Garlic, Chainsaws, and Victory Gardens

The uncontrolled simplification of a complex system is rarely a welcome event for those people whose lives depend on the system in question. That’s one way to summarize the impact of the waves of trouble rolling up against the sand castles we are pleased to call the world’s modern industrial nations. Exactly how the interaction between sand and tide will work out is anyone’s guess at this point; the forces that undergird that collision have filled the pages of this blog for a year and a half now; here, and for the next few posts, I want to talk a bit about what can be done to deal with the consequences.

That requires, first of all, recognizing what can’t be done. Plenty of people have argued that the only valid response to the rising spiral of crisis faced by industrial civilization is to build a completely new civilization from the ground up on more idealistic lines. Even if that latter phrase wasn’t a guarantee of disaster – if there’s one lesson history teaches, it’s that human societies are organic growths, and trying to invent one to fit some abstract idea of goodness is as foredoomed as trying to make an ecosystem do what human beings want – we no longer have time for grand schemes of that sort. To shift metaphors, when your ship has already hit the iceberg and the water’s coming in, it’s a bit too late to suggest that it should be rebuilt from the keel up according to some new scheme of naval engineering.

An even larger number of people have argued with equal zeal that the only valid response to the predicament of our time is to save the existing order of things, with whatever modest improvements the person in question happens to fancy, because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. They might be right, too, if saving the existing order of things was possible, but it’s not. A global civilization that is utterly dependent for its survival on ever-expanding supplies of cheap abundant energy and a stable planetary biosphere is simply not going to make it in a world of ever-contracting supplies of scarce and expensive energy and a planetary biosphere that the civilization’s own activities are pushing into radical instability. Again, when your ship has already hit the iceberg and the water’s coming in, it’s not helpful to insist that the only option is to keep steaming toward a distant port.

What that leaves, to borrow a useful term from one of the most insightful books of the last round of energy crises, is muddling through. Warren Johnson’s Muddling Toward Frugality has fallen into the limbo our cultural memory reserves for failed prophecies; neither he nor, to be fair to him, anybody else in the sustainability movement of the Seventies had any idea that the collective response of most industrial nations to the approach of the limits to growth would turn out to be a thirty-year vacation from sanity in which short-term political gimmicks and the wildly extravagant drawdown of irreplaceable resources would be widely mistaken for permanent solutions.

That put paid to Johnson’s hope that simple, day by day adjustments to dwindling energy and resource supplies would cushion the transition from an economy of abundance to one of frugality. His strategy, though, still has some things going for it that no other available approach can match: It can still be applied this late in the game; if it’s done with enough enthusiasm or desperation, and with a clear sense of the nature of our predicament, it could still get a fair number of us through the mess ahead; and it certainly offers better odds than sitting on our hands and waiting for the ship to sink, which under one pretense or another is the other option open to us right now.

A strategy of muddling doesn’t lend itself to nice neat checklists of what to do and what to try, and so I won’t presume to offer a step-by-step plan. Still, showing one way to muddle, or to begin muddling, and outlining some of the implications of that choice, can bridge the gap between abstraction and action, and suggest ways that those who are about to muddle might approach the task – and of course there’s always the chance that the example might be applicable to some of the people who read it. With this in mind, I want to talk about victory gardens.

The victory garden as a social response to crisis was an invention of the twentieth century. Much before then, it would have been a waste of time to encourage civilians in time of war to dig up their back yards and put in vegetable gardens, because nearly everybody who had a back yard already had a kitchen garden in it. That was originally why houses had back yards; the household economy, which produced much of the goods and services used by people in pre-petroleum Europe and America, didn’t stop at the four walls of a house; garden beds, cold frames, and henhouses in urban back yards kept pantries full, while no self-respecting farm wife would have done without the vegetable garden out back and the dozen or so fruit trees close by the farmhouse.

Those useful habits only went into decline when rail transportation and the commercialization of urban food supplies gave birth to the modern city in the course of the nineteenth century. When 1914 came around and Europe blundered into the carnage of the First World War, the entire system had to be reinvented from scratch in many urban areas, since the transport networks that brought fresh food to the cities in peacetime had other things to do, and importing food from overseas became problematic for all the combatants in a time of naval blockades and unrestricted submarine warfare. The lessons learned from that experience became a standard part of military planning thereafter, and when the Second World War came, well-organized victory garden programs shifted into high gear, helping to take the hard edges off food rationing. It’s a measure of their success that despite the massive mismatch between Britain’s wartime population and its capacity to grow food, and the equally massive challenge of getting food imports through a gauntlet of U-boats, food shortages in Britain never reached the level of actual famine.

In the Seventies, in turn, the same thing happened on a smaller scale without government action; all over the industrial world, people who were worried about the future started digging victory gardens in their back yards, and books offering advice on backyard gardening became steady sellers. (Some of those are still in print today.) These days, sales figures in the home garden industry reliably jolt upwards whenever the economy turns south or something else sends fears about the future upwards; for many people, planting a victory garden has become a nearly instinctive response to troubled times.

It’s fashionable in some circles to dismiss this sort of thing as an irrelevance, but such analyses miss the point of the phenomenon. The reason that the victory garden has become a fixture of our collective response to trouble is that it engages one of the core features of the predicament individuals and families face in the twilight of the industrial age, the disconnection of the money economy from the actual production of goods and services – in the terms we’ve used here repeatedly, the gap between the tertiary economy on the one hand, and the primary and secondary economies on the other.

Right now, the current theoretical value of all the paper wealth in the world – counting everything from dollar bills in wallets to derivatives of derivatives of derivatives of fraudulent mortgage loans in bank vaults – is several orders of magnitude greater than the current value of all the actual goods and services in the world. Almost all of that paper wealth consists of debt in one form or another, and the mismatch between the scale of the debt and the much smaller scale of the global economy’s assets means exactly the same thing that the same mismatch would mean to a household: imminent bankruptcy. That can take place in two ways – either most of the debt will lose all its value by way of default, or all of the debt will lose most of its value by way of hyperinflation – or, more likely, by a ragged combination of the two, affecting different regions and economic sectors at different times.

What that implies for the not too distant future is that any economic activity that depends on money will face drastic uncertainties, instabilities, and risks. People use money because it gives them a way to exchange their labor for goods and services, and because it allows them to store value in a relatively stable and secure form. Both these, in turn, depend on the assumption that a dollar has the same value as any other dollar, and will have roughly the same value tomorrow that it does today.

The mismatch between money and the rest of economic life throws all these assumptions into question. Right now there are a great many dollars in the global economy that are no longer worth the same as any other dollar. Consider the trillions of dollars’ worth of essentially worthless real estate loans on the balance sheets of banks around the world. Governments allow banks to treat these as assets, but unless governments agree to take them, they can’t be exchanged for anything else, because nobody in his right mind would buy them for more than a tiny fraction of their theoretical value. Those dollars have the same sort of weird half-existence that horror fiction assigns to zombies and vampires; they’re undead money, lurking in the shadowy crypts of Goldman Sachs like so many brides of Dracula, because the broad daylight of the market would kill them at once.

It’s been popular for some years, since the sheer amount of undead money stalking the midnight streets of the world’s financial centers became impossible to ignore, to suggest that the entire system will come to a messy end soon in some fiscal equivalent of a zombie apocalypse movie. Still, the world’s governments are doing everything in their not inconsiderable power to keep that from happening. Letting banks meet capital requirements with technically worthless securities is only one of the maneuvers that government regulators around the world allow without blinking. Driving this spectacular lapse of fiscal probity, of course, is the awkward fact that governments – to say nothing of large majorities of the voters who elect them – have been propping up budgets for years with their own zombie hordes of undead money.

Underlying this awkward fact is the reality that the only response to the current economic crisis most governments can imagine involves churning out yet more undead money, in the form of an almost unimaginable torrent of debt; the only response most voters can imagine, in turn, involves finding yet more ways to spend more money than they happen to earn. So we’re all in this together; everybody insists that the walking corpses in the basement are fine upstanding citizens, and we all pretend not to notice that more and more people are having their necks bitten or their brains devoured.

As long as most people continue to play along, it’s entirely possible that things could stumble along this way for quite a while, with stock market crashes, sovereign debt crises, and corporate bankruptcies quickly covered up by further outpourings of unpayable debt. The problem for individuals and families, though, is that all this makes money increasingly difficult to use as a medium of exchange or a store of wealth. If hyperinflation turns out to be the mode of fiscal implosion du jour, it becomes annoying to have to sprint to the grocery store with your paycheck before the price of milk rises above $1 million a gallon; if we get deflationary contraction instead, business failures and plummeting wages make getting any paycheck at all increasingly challenging; in either case your pension, your savings, and the money you pour down the rathole of health insurance are as good as lost.

This is where victory gardens come in, because the value you get from a backyard garden differs from the value you get from your job or your savings in a crucial way: money doesn’t mediate between your labor and the results. If you save your own seeds, use your own muscles, and fertilize the soil with compost you make from kitchen and garden waste – and many gardeners do these things, of course – the only money your gardening requires of you is whatever you spend on beer after a hard day’s work. The vegetables that help feed your family are produced by the primary economy of sun and soil and the secondary economy of sweat; the tertiary economy has been cut out of the loop.

Now it will doubtless be objected that nobody can grow all the food for a family in an ordinary back yard, so the rest of the food remains hostage to the tertiary economy. This is more or less true, but it’s less important than it looks. Even in a really thumping depression, very few people have no access to money at all; the problem is much more often one of not having enough money to get everything you need by way of the tertiary economy. An effective response usually involves putting those things that can be done without money outside the reach of the tertiary economy, and prioritizing whatever money can be had for those uses that require it.

You’re not likely to be able to grow field crops in your back yard, for example, but grains, dried beans, and the like can be bought in bulk very cheaply. What can’t be bought cheaply, and in a time of financial chaos may not be for sale at all, are exactly the things you can most effectively grow in a backyard garden, the vegetables, vine and shrub fruits, eggs, chicken and rabbit meat, and the like that provide the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients you can’t get from fifty pound sacks of rice and beans. Those are the sorts of things people a century and a half ago produced in their kitchen gardens, along with medicinal herbs to treat illnesses and maybe a few dye plants for homespun fabric; those are the sorts of things that make sense to grow at home in a world where the economy won’t support the kind of abundance most people in the industrial world take for granted today.

It will also doubtless be objected that even if you reduce the amount of money you need for food, you still need money for other things, and so a victory garden isn’t an answer. This is true enough, if your definition of an answer requires that it simultaneously solves every aspect of the mess in which the predicament of industrial society has landed us. Still, one of the key points I’ve tried to make in this blog is that waiting for the one perfect answer to come around is a refined version of doing nothing while the water rises. Muddling requires many small adjustments rather than one grand plan: planting a victory garden in the back yard is one adjustment to the impact of a dysfunctional money economy on the far from minor issue of getting food on the table; other impacts will require other adjustments.

A third objection I expect to hear that not everybody can plant a victory garden in the back yard. A good many people don’t have back yards these days, and some of those who do are forbidden by restrictive covenants from using their yards as anything but props for their home’s largely imaginary resale value. (Will someone please explain to me why so many Americans, who claim to value freedom, willingly submit to the petty tyranny of planned developments and neighborhood associations? Brezhnev’s Russia placed fewer restrictions on people’s choices than many neighborhood covenants do.) The crucial point here is that a victory garden is simply an example of the way that people have muddled through hard times in the past, and might well muddle through the impending round of hard times in the future. If you can’t grow a garden in your backyard, see if there’s a neighborhood P-Patch program that will let garden somewhere else, or look for something else that will let you meet some of your own needs with your own labor without letting money get in the way.

That latter, of course, is the central point of this example. At a time when the tertiary economy is undergoing the first stages of an uncontrolled and challenging simplification, if you can disconnect something you need from the tertiary economy, you’ve insulated a part of your life from at least some of the impacts of the chaotic resolution of the mismatch between limitless paper wealth and the limited real wealth available to our species on this very finite planet. What garlic is to vampires and a well-fueled chainsaw is to zombies, being able to do things yourself, with the skills and resources you have on hand, is to the undead money lurching en masse through today’s economy; next week, we’ll replace the garlic with a mallet and a stake.