Friday’s news that climate change is worse than we thought, has lit the fire under my feet, and gotten me to think anew about what it will take for us to make a sustainable world. With carbon dioxide in the environment now at levels not seen in 3 million years, a development that the scientist Maureen E. Raymo, of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said “feels like the inevitable march toward disaster.” Of course, nothing is inevitable. We always have options, though at current rates of environmental degradation our options are rapidly narrowing, which is why it’s high time we all up our game — and by we, I mean me, because I’ve been twiddling my thumbs and making do with half-measures when nothing short of a fundamental shift in the way I live will do.
My commitment to myself, then, is to figure out a way to do better. It’s tied up with the project of trying to live better (by which I mean richer, deeper, and more profoundly fulfilled). I talk big, mind you. I have friends who uprooted their whole lives, sold their home and hit the road in an RV three weeks ago in order to work on farms around the country on their way to setting down more sustainable roots, perhaps in a retreat center cum sustainable community that they’re dreaming up. Compared to what they’re doing, my little inquiring is child’s play. But I am earnest. I want to continue a project I first started dabbling in twenty-four years ago when I explored vegetarianism, a ten year journey that brought me full circle back to being a (more enlightened form of) carnivore, and sunk bricks into my toilet tank to reduce the waste of excessive water flow. One avenue of exploration I’m excited about is Edible Estates, the brainchild of Los Angeles artist Fritz Haeg. Haeg’s idea is simple: turn lawns into edible gardens. A similar project, L.A. Green Grounds, founded by South Central Los Angeles-based “guerilla gardner” Ron Finley, who recently gave a rousing talk at TED — more about him soon — does for abandoned lots and the underused patches of land between sidewalks and streets what Haeg is doing for the venerable American lawn.
The genius of Edible Gardens is that it causes us to see what is right before our eyes: the absurdity of using scarce and finite resources — the water, the land — to maintain lawns.
As Mark Bittman wrote in his insightful New York Times Opinionator piece, “Lawns Into Gardens” (a link appears below), “Lawns are an attempt to dominate and homogenize nature, something that hasn’t worked out very well.” And one of their bigger functions, let’s admit it, is to show off. It’s something we’re doing without realizing it, even if we aren’t the showing off type. We all know this on some level. Lawns are about status — which is why it’s troubling to us when a neighbor’s yard is an eyesore. I am not immune from wanting to live on a beautiful street free from eyesores, but I also want to see us shift our standard of beauty, away from hollow things that look good and do absolutely nothing else, towards deep, soulful things that look gorgeous beyond belief (an edible garden is a gorgeous thing) and also happen to serve other functions as well, such as fueling our bodies, as in the case of edible estates, or feeding our souls, in the case of, well, everything, since anything that doesn’t also do that isn’t worthy of our time.
I should point out that I’m not an extremist when it comes to these things. I’m really not the hardcore maverick type at all, try though I might — though that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? Making the changes we must make to keep the planet hospitable for our lives isn’t just for hippies anymore. It’s for everyone who wants human life to continue (because, trust me, whether we continue or not, the planet, in whatever form we leave it in, will be fine).
Mark Bittman, who isn’t an extremist either (he also isn’t the type to shove his head down in the sand) has such a sensible take on lawns; it’s hard to believe we didn’t think of it ourselves. He writes of lawns, in the same “Lawns Into Gardens” piece, “When they were used for grazing sheep — sheep are the best lawn-mowers — they made some sense. But as ornamentation, only a few parts of the United States have the climate to sustain them. (Kentucky bluegrass is not even native to Kentucky, let alone Arizona.) In the remainder they’re horrible water-wasters and enormous users of chemical fertilizers.” Does anything else really need to be said?
I was thinking about Bittman, and Haeg of Edible Estates, and Finley of L.A. Green Grounds, this weekend as the news of the accelerated rate of climate change sat heavy on my heart. I thought of the little plot of land outside the condo my husband I own. We’ve been meaning to clear it and replant it since we moved in. I even scheduled than cancelled (for budgetary reasons) a meeting with my landscape architect friend Gavi. Sometimes things happen as they should. I’d been thinking about a beautiful, sculptural landscape with just a few edible plants that would blend neatly into the landscape (rosemary, lavender, maybe an olive tree). Now I’m wrestling with doing something more edibly extreme and in keeping with my values. It’s going to require me to recalibrate my thinking, and to develop a healthy respect for the aesthetic evolution of a garden throughout the year — something we non-edible gardeners of Los Angeles don’t really have to do.
In addition to planting an edible garden, on either a large or small scale (baby steps matter), there are many other things we can do to keep the planet sustainable for human life. I cannot emphasize this point enough: when we speak about sustainability, we are not speaking about the survival of the planet — trust me, the planet will survive — we are speaking of the survival of the human species on this Earth, along with the survival of the many plant and animal species that we’ve been content to toss away in our mistaken belief that we are the center of this (or in our simple and innocent failure to realize that we are not). It is time we outgrow our innocence so that we, the species homo sapiens sapiens (and whatever we are evolving into next), can mature into the stewards of the Earth that we are meant to be. We must proceed toward this goal on two fronts: via a sea change at the level of the personal, and via a sea change on the policy front.
On a personal level, we can plant an edible garden. We can institute greywater recycling systems on our properties — once we clear the policy hurdles, that is, since greywater recycling is prohibited in many states and municipalities. We can install solar panels. The initial capital outlay will pay for itself in disappearing power bills, though solar panels remain prohibitively expensive for the millions of Americans who are just getting by. Policy can play a role here. It might be feasible, for example (not to mention good for the economy) to create a public works program that creates jobs and uses taxpayer dollars to facilitate the transition from our fossil-fuel powered power grid to a solar-based grid.
And, of course, we can live in smaller homes. A movement is already afoot, and the hyper-successful serial entrepreneurial Graham Hill — who’s lived with an awful lot and also an awful little — made a compelling case a couple of months ago, in the New York Times, that living with a smaller blueprint makes for a wealthier life (and by wealth I mean the sum total of all the things that make us happy, and not just the sum total of our “things”). He’s also done us the handy favor of founding a few ventures that mean to save this world, like TreeHugger.com and, his latest venture to “design thoughtfully constructed small homes that support our lives, not the other way around.” Hill lives in a 420-square-foot space (you read that right) and the houses he designs “contain less stuff and make it easier for owners to live within their means and to limit their environmental footprint.” For example, his apartment, which sleeps four people comfortably” and is frequently the situs for dinner parties for 12. His space is “well-built, affordable and as functional as living spaces twice the size.” It’s a solution that will sustainable people and the planet, and which may also solve the problem of affordable housing once and for all — without relegating those of us who have fewer financial resources to marginal lives. After all, all of us are called to live great lives, and sustaining the integrity and possibility of each individual life is just as important as the larger project of sustaining human life as a whole.
I will confess. I am not prepared to go as far as Hill has gone (though I stand in deep admiration and bow to him in awe). I was all to happy to upgrade from my 800 square foot apartment to the 1500 square foot condo that my husband has owned since before we met. He and I are committed, though, to never living in a home that is larger than we need for the life we actually live. No showrooms for us. Having grown up in a part of the country where most people have living rooms and formal dining rooms that sit untouched except for most of the year, I am certain that I wouldn’t have such a room, even if I could. My years in New York and L.A. have taught me to value square footage and to make rich use of what I have. That kind of living is richer, I find. Having a life so rich that it spills into all the rooms of my home is the life I want — and to have that, I will have to commit to the idea of a “large enough” home, even as I hear the siren call of more, more, more that has become our cultural drug. Luxury now means doing with less — less sugar, less preservatives, less chemicals, less pesticides and, as I’m starting to accept, less lawn. I’m not saying the transition will be easy. As I write this, I am wrestling with my desire for a creatively but conventionally landscaped plot of land with just a few edible and decorative plants and my soul’s longing to commit more deeply to the values I hold dear. I also understand that farming a large plot of land is time consuming, and that it simply may not be possible for us to all turn our lawns into edible estates. I hope that one day, though, this will be our norm and that, if necessary, we will live on smaller lots or let a portion of our properties remain wild or, if it’s already too late for that, at least plant them in ways that suggest, and help promote, an ecosystem and not merely a showy way of life.
Our environmental consciousness is growing. This is a fine and beautiful thing. We recycle. We carry reusable marketing totes. We install low flush toilets and energy efficient appliances in our homes. But these things aren’t enough. I think we know that already, deep down inside. We know that nothing short of a fundamental shift in the way we walk on this planet will do. Our footprint feels heavy even to us now. We want to change and are humbled by the verity that change is hard. The wage of this particular sin, though, of this particular
The wage of this particular sin, though, of this particular inertia, is death, not of the planet — as I’ve said, Mother Nature is nothing if not self-preserving — but of the many species, the human species included, for whom the planet will not be hospitable if we keep this up.
GREAT ARTICLES AND RESOURCES ON EDIBLE ESTATES:
“Lawns Into Gardens,” by Mark Bittman for The New York Times
“Redefining American Beauty By The Yard,” by Patricia Leigh Brown for The New York Times
Edible Estates, the book, by Fritz Haeg
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Edible Estates.
PAULA PURYEAR is a Lawyer, Film & Television writer, HuffPoster and Founder of Revel In It Mag.