One of the frustrating things in talking about the potential catastrophic reorganization of the world, is that most of the people with anything to say about it, tend to stop at the point of reaction, and not really move on to a coherent response.

What I mean is, say you have something like peak oil, or mass starvation, or devastating climate changes, and some dude’s been wracking his brain about these things and he comes up with a great idea like drive less, or grow your own food, or reorganize community at a smaller level etc… and that’s it. They stop at reacting to the problem. Very seldom do any of these people really speak to what caused the problem in the first place, how to fix that, and more important yet, what to do with ourselves after we solve the problem.

If you’ve ever known anybody with self destructive elements in their personality, you’ll know that it’s not sufficient to just fix the situation from moment to moment, or just try to get them to stop doing what their doing. Chances are, they’ll just find another way to express the self destructive tendency that they had all along.

But that’s kind of where people are at when talking about this situation. It’s like telling an alcoholic to just ‘stop drinking’. That doesn’t work, except in the case of people who were ready to stop drinking already and just needed to hit bottom before they recognized the necessity of it. Usually, if you want to make any headway at all, you have to identify what it was that made them want to drink in the first place, and find an alternate, superior focus for them to replace it with.

Most of what’s being proposed right now are not alternate superior focuses. A lot of them are flat out reactionary or regressive. The default option seems to be that we need to turn back to an earlier, agricultural model of civilization. Never mind the fact that a lot of that land doesn’t exist anymore in a usable form, never mind that we don’t have the population of traction animals anymore to do this right now. Never mind that you’re essentially restoring a pattern of social relations analogous to feudalism, and opening the door to the most reactionary forms of religion… most people don’t think past the idea that this is the only way to keep growing enough food.

But probably the most compelling reason to reject and move past the historical remnants of agriculturalism is simple math, combined with a bit of empirical observation.

The conventional wisdom, for a non-fossil fuel related agricultural productivity, suggest that to feed each person requires somewhere around 10,000 square feet per person. This is what is being done in cuba right now, for instance. This is, if you have some simple math, an area about 100 meters X 100 meters, or a little over 300 feet X 300 feet if you don’t have the metric system. Some cutting edge methods suggest you could get that down to maybe a 120 feet by 300 feet.

Now, I invite you to look around and try to figure out where that area is going to come from, in the event that you had to start growing most of your own food. If you live in the city, like I do, you’re probably eyeing some common land, or a particularly large backyard. Keep in mind that this area is per person, so if you have a family of three, or four, just multiply, right?

Now, I live in a second floor apartment, with my gf, so no bloody way do I have two patches of ground that size, with ample sunlight available to me. The closest I could get is to commandeer the flat roof of my building, and do some container gardening which some information suggests would work well.

However: there are probably somewhere around 100 other people in this building. Maybe more. The roof is big, but it isn’t 12000 feet X 30000 feet, that’s for sure, so I would in effect be displacing other people from their common resource. If I went to the park nearby, I would have similar problems. As long as almost nobody else wants to section off a piece of the common land, then I’m fine, but that’s isn’t going to happen.

And this could scale up as well. Even if I had some group of neighbors, and we stepped in to tear up a parking lot or some such, I’m reasonably sure that the math still doesn’t add up. What it comes down to is the population density of urban areas is too much for this strategy. You would have to turn every neighborhood into an armed camp, and essentially eject large numbers of people, which I find distasteful, even if it were feasible, which I doubt.

So a lot of people end up having to decant onto the rural lands, but you have the same problem out there, except now it’s exacerbated by the excess capacity of the city flowing out into the countryside, with predictable results ranging from feudalism to slave labor to outright warfare. In a situation where you have economic and food pressures of this nature, it’s hard to imagine things being optimal for food growing either.

So, really suggesting we embrace old model agriculturalism in the industrialized world is probably a lost cause, if not simply morally bankrupt. Condemning most people to such a wretched existence because you can’t spare five minutes to do the math is pretty ludicrous.

Off the top of my head, about the only solution that might work is to abandon the notion of private plots altogether, along with conventional notions of how people and crops coexist. We here in north america should get used to the idea that almost every square foot of usable surface area will be given over to growing something, and much of it will be treated as a commons. It needs to be utterly ubiquitous, and pervasive, so as to offset the tendency to abuse common resources. If every roof top, every parking lot, every back yard or sidewalk is essentially a common food resource, then nobody needs to go very far to eat. Sure there will be a temptation for someone to jump your fence and steal some shit, but if we reconfigure our environment properly, then those people will be too busy watching their own crops to go stealing yours, and if every path and street is lined with berries, fruit trees, and garden beds, it should minimize friction quite a bit. What it comes down to is, if I need to personally own and control my food producing land in some contiguous mass, it will not work. Not in an urban space, not on a mass scale.  But if I can distribute it, and turn the whole city into essentially common land, with the right kind of technological inputs… maybe.

What I’m proposing, is essentially to change all our human environments into designed foraging grounds, where everyone is educated in how contribute constructively to its total diversity and productivity. It also provides a framework for developing  the kind of ecological and systemic education in the population that we’ll need to keep surviving on this planet. Instead of converting most of us back into the world’s smartest traction animals.

This is obviously somewhat embryonic, but to me it is manifestly superior to the knee jerk alternatives of those who pine for 19th century social relations. Or worse.

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11 thoughts on “The Green Disillusion

  1. Hi Zac – I really like and fully support this idea, but am wondering how you would go about implementing it? A lot of us ‘we need to grow our own food’ types want to see this same thing happen, but don’t have much faith in a top-down plan. Myself and the others I talk to believe that the best we can do is lead by example. Start now by producing as much as we can, share it with our friends and neighbors, and just keep on doing it. When we hear people talk about food prices or quality, we offer to show them what we’re doing and how it works.

    Perhaps that isn’t enough, but I just can’t fathom any other way to make this happen. It would be ideal if the next President would make this point, but I doubt it will happen. Maybe Al Gore can do a film on it… 😉

  2. I’ve been hoping for some kind of positive take on the possible outcomes of this horrible scenario you’ve been outlining, and I really like this. And I agree with Michael that the best way to put such a thing into action is to just start growing and giving away food. If enough people did this, anyone who did hoard food would eventually cave under simple peer pressure.

    Plus it answers the whole idea of man having separated himself from nature. Nature comes back within the sphere of man completely, as an integral part of our lives, without any kind of recidivism at all. Sure we give up on oil use and a lot of other stuff, but that’s all for the best anyway.

    Alchemically this works too. From 1 (nature) comes 2 (nature + mankind), from 2 comes 3 (nature + mankind + civilization), and from 3 comes 1 again as 4 (nature + mankind + civilization + nature-within-civilization).

    Anyway, I think you’ve spelled it out really well here. So what do we do now, start hoarding fertilizer and seeds? =)

  3. Absolutely. You only have to overcome 5,000+ years of property law and associated rent-seeking. Too many folks benefit from the habit of dissecting land into “private” plots and charging others to stand on it for this free-range grazing solution to come about peacefully. Civilization is an organism, man, and organisms only alter their behavior fundamentally in response to existential threats. For such threats to register, there must be suffering and death on a massive scale; otherwise, the impetus for real change is simply not there.

  4. I’d say focus on doing what small things one can do right now, with the understanding that gardening is pretty fucking hard and you need some practice. that, and a lot of the barriers that exist now will go away when there’s a comprehensive wave of mortgage default, followed by hundreds of bank failures, and lots of property in an indeterminate state. there won’t be the energy or manpower to repo a lot of this defaulted land, and thousands of dispossessed people are a little too intimidating for the local sheriff one would think.

    as for technical challenges? I’d focus on composting actually. when you think that you’ll eventually have to coat thousands of square miles of asphalt and concrete with at least a couple inches of soil, the main concern is where you get the dirt in the first place. in most cities they scoop up and throw away hundred of tons of leaf matter in the fall, along with grass clippings in the summer, etc… all of this would normally go to build the soil where it falls, but our job is to make sure it gets used for something, somewhere, eventually. composting doesn’t take much space, any light, or very much water. you could probably do a lot of it without anyone noticing., even on a patio deck where sunlight is too restricted to grow anything.

  5. Wow… It’s the agricultural equivalent to Open Source or Creative Commons! Or is it just plain old COMMUNISM in a new disguise? 😉

    It sounds great to me! We all have the drive to forage for food. Currently we express it by wandering zombie-like around the supermarket, but this model has far more appeal… Yet it would demand such a radical shift in our everyday understanding of property and public-private space – and at a time when these notions are becoming increasingly more entrenched rather than loosening up – so it’s difficult to see how people would make the transition… But if confrontation with the reality of imminent starvation doesn’t do the trick, then it’s hard to think of anything else that could…

    Well, I’ve bought a how-to book and I’ve started my container garden on the pitifully tiny balcony that’s available to me… Hopefully I’ll be reaping knowledge, as well as a few salad leafs and herbs…

  6. My suggestion would be to just go ahead and do it anyway. by the time the whole system shuts down, or the rolling blackouts become permanent, no one will care that you planted a field of potatoes in a public park. a lot of people probably wouldn’t even notice. even if you don’t actually harvest anything, it’ll help build up the soil. and if you just go around strategically laying down compost in certain areas, who will know the difference? If I put a layer of topsoil on my roof, I doubt anyone would even know it was there. we’d probably have two feet of grass up there next summer, though.

    in the short term, obviously I’d suggest you stockpile store able food. A lot of people are going to meet gruesome fates if they think they can up and grow a years worth of salad greens on the deck in summer. two or three huge garbage pails full of compost though, is eminently doable.

  7. oh come on, who doesn’t want a return to the 19th Century, when race and gender relations were at their peak, at least according to the primitivists?

    container gardening is difficult–plants in containers on top of a tarred roof on a brick building are going to get a lot of heat they wouldn’t get on the ground. A couple hot days can fry them.

    I know for a couple bucks you can get interior compostors, but that just seems silly to me.

  8. my spam trap hates thelemites named alan. the servitor in charge has labeled you a black brother, it seems. but they were all in there.

    it’s certainly encouraging, but the time considerations are what worry me, especially for something that uses rare metals like cobalt and platinum. plus the various diffculties in using and storing hydrogen, etc. If we still have something resembling a large scale economy of investment in the next ten years, we could be on to something.

  9. labster- I’ve been reading some encouraging stuff with container gardening where you use some large leafy plants and frequent watering to simulate the water vapor trapping qualities of a rain forest environment. the couple inches of soil you’d get in large sections of trays is similar to what happens in a rainforest where it’s a couple inches of mulch sitting on top of clay and sand. on a roof, you’d probably have to rotate the large leafy ones in from elsewhere, but once you had a some hardy crops going, they’d thrive on 10-12 hours of direct sunshine a day, above the obstructions of other ground cover. but then it brings in the whole water capture question, which could be a little tricky in some places.

    but certainly there are other who deal with this vastly better than I do. I’m probably better off talking about warding off demonic possession in a post collapse urban environment.

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