Urban Homesteading – meh

There’s a minor manurestorm raging among the folks who do their farming on the internet, about a California family called the Dervaes who appear to have registered trademarks including “Urban Homesteading”. As I understand it this term has been in common use at least since the 1970s, to describe basically what they are doing. They are sending cease-and-desist letters to institutions including public libraries, and generally making asses of themselves. You can read about it here and here. Now they’re digging in, closing down comments, and claiming that their cease-and-desist letters don’t have the phrase ‘cease and desist’ in them. There’s a facebook page now dedicated to taking back the term, and a lawyer from the EFF is in on the action, so probably in the end they will have only ruined their reputation (which seems to include cult-like overtones and frequent requests for donation) and given some bloggers juicy stuff to write about.

I could give a wizened turnip for the Dervaes, whom I’d never heard of before this, but more generally I’ve got mixed feelings about ‘urban homesteading’ when the associated images are all about the bounty of food that you can grow on your urban postage stamp. The basic issue is that humans need a lot of food (hundreds of pounds of common foodstuffs per person per year), and even under ideal circumstances, virtually no city dwellers have enough land to even make a dent in their food requirements. I’ve done the math in several previous posts, on industrial meat, crop area requirements, and energy requirements to grow food. Living in the city can potentially have very low environmental impact in a lot of ways, but food is not one of them – the benefits are primarily in the potential to go about working life and entertain yourself while getting around by foot, bicycle, or subway; and the fact that large multi-family structures are inherently easier to heat than smaller single-family homes. In order to maintain a lower carbon footprint than an environmentally-conscious city dweller, rural inhabitants would probably have to heat with solar or sustainably-harvested wood, work close to home, and bike or drive an efficient vehicle (if I had some time I’d actually do the math on this…). Of course, if either the country mouse or the city mouse engages in any significant amount of air travel on a yearly basis, that can quickly dwarf other carbon impacts.

That’s not to belittle the efforts of people who feel like growing some tomatoes on their front stoop, but I suspect the more useful aspects of ‘urban homesteading’ are less about agriculture and more about old-fashioned home economics – making and fixing things yourself, buying in bulk, yard sales/scavenging, etc.

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