Jul 122011

The Rosa Parks of Sustainable Gardening?

Everyone knows the story of Rosa Parks, the African-American civil rights activist who on December 1, 1955, refused to give up her bus seat to accommodate a white passenger. That act of civil disobedience resulted in her arrest, and quickly became one of the defining and most memorable acts of resistance in the Civil Rights Movement.

It might be a stretch to describe Julie Bass as “the Rosa Parks of sustainable gardening”… but not by much. Bass is no activist. She’s just a homeowner living in Oak Park, Michigan, who planted a vegetable garden in her front yard — like the one Michelle Obama planted on the front lawn of the White House, she notes — and who now faces arrest and jail time if she refuses to tear it down.

Why? Because of a city ordinance which reads, “All unpaved portions of the [screening and landscaping] site shall be planted with grass ground cover, shrubbery, or other suitable live plant material.” And a complaint from a neighbor to a city councilman that the front-yard garden looked like a “New Orleans cemetery.”

Since when is a vegetable garden not considered “live plant material”? The debate turns around the meaning of the word “suitable,” with city officials arguing that, “If you look at the dictionary, suitable means common. You can look all throughout the city and you’ll never find another vegetable garden that consumes the entire front yard.” Of course, the word “suitable” does not mean “common” (no, not even according to the dictionary), and Bass’ attorney Solomon Radner argues that the term is intentionally vague, allowing the city to enforce arbitrary policies, and therefore unconstitutional. Even if city officials were correct about the meaning of the word “suitable,” however, Radner points out that the ordinance itself also lists several exceptions, including vegetable gardens: “Exempted from the provisions of this article, inclusive, are flower gardens, plots of shrubbery, vegetable gardens and small grain plots.”

This confrontation over property aesthetics might have remained a local matter if it hadn’t been for Facebook, where multiple fan pages in support of Julie Bass’ cause have sprung up, spurring broad international criticism of the Michigan suburb’s position. City officials complain they’re being misunderstood. “We’re not against people having gardens,” said City Manager Rick Fox. “Just not in their front yards.” Sure, and it’s fine for African-Americans to ride the bus… as long as they sit in the back, right Rick?

Of course, that comparison’s a bit of hyperbole — but again, not by much.

This summer, the U.S. continues to face devastating floods, droughts and fires that threaten large swathes of midwest farmland and bring the consequences of human-caused climate change into inescapable focus. Political and cultural leaders all over the world acknowledge that environmental destruction has become so dire and so wide-spread, it is perhaps the single most difficult, most vital challenge we will face in our lifetimes, on which the continued existence of the human species itself might depend. If the rights of our fellow human beings to live freely and equally continues to be an issue of immense importance, how much more so the rights of the earth and its ecosystems on which we depend to live free from pollution, exploitation and destruction?

Yet cases like Julie Bass’ illustrate how unsustainable, un-”green” practices and lifestyles are not only culturally ubiquitous, but sometimes even dictated by law. It has long been known that expansive lawns of perfectly-manicured grass are not only exceedingly expensive to maintain in many areas of the country, but that monocultures of non-native plants are unhealthy for the local environment, depleting nutrients in the soil and disrupting the careful balance of local insect and wildlife populations leading to problems with disease and pest control. Environmentally-minded individuals might wonder, in such cases, if maybe we should take a long, hard look at what else the word “suitable” might mean (which the dictionary actually defines as “right, appropriate or fitting for a particular person, purpose, situation or place”).

Loving the Earth is a Political Act

All across the U.S., as well as internationally, people are beginning to do just that, and discovering that seemingly common-sense steps to make their homes and properties more eco-friendly often run up against antiquated property laws meant to enforce aesthetic values often based on underlying, unacknowledged classism, racism and industry profits. The result? A growing movement of eco-activists taking matters into their own hands through sensible, everyday acts of civil disobedience. Far from the “eco-terrorists” who blow up buildings or destroy property in protest of exploitation and pollution, many eco-activists today are ordinary citizens working on a local level to overturn outdated laws that keep them from living gently and respectfully with the earth.

Though Julie Bass and her family might not consider themselves such activists, they’re part of that movement, too, in defending their right to grow their own vegetables on their property. The trend of growing sustainable, eco-friendly “Victory Gardens” has picked up steam among green-minded (and green-thumbed) Americans in recent years. Modeled after the wartime vegetable, fruit and herb gardens grown during the World Wars of the last century by private citizens trying reduce pressure on public food supplies, modern-day Victory Gardens combat climate change on several fronts. Using sustainable gardening techniques to grow local food means relying less on factory-farmed produce fertilized with petrochemicals and sprayed down with damaging pesticides that then must be shipped across country. Hands-on gardening helps to reconnect us with the local landscape, the local community and our own physical bodies. Michelle Obama sees her White House Victory Garden as a step in her campaign against childhood obesity, by encouraging healthier eating habits and a renewed enjoyment of fresh fruits and vegetables. As the interest in Victory Gardens increases, cities like Oak Park will face the task of re-evaluating ordinances which seek to protect property values by enforcing a specific value judgement about the aesthetic and practical concerns of landscaping and gardening.

Another way individuals are quietly embracing acts of civil disobedience is by line-drying their clothes. In many cities and towns all over the country, it is actually illegal to line-dry laundry, despite the obvious ecological and personal benefits of this age-old practice. Why? “Many homeowner associations seem to believe that the act of air drying clothing present their developments as being low-income,” saying that for some “clotheslines connote a landscape of poverty rather than flowering fields.” The advocacy group Project Laundry List works to overturn this classcist attitude by supporting a “Right to Dry” bill and helping to educate individuals about the benefits of line-drying.

Perhaps one of the neatest and most committed ways people are engaging in eco-civil disobedience is through the Small Living or Tiny House Movement. In the wake of the housing bubble and bust, people are turning their backs on the dream of a McMansion with private drive and in-ground pool, and are looking for homes with smaller ecological footprints — both figuratively, and literally! Tiny houses are small cottages or cabins built from sustainable, natural materials on trailer beds or permanent foundations ranging between 65 and 140 square feet. Not only does it take less energy to heat, cool, light and clean such a small residence, but folks who choose the tiny house lifestyle choose to live with fewer material possessions and a greater reliance on community spaces and public amenities. Some build tiny houses in gorgeous natural landscapes, trading spacious indoor rooms for amber fields, majestic mountains and spacious skies.

The problem is that the small size of tiny houses breaks many conventional building and zoning codes concerning the appropriate size of a single family permanent residence. Some cities have even gone so far as to make it illegal to camp in your own backyard, to prevent homeowners from setting up tiny houses as permanent “camps” for themselves or others. Such laws are in place for a variety of reasons — including concerns for safety, aesthetics, over-crowding and property value — though many of them were determined by the housing industry itself as a way of ensuring what Jay Shafer calls “mandatory consumption” of larger-than-necessary residences. Shafer, founder of the popular Tumbleweed Tiny House Company which designs and builds tiny houses, lists civil disobedience as one of his primary motivations for his and his company’s work, and is committed to proving that house size is not a requirement for safety, prosperity, or happiness.

The nonviolent, community-oriented principles of civil disobedience have been used effectively in some of the most profound cultural movements in the world, including the Women’s Suffrage and Civil Rights movements in the United States. And the idea of civil disobedience is not new. In 1849, the famed naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau published his essay “Civil Disobedience” encouraging individual citizens to act in good conscience as “a counter friction” or resistance against the institutional “machine” of any government that produced injustice. As the writer of Walden, a book of reflections on simple living in harmony with nature and a deeply influential text for the modern environmentalist movement, I like to think Thoreau would be particularly pleased at the role of civil disobedience has played in recent years in expressing our love of the natural world and our willingness to work to protect and care for it.

This post was originally published at No Unsacred Place.

  8 Responses to “Sustainable Living as Civil Disobedience”

  1. [...] and care for the earth? You can read the full article here. (This piece was also published at Pagan+Politics. ) Tags: civil disobedience, eco-friendly, environmentalism, gardening, line-drying, No Unsacred [...]

  2. I spend more than a decade struggling with one stupid, classist city law regarding the defintion of a family (as in “one-family dwelling”). I’m delighted to see a movement emerge to challenge another category of stupid, classist city laws.

  3. I love front-yard gardens, tiny houses, clotheslines, efficient appliances, rainwater catch, the whole nine yards. Really, I do. And I especially love it when they’re ways that people express a spiritual practice centers around honoring the earth. I think 90% of this post is intelligent and well thought out.

    But please, let’s not confuse people and lawmakers making decisions that are silly or even badly considered (ordinances against these things) with a system of discrimination that lasted for centuries and cost thousands upon thousands of lives (racism). Of course we should advocate against both of these things by whatever means have integrity for us — letter-writing, civil disobedience, making different choices in our personal lives, giving money, etc. But somewhere between the two is an important distinction of scale, I think, and I encourage you to consider this more closely in your writing.

    • You’re not the first one to make this caveat. It seems I’ve over-estimated the ability of folks to recognize satire online – even when I point out in the article that the comparison is tongue-in-cheek and intentionally hyperbolic. ;)

      That said – I wish more readers would take the time to (a) turn a thoughtful eye their own reactions and their tendency to downplay the importance of environmentalism instead of immediately accusing me of insensitivity, and (b) note the ways in which these “silly laws” are often themselves examples of racism/classism that have remained unchallenged. When a city can make it illegal to hang-dry your laundry because it makes the area look too poor and “urban” (code word for “minorities live here”) – I’m surprised people don’t see how clearly environmental issues can also be race/class issues.

    • I’m especially struck by how it seems some readers are totally over-looking the fact that the neighbor who complained about Bass’ front-yard garden said it looked like a “New Orleans graveyard” – which, coming from a white, middle-class suburbanite in Michigan, is very close to a racist remark itself.

      The point of the article is not only do we have tools like civil disobedience at our disposal, but that environmental justice is a social justice issue. Those who are marginalized and disenfranchised are the first to suffer from natural disasters and ecological degradation as resources become depleted and pollution increases. And those in a position of privilege are often interested more in defending a status quo based on an aesthetic sense that distances them from the impoverished, than they are in actually examining their behaviors and making changes that will lighten their impact and further the cause of equality. Julie Bass is certainly not oppressed in the same way African-Americans in the 1950s and 1960s were – all the more reason it’s important that she and people like her utilize their privilege to take a stand against classist/racist and environmentally-untenable laws.

      Does this opinion make me insensitive? Does seeing these connections between social justice and environmental justice – and expecting the white, privileged class to do their part in resisting injustice in all its forms – make me insensitive? Does having a sense of humor about it while reminding people of peaceful, civilian heroes from our past make me insensitive?

      I don’t think so. I think it is an expression of the tragic myopia of our culture that more people do not realize these connections, and a sign of our militarism when we can use war as a metaphor so readily but are so eager to criticize anyone who suggests that great nonviolent activists of the past might serve as examples for us today.

      (And this is more in response to the trolls and flaming this article has gotten on Facebook and in other places, than it is a response to your comment directly, Sarah. Still, I’d encourage you to consider these ideas more closely in the future, too.)

      • Hey Alison,
        What I see you saying is “sure, it’s slightly hyperbolic to compare Julie Bass to Rosa Parks, but not very.” What I’m saying is “actually, I think it’s pretty hyperbolic.”

        You make some excellent points in your comment about how marginalized people suffer first from the effects of environmental degradation; I’d add that fewer resources also means fewer choices to do things like avoid the pesticides you and I might deem too dangerous to give our families. It’s overwhelmingly true that toxic sites, power plants, and manufacturing are all sited in poorer areas. It’s also true that while poorer areas of cities may be less well-regulated, people with fewer resources have fewer options when these rules are put into action against them. You call out the classism that people directly name as a reason for anti-clothesline laws.

        You’re also right, of course, that those of us who are enjoying a great deal of privilege would do well to put our influence behind more environmentally responsible laws as well as more socially just ones.

        I think we’re in agreement on a lot of things here!

        What I think is the difference between struggles over race and struggles over the right to make environmentally-kinder choices is really about the ability to choose. If Julie Bass hadn’t felt like dealing with it, she could’ve said “okay, okay” and moved her garden. I’m not suggesting she should have or that she wasn’t 100% right to fight; I agree with her in every particular. I’m not even saying that the people arrayed against here weren’t being discriminatory. But she personally had a choice about whether to engage in that fight. Rosa Parks didn’t, nor do people of color every day have a choice about whether to be subject to racism. It’s kind of like comparing discrimination based on skin color with discrimination based on hair length (a thing which totally happens, especially to men with very long hair or women with very short hair): both are wrong, but they’re not the same. I hope that makes some kind of sense.

        In any case, I hope that in this exchange or another one, you will have heard something that will move you to be willing to edit your intro and focus readers’ attention on your important points about environmental justice rather than on a single ill-considered comparison.

  4. Sarah, Allison’s posting neither denigrates Diaspora Africans nor nor impedes their progress toward actual equality. Your objection, while clearly heartfelt, is a huge distraction from Allison’s point and has taken over the comment thread. It will continue to do so as long as you persist in having the last word.

    I had given up hope for Pagan+Politics, and Allison’s very apropos piece revived it. You are eroding it.