Urban Homesteading: What Went Wrong

As I cast a critical eye towards the sustainability movement of the 1960s and 70s, in a previous blog post, I think it’s only fair to take a look at the movement we played a role in, the “urban homesteading” of the late aughts. In a series of future posts I’d like to look back at the ideas in our two books The Urban Homestead and Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World. I’ll consider both the broader ideas in the books as well as what might have changed in terms of specific methods in subjects such as gardening and beekeeping.

First let me peel back the curtain for those of you have have never written a book and describe how awkward and weird it can be to read your own writing after the passage of ten years. That said, after a casual glace this morning though the introduction to The Urban Homestead and Making It, I still think they are mostly solid. What I’m more concerned about are things I may have said in book appearances, blog posts and press interviews after the books came out, specifically that the changes we need to make to avert crises such as climate change and healthy food systems are all about personal choice. While I never said we could save the planet by learning to make jam, my studious avoidance of political controversy may have left that impression.

Along that line, I’m concerned with our brief promotion of stoicism though a series of blog posts and an essay in a book published in 2014, Stoicism Today: Selected Writings. While I think everyone should be familiar with the stoics and even read the very readable Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, G.K. Chesterton takes down the musings of these two Roman billionaires in just two sentences. Chesterton says, “Notice that Marcus Aurelius insists, as such introspective moralists always do, upon small things done or undone; it is because he has not hate or love enough to make a moral revolution. He gets up early in the morning, just as our own aristocrats living the Simple Life get up early in the morning; because such altruism is much easier than stopping the games of the amphitheatre or giving the English people back their land.”(1)

Stopping the games at the amphitheatre and giving the English people back their land are both messy problems that involve working with disagreeable people, attending boring public meetings and, worse, the chance of getting nailed to a tree. For a writer it involves staking out controversial positions and taking a stand on thorny issues. For the past ten years I’ve studiously avoided controversy in favor of making jam and attempting to grow arugula.

But what if we made jam, grew arugula and worked to stop those games at the amphitheatre? I don’t think it’s an either-or proposition. This integration of domestic artistry and politics is why I’ve been so obsessed with William Morris in the past year. He spent many long, frustrating years working for the rights of working class people. His art was not a distraction from this political work but was instead an integral part of his attempt to make the world a better place and to warn of the horrors that were to come.

So what might the urban homesteading movement contribute to politics? I think that as people who are engaged with work with our hands we have a more grounded, realistic view of the world, particularly when it comes to the issue of climate change. What tangible ideas could we contribute to the formulation of the Green New Deal, for instance? Certainly, we’re going to have to work together, not as disconnected individuals. This collectivism is another thing that I think I could have done a better job of expressing.

Next up I’ll take a look at some of the specifics in our books such as, ugh, double digging.

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23 Comments

  1. looking forward to reading your subsequent posts on your reflections on the books and the latest homesteading movement.

    so what might urban homesteading contribute to politics? I think it can contribute immensely to the current politics. Urban homesteading questions the current production and consumption practices and the culture that supports that model. It presents an alternative to that model and culture.

  2. Erik and Kelly,

    Really looking forward to reading both of your current thoughts on the books. Both have been huge influences on my life the past few years.

    Thank you for fhe books, site and podcast.

  3. I think it would make an interesting research study to examine whether people take more positive/constructive actions following being exposed to “how-to” material or…I’m not sure quite the right words…perhaps “need-to” material.

    My personal sample size of one responds way better to reading about new idea or projects and ways that I can engage with the world in a more interesting way. My brain turns away from “need-to” posts. I get far enough into a post to realize it’s a “need-to” post/blog/video/podcast and, unless there is some interesting “how-to” content, I move on.

  4. Societies don’t change voluntarily. They hit a hall and can’t continue with business as usual. There’s a crisis. Then we change. That process isn’t prettty.

    I’m not a political animal. I’m not good at organizing anything. I’ve been to too many City Hall meetings to believe that process yields meaningful results.

    So I’ve turned inward to the things I can control and work with the people around me. Society is headed for a crisis. As households we need to be prepared to ride out a bad storm. Get to work in the garden, in the deep pantry, and with your neighbors.

    • I’d love for a podcast episode or more blog posts on this topic(s).

      I keep trying to convince myself otherwise, that the ‘storm’ isn’t coming, but I know better. I’m not ready.

    • As soon as I get done with working on the house I’m hoping to address this subject on the podcast.

    • I hate public meetings too and have spent many frustrating hours at them. But I have to say, the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gave me hope. Part of the problem we have here in Los Angeles is the sort of machine Democrats that AOC defeated. I think there’s an opportunity, on the local level, to make some dramatic changes.

  5. Well said! And brave of you to go back and examine the faults in your past writing—although at least internally, please cut your past self some slack. As writers and teachers we are also people who are (hopefully) continually growing; learning more and deeper things, and coming up with better ways to express them—so there will always be some regret looking backwards, and for me anyway it helps to remember that I really was giving it my best shot at the time.

    I’ve also been slowly coming to believe that the right path forward is some combination of small/personal/doable actions, along with working on the bigger picture issues in the ways that I can. I look forward to reading what else you have to say about this!

    • Thank you! And, yes, a book always reflects one’s thinking at a particular time and place.

  6. Eric-I am intrigued by your citation of GK Chesterton, and thought you had mentioned him in earlier posts, but the search yielded nothing. Curious where one should start in reading his work? Thanks.

    • The two books I’ve read are Orthodoxy and Heretics. While I don’t share his political views I do appreciate his theological notions and respect that he can still make you laugh even though his books are over 100 years old.

  7. Great post – straddling the worlds of what it means to be practical and active with regards to the private garden (and workshed!) and the public amphitheater.

  8. We always do what we think is best at the time with the knowledge and experiences we have at the moment. Your books and blog have brought a lot of like minded people together. I think we are all struggling to figure out where this world is going and how we can make it a better place. And we can’t beat ourselves up for what we didn’t do or know 20 years ago.
    I am grateful to have your blog bookmarked and that through your first book I was able to find you. I feel like I have been walking the path with the both of you, trying to be self-sufficient, and learning along the way.
    We don’t know where life is going to take us. Maybe we can be ‘political’ in our own small ways. I think we DO make a difference if only to make people more aware that there are other, kinder, ways of living.
    Keep hanging in there. You make my day a lot more interesting! 🙂 Thank you and blessings to you both.

    • I think this is an important point. All making is a journey, and you have to start as an amateur. When we see others admiting to and examining their own learninh curve, it helps us accept our own.
      So, thank you guys for your reflections on your own growth. It can help shape all of ours!

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