Act: Inspiration

The Needful Garden

April 12, 2021

sweet peas

Herbs and sweet peas

April is planting month up north. There is still a chance of frost, perhaps even snow; but it’s safe to plant peas, leeks, carrots, cabbages and other brassicas, many greens, and the cool-season herbs like dill, calendula and cilantro. Keep the row cover handy, but take advantage of the moist soil and cool night temperatures to grow all the things that bolt in the summer sun. You may even see your first asparagus harvest in April… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the last year we’ve had many adjustments. One of the lesser changes in our world is the experience of empty shelves in the shopping plaza. We’ve learned that supply chains are fragile and subject to interruptions by everything from hoarders to labor shortages to grounded boats. We’ve been confronted with toilet paper shortages, flour shortages, all manner of cleaning supply shortages. There have been days when we couldn’t get dairy or eggs except from our neighbors. There have been weeks when we could not get yeast, inspiring many to start their own sourdough cultures. There have been months when we could not repair or replace the growing pile of broken things in our homes. (Just this morning, I encountered a Tweet on the apparent extinction of electricians.) These are the hardships of the privileged, of course. But as the privileged drive the economy, it is good that they learn how it works in real terms.

One lesson on reality is that distance — physical and temporal — between supply and demand is not a good thing, especially when there are other stresses in the system. The more complex the manufacture and distribution of a needful thing, the more likely that the needful thing will be lacking. This should be common sense. We all know that the more convoluted a system is, the more likely it will break down. Moreover, a relatively small defect can and will avalanche into total collapse. (Because Murphy said so.)

Yes, we know complexity is fragile, but we ignore the implications this has for all our systems primarily because complexity provides more opportunity to extract income from a given need. A simple system has few steps and few inputs; therefore, simple systems produce few ways to turn a profit. A complex system has many steps — often many nested and interwoven systems — and vast numbers of inputs. There are many ways to milk all these parts for money. Our economic systems — all of them, since they all favor wealth generation over simple welfare — breed complexity and fragility as a byproduct of maximizing the profits from any given need.

Here is an example. People wear shoes to reduce the likelihood of injury and to keep feet warm. A simple system for footwear would be for everyone to make their own shoes from locally sourced materials that are freely obtainable. Since we are status-conscious critters, we might also include in our simple system an intentional proscription of judgement on the quality of the shoe except as it relates to its job of protecting feet. So whatever you make for your own feet is sufficient even if you’re not very adept at shoe-making. There may still be some folks who trade for shoes produced by others for various reasons, but this would not be the norm. Most people who wanted shoes would simply make them, meet their own needs, produce shoes as elaborate or as simple as they desired. Further, people who did not value shoes highly would not put effort into making shoes nor would they buy them. This simple system would ensure that most people who need shoes would have them. There is very little waste in this system and a high degree of efficiency at meeting what need there is for shoes. There are few ways this system can break down — that is, not meet the need for footwear. However, there is almost no opportunity for profit.

Instead of this simple system — which is, by the way, the method that most humans throughout our existence have managed foot protection — we have created a rather monstrous edifice dedicated to wringing huge profits out of our need for footwear.

First, there were specialists who made shoes from local materials. This profited a few people, but it also led a few people to forgo shoes because they could not afford the new cost. There were arguably better shoes produced, but not all the people who wanted to protect their feet could do so with even this one additional step between raw materials and shoes on their feet. So the village specialist system was better at producing shoes, but not as efficient at meeting needs for shoes — and it was dependent on both the existence of the cobbler and her ability to make a living from shoe-making. If the village cobbler suddenly died, there were shoe supply problems. If the village cobbler merely lost money producing shoes, she stopped making them — so again, there were shoe supply problems. This one step added fragility into the shoe supply system and left some needs for shoes unmet.

Now, note the specific kind of nebulous fragility that was added just by having someone else make the shoes. The ability to acquire shoes is not merely dependent upon all the inputs for shoe manufacturing existing in a given place. It is also dependent upon the profitability of that process. The cobbler has to take in revenue that meets her expenses — at a minimum. If she is highly specialized, if she makes so many shoes she has little time to provide for many of her own needs, she must also bring in enough revenue from selling shoes to cover the expenses of meeting those needs. This may be in direct trade: for example, the baker gives the cobbler bread in exchange for shoes. But more often, specialists sell their wares at a price that covers both input and time costs — and it’s the time portion, the wages, that covers the specialist’s cost of living, meeting the needs that she could not meet because she spent that time making shoes. So the cost of shoes becomes more than the cost of shoe-making materials, and the system of shoe-supply is absolutely dependent on the cobbler’s ability to sell shoes at this higher cost. You can’t buy shoes from a village cobbler if shoe sales are not profitable in your village.

So that’s the simple story. From these simple systems we learned that it was possible to get more out of a transaction than we put into it. Instead of creating systems to meet needs, folks began to create systems that created profits while meeting needs (maybe). Our goals shifted from finding ways to protect our feet to finding ways to increase our wealth, especially monetary wealth — a thing that meets no needs whatsoever. Individual specialists selling their own handiwork were converted into groups selling their own work, then into groups selling the work of people employed to work, then groups selling the work of people employed to direct other people and machines to work, and then on and on and on into deeper complexity. Likewise, there were stages added to supplying the shoe-makers with raw materials as well as stages added to selling the shoes. Your ability to wear shoes is now dependent upon so many things that are not obviously related to the shoes on your feet — such as the profitability of the plastics manufacturers whose raw materials feed into shoe manufacture, the profitability of shipping companies moving raw materials and all the interim stages of shoe production and the finished products from wherever all that is sourced to the place where you buy shoes, the profitability of the manufacturing of all the tools that go into the manufacturing of the shoes, and most importantly these days the profitability of marketing the fashionable ideas about shoes.

There are vast opportunities for making profit in this complex system, many ways to turn the need for shoes into money. However, if any stage doesn’t make a profit, it stops. If that unprofitable stage is crucial — say, the shipping bits — then it’s easy to see that the whole system breaks. But even the steps that are less important to actual shoe production — say, the merchandising — can have large effects on shoe supply. For example, Nike (whatever it is) neither makes nor sells shoes; but rather it trades on an idea of “shoe”, a brand, directing other organisms to make, transport and sell vast numbers of their shoe-ideal. If Nike, which makes and sells no shoes, could not make its desired profit off of this shoe-ideal trade, there would be fewer shoes produced in the world today. Many people would not be able to acquire shoes when they had need of them. This truly is a bizarrely fragile system.

It is also a highly profitable system. However, it is not efficient at meeting the need for shoes. True, there are far more shoes produced by this system than the number of shoes produced in simpler, more direct systems. In fact, I suspect there are more shoes than feet by a wide margin. However, because there are so many hands taking profits out of each shoe, shoes are too expensive for many people. Because shoes are too expensive for many people, there are large areas where shoes are no longer sold — shoe deserts, if you will — because there is no profit in trying to sell shoes in these places. There are many people who can no longer meet their need for shoes within this system — even while there are shoes going to waste because the supply for system-generated shoes is greater than the demand. So this system of shoe procurement does not actually meet the needs of people who need shoes even when the system is functioning. This complex system exists to create profits, not shoes. Producing shoes is an ancillary and unnecessary effect.

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This perhaps tedious illustration reveals a couple things. One, our economic systems are not designed to meet our needs; they’re designed to produce monetary wealth. And two, this method of meeting needs as a byproduct of producing profit is unreliable. It is easily broken, and even when it works, it does not meet our needs. This is true for all needs. I could have chosen any number of grossly ludicrous examples. Shoes just happened along as I was typing. But change “shoes” to “food” and the narrative takes on a darker and rather less frivolous tone.

Ask yourself why there are urban food deserts. These are neighborhoods with thousands, tens of thousands, of people all needing food every day. An actual captive market since they have few options to produce their own food in an urban environment. And yet in these neighborhoods you can’t obtain healthy food. Sometimes you can’t obtain any kind of food at all. Why is this? Not because there is no market for food, no potential to sell a lot of food. No, it’s because there is no profit in selling food there. Urban rent is too high to make a profit selling low-margin groceries. Our food systems produce food deserts because the goal is not to sell food, certainly not to make sure people are fed. No, the goal is to make a profit at every point in the system. And in many places there is no profit in meeting the basic human need for food.

The profit motive explains many other need deserts. There will never be a digital truly social medium. There are no advertisers or data collectors who stand to profit from people being kind and happy with each other. There will never be plant-based, homeopathic medicine. Corporations can’t limit access to wild plants and so can not make money off plant extracts. Disaster is a big industry but maintaining a healthy environment is not an industry at all. And so here we are on the brink of ecological collapse. And it goes on and on and on.

Our systems do not meet our needs. None of them are designed to do so. It is time to make new systems. As we saw above, the most dependable method of ensuring your needs are met is to produce what you need yourself. Now, I’m sure some of you are already off howling about how we can’t possibly meet all our needs. And many of us don’t have the resources to meet any needs. And. And. And. And yes. That is all true. And it all needs to be fixed. But in the meantime most of us can do far more than we are doing. And last year showed us that this is possible. Even enjoyable!

Many people faced down those empty shelves and decided to take an active role in meeting their own needs. We’ve all learned new skills. Gardening may have increased by 30% in this country. Once fringe hobbies like knitting and chicken breeding became so mainstream that supplies ran out. Etsy exploded with people producing masks, soaps, cleaners. DIY became a matter of course. Communities created new localized ways of keeping people sheltered, fed, clothed, healthy. Parenting, teaching, and care work of all kinds were redesigned and redefined within the space of a few months, with most of us becoming far more directly involved even as we’ve needed to be physically isolated. And our need for socialization turned not to passive viewing as prior trends might have suggested but to active personal interaction through screens — in such numbers that Zoom CEO Eric Yuan became one of the world’s richest people in the space of one year. (Maybe proving that it can be profitable to enable us to meet our own needs?)

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

What are your most essential needs? There’s Maslow’s pyramid. It’s an illustration of our needs as human organisms. According to the theory, the lower need levels are the most essential and have to be met before we can attend to the upper levels. I’m not sure there is a true hierarchy to need; we need love and a reason to carry on as much as we need food and shelter. But the point of the illustration is that we all have very similar needs — because we are all the same animal species with very little genetic variation. We all have bodies that must be nurtured and kept safe. We all have minds and emotions that need to feel belonging and respect. We all have dreams of being the best we can be, of doing good in this life. (Well, that last one is debatable these days. But it’s still part of Maslow’s theory.) How do you define your pyramid?

However you define it, you unquestionably have a need for food, for exercise, for connection, for contentment. And there is one place you can meet all these needs with little recourse to all the frail profit-driven systems we have erected — the garden.

Spring profusion

Food does not in fact spring into existence on the supermarket shelves or in the fast-food drive-thru. We knew this before the plague era, but now we know it — viscerally. The logical solution is to produce your own food. Barring that, the next best thing is to buy food from local producers. Unlike the system dependent supermarket, people who create food where you live will always have food to sell. Furthermore, they will likely have food that is healthier and better adapted to your local ecosystem than what comes out of the box stores. Finally, they will also be part of your social group. Spending money with a local CSA (community supported agriculture) is spending money on and in your community. Buying local (or regional if you live in a highly urban area) is more dependable, more healthy for you and your surroundings, and better for the financial well-being of your community — which always translates into “better for you”. Buying local is both the best thing you can do socially and the best thing you can do for yourself.

Now, many folks will try to tell you that you can’t meet your needs from local producers. You’ll be forced to accept sacrifices, to give up pleasures, maybe even go without. So let’s address that. What can you buy locally? This is ultimately something you have to answer for yourself with research. Visit a local farmers’ market; talk with your neighbors; notice what is produced near you. But there are some givens. You probably won’t find avocados. Nor coffee, sadly— though there are many local responsible importers and roasters in most parts of the world. There are few grain CSAs. (But they are very worth buying into if one distributes near you!) There won’t be much in the way of processed oils or sugars.

However, you will find all the veg produce you could want and more. There are almost certainly orchardists selling fruit and nuts near you. I don’t know of one farm stand that doesn’t sell high-quality eggs. There is probably at least one honey producer near you; and, regionally, there are other sugars like sorghum and maple syrup. There are small dairies everywhere, and of course every milk-producing animal is also producing more animals — you don’t get lactation without pregnancy — so there is meat for sale as well as many types of fiber, from wool to leather to fleece. There are vineyards, breweries, and wineries everywhere. Most farm stands also carry processed foods — sausages and preserved meats, breads and baked goods, jams and preserves, ice cream! — as well as teas, soaps, and other things made from plants. Many also sell seeds and plants and good garden supplies. Which means that you can start producing some of your own food in whatever space you have.

Buying from local producers is buying good stuff. You can live abundantly on what is produced in your region. That is why humans live in your region, after all. (Unless you live in a research station in Antarctica, in which case… hm.) You don’t actually need to go to the supermarket — a lesson that those who profit from our ridiculous food systems do not want you to learn. And you can clearly see why. You can live better on what is produced locally. You may be able to eat more cheaply though you will need to spend more of your time on food — which is a problem, I know, but one that might be addressed through cooperation with friends and neighbors. (Cook for each other; share with each other; organize yourselves so that the work is spread out.) But most importantly, there are very few true needs that can’t be met locally. Already. Before we’ve even done much to localize our economic systems. The supermarket is not there to meet your needs. The need that the supermarket meets is the need to raise profits for others from you.

The veg patch

I began in the garden and to the garden I now will return.

Having shown that you can shop for all your needs from local producers, I’m now going to tell you that you probably also want to be a local producer yourself. This is not because you need to be self-reliant. (Which is not a thing, by the way.) You will want to garden or raise chickens or cultivate soap-making supplies or whatever because you are part of a community that is working together to be stronger, and being productive is how you chip in and pull your weight. You will want to be productive because as a producer you will be able to indulge some of your more obscure wants (for example, I absolutely need large quantities of green chile and French thyme, so…). But more importantly, you will want to become a producer because it will make you happy. Being productive, especially if it involves outdoor physical exercise, meets all those needs on Maslow’s pyramid.

Food, of course — though you won’t be producing all of it, even in a small space you can supply yourself with a surprisingly high percentage of your nutritional needs, especially if you keep a few chickens for protein. But mostly, with even just a few pots on a balcony you can grow the things that local producers aren’t producing, like my green chiles and specialty herbs. And this food supply that you control, that probably lies right outside your door, has remarkable effects on your mental well-being. We are, after all, the farming creatures. We are stressed when we don’t know where the next meal is coming from. Even if intellectually we know that the next meal is probably not out there in the garden, having the potential food store out there is calming.

Then there are the other bodily needs in the lower levels of the pyramid. Exercise? Check. Gardening is excellent exercise; there isn’t much that is healthier for our bodies. Shelter? A garden might not keep the weather off your back, but it is the very essence of shelter. It is where you feel safe. Rest? Well, apart from the naps that will undoubtedly happen in warm June sunshine, the fresh air and exercise from gardening will have you sleeping solidly every night. And reduced anxiety levels will also help.

Less obviously, becoming a producer also satisfies the middle and upper levels of the need pyramid. There is little that makes a human more proud than making stuff happen. “I did that.” A garden is pride spread out over the earth. And it is not just you doing it. You have to work with others — other humans and all the other lifeforms that go into your garden. You, in the garden, are woven into a large community. You belong to them and they belong to you. You’re never lonely when you have a garden. And most importantly, that garden is you. It is your creativity, your personality, your dreams. It is confirmation that you are and that you are doing good things in the world.

Gardening is a highly fulfilling thing. It goes a long way toward negating our need for all the destructive systems we’ve put in place to meet needs. But it goes far beyond food or security. Our gardens are the ways we interact with our world. Our gardens are expressions of ourselves. The garden is the reason for being.

And so… it’s April. Time to plant. Time to harvest peas and asparagus. Time to clean out the chicken coop. Time to drink in the warm breeze and sunshine. Time to be. Time to garden.

©Elizabeth Anker 2021

Eliza Daley

Eliza Daley is a fiction. She is the part of me that is confident and wise, knowledgable and skilled. She is the voice that wants to be heard in this old woman who more often prefers her solitary and silent hearth. She has all my experience — as mother, musician, geologist and logician; book-seller, business-woman, and home-maker; baker, gardener, and chief bottle-washer; historian, anthropologist, philosopher, and over it all, writer. But she has not lived, is not encumbered with all the mess and emotion, and therefore she has a wonderfully fresh perspective on my life. I rather like knowing her. I do think you will as well.

Tags: building resilient societies, critiques of capitalism, systemic change