If those questions have you stumped, just visit Mexico City and ask the punks of Tierra Viva who have lived in such conditions in varying degrees from the time they were born.
Mexico City, Mexico
Imagine living in a city where electricity and water have been cut off, garbage collectors are on permanent strike, and the sewage system no longer works. What would life be like? How would you live?
And they are not alone. Of the 18 million people who call Mexico City home, more than 3 million live in extreme poverty, often without the daily necessities that most of us take for granted. Just as many don't have indoor plumbing.
You can see and even smell the desperation in many of the poor neighborhoods: garbage piles up in the streets and abandoned lots; sewer water floods the roads, especially when it rains. On top of that, pollution from cars and factories fills the air, at times reaching hazardous levels.
Like many who are fed up, the punks have joined marches and protests calling for improved living conditions. But even they know the city can't keep up with a population that grows by more than 1,000 people a day.
Tired of feeling helpless and angry, they took it upon themselves to create a world they want to live in, rather than protest the one they currently do. For that, they turned to a growing movement called permaculture for answers.
Started by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s, permaculture seeks to create sustainable environments wherever people live. In practice, it means growing food, recycling waste and learning to live in harmony with natural processes.
After attending many workshops on permaculture techniques, the punks decided to put their knowledge to practice by creating their own permaculture garden in an abandoned lot. Sounds simple, but in Mexico City nothing ever is.
"Permaculture is a design system for creating sustainable human environments. On one level, permaculture deals with plants, animals, buildings, and infrastructures (water, energy, communications). However, permaculture is not about these elements themselves, but rather about the relationships we can create between them by the way we place them in the landscape. The aim is to create systems that are ecologically sound and economically viable, which provide for their own needs, do not exploit or pollute, and are therefore sustainable in the long term."
from Introduction to Permaculture
"When we wanted to plant we couldn't because when we started digging we found trash, Styrofoam, and rocks," says Roldan, a founding member of Tierra Viva.
Their only option was to plant up, above the ground, on small beds of soil. But where could they find soil that isn't toxic?
Compost, of course, another permaculture technique.
Taking trash (anything organic) from home and nearby markets, they add some worms and let everything sit for a week. The result is a rich organic fertilizer that not only grows plants but also helps recycle waste.
To water the garden, they built a pond to collect rainwater rather than draw from the city's dwindling supply.
While their permaculture garden is small and yields only a few herbs so far, it's giving the punks a chance to learn by doing and to share with people from the community their vision for a new urban environment.
"What permaculturalists are doing is one of the most important activities that any group is doing on the planet. We don't know what details of a truly sustainable future are going to be like, but we need options, we need people experimenting in all kinds of ways and permaculturalists are one of the critical gangs that are doing that."
--David Suzuki, scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster
"Our idea is to have this replicated to other neighborhoods that are severely damaged by pollution," says Raul, another member of Tierra Viva. "Our hope is that more young people learn our technique to help their own neighborhoods. But more importantly, we hope they will change their way of thinking about the earth their relationship to the earth."
Ultimately, permaculture goes beyond creating gardens. It's about a new way of living that is harmonious with everything and everyone around us, and being aware of our role as caretakers of the planet.
"Whoever is not doing something right now for the earth to save it is living here as a tourist," says Raul. "And as tourists who don't see the planet as their own, they will continue to sink further down."
In a world that will soon have more urban dwellers than rural (sometime around 2007), it's also about creating healthy urban environments, bringing nature back into people's daily lives.
That alone can have therapeutic powers, the punks say.