Natural Resource Use
Cities are necessarily exploitative in ways no one planned for them to be. They simply evolved that way by lack of foresight and by political expediency. The city as a whole consumes food and raw materials that are produced outside it, and it sends back out (a) trash into landfills that eventually pollutes groundwater, (b) technology that some rural dwellers don’t consider necessary but a nuisance as it absorbs children’s attention, and (c) pop culture that many in the older generations find to be corrupting of their community cohesion and religious values. If their rural children keep being enticed into the city, maybe there will be more mechanization of farms to compensate, but that would increase the issue of unsustainability.
Small farms excel at sustainability. The stones pulled from the fields make the cobble for walls and paths. The manure scraped from animal pens fertilizes the fields. The produce uneaten becomes animal feed. Though some serve towns, most small farms aren’t close enough to give their surplus to cities. Cities so far have relied on big agribusiness, because of efficiency and scale. The downsides are notorious: depleted topsoil; pesticides and herbicides to protect vulnerable monoculture crops, nitrogen fertilizer runoff that destroys aquaculture; pandemic spark risks of large scale meat, egg, and dairy productions; antibiotic and hormone use in the same industries, which contributes to obesity; transportation and mechanization based on fossil fuels, and aquifer depletion. Could city dwellers grow their own food? Window and container gardens sound like a great idea, but the yield isn’t much. Agrihoods are a needed investment in food security, and an intensive restructuring of rooftop use could make city blocks productive. Gardening has seen resurgence in city residential areas. Still, reportedly it takes about 1 acre of land to feed a person, and the typical square city block is about 2.5 acres. You do the math. Forward-thinking cities have instituted composting programs, which is important for diverting waste from landfills. Container recycling is better than not recycling, but there are downsides. The traditional family farm, canning with re-usable bottles and using a root cellar, has time-intensive storage but can be close to zero waste. Cities can’t get anywhere close to the resource sustainability of small farms.
Some have said humans would take up too much animal habitat if we all spread out onto small farms; however, the way we are doing it now, we are polluting animal habitat. Currently 4.62 billion acres worldwide are being farmed. The world population May 2020 is 7.8 billion. To keep it simple and non-rosy, lets look ahead to the world population as projected to reach 9.8 billion in 2050. Yet another consideration is that the average caloric recommendation for U.S. males simply is more than what much of the world’s population lives on. Still, if we consider an upcoming time when there will be approximately two people for every acre of current farmland and ranchland, clearly we can expect to be challenged. Small farms make good use of “marginal” land, while big agribusiness requires the prime flatland. As we gain in population, without reverting to small farms, with orchard and pasture on hilly land that may not be as suited for crops, the world may experience increasing food shortage, especially if global warming leaves some of our currently productive farmland unuseable.
Division of labor inherent in industrialization and collaboration are more efficient, but it makes us all dependent on economic and transport systems that its become increasingly clear are not sustainable long term, regardless of whether they’re run by a democracy, plutocracy, or dictatorship. When our cars and buildings are all solar-powered, maybe, but we’re running out of time to get those in place. Reportedly we’ve all become more efficient with constant communication and GPS that help us get where we’re going quickly and reliably. The benefit of that has siphoned upward. Real wages have remained stagnant. Efficiency doesn’t seem to benefit the masses so much as the elite. Efficiency can also mean we’re ever more quickly destroying the ecosystems we depend on. Years ago, earlier than the 2019 paraphrase of it, there was some mention of GDP as a measure of how fast we can turn natural resources into trash. The efficiency argument doesn’t hold. Small farming communities have enough division of labor to make them efficient, but residents usually have enough general skill to make them resilient in filling multiple roles. Efficiency isn’t what we need most. In fact, we don’t want efficiency when it means faster destruction. Industrial agriculture is turning our farmland into dead soil at an alarming rate. The United Nations estimates we have fewer than 60 years of farmable soil left on Earth. The Need To GROW is a film about solutions for our food system. Watch the film for free at https://grow.foodrevolution.org/
See also The benefits of cities and the downsides, why they are not likely to exist in the future (36:14). Joe Brewer from Future Thinkers in Podcasts. https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/future-thinkers/id820806390?i=1000469813942