One of the walkers in one of my wild food classes, Anthony Stimola, is working on his thesis concerning Urban Survivalism in the face of threats such as peak oil. I told him I would be glad to give some input, and when I started writing an email to him, this article came forth instead:
I think we often make assumptions based too much on our ideology and not enough on real experience. Some people come to a San Francisco park for a Wild Food Walk and like to think that if they learn the edible plants they’ll be able to somehow thwart starvation, and still be able to live in the very out of balance ecology of a large city. Here’s the reality of the situation: there are waaaaaay too many people in a city to survive more than a day or two on the wild plants available in an urban area. “Urban” functionally means lack of wild space. There’s just not enough wild plants around to feed city people. If you expand the urban area to include wilderness areas that surround certain cities, there might be enough greens and fruit for people, which I think is amazing! Plant medicines might be able to be utilized beneficially in a survival situation, and with that, in a best case scenario, your vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and cleansing healthy foods could be available. But not calories. The wild plants as currently existing cannot provide much at all in the way of calories. Calories of course are what human life needs to live and grow.
What about deer and raccoons and such? Ha! They would all be killed and tragically lost from our landscape within a day. Again, compare the population of people in the city to the population of every other animal. Not even rats and pigeons could survive being put into the human food chain in the city for more than a day or two. There’s not even enough insects to calorically support humans in urban landscapes. Although this is thinking in the right direction.
In many coastal areas, if able to survive the pollution it entails, you might be able to catch quite a bit of fish and seafood. Although the oceans are dangerously overfished, much of this has to do with commercial practices, a very different scenario than the smaller impact of direct sustenance fishing that would you likely see in a survival situation. I think this would be the shining light of urban survivalism in many places such as the Bay Area, and warrants further study (ie, how to bring the Bay back to health and how to manage it regeneratively.) But if all of the millions of people turned to seafood for their calories, despite the toxicity, I don’t think it’s going to cut it. Maybe for a few weeks. There’s so many people here and our environment has been severely degraded over the past few hundred years.
The reality is, in most large cities such as San Francisco, there is really only one real resource, and that’s people. And yes, I mean Soylent Green. Of course, I like to be the trickster and joke about human stew and such, but the harsh reality is that this might result if some sort of disaster, economic or otherwise would warrant city people actually eating from their foodshed. Millions of starving people with other people being the only food around. Instead of closing a blind eye to this terrifying possibility, we should use this as a guidepost to see that perhaps our way of living has fundamental flaws built into it. City dwellers are ultimately only one thing away from this: truck stoppage. Now that the problem has been framed, we might be able to repair this flaw. I joke about cannibalism so that people might be more receptive to solutions. Of course, true urban survivalism will utilize humans as its major resource, but not for their flesh, but for their ingenuity. That is of course, why most of us live in cities — it’s where human ingenuity clusters. So what do we do if there’s not enough wild plants to go around? We create habitat for them with our ingenuity. We use the resources of the city to construct rooftop and raised bed gardens, pots of wild plants in the streets, we grow potatoes and raise chickens and rabbits and worms and edible insects, algae and aquaculture. For instance, according to John Jeavons, it takes 500 to 1000 years for nature to produce 1 inch of topsoil. We can create soil through very simple low tech methods (no imports required) at 60 times this rate. And course, many plants can grow in straight compost and mulch (like the calorie rich potato) so with all the people in the city working to expand this resource (places for food plants to grow) we could do far better.
I think in Urban Survivalism the wild plants ultimately provide seeds and genetics, and guidance of how we can really work with our place to create a balanced foodshed once the trucks stop running. Remember, wild plants can grow with rain only, if the shit hits the fan, we’ll be lucky to have drinking and bathing water, we aren’t going to be watering corn in our dry summers. We’ll have to think like the wild plants if we hope to survive for any reasonable amount of time.
A secure and prepared city looks a lot different than our current cities. For one it’s literally a lot greener. Every nook and cranny is growing food, potted plants and raised beds everywhere. Vines growing up the buildings. Much of the road area reduced in favor of growing food. Buildings are full of aquaculture tanks, mushroom growing trays, worm and insect factories. Not really the wild hunter-gatherer future some might hope for. All this is to say, that cities are largely screwed if we don’t get our act together yesterday. When was the last time you visited your neighborhood aquaculture facility?
What if shit hits the fan before we can get it together and create more sustainable cities? It seems that eating fried human appears to be the most likely available option. Really, without imports, humans are the only substantial food available in most cities. And let’s not forget that the vast majority of humans in urban environments are probably as toxic, perhaps even more so, than the fish in the Bay.