I was thinking about notions of utopias the other day, about their utility, or relevance, to our day-to-day lives. For the most part I, and all environmentalists, live in a utilitarian world, one in which we discuss per capita plastics consumption or try to figure out what percentage of food “consumed” goes directly to the trash. We analyze and parse our actions, looking for more sustainable alternatives, things we can modify or eliminate. We fret over whether what we’re doing is enough, and how to encourage others to adopt what, to us, are vital, if pedestrian projects. And we live with buckets in the bathtub, compost in the kitchen and pee in the toilet. Which is all to say we’re sometimes lacking the sparkle and magic that the more conventionally minded bring to their lives with glossy consumer goods and fancy restaurants, cars and planes and willful inattention to rising temperatures and mounting piles of garbage.
But we all have our fantasies, don’t we? I was on Brian Lehrer’s radio show last week (check it out: WNYC.org, The Brian Lehrer Show, May 14 — it’s archived!) and one of my co-guests, a reclaimer of furniture, said something to the effect of “there’s plenty of stuff out there for everyone — we don’t need new stuff, because there’s already so much old stuff.” It’s a view I am in agreement with — I’ve long cherished a vision of a world in which the manufacture of new things would grind to a halt (everything except underwear and socks!) and we would be magically transformed into a nation of second-hand shoppers, resellers, and repurposers. Stores selling used stuff would spring up on every corner, and exchange programs would mean you’d get a fair price for your old clothes, your furniture, even books and magazines. Everyone would reuse, and I’d never see another bag of perfectly good shoes/shirts/sheets in the garbage ever again. Ahhh, fantasy.
Revisiting that vision reminded me of another vision, the one Peter Lamborn Wilson describes in his essay “Avant Gardening,” in the collection he edited of the same name. Half-remembered images from that essay have stayed with me since I first read it a decade ago. He describes a Lower East Side covered in greenery, with plants on every fire escape, and gardens growing everywhere (it was written at a time when downtown gardens were under siege, and LES activists were fighting hard to save them).
I finally re-read that essay, and found in it not only what I remembered, but much, much more. Wilson describes streets partly, or wholly, given over to plants and pedestrians, instead of cars. Urban farmers sell the fruits of their labors from stands ringing Tompkins Square Park, and greenery sprouts on every rooftop. This is “New York, ‘after the revolution.’” I remember thinking that, while I loved his revolutionary vision, Wilson was painting a fantasy picture, as unreal as one of those airbrushed numbers on the cover of a Styx record. This time around, though I know how many of those LES gardens fell to the bulldozer, and how many condos sprang up in their places, I also feel that we’re on our way to realizing that revolution, or some part of it. Urban farming has, in fact, emerged as a viable and valuable endeavor, feeding and employing people throughout the city. City farms do have their own farmstands, their own greenmarkets, even. The New York Times did a piece on it just last week (and I did a piece on it last year…). In the urban jungle that is Williamsburg, several bodega/delis are selling not only bouquets of roses (from China!) but also flats of vegetable starts; hundreds of tiny tomatoes and eggplants that will, by summer’s end, grow into lunches and dinners for my neighbors.
My point isn’t to revisit, for the umpteenth time, the idea of urban gardening. Rather, I want to point out the importance of fantasy, of utopian visions, in shaping our lives and our actions. I think we all need to have ideas, visions, that overstep the bounds of the “possible” — like comic books, video games and sci-fi, unrealistic alternate eco-realities are fun, give us hope, and also provide a rough template for our more “realistic” endeavors. So don’t worry about imagining the best possible world, or a perfect environmental future — if we don’t aim high, we won’t get anywhere at all.
Avant-Gardening was published by Autonomedia in 1999