Q&A: The power of tiny gardens and their role in addressing climate change

[adace-ad id="91168"]

To address the climate crisis, one must understand environmental history. MIT Professor Kate Brown’s research has typically focused on environmental catastrophes. More recently, Brown has been exploring a more hopeful topic: tiny gardens.

Brown is the Thomas M. Siebel Distinguished Professor in History of Science in the MIT Program in Science, Technology, and Society. In this Q&A, Brown discusses her research, and how she believes her current project could help put power into the hands of everyday people.

This is part of an ongoing series exploring how the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences is addressing the climate crisis.

Q: You have created an unusual niche for yourself as an historian of environmental catastrophes. What drew you to such a dismal beat?

A: Historians often study New York, Warsaw, Moscow, Berlin, but if you go to these little towns that nobody’s ever heard of, that’s where you see the destruction in the wake of progress. This is likely because I grew up in a manufacturing town in the Midwestern Rust Belt, watching stores go bankrupt and houses sit empty. I became very interested in the people who were the last to turn off the lights.

Q: Did this interest in places devastated by technological and economic change eventually lead to your investigation of Chernobyl?

A: I first studied the health and environmental consequences of radioactive waste on communities near nuclear weapons facilities in the U.S. and Russia, and then decided to focus on the health and environmental impacts of fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear energy plant disaster. After gaining access to the KGB records in Kiev, I realized that there was a Klondike of records describing what Soviet officials at the time called a “public health disaster.” People on the ground recognized the saturation of radioactivity into environments and food supplies not with any with sensitive devices, but by noticing the changes in ecologies and on human bodies. I documented how Moscow leaders historically and decades later engaged in a coverup, and that even international bodies charged with examining nuclear issues were reluctant to acknowledge this ongoing public health disaster due to liabilities in their own countries from the production and testing of nuclear weapons during the Cold War.

Q: Why did you turn from detailed studies of what you call “modernist wastelands” to the subject of climate change?

A: Journalists and scholars have worked hard in the last two decades to get people to understand the scope and the scale and the verisimilitude of climate change. And that’s great, but some of these catastrophic stories we tell don’t make people feel very safe or secure. They have a paralyzing effect on us. Climate change is one of many problems that are too big for any one person to tackle, or any one entity, whether it’s a huge nation like the United States or an international body like the U.N.

So I thought I would start to work on something that is very small scale that puts action in the hands of just regular people to try to tell a more hopeful story. I am finishing a new book about working-class people who got pushed off their farms in the 19th century, and ended up in mega cities like London, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Washington D.C., find land on the periphery of the cities. They start digging, growing their own food, cooperating together. They basically recreated forms of the commons in cities. And in so doing, they generate the most productive agriculture in recorded history.

Q: What are some highlights of this extraordinary city-based food generation?

A: In Paris circa 1900, 5,000 urban farmers grew fruits and vegetables and fresh produce for 2 million Parisians with a surplus left over to sell to London. They would plant three to six crops a year on one tract of land using horse manure to heat up soils from below to push the season and grow spring crops in winter and summer crops in spring.

An agricultural economist looked at the inputs and the outputs from these Parisian farms. He found there was no comparison to the Green Revolution fields of the 1970s. These urban gardeners were producing far more per acre, with no petroleum-based fertilizers.

Q: What is the connection between little gardens like these and the global climate crisis, where individuals can feel at loss facing the scale of the problems?

A: You can think of a tiny city garden like a coral reef, where one little worm comes and builds its cave. And then another one attaches itself to the first, and so on. Pretty soon you have a great coral reef with a platform to support hundreds of different species — a rich biodiversity. Tiny gardens work that way in cities, which is one reason cities are now surprising hotspots of biodiversity.

Transforming urban green space into tiny gardens doesn’t take an act of God, the U.N., or the U.S. Congress to make a change. You could just go to your municipality and say, “Listen, right now we have a zoning code that says every time there’s a new condo, you have to have one or two parking spaces, but we’d rather see one or two garden spaces.”

And if you don’t want a garden, you’ll have a neighbor who does. So people are outside and they have their hands in the soil and then they start to exchange produce with one another. As they share carrots and zucchini, they exchange soil and human microbes as well. We know that when people share microbiomes, they get along better, have more in common. It comes as no surprise that humans have organized societies around shaking hands, kissing on the cheek, producing food together and sharing meals. That’s what I think we’ve lost in our remote worlds.

Q: So can we address or mitigate the impacts of climate change on a community-by-community basis?

A: I believe that’s probably the best way to do it. When we think of energy we often imagine deposits of oil or gas, but, as our grad student Turner Adornetto points out, every environment has energy running through it. Every environment has its own best solution. If it’s a community that lives along a river, tap into hydropower; or if it’s a community that has tons of organic waste, maybe you want to use microbial power; and if it’s a community that has lots of sun then use different kinds of solar power. The legacy of midcentury modernism is that engineers came up with one-size-fits-all solutions to plug in anywhere in the world, regardless of local culture, traditions, or environment. That is one of the problems that has gotten us into this fix in the first place.

Politically, it’s a good idea to avoid making people feel they’re being pushed around by one set of codes, one set of laws in terms of coming up with solutions that work. There are ways of deriving energy and nutrients that enrich the environment, ways that don’t drain and deplete. You see that so clearly with a plant, which just does nothing but grow and contribute and give, whether it’s in life or in death. It’s just constantly improving its environment.

Q: How do you unleash creativity and propagate widespread local responses to climate change?

A: One of the important things we are trying to accomplish in the humanities is communicating in the most down-to-earth ways possible to our students and the public so that anybody — from a fourth grader to a retired person — can get engaged.

There’s “TECHNOLOGY” in uppercase letters, the kind that is invented and patented in places like MIT. And then there’s technology in lowercase letters, where people are working with things readily at hand. That is the kind of creativity we don’t often pay enough attention to.

Keep in mind that at the end of the 19th century, scientists were sure that the earth was cooling and the earth would all under ice by 2020. In the 1950s, many people feared nuclear warfare. In the 1960s the threat was the “population bomb.” Every generation seems to have its apocalyptic sense of doom. It is helpful to take climate change and the Anthropocene and put them in perspective. These are problems we can solve.

Source: Environment -


School of Engineering welcomes new faculty

Convening for cultural change