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.


dixiebelle said...

Sign my family up! We'd love to live in your fantasy world! I thought some of the comments on Tricia's blog post were very insightful.

Adapting in place ( is something I grapple with at times... knowing we have the best of both worlds at the moment, and are not in a financial position for a 'farm-change' or 'tree-change' anyways. We are grateful to even have a 1000sqm suburban block that can support an 'urban homestead' of sorts, but also the benefits of city 'facilities' like education/ health care/ community groups/ arts & culture. The planning of the city we live in has the potential to become as sustainable as any city can be, and right now, the core community groups are creating a 'city farm/ community hub', which gives me hope when I see waste & ignorance & arrogance in many other corners of Canberra. One of our aims is to show others by example, how they can adapt in place.

Right now, we are learning some of the skills we'd like to have one day if we ever get to live more rurally, but knowing how much these could change our circumstances even if we stay here. These are practical skills like growing food, raising backyard livestock, and skills we could barter. Other skills include building community bonds, developing networks and our own resilience. There is a lot to learn, and balancing the two worlds can be tricky at times, but what an opportunity, to be able to 'buy a learning curve' ( because of where we are right now.

(By the way, we appreciate those who do live in the 'country' and what they provide us, and the hard work it requires. I am in no way trivialising what they do, by suggesting I can replicate that in our backyard!!)

Tricia said...

I would so love for your 'perfect world' to be our future Linda. I'd like to hope that it wasn't totally inconceivable. But I think we would still need areas of high density living, unfortunately, given projected population sizes.

And I guess I’ve become pessimistic about most people’s ability (not everyone) to live sympathetically with their environment through watching the impact of rural-residential and residential development on the bushland areas of western Sydney and the Hunter Valley. I’ve worked in threatened species conservation in both these areas and far too often I see people buy their dream ‘rural’ block. They tell me they love the bush and that’s why they moved there, but then they clear some of it for their home, a little more for their asset protection zones, and then they stick their horse in the back paddock or the kids create a bike track, and then a few years later the habitat within their property is totally degraded. Usually around that time they decide it’s all too much work, or that they want a bigger place, so they move on to the next property, leaving the degradation behind them (less a few threatned species).

But on the other hand I’ve met some inspirational landholders that have established conservation agreements to protect bushland on their property in perpetuity, or spend 2 days a week undertaking bush regeneration, or are happy to pay for others to do the work for them. Without them their properties would likely be bought by developers, cleared and subdivided.

I like your comment '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?'. I think so. I do worry about the popularisation of 'moving to the country' or 'tree changes’. I’d like people to be more aware of the responsibilities/workload they take on when they make that change.

So I guess we need both ‘city mice’ and ‘country mice’ and for us to all be aware of our impact on the environment and our responsibilities, even if they aren't always obvious.

Thanks for continuing the discussion :-)

Lindsey said...

Preach on, Sista!

That sounds lovely. And calm. And absolutely fabulous.

I can't tell you how many clients I see in my therapy practice who would feel so much better if they weren't so crowded in with everyone else. Sometimes I feel like they can't breathe and that makes them terribly anxious.

Living without power and running water, eh? That's cutting your teeth on rural living the hard way!

Cass said...

I agree with your quote from David Holgrem.

Having recently moved onto a 1/4 acre block in an older suburb I am starting to see just how possible it would be to have a self-sustainable community..

We have 16 fruit trees on our property, 60 strawberry plants, two herb beds and we are establish our own mandala garden (based on your book, I believe) consisting of 14 gardens beds of 3square metres. Plus four chooks (soon to be about three times that amount).

We still have have huge backyard for the kids to play, a big house and a great front verandah.

Not to mention the gate the adjoins our neighbours yard. There are no 6foot fences here. I regularly chat with neighbours from seven houses along our street. We share a choko vine with the old guy next door, the men in the street regularly mow his yard. The lady on the other side babysits, gives us chook scraps, gives us mandarins and we help her with odd jobs around the house. The guy at the back swaps gardening tips and passionfruit with me over the fence. The couple across the road are having a baby and we are looking forward to morning teas together.

School is a walk around the corner and high school is a bike ride. Plenty of back alley shortcuts make the shopping centre a mere 10minute walk, but the fruit shop, butcher and post office are closer...Did I mention our postie comes up our driveway and stops for a chat every day.

The older suburbs are brilliant. It may not be the village of my dreams, but it is a bloody brilliant one anyway.

Treasures Evermore said...

Sign me up too...would love to live in your fantasy now you have me could I have a bit of that fantasy world, right where I am LOL.