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Debunking Myths #1: Cities are the future

Brussels city

This article does not represent Extinction Rebellion’s position, but the opinion of a rebel member of the “Myth Debunkers for XR” group. See how the group drafts and selects articles, on our community forum:

Myth 1: podcast
Listen to this podcast we created for this article (French spoken) on Soundcloud

Hi, my rebel name is Valsilver, I am +25, and I have a background in Environment and Resource Management, and currently working on environmental policy. Passionate about permaculture and agroecology, I spent more than one year in the creation of an agroecological project in Spain, and planning to get my hands back in the soil soon.

Total reading time: 15 minutes.

Cities and consumerism

We live in a consumerist society heading to always more populated cities. Our resilience, which is the capacity to survive and adapt from strong disturbances in the environment, is lowest in our current urban settings, where the community uses time, space, and resources, on activities that are not directly for producing food or other basic needs for its well-being. If tomorrow grocery stores stopped selling food (due to a financial crisis, or ecological collapse), the day after citizens would be in a full-fledged revolution in the streets, begging and scavenging for food and other essential goods. Especially now, during the Covid-19 pandemic, we are reminded how living in dense cities, and being dependent on grocery stores, makes our lives so fragile: we are dependent on food (and resources) produced and extracted elsewhere, and reliant on highly unpredictable supply chains. Our food security, which currently relies predominantly on the cheap availability of fossil fuels and other limited resources, is hanging on by a thread, and the situation is likely to worsen very fast…but…why?

‘Killer FACTS’

1. Crippling resources: we are reaching peak levels on a number of essential materials and elements on which the current food system depends.

2. Biodiversity collapse: we depend, and are part, of this extremely complex network of life called ‘biodiversity’. Unfortunately, we have been destroying and intoxicating natural habitats for more than a century, leading to the 6th mass extinction of life on our planet (the 5th one being the dinosaurs). Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, deep tillage and annual monocultures, have decimated, inter alia, pollinators and earthworms populations, and depleted soils of organic matter, bacterial and fungi’s life. Our soils are being eroded and depleted of life and nutrients at such a rate, that the UN gives 60 years to global agricultural lands before being completely unable to provide food.

3. Abrupt climate change: because of their unpredictability, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has widely underestimated feedback loops (e.g.: melting of permafrost, or arctic ice) in its famous “1.5C Report”. Numerous studies suggest that extreme events (mega-fires, prolonged heat waves and extreme droughts, accelerated coastal floodings, etc) might very likely become a reality within our generation, with devastating consequences on our vulnerable food system.

Let’s combine all these factors, and we now understand that food production under our current globalized and industrial agricultural system, be it “bio”, or “vegan”, will soon be brought to its knees (in 5, 10, 20, who knows exactly, years), and cause dramatic famines all over Europe and the world (=> Note that certified biological food does not necessarily address our aforementioned bio-physical limits, as its production still remains heavily based on the use of machines, monoculture and annual crops, pesticides -although ‘natural’-, and soil tillage). If food systems operating with reduced or zero external inputs (aka self-sufficient) have to rise from this situation, and they must, our society will change in a way we haven’t seen since the green revolution (which actually saw the opposite trend happening).

I gave an overview of the problems, now it’s time to look at the solutions.

Space and urban planning

According to Ecology Action, one individual could be self-sufficient by bio-intensively growing food on +-400m2, while being on a strict vegetarian and simple diet. If we make a redundant abstraction, we can take the space available per person in Brussels: 130m2 (total surface divided by its population). If we consider that a large part of the city is covered or shaded by (cemented) buildings and roads, the available growing surface is far less than 130m2/person.

While removing asphalt for growing, or creating massive green belts around the city is at this point necessary, we would still be far from making Brussels, or other major cities, self-sufficient: using the data provided by Ecology Action, we would need at least 4 times Brussels’ surface to grow food for its population (400m2 times the population). Disinvesting from useless cement monsters, and implementing a gradual and planned downsize of our densely populated cities seems at this point the right idea before shit starts seriously hitting the fan. (btw, did you know that sand, essential for cement, is also running out?)

An “army” of regenerative farmers

Farmers in the EU are old: 32% of EU farmers are +65 years old. This means that just in terms of replacing the older generation, more than 3 million farmers will have to enter in activity in the EU within the next 10 years. And just to keep the production going with the same agricultural system. Achieving an agricultural system away from industrial farming however, means more than replacing what we already have, but changing the way we produce food and envision agriculture. It means necessarily: less or no machines and automation (see “High-tech and Agriculture?” chapter), and smaller plots of land per farmer, which means more labor force needed!

To explain this, let’s look at a modern history example: Cuba, because of the 90’s embargo, was forced to drastically cut its dependency on fossil fuels (hence, cut energy consumption). Heavy machinery and gasoline becoming too expensive, obliged 15-25% of the Cuban population to start growing (quality food) manually, to replace what machines and synthetic chemicals were doing before. In a few years, although not without sacrifices, Cuba has become the center of a new agricultural revolution, based on agroecology and self-sufficient systems. That we agree or not with its political regime, Cuba has shown to us what happens to a civilization finding itself in deep energy shortage, and its experience allows us to plan ahead to build long-term resilience for the shocks we will be facing.

Example of polyculture in Cuba.
Example of polyculture in Cuba.

If the labor force seen in Cuba to move from a fossil-dependent food system to a post-fossil one was applied in Europe (hopefully with better planning and less disruption) this means that in the EU, about 100 million people would be needed for the new agricultural revolution! And there you go also solved the unemployment problem.

High-tech and agriculture?

In a world with much less accessible dense energy (remember the EROI), crippling resources and biodiversity, and abrupt changes in climate and weather patterns, scaled high-tech solutions (e.g.: smart robots and automated farms) sound like a very bad idea. Although proposing some potential benefits in the short-term, overall high-tech solutions remain heavily dependent on the extraction of rare earth materials (which by the way will inevitably lead land and ocean ecosystems to be drilled to death), and on a steady inflow of cheap and abundant energy.

An example of a high-tech farm.
An example of a high-tech farm.

The “vegan world” illusion

The end of industrial agriculture, would mean diversification of production with the development of more perennial plants, but also, integration of animals in farm ecosystems. Vegan, vegetarian, and lower meat diets will be consequential in many localities, the moment we will start producing food with low-to-zero external inputs. Yes. However, thinking that a future post-fossil fuels society can go without the integration, and therefore consumption, of animals and their ‘by-products’, is an illusion.

Animals in fact can provide, with very little or zero external inputs, essential functionalities for self-sufficient and resilient ecosystems: energy (biogas from manure), long-lasting and biodegradable by-products (eg.: leather and wool), wildfire prevention, fast soil regeneration (hence drought resistance and carbon storage), transform feeds unsuited for human consumption into nutritious food (from perennial grasslands to animal-based food for us),animal traction,and very importantly, allow us to efficiently close nutrient cycles.

Instead of advocating for veganism, what should be the focus of environmental activism in this context is the need for a rapid transition from a consumerist to a producers’ society. A society which advocates for re-appropriating itself of the means to a gradual but rapid move to the countryside, to“produce” forests and healthy soils, food, energy, shelter, and deeper social bonds!It is clear that, at this point, our picky globalist consumption choices will adapt and transform according to what our local/regional resources, soil, community and climate can offer and, of course, what we will be able to produce ourselves.

mobile chicken tractor
The “mobile chicken tractor” in Zaytuna Farm, Australia. Chickens are fed with only food scraps, and regenerate the soil while providing compost for the garden, eggs, and meat.

The vision

Now, imagine going from a life spent in an office hunched over a computer all day, to a life in the outdoors, in contact with millions of other forms of life. Imagine our transformed countryside and our (ehm…down-sized…ehm…de-cemented) cities thriving with life and breathing soil that awards us with tasty, diverse, and highly-nutritious foods. Rural living might have lost its attractiveness because of loneliness, economic and land access struggles, and an agriculture that has led to monotonous and mono-chromatic landscapes. But it doesn’t need to be this way.

Bec Hellouin Farm
The permaculture and bio-intensive Bec Hellouin Farm, in Normandy, France.

What if networks of collaborating self-sufficient rural and urban productive communities could start flourishing? What if work became more fun, peaceful, creative, and satisfactory, and our daily activity be in deep communication with the land and people? What if we created resilient, perennial, and regenerating food systems and communities? And what if we rebelled to make this vision possible?

It can be achieved, needs to be achieved, and might probably be anyway with time (although through uncontrollable and very ‘unhappy’ events).

What are we waiting for?


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