Book Review: The Urban Homestead

In their book The Urban Homestead: your guide to self-sufficient living in the heart of the city, authors Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen challenge your concepts of the urban household.  The book is a how-to guide on living in a self-reliant and resource-conscious manner, suggesting ways to live sustainably, ranging from fermenting one’s own beer to keeping chickens as pets to pooping in a bucket for compost. Not only is it a practical guide, providing projects that one can take on, but it also instills a sense of excitement in the reader about reconnecting with the natural world.  Urban homesteading involves appreciating the beauty of natural processes, such as the creation of nutrient rich soil from food waste via decomposition, and the appreciation of the quality, such as that of one’s home-grown fruits and vegetables that isn’t afforded by supermarket varieties.  “Urban homesteading is an affirmation of the simplest pleasures of life,” Coyne and Knutzen write.  “Homesteading hooks us into the natural world and the passing of the seasons, and reminds us of our place within the greater cycle of life.”  (pp 17)

The book’s main sections provide background and information on how to farm, forage, raise livestock, transform and preserve food, sustainable manage water and power use, and sustainably use transportation.  A number of themes run throughout these sections, most notably sustainability and self-sufficiency, biomimicry, and utility.

The authors strongly advocate for sustainability and self-sufficiency in this book, breaking away from the traditional capitalistic material consumption and resource overuse.  Coyne and Knutzen put forth the idea of a “new urban economy” where individuals are conscious of resource consumption and the environmental impact of their lifestyle, and there is an interchange of goods and services within a community that understands that “there is more power in creating than spending.” (pp 16)  The section on water and power also provides how to’s on water harvesting and reuse, and power generation and conservation.  The section makes readers rethink how they use and value these resources, and gives them a way to efficiently use them.

Biomimicry, or modeling something based on natural systems, also has a strong presence.  These systems often involve natural symbioses, interdependencies, cycles, and closed loops.  The gardening section introduces permaculture, which is agriculture designed based on a sustainable human environment.  The process involves engineering agricultural practices based on natural interdependent systems processes, such as crop rotation based on the nitrogen fixing or consuming nature of plants, or the physical protection from harsh sun or rain afforded by larger plants to smaller plants, or one plant’s attraction of beneficial insects which prey on pests that infect other plants. Mulching is another exemplary case of biomimicry suggested in the farming section.  This process involves the layering of leaves and compost which imitates the natural deposition of material that occurs in an ecosystem, such as a tree shedding its leaves, a dying plant decomposing, and a native animal pooping.  These, and a number of other processes that the authors describe use natural processes to help the urban homesteader create sustainable, symbiotic systems.  It is a stark contrast to today’s industrial agriculture which refutes natural principles, intensively extracting soil nutrients to create produce which is transported across the country and results as waste in landfills where rather than returning to the soil it came from to replenish the soil health.

Lastly, utility is a huge component of the book.  The first of Coyne and Knutzen’s principles is “grow only useful things.”  “Water is a resource.  Time is a resource.  Space is a resource.  We no longer squander these resources on merely decorative plants.” (pp 34) Though this may be a point of contention with some, particularly the urban resident whose ideal garden consists of a yard of grass lined with roses and a white picket fence, it is a sensible rule nonetheless.  Not only do Coyne and Knutzen describe the productivity of plants, but they elaborate on the productivity of owning livestock.  “Your household produces food waste.  Farm animals eat this waste and make fertilizer out of it, accomplishing overnight what would otherwise take weeks of decomposition in a compost pile.”  (pp 132)  The couple also challenges our idea of raising animals for slaughter ourselves, pointing out that we are so disconnected with our food sources that the slaughter of animals is shocking, yet chickens you raised yourself are the most sustainable and humane meat you can get.

The guide concludes by expressing a hope for a “consciousness shift” in the public, where city dwellers become more connected and aware of their resource use, and embrace urban agriculture and sustainable homesteading. The fascinating and innovative how-to’s that the authors provide are not only practical, but they push our boundaries of what we consider a “normal” household.  This couple truly is pioneering a consciousness shift, and the reinvention of the urban dweller as a resource-conscious and self-sufficient urban homesteader.

-Maya Bruguera

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Book Review: Silent Spring

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In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson discusses the numerous amounts of chemical fertilizers, and pesticides used in the agricultural industry and how they negatively affect the environment.  Carson’s personal commentary of the negative impacts that all of these chemicals have on our health and its propagation to environments that the government did not intend nor predict to reach.  What is most interesting is her discussion on the use of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), a chemical insecticide that was very commonly used at the time, but was also one of the worst poisons in history.  Carson pushed that DDT was the reason for many cases of cancer at the time, and also due to its resiliency to stay in organic cells, it had many far reaching problems that could not be stopped.

One of the major problems with the use of heavy pesticides is that as insects get in contact with these poisons more and more often, they become more resilient, and eventually the poisons will not work as well.  For the agricultural industry, this means that they will need to keep creating stronger poisons,  However, there is a health issue as these poisons are designed to kill insects, but are supposedly safe for humans.  These poisons are also dangerous as they stay in the soil for years before disappearing.  Carson reviews anecdotes of people getting a small dose of a pesticide such as Aldrin or Dieldrin through touch resulting in their immediate deaths.  These chemicals were had been sprayed in orchards or gardens, but are incredibly harmful to the farmers themselves who are in charge of taking the fruit.

DDT was created as a result of World War II to control malaria and typhus.  It was invented to be a powder used by soldiers to prevent insect contact.  However, because it was a powder, it did not absorb through the skin and its ill health effects were not discovered until much later.  After World War II, it was made into an agricultural pesticide and was widely used.  The problem with DDT is that in its initial concentration, it is not immediately harmful to the organic life, however once it progresses through the food chain, the concentration increases enormously, resulting in much more toxic levels.   This creates a problem when we being spraying our plants which our low on the food chain because once bugs start eating the plants, or the runoff goes into our fish, other species will begin eating those creatures.  This is what caused the problem with the endangerment of the Bald Eagle in the United States.  The Bald Eagle’s natural prey is fish and when fish were affected by DDT, the Bald Eagle came in contact.

Fortunately DDT was banned in 1972 partially due to Silent Spring.  Carson started a giant environmental movement that would help spur on many other important movements.  She is arguably responsible for the swift action required to remove DDT.  I would highly recommend reading Carson’s book to discover the context of where and how many poisonous pesticides came to be.  It is also good to keep in mind the impact of this book in modern times.  There is still work being done in Santa Monica Bay on the high DDT concentration found in fish through offshore runoff.  Recently it was discovered that the DDT levels surprisingly halved over the course of a few years with no explanation.  Even 50 years later, Carson’s book remains very relevant in the still puzzling world of environmental health.


The One Straw Revolution: Book Review

The One Straw Revolution

                When I read The One Straw Revolution, Masanobu Fukuoka’s manifesto on the art of “natural farming,” I was intrigued by its dramatic difference from the texts we had normally been reading in class. Fukuoka’s philosophical book indeed covers the normal topics of agriculture and food, and yet at the same time speaks to the limitations and hubris of the human race. Fukuoka uses the way the human race looks at agriculture to demonstrate how we also look at health, food, science, and life itself. By healing the land through his natural farming techniques, and living life in way that is pure and humble, man can begin to purify himself.

Fukuoka begins his work by giving the backstory to his philosophy on farming and life, starting from his origins as a young man working at a research laboratory for plant pathology. As a young man Fukuoka was jubilant, full of energy and curiosity. He details some of his experiences and run-ins with famous celebrities in his carefree years as a young adult, until he contracts pneumonia and eventually depression. In a bout of delirium, he wandered a wharf and eventually collapsed on a hill at night. In his daze, a heron emerged from the mist as the sun rose, and suddenly he had an epiphany. This epiphany would shape and define his philosophy on agriculture and life itself: “humanity knows nothing at all.”

From this point he suddenly resigns from his job at his research laboratory, and abandons his life. He returns to his father’s village in an effort to manifest his newfound philosophy in his agriculture.  He began to live a simple, primitive life based on his “do-nothing approach” to farming. For the rest of his life he refines his method of farming, and at the same time refines his philosophy. He believes that humanity truthfully knows very little, and our hubris and hunger for control over the natural world is self-destructive, and by relinquishing our drive for control, we can thrive.

Fukuoka mostly provides spiritual guidance to the reader, offering little in terms of practical agricultural techniques. He is more focused on the justification of his “do-nothing” natural agricultural method, rather than the “how.” He begins most chapters with an anecdote, for example a snake capturing a frog, or a nameless man wandering into his village, using these as springboards to begin a lesson on philosophy. The One Straw Revolution reads beautifully, with vivid imagery and striking prose, but it does not pragmatically teach the reader how exactly to begin this unique method of agriculture. Thus, it reads more as a spiritual scripture, a series of lessons on how man can achieve “spiritual awareness” and abandon the “flash development” that is “linked directly to society’s impending collapse” (110). Fukuoka heralds the way of life that is slow, personal, cognizant of the land, and spiritually satisfying. This spiritual satisfaction is linked to Fukuoka’s contemplation of the “Great Way,” or the “path of spiritual awareness which involves attentiveness to and care for the ordinary activities of daily life” (110).

Although most of this book covers Fukuoka’s spiritual journey, he also touches upon concrete methods to plant crops such as straw, rice and barely. His methods utilize little no chemical fertilizer, no pesticides, no plowing or turning of the soil and no weeding by tillage.  He goes into detail on how he goes about tending to his natural yet productive farmland.

Anyone devoted to environmentalism would do well to read this book, not for its practical applications, but for its unique and simple philosophy. One cannot help but believe that if everyone followed Fukuoka’s teachings, the “extravagance of desire” that is the “fundamental cause” of the world’s present predicament would likely be ended (110). Released at the beginning of the environmentalism movement, Fukuoka champions a lifestyle of simple material means, and comfortable spiritual fulfillment.


Book Review- Genes from the Wild

Genes from the Wild- by Robert and Christine Prescott-Allen

 In this scientific research published by Earthscan, Robert and Christine Prescott-Allen discuss the benefits and costs of using wild genetic resources in agriculture as well as provide in- depth backgrounds on a variety of genetically engineered crops. Although this research was done in 1983, the issues and information are still valid and applicable in today’s context of industrial agriculture.

Wild genetic resources are the favorable and heritable traits of wild plants and animals that can be used or have potential use to people, such as in agriculture. The application of genetics in crops became dominant in the 20th century, which over the years has contributed to the dramatic increase in the production of crops in the US, including rice, sugarcane, peanuts, and soybeans. Some crops such as tomatoes would not be able to grow commercially without the help of genetic resources. The ability to take advantage of genetic variation has allowed breeders to select traits such as environmental adaptation and rapid growth, increasing the yield and allowing non-native plants to grow successfully. Most crops have benefited from breeding with wild genetic resources, such as lettuce and carrots, with the exception of a few major crops, including soybean, cabbages, and citrus fruits. In forage crops, the major benefit of using wild species is the diversity of their growing conditions, allowing the range of domesticated grass to extend to lower latitudes, used to feed livestock. Another major consideration is the category of gene pool in which gene transfer is taking place; primary, secondary, and tertiary gene pools each differs in the fertility and viability of the hybrid species and utilizes different breeding methods to achieve gene transfer.

The main plant characteristics derived from wild species include disease resistance, pest resistance, high yield, vigour, environmental adaptations, high starch and vitamins, cytoplasmic male sterility, petaloid male sterility, and harvest and transport adaptations. The most important characteristic among those would be disease resistance, exhibited by a single dominant gene. Before the use of disease resistant genes, crops suffered immense damages, such as the grassy stunt epidemic in Asia during the early 1970s. Although the gene is easily transferred, there are challenges involved in crossing; the main one is the package-deal effect, which is the common case of disease resistant genes being linked to the genes for other undesirable traits, such as bad taste. With this trade-off in mind, breeders would sometimes have to risk lowered resistance in order to maintain the quality and taste of the crops. However, there is no leeway when it comes to fungal diseases, which are the most severe in crops, making it a priority to purge them.

This research acknowledges that despite all the advantages that wild genetic resources can provide, there are also major costs to consider. Wild genes are threatened by habitat loss, over-exploitation, competition from introduced species and predators. An example is the decline of wild sunflowers in California as a result of urbanization in L.A. It’s not obvious to us that valuable gene pools are disappearing because of the appearance of species abundance. There are two ways in which a germplasm can be conserved- ex situ and in situ. Ex situ is the process of conserving resources outside of their natural habitats (e.g. zoos and gene banks). In situ conservation takes place in their native habitats (e.g. national parks). Ex situ banks are favored by most breeders, firstly, because they can be located anywhere, whereas in situ sites could be far away from breeders. Secondly, in situ banks could be subject to disturbance by poachers, firewood collectors, livestock or the destruction of the sites. Nonetheless, the priority of most conservationists is in situ conservation. In situ banks can keep everything safe in one place and are easier to protect, while ex situ collections risk loss due to human error.

I think this book offers a fair, balanced perspective on how wild genetic resources can benefit society and the importance of mitigating the consequences that entail in terms of the loss in biodiversity. What I find interesting is the difference in the ways of persuasion the authors used to address the advantages and disadvantages of wild genetic resources. They approached the advantages in the most practical and human-relevant manner, focusing on the reaping of economic and social benefits, but when they shifted their discourse to the need for conservation, their style of approach changed to one that demands altruism and insists on our inherent duty to the environment. They did not stress on how conservation can actually benefit society, which would have rendered their persuasion more effective.

Bibliography: Prescott-Allen, R; Prescott-Allen, C. (1983) Genes from the Wild: Using wild genetic resources for food and raw materials. London. Earthscan.