What could be possible, and what most of
the "little teeny farm" advocates are really talking about, is
producing fresh fruits and vegetables. They aren't really talking about
producing grains, beans, meats (usually), dairy or oils, which can
amount to 80% or more of the typical diet. Can you produce enough
lettuce, tomatoes and zucchini in your 3000sf hobby garden to give/sell
some of it to your friends and neighbors during the summer and harvest
season? With a
bit of basil and thyme? Sure, and why not? If you already have a
suburban backyard, you might as well grow zucchini or blueberries
instead of grass. This is fun. That's what makes backyard gardening a
fun hobby. But, there's a difference between having some fresh zucchini
in August, and feeding a family for an entire year.
One reason I call this a "hobby" is that it doesn't make a good
business. Let's say you want to grow lettuce in your suburban backyard
hobby garden, and sell it to your neighbors. Great! Who wouldn't love
local, fresh-grown lettuce instead of something from 3000 miles away?
Let's say you sell lettuce for $2 a head. If you sold a thousand heads
of lettuce, you would have gross revenue of $2000. Think about the
labor and expense involved in growing and harvesting and selling (don't
forget the selling) a thousand heads of lettuce, from your suburban
backyard garden. You better love lettuce. For this, you get $2000 of
revenue, per year, before covering your expenses. It probably works out
to less than minimum wage. You would only do it "for fun." That's why I
call it a hobby.
Some people are into raising chickens in their suburban backyard. I am
familiar with this, because I used to live in a house in central
Seattle where the next door neighbor raised about six chickens
underneath his backyard deck. Also, my local egg lady raises chickens.
How many chickens? Well, how many chickens do you eat? How about one
chicken per week for your family? That is not much meat -- especially
if you have a real chicken, not a modern mutant chicken bloated by
growth hormones. Obviously, you would have to raise 52 chickens per
year to provide that much meat. Are you ready to raise 52 chickens in
your suburban backyard? My local egg lady raises about 50 chickens for
her personal use. (It's hard to sell meat, because it is highly
regulated.) But, she lives on a former 19th century chicken farm. She
still has the original commercial-size chicken houses. She would laugh
if you called it a "backyard." She likes to live in the country so she
can have acreage
, not a backyard
. She does have some extra
eggs to sell. I ride there on my bike (singlespeed, naturally) and buy
them for $3 per dozen. You can work out how many dozen you would have
to sell to get $3,000 in gross revenue.
If you want to raise a half-dozen chickens in your suburban backyard,
while your husband is off working at the telecommunications company or
law firm or software developer, go right ahead. Kind of like Marie
Antoinette and her peasant cottage. If it was good enough for the Queen
of France -- and Michelle Obama -- then what are you waiting for? I am
all for eccentric hobbies, as long as they aren't too smelly.
I buy about two dozen eggs a month, for a total of $6, and don't raise
chickens in my backyard.
Unfortunately, the "sustainability" types are motivated almost entirely
by symbolism. They think that with enough symbolic gestures -- six
tomato plants, a Prius, organic cotton underwear and a solar oven --
they can "save the world." Let me tell you what: six tomato plants, a
Prius, organic cotton underwear and a solar oven doesn't mean jack shit
doesn't mean that you can't enjoy it. But it is really no different --
in terms of resource and energy use -- than having none of that at all.
If you live in 3500sf in Suburban Hell and commute 35 miles to work in
your Prius, and have six tomato plants and resuable shopping bags ...
so what. Living in an urban environment, like New York (but nicer),
don't own a car, and ride trains, and have a small apartment
instead of a 1/4-acre ersatz mini-farm -- now that has a real effect.
* * *
Last note on the Prius: The Prius gets about 51 mpg in the city and 48
mpg on the highway. It costs $22,800 in the base model, and is rumored
to be a money-loser at that price due to the expensive batteries and
electric motors in the vehicle. It has a max horsepower of 134hp, and
weighs 3,042 pounds. It seats four.
Batteries are going to be a much bigger problem than people think. The
Tesla Roadster runs on 6,000 cellphone batteries. Do you have a
cellphone? I do. How often do you have to replace the battery? I
replace mine about once a year. Are you ready to replace an additional
six thousand batteries per year? To fulfull your "sustainability"
The Tata Nano has a 35 horsepower gasoline engine. It weighs 1,300 lbs,
and seats four. It costs about $2,000, and is making a profit for Tata
at that price. This is right in line with the original Volkswagen
Beetle, which weighed about 1,600 lbs and had 28hp. The Nano gets 52mpg
the city and 61mpg on the highway.
The Prius has hundreds of pounds of expensive rare earth minerals and
non-ferrous metals, like lithium, nickel, cobalt and copper. These
mining and smelting operations, like the bad guys in the movie Avatar
. (I've spent much of the
last six years researching mining companies like these, so I have an
idea of how that metal is obtained. Although mining company execs
genuinely try to make the process as harmless as possible, it is not a
pretty thing.) The Nano is made almost
completely of iron and aluminum, two of the most common minerals in the
No batteries required.
We would be better off riding trains than using cars. But, if you have
to have a car, and you want an eco-friendly one, take a Nano instead of
* * *
Now that I've spent the last couple thousand words kicking sand in the
face of the "sustainability" types and the "little teeny farm"
fantasists, let me say a few words in their favor.
I think that a number of the recent group of
let's-grow-tomatoes-in-the-backyard types are genuinely motivated by
concerns/visions of economic collapse. They don't necessarily say this,
or even think it, but it is inherent in their personal vision.
This is not entirely irrational. Indeed, given that Dmitry Orlov, for
example, witnessed firsthand the period during the 1990s when urban
Russian people sustained themselves with tiny neighborhood gardens, you
might say it could be very relevant.
Let's think about this: What are the characteristics of a collapse
deal with what you have at the time of collapse. You aren't
going to be making any trains, or new buildings, or what have you --
just scavenging among the existing infrastructure.
2) Likewise, people generally
aren't going to be moving here and there (unless things get so bad that
they become refugees), but sticking with their existing house in their
existing city, at least at first.
3) All kinds of transportation
could become unavailable or unusable.
"Collapse" is actually quite common. If you look at all the major
developed countries in the world during the 20th century -- Italy,
Germany, Japan, Russia, the U.S. -- we see that most all of them had
some period of economic collapse, in this case mostly due to World War
II and also the post-Soviet Union period.
At least 500,000 -- possibly as many as eight million -- Germans died
of starvation in the 1945-1949 period after World War II. We don't like
to think about that much.
the Fate of German Civilians under Allied Occupation,
Let's say there was an "economic collapse." The exact details or causes
hardly matter. The basic characteristics are that you no longer have a
job, and you can no longer easily buy things in the stores that come
from thousands of miles away. In this case, for simple survival
purposes, you might have to try to grow some food somehow. In practice,
you can often obtain grains in some fashion, because grains are easy to
transport. We send bags of grain to starving people in Rwanda for
example. However, we don't send them ripe tomatoes. So, the survival
farmer might get their grain somehow (not too difficult if you are near
the water where ships can dock), but they need to provide their own
vegetables. (If they were really left to their own devices to produce
all caloric intake, most urban residents would simply perish.)
It might be nice if a lot of people had at least a little experience
with producing food.
These "collapse" periods don't last forever. About five or ten years,
maybe. After that period, either there is some recovery of the previous
arrangement, so you can use the old existing stuff, or you start
creating a new arrangement, and thus you start building things. For
example, if, after five or ten years, you had no expectation that
automobiles would ever be available again, except for a couple local
warlords driving around in their G-Wagons, then you would go about
arranging your activities so that you didn't need an automobile. On a
large scale, this could be a no-car Traditional City.
I suppose some people would claim that all such "new arrangements"
would be impossible, for some reason like fossil fuels are not
available or what have you. This is nonsense. The fact of the matter
is, people have time and energy and problems to solve, so they solve
them. Why do you think people built trains in the first place? Because
they wanted to get from Point A to Point B overland, in a way that was
less laborious than a horse-drawn wagon on a dirt road. And they did it
with their bare hands, without fossil fuels (the early trains burned
wood), because they had time and energy and problems to solve.
Existing structures would be used at first, but over time, you have to
go to where you can make a living, as an agriculturalist perhaps or as
some sort of urban craft/profession/service provider. So, you will go
to that new place, and if existing structures are not appropriate, then
you will make some new ones. Detroit, for example, is full of
once-beautiful existing structures, but they have been abandoned
because nobody can make a living in Detroit, so they have gone
somewhere else. Even at a price of near-zero, nobody wants them. In the
same way, many suburban houses may eventually be abandoned (especially
if automobile transport becomes a rarity) for the simple reason that
there is no longer any reason to live in a particular suburb.
What if, for example, you lived in San Francisco's East Bay, and for
some reason gasoline became unavilable? At first, you would probably
sit and wait with crossed fingers that gasoline becomes available
again. Then, after time, maybe it becomes clear that gasoline will
never be available again at a price that justifies the daily use of
personal automobiles. Then what? Maybe the BART train is still running,
because people still need to move, so they figure out a way to keep it
running, because it is a heck of a lot easier to maintain one line of
rail track than it is to maintain thousands of miles of paved road and
hundreds of thousands of personal automobiles. Then, the areas that are
within a couple miles of the BART station (and maybe on the water)
become very desirable, and those areas that are accessible only by car
become less desirable. Eventually, people abandon their houses in the
distant suburbs and pile into the existing houses near the BART
station, until there are fifteen people per house. This is rather
uncomfortable, so they start building some new houses near the BART
station. Thus the new arrangement emerges.
I think that many of these "little teeny farm" types are really talking
about collapse. I, on the other hand, am talking about the arrangement
that follows collapse. Of course, you don't have to have a collapse.
You could just have a voluntary transition to a new arrangement.
Dmitry Orlov has some good points about a "voluntary transition to a
new arrangement." This is common on a personal level. You don't like
your job organizing the marketing of household soap products, so you
get into the television business. Or, you don't like living in Chicago,
so you move to Miami. Happens all the time.
However, this flexibility doesn't translate to the civilizational
level. So many people and entities are enjoying and profiting from the
existing arrangement, that often nobody can change the arrangement,
even if the arrangement as a whole is disintegrating. We see this with
the U.S. healthcare system, for example. Nobody thinks this is a good
system. A move to the sort of single-payer system common in other
developed countries would be a logical choice. (Not necessarily the
best choice, but logical considering that there are many examples of
acceptable results with this system.) However, it is very difficult to
actually transition to that new arrangement, because of all the
interests that profit from the existing arrangement. Instead, with the
Obama healthcare bill, we have in some sense a futher intensification
and entrenchement of the existing system. The same old thing, just more
Thus, on the large scale, it is quite common that systems simply
continue as they are until they collapse. Only after the collapse, when
all the entrenched interests have gone extinct, are people free to
establish a new arrangement.
On the other hand, it doesn't have to be this way. We replaced kerosene
lamps with electric lights, without having a kerosene-lamp collapse.
Within the context of collapse
of what the "little teeny farm" and "self-sufficiency" types say
is quite relevant, so maybe they are serving a purpose here whose
importance will become apparent later on.
Maybe Michelle Obama knows something?
Other comments in this series:
28, 2010: The Problem With Little Teeny Farms
The Traditional City: Bringing It All Together
to Suburban Hell
2010: Let's Take a Trip to New York 2: The Bad and the Ugly
24, 2010: Let's Take a Trip to New York City
2010: We Could All Be Wizards
2009: What a Real Train System Looks Like
2009: Life Without Cars: 2009 Edition
2009: What Comes After Heroic Materialism?
2009: Let's Kick Around Carfree.com
November 8, 2009: The Future Stinks
2009: Let's Take Another Trip to Venice
2009: Place and Non-Place
2009: Let's Take a Trip to Barcelona
September 20, 2009: The Problem of Scarcity 2: It's All In Your Head
September 13, 2009: The Problem of Scarcity
July 26, 2009:
Let's Take a Trip to an American Village 3: How the Suburbs Came to Be
July 19, 2009:
Let's Take a Trip to an American Village 2: Downtown
July 12, 2009:
Let's Take a Trip to an American Village
May 3, 2009: A
April 19, 2009: Let's Kick Around the "Sustainability" Types
March 3, 2009:
Let's Visit Some More Villages
2009: Let's Take a Trip to the French Village
2009: Let's Take a Trip to the English Village
Comex (scroll down)
January 4, 2009: Currency Management for Little Countries (scroll
Effects (scroll down)
August 10, 2008: Visions of Future Cities
2007: Let's Take a Trip to Tokyo
2007: Let's Take a Trip to Venice
July 9, 2007:
No Growth Economics