The Greek City State As A Model For Sustainability


I currently live in a medium sized city on the outskirts of Appalachia. After living in several mega-cities (not Megacity One) for the last decade, two things were very important to me when I moved here. The first was living in the heart of downtown since I’d never been able to afford reasonably doing so before and the second was having a functioning garden where I could grow a lot of food for myself. Incompatible, right? Wrong, I got lucky. Very close to my downtown apartment was a small overgrown lot complete with a locked 10 foot high chain link fence. I contacted the owner and asked if I could use it for a garden. They said yes, that they’d be glad to have it cleared at least, and gave me the key to the fence’s lock. For two years in a row now I’ve had a hell of a garden. That’s right, I’m living the dream.

Of course this all got me thinking about how I grew up with gardens and how almost every family I knew of had one when I was little. When I was about six years old I recall going with my mother to the farmer’s markets…which wasn’t called that. It was just the locally owned grocery store and so that’s what we called it, the grocery store. One was named after the family that owned it and served a lot of very local produce and the other was Piggly Wiggly’s, aka Pig’s, which was also locally owned (they still are, shop there) though bigger with a lot of non-perishables. The point is, we knew where our food came from. It was no big secret and it didn’t need “community friendly” branding like what you’ll see at Whole Foods. Granted this was a smallish town with a rural bent. People weren’t far off of the land and so that made this sort of thing more natural. Consumers were used to being more dependent on local farms and vice versa. This is fairly similar to how ancient city states approached things. Food spoiled and was often difficult to transport and cities needed to be able to produce enough food for the city. The rural needed the urban and the urban needed the rural. It was a give and take whose players were intertwined in every day life. It informed their religion, philosophy, poetry, everything. Those connections determined the culture.

When I moved to the big city, repeat, not Megacity One though it sometimes felt close, it was a lot more difficult to find anything grown within several hundred miles that was for sale in any grocery store. You could drive north and stop by the side of the road or go to a small town. No one did that. That’s stupid bourgeois crap and gas costs money. At the time, I really wondered why there wasn’t more of an attempt to locally source near big cities to get that food onto city plates. Why was it such a niche item? I didn’t understand why there was such a chasm between the city and the countryside. The local foods movement has resulted in an increase in “importing” of local foods into big cities but it’s still not mainstream. I always thought that cities as large as NYC would be great markets even though cities of 10 million plus can’t feed themselves. They’re historical anomalies. Soon they’ll be gone, but I digress…

My city, the one I currently live in, could feed itself. It really could. The three counties north of us are entirely rural. There are towns all through them, yes, but there’s enough land there that X% of it could be planted and maintained and sold locally. It would create tons of local jobs in farming, processing, and delivery. That got me looking around at all the things that we truck into my state and serve that could be made locally for about the same price. And that in turn got me thinking about all the other things that could be produced locally for less of a price. One is school lunches. In case you haven’t been to school in a while, recall that almost all school lunches are produced somewhere far, far away and warmed up for kids to eat. It’s not fresh, it’s full of preservatives and, importantly, it employs almost nobody in my state or county. Cancel that crap, contract with three different farms to produce X amount of food over X time period for X price. Hire people that can cook simple meals and have them make the food. Now, do that with everything. Institute city and county tax relief for businesses who serve food that is X% local ingredients. You will get sued but who cares. This would produce jobs and predictability. Other businesses will want to come to your community. The good produced by this will steamroll the haters. While modern day life is clearly a different situation than the city state model, for medium sized and especially small sized cities, this is a simple way to produce local jobs and community for very little, you just shift your producer and consumers don’t have to change their everyday patterns. Most cities in the country could do this. Most could feed themselves in one way or another and in a way that contributed to their local economy and culture.

This cuts down on emissions, it reintroduces agriculture into city life and makes it a part of the culture again (which reduces the power of big agribusiness), and it encourages healthy eating through tax cuts instead of tax increases. Additionally, and as a hyper-nerd, it creates a difficult to break web of consumption and production among neighbors that stays local. In short, it creates wealth. It also creates more of an understanding of the skill involved in non Roundup, ship 500 miles away, style farming. If you know the guy or gal that grows your food then you’re more likely to take pride in that food and in the farmer’s skill and as you guys may know I’m all about people having skills of all kinds.

So, what do you think? What are some other local food sectors which are being sourced outside of your community that don’t need to be? How can we change things so that our local communities can thrive? What would this kind of world look like? How would our culture change? If you think this idea is completely untenable then tell me why it wasn’t untenable just 50 years ago when it was the case?

Also, if you want some freebie how tos on gardening then go here. If you plant an empty lot then send me some pics.

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image – Wikipedia