Urban Agriculture and the New Great Transformation

One of the most informative websites out there, if you are interested in the fate of humanity on the planet, is http://www.resilience.org. The site offers a wide range of original and republished articles on the full range of matters related to getting to a place where climate and the other converging crises of our time can be mitigated and human groups can become more resilient and prosper in a post-carbon world. I just read an article by Jody Tishmack there, which I consider well worth anyone reading. It is titled, “Urban and Small Farm Agriculture.”

Jody Tishmack reports on research showing that expanding agriculture into cities could improve food security, ecosystem health, and have other benefits as well. I would suggest that such efforts will become increasingly necessary as the global industrial agriculture system begins to collapse of its own fossil-fueled weight.

NYC.Riverpark.farm

Riverpark Farm, New York City

The developments Tishmack describes are certainly heartening, not only for the community spirit and potential for continued development of major local/regional movements in urban agriculture. They also represent something even deeper and more important than she acknowledges in this article. This kind of work not only IS doing something about climate change, it will be an ever more important component of the New Great Transformation of human social organization that at this point appears to be the only viable collective response to the converging global crises of climate chaos, ecosystem destruction, economic disintegration, and political corruption.

After over a decade of research on the emergence and acceleration of these crises, I have concluded that the greatest chance to act to counter them is to act locally and cooperate regionally. The exponential growth of the global economic system, including industrial agriculture, is definitively unsustainable, as is mathematically demonstrated in renowned physicist Geoffrey West’s important 2017 book, Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of life in Organisms, Cities, economies, and Companies.

The governments of the world are so far behind the exponential growth of the converging crises of our era that we cannot count on getting them to do anything serious to address them. They remain pawns of the petro-chemically driven corporate system of growth that refuses to face scientific facts. National protests over political catastrophes and corruption are important symbolic expressions of objection to such failures, then everyone gets in their SUVs and hybrids and goes home.

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“Druid’s Garden” permaculture organic farm

We have already entered a New Great Transformation of the global economic, climate, and ecological systems, which barring massive intervention is leading to widespread collapse of living Earth systems, from local ecosystems to global climate. The primary question is whether we can act comprehensively and quickly enough to avoid widespread societal collapse. We will not be able to thwart the imminent collapse of industrial agriculture by convincing agribusiness to “go organic” or stop using neonic’s or GMOs. The most viable way to RESIST failing institutions is to turn away and create new social formations to REPLACE THEM.

The most viable response to the converging catastrophic crises we face is to re-organize human groups into local eco-communities, both urban and rural, that in that process REPLACE the global industrial-consumer economy with local eco-communities, in part by RESTORING the ecosystems where we live. I have rambled on in various posts on this blog, TheHopefulRealist.com and at www.resilience.org awhile back as well, which has led to the book I have prepared for publication in the coming months. An early effort in that regard is found at http://www.resilience.org/stories/2014-12-24/becoming-indigenous-settling-a-population-adrift-in-an-unstable-world/ You can find many other useful discussions of such matters at resilience.org.

Now we just need for the work Jody describes to grow exponentially…

Rotten Apples: Nature Overcomes Machine

Timing rules. Change waits for no machine. When I bought that apple coring machine, I expected to prepare and process our apple crop in record time. We had a somewhat smaller crop this year, but  preparing the apples for storage in freezer or “canning” them in Ball jars is both very labor-intensive and slow. The new hand-crank machine would speed up the process immensely. And, it was only about twenty-four bucks.

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Old American Technology, manufactured in China.

The apple and pear corer/peeler/slicer I bought to make this season’s processing easier worked great on the apples that had not yet begun to rot. It was clearly an old design, but, of course, the new product was made in China. It does seem of generally good quality.

So much good information on the internet can draw us into the lazy acceptance of claims that might not be entirely true. Reality sets in when we try to put such claims into practice. When it comes to coring apples, the operational characteristics of the machine must be met by the right condition of the apples to which we apply the clever design of the machine.

We had stored most of the apples in our root cellar for a couple of months as we busied ourselves with other projects. According to the “experts,” they should last in a root cellar all winter. Then we realized that some of the apples exhibited signs of decay. Time to core, peel, and slice those apples before it is too late.

Well, for many of the apples, even some that looked quite good on the outside, it was in fact too late to enjoy the benefits of that old design in a new machine that is otherwise capable of saving us lots of time. I quickly discovered how to rapidly operate the machine to produce cored and peeled apple slices. But I also quickly discovered the limits of the “apple-machine interface.”

Some of our apples looked great, but had begun to rot at the core. Much of the apple was still good, but the core was not. That resulted in a failure of the machine to core, peel, and slice the apple as it was designed to do.

The three coordinated functions of the machine all depended upon its ability to hold the apple steady as the operator cranked the handle that drives all three functions simultaneously. The machine grips the apple by means of three prongs that are inserted into the apple core.

However, if the core has rotted in any significant degree, it becomes rather mushy. Under that condition, the prongs cannot hold the apple against the forces of the peeling and slicing blades. The prongs slip within the core and nothing much else happens.

Now, of course one could manually cut out the core with a knife and save maybe a quarter or even half the apple to be peeled and sliced by hand. But then the machine has no longer any value in the process.

Well, we used the machine on the apples that did not have rotten cores and salvaged about half the harvest. But we could not always tell if a clean looking apple had a rotten core. And we were not willing at that point to do all the manual labor required by our failure to core, peel, and slice with the aid of that clever devise. A large amount of waste went into the compost.

All machines are designed to perform a certain function under certain conditions. If we human operators cannot sustain those conditions, then the machine becomes quite useless. This applies to ALL technology. Our so-called “high tech” devises often fail on the basis of a similar disconnect between form, function, and conditions. But, unlike the apple-coring machine, we are often deceived about high-tech disconnects from reality.

What are we really trying to accomplish? Where do we really think we are going with technologies that in their abstract sophistication are increasingly detached from the real-world conditions of our lives? If we had been fully attuned to the apple-conditions required by our apple corer-peeler-slicer, the machine would have worked quite well.

No farmer in the nineteenth century would have made our modern mistake. S/he would have been far more attuned to the conditions of the crop and the requirements of the technology. Living in the real world required it no matter how sophisticated the technology. No technology has value unless effectively applied to a human purpose. Much high-tech stuff generates its own abstract purpose in the technosphere, not necessarily connected to the conditions of life in the biosphere.

The Apple Core: Machine Meets Fruit

I just bought an apple corer- peeler-slicer, a mechanical devise you attach to a counter top to core and peel apples or pears in preparation for canning or cooking. It is an interesting technology. It has multiple moving parts, and it is all hand-powered. It has no digital controls and it is constructed it entirely from metals. Only the pad at the end of the screw that holds it to the kitchen counter top and the crank handle are plastic.

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It cores! It peals! It slices!   Photo: R. Christie

I suspect someone designed and patented it in the late nineteenth century and that the patent has long run out. I found no patent notice in the paperwork, or on the box, or machine itself. Oh, there is the “Made in China” label! Could I be less surprised? All that international shipping and it is still only twenty-eight bucks. I bought it at a local upscale cookery store.

You will probably not find such devises at big-box stores, which are only interested in mass-appeal items. Who now processes their own fruit? Besides, mass consumer culture demands that all appliances by digitally controlled and electrically powered. Some might consider my new gadget an archaic throwback. Surely, one could have designed an automated electricity-driven device to perform the same function without my hand cranking it.

But why?

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Our apple Harvest, 2017.   Photo: R. Christie

We have only a couple of fruit trees, one apple and one pear. Several years after planting them, they finally have begun to bear fruit, beyond the one or two seen in recent years until last year and this. Suddenly, in mid-summer we now face baskets full of ripe apples and pears. We have a wine and root cellar, so we can store the fruit for a while as we prepare to can and cook with what we didn’t give away to our friends. Last year, we peeled and cored by hand all the fruit we canned, using kitchen knives for the work. That proved immensely “labor-intensive” and time consuming, so we decided to mechanize the process this year, mostly to save time.

Innovation in technology has played a central role in driving industrial development and economic growth for the past two centuries. The invention of complex mechanical tools and devices allowed craftsmen to make many products efficiently by hand, without steam or fossil-fuel power in the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Then came the steady onslaught of increasingly automated machinery driven by fossil-fueled engines or fossil-fuel driven electrical motors.

The latest innovations have achieved remarkable success in microelectronics and the miniaturization and acceleration of the speed of electronic technology in processing information. Computer Aided Design (CAD) feeds Computer Aided Manufacture (CAM), now implemented abroad, where the remaining needed human labor is cheapest. We see it everywhere. Automated information processing drives much of industrial production. Industry needs less labor and more intellect to produce more and more consumer products. Those products, in turn, involve more and more abstract engagement of the user with images and symbols built into the product. Products themselves are increasingly detached from the material world, although some involve more and more control at a distance, as in the case of drones.

We know deep down that this cannot last. We are rapidly reaching the material, ecological, and climate limits of fossil-fueled economic growth. Economic growth itself is near terminal. The road ahead requires massive downsizing of energy production, use, and waste. Those who adapt to the use of new as well as clever old technologies driven by human power for human use are far more likely to survive in relatively comfortable and interesting engagement with the real world than those who insist on living in an automated bubble of shrinking life expectancy.