The Call, Column 67 – “Adventurous Agrarians: Why Every Human Should Grow Food and Also Travel”

12 03 2017

(March 12, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

“Adventurous Agrarians”: Why Every Human Should Grow Food and Also Travel

 

What values do you use to drive your decision-making? Do you have an overarching worldview – a religion, environmental ethic, scientific mindset, political philosophy, or even a business-based set of ideals – that influences you on a daily basis? And maybe, do you have more than just one, and have to weigh them against each other when making decisions?
Today’s column is going to be a little different than normal. Rather than exploring an environmental or agricultural topic, we’re going to delve into two of the basic worldviews that help me, personally, to make decisions; worldviews that, I believe, many of my fellow urban farmers are also guided by. These philosophies exist simultaneously in my mind and, at different times, help to guide my decisions. But they don’t always appear to be consistent with each other…and today, I want us to figure out how we might make them so.
On the one hand, I would guess that almost every urban farmer, myself happily included, is an agrarian. We love the small-scale and local production model, the pastoral idyll, and distinct but closely-related philosophies like minimalism and conscious consumption. This is a mindset of slow-living, of love and intimate knowledge of your ecological place and your home, and the faith that the local landscape is capable of providing us with everything our bodies and minds and souls need. This is the philosophy of Wendell Berry, and of anyone who defines themselves as “a homesteader”.
But on the other hand, based in my personal experience, I think a lot of us possess that “jolly wanderer” type of mindset as well. That zest-for-life, which makes us want to travel the world and see far off places and people. The desire for new, varied experiences and adventures, and a love for nature and the environment that makes us want to soak in as much of this pale blue dot as we can, while we’re still here. Millennials sort of universally share this mindset, but so does anyone who finds value even in just being outdoors.
It is my style to constantly challenge my own beliefs, mostly in my mind, in order to test their validity. I figure that any logical person probably does the same. And with that, comes the desire to have a self-consistent set of beliefs and worldviews so I can never rightfully be called a hypocrite.
At first glance, these two worldviews – the “agrarian” and the “traveler” – are diametrically opposed; they are inconsistent, and so far, it has been kind of hard for me to accept their shared residence in my mind. I feel like many of you have the same problem. Which is why I am asking today’s question: how do we reconcile these seemingly competing worldviews? Are the world-traveler and the student of Wendell Berry really at odds, or might they be two sides of the same coin?
Having not yet explored either philosophy deeply enough, this apparent inconsistency is made obvious by my sleeping pattern – or lack thereof. Depending on my mood any given day, I either go to bed and wake up nice and early, because “that’s what a farmer would do, since there are cows to be milked and morning chores to do” (I do not have cows), or I insist to my friends that we stay out late and paint the town red, because we have to live life to the fullest. You can’t get much more contradictory than that.
Again, with a very basic understanding of both philosophies, there are some noticeable incompatibilities: agrarianism is a very community-based, selfless ideal, while the adventurer is more individualistic; agrarianism is associated with certain conservative principles, and is common amongst rural people, while adventurism, often with progressivism and the big city; the adventurer seems willing to use resources in order to gain experiences, while agrarianism concerns itself more with resource conservation; the agrarian extols the virtues of making roots and long-term connections to the local place, while the adventurer sees the whole world as home.
Right now, you are probably thinking: how can one person passionately hold both of these views? After writing that list, I’ll admit I’m thinking the same thing. But I have a 500 word outline of reasons why we can, so let’s see if we can’t answer that question together.
First off, I’ll say that I don’t think these two outlooks come from the same place in our minds or souls. I have come to believe that they were engrained into our DNA – and even, if we look hard enough, some ancient elements of our species’ culture – by our own evolutionary history on Earth.
We were hunter-gatherers for 2.6 million years prior to the start of agriculture: we lived in nature; we spent much of our day in recreation and play; our tribal communities, though small, were probably stronger than they have been since; and we moved around a lot, experiencing and reveling in the great big world around us. It’s funny, how that sounds a lot like the jolly traveler mindset put into perfect practice.
And then, we started agriculture 10 or 15 thousand years ago. Though not our best decision, it brought with it a slew of new experiences. For the first time, we settled down; we tied the idea of community not only to our tribe of people, but to a geographical location, a place; we as agriculturalists traded our ancestors’ lifelong quest for new, wild sources of food, water, energy, and shelter, for the deliberate production of our own (and the smart ones put up emergency stores and extracted at sustainable rates); we developed a cultural connection to the animals, plants, and geographic character of the lands we called home. That agrarian mindset is the same that exists, to this day, in the writings of people like Wendell Berry.
I think it’d be straightforward to make the argument that our time spent as hunter-gatherers encoded the traveler ethic into our DNA, while our time as agriculturalists left us with a penchant for agrarianism. And this might be exactly why the two modern philosophies don’t seem obviously consistent – they are two distinct elements of our genetics, our psychology, and our culture. But just because they come from our adaptations to different lifestyles, doesn’t necessarily make them inconsistent.
To embrace agrarianism, or adventurism, or both, is to reject the worst elements of modern, Western, industrial life. Both of these worldviews reject the idea that a day in meaningful life is to wake up, go to the gym, go to work, come home, watch TV, and sleep. In fact, both worldviews are based in the idea of living a meaningful, fulfilling life!
They even prescribe similar definitions of what “a meaningful life” entails. Both reject the obsession with passive consumption and material goods that defines modern, western life. They embrace the vivacious elements of our species’ behavior – creation, recreation, love and kinship, appreciation of the natural world, and love of good food; and both worldviews value experiences over things, in full recognition of the fact that new experiences literally create more vivid imprints on our memories than repetitive ones. (Don’t believe me? Recall your last vacation, or camping trip, or the last time you spent time in your garden. Good, now tell me what you did at work on the Tuesday following that experience, or what you ate for dinner the following Thursday. See what I mean?).
Where agrarianism makes you hyper-focused on the ebbs and flows of your chosen place – the first sign of robins in the spring, the last warm day of summer, and the flowering of your favorite fruit tree are the “new experiences” that drive your life – the traveler ethic lets you connect to a variety of places like this, with less intimacy but more variety than agrarianism.
Both philosophies are based in an appreciation of nature, and also of the best aspects of humanity. As a traveler, you are exploring the world, going to see the natural wonders and the good, wholesome things that can be produced by human society. And the same is true of agrarianism, though you lean more towards being a producer and protector and preserver of those things.
My immediate motivation to write this column was actually that I will be leaving on a trip to Italy next week, after writing to you on the real and present dangers of climate change.
Now, I will be purchasing carbon offset credits for this and all future flights (which effectively negate my portion of the flight’s environmental impact). But still, I was bothered by the apparent inconsistency in being an agrarian soul who has recently found a love for travel and adventure. This column has given me a lot of peace in that regard. I’d love for you to email me with your thoughts, so see if it did the same for you.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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The Call, Column 52 – “The Peace of Wild Things, Who Do Not Tax Their Lives”

31 07 2016

(July 31, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

“The Peace of Wild Things, Who Do Not Tax Their Lives”

Let me tell you a story. I was working in my garden a few months ago, replanting that bed of greens that had, yet again, been visited by my resident woodchuck. I happened to look up at the right time, and I noticed that the chickens were taking a break from their determined pursuit of bugs, and were instead watching me work. It was as if they were questioning what I could possibly be doing, putting so much effort into digging the soil, just to pass up the tasty worms, beetles, and crab grass already there for the taking, and instead plant small, fragile annuals that, by the looks of it, I had no intention of immediately pecking (err, eating) down to the root.

I imagined them saying something of that nature; and in response, I found myself both full of pride – that I regularly participate in humanity’s long tradition of hard agricultural labor in order to grow food – and resentment – because they, like every other animal on Earth, do not.

Today’s column is going to be much deeper and more emotional than you’re used to. I’m going to start by being really honest with you about one of my most deep-seated behavioral quirks. I’ve always had a problem with time, and specifically a hyperawareness of its passage. It probably started some time in high school, when my meticulous need to control things and my focus on academics turned into a constant awareness of “how much time is left before ___” (“bed”, “this assignment is due”, “the summer ends”, “I die, statistically speaking”) and a tendency to write exorbitant to-do lists as a record of everything that I want to accomplish in that time.

As the years have passed, and my time is increasingly spent on responsible adult activities (high school, then college, then grad school, and now working two jobs), these quirks have gotten worse. There are a lot of things that I enjoy doing, and others that I feel it is my civic or human responsibility to do. And so to make sure that none of them get overlooked or forgotten, I obsessively keep track of them with lists – I currently have at least five separate ones, including a four-year-old Word document that is perpetually opened on my laptop. Inevitably, all of the things on my lists do not get done in the ridiculous timelines I set for them, and with my urban farm and various related hobbies and political involvement and social life and trying to work towards my central life goals, the lists tend to grow rather than shrink.

I try to accomplish as much as possible each day, but with the cropping up of unforeseen daily tasks, my constant awareness of the limitedness of the time I have to do those tasks, and the fact that I always carry some form of to-do list with me to remind me of all I have to do…I often get overwhelmed with whatever I’m doing, and frequently end up feeling that I haven’t accomplished much of anything. This leads me to be more conscious of my time, and more vigilant with my writing of lists. And the evil cycle continues.

I would imagine that everyone has anxieties similar to these, albeit probably not as pervasive as those I’ve just described. So why did I just throw all of this at you?

Our early human ancestors – whose bodies and brains we still inhabit, like it or not – spent no more than a few hours a day hunting or gathering their food. The rest was spent in recreation, in exploring the huge, wonderful world around them. The anxieties I’ve discussed above are but one of the products of modern, Western society, where the threat of not fitting into the group forces otherwise social, recreational, natural, biologically-wild animals – yes, us, human beings – to conform to a rigid definition of what responsible life looks like, deviating so fiercely from our adaptive behaviors. We are forced into a mold of taxpaying, law-abiding consumerism, where our natural inclination to explore, create, and revel in the lives we’ve been given, living in and for the present moment with a clear mind and no anxieties about what’s to come and what hasn’t yet been done, is squashed; rejected, in favor of the faux security of a society which only values us insofar as we make our tax, loan, and insurance payments, and buy cheap plastic goods from foreign sweatshops.

In thinking about this column, I kept returning to a few lines from my favorite poem, “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry. It’s very short, and you can read it at http://tinyurl.com/berrypeacewild, which I strongly suggest you do before continuing.

The poem is about Berry’s concern for the degradation of human society and the Earth; and about how he finds solace in uncivilized nature. He describes how he comes “into the peace of wild things/ who do not tax their lives with forethought/ of grief”, and rests “in the grace of the world”.

Consider stress. There are three major types: acute, which occurs irregularly over a very short time, like what is felt before asking someone on a date; episodic, which is made up of acute stressors that happen frequently and regularly, like an alarm clock blaring every morning; and chronic, which is the result of long-term situations and becomes an underlying feature of daily life, like debt.

In this, I believe, lies the key to understanding the “peace of wild things”, and why it contrasts so starkly with the discord of modern civilization. The only real type of stress that exists in the wild is acute – an attack by a predator, being temporarily unable to find food or water, a scary or threatening weather event. The prevalence of these stressors is even naturally reduced over time, because they represent evolutionary pressures that are solved with migration, adaptation, collaboration, and (infrequently) extinction.

These wild things, ranging from the most intelligent primates (other than us) and dolphins, to the simplest microbes and plants, “do not tax their lives with forethought of grief”. They live in a habitat for which their species has become well-adapted over time, and which itself has been shaped by their species, that provides them with the food, water, shelter, and community they need to survive. As it’s said in one of my favorite verses from the Gospel of Matthew (6:26-27), “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

The “despair for the world” that Berry describes is, I believe, a perfect surrogate for the chronic and episodic stressors that define modern human life. In my world, those are my various to-do lists and my hyperawareness of the limitedness of time, which tend to make my behavior so reactionary and filled with forethoughts of what’s to come, that it’s almost always impossible to live in the moment.

And then, I step outside. I walk in the woods, or through my garden at sunrise; with no phone, no to-do list, no way of telling the time. “I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

There’s a reason that Jesus often went off into the quiet of natural areas to talk to the Father; why Thoreau relished his quiet existence on the bank of Walden Pond; why studies consistently find medical benefits to time spent in nature, even without any component of exercise. We are wild things.

That imagined conversation with my chickens sparked an awesome awareness that happiness, contentedness, the removal of chronic stress lie outside constrains imposed by human society. I’m still sort of working through this awareness, and it has manifested itself as an overwhelming desire for adventure, for breaking arbitrary rules (note I didn’t say “laws”) and living in such a way that my behavior and recreation is dictated by what I want to do, right now, in this place, rather than by what I have to do.

To truly be happy, we have to spend time in nature; away from to-do lists, from our phones, from the worrying that, as Matthew alludes, blinds us to the amazing, natural Creation around us, while adding not a single hour to our lives. We have to spend time amongst contended wild things, and learn from nature by going into nature. We inhabit wild bodies with wild brains. Only once we finally recognize that concept will we be free.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 45 – Decision 2016: A Report Card on Environmental Advocacy

24 04 2016

(April 24, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Decision 2016: A Report Card on Environmental Advocacy

Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.”

~Wendell Berry~

            You can probably tell, if you’ve read my column, that I have a deep concern for the political issues involving the health of our environment, the development of our renewable energy supply, and the sustainability of our agriculture. It’s no secret that these are the issues that I use in deciding for whom to cast my vote.

As I’ve made pretty clear in the past, I believe those three topics to be of the absolute greatest importance to human beings, present and future, and our continued comfortable existence on Earth. We all require food in order not to die, and it is wise to produce (and politically, encourage the production of) that food by means that don’t destroy our ability to do so in the process. We all require energy to heat our homes, power our transportation, and create and share information, and it is in our best interest to invest in renewable, alterative sources, rather than be reliant on fossil fuels doomed to run out in the very near future. And we are all utterly dependent on the Earth’s environment, with our fates as individuals and, even greater, as a species tied intimately to its health – so it might be wise for our governments to prevent localized pollution, and work to stop human-caused climate change while we still can.

Today, we’ll discuss each of the five 2016 presidential candidates – Senator Bernie Sanders, Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Former Governor John Kasich, Senator Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump – and their stances on the above issues. I’ll draw from their official campaign websites, along with their voting and opinion records as recorded at OnTheIssues.org, and give them each a grade for their overall advocacy in issues of the environment, energy, and agriculture.

Let’s begin with the Democrats, who are neck and neck in a race that has increasingly become a cage match between bold, anti-political progressivism and politically-expedient moderateness. Both Senator Sanders and Former Secretary Clinton have sections on their websites dedicated to climate change and the related policy, and are in fact the only two of the five candidates who do so, despite climate change being a present and immediate threat to our species’ wellbeing.

Senator Bernie Sanders has a long, proven record on environmental, energy, and agricultural policy, receiving a score of 90% from the League of Conservation Voters. His website includes strong language about the threat of human-caused climate change and its root causes, both direct (fossil fuels) and indirect (the economic drivers that motivate their use). It also includes sections against localized pollution, hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of natural gas, and the related infrastructure, and support for small farms and rural agricultural communities. His voting record is pristine when it comes to these issues. He has consistently supported US and international climate change legislation, the adoption of renewable energies to supplant fossil fuels, regulations on localized pollution, GMO labeling, public transportation, and the protection of natural ecosystems; he has consistently opposed offshore and ANWR drilling, unsustainable agricultural practices, and subsidy programs that choke out small farmers.

Bernie Sanders get an A.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton often aligns with the Democratic Party’s views on political issues, including environmental ones, and received a score of 89% from the League of Conservation Voters. Like other areas of her campaign, she has similar language as Senator Sanders on her website, including detailed pages on climate change and energy reform as well as the preservation of small-scale agriculture and rural communities. Her voting record reflects support for climate change legislation, renewable energies, and more sustainability considerations in the transportation industry, and opposition to ANWR drilling, and she has only recently made these issues important parts of her platform. She is lukewarm on nuclear power, and was indifferent-to-supportive of the Keystone natural gas pipeline prior to this campaign. Her campaign has also indirectly benefitted from contributions by the oil and gas industries.

Hillary Clinton gets a B.

And now, for the Republican candidates. Historically, the environment has not been a topic of discussion or debate within Republican primaries, while energy has been, only insofar as our supply is a national security concern (which is one important part of the discussion). This election cycle is different, with climate change coming up during a debate in March. Three of the four candidates at the time – Senator Rubio, Mr. Trump, and Senator Cruz – denied both the fact of human-caused climate change and the value in taking legislative action to mitigate its effects, while Former Governor Kasich took an approach relatively more aligned with the science, accepting the truth of climate change and a certain level of human responsibility for it, and advocating for moderate energy policy. Let’s start with him.

Former Governor John Kasich is the Republican candidate with the highest level of support for pro-environmental action, though his website does not include a section on any of the relevant topics. As mentioned above, he accepts the fact of human-caused climate change and has used his gubernatorial and (in the past) legislative power to affect some change towards greater sustainability, a stance which deviates greatly from his party’s belief. In some cases, he has opposed climate change remediation and renewable energy legislation; in others, he has supported such laws when they make provisions for economic growth. However, he voted against the Kyoto Protocol in 2000.

John Kasich gets a D, with bonus points for being a dissenter.

Senator Ted Cruz does not dedicate a page on his website to any issue related to the environment, agriculture, or energy. He has repeatedly denied the fact of human-caused climate change, instead perpetuating untrue arguments in an attempt to discredit climate science and comparing environmentalism to a religion. He has taken contributions from the fossil fuel industry, which are reflected in his voting record. He has consistently opposed legislative action on climate change, the promotion of renewable energies, and the protection of natural environments, and instead supported pro-fossil-fuel legislation and offshore drilling.

Ted Cruz gets an F, and I’m being generous.

Mr. Donald Trump also doesn’t dedicate any space on his website for issues related to the environment, agriculture, or energy, instead focusing on the important issues of the needlessness of political correctness and the absolute necessity of a border wall. He does not have legislative or other political history to draw from, but has consistently used harsh language (i.e. “hoax”, “con job”, and profanities) to deny the fact of human-caused climate change and other basic tenets of environmental science. He has made negative and factually incorrect statements about renewable energies, animal welfare, and environmental regulations, and supports the complete disbanding of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Donald Trump also gets an F, for not handing in the assignment.

We stand at a cusp in human history, where our action – or continued inaction – on climate change and other environmental issues will decide the fate of humanity. Problems of environmental health, sustainable agriculture, and a renewable, stable energy supply are some of the most important that we face as a nation, a species, and a planet, and we must choose our leaders based on how well they are poised to solve them. Rhode Island’s 2016 Presidential Primary is on Tuesday, April 26th, and I urge you to get out and vote for a better future.

And now that this column is done, I guess it’s time to go put that sign up on my lawn.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call and Times, Column 13 – Waste Not, Want Not, Part 2 – Solving for a Pattern

5 10 2014

(October 3, 2014)

The Urban Farmer

Waste Not, Want Not, Part 2 – Solving for a Pattern

Last month, I wrote somberly about the outdated and very unsustainable notion of waste – the idea that there are products and materials which are completely, irreparably useless, worth so little that their only meaningful purpose is to be trucked away and never seen again. I insisted that rational people in a rational economy can no longer accept this outdated idea as true, but I didn’t get as far as suggesting a solution. No, entire libraries could be written on the complex solution to this very complex problem, and because it is arguably the most valuable topic that I believe I will ever write about, I felt that it at least deserved its own column.

That solution, in a few words, is called “solving for a pattern”, and was termed and developed by my favorite writer and philosopher, Wendell Berry. The basic idea of his philosophy is that “the whole problem must be solved, not just some handily identifiable and simplifiable aspect of it”. His definition of a good systemic solution is one that “solves more than one problem”, and which “does not make new problems” in being executed.

Looking specifically at the systems of agriculture, forestry, and every other industry that links production to the environment, this idea suggests that we have to find the irresponsible decisions that were made to construct those systems – decisions that amped up production, or which were very convenient or very profitable, at the expense of the health of the people, environment, and economy – and reverse them. On an even higher level, solving for a pattern means to understand a local ecosystem or culture well enough, that you can solve its problems by finding the ways in which it was forced to deviate from Nature’s own method.

Berry uses the perfect example of America’s food production system to put this idea into practice. Modern industrial agriculture produces plant products and animal products in two basically disconnected systems, with the only interaction being that grain is bought to feed the animals in concentrated feedlots. It is somewhat obvious why this was done. Animals require less room (as far as factory-like efficiency is concerned, anyway) and crops can be raised more efficiently if they are separated, and both systems are more immediately productive when specialized farmers manage them separately.

Looking only at the bottom line, this system is great – production, and therefore profit, is increased, and meat, eggs,  milk, and grains are raised with industrial efficiency. But when you take a step back, looking at the whole system rather than just the specific farms, it doesn’t look so pretty. By separating the animals and plants, we’ve created industrial quantities of manure on one side, and a severe deficit of soil fertility on the other. Can you see the pattern to which we might try to solve? We also see pest problems in our crops, and fowl with a wildly unbalanced, bug-less diet; giant monocultures of grains that require so much more carbon-emitting fuels than pastureland to grow, and grass-eating cows, goats, and sheep, that suffer terrible health problems from eating only corn; and lots of fossil fuel required to make this system work. By separating plants and animals in our agriculture, we have contributed to so many of the major environmental problems that we face as a species today. In light of this, it may be time to take Berry’s advice.

In a typical urban farm, there are dozens of different components that must work together to produce a functioning whole. These include the deliberate work of the farmer: vegetable gardens, fruit trees, chickens, rain barrels, solar panels, and compost. They also include more subtle interactions with the environment, called ecosystem services: rain, clean air, sunlight, decomposition, soil fertility, temperature regulation, and natural biomass production.

It is a principal job of the urban farmer to integrate all of these components, and many that I haven’t even thought to mention, into a functioning, productive, and sustainable whole – to “solve for a pattern”, to put it blatantly. Each component generally has inputs and outputs – materials, energy, and knowledge involved at both ends of its life. Normally, a process is done for the primary purpose of one of its outputs, as in chicken-keeping for eggs, vegetable gardening for produce, solar panels for energy. But by integrating these components, by using your knowledge to tie the many systems together into an interwoven whole, all outputs, including what we traditionally call “garbage”, can become inputs to other components. By doing this, the urban farmer can reduce costs, by eliminating the need for expensive inputs like fertilizer and energy and drastically increase sustainability, both of the economic flavor, by constructing a resilient system that isn’t apt to fail, and the environmental flavor, by reducing environmentally-destructive production that our modern economy creates in order to keep us alive.

Let’s look at an example that outlines this approach well in a typical urban farm, one that has caught some media attention in the past few years – let’s (theoretically) raise chickens. A typical flock of chickens requires inputs including water, grain-based feed, access to grass for roughage and bugs, and straw for bedding. The flock will produce outputs of eggs, nitrogen-rich manure, and, as agricultural services, pest control and soil aeration. Let’s say you grow some grain to feed to the flock, and give them access to your yard for pasture. From the get-go, the act of feeding themselves on pasture acts as natural and very effective pest control and lawn-fertilization and aeration. In growing grains, you provide not only feed, but also straw for their bedding. They can also be fed kitchen scraps and yard wastes, and their manure is composted to fertilize the soil so that it can continue to produce abundantly. So not only does the flock provide its primary output, eggs, but also produces manure and agricultural services (fertility and pest control), while most of its inputs can come directly from the garden. This, my friends, is a perfect example of solving for a simple but effective pattern.

This type of approach can and should be extended to whichever components of the urban farm it can, with the goal of integrating the whole system to require few, if any, external inputs, and which produces no waste, but only primary products (eggs, vegetables and fruit, energy, soil fertility) as its outputs. This relies on thinking not in terms of linear production, like is common in modern industry and (regrettably) agriculture, but rather in terms of nutrient and energy cycles, where our urban farms are integrated not only amongst themselves, but as parts of the larger ecosystem in order to provide for environmental sustainability and resiliency. But this principle, thinking in cycles and loops, is not limited only to urban agriculture, and brings us back to our original purpose.

I started off this two-part column with a staunch rejection of the notion of waste. I still hold to that belief, but this discussion is so much bigger than just trash. The systems upon which we have come to depend – for our food, our water, and our energy – are built to eventually fail. They were constructed with the assumptions that the Earth is a limitless source of raw materials, and an infinitely large dumping ground for garbage, neither of which is even remotely true. That our global food- and economic-production systems make so much waste is but a symptom of a much bigger problem.

But this problem is not unsolvable. By employing Wendell Berry’s principle of solving for a pattern, we can organize and integrate our economic and agricultural production such that the outputs of every process are necessarily the inputs to others, a very powerful idea in theory and practice. Doing so, we can eliminate the production of any significant amount of trash, and therefore, the requirement that the Earth be our dumping ground, and the very notion of “waste” in our society. We would no longer need the rickety, expensive economic system, which has been constructed and maintained by our governments and corporations, which exploits the Earth in the extraction of raw materials, and deals with the resultant environmental degradation and production of massive amounts of garbage. Instead, we can replace it with a truly sustainable system, the only acceptable way for us to live.

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.