Barnaby Bennett & Tania Sawicki Mead
In 1968 when Nina Simone sung the haunting line ‘“What? Gonna happen now? In all of our cities?”. she was raising the spectre of the significant protest and civil unrest that affected America in the 1960s. The line is both a warning and a call to duty. In the same year that saw the rise of the civil rights movement and the fall of Martin Luther King, the empire that was unable to contain the peaceful force of Kings message, had through the power of its technological might, gifted humanity one of its most consciousness altering moments. The first full view of Earth came from the moonbound Apollo 8 mission, during the waning days of the chaotic year of 1968. Because of the distance needed to see the entire circumference of the earth only 12 humans have ever witnessed it. The American Astronaut Bill Anders, who photographed the first famous pictures of the round blue shape in space, commented
“We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”
It is no surprise that the modern environmental movement sprung from this same decade and the growing awareness that this planet is a rare coloured jewel in our known universe, and that we as humans are compelled to share it with each other. While the space-race was no doubt driven by an empire hellbent on establishing itself as the sole power on our planet it produced a stunning unintended consequence of an image so unique it started a new global conscience, and in the same year the tragic and inevitable murder of stunning orator and powerful voice of peace Martin Luther King created mayhem and destruction in over 100 American cities. So when Nina Simone sings “what, gonna happen now, to all our cities?” she may well have been wondering about life on earth some 40 years later. As of March 2009, the world’s population is estimated to be about 6.76 billion, in the 1960s there was a little over 3 billion people. The need for water, food and land is forcing the rapid urbanization of the planet. Following the horrors of World War II there as a brief period of political harmony and enlightened behavior and as a result the past 50 years has seen the growth and recognition of a fundamental human rights for all humans.
However, given the unrelenting rise of human population, dwindling resources and massive concern from the impacts of pollution, and our dependence on cheap energy; how are we ever going to guarantee these important rights for all people, and if we don’t who gets to decide who loses out.? How do we support and develop the power structures that seem necessary for our healthy survival while making sure they do not result in the unintended enslavement of ourselves or others? As humans we cannot help but place values on the things that exist and occur around us. The events that occur in the universe are carefully observed and identified as been ‘good’ and ‘bad’ things. But due to the complex inter-connectivity of the world around us, and the complex social and economic reality we choose to live in these divisions are often overlapping and contradictory. Good begets bad and vice versa. Clear and definitive courses of action for good become difficult to come by. On the rare occasions when these situations do arrive we naturally call them win-wins, or no-brainers. A course of action becomes apparent.
History teaches us nothing if not that the best and worst of intentions can produce the most drastic of unintended consequences. It took Hitler’s atrocities to produce a universal declaration of a shared humanity and human rights, and more recently the noble goal of decreasing our use of oil-based petrols resulted in the surge in biofuel crops resulting in the steep rise in global food prices and rioting and starvation in many nations.
In this world struck by the triple headed problems of rampant population growth, an end to cheap energy, and human induced heating of the planet; we need to return to first principles and ask ourselves “Are there any actions left to us that can produce positive change without unintended violent consequences?”
At least one: Gardening!
“Once our personal connection to what is wrong becomes clear, then we have to choose: we can go on as before, recognizing our dishonesty and living with it the best we can, or we can begin the effort to change the way we think and live.”
To me this sums up nicely the myriad of reasons for gardening as it relates to global systems of food production, why small gestures can go a long way to combat structural evils. As Michael Pollan notes, gardening is possibly the best course of action a single, environmentally-aware person can achieve by themselves, and feel virtuous about doing so. However it is this very virtue that has given gardening, eating locally and biking instead of driving a kind of smug, self-important stigma: why do we pursue these actions when the rest of the world seems hell bent on undoing all the good we might achieve?
Gardening is personally, socially and economically useful. It nourishes the soul as well as the body. As educated urbanites we are exposed daily to statistics which illustrate a crumbling world. Being part of the global elite means it is hard not to feel partly responsible, despite our best intentions to the contrary. This is not to suggest that we are more hard done by than the true pall-bearers of social and environmental degradation. Quite the opposite. But as humans we feel moral obligations that supercede what we have personally experienced—again, we understand the difference between what things are and what they should be. Or at least we should.
So to create and nourish a garden is to do something, to throw wet soil in the face of doomsayers and nihilists. It can help us reduce our dependence on global systems of food production which are so complex we can no longer understand how our eating impacts others, let alone our own bodies. “But the act I want to talk about is growing some—even just a little—of your own food. Rip out your lawn, if you have one, and if you don’t—if you live in a highrise, or have a yard shrouded in shade—look into getting a plot in a community garden. Measured against the Problem We Face, planting a garden sounds pretty benign, I know, but in fact it’s one of the most powerful things an individual can do—to reduce your carbon footprint, sure, but more important, to reduce your sense of dependence and dividedness: to change the cheap-energy mind.”
It has been said that we need to drastically alter our economy and means of production to modes similar to those experienced during the World Wars when sacrifices were made universally and societies goals were clear. (to win the War!) During WWII Victory Gardens supplied as much as 40 percent of Americans produce! Now in our terrifying age we need to produce some shared goals (Win the war against the Environment!) so that there is some direct correlation between our actions as individuals and the political decisions that are made on our behaves. Whatever we can do as individuals to change the way we live at this suddenly very late date may seem utterly inadequate to the challenge. It’s hard to argue with Michael Specter, in a recent New Yorker piece on carbon footprints, when he says: “Personal choices, no matter how virtuous [N.B.!], cannot do enough. It will also take laws and money. So it will. Yet it is no less accurate or hardheaded to say that laws and money cannot do enough, either; that it will also take profound changes in the way we live. Why? Because the climate-change crisis is at its very bottom a crisis of lifestyle — of character, even. The Big Problem is nothing more or less than the sum total of countless little everyday choices, most of them made by us (consumer spending represents 70 percent of our economy), and most of the rest of them made in the name of our needs and desires and preferences.”
The task ahead requires a fundamental rethinking of the way we live. We can cross our fingers and hope that the scientists have got it wrong or put our money on the long shot that some very cheap energy source such as fusion will emerge, or we can face the imminent future one small gesture at a time.
Go forth and propagate!
“Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be.”
Wendell Berry, Kentucky farmer and writer.
Nina Simone- Why? (The King of Love is Dead)