to take our farm products to market. And we both raise for sale and eat pastured meat - it is the best use of our hilly, wet, steep, cold land which grows vegetables and grains only with great difficulty but grass in vast abundance.

Despite our failure with Colin's prescription for greater sustainability, it isn't at all clear to me that living in an urban area would enable my family to use less energy, or be a better option for us. We use less than 20% of the American national average household energy usage - and that's at a household size that is double the national average. The C02 implications of our permanently pastured animal production are very different than those of CAFO meat production. And while I'm not that wild about tv, I don't see the careful use of it as a malign presence in my life - nor do I particularly distinguish it from going to the movies, watching internet video, etc...

The general principles that Colin was articulating are probably right - for your average American, cutting down on meat consumption is a really important idea. For an audience full of New Yorkers, advocating that they give up the car is a great idea - and more others could do it than do - my father raised three young daughters carless in the outer suburbs of MA. Giving up the lawn, cutting down on industrial food consumption, getting rid of the TV - all of these are good ideas, broadly speaking.

After we speak broadly, however, each of us has to come down to cases, and to particular circumstances. Rural, suburban and urban, large families and singles, old and young - different circumstances lead to different solutions. Carpooling for one, selling the car and buying a better bike for the other. Moving closer to work for one, moving out to the country to work at home for another. Doing the work yourself for one, hiring a neighbor for another.

What matters in the end are the results - that's one of the reasons I like the Riot for Austerity - everyone gets the same goal, but absolute freedom in bringing it about. And yes, without public infrastructure or other changes, sometimes we'll fail - but we can get closer than most of us imagined by being creative, adaptable and flexible and keeping the overall goal in mind - the using of a fair share of the world resources.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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