“If I could show you the cabbage that I planted with my own hands”
Thus spoke the Roman Emperor Diocletian, more famous for chucking Christians to the lions, but also someone who gave up ruling the world for the pleasures of his allotment. There are days when I fantasise about following his example, especially as it involved a palace in Croatia and a load of slaves. As well as the other pleasures of growing your own, it seems that it can end the careers of tyrants. What could possibly be the trouble with it?
It turns out you don’t have to look far. Only in fact to Lewes’ own Seedy Saturday. This is an event where you can think about interesting things to plant, the more sedentary joys of others planting things for you, and listen to Marguerite Patten reminiscing about digging for victory. Then you turn into the bookstall and find yourself in a survivalist fantasy land. Wall-to-wall self-sufficiency manuals full of advice on preparing for the apocalypse by getting in your brassicas.
The idea of us producing our own food to protect ourselves is an important part of many responses to current environmental concerns. For example the magazine “The Land” envisages an agrarian idyll where, following the collapse of capitalism, we return en-masse to growing food. An increased emphasis on food self-sufficiency is also a staple of our local Transition Town movement (they like the word “resilience”). The recent Climate Camp even invited me to “Grow my own Future”. Though I’m as fond of a metaphor as I am of a ripe Ailsa Craig and realise I won’t be picking juicy futures directly from my cold-frame, the implication is once again that growing your own is the way forward.
While this reasoning is seductive quite a lot is missing. For one thing food self-sufficiency leaves populations grubbing out a precarious existence vulnerable to climatic variations or crop failures. The opposite of resilience really. We protect against this by buying food from a number of sources and countries. We can do this because for 7,000 years or so (and especially since the industrial revolution) human society has been moving away from the mass of the population being involved in food production. This fosters the development of income-earning and more diverse skills. We have modern medicine and science and art and philosophy and a reliable food supply because primarily we’re not all stuck on the land.
If you think the fossil fuels of capitalism are going to run out soon (though a more likely danger for our environment seems to be that they won’t) a kind of post-apocalyptic subsistence life might be one way to go. At times it’s hard to avoid the impression that vegetable gardening has become the latest meaningless gesture for the environmentally pious. While home grown food can be great the benefits of not relying on it are even greater. So, while I’m going mulch spreading soon, I have to do a quick shop at the greengrocer first and strike a blow for a better world.
John McGowan, 5th May 2011