Our Worst Enemies Aren't Terrorists: Rethinking National Security on a Sinking Planet
Continued from previous page
Think of the shortages and ensuing food riots in 30 countries across the planet in 2008 as grim coming attractions for life on a planet with unpredictable extreme weather, booming populations, overloaded ecosystems, and distorted food economies. The spike in prices that put food staples out of reach of rioting masses of people was soon enough mitigated by the collapse of energy prices when the global economy tanked. Make no mistake, though: food shortages and the social unrest that goes with them will eventually return.
And here's something else to take into consideration: Nations that suffer food shortages may, when their hungry citizens demand food sovereignty, protect their agricultural sectors by erecting trade barriers -- just as is beginning to happen in other areas of production under the pressure of the global economic meltdown. The era of globalized food production, whose fruits (and vegetables) we Americans have come to consider little short of our supermarket birthright, may contract significantly in the relatively near future. We should be prepared. And that's where a Department of Homegrown Security could make some real sense.
Most American cities, after all, have less than a week's worth of food in their pipeline and most of us don't stockpile, which makes city dwellers especially vulnerable to disruptions of the food supply. Skip your next three meals and you'll grasp the panic likely to arise if the American food chain is ever broken in a significant way. The question is: How can we address rather than ignore this vital, if underappreciated, aspect of homeland security?
Vertical Farms and Victory Gardens
Because cities are so dependent on daily food shipments, local food security in urban areas might well mean storing more food for emergencies; this would certainly be the old-school approach to disaster planning, and it has worked well enough over the short run. Over the long run, however, what makes real sense is to encourage urban and suburban community gardens and farmers' markets, and not just on a scale that ensures a summer supply of arugula and fresh tomatoes, but on one that might actually help mitigate prolonged food disruptions. There are enough vacant lots, backyards, and rooftops to host many thousands of gardens, either created by voluntary groups or by small-scale entrepreneurs. Urban farming could even go big. Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier recently unveiled his vision of a "vertical farm," a 30-story tower right in the middle of an urban landscape, that could grow enough food to feed 50,000 people in the surrounding neighborhood.
Cultural historian and visionary critic Mike Davis has already wondered why our approach to homeland security doesn't draw from the example of "victory gardens" during World War II. In 1943, just two years into the war, 20 million victory gardens were producing a staggering 30-40% of the nation's vegetables. Thousands of abandoned urban lots were being cleared and planted by tenement neighbors working together. The Office of Civilian Defense encouraged and empowered such projects, but the phenomenon was also self-organizing because citizens on the home front wanted to participate, and home gardening was, after all, a delicious way to be patriotic.
Rebecca Solnit, author of Hope in the Dark, reports that, within the de-industrialized ruins of Detroit, a landscape she describes as "not quite post-apocalyptic but… post-American," people are homesteading abandoned lots, growing their own produce, raising farm animals, and planting orchards. In that depopulated city, some have been clawing (or perhaps hoeing) their way back to a semblance of food security. They have done so because they had to, and their reward has been harvests that would be the envy of any organic farmer. The catastrophe that is Detroit didn't happen with a Hurricane Katrina-style bang, but as a slow, grinding bust -- and a possibly haunting preview of what many American municipalities may experience, post-crash. Solnit claims, however, that the greening of Detroit under the pressure of economic adversity is not just a strategy for survival, but a possible path to renewal. It's also a living guidebook to possibilities for our new Department of Homegrown Security when it considers where it might most advantageously put some of its financial muscle while creating a more secure -- and resilient -- America.