Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Thoughts on suburbia.

I did an interview for the Aucklander (a local rag) about an upcoming gardening course at Horizon gardens which I’m taking a class at. The focus of the interview was around growing food in the city so I got to talk about peak oil gardening and food forests. The venue was the strangely appropriate Howick historical village (a pretend 1800s village), appropriate because it mirrors how we will have to live in a few decades. The houses were small; every house had a fire a garden and a few fruit trees. Chickens roamed the back yards compost piles were visible and a small pond was full of ducks. The roads around the model village were narrow and their were plenty of places to work within walking distance of the houses The only car in the village was delivering barrels to grow plants in, the rest were parked at the entrance. This was in stark contrast to the sterile suburbs surrounding the village, a monoculture of prefab brick and tiles with wide roads and no shops or jobs in site. The number of fruit trees in the model village probably outnumbers the surrounding housing developments. The suburbs around the village were dominated by high speed cars and very wide road, easily 20% of the land was taken up with driveways roads and parking lots.

It seems rather ludicrous that I have to explain how and why to grow your own food but its only a slight exaggeration to say that no one knows how. The knowledge that was present 50 or a 100 years ago in the suburbs has disappeared sped by smaller properties longer working hours and very cheap food. This loss of knowledge is almost complete in rural areas as a generation of farmers raised on tractors monocrops and pesticides farms most of the world. The first thing that needs to happen in a transition is education, we need to regain knowledge about living simply and we need to learn how to live sustainably. This knowledge must be gained through experience or else it will not be applied and it must be backed up by support and advice. Another thing that needs to be in place is easily available seeds and fruit tree’s thankfully garden centers still sell some fruit trees but the range available is narrow and variety’s bred for specific areas, soils and conditions don’t exist any more.

As much as anti poverty activists may disagree with me I am convinced that the price of food must rise drastically if we are to ever produce food in the suburbs again. There is no way to sustainably produce a loaf of bread for $1 or a sack of potatoes for $5. Currently the economics of home grown food hardly stack up and the main argument is the higher nutritional and environmental benefits of home grown food but this will change. The price of oil has become intrinsically linked to the price of food, and with higher fuel prices more and more of our food will be poured into the gas tanks of rich suburbanites. Living in a rich western country we are insulated from the effects of oil prices but unfortunately the number of starving will rise at the same rate as the oil price climbs.

Whether we will undergo any of these changes voluntarily is an open and shut question (we won’t). I do however think that we have a higher chance of getting a network of community gardens and permaculture activists across Auckland than a workers lead revolution (feel free to prove me wrong). The entire city needs redesigning - the way we eat work and live will change whether we like it or not it’s just whether we choose to change or are forced to.

As my experience over the last few weeks has highlighted there is no way that council is going to even begin making any of the changes that need to occur. Relying on central government or any other elected body would be equally stupid. And if no elected body can solve these problems there is no point appealing to them through protests and lobbying. The task is instead much easier and much harder: to create the solutions ourselves. Easier because its much more enjoyable to spend the day gardening and planting fruit trees than it is to attend protest after protest. Focusing on creating solutions is easier mentally and has more rewards than protesting does, its also fairly socially acceptable. But harder because to admit that no leader can solve our problems is to take an immense task on. Creating alternatives to our current way of living is a daunting process which wont see real results until we run out of the resources that keep this mad way of life going.


maps said...

Once again I think you're romanticising the past.

The sort of backyard city gardening you're talking about was undertaken mainly by people whose incomes did not enable them to buy all the food they needed. Backyard gardening allowed them to 'top up' very low wages, for instance.

But there is no way that this sort of small-scale gardening could ever have acted as a substitute for the food that was bought with wages - it simply filled a few gaps. Without paid employment or some sort of income allowing the purchase of goods from stores or markets poorer city-dwellers would have starved.

That's why the old model of backyard farming is incompatible with your vision of the end of capitalism and a return to a pre-industrial era without electricity and so on. An advanced economy was a precondition for the backyard gardens of old - without the jobs provided by factories, the wharves, and so on, the backyard gardener could not have existed.

If jobs in today's Auckland vanish as the economy shuts down we couldn't simply live off backyards and plowed-up community parks. We'd have to abandon the city altogether, and most of us would die.

The uncomfortable references to mass starvation in this latest post seem to indicate that you're waking up to the basic contradiction between primitivism and any sort of progressive politics.

John said...

I agree with you (almost) entirely I think the kind of backyard gardening of the past would be most useful during the recessions I see coming over the next few decades. Like you pointed out it will help to top up low wages and problems in food distribution networks.

As time goes on and the energy descent deepens Auckland will be abandoned, the speed of descent and when it happens will determine how many die. If you can point out how to keep the modern economy going for another 50 years I would like to hear how. I see the role of urban permaculture is smoothing the transition from an advanced economy to an agrarian society.

In case you hadnt noticed I spend my days learning how to grow food, if I were a primitivist as you suggest I would be spending my days learning how to hunt and the wild foods I can live off - and there are plenty of people out there doing these things. Instead I believe the most realistic hope we have are high density food producing areas and extensive food producing areas which mimic natural landscapes.

The gap between my beliefs and progressive politics is only as great as the gap beween progressive politics and the environment. The left believes in endless growth, industrialisation and the dominance of man over the environment. Of course there is a gap between me and the left.

As I keep pointing out I believe a lot of people will die, thats why Im doing something about it. What are you doing to deal with the problems such as climate change facing us? Perhaps you could write a book or something...

Thanks for the comments they keep me on my toes.