What Sustainability Can Mean

The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-sufficient Living in the Heart of the City (Process Self-reliance Series) by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen
(Process Media)

Toolbox for Sustainable City Living: A do-it-Ourselves Guide by Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew
(South End Press)

The Planner’s Guide to the Urban Food System by Arly Cassidy and Bowen Patterson
(Self-published; via Post Carbon Cities)

From 1994 to 2006, South Central Farm – the largest community garden in the United States – provided 360 families in Los Angeles with food, medicine, and other useful crops.  But when Ralph Horowitz, a former partner in the Alameda-Barbara Investment Company, decided to cash in on the undeveloped land, he had the farmers evicted to make way for a Forever 21 warehouse.  In what has become one of the dominant patterns of the 20th and early 21st centuries, a thriving, semi-self-sufficient community was gutted to make way for a business that sapped resources without giving anything in return.  It isn’t hard to spot the racism and classism behind the land-grab – those who had the land were working-class Latina/o families, and those who wanted it were wealthy and white.  However, there was another force at work behind the seizure of South Central Farm: a profound sense of detachment, on the part of the local government, from its citizens’ food sources.  After the eviction, farmers hung signs around the outside fences that read “SOUTH CENTRAL FARM FEEDS FAMILIES.”  The need to hang the signs was very telling – after all, shouldn’t the idea of a farm producing food be self-evident?

You’d think.  But now that city-dwellers and suburbanites’ food is supplied almost exclusively by centralized industrial farming, most middle-classers consider gardening a hobby that requires extensive knowledge and almost mystical skill.  Producing food, we think, is a miracle beyond the capabilities of ordinary people.  And why would we even need to grow our own food, when we can pick up everything we need at the supermarket?  Why put ourselves through the grief of tending vegetables when we could just buy a bag of carrots?  What’s the big fuss over some garden in L.A.?  Most liberal-minded people can recite the dangers of pesticides and the injustices of factory farming – but what many don’t realize is that working for sustainability and human rights while remaining completely dependent on Agribusiness is about as productive as protesting Wal-Mart while standing in its checkout line.  This system – in which passive, helpless consumers are fed instead of feeding themselves – isn’t just unsustainable; it’s teetering on the verge of collapse.  And it’s taking millions of real human beings down with it.

Meanwhile, arable urban space is used exclusively for ornamental lawns, shrubs, and tress.  At a Permaculture* seminar I attended, William Faith of Ars Terra described an eye-opening scene in Southern California: a row of trees was planted alongside a drainage ditch, and rainwater was collected in the ditch while the trees were watered with sprinklers.  Clean water was falling from the sky, and the city rushed to throw it away.  Similarly, we funnel resources into plants that perform only one function – looking nice – while our fruit and vegetables travel thousands of miles to reach us.

Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen’s The Urban Homestead attempts to address these problems by providing a project-oriented introduction to self-sufficiency in cities.  Most of the book centers around food – container gardening, foraging, edible landscaping, guerrilla gardening (ie, growing crops on city-owned space), non-chemical pest control, canning, pickling, baking, and raising chickens and other microlivestock.  However, Coyne and Knutzen also provide brief overviews of other sustainability projects like greywater plumbing, rainwater harvesting, driveway depaving, composting toilets, and off-grid energy.  It’s clear that they remember their neophyte years, scratching their heads as seedlings wilted and compost molded over; each project is spelled out in painstaking detail, with common problems covered and gardening mysteries explained.  (Finally I know what those three numbers on jars of fertilizer mean!  Except compost is a thousand times better than store-bought fertilizer anyway.)

And, surprisingly, this stuff is fun.  Coyne and Knutzen have chosen projects that are exciting enough to get even the most jaded urbanite revved up about harvesting worm poop.  If the tater tires aren’t your thing, try the bean teepee.  If you’re bad at keeping your plants watered, build a self-watering container!  Is that gallon of milk going to waste?  Turn it into ricotta cheese!

Unfortunately, the book’s charm is also a detriment.  Although Coyne and Knutzen frame their projects with warnings about the nutritional and environmental impacts of Agribusiness and unsustainable energy, the whimsical tone of the guide paints urban homesteading more as an activity for the privileged than a necessity for social and environmental justice.  (This also highlights the frustrating fact that white middle-classers, not South Central farmers, are the ones getting the book deals.)  Combine that with the numerous typos – an average of 2 or 3 per page! – and you get the sense that this book was hurriedly put together to capitalize on a yipster fad.  Can I interest you in a Trader Joe’s herb pot to complement your activism?

Still, though, it’s an extremely useful guide, and if it lures people with economic privilege into weaning themselves off of centralized farming, I’ll take it.

Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew’s Toolbox for Sustainable City Living takes the concept of self-sufficiency and pushes it one step further, transforming urban homesteading into true radical sustainability.  Kellogg and Pettigrew, co-founders of the Austin-based Rhizome Collective and recipients of an EPA grant to clean up a former landfill, skip basic gardening completely and devote their guide to more esoteric projects like mushroom cultivation, wetland construction, methane generation, and soil remediation.  Toolbox is firmly grounded in a justice-centered approach to homesteading; the authors preface the book by explaining the shortcomings of “green consumerism” and conventional ideas of what sustainability entails.  Take solar panels, for instance.  Kellogg and Pettigrew point out that panels have a life span of about 25 years, after which they’re useless; rural villages outfitted with solar energy find themselves dependent on richer communities when the panels wear out.  Since there’s no known source of energy that will meet our current (and extravagant) needs indefinitely, it’s only a matter of time before rich nations transition from high to low resource consumption.  The only question is whether we’ll ease into the change gradually or fall into it through full-scale collapse.

There’s a certain amount of overlap between the two books, but they complement each other well; where one provides only a brief outline to encourage further research, the other delves into great detail.  If you want to build a composting toilet, for example, Urban Homestead gingerly introduces the topic and then backs off, whileToolbox not only takes you through several different designs, but stresses the necessity of transitioning away from a system that uses clean water as a receptacle for feces.  If you’re wondering why we’re staring down an apocalypse, consider that we first-worlders shit in our drinking water and then worry about droughts.

Unfortunately, many of the projects in the two guides, while unquestionably better than our current systems, are currently illegal.  Did you know it’s against California law to harvest rainwater?  Technically, this means moving my potted plants outdoors during a drizzle makes me a criminal.  Forget about raising chickens in the average city.  And a composting toilet?  Definitely out.  The best the authors can do is advise you to be as clandestine as you can, and butter up cranky neighbors with fresh eggs and produce. Toolbox also encourages setting a precedent in order to challenge existing codes and laws.  A homesteader has a much better chance of winning a legal battle if the cistern, chicken coop, and bucket of decaying humanure have been safely used for some time before city officials learn of their existence.

Furthermore, while both books warn readers about what will happen to food, energy, and waste systems if we continue our current trajectory, neither pays much attention to what’s going on right now.  You’d never know from reading them that purchasing a tomato has a direct impact on an immigrant farm worker’s quality of life.  Neither book makes a strong connection between unsustainable food systems and malnutrition in impoverished communities.

That’s where Arly Cassidy and Bowen Patterson’s pamphlet “The Planner’s Guide to the Urban Food System” comes in.**  Urban planners’ lack of attention to food consumption is partly responsible for the disastrous policies that Coyne, Knutzen, Kellogg, and Pettigrew are fighting against, and Cassidy and Patterson, two recent graduates of USC’s master’s program in planning, offer ideas to start tackling these problems at the policy level.  The guide is meant to educate planners, obviously, but it’s handy for activists, too – the authors’ ideas include providing farmers’ markets with the equipment necessary to accept food stamps, creating community garden programs (right now, community gardens are generally at the mercy of landlords and developers), planting food-bearing trees in public spaces, and offering compost pick-up alongside the usual trash and recycling bins.  We don’t have to wait for municipal governments and urban planners to take point on these projects; if we educate ourselves about the possibilities that are out there, citizens and governments can work together on building sustainable cities.

Why is food production a feminist issue?  Because every aspect of the food systems currently in place – the farms that ruin the lives of their workers, the produce that’s laden with chemical residue and nutritionally bankrupt, the look-but-don’t-touch attitude towards urban space – has colonized both our communities and our bodies.  And we – the average people who are consuming food and producing waste within these systems – are the only ones who can take it back.

*Permanent Agriculture: an approach to human settlements that mimic patterns found in nature.
** Full disclosure: I found out about this pamphlet because I know one of the authors.

Since this issue is especially important to me, I’d like to take off my reviewer hat and post a few links for further reading:

Homegrownevolution.com – Coyne and Knutzen’s blog, containing more projects and homesteading events in L.A.

Radicalsustainability.org – Information on Scott Kellogg’s radical sustainability workshops.

South Central Farmers – South Central Farm’s official website, with updates on protests and information about the farm’s CSA program.

Ars Terra – a Permaculture demonstration site in Palmdale, CA, which offers Permaculture workshops.

BFP’s essays on gardening as a site of liberation and eating bread.

And, since I’m an egomaniac with no sense of restraint, Modern Mitzvot’s self-sufficiency Sundays.

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6 comments for “What Sustainability Can Mean

  1. Rob
    December 28, 2008 at 7:55 pm

    Some sustainabillity strategies don’t cost a lot and are very simple. For example, if you get cold, put on a sweater or a vest instead of turning up the heat.

  2. December 28, 2008 at 8:33 pm

    Awesome post, thanks so much for writing this. Sustainability is a passion of mine, one that I’m trying to work on more in my life.

  3. prefer not to say
    December 28, 2008 at 9:14 pm

    Hooray! Great to see this. More please.

  4. purpleshoes
    December 29, 2008 at 2:22 pm

    I love these kinds of blogs, and at the same time, just once I would love to see people discuss biking and guerilla squash planting without throwing around the spectre of the obesity epidemic. I would prefer my CSA boxes unmixed with body-shaming, thanks.

  5. December 29, 2008 at 5:27 pm

    Purpleshoes, my apologies – I didn’t realize I’d said something fatphobic. If you point out the offending line, I’ll change it.

  6. cpvon
    January 24, 2009 at 4:38 pm

    I just found out about South Central Farm from a Documentary – Escaping Suburbia (or something like that) – showing the bulldozers, the destruction, and the people. I cried.

    Ralph Horowitz will rot in hell. But until then, Boycott the retail store “Forever 21” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Central_Farm )

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