7 min read

On Victory Gardens and community resilience

Who knew it's so hard to grow your own damn food?
On Victory Gardens and community resilience

Hi, grownups!

Let me tell you about my current obsession: Victory Gardens.

During World War I and World War II, a lot of the normal supply chains that produced essential things were disrupted. Remember how back in March we were all running out of toilet paper? Well, in America and Britain in the 1910s and 1940s they were running out of food, which is a significantly bigger problem.  

The food shortages happened because the wars disrupted supply chains, very quickly. Before the wars, a lot of food was imported, and obviously it gets a bit awks to try to buy stuff from people you're also trying to murder. Transportation became a problem, because the Germans were very good at bombing ships headed to Britain. There were also not enough farmworkers, because all the able-bodied young men were sent off to the army.

Fun side-note, this lead to recruitment drives to get young women into these jobs. In Britain, this farm squad was called the Women's Land Army, and please can we talk about how totally banging their uniforms were:

Vintage poster saying "For a healthy, happy job, join the Women's Land Army"
The puffy pants! The knee-socks! The sharp yellow collar! I DIE.

(Less fun side-note: in America in World War II, food shortages also had a lot to do with the fact that the most productive farming communities at the time were Americans of Japanese descent (who were responsible for growing over half of all canning tomatoes, for instance), and they were thrown in concentration camps and had all their land stolen. Here's a good summary if you're interested in learning more about this rotten part of U.S. history, and also how community gardening became a powerful form of resistance inside the internment camps.)

Food shortages were so bad that the U.K. introduced ration books restricting the amount of each food product individuals could buy (for instance, you were allowed  227g of sugar per week, 57g of butter, and today's equivalent of £2.31/R50 worth of meat). Lemons and bananas vanished for years, and oranges could only be bought for children or pregnant women. You could be fined if you were caught eating too much food at a restaurant, or for feeding pigeons.

So, some of the Allied countries came up with a plan: try to relieve pressure on the food system by getting every family to grow some of their own vegetables. These were very flamboyantly named VICTORY GARDENS, and the propaganda posters were quite something. Gardening is your patriotic duty, citizen!

The "Dig for Victory" campaigns were designed to boost morale as much as to actually feed people. It's hard not to feel resentful of a war if it means your family goes to bed hungry. Growing food gave people something to do, a way to feel less helpless. It made them feel like they were all in something together.

What blows my mind is how wildly successful they were. People planted vegetables in suburban gardens, on vacant plots, on city rooftops, on the edges of railways, on sports fields and golf courses, even on the White House lawn. By the end of World War II, between 30-40% of all vegetables produced in Britain and America were coming from Victory Gardens.

Batman, Superman and Robin growing a Victory Garden on the cover of a 1943 comic book
Holy rolling cabbages, Batman!

With 2020 feeling so unstable, I suppose it's no surprise that so many of us got super into gardening this year. And yes, I'm nothing if not a Tragically Predictable Millennial Hipster Stereotype, and our tiny courtyard is littered with the remains of a number of food-growing experiments from the past few months: anaemic tomato vines, a sack that we grew potatoes in (but we were impatient, so harvested adorably teeeeensy little potato-babies), one lone yellow pepper that we're still hoping will turn red at some point, dead pea vines, a stubbornly tiny lemon seedling that I planted in April. As so many wannabe city-based food growers no doubt discovered back in 1939, growing vegetables is HARD.

In one century, most of us lost the skills that kept the human race alive for the past 12,000 years.

And look, I'm a big fan of commercial farming! It's far more efficient, and I like that because of it, most of us get to have jobs that are not farming. 200 years ago, almost everyone was a farmer, as opposed to now, when many people's job is "type things into computers". I'm much better at typing things into computers than I am at convincing stupid lettuce seedlings not to die (fuck you, lettuce seedlings), so this is a development I'm generally pretty glad about.

But one problem with the globalised, commercialised food system we have today is that while it's efficient, it's also brittle. The more steps there are between where your food is grown and how it gets to your plate, the more ways there are for something to go wrong.

Ironically, the same polluting, unequal, industrialised food system that has allowed most of us forget how to grow our own food may contribute to the fact that more of us need to know how to.

People walking through a street that was destroyed by Hurricane Maria

In September 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, flooding towns, ripping up farms, and killing thousands of people. In an act of blatant racism and disregard for the poor, the disaster response from the United States (which Puerto Rico is part of) was wholly inadequate. Three months later, 45% of Puerto Ricans still had no electricity.

Christine Nieves survived Maria by huddling in her bathroom with her family. In the days that followed, her community waited for help to arrive, but it never did. Eventually, her village banded together and opened a community kitchen that fed hundreds of people a day, that eventually became a multi-functional disaster distribution centre. Nine months later, her village still had no power, so they started installing a community-owned solar energy grid. When the state failed to support them, the community organised themselves and rebuilt what they needed. She says that this was the lesson she learned: "When disasters happen, the person right in front of you is your best chance of survival."

Last week I wrote about how the most important and urgent thing we need to do to prevent the more catastrophic effects of climate change is to stop burning fossil fuels (this could be achieved through a progressive carbon tax, by ending current subsidies to the fossil fuel industries, by investing in renewable energy projects, or by other regulatory means, but the outcome must be to keep gas, oil and coal in the ground).

But here's something else I have to tell you: climate change is not something that will happen in the future, it's happening now. Many of the climate effects we're going to feel over the next few decades are already "locked in", no matter what we do now. Amongst other things, they're going to take the form of more droughts, more wildfires, more hurricanes, more floods, and (sorry) more pandemics.

We urgently have to stop burning fossil fuels so that the future is merely "bad" not "very very bad". But either way, we also need to start thinking about how we're going to adapt to a less stable world.

So what am I saying? I'm not saying that you should give up your job and go be a farmer (especially if you're as terrible as farming as I am), or even that you should plant a Victory Garden. I'm saying that all of us need to invest in projects that build our community's capacities for resilience and self-reliance.

Maybe that looks like those of us who can afford to buying more of our food from local farmers. Maybe it means supporting local projects to turn under-used land into low-cost housing or public infrastructure. Maybe that means joining a mutual aid group, or investing in solar energy projects, or supporting an urban farming project that also helps people without housing. Heck, maybe it just means saying hi to your neighbours once in a while.

Anyway, it's Autumn here, and I just harvested several kilograms of basil that I have to figure out what to do with. Anybody want to come over and help me make pesto?

Wishing you balloon pants and a good harvest (or an early spring),


Updates from Sam-land

Here's me chatting to Simon Brown about my teen money book, and why it's really just a diabolical plot to make dinner conversations awkward.

The TikTok sale, tourism under Level 1 and money management for teens
Viv Govender of Rand Swiss on strong selling in the local market and a look at the TikTok sale. YPO member Lorenzo Tencati on the economy and tourism under Level 1. Author Sam Beckbessinger on her new book, Manage your money like a grownup.