My Home, My Shadow Home: Where We Really Live

Sharon June 22nd, 2009

My friend, Permaculturist Keith Johnson’s site pointed me to this excellent article
(there’s a direct link to the whole original there), in which ecologist and ecological footprint inventor William Rees makes the case that cities (and really, not just cities, all people in the developed world) are rather like human feedlots, disconnected from the acreage on which they really “live” - ie, the acreage that supplies their food, energy and other needs.

Rees writes,

 “What eco-footprinting shows is that, in ecological terms, the Dutch don’t live in
Holland. Similarly, urban dwellers don’t “live” in their cities; urbanization simply
separates us from the productive ecosystems that sustain us but lie far beyond
the urban boundary. An apt analogy is “the city as human feedlot.” Like the city,
a livestock feedlot is an area with an extraordinarily high density of consumer
animals and a corresponding major waste management problem. Cities and
feedlots are incomplete ecosystems - the productive land component is some
distance away.”

Now I think this is an acute assessment - but I hope it will not be taken simply as the sort of indictment of city life that many rural dwellers, who do not like city life, are inclined to make.  Before I was a rural dweller, I lived in a number of cities, and I do like them.  I do not think that cities will disappear, or that living in one is inevitably disastrous.  Nor do I think that the above statement is inaccurate if you substitute the terms “suburban” or “rural” in most of the developed world - even in places where one potentially can meet most of one’s needs from the agricultural and natural resources readily available, few people do.  But I think this is a tremendously useful way of thinking about this issue - to say that we truly live where our needs are met forces us to ask the question - if our lives are not in the places we reside, where are they?  Where should they be?

Now to some degree, as long as there has been human trade, there have been “shadow acres” - that land that supplied needs that could not be locally met.  It is a very ancient reality - there has been trade almost as long as there have been humans.   And yet, there is a real and qualitative difference between societies that provide much of their own needs, and those that do not.  Among other things, distance makes us willing to be exploitative - that is, we do not feel we have an incentive to preserve the acres of other people, far away, even if that land feeds or clothes us. 

For cities, historically the surrounding outlands provided their food - often in literally reciprocal relationship.  Rees mentions the enormous waste-management problem caused by urban population density - in much of the world, the reciprocity of that relationship was direct, food was brought in to the cities from the outlying countryside, while human wastes were brought out, to be applied back to the fields.  While the direct application of human manures to the fields is not desirable, this relationship is almost certainly one that will have to be re-established - but one made difficult by the fact that our growing land is quite distant from most of our largest cities - the transmission of municipal manures would be enormously energy intensive, and the surrounding suburbs, densely populated themselves, cannot absorb them.  That is, without large quantities of fossil fuels, there’s really no way to set up a truly sustainable system, in which waste becomes not a problem, but a benefit.

All cities, indeed, all non-indigenous societies involve some deferral in where we live, with some resources coming from elsewhere, but we have taken this to new and problematic heights.  For example, the Indian historian Dharampal has demonstrated that before British colonialism, 80-90 percent of India’s resources were utilized at the local level for the local economy, resources and well being.  Less than 20% - often much less, depending on the region, went to serve leaders or central authority.  Colonialism completely reversed this economy - taking 90% of produced resources for export or to serve the empire and its landlords and central authorities, leaving only 10% for general populace - with a corresponding destruction in wellbeing and personal economies. 

Ecological footprinting shows that the results of globalization, which is colonialism’s ugly step-sister, are similar - where local resources once were “wasted” on the populace, now they concentrate wealth and serve mostly people who are already affluent.  For example, research demonstrates that the vast majority of green revolution grain increases went not into the mouths of the poor and hungry who they supposedly were meant to serve, but into livestock and processed foods that fed people who were never hungry and were already affluent.  At the same time, places that once fed themselves shifted to export crops, and were made vulnerable to fluctuating markets, dumping and ecological destruction. 

Do we live where our food is grown?  After all, most of us eat 3 times a day.  So look around you and ask this question - where does our food come from?  If our relationship with that place means that part of us “lives” there, how is our citizenship within that place?  That is, do we treat it as a place to extract resources from, at minimal return, as a colony to provide for our needs, or as a place we are citizens of, with an investment in its well-being and future?  For most of us, it is the former - and from this, I would argue, stems much of the deep hostility of rural places to those who consume their food, and much of the deep political divide in this country.

Do we live where our water comes from?  We know that similar hostilities exist in places where the water comes from far away - my own region supplies part of the watershed for New York City, and at times, conflicts.  But this is nothing compared to water-poor areas of the country - the conflicts between Northern and Southern California, say or Georgia and northern Florida, much less across the US/Mexican border.  If we cannot grow food, or even live without water from somewhere else, what is our relationship to that place?  What happens when both parties need the water?

Do we live where our goods come from?  We are finally beginning to ask this question - Sir Nicholas Stern has opened the door to considering whether China’s emissions, for example, belong only to it, if it provides goods that are mostly used in the rich world?  Can we blame China for its coal use entirely if we absorb the products of that use, if Chinese factories replace our own, and allow us to claim a reduction in emissions? 

Do we live where our energy comes from?  To this question, we might answer a resounding yes - we know for a fact that the Iraq war was about oil, that it followed in the footsteps of the Carter doctrine, which observes that since inconveniently, “our” oil is under their sand, our military and political agendas must always center on the Middle East.  But we live their not as citizens, but as a military presence, building more and more resentment and anger.

Do we live where our waste goes?  Do we float in the Dead Zone off the gulf of Mexico?  Do we live where our old computers contaminate the soil and poison children in Africa? Most of us do live where our own feces contaminates our water, those things we imagine being whisked magically “away” that inevitably, somehow, come back, floating on the water at the beach, until we pour chlorine in and try hard to pretend it never happened.

Do we live where the primary work, once done mostly by us, is now done by others?  If we eat meat, do we live where the great slaughterhouses are, where migrant laborers are hurt and killed to provide us with our clean, packaged foods?  If we wear t-shirts with clever sayings on them, do we live where Vietnamese teenagers sew 12 hours a day in unventilated rooms?  If we use toilets, do we live where they are cleaned by poorer people than we?

We are not good global citizens - we know that.  We are devourers of the world.  But is it even possible to be a decent and honorable global citizen?  Certainly, in some measure.  Certainly, it is possible to be better global citizens of the places that we live than we are now, and if we are to draw resources from somewhere, we are going to have to work on this.   We will need to work on building those connections, on finding those means of honest internationalism.   The world is not going to go away, we will not be instantly reduced to a kind of isolated localism that needs have no truck with other nations - truck with other nations long preceeded fossil fuels and modernity, and will be even more essential in warming world, full of migrants and refugees escaping rapidly changing economies, ecologies and war.

But there’s a measure in which being a true citizen of a far distant place is not fully feasible.  I cannot honestly know whether my rice, grown on the Indian coast, was grown by someone who loves to grow rice, who does it well, or who is coerced by the large corporation that uses them as slave labor.  I cannot know how they use their land.  I can learn a little about their place and time, their needs and wants and hopes for the future, particularly if their rice is my primary indulgence.  But I cannot be a part-time citizen of India for rice, Bolivia for flowers, China for electronics, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia for oil, etc….ad infinitum.  I cannot.  All I can be in that case is a consumer.

And not only is a consumer an ugly, faint thing to be, a pale imitation of an engaged and fully human citizen-participant, but because a consumer only eats and by necessity, excretes their waste where they are, the relationship is destructive in two ways - not only do I take away soil nutrients or oil or wood or water and participate in the exploitation of distant places in my country and others when I consume their resources, but because all of us make our waste where we live, I then foul my own nest.

I do this because it is not possible, in such an expansive world, to transform the outputs of our consumption into anything but waste.  Consider the difficulty of human excrement now - even sterilized and dehydrated, it is tremendously energy intensive to even consider returning human manures from, say, Boston to the places where most of its food comes from in Iowa or Nebraska.  And human outputs are not the only kind of waste that could managed on a smaller scale - historically the end points of human cloth making became paper, animals were fed on scraps and bones that are now transported into landfills.  The problem of scale, the problem of taking and excreting always seem to defeat us.  We can do much to ameliorate them, but the first and most important amelioration would be to live where we live.

Of course, that’s a difficult proposition.  The suburbs of even midwestern cities like Chicago are often filled, not with farmland, but with suburban landscapes of the densities of small cities of the past.  Even if they can harness their land base to grow food, they are unlikely to have much to export, and they have plenty of their own manures and wastes.   One must go much further afield, and expend more energy to get food, and to find a sustainable way of turning wastes into valuable inputs.  To some degree, dependence for water, goods and food is written into every large city - and indeed, has been overinscribed by our investment in fossil fueled agriculture into the developed world as a whole.  Our project now is to uninscribe it as best we can.

Obviously, the proportion to which we are able to actually live where we live is going to vary by where we are.  For urban dwellers, there is absolutely no doubt that the proportion is vastly higher than is conventional in developed world cities, and a small number of urban community gardens is merely scratching the surface.  We know that this is true - we know from the examples of Havana, the Jewish ghetto gardens during WWII, from Harare and Kampala how urgently necessary urban food production is - that it can sustain far larger populations than anyone would expect in a crisis, whether a war or simply poverty.

But cities are not going to feed themselves, and they are not going to provide their own water in the whole - many cities could probably produce 25-50% of their meat and produce, but they will never provide most of their own staple crops.  Which means that urban-rural ties must be strengthened - that those who are citizens of a city must also be partly citizens of the rural towns that supply their dinners, the rural areas that collect their water.  But this is not a one way transaction - cities as centers of trade, and renewed (we hope) centers of manufacture will have their own rural and suburban citizens - the customers who rely on urban areas to meet their need for goods will have to end their contempt for city life and city dwellers, since their hammers and clothing come from those cities.

If we cannot eliminate shadow acres, we must find ways to narrow them, to mostly get our goods and services from our bioregion, or as near to it as we possibly can.  Aaron and I have called this “the bullseye diet” - but it doesn’t apply just to food.  And in order to do this, we are going to have to build reciprocal economies, and reciprocal senses of citizenship.  Some of this is in its nascent stages, as city dwellers come out to “their” farm to pick up their CSA share, or to pick the cherry tomatoes or strawberries, or volunteer, or as rural and suburban dwellers come into “their” cities, to enjoy art and music, culture and diversity not available to them, and then bring those things in small measure back to their own places.  But we are still at a beginning point.

I often speak of these issues in terms of the practical imperatives for doing so - we must, for example, reduce fossil fuel usage because of climate change and peak energy, or we must build local food systems because we may not fully be able to access distant ones.  But I like very much the idea of asking ourselves the moral and aesthetic question “where do I want to live?”  I think for most of us, this is not a complex question.  If we have a choice, most of us want to live where we chose to live - we would like, in the abstract, to live there as fully and wholly, as well and honestly as we can.  We would like to be good citizens, in a place with a lively and vital civic life.  If we live in other places, we would like to live there kindly and lightly, as participants and welcome members, even part-time, rather than hated colonizers or bad neighbors.  We would like, in short, to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We simply do not know how.

Viewed through this question of how and where we wish to live, the choices we make in localization, conservation and consumption, in our acts of citizenship and participation take on a new weight.  We are not merely eating, we are travelling to a distant land, or a neighboring state, taking part in their bounty, and incurring some obligation to reciprocation.  How shall we reciprocate?  What can we offer them in return?  We are not merely excreting, and flushing our wastes away - there is no place called “away.”  Instead, we are contaminating those downstream - or we are returning our outputs to the place that fed us, or to some neighboring place that can be enriched.

Most of us give considerable thought to this question of where to reside - we consider schools and neighborhoods, climates and soils, family and friends. Our new project is to give as much attention to the question of where we live - where our needs are met.  None of us will ever live without some shadow acreage, without some resources from far away, but the quantities can be great or small, the relationship civic and civic or colonial and hostile, the result contamination and waste or reciprocity and fertility.  It all depends on where we choose to live.


12 Responses to “My Home, My Shadow Home: Where We Really Live”

  1. homebrewlibrarianon 22 Jun 2009 at 4:32 pm

    I have spent considerable time considering my footprint and “shadow home.” When the scales fell from my eyes as to my impact on places I’ve never even seen, it was rather overwhelming. In fact, when I talk to people about my lifestyle and how I came to where I am now, their eyes glaze over from the enormity of trying to comprehend how their choices go beyond their immediate area. I’ve had more than one person tell me that it was too scary and too big for them to grasp. These folks then retreat and purposefully put on blinders. They want to do the right thing but peering through the keyhole at reality has scared them senseless.

    Instead of trying to ignore my impacts, I’ve chosen to look at them individually and determine how best to minimize them. What can help is being able to “put a face” on something and make it as local as possible. Reductions, large or small, also contribute. I’ve had the greatest success with the food I eat. The vast majority of the foods I eat are locally grown, raised or harvested and most of that is produced without chemical inputs or, in the case of meat and eggs, animal feed shipped in from outside Alaska. Pretty much everything else is through reductions, reuse or simply doing without. The one area that still has me conflicted is gasoline powered transportation. I do very little of it during the non-winter months but I find it difficult to avoid entirely. It stabs me in the heart everytime I fill my car’s gas tank to think that with every gasoline purchase, I’m voting for continued strife in oil producing nations. At least the natural gas used in my building to heat water and provide heating in the winter is produced in Alaska.

    It is quite a struggle to know about your shadow home since our culture has lead us to believe that it is unimportant for us to be bothered by such details. And even when you want to know the details, you have to wade through a great deal of blather and be willing to get past the barricades erected to keep you from knowing the truth. Fortitude, tenacity and inner strength are sorely tested and the temptation to purposefully remain ignorant is within easy reach. The struggle just wears me out.

    I’m doing all I can to support reciprocity and fertility and finding ways of helping others see the importance doing the same. Baby steps perhaps but at least we’re headed in the right direction.

    Kerri in AK

  2. Corinneon 22 Jun 2009 at 6:18 pm

    Excellent post. You’ve asked that series of questions that gets right to the heart of things. If things we buy and consume are at the expense of someone else’s health/welfare/environment (or even our own), and we start to realize it, it seems difficult to go on ignoring it. So then we need to take on the challenge of changing.
    I run into a growing number of people who say they are aware of environmental problems and such, but they don’t really know what to do. I could offer them lots of suggestions, but many of them don’t seem ready to hear these suggestions, at least not the ones that would really change their impact, and at the same time their lifestyle.
    Or, in other cases, the person will say that they know, for instance, that drinking bottled water has a much higher impact that tap water, but, for whatever reason, they aren’t ready to change. What can you say? How can you explain that switching to tap water should look like a snap, compared to what we might be facing in a few short years or less - such as how to live in your house without ANY heat (and forget the AC), or where to come up with enough food to feed your family if the grocery store shelves are more often empty than full and you haven’t been switching over to gardening, CSA’s, barter….

    Corinne in Paris

  3. Sara: in northern rural Alabamaon 22 Jun 2009 at 9:25 pm


    i woke up last night twice from nightmares, both involved getting separated from my beloved. he had a nightmare, too, tho’ different.

    we are doing the best we can, with the awareness that each act of our own affects the whole.

    your post today makes my hurry to get our outhouse up and put the composting toilet in it, look so small and inconsequential, but we do it nevertheless.

    I need to go back and re-read Joanna Macey’s book “From Despair to Empowerment.”

    And to keep doing my rituals and other acts of senseless beauty for the Earth. I find Starhawk’s writings very helpful when I get overwhelmed.

    Keepin’ on keepin’ on.

  4. Christinaon 22 Jun 2009 at 10:33 pm

    For others interested in finding the book Sara mentions, it’s Joanna Macy (without the ‘e’) - thanks Sara!

  5. risa stephanie bearon 23 Jun 2009 at 1:57 am

    This is tops, Sharon — is there an initialism for the feeling it inspired … ? IAIA = I Am In Awe.

    The Freedom Gardeners’ 100 foot diet comes to mind, but here is a sharper analysis of the why.

  6. Heatheron 23 Jun 2009 at 8:06 am

    Wow, that was brilliant! Electricity is much the same thing where we just flip a switch and our light goes on with seemingly no ill effects. But how about the tons of coal that is burned, pollution created, health problems of people living near the plants, whole mountains being destroyed and the consequences of that, coal miners losing their lives…where does the list end? All this and the major concern is “how expensive” (money wise) the electric bill is. Really sad.

  7. Greenpaon 23 Jun 2009 at 9:00 am

    Crap, Sharon, I really hate it when you put up posts like this.

    No, really.

    They make me want to sit down, and talk with you, for a long long time.

    And it doesn’t look like happening any time soon.



  8. Lydiaon 23 Jun 2009 at 10:39 am

    This is of course part and parcel of what is wrong with the whole system.
    We have been conned for years into sticking our heads in the sand. It has all been a very big lie with a few at the top that have benefited enormously by the lie that was sold to everyone else.

    To look at these issues is to dare to look at the truth. And there is an old saying that if one tells the truth they get chased from six countries.
    But look we must-out very survival as a species depends on it and it is no laughing matter.

    The party is over and we must get about the business of nursing the hangover and re-nourishing our bodies and souls. We should not despair about this-the despair should be attached to its proper place-the destruction and havoc we have been causing-that is the despair-not the necessity and life changes we must put in place to give that up. We should and must have a very large paradigm shift. Put down the bangles and baubles and pick up the hoe.

  9. Susanon 23 Jun 2009 at 2:17 pm

    Now, I am not trying to take away the seriousness of Sharon’s post.


    Lydia’s comment made me laugh out loud at the sudden picture that popped into my head.

    I want a hoe with baubles and bangles on it. Can’t we do both :) ?

  10. Dale Hooperon 24 Jun 2009 at 11:35 am

    Yes! I have spent decades following and reducing these little strings (and big cables) that tie me to other parts of the world.

  11. Hugh Campbellon 26 Jun 2009 at 10:47 am

    There seems to be growing resonance on this theme.

    Let’s Get Rid of the Economy of Growth

  12. […] My Home, My Shadow Home: Where We Really Live by Sharon Astyk […]

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