Growing your own food may not save the planet – but do it anyway!

One of my great pleasures and privileges as a teacher and adviser at the University of Massachusetts is that I am surrounded by bright and passionate students who ask difficult questions.  While many of the questions relate to “how do I graduate” and “how do I find a job”….  often the questions are “deeper.”   This is a true story….

climateSo a student shows up in my office asking the big question… “why bother?”  You know, like “… why bother try to make a difference in this world when everything looks so bleak?

This student wanted to know how I maintain a sense of hope when we are facing so many global challenges!

Good question!

Rather than launching into my usual rap (which I stole from Michael Pollan’s near-classic essay, “Why Bother”), I chose to tell them about a novel I had read recently “about secrets, treachery and the arrival of peak oil” (according to the book jacket).  Prelude by Kurt Cobb is a fast-paced adventure and espionage story set in the context of “the end of cheap energy” and while a bit simplistic, the book keeps your attention.

cobbOne of my favorite scenes comes when Cassie Young, a rising star at a Washington, D.C. energy consulting firm asks her friend Victor Chernov (a former oil executive who helped her gain access to a secret report that proves global oil reserves are diminishing much more rapidly than anyone thought and climate change is more serious than anyone could have imagined)… so what do we do now that we know the truth?  It is a moment of despair, that many of us who are aware of the ever-worsening oil/climate crisis have felt from time to time.

And Victor’s response………  grow a garden! It seems this former oil exec is learning to grow tomatoes at his Washington townhouse…..  hmmmmmmmm.

While not destined to become a classic, the appearance of mass market books like Prelude suggests that common culture is beginning to accept the fact that “there seems to be” an energy/climate/economic crisis…… and yes, at least one of the solutions might be to grow food for myself, family and neighborhood.

hpe Kurt Cobb (who is a well-respected environmental writer) seems to propose a simple and doable response to the crisis we seem afraid to face.  Cobb reminds us that “hope trumps fear” and finding a source of hope is a necessary first step toward developing real solutions to a problem.

I believe that if we can’t imagine reasonable solutions to a crisis, then we are not going to look at the problem.  In fact, denial of the problem is actually a quite reasonable response when you can’t imagine a solution.   So yes, yes, yes, lets grow food… for ourselves, our family, our neighbors!

natioThis is not to suggest that a few tomatoes will solve the global climate, energy and economic crises….but it is a place to begin to find hope.  And with hope….. anything is possible.

Following my story, this very patient student asked me if I really believed that individual actions made a difference.   They wondered (like many) if the government and scientists wouldn’t come up with a solution eventually.  So, I took a deep breath and launched into the “do it anyway” soliloquy.

You know….. that’s the one that claims the quest for family  and community self-sufficiency is a better way to live, even if there was no crisis.   And if the crisis we were discussing  slams us sooner than anyone of us would hope….. well, then at least we have begun to take some steps to be better prepared.  So, yes…. lets learn to grow our own food.

According to Sharon Astyk, author, resilience blogger, homesteader and educator, we need to become a “nation of farmers,” (with farmers described as anyone who grows food for themselves and others ).  That might be anything from a single patio tomato to a family garden to a small farm.  And the rest of us need to learn to cook real food!

At this point, my student brightened up and almost shouted “I get it!  That’s what Sharon Astyk called the anyway theory – right?”

They remembered a reading I had assigned earlier in the semester called the “theory of anyway” and it brightened up their day.  If you are curious, You might explore the “Anyway Project”  (aka… “whole life redesign”).   But the point for me was that something came alive in my formerly despairing student.

Of course not everyone wants to grow tomatoes, but we all can do something.  I bake bread, make yogurt, grow food, and raise worms (for my backyard chickens of course).  You pick your own sustainable thing to do!  Ride a bike to work, volunteer at the local soup kitchen, join a CSA, hang your clothes in the sun to dry, anything …… but do something – and do something fun!

I told the student that Barbara Kingsolver wrote in her book,  Small Wonder, …..people will join the sustainability movement because “…our revolution will have dancing and excellent food.”   At which point we both smiled – and hope restored, we laughed.

After they left, I did a quick search for more information on the book I just recommended and found a lovely statement from Kurt Cobb who advised that if we are going to invite others to join the sustainability revolution, we need to be creative.  He suggested that “….an alternative way of pressing your case is to do it in verse or in song or in the form of a play, a novel, a painting, or a stand-up comedy routine.”

And don’t forget to keep dancing…..  



I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends. If you are interested in a college program in Sustainable Food and Farming, check us out at UMass.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please “like” our Facebook Group; Sustainable Food and Farming.

6 thoughts on “Growing your own food may not save the planet – but do it anyway!”

  1. Dear John,

    This and all of your recent posts are excellent! Thanks for creating these…I have learned a huge amount. I have very similar and totally compatible views and finding your blog has re-inspired and re-energized me. So I restarted my own blog which has limped along for a long time. It is at Still barely getting started…but my attempt to add to the discussions and sharing of ideas related to sustainability and more.

    I especially appreciate your links to Joanna Macy and her Great Turning, and the iceberg model of forms of leverage for change. I first saw that latter model in a paper by Donella Meadows.

    I also would like to develop more ideas related to "dependent co-arising" that I learned about in Joanna Macy's book on Mutual Causality, Buddhism and General Systems Theory. She cites this as Buddha's key insight into how the world and mind work – dependent co-arising – and I have started to see potential utility of this insight in our current times. I think that to get through the ecological crisis we may need two opposite or complementary aspects to arise in this same dependent co-arising sense. I will try to post on this soon.

    Thanks again for your excellent web contributions and best wishes…Dan Fiscus (

  2. John, I have enjoyed seeing your posts as a newcomer to Transition MA – Pioneer Valley. I also joined the "other" Amherst Transition group which is on Google Groups. Just moved here. When I was a kid my father got in trouble for his backyard chicken farming as it was not allowed in our town. My parents moved after retirement and he has 25+ birds which i have learned to help care for when I'm there 🙂

    I always want to add (and so I will) the perspective that growing our own food nourishes and heals us emotionally. Jennifer James, the Seattle anthropologist/journalist, pointed out in the early 90's that she was struck by seeing huge corporate offices filled with bonsai trees, desktop Zen gardens and beanie babies. She challenged us to step back and see the chain of events: we strip out a wooded area that is home to trees, rocks, dirt and critters. We put in a sterile office park. Employees come. They feel disconnected from Nature. They buy the beanie babies etc. When James was on the circuit, talking about this, she had stats on a huge surge in gardening as a top selling American pastime — around '95.

    Two years ago I visited a "graduation" of a pilot called InShape at Monadnock Family Services. People with mental illness who are living at home (often alone) are picked up by their social worker and go out, instead of staying in for their routine visit. They go together to recreational activities. Mostly exercise, but including a)hikes and walks outdoors and b) growing food, c) learning about making their own meals from wholesome ingredients. I have got to find out if InShape is successfully spreading and if we have one in Western MA.

  3. Hello,

    Nice to see Uncle Sam and all of you appreciate growing your own food. It is always a enrichment to life to have your own garden. If you haven't tried – please do so. You can find guidance here – if needed.

  4. Well I absolutely agree that growing your own food will help the planet in many ways. I find that gardening relieves stress, and you spend time on something more meaningful like growing your own vegetables instead of sitting on the couch watching TV. Being self-sufficient in this way is great since you don't rely on someone else doing stuff for you, and this concept applies to your career and marriage as well. And the bonus in DIY gardening, of course, is saving the planet.

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