Viewed through a wide lens, the world’s troubles seem overwhelming: climate change, pointless war, spreading hunger, surging food and energy prices, etc. There’s a tendency to seek big-brush answers to these vast problems, to ask: what’s The Solution? Failing inevitably to find it — much less implement it — we plunge deeper into despair and political impotence.

Of course, taking a broad view of the world is critically important. But that perspective may be better at providing fodder for analysis than it is at delivering real answers. Our problems may be so big precisely because we tend to think so big. The real action may be in small things; the real solution might be in lots of little solutions.

I got to thinking about this after reading an excellent New York Times piece by Tracie McMillan on a topic dear to my heart: urban farming. Writes McMillan:

For years, New Yorkers have grown basil, tomatoes and greens in window boxes, backyard plots and community gardens. But more and more New Yorkers … are raising fruits and vegetables, and not just to feed their families but to sell to people on their block.

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By no means is this just a New York City phenomenon:

This urban agriculture movement has grown even more vigorously elsewhere. Hundreds of farmers are at work in Detroit, Milwaukee, Oakland and other areas that, like East New York [an economically devastated Brooklyn neighborhood], have low-income residents, high rates of obesity and diabetes, limited sources of fresh produce and available, undeveloped land.

What could make more sense than growing food amid dense settlements, generating income and healthy food in areas that lack broad access to either?

The trend has been developing for years. I visited the farmers market run by East New York Farms — the one highlighted by McMillan — way back in 2003. Already it was buzzing with excitement, and much of the food on sale had been grown within blocks of the market.

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McMillan provides a great overview of where urban farming stands five years later. She highlights success stories, like Milwaukee’s legendary urban farm Growing Power, a one-acre wonderland of “plastic greenhouses, compost piles, do-it-yourself contraptions, tilapia tanks and pens full of hens, ducks and goats.” Growing power grossed $220,000 from that small plot last year, McMillan reports.

Projects like Growing Power offer a much more hopeful vision of the future of food production than ones like this: a bunch of central bankers sitting around and plotting a world in which industrially grown commodity crops whip around the world, unfettered by local concerns.

That vision inevitably trains itself on places like the Amazon rain forest, already being gobbled up in service of globalized industrial-food production. One of the world’s great industrial-ag magnates recently offered up this bit of wisdom:

With the worsening of the global food crisis, the time is coming when it will be inevitable to discuss whether we preserve the environment or produce more food. There is no way to produce more food without occupying more land and taking down more trees.

Such thinking may be big, but is it smart? Hearteningly, McMillan reports that the U.N. may be beginning to take urban agriculture seriously.

The city’s success with urban farming will receive international attention on Saturday when, during an 11-day conference in New York, 60 delegates from the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development are scheduled to visit Hands and Hearts [a market garden in Brooklyn], the Bed-Stuy Farm and two traditional community gardens in Brooklyn.

U.S. city planners, take note. Cities don’t always embrace the pioneers who turn abandoned land into centers of biodiversity and food production. In L.A. a couple of years ago, city officials cravenly handed South Central Community Farm over to a developer. That fellow bulldozed an extraordinarily productive farm; last I heard, he intended to erect in its place a warehouse for distributing goods imported from Asia to Big Box stores throughout the West.

In New York in the late 1990s, a profoundly petty fellow called Rudolph Giuliani tried by fiat to auction off most of the city’s community gardens, including many profiled by McMillan. Happily, because of concerted organizing by activist-gardeners, that attempt ended up scarcely more successful than Giuliani’s presidential lunge.

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