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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Facing the Zoning Monster

Over the last 50 years, food and zoning laws have worked to minimize subsistence activities in populated areas. Not only have we lost the culture of subsistence, but we’ve instituted legal requirements that make it almost impossible for many people to engage in simple subsistence activities that cut their energy use, reduce their ecological impact, improve their food security and improve their communities. In some cases, these laws were instituted for fairly good reasons, in many cases, for bad ones that associate such activities with poverty.

In fact, scratch most of the reasons for these things, and you’ll find class issues under their surface in the name of “property values.” There are ostensible reasons for these things, but generally speaking, the derive from old senses of what constituted wealth - and what constituted wealth was essentially having things that don’t do anything of economic value, but show that you can afford. It is important to remember that many things we think are ugly because of their class associations are not inherently ugly - that is, a lush garden is not inherently more ugly than a lawn (quite the contrary), nor are colorful clothes on a line inherently unattractive. What we find beautiful has to do with our culture and our training, otherwise how could anyone have ever found a 800K McMansion beautiful?

Among the basic subsistence activities legislated against by towns, cities and housing developments are:

1. Clotheslines instead of dryers. Reason: Looks poor. Might suggest you can’t afford a dryer. Plus, you might see underwear that isn’t your own. This is a major cause of sin.

2. No livestock, but large pets are acceptable. Reason: Ostensible reasons are health based, a few even broadly grounded in fact, real reason is that pets, which have no purpose other than companionship and cost money, are broadly a sign of affluence, while livestock are a sign of poverty, because they provide economic benefits.

3. No front yard gardens. Reason: The lawn is a sign of affluence - you have money, leisure and water enough to have a chunk of land, however tiny, that doesn’t produce. It creates in many neighborhoods a seemingly contiguousm, but basically sterile and safe seeming ”public” greenspace that is actually privatized and not very green. Gardens, on the other hand, have dirty wildlife and bugs in them, and might grow food, which is bad because it implies you can’t afford it - even if you can’t.

4. No rainwater collection. Reason: This is mostly in dry places in the Southwest, for fear that the tiny amount of available rainwater might not reach people who can’t afford to pay for it, or strangely believe that water that lands on their roof might belong to them, and who would like to have gardens anyway. A few other municipalities do it for fear of west nile disease because they seem never to have heard of screens or mosquito dunks. Oh, and barrels look like you can’t afford to water your lawn with sprinklers, even when it is raining.

5. No commerce of any kind. Reason: This often does not include white collar telecommuters who can make money out of their homes all they want, or upscale white collar professionals with home offices. Instead this means people who want to sell food, do hair, fix things, etc… This is deemed ugly and bad - and it is a visible reminder that people might not have enough money to keep warm burning it, and might need to earn some.

Now I realize I’m being a little bit unkind. People have real aesthetic concerns - but a law that outlaws even tasteful gardens or small tasteful signs that say “eggs” on them, or a town that tries to keep its “traditional” “colonial” or “small town” feel without actually allowing any of the characteristics of traditional, colonial or small town life is creating a sterile Disneyland as well as destroying long term environmental, economic and food security.

The reality is that clothes on the line aren’t empirically ugly. Neighborhood cats carry more diseases than backyard poultry. If you can put a political sign on your lawn, you should be able to put a sign that says “fresh baked goods” on it - hell, food security is political!

That means that these laws can’t be allowed to stand. And that means that one of the first things you or your community, your transition group or your neighbors can do is to push to change your zoning laws or your neighborhood covenants.

That means you need to get involved. Go to the town meetings. Get to know you zoning board. Talk to your neighbors. Strategize - can you find some people who want chickens to get together with? Find out what the objections are and address them - if people are afraid of bird flu, remind them that bird flu is largely a problem of industrial production. If people think that lawns are beautiful and food gardens are ugly, show them otherwise. Show them that other towns are doing it - remind them that Seattle allows chickens and that there is a national “Right to Dry” law.

If the law won’t help you, consider whether you are willing to consider civil disobedience. Unjust laws need to be overturned - you don’t have to go to jail to be Thoreau, sometimes you just need to plant some kale. But before you do that, do know the price you may have to pay - make sure you are willing to pay it. Someone with courage who is willing to pay a price may have to go first - and if you have the willingness to be the one to fight that battle, well, all honor to you.

The reality is that some of the zoning restrictions and covenants will fade as times get tougher, but we really can’t afford to wait for things to be really bad to get our chickens - because it will likely to be harder to come by diverse stock then. We can’t wait to grow food until we’re already hungry. We can’t wait to collect water until our well is dry. It is worth fighting these battles right now - particularly since many of them truly are rooted in ugly prejudice against the poor, and separation from our agrarian past.

Well, most Americans couldn’t get much more separate from our roots, so that’s sort of silly. And bit by bit, people are bringing clotheslines and front yard gardens back, and making them cool again. But we can’t wait for that to happen - because the reality is that many of us will be poor, and the utility of these activities will be needed to soften our poverty.

We can’t wait until everyone sees a garden full of food as beautiful and lush. Instead, we’ve got to make sure that even those who still think it looks old fashioned and dirty don’t get to control something so basic as our future anymore.



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