Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
It’s a great source of pleasure and satisfaction to me that both my home and my business provide me with constant opportunities to engage with working toward a beautiful and abundant future. At work, my colleagues and I receive hundreds of letters and emails each month to Mother Earth News and GRIT magazine from people engaged with their own adventures in self-reliance. The correspondence bubbles with enthusiasm, humor and innovation.
My business exists, in large part, because the lifestyle we promote is contagious. On every continent in the world there are large regions where a family can, through ingenuity and hard work, provide a lot of its own food in active partnership with the natural environment. And people get excited about that.
Of course most people tend to think of food production in an industrial context. And society tends to identify industrial food production as the answer to the needs of a rapidly growing human population. People take these conditions for granted. The notion of unbridled human population growth fueled by industrial agriculture is abhorrent to me because it precludes the potential for diverse, small-scale, localized farming and gardening. The idea that food can only be efficiently produced by industrial means is both wrong and wrong-headed. The resources needed to grow a little food at minimal cost are simple: Some fertile earth and people with a little spare time.
The next time you are on an airplane, look at the land below you. Are there empty city lots down there, rural subdivisions sporting 10-acre lawns, neglected horse pastures, overgrazed grasslands? Could they be reclaimed, gardened and restored to productive health? Couldn’t they grow food or enhance the view?
Around the world, vast amounts of arable land are left idle in lawns, damaged pastureland and vacant lots. The big suburban lot is most evident in North America, probably, but many nations offer their own versions. Imagine if all the lawns of global suburbia dedicated, say, 25 percent of their area to food and flower gardening.
I like the technical description “brownfield,” coined to describe urban or semi-urban land left in gravel and weeds. Sometimes it is contaminated. Often it is only neglected – a potential organic garden waiting for seeds and some individual’s vision. Community gardeners have redeemed thousands of brownfields in cities around the world, enhancing their neighborhoods, providing local food and strengthening the social fabric. The American Community Gardening Association publicizes research showing that urban gardens enhance property values, reduce crime rates and build healthy feelings of citizenship. When you think about it, what demonstrates our citizenship more concretely than planting a garden? Even a potted tomato plant on an apartment veranda is a symbol of enterprising optimism.
Traveling across Europe by train or freeway, you’ll see vast garden “allotments” on the outskirts of cities. In that version of a community garden, families are assigned individual plots, usually of a few hundred square meters, where they can garden and relax in the open air or in their tiny, sometimes elaborate sheds. Einstein called his shed on a plot outside Berlin his “Spandau Castle.” European cities invented allotment gardens in the 18th century, around the dawn of the industrial revolution and urban sprawl. Millions of Europeans spend their summer weekends on their allotments, and they have organizations like Luxembourg’s Office International du Coin de Terre et des Jardins Familiaux that represent their interests. About 3 million families belong to the Luxembourg organization that promotes garden allotments as social, environmental and economic assets to their communities. Many of them are quite beautiful and there are long waiting lists for plots.
In the United States huge lawns and horse pastures symbolize the “rural lifestyle” in the countryside around our cities. According to the American Horse Council there are more than 9 million horses in the United States, about 7 million of them kept for “recreational” purposes and horse shows. If the grass, hay and grain of America’s least-used horses were being devoted to food animals like cattle, sheep and goats, somewhere between 15 million and 30 million carnivorous Americans could have their protein needs met by the liberated resources.
In other words, there’s still lots of room for gardeners and small-scale farmers to create some food. When land can’t be bought, it can often be rented or borrowed in exchange for produce. Small farms like Rancho Cappuccino can be replicated in nearly any country.
So, can humanity keep doing this in the future?