One of the defining aspects of our current civilisation and one of the most worrying trends of modernity, is our urbanisation as a species. When we take the long view of human history, it becomes obvious that for 99% of our history, we have been a rural people, the majority of us making our living off the land and in small, agrarian communities.
Though history (especially the last 2,000 years or so) has been written by the pens of the powerful concentrated in urban centres, our collective dependence on rural areas and the people who lived and farmed there was a stalwart of our survival.
According to recent studies, we have recently crossed the threshold of becoming a majority urban-dwelling species. Over half of our more than 8 billion people live in urban centres around the world and that number is only expected to increase in years to come. What does this mean for our collective survival? Is our urban-ness sustainable and desirable? How can we forge a healthy, ecological civilisational paradigm that is built around billions of people living away from the land where the most basic necessities of our survival are found and cultivated?
Some people might claim that urban livelihoods are inherently unsustainable, unethical, and leading us directly towards systemic collapse. While it is necessary to come to terms with the many contradictions that increased urbanisation has brought to our planet and our long term sustainability, there are also a number of unique opportunities that urban life offers for a more sustainable planet. Below we´ll look at some of the advantages that urban permaculture presents.
The educated consumer
The negative effects of modern civilisation are most strongly felt in those areas where we´ve completely given ourselves over to the industrial paradigm. In places like the United States, indigenous and agrarian cultures have been completely marginalised and relegated to the back seat of history as the dominant civilisational paradigm of economic growth and consumer culture became all encompassing.
Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the iconic neo-liberal leaders of the United States and Great Britain in the 1980s, proclaimed that once Communism fell, there was simply no other alternative (the TINA doctrine) to how life was to be organised. In recent years, however, a strong backlash to the neo-liberal, globalised economy and industrial culture has begun to emerge from within the very centres of power of this civilisation.
As the full costs and effects of our globalised economic system and industrial civilisational paradigm are beginning to be felt, more and more people are coming to realise that the “out of sight and out of mind” mentality is not the best path forward. Instead of simply trusting the masters of our economy to continue to provide the consumer with whatever he or she wants, more and more people are beginning to understand that their health and well-being and that of those who produce the goods they consume depends on them becoming educated consumers.
The educated consumer is he or she who accepts that “shopping” doesn´t occur in vacuum and that they need to accept the responsibility of their consumer habits and eventual consumer waste. The growth in educated consumers has led to the fair trade movement, among other international attempts to consume more ethically. Also, since most educated consumers come from urban places, there has been an increased interest in trying to close the gap between producer and consumer in order to establish more just and sustainable production and consumption patterns. This can be seen in the explosion of farmer’s markets, CSA programs, and other tools that allow small farmers to find the needed income to work the land sustainably.
Population density and the need to work together
While population density in urban areas can be considered to be a problem, it also presents a number of prospects for collaboration. Let´s consider the following example.
Imagine an over-populated apartment complex in downtown Baltimore. Race tensions run high, poverty is a major issue as most people live pay cheque to pay cheque and child obesity is soaring due to the lack of healthy, fresh food options. What would happen to a community like this if suddenly our industrial food system broke down?
Most people probably have images of people throwing chairs through store windows to carry off big screen TVs and grocery trolleys full of packaged foods. However, the opposite reaction could be true as well. Faced with the crisis of not having enough food to eat, people from this apartment complex could very well come together, share their knowledge and skills, and come up with a plan to turn the local park into a community garden.
Perhaps amongst the apartment building residents a few of them are carpenters and can contribute to building a greenhouse on the south side of their building. Others might have grown up in the countryside before migrating to the city and could share what they know about raising their own food. Perhaps there is a cook from a local restaurant with knowledge about different types of nutritious foods.
We may consider this to be an “ideal” scenario, but this arises in part from our tendency to lean towards individualism. One of the supposed “virtues” of our industrial culture is our rugged individualism; a belief that we can go it alone, pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, and make a decent living without having to depend on anyone else. We have been taught to be suspicious of others, and that´s why most of us probably would think that the “rational” response to a food crisis in downtown Baltimore would be to go out and loot the local Walmart.
Many people who profess to be fervent permaculture believers also fall into this trap. There is an affinity with the image of the “noble savage” living in peace and harmony with the natural world while the rest of the world goes to hell. Alone in the wilderness with his nicely constructed swales, fruit tree guilds, solar powered home, and rainwater catchment system, this image can be reassuring, though misleading.
The racial tensions, poverty, contamination, and population density of an inner city concrete jungle aren´t exactly considered to be an ideal setting for permaculture. However, densely populated places offer a resource that our “noble savage” living alone and enlightened in the wilderness would never have access to: the accumulated wealth of knowledge, experience, and skill that a diverse group of people offers.
As the industrial paradigm begins to unravel (and it will), having access to a bank of diverse experiences can be seen as a necessary step towards resiliency. In a strange way, the diverse residents of a broken down apartment building in Baltimore might very well be better prepared to build a sustainable world than our permaculture expert in the mountains.
Crisis as opportunity
It´s often said that the Chinese word for crisis, “pinyin”, is composed of two separate words: danger and opportunity. This cliché saying is often invoked by motivational speakers and businessmen to try and get people to see the glass as half full. Some Chinese language experts, however, have stated that the correct translation of the two Chinese characters that make up the word crisis is: danger and critical point.
If we´ve ever been at a critical point in our collective existence, it is now. The myriad dangers around us have resulted from a flawed civilisational paradigm that has seen the earth as nothing more than a bag of resources to be exploited.
From a realistic standpoint, our species is going to continue to be a primordially urban people. While a re-ruralisation through a sort of “back to the land” movement will hopefully increase the amount of people living on the land, we need to understand that the majority of people simply do not have the necessary skills and know-how to make a living off of the land.
For urban areas to meaningfully contribute to the construction of a new, more sustainable and just society, we need people in cities to wake up to the fact that we are in the midst of a critical point, and, to return to the cliché, to see opportunity even within that danger to forge a new path towards a sustainable civilisation.