Despite whatever pop-culture models of societal collapse might say on the subject, it is pretty clear that city living is going to continue to be a fact of life – certainly for the remainder of our lifetimes and probably for longer. And there will be plenty of deindustrialists who remain in cities – by choice, or from simple financial necessity.
I would imagine that a lot of the readers of this blog really value escaping the confines of the city. Maybe like me you spend most of the summer in various fields and woodlands. Maybe you have acquired some land, or would like to at some point in the future. You might be seeking self-sufficiency, somewhere you can afford to live or maybe you want to start a local food business. You might be after the reassuring realness of land, at least compared with the ephemeral and untrustworthy fiat currency you will need to exchange for it. You might have some more emotional (and no less valid) reasons – romanticised rural living has been used as a counterpoint for the potential alienation of city life for probably as long as there have been cities, and back to the land movements have been a feature in previous civilisations during times of strife and dysfunction.
I myself am not immune to this – in fact, getting hold of a few acres is on my bucket list. I’d like to to do some re-wilding, have somewhere to host events in the summer, and maybe grow an orchard. But I’m certainly not trying to get hold of some land to provide myself with a place to live, because the city holds a lot of advantages for me.
In this respect, its all about population density. Living in a dense urban area means I can access the services I need on foot, and that I can go a lot further relying only on public transport. In a de-industrialising society, living in a city provides a more secure access to what remains of societal infrastructure – simple things like electricity, public safety, health and sanitation are more cost-effective at scale, and a higher population density will make them easier to replace with localised alternatives as the versions of them that we have now atrophy and/or go bankrupt.
I definitely lose resiliency points when it comes to being able to feed myself, compared to if I were living rurally. But the other side of that is that living rurally would isolate me from the networks I rely on to meet my various other needs. Plus, I would inevitably be far more car-reliant than I am now, simply because I’d have far fewer people and essential services within walking distance. There’s also the minor issue that I’m not all that bothered about food production. Sure, I wouldn’t mind learning and practising it at some point, but its pretty far down the list. And what with a garden and various community projects near me, and plenty of opportunities to volunteer rurally, there’s nothing stopping me from learning what I need to know from Central Swansea.
And in practise, living rurally wouldn’t exactly mean I automatically start growing lots of my own food anyway. From knowing a lot of people in the current wave of theback to the land movement, it varies immensely how much self sufficiency is a focus, and lots of rural people get Suma orders and pop to the shops like the rest of us. This isn’t a criticism by the way- all of the people I know who are making a go of rural resilient living have my respect – we need more people getting access to land for all sorts of reasons. If you’re rehabilitating it into forest gardens and organic smallholdings to provide food, fuel and fibre for local consumption so much the better. Just as we need to put together the first inklings of a deindustrial urban economy now, that will also need to link up with a productive local rural economy.
In fact, urban deindustrialists benefit greatly from making some connections with their rural counterparts. Having friends with land has given me plenty of chances to gain skills, including low-tech housebuilding, coppicing and slaughtering pigs to name but a few – usually in exchange for nothing more than my time.
But the fact remains that by chasing self sufficiency, we are trying to create a particular form of human ecology – that of a small hamlet that produces all, or the vast majority of its own goods and services, without recourse to a wider economy, save perhaps for a few luxuries. This might well be a sustainable human ecology in a few hundred years time in some parts of the industrialised world, but it doesn’t look like a sustainable one now. There are simply a whole ream of inputs required to create this ecology (in the form of skills, land availability and economic isolation) that just aren’t there.
I think we’re in a good position to be trying to put together the first building blocks of some new human ecologies, and that this benefits from being tried out in both urban and rural settings. However it needs to start from a place of pragmatism, and a recognition of what is and isn’t feasible given what resources we have available. And if we start from this position of pragmatism, we can better choose our areas of focus, and from there decide the best starting point.
Some of my starting points have been learning low-tech construction skills, growing grassroots democracy and giving my son a decent education. Yours might mean you want to start somewhere completely different. Either way, I’d be interested to hear about it.