“Public policy blindness to the health and food security benefits of home food production is matched by ignorance of the potential gains in resource use efficiency and sustainability of garden and urban agriculture. This peculiar situation reflects a general public policy blindness towards household and community [non-monetary] economies that might bypass corporate profits and government taxation.”
David Holmgren, A Revolution in Efficient Water Use
Picture the urban sprawl of Detroit redesigned to incorporate rooftop vegetable patches and window-boxes on every ledge of a skyscraper, arboretums lining the flyovers, suburban lawns dug up for plots of grain and orchards of dwarf fruit trees, and the vast wheat-fields terraformed into food forests. The critical issues of energy, water supply and food production can all be addressed by an extensive network of small, family-sized homesteads striving for self-sufficiency, and a re-envisioning of cities designed for integrated food production, close-circuit sewage systems, and developing both fertile soil and a diversity of crops for consumption and exchange. This is only possible if adequate numbers of people are motivated to apply their labor to such ends.
Without doom-mongering, many current theorists suppose that as our global societies approach the peak consumption of fossil fuels, we must prepare for a radically different age of history where we enter a period they’ve titled energy descent. This post-industrial phase will present an opportunity for those so inclined to greatly increase their autonomy in their daily lives. It will simultaneously vastly increase the numbers of those dependent on a centralized authority, which is unable to sustain them or itself.
Garden agriculture is a solution for unemployment and the loafer pathology. Bolton Hall, in his book Three Acres & Liberty, details the social inclusion and dramatic change in character undergone by 800 unemployed people who were sponsored to cultivate land for their own sustenance: “The greatest value that our little garden has brought us,” said a French woman, mother of a goodly number of rather small children, “has not been in the fine vegetables it has yielded all summer, or the good times that I and the children have had in the open air, but in the glasses of beer and absinthe that my husband hasn’t taken.” “Quite right, mother, quite right,” came from a man nearby. “The world can never know the evil we men don’t do while we are busy in our little gardens.””
Hall’s experiments in vacant city lot cultivation yielded gratifying levels of financial and social capital. His method identified that the unemployed had a strong disposition towards helping themselves, to the point of refusing other forms of assistance, and that such opportunities improved self-respect and self-confidence. It is the maxim of ‘teach a man to fish’ in action, whereby those who are alienated and marginalized in society can be given meaning, purpose and industry through training and opportunity to practice the fundamentals of gardening.
Not only that, Hall points out that gardening is “a trade susceptible of wide diversification and offering many fields for specializing”. Local communities of garden farmers can diversify and specialize to provide the various needs and desires of the area, reducing transport costs and dependence on external sources, whilst supporting a motley of vibrant cultural identities as neighborhoods evolve their own unique approaches and produce, each developing interdependently with the wider multitude. Local production would give rise to local markets, and consequently a system of delivery could be established, creating yet further opportunities for employment.
Many of you might ask, what does this mean in terms of scale? To consider how much land is required to feed a well-organized, properly motivated cell of 4-8 persons, who know that they will own the fruits of their labor, take the example of Mr. Knight, from before the chemical agricultural revolution of the 20th-century:
“Mr. Knight, whose name is well known to every horticulturist in England, once dug out of his fields no less than 1284 bushels of potatoes, or thirty−four tons and nine hundreds weight (about 34 bushels to the ton), on a single acre; and at a recent competition in Minnesota, 1120 bushels, or thirty tons, could be ascertained as having been grown on one acre.” (P. Kropotkin’s “Fields, Factories and Workshops“) For those of us with spatial visualization issues, one New York City avenue block is about ten feet short of an acre, approximately 4800 square yards in area, and would contain 8 lots on its front side.
The immediacy and inevitability of this shift is startlingly clear, and the numbers already engaged in actively reducing their consumption and switching to home-scale production booming. As Holmgren predicts: “Over the next two decades, the costs of the current energy-intensive and long distance food supply systems will probably force this reorganisation anyway. Whether this happens by ad hoc on-farm and household response to rising costs and/or by proactive land use planning, economic and social policies such as those implemented in Cuba in the 1990’s, remains to be seen.”
The activists seeding themselves in Detroit to organize essential facilities without permission are motivated by political as well as ecological values: those that can grow food drastically reduce their dependence on external sources. It seems that the unemployed and outcast of the Motor City would be a rich recruiting ground for persons keen not only to feed themselves, but also to meaningfully apply their labor and work themselves into advancement. Not only with the unemployed, but everyone can begin to integrate the practices of production, on whatever scale, be it of food, energy, soil or crafts, into their daily lives. It is a psychological shift, from passive consumerism back to active production, from victimization to actualization, that large numbers of people will find not only necessary, but nourishing.
The grand party that came with the harnessing of the power locked in fossil fuels is drawing to its climax, and those who would avoid a crippling hangover best turn their hand to the soil and look at how to ferment their own grain. Cuba has shown how a people might feed themselves through top-down social engineering in response to the US embargo, and the continued survival of humanity over thousands of years shown how people will solve this problem through necessity and self-reliance. For the sake of our own liberty, the integration of home and community-scale production into our daily lives is an essential step towards developing a culture of independence from mass markets and reliance on unsustainable models of agriculture. Rather than waiting for a WW2-style crisis to drive governments to force us to grow our own, I advocate every person inclined to freedom to grab some seeds and find a spot to begin their own garden. Organise seedbanks and horti-fests in your area, be surprised at who is growing already, and see if you can spot the edible abundance thriving in every green area. If we are dependent on others for our food, our liberty will always be at the mercy of their and the markets’ whim.