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Preparing for Climate Change Through Art, Gardening and Lifestyle

Updated: Nov 6, 2022


Homesteading woman in a Victorian Flower Garden
Credit: Milton Muldrow. Woman in a Victorian Flower Garden. Past or Future?

I was first motivated to consider art when thinking of climate change when I visited famous artist Gari Mulchers’ former home in Stafford, Virginia. Melcher became famous in the late 18 and early 1900s, painting women in traditional and rural settings. He was keen rural Dutch living, but later in life painted locals in the Fredericksburg area of Virginia. He found the beauty in what his subjects likely found mundane. When Melcher retired to his home in Virginia, he built a studio, kept cows and a small number of farm animals. His wife, Corinne, also a painter, was also a master gardener.


The property was beautiful, and the estate was filled with art and life. Paintings covered the walls of every room of their home in beautiful displays. Also, there were studios where the couple could create even more works of art. The Melchers did not enjoy many of the conveniences we enjoy today, but even still, you get the sense being there, that life could be lived with a certain elegance, even in a rural and low-tech settings. An idea that is contradictory to many in modern culture.


Learn more about the Melchers here:



Stepping Away from a Synthetic World

In this series, we step away from the normal technobabble of this publication, and consider our natural environment and the beauty it entails. We step away from technological feats to “fix” the unfixable, and instead retreat to the still functioning, albeit scarred earth we inherited. We consider the natural solutions, old ways, and new ways to meld the two through art and interaction.


Preparing for Change

To prepare for climate change, scientists and policymakers tell us that we need to change our lifestyles, however, rarely do they take the next step in painting a picture of what a climate-friendly life might look like. Like millions of people around the world, I have been rocked by the prospect of what life for all species might entail. Scientists have predicted everything from a collapse of the global food system, an increase occurrence of storms that can level cities, down to the collapse of civilization itself. I admit, I am a bit jaded by these reports. They do not scare me, although I do know our future is quite perilous. We are getting closer to the face of nature. A face we have long avoided and disguised.


I admit, art and gardening in preparation for the end of the world sounds woefully inadequate, although what else is there? Bunkers? No thanks. In many ways, when survivalists discuss their preparations for “the end,” their descriptions of what we may lack still do not approach the conditions that many Americans were living in just 100 years ago. The Americans who lacked electricity and treated water, were growing their own food, and had large families. What lessons can we learn from their simplicity, which is now prescribed as a solution to our environmental ills.


In 1925, only half of all Americans had electricity (NPS). In 1908, Jersey City, New Jersey was the first community in the U.S. to benefit from regular disinfection of water (CDC). As community drinking water was treated more regularly over time, incidence of diseases such as cholera and typhoid dropped dramatically. However, we know more about infectious disease today, and certainly, everyone did not feel as if they were in a constant state of survival then. What lessons can we learn from the past to apply to our present and future scenarios? The past can teach us about simplicity, natural beauty, and purpose. It is also easy to romanticize the past, therefore we need not repeat the many mistakes we committed then either. We can apply these to a scientifically informed future in hopes of combating the trying times to come. Adversely, I do not believe anyone needs license to consider the good that comes from history, and the lessons to be learned. Like art, it is this childlike wonder that attracts us to many historical topics in the first place.


Simplicity

Humans have existed without electricity for 99.99% of our roughly 200,000-year existence. And much of what conservation-focused scientists and policymakers ask of us involves simplicity. Having less, consuming less, disrupting less. What if we spent more time improving the aesthetics of our surroundings, instead of consuming media and materials? What if we painted more, increased the biodiversity of our neighbourhoods, and grew more of our own food? Our communities would be strengthened, our health would be strengthened, and we may glean more purpose from life. After all, there has been many studies that suggest gardening enhances mood and happiness (Washington Post, 2020). Why deny ourselves this innate and beneficial desire?


Painting the Picture

As resources continually come in short supply, as food shortages rage, and economies are ravaged by storms of all kinds, perhaps, for the moments that we are not suffering or toiling in ever-fleeting modern convenience, we can embrace our forced simplicity, and take note of recent history. Life does not start and end with a device. In fact, it starts and ends without one. Perhaps we should consider turning our yards into gardens, flower beds and food plots. Instead of scrolling we do more reading (books of course), and painting, and communing, and taking care of ourselves and our surroundings. This is not a public policy prescription. I do not profess to know how to solve the world’s problems. The aim of this writing is to spark someone’s imagination for what could be. Not necessarily for education or statistically significant policy outcomes, but in my hopes, enjoyment.


Homesteading

Perhaps to many readers what I am describing is homesteading high heels. Well, maybe something like that. My broader point is that simplicity can be pleasant, fun, and beautiful. Homesteading is characterized by self-sufficiency and subsistence farming. According to the National Park Service, 93 million living Americans are descendants of homesteaders (NPS). The Homesteader Act was signed by President Lincoln in 1862, and ended in 1986. 270 million acres (about the area of Egypt) were given out to 1.4 million homesteaders who proved they could improve the land. I would be remise not to mention only 3500 black claimants received a total of 650,000 acres, with this one law supporting many of the disparities we see in our culture today. The point is, homesteading is in our roots, and it supports many aspects of what climate scientists ask us to do: Eat and grow local, compost, etc. Agriculture is responsible for up to 29% of greenhouse gas emissions (The World Bank).


By growing one’s own food, you lower your personal carbon footprint, and by selling to and sharing your food with your community, you take another bite out of emissions by reducing long-range food transport (The World Bank). Homesteading is not characterized as “green” in the media, although it is infinitely “greener” than our urban lifestyles. Composting, a practice commonly utilized by homesteaders to recycle waste into fertile soil, alone is one of the most effective measures against climate change an everyday person can take. It prevents your kitchen scraps from being broken down in anaerobic conditions in landfills, which converts your waste to methane (which is 80 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2) (EDF). Instead, aerated waste emits less-harmful carbon dioxide.


Phantom Sociology

Phantom Sociology is a phrase I coined some years ago. It means that many of us, particularly Americans, have mixed or unknown (phantom) heritage or historical culture. Therefore, we are tasked with coming up with something new. As climate change plays out, it will also play out in our culture. How will we respond? How will it influence our art and custom? Will it proliferate new and positive culture and art, or be a net derogatory force?


To all who can, particularly African Americans, and other traditionally marginalized groups, I would encourage you to buy as much land as you can, for in my opinion, this will be the most valuable resource in future. It will be valuable because there will be less viable land available, as the seas rise, and the fields become parched. It will also be valuable from a cultural and community perspective, as groups of people may forge new ways, much of which influenced by the changing environment around them. My hope is that we will not lose our humanity in the process, yet retain our dignity and refine our practices, despite circumstances.


Thesis

Am I claiming that everyone will have the ability to have a lush, multi-acre postapocalyptic mansion retreat? No, I am saying we are allowed to dream. Dreams are often derived from extremes. That is why we visit Buckingham Palace, or the Smithsonian. Not because we expect to replicate it, but we are then inspired to bring a piece of it back home with us. Perhaps Melcher’s estate can be translated into a community garden. After-all, that is what it is now, as it operates as a museum and public garden, owned by Mary Washington University, whom the Melcher’s left the property to. What I am saying is that there will be no shortage of challenges. As such, we will continue to be confronted with nature in the form of food shortages, and lack of availability of consumer products to protect us from nature. Perhaps we could take a page from our recent past, and embrace it where possible with grace, and a pretty picture.


References:

Center for Disease Control, Retrieved October 31, 2022: https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/drinking/history.html

Environmental Defense Fund. Methan: A crucial opportunity in the climate fight, Retrieved November 2, 2022: https://www.edf.org/climate/methane-crucial-opportunity-climate-fight#:~:text=Methane%20has%20more%20than%2080,by%20methane%20from%20human%20actions

Washington Post, Retrieved October 31, 2022:

National Park Service, Homesteading by the Numbers, Retrieved October 31, 2022: https://www.nps.gov/home/learn/historyculture/bynumbers.htm

The World Banks. Climate Smart Agriculture, Retrieved November 2, 2022: https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/climate-smart-agriculture

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