Planting Seeds for the Future

Pittsburgh, as the nation within which it resides, has a storied past awash with inequality. Both here and in the United States at large, a great deal of this inequity stems from the fact that the means of production (mainly land) are controlled by a small number of people relative to the total population. Historically, this has been the case for just about as long as this country has existed. As our worries mount in the face of climate instability, we have the opportunity to deeply consider each of the structures that prop-up our society and weigh its merits.

Image Credit:
Accessed: August, 2019
Image Credit:
Accessed: August, 2019















One such interesting leverage point is agroecology. Formalized as a science during the 20th century, agroecology is basically the study of ecological principles as they relate directly to agriculture. Before the coinage of the term, humans had been exploring this concept for millennia. Indeed every population of humans that has fed itself through agriculture has made some contribution to this pool of knowledge. From the well-known ‘three sisters‘ method (a Native American companion planting technique involving winter squash, corn, and beans) to the observations of ancient Romans and Greeks about the relationships between cabbages and grapes, humanity has always sought more effective and efficient means of provision.

The current conversation around agroecology is complicated by issues of social and environmental justice: under the current system of industrial agriculture, farm laborers act as pumps, draining the soil of its riches that agribusiness owners might enrich themselves. Rather than contemplatively considering the implications of ecological relationships, we rain pesticides over our soils en masse, exterminating many beneficial life-forms in the process. These points outline the fact that we currently have an economy built around consumerism. This economy does not take into account sustainable systems of production, instead of focusing on extracting the maximum monetary profit from a given resource in the minimum amount of time. Humans, and the environment more generally, are often casualties of this sort of system.

Instead of our current reality, which neglects both humans and the environment which sustains them, let us imagine a route out, using Pittsburgh as a model city. As an industrial city, Pittsburgh consumes more food and agricultural products than it produces. In order to think more sustainably about our future prospects, this situation must be reversed. In order to best accomplish this, we must revisit our land-use policies in order to meet our physical needs by leveraging more of this city’s land area under some form of green space or agricultural production.


Photo credit: Accessed: August 2019

Rather than reinventing the wheel, however, we can look to a topographically/climatologically similar area that has more sustainably managed its human needs in congruence with environmental upkeep. In Japan, there are regions known Satoyama (literally mountain village), where arable land immediately abuts hills or mountains. These regions have been shaped to provide for human need while actively supporting and respecting the surrounding environment. Food, medicine, and materials are all produced or collected very close to the areas where they are consumed. This cuts down on the embodied energy of products of the Satoyama, improving the sustainability of the human settlement.

Image Credit:
Accessed August, 2019

In response to all this, one might say: “we’re well beyond sorting out such basic issues as food provision and materials production… we need to focus on creating jobs that feed into the future, not hearken back to the past.” However, the production of plant materials has been and will continue to be very important to human existence. As our technologies improve, we tend to invent advanced materials to complement them and drive our scientific progress ever forward. One such recent advance utilizes a very humble component as its feedstock: wood. Yet the “cool wood” derived from these humble beginnings could serve to improve living conditions for people around the world by helping to reduce energy consumption in the built environment.

When we envision of the vacant land within Pittsburgh, it looks like a patchwork laid over many of the city’s most economically disadvantaged districts. In order to make lasting change, we can no longer spend time saying “we should make things better for the people who live there.” Instead, we must consider the root causes of these regions’ impoverished status. These areas are often populated by individuals disconnected from the intergenerational wealth that land ownership represents. By reframing the conversation around this disenfranchisement, solutions begin to bubble up. As we discuss the implications of agroecology moving forward, we must consider the various human populations impacted by agricultural actions in addition to the other living elements of the system. Only after accounting for the needs of ALL people (rather than only owners, investors, or stakeholders) can we move toward a just future for humanity. We are more than simply ‘consumers’: we are dreamers, doers, thinkers, and hopefully, somewhere in the future, producers as well.

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