Saturday, 24 September 2011

City Mouse, Country Mouse

by Linda@The Witches Kitchen

A post on Little Eco Footprints this week called Are we making a mistake living in the city? has been in the back of my mind at odd moments all week.  I live in a rural community.  I moved here as a young hippy mum nearly 30 years ago, living first in a caravan with no power, road access, or running water.  I have never regretted it and although it was diabolically hard in those early years, I do have the best of lives.

But sometimes, like the deserted beach or the fantastic suburban restaurant, things are only fantastic so long as no-one else knows they are.  Is living in the country like that?  Is it only possible to do it without destroying it because most people don't?

My "perfect world" fantasy has everyone living in permacultured villages with tiny ecological footprints, networked and linked with electric railways and internet (powered with geothermal or big desert solar installations), largely self sufficient in food, water, waste disposal, houshold and local energy, trading knowledge, culture, art, craft, manufactured goods and specialist crops.

The villages would be neither city nor country, but a bit of both.  They would have enough population density so that people could get around by foot and bicycle - kids could walk to school and to their friends places to play, neighbours would be close enough to rely on in emergencies or even just to borrow a cup of flour or a tool or visit for a chat.  But they would have a low enough density to allow most of the fresh food production to be local - kitchen gardens, fruit trees, chickens, geese, dairy cows.

That's not a very different level of population density to the older suburbs in Australia. As permaculture writer David Holmgren says, "It's technically possible that the traditional older suburbs could actually produce all of the food needed to sustain the people living there. The amount of open space - both public and private space in backyards - means that you've got a population density not that much greater than some of the densest traditional agricultural landscapes in the world."

FAO says that "It is realistic to suppose that the absolute minimum of arable land to support one person is a mere 0.07 of a hectare–and this assumes a largely vegetarian diet, no land degradation or water shortages, virtually no post-harvest waste, and farmers who know precisely when and how to plant, fertilize, irrigate, etc."  John Jeavons claims that  0.2 hectare can support a family of four. So my fantasy isn't unreasonable.  There's a batch of other references here, if you're interested.

But back to my fantasy.  Households and small businesses would have local grid connected solar power and rainwater tanks for water, with local water and power boards managing supply and floating pricing to force frugality in times of shortage. Along the same principles as the current push for carbon pricing - people figure out ways to use less of something when it's expensive.

Villages would have their own schools, hospitals, and local economies, based on trading everyday goods and services, but would be connected by high speed electric trains to allow some villages to produce specialist and higher education, specialist medical services, centres of excellence in research, arts and sport, and manufactured goods and specialist crops. Villages would also be connected via the internet, allowing work in any kind of knowledge industries to be globalised.

Giant solar installations in the desert would provide the power for the railways and energy intensive manufacturing.  There would be no private cars.  Petrol would be very expensive and reserved for engines and manufactured goods that couldn't do without it. Young adults would go backpacking round the world on trains, bikes and sailing boats.

Thump.  That was me falling back to earth.

In reality, both urban dwellers and country dwellers are a long way from my fantasy. With the prices people are willing to pay for quality food, and the cut that goes to packaging, transport, storage, wholesalers then supermarkets, it's no wonder that many farming practices are the equivalent of strip mining of farmland, as destructive to the environment as concrete suburbs. Much of our food is industrially produced, in CAFOs and ILOs that are just like rural factories. Both farmland and urbanisation are threats to biodiversity. Both lifestyles rely, in different ways, on huge energy subsidies.

I think most rural areas in Australia at least would benefit hugely from a big population influx of people intent on creating a simple green frugal lifestyle. It would move them towards, not away from my fantasy.  But in reality, the majority of the population lives in cities, and it is there that the real work of creating change needs to be done, and will have the biggest effects, for all of us.