The “Long Emergency”, Permaculture, and Towns that Food Saved
We live in dangerous times, when economic collapse, climate chaos, and peak oil threaten the foundations of society, abundance, and all we hold dear. “Business as usual” will no longer suffice, because that way leads to certain pain, peril and impoverishment.
Unspeakable acts of violence like the slaughter at the Sandy Hook school or the Boston Marathon bombing; natural disasters like Katrina and Sandy; economic uncertainty; technical failure; “peak everything;” and climate change can offer opportunities for either despair and disengagement or innovative collaboration. In the aftermath of such disasters communities often experience a surge of purposefulness to deal with the crisis. As a result, there is a need for better understanding of the specific and general resilience of communities, ecosystems, organizations, and institutions to cope with change.
This post examines the use of permaculture principles to harness purposefulness for collaborative planning for resilience and regeneration by examining two communities that are surviving and in some cases thriving by building on the “sense of purpose” that occurs after a disaster or downturn.
This collaboration can take many forms including but not limited to defining “place” and by building consensus. In order to work there needs to be agreed upon definitions of place, resilience, regeneration, and permaculture.
Spirit of place symbolizes the living ecological relationship between a particular location and the persons who have derived from it and added to it the various aspects of their humanness. The reason we are now desecrating nature is not because we use it to our ends, but because we commonly manipulate it without respect for the spirit of place. — Rene Dubos
“Where sustainability is abstract, Place is intimate, personal, filled with meaning and potential. Place arises from the rich connections among the earth, local nature and spirit. Regenerative development captures the unique rhythm and spirit of a place, partnering people and their place to create enduring value for all life. It helps people truly experience place, growing the caring required to make sustainability real.” (Regenesis) Resilience may be defined as: “The capability to anticipate risk, limit impact, and bounce back rapidly through survival, adaptability, evolution, and growth in the face of turbulent change. Regeneration is the process of “building local capacity for sustainability that endures.” (Resilientus.org.)
The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century is a book by James Howard Kunstler. Written in 2005, the book explores the consequences of a world oil production peak, coinciding with the forces of climate change, resurgent diseases, water scarcity, global economic instability and warfare that causes chaos for future generations. Kunstler argues that the economic upheavals caused by peak oil will force Americans to live in more localized, self-sufficient communities.
Permaculture is method of building on the “sense of purpose” that can be born from crisis resulting in a “new localism.” Permaculture is “Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fiber and energy for provision of local needs. People, their buildings and the ways in which they organize themselves are central to Permaculture. Thus the Permaculture vision of permanent or sustainable agriculture has evolved to one of permanent or sustainable culture.”
The core tenets of permaculture are:
- Take Care of the Earth: Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply. Without a healthy earth, humans cannot flourish.
- Take Care of the People: Provision for people to access those resources necessary for their existence.
- Share the Surplus: Healthy natural systems use outputs from each element to nourish others. We humans can do the same. By governing our own needs, we can set resources aside to further the above principles.
Consciousness of place and helping to shift belief systems can be encouraged by applying the common sense permaculture ethics of care for the earth, care for people, and return of surplus — and by application of P.A. Yeomans’ functional relationship analysis to map, examine, and analyze the community or bioregion’s climate, landform, water, access and circulation, micro-climates, vegetation and wildlife, buildings and infrastructure, zones of use, soil fertility and management, and aesthetics and culture to give us the basic information we need to plan for more resilient communities and bioregions.
The following are the basic tenets for community and bioregional sustainability. Communities can take advantage of the sense of purpose that results from crisis by exploring, and if there is consensus, implementing some or all of the following:
- Operate as a self-contained economy with resources found locally.
- Be carbon-neutral and become a center for renewable energy production.
- Achieve a well-planned regional and local transportation system that prioritizes movement of goods and people as follows: walking first, then cycling, public transportation, and finally private and commercial vehicles.
- Maximize water conservation and efficiency of energy resources through conservation.
- Design and construct a zero-waste system.
- Restore environmentally damaged urban areas by converting brownfields to greenfields.
- Ensure decent and affordable housing for all.
- Improve job opportunities for disadvantaged groups, and allow seniors and young people to play useful and meaningful civic roles.
- Support local agriculture and produce distribution.
- Support cooperatives and worker-owned commercial and manufacturing enterprises.
- Promote voluntary simplicity in lifestyle choices, decreasing material consumption, and increasing awareness of the environment and sustainability
Detroit, MI, Hardwick, VT, and Facing The “Long Emergency”
Detroit was once one of the wealthiest cities in the world and now is the face of an almost dystopian failure while the small town of Hardwick, VT grappled with a changing economy and the loss of a once thriving regional industry. Both of these communities are examples of “towns that food saved.”
The Hardwick, VT population is 3000 and it’s the commercial center for the region’s farming population. Granite quarrying was the predominant business after the civil war, and railroads were built to get the granite to the cities in which it was used for city halls and post offices. Hardwick is almost the antithesis of Detroit, it is almost exclusively white and rural, but two factors connect the two — agriculture and median family income.
Hardwick came to national attention as a result of a 2008 New York Times article, Uniting Around Food to Save an Ailing Town, that said in part, “This town’s granite companies shut down years ago and even the rowdy bars and porn theater that once inspired the nickname “Little Chicago” have gone.”
Facing a Main Street dotted with vacant stores, residents of this hardscrabble community of 3,000 are reaching into its past to secure its future, betting on farming to make Hardwick the town that was saved by food. With the fervor of internet pioneers, young artisans and agricultural entrepreneurs are expanding aggressively, reaching out to investors and working together to create a collective strength never before seen in this seedbed of Yankee individualism.
In 2010 Ben Hewitt, a native Vermonter and Cabot VT farmer, wrote a book about Hardwick called, The Town That Food Saved.
“In The Town That Food Saved, Ben explores the contradictions inherent to producing high-end “artisanal” food products in a working class community. To better understand how a local food system might work, he spends time not only with the agripreneurs, but also with the region’s numerous small-scale food producers, many of which have been quietly operating in the area for decades. The result is a delightfully inquisitive peek behind the curtain of the town that has been dubbed the “Silicon Valley of local food.”
Not without tension between some of the “newcomers” and ”old-timers,” Hardwick is home to a range of for profit and non-profit food enterprises including the Center for an Agricultural Economy, Claire’s Restaurant, the nearby Bees Knees, Butterworks Farm, Pete’s Greens CSA, High Mowing Seeds, The Buffalo Mountain Coop, Vermont Soy, Bonnieview Farms, Jasper Hill Farms, and Heartbeet Life Sharing, a nonprofit licensed Therapeutic Community Residence based on the Steiner approach called Anthroposophy, among many others. The Hardwick experiment is ongoing, but agri-tourism, a vibrant downtown, and new jobs and economic opportunity appear to be the result.
Permaculture, consciousness of place, bioregional identity, and Yeomans’ functional relationship analysis (whether planned or by default) probably played a role in Hardwick’s evolution to a more resilient community.
Detroit may be one of the best examples of what “a long emergency,” “white flight,” suburban sprawl, loss of manufacturing jobs, and “loss of a sense of place” can do to a city. Detroit, once the beneficiary of the industrial revolution and “Motor City”, the center of automobile manufacturing in the US, has become one of the most visible symbols of urban decay. Between 2000 and 2010 the population fell by 25%. Its 713,000 population is down 60% since 1950. The flight of the automobile manufacturers in the 1980’s exacerbated the situation, as did the “Twelfth Street Riot” of July 1970 during which more than 2000 buildings were destroyed, and thousands of small businesses closed.
Despite some efforts to “brand” downtown as a “Renaissance” city within the city there continues to be severe urban decay. More than half of the owners of Detroit’s properties failed to pay their 2011 tax bills. There are thousands of empty homes, apartment buildings, and commercial buildings around the city. Some parts of Detroit are so sparsely populated the city is having difficulty providing police, fire protection, schools, trash removal, snow removal, lighting, and other municipal services. In March 2013, the Governor appointed an emergency manager to deal with the city’s $327 million budget deficit and more than $14 billion in long-term debt. Detroit remains one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States, and in February 2013 as many as 42,000 of Detroit’s estimated 380,000 homes could face foreclosure. The city now owns almost a third of the land in Detroit.
For those who stay in the city, it is nearly impossible to find fresh vegetables and fruits as all supermarket chains in the area closed, making Detroit a food desert. A study from Yale’s Rudd Center recently found that Detroit residents are “statistically more likely to suffer or die prematurely from a diet-related disease, holding other key factors constant,” due to the severely limited access to healthy food.
Taking a huge gamble, Detroit has been engaged in a series of efforts to deal with the near collapse of its economy and neighborhoods, and the city appears to be embracing agriculture as one remedy. The
“greening” of Detroit will have other consequences as well, providing greenways to manage storm water; growing hardwood forests that will improve air quality and eventually provide both lumber and firewood. New jobs in both the demolition of vacant buildings and in the development of facilities creates economic opportunities, provides an improved food distribution systems, addresses nutritional and health issues while reducing food’s “carbon footprint” in vulnerable and under served communities. This innovative solution will combat food inequities in under served communities and help to eliminate “food deserts.”
Urban farming has become increasingly popular in recent years as a way to deal with vacant property, revitalize neighborhoods and provide job skills and nutrition to remaining local residents struggling with poverty and a lack of access to fresh produce.
Detroit is no stranger to urban agriculture. The community garden movement in the United States was born in Detroit during the depression of the 1890s, when Detroit mayor Hazen Pingree initiated a program to donate vacant land for gardens to supplement the diets and incomes of the unemployed. These gardens became known as “Pingree’s Potato Patches;” the program was subsequently copied by several other large cities.
In February 2013 Detroit adopted the City of Detroit Urban Agriculture Ordinance that allows, among other things, aquaculture and aquaponics, composting, farmers’ markets, greenhouses, orchards, and urban farms and gardens in certain locations and under certain circumstances.
Like Hardwick, non-profits, entrepreneurs, universities, and development companies are beginning to lay the groundwork for an agricultural based environmental, economic, and social equity based recovery. LEAP, the Lower Eastside Action Plan, is playing a substantive role by “engag(ing) people in a community-driven project to transform land and property into uses that improve the quality of life in our neighborhood.”
Urban Farming, a national organization, has maps of community gardens and farms in Detroit on its website. Grassroots organizations like the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network whose farm is depicted in this YouTube video, is a coalition of organizations and individuals working together to build food security in Detroit’s Black community. Keep Growing Detroit, The Greening of Detroit, The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative, Warrior Demonstration Garden, and St. Andrew’s Allotment Garden, are some of the others. Other enterprises are featured in a film, Urban Roots — When Everything Collapses, Plant Your Field of Dreams, like Earthworks Urban Farm, a mobile market "bringing fresh produce at the best possible prices to the neighborhood." Others are Georgia Street Community Collective, The Detroit Food Policy Council and the controversial Hantz Farms, that some in the city think of as a “land grab”, are all pieces of the quilt of urban agriculture that is transforming Detroit.
Food businesses, universities, and institutions like Eli Tea, Avalon International Breads (a place Mark Bittman of the New York Times calls the unofficial meeting place for the Detroit food movement), Motor City Brewing Works, Detroit Eastern Market, Seed Wayne at Wayne State University that works in partnership with community-based organizations promoting access to healthy foods, urban agriculture, farm-to-institution, and food planning and policy development, Earthworks Urban Farm, a program of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, and the Catherine Ferguson Academy (CFA) is a charter-operated high school in Detroit for pregnant girls and teen mothers. The school has an urban farm in its backyard, and provides day care and pre-school education for the students’ children. The school was almost shut down as a result of cut backs by the emergency manager but has re-emerged as a charter school. These institutions and businesses support the burgeoning urban farm enterprises. There are also a few farm-to-table restaurants that are springing up in Detroit and the surrounding area.
Regardless of the conditions of a city like Detroit, including the fact that corporations have abandoned it, there is a tremendous amount of opportunity for those who want to plant their own food and build their own homes. Is there opportunity in the face of the constraints and does permaculture have answers to the issue of food deserts and crumbling infrastructure?
Permaculture, as a method for dealing with Detroit’s “Long Emergency”, seems like an oxymoron. But much like Hardwick, food is the glue that may hold the city’s true renaissance together.
In the worst scenario, America is becoming Detroit. In the most optimistic sense, both Detroit and Hardwick are examples of the impulse to engage in the development of a sustainable, resilient, self-reliant community whether urban or rural. Bringing the ethics and principles of permaculture design and regenerative systems into the classroom, the council chambers, and the boardroom can accelerate the recovery.
Permaculture can empower the people of Detroit to determine and create a future of their choosing, independent of, or perhaps in partnership with institutions that recognize that a sustainable community is a collaboration of people of all backgrounds, skills, beliefs, ideologies and styles that can facilitate and support the development of Detroit as a post-carbon, post-industrial, regenerative “Place,” and potentially a replicable model for other cities to follow.