Putting the life back in science fiction

The Future: resilient, invisible, and already here

“It is only too obvious that forcible extraction of agricultural products from the grower by those who produce none of their own foments conflict. Free, self-reliant families with modest needs and no natural incentive to increase food production to feed outsiders stand in the way of those seeking power. It is thus not surprising that Russia’s history from the advent of princes and Christianity to the present day has been that of passive and active resistance to the oppressors, endless uprisings, rebellions, peasant wars and brutal executions, and repressions of those refusing to recognize the “divine authority” of rulers (be it “princes” or “commissars”) or the inviolability of the official ideology (be it “Christian” or “communist”).

Russia’s story is by no means unique, but rather falls into the global pattern, since measures required for gaining control over populations that were previously independent and self-sufficient are similar throughout history and throughout the world.” (Leonid Sharashkin, The Socioeconomic and Cultural Significance of Food Gardening in the Vladimir Region of Russia.  PDF Link)

It’s fun what you can say in PhD theses, isn’t it?  That’s where the above came from.   I certainly explored the intertwined themes of appropriation, violence, resistance, and agriculture in Hot Earth Dreams, as many of you undoubtedly remember.  What we don’t often think about is how often resistance literally crops up, well, everywhere, even in authoritarian empires like China and Russia/USSR.  Or here, for that matter.  It’s about gardens, about how people feed themselves and what they do with surpluses.

Over the last week, I’ve been exploring the literature to see what kinds of agriculture and horticulture (really, farming and gardening) might work in High Altithermal California.  It’s led from John Michael Greer’s Green Wizardry, which is really a book about appropriate technology and intensive gardening, to hauling out my Permaculture Manual, exploring the notion of traditional Chinese permaculture  only to find that it led back to King’s old Farmers of Forty Centuries, and on through all the old classics of the organic gardening and back to the land movements.  Or exploring hints about Russian Dacha gardens, which led me to the above thesis and some nice blog entries.

When we get away from desert gardens, which have their own design issues relating to catching water, basically the answer to “how are people going to feed themselves as society collapses” is pretty much always the same: intensive gardening in whatever spaces they have.  The case of Russian dacha gardening is impressive numerically, because these gardens, 600 square meters per household under the Soviet system, in 2000 provided “92% of Russia’s potatoes, 77% of its vegetables, 87% of the berries and fruit, 59% of its meat and 49% of the milk produced nationally. (reference).”  Chinese farmers did about the same thing, as most of their food outside the grain and bean fields (much of which went off-farm as rent and taxes) came from house gardens, at least before Mao trashed the traditional systems in the 1950s and they decided to go with western-style Big Ag afterwards.  It was the same story in Cuba in the 1990s, when a lot of people starved after the USSR collapsed, until they figured out how to do those tiny, intensive gardens they’re now famous for.  It’s probably the same in Kinshasa right now.  Indeed, the USSR didn’t have a famine when it collapsed, because over 70% of the country was already gardening, and this real-life sharing economy kept everyone fed as the industrial systems fell apart around them.

And it’s here too. One of my friends, John Martin, who works for the USFWS, grows most of his own food on his place out in rural San Diego county.

In all these places, the systems are similar: garden intensively, mostly or entirely with human labor.  Plant a bunch of different species and varieties (think dozens per garden).  Interplant fruit trees with shrubs and herbs in a complex polyculture whose composition changes through the year.  Preserve as much of the surplus as you can, give away a lot of the rest, and maybe sell a little bit, if you really have that much in excess.

It’s the kind of system that works pretty gosh darn well, at least in temperate and tropical zones.  And maybe in semiarid deserts too, since the Hopi do something sort of similar with their scattered fields, and John seems to be doing well enough with his little spread.  It’s resilient, since it takes a true catastrophe to destroy an entire, diverse garden, as opposed to how a single pest can wipe out a single crop.  And the Russians do it for themselves on 600 square meters (6458 square feet).

It’s also invisible, as people’s backyard gardens don’t often show up on the planning radar when it comes to sustainability.  Indeed, the US sustainability planning now is strikingly similar to 1960s Soviet planning, since the”best” idea from the sustainability boffins is to densely warehouse people in town-homes or apartments whilst increasing the production of industrial agriculture elsewhere and simultaneously covering the “wastelands” with solar and wind power plants, which, along with piped water, will be input to all those warehoused people in their densely packed cities.  Substitute communism for capitalism, and it was almost exactly the same model 50 years ago, used for almost exactly the opposite purposes but the acme of High Modernist simplicity nonetheless.  Fortunately, Soviet Russians got to purchase cheap little dachas away from the city, 600 square meters for a hut and a garden, and when the overly simplified, overly centralized Soviet system fell apart, they were able to feed themselves.

We’ll have to figure out how to do the same here, unless we trust The System to not collapse.  Admittedly, it’s easier in northern California than it is in southern California to find a vacation cabin where you can spend time gardening.  In southern California, we’re stuck with water issues unless we have a well and trust that our aquifer won’t go dry any time soon (not that anyone checks these things first).  But still, if you want to glimpse the future, it’s old, quite sophisticated, and global.  It’s what those “revolting” peasants have been doing for centuries: gardening for themselves, growing field crops for trade and taxes.  I’m pretty sure our descendants will be doing it too.  My big questions involve what our descendants will be planting, and I sure am having fun thinking about it.


6 Comments so far
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Another good post, Frank. We Wyoming mountain folk envy you Left Coastals for your gardening potential to grow food almost year round while we garden intensively in our short season here at 6400 feet. We are able to grow crops like brassicas, lettuces and shallots as well as potatoes outside and warm weather crops like tomatoes and basil in the greenhouse and alfalfa grows waist high for the sheep and poultry . Our goal of being 100% self sufficient in food has not been met because we still have to import grain for us and the livestock. Elk and venison help out in winter but our valley imports almost 100% of all its food so if the supply chains bringing food from the Central Valley ever fail, this remote valley would depopulate sending food refugees south and west on the Oregon trail once again. This country generates food surpluses solely by virtue of diesel tractors and fossil based electricity powering huge irrigation pumps growing thirst crops in a desert. Our vast windy dry open spaces cannot provide food security in the high altithermal except in our few river valleys. Brace yourself for hungry mouths heading your way.

Comment by cal48koho

Thanks! You might be interested in exploring what the Russians have been able to do with their gardens. They’ve only got something like 110 frost-free days to work with, yet they come close to feeding themselves from their gardens.

Comment by Heteromeles

I’m hoping that my backyard can become a community fruit and vegetable garden. The woman who is interested in doing it wants to use the permaculture model, so we’ll see if it pans out. It will definitely require a lot of manual labor, so the project may just depend on whether she can get enough volunteers.
If it doesn’t come off, then I will do something similar on a smaller scale with raised beds.
The garden already has fruit trees – oranges, lemons, pomegranates – and like most people, I cannot consume it all when the fruits arrive, so much of it goes to waste, even when neighbors are invited to harvest as much as they wish.

Experience tells me, as well as reading the permaculture literature, that pest control is a major headache. It would be nice to think that birds and other animals would act as pest control officers, but it doesn’t work that way unfortunately.

BTW – thanks for the reference regarding wildflowers. I was able to buy seeds in the mail. I’m waiting to see if anything grows from my sowing.

Comment by Alex Tolley

Glad to help with the seeds. I hope you get some happy plants out of them.

With regards to pests, you’re right, although planting a bunch of different species, including some nectar plants for wasps and other predators, does seem to help. Having cover and water for birds does as well. Where I am, I’ve pretty much given up growing tomatoes, since there are so many hornworms. Over the last week I’ve even seen white-lined sphinx moths (the adults) being chased by bats under the lights. February seems a little early for them, since they used to show up in May and June.

Comment by Heteromeles

A few years ago we traveled by train through Hungary and part of Ukraine and it seemed like every house along the railroad tracks had a vegetable garden between it and the tracks.
A year later we took Amtrak from Oakland to Chicago and it took me a while to notice that even in Iowa, a farm state, nobody in the small towns seemed to have a vegetable garden. Houses had lawns. I suspect this is a development of the latter half of the 20th century.
When I lived in Milwaukee, I had a plot in the community gardens of the former county poor farm. Yes, poor farm, that was the pre-welfare approach to providing for poor people. About ten years ago the county handed the land off to developers for the purpose of tilting up office parks.
Another quarter century hence I can imagine peope mining the office parks for building materials and digging up the lawns for gardens.
Not really relevant to the current post but the decline scenario in general, part of our train journey from Hungary to Pague took us through a narrow river valley lined with abandoned factory buildings, the manufacturing equivalent of the small family farm. I am guessing they were there because the factories ran off water power but during the Soviet era got shut down in favor of large centralised manufacturies.
I am also guessing that during future resource reduction, water powered machinery might make a comeback in places like this, as it might in the old east coast mill towns of the US.

Comment by Wolfgang Brinck

This is awesoome

Comment by Bernard Crosby

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