Multiple, intertwined crises face the human race in our times, among them resource depletion, economic dissolution, and ecological degradation, including global Climate Change. Though most people in the US respond to the news of these crises by putting their fingers in their ears and singing, “la la la,” a small number of others are (and always have been) offering solutions, or at least brainstorms for how we could collectively change our lifestyles to address them. Among the many, many ideas batted around are renewable energy, income redistribution, carbon-trading and sequestration, and alternative approaches to conventional farming including organics, “permaculture” and urban farming.
The viability of all of these concepts is a matter of debate, though in general the facts reveal that none are capable of either maintaining levels of production and consumption at anything close to their current levels, or, more importantly, of healing the hurts suffered by the world and its multitude of creatures. In short, the concept of “sustainability” is a false hope, at least in reference to perpetuating business-as-usual in a recognizable form. I have come to this conclusion not only by studying these ideas, but through my own personal experience, most notably with urban farming.
How is “urban farming” different from “gardening”? The majority of people who garden enjoy the activity as a hobby but are in no way dependent on it for their diet. The most ambitious ones might cut their summer produce bill significantly and put by an impressive amount of preserves for winter, but they are exceptional, and what they are doing is still not farming. Farmers are trying to provide for themselves by providing for other people, and to succeed, what they provide must be substantial. It is a matter of both scale and seriousness. Urban farmers are simply individuals attempting to follow their vocation in the city instead of the country, which has its own advantages and disadvantages.
In theory, urban farming has a number of beneficial effects: decreasing fossil fuel use; providing produce that is fresher and in-season, and therefore more flavorful and nutritious; cutting the tethers between big agriculture and big finance, with their perversities of pricing and distribution; reducing food waste; restoring rural monocultured landscapes to wilder spaces for their original denizens; and, last but not least, reconnecting urbanites with the cycles of nature that exist outside their smart-phone screens. This last effect would be accomplished in part by the fact that, were urban farming to be taken up a large scale, many more people would be farmers than presently are, which is less than 1% of the U.S. population, down from over 30% before World War II.
It was with all these benefits in mind, and more, that I myself began urban farming in Portland, Oregon, in 2005. Previously, I had been a political activist, mainly with the Independent Media Center, aka “Indymedia.” I was inspired by Hurricane Katrina to devote myself to farming instead because of the inspiring stories I heard from fellow activists who went to New Orleans after the storm and were involved in the grass-roots, community-level efforts to recover and rebuild. The gratifying and fruitful experiences they helped manifest with local people contrasted sharply with the actions of the government and large non-profits, which were driven by corporate greed in motive and often haphazard in execution. Suspecting that catastrophe-mode would eventually become the “new normal” in other parts of the US as the aforementioned crises worsened and became impossible to ignore (in a phase that James Kunstler has dubbed, “the Long Emergency”), I believed that building resiliency from the ground-up, independent of The Powers That Be, was an essential endeavor that should optimally commence before the shit the fan.
Two years later, starting with the 2007 season, urban farming had become my sole means of financial support when I formed a CSA. “CSA” stands for “community-supported agriculture” and is a business model in which customers pay the farmer a lump sum at the beginning of the season for regularly distributed produce later, typically from Spring through Autumn. This arrangement is advantageous for everyone involved; the farmer is guaranteed a certain amount of monetary income when it is most needed—at planting time, before there is any produce to sell—and the customer has the opportunity to develop a close and even personal relationship with a farmer while enjoying fresh, local food—very local in the case of urban farming. I named my CSA “Sunroot Gardens,” after a nickname for the Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus), a perennial root vegetable that is very hardy and, like myself, native to the US Midwest.
I had never had a driver’s license or vehicle in Portland and biked everywhere I wanted to go, so by default Sunroot Gardens was a bicycle-based enterprise. In 2007, I was tending over a dozen different plots, all but one in the city’s Southeast quadrant, on two wheels with a cart, often with a hoe and shovel strapped to the frame of my Diamondback. This raised quite a few admiring eyebrows, but for me, doing business by bike was actually the only means I had available. Nonetheless, I gratefully accepted any support that people offered because they thought what I was doing was “cool.”
In early 2008, this support took the form of attention from the local media. To a particular writer with one of the city’s weekly newspapers, urban farming by bike was the exemplar par excellence of self-consciously “keep it weird” Portland and he put together a story about me and Sunroot Gardens. The paper was (and is) widely read and soon my phone was ringing off the hook and my email in-box was filling up. In no time at all, I had filled my customer roster for the season and ended up expanding the number I had originally planned to take. If I had kept a waiting list, it would’ve had at least 50 more households in it, there were that many inquiries. Offers of yards to garden also poured in as well as pledges of time from volunteers.
When I had been involved in political activism, a perennial complaint had been the lack of resources. Scrambling for cash and supplies took significant energy and time. But with Sunroot Gardens, I no longer had this complaint, thanks to the media attention and—also essential—very cheap rent from landladies who wanted to support my work and could afford to donate space for me to reside.
So, I had the freedom to seriously investigate urban farming without distraction. I was looking for answers to specific questions, among them: Could urban farming be effective in addressing the multiple crises facing society? Could it be viable as a means of personal financial support? Could Portland, like post-Soviet break-up Havana, become a garden city that raised over 50% of the produce it consumed within its own municipal boundaries?
In 2008, I partnered with two other people, one of whom ran her own bike-based CSA. That season, we tended over thirty plots together, all in Southeast Portland. Our experiences with different locations and landlenders provided a rich learning environment.
The heart of our farming was in the gardens. That’s where our crops were growing, of course, and where we spent most of our time, but there was more to it than that. The acts of farming—taking out a lawn, turning the soil, sowing some seeds, tending with care and finally harvesting—were all transformative acts in more than one sense.
On the most obvious level, the appearance and function of a space was transformed: An ornamental monoculture, a lawn, was replaced with a productive polyculture, a garden. The useless became useful. This transformation offered the immediate satisfaction of accomplishment—“a job well done”—and put us one step closer to the goal of providing for ourselves and other people.
On a cultural level, replacing lawn with food transformed the message sent by the property to neighbors and passers-by. Historically, lawns were popularized by the British landed gentry who installed them to showcase their wealth; only rich people could afford to take a field out of agricultural production and devote it to decorative purposes. These ostentatious expanses literally and figuratively distanced their idle owners from the toiling masses, from whom the real estate had been stolen in the first place. Previously, most land had been in “the Commons” and had been available to peasants for farming, grazing and forestry, but the Enclosure Acts seized and privatized these lands. In the new hierarchy, the lawn was a bright green line demarcating the haves from the have-nots. In our own day and age, few people know these origins, but the social impression projected by the contemporary lawn is fundamentally unchanged: prosperity, leisure, order. Conversely, home gardens can connote the opposite: poverty, labor, messiness. We were well aware of this transformation in message when we took out a lawn for a garden and were delighted to be the agents responsible. It appealed to our appetite for social mischief, like coloring outside the lines on purpose.
On a deeper level, any act of transformation affects not only the transformed but also the transformer. Movement in the material world is accompanied by corresponding movement in the mental world, a place that is no less real for lacking physical substance. By making the domesticated more feral, we were inciting ourselves to break with convention, to “tune in, turn on, and drop out,” as Timothy Leary famously put it. The power of this particular transformation should not be underestimated; US society as a whole would be positively improved if more people experienced personal growth of this kind.
The gardens varied in size from less than a hundred square feet to some fraction of an acre: a quarter, a third, a half. Some sites we worked for just part of a single season with quick annual vegetables while others hosted perennial medicinals for multiple years. Each garden had its own unique combination of traits when it came to soil type, amount of sun, availability of irrigation, etc. No “one-size-fits-all” approach could be applied across the board for designing or caring for them, much to the consternation of people who wanted a quick answer to the question, “What are your methods?” Creativity and flexibility were essential and I greatly enjoyed the challenge and variety.
Every garden we tended was on land that someone else owned. So to one degree or another we did not have full control over any of them. That’s difficult for a farmer. While it’s true that rural farmers who own their own land also face restrictions—whether legal (land-use laws) or social (keeping peace with the neighbors)—for the most part, no one can tell them what to plant, where to plant it or how to tend it. As urban farmers, we had people breathing down our necks about all of those choices and more. What could we do? We were on their property, after all—“at their grace,” as it’s said—so the best we could do was to try to choose plots wisely. Sometimes we did, sometimes we didn’t.
Because some of the people we worked with were renters, not owners, we called them “landlenders.” Potential new landlenders always asked, “How does this work?” and we always answered, “However you’d it like to.” Each landlender arrangement was different. Some received produce, others didn’t. Some allowed us to use the water, others forbade it. Some demanded a written contract, others were satisfied with a handshake. No one, interestingly, ever asked for money. Nearly all of the landlenders approached us first; we rarely added new sites by walking up to strangers with a pitch.
During the time I farmed in Portland, I had relationships with over forty different landlenders. As could be expected, these relationships ran the gamut from truly enjoyable to downright infuriating. It was kind of like dating: Fevered excitement in the beginning often led to disappointment, and many relationships were terminated by one or both parties after only one season. Other matches were decent and grew in fruitfulness for everyone over time. In a handful of cases, intimate bonds were forged.
The most common point of contention with landlenders was aesthetic. Farming doesn’t look like gardening. If the landlenders had done as I had, and visited the rural operations of their favorite vendors at the farmers’ market, they undoubtedly would have been shocked: farms are, as a rule, messy, and exceptions can betray misplaced priorities. The vegetable beds are never entirely weed-free; piles of pots, plant trays, and plastic sprawl wherever they were last used; broken equipment waiting a day of repair that might never arrive are half-obscured in vegetation. The barn door is hanging from one hinge, the hoop-house covering is torn, and the irrigation leaks. The list of “I’ll get to that next” projects is usually long. By the standards I had seen we were actually quite tidy, but the landlenders didn’t know that.
Conventionally, the ideal city garden is well-manicured, weed-free, and set out in neat little rows. Of paramount concern is appearance. Conversely, the number one priority of farming is productivity; if a bed is a little rough-around-the-edges but it’s pumping out big harvests, then the job’s getting done. We were not unconcerned about the appearance of our gardens, but we were (usually) unwilling and (often) unable to perform labor we considered unnecessary. Of course, when a landlender got persnickety enough, then the unnecessary became necessary just to keep the peace (and the plot).
But beyond questions about whether the cabbage patch is “neat and tidy,” farming also includes certain practices that—by their nature—can look unkempt or even chaotic to the untrained city eye. Two examples that repeatedly raised issues for landlenders or their neighbors were cover-cropping and seed-saving, both central to small-scale, sustainable agriculture.
Cover-cropping is a method for creating and maintaining the healthy soil needed to grow nutritious vegetables. Depending on what is planted when, cover-crops serve different functions; they can add nutrients, smother weeds, create green manure for soil-building, discourage pests, and protect the ground from compaction and excessive mineral-leeching during the rainy season. Cover-crop seed is usually inexpensive and the plants themselves generally require little care, so it is an affordable and fairly easy way to improve land for vegetable-growing.
But a stand of cover-crop does not fit the picture of the ideal city garden. The seed is broadcast thickly to raise a dense stand, so there’s no rows. The plants themselves are alien to the urban landscape and can send a “wrong” message: oats, rye and wheat taller than a few inches look like un-mown lawn grass; vetch is tangly, buckwheat is gangly, and crimson clover is a jumbled mess. To make matters worse, a blend of cover-crop plants is often grown together and can appear disorderly (which, honestly, it is). Basically, a vibrant patch of cover-crop can resemble a thick patch of tall weeds if you don’t know what’s going on. Some people, including a few landlenders, were aghast at the appearance of cover-cropping and a more than few of our patches were chopped down prematurely.
Though cover-cropping raised some ire, the most offensive act of farming we committed in the city was seed-saving. If cover-cropping was a rude remark, seed-saving was a slap in the face. Every farmer wants vegetables that are hardy, delicious, and easy-to-grow, and for that the farmer needs seed that is strong, well-selected, and locally-adapted. Much of the seed on the market, however, is of low quality or unknown origin. Even reputable seed houses sometimes ship bunk. Additionally, we are now in the era of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), facing unknown but potentially catastrophic dangers.
Seed-saving is the ultimate way of knowing where your seed came from, of course, and it is also an essential step in improving a vegetable for hardiness, etc. Basic plant-breeding is easy to try. Without doing anything special, the first generation of saved seed from a store-bought packet is already a meaningful “selection” because it grew from that percentage of the purchased stock that was a.) viable and b.) able to reach to seed-bearing age locally. In following generations, further selections can be made for appearance, flavor, shelf-life, etc. Seed-saving is an essential activity for the small-scale farmer, including the urban farmer.
But there are negative social implications to letting a plant “go to seed.” When compared to the ideal city garden aesthetic, a bed full of bolting lettuce, spinach, or mustard greens appears untended or even abandoned. Over our years of urban farming, we lost seed crops in multiple locations when people cut down patches before they were ready. Nothing got the weed-whackers revved up like a patch of vegetables in flower. Arriving at a garden to find beautiful plants destroyed was frustrating, infuriating and sad. Frustrating because a crop had been wasted after months of tending, infuriating because the cause was human stupidity, and sad because companions in our lives had been killed. I can’t count how many times it happened, and it was often perpetrated by the landlenders themselves.
All in all, I would guess that many (though not most) of the landlenders were dissatisfied with their relationship with Sunroot Gardens at least some of the time, and a few of them most of the time. In the first couple years, we were partly at fault for this by setting expectations too high. But later, when we tried to be more realistic, we still displeased people with our bountiful creations; they just didn’t fit the picture that people had. Most of them wanted some miniature facsimile of Versailles—or at least a well-ordered potager garden—but what we delivered was the provincial peasant farm that the nobility kept at bay with their lawns.
Some of the landlenders, of course, were entirely pleased with us. Because those people were the most pleasant to work with, their plots got the most attention. The old saw, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” didn’t apply in our world; instead, they got the boot. By 2010, when we were winding down Sunroot Gardens, it was abundantly clear to us that most landlenders were not ready for farming in the city.
We were not content to grow only fresh produce. Fruits and veggies typically make up 10-15% of a healthy agricultural human diet, with grains and proteins making up the other 85%. Therefore, in 2008, we started up a parallel effort that we called “the Staple Crops Project.” The ambitious goal was total food independence. In that year and in 2009, we invested over $15,000 in a few larger plots, mostly in suburban areas where larger, unused properties were available.
Our main crops were wheat, quinoa, flour corn, soup beans, flax and oilseed sunflowers. We purchased a tractor for initially tilling the plots but we seeded, tended, harvested and processed the mostly by hand. In order to attract the needed hands for all this labor, I devised a distribution system in which Sunroot Gardens kept only 20% of the harvests, and divided the other 80% evenly between the monetary investors and the volunteers, 40% to each group. So instead of hire people and selling the product, we invited people to participate as their own free agents acting of their own volition. This was a conscious and purposeful break with the modern agricultural model in which “owners” “pay” “workers” and keep the majority of the take for themselves. We believed that this model was outmoded and that it was time to get back to the community taking care of itself.
Sometimes it worked pretty well. In 2008, for example, over the course of just a couple weeks, we harvested and completely processed over 600 pounds of wheat with the help of 42 people. I made a spreadsheet to keep track of every labor hour spent on each step—harvesting, threshing and winnowing—and so was able to calculate that the collective productivity rate in the end was 2.6 pounds of wheat berries per hour. Helpers ended up receiving one pound of wheat for each hour worked. Monetary investors got 24 pounds for every $250 invested, though they were also receiving other crops in addition. (A detailed report of all the crops harvested in 2008 and 2009, with all the numbers crunched, plus some photographs, is available here.)
Though we never achieved total food independence, the Staple Crops Project was, for us, an important experiment in the context of urban farming. It was certainly instructive to see how much time is saved by the industrial threshers that can process that much in few minutes. It was also gratifying to see how much people enjoyed themselves with this simple work and how, with so many involved, it was not arduous. Nobody broke their back. A few blisters for the most enthusiastic workers were the only hardship suffered.
But our innovations did not stop there. We were also keenly interested in breaking down conventional contemporary relationships between money and food. If the future threatened (or promised) a world in which finance would collapse and community would take its place, I wanted to play with how that might look.
Therefore, in 2009, I reduced the number of CSA shares that would be available for traditional monetary investors by almost 50% in order to devote more of the harvests to helpers and bartering relationships. I added a second weekly produce pick-up day exclusively for these non-monetary relationships. This was knowing that 2009 promised to be a banner year, with more real estate under cultivation than ever before, and many established plots having proven themselves as reliable producers. In other words, instead of expanding the operation to make more money—which I easily could have done with the customer demand that presented itself due to the media attention—I chose to invest the resources into what I saw as a rehearsal for the future when the dollar would no longer be king. If, as the anti-globalization activists had chanted, it is true that “un otro mundo es possible,” then why wait to make that world? If not now, when?
I took it yet further for the 2010 CSA season, which was a ten month long contract starting Winter Solstice 2009 for monetary investors. (Over the winter of 2008-2009, Sunroot Gardens had started offering a bi-weekly winter CSA, one of the few CSAs in the Pacific Northwest to do so. The mild climate of the area allows for the harvesting of fresh green and roots from November through April, though most farmers in the area act like its New England or the Midwest and just shut down.) For that fiscal farm year, I did two things:
1) Did away with set prices for CSA shares and instead invited members to “set your own price.” I announced it thusly in an email to current CSA subscribers:
“The Farm is not pricing shares this year. Instead, we are presenting the year’s budget and inviting people to offer what they would like to offer for what they would like to have. We are putting the pricing into your hands because you are the one who knows the most about how much you’d like to take, of what, how often, etc. Buying into this year’s budget gets you produce from Winter Solstice 2009 to Samhain 2010, which is a little over 10 months. It also gets you staple crops harvested during 2010, to include wheat, corn, quinoa, millet, soup peas, soup beans, etc. You decide if you want produce or staples or both and then you make an offer accordingly. …With this new price-your-own-share method, there is nothing stopping you from paying $1 and then picking up produce 3x a week the whole year and not feeling bad about it at all, if that’s how your world works. And if that’s really how your world works, go for it!”
I followed this with a quotation from Peter Goodchild: “Where there is no law, there are no criminals.” Within the context of Sunroot’s world, I was attempting to strip away not only law but also conventional notions of ethics as they apply to pecuniary matters and replace them with a kind of community-based utilitarianism. Only one household ended up “taking advantage” of the situation and helping themselves to more than they donated, but that didn’t really matter.
2) I also reduced the “farmer salary” line item (that is, my own personal annual take) to $1. How would I get by? This is how I explained it in the same email:
“‘Rent’ is picked up in the new budget item, ‘farmer quartering,’ which is intended to include the renovation of the greenhouse [so it includes a habitable winter bedroom], and the paying of utilities related to that. So for $1800—the monthly price of a condo on Hawthorne—we plan to quarter the farmer for a year. Another line item new to this year’s budget is ‘farm kitchen,’ meant to help cover for all the food that Mrs. K [my wife] cooks for the farmhands, including those delicious field meals she has packed up in the past. Hardly a day went by at the Firepit [the garden that served as Sunroot’s HQ, where the aforementioned greenhouse was located] this year when someone was *not* joining Mrs. K for breakfast, second breakfast, elevensies, luncheon, afternoon tea, dinner, or supper [which, by the way, are the seven traditional Hobbit meals].”
As you can see, something that was not missing from the Sunroot Garden enterprise, despite the 80 hour work weeks, was whimsy. Despite our seriousness about the work, we kept the mood light. “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” don’tcha know.
Besides all of this, we wanted to facilitate the expansion of urban farming as a bona-fide movement in Portland. We had no desire to keep everything to ourselves. We hoped to help spark a vibrant scene with not just dozens, but hundreds, of urban farmers who could transform Portland into that veritable “garden city” where you couldn’t bike down any block without seeing vegetables in front yards. Only then would “urban farming” be a real thing and not just a media-manufactured meme. Only then would there be a shot at survival when, as we believed, the system would inevitably fail, leaving the populace to its own devices (such as essentially happened after Hurricane Katrina).
To this end, we offered as much as we could to those people who exhibited seriousness about urban farming. Helpers who were willing to put in the most time, and invest their own resources, were themselves accorded the title of “farmer” and with that appellation were granted a larger take of harvests. With more responsibility—that is to say, with more responsiveness—came more reward, and isn’t that how it should work? We also gave away plots, seed, soil amendments, tools, vegetable starts, construction materials, and anything else we had to offer, free-of-charge. Sunroot had amassed so much wealth in these areas that we could spare some to people who seemed serious. We were trying to actively live the ideal of “creating the world you want to see” and our efforts had their own rewards, regardless of their results.
2010 was the final year of operations for Sunroot Gardens. I declared this at the beginning of that season because I had grown weary of city life and wanted to try farming in the country, in just one location, where I wouldn’t have to spend a big chunk of time just traveling among different plots. As it turned out, this timing was perfect for other reasons. Portland itself was changing, and in ways that are happening to many cities around the US.
Between 2004 and 2010—the years I was an urban farmer—Portland was in transition. Of course, no city is static, and each one is always between phases that are often accurately seen only in retrospect, but the “City of Roses” in that period was a particular place in a particular time that made it especially fertile ground (no pun intended) for the urban farming experiment known as Sunroot Gardens. Passing away was “Little Beirut,” a city given that nickname by George H. W. Bush’s advisors in the early 1990’s because of the energetic protests the President faced there. This Portland was a center of unabashedly leftist politics but was also a homely, low-rent backwater that was perennially overshadowed by its more urbane and glamorous siblings, the burly industrial brother to the north, Seattle, and the pretty, sophisticated sister to the south, San Francisco. “Little Beirut” was the city I hoped to find when I moved to Portland in early 2001, hot on the heels of the explosive anti-WTO protests in Seattle in late 1999.
The Portland that emerged next was “Portlandia,” a caricature of itself, a destination no longer for scrappy activists—or starving artists, their sometimes partners-in-crime—but for the app-driven digerati, with their oh-so-refined tastes and non-confrontational blue-state politics. Rents skyrocketed, hipsters pushed out hippies, and by 2015, Portland was the most quickly gentrifying city in the USA. In short, no longer a hospitable place for unconventional experiments. In retrospect, it is clear that Sunroot Gardens took full advantage of this particular time and place for as long it lasted, neither arriving too early nor leaving too late (like an engaging work of fiction).
Today, in “Portlandia” (or “Potlandia” as it is sometimes called since the legalization of recreational marijuana), I would not be able to engage in the Sunroot Gardens experiment again. Land has become too valuable, resources too short and the culture less supportive of the edgy.
So far, most urban farming businesses in the USA have been far less experimental than Sunroot Gardens, which is to say, not as responsive to the multiple crises bearing down on civilization as we know it. From my own research, the ones that are most financially successful are the ones that focus on bourgeois niche markets like baby greens for restaurants. While this might be providing a steady income for the entrepreneurs who run them—and even providing opportunities for traditionally disenfranchised populations—they are certainly not breaking ground, so to speak, in terms of what will be required from urban farming when the nation suffers an interruption in what has come to be expected as normal agricultural output from Big Ag. Given Climate Change, a precariously upheld financial system, and ongoing depletion of basics like top soil and aquifers, Big Ag has finite limits that will be reached within a finite amount of time, perhaps with unexpected suddenness within the lifetime of the reader. “Man cannot live on salads alone,” to coin a phrase, and urban farming will have to do more than it is if it’s going to be part of the solution.
That is, if urban farming is contribute to the survival of Americans in a significant, meaningful way, it will need switch gears from niceties to necessities and grow fast. “Exponentially” is the adjective I would suggest. It will be too late to grow “food not lawns” when the grocery store shelves are empty, a not inconceivable event considering that most American cities hold a food back-stock of no more than a week or two in our “warehouse on wheels” system of regular deliveries by diesel-fueled semi-trucks. Farming takes time. The learning curve for newbies is steep. Soil-building is an investment of years, not months or weeks. Figuratively speaking, the time to start was not even yesterday, but a decade ago.
A society that was heeding the flock of canaries keeling over in the coal mines even as we speak would be ripping up turf left and right and planting gardens right now. Property owners would see that their aesthetic notions are a luxury they can no longer afford and would be begging, “Please plant here!” City governments would be suspending zoning laws that disallow farming, striking down neighborhood covenants that prohibit gardens and offering public parcels for cultivation. For my experience in this field (ha!), I would be in constant demand in metropolises from coast to coast, as would other urban farming pioneers.
But that is not the society we have, nor—do I suspect—is it the society we are likely to have any time soon, which is to say, by the time we need it.
Urban farming, then, cannot be said to be a possible answer when the relevant questions are not even being asked.
Of course, within the context of our multiple, intertwined crises, there are deeper questions to ask than those that can be answered with words like “urban farming,” or, for that matter, “solar panels,” “higher unearned income tax rates,” or “certified organic.” An electric car charged up on wind power is still a killer on the road; it’ll murder jack rabbits in the desert, squirrels in the city, or cats in the country the same as any gas guzzler.
The most radical voices are advocating for the total dismantling of civilization (which is to say, the entire agro-urban way, “civis” being Latin for “city”) and a “Return” to the pre-agricultural ways that are the only ones that are truly “sustainable.” Given the comparative track records—10,000 years of the farm/town complex, attended by brutal religions, genocidal wars and ecocidal lifestyles vs. 200,000+ of gathering/hunting, defined by a light touch, steady-state technologies and a cooperative, creative participation with earth’s dynamic equilibrium—I’d say they’re right. The truth of this, however, will ultimately be discovered by the survivors of this undertaking known as civilization, if any remain.
Adapted from the author’s book, “Adventures in Urban Bike Farming,” available here.