6 min read

Land Management in the Collapse (Pt. 1)

Photo of a small garden bed, with sprouting seedlings.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Food independence is, whether through storage or agriculture, a cornerstone of survival. We've talked about the need for food independence on here plenty, but while we've bandied about ideas of mutual aid, particularly through food and skill-sharing, I want to take the idea of land management and address how it might be used to not only survive the collapse of supply chains and ecosystems, but create a more equitable and sustainable society. Before we do that, though, there are a couple truths that should be acknowledged:

  1. The idea that we all–everyone reading this, that is–can go out, buy some cheap land and start living off the grid, is a toxic one for a number of reasons. For starters, just whose land are you buying, and who are you to buy it? (I'm not claiming everyone buying property is evil, or anything, but considerations should be made.) More practically speaking: there is not enough land left for everyone to be their own little settler anyway, so there has to be another solution.
  2. This does not mean that one should not, cannot, have a beneficial relationship with nature. In fact, one must have that relationship, no matter where they are.

As climate change accelerates–and will continue to accelerate–preparing for disaster only becomes more important. Madagascar is facing down a famine after several dry years, conditions created in no part by the people of Madagascar themselves. A curious example closer to home is Chicago, which is experiencing the paradox of too much and too little water; the quintessence of climate change disasters. And while if you're reading this you almost certainly bear more of that responsibility than most people worldwide, you bear far less than corporations, the rich, and the military.

So what to do we, most of us colonizers, do? We who both helped create and suffer from climate change? As leftists, can we hold up our heads while we carve out a piece of (probably) America for ourselves on which to survive, and hide ourselves away? I think the answer is no, but that there is more to be done than wait for the sea.

If We All Learned to Hunt, There'd Be Nothing Left to Hunt

As noted above, there are two reasons why we can't just build a commune amongst our lower-middle class friends and say "all are welcome" and be cool. One is that this perpetuates the system that has disenfranchised BIPOC since this country's foundation, and the second is because the land literally wouldn't support all of us trying this on our own.

It's a common trope that conservative preppers will be lords of their land, hunting game and living well off their canned and fresh meat. They'll wind up with scurvy in a matter of months, but that's not my point. Back when most everyone lived off the land in this country, colonizers and Indigenous peoples alike, the high estimated population for North America was around 20 million people. In the intervening period, we have not only exploded in population but also ransacked most of our natural resources. If half of America was wiped out in whatever apocalypse we're due for, and the other half decided they were going to forage for berries and hunt deer, we'd still be out of both in about a week. This is not to say that hunting and foraging are not useful skills–they absolutely are. But they are not solutions to the problem of sustainable food practices peri-and-post-collapse on their own.

If it is both wrong and impossible to strike out on our lonesome, then we must do it together. The fact of the matter is that while the world cannot support civilization as it exists today, civilization need not exist this way. Even amidst collapse–perhaps especially amidst collapse–it's possible to reorganize the way that we live and work such that society is not contrary to life, but beneficial to it.

The modern anarchist's dream is probably the Bookchin-style confederated commune; a largeish town that grows its own food and has a regionally-specific industry that supports the confederation while also being completely independent. That can, and must, exist. But these communes are anathema to how we must reorganize society to prevent further worsening of climate change, and anathema to movements like Land Back, which call for, at the least, the cessation of further colonial land grabs and a return of federal land to its original indigenous peoples. These principles must be upheld if we are to break the cycles white supremacy forced us into–otherwise we'll wind up back in them.

In order to keep from pouring more fuel onto the fire of climate change, humanity must condense, not spread out. The suburban sprawl across America is a large part of what churns the gears of climate change; that sprawl requires concrete infrastructure, cars for everyone, and has systematically targeted marginalized communities for further devaluation. What is needed is walkable, bikeable, mass-transitable urban design and a more stable, sustainable, supply chain. That is obviously out of the offing for your average reader of When/If, but its something we can fight for and move toward as our current modes of life begin to fray. (See? We can vote for something after all.)

A Tenuous Solution

COVID-19 made it obvious that our supply lines are brittle as hell. The way we get common goods, food, and household products is incompatible with the frequently-upended nature of our world today. Meant to provide quality items quickly and cheaply, any shift in demand creates a vast amount of waste or deep scarcity. Despite the problem being laid bare, I don't see our economy, or our government, trying to get us to move away from this structure. (Because it makes them too much money.) Which means that we as individuals and collectives must become more resilient.

I want to warn you off the idea you might have in your head that I'm about to say we all become urban foragers and live off the garlic mustard growing in alleyways. Foraging is in vogue and it's awesome but it is not a sustainable method for an entire citizenry to get more than an herbaceous potato-cake out of the deal. The last thing we want is to all set about like locusts and over-pick the natural delights that we only recently discovered and started documenting on Instagram.

For the city-dwellers among us, your contribution to sustainable and equitable food practices and land management is threefold:

  1. Be prepared for scarcity. Having your own stock of food, water, and critical items like medical supplies means that you will not panic during the next time of upheaval, and thus you will not contribute to the shock. You will, in fact, become a buffer against it by giving aid to those around you.
  2. Have your own method of growing food or contributing immediately to your surroundings. I don't mean lending out of your pantry, here. Instead I mean either work and improve the land that you may have so that you can rely less on outside food sources, or contribute a worthwhile skill to your immediate community that allows for someone who does have that land to work it instead.
  3. See possibility wherever you go. One thing that you will begin to see as the old ways crumble is the shrinking back of capitalist expansion throughout your city. Lots that were about to become condos and apartments will stand vacant. Apartments that were completed but never sold will stand vacant. Stores will empty out. As the money flees (likely northward, toward more traditionally defensible, picturesque, and climate-resistant areas,) state control will wither, and we can move in to provide for ourselves and others. Critically, we do this not by simply taking advantage of what's already there (foraging) but by creating where there is opportunity. While still living in an urban environment, it is possible to re-wild the land and help your neighbor. Vacant lots become gardens–even farms. Empty apartments very obviously become housing (maintained by the skilled laborers among you). Stores, well, stay stores, but goods are distributed in the spirit of mutual aid.

This is a utopian solution balancing on the knife's edge. It sounds great, but it demands trust instead of suspicion, and requires that a community benefit rather than the individual. It is human nature to see a disaster and panic. It's up to us to fight back against that panic and embrace the other side of human nature: working together. What I'm talking about will occur during a time in which a regular person, today, would see the apocalyptic. And to be clear, things will not be good. But the bad is baked in–it's coming. We've got to be ready to walk between the raindrops, because that's going to be the only space left in which to operate.