There has been considerable argument over where the majority of humans will live in the near future. This may seem like a pointless exercise since where people end up is where people end up, and what we think of the matter matters not at all. And maybe that is true, but it is also true that if we start moving towards a sustainable goal now, it will be easier to get there. And if we don’t start now, we’re not going to get there at all. But it will also be cheaper to choose one sustainable path now-ish and throw all our efforts into following it, since we would not be wasting resources on places that turn out to be uninhabitable in the not-too-distant future. We know that hundreds of millions of people are already living in unsustainable locations and will have to move. But it might be even worse, depending on how you define sustainable — which is ultimately what this argument is about.
The most prominent debate is between one rather loud group who believe we ought to double down on enclosing humans in urban environments and leave “nature” free from our meddling (for the moment, I am just going to ignore that folks still don’t seem to get that humans are part of this world and therefore completely “natural”) and a diffuse and less vocal assemblage of others who do not agree that the future is urban. There are many reasons behind their objections.
A number of these urban abstainers point out that this forcible urbanizing of humans looks rather disturbingly like colonialism where a dominating group from somewhere else comes in and clears the indigenous peoples off their homelands. That this dominant group is not, this time, seeking to extract profit from those homelands does not make up for kicking people out of their homes. Nor is it at all clear that the dominant exo-group can better manage those lands than those who have lived there for millennia. And then there is the uncomfortable fact that in none of these plans to remove humans from half the Earth is there any accommodation for the removed peoples. They are supposed to make their own way into cities and fend for themselves, completely cut off from their previous ways of life with no recompense or assistance. This does not sound particularly sustainable or intelligent to me. Never mind fair…
Most of the rest of the urban abstainers can be lumped together under one marquee — the low-energy world folks. In a world that has depleted its affordable energy resources, the long-distance transport of bulky goods — like, say, food — is not going to be as ordinary as it is today. Moving food a long distance from where it is produced to where it is consumed is going to be much more difficult and much more costly, and it is likely that the many things that require refrigerated transport will just stop being shipped altogether. So that’s a problem with having a large portion of the human population concentrated in areas where food is not produced. But then there will also be less energy available to produce the food as well. In short, food that needs a great deal of energy — that which is highly processed and/or produced far from its point of consumption — won’t be an option. In a low energy world, most food is going to be produced where it is consumed, using very few inputs from elsewhere and far more muscle labor than energy-dependent machine labor.
Currently, our EuroWestern food system consumes about 10 kilocalories of carbon-based energy for every 1 kilocalorie of nutritive energy produced. Obviously, in an energy-constrained world, this ratio has to be flipped on its head — we need to get more energy out of our food than we put into it. To accomplish this, I think we’ll need to be eating hyper-locally (as in, “out of the back garden”) and organically (as in, “there are seeds, there is soil, there is water, there is work, and there is not much else”). We know this is a sustainable way of being human because this is how most humans have been human throughout our existence. This is how many humans still do live. But this is not generally possible in cities. There are reasons for this.
The loud group talk about urban farms and vat-grown calories. These ideas sound like they might reduce our need for land and yet also reduce transport costs. But there are holes in their math. In every “plan” that I’ve seen. To begin with, it takes a great deal of energy both to build and to maintain a garden of any size in an urban environment — particularly the indoor varieties which must synthesize everything from growing matrix to sunlight. This is just as true of the vat-grown “food-stuffs”, which have the extra burden of requiring all sorts of additives to make them palatable. Moreover, if you plan on growing actual plants, then you need to maintain soil, not growing matrix; and soil is a whole world of complexity that we do not know how to simulate. At all. We have to grow actual soil, just like farmers have for millennia. And in an urban environment, this is very difficult and very costly. Which is why humans have generally not grown food in urban environments.
But there is also a critical math error in the actual area that is “freed” from humans by putting farms in cities. It doesn’t happen. At all. You still need exactly the same area to grow food in a city as you need in the country. These are still the same plants. This plan doesn’t save any space, it just moves the farming into the urban areas. In fact, it would seem to me that putting the farmland into the cities is going to force many people who currently live in those cities to either bunch up even tighter in the ghettoes — or… leave. And you can probably bet on the latter. Which is not very space-saving.
Now, vat-grown food things might actually save space. I don’t know. However, I also don’t know that any of these food things are actual food. Given that we are not very good at accounting for all the variables in any complex equation — like our digestive system — I would say this simplified food stuff probably does not meet our bodily needs. Because I would say we don’t even fully know what our bodily needs are. It is unlikely that we can tot up the chemistry of, say, lettuce and have that equate with the benefits of actual lettuce interacting with our body. But that is exactly what vat-grown food stuff is — a chemical stew of what we think lettuce does. So much could go wrong with that plan… luckily, it is far too energy-intensive a process to actually get off the ground in an energy-depleted world.
But then, those of you who are doing the math are probably also aware of the greatest error — that none of this reduces transport costs. It just changes what is being transported. In truth, there is probably more bulk being transported to grow food in urban areas than if you just transport in the food. Which is, again, why humans generally have not farmed in cities. You have to bring in everything from the farmland in order to do the farming. Soil to sunlight — all of that is necessary to produce food. And there is precious little urban land that does not need a similar level of transport to get it out of the way of farming. There are not many vacant lots that have food-safe dirt, for example. There are whole urban neighborhoods where the water is not potable, and for the record, this means you can’t use it to grow food either.
This whole idea makes for ridiculous math. But the worst math is this: If urban areas can’t sustainably feed us, then billions of people need to move. Now. Which is undoubtedly why some of these city cheerleaders are trying to come up with plans to make cities sustainable.
I understand that desire, but I don’t think it is helpful. It may even be harmful because we are wasting time and resources arguing about the impossible. No amount of human cleverness will ever make a city into a food-producing environment. This is not reality and will not be reality no matter how much effort we throw into the project. So I am of the camp who thinks that food wins and most urbanites will be forced to decamp from their concrete world to a place were food can be produced with few artificial inputs. And I believe we need to be starting this project right now. We do not have the time or the resources to waste on arguing about fantasies. We need to get to work.
Which brings up a subtext in the loud folks’ messaging. They don’t want to… to work… to farm… to tend to their own needs… to live without urban amenities, meaning someone else doing most of their body’s work, among other things…
In a recent episode of one of my favorite podcasts, there was some revealing parenthetic muttering. When the interviewer pointed out our desperate need for more widely distributed food production, the guest replied “Not everybody likes to farm”. As if this was a perfectly reasonable excuse for not contributing to your own body’s upkeep. I would not have managed to smoothly cover up such a gaffe if I were the host (which is why I do not do such things). After staring slack-jawed for a moment, I might have responded with “You don’t like to farm… Well, I assume you like to eat? You like to wear clothing and stay warm in the winter. You like to be relatively clean and healthy. All these things require farm work. If you are not doing this work for yourself, someone else has to do it for you. Why do you think it even matters what you like? And don’t you think you probably should learn to like to take care of your own bloody business?” (Again, this is why I do not host podcasts…)
But they also just don’t want to be out there in the country… to live in the fly-over zones, cheek-by-jowl with cows and goats and poison ivy and… rednecks…
In other parts of the bloviating world, I ran into the assertion that any plan to move city people into the places where food can be produced will run headlong into the twanging, tobacco-chewing, bigoted brick wall that is the average yeoman. And yes, this is a concern. Trust me, as a pagan and a feminist and an anti-racist who remotely bought a New England farm and discovered only after the fact that a confederate flag was flying across the street, nobody is more aware that this will not go entirely well. But there are a couple things that are not generally acknowledged about country folk, not even by those who are supporting the idea of urbanite dispersal.
One, those red necks got that color from standing under that particular sun for a long time. They know their place. They love their land. They know how to work it, how to be in it. They are the people who have the skills and tools and knowledge that all of us so desperately need right now. They are the survivors. Not only are these particular rednecks going to be the people who survive in this round of crises, but rednecks the world over have always been the people who make it through. Cities fail. Oligarchies and other parasite classes crumble. Suave urbanites come down out of their towers and melt into the countryside. But the campesinos?… carry on pretty much uninterrupted. This is history.
Granted, we are facing far more stress than in any historical period to date in the form of biodiversity loss and biophysical change. We will shortly be living in a not human-friendly world, but that makes it all the more important to be near your food sources and to know — you, yourself know! — how to live from the land. And how to live well. Rural folks have this knowledge. And nothing would make them happier than to be able to share it. To teach others to love the land, to care for it, to respect it, and to earn a healthy living from it. Even rural folk will need to adapt to change, but they already have a solid foundation. They are not reinventing the wheel, just fixing the broken spokes. They will adapt easier than those who don’t even know where to begin.
The other unacknowledged thing about rural people, particularly from the realm of liberal punditry, is that… they are human. They have exactly the same needs as urbanites. They have the same capacity and skills; in fact, they often have more developed skills than average office zombies. They certainly have the same wishes as urbanites — to be loved, to be free to live their lives, to be thought well of, to do good in the world. Moreover, these are the believers, the pre-post-modern mentalities. They have principles that they follow. Now, these principles may be flat-out wrong, confused as they are by patriarchy, violent capitalism, racism and other vicious underpinnings of western philosophy. But as western culture falls apart, the holes in that philosophy are gaping wide. And I’m pretty sure even rednecks will come around to recognize that the people they have been taught to hate are just like them and want exactly the same things from life. Rural people and urban people are all just people, and we all will learn to get along, probably even like each other, when we are all living and working together. We will adapt to each other just as we adapt to the climate. Because that is history also.
Now, another thing that is generally not talked much of — probably because most of the talking is coming from old farts who don’t want to admit it — is that those living in the countryside today are not going to be around for long. Yes, there are obnoxious younger men out there with their enormous trucks and their neck beards and their assault rifles and their flaming insecurities. But one, those vermin are everywhere; and two, they are not in charge of anything and will be the first to leave when they can no longer bully their way into a livelihood. But most rural people are old. Very old. They are dying. In my community in aging Vermont, there is an entire page in the 8-page daily newspaper turned over to obituaries — and those entries are squished tight. It has always been true that those least likely to adapt are those who have lived longest, but those are also the first to go. So the ideology of the countryside will change as the most rigidly averse to change simply die off.
And as those staunchly conservative folks “age out” of rural communities, the complexion is changing. English as a second language is a necessary class these days. Pretty much everywhere. Yes, I had a miserable old bog Yankee with his gross flag across the street from my Massachusetts farm, but I also had a lesbian couple next door and a mixed-race family two doors down. And it’s even more colorful in Vermont. Sometimes pushing even my boundaries… (I regularly have cause to think, “Ok, then, you do you”…) New people are already coming in. At my former job, I worked for a Mexican immigrant. My new neighbors are millennials from Colorado and Vancouver. And then there’s me… But the natives are also changing. After all, young people are sort of by definition not conservative. So whatever concerns there are with the ideology of the countryside probably will not hold for very long. That ideology will change. And in any case, ideology will matter far less when there is more actual work being done and less talking about it.
So where people are going to live is probably going to sort itself out. Just like it always has. And what we think on the subject really doesn’t much matter. Still… it’s probably a good idea to get started. We have an awful lot of work to do…
Teaser photo credit: By The original uploader was BenFrantzDale at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2940973