Growing up in Pasadena, I did not have an immediate knowledge of where our food and water came from. I turned on the faucet for water, plugged cords into the wall for electricity, and went to the store for food. My city had been engineered for me, and I was just mindlessly playing my role.
At a young age, I felt that there was something wrong with my ignorance. Even worse, no one else seemed to be aware of our unawareness. Everything came from somewhere else. One salvation for me was that my mother grew up on a farm and would tell tales of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in which many people had no food, and some starved to death. My mother’s family was poor by most standards, but they had 51 acres in rural Ohio, and they fed themselves and many others. My mother’s stories inspired me to become an ethno-botanist and learn about how all plants were used in the past.
Though I did not pursue the path of “urban planning,” I realized that I had many choices within the framework of my suburban existence with which I could ecologically engineer my life.
My first teenage experiences were in backyard urban gardening and raising chickens in a tiny space. I didn’t want to be dependent on commercial fertilizers and bug sprays, so I learned the ages-old methods of agricultural, methods that people today call “organic” or “perma-culture.” I learned that indeed anyone could produce at least some of their food in a small amount of space.
Even in my late teenage years I had critics who told me it was not practical to grow foods without artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Really? I followed the path of Fusuoka and his “One Straw Revolution,” and the Rodale family, and insisted on growing everything with nothing artificial. I learned to keep down the bug population with natural methods that had been practiced worldwide for millennia. I knew that the so-called Green Revolution, based as it was on petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, was partly a fraud and was not sustainable into future centuries.
I continued my botanical studies by learning about the uses of wild plants of the Native Americans. I found to my surprise that all the foods used by the indigenous population could still be found throughout my homeland, though it was necessary to hunt a bit more because of all the houses, roads and modern landscaping that have taken over the land. The engineering of the concrete city destroyed much of the terrain where these native foods grew, but they were not entirely gone.
I began to eat these wild plants which had sustained people for thousands of years, and I incorporated them into my regular diet. When I first began to share my excitement of these floral treasures with others, I was treated with mostly apathy, sometimes scorn, and even pity. I was amazed.
RE-ENGINEERING MY OWN MIND
In the mid-1970s in Los Angeles County, I began publicly teaching and writing about the practical skills of self-reliance and practical survival in the city. I was not engineering the city, but I was working to engineer a new mindset that says we can live ecologically (and economically) in the city.
Today, there is great interest in the knowledge of our ancestors. It’s never too late to begin seeking our roots and to turn around some of the habits of ecological suicide. I believe that we can solve many of our problems today by looking to the past for some of our solutions.
Here in Southern California, we have barely gotten over a four-year drought, which has finally inspired politicians and water department movers-and-shakers to encourage millions of people to consume less water. With water usage averaging about 131 gallons a day for Los Angeles residents, and population growth of about 5 percent a year, water must always be a concern, as it will always be for most major cities of the world.
The mayor of Los Angeles and city officials are encouraging people to tear out their lawns and install drought-tolerant plants. I encourage people to go even one step further: Learn about the wild plants which are edible and medicinal, and encourage their growth. And never merely plant “ornamentals,” that is plants that do not provide food, medicine or good mulch from their leaves. Plant with the purpose of feeding your body and soul.
To help irrigate these useful plants, I’m a big proponent of grey-water recycling in which your sink and washing machine water are piped into your backyard garden or front yard orchard. Not every city dweller can do this, but enough can to make a large difference. Other changes are essential, such as buying soaps that do not contain dyes, colors or harmful chemicals. Continuing education is also a big part of self-reliance and sustainability. Recycling your grey-water means that you are getting at least two uses from something that previously gave you only one. Practically speaking, for every gallon of water you recycle, you have effectively created another gallon of water for your use which does not have to be imported from somewhere else!
With the population of Southern California continually growing, there is the increasing need for more food and more water. Unfortunately, this means even more land will be paved over for more houses or apartments. Thus, the very soil which all ancient civilizations knew was the foundation of a healthy society becomes more and more rare. This should not be the case, even though it seems all but inevitable.
Our very lifeblood is dependent on the soil in so many ways: Water, food, everything.
However, urban people need to relearn these very basic ecological principles. Our very laws and attitudes — especially in the more “developed” countries — work against our long-term sustainability.
Here in Southern California, a green lawn is still the norm in the sprawling suburban flatlands. Never-ending flows of water (from somewhere) is the expectation. The mindset must be turned around, and it will begin with enlightened individuals who see that inappropriate lifestyles in an overpopulated dry terrain are the antithesis of survival. As attitudes change, the laws of the land need to support the water-wise practices that support sustainability.
As a lifelong educator in the uses of common wild plants, I cringe when I see television advertisements for such products as Roundup and other weed killers designed to eliminate unwanted vegetation from urban gardens and landscapes.
To me, a student of wild plants and things growing in faraway and neglected places, using a chemical like Roundup to “clean up” a wild area is a sacrilege. Further, bankers and land investors do not necessarily see the land as a source of life, recreation, fulfillment and community. Rather, increasingly the desire is to extract the greatest financial benefit from the land. Land that has nothing built upon it is all too often described as “non-performing real estate.” That is the mentality which has caused the urban sprawl to spread even further, while diminishing the very sustainability from the land that we all need.
“Engineering” the city should not be simply building ever-more structures on the diminishing landscape. We should be re-engineering our thinking so we can get more from less, in ways that are both healthful and ecological.
THE QUIET REVOLUTION
I am a pioneer of the path of the green and sustainable revolution. You won’t find me protesting in the streets for changes, but you might find me in a city council meeting, or in a garden, or in a wilderness area. I work with people one at a time. I have found that once an individual sees that the so-called weeds in an empty field are actually great nutritious food or medicine, they suddenly take a very personal interest in protecting and taking care of the land. Once individuals learn that the water from their households can water their own garden and herb patch, they become quite alert and aware of the quality of any soaps they are using, and they begin to use only those that are biodegradable, as a result of enlightened self-interest. Suddenly, living an ecological urban life becomes very personal.
There are many ways to attain urban sustainability. This is the path that I have chosen. n
Christopher Nyerges works to engineer a new mindset that says we can live ecologically (and economically) in the city. He has taught self-reliance and sustainability his entire life through the teaching of ethnobotany and principles of permaculture. Nyerges is the author of 23 books, including “Self-Sufficient Home: Going Green and Saving Money,” “Extreme Simplicity: Homesteading in the City” and “How to Survive Anywhere.” He is the co-founder of the School of Self-Reliance and works actively with various nonprofits to help them attain their goals of urban sustainability.