IEET > GlobalDemocracySecurity > Staff > Marcelo Rinesi > Resilience
Postapocalyptic Gardens
Marcelo Rinesi   Jul 2, 2009   Frontier Economy  

Growing your own food might be fun, but it’s not the best survival strategy.

There’s a small but growing movement for locally-grown and even home-grown food in cities and suburbs. Some of the reasons behind this movement are aesthetic — indeed, ‘vertical farming’ buildings seen in recent architectural proposals can be strikingly beautiful — ecological, nutritional, recreational, and economic. Some of these reasons are unimpeachable, as gardening can be an intellectually, psychologically, and socially rewarding activity, but the economic arguments for it, which are usually the basis for the promotion of the activity as a mass endeavor, merit a closer analysis.

Home gardening as a significant food source for consumption and barter has been a regular fixture in many civilizations, and its resurgence, specially in the United States, seems to be tied to both the economic recession and the rising price of food. As the first trend has lowered wages, the application of personal time to growing food has come to appear a reasonable investment.

However, there’s a significant difference between growing food as a substitute for less productive recreational activities, and growing food as a substitute for time employed at work. In the latter case, it seems unlikely that an amateur, small-scale operation can produce food more cheaply, when all costs, specially time, have been properly accounted for, than a large-scale industrial operation. In any normal situation, working an extra hour gives you the additional income to buy more or better foodstuff than you can grow in that hour.

What some proponents of local food production argue, though, is that conditions are straying from what has so far been considered normal. In particular, they point towards the possibility of high energy costs and a deteriorated infrastructure pushing transportation costs to the point where locally grown food will be economically competitive by virtue of its proximity, as well as by the reduced benefit of energy-intensive physical capital to agricultural productivity.

In the context of such an scenario (which we believe unlikely, although not impossible if the transition to large-scale renewable energy fails), it’s important to note that even in the absence of cheap energy, small-scale agriculture has never been an economically efficient choice for individuals or societies. Most economic profits — and the best food — usually went to those who controlled large extents of fertile rural land, or energy sources like mills (powered by the wind or a river) or large groups of slaves.

Technology and society has, thankfully, changed since those times, but the economic lessons learned along the way remain. In an hypothetical post-oil dystopian future of very expensive energy and high transportation costs, growing food in a small garden will be less profitable, or in other terms, will lead to poorer nutrition, than owning a wind turbine or a dozen, a laboratory capable of producing antibiotics, or a network of solar-powered railroads.

We enthusiastically support green cities, but not a retreat to an economy confined to the local scale. A complex, distributed, specialized economy is, despite its larger requirements for coordination and management, immensely more effective than any collection of isolated or semi-isolated households and small communities could be, and whatever challenges we will have to face in the coming decades, we stand a better chance with more resources at our disposal, not less.

Marcelo Rinesi is the IEET's Chief Technology Officer, and former Assistant Director. He is also a freelance Data Intelligence Analyst.



COMMENTS

Marcelo,

I’ve been wishing the city I live in would choose nut trees, fruit
trees, berry bushes, grape vines for the otherwise ornamental plants
they install.  We (the people of that city) could also choose spices
and herbs for the smaller ornamentals; and many other plants such as
squash, peppers, even tomato and potato look as pretty as many of the
barren greenery we suicidally choose instead.

By doing so, as oil increases in price, and as unemployment increases
in severity, and as the Federal Reserve Note continues to lose value,
we will then have plenty of work to do with enormous direct reward.

But this is all assuming we would be growing for our *own* consumption
instead of attempting to sell any of the product.

Since we don’t have any real control at the city level I wonder if you
see a neighborhood/community doing this - moving toward permaculture -
do you see that as a negative thing?

Must we continue to water and work on plants that have no value
whatsoever while hoping we can afford to purchase Pine Nuts from
China?  Wouldn’t you rather know what was sprayed on them and wouldn’t
you rather have the security that those trees will produce each year,
dropping the food nearly at our doorstep without the need for
petroleum or the increasing political difficulty of crossing borders?

Do we really want to be in the stranglehold of another nation?

And even if the food is produced in the country you live in, if it is
owned by a for-profit corporation, then they will make it too
expensive to even consider.

We could have hundreds of tons of nearly free food and the raw
materials for medicines, soaps, clothes and building materials if we
would get-over our myopic mindset that governments should never be
productive.

Local production is difficult for single individual, but is a powerful
solution when we can “get together” to share the complexity.

We (the people) should be owning sawmills, plastic-recycling
equipment, repair shops, restaurants (yes, restaurants), storage
facilities, agriculture equipment and factories of all sorts.

But we are too scared or too stupid ... but another problem that leads
to such pitifully weak cities is the way property taxes punish
improvements while allowing land-hoarders to withhold as much as they
want - leading to sprawl and destitution.

There is more to this, but I must “go to work” to pay a mortgage
(literally “death grip”) to bankers that never did any work in their
lives and yet steal almost all of our value because we fail to
organize locally for our good.  We, the potential consumers, must
organize for product instead of profit.

Patrick,

I appreciate the advantages of local food production, but I don’t think it scales very well. Small-scale agriculture is very expensive in terms of work and land per calorie. It’s true that if you have an otherwise unused park and free available time (e.g., due to a recession), then it makes sense to do grow food using that land and that work. But is working the land truly the most productive—-let’s forget profitability and talk about personal or social utility, if you’d like me to—- most people can be? There’s a reason why historically cities have been more dynamic culturally and technologically: specializing the production of food gives non-farmers the time to pursue other fields. You cannot have a doctor-farmer, or an engineer-farmer, as all of those activities are full time (when you take into account the secondary activities of farming like equipment maintenance, etc).

A similar argument makes me wary of widely distributed machining equipment (I mean, as a long-term survival or economic strategy, not as a right, hobby, passion, or whatever; I’ll be the last person to begrudge anyone the awesome that must be to have your own production equipment on your yard).

Take a modern saw. It’s a very useful tool to build things, but what if you have to replace the blade? An equivalent blade is nigh-impossible to build in a distributed small-scale economy: just the high-quality steel or carbide practically demand a full industrial infrastructure. 20th century electronics. Any sort of drugs; what happens with diabetics without a full network of laboratories, and the industries necessary to make the laboratories run? And so on and so forth. I believe it’s possible to “cut out” a bunch of contemporary economy resources and build with that a more self-sufficient local economy, but it won’t be technologically self-sufficient, and as the equipment breaks, the choices will be to reconnect with the larger economy—-hoping that it’s still there—-, keep giving up technology until you reach a self-sustainable technological level, or rebuild the large, complex economy just left behind.

A remark on choice 2: While a part of the quality of life differential with, say, the 16th century comes from knowing more than them in certain useful areas, a lot of it comes from all the industrial machinery, factories, roads, know how, colleges, and trillions of dollars of other things that have been built over the centuries. The copper mines in Chile (and the transportation and commercial network between you and them) are part of why you have cheap wires to install a solar panel on your roof. Without the copper mines and the ships to bring the copper and the energy sources for the ships, etc, the supply of copper wires becomes fixed (which means slowly diminishing). So you can’t put up another roof with solar panels, and neither can your neighbors. Awkward (I’m being a bit short here; I know you can store as much wire as you are likely   to need during your lifetime; but what about future generations?).

YOUR COMMENT Login or Register to post a comment.

Next entry: Transhumanism F.A.Q. : Is Aging A Moral Good?

Previous entry: The Difficult Questions of ‘Personhood’