More worrying than last week’s falls in stock markets was the news that the Chinese manufacturer Foxconn which employs one million people, is planning to increase the number of robots it uses from 10,000 to one million by 2013. If more Chinese manufacturers get the hang of robots then the numbers of unemployed urban workers in China could balloon. What will they do? They might end up unhappy and rioting like people in Tottenham. That would be a big riot.
To participate in the economy you have to have something which someone else wants. Lots of people think that if you don’t have something which someone else wants then the only alternative is to live off state handouts or charitable donations until, if ever, you acquire that thing which someone else does want.
But there is another option for people who have nothing to offer the economy. That is, pull out of the economy and grow your own food.
Politicians and economists ignore this option. Most people think it is a laughable idea. They mock it as a “Good Life” fantasy or scorn it as a return to feudalism. But this isn’t Pol Pot. This is an economic response to the supply and demand for labour. As economies fall or stagnate, there will be an increase in the number of people who have nothing to offer the formal economy. They will form an unhappy, hungry but significant minority. Unhappy people are not good for politics.
Today economics says: “If you have nothing to offer people where you live, then be mobile and go and find work elsewhere. Meanwhile you need to learn skills of the modern economy so that you have something to offer.” But if people have to move about too much it dislocates communities and it’s bad for people to have to go and live among strangers and folk they cannot trust. This is not a good recipe for a happy society. Then the government contracts big companies to train people in modern skills. Unfortunately those companies are good at winning government contracts but not at creating new livelihoods for people.
It would be better for unhappy urban people to equip themselves with the means to produce their own food – this is the first step in becoming less dependent on the economy and more resilient to changes in circumstances.
For this they need access to land. A family of four needs an area of 1,000m2 to produce all the fruit and vegetables they’d need for a year – providing most of the nourishment they need except for protein. It takes them about ten hours of work a week. So a hundred thousand hectares would support a million families, a useful buffer for recession – a total area of about 20 miles by 20 miles. The government and municipalities can help achieve this through ensuring that urban development plans set aside plenty of land for gardening and horticulture. They can create easily accessible allotments, ensure that new housing has enough garden areas and restore brown-field sites to productive land. Radically, some unemployment benefit could be paid over to farmers for access to land in lieu of agricultural subsidies. This might save the government some money.
A renaissance in gardening and horticulture would make us less dependent on the state of the economy and therefore less anxious about it, cutting stress and worry. It would make us more resilient and more healthy, cutting healthcare costs. It would make cities and towns more liveable. It would also help break the hegemony of the supermarkets. It would make people happier.