Tuesday, March 08, 2016

The limits of gardening as the world burns

If every homeowner in Seattle ripped up their lawn and replaced it with edible plants, the resulting crop production would be enough to feed just one percent of the city’s residents, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Washington.

Researchers in Seattle performed a rigorous analysis of the potential to grow the city's own food. Their conclusions are very similar to my own, based on our experiments in Portland: if everyone in Portland converted their yards and rooftops and driveways to food production, and planted all the public areas, and did a better job than we did...the city could still only feed half its population.

The Seattle study estimates the city could grow 21% of a balanced diet for the city's inhabitants, assuming conversion of all possible surfaces (permeable and impermeable) to food production. Seattle, like Portland, and like all other cities with dense populations, can never be sustainable.

What are the implications for those of us working towards local food systems? It doesn't mean we shouldn't continue our work. But we shouldn't delude ourselves or others into denying cities' dependence on massive importation of resources, almost always extracted violently from the land, and often from humans. It's good and noble work to establish a community garden, or to convert our lawns to perennial polycultures to support humans and non-humans alike. But these individual actions, even if adopted by everyone, will never add up to the systematic transformation we need. To leverage their impact, this localization must be integrated into a culture of resistance, supporting direct dismantling of the industrial infrastructure wreaking large-scale havoc.

It's enjoyable and satisfying, but it's not a real solution to just putter around in our backyards while the world burns. We have to think about, and get involved with, the big picture.

Read the full article about the study: This is why cities can't grow all their own food

The article has also sparked a discussion between myself and another person on Reddit, with more of my thoughts on cities, sustainability, the value of individual action, and more


Unknown said...

Hi Norris,
I love your continued work. I used to go to your plant classes in Portland. On permies.com, I won a book and they asked me who referred me to permies, and I said you. Please email me so I can get Radical Mycology sent to you.

Unknown said...

I agree that one person isn't going to solve the whole problem with their yard. We can make a difference, though. In recent Cuba and traditional China, they used the backyard and the farms, and I think that makes the most sense. Farming your yard makes economic and aesthetic sense.
John Saltveit

Garden life said...

I realize this post is old...and even older was how I found you (a video from 6-7 years ago), but I appreciate these sorts of posts countering the theories about how easy it is to grow all one's own food. (I also laugh at youtube videos about "we're entirely off the grid!" because, ahem, they are youtube videos, and if there's anything griddier than the internet, their dozen video recording devices shipped over on container ships from China, and getting financial support from strangers thousands of miles away via youtube for making these ludicrous claims, I cannot fathom what that is.)

Anyway. (Rant over.) I ran across this old blog post: http://livinglowinthelou.blogspot.com/2013/10/can-you-really-grow-all-your-own-food.html which was of interest me to me after moving to the STL area. I grew sunflowers, and all I got out of it was fatter squirrels. :) Still, as an experiment, I continue to convert my lawn. Killed 1500 feet of it since spring, and will continue to see what I can do. Clearly, though, I will never be able to create my own hand-pressed oil. Critters will eat all those crops. I'd have to eat potatoes or sweet potatoes every day to get calories, and without salt, I'd struggle with that. (I don't happen to have a house right over a salt deposit. At least in Hawai'i, you can let the ocean evaporate in a pan, I suppose, to get yourself some salt!) And the fungal diseases in this humidity are brutal. Even my organic treatments of baking soda and hydrogen peroxide aren't something I can create simply on my own land. Is fungal disease a problem in Hawai`i?

Good writing, good thinking in your blog. Thank you for writing it.