I’ve amassed quite a few books on homesteading, urban farming, sustainability, energy efficiency, building, permaculture and related topics recently and the next up for review is no exception: Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living by Rachel Kaplan & Ruby Blume. For some the title “homesteading” may bring with it some negative connotations; this is something that Urban Homesteading seeks to set straight at the beginning by noting that homesteading is..
“…not about austerity or apocalypse; it’s about living a simpler, more joyful, more effective life. Homesteading is not a replay of a Depression-era mentality. It is a series of skills and practices that lift us out of a culture of inaction and cynicism into a culture of abundance, care and possibility.”
Something that one immediately notices when picking up the Urban Homesteading is that it’s a beautiful book. While a paperback, it’s printed on good-quality paper and is generously sprinkled with excellent photos and clear diagrams – some of which are there mostly to keep things beautiful. This is actually in line with the authors’ comments; they point out that some “hard-core” homesteaders or permaculturalists eschew planting something for purely aesthetic pleasure; the authors, however, consider beauty an important part of gardening. I tend to agree, but then again, nothing is ever there just for aesthetic pleasure – flowers attract pollinators and can indirectly be used for honey production, so the stacking of functions can still be there even if it’s not specifically planned for.
Urban Homesteading covers a wealth of topics and uses permaculture guidelines for structuring and implementing much of the stuff. While it has good coverage of growing foodstuff also, it is by no means “just” a gardening book – there are in-depth chapters of preserving food and a wealth of construction projects of various sizes. The projects are one of the best features of the book; there are many hands-on projects, from small to large, so there’s always something you can implement – but it’s also highly likely you’ll never get to try everything in the book. There are also many useful “transition frameworks” on various themes such as tending to water, energy conservation and moving from consumption to production, which outline clear, simple steps in a realistic timeframe that one can take – forming a sort of practical, if somewhat high-level, mini-plan.
One thing that I found really useful is that the book includes dozens of real-life examples and stories. Importantly, these stories aren’t just the success stories, but several people also openly tell of things that didn’t work, which helps keep things in the proper perspective. As is inevitable for a book with a wide scope, some things cannot be discussed comprehensively – for example, there are only short textual descriptions of butchering chickens, which are not going to be sufficient for learning from that alone. To compensate, there is a comprehensive references and resources-list at the back, which will direct you to a plethora of more detailed information on specific topics. All in all, Urban Homesteading is a great book, and serves as a semi-introduction to permaculture as well – I can highly recommend it. And at a mere $11 it’s a bargain, too!
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The book raised two topics about food that are worth thinking about a bit more; first the local food-movement and second, the availability of healthy food.
On local food; Urban Homesteading makes a call for eating as much locally as possible, highlighting the importance of local food. Naturally, food produced close-by has numerous positive aspects to it; there is the reduced transportation and emissions angle, but there is also the increased regional resilience-angle, both very important. Another important point about local food is that it is not, nor is permaculture, a call to self-sufficiency, but more about creating sustainable, resilient communities. All these aspects are recognized by many, although equally many still wrongly view self-sufficiency as some sort of holy grail of urban homesteading.
What is, however, missed by most who call for only-local-food is the fact that there are many people who live in areas of poor agricultural productivity and/or seasonal zero-production environments. While obviously preservation techniques can overcome the absolute need to ship food from far away, it does not address the nutritional deficiencies – or the simple pleasures of eating. It’s one thing to appreciate the seasonally available produce, but it’s an entirely different thing to learn to tolerate, let alone appreciate, canned and preserved foods for 6 months of the year if it’s impossible to grow anything fresh locally. It’s also a well-established fact that the so-called Mediterranean/Asian (or as one book calls it, Mediterrasian) diet is among the healthiest and best diets for human well-being. It, however, remains a fact of life that not even close to all locations on the planet are capable of supporting a Mediterranean diet year-round.
Clearly it’s no longer possible to have the entire human population live only in areas which are optimally suited to sustaining them, but equally clearly there will be an inevitable era of deglobalization of food distribution, if only because the economics of shipping kiwis 15,000km to consumers will become impossible to maintain. But even before this happens, it’s clear that eating only 100% local food is not the healthiest option for many people. Perhaps more attention should be paid on how to make the local food sources more varied and how to have healthy food sustainably on the table even in places that are frozen solid for half of the year.
On availability of healthy food; the Urban Homesteading book briefly mentions the problem of “food insecurity”, part of which has to do with healthy food not being available to all. There was an interesting related article in the Economist recently, which pointed out a couple of unfortunate facts; “the unpalatable truth seems to be that some Americans simply do not care to eat a balanced diet, while others, increasingly, cannot afford to”.
While it’s true that some people simply don’t have access to healthy food, and for some it is too expensive, I suspect there’s plenty of scope for many people in the Western countries to buy healthier food but buy less of it. With over 60% of Americans overweight and more than a third obese, it seems to me many could reduce their caloric intake and instead spend it on healthier, even if more expensive, food. (There is, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, no statistically significant link between obesity and socioeconomic status).