The Empire Has No Clothes
The following is excerpted from Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living, by Rachel Kaplan with K. Ruby Blume, available here.
Grow it Local
Re-structuring local economies to protect the earth and evolve our culture is central to the homesteading path. We are currently enmeshed in what has been called the extractive economy, where corporate wealth is regarded as the foundation for economic health; where mining our earth's resources and exploiting our citizens and international neighbors is accepted as the cost of doing business. The urban homesteading way seeks a local life-serving economy that creates, as David Korten artfully said, "a living for all, rather than a killing for a few." These practices protect our common inheritance of clean water, breathable air, and a life of joy and meaning for our families.
The best way to participate in changing the world is to change our own personal practices, including how we live, how we eat, how we travel, and how we relate to others. Re-inventing our relationship to the places we call home can significantly impact change. The home has been moved from the center of culture by the force of the marketplace. This devolutionary move has robbed us of the means of production, and the ability to care in simple, basic ways for ourselves, our families, our communities and the earth. Bringing the home back to the center of culture where it belongs will create a meaningful path toward a regenerative future.
One of the central ethics of homesteading is a sense of bioregionalism, our awareness of, and commitment to, the place where we live. Bioregionalism teaches us about the specific ecological and cultural relationships happening around us, engaging a process of asking simple questions about moonrise and moonset, about soil, about air and wind, about where our water comes from and where our waste goes. This way of becoming native to place, of living within nature's limits and gifts, is a way of creating a life that can be shared by all and passed on to future generations. As Paul Hawken said, "We must know our place in a biological and cultural sense, and reclaim our role as engaged agents of our continued existence...Concern for the wellbeing of others is bred in the bone. We became human by working together and helping one another, and what it takes to arrest our descent into chaos is one person after another remembering who and where they really are."
Bioregionalism values home above all else because home is where values and behaviors are learned before they move out into the world. In the home, alternatives can root and flourish and become deeply embedded in our way of being. The word ecology points us in this direction: oikos, the Greek root of "eco," means home. Hearth and home provide the theater of our human ecology, the place where we can relearn how to think with our hearts, to embody what we know to be true: that tending to our environment is the same as tending to ourselves, and we ignore this true work at our peril.
The Homegrown Guild
One of the great losses to culture in the last sixty years has been the ability of people to be even modestly self-sufficient at home. Homesteading in the city is a land-based, action-oriented Yes to the possibility of remaking culture with people and planet in mind, bringing back some of this lost power of doing it ourselves. We make no claims toward self-sufficiency: we can bake our own bread, but we cannot grow the wheat. But self-sufficiency, like independence, isn't a true goal. Our greatest need at this time is to learn to work together, to form guilds of differently-abled farmers, blacksmiths, renegade plumbers, solar installers, beekeepers, mycologists, fermenting fetishists, somatic healers, technology wizards, performance artists, alternative educators, and herbal potion-brewers to remake our cities.
A guild is an alliance of craftspeople or artisans from a more traditional time. An early form of the union, its primary benefit was camaraderie and support for best practices, as well as a source for learning more skills and expanding support for the profession. Guilds also had the conservative function of slowing down the processes of innovation generated by industrialization that often resulted in a loss of quality and right livelihood. We need homegrown guilds today, as we relearn skills we have forgotten and redesign our cities toward sustainability.
Here's an example of what that can look like. In 2009, six households in Petaluma, CA produced more than 3,000 pounds of food; foraged another ton of local fruit; harvested more than 4,000 pounds of urban waste to be composted and mulched; planted more than 185 fruit trees and hundreds of varieties of edible and habitat plants; installed five greywater and rainwater catchment systems that saved and recycled tens of thousands of gallons of water; tended to bees, chickens, quail, ducks, and rabbits; and worked toward reducing energy use and enhancing commuting and transportation goals. All this from six households! Imagine a city where a majority of people tended to many of their daily needs in this way-the amount of food and water and energy and waste that could be managed sustainably is incredible.
Our small daily actions toward the things that nourish us have an enormous impact. We have to shake off the trance that tells us this is not so. Now is the time to experiment, maybe fail, but always learn some more. We cannot remake the world in whole, only in part. We have at hand old and new technologies we can harness in remaking the world. Resourceful participation in the big work of re-positioning ourselves in a swiftly changing world, learning skills we can use at home, is the way of the future. We offer these technologies as spiritual practices in an incredibly challenging time and are here to report that in many ways that are good for planet and people, they work.
Urban farming is nothing new; in many parts of the world, it's a way of life. Cuba has an active urban farming movement, initiated when the USSR collapsed and precipitously stopped oil exports to the country. In Shanghai, residents produce 85 percent of their vegetables within city limits. The government of Tanzania encourages the cultivation of every piece of land in Dar es Salaam. Homesteaders around this country are engaged with the differing realities that their watersheds, climates, and history demand. Austin, Philadelphia, Newark, Brooklyn, Oakland, Portland, Los Angeles, and Detroit are all centers of rapid agricultural growth and production, each with their own place-based expression and local, evolving economies.
Some of the central urban homesteading practices are the same as homesteading practices everywhere-growing and preserving food, caring for and harvesting animals, foraging, making medicine, tending to the resources of water and waste and energy. But a city's unique and abundant resource is human energy-the intelligence, creativity, needs, hurts, history and futures of a city's people converging in exciting and sometimes destructive ways. Learning to harvest this energy and direct it toward community projects is a central survival strategy of the twenty-first century. The land frontiers have been conquered. The final frontier is learning how to live in harmony with one another and the world around us. Rebuilding a network of relationships between the earth and its inhabitants will be key to human evolution and survival.
Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Culture
DIY is an alternative culture strategy that helps us thrive outside the confines of the capitalist machine. It is an ethic of curiosity, exploration, and empowerment that can be applied to many aspects of our lives-growing food, sewing clothes, creating homegrown entertainment, writing books, fermenting vegetables, educating children. It feels good to do it yourself. This is a sane way to reorient our living toward a more just and equitable distribution of limited natural resources, and it supports the goal of sustainability through a maximum reduction in consumption and an expansion of creativity, and personal and community empowerment.
It's important for each of us to have a physical skill that is satisfying as well as sustaining-knitting or sewing or blacksmithing or canning or gardening. A "can do" attitude about all the activities people mastered as a matter of course in the past is required. It's important to remember how to be resourceful and figure out how to do something yourself. Collapsing at the mere thought of failure is no longer an option. Standing up and doing it yourself is a core homesteading way, something to relearn in our buy-it-yourself culture.
 Hayes, Shannon, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, New York: Left to Write Press, 2010.
 Hawken, Paul, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movemetn in History is Restoring Grace, Justice and Beauty to the World. New York: Penguin Books, 2007.
 Tracking this regenerative action was a project of the Homegrown Guild, the permaculture-in-action arm of non-profit educational organization Daily Acts based in Petaluma.
Teaser image by northbaywanderer, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet